Stress

Stress is discord between expectation and reality.

By instinct, we respond to stress by trying to change reality. If the world or others don’t confirm to my expectations, then I will make them conform. I will remove the discord by aligning reality with my expectation.

This instinct is pervasive. Deep seated. And often largely unconscious.

It also perpetuates stress. The more I try to make reality conform to my expectations, the more the discord increases. More stress rises.

The other extreme is to try to give up expectations altogether. A forced resignation to reality.

But this too leads to stress. Giving up expectations becomes an expectation, which conflicts with the reality of being unable to give up all expectations.

What then? If I can’t change reality to fit my expectations, nor give up expectations, how to respond to stress?

Be aware of it.

Don’t just act out of it. Nor try to dismiss it or cover it up. Be with it. With the sense of discord. With the tension between what you want and what is happening.

You can’t change reality however you want. Nor can you get rid of expectations by fiat.

If you sit with the discord, a third option arises: reality will slowly transform your expectations, which in turn will slowly work on reality.

If you don’t try to control how expectations and reality coexist, but give them space to exist with each other even in discord, they will slowly make friends with each other.

Expectations then won’t try to impose themselves onto reality. Nor reality try to bully expectations.

Both are equal partners. Stress arises when one is seen as more in control. When one is experienced as the aggressor and the other as the supplicant. Stress is the feeling of war between the two.

Peace is the experience of not taking sides. Not favoring reality or expectations. Seeing both as intertwined and inseparable.

Reality is reality. Vast. Uncontrollable. A wild bull which can’t be harnessed.

As a human, as a cognitive being, expectations are reality. Built into me through millions of years of biology, thousands of years of culture and decades of biography. My expectations are no easier for me to control often than I can control the wind or the lightening. Expectations flow through me like lava through an erupting volcano.

Expectations I can easily control are only surface expectations. The more the stress, the deeper the expectations in play and harder to be aware of them, let alone control.

The deep expectations are no more in my control than reality outside me. The deep expectations are just ultimately part of reality. The more I relate to them as reality, as something I can’t just control through my will, the less the stress.

The tension is really between reality and itself: outer reality and inner reality, both vaster than anything I can easily change. Stress is the identification with one aspect of reality over another.

Stress is like identifying with one wheel of a bicycle and seeing the other wheel as an antagonist. “I want it to move when i move, but how dare it makes me move when it wants to move!”

Leave to outer reality what is outer reality. Leave to deep habit and expectations what is deep habit and expectations. Identify with neither. Don’t get caught in their fights.

Give each space and observe them. Be friendly with both without trying to resolve their dispute. Don’t seek the happiness of an easy resolution. Open yourself to the peace of them working it out slowly over time. Be open to new, unexpected solutions and paths.

Stress is like greed: it’s pain and desire can’t be satisfied. Trying to satisfy it only leads to temporary satiation and ultimately to further craving and deeper pain.

Step outside of stress and just observe it. Don’t side with expectations or with reality.

Stress can’t be fulfilled. Through yelling or force or getting them to do what you want or you being better.

Stress can only be dissolved. Deflated through not identifying with it.

Stress can’t be overcome. It can only be side stepped.

Step to the side and let it pass. Observe it as it passes.

Observe the tangle between expectations and reality the way you would observe two wild animals locked in battle. With caution, with respect. Mindful of them and the space of their battle. And mindful to keep your distance and not be pulled into that space.

My Father the Taoist?

Do you want to improve the world? 
I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred. 
It can’t be improved. 
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. 
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

– Tao te ching, 29

When I was 16 I said to my father: “Dad, you care so much about philosophy. Truth. Living a good life. What about all the suffering in the world? The homeless people. How can they be helped?”

He said, “That is not my concern. Nor yours. Just live your life as best as you can, follow your spiritual path. Find the Truth. Focus just on that. Don’t worry about others.”

This seemed to me a bizarre response. How can such a wise person be so… uncaring? Didn’t the young Buddha grieve seeing suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die for us? The spiritual person cares more for others than for himself, so I thought. Yet, the most spiritual I knew as a young sixteen year old was a my father. So how can he say. “Forget about others, improving the world, and live just for your personal spiritual task?”

I said to myself: “There is the philosophy side of him and the middle class, conventional, conformist side. His apathy towards my anxieties about homelessness and injustice and all the pain in the world – that is the conformist side of him. It can’t be the philosophy side of him! It must be his philosophy side being overwhelmed by the conventional side. Why can’t be like Gandhi, or MLK? How can such a strong spiritual person be so…ordinary in terms of his acceptance of injustices and not try to change the world?” I felt sad. For him, for what seemed to his inability to break out of the orbit of middle class complacency. And for me, for my inability to break out of his oribit – for being caught in the pull of his complacency.

