Living in the present

In these faux-buddhist  times, it’s become a true cultural meme: “Live in the present!”

It’s the fault of the beats, really, Kerouac especially, giving a Zen paint job to all the self-indulgent behavior they could muster, which was substantial.  Now we get Zen home decorating, Zen cuisine, Zen motorcycling, for Christ’s sake.  But the worst of all of it is the live-in-the-present motif, which seems to be interpreted, as often as not, as licence to reject responsibility.  You can’t fault Zen itself, which is in reality all about accepting responsibility.  Far from the hedonism spawned by everyone living “in the moment,” Zen actually teaches that desire, which motivates all this extremity, is something that we could all do without.

But let’s look at the idea of living in the present itself.  Can such a thing be done?

Not a chance.  First of all, from a purely physical point of view, it’s impossible, because by the time any information reaches our senses, it is already in the past, and from there it still takes time for us to process that information and become conscious of it.  It may only be microseconds, but it’s not the present.

But maybe we’re talking about the present as it relates to sense data already processed, and ready for use.  In this case, it doesn’t matter that the events themselves are in the past; the present we’re talking about refers to the interior present.  Can’t we live in that?

Good luck.  Suppose some light reflected from a moving bus enters your eyes and is processed.  Just to identify that light pattern as a bus requires you to use information stored in your memory from a lifetime of observation.  You’re stuck in the past.  Not only that, but if the bus happens to be moving toward you, you had better be thinking of the future, or you soon won’t have any.

You could say this is pointless quibbling, that what is meant by the present in this case includes events and decisions in the immediate temporal vicinity.  Also, you get to take advantage of all you have learned in your life in interpreting the present.  And, of course, you get to consider the immediate future.  Enough to stay alive, at least.  Okay, enough to have a reasonably secure life.

Trouble is, when you start expanding the bubble around the present to include what you need for survival, you immediately run into problems with what that means.  In the end, for most people, that seems to involve cars, cell phones, huge televisions, and the sources of money to pay for all that.  Next thing you know, living in the moment just means doing what you want, and to hell with the consequences, for yourself, yes, but more often the consequences for others.

Blap! Just like that, you’ve taken a concept out of Zen and turned it completely around to mean its opposite.

This sort of thing is not unusual where religion is concerned.  Lots of airy contemplation and metaphysical nuance at the top, but by the time you get down to the ground zero believer, it’s boiled down to a list of rules and regulations.  We are, of course, familiar with this for the Abrahamic religions.  God knows that what the nuns taught us at St. Philip Neri School all those years ago had little to do with the rarified theology debated at Notre Dame and the corridors of the Vatican.  But with Buddhism, somehow, we all think we get it.

I don’t consider myself a Buddhist; I don’t believe in any religion, actually.  I was enchanted by it for a time in my youth, however.  I read all of the Western Zen writers, like Alan Watts, and moved on to the works of D. T. Suzuki and what other Japanese writers I could find in translation.  This sparked an interest in Buddhism in general, and so I was delighted when I met a young man from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), who was an ardent Theravada Buddhist.  Theravada is the closest thing in Buddhism to orthodoxy, so I jumped at the chance to get at the roots of it all.  My friend was delighted in my interest in his religion, and gave me a handful of books and pamphlets.  To my dismay, what I found was the same old list of things to do and things not to do.  It could easily have passed for my old grade school catechism with a few minor changes in terminology.

What happened to all that cool Zen stuff about letting go and being in the moment?  I later learned that, even in Zen, the practice of it was far different from the lofty metaphysics, involving more sitting in wretched discomfort (for someone raised to sit in chairs), and getting whacked with a stick than any of that marvy freedom I’d been reading about.  My horrible nuns, it seems, had been Zen masters all along!

By the time any religion percolates down to the great unwashed (us), it’s all about rules and regulations, sprinkled with more or less of magical ritual.  I think of the St. Christopher statues in the cars of my youth, or the prayers rated with the precise number of days off from Purgatory their recitation would get you, or how, if you took communion on nine consecutive first Fridays of the month, you were guaranteed salvation.  Interesting that I never made it past five!

Buddhism is no different.  Think of the prayer flags of Tibet, or the redemptive power of reciting “Namu Amida Butsu” over and over in the Japanese Pure Land school of Buddhism.

I must say we’ve been pretty clever in our cooption of Buddhism in Western culture, though.  We’ve taken some of the lofty metaphysics of a religion we’ve no intention of following seriously, stripped it of any inconveniences, reinterpreted it to suit ourselves, and imagine ourselves to be marvelously spiritual.


Where to put everybody?

Just exactly how many of us are there?

Well, the world population is somewhere around 7.2 billion and rising.  At the same time, less than half of the earth remains in wilderness, much of that endangered.  It seems we need to to something, the sooner the better.  How much of the earth could we sequester from the likes of us?

Let’s see; if we give each of us a square meter to stand on, that’s about 7000 square kilometers we need, or about 2700 square miles to us colonial types.  Could we put the entire population of the world in, say, Rhode Island?  Not even close.  R. I. has only 2710 square kilometers.  How about Delaware?  Nope, just a little over 5000.

But don’t despair, New York City has 8633, enough for everyone, and more than 1600 left over for parking lots, and there’s some logic in putting everyone somewhere that’s already screwed up, wilderness-wise.  It’s the only city that qualifies, though; the next largest, Tokyo/Yokohama, at 6993, would leave 7 people out in the bay swimming.  Given Mothra and Godzilla and what-not, that’s probably not very safe.

Of course, we could go with industrial world tradition, and put everyone somewhere else.  Palestine is too small, and anyway, Israel is already building enough settlements there to use up all the available space.  Puerto Rico has as much room as NYC, but it’s technically part of the US (Territory?  Colony?  Never mind.)  Same goes for Akhazia, which may or may not be part of Georgia by the time we decide.

It looks like it’s New York City.  Too bad; the rent for a square meter there is already as high as a mortgage elsewhere, and just wait till Donald Trump gets wind of this.

The deep state

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly by Conor Friedersdorf  brings up the question of the deep state, and whether it has overwhelmed our elected state, the one you and I see as the government.  Briefly, the deep state is a term borrowed from Turkish politics, and denotes a secret cabal that actually runs things under the cover of the elected state, which is seen to be ineffectual in decisions that really matter.  Applied to the United States, it refers to the institutions that continue intact, regardless of changes in the elected government and whomever they may appoint as titular heads.  These institutions include the military, all the various agencies, and the bureaucracy in general.  In its most sinister interpretation, beloved of conspiracy theorists, it is the deep state that really runs things, elected government amounting only to window dressing, a sop to keep the ignorant masses deluded.  In its most benign interpretation, the deep state simply represents the necessary continuity in government, provided by career specialists, advising elected officials on finer points of a technical nature.

It’s not hard to see that there’s a continuum there; the reality can run anywhere between the two extremes.  It can even vary, depending on the strength and leadership of the individuals in the elected government at any given time, on any given policy.  It’s hard to believe in the most sinister extreme, because it would mean that everyone who has successfully run for high office is in on the conspiracy, is too stupid to see what’s going on, or has been intimidated into silence.  The many instances of institututional displeasure with presidential policy would also have to have been staged, with none of us the wiser.  All it would take to expose a conspiracy on this order would be one individual.  We see already what Snowden has been able to do on a much lower level.  Unless, of course, that’s been staged as well.  If so, Snowden wins the Oscar hands down.

In his article, Friedersdorf’s alarm concerns the extent the military deep state has increased its power, based on some comments in Robert Gates’ recently published memoir:

…I can’t help but marvel at the casual manner in which this former secretary of defense observes that the military did take control of the policy process with regard to Afghanistan, and implies that they had the capacity to “run away with” the policy process.

This is in regard to the surge, strongly endorsed by the commanders in the field.  He goes on to question why Obama is suggesting changes in NSA eavesdropping, instead of simply ordering them.

I don’t see it, frankly.  Obama clearly had the option to go ahead with the surge or not.  What is it that supposedly would have happened had he declined?  An assassination?  Indeed, what would happen if he ordered the changes he suggests in NSA policy?  It is possible the NSA would simply continue clandestinely, and clamp down on leaks; it’s hard to imagine, though, a clandestine surge in Afghanistan.  Most tellingly, though, there are just too many differences in policy from one administration to another to led credence the worst of the fears, in spite of Obama’s unexpected continuation of many Bush policies.

What do you think?

Damn that Galileo!

I find myself thinking about Galileo, for no apparent reason, and his famous Tower of Pisa experiment, which he may or may not have actually performed.  You know the one: dropping two balls of unequal mass simultaneously to show that acceleration due to gravity is independent of mass.  In short, the two unequal balls arrive at the earth at the same time.  In physics, this is an example of what is known as the Weak Equivalence Principle (WEP), which I point out only for the pleasure of using such a silly term.

Despite being undeniably true, this is, to me, counterintuitive.  Think of the implications.  Suppose you are in the vacuum of space, maybe took a wrong turn on the way to the coffee shop, or something.  About ten feet away is a softball.  According to the WEP, you and the softball will move towards each other at exactly the same rate as you and the earth, if it were ten feet away.  Lucky for you, though, the damage inflicted by the softball will be considerably less than that inflicted by the earth in a similar situation.  Okay, the softball is much smaller and has much less mass than the earth, so what’s my point?

Let’s substitute something else for the softball, say, the moon.  By the magic of imagination, retracing your steps to see how you missed the coffee shop, you find yourself ten feet from the moon.  Once again, you and the moon move together at that same rate, independent of mass.  This time, though, you will definitely feel something when you finally make contact, because the moon is much, much bigger than a softball.  (Never thought you’d see that phrase in print, did you?)

We’ve all seen that footage of Neil Armstrong bouncing about on the moon.  I love that little tune that he sings, by the way.  Anyhow, it’s apparent that jumping that high on earth would result in much more jarring to the body.  But the moon, though smaller than the earth, is easily sufficiently massive to stop you cold when you hit it.  Remember, starting at ten feet away, you will strike the surface of the moon at exactly the same speed as you would on earth, coming to a full and immediate stop in both cases, or as close to full and immediate as measurable.  So why is there more damage to your poor, unsuspecting body when you do it on earth?

I remember reading a variation on this question years ago, in some “Ask the Scientist” thingie: if two cars of identical mass collide, how is the force different from one of those cars hitting a stationary wall?  Mr. Scientist, no doubt sighing inwardly, patiently explained that it had to do with the momentum of both masses.  To get the same force with just the one car, it would have to be going twice as fast, and even the thickest of us can see the difference there.  But what if you substitute a mountain for the wall?  Or drop the car from a sufficient height so that it’s going the same speed at impact as in the collision with the wall?  Even double the speed, to take account of the second car?

Or jump off a ten foot platform on the moon?

Don’t mind me; I still can’t see why levers work; and don’t even bring up pulleys.