The Right Stuff

No surprise here, but the book is much better than the movie.  Tom Wolfe’s writing is electric, and his subject matter fascinating.  There are no modern equivalents to the test pilots and astronauts of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I wonder how people of the internet age would react to the constant death defying, or death inducing, stunts like those undertaken by these pilots. These crazy bastards put their lives on the line to test the limits of speed, space and technology.  Imagine volunteering to be a test pilot knowing the following:

In 1952 sixty-two Air Force pilots died in the course of thirty-six weeks of training, an extraordinary rate of 1.7 per week. Those figures were for fighter-pilot trainees only; they did not include the test pilots, Bridgeman’s own confreres, who were dying quite regularly enough….56 percent probability, to be exact, that at some point a career Navy pilot would have to eject from his aircraft and attempt to come down by parachute. In the era of jet fighters, ejection meant being exploded out of the cockpit by a nitroglycerine charge, like a human cannonball. The ejection itself was so hazardous—men lost knees, arms, and their lives on the rim of the cockpit or had the skin torn off their faces when they hit the “wall” of air outside—that many pilots chose to wrestle their aircraft to the ground rather than try it … and died that way instead.

One figure showed that there was a 23% probability of death if you were a part of the program. But the book is about the right stuff, and those with the right stuff didn’t sweat figures like these because “The figures were averages, and averages applied to those with average stuff.”  You have to love the attitude and egos of these men.  Oh and they were always drunk:

Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)

I loved Wolfe’s description of astronauts as the cold war equivalents “single combat warriors”

Just as the Soviet success in putting Sputniks into orbit around the earth revived long-buried superstitions about the power of heavenly bodies and the fear of hostile control of the heavens, so did the creation of astronauts and a “manned space program” bring back to life one of the ancient superstitions of warfare. Single combat had been common throughout the world in the pre-Christian era and endured in some places through the Middle Ages. In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.

If you like American History and/or stories of pushing the limits of human capability and endurance, this book is for you.

The Dhammapada

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”  Thus opens The Dhammapada, a collection of verses gathered from Buddha himself and passed down through time.  This book is the second in a (so far) fantastic trilogy of sorts.  “The Classics of Indian Spirituality” also include the Upanishads, which I used heavily in my last post, and the Bhagavad Gita, which I am reading now.

This opening line really does summarize the entire work.  One example is the idea that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” where pain is a physical reaction, but suffering is a construct of the mind. It is put another way in the Upanishads: “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”  We can train our minds such that we truly control our thoughts, and because our thoughts create our destiny, we can then control our destiny. Many people think that they control their thoughts already, but one session of meditation trying to focus one’s attention quickly kills that illusion (I still can barely make it 25 breaths before my mind starts running away from me).  This central idea is a self-help gold mine, and the root of many modern self-help books (The Secret, for example).  Self improvement turns out to be very simple, but not easy. The practice of training the mind is arduous, “It requires the patience of someone trying to wear down the Himalayas with a piece of silk – and you feel you are making about as much progress.” But with the right effort – a strict regimen of meditation - the mind can be transformed from master to servant.

The verses in the book are really all about the law of dharma.  The author (translator) offers this explanation of dharma in the introduction to the book.  I just love the simple logic of this philosophy. Emphasis is mine.

In its broadest application, dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole. Probably no word is richer in connotations. In the sphere of human activity, dharma is behavior that is in harmony with this unity. Sometimes it is justice, righteousness, or fairness; sometimes simply duty, the obligations of religion or society. It also means being true to what is essential in the human being: nobility, honor, forgiveness, truthfulness, loyalty, compassion. An ancient saying declares that ahimsa paramo dharma: the essence of dharma, the highest law of life, is to do no harm to any living creature. Like the Buddha, the sages of the Upanishads did not find the world capricious. Nothing in it happens by chance – not because events are predestined, but because everything is connected by cause and effect. Thoughts are included in this view, for they both cause things to happen and are aroused by things that happen. What we think has consequences for the world around us, for it conditions how we act.
These are illustrations of what Hinduism and Buddhism call the law of karma. Karma means something done, whether as cause or effect. Actions in harmony with dharma bring good karma and add to health and happiness. Selfish actions, at odds with the rest of life, bring unfavorable karma and pain. In this view, no divine agency is needed to punish or reward us; we punish and reward ourselves. This was not regarded as a tenet of religion but as a law of nature, as universal as the law of gravity. No one has stated it more clearly than St. Paul: “As you sow, so shall you reap. With whatever measure you mete out to others, with the same measure it shall be meted out to you.”

Physicists venture outward in their quest for understanding, whereas the Buddha advocated travelling inward. But the ancient Buddhist tradition and modern physics have a lot in common, “What the Buddha is telling us is precisely parallel to what the quantum physicists say: when we examine the universe closely, it dissolves into discontinuity and a flux of fields of energy. But in the Buddha’s universe the mind-matter duality is gone; these are fields in consciousness.”  Meditation is the method of exploration in the Buddha’s case. 

The modern mind balks at calling meditation scientific, but in these sages’ passion for truth, in their search for reality as something which is the same under all conditions and from all points of view, in their insistence on direct observation and systematic empirical method, we find the essence of the scientific spirit. It is not improper to call brahmavidya a series of experiments – on the mind, by the mind – with predictable, replicable results.

I believe that understanding the mind is tantamount to understanding the physical laws of the universe. Einstein, quoted below, understood the dharma well.  I wonder if he every practiced meditation.

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

My key take away from the book was that meditation is one of the most important things that we can do in life. Hopefully, one of the experiments I carry out for the pledge is a retreat of sorts that focuses on meditation.

Finally, here are a few of my favorite verses  from the Dhammapada:

Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do or fail to do.
As fresh milk needs time to curdle, a selfish deed takes time to bring sorrow in its wake.
There is no fire like lust, no sickness like hatred, no sorrow like separateness, no joy like peace. No disease is worse than greed, no suffering worse than selfish passion. Know this, and seek nirvana as the highest joy.
It is easy to see the faults of others; we winnow them like chaff. It is hard to see our own; we hide them as a gambler hides a losing draw. But when one keeps dwelling on the faults of others, his own compulsions grow worse, making it harder to overcome them.
For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.


Stolen Prose

The following is an arrangement of sentences and passages that I wish I’d written, pieced together into a narrative on life, death, spirituality and connection.  They come from books that I love, written by authors that I revere. Hopefully certain passages will lead you to a new book to put on your list.  All books are listed at the end of the post. The quotes are almost entirely direct, with a few small adjustments indicated by brackets. 

Who are we—mites in a moment’s mist—that we should understand the universe? The universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless becoming[1]. Simply knowing there is something unknown beyond [our] reach makes [us] acutely restless. [We] have to see what lies outside – if only, as Mallory said of Everest, “because it’s there.” This is true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore not mountains or jungles but consciousness itself: whose real drive, we might say, is not so much to know the unknown as to know the knower[2].

I’m not really having an existential crisis, if that’s what you’re worried about. No doubt you still feel pretty much in control of your brain, in charge, and calling all the shots. You will still feel that someone, you, is in there making the decisions and pulling the levers. This is the homuncular problem we can’t seem to shake: The idea that a person, a little man, a spirit, someone is in charge. Even those of us who know all the data, who know that it has got to work some other way, we still have this overwhelming sense of being at the controls[3]. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor—the self—not the other way around. The conductor is cobbled together by feelings and by a narrative brain device, although this fact does not make the conductor any less real. The conductor undeniably exists in our minds, and nothing is gained by dismissing it as an illusion[4].