But could it be that his response to me was itself a philosophical response? That he meant it as a philosophical response to me? That in his regard at least he was a Taoist, warning me that if I tampered with the world, I would ruin it? That if I treated the world like an object to be saved, I would lose it? 

 He would have denied this and not identified as a Taoist. I am not sure he even knew about Taoism. To him the Tao Te Ching would have seemed like some Far East mumbo jumbo, far removed from the clear affirmations of the Truth in the Gita or the Upanishads.

Still, the resemblance between what Lao Tzu said and what he said is unmistakable.

Seeking can get in the way of being. Caring about others in an anxious way can be an obstacle to knowing yourself – and to helping others. The peace the world needs begins in oneself. As that peace flows outward without intention or fear, it multiples without effort.

What my father meant wasn’t, “Forget the homeless. Focus on your material goods and satisfaction.” He meant: “Forget the homeless. Let go of ordinary desires, including the desire to help. Be mindful of that desire, as with any desire. Don’t grasp. Don’t get caught in the world of should, oughts, deserves. Be still. Be one with all. Relate to others not as external beings who need your help, but as your own self.”

But if I relate to them as myself, shouldn’t that mean I ought to care about them since of course I care about myself?

My Dad’s point: “Care without caring. Be without striving. Quiet the mind. Don’t give in to the mind as it comes in the seductive form of guilty or judgmental compassion. Be unmoved by the seduction of the mind. Disassociate from your small self, even as it presents itself to you as the compassionate, caring, world directed self, and judges your stillness as complacency.”

Thinking is irrational. Non-thinking is rational. Doing is irrational. Non-doing is rational. 

Caring is selfishness. Non-caring is compassion. Selfishness is compassion, and compassion is selfishness.

One who doesn’t strive wins because he never loses. He is everywhere because he is still. He doesn’t fight or push or resist or accumulate because he has all.

He sees a homeless person and sees just him. He doesn’t see himself as privileged, nor the other as unlucky. He sees words and concepts as incomplete, and sees only the Tao as complete.

“How can we tell the difference between complacency and being with the Tao?”

Focus on other’s actions and if they are complacent, and be caught in judgments. There is no healing, no helping there.

Focus on yourself and if you are complacent, and be caught in guilt. There is no freedom there, no growth.

Complacency is a coping mechanism when the natural flow of energy is blocked. Pushing against it makes it stronger. Be with the natural flow. Let the Tao move around and through the coping mechanism. The Tao changes without effort. With effort, the mind strengthens the resistance.

A batter who constantly swings the bat doesn’t hit the ball. Or can’t control the ball if he hits it. Knowing when not to swing, to be still, to let go is the source of strength. The strongest batter is the most patient. He swings through non-swinging. He resides in emptiness and follows the Tao into movement. And into stillness. He surrenders to the Tao. He is free because he doesn’t control.

He resides in himself without being alone. He lets go and never loses what he has. 

Post-Election Mindfulness

Like all life, yesterday’s elections, first and foremost, just are. Each individual race happened as it did. This person won, that person lost. And the broad scale results are what they are.

I am with the results as one is with the rain and the sunshine, with babies being born and loved ones dying. As something much bigger than me, much bigger than any politician, much bigger than any one group.

As a Democratic voter, I am happy about some things, unhappy about others. As a friend and family member of Republican voters, I am happy for them for some things, unhappy for them about others. As an American, I am happy about some results, unhappy about other results. As a person, I have this and that emotion, this joy and that anxiety.

Being mindful doesn’t mean I am any less a Democrat than one who is excited or unhappy. Or any less committed to liberal causes. It just means I am mindful. I am aware of my emotions. I am aware of others’ emotions. I try to see both with a caring and yet dispassionate glance.

Being overcome by emotion suggests one’s life is determined by those outside events. One feels empowered because that happened over there. One feels disempowered because this happened over there. In both, over there sets the tone. And the voice within says: “Of course, over there sets the tone. You are only a very small part, with very little power on your own. Unlike those big, powerful people who have power, who are on TV winning or losing, and with whom you have to align yourself.”

Mindfulness suggests something else. Yes, I am less famous than those on TV winning and losing. Yes, I have less power in many ways. But no, they don’t matter more than me. Not in the big picture.  If I can step out of my monkey mind and am just aware of it, I am doing the most work I can do right now, right here. And it is the most work any person can do, no matter how famous, rich, smart, good looking or powerful. If they do what they do without mindfulness, it is one big step forward, two big steps back. But if I do even a little bit with mindfulness, it is only one very little step forward, but without going backward.

Politics is a part of human life. An important part. But not the main part or the most essential. Life is for growing as a human being. I focus on that and fit politics into that, and not the other way around. It is the best way to help others in the long run. To help without selfishly taking in the process.

