Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Castles in the Air

One Human Journey turns 100....

This marks the 100th post on One Human Journey. As the site approaches its second anniversary, its mission is expanding to include an exciting line-up of guest bloggers who'll be contributing in the coming months. Stay tuned for more.

Also, One Human Journey has a new Facebook fan page where you can stay on top of the latest posts and see what we're reading and liking these days. Check it out.


Chances are, I just evoked an image of a cheeseburger in your mind. Depending on your personal views about cheeseburgers, this mental image might bring along -- in the wake of its appearance in your mind -- a subtle or not-so-subtle reaction of either attraction or repulsion. Maybe you love and crave cheeseburgers, or maybe you are a strict vegan, animal-rights activist and you regard cheeseburgers as the symbol of a dire problem with our society's dietary habits; maybe you even feel slightly judgmental about people who eat them. Whatever your personal reaction, all I had to do to evoke it was say the word: "Cheeseburger." It wasn't difficult at all.

This may not be on the same level of mental espionage practiced by the characters in the movie "Inception" -- but nevertheless, it shows how powerful and instantaneous is our capacity for mentation and conceptuality. In relating to something as simple as the word "cheeseburger," we are immediately caught in a web of memories and associations, opinions and ideas, emotional patterns and judgments that stretches back further than we can see. Within that web are intangible traces of every cheeseburger we've ever seen or tasted, every advertisement for cheeseburgers we've been exposed to, every article we've ever read about the dangers of cheeseburgers, every view we've held about the rights of animals. All of those experiences have conditioned us to have a particular reaction when we are asked to think about a cheeseburger. And all those conditioned reaction patterns are just there in our minds, lying dormant, waiting for some small stimulus -- like the simple word "cheeseburger" -- to bring them to life.

Most of the time we don't relate directly to the things in our world; rather, we relate mainly to our mental image of things. We see things and people and experiences through the filter of our concepts about them. We look at another person and most of what we see is not the mystery of the human presence in front of us, but the cloud of our own ideas and preconceptions about who they are: friend or enemy, desired object or despised one. The more fixed our ideas and images are, the less we are able to allow other people to be anything other than what we think they are, or what we think they ought to be.

Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

The problem is not that we have concepts -- it would be difficult to function in the world without them. It's that we mix up our concepts with the things they refer to; we forget there is a difference between reality and what we think about it. Blurring the objects of our world with the qualities we project onto them, we believe too blindly in the stories we tell ourselves. We think David REALLY IS a jerk because of what he said the other day; we think Susan REALLY IS a dear because she was so kind to us that one time; we think "Inception" REALLY IS a good or bad movie, depending on whether we enjoyed it or not; we think cheeseburgers REALLY ARE, categorically, good or bad, depending on our own habits and views.

As long as we don't examine the contents of our projections too closely, they appear to be very real. Our mental images of things seem sharp and concrete, and our concepts and opinions seem justified and true. But when we actually try (as in Mahamudra meditation) to look at our mental images in detail, to see what they are made of, we learn that they are fuzzy and insubstantial: ghostly holograms in our minds that dissolve when we shine the spotlight of awareness directly at them.

Go ahead: look more closely at that cheeseburger in your mind right now. Try to pin it down, to examine its details, to fix the image and hold onto it. What happens? Try the same thing with your fixed ideas about someone else. What are your concepts about that person actually made of? How solid and reliable are they when you really look at them?

The emotional dramas we enact around these phantom images in our minds are like castles in the air -- built on sheer fancy. The clinging and passion we feel towards what we interpret as friendly and desirable; the aversion and aggression we feel towards what we interpret as hostile or offensive; the indifference we feel towards what we interpret as being of no interest -- all these are tales "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

When we recognize the insubstantiality of our mental images and concepts, we have more breathing room, more space to relate to the world with an open mind and heart. Not confusing external appearances with internal ones, we are less likely to get caught up in taking ourselves and our projections too seriously. And that freedom from the bondage of our own projections -- even if it is only momentary, and we revert right back to our patterns -- is like a breath of fresh air. Once we know what freedom smells like, once we have its scent, then we have a trail to follow.