Saturday, 16 October 2010

Thoughts about thoughts

A lot has happened since I wrote on here last.

In short, I've:

1. moved back to the UK from Paris
2. felt good
3. had a major depressive episode (grim)
4. felt okay again
5. been on three weekend meditation retreats
6. cheered up

I've realised something that may be quite profound, or may be something that lots of people already know, and is definitely something that meditation teachers, happier and wiser people than me have been telling me all along. All the constant thoughts about things, my pressing need to "work it all out" here and now with my brain, trains of thought, philosophising, working things out "logically" (though I think even the most amateur philosophers would have some bones to pick with my logic!) - all that is all very well, and is still very much present - the record is still a little bit stuck - but the contents of that over-worked brain of mine are not the be-all and end-all of it.

Essentially, as more or less every single meditation teacher has said at one point or another, thoughts are just thoughts. They are not you. They are not not you either. They are there. That is okay, and brains are incredible things, but broken records aren't.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Existential angst and doubt

My main problem at the moment is "the meaning of life": I often feel as though humans are simply a species of animal, whose intuitions, instincts, emotions and so on are simply a product of evolution, driving us towards reproduction, the continuation of the species, etc. Negative emotions and behaviours have been explained in this way: greed, jealousy, desire for money etc seem fairly clearly to be related to our more animalistic evolutionary past, propelling us to protect our territory and ensure the survival of our genes.

However, even positive emotions and mental states are arguably useful for the same purposes: a compassionate act, for example, in the form that most humans experience and act upon it, gets us into another person's good books, and they are likely to repay us with some act of kindness at a later date. Society and community seem equally indispensable to the survival of the species. These things have been investigated and shown in psychological studies. I have yet to meet a human being displaying qualities of "pure" compassion, i.e. not wanting or expecting, somewhere, unconsciously, a repayment of kindness in some way.

What I'm trying to ask, is are we really anything more than complicated animals with over-developed brains capable of perceiving our existence and our death, caught in a kind of absurd, but not untrue, perception of existence, striving for some kind of meaning when in fact there either may not be any? Or if there is some reason for our being, it is unknowable.

I feel very confused and, please excuse the pretentious-sounding term, existentially depressed, about the whole issue of.... well, life...!!

Zen and Buddhism have been the "schools of thought" / teachings that, for me, have come closest to an answer, but I have such very severe doubts about meditation practice and whether it really can bring us any answers, or whether it's just a particularly relaxing form of auto-suggestion.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

What happens after death?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about death.

And trying to find out what a Buddhist view on death might be.

A quick internet search brings up countless pages of stuff about rebirth, the continuity of consciousness, karmic repercussions in the next life, hell realms, hungry ghosts, the possibility of deathlessness through positive actions and meditation, the promise of escape from the Samsaric cycle of birth and death.

My main question is this: do the amateur bloggers (like me), the teachers, monks, lay practitioners and so on who talk about what happens after death actually, genuinely know what they're talking about? Have they come to such realisations through meditation and genuine knowing? Or have they come to their conclusions through studying texts and deciding to adopt a certain set of beliefs?

This, to me, is an important question. So far in my meditation I have discovered no truths or certainties about what might happen after death. All I know is that I will die one day. In fact, my meditation practice, combined with general contemplation about life, plus a few more life experiences added to my belt, have led me to a place of even greater uncertainty about what it's all about. Not in a bad way, really, just more uncertain. Perhaps it would be better, and more honest, to accept this uncertainty with a confident, agnostic "I don't know" than to adopt certain beliefs or ideas about what happens when you cease to exist.

I suppose my confusion serves me right for expecting to find answers to life's turbulence and uncertainty on google.

See these links for examples of so-called Buddhist beliefs about what happens after death:

See this for what I perceive to be a realistic and honest view on death:

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A discussion about Karma

This is a typical explanation of karma given by many Buddhists. This (unedited) quote is taken from a text I just found, written by a Buddhist:

Whatever happens to us in our life is entirely self-generated. However, this life is not the only one. We have lived many, many times before. And in those previous lives we have at times been not very nice.

Imagine, for example, the history of the Nazis. They killed 6 million Jews alone, and millions more in the remaining time of their reign. What do you think will happen to them, karmically, as a group? They will come back as a group in a situation that will hand them a very, very unpleasant life. Think Africa, severe poverty and violance, AIDS, etc.
Here is the conversation that ensued:

K (me): I find it fairly shocking that you are basically saying that people in Africa living in conditions of dire poverty, violance (sic) and suffering from AIDS deserve what they have because they were probably Nazis in the past. To me this seems like a simplistic cop-out explanation for something that neither you nor I understand, i.e. why bad things happen to good people.

It's a nice cosy explanation but I'd like to ask you a question or two:

1. Do you have evidence for it? (this being the only believable explanation that anyone has come up with so far does not count as evidence).
2. Would you be prepared to tell somebody who is ill, suffering or living in poverty that their situation is a consequence of actions they took when they were King Henry VIII and beheaded 2 of their wives?

