Whenever I read a Kurt Vonnegut book, I imagine a fun uncle sitting next to me at a family reunion, telling me a story of his life.
He sips from a glass of beer and foam drips down his mustache. Then he sighs and pats his belly and wanders through old stories, stories I have heard before, but never tire of.
I tell him a joke I overheard on the radio.
Uncle Kurt smiles and wrinkles crease on his forehead. His cheeks flush from hours of drinking and joking and chitchatting and meeting cousins.
In his watery eyes, I sense something else, however. Sadness maybe. Disappointment in us as a species. We could have been so much more.
I’ve read this book about thirty times. Once I pulled it off a shelf at a house party, once I read it on a road trip to Indiana, once I flipped through it in a school library.
Why do I keep returning to it?
Maybe because it’s funny. Not so much in a slap-my-knee, wheeze with shocks of laughter, kind of funny. His books are funny in a raw and naked way. In an absurd, endearingly hopeless way.
He reminds us that we’re all humans and we’re all silly. And sometimes we do cruel things to each other when we should’ve been loving and kind.
Life would be so much simpler if we weren’t complicating it all the time.
Laughter can be a healthy defense mechanism to fear and anxiety and trauma.
Vonnegut used humor to deal with the tragedies of his life. He understood the shadow-side of humanity so well that he revered ordinary people who were saints. He wanted a world where humans treated each other with kindness, a world of love for the simple joys of each day.
In our short, fleeting existences, where we often feel so confused and lost and alone, we can respond to tragedies with dignity. We can decide to be humane as we are pulled along by circumstances we can’t control.
We take ourselves so seriously. We blind ourselves in our greed lust, in our desire for more (resources, power, money, and status), that we forget our interwoven humanity.
We forget to care for our communities, for ourselves, for the plants and animals and water and air.
We ignore our planet, our beautiful planet, because we are addicts to fossil fuel. We drop devastating bombs instead of being compassionate toward each other. We murder each other for resources and poison our environment.
One day, we will lose everything because we were too power hungry and stupid and greedy, when we should have been kind.
You’re not just a separate creature that lives “in” this universe for a fleeting time. You’re not merely a “part” of this universe, apart from the indescribable processes of life and death. You are this universe. Interwoven in the cosmos.
Without spacetime, without the evolutionary line of your ancestors to you, without the soil, rivers, and wind, without the sun and flowers and rain, you would not be here. They are in you.
You do not exist as a single identity, or ego, separate from everything and everyone else. Your existence is changing, transforming in its infinite relationships, right now.
With sensitivity, you can watch interdependent relationships unfold.
They are nuanced and spontaneous, arising, passing, arising, passing.
You are like a wave, calming and crashing and sparkling with light on shadows, until merging back to an endless sea.
There is no sensitivity in ideas of the past. The past is dead and you confuse yourself by carrying around its bones. Your mind is often dulled of its aliveness because it is dominated by the past.
When you lose your sensitivity, you grind out your days with unthinking habits like overeating, smoking, dwelling on your mistakes, worrying, and so on.
You must intimately know this moment. How can you know this moment when you’re filled with opinions, judgements, and values?
When you are judging, concerned with right and wrong, agreeing, disagreeing, comparing, and so on, you’re focused on a fixed interpretation of life. Instead of seeing clearly, you are projecting, distorting, manipulating reality.
The moment that you think you know who you are, you are limited by your view of yourself, and are no longer learning.
It is hard to learn, to see clearly, to be fully alive, because you have been conditioned from language, education, culture, art, politics, religion, family, custom, past experiences. You have been trained to respond in conditioned ways, to think robotically.
Most of us don’t realize we’re conditioned until there is a great disturbance in our lives. Whether from political or economic hardships, in our families or professions, through our relationships with others and within ourselves, we become disturbed.
What can we do? Can we live with so much suffering and confusion and uncertainty?
A lot of people avoid dealing with their sorrows, their sufferings, their fears of what is uncertain. They join a new group, subscribe to an ideology, shout at others, take drugs, gamble, check their social media accounts, or watch TV. They distract themselves all day with amusements.
Instead of being present with their fears and uncertainties and anxieties, they hide from them, avoid them, numb themselves from them. Their fears won’t go away, but they have desensitized themselves so much that they don’t feel alive anymore.
You must be totally aware to understand. Often you are one type of person at the office and another with friends. You talk differently to yourself than you do with your coworkers. You act out so many different roles every day.
You divide your consciousness and create conflict with those divisions, blocking out one part of yourself for another, aware of one aspect of existence and not another.
When you do try to understand yourself, you categorize and analyze and examine, spending weeks and months and years on petty personal dramas. But still, you are no further along to enlightenment.
If you could just be aware for a moment, sensitive to all of life, to trees and wind and birds and rivers and the beating of your heart, to inner and outer energies changing without division, without any purpose or method or conclusion, then you will see immediately who you are.
You can know life more deeply without the need to compare deep to shallow, right to wrong, good to bad.
All too often, you cannot see what is, what exists beyond all symbols, because you’re trapped in conditioned states of thinking, comparing, judging, and deciding.
You narrowly perceive, trained into a rigid way of being after a lifetime of chasing after pleasure, and avoiding pain, and fearing what you don’t understand.
