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    Archive for August, 2006

    The Santa Claus Conspiracy

    Thursday, August 31st, 2006

    Do you believe in Santa Claus?Seriously. This isn’t a rhetorical question. Do you?

    Assuming your an adult and don’t wear tin foil hats to keep “them” from beaming thoughts into your head, I’ll bet you answered “No” and you probably thought it was a stupid question.
    But let’s take a look at this Santa Claus thing.

    The basic idea of Santa Claus is that someone is watching you, day and night, who knows everything you do and everything you think. Santa knows what you truly want, but if you want to make sure, you can write to him and tell him. Or, at special times, you can even go and see Santa and tell him directly.
    And, if you take all the right actions and think all the right thoughts, one day when you wake up, you’ll find that something you’ve really, really, really wanted has appeared before your very eyes.

    If you don’t do all the right things, well, you get a lump of coal… and next year you’ll have to try even harder to get on Santa’s good side so that he’ll magically deliver what you want.

    Sound familiar?

    Sound like the way we think of our spiritual or psychological lives?

    If I think “positive” thoughts, raise my vibration, forgive my parents, learn to love myself, lose weight, attend the right workshop, clear up “blocks”, meditate with my eyes open, meditate with my eyes closed, meditate while remaining celibate, meditate while having sex… then, one day, as if by magic, I’ll be rewarded for all my good actions and thoughts and I’ll get a partner, more money, a new car, the house of my dreams, happiness, enlightenment, world peace…

    So, let me ask again, do you believe in Santa Claus?

    What are the actions that you do, hoping to prove to Santa you deserve to have what you want?

    What are the thoughts you think you need to have to be a good boy or girl? What are the thoughts you need to get rid of?

    How do you let Santa know what you want?

    What are the ways you try to bribe him (think, milk and cookies)?

    What do you do when Christmas morning comes and goes and you didn’t get the train set, or Barbie dream house, or BB gun (or perfect partner, perfect job or perfect body)?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to slight you for acting like there is someone or something out there — God, Universe, Source, Higher Power, etc. — that is constantly judging and deciding whether or if to bestow good or bad things upon you.

    I mean, think about it, this is one of the oldest ideas that humans have. We’ve got thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years of people believing that some specific way of behaving or believing results in changing the world we live in. We may make fun of “primitive” cultures and the ways they try to influence the rains, the wind, the sun, and the gods that control them.

    Our techniques and mythology might have changed, but in essence we’re just doing what our great-great-great-great-and so-on grandparents have done.

    What if we stopped?

    What if you no longer believed that making some arbitrary change in your thinking — for example, “focusing on what you want” — would reliably result in getting something you want? What if you no longer believed that if you prayed properly you wouldn’t get the kinds of terminal illnesses that end the lives of 99% of all humans?
    What could you do with the free time and energy you would have if you stopped trying to convince Santa you’ve been good this year?

    How might your life be different if you didn’t think you needed to get that present you’ve been dreaming about in order to be happy? (How long did the happiness you got from your presents last, anyway? Until New Years day?)

    We love to make fun of the beliefs of children and those we see as unevolved. Once I stopped nodding my head, all I could see is how much I had been believing ideas that were, on a good day, no better than those I mocked.

    And once I could see the Santa Claus Conspiracy in these beliefs, it was practically impossible to open the flue and put milk and cookies on the mantle any longer. Discovering that there is no Santa Claus requires uncovering the ways we act as if there is. And once you do, there’s no need to try to “live in the present” (if you do that, Santa will bring you a box of happiness and peace), since you won’t bother to live in the future Christmas day.

    In fact, it’s stopping waiting for Santa to bring us goodies that reveals the goodies that are always available to enjoy. No need to wait for some magical day for the goodies of reality. And the goodie-ness of reality lasts waaaay longer than the ones that come wrapped up in the hope of future happiness.

    Last Meditator Standing… or Survivor, Tibet

    Saturday, August 26th, 2006

    No, I’m not proposing a new reality show where we put 10 meditators in a room, issue concentration challenges to them, and see who America votes for as the best meditator (though, now that I write it… nah, never mind).

    What I want to talk about today is the problem with monks and meditators.

    Not a problem with them as people or as practitioners.

    But a problem with them as examples, as role models, as “proof” that the spiritual path reliably leads to where you want to go.

    Now I’m not even going to touch the phenomenon of spiritual teachers and leaders who, it turns out, have been sleeping with their students while preaching celibacy, or stealing money while claiming poverty, or eating frozen burritos right out of the 7-Eleven freezer at 3:00 am after years of subsisting on nothing but “universal energy” (it was amazing to watch this “breatharian” try to explain away the security video showing him doing this).

    What I want to look at is the honest-to-goodness, insightful, peaceful, clear-minded, level-headed men and women who spent their life in spiritual pursuits. These people (rare as they are) are the ones we admire, the ones we hope to emulate. They’re the ones who give us confidence that all the time we spend watching our breath, or praying, or doing good works, or going to workshops, or buying angel posters is not for naught.

    But should we be reassured by them at all? Does their life actually demonstrate something relevant for us?

    A few weeks ago, I spent some time with a good friend who also happens to be a high-ranking Tibetan monk. During one conversation, we talked about how most of the young men who entered the monastery with him had long ago removed their robes and gone onto mundane lives. There were relatively few who had been in monastic life as long as my friend, and he’s only in his late 30’s.

    By the time he’s in his 50’s or 60’s or 80’s — assuming he hasn’t replaced his robes with blue jeans by then — even fewer of his monastic brothers will still be in the monk business (one thing you learn from hanging out with leaders of religious orders is how much of a business it is).

    In other words, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer “survivors” still in the game.

    It’s the same in any business or endeavor. Over time, some stay, some fall away.

    By definition, the ones still standing at the end are a rare and unusual breed.

    But, when we look at or to these people, we seem to forget how unusual they are (or get angry when they engage in one of those infractions I mentioned and find out how un-unusual they are!).
    Looking at the rare survivors as if they are typical is what behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists call “survivorship bias.” We have a natural tendency to look at the people who’ve “made it”, who’ve gotten what we think we want, and believe we can get what they got if we just do what we think they did. We overlook the significantly larger number of non-survivors, most of whom are much more like us.

    In other words, what I realized when I talked to my monk friend without nodding my head is that the we only hear from the spiritual survivors, the rare beings who, for reasons that we may never know, are still standing. And then we compare ourselves to them… And this is where the suffering begins.
    But once we recognize that they are just the survivors. Once we stop nodding at the idea that we can simply do what they did and get what they (ostensibly) got, things get pretty interesting.

    Rather than proving long-term spiritual practice leads to certain attainments, it’s just as likely that the people who have a propensity for certain attainments also have a leaning toward doing long-term spiritual practice.

    Look at your own life for examples of this: Did you ever start a sport or a hobby and then stop when it became clear that there were some people who were just naturally gifted and that you would never be as good as them? My running career ended in 9th grade when all the other sprinters suddenly grew to 6′ and I barely made it to 5’6″ — no amount of passion or training would overcome their physiological advantage. And then the tall group separated themselves when it became clear that, well, some guys are just plain faster.

    Many people I meet tell me how they need to meditate more, or better, or whatever, citing the example of some teacher who says “The only way to get what I have is to do what I do — 10 hours a day!”

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    Maybe you could do 20 hours a day and not get “there”, because they just happen to be “faster.”

    Or, maybe they have misapprehended their own life and believe that the 10 hour/day practice is what made them who they are… but, maybe being someone who would even consider a 10 hour/day practice is someone who, with 1 minute a day, would have gotten to the same place (looking over history and assuming we can identify the causes that led to the present is what cognitive psych and behavioral finance guys call “hindsight bias”).

    If we aren’t aware of how survivorship bias affects our thinking, we could put ourselves in some situations that we hope would lead to happiness, but get or infer information that points us in the exact opposite direction.

    Without understanding survivorship bias, we could 1000 people play Russian Roulette and, when there was only one person still standing ask him, “What’s your secret to success?!”

    “Simple,” he’d reply, “you just pull the trigger and don’t shoot yourself!”





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