Archives for category: Books

For the past few weeks I’ve been absorbing and digesting another reading suggestion from one of my Temple’s leaders: Jiddu Krishnamurti’s treatise re-examining our experience of consciousness, and suggesting a radical alternative to conventional ways of thinking; as Krishnamurti puts it a “revolution in the psyche”. Krishnamurti is regarded as one of the most important Spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century, with over a hundred books to his name. His determination not to subscribe to any existing institution (religious, philosophical or even national) gives a glancing demonstration of the nature of his thinking; that we are confined by tradition, and instead we need to re-examine our lives in order to find the true nature of reality, true peace, and true happiness.

Freedom From The Known was first published in 1969. It is a dense and wide-reaching philosophical tract, which I’ll admit took a good deal of time to both read and piece together in my understanding. What follows is an overview of what struck me as the important currents of the text, as deeper analysis would require a huge amount of explanation and essentially result in paraphrasing the whole book! What I will say is if anything I write about here interests you, read the book yourself; Krishnamurti is a far greater communicator of ideas than I am. I’ll be examining the book in two parts, the next to follow in a few days.

The book is broken down into chapters with core themes, leading into one another to form a persistent structure or narrative to his inquiry, which I will follow here. The first chapter is about the nature of human beings. Krishnamurti rejects religious and philosophical traditions which have subdivided and isolated humanity. He suggests our reliance on traditional modes of thought has “broken” our minds to the extent we must know “unlearn” in order to reach the truth. He tells us that “to understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom”, but by “yourself” he doesn’t mean this broken notion of an isolated individual, but that of human beings in general. We perceive ourselves as subset of this single self, “the whole”, a concept which reminds me of Plato’s forms. Because humans don’t know everything but fear both what they know and what they don’t, they invent philosophies and religions to ‘fill in the blanks’. This habitual mode of escapism leads to horrendous crimes, of which human beings as a whole are guilty.

“Truth has no path, and that is the beauty of truth, it is living. A dead thing has a path to it because it it static, but when you see that truth is something living, moving, which has no resting place, which is in no temple, mosque or church, which no religion, no teacher, no philosopher, no teacher can lead you to – then you will also see that this living thing is what you actually are – your anger, your brutality, your violence, your despair, the agony and sorrow you live in. In the understanding of all this is the truth, and you can understand it only if you know how to look at those things in your life. And you cannot look through an ideology, through a screen of words, through hopes and fears.”

You are, therefore, responsible for guiding yourself.

We like to think of our experience of reality as having both an inner and outer life, but in reality these two things are functions of a single thing – everything. All we need to produce Krishnamurti’s revolution is to see that all is one, without the layers of philosophy we’ve piled on top of this. We’ve done so because it devolved us from responsibility; if we fail, we can blame the system. True change is something we must actively do; we must throw off all authority and act from freedom. One question I had at this point was that does this not lead to moral relativism, allowing for all kinds of weird and wonderful permutations of what “freedom” means? Can my freedom not impinge the freedom of others? Does the serial killer not believe they are acting from “freedom”?

The second chapter is on the nature of “others”, as we experience them. We crave the herd, primarily because being alone requires us to confront our current, imperfect state of being. In a very Taoist sense, “We” exist only in relation to “everything else” – by cutting ourselves out as distinct, we define the rest of reality at “other”. As Krishnamurti mentioned earlier, we are not static but moving, changing things. Our past is static, so not relevant to our true nature. So to is the declaration “I understand!”, which suggests we have stopped learning and become static: “A confident man is a dead human being”, he asserts. Our concepts condition us in certain ways, tying us down and making us static. Anything outside our conditioning disturbs us, leaving us callous, rigid and cold.

The third chapter describes this conditioning further. In order to perceive it, Krishnamurti suggests we must give full “attention” (akin to mindfulness in this context, and opposed to concentration – kind of a wide angle view, rather than a narrow focus), rather than our conventional, fragmentary mode of perception. “We live in fragments. You are one thing at the office, another at home; you talk about democracy and in your heart you are autocratic; you talk about loving your neighbours, yet kill him with competition; there is one part of you working, looking, independently of the other.” He therefore suggests this understanding must come all at once, rather than “piece by piece”. This sounds hard! But I suppose this is what we aim for in meditation, a total wide angle on our nature, and a putting down of all fragments.

The fourth chapter focuses on pleasure. He draws a distinction between pleasure, which is conceptual and rooted in memory, and joy, which is immanent and rooted in the present. Thinking about joy conceptualises it into pleasure. Krishnamurti suggests we can be denied pleasure, but never denied joy – this helped me to gather the idea more fully. This reminded me of Nietzsche, when he wrote “Did you ever say yes to pleasure? Then you also said yes to pain. All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.”