Can you be here without trying to be elsewhere? With choiceless awareness, you can begin to see the totality of life. There is nothing to get and no reward, except for what is happening. If you can truly be without any expectation, letting what comes come until it passes away, then you will know joy.
When you seek out pleasure, to repeat an experience of the past, you will soon know pain. Pain is the shadow of pleasure. One follows the other.
When you have what you want, you often wish to hold onto it forever and fear losing it. If someone has what you don’t have, and you want what they have, then you eventually become envious and bitter.
By clinging to your memories of pleasure, you’re in conflict with yourself. Your desire to keep something or someone, to appear in a favorable way, to not lose what you already have, eventually leads you into suffering.
To be present is to no longer be afraid of losing what you desire. You are not afraid when you are just watching yourself be. At the back of your mind, however, you think about the past and future. You are scared of losing your job, your status, your kids, your health, your life. Can you watch all these fears without trying to justify them?
Do the words, images, and associations to past memories disturb you so much? Look behind the symbols at the undercurrent of energy. What is actually happening to you in reality and what is only thought, feeling, and memory?
Thoughts are not realities. For example, you may have gotten sick a few years ago. Now that you are well, you fear becoming sick again.
Your resistance to sickness is a thought, not what is happening within your body at the moment. At the moment, you are fine. Instead of being aware of how you are and tending to yourself with compassion and joy, you get lost in fears about losing your health. There is a conflict between what you think and what is. You ignore what is and dwell on ideas, which are fixed symbols. The more you think, the more you suffer about non-realities that are no longer there or not there in the future, blocking yourself to all of life.
Can you look at fear without dissecting it? Can you see fear without having to control or analyze it, without having to summon courage, without directing your mind to specific things that you are afraid of? Directly look at fear without making it intellectual. Know fear without hiding, rationalizing, trying to take it apart.
You are not apart from fear. There is no fear and then you, an observer of fear. There is only, when you notice subtly enough, fear, which is you.
Then your awareness of fear — without you trying to conclude or explain what fear is — dissolves it.
Fear is not fear alone. Fear interrelates with anxiety, hatred, jealousy, violence, and many similar states.
How can a person find peace in a world writhing with war, class conflict, murder, starvation, with many forms of injustice, perpetuated throughout the centuries?
Violence doesn’t merely stop at the events. that surround you but it is within you as well.
Violence is not just to maim or kill another person. It is a harsh word, jealousy over a friend’s accomplishments, discrimination, obeying an authority out of fear.
When you divide yourself from others and refuse to see the humanity in them, you’re being violent. All too often, you separate yourself through belief and thought. You see yourself as superior, inferior, or both. You blame and judge, rather than being present, listening deeply, and learning.
If you want to transcend violence, you cannot deny, hide, or distract from the violence within. You must be intimately aware of your anger and sadness and jealousy and anxiety and fear, neither justifying nor condemning these states.
All too often, you strive for ideals of non-violence. You tell yourself that you must be peaceful rather than violent, calm rather than angry, and so on. You think about the best ideological systems to obey to become a better person and blame others for failing to follow along.
You create dualities of good and bad, right and wrong, judging and forming opinions.
You try to be better daily. You prepare so much to be a good person because you have been taught to compare, analyze, judge, and think about every situation.
Yet there is no trying. There is only what is peaceful and what is not peaceful. Many holy books have been filled with words about non-violence for centuries and people are still angry, jealous, greedy, hateful, and so on.
When you claim that you believe in the ideals of peace, but are not peaceful within or in relationship to the world, you’re acting hypocritically.
When you separate, when you condemn others while justifying your righteousness, you’re trapped. You have not learned how to see what is.
Most people are not actually with each other. They form ideas and then act on the nuanced relationships between those ideas. They live on images, on symbols, rather than being with someone in the present. The more they cling to ideas, the more they live in a universe of abstraction.
You must be able to see totally. It is one thing to intellectually understand, to examine yourself under an analysis of symbols, but is quite another thing to completely see, to be aware of what happens within you.
You are never free until you can see what you depend on, what causes you to suffer, what brings you joy, without trying to hide or deny these things within yourself. From relationship — to yourself, to the group, to society, to all of life interconnected in the universe — you can be aware.
Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time. If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love, those who live under the same roof. If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the beauty of the blue sky? Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it? No, we just enjoy it. Each second, each minute of our lives can be like this. Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don’t need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we are only aware of suffering.
We are so busy we hardly have time to look at the people we love, even in our own household, and to look at ourselves. Society is organized in a way that even when we have some leisure time, we don’t know how to use it to get back in touch with ourselves. We have millions of ways to lose this precious time we turn on the TV or pick up the telephone, or start the car and go somewhere. We are not being with ourselves, and we act as if we don’t like ourselves and are trying to escape from ourselves.
Meditation is to be aware of what is going on-in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects. Please do not think we must be solemn in order to meditate. In fact, to meditate well, we have to smile a lot.
People think themselves into their relative neurological realities. In these “realities,” there are underlying assumptions about what is true and false, right and wrong, essential and not essential, real and fake.