3. Is it important or necessary to find an explanation of why bad things happen to good people? You might say that it's important because if there are no consequences of our actions, people would have no reason to perform good deeds and be compassionnate. In response to this I would say that true compassion and truly good deeds are not done in order to gain some karmic prize for goodness. True compassion is spontaneous and any reward that may be received as a consequence is totally irrelevant to the person with true compassion.
A (him): Why does this upset you? Rather than responding to your question, I would love to respond to your anger. Do you feel anger? If so, what is the deepest reason for that? Ask me why the Tibetans got evicted by the Chinese and I will give you the detailed reasons for it.

K: *lol* Rather than respond to your question about my "anger", I would love to respond to your clever tactic to avoid my (reasonable) question. Why did you avoid it? Why do you think I am angry?

A: Tell me how you feel....

K: Eh?

A: Already now we have deterioation of communication. I asked why you are the only person with such heavy emotional reaction. Nobody else has responded the way you do. Are you looking for an answer or an excuse for confrontation?

K: Nobody else has responded the way I do. Perhaps they aren't particularly interested in the topic.

In terms of my personal motivations, I am interested in a constructive debate / conversation / discussion / exchange of ideas and challenges about the original topic: karma.

A: Okay. So, can you summarize your question then into one sentence?

K: That's difficult: too many things to say! :-) However, the three question I asked in my first response are the important ones for me (see above).

A: You may agree when I say that karmic circumstances are both individual and collective. You may agree with me when I say that when a group of people collectively kill six million Jews, that they will collectively get a bill. That is, if you agree that an action has a consequence. Concerning the Germans, I asked myself what would happen to them? When I did ask the question, the image of the starving and suffering Jews came to me, and suddenly it shifted and I saw Nazis incarned into situations of terrible suffering in Africa. So, that is a very subjective experience, you may do with it whatever you wish.

I would be prepared to tell somebody who is suffering to explore what has caused his suffering, so he won't repeat it. I would not share my view of what that might have been.

The question of Why is this happening to me? I hear it very often. I meet a lot of people and it comes up a lot. When you are part of an active process of alleviation of suffering, this is in fact a very crucial question. Christ healed a person and then said, Go and sin no more. He meant, don't repeat what got you into trouble. This seems rather wise to me.

Here is an extra. I was not joking about the Tibetans. I have gained a lot of information about Tibetan habits, which are hard to gain. The Lamas committed many atrocious things behind monastery walls. Even the Dalai Lama said, We have driven people away from our borders for 1,200 years. We should not expect anybody to help us. We have not helped anybody. Now, that is insight.

K: OK thanks for your opinion. Can I ask you another question? ;-)

How come there is an individual karma that passes from one individual sentient being to another after each death, when the individual self is just a delusion ? Why does it go from one individual to another? It shouldn't do that since the individual is by essence an illusion.

 H (new contributor): karmic vulnerability in its self is a beautiful thing for me. the moment i start trusting in it and not live in its denial...yes i do feel the pain (the negative aspect of karma) and get angry with myself and everyone else for pointing it out to me. this action in its self has been bringing out a very healing effect upon me...and yes, what my great great grandfather did or what i have done in my past subconsciously has been driving my actions (constructive and destructive) until this realization. digging into that can of worms is one messy place to be. on the otherhand....when i come upon the realization that in the law of karma....all good deeds my great great grandfather did and all in between including me...have a beautiful positive effect upon me. now this is one box of chocolates i love to be in and will nurture in the future. it is advisable to have the guidance of a trained buddhist healer, when working on karmic pain. Quote/ Albert Einstein - every action has an equal and opposite reaction. trust my share helps.

love to all and happy new year.

A: If you are acqainted with Buddhist Doctrines, here it becomes important to know about the existance of the Doctrine of Two Truths. Truly, truly important, because I see a lot of spiritual folks tripping over this point. The Doctrine of Two Truths (you can google it, or find it on Wikipedia) talks about there being Two Truths, the one being Absolute and the other being Relative. I think Nagarjuna went heavily into this.

On the Absolute nothing ever changes and nothing means anything, even if entire galaxies come and go. It is on the Absolute level that there is no individual self and nothing changes. But on the Relative level, even if you are a Buddha, it will make a difference if in the morning you take the Absolute for a walk in your body ... if you go left in front of your house, or right.... the result will be rather different.... See More

The guru phenomena of the 80 were a good example of misunderstanding this. They all thought the Guru is the Absolute, therefore can do no wrong. Well, wrong! If the Absolute navigates in the Relative context, we have continuous decisions, no , yes, good, bad, day, night ... take a subway trip in NY at midnight... good idea, bad idea... You get what I mean.

The doctrine of Two Truths corelates to Buddhas statement, Emptiness is Form and Form is Emptiness. On the Form level there is duality and decisions and choices. On the Emptiness Level there is no such thing. But down here, if "you" or whatever causes you to act ..... slap somebody, somebody will slap "You or whatever" BACK. Simple.

