Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

The human brain is a three pound galaxy of complex, evolutionarily developed, neural connections, which when working together or apart, underlies the many processes, forming all of consciousness.

A typical neuron has around 10,000 connections to other neurons. These neurons fire in patterned sequences in many parts of the brain, all before a person is even conscious of thinking about acting.

What is a thought if it cannot be touched or felt or smelled or tasted? This strange organ inside each of our skulls controls our thoughts, but most of our brain’s activity is unconscious. Any change to the brain changes our thoughts, from the food we eat to the drugs we take to the amount of sleep we have to who we’re sexually attracted to from the time of puberty.

Our brains don’t see any absolute reality. We receive neural inputs from our organs, which are limited and biased. Our brains interpret these signals, while rejecting or ignoring what’s considered inessential. Most of what’s out there in reality is not registered. What is registered is highly interpretive.

What is perceived is an unconsciously put together illusion of a reality. Subjectively, however, reality feels more stable than it really is. People often don’t know what they don’t know.

From treating patients with brain injuries to testing cognitive biases with sensory illusion tests, it is often shown that the brain constructs a type of reality, mostly unconsciously, from a narrow selection of neural patterns, which subjectively, are given conscious meaning only afterward. Based on these neural patterns, the brain makes predictive assumptions when encountering perceptual blind spots.

Our brains are hardwired with a sense of Newtonian physics. We often learn a new physical ability consciously and then it becomes an unconscious process. If we encounter a variable that isn’t predicted, we become conscious again to process that variable and its relationship to our sensory-motor system, until it becomes automatic as well.

Our perception of time lags behind time. We need to process the moment we’re in before becoming aware that we are in that moment. At the same time, our feeling of time passing slowly or quickly alters and can be manipulated by external events.

We often have gut feelings based on prior experiences where we unconsciously formed associations between two or more things. Our associations between things influences our decision making and can easily be manipulated, making us act in irrational ways based on our hunches, even if we consciously know otherwise.

The brain is made of systems and sub-systems, responsible for different tasks, such as memory, speech, movement, and so on. Some of these systems overlap, like with the right and left hemispheres. Other systems compete with each other. Many of these areas are deeply embedded in the brain, unconsciously working, while conscious attention acts as a general.

Brains work to conserve as much energy as possible, using the most resources at the start of learning a new skill, and then eventually reducing that energy level after finding ways to be more efficient. When a person damages part of their brain, other areas often compensate for that deficiency. If the damage becomes too great, then conflicting messages will occur. Brains compensate for a lack of function in one area because they are highly adaptive and can rewire. Furthermore, brains are always active, working to create patterns of meaning, even when there are none externally.

When the conditions of a person’s brain changes, they fundamentally change as people. Someone’s inclination to commit a crime, to feel depressed, to gamble without restraint, to be smart, to have sexual desire for a certain sex, and so on, is determined by the type of brain they have, whether that brain is healthy or unhealthy, how that brain functions with chemicals, environments, hormones, etc.

Genetics hardwires brains while environments slant the hardwiring. People are born with complex neural systems in changing environments. Each brain has genetic predispositions and a high adaptability to variables overtime. People’s brains are mostly unconscious while people feel freedom in their thoughts and actions.

The brain is made up of many smaller “brains,” each with its own purposes for the benefit of the collective brain, sometimes competing, sometimes in harmony, rebuilding connections while ignoring what seems irrelevant, weaving together meanings through a processing of old patterns, ignorant of their biases when perceiving, all while maintaining an illusion of stability.

Dharma Bums

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.

Man’s Search For Meaning

“THIS BOOK DOES NOT CLAIM TO BE an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
 
 The life of an average concentration camp prisoner, of one who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was one of daily struggle for existence.
 
 Tattooed on flesh, stolen of possession and identification, reduced to number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.
 
 “Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.”
 
 Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job inside camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines before eventually tending to the sick, injured, and dying.
 
 For the Capos with their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent starvation. Then there were cigarettes for those who had lost themselves in despair.
 
 “The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.”
 
 When a prisoner first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.
 
 “In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.”
 
 Prisoners who first arrived to camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk to each person and inspect them, deciding on whether they would work or be sent to die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
 
 “‘Was he sent to the left side?’
 
 ‘Yes,’ I replied.
 
 ‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
 
 ‘Where?’
 
 A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
 
 ‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.”
 
 Prisoners were removed of all their items, including wedding rings, writings, jewels, photographs, anything resembling their former lives. They were stripped into a trembling nudity, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
 
 “Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.”
 
 In Auschwitz, a prisoner adapted to the worst conditions imaginable. Cold and unclean, sleeping huddled for a couple hours after hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in mud.
 
 Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most popularly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
 
 As time went on under harsh conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, in the instinct to survive. From day to day, physical punishment didn’t matter as much as the agony of injustice, of the helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that spread through camp.
 
 Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
 
 Prisoners, who had once identified as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of being human.
 
 After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just a little longer. They often dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had simple desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while living a terrible reality.
 
 “When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.”
 
 Once woken from their longing in dreams, prisoners huddled together to work from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before a day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed from repeated daily trauma.
 
 “There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’”
 
 As prisoners endured the nightly struggle of a concentration camp, sometimes only salvation could come through thought, in the rituals of religion, prayer and debate, in the rumination of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching with sore feet, touching her with memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.
 
 “This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.”
 
 By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the small miracles of existence.
 
 “Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
 
 “Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
 
 Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoner. One lived with mental turmoil, pain which constantly threatened one’s values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” This brutal world ground the prisoner’s human dignity down to nothing, where the end of all struggle was death. People were used up until they their bodies failed, until their will to go on faded, like the flickering light of a candle, falling to enfolding darkness.
 
 Camp inmates often were tormented with making decisions and taking an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or future.
 
 As Frankl wrote on his last days at camp before being rescued, when he thought about escaping, “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.”
 
 Trusting in fate, at times of certain death, was acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was a defense mechanism against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find ways to endure.
 
 Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, forsaken to the hells of their psychological conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.
 
 “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
 
 We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
 
 Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Amidst great suffering and death, they had to choose and not choose.
 
 Surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect upon what had meaning for them, holding onto their purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in an ongoing struggle for their existence.
 
 “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
 
 While many prisoners slumped into despair or conformity under a brutal injustice, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to, accepting their fate while selflessly helping others, up until their extermination. They died with no names, no families and friends, but still had the integrity to not lose their humanity.
 
 To maintain dignity while trampled on by the jackboot, to give a last piece of bread away to a sickly child, to offer a kind word before walking before the gas chamber, despite not being known or praised for their sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
 
 “This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”
 
 Inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Outside of the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. Prisoners had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and not lose themselves in the past, in apathy, in giving up to future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.
 
 “Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
 
 A prisoner who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.
 
 “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
 
 These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
 
 Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, from genuine purpose in a world against them, but from chance.
 
 For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
 
 Some prisoners, who had been promoted to marginal powers, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked the question, in every circumstance, what type of person would they be?
 
 “From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
 
 Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”
 
 When the prisoner was finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal. A prisoner drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to become human. It was so difficult for prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endlessness of a camp, where starvation and death were companions.
 Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
 
 There was a pressure that had built inside every inmate, a repression of their yearly suffering into the unconscious, which had to eventually erupt though talk, through a discussion of what had been taboo to speak about in camp, through screams and nightmares and long cries to those murdered, a readjustment back to the unfamiliar world of the living.
 
 “One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
 
 Some of those freed returned and found no homes, no families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, where their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their past. Yet those who survived still held onto hope for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired. They endured in utter depravity, for years and years, only to seek that which could transcend them.

Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Gung Fu”

Bruce Lee, a legendary action star and martial artist, wrote a classic book on Chinese martial arts, called “The Tao of Gung Fu.”

More than an instructional on proper technique, Lee explored combat like a philosopher. He believed that fighting wasn’t Chinese or American or Korean, but rather, a deeply human, creative expression. Dogmatically following a particular style of martial arts was a limitation on the human potential for growth and fluidity.

Imagine the Yin Yang symbol. Yin can represent negativeness, passiveness, gentleness, internal, moon, darkness, femininity, and so on, while Yang can represent positiveness, activeness, firmness, external, sun, and so on. Together, Yin Yang is one, whole, changing from one to the other.

There is no true duality between Yin and Yang. They are complementary, not in conflict. There is no black without white, no force without gentleness, no before without an after. There is a Yin in every Yang and vice versa.

In martial arts, one should be adaptable, fluid in movement. One doesn’t strike. The fist strikes without any thought of striking. When trained properly, there is action without action, strategy without any thought of strategy.

There is no strength without gentleness or gentleness without strength. To strain too much is to tire just as to be too submissive is to be overwhelmed.

The bamboo, yielding and then bending along with a strong wind, doesn’t crack like the stiffest of trees.

What the mind focuses on, it emphasizes while neglecting the rest. To neglect the rest is to be blind to all but one thing. To ignore all is to be blind to all. When the mind perceives what happens without attaching to one thing or two things or more, then it intuitively understands, adapting to change as it happens.

“When I look at a tree, I perceive one of the leaves is red, and my mind stops with this leaf. When this happens, I see only one leaf and fail to take notice of the innumerable other leaves of the tree. If, instead of restricting my attention to one, I look at the tree without any preconceived ideas, I shall see all the leaves. One leaf effectively stops my mind from seeing all the rest. But when the mind moves on without stopping, it takes up hundreds of thousands of leaves without fail.”

