Fake ID (part 2)

“We have said this not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.”

 

St. Augustine

I’m a practical man and I’ve always enjoyed breaking down complicated topics into simple terms. It’s a helpful exercise for me to make sure I don’t get too caught up in wielding ideas that sound good but have no practical basis. I know from personal experience the extent to which philosophers and spiritual wannabes hide themselves behind words.

So what does that mean to escape from the prison of the I? To drop your fake IDs and realize your identity with the divine?

(Of course, there’s no way of actually putting this into words. But instead of spending all our time talking about how we can’t talk about it, I venture forth the following words in the humble hopes that they may lead you beyond them.)

Think of it this way: like me and probably everyone else, you probably woke up this morning and began thinking of what you had to do today. Perhaps you had to speed up your shower or breakfast so you wouldn’t be late to work. Perhaps you checked your email and felt a twinge of disappointment when you didn’t see any new messages (or some excitement when you realized you did). You probably went to work, talked to your friends, checked facebook or some other internet sites numerous times, maybe did a little shopping, and came home to rest, only to repeat some variant of this process over again the next day.

It’s unlikely that at any point during the day you considered that the atoms in your body and everything around you were forged in the bellies of exploding stars.

If you did perhaps see someone shouting “death could strike you down at any moment!” you might label him a fool, not a harbinger of truth.

You probably didn’t hear an announcement in the metro during rush hour: “Attention commuters: you are the product of billions of years of evolution. You are the current link in the inconceivably fortunate chain of events on this planet that stretches all the way back to the origins of life. Every one of your ancestors was one of the lucky ones to slip through the five periods of mass extinction where at least 50% of animal species were wiped out. Thank you, and have a nice day.”

(Note to self for future project: infiltrate public transit system and gain control of PA system).

If you live in a city, you probably saw countless other human beings today. But very few of them spoke to you about the magnificence of how the heart beats on its own, how trillions of bacteria aid in everything from food digestion to synthesizing vitamins, how there’s a war in your bloodstream waged without any conscious effort on your part between your immune system and foreign agents.

The question I often wonder about is: why not?

Why don’t we spend more time becoming aware of how much remains hidden to our awareness behind all the busyness? What is so attractive about remaining in our own little worlds of desires and ambitions, where we’re never satisfied for very long, perpetually planning for a future that never arrives in the form we think it will, constantly trying to navigate toward what we find pleasant and away from pain?

Of course, there are certain practical demands that keep our attention focused on ensuring our survival. But on a deeper level, I feel we tend to avoid these thoughts because they scare the shit out of us.

I can only speak for myself, but I get the heebie-jeebies every time I start to consider how, all of a sudden one day “I” just popped into existence out of nothingness. How did that happen?

Iconcede that I haven’t the slightest clue where the atoms that compose my body came from, or how they organized themselves into a self-aware form.

These thoughts are profoundly disquieting; they make me realize the extent to which I am participating in a vast mystery beyond my control and comprehension. It’s more comfortable to remain within the confines of the known, to continue playing the role that I’ve been accustomed to, even if on some level that means I’m remaining in the prison of self.

When I begin to touch the larger reality around me, my field of awareness does indeed expand.

When I take a step back from my tasks and ambitions to open up to the reality around me, I bathe in a rejuvenating source. Considering the fantastic, improbable chance that I exist in this form right now washes away the worry of not doing or being enough.

But only for a moment.

Then I’m back to thinking about what I have to do, about what that person said last night, wondering why I’m doing what I’m doing and if it’s enough, questioning why I persevere with projects that appear to lead nowhere.

This is why it’s helpful to make this type of contemplation a habit. It’s every bit as necessary to health as proper eating and exercise. Active people will tell you how crappy they feel when they don’t get out for a run or yoga or a bike ride, and the same thing happens the more you allow you expand your awareness of what is, and who you are.

I try to spend a few minutes (or hours, if I’m lucky) each day taking the masks off, seeing through the bars of the prison, in order to gain a little perspective. It’s my form of therapy, which I can’t ever seem to get enough of.

After stepping back to see the big picture, I then go back into daily tasks with a new vision, much like a painter who has taken a backed away from focusing on a small detail to see how it fits in with the entire painting.

 

 

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Fake ID

“The individual and the universe are inseparable, but the curious thing is, very few people are aware of it…We confuse ourselves as living organisms who are one with this whole universe with something we call our personality.”