Mindfulness. Prayer. Contemplation. When these are the center of one’s life, they center all else one does. And gives those actions a glow of inner strength which radiates outward.

Act with a glow. Without fear or seeking spikes of pleasure. Act with awareness. Be awareness. It is the best you can be and the most good you can do. Let the glow reflect through your politics, rather than letting the politics limit your glow.

Be big. Very big. Be the biggest big awareness you can be.

The World Without Me

By instinct I am the center of my world. What happens to me and those I identify with feels like the most important things in the world.

I know I am only a speck in the universe. There are billions of other humans, of whom I know maybe a few hundred personally.

This is hard to hold onto: that for those billions of other humans, and for the billions of other nonhuman animals, it is as if I don’t exist. My toothache or life threatening illness or financial problems or self esteem concerns don’t matter to them at all. I could die right now, or be in excruciating pain, or be riddled with anxiety over my appearance or social position, and it won’t make any difference to them. Their lives move on as if nothing happened, propelled only by the concerns of their lives.

Can I blame them for this negligence or uncaring attitude towards me? How can I? I am equally uncaring towards them. Even the thousands living in my neighborhood are but for me neighbors in my life, devoid for me of any concern beyond being my neighbors.

Nor can it be different. Can I keep in mind all 70,000 people who live in my city? Maybe if I were a computer with large processing powers. Still, that would be to track them as in a database. Can I care about their lives personally the way I care about me and those I know personally? Of course not.

To be conscious is to have a limited awareness.

Fame appeals because it allows for the illusion of overcoming this brute reality. If I am famous, my death, my pain, my joy, my life matters to millions. Matters objectively. Matters really. Or so it seems.

It feels if I am famous, then others will know me the way I really am. But of course this is not true.

I think about many famous people. Obama. Trump. Gandhi. Jesus. My life doesn’t and didn’t affect them. Their life affects and affected mine. Still, for me it is not their lives as they live them that matters. But their lives as it affects me that matters to me. They are in my life the way my neighbors are. As contours in my life. God himself is experienced most of the time as my God, based on how he manifests in the world of my concerns.

There is no caring for all people. To keep them in mind. That is an illusion, like fame.

What I can do is try to still the me-ness implicit in my perceptions and thoughts. To be more aware of the world in which I don’t exist. To embrace my own limitedness, and that of any conscious being. To see past the shadows I cast over my perceptions.

Wisdom isn’t about accumulating. It is about chipping away.

Until I can embrace the world without me.

Shamans of the Soul

We have this articulated space we can all discuss, and outside of that we have something that is more akin to a dream that we are embedded in… And in that dream, that is where the mystics live, and the artists, and they are the meditators between the absolute unknown and the things we know for sure. And if those two things are out of sync, if our articulated knowledge is out of sync with our dreams, then we become dissociated internally….And that produces a kind of sickness of the spirit. And [in that sickness] people turn to ideologies, which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure to try to organize their thinking, and then that is a catastrophe. That is what Nietzsche saw. He knew that when we knock the slats out of the base of Western civilization by destroying this representation, this God ideal, let’s say, we would destablize and move back and forth violently between nihilism and the extremes of ideology…. And we have been oscillating back and forth between left and right ever since, and with some nihilism and despair thrown in. That is the situation of the modern Western person.(8:30 mark)

The Bible … exists in that space that is half into dream and half into articulated knowledge. And going into it to find out what the stories are about can aid our self-understanding… If Nietzsche was correct and if Dostoevsky and Jung were correct, without the corner stone that understanding provides, we are lost. And that’s not good because then we are susceptible to psychic pathologies. People who are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that if we abandoned our immersement in the underlying dream, we would all instantly become rationalists like Descartes or Bacon, intelligent, clear thinking, rational, scientific people. I don’t believe that for a moment, because I don’t think there is any evidence for it. I think we would become so irrational so rapidly that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would seem rational by contrast, and that is already happening.(44:00 mark) – Jordan Peterson

These quotes are from Jordan Peterson’s first lecture in his course on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. It is an amazing lecture, in which he puts his finger on why spirituality matters in society.

At root religious fundamentalists and ardent atheists make the same mistake: they assume that a rationally articulated understanding of the world is, or can be, the basis of human experience and society. The religious fundamentalist claims his favorite religion and culture for the role of that rational articulation. The ardent atheist claims a clear-headed scientific awareness for that role. But what both show thereby is a naive understanding of human psychology.

It also highlights the limits of philosophy as traditionally understood.

Human consciousness is rooted primarily in deep story telling. A sense of where one came from, and where one is going. Of who we are, and why we are going through this thing called life, and how best to go through it.

This story telling resonates with us when it comes from the depth of our being, from the space of, as Peterson put it, our dreams. From beyond the control and guidance of our conscious awareness.