Nothing places the question “Who am I?” in such stark relief as the fact of death. What dies? What is left? Are we here merely to be torn away from everyone, and everyone from us? And what, if anything, can we do about death – now, while we are still alive? Most social life seems a conspiracy to discourage us from thinking of these questions. But there is a rare type for whom death is present every moment, putting his grim question mark to every aspect of life, and that person cannot rest without some answers[5].

Death: the ultimate frontier[6]. “The quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity,” as Melville called it; the last impossible phase shift from being a person to being nothing at all[7].  Even with my lifelong meditation on death, my existence had still seemed something permanent and stable on the planet Earth—something dependable, like igneous rock…Atheism seemed like a pretty cruel thing to do to myself. I begged my brain to reconsider. I thought: Won’t I survive somewhere, in some form? Can I believe it? Please? Pretty please can I believe in the everlasting soul? In heaven or angels or paradise with sixteen beautiful virgins waiting for me? Pretty please can I believe that? Look, I don’t even need the sixteen beautiful virgins. There could be just one woman, old and ugly, and she doesn’t even have to be a virgin, she could be the town bike of the ever-after. In fact, there could be no women at all, and it doesn’t have to be paradise, it could be a wasteland—hell, it could even be hell, because while suffering the torments of a lake of fire, at least I’d be around to yell “Ouch!” Could I believe in that, please[8]?  Dreams are real as long as they last. Can we say more of life?[9]

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered[10]. [But] this feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin[11].  It’s as if we live at the edge of a waterfall, with each moment rushing at us—experienced only and always now at the lip—and then zip, it’s over the edge and gone. But the brain is forever clutching at what has just surged by[12].

 [The] wider field of consciousness is our native land. We are not cabin-dwellers, born to a life cramped and confined; we are meant to explore, to seek, to push the limits of our potential as human beings. The world of the senses is just a base camp: we are meant to be as much at home in consciousness as in the world of physical reality. This is a message that thrills men and women in every age and culture[13]. I use one central metaphor for conscious experience: the “Ego Tunnel.” Conscious experience is like a tunnel. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that the content of our conscious experience is not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of representing information. This is why it is a tunnel: What we see and hear, or what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually exists out there. Our conscious model of reality is a low-dimensional projection of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding and sustaining us. Our sensory organs are limited: They evolved for reasons of survival, not for depicting the enormous wealth and richness of reality in all its unfathomable depth. Therefore, the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality[14].

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ … of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism completely crystallized in them. As we now regard death this reads like a prescription for a nightmare. But the constant awareness of death shows the world to be as flowing and diaphanous as the filmy patterns of blue smoke in the air[15].  May we light the fire of Nachiketa That burns out the ego and enables us to pass from fearful fragmentation to fearless fullness in the changeless whole[16]. Most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent[17].  Love and compassion are what we must strive to cultivate in ourselves, extending their present boundaries all the way to limitlessness[18].  Damyata datta dayadhvam, “Be self-controlled, give, be compassionate.[19].” The joy of the spirit ever abides, but not what seems pleasant to the senses. Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt us to action. All is well for those who choose the joy of the spirit, but they miss the goal of life who prefer the pleasant. Perennial joy or passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always. Those who are wise recognize this, but not the ignorant[20]. Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear.  Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the multiplicity of life delude the one who sees its unity[21]?

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will. An education which should include this faculty would be the education par excellence[22]. Ancient Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming a wild elephant. The procedure in those days was to tie a newly captured animal to a post with a good strong rope. When you do this, the elephant is not happy. He screams and tramples and pulls against the rope for days. Finally it sinks through his skull that he can’t get away, and he settles down. At this point you can begin to feed him and to handle him with some measure of safety. Eventually you can dispense with the rope and post altogether and train your elephant for various tasks. Now you’ve got a tamed elephant that can be put to useful work. In this analogy the wild elephant is your wildly active mind, the rope is mindfulness, and the post is your object of meditation, your breathing. The tamed elephant who emerges from this process is a well-trained, concentrated mind that can then be used for the exceedingly tough job of piercing the layers of illusion that obscure reality. Meditation tames the mind[23].  

Above the senses is the mind, above the mind is the intellect, above that Is the ego, and above the ego is the unmanifested Cause.  And beyond is Brahman [the Self], omnipresent, attributeless. Beyond the reach of the senses is [the Self], but not beyond the reach of a mind stilled through the practice of deep meditation.  Beyond the reach of words and works is he, but not beyond the reach of a pure heart freed from the sway of the senses[24].  Those who realize the Self enter into the peace that brings complete self-control and perfect patience. They see themselves in everyone and everyone in themselves. Evil cannot overcome them because they overcome all evil. Sin cannot consume them because they consume all sin. Free from evil, free from sin and doubt[25]. When all desires that surge in the heart are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal. When all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal[26]. As rivers lose their private name and form when they reach the sea, so that people speak of the sea alone, so [the separate self] disappears when the Self is realized. Then there is no more name and form for us, and we attain immortality[27].

As a heavily laden cart creaks as it moves along, the body groans under its burden when a person is about to die.  When the body grows weak through old age or illness, the Self separates himself as a mango or fig or banyan fruit frees itself from the stalk, and returns the way he came to begin another life[28]. Thou hast existed as a part, thou shalt disappear in that which produced thee. . . . This, too, nature wills. . . . Pass, then, through this little space of time comfortably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew[29]. As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification dissolves, there can be no more separate self.[30]

The Self in man and in the sun are one. Those who understand this see through the world and go beyond the various sheaths of being to realize the unity of life. Those who realize that all life is one are at home everywhere and see themselves in all beings. They sing in wonder: “I am the food of life, I am, I am; I eat the food of life, I eat, I eat. I link food and water, I link, I link. I am the first-born in the universe; Older than the gods, I am immortal. Who shares food with the hungry protects me; who shares not with them is consumed by me. I am this world and I consume this world. They who understand this understand life.” This is the Upanishad, the secret teaching[31].


[1] Heroes of History by Will Durant

[2] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[3] Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga

[4] Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio

[5] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[6] Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying by the Dalai Lama

[7] WAR by Sebastian Junger

[8] A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz)

[9] Havelock Ellis quoted in The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[10] The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

[11] The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

[12] Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson

[13] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[14] The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger

[15] The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

[16] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[17] How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama

[18] How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama

[19] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[20] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[21] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[22] Principles of Psychology by William James

[23] Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition by Bhante Gunaratana

[24] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[25] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[26] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[27] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[28] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[29] Heroes of History by Will Durant

[30] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[31] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

To the Last Breath

To the Last Breath by Francis Slakey was just so-so.  Slakey was the first person to climb all of the seven summits and surf every ocean. Read Into Thin Air instead. Here are a few pros and cons:


  • Some great portions on Buddhism and a great adventure in Bhutan
  • Great descriptions of climbing and climbers


  • The author admits that he was a self-centered jerk for most of his life. He sounds like it for most of the book
  • Sometimes boring

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

Book #2 was a complete mind-rogering. The book is a summary of the fourth Mind and Life conference.  These conferences are a series of encounters between His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) and prominent western scientists/philosophers in various fields.  Check out this enticing opening paragraph:

ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE, humans have faced two major life passages in which our habitual mind seems to dissolve and enter a radically different realm. The first passage is sleep, humanity’s constant companion, transitory and filled with the dream life that has enchanted cultures from the beginning of history. The second is death, the grand and gaping enigma, the final event that organizes so much of individual existence and cultural ritual. These are ego’s shadow zones, where Western science is often ill at ease, far from its familiar territory of the physical universe or physiological causality. In contrast, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is fully at home here; in fact, it has accumulated remarkable knowledge in this area.

