Pluto Photos Illustrate The Granular Nature of Truth

In 2006, New Horizons Spacecraft left earth in search of better data about the solar system.  This week it achieved a significant milestone in the mission and returned some stunning data about the only planet ever to become publicly demoted from planet to dwarf, after over 75 years on the top charts.

Below are before and after photographs of Pluto from the NPR Website.  The left shows Hubble Space Telescope’s image of the former planet compared with the flyby image returned by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The difference in what is now known about Pluto’s shape and topography visually is nothing compared to the granular geologic and biological data that can be collected by spectroscopy during this flyby.  These photos show that only by going after the truth and finding it for ourselves, first hand, will we see how little we really knew.  And how fuzzy our assumptions are seen in hindsight, and how clear they seemed again here in the present.  To sum it up:

True understanding is subverted the moment we are comfortably satisfied  with our understanding of the truth.

“True understanding is subverted the
moment we are comfortably satisfied
with our understanding of the truth.”

– Jon Lybrook

Negativity

Negativity will make you a grouch!Happiness is our natural state of mind.  After all, it is in our best interest to be happy.  If that is true, then why do so many of us seem so miserable most of the time?

It is because mental negativity is addictive and feeds on itself.

The Buddha taught that whenever any kind of negativity arises in the mind (anger, hate, jealousy, or sadness in particular), the solution is to observe the physical sensations associated with the emotions and face them.

Physical sensations associated with negative thoughts might be a faster heart beat, harder breathing, blushing, muscle tension, stomach pain or any number of biochemically driven, fight or flight responses.  Rather than immediately picking up the bottle, a doughnut, drug, or other mechanism for escape, recognize these signs, and be with them for a moment when they arise.  Feel the feeling and know it will pass.

As soon as you start to observe this state of mental impurity objectively, it begins to lose strength and slowly withers away.  At first this requires patience, but over time and with meditation practice it happens faster.

But how to observe it objectively?  The trick is not to focus on the object or cause of the negativity (be it a person or event).  Focusing on the object of the negativity will cause the negativity to multiply and build strength. Once you know what the cause is and have learned from it, dismiss the cause and focus on the sensations.  Realize it is in the past and you are in the present.  See how these thoughts are harming you and allow yourself to let go of them.

This allows the mind to break the biochemical cycle of anger, and disrupt the root cause of misery and be happy once again.

Just one of the many, many gems of wisdom I’ve taken away from S.N. Goenka’s  Dhamma Meditation training through his famous 10-day retreats which I attended two years ago this month.  One important fact about these meditation courses which I like is they are non-sectarian in nature.  While it stems from the teachings of Buddha and how he reached enlightenment 2500 years ago, it is not about selling Buddhism, or classes. They teach a universal meditation technique with the goal of greater mental focus, gratitude, and happiness in daily life.

Just as a rocky mountain is not moved by storms,
so sights, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts and ideas,
whether desirable or undesirable,
will never stir one of steady nature,
whose mind is firm and free,
who sees how all things pass.

– Anguttara Nikaya 6.55

Handing Slightly Longer Meditation Sessions

I’ve grown Long time on the mat!accustom to not looking at the time while meditating.  Occasionally the alarm I use either has the sound set to mute or something malfunctions.  During a long, unintentional 90 minute meditation today I was faced again with the fact that that the longer one goes, the more intense and difficult it becomes to stay focused.  Balance and calm eventually gives way to tension, intense irritation, and impulses to stop meditating in favor of whatever compelling thoughts take over.

What I found was that getting through such storms of emotions became easier by changing focus on the body and its sensations to focusing on the breath instead.  Goenkaji mentions this approach to dealing with such distractions in his discourses several times.

Once things calmed down I went back to the body scans.  Much like walking over hot coals, such achievements provide a sense of power and accomplishment in mental discipline that carry into other areas of life.  Unlike walking on hot coals, there’s very little chance of getting hurt!

Gratitude Toward our Enemies

Nobody likes to feel they have enemies, and maybe you do not. If so, you probably haven’t made many mistakes in life, or, more likely, you haven’t been trying very hard at anything! For most of us, there are people we’ve offended in the past, intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe they were once even our friends.  A few of these people may even hate us or maybe we sometimes feel we hate them.

Haters are My Motivators

Obviously hate is destructive and counterproductive, so most of us tend to avoid it. Holding a grudge is proven to cause all sorts of damage to the body, mind and spirit.  While this often happens unintentionally, there are people who gravitate toward it as a means of getting the attention of others and gaining a sense of self-worth, however. “Haters are my motivators.” is a great phrase I’ve seen around the web of late. It’s a good reminder that there are indeed evil, sadistic, misdirected and self-centered people in this world with literally no conscience.  In some cases they intentionally cause harm for the fun of it. To cause and witness this suffering in others demonstrates their power over others, at least in their mind.  They exist, it’s a fact and we must be sufficiently motivated to overcome our resistance to that in order to accept the truth.

These kinds of pitiful people are clinically defined as sociopaths, which means they themselves literally can not feel empathy.  I don’t mean to say all people who wind up becoming our enemies are sociopathic, but a recent statistic says that 1 in 25 people are, in fact, without a conscience.  You can’t hurt them, because they don’t feel emotional pain, so they don’t know how other people feel it.  One warning sign of a sociopath is when they wrong us, yet can make us believe we were the ones doing harm to them. This paradox give us perspective into the wide array of moral interpretations such people can conjure up to their advantage, and how meaningless all such philosophies are. Being kind to others, or at least not harming them, is the only morality that exists. Even in self-defense, we can disarm and disable without harming in most cases, as the practice of aikido teaches us so deftly.

Mental Defilements Cause Pain

Seeing the unconscionable actions of others can bring about dark, angry feelings of injustice – causing us to want to do harm to others and drawing us closer to the selfish tendencies of our own minds, causing us pain and suffering while we plot to take revenge!  If we do manage to generate enough hatred to retaliate, the cycle perpetuates and we remain in perpetual misery. These are what Goinkaji calls ‘mental defilements’ in ourselves – those which poison our psyche and body if left unchecked. These mental defilement occur naturally and are what we strive to purify through meditation. By allowing such thoughts to come to the surface, fully recognizing and accepting the pain they cause, how they are affecting us physiologically as well as psychologically, and staying with them quietly while keeping the mind objective and focused, they eventually fade and disappear. Much like allowing a fire to burn itself out or with the help of a steady, constant, stream of water. If we instead try to work with the negative thoughts, justify them, compound them, and roll in them, it will stir them up worse – like trying to extinguish a fire by putting on more wood or, in some cases, gasoline!

Pain Helps Us to Be Aware

Yes, pain or discomfort teaches us – just as a child touching a hot stove learns what not to do.  However, experiencing pain during vipassana mediation works on a deeper and more sophisticated level. By staying with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle aches and pains in meditation and facing them objectively we learn to face not only our pain, but our fear of pain.  Through this we have the opportunity to conquer and ultimately be free from it.  Physical pain makes life difficult, but not unbearable, unless we make it so by giving in to it mentally.  Likewise, whatever pain we feel from verbal or emotional difficulties through our interactions with others does not require a knee-jerk, fight or flight response from us all the time.  Only our habitual behaviors make us feel that way, and following through with those primal feelings is simply running from the problem which will catch up to us again sooner or later.

Through the ally of meditation, our enemies allow us to experience things that cause us pain, over and over again if need be, until we learn both not to hurt others nor to feel arbitrarily hurt by them.  In so doing they can teach us vast amounts about ourselves if we choose to see it for what it is, rather than get angry about their actions and perpetuate the cycle.  For that they deserve our sincere compassion, thoughts of loving kindness and yes, our gratitude.

In metta.