Born from the wet tar of industrial lungs, nights of refugees shivering huddled in domes, looking out of windows in windows at a smear of horizon, their eyelids twitching until they rub them with their fists like flies were writhing inside their pupils
In the spring, they breathe in a yellow haze, coughing out the blood spit, their flesh raggedly hanging, blotches spreading on their backs like red moths on bark
In the winter, ashes float down so silent they taste like dry bones
Calm your mind. Open yourself to what is arising and passing. If you stir up the mud at the bottom of a lake, the water will be unclear. But when you let the water be as it is, not trying to flatten the ripples or scoop out all the mud, the lake will settle down. Then you will see not only the still water, but a reflection of the mountains on the surface.
When you watch the rain, you are the rain just as much as the rain is you. Rather than feeling that you are a separate observer, passively watching each droplet fall down, there is only the splash, splash, splash.
There is a rain beyond your words. Beyond your images and concepts and memories. Yet you often divide yourself from the rain, creating an idea of you, an idea of the rain, an idea of how the rain sounds, an idea of how you should feel when you see the rain, and so on. You forget to smell the rain because you are attached to what you think you know.
You often separate your experiences into endlessly finer categories. You discriminate between what you see as good and bad, black and white, ugly and beautiful, life and death, young and old. You organize and measure and judge. Your universe is placed into a mental filing system.
Yet as Alan Watts said, “You confuse the menu for the meal.”
When you are mindful, when you let go, you can come back to the purity of who you are. You can harmonize with nature. Breathing in, breathing out. You are here. Like a bow sliding across a violin, you are open to the continuous hum.
You are not alienated from the rest of life. You inter-are. You are made up of relationships. A flower cannot bloom without being connected to non-flower elements like the soil beneath it or the sun above it.
For the petals of a rose to glisten with dew, there first needed to be a Big Bang. Conditions before that flower existed helped that flower to be. When the rose wilts back into the old earth, another plant will take its place. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed.
Just like a flower, you are made up of non-you parts. You cannot exist without the oxygen you breathe or your ancestors or the gravity of the planet. You cannot exist without the water from the oceans or the clouds drifting above you. There is no you apart from anything else.
“You cannot step into the same river twice,” as Heraclitus once said. Your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are changing. You will not be the same person at five or fifteen or eighty. You may feel the same, and believe that you will remain young forever, but you are a constellation of processes, transforming in every moment. You are dying and being reborn. You are changing with the conditions of the universe.
Don’t attach yourself to one view of life and claim that is the best view to have. When you cling to your beliefs and refuse to open yourself up, you will suffer. Your dogmatism will cause other beings to suffer too.
You are all the lives you have influenced. You are all the ancestors who survived for you to be born and all the descendants who will grow old after you have decomposed.
You are the sun and water and trees and moon. Without them, there is no you.
Your interconnection with all living beings will help you to see beyond yourself. With awareness, you don’t have to judge everything outside your flesh as separate from you.
You don’t have to look for ways to isolate yourself from other beings. Clinging to rigid beliefs, avoiding alternative perspectives, and not empathizing with the vulnerable, will only cause you to suffer. You are in others as others are in you.
It’s up to you to be kind, compassionate, and loving.
Every moment is a chance for you to deepen your practice. Talking about philosophy is not enough. Your life is your message. Your teaching.
When you are mindful and compassionate, your peaceful presence will influence the people around you. Everyone you meet is a continuation of you. Your practice is a practice not only for you, but for your siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and the rest of your community.
When you think you are separate from the rest of the world, you will try to run from the world. You will seek pleasure and avoid pain. You will look for comforting answers to the mystery of your existence. You will hide from unpleasant truths.
Rather than hiding from what you don’t like or attaching yourself to abstractions, look within yourself. See yourself in the world just as the world is seen in you. You are not only the blood in your body, but the stars in your blood. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find what is already here. You only need to see.
If you walk in a park, do you notice the leaves falling from the trees? Do you feel the breeze brushing against your skin? Do you exhale as you step on the soft soil?
Look for lessons in what is already an intimate part of you. There is more wisdom in a crumbling leaf than in a thousand words about impermanence.
When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit. When you breathe, breathe. Rather than seeking to become important or achieve something outside of yourself, rather than dwelling on your regrets or rushing off to do the next thing, continue to do what you are doing, but with total freedom.
Be present with what you are doing. When you nourish yourself, you will nourish other sentient beings. You will care for those who are suffering, who need someone to be there for them. You are not only working toward an end goal of compassion, peace, and kindness. You are those things. Every step can be a step of peace.
When you live in the present, you will begin to see the impermanence in all things. A flower blooming in spring and withering in the autumn sun, a lover with age spots on her hands, a flash of lightning in the clouds. Without impermanence, a child can never mature into an adult and an acorn can never grow into a tree. For there to be birth, there has to be death.
When you are aware of your impermanence, every moment is precious, a fleeting miracle. You can care for all things in your life, while knowing that nothing ever lasts.