Alan Watts

 

Store fronts, like the one above, sold fake IDs to minors in exchange for some cash.At the age of 17, I went to New York City for the first time. One of my first stops was a sketchy basement photo studio in Greenwich Village where a friend of mine said I could get a fake ID for $50. His only advice to me was “don’t use it in the city”, since bars and nightclubs were used to getting scammed and could spot a fake from a mile away. Where I lived (Colorado), however, the liquor merchants were more naive and willing to believe that I was indeed a 21 year old living at 179 Spruce Drive in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

When I got back home, news quickly spread of my ability to procure alcohol. Suddenly, I found myself with many new “friends” asking for hookups. I was always happy to oblige, since I quite enjoyed flaunting America’s puritanical restrictions on alcohol, as well as earning a small commision for each transaction.

I also had great fun inventing a past that I knew wasn’t true. I practiced and tweaked the details of my story in case liquor store owners became suspicious and started asking what I was doing so far away from home, or why I didn’t have a Colorado ID.

It didn’t matter whether I said I was just passing through or that my grandparents lived here, as long as I was convincing. To do that, though, I really had to believe what I was saying, like an actor going on stage and putting on the mask of his character.

What I didn’t realize until I travelled in India years later was that the little game I played of hiding behind a fake ID is actually a metaphor for what most of us are doing moment to moment on a much deeper level.

On my countless teenage beer runs, even if I would have been completely honest about my origins or presented a ‘real’ ID, I still would have been playing a role.  Like everyone else, I am actually so much more than my address, birthday, or anything else printed on a piece of plastic.

In India, many spiritual masters (notably Ramana Maharshi) made the question ‘Who am I?’ the centerpiece of their entire teachings. When I began to hear this over and over again, I couldn’t understand the obsession with what seemed to be a relatively straightforward and obvious question.

I was pretty sure I knew who I was, but when I started really looking into this- when I started pondering whether even ‘true’ information on government sanctioned ID really encompassed ‘me’- it lead me into a contemplating a mystery that was profoundly destabilizing.

When you start going down this road (which you can examine more in-depth here, with my article on highexistence), it culminates in the understanding that you- yes you sitting in that chair looking at a screen- are what many traditions call God.

I like to imagine an ID with that:

fake ID4

(Feel free to print this out and show it next time someone asks you for ID. You wouldn’t be lying!)

The ways in which I identify myself- name, age, personality, habits, beliefs- are superficial labels that change over time. I can put them on or take them off in different contexts. They don’t truly encompass the totality of who I am.

Beneath all the social convention, like everyone and everything else, I am expression of a far vaster energy that has no beginning and no end, that goes beyond the mind’s ability to conceive. If you want to call that God, fine, but just remember that you’re using a word to communicate something that goes beyond all words and concepts.

When people ask how old I am, I like to joke “31…plus or minus 14 billion years.” The atoms in me have been dancing around, in one form or another, for quite some time now. And it just so happens that in their present arrangements (which isn’t really an arrangement so much as a pattern), they’ve found a way to become aware of themselves.

How is it that these atoms in my body- the very same ones that form rocks and trees and stars-  managed to regulate my heartbeat, temperature, digestion, and also give me a sense of being ‘me’? Where the impetus for their existence and the intelligence required for them to come alive came from defies comprehension.

A good metaphor to imagine this is a light bulb drawing energy off an electric grid. Sometimes when people start to tap into the source of what they are, they get their minds blown.

But for others, who are more prepared to accept the reality that they are not who they think they are, this realization is profoundly liberating. All of a sudden, the energy and tension that went into preserving and defending your personality- into that fake ID- are freed up. You’re like an actor who finally realizes he’s not required to stay in character all the time.

This isn’t to say that this suffering and drama won’t arise or that you won’t be able to take care of practical affairs (as Alan Watts jokes, realizing you’re God is no excuse to forget your zip code).

You just begin to see it all in a different context. You still get caught up in the fun of playing yourself, but you know it’s a role that you don’t have to identify with completely. You understand that social identity is only a partial truth- one that can be very useful when filling out tax returns and owning property- but one that you needn’t be fully invested in all the time.

I realize this may sound very abstract. When I started contemplating these teachings, they really drove me nuts; I just wanted someone to tell me what it meant in simple language (read all about the madness here!) So next week, I’ll take it down (or up) a notch and try to do just that.

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Short Circuit

 

Krishna DasWhere is this One? How can we find that One? The saints say that the One is hidden in the Name. The Divine Name. The name of Love. And that by constant repetition, gradually but INEVITABLY, the Presence that is hidden in the Name reveals itself. Where? In our own hearts! The medicine of the Name, hidden in the sugar syrup of music, begins to cure us of our sadness…
  Krishna Das

 

Five years ago, if you would have invited me to attend a night of devotional singing, I would have responded that I have better things to do with my time than listen to my voice crack on a Saturday night (thank you very much).

After puberty, I was contemptuous of singing, perhaps out of jealousy for those who had the skill, perhaps out of embarrassment that I could never seem to sing in tune. For a long time, I abstained from letting my voice flow because I didn’t want to make myself an instant target of ridicule. Out of courtesy (or perhaps fear), I didn’t dare subject any ear in shouting distance to the creaks and cracks of my pitiful voice.

And yet, despite all my initial resistance and embarrassment, singing has now become one of the most important aspects of my life. I haven’t succeeded in training my voice to carry a proper melody, but I have succeeded in ceasing to care whether it can.

Perhaps this is the secret of how singing has come to rejuvenate my soul in a way that no other practice can. At various kirtans, zikrs, and shabbat dinners (Hindu, Sufi, and Jewish practices, respectively), I began to see that it wasn’t necessarily about the quality of voice, but the sincerity of intent.

When I realized this, I began to ignore the voice that said “you suck at this”, and simply let myself get lost in song. As a result, I began to experience moments of peace, silence, and even bliss with increasing frequency and intensity. Whether I sang to angels in Arabic or hummed melodic fragments of Yiddish words, singing freed me from my habitual preoccupation and attachment to the rational mind.

 

 

Paradoxically enough, it was sound that taught me how to bathe in the silence out of which all thoughts arise. It was the energy of powerful chants that lead me to befriend the Witness aspect of myself, the part of me who is content to simply observe the comings and goings of the phenomenal world without judgment or attachment. Singing cleared away my resistance to this ungraspable, wordless reality, allowing me to enlarge my experience of the energy flowing through and around me all the time.

Something similar happens in an electrical short circuit, which (in technical terms) is the result of  “unintended contact of components and consequential accidental diversion of the current.”  Normally, in an electrical circuit, resistors slow the flow of electricity to a safe and manageable rate. If these fail, however, the power source delivers too much energy in too short a time, resulting in “circuit damage, overheating, fire or explosion.”

Our daily lives are usually controlled by the mind, which acts as a massive resistor to the vibrancy and power of the present moment. Busy as it is dwelling on the past or anticipating the future, the mind often prevents us from becoming fully immersed in what’s in front of us.

In certain controlled environments, however, the mind’s resistance is momentarily aside. Various practices of yoga (union) are designed to remove or minimize mental resistance, allowing you to open up to the dimension of yourself giving rise to the mind and everything else around it.

Singing is a form of bhakti (devotional) yoga, but many other paths and practices lead to states of absorption and insight, including bodily movement, silent meditation, controlled breathing (pranayama), love, communion with nature, and psychedelic substances.

There are, of course, certain dangers in tinkering with yourself this way, which is why many yogic paths require initiation and guidance. In some ways, we’re fortunate to have resistors that protect us from the power and grandeur of the energy-force of Life, and that most of the time, the ‘short circuits’ that yoga produces give us only a tiny hint of this power. There are instances, however, when some people tap into this energy too quickly- where they really do receive too much in too short a time. This can result in excessive ego inflation (at best) and psychosis (at worst).

 

These are rather extreme and uncommon dangers; my own experience of trying all manner of practices to insitagte a temporary short circuit of the mind in order to achieve ‘spiritual’ highs is more common. There was a time when every night in my week was filled with a different type of practice. Meditation, chanting, drugs- you name it- I’d take anything that would lead me back into the feelings of spaciousness and peace, which seemed so distant and removed from my everyday state of being.

 

While it’s true that there are some steps you can take to create favorable circumstances for these states to arise, yogic states come and go on their own accord. All states, no matter how pleasurable or insightful, are impermanent.

And as the Buddha taught, as long as we’re caught in self-centered desires- for people, objects, or spiritual states- suffering is bound to continue. This is why I’ve found that the real work consists not in honing my skills to dive into ever deeper levels of bliss, but in integrating the knowledge that such states bring back into the drama of everyday life.  

Any insightful or peaceful state is a gratuitous grace given to me, rather than a reward that I’ve earned.

This is where an electrical and ‘yogic’ short circuit diverge. An electrical short circuit is a failure, while the type of ‘short circuits’ that yoga provokes can, in many ways, lead to improvements in how we function.

With guidance and rigorous honesty, you can take the insights that yoga produces to put yourself more in line with the creative flourishing of the universe. When you find that capacity to silently witness and absorb all arisings- a part of you that was never actually lost- you touch the source of patience, understanding, wisdom, and compassion. Petty personal concerns and drama drop away, eventually leaving the sole aspiration of how best to honor and serve this precious gift of conscious awareness.

When things get tense and I get lost in worry, doubt, and confusion, I try to take a moment to chant or observe my breath- to provoke a short circuit to shut the mind off. But since it’s not really a function of will, it doesn’t always work when I want, and too often I remain consumed in the suffering that invariably accompanies selfish attachment.

Occasionally, however, these practices lead to moments of calm in the storm and I open up to the power of the present moment in all its contradictions, tensions, and beauty.

Have you had similar experiences? Do you agree with this metaphor? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

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Mountain Climbing (part 2)

“The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself… Man is not the center of the universe as once we thought in our simplicity, but something much more wonderful, the arrow pointing the way to the final unification of the world in terms of life.”

 

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

 

Just as we can never imagine exactly what the view will be like atop an unknown peak, we can only speculate about how understanding our universe as part of a multiverse would transform us.

Nevertheless, we can still make informed guesses based on what we do know, just as it’s possible to imagine what the landscape would look like from a summit you haven’t yet visited.

If we look back at the history of evolution (at least in our little corner of the galaxy), we can observe an arc of development toward increasingly complexity and awareness. Despite ‘setbacks’ like the five mass extinctions that have occurred on our planet, the general trend for the material world over the last 4.5 billion years has been for it to become more and more aware of itself.

Thinkers like Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin saw deeply into this, and described evolution as the process by which the latent potential in the material universe reveals itself.

When atoms first began to organize themselves into primitive living molecules, this was a watershed moment in the history of our planet.

The hydrogen, carbon, and iron atoms that composed our planet somehow organized themselves into a living form. The potential of life in those atoms was present before, but hadn’t yet been fully expressed.

Like a fragile bud waiting for the spring sun, life was biding its time, waiting for the right conditions to emerge.

Out of those early pioneers, some stumbled upon the ability to replicate themselves. They began to organize themselves into more and more complex cells, which joined together to form organisms that could see, feel, and move their way through the environment. Some of those animals were quite intelligent and could manipulate their surroundings. But it’s only now, in the human form, that the organic molecules found throughout the cosmos have found a way to become aware of themselves.

When given enough time and space to do their thing, you are the dance that atoms spontaneously perform.

Many religions have taught that humanity is evolution’s end product. But looking back at this march toward greater complexity over the last 4.5 billion years, if would be an awful lot of trouble to end with an animal intelligent enough to invent atomic bombs, but immature enough to use it to harm others who are superficially different. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel kind of ripped off if we were the point final.

The question naturally becomes: if we are, as Teilhard and Aurobindo taught, a transitional species who can assist evolution in its push toward greater complexity and awareness, then what potential is waiting to emerge out of us?

We might be able to catch a glimpse of what the future evolution could involve if we look at people who embodied qualities like love, compassion, patience, and generosity. Perhaps figures like Jesus and Buddha are like the first fish that survived on land: forerunners of the future, exemplifying what the rest of us might become. Regardless of background, culture, or geography, we all have the capacity to transform ourselves into beings of light, love, and care for all, which to me seems like a qualitative step up from the enslavement to instinct we find throughout the animal kingdom.

A few individuals have blazed the trail toward awakened awareness, issuing descriptions of the fantastic view from atop this mountain, giving us directions for how to reach it ourselves. But for some reason, most of us are still wallowing in the valleys, content to live in the shadow of what we could become. Awareness of who we truly are is so tantalizingly close that wecome in contact with it from time to time. The question is how to integrate peak experiences into a consistent state of being.

 

 

The more of us who walk that path and live out the Truth, the easier it becomes for others to find. And the more people that walk up that mountain, the more we begin to catch an inkling of what Teilhard called the “Omega Point”:  the point toward which Being is evolving, one where the universe reaches maximum complexity.

This is a pretty big idea, and thinking about it has lead me through some wacky crazy directions.

For instance, when I first heard about the “Omega Point,” my instinct was to think that, given the sheer scale of this universe and the possible scales involved in parallel universes, it must have been reached. It would be perfectly possible to think that in another part of our universe, or in another ‘bubble’ in the multiverse, there is an entire realm of beings who are arriving at the Omega Point, completing their evolutionary journey, becoming Self-aware in this very moment.

And in a completely different universe, other beings are experiencing that now.

And now.

And now.

And now.

Since there would be no limits to the numbers of universes within the multiverse, who’s to say that this isn’t happening every single second?

Thinking about this stretches my mind to its limits.  But what’s becoming more and more clear to me is that stretching the mind to its limits is only useful to the extent that it can snap me back into awareness of the marvel of what is right in front of me right here, right now.

The mind has a seemingly limitless capacity to project its longings and unrealized hopes into celestial realms of perfection. If we’re not careful, thinking about the Omega Point leads us down the same road as all the past religious promises of heaven and paradise. It would be just a more modern way of getting us to put all our attention toward an unreachable future in a far off location, overlooking and denigrating the present moment in favor of a fabled land of liberation. It would be another example of our tendency to postpone enlightenment, thinking of it as a far off occurrence that we couldn’t possibly be around to see.

Any moment we’re released from delusion and ignorance into the infinity of what we already are, we have reached the Omega Point. The potential is within us now and every moment.

This is not as complicated or metaphysical as it might sound. Any time you express who you truly are, any time you put yourself in line with the explosion of creativitity all around you, any time you are touched by the magic and mystery of the life you’re already participating in here and now, the Omega Point has manifested through you.

 

 

 

 

The potential is open and self-evident to everyone in every moment. Just as many paths lead up a single mountain, there are any number of ways that will lead you back to the place you never left.

To reach the ground beneath your feet, you can devote yourself to serving others, sing out with praise of the divine, or lose yourself in love of a partner, parent, or child.

Or, on a cloudless night looking up at the heavens, you might think about all the other beings inhabiting the countless galaxies and universe out there. And that might be enough to shock you into the fact that simply to be aware of this possibility is the most profound and curious fact of all.


And like standing atop a peak where a distant landscape comes into view, this awareness of the miracle of the mundane transforms the way you see the rest of your life.

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Mountain Climbing (part 1)

On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain. Either you will reach a point higher up today or you train your powers so you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.

 

Nietzsche

 

I had the tremendous fortune of spending a large part of my youth skiing, biking and climbing in the Rocky Mountains. Week after week, the peaks beckoned me to use any means at my disposal to arrive at their summits. I was drawn to the magnificent panoramic views on display, even if the inhospitable conditions at the top forced me to descend back into the valleys after just a few moments. I understood why many philosophers and artists have found inspiration on mountaintops: that’s where the views are!

Seeing the view from above gave me perspective, allowing me to see how each slice of the landscape fit into the larger range. I took these impressions and formed a mental map of my environment, one that grew and shifted over time as I explored different corners of my state.

As human beings, we seem hardwired with a curiosity that prods us to see what’s on the other side of the road, or what lies just beyond the horizon. This tendency drives us to climb mountains, but it also inspires us to investigate the physical world.

Just as standing on top of a new peak alters the previous ways we viewed our surroundings, new scientific understandings force us to reconceptualize our environment as well.

Copernicus and Galileo shouted down to the rest of us: hey! we’re not at the center of the universe! Darwin arrived at a revolutionary understanding that showed we are but one branch on a vast tree of life. Edwin Hubble caught a glimpse of an expanding universe, demonstrating that we live in a cosmos far vaster than we could have ever imagined.

Each of these scientists encountered great resistance from those who felt threatened by the new information. Our species has not been kind to those who challenge established viewpoints; we often disdain and ridicule those offering fresh perspectives, setting fire to their maps and/or their bodies.

 

 

The history of science shows that our understanding of the universe is always provisional. To think at any point that we’ve arrived at the apex of understanding would be as ridiculous as climbing a single mountain and thinking that’s all there is to see.

Each horizon reveals more horizons. There are always further peaks that await our exploration, and if/when we arrive at them, the new vision they afford will surely force us to reevaluate the way in which we previously understood ourselves.

Before Copernicus, it was natural to think that we were at the center of things- and we acted accordingly. We then understood that our solar system is only part of one galaxy among billions. Now, physicists are beginning to think that our seemingly infinite universe is but a small ripple in an inconceivably large multiverse.

It’s as if God is laughing at us. “Oh ya, you thought that was big? I’ll show you big! There’s plenty more to uncover that will make even your universe look like small change.”

I like to think about the revolution in perspective that would happen if we could actually demonstrate that we live in a multiverse. What would we see if we could scale that mountain? How would that change our perspective?

Speculation forthcoming next week!

 

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