Established relationships don’t manifest in neat, defined and equally segmented paths. Contriving or clinging — the fixation things happening a specific way — is insistence on control, where fewer possibilities represent low thermodynamic entropy, or disorder. Chaotic pathways are part of life, and the myriad of ways people form close relationships is connected to universal disorder
On a crisp November morning, a low-key hike near Kings Mountain seemed just the thing for time with a spiritual friend. Besides connection to nature, leisurely, but well-paced, adventures are special invitations to think about nothing more than one foot in front of the other. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes “mountains should be climbed with as little effort and without desire as possible.” In this frame, rigid goals take a back seat and “each footstep isn’t just a means to an end, but a unique event in itself.” (2009, HarperCollins) Each step is spectacular by definition, and yet repetitively ordinary. No “contriving to spoil”, and no “clinging to lose”, as Lao-tzu posits in Tao Te Ching #64 (T. Cleary, The Essential Tao, 1991 HarperCollins). Contriving or clinging tends to ruin the experiences of spontaneity and appreciation.
After a couple of hours, we snacked near the river with granola bars and fruit before turning back. During the return hike, I suddenly felt my right foot a little differently. Looking down, nothing was terribly evident until I rotated my foot to find the sole of the hiking boot missing, breaking off without incident. Walking back several feet, I picked up the sole, with its thin, white layer of shoe glue, and my friend put it in my string bag. Thankfully, I still had a right shoe, only now with a soft sole. I kept walking, feeling more of the ground beneath me, and aware that my right-side appendage was slightly shorter than my left.
With a mile to go, my mind shifted to future physical discomfort. Besides effects on knees, how would my hip feel tomorrow? At that moment, attachment to my healthy joints was clear. I wasn’t concerned about the boots themselves or their cost; I made good use of them over 15–20 years. Further, plantar fasciitis and weakening knees had slowly converted me into a shoe investor; for supportive shoes, I blindly swiped the credit card. The consequent hiking boot purchase would be much more fun than the skimp job from the turn of the century.
Dating had been heavily on my mind for several months: I knew it was time to try again. I needed to put on the seasoned, reliable shoes of faith and recovery strategy to take my chances with metaphoric rocks, branches and wet, slippery leaves: the things that open us up and break our hearts (and sometimes shoes). I felt ready to take more risks, bearing in mind to endeavor each step as “a unique event”.
Years ago, at Crowders Mountain, I passed a hiker with a tall walking stick. He was slightly hunched over, treading slowly and methodically on the terrain. We exchanged pleasantries, and during our conversation he remarked, “I’m not sure I should be out here at 75 years old!” My response was something like this:
Well…here you are! And you absolutely belong here, sir.
Another gorgeous spring day, and a bench was finally found, strangely placed behind the handrails of the path. The couple had to go a little forward, then back several steps to take a seat. She took his hand, his reciprocation tentative and reluctant. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings”, she said.
Besides the boot breakdown, I realized my hiking poles had long-lost their pole baskets. Somewhere in the eastern U.S, they became litter to blend in with the gum balls. With my hiking buddy, I was not only treading without one sole, but with poles unoptimized for soft ground. How did I get by all these years?
Dating feels like that, like the man in the forest. Do I belong here? With perpetually cracked heart, and limited guarantee of stability against the soft ground of intimacy, I’m clearly and cluelessly making mistakes , and not always sure I should be out here. In the world of dating, there seem to be ample opportunities to blow off missing stabilizers or suddenly find myself on shaky ground to ask myself, “what the hell am I doing?”.
As for the elder in the forest, the answer of spirit is just the same. Well, here you are! And you absolutely belong here, ma’am.
His overreaction may have been rooted in outdated ideas of manhood, where men are primarily rough and burly. But she was only thinking of touch, the more personal, intimate manhood. “I was responding to you — your texture, your touch — I don’t know what else to say.” Because she really didn’t.
I’m plodding along, slowly with a big stick. My trekking pole is the third leg of hope and faith…persistence in the face of multiple relationship beginnings. It seems quirky that the price of staying in spirit is saying no a lot more, sometimes according to simple inductive logic. Patterns established early tend to last; therefore, if they’re not acceptable now, why would they be later? People don’t fundamentally change all that much; therefore, accept them as they are right now, with clarity about the (few) true non-negotiables. Being alone, and sometimes lonely, is more life-affirming than wasting energy in an unsatisfying relationship.
All personal relationships involve risk, and dating should be its own dedicated category of super-risk. Tossing in ideas from Buddhist and Taoist teachings seems to go against the ideals of interdependence. Ideally, we are detached (but not toodetached), independent (but just dependent enough), attentive to planning (but not controlling). We want to show interest (but not so much to overwhelm), sharing just enough personal detail to offer closeness ever-so-slowly. Whichever ideas we wish to juxtapose, we seek balance. Sounds wonderful!
But even perfect balance is suspiciously regular. We know better than to think it ever happens this way. Dating toes that line between…between what, really? Planning and spontaneity, or clinging and release — or perhaps ultimately, control and lack of it? Whichever concept pair, the venue of dating holds its own special, frustrating brand of “nothing is fixed”. Along with super-risk, we experience super-instability. The wonderfully wonderful moments are unavoidably accompanied by the woefully woeful.
Contriving or clinging — the fixation on a thing staying the same — is insistence on control, where fewer possibilities represent low thermodynamic disorder. We all know people (perhaps including ourselves) who try to control relationships: an exercise in frustration, futility, and limited fun. We also probably know people with long lists of non-negotiables for potential partners, another way of fighting the universal tendency towards disorder.
After all, we are human creatures of nature, inherently subject to thermodynamic entropy, where chaotic pathways are part of life. The relative stability of an established relationship doesn’t manifest in neat, defined and equally segmented paths. Relationships sometimes begin quickly, forcing a period of separation, followed by reunion. Others begin slowly, to blossom into something later, or not. The myriad of ways people form close relationships is connected to disorder encompassed within these thermodynamic concepts.
Sometimes, the shoe breaks clean, or the pole sinks deeply into the mud, the process falling significantly short of the wonderful. Once the dust settles, questions and situations clarify and we might wonder if this is where we belong. And the answer is always the same: absolutely, yes. Every experience takes us to a better version of ourselves. Walking on the shoes is the risk — we are tentatively confident they will support the unforgiving terrain of circumstances and mind scatter. Mind practices can help keep personal challenges clear, even if the situation itself feels like a mess. That “better” version of ourselves becomes more adept — more efficient — at handling the complexities without losing sight of our core selves and relationship intention.
Well, here we are! And we absolutely belong here.
Her face softened from its defensive stare. He looked down, squeezed her hand, then carefully released it as if precious and fragile. With this gentle gesture, both hearts began to close without incident.
If hope seems inaccessible, be assured that subconscious can’t become hopeless. Entropy ensures possibility: fear holds a glimmer of hope.
Over the past several months of unprecedented, sudden and sustained changes, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered a plethora of common emotions. In the spirit of conciseness, let’s zoom our focus on two behemoths: grief and insecurity.
The role of grief in the timeline of loss is unavoidable, and with over 3000 U.S. deaths per day, the volume of heartbreak is massive. In my recent world, one politely defiant non-masker remarked that “the Spanish flu was much, much worse...”, so I looked it up: estimated 650k U.S. deaths in a population of 100 million. In addition, affliction age demographic was a “W” curve, the flu most deadly with the very young, very old, and prime 20-40 age range. With our current population, equivalent deaths would be around 2 million; instead, about 700k maximum deaths are projected by April 2021 for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, the Spanish flu was worse, but this fact has NO relevance in our present-day choices. Uh oh...here comes anger banging on the door, the third emotion insidiously, yet appropriately sneaking its way in. WHAT are people thinking? Whether death is 700k or 2M people, the order of magnitude is ABSOLUTELY in the ballpark of Spanish influenza: tenths of percents, or a few to several in a thousand. HOW FAR will human beings go to rationalize their own selfish behavior, inflexibility, insistence on being sanctimoniously difficult? Apparently, QUITE. We’ve heard all the excuses by now. Now that anger has had a chance to vent, it’s now hanging loose on the couch.
