Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Perception, Consciousness, and the Value of Seeing Beyond The Self

The thing about perception is that by its very nature, it distills, narrows and squeezes reality down to mentally consumable chunks. Much like the aperture of a sophisticated camera, it functions automatically, without thought, to prevent overexposure of our consciousness. It turns and adjusts to the correct width to cast an image or an impression on the mind. Without perception, our minds would be inundated with information. At best, the image would not be clearly defined. At worst, we would be staring at a thousand-headed beast, speaking a hundred different languages at once, preaching dozens of doctrines, casting both light and darkness from each eye.

Consciousness is then the self recognizing that it is aware of itself and everything else that is not the self. It is the Big, honking "I am here!", the ever-assured "There are things here that are not me!", and the judgment churning machine that evaluates, measures, and inflates or deflates meaning. To be conscious is to admit to yourself that you are actively participating in thought. It is to be aware, or more accurately, to be aware of being aware.

But aware of what?

All too often, because it is easy, we default to being solely aware of our experience. Sadly, this is where we also go astray. Being too bound up in our tiny experience tends to put the blinders on. Our experience engulfs all others. We become unable to see the other and the world for what it is. The results of this narrowed scope can fall anywhere from indifference to full-on destruction.

If one was to attempt to find a commonality in the varied teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the past 2500 years, it would be this- See beyond yourself, to the great _____, and the world will be a better place. For Confucious (Kong Qiu), the _____ would be tradition, family, and leading the ethical life. For the Buddha (Siddhattha Gotama), the _____ would be his Dhamma which is the understanding the shared suffering in the world and its impermanence, learning to let go, thus turning away from the self (non-self) with the goal of reaching the other shore of Nirvanna (Nibanna).  For Jesus, the _____ would be the Kingdom of God, whether in this life or beyond, by breaking bread with others, caring for the sick and standing up to corrupt systems. For Muhammad, the _____ would be recognizing the one true God, submission to God, the observance of ritual and prayer, and acts of kindness.

The common thread that weaves its way through these different patchworks of belief is goodness:

Confucious ~ Humaneness
The Buddha ~ Compassion
Jesus ~ Love
Muhammad ~ Righteousness (Love)

Let us now recognize something else that must have certainly been shared, which is what these teachings hoped to combat. It is the ever-present, default mode. The self with blinders on. The self only concerned with itself. We can't walk in their shoes, but we can certainly assume that something dug at them. They, among countless others, over time and to this day, were sensitive enough to have perceived these ugly truths and found a path out. Perhaps, they were just in the right place at the right time, or they had that rare gift to share their truth with others, or if you are religious, they were the messengers or prophets of those unseen gears behind the curtains.

This post is not about being religious. It is not really even about being good. I only bring up these great teachers to reflect a tradition of thought that has shaped our societies and to show a common thread between them.

What then is this post about? It is about this- I don't care how you do it, but please look beyond yourself. If being religious is that ticket, then punch that card and hop aboard. If building community and helping out your neighbors gives you that wholesome feeling, then drive right in. If expressing yourself through art, music, words or teaching feels like a calling, then shout it out. At the very least, if a highly contagious, variable virus is spreading in your community then put on a mask, keep your distance and spend more time alone.

I don't know when our next spiritual teacher will arrive, but the world is in desperate need. Perhaps, everything that needed to be taught has already been taught and as such, we simply need to point our mind-cameras to the light, adjust the aperture, and sear an image into the consciousness. Maybe, just maybe, this novel coronavirus is the teacher. It locks us in rooms, revealing ugly truths, forcing us to examine how we take care of ourselves and others, generating both bone-chilling fear of death and bright-eyed hope for better days. 


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Freedominance in America

Ask yourself, "What is my privilege?”, or if you really want to crack that egg open, “What are my privileges?” Answer with answers and not questions.


I can walk down the streets in my neighborhood with a literal ‘Mega Millions lottery long shot’ little risk of being shot. I can go about my day without being unduly pulled aside and questioned by authorities. Even on my worst days, when my anger and frustration spill over, those feelings can be expressed without societal retribution. I can tell others how I feel without being negatively labeled. When I get pulled over by a police officer, there is a 50% chance I will be let go with a warning. I can run anywhere in my city for exercise!


Now, reverse it and take a blind-folded attempt at empathy. Ask yourself, “What would be my liability if I was of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion?” This time answer with questions, because, let us be honest, can you really know enough to answer directly?


If I was black, what would my experience be if I walked into a convenience store with a face mask, worn to protect me from a highly contagious virus spreading in the community? What would happen if I was noticed by a police officer while I was driving around with expired tags or bad headlights? What if I reached into my vehicle glove box to get a registration slip? Should I go bird watching in Central Park? Should I jog through a different neighborhood?


If I was a woman, what would my experience be if I spoke up during a company meeting to tell a colleague I disagreed with their comment or approach? How safe am I if I decide to go on a date with someone I just met? What if I expressed myself with the same candor as him?


Instead of continuing with these hypotheticals, allow me to describe my own privilege. Not once, but twice, in the past three years, I was pulled over for driving around at night with my headlights off. The first incident resulted in a ticket and the second a polite warning to be safe. While living in Chicago, I would drunkenly climb street signs, light posts, and billboard poles. I have, to my shame, been too outspoken at work at times. I have made inappropriate jokes that people outside of my immediate sphere could hear. I have spoken with frustrated tones in meetings. I have been promoted half a dozen times, sometimes with minimal effort.

Over time, I have truly lost memory of all those experiences that have opened up, effortlessly, to me. I have felt safe and in control almost, every time. The point is not to brag. The point is to say there are two starkly different Americas. Those with privilege need to recognize the system is not equitable and has never been equitable. One of the saddest things I have come to reflect on is that systemic racism exists not just from a historical context, but from the perpetual need of some to assert a level of dominance over another group of individuals. In other words, in a hypocritical inverse of existence, it is the freedom to take the freedom away from another based on their ancestral origin and the color of their skin. It is unspoken but seen every day across America. It is not Freedom. It is Freedominance and it is disgusting.