Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all. – Luke 2:14 (Commonly seen on holiday cards)

Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. – Christmas song lyric

Peace on Earth.  This has been a wish associated with the Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Solstice holiday season dating back to the Biblical pronunciation by angels upon the birth of Jesus.  The general association would have humanity overcoming violence and settling into sustained peace, but as the 20th Century Christmas song wisely continues, this cannot happen unless there is peace within individuals, and since the only individual I can take full responsibility for is myself, we might consider beginning with ourselves.  But – this tends to be where our faith ends.  We think we cannot have peace unless there is peace around us, and since there is seldom true and real peace around us, we cannot be peaceful.  We just sing the song and send the Holiday cards.

What is peace?  Is it only a treaty of no blatant acts of violence between nation-states?  No.  Peace is complete peace, the felt-sense of no hostility and warm welcoming to all and everything.  It is the absence of the roots of violence – anger, insecurity, covetousness, mistrust.  Can we even feel this for ourselves without qualification, without some lingering sense of measuring our worth against the worth of another or an impossible self-image placed in us by parents and society?  Buddhism speaks of the uneasy sense of dissatisfaction that plagues humans, that drives them to craving and fears.  Is it not this craving and fear that sets us against each other, even against ourselves?  This is not peace.  This is what leads to wars and every act of aggression, judgment and rejection.  There is never enough, so we must take more, take what does not belong to us, even if it is only through a passive-aggressive comment, even thought, meant to make more of me and less of the object of the comment or thought.  This is violence, not peace.

Why do we take what does not belong to us?  Why do we project hostile feelings onto others and ourselves?  Is it because of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy that we are attempting to keep at bay, because of deflation of our egos caused by a wholly unrealistic need to be beyond criticism that our egos project as necessary just to be OK?  And in this relentless top-dog, underdog game there is always perceived criticism and falling short – and we are seldom OK.  So the game spins on.  We feel no peace because of this relentless low intensity war that has no truce, even between family members and people who love each other, let alone the everyday people who flow through our lives.  Even a silent mental judgment towards another is a declaration of war and there is no peace, for every shot in this war comes around and hits the one who thinks it, depriving us of peace.

And what is our ego?  It is the experience of a separate self, seeking to survive.  Every animal has an ego, a contraction of consciousness energy devoted to survival, to finding food, shelter, procreation, defense against the dangers of the world.  Humans, however, seek not only physical survival, but, having invested psychological identity in this ego, seek an abstract existential survival, the continuation and amplification of a story of “me” that requires a constant making more of “me” just to be enough.  Like a shark that must keep swimming to survive, modern humans seem to need to keep acquiring possessions, status, importance, significance for this ego-self to survive.  In making more of “me” there is the compulsion to make less of others, of all of Life.  We need “more” just to be enough.  We swim on, devouring others, devouring Nature just to psychologically survive.  So we think.

We have to realize that “Peace on Earth” really means the peace OF the Earth, the harmony and non-judgmentalism that is Nature.  Survival is survival, not opinions about what is needed for an abstracted notion of survival, not depending on anyone’s opinion or judgment.  The Lion DOES lie down with the lamb even in its killing and devouring the lamb.  The lion holds no malice toward the lamb.  The lamb holds no malice toward the lion.  They are doing what is natural.  They are living and dying without judgment, without malice.  The moment of kill is terror for the lamb, but fear of this moment does not contaminate its life.  This is peace.

Aboriginal humans knew this.  They lived on the Earth, feeling they were of the Earth and in kinship with the lion and the lamb and the rivers and the trees and each other.  Tribes fought for hunting ground, for survival, but their wars were limited, with limited lethality, just like animals fighting for territory – not to the death, but just to assert sufficient strength.  They never fought over whose god or political system was true.  They did not organize hierarchically in which there were classes of people who exploited other classes of people.  Everyone, even the mentally ill had a valued place within the tribal structure.  The most respected individual was the one who was the most generous to others.  The notion of problems of self-esteem that plague moderns would be ridiculous to them.

Killing for survival is not violence.  It is Nature.  Aboriginal hunting was done with a sense of reverence and gratitude for the “give-away” of Life that supported their life.  Yes, they were human, and struggled with the emerging demands of ego for recognition and power, and sometimes, like with the Mesoamerican Mayans, Aztecs and Incas, the ego took over and their societies went crazy and came to be at war with Nature, and so, led these societies to their demise in a bloody elevation of violence as their god.  Yet we call those societies “civilizations” and not the Nature-based cultures who continued life within Nature.  We call them “savage.”  Who was really savage, the ones who lived quietly in Nature or the ones with all the gold and crowns and war and deforestation and conquest and victims for sacrifice?

European “civilization” descended into the lands of indigenous people like an invasion from an alien planet bent on replacing the indigenous society with their own, taking what did not belong to them, committing genocide.  They could do this because they lived in a consciousness of violence, of egoic compulsion to negate others so as to elevate the shaky sense of self conditioned by the violence of hierarchy and class within their own culture to which no one was immune, not even kings.  A mind of violence was the ground in which the seeds of violent actions could grow and eventually take over the world.  The ego flatters itself and declares the victorious culture superior, when all they were was more violent – more inventive and organized in their violence.

In this is a warning.  Human civilization is based in violence as long as it is based in ego’s demand to be elevated above Nature and to separate out “me and mine” from “you and yours.”  This can lead to religious and political wars and wars of genocide and war with Nature.  It can lead to false hierarchies of who has value and who does not.  It leads to killing – not only of the body, but of the soul.  It leads to crisis of self-esteem that needs us to assault the self-esteem and worth of others.  Killing someone’s personal psychological security to temporarily buttress our own shaky psychological security IS violence, and eventually leads to killing on massive scales, to genocide, to driving species to extinction, to throwing the balance of the Earth into crisis.

Does it have to be this way?  Can there be Peace on Earth?  Yes.  But it will require evolving human culture out of egoic separateness and competition.  There must be a new embrace of the peace OF the Earth in which human civilization with its technology is turned to supporting the harmony of the World and not its conquest.  It will require the transcendence of psychological violence, the compulsion to make more of me by making less of you, of taking what does not belong to us.  It will require the meaning of civilization to be compassion and cooperation, not competition and exploitation.  It will require love and goodwill to all.

Are we actually capable of this?  Of course we are, for we have experienced this peace many times.  We experience it in moments in Nature, in the forest, on a mountain, at the ocean, looking into a starlit sky.  We experience it when we hold a baby, when we look at a loved one and realize we love them.  Perhaps it is experienced in meditation.  Yes, we are capable of love and peace, it is just that we must bring this peace into everything we do and with everyone we meet and insist on it as the guidepost for our society.  And, yes, let it begin with me – and you.  Where else can it begin?

Awakening Into Presence

“With wholeheartedness… we can feel peaceful because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.” – Dainin Katagiri

There is a concept in Zen called “The Gateless Gate,” and this paradoxical phrase could be said to be the summation of Zen.  It is the quandary of duality and non-duality, of experiencing self in separateness or in connected oneness.  Zen is among the mystical traditions aiming at “awakening” the experience of non-duality, of oneness, of connection, of seeing into the illusory nature of being a separate self.   As long as we experience and believe there is no other reality than separateness, that “I” am “in here,” and all else is “out there,” we are blocked from the ongoing experience of connectedness that is the source of spiritual peace.  We may have an intellectual understanding of the desirability and even the scientific proof of interconnectedness, but it is as if we are standing outside an impassable gate that blocks the way to actually experiencing this mythic peace and bliss as the living reality of our lives.

In our culture the entire notion of spiritual realization is simply not given any consideration.  We may or may not consider ourselves religious people, but this has very little to do with spiritual realization.  In many ways, this spiritual gate is not a religious issue at all, but rather a cultural one, for it has to do with an absolute belief in the separateness of “things” as the only reality, and in the passage of time as the true story of who we are.  We live in goals that exist in the future and memories of a story of who we are coming out of the past.  Our primary experience, therefore, is of a time/story line of “me, in here” negotiating with other people, the world, and life “out there.”

Western culture (which is now pretty much world culture) believes in the separateness of things as the only reality.  Even Western religion, with the exception of marginalized mystical traditions, is based in the separateness of things and in humanity’s “fall” into separateness from God.  This is not true with nature-based aboriginal cultures, for their spirituality is in an ongoing living experience of connection with all that exists and the underlying unity of all things.  For an aboriginal, the energy of Life or Spirit pervading and giving rise to all things within an interconnected subtle web is a natural experience.  There exists very little in the way of power hierarchy in primitive cultures, neither within their social structure, nor in their relationship to Nature.  All beings, human and animal, even plant and geographical phenomenon like trees, mountains and rivers, have “spirit,” exist in linked kinship, and are worthy of respect and veneration.  Certainly no person, animal or natural life phenomenon is to be objectified, exploited or harmed in the quest for elevation of human power, the abusiveness that marks “civilization,” East and West, but particularly Western.

Traditional Asian culture and religions seem to represent a balance between the aboriginal and Western cultural perspectives, a balance where non-duality and duality co-exist without contradiction.  Eastern culture, having achieved high civilizations, has daily life experienced dualistically in the separateness of things and the hierarchy of power that comes with civilizations, while the religious traditions of the East seem to function as a reminder of the underlying truth of non-duality.  This is very unlike Western religions that have been transformed through historic enmeshment with the political state to reinforce dualistic hierarchy.  Within Eastern cultures there existed two societies; a secular dualistic society and a monastic religious society teaching non-duality as the ultimate insight into Reality and as the antidote to the suffering caused by the cruel dualities of secular life.  While not accessible to most ordinary people, the realm of the religious orders was held in awe and respect, and much of the society was guided and informed by the wisdom that emanated from these traditions.  The gateless gate is symbolic of the duality of secular identity within ultimate non-duality, and is an acknowledgment of the great difficulty of the realization of non-duality from within the dualistic perspective.

In the contemporary world, if we have studied enough mystical spiritual teaching to be asking the questions, “What is the nature of reality?” “What is spirituality and how do I bring it into everyday life?” “Are we one or are we two?” we have become aware of the gate.  If we have taken on a meditation practice, we are, in a sense standing, knocking on the gate, yet, while having glimpses of the “pure land” that Buddhism refers to, we remain mostly frustrated in our attempts to pass through the gate with any consistency.   Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki famously koaned, “If you believe we are two, you are wrong; if you believe we are one, you are equally wrong.  We are two AND one.” So, how do we achieve this realization that while we live in the appearance of two and must function in a world of dualistic civilization, can we  increasingly live in the simultaneous realization that we are one, infinite, and existing in a perfect sacred unfolding of the universe?  How do we release ourselves with any consistency from the samsara of suffering that comes with duality-only consciousness?

Suzuki’s compatriot roshi, Dainin Katagiri, answered with the koanic perspective that everything Buddhism has to teach is achieved in “wholeheartedness of presence.”  As is intended with a koan, hopefully you have been stopped in your tracks and are giving baffled consideration to what is being said here.  Let us examine this statement beginning with the word “presence.”  Since we are at the intersection of duality and non-duality, the word must be examined from both perspectives, and we will start with the perspective we are accustomed to, the dualistic perspective.  Presence is here, that’s simple.  Or is it?  Well, where and what is “here?”  Again, hopefully the koanic befuddlement is arising in you.  You were pretty sure you knew where and what “here” is.  Here is here; it is where we locate this body that is me along with its immediate surroundings.

The Zen Master replies, “How small!”  And then asks, “Where is the boundary to this ‘here?’”  Perhaps our egocentricity begins to be evident to us.  As Katagari instructs, “our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.”  How can it not be so?  Perhaps a sudden sense of vast expansiveness arises within you.  This can be called “wholeheartedness.”  Wholeheartedness is the ability to see the vastness of our true existence.  If our presence and the presence of the universe are the same, where and what is not included in this presence?  Perhaps a great sense of compassionate identification with all of life begins to arise along with a peaceful sadness for all the unnecessary suffering caused by dualistic egocentricity.  Perhaps a wisdom also arises that allows the sadness to be peaceful rather than angry, a wisdom that sees in the vastness of the universe unfolding, everything being as it can be in the unfolding.  This is Karma.  There is work to be done to bring this sadness before the world peacefully, so the world can see the truth of the error of “egoic delusion.”  This is awakening.  The business of the Bodhisattva is awakening the world – their wholehearted presence a beacon of what a human can be.

This is waking up out of our egocentric dream of duality.  This is awakening into true presence.  Our intellect barely grasps this, for the intellect is for creating separate thought-forms to give order to our experience.  Our physical senses cannot grasp it for our senses are designed to perceive separateness and detail of forms.  This realization requires the opening of the sense of intuition, a sense neglected, even scorned in Western culture.  Yet, it is actually the most important of our mental capacities for it is the sense of individualized consciousness, awareness, connecting with the energy of consciousness that permeates the universe and gives rise to the material form of the universe – all connected.

WHAT?!  Yes, our Western mind balks at this, yet….. like a bell ringing in the distance, do you not know this in the deepest recesses of your consciousness, in the primitive being that arose out of Nature and existed in the mystery and unity of Nature that was your Paleolithic ancestor of fifteen thousand years ago?  These nature-humans knew in the very cells of their body and mind that they were Nature and they lived in the web and womb of Spirit, and this cellular memory is alive in us today.  This is wholeheartedness.  This is whole-mindedness, the bringing and integrating of our total mental faculties, including intuition into unlocking the gate.

“Show me your original face!” commands the Zen Master.  Awaken from the sleep of civilization and all the misery and suffering it causes.  Awaken into wholeheartedness of presence where you and the universe are one – all place, all time, all beings.  You are now standing where once there was a gate, but now, all space and time and possibility open up in front of you “because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.”  No longer in the forest, rather in civilization, in the universe, living a civilized life, but not so broken, ready to evolve an entirely new chapter in human civilization where duality and non-duality are equally honored.  Where “we are two AND one.”

Religion As Politics

“My religion is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – Jesus (John 13:34)

The idea of politics being informed by religion is a thorny one in American society.  We were established as a secular democratic republic where religion and politics are meant to be kept separate.  It is the law that there shall be no established religion of the state, and all are free to practice their religion as they understand it, providing it does not transgress the laws of society.  From the very beginning, however, and certainly continuing today, people’s religious convictions have been deeply intertwined with their political views and the establishment of law in this country.

