Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.
It’s a natural fit, as a central idea of Buddhism is that suffering/dissatisfaction/unhappiness occurs because we desire or expect one thing to happen, but reality often serves us up something different. We live our lives waiting for something in the future that will make us happy, and thus wallow in unhappiness now. We miss out on enjoying the here and now (which, is all there actually is) in the promise of something better tomorrow. But inevitably when this thing comes, its not good enough, and we wait for more. And more..and more.
This was excellently put by Alan Watts, and captured brilliantly in the “Music and Life” short film:
Or as Eric Weiner in the New York Times put it:
Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.
I was thinking about all this last week as I had my breakfast. It was a typical Irish summer morning – grey, over cast and bucketing rain. I scanned some social networks and saw the inevitable dawn chorus – “Feckin’ rain!” etc, with people pretty pissed off and down about our weather. We have high expectations for the weather – its Summer, it should be warm and sunny. And when we wake up the Universe has a different plan. When this split between expectation and reality occurs, we get upset.
Within an hour, the sun was out, the sky was blue and people were merrily skipping about town in short sleeves, and people were happy. The day had finally lived up to their expectations.
The next morning? Rain and gloom. If we lowered our expectations about the weather – the rain wouldn’t seem so bad. And the sunshine would be a pleasant surprise, but one that we would expect to pass and so would not mourn its passing.
Bluegrass odes to Buddhist sages who were born inside Lotus Flowers are probably few and far between, but here’s one anyway. The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band’s “Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)” is a foot-tapping celebration of Padmasambhava, a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche, a seminal figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
As the man sings Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum
This week sees Ireland vote in yet another European referendum. We’ve been bombarded with pro and anti propaganda day and night for weeks now, and it screams at us from every lamp post.
In reality its always like this, you just see it accutely during a campaign like this. Its certainly been like this since the start of “The Crisis” and what it is, is a battle of ideologies. There is a battle for the hearts and minds of people, by those who peddle various ideologies. More so, they want to convince you that they have The Right Plan that will Fix Everything. Whether they are left or right, or somewhere in the middle, its the same. Some group or person believe they have the answer to the world’s problems and if we go with them they will save us. And it’s always a Top Down approach – we need to give them power and they will fix things from the top. In recent years I have begun to completely lose faith in this approach.
I have oscillated my whole life from being very political to being somewhat apathetic, and I think as my life goes on the oscillations get shorter and shorter until its an almost weekly or daily cycle. Some days I get quite worked up about The Issues and rabble on about How We Fix Them. Other days I think that they can’t be fixed, at least not within the current system.
As the oscillations get closer and closer, what they really do is merge into one idea – that I want things to change, but I just don’t think they can be changed. On the surface this is a very cynical and pesimistic view. But if I think about it – it’s not really that I don’t think things can be changed – it’s that I don’t believe things can be changed in the traditional manner – that is the Top Down approach – by voting for or giving the reigns of power to, some group of some idealogical bent who will put into place policies, and procedures and legislation. That system is completely broken. The problem is that it is a Top Down approach. I have lost complete faith in this. What I do have faith in, is the Bottom Up approach.
We can no longer rely on the Powers That Be to save us, because I don’t think they really want us to be saved. If we were saved, we wouldn’t need them. They need a level of turmoil so they can come back and save us. Even if you put aside Orwellian ideas, you could also argue that it simply hasn’t _worked_. The current crisis, and the failure to come up with any workable solutions, being evidence.
I wrote about this before, when I talked about Alan Watts’ and John Holloway’s similar ideas about the failure of Top Down politics, and how the solution must come from within us. I think this is true more than ever. What I mainly spoke about then was how our thoughts and attitudes create the world we live in, and that includes our economic and political systems. But you could argue that is a cop out – I condemn standard political action and say “Ah, just change your mind!” But what do you do?
Watts would say, you can’t do much. But you can something. If the Top Down Big Government Grand Scheme hasn’t been working, then how about the Bottom Up Tiny Little Everyday Efforts Scheme. This all came to my mind this week as I passed rows and rows of screaming idealogical propaganda, and thought of a recent interview by the late Adam Yauch, in which he was asked for recommendations on what people could do to help bring about happiness in society. He said:
Everything we do affects other people. One doesn’t have to be doing something that has some huge sweeping change on a lot of people at one time. Every way that we interact with other people, even if it’s like, you’re at the store and buying something — it’s the way that you interact with the clerk at the store. EVERY action that we take has some motivation of either being selfish or altruistic. All that adds up. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about how it’s important to watch your thoughts. Thoughts are what lead to actions. If you are striving to have more happiness in your life, it helps to guide your mind towards starting to recognize what are selfish motivations and what are constructive motivations. The more you look at that and recognize it, the more that’s going to influence your actions.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
What they are talking about here is mindfulness, and the interdependence of the world, two key Buddhist ideas. What we do influences the world around us, and what we do depends on us being mindful of our thoughts, actions and motivations.
Mindfulness is a kind of buzz term at the moment, and like anything has numerous definitions. It is a concept that comes originally from Buddhism, but has since been adopted and modified into a much broader idea accessible to all. In short, it emphasises the ability to place and hold your attention on something, whilst at the same time being aware of what is going on. The practical benefits of this are an ability to experience things more directly and fully, and focus on things that are important to you, and avoid becoming distracted both by the world at large, and your own fleeting thoughts.
It involves paying attention to thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a way that can increase our awareness and compassion, help us manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices.
Mindfulness can also be called, or is sometimes coupled with awareness – awareness of your thoughts and feelings and what is going on around you. If we were mindful – really aware of what is going on around us and what we think of it – would we really act the way we do?
Imagine if people starting becoming fully aware of how their thoughts, words and actions affected the world around them. If our micro interactions between the people we meet as we go about our day changed, and we conducted ourselves fully aware of our place in the world. We can wait forever for a idealogue to come and help us, or we can begin changing our world. There are more of us then there are of them – it would be unstoppable. We just need to wake up.
Salvation won’t come from a political party, and it won’t come from a referendum on a European Treaty. But it might just come at the check-out in Tesco.
So, the other day I put down some thoughts on the passing of Adam Yauch and I want to follow up with a small collection of some of the ‘MCA-driven’ songs I mentioned. This isn’t exhaustive, but it follows a thread through his work.
As I mentioned the other day, one of the most interesting things about Yauch’s life was his journey from obnoxious rabble-rouser to a deeply spiritual activist. This could be traced in his music, and you can see him growing in confidence on each record. The first sign of this on record was probably “A Year And A Day” from their ground breaking second album “Paul’s Boutique”.
This was a remarkable album, being such a departure from the uproarious brattishness of “Licensed to Ill” and this song even more so. It was tucked away at the end of the album, lumped in with the multi-song medley “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. In it, Yauch in addition to the usual b-boy brags and pop culture, makes references to hope, prayer, dreams and destiny. In an interview with the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun, Yauch spoke about it:
there’s a song where I am starting to say what I’m feeling spiritually. It’s called “A Year and a Day,” but the lyrics to that song aren’t on the lyric sheet and I’m using a real distorted mic, so it’s not really clear. And I got a lot of positive feedback from people. I was kind of taking a big risk for myself doing that, just in terms of my own confidence, but I got a lot of positivity on that.
For their next album, “Check Your Head”, the Beasties changed course again, bringing in live instrumentation and more of a punk-rock sensibility to the mix. On this album were a couple of Yauch-driven songs, including “Stand Together”, which for me is the spiritual successor to “A Year and a Day”. Here, over a similar mix of rapid drums and a electric guitar line, Yauch is much more upfront about his new outlook on life and emerging spiritual practice
I don’t see things quite the same as I used to
As I live my life, I’ve got just me to be true to
When I find that I don’t know about just what to do
I turn and look within to see what I should do
There are references to Yauch’s meditation practice and its positive effects
Yeah, as the earth spins into a brand new day
I see the light on the horizon’s not fading away
Gonna shine from within, like a bright white sun
No need to hide and no place to run
Also on “Check Your Head” is “Namasté”, a trippy, laid back psychedelic tune, featured Yauch reciting a surreal poem which culminates in:
My fear was just a shadow
And then a voice spoke in my head
And she said dark is not the opposite of light
It’s the absence of light
And I thought to myself
She knows what she’s talking about
And for a moment I know
What it was all about
If you can trace Yauch’s growing confidence in expressing his spiritual side from album to album, it came to full fruition on “Ill Communication”. On “Bodhisattva Vow”, Yauch leaves no one guessing as he talks about the Buddhist vow he has taken.
As I develop the awakening mind
I praise the Buddhas as they shine
I bow before you as I travel my path
To join your ranks, I make my full-time task
For the sake of all beings I seek
The enlightened mind that I know I’ll reap
someone who has decided to strive to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other beings, to better assist all other beings in avoiding suffering and attaining happiness — following the spiritual path to end the cycle of death and rebirth, learn whatever lessons need to be learned on this planet.
The general concept behind the song was to take the meaning of Shantideva’s text, at least on the level that I understood it, and compress it into a modernized, three-verse rhyming song. In retrospect, it was rather a bold move. People who write Buddhist texts generally spend most of their lives studying them beforehand. The idea that a person could read a couple of books, go to one teaching, and then attempt to write an updated abridged version of the Bodhicaryavatara is presumptuous at best.
The song represents Yauch’s full ‘coming out’ as a Buddhist, a clear statement of intent. It was at this time that he also become heavily involved in the Tibetan Freedom movement, that was to become a huge part of his life.
Yauch’s desire to contribute solo positivity-centered contributions to Beastie records continued on “Hello Nasty” on “Flowin’ Prose”
But I’ll remain sane making gain without pain
Staining trains with names and driving lanes to the refrain
And keep it positive as painstaking as it is
I’ll never turn back cause that’s the way I’ve got to live
But on “Nasty” Yauch also contributed a rare moment of softly spoken melody, with the acoustic Bossa Nova flavoured “I Don’t Know” which was an oasis of calm in between the smashing breaks that populated the 1998 album.
On the Beastie’s last 3 records there were no real ‘solo’ tracks, as the group shared mic duties on all songs, but Yauch continued to supply a positive mind frame, but becoming much more political in the post 9/11 era, but as always was committed to, as he once described it:
striving for […] integrating the ability to only put out positive energy toward all other beings. I want to integrate that into having fun and functioning in the band.
from 01:00 UTC on the last Sunday in March until 01:00 UTC on the last Sunday in October each year.
Europe is currently observing Summer Time.
So, Summer Time began in March, began today, and is due to begin in June.
This brings up a few things I have talked about before here, all relating to symbols and our relationship with them. Of course “Summer Time” is not a real thing. As I write this I am staring out at a dark, gloomy, grey sky which has been dropping water on us almost unrelentingly for 2 days now. Not what I would call “Summer”. “Summer Time” is an idea. It is also a socially constructed and shared convention, but it is entirely arbitrary and subjective. I wrote before about Alan Watts and his comments on time, specifically day-light savings time. It also brings to mind Robert Anton Wilson talking about his address, and how he could live in many different ‘places’ at once. Why? Because the address system is also a symbol – just like time.
Wilson also brings up Eastern Philosophy and its relationship to such systems of symbols. One aspect of Buddhism is how it stresses that our world of concepts and ideas is not the real world. This is something people like Watts and Wilson expressed time and time again. Symbols, words, ideas are important, they help us navigate the world, but the trick is to never be fooled by them. They are not reality, they are labels for reality. They help us understand reality, but they are not the real thing. “The Map is not the Territory”.
So, is it summer? The rain pounding my window says otherwise.
The day is also the Buddhist celebration of Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is often rendered as the fat, happy Buddha (confusingly, the fat, laughing Buddha is also sometimes Hotei/Budai, a wandering Chinese Chan Monk. A lot of people mistake the fat Buddha for the historical Buddha Gotama when its actually Maitreya/Hotei ). Maitreya is traditionally known as ‘the next Buddha’ who will appear when everyone has forgotten about Buddhism.
Over on Dharma Forest, there is a lovely description of one of Maitreya’s traits.
Maitreya is famous for having subdued his temper through learning “patience under insult.” You simply can’t upset him. Insults, curses, even blows will not get his goat or shake his equanimity. He has a big belly, not from greed for food but from holding all the chi (qi) that people have thrown at him. Swear at him, cut him off in traffic, insult his mother, he endures it all because he has subdued himself – – his false pride and vanity are long gone. He sees through the surface of relationships and understands that you wouldn’t be giving him grief if you had peace of mind. Why increase your afflictions by getting caught up in your unresolved drama? It has nothing to do with him, and he won’t waste a second of precious lifetime struggling with hurt feelings or animosity.
Hmmmm “Why increase your afflictions by getting caught up in your unresolved drama? It has nothing to do with him, and he won’t waste a second of precious lifetime struggling with hurt feelings or animosity.” Now that is good advice….
The phrase ‘This too shall pass’ just jumped into my head, so I decided to look up its meaning online. Wikipedia describes it as ” a proverb indicating that all material conditions, positive or negative, are temporary.” It instantly made me think of the Buddhist concept of impermanence.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction!
Which is a great way of expressing the meaning and power of the saying. In happy times it reminds you that they will not last for ever, and in sad times, likewise.
In Buddhism, impermanence is a central idea. Nothing is permanent in our world, everything arises and passes away and is always in flux, and indeed, our suffering, misery and dissatisfaction comes from the fact that we desire and strive for things to be permanent – when they cannot be.
Interestingly, there is more to the Lincoln quote, where he unfortunately misses the point:
And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
He still strives for the comfort of something that can be eternal and ever lasting – when nothing ever will be. This is the conflict that causes suffering, we will always be disappointed when what we hope will last forever dissolves. He wishes for a ‘prosperity and happiness’ that will always continue and grow, in a world where everything is always changing and breaking down.
Indeed, looking back in a modern light, isn’t this quest for an always ‘onward and upward’ prosperity what is getting the world in so much trouble?
Alas – happiness and prosperity definitely pass. But so too shall austerity and depression.
All things must pass – as George Harrison once sung.
