Worrying about it

I think I remember that when I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, there was a story in it of the alchemist, who only wanted to make gold. A great sage told him that he would succeed with his ingredients, if only he added one more: unshakable confidence that he would be successful.

I may have just found the lesson that is common to insomnia, sex drive, and the above story:

‘Worrying about it doesn’t help.’

Is All One?

As our sensory-material world draws us into its web, being distanced from its sensations and objects feels unsatisfactory. This is because we have identified sensations and activities as the source of our pleasures.

In meditation there is an effort to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’: a steady dis-identification from the objects of consciousness, including the self, and a ‘return’ to the role of the ‘watcher’, the canvas on which life is being continuously painted.

Counter to the instincts of our naïve mind, as one persists in recognizing and inhabiting the empty watcher, that very happiness which had been elusively sought in the world of objects purportedly begins to arrive, unconditionally.

What is this riddle? Is this a way for God to reconcile itself to the ultimacy of bare being, bereft of form and action?

I have heard of the loneliness of this primordial singular existence, and perhaps this is what is hinted at by the feelings that we feel surrounding death. Yet, why in the first place would God feel lonely enough to create samsara? If it is the all-powerful creator, why would it be subject to its own created, limited illusion of ‘loneliness’? (Unless God is not omnipotent, and the loneliness It is subject to is the condition created by a higher God.)

Yet, disidentification from samsara, and movement toward that ‘loneliness’ is rewarded by the very peace, happiness, and liberation from death-fear, that samsara lures us on with.

A paradoxical duality, yet again.

‘All is One’. If you consider this sentence, it exhibits the dance between duality and non-duality at several levels. ‘All’ of course implies dual, ‘one’ implies non-dual. Talking about them as two things, using two words, indicates that they are different. This is since in our experience, even if we can conceive of ‘all’ and ‘one’, ‘all’ does not seem to be ‘one’. This is a duality.

Yet, the statement of the sentence is that, despite, being apparently two different things, they are ultimately the same: non-dual.

How can many things be one? Perhaps because truth, i.e. what is or is not, is subjective or relative, for lack of a better word. Truth is not singular, but different depending on the perceiver.

From the dual perspective of our mind, there may appear to be many separate things. Yet, from the non-dual standpoint they may truly  all be one, including — as they must be for complete non-duality — our dual perceptions.

That there merely exists more than one perspective/truth ought to imply that the world is ultimately dual.

Yet, how can there be more than one truth? Well, in Relativity we have seen how the hitherto single absolute truths of space and time were revealed to be multiple relative truths, and in Quantum Mechanics we have seen how truth only emerges in response to perception. With these discoveries, there arose no conflicts of the new truth with the previously held single absolute truths, since the new truth accounted for all of it, including the previous misperception, and thus was a greater truth.

Yet, one Truth may plausibly ultimately absorb all of these truths. From the perspective of unity, all of these various forms, and multiple subjective truths, are somehow ultimately one, in a way that I cannot understand owing to my dualistic worldview.

Our rational, scientific minds cannot readily fathom the logic of this unity thesis. Yet, look at Science itself! Its marching frontiers are increasingly uncovering unification beneath a world of material multiplicity. So even the apparent greatest advocate against unity, the material science of the thinking mind, may be pointing in the direction of one.

What does it mean to say that science is uncovering One? If it is the ultimate, non-dual, oneness, what would it take for science to convince us that it is everything? Will this very thinking mind, that now does not see all as one, be convinced somehow when scientists find their coveted Grand Unified Theory? How can such a factual, clinical finding override my subjective dualistic experience?

Also, why the ‘coveted’ grand unified theory? Are we merely stumbling upon unification in the material sciences as reported? Aren’t we psychologically pointed at unification a priori, by a bias so deep it is beyond science? For what do we call ‘understanding’? When apparently distinct entities and phenomena are reduced in terms of fewer entities and phenomena. If science is the endeavour to understand, then science is a priori the directed endeavour to unify. (One might argue instead that science is the endeavour to predict, and unification has only incidentally been seen to aid that in certain circumstances.) Why do we unquestioningly regard the account of this unification-oriented enterprise as the truth, without interrogating that desire for unification, or ‘who’ installed it in us?

What if our scientific discoveries of unification are resulting only in response to our desire for it, like a non-singular, subjective, ‘choose your own adventure’ universe?

Where does this duality end?

Who cares? Am I having fun?

 

Nattväsen

In the fall of 1989, in the quiet Swedish town of Hälsingfors by the Tiveden forest, children began to disappear.

Within a span of five weeks, eight children, all under the age of seven, went missing while playing by themselves outdoors at night. After fruitless investigations within the community, the local police organized search parties into the adjacent forest. Immediately, they found clothing and toys among the underbrush, which they followed as far into the woods as the dense growth would allow. But no child was ever found, nor ever any evidence of violence or struggle.

As the weeks passed, the well-educated community began to recall, in private whispers lest they be ridiculed, a forgotten local folklore: the story of the nattväsen, the night creatures. In the old days, grandmothers would tell stories of the animal-entities of the forest to curb the curious child from venturing close to the woods. The stories never described these creatures, but spoke of them emerging at nightfall from the Tiveden, forest of the gods, to visit imaginative, adventurous children that were no older than seven, play with them, then lead them into their forest.