To say something is one’s religion, if a person means this sincerely, is as strong a commitment as can be made to whatever that principle is.  The nation’s founders were divided into essentially those of traditional Christian inclination, some toward Puritan judgmentalism, and those who tended toward being Deists, a non-doctrinal belief in God and the ethical teachings of Jesus (but not the deification of Jesus) coupled with what amounted to a religious conviction in democracy and rationalism producing a liberalism that was the basis for the legal and moral foundation of the country.  The design of the country was mostly by the Deist faction of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Thomas Paine, and John and John Q. Adams, with the first President, Washington, also considered among this group.   From this Deist/Rationalist/Democratic beginning there have always been those who held a religious-like fervor for establishing and protecting the freedom and right to dignity for all as the bedrock of this nation.   And then there have been those who have been uncomfortable with the notion of “for all” and believed their religious freedom allowed them to discriminate against and exclude those they felt were offensive to their religious code.  These two religious perspectives have been in ongoing tension throughout the history of this nation.

A fine and shaky line has had to be drawn between the separation of church and state, while still looking to religious ethics as a moral compass for the state.  Abolitionism was deeply steeped in religious conviction leading to the ending of slavery. The civil rights movement led by Protestant minister Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply informed by religious conviction and dedicated to fulfilling the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”  Currently, The Rev. William Barber seeks to reawaken the legacy of Dr. King in bringing humanist and inclusive ethics informed in religious tradition back into the forefront of American politics.  In this society’s evolution of increased inclusion for women, the working class, people of color, and non-traditional sexual identity persons, as well as the struggles for peace, economic fairness and environmental concern, progressive religious leaders and people have been in high profile along with humanist-secularists.  That being said, it is then important to note that in opposition to these groups and causes, conservative religious people and leaders have often been central.  The compass of religion seemingly can point in what appears to be diametrically opposite directions.

As the predominant religious tradition of America has been Christianity steeped in Old Testament Jewish origins, it would seem logical that Jesus’s teachings of tolerance, charity, non-judgmentalism, peace and material simplicity would be oft-cited guides by those who use their Christian religion as inspiration for their political positions.  Unfortunately, this has not universally been the case.  To the contrary, the intermingling of religion and politics in America has frequently had a history of religion being invoked to justify the cruelest of policies, as we recently saw when Attorney General Jeff Session attempted to give moral cover by quoting scripture to the deeply immoral, profoundly unkind Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents when crossing illegally into the United States.  I am quite certain the Deist Founders would have been aghast.

Similar Biblical justifications have been given to slavery, to the genocide of Native Americans, to racism, to sexism, to homophobia, to classism and worker and environmental exploitation.  For many, it is a conundrum on how to reconcile the religion that teaches, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) with the Dickensian, Ayn Randian political/economic philosophies that so many of those who call themselves disciples of Jesus espouse and support.

Certainly, the issue of religious underpinning to attitudes of public policy is deeply complex, yet when an important religious leader from outside the Western tradition, the Dalai Lama, declares that his religion is kindness, I am struck by the inspiring simplicity and the implications of such a dedication in every sphere of life, and particularly in the sphere of politics.   And while this great religious leader is outside the American and Western traditions, his simple faith seems exactly in line with the teachings of Jesus and with Christianity’s Judaic origins as well as the Deist philosophy with its rational application of the concepts of tolerance and “freedom and justice for all.”  It would seem reasonable to assume that the intent of this nation’s founding was based with strong religious conviction on the recognition of the universal right to kindness with all its applications and implications.  It certainly seems to be so in the preambles and contents of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, intending us toward “more perfect union.

To apply the path of kindness with rational honesty, as do Buddhists, to all of life would seem to be an excellent guide to the resolution of this country’s and humanity’s problems. It would seem, in these times of conflict and great anxiety, a very good idea to commit with religious conviction to making this country one guided by the principle of kindness in every sphere – and to invite those who have interpreted their religion to justify cruelty to see this as a clear distortion of the religion of Jesus, for he too was an avatar of kindness, teaching love as really his first and only guide of conduct.

Imagine the society we could create based on aligning our political guideposts in the Constitution with a commitment, strengthened by religious conviction, to the kindness and love Jesus taught.  And if it seems like an impossible aspiration, look to the instruction in the Talmud, the ethical guide of Judaism: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – (The Talmud, 303)

Let us put an end to this religious tribalistic bickering and forfeiture of humanity’s future to what is clearly shaping into dystopian ugliness.  To those who declare we are a “Christian nation” in argument for prejudicial and oppressive policies based in their interpretation of Christian teachings, know that this nation’s founders were explicit in their denunciation of this notion.  Let us end the misappropriation of religion by those who engage in warfare, usury, exploitation, bigotry and hatefulness while invoking religious sanctity by clarifying and simplifying our understanding of religious obligation as the Dalai Lama does, and as Jesus did, to kindness and love.  This would seem much more in line with the Deism of the founders.  All policy and its implementation would seem to naturally flow from such a religious conviction in the honest asking: What, in this situation, would be the kind thing to do, the just thing, the merciful thing, the humble thing?  What would be the loving thing to do?  And then with religious conviction seek to make it so.  What a beautiful world we could create by applying true idealism religiously to our political endeavors.

The Wondrous Space

“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

― Abraham Heschel

Wonder is a very interesting word.  It has two meanings that are nearly, but not quite, opposites.  First, it is a state of questioning – to wonder if… about something.  In this usage, there is a state of not-knowing; it implies a lack of desired information.  Then, in its second usage, the word can be used to represent a kind of knowing – not a knowing as in information, but a knowing as in the positive experience of mystery.  In this usage, it is an intuitive connection with the deepest essence of an experience, without any need to dissect what is being experienced into information.  There is a question implied here, but it is a question not really looking for an answer.  The question is a positive experience of query into the deepest secrets of Life, with the questioner satisfied to live in the question.  This is mystical wonder.

The Jewish mystic theologian Abraham Heschel is calling us to this mystical wonder as the essence of the spiritual experience, and as the source, the beginning place, of true peace, happiness and deep well-being.   He is saying that wonder is essential to a meaningful life, noting mystical wonder as the sweetest of all experiences, and he seems to be saying that without this sweetness, life is merely our routines, and routines, even exciting or stimulating routines, cannot approach the peace, the bliss, the fullness of wonder.  Religions are belief systems, and we can believe many things.  It might be said we can believe anything if it’s sold properly, but wonder is the source of all that is transcendent and cannot be sold or preached, only touched, received, and known, like grace.

What is clear is that to activate this state of mystical wonder so essential to human fulfillment, we need to bring it out of the intellectual and into the dimension of pure and direct experience.  So, it seems it is very important to ask – “What is this wonder and how do we find it?”  Just as the word has two meanings, it could be understood that these meanings represent two very different dimensions of existence and experience.

The more conventional use of the word represents the utilitarian world of duality, of the reasoning mind of ego struggling with understanding and mastery.  It is our everyday world of going about our business, where our understanding reaches its limit and we wonder how to proceed, or when we encounter something new and we wonder what it is and how it works.  We experience wondering as our mind reaches in inquiry about that thing out there that is separate from us.  The duality of the experience is clear.  Yet, even in this dimension of duality, the more we engage this capacity for intellectual wondering, the richer, more complex, deep and fulfilling our life becomes, so this dimension of wondering is not to be dismissed; it is very important to cultivate.   It is what a good education does and what a bad education drills out of us.

