Monthly Archives: March 2013

Tribute to my Father

It is truly amazing to consider that if my father were alive today, this would be his 113th birthday.

He was a teenager when World War I broke out and always said that it was the dissolution of the monarchy of Austria-Hungary (eerily reminiscent in hindsight of the Kennedy assassination(s) that marked the end of one America and the beginning of another) – and that end to the monarchy in Vienna and of course the Communist revolution in Russia shaped the techno-corporate world of today.

He first came to the United States from Prague in 1934 as part of a trade delegation – he worked as an economist and bank executive as Hitler rose to power in Germany. He raised a family (my half-brother, his first wife) and prior to that, as a bachelor, travelled to the French Riviera with his best friend, the famous German actor Curt Goetz, and Valerie von Martens, a Czech actress whom he introduced to Goetz and who became his wife; they eventually spent the war years (WWII) in Hollywood before retiring in Lichtenstein. I remember vaguely meeting him and spending a Christmas at his home.

My father was imprisoned by the Germans and survived the war in Therezienstadt with his first wife and son, and his mother, my grandmother. After the war he divorced his wife and gained custody of his son (draw your own conclusions) and met my mother. At the time Prague was under the occupation of the Communists and when my mother was pregnant my father managed to get us to Vienna without governmental permission.

He was set to join us just before my birth, when my brother ran away to his mother and my father asked his own mother (my grandmother who I never knew) what he should do. She told him to go – that he had a new family – and he left his son in Prague to join us in Vienna.

We arrived in New York after six years waiting for papers in Vienna (where he was terrified of being abducted and returned to Prague as a defector – we always remained in the American sector).

My father had no job and went to night school to learn English. Neither his sister nor brother could or would really help and he worked as a ski salesman at Macy’s at age 55, lacing boots on his knees, the only job he could get because he was from Austria and they assumed he knew skis – my father of course never skied a day in his life. He played billiards and smoked cigars in cafes.

From this background my father eventually became the treasurer and confidant of the CEO of a large international incentive travel company, so that he was able to see me bar mitzvah and attend Tufts University. In 1971 when I graduated college, he arranged for me to go to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco as a tour guide. I kept that “job” for 7 years, while he encouraged me to travel the world and ride it out because I would never have such an opportunity again.

During this period we returned to Vienna for a few days where my father reunited with his first son, Hansl. As one might imagine, it was a terribly emotional time and the only time I can remember my father crying – which he maintained was due to my brother’s poor health. My brother returned to Prague where he worked as a manager of musicians, and my dad was proud of his survival skills.

During college I remember coming home and going to religious services to please my father, and getting into political and philosophical arguments. I once said to him, “I don’t need money. Money doesn’t matter to me,” and my father carried those words to his grave hoping that he had taught me that financial responsibility was a requisite for safety in an unsafe world.

From these beginnings my father managed to win a settlement in a ten year struggle with the German government for his pension and my mother’s pension, and when I moved to Los Angeles he assured me that if I was “settled” he would retire.

Since my father had taken the subway every morning for about 25 years and worked harder than anyone I ever knew, I took this with many grains of salt. However, after I lived here in L.A. for a year, my parents visited and we went to La Jolla for the weekend. That Monday afternoon when I spoke to my father, he informed me that “just like that” he had put down a deposit on an apartment “near the tennis courts” and he was retiring and they were moving to San Diego.

He survived one of the earlier heart bypass surgeries to take daily walks and play bridge in his beloved La Jolla until his death about six lovely years later in 1986. My mother would say lovingly that “he is retired, but I’m not,” when he returned form the bridge club where other widows clamored for his company and attention.

As I write this I am tearing up because besides all of this, my father was incredibly kind and very affectionate and I can still remember driving into La Jolla and he would pretend to just be out for a walk, but we both knew he was out waiting for me, and when he saw my car he would raise his walking stick into the air with glee. He had a rich mane of white hair through which my mother and I loved to run our hands.

We would sit for hours talking about everything and anything (even women, believe it or not) and he was the wisest and most intelligent man I ever met. He was also my best friend and I miss him every day.

But today the scale of the span of his life, the wisdom he accumulated, and the depth of his achievements and love, are known to me in a way I could have never imagined.

I suppose we will be reunited in due course.

 

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Play-by-Play and the Magic of Mute

A few years ago I invited a few friends over to watch an “important” Laker game and when a commercial came on and, as I normally do, I pressed the mute button on the remote.

Suddenly the conversation stopped, the room went quiet, and they asked what I thought I was doing.

I always mute the commercials I said, and they seemed a bit disturbed but ok until I forgot to resume the audio for the game itself. “Leave the sound on!” they demanded, so they could continue to hear the “important” commentary.

I was thinking about this in light of work I’ve done in self-observation, and specifically what Eckhart Tolle calls “the voice in the head.” According to Eckhart, we identify with this stream of talking in our heads to the point of madness, thinking it is “us” — when in fact it turns out that it’s simply a bunch of conditioned sound that is, for the most part irrelevant – very much like the play by play of sports commentators.

Let’s remember a couple of things.

First, sports play by play began with RADIO. No one could see the baseball game and the sounds were “recreated” with different audio effects while the announcer described the action. It was like being blind and we needed the announce to “see” the game.

When TV came aboard, it was still quite helpful because picture quality was poor and the screen was small. Then jock “experts” were added to the mix to provide “color commentary.”

Now I watch the Lakers on high definition with a view of the action almost as good as being courtside; I can see the sweat dripping off their noses.

Besides the commercials, I can easily mute the commentary because I don’t need the announcer to tell me “What a dunk!” because you know what? — I AM WATCHING THE GAME. I saw what happened and I do not need it interpreted.

I really noticed the difference a few years ago when the Lakers’ cable channel offered “courtside view” – which had multiple cameras and microphones at courtside WITH NO PLAY BY PLAY.

(It wasn’t repeated – it was either too expensive, or it never caught on).

But what a revelation. It was really like being there – you could hear the comments of the players under their breath (yes they were swearing), you could hear dribbling and the sneakers squish on the floor, and you could hear the actual crowd sounds – awesome.

So I was thinking about what if I were in a quiet park and two guys got into a fight – and I watched and there was no play by play – “he throws a right and a left, he goes down, he gets up” – all of it completely superfluous because again, this is LIFE and I am SEEING what is happening…

I would truly be “present” to the situation – until my mind began its inevitable interpretation.

Of course human thought has evolved for some time. But it is really our new technology that has introduced this dysfunctional, invasive persistent new audio track into our lives…

We can see it on CNN, when a debate is not about what is said by the candidates, but by the commentary of the pundits. Even the President can’t give a speech that is simply taken in by the public, it needs to be analyzed.

Further, everywhere I go I must listen to music – in elevators, stores, supermarket, etc.

If I get into my car, I notice myself turning on the radio or CD player. When I come home I reach for the laptop to check my email. Now I have a smartphone and email and text follows me everywhere.

As someone pointed out, they don’t call it “programming” for nothing. Can this be healthy?

Certainly the “voice in the head” was part of our evolution in a valuable way – “Hey, there may be tigers out there” was probably a useful message back in the jungle.

But as Eckhart Tolle says, probably 90% of what goes through our minds as self-talk now is useless drivel.

Don’t take my word for it – pay attention to it and you will see for yourself — and more important —

You will notice that most of what passes for “information” is worrisome and negative. This is the result of the mainly cautionary conditioning (programming) we receive growing up from our well-intentioned parents and teachers—not to mention the “leaders” of our society.

Fear, dread and worry are our most basic operating system. We need to download some new programs.

Just as you don’t want or need someone talking to you while you’re driving (watch out over there) because it’s distracting and needless you don’t need the constant stream of commentary that passes for “significant information” calling attention to itself in your skull.

It is detrimental to your mental health.

Technology can be lauded for one thing – bringing this aspect of our psychology to our attention – and providing the example of a mute button.

What is immensely helpful is the growing capacity to also “mute” the brain’s mental chatter.

First, monitor the tone of the inner voice. If you have a particularly negative play by play announcer going on in your skull, it’s not surprising that your irritation will be projected out into the world and lead to unfortunate consequences. It may surprise you to discover that you have no friends. (Unless you live in New York where this is considered “normal”).

More important, when the voice is quiet, you will notice other things, both inside and outside. You will see that you are actually breathing, digesting and sensing automatically and miraculously – you don’t need the chatter for most important functions. And when you begin to intimately sense how other parts of your body actually feel, they will relish the attention and respond with friendliness and well-being.

You will also listen more attentively to others and begin to notice significant aspects of your environment that you hadn’t even bothered with before: sun, clouds, ocean, birds, flowers, and cats. There will even be space in your mind for other thoughts and feelings, often expanding your potential and horizons.

Ideas may even come in from other sources that you hadn’t expected. Some good, some useless, but as the new observer of all of this, “you” will have a choice whether to give a thought attention or “mute” it.

My friend Michael Jeffreys likes to say that your chatty mind is both the fire chief, and the arsonist – it first sets the “fire” – a problem arises – and then demands it be extinguished – solved.

But as Eckhart Tolle rightly points out, neither the arsonist nor the fire chief is really “you.” You are what can notice this neurotic behavior.

When the arsonist informs you there’s a problem, “you” can actually evaluate and decide if it’s really a problem and you need to deal with it immediately, later, or at all.

Indeed, if there is a real fire, you’re going to get the hell out of there, trust me.

But for other “emergencies”, like someone pulling out coupons on the express lane at the market, or a “jerk” cutting you off in traffic, the abrupt disruption of your tranquility will be increasingly reduced, as will the risk of you getting murdered.

It’s like when the phone rings – and you rush to pick it up. Let the machine answer sometimes – the world will go on — and you retain a measure of control of your reactionary responses.

Eckhart suggests that a mass adoption of this sort of “presence” will have a healing effect on the entire planet, and well it might, because for one thing we’ll buy less shit we don’t need, and dump less plastic into the oceans.

One final thought—Krishnamurti and others have noted that when you name a bird you no longer really see the bird… The tendency to instantly label our experience separates us from life.

Don’t take my word for it. Experiment for yourself – try the mute button on your mind for a few days or a week and you’ll see – you won’t go back to the annoying “play by play announcer” except for focused moments of significant attention – like doing your taxes, satisfying your boss or arguing with your spouse.

The rest of the time your boss’ voice, your spouse’s voice and your own deranged prattle can subside and life can be experienced as it is – without color commentary.

“You” will magically reappear in your own life, and perhaps really see it and experience it for the first time.

 

 

 

Who Am I? A Morning with Jacob Needleman

This past Saturday morning I was fortunate enough to “attend” an online seminar by one of the most powerful writers and thinkers of our era, Jacob Needleman, author of An Unknown World.

This particular Webinar: “Introduction to Gurdjieff” was of particular interest to me because I had read not only many of Dr. Needleman’s books, but also much of the work of G.I. Gurdjieff, and his most famous student, P.D. Ouspensky, author of “In Search of the Miraculous.”

For those unfamiliar with these individuals, Gurdjieff was an enigmatic figure, a mystic and hypnotist who appeared in Russia in 1912 and attracted a devoted following of students who sought to “awaken” from the deeply conditioned sleep that the teacher claimed prevented true knowledge and consciousness. Gurdjieff later opened an academy in Paris and travelled to America where he again attracted noteworthy followers, including the wife of Frank Lloyd Wright, who himself became interested in Gurdjieff’s ideas and cosmology.

I became fascinated with this teaching in my twenties and it followed me throughout my life; one of the more interesting aspects of it is that it is not publicized and in fact one of the tenets has always been that it be kept hidden from those who did not possess a deep yearning to discover such truth. It is only in today’s world with the Internet that much of these concepts have come to light and been popularized (and perhaps distorted) – and components can also be found in the work of many other teachers including Anthony Robbins, Werner Ehrhard, Bagwam Rashneesh, Alan Watts, Wayne Dwyer and Eckhart Tolle, among many others.

Dr. Needleman has hinted at these ideas through his more mainstream philosophical works but I was particularly interested in how he would approach such a significant topic online, in the space of only two hours.

I had expected more of a historical account of Gurdjieff’s work and his ideas, but Dr. Needleman surprised me by suggesting that this work truly embodied what the philosopher Plato first called “Eros”, namely most deeply felt inner yearning for contact with the highest realities. I recall that in “In Search of the Miraculous” Ouspensky writes that in his inquiry there is first the identification of a deeply held yearning or wish to know something that becomes the most powerful motivating force of one’s life – answers to questions of the heart.

Therefore Dr. Needleman instead posed what he deemed to be the 10 most fervent Questions of the Heart (unanswerable by ordinary knowledge), and echoing part of “An Unknown World,” he suggested that a deep question is more important than a shallow answer.

In this context Dr. Needleman is saying that what Gurdjieff brought in his approach to these subjects is a probing faculty that takes into account the Western need for “answers” and addresses Western science as well—and yet finally approaches issues which science, until recently in neuroscience and quantum physics, has deemed the province of mysticism or religion (unscientific).

So then what are these Ten Questions? It is interesting to note that in many ways they are the questions a child will ask to the exasperation of elders when he or she begins he endless inquiry of “Why”…

1 Are we alone in the universe? In Gurdjieff’s cosmology and in Needleman’s latest book is the deeply held belief that the Earth is a living organism – not “like” a living organism (metaphor) but actually so, and it is only our deeply conditioned “scientism” that prevents our experiencing the world as such.

What is fascinating about these ideas to me is that they are not “religious” in the ordinary sense—there is no personal “higher Being” but rather a witnessing to the obvious reality of man’s scale within the cosmos that speaks to awe and mystery.

Another aspect of this question is the realization through direct experience we discover that, at the heart of the living universe is an intelligent power, which becomes accessible to us only if we penetrate our own deeply conditioned egoism (which suggests separation and the ability to know objectively apart from understanding the reality of our own consciousness).

Science has focused exclusively on outward directed experience—with the assumption that we are somehow separate from the experience – a subject experiencing objective reality.

It was Gurdjieff who opened Western man to the inquiry into the quality of our inner experience—”knowing the knower” – and beginning to examine the very source of conscious attention – by turning inward

A big part of this method is objective and “ruthlessly honest” self-observation, and the study one’s own illusions and self-deceptions.

2 Who am I?

With the process of self-observation come a series of shocks when we truly perceive how far we are from what we think we are. Here another kind of knowing emerges which awakens a capacity of attention that is more truly my Self – Dr. Needleman describes this as a “coming home” or presence.

Gurdjieff called this continuous process of inward attention Self Remembering – returning from the distractive illusions of the exterior world and coming back into where I really am.

One of the shocks of self remembering is the recognition of how distracted we are by the world, and how many different “I”‘s or “Self”s actually exist through our bodies and experience depending upon our circumstances, moods and illusions about life.

Here are the other deep questions to be considered. Facile answers are to be avoided; instead a deep inquiry into every aspect of these issues is encouraged.

3 Why do we live – what is the purpose of human life?

4 Why do we suffer?

Here Dr. Needleman identified 3 distinct type of suffering

1) Suffering of the ego (story – self imposed) [Identification – attachment]

2) Seeing the truth about myself (aware of my illusions, nothingness)

Intentional – redemptive suffering (therapy) Science is state specific

3) Injustice and loss – sorrow – the unavoidable circumstances that life will bring through intimate loss, death or war and rampant inhumanity.

