Know That You Are Using Your Words

A while ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson pissed me off. Let me first say that I have immense respect for Neil. I consider myself a fanboy of his. However, no one is perfect. Not even the Tyson.

People who follow Mr. Tyson will know that he has no love of philosophy and philosophers. I think he would echo the words of Steve Martin in saying, “That shit can really fuck you up.” (In fact, I think Neil paraphrased that very bit in one of his interviews.) He often goes on about how studying philosophy is a waste of time when you could be studying science. On the day he pissed me off whoever, the example he used wasn’t even philosophy. He used the example of the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That doesn’t come from philosophy, strictly speaking. It comes from Buddhism in general and Zen in specific. It is not a question to be answered. It’s a statement meant to stop the student’s mind for a moment. In other words, it’s not philosophy, it’s more like psychology. This stuck in my craw, but I didn’t quite realize why until today.

You see, I am veteran of many conversations where people claim that Buddhism is a religion, and then I (which is typical of most Buddhists, from what I’ve seen) answer something like, “Well, sort of, but not really. It’s more of a philosophy.” But on the other hand, I have also had many conversations where people make the claim that Buddhism is a philosophical system, and the context of the conversation made me say, “Well, sort of, but it’s a bit more like a system of psychology.” In these different conversations, I was correct(ish) for as far as those conversations went. But, this begs the question: What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Yes, in a way. Is it a philosophy? Yes, in a way. Is it a system of psychology? Yes, in a way. Sort of. Kinda.

The trouble here is not with Buddhism being schizophrenic. The problem is not with Buddhism being very varied depending on the cultural context it lands in. (Though that is part of it.) The real culprit is me. I forgot I was using English. Buddhism predates English. By a lot. It started out mostly in the Pali language, then migrated to where Chinese was more popular, did a foray into Tibetan, then got some Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese in there long before it got any English. What I am saying is that the difficulty is not that Buddhism is hard to identify. The issue is that English does a poor job of identifying Buddhism.

I am not going to suggest a better way to refer to Buddhism and Buddhist practices and techniques in English. Frankly, I don’t have one. My point is that our language can very easily prejudice us against concepts and distinctions from cultures in another language group. Terence McKenna used to say that language is thought, and your thought can’t evolve faster than your language does. Language is what you have to think with. It’s best to not let that become a limitation on your exposure to the wider world of ideas floating in the human space.

So, it would appear that Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes me think deeply, even when he pisses me off.

Being mindful of your words can help you to stop the little buggers from biting off more than they can chew.

photo credit

Make Practices Your Own

We all know that the “one size fits all” myth is a myth. It is never true in clothing or shoes. It’s even more true when it comes to practices we use to work on ourselves. From what I have seen, this fact is robustly ignored by most people. They dive into meditation practice, twisting their legs just so, lighting the prescribed incense, and wonder why their efforts seem frustrated. The same is true with yoga, bowling, psychoanalysis, and depression medication. People dogmatically stick to doing things the “right way”, for a long time before trying to figure out if the right way for them may not be the way they were told.

The thing about a practice is that it’s like anything you might take to fix an issue. Like aspirin for a headache. No two people react in exactly the same way to aspirin. For some it works, for some it doesn’t. Some are allergic. For some continued use is fatal. Aspirin is a general enough treatment that the differences are normally not that pronounced. The more specific a treatment gets, the more likely that the differences in people will show up.

The thing about most spiritual practices is they tend to be pretty specific. They also seem to have more of a capacity to being affected by differences between users. From what I can see this gets at one of the core distinctions that leaps out after you look at you for any length of time. Each view on reality is utterly unique, if only because one of the components that makes that tunnel is the view itself, and one view is not another view. Because of that, any practice that gets close to the core truth of what you are must, necessarily, be more vulnerable to differences in effect.

I think that it’s vitally important that this specificity be taken into account. The more the practitioner drills in, the more their unique nature gets revealed, and the more the “effects” of the practices become specific to them. To try and stick adamantly to the way these practices are “supposed” to unfold based on the reports of others who have used the practices before, is to pull away from one’s unique nature. That makes the practices increasingly less effective, and more superficial. One may still gain the surface and most common benefits, but one will no longer reveal new insights. Nor will they advance the development of that particular practice. If meditation students stick only to relaxation, all the states of mind explored and mapped by the Tibetan Buddhists (as only one example) would never become known.

When working on yourself it’s important to take you into account. Find what works for you and adapt as needed. There no carbon copying a one of a kind. Do you.

photo credit

Do It Until You Know What’s Next

Today I’ve been poking away at a fiction story about an accidental guru, and blog posts about not second guessing your happiness, realizations versus answers, some possible trajectories about self-inquiry, and an intro to a series about the Integral Model. While doing all that, I realized why I write several posts simultaneously.

One of my favorite pieces of advice to writers comes from Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway recommended that you should, “write until you… know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.” I have found this a supremely effective tool for writing at a good clip and avoiding writer’s block. If you sit down knowing what will happen next, you have no pause to doubt yourself.

What I have recently seen is this advice is just as good for writing non-fiction pieces. You write until you know what you are going to say next, and stop. Since non-fiction writing involves a lot of saying specific points, you can get to this point rather quickly. That is why I work on several pieces at once. I can plunk away at a post, get to the point where I have a clear notion of my next point, and skip to a different post. It’s a little bit like cooking a meal with several dishes all at once. (Without the pressure of needing them to get done fairly close to each other so the dishes don’t get to room temperature before they are eaten.)

Not every suggestion works well for everyone. However, if you are a writer, and find yourself frequently hitting “dry spells” you might try Hemingway’s little gem out. Let me know how it goes if you do.

photo credit