The World in a Grain of Sand

August 23, 2011 § 34 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“All this hurrying soon will be over. Only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

It is perhaps one of the most absurd and paradoxical struggles we face as modern humans: the quest to be “in the moment” — a place we already are.

In the fast-paced age of technology, with the increasingly divided attention created by smartphones, we’re so pressed for time, apparently, we can’t even pause for breath between the word smart and phone. It’s harder than ever to wholly and simply be here now.

The etiquette of cell phone use has not evolved at the same speed as it’s popularity. It’s common for eye contact and conversation to be routinely interrupted as we check our phones compulsively the second we hear the buzz of some incoming text or email. Pavlov’s dog has nothing on us. We are constantly being called out of the tangible moment.

It often reminds me of the Star Trek episode, “The Game,” where an addictive pleasure technology finds its way on board the starship and suddenly everyone is walking around with the little screens fixed just before their eyes, smiling and absent from the world around them.

Mindlessness is a modern epidemic. With the presence of increasingly more portable technology, we are even less likely to be in the moment — dividing our attention between what’s happening in real life and what’s happening in text or email land. It’s easy to find ourselves not giving loved ones our full attention, meaningful eye contact, or authentic empathy. Not for a lack of caring, but for a lack of presence.

As we hurry from this to that, anxiously planning our next move, trying to keep up with the game, we are in fact one step behind; in danger of not truly living, but letting our automatic pilot guide us through a tasteless, scentless, textureless existence.

The good news is, we can snap out of it right now. In fact, right now is the only time we can snap out of it.

Humans already have a propensity to get lost in remembered past or projected future. As Mark Twain said, “I have known many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Add this tendency to our increasingly distracting modern technology and the resulting noise can overwhelm our ability to live in the moment.

Before we know it, we’ve driven ten miles, or walked five blocks, without truly seeing anything we’ve passed.

Mindfulness, the focused awareness of the present moment and all it contains, can bring the attention back; so that we are not zombies going through life on automatic, but in that apex of unfolding existence, the living moment.

Ancient Eastern mysticism attributes the mind’s mania for avoiding the present moment to the Ego’s struggle for survival.

Metaphysically speaking, the Ego is a false construct of the mind that is not rooted in ultimate being. It is self-centric and lacking a natural sense of connectivity. In the living moment of the present, the Ego holds no power. Because the Ego itself  is imaginary and unreal, it can only hold dominion in the imagined and unreal moments of the past and future.

When we become fully present in the moment, we experience a sense of increased color, clarity, and vitality. But the Ego loses its hold over our attention, and instantly conspires to get it back.

The study of being is the basis of Ontology, an entire branch of philosophy in itself.

In it’s most basic sense, being denotes a sense of self-awareness that extends beyond the self into the moment at hand and the world at large. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger uses the word Dasein, (which in German, literally means being-there/there-being) as a co-term for being-in-the-world.

According to Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, the Ego-run mind “creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgements and definitions.”  These mental constructs are the currency with which the mind operates, and the ego relates to these constructs rather than to reality directly.

Interestingly, this description echoes our relationship to digital life, relating to things which represent reality, rather than reality itself. We may be looking at a picture of a flower, but in it’s true form the image is nothing but a block of code.

According to Tolle, this opaque screen created by the Ego blocks all true relationships and creates the illusion of separateness. We no longer feel at one with all that is, even if we believe in theory that we are connected, in reality we feel cut-off.

This sense of total separation is not only an illusion according to the ancient Eastern mystics, but it’s supported scientifically. On a molecular level, there is no distinction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of your hand as they touch, not such hard lines between us as we may perceive.

In the Eastern concept of Maya, we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by our perception.

Tuning into the present moment can help us relate directly with our environment, rather than relating to our own inner constructions and projections as a substitute for the living world.

Mindfulness blurs the line between self and other,” explains Michael Kernis, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. “When people are mindful, they’re more likely to experience themselves as part of humanity [and] as part of a greater universe. That’s why highly mindful people such as Buddhist monks talk about being one with everything.”

Mindfulness can be practiced at all times, in all places. It is simply the art of awareness, the savoring of details, cultivating alertness to ones thoughts and feelings, without getting wrapped up in them.

“In the practice of right mindfulness,” explains Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, “the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped […] the mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment.”

To become the master of our own mind is to become a peaceful witness to the thoughts and feelings which pass through us. This is the essence of mindfulness, and can be developed by practicing extended periods of calm, alert awareness.

If you watch for your next thought like a cat watches a hole for a mouse, the mere act of alert waiting can slow the inner chatter.

After some time practicing meditation, the student will begin to experience times of prolonged inner calm, free of internal dialogue. The discovery is made: I am not my thoughts. 

Who or what we are when we have ceased to identify with our thoughts and hence our Ego, is the beginning of enlightenment, according to Eastern tradition. Even if you consider the idea of enlightenment unrealistic, quieting the mind has been proven to enhance well-being.

According to Psychology Today, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that schoolteachers briefly trained in Buddhist techniques who meditated less than 30 minutes a day improved their moods as much as if they had taken antidepressants.

For anyone interested in pursuing this avenue, I recommend Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind into an Ally. 

Though traditional meditation is one option, it’s not the only way to achieve increased presence.

Mindfulness can be practiced wherever you are, simply by bringing awareness out of the abstract and into the tangible.

This could mean anything from admiring the swirl of woodgrain on a table, to running your hand against the rough bark of a tree, to relishing the flavor of the food you’re putting in your mouth. As renown modern architect  Ludwig mies van der Rhoe said, “God is in the details.”

Another helpful practice is to remember the temporary nature of all things. Though we know everything changes in theory, in actuality, we often act (and secretly feel) like things will stay the same indefinitely — acting as though this friend or that place will always be around. But people change, people pass away, parks get paved over, nations go to war. This moment will never come again.

The living moment is all that’s real, and all that will ever be real — the past a memory, the future a dream.

When I heard the sound of the bell ringing, there was no bell, and there was no I — there was only the ringing.” ~ Anonymous 

In such a transcendence we do not lose ourselves, as we might fear, but rather gain the richness of feeling part of our world. Each cell within us is distinct and separate, yet part of the greater body.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake 

The Pursuit of Happiness

August 3, 2011 § 40 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“You’re happiest while you’re making the greatest contribution.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”  ~ Eric Hoffer

“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

“If you want to be happy, be.”  ~Leo Tolstoy

We all want to be happy. The question is, how? As philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out: “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.”

Certainly, this holds truth, as anyone who has become preoccupied with the question can attest. Yet the question must be asked. After all, we are given this one life as we know it, and to spend it unhappily seems a terrible waste.

We often confuse happiness with its showier cousin: pleasure. Pleasure and fun can mimic happiness for a time, perhaps even stimulate it, but since it comes from an external source — a good meal, a good time, making love, making money — once the experience is gone, so is the feeling.

And then we are left chasing it, wanting more food, more fun, more love, more money. This can become compulsive. We become like drug addicts always looking for our next fix of circumstantially induced happiness.

But a life spent running after fleeting pleasures wears down the body and starves the soul.

In the RepublicPlato addresses this issue, distinguishing between the pleasures of the flesh and the joys of the intellect. We must choose to live well, he says, if we want to experience true happiness.

For Plato, “living well,” entails cultivating the virtues of wisdom (morality, intellect,) courage (how we face adversity, how we stand by our values,) moderation (self-control, temperance of unhealthy desires,) and justice (fighting for it and demonstrating it.) According to Plato, developing these traits will lead to a good character, which creates a balanced and happy soul.

Plato sees the soul as having three parts: the appetitive, which seeks pleasure via food, sex and drink; the spirited, which seeks victory, honor and social status; and finally, the rational, which seeks knowledge, and truth. To be happy, Plato says the rational element must rule.

The other aspects have their role, but the highest element, the rational, must discern when to pursue the lesser desires, and to what degree. For Plato, cultivating the virtues of good character will allow a soul to experience eudaimonia, or happiness, which, tellingly, translates from the ancient Greek as ‘flourishing.’

Though we typically think that achievement and success will bring us what we want –and working towards goals we care about does give us a sense of purpose — to think that lasting happiness will be granted to us once we achieve those goals is a mistake.

Statistics (and the all too common tragedy of celebrity suicide and drug overdose) show that this proves true only temporarily. Like other short-lived joys in the “external source” category, the experience giveth, and the experience taketh away.

According to Psychology Today the clamor to understand happiness and its recipe has reached a fever pitch: in 2000 just 50 books on the subject were published, while in 2008, 4000 books on the pursuit of happiness hit the shelves.

A new branch of psychology has developed over the past two decades: Positive Psychology, which aims to study the healthy thriving human, rather than making the neurotic mind its research model. The Positive Psychology approach expands upon Plato’s theory of the cultivation of virtues as the recipe for happiness:

1) Wisdom and Knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation.)

2) Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality)

3) Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)

4) Justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership)

5) Temperance (forgiveness, mercy, humility, prudence, self control)

6) Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.)

Positive psychologist Dr. Ben-Shahar believes our greatest obstacle in achieving happiness lies in our desire for perfection. Drawing on the idea of Plato’s Theory of Forms (wherein there exists a perfect, ideal abstract version of each flawed form within the material world,) Dr. Ben-Shahar maintains that our constant measuring of things as they are against their imagined ideal leads us to unhappiness.

The perfectionist within us all is convinced that not only is it possible to attain this ideal version of our circumstance, but often we feel entitled to it. When we do this we are doing ourselves and our circumstance a twofold disservice:

1) we are being mindless, i.e. not present in the moment, appreciating and experiencing what we truly do have; and 2) we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure, as we are never going to be happy with what we have, comparing it to a fictitious, mental ideal.

According to Dr. Ben-Shahar, the pursuit of perfection is the downfall of our quest for happiness. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, he distinguishes between what he terms Perfectionists and Optimalists.

The ideals of the Perfectionist (also known in psychology as a negative perfectionist) are unrealistic, based in fantasy. Perfectionists are extremely uncomfortable with failure, and tend to turn on themselves and/or others when their expectations are not met. This rejection of failure and painful emotions in turn leads them to anxiety and more pain.

Conversely, Optimalists (also known as positive perfectionists) have attainable goals, and base their high standards in reality. They accept failure as inevitable and instructive. With this awareness, and by adjusting our attitudes accordingly, we can move from Perfectionism to Optimalism, and, theoretically, from distress to the happiness we seek.

Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora observes, “Happiness is not about smiling all of the time. It’s not about eliminating bad moods, or trading your Tolstoy-inspired nuance and ambivalence toward people and situations for cheery pronouncements devoid of critical judgment.”

Which brings up the question…what is happiness?

“The most useful definition,” details Flora, “—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than ‘happy’ in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.

“It’s maximized when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort.

“It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.”

She also points out that happiness is not our reward for escaping pain, but rather demands that we confront negative feelings head on.

In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous, as they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” Real life is full of disappointments, loss, and struggle. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”

For Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, writer and Holocaust surviver, happiness is having a sense of personal meaning:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” 

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankle describes how he survived the horrors of Auschwitz by finding personal meaning in the experience. He recalls a moment, amidst the brutal, demoralizing conditions, when he suddenly conjured the mental image of his wife’s face:

“…my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness […] A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

“The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

 

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