November 19, 2013
I made the big time: my website got spam-attacked. Ironically, the attack focused on an article about receiving guidance. It received comments every 20 minutes. Then every 5 minutes. Then several per minute.
The comments were gibberish: someone’s creation was channeling junk. I don’t think it was personal – I was just a random target.
It was a small attack as these go. But in my innocence, it felt big.
It got me wondering: Why do people do this? I could understand if the messages were useful (like “Everybody come to my grandmother’s birthday party.”) or even greedy (like “Send me your credit card and I’ll send you a ’57 Oldsmobile.”). But gibberish? What’s the point?
The next time I meditated, I realized that most of my thoughts were no more useful than spam. What’s that about?
There are many explanations for these mental distractions. But there’s one that’s hard to focus on: the Buddha said that the mind is distorted by bhava-tanha or “the desire to exist.”
Here’s my understanding of it:
When I first understood where babies came from, I realized my existence was arbitrary. What if my parents had never met, or never married, or weren’t in the mood for sex at that particular time? There are thousands of contingencies that could have prevented that particular sperm from penetrating that particular ovum. I would have not come life. And no one would have missed me. My parent’s second child could have been a different person and they wouldn’t have thought about me for a second.
My very existence was a fluke. And it could end just as easily:
When I was in high school, a friend was killed in a car accident. Larry was a smart, good guy. Suddenly he was gone. The next day the school lunch bell at rang at its usual time, a month later our mid-term exams came as scheduled, at graduation we threw our caps in the air despite his absence: life went on barely noticing his death.
Similarly, I suspected that if I died, it wouldn’t matter. 99.999% of the world would not know I’d been here or left. Within a few months, I would be little more than a sad memory to most of the people who knew me. Within a few generations, there would be no evidence I ever existed except for a name on a few pieces of paper or in electronic files. In time even these would vanish.
The most basic fact of our existence is that it is arbitrary, ephemeral, and of little lasting impact.
Yet inside, I feel eternal. I think I matter. Despite the lack of evidence, I think I’m important. This is what the Buddha meant by bhava-tanha, the desire to exist. It distorts our thinking and perception. It manifests in the difficulty we have acknowledging how flimsy our existence really is.
It’s easy to understand why this is difficult: people who think they’re important are more likely to pass their DNA on to the next generation than people who don’t care if they exist or not. The urge to exist is a product of natural selection.
What does this have to do with spam on the Internet and in our minds?
Perhaps one of the reasons spammers and Internet anarchists create destructive programs is that it helps them impact a lot of people – show that their existence accounts for something. Or at the very least, demonstrate to themselves that their presence on the planet is weighty.
Perhaps one of the reasons our minds produce static is it helps us to feel there is some substance to our presence. When the mind-heart becomes quiet, our sense of self fades into peacefulness. We long for that tranquility. But the fading of that sense of a solid, independent self hints at the wispiness of our very being.
Perhaps we’d rather complain about nonsense in our heads or struggle against meditative hindrances than risk the oblivion of nibbana.
We don’t make this choice willfully. It’s bred into us to ignore our transience and think we’re significant.
Why else would I write this blog?