Simplifying Spirituality to the Point of Meaninglessness

The search for easy to remember catch phrases sucks the depth out of the spiritual question. Simplifying just for simplicity’s sake takes the point out of everything.

Not all spirituality is created equal. The paths that we draw on from history were full of nuance, research, deep inquiry, systems, and practices. Buddhism has the four noble truths, the eight-fold path, the three poisons, the five skandhas, samsara, nirvana, dukha, the two truths doctrine, 227 rules for monks, and 331 for nuns. (The Buddha and those who follow him still have a little way to go on the female equality front.)

Jewish mysticism gets equally deep, especially with the Qabbalah. Along with the 10 Sephirot of the tree of life, there are 212 steps from the mundane realm to the heavenly.

Most other ancient traditions have an equal amount of depth.

Contrast this to most modern/new-age traditions and the difference is rather shocking. “Be in the now.” Done. Next? Not all of the modern versions are one trick ponies, but they are mostly not more than two or three loose guidelines.

I am not suggesting that everyone needs to dig to the bottom of any given tradition. There is no need to read every word of every sutra, other than personal interest. However, I think it’s pretty easy to see that, loose guidelines make for loose guidance, and probably a good deal of wasted time. This is especially true when you happen to not be working directly with a teacher, or as part of a group. The more tools you have to work with, the more specific you can be in your work.

Of course, there is a flip side here. As a path evolves, and more nuance is explored, it can lead to a certain kind of restriction that can create blind spots where the explorer fails to look because they think their path has completely covered a given issue. To circle back to the Buddha, the middle way may be the way to go. We can study a path deeply without letting ourselves become convinced that it has covered everything. We can treat our studies lightly, while not taking them so seriously. That leaves is with the freedom to notice any gaps we come across, and the chance to address them.

In the end, I think what we are looking for is a path that does not become a set of blinders without remaining simply a set of rose colored glasses.

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Meditation is Not About Getting Better at Meditation

It’s basic human nature to want to do something important well. If we have a job to do, we like to do it in a way we can be proud of. If we are making something, we want it to turn out well. Not only that but the next time we make something we want it to be even better. Humans like their endeavors to mature. That’s a good thing.

However, the drive to improve can prove a distraction, or even an impediment, in accomplishing what we are doing. Writing for example; one of the frequent pieces of advice a young writer gets is to not edit as they write. Instead, forward momentum should be preserved at all costs. Edits can be taken care of later. Spending too much time getting every single word just so will cripple your creative flow. (By the way, while writing this example I stopped to edit typos about seventeen times. That is a HUGE improvement from when I started writing as a form of expression over a decade ago. So it goes.)

In just this way, a focus on meditating better can easily derail meditation itself. Meditation is about being right where you are and letting right where you are show up however it happens to. As you can easily see, being right where you are while trying to be better at being right where you are is not meditation. It’s practicing meditation. That is not a bad thing, and it is inevitable. There is nothing wrong with getting better at meditating. My suggestion though would be to keep that to a minimum. That way you can get some of the benefits of actual meditation. Which is why you sat down in the first place, yes?

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Heuristics, You’re Soaking In Them

In September 1927 a young man of 32 stood on the edge of Lake Michigan and contemplated suicide. From a young age, his Grandmother had taught him to appreciate, and follow the Golden Rule. Entry into the workforce had brought him to the alarming realization that the general populace did not share his enthusiasm for that ancient moral teaching. After a few hours of soul searching, the man came to two decisions. One, he would no longer accept any assertion as fact until he examined the assertion himself, no matter who made it, not even his Grandmother. Two, that he would live his life as an experiment.

That man was none other than Buckminster Fuller. He went on to not only prove in his own life that it was good policy to follow the Golden Rule, but he also gave us a slew of inventions and ideas that are still rocking our world. If more of his notions were widely adopted, there are many who feel this world would be a much better place. Whether you agree with his notions, or not, there is no denying that he was a singular character and that he inspired a great many people. He did this all through the simple expedient of not taking anyone’s word for anything, and living his life as an open laboratory.

What strikes me is how the idea of the Golden Rule nearly drove him to suicide and then became the proof of his life’s passion. His life went through this transformation due to Bucky’s skepticism about this widely accepted ethical teaching.

We humans are faced with an overwhelming amount of data, and endless decisions on a daily basis. We have evolved to deal with this overwhelm through several methods, one of which is pertinent here. Heuristics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut. A rule of thumb used to come to a decision without having to think. Heuristics mean we don’t have to stop and remember each and every step of a recipe while we cook. They are also the mechanic that makes some of us rabidly insist that the proper way to put a toilet paper roll on a dispenser is so that the next tissue comes up over the top of the roll. (Those people are dead wrong, by the way. It should always come from under the roll. Just goes to show you how crazy these mental shortcuts can make some people.)

The problem with these shortcuts is that they work so well. We can easily build up walls of, “well, it’s always done this way…”, “Everyone knows that!”, “Internet stocks are a good idea…” and so on. As we give our decisions over to these auto-pilot scripts more and more, we increasingly distance ourselves from freshly emerging reality, and we curtail our skills of critical thinking and considered determination.

Confucius once put forth the idea that if society could be built up with answers to all basic obligations and actions set out in strict detail then the masses would be free from the stress of thinking. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. The problem is, once you get on those tracks it can be quite hard to get off!

The thing is, I can think of many, many examples of human beings who made hugely positive impacts because they were willing to go against the grain, discard “common sense”, and prove things for themselves just like Bucky Fuller did. I can’t think of a single example of someone who made a lasting impact on the world while doing what they were told.

I am not suggesting that one should go against the common cut just to do it. That is the path of the useless rebel. What I am proposing is that the less we take things for granted, the more we consider options with critical thought, the more we prove our morals in the cauldrons of our own life experience, the better off we will be. Also, if we are lucky, we will make things a bit better for others.

Heuristics are a great evolutionary tool for us to have. However, just like any other tool, they can become a crutch, and then a chain, if we lean on them too much. The first way they do this is by blinding us to any alternatives to them. We can get so set in doing things one way that we close ourselves off to any other.

I got a heavy dose of clarity around this when I started driving for Lyft. I was living in San Francisco, as I had been for 42 years. I had driven the cities streets for 25+ years by that point. I thought I knew the city. I was very wrong. I knew the spots I frequented and the routes between them, but that was it. About 80% of the city was a mystery to me. After having driven people all over for two weeks I can now say I know the city well, but the difference was astounding. All of that was due to the blinders I had taken on through my habits of getting from where I knew to where I knew.

The very first recorded TED talk was on this exact subject. A scientist shared, in a five-minute video, his top tip for cutting wasted time out of our days. He illustrated this with a sports shoe he had on a table. He told a story of getting a pair of similar shoes. The thicker, running shoe style, laces kept coming undone on him. He took the shoes back to the store and asked for a refund. The clerk at the store, after being told the issue, asked the scientist to tie his shoes. When the scientist did so, the store clerk simply said, “Oh, you tied your shoes wrong.” The clerk then proceeded to show the scientist the correct way of tying his shoes. The difference was in the direction of the motion during one step of tying the shoes. That difference altered the mechanics of the knot such that, when tugged, the knot reinforced itself. The way the scientist had been tying his shoes was such that the knot would loosen when tugged. You can watch the talk here to see what I mean.

We all live our lives leveraging the power of shortcuts, here and there. Life is far too complex for us to do otherwise. We need them. However, we also need to be aware of them lest they make the easy transition from our servants to our masters.

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