Archive for October 2012

Challenging Death


I'd like to challenge the assumption that life is “good” and death is “bad.”

Taking a minimalist view of death I define it as “non-being.” Death is the Void we came out of when we are born and which we will go into after we have lived.

If we are able to know a thing only by its contrasting opposite—what it is not—then how can human beings know life if we haven't experienced death?

This is simple if death is “non-being.”

I lack perspective if all I'm aware of is life and being. I must taste death—emptiness—before I can say for sure if dying is the tragedy humans expect it to be, or if it is something else entirely.

An emptiness so deep that it is not unlike death can be experienced in at least three ways: in dreamless sleep, during deep meditation, or in the zone where I lose myself in an activity. None of these states would be considered “negative” in an emotional sense. In fact, they are very productive in their rejuvenating qualities. Who has not experienced increased energy, focus, or motivation after a good night's sleep or a break from activity?

If these states can be comparable to death, death may be the most misunderstood facet of reality. Like the dreamless sleep and deep meditation that works as a defragmentation of the mind, helping individual humans organize unconscious emotions, death may be a reboot for reality itself, a way to reorganize and prepare for a next round. On a Cosmic level the vacuum of space is not the “nothingness” we think of in Western culture, but is, though it resembles matter not at all, the source of life as we know it.

Just as a piece of art starts upon a blank canvas, life, and all of material existence, began from an empty Cosmos. From nothing sprung everything we know as reality. That all of reality will once again return to nothing is not a loss but a hope. It is not a division from life: we must realize finally that life and death are one and the same. We were in a way dead in life, and in death, will live forever.

The human body is not just its conscience. It is trillions of atoms that compose myriad organizations of material. Germs, organs, bone, brain, and the chemical reactions that create thoughts and emotions. When death comes, these atoms are reorganized into other patterns, into soil, trees, small plants and animals, and even eventually into other humans. At this level, life and death stop existing, and we see clearly that reality is made of patterns. Patterns shift, decomposing to compose in new forms. This has been going on from the beginning of time when matter first cooled into recognizable atoms.

What this means is that in reality we are the Universe itself. We are It. From this perspective there is no you or I to live or die. There is nothing but the Universe. It doesn't go anywhere, and neither do we.

In death there is nothing to fear. It is safe because it is infinite. It is the “balance” spiritual people seek, where no ups and downs exist anywhere. When someone says “I need peace of mind,” offer them death. There is no time in death, no space, no matter, no concepts of any kind, no mind—only a peaceful non-being, deeper than any sleep or meditation, so no risk of having to wake up.

Likewise, there is nothing to fear in life, though life is fettered with its ups and downs, its inconsistencies, its outrages constantly bombarding joy, because life is impermanent. “This too shall pass.” I can count on it: no matter how bad things get, it will end. I don't have to put up with life forever, and death is nothing to put up with.

Life and death are both beautiful states. In death I gain (or am) peace, and in life I have activity. Though death is an eternity, it is timeless, and so I won't be aware of it in human terms, just as I am not aware of how long I have slept. In life I have the impermanence that clothes joy and sorrow in perspective. Impermanence gives life a flavor, and life gives death meaning.

I am emptiness: death. I am awareness: life.  

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Awareness and Emptiness: The Real Me


I recently asked myself the question “What am I?”

The answer I came up with was two-fold. When I get down to the barest of possibilities I am Awareness and Emptiness. They are a sort of binary reality but the code is merely a representation of two sides of the same coin. They are the same.

Void manifested as Matter (physics may show this through theories such as the Big Bang and virtual particles forming spontaneously in a vacuum), and matter manifested as awareness (as can be seen by human consciousness arising naturally in nature), and awareness has the ability to manifest as emptiness (that state of meditation that leaves us empty of our preconceptions). Through emptiness humans are able to see their true nature, that they are Matter, and that Matter is Void.

Void = Matter = Awareness = Emptiness = Matter = Void

Each of these terms is one way of defining the others. We know what Matter is by the contrast of knowing what Void is and vice versa. Awareness and Emptiness are just two other terms for Matter and Void, for to be Aware is to be aware of Matter and to be Empty is to become like Void.

~*~

I am awareness.

I am an awareness of events, not my attempt to define or interpret events, which happen after and only to memories. I am no label, no preconception, no concept, no other identity. I am not my thoughts, nor am I others' thoughts about me.

When I push aside everything that is not absolutely necessary to my nature, all that I have left is my awareness, my consciousness.

Awareness does not exist where I have already mapped out what I intend the world to be. When I'm not really looking at a tree but thinking of my idea of what a tree should be.

Awareness can only exist in the present moment, and though it is always present, I may not be. I must empty myself first.

It is necessary for me to be Empty in order to be Aware, as Awareness flourishes when preconceptions don't exist, when I am free to observe without judging good and bad.

When I have grown empty, removing the excess me, I become aware of my ideas for what they are—chemical phenomenon. I still have thoughts, but I do not cling to them or judge them. I observe them as I observe external stimuli. I understand that memories are happening right now, not in the past. I am no longer identified with them, but let them go as quickly as they come or as soon as they wish to depart. The habit of thinking is gone, replaced by consciousness.

When I am empty, I am aware; when I am aware, I am empty.

~*~

My “self” is essentially “Emptiness” (also called Void, or Nothingness) and “Awareness” (or consciousness). They are Yin and Yang. The Universe itself can be viewed as Material and Vacuous. There is no in between, no “not Matter and not Void,” yet we shouldn't assume that Matter and Void are opposites. They are in fact One. Matter is a manifestation of Void. Awareness is a manifestation of Emptiness.

And so the way to get to Awareness, to be “me,” is to reduce conceptual thinking. I must empty myself of labels, concepts, expectations, and preconceptions in order to be “Empty” and “Aware.” Achieving this is as simple as breathing deeply from the abdomen.

In this Awareness I and the world cease to exist as an idea, but exist as a reality. I am not fixed to ideas, and so I am free. I am not influenced by external experiences because I am not judging or defining the world around me. This may go on for a split second, five minutes, weeks, or a lifetime. It depends on my level of focus on the simplest human activity, breath, no matter what other activity I am participating in.

This is being alive.

This is Satori.

Knowing this, can I waste a moment of my time on anything but awareness? When Awareness is all I am materially, and spiritually I am Emptiness, should I spend thoughts and emotions on things that I am not?

The labels I give myself, the labels society gives me, the labels family, friends, and coworkers give me, the judgments I cast on others—none of these concepts are worth a single moment. If I trade even a second of life for an “idea” of how the world is, in-lieu of what life actually is, naked, free, infinite, I am only a fool being hoodwinked by a robber.

The robber is me, but not the real me.

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Tao of Anxiety: Taoism and Anxiety


There was a time in my life when I was content to be “normal.” I worked, I socialized, and for the most part I lived in an unconscious vacuum. I did things out of habit, lived without thinking. If ignorance is bliss, I was happy. Except that I was wearing myself down. I noticed and ignored little things at first: small stresses.

At this time I experienced tension headaches and severe sciatica. It was harder to wake up in the mornings and to stay awake in the afternoons. I was always agitated. Instead of slowing up, I worked harder. I wore myself down. 

I thought my problems would go away, then the dam broke and my stress was finally too much to ignore. My panic attacks from earlier in life returned as I found myself in new and uncertain circumstances (having moved to another state), and for months I reeled from my phobias and anxiety.

I was forced to look into myself to figure out what was wrong, because nothing on the outside was helping. To me, this meant venturing on a spiritual path.

When I was 18 I stumbled upon Taoism. I lived in Florida by that time, was in counseling, but living in a cocoon. I had always had an inclination toward the spiritual, but my attempts at studying major religions like Buddhism and Hinduism were coming up short. Nothing I read—mostly commentary from modern practitioners—made sense to me or seemed practical at the time.

I needed to go to a source and I finally found it in a short book of poetry called the Tao Te Ching (the Way and its Power, written by Lao Tzu around 500 B.C.E.), the preeminent book of Taoism. Taoism was not a major religion—it has just 30,000 followers in North America, and only a couple of million throughout the world—but it was just what I needed at the time and what I continue to use today.

Taoism is a philosophy/psychology of ancient China brought to a small prominence in the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by scholars like Alan Watts, Huston Smith, and James Legge—the first translator of many Chinese works into English.

What immediately drew me to Taoism wasn't necessarily what the Tao Te Ching said, for I didn't understand much of what it was saying the first time I read it, but the sense of quiet peace that I fell into as I read it. This relaxed state was something I had never felt before, as if years of tension were released all at once and I was calm for the first time. Today, I can still pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching and read it and experience this peace.

It was an easy jump from there to deciding to take up Taoism on a deeper level. Anything that made me feel calm, when finding calm was like finding the fountain of youth, must have been worth more than a cursory glance.

This put me on a journey to using Taoism as a way to cope with my panic and generalized anxiety disorders. In the coming years I have completely overcome generalized anxiety, something that was a great burden throughout my teenage years, and though I still have occasional panic attacks, I can shrug them off like so many dried leaves from a warm coat.

If the Tao Te Ching contains a theme, it is simply that the world is what the world is, and that instead of fighting against what happens to me, I should flow with it (this was new to me, as I had always fought against everything, making life a constant struggle). It took me years to verbalize this theme, but at the time I understood it intuitively.

The Tao, the way of the world, is often compared to or symbolized by water for water's ability to overcome hard objects by seeming passivity—though in reality water's virtue is that it does not give up or turn back, but seeks the easiest path against difficulties, never forcing its way through rock, but overcoming it in time to form great canyons.

As someone in a state of constant worry, this new worldview was enlivening. As I searched deeper into Taoism, studying Chuang Tzu (a near-contemporary of Lao Tzu) and Alan Watts (a twentieth century philosopher), I found more meaning and deeper explanations of what I was reading in the Tao Te Ching.

There were many stories and parables explaining what it was like to simply be. Chuang Tzu expresses the idea that we can live without outside influences effecting our emotional state of mind. This is not unlike Western cognitive psychology—except 2,000 years older. Reading and listening to Alan Watts, I learned to find unity with the world.

I realized that as a teenager I lived closed off from “others.” That I was living in a vacuum, where I could not connect and feel like I was part of anything. This lead eventually to my phobias, exacerbating my anxiety symptoms. What I found in Taoism was a way of life that desired unity—that went a step further and showed why unity was not only possible, but was the way of the world.

~*~

It's difficult to put it into words exactly how Taoism effects anxiety, because I “live” it more than I “think” it. It's a feeling, an intuition, and the right words are seldom there for me to describe the experience. But it has worked for me and continues to work for me today. I'm no longer a worry-wart, my anxiety attacks have all but vanished, and I hope that some day this will help me overcome my phobias.

But perhaps Taoism's advantage is not what it has given me itself, but how it has worked in tandem with cognitive psychology. It fits everything behavioral psychologists have to say about anxiety. As a tool alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Taoism is an excellent gift.

Each has given the other a different, fascinating perspective. I feel that, in light of Taoism, I understand CBT better; how it works, why it works, what it can accomplish for me. And in light of CBT I understand Taoism better; why the ancient Chinese latched onto it, and that it is an accurate and practical way of thought and life.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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Update and Second Novel

November 1 is getting closer and that was the date I had set to start working on the second novel of the Czar Chronicles. I really burned myself out writing the first novel in only a few months. Writing, rewriting, editing, and publishing it wore me out and it's taken a long time to recover, if I am recovered.

I think I'm ready to try again, with a few adjustments. I have a good idea of what I can and should expect from myself, and that does not include pushing myself through a crucible of fire just to get a novel finished.

This time around I'm taking a slower approach...but not a slow one.

Rising, the second novel of the Czar Chronicles, will, with consistent effort, be done and published by June 1, 2013. Whether life events or writer's block gets in the way won't matter. I will not rush it. If I'm not done by December of next year, so be it, but I won't stress myself out about it. A novel every two years is still an excellent goal to strive for.

I'm going to keep myself on track with a few short-term goals.

1 chapter a day.
5 chapters a week.
15 chapters a month.

And then 1 draft every two months.

What do I expect of myself during this period?

The first and most important thing is focus. I got sidetracked by a few things over the last year that I don't want to get sidetracked by again. While I work on Sacrifice, I want to work only on Sacrifice. No other projects, but a dedicated focus to the project at hand.

I will blog, but the majority of my posts will be about my novel, or writing in general and marketing.

I will work harder to market both Sacrifice and Rising. Hopefully I will find some courage to do an interview or two or a guest post here and there. The marketing I had been doing earlier this year really fell off the table, and I can't imagine I've made many sales since then. I do not feel that I'm doing myself, the writing, or anyone who might like to read either book justice by not getting my work out there the best that I can.

So for the next 8 months I'll be wearing my writer's cap. I'll be in writing mode. I'll do my thing.

Good luck to me, huh?

And good luck to anyone else going down this road. It's a lot of fun to write, and it's a big challenge to publish, but rewarding.

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Tao of Anxiety: Spiritual Theory


Anxiety, like a “check engine” light on a car's dash, is the body and mind's way of saying “fix me!”

But what is broken? Is it the mind? The body? Something in the spirit?

Anxiety may not be an illness in and of itself, but a symptom of another disease: a steep cultural division between self and other and the related contradiction of expectations we have for society and which society has for us.

This is a spiritual illness for which anxiety is not the only warning sign. Depression, anger, addiction, and boredom may all be symptoms of the same existential conflict.

And in the same way that one does not fix the light on the dashboard, but the engine, one must not focus on the anxiety, but on the underlining disunity of spirit.

Anxiety, then, is not only a physical or a psychological phenomenon. Meaning it cannot be treated only by a trained psychologist with drugs or behavioral therapies. It is a symptom of a deeper problem that must also be dealt with on a spiritual level.

In this view anxiety is a consequence of an individual being out of sync with his or her culture. American culture specifically (and Western culture in general) contradicts the human experience in many important ways. Americans have largely failed to evolve with technology, and the struggle between human need and technological consequences has created a chaos of the heart.

(An example of this is the automobile, which has destroyed the small, structured community by allowing for convenient long-distance travel. Instead of buying groceries at the corner market, we are now able to drive into other communities and shop with people we will never see again, communicating with no one as we would with familiar, local faces. Or in the way instant text messaging and emails have revolutionized communication. A quick and potentially ill-conceived response is always a text away, and “sleeping on it” is little more than a quaint, out-of-date phrase. Both technologies offer incredible advantages to people, but few are able to take advantage of them.)

Anxiety, be it phobias, generalized uneasiness, or panic attacks, may be a direct symptom of individual attempts and failures to thrive in a culture not built for humans to thrive as individuals.

Society is set up to thrive economically and materialistically, not spiritually and individually. Society serves to protect us, and to do so society must limit us as individuals, limiting the decisions we can make by adding rules (don't walk on the grass), largely to stop us from hurting ourselves or each other, but also from affecting society with random or erratic human behavior. We hear “be yourself, be original” but in no way does society allow for originality and self. Nurturing people has never been society's role.

There is a clear split between the needs of one man or woman and the needs of the 7,000,000,000 people on planet Earth. It is difficult to live in this duality, trying to please both our individual needs and those of the society in which we were born and raised, and the sacrifices we make to do so may be too much to live with for some people, as it causes a subtle but severe malfunction in the human brain.

It is like riding the break and accelerator of an automobile at the same time. The car may not go anywhere, or if it does, travels slowly, and soon breaks down altogether. The engine wants to go forward and the tires want to stop. The human soul wants to experience something unique, and the collective demands everything be the same, because it's difficult for something so large and unwieldy to handle even small changes. And so the marching orders are “Do what others are doing at any cost.”

How does one be “human” in such an inhuman world?

~*~

Anxiety is inevitable in such a world.

And so now we have advanced classifications to define fear. We can name dozens of specific phobias and disorders. But these are not new to the human psyche. Men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were swamped with uncertainty. Even in ancient times the sages of exotic lands dealt with the problem of human anxiety.

What worked for the ancient Chinese and Indians still works today.

A clear understanding of who we are as human beings makes way for the mind to function without clinging or being trapped by the concepts of society. To know what the self is is to know that external forces cannot influence it.

In the words of Lao Tzu: “The value of yourself lies within and is not affected by what happens externally.”

It is oft-repeated advice. In modern self-help books, in ancient spiritual texts. Ancient Taoists said we had no need to worry over loss or gain, good luck or bad. Jesus said that God would take care of us just as He took care of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Modern behavioral psychologists with Ph.D.'s tell us to believe in ourselves.

In other words, to not worry about what others think, to not focus on uncomfortable projections of how the world ought to be, to not care about what we might do, but to instead do what we want and to do it well. To live in the moment and connect fully with who we are right now.

To do this it is necessary to accept a simple fact. What society wants is merely an illusion. It's not real and cannot address every person's individual needs. Ignore the illusion and find the real stuff which makes life. The self operates by the heart, by instinct and intuition. Society operates on assumptions. Trust that individually we know better than the “whole” knows. That a united One is always more powerful and capable than a divided Two.

~*~

We must judge ourselves by a constant, not by the concept of self given to us by the ever-changing labels of our society, or our own self-identification.

What we are does not depend on what happens to us or what we do in life, on our attachments or who we think we are relative to others. When we stop identifying with outside forces, or with what we expect of ourselves, and we come to reside in our true self—that which exists when every label and expectation has been stripped away—there's nothing left to fear. There's nothing left to lose. Worry ceases because there's no longer anything for it to dwell on. The mind is free by the virtue of being empty, of being nothing.

Then we begin to realize that all along we were afraid of outside things changing parts of us that were not really ourselves, but just more projections of outside things. We were using the unsteady yardstick of imagination to measure who we were, relative to yet more things that could not hold a form and remain steady. When we focused on these things they inevitably vanished, disintegrating like mirages.

Embracing a spiritual path (any spiritual path) that will take us to the real, true self, is a certain way of troubleshooting anxiety in all its forms, because once we understand what that real self is, and can reside inside of it, or allow it to manifest itself in our thoughts and actions, we can accept society for what it is and no longer fight against it. 

By understanding who we are, we no longer have to treat society's power over the individual as a threat, because in no way can society ever destroy or damage our true self. We can then work with society instead of fear it. We can bridge the duality, the gap between self and other, and gain a new perspective on reality.

Until then we must live with the dread of an infinite tomorrow.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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