Sentient Noosphere
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2 weeks ago
John Steinbeck
April 14, 1939

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You've scrabbled at it long enough, God knows…

In Depth

One Day, You Will Completely Forget Yourself

   March 6, 2017

As a rule, people aren't prepared for death; they just vigorously avoid the issue. You feel like Buddhism is preparing you for death. That is your vague thinking (not feeling). If you're not clear on the aim of Buddhism, why not find out instead of going on excursions based on vague opinion?

Preparation for death is a human issue, not just a Buddhist one. The actuality is that nearly all humans live as if in a dream. We think and act as if we will live forever, but that is not at all true. So we are very divorced from reality. We don't live with awareness. Our days are very dreamlike without that perspective, and therefore our days are without the meaning that the perspective brings.

Without knowing in your heart (not just as a distant concept) life's end, you lack awareness of life's beauty and preciousness. You lack awareness of the preciousness of these real days, these common events, these ordinary relationships. Because there is the underlying belief that you will always have access to them.

Without awareness of death, you lack meaning. To the degree that you are aware of death, the meaningfulness of everyday events is present for you.

There was a great scene from The Hurt Locker, where the main character, James, finally comes home from the insane, hellish stress of war and finds himself in a grocery store which seems to be hellish in its bleakness. Although violent and senseless, the imminence of death on the battlefield did bring forth a sense of vitality, of being extremely alive. Our task is to connect with the vitality and meaning brought by awareness of death, without requiring the insanity of pursuing death.

When death does come to us, surprisingly and contrary to all common sense most of us are shocked, aghast, bewildered… as if the most unexpected tragedy had befallen us; even though, since as far back as the prehistoric reach of human memory, the certainty of death has been evident all around us.

But we avoid it, don't we? We shut ourselves away from our tribes, and we hide the dead and dying from sight. Even in our spiritual pursuits, we talk in lofty terms about eternal life, avoiding the more pressing and personal fact of certain death. First know impermanence deeply; then you can reasonably connect with your undying nature.

A great many people die very poorly, in extreme mental torture because throughout their lives they have denied and avoided the fact of their vulnerability and impermanence. People rail and wail and curse the heavens when a family member or loved one dies; and how much more so when they themselves (we) receive a terminal diagnosis or otherwise head toward the end.

Armchair philosophers (you?) keep the issue of death at a distance, as if it is merely a theoretical event. Do you imagine that your death will go as smoothly and comfortably as slipping into a warm bed and falling asleep? It may happen violently. It may happen decades before you expect it to happen. It may happen before you ‘get it all together.’

Your aging may involve great loss or suffering. You may be sick for long periods; you may lose the use of your limbs, or your eyes, or your brain… or all three. You may not be able to digest food for years; or you may not be able to pass urine. Pain and debility may increase in your body for ten, twenty, thirty years—if you are fortunate enough to live long enough. Or you may quickly hurtle toward death, ravaged by cancer or heart disease or some influenza or new viral strain. You may think “If only I could live another year, I would gladly bear the pain,” or you may think “Oh, God, let me die quickly to end the pain.” Or you may have both prayers turning within you at the same time.

So many people and their families are horribly unprepared for death, caught off guard by their helplessness and by the certainty of their end. They can't help themselves, and they can't deal with the reality of their situation. If you actually spend time with those who are dying, you will find that it is actually a bit rare for someone to be able to die with grace and contentment. The rule is generally that the habits built up during life are continued when the pressure rises: more avoidance, more self-distraction, more ominous pressure without knowing what to do with it. More denial, more clamoring for control. Dullness, anxiety, confusion….

And even if a person can muster the courage and presence to be with their situation, in so many cases their family and society won't allow them to die in clarity and dignity. Others around them, caught in the same habitual denial, will often impose small talk and distraction at times when the dying person wants and needs to feel and communicate deeply. Family and friends often bring their noise and busy-mindedness and emotional clinging at a time when the dying person needs space and freedom. And even those who are supposed to be serving the dying—the doctors, nurses, and other health professionals involved—obscure the truth or almost cynically impose bureaucracy and technology as if they are battling a video-game opponent rather than caring for a human being.

If you actually spend time with the dying, this won't be a distant theoretical issue for you—something you can make opinions about from the comfort of your living room. And if you have the illusion that you are already prepared for death, just consider how easily you can let go of things right now: can you give up your opinions freely; can you avoid being triggered by insults; can you be happy in situations that aren't your favorite (like, say, living with the smell of feces and urine on a daily basis)? Is it easy for you to give away money and possessions? Can you gladly live without your favorite food for a year? Are you unmoved by the desire for praise and fame (to be well-thought-of)? Can you give up your favorite activities, no problem? No addictions, no attachments? How openhandedly do you give up friendships or romantic relationships? How harmonious is your mind when you lose your job?

Most of us get upset enough about not getting the last piece of cake! We have a long, long, long way to go to achieve the contentedness that can face death without suffering.

Because all of these and more will have to be given up when you die. So: are you ready for that?

Factor in the shock and terror of it—the dreaded finality—as all the things that you relied on previously are stripped away: no friend or family or loved one can help you; no status can help you; no social or professional standing can help you; no knowledge can help you; no memory can help you; no possession can help you. You lose your strength, your ability to move, your ability to communicate, your power to assimilate food and water, your senses, your brain activity…. Everything you previously depended on will go away. So how will you do?

This is not just Buddhist. Every being faces this.

   Ujwal Chaudhary, Bin Xia, et al.: January 31, 2017
A brain-computer interface records “yes” and “no” answers in patients who lack any voluntary muscle movement.

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and speechless, with only the ability to blink his left eyelid. Using just that eye, he silently dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, later adapted into a film.

Bauby suffered from “locked-in syndrome,” in which patients are completely paralyzed except for some eye movement. Some patients eventually lose even the ability to blink, cutting off all contact with the world and raising questions of whether they are still fully conscious and, if so, whether they still wish to live.

Now researchers in Europe say they’ve found out the answer after using a brain-computer interface to communicate with four people completely locked in after losing all voluntary movement due to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

In response to the statement “I love to live” three of the four replied yes. They also said yes when asked “Are you happy?” The fourth patient, a 23-year-old woman, wasn’t asked open-ended questions because her parents feared she was in a fragile emotional state.

Designed by neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer, now at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, the brain-computer interface fits on a person’s head like a swimming cap and measures changes in electrical waves emanating from the brain and also blood flow using a technique known as near-infrared spectroscopy.

To verify the four could communicate, Birbaumer’s team asked patients, over the course of about 10 days of testing, to respond yes or no to statements such as “You were born in Berlin” or “Paris is the capital of Germany” by modulating their thoughts and altering the blood-flow pattern. The answers relayed through the system were consistent about 70 percent of the time, substantially better than chance.

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