Tag Archive | Automatic Pilot

Practice for Death

I realized a few weeks ago that sitting and watching TV in no way constituted “having a life.” As I look, I see more and more similarities between watching TV and death.

There is the altered state of consciousness. Did you know that most people are in an alpha brain state within two minutes of watching TV? I got that from Eldon Taylor’s Mind Programming. The alpha state is a more relaxed state than our normal beta state. It is more susceptible (gullible) because the internal censors of rational thinking and logic have been turned off. That’s why it feels so good. One has ditched the burden of independent, rational thought. This should frighten anyone aware that the average American watches 6-8 hours of TV every day, 365 days a year.

Then there is the sedentariness factor. Sit down. Relax. Take a load off. Stop trying so hard. It seems like almost weekly a new study comes out warning about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Right now, it is hard for me to imagine living a more sedentary life. The weather does not help. Some days, it is so cold I don’t even want to open my front door. The TV cannot be blamed for Michigan’s weather in February, but it doesn’t help, either.

I also consider falling asleep to be practice for death. Lie down. Exhale.  Relax. Enter into another dimension in your mind.

I have been reading a book about the death of Hindu and Zen masters. It is fascinating. I would love to be counted among them.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. We will all die. That much we can be sure of.

But let us practice consciously.

Let us not pretend that killing ourselves with TV is a substitute for living a meaningful life.

Stupid Spontaneity

I have been wrestling lately with “the present moment” versus planning for the future, or maybe it is “spontaneity” versus “discipline.”

My stumbling block is McMindfulness, where the focus is incessantly on the present and the pretense (perhaps “pretense” comes from the same root as “present”, just as “shrub” and “bush” and “brush” seem to have the same letters rearranged to give a final similar result) that this moment is all there really is. I understand that if you don’t use the present moment well, odds are that your future won’t be that great, either. I see that every day in the people I know. To some degree, the focus needs to be on what you can accomplish today with the resources currently at your disposal.

However, our sensory-overloaded culture keeps saying, “Relax. Enjoy the moment. What’s all the fuss about?” There is a word for that: ignorance. It is rightly called a “poison” by Buddhists everywhere.

Ironies abound here. I was looking at an article on Buddhism Now regarding the Dalai Lama focusing on the present moment, saying that there is no future or past without the present. It seems that the people pushing this “present moment living” are also the people who have consciously, deliberately developed vast reservoirs of spiritual discipline. Another example is the Taoists out there, memorizing vast quantities of their scriptures so that they can “spontaneously” respond to a given situation properly. That’s not “spontaneity.” That’s called “training.” Any HR manager will tell you that. All HR professionals know, through experience, that people do not rise to the level of expectations placed on them. Rather, people fall to the level of their training. Martial arts are also built upon the same unfathomable depths of discipline to enable their practitioners to respond properly in stressful situations. The only way to behave harmoniously in a variety of circumstances is to have already made a strong, conscious choice to behave according to previously-chosen principles. This is hardly my definition of “spontaneity.”

I have some of the same misgivings relating to spiritual experiences that people attribute to The Universe, God, or whatever. Let’s just be honest. Most spiritual environments are designed to invoke certain feelings, such as beauty, clarity, holiness, warmth, community, peace, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Who wouldn’t rather be in a clean, beautiful, warm room/building/whatever (as opposed to a dirty, cold, ugly place)? I, for one, am always trying to declutter my house and clean it better to make it more inviting. I am only advocating truth-in-advertising. As an Orthodox Christian, I could look up whatever Sunday it was (such as the fourth Sunday of John, e.g.) and know precisely what scriptures would be read and what the hymns of the day would be. It was no secret, and there you go. However, in the Protestant world, there was a huge pretense of spontaneity and everything being a “move of God”—even as absolutely every detail was orchestrated and choreographed within an inch of its life. All details were manipulated and canned. The artificiality was palpable. I actually found the in-your-face predictability of orthodoxy refreshing and, uh, unpretentious.

My point is that I feel a certain confusion when I hear about how primary this moment is, as compared to all other moments, and then turn around to find my current choices being constrained by prior, poor choices I made years ago. My future choices are, likewise, being constrained by the quality of my current decisions. Maybe my issue is simply the fact that I am middle-aged now and routinely live with the good and bad consequences of previous choices. I want to take young people by the collars and try to communicate somehow to them that they will eventually have to live with the consequences of their choices from today. I have seen, personally, how a time comes to us all when we can no longer make choices. We have to accept the fallout or fruits of previous attitudes and actions. Our ability to make new choices has passed and we are left with what we did or didn’t do years ago.

There is a very steep price to be paid for stupid spontaneity. My friends and I are all paying it. This is the amount due for living a life with the attitude of Alfred E. Neumann: “What? Me worry?”

Realms and Attachments

“Buddhism teaches that the realms of existence we can dwell in range from the hell realm, which is unending agony and pain, to the realm of the gods. The life in the realm of the gods is good, where you can have all that you want. …As soon as those conditions change, you will find yourself in a very different realm. And so, even though it is pleasurable while you are there, you can’t stay. It is still a realm marked by dukkha. It’s not yet a place of liberation. To move beyond that, you have to give up all attachments.” The Journey of Not Taking a Step, Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei http://dharma.net/mountainrecord/archive/26-3/not-taking-step/ Featured in Mountain Record 26.3, Spring 2008

I like this quote because it shows that even the most exalted of experiences are temporary. Freedom doesn’t come from having all your needs met—it comes from escaping automatic pilot. Most “needs” are manufactured, anyway. Once you have enough food, clothing, shelter, medicine, transportation, and communication, everything else is consumerist obsession. Food doesn’t mean steak; it means beans, rice, veggies, and fruit. Transportation means a way of getting from point A to point B, not the most prestigious vehicle. You get the idea.

Automatic pilot is the ultimate enemy. There is a saying I love: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Thinking the same things leads to the same actions which lead to the same results, ad nausuem.

You get things exactly the way you want them and then life happens and they change. What can you do? The things are not the issue—it’s the attachment to them being a certain way. I know some very generous rich people and some lower-class borderline hoarders.

Maybe I have a negative view of life, but sometimes I feel like life is just a matter of making the best of various bad situations. Of course, I probably created many of the bad situations I was in years back, but I make an effort to not create any drama myself anymore.

The problem is that liberation from automatic pilot is painful. It is emotional withdrawal in the addictive sense. Liberation means getting out of the comfort zone. People don’t want to be liberated from comfort. They want sweet emotional foretaste of emotional death: denial. The only way life can reach such people is by increasing their level of pain beyond tolerable levels.

I feel like I am in withdrawal. I feel very raw emotionally. I am feeling every nuance of emotion and it is more annoying than satisfying. I want to escape, badly, but there is nowhere to escape to. I really don’t want to create future bad consequences for my actions now. This is the journey of not taking a step, not taking a step into escapism and numbness.


“Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness…Mindfulness helps your stopping to be realized. You stop running because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful, with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you….So we have to learn the art of stopping, L’arret. The Chinese word for stopping is zhi (sounds of writing), and if you go to China you’ll see a lot of these signs on the street. It means “Stop.” If you are a driver, you have to understand that. That is exactly the word used in the scriptures: stopping. Stop running, stop being pushed by that habit energy.” (Transforming Negative Habit Energies, by Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk given on August 6, 1998 in Plum Village, France.)

I have been fascinated with energy for years, not that I particularly understand. I also have an appreciation for irony. It seems contradictory talking about energy and stopping in the same sentence, but Thich Nhat Hanh does it easily and gracefully.

This is where some physics helps. Imagine a train going along a track. In order to change to the opposite direction, one has two choices: a very large U-turn or to completely come to a standstill, and then ever so slowly restarting in the other direction. Incremental change is the U-turn. Transformation is the total stop and then gaining momentum in the helpful trajectory. For some extremely busy people, the gradual method may be the only doable one.

However, a life-changing event can stop all momentum forcefully. When Barry got cancer, my life kind of went in slow motion for a while. Some happenings change the rules of the game altogether. The danger with the total stop is that it can be hard to get going again in any direction. The world has stopped and, for the moment, I’ve gotten off. Some people never get back on. Life goes on and if you don’t, you will get left behind. We all know people that have had some huge trauma and haven’t been quite right since. It’s hard, but necessary and healing, to resume life eventually.

Change is the nature of reality. Everything is changing all of the time. Not expecting the inevitable is invariably traumatic.  We don’t want to deal with reality, so we live on automatic pilot. “Habit energy” sounds like a variation of automatic pilot, our everyday trance. Months, and then years, go by and then one day, we notice a huge change that could not have appeared from nowhere. I’ve gone to school most of my life and I’ve had terms where, at the end, the seasons had changed and I’d had no awareness until class was over. “OMG. When did the leaves fall (or appear)? Where have I been?”

This is why I am always harping about awareness: the more you are aware of, the better you can tailor your understanding and actions to deal with current reality appropriately. Living on automatic pilot gives you a gigantic blind spot. Everyone else can see whatever it is, but not you. Whether it’s a lump you haven’t noticed or tectonic demographic shifts changing the face of America, refusing to acknowledge reality can have dire consequences.

Politically speaking, one’s opponents are not going to be the messengers of the new reality. They are going to tell you what you want to hear and pretend things haven’t changed. It will only be on Election Day that your opponents will laugh their way to victory. This is the hazard of automatic pilot. The world changes and people’s perspectives don’t keep up. Automatic pilot is so comforting, familiar, and ultimately fatal.