Grief, instead, sits outside in the rocking chair and stares solemnly at the motion of the sun. We face significant levels of illness, long-term medical consequences, and loss of life. Today, we grieve for those we have lost, for those we will lose in the next year or so, the family of friends, friends of friends, and various other regulars: the friendly clerk at the tiny post office, the grocery store manager, or that special yoga teacher. We miss the multitudes of small businesses that have permanently closed, as well as the mistaken idea that such enterprises are robust if the community shows enough love. We grieve for our former lifestyles, forever changed and ready to take a back seat to our human flexibility. We’ll keep certain elements, and discard others, by choice or lawful requirement.
The pandemic has also amplified pre-existing economic inequality, and therefore the insecurity hiding in the closet, sometimes crouching in the corner but at other times re-folding the sweaters with nervous energy. Before the novel coronavirus up-ended the world, the U.S. had already been experiencing historically high fatalities for young adults into mid-life. Analyzing longitudinal data over several decades, a late-2019 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that U.S. age-adjusted death rates were increasing, with a clear uptick since the Great Recession for the 25-44 age group. Additional studies with specific focus on socioeconomic factors indicate statistically significant connections between economic insecurity and mid-life fatalities. A 2019 multi-institutional study on the socioeconomics of despair examined the origins of the phrase “deaths of despair”, publishing a multidimensional concept map for quantifying the causal connections between economic turmoil and subsequent factors leading to early death. The same year, epidemiology and public health researchers used county-wide data to unfold statistically significant relationships between economic insecurity and “deaths of despair”.
It seems the minister of despair and the coronavirus pandemic are now doing a slow, conscientious tango, energized by fear and delighted at the personal obstinacy driving the rates of infection.
With anger, grief, and undercurrents of uncertainty, the emotions become one big heap of evidence that our identities are actively deconstructing. Bit by bit, pieces are falling away. Our hearts and minds are being broken, again, and again (and again). Each news cycle brings with it something new for the emotional response to further flex its muscles, having its moment while cradling a very strong margarita (and crying). The sense of despair is readily accessed right now, and a calling for hope seems almost ridiculous. What does hope contribute to our daily lives? The other feelings seem to serve more purpose: anger can spawn constructive activity, grief is an established healing step, insecurity can inspire a stronger sense of justice. What does hope actually do?
In a scene from Frozen, Elsa’s hiking up the impossibly snowy mountain in an evening gown (an impressive feat). As she comes to a flat spot, she sings “Let it go…let it go…can’t hold it back anymore”. Elsa’s definitely running away from her problems, but she’s also saying NO to the status quo of keeping her magic secret, and simultaneously surrendering to her identity. This moment is one of deconstruction, followed by conscious connection to her true nature. We can similarly deconvolve with our heartbreak, finding an identity closer to the fundamentals of human dignity…for everyone. Everyone. Before being fed all that nonsense about the Other, our intended nature carries the courage to acknowledge bias, regularly catching ourselves in the act of Othering, expressed regardless of how much we try to control our public faces. Because that Other is you. That Other is me. All of us are here, together in collective socioeconomic distress. If you can think of a single person as Other, you’ve drawn a line. The privileged must be vigilant in erasing those lines in the sand, again and again (and again). In this way, we deny our human instinct to categorize. Education, critical thought, and secular humanism take us to the egalitarian society of the future.
Within our understandable cynicism, hope may seem hard to come by. But our subconscious obeys the laws of nature, and it knows better than to succumb to hopelessness. You and your ego don’t have to do a thing. No matter how dark things become, the concept of entropy (or disorder) ensures there’s a bit tucked away in the psyche. If you’re fearful, you’re hopeful.
Entropy can be better understood with crystals: highly regular arrangements of atoms that are mostly perfect, the atomic positions fixed. Within this apparent perfection, however, there are flaws, such as missing or displaced atoms. For example, a sapphire crystal phone screen has a few atoms missing (Ok, ok...a LOT of atoms: about 1017, or 100 million billion). The amounts vary depending on crystal growth temperature, but before you imagine your phone screen whittling away to dust, relax. At the melting point of sapphire (2040 °C or ≈3600 °F), where a crystal can be grown, the fraction of missing or misplaced atoms is about one in a million. When the crystal cools, the defects are frozen in place, the amounts so tiny that the the capacitive and optical properties of the screen are unaffected. To give a larger picture of that fraction, this is like a single missing brick in a solid wall the size of a garden patio (say 30 x 30 sq. ft), about 3 stories high. One brick missing in a million is no big deal.
Like the missing atoms in the crystal structure, the missing brick creates entropy. Within the laws of thermodynamics, there are few important rules governing entropy:
How might entropy relate to hope? Because entropy can never be zero, even the depths of sadness contain some “disorder towards better”. In the tortured soul, hope is the very thing that saves us: “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” (Emily Dickinson) Hope is Dickinson’s fluttering bird, that little bit of entropy in an otherwise fixed, dark space. Even in the lowest of our lows, we wake up to another day, and something – an elusive internal pilot light – is carrying us forward, ready to be lit with the fire of better days. Challenges merely test us, and all bets are on entropy, the forever winner in life’s thermodynamic hand. As in our consciousness, the future awaits with a variety of outcomes. That something enabling us to begrudgingly move forward, even with minimal aspiration, is hope: vast possibility.
With despair, in contrast, what do we have? A single possibility, loaded with mistaken ideas that things will never change, everything is permanent, and there is no space for creation of entropy. With only one possibility, entropy is zero. In this dark space, there are a lot of musts and shoulds, always and nevers. However, zero entropy is an unphysical concept, and ideas of zero options are illusions. Hope nestles closely to our own life force with the promise that everything in this life is transient. What doesn’t change is our inner light, our identity outside of all the impermanence.
As the situation grows darker, colder, and more frozen in muddling through COVID, the “true freeze” of zero entropy and zero options is fundamentally and thankfully out of reach. Let’s allow ourselves to be with our heartache, uncertainty (and, yes, anger) to help crack our identities open a little bit more. We’re not going to break, because hope and faith—possibility and entropy—hold us through the mess.
For the apparent freedom to not follow COVID-19 pandemic public health guidelines, there is a steep price: more illness and fatalities, extended lockdowns, and worse economic damage.
Maneuvering through pandemic existence, with a heightened sense of risk, we immerse ourselves in an elaborate calculation: minimizing exposure and spread of COVID-19. Those with the luxury of staying home have a low chance of contracting the novel coronavirus, in stark contrast to front-line health workers and many other essential people that enable large swaths of the population to shelter in place.
In the U.S., phased re-openings have brought correspondingly higher rates of infection, apparent in real-time data and elaborately forecasted for the next several months. Global organizations, such as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and Our World in Data (OWID), track and predict collective data, while state, county and city health departments handle raw data with expanded testing, contact tracing, and reporting. The zoomed-out lens of statistical data, and modeling for the future, isn’t nearly as valuable without accurate individual data over time, where local expertise holds the critical microscope over action on the ground.
Health guidelines have not been universally followed, and this is distressingly apparent in total per capita infection rates reported by OWID. For comparison to the U.S., I chose four other countries where case counts began to climb within a week or two of each other: France, Germany, Sweden and Iran. For this group of countries, the first half of April showed similar rates of infection: 300-800/million on April 1, increasing to 900-1800/m by April 15. As of June 19, the U.S. is over 6600/m, and all except Sweden (5500/m) are in the 2000s.
If we look at total per capita death rates for the same countries, Germany and Iran are the lowest (≈100/million), Sweden and France are highest (450-500/m), and the U.S. is currently at 350/m. France shows a high number of deaths for a relatively low number of cases, attributed to delayed government response. Further, U.S. infection and death rate is only somewhat lower than Sweden, which kept most businesses open and implemented little lockdown, relying instead on high levels of testing, tracing, voluntary distancing and isolation for vulnerable populations. Sweden also experienced a recent spike in nursing home deaths. The U.S. was delayed in its measures, with a weak federal response, and state-specific stay-home orders combined with the other elements were destined to be patchy and inconsistent: a hack job.
And, while the per capita infections and deaths help put the U.S. data into context, it is no less distressing that IHME forecasting predicts the staggering U.S. death count of ≈100k to double by October. Out of the entire population, the U.S. has had 0.6% confirmed infections. The number of actual infections is higher due to the untested and asymptomatic. Based on antibody testing, Sweden estimates 7.3%, and New York City 12.3% total infections, and we are far from herd immunity. With emerging upticks in Africa, South America, and South Asia, globally, we’re in for a long haul.
Zooming back to the individual microcosm: leaving home increases potential exposure, and staying home reduces it. Every single activity involving other people is a qualitative calculation, posing level of risk against benefit. Outdoor reduces risk, but more people in close distance increases it. Anytime a new person enters the home, there is increased risk to all residents, since a small number of breath aerosols circulate in HVAC ducts. Indoor events carry increased risk in line with the number of people and proximity.
But even before the pandemic, all activity carried risk. Life is a series of decisions based on risk, of which there are many categories, including the health risk now front and center. For example, driving a car to work carries with the corresponding probability of a car accident. We choose to drive because of the value (or necessity) of work. The benefit outweighs the risk, therefore we drive.
With coronavirus, certain activities might not be worth the health risk. For example, a quick stop at the convenience store to satisfy my candy bar craving is not likely to happen. This is now a low-priority activity, given the main variables related to COVID: the number of people we come into contact with, indoors vs. outdoors, time of exposure, and the major unknown quantity of other people adhering (or not) to health guidelines. We’re armed with information before venturing out, but only to a certain degree – cultivating feelings of groundlessness, restlessness, perhaps even helplessness, and oh, so many lessness-es. The heightened uncertainty is both short and long-term. However, while we can’t predict a car accident, the way we drive can absolutely lower those chances. With relatively few mandated guidelines in much of the U.S., individuals bear more responsibility and are called to carry the batons for the community.
Perhaps the science of uncertainty can help reassure our perceived lessness. Quantum physics helps us understand phenomena that can’t be explained with classical physics. As matter approaches sizes on the atomic scale, we lose measurement capabilities with respect to two variables: location and speed. This loss of information is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, stating that if we want to know the location or speed with a high degree of accuracy, we lose information about the other quantity.
In describing this further, I’ll use a ping pong ball to symbolize a tiny particle. In classical physics, we can measure, simultaneously, the exact location and speed of the ping pong ball. The key word is simultaneously: with the right equipment, both can be measured, accurately. In the quantum world, for our tiny particle, we can’t measure one without losing information about the other. The attempt to measure these quantities at the same time is riddled with uncertainty. If ping pong balls acted like atoms, exact measurement of the ball’s location would prevent us from knowing its exact speed. If we, instead, reign in on the speed, we’re no longer sure of its location. This Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has spawned bizarre thought experiments such as Schrödinger’s Cat, which considers a cat trapped inside a box that is both dead and alive. Until we open the box, we don’t know. In quantum physics, we grapple with the idea that small particles, like electrons, embody multiple states until all of those realities collapse into a measurement. Creative extension of these ideas into our choices and life meaning are explored in weird, fun films like What The Bleep Do We Know?
The Heisenberg Principle is one of the reasons quantum physics works with probabilities over set quantities. Because we are limited in how much we can know at one time, we compromise by knowing location and speed to a large degree: we mostly know, but don’t exactly know.
Coronavirus aerosols are many times larger than atoms, so they are not subject to the Uncertainty Principle. Classical physics has us covered with the ability to know something about their size and ability to travel. We’re all familiar with sneeze/cough droplets; the larger ones are maybe a millimeter, mixed with a bunch of smaller droplets as small as 1/100 of a millimeter, or 10 microns. The small droplets become aerosols at around half that size down to about 1 micron. Now take that 1-micron aerosol and pretend it’s a giant boulder: an atom would be like a tiny grain of sand, and an electron is 1/10,000 smaller than that. Coronaviruses aerosolized in water casings might seem mysterious, but from the standpoint of an atom, they are giant ping pong balls. The bigger droplets succumb to gravity quickly, but are viable on surfaces, and the smaller droplets and aerosols can float around longer.
In this land of probability, a main feature of the quantum world, we can better equip ourselves to manage the global pandemic with enhanced awareness of what’s in the air. Droplets and aerosols are as innocuous as the oxygen we breathe. Without realizing it, we’re applying probabilities—risk statistics— to ordinary life with one key piece of knowledge: the virus is close to its host. With widespread community transmission, augmented by presymptomatic and apparent asymptomatic spread, invisible aerosols as small as one micron (1/1000 of a millimeter) are understood to be prevalent in spread. Of further concern is evidence of travel through ventilation systems and distances more than a few feet, coupled with viability on certain surfaces for a few days.
In the absence of complete isolation, we all have a nonzero chance of exposure to this virus. Our actions dictate the level of risk, with many more than just two variables: number of people, distance, location, and personal hygiene. Ultimately, all these variables can be collapsed into two: what we do (known), and what others do (unknown). This is both empowering and frightening, inducing more lessness.
Let’s revisit the U.S. per capita death rate, currently at 350/million: this is two orders of magnitude higher than South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan, where per capita deaths are in the single digits/million. What do the low-death-rate countries have in common? New Zealand, with tight lockdown measures and clear leadership, gained control early and masterfully – and a low population density couldn’t hurt (50/square mile compared to Taiwan/South Korea 1700 and 1300, respectively). Taiwan stepped up production of face masks by early March, eventually donating millions to other countries. South Korea, while currently facing a second wave, uses a system of extensive testing and contact tracing. Further, previous experience with SARS and MERS make Taiwan and South Korea seasoned experts, with general populations already accustomed to face masks. With respect to the U.S., two features weakened its handling of this pandemic: inadequate, inconsistent federal leadership and a population that hasn’t been affected by a pandemic in about 100 years.
A third weakness lies in American attitudes towards freedom. The U.S. doesn’t have a critical mass of people who are willing to simply follow health guidelines. Enough people are skeptical of urgent guidelines or mandates in the name of public health, citing government overreach, the most vocal carrying an almost sanctimonious privilege of not being required to wear a mask in public. The less vocal noncompliant are no less privileged, but for the apparent freedom to not follow guidelines, there is a steep price: more illness and fatalities, extended lockdowns, and worse economic damage.
Face masks offer protection in conjunction with thorough handwashing, regular disinfection of high-use surfaces, and keeping physical distance. Contrary to popular graphics circulating through social media, there are no specific probabilities for rates of transmission with and without masks. However, a recent study by UK researchers (summarized here) discusses widespread mask usage as extraordinarily effective at lowering the rate of transmission (reproduction number) to below 1, corresponding to one person infecting less than one other person. For countries with few resources, mask usage will be heavily relied upon as a cheap and effective method of slowing spread. Another article, more focused on airborne transmission, showed that mandatory mask usage had the largest effect on decrease of cases.
Let’s consider two kinds of freedom. There is the freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and then there’s Freedom: personal ego entrenched within Constitution-defined freedom. The former freedom is a noun, inherent to our residency; the latter is a learned attitude, inherent to science contrarianism, that takes many forms: anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and now anti-maskers. Subtly, but powerfully, the latter includes people who quietly decide not to wear masks, but wouldn’t dream of taking it as far as the Statehouse.
These warped attitudes towards public health really screws around with probabilities. As an individual, you can be as careful as possible, but then walk into a box store where only 1/3 of the customers are wearing masks. People who more carefully consider their responsibly are shrouded by enough of the careless Free. Ego-centered Freedom literally endangers frontline health, grocery, restaurant, delivery and other workers that regularly interact with people as a workplace requirement. This population tends to be low-income, uninsured, underprotected, underpaid, immigrant and of color: systematically lacking full access to the benefits of guaranteed freedom. The Freedom also increases risk for those who are older or have underlying cardiovascular, pulmonary or diabetic conditions. These populations…they are us. While wisdom tells us we never have control over others: America, we can do better. We can do better by the physically vulnerable. We can do better by the socioeconomically disadvantaged. We can do better by the systematically oppressed. We can do better as examples for others. Better by us.