This mind and life conference was of particular interest because the West is not nearly as focused on or interested in death as Buddhists are.  In the Buddhist tradition, sleeping is sort of a nightly rehearsal for dying. The stages of sleep mimic the stages of the BIG sleep (or “the ultimate frontier” as the book calls it). Sleep and death are the two main occasions when we surrender our sense of self and drift into some sort of enigmatic abyss. Other less significant surrenders include sneezing, fainting and orgasm (the French for orgasm is petite mort, which translates as little death).  As I read, I kept thinking how contradictory it is that I often can’t wait for sleep, but am horrified by the prospect of death.

The most interesting topic in the ‘dream’ section of the book was lucid dreaming. Lucid dreams are dreams where you realize you are dreaming an can then control the dream.  58% of people in the United States have had a lucid dream, and roughly 21% have a lucid dream at least once a month.  But by comparison, those who have had training in Buddhist or transcendental meditation have an average of one lucid dream per week! Some of these enviable practitioners are then able to meditate within the dream. I wish I could do that.

I won’t go into the Tibetan views of death, because that is the reason to read the book.  I will highlight an interesting sub-topic: near death experiences.

“In summary, of the near-death population, 60 percent experience peace; 37 percent body separation or out-of-body experiences. Twenty-three percent entered the darkness, 16 percent saw the light, and 10 percent entered the light. The percentages follow the narrative. In other words, people abort the journey at different stages.”
Most people don’t want to come back. In fact, they get angry at the people who have resuscitated them. They’re irritated, confused, and feel that they’re being forced back into their body.  It seems that these experiences have a very beneficial effect on people. The researchers report that people who have survived clinical death or near death have greater zest for life; their concern for material life is much diminished; they have greater self-confidence; and they feel a real sense of a purpose in life. They become spiritually enthusiastic, more interested in nature, and develop a tolerance and compassion toward others. Also, they have a reduced fear of death because they have become convinced that death is a great ride!

As I was finishing this book on a business trip, I was getting my shoes shined and overheard another patron telling the shoe shiner that his wife was clinically dead for 3 minutes following childbirth.  He described an experience identical to the one described in the book, and said it took her a long time to accept that she could not experience a similar peace, clarity and timelessness in ‘this world.’  These studies and stories indicate that just maybe, something more is waiting at the edge of the ultimate frontier - our transition into non-being may be more than just turning off the light. I remain highly skeptical, but also very curious.  The good news is that we will all find out someday, the bad news is that we won't be able to discuss it. HHDL shares my skepticism:

The most striking observation of the turn of events was the Dalai Lama’s skeptical reception of the Western studies on NDEs. He seemed to be saying that these studies are misdirected. The trauma and shock that initiates these accounts and the ensuing events do not correspond to the sequential processes charted by centuries of observation of natural death. Furthermore, the qualitatively different experiential content also suggests, in his view, that NDEs are a process that is distinct from the stages of dissolution at death. His reflections on this issue are a strong caveat to many Westerners who have taken NDE accounts as predictive of what awaits them in their inevitable future 

The author of the book, who also served as the moderator of the discussions at the conference, offers his final thoughts:

I think that the issue runs even deeper, for an understanding of these levels of subtle mind requires a sustained, disciplined, and well-informed meditation practice. In a sense, these phenomena are open only to those who are willing to carry out the experiments, as it were. That some form of special training is needed for firsthand experience of new realms of phenomena is not surprising. A musician also needs special training to have access to the experiences of, say, jazz improvisation. But in traditional science such phenomena remain hidden from view, since most scientists still avoid any disciplined study of their own experience, whether through meditation or other introspective methods. Fortunately, contemporary discourse on the science of consciousness increasingly relies on experiential evidence, and some scientists are beginning to be more flexible in their attitudes toward the first hand investigation of consciousness.

More than anything, the book reminded me that through hard work and practice, one can experience and enjoy different levels of consciousness.  I think daily meditation will be a part of next year’s pledge.