John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was an English philosopher. He wrote On Liberty in 1859.
1. Individual liberty must be protected against all forms of tyranny. Tyranny can arise from the state, a powerful minority, or the prevailing opinions of the masses.
2. Mature people should have sovereignty over their bodies and minds. Societal power can justly be exercised over those individuals, socially and legally, when preventing them from harming others.
3. The majority has the potential to suppress the ideas of the minority. Those who are in power, whether they are part of the minority or majority, have historically persecuted those who are not in power. There needs to be precautions in place to protect people from an abuse of power.
4. Punishing individuals for having differing views is harmful to society. People should have the right to publish what they want. They should have the freedom to agree or disagree with popular beliefs. They should be able to determine how they want to live as long as they are not causing suffering to others. If they are mature enough to make their own life decisions, they are mature enough to accept the consequences of their actions.
5. People are not infallible. They are not perfect. Even the wisest individuals will make mistakes when pursuing the truth. Civilizations grow out of the failures of past ages. Even the present time may seem inhumane to future generations.
6. Nobody has the right to decide the best way to live for everyone else in the world. Many possibilities exist for a meaningful existence. People have varying degrees of knowledge in certain subjects. And they know nothing about other subjects. The more that they learn over time, the more they will become aware of what they know and don’t know. Those who impose their dogmatic beliefs on others act from an assumption of infallibility.
7. Individuals come from different backgrounds. They have a variety of preferences, perspectives, and experiences. People grow through a diversity of views. They are challenged to examine their old beliefs when they are confronted with new evidence. Ideas have to be tested continuously rather than obeyed out of custom and habit.
8. Societies are held back when individuals are too scared to share their opinions. If they are punished for their thoughts, then more people will be hesitant to express themselves. They will self-censor. They will hide their minds. They will internalize what is deemed as acceptable by their dominant culture. They will rebel.
People should not be afraid to make mistakes when seeking the truth. Many timid geniuses have been suppressed before they have reached their conclusions. Many promising minds have been smothered by the negative pressures of the masses. Geniuses, although small in number, can only prosper when they are free to think.
9. There may be errors hidden in accepted views. Some ideas, once considered true, have eventually been shown to be false. No belief is above being criticized, even the most cherished ones. Nonconformists, who often question the prevailing dogmas in society, shouldn’t be silenced or denounced. They should be honored for disturbing the unthinking complacency of the masses, for challenging the status quo.
10. People do not exist in isolation. If they harm themselves, they may negatively affect those who are closest to them. Individuals should be free to express themselves. Other members of society have the right to approve or disapprove of their choices. But when their actions are harmful to their communities, then they have to be held accountable.
Questions and Criticisms:
1. How is harm defined? The meaning of harm changes throughout Mill’s essay, especially when applied to the blurring contexts of public and private life. Will there ever be a universal definition of harm?
2. Practically speaking, do the ends justify the means if the moral gains are higher than the moral losses? Who determines what ends are justifiable, especially if the means are unjust?
3. Mill supported colonialism on utilitarian grounds. He believed in liberal values for certain members in his society, but then made exceptions for this standard.
He considered England, which was a major hegemonic power of the time, to be acting out of civilizing benevolence.
When he was writing in 1859, England had already committed atrocities in countries such as India. Mill believed that England was justified in “civilizing” places that were considered “primitive.” He wanted to educate the “barbarians.”
These “backward” countries were all coincidentally outside of Europe.
Powerful countries often intervene in the affairs of weaker countries. They claim to be humanitarians. They talk about peace and justice, while actually serving their own self-interests. These interests can be devastating for the population, while enriching those in power.
“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.”
“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.”
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 sensations, perceptions, and interpretations, influencing our beliefs, values, judgments, and decisions.
These biases occur as a result of our biological limitations. Our brains can only take in a fraction of information out of 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 nervous 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 constantly 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 cluster 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 with each other about these “glimpses” using linear symbol-systems made up of words and numbers and images and sounds.
Bucky Fuller, an inventor and architect of the twentieth century, 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 different galaxies. There are so many events that are too unfathomable for our primate minds to consider.
The events that we consider are not always considered in the same way either. We interpret the information we take in 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, 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.
We tend to favor information that conforms to our beliefs and values. We resist information that goes against our beliefs and values.
Sometimes we have trouble accepting evidence that challenges us, contradicts our beliefs, and causes us to question our assumptions. 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 that the elephant is a tree or a snake or a fan, while never seeing 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 flaws in our own views, the more rigid we will become.
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, wrote:
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. (276)
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 has other possibilities that we may not be 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 world history, when a hammer joined together with a sickle, it showed the solidarity of the proletariat. In Norse mythology, it represented blessings, protection, fertility, and power.
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 squeaky 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 livelihoods. Those who were still employed would eventually resemble the same machines that they depended upon: cold, lifeless, and efficient at production.
Through their dependency on machinery, some of the skills that were previously passed down from generation to generation were not only weakened, but forgotten.
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 were no longer seen 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 had 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 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 may realize. But it depends on our perspective to look at its depth, just as with everything else in existence.
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 the 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.
We often overestimate our level of knowledge, expertise, and competence. Yet we are limited creatures, ignorant about not only what we don’t know, but what we don’t know we don’t know.
Sometimes we think that what we think is all there is to think. But after we have been beaten down by the wisdom of hard experience, we may come to realize how foolish we once were.
