Digression #2 The Use of Study and Thinking or Back in the Real World

Same caveats as the original post and Digression #1

There’s been quite a lot of questioning about the usefulness of study and thinking in the Buddhist project. (I am now calling it a project rather than an endeavor) I’ve come across quite a few posts written by folks doing this kind of speculation. This has in turn brought some more ideas to my mind-or reshuffled a bunch of the old ones-not sure which.

This is all about the conventional or relative sense of mind, consciousness and reality. I’ll ramble at some length on ultimate senses of this in Digression #3.

We can titillate ourselves intellectually with all of this but what is it’s relevance from a practice point of view?

On Study about Thinking (or non-thinking)

Emily Breder (who wrote a lovely guest post here a while back) wrote a post recently called Dhamma Porn on her blog which had some interesting thoughts in it. I cannot speak to her personal decisions or feelings or reasonings but on the more exoteric items there are a few comments and thoughts that have been sparked.  So here is a selection of her thoughts from that post that I would like to respond to.

Reading suttas is sort of like reading Shakespeare. Once you get the hang of it, you can just read and read. The dustier and more contorted the language, the more enjoyment I get out of it. …

I coined the term Dhamma Porn a few months back when describing my insane addiction to a friend of mine. For me, the stack of books next to my bed is as graphic as a centerfold from ‘Bhikkhunis in Bikini’ magazine. And as Jaye told me the other day, just like too much porn it can desensitize one to their real experience. …

… ‘Buddhist school of thought’. I would gladly go to college for the rest of my life and take every course I could, but what would I have at the end of it? Like living in Disney World. After a while, you lose touch with reality and what was once fun becomes a sick translation of happiness. It just isn’t the same.

…All the universe to explore, and I’ve been studying cartography…

Writing is a huge part of my examination process, and it would be as foolish to deny that as it would be to live vicariously through books.

Undirected intellectual activity can be a huge waste of time. It can become like watching television for hours on end or surfing the Internet for no specific purpose. But then again when one is operating on a semi-conscious or semi-mindful level ALL of one’s life can become that way. Anything we do can become a somewhat hollow action with no meaningful purpose or even a habit and ultimately an addiction. We often end up looking for time fillers to help us avoid other things and when we find something that is really good at distracting us we tend to gravitate into it further.

And when we are away from these distracting things we often call that boredom. Think of the statements of children, for example, who go to a remote lake for a vacation where there is no television, Internet or other habitual distractions. The complaining can become pretty intense initially. It’s almost like the pain of withdrawal symptoms. Or consider the reaction to your own malfunctioning cell phone or Internet connection. Not much difference.

When consciousness is engaged in 3rd or 4th gear distraction mode it just wants to keep cruising along. What is going on “outside the windows” passes by in a flurry with no time to examine any of it. Intellectual or distracting activity (like TV)  becomes the fuel for that. Without the fuel sometimes we can feel that something is seizing up upstairs.  There is almost like a panic occasionally. “If I’m not “doing” something then I’m doing nothing.” The unspoken/submerged part of that sometimes also adds “Then I am nothing.”

If we cannot be “counted” by our activity, particularly by our successful activity, however each of us defines success, then what and who are we in this world? If I can say I’ve read X number of books, or have X number of degrees, or have accomplished X number of marathons run, or have gained X number of lovers then there is some comfort in defining myself in terms of gain. It means I’ve done something and therefore am somebody. Without gain what is left? We are not making progress. We are not “going places”. We are not earning our stripes. We are therefore not valuable. To be seen to be without value seems to be one of the greatest horrors in the marketplace of the world.

We are talking about ignorance and desire here and ultimately greed as well. If we wish to keep ourselves distracted (ignorant) we cultivate a desire for that based upon an aversion to the alternative.  The more desire for distraction we cultivate the greedier we become for it. Gain to the point of greed is one of the most prominent attributes in the modern world. And it is lauded in Fortune 500 lists, Time magazine covers, number of TMZ photographers following one’s every move. If you’ve got greed you’ve got gain and to have gain is to register on the social map. It is ambition on speed.

This greed isn’t even so much about things but to be SOMEBODY. And what we do, our activity,  is the way we attempt to delineate who that somebody is in the world always in comparison to the other SOMEBODIES in the world. As long as I am attempting to be SOMEBODY everyone else is seen as my competition. As long as I am listed somewhere I exist socially and in many ways psychologically as well. Since this is the Internet, how many lists are you on? (Twitter, Facebook friends, blogrolls, MySpace, Linkdin, on-line magazine contributors, book clubs, Google rankings, aggregator blogs, article mentions, email lists, etc.) And beyond the on-line world how else are you ennumerated? (voter list, party member, employee number, alumnus, contributor, parents group, religious community, club membership, etc.)

The odd thing about it is that we often end up competing with ourselves. That is our idealized selves. We all have unspoken and often unacknowledged notions of who we are. We are enculturated by these factors of identity. This comes from our environment-family, job, media, education, socio-economic status, gender, race, ability, etc. Most of it is not too conscious. When reality indicates that we are not quite all that, as defined by the enculturating factors, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs. It is a dislocation. This means either we acknowledge reality or we find some distraction to lead us away from that discomfort temporarily.

The more uncomfortable we are with this dislocation the more we try to hide from it. With books, movies, friends, clubs, acquisitions, chemical addictions and so forth there is plenty of opportunity to bury that discomfort. Unfortunately it’s like a zombie that keeps on digging it’s way out and wreaking havoc with our nice little setup.

