POSTCARD #195: NEW DELHI: These easy days of gentle sunshine on the roof terrace coming to an end. The long shadow of departure is approaching again and I’m caught in the momentum of its passing, swept through airport halls, the layers and passageways of the travel network. Checked-in, identified, one self-contained unit flowing along in the great river of humanity 24/7 passing through these air-conditioned corridors within corridors connected end-to-end, telescoped into smaller passageways, and down into the low ceilinged capacity, enclosed space of an aircraft seat made to measure, reduced, restrained, tightness in the knees squeezed in. There’s a small video screen about 18 inches from my face, showing hundreds of movies. Fold-down tables upon which, small trays of food are placed, fit exactly, and inside they’re divided into even smaller dishes. Small cup, small spoon, absolutely tiny packets of salt and pepper and a toothpick…
In no time at all, the food trays are cleared away, watch videos for four hours flying time, sleep for a while, go to the bathroom, then we’re there – just beginning to feel comfortable and it’s time to go. Passengers squeeze and squidge along the aisles like one body of thick fluid bristling with hand-held luggage and jamming up the doorway. The space we’re in opens out and extends, becomes a passageway then a larger space, all of us holding a destination in mind. Eyes hardly ever meet, preoccupied with mobile devices or searching for signs. Turn left, then right, stand in the immigration queue, passport stamped thump. Out of there and I’m in a different country.
I’m going to Carolina in my mind, or is it just a continuation of the last journey? Home is an expanded concept, ‘many mansions’, memory of former lives. It has the feeling of an in-transit time; where we were after we left and before we arrived. It’s the ‘in-between’ time (when is it never the in-between’ time?) on the way to or coming back from somewhere else. There’s a Nagarjuna quote: ‘All things are impermanent, which means there is neither permanence nor impermanence…’ Change sometimes takes a very long time to happen. Usually though there’s enough time to rest, open up everything and lay out my things, then pack with fresh clothing and something new arrives; I’m swept away in the velocity of thought. These easy days of gentle sunshine on the roof terrace coming to an end…
“Just as it is known
That an image of one’s face is seen
Depending on a mirror
But does not really exist as a face,
So the conception of “I” exists
Dependent on mind and body,
But like the image of a face
The “I” does not at all exist as its own reality.”
[Nāgārjuna, c. 150 – 250 CE]
Where do they still stamp passports? I haven’t had mine stamped in 2+ years. 🙂 I like the reflection on the glass tabletop. Clever. 🙂
Thanks for the reminder, yes, of course in Europe they do it by way of the chip embedded in the passport. Probably also in other countries I never visited. All less developed countries in Asia they stamp the passports.
The photo with upside down palm leaves was something I thought might work and didn’t look at it closely for a few months then discovered it…
Traveling from country to country used to have an odd effect on my memory. In any given country my memories of previous sojourns there would sharpen while my experiences in other countries would recede, almost like dreams. It was most noticeable in India and Australia, which each seemed to have the capacity to supplant the ‘reality’ of my time spent in other countries, but it happened to some extent everywhere.
I recognize this. In a sense you become a different person, have to adjust to the local accumulated cultural consciousness, whatever. That quality that defines the particular behaviour of the population in a country. Maybe it’s more noticeable travelling between so-called III World countries, those that have not adopted international standards…
Oh, the days of gentle sunshine on the rooftop terrace sounds lovely. The photo has a nice feel to it along with your visual descriptions which I always enjoy. Interesting no permanence. Mooji says the only thing that lasts is the Self and he keeps trying to bring his followers to the Self. Simple he says but the person is complex so the process can take time. Is that what you mean when you say change takes time? And interesting thought that all is in between time. The elusive present constantly eating into future and leaving the past behind. Enjoyed the quote, too. Have a good trip and hope it is as pain free as possible.
Thanks Ellen, yes I’m starting to get my bag packed, I leave on Saturday 19 March. Your comment reminds me I didn’t make it clear that the Theravadin Buddhist sees conscious experience without the self, the self that is what Mooji might call the small self; the self that arises from sensory experience and is holding on to the body and the sense of ‘I am’ subject to suffering (dukkha), all the tugs and pulls of karma and the World experienced in terms of ‘me’. When it’s seen that there is no small self, then the practice is focused on what Mooji would call the higher Self and what Theravadin Buddhists call no-self (anatta). The Buddha did not say there was a higher Self nor was there no higher Self. He was noncommittal about that. For the purposess of this comment we can say they are the same; Mooji’s Self and the Buddha’s teaching on anatta (no self).
The other point about change is more to do with our ordinary human perception of change, and the Nagarjuna quote is interesting because it shows that impermanence can also be seen to include very long periods of no change. I’m glad you noticed the in-between time and that’s where we are, all through our experience of being alive, and at every moment. Having the focus on in-between time means we have left behind the ordinary perception of time passing – linear time. As in your quote: ‘The elusive present constantly eating into future and leaving the past behind.’
One other thing, I have developed the Art page since the last time we spoke. And that can be found under the header image click on Art.
I definitely disagree with that.
I reckon the Buddha was non-committal about lots of metaphysical questions partly because they’re starting with incorrect or self-referential assumptions but mostly because they’re a distraction from what he was trying to teach – cessation of suffering.
In debates depicted in the suttas the Buddha seems pretty clear that he disagreed with the Hindu concepts of atman and paramatman, which are typically what are translated from Sanskrit into English as ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’. I don’t think this was so much metaphysical hair-splitting as an emphasis on skillful means. Or more correctly, the unskillful means that are prone to arise from thinking you have some kind of pure, inviolate core that isn’t conditioned and therefore subject to anicca.
I’m not familiar with Mooji’s teachings. Maybe he’s very careful with his definition of ‘Self’ and manages to avoid such traps. But I find it hard to believe that your average English speaker with a European world-view wouldn’t find a lot of unhelpful concepts accreting to a word like ‘Self’ no matter how carefully defined. Unless they’d already defeated the concept of a separate self/Self, which would make me wonder what Mooji might be able to helpfully teach them anyway.
In my experience, Westerners who make a distinction between ‘self’ and ‘Self’ seem to be imagining the latter as a somehow transcendent, superior version of the former. Even a godlike one. That doesn’t strike me as skillful means.
At least when advaitists say “atman = Brahman” they aren’t equating Brahman with the inherently dualist and individualised connotations of the English ‘self’. Because what can ‘self’ mean if not ‘that which isn’t other’ – whether you capitalise it or not.
Okay so you’ve taken the time to italicise the word ‘definitely’ then I can say:
I definitely agree with what you’re saying.
It’s hair-splitting. Take a look again at what I said at the end of the reply to Ellen: ‘For the purposes of this comment we can say they are the same; Mooji’s Self and the Buddha’s teaching on anatta (no self).’ In other words, in the context of the present discussion we can say they are the same.
I just want to have a simple life, you know? Is it really necessary to come charging in with slash-and-burn enthusiasm and lay out a well-informed argument like this, when you might just put it in a way that gently invites discussion. I have no reason to disagree with what you’re saying at all! Except that it’s too much, you know, gives me a headache…
Love the art work. Interesting to see the black and white to see absence and presence, light and dark. I love the paintings in color, unusual coloration to my eye and colors I would never think of using together so an eye opener and exotic to me. Not exactly Braquian but almost. Not exactly Cubist but the shading of color brings Cubism to mind. I also find most intriguing the juxtaposition of sharp angles and curves. Was light and dark the inspiration? I am not quite sure why you are dissatisfied with your work. Do you think them unfinished.
About Mooji, I am staying way far away from this discussion because I am not in your league nor will I ever be, but about Mooji…
Mooji is a spiritual teacher originally from Jamaica. Moo-Young is a disciple of Papaji, a devotee of the advaita and non-dual master Ramana Maharshi
The Art page is a completely new project. I realise now that things are different from how I thought they were before starting this page. The process of selecting the images has revealed something I didn’t know was there, or it was there and I knew it was but had forgotten. So, really, I’m not sure why I’m dissatisfied with my work either – maybe I’m not! The dark/light and sharp cut shapes have always been part of it I don’t know why. There’s that cubist influence from my student days back in the distant past. Maybe it’ll change now I’m kind of waking up after long hibernation. About Mooji, his teaching is following in the tradition of his teachers Papaji and Ramana Maharshi. Thanks for persuading me to spend time watching the videos, thanks too for your comment here…
I enjoyed your passage about the feeling of home, of taking it with you in a blur from place to place, into the aluminum cans and flip-back tables of modern travel, of the many rooms and many mansions, all of them crumbling and passing away, and yet the feeling of home arising, and not even home to a self, but the blurring sweep of experience that says always… this is what has always been… This… this transitory “home”…
Thanks Michael, it’s always good to read your comments and responses to particular things. Quite often you ‘fill in the blanks’ for me; knowingly or unknowingly touch upon a subject and bring it to my attention. I hadn’t thought of it as a transitory “home”, more like ‘the blurring sweep of experience’. I’m grateful for the comfort and ease in the word ‘home’ and the thought that I’m taking it with me from place to place, rather than the emptiness I refer to usually…
An interesting book written by a neuro-scientist is The Illusion of Self which corroborates the Buddhist view of no-self. By Bruce Hood.
Thanks for this reference, I’m looking at the reviews and thinking of adding to my kindle library…
I haven’t read the book but I’ve read a fair few articles and interviews Hood has done about it.
From what I can tell Hood is on pretty firm philosophical ground with his summaries of the Buddha’s, Hume’s, Spinoza’s and William James’ views of the self (or selves) and how it’s sustained cognitively and socially. He also bolsters his arguments with some interesting examples from psychology showing how powerful mostly visual illusory effects can be, though it’s not clear to me that he realises these are metaphors at best and unlikely to be related to the mechanisms that give rise to the sense of self.
But, as is all too common these days, he sinks into a swamp of baseless ontological assumptions when he tries to locate the self in neurological phenomena and physicalist dogma. In particular he joins with most pop-neurologists in assuming that if a brain scan readout can be correlated with a thought or perception then the neuronal activity is that thought or perception, then goes much further into speculation along the same lines that isn’t even informed by experiments. But worse is that he seems unaware of the fact that his physicalist world-view effectively blinds him to any conclusions or evidence that doesn’t support it. So, for example, he dispenses with the idea of self yet still comes down firmly on the deterministic side of the argument between determinism and free will – apparently not realising the distinction disappears without the assumption of self. Nor does he seem to have insight into how by relying on reproducible evidence of causality science automatically eliminates any observations or evidence that might support notions such as free will. It’s a bit like looking at a distant mountaintop with a telescope and concluding that because you can’t hear anything through the telescope but now seem to be close to the mountain you’ve proved the mountaintop is silent.
Like I said, I haven’t read his book, but from what I have read of Hood I suspect it will be full of interesting observations, well explained summaries of the work of others and unsupported conclusions built on circular logic that begs the questions he asks. Perhaps that kind of thinking contributes to the illusion of self. Or is it the other way around?
I agree. Incidentally I have described a personal experience of no-self on my blog about Keat’s nightingale. In fact I now refer to it as ‘the nightingale experience’!
To clarify what I was saying about using science to search for the self.
What science can do is show there is (so far) no objective evidence for the existence of a self. But that tells us nothing. The self isn’t an objective phenomena but a subjective one. Showing that subjective optical illusions have neurological correlates in no way unpacks our subjective experience of them nor helps to dispel them.
If you want to realise the non-existence of self you must do it subjectively. By looking inwards both at and from your ‘self’ (while not kidding yourself that you’ve stepped outside it and objectified it). By saying it disappears when you objectify it you’re falling into the same trap Daniel Dennett does when he attempts to objectify consciousness and watches it fade away. Or the errors of B.F. Skinner when he used the scientific method to ‘prove’ there is no inner life, only behaviour.
I think my body is in Carolina, but my mind is traveling with your words. I’ve missed glimpsing into your self in motion these past several months. Blessing to you in your new locale!
Hey marga t. Thanks for traveling with me. It gets kinda lonely here and I write these words because there’s so much to say and also because there are so few people in my world who can understand English. Words come tumbling out, cart-wheeling and somersaulting like acrobats in a figure of speech. Yep I’m linguistically lonely I suppose, if there is such a thing, semantically stretched…