A field guide to universal discovery.
I always struggle with how to begin and end just about anything written so that the introduction immediately engages, while the ending tightly wraps up any outstanding puppetry strings I’ve spun along the way. There are world-class writers who wrestle with the same, so I don’t feel too bad about it — mostly, I just regret that I don’t have the talent to voice my opinions, thoughts, and other musings in a way that impacts anyone who takes the time to read what I have to say. What I have to say likely isn’t perfectly unique or sublime in a way that’s likely to capture anyone at all, so it’s possible I’m worrying for no reason. Worrying about nothing; if that’s not a perfect summation of our 21st-Century way of life, I’m not sure there is one. But we’ll get to that. Eventually.
Honestly, who gives a damn about beginnings and endings, anyway? It’s the delicious, supple middle of the thing that has any purpose whatsoever. It’s not the parentheses, but rather what’s inside them that grabs our attention and tells the story. I’m far more interested in the journey, the change, the back-and-forth of a life at sea, and how one human being can go from peak to trough along the waves of time — floating, and without direction (most of the time). Maybe, just maybe, they go fishing once in a while. Sometimes, they distill fresh water from salt-infected ponds. It’s an exciting time.
I’m not going to commit to any regular timeline for these essays, or really anything at all for that matter. Deal with it. I’ll write when I have something to say, for an audience of no one to read. That’s the lovely nature of our internet-oriented culture; shouting into a vacuum is about par for the course. No one cares about what anyone else has to say, because we’re quite busy living lonely lives, thank you very much. What you call a depressing monolith of truth, I call the freedom to say what needs to be said.
It’s precisely this perverse loneliness — what a more-educated person than I may call ennui or something similarly French — that afflicts me, most days. I wander around without any idea why I do what I do, and isn’t it completely crazy that I am absolutely not alone in this? I consider that the prime condition for spawning lunacy, so I suppose it’s no wonder that I tend to believe everyone else is out of their fucking minds. Disclaimer: I am not exempt from this assumption. Hence this blog, which I will never again call a “blog,” but rather something more snarky, like “a collection of digitized essays on the human experience” or “a roundup of musings about the supreme nature of reality” or something equally pretentious.
What I need is a place to digest what I learn, to analyze my various cognitive biases, and to assimilate new discoveries into my overall perspective. “Original!,” comments Michel de Montaigne from his grave, who pioneered this idea some 500-odd years ago. Thanks, bro. Nonetheless, I think it’s a fantastic idea, one that I intend to steal and adapt to my own purposes. Sorry, not sorry. At least I’m honest about it.
Speaking of honesty, I suspect one of the primary reasons most people don’t explore their own psyche in depth is because they’re scared of what they’ll find beneath the surface when they go digging. Fear, the great demotivator! I’ve had many experiences with this, myself, and I want to talk about a semi-recent one.
It began when I read Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth,” which ended up kicking off the whole spectacle by forcing doubt in my own atheism. At the time, I had this conception of “God” as an old white guy in the sky who was equal parts magical wizard and intolerant asshole; for obvious reasons, I couldn’t recognize this as any sort of “reality” on a logical level, and so pretty much wrote off religion as a bunch of crazy people believing in a collection of fairy tales.
At one point, Campbell raises the notion that what’s found in most religious texts is misinterpreted for reality by most believers, when it’s written in a metaphorical sense. This revelation forced a question for me: was my conception of “God” completely wrong? Did I even know what God was? As it stood, I believed that if God was an old-man-sky-genie, and that Jesus was literally the Son of God, and that my pastor growing up knew what he was talking about… well, then, it couldn’t possibly be anything but rubbish. But what if none of that was accurate? What if that wasn’t the core of Christianity, as I’d been taught? If so, I based my entire idea of faith (or lack thereof) off a nonexistent concept.
At this time, being atheist and “practical” was a core part of my identity, so the possibility that I may be wrong about what I chose to believe was a freaking radical notion. I started asking other questions, like “what do I actually believe?” and “what else am I wrong about?” It turns out,I had no clue what I believed. I was wrong about a lot. Still am.
The next few months were some of the most powerful and difficult of my life. I encountered meditation, Carol Dweck’s ideas about perspective, Alan Watts, flow, positive psychology, and (most importantly for me) Buddhism and Hinduism. During this time, I challenged everything I could about what I thought made a successful and happy life, focused on healing past wounds, and tried to learn how to live more compassionately. Where it all came to a head, though, was almost a year ago, exactly.
After several weeks of meditation and reading Eastern religious texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada, I was doing the dishes after getting home from work one afternoon. As I was scrubbing, I focused on following Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice of being mindful and simply absorbing my attention in the task itself — and then it happened: I completely lost any sense of myself. I didn’t know who I was, what I believed, even what my name was. I was lost. It was a complete dissolution of my entire personal identity, in one of the most profoundly beautiful experiences of my life. I was completely sober, and yet I felt — at the essential core of my being — 100% connected with the entire tapestry of the world.
The effects lasted for months afterward, though the actual physical experience only lasted a short time that afternoon. When I came down from the sensation, I responded with abject fear and terror. Was I going mad, losing my mind? What the hell was happening to me? Was it the reading, the mindset, what? I couldn’t figure out any way to rationalize what had happened— it was a terrifying thing, not knowing who I was. So I turned away from all of it, and headed safely back into the arms of “rationalism,” though I knew I would never, ever forget what had happened. It had changed me, permanently.
Alan Watts has a fantastic quote to describe how I felt at the time:
Neuroticism is the discovery of facts to which one does not know how to adapt oneself.
That’s exactly what it was. I experienced the fact, what I felt was the true, overwhelming reality of my existence — but I had no idea what to do with that knowledge, or how to reconcile it with anything I thought I understood about my own life. It scared the hell out of me.
I didn’t realize at the time that this phenomenon was not unique to me, nor was it a new discovery at all. In fact, there’s a name for it: “ego death.” Eventually, I stumbled across some literature talking about it, and I slowly discovered that it had been happening to people all over the globe for thousands of years. I was alongside luminaries of every sort, from the Buddha himself to various Western and Eastern mystics, to poor Indian housekeepers, to controversial modern neuroscientists. What I experienced was a road traveled by many, many people to varying degrees, and over time I learned the facts about ego death and what it meant in context.
And the context is massive! The further I look, the more I see mentions and signs and people talking about the main idea: we’re all part of this incredible, textured universe, and completely interconnected in every possible way. The human species is irrevocably dependent on the rest of the world, and our minds (due to their “individual” perspective) tend to forget this. We think we operate independently, because we have our own thoughts and feelings that we seemingly generate out of nowhere. What you begin to understand is that it’s all an illusion; this is what sages like the Buddha and the Upanishads point at. You can only see your contextual place in the world when you lose your individual sense of who you are. Your personal perspective skews the picture and gives you the impression that you’re separate from everything else. But you aren’t.
It’s so complex and apparent that I haven’t yet figured out how to concisely explain it, but the evidence is there. Physics and biology tells us this is true from a secular perspective; matter just changes forms, and what we understand about life’s mere existence is enough to convince any educated person that we’re living in a literal miracle. What we are, and the fact we are alive, should not be possible. But here we are. When faced with the facts, one is asked to make one of two choices: either it’s all a cosmic accident, or it’s not an accident at all. The interesting part is that the more information I gather, the more I’m convinced there isn’t a choice at all; it can’t possibly be an accident.
We’re instances of existence, of the universe itself. The fact that we are alive at all is evidence of our divinity! This is what people mean when they say things like “we are all gods.” They don’t mean we’re omnipotent or that we’re all-powerful; they mean that we are representatives of the greatest miracle the universe has ever pulled off. We’re a collection of congealed gasses and atoms; we are quite literally great-grandchildren of the same stuff that used to be stars. We are physically the universe. This isn’t some hippie nonsense, and if it comes off that way, you’re misunderstanding the point. When we die, we’ll decompose into the ground and become soil, and many years after that, we may become nutrients for trees or food for animals. We are these things; it’s all connected. One day, we may even again become stars.
Once you understand this, and especially once you experience it as your reality, it becomes the most precious thing you have.
I share my story and opinions openly, on the Internet, with the understanding that once I publish it, it will follow me for the rest of my life. That’s okay. I hope it does. This collection of essays won’t be all spiritual in nature, but they will start there. That’s the nature of where I’m at in my very short, and very precious life. It will be over soon, and I want to capture everything I can in the time I’m here. It makes sense to start with the biggest secret — the biggest taboo, even — that I can share with you. It’s the best thing I’ve learned, and one of the only things I’m certain about, anymore.
I’ll learn more. That’s why I’m here. But for now, here’s a short treatise on how I see the world:
Eventually, I will die, and in the large-scale picture, this means my life is meaningless from that perspective. There’s no ruling “God,” there’s no plan for my life, and there’s no fate or destiny. And that’s okay! Why does there need to be some sort of cosmic plan in order for my life to make sense or have meaning? I’m simply an instance of the universe, part of the larger Ground of Existence. The fact I exist at all is a miracle (divine, even). We’ve already discussed this. That’s the Big Picture.
The fact that I will die does not mean my life is meaningless as a whole. If the inevitable fact of death can lead to a nihilist perspective (‘there is no point to anything, then, since it all ends anyway’), can life not equally be seen as a blank canvas to express one’s own freedom, meaning, and value? If my life ends in 100 years, then certainly what I’ve done since will not matter at that time. However, that does not mean it cannot matter now; the fact that things change doesn’t show that life can’t have value or certain ways of life aren’t worthwhile. What is supposed to motivate the idea that because things end at some point, nothing can have value?
Another way to put the point: Let’s say you lived forever, and the universe never ended. Hurray. Would things suddenly have value for you now? Why so? Why does there have to be eternity for anything to be valuable? Would, say, pleasure suddenly matter to you if you lived forever? Would, say, getting better at chess only matter if you could play chess forever? What would it take for things to have value for you? Why assume that actions can only have significance if there is some sort of eternal reward or punishment in store for you based on your actions? Why can’t your actions have significance now — for you, and for those you affect?
So what is worthwhile, then? What can give a life meaning, if life is indeed a blank canvas? For me, it comes down to a few core areas. Happiness is probably first and foremost; I care more about being happy than about making a long-term impact on a transient world that won’t last, anyway. I care about learning and growing. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, I “want to leave each day knowing more than I entered it with.” Social connection — being around other people and forming strong bonds — is tantamount. Sensualism and hedonism are key components as well. The joy of life is in music, in film, in poetry and novels, in sex, in physical activity and exercise, in food and wine, in sunshine and the sea breeze, in the smell of vanilla and oranges, the feeling of a motorcycle carrying me across the road. I believe in kindness and compassion, and leaving people better than when I found them (this hasn’t always been the case!). Living authentically — as I am, not always as I’d like to be or others would like me to be — is critical. Cultivating hope and optimism is important, as is cultivating mindfulness and appreciating the limited time I will be here. I also believe in trading expectation for appreciation. That one’s still a work-in-progress.
My current hypothesis about living a happy life comes influenced by Daoism and the Buddha’s concept of “The Middle Way.” Balance is everything; life is not about living purely as an Epicurian, nor as an ascetic. I can’t go too far into hedonism, lest I lose my mind and my energy, nor can I deprive myself of the good things in life simply because I am trying to save money or “do the right thing.” Sometimes, the right thing for me is not the right thing for someone else. My friends and family may disapprove, but that’s okay — my strengths and weaknesses are not theirs. Life is flux, made of transitory adjustments and movement. I remember that all things are illusory and don’t last, so outcome attachment is not really worth having. My own personal development is a process and varies by the day.
There are, of course, things to watch out for. Too much attachment (to things, people, ideas, goals) can lead to ruin. My thoughts can run wild if I’m not careful, and I need to put effort into observing them and contradicting them when they get out of hand. I need to take time to myself each day, to focus on my own needs and find peace through avenues like meditation and reading. My mental health is just as important as my physical health, and deserves similar attention. I believe in resilience; nothing is permanent, and I can’t care about what I can’t control. Events and changes have no inherent “good” or “bad” value. They just are. I can’t control what happens, but I can control how I react to it. I need to check my biases and learn what hampers my beliefs and decisions.
If my life is a canvas, I have total freedom to do what I wish with it. The paradox of choice abounds here, and right now, I have no idea what I’d like to do. But isn’t that beautiful, to have so many choices — none of which can be wrong? I never really thought I’d figure it out — my worldview, that is. But so far, this is as close as I’ve come. I have complete freedom to do what I want, to live my life however I see fit. It is a canvas, a beautiful, white canvas, fresh out of the packaging.
It’s one thing to understand that on an intellectual level, and another thing to really believe it. I’ve finally gotten there, and it feels right. My life fits together, for the first time in a very long time. What’s not to like about that?