The Interminability Of Gain And Loss

Consider that our phenomenal experience is always changing and therefore that anicca–meaning impermanence–may be true. Then we can come to some ordinary ways in which impermanence shows up for us.

In Buddhism, these are called the Eight Vicissitudes, and they are:

  • Pleasure and pain
  • Gain and loss
  • Praise and blame
  • Fame and disrepute

We might think that these are obvious, but your actual beliefs, desires, and behaviors belie this presumed understanding.

Take gain and loss. We might think:

  • “Once I get over this hurdle, then everything will be easy.”
  • “I just need my big break.”
  • “This startup will scale in no time.”
  • “Getting married shall make me abidingly happy.”

Or whatever. We set markers, milestones, or signs of success on the assumption that the latter will somehow put us past the period of being subject to experiencing a succession of gains and losses (or a streak of losses). But is that really so? Consult your own actual experience. Did everything become easy once you leaped over the last hurdle? Did your life forever change after you got the big break? Did scaling the startup transform your entire life? Did getting married, on its own, make you abidingly happy?

Of course not. Because the law of anicca holds even, or especially, in the face of your desires.

You might think that the only problem with this picture is the threat of loss, but that’s not true from a Buddhist point of view. It’s instead the attachment as much to gain as it is the aversion to loss–that is, it is the entire dynamic–that is causing suffering.

We can turn to Advaita now. If phenomenal experience is subject to impermanence and if certain common ways of getting caught are spelled out nicely in the Eight Vicissitudes, then it’s worth asking: who is the one contemplating the painful and the pleasant experiences, the experiences of gain as well as those of loss? Who is that one seeing it all, quietly observing without judgment and in abiding peace?

Avoiding The Traps Of Spiritual Tourism And Spiritual Materialism

Spirituality is exploding today.

Organized religions are, in many cases, failing to touch the hearts of younger people. Consequently, attendance at houses of worship is, among those in their 20s-40s, declining.

Meanwhile, spiritual exploration seems to me on the rise. The opportunity? That perennial questions, through experiments in psychotechnologies of transformation, will be imbued with new life.

The risks? Spiritual tourism and spiritual materialism.

As the Advaita Vedanta teacher Stephen Wolinsky tells us, genuine spirituality has nothing to do with having more, with being more, or with doing more. (*) Experiences don’t matter except insofar as they may be signs that one on the path of discovering one’s true nature. And such experiences, should they occur, are not possessions or even–dare I say?–“signs of progress.” True spirituality is not self-possession, Total Work, or self-improvement.

Indeed, all that really matters here is discovering one’s true nature and then living from that place. That’s it. Therefore, one must be, from first to last, a lover of truth and, to be a lover of truth, one must set aside everything else.

See how this proposition, straightforward and demanding, sounds to you.

Endnote

(*) It was my wife Alexandra who reminded me of his Wolinsky’s stringent position.

Humanism Is The Bubble Of Bubbles

“Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine.”

–G.I. Gurdjieff

Imagine that each of us has been living in a bubble. There is one bubble for each of us.

Imagine that when I go to look at a sunset, I see it filtered through my transparent bubble. That when I go to touch the pedals of a flower, I feel the inside of the bubble as it conforms to the shape of each pedal it comes into contact with. That when I move about in the world, I feel the inside of the bubble on the bottoms of my feet and maybe even on the tips of my eyelids. And that when I go to kiss my wife, we feel only our lips caressing our respective bubbles.

What does the bubble signify? Only that I seem to experience a world of separate, solid objects “out there” while I am behind a thick divider “in here.” That my sensuous engagement with a world of other people and other beings is always “filtered” through this protective layer. And that there is a kind of unspeakable, because unknowable, isolation I feel–an isolation from anything “above,” from anything and anybody “around,” and from any animating world “in” and “through” me.

Now imagine one more bubble, the bubble of bubbles: that is, the bubble continuing all individual human bubbles. Call this bubble, which contains some 7 billion people, the “human species.” See that it’s cut off from anything but humankind. This is Humanism.

*

This two-part thought experiment replicates, to a degree, what it’s like to live, as we do, in the the Humanist Era, the era starting perhaps at the end of the Renaissance, the one we’ve come to embrace while at the same time taking for granted. For we are living out certain basic assumptions that, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed, are “so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.” Which assumptions seem to be so obvious to us in this case?

First, that the world of matter and energy is separate from us and that the cosmos, now understood as a universe (or multiverse), is inert, objective, distant. Second, that anything we might call the divine–God in the Abrahamic traditions, the Dao in Daoism, sunyata in Buddhism, or the Self in Hinduism–is inextricably severed from us, having slowly, over the course of modernity, withdrawn from human affairs. Third, that other sentient beings like wildebeests and squirrels and cockroaches are removed from us and therefore, in many cases, are no more than impediments to our conquests. Fourth and above all, that the only things that matter are anthropocentric in nature: what I, a human being, think of myself, want for myself, fear in relation to myself, and what I think, desire, and fear in connection with other human beings. When what I’m describing above is not narcissism, plain and simple, it is species-wide narcissism. In fact, it is both. We are enclosed in a dream consisting of one human drama called “psychology” after another called “politics” after another known as “economics”…. And so on and so on and so on.

Meanwhile, Humanism has failed, the Earth is dying, and we homo sapiens are alone and lost. We need to wake up–now.

Metta And The late Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers died in 2003. When I was growing up, I didn’t think much of, nor (if I recall rightly) did I often watch, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It seemed to me saccharine, sentimental, lugubrious.

I was wrong.

About a year ago, I saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and was moved to tears. Suppose that the documentary is accurate. Then it could be said that Fred Rogers embodied the Second Commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Which is poignant and wise. Or better: poignant because wise.

I want to interpret this commandment in an unorthodox and entirely scripturally unfounded way as saying, in an Advaita key, that one is to love the neighbor (i.e., any neighbor) as thy Self. That is, I don’t think it means: “Act as if you were standing in your neighbor’s shoes. From this standpoint, treat your neighbor accordingly.” Nor do I think it means: “Treat your neighbor as you yourself, if you were in his or her position, would like to be treated.” Nor does it mean: “Act altruistically.”

Instead, it means: “Since Reality is only the Self (brahman), let your present conduct flow directly from seeing that there is absolutely no essential difference between you and the other. Every being is the Self. The other is not ultimately other, therefore, even if the other is relatively other in terms of ‘name and form.'” In other words, let love be the natural and fullest expression of recognizing that here too (but what does the “too” mean?) is the Self.

Which puts me in mind, and heart, of metta, or lovingkindness practice:

  • “May I love myself.”
  • “May I love my significant other.”
  • “May I love my friends, neighbors, and family members.”
  • “May I love he or she who has, to date, been my enemy.”
  • “May I love all sentient beings.”

Pressed far enough, is not metta, or lovingkindness, itself an attempt to show that love itself is naturally expansive? That love itself has no borders or boundaries, no limit to itself? Is it not saying effectually: “Do this practice until you see directly that all everywhere is love?”

Understood this way, Fred Rogers’ song does not refer to positive psychology or to developmental psychology in any strict sense but to metaphysics:

I like you as you are
Without a doubt or question
Or even a suggestion
Cause I like you as you are

This is precisely love. To love is to not have any thought or desire or feeling about things–you–being any different from what you ultimately are. Love knows nothing but love. Therefore, love knows only itself.

Mudita, One Of The Four Divine Abodes

In Buddhist practice, the Four Divine Abodes are:

  • Love or Loving-kindness (metta)
  • Compassion (karuna)
  • Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
  • Equanimity (upekkha)

I’d like to say something about mudita.

According to Access to Insight, “Sympathetic joy means a sublime nobility of heart and intellect which knows, understands and is ready to help.” Also, “Sympathetic joy that is strength and gives strength: this is the highest joy.” This sounds beautiful, but what does it mean for us?

*

Let’s start simply by trying to look at common non-mudita reactions. Someone comes to you with good news. How might you feel?

  • Envious: you want what she has, so you bite your tongue while betraying your ill will
  • Annoyed: you’re in the middle of something important, and he is interrupting you; therefore, his interests are presumed to be more important than yours
  • Indifferent and cold: since it doesn’t mean much to you, you don’t think much of it
  • Flat: you get what she’s saying and you intellectually see that she is enthused about it, but you see her as if from afar, as if behind a screen

Are we not usually envious, annoyed, indifferent, or flat? How often do we really show to the other person that we wish her well for her own sake?

Indeed, wishing the other well for her own sake or caring for the other for her own sake was precisely the definition of genuine friendship that Aristotle proffered. But then if we’re so very rarely wishing someone well for her own sake and celebrating her good news on her behalf, then is there not a considerable hole or deficit in ourselves?

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, seeks to rectify our presumed self-centeredness by inviting us to share in the good news of others. To be sympathetically joyful, I need to stretch my understanding while inclining both my ears and my emotions in order to step onto the doorstep of the other’s inner chamber. I can’t stay where I am, flat-footed and quizzical. I must move myself, as it were, one step closer.

Mudita entails not just the withering away, if only temporarily, of my self-centeredness but also the rightful embrace of intimacy. In this single act, I imply without saying: “In all things, I want what is best for you. May your sufferings be transmuted and may you find abiding peace. In all things, may your heart songs–all of them–be the truest, sweetest hymns. I wish all this for you.”