Several people have told me that they found the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once quite chaotic and hard to keep up with. Some cursory Googling reveals that the directors did apparently have in mind the metaverse as metaphor for internet overload (which, let’s face it, is a significant factor these days):
“Written in 2016, “Everything Everywhere” was in part a product of the contradictions and emotional whiplash of being very online at the time. “The internet had started to create these alternate universes,” said Daniel Kwan. “We were for the first time realizing how scary the internet was, moving from this techno optimism to this techno terror. I think this movie was us trying to grapple with that chaos.”
Carrying on from this article, Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Visually, for me the movie was a bit overwhelming with everyone jumping around so quickly; but I realize now from talking to a neuroscientist on the plane on the way back from New York that this is due at least in part to my underdeveloped visual cortex compared with younger people’s …
Meeting a neuroscientist
My new neuroscientist friend was saying that in her mother’s era, for example, it was rare to move home so much – whereas nowadays it seems we change locations practically as often as we have hot dinners. Where her mother grew up in Brooklyn, storefronts changed just once a season; and her nursery was painted beige – neon colors didn’t even come in until the 80’s. Forget the brave new world of screens – simply in general older generations had far less visual input in their youth than, say, her young son. What this means is that her mother (and me, and anyone over 45, really) developed unconscious competence in the 44 sounds of the English language. Meaning that she can read 50 pages of a book happily and without tiring, whereas her 8-year-old son finds it exhausting to read more than about 10 pages because the visual cortex has been hijacked and takes up twice the brain’s processing power. (I am probably butchering her explanation, and any neuroscientist reading this please feel free to chip in here; but it made perfect sense at the time, lol). Given her knowledge, this neuroscientist travels all over advising schools how to adapt the teaching of reading and so on – suggesting, for example, that kids are taught the relationship between sounds and letters with their eyes closed.
However, younger people do now have a kind of visual cortex superpower. They have vastly better hand to eye coordination, on the whole. They can keep up with all the fast flashing images and move around far more quickly on their screens. “So they can see more of what’s happening on a screen than we can?” I asked her. “Yes. My son is going to be able to solve problems I can’t even see.” For him, watching movies that came out before the 80’s is apparently like me having to watch Citizen Kane in slow motion. And it is true, anecdotally, that when a couple of 30-something friends watched the stage production of Cats recently (this was a hit for decades, if you recall), it was agonizingly slow and boring for them.
Now I understand that human brain processing is actually changing, I have more sympathy (and respect!) for those of you who ask me to keep these blog articles short and sweet – especially if you are under 30, lol. I will try not to go above 10 minutes – or, alternatively, and if you have even read this far, you have my full permission to come back to the rest of this later 😆.
Brain versus consciousness
However neuroplastic it may be, which is very, the brain is not consciousness. Our consciousness can be everywhere all at once, whereas our brain is part of our body and therefore restricted by time and space. The other day I was shown a “mind-reading” technology that can translate a person’s brainwaves into photographic images, ‘cos apparently that is no longer just in the realm of science fiction. The participant would look at, say, a train, and then a photo would be derived from their neurons – which was recognizably a train, but also not quite like the picture. Everyone’s version was predictably different – some had clouds in the background, others had the train in different shapes and colors, and so on.
The technology is being touted as a doorway to being able to read people’s minds — so, you may ask, if we can take these photos, does this not mean that the mind is the brain after all? However, my understanding is that those re-created images are just colors and shapes, the visual objects of consciousness. They actually tell us nothing about the participants’ subjective consciousness – how those colors and shapes were being felt or experienced or thought about – were they beautiful, were they blissful, were they confusing, etc? All that is a function of invisible consciousness which will never be captured on camera. Same for any other objects of sense or mental consciousness – for example, I heard a song the other day that transported me, so I shared it with someone; but he thought it was nauseating. 😆
You do you
Whether you have an old brain or a new one, we ALL need the ability to bring our mind to a still point – because a scattered mind is not a peaceful one, and we can easily feel overwhelmed and out of control. Concentration is single-pointed focus on a virtuous object, ie, an object that is conducive to peace and happiness; and it is the cause of mental peace. To survive or keep up with the kaleidoscopic modern world without feeling constantly agitated and UNpeaceful, therefore, it is really helpful to learn how to improve our mindfulness and concentration in meditation. All the Kadampa Centers, temples, and retreat centers are built to support us in this. We also need to develop a consistent, reliable practice that works for us — there is no cookie cutter way to practice meditation or Dharma, everyone is different. You do you, as they say these days.
Everything Everywhere All at Once was a journey of self-discovery and transformation for the main protagonists, just as it is, really, for anyone seeking meaning in life. Evelyn Wang grew in self-confidence – she developed some faith in her own and others’ Buddha nature and power to keep improving. Letting go of her inadequacies and limited sense of self, and learning from all her previous skills, she became powerful and willing enough to help everyone in the universe, including all the people she had previously harmed. She was eventually able to subdue the mind even of her powerful nemesis, Jobu, whom she always related to as her daughter and therefore never gave up on. (Everyone has been our daughter and our family countless times.) She became a heroine.
She had an unusual journey, to put it mildly; but there is no one size fits all when it comes to Dharma. We all have to figure out our own journey. Today I came across the 80’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa, whose Shambala headquarters in Boulder is close to where I live. I was given this book 4 decades ago by my friend M, very shortly after we had found Buddhism. At the time he really liked it and I had no idea what it was on about; but today I decided to dip into it again, sitting on a tall stool in this second-hand bookstore in Arvada. And, sure enough, I found that Trungpa did have insightful things to say about how to avoid self-deception, hierarchical or institutionalized thinking, and other worldly concerns, all things I have contemplated quite a lot myself over the decades in an effort to avoid them. Trungpa talks about relying upon one’s Spiritual Guide as “the meeting of two minds”, for example, establishing “real communication with our spiritual friend”:
No one can really change your personality absolutely. No one can turn you completely upside down and inside out. The existing material, that which is already there, must be used.
To loosely paraphrase (or translate into Kadampa Buddhism), badly probably, the little bit I read: we have to get the “self” out of the way in the journey of self-discovery because the limited self we normally see doesn’t exist; and we carry self-deception around as a heavy burden, like the shell on a tortoise. Our Spiritual Guide is invaluable for awakening our hearts and leading us to enlightenment — but we need to learn to trust and make friends with ourself (or our Buddha nature) so that we are no longer such a “mystery” to ourselves. Through this we will realize that attainments come from within when we stop grasping at them as coming from without. (Or something like that!)
We are not our delusions. No one is their delusions. Thank you Buddha and Ven Geshe-la for so clearly explaining this! – for I think it is the foundation for all authentic spiritual practice of Sutra and Tantra. It keeps reminding me how it’s possible to keep love and respect in my heart for myself and for others without feeling the need to bring a tight controlling ego into everything. On this subject of spiritual integrity, one question I sometimes find helpful is, “Who, if anyone, is your boss or leader?
Slow down and wisen up
There are three wisdoms taught in Buddhism – the wisdoms of listening (or reading), contemplation, and meditation. Once we’ve heard or read an instruction that we find interesting, the idea is to contemplate it using our own experience and questioning it from all angles until we get our own understanding or insight, and it becomes our own idea. Then we meditate on this single-pointedly to make it stick, so that our thoughts (and us) actually change for the better.
All three wisdoms require some element of mindfulness and concentration – stilling the mind, clearing it sufficiently, tuning into our own deeper wisdom – which is why it’s a good idea to do a few minutes breathing meditation or the suchlike before we launch into a contemplation. Ideally we want to imbue our mind with blessings too, by, for example, dissolving Buddha into our heart. Without these preparations Buddha’s teachings, however good, are probably going to be like the pitter patter of rain bouncing off a hard surface. I am mentioning this here because I’m about to do a deep dive into impermanence, emptiness, etc, inspired by the movie. And if these ideas remain simply intellectual for me (at best), they will have no power to undermine my grasping at a hard reality.
In this first article on the movie, I talked about how remembering that all my previous lives have already disappeared gets things into perspective. I also like to contemplate that this life thus far has also completely gone – everything up to this moment has disappeared like last night’s dream.
One major source of pain is when we try with our delusion of permanent grasping to make our world and life stable in a way that they cannot be. This movie went fast, and in general everything is always changing moment by moment – for example, the person who began reading this sentence no longer exists! We’re kind of doomed if we’re trying to keep up with these fleeting appearances by grasping them to be more stable or permanent than they are. This kind of primitive holding on doesn’t serve us well. As Leonard Cohen says:
If we don’t become the ocean, we will be seasick all the time.
If we do live in accordance with impermanence, thinking for example, “I may die today and the past has already disappeared”, we are very much in the present moment, the only moment that actually exists. We come to discover that the present moment has everything we need, and life becomes very rich, meaningful, and joyful. We wake up happy. We’re not missing people, places, or enjoyments all the time, and we’re not wasting precious moments anticipating a future that may or may not happen; we are simply enjoying the present day. There’s an art to this, and we can master it. (More about that here. Venerable Geshe Kelsang appeared to teach us this Dharma. That we’re around in the same generation as him is, I think, nothing short of cosmically miraculous.
Ok, that’s 10 minutes up – I better stop here for the sake of everyone under 30. Here is the next installment — all about dreams, the creative power of the mind, and no self: The still point of the turning world.
Meantime, I really enjoyed your comments on Part One and hope you’ll write more here.