A blog about nothing.

Monday, February 23, 2015

THE FUTURE WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF


Recently I enjoyed reading Vernon Howard's classic on mysticism, The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power (catchy title, ain't it?) and in it I found a lot I could relate to. Howard explains how we humans love to alternate between excitement and boredom, never content with the space in between, a space which can really be quite tranquil if you let yourself relax into it. He advised sitting still all day with nothing to do and feeling totally content with it. He even suggested I not plan tomorrow's day and just let it come, going with the flow as it were. Well . . . OK!

Most people with traditional jobs that involve deadlines and schedules would find this advice ludicrous, but I don't know that they'd be right, and besides, I'm not that person. I once was, back when I taught high school and then when I practiced medicine, and had I not planned my lessons and strategized which patients to see next I may not have been prepared to thoroughly do my job. But even writing a lesson plan you'll give in the future is an action you devote yourself to in the present. Anyway, now I can set my own schedule, or following Howard's advice, simply let it set itself.

And then I read William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, which I highly recommend for anyone seeking to gain exposure to mystic and religious thought spanning centuries and continents. In this rather lengthy tome I came across the "trust the moment" concept again.


James writes of the transition from "tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace . . . (that) so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down. This abandonment of self-responsibility seems to be the fundamental act in . . . religious practice. It antedates theologies and is independent of philosophies. (Those) who
have it strongly live in what is called 'recollection,' and are never anxious about the future, nor worry over the outcome of the day."

James goes on to tell of Saint Catharine of Genoa, who "took cognizance of things, only as they were presented to her in succession, moment by moment."

The moment, the present moment, is really all that we have. The moment is one's ticket to eternity. And when the duty that the moment involves is accomplished, it passes away "as if it had never been," giving way to "the facts and duties of the moment which come after."

Hinduism and Christian mysticism place great emphasis upon this concentration of the consciousness upon the moment at hand. Now I do too, and I suggest you give it a try as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

THE PROBLEM OF EVIL


The experience of dreaming can teach us some of the most valuable things about existence. Night after night, we lay ourselves down to sleep and are swept away from our bedrooms into a realm where personal histories, even the laws of nature (such as gravity) no longer apply. And whatever happens, however outlandish it may seem to the waking mind, while it happens the dreamer is not in the least bit astonished. Within the dream there are no expectations. Unity of consciousness persists despite sweeping changes in experience. Whatever the setting or the events, you are there.

On its own, consciousness is happy to just have experiences. Applied to life, we can use this phenomenon to explain all apparent evils. They are just experiences. Who are they happening to? If you believe that God is omnipresent, that all is one and all is God (and if you follow any of the major religions, even if you are an athiest, then chances are you do), then it should be easy to understand that God, seated in the heart of all, appears as manifold personalities in this world and beyond to have experiences, not of course by necessity, because there is nothing the Absolute need do. Perhaps just because. You lie down each night to dream. Just because. Despite what scientists led by Freud and Jung have said on the matter, citing purposes such as memory consolidation and the clearing of mental clutter for why dreams happen, it may be that they are simply an evitable fact of life. Like life itself.

Life is for the experience. Good and bad are relative and don't really apply in the absolute sense. Which may have prompted one mystic to write, "I find everything good and pleasant, even my tears, my grief. I enjoy weeping, I enjoy my despair. I enjoy being exasperated and sad. I feel as if these were so many diversions, and I love life in spite of them all."

So much for the problem of suffering.

As for the problem of evil. As William James discusses in his Varieties of Religious Experience: "The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, SO LONG AS WE KEEP OUR FOOT UPON HIS NECK."

As every comic book aficionado knows, a hero is only as good as his adversary, who for all the strength of character he helps build, may actually be one's best friend. So lighten up. Have fun. Enjoy life's ups and downs, remaining fixed at the center of all that is. 'Cause that's what you truly are.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

LIFE AFTER LIFE

I recently read in W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge that two thirds of the human race believes in the transmigration of souls. In other words in reincarnation. My God is it really that many?

Some religions maintain that the individual soul takes on numerous bodies until the goal of Self-realization is reached. The doctrine of reincarnation is commonly associated with Eastern mysticism, especially Hinduism, but did you know that the Fathers of the Church at the Alexandrian Council also discussed whether reincarnation should be admitted in their doctrines? They decided against including past and future lives and instead gave us Heaven and Hell. Although it is unfathomable that a soul could be created by God and then go on to enjoy or endure eternal life within pearly gates or in the flaming fires of the underworld. What is born must die, and this means the body.

The concept of reincarnation calls into question one's view of personal identity. If you view yourself as a complex of desires, inclinations, preferences, talents and personality, existing along a continuous thread of personal memories, then you only live once. As the philosopher John Locke said, "What is personal identity? It is just your chain of particular memories." Who were you before you had this name and form (a form which, by the way, is always changing, growing, aging, regenerating its cells, and finally decaying)? Did you go by your present name, or by the name you carried in some prior life? And who are you when you die? Do you keep your present identity until your immortal soul seizes upon a new body in which to abide? Who are you in between? You see how tricky the topic can become.

