(This was written during a three-month program in Nepal themed around comparative religious study and backpacking. I was living in Kathmandu at the time.)
A mentor recently gave me a book on Buddhism called What Makes You Not a Buddhist. In each section, the author, Khyentse Norbu, repeatedly urged the reader to truly absorb the philosophies he was discussing and incorporate them into your worldview and routine, rather than simply intellectualizing and filing them away. This stuck with me, because it was echoing a thought that has been taking root in the forefront of my mind for the past three weeks. Before coming to Nepal, my interest in philosophy had always centered around the accumulation of knowledge; even though I have encountered philosophical ideas that I have agreed with or that have altered my opinion, I have never truly attempted to incorporate them into how I choose to live.
One such idea is the inherent subjectiveness of reality. It’s a sort of classic, clichéd paradigm (“how can we know that anything is real?”) of the amateur philosophizing that used to be a topic of conversation between some of my peers. I did not, however, with my sparse knowledge of Buddhism before this course, know how central it was to the Buddhist worldview. I started to think about this because of another book I plucked from the mini library at the Kathmandu center of the program I was enrolled in — His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom. In it, he explains in simple terms the Buddhist ideas of dependent origination and emptiness — essentially that nothing has an objective independent existence — and allies this worldview with the understanding of the subjectiveness of reality that can be derived from both Einstein’s theory of relativity and the physical paradoxes shown by quantum mechanics. (I won’t even try to explain these concepts in my own words but the Dalai Lama did a stellar job at dumbing it down). What these essentially boil down to is that everything is relative and that the observer is always an inherent element in what is being observed.
To give a little background into where I’m coming from on this subject, I am reminded of two other philosophical considerations I’d read about before — the anthropic principle, which states that the observable universe is how it is because it enabled our own existence as observers, and solipsism, the idea that nothing aside from one’s own mind can be sure to exist, and that everything else could be simply a projection of one’s own subconsciousness. From what I was gathering, from my foray into Buddhist philosophy, understanding the observer’s role in shaping their own reality was key to what makes a Buddhist.
All this information was beginning to reach a critical mass — assuming nothing is objectively real, independent of how I and the people who have come before me have perceived it, what do I do? Normally, I’d have been content with accepting the truth value of this and filing it away in my brain as I’d done before, allowing my world to spin on, changing nothing in my way of living. But Khyentse Norbu didn’t want me to feel content to do that. Contemplating the nature of reality is a useless and pretentious waste of time if I’m not going to change how I go about engaging with my reality on a daily basis.
So I arrived at my own interpretation of the subjective nature of reality, one that I’ve begun to try to put into practice during my time in this country. If how I perceive my reality is the main factor in what that reality is, then I can define mine by what I choose to perceive about the world around me and how I choose to respond to what I perceive. To put this into practice, it was just a matter of choosing to observe and admire things and experiences with strong intent and focus.
I tried it first on a rush hour bus ride to my home in Kathmandu, which tends to be a pretty stressful experience. I focused on letting myself observe the bus as something beautiful, as opposed to chaotic and uncomfortable. I was drawn to the conductor, the guy who does essentially everything but drive the bus. He hangs effortlessly off the vehicle as if it’s not shooting down unevenly paved streets, watching for people flagging him down, with eyes that flit faster than insect wings back into the crowded black hole of the bus. He’s all at once giving five different people their change, shouting out the next stop, and herding people off and on the bus. The eyes and clothes of the passengers shift as he shuffles them. A precarious metal box, four wheels, a detached driver and twenty strangers become a well-oiled machine under his watch. It’s artful. A snake that keeps shedding his skin. My daily bus rides took on a sort of magic from then on.
I tried this practice again with an act that would be considered even more mundane. I was picking apart mushrooms into thin strips for breakfast one morning. I was standing, facing away from the rest of the kitchen, focusing on my hands, focusing on observing and admiring. I began to marvel at the funky shaped thing in my hand. How I knew that it was — or had recently been — a living thing by its earthy smell, the cool sponginess of its whorls and ridges. How easily it yielded to my fingers, which were also a wonder themselves — unreadable handwriting and butterfingers aside, they still deftly picked apart the mushroom, like harpist hands fingering their strings. And the amount of nerve-endings there must be in just the skin of my palms… the kitchen smells like salt, sugar, peanuts, curry, flour. How amazing it is to live in a body that sees, smells, and hears the way this one does!
Another way I can practice this is at any moment here, I can stop and entertain the electrically overwhelming train of thought of how I came to be here, doing this thing, in this city, in this insanely beautiful country, in this part of this wonderful planet.
When I choose to understand the nature of reality through this lens, I can see that there is an enormous amount of intent that I can and do put into what my reality is. Just the decisive moment in which I say, I choose to enjoy this, to find it wonderful, opens my mind to all of these treasures, gems in the mundane, that were not observable before, hidden by my own tendency toward jadedness. There is splendor in everything!
Obviously I can’t just walk around in a perpetual state of awe — I believe this instinct of jadedness is evolutionary: we become quickly accustomed to things because it is beneficial for our survival. Not only is it impossible to only see the beauty in everything all the time, it is also dangerous. To not acknowledge that demons like fear, boredom, hopelessness, and hatred live inside us and the people around us stunts our instinct for compassion and empathy. And it’s obviously absurd and privileged to suggest turning a blind eye to poverty and environmental destruction. I am rather trying to implement a practice of shaping my reality by choosing to perceive beauty in the mundane or the uncomfortable, on the basis of the importance of my central role as the observer in what I observe. I was inspired to try this by what I have come to see as a central aspect to the Buddhist tradition — implementing your personal philosophies, into every aspect of your life. I’ve only just started trying to do this, and it’s hard, and sometimes (most of the time) I forget to stop, to observe, to admire. It’s a practice, though, and I just have to keep practicing.