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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

proceeding slowly, self-deceived

Steam smokes off the wet wood of the steps to our balcony. The sun shines through a gauze of clouds after the rain shower. I chose to use my errands (depositing a dental-claim check; mailing an overdue Goods and Services Tax return; dropping a book and a DVD at the library; depositing this month's maintenance checks for our strata corporation) to make a short run for the exercise. The shower was in progress as I left the North Shore Credit Union, running uphill along Lonsdale Avenue (gingerly, since I have a sore left hip). By the time I emerged from the ScotiaBank at Lonsdale and 14th the rain had stopped and the sidewalks were shining.

I'm surprised to see that six days have elapsed since my last post. (Hm, the "last post" sounds almost kind of ominous...) My energy is low, so I'm not pushing myself in any direction. I'm just trying to keep things ticking over, maintaining what has to be maintained.

Last week I did manage to resume writing The Mission, and have plugged away at it since then, a page or two a day. I'm writing more or less out of obligation now, out of a desire not to let the project lapse due to my low wattage.

Other than that, I continue to be absorbed in research along the lines of identity. When do we think and act as individuals, and when do we think and act as members of a group, a collective--and why? The most interesting book of the moment for me is Vital Lies, Simple Truths by Daniel Goleman. The subtitle of the book is "The Psychology of Self-Deception", and Goleman is giving a most interesting account of we, individually and collectively, deceive ourselves. According to the best psychological theory and research, we--all of us--live in a constructed reality assembled by factors in our own unconscious. Specifically, things arise to our attention only when permitted to do so by these unconscious factors. In general, these factors weed out distressing data in order that we may live with less anxiety. So we all have rose-colored glasses on, in a sense.

Not only that, but our memories are also revised to be less painful to ourselves. It is like the totalitarian approach to history in Orwell's 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Chilling.

As I have been reading this book, I have been thinking about the great value of the meditation training I've had. For meditation, at least the shamatha meditation that I have been trained in, works against the totalitarianism of this fake, self-constructed world we each live in. In the meditation one trains to relax with whatever arises in the mind, not to judge or push away or try to hang on to. This is the actual practice of reducing anxiety, for one ceases to identify so strongly with one's thoughts, and one therefore does not take them so personally. Indeed, the Sanskrit word shamatha is usually translated as "calm abiding" or "resting the mind" or "the development of peace"--all terms suggesting the opposite of anxiety.

I have also been thinking about how the basic problem, from the Buddhist perspective, is ignorance. Of the so-called three poisons--the three basic emotional disturbances that cloud our minds and cause us to generate bad karma for ourselves--passion (or craving), aggression, and ignorance, ignorance is regarded as the most fundamental. At bottom, ignorance is not knowing how things really are. When any emotion arises or any action is taken on the basis of ignorance, it is inaccurate and inappropriate. We make things worse for ourselves and others.

But another part of me wondered about the possible positive aspect of our constructed reality. For does this not suggest that some unconscious, unseen force--perhaps the same one that scripts our dreams--is presenting us with the images and the life that is proper to us? Goleman likens the process to his own childhood fantasy that everything around him was a stage-set: that wherever he went, unseen stagehands put up and tore down sets so that he would have the experience of walking through his life, even though it was all theater, all sham. Everyone in his life was an actor, playing a role, supporting him--presumably the star.

Is not each of us the star of his or her own life? What if the specialized information that arises to consciousness for each of us is not merely a bowdlerized reality, an opium-dulled trance, but also, potentially, the stuff of our own drama--the arena in which the hero must perform his tasks?




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