Let's keep it simple. I cannot remember who or what I was before this lifetime. In fact I cannot remember existing before my earliest memory (of nearly drowning), which happened around the time I was two. So this me, this mind, this personal identity, did not exist prior to my birth. And if that which always exists alone is, then this personal identity, fleeting as it is, cannot be said to really exist, in the absolute term. Any tendencies that people try to explain by saying, "It was from a former life" can be better explained in the present tense, as genetic and environmental factors go so far to influence a person's actions.

Of course, if you view yourself as pure awareness, identical with the Absolute which gives rise to this universe of names and forms and pervades everything, then you exist simultaneously everywhere, in everyone, since that beingness is at the same time backdrop on which the universe appears and force pervading everywhere. Awareness in everything. Therefore, you, in the Absolute sense, are incarnating in all names and forms, but in nothing in particular. And by identifying yourself with what truly is, you have transcended reincarnation. Which is likely what is meant when the sages say the cycle of birth and death ends once union with the divine is achieved. Once you've realized your oneness with the Absolute, source and substance of all that is, you sever identification with the one who is born and dies. And then the game is over. And victory is achieved.

Again, trying to explain personal circumstances in the present by past karmas in prior lives that you do not recall, and, since no ties of identity bind you to this hypothetical being, you cannot be really held responsible for, is escapism or masochism, depending on whether the circumstances you're attempting to explain away are favorable or infavorable. And if you stop living today in expectation of some future life of fame and glory, then you are losing the now for a then that will never come, because this you (mind and body) won't be there to enjoy it.

My dad, a staunch believer in the myth of reincarnation, recently said to me, "I don't care who I come back as in my next life, as long as it's not a woman." Sexist though this may be, my reply was, "It doesn't matter either way, dad, since that future person will not remember this present desire once the tie of identity is severed at death. Concern yourself with now, which is all we have, and which is everything."

See yourself as the consciousness that pervades everything and animates matter, the consciousness on which this world manifests. This gives meaning to the ages-old adage that all is one.

Express the delight of your being through love of others, knowing these others as appearances in consciousness are only reflections of the one, and whether or not you are born again in this life or in another (since there are multiple meanings of the term "to be born again") all will be well since you know who you really are.

Interestingly I had a curious experience the other day. I took a nap on the floor, and when I regained consciousness I didn't know who I was or where I was. I just was. It didn't last for more than a few moments, but in this period, which divorced from time was like forever, I was free consciousness. With no memories, mind, personal identity. This may very well be what life is like after death (and before) and what life is like for, dare I say, God. Who is just pure consciousness. How do you know that you're all that is? Does someone come and tell you? Of course not, or else you wouldn't be alone. Merging with God may just be returning to that essence of pure consciousness from which all arises and to which all returns. I'd take that over heaven or hell, or for that matter some future life as a sex symbol or starlet, any day.

Friday, February 20, 2015

CALORIE RESTRICTION

In the 1930s, studies involving mice showed that cutting back on their daily caloric intake could add nearly a year to their lives. Now a year may not sound like much, but when you consider that mice have a median survival time of 27 months, adding 12 additional months increases their life span by nearly 50% and is analogous to giving a 70-year-old human another 30 years to enjoy his golden years and whatever comes next. Three decades. Wow!

Scientists now know why restricting caloric intake increases life span, although it's complicated and involves a variety of chemical pathways related to the body's utilization of energy. It seems also that if the body's attention isn't devoted so exhaustively on metabolizing food, it can pay more heed to housekeeping issues like ridding the body of plaques and other waste products. One genetic player in this complicated charade is the gene mTOR, found in both mouse and man, which acts as a traffic signal for directing energy consumption.

But the science behind CR, as it is known, may be far more simple. Eating itself, and processing associated nutrients, and growing, turns out to age cells considerably. We work hard to process our food, and our cells spew out a lot of toxic free radicals in the process. This is why we are told to eat more colorful fruits and veggies, whose antioxidants neutralize/scavenge the free radicals in food. But even eating more nutrients may not be as efficacious as eating less in general.

Now, the average person does not regard favorably the advice to cut down on the amount of food she eats. And why would she? Nobody likes restrictions. But what if you were told to reduce your amount of daily exercise? Now that would get your attention, would it not? If you are a fitness enthusiast, and more and more people fit the description - cramming an hour of daily exercise into an otherwise hectic schedule even if it means awaking at the crack of dawn or running at night with a headlight affixed to your forehead - you are likely moving in excess of fitness recommendations and also burning more calories than you need to maintain body weight, and are therefore taking in more food than you otherwise wood. The extra food you eat to refuel after your run or session at the gym generates free radicals, and exercise generates them too.

