Ancestors of Awakening

“Our task in the coming era is to relocate ourselves in the cosmos and to renew our kinship with all of earth life. It is time to join again in the dance-drama of biological and cosmic evolution.”  -D. H. Lawrence

Reflecting on the scientific story of evolution we find a lineage of bodhisattvas, saints of compassion stretching back millions of years through epochs of geological time. We owe our existence to the struggles and sacrifices of uncountable numbers of beings; creatures who had to shape-shift to meet the ever-changing demands of natural forces; who suffered horribly through atmospheric upheavals, ice ages, comets crashing into earth, continents colliding, volcanoes erupting, floods and vicious plagues. Through their fierce determination to live, all those beings have brought us to this present moment of semi-awakened consciousness.

In order to honor those who made our life possible, I suggest that we go back to some form of ancestor worship. By ancestor worship I don’t mean just keeping a daguerreotype of Grandpa on the mantel. I’m talking about deep ancestor worship, which requires that we dig into our evolutionary past and evoke the spirit of those who made it possible for us to become the brilliantly befuddled humans we are today. We want to bring all the ancestors into our circle of reverence, and we can start by telling their stories. Here are a few.

We’ll begin, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of the very first living being, a single-celled organism that scientists have named LUCA, an acronym for the “last universal common ancestor.” Perhaps we should make a grand statue of this life form and place a replica in all the major plazas and malls of the world. Every living being on earth can trace its ancestry back to LUCA, the androgynous progenitor of us all.

The story is magical and inspiring. Just imagine the stormy beginnings on this fiery ball of cooling earth magma, out on the roiling, broiling seas, when a precision bolt of supercharged lightning hits a fecund blob of chemical scum and SHAZAM! — those newly energized elements begin bouncing around in a wild molecular dance, bonding with each other to create the first organic molecules that eventually, mysteriously, weave themselves into the complex spirals of DNA. The initial expression of all this mixing and matching of matter turns out to be LUCA, a determined little membrane-enclosed child of the mud. Suddenly, some of the substance of earth acquires a strange new condition-life.

I would imagine that in the beginning, 3.8 billion years ago, life was relatively good for LUCA, just bobbing around on the ocean waves all day, not a care in the world. No doubt LUCA was as happy as any being could be at the time, partly because there were no other beings around for comparison. She was also happy because no other beings were around who could eat her. (We’re giving LUCA a female identity, even though back in her day there wasn’t any gender.)

As you might imagine, LUCA eventually became lonely and sad, unable to share this strange and beautiful existence (“Hey, look at that sunset-someone”), and after a few million years of isolation, LUCA finally came upon a solution. Stretching the miniscule substance of her body to the breaking point, and then pushing outward even harder from the spiraling DNA core of her being, with a final spasm of energy LUCA split in two! The story of evolution had begun.

At last LUCA had someone to share the world with, and she started having twice as much fun, literally. What happened was that LUCA had found someone to love, and the being who she fell in love with was actually part of her self. LUCA fell in love with LUCA! There are those who might consider this a case of narcissism, but there is a profound spiritual message in this story, telling us to consider all other living beings as part of ourselves, which is the truth of the matter. We have good reason to love all beings as ourselves.

Even after creating her companion, LUCA kept dividing. Her offspring started dividing as well, and before you could blink a membrane, 2 had become 4 had become 16 had become 32 . . . and suddenly we were in the middle of a cellular baby boom. Considering how often they did it and continue to do it, perhaps we can assume that procreation by dividing (mitosis) feels as good as sex. And the cells don’t even have to take each other out to dinner first.

Not only are we descended from a single cell, we are made out of cells, the fundamental building blocks of all life. Cells were first noticed in 1665 when English scientist Robert Hooke was examining cork under a microscope and saw all these little partitions. He thought they looked like cells in a monastery so he gave them that name. We now know that life has gone from a single-celled being, LUCA, to beings such as humans, each of us composed of 100 trillion cells. Scientists estimate that cell division happens 10 million times a second in the average human body. LUCA’s children have survived and thrived, and we bow to her fecundity and inventiveness.

Along with LUCA, we could include many important species in our ancestor worship, but none seem more worthy of reverence than the amphibians. None of us would have ever found the path to awakening if those first amphibians, the descendants of fish, hadn’t led us onto solid ground, a journey that took a few million rather difficult years. Switching the medium that you live in can’t be easy.

The earliest frog-like beings evolved about 400 million years ago when the pectoral and pelvic fins of certain fish developed joints, turning those fins into a primitive form of legs which were then used to crawl up onto land. These beings were colonizing a whole new habitat for LUCA’s vertebrate descendants, taking one small step for an amphibian, one giant leap for life.

Just imagine the heroic efforts of those first backboned landlubbers, with their awkward little fin-feet, the webbing between the digits still in place, sliding off the hard and unfamiliar rock surfaces as the ocean tried to suck them back to where their predators swam. And if they could manage to hold onto the land for a while, they still had to deal with the atmosphere and how to breathe through air instead of water. And to make matters worse, the air was so much less buoyant than the water that those early land-walkers could barely move themselves around through the heavier pull of gravity. (Is it any wonder that some of the more intelligent land mammals moved back to the oceans?)

The sacrifice of the frog lineage was truly enormous, and we have failed to offer any recognition or reverence in return, aside from our love for Kermit. But perhaps we can now make up for our oversight by trying to save the frogs from extinction. All across the planet they are dying out, and those that aren’t dying are mutating, but not into the princes of our fairytales. They are instead becoming monsters, grotesqueries.

Some leading biologists such as E. O. Wilson believe that frogs are about to make some sad biological history by becoming victims of the earth’s largest mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs-an amphibian apocalypse. We are facing the possible extinction of an entire class of animals (including frogs and toads, caecilians and salamanders) with more than half of the world’s 6,000 amphibian species already on the endangered lists. These species are affected by habitat loss, climate changes, pollution and an increasing vulnerability to parasites and diseases. The frogs and other amphibians are considered an indicator species, the canary in the coalmine of earth’s atmosphere, this time croaking us all a warning.

There are several good but selfish reasons why humans should try to save the frogs. First we should note that humans, too, are descendants of the early amphibians, the frogs are our cousins. We might also consider that if the frogs disappear we will likely have plagues of mosquitoes and flies. And if the frogs disappear then the snakes will start slithering into the suburbs to find food. Of course, the greatest tragedy for us is that if the frogs disappear we will no longer hear them singing in the evening twilight.

But let’s take a deep-ecology point of view, and arouse some concern and sympathy for the frogs for their own sake. After all, the frogs lead important lives too; they have mothers and children (remember the cute little tadpoles). Also on the sentimental side, remember that “froggy went a courtin’.” How could we let them disappear?

So many species belong in our circle of reverence. We could bow low (very low) to the gazillions of tiny beings (cyanobacteria) that turned the air into an oxygen-rich mixture, necessary for the development of the enormous complexity of life on earth; and big bows to the marine worms who invented the spine (Say it loud, I’m a vertebrate and I’m proud!) and then to a later generation of worms who plowed and prepared the soil with nitrogen for the well-being of the plant kingdom. Also, a deep prostration of gratitude to that group of pre-human primates who struggled to learn cooperation and the language to make it work, the ones who felt the first mirror neurons blinking on, a signal of what would later become “love.” (LUCA would be proud of her offspring.) And here’s to those really great apes who looked into the reflecting water of a lake, perhaps, and for the first time saw themselves, and for the first time knew of their own life and death, and then began wondering about the mysteries of existence. Many praises to those nameless ones who, not so long ago, must have experienced the great confusion that we still feel today when we realize our existence.

The ancestors of our awakening are countless, but we vow to bring them all into our circle of reverence. Maybe you could work up the biography of one of your favorite long-ago ancestors-animal, plant or even fungus or bacteria-and talk about its life to your friends and children. We need to find ways to bring evolution alive by turning it into stories, songs, dances. The time has come to delight in the fact that we are part of this grand unfolding and unfinished revelation, to take our place as members of the extended family of life on earth.

A Fool’s Paradise

Strange as it may seem, I like to think of myself as a fool. Once I embrace my essential foolish nature I no longer have to pretend to be wise or hip or awesome. Instead I can just be me, someone a little weak of will, usually caught up in some mundane drama, and completely clueless as to the meaning of life or what I am doing here. Knowing that I’m a fool, I take great comfort in the observation of the Taoist rascal Chuang Tzu, who says, “Those who know they are fools, are not the biggest fools.”

A simple exercise in foolish realism is to look at yourself in the mirror, not with an eye to grooming but just to see who is there. First check out your personality, “Give us a smile, then.” And how about one of those looks of gravitas that you can put on at a minute’s notice: “It is my considered opinion….” Try the sly come-hither glance, the one that you use for seduction. “Hmmm. I’m so cool I’m hot!” And how about the look of sincere interest that Andrew Carnegie recommended for winning friends and influencing people. While looking at my various guises and masks, I almost always start to laugh.

Then I look beneath the personality and check out the self-conscious primate, not that far from the jungle really, still driven by barely conscious instincts, trying hard to walk around on two legs and still look cool. Then I look even closer and notice the outline of my skull, waiting to make its appearance as soon as the wind blows my face away.

Foolishness goes hand in hand with me through life. I had to laugh at myself during a recent meditation retreat after reflecting on the irony of what I was doing, sitting on my zafu. I realized that I had spent the first half of my life in school developing the ability to think, and now I was spending the second half of my life learning how to ignore my thinking. What was I thinking?

I have long ago convinced myself of my own foolishness, but if there is anything I’ve learned from meditation it is not to take myself too personally. I am not my fault. What it comes down to is that I am mostly foolish just because I’m human, and the truth is that we are a species of fools. The poet Gary Snyder called us, “a gang of sexy primate clowns.”

One example of our collective foolishness is that humans seem to be heating up the planet, all of us thinking we are so smart as we motor around in our individual steel boxes, burning up two or three geological epoch’s worth of the sun’s energy in one big choking bonfire of the vanities. What it comes down to is that we are cooking ourselves, and the only choice we might have left is which cooking method to use. More greenhouse gases will trap the heat of the planet and put more moisture into the air and we will end up poached. However, if we destroy the ozone layer first we will be micro-waved. And would you like fries with that?

For further proof of human foolishness, take our religions. Please. In recent years we have learned that not only does the emperor have no clothes, neither do the priests. And although I find it hard to believe, all these years after the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, we still have hoards of people running around saying they know who god is, and the rest of us are going to hell where we will be tortured for eternity by ugly little creatures with horns and pitchforks. Isn’t it time to let go of this spiteful, vindictive, juvenile fairytale? I can only pray: “May God save us from the people who believe in Him.”

Of course, if you need still further proof of our foolishness, just consider that George W. Bush managed to get himself elected leader of the free world. I rest my case.

Looking back through history we find that every few centuries, all that we humans know about the world gets overturned, and yet we continue to believe that our latest facts and stories are the final word. Once upon a time everybody knew that the earth was flat and stationary. And how many humans prayed fervently to Isis or Zeus or Jupiter with the unshakable faith that these gods not only existed, but cared deeply about us? And although now it seems so obvious, it took many thousands of years of self-consciousness before a few of us looked at the apes and asked, “Could we possibly be related?”

I wonder which of our contemporary stories about ourselves and the world will be overturned in the near future? As the Firesign Theater once said, “Everything you know is wrong.” As the Tibetan yogi Thangapa says, going even deeper, “To see truth, contemplate all phenomena as a lie.”

Our biggest mistake, however, and really, the only thing that makes us into fools, is that we don’t acknowledge our foolishness. Although regarding ourselves as smart and clever may have some evolutionary benefits, it is also a cause of our suffering. For instance, it was a very stupid idea to rename our species “homo sapiens sapiens,” which means twice wise humans. The scientists say this designation means that not only do we know, we also know that we know. But that sets up an ideal that hardly any members of our species can achieve, at least for any length of time.

People who practice meditation know how difficult it is to be twice knowing, which may, in fact, be another name for “mindfulness”. We have also discovered how tricky it is to make knowing itself the object of knowing. As someone who has personally struggled with “twice knowing,” I think maybe we’d all be better off if we let the designation “sapiens sapiens” just mean that we have to learn something at least twice before we know it.

When all is said and done (and it never is), I think the best thing for all humanity would be to celebrate our foolishness. Our most important holiday would then be April Fool’s Day, celebrating all humanity, regardless of religion, skin color, nationality, or political persuasion. We could even designate a “fool’s day” once a month, on the full moon. Just imagine how good it would feel if we all got together regularly in large public gatherings and admitted that we don’t know why we are alive, and that nobody knows “for sure” if there’s a “higher” being who created us, and really, when it comes right down to it, nobody knows what the hell’s going on here.

For our fool’s day celebrations we will need some good rituals. How about a simultaneous, world wide, 7 billion-person kazoo concert? Everybody knows “row, row, row your boat.” I also thought a mass mooning of each other might be appropriate, but it may be more than the collective psyche can stand.

Here’s a very simple Fools’ Day ceremony that can be performed in local communities or with groups of friends. It’s the Homer Simpson forehead-slapping ritual, accompanied by a loud, collective “dooh!” This is somewhat reminiscent of the ritual that Jews perform on Rosh Hashanah, when everybody beats their chest and confesses to everybody else that they have sinned. On Fool’s Day we would confess our foolishness to each other.

