AWE - WHAT IS MOST FAMILIAR IS MOST ASTONISHING
The best feelings of all are commonplace, ordinary, everyday feelings. They are the pleasures that are inspired by commonplace, ordinary, everyday life - the breaking of the day, seeing the colors of the room, preparing foods and tableware for breakfast, and on and on throughout the day. It is when they are muted by troubles and worries that we lose them and live in our heads instead of in the present. This book is dedicated to the resurrection of these supremely important, but sometimes undervalued, everyday pleasures. It is the trivial moment that is real life.
Enjoyment of commonplace, ordinary, everyday pleasures is dependent on an insight: life is not something else but only what it is. We can learn not to give away the moment to fears, worries, and other troubles. As Emerson wrote, "Life only avails, not the having lived." We are only alive now. The senses function only in the present. However, if a person has been beaten about the head, as we all have, in one way or another - not literally, but figuratively - a special courage is called for if we are not to fall into a mood of feeling victimized by troubles from the past. Fortunately, this courage is assisted by the use of words. We are creatures that can speak up, and we can speak up to ourselves. We can be assisted by wise sayings that we repeat to ourselves.
How astonishing it is to be a person! How astonishing it is to be alive! We live in mystery. Existence is so familiar that it is easy to forget how astonishing it is. In the first place, it makes no sense that anything should exist. Nothingness is much more probable. However, existence does exist.
Isn't it astonishing that thoughts and feelings, as well as moods and attitudes, arise into consciousness spontaneously, without our summoning them. They are in our nature, our life, our existence.
Lots of things about existence are astonishing. Isn't it astonishing to have a body and to be an organism, a self. Isn't it astonishing that the atoms that comprise a person's body were created in exploding stars at a time before the creation of the solar system. Isn't it astonishing that every moment our bodies are pulled by the mass of the earth. Isn't it astonishing that atoms are permanent, and yet life is impermanent. Isn't it astonishing that nobody knows what it is that adds life to matter.
Isn't it astonishing that we are stuck with being just this one person.
Isn't it astonishing that everything that we see is actually light entering the pupil of the eye and everything that we hear is actually sound waves hitting the eardrum.
Isn't it astonishing that the surfaces (and insides) of things are really molecules, too small individually to be seen by the naked eye but, in mass, the stuff of everyday objects.
Isn't it astonishing that every object is full of energy (atomic energy).
Isn't it astonishing that "the present" is a moving edge, intermediate between future and past, and yet this moving edge has no duration and so can't contain anything meaningful, such as a word or a sentence.
Isn't it astonishing that there is just one space and just one time and that we all participate in them together.
Isn't it astonishing that all kinds of things are going on in our bodies that we are not even aware of. The cells in our bodies have a life of their own - some cells carry nutrients and oxygen to other cells, which develop heat and energy; the white blood cells sense an invasion; when there is an injury, cells move to the site of the injury and begin the repair process; and the reproductive cells know how to unite. Each of us is a colony of cells, each cell functioning in its own way to support the life of the body. The body, including the brain, is suffused with healing agents. They are dedicated to keeping us alive and well. Furthermore, all of life, moment by moment, is characterized by intention/direction/purpose.
Similarly, the brain is a colony. Scientists have been able to identify those parts of the brain that are just the same as those in other mammals and to differentiate those parts from the higher thinking parts, which evolved more recently. In the center of the brain lies the most ancient part, which is the same as that in many other kinds of animals. In the outer part higher thinking occurs. Individual parts perform functions of sensation, locomotion, regulation of bodily systems, emotion, thought, and so on.
Isn't it astonishing that the mind is invisible. There is no way, by looking at a bee's brain, to see its intention to search for nectar or, by looking at an ant's brain, to see the ant's intention to serve the queen. A mind has no boundaries, and a thought or a feeling has no dimensions. No one knows how atoms and molecules, such as the atoms and molecules in the brain, are converted into thoughts, feelings, fantasies, images, memories, intentions, impulses, etc., in a word, the mind, with which we are all so familiar.
Isn't it astonishing that unwanted thoughts appear unbidden in a person's mind. Lots of us feel that we are at their mercy. We don't want them, but they keep intruding on us.
This book is devoted in part to dealing with these unwanted thoughts and feelings, which are not easily discouraged but know when we are least guarded and come charging forth. Unwanted thoughts and feelings can be either important, such as obsessions, or trivial, such as a melody that plays and replays in the mind (Don't Bring Lulu - there it is again). "Turning away from" or "sending away" requires practice, practice apart from the stream of events that constitute our normal day.
Negative emotions among human beings are universal. They are part of the human condition, in Nature/life. However, although they are universal, they are specific, and they are limited in number.
The best advice that I ever received was from Jack Kornfield, author of "The Inner Art of Meditation," a six-tape set (Sounds True Audio - 735 Walnut Street, Boulder, CO 80302, 1-800-333-9185). I found this set at the local library. In the tapes the author explains breathing meditation and walking meditation, which are practices in dealing with unwanted thoughts and feelings. They are effective. (I can support only tapes #1-5. Tape #6 is marred by the myth of supernatural interconnectedness.) Just as excellent a presentation is on the Internet: Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana - Gunaratana Chapter 1.
There are also audio talks on this practice on the Internet. Ones that I particularly like, found at the site of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, are ones by Narayan Liebenson-Grady, James Baraz, Steve Armstrong ("The Way Things Are"), and Sharon Salzberg -
Human beings are virtually alone among creatures in having a free mind. Because of our power of language we can rise above the stream of events. We can reflect, reason, imagine, and plan quite independently of current happenings, unlike other creatures. We have values - remembering the Golden Rule, we think and work in opposition to a setup wherein only the most powerful survive. Our minds are free of anyone else's direct scrutiny - you reveal your mind only through your behavior. Your mind is yours and yours alone.
The choices you make are always only yours. You are continuously making something of the moment. You are thinking and doing something. In other words, you are creative in every waking moment, thinking and doing personally in response to what Nature/life has presented to you, drawing on some pool of originations basic to the mind.
The origin of our thoughts is hidden from us. Thoughts and feelings emerge into consciousness on their own. When writing about the process of writing, Stephen King put it this way: "This is the room, but it's also the clearing. My muse is here. It's a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That's the other level, and that's the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places." (Stephen King in Washington Post Book World, October 1, 2006.)
Your preferences are expressed in your behavior almost from minute to minute. In occupation, hobbies, religion, books, music, foods, politics, and so on, you express your preferences. Other people can teach and suggest and advise, but the choices are always yours alone. Even self-doubting people, who seem to take everything on authority, are a complex of values. They cannot starve their values to death, even though they pay little attention to them.
The forces of Nature are not this way. Nature is organized in a food chain, with progressively stronger or smarter creatures devouring weaker or less intelligent ones. The survival of the fittest is a fundamental feature of all creatures in Nature. Nature doesn't care whether we are good or bad, kind or hurtful. It is indifferent to our fear, shame, hostility, and guiltiness. It is unthinking, uncaring, and unloving. Any resentment I have about the unfairness of life falls on deaf ears. Nature has no sense of me.
Furthermore, aside from reason and verified insight, there is nothing in Nature, including the mind, that leads a person to correct conclusions. Nature does not right wrongs. When it comes to a personal philosophy, we are at sea. This fact makes it easy for a person to be prey to any kind of religion or philosophy and explains why there is no one religion that, because of its being correct, has become ascendent. Only reason and verified insight point to correct conclusions.
Sometimes we hear the advice, "Let your conscience be your guide." Actually, nothing could be less reliable than conscience. Since Nature has not provided the correct belief system, neither has it provided a correct conscience. Nature does not provide a moral compass. Conscience is the product of a person's upbringing. The conscience of a Mennonite or a Jehovah's Witness or a Roman Catholic might tell him or her to shun or excommunicate someone; the conscience of a Muslim might tell him or her to kill a desecrator of the faith; the conscience of a Hindu widow might tell her to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre. The history of Christianity is rife with arguments about the true faith - baptism by immersion versus sprinkling, the Trinitarians versus the Unitarians, etc. Objective judgments do not exist. All judgments are subjective.
One's mind is a refuge. It is a distinct and separate place. Within it are wonderful reserves that can be discovered or created - interests, desires, hopes, love, kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reasoning, imagination, and ideas. We are truth-seeking organisms. The truth emerges if it is not stopped by dogma.
Recognizing that every person is separate and that no one has direct control of anyone else makes it possible for you to be responsible first to yourself and to give attention to your own well-being first. This is not to say that love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy towards others can be forgotten. On the contrary, giving attention to one's own well-being first frees a person to be kinder and more attentive to others.
Choosing good nature is within the reach of everyone. We are all created equal in this respect. Self-respect is everyone's due. We have the right - indeed, the necessity - to save ourselves from all attacks, both external and internal, on our self-respect. Furthermore, the jewels of good nature - love, kindness, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness - are potentially in everyone's heritage as a human being.
We can all learn to be less troubled by unwanted thoughts and feelings. When we do, we are, as the Buddhists would say, more awake. We experience what really is without the usual distractions that have dogged us. The more significant one's present is, the less significant one's past becomes. Furthermore, we are more equable, steadier - we are less disturbed by the many challenges that we encounter. Lastly, we are more accepting - we learn to take what we get, we learn to be only the person we've got, and we listen for our inner wisdom. In all, we learn self-respect. The less the egotism, the more the self-respect.
The improvements in one's disposition are usually quite subtle. We notice that the residual pain from old trauma is less. Surprisingly, nervous habits, such as fingernail biting, have disappeared. We are better able to look people in the eye. We can withstand adversity better. We are less forgetful. We are less ashamed of ourselves. (After all, we can't be better if at one time we weren't worse.) Sexual addiction is less bothersome. Suicidal thoughts are fewer. These changes don't occur overnight. Over a period of months they make an important difference in one's life.