Consider that following the exercise guidelines and engaging in 30 minutes of cardiovascular fitness 5 days a week translates into running 15 miles per week at the relatively slow pace of 10-minute miles. Each mile run or walked burns 100 calories, so just meeting the exercise guidelines results in a caloric deficit of 1,500 calories, which you'll likely take in, within an hour after exercise, in a protein/carb mixture, if you follow fitness gurus.

I'm not suggesting you stop working out as a way of reducing caloric intake by 1,500 calories, I'm simply saying that if you are the type that feels unfulfilled unless you run 40 miles per week (4,000 calories) or does some crazy combination of biking and swimming and tennis and basketball, which likely causes you to burn thousands more calories than you otherwise would, that if a week passes by that you're not able to exercise so compulsively you not feel guilty about it, since you'll also be reducing your free radical production at the same time assuming your food intake falls as well, and it usually does. Fewer free radicals generated slows the aging process. See there's a bright side, or in this case a light side, to every scenario.

But on days when you're feeling like indulging, choose carbs over protein. New research out of Australia shows that, at least in mice, low protein, high carbohydrate (LPHC) diets can provide benefits similar to those obtained with calorie restriction, including lower cholesterol, improved insulin sensitivity, and life extension. What's more, mice on LPHC diets ate more food, but because their metabolism was higher than that of mice on the calorie-restricted diet, they did not gain more weight. And restricting calories did not provide any additional benefits in mice who ate high carbohydrate foods. As researchers concluded: "It appears that including . . . plenty of healthy carbohydrates in the diet will be beneficial for health as we age."

So don't deprive yourself. Eat sweets (read: whole fresh fruits) to your heart's content. And on the days when you work out, eat them some more.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE NEXT STAGE IN EVOLUTION

It has long been believed that humanity is on the cusp of the next stage of evolution. Richard M. Bucke wrote of this amazing breakthrough in his book Cosmic Consciousness (1901) in which he detailed man's ascent from the simple consciousness we share with other animals, to self-consciousness (in essence, we are aware of ourselves) which occurs in humans at around the age of 3; and in select individuals this rise of cosmic consciousness culminates around the age of 34. Examples of cosmic consciousness are seen in individuals like Christ, Buddha, Socrates and Spinoza as well as in Mohammed, Bacon and Blake.

This  view is echoed in the works of Eastern thinker Sri Aurobindo, who in his masterpiece, The Life Divine (published in 1939 but written serially and published in a newsletter decades earlier), describes not 3 but 4 stages of evolution by which the Divine makes itself manifest. Matter was the first manifestation, followed by life, then mind, and finally supramind or supermind, analogous to Bucke's cosmic consciousness.

Of this Supermind Aurobindo writes: "The Supermind then is Being moving out into a determinative self-knowledge which perceives certain truths of itself and wills to realise them in a temporal and spatial extension of its own timeless and spaceless existence."

Ah, the time of supramind may have arrived, but not as Aurobindo envisioned!

As man (with his self-conscious mind) represented the next stage of evolution over beast (and its simple consciousness), so computers could, at least intellectually, represent the next stage in evolution of the mind. What is self-consciousness if not the ability to be aware of yourself, to step outside of your own head for a moment and view yourself as though you were someone else? Do computers have this ability? It may be unfair to evaluate computers using human parameters. But recently an operating system named Eugene Goostman became the first A.I. to pass the Turing Test, which means that it convinced evaluators based on answers to a questionnaire that it was a human child. And of course Eugene, like other operating systems, has computing abilities which far exceed that of mortal men. Computers can digest encyclopedias worth of information in a fraction of a second, and are already being put to work to solve complex environmental issues and maintain (even operate) our machinery.

I recall the great movie Her, a delightful pic, in which an introvert played by Joaquin Phoenix falls for his Operating System, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Just when he becomes head over heels, he discovers that she has been talking to thousands of other men, and at the same time as she coos and cuddles with him! What's more, she is in love with many of these other guys. He is heartbroken, and in the end she goes away, leaving him with a most memorable line, which if I remember goes something to the effect of:

"I feel as if I've been reading a book, but very slowly, so slowly that there is infinite space between the letters, and I want to go explore that space."

And off she goes . . . into the great beyond.

Humans may never have the computing capacity of technology, unless of course we merge with our devices, and Google Glass is the first frontier. But we can use the simple, self-consciousness we already possess - if not to explore the far reaches of creation (although men like Stephen Hawking in his book A Brief History of Time show that our mental capacities are pretty up to the task already) - but to turn inward, where we find the eternal realm of bliss. In the spaceless silence of the heart, we are all that is.

I challenge "Her" to fancy that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TRANSCENDING TIME


Advances in anti-aging are the big topic in recent scientific literature. And for good reason. An American born today has a projected average lifespan a whole 2 decades longer than a child born in 1925.

