This Emotional Life

I finished an excellent three-part series called This Emotional Life late last night.  It was available on “Watch Instantly” through Netflix.  Each episode is about 2 hours long and is hosted by Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard Professor of Social Psychology.  The series covers a LOT of a topics which are all extremely interesting.  But four things stood out for me in particular….

  • The first is the idea that we all are born with a certain level of happiness and no matter the ups and downs in our life, if we win the lottery or end up paralyzed, we are likely to return to the designated level of happiness we were born with.
  • The second is that married couples with children are less happy than married couples without kids.  In fact, the more kids you have, the less happy you are.  (Maybe children give you something that is beyond happiness?  Kids can definitely be a pain in the ass, but I can’t imagine my life without them.  They are my very heart!)
  • The third is that the best (and probably the only) way to solve post traumatic distress disorder is to directly face the fear and relive the trauma.  I don’t know why, but that totally blew me away.
  • The fourth is that there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence for activities that boost happiness levels except for two totally opposite things: social interaction and meditation.  Studies on meditation are proving very interesting. Sitting in silence is not a frivolity.  It completely changes the brain.  When people meditate, their brains become more active, not less active, so something major is going on but no one is sure exactly what that is.

Awareness and Information

This post is based on a conversation from the previous post (The Little Philosophy Book). It’s a modified comment to Lindsay whose understanding allowed me a new understanding – or at least provided for a new way of working through an understanding. Thank you, Lindsay!…

My foundational belief based on the few transcendental/mystical experiences I have had is that awe, wonder and reverence are our natural state of being. Awe, wonder and reverence arise from being, not from information about being. But information and being are intricately linked so let me attempt an explanation…

Perennial Wisdom says that the best way to expand awareness is through silence (meditation, contemplative prayer, mindfulness, suspension of judgment, etc.). If this is true then it seems to me it is impossible to expand our awareness through information. But, we can expand the amount of information we are able to take in through increased awareness. I’ve always sort of known this, but never thought about it in this way before.

It is through awareness that we are able to gather information. But information is not necessarily awareness although it is intricately linked with it. It is therefore a mistake to equate the two. And that is why it is so important we don’t throw out the traditional world view in favor of the modern and postmodern world views (more on that later).

Awareness and information require an intricate balance – we have to walk the fine line between the paradox: it is through silencing the mind (not taking in or processing information) that we obtain greater levels of awareness which subsequently allows us to not only take in more information, but also make better use of it.

I think it is in this sense that the Buddhists say that the universe is an illusion. Not because it doesn’t exist for us, but because matter decays and therefore the universe is always changing. It is forever in flux. Just as we can’t step into the same river twice, we can’t experience the same universe twice.

When we look at a tree, we don’t see it as it is – we see it based on our past experience of a tree. It’s not that the tree doesn’t exist – it’s that our perception of it is necessarily an illusion. We are aware of it as it is – we have an experience of it as it is – but as soon as we begin gathering information about it (the moment we label it “tree”), we are no longer able to experience it as it is because our experience is now based on our past experience. And so, our perception of “tree”, based on the information we have about it, is an illusion.

Often, people refer to figuring out the universe like trying to figure out how the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together. But this assumes that there is a final picture to be seen – an end result to figure out. But what if there isn’t a final picture or an end result? What if it is ever changing and we are co-creating that change? To create only with information would be limiting because that would confine us to our past experiences. Awareness is what allows for infinite potential.

I don’t think we’re working on a jigsaw puzzle because I think the universe is in flux and ever changing and that there is nothing “final” to figure out. (And no thing “in itself” to figure out). The reason we don’t have the information we need to figure it out is because there is literally nothing (no “thing”) to figure out. All we can figure out is what has already passed, not what is. But this information about what has passed is indispensable in terms of how we decided to go forth because we are co-creating our reality.

It is in this way that I think we can balance the Traditional World View that we have so desperately wanted to throw out in favor of what is rational with the Modern and Post Modern world views. Huston Smith awarded prizes to each world view. He said the Modern World View wins the prize for Cosmological Achievement. The Post Modern World View wins the award for Social Achievement. And the Traditional World View wins the prize for Metaphysics, the study of all that is – not just what materially exists (that’s cosmology). There was far more reverence, awe and wonder in the Traditional World View. And all of the great meditative/contemplative practices of world religions were formed from within the Traditional World View.

The act of reverence, wonder and awe is itself a form of awareness. It is a silencing of the mind before Being. We can’t will it, but we can allow it. And to allow it, we have to make room for it.

Confucianism (Bill Moyers with Huston Smith)

From The Wisdom of Faith series

Huston Smith was born in China to Methodist missionaries. Confucianism and Taoism are among his favorite topics, and also considered to be what he most eloquently writes about.

Smith says it is not accurate to think of Confucianism and Taoism as different religions. If asked which religion do you belong to, most religious Chinese would reply, “The Great Church” which is made up of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and a good smattering of monism folk religions. Every Chinese is a Confucianism on state days, but when illness fell, you’d best go to the Taoist sages. And when death comes, then the Buddhist priest becomes necessary.

This is the equivalent of saying you are Methodist, Catholic, Orthodox Jew, and Church of Religious Science which is completely inconceivable in the western world, but would be perfectly normal according to Chinese thinking. Different religions service different components of the self.

Confucianism and Taoism could be seen as part of a whole, but overlapping and intertwining like the ying yang.

Five constant relationships:

  • Parent and Child
  • Spouse and Spouse
  • Elder brother and younger brother
  • Elder friend and younger friend
  • Ruler and subject.

We work out our humanity in these cross currents of relationship. Wren is the ideal relationship between any two human beings and the heart of this relationship is empathy. Can I empathize with your feelings and your interests? To the extent that I can, my wings are tipped up and I can maneuver skillfully. To the extent that I cannot, my wings are tipped down and I will likely spiral out of control.

First step is to be able to empathize within the family. But this can create nepotism if you go no further. So the next step is to empathize beyond the family to the community. But if you stop here, then you have provincialism. Then you should extend this empathy to your own people. But if you stop here, you have nationalism. So you have to extend this empathy to the entire world. It is a mistake to think that because Confucius taught that we should empathize with humanity it should stop there. Confucius believed that we need to empathize with all of the universe/cosmos.

At one point in Smith’s career, he was listed as the associate minister at the local Methodist Church and was also President of the Vedanta society of St. Louis which was teaching him metaphysical profundities that his church was not teaching. It all came to a head on Christmas eve. Christmas in Methodism was all about the happiness of the family together. But when it came to spiritual depth, what the Swami Satprakashananda said about the incarnation fed his soul more than anything he learned at the Methodist Church. The title of his sermon was always: Jesus, the Light of the World. The reason is because the Swami fully believed in the incarnation and the church did not. His church had been diluted by modernism so the Swami was more true to original Christian teachings than the Methodist church was.

I think what is really interesting about this is that Smith was receiving missionary help and claimed this was a very good thing. His parents were Christian missionaries in Asia and he feels that his parents offered equally crucial help. We get stuck in the notion of having to belong to “one” religion, but all of the religions inform one another and so the missionaries, by bringing their religion into the traditional religion of a country, provide a fresh approach to the traditional religions. Smith claims to be in favor of the missionary enterprise but claims that has to be accepted both ways. It’s not just about Christian missionaries informing other traditions but about other traditions informing Judeo/Christianity. This is especially helpful for those who have experienced the negative features of the religions they were brought up with.

Smith says the world’s historical religions divides into three families, each with a distinctive characteristic: the west (Judeo-Christianity) is more oriented toward nature. The Chinese are more oriented to the social structure (relationship to other human beings rather than to nature). And the South Asians (Indians/Buddhists) are more oriented toward the inner self.

Somehow – the interview ends up being about yoga. Smith introduced yoga to America in the 1940s and the 1950s through a television program (where he was introducing all of the world religions). He sat on his desk in a suit and tie and a fashionable crew cut in the lotus position. He has done yoga all of his life since the 1940s.

Yoga comes from “yoke” so basically means to unite. By extension it means to unite the human spirit to the ultimate spirit. This involves 4 stages. 1) Moral preliminaries – if your life is in chaos and you have troubles with other people, that must be worked out first because otherwise you won’t be able to have a still mind so you have to straighten out your basic morality first; 2) Body – we are psychosomatic people. The asanas (postures) have various roles, one being to provide flexibility into older age and the other to help quiet the mind; 3) Breath – the doorway between the mind and the body; 4) Mind – if it wanders, notice that it wanders and bring it back; 5) you lose awareness of yourself and are 100% focused upon what you are doing and eventually even that disappears.

Hindu prayer – “Oh thou before whom all words recoil”.

The Tibetan Book of Yoga by Geshe Michael Roach

My daughter and I worked through all of the exercises in The Tibetan Book of Yoga. I hadn’t realized there was a Tibetan Yoga so this was all new to me. Tibetan Heart Yoga comes from the Gelukpa tradition of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. I don’t think this is the actual practice, but one modified by Geshe Michael. I was able to follow it and could easily imagine incorporating this into my day – so at least it is accessible to true beginners.

Geshe Michael Roach claims that you can piggy back this yoga on any yoga you are learning – that any instructor can help you perfect the poses. My daughter takes yoga but I haven’t done yoga in years! This may have inspired me to take it up again.

The Diamond Mountain teachers are a group of teachers from the United States, Ireland, Canada and Australia who have extensively studied the ancient wisdom traditions of Tibet and India with the great masters.

The write up on Geshe Michael Roach says he is the first American to complete the twenty-year course in a traditional monastery and earn the title of “Geshe,” or Master of Buddhism. He is the founder of the Asian Classics Input Project, which is probably the world’s largest database of ancient Asian manuscipts, and the author of several internationally selling popular books on Eastern Spirituality. He is a translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan and recently completed a three-year deep meditation retreat in the Arizona desert.

A few ineresting points I want to hold onto:

  • We are are supposed to do yoga facing the east because that is the direction in which we turn as we stand on the Earth. West refers to our back.
  • I liked this: “…this tidiness needs to happen on a wider scale if you ever hope to find the kind of concentration that we’re sending others here. That’s because our minds are like a computer – they only have a certain capacity to store things, and no more. If I ask you how many pairs of shoes you have, or how many knickknacks scattered around your house, your mind immediately begins calling up pictures of each one of them. This demonstrates how cluttered our minds really are: Some old pair of tennis shoes that we never wear is taking up precious space in our minds. And if that seat is occupied when our next great idea needs a place to sit down, we might lose it altogether.

The same thing applies to our relationships, and the books we read, and the news we choose to listen to. The capacity of the mind is not infinite. Relating to a hundred objects on a very shallow level prevents you from going deeply into one or two. And something happens to the inner winds when we do go deep: The flow begins to quiet down and clean up.

  • All-Day Yoga is called Chulam Neljor and some of the greatest descriptions of it are found in the writings of a master called Quicksilver Dharma Bhadra (1772-1851) and in works by Dechen Nyingpo (1989-1941), the teacher of the His Holiness the current Dalai Lama.
  • It’s a good idea to take one day off a week as a break and to start your practice at the same time every day. Your body will respond to this rhythm.
  • It is best to practice yoga on an empty stomach – try not to eat anything 3 hours before practice.
  • It is very important to be steady. You can’t expect great results if you work very hard for a few days a week and then do nothing on the other days. Better a steady, modest effort every day.
  • Give each session a good half hour and don’t try to rush it or shorten it.
  • It is important to stay warm during the practice. Roach recommends a standard “sticky” mat with a traditional cotton mat placed over it to prevent the plastic from coming into direct contact with your skin.
  • It is good to wear clothes that are entirely made of natural fibers like cotton or wool because it further prevents the plastic from coming into direct contact with your skin.