Wisdom for Sunday

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road.

For those who wish to cross the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambala Classics edition

The Way of the Bodhisattva lays out the path to cultivating the mind of enlightenment and becoming a Bodhisattva, or a Buddha-to-be. It is especially important in Tibetan Buddhism. Three quick points on this excerpt:

  • The Way of the Bodhisattva really exemplifies the compassion inherent in Mahayana Buddhism, in which the highest ideal is to forgo one’s own exit from the cycle of rebirth in order to prevent the suffering of other beings.
  • In Buddhism, enlightenment is often portrayed as “the far shore” of a river, as shown here.
  • The Buddha taught that once one reaches the far shore, they should destroy the raft they sailed over on. The raft symbolizes the dhamma, or teachings, so this indicates that Buddhists should eliminate all attachments, even to Buddhist teachings themselves.

Happy Sunday to all. I will hopefully finish at least one post this coming week.

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Wisdom for Sunday

The mindful strive.

They do not delight in shelter.

Like cranes quitting the moor,

they forsake home after home.

-The Dhammapada (Glenn Wallis, trans.)

This verse frequently comes to my mind when I’m considering making a major life decision. I read it as a reminder not to get to attached to the place I’m at in life. I think it also speaks to the fact that Buddhism doesn’t have to cloistered and dull. The process of letting go of our attachments is fundamentally an active one.

Digital Simplification: My Experience Unplugging From Newness

With the arrival of the new year, I have been reflecting on some of the themes and actions that defined 2017 for me. One consistent theme has been simplifying my digital life. Over the past year and change, I have taken a number of steps in this direction:

  • Beginning in late 2016, and continuing throughout 2017, I have greatly decreased my social media activity and deactivated my profiles on most online dating websites;
  • In May 2017, I installed internet blocking software that forces me to go offline at a set time every night;
  • In August 2017, I canceled my Netflix subscription;
  • In November 2017, I downgraded from an expensive internet plan with hundreds of live TV channels, to an internet-only plan;

In this post, I’d like to share my reasons for unplugging and some observations on what happened when I did.

Why I decided to unplug

When we encounter a new and pleasurable thing, our brains release dopamine, a chemical responsible for seeking and reward behavior. Dopamine is involved in many mental processes, and some dopamine release is natural. However, there is a growing understanding that the internet, which is designed to provide us with continual newness, can cause a harmful loop in which the constant release of dopamine leads to something approximating an addiction. Interested readers can check out articles such as this one or this one for additional information.

I have been a heavy internet and television user for a long time, to the point where I consider myself an addict. In fact, on those occasions when I previously tried to wean myself from the internet, I noticed many of the symptoms traditionally associated with addiction. I would become antsy and irritable, unsure of what to do with myself but certain that some important task was just beyond my fingertips. I would worry that I was missing a new message from a friend or the latest bit of news. What’s more, with all of the technology turned off, negative thoughts and emotions associated with events from my past would come flooding back.

Even when I got my newness fix, all was not clear sailing. I have always been a rabid consumer of political news, and for a liberal in recent years, most political news has been bad news. I was often left with angry, racing thoughts for most of the day. No matter what kind of newness I consumed, I found that my attention span was shorter and I was more susceptible to other vices such as candy and junk food.

Eventually, these symptoms not only convinced me of the reality of my addiction to newness, but also had a profound philosophical effect on me. Technology, rather than enhancing my life, was actually concealing my deepest self from me. Instead of sitting with my emotions in the present moment, as Buddhism teaches, I was numbing myself to them with quick dopamine bursts that ultimately left me unsatisfied.

My addiction had more practical costs as well. My expensive internet plan plus Netflix cost more than $100 per month. Long hours on the computer were also destroying my sleep schedule and taking time away from exercise, hobbies, writing, and other more healthy pursuits. It was time for a change, and 2017 was the year in which I finally took action.

Adapting to a life unplugged

The city in which I live tends to attract millenials who are extremely focused on both their careers and current events. This can make it a lonely place, combining the universal anomie of urban life with a focus on happy hours and political debates over genuine connection. Incomes are also relatively high, and nearly everyone has subscriptions to multiple online streaming services.

Given this environment, I worried that cutting off my internet usage would cut me off from other people. How would I find people to talk to if not online? Where would I hear about events? And what would I talk about at parties if not the new season of the latest Netflix show?

When I told others about my plans, they were equally skeptical. Most people couldn’t conceive of anyone canceling Netflix for any reason. Others told me they relied on their Facebook event calendars to learn about events. When I announced that I was leaving Facebook, one former friend even accused me of failing in my “duty” to engage in discussion with people I disagree with.

Over time, however, I adapted. I took classes in improv comedy, the Korean language, and swing dancing, which provided new opportunities to meet people. I grew closer to a smaller group of friends, and I found that our conversations were more personal and fulfilling, because we discussed more durable truths and fewer shiny new things. When I was alone, I rededicated myself to Buddhist thought and cultivating equanimity. In the process, I started to feel the parts of my inner life to which I had been numb before.

My unplugging is still a work in progress. I still use the internet more than I would like, and don’t block it strictly enough. There is also still plenty of free content out there to play or stream. I haven’t yet gotten up the nerve to downgrade from a smartphone to a dumb phone, which would cut me off from the internet on the go. Overall, however, I feel happier. Unplugging from newness has made me feel more in touch with my own life, and I can’t wait to continue on this path in 2018.

Practicing Tonglen for Donald Trump

Recently, Lion’s Roar published a guide to the practice of tonglen, written by Pema Chodron. Tonglen has long been one of my favorite Buddhist practices, and I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce you to it today.

Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age-old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.

The practice itself is simple, and as the article says, it doesn’t need to be part of a formal meditation session. Whenever you witness or hear about another being suffering, close your eyes and take a deep breath in. Breathe in that being’s pain, anger, sadness, and desperation. Hold that in-breath for three seconds, and really feel their pain. Then, breathe out compassion, joy, and equanimity to them. If you are able to, expand the object of your breathing to include all beings who are faced with similar hardship.

In these difficult political times, tonglen has been critical for keeping the flame of compassion burning in my heart. Although it may not appear so at first glance, our politics is full of people who are suffering. Think of the politician who changes positions out of desperation, the conflicted cable news producer who is forced to push the envelope of civility for ratings, the enraged Twitter user hurling insults at people she has never met, the activist who feels anguish as his hopes for the country go unfulfilled. Politics can be a means by which to reduce suffering for a great many people, but in our country today, it seems to have become a source of suffering in and of itself.

Whenever I feel myself getting angry or hopeless, I remind myself of this, and try to practice tonglen for those I disagree with politically. This isn’t easy. Extending loving-kindness to one’s enemies is one of the most difficult practices in Buddhism, and I probably fail more often than I succeed. However, I believe that the effort alone has had a positive impact on my thinking.

For this reason, I would encourage liberal-leaning readers to begin practicing tonglen for Donald Trump. Conservative readers can substitute for Hillary Clinton or another liberal figure; the principle is the same.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath in. Breathe in and absorb President Trump’s need to be loved and respected, his clinging to status and material goods. Breathe in his anger at the state of the country, his pride at the business empire he has created. Don’t do this exercise ironically or with an ulterior motive; really step into the President’s shoes and feel these emotions as he feels them, without judgment. Then, breathe out loving-kindness and equanimity. Send President Trump the mental control to let go of the self that he is clinging to, which is causing him such suffering. This isn’t an exercise in political wish-fulfillment – it’s about easing the President’s suffering, not asking him to change his views.

How did that feel? At first, you might have difficulty really feeling the emotions and genuinely feeling compassion for Donald Trump. That’s okay. As I said above, it’s the effort that counts. Through making an effort to feel compassion even for our enemies, we can take the first steps to building a better world.

 

The Rise of Pseudo-Events: An Initial Sketch

In starting this blog, one of my goals was to provide an escape from a number of poisonous trends in our world today that I believe are disconnecting us from lived experience, obscuring the inherent complexities in issues and people, and ultimately poisoning our institutions and our discourse. Today I want to make a first attempt at discussing just one of these trends: the rise of pseudo-events.

More than 50 years ago, in his book The Image, Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to refer to events that are planned and executed with the intent of creating publicity or making news. Such events are in a sense artificial and divorced from the underlying facts of any situation. Boorstin was speaking of phenomena such as media interviews, press conferences, “process stories,” and anonymous leaks. To this we could add modern pseudo-events such as the social media hashtag, President Trump’s Twitter pronouncements, and so forth. Cable news and outlets such as Politico feed us a never ending diet of these pseudo-events, and to be “high-information” in the 21st century is to be familiar with them. Taking a sampling of articles from the last few days, we find the following:

The focus here is clearly on process, not events or people. The issue isn’t that these stories don’t matter. Undoubtedly many readers will jump to their defense in the name of transparency, and I agree. The issue is that they are divorced from lived experience, and therefore ultimately harmful to us and to our society. A story about Puerto Ricans surviving a terrible hurricane engenders compassion and optimism; a process story about internal FEMA deliberations over how to paint the agency in the best light engenders cynicism and pessimism.