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 grasp after decades of education, experience, 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 the 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.
Just because somebody that we know, trust, admire, and respect 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 biologists, our grandmother, the cranky neighbor down the street, the former leader of Norway, the quarterback on our favorite football team, and our elementary school teacher, that still does not make X or Y (or any other answer that we can imagine) necessarily true either. At the same time, even a notorious liar can speak the truth.
Our ignorance about the truth of an idea, and our failure to come up with a valid answer, does not mean that we should accept any alternative 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 figure out what the most reasonable answers are, but we shouldn’t believe in ideas that aren’t supported by sufficient evidence. We can always 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.
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, improbable, and so on.
Can their beliefs be tested? Can their stories be verified by credible witnesses? When they speak, are they being logically sound? Do they talk about events that seem too unlikely to be true?
Sometimes people use premises that make sense, but then they jump to grand conclusions based on those premises.
Sometimes they assume too much when they argue their points because they want their conclusions to be true. Then they selectively look for information that fits their conclusions. They are eager to persuade, to convince, 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 be so ready to agree with their assumptions.
We tend to more easily feel compassion for people who are closer to us than for 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 vulnerable individuals, our compassion fades.
We must not be indifferent. We have to listen to the stories of those who most need our help, who are traumatized, who have gone through crises, so we can care for them, so we can be there for them, so we can see their humanity.
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 that are divided out of hatred and fear.
As Martin Luther King Jr., a minister and civil rights leader, once said in St. Louis in 1964:
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.
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 thinking critically for ourselves, especially when we are uncertain, 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 our values 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 can 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.
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, 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 confront potential emergencies, we deliberately ignore them.
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 do. When we feel superior and overconfident, we aren’t being 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 that we learn, the more we will 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 personal history.
When we are conscious of our humanity, of our ignorance, of our potential for growth and destruction, we can humbly explore the universe. We can invite mystery into our lives. We can become curious again.
We tend to believe in ideas that: (1.) we remember, (2.) we hear frequently, and (3.) emotionally affect us.
Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.
Media outlets repeat sensationalist stories while censoring more critical narratives from being presented to the public. They manipulate their viewers into feeling sympathetic, outraged, fearful, hopeful, and disgusted, 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 the information we consume, we will be seduced by misinformation. We will gobble up emotionally engaging stories. Propaganda will overtake our recollections of historical events.
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 can reflect on our moral choices, on our values and beliefs, 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 the best we can.
When we can examine our existence, question what we are taught, and abandon our prejudices, we will mature as human beings.
“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.
Domesticated primates (humans) think themselves into neurological realities. Within the framework of these “realities,” they make assumptions about what is true and false, right and wrong, essential and inessential, real and fake.
Humans filter the universe through their nervous systems. They don’t perceive what is objectively true (which is not to say that an objective truth does or doesn’t exist), but rather, they interpret particular aspects of reality. Mediated through their beliefs, experiences, conditioning, and so on, they may view their existence through the “reality tunnel” of a Marxist, Fascist, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, feminist, misogynist, Democrat, Republican, protestor, cop, doctor, patient, Caucasian male, African American female, pessimist, optimist, nihilist, clumsy lover, fighter, bad son, good daughter, and so on.
People make endless guesses about their identities and the identities of others, often without realizing they are doing so. While it is easier to see the prejudices and biases in others, it is far more difficult to see those same qualities within.
Robert Anton Wilson once said in a lecture:
Every type of bigotry, every type of racism, sexism, prejudice, every dogmatic ideology that allows people to kill other people with a clear conscience, every stupid cult, every superstition, written religion, 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 that this is reality.
People not only don’t know all of reality but they don’t know what they don’t know. Their “reality” seems like the real reality, while other people’s realities, the more they diverge from their own, appears increasingly bizarre and nonsensical.
Human minds often function as if they were made up of only two parts: the Thinker and the Prover. Whenever the Thinker is convinced of a given reality, the Prover will unconsciously work to organize all “evidence” in favor of it being true. Signals consistent with the Thinker’s reality tunnel are incorporated into it while signals that are irrelevant, unpleasant, and contradictory are resisted, ignored, forgotten, and rationalized.
Human brains are made up of matter in spacetime. They’re wrinkled organs, weighing close to three pounds each.
One brain has roughly 100 billion nerve cells or neurons. These neurons communicate with each other electro-chemically in vast networks.
Brains generate ideas, influenced by all the signals they have been exposed to in every moment, from an ancient set of scrolls, to a drama on TV, to a fistfight with a sibling, to the taste of a fresh strawberry, to the warmth of sunlight, to the pressure of gravity, and so on.
Nervous systems control a lot of what is taken for reality, such as thought, memory, emotion, touch, vision, breathing, temperature, pain, etc.
While ideas are not equal to all of reality, they can make up the approximate models of given realities.
Just as brains resemble the hardware on a computer, ideas are its software. Anything, from psychedelic mushrooms, to the organization of a political revolution, to eating a vegetarian diet for three years, can change the consciousness of a person.
Programs written onto the hardware of the brain are genetic imperatives, imprinting, conditioning, and learning.
The mind is bound to what it imprints at vulnerable stages of its development. Its software turns into hardware over time, setting the structure for conscious thought.
Out of the infinite number of signals in the universe, the domesticated primate (human) is imprinted with a limited number of signals during different stages of life, contributing to the development of a sense of self. Learning, conditioning, novel experiences, and so on, contribute to this structural foundation.
As an individual’s brain matures throughout their lifespan, different models of reality are refined.
At the level of the oral bio-survival circuit, humans are hardwired from birth on to seek out security, nourishment, and a womb-like sense of safety, while avoiding any harm and danger:
In summary: the bio-survival circuit is DNA-programmed to seek a comfort-safety zone around a mothering organism. If a mother isn’t present, the closest substitute in the environment will be imprinted. (Wilson 48)
Domesticated primates (humans) are genetically hardwired to look for security within their family, immediate group, and tribe.
They may be further conditioned to identify with other symbolic groups such as the university they graduated from, their profession, the religion they were taught at a young age, a political party that influenced them in their adolescence, and so on.
They may even transfer their security-need onto symbols such as money, which in itself is of no value (one cannot eat money) except in the agreed upon value determined by other members of that particular group:
In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror. (Wilson 52)
Those who do not belong to the same group are categorized as outsiders, or even, as enemies. They may be perceived as hostile, aggressive, and challenging to that group’s interests and purpose.
Any element, from a dissident citizen’s writings to a protest for systemic change, which could potentially threaten the security of the group, is often resisted.
The emotional-territorial circuit is concerned with power, such as with dominance and submission, superiority and inferiority.
People unconsciously struggle for status in their social groups. In a tribe, members fit into various roles with everyone assuming different functions and responsibilities.
Some members assume top dog roles while other members fall into bottom dog roles.
These roles can be divided into the four quadrants of “I’m ok/you’re ok, I’m ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re ok,” under the basic terminology of Transactional Analysis.
This model, along with other similar models, which represents the earliest imprinting and subsequent conditioning of an individual’s ego role in society, will vary based on the strength of early imprinting and conditioning and the dynamics of the group.
Furthermore, each of these four quadrants, while convenient to use, can be endlessly divided into ever finer categories.
People don’t exist in one of these quadrants completely, but rather, fall on a spectrum in between these extremes.
Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. Those who control the symbols have the power to control the people. These symbols include, but are not limited to: visual art, music, mathematics, maps, and words.
Symbols often rule the lives of people without their awareness of them. Certain ideas have been passed down from generation to generation, transferring between nervous systems from thousands of years ago to this very moment.
Over a long enough span of time, some of these ideas no longer seem like representations of certain realities, but as unquestioned truths, such as with (to use some of Robert Anton Wilson’s examples) the State, the wheel, the plow, the alphabet, agriculture, the Roman roads, and so on (95).
Symbols, such as words, do not exist in isolation. Words carry around underlying assumptions about psychological states, emotional tones, explanations of the physical universe, and references to various aspects of existence and meaning and purpose:
Since words contain both denotations (referents in the sensory-existential world) and connotations (emotional tones and poetic or rhetorical hooks), humans can be moved to action even by words which have no real meaning or reference in actuality. This is the mechanism of demagoguery, advertising and much of organized religion. (Wilson 95)
The semantic time-binding circuit makes distinctions out of raw experience. It puts labels on the ineffability of life. Its purpose is to endlessly divide and subdivide, categorizing all the universe into predictable patterns, which make sense to the individual.
Every new generation adds information to former generations, re-classifying the outdated information of the past. Novel connections arise between what once existed and what currently exists, leading to discovery, insight, and progression.
While entropy is a gradual decline into disorder, information is negative entropy, coherence and order, where understanding births out of chaos. When information increases exponentially, new patterns are recognized from a randomness of events. Over ever shorter periods of time, more advancements develop in music, art, technology, science, and so on.
Despite all this informational progress over the centuries, the majority of domesticated primates (humans) are still trapped in their lower, primitive circuits. They have evolved with reptilian and mammalian brains from earlier epochs in time.
Lower circuits can often be manipulated through a fear of outsiders, threats to safety, challenges to trusted authorities, appeals to tribal loyalty, and a distrust of those who are perceived as different, alien, and hostile.
While the first two circuits establish the homeostasis of a civilization, the third (semantic, time-binding) circuit seeks out higher states.
The third circuit has always been controlled, partially or totally, through the formation and enforcement of rules, taboos, prohibitions, laws, traditions, rituals, and cultural games — most of which are unconscious, unstated, and seen as “common sense.”
Those who are in power want to control third-circuit insights, and establish order, because ideas that are unknown and new and radical often challenge the power structures already in place.
There have always been fluctuations between progressive and traditional ideas, but as time passes on in a given civilization, so does the informational content.
Informational content can support all of life such as with movements toward equality, medicines that treat diseases, scientific revolutions that upend the fundamental understanding of spacetime, and so on.
On the other end of the spectrum, informational content can destroy all of life, such as with nuclear warfare, drone strikes, oil spills, assault rifles, child labor, book burnings, etc.
Everything that has ever manifested in civilization — such as planes and trains, skyscrapers and highways, napalm and baby clothes, microwaves and toe rings — birthed because of ideas, connecting symbolically through different imaginations, developing and changing, self-correcting and evolving over time.
Through the imagination, people exist with a potential for generating unknown amounts of growth and destruction.
In a world of limited resources, overpopulation, and institutions that seek to control other primates with nuclear bombs, lower-circuit manipulations about outsiders, and ink excretions on paper, there is another force that is accelerating: information.
Through information, there exists a possibility for higher knowledge, liberation, and awareness.
The socio-sexual circuit awakens during adolescence — at the onset of puberty. During this vulnerable stage in human development, sexual preferences, taboos, dysfunctions, and fetishes have the highest chance of being imprinted. These imprints may be due to chance, trauma, genetics, and environmental influences.
People generally mimic what’s acceptable in their culture while hiding what is not, keeping certain parts of their sexual profiles secret. Every tribe has its own rules about what is considered sexually moral and immoral.
There are, in every society, controls over sexual self-identification and related behaviors. Whether these controls are ignorant or enlightened, biased or liberated, is one matter.
Nevertheless, the innate purpose behind these measures is to influence the survival, variability, and evolution of the gene pool. Those who make and enforce these rules often want power over what people can and can’t do, which in turn, gives them more control over their choices, values, meanings, and identities.
Despite these attempts at domination, there will always be unknown variables in sexual attraction, mating, reproduction, and future evolution.
“Taboo and morality are tribal attempts to govern the random element — to select the desired future (Wilson 130).”
Those who act as authorities such as monks, nuns, priests, shamans, teachers, philosophers, parents, politicians, scientists, journalists, celebrities, and so on, want to decide what symbols are acceptable and unacceptable, moral and immoral, right and wrong. Those who control these symbols control the limits of information.
The socio-sexual circuit keeps a check on the semantic time-binding circuit. Frequent checks are necessary to prevent an unrestrained rise of innovation and to maintain order.
Children are generally taught how to follow the rules of their given societies, to accept those rules as normal. They are not usually taught to question their leaders, criticize those in authority, or develop into highly critical thinkers.
Tribal guides such as parents, teachers, priests, and police officers desire for children to think and act semi-robotically, mimicking agreed upon values, following the traditions of the past, so that they’ll be accepted into the preferred roles of their social groups.
Most people are programmed to be just smart enough to do their roles properly, but not smart enough to question the roles they are forced to follow. They are trained to conform to certain unspoken rules within their groups (of gender, class, race, age, etc.) but not to question them too much.
They will vote for leaders who appeal to their lower circuits, such as charismatic politicians. These figures will claim to be patriots, denouncing outsiders that threaten their traditional values.
To stir up the emotions of the population based on a fear of outside threats, to speak eloquently about hope and change, is a way for those in power to manipulate ordinary people. Politicians prey on the vulnerabilities and biases of the population, taking advantage of their desire for security and their anxiety toward the unknown.
Groups often apply similar tactics to re-imprint (brainwash) the nervous systems of individuals. Many cults, militaries, religions, and terrorist organizations have used isolation (removing contradicting realities), harsh punishments for unacceptable behavior, rewards for acceptable behavior, a reinforcement of group superiority over individual inferiority, mind-altering drugs, risky initiations to earn status, unquestioning obedience to an authority (protective mother/father figure), alongside a mistrust of the unknown (outside perspectives are usually seen as antagonistic):
The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. All of the above principles then immediately go into action, a process which social psychologists euphemistically call socialization. The bio-survival circuit automatically hooks onto or bonds to the most appropriate mother or mothering object; the emotional-territorial circuit looks for a “role” or ego-identification in the family or tribe; the semantic circuit learns to imitate and then use the local reality-grids (symbol systems); the socio-sexual circuit is imprinted by whatever mating experiences are initially available at puberty. (Wilson 169)
Domesticated primates (humans) are born with nervous systems. These nervous systems can adapt to a wide range of different reality-tunnels.
Whereas in the past, groups may have existed separately from other groups, accustomed to their own isolated reality, in modern times, where the world is more interconnected, different groups bump up against each other more frequently.
The symbol systems that some groups hold to be true and logical and moral, to other groups, are seen as false and nonsensical and immoral.
Many groups confuse their symbol systems (maps of given realities) with reality itself. To the most dogmatic believers, their reality is the only true reality. Anyone who opposes them is deluded, immoral, and heretical.
In modern times, through a constant exposure to different reality-tunnels, group identities are being challenged more often than before. It can be dangerous for dogmatic groups to be around outsiders with dissimilar views. Being around outsiders threatens the identity of the dogmatists.
Beyond the first four circuits (oral bio-survival, anal territorial, semantic time-binding, and socio-sexual) is the neurosomatic circuit.
Pranayama breathing, meditation, visualization of white light, prolonged sexual play without orgasm, psychedelic/cannabis consumption, among other techniques, can either trigger highly pleasant or unpleasant sensory states, depending on the experience level of the practitioner.
Yogis, gurus, mystics, and heretics have described this circuit as an orgasmic experience, merging with God/the infinite/the divine, and crossing the abyss.
Some individuals have entered this state after a terrible internal struggle while others seem to naturally flow there without much suffering.
The fifth circuit is intuitive and non-linear. Whereas the third circuit hyper-thinking rationalist will build linear models of reality, and the second circuit alpha will behave differently based on who is dominant in the social hierarchy, the fifth-circuit mystic will sense the gestalt, the organic whole, between data points in infinity.
The neurogenetic circuit moves beyond all lower circuits. This is the circuit of genetic memory, the collective unconscious, the Tao, and non-duality. Coincidences become significant and paradoxes are solved with wordless understanding. There is no true distinction between what exists out there and what exists within.
At this level, infinity fits within a flicker of sunlight.
