We all have an inside and an outside. Or so it seems. It feels like that. Out there is the world. Inside me are private thoughts and feelings. Feelings and thoughts that seem unique to me. Maybe not all of them. But a lot of them. My response to the world feels singular. It gives me a feeling of separateness. But I’m not. Nobody is. How could you be?
The world travels through us. As food. As water. As the air we breathe.
When we breathe, the air we inhale travels into the bronchial tubes to smaller air passages called bronchioles to the alveoli, tiny balloon-like air sacs, to red blood cells in the capillaries where oxygen is extracted from the general air and distributed throughout the body. The oxygen helps liberate biochemical energy from food and converts it to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an organic chemical which provides energy for driving the numerous processes that give and maintain life. We’re intimately connected to the world. We are the world. We’re no more separated from the world than the hair on our head or the sensations in our skin or the fluids filtering through our kidneys and liver.
Our feeling of being unique and separate individuals is illusory. But a compelling one. Our thoughts, opinions, ideas, perceptions, feelings and dreams are private. We can share them if we so choose or we can keep them to ourselves. We can let them drift through our minds like clouds or haunt us like ghosts or lick our brains like Iggy Pop.
What are thoughts exactly? Do they have a reality? Are they edible like beans or tangible like spars? Are they heavy like clubs or brittle like stems? Do they produce flowers? Do they expand like balloons? Do they hold objects like trays?
No. They’re not real. They’re waves. Impulses. Electro-chemical signals. What gives a thought the feeling of being real is the attention we give it, the energy that we feed it, the language we use to create it. A thought can burden us and a thought can empower us. A thought can inspire a religion, invent a new mode of travel, or weave a mathematical construction postulating the origin of the universe. It can lead us to insights about a potential romantic partner or tumble around in our heads like a pair of socks in a dryer doing nothing at all except distract us from the purity of a moment. They create as many problems as they solve. They’re a weather of the mind. Epiphanies are lightning. Depressions are troughs. Intuitions are chinooks.
Thoughts may not have anything like a true reality but they do affect behavior and behavior can have real consequences.
For example: in the afternoon I run down a residential street lined with oak and cherry trees. The houses are fairly large, Queen Anne-style residences with fine brick-work and broad porches and dormers and crisply painted woodwork. The people that live in these homes are quite wealthy. This is Seattle. A single individual needs an income of approximately 72,092 dollars per year to live somewhat comfortably. The people on this street – unless they’ve been living here for 40 or 50 years when homes were more affordable – are quite wealthy. Bill Gates wealthy, no. But wealthy enough not to worry about doctor bills or car repairs. Comfortable enough to have a couple of kids and afford their education.
I come upon a man and his two boys playing basketball in the street. This is a relatively busy street. One or two cars can go by within the space of a minute. This is common. There is no sidewalk for much of the way and the road must be shared with all sorts and models of cars and trucks and vans. The man has set up a portable basketball hoop – blocking entry to a little path that leads from the street to a length of welcome sidewalk - and painted – that’s right: painted – a free-throw semi-circle into the middle of the street.
I find it difficult to ignore this encroachment on public space. “That can’t be legal,” I shout. “It’s not,” the man responds. But he’s decided to do this because people drive too fast on the street. If he and his two boys come out and play basketball in the middle of the street, he’s forcing them to slow down and pay attention to their driving instead of texting or watching videos on their phones. I agree that this is a common problem. But this isn’t the way to avert drivers from doing it. Out of frustration with the absurdity of what this man is doing, I submit my prerogative to call the police. This startles him.
“That’s aggressive,” he says.
His answer confuses me. Aggressive? How can calling the police to settle a dispute over the use of a street be aggressive?
The answer that leaps most readily to mind is “aggressive? How is that aggressive? If I -was going to be aggressive I’d punch you in the face.”
But instead I provide a more prudent answer: “if I was going to be aggressive I’d be shouting invectives.”
I don’t like my answer. It’s weak. It occurs to me hours later (as always maddeningly happens the best response occurs when it’s too late, which is why they French invented a perfect term for it: l’esprit de l’escalier) that what I could’ve said is: “aggressive? You call that aggressive? And painting a basketball court in the middle of a busy residential street isn’t?”
Nothing is resolved. Just an opportunity to blow off some hot steam in the face of a wealthy, entitled douche bag.
And no, I don’t care for rich people. They’re generally true to their stereotypes: selfish, arrogant, entitled, narcissistic, avaricious, self-centered and toxic.
A number of things may be gleaned from this. One, I’m not a Buddhist. I’m far too judgmental for that. Two, I’m not rich. If I was, I’d have significantly fewer worries and stand a far better chance of being a well-balanced, calm, rational, forgiving nature and going around smiling in the face of catastrophe with the generous, enlightened spirit of Thich Nath Hanh. Three, my antagonism toward the social environment of places like Seattle and San Francisco steeped in techno-utopian, libertarian smugness, is acute. Rage is a common component of my emotional life.
Sure, I’d like to be broader in my outlook. I’m not proud of my hostilities. They get in the way of enlightenment, whatever enlightenment is.
I’m assuming enlightenment is that ultimate, unswerving awareness of being one with the universe, including the rich. Seeing the good that is in Donald Trump. The potential for kindness in Mitch McConnell. The benevolence that leaked out of Hitler and found expression in his love of animals.
But I’m getting sidetracked as always by my obsessions with evil. The older I get the more I wonder about the nature of evil. Nietzsche’s masterful philosophical inquiry in Beyond Good and Evil does more to confuse me than provide any answers.
At least when I write I get an opportunity to get that stuff moiling and roiling and boiling in the private sphere of my skull out into the open where I can get a better look at it and wonder how many other people share these feelings. Which goes a long way toward mitigating it.
Lovely word, mitigate. From Latin mitigatus, past participle of mitigare, “soften, make tender, ripen, mellow, tame.” It’s a good feeling when it happens, when the hardwood pew of a principled ideological position softens into the cushy generosity of an armchair meditation.
“We are all the leaves of one tree,” remarks Thich Nhat Hanh. “We are the waves of one sea.” How do I get those words into my blood? I appreciate these words cognitively, but how do I embrace them so deeply that they’re more than words or thoughts?
Because in Seattle, a lot of leaves on that theoretical tree are rotting on the ground while a few at the top are getting abundant sunlight. And a lot of waves in that sea are choked with plastic while others are lapping the private shores of billionaires.