Pain and anger will fade away just like joy and happiness. Seemingly unstoppable empires will collapse as civilizations develop. Everyone you know will die and break down into the dust of bones. Plants will grow over your forgotten tomb.
When you know the truth of your impermanence, you will be grateful for what you have while knowing that it won’t be yours forever.
There is no you that remains the same. Your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors all change over time. From the cells in your fingers to the bacteria in your gut, from the wrinkles on your skin to the hormones in your glands, from the neurons in your brain to the oxygen that you inhale, you are transforming. You are not alone. You are not an unchanging entity, apart from the rest of the universe. You are the same, but also different.
Life is like a garden that you can cultivate. You can water the seeds of hatred and ignorance and greed or you can water the seeds of peace and joy and compassion. You have the freedom to choose. It is entirely up to you.
When you tend to yourself, you tend to others. When you tend to others, you tend to yourself. You must be wise enough to select the most wholesome seeds to water.
Sometimes in relationships, you may fall into negative habits. You may forget to be grateful and engaged. As the weeds grow in your garden and theirs, both of you will suffer. But it is never too late to cut away the weeds, to plant new seeds again.
Rather than chasing after abstract notions of success, pleasure, power, and reputation, see these cravings for what they are. When you desire to taste the bait, biting down with all your force, you will get hooked. Only when you can let go, mindful of your suffering, will you be free.
Be aware of your fear, your need for intimacy, your sorrow, and your compulsion to survive. You are connected with this earth. You can show compassion to your suffering while nourishing your love.
Smile because you are alive on this beautiful earth. You are here for only a short time.
“When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”
— Dale Carnegie
“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”
“People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: A people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water.”
— James Baldwin
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
— Isaac Newton
We like to think that we are rational. Yet we are often unaware of our cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way we think about information. They are distorted patterns in our perceptions and interpretations, influencing our beliefs, values, judgements, and decisions.
These biases occur as a result of our biological limitations. Our brains can only take in a fraction of information from the total amount of possible information in the universe. We wouldn’t be able to function if we had to process every millisecond of every detail in our environments. So our brains simplify what we perceive to be more efficient organs, but as a consequence of this neural simplification, we unconsciously make errors.
Our nervous systems make sense of the signals in our environments. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive. We select some information as relevant while rejecting other information. But what we perceive and recall, what we integrate into our systems, is never equal to all of reality.
We continuously make internal models of what we experience, mostly below the level of our conscious awareness. As we engage with our environments, our environments are represented inside of us. Our nervous systems are always changing with the conditions of the universe.
Our existence is intertwined with the cosmos. We are interdependent with other organisms on our planet. The chemical elements that we are made up of once came from the stars. Without the sea and air, without the sun and moon, without the flora and fauna, we would not exist.
Yet we cannot consciously choose to circulate our blood or beat our hearts or grow our teeth or fire off an exact number of neurotransmitters in our frontal lobes. We cannot smell like a hound or sense infrared like a pit viper or sprint like a cheetah. We cannot perceive the same realities as a forest of redwood trees, a colony of honey mushrooms, a pack of wolves, or a bacterium inside a zebra’s stomach.
Our realities are not only relative to our nervous systems, but to the tools that we use to extend our biological capacities, such as microscopes and telescopes, thermometers and computers. Through our nervous systems and tools, we can glimpse into infinity. We can communicate to each other about these “glimpses” with linear symbol-systems made of words and numbers.
Bucky Fuller, who was an inventor and architect and futurist, once wrote, “The universe consists of non-simultaneously apprehended events.”
We will never be able to fully comprehend all the events happening from the microscopic to the macroscopic, events from the past and present and future, events from hundreds of billions to trillions of galaxies. So many events are too unfathomable for our primate minds to consider.
The events that we can consider are not always considered in the same way. We interpret what we perceive through our biological, sociological, and psychological lenses. These lenses are interrelated rather than separate. They change over the span of our development. Because we all have such unique ways of interpretation, there is a lot of miscommunication between members of our species.
Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic and mystic and guerilla ontologist and author, said in his Maybe Logic documentary, “Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.”
1. We tend to favor information that conforms to our beliefs and values. We tend to be resistant to information that goes against our beliefs and values.
Sometimes we have trouble accepting evidence that challenges us, causes us to question our assumptions, and contradicts our sense of identity. We may even avoid what upsets our precious delusions, isolating ourselves in a bubble of ignorance.
When our beliefs harden into dogmatism, then we turn into one of the blind men touching the elephant, claiming the elephant is a tree or a snake or a fan, while never knowing its true nature.
The more that we attach ourselves to abstract notions of absolute truth, while being unable to respect the perspectives of others or correct the mistakes in our own views, the more closed-off we become. When we become rigid, and unable to adapt to change, we shut ourselves off from incoming information.
Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching, “A man living is yielding and receptive. / Dying, he is rigid and inflexible. ” (translated by R.L. Wing)
Robert Anton Wilson, in Prometheus Rising, made a similar point about when we are open (intelligent) or closed (stupid) to life: “Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies, etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission.”
2. We are usually conditioned to think of a hammer in a limited way. We may see it, for example, as a tool that drives in nails. While a hammer can drive in nails, it can have other possibilities that we aren’t aware of.
A hammer, for instance, can pull nails out of boards, shape metal, smash rocks, measure, chop, bang, and demolish the walls of a house. It can be made out of steel, bone, wood, plastic, and rubber.
At a much smaller scale, a hammer is a complex of interactions between subatomic particles. At a much larger scale, it is an insignificant point, a hint of light, in the vastness of outer space.
From inside the courtroom, a hammer (gavel) can act as a demonstration of justice. In political world history, when a hammer joins with a sickle, it shows the solidarity of the proletariat. It can represent blessings, protection, fertility, and power in the sagas of Norse mythology.
From a practical perspective, a veteran will have much more skill with a hammer than a novice. A sculptor will use it for different aesthetic reasons than a laborer. An infant may put a toy hammer in his mouth, tasting plastic for the first time, while a carpenter will raise a barn for her community.
In American folklore, John Henry once outpaced a steel-powered rock drilling machine. He died after winning his grueling race, a sledgehammer still clutched in his hand. While the tale of his endurance became a legend, an inspiration for the workers he strived with, he was still only a man.
John Henry succumbed not only to the stress of his heart, but to the future power of technology. Machinery would soon replace many of his fellow workers, removing them from their purpose and livelihood. Those who still had their employment would eventually resemble the same machines that they depended upon: cold and lifeless and efficient at production.
Through their dependency, their former skills would weaken. Their overreliance on machines would separate them from each other and from themselves. They had to live in a new age of greed.
Even though immigrants, ex-slaves, convicts, among many other poor workers, had struggled together to build America’s railroads, they were often alienated from the fruits of their labor. They earned low wages under deadly conditions. Then they were rejected when they weren’t as useful to their employers anymore.
John Henry was an ex-slave on the rails. In some versions of the tale, he built his hammer out of the chains that once restricted his freedom. His prowess with a hammer was not merely a gift, but a stance against his oppressors. He vowed through his grit to never let another man own him again. He may have been forced to work under deplorable conditions after the Civil War, which was common for many African Americans in the Reconstruction Era, but he used his power against the institutions that dehumanized him.
Whether he won or lost, John Henry was a hero. He stood tall, not only for himself, but for all the underdogs of humanity. He spoke for those who didn’t have a voice. He sweated until his death for workers who were persecuted, exploited, and displaced under the brutal pace of “progress.” His hammer was not just an instrument of his worth. It symbolized an integral part of American identity.
The hammer was groundbreaking when it was first invented. It has since evolved in design and purpose, meaning and material. The hammer is simple, yet complex. It says more about our human nature than we realize.
Throughout our lives, we often cling to what we are used to while ignoring what could be. We may think that a problem has only one solution, an individual has only one identity, or a thing can only be used in one way, while we don’t look for more possibilities than we are comfortable with.
Our old knowledge can prevent us from knowing more. We may even refuse to acknowledge a given reality because we are so fixated on what we think we know. How can we adapt to what is new, or correct our prejudices, or imagine the unimaginable, when we are trapped by our narrow conceptions?
We must empty our teacup if we are to learn. We cannot let our teacup overflow with opinions and conceit. Sometimes we need to unlearn what we once believed, letting go of our attachments to certain stories. Everything can be our teacher.
When we view ourselves as beginners, we can ask questions that aren’t regularly asked. We can approach familiarities as if they were new again. When we no longer drag around our prejudices and outdated notions about how life should be, we can open ourselves to more possibilities.
3. We often overestimate our knowledge, expertise, and competence. Yet we are limited not just by what we know, but what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know.
Sometimes we even think that everything we think is all there is to think. Then we look back at how foolish we were, at how we have changed over the years, after having been beaten down by the wisdom of hard experience.
Our simplified understanding of a complex subject does not mean that the subject is simple. Maybe there are other views that we have not examined or comprehended. There may be subtleties to fields that only specialists can understand after decades of education and diligent practice. We may never have all the answers to the questions we seek.
When we aren’t humble enough to accept our limitations, when we refuse to ask for help, when we don’t reflect anymore on the mysterious and unknown, we can become proud of our illusion of knowledge. Our ignorance can make us feel that we are superior, when in actuality, we don’t have the humility, or the honesty, to seek the truth of our conditions.
4. Just because somebody that we know, trust, admire, honor, respect, and so on, believes in a particular idea, that doesn’t mean that idea is necessarily true. Even if most of the population believes in X or Y, including sixty-one biologists, our grandmother, the cranky neighbor down the street, the leader of Norway, the quarterback on our favorite football team, and our elementary school teacher, that still does not make X or Y, along with any other answer we can imagine, necessarily true either. On the other hand, no matter how much we may distrust a particular individual, even a fool or a liar can speak the truth.