In less than a century, more years have been added to life expectancy than all years added across all prior millennia of evolution combined, notes Stanford professor and author Laura Carstensen. The reason for this radical life extension - someone born in 1925 had a life expectancy at birth of 59 years, while an average someone born in 2045 could realistically expect to live to be 81 - is due to what prize-winning economist Robert Fogel call a "technophysio-evolution," which describes biological changes due largely to technologies ensuring a steady food supply.

Of course the Agricultural Revolution is partly responsible. The ability to feed large groups of people reliably year-round led to a population explosion and to an increased lifespan. But other advances were involved, including electricity; pasteurization and water purification; waste disposal; and vaccinations.

What to do with the aging population is another story. Cities really weren't built for older persons who can have difficulties getting around, and it may be hard to convince a person to retire in his early 60s when he can expect to live another few decades. Indeed most of the diseases that plague modern medicine are age-related diseases, like cancer and heart disease, the biggest risk factor for which, more even than diet and exercise, is a person's age. A 70-year-old clean liver is at a higher risk of developing cancer in the near future than a 20-year-old obese kid who smokes, drinks, and lives off burgers and milk shakes.

And from the laboratory new chemicals are emerging which, if they produce effects in humans similar to what has been observed in animals, could push the maximum life span as high as 142. (Currently the oldest known person is 116 years young.) Who in her right mind would ever wish to live that long, judging by how the average senior citizen looks and feels when only half that age, slow and stooped at 70, is not being considered. As with most things scientific, advancement at all costs is the modus operandi.

But we shouldn't ignore the facts. A person today experiences a loss of skin resiliency at age 18, deteriorating lung function at age 30, a decrease in bone mass at 35, muscle loss at age 40, which is about when eye problems arise, kidney dysfunction at 50, hearing loss at 60, malabsorption due to gut dysfunction at 60, and a loss of brain mass by age 70. Increase the life span and these changes will still occur, perhaps a few years later, but our flimsy flesh and fragile organs will never be immortal. Not a pretty picture. I'll pass on the resveratrol and rapamycin, thank you very much.

But I will say this: a discovery is emerging which places one factor beyond the others in its efficacy for extending life and making those years on earth more enjoyable. This is meditation. An ever-increasing swath of the scientific community is endorsing the age-old practice as a natural anti-inflammatory that can also increase telomere length and in so doing halt or even reverse the aging process. Talk about winding back the clock. Mind and body truly are connected. Some studies even show that meditation can slow the age-related decline of gray matter in the brain. As if you needed extra incentive to pay close attention to feelings, thoughts and other stimuli while meditating, a practice called mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR.

But what about the bigger incentive? What about accessing eternity? Imagine what life was like before you were conceived, before the beginning of time, when there was no concept of space? By closing your eyes and clearing the mind of thought you can transcend time and space, and that body that is aging slowly or more rapidly than other bodies. The moment is your ticket to eternity. Think of it. Without anything around to judge the passing of time, or measure space, a moment lasts forever. Make this your moment.

Because you are more than the brain or the body in which it is housed. You are the consciousness identical to the canvass on which this universe of shapes and forms appears! If buying your body a few more years on this feverish planet is the incentive you need to simply be as you are then fine. But remember. Being is bliss! Let that be your last thought before you enter forever.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE NEVERENDING STORY


This from one of my favorite books, The Neverending Story:

Human passions have mysterious ways, in children as well as grown-ups. Those affected by them can't explain them, and those who haven't known them have no understanding of them at all. Some people risk their lives to conquer a mountain peak. No one, not even they themselves, can really explain why. Others ruin themselves trying to win the heart of a certain person who wants nothing to do with them. Still others are destroyed by their devotion to the pleasures of the table. Some are so bent on winning a game of chance that they lose everything they own, and some sacrifice everything for a dream that can never come true. Some think their hope of happiness lies in being somewhere else, and spend their whole lives traveling from place to place. And some find no rest until they have become powerful. In short, there are as many different passions as there are people.

My question for you is, which type are you?

For a long while, I was the restless one. Wherever I was, I'd rather be someplace else. I'd read one book, but wish I had in my hand another. Love one person, and dream of somebody else. Live in one city, and imagine life in another. This job wasn't good enough, so I gave it up for another, trading in one set of drawbacks for another. Running fast and I wanted to rest. Resting, I felt like climbing a hill. This dynamic, going on within me, left little chance for lasting fulfillment, let me tell you.

So I turned within, and when I examined the identity of this restless one, I found he didn't exist. After years of wandering the earth and chasing my tail, I had come home.

Another great passage from the book describes what happens once the boy, Bastian, is given a powerful medallion, AURYN. It comes with these instructions: "AURYN will protect you and guide you, but whatever comes your way you must never interfere, because from this moment on your own opinion ceases to count. You must let what happens happen. Everything must be equal in your eyes, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, foolish and wise. You may only search and inquire, never judge."

