Refrigerator Light

–If you haven’t had a chance to check out my piece on elephant journal, you can do so by clicking here

“In trying so hard to be someone special, we forget that just to be is something special.”–

Last week, I described how the Balinese New Year (Nyepi) is a silent time of introspection, on which it is prohibited to leave your house. The only ones who have permission to be out in public are the village patrol (pecalung), who are there to ensure that everyone else follows the rules.

With all the motion on our trip, Giulia and I were actually happy to have a short period of enforced inactivity. As we lazed about the guest house grounds, we wondered what it was like out on the streets. It was hard to imagine that all public spaces of this loud, busy, bustling society were simply deserted. We really wanted to see what it was like. The irony is that if we went out,  we would actually destroy the silence we sought to experience.

The same thing happens when you open the refrigerator door to verify if the light actually goes off (have you ever wondered?). There is actually no way of knowing for sure what actually goes on in there with the door closed. Maybe we’ve all been living with tiny fridge elves who sneak out and party when we’re not there.

Elves aside, there is a profound truth in pondering the epistemological questions surrounding the question of the refrigerator light.  Household appliances, like everything in the world, contain unspoken wisdom waiting to be made explicit (next week on blenders…jk).

Pursued deep enough, the fridge light speaks to something fundamental about the way we exist with the universe: there is no ‘it’ without ‘us’, no observed without an observer. Subject an object are two sides of the same coin.

In the 1920’s, quantum physicists were forced to admit that they could not separate themselves from what they were trying to observe. The act of observation modifies what we seek to know. This is formulated in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: we cannot simultaneously know the position and the velocity of subatomic particles. The most precise measurements use light to observe particles, which affects what we want to see.

That we cannot separate ourselves out reality to occupy some privileged place of objective knowledge has long been known to Zen monks pondering what sounds of trees and hands clapping may (or may not) make.

Long before refrigerators or atom smashers, the western philosophical tradition also grappled with the limits of knowledge. I’m fascinated with the work of David Hume on this issue, who looked specifically at the question of causality. He argued that there is no rational way to justify our belief that one event causes another. Instead, we experience one event and then the next, and intuit the link between the two.

For instance, we see one billiard ball hit another and conclude that the first ball caused the other to move. But in reality, all we’ve seen is one ball moving at one moment and another one moving in the next. The mind creates an abstract idea- a cause- that might not necessarily be a feature of the natural world. Experience may suggest a connection between two events, but we impute the link between them.

 

Like the specific speed and position of a subatomic particle, or the silence on Bali’s streets during Nypei, it’s not possible to directly observe the cause.

Hume admits that going down this road of realizing you can’t really be certain about anything can be incredibly crippling and paralyzing. If we took skepticism to the extreme, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world. We have to live our lives assuming the connection between events, even if it’s not possible to rationally know it for sure. It’s useful to assume the sun will rise again, just as in all likelihood the fridge light actually goes out, just as Bali’s streets on Nyepi were probably empty.

We tend to forget the deeper implications of fridge lights and subatomic particles: there are some things in life that must remain mysterious, beyond the possibility for us to know. Instead of seeing this fundamental uncertainty about life as something that must be corrected or eventually overcome, we can embrace and dance with the mystery that we are ,so that we may be able “to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation,” as Bertrand Russell said.

 

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Coin

Last week, we had the incredible fortune to witness the Balinese way of welcoming the new year.

 

While the western world celebrates the emergence of a new year with raucous parties, Bali gets really quiet. The Balinese new year (Nyepi) is a silent day of introspection, kind of like the Jewish sabbath, where work and electricity are banned (unlike Judaism, however, even making love isn’t permitted!). For 24 hours, no one is allowed to leave home, except in cases of emergency. Even the airport is closed; imagine another place where a major international airport simply shuts down!

The idea behind the silence is that if there are any bad spirits or demons lurking in the area, they will think that Bali is uninhabited and will go elsewhere.

This ties in with what happens the night before Nyepi begins. To scare away the bad spirits, every village constructs large paper-maché effigies (called ogoh-ogoh), which are paraded about in grand ceremony. Then, in a recognition of impermanence, these ornate and colorful constructions are ceremonially burned, like a Tibetan mandala being swept away.

