Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Living in the Material World

I've had a few brief life experiences in which something became apparent in a most direct, fundamental, undeniable way: "I" is a thought that appears and disappears. The idea that "I" is something with independent, substantial existence is exactly that, an idea.

Looking closer, "I" is carved out from experience by drawing a line between the "I" and the "not-I." The "not-I" portion includes what we sometimes call "the material world" or some-such. The "I" part is sometimes called "mind" or "consciousness" etc.

I'm not interested in going into further detailed philosophical analysis of this. Just in acknowledging the basic, powerful insight that all dualities -- good/bad, mind/matter, self/world, etc -- don't refer to independently existing realities, but to distinctions made by thinking. Any mind-created distinction may certainly be questioned. Any or all of them may turn out to be arbitrary and unnecessary.

Over on the Ken Wilber Forum, there was a thread touching on evolution and entropy. Evolution is the process by which simple organisms become more and more complex, while entropy is the apparently contradictory law that states that all orderly systems inevitably become more disorderly over time. Here's my contribution to that conversation:

wmgreene wrote:
> Perhaps you would be kind enough to explain how your view of
> existence/evolution itself does not violate the Second Law of
> Thermodynamics (that orderly systems tend--on their own--
> to automatically become disorderly and chaotic, such that the
> processes of decay and disintegration are an inherent,
> built-in characteristics of the material world as we know it
> today)?

You're talking about built-in characteristics of "the material world." But originally, there's no "material world." The original world is the truth of this moment. We're experiencing it, though we can't capture it with words or ideas.

With our thinking, we can divide up the original world into all sorts of dualities. One such duality is "consciousness" vs "material world." You state that "orderly systems tend---on their own---to automatically become disorderly." But this material world isn't "on its own." We may gain certain power or understanding by working with it as if it existed on its own, but in fact the consciousness/material split is an arbitrary creation that we can well question.

That's why I don't take the laws of the "material world" portion and conclude that they apply to the true, original world. Whenever we make the mistake of believing that the material world has its own, original, substantial existence, we're led to contradictions (e.g., if everything is subject to entropy, why do we see all this order?), and those contradictions can help point us to our mistaken belief.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ken Wilber Comments

In the Comments section of my first blog posting, yomamma initiated discussion of Ken Wilber. I'm not a fan of or an expert on Wilber, but I do think he fails in an interesting way. I'd like to quote here from what yomamma and others have written, add a few of my own thoughts, and invite further discussion in the comments section.

yomamma said...
I read an article that Ken Wilber wrote later, that said he feels, Da missed the boat at some point, not that I want to defend Ken Wilber, he seems to now have transfered his need for guru affiliation and creation to Andrew Cohen.
One of Wilber's books that I did read was Grace and Grit. I was immediately struck by Wilber's arrogance (as a small example, quoting a man on page 150 who refers to Wilber as "the potentially greatest philosopher of consciousness since Freud.") Wilber's work is filled with categories of development with different "altitudes," such that one's spiritual state can be judged higher or lower. This of course allows Wilber to place himself on one of the higher rungs. When Wilber attaches himself to authoritarian gurus (Adi Da and Andrew Cohen), it allows him to bask in their reflected glory, bolstering Wilber's own claims of superior altitude.

My opinion is that people are desperate for meaning and mystery, which is great, but they don't want to practice any number of great traditions that are available without some kind of glamour/power factor involved. it's creepy.
Not just creepy, but ironic. If someone wants mystery, all they need to do is pay a little attention. The world around us is nothing but mystery, starting with the great question of What am I? Grasping at dogmas and ideas is an attempt to understand the unknowable, which obscures a clear appreciation of the mystery.

I read his last book and found it leaving me full of questions, like who decides the validity of this stuff? Is it practiced anywhere? Is it really helpful in any objective way? Is he just blinding me with pseudo science and big words?
Yeah, blinding you with pseudo-science and big words, that's what I'd say.

