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.