Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Behind the Curtain

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Today I’m rooting for Mets in the wildcard!

Behind the Curtain

Central Park's Merry-Go-Round

Information crashes against our eyes at the speed of light, slams onto our eardrums at the speed of sound, and courses through our mind/ body as fast as an electro-chemical signal can flash from one neuron to the next. How do we deal with this sensory onslaught without getting overwhelmed? By blocking out most of it, and putting the brakes on what little is left.

The brain freezes the world into separate mind moments, each containing a barely adequate amount of information, and then processes these one by one in a linear fashion. The result is a world compiled more or less by what’s “out there,” but mostly organized around the limitations of the machine constructing it. It’s as if the brain and its senses quickly take a series of snapshots, and then weave them together into a movie -- our stream of consciousness. The Buddhists have a pretty good way of describing this system: delusion.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor does it mean that we are stupid, it means that the mind/ body is designed (in a way) to distill or distort reality in a fundamental way. For one thing, this helped us survive as a species. If we were to constantly attempt to take in the totality of reality, we would’ve long ago joined the ranks of extinct life forms.

First, creating this “shorthand” of reality allowed us to make decisions quickly (Do we fight, or do we run? Do we fuck it, or eat it?). Secondly, each mind moment creates an artificial center of stability out of a reality that is in constant flux and almost impossible to capture. 

Like the rapid unfolding of the individual frames of a film, these mind moments give the illusion of movement. As the films plays, we create all kinds of stories about the way things are, filling in the blanks of discarded data with assumptions, projections, and aspirations. Taking this process as real, we go seek gratification and security to a level that the system cannot support. The inevitable disappointment is centered on the concept of a “me,” who is both the one who wishes things were different than they are and the one who suffers when they are not. In other words, we are hardwired to misperceive reality by ignoring the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of it all.

There is another way we filter out information at any given moment. Most of what comes in touch with our neurology doesn’t even reach our consciousness but is relegated to our unconscious. This is because the precious resource of conscious awareness is used to carry on the important daily activities of living. Information, for our awareness, is on a need to know basis. Take the experience of learning a new task, such as learning to play a musical instrument. At first we have to “think” about it and consciously try to make our fingers go where they are supposed to go. Eventually, as the right connections are made between the brain and the muscles of the fingers and hand (“muscle memory”), the patterns disappear into our pre- and subconscious and, after a while, it feels as if we are playing automatically.

This is a very efficient process, and before long, most of what we do in our lives is accomplished without having to be very conscious about it. One would assume that this process would work to free our psychic energy to do some creative things, but this is not the case. More often, our awareness is spent looking for ways to find pleasurable experiences and getting more of them, or it is used to bitch and moan about unpleasant experiences and finding ways to avoid or destroy them. We use our creative energy -- our conscious mind -- to find new ways of wishing things were different from what they are, and our unconscious mind is relegated to maintaining the habits we have accumulated previously. The Buddhists have a good way of describing this state of mind: suffering.

The best definition of meditation I have encountered is “learning to stop arguing against reality.” We spend much of our lives and mental energy in conflict with reality. Our unconscious has been conditioned by all kinds of unhealthy patterns and these patterns help guide our behavior. We are not aware of most of these and, ironically, the only way we can become aware of what we don’t see is by changing something else first. We may not be able to see the unconscious conditioning, but we can become aware of the suffering it causes. By training our awareness in a methodical way, we strengthen its ability to open to more of the information available to the senses in the present moment. 

Mindfulness meditation is the art and practice of being present with whatever is happening here and now: when our attention/ awareness is strong, we are not stuck arguing with reality. With less liking and disliking, there is less stress coming from the narrowly defined sense of you that keeps you separate from the rest of the world. As the influence of your terminal uniqueness decreases, suffering deceases also.

We are always working with an imperfect model of reality. What makes the difference, however, is to understand the limitations of our constructed world. What helps us to awaken is learning to see more clearly how our perception is being used in skillful and unskillful ways, and to use that awareness in the service of creating well-being for ourselves and the well-being of those around us. The Buddhists have a word for that too: they call it wisdom.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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