But how do we access mystical wonder?  We must begin by understanding that it seems to be an alternative space to the realm of duality and practicality that we usually occupy, and from this space of duality, the world of non-duality seems like an unreachable dream.  This is, of course, not true, for the world of duality exists within the world of non-duality  Our vision is merely too narrowly focused into our experience of separateness, and so this separateness seems to be the only reality.  Perhaps we can find our way if we remember that when we were small children we often visited this wondrous space, a place of magic where all care disappeared and love in its purest form was the air that we breathed, even if it was only for a caterpillar crawling across a leaf.  This is not the wondering of the intellectual mind, it is the experience of having all sense of separateness dissolving into the space of play or exploration or reverie.  This is an activity of the soul where we become this spacious place of wonder and all that appears within it.  It is a tangible experience that we can recall, and it is the sweetest of childhood memories.

And then – the most dispiriting of childhood memories is being pulled out of the wondrous space and back into the business of being socialized, sometimes chastised into being a properly striving, obedient and practical person.  In the language of the Harry Potter stories it was the difference between being in the world of magic and in the world of muggles.  The loss of childlike innocence is in the gradual forgetting of the point of entry into the wondrous space, as we become increasingly lost in the struggle to become somebody.  Paradise is lost.  But is it?

As adults, we sometimes stumble into the paradise of wondrous space in those moments of sublime beauty with Nature, with art, in intimate relationship, anywhere, anytime where the sense of separate self falls away into the unity of the moment held in wonder, sometimes described as rapture.  These are times when if we apply intellectual wondering to the mystical wonder, we might make a great discovery.  If we were to ask ourselves “what is happening here and why?”  we might notice how there is an expansion of the sense of the space of “me” from inside this separate body, and inside this mind striving to be somebody, into the magic of all sense of self dissolving into the space of the moment.  The place of wonder is expansive, as if this little “me” inside this body expands to include the totality of an experience.  Time stops and the moment is all there is.  The senses are wide open, completely receptive and subtle in their perceptions, picking up detail and nuance of the moment; and another sense, one we seldom consider in our culture, the sense of intuition, of a silent knowing of something secret and beautiful hidden in the experience, whispers in its silent language to us.  Ah! We do know our way back to the Garden!

Light and shadow dance with each other as the wind softly plays with the branches on the trees and we are the dance.  The bird in the tree sings and we are the bird singing.  A cloud passes overhead and we are the cloud.  Music sweetly sounds and we are the sweet sound.  The person sharing the moment with us speaks of their deep truth in word and look, and our deep truth is known and speaks and looks, or we play, and we are the playing.  The wind whispers and we are the whisper.  The river flows and we are the river flowing.   The bird, the cloud, the music, the people, the wind, the river, and all that is – is who we are in the wondrous space.  We might as well call it God’s space, for it is the space where All-that-is exists without a here or there, a past or future, only infinitely here and infinitely now.

True mystics live in this wondrous space, for, as Jesus instructed us to “be like the little children,” the spiritual realm is the wondrous space.  It is also the realm of well-being and joy, of play and pure exploration.  It is the space of worship without end, the home of the Sacred.  The best art has this sense of wonder to it – the ineffable question suggested in the poetry, the painting, the dance, the music.  We become lost, and that is the secret.  You must lose yourself to find this place.  Let go of holding onto this desperate self, seeking meaning and significance.  The moment IS the meaning and significance.  Plunge in like a fool.  Let go completely.  Dissolve into that old sweet place of wonder.

Zen is steeped in this world of wonder.  It is what is being pointed toward when Zen speaks of “emptiness” of self, of “original nature,” and classical Zen poetry reflects this emptiness of all guile and sophistication.  In Zen art we are pointed toward uncorrupted moments in life, simple, yet deep and resonant with meaning.

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!  – Basho (17th Cent.)

You must, as you did when you were a small child, leave behind the world of self-concern to wander aimlessly into THIS.  The entryway is in the song of a bird, the clouds floating by, the flow of the river, the eyes of a loved one, the fragrant blossoms in the evening as the resonance of bells waft into eternity.  You must be ready to love everyone and everything.  You must be ready to be like a child in the wondrous space, to let go of your tether to practicality and self-absorption and to float away.  You will know when you are there.  The mystics’ skill is in staying in this expansive place, knowing their true self as the totality of the moment in unity – even while continuing with everyday life.  It is found in living in quiet wonder, amazement and ecstasy in the midst of what seems ordinary, even dull, to those not sharing in the wondrous space that they once knew as a child – but have long since forgotten how to enter.

Approaching Truth

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha

 “And the truth shall set you free.” – Jesus

The only practice worth doing is the search for truth, and it is always about uncovering the lies of the ego – all ego – mine, yours, the politicians’, the preachers’, the advertisers’, governments’, the president’s, corporations’, religions’, society’s, and culture’s, and doing the heroic work of walking increasingly in the truth. It is not easy, but it is what frees the soul and defeats suffering – and so – eventually makes life easier.  Why?  Because truth is what is natural – all of Nature lives in truth – except humans.

There’s an old bumper sticker that said: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” and since outrage is exhausting, it’s pretty easy to come to the point where you just want to stop paying attention to how out of alignment with truth human society is, and that is where most of us end up, vacillating between outrage and turning away our heads in exhaustion.  Yet there are those like Buddha, Jesus, and Socrates and more modern figures like Einstein, Krishnamurti, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela who were fearless seekers and spokespersons for the truth, and while they undoubtedly had times of discouragement, they overcame them and returned to seeking and speaking eternal truths in the face of derision and persecution.  How did they do it?

Of course, they answered that question many times, and the answer was always the same: with love, and with faith in the search for truth as the only path to freedom from the violence of ignorance.  They had love of truth and realized that love is the great truth.  Not romantic love, or the love of identification with someone or with something, but the love that holds the Universe together, the infinite energy of connection and interdependence; love of the truth of what is.  The great Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, often uses the term “Interbeing.”  All in the Universe “inter-is” with everything else.  Once again, all of Nature has no difficulty living within this truth – except human beings, and it is this violation of natural law that is the reason there is so much to be outraged about.  The problem seems to arise from this evolutionary development in human beings called ego-identification and its compulsion to create lines of separation that do not actually exist, and it is these lines of artificial separation that are the lies of ego that entrap us.

When the Buddha attained enlightenment he declared: “With the Earth as my witness, all sentient beings have the right to be free of suffering.”  Of course, he was not talking about physical pain or discomfort, or even the emotional suffering that is legitimate grieving at loss of loved ones or over their pain, these are all quite natural states – you can see them in a dog.  This is the pain of connection broken or injured or resonating sympathetically.  He was addressing the unnecessary emotional pain caused by losses to ego-security and status and by amplifying our emotional challenges and traumas by placing them within a self-centered story that we emotionally resist, and it is this resistance that brings about the experience of emotional and spiritual separateness which brings on our suffering.  The Buddha also offered us a path to freedom from this suffering that was not some supernatural ability or a pathological emotional callousness.  He offered to us the natural state of acceptance, of alignment with the what-is in life – that which every creature except humans are able to live within naturally.  This then, constitutes a truth we can depend upon.

Another absolute truth of Nature is that, except for humans, no creature takes more than it needs for its survival, and no creature destroys for any reason other than its natural survival, but humans do it regularly because of egoic insecurity – the desire to make more of “me” – and the easiest way to make more of “me” is to make less of all that I think is “not me.” Yes, there are lines of separation in Nature, of predator and prey, but this all happens within a deeper ecological network of connection that creates perfect balance.  While it can be granted that human survival-needs are more subjective than that of an animal in the woods, somehow it feels like there is something untruthful about the extremely unnatural impulse to acquisition and destruction of the human ego that creates imbalances and breaks ecological connections, yet is often covered over by calling it “human nature.”

Perhaps the truths of ecology could be brought to the human realm through the insight that balance is lost when a person causes others difficulty or loss or takes disproportionately for the purpose of their own ego-gratification, again, because no creature other than humans would do such a thing.  Yet humans crisscross the terrain of Life, carving it up into little kingdoms marked by greed for power, wealth, and dominion, all in violation of Nature where there is just Life in balance.  So here we have a conundrum, a paradox, for it seems to be the nature of humans to carve out paths and to build walls in the pathless and wall-less land of Nature and to require more than just the means for natural survival.  How can we resolve this conundrum?

Twenty-six centuries ago, the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, shared, “The Way that can be named is not the Way.”  Yet this teaching and the other teachings recorded in the single record of his teachings, The Tao Te Ching, are all aimed at giving a guide to humanity for how to keep their restless path-making as true to the pathless land of Nature as possible.  And herein we find a truth – a relative truth – for as long as we must create paths out of the pathless land of Nature, we must accept our truths as flawed, as merely approximations seeking illusive greater truths.  We must remain humble, finding guidance from Lao Tzu’s 5th Century BC Greek contemporary, Socrates, who stated, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

So the truth that sets us free is in knowing that we, by the nature of our restless path and wall-making, are in violation of greater truths and therefore must be profoundly careful, and must, as Lao Tzu advised, keep as close to the truths of Nature as we can.  We love to create lines of separation that are of “me” and “not me,” of “us” and “other,” and we give all these separations many names to give a seeming reality to these artificial creations.  We create an artificial line between humanity and Nature, when, of course, there is no separation, for Nature is all existence, but this is a truth we have difficulty accepting.  Ego does not like it, and it would do us well to learn to be far more humble and mindful regarding this tendency, this compulsion to separate humanity and Nature and its resultant destructiveness.

Another truth is that the problem isn’t in lines per se.  What we forget is that in Nature, lines not only create separation, they also create connection.  The ancient Vedic tradition that gave rise to Hinduism and Buddhism sought to represent the way things are through an image called the “Net of Indra,” which represents existence as an infinite net of connecting threads or lines which, at each point of connection, has a multifaceted jewel, the facets reflecting the whole of the net and all the infinite jewels in the net.  We are many AND we are one.  Buddhism reminds us that forgetting this fundamental ecological truth is the source of much of the unnatural suffering humanity creates.

The great hope and faith that we can hold to, is, as Buddha said, that truth cannot be hidden long, and that this is the arc of human history and evolution.  While we try to hide behind the walls of our artificial lines of separation, the truth of Nature asserts itself irrepressibly and the truth of connectedness tears down the walls.  We have a long way to go to fully embrace and implement the wisdom of Indra’s Net as the path for human society or to proceed with the humility that Lao Tzu and Socrates advised, but our only hope for freedom from the unnecessary suffering caused by our compulsion to create lines of separation while ignoring lines of connection is to return again and again to these wisdom guides.  Our lines of separation must be balanced through consciousness of our lines of connection.

Our growing maturity as individuals, and as societies and as a species has always been marked by awakening to our natural instinct to erase artificial lines of separation and to realize our true lines of connection, to make our “we” ever more inclusive. So, pay increasing attention – and yes, while there is plenty to be outraged about, I suggest that you not get outraged – this only creates more of those separating lines and walls.  Instead, love ferociously and compassionately confronting the untruths of those who would create lines and build walls of separation for egoic satisfaction, wealth and power, while you strive to be ever more courageous at creating and encouraging lines of loving connection wherever possible.

Expansive Silence

“Who we are is the space of the moment arising in awareness.” – Eckhart Tolle

The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung coined the terms extraversion and introversion to indicate directions of consciousness energy, with extraversion being mental energy moving out from the interior of a person’s experience into the external world and introversion the bringing of that which is perceived as external into the field of mind for consideration. With this understanding, we typically connect the idea of a person being extraverted with being expansive in a rather loud and assertive manner.  Conversely, we consider being introverted as rather quiet and unobtrusive, a person absorbed in their inner world of thoughts and emotions. To the degree that extraversion and introversion have to do with qualities of personality, another way of talking about ego-states, these are appropriate understandings.  In extraversion, we are projecting our personality, our ego, out into the world; while in introversion, we are bringing the circumstances of the external world into our internal world to examine them and give them our interpretation.  There is definitely an “in here” and an “out there.”  Two places, one me, the other not me.  As such, this constitutes a dualistic perspective.  Because we are an ego oriented culture, we are accustomed to these uses of the terms extraverted and introverted, but importantly, there can also be non-egoic instances of extraversion and introversion to which we give very little consideration.

Buddhism is a culture that is very interested in the non-egoic state of consciousness that is awareness and in exploring ever-deepening levels of experience and insight into the human condition and the true nature of existence through engaged awareness.  As an example of this consciousness energy directed in an introverted manner we have meditation, among its purposes being the focusing into and stabilizing of our internal world of mind.  As many experience mind as dominated by incessant thought and emotion, this internal world of mind seems restless, perhaps even exhausting, and so we need some practice that trains us in holding a stable internal focus and in learning about and gaining insight into this restless searching mind, perhaps opening the way to calming and relaxing it.

This requires the introversion of awareness, the silent looking in at the activity of mind which can, like a reassuring mother to an over-excited child, calm and soothe the excitation and hyperactivity, in a sense, like a mother enfolding it within its embrace.  With meditation, we are also increasingly aware of awareness, and bring into the foreground of experience that which has been operating silently in the background, opening the insight that as there is this dimension of mind that is awareness capable of examining the turbulent dimension of mind that is ego, then who we are at our most fundamental level must be awareness, stable and free of the turbulence.  In bringing awareness to awareness we discover mind at its own source; stable, silent, intelligent and undisturbed by mental activity.  This is a great discovery and liberation.

Having explored the introversion of awareness in meditation, it is then important to examine the importance of awareness extraverted in what Buddhism refers to as mindfulness.  This is the bringing of the silent dimension of awareness deliberately into the world experienced as outside a person.  Here, extraversion is paradoxically simultaneously expansive and receptive, meaning that it is simultaneously reaching out and taking in, and rather than being boisterous, this expansiveness is marked by profound quiet, even silence.  We typically enter this state of consciousness reflexively when the external world is either extraordinarily beautiful or extraordinarily threatening and “out there” becomes so compelling that we forget about “me-in-here.”  These are times when all of our consciousness energy leaves “in here” and with hushed awe or wariness, extends out into the environment, perhaps realizing that we ARE the environment, every bit as much as the trees, the clouds, the sky, and the Earth.  This is a non-dualistic state of consciousness where there is only this moment in awareness.

So, we are left with the quandary: are we the activity and contents of our mind, all of which has some origin in biological/psychological/social/cultural conditioning and creates the sense of a separate “me,” or are we the field of consciousness within which all that is experienced occurs?  Buddhist teaching and the teachings of various mystical traditions cross-culturally aim at awakening us into the realization that who we are is the consciousness energy of awareness in which the moment arises.  With this awakening, there occurs a profound shift from the dualistic paradigm of “in here” and “out there” into non-dualistic “just this.”  What is experienced as “out there” is realized as occurring in the field of consciousness, along with this body and this mental activity commenting on the “out there.”  There is only this moment IN awareness.  Inside and outside become meaningless, for we find we are IN that which previously was experienced as outside.  The boundaries of egoic self dissolve.

This is the heart of spiritual awakening, and it initiates a process of transformation leading to a profound state of mental health and well-being where we are increasingly less buffeted about by the changing conditions of life and the mind’s incessant commentary about the conditions of life, but rather realize we are fundamentally that which does not change and has never changed, within which everything is always changing. If you can realize that the awareness that witnesses the reading of these words is the same awareness that witnessed your first breath and will witness your last breath and every moment between, this may be a very important “aha!” moment for you.

This expansive experience of self occurs in the silent dynamic stillness of the field of consciousness energy that is individuated awareness.  The experience of “I” leaves the confines of locus in this body and mind to extend into the subject of attention in a non-dualistic connection.  “I” becomes the interaction. While to see this stated may be quite new, the experience is not.  We, in fact, do this quite frequently; yet do not notice its effect.  As I sit typing these words at my computer, “I” exist in a connection of mind, hands and computer.  When we garden, stroke our pets, speak with a loved one, hike silently in the woods with our senses sharp and attentive, or when we drive our car on a scenic road, if we do so with any degree of mindfulness, which is saying, in a very real way, with love, we have extended our sense of self into the field of interaction.  We may notice that there is an accompanying sense of good feeling and well-being with these activities; and so we may seek them out with some regularity, citing them as important to us.  We give these activities special status, as we might a religious experience, yet Zen teaches us it is, in fact, everyday mind – when we awaken into the truth of being awareness.  Mindfulness practice is to recognize that these activities are not the source of our good feeling and well-being, but rather simply the stimuli for the action of extending awareness, of forgetting ourselves in the act of becoming one with any activity.

This is the essential truth of who we are, and this realization is immensely liberating and also is the birth of true compassion, for as all we experience is connected in this field of consciousness energy, “I” exist within this interconnected field – and so, in a sense, when we are in each other’s presence as we co-arise in this field of awareness, “I” has to contain “you.”  And – as awareness is not limited to the range of the physical senses and can intuit Universal Life, this is a compassion that can extend to all of Life in all its forms.

Realizing this, our practice can then be to deliberately extend awareness into the here-and-now at subtler and subtler levels into the seemingly mundane contents and activities of our lives while also extending it limitlessly into a vast sense of our cosmic origin and presence, the entire spectrum now taking on a sense of the Sacred.  We can begin living deliberately as the expansive silence of awareness within which we walk and talk and interact, living as feeling, thought, sight and sound, without an “I” at the center.  This expansive silence is realized as the self beyond form and identity and opens our lives to a rich realization of our origin in infinity walking and experiencing the finite.  A deep and abiding peace results allowing perspective on the “what is” that becomes a source of compassion and wisdom always available when we remember we are “the space of the moment arising in awareness.”  And when you see some spiritual writing that says we are “That,” you will know what is meant.

Meditate, Meditate, Meditate

“The purpose of meditation is to make our mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. But if our mind is not peaceful, we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.” Kelsang Gyatso, Tibetan meditation master
I used to be a practicing clinical psychologist.  I became a practitioner of deep meditation twenty-five years ago and a teacher twenty years ago because I became convinced that what I sought in the study of psychology, the realization of true human potential for mental health, is only accessible through meditation and the path of wisdom that naturally flows from meditation taken to deep levels.

As a mental health professional, I found it tragic and telling that Western psychology has no model of mental health.  Rather, it offers a categorization of the varieties of mental illness and some theoretical models as to how to address them, none with any consistent success.  It basically settles for allowing mental health to be defined as a relative absence of debilitating symptoms of mental illness, and to me, this is not good enough.   It always seemed that rather than an approach that sought to minimize and control the symptoms of mental illness, if we had a positive direction in which to move that took us to mental health, the symptoms would naturally fall away, for they are, in actuality, only defenses against the misalignment of our distorted, neurotic perspectives placing us at odds with life-as-it-is.  Much as it is with physical health, where we are much less likely to fall ill if we keep the body well-tuned through exercise and diet, so too it is with the mind.  If we have a methodology for maintaining a state of true mental health, the problems of the mind have nowhere to take root.  I have found meditation to be that methodology proven over thousands of years – yet largely ignored in Western culture and psychology.

Meditation is understood in Buddhist culture to be the practice of training the mind in concentration, peacefulness, insight, wisdom and what is called “vastness,” the realization of our true source and identity arising within the vastness of the Universe, a kind of “cosmic consciousness.”  This happens by awakening the practitioner to the dimension of mind that is awareness, that which observes the activity and content of the mind – the thoughts and emotions – yet is not caught in the turbulence of the thoughts and emotions.  A gradual dawning occurs that this dimension of awareness is the true source of intelligence and insight – capable of seeing how imbalanced and unreliable the transient thoughts and emotions are.  Identity that had been trapped in thoughts and emotions begins to shift into awareness, bringing with it a great liberation from the disturbances of the mind.  We realize we are not the thoughts and emotions, but rather that which is witness to the thoughts and emotions that have their origin in psychological and social conditioning; therefore, there is no need to be defensive or to identify with them.  They will lose the energy of identification and begin to be readily available to modification as our clearer experience of reality-as-it-is strengthens.

Western culture and psychology certainly has no equivalence to this harmonization of the psychological with the philosophical, spiritual and even cosmological in a way that has the potential to generate the deep relaxed presence, insight, balance, and even joy that has to be the hallmark of true mental health and sanity.  Through deep meditation practice there becomes increasingly accessible the ability to maintain our sense of well-being, perspective and calm, even while the events and circumstances around us – and even those events in our own minds, the thoughts and emotions – may be tumultuous and even threatening.

Western psychology has been very good at understanding that non-biological mental illness is the result of a poorly developed ego, the psychological sense of self relating to others and events, and that a poorly developed ego creates grave distortions in a person’s experience that then manifest in excessive anxiety, depression or anger, as well as in confused thinking and unskillful and interpersonally problematic behavior.  This is a very valuable observation, and Western psychology has pretty much placed its eggs in the basket of ego psychology along with symptom-managing medication in working with these distortions.  In this model, the therapist acts as a neutral witness as the client relates their experience, and the therapist helps the client toward insights into ways to not be so carried away by these distortions.  This is good, but quite limited, for it is dependent on the therapist AND on the therapist being a truly wise, authentic and insightful seer and interpreter.