Let’s practice. Just spread out your palm and get ready. Now, all of you who thought that after the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended things would get better in the world–slap your forehead and say “Dooh!” Okay, now anyone who believed in the Democratic party, or the purity of major league baseball or the Catholic priesthood… “Dooh!”  Okay, now anyone who thought that doing yoga, wearing crystals or meditating would solve all of their problems…slap it right on your third eye and say, “Dooh!” Okay, one more time, everybody who thinks that someday they will get it all together…Dooh!
Embracing our foolishness, whether collectively or individually, is a practice of liberation. Don’t think of it as defeat, or in any way demeaning or mean-spirited, but rather a bemused acceptance of our predicament. On the fool’s path, (headed for the edge of the cliff, of course) you are free to stick out your tongue at the gods, let your hair grow wild, speak in rhyme, and stumble along without any idea of where you are going. Feel the freedom? It’s a fool’s paradise, and at the very least, you are fool enough to know it.

Shocking Predictions for 2012

Hello friends, this is Scoopji here, letting you know that I have had a spiritual breakthrough. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I have been consuming massive amounts of a new herbal formula, “Chakra Decongestant.” Or maybe it is because the battery on my meditation timer died and the bell didn’t go off, causing me to enter into a blissful absorption for several days until my lotus finally went limp. But when I emerged from my altered state I found that my mystical 3rd eye was permanently open – and even though that condition keeps me awake at night, it has also allowed me to see into the future, and has enabled me to make the following perspicacious predictions for 2012.

Prediction number 1: In the year 2012, the European Union will announce that it will solve the Euro-zone debt crisis by selling Belgium. The E. U. decided on the sale after turning down a similar proposal to sell time-shares of the Italian province of Tuscany. So far, it looks like Donald Trump will be the highest bidder for Belgium, becoming the first person in the world to posses their own nation state.

Prediction number 2: The Republican Party, after looking closely at its potential candidates, will decide not to nominate anyone for president next year.  Instead, citing their ideological determination to get rid of all government, the Republicans will begin to campaign for “Nobody” for president, reminding the American people, once again, that “Nobody is perfect” and “Nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen,” and of course, “Nobody cares.”

Prediction number 3: In the year 2012 the Occupy movement will decide to shut down business as usual in America by occupying all of the public restrooms. At great personal sacrifice, occupiers will sit for weeks at a time in the toilets of business and government buildings, restaurants and malls, making constant references to the stink of capitalism.  All across the nation, the American people will be unable to relieve themselves, as protestors put into place on every restroom door a sign saying, “Occupied!”

Prediction number 4: Following on the Supreme Court decision that corporations are people too, the U.S. senate will begin debating a bill called “The Defense of Mergers Act.”  However, unlike the debate over “The Defense of Marriage Act,” conservatives and liberals will switch sides, with conservatives arguing that this is America, and a corporation person can merge with any other corporation person they choose. Liberals will continue to insist that gays are people too.

Prediction number 5: In 2012, the new Kepler space telescope will discover definitive proof that there is intelligent life on another planet. They will notice the shadow of one particular planet erratically orbiting a distant sun, and will realize that the shadow is actually spelling out a message, aimed toward the earth, reading, “Please, keep the noise down.”

Prediction number 6:  In an attempt to crack down on terrorism and general unruly-ness, in 2012 the Homeland Security Administration will announce a new screening procedure, declaring that anyone who wears a hat without a brim will be considered a terrorist suspect. The hats without brims include Arab kafiyas, Zapatista ski masks, Rastafarian skull caps, Jewish yarmulkes and the berets of artists and intellectuals. The government says that people who “do” have brims on their hats but wear those brims turned sideways or backwards are also suspect, but not in the same threat category as those who wear hats with no brims at all.

Prediction number 7:  In the year 2012, the coffee and tea producing countries of the world will begin to organize an embargo against the United States.  Modeling themselves after OPEC, the group will threaten to cut off the supply of coffee and tea, the other dark liquids that fuel the economic engine of America. The new organization of caffeine exporting nations, or CAPEX, say they will resume supplies of our daily fix, but only if we pay more, and promise to stop being such an international doofus.

Prediction number 8: In the year 2012, President Obama will announce that the United States is so deep in dept, that in order to raise money, the nation will begin selling naming rights to anything, anywhere within it’s borders, including both natural and man-made objects. The corporations will immediately begin the bidding, leading to the creation of the Budweiser Mississippi, the Walmart grand canyon, and in Yellowstone national park, the Old Faithful Viagra geyser. The announcement of the new names will be made from the Warren Buffet white house.

Prediction number 9: In the year 2012 several human clones will be created, but as the clones come to life, relatives will notice that they don’t enjoy being around the person whose stem cells they were cloned from.  It turns out that any new version of yourself would reject you.

Prediction number 10: In the year 2012, real estate agencies will begin buying and developing land around the arctic and Antarctic regions of the earth, as temperatures make human settlements at the poles likely in the next few decades.  Plans are already being drawn up for the “Top of the World Motel 6,” and the “Sheraton Polar Palace,” where the hotel staff will all be dressed as penguins.

Prediction number 11: In the year 2012 scientists will once again change their minds, and conclude that the universe is contracting rather than expanding.  The contraction theory will gain prominence after scientists discover some new particles in the universe which they are calling suck-enos. These suck-enos have suddenly emerged out of the quantum foam, and are causing the universe to contract by “sucking in” the edges of space.  Scientists are warning that if the contraction continues there will no longer be room for all of your stuff.

Prediction number 12: As predicted, on December 21st, 2012, at 11:11 AM, the 5 thousand year old Mayan Long Count Calendar will come to an end, and many believe that so will the world. People expect a massive sun flare, a reversal of earth’s magnetic poles, a collision with a black hole, or a collision with a planet named “Nibiru.” I am seeing that absolutely nothing will happen, that everything will go on as usual – and that the collective sigh of relief will be almost as loud as the collective sigh of disappointment.

And finally, prediction number 13, for the year 2012: I am now seeing a fantastic phenomena — a great international movement, ignited by the Arab Spring and the Wall Street occupation, now growing bigger and stronger, with progressive nation states and NGO’s joining in, and young people and aging boomers and former revolutionaries and the tired old labor movement, and millions upon millions of people around the world who want to end the rule of the profiteers and oligarchs, and who understand that we must stop all our petty tribal wars and change our horrible habits of consumption, and come together as a species in peril. I am seeing this great movement of people who realize that it’s time to focus our collective energy on finding ways to clean up the oceans and waterways, and control our population growth, and protect all species of life…but wait…this vision is fading…my third eye is closing…I can’t see the outcome…I don’t know what will happen…. Could it be that the future is still wide open? Perhaps it still in our hands, my friends, waiting to be shaped by the passage of time and your good intentions.

And this is Scoopji, aka Scoop Nisker, once again reminding you to question authority and question reality. Stay high but keep your priorities straight. And in the year 2012, if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Just Another Planet

One of my daily spiritual practices is to check on the condition of the universe. After all, that’s where I live. At least for now.

