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Satori Lite

I’ve been reading and thinking about Zen and the awakening it promises. Yesterday, I read an article—which I have misplaced—that argued our consciousness is not simply a product of our brain. The gray flesh inside our skulls is only part of the equation, it said. The body and its environment all contribute their part.

As I was driving toward work this morning, my perspective changed. For a moment, I experienced my mind and the world as one thing. I lack the words to describe the experience accurately, of course, but I can say what it wasn’t: it wasn’t transcendent love or something mushy like that. I just seemed to realize that I’ve been walking around, seeing the world through a small hole, bounded above by a dark strip and below by a silly, pointy pink smudge which I have assumed corresponds to the thing people call my nose. This experience had a direct, unmediated quality to it, and I realized that this silly way to experience the world is me.

I wonder if that was a small taste of satori. Anyone who has experienced the real deal care to offer an opinion?

I’m leaning toward the conclusion that Zen is bullshit.

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Conversation With Myself – Alan Watts

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Keys to Drawing: Knowing vs. Seeing

Keys to Drawing has a very Zen lesson about the difference between seeing and knowing:

Seeing comes first. When rules conflict with seeing, forget them and draw what you see. This is what is meant by retaining an “innocent vision.” That is, to look at something as if you have never seen it before, and to be unclouded by assumptions about how a thing is supposed to look. The one simple rule to follow is: at each point of frustration or confusion, ask yourself, “What do I see?” (p. 17)

If you’ll excuse me for veering off the topic of drawing, this idea has been very important to me recently even though I didn’t think of it specifically as a conflict between knowing and seeing. One of the exercises illustrates the conflict. I first drew a green pepper from memory:

Then I drew a green pepper while looking at one (actually half of one) that I had available:

Our memories are only symbols. We walk around with preconceived notions that contain only a fraction of the information available in our first-hand experiences. Our memories are not our experiences. They are only derivative and shallow. Those prejudices based on memories get in the way of drawing because they separate us from what something really looks like. It is important to be able to suspend what we think we know in order to see clearly.

When I read this in the book, I immediately thought of my deconversion from Mormonism and theism. That process was driven in part by looking at my experiences with innocent eyes.

Anyway, back to drawing. This drawing is of my hand. The book said that if my drawing actually looked like a hand that I hadn’t done it right. Mission accomplished:

Then we have my eyes, or a crude approximation thereof. I really want to be able to draw human beings, but I have a long way to go:

A bottle laying on the table:

And an exercise bike:

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Lately, I have had for a constant companion an emotion for which I have no name. It defies easy description. I can’t even describe it well to myself, distilling my feelings into words and concepts. It’s easier to describe its effects than the emotion itself. Unlike other emotions which wane when examined too closely, it persists dancing seductively out of reach of my analytical mind. Even as I write this, I feel it.

I look at a coworker’s shirt, and the deep shades of blue conjure this emotion. I feel tempted to daydream in shades of blue and lose myself in the womb of my mind.

I lie sleeplessly in my bed next to my wife. I feel my stomach rising and falling in the slow rhythm of my breathing, the air flowing in and out of my lungs. I feel a knowing connection with my childhood self. I remember dreams and fantasies that occupied my mind when I was young.

I am ailing with a persistent cough and congestion, but I am content. A subtle, soft joy fills my lungs as I breathe.

My heart melts at the slightest provocation: the dimples in my daughter’s cheeks, my wife’s skin under my hand, a child’s song, the taste of my morning tea, the sun on my face.

The halls of my mind feel cleansed of the cobwebs and cruft of years of willful neglect. I feel pleasantly empty, like the scent of a kitchen floor that has just been mopped after months of procrastination or the clear view of newly washed windows. It feels like the lack of something that obscured my view.

I feel poised on the verge of… some unnameable, visionary place full of imagination, love, and joy. I feel like I am rediscovering something I forgot when I left childhood and got lost in my fears and my own notions of reality.

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Alan Watts: Madness

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