40. Ta Ta
I love the moment of not comprehending that a reflection is “me” when first catching sight of myself accidentally in a shop window or mirror. I like reading words before realizing that they are my own thoughts from the past.
I felt that pleasant shock of delayed recognition when presented with these words of mine from last year:
Clearly, our recollections of previous times were not accurate even at the time of the original “snapshot” and are then edited, pruned, revised, and recreated constantly. And certainly no one can return to the past and change anything.
“The moving finger having written moves on. Nor all thy piety nor all thy wit, cancel half a line of it.” (Omar Khayyám)
However, I do not think that the existence of the so-called present is any more real than the existence of the past. Both are seen from a particular point of view, and neither can be touched or altered by any means at our disposal, so in my book, they are functionally equivalent as to reality.
Q. So, Robert, if the present is equal in reality to the past because both of course are experienced from a particular point of view, is there anything real at all? I don’t have a need to find “me.” I am always “me.” But that is not the same as knowing what is real, is it? The only constant so far as I can see is old age, suffering, and death. Is that because those are the only things we know? Isn’t there something that is more real than all of that?
A. No. I would not say that. As I see this, the facts of old age, illness, suffering, and death are about as real as real gets.
Countless humans rely upon second-hand beliefs in an attempt to finesse the mortal situation. When I say “second-hand,” I mean ideas that one has heard or read and then simply accepted upon no real evidence beyond the supposed authority of the source—scripture, a venerated guru, or even just the popularity of the belief, as if the more believers an idea attracted, the truer it became.
When you ask me if there is not something realer than old age, suffering, and death, you are reflecting the core principle—the quintessence—of spirituality, which is belief in a kind of Cosmic Plan. In that view, the world we see is only a dream, but above or beyond “appearances” there exists a real world ruled by “God,” or, for those who feel more impersonal about matters, a world ruled by a primary organizing principle that is not random, but intentional.
Once the Cosmic Plan idea becomes rooted in a human mind, that mind readily accepts such propositions as: “Everything happens for a reason” (the reason being the Plan), or “Love is all there is” (“Love” being the name for the organizing principle). I am not saying that such ideas are false, but they could be. And since there can be no real evidence for such propositions, I have little interest in them.
When I say that the present is no more real than the past, that is not because both are seen from “a particular point of view,” as you said. Everything is seen from a point of view—what other kind of seeing is there?—but that does not make what one sees unreal, only personal.
I say that present is no more real than past because in the same way that one cannot touch or change the past, by the time one notices what appears to be “the present,” that is already gone and can no more be touched or changed than something that occurred last week or last year. Our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings are fleeting, changing constantly, and entirely impermanent. They can never be grasped, not even for a moment; one might as well try to carry water in a colander.
You do not have to take my word for that as you would if I were claiming that a group of special beings, the Indigo Children, have chosen to incarnate on this planet for a specific mission, or that Jesus awaits you in Heaven. Statements like that can only be taken on faith (credulity). But you can easily verify for yourself my saying that perceptions, thoughts, and feelings have no staying power at all — here for an instant, and gone forever.
Q2: In another vein, but pointing also to impermanence, I studied for a year with a Huichol Indian shaman called Ta Ta, a man in his eighties. He had plied his craft for thirty years and claimed numerous powers including the power to heal. When Ta Ta fell ill, he went to the high mountains to consult with the most famous and powerful living Huichol healer. But his kidneys still failed. I was told that on his death bed, Ta Ta expressed surprise that he too was dying.
A: I have heard reality defined as that which does not go away even if you don’t believe in it. I guess that one caught up with old Ta Ta.
Humans have some competence as healers—not the power to “do” healing, but the capacity to foster circumstances favorable to the natural healing powers of the body itself, by, for instance, cleaning a wound or by using an antibiotic to augment the work of the immune system. I did similar work myself for years as a psychotherapist. What we do not have, is the ability to live a life that is not a human life or to help someone else to live such a life with all that entails, including old age, illness, suffering, and death.
We humans are a species in the animal kingdom, and all animals age, become ill, and die. Obviously! Some people try to create two separate categories: humans and animals, as if we humans were not primate animals ourselves. In that view, humans are the specially created “children of God,” different not just in appearance but in kind from our non-human brothers and sisters. That idea becomes increasingly untenable as we learn more about the intelligence that other animals besides us really possess.
In fact, depending upon what is meant by the word “intelligence,” we may not even be the most intelligent animals on this planet. We already know that whales, for example, are highly intelligent, and possess notably evolved modes of communication among themselves. But because whales have no need to work for a living or invent anything, we humans are limited in our ability to assess their level of intelligence. No one really knows what it is like to be a whale, or what whales think about. We do observe that sex and reproduction is a big part of cetacean life, just as it is for us humans.
Getting back to the Huichol shamans: For those who feel absolutely certain that a world of spirits is not just another idea in the human mind, but a fact, the very word “shaman,” like the term “self-realized master,” carries with it a numinous quality, as if shamans possessed extraordinary powers that “ordinary people” lack. That is nonsense, I say. We are all just human here and to believe otherwise—to believe that certain special people enjoy supernatural powers, including having attained a “deathless state”—demonstrates the rather childish defense mechanism called magical thinking.
By defense mechanism, I mean a habit of mind fashioned to protect the ego — that sense of oneself called “I”—from coming face to face with certain facts. If I apply for a job, for example, but lose out to a rival for the same position, I may tell myself that I never really wanted the job anyway. That would be the defense mechanism called “rationalization.”
If one is young and healthy, certain facts of life may intrude only rarely. When at last those facts—the facts of impermanence: old age, illness, and death—begin to seem more pressing, the ageing human being will notice that the later stages of a human life seem to comprise one long goodbye: goodbye to friends and loved ones, goodbye to physical powers, goodbye to sensual pleasures, goodbye to health and independence, goodbye to self-image, and eventually goodbye to being at all.
Spiritual believers may claim that death is not “real,” and even offer arguments and purported “evidence” for that proposition. All of that, I say, relies upon an archaic defense mechanism—the one called denial. Your story of Ta Ta provides a clear representation of that rather primitive mechanism. When wishful thinking—“I won’t die”—is encouraged and supported by traditional spiritual beliefs, self-deception is practically inevitable.
To deny that death awaits us all, usually preceded by dotage, senescence, and decrepitude (assuming we even survive long enough to experience such infirmity), is entirely delusional, quite beyond mere wishful thinking. In his belief that he could defeat death with shamanic medicine, Ta Ta was not “spiritual,” but deranged. And the medicine man who taught him that nonsense was deranged as well. Titles such as shaman, guru, master, or, worst of all, “self-realized being” do nothing to make such beliefs less delusional. And by the way, Ta Ta is a funny name for someone who believed he would never have to say “ta ta.”
Q3: Robert, thank you for your words. My knowledge of Zen is nonexistent, but I do not want to become a Buddhist, and, although I consider you to be awake in the best sense, I am not looking to you for enlightenment or mastering anything. If that’s OK with you, I will ask my questions.
A: Although I speak of Zen sometimes, I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a Be-ist. My intention is not to proselytize, but only to express my views on these matters for whatever they are worth. Beyond that, I have no agenda, and, unless asked explicitly, I do not presume to advise anyone. With that understanding, please feel free to ask whatever you like.
Q3: Be-ist. I like that. I never heard it before. My question is a confusion I can’t seem to get off my mind. If this world is like a dream, and if a dream is really non-existent, then would it not be true that we are all dreaming old age, suffering and death, creating them, I mean? And in that case, would old age, suffering and death not be unreal too, Robert?
A: The phrase “this world is like a dream” can mean so many things. Let me begin by telling you how I understand it:
In our nightly sleep we seem to inhabit a world of experiences that feel real while we are dreaming, but upon awakening we have no idea from whence those dreams came or from what “stuff” they were made. The same is true of the world we see in ordinary waking consciousness, including our own bodies. It all feels real, but we don’t know what it is.
Of course, we know nothing at all about the quintessential nature of “reality.” Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Goose egg. Nada. Anyone who claims to know that is a fraudster or a fool. But it is not just the ultimate nature of reality about which we are ignorant. We do not know that the world we see even exists apart from our perceptions of it, so in that sense we are dreaming that world. However — and this is a big “however” — that does not mean that our lives are not real, that this world is not real, or that old age, illness, and death are not real.
It is one thing to say, “I don’t know the essential nature of reality”—which is a factual assertion—and quite another to say, “None of this is real, and I do not really exist.” From my point of view that assertion, which is common among certain types who consider themselves spiritual, is just preposterous. That kind of talk arises when fears of meaninglessness in the ordinary daily grind, along with other forms of psychological suffering, including the undeniable experience of deterioration and mortality, motivate a desire to escape into something “better,” something “spiritual,” something that is not this.
Whether that escape hatch is called “I will never die because I am a Huichol shaman,” or “My earthly life is just the waiting room to get into Heaven,” or “I cannot die because I was never born,” or some other version of the no-death, feel-good story, the upshot is the same: a rejection of what one plainly sees in favor of what one wants to believe.
Selling feel-good beliefs is the stock in trade of the priests, pastors, gurus, shamans, spiritual teachers, and other such “experts” who make a living practicing their special versions of the world’s oldest profession. Some of them even believe what they are saying, although there is, I say, little “truth” in any of it, at least as far as we know. But the credulity with which so many people approach the assertions of those “experts,” and their allegedly sacred texts, as if hearing something from a so-called saint, or reading it in a purportedly holy book, made it automatically true, from my perspective appears infantile.
Clinging is one of the two primal human instincts observed in newborns. Sucking at the breast is the other. “Spirituality” offers the opportunity for grown adults to indulge both, and even to be considered high-minded for doing so. If that rankles, sorry. That is not my intention. I just say what I see. Anyone is free to disagree entirely with any or all of it.