The latest example of obsessive dot-connecting is Pizzagate. If you haven’t heard of Pizzagate, my best advice is don’t even go there. It’s yet another example of the entertaining things you can do with your brain by trying to connect up unrelated pieces of information. Of course, the big problems come when you take that sort of brain masturbation stuff too far, as a gunman in Washington DC did recently.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about so-called “fake news.” The term has been used to describe stories that are simply made up out of nothing and presented as if they actually happened, conspiracy theories that are based on real facts but take them to absurd conclusions, and independent entertainment outlets that present real news stories in a partisan and biased way that offends people who disagree with that bias.
So the term “fake news” is, itself, problematic. It’s far too broad to be of any real value. If presenting a real event in a biased way is “fake news,” then pretty much all news is “fake news” since everyone has a bias, everyone has a point of view. Scientists have been struggling with this problem for decades. Classical science was based on the notion of the impartial or objective observer. It turns out there’s no such thing. Not scientists doing experiments on subatomic particles and not news reporters either.
Obviously some news sources are more careful about their biases than others. And just as obviously, some news sources are more clever at concealing their biases than others too. The upshot is it’s very hard to determine who to trust.
The human brain is an organ whose job is to take in information and make connections between and among that information. It connects the dots to make a picture. The reason it does this is to aid us in doing what all animals do; eat, survive, and reproduce.
Among us humans, the brain is incredibly important because we lack things other animals rely on for these purposes. We are virtually hairless, so we need to learn how to clothe ourselves. We have no big teeth or claws for defense, so we have to learn to make and use tools. Our young are defenseless for far longer than any other animal, so we have to care for them and teach them how to care for themselves.
That’s why we connect the dots. But we are so into connecting dots that we can’t seem to stop ourselves.
My dad moved to Dallas in 1983. From then until he moved away a couple years ago I had many opportunities to visit Dealy Plaza, the place where JFK was assassinated. I used to enjoy chatting with the weird guys who sat in the plaza selling pamphlets and VHS tapes explaining their pet conspiracy theories. I bought a few of those books and tapes and, for a while, I got into the whole deal of trying to figure out what really happened on November 23, 1963.
There are so many dots to connect; the Umbrella Man, the Babushka Lady, frame 313 of the Zapruder film, the Nix film, the Muchmore film, the Bronson film, the Pascall film… There are countless videos on YouTube outlining every kind of explanation from a CIA conspiracy to reptilian aliens. Dots wrapped in enigmas, wrapped in riddles, wrapped in more dots.
My focus in this blog is on Zen stuff. So when it comes to “fake news,” I want to stay away from attempting to determine whether the Washington Post is more trustworthy than Liberty Writers. Instead, I’d like to try to dig a bit deeper.
The problem isn’t just out there in the newspapers and on the Internet. It’s also in here, inside of us all. We are all our own sources of “fake news.”
We all devote a lot of energy to constructing a fake version of reality that we carry around in our heads. It’s necessary to do this in order to navigate the world we live in without hurting ourselves.
The problem most of us have is that this fake version of reality becomes rigid, fixed, and inflexible. We become attached to it. When actual reality turns out to be different from the fake version in our heads, we often reject reality in favor of our image of reality. The more our fake reality deviates from what’s really going on, the more we suffer.
This is the reason that the practice of zazen has developed the way it has. It’s the reason that Dogen was so interested in what he called shikantaza, or “just sitting.”
This style of meditation is practiced without any goal or objective. You’re not trying to do anything with your practice other than just do it. You’re not trying to still the mind, you’re not trying to be in the moment, you’re not trying to achieve a state of bliss or to find Ultimate Truth. You sit in order to sit.
Of course, you’re human. So you have goals, you have desires, you have things you want to achieve. None of this magically disappears when you plop down on your cushion and start staring at the wall. But as you sink deeper into just sitting for its own sake, you let your goals, desires, and ambitions go. They’re still there, you just stop holding them so hard. Dots still appear, you just stop trying to connect them.
What you find after a while is that your fondness for your own personal “fake news” source weakens. It’s still in there trying to connect the dots just like it ever was. But instead of taking top priority, it fades off into the background. It’s always available if you happen to need it. But it no longer dominates.
When that happens, your personality softens and becomes less rigid. When reality threatens your personal “fake news” outlet, you’re more able to align with what’s true than with what you would prefer to be true.
And that is very useful and necessary, especially in a world full of “fake news.”
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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