I get an update on the universe every time I turn on my inter-net search engine, set to open on “the Astronomy Picture of the Day.” Recently I saw a picture of a red dwarf star dying, consuming itself in a fireball similar to the one in which our own sun will eventually die. Another day I saw a simulated image of a newly discovered galaxy located a few million light years from earth and containing 600 billion suns. Some days the picture elicits an audible gasp, and I immediately begin forwarding the link to friends. “Look! Stars are being born! Galaxies are spinning through space! The universe is a gazillion times more vast than we ever could have imagined!”

I suspect that the Buddha would have enjoyed the astronomy picture of the day, and might even have advised his disciples to use it as a daily reflection; a way to bring some perspective to their lives. The Buddha wants us to sever our attachment to this individual drama, the “self,” and seeing the size of the universe could serve as a tool, a skillful means. It could help revise our belief that the earth and the human species are the central focus of creation, bringing us some relief from our own self-obsession. We might even arrive at a new sense of co-existence, a feeling that we belong to the universe, and not the other way around.

Humans have always placed themselves at the center of creation, understandably. Our focus on human affairs seems an obvious extension of the survival instinct. And throughout our history we have had good reason to believe that we were specially created. Even at the dawn of consciousness, before we could fully articulate our existence, we must have noticed that we were the dominant ones, the real kings of the jungle, the Alpha species. By the time we were able to spin stories about our lives and our place in the cosmos, we had become so dominant — and so arrogant — that we declared the entire universe was made just for us.

Of course, for most of our history we were also unaware that the earth was traveling around the sun. And we didn’t know until recently that we were in a galaxy, let alone a galaxy cluster. But perhaps a greater shock was to see ourselves in the history of life on earth, and to realize that we are not only related to other forms of life, but descended from them – cellular offspring of the pond scum and the dancing amoeba. Your mama was a germ!

Darwin understood that his theory would deliver a serious wound to human pride: he wrote in his secret notebooks that publishing “The Origin of Species” would be like “committing murder.”

When I reflect on the impermanence and relative insignificance of my home planet and my species, I feel a kind of relief. I think to myself that all of this sturm and drang is no big deal. But shouldn’t I instead be feeling concern, fear or sorrow? Am I betraying my own cause, devaluing my own kind and everything I love? And then there is the egoic reaction: how can this earthly existence be inconsequential when I am a part of it?

Don’t get me wrong: I do love this world and often find it achingly beautiful, and when I read about the structure of reality or how the DNA works I am filled with wonder at what this water planet has wrought. As cosmologist Brian Swimme says, “Four billion years ago the earth was a cooling ball of lava, and now it can sing opera.” I like to remind myself that I am a member of a spectacular species that has learned how to see to the edges of the universe, deep inside of matter, and has even developed the ability to know of our own existence. We are a wonder of the world — at least to ourselves!

But maybe we should take a spiritual lesson from our latest scientific breakthroughs, and step back and away from our human-centric picture frame. Let’s “un-humanize” our views a little, as the poet Robinson Jeffers put it; let’s de-sentimentalize the human strut across the stage.

If you want to acquire a new view of the human role in the cosmos, I suggest that you follow the progress of the Kepler space telescope, which is searching for other planets in our galaxy that could support life. After surveying just a small section of the sky, the Kepler Mission has discovered hundreds of potentially habitable planets, orbiting other suns in what scientists call “the Goldilocks zone” – not too hot, not too cold.

One planet that the astronomers believe could support life, which they named Gleise 581g, is 3 to 4 times the size of earth and goes around its sun every 37 days. I can imagine that for the beings on that planet, if there are any, the years just go whizzing by. If I was a “gleiser” instead of an earthling I’d be almost 700 by now.

Astronomers say that Gleise 581 g is a few dozen light years away from earth, so we can figure that if beings actually do live on that planet they are just about to watch their first episode of “I Love Lucy.” And not in reruns.

But seriously folks, the earliest evidence from the Kepler telescope would indicate that there are thousands of planets in our galaxy alone that could support life, and when you consider the latest estimate of 100 billion galaxies in the universe, containing 30 to 50 billion trillion suns, it seems very likely that there is other life out there, probably lots of it. And I think this is great news for humanity because it takes the pressure off of us! We no longer have to carry the entire burden of meaning in the cosmos. We can relax a little. Whoopee! Human pride deflates, and all our ontological answers are again tossed up in the air.

Maybe life on other planets will have a different design and come with other kinds of consciousness. Could there be beings of light? Will life on other planets have their own gods and Buddhas? Will they believe that the universe was created just for them?

By the way, if we find life in another galaxy we will suddenly gain a new identity – we will become Milky Wayans! Then, in the inter-galactic sporting events of the future our descendants will be chanting, “Hey hey hey, Milky Way. Hey hey hey, Milky Way!”

As life goes spiraling on and on through the cosmos.

The Solution to Our God Problems

“All great truths begin as blasphemies.” – George Bernard Shaw

Humanity is now suffering through a deep spiritual crisis accompanied by the usual “holy” wars, and we can assume that a major part of the problem lies with our gods and goddesses. After all, if they created everything then whatever goes wrong is their fault.

I know that “god” is a delicate topic of inquiry, and some people feel very protective of their deity, so as I explore this subject I hope not to insult any true believers. I don’t want to become the target of a fatwah or, god forbid, a crusade. I do not want men in iron suits chasing after me.

Let me be clear, I don’t think it is wrong or even stupid to believe in god. In fact, I love the gods and goddesses, every single one of them. (If you love them all, then you’re covered for sure.) And how can you not love the gods? Sure, they started a lot of wars, sometimes get jealous and “smiteful,” and, of course, they gave us politicians.

On the other hand, just imagine all of the solace and wonder that deities have brought to humans over the course of history — a feeling of being loved, special, blessed, saved. Think of all of those suffering people who wandered the desert, homeless and hungry, but kept on going because they believed they were god’s “chosen people” on their way to a “promised land;” or the early Christians who walked out to face certain death in a lion’s jaws but knew that they were eternally saved by Jesus’s martyrdom; or the simple Hindu peasant who knows in her heart that the goddess Kali will bless her, if not in this life then the next; or the Sioux buffalo hunter who payed respects to the “great spirit” because that ritual would bring him meat to last the winter. Surely, over the centuries our deities have bestowed upon us a great many blessings — almost enough to make up for death.

The only real problem with the gods are some of the humans who believe in them. (But again, who’s fault are they?) Displaying a combination of ignorance and arrogance, people keep killing each other in the name of some particular god, or warring over the holy places where a god supposedly walked around or spoke to some prophets. These holy wars have taken place throughout human history, but you would think that by now we would get it. Our science of anthropology now reveals that there have been hundreds of religions, featuring countless gods and goddesses, and that these deities change over time, and that no one tribe or people seems to have a permanent lock on the one true god, and especially not on god’s one true name.

Just think, the descendants of a family living near the Mediterranean during the last five millennia might have gone from believing, successively, in Chronos, Zeus, Jupiter, Jehovah, and then later adding Jesus. As with nation states, even among the gods there is occasionalregime change.

Indeed, the relativity of the gods was noticed way back in the fifth century B.C. by the historian Xenophanes, who wrote, “The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.” And your god, what does he/she/it look like?

A lot of people still say they know for sure who god is, and if you don’t believe in their particular god they can promise that when you die you will be placed in a burning hot cave where nasty, horned creatures will stick pitchforks into you and make you scream in pain, forever and ever. Isn’t it time we got over that vengeful horror of a mythology?! Sometimes I can only pray: “May God save us from the people who believe in Him.”

And why should anybody care if someone uses a different name for god? I simply can’t imagine any respectable deity saying with menace, “Hey buddy, what did you call me?” Why should anybody be bothered if someone calls god “Omega,”  “Felix,” or “Martha Reeves and the Vandellas?” In fact, I can imagine that someday the heavens will part, and we will all hear a booming voice saying, “Humans! You all got my name wrong!” (Pause) “And I forgive you.”

There is a chance that god doesn’t even have a name. There’s even a good chance that god isn’t a being, or at least not some human-like being. Do you think we are so good looking that a god — who could look like anything or nothing — would actually want to look like us? “Vanity of vanity,” sayeth the Preacher.

And yet, I would guess that most of you reading this will have a certain picture of god, an image you grew up with.  Even though I ‘m Jewish, my god has always looked a little Italian. You know, the guy up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with the long flowing white beard and long hair. God appearing as an aging bohemian. If you’ll remember, the Jews said we were not supposed to make a graven image of god who is everywhere and has no form. This was a genius idea and saved the Jews a lot of money on statues. Then the Italians inherited the Jewish god and just couldn’t resist trying to paint Him.

So how do we deal with our current glut of gods and the tumultuous clashing of true believers? I have a modest suggestion: Let’s call all the gods together and hold a “summit meeting.” Maybe it could be held on Mt. Olympus or somewhere in the Himalayas where there are already a lot of gods around who could host the gathering. (There will have to be separate tables: Bacchus needs wine, whereas Buddha won’t touch the stuff; Demeter wants corn for dinner, Jehovah likes lamb; Zoroaster wants candles for a centerpiece, while Tor would like an ice sculpture.)

Once we got all the gods together, we would beseech them — all of us beseeching our own particular deity — to do humanity a great big favor and decide on a common name. Since I’m the only one working on this project, I will offer a suggestion.  First of all, if you’ll notice, many of the names we already use for deities end in the syllable “ah.” Jehovah; Allah;Brahma; Tara; Diana; Krishna. So maybe we could get the gods to accept the common nickname “Ah.”

It’s a perfect name. “Ah” is the first sound that most of us make when we are born, “w…aaaah!” and the last sound we make as we die, crying or sighing, “Ahhh….” So, our first and last breaths would automatically become a prayer. Totally Ah-some!

Another possibility is to give our highest deity the name “Ma,” which is the same word in almost all human languages, referring to mother. Then, instead of looking up as we pray, toward “our father who art in heaven,” we would look down at mother earth, the womb of all life, the goddess “Gaia.” (There’s another “ah,” for you.)

Maybe we could even use both names, Ah and Ma. We could divide god into two again, a male and female, yin and yang, just as it was in some of those old time religions. “Ah Ma! Ma Ah! Ah-ha Ma!” The possibilities for songs and praises are endless.

That Old Time Religion

One reason that I like Buddha’s teaching so much, is that it doesn’t require that I believe in a personified god, an omniscient, all-powerful being who created everything, and sits up there in the sky somewhere, judging how I’m doing at being a human. The Buddha tells us we can never know the first cause, and it is fruitless to try to trace our karma back to its origins. Furthermore, according to the Buddha’s teaching, our rewards and punishments come not from some deity who watches us and hands out judgement, but from the laws of cause and effect. Everything that goes around, comes around.

In Theravadan Buddhist texts, Brahma and other Hindu deities appear now and then, but one gets the sense that they just happened to be hanging out in the Buddha’s neighborhood, and he doesn’t seem to pay them a lot of heed or obeisance. In fact, in the Pali Cannon, the gods are usually portrayed as bowing down to Buddha. Sometimes the Buddha can be found teaching to the gods themselves. At one point the Buddha even tells one of his disciples that Brahma must be a little confused if he really thinks that he, Brahma, created everything. According to the Buddha, the gods can’t even become enlightened, because they are just too infatuated with being gods.

A Brief History of Yourself

I wanted to escape myself. That’s one reason why I went looking for some kind of cosmic consciousness. I yearned to feel part of a bigger reality so that I could leave the small reality I was living in– the separate, subjective, “me” monad. It was painful just being little old me. And I was not alone in my aloneness: there were a lot of other monads who desperately wanted to feel connected to something.

Many post-war middle-class children were pumped up with self, pampered and prompted to become a special someone, to have it all, to be anyone they wanted to be. The most common advice given to me by my parents was to “be somebody” and “make something of yourself,” as if I was nothing just being who I am. Meanwhile, the media promoted the idea of being unique, someone who stands out, while the rule of the economic game was that “you make it on your own.” My peers in the sixties youth culture told me to “do your own thing”; the messages of the seventies were “find yourself” and “express yourself.” Individuality was emphasized even within the counter-cultures, where a new communal ethos was also being promoted. I believe that for many of us, the focus on the individual self was so extreme, that we tried desperately to escape that single identity. “I need some self-help! Get me to group therapy, meditation, tribal events, rock and roll concerts–anything!”

Recent generations in the West have been shaped by the pressures of individualism. Perhaps never before in history have people felt so much on their own, without what anthropologists call “participation mystique,” a sense of being part of a tribe or community, nature, the cosmos, or the divine. In his book Constructing America, Constructing the Self, psycho-historian Phillip Cushman writes, “The masterful, bounded self of today, with few allegiances and many subjective `inner’ feelings, is a relatively new player on the historical stage.”

Crucial to a sense of self is the feeling of individual freedom, which barely existed in most pre-modern cultures. An individual was born into a certain religion, occupation, social status, and geographic area–and that was that. There was no such thing as “upward mobility,” and hardly any sideways or outward mobility. No one could conceive of switching to a religion that better suited their personal convictions, and very few thought they could choose an occupation, spouse or a hometown. If you had approached a medieval peasant or a member of a tribe wandering around in the desert just a hundred years ago and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?” that person wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Not until the second half of the 20th century had anyone held the notion that “you can be anyone you want to be in this lifetime.”

At one time, people did not even believe that they were in charge of their own mind. In his now famous study, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind, Julian Jaynes claims that in early Greek culture “the gods take the place of consciousness.” Jaynes cites passages from the Iliad that indicate that the Greeks who lived circa 1,000 B.C., “have no will of their own and certainly no notion of free will.” According to Jaynes, the early Greeks heard their thought process as voices of the gods, an interpretation that today we would call schizophrenic. Even Agamemnon, the king of men, did not believe in his own power, saying, “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus….Gods always have their way.”

Five hundred years later, we witness a radically new “self” emerging in the Hellenic world, as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle heralded the apparent power of each individual to manipulate the contents of his or her own mind. It is no longer the gods’ voices that we heard inside our heads, but our own. A similar shift of identity took place when the early Christians began to emphasize each person’s soul and its private salvation or damnation. It was no longer the tribe’s history that was important, as in the Old Testament with the Jews; the focus shifted to the individual.

The thoroughly modern Western self truly came alive during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, in the era known as the Enlightenment, poorly named according to most Buddhists. The Enlightenment thinkers became so enamored of their powers of intellection and invention that they declared themselves virtually independent from the external world. They took power away from God and truth away from the church and gave everything over to human reason and science. With Enlightenment consciousness, individuals grew more identified with their own minds, which were seen as the source and center of the personal self.

Although this modern Western self went through its adolescence in Europe, it reached full maturity in America. In fact, the first time that the word “individualism” appears in print, is in Alex De Tocqueville’s book, Democracy in America, published in 1835. How much larger does the individual loom today in America, the land of individualized license plates?

According to Robert Bellah and his associates in their classic sociological study, The Habits of the Heart, the contemporary American identity can be traced to two streams of individualism: utilitarian and expressive. Another name for utilitarian individualism is “the Protestant ethic,” which emphasizes the qualities of endurance, stocism, and self-reliance. (“Self-Reliance” is the title of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essay, which spoke clearly to the Americans of the 19th Century.) Expressive individualism, a legacy of the Romantic movement placed great value on the unique and passionate “soul,” which feels deeply and lets its feelings be known. The early American poet Walt Whitman was the champion of expressive individualism beginning his famous book Leaves of Grass with the line “I celebrate myself.” That sentiment still echoes through the “me” decades of the late 20th century, and on into the new age ideas of self-realization.

The post-war generations have been dealing with symptoms of an extreme form of self-focus, which is perhaps why ours has been called “the culture of narcissism.” As Phillip Cushman writes, “…psychotherapy theories from the 1960’s through the 1980’s described a self similar in most ways to the self displayed in television commercials, magazine ads, and the blockbusters sixties musical Hair…a self that was exhibitionistic, self-involved, thoroughly acquisitive; it valued emotional expressiveness, a lifting of political and personal constraints, and immediate gratification….”

The modern self that lives in us at the beginning of the 21st Century has an extreme sense of its own autonomy and separateness. In the mirror of our culture, and in the mirror of our private bathrooms we see only the individual, which is, of course, a completely distorted image of reality. We think and act as though we are independent of the external world, outside of any context or gestalt, whether that of a god or evolution. Upon examination, we find that this sense of selfhood is a kind of delusional state, a bizarre form of schizophrenia in which we label all of the different voices in our heads as “I” or “mine.” Believing them all to be ours is as far fetched as believing they all belong to God.

Ironically, while many of us seem completely lost in our individual dramas, our culture has become acutely aware of how interwoven we are into the fabric of all things, from the atoms we share with the stars and the stones, to the DNA molecule we share with all other living beings, to the growing awareness of how much our behavior is inherited from the life that came before us. We know that we are inseparable from the great streams of biological and cosmic evolution, a part of the whole, and yet we wander around in what Alan Watts called our “skin encapsulated egos,” sensing ourselves, from moment to moment as isolate and autonomous. Our intellectual understanding of who we are is therefore completely out of sync with our felt sense of ourselves. I believe that this dissonance is what led many of us to seek help in the Asian wisdom traditions, where a major emphasis is on seeing through the individual self, into the interrelatedness of all things.

The modern self that we carry inside of us is a phenonmena of nature and history. We can’t blame it on Descartes, Adam Smith, Whitman, Dr. Spock or anybody else. Besides, with all of its faults, this modern self has brought with it the development of extraordinary social and political freedoms as well as great material comforts. Very few of us would trade places with a medieval peasant, even if it meant having a deep feeling of interconnection with the world, since the world we would be deeply interconnected with would be that of a medieval peasant.

Nonetheless, it is increasingly clear that our modern self is somehow out of balance. Our perceived separation from the world has grown much too extreme, and as a result both we and the world are suffering. One major problem with our “bounded, masterful, self” is the outrageous belief that we are completely in charge of our lives, and that we can have it all, or become whomever we want to become. These notions are accompanied by almost inevitable frustration and cynicism when things don’t work out the way we imagine they could. God used to be a kind of sacred scapegoat for our failures, but for many of us there is no longer anyone to blame but ourselves. That is why this modern self is not very easy to live with.

The individualism of our culture fed what Norman Mailer called “the rebellious imperatives of the self,” and shaped the struggle of many lives. We were called on to define ourselves, or create ourselves, as if out of whole cloth, a harrowing task. Out of the feelings of separateness and isolation came our political and spiritual searching: at the heart of our various movements were the twin acts of expressing ourselves and fleeing from ourselves.

Perhaps recent generations’ experiments with drugs, communal living, and new psycho-spiritual practices are attempts to escape from our solitary confinement; to relieve the burden of being someone special. That would explain the fact that during the seventies baby boomers were flocking to EST seminars, where they were told that they were all nobodies. The boomers seemed to welcome this message: what a relief to be nothing; nobody.

Meanwhile, the right drug could evoke a feeling of connection to the world, and sometimes even an experience of “oneness.” The group rituals of rock and roll concerts or political gatherings offered a sense of belonging; group therapy sessions could create an instant, intimate community; Asian spiritual practices promised to dissolve the illusion of separateness.

I know that one of the primary reasons why I began Buddhist meditation practice was to find relief from the constant burden of self-focus. It is ironic, but somehow natural that I would reject individualism mostly for selfish reasons. I fled from the emphasis on self, not so much for lofty social or spiritual ideals, but primarily because it didn’t feel good.

The Buddha’s teachings have perhaps spoken to so many in the West today, because he shows us that our suffering is directly related to our self-involvement. Buddhist meditation practices are a way to loosen our intense identification with our own drama, and offer both relief and a corrective to our civilization’s extremes of selfhood. The growing popularity of meditation may be a sign that the evolving self is now seeking a new equilibrium, a middle way. It just might be that self-consciousness has become masterful enough to see through its own hubris, and we are coming to a more sane and satisfying understanding of who we are in the world.

The Attitude of Gratitude

In the dark season, when the world weighs heavy on your shoulders and the facts of life are so bad you can feel them in your gut, I suggest that you practice the gratitude game. My daughter and I play it when one of us is feeling out of sorts. It consists in simply thinking of all the reasons you have to be grateful. You can make up your own list, but please feel free to borrow some of our reasons.  Many of them apply to everyone.

For instance, let us all give thanks for living in an interglacial period. After all, getting caught in an ice age could ruin your whole day.

I also give thanks that so far today I have not been hit by any falling “space-junk.”

Looking back at history, many of us will feel deep gratitude for living in this place and time, on the fertile continent of Turtle Island, in this era of unprecedented freedom and abundance. Remember, just a few generations ago most of our ancestors were peasants, and they had almost no fun at all. Many of them had to sleep in the same room as their farm animals, and had to live without painkillers, Chinese food or Velcro. And consider that in just the past few hundred years we have nearly doubled the lifespan of the average human. So you now get twice as long to be yourself!

In the attitude of gratitude, we can give thanks for the tool-making genius of our species, which has created our new global brain. I also give thanks for my new mega-giga-pixilated-ap-loaded–ram-potent laptop computer and neo-cortex extender, even though I don’t have a clue how it all works, and even though I don’t think these devices are good for our species in the long run.

We can find so many other reasons to have the attitude of gratitude. Surely we can all give thanks for the opposable thumb! Without it, just think how difficult it would be to button your pants. Or give a thumbs up!  But of course, we now know the real reason for our opposable thumb, and that is, the better to text with my dear.

We also feel gratitude for the more existential blessings.  For instance, the Hubble telescope just sent back a picture of yet another galaxy, being called the Sombrero Galaxy – which, as you might imagine, is shaped like a Mexican hat.  And that galaxy contains 600 billion suns! And we got to see that in our lifetime!

And get this — the astronomers are now estimating, based on information from space probes and telescopes that there are over 35 thousand planets in the Milky Way galaxy that could support life.  I consider that very “good” news, because it takes the pressure off of us earthlings. It means the universe is probably not just about us. We no longer have to carry the entire burden of meaning in the cosmos.

So relax. And as you settle into your seat, you might well give thanks for gravity – because right now all of us are hurling through space on this tiny rock, spinning around the earth’s axis at a thousand miles an hour, and orbiting the sun at 66 thousand miles an hour. And thanks to gravity, you don’t even have to hold on!

We can also give deep thanks for living in a time and place where all the world’s wisdom and cultures are available to us – so now I can practice Buddha’s blissful meditation in the morning, and then go out and listen to hot Latin music at night. Let me hear you say, “Om cha cha cha…ah hum.”

Some of us lucky ones can also give thanks for living by the San Francisco Bay, bordered by the great ocean on one side, and the majestic granite mountains on the other, both visible on a clear day from the Berkeley hills. And just to the east the richest farmland in the world, and just to the north the hills reminiscent of Italy or Greece, growing nuts and grapes and olives. And in the middle of it all the magic metropolis, this dream-like town at the edge of the world. Thank you San Francisco. Thank you, thank you.

The list goes on and on, and friends, if you want to make your own – start it out by joining me in the attitude of gratitude – for this next breath. It is the mystery of life moving through you. We only get about 13 million breaths in a lifetime, and then maybe none at all for the rest of eternity, so dig this one. Go deep and taste it.

And this is Scoop Nisker, encouraging you all to give thanks all around whenever you can.  Love this world, because only if you love it, will you find the energy to preserve its life and beauty.  And as always, if you don’t like the news go out and make some of your own.

Changing Fields

It is time for you to change professions. You’ve been a psychologist of yourself for way too long. If you were any good, there would be more people calling for appointments. So leave the psychology behind and become an anthropologist. Dig through the status symbols of your civilization; uncover the fashion trends that dress you; unearth the unique ways your society approaches sex and food and tribal configurations. From your studies you will know that these are all temporary appearances. You could also become a biologist of yourself, and study how you came to have a spine, a desire for sugar, an innate ability to use language. From your studies you will know that no species remains a permanent fixture on the landscape of earth. You might also become a cosmologist and investigate worm-holes into other universes, or just count the galaxy clusters in this universe, and then try to figure out your relative significance in the cosmos. Maybe all of that will also help take care of any psychological issues you might be having.

I LOVE SCIENCE

As I was growing up I didn’t like science very much. It seemed to me a lot of empty facts, bits of knowledge about the formation of the planets, or atomic valence, or the parasympathetic nervous system – stuff that I had to memorize but that didn’t matter much in my everyday life. I would much rather read a novel by Dostoyevsky or a philosophical essay by Camus, something that spoke directly of the joys and sorrows of life. I only began to be interested in science when I realized that it was, in fact, all aboutme. The law of gravity tries to explain what holds me on this planet; photosynthesis is the process that grows the fuel that powers my life: the complex web of neurons in the brain are what create my experience. (I also think my interest in science coincided with the beginnings of my meditation practice.)

Now I keep a file in my computer just for science information, and almost every day I make another entry, often returning later to speculate on what it means. I’m especially drawn to the scientific discoveries that point to annica, dukkha or anatta, (impermanence, unsatisfying, non-self) the Buddha’s three characteristics of existence. Occasionally I will read about some research, or even find a single fact that sends me into an altered state, a revelation of non-duality, a feeling of self-liberation. Some science information I just find whimsical or funny. Here are a few entries from my science notebook, accompanied by my comments and musings. My extrapolations are often questionable, but all of the basic information is science, so it must be true.

NUMEROLOGY

I recently read that there are 100 sextillion stars in the universe. Sure. I’ll go along with that. Some astronomers must have counted them. Meanwhile, an astrophysicist claims to have figured out the size of the universe — it’s 10 billion, trillion, trillion cubic light years large. All right, approximately. And remember, this was as of May, 2007.

Modern science keeps presenting us with these enormous numbers, but most of them are meaningless in the sense of being incomprehensible to our tiny little brains and even tinier perspectives. I’ve now got so many of these gigantic numbers in my head that I get confused when I’m not near my notes, about whether there are an estimated 50 or 100 billion galaxies, and whether there are 50 or 100 trillion cells, and sometimes I confuse the two categories. Maybe we will discover that there are exactly as many galaxies in the universe as there are cells in our bodies, and that will either be a strange coincidence, or a hint that reality isn’t just random chaos bumping into itself. As science presents us with all of these big numbers, it’s becoming more and more convenient to be a mystic, and just see it all as “one.” Of course, the essential question remains, “Who’s counting?”

YUCKOLOGY

A few important facts to know about laughter. Research shows that when you have a belly laugh, you breathe in 6 times more oxygen than normal. Some experts estimate that 20 seconds of laughter is equal to 20 minutes of cardio-vascular exercise. Usually something is funny as well, which is its own reward. In fact, laughter stimulates euphoria centers in the brain, the same ones that light up over chocolate or sex.

Actual scientific studies have been done on “the vocalization and burst rates” of laughter, finding that across cultures, the most constant consonant of laughter is “h.” Most of us go “ha ha,” or “hee hee,” “ho ho,” or “heh heh.” The researchers also found that nobody laughs with mixed consonants, as in “ha, fa, la, ca, kee, po….”

Anthropologists now believe that the human “ha-ha” evolved from the rhythmic sound made by other primate species when tickling and chasing each other in play. They make a sound like “hooh hooh.” Primates like to tickle each other, and one scientist has determined that the first joke ever made was the fake tickle, when the gesture to tickle is made but withdrawn before contact. “Ha ha. Fooled you.”

