“Be sure that this is what you want to do”, the Tibetan teacher admonished us, “because once you enter the Path, there is no turning back!”
He paused and deliberately pierced each of us with the deepest of looks, while the translator repeated his warning in Italian. Across from him, a crowd of about 20 people sat cross legged on the floor. I was wearing an orange cloth and brimming with determination, a blue-eyed, blonde boy of about 12, waiting to take the five vows, on my way to a monastic life within the fold of Tibetan Buddhism. What I was feeling at that moment was indestructible, eternal, unavoidable.
As usual I was the youngest one in a crowd of about twenty people and, as usual, I felt a mixture of prideful embarrassment, of being so obviously out of place but at the same time feeling fairly confident that I could pull it off. No one else ever seemed to have the insecurities I constantly struggled with. Even the hippie teens sitting around me appeared as if they knew their place in the world, looking tall, confident and relaxed.
For the first time in my life, so the teacher had suggested, I was apparently making a fateful choice, one from which there was no turning back. How could it be, I wondered silently, what happens if you “turn back”? Does someone punish you? Does the Buddha not like you anymore? I felt ashamed of even having those silly thoughts, my mind running wild the more I tried to calm it. Surely the teacher just glanced at me because I was thinking too loudly… he knew that if I was thinking these thoughts I must not be worthy. Why, not even committed yet and already thinking of an escape route? Plus, he must have been pondering, look at the mess that’s going on in this child’s mind, he can’t keep still, his legs are going to sleep, all he wants to do is take a nap, while everyone else is perfectly awake, abiding and much more deserving of my blessings!
Having grown up in Rome, within the folds of a strictly Christian and highly popularized view of the world, my life was all about guilt, blame, reward and punishment, made of tall and robed holier-than-thou figures who dispensed quickly with sinners of all kinds, chock-full of saints and trinities who were especially adept at knowing what you were thinking, at peering inside your outwardly behavior and judging you harshly for who you really were, you dirty little poser.
Buddhism was a lot more welcoming, especially for someone like me, who every morning donned a blue coat with an over sized bow tie and headed off to a middle school whose teachers were all angry Christian priests… embracing a different religion was possibly my way of sticking it to the man.
Buddhism or not, my entire outlook on life had already been indoctrinated the original sin way: there are rules and behaviors you must follow, and if you do as much as even think about breaking them, never ending fire is your punishment! Bearded God, and those other guys from whatever religion, see everything, know everything, and don’t think you can relax, dude, because you can’t.
I struggled to follow the ceremony. What was that “no turning back” clause anyway? Was I doing the right thing? Would I be able to respect the vows?
Would I be able to only have one female companion in my life? No problem with that, said the 12 years old in me, girls are annoying anyway.
Would I be able not to kill any sentient being? Check.
Never to steal? Sure… even though, as it was being explained, being at your buddy’s home and using his butter when he wasn’t around amounted to stealing, no matter if you thought it was ok with him. I’d have to learn to keep those nuances in mind, to wait around for a while until my buddy came back, then ask for the butter. It would make me look more saintly and humble, he’d be highly impressed by my excessively good manners.
No drugs? No worries, I was already a master at looking down on people using drugs as an “escape” from reality.
How about lying? That made me pause a bit.
Like most kids brought up by a loving but single working mother with little time and patience on her hands, lying at the right time was a survival strategy. “I’ll always tell the truth from now on”, I thought naively, then started exploring scenarios, “what if someone asks me what I’m thinking at the wrong moment… could I ever answer things like… I was thinking of an angry Buddha running after me, or ‘I’m wondering what my teacher looks like without clothes on… ‘ no I’m not… yes I am, I don’t want to though… aargh!'”…
My mind was always running wild.
Shhh… what am I doing… silence… don’t think of a pink elephant… breath in, breath out.
After the ceremony, my life went on, and the matter of whether or not one could successfully abandon a one way street without incurring punishment didn’t really present itself until years afterwards. Even when I got into drugs a year or so later, the saintly bureaucrats who make sure we adhere by their rules had their hands tied, couldn’t really send me lightning bolts or nothing: I had returned my vows by then, so my spiritual papers were in order, and I didn’t really abandon the path, I simply “evolved”.
Or so I thought.
It has taken me many wandering years to understand what the one-way-street idea really means. It has nothing to do with being able to turn away while no one’s watching, like I still try to do from time to time, forever trapped in a Kafkaesque universe made of musty castle rooms, filled with robed judges and bearded executioners, bureaucratic robots almost, ready to point Fingers of Shame and unload Barrels of Guilt upon me, of which they seem to have an endless supply.
In that infantile view of the world, in which everything is separate, external and administered through mysterious but always public trials, all that matters is appearance, and whether or not the entities you are hiding from can read your mind. If you think they can, then you should move at least to the next room, and maybe turn on some music and appear busy doing things.
In the end, I have finally learned what entering a path of no return means. It means that you can’t turn your back on experiential knowledge. Not without becoming a sorry, wandering excuse of a human until you either find someone who forgives you or you forgive yourself, depending on your ability. Anything that you have actually understood, not just studied in a book, stays with you, changes you in some way, and you can’t kill it with a hammer like Pinocchio hammering the Cricket (oh yes he did!).
The saying “ignorance is bliss”, while usually being a passive aggressive way to call the person next to you an idiot, has other, much deeper meanings. We can in fact find warnings about blissful ignorance traded for tough, unblissful one way streets, in many stories.
Adam and Eve’s tale is a very clear example of a one way street out of Blissful Paradise, triggered by the acquisition of Knowledge. Before the apple they were blissful, some would venture to say idiotic, but afterwards they could never again laugh innocently at the same joke over and over, the way they used to. No matter how much they tried, it just got old.
Once you acquire knowledge, it’s hard to pretend you haven’t, and it’s even harder to go back to skipping around the woods naked when you know you look like a fool. And by the way, the fig leaf doesn’t really help that much either. No use pretending everything’s business as usual.
That’s the true meaning of entering a path that is paved with the cobblestones of experience.
Coincidentally, I wrote the above last night and today I bumped again into a movie called “what the Beep do we know“, which at times addresses exactly what I am writing about. I had tried to watch it a while ago but fell asleep, as soon as the New Age space music and cheap mirrored space travel effects set the tone, which is right following the annoying fake-newsreel opening. This time around, on the other hand… the exact same thing happened, and almost immediately I started dozing in and out of bad animations. Eventually though, I woke up and began to pay attention, trying to abide in a higher plane of consciousness, a plane where the ugly effects, offending 3D graphics and the doubtful acting were be unable to reach me and drag me down to movie hell with them.
While flying higher than the hopeless movie making, I found many of the interviews interesting, and if any reader is able to separate noise from signal in a similar way I would heartily suggest watching it (with the movie lasting a lofty 2.5 hours you can take a long nap and watch a movie at the same time, therefore paying homage to the quantum double-slit theory expounded in the film).
One of the points the movie makes is that if everything is connected across space and time, something which quantum theory scientist have just proven about a month ago, then not only everything we experience changes us irrevocably, but everything that perfect strangers have done, are doing or will do, also changes us, right now.
Crawling back to my own puny point of view, which simply slides along time in linear fashion, I can say then that I have understood that direct knowledge and actual experience change us, even if just in terms of synopses, hence the inability to go back to “ignorant bliss”.
“If you’ve listened and remember anything that I’ve said”, said one of the smarty pants in the movie, “your physiology is different than it was before. Basically memory has been encoded, and your genetic structure has changed”. Eve therefore never stood a chance after hearing the Snake’ speech, she was already a new woman. Biting the forbidden fruit was just a formality, a toast of sorts to her new informant.
Knowledge, then, effectively takes the place of the bearded God in the sky. “There’s nobody keeping records up there”, said another know-it-all, “the records are in yourself and you are going to have to deal with them. That’s far more painful than a record keeping God up in the skies.”