The eight children were never found, but as the community hastily tightened security, no more went missing. And in a few years, the incident had all but faded from the collective memory.

In 2017, the Swedish ambient music duo Carbon Based Lifeforms added a new track to their European tour, called Nattväsen. It contained an audio recording of the Hälsingfors Chief Inspector de-briefing after a failed search party, and the words of a dementia-afflicted local old lady who claimed to have been taken and returned in her childhood by the night creatures.

The unfamiliar narrative was regarded by the concert crowds as meaningless space-filler in an otherwise instrumental format, and drew scant attention.

But one night, in a small EDM den in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn club district, Namio Takaki, a Japanese anthropology exchange student who had grown up near the Aokigahara suicide forest, found himself unable to ignore the lyrics. As the band kept playing, first disbelief, then years of near-extinguished trauma broke forth and rose steadily upward through his chest, until he had to scramble his way out through the crowd to the parking lot to be able to breathe again.

 

The following pages contain an account of my personal journey into this mystery, of how I flew too close to the sun in my three years of travel and investigation to unravel a global enigma, and came back from the edge of human reason and the natural laws that purportedly hold this world together.

Monsters under the bed

While I was meditating today, I heard a particular notification sound from my phone,  that made me immediately anticipate a specific message from a specific person.

A few seconds later, as my mind and body was relaxing back from this, I asked myself, ‘And what if this is not the person you are hoping it is?’

I saw my mind instantly prepare the sequence of things I would do in that case (some minutes of internet entertainment on my phone, followed by reading a book the rest of the night). I was immediately trying to fill the imagined void, and I wasn’t too bad at it.

The enterprise of incessantly filling this kind of void has become so commonplace today that it is starting to emerge from private lives into popular culture. Louis C K talked about it:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty — forever empty. You know what I’m talking about?

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you.

And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’.

I remember a friend talking about this, about the awkwardness of catching the reflection of your unfulfilled self on a dark TV screen in the few seconds between episodes of a binge-watch.

As a generation we look only at the bright side of technology. But as we constantly create better distractions, do we notice that this is the process of making a scarier monster out of the void?

Let’s just play with this as a hypothetical question. What happens, if on a night when the void is knocking, instead of planning a strategy to avoid it, we draw a deep breath and look into it? Instead of constantly fabricating our plan to escape from this fear, what if we tentatively explore what exists in this void that scares us?

I have done this a bit, and the answer is that some familiar monsters do actually live there: impatience (very true for me), sadness (somewhat true for me right now), maybe loneliness for some, anxiety for others. How scary these monsters are can be different for different people, and confronting and working with them are a truly demanding task. But I have also seen that years of practiced avoidance have made their shadows grow longer and scarier than they really are, and have created new monsters that begin to fall apart even with the very first curious investigation.

Most influences in our lives today are incessantly prescribing us cheap, low-hanging, shiny, shallow and always accessible distractions from the monsters under our bed. But this is what the monsters feast on, too. How will life unfold if we could start taking the first difficult steps in the opposite direction, such as living a more physically healthy live, cultivating tenacity and becoming more tolerant and friendly with boredom, discomfort and fear?

I hope that like the past year or two of my life, the rest will be a story of continuing to succeed and fail, but never stopping to try.

 

The only reality

On a weekend summer night some time back, I was listening to live music at a laid-back venue. As I stood surrounded by a young, hip crowd, watching the performers play spirited, lighthearted music under strings of cute multi-coloured lights, a sequence of thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession.

They are vague to my memory now, so I am afraid I will be constructing some of it as I recall.

The beginnings are especially blurry. I guess they had something to do with the historical evolution of music. This in turn made me think of the idea of history repeating, or at least rhyming, which led to what feels like a small revelation.

The notion of reality that is shared among people  well, educated people in the modern world  is that there is a single truth of what happened in the past. What happened in the past consists of a great many things: a convoluted, interconnected web of natural, historical and cultural events and changes, all constantly causing each other in their interconnected evolution. In this history there are patterns to be found. For example, physical changes occurred in exact accordance with the natural laws. Social, cultural and political changes, although much harder to derive from the exact natural laws, still obey broad, qualitative patterns that have been empirically found and described by historians, political scientists and economists. It is in this realm of socio-politico-cultural evolution that history supposedly rhymes with itself. Together, the determinism of natural history and the qualitative patterns of human history are pieces of the great puzzle of Truth, or Reality, that are being steadily revealed by science and humanistic studies, and used to advance predictions of the future.

As individuals in the modern collective human society, tightly knit by a global database of shared truth, technique and values, this is what we constantly and subconsciously refer to as the single Truth. No one person has experienced all of it (in fact, almost none of it has been experienced by anyone alive), but there is the scientific method that provides indirect means of knowing what happened. Thus, Reality is viewed as an elephant that many different blind men have partial access to, and the process of reconstructing it is the great human enterprise. Regardless of how complex and ultimately infeasible this enterprise is, we still trust that Reality is a single elephant. My experience and account of reality may have little overlap with that of a 7th century Chinese philosopher, but within the final grand picture of the whole Reality, they must finally be compatibly reconciled, otherwise that Reality is not complete or true.

As I watched the musicians, my next thoughts were about a very different kind of truth, a very different form of reality: the personal one.

Not for the first time, I realized that the shared notion of the single Reality is after all indirect. This Reality which subsumes everything that ever happened: the big bang, electrons, dinosaurs, other people’s lives, the Holocaust and the final death of the universe, all ticking away along knowable laws, is a belief. It is a cluster of thoughts in my head that I have acquired from others and believe in because they are connected to other thoughts in a dense interconnected network of relations, reasons and logic. The glue of reasoning that holds this cathedral together is part of the scientific method, which is itself learned, indirect truth acquired from others. Most of this great undivided Truth is not really what I directly observe.

What, then, is my direct truth? It is only my own subjective experience: sensations, feelings and thoughts that are constantly unfolding before me, undeniably. It is undeniable to me not because I have scientifically proved its reality to myself, or had it validated by historians or seen it upheld by society as a shared belief. It is true, beyond denial and beyond the notion of having to prove or believe in it, simply and clearly because I have experienced it.

Some of this direct truth can in fact never be proved by the mechanisms of science and incorporated into the shared Truth, just as most of the contents of shared Truth will never be direct truth to me, regardless of the infallibility of evidence and proof. For example, when you hurt me, the pain that arises is as real as anything in subjective reality could possibly be. Yet, within the framework of the shared, objective truth, it is notoriously hard to even prove its existence. How can I get everyone to know and therefore believe, in perfect detail, my summer weekend night of live music, as my own memory of it is already beginning to fade? Technologies that can bridge the gap between such personal realities and the shared, objective Reality are on the horizon. Yet in the meantime, a lot of truths that are plain truth to me cannot be accepted as shared Truth by any means.

The shared ‘objective’ and direct ‘subjective’ truths thus appear to inhabit different worlds, and be antagonistic in fundamental ways. There are bridges connecting them, such as neuroscience, but they are not the same truth, and in fact they often come into direct conflict. As science tirelessly builds its cathedral of the one Truth, it remains nervous and uncomfortable with subjective truths , deciding on different occasions to dismiss subjective truths that counter its version, or simply announce that they are unreliable, and therefore unimportant as a topic of scientific investigation.

But science hasn’t won the war yet, despite how strongly shared human opinion is going along with it. For example, consciousness is one of the great remaining puzzles to science. We do not understand the very entity on whose subjective experiences we have constructed the whole cathedral of objective Reality. How then can we claim that this Reality is infallibly true and complete? Subjective truth thus still has some trump cards that threaten to topple the entire scientific cathedral.

I got sidetracked into a philosophical discussion. I’ll abort that here, and just tell you what I felt that night. I felt that from my perspective as I stood there, there is only one reality, and it is my reality. When I close my eyes, reality goes dark. When I am in a dreamless sleep, reality disappears. When I am happy, reality changes, although nothing about the physical world does. The only universe and reality I know wakes and sleeps with me. My perspective is the only one that truly exists, and subsumes all else, including the bits and pieces of the cathedral of objective Reality that I have learned. Proofs and arguments about other perspectives, and truths discovered by others and incorporated into the great shared account of Reality, are mere thoughts when it comes to my subjective cosmos, and lack the undeniable authority of my immediate and direct experiences, such as hunger, love, or stubbing my toe.

In my reality, history has never repeated. Even when there arises conversation or thoughts about the repeating of the shared history I only indirectly know about, the conversation or thought itself arises and unfolds in a manner that has never occurred in my reality before. In my direct, immediate, unprovable but undeniable truth, reality is one. It is one in the sense that there is no more than one account of it. It is one in the sense that it never repeats itself. It is one in the absolute sense, that there was and never will be anything else. (It is also one in the sense that apparently different things like cars and chairs and people and emotions and science and the past all constantly blend into each other if you carefully notice, but let’s not get into that.) This reality is one, like a single gem, constantly revealing its endless facets with every new experience. I hold this one reality in the palm of my hand, and I am the sole observer of it. (I would earlier have said sole author, but now I doubt that I author anything about reality, although there exists the illusion of authorship.)

So that’s what I felt in a few seconds as I watched the musicians. Oh, and there is a small note about contemporary social life that was attached to this realization, which I shall conclude with.

Even as I stand listening to nice live music in a pretty setting, surrounded by happy young people, I can’t help but compare my life and experiences with those of imagined others that have social media accounts and might be having a better time than me. This very tenuous imagination has a very real effect on my immediate reality. It makes me feel anxious and distracted. But if I look closely, I see that in my subjective world, the reality where other people are having a better time is only as real as my thoughts about it. As I pay more and more attention, I see this more and more clearly, and as my imaginations of derived reality recede into the darkness, it is replaced by appreciation for the great and miraculous mystery of my unique undeniable reality, constantly turning its facets of pain and joy, boredom and serenity, glistening like a perfect singular gem under the only light of my consciousness.