Tomorrow, Tuesday December 13, 2016 at 4 p.m. Pacific Time (7 p.m. Eastern) on Angel City Zen Center’s first ever live streaming webinar I’ll be giving a talk and answering questions from listeners/viewers afterward.
You can sign up to join here: http://www.dogensanghalosangeles.org/dharma-chat-with-brad-warner-13dec2016/
Here’s a taste of what I plan to get into tomorrow.
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States may indicate that a very different way of perceiving reality is emerging. And it may indicate that this massive shift in human consciousness won’t just be about rainbow colored cosmic moonbeams and dancing to Phish on hillsides full of daisies. But before we go there, let me lay some groundwork.
I’ve also been reading Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem, which addresses some of the same issues. Starting at about page 560 in the British paperback edition from Atlantic Books (probably the same as the US edition) there’s a discussion between two characters that lasts about ten pages. They ponder the true nature of consciousness. It gets pretty weird.
One character asks another, “Who are you talking to?” A typical Zen question. He’s trying to get his friend to describe him in absolute terms. The problem they’re working on is that an alien spacecraft has appeared in orbit and they need to figure out how to communicate with intelligent beings that may perceive reality in ways utterly different from how humans perceive it. They have to start looking beyond human perception.
This may be a clue to how we need to talk to each other. We cannot assume other people are perceiving reality the way we do. Even when we think we agree.
Let me try to pull out a few choice bits of dialogue from Anathem. In trying to describe his friend, one character says, “Consider the volume of space five feet in front of my position, about six feet high, two wide, and two deep. The probability waves that we call matter are somewhat denser inside that box than they are outside of it… What’s on the inside of that boundary is Orolo (his friend’s name).”
They then get into a discussion of how the human brain may make use of quantum fluctuations to construct “counterfactual cosmi (plural of cosmos)” — entire fictional universes that it can manipulate to make predictions.
One character then says, “(There are) a lot of different copies of me —of my brain—each really existing in a different parallel cosmos… And they interfere with each other.”
The solution to all this philosophical muck ends up being, “My brain doesn’t have to support this hugely detailed, accurate, configurable, quantum-superimposition-supporting model of the cosmos anymore. All it needs to do is to perceive—to reflect—the cosmos that it’s really in, as it really is.”
It’s an interestingly Zen-ish solution. Although there’s no indication author Neal Stephenson has any idea that lots of folks have been pursuing this solution for a few thousand years by sitting very, very still and trying to allow it to happen without interfering with the process. Too bad.
Rick and Morty is less Zen-y. It takes the multiple worlds hypothesis to its most absurd conclusions in ways that are so clever it’s kind of mind-boggling. But the most amazing aspect of the show, to me, is that it is a cartoon comedy that seeks to articulate and bring to light deep questions about the very nature of reality itself. I mean Rocky and Bullwinkle was great, but they never took things that far.
Which is not to say I’m a total convert to the whole infinite multiple universes thing. Although Dogen does say that reality is bigger than even the entire universe. So I wouldn’t rule it out.
Here’s the important part. We live in a time in which the very nature of reality seems to be crumbling. But reality is fine. Reality won’t change according to how we choose to describe it. It’s just that our way of engaging with it may be shifting radically.
It seems like nobody really believes anything anymore. And that is fucking scary. Take Trump and so-called “fake news.” Please. It’s easy to characterize all of Donald Trump’s supporters as a bunch of stupid racists, mainly because every stupid racist in the country voted for him, and because he used stupid racism for political gain in a much cruder and less sophisticated way than previous politicians have used stupid racism for political gain. And they all have. All of them.
But I think this crazy-pants stuff that’s going on right now points to something even weirder — of which Trump and his cronies are all so powerless and insignificant that their posturing looks too intensely absurd for words.
We no longer have any faith at all in the political system. Or in religion. Or in much of anything. Maybe there is a huge mass of people out there who don’t believe it even matters who gets elected president. And maybe, at the root of it, this is because we don’t know if we, ourselves, are as real as we thought we were.
The Zen solution is not to try to find the perfect, infallible model of politics, or people, or the cosmos. We know that model cannot exist. We know our brains could not contain such a model even if it did. That’s not what brains are built for.
Is there a difference between fake news and real news? And if so, what is it? This is not a trivial question. I’m not asking if Breitbart is more reliable than the Washington Post, or if Alex Jones’ paranoid fantasies might actually be true, or if Jesus cares about how jewelry stores advertise engagement rings, or if Black Lives Matter is a force for justice or for chaos, or if America is being gas-lighted any more today than it has been for decades. Those are the wrong questions, and, as such, cannot produce anything but wrong answers. Do we even have the ability to discern what’s real from what is not?
This is it, as Alan Watts said many years ago, echoing what Zen teachers have been saying for centuries. This is real. But is it news?
“The mind is so wonderstruck at the self-evident and self-sufficient fitness of things as they are,” Watts says, “including what would ordinarily be thought the very worst, that it cannot find any word strong enough to express the perfection and beauty of the experience.” Later he continues, “Often, the pleasure of the experience is confused with the experience and the insight lost in the ecstasy, so that in trying to retain the secondary effects of the experience the individual misses its point—that the immediate now is complete even when it is not ecstatic.”
Of the varieties of responses to this understanding, Watts says, “One (person) declares himself convinced that there is no death, his true self being as eternal as the universe. Another states that death has simply ceased to matter, because the present moment is so complete that it requires no future.”
But then again Alan Watts did a lot of drugs.
I’m sure the guys who make Rick and Morty smoke a ton of California’s now perfectly legal weed, too.
Me, I stare and stare and stare at the wall.
Is there a place for Zen in the world of fake news and Trump? I think Zen may be the only solution.
I think we have to learn to live comfortably and honorably in a world in which nothing is certain. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing at all. Not the political system. Not the news. Yeah, yeah. Got that. Burp!
That’s just small potatoes. Try not even your own body. Try not even your own mind.
We’re questioning everything. Good. The problem is we still think there’s an answer. But there can be no answer to the questions we’re asking.
Still. This is it. There is demonstrably something real going on even if we have no idea what the fuck it is. And that is the reality we have to deal with, without a map. Or with a map, but with the understanding that our map is flawed, and will always be flawed, and can never be anything but flawed.
I am blind to the truth. And yet I try my best to follow where it leads me.
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