What remains when the ‘person’ is gone?

“A vague memory remains, like the memory of a dream, or early childhood. After all, what is there to remember? A flow of events, mostly accidental and meaningless. A sequence of desires and fears and inane blunders. Is there anything worth remembering? The person is but a shell imprisoning you. Break the shell. Realize that your present existence is like a shower of sparks, each spark lasting a second and the shower itself — a minute or two.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj

(Photo courtesy of Martino F.)

The Spirit of Zen

Last week I read The Spirit of Zen by Alan Watts and one paragraph has stuck with me. It touches on one of the (many) ways religion is viewed differently in the East.

“In the East the effectiveness of a religion is judged by its success in producing a comparatively small number of thoroughly enlightened men, for it is not believed possible fundamentally to alter the lives of vast numbers of people within the span of a thousand years or so. Great social changes are not expected; the religions of the East are more concerned with the enlightenment of some few individuals than of society as a whole, because society is made up of individuals, and will only become enlightened when, after thousands of years, more and more individuals have proved themselves fit for the highest knowledge, until the chosen few have become the whole community.”

Which reminds me of this excerpt from a novel by John Burdett (Bangkok Tattoo).

How the World Can Be the Way It Is

how-the-worldHow the World Can Be the Way It Is: An Inquiry for the New Millennium into Science, Philosophy, and Perception Zen and Quantum Theory are really hard for me to wrap my head around, and Steve Hagen has big dollops of both in this book. I followed maybe 75 percent of the book. The stuff I highlighted won’t make much sense out of context but this is for my reference, so…

For it is sufficient, I think, to live by experience, and without subscribing to beliefs — Sextus Empiricus

(To believe, to hold an opinion) refers to a state of mind which we are powerless to choose.

His mind was changed because it was overwhelmed by a new awareness. In the moment in which he became aware of something new, his mind was different.

We must learn to rely solely on what we see rather than upon what we think.

We proselytize others because it makes us feel better. And the reason it makes us feel better is because we’re unsure of what we believe ourselves.

(Being fully awake is) Seeing without any mental bias — without concepts, beliefs, preconceptions, presumptions, or expectations.

You can’t choose to doubt.

We should always be prepared to take another look at what we believe and begin to doubt it. […] We should doubt until we no longer hold fast to any thing at all.

Whatever you think, is delusion.

“The world is not objectively real but depends on the mind of an observer.” — John von Neumann

The mind is what the brain does.

Apart from their functions, relationships, and components, we do not seem to know what things are at all. […] A thing receives its identity as much from what it is not as it does from what it is. […] When an object appears in the mind, we conceive it as a solitary thing unto itself. […] It is only as singular entities that our objects of consciousness can form in our mind. […] All things receive their identity as much from what they are not as from what they are. […] Spring can only be spring if we account for what it is not (e.g., summer) as an intrinsic part of its identity.

“How can one be ‘wrong’ about what one actually perceives?” — Roger Penrose

We simply have no direct experience of anything outside the mind. And to assume the existence (or, for that matter, he nonexistence) of anything outside the mind simply contradicts direct experience.

Three types of “recognition”
1) Naming a thing (labeling and categorizing. Purely conceptual)
2) What the thing does (function and utility)
3) Just seeing (pure perception, no conceptual overlay)

The more we learn about quantum physics, the more the universe appears like a thought rather than a thing. (Pointed out by Sir Arthur Edington)


It’s because we can easily conceive of (but never perceive) a time or place outside of our consciousness that we persist in holding this belief (that matter precedes consciousness) […] We never directly experience a time (or anything else) which precedes consciousness.

We don’t actually experience Consciousness Itself “originating” anywhere, or anywhen. Consciousness — the awareness that “something’s” happening — is ever-present and immediate. We never directly experience Nothing.

Consciousness (is) the originator, instead of the product, of place and time.

No one is ever conscious of not being (or not having been) conscious.

Consciousness is the conceiving (the making) of parts, or mind-objects, from the Whole. […] The “parts” — the physical and mental objects of consciousness, i.e., concepts — are merely appearances resulting from the working of Consciousness.

Consciousness splits the Whole, immediately creating and ego — an identity — which then sees all other things in opposition to it.

To gain information is merely to sink deeper into conceptual reality. […] We gain information at the expense of wisdom.

What you or I do right here, right now affects everything that ever was, is, or will be. Whatever you do is constantly affecting everything that has ever happened or will happen.

We “exist” not in being but in becoming — and in fading away.

We do not experience an I — we assume it. We only experience perception, thought, and consciousness.

The Book

The Book, Alan WattsThe Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966). I like the way Alan Watts writes. Some of the sixties jargon sounds a little quaint but, hey, that’s the way we talked back then. If you haven’t read this book (and don’t intend to), you can skip this post. Won’t make any sense at all out of context. Admittedly, some of the ideas are hard to grasp within context. Posts like this one (excerpts from a book) are archival. A place for me to come back and locate an idea I could never find by flipping through the book.

He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear. […] It takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. […] We are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself.

God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes.

He isn’t really doing this to anyone but himself. […] In the Vedanta philosophy, nothing exists except God. […] But Vedanta is much more than the idea or the belief that this is so. It is centrally and above all the experience, the immediate knowledge of its being so.

You don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.

All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body— even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual— an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. […] If all this ends with the human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns, why should that trouble us? For that is exactly what we are now!

No one thing or feature of this universe is separable from the whole, the only real You, or Self, is the whole.

Most people think of themselves as separate from their thoughts and experiences.

Memory is an enduring pattern of motion, like the whirlpool, rather than an enduring substance, like a mirror, a wax tablet, or a sheet of paper.

Society is our extended mind and body.

(You are) one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself. […] Every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole,

The death of the individual is not disconnection but simply withdrawal. The corpse is like a footprint or an echo— the dissolving trace of something which the Self has ceased to do.

The only real “I” is the whole endless process.

Every organism is a process: thus the organism is not other than its actions. To put it clumsily: it is what it does. More precisely, the organism, including its behavior, is a process which is to be understood only in relation to the larger and longer process of its environment. […] The whole is a pattern, a complex wiggliness, which has no separate parts. Parts are fictions of language.

Apart from your brain, or some brain, the world is devoid of light, heat, weight, solidity, motion, space, time, or any other imaginable feature.

This little germ with its fabulous brain is evoking the whole thing, including the nebulae millions of light-years away. […] A structure of such fabulous ingenuity that it calls the whole universe into being.

No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.

Making an effort to be ego-less is like “beating a drum in search of a fugitive.”

You are nothing at all apart from everything else. […] Each organism is the universe experiencing itself in endless variety.

Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process — like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.

Meditate just to meditate.

When this new sensation of self arises, it is at once exhilarating and a little disconcerting. It is like the moment when you first got the knack of swimming or riding a bicycle. There is the feeling that you are not doing it yourself, but that it is somehow happening on its own, and you wonder whether you will lose it— as indeed you may if you try forcibly to hold on to it. In immediate contrast to the old feeling, there is indeed a certain passivity to the sensation, as if you were a leaf blown along by the wind, until you realize that you are both the leaf and the wind. The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside: they move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of control because the world outside is so much vaster than the world inside. Yet you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with ordinary activities— to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground holding you up, and of hills lifting you when you climb them. Air breathes itself in and out of your lungs, and instead of looking and listening, light and sound come to you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows and water flows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries you along like a river, but never flows out of the present: the more it goes, the more it stays, and you no longer have to fight or kill it.

The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate “you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new. What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endlessly waving ocean.

The Self is playing its most far-out and daring game— the game of having lost Itself completely and of being in danger of some total and irremediable disaster.

We are merely bolting our lives— gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in— because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.

How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god?

It seems to be the special peculiarity of human beings that they reflect: they think about thinking and know that they know.

For so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself.

I return in every baby born. […] It matters not whether the interval be ten seconds or billions of years. In unconsciousness all times are the same brief instant.

In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at itself— through our eyes and IT’s.

Why something instead of nothing?

whydoestheworldexistI’m not losing any sleep over this question, unless you count some late nights reading books like Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Holt is an American philosopher, author and essayist. Mr. Holt tells his “existential detective story” by talking with “philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics and one very great American novelist.”

This is one of those books I found myself rewinding every few pages in an effort to simply understand the words, the sentences. So I can’t review it but here’s what the NYT had to say.

I do manage to come away with something from books like this. First, an appreciation for how long really smart people have been thinking about questions like why-something-not-nothing. Second, how little I really know and understand about… everything. Okay, here’s a third thing: nothing that happens in our (humans) blink-of-an-eye existence is of much consequence when viewed against the backdrop of a 14 billion year old universe. Global warming; Rush Limbaugh; a nuclear Iran. Specs of dust. A few excerpts:

“For the vast majority of Americans there is no such thing as the “mystery of existence.” If you ask them why the universe exists, they’ll say it exists because God made it. If you then ask them why God exists, the answer you get will depend on how technologically sophisticated they are. They might say that God is self-caused, that He is the ground of His own being, that His existence is contained in His essence. Or they might tell you that people who ask such impious questions will burn in hell.”

The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.

Perhaps we see too little of reality to be aware of the reason behind it, or because any such reason must lie beyond the intellectual limits of humans.

Nothing is popularly held to be better than a dry martini, but worse than sand in the bedsheets. A poor man has it, a rich man needs it, and if you it for a long time, it’ll kill you. On occasion, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is not clear how much further.

Nothingness – A possibility reality, a conceivable state of affairs: that in which nothing exists.

In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church declared it to be an article of faith that the world had a beginning in time.

The entities making up the physical world are like the pieces in a game of chess: what counts is the role defined for each piece by a system of rules that say how it can move, not the stuff the piece is made of.

“Words like ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’ and ‘God,’ they’ve moved around so much that they’re practically meaningless. Who really cares? I do consider myself a Spinozist, however, for two reasons. First, I think Spinoza was right that we’re all tiny regions in an infinite mind. And I agree with him that the material world, the world described by science, is pattern of divine thought.” — Cosmologist John Leslie

Stop Paddling


I’ve been thinking of life as a float trip. The kind where everybody has a big tractor tire inner tube. Sometimes people lash several together but most folks drift along in their own tube, paddling with their hands if they want to change direction.

Friends and family might float nearby for a while, where we can see them and talk to them. Then someone gets a job in Boise or files for divorce and we don’t see them again. And some leave the river altogether. Correction, everyone leaves the river eventually.

When I reflect on my time on the river, I realize how much time I spent paddling. Paddling toward some people, away from others. Paddling toward the calm parts of the river… and frantically away from the rapids. When I found a “good” spot, I paddled hard to stay there.

My tube has some patches these days and my PSI is down a little but I’m still afloat. And I’ve just about stopped paddling. This first year of retirement gave me lots of time to think and I came to the conclusion the paddling didn’t make much difference. All it did was make some noise, get everyone around me wet, and made my arms tired. So I’ve stopped paddling.

“Sure, you retired guys can stop paddling but what about those of us still in the race?”

I won’t tell you not to paddle, I’m just saying I don’t think it makes much difference. When I found myself on a really good part of the river, I had gotten there because that’s where the current took me, not because I paddled hard or knew the river so well.

It won’t be easy to stop paddling because it happens mostly in my head and I can be in full Michael Phelps mode before I realize it. But when I do… it’s hands up, out of the water… relax and lean back… and enjoy the ride.

Buddhism Without Beliefs

buddhism-beliefsI’m not really sure what Stephen Batchelor is trying to say in Buddhism Without Beliefs. I think his main idea is there in the title. Excerpts below got some highlighter… real reviews at Amazon.  This wasn’t one of my favorite books on the topic.

Awakening is no longer seen as something to attain in the distant future, for it is not a thing but a process — and this process is the path itself. […] It is an authentic way of being in the world.

The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. [ Wikipedia: In Buddhism dharma means “cosmic law and order”, but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.]

An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.” […] The dharma is not a belief by which you will be miraculously saved. It is a method to be investigated and tried out. […] An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning.

Buddhism could be described as “the culture of awakening.”

Religions are united not be belief in God but by belief in life after death.

Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.

Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination.

Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is.

Dharma practice is founded on resolve. […] An ongoing, heartfelt reflection on priorities, values and purpose. […] Dharma practice is the process of awakening itself: the thoughts, words, and deeds that weave the unfolding fabric of experience into a coherent whole.

The process of awakening is like walking on a footpath. When we find such a path after hours of struggling through undergrowth, we know at last that we are heading somewhere. Moreover, we suddenly find that we can move freely without obstruction. We settle into a rhythmic and easy pace. […] What counts is not so much the destination but the resolve to take the next step.

Focused awareness is difficult not because we are inept at some spiritual technology but because it threatens our sense of who we are.

The stiller the mind, the more palpable the dazzling torrent of life becomes.

The world is so saturated with the meanings given to it that those meanings seem to reside in the things themselves.

At every moment we are either inclining toward or engaged in an act: a physical movement, an utterance, a thought. Even when you decide not to act, you are still doing something: refraining.

As you sit in meditation, notice how what you are doing is the enactment of an earlier resolve. By attending to the details of this present moment, by choosing not to recollect the past or plan for the future, you are engaged in a process of creating yourself in a specific and deliberate way.

What are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? [I am] an unfolding narrative.

We cannot attain awakening for ourselves: we can only participate in the awakening of life.

When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.

Why something instead of nothing?

John Updike takes a stab at The Big Question:

It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.

Found this (and more) in a post by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) about a book by Jim Holt titled Why Does the World Exist? (On the way).

I think the next big evolutionary leap for humans will some form of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). When the AGI is as intelligent as we (or it) needs or wants to be, I’m going to ask it to take a good, long look at Reality and once it has a good grasp, to explain/show it to me in a way I can understand. And it will look exactly like the Reality 1.0 I’m currently running. Until, of course, we reach the point where the AGI can modify my wetware sufficiently for me to glimpse the Source Code in all its magnificence.