Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Art of Not Minding What Happens

I’ve had an itch lately to collect some intellectual loose ends and cobble them together into a post. Writing is cathartic for me, and I haven’t posted anything here for several months.

At the same time, I’ve been looking back through my 10-plus years of posts and feeling as if I’ve mostly wasted my time putting together persuasive arguments in relation to political events and religious belief. I don’t know why I ever thought I could change anyone’s mind about anything at all, or why I even thought I should try. I suppose that if nothing else, I’ll leave behind a written legacy where I can say from beyond the grave where I stood on the matters of the day. (That is, if someone at Google doesn’t one day decide to take a Kafkaesque hatchet to my blog, for violating some imaginary commandment of wokeness.)

Let me just say at the outset that I think we stand on the verge of cultural collapse, and that it won’t be long until Western civilization irreparably folds in on itself. I think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of an irrational, illiberal, divisive, degenerate, authoritarian ideology — actually, I’m just going to call it out for the fanatical religious cult that it is — that thrives on power and has plenty of it to spare, given that it’s captured every significant cultural institution, from academia and entertainment to governing bodies to multinational corporations fixated on their ESG scores. When “tolerance” has come to mean “affirm my views or else,” when upside-down discrimination is praised as progress, and when acknowledging biological sex can make you lose your livelihood, meaning that we don’t even have a shared sense of reality anymore, then let’s face it — we’ve reached a point of no return. The lunatics are truly running the asylum. 

In short, the culture wars have been fought and won, even to the point that the federal alphabet agencies have been politically weaponized against the American people to suppress views that counter the ruling elites’ narratives, which is why Donald Trump may end up behind bars while Hillary Clinton walks free. But at this point, what are you going to do about any of it, short of full-scale revolution?

If you think you can vote your way out of the situation, remember that the establishment — with abundant help from lesser-evil voters who’ll tell you, as they do in every election cycle, that this election is too important to vote your conscience — will derail any candidate that would meaningfully challenge the system. In my lifetime, I’ve seen it happen to Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, Tulsi Gabbard, and Bernie Sanders, and the same will soon happen to the likes of Cornel West and RFK Jr. The sooner that conservatives, populists, traditionalists, liberty lovers, and independent-minded people of all stripes come to terms with the fact that they are now the counterculture, the sooner they can focus on things like building parallel economies and intentional communities, so that those who want to drop out have a place to go when things inevitably fall apart. Sitting around and endlessly bitching about how awful the Woke Contagion is won’t solve anything, nor will a retrenchment into reactionary politics. No one needs another four years of Trump.

I understand that I’m just shouting into the wind here. No one listens to me. And honestly, that’s fine. I’ve done my part. Before this blog, I was sounding off on other forums. Before that, I was agitating professors and classmates with college essays and classroom debates. Heck, my activism — if you can call it that — goes back as far as the mid- to late 1980s, when I mustered up the courage to argue with a couple of my high school teachers about things like the colonization of Indian lands and the stupidity of war. By the time the first Gulf War rolled around, when I was just shy of 20 years old, it really sank in just how differently I viewed the world, as I felt completely alienated from the unthinking, unreflective, bloodthirsty, flag-waving, yellow-ribbon groupthink tribalism that kicked into full gear virtually overnight. 

Like Milgram’s test subjects, the vast majority of the population did exactly as it was told, and I was left scratching my head and wondering why people were like this. Then they went and did it again during COVID. And it leaves me with so many questions. Why are the masses so easily propagandized, so easily swayed, so gullible, so thoughtlessly obedient to authority? What happened to critical independent thought? Are people just that incurious? Do they think authority figures will never lie to them? Are they afraid of being ostracized from their tribes for daring to say the emperor has no clothes? Do they not want to end up exiled like Snowden, jailed like Assange, or nailed to a cross like Christ for daring to speak up? I wish I had the answers to these questions, because if I did, humanity would be much less of a mystery to me. 

