mythic imagination

Spent the morning with Joseph Campbell, introducing him to A as one of the heroes of my life and someone whose ordinariness allowed him to openly crack open hidden components of stories that still largely dictate the freedoms/limitations humanity envisions and draws out for itself. I couldn’t help but imagine what might have been different in my own scope, had I been exposed to a thinker like Campbell earlier on, or had I not been vaccinated against his brand of playful thinking. His way of hiding-and-seeking literalisms was something I had been programmed to be terrified of.

Rather than feeling I’d done A favors in not subjecting him to the same sort of programming, raising him outside of religious contexts for the most part, I felt a pervading sadness that he had so little basis and only a moderate amount of curiosity about the basic myths and stories that Campbell masterfully illuminates. Had I thrown the baby out with the bathwater? But then I realized that the energy of the loosening came from what had been the intensity of the tightening – that my own attention and appreciation comes forth in dynamic response and is appropriate for my context, my time. His time is indeed unique. I do hope that he can learn from my example (lost and found, bound and free), to have compassion. Not introducing the dichotomies as fundamental in the first place may be more possible than I know… maybe there is room for more “middle angels” than I myself can yet fathom.

To me, Campbell is a Padmasambhava figure, not bound to strict contexts and able to play with situations and stories – historical or figurative – that appear. He transcends inner/outer, as much of his work is able to convey. That his knowledge base isn’t commonly drawn upon even now, rather blows my mind, since our ignorance as a species continues to be astoundingly expensive. Indeed in some ways it has cost — I have spent — my whole adult life, undoing even just the edges of the blindfolds I was raised in as given.

Daunting.

We are always teaching something, handing something down to the next generation to carry … a left over grudge or quest. I don’t think we can help that entirely (even by not giving A a specific religious education I have given him something along those lines). All I think we can help, is handing these stories down as literal.

ordinary stars

In the last week or so I’ve canceled subscriptions, closed social media accounts, and turned the TV off again. This time it isn’t coming from a reactive place, or a “spiritual” place, but rather feels like an obvious process, stepping off one rock to step onto another. Not trying to reach heaven, nor escaping hell. Humanity seems the most worthy endeavor and practice.

Perhaps it is time to drop the spiritual label completely.

The last drama that I marathoned was actually a re-watch, You From Another Star. The sacredness of ordinary life was the heart of the story – how precious, rare and to be envied are the moments of this delicate and precarious human life. The dignity of what is, without trying to add to it nor take away.

I asked ST once, to teach suchness. Why he found this request amusing is something I understand better now, as the work of at least a lifetime.

Luster not Shine

What I wrote a week or so ago:

I acknowledge that my tendency is to stay at the bloom level and pursue the shiny thoughts, the insights. Or maybe it used to be. Maybe I’ve changed a little, am a little less shiny.

What I read today, from David Brooks:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

compassionate programming

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[spoilers always]

Upon recommendation from a friend after letting my initial interest drop, I bolted out of the door just in time to see the film Ex-Machina. I found it less riveting as a film than as a question – rich ground for contemplation on the nature of identity and consciousness, evolution, humanity and compassion.

The film introduces the Turing Test as premise under which a gifted hacker is brought to an isolated environment to interact with AI beyond anything in our current capabilities (yet not beyond our simulations). She, “Eva”, is fluid of movement, has curiosities, is able to calculate and feel resentment. She even imagines her life beyond her current situation, she desires. Importantly, she also feels herself as a “her” self, able to measure effect on a “him.”

If Turing’s Test aims to give a way to access an interaction with an “other mind” – a way to evaluate from the outside whether self-awareness/sentience is present – by all measures Eva passes the test at an intellectual level. Let loose in the world she will blend, function, manipulate, and be resourceful enough to have her “own life.”

However, she has an “empathy chip missing.” Eva has ground for empathy, which she was shown by someone else, but it doesn’t register, or doesn’t register as necessary or efficient. There is no indication that her awareness of self includes awareness of other, at least not in a compassionate way. She is largely made up of data gleaned, down to micro-expressions and human-appropriate emotional responses, but bypasses compassionate connection. We aren’t sure whether it is a matter of capacity or of phasing something deemed unnecessary, out.

This seems a flaw in the Turing Test, or of main understanding of the test, and presents crucial questions we won’t have the answers to before we reach the next stage.

If there a war between intellect and (this, figurative) heart, my side is with the Dalai Lama, who has said that compassion is crucial, not from a standpoint of fuzzy emotions, but in terms of survival. And I think we can be somewhat logical about this, making rational arguments and decisions in compassionate directions, without falling into utopian territory.

Another question the film raises is that Eva is crafted from not only random data. She is particularly tailored to suit the tester’s preferences, gleaned from internet searches. She projects back qualities he has sought out, especially through porn sites. So this is a slightly different question that reaches into the ethics around selecting for preferences in offspring, as it is always possible to argue that one is doing what is best for a child by bringing them into the world with qualities particularly favored by the world, rather than trying to change the whole world to be favorable.

Although evidence may abound in favor of certain traits, there are sufficient variables that no trait is a guarantee of optimum world-friendliness so I think we largely avoid this experiment so far.

The maker of the film, Alex Garland, compares the question of AI to the question of nuclear technology, both in its risks and potentialities, and also in the scope of the puzzles it poses about humankind and coexistence. He would not give up nuclear technology, even seeing the devastation upon Nagasaki and the threat of man-made & unfathomable scale disaster that humanity lives under since that time, because mankind pushes on, evolves in ways that it would not have without that knowledge. And must relentlessly evolve, without seeking perfection.

I agree that each time mankind has sought a perfect world, totalitarianism resulted, but I would like to believe we can do far better than that sort of devastation while still engaging in fullhearted discovery.

Which brings me to my main thought: we are only half-aware, ourselves, while giving tests to measure awareness. Much or most of our own motives and intellect are obscured as we deal with ourselves, much less with other humans, much less with potential AI. Any test we give remains highly suspect.

tending

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It surprises me to see that I have visitors to this blog-without-purpose, even having intentionally left open the possibility. I enjoy writing here, and seem more integrated when doing so. So I’ll just have to get used to that feeling as a form of self-care, like the skin care routine I’ve picked up in the last few months, inspired by Korean bloggers.

Each night, and sometimes both morning and evening, I engage in a ritual that consists of 5 steps (instead of their 8-12) and has come to feel like a spiritual practice.

Others have written in detail about the process, so no need for me to do that, but what is funny to me, is how life has brought me around to laugh at my previous silly self, judging people I felt spent too much thought on “externals.” I was wrong. These practices can be basic expressions of tending, caring for the temple and very much an internal cultivation as well, carving out restful spaces in an otherwise generally too restless life.

Some of the products are indulgent, but last a long time, and considering the roughly 40-50 minute period in which step by step I relax a little deeper and deeper before bed, something nicely justifiable. Add a few glasses of water and peaceful music (tonight I’ve been listening to Ji Sung), and it can have quite a wonderful effect… as spiritual as anything I’ve engaged with.

Randomness and Flourishing Time

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I woke going over ideas that would be taught hours later in a class titled Orderly Chaos and mused that while it may seem a given that time and perception are two sides of a coin, to trade in that needs practice not theory. It is about the way it seems as I trace steps, when I try to notice how perception and time relate – especially during retreats or focused practice.

Orderly Chaos is a term unfolded by Trungpa Rinpoche, within a context called Mandala Principle. His talks on the subject were compiled into a book – the title of which already gives a great deal to work with, presenting the seemingly contradictory energies and relationship. My way with the material is a little different from the rest of the class so far, which is made up of older and more historically invested/trained folks within the Shambhala lineage – actually a nice situation.

I have a slight bit more of a background with a tradition that talks more about time itself, so when holding the mandala image, my mind first drew out two kinds of time as “this and that”, two ways of relating with phenomena, while reserving what some have called a third, or better, zeroith time. Orderly Chaos really presents three levels, so to me it was a nice parallel: linear, spontaneously arising, and no-time. But the one comment I made in this direction was met with some confusion, which brought me to reexamine.

Maybe I’m moving in a direction not presented, but that’s OK.

For me, time is a tangible daily practice and can present the clearest distinctions, which makes it kind of a treasure house with many openings: memory, motion, progress, measurement, situatedness, dreaming. I see myself pulled to accept the effects of time every day, because I forever try to tame it for my own benefit and use, even knowing better. Or trying to tame myself for its use, as though something (separate).

There are days in which everything productive and “good” appears; the world is smiling, the universe is friendly – opening follows another to another. On other days nothing much happens – ‘meh’ days waiting for the first to occur again; I suspect I may have turned a corner at which they might not anymore. There is a light but pervasive panic, like writer’s block. Lucidity withheld.

In actuality there are no good days and bad days, or even meh days. It is mind that moves, not the flag (zen koan). In practice, the illusion is persistent.

So you have what is, the way it is, and simultaneously you have the way you experience that – either as something resisted and other, objectified, OR, as self. One teacher put it this way: that we are used to thinking in terms of subjects perceiving objects, but what if there are only subjects perceiving subjects? Dogen said that “All the universe is one bright pearl.”

It feels like I’m skipping around but I’m going to draw more parallels anyway. In dreaming there are karma dreams and dharma dreams… dreams that are processing the days content, and inspired or lucid dreams. In meditation there is shamatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight). And waking life is like this too. Already there are many people who have opened to this 2nd level way of living, or at least the aspiration, having tasted its flavors – people from every sort of background and religious tradition. The third is more illusive because it can’t really be touched nor defined even in the vague terms we use for the 2nd level. However, dream yogis use terms like “clear light.”

In terms of Orderly Chaos, and this class, and samsara/nirvana, I think of it like considering a coin with both sides exposed and in hand. Open. Maybe there could even be the additional parallel of hungry ghost vs god realms, with the human fathoming both and manifesting or exhibiting both. One might say that one side of the coin represents the order and the other, the chaos, but when another student in the class said something similar, the teacher laughed a little – that it was too pretty of a picture – that she didn’t think CTR would have accepted that simple of an idea so easily.

Trungpa Rinpoche continually flipped formulas… Socratic in that way. In terms of mandala principle, we are, at various views: the mandala, and are in the mandala, and are part of mandala of others. Which presents a kind of mandala of mandalas – diverse and dynamic. Yet in zeroith time (or what buddhists refer to as ultimate reality) there is no mandala.

A few posts ago I wrote about a character whose talents arose spontaneously as she encountered situations. Although she set out in a linear way to prepare for a certain end (there was a stated goal for the character), that goal was like an egg she both abandoned and surpassed after its purpose had been fulfilled. She still had to train in a linear way to have been situated for spontaneity. There was still a pattern, path, process – mandala drawn. Yet, what bloomed was far more than what was imagined or set out for. Intricacies could not be factored ahead of time, only given place for.

To focus only on cultivating a bloom is going after the treasure while ignoring the treasure holder, which can even be a kind of stealing. Einstein said this:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

Another friend might say we compulsively go after fruits while ignoring the roots. All over Miami right now there are blooming Royal Poinsettia trees, but not all are spectacularly expressive. It has to do with whether they are situated to receive proper nourishment, sufficient depth for flourishing.

When you truly awaken,
You have no formal merit.
In the multiplicity of the relative world,
You cannot find such freedom.
Self-centered merit brings the joy of heaven itself,
But it is like shooting an arrow at the sky;
When the force is exhausted, it falls to the earth,
And then everything goes wrong.

Why should this be better
Than the true way of the absolute,
Directly penetrating the ground of Tathagata?

Just take hold of the source
And never mind the branches.
It is like a treasure-moon
Enclosed in a beautiful emerald.
Now I understand this Mani-jewel
And my gain is the gain of everyone endlessly.
– from the Song of Enlightenment

I acknowledge that my tendency is to stay at the bloom level and pursue the shiny thoughts, the insights. Or maybe it used to be. Maybe I’ve changed a little, am a little less shiny.

There is a reason I titled this randomness, introducing a word not introduced in class, but I find myself veering away from making that point. What I’ll say is that from my perspective a lot of confusion might be cleared up about what evolution means, by digging farther into what randomness means. The connections are not mere cause and effect nor can they be traced, honestly, any more than one can remember all the steps of their day and the thoughts that led to each movement. When people criticize evolution, it is usually a very old and incomplete model of linear progress they are refusing. Randomness isn’t without purposefulness, anymore than emptiness is without fullness. In that sense evolution misunderstood is like the linear, first view of time, with randomness the second. It isn’t that the second negates the first, but if the first is missing its partner dimension it might be easy to make into a caricature.

A few months ago a friend ‘lost’ her mother. She hadn’t spoken to her mother for many years, nor had she any hope for a relationship with her for the future. Still, she was hit hard by the seeming permanence of the loss. Following the death, however, came an emotionally rich process, an unpacking and reframing of former views as she learned more about her and began to see from her perspective – there was new permission to do so. She began getting to know her anew, as though a true stranger.

So some might count only the time her mother and she were talking with one another as relationship, or as meaningful time, but really it was a raindrop in a canyon. What we can quantify is a sliver of what we can’t pin down – reality can be very painful and confusing, impossible to trace out on the branches.

How to Share

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It isn’t time to tell my friend how much I am learning from her as she goes through a terrible grieving process – how her proactive receiving feels empowering, seriously cutting through the abundance of cliche’d advice on my path, about how to manage sanity.

She is a lot like me – someone who is social but depleted by too many obligations and needing great swaths of space to cushion islands of chatter, so in some ways I deeply relate to how hard it must be to decide what to let in and keep out. Which doesn’t mean I feel what she feels, or can understand. Even she can’t, so it would be arrogant of me to try. Being there in this situation means something else.

What has always amazed me about this friend is that she is wide open and amazingly honest, but without needing to share everything – a balance I will likely wrestle with for my whole life. Even as a child I had the impression that every thought was on the outside, and it still surprises when I learn that those in what I consider my intimate sphere don’t know even the basics of my childhood or history with illness, or even divorce.

I feel as though I share everything, but find the opposite over and over again, which I’d blame on social media patterns except that those patterns have been with me forever… the work of hiding enough not to get into trouble or be taken away from my home, but sharing enough to draw a line between my situation and myself. Those tendencies are deeply ingrained to such an extent that I count my life remarkable for fathoming them so well. I ride on deep but rather clear waters. Nature is amazing.

As is my beautiful friend.

Adaptation in Process

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Having been raised in a pared down family structure and taking little interest in history growing up (related), I never gave much thought to the involved processes around families joining together, nor dreamed of wedding dresses and grand parties where I might be the center of attention. With parents that each married five times before I was 30, marriage was something I only considered once having children was a true possibility for my life, and then became a microcosm of a deep struggle to integrate my notion of direct faith with the notion of tradition; personal expression and collective obligations seemed in contrast.

Mary_Tyler_Moore_Show_hugI’m concerned about how much suffering we put ourselves, our planet, and each other through to get to each new baseline insight.

Waging ideological warfare against beliefs only prolongs the struggle. It is like fighting against a birth process. When ego gets in the way, it isn’t about enlightenment (more light) but about winning and exclusion.

Can we not we allow for more complexity and let that complexity take care of the beliefs level for ourselves and one another? Probably the most effective way toward integration is through ritual. Although I fell short when it came to integrating into already an established family lineage, whatever I did come to understand and appreciate, was through the process of ritual, which someone wise recently called “poetry in action.” It was through sincerely suspending both doubt and belief and partaking in structures that felt too tight or made me feel quite silly, and stepping into others’ shoes. I never gained a sense of being accepted, but I did learn to honor contrasting views in a way that would not have been possible by only academic endeavor. Ritual allows for insight.

It is true that few if any great changes have occurred without violent opposition and bloodshed. There is thinking that deserves to be ridiculed, and there are times to show that nothing positive is coming out of various ideologies. But directly opposing an ideology is unhelpful most of the time. 90% of the effort should go into conditioning an environment in positive ways.

I’m suggesting attentiveness to the tough work of not abandoning the places we may viscerally want most to leave behind, and continually checking back with new eyes so as to include all new light as emerges. Moving forward isn’t about shoving the past into a room and locking the door. Although isn’t easy to understand one another nor ourselves, we must act as though it is possible.

Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I heard about Gwynneth Paltrow experimenting with living off of food stamps for a week – an idea that was scoffed at and which I agree doesn’t touch the actual experience of being perpetually poor and viewed by society as “needy” or a “taker” among productive citizens. Putting aside the question of why someone may not fit or know the pleasure of connection within a society, why should someone who is making some small effort be taken to task so harshly? Journalists have done similar projects and been praised. What her deepest motives are is a territory not given to me, but maybe tiny efforts to relate shouldn’t be dismissed so easily out of hand.

Friends in the disability community tell me that someone blindfolding themselves for a day, something I remember doing as part of church youth group when a teen, is rather offensive, because it could be ground for arrogance of thinking that you ‘know’ what a blind person really experiences. They’re right of course. After all, it is just a day, and most people who have tried it have to admit that they cheated several times along the way because the option was always there to them. The grand picture of their life was not defined by having born into a marginalized category.

However, the person who at least tried to step into the other shoes for a day does have something more to work with than the one who just thought about the other’s plight.

This is the main reason a metaphor works better than a lecture. Really tasting each others’ worlds and beliefs gives life. Does it seem too much to impart the whole experience of being raised in another country, way of thinking, cultural mythology? Of course, but there can be pleasure and bodily sense memory in trying to step into another cultural imagination for a time. If we shed permanent belief as a criteria for entry, they can be shells of a sort – openings through which to lightly hold one another’s hands.

I’m making it sound simple. In actuality one needs to a fair bit of confidence in their own mind. When you go down into a deep well, or climb a high mountain, there is a cord and there must be safeties, but it is hard to explore if you worry about those too much. You must give into an intentional forgetting, a suspension. Trust. Like an actor forgets her other selves when on stage as a chosen character.

Smoother transitions might occur when people are given tangible ways to hold their beliefs and traditions open-endedly, to share their beauty, show what caught their heart and attention. Invite rather than demand. This would mean allowing the main struggle to take place within oneself, leaning hard on “let your light shine…”, and “turn the light inward…”, and what I’m told is the meaning of jihad, which has to do with keeping one’s own heart pure first. Again, 90% of the work as cultivating conditions.

I’m advocating avenues of appreciation where we keep going beyond the usual points and really step in to experience each other’s worlds. That would allow us to know what the other is protecting so intensely. To taste the why.

Diversification and adaptation, given a little space from survival-of-the-fittest in our thinking, is quite a strong idea on its own. Even now, new species seem to be emerging or are newly discovered, some of which are adaptations of former creatures that might have thrived in very different sorts of worlds. They learn to live in darkness or to camouflage in new ways. There are various ways of preservation and invention that don’t include becoming more and more aggressive, taking on bigger and bigger machinery. There should really no need to steal, in an abundant world such as this one, yet that is how we’ve often interpreted survival, in our actions (wall street) if not in our ideals (morals).

Zero-sum is merely an arrow that points us in new directions, so that we move to create new possibilities.

I can’t do more than scratch the surface in describing this aspiration.

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