But it’s not all that hard to rectify provided we are sufficiently motivated by facing our discomfort rather than trying to bury it.

It all comes down to the simple question of Why?

Why am I doing X activity?

Intention. Deep intention.

So conversely, study, television, any activity can become a dharma activity and can also provide a broad foundation for a future direction if we are cognizant of why we are doing something.  We just have to shift our perspective a little by asking a few questions of ourselves on a deep level.

Even if we don’t initially know our true intentions we can begin to uncover them ourselves rather than wait for them to pop through in the most surprising and often uncomfortable ways. Lead up questions along the following lines can be of some assistance sometimes. We might forget to ask them if we become absorbed in something so setting up some cue (a colored flag on every 3rd or 4th page of a book, the oven timer set for 20 minutes into a television program etc.) to stop and examine what’s happening and furthermore disrupt the absorption process. So here are some possibly useful questions. There’s hundreds you could make up yourself.

  • What is it I am experiencing while encountering this phenomenon?
  • What is my emotional state?
  • What is my level of attachment/absorption in this activity?
  • Do I feel irritated by the interruption of my enjoyment by these questions?

On Thinking about Thinking (or non-thinking)

Mental Masturbation is a post by Mike Hinsley on the amount of time we all spend thinking about thinking and the contents of thinking. He wrote:

Is there any part of the body that is obsessed about as much as the mind – the one part of the body that may not actually exist?

Even in Zen circles people totally obsess about what they perceive is going on inside their own heads. No-one stops to think if it’s possible to perceive the true state of your mind. Instead, we crave particular mental states and are afraid of other mental states.

It’s really quite amazing how much weight we put on something transient that we cannot even be sure we are perceiving at all.

Since we are apparently sentient I am going to take a leap and consider the mind, as thinking consciousness in the sense of the original post The Sense of Consciousness to be something that at least functions if not exists in the same way my hands or eyes exist. It experiences. Though questions of the absolute existence of anything, in the Buddhist context are rather moot. But just to be out on that limb for a few moments, I’ll say it exists relatively like everything else.

Clearly I am doing a whole big orgy of a wank job here with all this mind stuff in these 4 related posts (the original and 3 digressions).

Some of what I wrote in the previous section applies here as well. Particularly about desire and aversion to certain mental states.

Perception is quite a slippery business. How deeply do we want to go to explore that? It comes down to questions about basic reality.

Back in the Real World

When I had visited Canada sometimes people said to me, “Welcome back to the real world.”

I’ve read blogs or articles that liken life outside of monasteries and the like as “The real world”

I have a friend who spent 10 years in prison for manslaughter. When he got out on parole, people often said to him, in preface to other comments,  “Now that you’re back in the real world…”

WTF is The Real World™ ? Who’s got the monopoly on that?

India is pretty real. Monastery life is pretty real. Prison is pretty real.

Now those are physical places. It seems in these instances that just because someone has not witnessed them first hand that they are somehow imaginary or non-existent. They are constructions that exist in mind only. People who go to these places seem to have entered some alternate universe or dematerialized like in Star Trek.

But in these circumstances it may be understandable because these places may be so far from the realm of the speaker’s habitual existence that they might as well be imaginary.

We don’t like really real too much. Real is often a substitute for habitual or “normal” however we’ve come to view that term.  And it is also a substitute for something we don’t particularly like in comparison to either an imaginary thing or some place we’ve been to on a temporary basis. Consider the cases when someone comes back from a retreat to their “real” life or leaves school to get out into the “real” world. There is some trepidation involved. It may not be dislike or aversion but there is a certain slight sneer and ho-hum sigh involved with such mentions. The habitual, or seemingly habitual because we don’t live the same moment twice, or the “norm” just isn’t that exciting and perhaps even somewhat burdensome. Even when we leave school as in the example, there may be a little bit of excitement at the change of pace but there is also some thought that we are moving into a “career” meaning “This is what I’m now going to do for the rest of my life.” kind of situation. We are finding our rut.

We like imaginary real better sometimes. This is the kind of case where someone leaves their marriage to have a “real” relationship with someone new or someone gets breast implants to feel more like a “real” woman.

The thing that really gets me wondering far more than that is when we consider certain non-physical experiences as more real than others. Mike sort of hinted at it with his statements about self-perceptions. And Emily got a little closer to this concept by mentioning Disneyland and cartography.

This also goes towards the oft (over-oft) quoted bits about finger-moon, map-terrain, signifier-signified and all that other symbol-logical stuff.

Who is the arbiter of what constitutes The Real World™ ?

Real seems to be commonly those things that I don’t like or like-things within my experience. Everything else seems unreal. So it seems the ego is the arbiter of reality in a conventional sense.

We live in our heads most of the time it seems. We can shift paradigms from time to time, move from perspective A to perspective B within whatever construction we have going on there and really convince ourselves that we have found a way out. Maybe or maybe not.

Whatever we think of as real or whatever we think of as Disneyland or a map may not be any more real than the perspective we are comparing it to. We may just be switching from a tired paradigm to a fresh one-from 2-D to 3-D yet still within the same framework.

How do we know that?

I don’t know. I’m just making this all up as I go along. Constructing and tearing down again and again and again. Moment to moment.

Here’s a really good post by the Zennist about the usefulness of disillusionment and related matters. Grown up stuff. Leaving our parent’s world

Back to the original post

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By NellaLou

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