In the end, each of us might or might not contract COVID-19; we won’t know for sure until we become ill, discover antibodies, or the virus is eradicated. Like the measurement of an atom’s location in quantum physics, having one of many possibilities until measurement, the time we’re uninfected is mired in uncertainty. When we interact with others, there’s a probability of picking up viral particles – but even then, we don’t become infected below a certain threshold of viral nuclei. The potential risk decreases with low numbers of people, outdoors, long distances and short times. Minimizing our exposure probability while loosening our tight hold on certainty is the best we can do: these are the critical variables to manage within this new pandemic reality.
Managing Pandemic Mind with Buddhism and Science
On March 12, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, spoke with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. Clearly and concisely, he described the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, notably the serious potential dilemmas facing front-line caregivers in overwhelmed hospitals. On social distancing measures, what struck me most was his commentary about the spheres of others. “These concentric circles [of people] around you, that has to be important to me…we are codependent on each other in a way I’ve never seen before.” Practices of washing hands well and often, keeping distance, and self-isolating are not just about keeping ourselves healthy. We’re asked to demonstrate care beyond our little village of people, emanating through the villages of others we touch—extended contacts—for the sake of vulnerable populations and overall public health. With unintended philosophical tone, Dr. Gupta suggests that we need a dramatic, seismic shift in how we treat others, including people we’ll never meet. The breadth of consideration is both wide and highly sensitive, affecting contacts over long distances, and such that small transgressions could potentially cause great harm.
But the unrest was bound to happen. Just one month later, protests over extended lockdowns are occurring, and this is just the beginning, of both public angst and pandemic. As the disease spreads, leaving our sense of safety, freedom and the economy in the dust, the people will grow restless. The tension is broadly felt, and as deeply ingrained as the strong sense of individual freedom. These transgressions against social distancing will make a bigger difference[i] than the protesters may realize: engaging in unnecessary risky behavior that could affect many others, and stewing doubt in people who are starting to get uncomfortable.
This pandemic is asking a lot of our bodies. By applying brakes to human activity, it’s doing the unimaginable: physical restriction. Two months ago, the thought of the hustle and bustle of ordinary life significantly slowing down was inconceivable. [ii] These new rules stomp all over personal liberty, not unlike forcing the air particles in your living room to divide up into a bunch of compartments, at your command. Thermodynamically, implementing this requires a lot of work. We’ve quenched our typical steady state behavior, and suddenly we’re required to go almost nowhere. To be still. To lower our everyday energy and greatly reduce entropy, or disorder.
We’re mostly unaware of the amount of work our bodies are doing for this quick drop in entropy. With a similar theme of sudden change, the physical cascade of an explosion stems from a fast chemical reaction producing large amounts of gas and heat, an extremely hot shockwave. But our distancing process is different: instead of the outward force of an expanding gas, human energy is being driven inward, the implosion a sudden halt to freedom of movement now imagined as a luxury. Like tiny gas particles, we’d rather expand in our space, not restrict ourselves to one section (or even an airline seat). The heat release in explosions is accompanied by a major increase in entropy. By contrast, we are lowering entropy by restricting our local movement, the effects catastrophic with an internal, metaphoric shockwave. Within our initial reaction, the mind goes into overload, destined to compensate with the very thing it does best: increasing its own entropy with scattered thought.
SUFFERING AND CHANGE
In pondering that thinking, our consciousness holds three realities in Buddhist dhamma. Dukkha encompasses the imperfect environment and suffering in life. Anicca covers the truth of change, that all is impermanent. Anatta tells of the impersonal nature of all happenings, often associated with the idea of nonself. Each of these is realized to varying degrees within the human condition. Their definitions give some clue based on what we experience in the arrow of time, in which the universe leans towards higher entropy.
Dukkha is present in the very earliest human experience. At birth, our bodies are quickly exposed to cold, dry air with bright light and overactivated corneal rods. The lungs immediately take in air, joining the heart in continuous, lifelong work. Being born is traumatic! And throughout childhood, in spite of happy times, there is suffering when we lose a balloon or fight with a sibling. As adults, our angst takes on more mature forms, but with the same inherent feelings. And even when we’re not suffering, we observe suffering all around us, throughout the world. Dukkha is omnipresent, from the deepest reaches of our souls to the global: the easiest of the three characteristics to notice and understand. Life is pain, [ii] loss, broken hearts and tortured souls. What would the moments of happiness be without these?
Anicca encompasses impermanence. The inherent transience of life is good news. Or bad news. Or just neutral news. We understand this on a fundamental level: life is full of change. However, it’s possible to go through life without realizing how much suffering is rooted in our craving for constancy. Our delusions surrounding pleasure and pain—if only one could last forever and the other disappear— is the root of dukkha. The mind has a yearning towards certainty, enabling us to plan for the future, declutter, support our loved ones. With this comes a narrowing of possibilities. The genius of our minds is really here, in this lowering of entropy that regularly tidies things up. The time after major unexpected change is no different except in the speed of the drop; both lower entropy. But the post-crisis time brings in possibilities, presenting a sideways growth potential: as we scramble to readjust, barely hanging by a thread, openings are created because entropy tends to increase (per universe). With or without awareness, this lean-in towards the universal tendency incites the muse, who calls on us to think more carefully about how we will increase entropy.
Humans readily understand dukkha and anicca. Clearly, life and suffering seem to come as a package, along with pleasant things like joy. Yes, we suffer, a bunch of the time. And, we’re also aware of impermanence, perhaps with the added wisdom that expecting no change (attachment to permanence) is the root of suffering. Anatta, or non-self, is the most subtle to access, but the one most relevant to our common human experience in a global pandemic: an illness now widespread due to its contagiousness, further assisted by long incubation times and apparent asymptomatic ability to shed virus.
There is no geographical escape. Our profound human commonality is that we’re all stuck here on Earth, facing this crisis as a global family. In Love & Awakening in a Global Pandemic,[iii] Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn came together with the common theme of meditation as a liberative practice. Together while separate, in a “dynamic tension”, as described by Rev. angel, we are called into “collective awakening” while maintaining physical separation. Personal growth through practices in mindfulness feeds collective wisdom, and Kabat-Zinn spoke of the prolific self: “without direct perception [through] meditative awareness, everybody’s trapped in the story of me.”
The COVID-19 pandemic offers a stark reminder that the earth is relatively small, people are readily connected, and the seemingly boundless virus exposes the truly intimate scale of our world. The more we get outside of ourselves as individuals, the more effective our collective human consciousness towards moving through the pandemic constructively, towards the ends of universal safety, health, and justice—themes inciting a more peaceful human existence and diminished need for protest.
ANATTA: ONE TOUGH NUT
In Sanscrit, atman stands for the true inner self, or soul, independent of the body, also described as breath. The Pali word anatta stands for the lack of atman (Sanscrit anatman), implying that anatta is the not-soul or not-breath. With its textured meaning, anatta is often simplified as the idea of non-self, un-self, not-self…indeed, an abstract beast. Of the three Buddhist characteristics, anatta is the most ethereal: the “toughest nut to crack”, in the words of a friend.[iv] Dukkha and anicca are readily accessible, tucked under our pillows at night, their definitions enabling us to name our life challenges. Anatta, instead, is that bizarre dream that makes no sense. The idea of self as apparent and changeable can be overwhelming when juxtaposed with the apparent constancy of our own consciousness.
In Untangling Self (A. Olendski, Wisdom Publications 2016),[v] Olendski explains that when we become attached to our own feelings, perceptions, and responses, deeming them of great importance, the “outcome is a sand castle of the self.” (p. 43) Not-self breaches the core of rugged individualism, so prolific in human civilization that “one might say it acts as the organizing principle around which all contemporary culture is patterned.” (p. 109) In addition, the instinct behind self-preservation, the ‘I take care of me and my own’ sense of responsibility, is broken wide open. How can our experiences, feelings and generosity not be about us?
Because they simply aren’t about us. Things just happen in spite of altruistic attempts to simplify, create comfort and predictability, and essentially control what we can within the spirit of the Serenity Prayer. Even with the soft insight that we’re not really in control, we’re not comfortable with impermanence. And with these big brains, we have trouble getting outside of ourselves. As Kabat-Zinn mentions, life is all about us (our story) until we’re compelled to learn otherwise. That realization doesn’t have a specific time stamp, but rather unfolds through practice in a nonlinear, at times frustrating, journey. Relationships with others, such as parents or caregivers, set the tone for selflessness throughout life, preparing the stage for that deeper learning to be enabled. But even with the noblest intentions, we often think and care for others within the context of their relationship to us. Our human tendency is to prioritize immediate family and friends, while minding our own business outside of that small village.
EXPANDING THE VILLAGE
As for other viruses, the novel coronavirus enters the human body with equal opportunity through aerosols of water, the medium of life that connects people through tears, sweat, rivers and oceans. Besides water, we all possess the same chemistry: salts, a few select gases, a plethora of carbonaceous molecules, phosphate-rich bones (etc.). Each of us is a big pile of purposely and variously bonded atoms. The three phases of matter—solid, liquid, gas—are all represented, but the water critically connects the solid to gas: the dust in ‘ashes to ashes’ needs flexible fluids for sustenance and connection, like fascia in muscle. The physical body, housing consciousness, eventually returns to the earth. Within this chemical conservation of matter framework, however, the body never really left. Matter is matter and here we are.
Thinking for people outside of our immediate village requires more internal work, a more universal platform of stewardship. There’s an ‘other’ness that comes in at some boundary, beyond which we might tune out outside people, implying weaker connections. Albert Einstein compared our perceived disconnect with others to a prison: “A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” With enough outward concentric circles, all people eventually overlap. We also connect physically through the atmosphere, with circuitous paths through land and water, with a bunch of atoms, molecules and ions between my fingertips and your bathrobe (loungewear is making a comeback). Our commonality is that we share the same chemistry with one major difference: the uniqueness of DNA. What truly distinguishes us is nucleotide sequencing. That is all.
Besides the perceived lack of connection, we lean towards possessive language and thought when it comes to relationships and experiences. With frequent use of ‘mine’ and ‘ours’ language, “the construction of personality—the fashioning of a self—only occurs when an attitude of possession or appropriation takes place.” (Olendski, p. 121) However unintended, issues affecting the people we love have an implied ownership: this is subtly where we get stuck. The self believes in the me and my, and we and ours, but the not-self does not operate in possessive personal space. Language may limit our spoken and written language, but the mind has the ability to transcend to a more open landscape of responsibility for others. Every single part of us, from the firing neurons of ego down to the teeniest atomic scale, as well as objects, animals, earth and sky, are inherently equal in chemistry. Anatta is the realization that the concept of self is a construct, as changeable as anything else in the universe. That shaky sand castle is certainly fragile, but also highly flexible. The modifiable self is capable of growing in a paradigm of greater social actualization, empowered by knowledge of commonality: more consciously awake to the vast possibilities for humanity. The societal sense of possibility is entropy, ever associated with hope over despair.
The disheveled state of a major crisis can become a powerful shift: an opportunity to employ internal change before life regulates itself. With one moment leading to the next, patience and kindness towards ourselves and others can become our cloak. That subtle energy, through action, enables wakefulness in others and is irrevocably contagious. This is happening now: for the scores of people that are absolutely and understandably overwhelmed, climbing the walls wanting this to be over, there are others who are spending time with the muse, perhaps reprioritizing elements of Life Before. Even a few daily moments of mindful care towards ourselves affects how we care for others.
More broadly, within the apparent chaos, we can cultivate care for the expanded village, revealing a richer set of priorities for human potential—because these reflect our relationships with each other, as well as the dust, salty water, and atmosphere. Lasting peace is about being uncomfortably and anonymously helpful, formulating viewpoints that maintain the habitat, where that habitat is everything: people, animals, bugs, leaves, dirt, rocks…all phases of matter on this earth (and universe). Within this extraordinary global challenge, subtle changes in individuals may be deemed as precious as the more tangible and sublime difficulties that will come to define this era.
[i] Lessons learned from the 1918 pandemic, described by Historian Nancy Bristow, University of Puget Sound:
Vedantam, S. (2020) An Unfinished Lesson: What The 1918 Flu Tells Us About Human Nature. Nancy Bristow Interview. Hidden Brain. March 23, 2020. National Public Radio.
[ii] This truly is intended as a serious article, but in the spirit of reader engagement: The Princess Bride.
[iii] Williams, a. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2020) Love & Awakening in a Global Pandemic. April 16, 2020. Omega Institute.
[iv] Many thanks to Susan Knight for this quip and for insightful commentary on a draft of this article.
[v] Olendzki, A. (2016). Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are. United States: Wisdom Publications.
Around the holidays, it seems both joy and sadness have great potential for becoming amplified in our daily experiences. Surrounded by gifting ideas, lights everywhere, and elven glee, our cultural attention rests on prosperity and community, and understandably so: how could excess cheer possibly be a problem? For people in the throes of excess loneliness, though, personal angst can throw shade on any celebration. Whether caused by recent loss or long-term circumstances, loneliness does not necessarily welcome the holidays and associated revelry. Rather than experience deeper depths, perhaps the soul is best protected with neutrality, avoiding the constant reminders that others seem to possess more company, more support, more whatever human need is not being met. Even for the not-so-lonely, the holiday hubbub might be followed by a letdown period, a temporary dip below the baseline. For all of us, the holidays issue reminders of reality, whether by soft whisper or blunt nudge. Excess food and drink might inspire lifestyle changes. Friction with family is evidence of unconditional (albeit irritating) love. A fun New Year’s vacation is immediately followed by the regular workday drudgery in early January.
And for some, the sense of serious isolation is reaffirmed. Emotional isolation and loneliness can bring on despair, juxtaposed by the season of light, where pleasant feelings are paramount. This is a time of love, gratitude and joy. We might feel hope for the future, a resonance in fellowship for a more peaceful world — inherently good things.
In her essay “Abandon Hope”, Pema Chödron writes that “hope and fear is a feeling with two sides”, where these are like two sides of the same coin (The Pocket Pema Chödron, Shambhala 2008). The potential problem: a sense of hope having a basis in lack is always looking for a change, something to improve, thereby keeping us out of the present moment. Hope without a clear acceptance of reality sours the intentional spirit of positive change. To release hope is positive action, assuring our awareness stays in the now. When I first shared this idea with yoga students, I had trouble understanding why a sense of hope would not always be a good thing. Isn’t hope all about a warm, fuzzy light overcoming the darkness of despair?
Subtly, hope carries a risk of staying in the future, thereby avoiding the present. As for excessive wallowing in the past after a difficult lesson, clinging to hope in the spirit of fear or denial is like wallowing in the future. This is the source of elusive “thoughts and prayers”, the hope often accompanied by inaction. Many of us have grown weary of this generously stated phrase after mass shootings, even if wishing solace for victims and their families is inherently kind and appropriate. With no intention towards meaningful action to prevent violence, “thoughts and prayers” becomes a hollow sentiment. Finding balance in hope is about having just enough to stay rooted in reality, without losing the present moment perspective.
The various imperfections in our lives are completely mirrored in nature. Examples include random errors in DNA replication and flaws in crystals, both spontaneous processes occurring without cause, their rates dictated purely by probability. More broadly, the entire universe has a tendency towards higher disorder, or entropy, and crystal flaws are one microcosmic example of nature leaning towards disorder. Crystals are highly regular arrangements of atoms—and they are mostly perfect in the sense that their positions are very, very regular, like each atom or ion has a designated row house. The gemstone sapphire is a form of aluminum oxide (corundum, or α-Al2O3), containing a few other trace ions responsible for its color. There are many types of flaws in crystals: the point defects of missing or displaced atoms are examples of crystal imperfection. A sapphire phone screen has a bunch of ions missing. The amounts vary depending on synthesis temperature and substance, but at around the melting point of sapphire (2040 °C or ≈3600 °F), where a crystal could be grown, about one in a million ions are missing or misplaced off their atomic real estate. When the crystal cools, the defects are frozen in place (and yet, the screen is not defective!). The amounts are so tiny that the structure itself is not disturbed, the scratch resistance, transparency and capacitance of the screen unaffected. A million Al2O3 formula units would fit in a cube with a 35-nanometer edge, or about 100 aluminum and oxide ions, and there are about 100,000 trillion cubes in a phone screen. This is like a single missing brick in a solid wall the size of a garden patio (say 30 x 30 sq. ft), about 3 stories high. One brick missing in a million is no big deal. Like the stability of the crystal structure, this defect doesn’t become a structural problem until many more bricks are missing.
That missing brick (or atom) creates entropy. All matter in the universe has entropy, and entropy is always positive (always), and can never be zero (never). The lowest entropies are held by defect-free single crystals approaching the temperature of absolute zero (-273 °C, or -460 °F). The colder the crystal, the lower the entropy. Further, the third law of thermodynamics says we can’t ever reach absolute zero, where entropy is goose egg, zilch, zero.
For that giant brick wall, where can the missing brick be? Any one of a million spots. Those many possible configurations, after a simple formula, become the Boltzmann definition of entropy. The same entropy exists with the single missing atom or ion. For a million atoms in a crystal, a single missing atom means a million possibilities for that vacancy. Missing 2 atoms? There are even more configurations, which grow according to probability theory and great big huge numbers: a million squared, essentially. These large numbers of possibilities generate entropy.
How might our understanding of entropy relate to hope? Entropy is impossible to avoid in nature, since zero temperature is theoretically out of reach. So, even in the depths of sadness, there’s always some “disorder towards better” in the tortured soul. In a state of despair, hope is the very thing that saves us. It is “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” (Emily Dickinson) Hope is Dickinson’s fluttering bird, that little bit of entropy in an otherwise fixed, dark space. Even in the lowest of our lows, we wake up to another day, and something – an elusive internal pilot light – is carrying us forward, ready to be lit with the fire of better days. The biological imperative towards survival is totally at play, always. Challenges merely test us, and all bets are on entropy, the forever winner in life’s thermodynamic hand. As in our consciousness, the future sits with vast possibility and outcome before collapsing into the present. That something enabling us to move forward, even with great weight and minimal aspiration, is hope, our entropic “lean-in” to the universal tendency : it “never stops at all”.
With despair, in contrast, what do we have? A single possibility, loaded with mistaken ideas that things will never change, everything is permanent, fixed, with no space for creation of entropy. With only one possibility, entropy is zero. In this dark space, there is a lot of must and should, always and never. However, zero entropy is an unphysical concept, and therefore not applicable to humans as physical beings. Therefore, despair itself, in that it might make us think there are no options, is an illusion. The hope taking us out of these depths is entirely in the present moment and most certainly accompanied by fear and anxiety, as Chödron writes. This is a deeply personal hope nestled closely to our own life force.
As the major events of life might bring out both our best and worst, on a daily basis we are creatures of nature, meant to obey the laws of physics as much as all other matter. Consciousness is included as much as our physical bodies as thermodynamic engines. It is not truly possible for us to drop to the zero entropy of static despair; even in those lows, something else carries us, promising that everything in this life is transient. What doesn’t change is our inner light, our identity outside of all the impermanence.
Constantly moving, we walk through the life timeline as a series of smaller pathways within the broader journey. Each step is a moment, with unavoidable change defined by the permanent link to time. All matter in the universe is locked into two things: physical form and the arrow of time.
As humans, we are stuck with our body vessels and have no choice but to move forward in time. And yet, so many other choices! Breakfast food. Running in the park. Meditation. Turn signals. Petting the dog. Compassion for naughty kids. Prayer. The universe offers plenty of options in the buffet.
For the life journey, there are as many metaphors as there are paths: the long walk along the fractal-like shoreline, the short and strenuous stint up the mountain, slow meanderings through a dense forest. Narrowing down these visualization to circular paths, to travel from the outside to the inside, these journeys have at least three possibilities the maze, labyrinth and spiral.
My first and most recent labyrinth experiences were at churches. At Castleton Hill Moravian, in the courtyard near bustling Victory Boulevard in Staten Island, the paver labyrinth is next to the children’s playground and peace pole. The Grove, in contrast, chose nature as its setting with an all-grass design, tucked a bit away from the main sanctuary and busy East W.T. Harris Boulevard in Hickory Grove. I’ve encountered many labyrinths in between at yoga and retreat centers, and all have one thing in common: a single, fixed journey with lots of turns. If all of life is a big conglomerate of past events, where what’s done is done, the labyrinth asks us to acknowledge that our total life journey will be ultimately fixed, given enough future. The present, however, is indubitably affected by our choices. And, though it might not feel that way, life is generally multiple choice.
Think about it: all the things we feel are required. Here are a few:
I must walk the dog. No: you choose to walk the dog because it’s good for the dog, your relationship to the dog, and the carpet.
I have to finish my degree. No: you choose to finish because of your intention to be a professional in discipline X.
I have to use turn signals. No: you choose this because it’s lawful and courteous. You choose not to be a jerk.
In the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task”. This applies as much to the mundane chores as the existential threats. In the end, all possible outcomes, like the quantum states of small things like atoms, collapse into a single timeline of things happening, one after the other. All we do is to mind each microstep.
What about the maze? Is this path a fairer reflection of life? Maybe. We know some of the turns lead to dead ends, forcing us to turn around and begin gathering geographic data. Which way will you go? The path of scuttling, lack of clarity or direction, randomly chosen right or left turns, going backwards all the time, and then having to memorize the goddamned map? The maze is a problem to solve; perhaps we’re privileged with tools like a compass and pen/paper. But is life an unknown landscape ready to be solved like a puzzle?
The future is unknown, yes, but life goes by whether or not we’re in full problem-solving mode. Our attitude governs the management of the maze. In contrast, the labyrinth path is one foot in front of the other…oh, here’s a nice long arc!…dang this tight turn…another arc but not as long…switch directions…in essence, go where the path takes you because no decision is truly “wrong”.
The two journeys of maze and labyrinth mirror ego vs. non-ego paths. Those are the two ways to be in this life. Which will you choose? The conflicted, reactionary path, or the receptive path of intention and trust? If you’re wondering where the “gray area” lies in this labyrinth/maze binary, there is none. If you design a labyrinth and purposely introduce dead ends, what do you have? Just another maze. If, instead, you’re able to navigate a maze completely chill, kudos: you’ve converted it to a labyrinth. You either choose the path of conflict, or the path of peace. Every single choice comes down to that. Even choices considered neutral are inherently peaceful. Paraphrasing Sri Swami Satchidananda of Yogaville: since peace is our intrinsic state, a thing can either disturb peace, or not disturb peace. That is all.
Zooming out to the universe from our daily micro-choices, let’s now talk about thermodynamics. In terms of the two universal elements of energy and entropy (randomness, chaos or disorder), the maze is high energy and high entropy, where we’re scuttling about, stressed out, yearning to solve the puzzle. The labyrinth, though, is low energy and high entropy, where our journey still has plenty of turns, but we’re significantly less frazzled. The tendency for the universe, at all times, is to keep energy low, while maximizing entropy. Thus, adopting the labyrinthine attitude happens to go with the flow of the universe. In other words, by endeavoring towards a peaceful path, we’re aligning with the universe as creatures of nature.
Of course, there’s another way to get to the center of a circle: by spiral, a neat and tidy path. While low in energy, this path has extremely low entropy in terms of thermodynamics, and thus not so applicable to life. Even so, the shape of the spiral has its symbolic place in any practice asking us to channel our thought into a single prayer, mantra, or focus on breath. Taking the consciousness back to presence brings it into the singularity of the now, without the clutter of future and past. Subjects of the future or past are numerous, and layered with possibilities, analytical energy, overlap and complexity – and, indeed, pondering these can be a rich practice in practicality, valuable lessons and artistic ventures. In other words, we should still be learning lessons from the past while we thoughtfully plan for the future. However, in everyday living, these pieces should be considered sparingly if the intention is to stay in the present moment.
Life may feel like an insufferable maze. But if you zoom out, you can see the labyrinth. And channeling the spiral every once in a while clears the mind.
Circles are awesome.
In a recent conversation with my uncle, I expressed my happiness that he and his wife left Cuba 25 years ago, enabling closer family ties. At the time, my feelings were grounded in reminiscent joy with an outer demeanor of amusement bordering on facetiousness. Yeah, like, I’m really happy that y’all left that place. Really. And this is sincerely true. My siblings and I grew up without them and our cousins, meeting them for the first time in our 20s, and since then it seems like a family hole has been filled.
They took much longer than my parents to leave Cuba for good. When my mother and father left in the early 1960s, uncle and aunt were already married with two children, complicating their deliberations. The more rigid life with dependents pointed to the decision to stay in communist Cuba. My parents, with equally difficult consideration, left as an engaged couple, and even then they left separately: my father to Puerto Rico on a student visa, and my mother to Madrid to establish Spanish residency. My mother and uncle didn’t see each other for 25 years, their relationship converted into a series of exchanged letters, photos and occasional phone calls.
In response to my remark about family, happiness, and being together, my uncle replied Déjame explicarte algo (“Let me explain something”), then he shared his take on the difference between the intelligent and the brilliant:
La gente inteligente hacen caso a aproximadamente 50%, pero la gente brillante saben cuales partes creer. Nosotros fuimos inteligente, pero mi hermana fue brillante.
“Intelligent people choose to pay attention to about half of what they’re told. Brilliant people, though, know what parts to believe. I was intelligent, but my sister was brilliant.”
These pearls of wisdom are so…my uncle. He loves to boil things down to one or two core ideas, then tell it like it is. My mother and her brother, with no other siblings and their lifelong, close relationship, have spent their entire adulthoods irreparably intertwined in the Cuban political state. Established in 1958-59, Fidel Castro and rebels took over the government and the former dictator Batista absconded into history. My mother left in 1962; her brother, 1993. Over those 30 years, there was just one single visit. Her relationship to Cuba is in the distant past, but permanently ingrained in heartache. His connection is more recent, and yet seems neutral – perhaps he is a bit more removed because of his age of exit, but also because he lived in what Cuba became decades after the revolution.
As my cousins grew up in Cuba, my two siblings and I were in America, our lives in Texas separated by the Gulf of Mexico and a little more Caribbean water. After obtaining U.S. asylum in 1993, my uncle’s adult children (and families) followed over the next few years: one to Spain, the other to Chile (because the Cuban officials keep tabs). Now, all including my aunt and uncle are settled in or near Madrid, prosperous and free. As for my mother and siblings: also prosperous and free, but with more real estate.
To be clear, my uncle’s decision to not leave Cuba in the early 60s wasn’t wrong or right. My mother’s decision to leave wasn’t wrong or right. For each of them, these were the best decisions, reasonably made at the time under life-transforming political circumstances. My uncle’s insightful quip made me think about risk, and how easy it is to settle into a mode of living, then wonder later if a major change would just be too much. Many of us choose to “stay put” for reasons much less critical than major political upheaval, where either prospect — leaving or staying—is unquestionably risky. Given this context, back in relatively comfortable America, all those excuses for staying on the couch quickly lose their verve. It’s too hard. What about job security? Sounds scary. Let me stick with what I know.
Let’s do this one thing: as individuals, let’s be brilliant, and save the intelligent choices for true emergencies. As someone who desperately needs this herself, I invite my fellow humans to take more risks, bigger bites out of life, deeper sips from the fountain.
Because otherwise, what else is life?
My mother and uncle took gigantic risks to get away from the communist regime of their island homeland. What does it take for people to want to leave a Caribbean country, with beaches and mountains, sugar cane and flamboyas, but most importantly, the only place they know, the place they call “home”?
And although I love the wisdom about brilliance and intelligence, I must respectfully disagree with my uncle. My mother may have been “brilliant” for leaving shortly after the revolution-turned-communism writing on the wall, but he was equally brilliant for moving at 55 years old, his collective family unit having expanded from four to six. He and his wife, their two adult children and spouses trusted and supported each other—quietly—during the planning and eventual exodus over several years. This is nothing short of inspirational, and yet, they simply did what they had to do. This core group “just did it”, defying the inertia of a settled life with few resources, empty grocery stores and a tiny smidgen of hope for the future. That very hope is the thing driving the change, quickly expanding to fill the space of newfound freedom.
To my parents: thank you for your brilliance, the educated guess of foresight, and dreaming on behalf of yourselves and your future children.
To my son: use intelligence, but be brilliant. You don’t just want to be “good enough” to be comfortable; you want to be good. Truly good—the best you can be—is life at its finest. Take it, and drink deeply. The cup of excellence expands to all who want to live in that space.
To myself: don’t sell yourself short of brilliance because you’re comfortable. Intelligence is staying in one space for fear of venturing out into a different, risky, less secure life. Brilliance is doing the thing and grabbing that dream, security reaffirming itself through greater happiness.
To everyone else: we all could better recognize that people don’t just leave everything they know by flipping a coin. These major life moves are about ganas, a word with no direct translation that means the combination of yearning, desire, like the life force that drives us towards modified actions, goals or intentions. Remembering that self-reflection and motion towards endeavors de ganas bring rewards to our surroundings as well as ourselves, perhaps we can personally find a more compassionate space, better able to improve the world by becoming just a little bit more brilliant, one human at a time.
And why not? What better way to avoid the sugary, or processed, or egg-cheesy, or carb-laden American breakfast? I’m not just referring to the green smoothie alongside oatmeal (although, a mighty tasty breakfast), but how’s about some steamed cauliflower, rice, or chick peas? The savory breakfast is kind of like dinner, and definitely underrated. Our typical sugar-fat-wheat-fare could use a swift veggie kick in the rear.
Because let’s face it: even “healthy” options, like that yogurt-granola-fruit cup at Starbucks, is so…not. Just look at the sugar content of either sweetened yogurt or granola. Neither of these should be competing with the fruit for the most sugar, yet much of the time they are. Don’t pat yourself on the back for getting this over the 500-calorie muffin.
I’ve been watching my sugar intake for years, but my diet development was more about moderation than significant changes in habit. After discovering things like green smoothies, along with a month of residential yoga teacher training at an almost-vegan ashram, over ten years my food knowledge has expanded my cooking repertoire completely away from meat, with minimal eggs and dairy.
Earlier this year, that shift took a significant turn after more serious reflection of where I choose to invest my money, body and spirit. I no longer want to support industrialized killing or exploitation of animals. Our bodies don’t need meat and dairy. Further, I’m not in a poor rural family that hunts game for food, where meat is critical sustenance within a field of scarcity and/or tough winters. As a result, for the past several months I’ve been releasing animal products from my diet to replace the precious few attachments to eggs and cheese. With milk, I’d managed to dwindle consumption to small amounts in coffee, added to the mostly semi-dairy, yummy, awful creamer that is totally the reason I love coffee.
Without animal products, breakfast has proven to be my biggest challenge, manifesting in three main foods. First, milk/crap in coffee: now, my coffee is taken black, with the last cup or two reserved for the treat of almond-based creamer and almond or coconut milk. Second, eggs: after a month at the ashram, I missed those the most, and I still eat eggs, purchased from local farmers. Third, cheese. How I love thee, cheeeese. Cheese, somewhat surprisingly, was the easiest to give up. Why so easy? The vegan cheeses are pretty darned good. Further, when I eat dairy cheese now, I notice it in my gut with almost immediate belly cramps.
Before this recent turn, my mostly-unprocessed vegan options were fruit (usually a banana, intending on a heavy lunch), green smoothie with protein powder, oatmeal, or toast (yawn). This list isn’t bad; however, variety was lacking, and I didn’t simply want to default into processed cereal (see sugar comments above) and nondairy milk. And the other day, as I found myself adding leftover roasted vegetables to my tofu scramble, I thought, “This is weird”, then about two seconds later modified, “No it isn’t”.
I often envision foods like homemade hummus or beans as “God’s food”, with protein sources that have not been factory farmed. This kind of food is intended for us. I’ve practiced tofu variety for a long time: as the ricotta substitute in lasagna, cubes roasted with olive oil and spices on parchment, tofu mole (a lá Doña Maria in its glass jars that I recycle into drinking glasses), and most recently, a delicious curry-based tofu scramble. Soy was my protein gateway in moving away from meat, and my diet is now seeing more protein variety. Recently, I entered a legume phase that I’m confident will never, ever end, and what a joy to discover all those non-brown lentils.
Variety is a good reason to have more vegetables at breakfast. Another factor is the USDA nutritional guidelines, for which vegetable increases seem to be purposely chosen in order to avoid widespread “lifestyle panic” in the American public. In the 1960s, the Basic Four recommended 4 fruit/veggies out of 12-14 total servings, a little less than one third. 1984’s Food Wheel recommended 5-9 servings of fruit/veggies out of 15-25 total servings, remaining at about a third. The main increases were in the breads/cereals/grains from 4 to 6-11 servings (what happened here?). Those amounts remained through the Food Pyramid in the 1990s, but in MyPyramid (2005), the serving ranges were dropped from each category. Further, fruits/veggies make up two categories (not just one), and with 5 total categories implies an approximate fraction of 40%. The most recent MyPlate has a similar visual, except that Meat and Beans has been replaced with Protein, and the Dairy category is off to the side in a cup (because milk comes in a cup). But, I think the off-the-side-in-a-cup visual is a subliminal message that, no really, humans don’t need cows’ milk any more than cows need human milk.
All of these are good improvements towards the goal of a plant-based diet, but if the visual implies about 40% fruit and vegetables…this isn’t enough. An integrative medicine doctor scoffed when I mentioned the 5-7 servings range as my daily goal: “try more like 11-12…” By calories, though, in order to reach 40% and not overload on fruit (see sugar, above), entre vegetables, and lots of them. Oodles and oodles of vegetables. The benchmark of almost half our calories coming from fruit and vegetables is also reflected in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead 2 in the words of Joe Cross, the infamous juice-fast man.
To me, this sounds like unlimited vegetables. Why not? They have little calories, are (on average) packed with vitamins, loaded with fiber, and if you eat enough, they fill you up. Vegetables are no longer just for dinner and sometimes lunch: they belong at every meal. I can’t think of a single thing that could go wrong, except maybe that the body will be so spoiled that it might become a brat, rebelling against things like coffee creamer.
So eat your vegetables, and then some, people! Eat them as naked as possible, with minimal extra calories from oil or other ingredients. Enjoy fruit, too. And protein and whole grains. That is all. We can enjoy food because it’s good for us, a long-term investment in good health and happiness.
Author’s Note: Upon posting, it seems strange to me that the opening blog on my new “yogic” web site highlights violence by the hand of people with firearms. The words “gun” and “yoga” do not seem compatible at all, and yet, with the subject of violence, my heart and mind yearn for meaning beyond these events, some light tucked away under a rock somewhere. With tragedy and loss, inevitably, we are led to the desire to make things better. Light and darkness will always find each other. Also, please know that this web site is not intended as a bunch of let’s-explore-our-groovy-yoga-ness resources, but critically, an examination of all kinds of subjects that challenge our comfort, enhance suffering, and make us really, really angry. Within this angst, we can potentially find our hope and power— our light — through practices in mindfulness.
My personal experiences with gun violence point to two major events. When I was 16, the shooting was a few houses away. The assailant fired 65 rounds from a semi-automatic weapon, and in return the SWAT team fired 8 rounds. There were no deaths, with one police officer sustaining a non-life-threatening injury, and the perpetrator had a history of depression and restraining orders. The second time, 23 years later, I was more removed physically, but emotionally and intimately connected with the assault victim, who spent many months in recovery for injuries from exactly six bullets (one cylinder). Here, the perpetrator had a history of mental illness and restraining orders, and later it was discovered that semi-automatic weapons were being collected.
In the grand scheme, my experiences seem like barely a shadow of the terror experienced by high school students in Florida just three weeks ago…but trauma tightly hangs on to our subconscious long after the original event. Further, there is no spectrum for terror when it comes to recovery. With every massacre here in the U.S., our society is producing more and more people – including children – who are connected to this kind of trauma with a similar, everlasting aftermath. The trauma is carried by the societal whole, as is the heavy responsibility of not changing laws that allow semi-automatic weapons to be available outside of the military scheme.
Columbine…Virginia Tech…Newtown…San Bernardino…Orlando…and now Parkland. Depressingly, there are omissions in this list. Each of us should be able to count these horrific acts on one hand, if at all. Each one brings my own personal trauma to the forefront. When there are too many to keep count, I begin to think of my own experiences as normal (they’re not). When the news begins to report statistics of however many number per week/month/year, on average, plus all the shootings that don’t make national news, these events almost seem ordinary (they’re not).
Life goes on…but should it continue as usual? Johnny Cash, the “Man in Black”, wrote much of crime and tragedy. Even the dark song lyric from Folsom Prison Blues, “I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him die”, is honest and raw, shared by a character who’s paying for his crime of passion, lamented later with an unapologetic responsibility. Cash’s song Man In Black reminds people of those who fall between the cracks, get taken advantage of, and are otherwise worn or beaten by life. “I’d like to wear a rainbow every day”, he sings, but until the world is a bed of rose petals for all, he continued wearing black to promote global awareness of the forgotten in a plight of poverty, despair, or recent trauma.
Life never continues as usual. Gun violence statistics in the U.S. are unique and disturbing, but by no means uniquely solved. A best practices approach, borrowing regulatory wisdom from other countries that have succeeded in reducing massacres, seems logical, and yet, our government is stagnant. The Man in Black would not be impressed. The relative inaction (at best, baby steps) over the decades since Columbine is truly mesmerizing, signifying corruption at its core. When elected officials ignore the will of their constituent majority, as if it’s impossible to have secure schools and hunters with rifles, we have to ask: what do they stand for, if not our children and the general public?
Maybe some of our elected officials really do stand for the free reign Second Amendment, allowing guns for each and every person regardless of training, mental history and crime record, such that they would legislate along those lines regardless of the gun lobby. In that case, let “more guns” be the answer and spare no expense: use that vast defense budget to convert every “gun-free” area into a military zone. Let’s protect our children just like we do the Pentagon. Let’s “Secret Service” every school and public arena. Too costly? Rubbish: if government decides to overspend money on something necessary, there’s always deficit. Too much like a military state? That’s the point. Too scary? The U.S. is already scary.
Hypothetical scenarios aside, it may seem that we don’t have much power as a society besides continuing to vote with conscience and communicating with our elected officials. An additional, critical, point of power is in intentionally not losing our empathy. In yoga and many other spiritual traditions, we are called to get in touch with ourselves – our body, mind and spirit. This practice, in itself, encourages reflection and acceptance, empathy for the self. Further, if our intention is to serve others, this self-practice is destined to cultivate a deeper compassion for others. The word Namaste acknowledges the light inside others, connecting us through our similarities: the fact that we all have this light, life force, soul, spirit…and here, we are all the same.
As it is for darkness: alluded to by the Man in Black, our dark cloaks can connect us constructively. Until gun violence is taken more seriously, such that our elected officials begin looking out for the defenseless innocent over the surround-sound gun lobby, let’s not disembrace the darkness that comes from the pain of others – not only people we are close to, but strangers halfway across the country or elsewhere in the world. Let’s challenge ourselves to experience sadness as if the catastrophe is local or first hand. Losing that raw sadness, or pushing it away because it’s difficult to handle, succumbs to non-feeling in order to survive more comfortably, and if we’re not paying attention, we become numb and disassociated. There is no escape or vaccine from these horrors, so let’s not be afraid to allow the feeling of illness after every single massacre. By not disassociating, we wear our black shirt and jeans like the Man in Black. Maintaining our humanity with understandable grief is critical to fueling action and inspiring hope.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness