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.


Urban Tea Monk said...

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.

OK, you're surrounded by people who share a belief that "fact or experience" is something other than "faith." And you've joined this group's faith (which is the belief that "fact or experience" is different from "faith") because you want to believe this, too. So now you confuse that faith (which is the belief that faith is different from "fact or experience") with fact or experience?

How very recursive of you! :-)

Stuart said...

Thanks as always for commenting, u.t. monk.

> you're surrounded by people who
> share a belief that "fact or
> experience" is something other
> than "faith."

What I'm talking about isn't based on believing in anything. If you take just a moment to carefully pay attention, you can actually see thinking appear and disappear. And you can see the distinction between what's created by thinking, and what's before thinking.

That's the meaning of practice... actually looking into your own experience. What do you perceive just now? What are you doing just now? There's something you can find for yourself, that you'll never ever find by following words and thinking. Words can only point to it, can only encourage us to look into it for ourselves.


Stones said...

More info on this hoax can be found here. Some fan created it all...

Stuart said...

stones wrote...
> More info on this hoax can be
> found here. Some fan created it
> all...

Thanks for the heads-up, stones. The link you posted was too long to fit in these comments, so I tried making a shorter one; try: