Sunday, August 18, 2013

Alienation as a Way of Life

     Recently I received in my inbox, from Paul Lowe's Inspirational Mailing List, an email with a strange message:

     7H15 M3554G3 
     53RV35 7O PR0V3 
     H0W 0UR M1ND5
     C4N D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5!
     1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5!
     1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG 17 WA5 H4RD,
     BU7 N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3,
     Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 17 4U70M471C4LLY
     W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.
     B3 PROUD!
     0NLY C3R741N P30PL3 C4N R3AD 7H15.
     PL3453 F0RW4RD 1F U C4N R34D 7H15. 

     To my 'select' strange-minded friends: If you can read the previous paragraph, forward it on to your friends with 'yes' in the subject line. Only great minds can read this. This is weird, but interesting!
     If you can raed this, you have a sgtrane mnid, too.
     Can you raed this? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. 
     This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe.
     Azanmig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! If you can raed this, pealse forwrad it
     FORWARD ONLY IF YOU CAN READ IT. Forward it & put 'YES' in the Subject Box

This message was forwarded with a brief commentary added, I assume by Paul Lowe:

     It may have a much greater significance than is realised.
     It is an example of how the mind, in most instances, 
     does not need to register details. 
     It draws the details from the stored memory.

     So here is what is significant about it:
     It is the same when you meet someone, or look at an object.
     The mind registers just enough detail to access the stored
     information there, and then that mind fills in the details—  
     with the dead past.

     That is one of the reasons it is very rare to actually meet someone— 
     you are both just accessing the past, and not this actual moment.
     (And that is only just touching on the subject.)

     These observations seem to apply to the nature of the human race in general, from Stone Age hunter/gatherers to university-educated urbanites of the Information Age. In fact it seems to me, after living among villagers in a rather simple, traditional culture, that simple-hearted hillbillies are more alienated from their surroundings, in a way, than we are. I observed that Burmese villagers living in remote, rural areas saw their surroundings in relatively narrow, stereotyped ways, and were less likely to take in something with which they were not familiar. If something unusual happened, it would often fail to make an impression.
     For example, once I was living in a remote area of northwestern Burma in a large cave. In the cave with me were from forty to fifty paper wasp nests, and during the rainy season the nests became dangerously large, and the wasps dangerously aggressive. I learned the hard way how to share the cave with them, but visitors often were stung. Once during the rainy season a group of village ladies came to visit me, and I called out to them, "Come in one at a time, and come in SLOWLY." They all got a confused, blank look on their face, like "Why would he say something like that?" and all marched in together at normal speed…and they were swarmed, and all of them were stung. It was only after such a drastic lesson that the warning registered.
     Another example of this phenomenon is a myth, perhaps, that when European sailing ships first appeared off the coast of Central America, the native Americans couldn't see them at all, as they were so unusual as to fail to register at all—there was no stored information which could account for them, so they were blotted out of the field of perception with a sort of selective blindness. A shaman who was somewhat more openminded and less conceptually shackled could see the ships, however, and was able to prepare the others sufficiently that they could see them too—which demonstrated the great mystical power of the shaman.
     Modern Westerners experience this kind of perceptual limitation too, however. We glance at a dandelion long enough for the perceptual association of "weed" to arise, and then we stop taking it in. It's not a flower, much less a miracle, but a weed in the yard, and maybe a damned nuisance besides. 
     Small children, though, may still see dandelions as beautiful flowers, even as something wonderful and mysterious. This is a big reason why some people claim that very small children are enlightened beings: They haven't yet stored up enough memorized associations to glance at something just long enough to have their eyes glaze over. They take in their surroundings much more than their parents do; they absorb everything more as a present "this," and thus are, in a sense, more awake than are most adults. 
     But, as the Pali texts point out (see, for example, Suttas 64 and 78 of the Majjhima Nikāya), small children aren't really enlightened, because they have the underlying tendency (anusaya) to become like us, and learn to be like us quickly and eagerly enough, in accordance with their own human nature, and reinforced by the example of their parents and others. They learn from adults, for example, that dandelions aren't lovely flowers, much less miracles, but just weeds.
     Whether nonhuman animals can be said to have these latent tendencies is questionable though; and there are some, like Eckhart Tolle, who claim that animals too are naturally enlightened. In fact, according to him, all beings on this planet are enlightened except us, plus a few domesticated animals on whom our neurosis has rubbed off. I won't tackle that issue here, however.
     Getting back to humans, I have found that, even though simple villagers may be more alienated from their environment than we are in some important ways, we "civilized" Westerners (plus Westernized Easterners too nowadays) are obviously, painfully more alienated from each other. In a traditional Asian village, everybody knows just about everybody else there; there is more of a feeling of us than is experienced in a modern Western community. If somebody's house burns down, for instance, the neighborhood freely chips in and helps build them a new one. They have more of a group mentality. We in the West may have a broader, more variegated kind of alienation from the world than simple villagers have, but our alienation is more isolating. We are more cut off from everyone around us. We may see fellow human beings much in the same way as we see dandelions.
     I assume a major reason for this is the Western emphasis on individuality, and the idea that as we become more civilized, society becomes more atomized, no longer centered on the race, the tribe, the clan, or even the family, but on the individual person. Add to that the fact that in modern culture we are exposed to a variety of points of view, so that modern, Westernized people no longer share a Weltanschauung the way people in traditional cultures do. Everyone is different; and so our neighbor is not so obviously on the same side as us, and not so obviously to be trusted. And add to that the facts that consumerism and relative wealth and privilege have made us fussy, hard to please, and worried about potential threats to our property, and that Scientism has allowed us to see human beings as machines made of spiritless meat, and we wind up with a society of isolated, unhappy individual atoms that don't fit into molecules very well.
     This is evident in the nature of romantic relationships in the West. They tend to be less stable than in simpler cultures. It's harder to find someone compatible, with a compatible point of view. In traditional cultures marriages are often arranged, with the bride and groom hardly knowing each other before the wedding; and it has been observed more than once that such marriages tend to be more stable than marriages for love. I suppose that in a traditional culture, where everyone shares pretty much the same outlook on the world, it's easier to find a mate with whom one can get along.
     Many years ago in Burma I happened to come across a book for people learning English as a second language, and one of the little essays for study was the following excerpt from a book entitled Through Brown Eyes, by Profulla Mohanti, an Indian architect and artist who studied and worked in London. Here is the essay, in its entirety:

     "When I returned to my room, I sat by the window, thinking. 
     "Although I had stayed in England for over a year, it was difficult for me to understand the British mind. Travelling to the office every day by train I watched people hiding their faces behind newspapers. They rarely talked to one another, occasionally lifting their eyebrows to look at their fellow passengers. But when I started a conversation under the pretext of the weather I found many had a natural gift for gossip. They would go on telling me all about themselves and their families. Sometimes I was even given their telephone numbers and asked to look them up. At first I took their invitations at face value, but when I rang and heard the surprised tone, 'Who?', I felt embarrassed and pretended I had got the wrong number.
     "I had to learn to say 'please', 'sorry', 'thank you', whether I felt it or not. Once, while buying tickets at Waterloo, I forgot to say 'please'. The man at the counter was offended and would not give me the ticket until I had said 'please'. When he handed me the ticket he said, 'Say "thank you".' As I was getting into the train, an Englishwoman pushed me with her shoulders, said 'sorry', and hurried inside to take the only empty seat. 
     "On the way to the office one morning a man collapsed in my compartment. At Waterloo everybody left, but I stayed with him until the ambulance arrived and was an hour late getting to the office. I was told it was not my job to look after strangers.
     "I found that many did not even look after their own parents who were old and helpless. In India, it is the duty of the children to look after their parents and old relatives. While serving a meal, my mother always gave food to the old relatives and children first and ate whatever was left over. The old never felt isolated. They lived with their families and contributed to the happiness of the house."

     We in the West have tried to compensate for our alienation from others with a veneer of polite friendliness, which extends deeper in some than in others. Because our lives tend to be rather superficial, because we don't introspect so much, we are often deceived by our own superficial togetherness. I assume most of us have enthusiastically shared phone numbers with people who, deep down, we had no intention of ever contacting, or have made generous offers in a glow of outward friendliness that we promptly forgot afterwards, or made excuses for backing out of, after the glow cooled and the friend was no longer in sight.
     Around the same time that I first read the above essay by Mohanti, I also had some learning experiences in Rangoon with a thoroughly Westernized young Burmese woman. Her father had been educated in the West, she spoke fluent English, she worked at a Western embassy, and she was a devout convert to Western Superficialism (without identifying it as such). She seemed to have little idea of what Burmese Buddhism was about, and didn't "get" Dhamma. Anyway, she repeatedly invited me to her house for a meal, really gushing with polite friendliness, like, "Oh, I'm so glad you're in town! I'm so much looking forward to your visit!" Yet after making these statements she would seem to forget them almost immediately, as she never followed up on them. She turned out to be always preoccupied with other things, and the actual date for the invitation stayed in limbo, and the thing never happened. It seemed that she had learned to be very warm and hospitable at the surface, was very good at it, and considered this surface to be what was essential; but it overlaid a deeper level of indifference, or perhaps of unwillingness to disrupt her involved "life story" by fitting something incongruous into it. Anyway, it just goes to show that even Burmese people may become Westernized and "civilized" someday. 
     Kipling's "White Man's Burden" of civilizing the undeveloped world had early colonial governments (and Christian missionaries) pretty much eradicating cannibalism, headhunting, and human sacrifice, among other things. So although it's politically correct nowadays to disapprove of pre-21st century European and American colonialism, it certainly wasn't all bad. Now economists, multinational corporations, and humanitarian organizations have taken up the torch and are helping the underprivileged masses to become alienated, superficial consumers with a strong sense of personal entitlement and self (in Pali, attā), for their own good and for the good of the world, supposedly. 
     This kind of alienated individuality makes for success at the superficial level, and is not all bad; but it is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual development in the Western world. And it doesn't make people happy, which would seem to be the most important thing. It is rather a dilemma, as everyone conforming to a single world view, especially a relatively spiritual one, is more conducive to togetherness than is independent thought; yet it also is more conducive to closed-mindedness and institutionalized mediocrity. People who can break free of the institutions, Eastern or Western, and not become hermits, outcasts, and/or lunatics are relatively very few.
     So what can we do about it? Learn from small children, I suppose.   

Taraxacum officinale

     Although I can criticize it, I also am alienated (partly due to years of deconstructing my experience into observed mental states, partly due to Western cultural conditioning, and partly due to "default" human nature). However, I am aware of this, and am investigating the matter. 

     POSTSCRIPT: Here is an excellent example illustrating normal, everyday alienation:    


  1. If a western individualist consumer culture that values competition more than cooperation (at least at the level of praise) is so obviously damaging, why do you think it has and continues to spread like wild fire to the furthest reaches of humanity?

    1. Good question. My guess is that the advantages of consumerism are more obvious than its disadvantages, and people generally aren't so good at seeing what isn't obvious; plus it appeals to our human instincts for personal comfort, pleasure, status, etc.

  2. Sadhu!

    A good Dhamma teaching.
    I am considering maybe translating it into German, to share it. If you wouldn't mind?

    It touches quite poignantly on very widespread issues, written in a way that people can relate, and even find some references to Dhamma. As to how the world around is developing and being developed by us we have to become much more aware.

    I have come to perceive that bhikkhus who have travelled far and wide have often the most farsighted perspectives to offer on such, and also the ability to point to solutions, which always lie within.


    1. You are welcome to translate it, although I don't know how you would translate the first part.