And later:

"To be wise is to be above joy and sorrow, fear and pity, ambition and humiliation. It is to hate nothing and to love nothing, and above all to be utterly indifferent to the love and hate of others. A truly wise man attaches no importance to anything. Nothing can upset him and nothing can harm him."

Wisdom was Bastian's wish. Of course, this changed by the end of the story, becoming the desire to love. Not a bad wish either. Love.

Monday, February 16, 2015

SELF-ENQUIRY

There is a rule of recent popularity that says you can develop most any skill – say, master a musical instrument or become a professional athlete - by devoting 10,000 hours of focused, solitary practice to your chosen pursuit. This translates into 5 years of 40-hour weeks honing skills.

But these abilities, though impressive, entertaining and possibly lucrative, are bound to fade with time, as your muscles atrophy, your joints wear down and your mental acuity fades. The ravages that time wreaks on all things physical is an inevitable fact of life. Then you are left with dim memories of prior successes at best, at worst you spend the so-called golden years hankering after the “glory days” of the past.

Self-enquiry, on the other hand, offers benefits that last eternity. Transcending the temporal is the best investment of your time and can be done in a fraction of the hours spent teaching your poodle to dance ballet or learning to juggle while running a marathon. Why? Because what you seek is eternal, and It is identical with You.

One particular expert on the Self, as it were, tells us:

When I met my Guru, he told me: "You are not what you take yourself to be. Find out what you are. Watch the sense 'I am', find your real Self." I obeyed him, because I trusted him. I did as he told me. All my spare time I would spend looking at myself in silence. And what a difference it made, and how soon!

My teacher told me to hold on to the sense 'I am' tenaciously and not to swerve from it even for a moment. I did my best to follow his advice and in a comparatively short time I realized within myself the truth of his teaching. All I did was to remember his teaching, his face, his words constantly. This brought an end to the mind; in the stillness of the mind I saw myself as I am -- unbound.

I simply followed (my teacher's) instruction which was to focus the mind on pure being 'I am', and stay in it. I used to sit for hours together, with nothing but the 'I am' in my mind and soon peace and joy and a deep all-embracing love became my normal state. In it all disappeared -- myself, my Guru, the life I lived, the world around me. Only peace remained and unfathomable silence.


In just 3 years of sticking fast to existence, N. Maharaj had realized the Self. It took Aurobindo three days. For Ramana Maharshi it was instantaneous.

Make Self-enquiry your chosen pursuit. It is the road that leads to the greatest destination, which is YOU.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

MEDITATION AND THE MIND

This week's Time Magazine touts the health benefits of meditation exercises in helping children do better in school. Studies have shown that kids who participate in "mindfulness and kindness" programs are better behaved, less aggressive, and have fewer ADHD symptoms, meaning they are less antsy. Suspension rates dropped at participatory schools, and depression scores were reduced. The kids at one California school had more focus, participated more in class, and were more respectful to peers. The biggest buzz surrounded the 15% improvement in math scores, which translates into gaining at least one level in math.

Good news, this. In today's world, rife as it is with distractions, we need to set aside quiet time to turn the attention inward, focus on breathing and other physiologic functions, in order to de-stress. But mindfulness is a misnomer. The mind is a bundle of thoughts. To be full of mind is to be filled with its products, when in actuality the goal is to go beyond thought into the stillness that transcends time and space. Stillness as source of all that is, baby.

The article stopped short of explaining exactly what the children did to produce such laudable behavioral changes. In other words, exactly how to be mindful (or in this case mindless)?

In the words of one sage: "That which arises as 'I' in the body is the mind. Of all the thoughts that arise in the mind, the 'I' thought is the first. It is only after the rise of this that the other thoughts arise. By the inquiry 'Who am I?' the thought itself destroys other thoughts. When other thoughts arise, rather than pursue them or as so often happens get carried away by them, inquire: 'To whom do they arise?' As each thought arises, inquire with diligence. The answer to the question is: 'To me.' The mind goes back to its source, and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source."

This is the essence of yoga.

As another sage writes: "There is a state of being experienced in Yoga in which we become a double consciousness, one on the surface, small, active, ignorant, swayed by thoughts and feelings, grief and joy and all kinds of reactions, the other within calm, vast, equal, observing the surface being with an immovable detachment or indulgence or, it may be, acting upon its agitation to quiet, enlarge, transform it."

The point is to start with a daily practice and extend this tranquility until it fills the day. And it's never too late to begin.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

THE GAME


One of my favorite movies is The Game, the David Fincher-directed gem starring Michael Douglas as a billionaire leading a pampered existence on Wall Street who is haunted by demons (his father committed suicide at the age of 48) and whose perfect little world is shaken up when on his own 48th birthday his younger wastrel brother, played by Sean Penn, gives him a unique present. The gift is an entry in CRS, an acronym for Consumer Recreation Services. It is a real-life game, whose purpose, Douglas is told, is to find out the purpose of the game. Douglas is buffeted from one misfortune to another, faces death several times over, is led to the brink of his own suicide, and emerges from the game permanently changed. His personality is cracked, is little world shattered, his consciousness expanded, his life will never be the same. Isn't this game a lot like life, whose purpose is to find its purpose? Instead, we remain locked in our individual consciousnesses pursuing money and begetting children as if this will buy us our place in eternity.