Tellingly, only European culture (and modernized, Europeanized cultures) have a study and practice of psychology.  In traditional and aboriginal cultures, the role that psychology plays in modern societies is filled by spirituality and its practitioners – priests, monks and shamans with accompanying meditative practices.   Now, given this, it might seem that modern cultures would have less of a problem with mental illness, when, in fact, it has a considerably greater problem with it.  A telling anecdote about the Dalai Lama has it that on one of his first visits to America, he was attending a convention of psychologists where the topic was the problem of disturbances of self-esteem – either low self-esteem or its opposite in narcissism.  The Dalai Lama found the topic quite confusing, and after he fully grasped what was being discussed, shared that while the people of Tibet live without all the material and medical benefits of the West, problems of self-esteem are unheard of in this traditional spirituality-based culture.  It is very important for us to ask why this should be.

The problem with modern culture that leads to what amounts to an epidemic of mental illness is the same problem that limits psychology – the placing of the ego in supremacy as a person’s identity.  Modern psychology and culture have a one dimensional model of mind – telling us that ego is who we are, while ignoring the realm of awareness completely.  There is a lack of recognition of awareness as the guiding and mediating dimension of mind – that which we must most fundamentally be – for it is awareness that observes the activity of the mind and all of our experience in the world, and without this perspective, we are left as prisoners of the chaotic realms of thought and emotion.  Psychology seeks to bring the awareness of the therapist to the task of insight, but this is quite insufficient and strangely has never made the connection that effective therapy is based in the clarity of the therapist’s awareness – that it is awareness that is the insightful healing faculty.  What the practice of meditation proves is that if a person can be trained in focusing into clear awareness, they can do for themselves what the best therapist can do, and do it more effectively, because it is their awareness, and it is always there as witness to the machinations of mind.  No appointment needed.

Buddhism understands completely why modern culture and psychology wrestle so with mental illness because Buddhism recognizes human egoic separateness and the compulsion to cling to identity in separateness as the source of human suffering (the Buddhist term that can be viewed as equivalent to mental illness). This identity in separateness, in ego, with all its insecurities and attempts to assuage insecurities brought on by attachment to the material and to individual and collective importance, is the hell, the insanity, humans create for themselves and others.

As a curative, meditation is training in the steady application of awareness in compassionate and insightful observation of the chattering and insecure egoic dimension of mind bringing about an amelioration of these insecurities through ever deepening insights into their origin in psycho-social conditioning and the discovery of an inner silence, peace and balance beneath the noise and activity of the mind. This inner quiet and peace reflects and makes real for us the balance and perfection of our true and deepest nature reflective of the balance and perfection of the natural world.  We experience that as our practice steadies and deepens, we learn to exist increasingly within and as this realm of peaceful and insightful witnessing awareness with the result being a gradual awakening of a profound sense of calm and insightful clarity.  Ego assumes its appropriate role as a faculty for discerning and working with separateness while relinquishing its mistaken assertion as being who we are.  From a psychological standpoint, what is being achieved is real and profound sanity, and if this sanity is what you are looking for, my suggestion is simply this: meditate, meditate, meditate.

Beyond the Poisons of the Mind

“Endless greed is itself a poison, a kind of abnormal state, and the same is also true for anger and ignorance. The antidote is to realize that these poisons are addictive to the mind, and that one should return to the practice method. Do not allow yourself to be deterred or affected by these poisons… When suffering from vexations, first realize that they arise because of our addiction to the poisons of the mind—greed, anger, and ignorance.”       – Master Sheng-Yeng

America has a personality.  A society is, in a sense, like a collective person, a macro-ego.  It has a personality that can be characterized by certain traits.  To be certain, it is made up of endless varieties of personalities manifesting in the individual members of the society, yet it can be said that there are some overarching traits that give some definition to the society.  There is an interactive loop of individuals shaping society and society shaping the individuals.  This overarching personality style of a culture has positive aspects and negative ones just like the personality of an individual.  America always has been known in the world as idealistic, creative, dauntless, generous, and even to a degree, compassionate.  These are positive collective personality traits.  America and Americans also have been thought of as materialistic, entitled, aggressive, insensitive, and dogmatic about the superiority of American institutions and beliefs, capable of great cruelty in the pursuit of American security and interests – not such positive traits.

In a very real way, these negative traits are much like the poisons of greed and ignorance spoken of in Buddhist literature.  We are greedy for status and material wealth, and we are ignorant of the important truth of the interrelation and interconnection of humanity and nature.  Were we to be honest, we would have to acknowledge we conduct a foreign policy that would have us declaring war on any nation that behaved like we do.  We have military forces stationed all around the world pressing up against the borders of nations with whom we are in antagonistic relationship, and in many places our forces are in violent clash with the citizenry of the nations where those forces are stationed.  We say this is necessary for our security, yet it is quite plausible that this aggressive reach of our armed forces is a major factor in creating the enemies we say those forces protect us from.  Honesty would say that economic and political greed are very much behind this international posture, along with admirable intentions for international stability and safety.

Honesty would say that most likely the greatest threat to individual, national and international future security and well-being is a growing climate-change crisis, yet American power interests dither and deny on this issue, perversely clinging to and defending ignorance. They also go so far as to foster politically the undermining of the science institutions that are warning us because of greedy powers-that-be who would lose wealth and power in a realignment of our economy into sustainability.  This is surely poisonous.

Were we to be honest, we would acknowledge that most of our domestic problems arise from greed that keeps us a stratified society of haves and have-nots.  For many of the haves, those who society has materially rewarded with privilege, security and even opulence, there seems to be fear that to expand that circle of security to everyone would be at the cost of their security, and this is surely ignorance.  A secure society for everyone is the result of security distributed as a right to all.  It turns out it is not security that many are after, but privilege and opulence, and these short sighted and selfish people don’t care if their greed is at the expense of security for others.  These attitudes poison the social waters for everyone.

This ignorance and its consequences of poverty, crime, victimization, class and race antagonism and alienation, the exclusion of many from a life of dignity and society’s fruits generates anger; and security for everyone is threatened and the cycles replicate themselves.  Our domestic politics and economics are all conducted in competitive power relationships.  We often do not want to understand, accommodate and support each other.  We want to be in the power position.  Anger generates the energy for this competition and allows the dehumanization which results in our viewing others simply as threats and not as human beings who have the very same needs that we have.  Which brings us back to ignorance and once again the cycles self-replicate.  Some periods of history are marked by these poisons more than others, and it may very well be we are in one of those periods where ignorance seems to be celebrated, angry interactions are becoming the norm, and life for everyone is increasingly insecure.  Buddhism is right to call it poison.

For many, however, the turmoil of international conflict and social unrest are only the stuff of news stories.  Many feel the poisons don’t affect their lives except remotely.  Reconsideration may be appropriate.  Our society and many in it lack an understanding of life that contains any refined subtlety.  When we hear reference to concepts like greed, anger and ignorance we think of them only in their extreme manifestations as represented by the news stories.  Few of us would admit that our own minds are afflicted with greed, anger and ignorance when in truth, it is only a most refined, evolved and conscious person who is not so afflicted.

We deal daily with these poisons.  Just driving our car through city traffic, standing in the check-out line at the store, or interacting with family members can ignite them.  We want what we want.  We get angry if we don’t get it.  We seldom bring wisdom into our interactions, functioning blindly from our conditioned belief and behavior patterns.  We greedily pursue happiness, thinking that getting what we want will bring happiness, but this is ignorance of the truth that thinking primarily of ourselves does not bring happiness.  It is ignorance of the truth that lasting and true happiness that is not dependent on circumstantial gratification arises from altruism, from caring and experiencing connection with others and the world, and from practicing kindness and generosity, from having a sense of self so secure and stable it has no need to place itself in competition with or above others.  This is true for individuals, groups of individuals and whole societies.  Selfishness is ignorance.  Kindness, compassion, and generosity of good will are in truth the practices and attitudes that lead to happiness, security and well-being.  You don’t have to be Buddhist to realize this or to realize the value of building your life around practicing these virtuous behaviors and attitudes in obvious and in subtle ways.

Pay attention to how greed, anger and ignorance, these three poisons, create unhappiness in you and those around you and in our society.  Ignorance is the key poison.  From it the other two arise, but ignorance is subtle – we cannot feel it.  That is why our real opening to liberating ourselves is to pay attention to what we do feel – greed and anger.  These two are palpable – we contract into caricatures of these energies, small, self-centered and unable to identify and feel the humanity of those we are in interaction with.  When these energies are present, we can know that ignorance is at work and if we “return to the practice method,” if we are mindful, if we are present and open-minded, we can activate the virtuous energies of compassion, kindness and generosity, and our energy will open into spacious presence and our tension and narrow focus will relax.  We will feel better, and this is self-reinforcing.  This is wisdom, and it will be the antidote to ignorance.

Not only is this antidote to the mind-poisons very helpful to us individually in our desire to live happier and more peaceful lives, it is essential if we are to be a happier and more peaceful society and planet.  So, in attending to our own peace and well-being, we contribute to the peace and well-being of others by not injecting more poison into our interactions – which will better enable us all to live happy and peaceful lives.  We can then aspire collectively to the practice of developing and accentuating our society’s and humanity’s positive character traits and virtues – a much better cycle than that created by the poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.  Dedicating ourselves to living a cycle of virtuous compassion and generosity both for our own happiness and well-being and for the happiness and well-being of all is surely a dedication to wisdom, peace and true prosperity.

Now

“When your attention moves into the Now, there is an alertness.  It is as if you were waking up from a dream, the dream of thought, the dream of past and future.  Such clarity, such simplicity.  No room for problem-making.  Just this moment as it is…  The moment you enter the Now with your attention, you realize that life is sacred.  There is a sacredness to everything you perceive when you are present.  The more you live in the Now, the more you sense the simple yet profound joy of Being and the sacredness of all life.” – Eckhart Tolle

Most of the time, for most of us, our attention is so divided between what we are doing and what is going on in our heads that life just skims past us.  As a result, our skill level with what we are doing and with interpersonal relationship is quite limited, not to mention the capacity to see and experience the sacredness of life all around us.  We are just present enough to have the minimal required effectiveness to get by; and the notion that any moment, indeed every moment, is pregnant with spiritual potential is simply not recognizable to us.

For most of us, if we have any spiritual practice at all, it is generally engaged in situations with clear time boundaries quite separate from our ongoing everyday lives.  We have rituals and places of worship, whether that is a church or a mountaintop.  We may have a meditation practice, but few experience and engage their meditation like an athlete practices warm-up before engaging in their sport, and one very valuable perspective on meditation is to approach it in this way.  It is warm-up for the game of life, limbering and sharpening the senses and the mind, calling forth clear present-moment awareness to  engage our everyday experiences in a manner that opens us to deep and vital skill and connection with whatever we are doing.  As an athlete prepares himself to enter the flow of their sport, with meditation we can prepare to enter the flow of life – sharp, present, and open for whatever may happen.

But typically, we bring only partial attention to whatever we are engaged with, a significant part of the mind still elsewhere in events past or anticipated. We have forgotten that when we bring our full attention into the present moment, and I mean full attention, time stops.  Of course it does.  Time is past and future, and it could be said that our psychological sense of self depends on time, for our psychological sense of self is a story of personal history and anticipations we tell ourselves repetitively as we go about our lives.  We run the routine of our lives – getting from our past to our future, the present moment being only what happens along the way.  This is a superficial and unsatisfying way to live and certainly not spiritual.

And then – perhaps we are in a magnificent natural setting – a mountaintop, the ocean at sunset, the Grand Canyon, a magnificent waterfall – and time stops and we become completely present.  We may very well come away describing the experience as spiritual, and we tend to give the experience the credit as being spiritual – “Oh, you have to go to this waterfall – It is such a spiritual experience.”  What we fail to realize is that the power of the waterfall is not that it is any more inherently spiritual than any other manifestation of the miracle of life, but that because of its beauty and power it functions as a trigger that brings us fully into the moment with no commentary or story.  We are completely present.

It is the completely present that is the actual opening into the spiritual dimension.  The grandeur of the waterfall then becomes the content of the spiritual experience as the sense of preoccupation with our own story and agenda falls away.  The disappearance of our self-preoccupation is the opening into this moment of unity with the moment, and it is this experience of unity that is spiritual.  The same can be experienced with the song of a bird, a flower, or any aspect of life if we avail ourselves to it completely and look deeply into it as the miracle that it is.  We will become completely present, time will stop, and the spiritual dimension of oneness in the experience will open.

On the other end of the desirability spectrum, we may be in a great natural catastrophe, caught in a war zone, or have just been told by our doctor that we have cancer.  Time stops.  There is only this moment and we are gasping to find how to meet this moment and survive it.   This may not be sublime, but it can be equally spiritual, and may well be life-altering, as the preciousness of life becomes evident as never before.  Once again, we are completely presentNo time or even orientation to keep up our story.  The paradox of these life-threatening experiences is that people have been known to come away noting that they never felt more alive.

I’ve always found it interesting that apocalyptic Christian theology holds that the “Kingdom of Heaven” will be realized in the end of time – and a parade of false prophets throughout history have set dates on the calendar when this ending will occur.  Far more likely, I believe, the teaching is to be taken psychologically – that just as Jesus is to have said, “the Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land but people do not have the eyes to see it,” the ending of time is in the ending of psychological time, when we come fully into the present moment and our mind releases holding onto past and future – when we are here completely present in the Now.  This is the way to have the eyes to see – not just on the mountaintop, but in our own back yard and with the next person we encounter.

We can bring our attention fully into the Now, into the present, through our senses.  Tune awareness into this moment experienced in vision, in hearing, in feeling – first with obvious sensations, but keep going deeper.  See not only the obvious objects around you, see subtler and smaller detail, and see the space out of which the objects arise.  Hear not only the sounds around you, listen to subtler and subtler sounds until you have the sense of hearing the silence beneath the sounds out of which all sounds arise and then return.  Feel not only the surface sensations of your body, feel the subtlest of sensations – your breathing, and even the inner sensations of life animating your body, and then, even the energy of life all around you that passes through you, what the Chinese call chi.  Feel the energy of the Earth beneath you and the sky above and how energy travels through you linking these two dimensions.  Open your senses, including the sense of intuition that feels the invisible energy of the universe permeating everything.

The mind will stop – and your sense of separate self may or may not completely disappear, but you will find that it coexists with a sense of self that is connected with the experience of the moment and ultimately, the infinite.  The Now will open its secrets and you will know why Eckhart Tolle named his book The Power of Now.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.