The fifth chapter moves on to fear; like pleasure, fear is always conceptual in nature, “fear of” something. Fear comes about when our preconceptions or plans get confounded, and is the movement from static certainty to more natural, fluid uncertainty. Fear is a by-product of thought: “Thought, which is always old, because thought is the response of memory and memories are always old”; old and therefore static, past, and irrelevant. Similarly to how he described our desire to be part of the herd as a way of overcoming our fear of confronting our true nature, he considers thought to be something we try to constantly occupy ourselves with just so we don’t have to face the problems of our imperfect nature which lies beneath it.

Fear usually exists as a function of our past, because we perceive it through the gauze of preconceptions we view the world through. We should instead examine the fear as it truly is, in the present moment. Because we try to be static observers, measuring the world in comparison to preconceptions, we become nothing more than bundles of dead and static memories. We can choose, however, to become living and active observers, fluid and open to life. We do this by moving from “this thing scares me!” to “I am afraid!” or even “I am fear!”. This is a little like the Cartesian project of radical doubt, in which by stripping away anything he could doubt Descartes reduced his experience of reality right down to “I think, I exist” – more honest would have been the statement “there are thoughts”, and similarly Krishnamurti’s project takes things down to their most basic, and therefore truest, nature.

Chapter six focuses on violence. He suggests most of us delight in violence in some sense, even if that’s only in disliking someone, holding violent thoughts or intentions. As part of this we must try and examine anger dispassionately, rather than thinking of it as sometimes justified and sometimes not. Deciding not to be violent in any way may have negative consequences for us including possible imprisonment, but if we are committed to rejecting violence we should be OK with that. This echoes Thoreau’s point in his essay Civil Disobedience, that “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Krishnamurti suggests we must “go deeply” to penetrate beneath the condemnation in our minds, espousing the Jedi virtue of focus: “You can penetrate deeply only if your mind is as sharp as a needle and as strong as a diamond”, a passage which had echoes of the notion of the sword of attention in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. We must examine things as they are, rather than in some imagined isolation or a conceptual “ideal” form – and at the same time, we must decide to either live without violence or not – “there is no try”. I can think of another Jedi who would approve of this notion…

(…to be concluded)

This book was recommended by a Buddhist friend who heard about my troubles with anger. She told me that whilst no one book could “cure” anger completely, this was the step which helped her fully step away from the destructive energy of anger; and whilst she still feels angry at times, the lessons in this book have allowed her to deal with her anger in a much healthier and more productive way.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who I’ve previously only encountered in a few short lecture transcripts, and through a large number of very wise and profound quotations – he’s obviously a very quotable guy. I read up on his life, from his early success in academia, through the traumatic events of the Vietnam war during which he returned to his native Vietnam to promote peace with his fellow monks, and his many years of lecturing and writing since then espousing the wisdom of the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Similarly to Jedi, he stresses that the body and mind are not separate entities; therefore anger is physical as well as mental. He suggests we avoid anger even in our food, so not eating factory-farmed eggs but instead opting for free-range, “happy” eggs. He means this in a literal sense, but also as a metaphor for what we consume sensually – through our eyes and ears as well. We should not spend time with anger through choice, as entertainment. We consume mindfully, we contribute only to mindful produce (be it food, films, books or whatever), and therefore support only the positive. He also discusses how we eat, suggesting we eat slowly and appreciate every mouthful. We take our time with it, and so need less to sustain us.

His approach to anger does not seek to eradicate it; he describes it as an integral part of our selves like an upset organ. He says “When you have a stomach-ache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ ”, and describes trying to rid ourselves of anger as the same idea. He suggests we can still maintain a loving and positive outlook, even in the depths of anger, and calls on us to “take care of our anger” in a very literal sense, even describing it as like a crying baby within ourselves which we must comfort and soothe rather than simply shut away or discard altogether. We must “put down” whatever else we are doing, and soothe the baby back to contentment. He also makes the analogy to a house on fire – if your house has been set ablaze, do you run after the arsonist, or do you try and put the fire out? Clearly putting the fire out is the most important thing in the moment. Similarly, when angry we should not pursue the person we feel is to blame. Instead we can work on ourselves, and “transform from a sea of fire into a refreshing lake”, helping all those around us.

His techniques for soothing the baby and putting out the flames include mindful breathing (like rocking and soothing that crying baby – as soon as we do it our anger will feel better for the attention), mindful walking, sitting and eating (similarly allowing mindfulness and, crucially, a little time to cultivate and improve the situation inside us), embracing our anger (allowing it to blossom and “open up” into a flower of compassion, rather than as the tight-knotted bud it arrives as), examining our perceptions and examining the true nature of our “antagonist” (working with the other person to truly understand the situation, and any misapprehensions we may have which led us to anger). He suggests we literally look at ourselves in a mirror and see how ugly our anger makes us; he also suggests that the elements we see as “garbage” within ourselves can be used like compost to grow things we find beautiful, given their proper cultivation through mindfulness.

He also suggests that we follow some steps to resume communication with our loved one when we’ve become angry. First we must be mindful for some time, until we have calmed down. From there he suggests we begin by telling them we love them, then “Darling, I am angry, and I suffer”, next telling them (and show them) that “I am doing my very best”, and finally asking them “please help me.” These phrases come from love; they express only facts about ourselves, and shows our sincerity in hoping to move forward together. Another technique we can use is making an “appointment” with the person we’re angry with, allowing time to consider the issue mindfully and come together in the spirit of overcoming it.

We must become experts in our anger, so that we can quickly and instinctively identify the cause of the problem by holding it in the gaze of mindfulness. It is only through mindfulness that we avoid the trap of repeating anger which we inherit from others – we often hold double standards, where we feel hurt by something but fall into the habit of doing it to others. If we are mindful we see both the hurtful actions of others and our own hurtful actions as one and the same. We can express this to the other, tell them that we are trying to put into practice these teachings. Tell the other person that we are hurting very deeply, rather than simply exploding in their faces. This is true strength, and, I feel, the way of the living Force. We accept what is, rather than imposing some abstraction born in anger.

Nhat Hahn describes the role of a listener in diffusing anger; he says that one must be able to listen fully, with only the intent to allow the other person to express their thoughts and feelings without judgement or interruption, mindfully and fully consciously. He repeatedly describes this as a “deep teaching” and shows that it allows us to become Bodhisattvas, “great beings” for those who are suffering the torment of anger. By having this insight and insight into our own anger, we become capable of helping those around us who we would otherwise have argued with.

He discusses the hurt child within us all, who needs us to become a big brother or big sister, to listen mindfully, and to wrap our arms around them in true understanding of what they felt, what they are feeling still. This is a powerful insight. By keeping this poor wounded child in mind, we help them and, therefore, ourselves. We can be healers both outside and within, and this makes sense as in reality we recognise the two things are one and the same.

Nhat Hahn believes that punishment is always a double-edged sword, and that we always end up suffering ourselves when we seek to punish. He describes the cycle of escalation this creates, from international wars right down to petty arguments and anger. The moments of happiness we share with others become our “peace treaty”, and our agreement that we will weather the storm of anger with mindfulness and a spirit of compassion.

I found the insights in this book very profound. Whilst my therapy showed me the need to accept thoughts and elements of myself I find troubling, seeing this reflected through the lens of this great teacher’s Buddhist thought has given me an extra sense of how important it is to work with rather than simply against the anger within me. I agree with him that anger is part of us which we shouldn’t try to shun, but had never considered it like a child crying, a house on fire or an upset stomach before. These ideas allow a really fantastic perspective on the issue.

The practical suggestions Nhat Hahn gave in the book were fantastic and can be applied instantly, assuming one maintains the composure to do so. I think a big problem in the “angry moment” is not knowing what’s likely to help. Should I explain my position more, or is that just fanning the flames? Should I shut up, or is that just sulking? Should I leave the room for some quiet time, or is that just abandoning the situation? I suppose the answers to these are pretty obvious in the cool calm light of day, but in the heat of the moment they’re not always so clear. The angry person doesn’t know they’re doing something wrong, until after it’s been done. I think taking the time to develop these techniques within our minds can enable us to move forward in a more positive, healthy way.

One of the best suggestions he makes is that of time. In order to deal with our anger, we must give ourselves and our anger time. This is a very good point which I have often neglected. I do things in “the heat of the moment” – but in reality, the moment has no heat but that which we give it. If I am angry, I can take time to deal with that before returning when I’m calmer. This is not an avoidance strategy; it’s simply acknowledging the momentary nature of intense, volatile and destructive anger. My life has been full of these “hot moments”, but it needn’t be any more.

I liked the holistic approach Nhat Hahn took in the book, suggesting we rebuild our approach from the ground up including the food we choose to eat. This resonated deeply with me as a Jedi because I believe we are all one entity, all one substance, and that our choices in one part of our lives reflects and resonates throughout the rest of our lives, and indeed throughout the universe. By choosing “happy food”, we are withdrawing our support for “unhappy food”. Whilst I already make many choices in this manner, I haven’t extended this thinking outwards to the entertainment I enjoy, or other aspects of my life. By becoming mindful in each decision we make, we cultivate a universe in which there is more kindness, more contentment and less frustration and anger.

I relate strongly to his comments on the cycle of anger, and feel that I am repeating some of the same missteps my father made in raising me, which I swore I would never do. It’s incredibly important to me that my son understands he has a loving father who cares very deeply about him, but in repeating some of the angry actions of my father I make that less likely. This is perhaps the best motivator for change I have.

Nhat Hahn also expresses some powerful Jedi sentiments in passages about our non-duality (the single nature of mind and body) and also the inter-connectedness of all things. He shows that using these insights we can defuse and potentially avoid the frustration and anger we experience so frequently. I felt this section of the book would mean more to those who were just starting on their path, but he echoes much of Alan Watts’ thinking in that we are one nature, and that every part is just a part of the universal whole:

“Doing violence to others is doing violence to yourself. […] once you have penetrated the reality of non-duality, you will smile at both the flower and garbage in you, you will embrace both.”

I’ve recently received a few different reading suggestions from fellow Jedi, and I’ll be writing up the results here as I go. First up is Dan Millman’s book, which I enjoyed a great deal. It travelled around with me for a couple of weeks while I read it and I’ve waited a few weeks since finishing it to fully digest it before writing this.

This entry contains SPOILERS – it’s a discussion, not a review so please proceed with caution. I don’t think anything I’m going to say would ruin the book for anyone, but I will be mentioning “shock” plot points and discussing the ending.

The story centres on Dan, an ordinary man of university age, and a strange and mysterious teacher he only ever knows as “Socrates”, who Dan meets one night at a petrol station. This old man can do things Dan has never seen done, including things he is a world expert in himself. Through strange and baffling lessons, Dan gradually gains wisdom of himself. Despite major problems in his life including a debilitating motorcycle accident, Dan goes on to great success by following the teachings of Socrates, or rather the insights Socrates makes him draw out of himself.
I was reminded throughout the story of Zen, including the study of koans to attain clarity or no-mind. The attitude, lessons and ideas Socrates puts forward are, I think, very Zen. They’re also very Jedi; Socrates can see the value in teaching via synthesis, because he spins Dan’s preconceptions on their head and shows him the opposite to make a point. When Dan thinking he has the answer already, Socrates is quick to show him the opposite point of view so he can move forward on a course of balance, and wisdom.

A key point the book made was the importance of the “now”, the present moment. This is also a very important point for Jedi. We recognise that time is a concept, and all we can know is right now. We recognise that whilst our past and our future are important, they don’t control us. We understand that whilst we live in a causal universe, by attaining the wisdom that we can choose to chuck out our preconceptions, we gain the power to be spontaneous; we have the power to change bad habits in an instant, if we so wish. We can choose “now” rather than later, and in doing so change the world.

One of the important lessons of the book is that life is about the journey, not the destination. Again, this is an important notion for Jedi as well. We value the individual paths we take, and recognise the value in travelling from where we were to where we are. We are guided by some central directions, by which we can navigate ourselves on a journey of peace, compassion and harmony.

Another very relevant point to the path of Jedi is something I mentioned briefly in the final essay of the IP. Socrates talks about the peaceful warrior’s sword as his ability to comprehend – his meditation, or focus. I think this ties in with the idea above of the power of the moment, the inherent strength of understanding and living in the “now”. Because we understand focus is valuable and because we have tools which allow us to live in a focused and present (mindful) way, we have the power to see through illusion, and cut through the humdrum thoughts and fears which obscure true wisdom. Like a sword, we must learn to use it; eventually we must use it without thought or conscious choice, instead reaching for it as we need it, no more, no less. We get to this point through practice.

At the end of the book, Socrates “does an Obi-Wan” and vanishes. Poof! And he’s gone. Dan recognises that whilst it’s sad he’s no longer there to speak with in the flesh, he lives on in the universe. This has obvious resonances with the Force and the Jedi understanding of the inherent “deathlessness” of life, when taken as a whole. The lessons Socrates had given Dan were given; he had “served his purpose”. Was Socrates an angel? A ghost? A hallucination? He could have been any or all of these things and it wouldn’t change the fact it was Dan who did the work, Dan who reached enlightenment.

