Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Who is Steve Crisp?

I find life so fascinating. I am (and always have been) learning something new every day. And now I’m learning just how cunning the ego is. Consider the following:

Who is Steve Crisp? Is he the same person that he was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago? By what definition and what yardstick?

By the yardstick of science, I look similar (but certainly not the same). Some of my measurable statistics have changed: though my height has remained pretty constant, my weight and waist size have gone up and come down. Most people would recognize me, certainly when coupled with my mannerisms and speech, but then the human mind is an amazing pattern recognition machine. So not the same, but quite similar according to science.

By the yardstick of art, most would say I’m quite different. Back then I’d be more known for a critical review of a requirements specification or development and presentation of a Powerpoint briefing. Now people may associate me more with photographs and web logs (almost sounds like a song title ;-)

By the yardstick of spirituality, I think it’s fair to say I’m a rather different being. In the past, I had no use for spirituality (and especially organized religion). Now I spend a significant amount of time “seeking” (or "un-doing") which for me really means various forms of contemplation. And I prefer to expose myself to spiritual or insightful material (books, discussions, etc.)

So again I ask, who is Steve Crisp? Am I the same person, really in ANY sense, that I was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago? Well you say, you may have changed your likes and dislikes, your areas of emphasis and attention, but surely you are the same person. That individual has been accumulating experiences and they help define who you are. Surely you (and no one else) can look back into your memory and relive or re-examine some past experiences.

But I wonder if even that is true. When I look back into my (admittedly blurry memory) I actually find myself reinterpreting experiences from my current vantage point. By this measure, something that at the time was painful, might now be seen as positive and developmental; and something that was pleasurable might be seen as hedonistic and unfulfilling. So even by the yardstick of my own memories, it seems to me I am a different person.

And at the risk of contradicting myself, this is consistent with a belief I’ve had for some time (which — once realized — has not changed). That at any instant in time, you can change who you are. You can “remake” yourself. And yes, it is possible by all of the yardsticks. You can go from being sad to happy, in an instant. You can go from being mean to being good, in an instant. You can go from not liking vegetables to liking vegetables, in an instant (trust me on this one). And yes, even some of your “measurable” characteristics can change, in an instant (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate, etc.). We only have to believe (or know) that it is possible. And perhaps we have to learn some of the techniques and develop the right perspectives.

Now if this is all true, then what is the ego? Quite a clever fellow I would say. It is giving me the illusion of a single being, living a single life through a brief period of universal space-time. It has a series of beliefs, it has a history, it is your identify. Don’t mess with the ego. Bah, humbug — I’m not buying it. Considered carefully, I think I am who I am for the instant that I consider the question. And in that instant, I’m not the Steve Crisp you’ve all come to know (and love ;-). I’m a part of the infinite, the all, the source, Being, that has expressed itself in precisely this fashion at this time.

So hey, it’s me — the (always) "new" Steve, and I’m damn happy to know you. I hope you have a mind-boggling day!


Friday, December 16, 2005

"Billions and billions ... "

Most of us have heard the late Carl Sagan refer to "billions and billions" of stars in the Universe. But Carl's been gone awhile now, and the astronomers are still at work. So just how many do folks estimate? How about 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The figure -- 7 followed by 22 zeros or, more succinctly, 70 sextillion -- was calculated by a team of stargazers based at the Australian National University, according to a 2003 report by CNN.

Now, we know a billion is a large number, and therefore "billions and billions" is really a lot of stars. But do you have any idea how many 70 sextillion is? Can you even imagine it? Try this "fun fact" from the same article: "It's also about 10 times as many stars as grains of sand on all the world's beaches and deserts." Say what?

So for every single grain of sand that get's stuck to your bathing suit and that you summarily wash down the beach shower, there are 10 stars in the universe. Perhaps that helps you appreciate the unfathomable vastness of the observable universe -- beyond that, who knows?

I thought perhaps you might also appreciate some of these quotes by Carl Sagan, which I stumbled across while doing a little web-digging (yes, for you, faithful blog reader ;-):

We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering. -- Carl Sagan, quoted in Dan Lewandowski and John Stear, "A Tribute To Carl Sagan"

Look again at that dot [referring to planet Earth]. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

In our tenure on this planet we have accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage, hereditary propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders and hostility to outsiders, which place our survival in some question. But we have also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and our children's children, a desire to learn from history, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our vision and understanding and prospects are bound exclusively to the Earth — or, worse, to one small part of it. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. -- Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 318

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. -- Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions, p. 215

Monday, December 12, 2005

Madness of the Mind

I like this photo, taken a few years ago while on a run in the Garden of the Gods (so appropriate), in Colorado Springs, CO. I kept being chased by this person -- sometimes he was ahead of me, other times behind me, and here, right beside me. So I thought I'd take a picture of him. Quite a good looking chap, don't you think?

And when we wonder about the future, or dredge up the past, he's right there beside us as well. Our mind invites our shadow to keep us company, on almost every journey we take, except when we tunnel deep into our own mystery, in the present moment.

I find this quote rather provocative, and also quite accurate; please comment and let me know what you think:

"People point their finger at insane people and call them 'crazy.' But they don't know that they themselves are actually crazy, as well. Whoever has a mind is mad, because the mind is madness. In the case of a person who is insane, it is clearly manifested and therefore you can see it. Whereas, in your case, it is not as clearly manifested and therefore not as obvious. But the madness is there, because the mind is there."

Mata Amritanandamayi

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Perspectives from 30,000 ft.

As I fly at 30,000 ft, I begin my journey by seeing nothing but white clouds below, with no gaps, as far as the eye can see. This expanse has texture — it is not uniform. But it blocks my view of the ground below, and their view of me. It might as well be impenetrable, and yet we know it is only gossamer.

Next I see two distinct cloud banks at different altitudes. These higher clouds have even more texture, more variation in height. I suppose this reflects the water composition of the atmosphere are these temperature gradients. Indeed, I see a circular rainbow projected onto the clouds from the sun refracted over the plane. In fact, if I look closely, I realize it is a triple rainbow, with a center, an inner and an outer loop of soft colors. Like an eye staring right back at me. Perhaps my mind’s eye.

What’s interesting is that without the clouds (and associated moisture in the air) I could not see this rainbow. And of course those on the ground do not see this rainbow.

Above the clouds, there is a beautiful blue sky, at once uniform but at the same time differentiated by shades of blue, beginning on the horizon with only a hint of color, to sky blue, and up higher to a deep azure.

I can also see how each cloud layer is like a filter that lets through only a portion (or nothing at all) of the reality below it. When a clearing comes into view, we get a glimpse of the world as it is (or as it appears to us). We look forward to those moments when we gain insights and see clearly. But the clouds themselves are beautiful, and reflect their own reality.

When the clouds are gone, I can see clearly the surface of the earth, but still from such a different perspective. Not only from above, but also though a scaling filter. Only what your eyes can resolve at that altitude. It too is quite beautiful, and seems to reflect the fractal characteristic of nature (see the photo).

Once again I am back over clouds, this time above an undifferentiated fog — I’m getting lower in altitude. My rainbow is gone, as is all texture. This is the atmosphere’s “white noise”, denying me any meaningful signal. I could be anywhere, and would not know the difference.

It is nice to get up, above the work-a-day fray, and gain some perspective. I can see why the astronauts so enjoy the view at the edge of space, or further away, seeing earth from outer space. I can appreciate how from that perspective, it is clear how “together” we all are. How in the words of one astronaut:

“When you're finally up on the moon, looking back at the earth, all these differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend and you're going to get a concept that maybe this is really one world and why the hell can't we learn to live together like decent people." -- Frank Borman, Astronaut

Friday, December 09, 2005

Can you see God?

A small boy once approached his slightly older sister with a question about God. "Susie, can anybody ever really see God?" he asked.

Busy with other things, Susie curtly replied: "No, of course
not silly. God is so far up in heaven that nobody can see him."

Time passed, but his question still lingered so he approached his mom: "Mom, can anybody ever really see God?" "No, not really," she gently said. "God is a spirit and he dwells in our hearts, but we can never really see Him."

Somewhat satisfied but still wondering, the youngster went on his way. Not long afterwards, his saintly old grandfather took the little boy on a fishing trip.

They were having a great time together. The sun was beginning to set with unusual splendor and the grandfather stared silently at the exquisite beauty unfolding before them.

On seeing the face of his grandfather reflecting such deep
peace and contentment, the little boy thought for a moment and finally spoke hesitatingly:

"Granddad, I--I-- wasn't going to ask anybody else, but I wonder if you can tell me the answer to something I've been wondering about a long time. Can anybody--can anybody ever really see God?".