Our ignorance about the truth of an idea, and our failure to think of a valid answer, does not mean that we should accept any alternative answer out there. Our lack of knowledge means only that: a lack of knowledge.
As far as we know, we don’t know. And when we don’t know, we can try to find out what the most accurate answers are, but we should not believe in ideas that are not supported by a sufficient amount of evidence. We can suspend our judgment while remaining open to future possibilities instead.
Even when we do accept certain ideas as valid, we should accept them tentatively, because what we believe today may be wrong tomorrow. It is better to have a degree of certainty with room enough to doubt that certainty.
5. We are often persuaded by compelling personal stories. Some people are eloquent speakers, born with the gift of the gab. What they tell us may even be partially true. At the same time, we have to consider whether their stories are exaggerated, made up, delusional, prejudiced, misinformed, or physically impossible.
Can their stories be tested? Can they be verified by credible witnesses? When they speak, are they being logically sound? Do they talk about events that are highly improbable or probable?
Sometimes people use premises that make logical sense, but then they jump to grand conclusions based on those premises.
Sometimes they assume too much when they argue for their points because they want their conclusions to be true. Then they selectively look for any information that fits with their conclusions. They want to persuade us but they may not have logically arrived at their conclusions beforehand.
They may even take their assumptions as givens and then proceed further on in their argument. Despite their ready acceptance of their own points, some of us wouldn’t agree with their assumptions.
6. We tend to more easily feel compassion for people who are closer to us than people who are not as close to us.
When the number of those who are suffering increases to be on a massive scale, when human beings are judged more as abstractions than as meaningful existences, our compassion fades.
We must not be indifferent. We have to listen to the stories of those who need our help, who are traumatized, who have gone through a crisis, so we can care for them, so we can be there for them, so we can see our humanity in them.
It is far too easy for us to ignore others when they are presented as numbers. We have to learn their perspectives.
We’re interconnected, dependent on each other in this world, while dependent on this world to be. We all want to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to belong to harmonious communities, not ones divided out of war and hatred and fear.
As Martin Luther King Jr., minister and civil rights leader, wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
7. We are more likely to act in a similar manner to how those around us act. We may feel more comfortable conforming to social pressures rather than critically thinking for ourselves, especially when we are made to feel lost, alienated, and persecuted.
We normally take cues on how to behave based on the behavior of those around us, but when we do so, we may neglect our intuition, reason, and ethical judgment, sacrificing who we are for the values of the herd.
What we do matters to those around us. What others do matters to us. We are highly influential in our interactions with each other. Our actions have significant consequences for other beings. Our social environments profoundly affect not only how we feel, but how we treat the people around us, and how they treat us.
8. We often underestimate the severity of threats and warnings. We act as if dangerous events could never impact our personal lives. Natural disasters, market crashes, motor vehicle accidents, contagious viruses, and so on, are often ignored, disbelieved, minimized, and underestimated.
We feel uncomfortable when certain ideas contradict our values, beliefs, and attitudes, even when those ideas are valid, even when those ideas can better prepare us to deal with future crises. We are resistant toward information that challenges our sense of normalcy and comfort and security. Rather than plan for catastrophes, we downplay them. Rather than confronting potential emergencies, we deliberately ignore them.
9. We have a tendency to overestimate our abilities, talents, and intelligence. We may even believe that we have more control over a situation than we really do. When we feel superior and overconfident, we aren’t that accurate in our assessment of ourselves.
Sometimes those of us who understand the least about a given subject are the most confident. We may fail to recognize our incompetence because we are not aware enough of ourselves or of the given subject. We are ignorant of our ignorance, believing that we are wise. Our hubris distorts what we see as reality.
The more we learn, the more we come to realize how much we don’t know. We will never know all there is to know, but as our knowledge expands, we can become more aware of who we are and where we are going. We can reflect back on the patterns of our history.
When we are conscious of our shared humanity, of our ignorance, of our potential for growth, we can humbly explore the universe. We can invite mystery into our lives. We can become curious again.
10. We tend to believe in ideas that we can more easily remember than other ideas. We accept ideas that we hear more frequently and that emotionally impact us.
Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.
Media outlets repeat sensationalist stories every day while censoring more critical narratives from being presented to the public. They manipulate their viewers into feeling sympathetic, outraged, fearful, disgusted, and so on, while not offending their advertisers and corporate owners.
Politicians know how to appeal to their voters, delivering passionate rhetoric on some issues, while never giving straight answers on more pressing concerns. They show off a carefully cultivated persona — smiling, shaking hands, dressing in expensive clothing, kissing babies, attending lucrative events, pretending to care about the same issues as their base — while covertly serving their own class interests.
When we don’t critically think about the quality of information that we consume, we will be seduced by misinformation. We will gobble up emotionally engaging stories. Propaganda will overtake our memories.