All the cosmos, from the quarks vibrating inside of atoms to the birth of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies, from the Big Bang to the present moment, is interconnected, rising and passing, being and not being.
Existence is the infinitely expanding root system of trees.
The mind becomes what it focuses on. A mind that thinks about thinking is meta-thinking.
To think about thinking, ad infinitum, to reflect all of life like a mirror, to be totally absorbed in an idea, a feeling, a moment, without any mental separation, is to use the meta-programming circuit.
This circuit can program all the lower circuits, switching between them like channels on a television set.
Similar to the idea of non-action in Taoism, the meta-programmer adapts to each circumstance, fully present with all of life.
While the human brain seems physically small compared to the universe, inside the brain, the entire universe operates.
As the mind encounters certain reality-tunnels, the mind can inhabit the logic of those reality-tunnels, while knowing that there is more out there.
The nervous system takes in a limited number of “existential” information, or data points, from the infinite possibilities of the universe.
Then the nervous system creates models of reality from this changing data — editing, recategorizing, removing, and adding — mostly below the level of conscious awareness.
So many thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, and so on, are processed every millisecond. While at the same time, most experiences are forgotten. Irrelevant or contradictory information is ignored, resisted, rejected, and rationalized.
Only fragments of experience are selected to fit into the conscious beliefs of every individual.
These experiences are reinterpreted, over and again. They’re forgotten, exaggerated, misremembered, hallucinated, and reconstructed.
People narrow their perceptions even further from the symbol systems of race, class, gender, politics, religion, height, weight, hobbies, sexuality, and so on, creating ever more distinct reality-tunnels for themselves.
Domesticated primates (humans) are a lot more creative than they will ever realize. They are the artists of their own existence, capable of, but not always aware of, neurologically programming their relationship with the universe.
They are interwoven with everything that was or is or will ever be. Every person creates their own universe while the universe creates every person.
All human created systems have degrees of order and chaos within them. As this balance shifts, so do the systems and those who rely on them. The more complex a system becomes informationally, the more unstable it will become as well.
As information increases exponentially, major transformations will take place within the system, which can radically change the realities of future people — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Look at the difference in perception between a hunter-gatherer and an industrialist, an astrologer in ancient Babylon and a quantum physicist in the 20th century, a child factory worker in 1890 and a computer software engineer in 2019.
The breakdown of an old system may be the sign of a breakthrough into another model of reality, another visionary step, another way of seeing.
From death, life springs up, but from life, death returns. Just like a caterpillar bursting through the hold of its cocoon, exposed to the breeze and the sun and stretching its wings for the very first time. But one day, after its final flight is over, another caterpillar will be born.
Systems are not isolated information organisms, destined to evolve or self-destruct alone, while unable to affect anything outside of themselves. They are interconnected with the energies of other systems, gleaming with promise like the beads of Indra’s Net.
As entropy is the measure of increasing disorder within a closed system, there is still the quantum probability of energy underlying the fabric of every event non-locally.
As information increases in the probabilistic state of coherence to chaos, order to disorder, systems will change and neurological realities will adapt to that. Then once again, there will be a transformation in consciousness.
· Our lives are generally not as short as we think. Yet we waste a lot of precious time distracted by paths that are trivial, pointless, and inessential. Then we come to regret all the years we have squandered when it is too late.
· We often tell ourselves that after years of hard work, we will finally settle into our retirement and do what we’ve always wanted. But why should we live authentically when we are old and just about to die, when we could have truly lived before then? What matters is to be fully here, right now, rather than hoping for an abstract future that may never come.
· We guard our possessions, but we give up our time without that same sense of protectiveness. When we forget to value what we have, and crave after what we don’t need, we will suffer.
· Time will never return to us once it has gone. It is our responsibility to treasure it. No one can do it for us. It is so easy to be distracted and undisciplined, engaging with what undermines our well-being.
· Seneca once said, “It takes the whole of life to learn how to live and… It takes the whole of life to learn how to die” (4).
How many mistakes have we made, how many of our choices have led to unnecessary suffering, so that we could earn our wisdom?
· A worthy life is not measured in years, but in the wisdom of our thoughts and actions. We can drift through life until we’re old with ignorance or we can commit ourselves to a higher purpose. Our future is based on what we do in the present.
· No one can bring us back our lost years. No one will return us to our former selves. We can’t travel to the past, but we can learn from our mistakes and adapt. We can grow as human beings.
· What we postpone until tomorrow may never come. There may never be a tomorrow.
· Temples will crumble. Statues of great leaders will fall. Plants will wither under the glare of the sun. Our loved ones will decompose, eaten by maggots. All the glorious civilizations of antiquity have collapsed under their own pressure.
Everything will break down and decay. Life will grow out of death.
Even if you disagree with Peter Singer’s conclusions, his argument, if taken seriously, will make you question a few things about your own life:
1.) How much am I actually doing to prevent the suffering of the world?
2.) If I have the means to prevent the suffering of others, but I am choosing to eat out at a fancy restaurant every week instead of helping a baby who is dying of malnutrition, am I truly being moral?
3.) Am I doing all that I can to help others, or am I only doing a fraction of my capacity, due to my own self-interest?
4.) What is the right amount of aid that I can give without sacrificing my own well-being? In other words, what is the right balance between what I can do for others without harming myself? How extreme should my generosity be?
5.) What makes the lives of those who live in countries far away from me any less valuable than those who live in my own community? They are as human as I am. I can ignore their suffering by distracting myself with material comforts, but then, I would not be living responsibly, honoring the dignity of those who are mistreated, helping those who need medical care and food and shelter, or harmonizing my ideals with my actions.
Epictetus (50–135 CE) was born as a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia. After Emperor Nero’s death, he eventually gained his freedom and taught Stoic philosophy in Rome for close to 25 years. Emperor Domitian, who feared the dissenting influence of philosophers, banished Epictetus from his home. He traveled to Nicopolis in the northwest of Greece and developed his own school, teaching in exile until his death. His ideas impacted historical figures such as Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although Epictetus never wrote down his teachings, his disciple Arrian, who was a famous historian, recorded what he had said.
Epictetus’s main works are the Discourses and the Enchiridion.
Sharon Lebell has interpreted his timeless philosophy in “A Manual for Living.” She is the author of such inspiring works as “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness” and “The Music of Silence: Entering the Sacred Space of Monastic Experience.”
Lessons of Epictetus:
1.) Some things are in your control and other things are not. Some of the things in your control are your opinions, aspirations, desires, aversions, and actions. These things are under your influence to a certain degree. Some of the things that are not in your control are the body you are born with, who your parents are, and your status.
Once you have learned what is in your control, don’t concern yourself with what is not in your control. Your death, for example, is not in your control, but your attitude toward the idea of death is in your control. Your response to your fleeting time on earth, to the death of a family member and friend, to how you communicate with those who are grieving, is in your control.
2.) Events are as they are. Your interpretation of different events is what gives them meaning, value, and significance. If you’re undisciplined, you will divide your experiences into rigid categories of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false.
Your judgements create heaven and hell.
3.) What matters is what you can do with what you are given. Look for opportunities in every obstacle you encounter and respond in an appropriate manner. You may need patience for adversity, self-restraint for lust, humility for criticism, compassion for the suffering of others.
4.) You cannot be expected to give what you do not have, whether that is money, power, time, or skills. If you can help, do so without any expectations. If you can become powerful and rich and famous while still maintaining your integrity, then do so.
At the same time, you will be challenged throughout your life. To preserve your integrity, to make the right moral choices, you may need to let go of a certain level of comfort, status, and money. You may even be ridiculed or persecuted for holding onto what you value as true and ethical. When you focus on what you can do with what you have, you will live harmoniously. When you neglect what is in your control and resist what is natural, you’ll never be at peace.
5.) Events are impersonal — neither good nor bad. They will unfold as they do, despite all your wishes and expectations. Undisciplined people will look for signs that reinforce their beliefs, prejudices and opinions, while disciplined people will adapt to nature and act from their own moral principles.
Events will reveal their hidden lessons to you when you are humble enough to receive them. You must remain open and honest, while not sticking to the rigidity of your own conclusions.
6.)Wise people do not blame others or beat up on themselves. They look inside themselves for useful answers.
It is easy to label the universe in black-and-white categories, judging events as successful and unsuccessful, right and wrong, good and bad. It is far more courageous to look within yourself — examining your motives, intentions, desires, and aversions — while deciding on what action is the best one to take in each situation. Always ask yourself, “What is the right thing to do?” Then do it.
7.) Think about the purpose behind your speech. Many people express any passing thought that enters into their minds without concerning themselves with the consequences of their words. Unchecked speech can run away from you. You can fall into unthinking habits that disrespect yourself and others.
Speech is neither good nor bad but people often talk to each other in a careless manner. It’s seductive to prattle on about nothing, to chat about trivial matters, to gossip about another person when they are not nearby, to laugh at someone else’s misfortunes rather than laughing with them. Speaking in this way degrades you as a person and strains your relationships. It is better to remain silent than to indulge in harmful speech. You become what you focus on.
8.) Life is too short for you to indulge in mindless consumption. Be aware of what you absorb, whether it’s from a TV show, songs on the radio, political speeches, or arguments. Discover what nourishes you, what enhances your well-being, rather than what feeds your ignorance, greed, and anger.
When you don’t choose for yourself, someone else will choose for you. And they always have their own agenda.
9.) You are influenced by the communities you are in. Without realizing it, you’ll adopt their values, opinions, aspirations, and habits. You’ll learn how they interpret the world. Be careful about the people you are around, even if they are kind, talk about wanting to improve themselves, and desire to know you more. They may not be a healthy influence on you due to their ignorance, destructive behavior, and prejudices. Seek out those who uplift you, who make you a better person, not those who diminish you.
10.) Do not feel compelled to justify yourself. Let your worthy deeds speak for themselves. You cannot control what others think about you, but you can control the development of your character.
Children are conditioned to accept the codes of the societies they are brought up in. They are reinforced with the symbol-systems of their parents, religions, schools, communities, cultures, peer groups, and so on.
They are influenced by these symbol-systems during their development, despite whether they follow them or rebel against them. Over time, they will internalize some aspects of these systems, interpreting them as “reality.”
One of the first symbol-systems that people learn is language. They find out what the agreed upon symbols to designate meaning are. Every culture has their own tacit agreements over not only the subtlest meanings of words but what words should be said and not said. Essentially, language acts as a tool. It is used to divide certain parts of “reality” into categories that make sense.
