The truth about 'where things are heading'

Dear friends, I think we need step back and get a little perspective on the state of the world and where things are heading. And the perspective I have in mind might be different from anything you've read before.  (Warning: this is an informal essay that turns into a bit of a rant. If you prefer watching a video to reading an essay, please scroll to the bottom!)

On the spiritual path, one of the most important forms of discernment is the ability to discern between first- and second-order reality. First-order reality is what’s actually happening, prior to interpretation. In the Tantrik View, what's actually happening is always a patterned flow of energy: e.g., movements of planets, clouds, human bodies, ocean currents, emotional energy currents, and so on. So what’s actually happening is whatever’s happening before you have a thought about it. Because reality is nonverbal and nonconceptual. 

If first-order reality is what presents, second-order reality consists of how conditioned human minds represent what presents. Most commonly, this takes the form of mental images—images of what might happen, for example, but also vague mental representations of “the world”. Now, as a student and teacher of spirituality who is also a linguist, I am fascinated and not a little disturbed by the way the phrase “the world” is thrown around in our current cultural discourse. Like, “the world’s in a terrible state”, “the world is so full of suffering”, etc. Now here’s the thing: whether we're referring to human society or planet Earth, the actual world is far too complex for our little brains to form an accurate mental representation of it. Each attempt to do so in fact captures only the tiniest sliver of the whole (at best)—but it can cause us deep and needless suffering when we believe that that sliver is more than a sliver.

And we compulsively do believe that. It’s just how our conditioned minds work. We read a few articles about some serious social and environmental problems somewhere in the world, and our brain forms the idea “The world is so messed up” or something similar. Or, a handful of your friends are going through a hard time all at once and your brain forms the idea “Everyone’s going through it—there’s so much suffering in the world right now!” It is absolutely crucial that we realize how easily our minds extrapolate from a few examples to “everything”, and thus how easily they form fictitious images of “the world”. Look—let’s be honest—none of us has any fucking clue about the condition of “the world”. Not even socio-economic 'experts' have a clue about what's going on, because if they did, their predictions would be more accurate than the weatherman's, and they aren't. Most of us can’t even make accurate generalizations about our own local communities, for god’s sake! —as studies have shown.

Please, get this and really take it in: The world is not your mental image of the world. Your country is not your mental image of your country. Your community is not your mental image of your community. Other people are not your mental image of them. If even your own friends and community members are not your image of them, are not your story about them, how much more so the country or the world?

Here's the thing: studies have proven that most people automatically believe that which they are repeatedly exposed to. In other words, without training human brains can't distinguish between what is familiar and what is true. So we must acknowledge the huge role of media, and especially news media in forming our mental images of “the world”. News media is second-order reality, since all it does is put mental images in your head. When you take media reporting (any media reporting, not just 'mainstream news') as corresponding to first-order reality, you have just put on the most distorting lens in human history without even realizing it. Reading a news story is nothing other than putting that writer’s mental image into your head.* Now, there’s no problem with second-order reality as long as you REALIZE it’s second-order reality (that’s why the conclusion here is NOT “don’t ever read news media”)—but you don’t, you see? You take the mental image formed from the news story as corresponding to reality. This is extremely problematic, especially because more likely than not, the journalist is reporting on something s/he wasn’t physically present for and doesn't understand the full context of. So, you're more likely dealing with third- or fourth-order reality: a mental image of a mental image of a mental image. Simulated simulacra of someone's interpreted experience of reality. (Since all verbal representations are necessarily interpretations, modified and distorted by the interpreter's psychology.)

You begin to sense the depth of the problem when you start to consider what the media is NOT reporting on: for example, countless, countless, countless 'insignificant' acts of love and kindness, moments of profound wordless realization, moments of human beings opening their hearts to one another. If just 1 out of every 7 people has one heart-opening moment or performs one small act of tender kindness once in the day, then these things are happening at least one BILLION (1,000,000,000) times a day. 