They think about the universe through the neuro-filter of a Marxist, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, feminist, Democrat, Republican, protestor, doctor, Caucasian male, African female, cynic, optimist, lover, fighter, bad son, good daughter, and on, and on.
People make constant assumptions about their identities and the identities of others. While it is easier to see the prejudices and biases in others, it is far more difficult to see those same inclinations within.
Most people not only don’t know but they don’t know what they don’t know. Their “reality” appears to be the true one, while other people’s realities, the further they diverge, seem increasingly bizarre and nonsensical.
When the Thinker is convinced of a given reality, then the Thinker will unconsciously work to organize all “evidence” in favor of it being true. Signals that are consistent with a favored reality are absorbed into their overall model of reality while other signals are forgotten, ignored, rejected, rationalized, and resisted.
Brains are made of matter in spacetime. They weigh close to three pounds, are composed of a gel-like form, transmit “ideas” with electro-chemical signals, varying in innumerable neuronal sequences, while suspended in cerebrospinal fluid.
Brains generate many ideas — influenced by everything that impacted them, from texts written a thousand years ago to a drama on TV to a fight with a sibling. Ideas are not equal to reality, but ideas can make up the models of a given reality.
While brains resemble the hardware of a computer, ideas resemble the software. Anything, from psychedelic drugs to an idea about political revolution to eating only a vegetarian diet, can change the consciousness of a person.
Certain programs can be written onto the hardware of the brain: genetic imperatives and imprinting, conditioning and learning. The mind is bound to what it imprints at vulnerable stages of its development. Its software turns into hardware overtime, which sets the structure for conscious thought.
Out of an infinite number of signals in the universe, when a person’s growing brain is imprinted at different stages of life, that person develops a sense of self. Further learning and conditioning adds to the structural foundation, thus creating a more intricate model of what reality is.
In the oral bio-survival circuit, people are hardwired in the most primitive parts of their nervous systems to seek security, nourishment, and a womb-like sense of safety, while avoiding what is harmful, dangerous, and threatening.
Domesticated primates (humans) are genetically hardwired to seek security within their family, immediate group, and tribe. They can be further conditioned to seek security in symbolic groups that they identify with such as a country, a political party, the religion they were raised in, and so on. They can even transfer this security-need onto symbols such as money, which in itself is of no value (you cannot eat money) except in the agreed upon value determined by other members of that particular group.
“In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror.”
Humans who do not belong to the same group are often categorized as outsiders and are perceived as hostile, aggressive, or challenging to that group’s interests and purpose. Any element, from a dissident person to an idea, which threatens the security of the group, is resisted and rejected.
The emotional-territorial circuit is involved with power. People are unconsciously in a struggle for status in a social group. In a tribe, members fit into various roles with different responsibilities and functions. Some members assume top dog roles while others fall into bottom dog roles.
These roles can be divided into the four quadrants of “I’m ok/you’re ok, I’m ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re ok,” to use the terminology of Transactional Analysis.
This model, among other similar models. that represent the earliest imprinting, and subsequent conditioning, of one’s ego role in society, will vary based on how strong the imprinting is, how the dynamics of the group are in relation to the individual and societal structure, how well one can be conditioned out of robotically accepting an imprinted role, and so on.
Furthermore, each of the quadrants, while convenient as a tool for practical use, can be divided into subtler categories (with no end in sight). Nobody exists in one of the quadrants absolutely, but rather, will fall on a spectrum between extremes, which shifts overtime, as one’s nervous system changes.
Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. These symbols include, but are not limited to, art, music, mathematics, maps, and words.
Many symbols rule people’s lives without their conscious awareness of them such as with the wheel, the Roman road systems, the alphabet, agriculture, the State, and so on.
Some symbols, such as words, already have assumptions about reality buried in them, suggesting certain psychological states, emotional tones, explanations of the physical universe, and references to innumerable aspects of what makes up existence and meaning and purpose.
The semantic circuit makes distinctions out of raw experiences. It puts labels on life, dividing and sub-dividing, routine with categorization.
Every generation adds information to the previous ones, re-classifying the outdated information of the past. New connections arise between what has existed before, leading to insights in knowledge.
While entropy is the increasing disorder overtime in a closed system, information is negative entropy, coherence and order, where understandings birth out of chaos. As information increases more rapidly, so does a recognition of patterns from a randomness of events.
Over ever shorter spans of time, information is exponentially increasing, marking advancements in science, technology, music, art, and so on.
People are still using their more primitive circuits, despite this so-called progress. They have evolved with the reptilian and mammalian brains of earlier epochs in time.
Their rational, semantic, or time-binding circuits can be manipulated easily by fear of outsiders, threats to their status and safety, criticisms of the authorities that they trust in, appeals to tribal loyalty at the expense of those who are seen as inferior, dangerous, alien to them, etc.
While the first two circuits establish homeostasis in a civilization, the third circuit seeks higher states. The third circuit has always been controlled, partially or totally, by rules, taboos, prohibitions, laws, traditions, rituals, cultural games — most of which are unconscious, unstated, or seen as “common sense.”
Those who are in power want to control third-circuit insights, and establish order, because what is unknown and new and radical challenges the power structures already in place. There has always been fluctuations between progressive ideas and tradition, but as time increases, so does informational content.
That informational content may support. life such as with the LGBT, environmental, black, and feminist movements, recent medicines that treat diseases, scientific revolutions, and so on. At the same time, informational content could threaten to destroy all of life, such as with bombs, pollution, assault rifles, child labor, war between certain groups of domesticated primates over a sliver of territory, etc.
Everything that has manifested in civilization — from planes and trains, skyscrapers and roads and houses, nuclear weapons and clothes and microwaves — birthed from ideas, connecting symbolically in various people’s imaginations, developing, changing, self-correcting, evolving.
From the manifestation of imaginations, people live with a potential for unknown amounts of growth and destruction. In a world of limited resources, overpopulation, and institutions that seek to maintain their primate order with bombs, a manipulation of the third-circuit, and ink excretions on paper to establish their power over land and water and air, there is another force that is accelerating: information. From information there is a potential for high knowledge, liberation, and awareness.
The socio-sexual circuit first awakens during adolescence — at the onset of puberty. At this most vulnerable stage in human development, sexual preferences, taboos, dysfunctions, and fetishes have the highest chance of being imprinted.
These imprints can be due to chance, trauma, genetics, and environmental influences. People often mimic what’s deemed as acceptable by their local culture and hide what is not, keeping certain parts of their sexual profiles secret.
Every tribe has their own rules as to what is considered sexually moral and immoral. There are often, in every society, controls over a person’s sexual self-identification and subsequent behaviors. Whether the rules are ignorant, biased, misinformed, enlightened, liberated, and so on, is one matter. The innate purpose behind these rules, however, is to control the survival and variability and evolution of the gene pool. It is also to have power over what people can do and cannot do, socially controlling their choices and values.
Despite this attempt at control, there will always be unknown variables in sexual attraction, reproduction, mating, and future evolution.
Robert Anton Wilson said, “Taboo and morality are tribal attempts to govern the random element — to select the desired future.”
Those who act as guides and leaders in the local group, such as priests and shamans, philosophers and politicians, define what symbols are considered to be acceptable and what symbols are not.
From categorizing certain symbols as acceptable, moral, and right, those in power control the limits of information. Ideas seen as immoral, unacceptable, eccentric, and so on, are repressed, blocked, and forbidden.
The socio-sexual circuit keeps a check on the time-binding, rational third-circuit, to prevent the unrestrained rise of innovation and to keep order.
Children are often taught to follow the rules of society. They are not commonly taught to question, to criticize authority, and to become independent in thought.
Tribal guides, from parents and teachers to priests and police, desire for children to think and act semi-robotically, mimicking group values, following the traditions of the past, so they can be accepted into preferred roles in their group.
Most people are programmed to be just smart enough to do their roles properly, but not smart enough to question the roles they are placed under. They are trained to follow certain unspoken rules within their groups (of gender, class, race, age, and so on) and not to question them much.
They will vote for leaders who appeal to their primitive circuits, such as politicians claiming to be patriots, denouncing all outsiders that threaten their traditional values.
To stir up fear in the masses based on outside threats, to speak eloquently of change and hope, is a way to manipulate the human need for security and fear of losing it to the unknown.
Groups often use tactics to re-imprint individual nervous systems. Many cults, governments, militaries, religions, and terrorist groups, who’ve effectively re-imprinted (brainwashed) those initially outside their groups, used methods of isolation from conflicting reality-tunnels, punishments for unacceptable behavior with rewards for acceptable behavior, reinforcement of group superiority over individual inferiority, mind-altering drugs on occasion, initiations into status in the group with fear of the unknown (outside perspectives) along with comfort in the group (protective mother/father figure), and so on.
“The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. All of the above principles then immediately go into action, a process which social psychologists euphemistically call socialization. The bio-survival circuit automatically hooks onto or bonds to the most appropriate mother or mothering object; the emotional-territorial circuit looks for a ‘role’ or ego-identification in the family or tribe; the semantic circuit learns to imitate and then use the local reality-grids (symbol systems); the socio-sexual circuit is imprinted by whatever mating experiences are initially available at puberty.”
Domesticated primates (humans) have nervous systems that can adapt to wildly different reality-tunnels. Whereas in the past, groups could exist separately from other groups and maintain their sense of stable reality, in modern times, in an ever-connected world, groups bump into each other constantly, clashing with each other over what reality (symbol system) is. The symbol system that they hold to be true and logical, to other groups, is false and nonsensical. Furthermore, they confuse the symbol system (map of reality) with reality itself.
To dogmatic believers inside the group, their reality is the only true reality and everyone else who opposes them is deluded, immoral, or heretical.
In present times, to come into contact with so many different reality-tunnels is to be challenged with threats to group identity. The more dogmatic the group, the more dangerous the outsiders are or can be.
Beyond the first four circuits of the nervous system is the neurosomatic circuit.
Pranayama breathing, meditation, visualization of white light, prolonged sexual play without orgasm, psychedelic and cannabis consumption, among other techniques, trigger highly pleasant or unpleasant sensory states, depending on whether those who do these practices are experienced or unprepared amateurs.
Many yogis, gurus, mystics, and heretics have described this circuit as orgasmic experience, union with all/God/the infinite/the divine, crossing the abyss, and so on. Some enter this state through terrible internal struggle while others seem to naturally flow there without suffering.
The fifth circuit is intuitive and non-linear. Whereas the third-circuit hyper-thinking rationalist builds linear maps of reality, and the second circuit alpha male acts based on who is dominant in the social hierarchy, the fifth circuit mystic senses the gestalt, the organic whole, between data points in infinity.
The neurogenetic circuit goes beyond all previous circuits. It is the circuit of genetic memory, of the collective unconscious, of the Tao, of non-duality. Coincidences are significant and paradoxes are solved with wordless understanding. There is no true distinction between what exists out there and what exists within.
In this circuit, all of infinity fits into a flicker of sunlight. All of the cosmos, from quarks to planets, from the Big Bang to a sigh in the present moment, is interconnected, mutually rising and falling, becoming and not becoming. Life and death intertwine like the root systems of expanding trees.
The mind becomes what it focuses on. A mind that thinks about thinking is meta-thinking. To think about thinking about thinking, ad Infinitum, to reflect life like a mirror without clinging onto the changing experience, to be totally absorbed in an idea, a feeling, a moment, without any mental separation, is to use the meta-programming circuit.
This seventh circuit can program all lower circuits and switch between them like the channels of a TV. Similar to non action in Taoism, the meta-programmer adapts to what it engages but does not hold on.
The human brain may be psychically small compared to the universe, but within the brain, all of the universe hums. As the mind encounters certain reality-tunnels, the mind can be those reality-tunnels, while knowing of ever more.
The neurological system takes in a limited number of “existential” information, or a limited number of data points, out of the infinity of the universe.
The nervous system creates models of reality from changing data, editing, re-combining, classifying, removing, and adding information, mostly without conscious awareness.
So many thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations are experienced every millisecond. Most of people’s lives are forgotten, rejected from their belief systems, re-classified to fit into their relative models of reality from what happened, ignored totally, and so on.
Usually only fragments of experiences are selected before they are analyzed, edited, classified, judged, and rationalized.
Humans then narrow their perceptions further through filtering themselves in different symbol systems of race, class, gender, politics, religion, height, fitness, personal hobbies, sexuality, ad Infinitum, creating reality-tunnels for themselves.
Domesticated primates are a lot more creative than they realize. They are the artists of their own existence, capable of, but not always aware of, neurologically programming their relationship with the universe.
All human systems have degrees of order and chaos within them. As this balance shifts, so does the system and those who are embedded in it. The more complex the system becomes informationally, the more unstable it will become as well. Moreover, with information increasing exponentially, there will be major transformations in the system, radically changing the realities of future people — sometimes intentionally, most often not.
Look at the difference in perception between a hunter-gatherer and an industrialist, an astrologer in ancient Egypt and a quantum physicist in the twentieth century, a factory worker in 1890 and a computer software engineer.
The breakdown of an old system could be the sign of a breakthrough into another model of reality, another visionary step, another way of seeing.
From death comes life again. In all of life, however, there is still an element of death. Like a caterpillar bursting through the rigid hold of its cocoon, and then flapping out its bright wings, for only a moment, for only a brief span of time, before it too returns back to the earth.
Systems are not isolated information organisms, destined to evolve or self-destruct alone. They are interconnected with the energies of other systems and gleam with promise like the beads of Indra’s Net.
As entropy is a measure of the increasing disorder in a closed system, there is still a quantum probability of energy underlying the fabric of every event non-locally. As information increases in an uncertain but probabilistic state of coherence to chaos, order to disorder, systems change and neurological realities will adapt within, until there is another transformation in future consciousness.
Which master do you serve: the fleeting approval of the multitude or your own integrity?
You may strive to be honored after your death. When you are dead, however, you will no longer be with the living and all that they say will not be heard by you.
Furthermore, you will not have any control over what the living speak about, even if they decide to speak about you.
If people do talk about you, how soon will their conversations shift from praise and blame to indifference?
Those who do remember you will also die. Their memories will fade with them. Their stories forever lost in time.
Your name may not even be as significant as the greatest humans from generations past who are now less than the whispers on lips.
Every sage and poet, king and slave, every lover and child and warrior and scientist, everyone who was born and breathed in the cool air, everyone from hundreds to thousands of years before, had perished into bones and dirt and shadows. Their lives were so fleeting, here, then gone.
Forgotten in unknown pasts.
Just because someone appears happier by being famous doesn’t mean that they are happy. Appearances of happiness are not happiness.
It is common for people to have a first impression of an event or a person. While the unwise take that impression to be true and make value judgements about it, the wise will use their reason to investigate why they felt a given way and whether their feeling was justified. After they’ve patiently evaluated their initial impression, they will let go of it, and then move on. Those who are unwise will cling to their impressions. They will desire what is external and uncontrollable, such as reputation and fame and power and money.
The wise will be present and focus on who they are and what they can change while the unwise will worry about the past and the future.
Fame is not worthwhile if it causes you to lose your dignity, self-respect, kindness, turning you into a hypocrite, coward, or tyrant.
Praise is a fickle pleasure. Applause is empty of meaning beyond a moment in infinity. Nothing lasts and everything is soon forgotten. Desiring fame is only a tiresome burden.
Don’t fall under the spell of vanity, believing that you are more important than others. If you are convinced of how special you are, then you are seduced away from your reason.
Seek to be a good person rather than seeking to be known as a good person. Everyone is connected as citizens of the world.
When you want to attain a higher social status, people will have power over you. You’ll be enslaved to their approval and disapproval.
Always be indifferent to praise and blame.
When praised, laugh internally at their silly words. When blamed or sneered at, don’t concern yourself with what you cannot control.
Before you talk about being a good person, be a good person. Do not let crowds seduce you away from your discipline, your virtue, your actions. You are responsible for the type of person you are. Master yourself rather than manipulating other people.
Epictetus was born as a slave in Ancient Greece. He became a prominent Stoic philosopher during the Roman Imperial Period, later influencing such people as Marcus Aurelius. Although he never wrote his teachings down, his pupil, Arrian, did.
His main works are the Enchiridion and the Discourses.
Some things are in our control while other things are not. We should focus on what is in our control.
Our desires and aversions, how we choose to think and act, our pursuits and goals and preferences, are in our control (to a degree).
What is not in our control are the bodies that we are born with, our reputation, old age, illness, and death.
When we try to control the things that are not in our control, we will suffer. We must look directly at what we can control and not burden ourselves with what is not in our control.
Our expectations are not life. We must mentally prepare for adversities while being content with what we have, not wishing for what we cannot control.
Other people’s opinions are their own. Instead of manipulating what they think about us, we should work on mastering our own virtue.
Let’s look at what is within our power and act wisely rather than looking at another person for our worth.
We are all born with different abilities, privileges, struggles. Instead of judging ourselves, let’s act out our roles with dignity.
While we didn’t choose to be born or to be placed under certain circumstances, we can choose our own attitudes and ideas and actions.
We should demonstrate our philosophy through how we live. Our true master is within us first.
We should never sacrifice our humanity for the fleeting approval of others.
It is easy to be seduced by what is external and uncontrollable, but in doing so, we may risk our own integrity.
If we compromise who we are for long enough, we may lose who we are forever.
Every difficulty is a question.
We must answer with how we live.
Spend time with those who help us to grow and avoid those who diminish us. Endure those who insult us with humor, humility, and kindness.
We don’t need to explain who we are to those who refuse to understand us. We only need to focus on what’s in our power, letting go of opinions and speculation and gossip.
We don’t need to talk about ourselves like we are important. There is no need for us to boast or blame. We can remain quiet, but when speaking, speak objectively.
Review what has happened at the end of each day. Investigate what we have done well and poorly. We can cultivate habits that are virtuous while remaining compassionate toward our mistakes.
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.”
― Epictetus, Enchiridion and Selections from the Discourses
Our expectations for life is not life itself. We often want for things to be as we wish and avoid things that are not as we wish. Then when things happen against what we desire, we suffer, instead of looking directly at what is.
We must look directly at life.
Then we can act wisely with what we can control.
People will grow old, become sick, die, and lose their material possessions eventually.
Nothing is entirely our own, not even our lives. We are temporary travelers in this universe and will return to the universe after enough time has passed.
Meditate on this everyday.
We shouldn’t hide from facts that are uncomfortable, uncertain, and painful.
We shouldn’t speculate about what we don’t know, anxiously hoping for what exists only in our imaginations, dwelling with regrets about the past.
Let’s be present and learn what we can do.
We shouldn’t reduce ourselves to our judgements. While others gossip, we can remain silent. While opinions are let loose, we can stick to factual information. While people are angry and blame, we can stay patient and look within. While groups hate and form divisions, our hearts can open to the world.
Our attitudes are in our control, even when dealing with the tragedies that befall us.
We become what we regularly consume. If we surround ourselves with fearful people and sensationalized news reports, these sources will impress upon our minds and emotionally weigh us down.
While it’s crucial to be informed, we must care for our wellbeing, and should, when possible, avoid what causes suffering to ourselves and others.
When we must endure negative things, let us do so with dignity and honor, not falling into laziness, hatred, jealousy, anger, and greed.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
Alan Watts telling the parable
What is good arises with the bad. What is bad arises with the good. There is no in without an out or an up without a down.
Each depends upon the other, follows the other, is within the other, changing from extreme to extreme, and from nuance to nuance, in an intricate web.
Life is a changing process with no definite end. Things happen to people and then people judge those events as right or wrong, good or bad. They make divisions in the world of symbols and act as if those divisions are true. Separating the whole into an innumerable number of parts and clinging to specific parts, while denying the rest of life.
It is easy to make judgements about life. When something unpleasant happens, a person claims that it is terrible, clinging to an idea of terribleness. When something appears to be good, then someone will claim it as good and cling to an idea of good, but will suffer when it goes away.
Those who are wise are not attached to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, ugliness and beauty. They patiently watch without judgement, aware of change, and open to what may come. They are not as fixed on conclusions about the answer in life, but rather, live in the mystery. They listen in stillness, not overflowing with opinions about how something appears, or should be, or what they believe about it. Mindfully, they accept what is arising and passing. They do not hide from their fear or anxiety or uncertainty. They flow with what comes, not stuck to their thoughts, open to unfolding nuances.
