This Month in Reality…Waking Up 

I have been continuing my meditative practice and reading more on meditating this month.  The good news I’m getting better.  The bad news is I’ve gotten to the point where I know I’m getting better because I’m completely aware of how very, very bad I am at it.  The author of Waking Up tells me this is a real sign of progress.  You feel like you’re getting worse because you were so sure you were great at it before.  But, now that you have a little practice of recognizing a thought you realize that you were just telling yourself a story before and you weren’t actually all that awesome.  

So, that’s a total bummer if even if it is also a total victory.  

Waking Up by Sam Harris is a book about spirituality for the non-religious.  The thesis of the book is that spirituality is something human and that if we package it with religion we are missing out on something that we all need.  Specifically, religion and spirituality have traditionally been places where we have cultivated consciousness with meditative practices that leave us calmer, more focused, and feeling better about the world, ourselves and others.  Compassion, focus, these things can be taught and some traditionally religious practices can help us learn.  Meditation, particularly if you think of it as a Buddhist practice, is an excellent example of this.  There are other examples, too.  Prayer seems to be a meditative practice for many people.  But, if you don’t believe in God and/or you don’t want to follow or adhere to a set of guidelines or rules prescribed by a religion, you could still probably benefit from similar practices.  The book focuses a lot on meditation practice and how meditation can help us cultivate consciousness.  
Harris says throughout the text that he doesn’t want you to take him at his word.  He wants you to test out his theories and ideas in the ‘laboratory of your life’.  And, I liked that.  I liked that a lot.  I like being encouraged by someone selling an idea to try the idea on to see what I think about it.  I also liked that Harris presented some research on consciousness and how what we think of as consciousness relates to our brains.  This is an area of much ongoing research because we don’t know where consciousness is (if there is even one particular where to pinpoint, which there probably isn’t.)  Some of the research he presented in this book is on split-brain patients (note: this stuff is *not* for testing in the laboratory of your own life).  Split-brain patients have had their Corpus Callosum severed.  This is done surgically (as a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of epileptic seizures that are devastating other neurological processes or for other equally serious reasons) and after the procedure the hemispheres are cut off from each other.  This leads to some interesting behavior like the right and left hand both reaching for the same object.  Or, the right and left hand picking out different outfits to wear. These are really interesting studies and if you’ve never read about split-brain patients before this alone might be worth the price of admission.  
I really enjoyed this book and if you are interested in meditation practice or spirituality but can’t handle religion I’d say this isn’t a bad place to start.  

I checked this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public libraries

This Month in Reality: Love and Revolution

So, Russell Brand’s third book is about the state of the world and what we can all do to change it. He does his usual comedy schtick but he also presents the views of public figures, past and present, who are advocating for change. I checked this book out from the library to listen to while I cleaned my apartment and but I found myself often just listening. There were many touching and poignant things in the novel. Brand gets personal and talks about painful breakups and relationships and his history of addiction. He gets global and he talks about alternative energy and failures in many governmental systems world wide. One of the things that he keeps coming back to is small groups of people coming together to take care of themselves and effect change.

To be quite honest, I was very touched by this book. I found that it stuck with me long after I had put it down.

When people have to take to the streets because they are being injured or killed by a police service that is not part of the community and not serving the community the system isn’t working. When congress can spend an entire session not passing bills, not appointing people to positions that need to be filled, not taking care of veterans, and not debating or discussing any issues that affect the lives of the people that they actually represent, the system isn’t working. When we expect students to get a college degree to get a good job but that college degree will set them back thousands and thousands of dollars into debt (and when that degree is no guarantee that a good job will ever be available), the system is broken. When apples are shipped to another continent to be processed and then shipped back to be sold (or fish are caught, frozen, shipped to another continent thawed, scaled and boned, refrozen and shipped back) the system isn’t working.  Or, maybe it is working and it is just a stupid system.

I think we can all agree that at least some of those things sound crazy. I mean, at least the fish and the apple thing. I hope the other things as well.

So, the question is, if the system isn’t working, how do we as people, come together and fix the system or change the system or make the system work? The big question that we all have ask ourselves is what are the things that are important to us? How do we center those important things in our lives and in our policies? How do we create a government that is on the same page as we are?

Brand has some suggestions but three of the things that he keeps coming back to are meditation, people coming together to change something, and love.

These are things that have been on my mind recently. Meditation because I have become increasingly aware of how some sort of meditation practice could benefit me.  People coming together because of all of the movements that are rolling and changing things (#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and #lovewins as possible examples).    Love for a possibly bizarre reason. I have about one year left on my PhD and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next. All of that thinking about the future has really highlighted what is important to me and it turns out that what’s important to me is a need to be near people I love. One of the things I took from reading this book was that, yes, the world is in an awful state and it can be an awful place. But, it doesn’t have to be. We can work together to make it better. We can be there for each other, we can support each other and we don’t have to take any of this as, “that’s just the way the world works.” Naw. The world works the way we work and if we want to change something, we should.

This book was full of a lot of really quotable things that as a listener I kept coming back to like: “Sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse.” (Or, not.)  I could not have heard this quote a better time.  Sometimes, you just have to be reminded that your only options are to be a dick or to be a compassionate human being.

In a discussion of suffragette Emily Davison who worked the get women the vote in England, Brand pointed out that were former leaders of past revolutions to be magically transported in time to now that they might not be encouraging people to vote but rather to riot. It is important to remember that even leaders of peaceful movements did not countenance peace in all instances and that we need to be very careful not to take their life’s work out of context. (We especially need to be careful not to take their life’s work out of context in order to silence a vocal minority that is looking to be heard or that is looking for justice.)

But, the best part of this book for me was maybe how personal it was. Brand reminds you over and over again that you don’t need a perfect solution now, that you can start where you are, that you can do something small and that you, right now, are enough and that you do not need to change. You are okay. I was a little surprised at first by how affected I was to hear that. But, I think we get messages every day about how inadequate we are and we are so habituated to seeing and hearing them that we don’t even question them. Having a weirdo comedian who has had many hilarious (possibly unintentionally so) hairstyles remind me to begin where I am was oddly comforting. Knowing that this guy, who is probably a total dick, is trying his best for his community, was moving. Listening to Brand talk about his many fuck ups and shortcomings was oddly empowering.

Brand reminds us that, “This is your planet, you can change it if you want to. You can change it by doing loads of drug or having it off with loads of women or going on a murderous rampage with a licensed weapon. Doesn’t it make more sense though to change it by binding together with your fellow man and working to create a society that is fair and just? Of course it does!”

So, if you’re interested in hearing a comedian discuss the work of forward-thinking people and talk about revolution, meditation, and power structures, I highly recommend this book.

I checked the audio for this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries.