Open Mind, Empty Mind

Well, I’m honored (and a little embarrassed) that Darrell Hamsa Grizzell has awarded me the Open Mind Blogger Award, a recognition of “respect towards others, research and consideration of opposing views, free-flowing conversation with commenters, and an overall spirit of civility and openness.” Well, I often lack those qualities, but I do deeply respect his initiative from Politics and Religion. And I can easily name five other people who deserve this recognition more than me:

(There are more of course, but most of the ones I would think of have already been awarded by Darrell.)

I’ve generally been growing indifferent, if not negative, to the “pass it on” memes that pop up on the Web, but this one means something. Regaining the open mind (and when we were kids, we all had open minds) I think is an essential part of Jesus’ “come as a child” teaching. It’s certainly an essential step in pursuing the “empty mind” of Zen practice. You can’t empty your habitual thoughts, identifications, prejudices and biases unless you’re first open to the fact that you might need to. And you can’t empty anything unless it has an opening.

These folks, and the ones Darrell awarded, definitely fit the bill–they show that wonderful quality of opening and emptying–presenting themselves to Isness anew, ready to engage the world as bias-free as possible. Thanks to you all.

Writing my first Firefox extensions

Firefox logoOkay, if you’re tired of hearing me tell you that you should get Firefox, don’t worry… that’s not what this post is about. However, if you do use Firefox, you probably know that its rendering is only a part of what makes it so great; the Firefox community has developed thousands of plugins and add-on tools to enhance the Web experience.

Among these are hundreds of search engine plugins. Besides Google, IMDB, and Amazon searches, I constantly use the Wikipedia search plugins. To aid in searching foreign-language Wikipedias, there are plugins available for most. (I’ve been using the Catalan, Spanish, and Esperanto Wikipedia search plugins for months now.) However, one huge problem with Wikipedia is that the Wikipedia search engine truly sucks. A slight misspelling of a word (even an accent) generally returns no results, and searching for a word or phrase that doesn’t match the actual title of the article usually returns nothing helpful.

Fortunately for English readers, there’s a wonderful plugin that allows you to use the Google engine to search the English Wikipedia. This makes searching for relevant articles in the English Wikipedia a breeze.

Tonight, I finally wondered: why doesn’t someone do the same for the other Wikipedias? Well, I’m someone, so I did. It was extremely easy; the guys at the Mozilla project did a wonderful job in making it a piece of cake to create them. Check out the list of Wikipedia search plugins, and note the big green ‘N’ for new by three of them, made by yours truly.

Exotheism

I recently got a call from an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in ages. He and I were part of the same radical Pentecostal campus fellowship a couple of decades ago, but I got a sense that his spiritual life is stagnant. I asked him about it, and he said he was having “diminished expectations” of God. Where he used to believe strongly that God intervened on his behalf, he’s not so sure now. I could feel his disappointment and confusion through the phone.

The shift to panentheism changed things radically for me. Since I no longer believe that God is a “person” (in the sense of that word meaning a separate, distinct über-entity), I can sense the truth behind so many apparently contrary theisms:

  • monotheism, because the One is … well, all that is
  • polytheism, because God is manifest in all things and revealed in many ways.
  • pantheism, because God is in everything.
  • agnosticism, because the thinking mind can’t grasp God.
  • atheism, because the idea of an überbeing in the sky seems woefully insufficient. to account for this.

If I’m in touch—in various degrees—with all of these, what have I left behind? What is the opposite of panentheism, the idea that God is within and beyond all things? We might call it exotheism, the belief that God is outside of all things, and especially, outside of you.

The “entry-level” stage of Western religions generally teach exotheism, and exotheism is a significant part of my friend’s pain. In the exotheistic view, God and you can only meet in a relationship, and as everyone knows, relationships are tricky things, and this is especially true of a relationship with the Almighty.

It might be the fearful relationship of appeasing someone who is angry, unpredictable and all-powerful. It might be the heady relationship of knowing all that seems worth knowing as you read the texts that God has apparently commissioned. It might be the wonderful release of surrendering your ego to something greater than yourself. It might be the joy of feeling the presence of the Beloved in prayer or worship. It might start off feeling wonderful, and lead to feeling frustrated with “diminished expectations.”
But most relationships have a serious flaw… unspoken demands that the other meet one’s needs. My friend’s “diminished expectations” were really the feeling of frustration that God wasn’t living up to his part of the bargain, not meeting his needs.

That perception that God is there to do things for us is perhaps the strongest barrier to divine presence. It works for a while, but dropping the demands of our neediness is essential to experience the divine later on in the journey as the soul matures. Then matters of relationship, self, inside and outside become as irrelevant as whether or not my egoic “needs” are being met. I’m just here, and so is my appreciation and wonder.

Whew!

It’s busy here, and will be for a while. Besides maintaining our current code, I’m studying Object-Oriented Programming, C#, and ASP.net—oh, yeah, and when I get a chance, which isn’t often—Catalan. Just upgraded my system’s RAM today, since it had been stressed by the new demands I’ve been putting on it. I also took a look at Windows Vista running on machines in some computer stores today: Looks nice, yet I noticed that it doesn’t seem very fast, even on machines with a gig of RAM.

When I’m ready for a new machine, I’m considering a Mac.

Shaking up and chillin’ out

On Monday, it was announced at my work that we’re changing platforms. That sounds minor, but for people who have spent years honing their talents in PHP, it’s not. Many of my co-workers are having to seek positions in other departments. Contractors are being sent away much sooner than they expected. And although I’m staying on where I am (and I’m glad about that), I need to take a crash course in ASP.NET.

There are confusion, morale problems, and frustration. There’s also hope, compassion, and reaching out. People are helping each other with the next step, from learning what positions are opening and brushing up résumés, to lending each other books on ASP and .NET. And there’s also a lot of mutual encouragement. It seems to be bringing out the best of us, even though it’s always difficult dealing with the fact that change is the only constant. Anicca, anicca, anicca.

Monday night, after work, I went with some friends to a bar where I had a great (and effective) Long Island iced tea with the world’s best crab-and-shrimp-stuffed jalapeños. And after that, we went to a hookah bar, and for the first time, I smoked a hookah.

Sharing a hookah with friends… you have to do this! It’s got to be one of the greatest pleasures in life.

But things didn’t end there:

After the hookah

cool peach smoke has filled my brain
the laughter of friends, my ears,
peppermint, my mouth,
peace, my soul.

leaving, i walk,
winged heels barely touching the ground.
Mercury among men, sans message or mission,
i sit on steel stairs and a stranger comes singing.
he laughs and asks me for sixty-five cents,
i give him some change, and he sings some more,
spilling joy with every note, every beat a blessing.

leaves, and i listen to the soft
Doppler glissandos of traffic,
rising
and falling.

Hofstadter and this last week

This week has been good. To explain it, I’m going to have to start with my college days. During my undergrad years in El Paso, I was in an extremely conservative congregation. My desire to know God had been subverted, as it is with so many of us, to know “about” God, or more accurately, to know the teachings of a single religious perspective about God and become ever more deeply immersed in it, distrusting everything else.

geb.jpgHowever, I discovered a wonderful book that kept my mind from being completely nailed shut: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by the mathematician Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s book was written for the layman, and was entertaining. funny, and delightful. True to the title, he referred frequently to the works of mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The theme was the principle of what Hofstadter called “strange loopiness”—patterns that turn themselves inside out or strangely embed themselves within themselves, and this was years before the first popular books on chaos theory or fractals would appear.

Hofstadter explained not only what Gödel’s theorem was, but how its principle applied to the world at large. The theorem was a mathematical proof (and when something’s proven in math, it’s proven like nobody’s business) that it is impossible for any arithmetical system to be completely free of contradiction. For instance, in the set of positive integers, 5 – 7 is contradiction. To deal with it, negative numbers had to be created. (Remember when you were a kid how weird negative numbers seemed at first?) Taking it farther, in the realm of real numbers, the square root of a negative number was a contradiction. So enter the imaginaries, as if all numbers weren’t imaginary.

drawing_hands.jpgHofstadter playfully, lovingly, danced open invitations to a universe of contradiction, containing itself and looping back on itself; Möbius strips and Klein pitchers, Escher’s hands drawing themselves into existence, Carroll’s Jabberwockies gyring and gimbling in the wabe of Bach’s cancrizan canons inverting and reversing themselves, Zen koans turning assumptions inside out until there’s no-thing left to know.

After reading G,E,B, I continued as a zealous Fundamentalist for quite some time (before many spiritual morphings), but one thing had changed forever, and that was that I would never be able to fall for the idea that everything could be explained by reason.

Let’s fast forward a couple of decades: On January 22, 2006, I had a glimpse of the nature of the world. Yes, it was unsettling at first, but strangely empowering as well. But it didn’t last long: The actual glimpse was just that—a second or two—and the knowing (as opposed to thinking) of the “empty holodeck” lasted only a few days.

I Am a Strange LoopLast Sunday, I found myself missing it. I prayed to be able to see it again, to have a spiritual refresher. Thursday, I saw that Dr. Hofstadter has published a new book: I Am a Strange Loop. I sat down with it a while and saw, to my delight, that he’s taken it to the next logical level: ego, consciousness, identity, and what’s beyond. Like Steve Pavlina, Hofstadter is one of those gifted with using non-mystical and even non-religious language to teach some of the most sublime realizations.

That night, I dreamt I was on a planet called Cascadia, abundant with mountains, waterfalls and snow. I stayed there a while, but eventually decided to leave, and booked passage on a spaceship. The spaceship somehow became an elevator, and then I realized that Cascadia was inside the Earth, and that all the planets were inside Earth, like nested concentric spheres.

Then I awoke. And I knew that all the worlds are within. Within me, as Thomas Traherne wrote centuries ago, “it’s less that I am in the world, than that the world is within me.”

Let’s talk about it.

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