Available information is not always credible information.
When we aren’t aware of our biases, we can easily be fooled. Sometimes even when we are aware, we can be fooled. While our ignorance works against us, it can be profitable for those who wish to take advantage of us.
Rather than only believing what makes us feel good, or what other groups believe, we have to examine the information we receive. We have to reflect on our moral choices, on our values, seeking to know more than what we have been indoctrinated to think.
When we refuse to accept what is true for a long enough time, we will eventually settle into the false comfort of delusion. Through our self-deception, we may hurt ourselves or those around us. We have to critically think about our lives so that we don’t make poor choices with even worse consequences.
We can open our minds to future possibilities, to hidden meanings. We can help those who are suffering, who are ignored, hearing their stories, tending to them as best as we can.
The more that we study our lives, the more that we question what we are taught, the more that we are ready to abandon our old perspectives, the more we can mature as human beings.
“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
― Erich Maria Remarque
“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles; the master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, and the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — including their lives.”
― Eugene V. Debs
“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”
― Arundhati Roy
“The atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.”
― Howard Zinn
War is profitable for the ruling class but not for the dead.
But what if the dead could talk back?
Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare. He continued to write for major pictures under a variety of pseudonyms, eventually winning two Academy awards for his uncredited work. Before his successes with movies such as Spartacus and The Brave One, Trumbo had written a blistering antiwar novel.
Johnny Got His Gun sticks to readers like gauze dressings on third-degree burns. It is as brutally honest as it is gruesome. It is an ugly book because war is ugly, because violence is ugly, because the systemic exploitation of human beings is ugly.
Behind all those patriotic slogans about fighting for honor and democracy and freedom, behind all those militaristic ideals about duty and glory, behind all that jingoistic propaganda crammed into the minds of the young and ignorant, there is an ugly greed for more power. There is mutilation and death and rot.
Joe Bonham served in WWI but he could’ve been a soldier in any war. He woke up in a hospital bed after an artillery shell exploded, disfiguring him. The war took his arms, his legs, his face, his nose, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, his flesh, his organs, his almost everything. It had turned him into a mucus dripping meat. A burned torso, gurgling out of a throat. A bandaged wound, trapped forever inside of himself.
He was deaf. He was blind. He had no eyes to see, no nose to smell, no tongue to taste, no lips to speak, no ears to hear. His life was darkness and dreams. Sometimes there was no difference. Yet he could still think. He could still remember who he was, even after drifting through years of insanity. He could still breathe through a tube in his throat. He could still tap his head and squirm. He could still feel the sun warmth on his tingling skin. On his last patches of skin. On his forehead slicked with sweat. He was as alive as any dead man could get.
The warmongers had pinned a sickening medal to his body. Those bastards decorated him with false awards and then ignored him. Yet they continued to enact their aggressive policies and propaganda. They continued to throw their annual parades and marches. They continued to sacrifice the lives of more sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, for their goals of endless expansion and domination.
They didn’t care about his suffering. He was useless to them after his body was used. But he was still a man, he was still a man, he was still a… human being. Wasn’t he? If he wasn’t, then there was no point in existing anymore. Maybe he could be a human again if only he could communicate. If the nurses let him outside into the world, he could scream out of his lightless tomb, defying all the swine who had manipulated him, who would manipulate more generations into their deaths.
Joe Bonham deserved his dignity. He deserved to be recognized not only for who he was, but for what they had turned him into. He had to warn all the impressionable children around the world, forcing them to stare at his fate. He had to warn every naïve kid who was so eager to sacrifice themselves for their government, who was so certain that their side was righteous and just and good. He could show them what war could do to a human being. He could show them what was left of a human being after war.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
When your mind empties, when you are open to what changes in the universe, everything is possible, and nothing is possible. Existence is not separate from non-existence. Existence depends on non-existence to be. They inter-are.
When you have knowledge, you are limited by that knowledge. You are trapped by your ideas of what life should be and not be. A tea cup will overflow unless it is first empty of its contents.
Nothing is ultimately good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Yet in your mind, you create categories of good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, right and wrong, black and white. You’re constantly making finer distinctions about what you like, don’t like, and don’t care about.
The mountain shrouded in mist is nothing special or mysterious to climb. There is no more wisdom on top of that mountain than there is in a shit. It is just as sacred as a nap below the bough of a tree, as washing the dishes, as sunlight fading over a meadow, as belly laughter, as a walk down a narrow path.
Enlightenment is nothing special, nothing you need to strive to acquire. When you are empty, there is no “you” to consider things as empty. There is no “you” apart from everything else, even from non-existence. There is no permanent unchanging self.
You don’t have to capture your Buddha-nature. You are Buddha-nature. There isn’t anything that is separate from Buddha-nature. You don’t need to struggle for years to experience an idealized state that you can brag about. You are alive now, despite your ideas about now. You can wake up to this direct moment.
To awaken is so ordinary, you shouldn’t have to grasp after it. You are already here.
With a sincere intention, you can be present. You can breathe in the clear sky. There is nothing else to attain. Sometimes doing nothing is better than trying to gain something.
There is nothing special about being here either, except that it is so easy to forget.
You spontaneously express your nature when you are empty. There’s no need to put on a show of being spiritual, and important, and all-knowing. To seek out a superior status, or epiphany, or recognition from your peers, is to miss the point.
It is easier for you to empty your mind when you meditate but it is harder to be mindful when you’re out in the world. In the world, if your mind doesn’t wander, then that is ok. If your mind wanders, then that is ok too. Just gently bring your awareness back to your breath.
Everything can be your teacher, even the rain dripping from a rooftop, even yellow flowers growing in a field.
When you look into impermanence deeply enough, you will see the divine in the mundane. There is no essential difference between the divine and the mundane other than in your ideas and opinions, in your need to fit all of life into fixed categories.
From the vibration of an atom, to a leaf shaking off a tree, from the gray hairs on your grandfather’s head to a newborn cuddling in a blanket, the universe is interdependent and changing. To intellectualize about change doesn’t reveal its truth. It will reveal its boundlessness when you are ready.
Our dreams are private myths and our myths are public dreams. Each represents the gods within us, energies that conflict and harmonize.
Our stories, told in different cultures and times, are born in us, and change as we change. They show us our paradoxical natures. They guide us as we cross through the dark forest to find the light.
Sometimes our public myths will match our private ones. Then teachers will appear, helping us to learn more about our internal journeys, interpreting our paths with familiar symbols. At other times, opening ourselves to the mysteries of life, engaging what is deep and sacred, can only be handled alone.
We can be enraptured with what is beyond us, in awe of the unknown. We can experience a timelessness that permeates through all forms, that is transcendent of symbols, even though during most of our lives, we are conditioned into the dualities of I and thou, black and white, good and bad. To claim the absolute truth is not to have found the truth. To know is not to know. To not know is to know.
Myths change from environments to individuals, from individuals to groups. The gods of the rainforest are different from the God of the mountain top. The divine in nature is different from that of the church. Even the nomadic tribes who hunt, who rely on movement and intimate bands, perceive other realities than the settled farmer does.
Myths endure from an evolution of ideas and from how well they can touch the archetypes of humanity. Otherwise they will fade into their own oblivion. Myths must adapt to the period they dwell in, relative to culture, environment, economy, and myriad other influences. If they do not bend with the moment, they will break from their archaism.
In myth, often there is a hero. A hero must leave home, venturing into the unknown. To leave their safe comfortable life, to be thrust into danger, is to begin their quest, whether physical or spiritual. The only way for them to return back home is to go through their trials.
What distinguishes heroes from average people is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal, another being, or the purpose of the quest. What the hero defends will not always be commonly accepted, but as they let go of their selfishness, and confront the dangers ahead, they are truly courageous.
The hero must slay the dragon. In every stage of life, from childhood to old age, a dragon will arise, whether in the form of greed, inhibition, stagnation, or resistance. Individuals must first look within themselves to find their own way.
Mythology can act as an interpretive system for deciding what paths are the wisest to take, what practices can lead to a higher purpose, how to reduce the despair of other beings, and so on. Disciples can perform elaborate rituals that represent the crucial stages of human existence. From learning to love to embracing death, mythology weaves in stories that point to inner truths, showing what swords will slay what dragons.
When heroes cross the threshold of their experience, they transform. They return to where they began after they left for the first time. During their arduous journeys, their consciousness changes, heightened among the ordinary.
A Bodhisattva is enlightened but still chooses to remain in the world, helping to free all beings from their suffering (Dukkha). The shaman broods from their sacred wisdom, guiding others through language, penetrating rituals, visions, and medicines.
At the deepest level of consciousness, the hero is love. Interdependent being. They have an enduring compassion for all living creatures, a reverence for nature. The hero has experienced oneness, an interconnection with all that is. They have shed themselves of their old skin only to be reborn again. This cycle of birth-death-rebirth will repeat over eons in endless forms.
The troubadours believed that love was the highest meaning of life. They would undergo pain only for the chance of finding themselves in another. The Bodhisattva will “joyfully participate among the sorrows of the world” while the “mystic will swim in the symbolic ocean.” (Campbell, Joseph)
While one myth will celebrate the divine through the masculine, another myth will honor the feminine more. Some stories contradict each other logically while still suggesting the same essential messages.
Beyond any dualistic judgments of birth and death, up and down, black and white, here and there, right and wrong, and past and future, at the ultimate dimension, existence hums from a timeless energy. The cosmos is interdependent, perfect, whole.
While “the map is not the territory” (Korzybski, Alfred), a mythological map can be useful for the right person, at the right time. Travelers can navigate down its paths and landmarks and dead ends, until eventually moving beyond any known land. A map is not a final authority on where to go or what to experience. It is a guide, directing those who are curious, who dare to question and seek, beyond themselves, toward the transcendent.
“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained; I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins; They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things. Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Children need to depend on outside authorities, such as their parents and guardians and teachers, for their development. In order to psychologically mature, however, they must shed their attachments at appropriate stages in their lives.
Human beings have the potential to grow or decay. When they are at their healthiest, they are independent, competent, and compassionate. They can adapt, and learn from their past mistakes, while knowing when to let go. They can discover their authentic values and meanings and beliefs from following their “inner gleam.”
Yet when people compare themselves to others, they activate their “infantile acquisitiveness.” They desire what they do not have rather than being happy with what they do have. They brood about what they lack, unsatisfied with who they are, where they are, and what they own. They always want more, which is never enough to satisfy them. At the root of their mindset, they feel hollow, poor, and unfulfilled.
When people allow others to lean on them, they lean back as well. They create a mutual “admiration society,” where they feel needed, or superior, when others are attached to them, but not when those same individuals are capable of living for themselves. When they exploit the vulnerabilities of others, they crave a sense of wholeness, yet their “need to be needed” stems from their childish dependency.
Those who seek outside of themselves for validation, for a life direction, degrade themselves.
Free individuals don’t need to lean on others for their personal worth. They don’t need anybody to lean on them either. To be free is to confront the present moment and to deal with things as they are. Rather than pretending that reality is in some idealized state, they play with what they can control, while not worrying about what they cannot control.
“The free mind manipulates impersonal circumstance — not people.” (Beecher, Marguerite & Willard)
Dependent people do not have an “inner direction.” What comes from outside themselves, such as parents and friends and teachers and celebrities and news programs and political parties and gurus, are their first authorities. They value (but may eventually come to resent) these influences as superior to them.
Conformists are subordinate to authorities outside themselves. These authorities dictate to them about who they should be and how they should live. Then there are negative conformists. They are contrary, obstructing others, out of reaction. They resist what’s outside of them (because it’s from the outside) and resent being told what to do. While the free person lets go of their attachments, those who resist others, who rebel for the sake of rebellion, only cling harder to their own suffering.
To be dependent is to be helpless, passive towards all of life. To be free is to be engaged. Free people make mistakes, but they grow from those mistakes, while finding opportunities in challenges. Rather than hiding from ugly truths, they grapple with them. They play with them. They find joy in the game.
“Their transition from childhood to adult life is not a stormy series of defeats and struggles against outside authorities. It is a quiet growth in self-confidence in which they learn that there are few irremediable mistakes, and they regard a mistake as nothing more than a friendly invitation to keep trying — not a loss of love, approval and prestige, or as a humiliation to be avoided at any cost.” (Beecher, Marguerite & Willard)
Dependent minds live only for external validation, not for inner truth. They react to the outside world, conditioned to obey or rebel. Unsatisfied with who they are, unable to know themselves authentically, alienated in groups, they follow the worn paths of others.
As Charles Bukowski, in Factotum, wrote, “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”
These people not only follow the same routines at work, but throughout all their lives. They attend clubs, churches, parties, watch television, surf the internet, blindly acting out the roles chosen for them, until they reach the undertaker. They appear to be good or bad, not for themselves, but for social rewards and attention.
Like little doggies that want to be petted, they perform their owner’s most favored tricks.
People can’t rejoice in their “inner resources,” or form genuine relationships, until they free themselves from their childish attitudes. They must not only leave behind their enslaved habits, but become aware of themselves in the here-and-now.
Mature people are free from thinking with the competitive mindset, while immature people always try to one-up others, and prove themselves out of their insecurity. Mature individuals don’t need to look outside for a master. Those who are dependent, who compete over everything, endlessly struggle to maintain their dominance. They never want to appear vulnerable, weak, and inferior.
“Like a good card player who does not care what cards are dealt him since his fun lies in the free play he improvises in the playing of each hand. Each game is its own reward and he seeks nothing outside of the unfolding of each hand as it is played into the hands of others. He enjoys the whole experience and all that his partners do as well.” (Beecher, Marguerite & Willard)
Mature individuals are adaptable, spontaneous in the moment. They display an attitude of exploration, curiosity, open to the mysterious. When work must be done, they press on with quiet persistence, not complaining about their given state.
While dependent people have to please others, free people must satisfy the needs of their own lives first! It is not their job to please others. Those who are subservient often fear productivity. They don’t want to work on themselves. Putting the group’s needs first leads to their unfulfillment, degrading their growth.
“Aloneness is freedom-from-dependence! Loneliness, on the other hand, is the dependent child crying as it searches for the parent or babysitter it has lost and cannot find.” (Beecher, Marguerite & Willard)
It doesn’t matter if an individual chooses solitude or the company of others. To be alive is to be present, discovering what is meaningful and valuable. The self-reliant person doesn’t feel the urge to compete, dominate, or prove their value to anyone else. Their goal is to explore, to see what happens.
