Where I left off in my last post, I was talking about the ability to remain in the here and now. I mentioned how the here and now had a very enlightening quality about it. Being in the here and now was the key to immense wisdom. I would find out within a few days how deep the wisdom runs in the here and now.
On 25th of September, I received a phone call from US that my uncle had passed away. He had been a successful surgeon, 71 yo. He had a heart attack, went into coma, and 5 days later – boom – he was dead.
I called to talk to his wife but she was busy, so I ended up talking to his niece. I asked where he was now and she said “the body is at the hospital, they will directly take it to the funeral home from the hospital”.
“IT”…the word shocked my tender sensibilities. Within a few moments, “he” – the successful surgeon, with a loving family, a high end home in the high end suburb of Virginia – had been reduced to the “body” that was an “it”. And he wasn’t coming home to say goodbye. He was being sent directly to the funeral house. Everyone was done with the body, the body was no longer him, but an “it,” while they mourned the “him.”
It struck me deep, this process of transformation that highlights the real and perceptual so well. We believe we love the body. We relate to the body. We interact with the body. But obviously it is not the body that we hold dear, or else the body would not be discarded so quickly. What is it that we hold dear then? A soul that we can never see or experience? A consciousness that is dimmed and dumbed down by its mortality? What is it that attracts us to each other and attaches to us?
This gap, between what we think is the recipient of our love and relationship, and what actually we relate to, is part of the illusion. One can see it very clearly in the transformation of a human being from animate to inanimate, from living to dead, from an entity to a non entity, from being free to being carried around like a burden, from being cherished and protected, to be disposed off at the earliest opportunity by those who had so professed to love that body up until a few hours ago.
Transient. Impermanent. Destructible. Everything. Body. Relationships. Bonds. Loves. Attachments. All of them transient, impermanent
Up until a few hours ago, he himself would have been enormously attached to the body – decorating it, accessorizing it, grooming it, to look his best. He would think this was all there was to his existence – his body. And just like that, the body had become irrelevant. In a moment. No amount of thinking about the future had helped him in any way.
The only thing that was left behind, was how well he had spent the moments that he lived.
My post has nothing to do with my uncle or his family’s decision. It is an exercise in self reflection on our real and virtual identities, our stake in the universe, and this world of perceptions. Once again, we come full circle on matters related to death and dying. In fact, when are we really free of this reflection? When is it a good time not to think about death and dying ? the answer is – never. It is not advisable to lose sight of this fact. As soon as we forget about death and dying, we become arrogant, and narcissistic.
It doesn’t matter when and how we die. What matters is how we have lived. But life cannot be lived well without a constant and conscious reflection on death and dying. If the ultimate is death, and death is certain, then it makes sense that death, and not birth, serve as a reference point against which we each must measure our ongoing travels thru life, and our achievements.
But strangely, we never do that. We measure our achievements with reference to our birth. We count years of our birth in context to the beginning, and celebrate the years that we have lived, as if birthdays begin from zero and stretch into infinity – without a conscious reflection that our life always moves between two points, that every year celebrated also brings us closer to death. We determine our worth in context of our birth as in we came into this world with nothing, and therefore a measure of our success is how much we have amassed in terms of wealth, relationships, and….stuff.
Were we to use death as a reference point, we would remember that we will be leaving without any of our possessions, and hence, we would be forced to think in terms of how less we need to hold onto. So a spirit of renunciation would arise if we referenced and remembered death and dying. But sadly, for most of us, this spirit of renunciation does not arise. The desire, the anticipation, the need – and the greed – does not recede as we move forward towards death. And then suddenly – boom – we have a heart attack, or we have a stroke and we die. Everything that we have worked so hard for, becomes redundant, meaningless. And those around us who witness our death, they shake their heads, and say “he had so much to live for…” or words to that effect. Yes, he had his “stuff” to live for.
But that is kind of like the tail wagging the dog.
All this is empty. It only reflects our desire to avoid reality. We’re too afraid to think of the second endpoint – death – that we are inching towards. We are too afraid to think that the stuff isn’t what will make our lives worthwhile. Each one of us behaves exactly like Gautama Buddha’s father did when he refused allow old age, death, sickness to enter the his kingdom. He wanted to protect Buddha from these facts of life. In a similar manner, we force ourselves to remain oblivious of sickness, death, and dying. We don’t want to know, or think about these issues. But not thinking about them makes us live in an artificial reality. It doesn’t really make these issues go away – it simply prevents us from being pro-active in living our life to the fullest, and the best of our ability. The reality remains, regardless of how our attention acknowledges, accepts, avoids or denies the reality, regardless of how we construct our life around the reality. The facts eventually hit us one day, in the same way as they hit Buddha – suddenly and completely. And we are forced thus, to take notice.
So we like a trapeze artist, we must walk this tight-rope of life, balancing birth, and death at each step, constantly weighing how much we have lived and what we have gained, against how best to utilize the rest of our life, and how much we really need. And the the pivotal and important part of the process is where we stand and how we hold ourselves in the here and now. The trapeze artist puts all his energy in the here and now. He isnt resting on his laurels, nor is he concerned where he is going. Each step he takes, every effort that he makes, is dedicated to the present. A walk on the tight-rope is a perfect metaphor for a well lived life.
But how is it that our consciousness altogether avoids such a stark reality of here and now?
If the future is so frightful, the mind jumps to the past, by bypassing the here and now. But the past doesn’t hold us for long, and the morbid existential fears drag us to the future, only now we don’t look at the future as it is, but we conjures up images, or alternate realities that are unreal. And so, we jump back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, from one unreality, to the next, being chased by non existent demons created by our own minds, much like Neo and everyone else in Morpheus’ team, in The Matrix.
Our minds have developed complicated and complex defense mechanisms to avoid existential reality, the reality of death, because the reality informs us of our mortality. The fear related to this mortality is so immense that our mind conjures up tricks to evade self realization in the here and now. Our refusal to address the here and now leads to mindlessness…we’re always engrossed in something that was not, or is not, or even that which is never going to be. Being engrossed thus, the attention drifts away from that which is, in the present.
This drifting away into this unreality, into what is not, is made possible thru a mechanism called thoughts. Thoughts exist only to relieve us of this existential reality. They help us navigate the process, they help us navigate the unreal. There is no need for thoughts in the real world of our experiences. They arise only when we stop experiencing. When we stop living in the real. The sensations are real. Our experiences – arising from our sensations – are real. Thoughts arise to take us beyond sensations, and experiences – to take us to the la la lands of our imagination.
In the here and now, there is no need for thoughts, because it is the explicit experience of reality. One feels. One senses. One experiences. One doesn’t generate thoughts in the present. Thoughts only arise when we avoid the present and jump back and forth on the perceptual timeline – perceptual since there isn’t one that is real. Like the latitudes and longitudes around the earth, the timelines are constructs of human mind.
Lets take an example. I am looking out of the window and watch the giant leaf gently sway in the breeze. It gives rise to a very pleasant sensation – the scene is beautiful.
Simple action of witnessing the leaf and its dance in the breeze in the here and now. My eyes see, my ears hear the sounds of the wind, if any. The observation and experience ends there. As long as I can hold the attention on the sight, the sound, and the experience of the wind,, and whatever comes with it, that is great. This experience brings with it enormous amount of knowledge, if only I choose to accept this knowledge.
But for reason infinite, the experience doesn’t stay there. I complicate the experience by contaminating it with my conditioned learning, from the past.
The mind attempts to retrieve the name of the large leaf. There’s stress if I cannot remember the name of the tree. Perhaps its a fig tree. Or it is a maple? Once the leaf is identified, the mind doesn’t wish to dwell on it any more. It feels all information about the leaf is already in its repertoire of experience, why bother to get more? It drifts. If the leaf isn’t identified, one dwells on the process of how best it could be identified it. So on, and on and on. But really, what difference does the name make? Why an attempt to club this leaf with all others? Why not learn more about this leaf and how it interacts with you – your mind, your body – in the here and now?
In the same way, my ears begins assessing the sound, and I understand this is the sound of the wind. Once identified, the mind is not interested in exploring it further. It drifts, because it thinks it knows what the wind is, and how it feels. Why discount this experience of the wind?
Just as each fingerprint is different, and unique, and each person is different and unique, so is each experience different and unique. Why try to dumb down the experience ?
The brain is always measuring, calibrating, evaluating, and deciding. It is constantly engaged in discerning pre-identified patterns. Much like object-oriented programming of the computers. The mind doesn’t create new experience, it just superimposes prior learning onto the new experience.
Can you imagine how stifling that is? Perhaps you can. Repetitive, stifling, imposing, dominating. Lacking creativity. If people did not treat you as an individual, and they just stereotyped you into a class, or classes, what would that do to you? You would become invisible. And what isn’t visible, cannot grow – this is the law of nature. That is exactly what it does to our learning abilities.
Because there is no new learning going on, the mind is idle, much like the electric wires are idle when there is no current passing thru them, or a toaster is idle when it is not plugged in. Or much like the electrons, when no one is observing them. The electrons in the wire, toaster, or generally, when there is no force guiding them, simply exist as possibilities and probabilities. As any student of physics will tell you, this state, is the state of chaos, of no orderly process, or disorder. In the same way, the human mind exists in a state of disorder, chaos, it dwells in a world of possibility and probability.
This disordered, chaotic state manifests itself as a thought. It is a state where “electrons” – quite literally, for our synaptic transmission is based on electric currents – dwell in a haphazard manner. They are undirected.
Attention is the force that disciplines the chaotic existence, our thoughts, much in the same way a voltage difference disciplines the flow of electrons. When the toaster is turned off, the electrons in ts wires are unfocussed, and are wandering around freely, and randomly. When the toaster is swicthed on, the voltage differential created between the two points of the plus forced the electrons to flow thru the gadget/toaster as a current.
In the same way, when we focus our attention, or in other words, when we observe where our attention is, and we command it to remain there, or we direct it elsewhere, the electrons in our neural system become disciplines and directed. We achieve focus. The thoughts, and the related experiences become meaningful.
The difference in voltage between the points the electricity flows, is an indicator of the magnitude of the current flowing thru the wire. The more the voltage differential, the less will the electrons be distracted from their path, and the faster they will flow between the divide. Similarly, the force, or magnitude of our attention is indicative of the intensity of our thought process. Thus, where the attention is substantially forceful, we can experience significant intensity of thinking processes, our ability to access different parts of the brain is higher. We experience breakthroughs quicker.
But this speed and intensity comes at the expense of attention. Attention is the currency we use to direct our thoughts. And in doing so, we spend this currency on cherry picking previous such experiences from the experiential warehouse, we pick the patterns that would best fit the present situation. In other words, we forego new experiences. Because we forego experiences, there is no reason for attention to remain focussed, because we have decided that there is nothing new to learn. We stay conditioned. We stifle creativity. We use attention inappropriately, for something it was not meant to be used.
One can say we abuse the gift of attention.
What would happen if we stayed in the here and now? There would be no thought. Here and now is a thoughtless state. The entire attention is available to you, to do what you like with it. It is a phenomenal experience, it is the re-experience of infancy – when the world was unknown, and each moment was a learning experience. We are all told that children have immense ability to to learn, and they lose this ability as they grow older? This is not true. We teach them – and hence they teach themselves – not to use this ability. We get mad if they don’t remember and learn from previous experiences and use those previous experiences. So we condition them.
But this ability – to assimilate new experiences – lies dormant within every human being. The ability to live in the here and now, and to assimilate only that which is in the here and now. This requires us to accept that all the learned experiences from the past are to be left in the past. We would have to unlearn the past. To let go of everything from the past – all that which is tainted with and by perception. That perception, which is only accessible thru thought.
We are not afraid of 3D spaces, we are not terrified every moment of what is ahead of us, or behind us (unless you are a bad driver like me and have to constantly worry about the cars ! LOL!)
The fear, the greed, the avarice, the attachments – they all arise from our inability to remain in the present. If I am alive right now, and I could not think of the future, or of the past, there would be no fear, no greed, no avarice, no sadness, no hate, no aversions.
Or, if I could see the future, and the past, I would be less anxious about it. Because the future and the past is hidden from us, we are unable to evaluate it accurately ,and we have to make all kinds of conjectures – and the equipment that is used to arrive at these conjectures, constitutes the thought process.
What is, is. And that is all there is. So it is our inability to remain in the here and now, that gives rise to thoughts, which become grounds for our attachments or aversions, and create a cycle of suffering.
So be smart. Don’t think of past. Don’t think of future. Don’t think how it will be, or how you want it to be. Just focus on the here and now. Do your best to make sure this moment is well spent. That you are doing whatever you want to do, to the best of your ability. Every single moment. The attention thus directed, without being distracted by thoughts, and other chaotic processes, is immensely powerful. It has the power of divinity. It has the ability to secure for you what you are diverting it to. In these moments of clear and uninterrupted focus, you are the universe, and you have the power of the universe within you.
This, in summary, is also the teaching of Bhagvad Gita regarding Karma Yoga, the teaching that one should not worry about the fruit of one’s Karma, and do the Karma to the best of one’s volition and ability.
In the third of the trilogy, I would like to sum up my experiences in how the living in the here and now serves to enhance our problem solving skills, our knowledge and our wisdom.