It doesn’t help that I instinctively recoil at the first sight of groupthink. To me, it always suggests that people are letting others do their thinking for them. For example, I dread seeing June come around every year because I know how sick I’m going to be of having rainbows relentlessly shoved in my face. And that has nothing to do with being some kind of whateverphobe someone might decide that I am. To the contrary, I couldn't care less what kind of consensual relationships adults enter into; it's none of my concern. (Trans-ideology is another story completely, and a topic for another day.) No, my issue is that I don't like having someone else’s views pushed on me, even if it's something I might agree with on principle. I recoil at the ideological aggressiveness of Pride Month (so much of which is at this point, sadly, corporate exploitation of a social cause) for exactly the same reason I recoiled at all the COVID mandates and related hysteria, and for the same reason I don’t like having the American flag and the associated glorification of militarism pushed on me every Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The same goes for having to witness performative acts of contrition, like sports teams that take a collective knee, or seeing people swallow Western hegemonic propaganda when they virtue-signal with a Ukrainian flag. It’s just gross. All of it. We’re supposed to be a pluralistic society. Keep your beliefs, let others have theirs, and don’t demand that other people agree with you.

When you get down to it, we’re a weird little species on this backwater planet of ours. Our brains seem to have evolved faster than we could keep up with the changes, and the changes consequently seem to have overwhelmed us. At our core, we’re still very primitive, fearful, and irrational animals. We like to think we’re sophisticated, inventive, and intelligent, but strip away the cities, cars, computers, and three-piece suits, and psychologically you still find a bunch of grunting cavemen, waving our clubs at perceived threats and keeping at bay anyone who might threaten the unity and stability of the tribe.

Attachment to our tribes obviously puts humans at odds with each other, yet we seem to be doubling down on our allegiances to inherently divisive identities these days, rather than coming together over the things we might find we hold in common — like, I don’t know, just being human.

I’ll concede that it’s impossible to eschew all forms of identity and still be able to function in the world. But I think it’s also important to understand that those identities are not what we actually are, and to use them simply as tools for navigating the world, rather than as things that give your life purpose and meaning. You are not those identities, any more than you are your thoughts or feelings. They’re all ephemeral and ultimately illusory, and that’s why identities can never bring you lasting contentment. That goes doubly for trying to identify as things that you objectively are not and never will be. You can try to bend reality to your will, or you can find peace with reality as it is. One offers an avenue toward inner harmony; the other never can and never will.

Now, don’t read that and jump to conclusions about who I am. I’m not here to shill for conservative politics; 10 years’ worth of blog posts should be evidence enough of that. While I find some common ground with conservatives — distributism, the economic and social philosophy that most closely reflects my own, is more or less socially conservative and economically liberal — the problem I have with them is that they claim to reject identity politics, but they really don’t. Nationalism, religion, flag-waving patriotism — these are all identities, too. What conservatives really want is not an end to identity politics, but for their identities to prevail in the culture wars. In the end, they’re just another grunting tribe waving their clubs around at the enemy.

As long as we do this, we will never find peace. We will always be pitted against each other in some way, as our egos continue to tell us that there’s an enemy to be destroyed and that our viewpoints have to prevail.

Stop and think about how futile this is. The things you get enraged about on a daily basis — what difference do you think any of it is going to make a year, a decade, a century, 10,000 years from now? I’m not arguing for apathy so much as for perspective. Carl Sagan once waxed poetic on the hollow vanity of fighting, hating, shedding blood so that you might gain temporary control of a tiny sliver of one insignificant planet out of trillions in the universe. If you have a cause that you’re passionate about, then by all means go out and be an advocate for it — just know that your opinion is not the only valid one, that you may or not prevail in your fight, and that your accomplishments, like you yourself, will essentially be forgotten within a few short generations. Centuries from now, there will be no Republicans or Democrats, no Americans or Russians. Millennia from now, there may not even be any humans. But the planet will persist, long after we’re gone. How important do we really think we are?

In short: Perspective is important, and humility is a good virtue to cultivate.

I accordingly try to be mindful of the transitory nature of our being and choose my identities sparingly, making sure never to confuse those identities with who I really am. I’m a Caucasian male in his early 50s — those are the identities I have no control over, despite claims by certain segments of contemporary society that these immutable characteristics are somehow malleable, like a costume we can put on and take off as we wish. I’m also a husband, a dad, an editor, an amateur philosopher, a cricket fan, a bike rider, a music lover, an avid reader, a coffee addict, an anarchist sympathizer, an advocate for free expression, free movement, free thought, and free minds. I’m an American by accident of birth and an Idahoan by choice. I support the American Solidarity Party and the Cascadia movement, the latter because if we destroy the planet, nothing else matters — but for the record, I will never wave my Cascadia flag in anybody’s face. And I financially support the G.K. Chesterton Society, the J.R.R. Tolkien Society, and the Krishnamurti Foundation of America. That’s more or less it. I wonder, if you take stock of your own life, how many identities you have, which ones you cling most strongly to, and why. For me, the ones that matter most are being a husband and a dad. I chose to be both of those things, and they give me an intimate connection to something outside myself — to two other human beings on this planet. The rest of my identities, well, if I had to give them up, I’d be sad, but I’d go on. Because I understand that those things are not me.