More numbers. Every cell in your body goes through 4,000 transactions a second – processing fuels, exchanging chemical and electrical signals with other cells, monitoring the environment, creating proteins and enzymes. Considering that you have approximately 50 trillion cells in your body, there are literally quadrillions of events taking place inside of you every single second. Stay mindful!

 NEUROLOGY

I love the new neuroscience, especially when it confirms my meditation experience.  But sometimes I sense that the science information is bringing a bias into my practice. For instance, ever since I heard that greater activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain correlates with more contentment, I’ve been sort of “leaning” that way in meditation, exploring that area of my head with my attention. When I first started to meditate I would often focus on the pressure around my “third eye,” until my teacher Goenka told me to stop because it would lead to the yogic powers known as “siddhis,” and then I’d be seduced from the pure path of the Buddha. But I’m going to let myself do a little more exploration of that left frontal cortex. If I find the sweet spot I’ll let you know.

***

 CLIMATOLOGY, ANTHROPOLOGY, WHATEVER

Global warming is a big problem for modern humanity, but our ancestors would have welcomed it. Just fifty thousand years ago, glaciers covered the land masses of Europe and North America all year round. There wasn’t even a season worthy of name “summer,” which was only invented a few millenia ago, presumably by the “Summerians.” They also figured out that when the sun gets hot, it’s a good time for plants to grow and that led directly to the invention of agriculture, civilization, and mint-flavored iced tea.

But for many thousands of years it was soooo cold on planet earth, that people even prayed to the sun, like in Egypt, where they worshiped the sun god. (That religion, no doubt, was the origin of the chant, “Rah, Rah, Rah.”) Anyway, now we’re worried that it’s getting too hot. And we’ve also discovered that human activity is one reason for the increasing heat. Simply put, we are starting to cook ourselves. If greenhouse gases increase too much we will be poached. But if the ozone layer is destroyed we will be micro-waved. Would you like fries with that?

This global warming problem is another sign of human inability to understand the law of karma. It should have been more obvious. In just the last 100 years or so, humans have burned up millions of years worth of the sun’s stored energy. Try to imagine it: an estimated 50 million barrels of oil — that’s a huge lake full of oil — set afire, every single day.

Meanwhile, the threat of global warming can arouse feelings of gratitude by reminding us that we are now living through a very benign climatic era. The birth of agriculture arrived at the end of an ice age, and since only about 10 thousand years ago we’ve been able to feed ourselves with plenty of time and energy left over to do things like invent automobiles and stoves, and learn how to meditate.

Now global warming will be a test of our smarts and tool making ability. Can science come to our rescue and turn down the planetary thermostat? According to a 2007 story in the New York Times, engineers are now coming up with ways to stop or mitigate global warming—mostly schemes to deflect the sun’s rays. For instance, one idea is to put millions of reflecting lenses into orbit in order to bend sunlight away from earth. It would be like putting sunglasses on the planet. From outer space it would look like the earth was making a fashion statement.

Another solution being proposed – and I’m not making this up — is a plan to float white plastic, or white foam disks across great stretches of the ocean. I don’t know, but maybe we should consult with the dolphins first. Meanwhile, a similar plan proposes to cover vast areas of the deserts with white plastic mulch. But we already tried that — it’s called Los Angeles.

I have a better idea. Let’s have the government pave the streets with gold…literally. That would reflect the sun’s rays back into space, and at the same time make good on the great American dream. Maybe the paving contract could go to Haliburton. They could use the profits they made from the Iraq war, and spread them all across the country, along the yellow brick road.

Of course, the obvious solution, is to cut back on our carbon consumption. But we’re made out of carbon! Are we getting too fat on the stuff? Do we need to get the whole planet on a low carb-on diet?

We shouldn’t wait for our politicians to inspire us to consume less energy. I had an image of George “W” Bush looking up at the sun with that macho smirk on his face, and saying, “Bring it on!”

Global warming inevitably brings me around to the Buddha’s fire sermon, where he declares that everything is burning. In fact, nirvana means “no fires.” Maybe meditation is exactly what humanity needs more than anything right now. It’s time to chill.

***

ASTROPHYSICS, EVOLUTION, AND BUDDHOLOGY

As you may have heard, we no longer can regard space or time as separate dimensions. They are as inseparable as up and down, light and dark, right sock and left sock. Time and space are now space-time, and we can become familiar with the new reality by using the conjunction more often. We live in space-time. Where you are is also when. (Spiritual seekers might want to take note, that if space-time is a single dimension, then “be here now” is redundant.)

Meanwhile, the mind-body split still seems to persist. Prominent modern pundits and spiritual adepts still proclaim that we are born through a spiritual medium as opposed to a physical one, and they insist that our essence has nothing to do with flesh and bones.

But what if both matter and spirit are necessary for our existence? Perhaps they are as inseparable as space and time (space-time), and both are necessary for our soul or consciousness to manifest. Maybe we could think of ourselves as spirit-matter.

And what if we come to believe that our essential identity lives and dies along with our physical body? How might that alter our behavior or our understanding of the value of this life? Without fear of our next-life would we all lose interest in enlightenment, or run amok, as some eminent Buddhist teachers warn? I agree that consciousness is a marvel, but for now I don’t know, and don’t think I can know of consciousness from any perspective or in any context except inside of this body and nervous system. I know that it isn’t “my” consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it is independent of living protoplasm. If I could only believe that my “essence” is not tied to this rotting flesh, then I might lose my fear of death. On the other hand, perhaps what I should really be afraid of is another life.

SUB-SUBATOMIC PHYSICS

I read in some Buddhist literature (probably the Abhidamma) that the Buddha experienced things changing millions of times in the link of an eye. (Did he slow down his mind enough to count the changes?)

Meanwhile, inside the subatomic world we find evidence of an impermanence that is so impermanent it makes our ordinary reality seem frozen in time. Way down inside of everything, where the quarks are doing a line-dance inside of an electron, events are occurring in increments far shorter than the blink of an eye. (Considered to be one 10thof a second.) In the subatomic world, time is sometimes measured in what scientists have named “atto-seconds” — a millionth of a trillionth of a second. It takes an electron about an atto-second to travel all the way around a proton.

Meanwhile, inside the proton, perhaps one level deeper into reality, an attosecond would be regarded as a long nap. Down here time is measured in zepto-seconds – abillionth of a trillionth of a second. Before you can even blink – Zepto! – it’s gone.

I think at some point the physicists realized that they had entered a Marx brothers routine, where the jokes are coming so fast you begin to see that it’s all a joke. So when they started to measure things changing even faster — in trillionths of a trillionth of a second — they named it a “yocto-second.” Atto, zepto, and yockto. “Hello, I must be going.”

By the way, the time it takes for a quark to go around a proton is somewhere between a zeptosecond and a yocktosecond.

All you can do is smile, and let go.

(This article is taken from the book Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again, by Wes Scoop Nisker)