She argues that the culture of ‘positive thinking’ that tries to convince people that their very real problems will be solved if they simply adopt a positive mindset is delusional, cruel and dangerous. She deftly dismantles the idea that our thoughts can somehow physically change our environment – that by wishing for something we can somehow manifest it, and in doing so also demonstrates this can be a destructive act.
She’s right of course – you cannot manipulate your reality by simply thinking positively. I know – I think we all know – people who are like this. I know people who berate me for not being positive about certain things – almost to the point of suggesting they my apparent negative attitude causes the problems or at least supports them.
What stood out for me however was when she was talking about how things like quantum science is used to attempt to prove the power of positive thinking. She gave an example of a general argument:
Nothing is real. Nothing is true. Whatever you think, that’s how the world is. So, if you think positively you make the world positively according to this pseudo scientific explanation.
This, she implies is the general idea that
You can change the world with your thoughts.
What immediately leapt into my mind is the opening lines of “The Dhammapada” one of the oldest and most revered Buddhist texts.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Which appears on the surface to suggest a direct link between thought and the ‘world’.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
It also states:
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
This too may seem to suggest ‘positive thinking’ – there appears to be a direct cause and effect between state of mind and positive or negative outcomes. This, however, is a misunderstanding and one which I think leads to Buddhism often being dismissed along with various self-help things, positive thinking or ‘new-age’ ideas.
There are a number of ways in which what the Buddha is saying is not endorsing the power of ‘positive thinking’.
One requires understanding of how reality is viewed in Buddhism. Many schools of thought, certainly in Mahayana Buddhism, argue that there is only mind. There is no objective reality ‘out there’ – all phenomena are nothing but mind, and all perceptions are mind. The only way to know things exist is with the mind, so there is no way of knowing anything beyond your mind, so the only reality is mind. So in a crude way, Ehrenreich’s sample argument that she dismisses that:
Nothing is real. Nothing is true. Whatever you think, that’s how the world is.
Is not entirely untrue from a Buddhist perspective, but only again in the most crude way. It is enough to say that the Mahayana viewpoint of reality stresses the non-duality of mind and ‘the world’.
This is, however, a hugely complex subject and one I am certainly not learned enough in to tackle in any big way – suffice to say that this view removes any kind of separation between perceiver and perceived, thus ‘with our thoughts we make the world’ becomes a much more literal statement. If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend “Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism” by Andy Karr which is a really thorough explanation of the Buddhist view of reality.
In more practical terms however, I think what the Buddha is saying is not only not an endorsement of positive thinking, but indeed agrees with Ehrenreich’s argument. It also points out aspects of the debate that she does not touch on.
Having laid waste to ‘positive thinking’ and ‘negative thinking’ to boot, Ehrenreich’s ‘radical suggestion’ is ‘realism’. She argues that we should try to figure out what is actually happening in the world and see what we can do. We should not pre-tint our glasses as we gaze at reality – we should see it as it is and act accordingly. This is exactly what Buddhism teaches, and through the basic practice of mindfulness meditation encourages us to train in and cultivate. The Buddha formulated his great truths and the path to liberation by meditating and seeing reality how it really is. He did not ‘think positively’ and affect change – he inspected reality and discovered the truth. He was concerned with the here and now, and what was arising, through diligent awareness of the mind and body.
So, the Buddha does not urge us to ‘think positively’ – indeed the words he used were:
Speak and act with a pure mind.
Pure is not the same as positive. A pure mind is unblemished – it is not preconceiving anything but simply accepting reality as it is. We are then urged to ‘speak and act’ with this mind.
The Buddha then said that to do so :
happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
You may argue – does this still not claim a physical reaction or positive gain from mental states? Note however that the Buddha said speak and act. These are physical actions with consequences in the real world. Thought alone is not enough. Ehrenreich’s position is that ‘positive thinking’ alone will not achieve anything – and she is right. But by acting in a manner which is inspired by a pure mind, the Buddha argues will have positive benefits.
If you go about your day with an angry mindset you will act accordingly – and those actions will bring trouble. Similarly, if you go about your day with a ‘positive’ mindset you may act in a way which is inappropriate, your perceptions and understanding fogged by a mindset which is preloaded and not in tune to reality.
The Buddha claims that happiness will come if you speak and act from a pure viewpoint – one in tune with reality. One could do this by following Ehrenreich’s advice.
Try to figure out what is actually happening in the world and see what we can do.
Both argue that we should inspect reality as-it-is, without false mindsets to influence us, and act accordingly.
So before your mind starts to analyze, accept everything that exists as the contents of your life. Open your eyes and see all beings vividly, as they really are, right now, right here. That is called Right Seeing, the first step of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path. After that, with a calm mind, profoundly think what you intend to do. Then, whatever it is that you do, do it wholeheartedly.