Jack Kerouac idealized Gary Snyder in “Dharma Bums,” similar to his idealization of Neal Cassady in “On The Road.” Both figures, although so different from each other, were made into glorious saints of the beat movement through Kerouac’s vision.
Snyder was a humble poet living in a shack lit with wax candles. He bought working class clothes only from thrift stores, meditated, drank wine in the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, read, studied, and translated many ancient Buddhist texts, and hiked up mountain peaks with a high, echoing yodel.
Kerouac carried a lot of assumptions about what Buddhism is or could be — looking for a kind of “absolute truth” by climbing to the top of a mountain. Awake briefly in awe only to forget again.
At his most lyrically beautiful, he reminded me of a mystic filled with insight about the infinite grace of the cosmos.
Then at other times, he made Buddhism into a chore of daily understanding, a ritualized act of acquiring more and more knowledge just to show off, a literary dabbling into primary sources.
Sometimes he wrote with boyish fantasy, with naive hope, that after years of seeking, he had finally found an ultimate experience, one that would give him full understanding and end all his suffering.
Then there were moments when he was too arrogant with what he had learned about Buddhism (that others didn’t or couldn’t ever know). At those times, he basked in a false spiritual wisdom — like the main narrator in Fight Club — perceiving his role in the universe as a Chosen Bodhisattva, which seemed more like he was putting on a mask of spiritual vanity to compensate for insecurity.
Throughout “The Dharma Bums,” there was a confusion between his ideas about non-duality and what he was really like as a person, as a man who desired to fuck and eat and love and do drugs and shit and travel and be understood, as a lost bum poet who cared too much and felt too strongly and wandered through all of America with a great self-consciousness.
He always seemed to almost get the point of zen, before losing himself in a tangle of symbols. His Catholic background might have conditioned him to seek some fixed idea of Buddhism. Some odd merging of God and Jesus and Nirvana and Heaven and Hell and Buddha and so on. There was so much struggle in his search, in thinking over and again that he had finally got what It was about, that he often missed what was in front of him all along. Being a Buddha is to be nothing special, just here, now. Awake in the moment, not grasping. Not stuck.
As Lin-Chi once said, “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.”
There is no out there to get to, no special place, no person to give all the answers. But ironically enough, even in Kerouac’s search, whether it’s judged as right or wrong, it is still as much zen as anything else, in the same way that right implies wrong, outside an inside, and in form, there is emptiness.
Only minds make distinctions and get lost in those distinctions without looking at the passing moment. To walk round with a head full of ideas about anything, even Buddhism, is to hold an overflowing cup.
As Dogen Zenji wrote, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”
Kerouac, in his need for truth (more in finding his own subjective truth even when filtered through a particular person or philosophy) still came across as beautiful because of his talent, because of his earnestness, because he wanted harmony and peace and spontaneous joy, folding evermore inward on himself.
He romanticized a bohemian lifestyle, one in which artists move round the country, hitching in cars and on freight trains, meeting up briefly, smoking joints together under a roof as rain falls, pitter-patter, reading haiku to each other in coffee houses, having orgies with each other, loose and free and open to what comes.
By having an authentic lifestyle in such conflict with the conformist notions of his time, there were drawbacks. There was the uncertainty of where to eat and sleep, poverty, judgement, a threat of prison, relationships that came in moments of ecstasy only to go. There were those abused by life on the road, rootless to anyone and everything, who became victims to fear, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, and starvation.
Kerouac, in a sense, became a victim of his own life — dying under the pressures of fame and alcoholism and unsatisfied yearning.
The sensitivity that made his writing great brought him intense joys and sorrows. He had such perceptiveness into others but also could rationalize his own delusions, such as with “Ray’s” unfeeling talk with a paranoid Rosie before her suicide, where he never truly cared about her well-being. He spouted Buddhist philosophy only for his own ego, not out of compassion or love. Such compartmentalization shows, as the Tao Te Ching said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
Despite Kerouac sometimes being possessed with delusions of grandeur, and his inability to get his family to understand his disconnected insights, he was not hard to like. His affinity for all of life and reveling in its ecstasies, made him a wanderer, a loner, a rebel, spiritual in his longing and despairing in his fall. He inspired countless generations of hippies and hipsters and seekers and artists and found himself a guide for those who want meaning outside of a conventional world.
“Whenever we throw something away, whether in the garbage
can, the compost, or the recycling, it can smell terrible. Rotting organic
matter smells especially badly. But it can also become rich compost for
fertilizing the garden. The fragrant rose and the stinking garbage are two
sides of the same existence. Without one, the other cannot be. Everything
becomes a part of the garbage. After six months, the garbage is transformed
into a rose. When we speak of impermanence, we understand that everything is in
transformation. This becomes that, and that becomes this.
Looking deeply, we can contemplate one thing and see
everything else in it. We are not disturbed by change when we see the
interconnectedness and continuity of all things. It is not that the life of an
individual is permanent, but that life itself continues. When we identify
ourselves with life and go beyond the boundaries of a separate identity, we
shall be able to see the permanence in the impermanent, or the rose in the
In a universe of many things, there is interconnection.