The old man did not even turn his head. A long moment slipped by before he finally answered. "Son," he quietly said. "It's getting so I can't see anything else." -- Author Unknown

What a fantastic sentiment -- to see God (insert your favorite term for the ineffable) in everything. Good viewing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Just Over-Do It

I received this Christmas Light video from my friend Dan, and just had to share. It has absolutely nothing to do with "Just Un-Doing It" (in fact quite the opposite), but so what -- it is just too cool. Check it out and see what you think.

Note: you need to have Windows Media Player installed (try opening it, if you are having problems). Mac users can download it here.

This was from the accompanying e-mail:
One of my former Corning, Inc. colleagues e-mailed me this video of his son's Christmas lights display.

His son is an electrical engineer and used a programmable logic controller to animate the display. He rented Bose speakers to blast the music on his front lawn. Wonder what the neighbors think?

p.s. from a subsequent article based on the publicity this light show received, I learned that they ended up broadcasting on a short range FM channel, so the sound could be heard in cars, but not in the neighborhood. I also learned that he was forced to discontinue this spectacle after it caused traffic jams in the area (surprise, surprise!)

p.p.s. in the spirit of "anything worth doing well is worth doing to excess," consider this quaint snowman.

You can read more here. Get a grip folks.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Epiphany

Nothing is new. Everything has been said before. Why do we find it so hard to figure it out ourselves? I wanted to share what seems to be a breakthrough for me, or rather, a realization of truth that was always there -- is always there -- but is lost in the commotion of the work-a-day world.

This also relates to an earlier post by Grasshopper on the Hi-Seekers blog, entitled "Who Are We in Between our Thinking?"

Here is the insight. To truly experience life, avoid pain and suffering, see beauty in everything around us, we must live in the present moment (aka, the Now).

OK, I've heard that before -- what the heck does it mean? What are the implications? Must I constantly meditate, or perhaps retreat to a mountain cave? Living in the Now is your natural state. News flash: that's the ONLY place life exists. The past is just one person's historical trajectory. The future is just one person's imagination of what might come next. Life lives, breathes, creates, in the present moment, and only there.

So what does it mean to live in the Now? Well first, it means you have to gain control of your Mind. Huh? Your mind is what causes you to focus on the past and on the future. To see the current moment as nothing but a means to an end -- maybe solving the next problem, getting to a clean house, earning more money so that someday in the future you can live happily ever after. Another news flash: you can never live happily ever after in the future, for two reasons: 1) you can't live in the future; and 2) once your current "lack" is satisfied, there will be more "want"; there always is.

So what? So getting control of your mind means recognizing your thoughts for just what they are: something created by your ego, and not by your true Self. They are there to create and live out your life's drama, as a separate entity, alone and cut off from God, Being, All There Is, Oneness, whatever you want to call it. And it is the source of your suffering, or if you feel that you aren't suffering, it is preventing you from realizing true joy, inner peace, and profound bliss.

What the heck are you talking about? Try this exercise. Close your eyes and concentrate; be totally aware. Quiet your mind. Watch for the next thought to materialize out of no where. Keep waiting for it, and just observe it when it comes. What did you notice? When I tried this, I found it took a while before that first thought appeared. And that is the key. You were the observer watching your mind create a thought.

How can that be? You are not your mind, and you are not your thoughts. This is the key to awareness, to presence, to living in the Now. It is what Buddhists call mindfulness -- being fully present in whatever activity you are performing, giving it your full attention, so that your Mind is not running off planning the next activity, or worrying about what you'll make for dinner tonight. Once you realize this, it is rather straightforward to quiet your mind.

Are you saying that my mind is the problem? Because I rather fancy it. Once again, you have identified the essential point. It is not that your mind is a "problem", it just "is". Your mind is a tool. You use it to get along in the work-a-day world. The question is, who is in charge? Do you (your essential Self) use your mind when you need it, and then "turn it off" (i.e., become present, aware) or does your Mind run amok? Thinking whatever thoughts just "pop" into your head, whether you want them there or not? Does your mind dredge up some past history and create pain? Does it worry about whether you'll get the next promotion, and bring you anxiety? If so, your Mind has taken control, and you need to realize it.

But this is how everyone lives, isn't it? Save for a few monks and sages, this is my reality, our reality, isn't it? It doesn't have to be. Did you try that experiment? You can take control back any time you earnestly want to. And with practice, the mind will become a noble servant, but a servant nonetheless. For you scientists and engineers who so depend upon your minds, consider this quote: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." -- Albert Einstein We're all talking about the same thing.

How shall I practice this, and refine this insight? For me, that's the beauty of my epiphany. I imagined much study, meditation, seclusion, retreats, needing gurus, and the like. But just turn your full attention on any activity you are doing. Full attention in the same way you were monitoring your mind for arising thoughts. Once again be fully present and aware. Observe, without judgment, what it is you are doing -- what you see, what you feel, smell, hear, taste -- everything. Leave no room for extraneous thoughts. It isn't 'good' and it isn't 'bad', it just 'is'. It is not a means to an end, it is your life in this moment. And when you give it your full attention, and quiet your mind (keep it under control, or in the toolbox as it were), I assure you that you will see beauty in what you are doing. It will gain new meaning. You will be at peace and feel bliss.

But why is that so? How can doing the dishes make me feel bliss? Because there can be no "problems" in the now. Nothing to "worry" about, since that implies a future concern, and you are not thinking about the future (you have quieted the mind). But what if there is a problem "in the now"? What if I cut my hand while washing the dishes? Well, first of all, it is less likely to happen when you are giving your full attention to the dishes, right? But if it were to happen, it is just a situation to be dealt with -- it just "is". You know what to do, right? So you deal with it. That's the beauty of the Now. You can cope with every situation that presents itself to you in the Now. And you don't build up anxiety, worry, dread, or other fear-based emotions. Because you have quieted the mind.

Sounds intriguing -- how do I know this is so? Why should I believe you? You shouldn't. It would do you no good whatsoever. You should only try to experience it. Only then will you really know what I'm trying to express. But I encourage you to do so. For continuing on the way so many do -- effectively asleep to this reality -- is the cause of great suffering, to ourselves, to our brothers and sisters, and to the world. Certainly you can see that when you pause and consider. As posted earlier, in the immortal words of the Eagles, "It's waiting for you to awaken."

If you wish to read more about this topic, I would recommend Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, 1999

Friday, December 02, 2005

Finding Buddha in the Garden

I've made reference to my vacation in Thailand, so here's a post that talks about a small part of that trip. It was our last full day, and we had made arrangements to hire a 4WD vehicle and drive up to the hill tribe area, known as Doi Tung. This part of northern Thailand is known as the Golden Triangle, right on the border with Burma and Laos. This is where they used to grow poppies for opium production, and for many years, this led to an unhappy life for many Thais, and of course other countries that were the recipients of that export. In the late 1980s, there was a development project begun by the Princess Mother (Thailand is a monarchy) to eliminate opium production, and replace it with craftsmanship and revegitate the land that had been cleared using slash and burn tactics for growing poppies.

Materially "poor", but happier than I've seen in "wealthy" areas

Chickens everywhere ... bird flu anyone?

Drying coffee beans on porch rooftops

This is on the side of the mountain pass (1500 meters high) that divides Thailand and Burma, and there are military outposts along the road. Along this drive, we came to an Arboretum. What we had stumbled upon was nothing short of an enchanted garden.

Both Thai and Burmese military outposts just down the road

Magical paths lead from one vista to the next

Beautiful flowers of many types adorn the hillside

Here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and in this quite poor rural location, we found manicured gardens and beautiful stone paths that go on and on, with hundreds of gardeners keeping the grounds immaculate. Oh yeah, and we appear to be the only people in this arboretum; just Dan, me, and 100 of our closest Thai gardener friends.

A mountainside arboretum in the middle of nowhere

More mysterious paths enclosed by ferns

I was simply awestruck and mesmerized

Indeed, after being awed by garden after garden, we found a sign that led to a tunnel. That tunnel, cleverly curved so that you walk out of bright equatorial sun into total darkness, and then round a curve to see the light again, takes you to the other side of the mountain pass, where an entirely different garden experience awaits. It was here, that we met (though could not directly communicate with) what turned out to be our gardener guide. After asking to take his picture, and trying to express how fascinated we were with this magical place, he insisted in giving us a "tour", pointing out things that were off the beaten path, but special to him. It was quite a remarkable time.

More paths, more steps, overlooking the mountainside

Our rightfully proud, and peacefully happy, Thai gardener guide

Pine tree forest on the other side

Before the Doi Tung Development Project started, this mountain site was barren of trees, and covered with one of the largest opium fields in Thai territory. Now it is a magnificent arboretum, and my pictures don't do it justice, as it was a rather hazy day. But I feel safe in speaking for both Dan and me that we were awestruck with the beauty and mystical nature of this garden. Also check out a related post on my Reflections of Beauty blog, Finding God in the Park post.