 

 

 

Giulia and I discussed how the Balinese have a wonderful recognition of the inseparability of opposites. They dress their statues in checkered cloths in recognition that life and death, good and evil, black and white are part of the same whole. At the house ceremony I discussed here, offerings were made in equal measure to the benevolent and malevolent forces of the universe. The Balinese accept that, despite their massive efforts during Nyepi, it’s only a matter of time before the dark spirits come back. The question is how to live with them.

 

 

 

 

 

Think of it like a coin: you can’t have heads without tales (except perhaps with bitcoins!). In fact, heads implies tales, just as an act of selling implies buying, just as you can’t have birth without death, just as you can’t do something ‘good’ that is also not ‘bad’ in some other way.

 

The Balinese attitude of seeking balance between forces, rather than trying to eradicate one side in favor of the other, lies in stark contrast to a fundamental assumption of Western religion. In the monotheistic faiths, which all draw inspiration from the myth of Genesis, the implication is that there is something wrong with the world that must be put right again. Through ethical behavior and deity propitiation, the hope is that we might create (or God might bestow upon us) a state of affairs in which all the icky, negative, unpleasant aspects of life might finally be put to rest. Pain, suffering, and death are to be overcome, not welcomed and accommodated.

As I discuss in my book, I’ve suffered greatly from assuming that ‘black’ could be eliminated. The more I tried to fight my shadow, the stronger it became. I wrestled for years with my darker side until I arrived at a point where I was so completely exhausted that, like Milarepa, I had no choice but to invite the demons in for tea. These efforts were as futile as trying to separate one side of the coin from the other.

In many eastern cultures, we find the recognition that it’s impossible to break apart opposites. We see it in the Taoist Yin-Yang, in Shiva’s holding of the drum of creation in one hand and the flame of destruction in the other, and in the protocol of Balinese ceremonies. These images and activities remind us that there is a wholeness beyond the mind’s attempts to categorize everything into nice, neat containers.

Interestingly enough, many western physicists have arrived at the same conclusions through the study of the natural world. Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum physics, had this inscribed on his coat of arms:

 Contraria sunt complementa: opposites are complementary

This seems to be a fundamental truth of universe which we can access through many different metaphors and paths. You could construct huge atom smashers and observe the behavior of subatomic particles. You could go to Bali and immerse yourself in its elaborate rituals. Or, even easier, just look closely at the pieces of metal rattling around in your pocket.

 

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Mother’s Love

Take a moment to look at this image and observe any reaction that may arise:

Now look at this one and do the same:

And this one:

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel aversion toward the images of destruction? Would anyone look at these and say yes, let’s have more death, pillaging, and exploitation?

It’s interesting to me how the vast majority of us have a natural aversion to seeing life destroyed. We feel repulsed, saddened, and shocked when confronted with destruction. Most of us have an inner compass that directs us away from harm.

The Dalai Lama has said that the reason the daily news distresses us is because it generally focuses on aberrant behavior. We’re unsettled by stories of murder, war, and destruction because most of us, most of the time, do not confront these realities in our daily lives. The news is what stands out.

Instead, we’re much more likely to encounter cooperation, kindness, and care. A friend reaching out to another in need, a teacher staying late to help his/her students, a stranger helping an old woman cross a street: these actions aren’t news-worthy, precisely because they’re so widespread and commonplace.

But even if we don’t see any act of simple kindness on a daily basis, we only need to remember that none of us would be here without it.

The paradigmatic example of this is mother’s love (which I’ve happened to witness first hand quite a bit these past few months!). It’s been truly incredible to me to see how responsive, sensitive, and caring my wife is. She swoops into action without a moment’s hesitation to protect Gabriel from my foolishness. I cannot help but think how she, like her mother before her, does this naturally, without having studied it. Our biology requires that others care for us, something that is true, to varying degrees, of all mammals .

As natural and necessary as it is to need love, we seem equally hard-wired to forget that we all required years of care to survive. Whenever we harm, deceive, or exploit someone else, we forget that the person was cared for and loved for years. Their mothers, like our own, spent countless hours feeding, washing, and caring for him/her.

This is a powerful meditation: whenever we encounter an ‘enemy’, or someone who upsets us, it’s helpful to remember that at one point, this person was as helpless and innocent as you were.

It’s important to observe and remember the reality of mother’s love because it can soften us, make us more patient and understanding.

It also has the potential to re-awaken the natural moral compass that most of us realized we had when we saw the pictures above. I’ve been wondering if ethics is a matter of remembering that we already know the right thing to do (broadly speaking, this falls under the category of moral theory called ‘natural law’). We all know the Golden Rule and can admit that it makes a good deal of sense. But we tend to forget it when we need it most, at least in part because we forget that, at one point, we were all vulnerable and needy.

Watching the spontaneous, natural love that parents have for their children is one of the most beautiful and odd aspects of our existence. Whether or not you see the parent-child relationship as metaphor for the God-human relationship (interesting to consider), it’s difficult to deny that it’s pretty crazy that life is set up this way. Thinking about all things that could possibly go wrong- the danger that no amount of mother’s love could deflect- it’s truly amazing any of us are here in the first place.

 

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Surfing

Mentioning the term ‘spiritual path’ is enough to make many people recoil. I can relate, since in my pre-meditation days, I associated any talk of spirituality with metaphysical, new-agey, flakey fools. I scoffed at anyone who was gullible enough to buy whatever it was the gurus were selling.

After I began to accept and apply the wisdom that the spiritual traditions offered, I realized the extent to which I had projected my assumptions and beliefs onto the word ‘spirituality’. I did the same with other words like truth, soul, or God, without understanding that these words, like all words, point beyond themselves. I eventually realized I could use words like ‘spirituality’ to help me describe and lead a life that felt meaningful and happy, regardless of how tainted and toxic they had become in other people’s imaginations.

I woke up from a dream the other night with the phrase, “we have to let our longing for happiness take us home” ringing in my head. When I reflected on it the next morning, I thought, if I had to summarize in one sentence what spirituality is all about, that wouldn’t be far off the mark. This would be in accord with the Buddha’s teachings that we should focus our attention on creating the causes and conditions for a happy life here and now, and that speculation on metaphysical questions often distracts and drains our energy from this endeavor.

For some people, this longing for happiness takes them very far from their physical homes. Surrounded by royalty and subject to intricate social protocol, the Buddha found that getting away was the only way he could authentically respond to his call. Others may not need to extricate themselves from their environment, only to make minor tweaks or adjustments in their lives.

Thich Naht Hahn said, “There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.” Although we would prefer if we could just arrive in such a wonderful place, happiness isn’t a fixed destination or a state to attain. We cannot find it though objects and people in the material world, as though it were a fixed abode that could be located with GPS. Rather, to live what the word ‘happiness’ points to is more about being able to work with the raw materials of life the best you can.

Think of it like surfing: if you seek to ride a wave, you have to work with it to let it carry you. If you resist or try to control too much, it will thrash you.

Some days, the ocean will provide one perfect wave after another, where merely hopping on your board will lead to ecstatic rides. Other days, the waters are choppy, and more skill and patience is required. And on other days, no amount of expertise will lead to a successful ride, and there’s nothing you can do but wait for conditions to improve.

For a surfer, learning to recognize which waves are rideable is an important and difficult skill. Each surfer must learn for his or herself, through trial and error, how to ride the waves. Nevertheless, there are technical manuals and masters who can advise you what to look out for.

Surfing shows that the power of the ocean combined with technical skill can lead to amazing results. Similarly, spiritual teachers have left behind tips to help us ride through life. Through wisdom, we can harness the energy flowing through and around us to create beauty, opportunity, and happiness for ourselves and others.

For instance, when difficult or unpleasant situations arise, it doesn’t help matters to curse the ocean (though it may provide temporary relief). There are ways in which we can make the best of ‘rough surf’, by observing emotions instead of reacting to them, practicing patience, and cultivating forgiveness.

Just as there are certain waves or ocean conditions where you should probably not attempt to surf, there are identifiable behaviors that don’t generally bring happiness. You might get temporary satisfaction from deception, distraction, or intoxication, but these types of actions usually set you up to get tossed and turned later on. Surfers must get into the wave instead of remaining on top of it, and with enough skill, when we dive into tough situations instead of avoiding them, we access powerful energies of transformation.

Learning these techniques leads to the ‘home’ within ourselves, where we’re honest and courageous enough to recognize when we’re deceiving ourselves and indulging in habits that only bring temporarily satisfaction, and see that happiness depends more on our internal disposition than on outward circumstances. It can certainly be tricky to remember this wisdom as we ride through life, and there’s no doubt that even the wisest among us will occasionally make mistakes, just as even professional surfers sometimes misread waves and fail spectacularly.

Like it or not, we’re all out on the water. These human bodies are our surfboards on the vast oceans of space and time, through which we can accomplish wonderful things. Let’s stop fighting each other about how the hell we all got out here and get on with the practical task of how best to ride these waves!

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Fruit

“Even if love is something other than a clockwork of sex that the Creator uses for His own amusement, it is still attached to it… Thomas thought: Attaching love to sex is one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had.”

Milan Kundera

 

One of the great pleasures of being in a tropical country is the accessibility, affordability, and abundance of fruit. Every day, we indulge in exotic fruit that would be rare and expensive in the west. My favorite discovery in Indonesia has been the burgundy coated mangosteen, whose fleshy white interior I can’t seem to get enough of.

From my human based perspective, it seems like I am the one enjoying a freely provided tasty treat. But of course, we know the fruit is really a plant’s way of enticing animals to spread its seeds. Fruit trees and bushes have done such a good job of manipulating us into doing their bidding that we clear away large swaths of competitor plants, ensure that they are properly watered, and keep them free of pests. We think that we’re the ones in control- that we’re the ones who have domesticated plants- but it could easily be argued that they have domesticated us (see Michael Pollen’s Botany of Desire).

Isn’t it interesting that the propagation of life seems, in so many ways, dependent on deception? A flower, a fruit tree, or a human can’t just come out and say, please help me make more of myself! There’s got to be something more powerful involved to lure partners into agreeing to take on the work involved in creating a new generation. Beauty and desire are tricks that life uses to tempt itself into carrying itself on.

Of course, the amount of effort involved in planting and caring for a tree is far less than in gestating and raising a human (especially if you’re a bird whose sole task is to poop out seeds). Nature knows that caring for a human child is one of the most difficult and involved experiences any animal could encounter, so she gave us something even more powerful than some tasty, sugary calories: love.

The other day, at 6 AM, I had to force my eyelids open, which felt like trying to lift two concrete blocks. I had tried to ignore the crying baby, but his volume increased exponentially for each minute I continued to snub him. I finally got up with a grunt and changed him; the dawn had barely broken and already I had poop all over my hands. How in the world did the innocence, passion, and fun of the love between Giulia and I ever become…. this? And what force compels me to actually get my ass out of bed to care for this squawking creature?

Babies have fine-tuned and perfected the art of being simultaneously the most annoying and adorable thing on the planet. After taking Gabriel out of bed and out to watch the sunrise, I thought, he is really quite a skilled manipulator, getting me to sign up for decades of often frustrating, exhausting work.

Of course, like the fruit tree and the bird, he’s not really conscious or intentional in the process; the love that exists between parents and their offspring, as well the feelings the partners have for each other, are the result of countless generations who found what was needed to ensure survival. The fruit tree offers a free lunch, while we’re offered nature’s most extraordinary, multifaceted intoxicant.

Depending on the context, love can either incite or suppress madness. It can push us to violently defend what is most precious, or serve as the base ingredient in the soothing balm of forgiveness. It moves us to act in ways that are often irrational; life’s most rewarding and intense experiences happen when we leave the mind’s calculating confines. Love is the prod that pushes us out of what’s familiar and safe into the vulnerable unknown.

I’m a happy and willing player in this bait and switch. With one little smile or giggle from Gabriel, he fills me with a joy that erases my frustration and fatigue. He has pushed the boundaries of my heart to expand in both directions, to new extremes of desperation and exaltation. He has driven me to a new level of intimacy both with my wife and with life itself.

It’s true that I can’t really imagine going through this experience of raising a child without some kind of reward. But at the same time, I sense that love is so much more than a hormonal release, than merely the end product of a blind process of natural selection.

While it certainly serves a utilitarian function, I feel I’m tapping into something at the base of all creation, of the universe/God’s longing to experience Itself.

As humans, we are truly blessed to be able to experience and be aware of this in a way that no bird or banana ever could.

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