Stories

“I’m runnin’ down a dream.”  –  Tom Petty

“You got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it.” – Bono of U-2

In a way, to be human is to have stories. No other creature has this capacity. Stories are complex, rich organizations of experience, real or fantasized that give meaning and texture to life. Individuals have them, families have them, and cultures have them. Stories are the way we organize, store, remember and project who we are coming out of the past and into the future. Spiritual and cultural traditions are passed on through them and wisdom is communicated through them. Stories are information embossed with emotion to communicate that which is essential to the human experience and they contain the heart, the soul and the lessons of our lives. Stories can be the way we aim and direct our life energy towards our dreams, our ideals, and our goals, and art in all its various forms is based around stories, and so, to the degree that stories illuminate, elevate and inspire the human condition, the ability to create stories is a treasure to humanity.  It is also a curse.

Stories can be frivolous and empty of any deeper meaning. They can be pure entertainment, and while entertainment is fine, to live life caught up in such stories is to trivialize life.  This applies not only to literal entertainment stories such as on TV or in movies and books, but all the gossipy and vain stories people constantly fill their heads with concerning themselves and others.  To a great extent, it could be observed that much of the modern American story is one of trivialities taken much too seriously, with many people living their lives lost in stories of media fantasy, consumerism, workplace and family drama, and gossip.  As many have noted, even our politics has been brought to the level of “reality TV” and arguments over what is “fake news.”  Frustratingly, real and serious issues of the quality of life for this and future generations go ignored or foolishly denied by those who push stories of drama and intrigue so as to manipulate the public to these story-tellers’ advantage, making serious what is trivial and making trivial what is serious.

Even more sadly, stories can also be of anger, fear and hopelessness.  They can be debasing and degrading, appealing to the saddest, most tragic, lowest, darkest, even the dangerous within us, and we can get lost in these abysses of darkness.  People manipulate each other with such stories, and here too, the manipulators of politics and commerce use stories of fear and insecurity to solidify their power and wealth.  On an individual level, many people have been conditioned to be carrying stories of their own lack, vulnerability and insufficiency, or conversely of their inflated sense of importance and entitlement.  As stories are powerful elicitors of emotion, the emotions accompanying these stories of personal inadequacy can be fear, anxiety, depression, and anger, or for the narcissist, gloating, and attitudes of condescension and contempt.

When asked who they are, people will tell their stories – sometimes stories passed down for generations as well as stories accumulated in a lifetime of struggle or triumph.  People live inside these stories, and this is unfortunate for stories are only shallow representations and sometimes distortions of life-as-it-is, and stories can obscure the magnificent richness of life-as-it-is.  Stories can be like virtual realities we get stuck in, living out these stories rather than living life-as-it-is.

To be able to create story, it seems is a considerably mixed blessing of the human condition.  At the subtlest of levels, even stories of inspiration are somewhat problematic, for stories separate us from the simple natural “isness” of life. An example might be the story of patriotism, a story that can be heroic filled with dedication to freedom and human rights or it can be a story of belligerent nationalism narrowly defined, creating victims and enemies in its wake.  Likewise, “love” can be a story that inspires, motivates and thrills us while it misses the reality of deeper love that is connection without conditions.  Such “romantic” love-stories will come and go, while true and real love is a touchstone in our life and it is not a story.  Spirituality and religion are also great purveyors of stories that can either lead to the most sublime and transcendent connection or the cruelest hells of separation and fear that humans can concoct.

Another way of understanding the “awakening” of The Buddha is that he awakened out of experiencing “self” through story into the clarity of the world as phenomena and events just as they are.  This is a way of understanding the confusing Buddhist teaching of “emptiness” – for the awakened person knows their true-self is empty of stories and is rather in deep, rich connection with life-as-it-is, where no stories exist, realizing self in this moment in awareness, always fluid and changing, for you see, stories are created in time, past and future.

The Buddha understood that emotional suffering results from a person attaching their identity to their stories and when their story is one of loss, they experience diminishment and disturbance in their well-being.  This is why he warned against attaching to even stories of happiness and personal victory, for his awakening included the seeing that all things are impermanent – that what comes – also goes.  Happiness comes.  Happiness goes.  To attach our well-being and identity in that which is fortuitous is to set ourselves up for despair when the story turns, as all stories do.  Like The Buddha, the modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, understood, the real power of life exists separate from time, in the “Power of Now,” where no story exists.

Does this mean it is better not to have stories?  No, of course not.  It means to see the stories for what they are – ways of giving context, texture, richness to our lives and the human condition.  They are the way we share our experiences of life with our fellow human beings and make sense of them to ourselves.  The Buddha’s warning was to not attach identity and well-being to stories, but rather, to find identity and well-being in life just-as-it-is, with its full thickness, its highs and lows, its coming and goings, in the pureness of existence, transcendent of time and stories that come from cultural, social and psychological conditioning.

Most importantly, we ought never confuse stories for who we are or with Life itself. The only truth there is, is this moment, just as it is.  Looking deeply into the moment, deeper than any story, wisdom and compassion can always be found.  When Buddhism speaks of “right view” it paradoxically describes right view as “no-view,” and no-view is to know a view as a view, a story as a story.  Right-view is this view, never to be experienced again, exactly as it is NOW.

Yet, Buddhism is full of stories, and stories are a principle teaching vehicle in Buddhism  Usually the stories have as their purpose to awaken people out of being stuck in some limited story of themselves or the nature of existence.  Characteristically, however, Buddhism even warns about getting stuck in the Buddhist stories and about not making them into dogma, and yet this is what people do – because – it is what people do – the ego’s pull to make more of itself through stories of specialness, cleverness and rightness is so strong.

So be alert – stories as fabrications in our lives can be quite obvious or quite subtle, so woven into our sense of reality that we cannot see them for what they are.  Stories can be wonderful, frivolous or horrible.  Most importantly, know that stories are only stories, and be awake in the Buddhist sense, knowing stories for what they are and avoid be stuck in them.  Stories at their best are vehicles for our sojourning in the lands of existence searching for wisdom and truth – the stories as maps, so to speak.  And at their worst, stories can have us going in circles of our own private hells of triumph or defeat, for even a story of triumph has to be a hell, for it separates us from the heaven, the nirvana, of awakened truth.  Truth is not a story, nor is life, and Zen uses odd constructs of syntax to express this, such as “as-it-isness” or just “isness.”

As the great Zen teacher Dogen queried, “If you can’t find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”  Right where you are is no story.  It is just as-it-isness and you always have the capacity to understand it and know its purpose if you let go of your stories and allow that what you really are is this moment in awareness, and awareness always knows what is needed.  It needs no story.

Saner Than Normal

Synonyms for the word “normal” are: usual, common, standard and typical.  In medicine, “normal” is the standard of care and it means a person is sufficiently free of pathology and symptoms so as to function within the “normal” range and people do not usually seek care unless they are falling below this standard of “normal.”   I am asking the question: is “normal” good enough?

Why is it that “normal” medical care is focused almost entirely on symptom treatment with little energy put into educating and training people in optimal health, not only for the well-being of individuals, but for the health of our society and for cost management of our delivery of medicine?  Also, why is it that “normal” medical care in this society does not consider it to be a public-safety service, like the police and fire departments, but rather a for-profit business, while in practically every other advanced nation it is “normal” to consider health-care a human-right and public-service.  Why is it “normal” to have a very “penny-wise, pound-foolish” health-care system that withholds medical care by way of cost to many, that skimps on preventive care and early detection and pays exorbitantly for disease cure, care, and management after people become much sicker than they would have with more preventive and early diagnostic care, as well as in preserving low-quality life after people have come to be unalterably terminal?  Our health-care system seems to be sick, but it also seems we cannot address this problem rationally because we can’t break free of our society’s obsession with the for-profit business model and the outsized influence those who profit from this system have on the debate, even when it has proven to be an ineffective and even harmful model.  Can we realize this is, in its own sense, a sickness, a product of what is considered “normal” in our society in the way of attitudes and values that do not serve us?

This brings us to the issue of mental health, where, I argue, the standard of “normal,” is inexcusably inadequate.  Here we find a paucity of availability and affordability of services and a predominant emphasis on symptom management rather than achieving vibrant mental health, where we have not a mental health model but rather, a mental-illness model, for there simply is no model for mental health in Western medicine– only the varieties of mental illness.  The standard, the “normal,” for what constitutes mental health is simply a relative absence of mental illness symptomology, and the levels of neurotic and character disorder symptomology that fall within the range of “normal” are very troubling and collectively may be leading to the collapse of an orderly, coherent society.  The levels of what is acceptable, that is, “normal” narcissism, cynicism and sociopathy are setting a standard that is deeply deleterious to the establishment of a peaceful, just and compassionate society.  Our political and commercial leadership – those who ought to be setting a standard for the society – instead often set a standard of cynical self-interest demonstrating principally talents for self-promotion and the manipulation of others.  Meanwhile, the standard for common people has fallen to the level of reality (?) TV – where selfish, bickering, mean and conniving people with little emotional or impulse control are paraded as role-models.  I suggest the result is levels of troubling character traits and of anger, anxiety, depression, family dysfunction and substance-abuse that are “common,” and “normal” to our society.

What ought our standard of normal be?  Perhaps simple kindness and happy dispositions would be a place to start.  Perhaps we could include generosity and compassion.  Perhaps courage and optimism in the face of difficulty could be included, along with stable and lovingly kind families skillful in passing on stability and loving-kindness to their children.  Perhaps we might include spiritual in the large sense, that is, able to revere and find sacred connection with life, with fellow human beings and the natural world.  We might also include stable self-regard and self-respect that doesn’t need to be manipulative or competitive, along with freedom from addictive behaviors, and from undue anger, anxiety, and depression.  Perhaps we could include freedom from prejudices against those who are not like oneself, and a sense of self-worth and well-being that is not dependent on external circumstances, and that concerns itself more with the worth and well-being of others than with one’s own as the paradoxical path to achieving one’s own humble sense of worth and well-being.

These are qualities of person that, I think, most can agree are desirable, but would not now fall within the range of “normal,” that is, “common,” in our society.  The result is an increasingly unstable society made up of increasingly unstable individuals.  No, normal is not good enough.  It is, in fact, quite inadequate.

I long ago came to consider optimal mental health as inextricably linked to spiritual health, using the term “spiritual” in the broadest sense.  I mean here, the ability to see and act in the world with a sense of the sacredness of all life; of one’s own life, of the lives of others, of the natural world and of the miracle of existence itself.  I see the core religious teachings of many traditions as emphasizing compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, wonder, material simplicity, generosity, connection, respect, and love as actually pointing toward what is necessary for good mental health and happiness.  Yet, while the core teachings have these points of emphasis, it is not “normally” how most religions or their followers have functioned in the world.  I surmise this is because, considered “normal” in the cultures of these religions, are even stronger beliefs in competitiveness, greed, judgment, the threat and otherness of those who are different, and the need to control and dominate.  These are beliefs that lead to anxiety, anger, problems of self-esteem and esteeming others, intolerance and conflict, and the elevation of character traits such as narcissism, materialism, belligerence, dishonesty, lack of empathy, and exploitiveness as “normal,” even admirable.  These beliefs do not lead to mentally healthy individuals nor a mentally healthy society.

I have long admired Buddhism as a religion that seems to do better at walking its talk than the religions of the West, and I speculate that the difference is in its emphasis on the development of personal virtue rather than the imposition of morality as the key to healthy individuals and societies.  This may seem like an issue of semantics, but it is not.  The development of virtue is a personal responsibility and goal, and it requires constant self-examination and deliberate contemplation concerning one’s own motivation and equilibrium in the world.  It works because it is self-reinforcing in that the development of virtue actually does lead to greater happiness and the alleviation of unnecessary suffering.  It requires some degree of meditation, a quieting of the mind and the development of observant self-awareness that reveals how we are caught in psycho-social-culturally conditioned thought and emotion patterns that are unstable and untrue, and exposes how a life-strategy of selfishness and self-centeredness is ineffective in bringing happiness.  Meditation also brings about liberation from these prisons of mental habit as we are able to experience directly the truth that we are inherently peaceful, good and wise, while also susceptible to corruption when we are taught to look outside ourselves to the socially “normal” standard of self-interest-first.

Morality, on the other hand, is a concept of externally imposed rules in a world viewed as one where people are inherently flawed and must be coercively controlled because self-interest-first is considered “normal.”  Virtue holds that people are inherently good while morality holds that people are inherently bad.  The difference is quite significant and is the basis of “faith” in Buddhism. When one’s faith is in one’s own inherent goodness, which can be experienced, rather than an unexperienceable judgmental and moralistic god, goodness as virtue is readily developed.  After several thousand years of morality religion failing to produce with any consistency virtuous individuals or societies, perhaps a reexamination is called for.  It seems to be an observational fact that societies dominated by religions of morality are less than mentally healthy.

A wonderful story concerning the Dalai Lama tells of his attending a psychological conference in his early days in the West where the topic of discussion was the problem of both deflated and inflated self-esteem in American culture.  He was having a great deal of difficulty grasping the discussion and was uncertain if he was having a language translation problem in understanding.  It turns out, that to a certain degree, he was; for the concept of self-esteem is not one that presents as a problem within Tibetan culture.  The idea itself was foreign to him.  When he did grasp what the topic was, he was greatly saddened to learn that in the West, with all its material wealth, there seems to be a spiritual poverty that creates this problem of imbalanced sense of self-in-the world.  He said that Tibetans who were materially very simple never experienced this kind of spiritual/psychological poverty.  For them, this objectification of life and people leading to struggles in self-esteem that is “normal” in America doesn’t exist.

It would seem that “normal” might be a concept that needs re-examination when it results in failure to live healthy, happy, kind, and virtuous lives.  Perhaps we might consider finding ways of living and being, of creating a society, which is a bit saner than what is now “normal.”  We don’t need to become Buddhist to see that perhaps Buddhism has some valuable insight that is wholly in keeping with Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Humanistic teachings and values that might be helpful if incorporated into a new “normal” that is truly healthy and sane.

Discerning Awareness

As we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, we must ask, who is it that is aware?
Zen Koan

We have the choice every moment to live experiencing what life is and who we are either from our judgmental, personal, reactive self – the ego – or from our discerning, witnessing, responsive self – essential Beingness – which primarily arises within the clarity of pure awareness of the moment.  To recognize when ego is dominating our experience causing us to be in judgment and reactivity and to know how to choose and shift into the discerning, responsive awareness of Beingness is the core of the journey to awakening.

What I have just written is an intellectual concept.  It may be intriguing.   It may seem nonsensical.  I assure you, it is a use of words whose purpose is to point to a felt-sense reality.  These words are drawn from a particular vocabulary a person needs to understand if the statement is to make sense, but deeper still, until a person experiences what these words point toward at a level beyond the intellectual, they will be unable to fully enter into the journey of personal evolution these words are pointing toward.  These words point us toward the experience that we exist in two dimensions simultaneously as both a personalized, socialized, conditioned ego-self and an ultimate dimension of our true-Self as an individualized aspect of the fabric of the universe unfolding in the eternal present moment.

The ego reacts from its conditioned psycho-social-cultural programming.  The Self-in-Being responds to unfolding events from a deep knowing of its flowing connectedness to everything.  They are the night and day of the awakening that Buddhism and meditation lead us toward.  From within the conditioned mind of ego-identity there is only “me” and everything that is not me.  We are trapped in a prison of “me,” struggling with a world that is outside and separate that we hope to master at some level so that we can succeed in bringing the things we want from this outside world to us and in keeping away what we do not want.  Fundamental to this task is the ability to judge what it is we want and what we do not want.  This “judging” is a projection onto whatever is being perceived and experienced as ideas about who we are and what life is.  This is information programmed into us much as a computer is programmed – and as the old saying about programming goes, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Our primary experience of the world then becomes this incessant and compulsive evaluation of everything in this world outside of us into the good stuff and the bad stuff, differentiating “good” and “bad” by thoughts about good and bad, which are unique to every person because of their particular and unique programming.  Political opinions or religious identification are blatant examples of this.  Most of us hold these beliefs because of the people influencing us through our upbringing and current social context. Give a moment’s consideration to the differences between prevailing political and religious opinion of several centuries ago and today, let alone the variety of such opinions today, and my point is readily grasped.  Our ordinary day-to-day lives, however, are conducted at a much subtler level than politics and religion, and while political and religious opinions may be pretty obvious lines of separation, our day-to-day lives are being determined by an imperceptible (to ourselves) matrix of judgments programmed into us about the “good” and “bad” of ourselves, others and what is going on around us.  With this understanding, it is pretty easy to comprehend why there is so much confusion and disagreement about proper conduct and values in the human realm.

It is of the utmost importance to realize we are talking about the human realm, not nature.  In nature, there is only what is natural.  Ego and conditioning are minimal, though, of course, they exist.  Every organism has a sense of its separate biological self and the need to interact with the world so as to bring to itself what it needs and avoid that which is danger.  This is ego and conditioning at its most basic level.  Humans, however, create an idea of self-in-the world, quite abstract and ruled by conditioning that is then projected out onto the world.  This is ego taken to an unnatural level and this projection of egoic-self onto the world is the essence of judgment.  Only humans live in the world of judgment.  All the rest of nature lives in the straightforward discernment of what naturally supports or threatens its existence.

Does this condemn humans to this virtual-reality that creates artificial and subjective levels of suffering, unable to live gracefully and authentically as a human in the way a deer or a fish live gracefully and authentically as a deer or a fish?  From within the artificial reality called society and culture, without any sense of our underlying nature, sadly the answer is “yes.”  As long as we only believe in the psycho-social-cultural programming and conditioning that creates a very complicated ego-self full of contradictions and conflicts, anxieties and reactivity, we will live, as Buddhism teaches, in dukkha – a word from the ancient Pali language of India – that describes a state of craving, insecurity and sense of dissatisfaction that keeps us reactive, anxious, striving and ultimately unfulfilled, always unsure if we are sufficient.

The same Buddhist teaching that describes dukkha fortunately also prescribes its resolution.  It is to release clinging to this artificial-reality-identity as who we are and to realize all these confusing thoughts and emotions arise within and pass through the dimension of witnessing awareness that is not plagued by instability, reactivity and dissatisfaction.  As we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, we must ask, who is it that is aware?  WE are that awareness.  Awareness is the irreducible, unchanging dimension of every person’s experience.  It is our original nature – awareness experiencing the world before conditioning and judgment.

Is this universal awareness arising from Beingness then blank and without intelligence?  To the contrary.  As our culture will lead us to believe that intelligence is a result of thought, we all know immediately upon consideration, intelligence cannot be the product of thought.  Thought is only a tool to express a concept.  It can be any conceptIf we are unconscious of this process, we will allow conditioning to be the source of the thought/emotive process, and – “garbage in, garbage out.”  This is why the history of humanity is rife with ignorant, dangerous and even disastrous thoughts.

Contrary to how we are culturally conditioned to believe, awareness is not a faculty of this body and mind.  It is far more accurate to say this body and mind are faculties of awareness, tools of the individualized consciousness that is a person.  This individualized consciousness directed is awareness.  This gives rise to the very inscrutable Zen teaching that actually, we are “nobody,” for while we can hang all kinds of identity onto our body, thoughts and emotions, when we examine just who is awareness, and how is the awareness I experience any different from the awareness you experience, there is no one to be found.  There is just awareness.  The vessels are very different; the essence, the Beingness is universal.

Intelligence arises from the silent mind of awareness – the discerning mind of awareness.  Intelligence, the ability to look deeply and understand, arises from the field of consciousness that is the universe individualized as a human-being in awareness.  Thus, our journey into wisdom, into awakening into true discerning intelligence, requires we learn to stop running the program of egoic conditioning, become present in the great what-is that is life.  Look deeply, listen closely, feel with subtlety the truths that are whispered.   Quiet the cacophony of mind-chatter and you will hear.  This moment will tell you what it needs – it is whispering to nobody so that the truth of who you are can hear.  It will help you understand with clarity the what-is of the moment.  Then the tools of body and mind can function with skill and wisdom, and you will know who it is that is aware.  Nobody.  And it is who you are – a psycho-socially-culturally conditioned intelligent being who now can use the conditioning with discernment.

The “Right” Choice

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Yogi Berra (for those who don’t know, not an Indian guru)

 

I’m a movie buff and sometimes there are moments in films that just capture the essence of some major archetypal issue of life, expressing and encapsulating, sometimes wordlessly, the essence of a human conflict, truth or wisdom.  I find such a moment in the opening scene of the film Yojimbo, by master Japanese director Akira KurasawaIn the scene, a 19th century ronin, or masterless samurai, acted by the magnificent Toshiro Mifune, dressed not in classical samurai finery and armor, but dusty and worn simple clothing befitting his now anchorless and impoverished status of unemployment, is walking down a path that forks.  He stops.  He looks at this choice confronting him.  Which path to take?  Then after a pause of consideration he casually picks up a stick and tosses it in the air.  The stick lands pointing towards one of the paths.  He nods his head, then rolls his shoulders, and proceeds decisively down that path.  A choice has been made.

The path leads to a world of trouble (or there would be no movie), but he never, not for a moment, demonstrates any ambivalence about the path he now walks.  Moment to moment, he simply steps into whatever the moment presents and does what is necessary to be in honor and courage with what presents itself.  The beauty of the scene to me is in the willingness to allow that, despite our delusion of personal choice, basically fate (and a samurai would say Karma) is the actual determiner of our path, and then it is our willingness to give that path every ounce of our life energy that gives our life meaning.  To a samurai, this is the code of Bushido, and it seems to me an excellent guide to a life deeply and well-lived; a willingness to say “yes!” to life, not “maybe – only if it seems comfortable and safe.”

I believe Americans suffer from a malady of too many choices, or to be more specific, we suffer from a delusion, for some, an obsession, that there are “right” choices for us to make on this vast buffet of choices that is American life.  Believe me, I know there are better and worse choices for us to make, and that some people repeatedly make just awful choices, but that’s not the point I want to explore.  I want to point out that a very big problem for many is often in the second-guessing and hesitation we bring to the choices we make.  We fail to bring commitment, honor and courage to our choices.  We fail to say “Yes!” to life.  We are plagued by ambivalence and self-indulgence concerning whether a choice brings maximum benefit to us.  Our problem isn’t in making wrong choices; it is in bringing inadequate commitment to the choices we make.

The great Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, is known for the koan, “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.”  He is not placing conditions on the moment.  He is not saying this moment if it is exactly as I wish it to be is my refuge; he is saying THIS MOMENT – exactly as it is.  How can this be?  What if this moment is dealing with a difficult person being unreasonable and ugly?  What if this moment contains conflict and disappointment?  What if it contains physical or emotional pain?  What if this moment upends all the plans I have for my life?  What if this moment is just boring?

We are here entering into the secret of Zen.  We are entering into the secret of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, of Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, of mysticism, of Stoicism, of wisdom traditions of every culture.  12th Century Zen Master, Rinzai famously queried, “This moment, what is lacking?” Again, no qualifications.  Is this some philosophical/spiritual trick?  Well, if “trick” means skill, yes, and it is a skill for which we are all completely and naturally equipped.  It is a trick we have all pulled off successfully many times.

Every time we have struggled with some difficult aspect of life, we continue to struggle and struggle until there comes a realization of the uselessness of this struggle with whatever the “it” is.  There comes a moment where we choose to just get on with life, to do whatever is needed by the circumstance of the moment and incorporate whatever the “it” is into our normal experience.  In that moment we have done the trick.  Our problem is we don’t pay attention to the power of this trick.  Unlike the Zen masters who are paying very close attention to every nuance of life in its unfolding, realizing life IS moments unfolding, we don’t notice this power, that all there is in this life is THIS MOMENT, and the skill, the “trick” of life is to live fully each moment, but we keep forgetting how good this trick is.  We keep slipping back into living in the delusion of a “me-in-time” where we have a story of me, a fairy tale of the way we want life to be where any interruption in this story is reason for great upset, consternation, suffering.

We have all had difficult challenges, setbacks in the “story of me.”  These were times of suffering in our lives, and we have all come to the moment where we let go of the story of our affliction and moved on. In that moment, we pulled off the trick of letting go of our resistance to what is, allowing it to be our “perfect moment, our refuge.”  Zen encourages us to pay attention to these moments and gain skill with this trick so we gradually may go from taking two years to recover from some injury or setback in our story, to two months, to two weeks, to two days, to two hours, to two minutes, to two seconds where we realize, “This moment, what is lacking?”  We discover the power of Now, of Being Here, Now – of taking the fork in the road.  It could be said that developing proficiency at this trick is what “practice” in Buddhism is all about.

Often, in retrospect, we can look at times in our lives that were filled with suffering and see them as times that brought our greatest personal growth, or took us in an unexpected direction that gave new and deeper meaning to our lives.  Many have been baffled by a person who describes some seemingly terrible calamity as a gift in their lives.  We fail to realize that every person has the power to do this trick, and everyone has done this trick. It is the remembering and applying this trick that is the challenge when we are so accustomed to staying stuck in being the victim of adversity.

In fact, a useful way to understand neurosis is to see how people find specialness through attachment to their suffering and just stay stuck at the fork in their road, pacing in circles of anxiety or anger or despondency.  If they would just make the choice to take the fork, any fork that allows them to get on with their life, and give it every ounce of positive intention and gratitude they have, they would be cured of their neurosis.  The false specialness they invested in their neurosis would fall away into the true specialness, the wonder that is life, every moment – as a matter of fact, this moment.

No, there are not right choices for us to agonize over; there is only taking the forks in the road that life puts in front of us and giving our full life energy to whatever is on the road.  Then it will be a right choice.  And remember, there will always be more forks – and we are always free to take them.

Dissociation

“Who we are is awareness. But we block it with our self-centered thinking.” – Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen Master

Take a step back in your mind.  Become aware of being awareness seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking.  Be the awareness.

Do the previous statements seem nonsensical? This is only because our culture is egocentric rather than consciousness centered.  I assure you, you CAN become aware of being awareness seeing what you see, hearing what you hear, feeling what you feel, thinking what you think.  You CAN become aware of awareness, of BEING awareness.  This is of the utmost importance if you wish to evolve into a clearer more centered and peaceful person, if you wish to be centered in consciousness rather than your wild and sometimes crazy mind, in your ego.

Now, importantly – who is there?  Who is this that is seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking?  Who is this awareness?  It is you and not you.  Yes, there is a very definite experience of a “me” – AND – there is no one.  Welcome to paradox.  Westerners don’t take well to paradox, and this is a problem, for paradox is reality.  Existence is everything.  It is not this OR that, it is always and can only be this AND that.  And the this AND that we are exploring here concerns being both a person and that which a person emerges from – like we have bodies that appear and function as separate entities, AND these bodies emerge from a field of energy where there are no boundaries, only varying degrees of density of atomic structures.  We are separate AND we are not.  Welcome to paradox, but the paradox we are exploring here is not concerning physical energy and bodies, but rather consciousness energy and individual minds.

Returning to taking a step back in your mind: if you sincerely explore this, there will be the realization that when in the experience of being awareness, there is no “me” there.  Yes, there is a “me” that experiences DOING the seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking and this “me” is centered in the body and in the experience of mind and it is very personal.  AND there is the “me” WITHIN WHICH the amalgam of seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking OCCUR and it is impersonal, it is just processes of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking.  In this perspective, “You” are the field of experiencing consciousness.  As is said in Zen, there is no one there.  This is where the personal “me” steps back and the direct experience of awareness comes into the foreground.  There certainly is this personal and separate “me;” this sense of self does not disappear, it is not, however, center-stage, so to speak.  This is what Joko Beck means about “self-centered thinking.”  The experience of separate self is no longer at the center of consciousness imagining itself as the source of consciousness.

Continuing this exercise, having taken a step back in your mind, I ask you to next step OUT from your mind INTO what is seen, heard, felt, and even thought as experiences not “in here,” rather as just what is occurring in the field of experiencing consciousness.  I also ask you to take note of the spacious felt-sense of comfort, ease and well-being that occurs with this perspective.

This is not how we typically relate to experience.  We typically relate to experience as if it is happening to someone called “me” inside this body and mind experiencing the world “out there.”  This is the sense of ego-self, all of experience tied together along with a hidden backdrop of unconscious factors psychologically conditioned into us giving us identity and preferences and prejudices and opinions and subtle levels of security or insecurity, confidence or anxiety, optimism or pessimism and a whole host of other factors giving the flavor of the sense of “me.”  But who is this that is the conscious awareness that is the primary experiencer of all that is experienced?  Who is this experience of awareness?

Can you take that step out – to be the pure experience that doesn’t need to hang itself onto an identity?  This may seem like a crazy proposition, and perhaps it does have something to do with what we conventionally describe in this culture as “crazy,” but I assure you it is about being absolutely and completely sane.  Here, I am introducing the phenomenon of “dissociation,” defined in psychiatry as detachment from the personality that sees, hears, feels, thinks, etc. in this matrix of experience we call “me.”

Generally, this dissociation is understood as a psychiatric symptom of some very serious mental disorders, and it is when we remain fixed in identity with the contents of mind, with the ego.  It is a withdrawal of the sense of self from the usual contact with the world that is considered normal.  The term is generally associated with rather severe psychiatric disorders, the most extreme example being catatonia – where there is a total withdrawal of the personality from any contact with the external environment, or Multiple Personality Disorder, where there is the withdrawal of the primary personality into alternative personalities.  Lesser, but still significant examples of pathological dissociation are periods of loss of time, or orientation, what is called “fugue” – and this can be on a spectrum from momentary to extended periods of amnesia.  What marks these states as mental illnesses is that they are steps BACK WITHIN the mind – a withdrawal – from the contact interaction with the me-in-the-world that is the balance between inner and external realities, and these disorders are usually “self” protective psychological defense actions in response to overwhelming trauma of some sort.  They are, again paradoxically, healthy and unhealthy – healthy in that they are protective, and unhealthy in that they become, in a sense, alternative ego-states, places in the mind where we live that are not in any remotely accurate contact with reality

I am suggesting a very different kind of “dissociation” or detachment from the personality as has been conditioned as the sense of “me” that is a very healthy form of dissociation. It is a detachment from identity in the personality in which rather than a withdrawal of consciousness energy into a walled off or even completely alternative “me,” there is very healthy detachment of identity from the contents and activity of the mind as we project the sense of self OUTWARD Into the space of consciousness within which all the activity, the senses and thoughts and emotions arise.  In other columns I have addressed this experience that everyone has and is identified as a “peak” or “zone” or “flow” moment, where the sense of separate self dissolves into the direct experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, acting in the moment, as the moment, and these moments are very satisfying and pleasurable.

“Our suffering is in our resistance to what is.” – Eckhart Tolle

We have all experienced being ensnared in painful “self-centered thinking” when our lives are confronted with some degree of difficulty or trauma, and as long as our sense of “me” is caught in the whirlwind of self-centered thought and emotion that accompany these experiences, we are in distress.  I want to point to how the resolution of our distress always comes when we allow a letting go of holding our identity in the distress, when we step back from the identification, and then step OUT into acceptance, when we become the “what is” without resistance, as Eckhart Tolle would instruct us to do.  There is this moment when we just become the moment as it is – the relationship, health, financial, or professional crisis – and there is no longer a beleaguered “me” there.  We surrender our self-centered thinking into pure awareness of what is.  Only then can we regather our lives and move on in a healthy manner centered in whatever action is necessary to address the “what is.”

The radical practice I am suggesting is to live all our life in this manner – not needing peak or calamitous circumstances to let go, to dissociate, self from the egoic personality.  Learn to use the egoic mind as a tool, just the same as the body is a tool, for engaging and working with the world.  It is not who you are.  You are the awareness that HAS a body and mind.  Learn to not block it with “self-centered thinking.”  A skillful craftsperson takes good care of their tools – so too, it is important that we take good care of the tools of body and mind – just don’t confuse them for who you are – any more than you would confuse yourself for a hammer or a skillet if you function as a carpenter or a cook.  Dissociate self from the tool of mind and you can become a master crafts-person of life – awareness personified.

Consciousness Expansion and Contraction

“The brain speaks through words; the heart in the glance of the eyes; and the soul through a radiance that charges the atmosphere, magnetizing all.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan (founder of The Sufi Order in the West in 1914)

Sometimes, as a way to cut through all intellectualization, I say: “At its most basic, I teach the meditation of expansion and contraction of personal consciousness energy.”  I then go on to point out to those I am addressing that I know that they have experienced what I am speaking about innumerable times in their life, but because our culture doesn’t validate the experience of consciousness as energy, it goes unnoticed.  The greatest unasked questions in Western culture concern consciousness:  What is it, what is its source and what are the implications of its differing states of amplitude, direction and focus?  This oversight has vast implications in our understanding of psychology and spirituality.

We have all had the experience when in an overwhelmingly beautiful natural setting – like a mountain-top, a powerful waterfall or a dramatic ocean sunset – to be so entranced by the grandeur that we forget ourselves completely.  We, in Zen terms, become nobody – that is, we are not experiencing the moment as this separate person looking at something outside ourselves – we become the experience.  We forget about ourselves.  We are the mountain or ocean vista happening in awareness.  The energy of consciousness has ceased to be concentrated around the idea of ourself as a separate person, it expands and is redirected outward into the experience – any sense of self has diminished markedly into being simply the witness.  The result is dramatic in producing a sense of well-being, fullness and completeness.  Only a very neurotic person (a way of describing unceasing self-absorption) would critique the moment or fail to open completely into it.

Anyone who has participated in some athletic activity with any advanced level of skill has had the experience of “being in the zone,” as the experience of perfect concentration and coordination of body and action become one seamless activity. The athlete’s consciousness energy expands to hold self, action and field in a seamless field of awareness in which the patterns of energy of the athlete, the medium of the activity and the other participants in the activity are all connected and happening within a seamless consciousness.  Likewise, when first learning an athletic skill, or on days when the “zone” eludes us, we know how it feels to not be able to put concentration, body coordination and action together.  We are very self-conscious of our efforts and very self-conscious of our frustration at our inability to find that “zone.”  Instead of an expansive experience of perfect integration, the moment becomes contracted into consciousness centered on the frustrated efforts of “me” in fragmented relationship to the activity and the field of activity.

Anyone who has developed any proficiency with an artistic medium like music, painting, sculpting, acting or dancing knows the experience of complete absorption where all self-consciousness dissolves into perfect concentration in the creative process.  We, in a sense, are the art rather than doing the art.  The same is true with utilitarian skills like carpentry, mechanics, sewing or knitting.  A student, entranced with their subject of study likewise knows the experience.  There are moments when time stops and the sense that “I” am doing this activity falls away and there is an expansive experience of just this activity in awareness.  Other times can be marked by this strong sense of “me” doing this thing and not doing it with the desired proficiency or outcome.  We become frustrated, impatient, and unhappy with ourselves and the results of our actions.  The felt-sense is of awkward contractedness.

Most importantly, we have all experienced deeply intimate moments of interaction with another person when the space between ourselves and the person becomes alive with energy and we feel completely connected.   We have hardly any sense of ourself as separate from the person.  The moment is you-and-me, and the energy of consciousness is alive and connecting.  We have also, of course, experienced interactions when there is no identification or intimacy, or the intimacy has been broken because of some insult or injury to our ego, and the space between then serves to separate us. Here is a perfect example of an experience we may have daily yet we pay no attention to what is happening or why.

Finally, there are times when, perhaps in a religious setting or ritual, in prayer or meditation, in nature, or somehow in a quiet moment in our ordinary lives we feel what can only be called a spiritual connection.  The sense of separate self falls away completely into an expansive sense of connection with the infinite.

All of these examples of positive connectedness represent what psychologist Abraham Maslow described as “peak experiences,” moments of happiness, well-being, maximum skillfulness, even transcendence and spirituality.  Such moments happen repeatedly in the life of any person who is not so poisoned by self-absorption that such happiness is completely alien to them.  Yet – we pay no attention to what is happening in the experience of the self-as-consciousness energy field that is associated with this spectrum of subjective experience.

Buddhism makes the very clear point that the difference has to do with self-absorption, with being caught in the delusion of self as a solid and separate entity from all that is not self, with the experience of me-in-here experiencing everything and everyone else in life as out there.  The more a person’s experience orients around this self-in-here the more they experience a deadness, an unsatisfactoriness to life.  There is an extreme contracted felt-sense of the energy of consciousness moving back into the separate body-mind experience.  In the opposite direction, the more a person has no thought of self, but rather is focused into that which is occurring in awareness – the mountain or ocean vista, the tennis game, the knitting, the person with whom they are sharing the moment, the infinite, the simple everyday experiences of life, the more complete, alive, satisfied and even spiritual they feel as the sense of self in the energy of consciousness expands to include all that is being experienced.

This brings me back to my original idea – the meditation of expansion and contraction of personal consciousness energy.  Every day, constantly, there is an ongoing unnoticed fluctuation and alteration in the experience of personal consciousness energy space happening at very subtle levels.  That this declaration may sound like new-age blather to a Western reader is indicative of a cultural blindness.  To a Native American, or to a mystic of any culture, such as Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Muslim Sufi from India, the notion of consciousness energy having many different qualities and dimensions serving to connect us into the world, into the universe, into the infinite some would call God, seems quite obvious.

My purpose is to point to various experiences that we have all known, and to call us to pay attention to that which has never been pointed to before.   We can note that there is, when we are caught in the strong sense of our personal separateness, in self-consciousness, a strong contracted sense of the energy of awareness drawn back into this body and mind we associate with “me,” while when in experiences of great connectedness, in-the-zone, or “flow,” there is little to no self-consciousness and a very spacious and expansive subjective sense of self-in-the-moment – or more accurately, self-as-the-moment.  The sense of self as a field of consciousness energy is either contracted into self-consciousness and awkward separateness or expanded into un-self-consciousness and connectedness with the environment, activity, person, or even the infinite.  We can, as Hazrat Inayat Khan does, identify this with a spiritual energy and our spiritual source or “soul.”  It can also, as in Zen, simply be identified as one’s true self that is awareness in which this body and mind and all we are experiencing co-arise in/as the moment in awareness.

Pay attention to the moment in awareness and where boundaries are created that do not actually exist except in the mind.  Experiment.  Look at a tree, a cloud, a squirrel, your dog or cat, another person and deliberately see separateness.  Feel in the silent mind of intuitive understanding the separateness and notice the felt-sense that accompanies this isolation.  Then, look again, only now deliberately expand the sense of self into the energy of awareness and connect.  Feel how the space between you and the object of your gaze becomes alive where before it felt dead, empty.  See if there is not “a radiance that charges the atmosphere, magnetizing all” when you forget yourself in the realization that you are truly this moment in awareness where all within the field of awareness are connected in the energy of consciousness.  Literally, open yourself as a field of consciousness energy to embrace the world.  This is the heart of all true spiritual practice and the secret to a happy and psychologically stable life.

Begin to pay attention on a moment-to-moment basis as to how various experiences, even thoughts, and certainly emotions, cause us to contract into a small reactive self or expand into a skillful, even loving, wise and kind, expansive self.  We can, through meditation and mindfulness, begin to understand and master this phenomenon of self-as-field-of-consciousness-energy opening and awakening into realms of unimagined well-being. We can also become a finely tuned monitor of the felt-sense of contraction into neurotic conditioned separate-self-consciousness as it occurs and through breath awareness and reaching outward with our senses and consciousness-energy realize ourself as the expansive, clear, calm and magnetic consciousness energy that Zen describes as No-self.

Not Me, Me, Me; Just This, This, This

“The habit of always thinking of ourselves only keeps us unhappy.” – Sakyong Mipham

“If you are very sincere and really give up your small mind, then there is no fear and no emotional problem.  Your mind is always calm, your eyes are always open, and you can hear the birds as they sing.  You can see the flowers as they open.  There is nothing for you to worry about… wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars. – Shunryu Suzuki

Buddhism uses the term “small mind” to describe a mind in which most thoughts are centered on our own desires and anxieties, our likes and dislikes, and it is important to realize even thoughts that are not directly about ourself are generally about our world-view and priorities which are then, in a sense, about ourself.  In contrast, Buddhism uses the term “big-mind” to describe a mind that is centered in the moment-as-it-is, as the moment-in-awareness, thoughts of ourselves appropriately integrated into the totality of the quality and needs of the moment.  A way of saying this is that we are not the center of the moment, rather, the moment is the center of us.

But for most people thoughts about their own subjective experience and themselves are the centerpiece of consciousness, and Buddhism teaches that this makes for a very small and neurotic experience of life.  It’s me, me, me dealing with and interacting with, that, that, that out there, and “that” includes other people and all of life, which are really stories in our minds about what we believe is “out there.”  It even includes the experience of ourselves as some very repetitive and shallow story of “me” as an object of judgment conditioned into us psychologically by our parents, society, culture and historical experiences.  This story/judgment of “me” projects onto the story/judgment of “that” whatever our distorted and neurotic conditioning has caused us to believe about “me” and “that” and from this distorted interaction is generated anxiety, depression, anger and many very untruthful belief systems.

To understand what is being addressed here, we have to understand what this “me” is.  We use this word to refer to who we understand this phenomenon of our personal self to be.  The question is, does this actually represent the truest understanding of this phenomenon we call “me?”  Asked to identify ourselves, we typically give a list of referential locators such as where we were born, our parents, where we live now, our occupation or principle activity in the world, our marital or relationship status, some cultural/ethnic/class information, education, religion, group affiliations, etc.  Very importantly, if asked to go deeper, we would probably start telling the story of our life, the important events, accomplishments and injuries of our life-history. We might even give a thumb-nail psychological diagnosis of our struggles with relationships, anxiety, depression, anger, obsessions and fears.  In a more immediate way, if asked to point to ourself – we would probably point to our body, and might point to our head, identifying with our face and the body part containing the brain that we associate with our mind.  This is all well and good for practical, in-the-world purposes, but none of this information or these locaters actually indicates the deepest and most fundamental self.  These locators all point to conditioned circumstances of our existence.  They do not point to the real “me,” our deepest self, the essence of our being, the realm of “big-mind.”

It may sound like parsing semantics to say there can be all the difference in the world between the concepts “this” and “that,” but it is important that we see a great difference.  The very perspective brought with the word “that” is as if we point to something separate from ourselves saying “that” out there, while, I am suggesting, we can create a perspective of “this” as from within the moment containing whatever we are pointing to and ourselves, the person/mind that is pointing.  It is the difference between duality and non-duality, the world of ego and the realm of being.  When we operate within “this” it is both specific and infinite – it is as if we made a great arcing swoop with our hands acknowledging all the universe including us and the focus of our attention, encompassing the observer and the observed, the local and the infinite.

“This” can also be identified as “here,” but most people have a very small notion of “here” as if it is measured in inches or feet, and to live inside this small personal “here” while pointing to the world and all it contains as “that” – out there – is a lonely and frightening place.  To live inside the big-here of “this” is to be complete and infinite.  The same is true of time.  There is a little-now and a big-now – so the concept “here and now” can be either very confining or it can be very liberating.  When teaching, I am known to ask: “Where is the boundary of here and now?” And, of course, there is none. I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they realize this truth.  This realization can be a major shift in relating to self-in-the world.

To live centered on the small personal self of “my” body, “my” mind, “my” life circumstance is to live in this small world of “thats” and in the small “here-and-now,” all centered on this idea of “me” as an isolated object in a universe of objects, and we are, therefore, as Sakyong Mipham noted, very vulnerable to insecurity, and to be insecure is to be unhappy.  This “self,” this “me” feels itself isolated in the vastness of life and spends its entire life seeking significance, and a life spent in this way generates great anxiety, for the seeking is endless, and all of what is called neurosis is the psychological symptoms and attempts to defend against this anxiety.

Buddhism’s genius solution to this conundrum is to wake us up to the reality of the interconnectedness of all that is – that nothing exists in isolation.  The universe is a singularity comprised of infinite interconnected patterns of energy that is both matter and consciousness.  As the orientalist Alan Watts phrased it, and I have quoted in other columns, “Who we are is the universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.”  In other words, and this is the meaning of the very difficult Buddhist concepts for westerners of “emptiness” and “being nobody,” there is no “me.”  There is only “this,” a localized perspective of the universe appearing in consciousness through the vehicle of a human being’s awareness.  It is as if we are a lens, an aperture through which the universe focuses into an intersection of space and time to experience itself.  We are this limited form – like a pair of glasses – that has a function and a duration of quality service AND we are that which looks, without location other than the universe, without beginning or end.  As the famous Heart Sutra of Buddhism comforts us:  “all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness; their true nature is the nature of no Birth no Death, no Being no Non-being, no Defilement no Purity, no Increasing no Decreasing. That is why in Emptiness, Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness are not separate self entities.”  (Thich Nhat Hanh translation)

This may seem awfully strange, although I would guess there is some very quiet bell ringing a “yes” inside you.  As you look at these words with your eyes and they register with meaning in your mind, it is all happening in consciousness as a connected event with all other sensations and thoughts – so – I ask, are you the body with its sense organs?  Are you the mind that gives the sensory impulses meaning?  Or are you the consciousness, the awareness within which all “this” are arising?  The real purpose of meditation is to quiet the restless, anxious mind so that the bell that rings “yes” can be heard. Stop focusing on this illusion of “me” and open to the moment “this” and you will see what Suzuki is talking about, how “There is nothing for you to worry about… wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars.”  This is what Buddhism calls awakening.

Let Us Talk

“People respond in accordance to how you relate to them. If you approach them on the basis of violence, that’s how they’ll react. But if you say, ‘We want peace, we want stability,’ we can then do a lot of things that will contribute towards the progress of our society.”  –  Nelson Mandela

America is entering a very anxious, divisive, probably turbulent, and possibly violent time.  There is so much anger and mistrust.  Republicans and Democrats seem to be from different countries with entirely different realities.  For many, neither party is speaking to or for them.  Issues are wedges of division rather than topics of debate.  We urgently need to learn to talk peacefully with each other and that means we must learn to talk from the starting point of what we have and want in common rather than what drives us apart, and we must learn to talk with respect rather than mistrust, anger and derision.

What do we all want?  As Nelson Mandela said, we want “peace and stability.”  Who besides someone insane with hatred or whose desire is to exploit these divisions does not want this? Our problem has always been how we define peace and stability, what do these words really mean, what are their implications, what do they include and require, and by what means are they achieved?  If we begin to examine what attitudes and policies actually lead to peace and stability we might begin to find common ground.

Human history is dominated by structural social divides separating the powerful and wealthy from the common people.  History has taught repeatedly there can be no system based on great inequality of wealth and power that will bring lasting peace and stability.   Such a system lacks wisdom and it lacks compassion.  It lacks understanding that peace and stability require unity of purpose and identity where all citizens possess a sense of interconnectedness in a worthwhile and noble endeavor; and with this interconnectedness, citizens come to realize they are also interdependent, sharing in this great endeavor together.  As Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet tragically, we are possibly looking at just such a divide in this country.  It is as if Americans function in parallel universes from each other.  Yet – who doesn’t want peace?  Who doesn’t want stability in their personal life and in the social fabric of the nation?

All too often the mistake is made of believing that peace and stability are the result of rigid authoritarian control.  For a while, the iron boot of repressive law may keep a kind of stability, but eventually resentment and rebellion will result.  Real and lasting peace and stability begin with compassion, the empathic emotion and response to another’s difficulties and pain, inclusive of all levels and expressions of society.  But most people are limited to experiencing empathy only for those with whom they identify, and this is insufficient.  If compassion does not also extend to those who hold differing political, religious, class or cultural perspectives, indeed to everyone, it is not real compassion.

Compassion, in order to be true, must extend to those with whom we disagree and to those with whom we have difficulty finding common identity.  This is compassion’s redemptive and healing power.  How can we do this?  Here we come back to interconnectedness.  We must see that we are interconnected in our common challenge of wanting peace and security, and in a larger sense, we are all interconnected in the human condition.  It is this larger sense of compassion, the true desire to communicate with, understand and help people of differing viewpoints and cultural identities that we must cultivate if we want true peace and stability.

We are all human beings who strive for happiness and who seek to avoid suffering.  Are we not?  It is belief systems about the means and social structures for achieving happiness and whether all deserve to be included that separate us.  We are conditioned by our cultures telling us for thousands of years to believe in separating lines of wealth and class and race and gender and philosophies and religions, emphasizing differences among us, telling us of differing rights to dignity and access for this or that group to the society’s fruits.  It seems we lack the emotional identification necessary for compassion toward the full spectrum of humanity, all of whom are caught in differing belief systems.

History shows these lines of separation inevitably cause only conflict and instability.  We fail to take the necessary step back from our customary perspective to see that we are all human beings together; we are all citizens of the world together.   We fail to see that we are all commonly trapped into looking at each other through these lenses of separation, seeing one another as rivals, even enemies. We all do it, and it blocks our experiencing our common humanity.  When we take this step back and look at each other in this way, compassion becomes possible.  It becomes clear we ARE all in this struggle together.  Then we can relate emotionally with all people.

We are human beings who share a common nation and a common planet.  Can we see that?  Can we talk with each other beginning here?  If so, we have the beginnings for compassion, the potential for building peace and stability.  Do we all love our children?  Do we all want a good life for these children in a world where the nation and the planet we call home is beautiful and bountiful for endless generations to come?  The answer is clearly “yes.”  This we have in common.  Now we are starting to look more like people who can identify with each other rather than the warring demographics politicians and pundits talk about and exploit.  Do we want economic security?  Health security?  Educational opportunity?  Opportunity to develop our talents and interests as far as we can take them?  Do we want work that supports us within the norms of our society and feels meaningful and for which we are respected?  If we compassionately include everyone in this desire, we will realize this can only happen within a system in which the most blessed and gifted give greater value to a life of creativity and service than they do to material opulence gained at the expense of others, and where the least advantaged among us are seen as the responsibility of all.

The motivation to excellence is inherent in every individual, and I suggest the motivation to the excellence of a peaceful and stable society that honors and celebrates every individual is the strongest of all.  A peaceful and stable society must be one that sees that fostering hope and determination in all citizens is a society’s highest responsibility.  This is compassion.  It is also good politics and economics.  Our society pays a steep price in loss of peace, stability and wealth by perpetuating an under-class of citizens excluded from the security of adequate income, education, health-care, housing and self-respect.   Can we talk about these things?

We must remember that our founding principles call us to interdependence.  Our Constitution addresses us as: “We the People of the United States,” not as a fractured collection of self-interests.  It then instructs us to our purpose:  “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  We are told to be one people seeking the highest good for all into the future beyond seeing.  To do this, we need to come out of our stances of oppositionality to stand alongside one another.  We must be in this national endeavor together or we will tear this union apart.  We must let go of our mistrust, suspicion and anger toward each other to stand alongside one another as one people seeking to create a more perfect union.  We must reach to each other.  Let us not argue and fight.  Let us talk and heal the wounds that divide us.

Light Into The World

“The LORD is my light and my salvation.” – Psalms 27:1

“I am come a light into the world.” Jesus – John 12:46

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.” –  Quran 24:35

“Be a light unto yourself.”  – Buddha

A fundamental difference between Buddhism and what are called the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that while the three Abrahamic religions point to salvation through faith in a deity outside oneself, Buddhism points within our own consciousness for the source of salvation, and faith has to do not with a deity but rather with one’s own capacity to realize this salvation.  All four religions share in common the acknowledgement of ignorance as the source of suffering in the world and have at times symbolized it as darkness while symbolizing salvation as light.  But while Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold ignorance of the salvational power of God to be what will lead us to sin, Buddhism holds that it is ignorance of our own pure and true nature that is the obscurant that needs the light of the dharma (Buddhist teachings) to point us toward the Buddha (awakened Being) that resides within us all.  All these religions use the image of light as that which can cast away the darkness, but as Buddhism teaches that separation is an illusion; there can be no separation of sacred source from everyday people and everyday life.  How could there be?  The light is within you, not in any deity or deity’s representatives outside you.  Buddha’s teachings are to guide you to finding that light which is already within you, to the light that is you.

Although “sin” is not talked about in Buddhism, if it were, it would be used in the original etymological meaning of the word – from the Greek, “to miss the mark.” In other words, to be ignorant of your own pure nature arising within the purity of nature, missing the mark of the unity of all that is.  The grace of no outside deity or prophet is needed, and while Buddhism does not speak of grace, if it did, it would say that grace fills all the world, including every human.  While the Western religions require faith in a God that most cannot experience and obedience to the religion’s teachings, Buddhism simply advises us to look deeply enough within our own consciousness and into the consciousness energy that fills the world to give validation to that which we have already experienced, to that we experience when we are so moved by the beauty of a sunset across the mountains or a deep encounter with another person that we forget ourselves and become the purity of that moment stopped in time.  While Christianity teaches that sufficient faith in God and Jesus will bring “the peace that surpasseth understanding,” Buddhism teaches that such peace has always been accessible to those who are able to penetrate the obscurant of the false self known as ego to realize themselves as consciousness witness to Creation.

Buddhism teaches that Creation, the Universe itself, is the Sacred Source, and grace fills every atom, born in the fire of the stars.  It teaches that when the false ego-self does not hold center stage in consciousness, the world of Creation reveals itself in the light of consciousness and all the world is experienced in the timeless beauty of selfless awareness, the light that dispels the darkness of ignorance separating us from Creation.  This obscuring ignorance is the belief in a self that is separate from Creation; but when awareness (the individual) turns inward, seeing consciousness (universal) recognizing its own source, and then directs awareness into the world, the realization awakens – that inward and outward are only perspectives within the One Reality.

A great Zen koan exhorts, “Not two!” but then goes on to remind us, “Not one.”  We live in a spiritual unity that manifests as a material duality.  This paradox realized shines the light of awareness that can never fail.  Light fills the world for those with the eyes to see.  Look!  This is all that Buddhism taught and all that Jesus brought, and it is a tragedy that what Jesus brought was turned into darkness by those who taught humanity as fallen and separate, for we are all the sons and daughters of Creation.  “In the beginning… the earth was without form and void… And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Modern astrophysics tells us that the Big Bang began the Universe with pure photonic energy, the energy of light, and that the Universe, in its evolution cooled and expanded and atomic matter was born as hydrogen, then helium, and so on as matter complexified within the unity of the Universe, and brought forth stars and planets and life from the most simple, single-celled organism to humans with brains that are the most complex organization of matter in the known Universe manifesting the most complex consciousness.  And the consciousness that brought forth the original light resides in every atom of this Universe and in the mysteries of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, and we need not look to mythical deities, for, as Zen teaches us, “Just This.” Nothing more is needed.  The light is everywhere.  You can call it God if you want to, but look no further than the stars in the sky or the miracle of your own opposable-thumbed hand that allows you to grasp the physical world or your own cerebral cortex that allows you read the squiggles on this paper and give them meaning, or the silent intelligence of your intuitive mind that allows you to grasp infinity.  The light of intelligent consciousness fills the Universe, is the Universe, and is you and me.  How could it be otherwise?  In Buddhism, this is the faith that needs no miracles, for it is ignorance not to see miracles everywhere.

What is this?

“What is this?” –  the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638–713 C.E.)

The practice is very simple. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you ask repeatedly, What is this? What is this? You have to be careful not to slip into intellectual inquiry, for you are not looking for an intellectual answer. You are turning the light of inquiry back onto yourself and your whole experience in this moment. You are not asking: What is this thought, sound, sensation, or external object? If you need to put it in a meaningful context, you are asking, What is it that is hearing, feeling, thinking? You are not asking, What is the taste of the tea or the tea itself? You are asking, What is it that tastes the tea? What is it before you even taste the tea?  – Martine Batchelor – formerly a Zen Buddhist nun in Korea, translator of Kusan Sunim’s The Way of Korean Zen 

To live a life of Zen is to ask continually, “What is this?” at a silent level of mind.  We must approach life in a manner akin to the look a dog has on his face when he is trying to figure something out.  It is the same as when the Koan asks, “Show me your original face,” or Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki refers to “beginner’s mind.”  Let go of all preconceptions.  They are created by our psycho-social conditioning and the limitations of our human senses and cognitive abilities.

It is the Universe that is this.  It is, as Tielhard de Chardin, the genius Jesuit Priest Anthropologist described, “The World is not spirit and matter, it is spirit-matter.”  It is the quantum field materialized into a human sipping tea, thinking, “ah, how pleasant” or, “it could use a lump of sugar.”  What is this that is hearing, feeling, thinking while the tea is sipped?  Many a great mystic has concluded it is the Universe, it is God sipping tea, experiencing tea as a human being.

I like to ask the question, “Why is there God? Why is there the concept God?”  We take so many things for granted. It is like the cliché about the child asking, “Why is the sky blue?”  We are taken off guard.  We are so accustomed to running our little cerebral cortex computer program believing that what we believe is reality. No.  It’s only what we believe.  It is only the nature of our senses and human brain and the program and society and culture and mom and dad and your 6th grade teacher and the kid who lived down the block when you were a kid and all the other programmers in your life creating this virtual reality.  What is this behind the hearing, feeling, thinking?  What is it that hears, feels and thinks?  What am I?  What is anyone?

We think of ourselves as this body, this mind, these circumstances that are our lives.  Zen suggests no – we are what has a body, mind and circumstances.  We are the experiencer of body, mind and circumstances.  And what is that?  Where is that?  We say, “it is me.  It is myself.”  And we point at this body.  But Buddhism teaches us that when we look, we cannot actually locate this “self.”  So we are left with only the asking, “What is this?”  What is this life and all that we experience?

I come back to asking the question, why is there God?  How is it that every human culture throughout human history has created some face and name that we in this culture call God?  Of course we could answer, because there is God.  And I am left to ask, what is this that is called God, and where is this God?  And you would be unable to locate this God just as you are unable to locate this self.  Could it be that this self and this God are in the same place?  And could it be that place is unlocatable because it is everywhere and nowhere, for the very idea of somewhere is limited to some place.  And what we are really talking about is the Universe as the intelligent source and result of itself.  And what I-the-experiencer experience in a given moment is just the Universe experiencing itself as a human being experiencing the Universe as a cup of tea.

Because we have physical bodies and we have senses in these physical bodies and brains in these physical bodies that function as supercomputers, it turns out that we believe we are separate and solid and that what we hear and feel and think is real and solid, and it all confuses us terribly and creates great insecurity that causes us to build great civilizations with great faces of God the Creator to give us comfort.  But it does not give us comfort, and Buddhism calls this discomfort dukkha, translated as “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness.”  What is this?  It is the human condition, the condition of the Universe experiencing itself as a human being.

These bodies and these minds are tricks of perception that cause us to divide the Universe into this thing and that thing and to set this thing off against that thing, and to want some things and to avoid other things when there is only This, and This is, as the Tao Te Ching says, the No-thing that brings forth the myriad things.  And this is why we humans create God – to give form to that which has no form and is all forms and that we feel is real but can only think of as something outside ourself that creates these things of the world including us human beings.

But the Universe is whole and complete in itself and it manifests all things, including the perception of this thing called “me” and this thing called “you.”  And if this is confusing it is because we are looking to our mind which only believes in things and even may believe in God as a thing, that is, an idea of God that has certain human-like qualities, when God is that which is looking and hearing and feeling and thinking and drinking a cup of tea disguised as you and me using this body and these eyes and these ears and these hands and this mind to experience itself.

Zen tells us you must not think about these things or believe these things – you must feel them from a deep and silent place where the Universe looks into itself at an intersection of time and space that is a human life, and in that deep and silent place is not confusion, there is, as the Bible says, “peace that surpasseth understanding.”  And that is what This is.

Political Dharma

“We need enlightenment, not just individually but collectively, to save the planet. We need to awaken ourselves. We need to practice mindfulness if we want to have a future, if we want to save ourselves and the planet.” –  Thich Nhat Hanh

Dharma is a Sanskrit word; its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support,” and In Buddhism that which is being upheld or supported is the balance and order of nature and the universe.  The word dharma as it applies in Buddhism refers both to this cosmic harmony and to the teachings of Buddhism, the purposes of which are to reveal and uphold that which is the natural order, or “original nature,” sometimes referred to as the “Way.”  These are all phrases one sees frequently in Buddhist teachings and make of Buddhism very much a cosmology, even a quasi-scientific inquiry into existence.  It is also a psychology based in the principle that human emotional suffering is caused by a person being out of harmony with their original nature – to the consequence of living in ignorance (another oft-seen word in the Buddhist canon) of the truth of who they are – and this ignorance leads to suffering.  As it is a psychology, it approaches the problem of human suffering in a very medical fashion – following proper diagnosis there is a treatment plan to restore health.  In this model psychological health means equanimity, harmony, balance, and well-being, as well as expanding capacities for insight.  Meditation, mindfulness and applied compassion for self and others are the medicine.  Health is full human potential realized in enlightenment – not as something gained, but rather, as what is revealed as already within us.

As it is a profoundly insightful psychology, Buddhism can also be seen as a political philosophy – pointing to how collectives of humans cause suffering by lacking in harmony and compassion, functioning in ignorance of the natural balance and conscious interdependence that would be the hallmark of healthy and peaceful communities.  This disharmony arises as groups of individuals identify themselves as more important and correct in their world-view than others who are seen as incorrect, wrong, even dangerous.  Competition is the result, friendly or hostile, dominating much of human interaction at both the individual and collective level.  This then is clearly the realm of politics.  The more different in form, style and beliefs, the more competitive a group is with those of a different identity group, the more likely the politics will be hostile even escalating into violence, sometimes war.

Another problem arises out of seeing the non-human world as separate from and inferior to the human realm, valued only in relationship to its immediate benefit to humans.  The entire non-human world is viewed in categories of usefulness or threat and our attention goes to these two categories while a very big third category, that which is viewed as neither a valuable resource nor dangerous threat, goes mostly ignored.  The whole of the natural world is largely overlooked by the average modern human as just the background to their day-to-day life, once again, with some particular aspect noticed only if it rises to the level of pleasant or unpleasant as determined by a person’s set of conditioned judgments.  Gravely consequential ignorance of the systemic wholeness of nature leads humans to see the natural world as separate objects existing with particular value, challenge or irrelevance.  The result is human activity tearing apart this systemic wholeness, throwing ecosystems out of balance, threatening the ability to thrive of all elements of that system, including, eventually, humanity.

So – in these expanding circles of identification, alienation, or indifference human affairs gets conducted.  Those that are of “my” or “our” circle of identification, we give value.  Those that are perceived as “other” and threatening are treated with hostility; those that are of neither positive nor negative category are used, abused or ignored. This is the state of human conduct and evolution currently.  It is the state of our politics and it is not in harmony with Dharma.

Dharma is the truth of the way things are, and this truth is that all that exists in the universe is in a relationship of interconnectedness and interdependence – nothing arises or exists in isolation from the whole and its constituent systems.  For humans this natural order manifests in expanding circles of identification where the first circle is personal – within ourselves – the tensions and tears between our dominant egoic self and our underlying fundamental natural being. The next circle is interpersonal, and here we fall out of harmony because we mistake as our highest priority the maintenance of the importance of “me.”  Even family members who love each other very much do great harm as they joust with each other for their own perceived importance and “rightness.”  This, of course, requires that we diminish others’ importance and make them wrong.  This same dynamic applies then to groups of individuals identified politically or religiously or ethnically or any number of ways we segregate into shared identity groupings.  So too, it is with nations and regions of humanity.  So too, it is with humanity and the non-human animal world, and with nature as a whole.

We fail to recognize that we are all in this life together and every person, every animal, every ecosystem are all intertwined in destiny.  Ultimately, the dharma teaches us there is one interconnected, interdependent system that is the universe; the one flowing system of energy out of which all creation unfolds.  Dharma teaches us that we are not a person in the universe; rather we are the universe happening as a person, just like the universe happens as a tree or a cow, a river or a planet – all happening within the universe in its unfolding.  No person, cow, tree, river or planet happens in isolation.  Every atom and every form made of atoms is connected in an unfolding of the evolution of the Universe, and each form is in a relationship of connection and interdependence with all forms.  This is the Way.  It is dharma.  The Universe evolves as a perfectly balanced system. This, however, is not how people experience themselves, their identity groups, their nations, or for that matter, trees, squirrels, cows, rivers, or the planet.  The conventional way is to experience all these as separate phenomena that can be picked through and valued or devalued in relationship to their perceived value to me and my relevant collective “us.”  Buddhism teaches this is ignorance and it will lead to suffering.  The history of humanity certainly stands as evidence of this truth.

Bringing this out of the cosmological and back to the political, the dharma teaches us that we must completely respect each circle of identification on this planet if we are to have a peaceful and safe planet or nation or community.  But this is not the way things are.  We individually and collectively are held too tightly by what Buddhism refers to as “egoic delusion,” the delusion of separateness and with it the tendency to value me and mine, while devaluing or even holding in hostility that which is not in my egoic circle.  This is the karma of conflict and suffering.  To alter this karma, we must look to dharma.  We must realize universal respect for the truth of our interconnectedness and interdependence as the only way out of the karmic circle of conflict and suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh advises us, “If you’re a politician, you might want to learn the Buddhist way of negotiation. Restoring communication and bringing back reconciliation is clear and concrete in Buddhism.” Reconciliation for the harms we have inflicted, past and present, and to bring together in sincere communication those who have been in conflict through ignorance of our common source and destiny, is the only way to move toward a future of peace, harmony and happiness.  As we engage politically with all levels of our interaction, including with the planet that is our shared home with all life, we will do well to remember this dharma.

Thankfully, the evolution of human society has been unconsciously actualizing the need to expand the circle of “us” to include those who had been excluded, and so the ignorant boundaries of slavery, racism, sexism, and even to some extent nationalism have been dissolved or are in the process of dissolution as the human species moves closer to unity and harmony.  Yet, so much more consciousness is needed if we are to fulfill the dharma of a harmonious planet in balance, health and peace.  In the realm of politics, this means we must support and elevate leaders and policy makers who hold as a sacred mission the tearing down of false barriers and hierarchies.  We must support leaders who bring human communities together in wisdom and compassion and who support the necessity of holding to a sacred relationship with nature and all its inhabitants.  We must politically realize the dharma of wholeness, interconnectedness, compassion, respect and harmony as our guide and reject those who wish to perpetuate the destructive karma of separateness, hierarchies, exploitation, conflict and abuse.  We are one people, one planet, with one future.  This is the dharma of politics.  It is the Way – it is the only way.

Zen Poetry

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.   –
Basho (17th c.)

Like every artistic device of Zen, poetry is a finger pointing to here-and-now.  It serves to reclaim our wandering minds centered on our egoic importance and challenges, to startle us into the immediacy of life in the present moment.  Likewise, it is meant to awaken our intuitive knowing that here-and-now is not only personal and immediate – the range of our senses – it is also transcendent.  Here-and-now is eternal, pointing us to the reality that boundaries in time and space are fictional creations of the human mind.  We are always both at an intersection of time and space that is the limit of our senses along with the linear computing processor that is the cognitive mind, and we are a center of consciousness in an infinite universe – a circle that has no circumference.

While intuiting infinite time and space is a very advanced meditation, the connectedness of earthly and human experience across time and space only requires a suspension of our immediate ego-centeredness.  When we open awareness – some might call it imagination – to realize experiences in the immediate are also universally human, we transcend ourselves.  This is a most important dimension to visit with some frequency, to open our compassion and to diminish our small egocentric perspective.  It could be said that enlightenment is living in this simultaneity.

In Basho’s poem, written four centuries ago in a land on the other side of the planet, what is not familiar?  What is not available to us in our immediate here and now?  It opens us to a universal human experience and feeling.  It also points us to the larger Universal (cosmological and spiritual) experience, as it resonates for us the eternal silence punctuated by sound returning to silence that is like the bell of the meditation hall.  Sound, like all form, is transitory.  It initiates, has duration, and disappears.  This, in Buddhism is the meaning of emptiness.  All form in all the Universe is empty of permanence.  And so, as the ancient teaching instructs, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”  Basho’s poem points us to what is – always.  It points us to the eternal and infinite silence that is the Universe of potential beneath all sound.  This simultaneity of form and emptiness is the great awakening that liberates humans from the prison of form-only mentality that is the scaffolding upon which ego-identity is built.  We are, in awakened truth, both form and emptiness, our lives are both limited and infinite.  “Splash!”

While Basho’s poem is completely immediate, a moment experienced by a human attending to a natural occurrence, it also points us to a deeper contextual insight into life.   Likewise, Zen poetry can begin with a deeper abstract lesson and point us to an immediate example that is experience-able through our senses.  “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
                                               – Dogen (13th c.)

Eight centuries ago, in that far-off land of Japan, Dogen too captured the Universal in an immediate experience written into poetry.  Once again, he speaks to us from a cultural time so foreign we have little we can superficially find in common, yet, when we bring mindfulness, the moon is the moon, the sky is the sky, the dewdrop on a leaf of grass is the dewdrop on a leaf of grass, everywhere and throughout time.  A human directing awareness into this moment and finding awakened truth knows no time or place.  In a typically Zen fashion, as if answering the esoteric question of a puzzled seeker asking “What is Enlightenment?”, Dogen points to an everyday occurrence that most pay little if any attention to, and if they do it is unlikely that they see the Universe, where micro and macro dimensions reflect each other.  Here again, form and emptiness, form having its particular qualities and duration of existence, yet the essence of all form is found in every instance of form, universally.  Moon and water, sky and dewdrop intersect reflectively, cosmic and earthly dimensions; water in any quantity holds its universally reflective capacity.  The great sea, the lowly puddle, the almost unnoticed dew-drop, all reflect the same vastness.  So too, we intersect, earthly and limited, yet reflecting the cosmos in the mystery that is awareness, whether one dewdrop’s worth of humanity or all of sentient life, it matters not.  There is only one eternity – within which the many pass.  Emptiness is form and form is emptiness.  This is enlightenment in any place and time.

We need not be only passive observers and intellectual tourists into these truths.  If we are, the point of this poetry is missed.  It is meant to awaken us, to resonate like “splash.” The one Universe is you and me every bit as much as Basho and Dogen, as “splash,” as “the moon reflected on the water.”  Zen calls us to participate and notice, to stop time and space as dualistic prisons, and open us to time and space as doorways to infinity.  All mystics from all cultures knew this.  I could just as well have shared poetry from Islam’s Rumi (13th c.)

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

Or Christianity’s Mechtild of Magdeburg (13th c.)
The day of my spiritual awakening
was the day I saw–and knew I saw–
all things in God, and God in all things.

Without pretense, you too can be a Zen poet.  Just take an everyday moment and look deeply into it to see beyond the immediate and what you are accustomed to, beyond and deeper than just you, and time, and place, and people, and nature, just hurrying past, life slipping away.  See into it the eternal, the sacred.  See Form as emptiness and emptiness as form.  You too can be a Zen poet.

Sitting on a bench, shaded by trees.
Air currents circle the world making this breeze.
Sun and blue sky, clouds, grass around.
Beneath my feet
the earth is worn from sitters past.
I breathe Dogen’s breath –
carrying a bird’s song.

The Universe opens; we are not alone and small.  All time, space and sentient life is here-and-now.

Splash!

Zen And The Art Of Life

“The arts of Zen are not intended for utilitarian purposes or for purely aesthetic enjoyment, but are meant to train the mind, indeed, to bring it in contact with ultimate reality.”  – D. T. Suzuki

“Zen and the art of (fill in the blank)” has become a familiar phrase, a way to describe engaging in an art form, sport or activity at the highest level, a level where the person seems less like they are “doing” the activity as “being” the activity.  “Zen and the Art of Archery,” “Zen and the Art of Pottery,” “Zen and the Art of Tennis,” Zen and the Art of Flower Arrangement,” “Zen and the Art of Writing,” “Zen and the Art of Painting,” and the famous “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” are all book titles dealing with complete immersion into the moment where self and activity become one.

Meditation begins with Zen and the art of breathing.  When we see the words “I am breathing,” from our conventional perspective we understand this to mean this person “I” am engaged in the activity of “breathing.”  There are two phenomena: “I” and “breathing.”  One is doing the other.  In Zen the same words, “I am breathing” imply one phenomenon.  It is saying that in this moment the entire experience of “I” is the phenomenon “breathing.”  I am breathing.  In that moment, in answer to the question, “Who am I?”  The answer is “breathing.”

So, for example, Zen and the art of tennis, is “I” as the phenomena of tennis racquet, ball, court, body moving, eyes concentrating and tracking, mind calculating angles, opponent’s movements, etc.  These are not all different and separate phenomena; there is just this one field of integrated and connected experience that is this moment in awareness.  Sometimes this is called “flow.”  In sports it is often called, “in the zone.”  The experience of “I” doing has shifted into “I” being the activity, which amounts to there being no “I” experienced as the doer.  When this occurs, what is being done takes on a beautiful sense of unity as the moment in action and the skill level become “peak” while the experience is both relaxed and exhilarating, transcendent and thrilling.  In fact it would qualify as what psychologist Abraham Maslow would describe as a “peak experience.”  The person so engaged will afterward be astonished at what they have accomplished, unable to explain it.

So, as D.T. Suzuki suggests, “art” in Zen brings us in contact with ultimate reality.  This is why, while painting and calligraphy and music, and those activities usually associated with “art,” can be elevated with the descriptor “Zen,” so too can “chopping wood and carrying water,” as in the famous koanic response to the question, “What is Zen?”  The point of any of these activities is “ultimate reality.” To be flow; in the zone.

What is “ultimate reality?”  The point of Buddhist teaching and of wisdom teachings from all over the world is to point us to ultimate reality.  This could be, and has been, described as “God,” but this is a word carrying too much confusion, disagreement and conflict in its application; and confusion, disagreement and conflict are not Zen.  Reality is Zen, ultimate reality is Zen. There is no confusion, disagreement and conflict in ultimate reality.

Ultimate reality is here-and-now.  And here-and-now is the universe, infinite; how could it be anything else?  One very insightful definition of God was given to us by Carl Jung who said it is “a word meant to express all that is not ego.”  The ego makes here-and-now (infinitely vast and unified) into here and now (two things rather than one integration) small and personal, the space and time around “me.”  Of course, here-and-now is all eternity and infinity; where could its boundary possibly be?  This is Zen.  And within it is the space and activity around “me.”  How could I be excluded except by delusion of my ego.   Ultimate reality is here-and-now.  Where, when and what else could be?  Ultimate reality is the Universe, not as we perceive it with our senses, but as the underlying interdependent fields of energy that our senses are incapable of perceiving except as separate objects, but we are able to intuit as connected.  Where is there a gap?  Where is there a dividing line?  In ultimate reality there is just energy, matter energy and consciousness energy, all interconnected.  There is just this moment arising in matter/consciousness energy, everywhere, infinitely.

Eckhart Tolle once answered the question of who we were as “the moment arising in awareness.”  The moment arising, here-and-now, with this body and mind, these eyes and hands and brain in the service of this physical moment, here-and-now.  Tennis, anyone?  How about chopping some wood?   Carrying water?  This moment, here and now without ego becomes ultimate reality, here-and-now as painting, archery, tennis, chopping wood.

Breathe the art of life.  Pick up a paint brush.  Pick up your guitar or tennis racquet.  Begin to dance.  Write a poem.  Chop some wood, sweep the floor, wash the dishes, walk a trail, as no one – just the action and the medium of the moment.  Suzuki said it is not for utility or aesthetics.  It is for contact with ultimate reality.  What result other than the very best you are capable of can happen when you get self-conscious or distracted or lazy self out of the way.  Ultimate Reality contacted and channeled.  Life realized as art.  Utility and aesthetics realized at its highest level, not aiming for utility or aesthetics.   just God.

Mozart and daVinci would have told you the same thing; their art was in the service of God.  It was God happening through them, they would tell you.  It is prayer and meditation in action.  Only Zen tells us this art is not only for music or painting, aesthetics or entertainment.  It is for Life.  No confusion, disagreement or conflict, just allow, and there is God, ultimate reality, this ordinary day, this ordinary action, perfect, everywhere that is not ego.  Flow.

Absolute Present

“Satori (awakening) is said to take place when consciousness realizes a state of ‘one thought’. ‘One thought’ is the shortest possible unit of time… Thought represents an instant, i.e. time reduced to an absolute point with no durability whatever… when time is reduced to a point with no durability, it is ‘absolute present’ or ‘eternal now’… this ‘absolute present’ is no abstraction, no logical nothingness; it is, on the contrary, alive with creative vitality” – D.T. Suzuki (Living by Zen)

I invite you to sit outside on a pleasant day for thirty minutes doing nothing.  Just sit there.  No book or magazine, no companion for conversation, no i-pod or phone or tablet to browse the internet or text someone.  Just sit.

I further invite you to stay in the moment mentally.  Refrain from mentally wandering into the past, and particularly, refrain from thinking into the future.  Forget that there is a future.  It will help immensely to focus awareness into your senses and particularly your breathing, for your senses exist only in the present moment.  Likewise, refrain from wandering to some place in your mind other than where you are.  You will anyway, and this is OK.  Just notice that you have and with sensory awareness return to the here-and-now.  This is a meditation of sorts but not formal meditation.  Keep your eyes open; don’t do mantra or count breaths.  Sit comfortably but not rigidly, moving to adjust balance and visual perspective.  Just sit there being present and when your mind wanders, bring it back.

I have done this with one of our dogs or cats present and found them most inspirational in their example. Don’t interact too much with the animal; don’t use it as a way to fill the time.  They will have no difficulty sharing these moments with you.  They, unlike you, will have no difficulty being fully present with no need, no urge to do something else (unless something in the environment calls them to do their doggy or kitty thing) and then, of course, what they will be doing is exactly and only what the moment is about.  They will not sit there thinking, “I wish a squirrel would come by; I’m getting bored.”  If the moment becomes a squirrel, they will become the moment with a squirrel in it.  I invite you to do the same thing.  Just be there with what the environment is – noticing, seeing, hearing, feeling, and yes, thinking the moment, only the moment.  If there is a squirrel, be the moment in consciousness containing the antics of a squirrel, or the song of a bird, or a cloud overhead, or the rustling of the leaves by the breeze, or the sweet presence of your pet.

What I am inviting you to be is yourself – your deepest self, the goal of all Buddhist teaching – to awaken into your true, natural, Buddha-self; just sitting there. Eckhart Tolle wrote that who we are is “the moment arising in awareness.”  Of course he was describing the true, natural, Buddha-self, which is what we all are – buried beneath a lifetime of conditioning to be someone else called an ego, a matrix of hypnotic-like suggestions from parents, society, culture, peers, media, etc. to be what they want you to be.  All these are in conflict with each other, and so, of course, you are a neurotic mess, just like everyone else.  This is what we’re here to relieve you of.

Eckhart Tolle once wrote that “enlightenment is in renunciation to get to the next moment.”  I find this to be sheer genius, particularly in the choice of the word “renunciation.”  To renounce is to withdraw giving your identity to something, like “I am an intellectual.”  Finding out this is not as clever a way to live as you had believed, you might in a sense “renounce” declaring your identity as an intellectual.  Here, Tolle is directing us to withdraw finding identity in seeking the next moment.  You probably never thought of yourself in this way, but in truth, just about everyone in our society does.  We are going somewhere with our life, and where we are going is into the future.  Our identity is seeking its fulfillment in the future.  The result is a great restlessness that drives us forward often accompanied by minor or major anxiety about perhaps not arriving at the place we want to be in our life – or even knowing what that is.  We live leaning into the next moment.  For our purposes now, see if you can stop this.  Just sit in the here-and-now.  You’ll find that it is not so easy, for we are restless creatures.

We are restless to do and be something because we have no understanding, no feeling that being is enough.  We have been told since we were small children that we had to accomplish things to prove our worth, and this is nonsense.  We are.  The squirrel is.  Your dog is. The tree and the clouds are.  The planet, the solar system, the galaxies, the universe is. An aspect of enlightenment is knowing this, feeling this.  You are free, in fact encouraged, to do positive things with your life, but the most important aspect of being able to do positive things is to be this one thing – you – most positively.  This means that you know you as complete and whole and positive every moment not needing to do something additional to prove yourself.  This requires you to be completely comfortable in the moment, just as you are, here-and-now.  Renounce needing to get anywhere or be anything other than where and what you already are.  Try mentally saying to yourself: “Here-and-now, I am.”  Wonderful actions will naturally flow from that stability, presence and peacefulness in future moments that you need not worry about.  When you get to those moments you will know what to do if you know how to be here-and-now comfortably in the “absolute present.”

For now, just sit in the vastness of here-and-now somewhere on a pleasant day and train yourself in stability, presence and peacefulness.  No action you could engage in will be more beneficial to your life than this no-action.  Sit, breathe, be.  Be awareness sitting, breathing, being.  Learn why in Zen the phrase “Just this” carries so much meaning.  Infinite insights of “creative vitality” are available in this “absolute present.”

The Silent Mind Awaits

Allow the genuine silence that is ever-present behind the noise of everyday life to increasingly draw you to itself.”   –  Stephen Bodian (Wake Up Now)

When you become responsive to the solicitations of silence, you may be called to explore the invitation.”

Jean Klein

Silence does not sit well with the American character.  If people are gathered together and not otherwise engaged in some activity and nothing is being said, it is sometimes referred to as an “uncomfortable” or “awkward” silence.  In many homes, there will be several TV’s on with no one watching, perhaps some music playing as well.  I know several people who sleep with the TV on, and can’t sleep without it.  The sound “relaxes” them.  In our social encounters, we generally seem much more interested in talking than in listening, and in those encounters, if there are any significant number of people present, there will be a jumble of conversations, each trying to be heard over the others.

Increasingly, people taking walks (even nature walks) will be on their phones or their music players, ear buds in place, quite cut off from the subtle sounds of the world and nature around them.  A busy city street corner is a discordant symphony of sounds; emergency vehicle sirens, autos, buses and trucks, people talking, perhaps construction, the sounds of civilization.   It seems that everywhere, the sounds of modern life drown out nature, and all this sound drowns out our own nature, always there, but forgotten and overlooked in the life of a modern person.  This leads to agitation and agitation leads to anxiety and disquiet, and anxiety and disquiet is one way of looking at what Buddhism means when it speaks of suffering.

In accounts of people from nature-based cultures coming to cities in “civilization” there is a consistent report of being overwhelmed by the noise.  One particular account is of a Native-American in the early 19th century having traveled to Washington D.C. for a treaty negotiation lamenting upon his return to his village that the noise was so terrible that he feared he would never be able to “dream” again.  This, for a traditional Native American of the old ways was a disaster, for “dreaming” was a state of consciousness where the world revealed itself at a deeper level than what is seen, heard and thought at the level of the conventional senses.

“Dreaming” is not the dualistic world where a human is separate from other humans, from animals and the natural world in an organization of linear time, where space is just empty, functioning as an agent of separation; it is the non-dualistic, non-linear realm of energetic consciousness connecting all that is.  In this realm, time and space are non-linear, so prophecy and remote-viewing are possible. Individuality is relative so that a person can be both human and a spirit-animal, see through another’s eyes, and be available to the wisdom of nature, and space is a field of energy connecting objects that have energy patterns and signatures that give them unique properties and powers.

Entering the “dream” realm can occur both while asleep and awake and to lose this capacity was to be banished from the world more real to a traditional Native American, Australian Aborigine, or African Bushman than what we moderns experience as real.  The gate to this realm is the silent mind beneath the cacophony of what we moderns mistake for the limits of mind in its constant noise of sensation, thought and emotion.  It is also the silent realm of nature, the vast background of energetic and vibrant stillness out of which all life activity arises. This silent realm is consciousness which gives rise to all that is.  Individualized it is awareness and it is the field of potential behind and beneath the arising of all sense experience and thought.

When directed to identify mind in our culture, we will identify thought, which is the mind talking to itself.  When we are directed to identify ourselves at our most basic level and experience, we will identify our experience of thought and emotion.  When directed to identify our purpose it will be to leave our mark, in a sense, make some noise so that our presence in this world is noted.  Silence is nothing – it is an absence of anything. In silence, we think we are nobody to the world, so that even when we are externally silent, we are making noise internally, telling ourselves the story of “me.”   But this is only who we think we are.  Wisdom traditions from cultures all around the world and through time tell us that this is a misidentification of catastrophic error.

The greatest Zen koan is the most basic question: “Who are you?” And the Zen tradition tells us that this inquiry must be approached with a silent mind – or at least, for the novice to meditation, the attempt to achieve a silent mind through enforced physical silence and stillness. There you sit, watching the activity of your mind.  How long will it take to realize you are not the activity of the mind, the restless, repetitive jabbering?  Return to the sentence that says “There you sit, watching the activity of your mind.”  Who is this “you?”  Who is watching the activity of the mind?  YOU!  You, the silent awareness that is witness to the restless, repetitive jabbering.  YOU!

All along, through your entire life, the silent mind of awareness is present, its true value and purpose ignored, as overlooked as the air that surrounds you, but which without, you could not exist.  So, too, without awareness you could not exist, for awareness is who you are.  Likewise, without awareness there is no intelligence, for it is not the realm of thought that gives rise to intelligence as is evident by how much of thought is truly useless, often foolish, even harmful.

As aboriginal people and mystics of every culture understood, there is the realm of consciousness that binds and connects the universe, that is the unfathomable intelligence that beats your heart, gives rise to the stars and the atoms, to all that is alive, from the most primitive single cell organism to humanity.  The universe happens as matter and consciousness, the harmony and balance of the forms of matter the result of the infinite and perfect intelligence of the universe.  This perfect intelligence also gives rise to you and me.  We are expressions of the universe just as the stars and planets and birds, trees and oceans.  This is known to us, not as thoughts, but in the silent intuitive intelligence of awareness.

This silent genius is you, beneath the cacophony of chattering mind that thinks you are just Jim or Betty, stumbling to find your place in the world, when your place is right where you are, the universe manifesting as a human being.  You know everything you need to know to brilliantly be a human being the way a tree knows how to be a tree if you will only learn to trust the silent mind that awaits your awakening into the truth of who you are.

Be drawn to this silence, explore its truth and solicitation, and find a peace in your own presence that is simultaneous with all presence.  The universe is happening through you.  Touch the silent mind and you will touch infinity within the finiteness of your life.  Look for the silent mind and it will show itself in the act of looking, for it is the awareness that looks.  Look at the world and live from that which looks adding nothing of what you think – that which thinks is neither you nor the world.  The silent mind is.

Freedom

“The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind.  If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around.  But to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world.  There is just one process acting, and does everything that happens.  It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes.”

  • Alan Watts

 

Freedom is a much abused and misunderstood concept, and a person’s perspective on it tends to come with considerable bias and baggage, and there are people who talk a lot about freedom who seem to have very little understanding of it.  These are people who usually mean that they seek freedom to do what they want, to “push the world around,” and this is often at the expense of someone else or at the expense of the natural world.  Some people want the freedom to amass as much wealth, and privilege as they can and they seem to not care if this places others in the position of lack and want.  Some people want the freedom to exploit nature’s resources not caring about the damage to the environment, other species and future generations that will be the cost of their indulgence.

Some people want the freedom to say, write, broadcast whatever they want, no matter how incendiary or hurtful to others and the general comity of society.    Some people want the freedom to carry guns, and the freedom to hunt and kill whatever wildlife is legal to kill with those guns, and to even kill other humans in the name of self-defense, or even in defense of freedom as they define it.  This point of view places many guns in the world, instruments whose purpose is death, and it opens the way for these guns to be used for illegal killing, but these people see this as just an unfortunate byproduct of protecting their freedom.

Some people want the freedom to take away the freedoms of others through enforcing bigoted or dogmatic ideas onto others, and these people believe any restriction of this is an infringement of their “freedom.”  Many people have their minds divided into me and mine against what is not me and mine.  They use the word freedom in these ways, but there is no freedom here, only enslavement to closed-mindedness.  Only the mind that is open is free.

This mistaken notion of freedom fosters anger and anxiety; it creates the tension of separateness from others and from life that leaves those pursuing this kind of freedom as chronically unhappy and dissatisfied no matter how much of what they want they manage to acquire.  Happiness is always around the bend of “more.”  It is bound to getting and keeping what is believed as entitled, and there is never enough and the supposed happiness that is the goal of this militant assertion of freedom is as short-lived as the moments of ego-victory that come from their fleeting triumphs, dominance and acquisitions.

Freedom is in fact the path to happiness, but it is not the kind of freedom people usually associate with the word.  We could just as easily reverse the order of words and have a better idea of what real freedom is.  Happiness is, in fact, the path to freedom.  This is happiness that is not fleeting but rather a character virtue and it is not in getting something or avoiding some undesired circumstance.  True happiness is a state of mind free of circumstance for its well-being, and freedom is in being one with what is – “to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world.”  Following this path to happiness is the path to freedom and this path to freedom is the path to happiness.

Obviously, we are not talking about the giddy kind of happiness or the adrenaline rush of victory or getting what we want.  We are talking about happiness as equanimity, peace, deep well-being.  This, as Watts noted, is the result of an undivided mind, a mind that sees that it is an expression of the universe in its wholeness experienced through the separateness of a human form.  It is not a human being believing it is the source of consciousness separate from all other consciousness; rather, that consciousness is the source of this human being experienced as “me” also giving rise to the human being experienced as “you,” and giving rise to the tree and the squirrel and the earth and the sky and the rivers and the sun and the stars.  All are expressions of the universe – uni-verse – that story that is one thing appearing as many.

All these forms are seemingly separate when experienced from the separateness of “me,” and this separateness is like a prison causing isolation, and with isolation comes anxiety, fear, anger, pride, greed, jealousy, mistrust, the desire to possess, to make more of “me.”  This brings neither happiness nor freedom.  Enduring happiness and freedom as traits of character occur only when all these forms are experienced as united in the field of consciousness, and “me” is recognized as that field of consciousness, and thus the mind is undivided.  “Me” becomes “I” – not separate and insecure, rather, as in “I am,” an expression of the universe, of God, if that is the language that has meaning for you – who identified as “I am that I am” when Moses asked the name of the Infinite.  This “I” has no insecurity for this one knows itself as an expression of The One. “I am” needs nothing more to fulfill or justify itself.  This is freedom.

Happiness and freedom come not from killing a deer with one good shot so that its head can grace your den; it comes from loving the living grace and beauty of the deer and feeling that grace and beauty within ourselves as the sight of the deer fills our consciousness.  It doesn’t come from the political party you identify with winning an election or a revolution so that your ideas about what society ought to be can be imposed, it comes from transcending differences to stand together as a human society where everyone’s perspective is honored and no one is trampled, where peace and security are assured.  It comes not from chain-sawing a tree, but from planting one and watching it grow.  It comes from the inner strength that allows you to face physical illness, even death with equanimity because you feel your existence does not begin with birth or end with death, but rather is, always has been, and always will be the universe expressing itself as an individual, just as the ocean expresses itself through the forms of waves or the sky through the forms of clouds.  The forms come and go but the source is infinite and always, and just like the waves and the clouds, every living form is connected in and an expression of its infinite source.  We are all the one universe expressing itself through many forms, and the many forms expressing the one universe.

To feel at one with life in all its expressions, the balmy breeze and the ferocious hurricane, sunny and rainy days, easy and difficult times; in all expressions of life – in the plants, animals and fellow human beings, the rivers, the woods, the mountains and deserts, the furry kitten and the dangerous spider.  To be OK, to not be in rejection of any aspect of life, is freedom, and this requires a sense of connection with the sacredness of all life.  That’s what sacredness means – connectedness.  Freedom of religion is not in holding to or imposing any dogmatic belief on another.  Freedom of religion is the freedom to worship life, the Creation that is the Creator, the miracle that “raises my little finger and… creates earthquakes,” and this felt sense cannot be taken away by any despot or political tyranny.  “There is no contrast of ‘I’ and the world.  There is just one process acting.” In this is peace, and in this peace is happiness and freedom, not as something given or taken, but as who you are.

Belief And Faith

Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be.  The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes.  Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.  Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.  Belief clings, but faith lets go”-  Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

There are many, many beliefs and believers, but faith, as Watts uses the word here, is rare indeed, as are those who live in faith.

The word “faith” is used promiscuously in our culture and misapplied to all kinds of what are more accurately defined as beliefs, or even hopes. People say they have faith in God – generally as represented by their particular religion – or that their prayers will be answered if they are sufficiently “faithful.” Perhaps they have faith in a political figure or that their baseball team will win the World Series. This generally speaks to people seeking something they can hold on to, something to which they can attach their identity, that can help them find some specialness and meaning for their lives. They want to believe in something that makes their lives a little less a cipher. They want to be able to pray, chant, sing, dance, follow rigid precepts, burn candles, fast, do penance, laying-on-hands, diksha, participate in rituals that allows them to transcend their frightened sense of vulnerable separateness and merge into something larger. The issue is whether they are merging their individual ego into a larger collective ego or into the no-ego of life and the universe, of God in the universal sense of the word. This is the difference between belief and faith.

People misapply the word “faith” onto belief systems that are imperfect projections of their own egos, looking for specialness and security for their personal identity and those with whom they identify. They pit those of their “faith” and “beliefs” against those of differing “faith” and “beliefs.” This interchangeable use of these words can be applied to religion, but also political/economic ideologies, even dependent interpersonal relationships. These words ought not be considered interchangeable. This misapplication has made religion too often a scourge to human history rather than a refuge and balm. It has allowed deeply flawed political/economic systems to be followed blindly, and become sources of much human strife and misery. It can, as well, create deeply dysfunctional relationships.

This application of the word faith actually reveals a lack of faith. It simply means blind belief, and often a good clue to what is belief rather than faith is the suffix “ism” and just so there is no confusion, this can be applied to Buddhism as well. Buddhism practiced as a belief in the achievement of Nirvana, or for blessings in life if certain practices and teachings are followed by rote, is just as much a flawed belief system as any other “ism.” The word “Buddhism” is a convenience of language. The saving grace of the teachings associated with this word is the warning said to be given by the Buddha to not “believe” what he teaches – rather to let his words and example be pointers to what is real and true – that which can only be experienced in one’s own deep silent faith – that one is in fact seeking that which is already in them – a truth that is silent and is one’s own deepest nature. The teachings, the “ism” of Buddhism, are sometimes described as a boat that can take you to the further shore of awakened truth, Buddha-nature, and that having arrived, the boat must be left behind in order to explore the shore and the vast realm beyond. Clinging to the vessel of the journey is not the point of the journey. “It is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.”

Faith is saying “yes” in the face of life’s uncertainty and confusion. It is saying “yes” I know there is meaning and purpose deeper than events, that events are only servants of a deeper purpose. What is far too rare is faith in basic goodness and kindness and in our common humanity. Rarer still is faith in the perfection and sacredness of nature and the universe – that we, in fact, are expressions of that perfection and sacredness and that within us and through us that wisdom and perfection is expressed and manifested. We only need to quiet our insecure, seeking minds to find that which is already in us, in fact, is who we are. This is the essence of faith. It may not be able to be articulated, it may be a silent sense of “the peace that surpasseth understanding.” There may be any of the myriad names of God, or no God as a personification at all, attached to this felt sense that those who possess it have difficulty articulating. That this sense of faith may leave those who experience it speechless is perhaps its best indicator of authenticity.

The great Zen teacher, Dainin Katagiri, wrote two books, the first entitled Returning to Silence. The second was You Have to Say Something. This catches the conundrum of seeking truth through words or belief systems. So “Buddhism” is a word that points to what a person can only find by letting go of beliefs and words, words in the Dharma, its teachings that are pointers to silent truths behind the words. Yet, you have to say something. The something can only rise from the silent certainty of faith, the felt sense of oneness with the great Source. You can be of any or none of the religious “isms” and have this certainty. You can call it God, Jesus, Allah, Brahma, Buddha. You can call it Life, Nature, the Universe, the Moment, the Mystery, Being. You can call it “I am.” But when any of those names expresses a belief rather than a silent knowing and faith, it is more likely a projection of our ego.

Many would call faith as described by Watts foolish, but it is only through this kind of faith that we can truly find ourselves and our balance and place within life. This sort of faith opens us to truth precisely because it emerges with the realization that we are an expression of life and the universe and therefore, the true nature of life and the universe is like a resonant wave in our consciousness. This is the silent intelligence and capacity for discerning truth that is awareness.

When someone says they are a “person of faith” and you ask them to describe what they mean, and they begin describing the teachings of some “ism” by rote rather than hesitating and offering a disclaimer about how hard it is to describe, then you know you are in the presence of a believer who has not yet found the silent strength within that is “an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.”

But if they speak of some silent “knowing” that strengthens and fortifies them, that takes them beyond the feeling of separateness from life, that allows then to say “yes” to life in all its occurrences and manifestations, that is “a plunge into the unknown,” they have left all boats of belief behind and found the further shore of faith. Remarkably then, it is discovered the further shore is this very life we live, in its ordinary and mundane tasks and challenges, only now, released from preconceptions and clinging, it is experienced with, as the Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel spoke, “sublime wonder,” and with the peace and compassion that naturally arises in the oneness with life that is faith.

In Praise Of Intelligence

One of the best human qualities is our intelligence, which enables us to judge what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is beneficial and what is harmful. Negative thoughts, such as anger and strong attachment, destroy this special human quality; this is indeed very sad. When anger or attachment dominates the mind, a person becomes almost crazed… Under their power we commit all kinds of acts—often having far-reaching and destructive consequences. A person gripped by such states of mind and emotion is like a blind person, who cannot see where he is going. Yet we neglect to challenge these negative thoughts and emotions that lead to near insanity. On the contrary, we often nurture and reinforce them! By doing so we are, in fact, making ourselves prey to their destructive power. When you reflect along these lines, you will realize that our true enemy is not outside ourselves. – Dalai Lama

Increasingly, this nation founded by individuals dedicated to rational enlightenment and as a haven from intolerant religion is drifting toward the legitimization of irrational politics manifesting many of the characteristics of irrational intolerant religion. Within our political discussion there is, among a growing segment of our population, an embrace of bitter anger for anger’s sake and for attachment to opinions that have no basis in fact. In both this type of politics and this type of religion, beliefs are held because they appeal to the dangerous human tendency towards sectarianism where those who are not members of the sect are held in suspicion and fear. What is believed to be true and not true is determined by what the clergy (in this case politicians, media figures and politicized clergy) say is true and not true. It is not surprising that there is a great overlap of those who identify with both this type of religion and this type of politics.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon in American history; it is, in fact, a continual thread where intolerance, resistance to progress, economic inequity and militarism runs strong, whipped into frenzy with emotional sloganeering devoid of factual basis. Should we fail, however, to address our very real problems with intelligence and humility, the consequences will be deep and long lasting . This sectarianism threatens to fracture our society and to steer its national purpose away from addressing commonly shared needs and challenges, diverting energy from rational address of very real problems toward emotional posturing over issues of political dogma. Already, the summoning of common will to deal with our society’s problems has become nearly impossible and the current political climate threatens to make it even more so. On issues of the economy, the environment, international relations, our political process, immigration, and social-and-economic inclusiveness, intolerance of honest debate, even the denial of scientific fact is steering this group’s political agenda. Ideology has become taken as truth because the leadership says it is so, and an echo-chamber of slogans substitutes for intelligent discussion. Why is this happening?

We live in times of unprecedented change. The speed with which technology, economic centralization, globalization and shifting demographics are affecting particularly the white working class’s sense of place and security in the society in which they once felt secure is evoking a disorientation and fear that makes for easy manipulation by those who would use their familiar symbols as rallying cries to stop needed change. Rallying around conservative religion, guns, military strength and adventurism, getting government and its taxes out of their lives, restoring and taking back “our country,” and severely limiting immigration are all seductive and intoxicating arguments when shilled by bombastic preachers of fear and anger whose real motives are power and the entrenchment of those who currently profit from holding the economy and society in their control. Anxiety and fear about the future is well-founded, only it is those who are the real cause of this insecurity who are pointing fingers and diverting the anger upon those who are not.

We are making the catastrophic error of dumbing down our politics and our social agenda, of confusing cleverness at advancing and defending self-interest and sectarian dogmas as intelligence.   Nothing could be further from the truth. True intelligence, as The Dalai Lama said, “enables us to judge what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is beneficial and what is harmful.” To build a society based in respectful inclusiveness and fair sharing of the society’s wealth and benefits is wholesome. To allow a small oligarchy of wealth to control our economy and social agenda towards their own benefit at the expense of the common people is unwholesome. To ignore pressing problems that threaten catastrophic consequences such as environmental degradation, climate change, a middle-class being pushed toward poverty while the impoverished are completely marginalized and our infrastructure goes neglected is harmful. To divert political energy from a healthy society’s highest priority which is to provide economic security and opportunity for betterment to as wide and diverse a circle of the population as possible is not only harmful, it is crazy.

These priests of radical conservatism use the same tactics and strategies that every corrupt and power-hungry leadership has used throughout history. We should be able to recognize the themes. They lie about the nature of our problems and who is responsible, and they do so with a shrillness and urgency that intensifies the unease and suspicion that people already feel because their lives are indeed insecure. This insecurity is ginned into fear and anger, and the people and the society becomes almost crazed. “When anger or attachment dominates the mind, a person becomes almost crazed… Under their power we commit all kinds of acts—often having far-reaching and destructive consequences.”

Real debate and discussion of the society’s problems is rejected, substituted with accusations of weakness, lies and even treachery projected on those who hold differing views and those who would dare to question. Complex problems are reduced to simple equations with the political opposition and the scapegoat populations as the culprits to blame. “We neglect to challenge these negative thoughts and emotions that lead to near insanity. On the contrary, we often nurture and reinforce them!” Shrill accusation and blame replaces intelligent political debate without any consideration for what is true and what is not true. “By doing so we are, in fact, making ourselves prey to their destructive power.” This is all very disheartening and frightening to those who want to engage in a positive and inclusive political process towards addressing pressing and real problems that will determine the quality of the future for all.

Buddhism recognizes compassion, equanimity, charity, humility, non-judgmentalism, and above all, discernment into the truth of what is as marks of intelligence. The truth of what is tells us that we need to have faith in our ability to be increasingly enlightened – that is open-minded and inclusive – as individuals and as a society. It is very telling that whereas Americans once looked to the future in utopian terms, now it is almost always a dystopian future portrayed in our literature and scientific projections. The current celebration of anger, hatred and misplaced blame as the mainstay of the political right-wing’s agenda points us only in such a dystopian direction.

Buddhism calls upon right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (The Eightfold Path) as the guide to wisdom, peace and happiness – as the essence of intelligence. While the political right drapes itself with words like morality and patriotism, Buddhism looks to these principles, regarded as virtues, in which the adjective “right” is not some moralistic judgment, but rather a discerning quality that can see things as they are and knows that only through recognizing and respecting the interdependence and interconnectedness of all people, and in fact, of all life, can we live virtuous and happy lives. Intelligent inquiry into the “what is” of life is its cornerstone.

The Buddhism I present here is not a proselytizing religion, but rather a philosophy, a psychology of proven guides to liberating humans from suffering and ignorance. It welcomes questioning and challenge. It welcomes sincere people of any religious or national orientation to test its principles and adopt what shows its merit rationally. It suggests that we explore for ourselves the validity of its teachings. It recognizes compassion, generosity, kindness, empathy, the application of mindful awareness and discerning intelligence as our highest human qualities, while aggression, anger, greed, selfishness, prejudice and hatred are our greatest threats. This is a teaching proven true in our personal lives and our collective historic experience over and over again. The happiest, most peaceful and stable societies manifest these virtues as do the happiest, most peaceful and stable individuals.   This cannot be denied. It is in the application of open-minded intelligence that this assertion is validated – and it is in holding our political discussion and our government to the standard of these virtues that we have the best chance for a quality, even utopian, future for all.

The Triple Gem

“I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”– The Triple Gem

The Triple Gem is also known as the Triple Refuge and is one of the most important teachings in Buddhism, often taken as a vow by individuals wishing to enter a Buddhist community. The term “gem” is used to emphasize the great value and preciousness of this teaching as it points us to a life that is likewise experienced as precious. In order to understand this teaching, however, we must understand its key words. We must understand what refuge means, and we must understand what Buddha, Dharma, Sangha mean in their deepest context. So too, we must also understand what the pronoun “I” means, for in Zen it is the most profound of koans (a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation). We must understand who this “I” is and what is this “I” that needs refuge, and having found refuge, what is the transformation of our understanding and experience of “I”?

Let us begin with the word, “Refuge.” A dictionary definition tells us that refuge is “shelter or protection from danger or distress.” It is to where we can return for peace and a sense of well-being and psychological safety.  In our discussion, the danger and distress from which we seek refuge is the instability and confusion of our own minds and human society. It is the distress that comes from our frustration with failing to find stable happiness and security in actions and beliefs we are told will lead to happiness and security. The refuge is the peace and well-being available to us when we recognize that what we seek we already possess. We only have to learn to look sufficiently deeply within rather than continuing our habit of looking outside ourselves in our social roles, our possessions and in other people.

So what does it mean to seek refuge in the Buddha? Let us begin by understanding that “Buddha” means “awakened” in the Pali language of ancient India where Buddhism was born. So we are taking refuge in some kind of awakening – and awakening means to move from a state of unconsciousness into consciousness. This is the essential journey and purpose of Buddhist practice. We are to move gradually from what is really a state of semi-consciousness, physically awake but psychologically unconscious to our full potential, into realizing that beyond what we have been conditioned to believe concerning who we are and what the world is about, beliefs filled with insecurities, we are capable of a relationship with life that is vibrant and secure beyond any surface conditions.

2500 years ago in Northern India, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama dedicated his life to understanding the nature of the unnatural emotional suffering that humans experienced in the face of life’s challenges as well as why humans behaved in ways to create unnecessary suffering. In this way, he was truly more a psychologist than a religious figure, and a truly great psychologist he was. Instead of examining others, whom he could only superficially observe, he looked deep within himself, through meditation, so deep that it was no longer Siddhartha looking at Siddhartha, rather, awareness, pure consciousness, was looking at Siddhartha, and not only at Siddhartha, but the entire human dilemma.

He employed the impersonal observational power of awareness to examine the human condition from within, and in this way, he was very scientific. He “awakened” powers of consciousness that are inherent in all humans but lie dormant under layers of identification with the form and idea of who we are. He awakened into being consciousness itself, impersonal and with vast capacities for understanding and insight. This is Buddha. Siddhartha the personality, like all personalities, was filled with insecurities and conflicts, but Siddhartha found refuge in Buddha, awakened consciousness, and so can any human.

Siddhartha made many discoveries, but foremost, he had discovered his true nature as awareness, an unshakable and silent “I” capable of incredible insight and wisdom. He was able to see how this psychological form known as Siddhartha was the product of conditioning, literally the physical, family, cultural and personal conditions that influence a person’s understanding of themselves and the world. He was able to see how it is that humans mistake themselves for this separate physical and psychological form completely overlooking their most fundamental experience, that of consciousness, which has no personalized quality to it. In this sense, the conditioned personality of “I” that is vulnerable to instability in the face of life’s conditions finds refuge in the “I” of awareness, invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

He was able to see how we cling to this physical and psychological form for identity and how unreliable and unstable this identity is, resulting in great anxiety and desire for greater reliability and stability that we search for in the external world of forms, chasing after desires, fleeing from fears and shaken by personal doubt. It was like waking up out of a hypnotic dream to see clearly the full potential of who and what we are as human beings, and for this awakening, Siddhartha became known as “Buddha” – the awakened one.

So the refuge that is the Buddha is the realization of the truth of who we are as awareness, capable of seeing how we create our own danger through mistaken attribution of identity to that which is inherently unstable and unreliable, our own psychological conditioning. It is realizing our usual state of consciousness is this projected state of conditioned images, much like an opaque screen covering over the clear light of true consciousness. To be awake is to turn this around and shine the clear light of pure consciousness upon the images projected and see them for what they are and become free of their hold. This was the lesson of the Buddha’s first teaching called the Four Noble Truths.

Dharma is the Sanskrit word (Dhamma in Pali) that means “truth” or the teachings that lead to understanding the truth of the nature of the way life is. We can have faith that the truth that leads to safe refuge from unnecessary suffering in our personal life is attainable because Siddhartha, the Buddha, showed the way and there are countless individuals through the ages that have attained this enlightenment following the path the Buddha demonstrated. These teachings and practices are practical and attainable and there is both a historic and present day community practicing this path. This community is known as the Sangha.   We are not alone.

Dharma is the Universe as it is – vast and mysterious yet comprehensible in the unfathomable intelligence and insight of the silent mind of consciousness, for consciousness, co-manifesting with form, is the Universe. We are apertures of consciousness in form through which the Universe experiences itself, and likewise, form can intuit and begin to comprehend the infinite Universe, as ancient mystics did, as Siddhartha did, as modern quantum-field scientists are beginning to do. We can let go of fear as we understand ever more deeply the Dharma of infinite unity of which we are expressions. Buddhism’s teachings and practices, specifically meditation and mindfulness open this door.

The Sangha is available to us both immediately, in the many teachers, groups and communities that are engaged in meditation, study and application of the principles of awakening, and in the abstract through books, both Buddhist and otherwise, written by people who have seen the nature of suffering rooted in ignorance and point us encouragingly toward our own search for truth. Non-Buddhist examples would be Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Meister Ekhart, Galileo, Copernicus, Rumi, Voltaire, Kant, Emerson, Thoreau, Krishnamurti, Teilhard de Chardin, Albert Einstein, Abraham Heschel, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Eckhart Tolle. The list can go on and on including any author or personality that has been a source of inspiration leading a person to know they are not alone in their questioning and search for answers into the human condition.

Sangha can be found in Nature-based cultures like Native American or the ancient Druids that lived believing in balance and the wisdom and infinite connectedness of the natural world. It may even be found in writers of fiction or artists and musicians who wrestle with the human condition and from whom inspiration and solace is to be found. The Sangha of awakening is everywhere to be found. It may have been a supportive teacher, a kindly neighbor, a wise friend. The refuge, the safe place for us to return and find encouragement for us to explore the truth of who we are and what it is to be a human being is all around us. Even the birds and squirrels, the trees, the mountains, the waters and clouds can speak to us as family and reveal their secret of unity and peace.

It is true that society, our human interactions, and even our own minds can be places of emotional, even existential danger and distress. Look to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Awakening, the Way and the Community of humanity and Nature evolving into wisdom, compassion and insight await us as truly effective refuges from ignorance and the ego-based shallowness, indifference, materialism, even cruelty and exploitation of our contemporary world, as well as the confusion of our own minds.

Embrace these gems and discover the “I” that can see and know peace, wisdom and unity. These refuges can sustain and guide us into finding balance for the personal and insecure egoic “I” that struggles with the world through the realization of the ultimate “I,” the spark of consciousness that is our primary experience, that knows there is no separation from the world. This is the “I” that knows we are the world arising in awareness moment to moment and that ultimately there is no struggle, no obstacle, no suffering, just life, and we are that life. Engage life fully, resist nothing emotionally, take nothing personally, deeply appreciate the wonder that is life, while working to bring our personal and communal experience into deeper compassion, effectiveness and wisdom. This is the Buddhist Way. This is the Triple Gem.

The Path of Return

“In each of us, the seed of Buddha, the capacity to wake up and understand, is called Buddha nature. It is the seed of mindfulness, the awareness of what is happening in the present moment… There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha. But the treasure we are looking for remains hidden to us… Let go of the idea that you don’t have it. It is available within you.”Thich Nhat Hanh

We come to a meditation practice generally with the idea to make our life-experience better in some way. We may want less stress or anxiety in our lives. We may want to have a calmer mind, not so beset by runaway or unwelcome thoughts and emotions. We may want to feel more centered, less scattered. We may want to gain insight and better control of some behavior or behavior pattern that has become problematic. We may feel there is a spiritual dimension to life that has eluded us and we hope meditation will open this dimension for us. In each case, we want something about “me” to be improved. This idea of “me” improving, of being slightly less tense, anxious, distracted, of being more centered and focused, calm and maybe even spiritual is laudable, and meditation can bring these gifts. Paradoxically, however, this idea of “me” gaining positive benefits presents an obstacle to the realization of the expansive freedom that is the true fruit of a dedicated meditation practice guided by a teacher who has made the journey themselves.

Few bring to a meditation practice awareness of how profound and transformative it actually can be, and fewer still realize that all that stands between them and meditation’s full realization is their holding onto the idea of who they think they are and their bringing this self-image to the practice.   Buddhist literature, such as the Thich Nhat Hanh quote above, can be confusing, often using arcane language that the uninitiated have difficulty grasping.   To say “There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha” does not make any sense from within conventional Western perspectives. It is like saying there is no one who does not have the capacity to be Jesus, and that would be considered blasphemous. So it may be considered inspiring, but not factual.

Yet, I suspect, Jesus would have understood perfectly what Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhism are saying when they tell us to realize we all have the capacity to be a Buddha, for I see Jesus as a great mystic, a Zen Master, and we are being called here to realize within us dimensions that transcend our usual perspective and outlook. Buddhism is a very different manifestation of religion from Christianity precisely because the Christian notions of “Messiah” and “Savior” are concepts that create a separation in the nature of the kind of being that are the worshiper and the worshiped, not identification. It is very important to realize that Buddha wanted no worship of him and I see no evidence that Jesus did either. Buddha wanted identification and I have to believe so did Jesus. The worship of a religious figure as differentiated from finding inspiration and a model for how we can live our own lives lead to very different manifestations of the religious life.

Religions reflect the customs of the culture in which they grow and the Middle-Eastern culture that brought forth Jesus was one of God worship with God in Heaven and the connection to Earth was to be an intermediary, a Messiah and Savior, in Jesus, a “son of God.” The Middle-East, and later Europe where Christianity flourished, were cultures where religion was expressed in duality – humanity is here on Earth, God is in Heaven. In these cultures intermediary figures are necessary, beginning with demi-gods represented by Jesus, and then saints, then a clerical hierarchy. There is a gulf between deity and the common person.   Michelangelo’s painting of The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Adam reaches for but cannot quite touch God exemplifies this.

Ancient Asia, on the other hand, was a world where the Universal Soul, the Ultimate Source known as Brahman (Westerners’ equivalent of God) was not in Heaven, but rather in Creation, all around in the world, and in us, individually expressed through the word Atman. While Buddhism does not concern itself with mythic theology, it was born in this theological cultural context and, in a sense, this notion of Buddha we are addressing here is equivalent to Atman awakened – and living ordinary life. All the religious figures in the Buddhist world are fully human or mythic amalgams representative of virtuous aspects of human nature, such as compassion, insight and wisdom brought to full fruition. The clergy in this world serve as teachers and role models, not intermediaries with divinity. This is what Buddha claimed for himself and what he invited his followers to discover not by worshiping him, but through identification with him and direct experience of the benefits of his way of living and his insights into the true nature life.

There is a story about how when Buddha began to travel and teach after his enlightenment, people were so awestruck by the depth and peacefulness of his presence they would ask, “Are you a god?” To which Buddha said, “No, I am not a god.” Then they asked him “Are you a reincarnation of a god?” No,” he replied. “Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” Well, are you a guru?” “No.” They then asked, being very perplexed, “So what are you?”  Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.”

Buddha taught that he was an ordinary human who had awakened into the full and original potential of what it is to be a human being, free from being covered over and lost beneath social, cultural and psychological conditioning. He knew he was an expression of the Universe, Atman/Brahman-as-a human-being, if you will, and was prepared to live and interact in the world in this unshakeable knowledge, for his meditation had revealed this truth to him, and the name “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”

Humans become lost by attaching and clinging to their very worldly conditioning for their identity.   In the process of becoming this conditioning, our original wondrous potential of intelligent awareness encountering the world, manifesting fresh each moment, becomes lost. It is as if we become a hypnotically induced idea of a human being. This idea is a delusion of separateness and insufficiency that leads to an experience of life that is always ultimately “unsatisfactory,” which is a very useful translation of the Pali language word, “dukkha,” more often translated as “suffering.”

In Buddhist parlance, “The Path of Return” is the realization that this idea of a person, our particular body, mind and life history are not ultimately who we are, and it is what is pointed to when the Zen teacher asks, “show me your original face.” The teacher is asking us to realize we are primordial Atman manifesting Brahman into the ordinary world. The Path of Return is when we let all idea of our conditioned self fall away and allow the moment experienced in awareness, as awareness, to fill us completely. It is in opening to the unbelievably vast dimensions of understanding and presence that already exist within us. Buddhist meditation is specifically designed to facilitate this possibility of realizing awareness-as-who-we-are optimally.

We come to meditation practice with no idea that there is a pure and vast experience of Beingness available to us. We have no idea that the secret to meditation is to get out of one’s own way, so we bring our body, mind and personal identity and history to our meditation. We listen to the dharma teachings about Buddha being within us, but we do not believe and we do not bring unshakeable resolve to awaken, to return to our own inherent purity. We carry too much of the dichotomic teaching of our religious conditioning. Buddha within is taken as a metaphor like Christ within, when, in truth, neither is metaphoric. Buddha and Christ are within each of us, or there would be no Buddha or Christ at all. Because these states of original purity existed in the humans Siddhartha and Jesus, they exist in all humanity. This potential only needs to be awakened as it was in Buddha and Jesus. This very different notion of religion invites us to realize that what we think of as God manifests through us. It is the Universe as intelligent Source and we, of course, are its manifestation as is all of Nature, and I believe this was the intention of Jesus’s teachings, as it was very specifically Buddha’s intent. This is why Buddhism emphasizes to realize true self in being “nobody.” Only total freedom from holding onto our “somebody” as created by our conditioning can open this door.

If you want to change, if you want to become your idea of better, come to meditation ready to shake free of all ideas you have about yourself. Be prepared to let go of the known. The journey of return is not one on which you bring baggage and it is a journey that takes you nowhere except to where you begin. There is needed only the unshakeable resolve to become who you already are. The journey is inward and then, out into the world, awake and increasingly free from the baggage of social, cultural, psychological conditioning. Meet your true self in the vast stillness of the Universe. This is the Path of Return. The Universe is manifesting through you. “The awareness of what is happening in the present moment” is the you that is a lens of consciousness into the world. Polish the lens in stillness until the vision is brightly clear, until you become nobody, nothing but the lens. Then move in the world, an ordinary person, a Buddha using the conditions of body, mind and cultural understanding, awake, returned to your original face, the idea of making yourself somehow better now realized as a case of mistaken identity. All you sought to find through meditation was in you all along. You have returned.

Awakened Politics

“I am not only a socialist but also a bit leftist… When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent.” – Dalai Lama

The word “Buddhism” comes from the root word “Buddh” meaning “awaken” and “ism,” the suffix meaning a doctrine, a practice, adherence to a system of principles.  Often the suffix “ism” is connected to political philosophies, as in this country we can say that in an election we are asked to endorse candidates who represent conservatism or progressivism. One current progressive candidate for President has, at times, identified himself as an advocate for Democratic Socialism, the political perspective that guides our allies in Western Europe.  This is a courageous declaration in American politics for Socialism and those who espouse its tenants have been slandered viciously in the history of modern American politics as “Commies,” “Bolsheviks,” even as traitors.  It therefore is very instructive to have a beacon of Democratic justice and compassion, such as the Dalai Lama, own Socialism as his political philosophy.

I too share the Dalai Lama’s point of view.  I have identified myself as a follower and practitioner of both Buddhist and Democratic Socialist principles for they are quite compatible.  I agree with the Dalai Lama that it is a matter of religious principle to engage actively the political process in the confrontation and overcoming of economic and other forms of injustice.  It is the “awakened” thing to do, for in the Buddhist context, to be awakened is to see the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all life and to realize that only the truth of unity leads to peace.  Nature is a unity, a balance in which each takes only what they need, and so a harmonious balance is sustained.  As a favorite bumper sticker of mine declares, “One People, One Planet, One Future” and the political philosophy that best shares this perspective is most certainly Democratic Socialism, and I see it as an awakened political philosophy that progresses the ideal of a harmonious, peaceful, sustainable human society.  Conservatism, on the other hand, seeks to conserve a system that has shown itself to be based in aggressive nationalism, classism, prejudices, inequity and exploitation.

Examining the term Democratic Socialism, Democratic means favoring political, economic and social equity and justice, with full participation of all citizens in the political life of the society, respecting individualism; while Socialism means governmental regulation of privately owned commerce toward a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of a society.  It is not communistic; rather, it establishes a range of distribution that allows for wealth but not poverty.  It seems that Democratic and Socialism naturally go together, one representing political egalitarianism and the other economic egalitarianism.  Capitalism, on the other hand, is a system that not only allows for, but favors wealth.  It is organized so as to concentrate great wealth in the hands of a small segment of the society to the necessary consequence of significant poverty for others, and can be significantly oligarchical and anti-democratic.

Capitalism, per se, meaning private ownership of commerce, as a strategy for engaging entrepreneurial energy and creativity is a good concept.  Unfettered Capitalism, however, inevitably becomes a ravenous carnivore without limit on its appetites, necessitating victims of its appetites and is a very poor model upon which to organize a society.  No such creature exists in Nature except humans when their society is organized around selfish ego rather than compassionate fairness.  It is not an awakened philosophy and the Dali Lama sees it as contrary to religious principles, as does the current Pope.  They urge us to follow compassionate unity rather than selfish separateness.  If we look to Denmark, France, Germany, even to some extent, our neighbor Canada, all being governed by some expression of Democratic Socialism, we can see this blending of capitalist creativity and reward with compassionate fairness.  There is a fundamental belief in human dignity and full participation and access to the fruits of society as a human right not as a prize for the most blessed and aggressive.

There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. This would nevertheless require a courageous change of attitude on the part of political leaders. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!
The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so; the culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!” 
– Pope Francis

The people and the political leaders of the United States are faced with finding within themselves the courage, honesty and wisdom to change their beliefs and biases, as the Pope suggests, to create a society that is more equitable and conscious, that recognizes that the corporate capitalism that has become a sort of unquestioned religion of our society, has created exactly “The culture of selfishness and individualism…(that) is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world.”  We are in need of a social evolution that is peaceful and democratic, for peace and democracy is what we seek, and only what Buddhism calls “right” means can achieve right ends, “right” meaning compassionate and aligned with truth.  I choose to use the word evolution rather than revolution deliberately because it is not a change of governmental system that we need, only an expanding of the consciousness of the democratic system we already have.

Our problem is that the democracy of our American Revolution is struggling to evolve in the manner I believe the founders intended when they enshrined principles such as “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  The conservative forces of this nation have always fought against the true realization of the promise of “we the people” free of conditions or exceptions.  And sadly, they often do so hiding behind manifestations of religion quite antithetical to what the Pope and the Dalai Lama espouse.

The struggle for full sharing of a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty continues.  Awakened politics is to engage in the peaceful struggle to realize this more perfect union, and I suggest that the American people look to the sort of Democratic Socialism that our friends in Western Europe have adopted and that one candidate in this American Presidential election has courageously espoused for the more than forty years of his public service.  This is socialism that is no threat to individual expression, creativity or a comfortable style of life, it only expands the circle to whom these blessings are available.

Religious people must struggle to solve these problems… If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having… That anger is directed toward the social injustice itself, along with the struggle to correct it, so the anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions.” – Dalai Lama

The democratic elective process our forefathers bequeathed us gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promise of “we the people,” but only if we engage our democratic system through peaceful political action and free our election process and governmental institutions from special-interest domination.  We must direct whatever energy of anger we feel towards social injustice into bringing about this social evolution.  Wecan achieve this evolution, inspired by the non-violent principles of the Dalai Lama and the Pope, principles shared and lived by Martin Luther King – a man who understood fully his religious duty to engage social injustice with peaceful anger so as to bring about the fruits of “liberty and justice for all.”   This is awakened politics.

In this Christmas season and in the months and years to come,  if we work energetically motivated by “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All,” we can create a human culture of solidarity that Pope Francis assures us “leads to a more habitable world … seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!”

Gratitude Is A Healing Choice

“Every day we touch what is wrong, and as a result, we are becoming less and less healthy. That is why we have to learn to touch what is not wrong – inside us and around us… Peace is available. We only have to touch it… Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby… We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime… Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Many people seem to define themselves by what they see as wrong with the world. Social conversations are quite often an exchange of complaints, judgments and negativity. Yet, reality is that side by side, every moment, a choice exists to be experiencing gratitude for ever-present gifts or complaint about perceived lacks, and quite simply, the quality of our lives is in the choice we make. Unfortunately, we don’t really see this as a “choice” – our conditioning to complaint and negativity is so automatic. Mostly, we make no conscious choice at all.

Yes, sometimes at the forefront of our experience something wonderful may be occurring, and gratitude naturally flows forth. “Yes! Thank you!” And then there are the times when we have forced upon us great difficulty or pain. Usually, our lives move along hum-drum in a kind of neutral zone, some people tending toward a more optimistic nature and some toward more persistent pessimism. Then with a mind like some autonomous happiness meter, events around us swing our needle between happy and unhappy. We are not conscious that we have a choice in these circumstances. Life events run our mental well-being.

Buddhism teaches us it does not have to be this way. Buddhism teaches us that the human egoic mind compulsively divides the world into the three categories of the things we want, the things we don’t want, and the things we have no preference for one way or the other, neutral. Buddhism further teaches us to not assume things are as they initially appear and that there really is no “or” in this formula, for every moment is filled with the wonderful and the terrible and the neutral; it’s only a matter of what you focus upon and the conditioned value-system you bring to what is experienced. Buddhism teaches us to notice that happiness and unhappiness are choices that are usually made at an unconscious level, and calls to us to bring this choice-making up to the level of consciousness. It teaches us to be present to experience as much of the all of what is happening as we are able.

So – what do we want? We want to be happy and we don’t want to suffer, and if life is filled with the wonderful, the terrible and the neutral, and we experience these evaluations to a great extent by how we are conditioned, what happens if we train our minds to seek the wonderful and to look deeply into the neutral and even the terrible for hidden wonders and opportunities to grow in joy, wisdom, compassion and skillfulness? What happens if we train ourselves to find reasons for gratitude with whatever life presents us? Won’t there be more happiness and less unhappiness, more gratitude and less resentment?

Deeper still – and this is what Buddhism is opening us to – there will be discovered a peacefulness, a sense of equanimity, an ability to abide with what is – no matter what it is – with a faith and confidence in ourselves that we will be OK – and that this is not happenstance, but the fruit of our practice in mindful living. When we bring consciousness into our experience, into what is happening around us, to us and within us, and we learn to be masters of responding to the full potential of each moment rather than reacting to superficial elements that register our “happiness-unhappiness meter,” our lives most certainly become deeper and richer. We discover that we have choices no matter what is happening, and we discover that the choice for gratitude is a powerful tool for affecting the quality of our lives.

Gratitude for the bounties that life bestows is clearly an important element of living with depth and quality, and fortunately for most of us, in the balance, our lives have been bountiful. Certainly in the flow of human history, to be an American at the beginning of the 21st Century is an absolute bubble of security and plenty. There are no plagues or famines, no invaders sweeping across the borders pillaging and enslaving as they go. It’s pretty important to remember that these devastating circumstances have often been the general human condition throughout history and still are in some places on this planet. We are free of that, even if, right now, for some individuals, by American standards, life may be pretty difficult. On the whole, our lives are remarkably blessed.

We still are vulnerable to death, disease, family disintegration, job loss, financial crises, and for far too many, either transitory or implacable poverty, so, on the individual level, even though the society on the whole may be pretty comfortable, life can get very difficult. It is in these circumstances that the choice to see reasons for gratitude as your response to life can be, while not easy, very important.

There is a story of a man who lived on the Chinese northern frontier in the days of the Mongol Empire. One day his only horse ran away over the border. Everyone tried to console him, but while the man thanked the consoling people for their concern, he also said, “We must wait and see.” Then, one day the horse returned, bringing with it a Mongol pony, and everyone congratulated the man. The man again said, “Thank you but we must wait and see.” Soon thereafter, while trying to ride the Mongol pony, the man’s only son fell and broke his hip. Consolations came and the man again responded with hesitancy to commit to the meaning of the event. The story goes on that the Mongols invaded, all able young men were called to fight, and nine out of ten were slaughtered in the fight, but because of the hip injury the man’s son had not been conscripted and so was spared. Through it all the man maintained equanimity, and equanimity is peace, and peace of mind is the essence of that which is even deeper than happiness or unhappiness.

Another story has a man, this time in the south of China, walking through a forest when he is chased by a tiger. He flees, and finding himself trapped at the edge of a precipice over a killing drop, he notices a vine growing from the face of the cliff within his reach and outside the reach of the tiger. He clambers over the edge and holds on to the vine knowing that to fall is certain death. As Chinese symbolism would have it, two mice, one white, one black, pop out of a burrow and begin gnawing at the vine. The tiger is above him, falling to his death is below him. The man notices a berry growing within reach and eats it. His mind is filled with appreciation at how sweet the berry tastes. Rather than the reactive choice of terror, he consciously sought a small element of the moment that could bring delight. In this moment of certain death, he made a choice for gratitude. Both these stories point to what in the Biblical tradition could be called “the peace that surpasseth understanding.”

Do take time to notice the beautiful commonplace and make the choice to give thanks that there are no tigers or invading Mongols in your life, or if there are, hold to waiting and seeing while noticing that there are also berries just within reach, even if the berry is only learning that you have reserves of strength and peace deeper than you imagined. Remember: ”Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders … Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing.” That remembering is a choice for gratitude that heals our pain and lightens our heart.

A Wave On The Ocean

A wave on the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death. But the wave is empty. The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self. A wave is a form which has been made possible thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave only sees its form, with its beginning and end, it will be afraid of birth and death. But if the wave sees that it is water, identifies itself with water, then it will be emancipated from birth and death. Each wave is born and it is going to die, but the wave is free of birth and death.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Zen challenges us to empty our experience of separate self to realize our infinite connectedness and fullness. Like the wave, our mortal existence has a beginning, duration, and qualities that are caused by conditions much like how the weather affects the waves, and then ends. Does it, like the wave, however, all lead to new beginning? Can we feel that we are never not an expression of that which is unchanging, much like the waves are never not the water? Can we intuit that for us, as for all life, the eternal constant is the Universe-as-Beingness within which and, as which, we manifest? Can we know that we are the wave and the water, that we are a form made possible by infinite Beingness out of which we arise and to which we return like the wave and the water?

To only see, hear, touch, and think of the world as separate objects is not enough. It haunts us with an unquenchable insecurity. We are compelled to seek more and more significance of some, any sort. It causes us to fear our ending. In the Buddhist context, it is suffering – the inescapable feeling that something is missing causing us to cling and grasp for more. Like the peak and trough of the wave, this insecurity pushes us between frothy action and depressed inaction. We cannot see that our true creativity is, like the oceans, the vast quiet source of life itself. A natural instinct to manifest and create is a wonderful expression of the creative Universe happening through us, but a need to make more of our separate self out of insecurity concerning our essential meaning and worth is tragic. No peace can be found in it.

No wonder we are drawn to sit by the sea. As the waves and surf come and go, the sleeping memory of who we are deeper than what comes and goes sometimes awakens. We are drawn to sit by the vast and deep nature of the sea that never comes and goes, and with it comes some sense of comfort, ease and peace. We can sit for hours watching the rolling waves, sensing that what lies beneath resonates with that which is our deepest core.

Often we go to the sea for what we call a vacation – a get-away from our hurried and stressful lives. Struggling in the choppiness of the waves of contemporary life, going up, going down, going up, going down, we have no sense of that which, even in the midst of the stormiest of times, is deeper, calmer, constant, and peaceful. We have no knowing that as the wave is always the water, we are always the vastness and constancy of awareness, that which is witness to the storm or tranquility on the surface of our lives. We do not know how to take ourselves deeper to where the flowing currents of calm and peace are the natural environment of our essence.

To breathe the moment as it is, to feel, hear, and see the moment, not only in its surface manifestation, but in the underlying currents of consciousness out of which what is felt, heard, seen, and even thought arises – this is awareness. This is the vast sea of our existence without beginning and without end. The awareness that experiences you sitting reading this column is the same awareness that experiences every occurrence of your day. It is the constant presence in your life, just as the sea is the constant presence for every wave upon it. So too, we must ponder, as every moment is a wave on the sea of your life, could it not also be true that the span of your life is but a wave on the sea of eternity?

Not only are the seas of our planet vast and connected, creating one true encircling sea having no beginning or end, the action of evaporation transmutes the water into clouds that then releases as rain that refills the seas creating an endless cycle. And so too, there is deep within us, an intuition of the endless transmutation of form within infinite consciousness that gives rise to the universal intuition of deity and afterlife. We are born with this sense of infinite intelligence and life beyond our individuality. It is archetypal, universal to every culture, but rather than it being the beautiful principle that unifies humanity and its world, human ego creates dogma and religions that separate us and set us against our inner and environmental nature. This is suffering.

We live afraid of life and death. We are afraid our life and death will not be significant. We struggle to give our life and death significance. With this fear, our lives become tossed about by stormy waves, and we long for peaceful waters, when the peace we seek is always present – only deeper than we know how to go. Zen asks us to stop struggling against drowning in the waves and learn to enter the depths where, empty of the insecure separate self, we cannot drown.

Zen asks us to realize our face before we were conceived – a realization not to be believed because it is said by those we consider holy – but because we already know it. It is a knowing realized when we learn to go beneath the choppy waves of our surface existence to explore the clear, peaceful currents of deep consciousness in the most profound of meditations. Here we can find the face eternal, not with nose and mouth, but the smile of galaxies in the dance of the cosmos. This is Buddha’s smile, the smile he promised is within us all. This smile is the morning sunrise, the song of the birds, a baby’s smile, given without discrimination. It heals suffering.

Perhaps the awareness that is the unchanging witness to a person’s life can be said to experience birth and death but is not born and does not die. Rather, it exists as the eternal consciousness that is the primordial essence of awareness. To enter the quiet, deep stillness of the ocean of consciousness, aware of awareness, and sit watching the passing forms in the mind called thoughts, emotions and sensations, no matter how stormy, as they appear and pass like waves, is the genius of meditation. Awareness is felt as our true unchanging and deep compassionate presence and we can intuit that our existence, like the water of the sea and waves and clouds and rain, is endless.

Be not afraid. Breathe and know the breath of life, sink into the quiet currents and know the life that continues beyond the breath in the peaceful stillness of awakened awareness carried along, wave after wave, moment after moment, that is ultimately one moment, called eternity.

“If you are the wave and you become one with the water, looking at the world with the eyes of water, then you are not afraid of going up, going down, going up, going down… I have seen people die very peacefully, with a smile, because they see that birth and death are only waves on the surface of the ocean.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Obstacles

“Obstacles do not block the path, obstacles are the path.” – Zen saying

When the term “obstacles” is used conventionally, we tend to think of problems and circumstances that have interrupted or blocked our progress to the accomplishment of some goal or desire. But to understand the puzzling meaning of this Zen teaching we have to reframe completely our idea of what obstacles and goals are. In Buddhism, there is only one worthy goal, and to quote the Zen Master Yasutani, it is “to meet the True Self,” a term used to describe an insight into the non-dualistic truth of existence and thus, who we really are and what our capacities for clarity and insight truly are.

From a conventional perspective, our goals are viewed as ways of establishing our lives as significant, and their accomplishment is highly desired, and the “obstacles” towards their fulfillment are our frustrations. Zen, in its usual paradoxical manner, instructs us that, in truth, it may well be that our greatest obstacles are our goals and desires themselves, and it may be that what we experience as obstacles to reaching our “goals” are our great opportunities towards the development of the true purpose of our lives – to grow in wisdom, compassion, insight and skill.

So, as we live our ordinary lives, we have an idea of ourselves moving toward goals. As we experience success in meeting these goals, we feel pleased; as we are thwarted and frustrated in meeting these goals, we feel unhappy. Anxiety about the future of our ambitions and despondency and anger at past failure is typical. We experience being not-OK with our lives. Buddhism, as a psychology or philosophy of life, above all, points us toward being OK with life beyond success and failure in our endeavors and experiences.

What we are exploring here is how the traditional idea of goals, such as dedicated focus on what we consider success, can get in the way of our being OK. This is obviously true if our goals are frustrated, but it is also true if they are fulfilled; for we begin to believe with ever greater certainty in these goals as the purpose of life, and, as Buddhism and life teach, everything that comes also goes. Peace and well-being cannot be accomplished through material success. Success only breeds desire for more success. Eventually this strategy will fail, but as long as we believe in it, we are diverted from opening beyond this belief that says happiness comes from success. In this way, success is an obstacle to realizing deeper and truer skills and perspectives. Likewise, frustration, even seeming catastrophe, may open us to look for deeper and broader perspectives, and in hindsight be realized as the source of our most important growth.

Buddhism is a set of precepts and insights into life accompanied by the development of mental skills that have proven effectiveness in leading to increased peace and well-being or OK-ness, independent of success or frustration in conventional terms. The great Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh helps us better understand the key to Buddhist perspective and practice when he points out that there are two dimensions to our existence – the “historical” and the “ultimate.” The historical dimension is the idea of our life experienced in the timeline of past, present, and future, and the important word here is “idea.” We all live inside an idea of who we are made up of experiences, desires, fears, hopes, and capacities about which we are confident and capacities about which we are insecure. This idea of our self is very unstable, highly personalized and quite insecure. To this historical identity, obstacles are events, circumstances or people who obstruct the fulfillment of the idea of me getting to the goals that I imagine will give me peace, well-being and happiness. We believe that they are the reason we are not-OK.

To explore the meaning of “the ultimate dimension” we have to return to Master Yasutani’s invitation to meet our “true self.” This is no idea of who we are. This is who we are deeper than experiences, thoughts, desires, fears, hopes, and capacities about which we are confident or insecure. To the true self in the ultimate dimension, the “obstacles” encountered in the historical dimension are merely opportunities for practicing transcending the reactivity of the historic-self, understanding that it is our own ideas about events, ourselves, people and our life-circumstance that are the source of our feeling not-OK.

We have all experienced obstacles to the historic-self. We’ve had problems and losses in relationship, occupation, the fulfillment of our desires, perhaps even severe illness or disabling injury. Even driving across town can be a frustrating encounter with the obstacle of traffic, throwing us into varying states of not-OK-ness, for some, even rage. As these events occur in the historical dimension, we are affected quite adversely. We experience very difficult, perhaps overwhelming, negative emotions. We are reactive and judgmental about what is happening. It is this reactivity and judgment that our practice works with through realizing that as we are aware of these states of not-OK-ness, the awareness that witnesses it all is completely OK. We begin to recognize awareness as the pure witnessing consciousness before any thought or emotion colors the experience into good or bad. We are taking the first steps in discovering that awareness is the mind of the ultimate dimension and our true self and that ultimately we are that awareness. We begin to realize that we are awareness that has a body and a mind that engages circumstances in the historical realm, and that while body and mind may be threatened, awareness is not, cannot be, threatened for it exists in the ultimate dimension acting as witness to the historical dimension.

If we are to become conscious in our lives, that is, living from awareness of things as they are in large, even vast perspectives, rather than as we concoct them in our very small idea of our self and the world, we must practice living in awareness, the pure witnessing consciousness of the present moment unfolding. As obstructive events occur, our historical self, the mind of ego, reactivity and judgment, experiences these obstacles as injurious and frustrating. Awareness, the mind of the true self, witnesses and discerns the unfolding of events and is only there to learn and become more skillful. The obstacles as defined by the ego gradually become experienced as the path to personal growth into realization of the true self.

When upsetting events occur in our historical dimension, our personal sense of self experiences being threatened and diminished by the event and we experience debilitating negative emotion as a result. An encouraging truth, however, is that often, with time, the event becomes just another incident in our lives – neutral, or it may even become valued because it brought with it perspective on the relevant circumstance that, with distance, we learn much about ourselves and the circumstances that we were incapable of seeing at the time. Our growth as a wiser, more skillful person gives credit to the then painful experience as now a valued lesson. This is awareness working through the passage of time as the event becomes more distant from our personal experience unfolding. As the event becomes less personally threatening, we are able to see the deeper truths it reveals. We can trust that this process happens for we have experienced it many times and this trust can be a great ally in bringing this lesson into the immediacy of a challenging situation.

Our practice, then, is to bring this capacity for perspective to the events of our lives as they happen. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki once said, “The essence of Zen is ‘Not always so,’” meaning that events are not always as they seem from the limited perspective of our personal conditioning. As we walk our path in life in the historical dimension our practice is to simultaneously maintain our perspective in the ultimate dimension where we can always be remembering, “Not always so”– always available to allowing that seeming obstacles can be valued elements of our path. Rather than having to go through weeks, months, or years of suffering as the lesson of a particular obstacle is processed, we can grow in the ability to look deeply into what is happening in the now. When we shift into present moment awareness in the midst of difficulties we can see what is happening with greater perspective and use the event as an opportunity for expanded capacities in wisdom, skill, compassion and insight. We can see the obstacle as the path and proceed mindfully towards its awaiting lessons free of resistance.

Great Compassion

“For those of you who want to attain enlightenment, do not study many teachings. Only study one. What is it? It is great compassion. Whoever has great compassion has all Buddha’s qualities in his hand.” —Lord Buddha

This is a truly remarkable teaching, but what is it the Buddha meant by “great compassion”? The conventional definition of compassion as sympathy for the suffering of others certainly applies, but this is not enough. While sympathy for others’ suffering is an essential and necessary element of great compassion, it is really only a place of beginning; a beginning that we must cultivate and expand upon.

First, please understand that” feeling sorry for” is not great compassion. This is compassion in its smallest sense. This is understanding compassion in an egoic sense – I feel sorry for, have concern and care, for you. This is very good, but it is essentially dualistic and speaks to separateness and judgments; and it tends to be exclusionary, speaking only to those with whom “I” find identification. It can even speak of a sense of superiority to the one it is directed toward. Great compassion, in order to be “great,” has to have the sense of encompassing everyone and everything at the heartfelt level of empathy and identification. It has to arise from our fundamental non-dualistic realm of Beingness.

“I” am not really capable of having unlimited compassion, for the very concept of “I” is creating a separate reference point to experience. It arises from the realm of ego, of thought and emotion. “I” am defined by what “I” think and feel, and great compassion is not a thought or emotion; it is the realized state of Being arising from the silent mind that connects us to all that exists. This intuitive connection then rises in resonance, transforming into thoughts and emotions that can be expressed, and then, “I” express my concern – but until great compassion is realized, this concern is usually only for those within my circle of ego identification and worthy of my ethical approval.

Great compassion must be beyond any judgments of worthy and unworthy. It arises from intuitive discernment of our infinite connectedness, first as human beings, then as sentient beings, then as sentience itself. We must quiet and open the mind into realization that we are the infinite consciousness through which the Universe manifests into a limited form and consciousness constructed around the idea of “I.” Great compassion is the capacity of silent awareness to see the dilemma and the suffering caused by this misidentification as a separate entity experiencing the world as “out there” and our fellow beings as “other.” Great compassion feels the sorrow of a Being-in-form, subject to conditioning by form, searching for its place within form and knows this to be the dilemma faced by all humans.

“Where is my place?” is the great question that obsesses and confounds us and leads to disastrous identification with social/cultural group egos that tell us our place is in following social/cultural dictates and judgments. Society teaches us who to include as significant and who to exclude. Society teaches us that we are nothing until society deems us worthy and acceptable into its circle. So first of all, great compassion must manifest compassion for ourselves and the foolishness we have fallen into through egoic insecurity that has us locked into the prison of judgmental and exclusionary thinking. As Albert Einstein once said: “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

We are Beings sharing Beingness with all that exists, and all Beings are interconnected and interdependent in the consciousness/matter/energy field that is the Universe. This is truth. Ego, however, cannot grasp this as anything other than an intellectual abstraction. Only in the stillness and silence of unadulterated awareness and its intuitive intelligence can we know the Universe as energy that is alive and intelligent, a single Great Being manifesting within itself infinite limited beings. Much like a single human body is comprised of countless cells coming into and going out of existence to make the body whole and alive, each being’s existence is a dance of manifesting and dissolving into the great whole that is Life – that is the Universe.

We are and we are not, yet we infinitely are, through the whole that is Life – that is the Universe. Our place is and always only can be, right where we are, as the Universe manifests us for the purpose of Life realizing itself. As John Lennon once sang: “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. It’s easy.” Yet we do not experience this. We experience being born, aging, striving, struggling, having a few triumphs and however many failures we imagine, and anticipating and fearing our death. We struggle for our place. We struggle for significance. We are capable of loving, doing wonderful things, and we are capable of doing terrible things – knowingly and unknowingly – violations of the sacredness of all Life. And we all experience violations to our sacredness while unaware of our sacredness and unaware of the sacredness of all. To feel at the core of our Being this great tragedy is great compassion. To act on this knowing, to the best of our ability, is to grow toward the great compassion that is Buddha’s teaching.

Only in the felt experience of oneness with the Universe can this journey be accomplished. Do not think about it. You must feel it. You must feel it when you look deeply into another human being and see essentially a reflection of yourself, of your own egoic fears and desires, and of your own Being – no matter how different from you this person’s beliefs and behaviors may be. You must also feel it when you open to your connectedness with the existence and inherent sacredness of animals and of Nature, remembering that we too are Nature – what else could we be?

You must feel compassion for yourself when you experience your own doubts and insecurities, your foolish and hurtful behaviors, and realize you did not choose them, but rather they were conditioned into you by society – and that society is a great sociopath, an egomaniac with no concern for anything but itself. You must learn to forgive and be tender with yourself and with all that your life entwines with while you take complete responsibility for your actions, realizing this entwinement is as vast and great as all the Cosmos. Then, your thoughts and actions will grow in compassion. Then you will grow in intuitive knowing of how to behave and how to formulate thoughts and emotions reflective of the great truths of existence. This knowing is reflected in Einstein’s statement – and is the core of the teachings of Buddha, Jesus and the mystics of all cultural traditions.

In finding the core of your Beingness connected with all Beings, your circle of compassion naturally grows – eventually toward the enlightened state the Buddha called great compassion, lived simply and humbly every day, widening gradually “to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Needing Nothing

“What, at this moment, is lacking?” – Linji (9th Century – Chinese)

One of our dogs and I had been playing in a grassy field, she chasing and returning a ball until she was worn out with the joy of it, and then she lay down in the grass. I sat down next to her, and together we were just there, and it was perfect. After a little while, I too lay down beside her in the grass, just looking up at clouds passing in the sky, aware of my breathing, my body, the clouds, the blue sky, the breeze, the tree-tops dancing in the periphery of my vision, the fellow Being-in-a-dog beside me. No thought corrupted the perfection of these moments.

After a while, I sat up, continuing with this deep present moment awareness. It reminded me of how it once was – when I was a young boy sitting in a grassy field with my dog. The awareness that was me now and the awareness that was that boy then were exactly the same – no matter how much else about me had changed. Time had stopped. The moment was entirely filled with the space of presence, all its contents, including this body that is thought of as “me” was one seamless experience. This is Zen.

“The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.” – Roshi Koun Yamada (20th Cent.)

When people talk of non-duality, this is it; not me and my dog, rather, me-and-dog-and-grassy-field-and–sky–and-clouds-and-trees, all one in the space of the moment. Importantly, even the literal space, the air about me, was palpable with subtle energy, connecting all the denser energy patterns of me and dog and trees. This was bliss – shimmering on an early summer morning.

The Rinzai school of Zen grew from the teachings of the Chinese Zen master Linji, known as Rinzai in Japanese. It is known as the “Buddha Mind School” and it teaches the realization of a person’s original pure mind before it has been shaped into an egoic identity. This concept is famously called upon in many koanic declarations, such as Huineng’s (7th cent.) “show your original face.” It teaches the purity of a moment and the realization that it is, and we are, of course, complete, perfect, needing nothing.

“Original face” is consciousness before ego-identity and psycho-social programming. It is the awareness that came into this world with our birth, has experienced every conscious moment of our life and will experience our last conscious moment. It is who we are that never changes while we physically and psychologically age and change. Awareness sat in that field with my dog and with my body, once, as a child and now an adult, united with Life – needing nothing. The moment was perfect and complete.

And – of course, I do have needs – just as my dog has needs. But – in a moment, any moment, there is only the moment, and it is complete and needs nothing. Only in time do we have needs. My dog and I need to eat – sometime. We need shelter – sometime. We need many things, me more than she because as a human I have complex social and psychological needs she doesn’t have, but many of my social and psychological needs are not needs at all; they are only the delusion of needs. I would psychologically suffer not having them met, and then I would be fine, as we all adjust to our perceived losses – with time. The secret of Zen is to see through the illusion of time and know it is not needed to become all right. We already and always are all right except for stories in our minds telling us we are not.

We can be OK in time, or right now. The choice is up to us. All that is needed is to drop the story of me and my needs; to be completely present, and then it is true, nothing is needed. The world could be coming to an end, I could be bankrupt or with dire illness – but this moment – only sky and clouds, grass and dog.

Zen teaches us all there really is, are moments. All there really is, is one moment; this moment. This realization is called “refuge,” and we can find refuge from the stress and unsatisfactoriness of our everyday life in buddha-mind, that is, this moment in heightened awareness realizing self in consciousness – not in body, mind, or personal story. Consciousness is this moment in the Universe where self is found in a grassy field with a dog. Nothing more is needed. That other moments – driving a car, working at the office, shopping at the store, lying sick in bed are not also perfect is the delusion of the story of me in time that Zen teaches us to penetrate, expand and experience in the purity of presence. In returning to just this moment in the Universe, needing nothing – even the air around us is rich with the energy of Life and non-duality. Perfect.

Living in Balance

“Your life’s journey has an outer purpose and an inner purpose. The outer purpose is to arrive at your goal or destination, to accomplish what you set out to do, to achieve this or that… the journey’s inner purpose… has nothing to do with where you are going or what you are doing, but everything to do with how. It has nothing to do with future but everything to do with the quality of your consciousness at this moment.” – Eckhart Tolle

Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “The Middle Way.” By legend, the Buddha was born a prince, a person of wealth and privilege. Having experienced that the vast majority of people did not live such sheltered lives and suffered many woes and calamities, he dedicated himself to understanding and overcoming the nature of human misery and chose to live the life of an ascetic, rejecting all of life’s comforts, even necessities, to follow a life of meditation, yoga, self-denial and retreat from the world of humanity. After thoroughly mastering the arts of the ascetic, he realized this path was also false; it would not lead to the answers he sought. He realized there must be a middle way, a balanced way that was neither luxury and wealth as life’s purpose nor the rejection of the material world through extreme spiritual practices.

As we in the West now commonly live lives with levels of material luxury and security approaching the equivalency of a prince of old, and find it lacking in the emotional well-being and security our society promised, the Buddha’s story has great relevance for us. Buddha realized that neither of the paths his life had trod would lead him to the secret of perfect peace; they were both expressions of the self-centeredness he now realized was the source of humanity’s suffering. It didn’t matter if one was a prince in the world or an ascetic in rejection of the world; both were about being something special and apart from the natural everyday life of human beings.

The path he next chose was the simplicity of everyday life, however, lived consciously in the perfect design of life-as-it-naturally-is imbued with sacredness. He realized humanity’s fall was its belief in and clinging to its own separate specialness, and its salvation was in awakening into its true and balanced place within the sacred web of Life. The true spiritual path is nothing special, and truly spiritual persons do not conceive of themselves, or desire for themselves, to be something special. The secret, he found, is in everyday life lived in consciousness and celebration of Life’s miraculous interconnectedness and interdependence. When once asked, “Are you a god, an angel, a saint?” the Buddha answered, “No.” When pressed further to explain his radiant presence, he answered, “I am awake.”

“God is simply a word for the non-ego,” wrote the famous Swiss psychiatrist and fountainhead of archetypal psychology, Carl Jung. This brilliant statement observes exactly as does Buddhism, that only the human mind’s capacity to extract itself (ego) outside of the perfect harmony of the Universe is humanity’s fall from Grace. “God” is a word in a thousand language variations to express the universal archetypal intuitive experience of the perfect harmony of the source of all that is, an intelligence that balances all the Universe.

Human ego creates an artificial universe of human society and the individual’s place within that matrix that places itself outside of Nature. It doesn’t matter if what is being created are shopping malls, temples, arcane spiritual rituals or retreats from the world. If a person or a society is looking to find their own unique specialness in things or the rejection of things, they are missing the mark.

It must be realized that the Universe has generated the human ego, but not as a source of individual and collective specialness and identity, rather, as a means for conscious participation and shaping of the material world. It is a tool, just as our hands with opposable thumbs are special tools generated by the Universe to literally grasp the world while our minds abstractly grasp it. Those abilities to shape the world used for ego enhancement, however, are graceless. As Eckhart Tolle noted, we must connect to our inner purpose as guide for our outer purpose, and our inner purpose is to be an instrument of the intelligent unfolding of the Universe in perfect harmony and balance.

“Realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of intelligence… All the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind.”– Tolle

Zen often talks about how “doing” must be shaped and guided by non-doing. Thought is the doings of the mind, and while a most valuable tool, it is not the source of all that is truly intelligent, insightful, creative and spiritual. These gifts arise from the silent mind, the intuitive mind, the realm of pure undivided consciousness that is the Universe. It is a truth that, as Orientalist philosopher Alan Watts expressed it, “We are the Universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.” We are apertures of consciousness into points in space and time, into the world of form – if you will, of the mind of God. When we mistake that consciousness as our own individual separate self, we are in a self-absorbed conceit that shrinks and limits the Universe down to me and my likes and dislikes.

We live inside our thoughts, and thought can be anything. Great and wonderful thoughts have inspired us, and likewise, human history has shown how insane, unbalanced and destructive human thought can be. Often it seems there is no balance in our lives, for we have cut ourselves off from the perfect harmony and balance of the Universe, of Nature. The consequence, or karma, if you will, is imbalance, confusion and suffering.

This moment – what is it? It is this right in front of us and it is our outer purpose of shaping this world in the manner we will it. It is also the vastness of an intelligent and harmonious Universe generating the human species in its evolution of consciousness manifested. Our great purpose is to realize the vast harmony that is our source and inner purpose, and let it guide our outer purpose so that our individual and collective human lives manifest the same balance and harmony as does all of Nature.

Come To Your Senses

“The contours of your neurosis are the same as the contours of your awareness.” – Fritz Perls
Have you ever heard it said to a very distraught person, “you need to come to your senses”? Taken literally, this may seem a strange bit of advice, but like many common phrases, there is deep wisdom hidden in this riddle-like expression. Indeed, this particular suggestion is just about the best advice any person can give to another under any circumstance, but especially in times of distress.
The creator of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, used to incorporate this exhortation as a centerpiece of his psychotherapeutic technique. He would instruct his patients to, “Get out of your head and come to your senses!” and he meant this literally.
To say it another way, to be free of the endless commenting, reviewing, anticipating, and frequent chaos in the mind, a remarkably effective strategy is to shift the focus of awareness from thoughts and emotions into the immediate sensory experience of what is seen, heard and felt in the immediate here-and-now. Bring attention to your body and the physical world around you. Include in this special attention to the sensations of breathing. Do this for fifteen to thirty seconds and see if you don’t experience a sense of calm and clarity that might be described as a taste of sanity. Perls had realized that to develop this here-and-now awareness as one’s predominant state of consciousness is a remarkable antidote to neurosis.
In another of Perls’s famous aphorisms, he stated, “the contours of your neurosis are the same as the contours of your awareness.” He had realized a simple equation for regaining one’s balance in a seemingly chaotic world. It’s not the world that is chaotic – the world is what it is; it is our minds that are chaotic. It is that we typically live with a very narrow focus of awareness dominated by the contents of our mind, while we pay just enough attention to the world to reinforce what we believe about the world. We project our own chaos onto the world, causing Perls to comment, “Thou art projection.” We are generally unable to have the spaciousness of awareness that allows us to have a clear, integrated sense of the present moment utilizing our full capacities for consciousness that sense, feel, think, and intuit the moment in a balanced and nuanced manner.
Present moment awareness focused into the purely physical here-and-now is always a good place to start as it slows and quiets the runaway mind and grounds our experience into the what-is of the moment in the immediate environment. Doing this with very stable and relaxed concentration so that the entire field of awareness is filled with these sensations causes something very remarkable to happen: the experience of who you are shifts from a very contracted experience of you being located inside your physical body and the activity of your mind into that which is experienced. Sensations and perceptions that seemed to be “out there” become integrated into the experience of yourself. Actually, the experience of yourself sort of dissolves into what is being experienced.
Your body is still there, and your mind is still there; they, however, are no longer separate from what is being experienced. There is some sense of an “out there” and an “in here” but they actually are all experienced within the larger field of awareness. “You” exist every bit as much in the heard song of the bird, the seen clouds and sky, the felt touch of the wind, as you do in this body and mind. This is what is called non-duality or unity of experience, and focusing into your senses in this way is a sort of gateway into this remarkable realm, notable for its sense of calm and clarity. It is the experience of total presence that feels like whatever might be described as sanity.
The author of the books The Power of Now and A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle, teaching what amounts to a contemporized Buddhist psychology, has identified the culprit for humanity’s individual and collective distress as the human ego and its incessant thinking and resonant emotions. It chatters and nags, trying to find ways to make sense of our experience in a way that gives us some illusion of control. It tells us that we must be right and that we must be significant (even if it is significantly afflicted). It plots to get what it wants and to avoid what it doesn’t want. The ego talks to us constantly trying to interpret our experience consistent with our conditioned interpretation of the world and our place in it. All the misunderstanding we have about the world, others and ourselves is brought about by what our insecure egoic mind is saying to us.
Tolle points out what Perls noticed and what Buddhism has taught for several thousand years. They all teach that we are only truly sane when we are grounded in the reality of the present moment and not lost in the chaotic time traveling and projected judgments of the egoic mind. They also teach that our senses provide a portal to a wise, intuitive dimension of mind that exists in every person, while the ego and its distorted perceptions exist in a fictional timeline story of “me.”
This observation caused Fritz Perls to also say, “neurotic thinking is anachronistic thinking, it is out of place in time.” When depressed, we usually are thinking about past events that thwarted ego’s desires and we are projecting more of the same into the future. When anxious, we are reliving past fears and caught in dread and uncertainty about what has not yet taken place. Often when we are upset, our minds are shuttling between past and future, and we are lost in a mounting blur of regret, anger and anxiety, playing and replaying in our minds scenarios fraught with drama, fears of diminishment, harm and defeat.
There is a phenomenon concerning mind that is similar to the law in physics that says no two objects can occupy the same space. By focusing awareness totally into the here-and-now of the senses, the talking mind of the ego begins to quiet, and ultimately fall silent. To whatever degree (percentage, if you will) the energy of mind can shift from thinking to sensing, there is a proportional quieting of the mind’s emotional talking.
So, when you are feeling overwhelmed, distressed, even a little crazy, remember Perls’s exhortation to “get out of your head, and come to your senses!” Look, listen, feel the world around you. Experience the calming effect of your own breath and the subtle sensory orientation of your body.
As you practice this sensory-focused awareness, becoming more skillful in it, you will discover that your life is becoming calmer, clearer and saner. You will be opening the door to a deep well of wisdom and security that exists within the quiet recesses of every person. You will find yourself living pleasantly and effectively in the now, not crazily in the then and when.

This Moment

“This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“This moment” seems like a simple concept. A snap of the fingers. A blink of an eye. How then could “this moment” be a refuge? It seems hardly sufficiently substantial to provide a refuge from the vicissitudes of life. The mind of thought can’t quite grasp it, yet these words echo some truth we hold deep inside. Why does this seemingly inscrutable Asian utterance both puzzle and reassure us? This little declaration by the great Vietnamese Zen Master is a koan, a verbal device intended to take us beyond the world of thought and into intuitive understanding of an experience that is mystical, unfathomable, yet right here, right in front of and all around us. And yes, when fully realized, its promise is not empty.

What is this moment? It is, first of all, conventionally ungraspable. We all know the bitter-sweet desire to grasp and hold a moment when we are in the midst of a “perfect” experience, knowing it will pass. Our idea of a perfect experience, however, is a concept of the mind, a concept of the ego. It is based in judgment, an ordering of our experiences by subjective criteria from worst to best to “perfect.” Yet, that we experience perfection implies there is something happening that is even deeper than judgment, deeper than our capacity to categorize. It is perfect, yet, whether a moment with a loved one, or a moment in a sublime setting in Nature, the stimulus for the experience has always been there, yet not seen, hidden within the routines of ordinary life.

The person who is loved is usually around us quite a bit, beautiful settings in Nature are not that hard to find. It is we who are seeing, hearing, feeling in a manner profoundly different from our ordinary way, our usual self-centered, egoic way. Our usual manner of perception has been suspended in a moment of connected transcendence, of love. It is not the person or the natural setting that becomes perfect, it is we who realize qualities of inherent perfection that are always there, usually lost in a blur of projected ordinariness in the hurry of time. Perfection is realized in this moment when in this moment there is no longer a separate self experiencing the person or the natural setting “out there.” We and they and it are all folded into a seamless entity that is this moment, a unity of experience, and it is this unity that is perfect. When we think about it, it is gone, lost again in the blur of time, for thought is structured in time. No, “perfect” cannot be an intellectual experience. It is, as Zen calls it, a “felt sense.” It is the felt sense of non-duality, of oneness, of completeness, of “thusness” or “isness.” It is “just this,” meaning, as a poet might write: the Universe in a flower, a moment, a breath.

It is often said in these “perfect moments” it is as if time has stopped, yet, we have the problem that we cannot sustain stopped time. Often, the perfection begins disappearing the moment we remember time, when we anticipate the ending of the “perfect” experience. We re-introduce the thought of our separate self into the moment, and like a magic spell being broken, the perfection begins to dissolve. We are back in our separate self, back in time, the moment lost, now only memory, a part of the story of me.

So what is Thich Nhat Hanh saying to us? It would seem that our usual perspective is rather the opposite of what he is saying. Our usual perspective is that there sometimes occur moments that have the quality of perfection – if conditions are perfect. Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us this moment is perfect, this moment has the capacity to be refuge. There are no qualifiers as to the quality of content of the moment. He is even implying that moments in which the content of the moment may be very challenging can be experienced as perfect and can constitute a refuge. How can that be? This sounds bizarre to our rational minds, yet we all know there is truth to this. We have even experienced it – sometimes exactly in the midst of personally shattering moments – moments that shatter our personal story in time.

Perhaps the key to the puzzle is in the concept of time. Let us return to the question: what is this moment? An analogous question is: what is the here and now? – that ubiquitous New Age, consciousness community phrase, another koan, so to speak, that has become clichéd. Just what is the “here and now”? And what mystical power does it possess to merit its clichéd standing? Does it not, like “this moment,” have an ungraspable yet transcendent quality? “Just where,” I sometimes like to ask, “is the boundary of here and now?” Where does it begin, where does it end? The same question can be asked of “this moment.” Is it really a snap of the fingers, a blink of an eye? This is the small egoic experience of this moment. Thich Nhat Hanh and mystics of all spiritual traditions are calling us to a greater, vaster experience of this moment. They are calling us to this moment in the realm of eternal Beingness. Here, the experience of the timeless space of perfection is certainly not the blink of an eye. It is far more like being on raft, flowing on a river and we have no sense of its beginning or end. The river flows and we flow with it. River, raft, person – all flowing.

The “this moment” that Thich Nhat Hanh is directing us to flows not down a river, but through eternity, and the “perfection” he offers is a glimpse of eternity. It is non-duality, unity, and in non-duality there is no edge of beginning or ending, for it is without an opposing other, out there. There is only the awareness of the moment, flowing. It is “thusness, isness.” It cannot be grasped with the intellect, for the intellect is the mental faculty that divides the Universe into this and that, and the “this moment” that Thich Nhat Hanh calls us to is this moment as the Universe, perfect. Perfect because it is the Universe. It is a refuge from the up and down, the pain of the this and the that in time that comes and goes. It is the perfect mystical, spiritual realization of union with a flower, with all flowers, with a person, with all persons, with all Life, with the Universe. It is this moment as the raft of our personal life flowing on the eternal river of here and now, a river without beginning or end.

“This moment” stops time as a unit, as a snap of the fingers, and opens us into what Eckhart Tolle has called “the power of Now,” liberating us from the unsatisfactory quality of our ordinary existence. “This” is the Universe. “Moment” is awareness. “This Moment” is the Universe in awareness focused through the lens of a person, now experiencing a mountain vista, a flower, a fellow human, a street corner, the bird outside your window, the collapse of a dream, anything at all.

You can even close your eyes – and look – and what can be seen? It’s not nothing. We see awareness without content. We can see, in effect, Eternity, this moment. Open your eyes and “this moment” arising in eternity can be seen, and ordinariness and difficulty fall away. There is just “this,” as vast and wondrous as eternity – “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” Is it not right in front of and all around you? You can’t think it, you have to feel it. All the beauty, all the tragedy, all the ordinary, not hidden in time, rather right here, this moment. The Universe opens and there is nowhere to hide, and strangely, we are safe, we are complete, we are whole. We have found the refuge from the this and the that. There is only This. Perfect.

Perception and Reality

A reader contacted me with a question, and I decided a good column could come from answering it. Here’s the question: “Could you write about something that came up in a recent discussion? Someone said to me recently, ‘perception is reality.’ I said that it’s not and they were stunned. To me, perception depends on a person’s happiness or unhappiness; their optimism or pessimism. I’d like to hear what you think. Thanks.”

In answer to the question “is perception reality?” – I have to say, no and yes. Is perception reality in an absolute sense? From the standpoint of human senses and the intellect’s capacity to symbolize and understand experience, no, it cannot be. Absolute reality is the Universe-as-it-really-is, far beyond the capacities of human senses and intellect. The Universe is, as modern science is discovering, a single quantum field of energy manifesting matter/consciousness, but that is not what our sensory perception tells us. We can create only a representation of a very limited portion of reality and then create images and ideas about this incomplete information, and this information tells us we are separate and alone in the universe. Is this perception experienced and acted upon as reality? Most certainly, yes. And there lies the problem. We tend to act as if our subjective experience of separateness is reality, when it is only a perspective on reality.

From this perspective, it must first be recognized that human beings experience reality very differently from other species who have very different sense organs and brains. Then, amongst humans, perception will be strongly influenced by psychological and cultural factors. At this personal level, every individual lives in their own reality to a greater or lesser degree. Within a given cultural grouping, a person’s conformity to reality as a cultural norm is the basis of our measurement of mental health and illness at the most basic level. This variance of the subjective experience of reality is also the source of most human conflict. One person’s reality can be so different from another’s they will want to kill each other. Think of the current conflict between Islamic Jihadists and European-culture-based societies.

Then, at subtler levels, we come to just how one individual sees things versus another, right down to small tastes and preferences. So here, as the questioner noted, a person with a psychological predilection to happiness will experience a more positive “reality” than a person with a pessimistic and negative predilection. This is why we can predict how a predisposed anxious or angry or depressed person will perceive and react to the same event in very different ways, and how persons with differing styles of being-in-the-world will differ from each other in how they express themselves. We experience “reality” in vividly personal ways, so it is very important to realize that our perception is literally only a point of view.

An important question, however, remains: can humans intuit actual reality? In other words, beyond the limitations of senses and brain and culture and individual psychological bias, can a human have a sense of the Universe-as-it-is through its levels of organizations, from the microscopic to the macroscopic? From the perspective of Buddhist teaching, we have to say, “yes.”

We in this culture too often fail to acknowledge a deeper level of knowing than the intellect. This knowing arises from the silent intelligence of intuition and has no words for it transcends the realm of language. It is just a knowing, and is the source of both mystical and scientific insight into the true nature of the Universe. Intuition is capable of this because intuition is the consciousness that is both individual and universal. This non-duality is expressed within Oriental cosmologies when Buddhist masters instruct us to realize ourselves and the universe as one.

A very non-Buddhist source, astro-physicist and cosmologist, Mark Whittle, Ph.D., states a similar intuitive insight that is an example of what leads the cutting edge of science: “The Universe has, in a sense, made us in its own image… We’re descended from stars… and evolving within Nature has shaped our intuition in such a way that we can comprehend the cosmological story. In a sense, we’re children of Nature, at home in the Universe.

The great challenge to those of us raised in a psychologically dualistic society, accustomed to mistaking technology for science and thinking for intelligence, is to grasp that the true scientists, such as Whittle, Einstein, or Tesla, are reaching into their intuitive knowing in order to understand what lies beyond the limits of accepted technology. They then use and shape technology to further the reach of our scientific understanding. Thinking comes after the intuitive insight, to organize and communicate their insights

In the psychological/mystical/spiritual dimension, this same opening of intuitive insight is necessary, and just as the theoretical scientist learns to trust their intuitional insights into the mystery of the Universe, we can, through training, examine the moments of our lives with the silent intelligence of awareness. We begin to experience, as the Japanese Zen tradition would say, the “Thusness” or “as-it-is-ness” of existence on the multiple levels of our existence. We can engage in what is known as the Zen practice of Shikantaza – a form of meditation that is the direct seeing and experiencing of the moment without preconceived judgment, not intellectualizing, but rather, being the truth of the moment realized in awareness.

Training in meditation, mindfulness and awareness is meant to expand our ability to experience more of the everything of existence, utilizing more of our perceptive and mental capacities in a non-judgmental manner to create a more accurate experience of reality-as-it-is. This is, of course, a continuum, and each of us is somewhere on this continuum between what Buddhism calls “egoic delusion,” living almost entirely out of the projected conditioning of our ego, and awakened awareness, experiencing Life-as-it-is, in both the conditioned world of form and the energetic absolute Universe where form and consciousness are like the particle and wave of quantum physics. Through our training and practice, we move on this continuum closer and closer to absolute reality

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.” – Yasutani Roshi

Through both scientific and mystical intuitive inquiry, we can come closer to the realization that we and the Universe are both matter-energy and consciousness-energy, all One. We can experience how any small movement of our sense of self-in-the-world (perception) from egoic delusion toward awakened awareness brings us closer to the living reality of existence, and with it, significant expansion of our capacity for well-being and security as the gap between perception and reality grows smaller. We begin by narrowing the compassion gap that separates us from understanding ourselves and our fellow humans. This reduces the conflicts we have within ourselves and with other people. We then have to narrow the gap that separates us from identification with our fellow creatures, with Nature and the Earth that is our home. Eventually, we awaken into the realization, what Zen calls the “felt sense,” that we and the Universe are one. This is what Zen calls realizing our original nature, where perception resonates much closer to actual reality.

Concentration and Mindfulness

Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind… It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower… Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one… Concentration provides the power… Mindfulness… notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady… If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.
– Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

When learning Buddhist meditation we must begin with concentration. Buddhist meditation is the training of the mind into subtler, deeper, more stable and insightful states of consciousness, and this training can be viewed as therapeutic or rehabilitative, for our culture does a very poor job of training young people to have calm and focused minds. We overload them with stimulation and anxieties about their status in the world, causing minds that are easily distracted, that tend toward compulsive self-absorption and are too easily indoctrinated into acceptance of attitudes and ways of seeing the world that are conventional and far short of their true potential.

As with issues of personality neuroses and disorders, our culture has a very low bar for what is considered “normal” when it comes to mental focus and discernment. Attention-deficit disorder is epidemic and what constitutes a diagnosable level is just the tip of the iceberg. We simply do not know how to concentrate our consciousness in ways that can lead to the world revealing itself in its full subtlety, variety, interconnectedness and wonder, and it is the purpose of Buddhist meditation training to realize these capacities.

In our training, we must begin with concentration. All more refined levels of meditation are dependent on cultivation of the ability to hold consciousness steady, to not flit from one thought, emotion, and sensation to the next. And to develop our capacity for concentration, we must have what is called an “object of meditation,” something to concentrate on. In the Zen, Vipassana and Shamatha styles of Buddhist meditation, the principle object of meditation for the training of concentration is one’s own breathing.

As Gunaratana pointed out, this level of meditation training is work – it requires effort. We begin by taking a posture that supports alert relaxation and good dynamics of breathing. We then place our attention on the sensations of breathing, the gentle rise and fall of the chest and diaphragm, the sensation of the breeze of air across our nostrils. We attempt to hold our concentration on these sensations, and when concentration wanders, we notice that it has wandered and replace attention back on the sensations of breathing. It may sound easy, but to sustain it successfully is very challenging. It requires the willpower to which Gunaratana refers.

Encouragingly, however, there is almost immediate benefit for most people. Using the breath as the object of meditation is really quite ingenious because conscious breathing readily brings with it calming of the mind and body along with enhancement of sensory experience. Usually, a sense of balanced presence and clarity also will occur as the rhythm of the breathing and the access to the parasympathetic nervous system that comes with conscious breathing creates these results naturally. The experience can be a reminder of what real sanity feels like.

With a little practice, most people can fairly readily learn to hold awareness on the breathing for a noticeable, if brief, period. The mind’s long established habit of wandering off into thought or sensory distraction, thereby disrupting concentration on breathing, will occur readily and frequently, and this can be a discouragement for people who are not being instructed that the noticing of this phenomenon is a very important development in their training. It is opening the door to mindfulness, to the noticing mind of wisdom and discernment.

It is very important to realize that this distractibility had been happening regularly before we began our meditation training, but had never really been noticed, and that the noticing is important progress. The very noticing of this distractibility is a new insight, and so too, our now flowering capacity to hold attention on and notice our quiet mind while also holding attention on the breathing is a new insight. We are learning to expand concentrated awareness in a stable field that can hold seemingly separate phenomena in perceived unity.

We are developing what is called shamatha, a mind that can “peacefully abide” in the present moment with increasingly less distractibility. We are also at the doorstep of Vipassana: insight, wisdom and increasing clarity. As the power of our concentration stabilizes, we begin to notice that the field of our present-moment awareness can expand to the field of the sensations of our entire body and its perception of the environment without losing any focus on the central object of the breathing. We begin to notice that the field of our present-moment awareness can expand to include activity of the mind without being distracted from the sensations of breathing and body/environment. We begin to notice that we are noticing, to have awareness of awareness.

Perhaps the insight even arises that most fundamentally we are awareness that notices we have a body and we have a mind that function in particular ways in a society and among people that function in particular ways. This awareness of awareness and how our body, mind and the environment occur in and are all connected within awareness is mindfulness, and its application and benefit are virtually boundless, for we begin to realize the quiet mind of awareness is the actual source of intelligence, wisdom and discernment.

Again, it must be emphasized, developing our capacity for concentration is essential to this opening of the door of mindfulness, of opening the door to noticing with increasingly sensitive, subtle and discerning skill the marvel and beauty and mystery of Life. We then, as Gunaratana noted, must continue our practice in balancing these two mental capacities of concentration and mindfulness hand-in-hand. The benefits of this work grow and grow as our sense of mental balance and even the spiritual realization of our connection to our fellow beings in this unbroken field of awareness grows and grows.

Now, with practice, we can sit, walk, work, play, and relate in ways that will ultimately reveal the great realization of Buddhist meditation: that there really is no separate “me” that suffers from the insecurities of our cultural training in materialism and competition. We begin to accomplish glimpses of Samadhi – the sense of oneness, the consciousness of non-duality – in expanding circles, first with individual people, animals, and plant life, perhaps with whole scenes and vistas. Eventually, we can experience this oneness with Life itself, realizing the ultimate in “refined sensibilities.” Do the work of developing concentration power – then balance it with awareness – mindfulness – and the world gently opens.

Behead Yourself!

“It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new… there existed only the Now… It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything: room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills… I had lost a head and gained a world. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void… utterly free of ‘me,’ unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence… There arose no questions, no references beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.”
– from On Having No Head by Douglas Harding

Born in 1909, Douglas Harding was a British philosopher and mystic. He trained and worked as an architect, lived through the WWII years in India, and while there, spent time trekking the Himalayas. His life-long passion was exploring the true nature of the self, searching for an answer to the question, “what am I?” He wrote a number of books, principle among them, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth (1952) and On Having No Head (1961), and conducted workshops throughout his latter life on his insights concerning non-dual consciousness. Harding credited a breakthrough epiphany to his discovery in 1942 of a most unusual drawing, a “self-portrait” by the Austrian philosopher and physicist, Ernst Mach.

Unlike usual self-portraits that are oriented as if the artist is looking in a mirror, Mach’s self-portrait was looking out from the artist’s left eye. Mach was lying on a lounge, looking out a window at mountainous terrain in the background. There were his Douglas Harding - Behead Yourselflegs and feet, his torso, his left arm and hand, but no head. There was even the contour of the left side of his nose in the right side foreground. Mach seemed to be making the comment that who we are, the “self,” that is the subject of the drawing, is our experience of consciousness in the moment. We are not our face, not our head, as are generally invested with our identity. This insight registered fully with Harding and was followed by a particularly powerful experience of this perspective while he was hiking in the Himalayan foothills. The excerpted quote atop this column is from Harding’s description of the experience.

What, for Harding, was at first an intellectual epiphany grew into the realization of the full implications of this re-locating the sense of self from inside the head looking out, to his experience in consciousness, to that which was the seeing of the constantly changing content of the moment in environment and mind, and that did not itself ever vary or react to this shifting content. He realized that all our emotional identification with what is happening inside our “head” in perception, thought and emotion was a profound error. The world, and we, happen in consciousness – simultaneously, as a single event. That is all. It may be that several major sensory organs and the brain that functions as an information manager are located in the head, but the consciousness that is the true experiencer is un-locatable other than in the experience itself. We seem to be – in essence – a portal of consciousness into the manifested world, and this makes it not really “my” consciousness, for consciousness is an attribute of the universe of sentience. It isn’t personal. Harding realized and experienced that he was simply this portal of body and mind for consciousness. He called it “The best day of my life.”

Consider that you too have had such experiences and they were the best experiences in your life. However, you probably didn’t really notice them, at least not in the way that Harding did. You probably paid no attention that the best experiences in your life were pure and non-dualistic, without any sense of a mediating “self” – they were in a sense, “no-head” moments. There was no sense of “me” evaluating or only partially experiencing while the mind wandered elsewhere. These were moments in which what was “out there” in experience took over completely. Body, mind and environment became connected within the totality of experience. You were not to one side, separate and evaluating, while the experience and environment were over there. “You” were “it.”

Perhaps, like Harding, it was while hiking in the mountains, or perhaps it was while looking at a loved one, or listening to beautiful music. It can happen in ordinary moments in everyday life when a sudden clarity occurs. It might be stimulated by the sight of birds flying, children playing, the sound or feel of wind. You perceptually step out of being separate from what you are experiencing and become the act of seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing. Thought stops. The usual sense of being a separate self, called “me,” evaporates. However, because the sense of “me” evaporates, there is no intellectual “me” to notice, evaluate and integrate the experience. There is only a feeling of complete well-being. Body and mind fall away. Language becomes inadequate. There is just this experience of fullness, completeness that is inexplicable.

Then —- it passes. We come back to body and mind, to “me,” to our “head.” The moment may go completely unnoticed as anything special, for we are programmed by our society not to notice such occurrences or inquire into their meaning and implication. The experience is passed off as a pleasant moment, perhaps even denigrated as our being “lost” in the moment. It does not occur to us, as it did for Harding, that these might be moments in which we “find” ourselves.

Asian spiritual traditions have taken notice of such moments in a way the West does not, and have examined these moments as glimpses into the true nature of what we are. Zen poetry seems odd to us because it isn’t narrative or creatively intellectual, but rather, represents a moment experienced in consciousness. Asian religions hold at their core, beneath any cultural overlay of ritual and myth, the realization of “I Am” – this moment in the Universe. There is no personal God acting like a human. There is the Universe – all One – with perfect harmony and balance, within which, an individual with limited sensory and intellectual capacity emerges as a gateway for the consciousness of the One that manifests as many. Our bodies are individual, our minds are individual; what is it, however, that experiences this body and mind? This is consciousness, and is not consciousness our primary experience, looking out from this body and mind? Is this consciousness not the kernel of self, and yet, can consciousness really be individual? How is my consciousness different from yours? It is more like sunlight that shines on everything without discrimination, the same sunlight everywhere.

My body is unique. My mind is unique. My historical context is unique. My positioning within concentric circles of human social organization is unique. The great mystical question has always been: How is what is experienced as “my” consciousness different from the consciousness of any other person or even any sentient being? The great mystical realization is that this moment in consciousness is “a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything… utterly free of ‘me,’ unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence.” The contents of consciousness are unique to physiological and psychological differences. What the contents arise within – consciousness – is universal. This is the core of Asian theology, and its implications fully realized are completely liberating.

Along with Harding’s epiphany of headlessness, in his search for the answer to the great question, “What am I?” he had intuited that we exist at many levels of organization. We are not just this person, we are also the atoms, molecules, and cells in chemical and electrical interactions that construct this person known as “me.” We are also our social interactions, and positioning within circles of humanity from family to the totality of the species. We are also the relationship of humanity to all life and physical phenomenon on this planet. We are also within a solar system, a galaxy, a galaxy cluster, the known Universe and unknown Universes – all of which co-arise, we might say, as a single Life-force. Is there a beginning? Is there an end? Certainly not in any conventional human sense of those words.

What are we? Not head, Not mind, Not body. We have to realize, that as Buddhism emphasizes, our essence is empty of self. We are nobody that has a somebody with which to move through and experience the manifested world. This realization is a great relief, like “having dropped an intolerable burden.” Yes, we have personal lives that are to be experienced and managed, with a full range of human emotional and intellectual challenge. And…. It really isn’t personal at all. All the comings and goings, the great parade of phenomena that is the world perceived and mentally processed, is really only superficial and secondary to the purity of our primary experience and source: this moment in awareness – consciousness.

The orientalist Alan Watts summed up this Asian theological/existential insight well: “Who we are is the Universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.” The head and body with its senses and brain is only the portal. This was Harding’s insight as well. Let go of living in your head, just be this experience, now. See! I mean it. Look away from this page. See what you are looking at in this moment – really look and see. This selfless gaze isn’t “daydreaming.” Allow the peace and profundity of it. Recognize in this selfless gaze the source of love, this connectedness that makes Life and your life truly alive. This is your true-self-portrait. You can live there, for now you know it’s you. As the mystic Sufi poet, Rumi, exhorted: “Behead yourself! … Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!

Between, Before, and After

“The moment between before and after is called Truth or Buddha’s world. We don’t know what it is but we are there. Our life is completely embraced by this… It is the original nature of the self.” – Dainin Katagiri

See if you can feel what it means to be in the moment between before and after. Just here. Surrender the compulsive need to get to the next moment or to hold on to the last moment.

See if in your meditation you can realize the felt sense of the space between before and after and see how any thought activity that arises is about either the before or the after of your life, carried by the momentum of what you have been training for all your life – to be this person you know as yourself, this person known as “me,” carrying the issues, beliefs, concerns and behaviors – both positive and problematic – out of the before and into the after – all your desires, anxieties, ambitions. See how this self-absorbed story propels you out of the past and into the future. Yet – in between – in the space between before and after – in the space Katagiri is calling Buddha’s world. There is no story. There is just this moment as it is. This is pure awareness receiving Life, being Life.

This is the observing mind – the curious, compassionate, silent mind that absorbs and witnesses the present moment. Along with the external world of the present moment, the observing mind is also capable of “noticing” our internal world that includes storylines of thought and emotion that make up our egoic mind, both its healthy and neurotic aspects. With the observing mind we can notice when the mind takes off on some tangent about the before or after that is not just here-in-the-moment. We can see a story in our heads of the before and after, and if it takes over the attention of the mind, the moment fades from vivid presence to flattened background. But in the moment between, if we hold onto the awareness that is completely here, we can see the story as the not-real passing through the real. We can also notice how if we don’t stay vividly with the here-and-now, the story pulls us out of the here-and-now. Noticing this, we can hold to the witnessing mind as our central mental experience and the vividness of the present moment is regained, and the story passes on, leaving awareness in presence: “The original nature of the self.

To deepen our connection to the here-and-now, our observing mind must notice when we get off into some track in our mind: “Oh, I’m off into…” some before or after. Or it may be that we’re in the moment, but we’re not happy with the moment: “There’s my complaining mind.” We’re in some negative judgment about the present moment. Some element of what’s going on with the moment is not OK with us – which is, of course, conditioning from the past about things not being OK, intruding into the present. Just notice this. This is not some analysis of what is happening or why it is happening; rather, there’s just the noticing of the diversion into issues of past or future or some reactive judgmental emotional state.

While our very blatant reactive emotional states are quite obvious by their disruptive effect, what can be extremely helpful is to notice how we almost constantly have subtle, on-going stories, on-going little complaints, on-going little anxieties, on-going little irritations and they all carry a low-intensity emotional charge. These subtle stories are our personality and its traits. And when we understand meditation as the process of training the mind (as Tibetans do), we can realize that the mind has been being trained all our life, it’s just that it has been being trained (meditating) in being unstable, in wanting to chase after various emotions and to figure out schemes and ways to make our life be the way we want it to be, and to complain when it isn’t being the way we want it to be. These stories of low-level unhappiness and insecurity color everything we experience and when they are triggered into explosions of troublesome emotion and behavior, we don’t know how it happens.

So we come to the meditation that Buddhism teaches, a kind of meditation that is therapeutic and liberating. It is, as the Dalai Lama calls it, training in “virtuous’ mental traits. This meditation is called “shamatha,” peaceful abiding, and “Vipassana,” wisdom or insight, and ultimately, “samadhi,” which is the dropping away of dualistic experience into a sense of oneness with the moment, with our sense of self not in this body and mind or our story in time, but rather in the moment itself. These are the states of mind we want to be training with our formal meditation.

In this, the non-verbal noticing of mind activity is very helpful in our realizing we are not peacefully abiding. We are not manifesting wisdom or insight; rather, we’re manifesting judgment, or we’re manifesting irritability, or any number of problematic mind-states we’ve been trained deeply into in the “before.” We’re not in the space between before and after. We’re chasing, trying to shape “before,” trying to create a story we can live with out of the before, and shaping what the story in the “after” is going to be. And what is important, what is healing, is to just notice what is going on. Just experience this movement of mind in the stillness of awareness that is always and only present, peaceful and wise.

It can also be very helpful to train ourselves to notice, to observe whether we are tense, both in body and in mind, because tension is a tip-off that we are chasing after something in the mind, some story of “before” or after” or getting from “before” to “after.” So what we have to learn is the very important skill of stopping the momentum of mind traveling in before and after, for as soon as we stop, we are in presence, and we can notice the train of thought/emotion getting from before to after.

A very helpful tactic for facilitating this stopping is through focusing awareness into our breathing and into sensory awareness of our body and environment. In a manner of speaking, stop the train, get off, and look around. This will bring us into presence where we can observe the mind-activity, the story, and the tensions that go with the story, and how they keep pulling us out of presence. We can then settle into the breathing, the senses and the here-and-now, this moment. Eventually we realize that the noticing/observing mind that can see the mind activity and is witness to the senses is also, always, this moment arising in awareness. This opens the dimension of intuition, the knowing of who we are beneath our mental activity and circumstances. This is the silent, peaceful, wise, insightful mind that is who we are – in awareness, no separation from the moment. “It is the original nature of the self.

In feeling the tension, the contraction of mind/body energy that goes with these mind-stories, intuition also helps us to know what is happening. Just observe, for instance, what irritability, impatience, anger feel like. You don’t have to form those words in your mind, rather just have the sense of them. Just observe, and allow a sub-verbal labeling: “Oh yes, that tension, that’s my impatience, that’s my anger.” This can be very enlightening and begin a gradual process of dissolving this reactive conditioning. The same can be true of anxiety, despondency, resentment, jealousy, insecurity, defensiveness or any of the conditioned stories from the “before” of our lives that intrude into our experience of the present moment. With this practice we can learn to trust that this observing mind is a wise, completely present capacity in each of us that only exists in the space between before and after, in this moment, now, and is the very essence of sanity.

With patiently practiced present-moment awareness monitoring our being lost in “before and after” stories or in judgment, we can accomplish a transformation from within, and it is important to know that meditation and mindfulness practice is not about what could be called personal change, but rather personal transformation. Change is an attempt to target, in a judgmental way, some problem in our thinking, emotion or behavior and to control it or substitute a healthier thought, emotion or behavior. It is aimed at some “should” about being a “better person,” perhaps about being less judgmental, which has us being judgmental about being judgmental, and it is readily obvious that won’t work very well. It is like some disapproving finger shaking at us saying, “You should.”

With non-judgmental noticing, “Oh, there is that trait” – rather amazingly, just the process of noticing irritability, impatience, anxiety or depression in non-judgmental awareness causes a gradual dissipation of that old un-virtuous training from within. Just notice it. That’s all. We are training in more availability of the noticing mind, the observing mind with its intuitive intelligence that is always in the present moment. We are training in increased accessibility of the mind that peacefully abides and has the wisdom and compassion to know from within the better person we are, and always have been, when in the present moment in awareness. We are calling forth this better person, rather than trying to change the old person.

We begin to transform, not into some judgment of what it is to be a better person by fighting with ourselves over particular behaviors, but rather by being that better person here and now, becoming more and more familiar with ourselves as that less reactive, less judgmental person, and experiencing the increased peace and well-being, the increased skillfulness of this person that has always been within us. We live less in our stories coming from before about being angry, or a victim, or whatever, projected into the after, barely even noticing the moment that is now, where our life actually happens. With less energy given to old stories of before and after, more energy and life is engaged vitally, skillfully, brilliantly in “the moment between before and after.” And this is what opens the way into “Buddha’s world,” here-and-now.

Just Stand Up in the Universe

“Real knowing comes up when we stand in the appropriate place. But usually we don’t. First we want to understand something according to individual knowledge, prejudice, customs and habits. This means we are standing up in our individual place, not the universal perspective. This egoistic behavior makes it very difficult to see the overall picture. But buddhas and ancestors recommend that we first stand up in the appropriate place. Just stand up, be present in the Universe itself.” – Dainin Katagiri

Zen Master Katagiri (1928-90) was an important figure in bringing Zen to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1963, then moving on to San Francisco in 1965, assisting Shunryu Suzuki to establish the Zen community there, and then, in 1972 establishing in Minneapolis the Minnesota Zen Center. In reading his books, Returning to Silence, You Have to Say Something, and Each Moment is The Universe, we encounter a deeply mystical presentation of Zen. In these books we experience a simultaneity and paradox of earnestness and humor, of ferocity and gentleness, of logic and intuition that is the mark of Zen, for this simultaneity and paradox is what Life is, and Zen is Life.

To know this is to stand in the Universal perspective, and it will open us into realizing that the mystical is actually and only to be found in the interconnected and interdependent everything of everyday life. This is the true secret to Zen, to enlightenment and to a truly rich life of heart, sane mind, and spirit. This secret reveals itself, however, only when a radical shift in attitude toward our lives and toward Life itself occurs (that is, away from our unquestioned conditioning into mental and behavioral traits such as separateness, anxiousness, indifference, callousness, anger, depression, pride, shame, guilt, selfishness, etc.). It is this shift that Zen meditation and its supportive koanic philosophy open for the dedicated student – and the adjective “dedicated” is very important – for there is little that is more challenging in life than shifting one’s attitude. Attitude is so deeply ingrained and imbedded within a personality that to achieve a radical shift in attitude requires dedication motivated by an understanding of how central to the quality of our life-experience such a shift is.

Buddhism emphasizes that we live in “egoic delusion,” a state in which we fail to experience Life (the vast and perfect balance of the Universe unfolding and evolving) because we are mesmerized by our life – what becomes expressed as our attitude toward Life. Our life is what we are accustomed to; what we experience and express according to our prejudices, customs, habits and beliefs. Our life is, in a sense, a hologram in our minds, a virtual reality, unique to each individual, and from that perspective it is difficult to have a truly wholesome and holistic perspective. How can we know what Life is? “Be present in the Universe itself.” This requires a radical shift in attitude and perspective.

Katagiri speaks to us of “Real knowing” and what he is referring to is the realization that within us, at a level deeper than thought, is a “knowing” of a pure way of living as a human being that transcends our family, religious, cultural, national, ethnic and personal conditioning to be a personality – our “individual place.” Our individual place, “this egoistic behavior,” as Katagiri tells us, makes it “very difficult to see the overall picture,” the non-deluded experience of being “present in the Universe itself,” in all its thick simultaneity and paradox.

In teaching meditation, I often see people approaching meditation from their individual place, and this makes the liberation from egoistic behavior that meditation is intended to realize very difficult. Posture and energy are very important to this process but this is a great challenge for Americans who are taught to value their individuality above all else. Katagiri tells us in Returning to Silence, “Realize the truth that all beings are buddha.” Note that in this quote, “buddha” is not capitalized. If it were, it would refer to the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and this is not what Katagiri is saying.

We have great difficulty wrapping our minds around the idea of being buddha, the perfect harmony and uncorrupt nature of our deepest Being, a Being that naturally intuits and experiences its non-dualistic oneness with Life. But this too, does not compute. It’s just an esoteric idea, just words that the ego can flatter itself with by believing the words are something special. The real thing is outside the realm of ego, and cannot be known except when ego, and the belief and experience of separate self as our only experience, drop away. So, I see people sitting as themselves, in their individual place – in their attitude. Little (or sometimes rather big) statements about being their individual self is broadcast in their posture, their facial expression, and their energy.

buddhas and ancestors recommend that we first stand up in the appropriate place. Just stand up, be present in the Universe itself.”

Allow me to make a technique suggestion: find a statue or picture of Buddha meditating (such a picture is included in this column). Use this as what is called an external object of meditation. Look at the Buddha-image and concentrate on it to steady the mind. Experience the qualities that are expressed by the posture, the facial expression, the energy. See it as illustrating what it means to just stand up and be present in the Universe – while sitting. Now to the best of your ability, mirror what you see. (You don’t have to sit in lotus position unless you are completely comfortable with it – chair-sitting will do just fine.) What is important is the verticality, the balance, the relaxed alertness, the dignity, serenity and total acceptance of the moment-as-it-is that the image projects. No slumping, no tilting, no wobbling. Release unnecessary tension. Be relaxed while also brightly alert.

Steady your capacity for relaxed concentration while you simultaneously focus awareness on the Buddha-image and the gentle rhythm of your breathing. This should naturally begin to quiet your mind and relax your body. Let any mental activity that arises be noted only for what it is – your egoic mind telling its story. Watch the mind-activity as it arises and passes without being pulled into it. Realize that the mind-activity arises and passes in a quiet, still, unchanging field of mental awareness. That which sees the activity, this quiet, still, unchanging field of mental awareness is buddha-mind, and the intention of meditation is to realize that we are awareness, that which sees, senses and knows the moment. In our culture, if awareness is noted at all it is that we have awareness and not that we are awareness, while in reality, both are true. Again, simultaneity and paradox. Awareness is not egoistic, colored by “individual knowledge, prejudice, customs and habits.” It is clear and universal. To realize that we are awareness is to realize we are that unprejudiced clarity beneath all the prejudiced, reactive and clouded thinking and emotion of mind-activity.

Continue to concentrate on the Buddha-image until it is very clear and steady, and then close your eyes, internalizing the image, holding the image in the mind. When the image is very steady and clear, and your body statement reflects and mirrors the image, create a quantum repositioning of the sense of self from looking at the Buddha to looking out from inside the Buddha. Become Buddha’s vision. You may now experience awareness seeing awareness. This is buddha. There is no object of meditation. You have become meditation. It is not what you are doing. It is what you are – awareness.

In opening your eyes, everything becomes the object of meditation. This is Mindfulness. There is simply awareness realizing the objects in life (including what is experienced as your separate self, and the separate selves of others, and the trees and the birds and the earth and sky, everything) as all connected in the arising field of awareness. There is just the energy of Life appearing as energy-beings that have form and varying degrees of sentience. There is also the sense of intuited connection with that which is beyond the range of physical senses, ultimately, with an intuited sense of the Universe. You are now standing up being present in the Universe. This is realizing buddha.

With this comes a radical shift in attitude, both toward our meditation and toward our experience of Life, shifting from our individual posture, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviors to an increasingly universal perspective and expression. From here, with dedication, we can carry this way of being – as the individual we are and as the Universe – into everyday life. And then, everything begins to change. Increasingly, everyday life becomes imbued with the mystical, with buddha, and all the balance, reverence, compassion, perspective, equanimity and sanity that this implies right in the middle of our otherwise mundane activity. Increasingly we see how we get pulled into our conditioned attitudes, behaviors and reactions, and in seeing, in becoming that which sees, we can let this conditioning fall away, leaving – buddha.

Just as every flower, leaf, bird and snowflake expresses universal qualities, each, as an expression of Nature and Life simultaneously express their unique individuality with sparkling authenticity and spontaneity. And so can we. Just stand up in the Universe and be the simultaneity and paradox of self and buddha that is our true nature.

Budda and Mara

The legend of Buddha’s journey to enlightenment, generally experienced as a quaint religious story, is, in fact, a powerful parable that deserves our serious examination. It is an extremely helpful insight into the journey that will be experienced by those who take up a meditation practice and as what will be encountered by those who live in sincere intention for a more evolved and enlightened life.

Here is the tale: One day a prince, named Siddhartha, of the kingdom of Shakya in northern India, ventured beyond the palace walls of his privileged and sheltered life where he encountered suffering that he had never known existed. Even more than the people’s physical suffering caused by poverty, disease, hunger, cruel treatment and death, Siddhartha was struck by the mental suffering. He was so moved and saddened by what he saw that he vowed to dedicate his life to understanding the source of this suffering and to finding a way to liberation from it.

In his quest, he at first took up the life of an ascetic for this was a widely accepted path in the world of ancient India for one who sought religious enlightenment. He learned to master his own body, thoughts, emotions, fears and desires. He learned to meditate deeply, to transcend the sense of isolated self and to merge with and unlock many secrets of the Universe. His fervor, however, was so great, and the rituals of his practice so extreme, that he had brought himself to near death with fasting and exhaustion. He had mastered many spiritual techniques, but the knowledge he sought eluded him. In a moment of insight, he realized this withdrawal from and rejection of the world, along with the extremity of the practice, could not be of help to ordinary people – that, in fact, this asceticism was a kind of arrogance. For how could one learn the secrets of mastering the suffering in the world by being in rejection of the world?

Following this realization, he cleansed himself in a river, accepted his first meal in many days, a simple meal of rice milk from a young woman who was passing by, and vowed to sit in meditation until he found the answers he sought. He understood intuitively that he must find a “middle way,” a path that was neither the materialism and conventional religious practice of his youth, nor the extremity of his recent asceticism. He sat beneath a fig tree, later to become known as the “Bodhi Tree,” and settled into meditation to contemplate his challenge. He sat for many days, and as he settled into perfect equanimity and stillness he began to see and understand the total balance of energy and form that is the Universe and he began to experience a vast clarity of mind capable of realizing the answers he sought.

The legend then tells that the god Mara, the god of darkness and destruction, who can be understood as a mythic representation of the dark side of human ego, became jealous of Siddhartha’s growing perfect peace and presence. He sent his five daughters, the spirits of pride, greed, fear, ignorance and desire in the appearance of seductive young women to distract and tempt Siddhartha out of his search. They danced and sang and beckoned to Siddhartha, but Siddhartha was looking beyond the world of physical desire and they had no effect on him. This enraged Mara and he conjured a ferocious storm filled with wind, thunder, and lightning-bolts to batter at Siddhartha. But Siddhartha was unmoved, his perfect stillness unshaken. Mara then sent the illusion of legions of soldiers marching toward Siddhartha who loosed flaming arrows at him. But as Siddhartha sat in perfect equanimity and composure, the falling arrows were transformed into flower petals that gently drifted down at his feet, and the sky cleared.

In a last attempt to corrupt Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment, Mara appeared before him disguised in Siddhartha’s own visage and challenged Siddhartha, demanding to know what right Siddhartha had to be free of suffering. Mara challenged him to present a witness who would vouch for Siddhartha’s right, and in answer, Siddhartha touched his fingers to the Earth and answered, “The Earth is my witness that I and all sentient life have the right to be free of suffering.” And with this, Mara was defeated and faded away.

Siddhartha continued meditating until dawn and with first light, his enlightenment was complete. He understood perfectly this dilemma of suffering. He was now The Buddha, The Awakened One, and his mission soon commenced with his first teaching of the Four Noble Truths on the Nature and Cessation of Suffering to a group of his former fellow ascetics in the Deer Park nearby the holy city of Benares. These ascetics, realizing the perfection of his vision, became Buddha’s first disciples.

A beautiful story. If we look closely, however, we can recognize in the teaching allegorical parallels to our own experience that can be very helpful in the development of our meditation practice and in our journey into more conscious living.

We all want to be happy, to be without unnecessary suffering in our life. This is an important truth. But we have no idea of how to achieve it. We generally come to a meditation practice with a sense that the life we are living and the lives of those around us are not as peaceful, compassionate and wise as they might be. We have all looked to materialism for happiness, for as was Siddhartha, we were born into a materialistic world. Never in human history has material pleasure and comfort been so readily available to even ordinary people. It is quite clear, however, that materialism is not a certain path to peace and happiness. Often, in fact, it is a major source and cause of much emotional suffering.

And most people have had some sort of experience with conventional religion, and while it can be an important source of community and emotional comfort, only a very few find deep, unshakeable and lasting peace in conventional religion. And, as it is with materialism, many people find in their experience with religion much confusion and pain. Some people, not having found what they seek in either materialism or conventional religion, will turn to esoteric and extreme spiritual practices. Some will turn away from the world into severe practices not unlike the young Siddhartha. Many more, however, will dabble in ritualistic and arcane practices while their lives remain, on the whole, very materialistic. And while they may find moments of self-transcendence in rituals and devotion to some guru, when the rituals are over, they are left with the sense that the true peace they seek, a peace that can be brought into everyday life, still eludes them.

We hear of Buddhism, the so-called “Middle-Way,” and of its emphasis on meditation and a simple ethical life as a way to quiet our restless minds, as possibly a way to find peace and increased sanity. Perhaps, we hope, we will find a respite from unsettling thoughts and emotions and the reactive and impulsive behavior that is driven by these thoughts and emotions. We hear that there is a minimum of emphasis on ritual, particularly in Buddhism’s Zen manifestation. It seems to be free of what we in the West would associate with theology; it is more a psychology, and while practiced by millions in the world as a religion, it does not have to be. We hear that its figure-head, The Buddha, did not claim to be either a god or a prophet of some god, but rather a human being who taught that perfect peace, wisdom and compassion are inherent in every human being. So we take up the practice of Buddhist meditation and its ethical teachings as a path to overcome our own emotional turmoil and the suffering that comes with it.

At first, there is some reinforcing gain. For most who bring any serious intention and time to it, the practice of simple sitting meditation brings a measure of respite from the tension and mental busyness of ordinary life. However, bringing the practice deeper and into our everyday lives turns out to be extremely challenging, and here is where Buddha’s own story is very relevant. Just as we begin to settle into a quiet mind, we can expect to experience our own personal Mara, our egoic mind, challenging us with busy and insecure thoughts, parading “pride, greed, fear, ignorance and desire” through the field of awareness. The pull of our psycho/social conditioning, ego’s realm, will come in the form of boredom and restlessness. It will call us back to our very busy lives telling us to stop wasting time sitting, doing nothing. The very important teaching that perfect peace and oneness with Life is our own basic nature, and so certainly attainable, will not really register, because the face of our ego, our personality, cannot believe such things – for it would mean we were someone other than whom we are accustomed to. We find it nearly impossible to conceive that who we really are is the face of infinite balance, compassion and peace that is the vast Universe of Nature. We do not know to call on our own Nature, as Siddhartha called on the Earth, to be our witness that we have the right to this peace and wisdom.

Likewise, as our meditation practice begins to open into brief glimpses of Buddhism’s promise of “peaceful abiding,” “insight,” and “oneness” (Shamatha, Vipassana, and Samadhi), it will seem inconceivable that these states of consciousness could be our “everyday mind.” The pull of our habits of egocentricity, distractibility, hurriedness, judgment, emotional reaction and for seeking happiness and significance outside ourselves will be too strong. Like with Siddhartha, Mara will challenge us, and because of strong identification with our own personality, we will find it very difficult to open to the amazing possibilities for clarity and presence that can be the fruit of our practice.

What Buddha’s story tells us, however, what Buddha’s teaching (Dharma) promises, and the line of those who precede us into discovering the truth in Buddha’s teaching (Sangha) gives proof to, is that if we hold steadfast in the face of these challenges, if we find and hold our center, our balance, our stillness, our equanimity, our true Nature, Mara will be defeated. We will find the truth, we will awaken to the realization that Buddha’s mind is our mind and it can be our everyday mind, when we release clinging to our conditioned egoic mind. We will see that suffering is not the necessary result of difficulty and pain. We will see, we will experience, that peaceful abiding, wisdom and insight, along with the true vastness of our existence in unity with all things is the truth of who we are. This was Buddha’s story and likewise it can be yours.

Who Is It That Is Aware?

“As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, you must ask yourself, who is it that is aware?” – Zen koan

Thoughts and emotions arise. The human mind is a thought-producing machine. Emotions happen. The human body is a resonance chamber for the energy of thoughts and emotions. A thought or emotion arises in the dimension of mind, and in the body, a resonant feeling, a quality of energy, is experienced. A happy thought creates a happy feeling – expansive, light, energized. An unhappy thought creates an unhappy feeling – contracted, heavy, energy dissipating.

Try it for yourself. Close your eyes. Think of something or someone that is very challenging, even threatening to you. Hold that thought for about ten seconds. Pay attention to the feeling state that accompanies the holding of the thought.

Now, think of something or someone that is supportive, pleasing to you. Hold that thought for about ten seconds. Pay attention to the feeling state that comes with that thought.

Now, bring all your attention to experiencing the gentle flow of your breathing. Do not accentuate or change the breath. Feel the rise and fall of your chest, the flow of air across your nostrils. Allow the exhalation to be relaxing, a releasing of tensions of body and mind, while with the inhalation, the oxygenation of the body and brain causes a brightening of alertness. Also listen carefully to the sounds of the world around you. (Do this away from loud sounds or TV – very soft music helps this exercise – or best of all, go outside and listen to the birds and the wind in the trees.) Do this for about 30 seconds. Now, open your eyes and feel what you feel.

If you are paying very close attention, you will notice that with the threatening thought there is a contraction of the energy of the body and mind into a state of tension. With the pleasant thought there is an opening of the energy, the body and mind relax. There is a feeling of soft expansive openness. We can feel the effect of thoughts.

Then – with the bringing of your awareness into the experience of your breath and into listening to the subtle soft sounds of the world around you, notice how the feeling state becomes even more expansive, open, relaxed, clear. This is the experience of no-thought, or, at least, quieted thought. Your sense of your separate self at the center of experience is softening, maybe even disappearing. The experience of the moment is the center of consciousness. “Out there” feels like it contains you and there is no or very slight thought of yourself. You are experiencing awareness, the clear, bright light of consciousness that we are usually distracted from noticing by the noise of the mind. You are becoming aware of awareness. Thought, emotion, sensations happen in awareness, and awareness is the clear energy of consciousness that shines on everything without discrimination, just as light is the clear energy of the sun that shines on everything without discrimination. This is the realm of consciousness beyond happy and unhappy. This is what Buddhism calls original mind, buddha-mind, Satori. Thought has ceased to be the centerpiece of consciousness and you are realizing a deeper level of mind. Buddhists also call this “big mind” as differentiated from the thinking dominated “little mind.”

“Who we are is awareness, but we block this with our self-centered thinking.” – Charlotte Joko Beck

Every thought is a contraction of the energy of the mind from its original and clear state of awareness into some limited form. With the creation of thought, we experience the creation of a world of virtual reality, where the thoughts are mistaken for who we are and what the world is about. We experience the dimension of mind that is the ego, the dimension of mind that takes the streaming energy of Life and organizes it into bits of information that we can use to organize our experience. And from the ego comes the idea of our own separateness amidst a world of separate objects. This separateness feels absolute and solid, and with it, a sense of isolation and the problem of finding our own significance in this vast and challenging world that is experienced as “out there.” There is a loss of the experience of oneness with Life that is our natural consciousness.

Although this condition isn’t generally experienced as dramatically and ominously as the description here sounds, at very subtle levels we experience this challenge of sufficiency and it drives our daily lives. It shows up in anger, anxiety, frustration, tension, worry, regret, and a dozen other variations of thought/emotion/body distress. In times of great threat or challenge, this experience of tense uncertainty accompanied by frenetic mental activity is amplified greatly, and although we don’t recognize the dramatic threat to our well-being, as the Buddha deduced, this is the source of all of humanity’s unnecessary suffering.

Thoughts race, attempting to make sense of and assert control of our life, and many of the thoughts are subtly or not-so-subtly fear based, for we are filled with uncertainty that Life will be manageable without great effort of mind and action, and the more fear-based the thought, the more the mind and the resonant body-emotion contracts into its experience of separateness. While many of our thoughts are simply utilitarian, i.e., figuring out situations and problems, this challenge to a secure sense-of-self is so all-consuming that a great many of our thoughts are, in some way, self-centered thoughts, for we are struggling to make sense of and plan for the physical and psychological survival and flourishing of this “me” that is at the center of our thought-matrix world. We lose awareness of awareness. We lose awareness of our original and clear consciousness that is irreducible and is the very stability we chase after as we are tossed about by the ever-changing and unstable mind of thought and emotion.

We are accustomed to experiencing that we are the thoughts and emotions and the behaviors that result from those thoughts and emotions. We say, “I am happy” or “I am sad” or “I am angry” and act out these thought/emotion experiences as if they are our only choice, as if they are who we are. But is this true? Zen teaches us that, no, we are not these thoughts and emotions or consequent behaviors, They are the product of but one dimension of mind, and a problematic one at that, called the ego. We have these thoughts and emotions. They are properties of being human, just as we have hands and we have feet. Who we are, in our essence, is the awareness, the pure field of consciousness that experiences these phenomena of the mind and body and out of which they are generated. Little mind exists within big mind, and it is the big picture that we are missing.

So, we are answering our question: Who is it that is all this cacophony of thought and emotion, and who is it that is the awareness within which all this mental activity occurs? Our culture has kept from us the answer to this very important question and our schools of learning and our psychologies fail even to bring the question up for our examination. Without a clue, we experience the chaotic realm of ego-identity as who we are while we live in awareness as a fish lives in water. We live unaware of awareness, unaware of who we are at our irreducible level, unaware that who we are must be that which is irreducible and unchanging in our experience.

As I instructed you to create a happy thought, then an unhappy thought, we must ask, how could these thoughts and emotions be me if I can voluntarily create them? Who is the “me” that can create them? Must there not be a more fundamental entity that receives these instructions and intuitively knows how to manifest them? So then, as we go about our everyday lives, how can these thoughts and emotions be who we are when they spontaneously arise in response and reaction to our daily events and challenges? Where do they come from? Is there two of “me”? Is there one who reacts with ever-changing thought and emotion to ever-changing circumstances, while there is one behind this activity that is unaffected and unchanged by this activity?

In a narrow sense, the answer is yes. These two are (1.) the ego with its cacophony of thoughts and emotions, and, (2) behind and greater than ego is awareness and its accompanying intelligence we call intuition functioning silently and constantly. To bring this into broader accuracy, however, we must realize, there is only one, awareness, the undifferentiated energy of consciousness out of which arises the differentiated consciousness of ego. Non-duality contains duality as a vivid experience, while what is important to realize is that duality cannot contain non-duality other than as an idea. To live in the duality of egoic mind as our culture conditions us blocks the living experience of the peaceful unity of life-experience we seek.

Do you see the empowerment and liberation in this? This is the true purpose of Zen meditation and teaching, to awaken us to awareness and intuition as the irreducible source and experience of our existence. In meditation, as you quiet the talking and emotionally reactive “little” mind, you begin to open into the field of consciousness that is awareness, the water we fish usually swim in unnoticed. And as you continue to meditate, you begin to be aware of awareness and the dawning realization that you are the “big” mind of awareness. This is the very ground of your Being, your source, who you truly are.

Oh, how everything then begins to change. Thoughts and emotions come and go. We begin to realize that they are conditioned patterns of our cultural, societal, family and personal experience. They are programmed reactions to situations. They are certainly not who we are. We can begin to let them come and go without investing our sense of self in them. Defensiveness, reactivity, the need to identify with them begins to dissolve.

Once we know we don’t have to be controlled by these thoughts and emotions, we can begin to reshape and refine them. We can experience our thoughts as tools, like our hands, which we can train to be increasingly skillful, graceful, compassionate and wise in dealing with the circumstances of life. The egoic mind is really a very remarkable computer that can serve us brilliantly once we stop confusing it for who we are. This is why Buddhism’s teachings and meditation are “liberation” leading to an “awakening” out of living in the little mind of ego into the wisdom and effectiveness of a much bigger, more adaptable and compassionate mind, the mind of awareness itself. The answer to our koan is: YOU are who is aware. It is YOU, the deepest, truest, sanest you.

What’s Ok?

“One way to evaluate our practice is to see whether life is more and more OK with us… More and more we know that whatever happens, however much we hate it, however much we have to struggle with it – in some way, it’s OK… We grow in understanding and appreciation of the perfection of each moment… we grow in being able to say, ‘Yes, it’s OK.”
– Charlotte Joko Beck (from Everyday Zen)

The central purpose of Buddhist teaching and practice is to understand and overcome the causes of human emotional suffering, yet, “suffering” is a rather vague and abstract term. Mostly we associate the word with extreme physical and emotional pain, and while Buddhism’s use of the word certainly contains these extreme and obvious examples, it really is also meant to address mental states of far greater subtlety. We know it must mean being unhappy, even miserable, but it doesn’t give us a good practical handle on understanding where this unhappiness, this misery, is coming from and what we can do. We too easily associate suffering with its infliction by sources and conditions outside ourselves, rather than as a state of mind within us, when in fact, that’s precisely what it is. That’s why I so greatly appreciated Charlotte Joko Beck’s bringing the issue of suffering and enlightenment down to a most practical level. She asks: Are you OK? And tells us, that if there’s something in your life with which you are not OK, that’s the growth edge of your practice. It’s you who is not OK with something, not that the something is not OK in itself. Our suffering, unhappiness, and misery is not out there, it is in here, in our own minds.

This is very similar to Eckhart Tolle addressing the suffering issue by expressing it in terms of being in resistance to what is. Are you in emotional resistance to something? – then, it must be causing you unhappiness and some degree of suffering. Again, very useful, yet, still a bit abstract. Just what does “resistance” mean?

There’s nothing abstract about whether you are OK with something or not. When you are not OK with something, you know it. What Zen is teaching us is that if you can know it, you can work with it, and in working with it, you can transform your attitude toward it. You can grow from a state of not-OK to OK. In other words, you can grow from suffering to not suffering, from resistance to acceptance.

Eckhart Tolle teaches us that “pain is not suffering; pain plus story is suffering.” Do you see? Pay attention to the next time your dog or cat is sick or injured. They don’t suffer. They are just slowed down, incapacitated by the sickness or injury in some way. Remember the last time you were significantly sick or injured. If you are like most of us, you suffered not only with whatever actual incapacitation you experienced, you suffered mentally. You were not OK with being sick or injured. You had a story in your mind about how not OK it was , even scary, to be sick or injured. Your dog or cat is OK with being sick or injured; they have not created a story of affliction by the sickness or injury. We human beings tend to do just that. We tell ourselves a story of how it is not OK to be sick or injured, or financially broke, or in relationship crisis, or to have a difficult boss or co-workers, or that world and national or local politics are not going the way we want, and so we suffer.

Taking this further, Joko Beck asks us, would it be OK with you if you were told you have one more day to live? Or if your arms and legs had to be amputated? Or if you were never again to receive a kind or friendly or encouraging word from anyone? Or if you had to be in pain and bedridden for the rest of your life? And her list goes on through some gruesome, awful scenarios.

She then says, “to answer ‘OK’ is the enlightened state,” while acknowledging that she herself (this acknowledged Zen Master) cannot say OK to these things. She goes on to say: “for something to be OK, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t scream, or cry, or protest, or hate it. Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma, and screaming and moaning are the voice of the dharma. For these things to be OK for me doesn’t mean that I’m happy about them. If they’re OK, what does that mean? What is the enlightened state? When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be.”

This is what Tolle means by no resistance. It’s not about being passive or numb. It’s about being wise. For the truth is that in all these scenarios, we become OK with these circumstances through the passage of time, as the separation between our self-image and the reality of our situation disappears, as we get use to being an amputee, a political prisoner or a chronic pain patient – or blind, or deaf, or battle with cancer, or adjust to going broke. Being OK means we no longer are victims of our circumstance, we no longer experience being victims. We just live with what we’ve got to live with and don’t fill our minds with stories of how horrible it is.

When we become OK with whatever Life hands us, we become whole again where there had been a hole, a separation between ourselves and our circumstance. This is not new to us. We’ve all done it with various difficulties in our life. We are not OK when the unwanted, even dreaded circumstance becomes a possibility, even more not OK when it becomes a reality and then, with time, we become OK. We’re not victims. It’s just who we are. The wisdom here, the skill here is developing the ability to see when we go into not-OK-ness and realize the outside affliction has now become an affliction of the mind, and rather than being passive and depending on time to restore us to OK, we make the mental adjustment ourselves as we also take what appropriate actions we can to address the circumstance. As the intriguing vernacular of Zen says: “This is this” or, “what-is-just-is.” There is no wisdom in being separated, in resistance, in suffering over what is.

The practice of Zen is in increasing insight and skill at becoming conscious of what causes us suffering and instead of being dragged kicking and screaming to eventually becoming OK, we just make the mental adjustment to our circumstance, let go of our resistance, and become OK with it. We get in front of and initiate, rather than being dragged to, the process of being OK. This also has the effect of increasing our skill in the actions we take about the circumstance, as the action is not now arising out of a desperate mind clouded by fear or anger.

How do we do this? By having a larger frame to view and experience Life than the very small frame of ego that simply wants what it wants, and in effect, throws tantrums when it doesn’t get what it wants. The irony is that all the ego really wants is to be happy, but like a greedy child, it has no idea of how to accomplish happiness. Happiness is the result of a life lived resenting nothing, experiencing great gratitude and conducting oneself in a fundamentally ethical and responsible way so that situations and relationships are not constantly blowing up in our face. Happiness is the result of wisdom, and wisdom is the result of perspective, and perspective is to see Life in as big a frame as we are capable of.

Happiness is in OK-ness. OK with the little things in Life, OK with the big, even catastrophic things in Life, and everything between. Since we have identified ego as the source of our being not OK, the most important lesson of Buddhism is “you are not your ego, “so don’t let it own you. If you want to be happy, you must take ownership of your own OK-ness. You must take ownership and responsibility for your ego. You have an ego for the very important job of managing the stuff of your life as a separate person. When we mistake ego for who we are, we are caught in the grip of its greed and self-centeredness. The roller-coaster of highs and lows, of inevitable suffering, is sure to happen.

Let ego be the workman of the circumstances of your life. With the tools of ego, you do what needs to be done. You can go for whatever you want, while you cultivate wisdom as what guides your life – and helps you embrace what comes. Appreciate how much is good and beautiful in the world and train your awareness to see the subtleties of beauty and goodness – the flowers, the birds, kindnesses, children’s smiles and laughter, your own smiles and laughter, meaningful presence with fellow beings. As for the really bad stuff – the cancers, the divorces, the family tragedies, the job firings, the sicknesses and deaths, the injustice and stupidity and cruelty in the world, it’s OK to scream and cry. Then dry your tears and find the gold in the manure. It’s there. I promise you.

Life is everything. As Joko Beck told us: “Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma, and screaming and moaning are the voice of the dharma.” – It’s all OK when seen in the big picture. “What is the enlightened state? When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be.” Open into the fullest perspective possible and let there be no separation, no holes, between you and what is – become whole with what is – let ego and awareness work together to manage what-is to the best of your ability; do what you can and let the rest go. And that’s what it means to be unassailably OK.

Like Clouds In The Sky

Looking up into the sky, we see a constantly changing vista. Some days, the sky is clear blue, or at night, blue/black and star-filled from horizon to horizon. More often, there will be formations and layers of clouds, drifting and changing. Some days, there is no clear sky at all; the vista is filled with darkness, cloud layered upon cloud, or one cloud, seemingly endless from horizon to horizon.

Buddhism has long found the sky to be a useful metaphor for the mind, and the way we experience our mind is really quite analogous to this metaphor of the sky. Sometimes clear and bright, sometimes dark and stormy, while most of the time some mix of clarity interspersed with drifting, morphing, changing content.

Following this metaphor, as regards mind and our sense of self and identity, we live in a culture that causes us to confuse the clouds of mind – thoughts and emotions – with the essence of mind. As a result, we experience our minds pretty much constantly filled with this drifting, morphing, changing content. We believe the thoughts and emotions that fill our mind are the essence of our mind, and this is a fundamental error. We then compound the error by believing that who we are is this collection of thoughts and emotions, when this is only one dimension of mind, the ego, and it is a rather limited dimension at that. This causes problems in our relationship with ourselves and the world because then our sense of self is based in this drifting, morphing, changing content of the mind. There is no stability, reliability, predictability to our experience of self or the world.

To make matters worse, although we identify this mental content with ourselves, the source of the vast majority of this content is, of course, from other people. Our minds are filled with what has been told and taught us by our parents, the people we grew up around, our friends, teachers, society, culture, media, etc. Even our emotions are often learned, in that angry parents will likely generate angry children, anxious parents will generate anxious children, etc. It’s quite remarkable that we tend to be so defensive about our opinions and emotions when, in a very real sense, they are not ours at all.

When we believe that our minds, and who we are, is the content of our minds, it’s no wonder our minds are filled with constant and obsessive chatter. This ego-self sustains itself with a wall of mental activity. One rather paranoid person I worked with accused me of trying to make a fool of him for suggesting there could be moments when the mind was quiet, for such a concept was impossible for him to grasp. Most of us aren’t that totally identified with the contents of our minds, but we aren’t far from it. This illustration is important because while we don’t all tend toward paranoia, the ego-mind is always defensive to a greater or lesser extent, and the wall of thought is the primary line of defense for the ego.

Most people when they begin a meditation practice find it difficult to believe that their mind could be quiet a significant amount of the time. How wonderful it is when they discover truth in the assertion that the basic essence of our mind is like the vast, open sky but also, like the sky, its nature is to have contents within it. Just like there are clouds in the sky, there are thoughts and emotions in the mind, but these thoughts and emotions are no more the essence of mind than the clouds are the essence of the sky. Also, as it is the nature of the sky to contain some measure of clouds most of the time, so it is the nature of the mind to contain some measure of thoughts and emotions most of the time.

Our experience is really quite pleasurable when there is some limited dimension of thought and emotion giving texture and dimension to our experience of life just like the weather is quite pleasurable when there is some cloud structure giving texture and dimension to the sky. This marks an appropriate and effective relationship to our minds, but from our mistaken perspective that thought and emotion is the mind, we compulsively fill our minds from horizon to horizon with content, and so our experience of life is like a stormy day when clouds fill the sky, sometimes erupting into thunder, lightening and rain. We live far too much of our lives in a cloud-filled and often stormy climate. It does not have to be this way.

The metaphor continues when we explore what the optimal experience in relationship to our minds truly is. Pleasant weather is a mix of clear sky and clouds, and for our day-to-day lives, a mix of spacious clarity, interspersed with thought and emotion is also the best relationship to mind. It could also be said that just as we must have rain for the world to be lush and fertile, times that are the mental equivalent of rain are necessary to bring us the darker, more soulful experience of life. These stormy times challenge us and nourish our basic, earthy humanity, helping us to grow in understanding, skill and wisdom. After all, is it not Life’s challenges that cause us to stretch and evolve into more complex, aware, resourceful, and hopefully, compassionate people? A well-known Zen saying tells us, “obstacles do not block the path, they are the path.

But, oh those days we call glorious, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky! This is the same as the open, clear experience of mind that makes for the spiritual connection, the experience of far-seeing clarity and deep insight, and it is this ability that can be deliberately cultivated through meditation and mindfulness. This is egoless awareness, what Zen calls No-mind.

Likewise, as the vast, clear sky is always above and below the clouds, no matter how stormy it may be, so too, behind, beneath, surrounding the thought-clouds of mind can be experienced the crystal-clear realm of awareness. This requires the knowing that we are the awareness and the cultivation of awareness-of-awareness. With this knowing, peacefulness and clarity are always available to us. It isn’t that the turbulent content isn’t there, but that we no longer identify with it or get lost in it. Instead, we realize that the clarity of pure awareness, like the clarity of the deep sky, is our true self. We are no longer lost, identifying with the unstable and changing nature of our cloud-mind, our thoughts and emotions, but rather, with the unclouded awareness that witnesses the passing phenomena of mind and life.

The legend of the Buddha is of a man, Siddhartha Gautama, living 2500 years ago in India, a prince who left the comfort of his palace and discovered the vast stormy world of humanity. He saw suffering and required of himself that he understand its cause, nature and cure. Like a physician, a scientist, he embarked on a journey of exhaustive research. He spent many years as an ascetic mastering the meditative arts, living with a mind accustomed to deep quiet and profound insight. Intuiting the ascetic life however as another egoic pose, a reaction to the suffering of human society, he left it, to find a “middle path.” Neither materialistic and worldly, nor in scorn of the world, this path is deeply, subtly aware of both the beauty and tragedy of the world. Realizing they create the intricate dance of unity, it maintains perspective and insight; in compassionate love with humanity and existence.

In deep meditation Buddha penetrated through all “clouds” of mind into the realm of pure awareness, even beyond the cloudless sky, for even the blue sky is not empty of particles, but is an illusion of emptiness, filled with atoms and molecules and the energy that connects all phenomena; and its placement as “up there” is likewise an illusion, for in truth, we live within the sky. It is as much beneath the clouds as it is above, it is all around us. We are in it as is this Earth we live upon. It is as if Buddha penetrated beyond the concept of sky and mind, completely breaking past the boundaries of the Earth into the true realm of our existence, the Universe that we are all within and expressions of. There he discovered the true nature of our existence, a more profound sense of emptiness, that is, empty of the delusions of certainty and separateness that this world of cloud-thoughts tell us about itself and us.

He went beyond all “illusions” of a sky or mind that confines us to realize the Universe “out there” is mirrored perfectly “in here,” in the vast clarity of human consciousness not obscured by the false belief in individual separateness as the only reality. There is and there isn’t an “out there” or “in here.” There is just This. This world of separateness, this world of egoic clouds of thought and emotion that morph and drift, often racing through our awareness is not who we are. We are the awareness, the clear open “sky” of pure consciousness. We are, as the great Orientalist, Alan Watts once wrote, “The Universe looking into itself.” We are – just This.

This was Buddha’s “awakening” and the word “Buddha” translates as “awakened one.” For this, millions worship him like a god, but he absolutely insisted he was merely mortal and that this ability to see clearly, to realize we are that which sees, is in every human being. The physician diagnosed the sickness of “egoic delusion” and prescribed the cure. He taught us how to transcend the boundaries of human perceptual and cognitive limitation and achieve true clarity, to awaken beyond the clouds of mind into the essential realm of Being.

Yes, our mortal form lives like clouds in the sky, being born, morphing, drifting and sometimes racing across the sky of our lifespan, then disappearing. Yet there, within the forms of the world and the suffering that comes with form, we can realize as did Buddha, the cure to suffering, to realize enlightenment into our true nature as awareness – that which is eternal, like the vast sky itself, which holds, witnesses, and does not judge, does not react to or resist the moment as it is, and sees its perfection as the truth of who we are.

Experiencing One

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest, mystic philosopher, and paleontologist, a principle figure in one of the great discoveries in the evolutionary chain of human history, the discovery of Peking Man, a homo erectus predecessor to modern homo sapiens that lived approximately 750,000 years ago in China.

While being an important figure in the world of field paleontology, Teilhard’s great mission in life was to resolve the gulf between religion and science that centered on the issue of evolution, for he was a man of both worlds, unique in so many ways, and absolutely brilliant. His perspective on evolution was radically visionary in a manner that put him not in conflict with his faith, but rather in confirmation of it. For him, the issue wasn’t that human beings evolved from a common ancestor as that of apes; this was only the most recent evolutionary event and only a superficial analysis of the much greater truth. For Teilhard de Chardin, what was evident was that human beings were the natural result of the evolution of the Universe. The only point of beginning for the human species, as with all life, could be the birth of the Universe, the Big Bang. From that moment, an inexorable process of increasing complexification of matter led to the inevitable emergence of consciousness, for, he speculated, as science is now confirming, consciousness is an inherent property of matter.

As is being discovered in the field of quantum physics, sub-atomic particles behave in ways that can only be explained by attributing consciousness into the equation. This is supportive of Teilhard’s hypothesis that the Universe is a unified field of both matter-energy and consciousness-energy, what he called spirit, and that the Universe was a unified field of spirit-matter, manifesting as objects within the field of universal energy which complexified in consciousness as it complexified in physical organization. In the known Universe, the most complex organization of matter is the human brain which then manifests the most complex consciousness. Teilhard wrote: “There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter.”

This perspective on existence is in keeping with many cultural traditions in which that which is called “God” is not the creator of the Universe in any kind of mechanistic and dualistic sense, as in God is in Heaven and the World is made “out there” but rather, God is the world, Divine consciousness infusing all Creation. In this mystical equation one plus one equals One and the many. There are infinite manifestations of one – stars, planets, comets, rocks, and at least on this planet Earth, many, many manifestations of life-forms, all making up the One that is the Universe, with consciousness permeating the One and manifesting as individual consciousness in the higher levels of organization called sentient beings. This is the Natural World. It is a system of unified energy manifesting infinite individual systems of energy, all still within the One.

“When the energy simply flows through us, just as it flows through the grass and the trees and the ravens and the bears and the moose and the ocean and the rocks, we discover that we are not solid at all. If we sit still like the mountain Gampo Lhatse in a hurricane… then we are not this separate being.” – Pema Chodrin

This intuitive realization of our individuality existing within a Great Oneness is the essential mystical spiritual realization. It is not adequate to hold this as an intellectual realization, it has to be intuitively experienced, a combining of subtle physical and mental perception of our Beingness, our essence as energy connected energetically with the multiplicity and singularity of Life. To hold the idea of oneness brings no peace, no sense of completeness and perfect belonging in the World; the conflict of competing individual forms and human egos (psychological separate forms) is too overwhelming. To experience and live this peace requires what Buddhists call the “felt sense,” and since what we are addressing here is the reality of our existence as “spirit-matter” energy, it can of course be felt. It is our hypnotic belief in separate solid bodies and individual minds that prevents the feeling being realized, numbing us to this experience of living within the Sacred One. This belief constitutes what Buddhists refer to as a “barrier” or “gate” of egoic delusion that blocks our opening to the felt sense. The realization certainly can be addressed at an intellectual level, as I am attempting here, and as mystical teachers throughout history (including Jesus) have attempted with their words. It is, however, with their presence, which embodies this unified connected energy much vaster than a single individual, that the true communication, or what is sometimes referred to as “direct transmission,” can occur, opening and unlocking the “gate.”

“We can feel peaceful because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place. This is what we call wholeheartedness or “with your whole mind.” – Dainin Katagiri

“God” is everything and no-thing since all things are only appearances of spirit-matter, all of which is The One that is Life. Only humans can create an artificial reality with their highly complex self-aware consciousness in which we experience as our primary reality our separateness. This is what led Carl Jung to say, “‘God’ is “a word for the non-ego.” For mystically awakened Buddhists, or the American or Australian indigenous peoples, there is no anthropomorphic “God,” Life itself is the source of all and experienced as sacred. They live in the reality of Teilhard’s spirit-matter.

“For the Zen Buddhist, everything that exists, apart from man – animals and plants, stones, earth, air, fire, water – lives undemandingly from the center of being, without having left it or being able to leave it. If man, having strayed from this center, is to know security and innocence of existence… he must go back… and return home to the “house of truth”… He must become… like forest and rock, like flower and fruit, like wind and storm.” – Eugen Herrigel (The Method of Zen)

Born to have a human experience,
not a squirrel’s, a daffodil’s or a bird’s,
The Flowing River of Universal Energy
contracts to a one,
humbly, awkwardly, vulnerably emerging
with the first breath inhaled.
Air and earth combine,
animated with the spark of The One,
a story begins, the story of one.
A human being begins,
lost in the teeming, bumping, yearning, struggling,
loving, hating, striving, hoping, despairing
sea of humanity, all looking for their place.
Insecure, often afraid, sometimes
full and triumphant, then again,
beset by incompleteness, frustration, fear.
Growing, learning, striving, asking:
“Is this my place?” “Is this my place?”
So many to challenge for “the place.”
So many to sow confusion about
what is “the place?”
The one who struggles,
the one who seeks,
has never been taught
of the One who already,
always is the place –
This watcher, this experiencer
that is the experience,
not the one chasing after experience,
chasing after place. –
We must come to know
the One who is more than one,

who is the One watching
this human experience.
And if from birth the watcher is an ancient one,
they carry the knowing of I Am,
and they live their human experience
struggling to remember what they already know.
And if they seek the quiet, the still voice within,
the remembering occurs,
and the human experience carries
less and less angst, less and less suffering,
more and more knowing the place
is here, right where I always am .
There is an awakening into I AM
who was not born,
who does not die.
The KNOWING grows,
the place is HERE,
the HERE that is the
flowing energy of the Universe – everywhere.
And when their story of one comes to its last breath,
in the last exhalation there is a sigh – “Home.”
And The River takes them back to
The One they had never left.
And when time and space
and soul are ready,
from The One,
again the soul sets out
to experience being one –
A squirrel, a daffodil, a bird,
a human being,
swirling, dancing in The One
that looks like many.

To realize our wholeness, we must, as the mythic mystic master, Yoda, said, “unlearn what you have learned.” And as Obi Wan said to Luke, “You must reach out with your feelings.” Then and only then, can we experience “The Force” that is us all, one experiencing One.

Bringing Your Whole Mind

“The (Chinese) term ‘hsin’… is used in a way… synonymous with the Tao. Hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning…. To both Taoism and Zen, the center of the mind’s activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.” – Alan Watts – The Way of Zen

In Buddhism, the concept of bringing your whole mind to life-experience is very important. As Watts indicated, in Zen, the point is to transcend finding the center of mind and our sense of self in thinking and emotions (the ego), and find them in the integrated totality of our Being-in-the-world. When Buddhism speaks of “little mind” it is indicating that what we usually associate as “mind” is really only the dimension of mind built around the egoic experience of “me” with “my” thoughts and emotions, while we ignore that which is called “big-mind” that transcends separateness, form and conditioning, which this “little mind” arises within. The purpose of Buddhism with its emphasis on meditation and Koanic riddles is to point the student toward and open them into the realization of “big mind,” the consciousness of non-dualistic intuitive experience that is aware awareness.

The typical person, identifying mind with the thought and emotive structures of the ego, approaches life in a manner that is superficial and programmed. We exist largely within conditioned sets of observation and response, paying just enough attention to notice a situation falling into some recognizable mental set and scenario and go into a stimulus-response, thought-emotion-behavior pattern. We bring only enough of our mind to the situation to engage our thoughts which then activate our emotions and behavior. We play out these pre-set patterns over and over again as we go through our lives with very little awareness of their limitation, or of the many alternative and probably better, wiser, more skillful possibilities available.

These patterns constitute our personality, our habitual interactive manner. They might be effective and they might not be. We mistakenly confuse these patterns for who we are, and they are often significantly neurotic, that is, not optimally appropriate, healthy or helpful. They cause our perceptions and responses to be significantly distorted regarding the what-is of the moment, and they most certainly cannot access genuine spiritual experience. From a Buddhist perspective, we are asleep and to awaken within us a deeper, totally sane and truly spiritual mind is the entire purpose of meditation and Buddhist teaching.

Upon occasion, we are caused, by the context, novelty, intensity or importance of a situation, to bring full attention to what we are experiencing and to engage and respond with the full spectrum of our faculties. In such moments, we become insightful, nuanced, artful, creative, appropriate and skillful in ways that are exceptional. Such moments would be our most psychologically and spiritually healthy, in which we flow effortlessly with the moment, when there is, in fact, no separation between us and the moment. These are moments in which we fulfill the requirements for “hsin.”

Importantly, Buddhism teaches that such moments are reflective of our true, enlightened Self, our true and “big” mind and do not have to be accidents, but rather can be cultivated. Meditation, and its life-interactive correlate, mindfulness, are exercises in the development of this capacity leading to an integrated, skillful, wise and spontaneous sense of Self-in-the-world. Likewise, koanic challenge, those riddles that force a person out of habitual dualistic thought-response patterns into fresh non-dualistic insight, are meant to open the underdeveloped intuitive dimension of mind that serves to create experiences of “felt” understanding and integration. Such insights, skill, nuance and originality are precisely the goals of Zen training.

For a Westerner, it can be helpful in understanding what is meant by whole-mind to look at a concept borrowed from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (d. 1961) who noted that the mind has four “functions”: thinking, feeling (emotions), sensation and intuition. He noted that thinking and feeling are egoic functions, creating the sense of the personal separate self, the “me” that has thoughts and emotions, while sensation and intuition are trans-egoic functions, direct realizations of connection with the physical and consciousness dimensions in which the sense of a separate self can be transcended into a flowing unity with existence.

Dr. Jung further noted that a psychologically balanced and healthy person operates with relatively equal distribution and facility in all four functions. He also noted two directions of mental energy: introversion – the taking into and consideration of experience, and extraversion – the projection of personal consciousness into the world. Here too he described a healthy person as equally and fully capable in both directions. He finally noted that it is with applied awareness that these psychic functions integrate and harmonize. Finally, in a nod to the Eastern philosophical systems that affected the development of his reasoning, he used the image of the Hindu/Buddhist mandala, the perfect circle made of harmonized individual parts, to symbolize this process he termed “individuation.” This term begins to approach what Buddhism means by enlightenment, the integration and awakening of a fully natural person into profound insight and presence with no tension between personal duality and the non-dualistic true nature of existence. Such a person in day-to-day life is notable by their stability, non-reactiveness, non-defensiveness, peacefulness and kindness while being well-boundaried, holding themselves and others responsible for their actions without judgmentalism.

To bring the whole-mind into the world begins with the senses, with a heightened, focused and subtle experience of the physical world we experience as outside brought to our internal world through introversion. We, of course, have, through conditioning, egoic thoughts and emotions concerning our experience, but the person trained in Buddhist mindfulness, rather than letting this egoic conditioning automatically interpret our understanding and determine our actions, notes and suspends them so as to hold the experience in spacious awareness, without thought. This allows intuition, the wisdom-bearing ego-transcendent connection to the unconscious, both personal and collective, that is Life itself, to guide us in then bringing the experience into its own unique mental form and expression through thought and resonant emotion. In this transcendent state, outside and inside dissolve. There is only the moment in awareness. This is “big mind” employing “little mind” to give form and communication of pure Life-experience, which is in truth ineffable, into the world of form and society. As is written in the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao,” while at the same time, as the great Zen master, Dainin Katagiri reminds us: “You have to say something.”

This process trains the unruly and opinionated human mind into the wisdom and discretion of whole mind in the world. With all four mental capacities and both mental energy directions present and interacting, we can bring our experience of the moment into wiser, intelligent, feeling, skillful understanding and action. We can extravert this whole-mind into the world as applied mindfulness, and likewise, the whole-mind’s individual functions can be held in the field of awareness for purposes of deep clarity, integration and understanding of mind itself in meditation.

So, we arrive at the Chinese concept of “Hsin,” the harmonization that leads to the experience in which the sense of self, of “me,” becomes the experience of self and the moment integrated. The sense of an absolute separate self dissolves into the totality of direct experience. Whole-mind is the “totality of our psychic functioning” non-dualistically experiencing and expressing the moment. It could be said that rather than being a person having experience, experience is happening, within which a person occurs. (This last sentence has the quality of koan – so sit quietly with it allowing intuitive insight to arise.) This points to the Zen instruction to “be nobody,” or to “emptiness,” for it is only when we are empty of the sense of a separate self that we can be filled completely by the direct experience of the moment.

This cultivation of “hsin” is “The Way” that Taoism and Zen refer to that brings liberation from the clumsiness and craziness of ego, restoring our natural true self-in-the-world with whole mind. We enter “the gateless gate” of Zen previously barred by ego. We can “Break through the impassable barrier and get to know the opening beyond.” (Fo-hsing T’ai)

Freedom From Fear

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”  –  Kris Kristofferson, Janis Joplin

Central to Buddhist teaching, and the teaching of all true non-duality spiritual masters, is the concept of liberation.  Generally this is referring to liberation from suffering.  However, the path to the liberation from suffering is in liberation from attachment to the forms of the world for our sense of self, our identity.  So, in a sense, it is about having no absolute dependence on anything for our well-being.  There’s nothing to lose – because the stability of our existence is not based on any thing.  If the stability of our existence, our sense of well-being, is not dependent on any circumstance external to our Being, this then is most certainly freedom.  Here, spiritual becomes psychological, because this freedom liberates us from the anxieties based in finding worth and identity in anything outside our core experience of existence within and as an expression of the Universe.

With Buddhism and all non-duality spiritual systems, we’re always peeling the onion.  This freedom, this liberation, is not only based on freedom from finding identity in material objects and worldly status.  It is based in freedom from the need for any identity that is given by or dependent upon society and social approval at all, and this is a deeper and subtler thing (or no-thing) than we could conventionally imagine.  Just how subtle can be captured in the contemporary spiritual master Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that enlightenment (which can be seen as a synonym for spiritual and psychological freedom) is in “renunciation of the need to get to the next moment.”  Brilliant!  Just consider how the underlying cause of our anxiety is in our sense of the need to control and be in the next moment.  Our very sense of identity is wrapped up in a story of self in time.  We live leaning into the next moment.  We’re on our way to….. something –with some measure of unease about what lies there.  This anticipation, this leaning forward in our lives, is very much a source of the neurotic tensions of mind and body that are experienced as anxiety, and act as distraction from the richness of the present moment..

Occasionally, we are not on our way to the next moment.  Occasionally, we actually want to linger in the present moment because the present moment seems so perfect, so beautiful.  It is meeting our sense of perfection just as it is.  Pop culture borrowed the term Nirvana from Buddhism to describe this perfection where self and the moment are completely, harmoniously one.  We have no need to get to the next moment.  We don’t want the next moment unless it is more of this moment.  There comes with this experience a sense of wholeness and vastness, free of all anxiety, all discontent.  Then, anxiety about the perfect moment ending will creep in, we are back in time, and Nirvana, once again is lost.

This is where the Zen Master asks, “Whose sense of perfection is the criteria?”  And the answer is: the ego’s sense of perfection, and here’s a good place to introduce another central Buddhist concept called “Egoic Delusion.”  What we think we want or fear, in fact, what we think the world is about, is, to a very great extent based in a delusion of the mind.  We have ideas about what is good and bad provided for us by our cultural contexts and psychological experiences, and we live reactively to the unfolding of Life from within those ideas.  We are prisoners of those ideas.

As Tolle is telling us, one of those very powerful ideas is what he calls “psychological time.”  Now, in casual reading, one might think that Tolle is saying that time is one of those delusions, that it doesn’t exist.  Well, not so simple.  We are in the paradoxical universe of human-beingness where things can be simultaneously true and not true.  In the realm of Being, Tolle’s word for Nature, the Moon circles the Earth and the Earth circles the Sun.  Morning comes with the rising of the Sun, and evening with the Sun’s setting.  Days and years pass.  Yes.  This is natural time.  All of Nature lives within this time, which is always experienced as “Now.”  The bird doesn’t anticipate the sun’s setting, it doesn’t regret that it missed the worm yesterday.  Only humans can suffer in this way, and we suffer because we live trapped within the delusion of “psychological time.”

Humans, with our capacity for abstracting our experience out of the immediacy of Nature, create an idea of time, and we actually live mentally more in the past and the future than in the present where our life actually occurs.  This anachronistic orientation to Life creates a kind of fear that likewise is psychological.  In Nature, the rabbit experiences fear as the fox chases it, but when it eludes the fox, it doesn’t live in fearful memory of that brush with death, nor is the quality of its existence marred by fearful anticipation of the reappearance of the fox.  It lives in the Now, and in the Now there is no suffering of this abstract type that humans suffer.  So, we can begin to see how freedom ultimately has to do with freedom from psychological time and fear – fear that future moments will be unsatisfactory to our projected fantasies about what we need to be peaceful and OK.

For humans, there are also the moments of real fear, real danger – when the earthquake happens, in war, in battle – these experiences are not abstractions and they happen in real time, not psychological time, and it is important to note that in such catastrophic moments, moments of possible or inevitable mortality, for many there is no anxiety, no psychological fear.  It is what makes the Zen Koan, “This moment, what is lacking?” a pointer to the truth of our capacity in real presence to be free of psychological fear and anxiety even in the face of real threat to our person and circumstance.

 “Fear is the mind-killer… I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain. ”  

                                                                             – Frank Herbert in the Sci-Fi novel, Dune

“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin Roosevelt

 

So to be free of imprisonment within false ideas, even ideas about freedom – which can perversely even  include ideas that freedom is being free to take away others’ freedom – we must again come back to that Zen question, “Who is it that is afraid?”  The Dalai Lama tells us, we must “investigate who is becoming afraid. Examine the nature of your self. Where is this I? Who is I? What is the nature of I? Is there an I besides my physical body and my consciousness?” For when we discover that our most basic fear is concerning who this “I” is, and whether this “I” is sufficient for the trials of life, real and imagined, we begin to get to the core of the issue of freedom.  Freedom is about realizing the “I” that does not live in ideas – that sees the “I” that is constructed of ideas filled with insecurities – and realizes there are two “I’s.”  There is the “I” of the ego, constructed in psychological time, bound by conventions, insecurities and expectations.  And there is the “I” of Being, that which sees, that which is awareness, and has no boundary of time, no insecurities, reactivity or conventions.

Freedom is in a relationship to existence that is direct and true, in living the “I” of Beingness that experiences the vast interconnectedness that is the truth of existence.  And so, ideas and experience based in the “I” of egoic separateness that engender fear about the significance, the safety, the security of this egoic “I,” whose reference point is in the instability of human society and culture, are irrelevant.  This is the living as “nobody” with “no idea” that Zen inspires us to.  Freedom is in showing up fresh in each moment, with no idea about the moment, no idea about our self – ready to experience what is – to run if the fox chases us, to sit in the warmth of the sun if this is what the moment offers; to manage our personal and  financial affairs if this is what the moment calls for.  Planning and memory are included.  Fretting and worrying are not.

Among the Eightfold Path of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, very relevant  to this topic is the Path of Right Thinking.  For a teacher of Mindfulness, this is an interesting and somewhat ironic oversight.  It, synchronistically, is also a relevant topic to include in this month’s column.  Right Thinking is about thought that does not bind us in fearful ways to anxieties about past, future, and the importance of ourselves. Contrary to what many newcomers to meditation may believe, thinking has a very important role – it’s not the devil.  It is a product of the egoic dimension of mind, and ego is not the devil, although most certainly, it can be.

The issue is to understand what role ego and thinking play in our total experience.  When ego and thinking are the centerpiece of our experience, and are serving as our identity, that’s trouble.  That’s suffering.  So it is very important to have a “Right” relationship with thinking and ego, and that role is as a tool for engagement with the world on the level of conceptual mind.  Rather than experiencing that we are our thoughts, with Right Thinking, thinking has its proper role and dimension as a tool.  We “have” thoughts, much like we have hands – for the purpose of engaging the world and working with it.  Suffering is the result of identifying with mind, thoughts and emotions as who we are, and then they run our lives, filled with ghosts and goblins.  To have, to own, to manage, mind, thoughts and emotions is to be a player in the game of Life, skillfully using understanding and logic to analyze and communicate our discoveries of the miracle of Life made into forms – both physical and mental forms – free of unnecessary fear.

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Buddha’s Four Noble Truths

“Our suffering is holy if we embrace it and look deeply into it.  If we don’t, it isn’t holy at all.  We just drown in the ocean of our suffering.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh – The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching

 

In northern India, over twenty-six-hundred years ago, a young nobleman, Siddhartha Gautama, determined to understand the nature, cause and remedy to the unique suffering he saw as the plight of human beings, took up the life of an ascetic, one who devotes their life entirely to meditation, ritual, yoga and complete denial of material and bodily comfort.  He hoped, as many ascetics have, and has been quite common in Indian culture even to this day, that if he could completely conquer human desire for comfort and social standing, he would overcome suffering and find enlightenment.

After fully exploring and mastering the ascetic’s art, Siddhartha realized that the extremity of this path could not bring him the understanding he sought.  He realized that asceticism was its own form of egoic lifestyle, one that was in rejection of what was balanced and natural, and therefore could not lead to the perfect understanding and equanimity that he sought.  It is told that he then sat in meditation beneath a bodhi tree and vowed not to rise until he realized enlightenment.  He sat all day and all night, and as the morning star arose, it is said that he experienced full enlightenment and saw with clarity the answers he sought.  Then after meditating for another forty-nine days he walked to the Deer Park nearby and gave his first teaching.  There, to a small group of his fellow ascetics, he related his vision of Life as infinitely connected and therefore “empty” of separateness, of the necessity of a manner of life he called “the Middle Way,” neither ascetic nor indulgent, but rather balanced in the manner that Nature always expresses balance, and that within each human exists the ability to realize full enlightenment, just as he had.

He then presented what is known as “The Four Noble Truths,” a teaching on the nature of human suffering.  He said that in all of Nature there is a kind of suffering unique to humans that is of a subjective quality, a product of the mind.  He said that there exists a possibility of release from this suffering, and that he understood the path that frees us from this suffering.  This is said to have set the “Dharma Wheel” of Buddhism in motion – the path of understanding that eventually will lead to the liberation of all sentient life from affliction caused by humanity’s delusional perception of a Universe of separateness, in hierarchy, with humanity as the foremost species, and self-concern as the highest motivation.  From the root word, “buddh” that translates in the Pali language of ancient India as “to awaken,” Siddhartha became known from that day as “The Buddha,” the one who “awakened,” and the path that he taught, “Buddhism,” the path of “awakening.”

The Four Noble Truths are: 

The First Noble Truth – Suffering exists.  There is pain and sickness and death for humans as for all creatures, and impermanence is a fact of existence.  To be human, however, is to experience a unique kind of suffering in all the Universe, a subjective suffering of the mind (dukkha), also translated as “bitter or unsatisfactory experience.”  Our sense of place in existence feels uncertain.  Our experience of being a separate self in a vast world brings insecurity and our mind creates many strategies to compensate for this insecurity, but all these strategies are doomed to create more insecurity and unhappiness for ourselves and others.  Human existence is marred by this cycle of suffering.  No other creature suffers in this way.

The Second Noble Truth – There is a reason for this suffering, and it is because of the unique characteristic of the human mind to abstract its experience out of the natural unfolding of Life, to create a kind of virtual reality with the principle experience being of a separate self in a Universe of separate objects with our lives experienced as a struggle for safety and significance.  This is called ego, and it creates a delusional sense of self that wants stability, safety, reliable circumstances, and happiness – without end.  This is not what happens, and we experience much emotional suffering because of it.

We cling to this idea of a separate self we call “me” with its creative mind capable of endless scheming in its quest for happiness through material possessions, social standing, relationships, even philosophies and religions that promise the specialness and security we crave.  We lose touch with our natural self and mind that is an expression of the infinite and harmonious Universe.  Rather, we look to what we are instructed to believe, to our psychological conditioning from family, society and culture, all of whom are as lost in the “wrong view” of egoic thinking as we are.  We become more or less crazy trying to figure it all out, but there is no figuring it out because this egoic view of self and the world is delusional.  Yet we cling to it because we know of no other way.  This is the “clinging” and “grasping” commonly associated with this teaching.

Because our minds have the unique ability to imagine, we want Life to be the way we imagine would make it better for us, and we want these better conditions to be permanent.  Our understanding of this “better,” however, is deeply flawed and ultimately unattainable, and this creates emotional suffering.  In our struggle to make a perfect life as we imagine it and our unhappiness with the way it is, we create much suffering in the world and in ourselves.

We want what we want and are afraid of what we think threatens our ambitions.  We cannot see beyond our preoccupation with this “self” in past and future time, and are filled with insecurity.  We are blind to the interconnectedness, intelligence, and vast beauty that transcends impermanence and is the principle quality of Life.  As characterized by Eckhart Tolle, we are in “resistance to what is.”  We are lost in the delusion of our separateness and the feeling of insignificance that comes with it.  Our lives become dominated by craving and grasping after what we think will make our lives more satisfactory and less scary and by attachment to what we think will give us security.  But this only makes our lives ultimately more unsatisfactory, insecure and scary since it is unachievable. Everything we cling to, everything we attach to, is either unattainable in an absolute way, or impermanent.  That which gives comfort will become a source of discomfort, of suffering, when it goes away, as everything in the world of form must.  Our lives are spent chasing after security in possessions, ideas, affiliations, and relationships that cannot give the security and happiness we seek.

The Third Noble Truth –  is a declaration of healing.  It says that there is a path, a way that takes us to liberation from the false ideas of security in control, manipulation and possessions.  This Truth also tells us that any interpretation of the Buddha’s Doctrine as “Life is suffering” is in error.  The teaching is that Life contains suffering and joy, and that with the mastering of the conditions that lead to suffering, we discover boundless reasons for joy and happiness as our true Nature.  We must touch and feel and be honest about the fact that we resist Life-as-it-is.  We must see how some suffering is a natural fact of Life, a consequence of karma and impermanence, and we must realize how unnecessary is the subjective suffering we create for ourselves and others that can then turn into more suffering, both in real and imagined circumstances.  We must realize that if we look deeply into and truly understand our experiences of suffering, the deep looking will transform the suffering and open us into an expanded experience of Life, and ultimately, into enlightenment.

The Fourth Noble Truth –  is the path, the practices, insights and states of consciousness that lead to the liberation from suffering and to a life that is peaceful, joyful, wonder-full.  In its simplest form, it tells us to examine our attachments, and ultimately, to release our clinging to this idea of a separate self with all its attachments and grasping, its attempts at controlling Life. Through releasing attachment to this artificial reality and idea of self, we can “awaken” into the Way that Life really is, and when we realize and live within this Way, we will be free of this unnecessary suffering.

It instructs us into a life of fearless inquiry through meditation and mindfulness that is capable of experiencing the true infinite connectedness of everything, of realizing that we and all phenomenon are “empty” of a separate existence, and therefore the foundational existential insecurity that leads to our suffering is delusional.  It then offers suggestions about the manner in which Life can be lived so as to bring about this realization – known as “The Eightfold Path,” They are:  Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.  It teaches that by living these “right” paths, we will discover the illusion of clinging to this insecure self-centered identity and discover the limitless beauty and boundless interconnectedness of Life, and the compassion that naturally arises from this Right View.

It is very important to understand that the “right” connotation used here is very different than what we are accustomed to in the West as commandments from religious authority.  Harkening back to the word, “Dharma” that means the Way or Path that is a natural expression of the harmony of the Universe, what is “right” in this context then is that which leads to harmony, balance and release from suffering, and our faculty for realizing this harmony is not the intellect but rather intuition.  We “know” when something is right or wrong because of how it feels, not whether it aligns with some rule.  This ability to “know” requires what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “looking deeply into,” more deeply than we are accustomed to.  Without it, we are self-centered and can only see the way we are conditioned by society to see, applying only our faculty for thought – the voice of conditioned ego.  It has no universality or wisdom.  It is always self-referencing and self-centered, and will accumulate and cause suffering.  We will have a tendency to make a story out of our suffering, live inside that story, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, then be vulnerable to “drown in the ocean of our suffering,” and we will pull others under with us.

If something is right, it will naturally be an expression of the harmony that is the Universe, and since we are an expression, a creation within the Universe, this knowledge is within us.  How could it not be?  Just as The Buddha went within the quiet of his own awareness to discover the truth of suffering, he taught with his Eightfold Path that we have within us the truth of what is right.  The Buddha’s teaching is a finger pointing the way, and we must discover our own intuitive authority that will reveal a Self deeper than our personal self, a concept that is central to Buddhist teaching.

We must get beyond believing in ideas of right and wrong that originate in the artificiality of the human ego, what Buddhism calls egoic delusion, taught to us by the macro-ego of culture and society.  Most fundamentally, we must realize that violence, as defined as the imposition of egoic will over the right of all Life to be honored in peace and respect, is not-right.  Non-violence, insight, mindfulness, compassion, connectedness and respect are the basis for what is being defined in this context as “right.”  With this “looking deeply” we begin to truly see the Universe-as-it-is and we begin to intuit the beautiful necessity of everything, including that which we had previously rejected and was a source of suffering – even our suffering.  As Thich Nhat Hanh has said:  “Our suffering is holy if we embrace it and look deeply into it.” 

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  –  Matthew 6:25

THE EIGHTFOLD PATH

Right View – Of course it all begins with Right View, that is, the view that sees things-as-they-are with clarity, which sees the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. Right View sees the source of unnecessary suffering as self-centeredness, which gives rise to the insecurity of an isolated self that manifests greed, callousness, conflict, exploitation, envy, disrespect, and abusiveness.  In the experience of separateness, only the small self and that which is believed to enhance the self is valued.  All that is not within the circle of self is irrelevant or threatening, opening the way to harmful, disharmonious action without conscience.  Right View also sees that Life exists as both form and energy in perfect balance.  To fail to experience Life in its energetic dimension, the energy that gives rise to form, and the energy that gives rise to mind, is to fail to experience the unifying principle of existence.  Without the experience of energy as ever-present and necessary for form to hold itself together and relate, there is no understanding of harmony and balance.  Ultimately, without a living relationship and experience of the underlying energy of existence we are unable to experience the Source of Everything that is often assigned the word “God.”  This “Right View” takes us to a transcendent experience of Life, to a bigger picture where what is experienced as suffering can be understood, and in understanding, managed, even transcended.

Right Thinking:  Right Thinking is about thought that does not bind us in fearful ways to anxieties about past, future, and the importance of ourselves. Contrary to what many newcomers to meditation may believe, thinking has a very important role – it’s not the devil.  It is a product of the egoic dimension of mind, and ego is not the devil, although most certainly, it can be.

We must understand what role ego and thinking play in our total experience.  When ego and thinking are the centerpiece of our experience, and are serving as our identity, that’s trouble.  That’s suffering.  So it is very important to have a “Right” relationship with thinking and ego, and that role is as a tool for engagement with the world on the level of conceptual mind.  Rather than experiencing that we are our thoughts, with Right Thinking, thinking has its proper role and dimension as a tool.  We “have” thoughts, much like we have hands – for the purpose of engaging the world and working with it.  Suffering is the result of identifying with mind, thoughts and emotions as who we are, and then they run our lives, filled with ghosts and goblins.  To have, to own, to manage, mind, thoughts and emotions is to be a player in the game of Life, skillfully using understanding and logic to analyze and communicate our discoveries of the miracle of Life made into forms – both physical and mental forms – free of unnecessary fear.

Right Speech – Speech is the intermediary between thought-form and physical-form.  It has the power to shape reality for those who speak and those who hear.  It can be a conveyor of compassion and understanding, or of contempt and violence.  It can be a conveyor of indifference.  We can soothe and make peace with a word or we can violate, disrespect and create conflict with a word, with an angry or contemptuous inflection of speech.  Right Speech is using the power of the word as an instrument of connection, harmony, compassion and peace.  This kind of speech is an antidote to suffering.

Right Action – Right Action, like Right Speech, is being mindful that our actions shape Karma.  Everything that happens is the result of preceding conditions and actions.  Every choice we make sets in motion results we often cannot imagine.  Mindfulness of action helps us consciously to be instruments of peace and well-being.  We are at a choice-point with every action to be in service of self – which will be divisive and disharmonious – or to be in service of the moment as an instrument of harmony, skill, peace, creative expression, and celebration of Life and its wonder, what can be called the realm of Being.  Honoring the right of others, through our actions, to exist, express themselves, and be in dignity and freedom is essential if we are to be a presence in the world that alleviates rather than causes suffering.

Right Livelihood – Is the work we do, the means of support of ourselves and our family, an expression of service and honoring the community of Life, or is it exploitive, a source of harm, diminishment, fraying at the bonds of community and dignity for all?  Ultimately, much of what society assigns us as livelihood, in the big picture, is in the service of someone’s selfishness at the expense of others.  A society is an aggregate of occupations that define whether the society is compassionate or exploitive in its expression and purpose.  Exploitation is violence.  Occupations that exploit human weakness or vulnerability or defile Nature are not expressions of Natural order and harmony and are therefore sources of suffering.  The redirection of human society into mutual service and honoring of all Life will require a redirection of human occupation toward the elimination of suffering of all life on the planet.

Right Diligence (or Effort) – This has to do with intention.  In everything we do, including our spiritual practice, we must be diligent that our effort is guided by an intention to express selfless wisdom, to not do harm.  This is closely linked to Right View, brought into the world of action.  Do we truly understand why we do what we do, and is it motivated by noble and compassionate rather than self-aggrandizing motives?  Diligence in these choices will determine whether our lives are sources of well-being or suffering for ourselves and others.

Right Mindfulness – The Eight-fold Path to the cessation of suffering cannot be actualized without Right Mindfulness, for Right Mindfulness is the awareness of the moment-as-it-is and allows our intuitive knowing to inform us, that is, to “in-form” us, to bring into form the energy of a wise mind, of Buddha-mind.  Only with Right Mindfulness can we see the-moment-as-it-is and let it be our guide to actualize harmony, skill, compassion, action and view.  It is to see this moment, to feel this moment, to hear this moment, to know this moment as who we are.  It is to realize awareness as who we are and that all that co-arises with us in this moment are our sacred brothers and sisters, and to live in this realization is the key to living the Buddha’s teaching as an agent of well-being rather than of suffering.

Right Concentration –  If we cannot tame the wild swirling mind of ego; if we cannot stop the momentum of our conditioned mind through concentration into the moment, then we cannot break free of  the fog of egoic delusion.  The swirling activity of the mind has one primary purpose, and it is to hold together the conditioned false view of reality built around the primacy of self-interest.  To stop this swirling virtual reality of mind-activity is of absolute necessity.  This is realized through Shamatha – “Peaceful Abiding” meditation, without which, our progression into Vipassana – Wisdom and Insight –  and Vastness – Right View of the truth of the nature of existence – is impossible.

We must learn to stop, to look deeply, non-judgmentally yet with discernment, into the what-is of the moments of our existence and into the unboundaried vast interconnectedness of our existence to be freed from suffering.  This is why our first step in realizing The truth of the nature of suffering and its transcendence is to learn to concentrate clearly through our meditation practice – first into the immediacy of the present moment with awareness of our senses and the physical world they connect us to, and then into the interconnections and infinity of the energetic present moment with our silent intuitive awareness.  In the stillness we will discover that awareness is who we are, and therefore, Buddha is who we are.  We will have come full circle to naturally discover Right View where the nature and cause of  suffering and the path to liberation from suffering is as clear to us as it was to Siddhartha Gotama twenty-six hundred years ago.  Suffering happens again and again, but by looking deeply into suffering so as to understand its cause, and constructing our lives based on the Eightfold Path, we have the opportunity to transmute it into enlightened understanding and action – again and again.

Just Sit

“A meditative practice is not some “airy-fairy” process, but a way of getting in touch with our own life… it will have its effect on every phase of our life, on our relationships, our work, everything.” – Charlotte Joko Beck, from Everyday Zen.

What do we want from life? Universally, people want happiness. The problem is that all too often what people think will make them happy fails to do so; it may even end up making them miserable. We are looking for happiness in things and circumstances and relationships when this is a short-sighted understanding of the true nature of happiness. When the thing, circumstance, relationship that we want comes along, we are then, for a while, happy, and of course if what we want doesn’t come along, or what we do not want comes along, well then, the result is unhappiness. It is the most elemental teaching of Buddhism that all things, circumstances and relationships are inherently unstable, and when they change or wear out or go away, so does our happiness. Because of this, our lives are dominated by continuous movement of action and mind pursuing circumstances that will bring happiness, and this is an invariably failing strategy.

Now, if asked, most of us would generally describe our lives as more or less happy; we’re doing OK. But it is important to ask: what does this really mean? Is there not a great deal of tension, anxiety, anger, frustration, self-doubt, boredom and restlessness in most people’s lives, even if it is not of the crippling variety we would call upon a therapist or medication to help us with? What does real happiness look like? Are we not, in truth, in constant motion looking for happiness. And, in truth, aren’t persons with unshakeable happiness and well-being, that is, happiness and well-being that cannot be taken away by a change of circumstance, very rare? Perhaps we don’t even believe such a state of unshakeable well-being is possible.

Because of this, Buddhism describes the human condition as marked by “suffering.” But to describe our lives as “suffering” may seem a bit harsh – not really descriptive of the way we would evaluate our experience. Is Buddhism, then, a philosophy of gloom and doom, a philosophy that teaches detachment in the face of inescapable suffering, as many people mistakenly believe it to be, and therefore find it not speaking to their needs and experience? Quite the contrary.

What is the truth of the human condition? Isn’t it generally OK but changeable – like the weather – “partly sunny with periods of overcast with a possibility of rain and a slight chance of severe and possibly dangerous storms?” Certainly, we can all agree that a fair amount of suffering happens in any lifetime, some, more than others, but it is not the lives or the times that are marked by indisputable suffering that I wish to address. Rather, I’d like to address the average life and times that are like a typical weather forecast – generally pleasant to OK, not anything big to complain about. I want to address what it means to be OK and to examine whether it represents real happiness, or just a facade of the available happiness and well-being that an ordinary human being, living an ordinary life, is capable of and that Buddhism points us toward.

“If I were to scratch the surface of anyone I would find fear, pain and anxiety running amok. We all have ways to cover them up. We overeat, over-drink, overwork; we watch too much television. We are always doing something to cover up our basic existential anxiety.” – Beck

It seems we end up settling for the bouts of anxiety, anger, apathy, boredom, depression, and dissatisfaction, along with our addictions, great or small, as normal. It is what happens because we don’t know any other way, and so, we deal with this dissatisfaction by distracting ourselves with compulsive activity, but this is no cure, no path to a more satisfying, even joyful life.

There is an alternate translation for the word that is usually translated as “suffering” attributed to Buddhism, and it is, “unsatisfactory.” This is much closer to what Buddhism is getting at than the overtly terrible experiences we usually attribute to the word suffering. It’s the itch we cannot scratch, the general feeling that our lives are not as balanced, peaceful, wise, happy as they might be. It’s just OK – with some sense of an unsatisfactoriness that we are always running from while we run toward what we think will bring us more happiness, or at least, hold unhappiness at bay. Our lives are marked by endless movement and distraction, beginning with endless movement and distraction in our minds, reviewing and planning our strategies in the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness.

“What we really want is a natural life… life can be more open and joyful than we ever thought possible… We enter a discipline like Zen practice so that we can learn to live in a sane way… As we sit, we find that the primary thing we have to work with is our busy, chaotic mind… when the mind becomes clear and balanced… there can be an opening – and for a second we can realize who we really are.” – Beck

So what is this “sitting?” In a way, it can be looked at as a way to work with, understand, and master the restless movement and distraction in our lives, to really get in touch with this “unsatisfactoriness.” We will come face-to-face with this unsatisfactoriness when we sit in meditation as boredom, restlessness, and aversion to just letting things be naturally what they are as we encounter what it feels like to be still, to stop our habitual movement and searching for stimulation. We will experience the sitting as uncomfortable, challenging, in a way, unsatisfactory, and this is why Joko Beck, and all teachers emphasize the need for discipline. It is a very challenging practice.

We experience that while, for a short time, anyway, it isn’t a problem to make the body still, what we soon realize, in a manner we only dimly understood previously, is how resistant our minds are to being still. And so, we sit there, attempting to follow the instructions for meditation – focusing awareness on breathing, noticing the activity of the mind and how it distracts us from focusing on our breathing, and returning awareness to the breathing. Simple instruction, but – it is unbelievably challenging. Along the way, since we are focusing awareness, and experiencing the breathing and the activity of the mind, we begin to notice the content and themes of the mind. We notice how judgmental our minds are. We notice how it has difficulty staying in the present moment, how it careens between past and future. We notice how when judgmentalism and past and future come together we experience distressing and uncomfortable emotions. We want to stop this. We want to be distracted from this. We want to stop sitting and go “do something.”

And then…. As we stay with the sitting, as we stay with the breathing, as we stay with awareness, for a moment, the mind becomes quiet. There is an experience of balance. There is a feeling of what it is to just be. It is spacious and comfortable. It has the feel of absolute sanity. Then, the compulsion of the mind to go back into movement, into judgment, out of time, returns, and we’re back to our anxieties, our tensions, our unsatisfied mind. A great discovery is made. We have touched Heaven while doing nothing – not even thinking, – and we have gotten a glimpse of the source of Hell. When the thinking starts up again, so does the restlessness, the unsatisfactoriness.

“What we really want is a natural life… life can be more open and joyful than we ever thought possible.” In our sitting, we have glimpsed that natural life. We have glimpsed the experience of openness and joy – more than we ever thought possible. So we sit some more. We discover that sitting isn’t “airy, fairy.” We discover that it is work, and it takes discipline, and we discover that we are capable of happiness and well-being, not as the result of something we do, but by stopping all the doing to discover who we really are when not caught up in trying to make our lives happy. We discover that in just sitting, doing nothing – not even thinking – Life happens all by itself, and it is good – a good beyond circumstances.

So we continue to sit and learn more and more about how we make ourselves crazy and we learn how to quiet the spinning mind that is the source of the craziness while we learn to open into this miracle of discovering our natural self in a quiet mind. And with enough practice, we can stand our bodies up from the sitting, and walk into our lives and still be “sitting” in the quality of our presence with the moment. We discover the remarkable teaching that Zen (which actually is just the Japanese word for “sitting”) is everyday life. Happiness is everyday life, experienced with a mind that knows how to be still, that knows how to sit quietly when the activity of thinking is not needed for its appropriate and helpful function of working through something for a specific purpose. We discover the true intelligence of a quiet mind, and the true beauty of senses that are open, subtle and receptive. We begin to live our lives, just “sitting” and “it will have its effect on every phase of our life, on our relationships, our work, everything.” So, just sit. If you have the courage and discipline to really settle your unruly mind, you will find a life that is never unsatisfactory, and that is what real happiness is about.

A New Cosmology

“Evolution occurs in a cosmic context, on a planet under a star, so terrestrially evolved brains are well equipped to construct a rich and accurate cosmological story… the Universe has, in a sense, made us in its own image – meaning we’ve evolved with a natural ability to understand Nature… We’re descended from stars… and evolving within Nature has shaped our intuition in such a way that we can comprehend the cosmological story. In a sense, we’re children of Nature, at home in the Universe.”
– Mark Whittle, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Virginia

To bring up the topics of spirituality and religion in any cross-section gathering of contemporary society is the proverbial can of worms. To intersect science and religion in the conversation spills the can on to the floor. And to throw politics into the mix can set off a riot. We have a very difficult time talking with each other concerning these topics; we rather have the tendency to talk at each other – vigorously, and at times, violently.

A big part of why these topics invoke such energy and argument is because they are conversations into suppositions about truth; they are even stabs at absolute Truth, and what can be more important? Religion is the discussion of the origin, meaning and destiny of existence, and the manner in which these beliefs are institutionalized, with a related conversation concerning ethics thrown in, all in mythic, subjective language. Science also addresses the origin, meaning and destiny of existence, but the emphasis is on the observable, measurable, and quantifiable, in objective language. The social sciences – philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology and political science – attempt the same, but since the topics are so subjective, objectivity is very difficult. The ethics conversation is also of great importance in these scientific discussions, although often not as vigorously applied as it ought to be.

A big part of the problem lies in the failure of religion and science to recognize that they really need to be converging rather than splintering the conversation. We’re caught in our typically human dualistic conundrum of “either-or.” Somehow the simple observation that the discussion concerning the truth of the way things are has to be a single conversation eludes us. The truth has to be the truth, applicable universally. As a saying that has emerged in recent political conversation goes: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts,” yet that seems to be what happens as contradictory opinions are presented as if they are facts.

The history of humanity’s conversation about truth has been plagued by a recurring theme where belief, that is, a story about the way things are as we imagine it, keeps getting substituted for the way things actually are. Dogma gets foisted as fact. Metaphor is arguing with metaphor. Trouble is sure to ensue.

Buddhism has taken a very constructive approach to this problem for thousands of years. Certainly debates amongst Buddhists occur, but Buddhism, from its very origins has been able to keep these debates rather civil by noticing that dogma is the bane of truth and cautions against confusing the way we think things are from the way they really are. The very important Buddhist concept of “emptiness” actually allows that all things are empty of absolute nature because we only have a picture of reality as our minds create it. It allows that everyone is free to have their own opinion, but these opinions ought not be foisted off on anyone else. Rather, every opinion, every point of view must be examined very carefully over and over again with the fullest application of all human faculties of observation and understanding to ever-improve our approximation of what any phenomenon actually is. It also states that no phenomenon stands alone, rather always in infinite interconnectedness and interdependence with all phenomena, that there is no single phenomenon other than the Universe itself, beyond actual comprehension.

For years, Westerners attempting to understand Buddhism have surrendered to allowing it seems to be more a philosophy of life, a psychology, a study of mind, than a religion. The area of Buddhism that does clearly fall into the realms of religion are in its teachings concerning the non-material aspects of existence and about ethics. Here too, however, whereas the major world religions seem to teach perspectives of exclusion and judgment, Buddhism teaches inclusion, insight, investigation and tolerance. The Dalai Lama has even made a very great point of saying that where scientific and modern understanding demonstrate error in Buddhist teaching, it is the religious teaching that ought to bow and give way. With this open, searching, non-dogmatic, even non-dualistic perspective as central to Buddhism, I find it best to consider Buddhism, rather than a religion, a cosmology, the field of exploration that seems to me to be open and integrative, to contain the domains that have been compartmentalized into spirituality, religion, philosophy, science and even politics as basically one gestalt.

As we are at a critical historical moment in Humanity’s evolution where divisive dogmas and interests are threatening to tear apart not only the social fabric, but the ecologic fabric of life on the planet Earth, we very much need to bring a new conversation into our exploration of the truth of the way things are that is open, integrative and universal. We need to move humanity forward into a future that is clearly and necessarily marked by expanding integration and unity as humanity understands more of its origins and place in the vastness of the stars, and that conversation, both religious and scientific, might be best served under the nomenclature of cosmology.

Cosmology is a particularly useful paradigm because it has always comfortably contained both myth and science, that is the intuitive-symbolic and the empirical-observational understanding, and that our best approximations of truth combine both of these human mental faculties. It is the explanation and exploration of the origin and nature of existence spanning everything from ancient creation myths to modern-day astrophysics and quantum physics. What is exceptionally exciting is that the world of physics, in both its intuitive theoretical dimension and its hard experimental science capacities for observation and measurement, are dovetailing into a new creation story. This new story can supersede the cosmological stories of the world’s religions, allowing them to bow, as the Dalai Lama suggests, to a new perspective that seems to integrate a great Universal intelligence, symbolically nomenclatured as the myriad names of “God,” with a story of consciousness as the evolutionary trait of humanity, of all the Universe for that matter, linking the material universe with the immaterial dimension of consciousness. Consciousness energy becoming and infusing material energy is a cosmological story thousands of years old. Only now, science is tremblingly close to proving it.

Interestingly, humanity is seemingly coming full circle. From Creation myths in antiquity explaining the immaterial dimension of the Godhead manifesting into the material world with humans as the God-head’s special and necessary link between the realms of symbolic consciousness and physical manifestation, to modern science realizing consciousness as an inherent property in all matter, only requiring a sufficiently complex coalescing of the great diversity of matter through evolutionary processes into a unified organism for consciousness-in-matter to be self-realizing. Human beings realizing consciousness as a product of the totality and the particular of the Universe is the completion of that circle.

dark matter millenium simulationDark matter web (3 billion sq. light year area)There is no contradiction between Creationism and evolutionary science. There is intelligent design, and the intelligence is inherent in the Universe itself. Modern science may be about to make the connection through discoveries in quantum physics, dark-matter, dark-energy and the Higgs-Boson field that the very complexity and connectedness that allows the immensely intricate organism that is a human brain to manifest consciousness just may be a micro-version of the true nature of the vastness of the Universe. It may be that we are created in God’s image, and the projection of that image, rather than being the physical appearance of a human being, is the vast web of neural connection that is the cerebral cortex of a human brain that is tantalizingly similar to neural networkHuman brain tissue neural network.what we understand of the web created by dark matter and dark energy, and gives rise to self-aware consciousness.

“Evolving within Nature has shaped our intuition in such a way that we can comprehend the cosmological story. In a sense, we’re children of Nature, at home in the Universe.” And so, it is time for us to stop arguing, to realize, as visionary Buckminster Fuller described, that we are the citizens of “space ship Earth.” That the Earth itself is an organism with a field of mind organized by the billions of individual minds in a single field of consciousness that is humanity, linked with all the consciousness of the trillions of fellow organisms sharing our journey through the Universe, to fulfill a destiny of Unity in individual diversity at home in the Universe. This is the new Cosmological story and conversation that I hope is only beginning.

The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

“The collective egoic mind is the most dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet. What do you think will happen on this planet if human consciousness remains unchanged?” – Eckhart Tolle

In 1966, Alan Watts, the great British-born American-transplant, San Francisco-beat-guru, imp-genius Orientalist philosopher wrote a book entitled simply, The Book. It carried a sub-title: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Its Preface begins with the words: “This book explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo – our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are. Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East… This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.”

Watts went on to say: “We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the Universe.”

As Watts outlined his thesis as based in both Western science and the philosophy-religions of the East, he was pointing to another taboo which is the realization that true spirituality must be a confirmation of experienced reality. He was saying that there is a taboo against individuals and the institutions of society holding as their highest motivation the search for the truth and the nature of reality. He was saying that society conditions into us a delusional preference for dogmas of separateness and specialness, of ego as the prime reality, with, as he pointed out, devastating consequences that create a kind of spiritual insanity, that lead to the full plethora of insanities that infect our society on the personal and collective levels.

More than a decade prior to Watts’ assertion, Albert Einstein stated a similarly prophetic insight into the notion of humanity as caught in a delusional state and offered a vision of how humanity can evolve so as to escape Watts’ apocalyptic warning of “eventual destruction.”

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘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 us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Einstein also said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels,” and, “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems,” while being quite clear that the necessary consciousness must be of widening circles of compassion into the undeniable realization of, not only all peoples, but of all life as connected, interdependent and worthy of caring relationship.

As Watts is being diagnostic, Einstein is being prescriptive in his statement. They are also opening a conversation that is taboo – meaning none of the major institutions of our society – not government, not education, not economics, not religion, not medicine, not psychology, nor journalism – are willing to address this issue with any of the urgency that both Watts and Einstein clearly believed is warranted. As a scientist, Einstein knew that Western civilization’s enamorment with technological fixes was symptomatic of the consciousness leading us deeper and deeper into what Watts called “the misuse of technology.” He understood completely how dualistic consciousness that experiences human-beings, individually and collectively, as separate from the wholeness and interconnectedness of the natural Universe, from each other and the ecosystem of this planet Earth, was at the root of what both he and Watts were describing as an inevitable catastrophe of inestimable proportions for humanity and Nature.

Over half a century later, any reasonable assessment of the condition of humanity and Nature can only conclude these warnings remain unaddressed on any meaningful level. There is an inescapable sense that the situation is crazier than ever, and the need for a path out of the morass isn’t even being seriously considered. The predictions are plainly proving true. In reminiscence of the old wisdom that insanity is marked by obliviousness to being insane, modern humanity seemingly hasn’t a clue. As Watts and Einstein, along with so many others in the scientific, consciousness, and progressive political communities, are offering a true description of the dire state of human civilization and what needs to be done, and nothing of any great significance is being done to address this undeniable failure of consciousness, this delusional state, we have to be left with the conclusion that humanity, in its current collective expression, is insane.

While in recent years a growing number of people certainly have significantly evolved their consciousness of the problems created by the existing socio-cultural and psycho-spiritual paradigms, most of our population, and all of our institutions, remain mired in variations of regressive egocentric, materialistic, competitive, dualistic consciousness based in irrational dogmas incapable of seeing clearly and responding appropriately. We are locked into belief systems quite divorced from reality. Little if anything has changed in the approach to solutions that, as Einstein articulated, represents a prison of consciousness completely inadequate to address these problems. We remain mired in what Watts called the taboo against knowing who we are, that is, in knowing what a human-being on the planet Earth needs to know so as to shape our institutions and society towards the establishment of a truly flowering world that can take humanity and its fellow life-forms into a worthy and inspiring future.

Importantly, it is not as if we have to invent the consciousness necessary to answer the questions of who we are and what is needed. The necessary consciousness has existed since the beginning of the human journey. Out of the ancient past, meditative, contemplative traditions have fully understood the interdependence and interconnectedness of all life and the destructive delusional aspect of human ego. Buddhism, in particular, has managed to hold coherently into the modern age a message of infinite interconnection that when applied and examined through meditation, contemplation, and action gives rise to the natural experience of interconnection and its principle effect of compassion in the world, just as Einstein called for. It is incredibly exciting and hopeful that from Einstein forward, those at the cutting edge of science are realizing these truths. The question remains, why is general science, and why is society, ignoring what the leaders in science are telling us? Here is where we are confronted with the taboo.

In the contemporary world, many in the science, consciousness and progressive political realms all have in common their intention to awaken the evolutionary consciousness necessary for humanity to enter a new era of sanity marked by the application of consciousness and technology to harmony, peace, justice and sustainable civilization. What is needed that is new, that is evolutionary, is the application of these ancient philosophies of unity melded with modern quantum science as the guiding inspiration that can turn modern technology from “the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment” to the support, protection and preservation of that environment in the realization that the environment is who we are. What is needed is a psychology, a spirituality, an application of science, and new vision of human society that can guide us into expanded sanity that rescinds the taboo against knowing who we are in the vastness and balance of the Universe.

We must break free of the taboos. We must be willing to break free of lazy dogmatic thinking, to follow the lead of modern quantum science and ancient philosophies such as Buddhism, constructed around asking questions you may or may not have thought, but should have, to ask utopian questions, to ask how humanity can evolve into undreamed of peace, harmony, wisdom, and yes, sanity into a future at least as far reaching as humanity’s past. Why isn’t science and religion, hand-in-hand forging such a vision that is as natural for every young person to be considering as what career path they should follow? And it must be realized that these ancient teachings are not entirely sufficient, for they come out of cultures radically different from modern human culture. We must look at these old ways with new eyes, to find a new old way – one that remembers ancient wisdoms and brings them into modern context and vocabulary. Watts did that. Eckhart Tolle has more recently done it, as are many authors, speakers and teachers, but more people, all people, need to pay attention. This is not esoteric philosophy. It is an issue of the quality of life, even survival, for generations to come.

We must break the taboo against asking such questions so that a new era of human expression and sanity can flourish. Delusion will no longer do. We need to be awake, honest and courageous. We must find and actualize the truth of humanity’s place in the Universe or the future for the generations to come will only be even more desperately insane.

Forgiveness

“Forgive them; they know not what they do.” – Jesus

There is a story about the Dalai Lama in which he is asked whether he hates the Chinese. His answer was, to paraphrase, that since the Chinese had taken his homeland and his people from him, “should I let them take my mind as well? No, I don’t hate the Chinese.” He goes on to say the Chinese responsible for the crimes against Tibet are people just like you and me who only want to not suffer, but they are mistaken in believing they will find happiness by taking what does not belong to them and disregarding the rights and needs of people they see not like themselves.

In other words, the Dalai Lama forgives the Chinese “for they know not what they do,” and in the paradoxical turn typical of the Buddhist perspective, to forgive, to not hold resentment and hatred, is compassionate not only of the person who has harmed you, it is compassionate toward yourself. WE are the principle benefactor of our forgiveness and compassion because we do not give our minds over to that which vexes and harms us by polluting our experience with toxic thoughts and emotions toward those people and toward Life. Our freedom to be peaceful and happy in our lives requires forgiveness.

In the course of my work, people tell me of life-experiences that are meant to give context and explanation, to give justification, as to why they suffer with significant anger and resentment. They tell stories of abuse, betrayal, loss, trauma, injury, exploitation, debilitating illness, all the ways a person can come to feel that others and life are handing them a raw deal. With genuine caring and sympathy, I will typically respond in a manner as to say, “Yes, that must be very hard. You are indeed justified in your feelings. I want to know though, justified as those feelings may be – how is that working for you?”

After the person opens and acknowledges that it really isn’t working very well for them, which is why they are seeking my counsel, I will share that there is another way, and though it is truly very challenging, it is the only way for a person to really get their life back. We must forgive the injury, whether the source is another person, group of persons, agencies, institutions, or the seemingly cruel finger of Nature bestowing sickness, pain and death. We must let go of the stories of our injuries, of our pain, of our grievances and our victimization, and we do this not for the benefit of those who injured us, or to make peace with God, but first and foremost, for peace with ourselves. We must let go of personalizing injury and loss. It is not about us, no matter how personal it seems and feels. It is Life and the human condition, and it is our argument with Life and the human condition that is the culprit.

There is a Zen story of a man who, on a fine and beautiful day, having rowed his boat to the middle of a calm and serene lake, decided to take a nap. He slept peacefully and deeply for a time when Whap! Another rowboat bumped into him, jolting him awake. He arose, angrily, shouting: “What’s the matter with you!? Look where you’re going!” In a moment, as full orientation came to him, he realized the other rowboat was empty. It had become unmoored and had been steered, just as had the sleeping man’s rowboat, only by the wind and the currents. There was no one steering either boat. He, of course, felt foolish at his outburst, and his anger evaporated.

This story is a parable that is teaching “they know not what they do,” for the teaching continues in Zen koanic fashion: “And the rowboat is always empty.” As long as we live our lives unawakened to the truth of who we are, and the nature of conditioning as the source of our suffering, we are the rowboats, unmoored, drifting through life, the currents and winds of our conditioning causing us to collide with each other, not by true conscious choice, but rather through unconscious drives to assert our egoic self. It is our ego that wants to shout: “What’s the matter with you!?” We have been taught, conditioned, to be aggressive, thoughtless, selfish, manipulative, complaining, negative, dishonest, lazy, irresponsible, all the panoply of sins. As Buddhism teaches, this is not who we are. Steering our boats are conditions and conditioning, like the waves and the wind, and we will collide because there is no real conscious person steering our lives. We are unmoored from the truth of who we and others are. For our tendency to anger and blame, that which serves as cover for our egoic excesses, to evaporate, we must realize this. What is the purpose of screaming at the wind and currents? It does not really make us feel any better, nor give steerage of our lives back to us.

The essence of Buddhist compassion is the recognition that as human-beings we all share in this enslavement, this prison of conditioning and identity in ego. We are taught through Buddhist instruction and meditation to ask of our own and others’ harmful or thoughtless behavior, what is its source? Is a person the source of their own behavior, or do we need to look to conditioning factors – their parents, their communities, culture, their experiences? Are they, and we, really steering our boats, or are a whole matrix of conditioning factors streaming back into the unfathomable past actually at the helm?

Compassion also teaches us that as human-beings we all share in common our essential beingness, our “original mind,” as Buddhism calls it. “Show me your face before you were conceived by your mother and father,” instructs a famous koan. We are pure and perfect beings, and we are human persons who are defiled and betrayed by the conditioning of our egoic identity. You and I are exactly the same in this way. Our conditioning is different, but the fact of being imprisoned, of being asleep inside of conditioning, is the same. We know not what we do – until we awake and become conscious of this human-being dilemma and tragedy, and through contemplative, meditative examination take true responsibility for who we are, and realize that who we are is Life, the full Yin-Yang of birth and death, happiness and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, and there is no one or anything to blame, nor should we want to blame, for blame only distracts us from effective living and the celebration of the full mystery.

With this wise and natural mind at the helm, forgiveness then, comes naturally. And it is a great liberation. To release false judgment of ourselves and others allows us to own our mind, to not be owned by our conditioning with its prejudices, resentments, fears, judgments, anger and hatreds, as well as our biases for what and who we like and favor only because they are familiar. Yes, of course, we and others are responsible for the harm we do, and are to be held accountable, and like a fair legal arbiter, we can, when awake and honest, pronounce the needed amends-making appropriate to the transgression. Now, however, we know it is not personal. It is not about me, nor, in truth, others. We are getting closer to living in conscious discernment and acceptance of what is.

Yes, even for the most heinous of acts, we can create boundary, take action to stop the harm, hold the person (including ourselves, if it be the case) responsible, all without anger and hatred, because we compassionately understand the truth of the multiplicity of conditioning factors that are the true culprit. Then, even, as with Jesus on the cross or the Dalai Lama in exile, when there is no boundary that can be enforced, no stopping the injury, no amends received, we can remain the owners of our own minds, free of anger and resentment, possessors of a “peace that surpasseth understanding,” through the very radical act of forgiveness that goes beyond the personal into forgiveness based in clear understanding of the human condition.

Importantly, compassion for others, with its commensurate ability to forgive, is only truly possible when it is first applied to ourselves. We must realize our original face. We must be “nobody” who neither gives nor takes offense, for giving and taking offense is the domain of ego. To have the ability to genuinely extend compassion and forgiveness to others and to Life, without it being just another egoic one-up, a way of indulging in moral superiority, we must fully forgive ourselves our conditioning. We must humbly and courageously own our own minds and know what we are doing, and then naturally, we will be able to follow the spiritual instructions ubiquitous to all religious traditions to forgive who and whatever challenges and harms us, to forgive those who would be our enemies, most particularly when the enemy turns out to be ourselves. As Jesus and Buddha both taught: through this radical wise and compassionate forgiveness we can learn peace within ourselves, in our relationships and eventually with Life and all the world.

SURRENDER

“The way to practice true Zen is… just open yourself and give up everything… This is what it means to surrender… Without losing yourself by sticking to a particular rule or understanding, keep finding yourself, moment after moment… to have complete experience or full feeling in each moment.
– Shunryu Suzuki

If you notice, in the above quote, the great Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki is saying that in giving up everything – in surrender – we find ourselves. This may seem like a nonsensical contradiction, but it is just another instance of intuitive truth revealing itself in typical Zen fashion through paradox, and as Zen emphasizes, Life is paradox because it is everything, so the ultimate contradiction is contradiction itself. Nothing can be separate from and in opposition to anything because it’s all Life, that which is inherently inclusive, connected and whole. Yet, somehow, human beings find themselves experiencing just this contradiction, dividing the whole of Life into this thing and that thing, drawing lines of separation that just don’t exist, an experience that Buddhism calls egoic delusion. That this delusion is so powerful and so much the common view is why it takes a considerable amount of willingness, and even courage, to open, to surrender yourself into the great everything that is Life. To experience “full feeling in each moment,” however, requires it.

“Open yourself and give up everything.” The “everything” here is everything-as-you-think-it. It is not everything-as-it-is. So you must be willing to give up the everything-that-you-think to realize “complete experience.” What we think comes from culture and society and family and all the sources of psychological conditioning that have created the everything-you-think, and it is not everything; it is very limited. The everything-you-think is full of what you like and don’t like. It is full of your prejudices and opinions. It is full of what you are afraid of and what makes you angry and uncomfortable. It is full of your culture’s prejudices and opinions, fears and dictates. It is full of denial, rationalization, and projection, and everything Western psychology calls ego defense mechanisms, protecting the ego from the discomfort of the full what-is of Life that doesn’t fit into its idea of itself. You must “open yourself” to the true infinite everything that is Life to “have complete experience… full feeling in each moment.”

We cannot have “full feeling” without surrendering our dualistic sense of conditioned self into the full thickness and totality of Life-as-it-is that is everything and our true self, what Zen calls “Buddha nature.” This means letting go of the ideas we carry of what the ego would call good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, acceptable, unacceptable, beautiful, ugly, right and wrong, to realize the everything that makes up the necessary seeming polarities within the unity that is Life. To have a whole life, we must surrender into the whole world, into the whole universe. This is Zen, and this is mysticism as is expressed by every culture. If you look deep, you will find it at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, in mystical Judaism and Islam, and it is the very core of Native American spirituality.

It is also profound psychology, but since our conventional culture and our conventional psychology has little room or understanding for the mystical, we find such concepts alien, and so our culture and our lives are dualistic, materialistic and filled with strife. Our psychology has to settle for being a psychology of mental illness without the slightest understanding of the possibilities for true mental health. To “experience full feeling in each moment” is true mental health. And it is true spirituality.

Gerald G. May (1940-2005) was a unique Western psychologist who realized this deficit, and in his book Will and Spirit (1982) he explored the possibility for a Western contemplative psychology that could embrace mysticism, and he created a very useful vocabulary for deepening our understanding of the human experience. He explained how psychological health requires a vibrant experience of mystical spirituality, and he explored the dimensions of human experience he referred to as “will” (that which can be equated to the term ego as used by Eckhart Tolle), and “spirit,” which can be equated to Being in Tolle’s vocabulary, and how they interrelate.

May examined how Life is always a blend of these dimensions, with immense qualitative difference occurring by which dimension dominates our sense of self. When will (ego) dominates our experience, May described this as “willfulness.” From this perspective, true spirituality is quite impossible, even though we are capable of deluding ourselves into believing we are living a spiritual life by mistaking emotional or intellectual experiences labeled as spiritual or religious as the real thing, though they are not. On the other hand, when spirit leads will, May describes this as “willingness,” leading to true spirituality and a truly meaningful existence. To live in willingness, there must be a surrender, a release from searching for happiness and meaning in ego and the material world. Rather, ego must be the servant of Being, of spirit, and then ego is in its proper function as the tool for realizing, coping, managing, and creating in our limited existence that which originates in That-which-is-without-limit. Our true meaningful self is, and has to be, a continuation and expression of That, the everything that is Life. This is the mystical perspective, and, as Suzuki told us, true Zen.

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It’s a realization that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process. In contrast, willfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control or otherwise manipulate existence. More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment. Willfulness is saying no, or perhaps more commonly, “yes, but…” – Gerald May

We must stop pretending and bluffing that we have the answers to Life. They are not to be found in our religions, in our philosophies, in our politics, in our economics, or in our psychologies; not as they exist today. Life is mystery. Say “Yes!” Not “no” or “yes, but.” Unequivocally, we must say “Yes!” to That-which-is. We need mystery, and when we surrender into mystery something quite paradoxical occurs: in “complete experience or full feeling in each moment,” the answers needed for that moment present themselves through the medium of intuition. You cannot think your way there. Out of the silence of contemplative mind arises “knowing,” the realization of oneness within the moment, and what the moment needs. Do not however, be lulled into believing you now have the answer, for the next moment is always completely new.

May encourages the evolution of a new paradigm that merges spirituality and psychology he calls “Contemplative Psychology.” He tells us that we cannot think our way to the experience of mystery, to truth, to oneness with all that is. Thinking fractures the world. Contemplation is the holding of the moment in mental silence that allows the infinite wholeness and connectedness of Life to be realized in intuition. Intuition, “willingness,” the intelligent silence beneath and before thought, is where the voice of the Infinite can be heard. Suzuki, Gerald May, Jesus are all saying, just show up in the vast infinite moment that is the truth of Life, and as you are within and an expression of Life, you will know what is needed. This is surrender, and it is what Zen refers to as “emptiness.” In being empty of all preconceptions, sense of control, even sense of a solid self, we know not only what to do, we know who we are. When empty of egoic self, we are now available to be filled by Life, and we know we are It.

Gerald May tells us: “Mystery can indeed be known without being solved. Mystery can be experienced, sensed, felt, appreciated, even loved, without being understood. This may not be easy; it requires a surrender of all willfulness, a risking of self-image, and a nurturing of intuition. Mystery, says the contemplatives, can be ‘known’ without being known.”

And Shunryu Suzuki enlightened us: “Buddha nature is when you say ‘Yes!’ … When you forget all about yourself and say ‘Yes!’ That is Buddha nature.” And it is what is meant by surrender.

RELATIONSHIP

Unless and until you access the consciousness frequency of presence, all relationships, and particularly intimate relationships, are deeply flawed and ultimately dysfunctional. – Eckhart Tolle

The most important thing to say about relationship is that all there is is relationship. And with that, in line with what Eckhart Tolle tells us, the requirement for healthy relationship is presence, not just physical presence, no, there must be conscious presence, presence with the characteristic of connected consciousness energy, and for there to be connected consciousness energy, there must be interest, concern, the experience of connection, even love.

First, let’s examine the statement, “all there is is relationship.” From the moment we wake in the morning till we go to sleep at night, and even in our sleep in the form of dreams, we are relating to ourselves, are we not? We are experiencing the multidimensionality that marks the reality of every person. Always, arising in the awareness that is our essence is the content and experience of our mind, our body and our circumstances. Then, with every object we encounter, every person, every phenomenon of Life, there is the relationship of “me” with what we are encountering and experiencing, while simultaneously we experience the mind deciding what it thinks and feels about what we are relating to.

With what and who we focus upon and relate to, our relationships tend to be utilitarian. We are concerned whether we like or dislike “this,” will we benefit or be harmed by “this?” This is generally called a subject (me) – object (it or you) relationship, and is hardly conducive to high quality relationship. By focusing only on the utility or threat of the contents of our experience, we fail to experience the true and deep connections that are possible.

And then there is all that we do not focus on, that with which we appear not to be in relationship – but of course, not relating is relating and it is the poorest quality of relating. If typically, we live in a rather narrow focus, say 10% of what is present in any given moment (and that is generous), then 90% of what is available to us goes generally unnoticed. If we call what we focus upon our life-interest or circumstance, and it is in the foreground of our consciousness, then this background that goes unnoticed is Life itself. That these poor-quality relationships dominate our lives is diagnostic of why we struggle as individuals, as families, as groups, even as a species, to make sense of Life and to manifest peace and well-being.

As for our relationship with ourselves, we are seldom in true conscious presence with the experience of ourselves. Our thoughts, emotions, sensations, perceptions, the phenomenon of awareness in which all experience occurs, mostly go unnoticed. They are the water we fish swim in. Only when the experience is troubling, do we pay attention and then usually only with thought, which is the poorest medium to process and understand our experience. We think about what troubles us, but this does us little good, weaving ever more complicated and tangling webs of confusion. We may pay a counselor or therapist to help us think about our experience, and if the counselor or therapist is any good, they will direct us to our feelings, and ultimately to our intuition, which means really connecting with the experience in our totality, and perhaps we will have an insight, and we will thank the therapist without really noticing that the feeling and intuition is ours. The presence, insights and actions of the therapist simply led us to that which is already within us.

Sometimes, on our own, we will tune into our feelings, and into the silent presence behind our swirling thoughts and emotions, into the realm of intuition, and an insight will lead us to some clarity. We take a walk, a bath, listen to some music, chop some wood, go for a drive, pet our dog or cat, maybe we meditate. Out of this no-activity of the mind can arise knowing, called insight or intuition, an intelligence far deeper and wiser than thinking, and perhaps, insight will lead even to peace in the midst of turmoil. This accessing insight is never new. We knew about it all along, we’ve done and experienced the arising of insight, of peace, before, but we had forgotten.

So it is with personal relationships. We all know what is happening when relationships are clear, fulfilling, and flowing. We are in “the vibrational frequency of presence.” We also all know what is happening when a relationship is in conflict and difficulty. We are in our defensive separateness. Again, we may go to a relationship counselor, and the counselor, if any good, will bring us into shared presence, – and we will think the therapist is a genius when what they did was bring us into what we always had and knew as the secret to a fulfilling life and relationship – into shared presence – but we had forgotten.

Our culture tells us we are our thoughts and emotions, never that we are intuition, the mind’s “vibrational frequency of presence.” Never in our schooling is this dimension, the source of true intelligence, pointed out and cultivated. This lack of recognition and development of intuition, of silent presence, as the source of wisdom, of true intelligence, of knowing and of love, is a great tragedy.

We all know that when a close relationship descends into argument and conflict that resolution and healing occur when either through insight or exhaustion, we drop whatever has separated us and we re-approach each other in genuine presence. But we forget that relationship exists and thrives only in shared presence. Everything about our culture emphasizes our individuality and our right to competitive assertion, so, over and over again, we fall back into self-absorption, separateness, and argument. Most relationships have us existing on parallel planes of shared activity and interest where the communication and contact is superficial, the conscious presence that is the life-blood of true and healthy relationship mostly neglected and forgotten. Only occasionally and usually accidentally do we come into full presence, and it is these moments that sustain any relationship.

“True communication is communion – the realization of oneness, which is love.” – Tolle

With ourselves and with our loved ones, moments of communion, of true presence, are rare. So much more so with those we have casual, little or no personal association with. Humanity suffers because we labor under the delusion that there is a me and you, us and other, with mutually exclusive interests and needs. We never consider the anonymous people who flow by our person every day, much less those outside the sphere of our physical presence and circle of interest. We communicate at people, seldom truly with people, let alone rise to the level of “communion.” Why not?

No one ever teaches us to bring to the level of consciousness the realization that all that is beautiful happens through presence and communion, through the dissolving of separateness to experience oneness, love. Oh, our religions suggest it, but we generally prefer the religious instructions that are moralistic and sectarian to the teachings of brotherhood, forgiveness, union, love, and mystical presence. We think the real world is competition and self-absorption. And, sadly then, this is the world we create. But this way lays madness, what Buddhism calls “egoic delusion.”

Our relationship with Nature, with Life, and even with Spirit, is likewise impoverished by our forgetting that it is in the moments of deep presence, possibly, of awe and wonder, where the sense of self dissolves into “the vibrational frequency of presence” that all that is meaningful happens, and where true religious experience can occur. Many times in life we have experienced this. It is why we seek out experiences in Nature that are so vast and overwhelming that we forget ourselves – at the sea, on a mountain, in the desert. It is why we go to a great cathedral, or attend spiritual rituals. But it is not the sea, the mountain, or the desert, the cathedral or the ritual that is spiritual. It is our own deepest self in pure presence that is spiritual, for it is indeed Spirit, but we forget this.

It can happen in our own front yard with our dog, with a bird, a flower, a cloud in the sky. It can happen with family members and friends, with total strangers, if we remember it is who we are at our deepest level. It is in the “vibrational frequency of presence,” with ourselves, with our family, with our friends and acquaintances, with our dog or cat, with the strangers whose path we cross, even with the unknown peoples of the world, and with Nature, both small and vast, that knows “the peace that surpasseth understanding.” It is called communion. It is called love. It is true Presence. Practiced at levels of subtlety and ubiquity, it is what heals us, our relationships, and it can heal the world.

The Biggest Little Word

Ask me if I’m happy, and my answer is ‘yes.’ Ask me if I’m sad, and my answer is ‘yes.’ Life is so thick with all possibilities that when you enter into the moment in awareness, the reasons for happiness and sadness are all present, and you realize the moment just as it is, is enough, and when enough is enough, that’s enlightenment. (Paraphrased from Ram Das in a video entitled “Ecstatic States”)

In the course of reading my articles, you may notice I often use the word “and” in places where more typically we would be accustomed to seeing the words “or” and “but.” It seems like a small thing, but I want to suggest that it is really a very big thing. When teaching, I refer to “and” as the most important little word in the English language, and, of course, as I do in my writing, I will quite deliberately use “and” and suggest that others use it where more typically the words “or” and “but” are employed.

Buddhism makes a point of noting that human beings, in all of Nature, are the single species that has a brain that creates a consciousness of abstraction; separating experience out into “this or that,” and “yes, but.” Birds live within Nature and the flow of Life without questioning, complaining, and trying to change and control it, and for the birds, it’s enough. So, a typical response to this statement might be: “Yes, but, that’s what separates humans from beasts.” And, I would have to answer, with a twinkle in my eye, “Yes, exactly.”

We question, complain, try to change and control, thinking we are improving our lives; and in the wondering, complaining, and changing, while we do improve our chances for physical comfort and survival, we create a world of psychological suffering the bird never experiences. Significantly, human-beings existing within primitive nature-based cultures likewise live with far less strife and stress and are happier than those in modern civilization. We are constantly caught imagining some situation, some circumstance other than the one we are within as better, so we want the alternative we imagine, the “or,” the “yes, but” that will make things better. The moment is very, very seldom “enough,” so complete and “thick” that we experience absolute well-being. And when there is not “enough,” this is the “unsatisfactoriness” that Buddhism refers to as the source of suffering in one of the more useful translations of “The Four Noble Truths.”

We have difficulty realizing that whatever we are within is it, and it is rich. There are other circumstances possible, yes, and we may be able to find some increase in benefit of a particular kind in another choice. To hastily make that choice, however, may prevent us from truly knowing and exploring the full potential and connectedness of the circumstance we are in. We don’t give consideration that this situation we are in is the one we are in for some reason, so this thing is the thing we need to deal with, to explore, to understand, perhaps even find the hidden riches within. It’s the big “and.”

“Remember that the obstacles do not block the path, they are the path.” – Zen proverb –

The big “and” is the moment arising in awareness, containing everything. It is seeing the thickness that brings us both happiness and sadness, in other words, the complete experience of Life. To want “or” is to want something other than what-is, and this creates a very thin experience of Life, skipping about, never fully understanding and mastering anything. To even desire for something other than what-is diminishes our experience of what-is, and certainly diminishes our full understanding of what-is and perhaps why this the-way- it-is might be exactly the way it has to be. As a result, Life, psychologically, is a struggle for us in a way that it is not for a bird or an aboriginal human, and our relationship to Life-as-Nature continues to be increasingly problematic.

It is really quite remarkable how by entering fully into a situation and seeing its components as the aggregate and infinite sum rather than limited separate parts to be picked and chosen from, our view and experience expands. We begin to realize that we are actually circles within circles of energy and interest that eventually encompass the entire Universe. We begin to realize that “this” is vast, and that the “here and now” are without limit and boundary. The entire experience of Life expands radically and unpredictably. We experience both linear and non-linear possibilities, discovering the true and paradoxical nature of the Cosmos.

This is not to say we are to be passive and not use our capacities for discernment, choice, creativity and inventiveness to change our circumstance and the human and planetary condition in the immediate here and now and into the future for the better. It’s just that a richer life requires that we learn to be patient, to be curious, to be open to dimensions and possibilities not readily apparent. It means to question our assumptions about what “better” means. Better in the short-run may well be catastrophic in a larger frame. There is an immense qualitative difference to our experience if we see our situation as the inescapable “what-is” within the infinite “what-is.” No complaint. No fantasy. Just what-is – arising in awareness.

Now, we can create a new what-is. It may look like we have chosen “or,” but that’s only from a limited perspective. We don’t need “or.” Sitting right alongside what-is, is more of what-is. “Or” is fantasy. “And” is reality. That’s non-duality using duality, and it can only truly and skillfully be employed when we realize that we are the moment arising in awareness, wherein the full thickness, the everything, is arising in that which is not a thing – awareness. Even if significant elements of the what-is are difficult, challenging, threatening to the form of us, we will, as we always do, handle it. Perhaps now, with a touch of magic, understanding interconnections and interdependencies better. We have entered the magic of yes and no, my perspective and your perspective, form and space, sound and silence, movement and stillness, thought and awareness, manifested and unmanifested, particle and wave. We have discovered the consciousness that connects the manifested and the unmanifested, this and that, and that, and that, and, and, and………… to infinity, where there are no “that’s,” only “This.”

“And-ness” is the key, the link between non-duality and duality. To live in the moment arising in awareness, just as it is, in the full thickness, is enlightenment. For awareness does not suffer, awareness does not react, awareness does not complain or wish for the “or,” the alternative to what is. Awareness is, and awareness is who we are. When you get that, and I don’t mean intellectually, I mean really know and are able to live it, this is what the journey of enlightenment is about. This is the “waking up” of Buddhism. This is how we begin to resolve the Gordian Knot of human dualistic thinking at every level of experience – from our individual lives to our relationships, to our societies, to our planet. Living in and as awareness that holds the moment just as it is, and that knows what is needed next in the big “and” that is Life and Nature and the Universe, is the secret of Zen, and the end of suffering.

Stillness, Vast and Deep

“Your innermost sense of self, of who you are, is inseparable from stillness.
This is the ‘I Am’ that is deeper than name and form.” – Eckhart Tolle

One of the first insights gained in meditation is that we live inside a cacophony of distracting mental noise. We may have some awareness of this runaway train of thinking, but with the beginnings of meditation, the full extent begins to be realized. Buddhism notes, and modern consciousness teacher, Eckhart Tolle, brilliantly explores, how we mistake this mental activity for who we are, investing it with a sense of self, our self, that it does not have.

The real truth of who we are lies hidden, or more accurately, distracted from us, by this wall of mental noise. These thoughts that we give our identity to are actually conditioned into us by society, family and culture, and are a complex system that is the personalized egoic mind telling us over and over a story of who we are, what society is, and what is true and what is important. This compulsive mental activity is certainly not who we are, nor can we lay claim to being its source, let alone it being our source. It is an opaque screen of concepts separating us from understanding our true identity, the world, our place in the world, and even the nature of God. And it is this opaque screen of concepts that we cling to desperately for it seems we have no choice.

But we do. Buddhism calls this blindness “egoic delusion” and points to it as the source of our suffering. It is a story of aloneness and fear of insufficiency in the face of the vastness of Life, and we spend our lives fighting off the subtle terror it brings called anxiety, looking everywhere within its story of separateness and materialism for meaning, clinging to it like a life-raft, while it is actually more like the water pouring over the edges, sinking us.

But beneath the mental noise, emanating from within and from the Universe that we occur within, beneath this story with all its conflicts and drama, is a profound stillness, as quiet as the vastness of space, and there resides a dimension of our existence that is free, wise and at one with all Life. To a Hindu, this is Atman, God within. To a Zen Buddhist, it is your original and true self, the place of Buddha-mind. Contemporary consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle calls this dimension, Being. It is That which Is, and as some spiritual teachers say, Thou art That.

This can seem all extremely esoteric, interesting to contemplate, but of very little value to this identity, me, in the world, maneuvering for my place in the world. Or perhaps, it can seem this special knowledge can be adopted into a story of spiritual specialness. Either perspective would be error. Among the great mistakes of the personalized egoic identity is its insistence on “either-or” thinking, and looking for its edge, how to make itself special. We live as if the spiritual and the secular are really very separate. Not so. The secular and spiritual must be one, but in a manner we are not accustomed to in this culture. We don’t do well with the idea of the mystical in this culture, but that’s because we don’t do well with paradox. We keep insisting paradox is contradiction and impractical, when in truth, there can be no practicality without paradox, and the true realm of paradox is mysticism, and in actuality, mysticism is very practical. It puts us in touch with the big truths.

If we are to know true peace in our lives, the spiritual has to be the well from which our secular self draws its fundamental psychological well-being. In an interesting coincidence of phrasing, it must come from the well-of-Being. This spiritual source cannot be, however, anything other than the “peace that surpasseth understanding.” It is not contained in any complicated special teachings. The most important secret of Life is simplicity itself. It’s just this, but it is a “this” that is the infinity contained in each and every simple thing.

A commonality of spiritual masters of all traditions is that they tell us that the only true teachings are those that help us see beyond the teaching to what the teaching is pointing toward, and what any true teaching points toward is the dynamic stillness of the Universe happening through a human consciousness. It must point us toward our Source, and to find that Source, the noise of the egoic mind and its stories of secular and/or spiritual specialness must be quieted. The secular and the spiritual must be realized as the same, for the Source is That, and every person, every bird, every tree, stone, and every moment must be realized as That.

Without an ongoing connection to our fundamental Source, our secular lives are like a small boat on the ocean, completely dependent on external forces, the weather (and whether) of our lives for its well-being. We can pray and chant all we want, do ritual after ritual, but only if after the prayer, after the ritual, we enter into the immense silence of the Mystery and listen into the silence will we be able to walk our everyday lives in the Presence that brings peace. Buddhism directs us to not mistake the waves for the ocean, our life-circumstances for Life, or the prayer and ritual for the Source. Beneath the surface of the ocean, our lives, and true religious experience, there is a deep stillness that is constant and calm, deep and vast, connecting all that is.

This is the true realm of Spirit, not stories of God in Heaven, separated from us, judging us. For too long, humans have mistaken God to be a projected egoistic figure. This story leaves humans in an unrelentingly hostile world of their own making. It is the reason that societies with religions of God in Heaven (and reactive no-God societies) are responsible for most of the war and devastation on this planet, and the psychological ills and pathology that plague humanity.

This moment. Can you touch the deep stillness that abides within and all about you? Can you even recognize what I am referring to? If you stop the stories and realize the truth of your own experience, you will know, you will remember, all your moments of wisdom, calm and clarity have occurred when, by circumstance, you experienced the stillness, the silence out of which truth could whisper. It may have been on a mountaintop. It may have been in a cathedral. It may have been walking through a forest. It may have been just a moment in the midst of everyday life when, for some reason, there was a stopping of mind-chatter and time, and what arose was a powerful sense of being present that can only be described as mystical or spiritual. We may have given the mountaintop or the cathedral or the forest or the circumstance the credit, but they were only the stimulus. The stillness was you. It was, as Eckhart Tolle in another teaching tells us, we are the moment arising in awareness. All story about who we are stops, and there we are. Awareness becomes palpable. The deep, vast stillness that is awareness holds the moment, and in that moment, you are That, and nothing that can be said can exactly describe It.

Seek the vast and deep stillness. Look to teachings that point you away from your small and chaotic egoic self – and away from themselves – to the stillness – on the mountaintop, in the oceans depths, in the vast night sky – to the vast quiet that is your own awareness in which all thought, feeling and experience occurs, yet never is, cannot be, disturbed. Rediscover your true individualized Self, Atman, Buddha-mind. Find it and bring it into your everyday life. Be one spark of sanity, joining with other sparks, what Buddhism calls “the Sangha,” the community of awakened beings, to create a fire of consciousness on the planet so that, Phoenix-like, our true humanity can rise. Walk in Presence and know, Thou art That, vast and deep and still. Presence. Presence. Presence in awareness. Awareness as Presence, just this, and big as all Creation. You need know nothing more than this. This is the practical, mystical Truth.

Life Open Hand

“Problems cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created the problems.” – Albert Einstein

Zen teaches us to release grasping, to live life with a metaphorical open-hand. Of course it is also speaking of an open-mind, a non-grasping-mind. Unfortunately, the truth is that we live with grasping hands and minds, that is, hands and minds that are always trying to grasp on to and close around what will complete the experience of life for us because our society and our religions have taught us that we are not enough and haven’t the capacity to be enough. Because of this, we are caught, trapped, living in a limited sense of who we are and what is possible. We are always trying to close our hand and our mind around “things,” material and conceptual, and we are always looking for a material and conceptual amount that will be enough, but there never is an amount that satisfies. So we mindlessly grasp for more and more and more. Buddhism identifies this as “egoic delusion” and the cause of human suffering.

We believe that if we can get some hypothetical amount from Life that will be what we need and want, closing our hand and mind around it, we will be enough, we will be OK, but this hypothetical amount is limitless, so we are never OK. We believe in this grasping and acquiring approach to life because our culture teaches us to believe that form – objects and ideas, even very abstract ideas such as religion, politics, economics, nations and class structures – are all that exist. We are unable to understand that a far richer life becomes available when we open our hands and minds to the unlimited possibility of a life of infinite connection, within which occurs the limited forms of our material existence. What we must realize is that we are much more than our bodies, our minds, and our circumstances. We must realize that, likewise, the extensions and expansions of our hands and minds that are our families, associations, societies, institutions and their products will not fulfill us. Even our closest relationships, which while having the potential to bring us closer to fulfillment, still leave us unsatisfied when they are modeled on this culture of expectation, acquisition and possession.

We can only be fulfilled by realizing we are simultaneously this individual human-being with its affiliations, and we are the great organism that is humanity, and the great organism that is this planet, and ultimately, the infinite Universe manifesting into the form of a human-being that has hands, a mind, affiliations and context for the purpose of engaging the finite world existing within the infinite complex oneness of the Universe. This is the non-dualistic consciousness that can bring harmony in our material existence and a vast mental and spiritual peace that realizes the truth of our multidimensional existence. This is the consciousness of quantum unity that Einstein was suggesting as needed to address the problems facing humanity that have been created by a human society constructed on the consciousness of separateness. We must realize that we are this infinite complex oneness manifested finitely. To have a long, quality future, humanity must come to this realization.

Another way of expressing this concept is found in an important article/interview by Naomi Klein in the spring edition of Yes! magazine, entitled Dancing the World into Being. In this piece, she interviews writer, spoken-word-artist, and indigenous activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who speaks of the colonialist consciousness that has ruled over the Americas and most of the world for the last 400 years she calls “extractivism,” and this consciousness views all that is in and of the world as resources for extraction to make more wealth. “Colonialism and capitalism are based on extracting and assimilating,” says Simpson. Among her points is that everything of the indigenous American world has been and continues to be extracted and assimilated. There is no true valuing or experiencing of the ecology that was the Native American world, rather, only parts of it are extracted as resources and assimilated for whatever value they may have to the dominant culture, and so what true value there is in its wisdom for today’s world cannot be fully appreciated or applied.

She goes on to say “the act of extraction removes all relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually extracting is stealing – it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment.” She makes the point quite clearly of how devastating this mindset has been on indigenous peoples, on the Earth’s plant and animal life and on the land we inhabit, but even more, how devastating this mindset is for all of modern society, bringing us to the brink of collapse, and we are unable to sufficiently escape its grip, to do anything meaningful about this coming apocalypse because our limited consciousness keeps us blind and in denial.

As an alternative, she recommends the consciousness of the native peoples before assimilation. She recommends the consciousness of “the seventh generation,” the long view into the future that holds responsibility for decisions as they will affect seven generations. Short-term exploitative profit can never be an acceptable basis for decision-making from this consciousness. She recommends

“responsibility… Because I think when people extract things, they’re taking and running and they’re using it just for their own good. What’s missing is the responsibility. If you’re not developing relationships (with people, the land, the animal and plant life, the very Earth that sustains you) you’re not giving back… We’re talking about… a resurgence of indigenous political thought… a concept that’s very fundamental to (indigenous) society called mino bimaadiziwin. It often gets translated as ‘the good life,’ but the deeper kind of cultural, conceptual meaning… translated as ‘continuous rebirth’… the purpose of life then is this continuous rebirth, it’s to promote life… how to interact with each other and family, how to interact with your children, how to interact with the land… how those communities and how those nations should also interact… You don’t develop as much as Mother Earth can handle. For us it’s the opposite. You think about how much you can give up to promote more life.”

Leanne Simpson is a voice channeled from a lost past speaking to us in the present about our future, and about the choices we have for the quality of our present and our future. She is talking about a consciousness that sees the truth of human existence on this limited planet we share with all communities and nations, including the communities of plant and animal, even mineral life. It is a consciousness of open-hand, one that emphasizes giving rather than taking as the best value system for humans and their societies. She is absolutely talking about a consciousness that can contribute much to the solving of our problems.

We must realize an openness of mind, hand and heart such as America’s indigenous peoples lived within – and that modern Buddhism speaks for today. We must realize that what we are is infinitely intelligent awareness, the non-form dimension of experience that is not subject to the conditions or conditioning of the consciousness that created our problems. We must realize that we are that which holds the infinite complex oneness in vast openness and allows us to see the world as it actually is, a vast interconnected and interdependent life-form that we are within, and that we are that vast openness. We are awareness that is living with the limited forms of this body, this mind and this world, and they are beautiful when we see the truth of “the good life” as expressed in open minds and hands that believe absolutely in giving so as to promote more life. In this meditation on Life, all questions lead to the next question, and the infinite unfolding of the question becomes the living mystery that is the answer. Here, we are enough, we are complete, we are expressions of The Infinite, and from the perspective of Infinity, all that has to do with the finite becomes very clear.

Indigenous peoples understood this, as they lived a form of continuous meditation in complete harmony with Nature, “dreaming” the finite and the infinite together seamlessly. Life is Life, is who we are, and our purpose is the celebration and sharing of Life, looking to Life to guide us in our lives. We must open our minds and our hands. This is what America’s indigenous people did for tens of centuries, and it is what is needed so that humanity can have a future of tens of centuries as one people on one Earth in a “beautiful life” focused on giving and sharing, “promoting more life” rather than extracting and assimilating ourselves and this planet to death. We do not have to return to the forests or give up the use of technology; we just have to turn our technology towards truly understanding, protecting, honoring and giving back to Nature rather than always extracting from it and assimilating it into a consciousness of exploitation that promises fulfillment but can never deliver, only take.

Life As Art

Creating art can be a very healing experience.  It can be quite therapeutic to take what is inside and bring it forward into some representation or manifestation in the world, and psychotherapeutic theory holds that when we make conscious that which is unconscious, we can begin to free ourselves from whatever demons lurk there. Usually this is done in a verbal exploration, but sometimes, art is used as the medium of the therapy.  To paint, sculpt, write, make musical or role-play the conflicts lurking in our minds can often bring about some resolution of painful confusion, while also releasing creative and healthy archetypal energy.  When we engage in artistic expression of our demons, there is, in many cases, some relief from their hold and control over us, and new paths for healthier living can open up.

While this relief and growth is usually believed to be the result of getting repressed contents of the mind into the light of consciousness, it might be speculated there is also another powerfully healing factor occurring that most psychotherapy hardly pays any attention to at all.  It is also possible that if brought to the level of consciousness and integrated, this event, which has nothing to do with the contents of the mind, may be an even more effective and lasting path to healthy and integrated living than the realization of insights into a person’s life story revealed under analysis.  This event is an aspect of the act of art itself.

As important as the calling forth and claiming of personal experience may be, both in analytical psychology and the making of art, it can be speculated that these experiences have a bit of a backfire to them, in that the person’s sense of identity with the contents of the mind, personal history and perspective may be strengthened, and those contents, while now reinterpreted, remain a kind of prison for the person. There is a perspective, however, that believes that true healing comes about when the person no longer looks for identity in mental activity, past events or personal affiliations, but rather in that which is in contact with the present moment with absolute clarity and authenticity.  It is about being in touch, in the literal sense.

Buddhist psychology, unlike most Western psychologies, recognizes there is a dimension of intelligence deeper than the mind of thoughts and emotions.  We can apply words to this dimension such as Being, Self, or even Soul, but this dimension is vitally deeper than the realm of words, it is pure experience and it is direct contact with the world through the senses and intuition.  This is the dimension that witnesses in awareness the mental and physical activity of our lives that is shaped by conditioned experience, which is the very source of the neuroses, while this witnessing dimension is completely unconditioned, and therefore, free of neuroses.  When Zen Buddhism asks, “As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, who is it that is aware?” it is this dimension of awareness, of Being, that Buddhism is pointing to as your true or original self.  This koan is guiding us to what is the healthiest, wisest and most creative in us and the purpose of Zen teaching and practice is to awaken this dimension, best named, simply, awareness.

Psychotherapy can summon this dimension, and in its best moments, does, but usually by pure accident.  A skilled and sincere therapist, using whatever technique, can create an experience of heightened awareness, authenticity and presence for a client when summoning forward their story that can result in an experience that brings healing.  While summoning the story and giving new insight into it is very helpful, it is not, however, the summoning of the story that does the greatest healing.  Rather, it is in the person’s opening to the possibility for real authenticity in the moment, and the connection with this deeper dimension of awareness in a profoundly shared moment with the therapist in heightened presence, that brings the greatest healing.  It creates, in a sense, a trust in Being, which is what is lacking in the neurotic mind.  If this experience of authenticity, presence and heightened awareness can be recognized for what it is and how it comes about, an entirely healthy dimension of the person can begin to grow and be integrated.

Similarly, artistic expression, and to a lesser degree, being an audience to art, is about letting go of the realm of the ego as the centerpiece of the mind and coming into direct and authentic contact in heightened awareness with the present moment as art is created or experienced.  Small-self-consciousness is lost in the purity, the bigness of the experience.  True art comes from the deeper self-in-presence, perhaps using thoughts and emotions as subjects of creative expression, but now blended and guided by the deeper intelligence that is whole and one with the moment.  This phenomenon of oneness is sometimes referred to as “flow,” and in this flow, the contents of the mind are balanced and mastered, a quite different kind of consciousness than when, as in day-to-day experience,  the mind-contents are master of us, and there is no flow, when we are separated from the oneness of the moment, lost, caught in the matrix of ideas about the world and our place in it.

This experience of artistic flow is always clear and unconflicted, and it is happening in an integration of the senses and intuition with our thoughts and emotions, in the present moment.  This in-the-moment expression that connects intuitive and archetypal experience with whatever medium is being engaged creates a temporary clarity and sanity for the artist or the witness to art, and as any artist will tell you, it is when in the action of their art-form that they feel the sanest.

Years ago, when I was first learning the craft of psychotherapy, I studied under a brilliant Gestalt therapist, who was also a professional improvisational actor.  He would ask, “Is your life good theater or bad melodrama?”  He taught his students how to access the focused expressed contact with the present moment that makes for good theater into everyday life.  He taught how to express oneself creatively, trusting intuition and increased sensory subtlety, gaining insight along the way about how old habits hold us stuck in ineffective ways of being in the world.  Through a blending of Gestalt and acting techniques, he gave his students the tools to change old habits to healthier ways of expression in the world.  This is great therapy, and, of course, it is good theater.

I often find that artists can make excellent subjects for healing work because when I tell them to consider living their life in the way they create their art, that is, in subtle, skillful direct contact with the physical world, in the present moment, trusting their intuitive sense, there is often a kind of “Ah-ha” experience.  To a painter, I say, “be in touch with the world the way you are in touch with the canvas and the paints.”  To a musician, I say, “be in touch with the world the way you are with your instrument.”  This instruction works because it’s not hard to understand that living with that kind of immediacy, focus and presence would be far less neurotic, self-absorbed, anxious or depressed than the way they had been living, caught-up in thoughts and reactive emotions that have very little to do with the vibrancy of the real here-and-now.

This kind of therapy teaches people to, in the words of the great originator of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, “get out of your head, and come to your senses,” and he meant that literally.  The senses exist in the present moment in clarity, but clarity is lost when the realm of thoughts and emotions distract us from real presence.  Our usual relationship with the senses is superficial and distorted by projecting our ideas about what is going on rather than opening us to what really is going on.  However, when we train ourselves in subtle, undistracted presence so that the senses can fully drink in the moment as-it-is, an amazing dimension of intuitive insight opens, full of creativity and wisdom, just as happens for an artist in a moment of genius.  Awareness flourishes.

The challenge is that it’s just not so easy to access this flowing awareness outside the specific context of creativity, since the habit patterns of egoic mind are so persistent and subtly insidious.  It therefore makes sense to turn life into creative context, applying the insight that just as to learn an art form takes a great deal of practice and instruction, to learn life-as-an-art-form takes just as much work, that is, application of deliberately directed awareness into the moment, technique and medium.

Overcoming the resistance of years of conditioned habit and neurotic identity is a truly great challenge, but for those who will do the “practice,” the pay-off is even greater and more fulfilling than a perfect arpeggio or brush stroke.   Life can be the canvas, the instrument, the stage, the page where a dull, chaotic or overblown story becomes impeccable poetry, and the result will be an expanding experience of flowing sanity, clarity and creativity as presence in the world becomes your home, and art your way of life.

Presence Is Love

“Love is a mind that brings peace, joy, and happiness to another person. Compassion is a mind that removes the suffering that is present in another.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many kinds of love: romantic, family, friendship, affiliation, admiration, compassion, aesthetic, awe, reverence, and they all have in common the experience of an expanded and extended sense of self in a joining with the object of the love. Another way of understanding this expanded and extended sense of self can be as presence – not mere physical presence, but something much more. To truly love requires combinations of physical, mental, emotional, even a kind of spiritual presence. The space that is occupied by me expands and extends, and I am one and fully present in one or more of these dimensions, merged with the object of my love.

This is an experience we have all had. We know this to be true. Our moments of clearest and most unambiguous love are ones in which our sense of self as separate from all else dissolves, expands and extends to include this person, or this object of our perception, this affiliation, this idea, this experience. Our presence in existence now includes this “other” that is no longer wholly other. The consciousness teacher Stephen Levine, in the book he co-wrote with his wife Ondrea, entitled, Embracing The Beloved, calls this experience “The Beloved.”

They write,

“The Beloved is neither a person nor a place. It is an experience of deeper and deeper levels of being, and eventually of beingness itself – the boundarylessness of your own great nature expressed in its rapture and absolute vastness by the word ‘love.’”… The Beloved isn’t what you know, it’s what you are. It isn’t anything you think. It is that in which thought floats. And that which goes beyond thought. It is the heart of being where pure awareness and pure love are indistinguishable…That sense of presence, of simply being, when investigated brings one toward the experience of the Beloved.

When in presence, in pure awareness beyond thought, we experience that we occur within that space. We exist in connection and sharing with all else in the space of the moment, and here we discover the realm of Being. It is here that we can realize that our essential nature is love. And when that awareness is focused on another, encompassing another, then what dissolves is the sense of self and other as separate, and that space is love and compassion. It is simply what we all seek, whether in relationship, spirituality, or, as Zen identifies, life itself.

This is not to be confused with the experience called love that is really ego-identification and possession. This is not a merging of presence, but rather an incorporation, a capturing and possession of the other by the self that is the ego. In other words, it is an owning and its purpose is to make more of “me,” and “me” is still basically separate. There is no recognition of the true reality, beauty, worthiness, uniqueness of the other, every bit as important and inviolable as me, but rather, it is the making of the other into a possession of me. This is not love, and certainly it is not compassion. Unfortunately, too much of what is called love is this ego-possession, and is why rather than a source of alleviation of suffering, this pseudo-love is a source of so much suffering.

In our world, unhappily, there exists a deficiency of real love, and our relationships, all too often, suffer from a deficit of real love. We lack the capacity for real love because we lack the capacity for real presence, for real compassion. It’s not our fault, and no one is to blame, for it is rare to have experienced or been nourished with the love that is not conditional and with no ego-strings attached. We tend to love as we have been loved, and few have been loved in an enlightened and free manner. The capacity is, however, within us all, buried under the pseudo-love we learned as children and see all around us in society.

Sadly, what begins as true love, an expression of the Beloved, all too often gets lost in this ego-possession because our society does not support or train people in living in loving, compassionate presence. Quite the contrary, for our society, being materialistic, generates superficial, ego-based relationships, even within families. People get caught in their cultural/psychological conditioning, and this is why people who truly do love each other become sources of suffering for each other. Then, peace, joy and happiness are lost. This is why parents and children, spouses, lovers, and friends so often are hurtful to each other. The shared awareness and presence is lost in emotional distance caused by conflict of egos, and then physical proximity becomes painful, all the more so because the idea of supposed love remains the context. We find that loving confuses and hurts.

When Thich Nhat Hanh talks of love and compassion, it must be realized they are inextricably related. Love can only flourish in the presence of compassion and compassion is the truest love. They are both the expanding and extending of the sense of self to include another, and, he is correct; love and compassion bring peace, joy, happiness, and remove suffering. They are both expressions and natural results from what the Zen Master Dainin Katagiri called “wholehearted presence.”
To heal relationships, the irreplaceable elements that must be restored are compassion and real presence. We must be able to expand and extend the sense of self to include the other. We must see and experience that we are one in the space of Being, and that what has caused our separation is our conditioning into this ego-self, isolated in existence, that only knows how to possess, to judge, to incorporate others into its own idea of self. We must enter into wholehearted presence where love inhabits the space, where the Beloved abides.

This is true for healing personal relationships, and importantly, it is true for the more abstract relationships we have with our fellow anonymous humans and the natural world. All destruction and suffering are caused by this lack of ability to expand and extend our sense of self to include the other. In this void, compassion cannot live. Only in the expanded and extended sense of self, in realizing the Beloved as the truth of “the boundarylessness of your own great nature,” can we begin to heal not only our personal relationships, but our relationships as a human society in the vast greatness of Nature. Only then, can we become love embodied, The Beloved.

Possession and ego-identification are the antithesis of love. Yet this is what our society primarily teaches us of love – you can see it everywhere on TV. Naturally and deeply, however, every one of us knows the truth of love and the necessity of compassion. We came into this world with it. It is the boundarylessness between mother and child. It is the boundarylessness natural to a child who loves so easily and completely, albeit naively. Mature love is the wisdom to understand and apply the appropriate and necessary discerning boundaries that will not allow the violence that is ego-possession to appropriate and violate us, while extending, being-to-being, the sacred space of presence in which the Beloved holds sway and heals. Presence – total, non-judgmental presence – is the miracle quality and gift we must apply to heal ourselves, each other, and the world. This is the truth of compassion that removes suffering, and this is the truth of love that can and does bring real peace, joy and happiness.

If Not Now, When?

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.
– Buddha

If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?
– Dogen Zenji 13th Century

A fundamental Zen question concerning enlightenment is, “If not now, when? If not here, where?” As far as Buddhism is concerned, the here and now is the only gateway to spiritual realization, and that realization is nothing more than the realization of the truth of who you are at the deepest level. In Buddhism, the concept that roughly equals the concept of Heaven is called Nirvana, which translates as “extinguishing ignorance;” put another way, it is the truth of the way things are. It is not another metaphysical realm for after-life, it is the quality of realization one has of this life. Hell is called Samsara, which translates as “ignorance” or “illusion.” Its literal meaning is: “wandering about in the cycle of ignorance.” These are states of mind, ways of experiencing our existence. It is about this life, here and now, not some future state beyond this life, and it is about this moment, just as it is. The Heaven of spiritual realization is not meant to be in some great ritualistic catharsis or idyllic retreat quite separate from everyday life. It is everyday life, or not at all.

Yet, I speak with so many people, including those who consider themselves Buddhist or inspired by Buddhism who tell me stories of their spiritual journeying, of beautiful retreats they have experienced and of mesmerizing teachers they sought out who took them to deeply moving experiences, and as they tell their stories, I sense the same anxious, distracted person I knew them to be before the marvelous spiritual experience they are now recalling. There is nothing wrong, and much that is wonderful and valuable about such experiences, but what value do they actually have if, as seems so often the case, there seems to be very little residual effect of this seeking that translates and continues into the here and now of these people’s lives? They still seem to be “wandering.”

“In wholeheartedness of presence the Buddha is realized.” – Dainin Katagiri – 20th century

“There is one person we must meet… it is the true self.” – Sekkei Harada – 20th century

Over and over Buddhist masters and teachers point to the realization of true Self in the rising of the present moment in awareness, in the rising of the present moment as awareness, yet it seems to be a barred gate for most people, no matter how many times they hear it. Our cultural training into seeking and looking for the “peak experience” as the path to fulfillment and meaning in life is so strong that it seems very difficult for many to get beyond collecting words and experiences of wisdom as the sum of their spiritual path. It is very difficult to realize that the masters are talking about experiencing any moment, no matter how mundane, perhaps the more mundane the better, as the gateway to Self-realization, as the moment arising in awareness, as awareness.

“This moment, what is lacking?” – Rinzai – 9th C.

Yet, our ongoing consciousness continues to be scanning the moment with a low-level dissatisfaction, as if something is lacking, leaning forward, so-to-speak, into the next moment and beyond, attempting to get to somewhere other than where we already are. It’s not that our consciousness tells us that the next moment will be better; it’s just that we are caught in a conditioning that tells us that this moment can’t be it. We must be going somewhere with our lives, otherwise, like a shark that must keep swimming to breathe, we will lose all meaning and importance. Onward! Like a donkey chasing a carrot tied to a stick in front of them, we keep looking to the future for our realization – in the next accomplishment, relationship, personal enhancement or security, in a retreat, experience, or from the next teacher.

The contemporary master, Eckhart Tolle, has a most provocative teaching that instructs us that enlightenment is in “renunciation of our need to get to the next moment.” The choice of the word “renunciation” is most subtle and helpful. Renunciation means to release allegiance, to no longer find or be searching for our identity in something, as in renouncing a religious or political affiliation, and so it is with our relationship with time and the future, in anticipation of experiences that will fulfill us. We look to find ourselves, to complete ourselves, in time, in the future. The very core of Zen instruction is to renounce this attempt to be “somebody” through some activity, accomplishment or experience yet to be achieved. Renounce this compulsion, and discover – I am here.

“An oak tree is an oak tree. That is all an oak tree needs to do. If an oak tree is less than an oak tree, we will all be in trouble… We can learn a lot from an oak tree.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The problem with human beings is that we don’t know how to relax into our human beingness, emphasis on “beingness.” The species designation “human being” is a most perfect capture of the dilemma, the paradox of our species. “Human” designates the uniqueness of the species with its capacity for abstracting itself out of Nature into artificial structures of society and into ideas about life. This creates the barrier to grasping that we are life, every bit as much as any plant or animal. Being, however, is the sharing of essential nature with all of Nature. To be human is certainly quite complicated. To be, on the other hand, simply is. And we are both.

The genius of Buddhism is in its recommendation to balance our humanity and our beingness as the “right” way to live. After all, Buddhism is also known as “The Middle Way.” Without real grounding in our beingness – which is this moment, just as it is, infinite and perfect – our human doing will always be inadequate to fulfill our need for an unshakeable sense of place in the world, and after all, isn’t that the itch we cannot scratch? Where do I belong? What is the significance of my life, of me?

When we place ourselves at the center of the experience, as the center of the experience, separate from what we believe to be all else, we are caught in our human side, and as Buddhism teaches, we are then prone to much suffering. This is samsara, the wandering in circles of ignorance. We cannot see and experience the connectedness of life that we are within, the infinite connected circles of Being.

Rather, Buddhism suggests, allow the experience to be the center of you, see the moment arising as what it is – a field of consciousness, this moment, no separation. Realize – the space of the moment does not separate – it connects. The phenomenon of the moment is what we are. Nothing more is needed. No other time holds the secret. This is it! Our place in the Universe is right where we are, just as we are. Ignorance is extinguished. Nirvana opens. Look about you. See the moment arising. Where does it arise? It arises in consciousness, in awareness as the absolute Here. When does it arise? Now! Know this as your irreducible Self.

With this as our foundational sense of self, we can be a human being as effortlessly as an oak tree is an oak tree. For we, and the oak tree, and the bird on the wing, and the oceans, and the mountains, and the atoms and the galaxies are all the Universe. Right here and now. Nothing more is needed. This is what it means to be awake in the truth. You, “in wholehearted presence” is all that is needed to discover the truth of who you are – both the vastness of existence itself, and this human being manifesting in this moment in space and time that is your life and circumstances.

Breathe, smile, relax. Now go do something – something wise, skillful and compassionate, something simple or genius, serious or silly. Sit on your porch, go for a walk, go to work, go to the grocery store, say hello to the next person you pass. Look into the infinite sky. Commune with a bird in a tree. Dance a jig. Go to a retreat, a workshop, a pilgrimage, find a teacher. Enjoy, learn, be inspired. Just know, what you search for you already have and are. Maybe this next experience will open that realization, will open the gate of Now.

Peace

Peace is every step,
The shining red sun is my heart,
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
As with so many virtuous concepts, peace is really not very well understood by most of us. We mostly think of peace through its opposite – as the absence of conflict – rather than as a profound state of its own, possible even in the midst of conflict. We have very little understanding of the nature and depth of peace itself. If we think of it at all, we think it belongs to the world of the spiritual, not our everyday existence.

This is where Buddhism is particularly unique amongst world religions; it emphasizes inner peace for the everyday lay-person, as Thich Nhat Hanh poetically expresses, in “every step,” turning “the endless path to joy.” But how? Buddhism, also unique among world religions, does not preach virtues without showing us the path to their realization. So it is with peace. Buddhism practices what it preaches – quite literally. It has a practice that it teaches, in a sense, complete with a how-to manual.

What then really is peace? And what is the practice that leads to the realization of peace? Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us. It is in the shining sun, in the beauty of a flower, in the green, freshness of all that grows, and the cool of the breeze. But wait, we say, these things are there every day, and we see them, but we still don’t know what this mystical state of peace is. Ah, but do we really see them? Another of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings is that we must learn to look deeply. Now, we are coming to the practice. Without looking deeply we do not have the eyes to see. Looking deeply is what Buddhism calls “mindfulness,” and mindfulness is the every-day fruit of Buddhist meditation.

We must not just casually look at the flower or the green of the world, not just casually feel the radiance of the sun and the wind blowing coolly as we go about our everyday business, we must experience them in full presence. We must experience the space of the moment in which they and we occur, realizing we are connected with the flower, the trees, the sun, the breeze, and with each other, in that space.

In that space, we encounter the moment shimmering in dynamic stillness. It is the fabric of life itself. Buddhism tells us to realize that what we are is life, and life-as-who-we-are can be experienced in the movement of our breathing, in the sensation of life-energy that pervades our bodies, in the awareness that is the essence of mind before thought and emotion. We are that awareness, that shimmering dynamic stillness that has a body and a mind. This is very important.

From a Buddhist perspective, we are not a person who has awareness. We are awareness that has a person, with a mind, body and circumstances. First, we are awareness. To realize true peace is to realize that the dynamic stillness that connects the entire world, and that we experience as awareness, is peace. It is within us and all around us – even if there is conflict going on around us. We must realize and see it is who we are in order to not be carried away by the turmoil of the world, and this realization happens in the deeper levels of Buddhist meditation.

Without the ability to experience the stillness that is the underlying fabric of the world, we cannot know peace. Within us is constant anxious movement of mind that leads to nervousness and tension of the body, and this is what psychology calls neurosis. It is being caught in the thoughts and emotions of a mind that mistakenly believes it is separate in the world, and therefore in an endless competitive relationship with the world. And neurosis requires constant mental movement to hold together this idea of itself in separateness. It could be said that constant mental movement is the very definition of neurosis; it just takes on different flavors, such as anxiety, depression, anger, compulsivity and impulsivity, but it always robs us of peace within, and leads to conflict without.

We are all some combination of all these neurotic traits, and because of them swirling through our mental-scape, we are unable to experience the underlying stillness of the world. We are unable to tolerate the underlying stillness. We have to keep moving, and so our every step is blind and conflicted. We cannot see the fabric of life that we are within, along with the flowers, the trees, the sun and the wind. Nor can we truly see our fellow humans and creatures of the world.

Having seen deeply our interconnectedness with the world around us, a natural morality emerges, a morality that sustains our peace. In Buddhist teaching it is noted that to obtain the peace that eliminates suffering, we must realize eight practices known as The Eightfold Path. These practices are: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

While I won’t go into a discussion of the details of this instruction, it is important to realize that the “Right” in these practices is not some morality in the conventional sense, meaning instruction that is imposed. There is a reason why the teaching begins with “Right View” for here we return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching of “looking deeply.” The purpose of Buddhist teaching is always to lead a person to see things as they truly are, not to tell you how things ought to be. In the case of our discussion on peace, to have peace, the right view is to not see yourself as separate and opposed to anyone or anything, but rather, connected in the human condition and connected in the natural world.

To have peace, to put it simply, you must not be trying to get away with anything that is harmful to anyone or anything, but rather practice a simple ethics stated best in what is called “The Golden Rule.” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you meditate on this, it will become clear: To experience what in Biblical terms is referred to as “The peace that surpasseth all understanding,” your view, intention, action, livelihood, effort, mind and concentration must be peaceful, that is, you must treat others and the world with the same respect, honesty, and care that you would want for yourself, for in truth, others and the world are yourself. In Buddhism, this is not moral instruction, but rather smart living, with yourself as the principle beneficiary – experiencing a profound peace in every step of your life. “It turns the endless path to joy.”

As for the seasonal wish: “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all,” it would be good to realize this can only begin at home, with ourselves. As the Dalai Lama has expressed it, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” Peace. Shalom. Namaste.

A Non-Dualistic Political Paradigm

“Our world and our lives have become increasingly interdependent, so when our neighbor is harmed, it affects us too. Therefore we have to abandon outdated notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and think of our world much more in terms of a great ‘US’, a greater human family.”  – Dalai Lama

We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

From a Buddhist perspective, humanity suffers from a mass delusion, in a sense, a kind of mental illness, and it is called dualism. We don’t recognize it as a kind of insanity because to us it is normal, but normal is always relative. Most people today would call the idea of one race making slaves of another race an insane idea, but of course, 250 years ago, the concept was considered quite sane and normal by many leading persons in American society.

Dualism is a state of mind, a way of looking at the world based on the experience of separateness in a world made up of separate objects, in which these objects have only a utilitarian relationship to each other. This means that I (the primary and most important object) look at the world and see objects (including other people) as having beneficial use to me, as detracting or harmful to me, or as irrelevant to me. We then organize these objects into a hierarchy of relevance ranging from what we believe to be the most detracting and dangerous, to the most enhancing and beneficial. We make a grave error in believing these assignments of relevance reflect true and accurate assessments of the way things really are. This is why dualistic thinking often leads to delusions, both small and great.

The institution of slavery was the product of dualistic thinking that made people of the African race into objects of utility in the most debased way to people of the white race. Today we recognize this as crazy, as delusional. The point is that slavery is only an extreme example of dualistic thinking. What is important is that dualistic thinking is as alive and well today as it was two hundred years ago, only operating at subtler levels of discrimination. Dualistic thinking was extremely destructive two hundred years ago, and it is perhaps even more dangerous today because the stakes for the future and quality of survival for the human species are now much higher. “We must be aware of the real problems of the world.” Successful human progress requires overcoming the dualistic thinking that separates individuals, genders, races, classes, sexual preferences, regions, political parties, religions, and nationalities from the truth of our mutual value, interdependence and common needs and problems. It also requires the realization of humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence with the non-human natural world, a non-dualistic realization that has barely scratched the surface of human consciousness.

When the world is perceived as divided into the very highly valued “me” and “us, with “you” and “them” having lesser or even negative value, and “it” as having no value other than how I and we can use it, we have set in motion the consciousness at the root of much of the harm and suffering caused by humanity. While it is true that dualism is essential for the particularly human characteristic of material productivity, inventiveness and creativity, it is remarkably short-sighted. It tends to look for immediate solutions to problems in isolation as they arise, and is largely incapable of seeing problems within their larger context. It also looks for solutions within parameters of possibility limited to already accepted ideas, sometimes the very ideas that have created the problems. It is typically blind to the insight that ultimately humanity’s problems arise from the inability to see that we are one species sharing a planet with each other, regardless of surface differences, as well as with many other species, all interdependent and necessary for the quality existence of each.

Without a counterbalancing non-dualistic perspective that recognizes all humanity as sharing common problems, that recognizes that we are all together on this great “Space-ship Earth,” a term coined by the ecological visionary Buckminster Fuller in 1967, along with all the animal and plant life in a codependent state of what the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” we are unable to “be aware of the real problems of the world.” The “mindfulness” that Thich Nhat Hanh references is seeing the non-dualistic context of existence as the larger frame in which the small frame of dualistic interest must operate in order to truly and skillfully “know what to do and what not to do.

An inherent limitation of dualistic thinking is that it organizes our perception and choices as “either – or.” We almost can’t help approaching life with its challenges and problems from the limited perspective of “this way” or “that way.” If I consider myself “right” in my approach to something (and who doesn’t) and you have a different approach, then you must be “wrong.” Reality is not this simple. Reality is made up of all perspectives, and perhaps the most underappreciated small word in the English language is “and.” Life is seldom this or that, but rather, this and that, and that, and that, ad infinitum.

There is probably no area of human life more locked into dualistic consciousness than politics, and since politics is the arena in which decisions about how the elements of human society interact with each other, and eventually, with the natural world, it is imperative that we find a way beyond dualist thinking in politics. We must understand the inherent limitations of either-or thinking. We must be able to see, for example, that the arguments between individual-liberty/free-enterprise capitalism and support-for-all-socialism are false. We must see that our problems can only be resolved with a non-dualistic political perspective that synthesizes the best of capitalist/libertarian and socialist/collectivist political and economic philosophies.

A dynamic system that skillfully balances protections for the liberty and enterprise of individuals, while guarding against excesses by the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable, is essential. Creative individualism and all-inclusive supportive community has to be the goal. In such a system, government is democratic in a quite pure sense with built-in protections against undue influence and control by special and powerful interests, while guided by an overarching non-dualistic philosophy. Education that trains citizens not only in traditional information and skills, but also complementary non-dualistic wisdom, must be open, available to all, and the highest societal priority.

The Necessity Of Kindness

“I believe that every human being has an innate desire for happiness and does not want to suffer. I also believe that the very purpose of life is to experience this happiness… Sometime we look at the negative side of things and then feel hopeless. This, I think, is a wrong view… However, through training our minds, with constant effort, we can change our mental perception or mental attitudes. This can make a real difference in our lives. If we have a positive mental attitude, then even when surrounded by hostility, we shall not lack inner peace.” – The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is right. We all want happiness. Even the surliest curmudgeon wants happiness. Even the vilest psychopath wants happiness. Every child wants happiness. Every rich person, every poor person wants happiness. I want it, you want it, people of every race, nationality and religion want it.

Everyone wants happiness. We all want happiness, yet very few know how to achieve it in any lasting, reliable way, and so we keep falling back into unhappiness. As we fall into unhappiness, we become more and more desperate about regaining happiness and we come up with some very delusional, sometimes even destructive, tactics for achieving what we think will bring us happiness. This observation is the very basis for Buddhism, and as Buddhism notes, the frustration of unfulfilled grasping after happiness is what brings about what Buddhists refer to as “suffering.” It is a great truth that there are many very “wrong views” in this world about how happiness is to be achieved, and these wrong views inevitably lead to suffering.

Mostly we believe we will have happiness by making more of “me,” and there are about as many different views of how to go about making more of “me” as there are people on this planet. It is in the definition of “me” that we get fouled up, for the curmudgeon wants more things to be cranky about, the psychopath wants more victims, the rich person wants more riches, as does the poor person. There are infinite variations of the way to experience “me” with whatever turns “me” on, and infinite, usually ultimately ineffective, ways to pursue it.

In this culture, great emphasis is placed on happiness through material/social success, possessions, and relationships, but it is pretty usually true that there is never enough success or possessions, and it is also usually true that relationships often bring hurt and disappointment as well as satisfaction and happiness, and so happiness is a phantom that keeps slipping away.

The Dalai Lama, when once asked to describe his religion, replied, “My religion is kindness,” and for all its seeming simplicity, this is a deeply multi-layered and profound answer. Upon reflection, we all have a sense that the purpose, the reason for the world’s religions, is to bring about more kindness, compassion and love, less violence and hatred in the world, yet religions seem to have failed in this regard. Driven by strong negative emotions and motivations in the pursuit of happiness, humanity continues to manifest horrifying levels of violence, greed, selfishness and indifference.

If we, however, look at religion as the deepest truth of our existence, and as our search for what will fulfill this truth, the Dalai Lama’s response, while simple, is infinitely wise and true. If happiness is our core desire and motivation, the deepest truth ought to be about how we fulfill this need, and the Dalai Lama is telling us that if you want to be happy, you must be kind, and if humanity wants to be happy, it must learn to be kinder. We must deepen our understanding and capacities for compassion, tolerance, generosity, appreciation and love, in other words, for kindness.

What an astonishing and simple truth! To be happy, be kind. From our usual self-centeredness, we know we are happy when others are kind to us, but how astonishing that most people haven’t noticed that an even greater happiness is experienced when we are kind to others, and when we have a kind attitude toward all that happens in the world – when we are tolerant, forgiving and appreciative toward all that happens, great and small. That we fail to make this connection is a sign of how deep the conditioning is that happiness comes from getting rather than giving.

This is where the “training our minds” comes in. This may seem like an unusual connection, to look to the training of the mind to find happiness, but not so. First, of course, it must be realized that happiness is a state of mind. While we act as if happy is something we get, it is, in fact, something we are or are not. It is a state of mind that is only relatively dependent on our conditions – “If we have a positive mental attitude, then even when surrounded by hostility, we shall not lack inner peace.”

Since there is a limit to how much we can get, then it is true that the happiness that comes from getting is really quite limited, and since all things that can be acquired can also be lost, getting is a poor strategy to happiness. There is no limit, however, to how much kindness we can give or how much kindness we can bring into our view of the world, and therefore our potential for happiness derived from a mind that has trained itself to be kind and appreciative is unlimited.

“Meditation is the process whereby we gain control over the mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction. Meditation may be thought of as a technique by which we diminish the force of old thought habits and develop new ones” – Dalai Lama

In Tibetan Buddhism, the word “meditation” means to train the mind, and “virtuous” describes what brings about happiness and lessens suffering. So what the Dalai Lama is saying is that when we train our minds to be free of the old habits of thought and emotion that lead to unhappiness, and open it through insightful meditation to deeper understanding of the connection between happiness with kindness, compassion, appreciativeness, generosity, tolerance and patience, we will find what we all have been searching for in our misguided self-centered aggressive ways but keeps eluding us. Contrary to our social conditioning, it turns out that more of “me” leads to less happiness, while less of “me” leads to greater happiness, and through meditation, this paradox becomes completely clear. We must become “nobody” to be completely happy. This is the great secret and power of Buddhism.

As the Dalai Lama suggests, make a religion out of selfless kindness and you will find happiness. You must, of course, realize this means also not allowing others to be unkind to you, or receiving and personalizing their unkindness. We also have to go beyond just the idea of kindness to see and experience through meditation how the mind is trapped in unvirtuous directions and how we can shape and train it in “a more virtuous direction,” a kinder and happier direction. It is both a simple and a sophisticated concept, and a great challenge, but it can be done, and meditation is the means, “through training our minds, with constant effort.”

On Being Nobody, II

In Zen, there is a concept utterly foreign to the American mind. This concept is an ideal; a goal of Zen practice; and it is, paradoxical for an ambition, to be “nobody.” In Japanese, this concept is communicated with the word, ”mushin,” or, in Chinese, “Mu,” which translates as “no-mind.” No-mind means to be without ego, to stand in the world as a phenomenon no more important than a bird or a flower, yet equally, no less important than the galaxies themselves. It means, in the lexicon of Zen, “emptiness.”

The way of the no-mind person is the way of living as “nobody.” Not a nobody, for this implies you ought to be somebody special, but are not. To be nobody is a conscious and positive stance in the world, not a lack or failure of stance. It is about living as a being of and within Nature, not outside it. It is in understanding that to live from ego, as if the structures of ego are who you are, is the “fall from grace,” the “original sin,” the loss of your true harmonious self. To be nobody is to live from the natural and spontaneous source of your own being, using your intelligence and faculties to be skillfully in rather than above or attempting to control life.

With no-mind, blossoms invite the butterfly;
With no-mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
When the flower blooms, the butterfly comes;
When the butterfly comes, the flower blooms.
I do not “know” others;
Others do not “know” me.
Not-knowing each other we naturally follow the Way.
18th Century Japanese poet, Ryokan

The “Way” that is being referred to is the ancient Chinese Taoist Way, the Way that Lao Tzu, described in the Tao Te Ching as the “origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless.” It is the way beyond intellectualization, categorization and judgment. It is the way of Nature, not of the egoic human mind. The “not-knowing” that Ryokan is referring to, is not having preconceived ideas about others and about life, rather, allowing each encounter to be fresh, completely and naturally what it is.

Without a preconceived identity and without preconceived ideas about life, self and others, I am, in this sense, nobody experiencing with no-mind. Anxiety, anger, depression, arrogance and selfishness are so clearly harmful and unnecessary to a person who is, in consciousness, “nobody.” The joy of living in Creation, harmonious within and without, is their natural abode.

“The adept in Zen is one who manages to be human with the same artless grace and absence of inner conflict with which a tree is a tree.” – Alan Watts

In the modern world, where we are over-burdened with the weight of our own insecure identity, with the obsessive and desperate need for significance, to be “somebody,” to contemplate the meaning of “nobody” can be a valuable reference point. It reminds us that we have fallen into a terrible hubris, into an arrogance that places us quite outside and at opposition with Nature, and with what Buddhists would call our own original nature. We have become quite caught in our egoic self-centeredness, our ambitions, opinions and judgments; afraid of being a nobody. We take everything personally and are filled with inner conflict. This is a most uncomfortable and graceless place to live.

After all, what is it that we get so upset about? Usually it is about not having things go the way we want them to, or feeling injured, slighted, insulted or discounted in some way. Being upset is usually about the ego-self wanting more control and importance than it has. This can be true over real injury, certainly, or, as is often the case, in just not getting our way the way we want it. The modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, describes our emotional distress as the result of being resistant to what is. What a simple and clear teaching. So too then, when we don’t find our identity in ego, we can face many threats and losses, real and imagined, even death, and remain calm and accepting. We take nothing personally. Few bits-of-advice can be given that contain greater wisdom.

It is important to realize – this is not about being passive. Activity and creativity are in our nature and to be active and creative in the expression of life are appropriate and harmonious. In the service of ego, however, action is seldom harmonious. Certainly, there are times to resist cruelty and stupidity, but it does not have to be from a place of fear, anger, or violent emotion. It is just the necessary thing to do. In the parlance of Zen it is then ‘”non-doing”. Certainly there are times to use effort for the benefit of our person, others and human society. Our choice is whether the effort is ego-directed, or from the place of just doing what needs to be done. Non-doing follows our deepest natural imperative, and “betterment” means to become more conscious, alive, and balanced with others, society and Nature within and around us.

As we assert ourselves, face a challenge, respond to injury or disappointment, whether it is slight or great, we can let go of our ego, be nobody, and in so doing, become more in harmony with life as it is, and with our own life as it is meant to be. We can engage a moment that could have been one of struggle and suffering for others and ourselves, and instead, turn it into a moment of mastery. We can be masterfully active and creative just because it is in our nature to be so, noting that to “nobody,” mastery is no big deal. No big deal, but oh, how splendid. Like the stars in the night sky or the butterfly visiting the blossom, like a tree being a tree, we can be naturally human, as is said in Zen, “Just so.”

Entering Into Stillness

“Whenever you deeply accept this moment as it is – no matter what form it takes – you are still, you are at peace.” – Eckhart Tolle

In Zen teaching, emphasis is given to embracing the present moment without holding conditions on the content of the moment. This means that from the perspective of spiritual and psychological enlightenment, of one’s calm and balanced presence, a moment in a divinely beautiful setting in nature is fundamentally no different than a moment stuck at a traffic intersection, or being diagnosed with cancer. There is, however, a Buddhist saying that “enlightenment is easy for the person with no preferences,” implying full realization of how seemingly inhuman this perfect equanimity would be. We all have preferences. How could we not?

This perfect equanimity must seem like a strange and impossible notion to embrace, and it may well not even seem like a state to which one would choose to aspire, but, as with all Zen teachings, the direction in which it points, though perplexing, is a very valuable path for us to explore.

Buddhism teaches us that our emotional suffering is caused by our resistance to the realities of life. We want life to be the way we want life to be. We grasp after those things that bring us closer to the realization of our desired experiences and goals, and we avoid as much as we can those circumstances that frustrate our desires. This seems self-evident, but its importance is in the insight that the emotional ups and downs of our lives are the result of this search for desire fulfillment, and that it is possible to gain a larger perspective that allows for far greater peace, wellbeing, profound sanity and happiness within life’s ups and downs.

If, like all of God’s other creatures, our desires were limited to the very basic necessities of life, we wouldn’t face emotional turmoil. For a squirrel, a fish or a bee, to have the basic needs of biological survival is enough, but for humans it isn’t. It particularly isn’t enough for modern people living in technological societies driven by a consumer economy. Oh, the suffering of a status-conscious teenager who doesn’t have the newest must-have possession. Oh, the suffering of an ambitious adult passed over for promotion, blocking the purchase of that new home and car. Oh, the suffering caused by arguments among family, a failed love relationship, financial instability or a crisis of health. Oh how we suffer over insults and slights, real and imagined.

What separates the human from the squirrel? Quite fundamentally, it is a more elaborate brain structure capable of abstract thought and sense of self. Certainly, many species of animals have the instinct of hierarchy, and dominance competition is common, but straightforward biologically-ingrained processes resolve such issues, and then everything settles down. For humans, struggles of status and significance are very different.

Humans anticipate this struggle, form strategies and devices to give them advantage, and live in reflected dissatisfaction with the results even when we win – the triumph is always tenuous and temporary, never complete. No squirrel lives in a remembered world of triumph or defeat. No squirrel worries about whether their status is sufficient, about whether they are sufficient, about whether they will gain or lose status or happiness in the future. Humans are obsessed with such matters. It is an abstract sense of self and its time-line story, what psychology calls ego, creating this suffering that is unique to humans.

Buddhism teaches that identifying with, and being driven by, the desires of the ego is what causes our emotional suffering. We want what we want, and we suffer when we don’t get it. We want an entire story line of “me” that is made up, not of moments in the here-and-now, but a continuous flow of moments all strung together creating the time-line of our lives. This time-line is the ego’s story. We live in a blurred cacophony of moments remembered and anticipated all built around our need for significance.

“This moment, what is lacking?” – 9th Century Zen Master, Rinzai
This moment experienced in its purity has no past and it has no future. It only contains what is present. There is no timeline to this moment. There are antecedents and there will be a future to this moment, but this moment held in stillness is completely pristine, and ego cannot dominate experience without its storyline.

“This moment is a perfect moment. This moment is my refuge.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Bring awareness into your sensory experience of the moment. Begin with awareness of the gentle rhythm of your breathing. Pay particular attention to the release of tension that comes with the exhalation. Then experience the bright clarity of perception that is a conscious inhalation. The mind will begin to quiet. It will begin to focus; it will take on a rare quality of stillness, a dynamic stillness that is the quality of a calm ocean, a forest glen. Allow into perception only what is present, without its antecedents and its future, and a world of mystery that is life and Creation in its true form begins to be revealed. Stillness is the key, a dynamic stillness that is the fabric of Nature, of the Universe.

As we become increasingly capable of sustaining contact with the dynamic stillness of the moment, not needing, or feeling compelled, to move on to something else, we likewise become increasingly the master of our own mind, and the saner (and happier) we become. Stillness becomes the ever-present background while we live the activity of our lives. Awareness that all activity arises and passes back into stillness becomes our greatest insight. We learn that we can enter the stillness of this moment by choice and use it, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, as a context and a refuge We can learn from within stillness how petty and unnecessary are most of our attachments and ego cravings, the noise of our lives, and so, how unnecessary most of our suffering is.

Stillness is the realm of meditation and mindfulness. Stillness is the place where we learn that we are not imprisoned within our thoughts and emotions, and thus, victim to their vicissitudes. This stillness is where we learn that all things are manageable when framed from within this moment. Stillness is the doorway through which we can glimpse eternity and Creation. Stillness is the doorway to perfecting psychological and spiritual balance and understanding.

This moment, held in stillness, lacks nothing, for in it, we and the Universe unfold, are one, and are complete.

Exhaling Into Emptiness

“Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation, so if you exhale smoothly, without trying to exhale, you are entering into the complete perfect calmness of your mind… Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale…we feel free to express ourselves because we are ready to fade into emptiness. When we are trying to be active and special and to accomplish something, we cannot express ourselves. Small self will be expressed, but big self will not appear from the emptiness. From the emptiness only great self appears.” – Shunryu Suzuki

Zen asks: Who are you? This is the great meditation, and we meditate to discover the answer to this question. In meditation, we sit quietly in complete relaxation while vibrantly alert. We sit with our posture reflecting the paradox that is our totality meeting the moment, looking into the interface of the Universe with this experience we have come to know as “me.” We are instructed to bring awareness to our breathing, to hold awareness on breathing as best we are able, and to watch and learn. And, oh, there is so much to be learned. One insight to be learned is that “Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation.”

While this may sound absurd, it is not. As with everything in Zen, don’t believe it upon being told. You must experience it for yourself. If you follow the instructions for Zen meditation (zazen) you will discover, as your awareness becomes subtler and subtler, profoundly different states of mind come with inhalation and exhalation. With exhalation, comes relaxation, a natural release of the tensions that hold together your sense of personal self (ego). “Fade into emptiness as you exhale.” This puzzlement points to the release of ego-self into non-conceptual awareness that Buddhism means by emptiness.

With birth comes our first inhalation and the long, long process of creating our ego-self through experience and social/psychological learning. With death, comes our last exhalation and the release of this ego-self. At the beginning and at the end, and at every moment between, is the one unchanging constant of our existence: awareness. Awareness experiences this rhythm and all the rhythms of our life. “Fade into emptiness as you exhale.” Master Suzuki taught this pointer towards the realization of our essential self as of extreme importance.

With the next inhalation comes a returning into form, only now, having touched emptiness, having touched, in a sense, our ego’s death, comes the realization that we have form, yet are more than form. We have a body and a mind. We have life circumstances and relationships, yet we are more than all these. All these occur within the witnessing awareness that sits watching the rhythm of our breath and the rhythms of our life. The realization begins to dawn: I am the awareness within which all experience occurs.

We believe we have good times and bad times, and we do. Yet we are more than our good times and bad times. If we weren’t, our bad times would destroy us, but they don’t (unless we make up and live in a story that we are destroyed). Our “great self” is larger than all the bad times. It is bigger than all the good times too. Our great self does not exist in times at all. Our great self, our unshakeable awareness, exists only in the present moment that is also eternity. But no, we don’t live this way.

We live on the inhalation grasping at everything, rushing to get to the next moment. Pay attention and notice – when we want or expect something, we inhale sharply. The exhalation is overlooked. And this is no way to live. This is not life at all. We can’t only inhale. Life is here, and we are always trying to get to there! To inhale is good, but as Master Suzuki said, “In each inhalation and each exhalation there are countless instants of time. Your intention is to live each instant…Inhaling without effort you naturally come back to yourself with some color or form. Exhaling, you gradually fade into emptiness.. The important point is your exhalation. Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale.”

Breathing every moment, aware that you are breathing every moment, without regard to the difference between life and death, you touch the eternal. Master Suzuki tells us, “When you practice this in your last moment, you will have nothing to be afraid of. You are actually aiming at emptiness. You become one with everything after you completely exhale with this feeling. If you are still alive, naturally you will inhale again…”

Discovering yourself “still alive,” the world sparkles, life exhilarates in all its brilliant ordinariness. Body and mind are within the moment that is life. The space of the moment, the space of your awareness, is alive, and you realize you are in the space of the moment. This is enlightenment. This is the answer to the great meditation.

A great realm of peace and wisdom has opened. Then you live your life in all its ordinariness, yet there is never again boredom, never again restlessness, never again useless anger or fear. Exhaling into emptiness is to discover the fullness of every moment of life. Inhaling again, we discover the adventure of every breeze, of every flower, of every squirrel and bird, and of every person we encounter
.
Inhale deeply. This is life. Exhale fully. This is death. They are one and the same in the Great Self. Spiritual teachings emphasize you must die into life to be fully alive. Each breath, a new moment. Born again! This is Zen.

Why Meditate

Meditation is not a separate something from daily life… meditation is a form of understanding one’s relationship to the world and one’s relationship to nature…(We are) enquiring into the whole nature of thinking, enquiring into the nature why human beings are behaving in this way, enquiring into or probing into the depth of life, what it all means, if there is something beyond the ordinary daily monotonous wearisome life. To enquire if there is something sacred. – J. Krishnamurti

The greatest unrealized truth is that meditation is essential to modern humanity, and what is also clear, since meditation is not realized as essential, is that we are in serious difficulty. We are too many and too powerful to continue along in the same basic consciousness as we have for thousands of years, building our civilizations, our monuments to human specialness and competition, our abstractions of what it means to be alive on this planet. We must realize some basic truths. We must face the truth of our relationship to the world and to nature, to the depth of life, to find out, as Krishnamurti said, “if there is something sacred” in this life. The one inescapable truth is that only meditation can do this.

But this search for the sacred is not how we live. We are primarily concerned with our very secular selves, content with fictions about the sacred. We are living in a daze, superficially, trying to avoid anything we consider unpleasant or inconvenient, while stirring up misery and drama unnecessarily, creating as much significance for ourselves as we can, engaged in a never-ending, never-accomplished “pursuit of happiness.” We thoughtlessly believe the purpose of life is to acquire more and more “security” through possessions and status, to seek more and more leisure and entertainment, to accumulate more superficial relationships, and to live as if this will give us happiness, and we are completely mystified that it doesn’t. We never question.

We just up the ante. We work harder, we play harder, we buy more stuff, we stir up more drama, asserting that this gives meaning and importance to our lives. We declare what we do as important and necessary, as the only way to be. We may seek personal improvement through therapies, continued learning, even spiritual practices. We may actually want to be better – or not. The end result still seems only marginally different and improved.

We take more pills that promise relief from depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, gastric distress, headaches and sexual dysfunction. We invest more and more in insuring longer, healthier, more financially secure lives without really knowing what to do with the lives we have. We go to churches and we take up spiritual practices because we are told that in them we will find meaning, and they, like television or other diversions, temporarily relieve our isolation. They stimulate and entertain us; and do give us contact with others who also seek the same meaning we long for. We may actually find some meaning, some sense of touching something infinite, although we don’t exactly know why. But none of it ever changes the basic problems of our lives or the problems of humanity.

What we do as individuals, we likewise do as collectives that have lives of their own: nations, governments, religions, corporations. There is no thought to the implication that these entities lack conscience or compassion while they have resources that give them access and voice a thousand, a million-fold over any individual. Human suffering and the degradation of the planet rolls on.

And we watch our society become one big market place with everything for sale, everything with a price-tag, including our leaders and our laws. What ought to be basic rights like education and health-care have become commodities available only at a price, increasingly out of reach for many. Access to nature now frequently comes with an admission fee. Banks stand looking like temples, as is appropriate to their status in our society. Corporations seem to own everything. We have little morality, but more and more laws and “ethics,” violations of which will swiftly bring law suits, but there is little justice or fairness. No one is responsible for their own foolishness, yet everyone is accountable for any infraction of the rules (except those with influence).

This is actually nothing new. Religions, political parties, nations, ideologies have long functioned as super-individuals (egos), causing untold harm and suffering, pursuing their interests to the exclusion of the interests of those who are not the “we.” Thousands of years of this. With the passing of centuries, the dynamic only becomes increasingly energetic, increasingly concentrated, abstract and sophisticated, causing more harm and suffering, now threatening the balance of the very ecosystem humanity depends on for life, and we seem incapable of the fundamental change that we all know is necessary.

Like an over-indulgent, long-suffering mother, the collective of life and the collective of the planet has indulged this self-centered, self-indulgent childish spoiled behavior. And like a spoiled child who only pursues its own pleasure, the child is not happy, does not know what happiness is, yet acts out even more, seemingly incapable of any insight into its own behavior as the source of its unhappiness. The mother is now exhausted, has little left to give, but the pampered child, in complete denial of its situation, expects the pampering and spoiling to go on indefinitely. The situation is insane, and what is the most insane is that this is what is considered completely “normal.”

Does this seem like an overly harsh and judgmental assessment of the state of humanity? A deeper consideration (meditation) will show the truth of it, and it is the deeper consideration that we are incapable of without being directed to it. We are just caught in the momentum of thousands of years of conditioning to consider all this dysfunction as “normal.” For all of humanity’s technological progress, even its political and philosophical progress towards recognizing the worth of the individual and the universality of some basic rights, we fail to see the basic flaw that comes from living within thought structures that tell us we are separate, self-interested individuals living within separate, self-interested collectives. Compassion is relegated to arcane religious teachings, rather than realized as an essential psychological necessity. We experience the consequences of this delusional consciousness, but we fail to recognize the flaw in the consciousness that is the cause of the consequences.

We believe that we are these separate self-interested entities because our culture has told us that we are. What we fail to realize is that this is nothing but a thought; and a very bad thought at that, and it has been responsible for every war, every act of insensitivity, every abuse, every exploitation, every prejudice, every division and conflict, every inequity that has plagued humanity as individuals and collectives. We fail to realize, to feel, the one indispensable insight: that we are one collective that is life, and so we humans, as individuals and as collectives, fail to act as one collective that is within and dependent upon the greater collective that is life. We fail to realize that we each are akin to the individual cells that make up the individual organs of a human body that act as one collective that supports the organism, a human being. So too, we will be unable to function with real harmony and happiness as individuals, as collectives, as the human species, until we realize the consciousness that is the collective Life on the organism/planet Earth as who we are.

Will this make us unthinking automatons? No. It will allow us to apply our intelligence, our creativity, our individuality in the service of Life, in the service of harmony and happiness, and just like a child who realizes spontaneous, cooperative, kind play is far more rewarding than conniving, selfish, hurtful behavior, we can then discover what true happiness and human productivity is.

But to find this, we must go deeper in consciousness than the programmed thought structures of competitive individual selfishness that human civilization has conditioned into us for thousands of years. We must – as Krishnamurti talked and wrote about – engage in a total inner revolution – a turning over of what we accept as normal – to see what is real. This seeing what is real in the universe of our minds and the universe around us is what meditation is, and only in the silent awareness of true meditation can we look at, see and feel the truth of who we are, what is real and what is unreal. Then, we can discover that there is something sacred, and it is life, and it is you and me and all humanity and all fellow creatures and every moment of this precious experience that is human life and existence.

Then we can rebuild this human civilization in the honoring and celebration of every life and all life. And along the way, each of us as individuals will discover real happiness and creativity and meaning. This is why we must meditate.

Buddha Within

“Already we are the Buddha. There’s just no doubt about that. How could we be anything else? We’re all right here now. Where else could we be? But the point is to realize clearly what that means; this total oneness; this total harmony; and to be able to express that in our lives. That’s what takes endless work and training. It takes guts. It’s not easy. It takes real devotion to ourselves and to other people.” – Charlotte Joko Beck

When learning meditation, a very helpful instruction is to “sit like a Buddha.” If this instruction can be fully realized everything a person needs to know about enlightenment will make itself known. But most people don’t get it; they continue to sit like themselves. And that’s OK. Buddhas appear when they are ready. Zen Master Shibayana was known to say, “This Buddha that you all want to see, this Buddha is very shy. It’s hard to get him to come out and show himself.” The purpose of meditation and Buddhist teaching is to coax this shy one out.

Amongst Western psychotherapies, a few are based on a premise that is really quite Buddhist. In some fashion or other, the psychologies of Carl Rogers, Carl Jung, the Gestaltists, and Abraham Maslow all hold that there is a completely healthy, wise and spiritual person within everyone, but it is buried under so much muck of social and psychological conditioning that it is very difficult to call this core healthy person out to be realized in the world. We just don’t believe this person is there.

The only person we truly believe in as who we are is the neurotic personality of “me,” and there is nothing shy about this one. This one is quite bold and tenacious, even if, as in some cases, it employs the face of being anxious and weak. Among the great variety of people, the neurotic self or personality comes in an infinite variety of faces from the timid and depressed to the criminally narcissistic and everything in between. In every case, it is a gross distortion of human potential. The word “personality” comes from the ancient Greek “persona,” from the masks worn by actors in the classical Greek theater, and what it represents in us is just as false as those masks, and it holds on even when it professes to want to change, be sane, be spiritual or find enlightenment. It is who was conditioned into us by parents, culture and society, and we believe in it absolutely; even when we realize the problems it creates for us. To get beyond it “takes guts. It’s not easy. It takes real devotion to ourselves and to other people.”

While the psychotherapies of Rogers (the real self), Jung (the individuated self), Gestalt (the authentic self), and Maslow (the self-actualized self) theoretically do draw on a “true self” model, the methodology of these therapies really don’t seem to have the means to access, to make real, to bring forth this true, sane and natural “self” in a reliable manner. While the theories use language and make reference to a healthy individual within each person, they remain bound within the cult of ego that marks Western culture and psychology. When the problem is ego-centeredness, as Buddhism realizes, the problem cannot be effectively confronted by a psychology that does not see ego-centeredness as the problem.

The perspective and techniques of these psychotherapies typically fall short of the task they have set for themselves. The evocation of the “true self’ becomes particularly problematic when the psychotherapists are themselves not convincing examples of healthy ego-transcendence, and, truthfully, few are. We need to see for ourselves. We need to see examples of ego-transcendence, and this is specifically the path of the Buddhist teacher. We also need to experience our own capacity to stand as witness to the pull of egocentricity, and to realize that this witnessing awareness is completely free of neurosis and is who we are. This is our Buddha within, whose vision we find through wrestling with Buddhist koans and practicing meditation and mindfulness.

What these Western therapies are missing is a truly trans-egoic vision of human potential and the koan and meditation training that is necessary to illuminate and strengthen the capacity for trans-egoic experience. The problem with these psychologies is that they remain enmeshed within Western notions of the ego’s preeminence in the human psyche. Buddhism, and its several thousand years of Dharma (the Way of Awakening, or simply, Reality) is a psychology that truly can take us beneath, through and beyond ego identification to freedom from the ego-masks, into, as Buddhism calls it, our “true” or “Buddha” nature.

The teaching is startlingly direct and profound. As Zen koans might ask: “What in your experience is never masked?” Or, the traditional, “Show me your original face.” Allow direct, authentic, uncorrupted experience of the present moment, as if you were absolutely fresh in the world like an infant, only now, not as a helpless, dependent, unskilled infant, but rather as a fully independent and mature human possessing sophisticated and subtle physical and mental skills with which to engage the world, now realizing it is our conditioned habits of body and mind that comprise our mask, our neurosis.

“The contours of your neurosis are the same as the contours of your awareness.” – Fritz Perls

We experience the world through a limited and distorted lens of conditioned personality. The mask not only limits our vision of the environment of the moment, it also distorts what information is coming in (and certainly what is going out – the “actor’s” role). Buddhism teaches us to take the mask off, to both receive and transmit an undistorted reality, to expand the contours of awareness toward an equally ever-expanding realization of the full potential of Human Beingness, thereby dissolving our neurosis. Beneath the mask, we discover, is a Buddha, an awakened being, and with this realization, we increasingly become a person capable of functioning within the limited perspective of our social and cultural life circumstances from an increasingly expansive and enlightened perspective with our ultimate frame of reference as the unlimited Universe, now free of convention while in the midst of convention.

This awakening can begin when you sit like a Buddha – in your chair or on your cushion – AND – in the Universe – Creation unfolding all around you. “Buddha,” awareness uncontaminated by conditioning, can then slowly, gradually illustrate to you how you keep falling back into the neurotic and limited mask of an ego-self, and how in the purity of the moment-in-awareness you can expand the contours of awareness, growing your experience and expression, into fuller non-neurotic reality.

Realize in your sitting, with awareness tuned into your breathing, into your sitting, into whatever arises in your mind, into the gradual realization of a vast spaciousness beneath the cramped activity of your mind out of which the activity arises, realize that awareness is who you are. Meet your Buddha.

This realization is not, however, easy. The ego-self’s hold is incredibly tenacious. You may sit for years. You will, as a dedicated meditator, probably make significant gains in physical and mental health, in reducing stress, in gaining insight into your neurotic self, but still, you will not quite grasp what this is really leading to. Then (and for some who are truly ready, it may not take years), what Buddhists call “the mental hinge” will begin to turn, the “Gateless Gate” will open. You will see what, who, has been sitting there all along. The Buddha-within begins to emerge as another Buddha-in-the-world.

One day, you will be able to look at a statue or picture of a meditating Buddha and realize you are looking at a mirror of your true self. You will likewise, be able to look in a mirror and see a Buddha. You will look at everyone and see Buddhas hiding. Then, you might enjoy a slight compassionate laugh at how obvious it is. All there is to do is just stand up – in the Universe. All there is to do is shake off your cramped actor’s mask and costume, and go about your ordinary life. Only now, you find you are increasingly able to walk the world awake, far less neurotic, with a lighter step, an easier gate, and perhaps, with that same kind, compassionate, ironic smile for everyone you meet that is the mark of all Buddhas, having realized, “Already we are the Buddha.”

Everything As It Can Be

(reprinted in part, March 2012 as “Personal Peace”)
As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, you must ask yourself – “Who is it that is aware?” – Zen Koan

“Everything is as it can be” – Alan Watts

Change, as in going from one state to another, does not realistically happen in a person. Growth and evolution do. In fact, evolution can be so powerful that it can appear as dramatic change. Evolution begins with a compassionate understanding that you are exactly as you can be by the factors of your conditioning and that we can grow beyond our conditioning. When you understand this, you then have a handle on how to expand your life in a manner that creates real change.

Awareness is you, your true self, as Zen says, your original self. That’s the truth in the world of enlightenment. But here in the world of society, families and insecure interpersonal interactions, what Buddhism calls “Samsara”, the world of the illusion of confusing our conditioning for who we are, we act out our conditioning exactly and only as we can be from within that conditioning.

But, who you are is consciousness. You are not your thoughts or emotions or behaviors. That’s just the stuff conditioned into you that you believe is you, and that society reinforces by all of us judging and identifying each other by our programmed thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We can even get pretty defensive about our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, but guess what? They aren’t even ours. They are from our mother, our father, our society, media, personal experience, etc. They are what we have learned, and they represent a certain level of consciousness that is the only thing we can be from within the prison of our conditioning, but we are not our conditioning unless we continue in the belief that we are

So, you’ve got some addictive behaviors? Some interpersonal hang-ups and insecurities? Tendencies to be impulsive, compulsive, anxious, angry or depressed? If you would like to “change” some undesirable traits in the coming year, it’s important to realize, these traits are exactly and only what can be from within the prison of your conditioning, but break out of the conditioning prison, and true growth, evolution can begin to occur.

The pioneering psychologist Fritz Perls used to say, “The contours of your neurosis are exactly the same as the contours of your awareness.” You are exactly the same dimensions of thought, emotion and behavior as you are aware of the possibilities for thought, emotion and behavior that you are conditioned to. Expand your awareness for what is possible, and the limited neurotic addictions, hang-ups, insecurities, impulsive, compulsive, anxious, angry, depressed features of your false conditioned personality will begin to resolve themselves. You will begin to evolve.

Eckhart Tolle advises us “our suffering is in our resistance to what is.” The “what is” of life contains the entire spectrum of possibility from the sublimely beautiful to the unfathomably hideous, from the birth of a child, to The Holocaust, from the bloom of flowers in spring, to the wasteland of a nuclear explosion or catastrophic global climate change. Many rightfully ask whether it is not necessary to resist “what is” if it is patently destructive, anti-life and human dignity?

The answer is in the manner of resistance we bring. Tolle is not advising us to passivity. He is advising us to wise seeing of things for what they are, and not resisting the understanding that “everything is as it can be.” To oppose a wrong, we must first see the wrong as the natural outcome of the way things are. To change what is wrong and destructive, we must work with the “what is” of the conditions that created it. First, we must be willing to see it for what it is, to not be apathetic, not turn a blind eye. Having seen it, we must not shrink from it as if it cannot be, or that it is too frightening to us. Nor can we fight a wrong from the place of hatred. Hatred created it. In the end, from the place of hatred, we will replicate much of what we fought to displace. Action emanating from love, compassion and courage are the non-resistance that is the only true counterweight to evil, hatred and apathy.

“Everything is as it can be” is an amazing insight into the unfolding evolutionary dynamic of society. Human society is a collective consciousness that, exactly like an individual consciousness, is in a process of evolution, of moving from a narrow, self-absorbed, frightened and limited sense of self into more expansive, inclusive and resourceful awareness. In example: along the path of human history, absolutist monarchies, slavery, religious wars, sexism and racism have been accepted political consciousnesses. Humanity, individually and collectively has, or is in process of, evolving beyond such consciousnesses. The “what is” of humanity has evolved into a new “can be.”

Today, economic, political and national competition and conflicts are accepted political consciousnesses along with unfettered exploitation of the Earth’s resources. Such thinking, however, is beginning to be questioned and challenged by an increasing number of individuals who are evolving in their consciousness. These visionaries see the necessity for a social awareness that enfolds all peoples, all species, even the ecosystem of the planet itself as the necessary identity for humanity if we are to survive and prosper into the future. A growing mass of such evolving individuals is necessary to achieve an evolving, healthy human society that moves what “can be” to entirely new dimensions of “what is.”

It is a very difficult lesson to absorb that without the recognition of the “what is” of the limited consciousness that leads to destructive social patterns; there can be no evolving to what can be. The starkest example of this is that it took the insanity of The Holocaust for the majority of humanity to say, “never again” to genocidal racism. It took the shocking devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for a growing realization to take root that unlimited war can never be waged again. It will, sadly, probably take the shock of dramatic consequences to human-created climate change to force a new evolution of human consciousness in relationship to the planet and our place upon it.

The horror of “what is” is sometimes necessary to wake us up to what can be, to what must be, if we are to evolve successfully as a species. No, to realize that “suffering is caused by resistance to what is” is not a call to passivity. It is a call to come out of denial into consciousness. It seeks to awaken us to the need for action that moves us beyond the “is-ness” of a destructive unconsciousness. Paradoxically, this evolved consciousness can bring us personal peace while we engage the forces of history and social conflict.

Sometimes, force is needed to constrain violence, but only peace will bring peace. Ultimately, violence only perpetuates violence. Only identification with the totality of life on this planet will save humanity from the consequences of our identification with separateness, consumption and competition moving us toward Armageddon. Do not resist facing this “what is”. It got this way because it is how everything has been. We must evolve our vision as individuals and then as a species into a new “can be” if the next stage of human history is a consciousness capable of a peaceful, beautiful, sustaining future. To resist this will surely bring suffering.

Wake up! If you are what you can be and the circumstances of your life are what they can be, expand what can be. Evolve. Change is nearly impossible from within the limits of believing your conditioning to be who you are, but if you have the courage to let go of your defensive identity and live as curious, compassionate, resourceful, expanding, evolving awareness, the possibilities are nearly miraculous. All you’ve got to lose is your neurotic self. Then you will begin to see what can be.

The Wheel Of Karma

At its simplest, karma means the law of cause and effect, and it is wise to be mindful that what we do always has effects. As with everything in Buddhism, there are layers upon layers of meaning for karma, all the way up to the metaphysical, and implications for death and rebirth. But staying for the moment at the level of the most obvious, it is not hard to understand that if you bring anger, strife and violence of attitude or action into the world, or if you bring self-absorbed drama, you will be surrounded by strife and violence, or others’ rejection of your drama and this can never be a peaceful, friendly or secure way to live. The quality of your life will be one of strife and violence, or drama and rejection, full of stress and unhappiness.

As important as this is to realize, I would like to take the discussion of karma to a subtler level, the level of the evolution of consciousness. The cause and effect to be considered here is with the relationship between mind and behavior, and with mind-set affecting our experience and shaping the future. Not so difficult to understand. As we construct the world in our minds, so we act in the world, and as we act in the world, so we reinforce the ideas we have about the world. This can be a way of understanding what Buddhism refers to as “The Wheel of Karma.”

Returning to the violent or angry person, as they construct a violent, angry world in their minds, they look for more reasons to be angry, and they will find them. Their view of the world reinforced, they will behave accordingly, and in that behavior and people’s responses, they have more verification that the world is a violent, angry place, and so their anger and violence is justified, even required. So too, the self-absorbed person will live in an isolated world of their own creation, requiring, in their mind, more reason for self-pity and drama. This holds equally true for an anxious, fearful mind, that finds reason for fear in the world, and the depressed mind that finds reasons for despair and unhappiness.

Of course people will find circumstances in the world to justify their cognitive/emotional predisposition – the world contains everything, and if you are looking for only certain conditions, you will most certainly find them. Each of these states of mind is a cause that creates the effect of finding (and even creating) justifying circumstances in the world that then reinforces the attitude in the mind.

On a societal/cultural level, the very definition of culture is the holding of unquestioned concepts about the nature of persons in relationship to themselves, to each other, to other cultures, to Nature, even to the nature and limits of consciousness. These unquestioned sets of beliefs then lead to behaviors and perceptions that lead to more of the same beliefs, behaviors and perceptions. And so the wheel turns, but it is only spinning, stuck in the mud of our limited set of thoughts, perceptions and reactive behaviors.

The importance of meditation in the resolution of this conundrum cannot be overemphasized, and it can be very helpful to view meditation, first of all, as the act of stopping your usual mental wheel. As we are carried along, caught in the momentum of the turning wheel of karma, constructing a world in our minds as has been conditioned into us by life training and circumstances, we keep recreating in the circumstances of life the reasons to continue creating our mental world in the same limited patterns. The momentum of this circular feedback keeps our consciousness stuck at a very primitive level. So, first of all, we must learn to stop the spinning.

By sitting, we are stopping. Then, in our posture, we are settling into a dedication to balance, stillness, stability, dignity, neutrality and curiosity in these moments. By shifting awareness from being caught in our spinning mind into awareness of our breathing and subsequently looking at the arising and passing of streams of thought in the mind, we create some calmness, subtlety and spaciousness to our awareness. Then, as we notice the arising of our thoughts, as we feel the pull of the thoughts, but we stay in the simple noticing and are not caught and carried away by the thoughts, we create some space and perspective on the mental activity. We realize that this thought is inside me, but we have been living as if we were inside the thought. This is a powerfully liberating insight.

Then, we have the spaciousness to notice the qualities of the thought and, almost literally, its density. Is it angry? Is it fearful? Is it unhappy? We can notice that the more fear-based the thought, the denser it will be, the stronger its pull on us will be. Ego-driven thoughts of personal diminishment or compensatory inflation will be very dense and, amazingly, an experienced meditator can literally feel their density. We can experience the pull of the thought to carry us into its very small and limited perspective and options for behavior. Then, instead of our usual habit of being carried along by the energy of the thought, we return to the spacious awareness of our breathing and the balanced stillness of our sitting, and we can experience the moment opening back up and our tension dissolving, our options for response expanding. We have stopped the wheel.

We discover that we are not caught pursuing the impulses of our thoughts, but rather are calmly, subtly and spaciously present, perceiving situations as they arise with a sense of relaxed connectedness. We realize that we are capable of increasingly calm, subtle and truly intelligent creative responses to our life situations and to the corresponding thoughts that arise. With this practice, we begin to evolve, that is to expand, our consciousness of the possibilities for who we are and what life is about. We begin to realize that the true nature of our mind and who we are is in the spacious awareness in which the thoughts, perceptions and impulses to behavior arise, and that awareness is free of all limitation – like the sun, it shines on everything without bias.

From our meditation experience, we can begin to be more mindful in the world, replicating the inner experience of meditation in our outer actions and responses. We begin to resolve, to evolve, our Karma, moving from limited, fearful, reactive separateness to a more spacious, inclusive connection with life as it is with far more creativity and compassion.

“To resolve Karma, practice forgiveness, gratitude and personal responsibility.”
– Buddhist saying

We are able to bring the Buddhist teaching about Karma to life, to forgive others and ourselves for past harms, to increasingly experience gratitude for life’s beauty and lessons, and begin to be increasingly responsible (that is, non-harming) in our personal conduct. This grows us spiritually and psychologically. The wheel now turns steadily and surely – advancing us towards a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Importantly, as individuals take this responsibility for their lives, we must also wake up and look at the various collective levels of our human society and realize great Karmic debts have been accumulated in relationship to other human communities, and to Nature, that is, to other species and the planet that is our home and source. We can dedicate ourselves to resolving this Karma through the simple formula Buddhism offers us: practicing expanded present moment consciousness and applying forgiveness, gratitude and personal responsibility – then – and only then – will humanity, having gained in true self-knowledge, be able to individually and collectively evolve into a long, healthy and happy future, the wheel of Karma now moving us toward an enlightened destiny.

Sublime Wonder

As a freshman in college during the late 60’s, I was a young alienated intellectual, raised in a liberal Protestant tradition, but who had lost belief in God and religion. Wars, the Holocaust, materialism, hypocrisy, racism, religious factionalism, cruelty, the degradation of nature, churches preaching judgment and damnation, or functioning as little more than watered-down social clubs and places to ritualize holidays and major passages in life, all seemed to spell to me a world without a spiritual basis. That year, however, I attended a lecture by the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, and that night was a turning point in my life. A person in the mostly Christian audience wanted Heschel to comment on the meaning of sin in relationship to fulfilling religious commandments, and he answered, to my memory, approximately, thusly:

He spoke about how, of course there are the commandments and the laws, but that he could imagine situations in which he would have a difficult time calling some acts which violated commandments a sin, such as stealing to save your family from starvation. “No,” he said to the assemblage, to him, more important than the action was the intent and attitude behind an act. He said he believed that we begin to create the conditions for sin when we are in “denial” of what he referred to as “the sublime wonder of life,” when we experience life as made up of objects for our use and manipulation, rather than seeing everything and everyone as the sacred manifestation of God and Creation. He said that sadly, this denial had become the dominant paradigm of humanity and that we do this with nature, we do it in our dealings with people, and we even do it with the people we love. He said that when we reduce life and people to objects for our use and manipulation, we can justify doing terrible and, yes, sinful things, and that the root of sin was to be found in this “denial of the sublime wonder of life.”

Those words were like a spiritual thunderclap to me. “Denial of the sublime wonder of life.” This is the fall from Eden! With those words, Humanity’s place in the spiritual universe made sense to me. We have a choice. We can be in harmony with Creation, or egocentric and out of harmony. Much that was in the Bible that had made little sense to me or served only as moralistic platitudes began to fall into place. Heschel was implying that the experience of wonder, “sublime wonder,” is both the vehicle and the result of viewing our lives, all life, and the Universe as a harmonious and sacred whole, a Divine Creation. In such moments, spirituality is not a theoretical concept; nor a matter of faith, but rather, it is a direct experience that opens us into “radical amazement” (another of Heschel’s phrases), an expansive non-dualistic presence in life, as opposed to religious sanctimony that closes us off from connection, from transformative loving, compassionate Beingness.

Heschel was articulating the essence of the mystical spiritual perspective, and as I, then with wondering curiosity, explored other religious traditions, I discovered that they all began in mystical experience. They all originated in the experience of infinite wonder, while an individual becomes aware of standing within the Universe – an expression of the Universe – in love, ecstasy and deep compassion. I realized how with time and absorption into some social/political context, these mystical revelations then had been buried under religious dogma, commandments and ritual until the original transcendent experience that gave deep wonder and meaning to life became lost. Heschel gifted me with the realization that we live in a state of constant choice. We can live from the experience of wonder, or we can deny it. This is the fork in the road of spiritual experience.

When I took Heschel’s words and brought them out into the world, I found something wondrous. How obvious! When looking through eyes of wonder, I saw a luminous world of endless interconnectedness and interdependence, a wondrous dance unfolding moment to moment within the fabric of Life, and I had very little sense of my separate and anxious self at all. On the other hand, when looking at the world from my own ego, my psychological conditioning and personal interest, everything was just objects, just stuff. We even experience ourselves as an object in our minds measuring our adequacies and inadequacies in self-judgment, sometimes shame. Likewise, other people are objects – there to make our life good or bad, easy or hard. And of course, we are filled with the impulse to manipulate all this stuff to our advantage and there is an overwhelming preoccupation and insecurity with ourself.

I realized that when we are in this “object” consciousness, the world collapses down to me and my agenda, very small. And the stage is set for doing harm, for sinning, if you will. Our concern in life becomes – what are the rules and what and how much can I get for me? Now the “what?” and “how much?” varies from person to person, but there is always a manipulative quality to it. The centerpiece issue is “me.” However, from the perspective of sublime wonder, from the total openness of curious respect and undivided attention, everything becomes quite beautiful, meaningful and valuable. The experience of the moment expands; it is no longer “self” centered, but rather wondrously centered in the connection of my experience of self with the person or circumstance I focus upon in heightened awareness. I began to understand the meaning of the phrase, “looking into the face of God.” I knew what Jesus meant when He said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land, but people do not have the eyes to see it.” The eyes that can see are the eyes of Heschel’s “sublime wonder.” The centerpiece is Life – bigger than me. “Me” dissolves into Life, some would say, into God. Zen says, into the Universe unfolding, into the “vastness of existence.”

As I studied other cultures, I discovered there were peoples that had held to wonder as the centerpiece of their lives. I learned of Native American and other aboriginal peoples, and of mystical traditions within mainstream religions around the world. I learned that clearly there is, on the one hand, conventional religion, and then there is true spiritual experience where the active experience of sublime wonder, of the connectedness and sacredness of Life, comes alive. I learned that wonder is that moment when you realize that what seemed outside of you is not, that there is a wholeness and connectedness. I learned that what can be called God is present, always, everywhere, manifested in Life itself and human consciousness.

I learned that mysticism seems to be a middle way between traditional religion and aboriginal spirit living, a way that carries the direct wondrous experience of primitive nature-based peoples that can be applied within civilized cultures. Over time, my own expression gravitated to Zen, a mystical offshoot of Buddhism that teaches that wonder is to be found in the cultivation of full presence, if when listening, we really hear, if when doing a thing we fully experience it, and when with another person, we are wholeheartedly present. This, then, is the focused yet expansive awareness that Zen teaches, and I learned that this perspective is completely compatible with contemporary living. One doesn’t even have to be a Buddhist, and certainly not Oriental, nor follow Oriental rituals to live it (although practicing meditation and mindfulness and studying Buddhist philosophical and psychological teachings do greatly enhance it).

If the primary intent of religion is the cultivation of morality and compassion, as you walk the world with the eyes of sublime wonder, you will notice that you automatically begin becoming an increasingly caring and compassionate person. You naturally begin to do less harm in the world. In Buddhism, an important principle called “Interbeing” teaches the experience – deepened through meditation and mindfulness – that everything is interconnected, interdependent and impermanent, and it brings with it a natural resulting compassion, as understanding takes hold that these are the conditions, along with the problems of ego and conditioning, which you share with the entirety of humanity.

You begin to experience a sacred wonder, a “sublime wonder,” and a bond with all beings and aspects of the world, and begin walking with a little lighter footprint, doing less harm if you can. You might say you begin to sin less. When I let go of my culturally conditioned ego-centered attitude and opened to, rather than denied, the possibility of sublime wonder, it was as if I discovered what the concept/experience of God might really be. I wasn’t an alienated intellectual anymore. I found that the infinite and sacred were everywhere. This was the great gift Abraham Heschel gave to me, opening my nineteen-year-old eyes to the miracle of “sublime wonder.” Try it – as my gift to you. Perhaps it will be a turning point in your life – and – if enough people were to discover real spirituality through cultivating the perspective of living in “sublime wonder,” it might be a turning point for this whole “sinful” world.

Hsiang Yen’s Enlightenment

A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” To which Joshu replied, “Mu!”

In Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, the spiritual heir to ancient Taoism, and the precursor to Japanese Zen, the single syllable word, “Mu” represents enlightenment. It does not mean any exalted state of contact with heavenly visions of grandeur, or the extrapolation of complex metaphysical systems about astral dimensions or planes of reality. And, of course, it does.

In Buddhism and Taoism, spirituality is not sought in the realms of complex systems of philosophical/theological dogma. Quite the contrary, simplicity and the direct experience of union with Nature are the path to spiritual experience. Complex thought and systems of cosmology just get in the way. So – “Mu” means “no mind.” It means to be completely free of the delusional and egoistic contrivances of the mind that would have us believe that the spiritual experience is about attainment of heavenly visions or mastering astral planes. It means that enlightenment happens when we enter into a mind of absolute and direct clarity about the nature of the moment, beyond any intellectualization. And this is what leads us, without any pretentious ambitions, into realization of the permeating energy of a conscious Universe and the unified, multiple, simultaneous planes of existence.

This realization is represented in the classic Zen poem by the Chinese sage, Hsiang Yen (Kyogen in Japanese), who lived around 900 A.D.

The sound of something struck,

and I forgot everything I knew.

In the story associated with this poem, Hsiang Yen was a monk wrestling with the issue of enlightenment. He was a very intelligent and learned person, but all his knowledge and intellectual prowess could not bring him what he sought: the answer to the question of existence, to the nature of his true Self. One day, his teacher instructed him, “Don’t tell me what you have learned from your reading of the sutras (Buddhist texts), but give me an essential word about your Self before you came out of your mother’s womb, before you knew east from west.”

Hsiang Yen was at a loss. He desperately went back to researching through every esoteric text he could find, but to no avail. In despair he left the monastery and took up a hermit’s life at a long abandoned and dilapidated temple. One day, while cleaning the yard, lost in his thoughts, he tossed aside a broken clay tile and the sound of the tile striking and breaking against a bamboo tree was the moment of his enlightenment. He did not achieve enlightenment from some new bit of information, but rather, by breaking out of the maze of information that already filled his head.

The startling crack of the tile against the tree cut through all thought and intellectualization and brought him to sudden realization: the meaning of his life, his true Self, was completely contained in that moment in simple presence. While he was thinking about the meaning of life, he had been missing the experience of Life. The sound of the breaking tile woke him up, and there he stood, right in the middle of Life, with eyes opened for the first time.

In Taoist, Ch’an and Zen literature, this theme of sudden realization of true self, of pure existence beyond any learned knowledge is repeated frequently. Knowledge is, in fact, often represented as an impediment to enlightenment, because knowledge is always talking about, rather than living and experiencing Life. Knowledge also appeals to our egos, and the more complex and esoteric it is, the more our ego flatters us that we have uncovered something special, something that will make us special – and “enlightened.” In the Tao Te Ching, the original sourcebook of Taoism, made up of 81 short lessons or sections, and attributed to the sage, Lao Tzu, approximately 2600 years ago, it says in the third lesson:

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion in those who think that they know.

(Mitchell translation)

This is precisely what Hsiang Yen’s teacher did for him when he requested: “give me an essential word about your Self before you came out of your mother’s womb, before you knew east from west.” He boxed out Hsiang Yen’s intellect and left him to sink or swim in the current of the river of Life. He challenged Hsiang Yen to realize pure knowing, that which is our natural mind before it is shaped and contorted by society and ambitions of specialness, including for some, “enlightenment.”

No knowledge other than what could be called the pure knowledge that is attainable only by being wholly present, vibrantly alert, and without preconception in the midst of the mystery of Life can awaken or enlighten us. We are born with this capacity – what Zen calls “original mind” – and then we are “educated” out of it by society and its so-called knowledge, telling us “east from west.” This capacity, also known as, “Buddha-mind,” is the felt knowing that exists only in the purity of the moment directly lived. It cannot be intellectually explained.

To understand Zen poetry, then, we must grasp that it is not written to stimulate the intellect. It is written to share a moment of Life lived immediately, and in so doing, awaken our natural mind. Here. Now. – “Mu!” – To empty people’s minds and fill their core.

Spring has hundreds of flowers; autumn the clear moon.

Summer has cool winds; winter has snow.

If busyness doesn’t take your mind, you will know.

Mumon (app. 1200A.D.)

It’s Time For An Evolution

‘If reality is an interaction, an “Interbeing,” how can we penetrate its essence?… Through the activity of looking, reality gently reveals itself. In meditation, the subject and object of pure observation are inseparable.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Political consciousness is intensifying in this country, and progressives are stepping up to be seen, counted and demanding to be listened to. Consciousness is politics and politics is consciousness, for politics is the ongoing discussion of who gets included in the circle of identification and who gets left out, and this is about consciousness. And, as consciousness is the evolutionary trait of humanity, as evolution can be seen as the expanding, ever complexifying circle of identification that humans can hold in consciousness, this is about politics. Politics is the vehicle by which humanity evolves – that is, the circle of identification – of who counts, who is included – what perspective can be included that was previously excluded, expands. Yes, the evolutionary trait of humanity is consciousness – and it is time for an evolution through our politics.

To be a progressive is to be on the side of evolution. To be a progressive is to want the circle to expand, to know that the circle must expand, that if you are not on the side of evolution, you are on the side of devolution and that is death. On the other side, conservatives believe the circle of who counts must not expand, that it has already expanded too much. These have been the basic political battle lines throughout human history.

True progressives look at the world, meditate on the world, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, “reality gently reveals itself” as “an interaction, an Interbeing.” Progressives look at the world expansively and see artificial lines of separation causing immoral suffering and seek to dissolve those lines, to include as significant those who had been previously excluded. Conservatives look narrowly, mostly at themselves, meditate on themselves and their own identification group and misguided self-interest, and in fear of reality, erect walls of self-interest. Conservatives fight to keep the circle as small as possible, to keep the barrier between subject (me) and object (other) as high as possible. Progressives, on the other hand, work to expand the circle, to dissolve the barriers between “us” and “other” for they see these barriers to be illusions created by narrow perspectives such as exceptionalism, fear, greed and prejudice.

The good news for progressives is that they always win the war and conservatives always lose. History is the story of the progress of human consciousness. The hard news is that it takes time – sometimes lots of time – for progressive politics is a guerilla war waged against an entrenched conservative establishment where nearly every battle looks like a loss while the overall war inches toward victory. It must be remembered that progressives won the war on the issue of the privilege of monarchy and aristocracy – and so this country was born. Progressives won on slavery – and so this country found morality. Progressives won on women’s and racial civil rights – and so made this country inclusive. Progressives won on labor rights – and so gave this country a dynamic economy and middle class. And the struggles were long and costly, with many victims.

Progressives have worked and continue to work against the indignity and slavery of poverty, another issue of morality. Progressives now work to expand the circle to include the civil rights of all sexual and gender identifications. They work for the rights and preservation of the environment and the world’s other-than-human residents. And progressives currently have to fend off new conservative assaults on protections won in previous battles for middle class, the poor and labor rights, new assaults on environmental protection and corporate and financial regulation and fair taxation. It is discouraging, but these struggles too will be won by progressives.

Yes, progressives always win the wars. It’s just that nearly every battle along the way looks like a loss, and the issue always remains, how much damage will be done by conservatives, how many casualties will there be, and, particularly as regards the environment, can we afford the cost, can the cost be recovered from? How much pain and suffering will conservatives inflict before the unreality of their position is made clear?

The corporate interests that want to maintain an exploitive culture to preserve their own privilege and wealth have powerful weapons. They control our livelihoods, our health care, our retirements, our economy. They own and control powerful instruments of consciousness in the media. They seek to keep the citizens distracted with sensationalist entertainment and propaganda they mislabel as “news.” They set a standard of opulent luxury for themselves and hold any lesser standard in contempt, just as has any aristocratic class throughout history. The corporate interests seek to keep the citizenry addicted to this sensationalism and materialism, feeding insecurities by accentuating “us” and “them” consciousness. They want to convince that only through full participation in (and the continual expansion of) the consumer economy, and ceding of more and more control to the corporate and institutional powers, will security be had. They argue that the problem is immigrants, homosexuals, secularists, Muslims, environmentalists, welfare-ists, labor unions, federal regulationists, progressives, and most of all, socialists. They want to keep the problems identified as “them.” But it is not true. It is not reality. The problem is “us.” The problem is that the “we” is not yet big enough.

“Reality is an interaction, an Interbeing.” And we “must penetrate its essence.” “Through the activity of looking, reality gently reveals itself.” The credo of the progressive is “One world, one people, one future.” This is reality. By looking, we can see. By meditating, we can experience, “the subject and object of pure observation are inseparable.” There is no “us” and “other.” There is only “we.” And the “we” will not be big enough until all interests and participants of this “Spaceship Earth,” as Buckminster Fuller, the mid-20th Century eco-visionary, termed it, are included.

“We” are the immigrant and the established citizen and every human in every country seeking freedom and dignity. “We” are the environment. “We” are the welfare of everyone. “We” are the laborers and the bosses and the investors. “We” are the humans of all races and religions and genders and capacities and sexual orientations. “We” are those who need regulatory protections to prevent exploitation by those who care only about themselves and “we” are the entrepreneurs and inventors who need freedom to innovate. “We” even includes conservatives, religionists, financial manipulators, corporations and those who would misguidedly exploit “others” for their own advantage. “We” are the society – all the human society and the society of nature and the society of all beings on this planet – and all must be included in our circle of identification and compassion for there to be any quality future for any of us.

This is not revolution. Revolution only turns around the “us” and “them.” We need an evolution. “We” are the world, and it is time for an evolution. Join “us” at the barricades – to tear the barricades down.

Meeting The True Self

(An excerpt from a talk at the Black Mountain Unitarian Universalist Church – July 31, 2011)

Insight Meditation and Mindfulness practice introduces us to – as the Zen Master, Sekkei Harada once instructed us, the “one person we must meet: The True Self.”

Who is this true self? In 1951, the scientist/mystic Albert Einstein wrote:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘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 us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

This is the true transcendental vision – transcending the conventional egoic perspective of a world of competing, conflicting separate objects in which the purpose of life is to dominate – and in domination – destroy Beingness. This is the vision that can transcend and evolve humanity beyond the insufficient consciousness that has caused our problems as individuals and as the human collective.

Through meditation we can meet this True Self. In doing so, the first task is to learn to quiet the superficial dimension of mind that drowns all else out with its incessant talking and self-absorption. This is called Shamatha, Samadhi – Single pointedness of mind – Peaceful abiding.

You must learn to concentrate the mind on the peaceful, transcendent dimension of life happening through you – where the Universe happens as a living Being – through you. And the best vehicle for this is awareness of your breathing, the merging of the two fundamental dimensions of your existence – you as a living biological form and the true and elemental dimension of consciousness that is awareness.

You must realize that you are awareness – in a living biological form. Life in form and consciousness is happening through this mystery of a phenomenon that is a Human Being. Meditation properly directed awakens the realization that who you are is awareness – and this insight is of the absolute utmost importance.

No thought, no emotion, no sensation can be you – they all come and go – we have them – but are not – cannot – be them – we cannot be defined or captured by them – yet – we are conditioned by our society to invest them with our identity – MY thoughts, MY emotions, My perceptions. MY people, MY interests, I think, I feel. I think and care about what I am conditioned to think and care about. Everything else is “other.”

This is the prison that Einstein spoke of.

Buddhism teaches us to attend to that which does not come and go – What does not come and go? What in our experience has constancy? Awareness and Life – the same awareness that witnessed your first breath – when independent sustaining Life entered you – that same awareness sits here now – as Life. But we have become distracted from that which is essential. We are so caught up in our circumstances, our life situations – those thoughts and feelings that are our story about life – that we have lost connection with Life, its totality, the context of everything that comes and goes – with what is essential, with what is unshakeable, with what is the never wavering context for all that occurs.
With meditation, we can return to what is essential.

This is Samadhi meditation, and here are the instructions –

Sit straight – as you would sit to maximize alertness – but close your eyes – we are going to be looking within – As I like to say – “Sit like a Buddha” – as most of you have seen pictures or statues of this perfectly alert, relaxed, slightly smiling, serene figure.

In Buddhism, the statues and pictures are not meant as objects of worship, but rather inspiration, models of what a Human Being is capable of. Buddhism teaches that the Buddha – an awakened True Self lies asleep within us all. So Sit – so as to awaken this perfectly wise and compassionate self – your true self. Sit like a Buddha.

Now – Focus awareness into your breathing.
And with your breathing – relax into that alertness – be alert and relaxed.

With your exhalation, relax more deeply – shed unnecessary tension of body and mind.

With your inhalation, sharpen the clarity of alert awareness trained on the experience of breathing – just normal natural breathing.

When your mind wanders, return it to your breathing.

When your mind wanders it’s OK to note – oh, “thinking”– but rather than following the thought, getting caught in it, just return awareness to breathing.

(Try this now for ten minutes)

There – notice how you feel. Notice the peace of it. Notice the calm of it. Notice the deep sense of presence – really, peacefully, calmly, experience this presence. Feel the sanity of it. This is meeting your true self.

This is Samadhi training – single pointed focus – peaceful abiding. It is the first stage of Buddhist meditation. With its development, we can begin to open into the flowering of the development of the whole mind, into Vipassana – Insight meditation and mindful living – where we truly begin to meet our full true self – where we begin to meet where we and the universe are one. Where we begin “to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Space Consciousness

“All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being.” Tao Te Ching (5th Cent. B.C.)
“Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis

There are objects and there is the empty space around objects, that which separates the objects. This is the conventional way to sum up the physical universe.

Another perspective is that there is a great energy field that is the Universe, and within it, all connected, are patterns of energy of varying density giving the appearance of objects and space. Objects emerge out of the space. The space can be experienced as what connects the objects, spacious energy connecting denser energy, so there are no completely separate objects at all.

The Universe as connected energy is quite new to Western conceptualization, but it is what the Taoist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions (along with nature-based cultures like the Native American) have believed for millennia and is now what Western science is confirming through advanced physics. Everything is energy and it is all connected. What we experience as physical objects are actually energy patterns of a certain level of density that give the illusion of solidity (or liquidity, gaseousness, or energy waves like sound).

While this may be being taught in advanced physics, it remains a very foreign concept to people living their everyday lives (including, for the most part, scientists). Human perceptual capability using linear conceptual thought, and without the aid of electron microscopes, particle accelerators and advanced mathematical models, simply cannot conceive this connectedness; yet, it is the truth of existence.

As we consider this, what becomes clearly evident is that to operate in the world affecting everything from our individual lives to the world on a global scale without a true model of the Universe, has to be a recipe for disaster, and as evidenced by the dysfunctionality of our individual lives, human society and humanity’s relationship to the natural world, it certainly is. The lesson has to be that when we limit our experience to the realm of the senses and thought, we are missing the reality of existence; we are missing the true capacities of the human mind and our potential for harmonious lives.

A world of separate objects is a clumsy and devalued world. There is no genius in it. All there can be are awkward attempts to manipulate and control these separate objects. But as the modern jazz genius Miles Davis said, to make great music, you have to play not only what is there, you have to “play what’s not there.” Sound emerges from silence. The music is in the relationship of the sound and the silence; otherwise there is just noise. This principle can be applied to everything we do, which is why to Taoists and Buddhists, non-doing is the secret to skillful doing. It is what Taoists called the Fertile Void, the emptiness that gives birth to all things. The genius of any doing must come from skill in non-doing. This requires refining the realms of emotion and intuition as well as the senses and thought.

What is truly radical, and what ancient meditation cultures have known for thousands of years, is that the mind operates by the same rules as the physical universe. As the Universe is all interconnected energy at differing levels of density (and this is fairly readily understandable when it comes to physical matter) what is equally true is that thoughts are objects in the mind – also energy at differing levels of density – emerging from the more spacious, unformed energy of pure consciousness.

Ancient cultures were able to realize what modern science is just beginning to grasp because at the level of consciousness no advanced mathematics or scientific instrumentation is needed. Human awareness is capable of experiencing this cosmological truth unaided when focused skillfully on the Universe within, but just as a scientist must skillfully focus a telescope or microscope to the Universe without or all that is perceived is a blur, so too, we must learn to skillfully focus inwardly-directed awareness. This focusing is meditation, and through meditation, the ancients came to understand the quantum physics of the manifested universe as a reflection of the quantum physics of the unmanifested universe of the mind.

The Universe is energy. Some of the energy appears as objects. The rest of the energy is space. Objects exist within and because of space. Space exists because of objects. They are in relationship to each other. The quality and aesthetics of life, whether it is the external world of objects or the internal world of mind, is found in that relationship. We must intuit the unformed mystery out of which the forms emerge, and we must likewise experience the resonances (emotions) these forms create in their interactions.

Musical genius, as is found in a Miles Davis or a Beethoven, is in knowing how to play not only what’s there, the notes, time signature, etc. (any relatively skilled musician can do that), but in playing what’s not there: to play brilliantly the space the notes emerge from and their interactive resonances. Beethoven, after all, fell deaf half way through his career, yet the genius of his music increased. He got better at playing the space of the music in his mind. He mastered the meditation of music.

What Beethoven and Miles Davis didn’t realize was that their great talent in music could be applied to every aspect of their lives. Without this realization, while they were geniuses in the musical realm, they were deeply flawed, clumsy, even self-destructive and emotionally dangerous in their everyday lives. Many artists, of all media, musical, visual and language, suffer in this manner, and certainly, those of us without even the meditation of an art-form, so live our lives, clumsy in our manipulations of a world we only experience as made up of separate objects, with the frightened separate object of ourself at the center.

Eckhart Tolle refers to awareness of the space out of which the objects in the physical and mental world arise as “space consciousness.” At the heart of Zen is this realization, and with it, the mastery of the relationship of objects with space in every aspect of life. Many teachings and koans instruct the entry point for Zen to be found in refining consciousness into a subtle spaciousness capable of holding more and more elements of what’s there and not there in the field of perception. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Listen, listen. This is the sound of my true self.” “Do you hear that distant mountain stream? Enter Zen from there.”

Gestalt psychology expresses this concept well when it talks about the “figure-ground relationship” of perception. Out of the “ground” (the equivalent of objects and space) of the totality of what is possible, the human mind creates a limited “figure” or object. The quality of the “gestalt” of the figure is determined by how much of the ground is still experienced in relationship to the figure. Are you playing all of what is there, and, are you also playing what’s not (but is) there? This is Zen. It is also a very good guide to sanity and effective living.

The practice of mindfulness is to live in as high quality of gestalt and space consciousness as one is capable. Zen is not found in chopping wood and carrying water with intensely focused (or certainly as is often the case, haphazard) attention on the action. Zen is found in chopping wood and carrying water, or walking down a path, or gazing at a tree, or speaking with a person, with simultaneous focused attention on the action and with consciousness of the space from which the action arises as well as the energy that connects us with the action and the object. All with easy non-self-conscious, spacious energy.

Zen is practiced in meditation not only with concentration on the breath, the mantra, or the arising of thoughts and emotions (what Buddhism refers to as mental objects) – as important as this may be – it is also in holding in awareness the energetic space in which breath, mantra, thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions and wordless insights arise. It is in experiencing how we create the figures in our minds out of the ground of potentiality, and allowing the quality of the gestalt to grow and grow. It is in hearing the music of the Universe in all that is there and is not there. It is more than just awareness of your breathing, but awareness also of the space between and around the breaths. Grow your awareness to realize that beneath all sound is the silence out of which the sound emerges, and beneath all action is the stillness out of which the action arises. Sound and silence, action and stillness, form and space. As the old Zen master would say – “Enter Zen from there.”

Awakening

“When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.” – Shunryu Suzuki

People ask me if I’m a Buddhist. My writing and my teaching contain a lot of references to Buddhist masters, philosophy and meditation, so people expect me to be a Buddhist. I always answer that I am not a religious Buddhist, but I believe Buddhist philosophy and psychology are the best insight into the human condition and the best path to psychological and spiritual health ever conceived. Actually, from my take on Buddhism, it doesn’t seem particularly Buddhist to attach ourselves to any religion – even Buddhism. Buddhism is about waking up to a natural sanity and spirituality inherent in every person. That is all. So, I’m not interested in being a Buddhist. I am interested in what Buddhism says about me being me – at one with my surroundings. “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.” I’d just as soon leave it at that.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, a young prince from the kingdom of Sakya in India, named Siddhartha Gautama, set out to understand and overcome human suffering. After leaving his sheltered and luxurious life, he spent time as an ascetic, totally rejecting any association or identification with society and convention, totally rejecting even the most meager of human comforts. But he did not find what he was looking for. He could not find the answers he sought in either his princely life of unlimited comfort, nor in the ascetic path of rejecting comfort. So, in unwavering determination, he sat to meditate on the nature of human existence. He focused his mind with illuminating single-pointedness and experienced an awakening, and his quest was answered. Siddhartha became known as “Buddha”, meaning “awakened one”. So to understand Buddhism, you have to know that it means the study and practice of waking up.

This awakening teaches that happiness and suffering are mental states to be mastered, that a “middle way,” of life, neither materialistic nor ascetic is best for this practice, and the core teaching is traditionally passed on to us as the “Four Noble Truths.” It says that to be human is to experience a unique kind of suffering caused by being attached to, identified with and grasping after the aspect of the human mind that is built around a storyline of “me,” past, present and future, that wants to control life, wants life to be the way we want and emotionally need it to be. We suffer because we want everlasting life with everlasting satisfaction, but, of course, it isn’t to be had. Life keeps being unsatisfactory. We can never completely get what we want. We can never be completely free of what we don’t want. We experience loss, hurt, anxiety, anger, frustration and failure. We get sick, we get old, and eventually, we die. So, we suffer.

The teaching goes on to say there is a way out of this suffering through learning to understand this grasping nature of the mind and by releasing our identification with it, to discover a deeper, completely wise and compassionate dimension of mind. Put more psychologically, Siddhartha uncovered the human ego, and the mesmerizing hold it has on humans as the source of suffering. In his intense meditation, he saw the truth of who he was, the nature of the human condition, and how humans become out of harmony with life. He then prescribed how to restore the harmony.

He saw that, in truth, he was, we all are, awareness – that it wasn’t just Siddhartha, with all his ideas about how things ought to be, that sat meditating. He saw that it was awareness that sat – with the body and mind of Siddhartha – but was beyond any identification. Awareness was witness to all the ideas, thoughts and emotions that flowed through his mind, but these contents of the mind couldn’t be the limit of who he was because they all came and went, and so could only be a very superficial dimension of self. He realized that he must be, we all must be, at our essence, awareness – that which does not come and go. He realized, beneath the noise of mind, an immensity of quiet and stillness, and that this dimension and the Universe are one, far beyond reactivity, complaint and suffering. He realized that things are what they are, and that when he was truly who he was, he and the circumstances – whatever they were – were one, and there is no suffering in this.

To “awaken” means we realize we live in two dimensions, both an egoic personal dimension, inside our historical story, where events and circumstances need to be dealt with, and also, we exist in the ultimate or spiritual dimension where everything is just what it is – what, in fact, it has to be – because all the conditions of existence have led to it. “When you are you (both dimensions of you), you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.” You are both active in the personal dimension – seeking to shape events and circumstances as you see are needed – and you accept that, in a macroscopic perspective, all circumstances are perfect just as they are, even the difficult and tragic ones. You wake up into the truth of the paradoxical circumstance of Human Beingness.

You “become one with your surroundings” and you are not only the personal you, you are also the ultimate you, an aspect of the Universe unfolding. You can do what needs doing; live a relatively normal social life, even fight injustice – while being largely immune to insults to your person and unwarranted attacks on your point of view. Failure is a nonsensical concept. There is only what you do and how it turns out. You can shape your life towards meaning, comfort and happiness while dealing with the problems of your life without being caught up in believing that if things do not turn out the way you want them to that it will be a catastrophe. Both the personal and ultimate worlds are present for you, and the ultimate begins shaping the personal towards ever deepening enlightened compassionate living.

So, as the Buddha said that to be human is to experience suffering, and this suffering is caused by what we attach ourselves to, does this mean to attach ourselves to nothing? No. Remember, the teaching is that to be human is to experience this suffering, and we are, and the Buddha was, quite human. (There is a statue of the Buddha weeping that I am particularly fond of.) No, I believe the teaching is reminding us that the quality of our humanity is in the choices for attachment that we make.

If you dedicate your attachment to love, simplicity, wisdom, compassion, justice and peace, these will be the meaning of life for you. Injury to, and assaults on, these valued states-of-being are worthy of your tears, even your anger, and certainly your action – but still, you do not have to suffer – if suffering means you feel diminished and defeated, thrust into reactive negative emotion. There is no fear of feeling and expressing sadness or measured and appropriate anger, or of confronting destructive behavior in others. On the other hand, if you allow your attachment to be in getting your way, indulging your ego, to exceptionalism for yourself and those you identify with, in vanity and materialism, you will inevitably cause and experience much suffering and reactive negative emotion, and it will detract from your humanity and the totality of humanity in the world.

This capacity for enlightened living does not, however, come about by intellectual understanding alone. To awaken requires that, just as Siddhartha, we strengthen and focus our skill for illuminating awareness, that we penetrate the hypnotic hold that our egoic mind and its extension, human society and culture, have on us and become free of it. We must wake up! There is the world as you experience it, and the world as it is. Do you know the difference? Do you know how they are connected and where there is disconnect? Can you bring about their harmony? Meditation will help you discover the clarity of awareness that sees and knows. “When you are you… you become one with your surroundings.” This is Zen. AND – the end of unnecessary suffering.

Sermon @ Black Mountain UU Church Awakening – Discovering Our Natural Sanity & Spirituality

Opening words – Dainin Katagiri – Zen Master

“Real Knowing comes when we stand in the appropriate place. But usually we don’t. First we want to understand something according to individual knowledge, prejudice, customs and habits. This means we are standing up in our individual place, not the Universal perspective. This egoistic behavior makes it very difficult to see the overall picture. But Buddhas recommend that we first stand up in the appropriate place. Just stand up and be present in the Universe itself.”

*

I want to speak this morning to the important contribution Buddhist meditation has for Unitarian Universalists.

I am usually associated with Buddhism since so much of my writing and teaching draws from the Buddhist tradition – but I always emphasize that I am not a “Buddhist” in any conventional sense. If I were to call myself anything, I suppose I prefer to call myself – a “Universalist” – not as in membership in the old Universalist Church – but as one who stands in reverence to the whole of the Universe, seeking to be in harmony with the Universe

– like Dainin Katagiri suggests – as one who seeks to live life standing up and being “present in the Universe itself,” who works daily to penetrate the “egoistic” perspective so that I can see – and assist others in seeing – the overall picture – and achieve “real knowing,” deeper than “individual knowledge, prejudice, customs and habits.”

To accomplish this is greatly assisted by a dedicated meditation practice – and this is what I’m here to encourage for you as well.

Despite not being a “Buddhist,” I am drawn to Buddhist teaching because it emphasizes being in harmony with the Universe. I am also drawn to Buddhism as a psychology and philosophy of life. I find in it a perspective that is essential to the problems and challenges of humanity in the 21st Century

– but I choose not to adhere to Buddhism in a religious sense, or to be caught in the Asian cultural expressions of it so prevalent in America. Asia gave us Buddhism. Thank you Asia. But Buddhism does not belong to Asia, and Asian culture is not Buddhism.

I see in Buddhism an extremely important perspective from which to find a new way, shaping a new consciousness, an evolved consciousness for humanity on the planet Earth in the 21st century. And I am here today to share with you from the Buddhist tradition of meditation – the practice that opens us beyond just intellectual understanding of this consciousness into the consciousness itself.

Those of you who have heard me before at UU services know I like to point out how the literal meaning of the words “Unitarian Universalist” might also be a good way to describe Buddhism. Buddhism – which literally means – is translated as: “Awakening” into life from the perspective of the Universe. – Into our natural sanity and spirituality. No dogma. No externalized God to pray to. Only a search within our own human consciousness for our own perfect expression of Human Beingness.

Both UU and Buddhism are expressions of awakening beyond the usual and parochial consciousness of conventional society and religion into the BIG perspective – the consciousness of Unity and the Universe – and this is the consciousness that I teach as essential for humanity to enter into a new evolutionary phase, a progression that is essential if humanity and the fellow creature-beings we share this planet with are to have a quality long future.

Let me begin –

– Allow me to share one of my favorite quotes – as I often do – from the 20th century Zen physicist, Albert Einstein – “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems.” – Let that be a koanic puzzle and challenge for you the rest of your lives.

We have serious problems here in American society and here on planet Earth – just watch the TV news programs and cable talk shows – they’ll cause you to weep – they both communicate and represent the problems – and we need a new consciousness to find solutions to these problems. For me, that’s where Buddhism comes in, and that’s where Unitarian Universalism comes in.

As for Buddhism – Out of the long ago past, when civilizations were just beginning, when the consciousness that has led to today was first taking sway of human cultures and societies, I see Buddhism as offering a warning of the suffering that comes with this civilized consciousness that is centered in the inventive, materialistic, egoic dimension of the human mind – of consciousness dominated by thoughts of separateness, judgment and differences – a consciousness driven to achieve personal and identity-group significance and power – and with the thoughts that permeate this consciousness came rationality consuming emotions – anxiety, anger and despair.

This is not a consciousness of unity or Universalism. It was the consciousness of tribalism, racism, nationalism, sectarianism, sexism, paternalism, sexual orientation bigotry, anthropocentricism and individualistic self-centeredness.

Along with much that is undeniably good in advancing the material security and personal freedom of many, this consciousness has also led to thousands of years of war, prejudice, exploitation, criminality and cruelty. It has led to materialism and the valuing of wealth and power above all else, and with it came great exploitation and much corrupting of basic human goodness.

I truly honor the rational liberal-humanistic tradition of Unitarian Universalism that stands to counter the prejudicial, violent and destructive effects of this egoic consciousness. Through rationalism based in the premise of humanism, Unitarian Universalists have come to value a vision of connectedness, interdependence and compassion.

The Transcendentalists of the 19th Century – Emerson and Thoreau – strong influences on many modern Unitarian Universalists – also believed in an intuitive nature as the source of true knowing. They were great admirers of East Indian philosophy and were students of the Bhagavad-Gita. They practiced contemplation and reverie in Nature for the sake of acquiring the premises that logic could then be applied to in the discovery of deep humanism.

And what I want to share today – in a meditation service – is that I see that the UU consciousness – As with the consciousness of Western liberal Humanism generally – can benefit greatly by deepening this tradition of melding intellect with meditative intuition. Head, heart, gut. All working together.

– This is where I find great value in meditation and Eastern philosophy.

I am speaking now in a language that presents a model of the mind that delineates thinking, feeling (emotion), sensation and intuition as the four basic functions of mind, and comes from – as many of you probably know – The psychologist Carl Jung, who in turn, had been strongly influenced by his studies in East Indian psychology.

And those of you who have heard me before, know that I emphasize that Jung believed that to be truly psychologically healthy, a person had to possess equal facility and access to all four functions, along with the two directions of mental energy – introversion and extraversion –

— Well, with this, Jung brought a mystical and spiritual dimension into the definition of mental health that modern psychology would do well to pay more attention to. So too – this model has great value for those who seek to understand and live the full dimensionality of humanism – and for that matter – true spirituality.

Coming back to what I said at the beginning about finding much value in Buddhist philosophy, psychology and practice I want to point out that Buddhism brings particular emphasis to the “practice” of developing what is referred to as the “whole mind” – – including that which is most neglected in Western culture – the intuitive – that which Emerson and Thoreau wrote of – a natural spiritual dimension that is in union with Nature and the Universe – the intuitive dimension that Buddhism has been exploring for thousands of years as an essential element of enlightenment – and that exists within every human. But – you must know how to access and develop it. This is where the Practice element comes in. Meditation and Mindfulness practice.

Buddhist meditation also sensitizes us to our physical connection with the natural world. Here – we begin to deepen our sense of connectedness, becoming ever more subtlety attuned not only to our physical senses, but also to the sense of energetic connections within our own bodies and with the world around us. And with this, a natural quieting of the egoic torrent of thoughts occurs, and meditation opens us into the deeply quiet dimension of mind where intuition speaks to us – a realm of profound presence in the phenomenal world – where “whispered words of wisdom” can be heard. –

– Where we open into our intuitive connection of pure consciousness that is the realm of spirituality – where the consciousness of individuals can enter into direct connection with the consciousness of other individuals, with the human collective, with the sentient being collective – and – even the consciousness of the unformed Universe itself – that which many call – God. What I like to call – as does Eckhart Tolle – the dimension of Being that we share with all Beings.

Here – unity and universalism are not just abstract concepts – but living experienced reality.

This is the realm of the mystic – and I suggest – it is with the integration of the intellectual, the emotional, the highly developed sensate and the intuitive that humanity can power a logic that leads to the fulfillment of what the French scientist mystic Teilhard de Chardin called the “ultra-human” –
– the fulfillment of humanity’s evolutionary destiny in expanded unity of consciousness. This is the consciousness that can solve the problems created by several thousand years of egocentric consciousness.

The psychology and the practices that Buddhism brings to accomplish this fulfilling of human potential, of true Human Beingness, is a particular kind of meditation called Vipassana or “Insight,” sometimes, Wisdom – which includes the in-the-world active practice of mindfulness. And I see these practices as essential for Westerners if we are to reclaim our natural sanity – and achieve balance within humanity and with the non-human world.

I am pleased to be here today not as a Buddhist – but as a Human Being who believes in the concept of Unitarian Universalism as essential – to share with you from Buddhist philosophy and practice
– where the intellect plays a very important part – but it is balanced and integrated with the emotional, the mystical, the intuitive, and the heightened sensate mental functions to bring forth the consciousness of the whole mind. –

– The mind that transcends the egoic while placing the egoic mind in its proper role. This is what must be humanity’s evolutionary task – the evolving of a new consciousness capable of solving the problems created by the old ego-dominant consciousness. –

– And – If I may borrow from deep ecologist Thomas Berry – to take us from ego-centric consciousness to eco-centric consciousness – consciousness centered in the interconnected, interdependent ecology of the Universe – the fulfillment of a consciousness that not only thinks about, but fully experiences the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life – If you will – of a true “Unitarian Universalism.”

I find that Buddhist Meditation – or put more specifically, Insight Meditation and Mindfulness practice – is a particularly effective vehicle of this integration, refined over thousands of years.

This is why I am so pleased to bring to the UU community the theory and practice of Buddhist meditation – so let’s call it “Universalist” meditation – for it is essentially opening us into the possibility of the actual experience – the actual consciousness of Unitarian Universalism – of standing in the Universe – experiencing the interconnectedness and interdependence of all the various forms that are within the one web of Life that is the Universe – with compassionate identification that erases all false barriers and inequalities – Not abstractly in thought alone – but with the whole mind – including the emotional, the sensate and the intuitive, to create what Buddhism refers to as “The mental seal” – in which there is no capacity for denial or prevarication because the connectedness to all of humanity and to life and Nature in its myriad forms is as real as the connectedness we have to our own hands and feet.

This is what Buddhist meditation is about –

First, of course, however, we must learn to quiet and master our minds, to penetrate the false matrix of egocentric separateness held together by a compulsive structure of thoughts about separateness. – This is what is called Samadhi in Sanskrit, or Shamatha, in Tibetan – Peaceful Abiding.

This first level of meditation training is a major achievement for those of us who have been taught to find our identity in our thoughts and emotions – all too often very unruly and disturbing realms of the mind – precisely because they are about our separateness and the sense of our personal insufficiency in the face of a vast sea of competing individuals and forces. We don’t dare stop thinking, scheming, preparing, anticipating – or else we fear we will fall behind, we will fail. And this fear drives us.

In a side note – it was because of this egocentric separateness consciousness obsession and the deep conditioning around its preservation in Western societies that Carl Jung, in fact, believed that Europeans and Americans were incapable of meditation – and so devised his therapy to fulfill meditation’s function.

But I know this is not accurate – while true meditation is a real challenge, we are capable of it, and it is imperative that we master it in developing the required consciousness to address the problems of the modern age and the future.

Now – with the calming of mind, the mastering of the unruliness of mind – with learning unimagined dimensions of calm and concentration that begin to restore our original sanity – we can begin the journey into true insight, focused intuition – the psychological and spiritual dimensions of awakening that frees us from the delusional dream of egocentricity – to where you begin to see things as they really are, the Universe in its seamless connectedness and balance -rather than as we are culturally, socially and psychologically conditioned to experience them – in the small picture of egoic perspective –

Insight Meditation and Mindfulness practice introduces us to – as Zen Master, Sekkei Harada instructs us, the “one person we must meet.. The True Self.” Who is this true self – Well let me take leave of Buddhist explanations to return to Einstein. Who said in 1951:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘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 us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

This is the true transcendental vision – transcending the conventional egoic perspective of a world of competing, conflicting separate objects in which the purpose of life is to dominate – and in domination – destroy Beingness. It can transcend and evolve humanity beyond the insufficient consciousness that has caused our problems.
*

Now – to meditation – where we can meet The True Self – first – to quiet the superficial dimension of mind that drowns all else out with its incessant talking and self-absorption –

Let us begin with Shamatha, Samadhi – Single pointedness of mind – Peaceful abiding –

You must learn to concentrate the mind on the peaceful, transcendent dimension of life happening through you – where the Universe happens as a living Being – through you –
– And the best vehicle for this is awareness of your breathing – merging the two fundamental dimensions of your existence – you as a living biological form and the true and elemental dimension of consciousness that is awareness

– To realize that you are awareness – in a living biological form. Life in form and consciousness is happening – through this mystery of a phenomenon that is a Human Being. Meditation properly directed awakens the realization that who you are is awareness – and this insight is of the absolute utmost importance.

No thought, no emotion, no sensation can be you – they all come and go – we have them – but are not – cannot – be them – we cannot be defined or captured by them – yet – we are conditioned by our society to invest them with our identity – MY thoughts, MY emotions, My perceptions. MY people, MY interests, I think, I feel. I think and care about what I am conditioned to think and care about. Everything else is “other.”

This is the prison that Einstein spoke of.

Buddhism teaches us to attend to that which does not come and go – What does not come and go? What in our experience has constancy? Awareness – the same awareness that witnessed your first breath – when independent sustaining Life entered you – that same awareness sits here now – but we have become distracted from that which is essential – we are so caught up in our circumstances, our life situations – those thoughts and feelings that are our story about life – that we have lost connection with Life, its totality, the context of everything that comes and goes – with what is essential, with what is unshakeable, with what is the never wavering context for all that occurs.
With meditation, we can return to what is essential -–

This is Samadhi meditation – Here are the instructions –

Sit straight – as you would sit to maximize alertness – but close your eyes – we are going to be looking within – As I like to say – “Sit like a Buddha” – as most of you have seen pictures or statues of this perfectly alert, relaxed, slightly smiling, serene figure.

In Buddhism, the statues and pictures are not meant as objects of worship, but rather inspiration, models of what a Human Being is capable of. Buddhism teaches that the Buddha – an awakened True Self lies asleep within us all. So Sit – so as to awaken this perfectly wise and compassionate self – your true self. Sit like a Buddha.

Now – Focus awareness into your breathing.
And with your breathing – relax into that alertness – alert and relaxed.

With your exhalation, relax more deeply – shed unnecessary tension of body and mind.

With your inhalation, sharpen the clarity of alert awareness trained on the experience of breathing – just normal natural breathing.

When your mind wanders, return it to your breathing.

If you need – To give your habitually talking mind something to do while you strengthen awareness, as you breathe, you might try saying quietly in your mind, “one breath” and with the next breath, “two breaths” and so on up to ten breaths – while you experience your physical breathing with your senses – harmonizing the egoic dimension of thinking with the trans-egoic dimension of pure, subtle in-the-moment sensory awareness.

After the count of ten – simply and quietly just follow your breathing, returning awareness to your breathing should your mind wander into thinking. If you need, do another set of ten, then work with just staying with your breathing.

When your mind wanders it’s OK to note – oh, “thinking”– but rather than following the thought, getting caught in it, just return to breathing.

(meditate for ten minutes) *

There – notice how you feel. Notice the peace of it. Notice the calm of it. Notice the deep sense of presence – really, peacefully, calmly, experience this presence. Feel the sanity of it.

This is Samadhi training – single pointed focus – peaceful abiding. It is the first stage of Buddhist meditation. With its development, we can begin to open into the flowering of the development of the whole mind – Vipassana – Insight meditation and mindful living – where we truly begin to develop the full mind – to meet our full true self – where we begin to meet where we and the universe are one. Where we begin “to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

I see in this the fulfillment of Unitarian Universalism – and our evolutionary potential as full Human Beings. Where “whispered words of wisdom” – the voice of transcendent consciousness walks with us in our daily lives, teaching us to “Let it Be.” Where we let our natural wisdom guide our intellect and – as Beings bringing our whole minds to guide us in our human endeavors – In the continuing journey of discovering our natural sanity and spirituality.

For now – just sit here – experience the remainder of the service –continuing to experience your breathing, profoundly in your bodies, a deep presence marked by inner quiet and an easy spaciousness. Feel this.
You are meeting your true self.
*

Closing words – Sekkei Harada – Zen master

“In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet… who is this person? It is the True Self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are. This is the objective of Life.”

For our personal sanity. For deepening our spiritual connection with the Universe. For deepening our ecological understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of this world we live in – so that we can evolve individually and collectively – It is my firm belief that only through meditation can we Americans learn to get beyond our “usual place” to learn to stand in the “appropriate place” to awaken out of the trance of our egoic perspective and clarify the way things are. “To be present in the Universe itself.” – To meet the one person we must meet – to fulfill the objective of Life.

Again – Thank you for the honor of inviting me to share with you.

Blessings to all – May your true self guide you in wisdom & compassion.

Shikantaza

Shikan-taza (Japanese). “Shikan” is translated as wholeheartedness. Shikan is exactly becoming one with the process (of Life) itself. Literally “Za” of “taza” means to hit; so, from moment to moment, we have to hit the bull’s-eye… this is exactly life and death.
– Dainin Katagiri, Zen Master

Shikan-taza is, in a way, the heart of Zen. As such, like Zen, it is quite difficult to give definintion to, for it is the complete transcedence of dualistic experience, and to explain or give definition is inherently dualistic. “I” sit here attempting to explain or define “this thing” to “you” over there. The very awkwardness gives light to the difficulty and awkwardness of the human condition.

AND then — there is non-dualistic communicating-with. Just so. The difference is that in the dualistic paradigm, there is interjection of an ego-self, a sense of self that is separate from other and identifies itself as the center of the moment. “Self”-consciousness dominates the experience. “Self”-consciousness is not “just so.” “Just so” is shikan-taza, non-dualistic. The moment stands whole as the center of the experience, with “I” and “you” connected in the moment. There is certainly consciousness of “I” and “you,” but it is qualitatively different. “I” and “you” are integrated in the flow of the moment. The moment speaks to and through us, all connected.

Non-dualism contains dualism and transcends it. “Hitting the bull’s-eye” happens when you and the bull’s-eye are one. Like hitting a baseball or putting a basketball in the basket. There is no thinking. It takes someone with no thought of self to hit the ball or swish the basket. Think of yourself hitting the baseball and it won’t happen. Zen calls this being nobody. Shikan-taza. Just so. But can you live this way? To live this way is Zen.

Classic Japanese poetry embodies this:
The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark —
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism.
– Ryokan, (1758-1831)

Shikan-taza literally means, “nothing but (shikan) sitting (taza).” “Sitting,” in Zen, however, does not limit itself to literal sitting. It is, as Master Katagiri tells us, hitting the bull’s-eye of life and death. Just so. It is – as Ryoken points to in his poem – the moment, all it’s elements, including the observer, united in sublime, wondrous, powerful beauty. It is, to use another awkward English construction, “sitting in the as-it-isness” of life. Zazen (meditational sitting) is the particular kind of sitting to practice dissolving ego-centered awareness in an optimal manner, but here, in Shikan-taza, we are “sitting” in Life.

“When sitting, just sit,” advises Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki. “Above all,” he continues, “Do not wobble.” Can you sit without consciousness that you are sitting? Can you just be sitting? No wobbling, no distractedness, restlessness or boredom. Can you “sit” in the moment perfectly as-it-is. This is Shikan-taza. As Master Katagiri often instructed, can you sit not in “your usual place, but in the Universe?” Just so. This is Shikan-taza.

When you sit in the Universe, there are no preferences. The Universe does not divide itself up into this is the good stuff and this is the bad stuff. The Universe is everything. Just so. Beautiful flowers are the Universe. Black muck is the Universe. Sunny days are the Universe. Hurricanes are the Universe. Vigor and strength are the Universe. Sickness is the Universe. Life is the Universe. Death is the Universe. Just so. Shikan-taza.

So, what is the use of this? Don’t we need to know the good stuff from the bad stuff? Isn’t it necessary, as we live our human lives in human society to clearly have a sense of “I” and of “you?”

Well, Yes – and no. And it is the “yes – and no” that is the liberating magic of Zen. We live our lives, we manage our relationships (and in Zen, we realize that all there is is relationship) and we always have the capacity to step beyond our usual place and experience the sacred in relationship, in the Universe. The world of objects, including people and ourselves is also subject. This makes it all sacred. Miracles are everywhere. Just so. Out of this grows compassion for sharing in the catastrophe of the human condition, the yes and no, and compassion is always available to us. Just so. We see.

Yes, conventionally, there is better stuff and worse stuff. We are free to celebrate the better stuff and avoid the worse stuff. We, as persons, day to day, stand in our usual place, and we work and play, and it is right to make things as pleasant as possible. Just don’t stand your life there in the usual place as if there is nowhere else to stand. As Buddhism teaches, then you will suffer. Good stuff goes away. Bad stuff comes. It drives us crazy. What to do? Stand in the Universe. Just so. Shikan-taza. Hit the bull’s-eye of reality.

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains,
and waters as waters.
When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point
where I saw that mountains are not mountains,
and waters are not waters.
But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest.
For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains,
and waters once again as waters.

– Ching-yuan
Just so

Phoenix Rising

In Egyptian mythology, the Phoenix is the symbol of renewal. This creature, beautiful to behold, a bird of magnificent plumage, lived in the desert for hundreds of years. On completing its life cycle, it was consumed in flames and then renewed itself from the ashes.
There are times in our lives when we need to commit ourselves to renewal. Perhaps the way we have been living our lives isn’t working for us anymore. We seem to have completed something, or gone as far as we can with a particular path in life. At such times, the image of the Phoenix can be helpful.

To renew our lives, we must first honestly assess them. We must be courageous enough to listen to the truth about what we know but would prefer not to acknowledge. We must be willing to see the paths that have become habits that lead to frustration rather than fulfillment. In accomplishing assessment and renewal, Mindfulness is a very useful skill.

Mindfulness is a practice from the Vipassana tradition of meditation, a precursor to Zen. Vipassana translates as “insight.” To practice mindfulness is to practice the development of insight into the true nature of life and our part in it. With the focus of a cat watching a mouse hole, mindfulness trains us to watch and be aware of our mental activity, our conduct, our interactions and our experience of the world. In this way we develop a new level of awareness about who we are, who others are and what the world is really about.

You might think that concentrating awareness on how we experience the world would be painful, but paradoxically, the opposite is true. Once we begin to experience how unnecessarily self- conscious and self-absorbed we are in our lives, we can learn to drop this way and begin to just be in the world. Self-absorption and self-consciousness begin to be replaced with a new level of personal awareness that is complimented with a vibrant awareness of the world outside of ourselves. This awareness is like the flames of a pyre, burning away the habits and mental attitudes we have developed over the course of our lives and replacing them with a rich and fulfilling relationship with life.

Our motivation might be a deep unhappiness or simply a yearning to have a more fulfilling and profound life. Either way, when we come to see that we are running on automatic and playing the same neurotic patterns over and over, we begin to see the way to a life free of those patterns. An excellent way out is to learn to quiet our mental activity. This can be done by focusing awareness into the physical reality of the present moment. When we are in present moment awareness, mostly as experienced through the senses, the mind stops its crazy talking and reacting. It becomes clear. Present moment awareness is the key. Mindfulness is life experienced from present moment awareness. Here. This moment. Life is not inside your head, your craziness is. Life is out there, in the World.

Try it. Put down this paper, and turn the same focused awareness you were using to read this article into your physical surroundings. Experience vividly the world that is around you and experience your own physical body and senses. Make note of how your mind wants to distract you. Gently, pay it no attention. Instead, feel what it is to be you in the physical reality of this moment. Pay attention to what you see and hear and feel. Notice your breathing. Don’t think about it. Just experience it. Do this for the next thirty seconds.

Now that you have picked the paper back up, what did you notice? I assume that was a pretty interesting experience for many of you.

When we experience our lives with relaxed focus from the vantagepoint of the physical moment, there is a calm that our lives usually lack. There is a clarity of perception about what feels nurturing and what is and isn’t right in our world– what inspires us and what is out of integrity with what we might call our true nature. We can pay close attention to our reactions and note how we are usually caught up in our own mental experience rather than a clear awareness of what is actually occurring, both within and outside of us. We can learn about our craziness by watching it drag us out of the present moment and into our neurotic routines of thought and interaction, and our assumptions about what is occurring. Watch how this happens over and over. Learn from it. If we can learn about it, we can change it.

A classical question from teacher to student in traditional Zen literature is, This moment, what is lacking? This koan is capable of bestowing enlightenment on the one who grasps its deep meaning, for once it is understood that in the purity of the moment, nothing is lacking, we are returned to union with life. We are freed from our neurotic minds and ushered into a deep, meaningful and spontaneous relationship with life.

Our minds are neurotic largely because they are obsessively locked into patterns of regretting the past and worrying about the future. In a never-ending babble of regret and worry, our minds distract and torture us, off in the past or future, measuring whether we are good enough and whether our ego is satisfied or injured. This is the source of much of our craziness.

Life does not have to be like this. Burn away tired patterns of the mind with the flame of awareness. Breathe, and know that you are breathing in life. Hear, and know that you are hearing life. See, and know that you are seeing life. Don’t think about it. Experience it. Engage even the most mundane activity with absolute concentration and you will experience a satisfying and deep sense of well being that is exceeding rare in this world. Share the moment with another person and really be aware that you are sharing the moment. Be aware that you are giving full and not distracted attention– that you are not caught up in measuring the other person and worrying about how they are measuring you. Here. In this moment. Be as authentic as you can be. A new you is being born.

Sermon at Asheville Unitarian Universality Church

READINGS IN SERVICE PRIOR TO SERMON

French scientist mystic, Teilhard de Chardin –

“Evolution is an ascent towards consciousness… The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself… Step by step, from the early Earth onwards, we have followed going upwards the successive advances of consciousness in matter undergoing organization. Having reached the peak we can now turn round, and looking downwards, take in the pattern of the whole. And this second check is decisive, the harmony is perfect… Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself… We see a human tide bearing us upward with all the force of a contracting star; not spreading like a tide, as we might suppose, but one that is rising: the ineluctable growth on our horizon of a true state of ultra-humanity.”

– Albert Einstein, 1950 – from a letter to a grieving father consoling him on the loss of his son.

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘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 us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Excerpts from Chief Seattle’s Letter to the President of The United States – 1854

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors…. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst…. the air is precious to us… the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life….

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.

All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator…

As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.

One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.”

SERMON
(long version – actual sermon was edited shorter)
EVOLVING CONSCIOUSNESS
HEALING OURSELVES AND THE PLANET

Always good to be addressing a UU congregation.

Unitarian Universalism – great name. What a great philosophical and spiritual perspective when it is realized in its literalness.

What I teach and write about is fundamentally Buddhist psychology and cosmology from a contemporary American perspective. I am not a religious Buddhist. I belong to no sect or school of Buddhism, although I have a particular affinity for Zen. I have not been the student of or heir to any particular Buddhist teacher. I am a psychologist who has been drawn to philosophical Buddhism, and who has drawn on a vast variety of Buddhist teachings and authors along with the benefit of forty+ years of meditation practice – and the reason why I identify with Buddhism is that Buddhism means practically the same thing as the literal meaning of the phrase – Unitarian Universalist.

It is about The BIG perspective. It is about being Awake (as the word Buddhism means in its original language) awake in the world and seeing things as they are in their interconnectedness and interdependence, in seeing what is transient and impermanent, and what is fundamental, essential, universal and eternal.

It is seeing a world in which the intellectual and the spiritual have no gap between them – not because religious dogma rules the intellectual realm, but because intellectual clarity, where all the faculties of mind integrate, is capable of seeing and experiencing the universe as a single conscious, integrated miracle, evolving into the full realization of itself in both form and consciousness. This is the cosmology of Buddhism, and, by the way, as you heard from Chief Seattle, of Native American culture.

In the modern age, it is the cosmology of quantum physics and deep ecology —- although not yet of the main culture – or even science and technology as it is conventionally applied. – And that’s what I want to talk about today.

The readings this morning have all been about the BIG perspective. The remarkable genius of Teilhard de Chardin, Albert Einstein and Chief Seattle are all about a vision where humanity is in harmony and unity with itself, with Nature and with the Universe.

As Einstein said: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe.”

Recently I wrote a column entitled “Psycho-spiritual Healing” in which I noted that I have come to consider psychological health and spiritual health to be inextricably interwoven, and the thread that weaves them together is the issue of self-absorption – that egocentricity is like a conceptual virus that deprives us of psychological and spiritual health. Or, as Einstein went on to say:

“Human Beings experience themselves, their thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us.”

A person cannot be psychologically healthy if they are fundamentally self-absorbed, focused on their separateness – I realized that all of what we call neurosis and character disorder in clinical psychology was some form of inappropriate self-absorption, an inability to function in the world with the sense of self integrated with a balanced sense of others and the Big picture – I won’t talk about that here – I’ll save that for this afternoon’s program – but I will say that while psychopathology is characterized by inappropriate self-absorption and egocentricity – it is of the utmost importance to realize that even what is considered by our society as a “normal” or “healthy” psychological profile is overly invested in this egocentric perspective – and herein lies the crux of our modern dilemma.

I also concluded that a person cannot be spiritually healthy while caught in a self-absorbed perspective, for to be spiritual is exactly to transcend experience centered in the small self – the ego, if you will – to enter into a non-dualistic and direct experience of connection with Life, with Nature, with humanity, with the Universe, some would say with God – which I would say are all the same. This is the BIG perspective – bigger than just looking after me and mine – which seems to be the current American credo – including, and in some cases, particularly, some so-called religious groups.

Again – Einstein – “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

The same can be said about a society – Its psychological, spiritual and political health must emanate from a perspective that is bigger than getting more for me and mine – but that is exactly the perspective of our society. American society absolutely focuses us on “restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.” Add to this our identification with our cultural, class, occupational, religious, political and national memberships, and this is a cosmology that is faulty in its fundamental premise, and that leads to faulty politics, and to a faulty economic system. And to the degree that our health, educational and religious institutions support this perspective it’s just bad health policy, bad education and bad religion.

We are a society and a species facing very big problems. We are completely failing in the BIG perspective. A society that is dedicated to spiraling materialism and narcissism, – to institutions that manipulate the population for the short term gain of an economic elite – that has no sense of a long view moving toward an evermore equitable and personally and spiritually enhancing future for all its citizens – and a future of harmony amongst people and the fellow creature Beings and the ecology of this planet, is a society that is failing – and as we are here in a church – I want to say it is not only a political failure, but a spiritual failure.

Yes – We are facing very big problems – as individuals and as a society.
AND – what I really want to talk about today is that I would go so far as to say we are facing problems that are of the dimension of an evolutionary crisis.

First – there is the issue of individuals living in far more emotional discomfort, pain and even suffering than is in any way necessary. Modern life is hard on people. The pressures are great. Often there is a sense of disconnect from something essential that we cannot quite put our finger on. We work hard, we live up to our obligations, we seek relief in recreation, entertainment, hobbies, friendships and family. Yet something is wrong. We get angry, we feel anxious, perhaps even depressed at times, far more than we want to, or ought to or need to. We go to church; we read self-help, spiritual and inspirational books. We may even go to a counselor or therapist, but none of it really gets us to the sense of well being and connectedness, the making sense out of our lives and the world that we need. We have more material wealth than any culture in the history of humanity. We have more opportunity to celebrate and advance our individuality than any culture in the history of humanity, and yet – something is terribly wrong.

And secondly – and here is where this becomes a crisis that is evolutionary in its scope – As a collective, as societies and as a species –
We are increasingly out of sustainable harmony with the planet that is our home and our fellow creature beings of other species that share this planet.

Consequently – We, like any species when its environment cannot sustain it in its current expression must either evolve, devolve or go extinct. Humanity and the majority of species we share this planet with face just such a crisis – and it is largely man made. Western class-structured, competitive, materialistic corporate consumer culture is quickly becoming the world culture – and the world – the planet – cannot support and sustain it – the culture – the current state of humanity’s consciousness (or more accurately, its lack of consciousness) is causing a problem of existential dimension.

In looking at this crisis, I became impressed with what I call the “Human Being paradox” – for to be a human being is to be caught on the horns of a paradox – a paradox that is perfectly expressed in the name for our species – “Human Beings.” The good news is that I see within this paradox, not only the problem, but also the solution, if we can only solve the riddle.

Here is the paradox – There are two distinct dimensions implied in the term “Human Being” – the human dimension – in which we are absolutely unique and distinct from any other species in our capacity for abstracting intellect, to externalize meaning and value into objects in the world and objects in the mind called thoughts – and with it the propensity to individualize our existence – what psychology would call the dimension of ego – This abstracting intellect also drives us to be inventive, to develop culture and technology along with a driving desire to express our individuality and freedom. These “human” characteristics are a mix of curses and blessings.

The unique human capacity for existential anxiety arises from this dimension, that also gives rise to our neuroses and character disorders, AS WELL AS giving rise to a competitive, acquisitional economic system that creates social inequality, exploitation and disharmony and exploitation of the non-human and environmental systems of this planet to the point of cruelty and exhaustion.

AND – then – there is also the dimension of our Beingness – That which we share with all beings – with existence itself. Being is our most fundamental nature, that which connects us, rather than separates us as the egoic dimension does, and our Beingness transcends our abstracting individuality. There is no neurosis here. Here, there is no anxiety about our place in the world, or our sufficiency in the face of life – Here – our place is certain- It is right where we already are – in the universe – with the same sense of personal security as any creature in Nature.

These dimensions create a paradox – qualities that seem to be in contradiction to each other – our unique human egoic pull to individuality and identity in form – and our collective Beingness – not only with each other, but with all Life and with a spiritual dimension that is not form. One dimension represents the materialistic, the world experienced as separate and antagonistic objects, and with it, a fundamental anxiety – and the other dimension, the dimension of Being is the spiritual, the union, the wholeness that brings with it expansive belonging and security. Buddhism holds that full Human Beingness is a balance of these dimensions. Our modern problem is that there is no balance.

As a thinker trained in both cultural anthropology and clinical psychology, I saw and experienced all of this and realized that rather than this imbalance with the egoic, competitive, self-absorbed dimension dominating and being human nature as Western society proclaims, it was something unique and endemic to our Western culture and particularly to its American expression – and I saw that it was the self-centered focus and the materialism, the self-absorption, in other words, the totally egoic orientation of our culture, and so too, its individual members, that has created the crisis of our modern age.

Hence, the “prison” that Einstein described. We have no connection to the wide circle of compassion he spoke of, that which is capable of embracing all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. We have religions, and we talk about spirituality, and some of us talk about ecology and the need to respect nature, but this intellectual understanding of a Universal perspective somehow does not seem adequate to the task. It is not leading to an urgency and immediacy that causes those who share this understanding to challenge the dominant existing paradigms of our society with a vigor born of a felt sense of that urgency.

Now – When I teach, I often challenge the assemblage with a Koan – a puzzle to the mind that is capable, if fully understood, of bringing about an insight that expands consciousness –
This Koan is – Do you know that you are Nature?
The answer is – no you don’t – not as a member of this society and culture – you may have some intellectual understanding, but the way I use the term “Know” is to imply an understanding that requires no thought – it is who you are. No, no we do not know that we are Nature. Yet – what else could we be?

Because we do not “KNOW” We do not act in harmony, or so as to establish harmony with each other and with Nature as our highest priority.

Chief Seattle knew. And he warned us. “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

I looked at human culture from a broader scope looking for insight, and I realized that other cultures had a view on an essential aspect of the human experience that Western culture was seemingly blind to. They knew the Nature or Being dimension of the Human Being experience intimately. I saw relevant perspectives in Native American and other indigenous Nature-based cultures, and I saw particularly relevant perspective in the Asian religions of Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism.

With further examination, I was eventually able to see, deeply coded within its conventional teachings, perspectives within the Jewish, Christian and Moslem traditions that have been marginalized in the mainstream practice of these faiths – this knowing – and I am referring to the mystical traditions of these faiths – The mystics knew.

But our mainstream culture, religions and psychology lacked a perspective of humanity within and integral to Nature – to a consciousness that was only given symbolic representation – in words like God and Holy Spirit. We lacked a religious or psychological tradition that could liberate us from the prison of our own limited understanding of who we were within the world. Personal rampant psychopathology and social conflict have been the result as well as economic and social systems based on hierarchy and exploitation of human, other-than-human and environmental spheres.

What to do?

To again take a quote from Einstein: – “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems.”

We need a new consciousness – I would say, an evolved consciousness, and I find very useful the definition of evolution given us by the mid-twentieth century French theologian scientist, Teilhard de Chardin: Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness.

De Chardin also defines evolution as a process of ever complexifying unification in which the seemingly disparate and dissimilar come to be embraced within a new comprehensive whole, an ever-expanding consciousness of unity. This is, of course exactly what Einstein was saying about “widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Now this vision is not new. It is the vision articulated by Chief Seattle. It is the vision of Native American peoples and other indigenous populations like the Aboriginal of Australia. It is the vision articulated out of the Vedic tradition of Asia that brought forth Hinduism and Buddhism. It is the Oriental vision of Taoism. This is the consciousness of humanity’s past – of its very early evolutionary era – emerging out of the forests, at one with Nature – But evolution is not a going back – it is – As de Chardin said – “a human tide bearing us upward… one that is rising: the ineluctable growth on our horizon of a true state of ultra-humanity.”

So evolution is a moving upward – a new consciousness that is a harmonization of what was disparate into a new unity, and this is exactly what is possible with humanity now – the expansion and coalescing of what de Chardin called “The Noosphere” the realm of consciousness – the availability of the totality of human culture past, present and world-wide to create a new and evolved consciousness that brings together the wisdom of the totality of humanity and Nature – the ineluctable growth on our horizon of a true state of ultra-humanity.”

IF — we are not dragged down by the existing and extremely powerful culture of ego-dominated consciousness and its misapplication of technology in the service of consolidating the vision of materialism and human separateness and competition.

The issue is what to do? How do we become instruments, participants, pioneers of this evolution, this new consciousness? My answer to this question is why I teach meditation and Buddhist philosophy. I am convinced that only through training the mind to experience and express itself in its fullness, – not only in intellect, that dimension of mind that has spearheaded humanity’s separation from nature, but also the mind’s fundamental connection with its Beingness nature- that which is connected with Nature, the mind that is expressed by Chief Seattle, and envisioned by Einstein – can humanity evolve and fulfill its destiny which is completely sane and spiritual. This is de Chardin’s “ultra-humanity”

East and West, Primitive and civilized – these are the cultural expressions which, each by themselves, manifest an imbalance on one side of the full potentiality of Human Beingness, the “Ultra-humanity” of de Chardin’s vision. In the expanding Noosphere of today’s world – a world of the World-wide Internet and the growing synthesizing, acceptance and embrace of worldwide cultural expressions, “a human tide is bearing us upwards.” But it cannot occur using only the skills and perspective of the consciousness that has caused the problem.

The call is out – to have an evolution – not a revolution – which only turns things upside down in the same consciousness paradigm, but an evolution – the kind of consciousness we have seen in a Gandhi or Martin Luther King – calling for an expansion of consciousness to include what had not been previously included in the old consciousness.

In this, as a Westerner, It is my belief and experience that within philosophical and psychological Buddhism is an ancient culture prophecy and vision that can give to us in the West the perspective and the training tools needed to accomplish this wholeness, this evolutionary step that will bring about increasing individual mental and spiritual health – and an expanding new cultural expression that holds and expands what is best about the West – technology, individuality and political freedom while embracing and applying the wisdom of ancient cultures towards what another modern bodhisattva of the West, Deep Ecologist Thomas Berry called the Eco-zoic era, – An evolutionary era of harmony between and among the human, the other than human, and the Planet.

It provides a vision that would fulfill the task of freeing ourselves from this prison of ego-centricism and anthropocentricism by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Buddhist teachings and meditation are, in my estimation, key. Through them we are able to open into the realization of our Beingness Nature and to see the delusional prison of our egoistic orientation. I find in them the necessary guide and practices to bring about the harmonization of the Human Being paradox. I see the challenge, however, is in extricating the wisdom and tools of Buddhist teaching from the antiquated cultural context that the wisdom and tools are brought to us. We need a new philosophy and practice of “Awakening” presented and engaging in the language of modernity that also respects and can be inspired by the teaching and language of the old Masters.

One such old Zen Master is Sekkei Harada who said:
“In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet… who is this person? It is the True Self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are. This is the objective of Life.”

This meeting of the True Self – is the objective of Life. It is also the objective of Buddhist teaching and meditation. Another way of expressing this might be – the realization of true Human Beingness is the evolutionary purpose of human existence.

And so we must ask – Who is this True Self?

This is the question that Buddhism asks over and over – who is this true self, original self, sometimes expressed as the Buddha (that is, awakened, enlightened) self?

I am suggesting that the true self, the Buddha self, that Buddhism has been calling to for over 2500 years is the “Ultra-human” of de Chardin’s vision.

Allow me to share from another modern Western figure, whom I have already mentioned, who could be said to possess the consciousness necessary to lead humanity into the future solving the problems created by the old consciousness – the deep ecologist Thomas Berry –
“We need to reinvent the human at the species level because the issues we are concerned with seem beyond the competence of our present cultural traditions, either individually or collectively… the human is at a cultural impasse… Radical new cultural forms are needed. These new cultural forms would place the human within the dynamics of the planet rather than the planet within the dynamics of the human… There is need for humans to develop reciprocal economic relationships with other life-forms providing a sustaining pattern of mutual support, as is the case with natural life-systems generally… Our knowledge needs to be in harmony with the natural world rather than a domination of the natural world. We need the art of intimate communion with, as well as technical knowledge of, various components of the natural world”
– Thomas Berry – The Great Work

This last sentence is key – “We need the art of intimate communion with, as well as technical knowledge of, various components of the natural world.”

Intimate communion and technical knowledge. We have the technical knowledge. This is what Western consciousness is good at. What we lack is the capacity for intimate communion. This is what Buddhism and meditation are good at.

Again- de Chardin –
“Evolution is an ascent towards consciousness…”

Allow me to share – in closing – the vision of a Meditation master – Thich Nhat Hanh

“There is no phenomenon in the universe that does not intimately concern us, from the pebble resting at the bottom of the ocean, to the movement of a galaxy millions of light years away. All phenomena are interdependent… Unity and diversity interpenetrate each other freely. Unity is diversity, and diversity is unity.

We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of some comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self. If we want to change the situation, we must begin by being our true selves. To be our true selves means we have to be the forest, the river, and the ozone layer.
– Thich Nhat Hanh – Meditation Master

These are words in perfect agreement with de Chardin, with Einstein, with Thomas Berry, with Chief Seattle –

I see meditation as a necessary new skill for Westerners in order to evolve the consciousness necessary to address our problems –
Why and how this is true will be explored this afternoon –

There are fundamentally two levels or dimensions to the meditation path – the first is to train the mind into steadiness – sometimes called, “single-pointed-ness” this is referred to as samadhi or shamatha – which in Tibetan translates as “Peaceful Abiding.” And this training of the mind in steadiness and clear observation is what is necessary to open the dimension of Knowing – of Being.

The second stage or dimension of meditation is known as Vipassana – Insight – Wisdom – The realm of Being. It is here that we find the Awakening of Buddhism.
It is the seeing of things as they are once we stop running the program of egoic conditioning – It is opening into awareness as the fundamental dimension of mind that is steady, deep, insightful, with an instinctual wise intelligence that directly experiences and knows the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things.

Now this second stage, this insight and wisdom dimension of meditation, requires the achievement of Shamatha as the opening into the natural, intuitive, connected and spiritual dimension of mind – And within Vipassana, we find the resolution of the Human Being paradox wherein we can bring our whole mind – As the great psychologist Carl Jung would describe it – the dimensions of thinking, emotion, direct intimate sensory contact with the world and the intuitive dimension of Beingness into balanced harmony.

I believe I would have very little disagreement amongst those assembled here today that there is next to no training in our society in the taming of the wildly thinking mind – That being the case – what chance do we have to fully develop the quiet intuitive dimension of mind in which deeper knowing into the reality of existence, our interconnectedness with Nature and the purpose of the Universe occurs, in which realization of our own inherent peacefulness and wisdom resides.

This is what the Buddhist tradition of meditation can achieve – and I believe there is no replacement – and while Jung did not think Westerners in his time were capable of meditation – and so devised his psychology to bring about this integration (actually with little success, I believe) – I am convinced that modern Westerners are capable of true meditation, and that meditation as taught in the Buddhist tradition holds the key to human sanity, peacefulness and evolution – the new consciousness that can solve our problems – as individuals discovering a deep personal sanity within ourselves – and as a human society able to fulfill Einstein’s and de Chardin’s vision.

The wisdom of Nature-based cultures of the past – embodied in Chief Seattle’s description of the world – and the technology of civilized humanity can be blended into an evolved expression of humanity where individuals are sane, compassionate and fulfilled – and the collective of humanity is at peace with itself and knows itself integrally enfolded within collectives of fellow beings and the planet that is our shared home
– but a new consciousness is needed – a synthesizing of a very old consciousness with our modern scientific and freedom celebrating consciousness.

It is my encouragement – For your own sanity – and the sane evolution of humanity – I encourage you to learn this ancient skill and perspective, then bring it into your modern life. Become the master of your own mind, and a co-creator of an evolved new horizon of Ultra-humanity – at home – in the Universe – As Einstein said – “widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Evolving Consciousness

“The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.” – Eckhart Tolle

Humanity is seeking only one thing. That one thing is lasting happiness. We seek it in everything we do. Yet, happiness eludes us. It would seem pretty simple. We only want this one happiness thing. How hard can that be?

Well – look at human history. Look at your own life. Look at the lives of the people around you. Sometimes there is something we call happiness. We have smiles on our faces. There is laughter and fun. There are meaningful and fulfilling moments. And then – it’s gone. Smiles turn to frowns, sometimes to tears, to screams. And then —- after a while — happiness again stops by for a visit. And the roller coaster rolls on. To borrow a phrase from Mindfulness therapy guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the “Full Catastrophe” happens.

What is wrong here? To borrow another phrase, as the saying goes, in this hunt for happiness, “we’re looking in all the wrong places.” We think we will find happiness by looking for it in the circumstances of our lives, and the circumstances of our lives have no stability, no reliability, no certainty to them. Buddhism describes this as having no center, empty. No lasting happiness there.

So perhaps Buddhism can offer us something with its teaching about the nature, cause and resolution of human suffering. It teaches us that the problem of happiness is a problem of consciousness. It tells us that our problem is that we are practically unconscious, believing stories about ourselves, others and society, always worried about what will give or take away our happiness. We try to pull to us what we think will give us happiness and push away what we think will take away our happiness, and we are all left off balance, careening out of control. And this is the basic plan humanity follows – on the individual, family, institutional, community, national, religious and finally, species level of our experience. A catastrophe.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now, this “Kingdom of Heaven” is the happiness we seek, a world of security, peace and kindness, of compassion and understanding. It is where we have the eyes to see the miracles of Life all around us, and we don’t feel lost in a sea of troubles. It is where this moment Now is lived as the gateway to Eternity, and even misfortune can be held – as Zen awkwardly describes – in its pure “as it is-ness,”– Shikan-taza, in Japanese.

Unfortunately we live not child-like, but rather childish – in that self-absorbed adolescent sort of way. We think by being greedy and petty, cruel and selfish we will find happiness, that by getting more for ourselves than others have, by scorning simple things for ever-more elaborate and expensive possessions, we will get for ourselves this happiness thing. Well Jesus may have been a Jew, but he was clearly also a Buddha. He saw where our suffering was coming from.

Yes, Humanity is childish. But perhaps the good news is that it is only an evolutionary phase. We have come out of our infancy and simple goodness in the forests where we walked in Eden. We abandoned our primordial world and made proud cities and civilizations with our growing cleverness, places to hoard our shiny toys and make argument with each other. Vaguely we remembered Eden, and so we created religions to tell us stories and fairy-tales about how Heaven awaits us, where Eden will be reclaimed if we are good members of our secret clubs, and happiness will be ours as long as we follow the club’s rules. And here is where the unconscious part comes in, for we are living in these fairy tales, and like an adolescent who creates a cruel fantasy of their own privilege to assuage the pain of their neglect and loneliness, we only drift further from the belonging and well-being for which we hunger.

Increasingly I see in the teachings of Jesus and Buddha, and all the religions at their core, time-capsule prophecies and instructions from a time when civilizations were first taking sway of this planet. I see in them warnings of what would be lost in the great age of human ego, and, at least in the case of Buddhism, I see them offering us a vision of what humanity as true grown-ups could be.

And there is an urgent need for humanity to grow up, as our sciences, psychologies and religions fail to cure our existential illness, for an evolving into full mature human consciousness. Remember, “The light of consciousness is all that is necessary.” Can we open our eyes to see we will never have lasting happiness unless we realize we are one people on one planet, shared with all the living creatures – just as it was in Eden? Can we wake up – as the very word “Buddhism” means in its ancient tongue – can we evolve?

What is clear is that consciousness is the evolutionary lynchpin of this universe. Every step of evolution is marked by complexifying consciousness moving inexorably toward a Universe conscious of itself, its own unity and miraculous diversity, all held in a perfect balance – perhaps the mythic “Kingdom of Heaven.” Buddhism asks us to realize, to stop, to meditate, to contemplate what an illusion it is to believe that this selfish egocentric childishness will ever be the provider of the happiness we seek. Buddhism asks us to wake up and to realize the light that we are.

The modern day Zen Master Sekkei Harada instructs us, “In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet… This person is in this world. Who is this person? It is the true self. You must meet the true self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are. This is the objective of life …It is because we think there is a center to something that essentially doesn’t exist that all delusion and suffering arises. So truly accept that… there is no ego-self, the only thing we can do is to become a Buddha.”

This true-self, this Buddha-self is the evolved human that carries the light of consciousness, and as Eckhart Tolle reminds us: “You are that light.” And when humanity shines that light of awakened compassion and caring on all its members, on our fellow creatures and on this planet, our home, we will be like the children who naturally carry these true human values – and we will find Jesus’ “Kingdom of Heaven” – and the happiness we seek.

Psycho-spiritual Healing

“What we really want is a natural life…(and) once we begin to see that life can be more open and joyful than we had ever thought possible…we enter a discipline like Zen practice so that we can learn to live in a sane way.” – Charlotte Joko Beck – Zen Master

Long ago, while practicing clinical psychology, I came to two conclusions. The first was that true psychological health and spiritual health are the same thing – to have one we must also have the other, and the second conclusion was that a principle characteristic of every form of mental illness is some inappropriate state of self-absorption. Further, I realized that these two insights are basically the same. Both psychological health and spiritual health are based in becoming free of the dualistic mind-state of self-absorption, of placing yourself as the center of a world experienced as “out there” and separate from “me.” True spirituality requires experiencing a self-transcending connection with Life and with others, but when we live trapped within this disease of self-absorption, the truly spiritual experience is impossible.

As for mental illness being connected to inappropriate self-absorption, consider just what is going on in the mind of anxiety or depression, of mania or paranoia, of psychopathy, hysteria or narcissism. In each of these neurotic, psychotic, or character disordered states, the idea of this self as put upon by the world, or inadequate and undeserving, or the recipient of “special” knowledge, or threatened, or entitled, is completely out of proportion to reality, and it has taken over as the centerpiece of experience. A person is drowning in their self-absorption. These are what we consider pathological states of mind.

Also consider, however, that it is only a matter of degree that separates these disorders of mind from what is considered “normal” in our society. We are all, to some degree, lost in self-absorption because it is what our society teaches us is normal! Increasingly, the basic motto of contemporary society is that “it’s all about me.” We are trained from the time we are small children to enter each situation sizing it up as to what is in it for us. We are trained that it is normal to get for ourselves as much as is legally possible, always looking for our advantage, and to be fending off as much as possible anything that detracts from us. We have at the center of our experience, ourselves. And as everyone is doing this, we compete, subtly or not so subtly, like playing a vast game of “king of the hill,” scrambling up and pushing others down (even if only in our fantasies) to get to the top (or perversely for the “victim identity” – the
lowest-bottom) of whatever circumstance we enter into.

The result is that anxiety, depression, anger, low self-esteem, narcissism, selfishness and sociopathy are epidemic on levels that are considered “normal.” Consider that we have constructed a materialistic society that places status and well-being through acquisition of money, possessions and power as the object of life. We have mistaken competition for “human nature.” Addictive behaviors are ubiquitous. On the collective level, we have no long-term vision for creating a human society that is in harmony with itself or with the planet that is its source and sustenance. This self-absorption cuts us off from sanity, wisdom, compassion, interconnectedness and sustainability as the underpinning of our society and our lives. This has to be seen as just plain crazy. But sadly, it’s just normal.

“The sacred is in the ordinary. It is to be found in one’s daily life… in one’s own back yard… To be looking elsewhere for miracles is a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.”
– Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) – Founder of Humanist School of Psychology

Most of all, this way of living completely cuts us off from the miracle it is to be alive. As we are psychologically lost, so too, we are spiritually lost. To quote psychologist Abraham Maslow, we fail to see the “sacred in the ordinary.” Many consider themselves religious, but one very big mistake we make, with far-reaching consequences, is in confusing religious faith for spirituality. We use having a “personal relationship” with Jesus or God, and loyal obedience to one of the various exclusive religious sects, as another way of being special and blessed or “saved.” Astoundingly, human ego even manages to co-opt that which is inherently about transcending human ego. We fail to understand and experience that true spirituality is in the ecstasy and compassion of losing our “self” in the daily life of Creation, whether you believe Creation is God’s work or just the Universe happening in its own divine way.

The Gospel of Thomas tells us that Jesus said, “The kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land, but people do not have eyes to see it.” We ignore the instructions to “judge not,” or that a materialistic life is an impediment to a spiritual life. We neglect to practice forgiveness and tolerance. We are unable to be “like the lilies of the field” in our naturalness, or like the “little children,” who are not lost, for they see miracles everywhere. We have lost, as Joko Beck says, “The natural life.” We go crazy looking for meaning in our social status, our possessions and our religious uprightness, rather than in living altruistic, wondrous and natural lives.

“ Meditation helps us wake up from this dream of automaticity and unconsciousness, thereby making it possible for us to live our lives with access to the full spectrum of our conscious and unconscious possibilities” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

The very radical premise of Buddhism is that (apart from severe brain chemistry disorders) mental and spiritual health are the same thing and that we are capable as human beings of accomplishing the absolute in both. Buddhism just happens to call this enlightenment. The key, however, is that you have to get yourself out of the center of your experience to allow the experience of Life – Creation, the Universe unfolding – to be the center of you. This is the puzzling Buddhist concept of being nobody or no-self or empty of self.

The paradoxical miracle of this teaching and practice (accomplished through meditation, guidance by a teacher and contemplation of teachings) is that this little, anxious, unhappy, grasping self then gradually gives way into a full human-being, healthy in mind and spirit – and uniquely for religious teachings, no allegiance to the religion of Buddhism is necessary. This is not a perspective exclusively “revealed” by a jealous divine source. This is simple human truth arrived at by a human being looking deeply into their own “conscious and unconscious possibilities.”

The little self, the personality of “me,” is then experienced in a much lighter, impersonalized way. We begin to have eyes that can see that the “Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land,” that “everything is miraculous.” Gradually a process of healing psychologically and spiritually into full and natural, compassionate, effective and wise “awakened” living occurs. Buddhism teaches that an enlightened being resides slumbering within every person, and it teaches us that if we only “wake up,” we will find who we truly are – fully sane and spiritual.

Happiness

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
– American Declaration of Independence –

“The very purpose of life is happiness. …. Since mental experience is something very important, then it automatically brings up the subject whether we can train mental happiness… human beings through the centuries have developed certain kinds of techniques for shaping the mind… this we usually call meditation.” – The Dalai Lama

We Americans are a nation not only founded on the principle of pursuing happiness, we are obsessed with this pursuit, and we generally look to our circumstances and possessions to provide it. On the other hand, Buddhism could be described as a philosophy of life, a psychology, based in the principle of realizing happiness, not in possessions and circumstances, but rather as a state of mind itself.

Buddhism holds that, regardless of our circumstances or possessions, it is the very idea that we lack happiness and must pursue it outside ourselves that deprives us of happiness; that the whole pursuit of happiness concept is an error, a consequence of human civilization distancing us from our original nature. While it certainly is both right and noble that societies function so as to overcome social/material obstacles to happiness, to truly address the realization of happiness, we must look deeper. Therefore, it would seem that Buddhism might have something very important to say to us about happiness. The very radical proposition that Buddhism puts to us is that while circumstances are certainly influential towards a happy state of mind, perhaps we are very mistaken in believing them to be the source of our happiness, for after all, happiness actually is a state of mind.

Then, in an even more radical premise, Buddhism teaches us that happiness is our natural state of mind. There is nothing we have to do or have to experience it. However, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the idea of pursuing happiness in outer circumstances to the degree that our minds are overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions about this idea, thus depriving us of happiness, we must do something. And what there is to do, what we can do, is train our minds so that we are not so obsessively caught up in the ideas of this pursuit. This then becomes the purview of meditation. It is, at a basic level, training in subduing this idea of living in ideas, any ideas, whether happy or miserable ideas, and then deepening us beyond the realm of ideas into deeper relationship with Life and with our fundamental being – that which precedes any doing, thinking or having – and we discover there – exactly what it is that we have been pursuing.

What does a human baby need to be happy beyond its basic and immediate need for physical comfort and emotional nurturance? That’s it. Very basic. That’s the realm of our being. And so it is every human’s basic and natural state. But something happens as a human baby matures and develops. Of course it increasingly has to take on responsibility for its own basic needs, but it also takes on a very complicated idea of itself. Society, beginning with parents and then in ever more complicated expanding circles of influence, tells the maturing human who it is and what it needs in order to be significant in the world, and makes happiness synonymous with personal and social significance.

A human ego develops that attaches identity to these ideas-in-society rather than in the basic and natural experience that is our being-in-the-natural-world. Our abstracting mind tells us that our well-being is to be pursued “out there” in the social environment. Happiness then is experienced not as a natural state of mind, but rather in the achievement of these pursuits. We forget how easy it was to be happy as a small child. Happiness becomes a very elusive target getting further and further away the more complicated and sophisticated our idea of our self-in-the-world becomes. We become neurotically anxious about happiness.

Meditation then, first of all, teaches us how to stop running the neurotic mental social programming, the thought stream of ideas of conditioned self, and then allows us to remember our basic natural-self-in-the-world. In the quiet mind of meditation we remember that this basic self needs very little to realize its natural happiness. An intuitive understanding is cultivated of identity in that most basic of mental experiences – awareness – that which was present from the very first as we entered this world – and has been with us, unwaveringly, every conscious moment of our lives. It is a remembering that who we are is not in what we do or have, but in the awareness within which all our doing and having occurs.

Instead of identity in our physical condition and possessions, in our streaming thoughts and emotions, or in our status in the world, our identity is remembered as the awareness that precedes and contains all those phenomena. And in that most basic of experiences, we discover that we are happy – we don’t achieve happiness – we are happiness. We discover that unhappiness comes from hanging our identity and our happiness on the unstable nature of all the things we think will make us happy.

We even discover in meditation that our human capacity for abstract intellectual understanding can take us deeper into that natural state of happiness than even a baby is capable of. We can understand that our lives are lived in moments and only in moments. We can understand/experience that in any given moment, even if we are experiencing difficult or threatening physical, social or emotional circumstances, in this moment, in the purity of awareness, we need nothing. We can touch the ground of existence with our minds.

Awareness itself is happiness, and since we now realize that who we are is awareness, we realize that happiness is natural to us and we can relax into it, no pursuit is needed. Happiness, along with life and liberty, as states of mind, are indeed “unalienable Rights” endowed by our Creator, and not by our society, our possessions, or status in society. We can now realize that anxiously looking to riches, accomplishments or status within society for our happiness is exactly what will deprive us of this unalienable right. We can now, somewhat miraculously, awaken into the realization of our fundamental nature – as a naturally happy person.

And now, having discovered the secret of happiness, we are certainly still free to pursue whatever we choose in the world of materialism and human society, but having realized the true source of happiness, it is probably less likely that we will pursue personal advantage and wealth at the expense of our fellow beings, mistaking these ego victories as sources of happiness. And it seems that with the discovery of true personal happiness, concern and compassion for the happiness of others also naturally arises. And with this, perhaps the realization of a happy human society might become a primary concern for us, an ideal that contains, but is even deeper than political independence. We are free to live complex lives filled with responsibility, but now, with the personal anxiety gone. And perhaps, this was what the Founders ultimately had in mind with their Declaration of Independence, an idea not so different from Buddhism’s declaration of independence from suffering known as “The Four Noble Truths.”

Forget Yourself

“There is no other task than to know your original face.” – Yen T’ou (9th Century)

“If you want to be miserable, think about yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others. This is how we bring enlightened mind down to earth.”
– Sakyong Mipham (21st Century)

It is said that Zen is nothing more than forgetting yourself in the act of uniting with “something.” This dissolution of the separation of subject “me” with whatever object of perception I am focused on, into a non-dualistic awareness of “just this,” is Buddhist Satori. Ultimately, the purpose of Buddhist practice is for that “something” to be Life itself, and in that uniting, to come to know your “original face,’ the true and authentic person you are, an integrated expression of Life, not separate from it, struggling, as if it were, somehow, out there.

To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.” – Dogen (13th Cent.)

In this, there is a returning to your essential Beingness, at one with Life, able to walk and function in the social world of humanity, while also greatly freed of inhibiting and distorted ideas about self and the world. Spontaneity and wisdom, connectedness and compassion, are realized as natural elements of who you are. Neurotic tendencies begin to resolve themselves, as they are all results of social conditioning. Social conditioning begins to be seen as devices for maneuvering in the social world, mostly useful, but often, greatly distorted, and so, neurotic, and they are realized as not who you are. Society begins to be experienced as more of a game, with rules and boundaries, not your essential self nor an expression of the truth and potential for Life, and this is immensely liberating.

When you can realize, at a level deeper than thought, that Nature manifests through you as surely as it does through any bird or tree, then Satori begins to be the natural terrain of your life. From this insight, this infinite well of Beingness, you can begin to free yourself from the neurotic conditioning that has gone into what is no more than an idea you carry around about who you are. This is also what Buddhists refer to as “emptiness.” So, you must forget yourself. Discover Life, empty of this idea of a “myself” at the center of every experience.

This, of course, is a radical departure from the dominant modern cultural norm that instills in us that in most every situation, our primary interest is how that situation either enhances or detracts from “me.” Importantly, Zen does recognize that, of course, you have a life to safeguard and even enhance situationally in the relative world of society, but what becomes important is the reversing of what is primary. Rather than our life situation and our own status being primary, we realize that our life cannot be well lived unless Life itself and those fellow beings we share this life with become what is primary.

Life – that which has been the rather unregarded backdrop to our life situation, is realized as the very substance that will give meaning to our life situation. Paradoxically, our skill in this relative dimension of life situation will also dramatically increase as the very neurotic tendencies that inhibit our skillfulness in social interactions fall away. Furthermore, the karma of interacting with others in full presence, compassion and kindness will begin to reflect back to us. Life fully lived in its immediacy and intimacy is also a good definition for happiness and joy, the very quality to life that this “self “ is pursuing so desperately

When your primary thought is of yourself, you cut yourself off from all the Universe. When you allow experience to be the center of you, rather than holding yourself as the center of every experience, you discover a far more meaningful and happy life. When you allow the realization of your kinship with all beings, that to think of and honor others and the experiences of Life as the only way to honor your ultimate self, you discover the true source of happiness. When you allow the moment to fill you, whether it is in an experience of Nature, or with a fellow being, or in an activity, the subject-object split that makes our experience small and unskillful falls away into simply the moment. We discover that the moment, just as it is, is always fulfilling, even the scary and challenging ones.

This is nothing new to us. We have all had, in the finest moments of our lives, the experience of non-duality, of our original face shining through. It happens in moments of loving interaction with another person, self-transcendent experiences in Nature, in engrossed activity in the arts or in sports. Sometimes, it just happens out of nowhere that your experience suddenly opens, expands and the proverbial “feeling of being at one with” whatever you are doing and whatever is happening occurs. Sometimes it happens in moments of crisis and fear when there is no time to think about “myself” – and there is only what needs doing. What Zen offers us is the understanding, the wisdom, to realize that the essence of these experiences does not come from outside us, but from within us. They are the foundation of who we are when experience is unblocked by self-centered thinking, and Zen teaches us that we can cultivate this consciousness. We can make this non-dualistic consciousness our primary reference point rather than an accident of circumstance.

We live in a society that has been said to celebrate the cult of personality, and this “who I am” is of the utmost importance in our culture. Buddhism helps us to realize that there is a great problem in actually finding this “me.” The “who I am” that we call “me” and “my personality” is really only an idea of a person made up of millions of conditioned interactions through a lifetime. It has no stability. It has no foundation. It has no location. It is, more or less, a mask. In fact, “mask” is exactly what the word personality means – derived from the Greek word “persona”: the mask used by actors in the ancient Greek plays.

So, what happens when we live life “empty” of masks? Far from being zombie-like, as we might fear, rather, just like any animal in Nature, we discover that every person has a unique expression that is their authentic nature, vibrantly who they are. Watch a group of squirrels for a while, or a group of puppies, or kittens, or for that matter, watch a group of recently born human babies, and you will see that each individual is unique. This natural uniqueness shines forth, free of any self-conscious idea of who they are supposed to be. Free of any masks – delightful.

We never stop to consider that the experience of ourselves, trained into us by modern society, is nothing more than an idea of who we are, a storyline. Yet, we live inside this story and call it reality; we call it who we are, we call it our life, we call it life. It is, however, life with a small “l.” Zen teaches us that we can live a big “L” Life, but only if we learn to forget ourselves in the act of uniting with whatever or whomever is right in front of us in this moment. We must realize that who we are is not located in the body or mental processes, but rather in the awareness with which we experience this body and these mental processes and the world. We are, in this sense, the moment itself.

Zen asks us to meditate on locating this self, and the only reasonable answer we can come up with will be like the one that comes to us from Eckhart Tolle: “Who we are is the space in which the moment arises.” There is nobody there that we can point to or grasp onto. And that is how we discover our true Self, and true happiness. By forgetting ourselves. This is Buddhism.

Needing

“We need one more thing to make us happy. One thing leads to the next, perpetuated by our desire to have final satisfaction. But the next experience feels uneasy, and we still need one more thing… The desire to feel satisfied is a continual process that drives our lives, and the end result is suffering… it’s just what ends up happening when we are driven by negative emotions.” – Sakyong Mipham (Turning the Mind into an Ally)

What do we really need? That simple question could well be an important key to happiness and wisdom. And beyond the question of what do we really need is the more germane question: Why are our needs so endless? What are all these wants that, at a deep psychological level, become needs? Sakyong Mipham, the Tibetan/American meditation teacher gives a very good answer when he says, “it’s just what happens when we are driven by negative emotion.” – as we certainly are, either very blatantly or subtly, much of our waking lives.

We want things to be better; we want more for ourselves than life is giving. We have an emotional uneasiness as to whether we are enough, and so have a rather unlimited sense of needing more, and for our situation to be better. And when things are the way we want them to be, we want them to stay that way – but they don’t, they can’t. Everything changes, but what we want is unchanging happiness – without even knowing what that means. So, we experience anxiety, anger, jealousy, worry, sadness, despair – negative emotions that drive us.

There are many extrapolations of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths on the nature of suffering, but a very useful variation is that we suffer because, whether we express it as a need or a want, we often experience that we need things to be different from the way they are in order to control our negative emotions. Again, this can be on very blatant or subtle levels, and taking that extrapolation to the teaching’s resolution, the fourth of the Truths, we could say that the way out of negative emotional suffering is to not need for things to be different from the way they are in order for us to be OK.

“Well, of course,” you say. When this moment is the way I want it to be, I am fine, I am happy, and when it is not the way I want it to be, I am not fine and happy. Isn’t that the natural way of things? But herein lies our problem. Our well-being is then dependent on the circumstances of our lives as we interpret them in our minds. This is neither natural – meaning the way of Nature, nor is it an enlightened relationship to our unique human capacity to relate to life with abstracting intelligence.

Happiness is a mental state. It occurs in the mind. Nothing outside of ourselves is the source of our happiness, rather our mind deciding it is happy with what is happening is the source of our happiness. What is unfortunate is that we don’t realize that we have the capacity to cultivate the mental state of happiness (more accurately, well-being) as our natural state in a manner that can be largely independent of the circumstances of our lives. Ultimate happiness (non-suffering) is the result of our embrace of every moment just the way it is.

One of the great Zen lessons – a Koan from the 9th Century Chinese Zen master Rinzai – asks us, “This moment, what is lacking?” And when we are unhappy, we believe the answer to be that what is lacking is what we think we need to make the moment more fulfilling, satisfying, safe, or whatever qualifier we have in our mind. The truth is that when we are fully present in any moment in our natural mind, it is as contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” Refuge from what? From the suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of having the moment being different than what in our minds we think we need it to be. We live in the subtle and not-so-subtle experience of believing our fulfillment is not in this moment just as it is, but in some next moment that will be exactly the way we need for it to be to experience perfect happiness.

Buddhism teaches of the thickness and multidimensionality of existence. Mostly, we live in the mind our society conditions into us, our egoic (what Buddhists call “little”) mind, trapped in needing for its fulfillment some fantasy idea of a perfect self – finding fantasy perfection in a fantasy world. This mind is extremely limited in its perceptive abilities, and tends to focus on what is lacking, rather than the totality and potentiality of what is present. This is the world of samsara, suffering.

However, Buddhism teaches that there is also the macro-world of the Big Mind, of our Being-self, in harmony with the Universe realizing that there is no separate self. There is always and only the Universe expressing itself in its fullness through this form we experience as our self-in-the-given-moment, all interconnected and perfect just as it is. Nothing is needed because to need is to be separate from the whole of what is, and there is no separation. This is the mind of enlightenment, and this is the mind into which Buddhist teaching and meditation can open us.

Imagine the total freedom, the total liberation when we realize that at an ultimate dimension always available to us, nothing more is needed, that this moment, exactly as it is, is perfect, exactly as it is. This is what in the Shambala tradition of Sakyong Mipham is called Shamatha – peaceful abiding. Within us all is the ability to abide peacefully in the present moment exactly as it is, not needing anything to be different to quell our negative emotions, not needing to get to the next moment to quiet the restless little mind of ego questing for fulfillment of its fantasy identity in a fantasy world. Right here. This moment, nothing lacking. This is enlightenment. This is the heart of Buddhism.

Does this mean to live passively? No – it means to do what needs to be done to support and protect our lives and all life. It also means to bring forth our efforts in the service of evolving an ever more conscious, compassionate and loving human society, but none of it from negative emotion. As Asian philosophy expert Alan Watts wrote: “Everything is as it can be.” And this moment is exactly as it can be as the platform for the next moment in the very big picture. When we embrace what is, we can become courageous co-authors with the Universe of what will be.

Nothing is fixed and permanent. Everything is both being and becoming. What is, is. And what will pass, will pass. And what will be, will be. And our fantasies do not have to be the impotent protests or the narcissistic desires of an individual driven by negative emotions from one perceived need to the next, but rather visions of what can be in an enlightened human society.

“The purpose of Buddhism is to study ourselves and to forget ourselves. When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life.” – Shunryu Suzuki (1904-71)

Buddhist Ethics

“The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with Life.”
– Roshi Koun Yamada (1907-1989)
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
– The Dalai Lama

Ethics is at the heart of Buddhism because the issue of human suffering is the starting point of Buddhism. A young prince, Siddhartha Gautama, left his sheltered life in northern India in the 5th Century BCE, deeply disheartened by the amount of suffering he saw in the world, determined to realize the nature and the origin of human suffering and how to find the path to salvation from it. He first became an ascetic, rejecting everything that was worldly, and mastered the most profound dimensions of meditation, but in a severely weakened physical state from the deprivations of self-starvation, he realized that rejection of Life was not the path, rather, it was better to live a balanced life, a life of neither material opulence nor deprivation. He realized it was important to be neither mired in social convention nor isolated in hermitage and asceticism, rather to live a life of engaged, aware, enlightened, compassionate community. This became known as “The Middle Way.”

Determined to discover the nature of and transcendence from suffering, he sat in what was reputed to be forty-nine days of deep meditation, at the end of which he had seen into the nature of existence and realized complete enlightenment. He became known as “The Buddha, The Awakened One.” He arose from his meditation and began to teach what became known as “The Four Noble Truths” concerning the nature of and the path to salvation from human suffering.

With a modern psychological interpretation, The Four Noble Truths are:

  • To be Human is to experience a unique and subjective form of suffering.
  • The cause of this suffering is attachment to ego with its sense of separateness for identity and all its insatiable cravings that seek to alleviate the ego’s insecurity and experience of insufficiency through grasping after a solid and lasting identity in possessions and personal significance, to attribute happiness and unhappiness to circumstances outside of oneself that one tries to manipulate toward their advantage.
  • There is a path that liberates us from suffering
  • It is to release ego as our identity, and restore it to its appropriate balanced place and role as a mental faculty only, and to realize the truth of our existence as the awareness within which impermanent and conditional form arises, all within one interconnected and interdependent Universe, sharing our condition with all sentient Beings. To realize that happiness, or more accurately, well being, is our inherent nature, not reliant on external conditions.

With this teaching, Buddhist ethics is born. The fourth Truth is also taught with the inclusion of what is known as “The Noble Eight-fold Path.” This is essentially a description of what an enlightened life is like, leading to a profoundly ethical life, one that realizes our own inherent well being and its connection to the well-being of others. These eight qualities are: “right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.” The “right” in the Eightfold Path is not about commandments issued from an externalized deity or authority, but realizations and qualities that naturally arise within a human being who is “awakened.”.

The Buddha was quite explicit that he was not bringing forth a new religious understanding, and there is nothing in his teaching that was metaphysical or theological. His was not a divinely inspired revelation, but the realization of truths that are inherent to all human beings; that within us all is the capacity for a perfect life, free from suffering, realizing ourelves as a balanced, aware, wise and compassionate expression of the Universe. As the Dalai Lama is known to teach: “These are not religious subjects. They are about basic human good qualities and values.”

Enlightenment, then, is any moment that this reality is felt and realized (not intellectualized). This “awakened” life is called the life of bodhicitta, (awakened heart or consciousness) and is the path of the Bodhisattva (an awakened being). To be awakened, to be a Bodhisattva, is to live within the experience of the interconnectedness and interdependence that underpins all of life, and to fully realize interconnectedness and interdependence is also to see Karma, the principle of cause and effect, that determines our unfolding experience of the world.

When a person lives in realization of the principles of Karma, interconnectedness and interdependence that underpin existence, this will naturally also give rise to an ethical sense of view and conduct. This ethical perspective is codified in Buddhism as the Five Precepts, deliberately vowed to as one’s intention and meditation, and practiced to the best of one’s ability by those who take on the Buddhist lifestyle, and these are, in their most elemental expression: commitments to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

In a broader, and more psychological expression, the precepts are to abstain from willful physical harm to others, willful exploitation and material harm to others, willful exploitation that arises out of misuse of sexual, romantic or seductive behavior, willful exploitation through misleading and false action or language, and to be free of addictive behaviors that lead to an unconscious or unawakened life. This last precept is not only about chemical addictions, but all behaviors, beliefs and conditioning that lead to an egocentric life, that which is the source of the other four affronts to the dignity, worth and right to freedom from suffering in others and ourselves.

It is also inherent with the realization of the connectedness and interdependence with all Beings and the realization of the universality of the Four Noble Truths that a sense of kinship with all Beings arises. There develops an identification with their suffering, and a deep understanding of its cause as delusional egoic perspective and conditioning. This is the foundation of Buddhist compassion. To quote the Dalai Lama, it is to “realize that we are all human beings, even those who would be our enemies, who are just like you and me, seeking freedom from suffering.” And with this realization, ultimately one is led to the Path of the Bodhisattva, in a sense , a contract and commitment for compassionate living that says:
I vow to save all sentient beings.
I vow to overcome delusion.
I vow to deepen understanding of The Path to the cessation of suffering.
I vow to attain Awakening into the truth of existence.

In effect, we are our brothers’ keeper. The quality of my existence is inextricable from the quality of all beings’ existence. This then is Buddhist ethics. It is not a system of laws, rules or commandments from an outside authority. It is presented as a system of realizations available to any person who is determined, just as was Siddhartha Gautama, to understand and overcome the suffering that humans experience and bring into the world. It is available to any person because it is inherent in our own deepest human and universal nature, and it can be realized when a person, as did Siddhartha, stops living out their conventional life and meditates on the human condition.

Roshi Yamada’s predecessor, Roshi Yasutani, taught that to awaken into the truth of existence through deep meditation, will bring the realization that “It is imperative to abandon the idea of a ‘myself’ standing in opposition to ‘others.’” This then will inevitably result in, not some rigid religious moralistic code of conduct, but a fluid, natural expression of, as Yamada said, “forgetting the self in the act of uniting with Life.” This is the Buddhist path to salvation from suffering for us all. Stop asking, “what’s in it for me?” Rather, live showing up in life, moment-to-moment, asking, “what’s needed of me, that I may be an expression of the celebration and honoring of the community of Life?” This is how we awaken, and how we can contribute to the creation of an awakened, enlightened human society. Choose the Path of the Bodhisattva.

Me In The Universe

“It is imperative to abandon the idea of a “myself” standing in opposition to “others.” This is an illusion produced by a false view of things. To come to self-realization you must directly experience yourself and the Universe as one… you understand this theoretically, but… you must let go of logical reasoning and grasp the real thing.”
– Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973)

The standard American perspective has “me” as the center of my universe. We tend to enter into each moment with the perspective of “what’s in it for me?” We are looking for what in this moment will enhance me and guarding against what will detract from me. Admittedly sometimes our sense of enhancement comes from altruistic and generous motives, but we still have a sense of “me” as the source of altruism at the center of our consciousness. This is a perspective that makes sense from a highly personalized point of view, what can be called the egoic perspective, but it is a perspective that is extremely limited and limiting. It is a perspective that causes our experience of life often to be immediately, and always ultimately, unsatisfying, and one that has immense implications for humans as a source of harm and disharmony in the Universe.

Buddhism presents us with a radically different perspective for our consideration, one that has “me” as a center in the Universe and the Universe as the center of me. The Universe and I are one. It is a non-dualistic perspective. Ultimately, there is no “me” as distinct from the Universe or the contents of the Universe, for the Universe is all there ultimately is. The Universe is an infinite pattern of energy containing infinite patterns of energy all connected energetically. What we experience as “me” at its ultimate dimension is a pattern of energy, of physical and consciousness energy, within patterns of energy, within patterns of energy within the one great pattern of energy that is the Universe. It is into this ultimate dimension, and our connection to and through the expanding, concentric fields of energy and reality along the way, that Buddhism and meditation seek to awaken us.

That said… we are also, this dualistic consciousness in our perceptual experience, and so, there is me, separate, this physical body and mental processes and social affiliations, and the rest of the Universe is out there, and it is a mistake to turn that experience into a fiction, a delusion. There is me, in society (another pattern of energy that we are within) out there (welcome to paradox). I am the subjective center of that world. But to end there, to have that be all that we are, is a trap. It turns all of the world and its contents, including people, animals, the natural forces and resource of the planet into objects – literally resources for exploitation. From this perspective, we are able to rationally distance ourselves, engage in limitless manipulative and acquisitive behavior, and create much harm, as well as feel we are being harmed. It is a prison of subjective isolation in a perceived Universe of competing, sometimes hostile, objects.

So, when we live as if this “I,” this body and mental activity, is the limit of who I am, it is an ultimately harmful perceptual delusion, and we live trapped in this delusion. We are unable to realize and experience, that this “I” is, ultimately and at the most fundamental level, a center of perception, of consciousness, within the Universe that is made up of infinite such centers, thus allowing, in effect, the Universe to be the center of “me.” This center is nowhere specifically finite – and, here comes paradox again, it is. It is here. And it is everywhere. Wherever your consciousness perceives, there is the Universe, and the most fundamental “me” is this consciousness perceiving this moment. The Universe is not anything separate, but it is the essence of who I am, and, there both is and isn’t any sense of “I” at the center of it. From this perspective, we see the interconnectedness and relatedness of all of Life’s expressions and a natural compassionate and benevolent attitude results. With this realization also comes a deep sense of placement and belonging in the Universe. The personal perspective and the ultimate or Universal perspective balance each other.

This may sound philosophically/spiritually fascinating, but still, theoretical or even absurd, but it is, as a fact, the experience that is central to all that is pleasing and natural in our experience. We just don’t notice it. It becomes the accidental pleasure and joy in our lives that we attribute to the situation – as in being happy when we recreate or listen to music or make love or have a particularly creative moment in our work, or play with our dog or child, or take a fully attentive hike in the woods. It happens any time that our experience of the moment is direct and pure – there is no sense that there is an “I” having it. Sometimes this is called “flow.” There is only the moment in experience. We shift from having consciousness of “I” at the center of our experience, to the experience being the center of “I.” Perhaps it could also be expressed as the realm of our Beingness infinitely connected to shared Beingness with all Creation, in a given moment or activity.

This is the non-dualistic perspective of Buddhism and of mystics from every culture. “You must experience yourself and the Universe as one… you must let go of logical reasoning and grasp the real thing.” Now, why is this important? It is a marvelous esoteric concept, and it is great when it happens, but why must we “grasp the real thing?” Because it doesn’t have to be accidental, it can be cultivated, and it is our salvation. It is the path to individual salvation from being psychologically and spiritually lost, and it is the path to salvation for the human species, as well as the many, many species whose existence is threatened by human activity. It ultimately is the path that leads to sustainable well being for human society on this planet Earth. It is the necessary consciousness that opens humanity’s evolution into what the deep ecologist Thomas Berry described as the “Ecozoic Era,” when humanity realizes its naturally mutually enhancing relationship within the planet’s ecosystem.

When we shift having “I” as the center of experience, into experience (consciousness of the moment) being the center of “I,” the Universe opens. If you want your life to be wonderful (and who doesn’t?) you must allow your life to be filled with wonder, not “I” looking for wonderful experiences – which to the egoic “I” are unique, rare and exceptional. When we stop running the thought-driven mental program of “I, me, mine” and open consciousness fully into the world just as it is, then the reality of “I” as an expression of the Universe within the Universe expressing itself in infinite subtlety of form and energy, fills us.

This is the essence of wonder that is described as the spiritual or mystical experience, and the potential is there every moment, because this is the reality of how things actually are. Our connectedness to the flower, the bird, the tree, the person standing in front of us becomes obvious. Space connects rather than separates, and you “experience yourself and the Universe as one.” It is not a mental abstraction – out there. It is who we are, right here, right now, and true meditation teaches us this.

The entire world begins to be experienced from a subjective as well as an objective perspective. We live in both the personalized, social construct and the Universally related construct. Our personal lives become increasingly “wonder-full” and our relationship to Life and our fellow Beings, human, animal and planetary becomes increasingly deeply respect-full and care-full. And that is what I call salvation, “but… you must let go of logical reasoning and grasp the real thing.”

Meditation On Evolution

Meditation on evolution

Allow me to engage you and your capacity for imagination and visualization while I take you on a meditation on the journey of evolution. — Please close your eyes…. Focus awareness into your breathing, and relax into the moment. As I speak, follow along with the vision of your mind’s eye –

In the beginning was the fertile emptiness of the void – empty of form – the total consciousness of the unformed Universe – In the East called Brahman, in the West, God. In an instant of Divine choice – BANG…(music begins)… Form came into Being. Spreading infinitely across the infinite net of the primal energy of God-consciousness – a physical Universe, a thought in the consciousness of God.

From the infinite energy-consciousness, the mystery of infinite form-consciousness. First, the particles, then the atoms, then the molecules, combining and recombining, experimenting, rising into the infinite variety of forms. Stars being born — giving birth to their planetary flocks & moons & meteors & comets. Systems of stars and galaxies, infinite beauty spreading out across the Heavens….. On the planets of these infinite stars, at first the simple, the simple giving rise to the more complex, all within the web of the energy universe, all invested with the spark of original Consciousness. The simple, the inorganic, the gaseous, liquid and solid, the air, the waters, the mineral, the rock, the crystalline, consciousness so dim as to seem non-existent.

More complex and more complex, until in a corner of the Universe where air and liquid and solid touch in perfect combination, a planet, Earth hanging in the vastness, beautiful….. gives rise to the miracle of Life…. – the organic, Life…. is born on this planet and perhaps others that only God knows of, and with it, the tiniest spark of self-consciousness – still dim, but now capable of interaction with environment, breathing, feeding, multiplying, coming into form, going out of form, being born and dying. Simple one celled, then two-celled, then multiple celled, then complex forms, experimenting in the primeval soup of this Earth planet. Plant life expanding in variation and complexity, fixed in their locality, extensions of the environment, direct and simple in their life processes….

Then, complexity reaches a quantum moment, from plant to animal, again in increasing complexity of form accompanied by increasing complexity of consciousness – interacting in ever more complex variations with environment…. out of the seas, into the air, onto the land, an increasingly fixed sense of self, the beginnings of intelligence, still primal, but true consciousness, as invertebrate evolves into vertebrate, localized ganglia evolves into diffuse nervous systems, evolves into central nervous systems, evolves into primitive brains. Life crawls out of the seas as amphibians…. rules the land as reptiles….. moments of quantum complexification changing the basic rules of life.

Another quantum moment, as cold-blooded becomes warm-blooded, Life births and suckles its furry offspring, brains enlarging, consciousness becomes subtler, more responsive, less reactive, still imprisoned in species consciousness of instinct, with glimmers of individuality…. Small at first, scurrying, hiding from the reptilian masters, but with vast expanses of time, becoming the masters…. From mouse-like to Elephantine…. In the forests, the plains, the mountains, the ice-shelves, even the air and waters….. uniqueness in not only form, but within narrow parameters, behavior, individuality….more complex and more complex, now adaptation increasingly cognitive. A branch of these mammals, monkey, clever, versatile, quick in adaptation becoming ape, with increasing self-awareness, increasing clan awareness, increasing mental capacity, primitive tool making, primitive social hierarchy, increasing personality and individuality.

Another quantum moment. First pre-human. Small, arboreal. Nature begins the great experiment leading toward human. Leaving the trees, increasing in size, longer in limb, shorter in tooth, moving toward upright walking, increasingly social, the brain, the seat of intelligence growing larger with each experiment. Now certainly human. Times when several experiments co-exist, testing their survivability. More complex and more complex behavior and social organization are these primitive pre-humans…… Until…

Another quantum moment. True humans. Homo Erectus. Then Homo Neandratalis and Homo Sapiens. Human Beings…. Man…. Spreading across the globe out of Africa into every climate and continent. Primitive…… but with a complexity of consciousness capable of true abstraction. Language. Culture. Tool use becomes systematic, tools used to make tools – One form, Homo Sapiens, survives the competition, probably due to the greatest complexity of consciousness, cleverer, more adaptable, Earth’s climactic changes possibly being the winnowing factor, adaptability, abstract reasoning ability. The masters of the Earth have arrived. Human ego is born. The fall from Eden becomes inevitable.

At first, emerging from Nature, hunter-gatherers, cultures of stone and bone, living close to the earth, remaining identified with Nature, struggling with Nature…. true individuals in small bands, families, increasing survivability with combining of bands of families into tribes…. and larger and larger tribes….. increasing abstract cultural expression of who the “we” were. Nature consciousness giving way to ego-consciousness – civilization. The concept of “I” becoming more and more complex and central to personal experience, and with it, increasingly complex and abstract forms of conflict with that which is not “I” and “we.”

Learning to go beyond their mystical union with Mother Earth, beyond hunting and gathering, into the taming of the Mother, crop cultivation, domestication of animals, the ability to concentrate population, increasing the chance for survivability over the “other.” More and more abstract relationship to Nature, and with it, a more and more abstract representation of primal source, of “God.” More and more hard-edged tools, from the Earth, abstracting metals, finding the hard metallic edge of human self. Civilizations in Mesopotamia, China, India, Egypt, eventually into the European Mediterranean, and from there, across Europe into its full bloom, and eventually to Europe’s colonial dominions…. Natural hierarchy gives way to abstracted hierarchy based in individual and collective wielding of the abstract tools of power. Tribal head becomes King, territory becomes nation. Mystical expression of connection to source within and with-all becomes religion, petitioning the Source “out there.” Shaman, connected to the secrets of Nature, wielder of power from the energy of Nature becomes Priest, interpreter of secrets of symbols, wielders of human power. More and more complex, more and more abstract.

Kings and religions exercise violence against competing others…. Violence to Nature increases. The forests are felled. Fields are plowed and cities rise. Kingdoms become empires forged from violence…. Humanity and Nature diverge completely, and those humans that stayed simpler, more interwoven with Mother Nature, fall victim to those who have aligned with Father Invention…. Innocence is slaughtered…. Nurturing Mother-Earth God gives way to angry all-powerful, jealous and vengeful Pater – God the Father … Evolution continues, the simple becoming ever more complex, a process of complexity of consciousness in abstraction, diversity gives way to relentless absorption into more and more concentrated cultural identities of “we.” What is left out is Nature, the animals, the sources of life are no longer worshipped, but become resources to be exploited.

Another quantum moment. Although Pater God remains worshipped symbolically, now the true deity becomes human invention. Great cities of great empires, exploiting the resources of life in increasing competition….. Greater and greater Cities. Invention. Invention applied to the total subduing and taming of Nature, the subduing, taming and genocide of the people of Nature. Fewer and fewer separate empires, only a few mega-empires, competing cultures, until technology and its commerce arise as the one surviving culture, Nature nearly exhausted, largely tamed. Evolution has turned on itself…. This fertile planet Earth, nearly exhausted, the abstracting capacity of humans, in their seeming endless cleverness, now separated from the most elemental of wisdoms, the felt knowledge of from whence they came, stands on a precipice….. Competition and commerce becomes the true human god…. Bureaucracy corralling individuality, corporations the new meaningful social and legal entity.

So long disconnected from their true mother, humans are going crazy, becoming soulless. The competitiveness and insecurity eats away at their own consciousness of Beingness, the connectedness to Being and their fellow Beings. The planet that is their home is no longer seen as source, but only as resource. The animal life of the planet faces unprecedented extinctions, akin to the great epochal environmental catastrophes of the prehistoric past, only now the environmental catastrophe is Man.

Ring bell.

Open your eyes. I apologize that this has not been a pleasant meditation, but meditation is not only for relaxation – It is for awakening into the true nature of ourselves and our lives, and this journey we have taken together here is the unfortunate truth of how things are.

Another question needs to be asked.

Is this the end of evolution? …. Humanity its home planet, and the fellow creatures who inhabit this planet are certainly in an evolutionary crisis that may lead to a de-volutionary process that plays itself out returning us to brutishness, or even to extinction, as we are taking an unprecedented number of non-human species to extinction. Is this how it ends? It doesn’t have to be. –

It can be as Teilhard de Chardin also wrote…
“Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.”
Let us imagine how….

Please close your eyes again, and continue with me…..
(Music – meditation 1b)

With the continued abstraction of the meaning of power, power becomes available to those who were powerless. Those who were excluded become included. Varieties of tribal groupings become states, united in the abstraction of the state. Economic power becomes more available to more and more. The state goes from being the King to being the people. “We the people” that originally meant landed white males, comes closer and closer to all the people, inclusive of race and gender and economic status. The evolutionary process of a convergence of diversity plays out…. The extending instrument of human invention and abstraction, technology in the form of information sharing systems, spreads across the globe creating a primitive global consciousness. One people, one planet begins to arise as a meaningful consciousness…. But too few see and understand…. Now what is needed is one sustaining and dynamic vision into the future. Those who see must become the visionaries, but how?

To answer the crisis of alienation from environment and soul, out of the ancient past come traditions, born just as the great human civilizations were being born, condemned for millennia to esoterica and superstition, traditions which arise like ancient time-capsules to remind humans that their nature is Nature, their source is Nature, the Universe their home, their consciousness the echo of the consciousness before form…. Even in their invention, through its science, its physics, now understanding the meaning of quantum, it is discovered what has long been known, interconnectedness and interdependence is the reality of life, not the abstraction of separateness and exploitation… Out of the past comes the sacred sound of OM, the sound of all sound together in harmony. The reminder of the breath of life as the connecting and sustaining reality. Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, the rediscovery of the wisdom of the native people of the Americas and Australia, even the long destroyed Celtic world and the original teachings, so long corrupted, of the prophet Jesus whisper to us… ‘”We are one” – the Universe, through this troublesome species, that has taken its home planet to the brink of exhaustion, speaks.

Unformed consciousness finds form and reminds us of its origin before form in the fertile emptiness of the Void, before human ego overthrew human Beingness, reminding us of our source, in the beginning…. This wisdom remains within us in the quiet stillness of our Being. It whispers – a new quantum moment is at hand. The rejoining of humanity with the mother, with Earth, our home, with the Universe, our source and destiny. Our abstracting cleverness, our technology can be turned to service of the Source, not to misguided attempts to rule that which cannot be ruled.

Out of the past, a religion, perhaps meant as the religion to end religion and reawaken true spiritual connection with the Universe, speaks with increasing relevance in the modern world. Buddhism. The word Buddhism says it is not a religion. It does not mean to be another religion, we don’t need another religion. The word Buddhism means “The practice of Awakening.” Misunderstood in the past by ego-dominated humans who needed to make religions, the modern time is different. The time now is for throwing away outmoded egoic contrivances, and for the ancient wisdom traditions to speak to us again, for an awakening into the truth of who we are.

A new human dialectic is at hand to take us into the future, to save this Earth, its denizens and humanity from humanity’s self and Life destructive trance. The ancient wisdom has re-arisen to join with modern human invention and technology. The wisdom of the Creation in including human ego may be at hand. The Universe has its voice and hands to realize itself in form. All that remains to do is for humanity to “awaken” into its essential Beingness… the Universe awakened. Ommmmmmmm.

Committing To Evolution

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘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 us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

“The next step in human evolution is to transcend thought… It doesn’t mean to not think anymore, but simply not to be completely identified with thought, possessed by thought.” – Eckhart Tolle

“Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness.” – Teilhard de Chardin

As with any species, when its environment can no longer support it in its expression, manner and pattern of life, humanity must evolve, devolve, or face extinction. And for humanity, its future depends on individuals and society evolving beyond, and being liberated from, identification with that limited dimension of the human mind called ego. I say liberated from, because this identification has the characteristics of an addiction that, like a chemical addiction, keeps us functioning destructively, while in denial of the consequences. Humanity is at an evolutionary tipping point. Our social structures, our economics, our religions and our psychologies cannot take us into a quality future unless a fundamental evolutionary step beyond identification with ego is taken.

We must realize that while ego, with its compulsion to competition, invention and domination has been the driving centerpiece of human history, in fact, our proudest characteristic, it is also our blind spot. It is the fatal flaw that separates us from the truths of interconnectedness and wholeness upon which this Universe operates. What many seem blindly unreceptive to is that we must realize and embrace these truths if we are to achieve real sanity, both as individuals and as a species. Many who do see the problem, also say ego orientation, what could be called our “humanness,” with its thought dominance and its materialistic drives have been destructive of our connection to our “Beingness,” what some might call our “soul.” This could also be described as our connectedness to a deeper nature than our modern harried, acquisitive and self-absorbed lifestyles allow for. Before it is too late, we must face the limits and dangers of humanity’s predominantly egoic perspective.

Human resourcefulness will probably save us from extinction, but that leaves the question; are we doomed to devolution in the face of these new environmental realities? Will we descend into a deeply diminished quality of life, into brutish survival-based competitiveness? Or perhaps our evolution will take on a sci-fi freakishness of technology gone amok. These are possibilities. The relevant question is: can we evolve into a consciousness that will reclaim our balanced place within Life? Can we bring our human capacity for technology and social organization, that which has elevated human civilization but been so destructive of Nature, into the service of Nature and of all Life as beautiful, balanced and deserving of dignity and preservation.

Along with ecological devastation, symptomatic of the error of the egoic perspective has been the unique personal emotional suffering humans have experienced and wrought through individual and collective egoic violence throughout its “civilized” expression. Our unique capacity for abstract reasoning takes the information of our senses and tells us that we are separate, alone and insignificant. It creates a psychological construct of that isolation called the ego, built around and propelled by thought, reconstructing its matrix of unreality compulsively moment-to-moment, and replicating itself macro-dimensionally in societies and cultures.

The ego experiences this isolation and responds with anxiety, and from this fear-based emotion, in misguided compensatory pursuits of significance and happiness, we do terrible things to ourselves, others, our fellow non-human creatures, and to the planet in endless compulsive actions and schemes. At every level of human organization, from the individual, through families, communities and societies, this curse has haunted human history.

Religion doesn’t work, psychology doesn’t work, politics doesn’t work. They are all expressions of macro-ego. We have created a competitive, insecure, consumption oriented world-culture that is, of course, consuming the planet, but first, it has consumed our sanity. Compounding the problem is that ego will use denial and rationalization to continue its self-absorbed, self-indulgent and delusional ways, and is very slippery, cunning and determined to continue holding sway.

With that understanding, the evolution beyond egoic orientation, for individuals and for humanity requires, as does any addiction rehabilitation, a willingness to make, as addiction 12-step programs require, a “searching and fearless inventory” and make amends. We must recognize the necessity for evolving beyond this aberration in Nature, and enter into a very dedicated commitment to humanity’s evolution, re-harmonizing humanity with Nature into what ecologist Thomas Berry described as the “Ecocentric era.”

This planetary journey must, of course, begin with individuals, for the evolutionary success of any species begins with adaptations accomplished in individuals. A deeper understanding of the meaning and accomplishment of this shift in identity from the egoic thought structures into “searching and fearless” awareness is necessary. The resulting sanity and consciousness experienced by individuals can then serve as the beginning place for the next phase of planetary evolution.

This will not be easy. To penetrate and overcome the overlay of false identity and egoic values that have been the human path since civilization began, will no doubt, require sincere and conscious commitment. To alter this deeply ingrained orientation, this false belief in and addiction to egoic aggrandizement, will require a fundamental reorientation – a breaking of the worshipful attachment humanity has for ego and its thought structures, for specialness and superiority. It will require a reclaiming of humanity’s roots, its origin in a Nature that is a harmonious whole, and the challenge cannot be underestimated, for we cling tenaciously to this patently destructive orientation to competitive materialism. We turn a blind eye to the unending damage that this false sense of entitlement brings in every arena of life, for as with any addiction, we addicts are in total denial. We believe, against all evidence, that the human egoic mantra of “more for me and mine” can go on endlessly without catastrophic repercussion.

In response, it could be conjectured that Buddhism, with its call to meditative mindfulness, might seem to have been born into the emerging civilized world 2500 years ago in realization of just this dilemma. It is specifically intended to “awaken” individuals out of the sleep of civilization’s egoism. Traditional Japanese Zen masters understood the conundrum of confronting the deeply conditioned pull to socially sanctioned egoic perspective in constructing Zen training as strenuous, rigid and authoritarian in a kind of ju-jitsu of Japanese cultural values. It required the student to demonstrate to the teacher repeatedly the depth of their commitment to the discovery of enlightenment, their “true face” and “original” or “natural mind.” Zen training was designed to create the psychic tension necessary to break free of cultural conditioning to identification with egoism into a “satori,” an awakening into the reality of natural Beingness. It was a strenuous rehab program in kicking the ego habit and becoming a free human being.

While American culture is very different from the cultural tradition that classical Zen training confronted, we must bring the same kind of rigor and dedication to breaking free of the Western cult of materialistic, egocentric personality. In order to do this, the Zen tools of disciplined meditation, mindful action, ethical compassion and koanic challenge remain essential in this journey toward freedom and consciousness. They act as the counterbalance to egoic mind.

We must expand the contours of our awareness. As the great psychologist Fritz Perls used to say, “The contours of our neurosis are the same as the contours of our awareness.” We must, as individuals, and as a species, realizing that, as American Zen Master Charlotte Joko Beck taught, “awareness is who we are,” expand and evolve that awareness to erase all false boundaries between fellow Human Beings, Humans and fellow animal Beings and between Humans and Nature. We must commit to our own evolution, to an “ascent toward consciousness,” or face the inevitability of the Karma we have created.

Zen Sitting Meditation

When in the Zazen posture, your mind and body have great power to accept things as they are, whether agreeable or disagreeable.” – Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki (1905-71)

I’ve written a lot about meditation; now let’s explore how to do it. The Japanese word “Zen” means meditation, and in the Zen tradition, the word for sitting meditation is Zazen. Within the Zen tradition, what is needed for enlightenment is determined Zazen, helped along by a few koans and some challenging guidance from masters. In the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, after all his intellectual and ascetic strivings, frustrated, but determined, he sat in meditation, completely settled in stillness, conquering all his desires and fears until at last his awakening occurred. This is the challenge and promise for every student of Zen.

Whether you sit cross-legged on a cushion or upright in a chair, the posture and attitude you bring to sitting in meditation is of greater importance than is readily appreciable from a conventional perspective. The quality of your meditation will be greatly affected by the posture of your sitting. It could be said that your sitting posture is, in effect, the posture or stance you are taking not only to your meditation, but also to life, to the entire issue of the possibility of enlightenment. It is an attitude we take with the posture of our body that can steer our minds towards deeper and deeper levels of insight into our own deepest nature. It is a posture of dignity, of uprightness, of relaxed alertness, of compassionate curiosity, of welcoming openness to the secrets of existence.

We sit with an upright spine, a strong sense of the earth beneath us, the crown of our head reaching ever so lightly toward the sky. Our hands are folded in our lap, shoulders relaxed. If sitting on the floor, our legs are crossed or folded beneath us. If sitting on a chair, both feet are on the floor or with ankles crossed. At first, it is good to meditate with eyes closed, although eyes half-open is traditional. I find eyes open is fine after you have become experienced, but the focus in either case must be straight ahead, about two to three feet in front of you, about navel height, focused on nothing, consciousness turned inward. Sit with a relaxed jaw, the tongue lightly touching the roof of the mouth. As the facial muscles relax, perhaps a slight smile will emerge as the face’s natural expression.

OK. So we are sitting, looking like a good meditator. Now what? What to do with the mind? What to do with this skittering, distractible mind? Meditation is often described as mind looking at mind to better understand mind and eventually to direct mind into the deepest and subtlest of insights and experiences. How do we do that? We begin by focusing awareness into the sensations of our breathing. (Why the breathing? We’ll discuss that another time.)

Experience the subtle ever-present sensation of your ordinary every-moment breathing. Watch with the alertness of a sentry the coming and going of breath. It is important to remember that a good sentry is not tense. A good sentry watches what comes and goes with relaxed alertness, otherwise they would tire quickly, and with a tense focus, they would also quite possibly miss many important observations, because a tense focus is a narrow focus. To see everything, there must be a relaxed alertness that takes in everything. Watch the breath coming and going. Experience the rising and falling of your chest. Experience the slight breeze across your nostrils. Exhale slightly longer than you inhale. Allow a deepening of your relaxation with every exhalation and a sharpening of the alertness of your awareness with every inhalation. Secondarily, experience whatever comes along, but always, keep coming back to the breath.

OK, you say, I am watching my breath like a good sentry, but my mind keeps talking. Am I not supposed to make my mind quiet? No. The human brain is a thought-making machine. You cannot force it silent. But, like a good sentry, you notice the thoughts, but because they are not what you are looking for, you notice them and return awareness to what you are watching for, your breath, coming and going. The thoughts will pass, like travelers through the sentry’s field of vision. Many thought/travelers will come and go. Some will very strongly beckon you to follow them. Let them go. Return to watching, to experiencing the breath rising and falling.

If you have difficulty getting started, a very effective method is to count the breaths, combining the mind’s desire to talk with the task of focusing into breathing. Silently count on the exhale ten breaths, then another ten. Three sets of ten breaths is usually enough to settle us into quietly experiencing the breath. An alternative method is the use of a mantra – a word/sound meant to elicit the highest consciousness of true self. “OM” (pronounced “Ah-umm”) is a fairly common mantra expressing connection to the Universal. “Buddh-O” is a typical Buddhist mantra, with “Buddh” silently expressed on the inhalation and “O” on the exhalation, calling to the Buddha within, until “just sitting,” called “shikantaza” takes over.

As you settle into the posture of relaxed alertness, watching the breath come and go, always returning to the breath when the mind distracts with thoughts, you begin to experience a heightening of all senses. You notice the sensations of your body sitting. You may notice the feel of your clothing on your skin, the feel of the air touching skin where there is no clothing. The ambient sounds around you become clearer and more distinct.

If you are indoors, you may hear the ticking of a clock, the hum of a furnace or air conditioning, the passing of traffic outside. If you are playing music (let it be soft and quiet music) you may notice the notes with an increased clarity. If you are outside, you will notice the breeze rustling the leaves, the song of the birds, the hum of the insects – and of course, the sounds of human civilization as well. Insights about the qualitative differences of civilization and Nature may arise. Meditating in Nature, away from civilization, is the best. The experience may begin to be slightly psychedelic. Enjoy it, but don’t be fooled that this euphoria is the point or end of meditation. Still, look deeper.

As you focus into the ever-present, very subtle sensations of your breathing, all of your senses begin to take on a quality of presence and subtlety that we do not typically experience as we rush from where we were in our life situations to where we are going. We typically only pay enough attention to our senses and the present moment to get where we are going, or for the utilitarian purposes of work or entertainment. No, in our Zazen, we have stopped all that. We have, in a sense, stopped time. We are here. We are paying attention. And in our paying attention, the world begins to open up.

There are still thoughts, but now they are quieter. In fact, you may notice there are moments when there are no thoughts. There is just the breathing and the sensations of the moment. Of course, then another thought will come along, but quieter, less insistent, and fewer of them. You may notice the inner quiet. You may discover a dimension of mind that is empty of thought, a silent mind beneath and out of which the talking mind arises. You may notice now the sounds around you are also arising out of silence. There is sound and silence. You enter the silence with your awareness. A great feeling of well-being accompanies this. There does not seem to be this solid, separate self with its thoughts and activity as all that there is to the experience of “me.” There is also silence. There is stillness. There is awareness of being aware. There may even be awareness of being the awareness. You are now at the gates of Zen. You are at the precipice where the awakening beckons you toward the realization that, in the words of the Zen Master Haku’un Yasutani (1885-1973), “You and the Universe are one.”

But first, as novices, Master Suzuki instructs us, with his famous sense of humor, “When sitting, just sit. Above all, do not wobble.” In the double entendre style of Zen, to not wobble in sitting will lead to not wobbling in life. This is our goal. Relaxed, aware, not wobbling in the face of all the comings and goings of life, just as we learned to not wobble in the face of all the comings and goings of thoughts, emotions and mental perceptions in our sitting.

“Show me your face before you were conceived,” challenges the Zen Master. Pure consciousness sits here. Awareness sits here. Awareness of breath. Awareness of sitting. Awareness of the rising and passing of thoughts. Awareness of awareness. Our deepest nature has arisen, and like all of Nature, it is attuned to the perfection of the moment. It knows itself to be vast. It knows what is needed. Your very next thought might not be some worry or calculation or absurdity. Your next thought may well be exactly the thought you need for deeper insight into some aspect of your life, or Life itself, for you have touched the essence of Life with your mind. You have discovered a much bigger you than you ever imagined. From being trapped in your insecure little personal chattering mind, you have found what Buddhism calls, “big mind.”

And then it is gone. Distraction returns. The whole field of awareness collapses back into something smaller. You are back to being little you, “little mind,” again, no longer sitting at one with the Universe. So— return to awareness of your breathing and start the journey over again. But now, you know the destination. Over and over, you make this journey. You confront restlessness, boredom, ordinary and crazy thinking, the pain in your back and legs, even the allure of euphoric oneness. You return over and over to the breath, to the silence, to the stillness until you KNOW.

As Master Suzuki says, “In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism.

And as 13th Century Zen Master Dogen said, “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”

Welcome to the truth. Right where you are sitting. Now stand up, walk, and live Zazen.

The Problem Of “Unsatisfactoriness”

“Hundreds of stupid flies gather
on a piece of rotten meat,
enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
of the myriads of foolish living beings
who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
in countless ways they try,
yet I have never seen them satisfied.”
– 7th Dalai Lama (early 18th century)

“I teach about suffering and the way to end it” – The Buddha

There is great misunderstanding concerning the keystone teaching of Buddhism known as the “Four Noble Truths.” The first of the Noble Truths states “life is dukkha,” and the confusion arises from the difficulty in translating the word “dukkha” from the ancient Indian Pali language that was the Buddha’s tongue. In his excellent book on Buddhist meditation titled Change Your Mind, meditation teacher, John Wilson, who goes by the name, Paramananda, states that dukkha “is normally translated as ‘suffering’, but this is probably a bit misleading… dukkha could perhaps be better rendered as unsatisfactoriness.’”

Another translation for dukkha that can be clarifying is “incapable of providing perfect happiness.” As the 7th Dalai Lama’s poem describes, human beings have a great deal of difficulty being satisfied, and never to be fully satisfied is indeed a form of intractable suffering. Isn’t it “perfect happiness” that we seek, and isn’t it the failure of the circumstances and relationships of our lives to provide perfect happiness that leaves us struggling with dissatisfaction?

So, the Four Noble Truths continue:
2nd Truth – Dukkha is caused by the grasping nature of the human ego.
3rd Truth – There is a way that leads to the release from Dukkha.
4th Truth – The way to release from Dukkha is the path of the Buddha (The Eightfold Path.) that teaches release from attachment and identity from the grasping nature of the human ego.

As I have written before, to understand the teachings of the Buddha requires that we understand the meaning of the name, Buddha. It means, “Awakened One.” And Buddhism is the path of awakening. When we translate the word dukkha as the particular kind of suffering that has to do with experiencing life as “unsatisfactory,” then the teaching is about how to live in such a way as to see (that is, be awake to) the myriad ways that attachment to the ego for identity and its pursuit of “happiness in superficial pleasures” leads to the experience of life as “unsatisfactory.” It then teaches how to reposition our sense of self-in-the-world so that we are in harmony with the natural flow of the transitory nature of existence in a way that leads to the ability to be awake to and experiencing the satisfactoriness of life-as-it-is.

So, returning to the Second Noble Truth: Dukkha is caused by the grasping nature of the human ego. The usual translation leaves the teaching at “dukkha caused by grasping” or, even more commonly, “attachment” and says nothing about human ego. This is a great oversight. A person has to study a great deal of Buddhism to get that what is being referred to as the cause for human suffering and dissatisfaction is attachment for personal identity in what is called the “ego-self,” that unique characteristic of the human mind to abstract experience into linear, dualistic, separated objects, including ourselves and other persons.

We experience ourselves as separate and alone in the universe, and with this experience of separateness comes an experience of insufficiency or unsatisfactoriness in the face of an overwhelming world. To compensate, the human ego “grasps” after fulfillment and becomes “attached” to objects, circumstances and relationships that will add to itself in the attempt to become sufficient. Happiness, fulfillment, satisfactoriness is sought outside of ourselves. And there is never enough. As was noted in the 7th Dalai Lama’s poem, we “seek happiness in superficial pleasures” and are never completely satisfied.

Complicating this is that human societies act like macro-egos, creating a group ego-self with values that insist upon competition, acquisitiveness, greed, anger, ignorant attitudes even violence as inherent to human nature, creating “dog-eat-dog” cultures. These cultures condition into individuals increasing levels of insecurity and the seeking of happiness and fulfillment outside of ourselves, taking from others and Nature to enhance ourselves and our group. It seems as if life is a constant game of top-dog/under-dog with everyone scrambling for significance, status and security as if there were no other way. The suffering of unending unsatisfactoriness appears unavoidable.

But the Third Truth says that there is a way out of dukkha, and the Fourth Truth teaches that the Eightfold Path of “correct” thought, speech, action, livelihood, understanding, effort, mindfulness and concentration will lead to the cessation of the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of dukkha. And what is “correct?” It is the awakened direct experience (not intellectual understanding) of the illusion of separateness caused by egoic perception. It is the realization that we are within the web of Life, the unfolding of the Universe, not separate. This is the core realization, the awakening of Buddhism.

Now it is very important not to look at The Eightfold Path as like the Ten Commandments of the Judeo/Christian tradition. These are not commandments about how to behave. They are realizations about what will naturally occur when you live with an “awakened” awareness of the truth of existence. You will have enlightened attitude and conduct concerning thought, speech, action, livelihood, understanding, effort, mindfulness and concentration because it will be who you are.

When, as is a saying in Zen, you realize that “you and the Universe are in the same place,” that “everything is as it can be,” to quote Orientalist Alan Watts, even unsatisfactory, even frightening situations from the egoic perspective can be transformed, can be transcended into life-as-it-is, not to be suffered, but to be lived fully.

In other words, happiness is a state of mind, and when we become adept at living from the deepest level of human consciousness that knows that who we are, to again quote Alan Watts, is “The Universe peering into itself from billions of points of view” we have access to the happiness that Buddhism teaches is our natural state. When “you and the Universe are in the same place,” we no longer are dependent on the superficial, that is, that which is outside ourselves for a sense of deep satisfaction with the experience of life – no matter what the circumstances. This may seem impossible, but if you meditate on the nature of mind and on life until you are one with it, it is absolutely possible to overcome the ego’s deep and ongoing sense of “unsatisfactoriness” with all the this and that of our life circumstances. You will come to know (be awake to) the truth – not intellectually – but, as Zen says, with a felt sense in the non-dualistic realization that this is really this, and nothing more is needed. This is the Universe and you in the same place.

At The End Of Myself

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then, suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: The ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”… My mind stopped… I felt drawn into a vortex of energy… I heard the words “resist nothing.”… Suddenly there was no more fear.
– Eckhart Tolle – Introduction to Power of Now

The discovery that Eckhart Tolle made in a time of deep despair, a time when, in effect, he had reached the end of himself, is an important secret common to all mystical teaching. It is also at the heart of Buddhist psychology. He had entered into and found resolution to the personal and spiritual conflict that is sometimes referred to as “the dark night of the soul,” a term coined by the 16th Century Christian mystic St. John of the Cross to describe his struggle with faith. It is a coming to an end of self as understood and lived from a very limited egocentric perspective, and in that ending, to open into a new light of understanding that bridges the ego-self to the Universe, to all of life, awakening a deeper Self that lives in that connection.

Understand that a life-threatening emotional crisis is not necessary. Any person can decide at any time that there must be more than their anxiety filled life, and choose to open into new possibilities by looking at the life they have been living and deeply examining the “I” and the “self” as Tolle did. What Tolle discovered was that there is a “me” that can reach its end, and there is a “me” that has no end. There is the “me” that is all wrapped up in the beginnings and endings of my material life circumstances, and there is a “me” that is a direct expression of Life, a continuum without beginning and end. It is Life expressing itself through an individual human. It is also the entryway into mystical experience, an often misunderstood and ethereal concept, for it is in actuality, the true expression of the fullest human potential for spiritual and mental health.

Both this limited ego-self me and the mystical me-as-the-Universe-expressing-itself exist, and every human experiences both of these dimensions, although few recognize the mystical experience as their very essence, and fewer still consciously explore this ego-transcendent dimension. For the vast majority, they stay wrapped up in the certainty of their circumstantial material experience as the full extent of who they are. These seeming contradictory expressions of self are the essential paradox of human existence, which if unraveled, leads to a true liberation, to where there is no fear.

Anything that can end must also have a beginning, and so it is with this “me” that can reach its end, because this “me,” in addition to being a biological form that has its beginning and end, is also a story begun in each person’s infancy and rewritten and refined throughout a life span. Understand, it is not the biological “me” with its beginning and end that is a problem, not any more than a squirrel’s life is problematic, but rather, it is the “story of me” that we carry in our mind that bedevils and worries us.

It is the story of the socially conditioned “me,” the “me” in the timeline of my life, getting from past to future that causes so much tension, conflict and angst. It is my stories of success and failure, both past and anticipated. It is my stories of humiliation and redemption, of love and hate, of struggle and accomplishment, of gain and loss, of relationship and loneliness. It is the story of my psychological profile, my personal philosophy, and my political and religious identifications. It is my habits, my preferences, my prejudices, my likes and dislikes. It is my fantasies. It is my hopes and fears. It is the story of my addictive behaviors. It is even the story of my spiritual beliefs and journey. It is anything and everything that is in the matrix of thought patterns that fill my mind with who I think I am. And, it is not who I nor anyone is. Not at our essence.

The “story” always contains drama, struggle and strife. For some, there is relatively little struggle, for others it is a living torture chamber. What is true for everyone is that there is an ever-present whip of fear about whether they are enough, whether their story matters, whether who they are is actually the truest and best expression of who they might be. It always feels like there must be more. Again, for some, this may be nothing more than a passing fantasy of little consequence, while for some it is agonizing, and for still others, it is a motivating cause in their life, but for everyone, there is an urge from deep within to realize who they are beyond their limited and anxious story of self. There is a silent whispering to actualize a dimension that has no fear because it is the realized truth of who they are beyond any sense of lack or fear.

It is from this place, as Tolle’s inner voice guided him, that we are able to “resist nothing.” This is sometimes spoken of as the Self beyond the self, the Being that is before and larger than ego, the true “I” that isn’t at odds with anything in the Universe because there is a knowing emanating from this Self of being an integral expression of the Universe unfolding. It is. Nothing more is needed.

The man who was not yet the Buddha came to the end of himself 2500 years ago as he sat under the Bodhi tree in meditation vowing never to rise until he achieved enlightenment. In the moment of his enlightenment, looking at a morning star, he transcended himself and became the morning star, and so the seeking nobleman turned ascetic named Siddhartha Gotama figuratively died, to emerge as the Buddha, The Awakened One. He then rose from his meditation and went on to teach his “Middle Way” and the Noble Truths that said suffering was caused by attachment to this story of self with all its drama, cravings and aversions, causing life to be frustrating and often dissatisfying. He also taught that salvation was available to those who were ready to come to the end of their ego-selves, and in doing so, awaken into the deeper truth of who they were beyond frustration and dissatisfaction.

What is important for us to hold in awareness is that every thought in our minds is really only a story, a representation, and often a distortion of our direct experience-in-the-world, and we live attaching to these story-thoughts as if they were true, as if they represent who we are and what the world is about. This is what the Buddha taught as the delusion that leads to suffering. Each thought arises calling to us to believe in it as the truth, but it is only a story that arises and passes away. These thoughts are often at odds with each other, and certainly at odds with the thoughts of others, and conflict and confusion inevitably result. These thoughts are not who we are.

The lesson that leads to liberation, that leads to the discovery of who we truly are, is what happens when we are willing to let the thoughts, the stories and their drama end, when we are willing to come to the end of ourselves to discover our true Self in the quiet space that lingers after the thought-stories end. In that quiet space, where the ego-self ends, there is a purity of awareness like a mirror that reflects what is in front of it without reacting to the contents of the reflection, that can see clearly, that is completely within the unfolding of the moment, just as it is. It needs nothing. It fears nothing for it is our essential Self, and essence cannot be reduced or threatened.

We don’t have to achieve complete enlightenment as the Buddha did. That’s just another story. A moment where you stop all your stories, release your addiction to drama, where you come to the end of yourself, either by circumstance or by conscious choice, and fully experience the still quiet space where you and the Universe meet is enough. This end is the beginning, when the moment just as it is, is enough, and we find ourselves embedded within the moment, not some separate spectator or victim of it. It will start you on the path to the Self that knows how to resist nothing and live without fear. As you learn to linger there, tasting and learning the truth of who you are – at the end of yourself – you will find life, your life, sparkling like a diamond.

Life as Foreground

“Listen. Listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

The central premise of Gestalt psychology and Zen are nearly the same. In Gestalt psychology, it is understood that we live our lives paying attention to only those aspects of the totality of what is present and happening that resonates with our personal conditioning and our motivation in the moment. It uses language that talks about the “figure” experience, that which is in the foreground of our awareness, and the “ground” or background of the total possibility of the moment. Our personal reality, our subjective experience, is made up of what we have brought out of the background and into the foreground of our awareness, and it is the maintenance of this subjective experience, our conditioned personality, the who-that-I-experience-to-be-me, that is our primary motivation. It is the way I walk and talk and think and feel. It is what I see and hear and interact with out of the everything that is to be seen and heard and interacted with, and for each person this is different.

So, who is this “me?” This is the central question of both Gestalt psychology and Zen, although they answer it slightly differently. Gestalt, emerging out of Western psychology, is primarily concerned with personality development, and defines this me by its neurotic contours, the ego, the who-I-experience-to-be-me. Zen, emerging out of Buddhist psychology, is primarily concerned with enlightenment, the state of absolute mental health and human potential. So the question, “who is this me?” has two answers. There is the neurotic me and then there is the enlightened or “true,” “original,” “natural” me, all terms that Buddhism uses to point to the enlightened Being that resides within each of us buried under neurotic conditioning.

Gestalt seeks, through bringing into present moment awareness by various techniques and therapist interactions, that which is happening in the subjective experience below the threshold of awareness, to expand the contours of the “figure,” thus bringing insight to the person. As is said in Gestalt, “the contours of the neurosis are the same as the contours of awareness.” We are primarily aware of that which conforms to the personality that is conditioned into us.

In example, an angry person is experiencing out of the everything in the world more reasons to be angry, and the anxious person, is experiencing out of the everything in the world more reasons to be anxious. This is a simplification, but it is mostly true. The foreground of a person’s experience is made up of not only healthy functional aspects of their personality, but also the limitations in perception that make for their craziness. The genius of Gestalt is that by expanding the contours of a person’s awareness, to experience more possibilities, and to see where the possibilities are being cut off, the contours of the neurotic personality begin to expand, becoming less limiting, less neurotic, eventually completely healthy, even enlightened.

Now the simple truth is that the everything in the world that Gestalt calls “background” is Life. It is Nature, the Universe, and this is where Buddhism picks up. Buddhism is a psychology that looks to bypass the neurosis completely by directing a person to get in touch with the dimension of themselves that is not neurotic. “Show me your original face!” exhorts the Zen master seeking to awaken in the person an insight, a direct experience, a Satori, into the realization of their deepest nature – – – – which is what? Of course, the only thing it can be: Nature.

Zen seeks to awaken the realization that the same harmony and balance that is Nature is the core of every human. What else could it be? It is only that humans have allowed that which is their natural core, their essential ground of Being, to be the un-noticed background of their lives, just like they dismiss the external world of Nature to be the blur in the background of their personal strivings. Humans give their attention primarily to the neurotic story of their egoic self, conditioned into them by the neurotic egoic forces that dominate others and society. Nature, both in the world and in themselves, is hardly noticed at all, a generally ignored background.

A famous Zen story has the student trailing after the Master as they walk through the woods asking questions about enlightenment, querying, “How do I enter into Zen?” Finally the Master instructed the student to sit down and be quiet. The Master then asked, “Do you hear that mountain stream?” At first, the student, absorbed in his own noisy thoughts, heard no mountain stream, and so the Master instructed, “listen harder.” As the student became quieter, and redirected his awareness from his own noisy mind into the world around him, as he allowed stillness and silence as the underlying fabric of the moment to fill his consciousness, he heard the faint sound of the stream emerging out of the silence. To which the Master instructed, “Enter into Zen from there.” The Master is saying, in effect, “find your true self in that level of attending to the background that is Life.”

Zen challenges us over and over: “Who is this ‘me’?” And the answer is never simple. And it is profoundly simple. Always with Zen, it is the paradox. We are born into this world with a consciousness that is pure awareness. There is no language or experience with which to categorize and separate, judge and discriminate that which comes into our awareness. We have not been shaped yet into our particular neurosis. This is the “original face” that Zen exhorts us to rediscover. Immediately, the cultural forces of family, and later, society, begin creating a dualistic subject-object orientation, and the conditioned recognition and interpretation of separate phenomenon in the environment begins to take over the foreground of mental experience. A personality and a cognitive map of the world begin to form. For the rest of our lives this cognitive map of “me-in-the-world” and subject-object orientation is reinforced, becoming stronger and more pervasive, until that original pure receptive consciousness is nearly completely buried, forgotten, inaccessible. But it is not gone.

There are moments when the dualism evaporates in a pure and direct experience. As small children we had these “satori” moments all the time, such as when we became completely absorbed in an ant trail winding through the grass on a sunny day and we became the ant trail winding through the grass on a sunny day – no me separate from the experience. Or we were running and laughing with a playmate and there was no me and there was no playmate, there was only running and laughing. Or we curl up in our mother’s lap and there is no me, no mother, only the warmth and safety of the lap.

As adults, in moments of sports, arts, love, Nature and sometimes, simply spontaneous openings, the original mind comes forward, subject-object experience dissolves into pure and direct experience of the moment, and time stops. This is Satori. The background of Life directly, non-dualistically experienced comes forward to fill the foreground of awareness and there is no separate me with my thoughts, emotions and proprioceptive separateness filling the foreground anymore. There is only the moment. Psychologists call these, “peak experiences” or “flow.” What they are is your “original face” coming forward as the little ego-bound self falls into the background. The subjective you is still there, but the object has merged with the subject. There is only the moment in experience with all self-directed orientation receded. The egoic self is nowhere to be found. “Out there” and “in here” become one. Non-dualism. Satori. Life directly experienced.

Mostly, however, we live with Life as a barely noticed background to our subjective strivings and cravings and aversions that fill our mental field. Our thoughts about our life situations and circumstances dominate us. Dualistic subjective-objective consciousness dominates, with the thought form of me at the center of my universe. There is a great deal of emotional reactivity in this universe as this “me” is under many stressors to achieve its agenda of safety, sufficiency and success in the world “out there.” Incessant mental activity “in here” with nearly always some degree of anxiety driving it like a whip, becomes our “normal” consciousness. Only when the anxiety erupts into fear, anger, compulsion, depression, and addictions do we discern something is wrong. What is really wrong is that this craziness has become “normal” from the perspective of contemporary life.

Remember the background? Remember Life? “Show me your original face.” Who are you? Well, on one level, you are this body and the jumble of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, behaviors, beliefs, prejudices, fears, ambitions and subject-object relationships that dominate your life circumstances. You experience yourself as the center of this subjective universe. On another level, the primary level, the Zen level, you are this moment in awareness that has a body, that has a cognitive mind, that has circumstances, but “you” are these things only secondarily to being pure consciousness in Life. Life is the foreground experience. The situations and circumstances are just background stuff that needs attending to; and you can attend to them, now skillfully, peacefully and with wisdom. A radical shift in gestalt has occurred. The Universe has become the center of you. It is what I call, “reversing the gestalt.” It is, like the faint sound of a mountain stream, the entry into Zen – it is what “brings me back to my true self.”

Awakening Our Deepest Nature

Do you know that you are Nature? – Zen koan

When I teach, I often will challenge students with koans. Koans are statements or questions meant to awaken insight into an entirely new perspective on the experience of being human. One of my favorites is: “Do you know that you are Nature?” I will often follow this by exhorting, “What else could you be!” Then I will explain, “I am not interested in whether there is an intellectual understanding of this, I want to know – Do you know it? To know is not an intellectual understanding. It is a feeling state. I want to know, Can you feel that you are Nature.”

Two words in the title of this column, “Awakening” and “Nature,” are at the heart of Zen. All of Buddhism is directed at “awakening” a human into their full potential, and into the realization that at the heart of that potential is the balance, harmony and unity of Nature. Buddhism diagnoses as the cause for human emotional suffering the grasping after identity, security and happiness in human egoism, our abstracting mental capacity to separate, organize and prioritize the entire world as it relates to our separate self. And it prescribes as the cure the “awakening” into the knowing of our “deepest nature,” into the realization of the ground of our fundamental Beingness.

The needs of our separate egoic self, seeking security, not only for the physical organism, but also for our psychological safety and significance, are endless. Awakening into the truth of who we are is the realization that beyond organismic needs, our Being needs nothing. We are. Nothing else is needed. Nature is like this, but not civilized human beings. Nature is whole and complete just as it is. There is no anxiety in Nature. Even in dying of starvation, a bird or bear does not worry itself about whether it has led a significant life, whether it accomplished all it wanted, will it be remembered well, does anybody care.

The dilemma of humanity is that it has forgotten that in addition to being civilized, we are also Nature. The implications of this are at the core of the strife and turmoil that fills human history both for individuals and societies. Today, the implications are more critical than ever as we face individual psychological insecurity and collective social and ecological crisis. Buddhism, and particularly Zen, teaches us to awaken into the paradoxical condition of being human. We are civilized Human Beings emerging within Nature. As we strive to master the conditions of our lives, it must be remembered that we can never master our human egoism or have sustainable civilizations as long as we have lost touch with the Beingness of our Nature.

Another way of addressing this is that human egoic mind and the cultures and societies that the human egoic mind has created are fundamentally dualistic. Dualism means that every experience is divided into separate parts. Every experience is of the experiencer here, and that which is experienced over there. There is no inherent harmony, connectedness or unity. As a self-aware civilized human, our primary experience is of being alone in the vastness of a universe made up of separate parts, often in antagonism, competition and violence with each other.

From this perspective, we look at Nature, and see it as dangerous, where everything lives off of the demise of everything else. Nature is something to be conquered and then tamed to our purposes, and we have been so successful that we have even conquered, that is tamed, civilized and forgotten our own nature within. We look at each other and see either competitors for significance and success, or resources for our enhancement and pleasure. Significance, acquisition and power become our coinage for security and happiness. Sometimes, the significance and acquisition seem to be helpful. Very often, the significance and the acquisitions, and particularly the power, are very transient, fickle and unstable. True to Nature, however, there never is total taming, and the outbreaks of our suppressed natural forces can be devastating. In any case, even the best of acquisitions do not bring any lasting security or happiness. As the Buddha pointed out, impermanence is in the nature of forms. And death is the fate for even the luckiest among us, often, ignominiously accompanied by old age, infirmity and the sufferings of illness.

This is the human dilemma. In such a world, where is my safety and significance? Knowing no other way, we keep upping the ante in the world of form. More for me and mine is the unspoken guide of modern human existence. Individuals, groups and societies keep grabbing for more, taking from those “others” that are our competitors. All around us, both human and non-human denizens and manifestations of Nature are looked upon as merely resources. How much is enough? There is never enough.

The anxiety, anger, cynicism, selfishness, shallow consumerism, boredom, ambition, aggressive competitiveness, quest for stimulation, and even despair that come with this way of life have become the norm. We grab for happiness that is fleeting and precarious, mistaking it for well-being. We always need more and more and more of what we think will bring our fulfillment, all the while, pushing away and fleeing from all that we think will detract from us. Our individual and communal lives leave much to be desired. Meanwhile, as a consequence of lifestyles of selfish consumerism, the damage to humanity’s home, this planet, is approaching catastrophic and irreversible consequences and the environments we occupy are less and less nurturing to our souls hungry for the harmony of Nature.

What to do? There is only a remembering.

“Do you know that you are Nature?”

And what is Nature? It is everything. It is the Universe unfolding as a single, unbroken field of energy that is also infinite in its forms. Nature is the unbroken web of these forms: animal, plant, rock, human, sky, water, fire, in which individual forms arise and pass, arise and pass, arise into form and pass out of form, are born and die, consume and are consumed in an endless dance of Life. This is Nature. This is the Universe. This is not dualistic. Forms come and go. The unbroken field of energy that is Nature does not. Forms only change within the web that is Nature, that is Life.

Pre-civilized and mystical civilized cultures, including Buddhist culture, know that the Universe is form and consciousness. Modern civilized culture does not, even though modern quantum physics is discovering that at the most elemental level, all form and its underlying energy contains consciousness and unity. But this discovery remains intellectual. It is not yet known; it is not felt. Excepting for mystics, not since humans left the forests where we lived within Nature has this been known. We must evolve, bringing to our civilization this remembering, going forward braced with this wisdom from our forgotten past.

Forms come and go. Consciousness does not. It is only manifested from form to form. It is in the energy that morphs from form to form, and it is in the unity of all the energy, the great quantum whole. Humans in civilization, still holding the dim memory of this quantum consciousness, place it outside themselves; as in our dualism everything that is not our small self must be outside, and we call it God and create religions. Buddhists call it the Big Self, Big Mind, the Buddha or awakened Self, and it is not out there. It is within and all around. It is the Nature of Life that humans are within, that we humans are.

I look at Buddhism as an ancient time capsule from an era when civilizations were emerging into their full dominance over and separation from Nature. It is a warning, a guide and a message of hope. It is a diagnosis and a prescription for humanity to heal itself of this rupture. Its prescription is meditation and mindfulness, becoming aware of awareness as the essence of who we are beneath the insecure seeking and clinging of the ever-turbulent egoic mind. It guides us to awakening, to remembering, our true Nature and the true Nature of existence where there is no anxiety. It points to the end of destructive grasping where wise, compassionate, joyous and sane living begins – even within civilization.

Look into the sky. Listen to a mountain stream. Feel a cool breeze and the warmth of the sun and know – I am of this. Experience your own breathing. Be in deep presence with another human, and feel Nature in union. Be aware of awareness, and know this is who I am and this is my place. Nature is my place. Nature is my nature. Meditation is for the purpose of penetrating the veil of separateness to experience the net of unity. It awakens us to know our deepest Nature, not just when sitting in silence, but when in the world, vibrantly awake and engaged, mindful that the unifying background to all our activity is life and Nature.

To find yourself, you must stop running around trying to get somewhere, trying to be somebody. You are already in, are and at the most important of places – your life in Nature. Stop and breathe. Listen to the silence within and all around, find the silence beneath the turbulent noise of self in the world. Find the stillness that is dynamic and penetrates all movement. There you will find yourself, your true Nature. Then, you can engage the world, its circumstances, its civilization, and you will not get lost. You will know who you are and what needs doing.

Take a brisk walk in the sunshine, a slow walk in the woods, break into a spontaneous dance of nature, cultivate a garden, contemplate a flower, sing like a bird, become still like snow falling in the night, even hug a tree. Love being alive and love the life around you. Love the life in others. Smile at and hug them too. Engage your human world and its responsibilities with a deep knowing of your own wild and wise nature. Revere and save the woodlands, wetlands, meadows, tundra, glaciers, lakes, rivers and oceans. Revere and save the animals. Revere and save the planet. Revere and save yourself and others. Revere and help save humanity. There is no one else you need to be. There is nowhere else you need to go. You are home.

Seeking Enlightenment

“…his (the Buddha’s) face and his step, his peaceful downward glance, his peaceful downward-hanging hand, and every finger of his hand spoke of peace, spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continuous quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.” From Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Amongst spiritual teachings, there are few greater puzzles than the teaching that instructs us that there is a Buddha or Christ within us. Every human looks for happiness, fulfillment and purpose in their lives. We look around us hoping to find what we seek in success, power, importance, status, wealth, possessions, entertainment, self-indulgence, affiliations, relationships, achievement, even good works and religion. We seek the good life, maybe even, the meaning of life. We may seek God.

We seek some sense of peace and harmony amidst the difficulty and travail of living. Sometimes we think we have found it, only to have it slip away, and so we seek again. All too often, the journey is so frustrating we may cease seeking and accept unhappiness and disappointment as our lot in life, settling into a cynicism that is all too common. Does not there remain though, even for the most discouraged, the glimmer of a secret hope? So the seeking continues, sometimes in very subtle and even perverse ways.

In the remarkable novel, Siddhartha, set in the time of the Buddha’s life, Hermann Hesse engaged in an intriguing literary devise writing the main character, Siddhartha, as a parallel and bifurcated personality to the Buddha (historically, Siddhartha Gotama), referred to in the book as Gotama. In one passage, Siddhartha, now an old man who had found enlightenment, says to his old friend Govinda, who had become a disciple of Gotama and is still seeking, “Perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.” This is the irony and tragedy of human existence. We seek ever so fervently for fulfillment, for the realization of lasting happiness, but cannot find it because we look in the wrong place.

The secret of Hindu and Buddhist teaching, and what I believe is the original intent of all spiritual teaching, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim, is that what we seek we have never lost. What we seek we already possess but are blind to. What we seek outside ourselves can never be found outside ourselves, but we keep seeking anyway, believing that the next acquisition, position, relationship, affiliation, religious/spiritual teaching will finally give us lasting happiness only to have it slip away again and again. So, we keep on seeking, and we are like the proverbial donkey being led by a carrot on the end of a stick, the prize always just out of reach.

Buddha and Christ were avatars, humans that realized their own infinite capability to be free and awake in the world, human ideals. In both cases, nothing was found outside themselves, but rather in the realization of their own inherent completeness. To the degree that others find divinity in them, it is because the humans Gotama and Jesus discovered their own divinity reflected in their recognition of the divinity in all of life. They became Buddha (The Perfect Awakened One) and Christ (The Anointed One, fully divine and fully human) in their recognition that there is no separateness, but rather one divine Life that all are within. Jesus is written to have said, “The kingdom will not come by watching for it. There will not be said, ‘Look here’ or ‘Look there.’ Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the Earth, and men do not see it.”

Buddha’s enlightenment and Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven is to be found within ourselves, but only at our deepest level, a level that the vast majority only stumbles upon by accident and does not recognize for what it is. It happens in moments when our obsession with our personal and separate self dissolves into perfect harmony with the moment just as it is. It happens in a profound moment of connection with Nature, with a moment of “in the zone” athletic or artistic performance. It happens in moments of religious ecstasy and in moments of complete connection with another person. It is known to happen as death approaches. It happens in accidental moments, and so we pursue and seek to recreate these moments, sometimes successfully, but always, ultimately, they fade, and we are left with our empty longing. So we seek again. “Perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”

Awaken into the Buddha, the Christ within. Look outside yourself only to see that ultimately there is no outside yourself, that as Buddhism specifically teaches, beneath the self that functions in the world, there is no self. There is only Life, all-sacred, that you are within. See not only the objects of the world separated by spaces, but experience the space that connects all objects as your own consciousness. This energy of consciousness happens through us, connecting all seeming forms, including the form we experience as our separate self. We have bodies comprised of physical energy. We have functioning, thinking minds filled with thought forms of mental energy. Can you recognize that all energy is patterns of energy within a vast system of energy that is the Universe? Seeking happiness in the forms that come and go, come and go is the seeking that cannot find. Enlightenment is in the cessation of seeking, to discover “The peace that surpasses all understanding.” “The Kingdom of heaven is spread upon the Earth.”

The 14th Century Persian Sufi Moslem poet, Hafiz, wrote, “Look in a clear mountain mirror / See the Beautiful Ancient Warrior / and the Divine elements/ you always carry inside / that infused this Universe with Sacred Life / so long ago / and join you Eternally / with all Existence / with God!” The great psychologist, and a Jew, Abraham Maslow, one of the few psychologists who fully grasped that a true psychology must contain a mystical understanding said, “The Sacred is in the ordinary. It is to be found in one’s daily life… in one’s own backyard… To be looking elsewhere for miracles is a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.”

To be enlightened is to realize the connectedness and sacredness of all life, and that includes you and me, as recognized by the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. It is already in you. Stop seeking in the outer forms of the world, and realize it lives right where you are, within you and all around you, within all form and through the formless that connects all forms. As the Hindu tradition acknowledges in salutation, “Namaste” – As God abides in me, I greet God abiding in you. Do not let this be merely an inspiring idea. Find it as a felt reality. There is no seeking, only finding and living in the light – enlightened.

Deepening Stillness

“Your innermost sense of self, of who you are, is inseparable from stillness.
This is the “I Am” that is deeper than name and form… Look at a tree, a flower, a plant… Allow nature to teach you stillness.” – Eckhart Tolle

The most common benefit people seek through meditation is relief from incessant mental chatter, the mind activity that, while in a relatively healthy person is mostly benign, can also be very disturbing. Anxious, angry, melancholy, or even absurdly irrelevant thoughts and their corresponding emotions often interfere with our ability for clear, calm and efficient mental focus. Even appropriate and useful thoughts will repeat themselves over and over again. Distressing thoughts can become a living hell of involuntary mental activity. Sometimes it can feel like we are trapped inside a cacophony of distracting mental commotion.

This mental noise is the personalized egoic mind that is conditioned into us by society telling us over and over the story of who we are and what life is about. It compulsively creates an opaque screen of concepts repeating what has been told to us by others about our own identity, the world, and our place in the world. The reason it is continual is that any crack in it, any space of quiet and mental stillness, will disrupt the hypnotic hold it has on us as our identity in the world. This is something the ego cannot allow, and so it chatters on and on, a perpetual motion machine of mental activity.

But there are spaces. We have all experienced moments of quiet and mental stillness, and they are the best moments of our lives. They often occur in very special experiences with the beauty of Nature. They also occur in moments of exhilarating physical endeavor, artistic performance or appreciation, and in moments of profound intimacy with a cherished person. These moments of quiet are indeed our very best moments. They call forth from beneath the mental noise, from within a natural realm of profound stillness as quiet as the emptiness of space, another you that is free, wise and at one with all life. In these moments of quiet and stillness, we experience who we truly and naturally are at our deepest level. To a Buddhist, this is your original and true self, the place of Buddha-mind. Buddhist meditation is specifically intended to awaken this dimension of wise and quiet mind, and the great secret of human existence is that to be in this stillness is to be truly sane.

This can seem all nicely esoteric, interesting to contemplate, nearly impossible to voluntarily access, and of very little value to this identity, me, in the world, maneuvering and managing my life circumstances. Not so. One of the great mistakes of the personalized egoic mind is its insistence on dualistic “either-or” thinking. Situations are either this or that. Never the twain shall meet. We live as if this special realm is only for exceptional moments. We pursue hobbies, romance, sports, the arts and religion to activate this realm so as to feel connected, even spiritual. We may find it in hiking, skiing, music, loving encounters, religious participation, and, of course, meditation. But the clarity and connectedness we experience in these activities are not where we live the majority of our lives. Buddhism challenges us: What if it was?

This deeper realm is the well from which our egoic self can draw its fundamental psychological and spiritual wellbeing (one of those interesting etymological connections). Without an ongoing connection to our fundamental source, our everyday lives are like a small boat on the ocean, completely dependent on external forces, the weather (and whether) of our lives, for its stability. Buddhism directs us to not mistake the waves for the ocean, or our life-circumstances for our life.

Beneath the surface of both the ocean and our lives there is a deep stillness, constant and calm. This is the true realm of all that is spiritual, not stories of God in Heaven, separated from us, judging us. It is also the realm of true psychological health and optimal life functioning. We can stumble upon these “peak experiences,” as the psychologist Abraham Maslow termed them, or, we can, as Buddhism teaches us, cultivate skillfulness in finding our way to this underlying stillness and integrating it with our everyday experience. We can learn to live our ordinary lives touching this dimension of our essential Beingness. This is the meaning of Enlightenment. This is the true purpose of meditation and the associated Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Spontaneous awakenings into this truth can and do occur for some under exceptional circumstances, but Buddhist meditation has for millennia developed a valid body of teaching and practice that we can trust to lead us there.

This moment. Can you touch the deep inner stillness that abides within? Can you bring your awareness to the subtle life-giving phenomenon of your own breathing? Can you recognize the field of energetic stillness beneath the movement of inhalation and exhalation? Can you look at a flower or a tree and see the great secret of harmony in life? When you do, in that moment, you will not experience yourself as a separate person. You will be awareness itself having entered into the great unifying field of stillness that holds all life together. Can you feel within this stillness the absolute certainty and calm of your assured placement in life? Do you notice the fading, quieting and even silencing of the mental chatter that you had come to believe as immutable? If you can, you will have entered into Zen. You will have crossed the barrier of limited egoic self-centeredness to the place where life circumstances can be lived vitally connected to Life itself.

Seek the deep inner stillness in the trees, the flowers, the birds, the sky, the mountains. Discover that this same stillness resides in you as your natural presence. This is our true Nature, and it is completely wise and sane. Find it through meditation. Find it through stopping your self-absorbed hectic activity to linger in Nature. Allow Nature’s stillness to resonate with your own inner stillness and Nature until separation of outer and inner dissolves. Rediscover your true Self, your true Nature. Find it and then…. bring it into your life circumstances. You will discover that the mind quiets by itself when we learn the art of presence in deepened stillness, even in the midst of life’s commotion.

Kindness As Religion

My religion is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama

Growing up, as a Christian, my great confusion concerning religion was simply that I could not find enough kindness in it. I understood fully the instructions of Jesus to love your neighbor, to forgive, to do for the least among us, to practice tolerance. In my childish understanding, this is what religion was supposed to be. What I could not find was much evidence of these teachings in the practice of religions. I know that many others have experienced the same confusion and disillusionment.

My disillusionment led to a rejection of religion and all things spiritual, but this left what is sometimes referred to as a “God shaped hole” in my life; as I speculate, it does for others. Without a spiritual understanding at the center of a person’s life, something elemental is missing. St. Augustine spoke of this archetypal need, describing it as, “Humanity’s innate desire for the infinite.”

In the 1600’s, the philosopher Pascal also described this fundamental human requirement in this way: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

What is this “infinite” that humanity seeks, this “God?” These are questions humanity has struggled with since emerging from caves, and it is perhaps humanity’s greatest dilemma and challenge. The human species’ entire orientation to life, society and Nature is in the balance. Religion has been given the responsibility to answer these questions, but for the most part, sadly, often tragically, has failed the challenge.

Although it can be difficult to see in a world divided into the camps of those where religion is separated from the secular and political, and those that believe in political theocracies, the failure of organized religion to answer these questions is ultimately modern humanity’s greatest crisis. It is this loss of connection to the infinite that has left the majority of modern humanity experiencing an existential “abyss” they attempt to fill with materialism, personal importance, political and/or religious affiliation. That these attempts are failures is evident in the cruelty, competition, exploitation and divisiveness that mark human affairs despite religions’ claims of authenticity and revealed truth.

Religions have failed because, just like individuals and secular societies they attempt to fill that hole with, as Pascal said, “everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are…” Even our religions seek fulfillment in a kind of materialism, in their dogma and exclusivity that draws hungry souls, hoping to have the hole filled, mistakenly believing that absolute obedience and faith in the instruction and decrees of religion will fill it. But the hole persists, clearly it persists, as evidenced by the lack in the world of the compassion and kindness that Jesus and other fountains of spiritual light taught.

Later in life, I was attracted to Jewish mystical traditions, Native American spirituality and the religious/philosophical/psychological teachings of Zen Buddhism particularly because of its lack of dogma, and because of its refusal to identify with any kind of anthropomorphic God. Rather, it, and generally the other traditions of Buddhism, including the Tibetan led by the Dalai Lama, seemed to emphasize the nature of God to be Nature, the infinite, the mystery to which the answer lies only within the deepest dimension of human consciousness and direct contact with the mystery of life. It emphasized, rather than religious dogma, understanding and transcending the aberration in nature that is human psychology, the human ego, that creates the abyss, the chasm, the sin (in its original etymological meaning as separation from the divine) that leads to suffering.

The teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, recognize human egoic separateness and the compulsion to cling to identity in separateness as the source of human suffering. This identity in separateness, with all its insecurities and attempts to assuage insecurities in attachments to the material and to individual and collective importance, is the hell that humans create. As a curative, these teachings suggest quieting the chattering and insecure egoic dimension of mind through meditation and turning inward to a place of inner silence and stillness beneath the noise and activity of the human mind and the world it has created. This inner stillness and quiet reflects and makes real for us the perfection of the underlying stillness and quiet of the natural world experienced non-dualistically, where there is no inner/outer divide.

The Buddhist teachings on mindfulness instruct us to see the world as it is, interconnected and wondrous, not as our delusional egoic minds represent it, as separate objects whose only meaning is in their utility. In mindfulness, humanity can discover the infinite, the heaven it seeks. Having touched the infinite within meditation, we are instructed to be available to the infinite that we are within, the Universe, Creation, and so, find our placement, at one with life. One can call it God, but not if such a labeling suggests a force outside ourselves, when life resides within and all around us, all sacred. This realization is not unique to Buddhism, but amongst contemporary religions and spiritual practices, Buddhism perhaps expresses it most readily and most compatibly with modern life.

Through mystical realization and Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, the God-shaped hole can be filled. The chasm of self, lost in the world, can be bridged. Separate worlds of within and without are discovered to be illusions. There is only one infinity. Religious mystics can call it God. Buddha called it Nirvana, the emptiness of material and separate-self obsession that creates human hell.

Through Buddhist teachings and meditation, it is possible to reconnect with and understand more fully, the teachings of Jesus and many of the original source spiritual/religious expressions of humanity. It is possible to understand fully what Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven as exactly what I intuited as a child, that it was “at hand,” that it was about the way we lived our lives and connected to each other and to our kin, the animals and all the world. His teaching was about connectedness and not the many levels of separateness and exclusion that institutional religions so often teach. It was about kindness and compassion.

And so, how unlike the declarations of the leaders of the Western and Islamic churches about what is necessary to live a religious life is the Dalai Lama’s statement: “My religion is kindness.” How different the world could be if we held as a religious obligation to treat each other, the animals, the planet, all Creation and ourselves with kindness and compassion, to realize that the infinite is right here, the miracle unfolding every day. Spirituality and psychology and politics can be all one, but not as the theocrats insist, bending religious teaching to egoistic/political prejudice, but rather, dissolving all prejudice in the fire of non-dual realization to construct a world of peace, compassion and kindness.

My childhood intuition was right. Jesus was an avatar, a Zen master, a Bodhisattva, an awakened and compassionate Being, instructing us to “be like the children.” To fill the hole, to connect to the infinite, we must reconnect to all Creation with kindness and wonder in the manner that every uncorrupted small child is naturally capable of. We must love and be kind. Then, the intellect will know what is needed and what to do so that you can discover “The kingdom of Heaven is within you… Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added unto you.” (John 8:32) Nothing else is needed.

Habits Of Mind

“Our ordinary sense of practical reality…is a construct of socialized conditioning and repression, a system of selective inattention whereby we are taught to screen out aspects and relations within nature which do not accord with the rules of the game of civilized life.” – Alan Watts – from This is It

While meditation is commonly understood to be a practice of calming the mind with certain techniques, and entering into a self observant, relaxed yet very alert awareness, in India and Tibet, the concept is more complicated, based in the root meaning of the word as concentration and familiarization of mind. Concentration is the foundation of meditation, but the issue is always: concentration on what? Aren’t we often concentrating, if what that means is training our minds upon something? Of course, yes, and what is recognized in the East is that we mostly concentrate our minds on what we have previously concentrated our minds on, that which we have grown familiar with, been directed to attend to, and what seems to be important to our particular sense of self-in-the-world.

Importantly, this can even include our focus restlessly shifting, flitting from thing to thing, thought to thought, emotion to emotion, because this is what is familiar to our minds. We are focused on using our minds in the manner we are personally accustomed to and upon what has been socially conditioned into and out of us. We are living within set habits of mind. It is important to realize that after a fashion we are meditating, that is, concentrating, all the time, it’s just that the meditation we mostly practice is the one of holding together our personal/cultural world-view and personality with its particular habits of mind. This can be called the meditation on self, and is another way of defining ego. It is the story of “me”. We are generating the thought stream of our self-in-the-world with its past and projecting it into the future, attempting to make the story of me turn out the way we want it to, fearful that it will turn out in ways that we do not want. This meditation, or relationship to mind, is recognized in the East as what creates all the difficulties of the human condition.

We fail to experience the full potential of the moment, not within the circumstances, the environment, nor ourselves. We think we are present and fully aware of the potential of what is occurring, but how can we be when we are projecting our preconditioned expectations onto the moment? The moment is experienced primarily as a means to an end, some imagined future. It is not realized as the only place that we ever have to actualize our lives. We fail to live deeply, skillfully and perceptively in the present. Obviously, when the present moment is only a blur getting from our past to our future, we guarantee that our lives will be experienced without much depth or sense of placement in life. Our experience is one of obsessive, sometimes scattered, mental activity in a story in time always colored by fears of not being enough. It is a very limited and limiting way to live.
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What we more commonly know as meditation, however, emerging out of the Asiatic cultures, is the concentrating of the mind and familiarizing it with deeper, calmer and expanded dimensions of mind that are the antidotes to these human difficulties. Meditation training in the Buddhist, Hindu and other mystical traditions teaches us to awaken out of this trance-like state of ego-story-myopia through specific practices, meditations, meant to familiarize the mind with that which is larger than the confines of our personal story, our ego, which after all, is only the contents of the mind, not the mind. These contents have as their source, other people and society. How can this be our essence, who we are at our truest and deepest level?

These traditions teach and guide a person to access a deeper dimension of stillness and silence within the mind that is the realm of pure awareness, free of the conflicts of the restless and noisy surface dimension of egoic mind. This dimension of pure awareness and the regions of consciousness that become activated with the experience of unsullied awareness is the realm that religious practices recognize as where God can be realized directly, and what Buddhism refers to as our true or original Self. Recognizing this, these meditation practices both fulfill and then transcend mere religious practice. They become powerful tools for psychological healing as awareness of mind activity and what lies beneath the mind activity awakens an intelligence that is free of conditioning and is able to intuit the true source of self as this witnessing awareness.

In all these forms of meditation, a deep calm and capacity for insight often develops as the mind trains itself away from the restlessness and insecurity of ego into an experience of certainty about placement within life. All need for self-justification or to measure up to socially imposed standards relaxes. We are free to be in society, pursuing occupations, maintaining relationships and families, but we are no longer the prisoner of social anxieties. In this way, meditation traditions originating in spiritual contexts can have profound psychological benefit.

In Buddhism, albeit practiced by millions as a religion, we find what is fundamentally the most psychological tradition of meditation. Having emerged from the Hindu cultural context that teaches that the Divine (Brahman) is to be found within the human soul (Atman) as well as all of life, Buddhism teaches that the divine source is Nature, the Universe, needing no naming or deification. Nature penetrates all existence, including, of course, humans. Buddhist meditation is meant to awaken the realization that the perfection of Nature unfolds within as well as around what is experienced as self. It realizes that beneath the small self, within the realm of inner silence, there exists a greater Self uncorrupted by socialization into dualistic thinking of inside and outside. Self is then a function of the Universe unfolding through localized awareness in the form of a person. At first glance, this can seem an obscure, esoteric concept, but in reality is immensely practical and liberating.

In Buddhist meditation, the mind is trained to “awaken” beyond the confines of the small egoic socially conditioned self, into where there is only Life, and the mind that can comprehend this directly is an awakened mind, untainted by social/cultural training into dualism. The mystery of the Universe unfolds everywhere, including within and as human consciousness. Buddhist practice is specifically intended to bring a person in touch with their own nature and source, free of the confusion and delusion of egoic constructs. Thus, it functions non-dualistically as a psychology that is also a theology, a cosmology, a way of life. One need not be a religious Buddhist to benefit deeply on all these dimensions from its practices. The practice can even deepen spiritual experience that is not Buddhist in doctrine, as Catholic priest Thomas Merton famously discovered.

Moment to moment, what we know to be true is that the mind is concentrating on something. The purpose of Buddhist meditative training is to thoroughly familiarize the practitioner with what the mind is concentrating on, what it is familiarizing itself with, what habits of mind are active, and to see how limited and limiting our socially conditioned mind is, literally living within a conceptual prison. Then the practice and philosophy leads a person into deeper and deeper insights as to the true dimensionality of mind. It deliberately retrains the mind into expanded and deeper awareness, able to encompass non-dualistic experience and ultimately awakening into Enlightenment, mind’s true and original nature, completely breaking free of the trance of the meditation on self and social/cultural conditioning, while still free to live a completely engaged and productive life.

But don’t let ego entice you into Enlightenment as a goal. In a twist on that old saying from Maine, “You can’t get there from here,” likewise, you can’t get here from there. Just stay with here. Be free of habit, meaning you can use or not use habitual patterns of thought and action, for habits have their uses, but they can also be what trap us. Let your new habit be to hold your habits in clear awareness, seeing them for what they are. Enlightenment is the freedom to see and act clearly, your meditation concentrating on the truth of the moment, the universe unfolding through your experience. You can change the habits of mind. Most importantly, you can change the habit of mind from imprisonment within ego and conditioning into freedom and harmony with life unfolding. This liberation is Buddhism’s “awakening.”

Buddhist Libertarian Socialism

“I vow to help all Beings overcome their suffering. I vow to understand and overcome delusion and egoic confusion” – from The Bodhisattva Vow

In this current era of intensified political debate, something said from my idiosyncratic Buddhist-influenced perspective may be of interest. I teach meditation and consciousness, and in my classes, somewhere along the way, usually I will say, “ I try to stay away from politics, but this is a class in consciousness, and politics is about consciousness.” I then talk about the environment or health care or education policy or poverty or war or capitalism vs. socialism, because all of these issues are about consciousness, but are commonly understood to be solely political. This is a shame.

Our politics might be much more productive if these issues were understood to be fundamentally about consciousness. The way politics is typically practiced and argued, it is more an exercise in unconsciousness. Positions based in bias, prejudice, self-interest and opinion are often backed by little more, than, well, opinion. And that’s where Buddhism has something valuable to say. Much opinion could accurately be defined – borrowing from a phrase in the Bodhisattva Vow – as “delusion and egoic confusion.” And it is the vow of the Bodhisattva to awaken out of and confront delusion and egoic confusion wherever it occurs.

Buddhism, at its most basic level, can be understood as the study and practice of awakening out of delusion and egoic confusion, which Buddhists see as the source of human suffering. It is a very pragmatic and even scientific approach to life. It stipulates the problem – human suffering – and then sets out to achieve understanding and action. It seeks the cause and solution. The Western scientific method, including psychology and sociology, does this as well, but Western science typically brings only observation and the intellectual mind to bear.

Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that it is only by bringing ALL the faculties of mind to bear, including emotion and intuition, that the problems of the human condition can be resolved. It is only when there is a harmonious blending of all the mental faculties into full awareness that we awaken into the essence or truth of anything. Great Western scientists also understand this. Albert Einstein is an example. His insights into quantum physics and relativity are excellent examples of wholistic science, where he felt, as well as thought, his way to revolutionary breakthroughs.

Human psychology and society are principle concerns for Buddhism precisely because of its central focus on the cause and resolution of human suffering. Humans create a great deal of unnecessary suffering for themselves and others, and they do it believing a lot of ideas they have learned that are the equivalent to “delusion and egoic confusion,” in other words – nonsense. We believe what we believe about human nature and society for little more reason than it is what we believe. It is what we learned from the social, cultural, educational and personal egoic influences that created our opinions.

In the political sphere, these opinions tend toward one of two polar positions – either preserving the individual’s advantage, perspective, possessions and power, which then leads to fundamentally egocentric, conservative, libertarian, capitalistic political/economic views, or egalitarianism, which tends to lead toward fundamentally liberal, collectivistic, socialistic views. Either one, seems to contain certain truths while, when taken to extreme, lead to their own unique forms of human delusion and suffering. We wrangle back and forth, arguing and fighting, right vs. left, libertarian conservativism vs. socialistic liberalism.

Now for most people, these psychological/political positions are irreconcilable. We see them as contradictions that have little to no common ground. Our political process seeks for one position to prevail. If the conflicting forces cancel each other out, our political process seeks some compromise that tends to eviscerate the essential truths of either position. This leaves a confused mash that has little to no hope of really understanding or resolving the particular issue of human suffering that is under consideration. As a result, our society and our politics are a mess.

I believe Buddhism has a lot to say about this problem, as Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “the middle way,” and the middle way is about seeing plainly the truths and delusions contained in any position. It believes that only in realizing a synthesis of the essential truths of all possibilities can tranquility, both personally and socially, be found. Buddhism is very much about taking what seems to be contradiction and seeing into its underlying unity as a paradox.

This means that both the individual and the whole can only be honored and protected through recognition of the opposite poles of any position along with the center that connects them. An important Buddhist teaching is that there is no circumference without a center and there is no center without a circumference comprised of all the points on the circumference. On any particular issue, we are simultaneously at the center (egocentric to the issue) and on the circumference (a position amongst many, dependent on the positioning of others.)

The truth is that human beings are both individuals and a collective. There are truths about what individuals need in order not to create or be in suffering and there are truths about what a society needs not to create or be in suffering. Both elements need to be honored if we are to arrive at personal and social enlightenment, which means – happiness – the pursuit of which is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, along with life and liberty. An individual must have the right of their individuality. This is a truth. And a society must be built fundamentally as a harmonious collective in which all the individuals comprising it are safe, secure and happy to experience both their individual and social well being. This also is true.

Is such a political philosophy possible? I believe, yes. And it might be called Libertarian Socialism, turning a seeming contradiction into a unifying paradox. Individual human beings have the inalienable right to their own individuality and no society ought to impinge upon that individuality unless it is impinging on the individual “life liberty and pursuit of happiness” of others. Equally true, society has a right and need to be, in a sense, a collective Bodhisattva, existing to facilitate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the collective of individuals, vowing to relieve suffering caused by egoic, that is self-interested-only, individuals and groups.

Individual identity, liberty, energy and creativity need fostering. So too, social harmony found in universal material security, health, safety and the provision of the resources for individual fulfillment are necessary. This requires the guarantee of personal safety, education, health care, aesthetics, vocational opportunity, community support, freedom from want, personal growth and wealth, and manifest respect for every individual provided within a relative egalitarianism. All these are necessary to eliminate suffering caused by the egoic confusion that tries to make me and mine superior to you and yours.

Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings deserve and need respect to be their own unique manifestation as well as to have their place secure within a compassionate community, a harmonious whole. This is not only true for humans, but for all life forms, as well as the planet, and indeed, the universe. Individuality and interdependent unity are the simultaneous truths of all levels of existence, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. This is the Buddhist principle of Interbeing. For humanity to survive and prosper, it is of the utmost importance that our politics be based in a vow to help all Beings overcome their suffering.

Is such a philosophy that can be described as both libertarian and socialist, the full honoring of the individual and the collective, possible? I believe absolutely yes. But you have to meditate on it to really see it.

Egoless Awareness

Walking along a mountain path, the student asked the teacher: “Teacher, how do I enter into Zen?” To which the teacher replied: “Do you hear that distant mountain stream?” The student listened, but couldn’t. The teacher then said, “Listen harder.” After a while the student heard the faint sound of a stream and said “Yes, I hear it now” and the teacher instructed, “ Enter into Zen from there.”

Meditation and mindfulness can be described as the cultivation of a consciousness of egoless awareness. Sometimes, it is also described as choiceless awareness, which amounts to the same thing, for it is ego, that experience of a separate me struggling in a dangerous universe, that is always choosing to attend to what it thinks is important. The egoic mind is always categorizing the world into what it is attracted to, that is, what it wants, and what it experiences as a threat, that which it doesn’t want. So, we are attending in our lives to a very narrow band of possibilities within the vast richness that is Life.

There are several problems with this. First, what we want and don’t want is all a matter of conditioning. Some of the conditioned learning is appropriate, such as; fire is good for warmth, but don’t stick your hand in it. Some of it is deeply problematic, such as; stick to your own kind, you can’t trust people who are different. Our lives are a construct of learned judgments concerning what we want to bring to us for our happiness and what we want to keep away from, fearful that it will take our happiness away.

The second problem with this conditioning is its inherent limitations. While we have some relative clarity about what we want and what we don’t want, we are, by definition, ignorant of all the rest of Creation not included in either of these two judgmental categories. We are paying next to no attention to the category that is neither what we want and like nor what we don’t want and don’t like. This third category encompasses a great deal of Life, particularly its subtler qualities, wherein lie much of the best that Life has to offer.

In his book, Wherever You Go There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. Let us first examine the paying of attention on purpose. We may think we are paying attention, but, in truth, most of us in this culture suffer, more or less, from attention deficit disorder, and, as is the case with diagnosed mental illness, it is only the more extreme cases that get diagnosed and treated within the Western psychological model. The egoic dimension of mind is so immersed in its cravings and its anxieties, that it is shifting focus constantly, both within its stream of thoughts and in the external world, trying to keep track of identifying what it wants and what it doesn’t want. We seldom, really pay attention in a focused, stable way. We must learn to purposefully pay attention if we are going to experience Life fully and experience the richness in individual phenomenon.

Next is the issue of paying attention in the present moment. The egoic mind is a chaotic time-travel machine, always flitting into the past keeping track of its stories of successes and failures, and into the future, strategizing how to be more successful in its agenda. It is seldom focused clearly and for any duration in this moment, where life is actually happening. Again, we are missing most of life, because we simply are not present in a focused, stable way. And if we are focused into the present moment, we are mostly in a state of judgment, deciding whether the contents of the moment are to our liking or not.

Which brings us to paying attention non-judgmentally. We may think we have a pretty good idea of how judgment operates in our lives. We may be able to cite our various pro and con prejudices of what we like and don’t like. But do we really know how pervasive judgment is in our lives? Can we enumerate beyond our obvious prejudices what biases and misperceptions we are unconscious to? Do we know that practically our entire life-experience is a matrix of projected judgments intricately weaved into a world-view? I believe not, for we see the world the way our conditioning has contoured the world, bringing forward for attention what we are conditioned to pay attention to and leaving out as unobserved background, all the rest. This selective perception is a form of judgment.

What makes this so important is, to quote Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls, “The contours of our neurosis are the same as the contours of our awareness.” To put this in practical terms, the contours of the world as experienced by an angry person is full of reasons to be angry, and the contours of the world as experienced by an anxious person is full of reasons to be anxious. To borrow another Gestalt maxim, “Thou art projection.”

On the other hand then, the contours of a mindful person paying attention purposefully, presently and non-judgmentally are bigger, fuller and thicker with the potential of the world, as-it-is. The mindful person experiences the moment in a way that will begin to dissolve their neurotic limitations precisely because the contours of their awareness have expanded. They are not experiencing the world in an awareness that is locked down into the contours of neurotic egoic conditioning. They can hear the distant mountain stream.

We become saner and more resourceful. We become more responsive to life’s potential and less reactive to our conditioned limitations. Life begins to open into more and more of its subtle potential for satisfying and wise living. How do we enter into Zen? Listen, look, feel and experience Life here-and-now with deliberate egoless openness to the subtleties of the moment. Hear the silence beneath all sound; see the space within which all form exists, experience the stillness beneath all movement. Thus the subtleties of sight, sound and form become richly available. There, we will discover Life. There we discover that we are not only alive, but that we are the awareness of Life itself. We will have entered into Zen.

A Contemporary Buddhist Psychology

When awareness and connectedness replace ego and separateness as the centerpiece of mind, the dysfunctionality of egoic experience can be greatly transcended.

Western clinical psychology, based in personality development, as influenced by brain chemistry, focuses on the personal experience and history of an individual. As such, it explores a person’s distortions and confusions in perceptions, thoughts, emotions and behavior. It examines a person’s sense of self in relationship to their internal mental experience and their social interactions. Collectively these experiences comprise the personal egoic identity, a person’s sense of self-in-the-world as a separate entity in existence, seeking to find safety and significance.

While this is a very valuable study, it struggles to be a complete enough model to bring truly transformational psychological healing. Rather, let us examine how a truly effective healing experience might be based in harmonizing the individual egoic dimension with a dimension of mind that is deeper, yet one largely neglected by Western psychology. Traditionally this dimension is referred to as awareness, and true psychological healing could be viewed as requiring an approach that opens a person beyond the confines of egoic experience into the realization of what contemporary consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle refers to as the ground of a person’s Being – awareness itself. We need an awareness-centered trans-egoic psychology.

To do this, one effective approach is to bring the wisdom of ancient Buddhism into a modern context. While Buddhism is recognized as a religion, or a philosophy of life, it is, in a certain sense, more of an ancient-culture trans-egoic psychology. But since we do not live in traditional Asia, the question is: Can we, borrowing from this tradition, develop a completely modern trans-egoic psychology that honors the best psychological insights of both the ancient and modern worlds?

When looking at Western and Buddhist psychology, the principle difference between them is in the model of mind. Western psychology is basically two-dimensional. It recognizes the conscious and sub-conscious dimensions of the egoic mind. Buddhist psychology, on the other hand, while recognizing the egoic realm, also recognizes and emphasizes a higher and deeper realm of pure undifferentiated awareness. These realms of higher and deeper awareness are seen in Buddhism as the realm of our true, unconditioned self out of which the egoic dimension emerges, and that is also the psychic connection to a universal realm of consciousness. This psychological perspective holds that it is only when these transcendent dimensions of mind are experienced as the primary sense of self, rather than some vague metaphysical backdrop, that the harmony and wisdom that is inherent within these dimensions can be brought forward as the guiding consciousness for healthy egoic functioning.

Buddhist psychology and Western psychology both agree that the egoic experience is the product of conditioning, both bio-genetic-neurological and experiential. The difference is that Western psychology operates solely at this level, limiting its therapies to modifying the egoic mind’s most dysfunctional aspects through medication and emotion/thought-structure and behavioral techniques, counseling and interpretation. It can relieve grosser incapacitating symptoms, but does not offer a real cure. It is a mental illness model; it does not have a model for true mental health. Buddhist psychology does.

Buddhism recognizes the egoic dimension of mind to be a superficial, limited and deeply flawed mental representation of reality comprised of a matrix of concepts conditioned or programmed into the individual by genetic pre-disposition, society, culture, family and personal experience, creating, in a sense, an artificial reality. As it is superficial, limited and flawed, when ego is experienced as the primary dimension of mind and the seat of the self, humans suffer from a distorted sense of self-in-the-world, leading to distorted psychological, social, even spiritual functioning. In the non-scientific, metaphorical manner of Buddhism, this realm of mental representations or forms is referred to as “little mind,” while the realm of the unconditioned higher consciousness is referred to as “big mind,” the mind of all-inclusive awareness.

The little egoic mind exists within the big mind of clear awareness that is the unwavering witness to our experience. Our problems stem from the little egoic dimension, with all its conflicts and contradictions, being experienced as the primary, even the only, dimension of identity and reality. Little egoic mind is the mind of conditioning, the mind of condensed fragments drawn from the limitless reality of life-as-it-is. It is so limited that, in Buddhism, it is referred to as the mind of “illusion” (samsara), almost, life-as-we-imagine-it. It is the world of thoughts and emotions programmed into us, and since it is a severely limited representation of the total potential of life, it is deeply flawed in its representation. As this perspective is basic to modern life, we are faced with the reality, then, that we are, more or less, all crazy.

Western psychology, then, has been devised in an attempt to address the “more” end of the spectrum. It is designed to help people stay within social “norms”, many of which are so arbitrary and limiting as to be crazy themselves in the bigger picture of human potential. The frame of reference for egoic little mind is always the mental forms of “me” and “the world-as-I-project-it-to-be.” It shapes what is possible in perception, thought and emotional/behavioral response to what has already been conditioned into a person as possible by society and personal experience. These perceptions are fraught with all the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the cross-purposes and confusions of these influences, which in turn, have been shaped by the egoic purposes of the forces that created them. It all adds up to a feedback loop that makes for crazy people in a crazy world.

A contemporary Buddhist psychology is then a psychology that is based in the Buddhist observation that we have sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions, but we are not these sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions. We are much more. These mental phenomena are but psychological tools for conceptualizing, experiencing and engaging the world. We are, at our essence, the clear undifferentiated awareness within which the perceptions, thoughts and emotions of the egoic mind arise and pass – here – in this contemporary modern life. Such a psychology is also sophisticated in understanding and working with egoic mind, very much like contemporary Western psychology, but it is clear that we are not contained within the limits of our egoic mind. It is a liberation from the confines of ego. As it emphasizes contemporary life, this model is free to be practiced within a traditional Buddhist belief system and lifestyle or not. It is not about being a Buddhist. It is about being a fully realized human being.

A contemporized Buddhist trans-egoic psychology holds that the ego’s conditioning can be transcended. It teaches that a person can essentially be healed of psychological dysfunction by shifting the sense of self from a locus solely in the egoic personality into primarily the transcendent dimensions of mind that can observe the distortions of the conditioned mind and make appropriate corrections from a dimension of perceiving wisdom beyond thought. The clear and original ground of pure awareness and trans-egoic connectedness to universal wisdom and truths is what becomes the person’s reference point for living. This realization is what Buddhism calls, “awakening.” Egoic identity is experienced as useful for social and utilitarian purposes, but no longer held as a person’s existential core.

Insight Meditation

Bedrock for Buddhist psychology is the Insight, or Vipassana, tradition of meditation. Whether it is the Zen, Tibetan or Southeast Asian variant, this tradition teaches insight into the true nature of reality and the workings of the mind, hence, its name. Another term for this form of meditation practice is Mindfulness, because of its emphasis on being mindful at increasingly subtle levels as to what is occurring around us and within us.

The centerpiece of this tradition is sitting meditation, with its emphasis on the dignified, relaxed and alert posture seen in classical Buddhist statues and paintings. It is the fundamental practice ground that leads to insights concerning calming and focusing the mind called Samatha practice, or single-pointed concentration. While many meditators believe this to be the extent of meditation, it is really only the necessary beginning point for the ultimate realization of Buddhist meditation – insight into the workings of the mind, the nature of reality, and who we are at our deepest level.

Through sitting meditation, we begin to awaken out of the semi-sleep we are accustomed to as our ongoing experience of life. This occurs when in the stillness of our sitting in Samatha, our unexamined ways of thinking, doing and being stop. This stopping opens us into an awareness that witnesses the pull of these habits, but does not get caught in them. The Vipassana practice only truly comes alive, however, when it can be brought out of the sitting and into our active everyday lives. The Tibetan term for Samatha is “Peaceful Abiding,” and it is when we sit, walk, work, play, interact and relate from peaceful abiding that an entirely new level of awakened living opens. With it, we develop a calm skillful presence and deepened capacity for insight into the workings of our mind, as well as human interactions.

With the first level of insight, we notice how incessant the activity of the mind is. Most of us have a dim awareness of how constant the activity of the mind is, but when we deliberately sit with the goal of calming and quieting the mind, the tenacity of mental activity can be startling and discouraging. As we develop skill with Samatha practice, we learn that through focusing relaxed, alert awareness onto a single experience, typically into the sensations of our breathing, we gain the insight that we can quiet the mind. This is particularly true when the breath focus is supported by our sitting technique, and sometimes with a meditation recitation, or a mantra – a word or sound that corrals the mind’s discursiveness and is meant to evoke our natural unity with life.

As we sit, further insight opens into the realization of gaps in the thought stream that can be entered with awareness and expanded to discover what is beneath the mind’s activity. There, opening into the inherent stillness that surrounds and contains the activity of each moment, both mentally and in the world, we begin to glimpse new truths about who we are. With this discovery of stillness, a remarkable world of expansive and subtle possibilities opens.

“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in, and breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out,” teaches the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, in one of his meditation recitations. “Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I relax my body.” He continues. “This moment is a perfect moment. This moment is my refuge”. We find that while breathing is an excellent focus for developing concentration, it also brings its legendary capacity for calming us as well. Further, it opens into something mystically peaceful and deeply personally healing.

Focusing calmly, contacting the moment through the senses, not thinking about it or evaluating it, a person becomes one with the world in this moment, an experience called Samadhi. We are no longer distanced or at odds with what is occurring – whatever is occurring – seemingly good or bad. The alert focus of Samatha now opens to embrace all within the field of perception. This is true Mindfulness. Miraculously, in this state, the moment can be seen for what it is, as is our personal perspective within the moment. Problems, even disaster, seem to dissolve as we experience that the moment, just as it is, held in expansive awareness, is always manageable. We begin to have insight into how it is the adding of our personal story, with its perspective of anxiety, fear, anger, despair or frustration, into the moment, that is causing us so much distress.

Story also implies and carries with it the factor of time superimposed on the moment. We realize that rehashing the past and anxiety about the future mark much of our mental landscape. By realizing the awareness that exists as timeless witnessing stillness, and watching thoughts interrupt the stillness, we learn about the nature of the constant forming and passing of thoughts. We learn that thoughts (and the emotions that resonate from thoughts) do not have the solidity and validity we tend to give them, and that thinking is frequently out of place in time. It tends to be past or future-oriented, or when of the present moment, very often in judgment, creating the experience of separation.

We can see our minds creating the drama of “I am here, looking at and judging that phenomenon over there,” whether the phenomenon is a circumstance, an object or another person. We also see how we compulsively are reconstructing, moment-to-moment, a structure of thoughts we believe to be who we are, relating to the world out there according to a script emerging out of our past, then projected into the futu