Sciencetific Buddhism and Quantum Mechanics

I received this from Mr Wawa:

‘Sorry to bug you again Arnie, but I couldn’t help but think of you when I read this, food for thought-‘

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental.

Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel.

Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

Which he extracted from here.

If you follow my blog, then you might anticipate my answer:

“Hi Mr Wawa,
No, a simple spirituality or religiosity cannot accommodate reality because it is not based on any observed reality (and that is all we really have to work with) but is most often opposed to it: deny the earth and gain heaven. But we do not have to engage Buddhism in a religious mode; I think Buddhism serves better as a social/psychological science because it gives a method that allows us to reprogram our minds to escape suffering. The Buddha’s original statements (the four noble truths and the eight fold path: the method) are completely compatible with quantum physics, and in some ways can be thought of as anticipating it (emptiness, illusion of things, and the nature of the void). And so, while I generally agree with most of the statement you provided (above), the first sentence of the last paragraph seems wrong. Buddhism is scientific because it is a system for looking at reality and recognizing what is directly in front of us. Albeit, Buddhism is a science directed towards social and personal problems and not one that studies subatomic particles. In my experience, Buddha’s method steps in after the psychotherapy.

It cannot be denied that many people do make the Buddha into a saint or a god and ignore his ideas in because they need either a metaphysical father figure, who will solve all their problems, or an external source of the validation they cannot give to themselves. At its best, Buddhism, as a religion, does work for many people because it directs ones focus on the awareness of moment by moment reality. But even if people use Buddhism as a religion, it does not negate the Buddha’s scientific approach.

For me, Buddhism as spirituality is unnecessary. On the other hand, science is only useful once we have answered the philosophical questions lumped under the rubric Ethics. With no ethics scientific pursuit can bring us to unlimited destruction. Buddhism is focused on alleviating the suffering of oneself and of others. The big ethical questions are answered in Buddhism-as-a-science in a way not unlike entanglement in quantum mechanics, in that we are all entangled with each other and would do well to act accordingly.

As for Buddhism not being radical. And if your purpose is wanting to understand yourself and your place in the universe, Buddhism as an experimental science is a pretty radical idea.

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Scientific Buddhism

Religions can be used to form a dogma of belief for a community of followers. On the benefit side, a religious dogma would be a listing of a set of activities that, if practised, would lead one to spiritual benefit. On the down side, dogma can become a means whereby one group of people oppress others. Buddhism, as a religion, has for the most part been a religion of the former type, allowing the development of communities of people who work together and support each other in their spiritual quest. But even in this positive light, Buddhism as a religion can have a negative side. A sanga can form that supports our attachment to the difficulties we have in struggling with our own psychologies. On example: lots of us get caught up in complaining about the difficulties we experience. Our sanga members treat us kindly, hug us nicely, and listen. We suffer. And while we get support in our suffering, nothing changes; we continue suffering. On the other hand, I remember one spiritual teacher who fought this tendency very nicely. After a weekend meditation, he asked all those present to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain during the sits. Everyone put up their hand. The teacher’s only comment was, “Good. Now no one needs mention pain again.”

But what if Buddha had been alive today; would he want to form a religion? Looking at what he said ~2600 years ago, I would say that what he brought to the world was essentially a scientific theory, not a religion. Science is a neutral device that lets us look at things analytically. Scientists think up theories, and then they develop methodologies to test the theories. After a theory is proven useful, then a technology is developed to exploit the knowledge that was revealed in the scientific experiment.

Buddhism’s major focus is the eradication of suffering; Buddhism as a science is the idea that there is a systematic way of doing the same. Many people react negatively to the idea that Buddhism could be approached scientifically. And there are two major difficulties in pursuing Buddhism as science: 1) it is hard to be aware of ones moment to moment suffering, and of ones moment to moment, suffer-inducing thoughts; 2) we are fragile beasts that suffer fear of extinction, and as our minds are naturally wired in such a way that we identify ourselves with—we believe ourselves to be—our suffering, we naturally fear to give it up: without our suffering, who would we be?

The first of Buddha’s four major scientific statements is that all is suffering. This statement is translated in various ways, but I think that the simple translation, ‘suffering exits’ is perfectly good to work with. This is a scientific statement because it is a simple observation. Buddha’s second main statement posits that suffering is caused by attachment to desires. This is a hypothesis which can be tested by experimentation: a simple survey could be devised by social scientists to check on the nature of any particular example of suffering (as opposed to pain), and this survey could help in determining the cause of that suffering. In my own experience, I have found that every instance of my suffering (as opposed to pain) was caused by attachment to some desire I had. The self analysis was hard and took a lot of work. And I am still being surprised by the up-welling of suffering.

Buddha’s third statement concluded that suffering can be alleviated by removing attachments to desires. Having made this scientific conclusion, Buddha then described a course of action, a technology that if followed would bring an end to ones suffering. This technology is found in the Eight Fold Path.

In science if you repeat an traditional experiment you get the expected result. If you use a developed technology, you get the expected result, as long as the machine is not broken. We are the machine, our brains are the software that makes the machine perform wonderfully—or makes it suffer.

But the Eight Fold Path is not merely a technology that gives a recipe for action, it also reveals the major causes of suffering. Where Buddha prescribes Right Thinking, he can be read to mean that incorrect thinking is the cause of one type of suffering. This holds true for all Eight elements.

If Buddhism is a religion then the Eight Fold Path is something to aspire to, attainable only through hard work, allusive insight, and the help of innumerable friends. One is not expected to succeed, one only hopes to succeed.

If Buddhism is a science, then Buddhism is a machine, like a car, that should diligently take one to the destination: the destination is a state of non-attachment and non-suffering. The technology is laid out in the Eight Fold Path. It is as simple as this: if one is thinking bad thoughts about another person, thoughts that if they became manifest would cause that person suffering, then one would do well to think something completely different, something that is positive, that would cause no one suffering. Go play the piano, take a walk. This process, of becoming aware of ones thoughts and then changing their nature by abandoning them and doing something else, will rewire ones brain, recalibrate ones machine into a more and more enlightened state. It is something that one can do safely at home alone.

Luckily, the religion of Buddhism has brought us one extremely well-honed and useful scientific exercise that can help us pay attention to, and to become aware of our moment to moment attachments and desires, and thereby point to the thoughts that give rise to our suffering. This honourable practice is meditation. The scientific companion to the cultivation of awareness through meditation is that when a suffering-causing thought or pattern is identified, then one can take the technology of the Eight Fold Path, think and act in a different way than one usually does, and thereby rewire our beings. All we have to do is have faith in the machine and use it.

It’s as easy as learning to be a software wizard on the computer. Re-hack your brain. One day I might complete the job on my own head.

The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs

You’ve probably heard the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs. The version I first heard had it that: There was a serf who had a remarkable goose that started laying eggs of solid gold. The serf in question, having no right to anything at all except the right to do what he was told, inevitably had to give the goose to the Lord. It was either give the goose or have the Lord’s thugs take it from him and give him a beating in the process. So now the Lord has the goose, and it lays a gold egg nearly every day. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the goose lay two eggs a day? The lord starts force-feeding the goose, and indeed, for a little while, the goose lays two gold eggs a day. The lord decides that three eggs a day would be far better, so he ups the feeding. The goose dies of heart failure because it got too fat.

Another ending: The lord decided that if he could figure out why the goose was laying gold eggs he could make all the geese lay golden eggs. Bright idea. He dissects the goose and learns nothing. Dead goose = no gold eggs.

This type of outcome is suggestive of what is happening due to America Capitalism today. In chasing money through the manipulation of money (rather than through making, maintaining or developing things), the country’s infrastructure (the gold laying goose) has been dismantled and the American system is generating less and less wealth. The poorer people of American are having to tighten their belts as they become poorer while the richest plot to corner the biggest share of a shrinking pot. The American nightmare.

Why did all this start running through my head last night at 2:30 a.m.? It was due to the news I had heard earlier, that the information highway was in danger of being sold off to big corporations who want to control your and my access to websites. Internet access providers will increase our upload and download speeds but only if we go to the big corporation sites who pay for faster speeds. Conversely, internet providers will slow down our upload and download speeds if we try to go to small, less wealthy sites that cannot pay the big bucks. Desire for incredible wealth is turning the internet into TV. Soon we will be able to turn the internet on and watch, but we will not be able to get to anything we really need. In China the government wants to control what you think by stopping you from seeing other ideas. In America the corporations want to control what you think you need to buy by controlling the ads you see. It is totally possible that in this new wwworld order, zen blogs will load slower and slower.

Why am I thinking about this in the middle of the night? Isn’t this kind of stuff (people trying to control other people) always the way of humanity? When was it any different?

It’s all about desire. The desire to get the universe to do what we want it to do so that we can have a perfectly pleasant and worry free life. Big corporations are no different in this than individuals because corporations are made up of individuals. Individuals desire impossible things, and so do corporations.

I stare into the darkness and watch my mind trying to plot the perfect blog that will make everyone sit up and become enlightened. But I don’t take any of my metal monkey business seriously. I just watch it flow on by. I know whence comes my desire to make perfect everything in the world, but to analyze it fully here would take pages, novels. At the most superficial level, I can say that my training by the Catholic church included the idea that because Christ, by the age of 32, had saved all the souls of the world, I should have done the same. Doesn’t help that the Bodhisattva vows include the idea that we should save all entities. I tell myself that attachment to Buddhism, or to its rites, injunctions, vows, precepts, and advice, can cause problems with self-worth every bit as deep as the problem caused by that pesky idea from Catholicism. Whenever my early desire-program, to save all entities, pops up in the dead of the night, I try to let it run its course without getting involved, obsessed, attached. Or I get out of bed, which is always tiresome at such a late(early?) hour, and go read a book. Then I can get back to sleep.

But the need, the desire, to save all beings can be traced back to the desire to control the universe and make it treat you (me) in such a way that you(I) will no longer suffer. If everyone was enlightened (saved) then the world would be sweet for me! But we can’t make people enlightened. All we can do is act in such a way as not to cause more suffering. That is the only saving we can do. Be an example of non-desire, of non-suffering, of non-attachment. Ho!Ho! Ho! Another aspiration to get attached to.

Why can’t we see that desire is useless? We can never get what we desire. No body can. The mind is not capable of parsing the infinite variables affecting reality sufficiently enough to allow a plot or a plan to bring about any specific and finely detailed outcome. In other words, any time we try to make something happen, we fail to the exact degree that we try to make the event happen in an exact manner. Yes, we can decide to go on a picnic, but we can’t make the ants stay away, nor can we make our picnic partner fall in love with us over the egg salad sandwiches, nor can we control the weather.

“The best laid plans of mice and men/ Gang aft agley.” Sometimes our plots seem to succeed; but at second thought, the desired outcome never meets up with our expectations. When we finally win that long desired golden fleece, all sorts of worries creep in: will someone try to steal it, how much can I get for it, and is the buyer trying to fleece me? How may people can I beat up to get them to work for me for free before they start a revolution? And why doesn’t he/she love me like I want? If only….

Attachment to any desire is a mug’s game. We can’t think up a sure-fired path to any outcome, and outcomes keep changing long after the attainment. In desiring something we are exercising our imaginations. But our imaginations are not powerful enough to encompass the infinite number of smaller details, small events, that go into making any one thing happen. How then can we work up foolproof plans to save all sentient beings? The only tools we have is to make sure we are not attached to any specific outcome, and to work hard at finding out how not to engage in our own suffering.

And now, surfing backwards through time about 2500 years: Buddha was doing his thing, and the Ancient Greeks, approximate contemporaries, were doing theirs. Socrates was being interpreted by Plato in this book The Republic. Near the beginning of Plato’s long dialogue, Thrasymachus argues with Socrates. Thrasymachus claims that the ‘good’ is what is good for one self and never mind anyone else. Plato tries to argue that Thrasymachus is wrong, that the good is what is good for everyone. As far as I can see, the rest of the Republic is Plato’s attempt to prove Thrasymachus wrong. He never does.

Plato is often cited as the node through which all western philosophy passes. All the philosophical questions that concern us today were anticipated by Plato/Socrates. In terms of how to do the good, no one in the last 2500 years has been able to prove Thrasymachus wrong. And in not being able to be proved wrong, a lot of people act on Thrasymachus’s advice. One possible way Thrasymachus could be proved wrong, and the argument Plato ends up with in the Republic, is to invent a metaphysics. There are only two possibilities of defeating the idea that the good is nothing but self-advancement and self-interest. Either we invent a religion (and you know of the kind of damage people are capable of doing in the name of religions), or we rely on a person’s inherent need for goodness for all. And this completes a circle back to the story about the goose that lays the golden egg. The good never came into it.

In the armed forces there is a principle known as the facts on the ground; only the officer on the ground in the event can interpret the orders as they apply to that event. If necessary, the ranking person can change the orders because orders given at a remove cannot anticipate changing circumstances. Even if philosophy cannot prove that the good is what is good for all, the facts on the ground give us a good idea of what is real.

Capitalism as it is practiced in America funnels wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people. This means that more and more people become poorer. But instead of talking about the good (it spanks of dichotomy and dualism), let’s change the concept into Buddhistic principles and talk about suffering. The state on the ground in America tells us that large and increasing accumulations of wealth increase the amount of suffering for increasing numbers of people. One would think that the opposite would also be true, that the wide distribution of wealth would help alleviate suffering. In Plato’s terms, to alleviate suffering would be the good.

Another leap of topic, but germane perchance.

Check out The Price of Sugar for an extreme example of accumulation of wealth and what it leads to in terms of suffering.

And now, to get to the point of all the previous: Awareness. How can we really know what the facts on the ground are? If we understand that we live in the new global order, are not the facts on the ground everything that happens on the earth? How can we know what suffering is unless we know how the world works, unless we know how people act towards each other, unless we know why people act in the way they do? And unless we know how people act and why, how can we alleviate their suffering?

The big questions for today, kiddies, are: do any of my actions increase the suffering of others? If I eat sugar from the Dominican Republic, am I increasing the suffering of others? What is the suffering that causes someone to think that by doing harm to others they are doing the good? How can I do the good? (Hint: The Eightfold Path.)

All essays on these and related topics are already long past due.

And now I am going to back to making bread, my task for the day.

Emotional Radios

Broadcasting to the Universe

I had been working at a ferry terminal for about ten years. Every Sunday afternoon there would be four of us cramped into the small (five foot square) ticket booth. We all had radios that we needed for communication with each other while on the road and out in the terminal. But in the booth, we needed a place to store the bulky things (cell phones they were not) that allowed instant access when we weren’t immediately using them. The four radios would end up piled between the two cash registers on the small, 18” wide table (that’s about 38 centimetres to anyone not from the USA, or to anyone from Canada who is as old as I am). On that tiny table were also the log book, pens, piles of scrap paper, lists of reserved vehicles, destination tags and various miscellanea. The radios were pure irritation. Always piled on top, getting in the way.

One convenient thing about the radios: they had a strap useful for hanging them from one’s shoulder. So there I was one busy Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of the rush, irritated yet again because I couldn’t find what I needed under the pile of radios. Ten years I took me to see the obvious. I don’t know what made me see the light. Whatever. I left the cash register, got a hammer and a couple of nails from the back room. Drove the nails into the wall. Took the radios and hung them up. Ten years. Problem solved.

Well It hasn’t been ten years, but the obvious just struck me. Here I am writing about the Bodhisattva Vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and it wasn’t until just the other days that I realized that the Bodhisattva Vows are merely the Four Noble Truths tricked up into intentions rather than mere statements of theoretical fact.

The theoretical statement of facts called the Four Noble Truths:

1) All is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire.
3) There is a way out of suffering.
4) Follow the Eightfold Path.

The Boddhsattva vows:
1) Sentient being are numberless, I vow to liberate them.
2) Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
3) Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
4) The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

Both together:

1) All is suffering, therefore everyone suffers, and I vow to end the suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire, desires are endless, and I vow to stop desires.
3) Dharma gates are boundless. Dharma gates are the path out of suffering, and I vow to stop suffering by passing the lesson of each Dharma gate.
4) The Eightfold Path is Buddha’s way. It is unsurpassable, and I vow to embody it.

The Four Noble Truths are the theory; the Bodhisattva Vows state ones intention to embrace the theory (I suspect that all the sutras and all the writings of the sages boil down to the Four Noble Truths). The theory becomes fact once one has done the work to become aware, to be enlightened (or what ever name you use to name the end of suffering). There is not much more than that. When you are not engaged in suffering (and you are aware that you are not), then you have kensho (so simple to say, so hard to do). The trick in all this? Suffering is endless, vast in scope and covers all sorts of things beyond mere pain: envy rather than joy in other peoples’ joy; sadnesses rather than awe at the mystery of the universe; desire rather than delight in what one has; the need to gossip rather than searching out the unenlightened parts of one’s own being; the need to be loved (that statement will be controversial) rather than recognizing that one needs to love oneself first in order to love others. The list is endless: the need to be liked, honoured, admired, to judge, to be rich, to be better, to be exalted, to be enlightened above others…. No need to go on.

Oh, and sitting meditation? What does that have to do with anything? Meditation is giving ourselves the time and space needed to see what is going on inside and then practising to dissolve the attachments. And then maybe one day the light will come on and we will know what to do with our emotional radios.

Happiness

Are we having fun yet?

This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.

What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…

Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.

Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?

One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):

Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.

When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.

What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.

I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.

You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.

Right Concentration

bald-faced hornet (but really a wasp)

I have mentioned before how it seems strange that the third subsection of the Eightfold Path, Concentration, had stacked inside it the sub-subsection called Right Concentration. After thinking for a while about this sub-sected subsection, I realized that every part of the Eightfold Path is stacked inside Right Concentration. What I mean is that you can’t do anything useful (in terms of Buddhism) unless you concentrate on the exact thing you are contemplating or doing. If you are going to breathe, concentrate on breath. If you are going to dig in the garden dig in the garden. If you are going to contemplate the idea of Right Action, concentrate on it.

But what is concentration? According to the dreaded Wikipedia, concentration is simply turning your mind to the task, and then turning it to the task yet again — and again. If you are breathing, then constantly turn your mind to awareness of the breath. This is necessary to the start of zazan practice. Zazen practice is nothing so much as constantly turning your attention…

To be silly, concentration is the process of concentrating on concentrating on whatever you are concentrating on. The trick in using this technique to further oneself along the path to the ninth and tenth part of the eightfold path (ten parts to the Eightfold Path? who knew?) is that one must remove all objects of thought that are counter to Buddhistic ideas: always limit harm to oneself and others, remove dualist thoughts, refrain from judging, banish biases and prejudices, etc., etc. This is necessary as these types of thought prevent one from seeing what really is. When studying any of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path one has to concentrate, to constantly turn ones mind back to the item of study. The result of all this concentration? Attaining #9, Superior Right Knowledge and #10, Superior Right Liberation. But attainment is complex in the doing because concentration requires you to be cognizant of all eight parts of the path all the time.

When I am digging in the garden I have to consciously try to develop the Right View. And here I do not mean merely the politically correct view. I mean being conscious of every effect that I am having in the garden. When I put bird netting on the cherry tree, the robins had a harder time finding food — until they discovered the raspberries. When I rip out the kale plants because they have gone to seed, I have to know that I am preventing the kale plants from continuing into newer generations. And if you discount a plant’s desire for life and progeny, then consider the effect on the world you have when digging with a shovel. How many worms do I kill? How many worms and bugs do I expose to the ravening appetites of birds? The right view is inescapably that I live and die by helping and by killing. Doing no harm is impossible. All I can to do is minimize the harm I do — and I can only do that by being aware of my harmful actions, concentrating on them (so I can understand them), fessing up, and then trying to limit the harm — and that is a good definition for Right Intention.

Inextricably interwoven with the fabric of life as I am, as I strive for right intention while I work in the garden, I sometimes talk to the birds, the plants, the bugs. I don’t want to get all mystical and magical here, but I want to tell you about the long conversation I had with the wasps in the garden. Big black and white striped things, about the size of the first joint of my baby finger, and I’ve got large hands. Makes your arm swell up, from the finger tips to the shoulder, just thinking about getting stung. In the spring their nest was the size of a quarter, hanging in the lilac tree right over the compost heap. I’d stand there and talk to them as they buzzed me. Talked about how we are all in it together, that our needs did not interfere with each other, that there was plenty of room for both of us, and weren’t they pretty wasps (once you get over the terror of stings). That was in the spring last year. By mid summer the nest was larger than a football, about eighteen inches long (that’s about 40 centimeters for those initiated in scientific reckoning). There were so many wasps that going out to the compost heap was like running across a twelve lane highway at rush hour. Every once and a while one would crash right into me, bounce off. Never got stung once. I’m not saying that talking to the wasps made the wasps tolerate me, that some special bond was formed (don’t need one beyond that which is already there). What I am saying is that talking, right speech, made me not afraid of the wasps. No harm in that. And I did not have to destroy the nest for prevention of stings that never happened. This year the wasps went elsewhere, probably not wanting to be around me anymore. And that is a good definition of Right Action.

Concentrating on right livelihood while in the garden, is noticing the effort it takes to grow things, noticing how much you need to know about general gardening practices, and noticing the things you need to know about your garden’s micro environment. And what is the right view about gardening in general, about gardeners and farmers? Acknowledging our absolute dependency on growers of food! We are willing to give hockey players millions of bucks to play a game while knowing that if hockey disappeared we wouldn’t die of it. But if farmers all refused to grow food? Can you grow enough to feed yourself? How much do the pickers of that necessary indulgence, coffee, get paid? What is right effort if not trying to understand what is really going on and trying to act so that things (oneself) are brought into line with actuality? Keep that thought in your right mind by constantly concentrating, turning your attention, again and again, to what is right there if front of you right now.
source for picture of

Right Mindfullness

sweet tomatoes

Again from Wikipedia.

“Here, practitioners should constantly keep their minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind.”

How simple can this be? Oh ya, real simple. So simple that it’s hard to notice that you ever do it. Paying constant and complete attention? Giving full awareness to all the phenomena of mind and body? When do we do that? In this culture we’re trained to pay attention to TV. To money. To who won the World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup, Miss Universe Contest. The latest traffic accident or robbery. And are all those beautiful people going to make it out of the jungle without throwing up because they have to eat grubs? Oh, the anxiety, the excitement, the suspense! What might happen?!

Right Mindfulness is noticing what is happening to oneself right now. We each do this some time during the day, but we don’t necessarily notice we are doing it. The first step is to pay attention to yourself so you notice those times when you are awake noticing the simple fact of your existence, noticing those times when there is nothing happening in your head beyond simple engagement in what you are doing.

In my case I pay full attention to my existence when I paint and when I garden. Then the only thing going on is the brush against the board or the water pouring over the soil under the tomato plants. The feel of cold as the water splashes my hand as I weed. The green smell as I pick off new growth so the tomato plants won’t grow too big. The snap of picking peas for dinner. The tight hobbling sensation in the small of the back when I get up from a crouch. Bending the upper back backward to relieve the old tendons. Failing at the task of mindful attention every once in a while when I notice how many raspberries are half eaten by the d#@m robins, or worse, when a berry has only been slashed at with a beak. The robins sit on the berry canes and break them with their weight. Whenever I walk out into the garden, those wing-rats give a cry of warning and fly off. As far as they are concerned, I’m the one stealing their food.

But how to take the mindfulness I get while engaged in the small activities in the garden, or at my easel, into my day to day life? There are all sorts of techniques. By now, for old fart me, it is simply a matter of remembering to do so. And I have to remind myself to do it a lot. The hardest times are when I get stressed out, like immediately after the opening reception for my show. That night, about 3:00 pm, my mind just would not stop. Monkey mind, jabbering away. This and that. Who said what and why. Old patterns in my mind reawakened, stimulated by the strange energy of exhaustion. Not one thought important because I didn’t need to make any of it important. But nothing I could do in the situation except just watch the thoughts go by. Sleepless. Here I am awake, I thought. Trying to be awake to being awake.

Here’s a technique I learned in my twenties: in a whisper recite the phrase, “This is what I’m doing now.” Say it over and over. All day long. Quietly, but out loud. Then, the next day, repeat the phrase all day long to yourself, in your mind. After a week or so of remembering to keep saying the phrase, it sinks into your subconscious mind and becomes the observer, watching what you are doing, noticing what you are thinking. Then whenever you notice you are not paying attention to the things right there in front of you, or the things inside you, start saying the phrase to start the observer up again. It’s pretty hard to get distracted when you are reciting a phrase, or counting your breath, or fixing on a mandala or candle (on the other hand it’s pretty hard to focus on a candle or the breath etc)….

And after you get good at bringing your mind back to the phrase, the candle, the mantra, the breath, then the next trick to master is to take your developed, practised focus and generalize it so that it encompasses whatever is happening to oneself at every moment, day to day, so that you become totally aware and awake to the infinite world of your own experience. Right Mindfulness, Right Now.

May you be blessed with a day full of awareness.

The source for above image