Nonduality, by David Loy

I have just begun a very exciting book, Nonduality, by David Loy. It is a philosophical analysis of three major non-dual philosophical systems: Advaita Vedanta, Taoism and Buddhism. It explores notions such as nondual perception and action in a rigorous and yet readable manner. Though is is primarily an academic work, it has already in a couple of chapters opened up some “real-life” philosophical puzzles that have haunted me for some time now!

I came across it in  Joan Tollifson’s reading list, which is a rich source for books in the non-duality ballpark.

Very excitingly, the author himself has uploaded the book as a scanned copy here. Please read for a sophisticated and exciting glimpse into the most profound philosophical traditions on the planet!

Free will: Sam Harris

If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process. Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed. You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control. Yes, you can do what you want—but you cannot account for the fact that your wants are effective in one case and not in another (and you certainly can’t choose your wants in advance). You wanted to lose weight for years. Then you really wanted to. What’s the difference? Whatever it is, it’s not a difference that you brought into being.
You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others—you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening—but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.
So it’s not that willpower isn’t important or that it is destined to be undermined by biology. Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t—and you cannot make your own luck.

Opinions

I have come to the understanding that almost any conceivable opinion that the human mind can come up with has been thought up already. What’s more, especially in our information-rich digital era, there are experts who will give and spread “evidence” and support for any and all of these opinions.

Consider:

Aliens have visited the earth

The universe is made up of just matter and energy, nothing more

The universe consists of aspects and dimensions far more than “mere” matter and energy

Science can/cannot account for or explain the world

There is free will

Free will is an illusion

Causality rules the universe

Chance rules the universe

Humanity will or will not reach the stars

Global warming is a myth / is the only problem worth thinking about as it might destroy us all

Nuclear energy will take care of our energy needs/ will throw up unforseen genetic dangers

Capitalism/ socialism: the best forms of arranging society and the economy

I could go on, indefinitely. It is interesting that each of these perceptions comes with seemingly solid lines of evidence (well, almost all of them!), finely argued. Even the grey areas between these ideas are finely argued and contested.

I used to spend a lot of time and energy trying to find the “right” set of opinions and convincing other people of their intrinsic value.

I don’t do this now. Instead, I realise that we are all attached to our opinions and back them up with vast reserves of emotion. Challenging opinions and trying to prove myself “right” merely brings up anger, divisiveness and an atmosphere of violence.

Rather, I now try to explore the attachment I have to opinions and the emotions they bring about. The same movement of attachment and emotion is manifesting in the person I am arguing with. This is the common ground of our humanity that we must touch in order to understand each other, rather than proving ourselves “right.”

This is not to say that all opinions are equal. They are not. Some perceptions are stronger, more logical and more creative than others. However, the mind that creates opinions and tries to defend them is essentially the same in all humans. Through meditation, we must understand this commonality very deeply, for in this understanding lies true compassion.

 

The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

the bell murdoch

They came quite suddenly out of the wood onto the wide expanse of grass near the drive. The great scene, the familiar scene, was there again before them, lit by a very yellow and almost vanished sun, the sky fading to a greenish blue. From here they looked a little down upon the lake and could see, intensely tinted and very still, the reflection in it of the farther slope and the house, clear and pearly grey in the revealing light, its detail sharply defined, starting into nearness. Beyond it on the pastureland, against a pallid line at the horizon, the trees took the declining sun, and one oak tree, its leaves already turning yellow, seemed to be on fire…

This gorgeous novel does not treat meditation explicitly. But it does address many spiritual questions: what constitutes goodness and virtue and beauty, how is one to live and love in the world without causing harm, what are compassionate states of mind. As such, it ranks as one of the most thoughtful and deep novels I have ever read, written with crystal clarity.

The novel concerns a lay religious Anglican community in England. It treats the private lives of several individuals there: en erring wife, afraid of her bullying husband; the head of the community, who grapples with his past and his homosexuality; a young boy who comes there to find himself before joining university. All are drawn together through a series of bizarre events on the estate.

The richness of the themes, the sense of mystery and, almost, sacredness that pervades everyday life, the portrayal of the depth of human minds: these are hallmarks of Murdoch’s novels. I envy those who are yet to read this work.

Pleasures

I’m seeking pleasure, most of the time. From my morning coffee to sitting in a warm patch of sunlight to listening to the rain to sex and sexual thoughts and romance to food to books to friendship to music: the move to pleasure motivates this organism tremendously.

It is very important to understand that pleasure is not morally “wrong.” If we label feelings as right or wrong, we are in effect moving away from them and not watching them and learning from them.

So: pleasure that is not harmful is not the problem. The problem seems to be that having had pleasure, the organism seeks it again and again. And the world does not allow pleasure to be automatically fulfilled. Therefore: frustration. Cunning ways of finding pleasure. A massive inner determination not to be thwarted in pleasure.

This powerful drive, though it is fun and provides “meaning,” also distorts my life in serious ways. I cannot be really deeply quiet if I am seeking pleasure. Nor can I be deeply compassionate. I cannot figure out what might be right action. Also: pleasure is just one dimension in the whole hologram of life. So by focussing on pleasure, I miss subtle and beautiful aspects of living. Perhaps I miss the “point” of life.

Pleasure emphasizes the me and makes it rigid and intent upon its own fulfilment.

What can I do about this?

Again, my intention is not to be moralistic about pleasure. So in no way should this be read as a holier-than-thou rant.

Awareness of the ways in which pleasure hardens the self and gives rise to deep sorrow and frustration is the key. As always, this awareness is not just a verbal recognition but a deeply and viscerally felt attention to the movements of body, mind and the self-construct.

In this recognition and awareness, perhaps the organism finds the space to move into a wider field of life than just the pleasure field. Pleasure then loses its grip on us, and we can lead more spacious and flexible and compassionate lives.

Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan

A piece on humility, time, space, love, violence, ideology, meditation, life and science

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

When Death Comes, by Mary Oliver

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.