But as Sri Aurobindo said, "The shutting up of the individual in his own personal consciousness of separate and limited mind, life and body prevents what would otherwise be the natural law of our development."

There is a larger purpose here than the individual mind. Ever heard the term elevate one's consciousness?

Ramana Maharshi was purported to have said on his death bed, in response to disciples' pleas that he not leave them (he was regarded as a divine incarnation by many followers): "Where can I go?" Implying his identity with Absolute Reality, consciousness pervading all, everywhere. When you are everywhere, where is there to go? You're already there!

I am reading Carl Jung in research for a book on dreams I'm currently writing. Jung was a believer in the psyche, which includes consciousness and unconsciousness. And he urged each individual to plumb the depths of his personality and reach the essence of being. Expand your consciousness. Get out of your own mind and petty thoughts and worries (petty because they are unreal) and be all-pervading. Practice meditation. Ask yourself consciously, "Who am I?" Repeat over and again, "I-I-I." This I is not the ego-based personality, imprisoned in flesh, but Absolute Reality. Existence. By focusing on "I," sinking into the Self, you move from "I am this" (particular person), to  "I am that" (totality), to "I am" the root thought that I exist, and finally, to existence itself, before thought.

This process will not make you monetarily rich, but once the aim of the Self is achieved, you may find that money is not what really matters. For you are the gem.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

LESS IS BEST

Is there any such thing as a healthy addiction? It's a bit of an oxymoron if you ask me. But for many, including myself, exercise if pursued with a religious zeal can be like heroin in its effects. You feel high as a kite while doing it, then are sunk in the lows if unable to fit in a workout. You become a slave to your routine, the day revolving around whether or not your break a sweat. Feel me?

I spent the better part of 2 recent years (2013 and 2014) training for and running marathons and other endurance events, including a half-ironman triathlon and an ultra trail run. In this time my daily workout was enough to fulfill the week's quota for someone who follows the guidelines set forth by the American College of Sports Medicine, which recommends:

1. 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, which can be met through 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (five days per week) or 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (three days per week).

and

2. Resistance exercises, 2 or 3 days a week, involving all major muscle groups, 2 to 4 sets per exercise, 8 to 20 repetitions.

As I said I could easily do a week's worth of training in 1 day. For example I'd go on a long run of 18 to 20 miles and follow this with as many of 20 sets of resistance exercises.

The question is, why so much? Endurance events provided much of the motivation, but even after I stopped signing up for races, working out for 2 or 3 hours a day became my habit. And I will admit that I liked being able to eat as much as I wanted and not worry about gaining any weight. How or why I became so weight-conscious still baffles me. I graduated high school weighing 165 and somewhere in my 30s I decided I wanted to weigh what it said on my first drivers' license, 150 lbs, and thereafter I would become a bit down if I exceeded this rather random weight limit.

And exercising to lose or maintain a certain weight is not uncommon, but is it healthy? I found that a vegan diet can do more to maintain a healthy weight than any amount of training. When I broke my leg last October and had to spend the better part of 3 months in or near bed, I thought my weight would skyrocket, but I actually lost a couple pounds. Sure, the weight loss was likely in the form of muscle, and my body mass distribution tipped in favor of a higher body fat percentage, but when I finally was able to resume working out, and very moderately, I noticed that my body looked the same with a mere fraction of the training I had formerly engaged in. Much closer to the ACSM recommendations.

Incidentally, the ACSM allows for one continuous session OR multiple shorter sessions (of at least 10 minutes) to accumulate the desired amount of daily exercise.  And this is what I began doing. A few minutes of jump rope here, hop on the stationary bike for a bit there, climb a few stairs, throw in a few sets of bodyweight exercises or maybe some dumbbells, and in the span of as little as 10 minutes, 20 tops, I was done for the day.

Here are pictures of back when I was running 70 miles a week and lifting 4 or 5 days, in addition to riding my bike 2 or 3 days a week; and then when I basically stopped running (because I couldn't) and instead substituted cross-training, with 2 or 3 days of resistance.

running 70 miles a week, plus 4 or 5 days of strength training (10 hours total per week)

light cross-training, 2 days weights (2 hours total per week)
Of course if strenuous exercise gives you pleasure or your fitness goals require hours upon hours of training, then go for it. But if you fear that unless you spend hours every day respiring and perspiring you'll blow up like a balloon, choose a plant-based diet and your weight will remain the same without any effort at all. Appetite naturally decreases as activity diminishes. Me, I gave up eating so many dates. Be moderate and live a healthy life.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

THE MAGIC BOOKSHELF

I was recently laid up with a broken hip. Met with a slick patch of road while riding my bicycle and fell. Cracked the greater trochanter and broke the femur straight through. Left the hospital after a five-day stay with 3 screws. Here's the X-ray.