Anonymous said...
Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen sect, warned of the hazard of 'gaining mind' and that properly practiced, zazen was never done to attain any sort of result. The problem with the Wilberian approach is to take beautiful truthful elements piece meal from spiritual practices meant to emancipate us from gaining mind, and turns all these elements into a crusade fuelled by gaining mind--to turn oneself into a highly evolved person--according to KW's current specifications.
This hits the heart of the matter. If you want something, you have a problem. Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say that enlightenment is easy to get, difficult to keep. That is, anyone can put time and effort into a meditation practice and get an experience of clear, before-thinking mind. But in the next moment, we may try to capture the experience with concepts, as a way of getting or holding something for ourselves. Clarity isn't a thing that we can get; it's the direction of putting down our ideas over and over, and returning to questioning, to before-thinking.

The medicine to cure a gaining mind is to attend 100% to this moment, trying to act with clarity and compassion in the situation right in front of us. The desire to turn oneself into a highly-evolved person is just more I/my/me thinking. If Wilber is inspiring people to adopt this gaining mind, that's a big big mistake.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Guru Papers (Part 1)

A couple weekends ago, Julie offered me her ticket to a talk by Joel Kramer, author (with Diana Alstad) of The Guru Papers. This book, published in 1993, still gets a lot of buzz in the spirituality subculture. Kramer has been an accomplished Yoga teacher for many years, but is just now starting to give talks and workshops after a decade out of the public view in Bolinas.

The Guru Papers is a criticism of "authoritarian systems." Eastern-based spiritual groups, headed by gurus, are used as a prime example of such systems. All power is concentrated at the top, with the guru, the upper levels of his hierarchy, and sacred doctrines and scriptures being considered infallible. The system is "authoritarian" since members cannot question the truths proclaimed by those in power; they must follow without question rather than think for themselves.

Many people in the Yoga/spirituality subculture believe that an enlightened master can attain perfect wisdom and selflessness. Students are below the master's level, so their road to enlightenment requires surrender and devotion to the guru, who knows what's best far better than they do. Kramer and Alstad posit that this state of permanent perfection doesn't exist, so they reject the structures based on the students' renunciation, obedience, surrender, and devotion to the authority. The book is their break from the bedrock beliefs that underlie guru groups, and other social situations like it.

The above is my understanding of Kramer and Alstad's thesis. What follows is my own view. The beauty of Yoga and other meditation traditions is how they point to the power of our own thinking. We often think that our suffering is rooted in our external situation, and try to remove suffering and gain happiness by making the world around us fit our desires, trying to make other people act the way we want them to. In contrast, many meditation traditions state that suffering is rooted in how we keep our own minds, so that the road to greater happiness involves being attentive to our own thinking. The classic scripture of Yoga defines it as the stilling of the thought-waves of the mind; then, when the mind is stilled, the seer rests in its own true nature.

From this viewpoint, if I were to address those stuck in an authoritarian system, I'd recommend that they examine this idea that they must get Truth from an external authority. Why have they decided to believe in the guru, in sacred scriptures and spiritual organizations, rather than in themselves? There are those who think that their own experience isn't enough, that they lack something fundamental, and must get it through dependence on authority. By seeing these thoughts as just thoughts, they can become free of need to follow the authority.

We all get born into this world unable to care for ourselves. So we start off in an authoritarian system; we obey and depend on our parents. This is a necessary part of life. For most of us, we mature, and eventually reach the point where we can believe in ourselves. This doesn't mean we reject our parents, but rather we mature beyond the dependent relationship.

Similarly, in taking up the great questions of life, there's a time for many people when they feel the need to follow an authority. Guru groups (not to mention the Catholic church, etc, etc) exist because of the masses who want to follow an authority. As long as people seek such a relationship, there's no possibility of eliminating authoritarian systems. And there's no need to eliminate them; they'll continue to exist for those who want or need them.

Those of us who are ready to drop dependence on authority will do so. We can offer to others help and encouragement to examine their own thinking, let go of their desire to be followers, and learn to believe in their true self. Perhaps over time humans as a species will evolve into less authoritarian systems. We can't know or control this. Our job is to believe in ourselves, encourage others to do so, and any large-scale changes will take care of themselves, from the bottom up.