I like to think of Socrates as Dan’s ignorance. Taoism teaches us the wisdom of “beginner’s mind” and the “uncarved block” – that the wisest person is often the one who knows least. Socrates is wise without detail; Dan is knowledgeable without wisdom. Because Socrates showed Dan what he lacked, Dan pursued him and followed his lessons. Ignorance does the same for us; because we know that we do not know, we are driven to learn. Socrates plays less and less part of Dan’s life as Dan becomes wiser and moves out into the wider world. The final moment of non-enlightenment has Dan passing through the gate, which “kills” his ignorance; but his valuable ignorance is not discarded or forgotten, it remains a key part of who Dan is. He recognises its value. The story is told in such a way as the reader shares Dan’s ignorance, and this is what drives the reader to follow the story.

I found the explicit idea of Socrates being an extension of Dan’s self a little trite; I saw that it was a possible outcome of the book’s central mystery of “who is Socrates?”, and I was hoping for something which I hadn’t thought of, something which would add another layer to the book’s message. However it didn’t change the insights and message of the story, and after a while I realise it’s actually rather nice. Millman is using Socrates as a metaphor for the idea we all have wisdom within ourselves, if we can only learn to engage with it, to unlock and “walk through the gate”. I imagine the character of Dan perched in his gas station at night, reading the works of great philosophers and mystics, developing his spiritual side.

This also resonates with parts of my own life, when I was Dan’s age. When I was at university I had a job sitting in a little box in a car park, taking tickets from people as they left and making sure no-one was breaking into cars. It was, essentially, a no-mind job which left me free to do whatever I wanted, within reason. I read. I read anything and everything, from Virginia Woolf to Neil Gaiman, comics to novels to non-fiction to spiritual texts. I listened to audiobooks and podcasts. I made the most of the opportunity this “prison” of my little box allowed me, to broaden my horizons and expand my mind. I often think of that job as the best I ever had; I changed nothing, other than making people smile by being kind and polite… but I learned more in that little box than anywhere else in my life so far, including my university lecture theatres and libraries. The lessons I gave myself there have guided me to be a stronger, better person in the life that has followed.

And perhaps that was the biggest take-home message from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior; that it’s in life that we “climb the mountain”. It’s the path which leads us to the supermarket and to the office and to our sofa that also leads us up to the gate of enlightenment. The peaceful warrior does not train in isolation, finding a cave somewhere to meditate without end. Dan tries this, and he gains some insight. But it’s in engaging with the world, “getting on with life” that we really understand it. It’s not about thinking; it’s about doing. We must walk the path or we’ll never get anywhere.

Getting Right WIth The Tao – Ron Hogan

TAO (THE WAY)

If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.

Stop wanting stuff. It keeps you from seeing what’s real.
When you want stuff, all you see are things.

These two statements have the same meaning.
Figure them out, and you’ve got it made.

This is my personal favourite translation of Lao Tzu’s beautiful, mysterious and profoundly wise Tao Te Ching. Ron Hogan was working in a book shop after university when he picked up the ubiquitous Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching. He found it accessible, but not always transparent, and an idea was born:

I grabbed a couple other translations and started looking at the different ways they expressed the same sentiments–or, as I quickly discovered, how much poetic license Mitchell and other translators were willing to take with the original text. I don’t think this necessarily matters all that much; many current English- language versions are by people who don’t know Chinese well, if at all, and I can’t read or speak it myself. To that extent, then, we’re *all* (unless we’re fluent in Chinese, that is) at the mercy of, at best, a secondhand understanding of what Lao Tzu said.

Once I thought I had a rough idea what was behind the words, though, I went about rephrasing the chapters in my own voice. My guiding principle was to take out as much of the “poetry” as possible, to make the text sound like dialogue, so the reader could imagine someone telling him or her what Tao’s all about. You can’t take the “poetry” out completely, because the TTC is always going to have those lines about Tao being an “eternal mystery” and whatnot.

But the beauty of the book isn’t in its language, at least not for me–it’s in the practical advice Lao Tzu offers us about how to live a productive, meaningful life on a day to day basis. What I wanted to do was to make that advice as clear to a modern American reader as it would have been to the guard who first asked Lao Tzu to write it down.

I find his take on the ancient wisdom amazingly refreshing. Gone are the conundrums of the original which, while beautiful, mean the initiate to Taoist thought must overcome a real mountain before they get the gist of the core teachings of the religion.

The truth isn’t flashy.
Flashy words aren’t true.

I thanked Ron personally for his work in producing this, and he told me he was “always glad to hear that it has helped someone”. In that spirit, please spend some time reading his marvellous translation, and if you’re as much a fan of it as I am, please consider buying a copy of your own.

Amazon UK / US