One City

From the desk of:


Re: volution

Sitting on his cushion at 6:12AM, thoughts began flooding in.  “Need to call Barry”.  “Need to pay storage bill.” “Need to write post for IDP.”  “Should start running again.” Don’t attach; don’t push away; observe.  He started observing his thoughts; “Oh look at me thinking about how I should start running again.”  Wait, that’s not it, he thought.  Observe the thought; don’t attach to thoughts about observing the thought.  For one brief moment he felt that he was observing the thinker, but then thought “Wait, am I Buddhist or schizophrenic?”  Back to the breath, focus on the sensation.  More than ten minutes go by.  Bow, rise, coffee, laptop. Only way to write. Except for when there’s no electricity.

electricity. Hah. Except this Friday he knew he was leaving for a two week
period of exactly that. It was time for a two week retreat with his father,
rafting the entire length of the Grand Canyon, sleeping outside and existing
without electricity, phones or computers. 
Like Thoreau on Walden, if Thoreau had guides and rapids.  Except even Thoreau wasn’t Thoreau, he
thought, thinking back to breakfast yesterday with his friend Graham from, a man with a  full-blown
case of environmentalism who’d remarked over a Soy Latte “I’ve never read
Thoreau. But  I’m finally reading Walden.
On my Kindle.”  And as those who  really know Thoreau are aware, even Thoreau
wasn’t Thoreau – he was a loner living on the edge of town so he could spend
his days observing, rather than participating, in society.  Observing without participating; now that
sounded familiar to this budding Boddhisatva.  
Yet in the case of Thoreau, it sounds impossible; how can you observe
society and write about it, without participating in language, culture, and
commerce? Then he thought of Werner Heisenberg, and his principle of
uncertainty, stating that the more precisely you know the momentum of a
particle the less precisely you know its location, and vice-versa.  Also known (and more easily understood) as
“the observer effect”, Werner was basically saying that the act of making an
observation of speed or momentum influences the position of a particle; and the
act of interfering to observe position effects momentum.

All of this
was feeling strangely relevant to him as he sipped his coffee,  thinking about what to write for the One City
Blog on  Kindles, Thoreau,
and what about Supreme Court Justice Souter? 
Perhaps the highest ranking public official who doesn’t have email or a
computer, Souter is known to write with a fountain pen, live in a cabin on the
edge of town and owns no mobile phone.  
It is highly unlikely that Justice Souter would read Walden on a Kindle;
yet he is as much a part of society’s fabric as a Kindle toting eco-hipster. 

He sipped
his coffee, thought about how much work he had to do before he left on his
trip, and began to consider how he could observe his thoughts without
influencing them.  That was after all the
core of the Buddhist teaching; not the “thought negating” that he had once
ignorantly assumed Buddhism was about (an idea that gets way too much ink: //  but the ability to discern thought patterns
and habits so that you could begin to align your actions with a more accurate
view of reality, one in which you don’t think of yourself as an isolated unit
fending off the savagery of a hostile universe until you die.  Ah – then there would be no observer to
influence position or momentum – that’s it, he thought, but then just as
quickly he thought about action, and changing the world.

It is
possible to engage in “mindful activism”, moving the ball forward towards a
more compassionate world for everyone. 
Revolutions come and go but the core meaning of mindfulness is ever the
same, he thought, lending credence to the abiding of Buddhist teachings throughout
history.  The sixties were a myth –
nothing more than a handful of media images representing a tiny portion of the
population dropping out to take drugs to experience a few moments of fleeting
“other-consciousness”, a few of them embarking on exploring those inner states through
the more reliable method of meditation. Yet those fleeting moments, the tiny
percentage of the population that engaged in mind experiments and civil rights
struggles, though their efforts may have been co-opted just as quickly as today
into fashion statements, copycat behavior, and lip service – they DID move the
ball forward ever so slightly.  The
emergence of contemporary Buddhism, integral activism, a black president – even
though the sixties generation may have themselves retreated into a more
materialistic society than the one they themselves rebelled against, the seeds
they planted have begun to blossom.  Meditation
offers a far more profound, accessible, and lasting alteration from “straight
thinking” (thanks Dr. Weil – The Natural Mind) than do drugs, but drugs at best
can offer a fine first tantalizing glimpse of what might be possible.  At worst they become an easy and superficial substitute
for the kind of truly mind/world altering work we learn about at the IDP.  The sixties may have been more drug
revolution than consciousness revolution, the (in retrospect) inevitable period
at the end of the sentence begun by the Beats in the 50’s.

It is a
fact, he thought, that by the time you read about a revolution in the New York
Times, it’s already over.  But who the
hell reads the New York Times?  Witness
the hipsters, rejecting “Disney movies and malls” as Namenorg put it so well
the other night, escaping to New York to be with like-minded others in a total
rejection of the McDonald’s culture they were forcefed in Akron.  The sixties begat the backlash that begat
disco. Mudd Club (punk  + disco) begat
New Wave.  New Wave begat grunge. Grunge
begat the rebirth of electro and guitar bands. 
The “scene” moved from the Lower East Side to Midtown to the East
Village to Williamsburg and now Bushwick? 
Maybe Berlin? Maybe a million sock-strewn poster-laden teenage bedrooms
all over the world? Who is redefining the edge of how we tell stories and
express ourselves? Who is living on the edge of town, observing without participating,  asking questions about who we are and who we
want to become?  Who is just totally
batshit crazy? A few come to mind (thanks Namenorg  for some of these resources)

impossible to criticize the culture you are in without criticizing yourself;
that’s like looking in a mirror and asking your own reflection to go away. But
there’s nothing wrong with that. Likewise it’s impossible to observe the
effects of the momentum of  your
revolution while you are positioned in the middle of it – Werner said so. Put
more simply, Anderson Cooper cannot simultaneously report on a developing story
and participate in it.  Even more to the
point, his reporting on the story has an effect on how the participants
experience the story. 

I sit on
the meditation cushion each day, trying to observe my thoughts without
reporting on them.  I try to take this
experience off the cushion into my world, trying not to fall out of the present
moment and into the baggage of every familiar emotion and canned response I lug
around with me.  I try not to lapse out
of “he-centered”stories into “I-centered” stories, a project which apparently
is as doomed to failure as my attempts to maintain an observational eye on my
own mental activity.  But like all
projects worth doing, growth happens from failure; practice won’t necessarily
make perfect but it will make well-practiced. And then he/I remembers Walden,
and Souter, and how personal revolutions are old news by the time you realize
them just like societal revolutions are. And he thinks about movement,
momentum, and position, and how we practice on our cushion in stillness,
sacrificing observing position in favor of observing mental momentum.  And he thinks about the irony of reading
Walden on a Kindle, and wonders if that’s only ironic because he wants it to be
so?  And he thinks of Hunter S. writing
in 1971 in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

“You could strike sparks
anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was
right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of
inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military
sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point
in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding
the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up
on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you
can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke
and rolled back.”

And he thinks once again of momentum, and position, and how these
affect particles and people and thoughts equally, and how disruption by
observation is not a bad or good thing, it just IS –  and he thinks of the power that comes from
not needing to know that you are right, only that you are doing good.

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