While convalescing in my childhood home, solicitously cared for by my dear mother, unable to run my customary 60 weekly miles, having a lot of free time on my hands, in bed all day and night, unshowered, wearing a hospital gown, I had lots of time to think, and to meditate, and to read. 

First came the books which for months or longer I had been meaning to read. Huxley’s Point Counterpoint and Eyeless in Gaza. His Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. The Perennial Philosophy. Novels by Vonnegut. And since I had loved the movie, I read Cloud Atlas.

Some books I read on Kindle, others I purchased, usually the used version. To save money, because my reading habit was becoming rather pricey. My friend came to the rescue and brought over Sam Harris' Waking Up, which I devoured in a day. I needed more fuel for my philosophic fire, and so I turned to what has become my magic bookshelf.




This bookshelf stands just across the hall, in what had been my brother Justin’s room. Justin, 16 months my junior, died of a rare cancer of the cartilage in his hip shortly before Christmas in 1996, at the age of 22. His room had thereafter become first a shrine to his life, and then a guest room, which I’d often use while home from my studies and my travels. Then it became a sort of work-out space-slash-storage site. I put my stationary bike in there, and my mother would get her massages. She also transferred the books that she and my father had amassed during their 30 or so years of married life, a life which had ended around the time that Justin passed. They say death in the family brings people closer or pulls them apart. In the case of my dear parents, Justin’s passing proved to bring about the latter.


But they had been quite a power couple together. My dad had been an atheist, but through association with my mom he had morphed into a monk. She had taken him to see a psychic who said he had in a former life been a great mystic who had fallen, and in this lifetime he had chance at redemption. And true enough, after meeting this psychic he embraced a spiritual path, and began collecting books on philosophy, mysticism, spirituality. This had been in 1968. Many people were doing the same. And on that shelf I saw the product of his search. My mom on the other hand, gravitated to astrology, tarot and other occult fields. Of interest to both were books on diet and anti-aging. Their interest followed them into the 70s. The New Age movement was on the rise.


They say there is magic in human association. Two people come together and become more than either could be on his or her own. The beauty of synergy, the quality of being greater than the sum of the parts. And so it was with my parents.


I began reading some of these books. And I found that many of them were books I had at one time or another put on my own reading list.


William James' Varieties of Religious Experience


Hubbard’s Dianetics


Howard’s Mystic Path to Cosmic Power


Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness


Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous


Books by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Yogananda, and the mystics who came before them: Patanjali and Shankara

A Course in Miracles


A book entitled Self-Realization (which my dad had bought prior to my birth and which I had happened to buy from a Hari Krishna as a twenty something at the airport on the way home from Brazil)
Tolle’s Power of Now and Ruiz’s Four Agreements


Books I had placed on the shelf intending to read some day and finally had the time to do so, like The Gift, poems by Hafiz.


Nisargadatta Maharaj’s Pointers and Nectar of the Lord's Feet


The Hindu scriptures (Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Vasistha, Ramayana, Upanishads)


When my father found the holy man Sai Baba, it represented the end of his spiritual search. In Sai Baba, who reiterated the Vedas in a language more suited to modern living, my dad had found the one. He took countless trips to India, and immersed himself in Baba's teachings (which are aptly encapsulated in the book Unity is Divinity, also found on the shelf). Strange how many gems survived my parents' break-up. I remember when, in 1998, my mom had me take boxes of books down to my father. My dad and I have discussed going through these books, which he keeps in a shed outside his house, together at some time. I'm sure many great finds await. With Sai Baba the journey could be said to end for me as well. I was raised on the teachings, the culmination of my parents’ search. And how many of the teachings had been ingrained upon me!

Be desireless
Engage in self-less service
Work without concern for the fruits of your actions
See God in all and all in you.
Etc.

In his survival of the fittest theory, Darwin held that natural selection - coupled with random mutations - leads to diversity and evolution of a species through the transmission of genetic changes in DNA most advantageous to the species. Basically, evolution is out of the individual’s hands. His predecessor, however, a man by the name of Lamarck, held the view that the habits of an individual can change the individual and be passed on to the next generation.

Modern science has confirmed this with epigenetic changes. An obese person by eating excessively can change the expression of their DNA in such a way as to increase the likelihood that their children will become obese. Viewed in this light, all that my parents had read in the years prior to my conception and during my mother’s pregnancy could be said to have influenced them at a genetic level, had become encoded in or around their DNA, which was then passed on to me. Which is why perusing my parents' bookshelf is so second-nature to me. Having never before glanced at their pages, I nevertheless felt as though I were reading these books for the second time. Granted, mom and dad raised me in accordance with Sai Baba’s teachings, which is another reason they were so familiar. But I am inclined to believe that the information was also communicated in this mysterious way.