To make it really complicated, You also suffer the consequences of your ancestors actions. Now, you can ask me about that next.

In my personal meditations I discovered there is no I. How did you discover it?
K: Happy New Year to you too H and A.

Nice quote from Einstein. I don't think Einstein mentioned anything about karma passing on from Mr Smith to a camel or a starving African child though.

I totally agree that actions that people in our distant past (even before we were born) can have an effect on us. Great Grandfather affected the emotions and behaviour of Grandma, whose emotions and behaviour in turn affected Dad, who of course had a huge influence on us in our childhood and therefore the rest of our lives and our psyche too.

If that's what we're debating, I think we're all in agreement.

What we're really debating, though, is whether an individual's actions in their current life really do have consequences in their own future lives. And as the individual self is, according to Buddhist thought, a non-existant, I don't see how these two views are compatible.
A: If you make Buddhist Thought your Absolute God, without having any direct experience, then we argue about air. Let us stop here. Have a good day.
Readers: your thoughts on this topic would be greatly appreciated, by me if by nobody else! I'm struggling with this topic. I'm finding it difficult to accept that people living in dire poverty in Africa, or suffering the effects of global warming and rising sea levels in Bangladesh, brought it upon themselves because they were war criminals or mass murderers or whatever in a former life. I mean.... what?
I don't have an explanation as to why some people suffer more than others, but I prefer to accept my ignorance on these matters than to take on an unconvincing, irrational, absurd explanation such as this.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Things I want to write about

  •  the concept of and the word "spirituality"
  • reincarnation
  • the crossover between psychology and spirituality
  • morality
  • existentialism and Buddhism

These topics are all things that come and go from my mind and turn round and round in there like in a washing machine. At the moment, they feel a bit like massive double bedspreads that you don't want to take out of the washing machine because you know the're going to take some grappling with before you can get them in some kind of order.

Basically, they're big subjects and I would like to deal with them properly (as they stand in my current understanding of things) rather than just banging out something quick because it's been a few days since I posted.

Watch this space...

Panic attack

So one day a week or so ago I had a nasty experience after meditation.

I had done a 40 minute metta bhavana (development of loving kindness) meditation during the evening, and all was well. But when I went to bed everything looked and felt weird. My head felt heavier than normal. My curtains and the pictures on my wall looked bigger and darker and different. The silhouette of my bedside lamp in the dark looked utterly strange against the white curtain with the moonlight coming through. I felt detached from myself, from my body. Panic started to well up inside me so I turned the light on. The square shape of my room, the corners of the ceiling, looked sharp and heavy, and the little specks of paint on the wall seemed to be moving the more I stared at them.

All sorts of stuff started running through my mind. My train of thought went something like this, as far as I can remember: "I'm a consciousness inside my head and I'm going to be with this consciousness for 50 or 60 years more, then I'm going to die. My mum is going to die, and my dad too, and suffering is ahead of me in life.... Ssshhhh, you don't need to deal with that now. You're freaking out because the curtains look weird. Don't think about dying right now. Shit, shit, I forgot to breathe. I'm going to suddenly stop breathing and die. I must keep control, cos I'm freaking out and when I'm freaking out I'm frightened that I'll do something totally crazy like smother myself or bang my head against the wall. Don't move. Don't move. Arrrggghhh this is what they say in Buddhism, that everything is impermanent and not accepting that makes us suffer, so I need to get over my fear of dying right now or I'm gonna be freaking out like this until I'm 80. OK so we're all going to die. I can accept that. ARRGGGHHHH the wall is moving...." and so on and so on.

It went on like that for about twenty minutes (though I'm not really sure) and eventually I put on some Mozart, focused on that, calmed down and went to sleep.

The generally accepted Buddhist interpretation of this would perhaps be that I was facing some kind of reality, i.e. that of death and non-self, and that I could have learnt something from that experience, looked fear right in the face and seen it for what it was: delusion. This, anyway, is what I suspect many Buddhists might say.

The generally accepted modern psychological interpretation of this would perhaps be that I had a panic attack and that it's perhaps not a good idea to do meditation just before going to bed.

I am concerned that the reason some Buddhists would assure me that the Buddhist interpretation of my experience is truer is that it fits nice and squarely with Buddhist teachings, rather than the person in question having had any real experience of panic attack or genuinely knowing what the best thing to do is.

I sometimes get the impression that some people might be tempted not to look at each situation and think about what genuinely would be the healthiest thing for the person who is asking for advice to do, but rather to give a nice, wise-sounding Buddhisty answer, something along the lines of "face your fear and you will see through it" or "you fear losing control because you are attached to control."

Maybe there is some truth in those statements, but I say in response to that advice: go and have a panic attack, see how it feels, then come back and tell me what to do.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Prayer of St Francis

I've always liked this prayer, ever since I was a child. Just take out references to Lord and Divine Master and I'm happy!

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.