I didn't like The Guru Papers because it's focused entirely on criticizing the external systems, detailing at great length (370+ pages) the faults of authoritarian set-ups. All this may be of academic interest, but when it comes to practical value, all that's needed is for the individual to question in his own mind. Once he lets go of his own desire to follow an authority, then the guru and authoritarian systems become irrelevant; it's unnecessary to bother with propping up or knocking down the system itself.

Here's one small example of what I'm talking about. In the chapter on Gurus and Sexual Manipulation, Kramer and Alstad write:

Religions all want everyone's major emotional bond to be with whatever god figure the religion presents. If the most important thing is salvation -- whether of one's sole as in the West, or progressing along the reincarnative chain as in the East -- then anything that detracts from this is looked upon as
How strange to talk as if "religions" could want anything! Relgions aren't conscious beings that plot against us. It's people who want things. The passive-voice style of writing here suggests that the fault lies with "religion," that whatever solution we find must involve somehow changing religions so they won't force us into these unhealthy emotional bonds.

In fact, the root of the problem is the desire to get something from these gods. People suffering from unhealthy bonds to a god figure, or from attachment to ideas of salvation, can look to their own mind and discover how and why they cling to the religion. The Guru Papers extensively analyzes religions, systems, and gurus, but fails to point to the heart of the issue: how each individual keeps his mind moment to moment.

We have far more control over our own thinking, and our own day-to-day actions, than we do over any external system. And it turns out that changing our own thinking and actions is the most powerful route to removing suffering. Attending to our thoughts and beliefs, and our jobs as individuals in each situation, is a far far more efficient strategy than criticizing religions, gurus, authorities, and external situations.

Even to the extent that we do try to change the external world, I find that The Guru Papers misses the boat. I'll discuss this, along with further quotes from the book, and my own meeting with the authors, in follow-up postings in the near future.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sopranos Finale and the Nature of Reality

For those of you who aren't Sopranos fans... bear with me, I'm just using the show as a jumping-off point for a bigger issue. If you are a Sopranos fans and somehow still don't know how the series ended... consider this your spoiler alert.

Sunday was the finale of The Sopranos, HBO's monster hit about the struggles of a mobster in therapy. Along with about 12 million others, I was glued to the TV set, waiting to see how it'd all resolve. The biggest question was the fate of the show's anti-hero, Tony Soprano. Would he survive to live a normal criminal life, or get whacked in the final episode?

The show ended without a neat answer. Immediately, the blogs lit up. Some critics and fans thought it was masterful that the show left it up to the viewer to contemplate whether "life goes on" for Tony and family, or if they got gunned down at the last moment. Ambiguity, after all, is the stuff of real life. But others were furious at the uncertainty; one comment read:

To argue "that's what life is like" isn't really applicable, since I didn't sit through the 86 episodes to see "life," I sat through them to get AWAY from life for awhile. I don't need to watch HBO to get certain key elements forever hidden from me - my life provides me with an ample supply of that.

But before long, in blog after blog, somebody posts a key piece of evidence that solves everything! Seems that in the credits, one of the strange onlookers in the last scene is revealed to be Nick (or Nikki) Leotardo. He's the nephew of the rival boss Phil Leotardo; Tony's men had killed Phil earlier in the episode, in a particularly gruesome manner. The dead man's relative could be there for one reason only; we must conclude that Tony dies in a revenge killing.

(Tangentially... Carrie Fisher had a great quote on last night's On The Lot: "Revenge is for people who aren't patient enough for karma.")

The only problem is that the Nick Leotardo credit doesn't exist. It was all a myth, a hoax, that got spread as more and more people reported it as fact. It's what we used to call an "urban legend," except with the internet, the spread of the story around the world, followed by its debunking, all unfolded within a couple of days.

It's fascinating to me how speculation and fantasy got communicated and believed as fact so widely and easily. Lots of us hate uncertainty, so I guess when the Nikki Leotardo story came along and offered a nice neat answer to our questions, folks just fudged a little and unconsciously decided to accept it uncritically as truth. Critic Tim Goodman chalked it up to an appealing myth that "made a lot of believers out of people who either don't check their facts or have Mulder's 'I Want To Believe' poster in their rooms."

