Once upon a time there was a leaf on a tree.
One fine day, the leaf became conscious and started to ask questions about itself and the meaning of life. It enjoyed the experience of being alive.
But here’s something you probably didn’t know about leaves – they can only see the colour green. So the leaf couldn’t see the branch it was attached to, or the main trunk of the tree. It thought it was just floating in the air, independent and free.
After a while, the novelty of being a leaf wore off and the leaf, who was on a lower branch of the tree, looked up and saw there were leaves that were higher up in the air, where they got more sunlight and had a better view of the world.
“I want to be where those leaves are”, the leaf thought to itself. It spoke to some other young leaves who told it that if it just wanted it badly enough, and was prepared to work for it, a leaf could move anywhere it wanted to. After all, those leaves somehow got up there, so why not us? We are just as deserving.
So the young leaf decided to work hard to improve its circumstances. It would focus all of its energy on moving higher up in the air. Now, sometimes, when it focused hard, the leaf could feel itself moving and thought it was succeeding. It didn’t understand that the movement was the result of the wind blowing. But other times when it focused hard, the wind didn’t blow, and the leaf was frustrated with its lack of progress. After a while, the leaf got depressed.
“Life’s not fair,” it would think. “I suck at being a leaf. I’m a bad, stupid, unworthy leaf. I don’t believe in myself enough. Nobody will ever love me.”
One day, it got talking to another, older, wiser leaf.
“You seem happy,” said the young leaf to the wise, old leaf. “What is your secret?”
“The secret, young leaf, is to know that you are connected to all other leaves by a tree,” said the wise leaf. “In fact, you ARE the tree.”
“What is this tree you speak of?” Asked the young leaf.
“It’s the invisible framework that connects us all and gives us life” said the wise leaf.
“But how do I get to be one of those higher leaves?” asked the young leaf.
“You are ALL of the leaves,” replied the wise leaf. “You are the entire tree. You are just one node of consciousness in the entire tree of life.”
“I understand that you are probably right in theory,” said the young leaf, “but how does that help me? How can I be happy?”
“Accept that you are the tree and enjoy the experience of also being a leaf,” said the wise leaf. “It won’t last forever.”
“But I can think fro myself,” said the young leaf. “Surely that means I am free to do whatever I choose.”
“Thinking and choosing are just chemical events generated by the tree,” said the wise leaf. “Like photosynthesis. Do you think you are free to photosynthesize?”
“No, but I’m not aware of the photosynthesis,” said the young leaf. “It just happens.”
“Exactly,” said the wise leaf. “You are aware of your thinking, so you think you are in control of it. But it’s really the same process as the photosynthesis. Both are just chemical events happening to the tree. Accept you are the tree, and everything will become clear and life will be simple, free from stress and anxiety.”
But the young leaf couldn’t see the tree, so it refused to accept what the wise leaf said. Leafs, like people, can only hear when they are ready to hear.
“If I accept what you’re saying, I would be miserable,” said the young leaf. “That would mean I’m stuck being a lower leaf. It seems like a defeatist, fatalist philosophy.”
“On the contrary,” replied the wise leaf. “Acceptance of the reality of things is the only path to permanent happiness and peace. Fighting against reality is a certain path to misery.”
But the young leaf was too caught up in its desire to be special, so instead of accepting the truth of the tree, it tried to escape its misery by drinking and binging Netflix, took up obsessively going to the gym, read a lot of books about having a positive mental attitude, eventually becoming angry at itself and bitter at the world, until it finally withered away and died and was replaced with a new leaf.
The tree smiled as the new leaf became conscious and started to ask questions of the other leaves.
A Three illusions poem by me.
THE SONG OF SIMPLY EVERYTHING.
The savage sun, the busy ant.
Stupendous oak, a young green plant.
Gargantuan El Capitan
A ghost of smoke, a baby’s hand.
Fossilised tooth from ancient shark.
Trilobite from Cambrian spark.
Laptop keyboard on which I type.
Sweet aroma of mangoes ripe.
These things are all of atoms made.
Obey the laws of physics played
Out at small scales we cannot see.
Atoms are you, atoms are me.
Atoms are love, atoms are death.
Atoms write songs. Atoms are breath.
Only they are reality.
All else is mere plurality.
Story created by the brain.
Its primitive way to explain
Why things happen and who we are.
A convenient story arc
That tells us we are in control.
And thrusts us down into a hole
Of ego, identity, soul.
The cause of all our pain and grief.
Preventing permanent relief.
Atoms are ocean, wind and sand
And the baby’s head in my hand.
You and me and everybody
Are nothing more, nothing to see.
There is no magic that controls
Our thoughts, decisions and impulse
To laugh and cry, and dance and sing
To love and hate, or work or bring
To life a play or write a verse.
Atoms wrote this and much, much worse.
So when life throws you for a curve
Teach your brain to simply observe
That atoms are what’s happening
And everything else that you see
Faces and names and pain and grief
Are like characters on TV
Who seem so real to you and me
Yet understand that all they are
Is dots on a screen, from afar.
Our brain sees patterns and it tries
To make them things we recognise.
Do we lose sleep when someone dies
On TV? Or do we know
That TV people are just glow-
Ing lights that are not really real?
So too it is with you and me.
Don’t believe the image we see.
Remember what is at the core.
And don’t ask me what it is for.
Atoms emerged from the Big Bang.
Elemental forces that sang
Out when the universe was young.
And ever since then, they have sung
The song of all that is to be.
The song of you, the song of me.
That’s what they do – they sing their song.
And all of us just sing along.
We are the atoms that do sing
The song of simply everything.
How do you handle people in your life who are being a pain in the ass?
Well, for a start, we know that we have no free will. So we’re going to handle them however our current neural state handles them. Our neural state is the current structure of our brain, the way our memories, experiences and genetic pre-dispositions have been encoded in the synapses and chemicals of our brains.
However, something you read or hear today can change that neural state for tomorrow. The brain it plastic. It changes over time with every new experience or insight.
So – we know we have no free will. We also know that the other person has no free will. They are behaving exactly as they have to, based on their own neural state. They are an actor on a stage, forced to read certain lines, to play a certain part. And it’s hard to stay angry at someone who has no control over their actions. You can’t be angry at the sky for being covered in rain clouds. You can’t be angry at tree for shedding its leaves during winter. And you can’t be angry at a person for obeying their nature. It’s like the old story of the scorpion and the frog (Google it if you don’t know it, and try to find the version told by Orson Welles).
If someone is acting badly towards you, it often means they aren’t happy. Happy people, with healthy self-esteems, usually don’t treat others badly. They try to build the people around them up, make them feel good about themselves. They lift people up, they don’t knock them down. So if the person treating you badly is unhappy and doesn’t have any control over their behaviour, they are probably upsetting more people around them than just you, which, in turn, makes those people dislike them, which makes them feel worse about themselves – and the cycle continues.
So when someone is lashing out at me, I normally feel sorry for them.
On top of that, we also know that the concept of “identity” is problematic. We have realised that there isn’t a “me”, a distinct collection of atoms that is separate from the rest of the universe. So when someone is being mean to me, who, in fact, are they being mean to? They are being mean to the universe, to themselves. Now – do you think the universe cares? Does someone on the other side of the planet care what this person thinks, says or does? Does a tree care? Does a dog? No? Then why should I care?
They can’t be attacking “me”, because there is no “me” to attack. As Bob would say, there is no “reference point”. It’s like water off a duck’s back. Insults and attacks slide right off. The hardest problem I have when being insulted is to fight back a smile, which itself is unkind and can make the other person feel worse. But it’s actually quite amusing when someone exposes their pain and anger so openly by turning it on someone else. Not that the fact that they are hurting is at all funny, but just that their behaviour is so transparent and immature. It’s like when my five year old gets angry about something and tells me that he’s the boss of the house. His defiance is hilarious but if he sees me smiling, he gets even angrier. It’s the same with mean people. They can be unintentionally funny. So try not to smile. Even when it’s blaringly obvious that their anger towards you is an indication of their own issues.
So, once we understand that we shouldn’t take their insults and attacks personally, how should we handle the situation?
Usually I’ll try to think about what they need from me at that moment. My goal is to initially defuse the situation, then try to turn into something positive, where there are no winners or losers. But that’s hard to do, even with the Three Illusions, because our brains are designed with a “fight or flight” response to threatening situations. When we are being attacked, our subconscious defense mechanisms kick into gear – adrenaline courses through our veins, and our conditioning kicks in. Even after 30 years of completely accepting that I don’t exist as a “me”, my F/F system still kicks in from time to time. But it gets nipped in the bud pretty quickly as my post-Three Illusions wiring kicks in. After a few seconds to a few minutes, I’m usually thinking about how to defuse the situation so it doesn’t escalate. And I’m still not great at this part of it. My instinctive response is to think “I don’t exist, they don’t exist, this is all just a story going on in my head, it’s all just atoms” and to disengage. Which honestly probably isn’t the best way of handling these situations. So I’m trying to get better at it.
People’s egos usually want to be assuaged and they want to be heard. So it’s helpful to say something like “I see where you’re coming from, let me think about it some more and come back to you with a more thoughtful response. Can we park this issue for now and talk about it more later?”
Buying some time for both parties to calm down.
The important thing is that I’m not left with any anger, resentment or anxiety over the confrontation, because I know neither of us has any free will and I feel empathy for the person who is attacking me. This helps me think about what the other person needs from me and how to create a positive outcome for everyone.
“The whole world was seen as the divine activity welling up from the mysterious being of Brahman, which was the inner meaning of all existence. The Upanishads encouraged people to cultivate a sense of Brahman in all things. It was a process of revelation in the literal meaning of the word: it was an unveiling of the hidden ground of all being. Everything that happens became a manifestation of Brahman: true insight lay in the perception of the unity behind the different phenomena.”
‘A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’ by Karen Armstrong
In other words – Brahman = the laws of physics, atoms, whatever you want to call the underlying fabric of the cosmos.
This week’s podcasts include stories about enlightenment, the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, and The Son Of God (Tiberius, not that other guy).
For those interested in such matters, I just put up a new post on The Three Illusions site.
One obvious answer is that we wake up from dreams but we don’t wake up from reality. But does the dreamed person in our dreams ever wake up from the dream? Or does their ‘reality’ just end for them? One minute they are living inside their reality and the next it just stops. We wake up from that dream. As far as we’re concerned the dream is over. But what does the dream person experience?