Mobius Mind

READING             from the Dhammapada

This is from the first chapter of the Dhammapada, one of Buddhism’s sacred texts believed to come directly from teachings of the Buddha himself. So this is wisdom from the sixth century before the common era – right around the same time, in another part of the world, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

MEDITATION                        Among the Trees, Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

READING            From an interview with David Hinton published in The Sun Magazine, January 2015.[i]

David Hinton is a writer and translator of Chinese poetry, whose work is informed by the insights of ancient Chinese culture. He lives in Vermont.

Here’s a thought experiment: If you want to know what’s fundamentally true about the world, walk out into an open field and close your eyes. Then start forgetting. Forget everything you know and believe, all the knowledge our culture has accumulated, all our assumptions about the world and ourselves. Completely empty your mind. Then open your eyes and see what you encounter. The first thing you see is this physical stuff all around you. And if you’ve wholly emptied your mind, it is a wondrous revelation: existence, the material universe vast and deep, everything and everywhere, when there might just as easily be nothing at all.
The next thing you notice is that the empty mind perceiving that wondrous existence is not separate from the existence perceived. They are a single tissue. They are one

SERMON

Could you learn to listen to the ears of corn? Or a cottonwood tree? Do the hills sing to you?

Might the trees ever tell you, “It’s simple, … and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

Learning to listen takes time.

“I have time,” says the girl in the story.

Learning to listen takes practice, you can’t be in a hurry. I am too often in a hurry, and my mind hurries too. It rushes from thought to thought, task to task.

I am (often) so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

I too am often in a hurry, and living less in my body and more in my head.

The kind of listening in our story, awareness, attention, mindfulness – and the practice it takes to achieve it – all these make me think of a Mobius strip.

A blogging mathematician named Thomas White writes:[ii]

“If ever there was something which merited the name “God” in my eyes, it would be the Mobius Strip. But… I’d be far more inclined to call it “Tao” instead.”

Here are two cylinders, one regular, one a Mobius, both made from a strip of paper taped at its ends. (SHOW)

The regular cylinder has an inside and an outside. If I draw a line around the perimeter without lifting the pencil, it meets itself on the same side. The Mobius strip is similar, but made with a half-twist before taping. This time, if I draw a line around its perimeter the line meets itself as before. But this time it is on both sides of my strip.

White says, If we made a fresh strip, and called one side “IS”, and the other “ISN’T,” another interesting thing happens: As we go around the loop, we find ourselves ‘alternating’ between “IS” and “ISN’T”. This is like what philosophers call the paradox of self-reference. The best example of this is the Liar Paradox: “This is a false statement.”

“This is a false statement.”

If “This is a false statement,” is true, then it can’t be false. So if it’s true, when it says it’s false, it is in fact false. Which means it’s true. But if it’s true, then it can’t be false.

And so and so. Around we go.

To White, the Mobius Strip is symbolic representation of many recurring ideas: of constant change, of the paradox of self-reference, of other mathematical concepts. And it models two ways of thinking – discrete and continuous, or left hemisphere/right hemisphere modes – and how both ways can reside together in one coherent whole reality.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.

Picture the way your mind works as a whirling flotilla of Mobius strips, intertwined, all in motion. Now let’s simplify it – picture it as one strip.

This point (we’ll pick it arbitrarily) is “present experience,” or “here and now.” Here, I have goodness and discernment, and never hurry. I am attentive to what is before me – as it is, without judgment.

But in no time – the strip is moving, remember – in no time I am planning, problem solving, fretting, distracted, “distant from the hope of myself.”

One of the goals in meditation is to train the mind so that it’s possible to spend more time on this “aware/attentive/listening” side (which is of course, continuous with the planning/thinking/doing side). The same, and not the same. Two, and one.

I’ve recently read parts of a book published last year by Gay Watson called Attention. She explores attention from a variety of perspectives, beginning with Buddhist and Taoist teachings and practices, and moving on to neuroscience.

There are two major themes. First, “the self is not a thing, a finished permanent, intrinsic entity.” Second: Attention takes practice. “It takes time.”

The self is not a thing. Not permanent, not intrinsic. I am not an object, but rather, “I” am a dynamic process. This is the non-self of Buddhist thought. It is Daniel Hinton’s empty mind perceiving that wondrous existence is not separate from the existence perceived.

The understanding of that selves are process, not object, is consistent with scientific understanding of how the brain and mind behave. It points us to another mobius-strip like problem – where does that illusion of self as coherent object come from? Is it both illusion and real? How does a pattern of neuronal firings in the brain create a subjective “feel” of a coherent “me?”

“All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.”

Modern day neuroscientists and the Buddha seem to agree.

The second theme linking modern neuroscience to eastern philosophy and religion is the importance of practice. How does the man in the story learn to listen? “Every morning of his life when he was young he climbed a cottonwood and sat there, listening.” Listening, attending, until he was able to hear. It took time. It took regular practice. And it probably looked like doing nothing.

Neuroscientists have learned a lot, in recent years, about plasticity, their term for the brain’s ability to adapt and alter in response to habits – in response to practice, to consistent patterns of behavior that, over time, instill consistent patterns of neuronal firings.

Experienced meditators have become useful subjects for scientific study. Their brains behave differently. Certain areas of their brains “light up” in consistent patterns that are different from those untrained in mindful attention. The “no-hurry attentive” portion of the Mobius mind spins more slowly.

Why am I telling you all this? Why does it matter?

It’s interesting to me. And I don’t fully understand it. But the main reason is that it seems that people who are able to sustain attention are happier and less reactive.

We are constantly bombarded by multiple demands for attention to be paid to many things at once. Email, texts, posts, miscellaneous beeps and tunes, never mind all the lists in our heads. Demands revving us up, releasing stress hormones.

Cultivating an ability to sustain attention can make us happier, less reactive, and more compassionate. Gay Watson writes:

To accompany, to take care of, to take charge of, to listen to, to wait for…all of these meanings of “to attend” relate not only to an object but to a process, a manner of relationship…: a way of relating to the world in a manner that includes receptivity and care.   [iii]

Receptivity and care – openness and compassion for others and for ourselves. We could use a lot more of that, everywhere.

I remember an experience long ago, the first time I tried meditation. I had been practicing for a few months, fairly consistently. During a meeting at work, I became impatient. And I noticed myself getting impatient. And then I noticed the noticing. I don’t know if the impatience went away. But I didn’t act on it. That was a beginning.

When I attend – when I listen deeply, when I can quiet the chatter, planning, worry, judgment – I change the experience, and the experience changes me.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have taken up a meditation practice again. Most days I find the time to sit. Sometimes it’s a slog. Sometimes there are moments of spaciousness, clarity, focus, a sense of being apart from and a part of a larger whole.

My best experience of deep listening, though, comes in a monthly group meeting. I’m a member of a small group of women who gather most months for the practice of a clearness committee. Clearness committees are a Quaker practice of discernment. Three of us are in Massachusetts, one is in Washington D.C. We connect via Skype, or conference call when Skype misbehaves. One or two of us bring something to share with the group – a decision or a challenge, or something we are wondering about.

We have known each other for a while. We are all busy. So we’re organized, and preliminaries are brief. “How are you? Ok, fine.” We work out the logistics – who wants to share? Who will take notes? Ava has something to bring to the group. Margaret, one of my mentors and my former spiritual director, is our organizer and facilitator.

She says, “Let’s move into silence, holding Ava in our attention and in the presence of the holy.” We sit in silence. After a minute or so, Margaret invites Ava to share. “And now, maintaining this same open, attentive frame of mind, we will listen as Ava speaks. Listen not just for what is said, but for the deeper meaning behind the words being spoken.”

Ava shares. There is a brief time for clarifying questions. Then, again, we sit in silence, holding, attending, giving our attention to, Ava, and to what she has shared.“

And now,” Margaret breaks the silence, “still maintaining this attentive frame of mind, it’s time for our questions, comments, musings. Remember that Ava will not respond, and Janet will take notes. Remember that our purpose is not to solve a problem, but to help Ava go deeper spiritually. Remember also that we don’t need to fill the space with talk. Just being present in the silence is a contribution.”

Again, silence. The listening in this silence is deep and intense. I wait. Our eyes are closed, and we are listening. Listening within, and listening to the silence of the women in the circle. Holding what has been shared, intensely, and also, gently. Listening for something to emerge that feels true, and non-directive.

Someone asks a question, or makes an observation. More silence. Another comment, perhaps drawing on what has been said, perhaps fresh.

Is this digital, or analog? Right brain or left? Yes/and. (In a clearness committee, the speaker, Ava, does not respond. This is why someone takes notes – so that she can remember and reflect, later, on what was said.)

It’s hard to be the note-taker, hard to be both participant and observer. Hard to stay in the zone of deep listening, and to record faithfully what someone has just said. There is that image, again, of the Mobius strip.

It takes practice. I first learned about clearness committees in a course I took with Margaret while I was in seminary. For my final project, I designed an adult ed session for my home church. I explained the process, and I tried to explain, and model, what kinds of comments are helpful. I emphasized that the purpose is not to give advice or solve the problem. How musings and insights are different from giving advice. About leaving time for silence, and really listening in that silence.

My class was a pretty typical group of Unitarian Universalist folks. Well intentioned, intelligent, thoughtful. People who like to solve problems. They had a hard time. Listening in silence, letting something emerge, takes practice. And it begins with intention, and effort.

We are entering into a period of discernment for this congregation – a period during which we are learning about, and reflecting on, how we might bear witness against the current xenophobic, inhumane policies and practices of immigration enforcement. I hope you will participate in one of the discernment conversations. I hope you will listen deeply. To others and to yourself. Notice the feelings. Make room for silence. It takes practice, effort, patience. And generosity with one another.

And – whether or not you can participate in one of these conversations, I hope you find time and places where you can be generous with yourself. Where you may sense or hear something that will bring you respite from the mind’s chatter, bring you closer to hope for yourself, for us all.

Maybe you will go among trees – oak, maple, birch, willow, pine. And listen.

 

[i] David Hinton, interview with Leath Tonino published in The Sun Magazine, January 2015. Available at davidhinton.net  

[ii] Thomas White “The Deep Symbolism of the Mobius Strip,” Tao Math March 1, 2016 http://taomath.org/2016/03/the-deep-symbolism-of-the-mobius-strip/

[iii] Gay Watson, Attention, Reaktion Books, 2017