If you follow some of the cooler quotes that are attributed to Buddha or other figures from Eastern religions, you tend to think, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense!”
The reason is that much of Western religion seems to be about telling us what not to do, what not to think, all the terrible things awaiting us if we don’t follow the rules, and so on. So it’s the whole punitive versus philosophical approach, at least on the surface.
However, in the interests of full disclosure, I have heard there is supposedly a Buddhist hell. I imagine it resembles Crossgates on Dec. 24 at 5 pm. At least, that’s how I picture hell.
Now, before you fire up the torches and the Twitter posts, keep in mind that I’m a nice Jewish boy from Long Island (seriously). Though I’m not really what you’d call a practicing Jew, I was raised as such, so my view of organized religion comes as a result of that. I did not grow up going to church or mosque on a weekly or daily basis, so bear that in mind.
I’ve also been anti-authoritarian my whole life, so anything or anyone trying to tell me what to do in a forceful way doesn’t really sit too well. Thus, hearing cool, interesting, uplifting, or positive ideas from other religions that are presented as ideas, philosophy, suggestions, or whatever, is simply more palatable.
Of course, the problem is that in trying to embrace Eastern philosophy, you run into some very ingrained Western thought patterns.
When I was in college, I learned to meditate as a means of reducing stress. This was way back before they tossed drugs at every problem.
There are lots of techniques, but the basic idea is to concentrate on your body, breathing, or whatever, in an effort to un-focus your mind and allow everything to just kind of settle.
The whole Om Mani Padme Om thing is just a device to get your mind to kind of empty. You could just as easily chant “I love Netflix” or “Kim and Kanye are scary” or “Bacon is Good.” Whatever works for you.
The key is to slow the thought process down to where your mind is as empty as a politician’s promise. The reality is that we don’t do empty mind well in the West. Actually, we kind of suck at it.
We’re always being bombarded with input, visual and aural stimuli, smells, and so on. You have to make quite an effort to just find a place quiet enough to meditate.
You also have to turn off your phone, which pretty much excludes most of the current population of the United States. Most smart-phone owners view such an act as about equal to doing without oxygen for a couple hours. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you shut off the phone, found a quiet spot, and got into a physically comfortable position. Now you need to clear your mind and focus on your breathing.
Each time you breathe in, say “one” inside your head. Breathe slowly and steadily.
Wait, did I turn off the washer? Did I unload the dryer? What am I making for dinner? Are the kids out by the pool alone? Does the car need an oil change? Where is my spouse? Was that the dog whining? Wait, what was I supposed to be doing? Is that a squirrel?
See what I mean about clearing your mind? It’s like clearing one of those houses on a hoarders’ TV program. You need a mental backhoe.
So maybe meditation isn’t your bag. One major tenet of eastern philosophy is to focus on living in the moment. The idea is that much of our stress is caused by regret or sorrow about the past or worry about the future.
If you live fully in the moment, you are so engaged and energized, that many of the stressors just melt away. So let’s try being in the moment.
OK. You’re sitting at your desk. Feet firmly planted on the floor. Your computer is glowing brightly, your coffee cup is full and warm, your clothes are comfy, and your office is humming quietly around you. You are here and no place else. You are now, and no other time.
Wait, isn’t there a meeting in 20 minutes? Is the PowerPoint ready? What will I have for lunch? Wait, don’t I have to stop by school for a teacher meeting after work? Did my spouse take out that trash? What was I supposed to be doing? Living in the moment? Which moment? That one? The next? I’m so stressed!
OK, so we’re not really batting .1000 here. Personally, I find living in the moment, meditating, being mindful, and all the other Eastern practices very tricky to master, due simply to the nature of Western civilization; such as it is.
The messages we are fed every day are mostly designed to sell us things or change our way of thinking in order to sell us more things. Those messages employ fear as a major motivator plus greed, envy, superiority, and pretty much any and every other negative feeling and emotion you can dredge up.
Thus, in order to live a more Eastern existence, you kind of have to ignore or remove yourself from a lot of what passes for normal society these days.
This is why Buddhist monks tend to live high up in isolated monasteries without cell service, high-speed cable, or even electricity, in some cases. Their daily lives involve meditating, cleaning, cooking, eating, and sleeping. Their lives are simpler, slower and designed to encourage contemplation. And they are rarely called on to prep a PowerPoint.
The bottom line is that Eastern philosophy has much to teach the Western mind. The key, at least in my muddled mind, is to embrace what you can, when you can.