Where the mind focuses, it is captive. The mind should flow freely through the body. When it is nowhere, it is everywhere. By not calculating, it acts as it should. By planning, it is inhibited. Become one with whatever activity is taking place, not trapped in how or why it takes place. Water flows where it does without an obstruction, spontaneous and alive.

When there is no intellectualization in fighting, no thought of superiority or inferiority, winning or losing, the fight happens naturally. There is no true separation between the internal and external, between one opponent and another, until one makes distinctions between the two.

Yin and Yang are not in conflict, but the mind makes them appear to be so. To be intuitively aware is to act without acting, to let the mind alone, adapting to what happens as it happens, like the calm mirror of a pond and the rushing of a waterfall.

A martial artist should strive for perfection in simplicity, avoiding flashiness. Rather than study a thousand techniques or overcomplicate oneself with too many steps, develop what is essential, reject what is unnecessary.

One should not block thoughts or try to think too much. Instead the mind is not grasping, not getting stuck in ideas or emotions. A martial artist uses no-mind, being everywhere and nowhere at once.

Martial artists should not concern themselves with status, with being superior or better than others. Pride is illusory, based on a fixed idea of self, given and eventually taken externally.

When one is prideful, one is always terrified of being dethroned. A wise martial artist cares about discipline, knowing themselves truthfully through self-cultivation. To be self-sufficient is what matters, not the appearance of success, based on the opinions of others.

When a martial artist begins, he or she is ignorant. Then after training, the martial artist knows some about defense and offense and thinks a lot about both. After the martial artist masters their training, they no longer think about it. They are wise like an expert and ignorant like a beginner.

“If you try to remember you will lose. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip — or crash! Be water, my friend.”

A martial artist must never be rigid in thought or in movement. Like water, combat is uncertain, changing from moment to moment. To be stuck in dogmatism is to be severely limited, resisting the nature of what is.

“To me, styles that cling to one partial aspect of combat are actually in bondage. You see, a choice method, however exacting, fixes its practitioners in an enclosed pattern. I always say that actual combat is never fixed, has no boundaries or limits, and is constantly changing from moment to moment. Because one does not want to be made uncertain and be engaged in broken rhythm, so he establishes a fixed pattern of combat, a cooperative pattern of rhythmic relationship with his partner. As his margin of freedom is getting narrower and narrower, he becomes a slave to the pattern and accepts the pattern to be the real thing. Such exclusive drilling on a set pattern of one’s choice will only lead its practitioners to clogginess, because basically it is a practice of resistance. In reality, the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, and one will soon find out that his choice routines lack pliability and are incapable of adapting to the ever-changing swift movement of combat. All of a sudden his opponent is alive and no longer a cooperative robot. In other words, once conditioned in a partialized style, its practitioner faces his opponent through a screen of resistance. In reality, he is merely performing his stylized blocks and listening to his own screams.”

An effective martial artist is not bound, but rather, free of self-imposed prisons. Spontaneous, broken in rhythm, open in mind to all possibilities, sparring to keep sharp in combat, unconcerned with belt and status. There is no rigidity in forms, overthinking of techniques. There seems to be an action of no action, an intuitive mind focused on nothing and yet on all that occurs, not concerned with mere externals but with momentary change.

Tao: The Watercourse Way

without an inside,
there is no outside,
by taking away evil,
there is no good,
without black,
there is no white,
without joy
there is no suffering,
there is no before
without an after,
no feminine
without masculine,
ugliness without
beauty,
life without death:
both are inseparable
like poles on a magnet

everything relates to everything
and then returns back to itself,
from one to two to three to
the ten thousand things,
one is not one without
the ten thousand things

when there are
no opinions,
no purpose,
no action,
things come and go
of themselves

when there is mystery
in what cannot be named,
to name it is to not know it,
to know it is not to talk of it

people take care of themselves
when they are not forced,
snow cracks the most rigid pines
while the willow yields and bends

a great warrior doesn’t need to fight
even though a weapon is available

the most powerful ruler is not free
but is burdened with worry, fear, isolation

the truly powerful have
no ambition, no status,
they do not hold themselves above anyone,
they do not praise or blame,
they act by not acting,
they do not force others,
and everything is still accomplished

the wise ones behave righteously
with no thought of good and bad,
they decide on what to do and do
but do not preach to others

when striving for peace,
there will be war,
when seeking pleasure,
there will be suffering,
when there is youth,
there will be old age,
when there is health,
there will be sickness,
from trying to control,
there is a lack of control

there are transformations
along the path of life to death:
not minding what comes or goes,
there is joy in every change

to desire or strain not to desire,
one is still in the Tao,
not a part of it, but It

let the mind alone
and it will harmonize,
force the mind
and it will resist

Reflections on “The Art of Slow Writing”

From formlessness, form arises. A story, essay, poem, novel, begins from a slight agitation, a dream, an image of the sun sprinkling over the water, from a hidden place deep in the unconscious. It is raw, muddled. A piece of soft clay that must. be shaped repeatedly before hardening. There may not even be a final form in mind, only the steady cut of steel to unformed material, as shavings float away to reveal a mysterious figure.

Write when you’re ready, when you can. If you wait for inspiration to guide you, if you need to conjure up the perfect image of a masterpiece before you glide your ink pen across a piece of paper, you’ll never start.

Start anywhere. Linger longer in silences, playing with time like a zen monk plucking a daisy from a field, open to what comes.

No expectations, no high standards.

Just write. It could be shit. Who cares? That’s what revision is for.

Write. Write often. Revise even more often.

Go through a couple of drafts before you expose your work to other people for a critique.

Decide what tools are best for you: being physically intimate with a scrap of paper and a pen, clicking away on the keys of a steampunk typewriter, going stream-of-consciousness on a modern computer.

Whatever you use will mold your writing. While a golden retriever and pit-bull are both considered dogs, each has its own bark.

There is no ideal time to write, especially when you have a full-time job, kids, and hobbies. If you truly want to write, you’ll make it work, though.

From waking early, long before the clouds have parted to let sunlight in through the curtains. From those precious moments before the school bus squeals to a stop in front of your house. From an unpaid lunch hour in between a ten hour shift. From a weekend when everyone else is at a bar, watching the football game.

Usually having too much free time can make you lazy with possibilities. But to aspire to work under a constraint can paradoxically be the most productive writing help.

Writers should endure an apprenticeship to develop their abilities. They can learn from masters, alive and dead. Everyone and everything can be a teacher. From television shows to trying new formats, from copying the prose of novelists to mimic their structure to reading wide varieties of material, every experience shapes the development of the artist.

Writers must be patient when struggling for progress.

They must endure in themselves, so that they can become who they first believed they were when they began writing.

Most people will not work for years to steadily improve their craft. They will dabble around, then give up. They will see minor success, then give up. They will get distracted, settle down with a family, find a full-time job, play a video game, then give up.

Writers must have the heart to continue.

Solitary walks through changing trees. Musing in nothingness with sunlight on pine needles, open to all ideas, but not holding on. Writing comes without any obstruction when you idle without a purpose.

Writing is process, not result. Journals kept of meticulous notes, observations, image patterns, daily thoughts. Learn through life and write about life. Some material written ten years ago can be useful in a future novel. Work slowly, deliberately, not rushing to produce.

Henry Miller considered the relationship that one has with books to the one that one has with life.

Are you a slow reader, a note taker, one who is methodical in your learning? Do you linger on certain lyrical passages, feeling the syllables seduce your lips?

Are you one of those people who breezes through a work, taking in information for a moment, only to forget everything a week later?

Writers need to deeply read in order to deeply write.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (review)

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

When the mind is empty, everything is possible, nothing is possible.

There is existence and non-existence, not just existence, not just non-existence.

The more knowledge that one has, the more limited one is to that knowledge.

The teacup overflows unless it is empty of its contents.

With the right intention in the moment, nothing is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Everything is good and bad, neither good nor bad, pleasant and unpleasant, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The mountain shrouded in mist is nothing special, nothing mysterious to climb. There is no more wisdom high up on a peak than there is in a shit, in a nap below the bough of a tree. Enlightenment is nothing special, nothing to strive to achieve. When one is empty, there is no “I” to consider things as empty. There is no “I” apart from everything else.

One doesn’t have Buddha-nature. One is Buddha-nature. There isn’t someone or something that is apart from Buddha-nature. One doesn’t contain or not contain Buddha-nature. One simply is, despite thinking or not thinking about what is.

This way of being is so ordinary, one shouldn’t grasp after it. It is already here.

With sincere effort, be present in moment after moment. There is nothing else to attain.

There is nothing special about being what is, except that it is so easy to forget what is.

One spontaneously expresses one’s nature when one is empty. There’s no need to put on a show of being spiritual, important, or intelligent. To seek a title, special experience, or recognition from the crowd is to miss the point.

There is pain and pleasure, pleasantness and unpleasantness, rising and falling, without judgement. It is easy for the mind to remain still when sitting in meditation but harder for the mind to not wander when in activity. In activity, if the mind doesn’t wander, then that is ok. If the mind wanders, then that is ok too. Everything can be a teacher, even the rain dripping from a rooftop.

To see the change in everything is to see the divine in the mundane. There is no essential split between the divine and mundane other than in conceptualization, in a need to put life into fixed categories. But the universe itself is change, from the vibration of an atom to the leaf shaking from a tree.

To talk about this is to not reveal it. It reveals itself.