This constant imprinting of new records triggers the “suffering of existence”, which in its most benign form, according to the Buddhist philosophy, is “a subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life, due to the fact that all forms of life are impermanent and constantly changing” (emphasis mine)
Basically, the fundamental suffering of existence is caused by chemical withdrawal, as the emotional signals we send to our bodies are in constant flux.
As we grow up, we are told that we learn “who we are”. What that means is that we establish chemical grooves between our brain and the rest of our body, we train groups of synopses to relate to each other as opposed to other groups, and master ways to “feel good about ourselves”.
As little kids we tend to simply repeat over and over (and over) the actions and experiences which make us feel good, from watching Polar Express a million times to telling the same joke again and again, time after time until, to our surprise, older folks tell us to cut it. As teenagers, we are basically becoming more nuanced at this, and we perfect a whole assortment of methods for drugging ourselves, from music to love to incessantly talking about the things we like as a way to re-create the emission of chemicals that get us high on feelings.
Young kids and teenagers are extremely sensitive to the chemical signals, and it’s easy to see. Disappointments are crushing death sentences, just as happiness is definitely the best, ever. The same happens when we experiment with new drugs. At first their effect is just mindbogglingly fresh and exciting. It is when we enter the “habituation” phase, grow up and become used to the same chemical outbursts, that true love becomes harder to find, and that life risks becoming one long drugged stupefaction.
As addicts will, we also tend to prefer stupefaction to withdrawal by the way, which is why we tend to resist change even when the situation we’re in is obviously not a healthy one. Take the current state of the planet for example. In the so called First World we live in a society that has perfected the delivery of chemical/emotional satisfaction, attempting to increase the dosage with every new special effects movie, every new beeping gadget and wobbling robot. But as most of us know, the dosage cannot be increased indefinitely before something gives in, the addict dies or the drug runs outs.
We know that, and there are signs of both things happening. The planet is dying, and we’re going crazy as a society, losing our common sense, our ability to adopt correct solutions, to work as an intelligent community, to be, in short, functional in a positive way. Nonetheless, vast portions of society prefer to dwell in the drugged stupefaction delivered by the various industries which cater to our growing inability to soothe ourselves.
The fear of withdrawal is tremendous, and we should not judge so harshly those who are afraid, just like many of us have learned to understand the predicament of the street addicts. The denial that accompanies the on-going, exponential destruction of our resources, of the air we live on, our food supply, our water and our health, is nothing but Adam and Eve’s attempt at closing their eyes and regaining their “ignorant bliss”.
There’s no real turning back from change. Those who have awakened will not go back to sleep, and while they may wander and feel depressed, they will be unable to revert to the ways of old, no matter how many photons they can successfully entangle.
The good side of it is that after withdrawal, and after our many, unsuccessful and pitiful attempts at praying, begging and desperately knocking at the closed doors of Heavenly Ignorant Bliss, we turn around with a sigh of resignation and realize that the new road ahead is not that bad. Actually, it is green, cleaner, empowering, positive and … look!, there’s angry Buddha down there, having a great laugh, and he’s not wearing any clothes!
a couple of the songs playing in my ear as I wrote this article
links and things that caught my attention while writing, leads that one day I may follow, or that you may want to follow instead then let me know…
I was curious to know about the Random Number Generators that the “bleep” movie talks about, to see how they worked. And I found this link from Princeton University, where a long running experiment using RNGs world wide revealed that the probability that all of our consciousnesses are not connected to each other, given the results of the experiment, is mathematically less than a million to one…
Flatland, the Movie – the “beep” movie mentions it and I read the book many many years ago, but I have not seen the movie. Update: I did, and fell asleep.
The Four Noble Truth – one of which is the ever present suffering, including the suffering of existence
Another quantum entanglement, this time apparently dealing with the past unlike the quantum entanglement of the future to which I linked above. Weird! Quantum Entanglement Can Reach into the Past