It’s like healthy eating habits for the mind. We all know we should be eating more veggies and fruits, leaner meats, more complex carbs, and fewer sweets. Of course that doesn’t help you as you stand at the brunch buffet eyeing the six pounds of fresh bacon, two-foot mound of scrambled eggs, and the made-to-order Belgian waffle station.
In the end, trying each day to slow down a little, be a little more grounded, meditate for a few minutes when we can, and care less about the future or past in favor of the present are all good steps. The sum total could actually change your life in positive ways. But, at the same time, a little bacon never killed anyone, just so long as you don’t eat all six pounds.
Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he has been interested in Eastern philosophy, meditation, and mindfulness long before there were apps for it.
By now, most readers of this column are well acquainted with the three feline folk who cohabitate with us. Lemon, Nibbler, and Sylvie are part of the family and part of daily life.
As such, we get a chance to see them in action on a regular basis and watch them and their antics. After a year of such observation, I began to realize that cats are either the quirkiest, most interesting creatures we’ve chosen to share space with or they’re just plain nuts.
So how does one determine eccentric versus crazy? Well, since we usually don’t do a very good job figuring that with people, I give us only a small chance to do it with beings we can’t even really communicate with. However, if you spend more than a few days watching cats operate, you really do wonder what goes on in their heads.
Take feeding time. They like to meow loudly, climb counters, and try to trip you, all in an effort to speed up the opening of the sacred can and filling of the food bowls. They will stand right over the dry food bowls while you attempt to pour dry food in, thereby blocking you and slowing the process down. Not what I would call signs of sanity or even overt intelligence.
They are also really messy eaters, leaving wet and dry food in a seven-foot radius around the bowl. But then they spend 15 minutes after a meal licking themselves clean with an air of purity and intensity normally restricted to surgeons scrubbing up before a heart transplant. All the while sitting amidst the cat equivalent of the food fight scene in “Animal House.”
They have a habit of watching someone go through the process of cleaning out a litter box as if they’re in charge of supervising the proceedings. “There’s a bit of poo over to the left and don’t miss that big stinker buried on the right!” they psychically beam at you.
Then one of them will saunter in, use said freshly cleaned box and look at you as if to say, “Well, what are you waiting for?” A bathroom attendant, I ain’t. But then, I suppose we all like a “fresh bowl” so to speak.
Their behavior with other living things is always interesting. When one of them sees an insect, especially of the flying variety, they’ll sail through the house in hot pursuit knocking over lamps, tearing at curtains or attempting to climb walls. Obviously, a common housefly, or stinkbug is a fire-breathing dragon in the eyes of a cat and Khaleesi is not available to exert control, so they have to.
And once they’ve actually killed said dragon, they leave the carcass in the middle of the floor, or spend the next 20 minutes batting it about like a toy mouse. From dragon to chew toy in 30 seconds. Seriously?
Their behavior with the Yorkshire terrier that lives next door is even funnier. They sit at the back door and watch him in rapt attention as he runs around the yard, the back deck, and through the gardens. If he comes up to the door in an effort to say hi, they bolt.
Except Sylvie. She occasionally slips out the back door and, if the dog is out, they begin what can only be described as a ballet of schizophrenia. The dog comes close and sniffs, maybe barks a bit. Sylvie hides in the garden and meows loudly.
The dog backs off and Sylvie slinks out and follows him. You have to keep in mind the dog weighs about the same as Sylvie and is very friendly. Eventually they stare at one another, obviously confused as to the next step in their courtship.
“What the hell kind of cat is that?” thinks Sylvie.
“What the hell kind of dog is that?” wonders Jameson.
At least they don’t have any need to ask one another about religion or politics.
As our guys are strictly indoors (except for Sylvie’s aforementioned jail breaks), they don’t get the chance to roam the yards like a pride of lions combing the veldt for a stray antelope. However, they perch on windowsills with great fervor, studying every living thing that passes by as if they could knock it down with secret eye lasers. As if…
Water is generally considered a problem for cats, but not our Sylvie. After one of the pink people (us) finishes showering, she’ll push the bathroom door open, stroll in, and hop right into the wet tub and just sit. I once tried to turn on the shower and she lit out like I’d attempted to roast her alive. Then the next day she was back in the tub.
She likes the faucet, too. If I’m washing dishes, she’ll jump onto the counter beside me, sit down and supervise with great attention to detail. But, if I flick water at her or pet her with a wet hand, she is gone.
So I guess you could say the jury is out on the issue of cat sanity. I’ve seen other writers attach great swathes of prose to what must be going on inside the minds of cats. They usually suggest they’re long-suffering prisoners bent on world domination while dogs are happy-go-lucky doofs with the IQ of a tennis ball.
I’m not sure I agree as Minnie, our old Chihuahua, was anything but doofy. I’ll just have to continue my observations like Dian Fossey and her gorillas. Kitties in the mist. More like kitties in the shower….
Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he is looking into the possibility of funding further cat-sanity studies by uploading a video of the cats attempting to use a Kitchenaid mixer; Sylvie is asleep in the bowl though, so production has ground to a halt.
The other day, my wife and I were out driving and, as has become our habit, the passenger checks one direction while the driver checks the other before moving through an intersection. Normal? I guess.
But I recall the old days when either of us could manage the feat without help from the other. In fact, we still manage it on days when we drive solo. But nowadays, we find more and more, that we need help just driving safely and I’m wondering if it’s us, or them.
Every time I take my car or (deity forbid) my motorcycle out on the road, I am reminded that I’m not in Kansas anymore. To be more specific, things on the road have changed since I got my license in 1981.
There are more vehicles on the road than ever. There are bigger vehicles than ever. And, it seems, more bad drivers than ever.
Thus, the problems I’ve observed. Experts (anyone in front of a camera) are all talking about distracted driving as being the root cause of this. They say there are too many people doing too many things while behind the wheel that have nothing to do with driving. Judging by what I see every day, I think that’s definitely a piece of the issue.
Take the average working mom in the morning. She’s usually piloting a “safe” vehicle. That means she’s driving a large SUV with the same physical dimensions and weight of a World War II Sherman tank.
She is juggling the baby in the car seat, the dog in the dog seat, the navigation system, her cell phone, her makeup, the baby’s bottle, the dog’s snack, the car’s entertainment system and breakfast. I’m amazed she makes it out of the driveway in one piece.
The teen driver on the way to school each morning is equally hamstrung as he/she/they (usually groups) pilot their second-hand/sporty/barely running vehicles to the crowded, chaotic high school parking lot. Along the way, they have to finish their homework; answer 20 texts, three phone calls; and update their Facebook page, all while swallowing breakfast, picking an outfit, doing makeup, and having multiple conversations.
That may have something to do with their insurance rates being roughly equivalent to a mortgage payment.
Then there are the drivers who find current traffic laws to be more guidelines than laws. The seven people who blow through a red light just as it changes from yellow to red are all my favorite examples of this phenomenon.
In many intersections, I literally count to three or five after the light changes just to makes sure there are no stragglers before I proceed. This usually results in someone across the intersection taking a quick left in front of me, usually with a pissed-off expression because I didn’t gun the car the second the light went green like some drag racer on amphetamines.
Then there are the folks who no longer see stop signs. Those red signs now indicate a need to slowly roll the car though a turn, simply assuming anyone already in the road you’re turning onto will watch out for you. How does that work in their minds?
“Oh look, a stop sign. Umm, but stopping is so inconvenient. I hate stopping. Stopping depresses me and my doctor said I should avoid things that depress me. So I have my doctor’s OK to ignore stop signs. I feel better already!”
Till they get T-boned.
Back in the dark ages when I took drivers ed, I learned a number of things. Just after they taught us how to crank start the Model T, they taught us about something we used to call defensive driving.
The basic idea was that you were constantly looking around as you drove in order to anticipate, and thus avoid, potential problems. Were kids playing in a yard up ahead? Was the driver behind you getting too close? Was the driver ahead of you acting oddly? Were road conditions or visibility bad? Was anyone moving into your blind spot?
It seems like today’s drivers skipped that whole concept in favor of the current model: offensive driving. Those are the folks who drive so badly at all times that you’re constantly wondering how and where they got their license.
You also wonder why there’s never a police officer around when they go down a 30-mile-per-hour street at 50 or blow through a stop sign or a red light narrowly avoiding an accident and leaving “offended” drivers in their wake. They drive like they own the road and make the rest of us have to drive almost hyper-defensively.
Thus the need for a wingman(woman) these days. The driver controls the car and scans for dangers while the lookout scans more aggressively and reports. It’s sort of like the radar officer in the rear seat of a fighter jet who keeps an eye on the sky while the pilot flies the plane. Only the fighter guys are way safer over Iraq than we are on the Northway.
While distracted driving may be part of the issue, I still think plain old everyday selfishness is the real issue. People need to realize that, for everyone on the road to make it safely every day, they all need to acknowledge that we need to work together.
Everyone (this means you) needs to follow all traffic laws. Everyone (yes, you too), needs to focus on driving, not everything else. And, finally, everyone needs to slow it down and drive in a pleasant, friendly and positive manner. I watch out for you and you watch out for me and we all get where we’re trying to go.
Think of it this way. What would happen if you were in a grocery store and people were piloting their carts the way they drive? Crashes in produce! Pile-ups in frozen foods! Lawsuits in the cereal aisle! There will be smashed watermelons everywhere from collisions, EMTs rushing through the bakery goods, and cops cuffing people at the checkout before they can escape. In other words, rush hour on 787 moves indoors.
Please, for everyone’s sake. Think of the watermelons and drive more safely.
Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg and his wingwoman have a combined driving career of around 74 years and probably over 500,000 miles. They report that it’s never been scarier to go out to the movies.
I am not a coffee drinker. Never have been. I like the smell of freshly ground coffee and fresh coffee beans but that’s about it.
My wife, on the other hand, is a devoted coffee drinker. She knows what she likes, brews her own using old technology (no Keurigs here, folks), and needs it each day to get her day started right, and I respect that.
But there is a problem here in paradise and that is the subtle, but always lurking destructive power of coffee. I mean this stuff doesn’t need to be weaponized; it already is.
Take coffee’s destructive staining power. A few drops on lighter colored material can destroy it for all time. White blouse? Wrecked. Beige pants or skirt? Destroyed. And light colored auto upholstery? Time for a new car.
And if you really want to do damage, drop a really hot cup of coffee on someone wearing white pants. They’ll be incapacitated by third-degree crotch burns and their pants will be destroyed for all time. If we could come up with smart coffee bombs, wars would be over in minutes.
And why does spilled coffee leave brown marks everywhere for a five-block radius? It’s worse than changing the toner on a copier while wearing a white tuxedo.
Coffee is also hell on electronics. How many laptops, tablets, keyboards, cell phones and other electronic devices have been rendered dead by the judicious application of spilled coffee? It brings a new dimension to cyber warfare.
If we could replace all the coffee cups in secret computer installations with ones that spill or explode when sent a remote signal, we could knock out the entire technical infrastructure of a country, army, or company in one, fell swoop. And we’d also wreck all those clothes too!
What about the human dimension? Imagine, if you will, what would happen to Seattle, LA, or NYC if all the coffee there were suddenly secretly replaced by decaf. You’re talking lethargy on an epic scale. Whole cities brought to their knees by a lack of chemical stimulation.
Traffic in LA would grind to a halt due to thousands of commuters asleep at the wheel. Seattle traffic (as bad as LA these days) would also grind to a halt (The Space Needle elevator would never rise again).
Companies would have to close due to no conscious employees. Government offices would be paralyzed, schools would shut down (no teacher can function in a class of 28 without that java jolt) and Starbucks, well, there’d be riots of zombie-like patrons who would pile up like snoring cordwood, blocking the doors. Mass hysteria!
But there would be some bright spots. Tea drinkers, like myself, would suddenly be operating in a quiet, calm world. We’d get a lot more done, as our phones would be silent and our e-mail boxes empty.
Social media, long driven by over-caffeinated thumbs would be a ghost town of cute kitties and no tweets. Countries like England would suddenly rise to world dominance, as they’d be the only places with functional populations.
People worry about legalizing pot and yet they daily consume brown liquid dynamite. It makes you wonder what the real story is.
Was coffee put here by aliens who like watching our planet size anthill writhe in a constant state of mass hyperactivity? Was it created by world leaders looking for a way to unnaturally motivate otherwise calm, relaxed populations in order to extract more productivity? Or was it Juan Valdez and his famous donkey from the old coffee commercials in the ’70s who were just trying to get revenge on the greedy gringos?
If you look at places on Earth where coffee isn’t widely used, you generally see calmer, saner and more well adjusted populations. The Amazonian pygmies seem like a mellow bunch as do the aboriginal peoples in Australia. You definitely don’t see too many Buddhist monks lining up for a double-shot espresso every day before morning meditation.
I understand the need many people have for a morning boost each day. Many western nations have done studies that show their people don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. Thus, the need for coffee.
But, what if people suddenly figured out that getting enough sleep and working fewer hours was the answer? Then they’d start taking more time for relaxation and exercise. This could all move them into a mental and physical space that doesn’t require artificial stimulation. Oh dear, what am I saying?
Starbucks and Dunkin’ would fail, leaving thousands of empty, ugly buildings dotting the landscape from LA to Boston. There would be fewer empty cups at the sides of the road; clothes would be less stained; thumbs, less jittery; and people calmer. In other words, the end of western civilization as we know it.
Where do I sign up?
Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he has probably tried coffee twice in his life and, thanks to years of therapy and medication, he’s mostly over the experience.
Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, I attended an actual physical college. It was a collection of buildings, dorms, classrooms, labs, gyms, and dining halls very much like those portrayed in movies and on TV. For three and a half years, I went each semester, attended classes, turned in papers, took tests, got involved in extracurricular activities, and lived in a dorm.
After passing everything, I graduated and was given a diploma and went off to the working world, where my education continued. That was back in the year 1985. Before the Internet. Before cell phones; mostly before computers were common and before Google. Yes, kids, there was a world before Google.
Today, in 2015, I’m noticing a lot of people skipping traditional college for online learning. And, if we’re talking about distance learning, full-degree courses at accredited colleges and such, that sounds like a pretty good idea for those who can’t afford the old-school model or don’t have the time to devote to a full-time education.
But there’s a very disturbing trend that I’m seeing a lot of: People with virtual degrees from Google University.
What does a degree from GU mean? In the purest sense, it means that somebody with an interest in a given subject did a Google search and read anywhere from one to five articles that the search turned up
They hit a few blogs, wrote up (regurgitated) a few short articles and essentially declared themselves experts in the field. In some cases (look up foodbabe.com), a GU graduate with no actual professional credentials whatsoever, has turned likes, follows, and lies into an actual career. That includes publishing and selling a book and being quoted in the mainstream media.
And, just to make it very clear, foodbabe is not worth the virtual paper she blogs on, even on a good day. As a GU grad, she has a serious problem every time she publishes a blog post based on no evidence, and professionals in the field call her on it.
You see this a lot with GU grads — an inability to defend themselves when confronted with, well, umm, actual facts. Eeek! Not facts!
But stepping back from the virtual abyss, the real problem with GU and much of the information on the Internet is that it’s accuracy, provenance, intent, and honesty cannot be easily determined. That means that the coursework completed by GU graduates can’t really be counted as legitimate in the same way that a completed course at an accredited college taught by a real (breathing) teacher can be.
When folks call the Internet the modern Wild West, they’re actually far more accurate than most of the Internet. And therein lies the crux of the problem.
When any of us look up things on the Internet, the results of a given search can usually be broken down into categories. For instance, if you do a search on tomato fungus that is causing you garden headaches, you’re likely to get the following types of information: Ads for fungicide; articles by well-meaning gardeners who may, or may not, know what they’re talking about; articles about Kim Kardashian’s butt; articles that sound legitimate but are actually marketing materials for the corporate producers of fungicides; and finally, hopefully, articles from real sources like Cornell Cooperative Extension or horticulture departments of colleges or research institutes.
That’s quite a range of information. Of course Kim’s butt probably didn’t cause your tomato fungus, but hey, you never know. That thing can block a lot of sunshine, after all.
If finding a legitimate cure for your garden issue is this tricky, then how can people declare themselves experts in any subject after a Google search? Because there’s nobody out there to call them on it.
After all, as the famous line goes, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anonymity has been blamed for a lot of bad Internet behavior and it’s also why a GU degree is not worth the virtual paper it’s not actually even printed on.
If you were to spend months and years carefully studying a given subject, using source materials that were created and curated by actual experts in the field, then you could likely declare yourself something of an expert after a suitable period of time. Oh right, that’s what happens when you go to college. Sorry, got carried away there.
Not everybody who uses the Internet turns themselves into publicly avowed experts on things. But we all know plenty of people who claim expertise in areas they have no right to, thanks to their GU degrees.
So what to do? Well, we could all start by admitting that, while Google is useful, it does not take the place of real, honest academic research and learning.
The truth is, a trained reference librarian can get you far better information that is more accurate than Google ever can, or will. Librarians don’t get paid by advertisers and don’t consider Perez Hilton to be a credible expert on anything (except maybe Kim’s bottom).
You’re also unlikely to get hit by pop-up ads when chatting with a librarian or pick up a computer virus either. Reference librarians are usually very interesting people, too. Think about what they do every day for a job. Oh yeah, reference librarians all have MLS degrees (Masters in Library Science) from real colleges. Just sayin’.
If you want to get your next degree in the socio-political-economic impact of Kim K’s bum and the underlying implications for the world, then by all means attend Google University. If you want to lecture on the finer points of first-person shooter video games or the latest rumors about Bruce Jenner or Miley Cyrus, you have found your alma mater.
But, if you want to actually learn real facts in a given subject, visit a library, read real books, take real college courses, and put in the time and energy. Never forget, you get what you pay for (well, sometimes anyway).
Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg holds exactly one degree, from the State University of New York College at Brockport, a bachelor of science degree in communications. He says that it’s framed and covered in dust, the way a real degree ought to be.