5 Is death the end?

Here Dr. Needleman introduced the notion of an experience of time-lessness which exists in a different way – a different quality of time that is almost “vertical” as opposed to horizontal linear time, taking us into other dimensions beyond those of our ordinary sense. This brings up the question of a Soul which Gurdjieff claimed did not exist at birth but can only be developed through inner work and struggle.

As an aside it is my belief that this is the precisely the purpose of group work or intense body therapy which makes us confront our conditioned beliefs and “alchemically” change our own brains as we begin to “reprogram” our misconceptions about ourselves, about others, about our egos and the true scale of the world around us.

6 Why is there evil?

Here Dr. Needleman said that Gurdjieff suggested that “We cannot imagine what man can be.” Of course evil can make us aghast at the negative dimension of human nature, but “the development of true Conscience” can begin to develop our positive capacities.

7 What can I hope for (that is not just a fantasy)? Not merely (conditioned) self suggestion?

8 What can we really know? (we live in a world of appearances)

Gurdjieff said that we live on the surface of reality because we live on the surface of ourselves.

It is the discipline of self observation, sometimes ruthlessly honest, that can expose our illusions and bring us to deeper truth.

9 What ought we to do? Or is morality relative?

Is there a source of objective knowledge of values.

Gurdjieff wrote that in the deeper aspects of ancient art there is the chance to “digest” nourishing impressions that can lead to the experience of humility and awe that can develop conscience and an objective morality. But what that may be is often mired in human fantasy and everyone must discover such truth for him or herself.

10 How ought we to live?

Can I live more welcoming the difficult moments in order to study my own capacity for presence? We live in a world which worships ease and comfort and where discomfort of any kind is to be avoided as “wrong.”

Again all of this ultimately leads us back to self-knowledge and “presence” – a sense of connection to that which is real. To me the key here is that every individual must discover this for him or herself, no external “test” can measure reality from the dimension of scientific detachment – and it is only when I am fully present that I know it… with depth. It is not a “belief” – it is a certainty.

It was Gurdjieff’s assertion that this sort of work cannot be done alone and that it must be accomplished within a “School” – which he saw as not a fixed physical structure but rather a psychological set of conditions for awakening of conscience administered by those who were more advanced.

Of course determining the “qualifications” of such “teachers” is a difficult task in itself.

Through his writing I have always felt that Dr. Needleman has had the unique capacity to point the way to these truths, and to me the fact that his wisdom can be accessed from the comfort of my living room is a miracle.

I also made the effort to hear him personally on several occasions in the bay area. It is interesting to me that his latest book “An Unknown World” resonates so strongly with another work by a favorite of mine, Eckhart Tolle, namely “A New Earth.”

It is my belief that deeply taking in and opening to any of the ten questions posed above and exploring them within oneself, and with like-minded souls, is among the most satisfying tasks one can undertake. It is the essence of philosophy.

Source Code

From Wikipedia: In computer science, source code is any collection of computer instructions (possibly with comments) written using some human-readable computer language, usually as text.

As we now know, our own DNA can be “decoded” (sequenced) by supercomputers to reveal its “meaning” as a series represented by four letters of our alphabet, A, C, T and G (representing the organic substances that carry out its “instructions”).

In the book Biological Physics (Updated Edition), Philip Nelson refers to a similar insight into our own nature (biology) by a rather impressive figure in human history. On page 89 he writes:

“3.3.1 Aristotle weighs in

Classical and medieval authors debated long and hard about the material basis of the facts of heredity. Many believed that the only possible solution was that the egg contains somewhere inside itself a tiny but complete chicken, which needed only to grow. In a prescient analysis, Aristotle rejected this view, pointing out, for example, that certain inherited traits can skip a generation entirely. Contrary to Hippocrates, Aristotle argued:

‘The male contributes the plan of development and the female the substrate. . . . The sperm contributes nothing to the material body of the embryo but only communicates its program of development . . . just as no part of the carpenter enters into the wood in which he works.’

Aristotle missed the fact that the mother also contributes to the “plan of development” but he made crucial progress by insisting on the separate role of an information carrier in heredity. The organism uses the carrier in two distinct ways:

– It uses the software stored in the carrier to direct its own construction; and

– It duplicates the software, and the carrier on which it is stored, for transmission to the offspring.”

Here Nelson refers to the “program” noted in our cellular makeup by Aristotle (who presumably did not know about DNA) as “software.”

With the modern perspective of a user of computer software, with even a rudimentary understanding of the nature of code, we can somehow sense that what is being referred to here is a mental property in nature that is not materially present in the cell.

As Aristotle analogously suggested with his reference to the carpenter – “just as no part of the carpenter enters into the wood in which he works” – it is the mental intention of the programmer that lives on through software in an inanimate object (the computer) just as it is apparently some sort of mental intention (consciousness?) that is at work in our own nature.

Is this the same level of mind as what we might call our mental self? It is hardly likely, since this rational faculty remained unaware or disregarded consciousness itself as science developed its stranglehold on our current world view. And yet the Cartesian notion that “I think, therefore I am” has identified human thought as the preeminent and superseding aspect of our true nature and its highest manifestation.

Eckhart Tolle has written eloquently about the limitation of this perspective, noting that the intelligence that instructs our biology (expressed through DNA) is far more intelligent than the verbal inner chatter that we take our “selves” to be.

And yet any such notion of the reality of a consciousness beyond “our own” has been discarded by science as “unscientific.” As Jacob Needleman writes in An Unknown World:

“Can science, which originally took its strength by rigorously excluding consciousness from the field of its investigation—can such science now understand the very element it initially ruled out as an object of study?” (129)

Or as Eckhart Tolle puts it, can the human mind understand the true breadth of Consciousness (through thought alone)?

Needleman refers to this myopic aspect of science (human blindness to the true nature of reality when it rules out the existence of consciousness) as “Scientism” – an arrogant notion of life putting the human ego at the center of a projected universe – and indeed the modern “religion” or thought pattern ruling our perceptions and behaviors.

In An Unknown World Needleman, however, hints at another interpretation of Descartes that is currently being tested in the sciences of biology (as Nelson indicates above), neuroscience and quantum physics, as they merge in their inevitable recognition of the reality of consciousness as the fundamental aspect of our “being” (nature).

Needleman writes (page 67) that Descartes, rather than ascribing human thought a preeminent status as the foundation of our being, rather Descartes “is showing that in the capacity of the mind to concentrate its attention toward itself in pure thought—in that capacity there is a central element of Man that is not merely separate from nature, but beyond nature! Beyond Earth! What Descartes is offering is not more or less than the idea of the holy spirit expressed not in religious language, but in the language of the independent human mind.”

So what Needleman suggests, echoing Eckhart Tolle, is that through our attention we can see a faculty within us that observes thought (as it occurs) – so that we are not thought as generated in our earthly body (through the brain) but rather there is present within us an aspect of Mind beyond the earthly material brain – operating on an immensely higher scale…

As Eckhart Tolle writes, this is our true nature, which is “no thing” – a frequency of mind that we barely comprehend (beyond thought) and to which our proper relationship is not rational comprehension, but rather a stance of reverence, awe and profound gratitude for our very existence.

Whatever word we assign to this aspect of being: God, Life, Being, Consciousness or Source –we do not come to it through answers, but rather as Needleman suggests, through a more open Question – such is found within the actual (not hypothetical) experience of silence and meditation.

This is what our modern science disdains as “religion”, but to which we can only refer as the Sacred.

And as Needleman suggests, when our consciousness is “tuned” to this frequency through a change in our very being, we will be of service to the whatever “programmer” may have “written” our software, which runs not only our “selves,” but the earth, the Sun and everything else that exists through Consciousness.