And finally we reach the larger issue. I've long been interested in the dynamic of group belief. When surrouded by people who share a belief in something you want to believe in, it's oh-so-common to join the group's faith, and somehow confuse it with fact or experience.

When I was in guru Swami Muktananda's ashram, everyone shared the belief that the guru had magical powers. Everyone had multiple stories to prove it. Yet when I started to really look at my own experience, I saw that much of belief was built on stories I'd heard from others. And when I started pressing other ashramites about it, it turned out that most of them didn't really base their conviction on personal experience. Ultimately, they just had to assume that since everyone else was telling the same stories, they had to be true.

My style of meditation practice is about putting down all the stories I hear from others. Even putting down my own ideas (which are likely influenced by what I've read and heard anyway). And just attending to the direct experience that doesn't rely on anyone's beliefs or stories. What do I perceive just now? What am I doing just now?

I'm wondering (as I did in the Adi Da entry) whether the real tipping point in life is whether you attend to your own experience, or accept the words and stories of others as truth. It's so so common that when I speak with people about their spiritual life, they start out claiming to stand on experience. But in the end, their foundation turns out to be something like "How could all these thousands of devotees be wrong?" or "How can you question all the scriptures and sages?"

Just this week I was chatting on one of Yahoo's groups dedicated to Ammachi (the world-famous "hugging guru"). I had asked some question, and someone responded with a quote from St. Paul. I explained why I didn't fully believe in the quote, and the devotee responded with, "Trying to put your knowledge above St. Pauls? That's a big step."

Sweet baby Jesus! When it comes to the only thing that matters -- how I respond to the situation in front of me -- of course I'm not going to follow some centuries-old corpse. Why do that? Because he's got "Saint" in his name? Because he's written a popular book?

"Believing in myself" doesn't mean I treasure my own ideas... it just means that I'm not going to cling to other people's words as truth, no matter how old or popular they may be. It's not that a big step at all.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Don't be surprised!

Last weekend I went with Chris up to Single Flower Zen Group in Benicia to sit the final afternoon of their 2-day retreat. Before chanting and sitting, we listened to Dharma talk and Q&A with teacher Darek Gorzewski of the Kwan Um School of Zen.

Darek said that growing up in Poland under Communism, they had a little joke: "If you think something, don't say it. If you say something, don't write it down. If you write something down, don't sign it. And if you sign something, don't be surprised!"

He said that we can express Zen teaching in a similar way: "Don't make anything. If you make something, don't want it. If you wan't something, don't hold it. If you hold something, don't attach to it. And if you're attached to something, don't be surprised!"

Thursday, June 07, 2007

70s Guru "Adi Da"

I've never blogged before, but maybe this'll be a convenient way to keep track of places I visit and conversations I have on the net. Hey, someday I may even include some Real Life stuff.

A few weeks ago, with Derry, Erik, Ruth, and Fiona, I went to an introductory program for Adi Da at the Berkeley Public Library. Adi Da is that guru who keeps changing his name. He was originally Franklin Jones, around the time he was with my old guru Baba Muktananda. Then he became Bubba Free John, Da Free John, Da Kalki, Da Lovananda, Adi Da, whatever. Here's a page of pro-Da propaganda.

Around the 70s, Da built a following in northern California and elsewhere, but for over a decade now he's been cloistered on an island in Fiji (bought from Raymond "Perry Mason" Burr) where adoring devotees flock to worship him.

I wouldn't go out of my way to visit a spiritual teacher, particularly one like Da, whom I expect to offer little but weirdness to goof on. But this program was free, and included high-class tea and dates for snacks, so what the hell. Since they weren't allowed to sell anything in the library, they even gave away a CD or book of Da's talks. There were over a dozen attendees; the program started promptly with a few minutes of intro talk, followed by a 45 minute DVD showing Da speaking and doing his thing.