Mature people don’t rely on outside authorities to determine who they are or what they are worth. If they must remain alone rather than be harmed or manipulated, then they will accept that outcome.
Without any wishful thinking or self-judgement, they honor their “inner gleam.” In the true spirit of Agape, someone who is mature doesn’t need to give or take, condemn or blame. There are no favorite people that they have to choose between, in a vicious hierarchy of superiority to inferiority, based on who gives and gets the most.
“The mature adult finds no need to beg. He is an explorer and a doer. He does not have to compete and aspire to be the favored one. Only the child or the infantile adult has to worry about his status in the eyes of those around him.” (Beecher, Marguerite & Willard)
Most importantly, a free individual is a doer. Their actions are consistent with their words. Alfred Adler once wrote that one should watch only movement, in order to not be fooled by others. To learn who people are, and what they mean, do not focus on their beautiful words, but rather, look at their deeds alone.
It is easy to blame and hate and hold onto grudges. To live-and-let-live, to seek an inner balance, to not form unrealistic expectations about the future, may be harder, but it is a more worthwhile pursuit.
When one is being and not trying to be, there is no more expecting, idealizing, comparing, proving, or depending. But when one is seeking the attention of an outside authority, they’re stuck on an eternal treadmill, chasing after what they can never catch.
“If you want to understand yourself or another person, close your ears to anything that is said or what you think and watch only movement. What a person does is his real understanding and intention.” (Beecher, Marguerite & Willard)
“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways — the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
“All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values–everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact–now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego. The endless series of shadow and doppelgänger figures in mythology, fairy tales and literature ranges from Cain and Edom, by way of Judas and Hagen, to Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde in the ugliest man of Nietzsche; again and again such figures have appeared and made their bow before human consciousness, but the psychological meaning of this archetype of the adversary has not yet dawned upon mankind.”
Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic
“People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.”
Horror attracts us while it repulses us. We are confronted with our most hidden taboos in sinister forms. We investigate our shadowy dreams and terrors, seeking out the Other, anxious before the strange and unknown. We face forbidden ideas, lurking beneath the sewers and deep in the woods, unspoken, uncomfortable ideas, in the darkness of ourselves.
Our monsters reflect the most terrible aspects of our nature. They are our unconscious rejections, our atrocities against one another, our insatiable greed and consumption and narcissism. They return to haunt us, to torment us, when we foolishly believe that we are gods, when we transgress the laws of all humankind.
Horror sickens and disgusts and nauseates us. Yet our hearts tremble to the pleasure beneath our fear, to the endorphins of our near death, to the tragedies that we cannot help but stare at.
Horror teaches us the consequences of when we take too much and care not enough for others. It shows us what happens when we deceive and murder and destroy our sacred idols.
We must take on the embodiment of evil, whether it afflicts us in the realms of the supernatural or natural, literal or metaphorical. Through our struggles, we may be releasing the ghosts of our past or preventing the apocalypse of the near future.
Even if we pretend that we are going to remain young for eternity, we are flesh, we are bones, we are blood and pus and aging and disease and death. We are part of a cosmos we don’t fully comprehend. We don’t know what our fates will be as individuals in a community, as a species, as organisms on a planet.
We are temporary, vulnerable. We are primates lost in the vastness of space. We struggle for an illusion of control, a sense of familiarity, so that we can feel safe and secure, while knowing that nothing will ever last. We fear the threat of what we don’t know, the possibility of future anguish.
There are dangers inherent in everything we do, existing on different scales, from driving our cars down a highway to walking alone at night, from polluting our atmosphere to declaring war on a neighboring country.
We are agonizingly aware that we are going to die, that everyone we know will die, even if we distract ourselves with parties and drugs and work and fashion and games and sex and religion and politics. We are filled with an existential dread that we try to alleviate with meanings beyond ourselves. Yet there is always the possibility of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe and societal unrest. There is always the promise of the undertaker.
Horror is a safe place for our fears, our anxieties, to express themselves under the guise of a chainsaw-wielding maniac, a zombie horde roaming through the mall, a cannibal, ghoul, goblin, snake, slasher, demon, or vampire that casts no shadow.
We can look at our inner darkness rather than hide from it. We can grapple with the unknown rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Only when we are honest, when we burn our light through the chasm of darkness, can we be liberated from our suffering.
Horror disturbs our sanity, shocks us out of our comfort, mocks our hypocrisies, exposes our underlying insecurities. We need horror to awaken us out of our complacency, our smug delusions of perfection, and let go of false certainties.
We must find a way to grieve for our losses, to turn toward the truths that scare us, to participate joyfully among the sorrows of the world. We are human beings, achingly conscious, here for a short time with each other. Our life on this earth is precious and fleeting and uncertain. We can withdraw from the unknown, clinging onto normalcy, wallowing in our most mundane days, or we can free ourselves to the mysterious.