From the many, there is one.
Out of one, there are many.
We may organize our life into categories and feel as though
we exist apart from everything else, but we do not. We may use our language to conceptualize,
categorize, and systematize all of this existence into differences, but
fundamentally, everything is in relation to everything else. There is no true
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said, “The
nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth. The named is the mother of the
ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring,
one sees the manifestations.”
Our lives are dependent on the lives of others—not merely on
our fellow human beings, but on the network of plants and trees, on the fish in
the water and the birds in the wind. Without clouds, there would be no rain.
Without the sun, there would be no flowers blooming. Without one, there would
not be the other.
We are not alone.
We depend on the conditions of the world so that we can be. This
world mutually rises and falls. It changes like water that flows through rocks.
We may try to cling to a rock, struggling in our sweat, bleeding and grasping
to security, or we can let go.
In our lives, are we balanced? Our intentions, thoughts and
actions, should harmonize with inner and outer nature. We are in this fleeting,
changing river. We are this fleeting changing river. All things are dualities,
such as light and dark, female and male, life and death. Rather than clinging
to one side or another, which causes great suffering, we must discover what
lies beyond our conceptualizations.
Beyond the categories of right and wrong, we can discover an
As Chaung Tzu said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a
mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”
We are often blocked and cannot see the world clearly. Our
past experiences, judgements, opinions, reduce us. We then perceive though a
filter of symbols, experiences, preferences, unable to feel this moment. How
can we solve the conflicts of humanity if we cannot move past our own biases,
fears, prejudices, and judgements?
In Zen in the Age of Anxiety, Tim Burkett said that we often
see each other through our past experiences and expectations. Instead of
actually perceiving a person for who they are, we are trapped in thoughts about
that person. Our thoughts, rather than helping us see clearly, conceal who that
person is. Others are placed in certain roles and are judged for who they
appear to be, rather than seen as a changing process. Resentment, anger and
fear, likewise, cloud our minds. Consumed with such states, we can’t honestly
see the goodness in each other.
It is common to look to higher authorities to tell us what
to do. We seek the guru, teacher, self-help book, scientist, politician,
writer, and follow their advice. Meanwhile we deny our own perceptions,
feelings, thoughts, merely following someone who will tell us what to do, how
to think, how to live. Don’t become hypnotized with authority. Many charismatic
people convince us to neglect our own minds. We can get caught up in their
enthusiasm and clever rhetoric. Whenever we deny our own processes, we are not
Instead of relying on ourselves, we memorize the work of
others. In them, as Emerson said, “We recognize our own rejected thoughts; they
come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Intelligence is not about following others or about indulging
in our own prejudices. It isn’t about adhering to an abstraction of the good
life or finding an absolute answer for everything. Genuine intelligence comes
from not rejecting our own souls. We must never stop questioning, doubting, investigating.
We need to be mindful of life, sensitive to our feelings, thoughts, and
Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun and author, said “To the degree
that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and
fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. ” When we are not able to
clearly look within ourselves, when we are not brave enough to confront our own
confusion or pain, when we harden our hearts, we will cause ourselves and
others suffering. We cannot live in this world without a gentle awareness of
who we are. Our ignorance will be our downfall. We need to be mindful of our
own darkness, compassionate toward ourselves and others.
Furthermore, as Chodron said, “feelings like disappointment,
embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of
being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that
we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d
rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with
terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect
teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
There is no absolute method to find the truth of our lives.
We come into self-knowledge through our sensitivity to what changes. Sometimes
we are afraid because, deep inside ourselves, we will find no solid answers to
our pain, our sorrow, our confusion. There is an uncertainty, a groundlessness,
which we are aware of. It is easy to hide, to run, to ignore that uncertain
feeling. Most of our patterns in life stem from our fear of not knowing.
Our thoughts alone are limited. We live with a notion of
Self—conditioned from experiences, memories, books we have read, teachers we
have listened to, commands from our parents, instructions in schools, and so
on. Death threatens our notion of Self—an ending to all our memories, to all
the conditions that make up our permanent, isolated egos—and we tremble before
our own annihilation. We seek security to hide, to not confront our fear. To be
free is to be mindful of our fear and hate, desire and resistance, likes and
dislikes. In silent awareness, we do not have to believe in anything. We do not
have to belong to any group or religion or philosophy. We are not apart from
everything else, floating down the river.
We are the river.
As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “That silence has never been
touched by thought, and only then that for which man has searched from time
immemorial, something sacred, something nameless, supreme, comes. It is only
that mind that is so utterly free from all the travails of life; it is only
such a mind that can find the supreme. That means meditation, which is the
expression of daily activity.”
When mind understands its movement, its thoughts and
feelings, there is no judgement. There is no condemnation. From riding in a bus
down a country road to sitting in a yogic pose, from hiking in the wilderness
to laying to sleep, every moment is a practice of self-awareness. Life then
isn’t merely the abstraction of what is good. It is the sight of our lover’s
face, filled with light over their lips and the shadows in their hair. It is
the unity of the breath with the birds singing, the plane humming over a
mountain top, the leaves curling over grass.
There’s no longer a fragmentation of life, only a