OK, you say, I keep talking about the things that aren’t me. So if I am not my identities, what, then, am I?

Well, I think the Zen master Bodhidharma had it right when he stood before the emperor of China. “Who stands here before me?” the emperor demanded. Bodhidharma replied, “I have no idea.”

I used to get confused by Zen logic. Actually, sometimes I still do, because of the way Zen attempts to get us out of our habitual ways of thinking about and seeing the world. It’s hard to break ourselves out of our own conditioning. But I think it’s pretty obvious that what Bodhidharma was telling the emperor was that he had emptied himself of all concepts and ideas, such that there was no “Bodhidharma” to speak of. In other words, the things we think of as being “me” are ultimately illusory.

So why would you hold on to things that have no permanent, lasting substance? Doing so will just cause you to suffer when the ephemeral whatever-it-is inevitably goes away.

If you’re thinking I sound like a Buddhist, please let me disabuse you of that idea right here and now. I did dip my toe back into my old Buddhist studies earlier this year, but at this point on my life journey, I have no desire to “be” anything in particular, let alone a Buddhist. I think I have a better understanding at this point in my life of what the Buddha was getting at with his teachings on non-self, karma, and rebirth; in the past, my struggles with certain Buddhist concepts like those caused me to eventually throw in the towel on Buddhism after about 15 years of study and semi-immersion. From there I ended up wandering into the Quaker tradition, a contemplative path within the Christian tradition, and from Quakerism back into the Catholicism of my youth.

Upon my return, I found the rituals, the traditions, and particularly the Mariology of Catholicism to be familiar and comforting. But anyone can look through the archives of this blog over the past several years to see my struggles with taking the tradition on wholeheartedly. Heck, I couldn’t do that when I was a kid pestering my parents about theological questions, so why did I ever think I could make peace with the whole thing now?

It's taken me years, and while I don’t pretend to have gone through any kind of painful deconstruction process of the kind that ex-evangelicals often have to endure, I can vouch for the fact that it’s not easy to let go of an identity that’s been with you for your entire life. And to me, it’s just another good example of why getting too attached to your identities is detrimental to your mental well-being. We end up pouring our passions and investing our lives into transitory things that ultimately are not us and can never give us lasting direction or satisfaction.

The truth of the matter is that God either exists or not, and our religious opinions on the matter have no bearing on it. The truth is that we may go on in some other form after this life or we may not. (When the student asked the master what happens when we die, the master wisely said, “How should I know? I’m not dead.”) The truth is that the Hindus have a fascinating idea about how we’re all pieces of the Absolute, like little radios transmitting divine consciousness through our physical being — but again, there’s no evidence that this is actually the way it is. It’s just an opinion. Something is either true or it isn’t, and all too often we confuse our opinions for facts and, again, end up inflicting misery on both ourselves and others as a result. Just look at all the people who insist that they know a Middle Eastern deity will send them to eternal torture for not following his rules, and how they then try to force that belief on others. Claiming that to be an incontrovertible truth is as absurd as claiming that women can become men just by saying so. Belief is not fact, and despite the protestations of the postmodernists, facts do exist, whether we like the facts or not.

The Heart Sutra, a teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, is one of those things that imparts unvarnished facts about the nature of reality. Some may find its teaching hard to swallow, but it is what it is. Here, again, I’m not shilling for Buddhism or any other religious viewpoint — and the wonderful thing about the Heart Sutra is that it doesn’t do that, either. It doesn’t try to sell you on some unprovable theology. It simply shows you that this is how it is — take it or leave it.

Chanting the Heart Sutra is part of the Shingon Buddhist lay service. I used to belong to a Shingon temple; out of all the flavors of Buddhism I tried, I was drawn to the esoteric mysticism and the symbolic rituals of this particular Japanese tradition. Earlier this year, I dug out my old service book and started chanting the prayers and mantras in Japanese, letting it see where it would take me, without expectation. What I found was both a reminder of why I don’t particularly want to identify as a Buddhist, even though I like many of its teachings, and a newfound appreciation for the deep wisdom of the Heart Sutra.

An article I bumped into a while back examined the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, he of the Krishnamurti Foundation and the consummate anti-guru, from the perspective of Buddhist teaching. Handpicked to be the vehicle for Maitreya, the prophesied second coming of the Buddha, Krishnamurti disbanded the religious society that was formed around him and declared that “truth is a pathless land.” No one can show you the way, because as soon as you follow someone else, you end up following the other person’s dogma, the other person’s opinion, and you never get to see the truth for yourself — only the truth someone else wants you to see. The Buddha made essentially the same point, urging his followers to test out his ideas for themselves rather than taking them as the truth just because he spoke them. He saw his teachings as a raft that could get you to the other shore, after which time it was pointless to continue carrying the raft around. But, inevitably, his teachings became codified into a religion, borrowing heavily from Hindu cosmology.

Teachings like the Heart Sutra came along later, centuries after the Buddha’s death, and reminded seekers that the religious dogma was not the truth, just as Krishnamurti in our time would remind us of the same thing. The article I read drew a convincing comparison between the sutra and Krishnamurti’s message, and for me that helped some things fall into place. Crucial for me was how it reframed, in my mind, Krishnamurti’s secret to his own happiness: In his own words, “I don’t mind what happens.” Now, that’s not the same as saying you don’t care what happens. It just means you stop imposing your will and your expectations on things. You don’t attach yourself to outcomes and accept what is, with as much equanimity as you can muster. As my daughter’s gymnastics instructor once said to her class, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” Who knew a gym teacher could say something so philosophically profound?

I won’t expound on the ideas contained in the Heart Sutra here because I’m not trying to sell you anything, and let’s be honest: You wouldn’t seek out the sutra or examine its meaning anyway. I know that because I didn’t. I had to come to it on my own time and my own terms. In any event, the whole point — the revelation for me, if you can call something so blatantly obvious a revelation — is that there truly is no path to follow. Things are whatever they are, regardless of what we might want them to be. And that’s OK. But it means you have to give up your attachment to outcomes. None of us really has much control over anything anyway, when you get down to it. We constantly want to impose our will on what is, usually with results that disappoint us and only serve to deepen our suffering.

I suppose this is how I’ve come to deal not so much with political and religious ideas as with my perpetually deteriorating health. No doctor is ever going to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with me. I used to ask, “Why me?” Why do I have to feel like a prisoner in a malfunctioning body, and why can’t someone figure out the problem so I don’t have to live most of my days in misery? But I was only compounding my suffering by wanting reality to be something other than what it was. And so I took my “Why me” and shifted to “Why not me?” Why should I be immune from suffering when no one else is? What makes me think I’m so special? My ego wanted to impose its will on the way things are, which is the same thing we all do, with the same disappointing results every time. Some things we can change, and those are the things I’m focusing on with my health. But most things are out of our control, and we can either want them to be different or we can accept the reality of the situation and find peace with it.

When I was younger, I used to feel guilty that God didn’t heal me. I felt as if I must be doing something wrong that caused him to hold back his healing gift from me. Then I got angry at him for being a supposedly loving God while letting so many innocent people suffer. Then, at some point, I accepted that I was wasting my time trying to bend reality to my will. It wasn’t God’s fault at all, because God was just a concept I’d been conditioned to believe in. I confused a religious tenet for just seeing things as they are, without bias or expectation.

That’s the mindset I’m working on cultivating right now. I still get depressed over my health, especially when I think about the things I want to do and can’t. I want to go to Washington to visit the Shinto shrine that’s going to be permanently closing soon, but I can’t. I have good memories of that place. My daughter wants to come along, and my wife, who has her own health challenges, wants to stay home. If I had a health crisis along the way, I’d panic — more for the fact that my kiddo would have no way home because we don’t have a second functioning car and my wife probably couldn’t make the drive to get us anyway.

It sucks to be in this situation, and I feel horrible for my daughter, who gets excited to go on these little trips when I mention them, only to ultimately be stuck at home because my body is failing me in so many ways. It’s not fair to her, and some days it all sends me into a deep spiral of despair. I let the tears fall when no one is looking. I have to push on and stay strong, even when I don’t want to. She needs her dad, and our family needs my income. So I just do my best to hold it together most days, even when I feel like I’m falling apart, and even if it means I have to give up things that would give my kid some much-needed enjoyment. I can’t tell you how much I hate it.

But, again, why should I be special? Why should I think that I’m immune from the same kind of suffering every other human being experiences? I can want things to be different, or I can accept them as they are.

In the end, which alternative is going to create less suffering? The question answers itself.

As hard of a lesson as it can be, you have to not mind what happens.