This captures both what Rorty got right, and what he got wrong. He was right that a fundamental role of philosophy is to tell stories, intellectual stories. But he was wrong in that the stories can be told mainly from the level of the intellect. They need to come from deeper within us. They need to come from a space and point of being and consciousness in us where we have let go of our conscious crutches and fears and anxieties and ideas, and give ourselves to a deeper energy.

Ancient texts such as the Bible or the Vedas were many things. Science, philosophy, literature, culture. But at bottom, beyond all that, they were telling deep stories at the level of our deepest consciousness, so as to awaken within us to that deeper, higher form of consciousness.

Since the time of those texts, science, philosophy, literature and so on have gone on to be modes of activity on their own. They are not done in one text. And that’s great. That allows us to explore the different dimensions of life and world without running them together. Science doesn’t have to be beholden to literature or moral needs. Similarly, with literature and so on.

But there is still the need for deep stories which tap into the depth of being and have a kind of unifying and guiding structure.

Peterson is totally right that political ideologies on the right and the left have their appeal because they mimic these deep stories of spirituality, and for the people who get pulled into them, they feel like the deepest stories they know. Hence debate goes nowhere between proponents of different ideologies. The appeal of the ideology just is that it speaks to a realm of consciousness within us much deeper than that of debate. And so “debate” becomes rather just a way of fighting about which deeper realm is better. This is what happens on cable news, facebook, twitter, etc.

As was evident in the 19th century, nationalism in politics is a particularly powerful deep story. As are trans-national stories like communism, or the spread of capitalism and freedom, etc. Nowadays we can add these the deep stories of multi-culturalism, feminism and so on.

The fact that these deep stories get a grip on us means that they are deeply right about something. They speak to something deep in us. Trying to debate which of them is right never succeeds because the realm of debate cannot move by itself the deeper currents which make the deep story appealing in the first place.

Hence what is produced is what thinkers have long noticed, since the time of Socrates, Buddha and Lao Tzu, that there are forms of debate which are mainly unproductive. They have merely the form of understanding and engaging with the other side, but which are really just expressions of an already accepted and unshakable worldview, and which the debaters have no intention of changing or giving up.

If not through debate, how do we deal with the conflicting deep stories in our lives? If not debate, what can bring some structure and peace?

Deeper deep stories. Much, much deeper deep stories.

Nationalism, communism, post-colonialism, feminism, religious fundamentalism, combative atheism – these have the form of deep stories, and they evoke the passions and identifications which come from below our more ordinary, surface awareness. And one can identify the ups and downs of each view – and yet not really move the needle much.

There is only one way to engage with and move beyond a deep story: to tell a deeper story. To go even deeper into the human consciousness, to be more courageous, to forgo the surface ego and rational consciousness more, to be more fearless and less self-protective. To dive wholesale into the ocean which is the human psyche and to trust that the more you immerse yourself in that psyche without fear, the more our shared human psyche will speak out deeper deep stories which move us and open up new avenues of awareness and action.

In our world of science, philosophy, politics, literature and overall modernity and clear-sightedness, there is still a deep need for shamans of the soul. 

Not the kind who embrace an irrationality which is sub-rational. But ones who plumb the depths of the consciousness in a supra-rational way. Who embrace all the insights of modernity and rationality to such an extent that they self consciously recognize the limits of modern rationality itself, and who give themselves to the mysteries of the deep unconscious to lead the way.

Isn’t this a recipe for chaos? If we don’t hold on to the rational mind, how do we know which stories to follow and which to reject? How do we tell the stories of a Hitler apart from those of a Gandhi? Or stories of sensible people from those of lunatics?

There is a way. And it doesn’t require the policing of the rational mind. Nor guidelines of what constitutes good thought, and how to avoid bad thought. It doesn’t require guidelines at all.

It is: Peace. Stillness. Faith. Trust.

The deepest of the deep stories evoke the peace at the eye of the hurricane. The deep stories of people who have reached that space, or near there, move people without people debating whether it is good or not. The goodness of following those stories and of giving oneself to them will be evident in the very peace and harmony and love which they raise up in one’s consciousness. It is self-evident in the transformation not just of one’s ideas or hopes, but of one’s being from its very core.

Outer peace is only possible in human life when all humans are self-reflective enough to be able to be aware of that consciousness of peace within themselves, and so able to tell the deepest stories from within their own awareness. Lacking that ability to hear those deepest stories within their own consciousness, people look outside themselves for stories which will move them, and so they are susceptible to stories which have only a surface depth.

To really overcome shallow deep stories, there is only one way.

Dive deeper into your consciousness. Listen to the stories coming from the innermost depths of peace within yourself. And if from there you feel so moved, speak those stories and be their mouthpiece with love and compassion.