But see, these things don’t make good headlines. They don’t sell newspapers. “Woman sitting in her garden realizes she can finally forgive her son for his life decisions and tears stream down her face as her heart opens to him for the first time in years!” — “After belittling his wife’s dreams and values, husband realizes he’s projecting his own sense of inadequacy on her and turns towards her, heart melting, and apologizes and asks for her support to shift his behavior pattern!” — “Man realizes that he’s chasing a career carrot that will be meaningless on his deathbed, and that hollow ambition is robbing him of connection with those he loves most!” — (These are, by the way, all real-life examples. And I could go on and on. And on.) They don’t make good headlines, though perhaps in a sane society they would. Media reports DRAMA. There is virtually no interest in the minutiae of real human lives. But real human lives are made up of almost NOTHING BUT minutiae! Countless 'nows'. Countless small moments. Moments of grief and sorrow, yes, but also countless moments of beauty, of love, of full quiet presence, IF we slow down enough to notice them.

I hope I’m convincing you that any mental image of “the world”—or even your local community— formed on the basis of news media or hearsay is at best nothing but a sliver of reality, and that’s IF the story's been properly researched and well-reported, which god knows is very rare these days.

Second-order reality is not first-order reality. If you don’t get that, really deeply get it, then you’re only dreaming that you’re awake.

When you step outside into the crisp late winter air and see the wind caressing the trees and taste its tangy coolness and feel the frost crunch under your feet as you watch the children board the school bus (or whatever)—THAT is first-order reality. Is that world full of suffering? Maybe, but only if you’re so lost in your mind-world that you can’t touch or taste the exquisite stillness and tranquillity and beautiful beingness that's always present in life gradually unfolding as it does so perfectly, moment-to-moment (before you have a thought about it).

And that brings me to the problem of mental images of possible futures. A lot of people are scared and upset about what might happen. So invested in the mental images that they are unable to connect with the present, in which everything’s actually pretty much okay. Wait, better than okay. Having said all of the above, there ARE such things as facts; I define facts as patterns that can be represented numerically (because numbers lack the ambiguity of words), and that can be verified by anyone willing to take the time to crunch the numbers. By that definition, it is a FACT that America is safer than it has ever been. And though there's millions of racist people in America, it is a fact that it's less racist than it used to be. (Note: more news media reporting of cops shooting PoCs does not mean more PoCs are being shot—black folks have always been illegally killed in this country, in slowly decreasing numbers over time, and now the media is reporting it more frequently, so it looks like it's getting worse, when actually the media reporting is a sign of PROGRESS; slow progress, but progress nonetheless.)

It is also a FACT that global poverty is at its lowest level in recorded history (and is decreasing faster than it ever has), and that most places in the world are safer and stabler than they’ve ever been. That matters! That fucking matters, and very few are celebrating it. Because people tend to not see the bigger picture.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook that more American lives had been lost to domestic violence in the last 15 years than in 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War combined. I called that a “shocking statistic”, and it is, in the sense that I was surprised by it. And the pain, fear, and twisted self-hatred that fuel domestic violence is a tragically sad thing. But let’s get some perspective here. We’re talking about around 10,000 lives lost. Each one is a tragedy. But as a percentage of the US population?—It's 0.00003%. Your brain can’t even comprehend what a tiny sliver that is (unless you have very developed numeracy). So, “Domestic violence is a terrible problem in this country”—that’s not the kind of statement that can constitute a fact. It reflects a mental image, and furthermore one out of proportion with reality. Though of COURSE, like me, you want to keep bringing attention to the issue until NO ONE suffers domestic violence. But the statement in the quotes above reflects a mental image, and your mental image is not reality. I understand that such a statement also might reflect your grief, but it's important to note that the grief itself is based on a mental image, except in the case of each woman you know personally who has suffered domestic violence. (But as discussed above, even real-life examples don't usually create sound generalizations about "the world" in human minds.) It's bizarre that humans can experience tremendous anguish based on their mental images, but it's a ubiquitous fact of human life. Spiritual awakening is precisely waking up from this nightmare (see this post).