Inexplicably, famous commentators like Ken Wilber and Alan Watts have gone ga-ga for Adi Da (here's Wilber gushing over Da). As I travel the spiritual underbelly, I keep bumping into people who have strong ideas or stories of Da. So now at least I've heard him talk. I explored the free book and CD a little bit, so I've got some sense of what he's about.

Today I shared my experience with the folks at the Daism Forum, where some of his longtime students (mostly ex-students?) hang out. Here are the 2 posts I've made so far.

Post #1:

Hi, I'm new to the forum. I've got only a little knowledge or experience of Da, but I'm an old timer with lots of similar stuff, see my site http://home.comcast.net/~sresnick2/socalled.htm

Till recently, I only knew of Da because a friend told me I'd love his books; gave them a try, and gave up before finishing "Knee of Listening." I should mention that I was with Muktananda's group for 5 years, so Frank's name came up. And I've had interest in Ken Wilber -- again, friends told me I'd love his books, but I didn't -- and was intrigued and suspicious by Wilber's praises of Da.

Then about a month ago I went to a local program thrown by Da people, and for the first time saw a video of talks etc. I've joined the forum to express the lack of coherence I picked up, and to see if anyone who's more familiar with the trip can shed light on it.

At this program, the guy who was running it started off with a teaching something like this. This moment is already IT. There's not some divine thing that's going to descend on us; there's not some divine thing that we need to ascend to; it's all right here right now.

I listened to most of the CD of Da's talks that they gave away, and right at the beginning, the teaching seemed the same: pointing to the clarity and completeness of just now. So yeah, cool, I'm fine with that. Perfectly good teaching. But at this program, next thing I know, they're talking about Da as if he's something special. As if he's got something other people don't. As if there's some need or reason for me to go to Fiji or something.

And it completely struck me as incoherent, inconsistent. If it's always and already as it is, perfect and complete, then it's here in this moment as I type on a laptop. It's incoherent to say that Da has something special if each moment is already perfect. Where's the need to go to Fiji etc if truth has already appeared in my just now situation?

My way of resolving the contradiction is to not swallow the ideas about higher and lower, about Da or anyone being more advanced in a meaningful way. My understanding of people who do present Da as a higher being or something is that they parrot the words about "always and already complete" without ever really believing it, or they believe it theoretically without ever putting it into practice.

I dunno. Can anyone who's been seriously involved in the group give me a hint about how anyone can sustain this obvious contradiction?

I got a response from someone named friend, prompting my Post #2:

Hi, friend, thanks for your response. Yeah, I'm the same guy who's posted to Guruphiliac and What Enlightenment??! Please drop me a line if you ever have suggestions about what I should include on my own page; I'll definitely look into the blogs on the sidebar that you mentioned.

From my time with Muktananda... I recall that I had my own experience, and then there were these beliefs that everyone around me seemed to accept as true. And then there was this particular moment when I made what seemed like a tiny leap over this invisible line. Rather than sticking with what I actually experienced (and what I could logically conclude from it), I started to think, "Well, if *all* these nice happy people believe that Muktananda transmits a magical energy, and has special knowledge and powers, I might as well assume it's true..."

So now I've leaped back across that line in the opposite direction, and don't plan to make that innocent-looking assumption again. The process is interesting, though. Kind of amazing how when you're in a group of people all believing the same way, it's so easy to blur the line between direct experience and 2nd-hand beliefs.

In the Da intro program I spoke of, they said something like this: If you're in Da's presence, you'll definitely get these amazing and wonderful things happen to you, and you don't need to do anything. Except, oh yeah, just one little thing, you do have to accept that he's enlightened.

And I thought, Jeez, of course! Even if you accept that a rock is enlightened, you'll get amazing experiences in the presence of that rock (as in a Hindu temple, or a vortex in Sedona). But why pretend to accept something just because you're told too? It seems like a tiny thing at first, but then it's a slippery slope to no end of non-sense, based on the one little act of pretending.
OK, enough for my first blog.

[Addendum: 7 months after I blogged this, a commenter recommended the site Adi Da Samraj Archives, which holds extensive information critical of this guru.]