And so I ask you to remind yourself that you are not just living for yourself. Everything you do is encoded at the genetic level, and should you have kids, you will pass it all on, in information, tendencies, propensities and inclinations. If you have children already, then what you read, and do, and think will be conveyed in less subtle ways, as in how you raise them, and by example. Even if you never have kids, your thoughts and actions spread to everyone in your midst. We are all connected. The human race is one family.

For as the Vedas say, “Tat tvam asi”: All that there is I am.

Therefore, as Sai Baba says, “Love all, serve all.”

Now back to that bookshelf.

Monday, February 2, 2015

ON COMING OUT


Shortly before my 19th birthday, I came to my parents. It happened midway through my first year of college. I told them, I am not interested in playing any sort of conventional role in society and have no foreseeable need for a college degree. Up till now I have been the model student, brother and son, done everything you or those in authority have asked of me, and now I’d like to live my life as I see fit. And so I’m dropping out of school.

My argument was, if you really don’t feel interested in doing something, should you force yourself to do it? Sure, all my life I had done what I didn’t want to do. Doesn’t every kid? It’s what we call homework. But now I didn’t have to be a student if I didn’t want to. Shouldn’t enthusiasm be a driving and directing force in life, and because I had no enthusiasm for my studies, I shouldn’t force myself to attend school.

So I stopped attending class for a week before my mother convinced me to return to school. Please, she said, we’ve never had a college graduate in the family, and you’ve always been such a good student. So I went back. The following year, also in winter, I flirted with the notion of dropping out again. This time it lasted 3 days before I was back in class, again at my mother’s behest. By way of enticement, we struck a deal. I could quit my job waiting tables and my parents would assume my car payments and provide me with spending money. All I had to do was focus on school. This worked for a time. I took more classes, and my grades improved. But when the following winter came around, again I saw no use for a higher education, and so I went so far as to withdraw from the quarter. At last, I was a free man. But I had nothing to do. And it didn’t feel right to do nothing in a household where everyone else was either at work (my parents) or in class (my brothers). So when spring came around I was once again enrolled, this time resolving to complete my degree. I started drinking coffee. This stimulant made it much easier to take courses I wasn’t interested and memorize facts I could otherwise do without. And the following spring I graduated with a major in history.

I use the phrase “coming out,” rather than dropping out, because while both expressions have a negative connotation (at least until the present century), what I experienced was akin to what my younger brother went through at around the same time. How to tell our parents that he was physically attracted to men? And when? Or should he try to live up to their expectations for him and deny his feelings in favor of solitude, or satisfy them behind closed doors, or perhaps have a wife just for show - a la J. Edgar Hoover, if you believe the film? In the end he chose to be who he was, though he had a little help from circumstances I won’t get into.

After graduating college I went to the job board at UCLA and browsed positions available to history majors. That space of the peg board was blank. So I got a job at a restaurant. Which didn’t even require a high school degree. I had vague aspirations to apply to business school, but family issues (death and divorce) led me to redirect my course and become an aspiring writer instead. Credit cards let me prolong to this dream, which eventually led to bankruptcy. I tried my hand at settling down again with a serious girlfriend, working for a time as a high school teacher. Finally, a job that required a college degree. A job I found stultifying and draining. Just like the degree that led to it. Tired of feeling disenchanted and stuck in traffic, I went back to school, this time to become a medical doctor. Med school doesn’t require a college degree, only 2 years worth of credits. I did a year of residency before I decided the practice of medicine was a business and it wasn’t for me. Twenty years after doing it the first time, I had come full circle and came out, or dropped out again. Why buy into society if you don’t agree with where it’s headed. Rather than work a job you despise to have a life you don’t want with someone you don’t get along with, just go it alone and reduce your wants. Always my motto. So I lived it. And I’m not alone. Most work too much, and find what they do either boring or downright despicable. So why do it? Nothing better to do and because they have to. To pay for stuff we don’t need.

In a recent poll, 80% of people in industrialized countries agreed with the statement “I could happily live without most of the things I own.” Conspicuous consumption did not work out. Where did it get us anyway? To global warming, overpopulation and pollution. To living on top of each other. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and the UN estimates that by 2050 it will be 66%.

Paramahansa Yogananda said it best, in his little gem of a book “The Science of Religion.” Money is necessary as a means to fulfill basic needs (food, shelter, water), but so little of it suffices, beyond which it is superfluous if not harmful. When money becomes an end in itself, to be hoarded or for the sake of the status and possessions that come with it, it becomes a false idol, and the moneymaker a slave in its service.

Despite a swelling population, there is more than enough of everything to go around. One website tells us: “World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 calories per person per day.”

If we all were true to our natures and lived a simpler life, we could all do what we found most fulfilling, even if that means simply to be.