This in turn affects how we approach discussions with others. Compassion is a value shared by most people, and a foundation of compassion creates the conditions for eunoia, or good will, in our dialogue with others. Pseudo-events, on the other hand, make us numb to the needs of others.

The rise of pseudo-events has its roots in polarization, technological change, and a number of other areas, and I certainly don’t claim to have a solution. In fact, in a certain sense, I’m part of the problem – I’ve been known to devour these pseudo-event stories, and I’ll probably end up writing about some of them too. As Boorstin astutely noted in his book, one pseudo-event tends to spawn many more. To use our hypothetical FEMA pseudo-event as an example, an article about the internal deliberations might lead to a press conference denying them, which in turn creates the need for a story about the optics of the press release. An addiction is created by our continual need to “go behind the curtain” and find the ultimate truth of a situation.

So if we know that focusing on pseudo-events is addictive and harmful, what should we do? I believe that one potential antidote to the allure of pseudo-events is mindfulness and Buddhist thought. Mindfulness is ultimately nothing more than bringing our minds back to our lived experience. Meditation displays this at the most fundamental level by asking us to return continually to the breath, the source of our life. We can also move beyond ourselves to be mindful of the suffering of others. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen consists of breathing in the pain and suffering of others, and breathing out compassion to them.

In our lives and in our engagement with our pseudo-event rich media environment, we can adopt a similar maxim to that of the meditator: return always to lived experience.

Buddhism and my Quick Take Fail

As anyone who might stumble upon this blog will see clearly, my quick take on the Alabama senate race was a major fail. I could get into the reasons for that from a political science perspective: incredible turnout among black voters matched against low turnout among Moore voters, and so forth. However, and more importantly, the outcome reminded me of two important truths derived from Buddhism.

First, the world is always changing. Even if you think that you have grasped what’s really going on, it ultimately slips through your fingers. Black voters stayed home in 2016, and then they came out in Alabama. White voters seemed to be determined to vote Republican in 2016, but in 2017 it turned out that there were transgressions that even they couldn’t forgive. And on and on. The ever-changing nature of the world ultimately fuels suffering, as we unceasingly scour our Twitter feeds and political websites of choice for each new article, each new take, in the hopes that it will provide us with some new morsel of information that will enlighten us as to what’s “really going on.”

Second, experts are important, but no one’s views are infallible. In the mid-1960s, the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh founded the Order of Interbeing. Of the order’s fourteen precepts, the second has always stuck with me:

Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

From “Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism,” Revised edition: Oct. 1993 by Thich Nhat Hanh, published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.

All of us cling to our own views about the world, and by extension, to the views of experts who share these views. Unfortunately, for every expert who is right in the end, there are several who took the opposite view and got it dead wrong.

This is not to say that expertise doesn’t matter. Knowledge is vital to understanding, which is why the precept encourages lifelong learning. However, if we use our knowledge only to make dire predictions about the world, we will never stay in the present moment, or supplemental our conceptual views with experiential understanding.

I’ll probably continue sharing takes and making predictions on this blog, but I’ll strive to do so with the humility to understand that I will be wrong a lot of the time, and the wisdom to step away from my views (and my keyboard!) to experience those things in life that can’t be gleaned from staring at voter exit polls. I hope that you will stick with me as I continue to explore and grow.

Quick Take: Alabama Senate Race

I’m aware of the polling that shows a close race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore in Alabama, with some polls even showing a small lead for Jones. However, I don’t buy it, and I think that Moore will ultimate win, for the following reasons:

  1. This is Alabama, and it is very difficult for a Democrat to win statewide there. Indeed, no Democrat has won a Senate race there since 1992. True, the credible (and horrifying) allegations against Moore have given voters pause, but Alabama governor Kay Ivey had announced that she will vote for Moore, and Trump has endorsed him in all but name. In Alabama, I think that will be enough.
  2. I suspect that the polling reflects a social desirability bias. People don’t want to admit that they are voting for a sexual predator, but what they do in the voting booth is a different matter.

Of course, I may be wrong, and a perfect storm of factors – some combination of increased intensity on the Democratic side, increased turnout among black voters, decreased turnout among Moore voters, and a write-in campaign siphoning off votes from Moore – could lead to a narrow Jones victory. However, I think that Jones supporters shouldn’t get their hopes up too high.