Children not only have to learn the codes of their language, but they learn, whether consciously or not, many other forms of agreement:
For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles — father, teacher, worker, artist, “regular guy,” gentleman, sportsman, and so forth. (Watts 6)
People identify with the categories that they choose and that others choose for them. They don’t take on one role, but rather, a multitude of related roles. Father and son, laborer and high school dropout. Daughter and sister, amputee and white veteran. Son and brother and dentist. Japanese Methodist golfer.
After taking on a number of roles, individuals gradually learn to associate with a conventional view of “self.” They believe they are born with a persistent identity, separate from everything and everyone else:
According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is a firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is! (Watts 6)
A person’s identity, which is made up of memories of experiences that have already passed, is under a constant process of selection and reinterpretation (which often happens outside of conscious awareness, depending on the emotional intensity and regularity of such events).
Out of the countless events that have transpired over the span of a lifetime, some are chosen as significant while others are not. Experiences that are seen as insignificant, nonsensical, and irrelevant are often forgotten, rejected, and rationalized.
People interpret the events of their lives using the different symbol-systems that they have internalized. Experiences are processed through their neurological filters to make sense to their perspectives. They select one type of past and not another. One event is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, scary or pleasant, but not another. Some experiences are chopped up into familiar signs, while other experiences are forgotten. These signs represent a narrow spectrum of “reality” out of all the possible information that exists.
Furthermore, people communicate their “realities” to each other with the language that they have learned. Their limited language is:
….an abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once — a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms. (Watts 8)
To account for all that happens in the universe, to even perfectly describe a “a particle of dust,” would take an infinite amount of time (Watts 25). Thinking (communicating with oneself), speaking (communicating with others), using a string of symbols abstracted from the past, will never fully grasp “every breath, every beat of the heart, every neural impulse” (Watts 8).
Taoists take a different approach to knowledge, especially in regards to the Western idea of the conventional self.
“Taoism concerns itself with unconventional knowledge — with knowing life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking” (Watts 27).
Conventional thinking isn’t shunned, but rather, is used as a tool. It’s not seen as the absolute truth. Taoism is based on a hunch, on an intuitive state. Peripheral vision of the mind. Taoists will “feel” a situation and know it, without limiting it.
While most people cling to their perspectives, grasping at the past and future, the Taoist will not be stuck to the experiences they have. If someone seeks to define the Tao, their intellect will only exhaust itself, because the Tao cannot be defined.
Chaung-Tzu once said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”
A Taoist isn’t reduced to idiocy, although those who are conditioned with Western systems may believe that to be the case. The Taoist plays with his innate intelligence, spontaneous and aware. Instead of forcing a solution, she lets go of her mind until her mind stills into pure naturalness. Then he knows the Tao, unconscious of ideas such as good and bad, moral and immoral, black and white, up and down.
Rather than there being darkness or light, there are infinite shades of the Tao. Everything depends on everything else to be.
To define the Tao is to not to define the Tao. To grasp it is not to grasp it.
In Zen Buddhism, as in Taoism, there is no ultimate division in life. People, but not nature in its wholeness, are the ones to separate “things, facts and events” into categories (Watts 57). These categories are relative to different perspectives but they are never fixed, permanent, or absolute:
Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from a physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from a sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group. (Watts 41)
For Buddhists, to describe reality with linear symbols, is not to know the ultimate reality. To describe reality, or the self, as permanent and separate, is not to grasp the ineffability of life.
There is no enduring self that persists, for “the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch” (Watts 47).
Every moment is a rebirth, returning back to the present moment. Buddhism above all is a practice, a method, for seeing the world with clear awareness.
“Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels” (Watts 52).
People can watch their passing of sensations, feelings, and thoughts without judgment. Like a mirror, their minds are “passively active” toward life, purely reflecting whatever comes and goes.
When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no one to grasp it. When there is no one to grasp it, then there is no division between subject and object.
The Buddha did not try to create a philosophical system to satisfy the questions of restless minds. He often maintained a noble silence about questions dealing with the creation of the world and existence after death, because to him, they were irrelevant on the path to liberation from dukkha.
To seek such answers is to cling to abstractions again. Lost in a perpetual cycle. Many of the questions that people ask about meaning, life and death, are subtle ways of trying to categorize the world. They’re seeking out what is familiar to them so they don’t feel uncertain and afraid.
“Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound ‘water’ is not actually ‘water,’ the classified world is not the real world” (Watts 74).
Those who are free don’t strive for freedom. To blindly follow an ideology or notion of absolute truth is to be trapped in the compulsive habit of symbolizing. The more that people try to figure out the One Answer, the more frustrated they become:
“I have no peace of mind,” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”
“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”
“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”
“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!” (Watts 104)
To try to empty the mind is to get caught up in the mind again. To let go of the mind, of thoughts and feelings and impressions, “neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them” is to free the mind (Watts 93).
No-thought doesn’t mean to block out thoughts as they happen. If that were the case, people would be as good as boulders on top of a hill.
Thoughts come and go. That is all. To let go is to trust in a natural spontaneity that already exists. There doesn’t need to be any effort.
Línjì Yìxuán, the founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism, once said:
There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand…. As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them.
There is no need for people to silence their feelings, thoughts, and impressions. They don’t have to be removed from the world either.
They only need to wake up. Subject and object, knower and known, arises and passes away in relation to everything that is.
