Stop the Wheel

I love the message of this video.

It reminds me of a distinction that came out loud and clear the last time I re-read “Cosmic Trigger volume 1” by Robert Anton Wilson. It had to do with a personal tragedy Robert went through that taught him the true meaning of the Buddhist idea of stopping the wheel of karma.

Robert’s teenage daughter Luna suffered a beating at the hands of a group of other teenagers. On the day of the incident, she was understandably upset. By the next day, she had let it all go and harbored no ill will towards the other kids. Instead, she wished them well and hoped they could get over whatever hurt was causing them to act out. That was when Robert got what the idea of stopping the wheel of karma is all about. Luna did not simply let the attack fade from her history. Instead, she actively transmuted the energy into a positive outpouring of compassion and care for others.

This is what stopping the wheel of karma is all about. It’s not simply minding our own actions. The true practice is taking negative circumstances, refusing to pass their ripples on, and instead transforming them into positive actions and caring for others. From the few times I’ve actually been able to pull this off, I have a deep respect for the amount of mindfulness it takes.

When I was a young lad, I was the target of a fair amount of bullying. Unfortunately, my response was to become a bully myself for a few years. I regret that and wish I had learned the tools to return positivity for negativity at that time.

In the moment that we are receiving negative energy, it can be very difficult to not fire back, and we miss out on the immediate satisfaction provided by making a clever quip. However, if we hold out the long-term returns of not returning bad vibes are much more rewarding. To paraphrase Sean Stephenson, “Drinking a beer can feel refreshing, but finishing ‘War & Peace’ after years of saying we wanted to will provide a fulfillment that will last the rest of our lives.”

Some Lessons Take a While

I was going to title this post, “My Aunt Was a Go-Go Dancer and That Screwed Me Up For a Long Time”, but I am pretty sure that sends the wrong message. I think it’s awesome that she was a go-go dancer.

Let me backtrack here. Developmental psychologists say that we imprint behaviors at certain critical stages of our development, as well as in response to crisis situations. In other words, we latch on to behaviors that seem to work to ensure our survival, and if those stop working, we switch it up. Sometimes when the crisis comes in the form of negative response from our authority figures, we transfer the guilt we feel outwards as a way of avoiding feeling it ourselves. We project out onto the world the bad feelings we felt at the time.

These crisis moments can seem fairly trivial in retrospect, but they can have a debilitating effect on our socialization. Blaming others for your guilt is not a winning tactic over time. I’ve been doing that around a specific issue, and today I figured out that I was doing it, and why.

You see, one of the ways I have learned to get at these little sticking points is to hunt down the inciting event. When you look with grown up eyes at a behavior learned in childhood, the story of that moment can be undone. You can stop transferring your guilt, and figure out a way to forgive yourself. This is especially true if the event is something you realize you really shouldn’t have guilt about.

So, what does this all have to do with go-go dancing aunts? A few days ago my cousin posted something to Facebook. The post included reference to Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cirus, and their styles of performing. (The post was not positive, but that’s beside the point here.) It got me thinking about my aunt and a specific incident from my childhood.

I have this bad habit. When someone questions my qualifications for something, when they have no way of knowing about my qualifications, I get upset. For example, if someone starts telling me all about how Tai Chi works, I feel affronted since I’ve been practicing Tai Chi for 26 years now. Of course, the unfair part is that the person in question may have no way of knowing that. Somehow I think they should.

When thinking about my aunt, I recalled a moment that had a big impact on me. For a few years, my aunt and her family lived with us. Music was a big part of my mom’s life. She often had the radio or record player going. There was a pop-rock tune playing on the stereo on this particular day. I wandered into the kitchen to grab a soda and found my mom and aunt dancing to the music. My aunt was bumping and grinding as well as any professional dancer I had seen.

I made the comment, “Yeah, aunt Alona, you’re getting it!”

She laughed, stopped dancing, dropped her arms and said, “Oh, shit.”

I didn’t get the joke at first. Then my mom said that my aunt had been a professional go-go dancer in her earlier life. Apparently, she was a highly sought after dancer. I was embarrassed and tried to play it off, but that didn’t work and the guilt set in. I had questioned my aunt, an important person to me, on something she was an expert on. That was the moment I acquired guilt about not knowing what someone was good at. To prevent myself from feeling guilty about feeling guilty about my faux pas I started projecting that guilt outwards. When someone innocently told me something I already knew or somehow implied I might not have some expertise that I do, it would bring up my guilty feelings from the childhood moment, and I would transform that into anger towards the person.

All of this came together for me today in a flash. Hopefully, I can drop this pattern which has caused me to come across as a bit of an ass hat in my dealing with people. Time will tell. Either way, if and when I do it again, at least I will now know why.

Thanks, aunt Alona! You are still teaching me valuable life lessons!

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Don’t Make It Mean Something That It’s Meaningless

I’ve been re-reading, “F*ck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way” and it’s got me thinking about things.

One of the common distinctions in spiritual traditions to address the subject excess of human suffering is the issue of attachment. “F*ck It” covers this issue in good detail. We attach to things that are important to us. Things gain their importance from the meaning we hold for them. Hence, meaning causes suffering. One thing we can do about that is we can question the meaning we give to things. Is the meaning appropriate? Is the meaning serving us? Does the meaning still apply, or have things changed and we have just not bothered to update our meaning? All of these questions are good ways for us to see if we should hold on to some of the meanings we maintain.

A deeper look into meaning gives rise to the question of where meaning comes from. Basically, all meaning is assigned. Our brains are built to find patterns and meanings to make sense of our world. Whenever life presents us with some thing, or some situation, our brains jump to and either dig up the meanings we already have or struggle to find a meaning to assign. This can be seen when we encounter some thing, or some situation we have never come across before. For just a moment there is no meaning that shows up. We just stare and go, “What?”

As the Buddha said, “Things don’t hold meaning. Meaning is held in words and sentences.”

Things don’t mean anything. We decide what they mean. That gives us the opportunity to discard the meaning if we need to. We can drop a meaning that no longer serves us, or we can set a meaning aside for long enough to get a breather. Things are inherently meaningless, and that means they need not have a hold on us.

There are plenty of traditions and groups that really get into this meaninglessness thing. Here’s the thing though, they sometimes take it too far. I once took a course called, “The Forum” put on by Landmark Education. I can’t recommend Landmark too much because I didn’t care for their hard sale techniques, but I did pick up several good distinctions that have served me well. One of these distinctions happens to concern meaning. They used the phrase, “X is empty and meaningless …” and then they would add, “… and, it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless.” That last bit is what is missing from some of these spiritual groups.

Assigning meaning to things being meaningless defeats all the relief we can get from recognizing that things are inherently meaningless. So, play with meaninglessness and see if it helps, but don’t get too attached to it.

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