So, some perspective. A white man sits in a white house making noises with his mouth and signing a bunch of papers. We (those who value equal treatment for all) are scared of what he might do. He thinks—and we think—he has more power than he does, and yes, he might temporarily create more suffering for a bunch of people by trying to protect the unearned disproportionate privilege that white men have possessed since the beginning of this country. But take a step back. Slavery existed in the United States just TWO HUMAN LIFETIMES ago! I mean, holy crap! This man is nothing but an orange-colored speedbump in the road of history.

Absolutely yes, keep doing what you’re doing to resist the current administration's agenda. It's not wasted effort. (And if you’re not sure what to do to effectively resist, just go to Indivisible Guide and get yourself sorted.) BUT ALSO, reduce your needlessly high stress levels by getting in touch with first-order reality. How many people do you know who are hurting on the level of first-order reality, as opposed to experiencing distress based on mental images of what they are afraid might happen? Okay, maybe you know a few. But those individual people in pain doesn’t translate to “the world is going dark”. I mean, that’s just crazy, that thought, just like all generalizations of that nature. And believing such a thought (or its opposite) is strangely arrogant on the mind's part. Because it’s impossible to represent the world, or a country, or a city, or a community, in a mental image; and it’s impossible to quantify human suffering, even of people you know. Just as it’s impossible to quantify human happiness. 

OF COURSE, there is a ridiculous amount of suffering in the world. But there’s also a ridiculous amount of joy. Because there's an incalculable amount of everything, the full range of human experience. You can’t quantify either suffering or joy, and you’d be a fool to let the MEDIA, of all things, convince you there’s more of the former than the latter. You can’t possibly know that. You just can’t. No one can.

And furthermore, humans have a remarkable ability to adapt to their circumstances and find moments of joy and happiness in the midst of very dire straits (read Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness, please.) That’s why your projection of how miserable someone is in some given circumstance (e.g., homeless) is often wrong. Because you see, what you're doing there is imagining how you would feel if you were suddenly thrust into that circumstance, and then you imagine that’s how they feel. And that’s a fallacy, as Dan Gilbert proves. Most humans are way more adaptable than you—or they—think they are.

OF COURSE, that doesn’t mean you should EVER blow off or disregard or belittle someone’s expression of pain. Empathy is one of the main ways we can contribute to others’ well-being. And, as part of your own private spiritual inquiry, you can notice how much of what someone is telling you is first-order-reality pain (like, "my mom just died") and how much is second-order-reality pain (like, "I can’t stop thinking about how much those poor Syrian refugees must be suffering." [Oh, and if that last one is you, please meet Noujain Mustaffa.**]) 

And often, those two are mixed together (“My mom died. I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.” Reality + mental image = excessive suffering.) And please, don't point out the difference between the two to someone unless they call you their teacher or are paying you to coach them. You have enough to do pointing out the difference to yourself.

Please, for the benefit of all beings, let's start to distinguish between first- and second-order reality. Of course, it's perfectly valid to take actions based on the latter (such as reading a story about something, and then actually going there to find out what the first-order reality is like). But please investigate what it's like to stop giving away your energy, your personal shakti, to mental images. That's one of the main 'energy leaks' according to the Tantrik View. And it's a sinkhole with no bottom.

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For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project

Here's a special treat for you (I hope): a video from my recently completed 40-day Awareness Challenge. (Consider taking it next year!) It's on the same topic as this post, but makes plenty of different points. Skip the first couple of minutes (to 1:40, to be precise), which apply only to the Challenge course.

May we all have the courage and will to discern between first- and second-order reality!  May we awaken to the nonconceptual truth of our being!  May we thereby realize our freedom!

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* Even if the news story includes video footage, it's still second-order reality, because you cannot perceive the full context of that footage--for example, what happened right before the clip you watched?  What's out of shot? Etc.
** When asked by a reporter if she had been afraid while crossing the Mediterranean in a rubber dinghy in her WHEELCHAIR, Noujain replied: “No, I enjoyed it. I have never been on a boat before. It was very beautiful. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die, but thank God we are here.”