There is no such thing as a separate self. Everything relies on everything else to be given a shape, even non-shapes.
The mind-body gives structure to experience, while there isn’t any experience without the mind-body. Sunlight makes sight while sight makes sunlight. The “individual” and the “external universe” are abstract limits that have been set up. There is no “between” between the two, because the division is not truly there.
People give importance to their narratives, to ideas about who they are in contrast with their experiences, as if they existed apart from those experiences, as if they “have” them but are not them.
They identify with their fragments of memories and social roles, while feeling like they are permanent. Time passes and they don’t notice until it is too late. They become so fixated on how they should live rather than actually living.
To even get caught up in ideas about Zen is to stink of Zen. People can be just as attached to their spiritual selves as to their material selves, believing they are one kind of person and not another:
For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the “suchness” (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered. (Watts 127)
When there are no longer any names, the world isn’t “classified in limits and bounds” (Watts 147). While most people want to look for order and put things in their proper place, a master trusts in spontaneity, in “no second thought” (Watts 141).
Zen masters are not emotionless beings who are devoid of pain or hunger pangs. They can be sad, jealous, angry, and so on. The difference between them and other people is that they are wholehearted, neither blocking out nor indulging in what they are aware of.
Zen is not to “confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes” (Watts 168).
Thoughts fall away when they’re not necessary anymore. Muddy water is best cleared when it is left alone. Zen is about seeing reality concretely — undivided by labels and titles, names and numbers. To sit with quiet awareness is to let go of the distinctions between past and future, subject and object.
Without commentary, without purpose, there only is what is. Zen masters are neither gods nor are they perfect. They are simply human. Nothing special.
As Ikkyu said:
We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;
this is our world.
All we have to do after that —
is to die. (Watts 180)
In Zen Buddhism, people awaken to what reality isn’t. Their ideas about who they are, about what the universe is, seem more nonsensical the deeper they go into it.
Rather than flitting from system to system, restless and unsatisfied, searching for some ultimate truth outside of themselves, people can live with their “senses fully open to receive the world” (Watts 193).
There is nothing to be achieved, no one to blame, no past, no future, no birth, no death.
There is only here, only now.
To some Westerners, the present seems like “nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline,” dividing the past from the future (Watts 220).
For those who are stuck in a compulsive habit of symbolizing, all their days will rush past them. Their ideas may seem so important to them at that moment, but their thinking will never sustain their heartbeat or their breath. There are many cosmic processes operating beyond their perspectives.
They may believe that they are consciously in charge, but their minds are only grasping at momentary slivers of experience, which are constantly being reinterpreted, over and again.
If they learn how to be present, though, they may experience the indescribable preciousness of life. The past and future, which they are so preoccupied with, is only an abstraction. Time is moving but forever still.
We are often caught in a dualistic trap of desire, aversion, and ignorance. We make judgements about life, categorizing events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, right or wrong, moral or immoral.
We desire what seems attractive and pleasurable, while we avoid or resist suffering, pain, distress, confusion, uncertainty, and hurt.
Then we ignore what doesn’t stimulate us, what seems uninteresting and boring. In many cases, we ignore what is too hard and painful to accept. Distracting our minds from what is.
Through tonglen practice, we can change our relationship to desire and aversion and ignorance.
Rather than being averse to pain, clinging to comfort, or ignoring what we don’t like, we can be mindful of ourselves, of all the energy in our bodies, without judgement, without attachment.
We can work with our suffering through being present. Instead of categorizing experience as good and bad, right and wrong, pleasurable and painful, we can simply be with what is.
When we drop our storylines, we can become friends with our pain and not cling to fleeting pleasures.
Then we can transform ourselves from our awareness of a changing, nuanced life.
We can inhale our suffering and exhale our joy. As we breathe, we can wish others to feel our joy and to not feel our suffering.
Rather than hiding from our sorrow and pain, we can directly engage with it—not in following the storylines of our sorrow and pain, or in justifying why we feel or think in a given way, but in seeing the energy behind everything.
When we look into ourselves with honesty and compassion, we can extend our view to others.
It is so easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel anger and pain, fear and depression, and so on, but we are not alone. Other people feel like us too.
Rather than reinforcing old habitual patterns of alienation and isolation, we can remind ourselves that we are all human and dependent on each other.
When we feel sadness, we can connect to the sadness of others, when we feel happy, we can connect to the happiness of others.
Our lives are the perfect material for our compassion. The more we focus on our patience, the more we realize how impatient we are. The more we focus on our anger, the more we discover how often we become angry. Every moment is a teacher, helping us to become better humans.
When we breathe in, we can imagine ourselves inhaling thickness, darkness, heat, heaviness, claustrophobia, or pain.
When we breathe out, we can release all that dark energy, transforming it into cool, bright light.
We can take in what is hard and let it go.
We can use our friends, our family, our troublesome associates, anyone, as material for our practice.
When we suffer, we can wish for others to not suffer as we are suffering. When we feel happiness, we can wish for others to feel happiness as we do. Through our practice, we can compassionately connect to all of life.
From “taking and sending,” we can awaken our compassion.
Instead of hiding from our suffering, we can learn to embrace it. We can visualize ourselves taking in pain, then sending out tenderness and care.
We can take in what is dark and send out the light. Through this daily practice, we will soon find that the distinction between what is given and what is taken, the inner and outer, life and death, good and evil, blurs.