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.

Evolving God

“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels…” – Albert Einstein, 1946

It is clear that humans need religion since there is no incidence of a culture in all of human history in which there has been no religion, even if, as with the communist regimes of the 20th century, the religion of the society became the state, or as with atheists, intellectualism and/or humanism takes the place of God.  These exceptions prove the rule in that these totalitarian governments sought to harness the human archetypal need for religion to the service of the state, and atheists have placed intellectualism or humanism where the god archetype resides within the human psyche.  There is, it seems, a deep and unconscious instinct in humanity to recognize and be in reverence of the source of all things.  This instinct can, however, be perverted.  That religions have been the source of so much conflict and misery throughout history points to how the instinct to religion (which, when experienced in its true and inexpressible dimension, can be the source of profound comfort) has been so often distorted into something very untrue and destructive.

In all cultures since humanity evolved beyond being centered in nature with gods envisioned as natural forces such as mountains, thunder, the sun and the moon, deity has been conceived to be very much like a supreme human ego that ruled over lesser levels of ego-manifestation with a theology that places human ego as the center-piece and purpose of existence.  For thousands of years, the religions of the West and the social/political/economic order of their corresponding societies have been joined, in a sense making them one within unquestioned dogmas about the why and the how of the way things are.  This created the perfect conditions for the rise of nation-states built around hierarchical power systems. This is also why since the 18th Century and the development of commerce as the lynchpin of Western society, replacing the previous cultural religion of divine-right agrarian aristocracy, the religions of the scientific commercial cultures on the planet have been molded to support this mercantile, mechanistic and resource exploitive view.

This evolution of the deity impulse projected from nature and nature’s web of wholistic interconnectedness where all of nature is considered sacred, to deity as a kind of divine ego and the perception that all-that-exists occurs in descending levels of hierarchical separateness where nothing of this world is sacred, is what Einstein was addressing. He understood this egoic, materialistic and dualistic view lacked the compassionate identification with nature and the planet that is necessary if abundant and diverse life is to flourish, and without which, the quality of human life would inevitably deteriorate into catastrophe.  This abusive relationship with nature had not been a survival issue for humanity as long as the resources of the planet were greater than humanity’s consumptive and destructive power, but with the technological advances of the 20th century, it became clear to Einstein that a crisis of survival proportions had become inevitable.

And so, I ask, has not our American society, like the communists, placed an economic and political system, in this case the consumer capitalist system, in a role analogous to religion as the source and meaning behind life, and that among our society’s institutions, the churches, and particularly many churches that identify as fundamentalist, hold that the questioning of the economic and political system of capitalism is a kind of heresy?  So when Einstein calls upon us to realize the need for a new type of thinking if we are to survive and move toward higher levels of existence, isn’t he calling upon us to rethink, along with other cultural themes, the nature of the religion and the god we worship without examination?   It would seem that the deification of material power, possessions, profit-motive and consumer materialism in an antagonistic and exploitive relationship with nature, supported by the dogmas and institutions of our society, including the churches, and to which we give religious fealty, is an important aspect of what he is questioning.

Einstein saw the terrible consequence of human ego assuming itself as central in the cosmos and offered to us the corrective perspective when he wrote in 1950:  “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  Thus, Einstein declared in essence what is the necessary cosmology, the necessary religion into which humanity must evolve, so as to enter a new phase of human experience wherein human technology and the realm of nature are in harmony rather than in tension and conflict.

Einstein was capable of seeing the Universe as a manifesting singularity, comprised, at a deeper level than the human senses, of pure energy.  He was capable of understanding the planet Earth as an organism within the body of the Universe that required balance in order to manifest healthy continuation.  He saw that the reductionistic cosmology of Newton that preceded modern relativity and quantum discoveries and that prevails today as the cultural matrix of human interaction with all life on the planet as fatally flawed.  He was able to see that this prevailing dualistic, materialistic, egoistic ethic and behavior of humans could only lead to the destruction of life integrity and quality on the planet either through unimaginably horrific atomic warfare, or more slowly through environmental degradation, resource depletion and the breakdown of compassionate social and political life.  In counter-balance, he was able to see an inherent intelligence in the miracle of the mysteries of the Universe and to intuit this balance, interconnectedness and miracle as the only valid orientation for humanity if it were to break free of the terrible violence and resource depletion that heretofore has marked “civilized” human history and was accelerating in the twentieth century.

What Einstein’s call to sanity makes clear is that humanity will be unable to find its way to enduring equilibrium, to enduring peace, prosperity of spirit, and material security until there is a change of cosmology and of cultural understanding of humanity’s place and purpose in the cosmos that is the equivalent of a profound change in religious perspective.  An evolution in our understanding of the concept of Sacred Source is essential if humanity is to continue, and so, the evolution of humanity is in essence tied to the evolution of our notion of God and religion.

Mystical religious traditions have always known that God and Nature and the Universe are all one, within which humanity is, of course, also included, but has self-imposed itself in exile in order to celebrate its egoic self to horrifyingly sinful effect.  That this separation is the root of “sin” has been a central understanding of religions since their beginning, but humanity has paid very little attention to this insight as it is essentially subversive of the underlying power structures and materialistic values of the societies the churches functioned within.  Yet, in recent times, there is a growing convergence of non-dogmatic spiritual mysticism with quantum and ecological science that offers a new direction for the instinct to religion that can evolve into identification of The Sacred Source as the Universe itself experienced as a quantum, intelligent singularity that can, I think, successfully guide human society.  This new evolutionary era of humanity could do well to draw on an ancient intuitive symbol – a star – or more accurately a view of the heavens that includes billions of stars in billions of galaxies declaring us as children of an intelligent, evolving Universe, for every atom in our bodies, every atom of every element of our world was born in those stars and has comingled in countless forms for eons.

There is no contradiction between “intelligent design” and evolutionary theory.  The intelligent design is found in the evolution of an intelligent Universe, within which, human intelligence is an instrument of the manifesting Universe coming to know and celebrate itself.  With the dedication of religious conviction behind and supporting such a vison, humanity can naturally turn its science and technology from exploitation to the exploration, protection and celebration of Nature while ensuring a future of expanding balanced equanimity for humanity and Nature.  Einstein’s call to “widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” can be realized for untold generations into the future.  This can be the ancient Tao, The-Way-that-needs-no-name, brought into a modern technological world that can propel and support humanity into a limitless future with a religious underpinning that celebrates all life as sacred.

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.

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.

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.

Political Dharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zen Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splash!

Zen And The Art Of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silent Mind Awaits

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

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

Jean Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom

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

  • Alan Watts

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Who Is It That Is Aware?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Ok?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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