Touch Heaven

By objective standards, our lives are rather drab and pointless. We are biological machines forged by billions of years of natural selection, programmed with the purpose to ensure the propagation of our genes. On a cosmic scale, our lives are insignificant and extremely short. There is little doubt that, in a few thousand years, we ourselves and everything we did, will be completely forgotten by the direct descendants of our children and also by everyone else.

We have long tried to console ourselves from the fact that we will inevitably die by the promise of an eternal afterlife. Unfortunately, there is no evidence we have found as of yet to indicate any belief about this afterlife may be true. And, to be honest, it is a pretty outrageous claim that our consciousness will continue to exist even without our brain and bodies. So I would say the burden of proof should not be on showing that there is no eternal soul and afterlife but rather to find evidence that there is.

There is moreover little evidence for the existence of a divine being or force which imbues our lives with purpose. Therefore it cannot be assumed that if we follow a set of simple rules (such as don’t kill, worship regularly etc.) our lives will be good and purposeful whereas otherwise they will not.

It cannot be denied that considering these things being facts to the best of our knowledge makes live look bleak. If there is no relevance and purpose to our existence, why bother existing at all? If there is no way to tell good from evil, why bother being good?

In the American Declaration of Independence it is written that men are endowed by their "Creator with certain unalienable rights". I do not believe that there was a single conscious being (at least according to our current understanding of consciousness) that created us. As such, we also could not have been endowed with rights, since for something to give rights, they need to be conscious. I do however believe that we have been endowed by that which created us, Nature, with certain abilities and limitations. Among these, I believe is the ability to touch heaven.

For instance, every human culture studied appears to include elements which require a belief in the supernatural (see Human Universals by Donald Brown). I think this is due to each of us having a sense of the supernatural world, in which magic and gods exists. This is no indication that magic and gods actually exist. However, I think that this sense is our single most source of consolation, and it must not be one that is grounded in untruth.

Since I believe that our ‘spiritual’ sense, for lack of a better word for it, can guide us towards actions which generations before us have identified as good and noble. If we seek out our connection to the divine, it often becomes especially powerful if we do so in the context of sacrificing our self interest and aim to bring good into the world.

Thus I think it is critical that we engage with our spiritual sense, to reach out high with our minds and touch heaven, a sphere of existence that cannot be seen or measured but that we can feel. I believe this can bring warmness, colour and strength into our lives. However, we must also be cautious. As much as our spiritual sense can be used in the interest of what is considered good, it can also be used to great ill effect; many wars have been fought and many crimes committed which were fuelled by our imagined connection with a higher power.

Habit Tracking October: Injured and Distracted

Following my new system for tracking habits I have again kept track of various habits I try to follow. Here the overview for October.

Habit Tracking October

Overall, I didn’t do very well, just like in September. Here my notes on the individual habits:

  • Exercise and Stretching: Since I injured my rib at the end of September, I was not able to do much exercise. The two times I managed to do so I went on strenuous walks, first to the Werribee Gorge and then to the 1000 Steps.

  • Emails: I have adopted a new habit where I aim to have less than five emails in my personal inbox (certainly not possible with my work one). I managed to do so quite consistently. I think it stresses me when too many emails pile up in my personal inbox so I think keeping things managed day by day is a good habit to adopt.

  • Meditation: While I was not being very good at meditating regularly in October, I improved somewhat from September. I also developed for myself a little meditation map that I followed:

Meditation Map
  • Learn: For the latter half of the month I was not very diligent in continuing my touch typing practice. I think this was due to me being involved in a small programming project; I taught myself how to develop 3D graphics using JavaScript. So, in a way I did some learning during most of these days just not the kind I planned for.
3D Application
  • Posture: I was able to use my Upright go for around half of the days in the months. Should definitely try to do better.

For the next month my main goal will definitely be to pick up exercising again. For me, it is the most important habit but one I often fail to adhere to.

Practice: Healing Compassion

I have already written about a practice centred on the powerful emotion of compassion. However, today I came across an interesting variation of a practice on compassion (in the book Happiness by Matthieu Ricard): one that reflects our own suffering onto others, and helps us heal from our own suffering. This practice works as follows:

  1. Imagine those that encounter more hardships in their lives than you do; either by experiencing your hardships more severely or by having hardships from which you are spared.
  2. Send those all your love and compassion. Imagine this as a force of positive spirit emanating from you and reaching others, alleviating their hardships, if only by the fact that it is acknowledged by someone who cares.

This practice helps us to both strengthen our love and compassion, infinitely important emotions for a path towards enlightenment. This practice is well established among Buddhist practitioners. Connection with the suffering and hardships of others may bring us sadness but this sadness is quickly turned into strength by the powerful force of compassion and love, we can easily find within us.

Identity, Habits and Enlightenment

I recently read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. One of the interesting ideas presented in this book was that in order to bring about personal change, we need to start with our identity, then change our practices and processes and thus achieve better outcomes; as in, I am a health conscious person, therefore I will change my habit of eating fast food for lunch and thus eat healthy food for lunch. This is presented as being in contrast to our usual way of trying to facilitate change, which would be to start with outcomes; as in, I will eat healthy food for lunch, thus changing my habit of eating fast food and ultimately become a healthy person.

I thought this is a rather useful way to think about facilitating change, even though we need to take into account that it will usually be a two way process; what I do makes me what I am, but also what I am makes me do what I do. I am also still reading the book Happiness by Matthieu Ricard and today I came across a passage in there which I think brings an additional perspective on this.

Specifically Ricard discusses the Buddhist desire to become self-less. This is grounded in the belief that having a strong sense of self makes us liable to suffer. For instance, if I see myself as a formidable athlete and I get a permanent injury, it might bring me great unhappiness. Likewise, if I attach great importance to my self and my well-being, I am prone to develop thoughts that I am disadvantaged or easily become angry when thinking I have been wronged.

This line of thinking made me consider if building habits around a strong sense of identity might be as dangerous a path to follow as building habits around a desire to achieve a specific outcome. For instance, if I am developing a new habit because I want to loose weight, I might be disappointed when I do not succeed. However if I am developing the identity of myself as a slim person, it might bring me even greater unhappiness if I am not able to accomplish this. I think this very unhappiness might be the driver which makes using an identity based approach more likely to succeed; but it likewise makes it more dangerous for our general well-being.

I think it is quite important to develop an identity and have a life purpose. These should, however, be very carefully chosen. In choosing an identity, we should choose something which is helping us towards a path of greater happiness and enlightenment, rather than something which helps us achieve a lesser goal. Also our identity and purpose should not be dependent on external factors but only on things completely under our control. In the book Eternal Dharma, some possible life goals were discussed which I think were quite interesting. They centred around bringing love and kindness into the world. Here some further examples of identities/purposes which might be safe to adapt:

Having a strong identity is critical in finding success and happiness. However, as said, we must also keep in mind that an identity can do as much harm as it can do good. If I believe I am a person who loves shopping or going out above all, I am unlikely to bring much good into the world or for myself. But if I believe that I am kind and hard-working, I can be of great benefit to others and myself.

Fate

In life, things are bound to happen to us. Sometimes they are caused by our actions or inaction but, more often than not, things just happen for no apparent reason. I believe that how we think about the latter affects our well-being tremendously.

Given that seemingly random events play such a big part in our lives, we have developed a number of approaches to explain this randomness. In many world religions unexplainable events are attributed to the will of a higher power. Often this is nonsensical since many things that happen are in stark contrast to what is otherwise thought of the celestial being. Who would believe in a god which causes children dying from cancer?

We may also believe we have some kind of personal fate or destiny. We build a narrative that we are lucky with money, unlucky in love, destined to be happy, or destined to be unlucky in any of our endeavours. Any pattern of such interpretations which arise from our life are either random or a result of our own character and actions. There is absolutely no evidence that something like identifiable personal destiny exists.

We may also think that everything is random. We can do one thing or another but, at the end, the inevitable force of epic Randomness will overrule any of our actions.

Finally we may think that everything is predetermined; that whatever we do is already written and that none of our actions will be able to change anything.

Scientifically speaking, this last view is probably the one closest to the truth. It is theorised that, if we were to be able to know the exact state of the universe in one moment, we should be able to infer all future states from that. However, spiritually speaking, this view is barren – it provides us with no nourishment and strength for our soul to be the best we can be.

Instead, I prefer a view which I came across in a book about Buddhism: “The Way Things Are” from Ole Nydahl. Lama Ole Nydal said that those which are advanced in their study of the teachings of the Buddha will see what happens to them in two ways:

They understand good things which happen to them as blessings. A blessing is something which is good for us and which is given to us by a higher power and there is very little question that whatever makes the world go round – be it the will of sentient power or the natural interaction of elementary particles – is far more powerful than us.

Bad things which happen, in contrasts, are understood as trials and challenges. I think we should go even further and understand them as opportunities. In a world without challenge, without suffering and friction, there can only be greyness. In order to taste the sweetness of understanding, balance and enlightenment, we need to sample the ordeals of ignorance, chaos and misguided principles; and the engine of events around us is willing to supply us plenty of these.

Our world – or at least how we experience it – is unquestionably a very complex system. Our only way to understand complex systems is to divide them into layers; from a layer grounded in physical reality to layers which become more and more abstract. Think of the stock market. On one layer, there are individual stocks changing hands at specific prices. For a person to know of each individual transaction is impossible. Instead, we aggregate the transactions into a particular price at which the stock is trading at. On a more abstract level, we speak of market sentiment; we differentiate if there is a bull or bear market; if investors in general are eager to invest or try to sell their stocks. On an even more abstract level, we may ask what the spiritual value of the stock market is. Does this bring good or bad for us and humanity?

The same layering applies for all the big and small events which happen in our lives. As said, on a physical, natural level, everything may be predetermined and our fate sealed forever. However, this level is of the same importance to us as is the ledger of all transactions for a stock is for a stock broker; that is of virtually no importance at all. What is very important for us though is the spiritual question what the point of all these seemingly random events is.

Thankfully looking at this question from the spiritual level allows us some degree of freedom how to interpret what is happening to us. We can decide to adopt the most wholesome and nourishing interpretation which does not conflict with the theories currently most favoured by science. In my view, that is the dual view expressed above. Embrace everything good happening as blessing; and embrace everything bad happening as an opportunity to bring us further along on the path to enlightenment.

Habit Tracking September: Technological Enhancement

As written before, I have adopted a new system for tracking my habits. This primarily involves keeping track of whether or not I am getting to do certain activities in a day or not and recording this in a simple table. I have already reported my success in tracking my habits for July and August.

While things were going very well in July, August saw me struggling to stick to any of the habits; chiefly I think, since I struggled with a winter cold (living in Australia, yes, we have winter in August).

Here the overview for September:

Habit Tracking September

Overall I did not very terribly, and here my notes for the individual habits:

  • Exercise & Stretching: While I only managed to exercise (and stretch four times in August), I increased this to six times in September. I think I could have done even better if I hadn’t been very busy at work at the end of September and thus wasn’t able to come back home in time to exercise in the evening. Also I had a little accident on my scooter on the 26th of September where I injured my rib. I can still barely walk without pain, so I don’t think I will be able to exercise until this is healed.
  • Wake Up: We changed our morning routine to wake up a bit later and thus the 5:30 am wake up time wasn’t really practical to pursue.
  • Meditation: No excuse why I didn’t do my meditation. Have to do better next month.
  • Learn: I was able to practice touch typing quite consistently. I am still learning to type special characters such as []{}()=><. Also, my wife gave me the book Visual Thinking as a birthday present and I have been practising to draw with the help of this book.
  • Posture: Finally coming to the subtitle of the book, I have at long last found a way to work on my posture in an effective way. As another birthday present from my wife I received an Upright Go, that I have been using to train my posture. Unfortunately this is also at present hindered by my injury.

For the next month, I will try to continue working on the same habits but will replace Wake Up with Emails, where I set myself the goal to have less than five emails in my personal inbox at any point in the day.

My Life Goals

I have recently been asked what goals I have for my life. I think I am someone who deeply cares about leading a purposeful life and the very purpose of this blog is finding such. However, I don’t think I have recently articulated what my life goals are and I believe this to be a very worthwhile exercise. Really speaking, I think I only have one life goal:

To be in a position where I can provide the most benefit to the world given my abilities.

I believe that making a positive difference is not simply doing good wherever we can. While that is certainly a noble cause, I think this might limit our potential. I don’t think the our current social and economic system is well-suited for unconditional altruistic behaviour. If we were unconditionally altruistic, we would put ourselves at a disadvantage which ultimately limits our ability to make a difference. For instance, if I give away all my money, I won’t have any left to support myself and my family; becoming a burden on others but also being constrained in what I am able to do, since I won’t be able to pay for internet access, a computer, travel, or books to help me learn and grow. Thus I believe in order to bring good into the world, we need to establish a position for ourselves from which we can do so effectively. First and foremost, I believe this requires financial independence, so that we can use our time towards bringing good into the world rather than being preoccupied with earning a living.

Bringing a benefit to the world for me involves preserving and nurturing the natural beauty of the world as well as to limit the suffering of conscious beings, allowing them to be in balance with their nature and flourish through pleasure, joy and happiness. How I am going to do that given the abilities that I have, I am not so sure yet. I think I am a creator and designer at heart, so I hope to be able to do this through something I create (rather than through my direct actions, which I believe I am not as suited for).

After giving the answer above, the person asking the question understood that I would be trying to build a legacy. For me, nothing could be further from the truth. I do not care much if people are going to remember me after my death or not (one reason being that I am in full acknowledgement that however long I might be remembered for will surely be utterly inconsequential on a cosmic scale). I simply want to bring as much good as I can within the live that I have been given.

Picture Credit: Pixabay