Tonglen, Illusion and Injustice – A “Theory of Everything”

This worm, my brother, symbolizes vulnerability for me
This worm symbolizes vulnerability for me

I really like combining some tonglen breathing with my dumbbell exercises and a set of tai chi. I usually come away with a feeling of calmness and purpose.

I precede the above with 30 minutes uphill walking on a treadmill, during which I listen to a CBC podcast from one of my four favorite reflective CBC programs: Ideas, Tapestry, Writers and Company and The Sunday Edition. These free podcasts come automatically into my iTunes account.

I don’t do the exercises every day, and, for me, that’s OK. Often I walk outside instead in “Our Woods” with my wife. Our walks have been getting longer as we will be walking a lot on our next trip and, at 68, that can be challenging.

This morning when I began my routine I was thinking about a thoughtful blog I had read a couple of days ago by Traveling Thane Furrows. N.B. Thane’s blog is no longer available.  Pity. His post featured one of my living heroes, Noam Chomsky. Thane presented several of Mr. Chomsky’s points in an October lecture given at the American University in Cairo. Thane commented in the above post that Chomsky “nonchalantly condemns US Imperialism and gives lucid explanations for the current political events sweeping our world.” I remember thinking that the last adjective I would use to describe anything Chomsky does is “nonchalant.” He has spent much of his very long life meticulously and passionately documenting political abuses of the third world by the powerful nations and trans-national corporations. The US is his principal, but by no means sole, target and he gives copious endnotes to support all his sources.

But Thane made me think twice when he respectfully suggested that there is typically too much negativity among critics of the status quo. I had to think about my recent posts that have been severely critical, contemptuous even, of Canada’s small “c” conservative government under Stephen Harper.

Thane refers wisely to Buddhist  and Kabbalist beliefs and tonglen as tools that can be used to soften one’s heart and learn to look primarily for the good. I think Thane feels that Chomsky and I are too unrelentingly harsh in our criticism of the right wing. He quotes the Kabbalist,  Rabbi Moshe Cordevero:

Your ears should always be tuned to hear the good, while rumors and gossip should never be let in, according to the secret of sublime listening. There, no harsh shouting enters, no tongue of evil leaves a blemish. So listen only to positive, useful things, not to things that promote anger.

This quote initially took me aback. It seemed that Thane was implying by this passage that Chomsky should have been more circumspect and positive in his lecture. I suspect now that Thane was quite sympathetic to the “facts” as Chomsky presented them, but was troubled that this information darkened his perspective and made Thane himself somewhat prone to negative feelings that he personally wants to overcome.

Here I invite Thane to comment on this post, because I am not certain of his perspective and do not want to misrepresent it. I thank him for stimulating me to think more carefully about my writing style.

My opinion on this is that there are different, valid roles for all of us if we “H. sapienses” are to find our way intact into the next century. People like Noam Chomsky, though overwhelmingly critical, are important communicators of the serious issues that need to be addressed if justice, peace and sustainability are important. In Canada, for example, there are four times as many right wing daily newspapers as liberal ones. Voices like those of Chomsky and Naomi Klein are a necessary, if tiny, attempt to bring the public, poorly informed due to materialistic distractions and the bias of the  corporate-dominated media, up to speed on the reasons and powers behind what is happening to the indigenous in Central America, Canada and, soon, to them. This is what the recent Idle No More Movement is about. People are becoming aware of threats to Canada’s First Nations and to themselves if our land, water and air continues to be polluted to serve the god of GDP and the corporate growth paradigm.

There is also place for spiritual leaders of good faith, past and present. There is also place for agnostics and atheists. There is an important place for indigenous spirituality, which is closer to Mother Earth than any other form.

But back to the ideas spawned by Thane’s blog – and my stream of consciousness:

I am aware that much of what we perceive is illusion. Buddhism, Hinduism and even quantum physics support this. It seems the Hindus  intuitively “got” the String Theory of quantum physics centuries before plodding, Western atomistic scientists came to get a peek into its intricacies. Sort of reminds me of the Polynesians (through magnificent, intuitive, advanced navigational virtuosity) having populated the tiny islands of the vast  South Pacific five centuries before the Spaniards came along hugging the coast and generally screwing things up. Fast forward to the present World Order… but I digress.

Being aware of the illusory nature of existence helps one to cope with suffering. This is one of the real benefits of tonglen breathing.

Breathe in suffering, breathe out healing.

Simple, deep, effective. It helps, but it does not change the injustice that leads to widespread suffering around the world, much of which has been spawned since European colonialism began in the 15th century. I still cling to the idea that injustice must be fought. To me it is not a complete illusion that a girl going to school can be disfigured by acid thrown in her face. (The Taliban, by the way, has arisen because fundamentalism was aided and abetted by the US to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. It achieved that goal, but turned out to be a Faustian bargain, but I digress yet again.)

This sort of injustice makes me angry. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. Not so angry that my blood boils and my blood vessels constrict – thanks to tonglen and, to a greater extent than previously, tuning out. My Internet activity and bodily presence at peaceful protests, critical and side-taking though it is, also helps me feel that I am doing something to fight injustice.

In the very long run, for an athiest who understands the Second Law of Thermodynamics, all momentary struggle is indeed absurd. In the end a state of formless uniformity will be everywhere in the universe. Free energy, necessary to build complex structures like a human fetus out of atoms, will be all used up.

Even in the relatively short run, our sustainer, the Sun, having indifferently helped life to evolve on Earth over the past 5 billion years, will start to lose its primary and secondary fuels, hydrogen and helium. Before it peters out to a dwarf during the next 5 billion it will cool and expand into a red giant, whose fiery mass will envelop our Planet. Sayonara, baby.

Some might say that to struggle to keep Homo sapiens and a few other vertebrates in existence on Earth for a few more millennia is itself an absurd quest, given the ultimate existence endgame. For me, and this is my own personal, though deeply held, sentiment,  it is the only thing worth doing. I consider those who aid the new colonists in their rape of my Planet the Enemy who must be turned into an ally or relentlessly opposed. I cannot do otherwise.

I will give the last word to the author of Don Quixote, the incomparable Miguel Cervantes:

Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.