Tag Archives: awareness

6. Use Little Tricks

Every mystery or philosophical tradition from the beginning of time has invented mechanisms to help adherents pay attention to the right things, or stop paying attention to the wrong things. I’ve always been fascinated by Zen koans, Sufi teaching stories, and parables of all kinds. After all, that everything that is communicated contains messages at more than one level, geared especially for those at each level who can grasp the meaning, has always been more appealing to me than the idea that there is hidden knowledge out there in the world that requires learning specific hand signals, and paying certain club dues, to learn. Of course, the big thing you learn after investing in any system of this kind is that NO KNOWLEDGE IS HIDDEN. If it’s actual and real knowledge, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and right there in constant view. Again, we return to perspective. You wanna know how small and unimportant you are, and how ultimately ineffective you are likely to be in this lifetime, go out every day to the beach, find and examine the same single grain of sand each day – if of course you can even find it. You can after all only be humble by practicing humility. For years, I’ve practiced imagining looking down at myself in space, starting from just a few feet away, and gradually pulling away, seeing my house, the neighborhood, our town, the state, the continent, the Earth, slowly becoming smaller and smaller and ultimately lost in the everything else that there is. Having a GPS system and playing with the zoom gives you a taste of that. I mean, where ARE you as far as the universe is concerned? And why even bother considering the universe? There are so many infinitely closer and more immediate things that are so much bigger, and grander than we are.

An interesting little trick that is worth trying is the Stoic imagining of the happy death – to imagine yourself on death’s doorstep, imminently departing this mortal coil. With what in your life are you satisfied? What mistakes would you rectify? Most importantly, what that you could have done have you left undone? Whether there is a judgmental overseer to be faced at the portal of the next Bardo is irrelevant. To appease an unfair or despotic deity is no great show of worthiness; likewise, to bully your way past an ineffective and less than omnipotent ruler with an excess of bravado or cash shows no surplus courage or chutzpah. So stripping it down to the bare bones, to the essence of the thing in itself, life, what use have you made of it? Montaigne suggested that a true Stoic approach would be to approach death believing that you either did everything you could, and lived that life to its fullest, wearing it out, in which case you have nothing to regret and can leave this world satisfied – or if you did not fully life, to realize that the opportunity was lost, and that the life was wasted on you in the first place. In either case, no cause for sorrow, no occasion for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are of course little tricks you can play every day. One I recently noted was that every night I go to bed hoping to be happy to be alive when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes that works; so I keep doing it. Of course, they are all games we play with ourselves – and often with those who live with us. You say, “good morning” even if you don’t believe in either goodness or the state of the current day. Just like so many “religious” people keep icons, guru pictures, shrines, and happy little “churchy” slogans or out of context Bible verses strewn profusely around their houses to “remind” them that they are “good” people and will act accordingly, the games we play with partners, lovers, children, parents, friends, co-workers, and incidental strangers on the street help us maintain a premise (usually only shared in part with others) not about how the world actually is, but how we believe it should be, or could be.

Share This:

10. Wake From the Sleep of Habit

I suppose one could take this advice two different ways: to wake from the sleep of habit, but also to wake from the habit of sleep. That is for the former, to be aware of everything you do by rote, simply going through the motions without conscious attention to the details; for the latter, to work in Ben Franklin again, to refrain from idleness, sleep only enough to replenish your batteries, and avoid lounging around altogether.

One could argue however there are good habits and bad habits – to which I think at least Montaigne (and perhaps Lao Tzu) might counter, since we can’t accurately discern between the two subjective extremes, it might be better to leave off all habits, regardless of their moral superiority. Cigarettes, lack of punctuality, procrastination, voting strict party candidates, prejudice, daily reading, obsessive social media checking – all habits by that standard of comparable if not equal import simply because they tend to take up little bits of time, here and there, that do not seem consequential when looked at as individual moments, but when accumulated can represent some pretty large chunks.

There are of course energy cycles in everyday life. My own approach what used to be called manic-depressive, but of course the height and depth of any cycle just as subjective as anything else, and just as subject to both internal and external perception. Any cycle flattens over time: what seems very high today may be only average for the course of a month. The severity of a habit, like a risk, matters to its overall impact only as relates to its likelihood. You probably could manage them similarly. Some habits eat up a lot of time, certainly. But if they achieve something “positive” (again, highly subjective), then they can be preferable to another activity that is more likely to result in a “negative”. It is not because it’s better to be constantly positive that so many philosophies talk about balance. It is because that is reality. It is not possible to be “up” all the time, any more than it is possible for any habit, when indulged to excess, to always be a good thing.

Mystics from both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions naturally wax philosophically on doing exactly what Montaigne suggests, stated quite simply: pay attention. Awareness of what you’re doing as you’re doing it is the antithesis of habit – unless of course your habit involves becoming so absorbed in the execution of each component of even the simplest tasks that you maintain no forward motion, no momentum or velocity whatsoever. There is a thin line that runs the spectrum from habitually obsessive to obsessive-compulsive to habitually compulsive. The serenity prayer remedy for such a spectrum might as well be “give me the serenity to let go of the things I cannot control, the courage to unwillingly accept control of the things I can, and the wisdom to recognize control itself as a complete illusion.”

So perhaps again mindfulness is the answer. Unless mindfulness is itself your habit. What is it that Hamlet quipped, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.” What he’s suggesting is that there is a precipice at the extreme edge of paying attention. Once we become (and believe me, I’ve been there) a “man who thinks too much”. As the Bard again suggests, in a different context altogether, such men are indeed dangerous. Not just to ourselves, but to others. The wormhole of overthinking can suck in the innocent bystander just as easily as the thinker themselves. The Skeptic position to doubt everything is good up to a point; but you’ve got to put your feet down somewhere if you’re going to walk at all.

One of the nastiest habits to overcome is the insistent need for justification before acting. When I would tell her the long-drawn-out story of one of my current dilemmas, my dad’s bookkeeper used to tell me, “Do anything – even if it’s wrong!” There is the danger of taking the wrong step, wrong turn, certainly; but there is an equal and perhaps greater danger of doing nothing at all, of falling into wrongness simply by losing the opportunity to act.

So, where is the “happy medium”? And is there actually such a thing? Part of the problem in even answering that question lies in the highly subjective definition of happiness – as either an end or a journey. Does the medium, moderate, middle way imply stagnation or gestation? Is it that state when the door is closed between two rooms? Is stillness or movement the habit? Newton suggested that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, where an object at rest tends to stay at rest. He then proved through the demonstration of gravity that nothing, absolutely nothing, is “at rest.” It’s all movement.

Who is the weak, and who is the strong, when the river’s still flowing but the mountain’s gone?

Share This:

Why Things Burn

A moment of brilliance,
shot through the heart and left for dead
on the side of the road;
An instant of insight,
unclouded by the circumstance of reason
as the teardrop explodes;
A spark from a fire
too long extinguished, with no memory
or meaning of flame.
A blink of an eyelid;
unconscious movement without conscience
or the concept of pain.

What is the reason why things burn?

A moment of madness,
illumination that burns through the curtain of dawn;
A second of shadow,
fogging the mirror before it is faded and gone;
An inkling of brilliance,
one shining hour that dies as the minutes decay;
A spark of electric
current that waxes and wanes as it travels away.

What is the reason why things burn?

30 JUL 2007

Share This:


Brace yourself. Epiphany
does not arrive in slow reveal;
long years spent over ancient tomes
will like as not have no result.

The right idea, when it comes,
is more like lightning than the storm:
a flash that cracks the sky with light
and then is gone without a trace.

29 JUL 2007

Share This:

Do Unto Others

I was minding my own business, at the bar nursing a drink,
when a big old boy slid onto the next stool;
he ordered a cheap, cold one for a buck fifty, I think,
then turned to me and said, “I’m no one’s fool.”

Now, I’m of the opinion that a bar in a small town
is no place for a liberal point of view;
and so I simply grunted in a noncommital way
and tried to figure out what I could do.

He wanted conversation, so I gathered from his tone,
on politics in general, and the war;
he waxed on philosophic while I tried hard not to moan
for nearly two full hours, maybe more.

The gist of his opinion, if you want to call it that,
was that world was too big for its jeans,
and those old fashioned values he prized were being left flat.
I finally had to ask him what’d he mean.

He said, “I said it once before, my mama didn’t raise no fool:
the answer’s pretty simple, seems to me.
It’s only application of that saw from Sunday School,
that’s what America needs to be free:”

Do unto others; make it a pre-emptive strike.
That way they won’t talk back and make you do things you don’t like.
Apply the golden rule and we can keep the world in line;
and freedom’s light will continue to shine.

Do unto others; pay it forward, so to speak.
If they say something you don’t like, just knock ’em in next week.
Apply the golden rule before they sneak one in on you;
Now that’s what this great country ought to do.

I’d had about enough of this, as you can understand,
when he slid his bar stool back and took his feet;
He said, “nice talking to you, I can see you’re a good man.”
I nodded to the barman — whiskey, neat.

The good old boy departed, and I lifted up my glass
to toast his shadow as it slipped away.
It was obvious in our debate, I’d simply been outclassed;
or overcome with silence, you might say.

I said to the bartender, who was an old friend of mine:
“I wonder where they come from, these great fools.”
He said, with a big grin, “They wander in here all the time,
from hunting, chasing skirts or buying tools.”

They all say …

Do unto others; stop that terror in its tracks.
That way no one will argue, and we can all just relax.
Apply the golden rule and we can keep the world in line;
and freedom’s light will continue to shine.

Do unto others; pay it forward, so to speak.
If they say something you don’t like, just knock ’em in next week.
Apply the golden rule before they sneak one in on you;
Now that’s what this great country ought to do.

14 FEB 2007

Share This:

If all my days were whiled

If all my days were whiled in hours of leisure,
their content by mere whim alone fulfilled,
perhaps I would not sense so keen a pleasure
as I do when a moment seems to still

into a whisper the world’s rush and roar,
and stretch a second’s span beyond its measure.
It’s likely I would want of time much more,
if all of it were made of these small treasures.

Would I want such a horde of precious minutes?
How would they wear if stored up in some vault?
It seems to me their worth would soon diminish
and leave behind regret, sorrow and fault.

Much better finding them just now and then;
like manna you have only now to spend.

12 MAY 2006

Share This:

This is the oyster

This is the oyster; why seek for the pearl?
There’s no escape plan for leaving this world
in my religion: no hereafter gold,
no burning embers, no cold of Sheol.

This is the medicine; why seek a pill
to flee reality, thinking you will
by any action change the universe,
except, perhaps, to make it a bit worse
with senseless struggle against so-called fate,
hedging your bets hoping it’s not too late.

This is the path you’re on; why second guess?
No point in leaving this life in a mess,
hoping salvation will come undeserved,
praying the universe doesn’t throw curves.

There is just oyster; that one grain of sand
turned to a pearl in the palm of your hand
is just some excrement to soothe the pain
of the endless ocean. Time and again
it waits at the shoreline to carry us out,
waits while we ponder, apostize and doubt.

This is the world that is; why seek one more?
Who knows what waits beyond the tide’s great roar?
This is your heaven, or this is your hell.
It too will pass away, after a spell.

24 APR 2006

Share This: