The Power of Myth

“Myth is not fiction… It is something that happens to people and people have mythical fates just as much as did the Greek heroes.” “Myths are original revelations of the unconscious psyche” – Carl Jung

In our modern world, when asked what a myth is, many would answer that on the one hand, a myth is a story from an ancient non-Judeo/Christian culture which represents their understanding of humanity’s relationship to the spiritual realm, or simply, that a myth is an embellished or wholly fictional story about some element of culture which takes on iconic proportion.  Such understandings speak to the shallowness of our modern world and give important insight into why we are so spiritually and psychologically untethered, individually and collectively.  This understanding, or lack of understanding, endangers us, for myths are constantly shaping our world and our lives, and if we do not recognize their power and presence, as the great psychologist Carl Jung would say, then we are prone to be victimized by that unrecognized power as it expresses itself in what Jung would call its “shadow” manifestation.

“Shadow,” as the word seems to imply, is the dark, unseemly, unwanted, problematic, rejected, perhaps malevolent, aspect of the human psyche.  In continuing with borrowing from Jung’s psychology, the human psyche understands the world through representational imagery, known as symbols and archetypes.  This is the world of the mind we experience in dreams, which is why dream interpretation is a central aspect of Jungian therapy.  It is the imagery that represents deeper psychological relationship and construction of one’s personal world.  Jung explained, “Consciousness is a second world-creator… the cosmogonic myths do not describe the absolute beginning of the world but rather the dawning of consciousness as the second Creation.”  We humans, in all our cultural manifestations, create the world as we understand it, and then live as if this understanding were fact.  This is myth, and culture is the expression of our mythic understanding, whether we speak of a culture comprised of millions sharing a social cultural heritage or a culture of one – for each person is, in the sense of culture being the compilation of mythic understanding of self in relationship with the world, a culture unto themselves.  So likewise, we have many dimensions of culture living out mythic understandings, such as in families, communities, institutions, and organizations of people built around particular mythic understandings, as is so in religious and political affiliations.

In Zen, the primary question a seeker is often asked, and is instructed to take into their meditation, is, “Who are you?”  This is a koan, a question, a riddle, of infinite depth.  Its purpose, to bring into the light of consciousness the many layers of story ABOUT who we think we are out of the shadow of unconsciousness where all the stories of positive competency and trust, as well as weakness, grandiosity, and victimization of the ego, reside.  These are ideas of who we think we are which have been imposed in the shaping of the ego by family, community, society, and personal experience that creates a composite of stories which shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, the nature of our interactions with ourselves, with others, and with the world.  These stories compile into a narrative in our minds and represent the myths we are living out about ourselves and the world.

In Jung’s psychology, the myth of the hero and the hero’s journey play a very important role, for as Jung said, “The myth of the hero… is first and foremost a self-representation of the longing of the unconscious, of its unquenched and unquenchable desire for the light of consciousness.”  Who are you?  Do you know yourself.  As one of the great fountainheads of classical Zen, Dogen, said, “To study Zen is to study the self.” Who are you?  This means, what stories, what myths, do you carry around in your head ABOUT who you think you are?

In Jungian psychology, this would mean to take on the hero’s journey, and it is not a journey for cowards, for there, in those depths, are symbolic dragons, ogres, evil wizards and witches, villains, and great challenges.  It is the life and death struggle at the symbolic level.  There are also symbolic kingships and queenships, princes and princesses, good wizards and witches, pots of gold, champion’s tourneys, the silver chalice, even the Arc of the Covenant to be found and claimed in this journey, and the question is raised, do you have the courage, not only to face the dragons, villains, and demons, but do you have the courage, the true hero’s self-assurance tempered with humility, to take the prize without being warped by covetousness and grandiosity?  What are you unknowingly acting out in the telling of your story?  Do you have a sense of the myths within you?

This is the true hero’s journey, and why all mystical traditions have described this journey within their culture’s symbolism, to some degree, in the imagery of the warrior and the warrior’s challenge.  Beneath the idiosyncrasies and differences of each culture’s representation of the characters in this epic struggle to become a true and realized human being, there are the foundational similarities, and these myths, stories, symbols, and images are what Jung calls “archetypes.”  These are the primary unmanifested instinctual understandings, the full mandala, of what it is to be human which reside within the unconscious human psyche of every person. 

Who are you?  In our culture, most have no idea.  We just act out our story, and for too many, while there are noble and honorable elements, the story often has very problematic elements of some kind of victim or victimizer, of weakness or arrogance, of selfishness and smallness, indifference, even cruelty, built around stories of troubles, fears, desires, ambitions unfulfilled, fantasies of grandiosity and weakness, of addictions and vices, of just getting along as best one can, staying productive and finding identity in affiliations as best is possible, while seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

One of my mentors in my Berkeley days, a very talented Gestalt therapist named John Argue, would ask of clients, “If your life was being enacted on the stage, and you were in the audience, would you applaud or get up and walk out because it was so mundane, pathetic,  boring, embarrassing, or shameful?”  Well, as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Who are you?  What cast of characters resides within you that you are compelled to play out on the stage of your life?  Do you know?  And most importantly, do you know the potential within you to manifest characters of nobility, depth, strength, courage, kindness, compassion, generosity, even magic?  What mythic mess might you be living, and, on the other hand, what mythic greatness may lie within you?  Who are you?

Dogen goes on, after saying that to study Zen is to study the self, that to study Zen is to forget the self, and in forgetting the self to discover the Great Self that resides within.  Another school of Buddhism, the Pure Land School, builds itself around the myth of Amida, the buddha of pure love. It was said that this was a king who achieved enlightenment through Buddhist teaching and meditation, who worked for the enlightenment of all beings through seeing the “Pure Land,” in THIS life, our ordinary world, perfect and beautiful, as paradise, just as it is, beneath our human created defilements.  Jesus taught, in the Gospel of Thomas, that The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land for those with the eyes to see.  This is the same archetypal story as the myth of Amida’s Pure Land.  To forget oneself, Dogen taught, is to let go of all that you see in the play of mind, all the conditioning and all the stories ABOUT who you THINK you are and what the world is.  It is to release all the distortions and limitations, all the ugly and grandiose characters you may think you are, to BE what is seeing, to realize the Great Being within which has no story, for it is Beingness itself, consciousness, the intelligence and limitless compassion of Amida.  Who are you?

To be human in this world necessitates being somebody, yet Zen teaches us to be nobody.  What can this archetypal myth mean? It means to be reborn as consciousness, as Jung said, to be the second Creation of yourself in the world, to be the Bodhisattva, the Buddhist Warrior, the Amida Buddha, the Greek hero facing the challenges presented by the gods, a knight of The Round Table, a Native American Shaman, a Celtic seer, a Witch, a Wizard, a Seeker.  But to realize the heroic myths which reside within us, we must have the courage to bring into the light of consciousness the truth of what we have been playing out, quite unconsciously – perhaps some pretty lousy myths, perhaps stories of incompetency and smallness, or inappropriate grandiosity that hurts others and ourselves.  Who are you?  Do you have the courage to realize the power of myth in your life, and to become nobody so that you can be the somebody of your own destiny, somebody who arises from the light within you?  Can you release and be free of the dark figures who lurk in the shadows of your conditioned mind, who create a play you would walk out on?  Do you have the courage to face and be free of the lower characters who have haunted your life, to realize the important archetypal figures of the good mother or father, son or daughter, sibling, friend and neighbor, citizen and worker, lover of nature, play, and creativity that reside within you? Can you find within you the modern equivalent of such archetypes as the knight, the good wizard or witch, king or queen, loyal disciple, teacher, student, craftsperson, artist, bodhisattva, healer, shaman, warrior, spiritual seeker? Harness the power of myth and discover within yourself characters of a noble and inspiring play, a myth to believe in, a story of a human being you would stand and applaud.

The Courage to Be

“The courage to be is the ethical act in which a human affirms their own being in spite of those elements of their existence which conflict with their essential self-affirmation.” – Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

The title of this column is taken from the title of the book written in 1952 by the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich.  The idea of a theologian being an existentialist philosopher may seem irregular, but on the contrary, if we view the domain and responsibility of religion to be wrestling with the nature of Creation and humanity’s ethical responsibilities within Creation, and with the meaning of individual and collective human existence, it seems a quite appropriate, even necessary course of inquiry.  As for those who would fit into the fundamentalist religious camp who would forbid any such questioning, claiming faith in God and obedience to religious dogma is the limit of religious obligation and interest, Tillich answered, “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” And in criticism of fundamentalism, and in offering a warning that seems fully relevant today, “fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware.” 

I believe Tillich would agree there is a fanaticism in today’s convergence of fundamentalist religion and right-wing Republican politics, which is threatening both democracy and true spiritual seeking for they deny the human right, instinct, and obligation to question.  There is a pretending of questioning in their rebelliousness to convention and attraction to anti-establishment conspiracy theories, but both are constructed around total and unquestioning allegiance to the dogma and party line of their leadership, and, as has been seen within today’s Republican Party and in fundamentalist churches across America, any questioning or wavering of obedience and devotion brings denunciation and even expulsion. I deliberately did not use the word “conservative” in describing these groups, for these dogmas have nothing in common with true conserving of either Christian or American values.  Today’s right-wing politics/religion has more commonality with the European fascism and religious intolerance German-born Tillich faced in his time than it does with the values and intentions of the founders of this American nation, truly radical questioners arising out of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment.  To call what is happening in right-wing politics and religion today “conservative” gives a dangerous historic aberration far more legitimacy than it deserves.

Paul Tillich was born in Germany in 1886, the son of a conservative Lutheran pastor.  He followed his father’s occupation, becoming ordained in the Lutheran Church, and served as a chaplain in the trenches of the First World War, receiving the Iron Cross for bravery under fire, a dedication to serving his fellows that left him suffering combat trauma and his patriotic and religious beliefs shattered.  Upon military discharge, rather than following his father’s pastoral career, he began a highly acclaimed academic career teaching theology, philosophy, and sociology with a decidedly existential/humanist orientation toward exploring the meaning of life and the evolution of human society toward enlightenment.  This was in line with much of Europe’s intelligentsia of the time, wrestling with post-war cultural disorientation and searching for meaning in a world completely turned upside down by modernization, war, and the rise of fascist and communist authoritarian politics. 

This placed Tillich in conflict with the rising Nazi movement and when Hitler came to power in 1933, Tillich was among the first group of German intellectuals officially named “enemies of the Reich.”  While touring and lecturing in Germany that same year, the American theologian, ethicist, and social commentator Reinhold Niebuhr of the Union Theological Seminary took note of Tillich’s work and personal danger and invited him to come teach in America at Union, which Tillich accepted, remaining on the faculty there until 1955, while also teaching at Columbia.  In 1955, he joined the faculty of Harvard until 1962, when he was appointed John Nuveen Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death in 1965.

In America, Tillich was an outspoken and renowned critic of both mainstream and evangelical religion (he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1959).  He sought with his teaching and writing to redefine the notion of a religious life, critiquing both mainstream religions’ conformity to convention and lack of spiritual passion on the one hand and the irrational dogmatism and misplaced passion of evangelicals on the other.  He saw in both a loss of what he called the “vertical dimension” of spirituality which opens individuals into the ineffable and wondrous nature of God and Creation and believed the basic religious task to be courageous questioning into the very meaning of human life.  He stated, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”

Tillich’s theology redefined the concept of God from the usual anthropomorphic, judgmental Lord, into one more akin to the ancient Stoic philosophers’ understanding of “Logos,” the mystery of the intelligence of the Universe that created harmony within all Life.  This, he called God, while seeing the word only as a placeholder for that which cannot be named, cannot be believed in or doubted, for it simply IS.  For Tillich, God was best expressed as The Ground of Beingness, the inherent force of Life, “that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God.”  He fervently believed that all people, all Life-forms, had the basic right to their existence (to be) and to be treated with respect and caring “through the manifestation of the ground in which they are united.  Love, power, and justice are one in the divine ground.”  He believed the modern human’s tendency for doubt and anxiety over one’s place and meaning, and the objectification of existence characteristic of the modern age, was wholly misplaced and tragic, symptomatic of society’s loss of spiritual grounding.

The religious task according to Tillich is to reaffirm individual and universal sacred Beingness, aware of mystery, loving and valuing all life, questioning how to best serve and celebrate existence.  He stated: “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.” He stated, “Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.” And so, from this place of “ultimate concern,” Tillich’s theology was also one of social justice.

Tillich saw in his lifetime the consequence of the dehumanization and mechanization of human social life by not only authoritarian orders, whether the state or the church, but also in industrializing capitalist democracies, where individuals live in a social/economic order void of spiritual underpinning, and his concern was clearly not resolved in the 20th century.  If anything, the existential dilemma he and other philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and psychologists of the early 20th century wrestled with has only been swept under the rug, as the objectification of human existence within modern technological societies has clearly intensified in the 21st century.  Tillich would see the activity, concerns and interests of most people and institutions today as shallower than ever. He would also likely see today’s rise of authoritarian populist politics and evangelical religion as the consequence of this spiritual and ethical vacuum.  He noted of his time what could apply today:

“If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern, we must say: People in our time have lost such infinite concern. And the resurgence of (fundamentalist) religion is nothing but a desperate and mostly futile attempt to regain what has been lost… The loss of the dimension of depth is caused by the relation of people to their world and to themselves in our period… in which nature is being subjected scientifically and technically to the control of humanity. In this period, the driving forces of the industrial society… go ahead horizontally and not vertically.  Life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the horizontal dimension… In popular terms this is expressed in phrases like “better and better,” “bigger and bigger,” “more and more.”

Tillich saw the absolute inseparability of theology from sociology, politics, and economics, realizing that social, political, and economic organization which does not have a spiritual ethical base can only lead to dehumanization and the rise of false political and religious gods and movements in answer to this void.  Concerned by the dehumanization he saw growing in his own time, he asked the most fundamental questions required to face the crisis.  He asked whether individuals could find within themselves the courage to step out of the herd, to look deep within themselves for truths that are universal, which originate in the spiritual dimension above us and the earthy dimension of our shared strivings for dignity and safety.  He asked whether people could find the courage to declare their universal right to be, without looking for their validation in the opinions, valuations, and affiliations of others, in conformity to the dogma of either social conventionality or radical mass movements. 

And so, we in the third decade of the 21st century face many of the same challenges and threats as marked Tillich’s 20th century because we have not addressed within our social organization the fundamental issues concerning the inherent right to individual dignity and a sense of depth connection with Life for all.  We continue to neglect the fundamental questions of what it is to be a human being and what responsibilities we have to each other and to the natural world.  Tillich’s theology becomes psychology, sociology, and politics when it is seen that answering these questions resolves the fundamental cause of the anxiety and insecurity that has led to the ever-increasing dehumanizing and alienating social, political, and economic experience of life in today’s digital, mega-institution, competitive, media-driven, shallow world. The summation of the dilemma Tillich saw was a deficiency of love, and he saw religion, the human social institution that ought to be the champion of love, as failing.  He declared, “The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion.”  He saw the need to build a new human society based in love, and offered, “We have to build a better human before we can build a better society.” Adding, “What we need above all–and partly have–is the radical realization of our predicament, without trying to cover it up by secular or religious ideologies. The revival of religious interest would be a creative power in our culture if it would develop into a movement of search for the lost dimension of depth.” He then adds, “The religious answer… is present, and most present in those who are aware of the loss and are striving to regain it with ultimate seriousness.”  I think Tillich would agree that the real challenge of the 21st century is for individuals to find the courage to be truly and deeply human, despite our shallow and dehumanizing society – to lead the way in creating a world where all are called to the radically spiritual notion of loving each other from a deep inner certainty of everyone’s value as a unique individual in Creation, to be fully realized and free human beings building a better, that is, more loving and truly spiritual, human society.

Faith

“To live in Zen is to be human as naturally and without contrivance as a tree is a tree.” – Alan Watts

One of the most profound differences between Western religions and those of the East centers around the concept of faith.  While in the West, we are taught to have faith in God, the maker and controller of the world, in the East, there is no God per se as we think of in the West.  In the East, there is no sense that the world was created or controlled by an anthropomorphic all-powerful being.  Rather, The Supreme Force IS Creation.  In the ancient Vedic tradition of India, the fountain out of which Hinduism and Buddhism flowed, The Ultimate Creative force is called “Brahman,” that which underlies all that exists, a sort of cosmic consciousness prior to form which then BECOMES form and pervades all form and is known as “Atman.” In humans, this is the pure Self, the closest concept in the West being the soul, but unlike that of the West, this essence is not a continuation of the egoistic person. This is cosmic consciousness individualized prior to the ego distortion which creates a personal self, what we know of as our in-the-world personal “me.”  Brahman manifesting Atman is the unfathomable intelligence that is the balance and miracle which is Life within every manifestation of Creation, everywhere, including, of course, humans.  Atman is the perfect intelligence of the Universe manifesting, experiencing itself in the countless ways that IS the world.

Western religions often teach us to live in fear of God’s wrath and judgment and that we must placate and petition this paternalistic projection so that we may find wisdom and courage through Him, and that having faith is to believe God will have compassion, protecting and blessing the believer.  In contrast, Eastern belief teaches that faith is a developed capacity which grows through experiencing that the wisdom of Creation is within us.  Buddhism teaches, in its particularly rational view, that as one looks at all of Life and the mysterious miracle happening through every tree and bird and every aspect and function of our own biological and conscious existence, we must come to the realization: How could it NOT be that the mysterious force and intelligence of Creation is happening through us?  It teaches to have faith in oneself as an expression of this perfection, not the ego personality which the West accentuates, but one’s deepest Self that is Creation expressing itself as a human being. So, in the East there is the equation that each person is both a personal egoic self, immersed in the world of challenge and difficulty along with its blessings and beauty, AND a spiritual or essential Self, the capitalization of the “S” to denote its nature as the Sacred Source of Being that pervades and guides all of Life. 

A tree knows how to be a tree because this intelligence of tree-ness is the nature of being a tree.  This is what the Universe does.  Each manifestation knows how to be itself naturally, down to its microscopic level, guided by the underlying intelligence which directs it in its nature.  Thus, it must be realized that the intelligence of human-ness is in the nature of being human.  The difference between humans and trees being the unique complex egoic dimension of the human mind which obscures and confuses the natural wisdom of human-ness, but does not so encumber trees, squirrels, fish, birds, dogs, cats, and all the rest of Creation. 

It is much more complicated to be a human than it is to be a tree or a squirrel or a dog, and so this egoic, thinking dimension of mind is necessary for humans to maneuver the complicated life of being human.  When, however, there is no knowledge of the deeper level of natural Human Beingness to guide us, then being human can become an awful mess, and most of us are to some extent lost in the mess.  We stumble along, bluffing that we know how to be human, but all our unease, mental illness, and conflict with each other and with Nature tells us that clearly we do not.  This is no doubt why we invent religions and psychologies – to tell us how to be – but the religions and psychologies, devoid of wisdom, are derived by the same divisive, confused, and insecure mind that is the problem, so we are just chasing our tails.

There are, however, wisdom traditions within human culture, existing outside or on the fringes of conventional religions and psychology, to which religions and psychology can look in fulfilling their purpose of providing guidance into being human.  Alan Watts knew a great deal about religion and psychology, and he also knew a great deal about wisdom traditions and made great contributions toward offering the possibility of resurrecting wisdom into Western culture.  It is ironic that while wisdom traditions are usually associated with religions, and religions can usually trace their original inspiration to wisdom arising out of true spiritual experience, this is so only when we understand “spiritual” to mean connected to the underlying mystery of Creation and its manifestations, having nothing to do with conventional religious dogma and practices.   This is the realm of mystics, not conventional religion.

It helps when we realize that Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, the Old Testament Prophets, Muhammad, and other religious original sources all were mystics.  Creation spoke through them, for they all had intuited beyond thinking about Life from within religious dogma into Knowing Life.  They all realized that Creation spoke through them because they WERE Creation, and as human beings, having minds and voices, could take this silent knowing of the deepest Nature of all that is to speak their insight.  This is how they were prophets and wisdom-speakers.  They had faith that Creation was happening through them and as them – just as it does a tree, only a tree cannot lose connection with its essence the way humans can – and so the human community needs prophets and wisdom-speakers to remind us of who and what we really are.

Native Americans knew this, and their culture reflected it.  A beautiful Native American Creation myth explains the nature of the world and humanity’s place within it by stating that Spirit became the World and all the life within it.  The myth goes on to say that the World, however, was unable to know, that is, consciously reflect upon, itself as Spirit, so one more creature was needed that walked in both worlds, and so Spirit became human beings.  With this cosmology, all traditional Native Americans were natural mystics.  They had faith in Spirit happening through them and through all that is, and this translates through a human mind into wisdom, into knowing how to walk through the world in a sacred manner as human beings.  They revered and loved all of Life.  They did not use it carelessly, nor lack confidence in their own existence.

And so, faith within the wisdom way is not that an external god is going to take care of you, but rather, faith that as a Being of Creation, we have everything we need to live without confusion, naturally and without contrivance.  It isn’t that everything is going to be okay and work the way we want it to, it is that we will be able to meet whatever happens, even the not-okay, in a manner which expresses wisdom, balance, and capacity to cope.  This is faith which can be counted on.

American Zen Master, Charlotte Joko Beck, in her Book Everyday Zen, wrote that dealing with all which appears to us as not-okay and getting it to be okay, is in effect, enlightenment.  She wrote, “When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be, that’s it (enlightenment).”  A person might go blind and, of course, that’s not okay…… until it is.  It may take a year, or two years, or three, but for most folks, they turn the fact of blindness into just who they are.  There is no separation between the circumstance and their sense of who they are.  You might go broke.  You might get divorced.  Someone you love might die.  You might get a chronic debilitating disease.  And then, more pertinently, there’s what happens nearly every day – our just not getting our way about something, all the little frustrations and irritations, or perhaps, something REALLY challenging happening.  After a certain amount of time, it all becomes okay.  You can have faith in this.  The only real issue is how long it’s going to take for the separation between your sense of self and the circumstance to be resolved?  With really enlightened people, it doesn’t take very long because they have this wisdom, this faith, that whatever happens, they will deal with it and will find their way back to balance.  They will make peace with it.  This is the faith that you can depend on because you have done it so many times.  Whatever happens, you’ll be more or less okay.  For the enlightened person, this okay-ness begins to be more than okay; it becomes the comfort and joy of life.  It is a faith that fortifies and simplifies.

Consider everything that has “gone wrong” in your life.  Consider the most difficult and challenging circumstances you have faced, and realize that here you are, basically okay, despite whatever neurotic tendencies you may have, you’re okay.  You’re taking care of business and enjoying what you enjoy.  You’re okay.  We all have had difficult times and challenges, and for the most part, they made us stronger, more resilient, wiser, perhaps humbler and more appreciative of what goes right and for what is still beautiful in our lives.  We handled whatever we had to face.  This is what you can have faith in, but we keep forgetting it because ego loves to live in drama and problem.  Remembering this is what can give us faith. There is no need to give our mental energy to anticipating what is going to happen, being anxious and afraid.  What will happen will happen, and if we live in faith, we will meet it on its own ground and make it our ground.  We don’t have to hold on to past mistakes and tragedies as dark places in our sense of self.  We can hold such times and circumstances as times when we grew in wisdom, endurance, and resilience, as reassurances and validations that we ARE able to handle this thing called being human.  We can begin to settle into being human as naturally and without contrivance as a tree is a tree.  Have faith.  What you need to handle any circumstance is within you.  Even in the midst of challenge, when the challenge can be approached with confidence in our connectedness and our skill, with equanimity and composure, grateful for what is still right and beautiful, this is, in a way, enlightenment – and it is the mark of a person of true faith.

Peace

Peace in the world starts with peace in oneself… The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions. – Thich Nhat Hanh

When I came of age, it was the late-60s, right in the middle of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, in the middle of the counter-culture hippy rebellion against conventionality.  The Middle East was aflame.  The Cold War was at its peak.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  The Black Power and Weatherman movements were talking revolution. China was emerging as a threat.  The word “peace” had a very important place in the hippy vernacular of the time, for there was so little of it, but there was very real hope that peace would eventually carry the day.  There was even an iconic hand gesture to stand for it – the index and middle finger in a “V,” the other fingers folded over the palm – and there was, as well, the iconic circle with intersecting lines inside. 

Now, nearly sixty years later, the country and the world are possibly even more aflame, and I hardly ever hear of the aspiration for “peace” anymore, yet the stakes are even higher than they were in the 1960s.  In 1968 the country was in turmoil, but no one questioned whether democracy would survive.  Today, many historians express just this concern.  Fear and hate mongering, slander, lies, conspiracy theories, authoritarianism, even flirting with sedition and incitement to violence infest our political atmosphere.  The probable Republican presidential nominee has vowed, using the language of dictators, to “root out … the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”  The country was politically and culturally very divided in the late-60s, yet the general populace was not so polarized as now, causing astute political analysts to warn of the very real possibility of widening political violence, perhaps even civil war. 

I do not say these things to provoke or for partisan purpose, but we cannot turn away from truth if we are to find our way to reconciliation and peace; there can be no peace and reconciliation without a full commitment to truth-telling. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say we are in a defining time when the future of this country and the world depends on our finding our way to peace, and only through unembellished truth-telling can we find the common ground necessary, for the ultimate unequivocal common ground must be truth.

In the 60s, the first warnings of the gravity of ecological degradation were being issued, but the consequences of severe climate change we are experiencing today were not yet felt.  Today, amid obviously worsening climate conditions, meaningfully addressing this growing threat is STILL being resisted by political conservatives. In a very real sense, we are fiddling with political and cultural differences, insignificant in the big picture, while the world is beginning to burn, the consequences of which will upend everyone’s life.  In promotion of their divisive fictions, wannabe authoritarians attack science, journalism, and academia, professions based in fact and verification, attempting to silence the truth, for truth is the enemy of these fictions and those who spread them.  Random mass shootings by deranged individuals with easy access to military style weaponry are now commonplace, but even the most basic regulation of guns is resisted based on a deliberate misreading of the intent of the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution.  Chinese and Russian expansionist ambitions threaten peace, authoritarianism seems to be on the rise, and war in Ukraine and the Middle East is exploding while America’s place in the world as a champion of democracy and peace is being undermined by our dysfunctional internal politics.  Today, peace appears to be a disheveled, disheartened orphan angel.

Thich Nhat Hanh joins together the concepts of peace and reconciliation, and it is true, to find our way to peace, real peace, we must begin with reconciliation.  And the question arises, do we really understand the depth of reconciliation that is needed if we are to find peace?  We must clearly find our way to reconciling the brittle political divide that is threatening our country, but there are many levels of divide we in this culture must resolve if we are to truly find peace.  We must STILL work to reconcile the racial divisions and inequity which the 60s addressed, while adding continued work in empowering women and the gender atypical.  We must reconcile the growing economic divide within our capitalist system which, when left to its own dynamics, always moves toward concentrating wealth with the already wealthy.  We must reconcile the divide between our industrial, materialist, technological society and the very land, the ecology that is our home.  We must reconcile the divisions within ourselves which lead us to be so anxious, fearful, aggressive, competitive, cynical, and blind to the wondrous nature of Life.  And we must reconcile the divide which keeps us from experiencing a true spiritual connection with the miracle that is Life.  All these divisions stand as obstacles to the peace that comes with living in connection at every level with who we truly are. We need a reconciliation of these divisions to realize we are all in this great undertaking that is Life together and only in transcending these false divisions will be able to find our way to real and lasting peace.

We must realize that if we do not practice peace, the world cannot come to peace.  We must realize that world peace begins with our ability to find peace within ourselves, for it all begins with individuals who have committed themselves to, what in Buddhist language is called, “awakening” into truth.  We must look very hard at the belief systems we carry and ask when we begin to dissect them, do they hold up?  What are the real obstacles between people?  It is only ideas of difference reinforced through social and cultural conditioning.  When we peel away these external influences, what remains?  What remains are human beings who want to live free of suffering and torment. Who can legitimately be excluded?  No one.  This is truth.

When we peel away the superficial differences between people and all life-forms, we are left with Life manifesting in its great diversity, all deserving to live in dignity and within natural balance – humans, animals, plants, even the mineral foundation of our Earth.  We live on a planet that is essentially every bit as much a life-form as a human being or a deer or a tree, yet we treat this rare life-giving gem in the Universe as nothing but a resource, depleting it and disrupting its natural cycles and balance, and because of this, climate chaos is ensuing, threatening to upend our societies.  This is all what Buddhists call karmic action which will have real consequences. We carry thousands of years of karma, meaning actions that have been based in false belief systems about the basic differences among people, between humans and other life forms, and about the very nature of the planet that is our home.  We must change our direction away from the abusive relationships which have become ingrained in our way of living.  We must bring consciousness to who we are and what is needed for harmonious human civilization and enlightened relationship with other life-forms, nature, and the planet.

In Buddhism, there is a formula for resolving destructive karma, to bring our karmic path into harmony and peace.  It tells us to practice forgiveness, gratitude and contrition while taking personal responsibility for moving forward, dedicated to the path of truth, compassion, and peace.  We must be scrupulously truthful about the harm our habits of thinking and action have wrought, not the least of which is to ourselves in creating levels of unhappiness and mental/emotional dysfunction that do not have to be.  We must forgive, as the Lord’s Prayer says, those who have transgressed against us as we seek forgiveness for our own transgressions.  This forgiveness lifts the weight of resentment and grievance that leads to endless cycles of harm. 

We must focus our attention into feeling deep gratitude for the gift of being human and for the remnants of Eden that are the natural world all around us as we accept the divine assignment of applying our inventiveness into its restoration and preservation, rather than continuing the exploitation and spoilage of which we are guilty.  And we must feel contrition as our motivation to turn our personal and collective lives away from aggression and deliberate self-serving fictions toward wisdom, truth, virtue and kindness as the guides for human conduct.  We must take complete individual responsibility to become agents of this turning of the collective human mind to the most glorious task of creating human and planetary peace.  This is truth, for there is no other viable, acceptable path forward in the long future.

What are we if we do not have the greatest ideals as our motivation?  We are failing at the art of being human.  We CAN find common ground in the greatest of purposes: the manifesting of peace – within ourselves, with each other and with the natural world. “Peace” is not to be left as a clichéd throwaway at the holiday season or as a naïve hope.  We must embrace it as our greatest human challenge, completely within our capacity.  Buddhism teaches “ahimsa,” meaning non-violence, compassion, open-heartedness, and peace.  What better vision to build a new society around?  And we absolutely need a new society, for the old one is just too false and violent, careening toward disaster.  The old hippy dream must become humanity’s most sincere purpose.  This is not naïve.  It is necessary.  Peace be to you, to yours, and to all that lives. It’s everyone’s responsibility.  Breathe slowly and settle into peace.  As the song says, “And let it begin with me.”

The Urgency for Reason and Compassion

“When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society. Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson

Humanity creates mountains of unnecessary suffering because we have not evolved in our psychological development sufficiently to break free of ego’s hold on our identity and on our priorities.  Ego says, “I am not enough” and prioritizes getting more for me and mine, and this places us in unending relationships of competition and comparison with others.  The unfortunate fact, however, is that there is NEVER enough for ego, and so humanity careens along focused on materialism, sensationalism, and competition, seeking to appease ego’s insatiable insecurity.  We are seemingly lost in this state of insecurity, and there are those who say this is human nature and that it cannot be otherwise. 

In our current situation, we are aware that our materialism and greed have eclipsed the planet’s ability to endlessly support our “growth economy,” our society being dependent and addicted to our economy growing year after year after year.  Yet, we seem incapable of reframing our institutions to develop economies which work for our real needs, to find a sustainable level of homeostasis with our resources.  Our social scientists long ago described how we continue, generation after generation, to recreate misery, inequity, poverty, and discrimination because we blindly support an economic system which perpetuates privilege for some at the expense of others.  Our psychologies have clearly delineated that we live within unnecessary levels of personal insecurity which manifest as the variety of neuroses and character disorders that arise out of a society that breeds this insecurity from the cradle to the grave.  Social psychologists describe how functional levels of individual psychopathology are accepted as “normal” while our institutions function in the manner which in an individual would be called sociopathic. Psychological maladjustment pervades all levels of our society.  This may be perhaps “normal,” as in that it is accepted as the common state, but it remains nonetheless quite insane.

Are we so doomed?  Is it inconceivable that humanity could acknowledge and meaningfully act upon what is known as this character flaw which is so often described as “human nature?”  The argument is compelling, and it is also depressing.  The news is not good.  There seems to be a growing acceptance among us that we are headed to some dystopian version of human society, intentions toward a utopia where human misery is finally conquered seem to be fading into the category of deluded optimism.  Our politics is frightening.  Esteemed historians openly voice concern that American democracy is threatened as never before by authoritarian political figures who have successfully tapped into our insecurities and who are pushing us toward political and social chaos.  Support for demagogues seeking to seize power seems unfazed by factual exposure of their corruption and intent, threatening to end this American experience in liberal democracy.  Our economy churns on, perpetually focused on exploiting insecurities pushing more and more consumerism despite our scientific knowledge that we MUST develop a more conserving economy of comfortable sufficiency if we are to address the growing climate crisis.  The requisite level of sensationalism necessary to hold people’s attention increases exponentially as we become a mass attention-deficit society, the necessary level of focus for nuanced and detailed examination, for persons to really see and understand their circumstance, is lost in the escalating noise of media.  It does not look good.

Yet – Is there not something more to us human beings than our insecure egos that drive this madness? Is there not reason and compassion in us as well?  Is there not a deeper level of our humanity which works toward greater goodness and kindness?  Is there not an instinct within us to move human society away from exploitation and cruelty?  History tells us there is.  History tells us that we have evolved out of monarchies and slavery, out of the idea of an impoverished peasantry supporting an aristocratic class being the natural order, out of dogmatic religions dictating political ideology, out of many of the false divisions of prejudice which have separated us and been the driver of so much violence, exploitation, and cruelty.  While egoism is one dimension of human nature, there is also in our nature this well of reason and compassion which we have turned to when our maladjusted egos have taken us down our darkest paths.  American democracy and liberalism are offsprings of this nature and must reassert themselves as autocracy and illiberalism have once again raised their ugly heads in the midst of our current social confusion caused by unbalanced ego’s ascendency. 

Thomas Jefferson, along with many of this country’s founding figures, were persons of what is called The Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, where reason, wisdom, and compassion were brought to bear in political philosophy as never before in human history. Reason, wisdom, and compassion are also at the heart of Buddhist teaching with its emphasis on understanding and overcoming the human tendency to experience and create unnecessary suffering for ourselves, others, and the natural world and stands with all the spiritual traditions of humanity in recognizing the better and deeper orders of human nature as necessary to counterbalance our egos’ imprudence and callousness.  It is lack of reason and compassion which fuels ideas such as “greed is good,” and “trickle down economies,” neglecting the natural order of balance and sufficiency that harmonizes the planet and all species upon it.  It is the lack of reason and compassion which drives the competition and exploitation, the greed and ignorance, that generate and perpetuate human conflict and the degeneration of a healthy planet.  This is not reasonable; it is not wise.

When we look deeply, we see in all religions the teaching of compassion at the center of their revelation, and the distance between this core teaching and how religions manifest as agents of divisiveness, judgement, and conflict in the world is quite possibly humanity’s greatest failing.  Yet, within all religions, there remain the currents of the original inspiration, usually within a marginalized subset of mystics.  Jesus taught unequivocally, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Mystics of all cultures recognize one absolute truth, and it is the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all Life, that we exist as a single expression of the mystery of Creation as brothers and sisters born out of miracle, meant to honor and care for one another, not only within the human community, but with ALL of Creation.  “Love one another” stands as the most important instruction in human history.

While our culture, based in materialism, competition, and exploitiveness is what shapes the consciousness of the common person and agencies of our world, there remain those who are, in the language of mysticism, “awake” to the true nature of this Universe and Life’s true purpose.  They seek to live and teach, for the sake of human redemption, their own and our human collective, the necessity of reason and compassion for ending the relentless legacy of suffering inflicted by a worldview dominated by egoic selfishness.  Such people may or may not be associated with a major religion, but they are united in their insight into the necessity for awakening reason and compassion in the human community.

Contemporary Christian philosopher and theologian, Ilia Delio expresses wisdom, reason, and compassion when she tells us: “Compassion is realized when we know ourselves related to one another, a deep relatedness of our humanity despite our limitations. It goes beyond the differences that separate us and enters the shared space of created being. To enter this space is to have space within ourselves, to welcome into our lives the stranger, the outcast, and the poor.” And “We have the capacity to heal this earth of its divisions, its wars, its violence, and its hatreds. This capacity is the love within us to suffer with another and to love the other without reward. Love that transcends the ego is love that heals.”

Despite what those who cloak themselves in egoic self-righteousness preach, calling themselves “Christian patriots,” they are the real heretics to true religion, persecuting their fellow humans in the name of religion or patriotism through the ages.  Neither Jefferson nor Jesus would agree with them, and for those who would reject the teachings of Buddhism as not of this culture, it is of the greatest importance to recognize that within our culture and religious traditions, reason and compassion are also taught as the very heart of what is best in us.  In example, the current Pope calls on humanity to take responsibility for the planet and to back away from polluting technologies and consumerism while calling for an end to all discrimination, including against the LGBT+ community.  The question is whether these political Christians listen to a legitimate spiritual leader like Pope Francis or only to their divisive false prophet leaders?  Buddha and Jesus stand together with historical enlightenment political figures teaching reason and compassion as the way to the democratic ideals which move humanity forward toward its destiny, not in some totalitarian, materialistic dystopia, but humanity in harmony with itself and the natural world.  Our current political, social, and ecological realities demand that responsible and truly spiritual and patriotic people speak and act with an invigorated urgency calling for reason and compassion. Delio summarizes: “We must seek to unite—in all aspects of our lives—with one another and with the creatures of the earth. Such union calls us out of isolated existences into community. We must slow down, discover our essential relatedness, be patient and compassionate toward all living creatures, and realize that it is a shared planet with finite resources. We are called to see and love in solidarity with all creation. Only in this way can the earth enjoy justice and peace which means right, loving relations with the natural world of God’s good creation.”

Be Still and Know

“Moving water distorts the reflection.  Only in water that is still can a true reflection be seen.”                     – Zhuangzi (Chuang Tsu) – (4th Cent. BCE)                                           

We live in a time of tumult.  Hyperstimulation and agitation are everywhere and as a result, as we internalize the hyperstimulation and agitation of the world around us, it is likewise in us.  There is no stillness.  Yet without stillness, we cannot see clearly.  Whether we are talking about the individual or groups or our society, as long as we are living in turbulence, there is no wisdom, no ability to see things as they truly are.  Our society and our politics are upside down; materialism, sensationalism, and anxieties dominate our consciousness; lies are told promiscuously and being lived as if they were truth; commotion swirls the waters of our consciousness as we drink the murky waters.  It is time for us to put down the cellphones, step away from the computer screens, turn off the TVs, and to stop, to breathe, to let quiet come over us to consider where we are and what we are doing.

The title of this column comes from the Bible, that edited says: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult… The nations are in an uproar; the kingdoms totter… Be still and know that I am God!”  – Psalm 46

To properly understand this passage, we have to ask the question – What is “God?”  The best answer I know is – What is not God?  But we do not know that we are all God, meaning the miracle of Creation unfolding, the Universe happening as human beings.  We do not know that our neighbor is God.  We do not know that the birds and the wind and the rain and the sunshine are God.  We do not know that all people and animals and plants and the earth and the air and the waters are God.  We do not know that the sunlight dappling among the leaves is God. We do not know that the stars and all the planets and all the Cosmos are God.  We do not know God because we cannot be still, and if we do not know God all around us, then we cannot see clearly that Life is not for profanity – it is for sacred realization.

And so, we do not know ourselves, nor do we know how to treat each other, or the animals, or the vegetation, or the soil, or the water, or the air of this world.  We do not know because we cannot be still long enough to see, to hear, to feel Life in its sacred Beingness flowing within us and through us and through all that is.  Call this God, or call it Tao, as did Zhuangzi.  Call it Life, call it the Universe, call it Creation; we do not know this unless we are still, and until we know God/Tao/Life/Creation/the Universe, we do not know ourselves, and we do not know how to bring ourselves or our world to sanity, for sanity dwells within the realization of the sacredness of our lives and of all Life.

We can call it Zen, and over and over again the stories of Zen tell variations of a scenario in which an earnest student with a head full of ideas about Zen and enlightenment queries a master as to the entryway to Zen and is told to listen, or to look into some subtle aspect of the moment.  This requires them to stop and focus attentively into the here-and-now of the moment; it requires them to be still.  It requires them to ponder how can the sound of a stream or the wind or a thrown pebble cracking against tiles, or a flower or a pile of manure be the entryway to Zen and enlightenment?  But they will be unable to really SEE or HEAR as long as their mind continues to spin, seeking the answers to their questions.  To truly know Life requires them finally to stop all pondering to BE their looking and their listening, and only when not only the body but the mind comes to stillness, will they begin to KNOW, for in that absolute stillness they stop seeking and they find.  Right here. Right now.

 In the stillness we discover that we are the stillness.  We are the silent intelligence which is consciousness prior to the ego that is always seeking something, even when the something is truth and enlightenment, let alone the stimulation and excitement that seem to be our world’s goal.  In the stillness we discover ourselves as That which is Eternal.  We discover that we are, in the words of Eckhart Tolle, “the space of the moment arising in awareness.”  We discover “I am God” – meaning I am That which cannot be divided or separated.  I am one with All, for All is everywhere and is me.  This is what we find when we allow ourselves to be truly still.

In the stillness, there is no time, and all space is this space; the atoms of this body and of all forms are the original atoms formed in the Beginning.  The consciousness that witnesses is the One Consciousness which brought forth All. We can begin to rest contentedly in knowing – I Am.  The earth will change.  The mountains will shake, and the waters will roar and foam.  All commotion comes and goes.  All excitement is fleeting.  Attitudes and beliefs are shadows on the wall flitting by.  In I Am our home is Eternity, and in Eternity all movement flows like currents in the ocean, and the ocean is the stillness that rolls quietly and forever.  Know your Beingness and realize the Beingness of all people and all that is, and you will begin to know the truth of everything.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?  It is The One Hand that brings forth all hands.  It is the thunder clapping and the crickets and the birds and the wind and the water falling over stones. It is a dog barking or a cat mewing.  It is our own breath and the rhythm of our hearts.  It is salutations and goodbyes and conversation between.  It is exclamations of joy and lamentations of grief.  It is the shout of anger and whispers of comfort.  It is an old song hummed softly or sung happily.  It is music that touches your soul.  It is the laughter, guffaws, and hushed tones of camaraderie.  It is the baby’s coo and cries and first words.  It is children playing.  It is the sounds of home and community and work.  It is our last breath.

The tumult and confusion of the world are passing shadows on the backdrop of Eternity, yet, every moment is a frame of Eternity, sacred and perfect just as it is.  Stillness is the mystic’s realm, and from the stillness comes a time-honored lesson about how to speak and how to conduct our lives.  It tells us that before we speak, before we act, we must let our intention pass through the three gates of truth, necessity, and kindness. Be still, breathe into it, and know.  Let wisdom arising from stillness begin to guide you.  You will know if you stop, become still, and ask before proceeding:  Is this true?  Is this necessary? Is it kind? You will know if you come to stillness to realize Wonder at the Miracle that is this Life, this moment.

Remake your world and begin remaking the world we all share by learning to step out of the tumult, the confusion, the falseness, to stop, to realize your life is happening, as all Life is happening, this moment in its reality, truth, and miracle. It only takes an eyelash’s blink, a conscious breath, to reframe into this moment where Eternity unfolds, to become still in your heart and mind, and know.

Practical Spirituality

“The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.”

Taoism and Zen arose out of ancient Chinese culture, not as religions, but as philosophies of life, yet they both pointed toward true spiritual realization, with Zen being the offspring of Buddhism comingling with Taoism.  Both eschewed the rigid identifications and claims of divinely transmitted rules and teachings of religion.  Yet, over time, human ego being what it is, these philosophies have taken on many of the trappings of religion, though still far less-so than in the West.  Still, beyond any trappings or rituals, the one thing primarily taught in Zen, Taoism and similar Eastern spiritual, often called non-dual, traditions is to pay attention to Life in ways which are profound, subtle and deep, their purpose being to guide us into the living reality of the mystery of Life and to explore a human being’s role within this Great Unfolding.  The great Zen teacher, Ikkyu, when asked to impart words on the secret to Zen, simply said, “Attention.” Asked to elaborate, he repeated, “Attention, Attention.”  Asked again, the student still being unsure of the meaning of his answer, Ikkyu emphatically said, “Attention, Attention, Attention.” 

Attention.  To bring focused awareness into the unfolding of Life, moment to moment.  This is at the heart of the true spiritual journey, and it is the path of the mystic of any religious/cultural tradition, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim.  Each, in the language of their religion and culture, is speaking the same message, only with different words, telling us to pay attention into the present moment with sufficient depth, subtlety, presence, and spaciousness to see miracles unfolding as, around, and through us every moment.  Mystics tell us to realize that beyond the illusion of our separateness we are Divine consciousness, not some person looking, and in that trans-egoic perspective, to experience God, or the Divine Source, everywhere.  Mystics are all pointing to everyday life as it unfolds, not only in its obvious material manifestation but in its subtleties which go deeper than the material, pointing to the Source of all manifesting through all.  This requires exquisite levels of attention, a sort of attention that is not narrow, tense, and contracted, but rather soft, relaxed, outside of time, and without boundary.  It requires realizing that we are awareness, the energy of Universal consciousness focused through a human being examining and experiencing Creation unfolding through and all about us. 

True spirituality then is in the human inclination to connect and find meaning, and the greater, wider, and more inclusive the circle in this inclination, the greater and deeper the spiritual experience and expression of a person.  For many, who profess no religious affiliation, they will refer to Nature or doing good as their religion and this is indeed getting close to true spiritual inclination, for they are describing the experience of connection which occurs for them in Nature or in acts of kindness and generosity where the boundary of their self opens and connects in a manner that is uncommon.  This unboundaried sense is not uncommon, however, in young children, and its progressive loss can be seen as children get older and more “sophisticated.”  This is why spiritual masters, such as Jesus, advised, “Be like the little children,” and Zen challenges us to “Show your original face,” meaning your consciousness prior to being socialized into a spiritually closed and limited adult.

Whereas religions are often about creating separation and boundary from all that is not within the religion’s teachings and community, true spiritual teaching and experience dissolve such false boundaries.  A Zen master, when asked about the nature of ultimate reality, may just stoop down and pick up a stone, or simply point at the questioner, leaving them in puzzlement.  Their puzzlement can, however, be resolved if they simply follow Ikkyu’s instruction and bring the very deepest attention possible to the stone or their own existence. Nothing exists separate from everything else, and deep examination will always reveal this truth.  God, Ultimate Reality, is everywhere – where else could it be?  This is the mystic’s, the spiritual master’s, secret knowledge and experience.

A very important difference between these Eastern philosophical/spiritual traditions and Western religions is that in the Middle East and in the West, true mystics were and are shunted off to the periphery, perhaps even persecuted as heretics, whereas in the Eastern religious traditions, mystics are held as the authority and teachers of what is essential.  The most profound of these Eastern traditions, including Zen and Taoism, are often referred to as non-dual philosophies, meaning that their fundamental teaching is always focused upon the inviolable unity and interconnectedness of Life.  This places them in a category of human ontological questing quite different from religions which are dualistic, that often teach, in some manner, the “fall” of humanity, the separation of humanity from Ultimate Grace, regainable only through fidelity and orthodoxy to the religion’s teachings.

As many Zen masters have declared, Zen is everyday life; in other words, the realization of ultimate truth and origin is in every manifestation and every function of Life.  In all the non-dual traditions, God is everywhere, now.  In the words of 13th century Zen master Dogen: “If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”  This is what makes true spiritual practice absolutely practical, for it is always and only a search for the truth of every moment and situation.

What is the truth of morality and ethics?  What is the truth of right conduct?  What is the truth of governance?  What is the truth of pleasure and pain?  What is the truth of the functioning of the human mind? What is the truth of the nature of existence?  What is the truth of washing the dishes or sweeping the floor or going to your job or to school?  What makes life situations miserable or joyous?  Who are you?  What is your purpose?  What is the purpose of any human life, of any lifeform?  How ought any task be performed?  The answer to all these and any question is right here and now – if you know how to look deeply enough, and when you look deeply enough it is realized that we already have and know everything needed to answer these questions and live an optimal human life, for we ARE Life, or the Universe, or God, having a human experience.

This is the secret of the spiritual masters, all their teachings pointing to our getting out of our own way, or more specifically, getting the human ego out of the way of our knowing how to be human, naturally.  It’s all maddenly simple – it is about clearing from our lives the endless complicating and personalizing and categorizing and separating and manipulating and chasing after what we want and turning away from what we don’t want while getting caught in the agendas of other people and society.  This is what the human ego does when it is mistaken for who we are, as our society and religions teach us.  The mystic, the spiritual experience, stands outside all this, and it is maddening and challenging in its simplicity because the ego resists this simplicity, needing things, including spirituality and religion, to be complicated, creating what Zen calls the Gateless Gate, the seemingly impassable barrier that is really only an illusion created by our mind.

Ego will latch on to spirituality, claiming it for itself, teaching it as something pursued outside our daily lives, as rituals creating sometimes peaceful, and sometimes ecstatic, experiences identified with designated “spiritual” masters, retreats or types of experience.  Very nice, but what good does this do us in our everyday life?  This is why Zen teaches that Ultimate Reality is in everyday life, right where we are – IF we are truly where we are – rather than caught in the swirl of some egoic matrix of ideas and beliefs and behavior patterns more focused on the past and future than this present moment right where we are.  It is this stone lying at our feet, the earth beneath us, the sky above us, “the Kingdom of Heaven spread across the land for those with the eyes to see,” the plants and animals and people about us.  In the language of Eastern Vedantic traditions, “Thou art That.” What could be more uncomplicated or practical?  Yet it is so challenging to conceive, to experience, to live, for those raised within dualistic cultures with dualistic religious instruction.  How do we break free of the prison of being “in here” – this body and mind and circumstances we know as “me” – while all else is out there, including God?  “Attention!” commands the Zen master or the guru.  Right here, right now – pay attention as you have never paid attention and Life will reveal its secrets, So simple, yet so challenging, for we live caught in a world of the mind that is distracted confused, and unsatisfied.  This is what Buddhism called “dukkha,” the unnatural suffering humans do to themselves, each other, and the world when they don’t know how to pay attention, when they don’t know who they are.  True spirituality is knowing and living who you are.  What could be more practical?  It is going to the store or to work or relaxing at home or doing chores or at play knowing and being who we truly are, all done with a most uncommon presence and skill for we have learned to get out of our own way.  Very practical.

Evolutionary Spirituality

“Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness.” -– Teilhard de Chardin

In this time of growing reactionary fundamentalist religion, the words “evolution” and “spirituality” seldom are heard in combination and may well evoke an emphatic rebuke, yet within ancient traditions of spiritual practice, while the word “evolution” may not be employed, it is precisely this modern concept which is at the heart of what was taught.  The problem with fundamentalist religion is that it is a static thing, holding tradition – historical writings, teachings, practices, rules, and rituals – to be sacrosanct, not to be questioned or to evolve.  But Life is not static.  It is wild and free and always changing.  Life is always evolving, meaning that it is constantly moving towards higher and more complex organizations of form and consciousness.  In the human community this means a consciousness which can hold in its sense of self, ever more complex, abstract, diverse, and expansive ideas and identifications. 

Consciousness evolution happens in individuals, in groups, and in the species.  As the brilliant twentieth-century French Catholic mystic theologian and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin noted, it is an ascent, and it cannot be stopped, no matter how hard some may attempt to – it is inevitable destiny.  Evolution is Life expressing itself in ever more complex organizations of diversity within unity, and this puts any dogmatic religion or political movement which attempts to hold to outdated ideas and identity as inviolable is at odds with Life.  On the other hand, spirituality IS Life.  It is the celebration of Life, every bit as open and free and evolving as Life, and I capitalize the word “Life” to emphasize that the Sacred Source which religions call God by many names and expressions IS Life.  God is not outside of Life.  For all true spiritual traditions, God is IN Life. Mystics of all religious orientations have always understood this and taught that dogma which attempts to crystalize some idea of God is the real heresy.

Teilhard de Chardin lived and taught a true spirituality which was a completely undogmatic, yet disciplined, submersion into Life and its mysteries.  As a scientist, he looked at Life and saw within it evolution, and he understood evolution to encompass not only the forms of the world, but also of the Sacred Source, of God before form, and on through God’s expression as form in the atoms and stars and planets and into the galaxies.  He saw it in the emergence of conscious lifeforms, of lifeforms in conscious interaction, in emerging sentience, into Life’s ability to examine itself, to know itself, and imagine beyond itself.   He could see in his very disciplined study of evolution that it is a continuing integration of the myriad and ever-more complex manifestations of conscious Life and states of consciousness into harmonious unities.

And what is consciousness?  Mystics have always understood it as the primal intelligence of the Universe expressing itself and knowing itself through Creation.  De Chardin could see that consciousness permeated all material forms, and that as the forms of Creation complexified in the process called evolution, so did the consciousness within the forms, ever complexifying up and into humans.  His was a completely thorough understanding of matter, consciousness, and Spirit evolving in the dynamic integrated processes of Life.  As applied to the human species, he saw that its successful physical, mental, and social evolution is reliant upon ascending into a very complex sense of evolving spiritual consciousness which could guide human development.  He saw this process moving toward an integrated world consciousness which held all expressions of humanity, along with the Natural World, in a harmonious unity, and so too with all the Universe.

Ancient, Nature-based cultures understood the need to honor the spirit/consciousness which pervaded all Life, and they did so within their primitive technological development, maintaining a balanced and enduring relationship with Nature for millennia.  They understood that humans represented a quantum leap in the world’s unfolding yet saw this advance as a gift and a responsibility, not, as modern humans have, as a privilege without responsibility.  There is a Native American creation myth which I love which tells us that the world was created when Spirit became the world, and this is very important in that it is not the dualistic vision Western religions teach of God making the world.  God making the world means that there is a separation between creator and creation, and gives the impression, like a potter making a pot, that the product is fixed in its mold and purpose.  So it is with religionists who insist that a dynamic world process such as evolution is heretical. 

The Native American myth goes on to say, that though Spirit became the world, meaning that Spirit was IN the world, the world was unable to know itself as Spirit, and so, “one more creature was needed that walked in both worlds, and Spirit became human beings.”  This myth recognizes that humans have the necessary mental development, possessing intuition of Divine origin and destiny, to bring forth consciousness into creative and unifying process with the physical world.  To tragic consequence, such an intimate sense of Divinity behind and within the world’s unfolding has been absent in human civilization’s unfolding.  Spiritual mystics, such as once comprised entire indigenous cultures, have been banished to the fringe, and so have had little influence on the conduct or design of modern societies.  This is the obstacle to manifesting human fulfillment which must be overcome, embracing further evolution into fully ego-transcended consciousness.

Conservative religionists, currently again in the ascendency in their cultural and political influence, stand firmly against such evolution, and this is a catastrophe.  Religionists pursue, worship, and think they own the Divine and despite the emphasis on the IDEA of God as an object of worship and dispenser of moral judgment, there is very little sense of visceral unifying presence of the Divine in the day-to-day lives or social/political/economic conduct of modern humans.  In a manner of speaking, this makes our society essentially atheistic, worshipping the material over the spiritual.  To a spiritual mystic, God is not an idea or a giver of moralistic rules and certainly not the sole property of some group of “believers.”  Spiritual mystics live IN and through, feeling owned by the Divine, experiencing the Divine manifesting everywhere.

As religions are the vessel of a culture’s spiritual experience, humans as civilization builders need true spiritual religion, lest they fall into egoistic, materialistic decadence, as has our own society.  Those who resist the notion of an evolving universe through which the Divine is seeking to know and express itself were referred to by de Chardin as “immobilists,” those dedicated to a view of existence in which nothing is supposed to change despite all evidence that Life is nothing but change.  De Chardin went on to point out that it is not only in progressively more complex life-forms that evolution occurs, but that it is occurring through human consciousness, which continues to expand in ever-increasing complexity, inexorably shown through the capacity to integrate new concepts and identifications into a coherent sense of self, overcoming ignorance, prejudice, and superstition.  This has been shown as the species progressed beyond tribalism, nationalism, and regionalism, toward internationalism, out of monarchies and feudalism into democracies struggling against backsliding into authoritarianism.  Humanity continues to evolve out of racism, sexism, and is even beginning to break free of anthropocentricism, glimmerings of seeing all life as worthy of our empathy and compassion.  Even in the realm of religion, we see those who believe in and function within a growing interdenominational consciousness, leaving behind sectarianism.  Most importantly, it is shown in the advance of science and information into ever-increasing capacities for global communication, a world-wide network of dynamic thought, what de Chardian termed “The Noosphere.”

We must recognize human evolution as necessary if we are to meet the environmental, social, psychological, and political challenges created by our present level of consciousness.  To believe and act as if humanity in its present manifestation represents the end-product of the evolutionary dynamic is self-fulfilling suicide.  While it is true that civilization and invention have been the evolutionary mark of post-indigenous humanity and there is no turning back into the simple harmony of indigenous forest-life, what now becomes necessary is an evolutionary synthesis of this human inventiveness with trans-egoic spiritual consciousness.  As our ego-centricism and inventions have taken us out of Nature and harmony with Creation, our successful continuance as a species requires bringing together the Spirit/Nature-centric consciousness of indigenous people which holds Life as an unbreakable interconnected web with the celebration of individuality and inventiveness of modern human technological society into harmonious embrace and protection of Nature and all Life. A new cosmology is being born out of the evolutionary synthesis of science and spirituality which brings with it a new myth, a myth of the evolution of spirit-consciousness-matter through humanity which can embrace its true harmonious place within Creation.  As de Chardin put it: “There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could produce the human molecule.”  I believe it is clear – only in recognition of the wisdom of de Chardin and others who share a similar vision and through turning toward dynamic evolutionary spirituality can humanity successfully navigate away from the precipice of self-inflicted disaster which now looms.  We must enter into our third major evolutionary period, synthesizing our capacity for invention with the wisdom and spiritual instinct of the ancients.  We possess the canon of wisdom from ancient cultures and non-dual spiritual traditions which can take us beyond the current egocentric stage of evolution toward rediscovery of our own true nature in Nature. We must now generate the will to save ourselves and our beautiful planet-home by embracing the challenge of evolving our culture and our spirituality into a dynamic religious expression of scientific and spiritual harmony which excludes no person or any aspect of Nature. We must experience and express ourselves as children of the Cosmos finding our way home.

The Need for Higher Consciousness

“Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems.”

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

The term “higher consciousness” is one which I think few have any true sense of its meaning.  The term itself is pointing to experiencing life, and ourselves within life, in a manner which is so different from the everyday consciousness of most people as to be unfathomable until it is experienced, and only with this experiencing can there be a true knowing of what is meant.  It is pointing to an evolutionary advancement for a person out of what can be called egocentric consciousness – the self-absorbed consciousness that is centered on the sense of “me” inside this body and mind struggling to make my way through the world “out there, often small-minded, basically selfish, and to some degree neurotic, and I think it fair to say that this is the typical norm in our culture.  It is not that many people are not intelligent, kind, caring, and generous – there are many such people, but it is an intelligence, kindness, caring, and generosity that is generally limited, as Einstein noted, restricted by “our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.”  And then, sadly, there are so many who are ignorant and often cruel, even to those they say they love. 

Higher consciousness is an intelligence and sensitivity of an entirely different order. In psychological jargon it can be called trans-egoic or trans-personal consciousness and is the consciousness that Einstein points to as a sense of self beyond ego, rooted in identification with all of life, with the cosmos, with the Universe happening through us as a person simultaneously with all that exists.  The sense of “I” is not “IN here,” rather, to quote consciousness teacher, Eckhart Tole, “I am the space of this moment arising in awareness” that HAS a human body and mind to experience and share in existence along with all that is likewise alive and manifesting the Universe through and about them. In the Buddhist tradition, we are talking about an awakened consciousness, the coming forth of open-minded consciousness that experiences life compassionately as an unfolding miracle with every element of life precious in its own expression.  This might also be called ecocentric consciousness, or ecocentrism, for it is the experienced consciousness of our existing within the web of Life, interconnected and interdependent with all else that is simultaneously manifesting within the Universal cosmic web, excellently descriptive and scientific, describing a view of existence that sees the unity of all life within a perfectly balanced ecological system.  It is a more biological view than the prevailing Newtonian physics/object-based view of life held by traditional science where every “thing” is separate and unrelated to all other things other than in their immediate usefulness or threat.  Ecocentrism is experiencing life in the biological connection where everything has its place and purpose interdependently with everything else, systems of life comprised of interdependent individual life-forms.  It is a forest, not a city.

By our failure to live within this higher ecological view, over the last hundred years an ever-increasing number of our most insightful philosophers, theologians, and scientists, Einstein included, have seen that humanity is facing a growing crisis which will lead, quite possibly, to the destruction of our current human civilization along with much of the life on the planet in the distressingly not too distant future.  Yet, this message and its urgency has not penetrated the thinking or experience of typical people, or of the high officials and stakeholders who make decisions for how our society prioritizes and conducts itself.  There are too few who even intellectually realize this truth and even for those who do, so long as this remains at the level of an idea it will not translate to urgency.  Ideas are just points of view among many, struggling for acceptance, working their way into possible integration into the population’s consciousness. 

Consumer capitalism is another idea, and it represents the economics of the egocentric view.  Few debate (and those who do are considered contrarians and subversives) the idea of consumer capitalism as the natural and right way to organize a society’s economy. It holds the collective mind of our society because it is an idea which grows from our society’s dominant state and level of consciousness that places the human ego as the centerpiece of existence.  We believe and live this way as individuals and therefore, we likewise live in this belief system as societies, building our great, competing and psychologically alienating cities and nations, and as Einstein so astutely observed, this is a kind of delusion which leads to creating problems, big and small, even catastrophic.  Einstein was likewise exactly correct in noting that these problems will never be able to be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them.  And there’s our problem.

Consumer capitalism as an economic system grows from the level of consciousness which prioritizes “me and my interests” as of paramount importance in our affairs.  “Look out for number one,” we are told.  We must do what is in our interest; we must take care of ourselves.  We must make as much of and for ourselves as we can.  We must be the best, and if I can’t be the best, I can at least believe that my identity group is the best and place my interest and allegiance there.  More is better.  These are among the ideas that spring forth from the egocentric consciousness of individuals which then create societies and economies based in this egocentric perspective and it is these sorts of ideas that are tearing the world apart.

So, we live on, vulnerable to being torn apart as individuals, as families, as neighbors, as groups, as religions, as political parties, as a nation, as an international community, and we are tearing apart the natural world looking out for number one.  For the last several thousand years, though often at terrible cost, this consciousness has worked to some degree.  It has worked marvelously in its principal intent, which is to create wealth and power, while this accumulation of wealth and power has simultaneously led to unending conflict between those who have more and those who have less.  This consciousness has led to amazing developments in science, much of it aimed at advances in military power, while for civilians, at making life easier, safer, more entertaining, and comfortable.  The goal is always to generate wealth while developing awesome capacities to manipulate Nature and to confront and to compete with each other.  And this consciousness continues to grow, and is insatiable, always needing more. 

War is the uber-expression of egocentricity, stimulating industry while feeding into our personal egocentricity, and so we find endless rationalizations for its necessity, while economic war stands as the norm for our society and is called peace and prosperity.  Our science is amazing in its scope and its power, rivaling that of Nature, causing scientists to proclaim we are entering a new geologic age, the first of its kind, when human activity is the principal driver of geologic and environmental changes on a global scale.  This age is being called the Anthropocene by such ecological thinkers as Thomas Berry and cosmologist, Brian Swimme – a geologic age centered on and being driven by humanity, bringing global warming, unstable weather patterns, and massive levels of species extinction.  While we sit comfortably in our temperature-controlled homes and buildings, the weather outside is increasingly alarming, and ultimately our furnaces, heat-pumps and air conditioning cannot protect us from draught, flood, hurricane, tornado, and extreme periods of heat or cold.  Massive population displacements are predicted, leading to more war and conflict, and probably more incredible advances in science aimed at creating entirely artificial environments for those wealthy enough to access them, causing more strife between haves and have-nots.

Whether or not individuals have the wealth to protect and insulate themselves, even the wealthy are not faring well within this egocentric cultural matrix.  Mental illness is rampant, with anxiety, depression, addictions, sociopathy, and narcissism commonplace.  An unease about the very meaning of life percolates just below the surface for many, and our psychologies, based in the same egocentric models seem unable to find any answers, focused on managing the symptoms of the malady without having any cure.  We manage our mental illnesses without much of any idea of what it is to be truly mentally healthy.  And there is no way we can build a mentally healthy society which addresses the problems we are creating without mentally healthy people as the architects.  This is what Einstein was warning us of.

And ego hears all this, and says, “yes, but….” And then gives a litany of rationalizations as to why such transformation is not possible, that it is against human nature.  Can we even hear ourselves?  We are saying it is not possible to create an advanced technological human society based in the principles of balance, of interdependence, of interconnectedness, the very principals upon which Nature is built and is therefore endlessly sustainable with no trace of psychological imbalance.  Can humanity, individually and collectively, actually behave in a sane manner?  Can we build cities that reflect the balance and interconnectedness of a forest? All our behavior and the direction of our societies says “no.” But that is just our ego talking.

There is nothing new about the perspective that says there is something within human nature that causes us to be endlessly unhappy and destructive.  Religions have taught this for millennia.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have called it “sin,” all three drawing from the same Old Testament sources with unique added chapters and books and interpretation that have created their separateness and arguments with each other and even arguments within themselves.  Buddhists called it “dukkha” or the tendency towards unnatural suffering and dissatisfaction.  While the Western religions are murky about its source and what needs to be done about it, drawing from their historic cultural tendency towards divine-right authoritarianism, the problem is generally identified as disobedience, and the answer to be found in obedience to authority and God’s will, which means the church authorities’ will, which over time has become translated as obedience to and belief in the economic/political system.  

Buddhism is much more subtle and psychological.  Buddhism is very clear about the cause of humanity’s imbalance and disharmony, knowing it to be egocentrism and the tendency to live in ego’s delusions rather than the reality of the way life on this planet is actually divinely/cosmically designed.  Isn’t it interesting that the great 20th century scientist, Einstein, likewise identifies the problem as delusion, psychological fictions, believing them to be real.  It is also important to note that among the Western religions there is ample interpretation arising from the mystical traditions and in a growing number of modern “New Age” interpretations, that “sin,” a word drawn from the ancient Greek meaning “to miss the mark” actually ought as well be understood as egoic delusion, and as humanity’s core problem.  “The Fall” is not about disobedience so much as it is humanity choosing to separate from Nature, from Eden, from the natural Cosmos to go its own egocentric way, forgetting that we ARE nature.  How could we not be?  – But few have actually listened because their egocentric level of consciousness could not comprehend that we serve ourselves best by serving others, by cultivating widening circles of compassion, by seeking harmony.  Is it not time we pick ourselves up from this “fall” to strive for that which is higher?  Is it not time we stop “sinning” to find and live from the higher consciousness that Einstein called us to?  We will most certainly not be able to solve our problems, personally or collectively, unless we find a way to be a forest, a planet, living in ecological harmony with each other and all of life.  This is what it will be when humanity evolves into higher consciousness.  And we WILL so evolve.  The only issue is how much suffering will it take for us to awaken?

The Vertical Axis of Being

In Asian philosophical/spiritual traditions, in indigenous nature-based cultures, and even within the mystical origins of Western religions, there is emphasized the sense of our existing within an energy dynamic of the spiritual realm above us and the Nature/earthly realm beneath us with our mind-dominated personal existence unfolding between these primal realms.  We exist in what ancient Chinese Taoist culture called “The Middle Kingdom,” and to be enlightened, that is, awake and aware to the fundamental nature of our own deepest level of Being, requires that we have integrated ongoing consciousness of our Earthly connectedness and the transpersonal spiritual with our personal mind. The symbol of the cross, beyond its association with the crucifixion of Jesus and adoption as the universal symbol of Christianity, represents in many cultures the connection, the intersection, of humanity with the divine.  The horizontal line or axis of the cross represents the realm of the personal and secular while the vertical axis represents our connection with the primal earthly beneath us and the transpersonal, eternal, cosmic and sacred spiritual realm of existence above and all around us. 

The brilliant Hindu philosopher, Sri Aurobindo, saw that behind the evolution of the Universe, of all life, was God, or Supreme Consciousness, manifesting THROUGH the forms in the world.  He saw that the manifesting Universe progressed in complexity and degree of consciousness from matter to mind to spirit with consciousness present in all, yet ascendingly expressed.  In matter, consciousness at the subatomic level is extremely subtle as its repository appears inert.  In biological life, consciousness begins to be interactive with the environment, evolving in complexity from the simplest single cell life to the highly complex neuron-permeated brains and bodies of humans, with minds capable of abstraction and complex thought and emotion, of intuiting beyond material form to sense the perfect and unclouded intelligence of our origin in Universal Consciousness, Spirit, or God.  This represents the vertical axis of existence, and along with Aurobindo, many spiritual teachers and traditions see that humanity’s confusion and difficulty are the result of being disproportionally limited in focus and expression to the middle horizontal axis of the personal mental realm where if identity is invested, connection with the primal natural and spiritual realms becomes lost. 

To be certain, mental development is humanity’s special evolutionary expression with civilization being the collective projection of the mental realm upon both the natural and the spiritual world, and in our over-developed egoic, anthropocentric sense of evolutionary specialness, we have become quite lost in creating artificial realities and in our obsession with the artificially material and spiritual. We have become imbalanced, seeking to control the world rather than living harmoniously, and this has us in conflict with the Natural World, with each other, and without Spiritual guidance.  Yet we do have guidance, for mystical traditions tell us that to find our way to individual and collective harmony, we must learn to reintegrate the mental realm with the ground of Nature and with true Spiritual experience and insight, bringing our mind into its proper perspective and function.  We need to heed our twin universal yearnings for connection with Nature and with true Spiritual realization for they point us to the destiny the Universe intends for humanity where our material and mental inventiveness can be dedicated to Universal harmony of a far more complex organization in unity than is our current level of evolutionary development.

Aurobindo, along with the Christian evolutionary theologian, Teilhard de Chardin, saw as humanity’s challenge the task of grasping and manifesting as its destiny the realization of our sense of self arising out of the spiritual origin of material existence, relating to mind as an intermediary faculty for experiencing, expressing, and creating, rather than as the centerpiece of our sense of self.  They saw this identification with mind and its personalized ego unintegrated with our natural, earthly commonality within Nature and with the Spiritual, Eternal, and Universal as the source of individual and collective human confusion, conflict, suffering, and destructiveness.  They understood that as long as humanity functioned in violation of this evolutionary dynamic, unable to find our proper place within this Great Unfolding, humanity was lost in an immature, self-absorbed, and self-aggrandizing expression of our true Nature, stumbling along in needless suffering and conflict.  And finally, they saw that to function as healthy and whole individuals, collectives, and species we must integrate our mental inventiveness with awareness of our origin in the Earthly here-and-now of Nature, grounded and reverent in this primary level of Beingness, while guided, inspired, and comforted by our highest nature in Spirit. 

In many cultures, including Aurobindo’s yogic tradition, this integrated experience happens not from focusing our sense of self in the head-mind separating Life into manipulatable bits, but in the heart-mind of awareness which connects and has no actual boundary, a focal point balanced between the Earth below and Heaven above, experiencing the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus taught, all about us.  Thusly we can then project our integrated physical, mental, and spiritual capacities through the energy of awareness into the Earthly realm in a manner which Native Americans referred to as walking in a sacred manner and as what Chinese Taoists referred to simply as The Way, and Buddhists name as Dharma.

These insights point us toward realizing the unity of all things and the necessity for mind with its egocentric point of view to overcome its tendency to separate life into objects, into this and that, into my valued subjective point of view and all else as devalued objects.  We see that humanity is confused and conflicted because we live within a false hierarchy of values, obsessed with trying to figure out what is desirable and what is undesirable to “me,” leaving all which is not within this personal hierarchy as irrelevant and of no interest.  We tear up our lives, our social organization, and the natural world chasing after our desires and in fear of that which we see as undesirable from the personalized egoic perspective. 

Failing to see and honor the unity of all existence, to experiencing the Middle Kingdom as the infallible manifestation of the infallible Origin, we bring unnecessary conflict to our lives, to those around us, and to the collective human and Natural World.  Without a sense of groundedness and of our spiritual origin and destiny, Life, and all life around us, loses its inherent value, and unhappiness whips at us, driving us to more and more unhealthy and destructive thoughts, emotions, and actions.  Instead of bringing our special capacities to the service of harmony with all Life, we seek specialness and power for ourselves and our identity groups.  Buddhism calls this “dukkha” – the sense of Life as unsatisfactory which drives us to experiencing and causing unnecessary suffering.

To live mentally, socially, and spiritually healthy lives, the Wisdom traditions of all cultures teach that it is imperative to develop the sense of our vertical axis which on one pole grounds us in the deep rich organic lushness, harmony, and immediacy of Nature and the earth, in the specific here-and-now, and on the other, inspires our daily ordinary lives,  Spiritual connection bringing polarity into union.  This means that to develop as mentally healthy beings we must also develop a sense of ourselves as spiritual beings, not to be confused with being religious, that is, affiliated with some set of religious doctrines.  Religion as such, as Aurobindo noted, is then only the mental realm reaching for the spiritual while staying fully embedded within the divisiveness of the ego-mind.  Any religion which serves as a personal and limited group identity and does not point us beyond the divisiveness of dogmatic sectarianism is therefore seen as a false religion. 

A true religion, as the word implies, is a living set of teachings which point us to the Ineffable Unity beyond all limiting identifications, to the Universe-of-All, religiously applied and practiced.  This is what the word “Yoga” implies, not limited to some set of physical exercises to relax and limber us, as is so often the case in the West, but “to yoke” or “unite” the body, mind, and spirit in the realization of our own integrated unity within a Universe of integrated unity comprised of infinite diversity.  Meditation and yoga are meant as expressions and experiences of this unity, pulling us out of our neurotic mental time-traveling instantly into this moment where our lives actually unfold.  This sense of presence and integrated connectedness is then not to be left on the yoga mat or meditation cushion, but as the necessary focusing and revelatory perspective carried with us everywhere as we walk and live our ordinary lives, the skill which brings true sanity. 

As integration was its vision, Aurobindo named his philosophy and practices Integral Yoga, its purpose to evolve us beyond being lost in the mental realm, alienated from Nature and with only the vaguest yearnings for the Spiritual, often confusing this yearning with religions which are still merely expressions of the mental realm, personalized, dogmatic, and divisive.  He pointed us toward the realization of our unifying spiritual existence capable of integrating our three dimensions of matter, mind, and spirit into one unified felt sacred experience with every form of Nature and living being within our everyday world likewise experienced as an expression of the Sacred and Eternal Source. Grounded in material Nature while connected and inspired by the spiritual, we can then live in felt awareness of the vertical axis of our Being, this moment, here-and-now, our body, mind, and spirit balanced and true.  Then, as both Aurobindo and de Chardin saw, each individual who has so evolved will naturally serve as a guide and torchbearer for our species in its evolution into its truer and healthier expression, more integrated, in less conflict with Creation. This is the Way that true religion not based in dogma and separateness points, to a life and destiny which is affirming, sane and spiritual, connecting and integrating us, to a faith that can guide us through the world of apparent separateness always in awareness of the underlying unity of all that is, ourselves included.

I Left Her Back at the Stream

‘Principles’ of any kind are foreign to Zen. – Eugen Herrigel – The Method of Zen

“The moment between before and after is called Truth.” –  Dainin Katagiri

“Allow the “isness” of all things.  Move deeply into the Now…” – Eckhart Tolle

There is a classic Zen story of two monks journeying on a path which was interrupted by a stream with large flat stepping stones leading the way across to the other side, and as they approached, they saw a woman in a beautiful kimono fretting about crossing the stream as the current washed over the stones.  One of the monks, without ado, walked up to her and asked if he could assist, and then with her assent, carried her across the stream, his companion following.  With the two monks across the stream and the woman on her way, after about five minutes of walking, the monk who had not helped the woman queried to his companion as to why, when their order strictly forbade contact with women, believing such contact led to the disturbance of tranquility, had he been so bold as to carry her.  To which the monk looked at his companion and said simply, “she needed help so I helped her – – – Why do you ask?  Are you still carrying her?  I left her back at the stream.”

I love this story for I see two important lessons contained in it.  The first lesson is a warning against getting caught in the orthodoxy of rules which are meant to assist us in keeping our lives on some path that is in some way meant to be spiritual, ethical, or psychologically healthy.  For it can be in strictly observing the “rule” that we fall out of the spirit the rule is meant to help us maintain.  So, in this case, a rule meant to support the monks’ tranquility was a cause for disturbance in the mind of the monk caught up in observing the rule.  This story points to how living the true spirit of Zen, which is to have a mind that flows as naturally and unselfconsciously as a stream, sometimes means ignoring rules lest we find ourselves trapped in keeping to some idea about how we are supposed to be, balling us all up in our attempting to be observant.

Secondly, this story serves as a great reminder that the true spirit of Zen is in the authenticity, compassion, spontaneity, tranquility, and attitude of service in the here-and-now which the helpful monk displayed even as he broke his order’s rule.  The monk who carried the woman physically never carried any mental disturbance by carrying her – and so was a living manifestation of the mental tranquility which the rule was meant to foster. His observant companion, on the other hand, had quite lost his tranquility when his companion did the most natural, that is, Zen, action in the moment and for the situation.  We very often find the truth of Zen lies in seeming contradictions which are paradoxes that are no contradiction.

How often is our own tranquility disrupted by our rehashing that which is now in the past?  We fret over whether we did what was the best or the right thing for the situation, over whether someone likes or dislikes us, was impressed or disapproving of us, was kind or cruel, perhaps rude, thoughtless, dismissive or insulting to us, whether we made a mistake which others will be critical of, or for which we are critical of ourselves.  We, like the monk in the story may get caught in whether we ought to live strictly within some set of rules, doing the “right” thing.   Our mind spins in the past, unable to be clear and positive in this present moment where our life actually is unfolding.  Like the rule-conscious monk, we might be trying so hard to live up to our expectations of ourselves for faultlessness that we find ourselves quite out of the spirit of clarity, spontaneity, and mindful presence to which we aspire.  As for Zen, it is not, cannot be, bound by any strict set of rules constructed by human minds.  True Zen, not Zen-in-training, lives only by the rule of Dharma, or Tao.  Zen in training has many, many rules, just as it was for these two monks, but true Zen is the Tao or “watercourse way,” that which goes wherever it needs to go in the natural course of events, is whatever it needs to be, is the unaffected witness, action, and servant of the moment.

This gets us to the paradoxical nature of Zen training which, in its classic form, is rigidly rule-bound, the rules of conduct, behavior, and training for a Zen aspirant being very challenging.  Why should this be?  And what relevance does it have for contemporary seekers of awakening into clarity, sanity, truth, and ease of action in their lives? Let us look at the goal of Zen training – to awaken a person to their original, natural self. So why not just say, be free!  Be natural!

Many have approached “being Zen” in this manner, but it doesn’t work because we have no idea what being natural is.  Particularly in our contemporary American culture, we mistake being natural with license to do anything we want, to express our desires and be uninhibited in our actions.  No, if our perception of Life and who we are is distorted then we cannot be natural; we are just uninhibited expressions of a distortion.  The result is the selfishness, self-indulgence, insensitivity, and obsession with appearance and opinion that marks the narcissist in our culture.  It is pathological, not natural.  We are then not being uninhibited in living and expressing our natural selves, but rather, our egos.  We live in an egocentric, narcissistic culture, and as such, we NEED rules of conduct to keep people’s egos from harming others and even from harming themselves.

Zen takes this conundrum and does a kind of judo with it.  For people who do not know their natural selves, rules of conduct are needed, and so Zen gives them rules of conduct to break the old habits of egocentric self-absorption, self-indulgence, and neuroticism.  The object of Zen training is to awaken into the realization that we have been trained by our culture and our personal experience to be unnatural.  We have been trained to find our identity in the false sense of self that is our ego, our sense of separate self, constructed in our mind by all sorts of psycho-social conditioning factors.  We are obsessed with the material, the competitive, the sensational, the sexualized, the prideful, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing values of our society and we must be trained to let go of this identity to find the clear and natural being beneath it all, and this is a challenging task. 

It takes great discipline to break an endless list of old habits, to arrive at, as the Zen koan challenges, our “original face before we were conceived by our mother and father”- before we were conceived, that is, shaped by, psycho-social conditioning factors.   “Who are you?” challenges the Zen Master, and you must have great faith that the Zen Master already knows what you do not.  All your ego tendencies seek to assert themselves in cleverness, intellectualism, and false modesty and the Master says “No!”  “Sit still and learn the rhythm of your own breathing.  Watch your clever mind until you realize who is watching!”  Slowly, the natural rhythm of your own existence begins to reveal itself and you begin to be increasingly empty of ego-self.  The intelligence which is the silent selfless mind begins to be realized, the body begins to relax as the mind relaxes, and the realization of being consciousness which has this human life begins to be experienced.  All the discipline is necessary to wear down the willfulness, self-absorption, and the sloppiness of the egoic self until, there you are, a natural human being.

There is a Zen saying that we need a raft to get to the other shore of self-realization, but once we arrive at the other shore, the raft is to be left behind so we can explore and get to know this other shore. We do not carry the raft with us.  The discipline of Zen training, the hours of sitting in meditation, of practiced mindfulness, of study, of rules which break old bad habits, of coming into selfless present moment consciousness, is the raft which carries us to the shore of True-Self realization.  We discover the natural wisdom and compassion of unimpeded awareness, of action anchored in unselfconscious confidence in the goodness of our intention which cannot be shamed by mistake, only taken as lesson learned in the improvement of our skills.  In the story of the two monks, one is still carrying the raft of rules while the other has left the raft behind, no longer needed, just as he has left behind all self-conscious and impure thought habits so that he could carry the woman with no mental disturbance.  And then he left her back at the stream and serenely and naturally continued on his way into new moments that will have new needs to which he can be an unselfconscious servant, a true and natural human being.  This is the way of Zen.

Living Our True Nature

“Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature…  We must exist right here, right now.  When we express our true nature, we are human beings, when we do not, we do not know who we are… To be a human being is to be a Buddha.  Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.“ – Shunryu Suzuki

To the contemporary person Zen is most certainly a mysterious philosophy and set of practices, but ultimately its purpose is meant to focus us into awakening into, as Zen Master Suzuki said, our true human nature, into what Buddhism also refers to as our true self.  This is why when studying Zen, the student is often urged to meditate upon the great Zen question, called a koan, which asks, “Who are you?”  That the question is being asked implies, as Suzuki states, that we are prone to NOT know who we are.  Here, we are getting to the very root of Buddhism, for the most important teaching in Buddhism points us to realize that we human beings, in all of Nature, are uniquely confused about who, or more precisely, what we are, and this confusion leads to psychological suffering of a sort unknown amongst all non-human life.  This is what Buddhism calls dukkha, usually translated as “suffering.”

At first, we may be inclined to protest this assertion, believing we do know, at least in the broadest sense, who and what we are and consider ourselves and act as superior to non-human life.  We know that as human beings we have some sense that our purpose is to actualize ourselves, make our mark, form families, circles of associations, and societies, be productive, develop technology, and shape Nature to our will, and this differentiates us as human, separating us from animal and plant life which live simply within and at the mercy of Nature.  And here, we bump right into the core of the problem of human beings.  We forget that we ARE nature and, in our attempts to control nature, to make life safer for ourselves, we are, in truth, making life far more confusing for ourselves, far less safe for all non-human life, and, as we are discovering now with the effects of dramatic climate change caused by human technology, we are eventually making life more hazardous even for ourselves and our societies.  We have forgotten who we are at the most fundamental level and with this forgetting arises the entire array of human psychological, social, and environmental ills.  It could be said that all the excessive violence we have perpetuated upon each other and on the planet throughout history, continuing today, has at its root this forgetting that we live best and sanest when we live within the basic laws of Nature. 

Mistakenly, in answer to this unease, this suffering, this problem-making, we look to our sciences, our politics, our religions, our material world, to pursuing pleasure and running away from discomfort, even to our ability to deny and rationalize away these problems, but this just has us running in circles, chasing our tails, looking for answers in the very pursuits and capacities which cause the problem.  How are we then to solve this conundrum, this human dilemma?  What is the way to being human that does not make a mess of our lives and the world?  Suzuki gives us a clue by saying that to be a true human being is to be a Buddha, but this only confuses us more, hearing nothing but inscrutableness. 

We must enter into the challenging realm of Zen koanic language, realizing that the descriptor of “Buddha” as used here is not speaking of the historic figure Siddhartha Gautama from whom the philosophy/psychology/religion Buddhism flows but is referring to the translation of the Sanskrit word buddha as an “awakened” being, a being for whom there is no confusion as to who and what they are, who knows their nature is and must be within Nature.  A Buddha knows they are expressions of Nature just as surely as a tree or a squirrel, yet with capacities far beyond a tree or a squirrel.  A Buddha knows that to use these extraordinary human capacities to negate their root in Nature will have a terrible karmic consequence not only for themselves psychologically, but for all humanity and for all of life.  Suzuki is telling us that to be truly human is to know, to feel, to live and function within the knowing of our connectedness within the natural world, our own true nature being rooted in the totality and the dynamics of Nature.  It is to be awake to our own truest and most natural self as Life, the Universe expressing itself as a human being, asserting itself with no more confusion than a tree expresses its tree-ness, or a squirrel its squirrel-ness.

And so, “Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature” and with this realization the great Zen question, “who are you?” is ultimately answered koanically, yet undeniably truthfully, as “nobody.”  In the profound insightful presence accomplished through deep meditation we realize that our truest self transcends our personality and our ego, our personal history, our name and heritage, our affiliations and functions.  In the silent space of luminous awareness, we can SEE how our mind functions and realize that when we are in touch with what is truest, we are not perceiving and acting through this idea of “me” which has complex socio-psychological origins, but rather as this-moment-as-consciousness happening through a human being manifesting at an intersection of space and time called Now.  We see that all that is of the ego-personality is added on beyond this luminous sense of self-as-consciousness.  We can realize that the egoic personality is a faculty that we HAVE that both serves us and complicates our lives.  We have a body and a mind and a personality and circumstances and circles of associations and attachments, but all these from a Zen perspective are just the tools, language, and context that this silent consciousness has to express a human life in this moment, “right here, right now.”

Zen directs us to a simple truth that lies hidden within a mistaken assumption.  When we assume that we are the activity of our mind – our thoughts and emotions – Zen asks: as you are aware of this mental activity, who is it that is aware?  And if there is awareness of the activity and experience of mind, and the activity can to a certain degree be directed by this silent agency, then who in truth are you, the activity of the mind or the silent realm that directs and witnesses it?  Zen challenges us to discover our original mind of Being which precedes all the contents that have as their origin this complex socio-psychological matrix, to discover our true self as the silent, intelligent awareness that has no name, no identity, no program, and thus, is “nobody” right here, right now.

To realize this profound truth, to awaken into our deepest level of experience, Zen provides a methodology through zazen meditation to guide us to the awakened awareness in which we can observe our neurotic-self-ego-mind to the end of realizing that we are not that neurotic personality.  We can begin to see that our wayward and sometimes troublesome minds are but thoughts ABOUT who we are that have been conditioned into us by family, society, personal trauma, and experiences.  Slowly it begins to dawn upon us that at the very core of our being we are the awareness which observes the workings of the mind, we are the mental energy of awareness which is completely free of the neurotic conditioning. Then through applying the insights of meditation through mindful awareness of any and all of our actions and experiences, we begin to sense hidden capacities within us for conscious living that can direct our mental, interpersonal, and physical action in the world with extraordinary precision, grace, and skill, without guile or self-consciousness. We learn how to get out of our own way to BE the action of the moment, expressing our natural personality unclouded by egoic anxiety and ambition.

What Zen does not do, that which is the realm of western psychotherapies, is direct us to explore the contents and misperceptions of the ego-mind, understanding that this only tends to reinforce identification with the contents of the mind.  Rather, Zen sidesteps around this tangle by guiding us to realizing that as awareness, we are essentially free of this tangle.  We discover that to abide in nobody-ness is the essence of sanity.  It is calm and serene, both precise and vast in its view of existence.  It is wise.  It is compassionate because it is heart-centered rather than head-centered.  It engages with the social world of other’s egos from that calm, centered, wise, and compassionate heart-mind, engaging the ego and its realm of thoughts for utilitarian purposes, while emotion gives depth and color to our humanity. 

The ego-mind will continue to chatter with its distortions and fears about whether “I” am good enough, about who likes or dislikes “me” and with its resentments about how others are or are not sensitive enough to “my” needs or are even “out to get me.”  The momentum of these stories is carried in our very neural pathways – only now, we can see them in both a dispassionate and compassionate manner with the eye of our essential awareness and let them pass.  We do not try to expunge ego-mind.  No, what is needed is to learn the healthy role of ego in our total mental field and to bring it into balance as a faculty for engaging the world.  Just as our hands are a faculty for engaging the world, so too is this ego dimension of mind.  And since in psychologically and socially engaging the world the ego-mind seems to need an identity to build its sense of self around, in Zen, we allow the person of “nobody” to wield the faculties of mind and body while recognizing and sharing our personal name and roles to assist others in orienting to us. We are consciousness, the same consciousness that sends the roots of a tree to seek water and nourishment and its leaves to turn to the sun, the consciousness that sends a squirrel scampering through the trees doing its squirrel’s life.  Consciousness beats our hearts, it breathes us, it regulates ten thousand processes through this body, and it will direct our thinking and emotional mind in natural ways if we only allow it – if we get out of our own way.  To let the ego-mind run the mind is a clumsy redundancy which only balls us up and makes us unnatural, so we must learn to have faith in the silent intelligence of consciousness, the pervading consciousness that we exist within as fish exist within the sea.  Trust the silent mind which can feel the rhythm of the breath and Life without comment, without distraction, and let it guide the mind to its insights, commentary, creativity, and action unfettered by cleverness, guile, and self-absorption. We are consciousness which HAS a human life with which to build civilizations, yes, as long as we do not lose our connection with our true nature in Nature.  This is the balanced Way of Zen, the way of a natural human being, the way of a Buddha, a human being evolving in the Great Unfolding.

Mind and Consciousness Energy

In our culture, when the word “mind” is used, we generally equate it with thoughts and emotions and have a sense that mind is in our head and is generated by our brain.  In Asian and other non-Western psychological systems, the concept of mind is not so confined.  For instance, the East Indian psychology of kundalini recognizes that a human being has seven psychic energy centers located in ascending order in the regions of the spine and head that denote differing states of consciousness, or what could be understood as types of mind, which become activated as the energy of consciousness is focused through them.  These centers begin at the perineum, or lowest level of the trunk, and move upward, through the anatomical regions of the sacrum, the abdomen, the chest, the throat, the forehead, and the crown of the head.  The practice of kundalini yoga is to gain skill and subtlety in recognizing these various states of consciousness and how our experience and relationship with the world is shaped as we focus awareness through these levels. 

I am not a formal practitioner or an expert in kundalini yoga, but over the years I have developed an intuitive sense of the differing states of consciousness which result from focusing awareness through the various centers and how this can lead to a profound expansion of one’s understanding of mind, consciousness, and the varying levels at which life can be experienced and lived.  I draw upon an eclectic practice of consciousness-energy meditations which combines the chi-awareness of Chinese/Japanese cultures along with Native American and Kundalini systems and have discovered that when studying consciousness through these mind/body/energy meditative techniques, we experience that we live as both physical beings and spiritual or consciousness beings in a cosmos which likewise expresses itself as both physical and consciousness energy, a duality that is in fact, a unity. 

The matter/consciousness energy of the Universe (One Source) generates all forms into existence, including us humans, and my mind/body/energy practice recognizes this sense of impersonal, universal consciousness-energy that focuses and projects itself into the dualistic world through the form that is me.  I am both this individual AND the Universe expressing and connecting with itself.  While all our Western sciences are based in the study of energy systems which interact to generate the physical world, in this past century, upon entering into the quantum realm, amazing discoveries have been made concerning conscious interaction of subatomic particles, implying consciousness at the very substratum of the physical world. This ought to be standing our sciences and our societies on their heads, but quite amazingly, our deep conditioning into form-consciousness/duality seems to have us continuing to overlook in our cosmological understanding the very consciousness that allows the scientific study of the material universe which has led to these discoveries. 

Just as our bodies are made up of cells and organs and appendages and untold numbers of bacteria and discreet processes which unify into the one body, so the Universe is likewise all its components in a balanced unity.  Separate forms are all held together, connected, and function within the mysterious force that gives rise to and energizes the parts and the entirety.  Mystical traditions have called this force spirit, and that’s fine, but with science discovering consciousness at the subatomic level of all matter, perhaps the time has arrived in the evolution of human understanding to bring science and religion together into a new cosmology, to acknowledge, as has been said in a variety of ways, that we are conscious beings through which a conscious universe is expressing and experiencing itself. 

What institutional science seemingly fears to acknowledge, spiritual traditions and nature-based cultures have explored for millennia and may well provide roadmaps for future reformation of the physical and psychological sciences.   Just as physical energy focuses into varying levels of density to form into the solids, liquids, and gasses we know as the world about us creating seemingly discreet and separate phenomena, consciousness energy serves to make connections which can be followed with applied focused awareness.  Upon deep meditative examination, our self-as-consciousness reveals its ultimate state in unity-with-all, manifesting through varying degrees of density, as does the realm of matter-energy.

In exploring the kundalini system, we encounter the mysterious phenomena of chakras, or energy centers that are explained roughly analogously to transformers in an electric power grid, where electrical energy is modulated to voltage levels for particular uses.  In kundalini meditation, when awareness is focused into the lowest point of the torso, we discover our energy connects with the massive grounding form-energy of the Earth, and the quality of the consciousness-energy is likewise somewhat dense, and serves to root or ground us in the practical needs of our physical existence.  When awareness is focused into the 2nd, or sacral chakra, there arises creativity, playful, sensual, and sexual consciousness, less dense than 1st chakra, but still earth and body bound.  In the abdominal solar plexus region, we find ourselves sitting in our earthly interpersonal realm, associated with emotion as it relates to interpersonal stability and security and it is not uncommon for a person who is deeply wounded in their interpersonal life, is driven to achieve, or is insecure and anxious to have disorders of the abdomen and stomach. In Chinese energy systems, the abdominal area of the body is known as the lower “dantien,” or energy center, and to focus awareness in this region is to bring ourselves to the center of our earthly existence.  From here energy flows out into and through the limbs and then in projection and reception of life-force energy in the world.  Because of this flowing connectedness, this center plays an important part in intuition, having a “gut feeling” about people and what is happening.  For physical, mental, and spiritual health, it is important to have good conscious connection with this area, so Eastern health systems emphasize having a strong sense of centered balance, breathing into the abdomen and the dynamic energy that flows through and out from it.

As awareness moves upward, we find consciousness transforming from Earth-bound form-identification energy to increasingly spiritual, pure consciousness energy, and so we come to the very important heart center, the place midway between our root and crown chakras.  Here, consciousness-energy takes on equally the qualities of both form and spiritual energy and is our center of compassion and love, where we also experience the vulnerability, the confusion and pain, that comes with human identification with our form existence which manifests as psychological ego.  In heart-consciousness, we can see deeper than form and separateness to realize our connection with all of life, and thus, Buddhism emphasizes its cultivation.  This seeing has both an emotional and an intuitive-mind dimension and so resonates as love, compassion, and as wisdom, and is equated with an enlightened mind, called bodhicitta.

The next chakra center is the throat and mouth, where form-consciousness energy abstracts and lightens into speech and vocalization and we want to bring awareness here for the development of skillful verbal communication and confidence in asserting oneself.  Then to the forehead and the forebrain where consciousness-energy manifests as thought and emotion, where the idea of “me” generates ego.  Here, we engage the intellect, our ego’s positive capacity for linear logic, for figuring things out, and failing to develop logic, we can get lost in confusion and magical thinking, believing an idea to be true because it conforms to an over-empowered egoic agenda rather than reality, with our strongest delusion being the idea of the separate and struggling “me.” Whether our identification and motivation are spiritual or egoic will then generate thoughts, emotions, and actions which bring correspondingly loving connection into our interactions and inner mind-scape, which then activates the heart chakra, or the divisive and manipulative, neurotic, even paranoid and violent thoughts, emotions, and actions which generate from a dysfunctional self-absorbed ego, operating out of the lower centers.  In esoteric Eastern systems, at the front and middle of the forehead is what is called the third eye.  This is an energy center which brings the mind into psychic connection beyond the range of the physical senses, sometimes called extra-sensory-perception and the possibility for manifesting psychic phenomena, again for good spiritual purposes or questionable, even dangerous egoic purposes. 

And finally, at the very crown of the head, consciousness-energy is now pure and connects us with the consciousness-energy of the Universe, with Eternity, with the Cosmos, and the pure spiritual experience.  As is sometimes said, we are the Universe peering into itself, and when we develop the capacity to clear away the noise of the lower centers and focus awareness completely into the crown chakra, we have the ability to peer silently back, exploring our ultimate source and destiny as conscious beings, as channels for the One Being that is our source, and egoic separateness falls away.

With applied consciousness-energy meditation, we discover that how and where we focus awareness through our mind/body very much determines our experience and actions, our degree of skill and compassion in the world, and so Buddhism emphasizes development of the heart chakra, the center of compassionate connection with the world in good balance with the higher and lower centers.  So – yes, there is mind in the head – but it is the mind which tends to create the experience of separation, of “me” in here, while all else is out there, a recipe for confusion and conflict, and in Buddhism intellect is not discouraged, but rather to be experienced as a faculty to be trained in good logic balanced by the intuitive capacities of the heart and gut.  As Zen recognizes that we are first of all consciousness-energy entering into the world, it teaches it is best to consider oneself as “nobody,” or the energy of consciousness that HAS a somebody to manifest through and encourages a practice which trains us in the balance of all levels of mind centered around a strong heart that loves fearlessly, developing ourselves as wise, skillful, and compassionate beings.

The Beauty of Contentment

Shunryu Suzuki – If you truly see things as they are, then you will see things as they should be… but when we attain the transcendental mind, we go beyond things as they are and as they should be.  In the emptiness of our original mind they are one, and there we find perfect composure.

Contentment is not a very highly valued state in American culture.  We chase after happiness.  There is an implication in our materialistic, go-get-‘em society that to be contented equates to apathy, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Happiness is a pursuit of the ego, of getting what I want from life, what gives me pleasure.  Contentment, on the other hand, is a state-of-being that arises from the soul, from the very core of our Being, and it really is the highest kind of yearning – a yearning to transcend all ego-yearning, leading to complete peace of mind. 

Complete peace of mind only arises from deeply experiencing the everythingness of Life and how it all fits together without contradiction.  Contradiction is a tension of the mind, seeing things as in opposition to each other and being unable to reconcile them, seeing Life as a field of competing objects.  Wisdom and deep seeing into things-as-they-really-are resolves all contradiction into paradox, where there is no tension.  Seeing things-as-they-really-are allows us to realize that beneath surface difference and dysfunction there is only the unity of Life happening through this particular expression upon which we are focused.  Life is Life, a trickster that shows up in many forms, yet always the One Life.  When we look deeply enough, seeing the connections in things-as-they-are, we can see what needs adjusting at the conflicted level of appearance to bring about harmony, the underlying balance reasserting itself.  Then we can step away and the result is contentment.  Seeing into things-as-they-really-are is the essence of what Buddhism means by being “awakened.”

When Zen Master Suzuki speaks of “the emptiness of our original mind” he is speaking of the pure mind of intelligent awareness that precedes any thoughts we may have about the way things are that may actually limit us in our understanding.  Once we have a thought in our mind about something it becomes for us that thought, while its reality is most likely far more complex than can be contained in the thought.  Suzuki is speaking of the silent perception that looks at what is occurring in a manner he also describes as “beginner’s mind,” the mind that sees as if for the first time, able to, with total openness, ask the primary question, “what is this?”, seeking understanding that takes us in dimension after dimension into the implications of “this.” 

You see, in Zen the simple word “this” is not simple at all.  It implies realizing we are in the presence of a phenomenon of the Universe that elementally arose with the beginning of the Universe and is interrelated and interconnected with all else in the Universe.  When we focus upon any one thing, we are encountering just one manifestation of a completely interconnected Universe that is intelligent and evolving in its complexity, yet always still a unity. 

“This” is best comprehended when we perceive whatever we focus upon with the silent intuitive intelligence that precedes thought, for intuition is the mind of connection, and the connections are endless. A thought, however, makes “this” into a thing in our minds that stops its connections. It now has a definition and limitation.  Very importantly, when understanding how we mentally process our experience, Buddhism sees thoughts as objects in the mind, limited representations of the limitless reality that is the Universe, the One Life.  As mystical spiritual traditions all agree, the “sin” that is the missing of the mark of the true mystical Reality of Life begins with this egoic misperception.  Objects are created in the mind that can then be manipulated for the purposes of the ego, and all needless harm emanates from this misperception.

So, “seeing things as they truly are” opens us to “see things as they should be,” how phenomena interrelate within the great cosmic unfolding.  We see what nurtures and what destroys, what causes flourishing and what causes decay and death, and we see the necessity for it all in a great balance.  We see, as is said in the Bible, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” –Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Zen’s Original Mind is and is not personal for it is the mind of the Universe peering through our human form.  From a Buddhist perspective, we are not only our individual selves, but apertures for the primal consciousness of the Universe to experience its manifestation into the world.  So when we are seeing with “empty” mind, we are what Zen calls, “nobody.”  When a Zen Master such as Suzuki sits in meditation, he is a human peering back into the Universe.  He is one who no longer is the solitary, single one. He becomes all.  He is the consciousness that is “empty” of his personal self, able to examine his personal self, others, and the particulars of the world with impersonal wisdom and compassion.  AND, he remains one, a single human being, feeling each and every one of the passions and attitudes that comes with being human.  So, as Suzuki was known to say, “If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.”  We are the paradox of consciousness becoming a human form in which all of Reality is contained, the Yin and the Yang, the beautiful and the catastrophic.  Seeming conflict and contradiction are resolved harmoniously, and the resulting felt-sense of understanding and peace is contentment.

Contentment is the fulfillment of the yearning for peace and for composure with all that Life has to offer, including the very challenging, and we can do this when we are “awakened” because we see that our limited ideas are just that – they are limited.  We can feel our existence tied with all that is coming into being and going out of being.  We can see that all existence consists of forms passing within a formless and eternal unity, a perfect dynamic of balance that requires death for there to be life, difficulty to give meaning to ease, and challenges to hone our capacities as a human being.  It is what allows us to face the most difficult of circumstances with faith that we can weather any storm, and so, we have no fear of the storm. Zen teaches us in a famous saying, that “Obstacles do not block the path; obstacles ARE the path,” and the path is the EVERYTHING that is Life.  We are here to be masters of Life-as-it-is, using the word “master,” not as one who dominates, but one who, as a master sailor works WITH the wind and the sea and a master carpenter works WITH the grain and the knots of wood, we work WITH the everythingness of Life, seeing within EACH and ALL of the particulars their value in the great dance of balance.

The irony is that while chasing after happiness will not lead to contentment, achieving contentment opens us to experiencing happiness not only in the ego-satisfying ways that we usually associate happiness, but in the small and subtle aspects of life as well – in the wind rustling the leaves, in the song of a bird, in a smile and in a small act of kindness, in being mindful in Life’s small and great occurrences and activities, seeing and expressing miracle everywhere. Through contentment we can live in ready availability to gratitude for the great and the ordinary aspects of life, and this leads to joy, the emotion that far outshines happiness.  To live in contentment with the Everything even allows us to experience happiness and peace through life’s difficult times, for contentment contains every expression of Life without contradiction.  We can be happy even while we are simultaneously sad, for contentment is a state of deep presence which never denies the reasons for sadness, while also maintaining full presence for all the reasons for happiness.  Consciousness guru, Ram Dass, called this living in the “thickness” of life, where the reasons for happiness and sadness are recognized as simultaneous in Life’s great unfolding.  He goes on to say that when we can hold the happy and the sad without contradiction, there is the feeling of “it is enough, and when enough is enough, this is enlightenment.”  This is the beauty of contentment.

Into the Future

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

Who knew?  Einstein was a Buddhist. Not that he identified as or practiced Buddhism, but what is clear in reading such a brilliantly insightful exhortation is that he embodied the intent and spirit of Buddhism – he was an “awakened” being.  That this great awakened scientific mind capable of intuiting deep and subtle characteristics of the physical universe was also an awakened psychological, historical, and spiritual mind was an inspiring revelation to me.  Of course, Einstein was an enlightened being.  He could see the underlying intelligent unifying essence of the Universe and understood the natural ethics that arose from this insight.   An awakened mind sees things as they are in their deepest subtlety and how the future will play out given the circumstances of the present.  They therefore see what present conditions and actions will lead to which varieties of possibilities in the future and the responsibility that comes with this insight.

I read an article recently in a Buddhist publication addressing the question of whether Buddhists ought to concern themselves with the future.  In the article it noted that as the philosophy of “be here, now” mindfulness, Buddhism is often understood and practiced as a philosophy that emphasizes staying mentally out of the past and future; rather, it teaches to hold awareness firmly in the present moment.  Yes, this is true.  But because Buddhism is a philosophy of paradox the article went on to note that concern for the future within the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism, which include Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, is included in the mindscape of an awakened being.  Such a person is called a bodhisattva and has a commitment to all life which requires concern for the well-being of all beings not only in the present, but into the future as well.  This, of course, is achieved by paying exquisite attention to the quality, the wisdom, and compassion we bring into the present moment, so there is no contradiction.

A bodhisattva is a person who has achieved sufficient enlightenment to extricate themselves from the cycles of suffering typical of the human condition caused by one’s sense of identity being trapped in the ego – with all its cravings, fears, judgmentalness, insecurities and need for drama and hyperstimulation.  The bodhisattva, however, realizes that this freedom carries a responsibility.   With their awakening into liberation from ego bondage, the bodhisattva realizes they have a duty to bring wisdom and compassion into all the world, for the bodhisattva realizes there is no real freedom from suffering for themselves until all are likewise free.   One’s compassion would not be genuine otherwise. 

An awakened being is freed of the whiplash mental time-travelling of the ego-bound mind, rehashing the past and anxiously anticipating the future, so there is no anxiety about the future, nor regret or nostalgia over the past, but rather a knowing and understanding of karma, the principle of the flowing cause and effect of actions.  A bodhisattva realizes the need for a firm grasp of the past conditioning factors that have created the states of both goodness and suffering in the current timeframe.  They must also have a sense of how actions in the present will bring about the variety of possibilities for the future.  They, very importantly, need to have a sense of what to leave as it is – for the what-is represents the Universe unfolding in its own reference.  Yet, there is within that unfolding the understanding of oneself as an agent of that unfolding.  We will act, and it is important that our actions are guided by wisdom and compassion in the here-and-now to affect the unfolding of circumstances into the future in the direction of wisdom and compassion for the sake of all beings. 

A bodhisattva must be deeply intuitive, feeling their way through the present moment, alert for what the moment needs to move toward a more evolved and awakened state in the future.  They need to sense what can be done presently to contribute to a world in which all individuals, as well as human society, become sufficiently conscious to realize compassion towards all life.  A bodhisattva sees the false prison created by ego-identification and the suffering it creates.  They live within the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings, awake to the impermanence of all things, and all this is at the root of their compassion and wisdom.  They live in full awareness of the beauty and ugliness of humanity, sensing what actions bring about which results, and this adds to the preciousness and fullness with which they experience their existence.  A bodhisattva is aware at all times of the underlying intelligent energy that is the substrata of the Universe and is our true source and destiny, and knows that as human beings we are agents of that Universal intelligence.  As is often said in a variety of ways throughout mystical traditions – we are the Universe expressing itself as humanity.

Bodhisattvas certainly do not have to be Buddhists.  This article begins with a quote from a great non-Buddhist bodhisattva, Albert Einstein, and I often make reference in my writing and teaching to other non-Buddhist bodhisattvas such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rumi, Jesus, or one of the many individuals within the various spiritual, philosophical, literary, scientific, psychological, or political traditions who have, through their own personal development, transcended egoic small-mindedness to be visionaries of what can and what needs to be if humans are to transcend being agents and victims of great unnecessary suffering in this world.  Yes, this is a very generous, perhaps even heretical, interpretation of what constitutes a bodhisattva from a traditional Buddhist perspective, but I believe it is a true and helpful expansion of this important Buddhist teaching into its intention to save the world.  Afterall, among the vows of a bodhisattva is to “liberate all sentient beings, limitless in number, from the ignorance that causes suffering, and to extinguish the egoic delusions, which are numberless.”  Note that this vow says “beings, limitless in number,” not merely those I identify with or are of my faith, race, nationality, or even species.  It says, “all sentient beings.” 

Buddhism is not an evangelical religion, quite the opposite.  The bodhisattva vow is not about becoming a missionary to convert unfortunates who have not seen the light.  If the word “missionary” can be applied at all, it is as an agent of a mission – the mission to move humanity toward enlightenment through one’s own accountability and as inspiration for others.  Albert Einstein, while not a Buddhist, did recognize Buddhism as unique among the world religions, seeing its potential as a vehicle, an agent, for bringing about the necessary “widening our circles of compassion” to take the human species into the consciousness he believed necessary to advance into the planetary harmony necessary to not descend into violent decay.  He noted: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity.”  Einstein then goes on to single out Buddhism as having the very qualities he has outlined – “Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.”

The present has been built out of our actions and understandings in past moments and the future will be built from this present moment.  This is karma.  Here we are in a great unfolding, and it could be said that the unnecessary suffering that Buddhism addresses as its mission to overcome arises out of our failure to perceive and address the present moment in its absolute truth.  Unlike other creatures who live solely in the present moment as-it-is, humans create virtual realities in their ego-minds that are a limited and distorted sense of the present moment generated out of distorted memory of the past and distorted anticipation of future. The awakened person sees regret, nostalgia, hope and despair as obstacles to our availability to meet the present moment fully, skillfully, compassionately as it is.   So Buddhism’s fundamental teaching is to stay fully anchored in the present moment as awareness focused on generating with our actions and attitudes the conditions for our own and all humanity’s movement toward enlightenment in the future.

The last Einstein quote I wish to share is this: “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems.”  A bodhisattva vows to extinguish egoic delusions because in their compassionate capacity for deep presence in the here-and-now, they see that it is the false stories of past, present, and future spun by the human ego-mind that are the source of humanity’s countless sins of cruelty and harm.  They see that egoic consciousness based in self-centeredness, ignorance, insecurity, greed, callousness, dishonesty, and divisiveness coming out of the past has created the karmic debt, the continuance of cruelty and harm that are with us today and will be passed on into the future, unless there is a shift, an evolution, beyond the consciousness that created our present problems. Our future must go beyond the existing religious, political, social, and cultural states of consciousness that fail to see and honor the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life.  We must evolve the consciousness described by Einstein that embraces all of life in our circle of compassion.  We must look deeply into our present state of affairs and take responsibility for the egocentric consciousness that got us into our present unhappy circumstances and guarantees only an exacerbation of our predicament into the future unless we wake up.  Without having to become Buddhist, it might be well for us all to look to the principles of karma, compassion, wisdom, interconnectedness, and interdependence that Buddhism teaches to reform our ways and state of mind in the present.  This is how we can build a future for our children which will represent an entirely new age, an awakened and enlightened age, where the needless suffering that has marked human history is a thing of the past.

Living in Spirit

What you perceive as a dense physical structure called the body, which is subject to disease, old age, and death, is not ultimately real – is not you.  It is a misperception of your essential reality that is beyond birth and death, and is due to the limitations of your mind… The body that you can see and touch is only a thin illusory veil.  Underneath it lies the invisible inner body, the doorway into Being, into Life unmanifested.  Through the inner body, you are inseparably connected to this manifested One Life – birthless, deathless, eternally present.  Through the inner body, you are forever with God… The key (to awakening) is to be in a state of permanent connectedness with the inner body – to feel it at all times.  – Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now)

Who, what are we?  The great question Zen continually asks is: “Who are you?”  According to Tolle, we are Life unmanifested continually manifesting.  Let’s pause right here for a moment.  This is quite a statement even before we get into Tolle’s elaboration.  Tolle uses the capitalization of the word “Life” to point to That which is much deeper than what we usually describe as “life,” the comings and goings, circumstances, and activities of the usual and everyday. Similarly, I capitalize “That” to point beyond the common and everyday into the Eternal, capitalizing “Eternal,” and so on, until Tolle uses the word “God.”  This is what spirituality really is, isn’t it, the questions that dance around us concerning “who, what am I?” “What is this life?” and “What is God?”  We want to know and to feel some sense of connection of our mortal self with the Immortal, with Creation. 

In Eastern religions, and in all mystical traditions, self, life, and God are all One, and so there is no confusion.  However, our Western religions, as usually practiced, lost the sense of this infinite connection long, long ago – the sense of the Divine living through and all around us.  This is not to say this sense of God living through us and through all the world was not there in the beginnings and in the mystical practice of Western religions.  This is what Jesus meant when he declared the Father and the Son are One.  His teachings were meant to awaken the sense of the Holy Spirit living through us and everything. The plain truth, however, is that Christianity became much too politicized a social institution almost from the beginning to retain its mystical origin in any truly felt sense for the common persons who identified as Christian.  It might be an important insight for Christians who refer to Jesus as “Savior” and as “the Light coming into the world,” to see “Savior” as meaning much the same as Siddhartha Gautama being named “Buddha” – which means “the awakened one.” Jesus, too, intended to awaken people, and in their awakening be saved from their suffering.  Both were mystics and teachers whose message was to bring the light of spiritual connection back into the ossified religions of their time. 

Similarly, both Judaism and Islam have clear pronunciations in their origins and through their mystics that, just as Asia’s Taoism states that “the Tao that can be named is not the Tao,” Moses inquiring “who are you?” of the burning bush, was answered, “That which cannot be named.”  And who/what was it that answered Moses?  All mystical traditions will say it was God, the Spirit, that moves through us and through all.  It was That which whispers to us from within at a level deeper than the rational mind that requires names and our usual sense of “me-in-the-world.”  To be truly spiritual, to live in Spirit, is to know the “One Life – birthless, deathless, eternally present.”  What moved through that bush, through Moses, through Jesus, and moves through you and me, through every speck and particle of this world is the dimension of what Tolle is calling “Being,” “Life unmanifested.” It is Spirit.  It is God.  It is Mystery.

It is the unfortunate fact about religions that as they become social institutions they lose the sense of the Divine happening through us and through all Creation, and the religions of the West became institutions of their societies nearly from their beginnings, and as such, instruments of political and social power.  God had to be made human-like, but all-powerful, the Creator, the judge, the rewarder, and punisher.  The language of religion was made to reflect the feudal order with aristocracy and priesthood as intermediaries above the common person, petitioning saints and angels and God above them, conflating both divine and temporal authority as “Lord.”  Religion became belief in and obedience to dogma and faith imposed by clergy.  That’s not how it was intended.  The politically incorrect Gospel of Thomas has Jesus pronouncing that the Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land for those with the eyes to see, implying that The Holy Spirit is not confined to any temple or church, its authority invested in kings and clergy, but is what moves through us and through all that is.  It is free, everywhere, here and now. 

Christians talk about Soul and Spirit – yet always the question remains whether it is it FELT and KNOWN.  It is certainly not when it is as some hysteria, talking in tongues, shouting Halleluiah! and certainly not in singing solemn hymns or bowing heads in prayer while petitioning an anthropomorphic God. All this is carryover of the European medieval culture that shaped Christianity as it is known and practiced today in the churches that are centerpieces of community life, of the social education of our culture.  It is echoes of when the church ruled over people’s lives like a despot, this theological authoritarianism even continuing today in fundamentalist religious sects.  It is important to remember it was those Pharisees of old Israel, powerful and wealthy religious authoritarians who stood in judgment, hand-in-hand with repressive political leaders, commanding what people were to believe and do that triggered Jesus’s anger.  His purpose was to bring a religion of Spirit while teaching that, just as he experienced himself, all were children, that is, extensions and manifestations of God, with the authority of Truth permeating our very Being.

None of this is to disparage those many churches, temples, and mosques, or their parishioners, who make a community and practice of worship based in ethical living and quiet gathering to allow some deeper inner stirring of connection with The Divine to awaken in them.  They play an important part in civil society and bring some measure of comfort and solace.  It’s just that the mystics from within these traditions would all advise that if we seek a true and deep spiritual connection that carries with us everywhere, that quiets and clears the drama and noise from our everyday life as well as from our mind, we must seek this place within…. and then extend it without… until within and without become one.  We must find and live this peace everywhere – even in the most challenging of circumstances, for it is only this felt sense, this living sense of ethics and spiritual connection, that will carry us through even the most challenging of circumstances.

Tolle is challenging – can you feel this?  Can you have faith that is based in your own knowing and experience of the Spirit within and everywhere around?  This is a kind of faith that few people in our contemporary world have. Tolle tells us that our problem is in “a misperception of your essential reality that is beyond birth and death, and is due to the limitations of your mind.”  Tolle is pointing to the Infinite which can be experienced and accessed THROUGH the finite you, which includes your mind, meaning the ego-mind, the sense of “me,” a personality with opinions and beliefs, quirks of thought and emotion and behavior. This is the dimension of mind that THINKS about the Eternal, may yearn for it, but cannot feel it.  The spiritual paradox is: the mind which cannot understand the Eternal still is of it.

The feeling state of spirituality happens from a deeper dimension than ego-mind.  It happens from what Tolle refers to as the dimension of Being (what is perfectly helpful to refer to as Soul, in a sense, the mind of Spirit) which transcends our separateness and mortality.  And this spirit-mind does not happen out of the brain in our head; rather, it pervades our entire being, our body, mind, and all that is.  Our bodies and our minds, for one who is “awake,” are experienced as faculties of Spirit to connect with and know itself incarnated as all the world.  Many a mystic has answered the question of “who are we?” by saying we are God, Spirit, or the Universe happening through a human being.  We and the world were not created by God, rather we and the world ARE Creation, God, happening everywhere.  This can be felt, and so, known, “if you have the eyes to see,” and the ears to hear, and the intuitive sense to feel the energy of Being, of Spirit, everywhere, connecting everything, giving this world the dynamism of mortal life arising out of the immortal.

So, Tolle tells us: The body that you can see and touch is only a thin illusory veil.  Underneath it lies the invisible inner body, the doorway into Being, into Life unmanifested.  Through the inner body, you are inseparably connected to this manifested One Life – birthless, deathless, eternally present.  Through the inner body, you are forever with God.”  Tolle is telling us to look within for the light of Spirit that opens our lives into peace, compassion, and wisdom.  And Tolle is telling us that we can feel and experience this truth, through our inner energy body which is “life unmanifested” becoming a manifested life.  In the East, this Spirit energy is well known, referred to in various languages as what the Chinese call “chi.”  It is what inspired George Lucas to build his Star Wars galaxy around the idea of the underlying energy of all things called “The Force,” described by Obi Wan Kenobi as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  In the Star Wars galaxy, the dark and light sides of The Force battle each other, yet there is a spiritual implication that this battle will find resolution and harmony in union.  So too, for our galaxy. This is a good way to describe every human’s relationship with spirituality.  We seek to bring the light of Spirit into the darkness of our material existence, and this is what Tolle is pointing us toward, as do all true spiritual traditions.  We search for a pure human experience that has us in harmony with ourselves, with others, and with all the world, and Tolle tells us it can be achieved by “being in a state of permanent connectedness with the inner body – to feel it at all times” –  not just within ourselves, for it flows through not only us, but through all things.  It is an underlying dynamic field of intelligence that beats our hearts and brings forth the great diversity of life and creates the perfect balance and flow that is nature and all the Universe.  In the Vedic tradition of ancient India, this knowing is referred to as “Tat Tvam Asi” –  “Thou art That.”  True spiritual practice is the awakening of the knowing, feeling and living, that we and everyone and everything are always also Spirit.  God is happening through us – look within and all around and know this.

Sanity is a Skill

“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.” “When we start to feel anxious or depressed, instead of asking, “What do I need to get to be happy?” The question becomes, “What am I doing to disturb the inner peace that I already have?” – D.T. Suzuki

One important and useful way to look at neurosis is to see it as the result of poor contact with the present moment.  Many of us tend to live with minimal awareness of the particulars and subtleties of the moment, we see and experience what is happening filtered through the stories we have in our minds about who we are and what is going on around us – stories about what we think we need in order to be happy and, conversely, what is going to “make us” unhappy.  We are seeing and hearing in a quite superficial and distorted manner, looking to make our way through the world as we interpret it.  We fail to realize reality is IN the moment, not in these stories in our mind, projections that act like a kind of film or filter or shell, shading and distorting our experience and with it, how we express ourselves.  The more extreme the distortions and the more our identity is locked into these stories determines the severity of our neurosis.

This story of me-in-the-world is the mind of ego, and to explain ego-mind is to say it is experiencing ourselves from within the mental construct of separateness.  It is “me” taking in and projecting through my neurotic ego-shell with only secondary focus into the actual moments being lived, and thus my experience of the nature of reality is quite distorted.  Conversely, we can say that sanity is being in clear connection with and response to what is happening here and now.  The more clearly, deeply, and subtly we can do this, the clearer, deeper, and subtler is our sanity.

We, in an intuitive manner, all know this.  We have all had experiences where we interact with someone or with some situation in a manner that doesn’t work out very well, and we realize we have not really seen or heard or experienced what is happening with good clarity.  Rather, we realize that we have only superficially noticed the situation and projected upon it what we THOUGHT it was about.  Typically, undesired results or reactions can then occur causing us to realize we have greatly missed the point of the situation or person, and so we refocus.  We refocus to better know what is actually happening or being said, to see and hear more clearly what or who this is.  We bring awareness completely into the moment to see and to listen and to experience with deeper clarity, and this often will create higher quality results and, if you will, moments of real sanity.

Ego’s tenacity, however, will typically re-activate our neurotic story quite quickly.  It’s as if we fail to learn the lesson that better results come from paying better attention to the actualities of the moment rather than being caught in our neurotic story, much of it about the past or future.  It is as if we have no choice but to stay in the superficial awareness of our neurotic personality.  But we do have a choice; and this is the central teaching of Zen Buddhism.  There is an important lesson to be learned here, and it is that sanity is based in accurate present moment awareness, and that this is always available to us through intentional focusing of awareness.  In other words, it is a skill.  Yet, surprisingly, we are not taught this in our education or upbringing, nor does traditional psychotherapy recognize this clear access to contact with reality-as-it-is as the surest route out of the labyrinth of neurosis.  Our problem is in identification with our ego-story, and this includes our whole society.  We are an ego-based culture, celebrating egocentric consciousness, and so, neurosis is rampant.  We celebrate ego.  Even our psychologies are built around the assumption that we are our ego.

Zen, however, recognizes that identification with ego is the principal source of our problems with life.  It tells us that we all have a unique ego-story – or many stories – the result of influencing experiences with the egos of those who shaped us into who we THINK we are, along with our ideas about what the world is.  This can be understood as each person’s neurotic style – people telling themselves their story built around mental states such as anxiety, depression, anger, suspicion, or greediness, born out of their desires and fears, their sense of personal diminishment or aggrandizement.  All this causes our contact with the present moment as-it-is, in its truth, to be rather poor.  And so, Zen believes it is useful to approach the issue of neurosis as arising from poor skill development for situational awareness and insight into the present moment.  Zen Buddhism approached, not as a religion, but as a mental health practice, comes straight at the problem of the neurotic by saying that the principal source of our confusion and difficulty comes from our own egocentricity, our self-absorption, our living within our neurotic story.

Whereas traditional psychotherapy aims to help us see and manage our ego-stories (and thus our neurosis) through looking at the distortions in these stories and ironing them out, Zen challenges us to drop, or outgrow, our stories completely.  Zen challenges us to realize on a very profound level we are NOT these stories; we are not our egos; we are something much healthier.  Zen tells us we are the capacity to be aware of the thoughts and emotions ego generates, we are the clear consciousness prior to the ego-mind, and we can grow, or expand, our sense of self thusly into a profound sanity that originates in identifying ourselves with life itself, with consciousness that is larger than our personalities.

Just as we have hands to engage the world physically, we have an ego-mind to engage the world psychologically, yet we do not mistake ourselves for our hands.  Zen points this out, showing us how we very much tend to confuse the ego-mind and the personality it generates for who we are, and that this error is at the root of human mental and social dysfunction.  Simply knowing this intellectually through philosophical study, however, does little to free us from this misperception, and so Zen is built around leading us to the direct experience of our own mind, to seeing its distortions, and to realizing the deeper inherent capacity for peace and insight that is awareness, consciousness that precedes ego.  Zen does this through the practice called Zazen, or Zen meditation, taught in a stylized sitting posture.  Importantly, however, sitting meditation is only a starting point that shows us the way to clarity in everything we do, to create a life that IS Zazen, emphasizing that meditation is like a raft that takes us to another shore, the shore of direct experience with what-is, engaging with a far deeper level of mind than ego.  Having arrived at the other shore, we must leave the raft behind.  Our objective is to experience life unfiltered and undistorted by our ego-mind, by our neurosis, in everything we do. 

Having discovered through Zazen our true and essential nature brought into our everyday lives, we now have realized what can only be described as sanity, the clarity of our sense of self-in-the-moment unfolding just as it is in the exquisite eternity that is the moment.   Here, and then gone.  Always appearing and disappearing, flowing into the next eternal (meaning beyond time) moment, completely free of past and future.  It is simply “this, now.”  Paradox opens and duality dissolves.  All there is is this.  And this.  And this. Flowing endlessly.  And while in the flow, we realize our true human potential and well-being.

Then…. within the meditation and after it, ego reasserts itself.  We so quickly find ourselves back in our story of “me,” interpreting our experience neurotically, and our sense of expansive sane presence is lost.  Only now, we have some perspective and direct experience with what deeper levels of sanity feel like.  We have seen that our problem is this “ego-shell” that Zen Master Suzuki warns us is the hardest thing to outgrow.  We realize WE are the one blocking our happiness and inner peace.  And we have also learned that inner peace is inherent within us, yet it keeps being lost by the reassertion of the ego-self.  Here we are, and Zen tells us we do not need to understand our stories or their source.  We need to shed them.  We need to know that stories play an important role in how we bring a personality into the world to interact in the world, but they do not have to be the stories we inherited from the neurotic people who raised us or the neurotic world that has been defining us.  We can see that we are free to be the stories we choose, stories of a person who is skillfully present, stories of a person who, in a paradoxical way, is a person with no story at all.  We have realized ourselves in and as presence, our personality and roles in the world being just vehicles for presence.  This, Zen describes as being “nobody” and we know how to reclaim this true source, returning to this breath, this experience, this moment.

Modern interpreter of Zen consciousness, Eckhart Tolle, tells us that who we are is “the space of the moment arising in awareness.”  Look about you.  Listen keenly.  Feel yourself as an intelligent being exploring the moment as it arises and passes – always arising anew and passing.  Be the one who experiences life and self from within the flowing unfolding that is always the present moment arising in awareness, always unique and new, and know: this is sanity.

Zazen is a time-tested practice for training in this clear present-moment awareness, but you do not have to be Buddhist, nor do you have to sit in a traditional meditation mode – though you will find it to be a very natural manner for exploring inner peace, your mind, and what disturbs it.  Dedicate yourself to developing the skill of staying present with keen and subtle awareness whenever and wherever you are, to experiencing real sanity in the unfolding mystery/reality that is the present moment.  It will grow on you.  But, like any skill, you must practice until it takes over as your nature.  And it will, for it IS your nature.  Having tasted real sanity, it is now time to develop this skill with the earnestness, as one Zen exhortation says, “like one whose hair is on fire, looking for a pail of water.”  And what better time to practice than now.

Looking and Seeing

“The true purpose of Zen is to see things as they are.” – “Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars you see. You are one with everything.”– Shunryū Suzuki (20th century Zen master)

In all mystical spiritual traditions there is a great emphasis made about the difference between “looking” and “seeing.”  Here we are in our lives, and we use our sense of sight constantly, but a valid question to ask is: are we merely looking or are we seeing?  Right now, you are reading this article using your visual sense.  You are looking at these words and they are registering some meaning in your mind that may be inspiring to you or may be interesting or may be boring or may be nonsensical from your point of view.  It is certainly my hope that you will be able to see what I am attempting to communicate, that is, to understand at a level deeper than merely comprehending the literal meaning of the words.  It is my hope that you will do more than look at this writing.  It is always my hope that readers will see deeper than my use of words, articulate or clumsy as they may be, to see what the words are, to use a phrase common in Zen, pointing toward, to realize very important truths concerning the human condition and potential which the words are pointing toward.  To look only at the words and let your mind react in its usual way to the words does not necessarily get you to what I am attempting to point to as I write.  I’m inviting you to look deeply to see what I am pointing toward with these words, to see the space of meaning around and behind the words.

In the same way, you can look up from reading these words and look about you, viewing the area in which you are as you read this.  The question from a Zen perspective is, are you SEEING what you are looking at?  There is, most likely, a lamp.  There may be one or more plants.  There are probably pictures.  There, through the window, may well be trees, and the sky, along with whatever else appears in the space you are viewing this moment.  Is it all so familiar as to make no particular impression upon you?  It may be that because you are being directed to look, you may look with a bit more care, and there may be some sense of identification with and appreciation for what you are viewing.  If so, you are beginning to see.  A Zen master might well then say: “Look deeper.”  Really SEE the lamp, the pictures, the plants.  Looking through the window, really SEE the trees, the sky, and whatever else may be there.  This instruction urges you to stop looking with your usual mind to see with your heart.  See with your soul.

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would famously hold up a book and ask: “What is this?”  To answer, “A book” would draw the instruction to look deeper.  Eventually, he would say, “Do you not see a tree?” and there would be recognition, “Oh yes.”  Then he would say something along the lines of: “Do you not see the earth, and the sun, and the rain that made the tree possible? Do you not see those who labored to fell the tree and mill the tree and rend it into pulp and process the pulp into paper? Do you not see the author who through this book is sharing their insights and views?  Do you not see the editor, the publisher, the printer, and the bookseller?  Do you not see the many who have read this book? Do you not see all the many, many processes and interrelationships that go into this book?”  He was pointing to the fact that the entire universe in its infinite interrelationships go into a book – and into every other phenomenon, when we go deeper than looking, to see.  Continuing, it could be asked if you can see this book someday falling apart, its binding broken and its pages yellowing, sent off to be recycled or to the trash heap where it will decompose into earth which may be the bed of soil for a seed to fall into, and with sun and rain become a tree again?

Few people really see the world.  Rather, mostly people look at the world in a utilitarian fashion that tells us where we are, what’s going on, and what not to bump into while setting up the mind to like or dislike or be indifferent to what is registering in vision.  We are looking and listening and feeling as is needed to negotiate our way through the schedule of our day in the manner we are accustomed to.  We are generally reinforcing ideas we already have about what we encounter.  Whether we really understand what is registering with our senses, whether we appreciate the uniqueness and purpose of what is registering, whether we relate deeply, seeing the many dimensions and relationships necessary for anything to exist, the fleeting impermanence of all things, and the infinite universe that brings forth all things – all this requires more than looking.  To experience the miracles around us all the time requires seeing.

Seeing is engaging the senses to connect with life all around and within us.  When seeing, we are not only receptively looking, we are also engaging the pathway of sight to project our sense of self through consciousness to connect with whatever is the focus of our sight – to be the clouds or the stars.  The same is true with sound and scent and taste and body sensations as well as our intuitive and proprioceptive senses.  To see is to enter into both the material and the mystical existence of all things.  It is the ability to see a thing in its many levels of organization, from the microscopic sub-atomic up into the many relationships which exist around and in support of this thing, continuing up to the macroscopic view of all things, including ourselves, as expressions of the Universe.  To see is to recognize the mystery of life, the energy of life which moves through all things, connecting all things.  To see is to recognize the sacred in all things.  For the mystic, from any religious tradition or no religious tradition at all, there is a sense of God or the Universe happening THROUGH all things, including ourselves and everyone and everything we encounter.  In Sanskrit, this is expressed as Tat Tvam Asi – Thou art That – the experience of identification with everything – when we truly see.

It could be said that Buddhism is a training program in seeing.  As the word “awakening” is associated with Buddhism, to experience Buddhism is to realize it is about waking up to see that which we have been too shallow to see so that we might feel truly alive as we stumble along engrossed in our own small dramas and judgments about life, just looking, just glancing at life.  Buddhism calls this not feeling fully alive dukkha, a word which translates roughly as suffering or dissatisfaction.  And it is true, as Buddhism teaches, that we suffer because we are ignorant, and we are ignorant because we do not see, and when we do not see we do not truly understand the World or ourselves or our place within and as an expression of the World.  Then our life has a kind of an emptiness we experience as anxiety, as depression, anger, and boredom.  We try to fill this hole with more drama and possessions, but it does not satisfy.

The Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel taught that to “sin” was to “miss the mark” of being truly alive, using the original meaning of the word “sin,” and that the root of this sinning was our being in “denial of the sublime wonder of life.”  He was saying that when we only look at life, seeing only what we expect, only what we are used to, we are missing the sublime wonder, the sacred miracle, that is life.  To use another of his favorite phrasings, life must be seen with the eyes of “radical amazement” lest we live from a shallowness that leads to the callousness and self-centeredness out of which all our “sins,” our transgressions, arise.  Heschel is telling us to wake up and SEE.

So much of the pain and the suffering of the world is caused by people not seeing.  We are looking all the time – looking for happiness, looking out for trouble, looking for what we like and dislike.  In all this looking we are failing to see that our happiness is dependent on honoring life-as-it-is in its totality, in seeing that my happiness is linked to your happiness, my security to your security, encompassing everyone and everything.  We are ruining our planet chasing after our specialness and comfort, indulging our greed and violence, not seeing that we exist within a miracle built on the harmony of all life that even includes insects, rainstorms, cold in the winter, the smart and the simple, the safe and the dangerous, the gaudily beautiful and the simply plain, those who are like us and those who are different.  Can we see how precious this life is and how precious every element is within it?  It is as Heschel taught, the root of sin, of our defiling ourselves, each other, and nature, arises from our failure to see the sublime wonder that is everywhere.  Jesus said the kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land for those with the eyes to SEE.  Yes, we ARE one with the clouds and the sun and the stars, and with each other, and all life, and the seeing of this is what Heaven means. 13th century Zen Master Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, wrote: “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”  Do you understand what he is saying?  Before opening ourselves to the art of seeing, we see what we are accustomed to seeing, what everyone sees. It is all quite ordinary.  Then, when entering into the mystic arts, one can get lost in the dimensions beyond the usual, seeing what everyone else does not see and come to feel above the ordinary world.  When fully matured, however, when “awakened,” we see both the spiritual and the ordinary and know them to be the same.  And mountains are mountains, and waters are waters, and animals are animals, and trees are trees, and people are people, and the Earth is the Earth, AND they are also sublimely wonderful mysteries never to be used or abused, never taken for granted, ignored, or looked over.  Do you see?  I ask you not to just agree or disagree intellectually with what I am saying.  Please stop your ordinary way of looking to go deeper and deeper and deeper – until you see.

Living in Tao

“Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.  Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name. As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless: as “the Mother” of all things, it is nameable.  So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence: as always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects. These two flow from the same source, though differently named; and both are called mysteries.  The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.”                                            Tao Te Ching – Verse #1 (Wu translation)

Legend is that in China some 2500 years ago, at approximately the same time the Buddha was teaching in India and Socrates in Greece, there lived a scholar, poet, and philosopher, the Archivist of the Kingdom of Zhou, named Li Er.  His wisdom was so renowned that there were many, supposedly Confucious included, who sought him out to hear his insight into the nature of all things.  He was held to be the wisest of the ancient Chinese Taoist masters and came to be known as Lao Tzu, which translates as “Old Master.” 

Legend continues that as the Kingdom of Zhou fell into decline, Lao Tzu decided to leave his post to journey west, some say to Tibet.  But before he left the kingdom, he was implored to write down his wisdom and so there came to be a small book of eighty-one poems known as the Tao Te Ching, translated as “The Book of The Way and of Virtue,” generally considered the most important source work for the ancient philosophy of Tao, or The Way, meaning the Way of Life, the Way of the Universe.  Couched in mystical and obscure language, it is credited by many to be the perfect philosophy for living within the natural principles of existence – just as does all of Creation – except humanity.  

Most of humanity, in ignorance, place themselves outside the Realm of Nature, of Tao, and in so doing are cut off from the natural energy of life, what the ancient Chinese called chi. Thus, people lose their balance, living in extremes which may be transitorily satisfying to their ego, but will always lead eventually to unnecessary and sometimes, catastrophic difficulty.  Tao tells us that humanity’s problems all arise from placing themselves outside this infinite harmony, and so, it is then said that to live within the principles of Tao, within the energy of life in its wholeness, and in deep mystical connection with all elements of Nature, is required to bring a person back into this harmony with all things.  Such a person, it is then said, will demonstrate great wisdom and skill, their life becoming a kind of unselfconscious art form.

The symbol of Taoism is the image known as Yin-Yang, the well-known circle made of a black section and a white section, the white containing a dot of black, and the black containing a dot of white, equally divided by a swirling line, representing life as a balance of energies – the feminine and the masculine, the passive and the active, the spiritual and the worldly, creation and destruction, the intellect and the intuitive, and so on – containing all of life’s energies, each polarity containing an element of its opposite, representing the unity of all things in an infinite dance, always balanced, whirling in its many configurations.  Very importantly, The Tao is in knowing that in all things, as well as within us, there is the center-point, the still-point, around which this endless action and balancing of the energies of life, chi, unfolds.   

To live in Tao is then to live with subtlety, gracefulness, nimbleness, reverently and playfully, maintaining one’s center, a dynamic still-point within the motion of the moment, able to trust yourself and life, knowing they are one and the same.  To live in Tao is to know that the Universe, the Tao, flows through our human faculties as it does through everything, and that there is no greater comfort or confidence one can have than being in harmony with this flow.  The Tao is in realizing that the blueprint for human life is already written in Nature, in the interconnecting energy and inconceivable intelligence that rules the Universe, that beats our heart, breathes our lungs, and brings us alive along with the plants and animals, the lands and oceans, the mountains and rivers, the planets and stars – all existing within harmonious unity. 

Tao is famously beyond intellectual understanding, the “Mystery of mysteries,” requiring intuitive awareness for it to be felt and lived, for it is the primal force that holds and moves all the Universe. Tao precedes the intellect.  It is not an idea.  It is the flow of life realized, its seeming polarities and opposites harmonized in infinite unity.  Taoism thereby teaches that for humans to find our way back to harmony, we must look to center ourselves in The Way, allowing all things to be what they are, that we must connect ourselves energetically, finding peace and effectiveness in mind and body in this dance of balance and harmony.  This dynamic center-point to all things is called wu ji; it is the place of silence and stillness, of total perspective and potential, out of which truly skillful doing and living can arise.  It means not interjecting the unbalanced and personalized perspective of the human ego, rather instead expressing oneself in and as the flow of the moment, the ego now the servant, not striving to be master, thus able to fulfill its natural function as the faculty of mind that engages the world, trained in skillful means, yet humble and reverent.

Second to Lao Tzu in the hierarchy of Taoism is his somewhat younger contemporary named Chuang Tzu who is said to have written a text known simply by his name, in which he expressed the essence of Taoism as: “Flow with whatever is happening and allow your mind to be free.  Stay centered through acceptance of all things.  This is the Ultimate Way.”  And: “The heart of a wise person is tranquil.  It is the mirror of Heaven and Earth… Emptiness, stillness, tranquility, silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.  This is the perfect Tao.  Wise ones find here their resting place.  Resting, they are empty…  So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises: From stillness, action, from action, attainment…  For stillness is joy.  Joy is free from care. Fruitful in long years.  Joy does all things without concern: for emptiness, stillness, tranquility, silence, and non-action are the root of all things. (The Way of Chuang Tzu – Merton translation)

To the Taoist, the Western religions with their emphasis on rules, morality, sectarian dogmatic argument, and humanity fallen from the divine seeking salvation, amounts to “much ado about nothing,” exactly what is wrong with the human condition.  Taoism offered instead a philosophy that might be described as no ado about everything, allowing that ultimate wisdom is in realizing that the Universe happens through us humans as it does through all Creation, every manifestation a portal through which the infinite intelligence of the Universe flows.  For a human to realize this flow, Taoism teaches, requires getting out of one’s own way, to stop being so clever, so self-absorbed, so egocentric, so unnatural.  It is to be so present in life, completely unencumbered with our ideas about life, so as to be the Tao personified, living directly, no fuss.  Tao realizes we are each an aperture in the Cosmos, where, from the mystical realm before form, the world and our sense of self comes into form, a swirling mandala of Yin and Yang energies. Here, as a hub to the wheel of the Universe, we can trust that what needs doing will make itself clear, moment to moment, confident that our action will then be unencumbered, graceful, skillful and at times, filled with mystery. 

Tao teaches that no creature harms or takes for reasons other than their own survival and basic needs, and the fact that humans do points not to our nature, but to our failure to honor Nature, driven not by wisdom, but rather by insatiable and insecure ego.  Taoism tells us that as we experience that we too are Nature and relax into our deepest Self, we realize that also within Tao and our nature, is human creativity, but that it must be balanced with humble reverence for all life, and the sense to know sufficiency. The beautiful yet powerful harmony-of-movement Taoist dance called Tai Chi and the exercise routines of Chi Gung illustrate this remarkable grace and balance, the coming together of emptiness and form, an individual inseparable from the life-force of chi, a living embodiment of Yin and Yang, and it is the Taoist ideal to subtly move through life with such grace, balance, and power.

It is said that Buddhism, after percolating in Indian culture for five hundred years, found its way to China somewhere around 2000 years ago.  There, the Buddhist principle of dharma found its exact equivalent in Tao, both representing the Way of the Universe in perfect balance, interconnectedness, and interdependence, but with a fresh new expression based in Taoist mysticism and naturalness.  This meeting gave rise to what became known as Chan Buddhism, “Chan” being the Chinese word for “sitting,” as in sitting naturally in the Universe, experiencing life unfiltered and undistorted by human ego. The great Chan Master Linji exemplified this total peace and centeredness when he queried in Taoist fashion: “This moment, what is lacking?” placing no conditions on the moment, knowing the moment always to be complete.  His question challenges us to such completeness – available to meet the moment exactly as it is, humbly, skillfully, and compassionately, without resistance or protest, even when the moment contains real discomfort, threats, or dangers.  And so, likewise, living in Tao makes us also completely available to life’s beauty and wonder.  Yin and Yang. As Chan Buddhism found its way to Japan, this Taoist-comingled Buddhism became known by its Japanese translation as Zen – still the Art of Sitting as The Way, the Universe happening as a human being – teaching us how to relax into our own nature, brightly alert to the miracle and energy of life streaming through us.  Taoism and Zen both teach us how to dance at the still-point of emptiness, body and mind swirling gracefully into the world as wisdom, creativity, virtue, joy, and graceful skill, life, chi, flowing into the world through a human being!  What a mystery and wonder!

Meditation on Living in Tao

Do not move from the posture you are in.  Scan your body with awareness to see if your energies are in balance.  Feel the imbalances. 

Close your eyes – experience the mental posture you are in.  Feel your body and mind out of balance – caught in some egoic posture, contracted into the mental image you habitually carry of yourself.  Take note – This is who you act like but is not your True Self.

Experience your body/mind circle of consciousness like a Yin-Yang circle – but it is probably not centered and balanced.  The Yin-Yang is not static – it is like a kaleidoscope of the Yin-Yang in motion – what does yours look like?  Is it centered, silent, balanced or chaotic and imbalanced?

Hold your dynamic Yin-Yang circle kaleidoscope image in awareness while you bring your body into line – Sit like Buddha, like Lao Tzu, aligning between Heaven and Earth.  Note any changes in your Yin-Yang Circle as the meditation proceeds.

Bring awareness to your breathing – note whether it is easy and deep, natural – and bring your breathing into a natural rhythm, easy and deep without exaggeration, just naturally full.

With each exhalation, allow a release of physical tensions, deeper and deeper into relaxed, yet alert presence as you feel the sensations of your body sitting and breathing.  With each inhalation, greater calm clarity of awareness is accessed.

Bring awareness to your dynamic Yin-Yang circle as you sit and breath in relaxed, alert, balance.

Realize yourself at the center of the Yin-Yang circle, sitting like Lao Tzu, breathing mystically, realizing the Universe coming into the realm of form through you.

With your breathing and your intention, bring the dynamic Yin-Yang circle into the perfect harmony and balance that is the classic Yin-Yang image, only dynamic – spinning slowly, morphing changes in the configuration of the Yin and the Yang – visualize images of your life within it – superimposed upon the symbol of Yin and Yang – experience where there is imbalance and swirl it all into balance.

Remember the little bit of Yin within Yang and Yang within Yin.  Feel the harmonizing of opposites within yourself.  Feminine and masculine, light and dark, spiritual and material, wisdom and knowledge, compassionate empathy and realistic acceptance, social inclination and the hermit. Sit at the center, the Universe streaming through you, out of the Yin-Yang circle, see a new image of yourself spinning into existence, one of balance, grace, wisdom, and effectiveness.  Stillness giving rise to action, anchored in the energy of Earth, inspired by the energy of Heaven, a natural human being living in Tao.  Sit for a while with this image becoming clearer and stronger.

Self-Aware, not Self-Conscious

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” ― Dogen (13th century founder of Soto Zen)

A principal purpose of Zen training, or the Buddha-Way, is to break free of the incessant self-consciousness that causes people to suffer neurotically with anxiety, depression, obsessions, and anger, with continual confusion and uneasiness about life.  It is to discover our healthiest self, what Buddhism calls our True Self, by getting over our preoccupation with our neurotic self, the sense of self caused by a misapplication and inappropriate identification with the uniquely highly developed human faculty of ego.  Zen understands that what Buddhism calls Dharma, what the ancient Chinese called Tao, what we might call the Life-force of all Creation, flows through everything – and that, of course, “everything” includes human beings and their egos – but when focusing our sense of self in the ego, we have little realization of this understanding.  Dharma is intelligence itself for it is the collective consciousness of all Creation.  Dharma might be called instinct, yet it is far deeper than mere biological drives as the West uses the term.  It is knowing how to BE – to be a natural, psychologically and spiritually healthy human, like the heart knows how to beat and the lungs know how to breathe.  Ego doesn’t know simply how to be.  And when humans live through their ego, they don’t know how to be.

Alan Watts, a great interpreter of Asian philosophy for the West, noted that to live in Zen is to live as a human being as unselfconsciously as a tree is a tree.  The tree knows how to be a tree.  Likewise, a squirrel knows how to be a squirrel.  Only human beings get confused about how to be human without making a complete mess of it.  Zen points out that we alone in all Creation are so clever that we can create in our complex minds IDEAS ABOUT what it is to be a human being which have very little to do with the natural harmony and flow of Nature, with Dharma, but have everything to do with OURSELVES, this separate, struggling “me,” creating an artificial idea of life in our minds.  We humans have the capacity to be conscious of ourselves as separate organisms who THINK about what this separateness means and be frightened by it, leading us to be constantly thinking all kinds of strategies for dealing with this anxiety – strategies that often only make the situation worse.  Zen reminds us that of course we know how to be a human being – how could we not?

Zen is a Japanese word that means to sit, but not just to sit in our usual idea of sitting, as this little idea of me, fidgeting about, trying to be comfortable.  No, this “sitting” means to sit naturally in the Universe as consciousness – not MY consciousness, for that would be ego-consciousness – no, to just sit as consciousness, to be in awareness sitting, experiencing.  Zen reminds us that the Universe is happening through us just as it does through a tree or a squirrel, and that we are an expression of the Universe happening as a human being, that we have the instinct within us, the knowing, of how to be a natural human being without unnatural struggle.  There is, however, a big catch to our realizing this state of our natural existence.  Because of our highly developed human cerebral cortex, the seat of thinking, emotion and creativity, the seat of ego, rather than living life directly as does all else in Creation, we tend toward centering our experience around thinking about ourselves and reacting to the circumstances of life in a highly personal and often neurotic manner.  We are “in here” and the circumstances of life are “out there.”  We live in thinking about past circumstances and attempting to anticipate the future, and this takes us out of living vibrantly, clearly, and effectively within the present moment where life actually unfolds.  This is a real problem.

Giving the preponderance of our mental energy to ego, functionally we are living in an artificial reality created by the limitations of the human mind, and a human ego cannot begin to hold together the infinite complexity within unity that is the Universe, is the Dharma, is the Tao, is our life.  Buddhism calls this problem “Dukkha,” the Sanskrit word that can be translated as “suffering” or “dissatisfaction.”  No tree or squirrel or dog is ever dissatisfied with its life as a tree or a squirrel or a dog, even if its existence is quite harsh and difficult, or ends prematurely.  It is a tree.  It is a squirrel.  It is a dog. It lives the best it can, no fuss, no argument, no dissatisfaction.  It lives in its own nature, in Dharma.  Of course, so do human beings – we just don’t know it and confuse it all up.  So, the challenge for a human being is how to live in Nature, in Life, in Dharma, without confusing it all up, creating all kinds of dukkha, when the mind wants to live in its own world, and this mind-world is pretty confused, often dissatisfied, and perhaps, even suffering. 

This is where Zen comes in.  Realizing this dilemma, Zen, as a philosophy of life and practice for achieving harmony with Dharma, with life, tells us we must train ourselves to let go of relying on the ego-mind and the artificial worlds it creates for our idea of who we are and what life is about, that we must come at life directly.  Zen famously challenges us: “Show your original face,” the face, the mind, the true self, the capital-S Self, that is not confused, and Zen assures us it is there – just as it is in a tree or a squirrel or a dog, for we are children of the Universe and Nature just as is any tree or squirrel or dog.  Zen teaches us that in order to stop running the program of our mind-spun artificial, neurotic world, we must sit in the real world and let our natural awareness experience what it is to be a human being on this planet in the time that we are alive, just as it is.  Zen points us to realizing that our awareness has been caught up in what can be called self-consciousness, or ego-consciousness, all the energy and power of mind and awareness focused into this story of “me” all dukkha’ed up.  We are self-conscious without being Self-aware.  Zen tells us to turn this around, to learn to live in Self-awareness, allowing our natural knowing of what Life is and how to be a human being in the midst of Life, to be our guide, to learn to trust ourselves. This can be called living by Zen

“Zen is the living, Zen is life, and the living is Zen… The dog is a dog all the time, and is not aware of his being a dog, of his harboring the Divine in himself; therefore he cannot transcend himself… he lives Zen… but does not live by Zen.  It is man alone that can live by Zen as well as live Zen.  To live Zen is not enough; we must live by it, which means we must have the consciousness of living it, although this consciousness is beyond what we generally understand by it.  The latter is relative and psychological while the consciousness of living Zen is something qualitatively different from it; it marks the limit of development which the human mind can achieve; it almost approaches divine consciousness.” – D.T. Suzuki (20th century Zen philosopher and teacher.  From: Living in Zen)

Zen is a mystical philosophy of life.  It tells us, as any true spiritual tradition does in its beginnings, that the divine happens through us, as us, and all around us, in a unity that cannot be rationally named or understood.  It is an infinite mystery that, while inaccessible to the rational mind, is, by the truth of being who we are, knowable.  We can be aware of being this presence that is awareness, and that within awareness is that which witnesses and knows what is true and not true.  How can this be? Awareness is Life witnessing and knowing itself.  Zen points us toward realizing that our problem has been that our awareness has been caught in our small sense of self (or ego) consciousness. We have been living as if who we are is a timeline story of a person struggling through the world, thinking about ourselves and our struggle, believing all kinds of nonsense.  Zen tells us to wake up, to stop living inside these mental programs and return to life-as-it-is. 

Zen tells us that when we stop thinking about being alive, when we stop being self-conscious, when we look and we listen and we feel, when we use our natural senses and awareness, and, yes, intelligence, it all becomes clear.  We are the here-and-now of this moment however this moment is unfolding.  What needs doing needs doing, what needs thinking about can be thought about, but ONLY what NEEDS to be thought about.  Our core beingness, our true Self can shine forth with all the wisdom of the Universe flowing though us, a silent intelligence revealing how to be a human being just as a dog is being a dog or a tree a tree.  And yes, being a human is more complicated – just as being a squirrel is more complicated than being a tree – but the squirrel has what it needs to be a squirrel and we humans have what we need to be human, no matter that it is complicated.   It doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it. The Universe happening through us means we have everything we need to meet the challenges of any moment and we can trust this.  When we get out of our incessant self-consciousness, full of insecurity, regret, confusion, and anxiety, and we become Self-aware, our core of intelligent human beingness can shine through.  Then, as Dogen said, our bodies and minds, as projections of separateness, drop away – and there we are, aware that we are one with “the myriad things” and in this sense of connectedness we are actualized as human beings with all the amazing gifts the Universe has bestowed upon us to meet the moment just as it is.  And “no trace of enlightenment,” meaning the struggle to understand, remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly, for we feel the Universe happening through and all around us and we understand completely that we exist within a great unfolding, and we can trust this – “endlessly.”  This is the great “I Am That” which, not only Zen, but all Eastern non-dual wisdom traditions point us to, as we realize “That” is everything in its individuality and totality held together in a divine intelligent embrace.  This is how we live by Zen in Zen, just so, and a modern Western human can live by this knowing as surely did 13th century Dogen in ancient Japan.  We do not have to be bedeviled by self-consciousness.  Not when we learn to live Self-aware.

Here We Are

“Here we are.”  All of Zen, Taoism and any true mystical spiritual tradition comes down to what consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle chose as the title his first book: “The Power of Now.”  Here we are – in the here-and-now, in what can be seen, heard, touched, felt, and in such directness, understood.  We cannot be any where or when else.  Can you really get this, feel this, know this? This truth really experienced begins to free us from psychological pain and from spiritual confusion.  It begins to open the power of our originally clear and sane mind.

Yet typically, we do not live this way, for where we are is mostly in our confused and anxious minds, in a kind of virtual reality.  We are living in our schedules, speculations, fantasies, discomforts, regrets, victories, fears, and desires.  Our here-and-now is distracted by constant wanderings into there-and-then and what-if.  In all creation, only humans have the capacity to live as if not in the absolute immediacy of the real here-and-now, and what seems to be true is that with the advance of human civilization, the ability to live fully in the absolute here-and-now continually decreases. 

Pre-civilized humans lived almost entirely in the absolute here-and-now, in their physical senses and silent intuitive capacity.  They were in touch with nature and felt a mystical unfolding and interconnection with all life, and very interestingly there is no evidence of neurotic mental illness among such humans as they can be encountered in the few remaining remote uncivilized corners of the Earth – in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and Pacific Oceana.  On the other hand, it can be fairly emphatically stated that modern humans have a very tenuous connection with the present moment, living instead mostly in their minds, in stories of their past and desires and fears for the future, the present moment only a transit point between.  And mental illness is rampant.   

When indigenous North American people encountered Europeans of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – high-functioning, “normal” people – it was quite obvious to the natives that these people were crazy.  It was quite obvious that these conquering, questing people lived in their heads and not where their feet touched the ground, in the true natural reality of here-and-now, and that they were exceedingly dangerous. It was quite obvious that while stupefyingly powerful with inventions and weapons and writing and governments and intention to conquer rather than live with nature, that these humans were crazy.  They tore down a world that had existed in harmony for thousands of years to place upon the land a civilization that in a short few hundred years has brought the land and its own culture to the edge of collapse.  By the 20th century, these crazy murderous European/American people had completely destroyed the sane and balanced world of the native people and imposed a violent, unbalanced representation of their own unbalanced minds.  Do I go too far in calling our world violent and unbalanced?  I do not think so.

Today, many, many people, while being productive and loving and generally appreciative of life, are prone to anxiety, tension, anger, and depression, and engage in the subtle and blatant violence of competition and acquisition with each other and anyone and anything that crosses their path.  Most are in some form of constant state of argument with each other and even with themselves.  They seem obsessed with acquiring while showing very little appreciation for what they have.  Such people seem to be caught in the dimension of mind that thinks obsessively and shows a very unhealthy tendency to emotional excess with very little familiarity with the dimension of mind that is silent, peaceful, and wise.  Our culture teaches us to make most everything about ourselves, and it is not unfair to say that most folks seem quite unhappy even when professing to being happy.  Our unbalanced violence expresses itself every day in subtle ways, seeking to win, creating or being losers, while the news is filled with the out-of-control violence that debases our society.

Yet, it is very important to realize that despite all of us modern humans being so crazy, some more than others, there IS a completely sane person inside each of us.  Buddhism, among other mystical traditions, tells us there remains this basic human being within us who is much more like an indigenous person, and teaches us to be in harmony with the nature of the world and our own nature, knowing the two to be one.  We are still natives.  We are native to this planet and this universe.  We belong within a great unfolding of cosmic existence.  This planet within this universe is our home.  This is a simple truth, yet we show very little recognition of this knowing, a knowing that was the stabilizing touchstone of the lives of indigenous people and of mystics throughout the ages. 

We have lost our way.  We normal civilized people live predominantly inside the dimension of our minds known as ego that is, in effect, an artificial intelligence made up of thoughts, of social and psychological programming, that very much puts us at odds with our own and universal nature.  We have lost connection and identification with the dimension of mind that precedes the programming of our civilized conditioning, and it drives us crazy.  This original mind, as Buddhism calls it, knows itself as nature, the universe happening through a human-being just as the universe happens through all plants and animals and even mountains and rivers, rocks, and sky, and oceans. 

Buddhism teaches that when we can see and experience in ourselves this unconditioned purity of consciousness – its peacefulness, its clarity, wisdom, and sanity – and how it is blocked by the shell of our ego, we can make peace with ourselves and shift our sense of self from within this crazy ego into the clarity of awareness that is our original state of consciousness.  We can then begin to soften the hard shell of ego and bring ego into its proper role and dimension in the wholeness of our mind.  We can let go of our conditioning and of our ego as our identity, allowing awareness to shine forth increasingly as who we are.  Then and only then can we truly bring this same understanding and acceptance to others, allowing that they too are prisoners of conditioning.  

This is what Buddhism means by compassion.  Empathy can arise.  Tolerance can arise.  Gentleness can arise.  And so too, will appropriate boundaries arise – for you don’t let one who is acting crazy just run wild – boundaries are gently set and firmly held while the original person beneath the crazy is called forth with our love and acceptance.  While compassion is a profoundly emotional experience that leads to tenderness, empathy, and love, even to joy, it begins as a profoundly rational understanding that we are all the victims and prisoners of our social and psychological conditioning.  Here and now is where and when we are.  See this, feel this, know this, be this.  Here we are – both our crazy and our completely sane selves wrapped together.  We have been trained by an unbalanced culture to be crazy and dissatisfied, and we behave accordingly.  But it does not have to be so.  Have compassion for yourself so that you can truly begin to have compassion for others and for all of Creation.

The 9th century founder of the Rinzai school of Zen, Linji, famously queried: “This moment, what is lacking?” – and clearly, in the universe, there is nothing lacking, by the nature of the universe being everything.  It is perfect and complete as it is.  Buddhism calls this Dharma.  Taoism calls it Tao.  Both terms translate into English as “The Way.”  We live within The Way of the universe.  Here we are.  Can you breathe into this, allowing your silent mind to come forth in its knowing that we are an expression of the universe with the same clarity that was the basis of indigenous people’s way of life?  Here we are, complete, whole, and sane, just as is all in this universe.  Can you relax into this truth, letting your craziness become mere whispers in the field of your mind, no longer strong enough to catch and hold you – just passing stories of someone you no longer are.   Buddhism calls us to awaken and reconnect with this sane and natural mind through Dharma study, meditation, and mindfulness to reclaim our natural sanity and sense of kinship and interdependence with each other and all of life. With this realization our egoic mind can pull back from its insecure insistence on running our lives, untangle its crazy thoughts, better manage its emotions, and find its natural role and function as a mental faculty for engaging the world, now doing so skillfully, wisely, and compassionately.  It is in the balancing of our inventive, striving egoic-mind with our now strengthened, long-neglected, clear, natural, wise, and compassionate mind, the mind of awareness that exists completely in the here-and-now, that we can begin to build sane, balanced, and productive personal lives.  Then, together, we can build a new sane, balanced, and productive human society on this planet just as did the indigenous people who preceded us.  Only now, the technological inventiveness that is the hallmark of our civilization can be in the service of the balance of life rather than our unbalanced questing for power and dominance that has been and is, yes, driving us all quite crazy while destroying our world.

Silence, Stillness, Vastness, Peace

“When both body and mind are at peace, all things appear as they are: perfect, complete, lacking nothing.”                – Dogen (13th Century)                                                                                

Driven by the insecurity that comes with living in our contemporary world, we all seek one thing even if we do not know it and our hectic lifestyles do not reflect it: we seek peace.  Even in the most driven and ambitious of people, what they are really after is that moment of peace that comes after some achievement, the release of the chronic tension of living a modern life, because for a moment, what has been chased is achieved and there is felt release.  Ah…..  The smile comes on the face, a moment of the body relaxing, a thought of “Yes.”  Just for a moment – then, back into the fray, the sense of peace gone, as the seeking, for exactly what, we do not know – the next accomplishment, problem overcome, or desire fulfilled, returns.  It is the anxious routine of our lives.  

Everyone wants to feel peace within themselves, but nothing in our social conditioning affirms this – quite the opposite.  We are told to accomplish something with our lives, to be somebody, to take care of business, to do what a “good” or “successful” or “cool” or “devout” or “manly” or “womanly” or whatever person is supposed to do.  It drives us all quite crazy, but unless we’re driven crazy to a degree that causes big problems, we, and those around us, pay very little attention to how crazy we’ve become.  We push on. 

What if real peace were possible?  Not the peace of the grave, or the peace of the hermit who escapes the world, but a peace that pervaded the everyday and normal routine of our lives.  All the mystical spiritual traditions from around the world point to this peace, and they all say it is within everyone, but that it is buried under a mind in motion, a commotion of thoughts and emotions.  The mystical traditions tell us that there is a deeper being within us than our troubled, seeking minds; some call it the soul, the modern consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it Being, Eastern traditions call it the Self or original Self, Buddhism calls it the Buddha (awakened) self or mind.  This is the dimension of who we originally and fundamentally are, and it is characterized by peace, wisdom, and compassion.  It dwells within us in silence, in stillness, and in a sense of vastness within the totality of existence, all very different from how we live our contemporary lives. 

The Buddhist mystical tradition of Zen makes a great point of telling us that our true purpose is to return to our original or natural mind, the mind we were born with, the mind before we were conditioned by an anxious, materialistic society to be anxious materialistic people.  Recognizing that to be free of this anxiety seems impossible to the person imbedded within the hurry of everyday life, Zen recognizes the need for pointers, road signs that can get us on our way, and it points us towards silence, something most of us have no real notion of or much tolerance for, as the gateway to this Nirvana.  It tells us that to follow this path will be difficult, the pull back to the path of distraction and commotion is so very strong, but that with each step along the path the truth of the possibility of peace becomes increasingly evident. 

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.” – Thich Nhat Hanh 

This is the challenge to any person who has felt the dissatisfaction, what Buddhism calls dukkha, suffering, that comes with the soul whispering to us that there must be more than the hurry and the anxiety, anger, and depressions, small and large, that come with living our striving lives.  The challenge is, how do we find our way through the commotion of our mind and our circumstances to silence, to stillness, to vastness, to peace, for it is there we will find “the peace that surpasseth understanding” pointed to in the Bible. 

How do we enter into silence?  Where is silence?  You must come to realize that it is ever-present.  Beneath and between all the noise of the world and our minds is silence, but you must move away from the deafening noise and listen very carefully.  You must listen with your soul.  It is even present visually when you look with your soul, and it is present as a feeling state when you feel into your body and into the world with your soul.  Listening, seeing, feeling with the everyday mind does not get you there.  You must listen, see, and feel with your soul, where the Universe comes into being through us.  You must listen with the silent mind beneath the noisy mind of your little self, your ego-self, the “me” that sits inside this body thinking itself alone in the world, always striving to make the connections and accomplishments that will give fleeting moments of peace and happiness but is at a loss as how to live there with any constancy.  

We must learn how to deliberately access the silence and stillness that are readily available, but since we are focused on the noise both around us and in our heads, we do not recognize this.  Our ego-self lives in the noise and in the difficulties and victories, in the commotion, so silence is a precious gift that we thoughtlessly pollute.  Like air and water, silence, this most precious of resources, needed for the mind and its health every bit as much as air and water are needed by the body, is overlooked precisely because it is hidden beneath all the noise of life.  We do not realize its incalculable value to our mental and spiritual health because our egoistic, materialistic society does not recognize this.  Like the air and water and land that are everywhere and that we take for granted and so thoughtlessly contaminate, so too it is with the silence and stillness beneath and all around the noise and commotion.  We actually avoid noticing the silence; we are afraid of it.  We taint the occurrence of silence with our compulsive thinking.  If the world is not making noise, our mind is. 

We live in a noisy society.  We are noisy people, and it is very important to recognize this is not so with all people.  Mystics are not noisy.  Indigenous people were not noisy.  There is a story I remember hearing long ago of a Native American chief, sometime in the early 1800’s, going to Washington D.C. to negotiate a treaty with the American government.  In this story, upon returning from his time in Washington, he expressed fear that the city had been so noisy that he had been damaged, that he would never be able to “dream” again.  To a Native person, this is a disaster, for the dreaming referred to here is not of the sleep variety, but the ability to enter into the world beneath the obvious material, time-bound, linear structure of our physical senses and our egoic mind into what, in the context of Native Americans, would be called the Spirit World.  It is to walk in the silence, stillness, and vastness of what to them is the real world hidden beneath the world of appearances.  This is what Zen calls Ultimate Reality, the world we enter into through our intuitive sense, the sense of the silent mind.  It is the world of unity out of which the world of things, mental and physical, arises.  It is the place of wisdom and insight, of Knowing, of connection, and it is where our true Self abides, and it is where our truly spiritual and psychologically healthy self resides.  To lose this connection is the greatest of tragedies to an aboriginal person.  To civilized people, the whole concept is mumbo jumbo.  We don’t know how to be without noise. 

Many people get very uneasy around silence.  Our entire society is an environment of hyper-stimulation, visual and auditory.  If the Native chief feared that his soul had been deafened by the noise of an early 19th century American city, imagine what his experience would be today.  Are our souls being deafened by noise, visual and auditory?  I think, tragically, yes.  Many people, identified only with the noise in the world and in their mind, have no sense of a deeper self, nor of a deeper reality to the world than the loud material, commercial, high-intensity, chaotic world around them and the neurotic cacophony of their minds.  Silence is quite foreign.  Their entire sense of self is in this noise and its internal mental equivalent of sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  We are dulled by the noise, requiring the intensity be turned up to hold our attention.  We are an attention-deficit-disordered society and a significant level of this deficit in individuals is considered normal, causing only extreme cases to be considered a psychological disorder.  We scan through life with only the highest level of stimulation catching and holding our interest. We are quite numb to the subtle and the quiet. 

A famous story in Zen has an ardent student walking through a mountain forest with their teacher.  The student is a fountain of questions, asking for clarification on the Buddhist sutras, on the philosophy, teachings, and practices of Zen.  He exclaims, “I am sorry, Teacher, I am trying, but I just cannot figure out how or where to enter into Zen!”  To this the master replies, “Do you hear that mountain stream?”………  This stops the student.  The mountain stream is a far distance from where they are, and with all his earnest walking, thinking, and talking, the student had not heard it.  So, he stops walking and listens, but he still cannot hear it, and tells the teacher so.  The teacher then instructs him, “listen more closely.”  Now, calling forth his Zen mindfulness training, the student becomes quite still, bringing relaxed alert awareness to his breathing and to his body as he reaches with his consciousness into the acoustical space of the moment.  Completely grounded into the moment, all preoccupation with himself and his questions suspended, he begins to hear not only the obvious sounds around him – the wind rustling the leaves and the call of an occasional bird – all heard with deeper clarity and depth, with a sense of resonance and connection, the sounds, paradoxically, both distinct and flowing into each other – he also begins to hear the silence within which these sounds are occurring.  He hears the space between and behind the sounds even as they flowed into a unity, and with this, more distant and fainter sounds begin to reach his consciousness.  And then…..  “Oh yes, now I hear the stream – so faint, so far away – but yes – I hear it now.”  He was listening with his soul.  Listening into silence.  And the teacher instructed him: “Enter into Zen from there.”

Evil in the World

“What is evil? Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil, envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things are evil. And what is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil; illusion is the root of evil.”  – Gautama Buddha

“The healthy person does not torture others, generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” – Carl Jung

As this is being written, great malevolent evil is unleashed in Ukraine.  The werewolf of madness runs amok. It is not the only incidence of great evil in the world right now, but it is the worst and with the terrible potential to spread into a planetary catastrophe.   This military onslaught with weapons of terrible destruction and individual actions of unspeakable cruelty are wantonly assaulting a people for the purpose of terror, done with intention, and it is its intentionality that separates this true malevolent evil from the ordinary evil of mere thoughtless violence. 

I see violence as a uniquely human phenomenon.  In Nature, there is the dynamic and balance of birth and death, creation and destruction.  It is the energy and circle of life giving way to sustain and create life.  I reserve the use of the idea of violence to humans, for there is a kind of destructive and harmful action generated by humans that does not occur elsewhere in Nature.  Humans become violent for purposes and deficiencies of their specifically human egos, and violence is about the imposition of some ego-agenda that results in injury in some way, including to ourselves.  This may be intended; it may be reflexive.  It may be physical; it may be psychological.  It is when physical or psychological violence is done with intention and callousness that it begins to be evil.   When it is done on a great scale and with truly malevolent intention and terrible, widespread harm, it is morphing into terrible great evil.

Evil is a particularly poisonous expression of the human ego’s insatiable need to compete, possess, dominate, control, use, and consume for its own aggrandizement.  In Ukraine this evil has exploded as the expression of Russian dictator Putin’s psychopathy against a neighboring state that at various times in history has shared nationhood with Russia.  Putin, like a violent shunned spouse, seems to believe that if he cannot own this former partner, he will see her dead, or at the very least, horribly punished and terrorized for the offense of her rejection.  This is evil, whether expressed through an international criminal despot against another nation or a single hateful individual against another.

This magnitude of evil is certainly not new.  One of Putin’s predecessors, Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was responsible for the deaths of at least four million Ukrainians by starvation in response to their urge toward independence in the 1930’s.  Stalin likewise is held guilty of the deaths of upwards of twenty million Soviet citizens during his bloody, paranoid reign.  Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot stand among the mega-murderers of the 20th century in a litany of mass murderers and genocidalists throughout human history scarred with the slaughter of innocents for greed, for power, for religion, and for perverted ideas of glory.  Even we in the United States are not innocent, being guilty of the genocide of one race of people and the enslavement and subsequent prejudicial ill-treatment of another.  Evil on the mass scale haunts human history.  Genghis Khan’s hordes murdered of over 40 million people, roughly 10% of the world’s population at the time.  Rome enslaved and murdered tens of millions during its reign.  Putin is now joining history’s parade of monsters.

Yes, evil is in the world, from these vast scales down dimension through dimension of degree, into small scale, ubiquitous acts of violence – as local and individual as the spouse or child abuser living down the street, as subtle as a parent or teacher shaming a child or teaching bigotry.  Evil is with us and always has been.

And there is another level of evil, which is not conscious or deliberate, and it infects all of human society.  It can be found in the tendency to bigotry and the insatiable greed and callousness of modern commerce that is leading to global warming threatening to upend human civilization while bringing extinction to species after species.  It goes on unnoticed as the industrial farming and slaughter of animals in conditions of terrible cruelty and the poison runoff of our megafarms and industries.  It exists in an economy based in exploitation, of a wealthy class built upon the poverty of others, on deceit at the basis of marketing and politics.  Wherever egos are scheming to gain some advantage over others, some manipulative control, some profit, or some elevation of itself at the expense of others, this is violence, and it is evil.

Some level of violence and evil could be said to be behind a great deal of human expression and action.  It is certainly in shaming and in bigotry of any kind.  It is in stealing and cheating, lying, and manipulating.  It is in physical and psychological violence; it is in sexual assault, abuse, predation, and exploitation. Importantly, we are so acclimated to violence and evil that it is imperative that we look ever more closely at our interactions and commerce to see the everyday violence to which we have become desensitized.  Just where does that meat on our plate come from and what experience did a conscious being suffer for it to get there?  Where does the plastic we throw away go and to what consequence?  What do you think is the effect of a busy parent ignoring their child until the child does something the parent considers wrong and then punishing and belittling the child?  What consequence will there be to politicians inventing cultural wedge issues to gain power while the serious issues concerning how to build a fair and enduring society go ignored or even ridiculed?  There is subtle violence in just the everyday common put-downs, dismissals, judging, prejudices, and ego competition amongst people.  On and on, cruelty, insensitivity, exploitation.  You see? 

Our human society is filled with small and great evils.  History and literature are filled with the drama of evil….. And it is likewise filled with human goodness confronting and overcoming evil.  This interplay of good and evil could be said to be the hallmark of human social evolution.  As I said, a great deal of human expression can be viewed as motivated by violence and evil, but so much more of human motivation and expression is based in goodness, in the intention to do good, and herein is the driving dynamic of human social, intellectual and spiritual evolution and the promise of salvation.  As Jung said, torturers are but passing on their tortured selves.  To recognize this and work to bring about an end to torture, to violence, every place and in every way that we can brings about a lessening of the propensity to violence and evil, to torture, in the world.  Evil in the world is not a reason for despair.  Rather, it is a call for goodness to rise.

Buddhism teaches us that greed, anger, and ignorance are the origin of evil, and so, it teaches that generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and the wisdom of karma are needed to counteract and displace evil with goodness.  Karma is the cosmic law telling us that everything happens because of conditions bringing forth what happens.  After WWI, the victorious Allies imposed draconian punishment upon a defeated Germany, further traumatizing a nation that had already been traumatized by the war.  Historians generally agree that the conditions for the rise of fascism, Hitler and WWII were contained in the terms of Germany’s surrender written into the Treaty of Versailles.  After WWII, the only great nation to escape horrible destruction was the United States, which through the wisdom and compassion of the Marshall Plan, rebuilt not only our allies, but Germany and Japan, welcoming them into the community of democracies.  The shift from despotic nationalistic militarism and racial intolerance that marked Germany and Japan before the war into the models for democracy and tolerance that they became is an example of wisdom and goodness transforming ignorance and evil.

The one country that shifted from ally to enemy immediately after WWII was Soviet Russia, and none of the benevolence of the Marshall plan was extended to it – rather, the Marshall Plan, along with the creation of NATO, had as one of its goals the isolation of Russia from the world community.  And so, the world moved into a new polarization of authoritarian communist nations in conflict with democratic capitalist nations.  The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was hailed as a great victory for democracy and the West, but virtually no attention was given as to how to bring Russia into the modern democratic world.  This huge nuclear armed country was largely left on its own to create a functioning capitalist democracy, and few countries exceed the experience of Russia and the Russian people as both victims and perpetrators of great evil.  Now, Buddhism warns that karma would indicate that if the conditioning of a people for despotism and cruelty is strong, and there is no history of functioning democracy, wise and compassionate new conditions would need to be fostered for democracy to take hold.  No such attention was given to Russia and in result Russia seems to have reverted to despotism, imperiling today not only its immediate neighbor, Ukraine, but possibly beyond.  Certainly, for the people of Russia, a new era of abusive despotism seems at hand.  The Western nations would do well to recognize the greed, anger, and ignorance of our own social, political, and economic systems which fail to see the world’s dangers and suffering for what and why they are.  Evil is in the world, and it will require deliberate application of intentional wisdom, generosity, and compassion to counter it if we are to successfully navigate through and beyond the threats our modern world presents.  Good and evil are in their ageless interplay, and when Buddhism calls upon us to awaken, it is goodness, compassion and wisdom that is being called upon to step up.  Not only Ukraine’s future is at stake, but so is Russia’s, ours, and all the world.

Break Free of Thought Prisons

“The mind is everything…We are shaped by our thoughts, and we become what we think… Every human being is the author of their own health or disease.” – Buddha

We become what we think.  Can anything be clearer?  How did we come to be the person in the world that we experience ourselves to be?  How did our place and roles in the world come to be?  How did we come to experience the world the way we do with all our opinions, attitudes, belief systems, and behaviors?  Really consider these questions and you will realize that we think it all into existence.  Human beings were graced by evolution with a miraculous capacity – the capacity to think – but this capacity has taken us over, creating an imbalance that comes with a terrible cost to our harmonious, natural, and sane place in the world, both individually and collectively.

We all have a sense of ourselves and a sense of the world that is a kind of narrative, a story of “me in the world.”  Chapter and verse of this story has been written over our lifetime, the themes and particulars arising from many sources.  Our families, our abilities and limitations, our physical features and capacities, our cultural and social influences, our affiliations, our education (formal and informal), our belief systems, our personal and interpersonal experiences – all these influences come together into our ideas about who and what we are and manifest as thoughts about ourselves and the world.  All these impressions and conditioned ideas and concepts go into the creation of this story of “me” held together in our mind as thoughts, and, as The Buddha said, we are the author, moment to moment, of this story.  We are a story in a constant state of editing and rewrite, but the general story and themes remain mostly constant over time.  Like wagon wheel grooves carved into a hard dirt road over time, the thought patterns we habitually engage create and reinforce habituated neural pathways in our brains requiring special effort if we are to break free into new paths, into the untrodden limitless potential of the open field of our mind.

This problem arises because we typically approach each experience projecting a judgment, a preconception of our attitude and beliefs created by repetitive energizing of our preestablished thoughts about it.  This is our “rut in the road.”  We THINK we already pretty much know what an experience will be before we experience it.  When we THINK we dislike a particular experience before even experiencing it, so the dislike will be the filter over the experience, confirming the dislike.  When we THINK that we like a particular experience we project this attitude upon it and so will generally have our attitude confirmed.   In example, those who live with the thought-story that they hate winter can even experience a kind of low-level depression through the season, while those who live with the thought-story that they love winter for the crispness of the air, the beauty of snow, the way the trees get naked showing their limbs, opening vistas that are covered by foliage in the summer, that there is even a unique beauty to winter’s grey skies; such people are happy with winter.  Example after example can be found of situations people think they dislike and so are unhappy while people who think the opposite or are neutral about the very same situation are OK.

When we think with angry thoughts, we are in great turmoil.  When we think with anxious and fearful thoughts, we feel very insecure.  When we think our story is sad, tragic, or we are the victim or loser in this story, we are despondent.  When we think we are the victor, the benefactor of fortuitous events, we are happy.  When we think we are entertained or satiated, we are content, our mind filled with pleasant thoughts, and so-on.  It is not hard to see that from our thoughts, our emotions are generated as resonations of these thoughts.  When we think self-confident thoughts, we are strong, and when we think thoughts of self-doubt, we are weak.  When we think thoughts of resentment, we are in hell, and when we think thoughts of gratitude, we are in paradise.  We are thinking our emotional landscape into existence constantly.

It is also not difficult to see how thinking in particular ways creates patterns of perception over time.  It is important to realize that the style of thinking we develop over time becomes projected upon nearly all situations, turning the situation into the stimulus for our way of thinking.  We get caught in a feedback loop of thinking style leading to pattens of perception that reinforce the thinking style, resulting in habitual attitudes and outlook.  Some people look for the good in most any situation while others look for the bad in most any situation.  A person whose mind is habituated to anxious thoughts will look for danger, limitation, and loss, and because the world is everything, they will see what they are looking for.  Likewise, a person whose mind is habituated to negativity will look for, and find, the negative in most any situation and an angry person will find reasons to be angry, while a person who looks for reasons for grievance will find it.  These kinds of thought patterns will invariably bring negative emotional experiences, forming a kind of thought-prison of unhappiness resulting in what psychiatry calls neuroses or personality disorder.

Conversely, persons who develop patterns of thinking that move toward confidence, positivity, appreciation, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and kindness will have very positive emotional experiences. It is so clear.  It is as Buddha said, “we become what we think.”  It is no wonder that The Buddha in his prescription for overcoming unnecessary emotional suffering emphasized using the mind and its capacity for thought in a wise manner, a manner that will guide us out of suffering and into happiness and personal peace.  Yet people are so careless about what they think; though, of course, it’s not their fault – there is no understanding within our culture that tells us we have the capacity to shape our thinking.  We non-self-reflectively think what we think and even have the unstated belief that these thoughts are who we are.  We can get very defensive about what we think about things, our opinions, not realizing that these thoughts are generally not really even our own, but the product of many influencing sources telling us what to think.   So many factors, all stirred together with our personal experiences and personality traits making up a story of “me,” causing us to live our lives compulsively streaming this story all held together with thoughts.  Yes, “we become what we think,” and it is very hard, as the saying goes, for us to think “outside the box,” or, as I’m suggesting, outside the prison of our thought patterns – for these deeply ingrained patterns of thought become like a prison for us, very difficult to break out of.

There is an image in Buddhism called the “gateless gate,” and this aptly applies to this metaphor of the thought-prison, for this prison isn’t a particularly secure one except that part of the thought-prison is the thought that we cannot break out of it, that we are what we are, and the gate to this prison has a very secure lock on it.  Buddhism, however, tells us otherwise – that this gate is in fact not locked at all.  You CAN break out of the prison; it only requires realizing you are NOT the thoughts that comprise the walls of this prison.  It’s just that we exist in sort of a hypnotic trance, believing what the hypnotist, in this case our conditioning, commands.  It tells us to believe every thought that comes into our heads.

Buddhism tells us to “wake up!” It is the snap of the fingers to awaken the true being within us, the being that HAS thoughts and their resonant emotions, but IS NOT the thoughts and emotions.  Buddhism points us to a deeper self, what it calls our original-self, before the thoughts have been programmed into us.  The master consciousness teacher, Eckhart Tolle, uses a little exercise in which he directs us to “watch for the next thought” to cause a koan-like jarring of consciousness into realizing that in WATCHING for thought, thinking stops.  There we are – consciousness looking for a thought. 

So now, who are we, the thought or the consciousness that looks for the thought?  This realization is Buddhism’s great liberation.  The moment we realize we are the consciousness, the silent field of awareness beneath the thoughts, and then further realize there is an intelligence that is not thought, but rather is the energy out of which thoughts arise, we begin to gain the ability to break free of our prison and begin reshaping our experience of mind, and with it, our experience of life.  As everyone experiences, our thoughts can be about practically any silly or awful thing, the egoic mind preferring to dwell on the trivial or negative in support of its perspective of self-inflicted separateness, and with that in mind, some good advice comes from Eckhart Tolle when he suggests that a very important and liberating practice is to simply stop taking our thoughts so seriously.

Buddhism and its practices of meditation and mindfulness teach the special effort needed that takes us into a training and development program exploring consciousness, recognizing our original or awakened-self as the field of silent awareness, a vast potential and intelligence beneath our thinking mind.  Buddhism teaches us with meditation how to see the mind’s habituated patterns of thought and to realize our true-self in this silent awareness that has the insight and capacity to shape our story of self-in-the-world in much more peaceful and positive ways.  Through mindfulness practice we begin to form new perceptions and associations by developing our capacity to be non-judgmentally present, to be sharply, calmly, intelligently aware, to experience freshly any situation in its deepest and subtlest manifestation.  We grow in our ability to recognize and integrate thoughts of wisdom as we recognize our own nature as a reflection of the balance and harmony of Universal Nature.  This is Buddhism’s Dharma, its teachings leading to wisdom, compassion, and to knowing things and ourselves as they actually are.  We learn to let awareness and wisdom guide our thinking and begin to experience the beneficial results of taking charge and responsibility for our thought and emotion patterns. It is simple to validate this premise.  Look at something and see what you can find wrong with it and note how this causes you to feel.  Now, looking at the same object, see what is good about it and how this causes you to feel.  Likewise, create a thought, a happy thought, a thought of gratitude, and see how it causes you to feel, and then create a thought of resentment, or anger, anxiety, or despair, and see how this causes you to feel.  It becomes quite clear that how we direct our thoughts about something or our situation in one way or another completely determines the quality of our experience in that moment.  So, why would anyone choose to stay locked in some negative thought/emotion prison, when they have the key to their own liberation?  Stop.  Look about you.  Realize that you are the one who is the consciousness, free of any thought, that is looking.  Choose to see what is beautiful, compelling, and worthy of loving about this moment.  Experience yourself as intelligent consciousness prior to any thought.  Feel the peace and sanity of this perspective and then allow your thoughts to flow from the resulting peace and gratitude as you dissolve your systems of thought-prison and emerge into real freedom.  Could anything be clearer?

The Miracle of Mindfulness

“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see.  The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.  We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky.  We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child.  Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy. We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.  We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living… we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.  Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.  We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment. – Thich Nhat Hanh

This past January 22nd, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, and world transformer, Thich Nhat Hanh, died at the age of 95.  He had been in retirement since 2014 when he suffered an extremely debilitating stroke, returning to Vietnam in 2018 to live his final years in the monastery where he had been ordained 80 years ago.

His life is a story of tragedy turned into a gift to the world.  Like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh lived much of his life in exile, both having had to flee from their small Asian nations because of foreign invasion and war. It is both ironic and profound that their life stories give living reality to the Buddhist teaching that “obstacles do not block the path; obstacles are the path.”  What began as tragedy, both for the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh personally, as well as their people, became a great opportunity for them to bring their lessons of peace and transformation to the world where many millions of people became exposed to their profound teachings.  And the world is listening.

Thich Nhat Hanh was forced to leave Vietnam in 1966 during the American/Vietnam war for his leadership of the Buddhist peace movement when both sides wanted only war, and eventually settled into France where he created a world-renowned Buddhist center, Plum Village.  He wrote many books, gave talks, and led retreats all over the world, spreading his signature teachings on mindfulness, the brilliance of which are to be found increasingly integrated into Western institutions as varied as medicine, psychology, education, and industry.  Along with the Japanese Zen movement and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh was as instrumental in bringing the profound wisdom and compassion of Buddhism into the West as anyone.  In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s is an accessible Buddhism, simple, practical, intimate, and deep, and he often emphasized that one did not have to be a Buddhist to benefit greatly from Buddhist wisdom and practices, thus making his teachings more attractive to Westerners.  While some of his writings demonstrate a profound and complex understanding of the details and intricacies of Buddhist philosophy and psychology, his great talent was to take these sometimes-esoteric teachings and present them in a manner that anyone can understand and apply.  His teachings are tender, poetic, and rich in imagery, always coming back to the basic message of peaceful, insightful presence in the here-and-now.  He taught that to be present in a deep and personal way with every act and interaction opens dimensions of peace, compassion, and wisdom that are inherent within us but buried under the burden of anxiety, worry, grievance, ambition, and regret that result from our social and psychological conditioning.  His call is to come back to the depth and reality of the present moment, directing awareness into the sensation and miracle of our own breathing, and to exercise our capacity to choose our attitude in the face of any circumstance.  He shares with us: “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.  Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”  He called upon us to live lives rich in discovery of the beauty and miracle that is Life, that is our lives hidden beneath our worries, ambitions, and upsets. 

Thich Nhat Hanh talked of mindfulness as a miracle, and for those who have taken heed and practice of his words, the truth of this has been proven.  So simple.  Breathe and be aware that you are breathing.  Feel yourself breathing.  Feel yourself breathing along with all of life.  Note that when awareness is brought to the breathing, a profound sense of presence opens as ALL the senses sharpen and focus into details, subtleties, and connections that had gone unnoticed as the attention of the mind was on itself spinning its stories of wanting and rejecting, judgment and self-absorption.  In practicing this breathing mindfulness, the present moment begins to open in exquisite detail while our mind-spin slows down and even stops.  In such moments, we find ourselves in full presence with the world, noticing details previously overlooked.  The beauty of the sky, a child’s smile, flowers, trees, a bird’s song, the sun shining, the rain falling, our own breathing, life everywhere opens to us, and if we allow ourselves to experience this inherent goodness to the world, most naturally, we can allow this goodness to bring a smile to our countenance.

Thich Nhat Hanh taught that in that profound moment of complete presence, we begin to notice that we notice – not only the details of our own sensations and the world around us – but we begin to notice our own minds, how incessant and demanding the telling of our story to ourselves and to anyone who will listen really is.  We also begin to notice that in the moments when we are noticing our noticing, the mind stops, and we can realize an intelligence within us that resides in the silence of awareness, beneath our chattering minds.  Instead of our minds controlling us, we begin to learn to manage our minds.  We begin to see things as they are and ourselves as we truly are at the deepest and truest level.  We discover that we are peace; we are compassion; we are wisdom and sanity; we are life connected with all life.  Eventually the interconnected presence of everything that makes for the Universe happening in this eternal moment opens to us, and we experience ourselves not as separate and anxious in the world, but rather with a sense of wholeness and connectedness that completes us and opens our capacities for compassion and peaceful, kind confidence.  In Buddhism, this is knowns as “awakening” – as if out of a bad dream that has kept our personal and collective lives in turmoil.

In these days of so much confusion and anxiety, when most everyone knows there is something profoundly wrong with the direction that this country and human society are taking, but no one seems to know what to do about it, Thich Nhat Hanh taught what is called “engaged Buddhism.” This means bringing insights garnered in mindfulness practice concerning the true nature of what it is and can be to be human into the social and political realm.  If we can realize that our true nature is to be found in compassionate interconnection with each other and with all life as it is experienced in applied mindfulness practice, and we bring this realization into our social actions, organization, and political policy, we can begin to change this world into what it needs to be.  We can create a human society marked by peace, compassion, universal sufficiency, and rich connection with Nature.  We can build the society that is needed rather than continue the compulsive seeking of drama, stimulation, wealth, and power that now marks and degrades the human experience.

Further, Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness practice can open us to true spiritual experience; for in the silence of the purely witnessing mind, our capacity to intuit our origin and connection with the wholeness and completeness of the Universe can be felt.  God can be seen and felt in a flower, in a child, in ourselves; in everyone and everything.  The dilemma and fear of impermanence, our own and others, of the ever-changing nature of the material and social world, resolves itself and is seen as the play of diversity and opposites constituting a dynamic unity, giving direction and purpose to our existence.  Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness takes us into compassionate joy at being alive, even in the midst of sorrow and loss.  He had the capacity to make the most esoteric of spiritual teachings so immediate and relatable that dimensions of trust and faith in our own inherent goodness and the goodness of life begin to open to us quite naturally.

His honesty, his kindness, his courage, his depth of insight into the human dilemma, into the needs that we and all life share for harmonious and joyous coexistence, can guide us out of the dark time we are now in.  Thich Nhat Hanh spoke compellingly about the necessary transformation humanity must make into a true flowering of human civilization as this planet’s wise and compassionate tender, rather than its scourge, through his poetic and beautiful message of peace, compassion, interconnectedness, and wisdom in the here-and-now.  In the latest book of his teachings, released in October of 2021, Zen and The Art of Saving the Planet, he shared, “When you wake up and you see that the Earth is not just the environment, The Earth is us, you touch the nature of interbeing.  And at that moment you can have real communication with the Earth… We have to wake up together.  And if we wake up together, then we have a real chance… We need to look deeply to find a way out, not only as individuals, but as a collective, as a species”

And in his book No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote what might be considered his epitaph to the world, telling his followers not to mourn his passing when he writes:  “This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there, the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies all manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source. Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.”  Goodbye, “Thay,” Vietnamese for “teacher’” – as he was affectionately known by his followers – and hello, Thay.  We are always meeting in the smile of a child, in the bloom of a flower, in an act of kindness, in the gentle flow of our breathing, in the wise and compassionate teachings you have left us.

The Wisdom Way

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” “If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.” – Marcus Aurelius

We live in precarious times.  It feels like the end of empire times, and I am increasingly struck by parallels to another such time, when the Roman Empire was in its final days.  Stable politics is threatened by voters becoming addicted to sensationalism and manipulated through our modern age’s “games of the coliseum” – internet and cable tv.  Truly devilish politics is taking place with authoritarian personalities seeking to destabilize American democracy in a blatant power grab while democrats seem unable to effectively answer. It’s all Faustian.  The planet’s ecological structure is destabilizing, sort of like having barbarians at the gates, and as it does, so too will human economic and social order while our society quibbles over ridiculous and superficial issues. 

The metaphor of Nero fiddling while Rome burned seems very applicable to our collective leadership, but particularly to the right-wing socio-political-religious movement that has erupted in this country.  Those who step forward urging temperance, responsibility, and compassion, advising that we look cooperatively to the very real problems that plague us rather than the emotional straw-dogs that dominate our politics are ignored if not ridiculed and attacked.  It feels like maliciousness and stupidity has occupied the forum at a time when sincerity, truth-telling, mutuality, and wisdom are what is required to move us beyond this morass into a new age for humanity.  As Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher, and emperor of Rome from 161 – 180 AD, advised, it’s time to break free of the madness and to step forward insisting on saying what is true and doing what is right.  The times we live in are so precarious that it feels like we need to invent a whole new way for humans to be on the planet if we are to evolve as is necessary and not devolve into chaos, a dark age, in the coming century. 

For insight into how to live through such times I find myself looking to Marcus Aurelius living through his time when the most powerful political, economic, cultural, and military power in the world was unraveling.  Political forces that did not respect the wisdom and democratic traditions of the Greco-Roman culture had taken control for no other purpose than power and ego-aggrandizement and wielded that power with terrible selfishness and cruelty.  Ceasar had been assassinated 100 years earlier and politics had devolved into power-seeking narcissists manipulating the public, referred to as the “mob.” Roman culture had become shallow and decadent.  The gladiatorial games and other sensationalist entertainment from colosseums all over the empire were the key to gaining the attention, loyalty, and to swaying the mob.  

In the midst of this civil and moral decay, Marcus Aurelius took a very Buddhist middle way, the path of stoicism, honor, and wisdom.  He was unable to change the catastrophic course of the Empire’s collapse, but he found a vision of sanity for himself and for those who would listen amidst the swirling world of egoic excess all around them.   As the momentum for the fall of the empire was implacable, Aurelius’s politics and policies made no real difference, but he outlined what could be and what an individual who sees the madness can do to hold their balance through such times.

In the times we are currently living through it feels like we need such a path, one marked by stoicism, honor, and wisdom.  Although there are many individuals today walking the path of wisdom and compassion, our general American society and our world society show very little of these virtues in their values or behavior, certainly not in their economies or politics.  Modern culture follows the path of blatant, manipulative disinformation, egocentricism, competitiveness, self-indulgence, overwhelming materialism, greed, and sensationalism.  In contrast, the Stoics valued the virtues of truth, goodness, honesty, simplicity, courage, compassion, self-knowledge, and self-mastery, realizing that a well-lived life and a well-managed society required these virtues to be integrated into everyday and public life.  Such virtues are sorely neglected today, but they ought not be, and living by these values might well be called The Wisdom Way, the way that if followed could turn looming human tragedy into a human rebirth.

The Wisdom Way is about a profoundly realistic, rational, and compassionate approach to life, realizing moderation, dignity, respect, and a caring and appreciative state of mind as essential for a balanced life where emotions do not overrun us, and our interactions are always measured by their constructiveness rather than who wins some ego game.  The Wisdom Way also recognizes the importance of a deep spiritual life.  It is, as the ancient Stoics realized, in recognizing there is a supremely intelligent order to the Universe, known to them as logos, which forms a web of interconnection through Life and through us, all in perfect harmony and balance.  It is the antidote to humanity’s sickness of egoic confusion in defining oneself through separateness that causes so much personal and political instability and conflict, leading to valuing materialism, consumption, and competition over Nature, conservation, and cooperation. 

This Stoic perspective on spirituality is very similar to the non-dual perspective of the interconnecting net of Life that undergirds Eastern wisdom traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism.  Life becomes ongoing ceremony where one is always in recognition of the spiritual dimension of everyone and everything in connection.  From our society’s egoic perspective, we need religions and ceremonies to remind us of a spiritual dimension, yet, lost in our egocentricity and ego insecurity, we hardly ever touch the truly spiritual dimension, only saying prayers of petition, declaring identification with some religious sect and its hypocritical moralizing, performing ceremonial acts which are interpreted as necessary for the spiritual dimension to be favorable to our egoic desires.  Most religious identification, rather than pointing us toward transcendence of our cruel and selfish ways, seems to reinforce them. 

The truly wise and spiritual person lives in subtle ceremony all the time, constantly touching and revering the realm of the divine manifesting through everyone and everything, silently in blessing and gratitude.  Deity is not seen in some Godhead, but rather in Life itself, in everyone and everything.   As we live in a disintegrating civilization, it seems imperative that we bring a perspective of binding unity based in endless compassion into the new human society we must build.  The framers of our American Constitution were right in separating religion from politics, yet what is consistently missed is that the framing is filled with spirituality, calling for universal inalienable rights endowed by the Creator and calling us to more perfect union.  The right to the pursuit of happiness only needs to be reinterpreted out of materialism, competition, and consumerism into the right to basic security for all, extending even beyond the human into the Natural world, the source of all that supports and sustains us, not only materially, but spiritually as well.  For too many, the American ethos tragically has tended toward the notion of freedom as the freedom to exploit, and I do not believe this was in the minds of key founders, Stoics and Deists among them, truly spiritual and idealistic persons.

We can, and we must, reinvent human society, as it is built now on human egocentric foolishness that threatens to capsize everything.  We are stumbling along, valuing what is of really very little value – gaudy excess, power, riches, and luxury – having lost the soul of what it is to be alive and to be truly free.  Our lives have lost reverence, and what is life if it is not experienced with reverence?  All the wisdom traditions that have existed on the fringe of human power-mad civilizations from the beginning, have, as did the ancient Stoics, called on humanity to value moderation, balance, compassion, the basic and the good, to forgo greed and opulence, to stay close to our origin in Nature, living in reverence and awe of the miracle that is Life.  Does it not seem time to heed this wisdom?

For our individual and collective lives to make sense, we must make this return that is really the truest going forward.  We must look to the laws of Nature – balance, harmony, infinite diversity within unity, a reawakened sense of the sacred. We need not turn away from the best of our technology, our science that points us into the heart and secrets of Nature while creating safety and basic convenience.  We only need to redirect it into sustaining and deepening our connection and understanding with the natural world. We need to recognize the great new frontier it has opened before us that realizes consciousness as the underpinning of all existence.  Our science and technology need to be rededicated into celebration and support of the brilliance of the natural world, and make it the heart of the human world.  We are designed by the Universe to be exquisite instruments of subtle and complex consciousness, but heretofore we have squandered this gift in vain celebration of our own cleverness.  From out of the past, wisdom traditions from Buddhism to Stoicism call upon us to “wake up!” And how do we do this?  Marcus Aurelius shares with us in answer to this question this 2000-year-old wisdom: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”  Can you see the necessity of embracing necessary change, in rededicating and rebuilding our lives, individually and collectively to a new way of thinking, to making a new human civilization based in the values of wisdom and not ego’s values of competition, wealth and power?  It’s not really even a choice.  We must.  And the good news is that we can.

The Eightfold Path

Within the fourth noble truth is found the guide to the end of suffering: the noble eightfold path. The eight parts of the path to liberation are grouped into three essential elements of Buddhist practice—moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. The Buddha taught the eightfold path in virtually all his discourses, and his directions are as clear and practical to his followers today as they were when he first gave them. – Walpola Sri Rahula

Buddhism is a religion that concerns itself primarily with guiding people into spiritual and mental health, not with God or Heaven, souls, or afterlife.  It arises out of the Hindu tradition that holds as a given that God, soul, and afterlife are all contained within the unity that is the Universe, and there is a rich mythology of gods and magic and reincarnation that both Hinduism and Buddhism share, but Buddhism gives very little attention to such things.  Rather, what Buddhism holds as important is understanding humanity’s place and experience within and as an expression of the Universe, with, as Buddhists like to say, “what is,” and teaches that if we get this straight the rest takes care of itself.  Above all else, Buddhism strives for simplicity and practicality.  The Dalai Lama is known to answer the question as to the nature of his religion with one word: “kindness,” much the equivalent of Jesus saying it all comes down to love.

Rather than theology, Buddhism focuses primarily on human psychology and human ethics, for it is in these arenas that humanity’s problems arise.  It seeks ever-deepening insight into the why and how of the way we fall out of alignment with the Universe, with what is, with what Buddhism calls Dharma, and how we can find our way back.  The fountainhead of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gotama, a prince from a kingdom in northern India some 2600 years ago, set as his task to understand the nature of and the remedy for this malalignment, which Buddhism calls dukkha, the Pali language word that translates as human emotional pain or suffering, dissatisfaction, confusion, delusion.  He concerned himself with what it is about humans that causes them to make such a mess of their lives and their world, experiencing and expressing life in such confusing, destructive, painful, and out-of-balance ways like no other creature in Nature.  His interest was in understanding and correcting this human conundrum.  He is reported to have said, “I teach the nature of suffering and its remedy, nothing else.”  Not the usual topics of interest for a religion.

The myth of Siddhartha becoming the Buddha (Awakened or Enlightened One) has Siddhartha exploring all the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious teachings and practices of his day looking for the answers he sought, without success.  In both frustration and determination, legend has him sitting beneath a tree to meditate on his questions, vowing not to rise until he had figured out the dilemma of human life.  He sat and he meditated, it is generally taught, for 49 days during which he experienced the rising and passing of desire, fear, and self-doubt, the mind-states that seem to bedevil humans most, yet because he held to the composure and steadiness of his meditation, he was able to realize these states of mind as delusions created by the uniquely powerful human mind-realm of ego.  He further realized that the awareness witnessing these mind-states did not suffer, but could watch them come and go with equanimity.  He found the truth of who he was as being awareness, pure consciousness, and he realized further that this core of the human experience is not subject to confusion, but rather, is the seat of human wisdom, insight, and compassion, linking us to our origin as Universal consciousness manifested individually. 

With this epiphany, he became The Buddha.  (This is a very important legend, for it forms a template for a Buddhist’s practice, learning to hold well-centered, peaceful, inquiring awareness steadfastly, as ego’s desires, fears, and self-doubts pull at us.)  Finally, in a state of perfect peace and composure, filled with insight into the human condition, Siddhartha rose and gave his first teaching to five of his fellow seekers with whom he had lived the ascetic’s path.  He began by sharing his realization known as the Middle Way, that the way of life most conducive to happiness was neither through asceticism, the denial of the physical and emotional needs of a natural person, or through materialism, seeking to find well-being through possessions, status, hedonism, and emotional indulgences, but rather to hold to balance and moderation.  Then he gave them the centerpiece of Buddhism called The Four Noble Truths. 

He taught first that the human condition is unique in that it generates states of unhappiness, emotional suffering, and dissatisfaction (dukkha) that no other creature experiences.  He secondly shared his observation that this suffering arises through humans attaching to or clinging to a false sense of self, their ego, which lives through ITS attachments, desires, and aversions.  He pointed out how humans seek meaning and happiness through ego-inflating ideas, pursuits, affiliations, and possessions which are meant to fill this hole in their sense of well-being but ultimately fail to do so.  He thirdly then gave the good news: that he had figured out that this suffering was not necessarily the way things had to be, that there was a way out of this unnatural state.  He taught that because this sense of self is false, its ideas concerning how to fulfill itself are then likewise false.  This leads to the fourth teaching, which said humans need to cultivate and realize their core sense of self, their “original mind” of awareness, through meditation and mindfulness, releasing attachment to identity through the ego.  He emphasized that within us is a pure mind that knows the right way to live so as not to create and experience so much suffering, that it just needs cultivating. 

Being a very practical person, Buddha then outlined eight areas of life that a person could focus on getting right so as to live a happier, saner, more spiritual life, and this teaching was called the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Buddha instructed that a person, in order to live a noble and peaceful life, must cultivate what was called Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, grouping these intothree broader categories of wisdom, (thought and understanding), moral conduct (speech, action, and livelihood), and mental discipline (effort, mindfulness, and concentration).  Here, it is very important to understand that the “right” in these teachings is not a dictate from the authority of The Buddha, but rather realizations passed on by him as to how a person comes into alignment with themself and the world, with what will work to relieve our unhappiness and confusion.  Impressively for a religion, Buddhism teaches that it is up to each of us to come to our own conclusions, confident that with “right,” that is, dedicated and skillful, practice and application of the Buddha’s teaching, the same conclusion will be reached – that it works.

Right Understanding means understanding things the way they really are.  Of course, to do this we must be willing to suspend what we THINK we know about the way things are, realizing that mostly we live inside ideas ABOUT life coming from our families, cultures, societies, and reference groups.  The way we understand things as 21st century Americans is dramatically different from the way 15th century Native Americans understood things, and this is true from each culture and historical time to other cultures and historical times.  And the same is true for all our psychological, social, and political ideas.  Right to me is never 100% the same as right for you, and sometimes the overlap of “right” between people may be very little.  We have to be willing to come back to some baseline we all share, and for Buddhism, that baseline is our capacity for awareness without pre-judgment, our clear perception into purely the what-is, as best we can manage.  We must look deeply in order to see clearly.

Right Thought means realizing that the fundamental human error is that we think about almost everything using our own self and beliefs as the centerpiece and frame of reference.  We cling to our self-centeredness and build our world out of it.  Inflated and grandiose, or deflated, anxious, and depressed – either way, we make life about us.  Right Thought realizes the powerful analytical capabilities of the human mind, advising us to approach each issue of life as “the thing in itself” with as little self-referencing and pre-conception as possible, using precise perception and logic.  This means letting go of opinions, and of selfishness, and of the egoic delusion of our separateness.  It reorients how we think toward acknowledging and exploring the undeniable truth of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things.  This leads us to compassion, which concludes in the necessity for kindness, caring, and responsibility as the ways that bring happiness into the world, including for ourselves.  It is really quite logical.

Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood then naturally arise out of Right Understanding and Right Thought, and comprise the ethical aspects of this teaching.  As we learn to bring ever-refined levels of presence, thought and understanding to our experience of existence, the interconnectedness, the unity, the interdependence of all aspects of life within the harmonious whole that is this world becomes increasingly evident.  This leads one inevitably to the conclusion that we must strive to live in, as Buddhism terms it, ahimsa, and metta, nonviolence and loving-kindness.  Truthful, kind, and responsible speech, non-violent, honest, respectful, helpful, and skillful action, and honorable and honest livelihood are essential ingredients of an enlightened person’s life, and of an enlightened society.  Our eyes are opened to the careless harm we bring from our egocentrism, and the paradox becomes evident that the way we bring happiness into the world for others and how we find our own true happiness is the same.  There is no real peace for one who brings violence to others or for a society based in doing violence either in the human or natural realms.  More logic. Right Effort, Meditation, and Mindfulness acknowledge that if we are to overcome the “wrong” conditioning of our egocentric upbringing and culture, we’re going to have to work at it.  This path recognizes that without the development of a mind that knows itself, knows its multidimensionality with subtlety, clarity, and depth, that has the steadiness, insight, and perceptive capacities to focus into our own mind and the world-as-it-is, we have very little chance, no matter how much we agree with and desire these qualities, of achieving them.  We must “awaken” our core perceptive, wise, and compassionate mind, the mind behind the discursive, judgmental, chaotic, and selfish mind of ego, to bring it forward as our true self.  We must realize and actualize our true self as awareness.  Achieving this, the egoic mind of thoughts and emotions can then be employed skillfully and with the “right” attitudes and understandings to live a life in which we neither create nor fall victim to unnecessary suffering.

“Spiritually” Healing Our Neurotic Mind

“Identification with your mind (ego) creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments, and definitions that blocks all true relationship… Thinking has become a disease.  Disease happens when things get out of balance…. Note: the mind is a superb instrument if used rightly.  Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Ever since Eckhart Tolle wrote his ground-breaking book on healing the human condition, just about the same time that interest in Buddhist and non-dual spirituality/psychology began growing in our culture, there has been an idea among some who are seeking to grasp these elusive but immeasurably valuable concepts, that ego is a bad thing, even that it is to be gotten rid of.  In and of itself, of course ego cannot be a bad thing and certainly cannot be eradicated.  Any conscious creature has an ego.  It is the necessary mental faculty of the more advanced nervous system organisms for interacting with their environment and fulfilling needs, while expressing individuality. 

The squirrels in our yards demonstrate individuality, and have rudimentary egos, but squirrels interacting and gathering nuts is a distinctly different level of egoic action from human beings creating economies, governments, religions, technologies, universities, and works of art – or worrying about what others think of us, what we think of ourselves, or whether we are we good enough.  Ego in a human is the realm of thought and emotion, of language and mathematics, of tools and invention, of complex social interaction and creativity. Ego is also the seat of human neurosis.

Speaking metaphorically, the ego creates a kind of shell or filter around our inner-core of conscious Beingness, or True-Self, as Buddhism terms it.  This core is, if you will, the light, the energy, of what Eastern philosophy believes is the individualized manifestation of the great Universal Consciousness.  It is, as Buddhism puts it, our “original mind,” clear and wise and compassionate, and this core mind of Being knows its connection with the Source of Life and all Life.  This is why it knows harmony and connection as our and THE underlying nature of all things and the true experience of spirituality.  Ego knows none of this.  In place of true spirituality, ego creates religions for worship of egoic constructs of the divine, one person’s different from another’s, the differences separating them, sometimes even making them hate each other.

 A neurotic personality, then, is one in which the minor and major traumas of experience have thickened and shaped the contours of a person’s egoic shell in particularly distorted ways so as to filter consciousness energy in a manner which distorts experience coming in and expression going out.  This is where the problem with ego begins. The result is the shaping of a personality manifesting a reality distorted by anxious, depressive, paranoid, narcissistic, or histrionic, etc. styles of perception and expression.  

We can see that ego, in modern humans, is typically very much out of balance within the totality of a person’s mind when its fear-based ideas and emotions begin to take up much of the person’s attention through their life.  And what is it afraid of? Simply stated, not being enough. It is filled with, as Buddhism calls them, “delusional” egocentric ideas about who we are and what the world is.  These delusional ideas drive us more-or-less insane and can become more-or-less destructive, depending on the degree to which distorted ego-experience has come to dominate.  

Humans have such a problem as mental illness because our society, our economies, governments, religions, technologies, universities, and creative endeavors have come to be principally in the service of that which created them, human ego, and are made of ego’s delusional ideas.  Contemporary life largely functions as virtual realities spun out by competing persons, institutions, and pursuits that are quite anti-human and anti-life, self-perpetuating for their own power and glory.  Getting caught in this unending world of top-dog-underdog, zero-sum gaming, can and does drive us humans quite crazy without our even realizing it, thinking all this is “normal.”  Only the extreme examples of insecurity caused by egos out of balance get acknowledged and then called neurosis or mental illness.

The functions of ego – thought and emotion – become badly out of control as ego assumes supremacy in our minds, taking over our sense of self and reality, creating mental imbalance, for ego really is not up to the task.  Ego, when it takes over a personality, is riddled with insecurity, in a sense, knowing itself to be a sham, yet unwilling to admit it. Importantly, these dysfunctional ego states happen even more crudely and dangerously in whole cultures or societies, creating macro-egos.  A feedback loop is established of unhealthy individual egos creating unhealthy macro-ego societies and social institutions, creating more unhealthy individual egos, making even more unhealthy macro-ego societies, and so the madness escalates.

To understand ego, it MUST be understood that ego is a faculty.  It is in a sense a “thing,” much like our hands are faculties and thus things, and when a person experiences their identity through ego they experience themselves as a thing, an object, and all the world about them as objects.  The more intensely an individual perceives and operates from this distorted view of life as competing separate objects, the more imbalanced such a person becomes, and this misperception is at the very core of the tragedy of human experience.  We are no longer experiencing ourselves or the world as alive and interconnected; rather, we experience ourselves as not enough and the world as not enough and the neurotic distortions of anxiety, depression, anger, insecurity, greed, and alienation take over our lives.

So, as we approach the question of how to cure neurosis, we have to look, as Buddhism does, to energizing and strengthening that which is the essence of mental health, the healthy consciousness core of a person, sometimes called witnessing awareness.  Then, this clear and mindful energy of awareness can soften, smooth, and clarify the ego-shell, wisely and compassionately seeing its distortions, both regarding ourselves and the world.  Then, through the miracle of this mindful examination, the ego begins to heal, allowing the ego to function more naturally as is Creation’s intention, a faculty of mind with extraordinary creative capabilities.

Ego then can release its claim as our identity and is restored to its appropriate place and function as the intermediary human mental faculty between awareness and the world, a kind of filter and creative capacity.  It is no longer directed by its own distorted intention to make more of itself based in its trauma and fear of not being enough, but rather as a skillful and faithful servant of awareness.  This brings perception and expression that is closer to the true nature of reality and is thus, less neurotic. These faculties of hands and egos can then be in service of higher truths than the malign intents of a traumatized and delusional ego. 

Our salvation and sanity lies in recognizing and energizing our core consciousness, this True Self, what some might call Spirit, as the very essence of who we are, bringing it forth in healing and balanced relationship with our ego.  Now, no longer so blocked and distorted by a dysfunctional, frightened, and traumatized ego, our core Self, or Spirit, can radiate from our center of Being.  We can connect with the underlying nature of Spirit in all that is around us, even penetrating the distorted egos of our fellow humans to see and connect with them at the level of their true core and Spirit.  We are now no longer lost in our false sense of separateness, but rather restored to our sense of connection with all that is.  We are restored to our natural spiritual and mental health.  We are no longer afraid we are not enough or that the world is not enough for we now know we are an individual expressing and experiencing the One that is All. As the best way to defend against pathogens in the physical world is to strengthen the body’s immune system, so too, awareness is our psychological immune system warding off neurotic distortion, allowing us to experience the difficulties of life not as traumas but as challenges to our deeper Nature, which when met, strengthen us.   Our “spiritual” practice then is to engage the moment and the activity of the moment as if our full whole-hearted presence as awareness and our sincerity of action is the key to spiritual and mental health, for it is.  Our healthy spirit and primal intelligence can then be in creative and healthy relationship with our ego and the world, manifesting what in the East is called an enlightened being, which is, in truth, simply and naturally, a mentally and spiritually healthy human being.

The Need for Virtue

“As we become more conscious, we begin to see that there are consequences.  There are consequences to everything, and they get bigger and bigger the more we behave in ways that are not in harmony with what we know is true… Reality is always true to itself.  When you are in harmony with it, you experience bliss.  As soon as you are not in harmony with it, you experience pain.  This is the law of the universe; it is the way things are… We realize that to behave from any place other than our true nature is destructive to ourselves, and, just as important, to the world and others around us.” – Adyashanti

We are living in an age of self-indulgence.  I don’t think this statement should be a controversial point of view.  Our culture instills in us a value system that says the best society is one that encourages the individual in the expression of their liberties and appetites while what holds this license from turning into anarchy is moral instruction, often codified into law, telling us what we are not to do – lie, cheat, steal, and kill (or be different in ways that convention disapproves of).  The problem is that the first instruction, the one on liberty, license and indulgence is so much stronger and is reinforced constantly through the media and our social and commercial interactions.  The culture tells us that self-absorption and self-indulgence are good as long as they are within the boundaries of legality and our society’s wide latitude of social acceptability.  The morality that is the basis of subjective limits on our appetites and urges is left to religious instruction and to fear of others’ judgment and the consequences of getting caught and punished, influences that just aren’t sufficient to bring about a virtuous society populated with virtuous people.  The very strong libertarian self-indulgence message overrides and causes us to relate to morality, which is given strong, yet hypocritical, social endorsement, as a limitation on our personal liberty to be gotten around as much as possible.  Also true is that social norms and laws can be molded to fit what is expedient to our true values, and the codes of morality then tend to follow.

Early in my career, I did a lot of counseling with teenagers and their families, and a pretty common problem was kids from “good” families acting out in ways that were pretty hurtful to others, and even themselves.  Everyone was baffled that the child of a banker, lawyer, doctor, successful businessperson, or a church-going working-class family could be behaving in such hurtful, dishonest, and immoral ways.  But they do, and we go on, generation after generation, blaming it on “human nature,” preaching and punishing, to hold in check that which humans in their “fallen” state, as evangelicals like to say, are going to do because we are just sinful.  Buddhism disagrees.  Actually, so does Jesus, when in agreement with Buddhism, he taught that love is our basic nature.  It is so basic that it can even explain how unloving we come to be.

There is a psychological theory put forward in the 1950’s called “adolescent super-ego lacunae” by psychoanalyst Adalaide Johnson, which postulated that teenagers may act out the “holes,” which is what “lacunae” means, in the family’s and the society’s morality system when they commit in crude ways the sophisticated and socially accepted moral violations of adults – for which the adults are more likely to be rewarded than punished.  That is, while robbing a bank will get you thrown in jail, for a bank to foreclose on a mortgage because a person had fallen on hard times, is just business, and lawyers are just doing their job when representing shady and dishonest people or businesses, often at the expense of honest and naive or poor people – while getting rewarded handsomely for it.  Or for a teenager to tell their wine-drinking, pill-taking, shopaholic, truth-bending mother they were doing homework with a friend when they were actually off smoking marijuana with that friend will get them grounded.  All-the-while the ad campaigns on television are telling kids that their life will be sunny and beautiful if they buy into the American way of consumer addiction.  They sense the hypocrisy, the hole in the morality system, of their families and of their society and they act it out.  In a sense, they are acting out of love, unconsciously wanting to identify with the parents’ value system replicating it in a cruder manner among their adolescent peers for the purpose of being accepted.  And sometimes it’s an appropriate “cry for love” to their parents and a society too focused on status, money-making, and narcissism to show love.  They are so-called “rebelling” by crudely violating hypocritical rules, while, in truth, they are internalizing the hypocrisy.  So, generation after generation passes with very little improvement in the overall virtuousness of people or society.

Buddhism takes a very direct approach to this problem, teaching it is more effective to develop people’s inner sense of virtue as the path to a virtuous society than by preaching morality.  It does so by teaching what ought to be obvious, that is, that virtuousness comes from the development of people’s natural sense of goodness and truth rather than the imposition of the social and religious rules that constitute morality.  This may sound like just a matter of semantics, but it is not, for the basic premise behind these two approaches for addressing human behavior is radically different.   Instead of people being seen as “fallen” and naturally “sinful,” as morality systems do, Buddhism teaches that people are the same goodness and truth that is the natural world, and that “sin” (a word that Buddhism seldom uses) is just ignorance, like its etymological origin suggests, simply “missing the mark” of what it is to be a natural human with instincts for decency, kindness, and honesty. 

Buddhism tells us that people get corrupted away from their natural goodness and virtue while morality systems believe that people behave self-indulgently because it makes them happy to do so, and so there must be a kind of violence applied to keep this happy-seeking behavior under control.  Buddhism contends just the opposite – that what makes people happy is thinking and behaving virtuously. Experience shows the Buddhists to be on to something.

Buddhism’s most recognized teaching is called The Four Noble Truths, a teaching about what is usually called “suffering,” a term Westerners have a hard time really grasping because the suffering being referred to here is very different from what a Westerner understands by this term as a physical state.  The term in the original language of Buddhism is dukkha, which can perhaps more accurately be translated as to be unsatisfied, dissatisfied, or maybe, just unhappy, a specifically psychological state.  What Buddha recognized is that we humans are unhappy in most unnatural ways, and it has to do with grasping after the ephemeral materiality of the world, believing that materialism brings happiness when it doesn’t. 

All things pass from fashion or interest, wear out, and break, and all life, including we humans, get sick, age, and die, and we suffer. So too it is with morality, for morality is always an artificial belief system tied to dogmas, ideas imposed by authorities about how we should behave, usually implying a stifling of our pursuit of happiness.  Notions of morality change over time with changing religious, political, and generational beliefs and their violation is easily rationalized precisely because they are imposed and changing through time and circumstance.  In contrast, virtue is what is naturally within us and is both eternal AND relates to the uniqueness of the moment.  Our sense of what is virtuous is then less easily ignored, while more vividly ringing true.

Buddhism teaches, very rightly, that happiness cannot come from outside of us, not lasting happiness anyway, that it must come from within us, that happiness is the natural result of being in harmony with ourselves, with others and the world.  The observation is made that giving is much more likely to bring about harmony and happiness than taking, and cooperating and sharing brings more good feeling than competing and hoarding.  These are natural truths within us.  These are the ways little children behave before they are corrupted into selfishness.  Buddhism calls this natural human virtue.  The Four Noble Truths, after addressing the existence of this human problem it calls dukkha diagnoses this malady as arising from ignorance into our very nature as being whole, connected to everything, and virtuous, and that this ignorance causes all kinds of clinging and grasping behavior leading to much unhappiness and dissatisfaction.  It, however, then encourages us that there is a cure through the cultivation of our natural human virtues.  Buddhism tells us that we can free ourselves of our delusions about happiness and in the process become enlightened genuinely happy human beings.  These instructions are not about things we are not to do in the manner of a morality system, but what we are to do to develop our natural capacity for virtuousness, and thus, happiness.  Modern behavioral psychology would largely agree, noting that punishing negative behavior is much less effective than rewarding and reinforcing desirable behavior, particularly, as Buddhism teaches, when what is being reenforced is our own innate goodness.

As with much of Buddhism, the concept of virtue is couched in paradox, a mental subtlety we in the West are not very good at.  It teaches that really the most self-serving thing we can do, if self-serving is the maximizing of our happiness and peace-of-mind, is to be unselfish.  In truth, it isn’t hard to understand that in our society the unselfish way is so often seen as the path of the victim or “sucker” because there is so little unselfishness around us, so many looking to take advantage, to rob literally or through legal commerce, even stealing our self-esteem and equanimity through cruel comment or action.   It seems that the unselfish are at a distinct disadvantage in this zero-sum game of a society where “winners” are established by creating “losers.”  But really – where and when have any of us been the happiest?  Is it not when we can let our guard down, when we can trust others to treat us kindly and honestly, and when we can experience how good it feels to treat others with kindness and honesty?  This is virtuousness and it has the ring of truth to it. Buddhism teaches us the attitudes and practices that allow us to hold our center of peace, virtue, and wellbeing independent of others’ beliefs and actions, and this is the greatest freedom of all.  It could be said that Buddhism teaches us to live as neither a victimizer nor a victim. Imagine a world that taught our children that their natural urges to kindness and generosity were the absolutely “right” ones, and that they could trust that this is the way they would be treated by others.  You see how much better this world would be?  How much better this is than teaching that the world is unkind and dishonest, a ‘sinful,” world that requires coercive morality and laws to keep corrupt human nature in check?  Yes, you say, but that’s not the way the world is, I’m not going to be a sucker.  I agree.  This is not the way the human world is now, but it could be and needs to be.  And in the meanwhile, Buddhism teaches rightly, that it still applies that if you want to be happy and peaceful, the only way for that to happen is for you to cultivate these qualities and practices in yourself.  The added benefit is that a truly virtuous person does not need others to behave virtuously to be peaceful and to maintain their faith in goodness and in themselves. Those who practice virtue increasingly know who they are and what is right and true – and no cheating, dishonesty or cruelty by others can take this from them – and this is true freedom.

Needed In Our Schools

Modern education is very much oriented around external things, material things. So in the West there’s not much concept of training our mind… All ignorance is based on appearances. In order to reduce ignorance, we must investigate deeper reality… The Indian tradition, particularly the knowledge tradition, [offers] a lot of explanation about the mind and destructive emotions. So now a number of scientists are paying attention to Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist psychology. I hope we will take modern science and ancient Indian psychology and combine the two. I think we can serve humanity more effectively and more usefully that way.  And we can do it without religion. This is just knowledge about psychology, about emotions. It’s simply how to create peace of mind and a happy life, and ultimately, how to create a peaceful world, a happy world. India’s tradition is secular. We can teach the secular way in schools.” – Dalai Lama

I taught meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist psychology in a university setting, and unfailingly, with each semester, a number of students would voice two things.  First, somewhere near the end of the term, several would tell me that they had been in counseling and/or on medication for attention-deficit disorder or for depression, or anxiety since they were, sometimes, in grade school, and they would tell me that the perspective and practices they had learned in this course had helped them more.  The second thing that some students would invariably ask was, “Why wasn’t this taught to us when we WERE in grade school?” – To which I could only answer that it would seem that our society wants education that is designed for children to find their way occupationally into our society, and that reflection on the nature of self and society and the training of the mind in stability and self-examination, all of which meditation and mindfulness develop, is not seen as useful or necessary.  Rather that our society’s values require function-trained workers, hyper-stimulation, and anxiety-driven ambition to maximize productivity and profit.

I also pointed out to my students that our society doesn’t really have a mental health profession so much as a mental illness profession and that Western psychology is only beginning to recognize the immense value of meditation and mindfulness for managing psychological maladies.  Mental health in Western medicine is generally understood as a relative lack of mental illness symptoms while the clinical practice of psychology and psychiatry focuses on minimizing the disabling effects of mental illness – a pretty low bar for defining mental health.  To a Buddhist, mental health means enlightenment or being “awakened,” which could be looked at as truly knowing oneself and the nature of life down to the deepest level, a sort of ultra-sanity.  It was this perspective and the experience of learning how to steady and calm their minds while being constructively reflective that the students seemed to appreciate.  They felt saner for having taken the class.

Students would also sometimes comment that meditation wasn’t what they had thought it was at all, that they thought meditation was about entering into some thoughtless state of perfect bliss.  While this can be true at advanced levels of practice as the essential unity of all things is experienced, at the level they were being taught, meditation was more about learning their inherent capacity to sit peacefully and enquiringly WITH their thoughts and emotions.  Like fish being taught about the existence of water, they were being taught about that which we all live within – basic awareness – yet our society and our education fail to give notice to at all.  They were being taught that a meditation in which they were unable to achieve a fully peaceful, quiet mind can sometimes be the most productive and useful meditation because of the important insights that can be achieved and the practice gained at quieting an unruly and troubled mind.  I directed them to notice that while they might not be able to achieve perfect peacefulness, they were able to achieve some greater measure of peace, that they had the capacity to calm and center themselves even while experiencing turmoil.  They were being taught that meditation is for calming, centering, observing, and learning about the mind, not suppressing it.  They also learned that sitting meditation was not all there is to this practice, that the sitting meditation is training and preparation for bringing a peaceful, non-reactive, inquiring, and insightful mind into their active lives through the practice known as mindfulness.  They were learning about real mental health, real sanity.

I shared with my students my belief that perhaps the greatest of Western psychologists, Carl Jung, uniquely DID give us a practical and applicable definition of mental health in noting that the human mind functions in four ways – it thinks, feels emotion, generates sensory experience, and has intuitive insight, and its energy moves both outwardly in extraversion and inwardly in introversion, and that mental health, what he called individuation, was accomplished in the relative balancing of these four mental functions and two directions.  I suggested to the students that they had lots of training in thinking – that’s what schools do – and that our society also places a great deal of importance on feeling and expressing our emotions, and that these are the mental functions that western psychology focuses upon, making sure they don’t get completely out of control. What they had next-to-no experience with, however, was systematic recognition and development of their sensation and intuition capacities.  This, just by our cultural conditioning, makes us very lopsided in our mental development and prone to psychological instability.

As Americans, they had also been encouraged to be extraverted, to express themselves, and to believe that quietness, introversion, was often viewed negatively and called shyness – which can then sometimes turn into awkwardness as the introverted child experiences that their reluctance, even cluelessness, as to how to engage in boisterous self-expression – is viewed as a problem.  This then can sometimes result in the child internalizing this sense of not belonging and being “odd,” and can lead to alienation, even depression, anxiety, and anger problems.  I shared with them that introversion is not a problem, merely a way of processing awareness, and a very valuable way indeed, leading to the capacity for insight unavailable to the strongly extraverted person.  I could see the notably introverted students taking particular notice of this, warming up to the course even more.

What is not being taught in our schools is that proper management of our thoughts and emotions requires the application of the fourth function, intuition, the silent intelligence of awareness, the mental function that also gives rise to insight, creativity, and spiritual experience, and that like introversion, the whole notion of intuition is generally discouraged as suspect in our society.  Also neglected in our education is HOW to achieve the quiet presence necessary to access the intuitive dimension through directing awareness into sensation – into what is being seen, heard, and felt physically at increasingly subtle levels.  What is not being taught and valued is the skill of quiet, focused self-inquiry necessary for us to recognize the dimension of awareness and the insights that arise within it.  These are skills of mind that are taught through meditation and mindfulness, learned when we are instructed in sitting quietly, relaxed, yet alert, focusing into the subtle sensations of our own breathing and the body sitting, noticing that as we focus into these subtle sensations, a profound sense of presence and of being the intelligent watcher of the sensations, thoughts and emotions occurs.  Our educational system teaches none of this.

With these skills we can thus gradually begin to sense our true identity exists in the silent witnessing awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and sensations rather than our being the thoughts, emotions, and sensations as our culture implies to us.  We begin to have the insight that we are awareness that has a human mind and body, and that thoughts and emotions are faculties, not our identity any more than is our body.  We can begin to realize that silent awareness is the source of insight, intelligence and creativity that can then be brought into the world through our thoughts (words), emotions and actions.  What is not being taught is even the existence of the intuitive dimension of mind that is the source of mental health and skill with mind and actions in the world.  What is not being taught is how to train the mind, along with the body, so as to be a healthy and complete human being.

I have, at times, with this column, veered from topics specific to what might be generally considered the theory and practice of a contemporary Zen life into social commentary, into the terrible mess human society finds itself.  I also did so with my classes because there is nothing that is not the theory and practice of Zen.  Zen is life, all aspects and dimensions of life.  Zen is an expression of a branch of Buddhism known as Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes referred to as the Path of the Bodhisattva, sometimes called Engaged Buddhism, for this is Buddhism meant to fully engage the realities of life.  In this tradition, a bodhisattva is someone dedicated to both their own awakening AND the awakening, or freedom from unnecessary emotional suffering, of all beings – for in a very real sense we ARE one being – the species of human being.  Not evangelical or proselytizing, the Mahayana tradition simply makes available to those who are ready the insights and skills necessary to manage a human life in a completely sane manner while fully engaged with human society.  It is dedicated to the development and evolution of human society through the development and evolution of the individuals who comprise the society.  The idealism and yearning for positive social action in my students resonated strongly with this philosophy.

Buddhist philosophy/psychology teaches that humans have become mentally unstable, creating destructive societies, because we have lost touch with our own nature, the kind of harmony that all non-human beings experience simply being themselves, manifesting their own true nature.  Buddhism recognizes that there is a problem for humans due to a capacity that other creatures lack in sufficient strength to dominate their experience as it does in humans, this being the abstracting mind and a highly developed cerebral cortex generating complex thinking and emotion.  Buddhism recognizes, as did Carl Jung, that the thinking and emotion functions comprise the experience and expression of ego, the sense of a separate self, and sees that humans have not properly integrated this capacity with their own deeper nature, experienced through sensation and intuition. Buddhism recognizes that ego-dominated experience leaves us feeling disconnected and out of balance, prone to dissatisfaction and confusion, and that this imbalance is what causes human existence to be so problematic.  We become dominated by unruly, unwise, uncompassionate thoughts and emotions built around the ego’s cravings, leading to harmful individual and collective actions and social policies. And here we come back to Carl Jung’s formulation for human mental health.  Humans, in their primordial stage of evolution functioned mostly through sensation and intuition, living in direct contact with and finding their identity in nature, not particularly developed in complex thinking or emotional expression.  Conversely, in the civilized phase of human evolution, the sensation and intuition functions have become sorely neglected as the human ego has taken over, thinking, and emoting us into ever more complex personal and social lives until it’s all quite crazy.  Buddhism’s answer, like Jung’s, is to reawaken the sensate and intuitive dimensions, along with skill in introversion, balancing our thinking, emotive, and extraverting capacities, thus fulfilling our true and balanced human nature.  This is what meditation and mindfulness can accomplish and this is how humanity’s mature evolution can be realized, and thus, individual, and collective sanity.  My students liked all this and expressed their gratitude, voicing regret at its lack in their education.  As the Dalai Lama pointed out, while the source of this philosophy, psychology, and practices may be Buddhism, this is not a religious issue, it is a secular necessity, and my students agreed.

Be a Holy Fool

“’But he has nothing on at all’ said a little child.” From The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson

Friar Richard Rohr – “Those who will lead into the future will have some hard-won wisdom. We might call them the “holy fools.”… they are not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals). Both of these groups are too invested in their own understanding to let go and let God do something new on earth… paradoxically, they alone can point the way to the “promised land” or the “new Jerusalem.” Conventional wisdom is inadequate, even if widely held by good people… The holy fool is the last stage of the wisdom journey. It is the individual who knows their dignity and therefore does not have to polish or protect it. It is the man or woman who has true authority and does not have to defend it or anyone else’s authority.”  – from “What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self”

We are in a time which requires radical transformation of the way humans conduct themselves.  We are at the end of an era marked by the extension of the reach of human civilization into nearly every corner of the Earth with a concomitant expansion of technology exploiting and consuming Earth’s resources while generating toxic byproducts until the balance of Earth’s environment is becoming dangerously destabilized.  Scientists say that this development represents an actual geological event, ending what has been known as the Holocene epoch, which began after the last major ice age, and is ushering in what is being called the Anthropocene epoch, the time when human activity has become the major force shaping the environment, for better or for worse.

This is not a secret; the alarm has been being sounded for at least fifty years, yet not only does the average person, but the governments and major institutions of human civilization, those entrusted to protect and guide us, mostly seem in a state of denial.  Sometimes there is nominal acknowledgment, but more often, none at all, and what response there is measures completely insufficient to the threat faced by human civilization and the natural world.  How can this be?  We are feeling the effects of this now – from ever-increasingly destructive wildfire, hurricane, and tornado seasons to intensifying periods of drought and flood, to record-setting heatwaves.  We say we cannot afford the corrective measures required while the cost of non-action mounts into trillions of dollars and countless lives lost or uprooted.  In example, the current covid-19 pandemic may certainly be looked upon as the result of the encroachment by humans and their commerce into wilderness areas causing the transmission of a virus from animal to human not seen before.  In the U.S., hundreds of thousands have died and millions sickened, yet our social and political fabric is being torn apart by those who would deny the science that points the way beyond this plague. We are warned that this may just be the beginning of pandemic threats as rainforest logging and permafrost melting may release more viruses and bacteria for which we have no acquired immunity.  Yet humanity seems to be whistling through its own graveyard. 

The astounding denial accompanying covid-19 is illustrative of a human trait which highlights exactly how difficult it will be to bring the united effort required in facing the accumulating threats looming over the horizon.  In fact, the covid-denial-resistance points to another socio-political circumstance where reality itself seems to be challenged in this era of “alternative fact,” disinformation, and conspiracy-driven politics that makes effective social and governmental response to any challenge nearly impossible.  The conservative mind, in its desperation to hold on to fantasies of a society that can no longer exist given current realities, seems willing to bring down our society and democracy rather than face the needs of this new world, their fears and prejudices exploited cynically by unscrupulous political, media, and financial opportunists.  Liberals seem equally focused on “us against them” politics, engaging in this fight with conservatives, insisting we confront long-standing injustices that require acknowledgment and reparations – worthy battles for sure – but distracting from the necessity of creating a positive inclusive vision of a world where these injustices simply do not exist.  We do seem to be a bunch of fools headed to the breakdown of our social order and perhaps be driven to extinction by our own dysfunctionality.

We celebrate that we have built a world of opulence and entertainment beyond past generations’ wildest imaginings, but have we built a world that is sustainable?  Consider that collectively we are acting in a manner analogous to an individual who gives all the appearance of great wealth, but upon their passing it is discovered that rather than a great estate, a great load of debt has been left to the heirs.  Rather than a life of continued luxury as they had anticipated, the heirs find their life is in ruin.  As things currently stand, this analogous scenario to our collective situation is a near certainty.  We are accruing a debt with Nature and with each other that will bring us to total ruin if we do not become conscious of what we are doing and begin committing to the needed responsible course corrections.

Fools we are, yet as Friar Rohr calls to us, there is needed another kind of fool, what he calls a “holy fool,” to save us.  While fixing our problems seems out of reach from within the mindset and practices of today, only a holy fool could believe that we are capable of making the quantum leap in consciousness required to build the utopia needed to save us from our headlong rush into dystopia.  Yet true holy fools will not be dissuaded from what others see as their impractical and seemingly impossible course, for they know what is true and do not need consent or agreement from those who clearly seem to be simply fools.

One such holy fool was Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously orated, “I have been to the mountaintop… and I have seen the promised land,” while noting that he would most likely not live to see the promised land actualized.  Yes, he was talking about a day when people “will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” but it is the same sense of prophetic idealism, of holy foolism, that must be applied, not just to the racial problems of our society, but to all the ignorance and small-mindedness that plagues us.  King was indeed calling for much more than racial justice; he was calling for a world of universal justice, including environmental justice, as he appealed for an army of holy fools to dedicate themselves to a vision that practical people will reject as simply naively over-idealistic.  It is time for those who will not be dissuaded, not by condemnation from the ignorant, scorn from the “practical,” nor the near certainty that they will not live long enough to see the fulfillment of a human utopia, to insist unshakably that there is within humanity this capacity, and who demand that its accomplishment is not simply desirable but a mortal necessity.  We need an army of holy fools who insist on climbing the mountain of idealism and pushing on to the promised land.

There is in front of us the choice either to enter into a dangerous and catastrophic decline or to rise to heights of human cooperation, wisdom, compassion, and creativity that the current streams of dominant political and institutional thought have yet to imagine.  There is a future we have to dare to believe in, and the current streams of thought, conservative or liberal, will not do, for both are focused into a small-mindedness we must evolve beyond.  The resolution of our tribal differences cannot be achieved through continued arguing over these differences, but only by creating an inspiring common identity as human beings facing our greatest challenge ever.  As Friar Rohr is telling us – “Conventional wisdom is inadequate.”  Radical reimagining of a world of universal inclusion, of the valuing of all humans together building a world where all life on the planet and the planet itself are safe and valued is required.  Impossible?  No.  Necessary, says the holy fool.

Rohr tells us that “The holy fool is the last stage of the wisdom journey,” and it is exactly the wisdom journey upon which humanity must embark.  As geologic eras are turning, so too must eras of human evolution into a kind of person and human society never seen before.  We’ve journeyed the path of power, wealth, prejudice, petty difference, and ego right to its dead-end, to where we are standing morally naked and intellectually dishonest amidst our delusions of opulence and privilege.  A radically new and different world is required.  An age of wisdom and compassion must come about if we are to survive with any quality to our lives and our civilization at all.

Who will be “like the little children,” who will be the holy fools who call out our naked blind arrogance?  Isn’t it time we admit that if we do not build a world of harmony, what we face will be Armageddon?  Isn’t it time we decide to bring our great technological power into the preservation rather than the exploitation of this world, into the building of a just and harmonious world for all?  Shouldn’t we be looking to make of this dawning Anthropocene epoch not the end of human civilization but its true beginning?   Another great holy fool, ecologist/cosmologist Thomas Berry, called for the Anthropocene epoch to become what he called the Ecozoic Age, characterized by humanity’s full assumption of its responsibility to shepherd and nurture a healthy Earth ecology, humanity in community with all Life.  He posited that this is not only how we will save the planet, but how we will save ourselves, individually and collectively, healing humanity’s rift with its own nature, rediscovering our place within Nature and the Universe.  After all, isn’t it this rift that has been driving us insane, and isn’t it time to stop being simply fools and to become the holy fools this world so desperately needs and that we too so desperately need to become?   

Not the Usual “-ism”

Real Buddhism is not really an “ism.”  It’s a process, an awareness, an openness, a spirit of inquiry… It is more accurate to call it ‘the teaching of the awakened,’ or the buddha-dharma. – Roshi Steve Hagan, author of Buddhism: Plain and Simple

Here we are.

Though there is a religion that carries the name, Buddhism also can be understood as a philosophy, an approach to life, and here it can be helpful to realize that the Sanskrit root word “budh” means to awaken or gain consciousness.  So, from this perspective, Buddhism can readily be seen as a personal and collective psychology handed down over the centuries, its purpose being the liberation, or awakening, of human beings out of the unnecessary pain and suffering we cause ourselves, each other, and the Natural World.   Another term that is used for this philosophy is “buddha-dharma” which translates as awakened-path, dharma being a word that means the way of Nature or the Universe.  It is also the path or teachings that awaken us into the Way or the secrets of the Universe, into what really is, not what we have been told, imagine, or believe.  Unlike the Western religions, it is not made up of laws and dogma revealed by God through a prophet, but rather of teachings about the nature of life arrived upon through deep exploration of the human condition.

Before there was a religion called Buddhism, there was simply a brilliant analyst and teacher, Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as the Buddha, the “Awakened One,” who understood fully that the path to a sane and satisfying life is in breaking free of all dogma, whether it is religious, political, cultural, social, or personal.  Unique among religions, Buddhism makes a particular emphasis on the teachings not being accepted or believed without bringing personal experience to bear as confirmation.  In this way, what is often called a spiritual teaching is not what we conventionally understand as spiritual, or other worldly, but rather practical advice for living in a manner that brings us peace, wisdom, and a sense of belonging and connection within our day-to-day lives and within the infinite miracle that is the Universe. 

Buddhism points us to experiencing our everyday lives with ever-deepening subtlety, clarity, and insight as unfolding within the unity, the connectedness and numinousness of all things in the truth of the here-and-now.  In this way, these teachings are remarkably similar to what is attributed to Jesus when it is written in the Gospel of Thomas that “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land,” and that “The Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize it is you.”   Buddhism recognizes, however, as did Jesus, that this is true only for those “with the eyes to see.”  Buddhism then is about awakening our sleepy eyes so that they can see the creative, mystical, unifying dimension beneath our everyday lives.  It points us to the realm of the Spiritual Universe, that dimension of infinitely wise and compassionate consciousness that underpins, pervades, connects, and gives rise to all things of the material universe.

Buddhism is, in fact then, about recognizing the realm of that which is not of the world of matter and form, of our bodies, our minds, our possessions, accomplishments, and circumstances, yet gives rise to and supports this world of matter and form.  It is about recognizing the truth of who we are that transcends all stories we carry in our minds concerning our personal history or circumstance, our traumas, delights, failures, and victories, and resolves all contradictions into paradoxical unity.  It is pointing us to the spiritual realm within and all around us, the mysterious unifying consciousness that beats our hearts, causes the miracle that is our bodies to function harmoniously just as the galaxies exist in perfect harmony. 

This realm of pure consciousness is the true source of creativity and compassion, beneath the noisy mind, bringing us into harmonious flow with Life.  It allows us to know love, the truth of connection.  It allows us to know a loved one is in difficulty before we are told.  It opens us to insights that we have no idea how we arrive upon, and whispers to us of the creative intelligent source of this Universe, and that somehow, we know Eternity as our true home.  It is sometimes referred to as the realm of non-duality, or oneness, while duality is our ever-challenging experience of separateness in a difficult world made up of objects all regarded as useful, challenging, or irrelevant.   Buddhism points us to the resolution of duality and opens the gate into non-duality or what can be called enlightenment, which is just a way of saying peaceful, insightful, compassionate existence within what is.  But because our culture steeps us in duality-only consciousness, understanding non-duality, or enlightenment, can be a great challenge, a gate we cannot figure out how to open.  To this quandary, Buddhism calls us to recognize that there is no gate, that we ARE the mystery embodied, that opening the gate is a matter of relaxing into basic truths. 

As the mystery embodied, one way for us to understand non-duality is to give deep and subtle consideration to this human organism that we know to be ourselves. While we can recognize that we are a person, an organism, with a body and mind and social circumstances, with subtler consideration we can also recognize that we happen within larger collective human organisms known as families and affiliations, communities, societies, races, nations, and the human species.  And so, too, we happen within still larger and larger communities of organisms and of the ecology of this planet Earth, an organism in itself, and beyond, on into the vastness of the Universe, all a unity of organization and balance.  If we begin to think within the interconnections of biology rather than the material separateness of physics, we can begin approaching a subtler truth of who we are.

And to fully comprehend ourselves we must also turn our view from the macroscopic to the microscopic, realizing that we exist as a system of organs – of lungs, heart, stomach, brain, circulatory system, etc., all that have their individual form and function, yet exist codependently upon each other in supporting the larger entity.  We also coexist and codepend with microbes, with bacteria, fungi, archaea, and viruses, and we are made up of trillions of cells, and deeper still, of molecules and atoms, and deeper still down into the sub-atomic realm, where we find ourselves in the undifferentiated unity of the quantum mystery.  Beneath, above, and all around the seeming separateness of physical forms and the ideas of separateness we create in our minds about who we are, if we look keenly enough, we find the scientific truth that we are a system of interconnections and interdependence, Life and intelligence happening through all time and space, perfectly balanced and harmonious, unities within unities. This can well be understood as the meaning of dharma, the great what-is, the union, the non-duality within which duality happens.  This is the realm that Buddhism, as well as mystical traditions within every culture and religion, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, along with aboriginal cultures, all understood.  We are never separate, rather, we exist in connection, all as one.

In contemporary life, our culture ignores this larger perspective to existence and fails to give validation to it when experienced, as it is in circumstances sometimes referred to as “flow” or “zone,” “high,” “tuned in,” or “spiritual.”   It happens through sports, the arts, our professional and recreational skills, relationships, and sometimes, spiritual experience – moments where the sense of separate self dissolves into a unity with the action, elements, and environment of the moment. Yet despite our culture’s denial, there is a growing pull to this perspective because it resonates within us as true, giving rise to another Buddhist principle, that of karma – conscious attention to the effects, harmonious and deleterious, to the natural unfolding, of actions and causes in our lives and in the world around us.  Likewise, while more and more there is the experience that our society, culture and religions are failing because they feel shallow, conflicted, divisive, and false, there is a growing attraction to the ideas and experience that Buddhism and other non-Western spiritual traditions offer.  There is growing understanding of the importance of ecology and cutting-edge physics that points to a world of unity manifesting as diversity, all underpinned with a brilliant intelligence, and laws that must be observed.  We are beginning to awaken to the need for attending to our responsibility as agents of karma. 

Buddhism gives us these teachings and then tells us we must take whatever intellectual understanding we have concerning them and always push further into actual experience.  We are instructed that we must push through our lazy minds with meditation and mindfulness practices that train and refine our mental capacities for concentration, stability, and practical – as well as what gets called mystical or spiritual – insight.   We are led to open the intuitive sense of “knowing,” generally neglected, if not scorned, in this culture that leads to understanding that which the limited dimension of thought can only barely represent.

This opening requires breaking free of what Buddhism refers to as egoic-delusion, the fictions we carry in our minds, conditioned into us by our social, cultural, and personal psychological influences that cause us to believe we are our neurotic stories in a chaotic world of competing separate entities that must struggle with each other to safeguard our psychological, social, and physical existence.  This keeps our attention on the challenge of finding security outside ourselves by making more of “me,” and we fail to be in direct experience of Life as it unfolds moment to moment, where our life really happens.  The term egoic-delusion brilliantly points us to the insight that living inside our sense of self as a completely separate physical and psychological entity in competitive and consuming relationship with a world of likewise separate entities is a psychologically destabilizing and unsatisfactory perspective.  This small invention of a self fails to grasp the inherent dharmic and karmic realities of harmonious interconnection and interdependence, and that Buddhism uses the psychological term of “delusion,” meaning being caught in a false view that is akin to mental illness, points us to the basic psychological purpose of Buddhist teaching.

Buddhism then offers as prescription for this mental illness, teachings and practices aimed at establishing a healthy and stable mind and sense of self free of delusion and insecurity, attuned to reality, to what-is, to dharma and karma.  No, this is not the usual kind of “ism” that instructs us in a set of beliefs to which we are to religiously dedicate ourselves.  It is a call to awakening and sanity, unfolding one moment at a time.  It is a call to living in that most elusive of Buddhist teaching tools, the koan – elusive because the koan is a call to enter into the heart of Life with all our senses and faculties to reveal our true nature and the nature of existence as it unfolds moment to moment.  A most unusual kind of “ism.”  Yes, Here we are.  The Gate is swinging open.

Come to Your Senses, Come to Life

We sat together the forest and I

Merging into silence

Until only the forest remained. – Li Po  (8th century Chinese poet)

Come to a beautiful spot in nature.  You can journey to a special isolated and beautiful spot or, if you are as fortunate as I am, there is a place at or near your home that fulfills the essential characteristics.  Let it be somewhere that nature is bountiful and playful, yet mysterious and deep.  Let it be a day of blue sky and white clouds, perhaps with a gentle breeze.  Let it be a place where you can have solitude or at least relative solitude with only an occasional passer-by.  Let it be a place with trees where the breeze is caressing and playing the leaves and branches of the trees as if they are harps. Let it be a place where there are birds singing, maybe crows cawing, maybe squirrels scampering through the trees.  Flowers, ferns, moss or interesting stones, fallen branches or logs will enhance the magic of the place.  Perhaps it will be a place with a brook flowing and singing, or a waterfall, a small waterfall that does not overwhelm the other sounds, but rather is an instrument in the orchestra.  – Or – This “forest” may be looking out from your porch or deck, or a place in your yard.  It might even be inside, in a room looking out a window, or even in a room with plants and pictures, or whatever.  What is important is that this “forest” be a place of solitude and comfort to you.

Sit. Feel your own breathing and body sensations. Bring your full attention into this moment sitting in your “forest.”   Look with soft and loving eyes.  Listen with keen and appreciative ears.  Feel with your whole being.  Feel with your soul.  Breathe so deeply into this moment that you realize that breath is Life, and you share in Life with all that is breathing around you.  You breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, as does every creature.  The plants and trees around you breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.  We breathe together making Life.   This air about us is the medium for Life; it connects us in Life.  We are within the perfect balance and harmony that is the Universe at a dimension larger than our personal likes and dislikes, good fortune and misfortune.  This is refuge.  This is home.

Eckhart Tolle answers the great Zen question, “Who are we?” by replying, “the space of the moment arising in awareness.”  Allan Watts answers the same question, “The Universe peering into itself from billions of points of view.” And elsewhere you may encounter, “the Universe having a human experience.”  We are the “forest.”  We are consciousness entering into an intersection of space and time through the biological technology that is a human-being. 

We are an organism evolved by the Universe over 14 billion years to have eyes and ears and senses and a nervous system and the most complex organization of matter in the known Universe that is the human brain generating an experience in consciousness called mind.  We actually have the remarkable ability to sit and open our field of personal consciousness to be this moment, sharing with all that likewise is arising in the space of this moment.  Where?  in Eternity, of course – and – right where we are sitting, where Eternity is entering into the particular. 

Our biology with its sense organs creates perceptions that create the experience of mind, that creates the idea of a separate self, yet we are never not the arising moment and all it contains.  How could we not be?  How could we not be this experience shared with all that co-arises with us?  Yet because we have never been culturally affirmed to be this inclusive consciousness, this perspective eludes us.  Our culture only affirms the idea of our being a separate self with all its worries and insecurities.  We have lost touch with what is primary, with what is real beneath what we believe to be real.  All around us, within and through us is the “space of the moment,” the energy of consciousness, which like the air, connects and brings forth the space of Life “arising in awareness” shared with all that is likewise arising.

Ancients and mystics of all generations have known that a doorway into the mystical, into a deeper level of what is real, is through the senses, through directing finely focused attention into both the particulars and the vastness of the moment.  An ancient Zen story tells of a very eager but over-intellectualizing student asking the Zen teacher to advise as to how to enter into Zen.  The old sage directed the student to the very distant sound of a stream, saying, “Listen, listen.”  At first the student had a difficult time being sufficiently still and quiet, but with a little breath consciousness and centering, was able at last to hear the faintest sound of a stream. The teacher then assured, “You can enter into Zen from there.”  And when Zen Master Ikkyu was asked, “What is Zen?” He answered, “Attention.”  When asked to elaborate, he reiterated, “Attention, Attention, Attention.” 

What is Zen?  Zen is Life.  What are we?  We are usually distracted blurs off in our neurotic minds forgetting that we too are Life.  This is why we need Zen.  The path of Zen is to get us out of our neurotic minds and back into Life, and for this, we need to bring our attention fully into Life.  We need to bring our full attention, utilizing our senses, into the moment.  We need to realize the immediacy and the vastness, the multidimensionality and the boundarylessness of “Here and Now.”  This moment.  Attention!  Not anxious and darting attention, but a courageous and curious attention, the attention of a mystic looking into the deepest secrets of Life. Stillness looking into stillness, yet the stillness is flowing with secrets and meaning.  As Li Po so poignantly expressed, it is to merge into silence with the forest until only the forest remains.  This means entering through the gateway of the physical senses into another neglected sense, the sense of intuition, the silent under-field of intelligent and all-connecting consciousness that is what is called to when the Zen master points us to our original mind.  This is what it is to enter into Zen. 

Yet we do not live isolated in a natural forest.  We have responsibilities and relationships.   We live in houses with yards in communities in towns, maybe in a city.  We live surrounded by artificial structures and people hurrying about fulfilling their roles within a society.  A modern Zen addresses this as the forest and the mountain stream.  An ancient Zen sage when asked “What is Zen?” replied, “Everyday life.” Only now everyday life is not 8th century China or 10th century Japan, it is 21st century America.  Zen is still Zen.

Now let us return to our idyllic setting and query as to why this setting facilitated an experience we might call transcendental in that it transcended our usual way of experiencing ourself in the world.  Whereas in our day-to-day life the boundary of “me” and “other” is pretty well fixed and strong, when in that magical setting, the boundaries softened considerably, perhaps as in Li Po’s poem, dissolving completely.  How did that happen?  Was it the trees that made it happen, or the breeze, or the brook, or the birds?  Upon consideration we have to realize that no, these elements could not have been the source of the transcendent experience, only the stimulus.  We are our own source in infinite connection with Nature and all Existence.  How could we not be?  The forest in its overwhelming beauty only allowed our egoic mind to relax enough for us to let down the barrier of our conditioned way of living through thinking.  And there we were, our senses wide open, the forest that contained a human being along with the trees, the ferns, the birds, the moss and fallen logs.

To live a contemporary Zen, we show up in the world, the world as-it-is, now not an idyllic mountain forest, but the forest of our lives, living, feeling, seeing, listening into the particulars and the vastness, the multidimensionality and the boundarylessness, our senses wide open and receptive. We don’t think about it.  Not yet.  We let the silence, the stillness of “attention,” open us into an understanding deeper than thought.  We allow the space for “knowing” to arise out of not-knowing, just as Li Po knew the forest.  We are Life experiencing and knowing Life.  After a measure of sitting in the knowing, now we can think.  We can think deep and clear, searching for words that approximate what we know and strategies for actualizing what we know.  And now we can act.  We can act as Nature acts.  Alan Watts said that to live in Zen is to be as unaffectedly human as a tree is unaffectedly a tree.  To live everyday life as a very identifiable “me” while simultaneously being the mysterious Zen “nobody,” remaining merged in the silence with “the forest,” is to live Zen.

This is the mystical realm of Zen, and the doorway is through the senses and the senses are right where we are, not wandering off to other places and times as does the mind.  Here – right where we are – in the particular and the vastness.  What is the particular?  It is looking deeper and deeper into the detail and seeing how all the detail fits together into something larger that fits into something larger and something still larger.  Deeper and larger, realizing “here” is just a point in the unfolding of the Everything, down into the subatomic and out into the Cosmos.  Here we sit.  When we truly can see ourselves and all “things” as they actually are, both in our/ itself and in our/its endless relationships, we have arrived at the doorway of Zen. And where is that?  Where else could it be other than Here.  Here is where we and all the secrets of the Universe come together.  Where else could it be? Ah…… This is Zen.   

The Eyes of Being

“Being must be felt. It can’t be thought.” “In today’s rush we all think too much, seek too much, want too much and forget about the joy of just Being.”  –  “You must “Become conscious of being conscious.” ― Eckhart Tolle

The Zen Master exhorts, “This!”  and we are puzzled.  “Sensei, What is ‘This?’”  “This!” Is the reply, arms arcing open.   “The breeze caressing the trees.  The fresh shades of green to the growth of Spring.  The scent of pollen in the air.  This.  Look around you.  Listen.  Feel.  This.  ‘This’ is you and me standing here looking at each other striving to understand one another.  It is the sky, the Earth, Life, this little flower.  It is this breath, this look in my eye.  This.”

And then you realize there is only “This” – as vast as the universe and as focused as a drop splashing into a puddle or a leaf on a tree.  “This” is the wispy branches the leaves dance upon.  It is the wind, the tree, and the tree against the sky. It is the sky.  It is the entirety of the scene of the moment and it is focusing upon the smallest detail.  It is me and it is you and it is the next person our journey passes.  All this, and everything, is the “This!” the sensei is calling us to.

The morning owl hoots.
There’s a chill
moving to warmth.
Birds are chirping.
The tree branches are stirred in the breeze
as a squirrel scampers about.
I raise coffee to my lips,
its aroma announcing its approach,
my hands holding its warmth.
The sun is low among
light clouds in the sky.
The breeze stirs again,
My face is cooled
yet warmed in the sun’s growing light
as Eternity shimmers,
holding us all.

The question is, are you paying attention to all of “This” or are you too caught in your wandering mind?  For too many, far too often, our sense of life is lived looking through and past Life, looking superficially while our mind is occupied with thinking about ourselves and the stories running in our mind over other concerns, all played out in time.  We are mentally in the past and future.  We do not SEE the World we move through.   Nor do we truly see the fellow Beings of the World we encounter on our journey.  We do not journey with Life.  We move through Life. We are an object passing other objects, getting……. somewhere.  But where we get is never enduringly satisfying or fulfilling because we are looking with the eyes of ego.  We are an object interacting with objects.  We seem always to be looking past or through what really matters, this moment in Life – This!

We are caught in the mental realm of the ego, a mental construct of a person, and the eyes of ego are the eyes of desire, of aversion and self-doubt.  Everything is measured in its desirability or aversion to this ego-self, caught in its sense of separateness and insecurity.  And there is never enough of it or me.  We doubt ourselves and we doubt the World – and it takes great arrogance and self-absorption to doubt the World – yet ego is exactly that arrogant and self-absorbed.  Buddhists call this dukkha; it is suffering and dissatisfaction. 

Redirect your eyes.  Come back to “This” that has been greatly overlooked.  Look deeply and sincerely.  Look with eyes of wonder, look to see the Life within the focus of our gaze, look with your deepest Being and you will see Beingness and connection and Life everywhere.  Don’t look out AT Life.  Look from within Life, as Life.  This is who we are.  What else could we or any expression of Life be?  The result of such seeing will be numinous, it will be wonder and amazement, and the felt sense will be of the deepest gratitude.  Life is.  There is no abstraction to Life.  It is Here and it is Now.  And it is Always.  It is everything.  It is infinite individuality and it is infinite connectedness and unity.  It cannot exclude you or me for we are within Life.  We are manifestations of Life, and Life manifests as infinite diversity through infinite connectedness in the unity of Existence.  I am.  We are.  Life is.  This!

Yet we do not see.  We are too busy and distracted, caught mentally in some story we are telling ourselves about who we are and what the world is, all coming out of the past and projected into the future.  This is the mind of ego creating a filter, a screen of projected ideas about the World through which we see the World, and the World becomes just flat and thin and superficial.  We are only looking for the elements of the World that fit into our story of desire and aversion.  The depth, the beauty, the luminescence, the connectedness, the wonder, the miracle is not seen.  It is all lost, dimmed and blurred by the spinning thoughts about the narrative that fills our consciousness.

Eckhart Tolle tells us we must “Die to the past every moment.”  He tells us to “…Feel the power of this moment and the fullness of Being. Feel your presence.”  He is telling us to let go of any absolute assumptions.  Yes, the present will TEND to be an extension of that which is past, and the future will TEND to be reenactments of what we think and do now – yet – in this present moment, possibilities that we are missing exist.  In fact, Infinity exists.  The World exists always in its vastness and in its beautiful suchness and thusness, yet unless we come into the moment with the eyes of Being, with the level of absolute non-thought presence Tolle is calling us to, we will only see Life through our own shallow story.  We will be unable to …Feel the power of this moment and the fullness of Being.

We can read teachings such as Tolle’s and Buddhism and think, this sounds good, but “How?”  How do we actualize this Nirvana they are pointing to?  Tolle tells us, “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” – And here, we may find our mind saying – “What?!”  We have nothing in our education or psychologies that makes sense of this statement.  Yet we know there is truth here. 

If you can notice mental activity, you must realize there is a dimension of consciousness that is noticing.  You can also notice how when the mind is thinking something, we sometimes experience a silent sense telling us whether the thought is worthwhile or not – a sense that is not a thought. Yet it seems to be more intelligent, more insightful than the dimension of mind thinking the thoughts.  This is the dimension of Being.  It is the silent intelligence behind the thoughts, an intelligence that directs our hands to delicate tasks, that causes our heart to beat and our lungs to breathe.  It is all our organs and the mystery of a thousand systems and processes that is our body functioning with miraculous precision.  The body works thusly – with no thought – a silent sentience directing and harmonizing it all.  Yet we never consider this precision or realize that the mind, when left to its natural state, must likewise be this perfect, for mind and body are one, as are me, you, everyone and the World.  All “This” is profoundly connected and in harmony.  Life is not shallow and neither are we.  Life is deep, multi-layered, and luminescent and so are we, but we must come out from behind the ego filter that dulls everything as it seeks only the fulfillment of its agenda.

Come into the moment with eyes and ears and senses open and without commentary.  See.  Hear.  Feel.  This will bring the mind to silence.  Then – look deeper, listen more keenly, feel more subtly.  “This!”  Breathe consciously the breath of Life and look into Life with the eyes of Life.  “This.”  And it can then be any ”this” that comes alive, shimmering in Eternity.  “This” is the proverbial “mustard seed” and the drop of water realizing that is the ocean.

Tolle tells us in answer to the great Zen question, “Who are we?” that we are “The space of the moment arising in awareness.”  Again – “What!” – we think we have no point of reference, no experience here, yet of course we do.  Like fish swimming in water and not noticing water because it is the constant of their lives, we fail to notice we exist in a field of consciousness within which all our experience occurs.  The things filling our experience can be noisy and prone to conflict and problems, but that which is experiencing it all is silent and dynamically still, like the vast and deep water of the ocean.  The really true miracle is when any experience is looked at with the eyes of Being.  Then we can see a dynamic stillness at the heart of the thing, a profound silence even emanating from the greatest cacophony.  

“There!”  “This!”  Enter into the silent awareness with silent awareness.  We must “become conscious of being conscious.”  We must become conscious of BEING consciousness.  When we see with the eyes of Being we are going deeper, and it is deeper into Now, this eternal moment within which all form passes.  Here we will find the “original face,” the uncontaminated consciousness the Zen master calls us to.  This is the realm of Being where the luminescent and the shimmering reality of Eternity surrounds our everyday life, where we find that we live within a flowing stillness of purity.  Penetrating deeply into “This!” the ordinary is seen in its sacred Truth, where an ordinary flower and the next person you meet becomes the face of God.  Ordinary life is experienced as Life Eternal.  “THIS!” Tolle shares, “Stillness is also inner peace, and that stillness and peace are the essence of your Being.  It is inner stillness that will save and transform the world.”  Yes, beneath the cacophony and confusion there is stillness, peace, wisdom, compassion, and essence.  Yes, here is the realm of Being, but to see it we must learn to look deeply and lovingly.  We must learn to look with the eyes of our Being.  Then, having seen Paradise right in the world we live day-to-day, we must learn to walk this land, to master this, the most important journey we will ever make.  Why?  Because in order for it to save and transform the world, it will first have to save and transform us, and it will.

It’s Time to Reinvent Ourselves

Friar Richard Rohr – “Those who will lead into the future will have some hard-won wisdom. We might call them the “holy fools.”… They are persons who are happily, but not naïvely, innocent of everything the rest of us take for granted…  they are not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals)… According to the pattern, the wise fools are always formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away and they must go deeper and much higher for wisdom. As a result, they no longer fit or belong among their own. Yet paradoxically, they alone can point the way to the “promised land” or the “new Jerusalem.” Conventional wisdom is inadequate, even if widely held by good people.”  –  from What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self 

Here we are, God willing, ready to come out the other side of the covid-19 crisis.  We have all been “shut-down” to some significant level for the past year and if people and politicians can manage enough wisdom and patience to hold to safety protocols for another few months, we can get beyond this.  An important question, however, that does not seem to be being asked, is what are we going to be as a nation and people when we come out of this tunnel?  Folks say they are ready for “normal” to resume. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think it ought to happen. I don’t think it can happen. 

Here we are in the year 2021.  That’s 21 years into the 21st century.  I find it interesting that historically, by now, there ought to be some pretty radical rethinking of our society.  Consider how dramatically different the world looked in 1921 from what it was in 1890.  The First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the labor movement, the women’s right-to vote, surrealist art, the birth of relativity and quantum physics, and the invention of psychology were among the culture-shattering events that took place during those thirty years.  The way people thought of themselves, society, norms, and what is possible had changed dramatically in those years.  One hundred years earlier, consider how different the world looked in 1821 from what it was in 1790.  The age of political revolution, following the tectonic-shift event of the American Revolution in the decade before, toppled kings and set forth democracy and rationalism as the underpinning of the Western political world while another revolution, the industrial revolution, was reinventing economics and even the way people regarded themselves and each other as economic classes.  Bold rethinking concerning individuality and society took place. 

Yet here we are in 2021; it seems, pretty well anchored in 20th century consciousness.  Yes, the digital and automation revolutions are reshaping and disrupting the economy and social cohesiveness, and white, heterosexual, male dominance of the society is being challenged.  Another huge challenge – climate change driven by human activity – is raising its profile from the theoretical into actuality.  We are also right in the middle of perhaps the most serious challenge to our democratic political norms in our history and cannot yet see how this will play out.  The explosion of information sources through the internet and cable television are challenging the assumptions of freedom of speech, and a new word, “disinformation,” the new-speak for old fashioned propaganda, conspiracy, and paranoid fantasy has crept into our politics and society.   

Democracy and truth-telling having won the most recent election, but the Republican Party flirts ever more openly with fascism and seems to have set its sights on grabbing political control through fear and loathing politics and disenfranchisement of those not their supporters.  And, of course, the covid-19 pandemic that has shut down our social and economic worlds is still with us, its end possibly slipping away as these forces of ideology over truth seem intent on undermining not only democracy but science.  Half-a-million deaths are seemingly an inadequate cost and warning to dissuade truth-deniers from their insistence that the economy that rewards the wealthy, their perverse understanding of freedom as license, and the preservation of the various discriminations and ignorances that still beset our society are what must be preserved regardless of cost. 

Certainly the circumstances for a radical rethinking, a reinvention, of society are playing out.  It might be argued that William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming” written in 1919, seems to have a ring of applicability to our current situation.  This passage from the poem seems particularly applicable: 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 The same alarm and apprehension as Yeats expressed as the twentieth century unfolded seems quite appropriate to our current historic time.  We cannot continue on the path we are on.  New thinking at the level of those who shape decisions and policy is imperative, yet scarcely found.  This is why the words that begin this column, from a spiritual source rather than a political analyst, caught my attention.  The “Holy Fool” that Franciscan Friar Rohr describes seems needed and is much like what Zen Buddhism calls us to as “beginner’s mind,” the mind that comes fresh into the moment and circumstance without preconceived ideas, that has no investment in protecting or reacting against the past, its only interest being the truth and needs of the moment.  Such a mind, such minds, seem called for in this time.   

I have asserted in previous columns, and I assert again here, that nothing less than aiming our sights at utopia can spare us from falling into dystopia.  We must begin to open the way into a new world, new out of necessity, for the old one is clearly done – and the question is what will this new world be?  Yeats’s world in 1919 was clearly not done with dystopia.  Fascist takeovers of much of Europe and Asia (and this includes Stalin’s and Mao’s perversion of socialism in Russia and China into authoritarian nightmares) were unfolding, preparing to sacrifice more tens of millions to megalomaniacal dogmatism and ignorance.  The question is, can we escape a similar descent, for the course we are presently on seems to be taking us dangerously close to the borderlands of corrupt autocracy, collapsing ecosystems, and cultural dystopia. 

Does it not seem that we must dedicate ourselves to creating what in the Judeo-Christian vocabulary that Friar Rohr employed, can be called “the promised land,” “The New Jerusalem?”  (Being careful that, conventionally, this term has been misappropriated by those who would bring only apocalypse.)  Rather, I suggest we look to what in the Book of Isaiah, describes New Jerusalem as a place free from terror and full of righteousness.   

Free from terror.  Free not only from violent political terror by desperate and often evil people, but free from the cultural and psychological terror of even “good people” who demand that the old order be maintained because they haven’t the vision, compassion, courage, or audacity to reinvent themselves or society in a manner that can address the current challenge.  This new world requires that it must be a place of “righteousness,” here, the word pointing us only to rightness, to that which is virtuous, not its conventional use as punishing judgmentalism.   We must look to the Holy fools, the innocents who for years have been pointing to the “Emperor” of conventional wisdom declaring as we emerged into the twenty-first century that the fine clothes of commercialism and materialism leave us spiritually naked, beset by greed, narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty, many lingering forms of discrimination, and of alienation from the natural world separating us from our essence and true security.  These “fools” see that what is “normal” is naked of true righteousness – of rightness, of honesty, of goodness, of wisdom, of compassion, and of sustainability. 

For years these Holy fools have been marginalized, exiled, often quite alienated from conventional society – bohemians and spiritual seekers, much as it was in the early twentieth century with the rise of existentialism in philosophy and psychology, abstractionism in art, cultural libertarianism, utopian socialism, and a search for the mystery behind religious dogma in such explorations as Theosophy.  Today these same trends are re-expressing themselves particularly in those who turn to unconventional spiritual exploration in non-dual traditions from the East and even, as Rohr represents, a new wave of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mysticism.  It can be found in those who explore deep ecology’s path for healing our rent with our natural world. Consciousness, connection, and intuitive creativity are the inspiration for this reinvention, the source and essence of who we are and what must guide us.   

We must call ourselves to fresh thinking, to a reinvention of our society, to be free of the terrors of poverty, hunger, ignorance, medical and financial insecurity, discrimination, extreme economic disparity, democratic and human rights erosion, and environmental collapse.  We are being called to imagine a righteous world built on the rightness of truth, science, compassion, democracy, individuality within common purpose, to respect, justice, dignity, and humanity’s endless connectedness, not only within itself but with all life and this planet that sustains us.  In other words, we are called to utopia, and we all know that only a fool could think that utopia is possible.  Yet it is increasingly clear that the comfortable middle, the continuation of the way things have been is impossible.  We see a fork in the road and because of humanity’s destabilizing of all that is natural and honest in the world, we seem at a moment of extreme peril.  

Here, at this fork in the road stand conservatives and liberals arguing, possibly ready to go to civil war, over how to preserve what was when we need to invent what can and needs to be.  An epochal moment is at hand when humanity must make a monumental shift in consciousness from dualistic separateness, competition and exploitation into a wholistic awareness of diversity within connection as the basis for life and society.  Instead of looking forward with apprehension in the manner that Yeats, a bohemian of his time, ended his poem, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” we need to look to the bohemians and spiritualists of our time, those who “no longer fit or belong among their own,”  who “formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away… go deeper and much higher for wisdom.”  We must have the vision and courage to reinvent ourselves individually and then collectively.   We must look to those who value connection rather than separation, who practice compassion instead of competition, who find the highest calling in brilliant creativity while preserving and cherishing what is righteously good about what has been.  Let us look to such fools to reinvent us, to “point the way to the “promised land”… the “new Jerusalem.”                                                         www.billwalz.com 

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It’s Time to Reinvent Ourselves

Friar Richard Rohr – “Those who will lead into the future will have some hard-won wisdom. We might call them the “holy fools.”… They are persons who are happily, but not naïvely, innocent of everything the rest of us take for granted…  they are not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals)… According to the pattern, the wise fools are always formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away and they must go deeper and much higher for wisdom. As a result, they no longer fit or belong among their own. Yet paradoxically, they alone can point the way to the “promised land” or the “new Jerusalem.” Conventional wisdom is inadequate, even if widely held by good people.”  –  from What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self

Here we are, God willing, ready to come out the other side of the covid-19 crisis.  We have all been “shut-down” to some significant level for the past year and if people and politicians can manage enough wisdom and patience to hold to safety protocols for another few months, we can get beyond this.  An important question, however, that does not seem to be being asked, is what are we going to be as a nation and people when we come out of this tunnel?  Folks say they are ready for “normal” to resume. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think it ought to happen. I don’t think it can happen.

Here we are in the year 2021.  That’s 21 years into the 21st century.  I find it interesting that historically, by now, there ought to be some pretty radical rethinking of our society.  Consider how dramatically different the world looked in 1921 from what it was in 1890.  The First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the labor movement, the women’s right-to vote, surrealist art, the birth of relativity and quantum physics, and the invention of psychology were among the culture-shattering events that took place during those thirty years.  The way people thought of themselves, society, norms, and what is possible had changed dramatically in those years.  One hundred years earlier, consider how different the world looked in 1821 from what it was in 1790.  The age of political revolution, following the tectonic-shift event of the American Revolution in the decade before, toppled kings and set forth democracy and rationalism as the underpinning of the Western political world while another revolution, the industrial revolution, was reinventing economics and even the way people regarded themselves and each other as economic classes.  Bold rethinking concerning individuality and society took place.

Yet here we are in 2021; it seems, pretty well anchored in 20th century consciousness.  Yes, the digital and automation revolutions are reshaping and disrupting the economy and social cohesiveness, and white, heterosexual, male dominance of the society is being challenged.  Another huge challenge – climate change driven by human activity – is raising its profile from the theoretical into actuality.  We are also right in the middle of perhaps the most serious challenge to our democratic political norms in our history and cannot yet see how this will play out.  The explosion of information sources through the internet and cable television are challenging the assumptions of freedom of speech, and a new word, “disinformation,” the new-speak for old fashioned propaganda, conspiracy, and paranoid fantasy has crept into our politics and society.  

Democracy and truth-telling having won the most recent election, but the Republican Party flirts ever more openly with fascism and seems to have set its sights on grabbing political control through fear and loathing politics and disenfranchisement of those not their supporters.  And, of course, the covid-19 pandemic that has shut down our social and economic worlds is still with us, its end possibly slipping away as these forces of ideology over truth seem intent on undermining not only democracy but science.  Half-a-million deaths are seemingly an inadequate cost and warning to dissuade truth-deniers from their insistence that the economy that rewards the wealthy, their perverse understanding of freedom as license, and the preservation of the various discriminations and ignorances that still beset our society are what must be preserved regardless of cost.

Certainly the circumstances for a radical rethinking, a reinvention, of society are playing out.  It might be argued that William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming” written in 1919, seems to have a ring of applicability to our current situation.  This passage from the poem seems particularly applicable:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The same alarm and apprehension as Yeats expressed as the twentieth century unfolded seems quite appropriate to our current historic time.  We cannot continue on the path we are on.  New thinking at the level of those who shape decisions and policy is imperative, yet scarcely found.  This is why the words that begin this column, from a spiritual source rather than a political analyst, caught my attention.  The “Holy Fool” that Franciscan Friar Rohr describes seems needed and is much like what Zen Buddhism calls us to as “beginner’s mind,” the mind that comes fresh into the moment and circumstance without preconceived ideas, that has no investment in protecting or reacting against the past, its only interest being the truth and needs of the moment.  Such a mind, such minds, seem called for in this time. 

I have asserted in previous columns, and I assert again here, that nothing less than aiming our sights at utopia can spare us from falling into dystopia.  We must begin to open the way into a new world, new out of necessity, for the old one is clearly done – and the question is what will this new world be?  Yeats’s world in 1919 was clearly not done with dystopia.  Fascist takeovers of much of Europe and Asia (and this includes Stalin’s and Mao’s perversion of socialism in Russia and China into authoritarian nightmares) were unfolding, preparing to sacrifice more tens of millions to megalomaniacal dogmatism and ignorance.  The question is, can we escape a similar descent, for the course we are presently on seems to be taking us dangerously close to the borderlands of corrupt autocracy, collapsing ecosystems, and cultural dystopia.

Does it not seem that we must dedicate ourselves to creating what in the Judeo-Christian vocabulary that Friar Rohr employed, can be called “the promised land,” “The New Jerusalem?”  (Being careful that, conventionally, this term has been misappropriated by those who would bring only apocalypse.)  Rather, I suggest we look to what in the Book of Isaiah, describes New Jerusalem as a place free from terror and full of righteousness. 

Free from terror.  Free not only from violent political terror by desperate and often evil people, but free from the cultural and psychological terror of even “good people” who demand that the old order be maintained because they haven’t the vision, compassion, courage, or audacity to reinvent themselves or society in a manner that can address the current challenge.  This new world requires that it must be a place of “righteousness,” here, the word pointing us only to rightness, to that which is virtuous, not its conventional use as punishing judgmentalism.   We must look to the Holy fools, the innocents who for years have been pointing to the “Emperor” of conventional wisdom declaring as we emerged into the twenty-first century that the fine clothes of commercialism and materialism leave us spiritually naked, beset by greed, narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty, many lingering forms of discrimination, and of alienation from the natural world separating us from our essence and true security.  These “fools” see that what is “normal” is naked of true righteousness – of rightness, of honesty, of goodness, of wisdom, of compassion, and of sustainability.

For years these Holy fools have been marginalized, exiled, often quite alienated from conventional society – bohemians and spiritual seekers, much as it was in the early twentieth century with the rise of existentialism in philosophy and psychology, abstractionism in art, cultural libertarianism, utopian socialism, and a search for the mystery behind religious dogma in such explorations as Theosophy.  Today these same trends are re-expressing themselves particularly in those who turn to unconventional spiritual exploration in non-dual traditions from the East and even, as Rohr represents, a new wave of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mysticism.  It can be found in those who explore deep ecology’s path for healing our rent with our natural world. Consciousness, connection, and intuitive creativity are the inspiration for this reinvention, the source and essence of who we are and what must guide us. 

We must call ourselves to fresh thinking, to a reinvention of our society, to be free of the terrors of poverty, hunger, ignorance, medical and financial insecurity, discrimination, extreme economic disparity, democratic and human rights erosion, and environmental collapse.  We are being called to imagine a righteous world built on the rightness of truth, science, compassion, democracy, individuality within common purpose, to respect, justice, dignity, and humanity’s endless connectedness, not only within itself but with all life and this planet that sustains us.  In other words, we are called to utopia, and we all know that only a fool could think that utopia is possible.  Yet it is increasingly clear that the comfortable middle, the continuation of the way things have been is impossible.  We see a fork in the road and because of humanity’s destabilizing of all that is natural and honest in the world, we seem at a moment of extreme peril.

Here, at this fork in the road stand conservatives and liberals arguing, possibly ready to go to civil war, over how to preserve what was when we need to invent what can and needs to be.  An epochal moment is at hand when humanity must make a monumental shift in consciousness from dualistic separateness, competition and exploitation into a wholistic awareness of diversity within connection as the basis for life and society.  Instead of looking forward with apprehension in the manner that Yeats, a bohemian of his time, ended his poem, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” we need to look to the bohemians and spiritualists of our time, those who “no longer fit or belong among their own,”  who “formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away… go deeper and much higher for wisdom.”  We must have the vision and courage to reinvent ourselves individually and then collectively.   We must look to those who value connection rather than separation, who practice compassion instead of competition, who find the highest calling in brilliant creativity while preserving and cherishing what is righteously good about what has been.  Let us look to such fools to reinvent us, to “point the way to the “promised land”… the “new Jerusalem.”

Truth, Necessity, and Kindness

“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: At the first gate, ask yourself ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary?’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?’” – Rumi (13th cent. Persian Sufi Poet and philosopher)

There is too much falseness in this world, too much indulgence in the superficial and needless, and there is too much cruelty. These three human propensities bring with them a great deal of emotional pain and suffering; they are injurious to well-being and happiness, to personal security and the development of stable and trustworthy relationships, they are poison to the development of psychologically healthy individuals and society.  Imagine how much better off we could be if these vices were not so prevalent, contaminating nearly every aspect of life.  Yet, it is not helpful to simply decry these human failings.  It is a negative to a negative.  There is no way to actualize not being false or indulgent, superficial, or cruel.  We can only actualize their opposite. We can only reverse these awful learned behaviors by deliberately being truthful, by focusing into the essential, and by practicing kindness.  These are what Buddhism calls virtues, and we must realize that human vice arises from our failure to nurture and practice virtue.  When focused into virtue, we begin to realize our natural goodness and goodness then becomes the product of our actions. 

We can realize that goodness is our nature because when actualizing goodness we experience the sense of its rightness as a feeling state of harmony, accompanied by a sense of expansive connection with the beneficiaries of the goodness and our gentle merging with the flow of the moment.  Likewise, while perhaps being pleasing to the ego, we know the felt sense of our vices because the feeling state is contracted with some degree of guilt and shame coloring our mental state.  We are sharply separated from the victims of our vice and the moment has a feel of jagged isolation from Life’s natural state of harmony.  We have elevated ourselves or our identity-group in our mind, but we have lost connection with all else.  This is a bigness trapped in a smallness.  It is uncomfortable for everyone.

The great appeal of Buddhism is that its singular focus is understanding the cause and the lessening of suffering in this world, and while Rumi is a Persian Islamic Sufi, his Three Gates of Speech – the gates of truth, necessity, and kindness – form as perfect a tripod of wisdom as there can be and is very harmonious with Buddhist, and for that matter, mystic Christian or Jewish, teaching.  A person can develop a true, deep, and powerfully transformative practice of personal and spiritual self-development if they consciously deepen their self-observant capacity, monitoring their failure to observe these virtues and, through intention followed by action, increasingly embody these virtues, not only in speech but in all their manners of expression. 

In Buddhism, speech is considered an action. It is how thoughts come into the dimension of form, the symbols in mind becoming spoken words, very little different from when impressions, intentions and reactions in the mind become physical actions and interactions.  Both our words and our actions have shape and color, nuance, inflection, weight, intention and, most importantly, effect.  Words and actions, how we bring our intention into manifestation, are what shape the reality we share with our fellow humans and with all of Life, society, and Nature.  The law of Karma tells us if we want a true and kind life and a true and kind society that attends to what is necessary in the fostering of harmony, we must cultivate and bring these qualities ourselves. 

We live in a society that is fractured by the elevation of tribalism and “alternative truth,” a deceptive way of saying lies, deliberately spread for purposes of causing divisions that can be exploited – and we are challenged to not allow the fracture to get worse.  We must first halt the downward spiral of deception, division, and derision our society has fallen into and redirect with our sincerest intention to rise above these vices of falseness, superficiality and meanness.  Whereas in the past, American political parties stood separated by policy ideas on how best to address the country’s needs, there now is a separation that seems based in conflicting notions of what is true and not true, what ought to be the depth and breadth of our democracy, and whether we are a people practicing inclusion and generosity or exclusion and privilege.  This argument over truth, direction and inclusion takes our society into truly perilous waters and we must be aware it has the potential to capsize and drown the very principles upon which the country is founded. 

Yet in this argument, we are challenged – how are we to know what is true from what is not true?  Buddhism tells us to have faith in ourselves.  As truth is virtue and falseness is vice, we can know them just as we know kind from cruel actions, by the way they feel and affect us, individually and collectively.   We must allow ourselves space to consider, to meditate upon, to be quiet with the swirling contradictions of our society and politics.  We must reach into our hearts to feel what feels expansive and connecting with our fellow citizens and with our civic circumstance, and so we can know this as true.  Likewise, we must attend to what is said and done that feels contracting and has as its purpose separation, competition, accusation, diminishment of others or exaggerated inflation of self, and feel the cruelty of it.  We can know its fruit will be suffering. 

The virtues of truth, necessity and kindness meet us and nurture us at our heart.  They engender our feeling complete and whole.  They nurture our capacity to be and give these very virtues to others, expanding a circle of social harmony.  The vices of falsehood, superficial distraction and cruelty always deplete us, individually and collectively, and when we can feel this in ourselves and see it in our society, this is how we can know what is true from false, what expands the founding principles of liberty and justice and what threatens them.  We will know, we will be able to see, that liberty and justice that do not include everyone ultimately threaten the liberty and justice of even the most privileged.

Like a song, a melody, that opens our hearts, rather than an anthem to conflict, the symphony that will stir our people into the future with confidence and optimism will be one that allows all the instruments to express themselves in harmony with the whole.   We must insist upon our national song being one of truth, necessity, and kindness, and we will surely soar, but should we remain mired in the current cacophony of lies, superficiality and cruel argument we will surely fall.  Each person who heeds Rumi’s call will be themselves rewarded with a life of greater harmony and clarity of purpose, reward enough in itself, yet also, they will become one more harmonious voice added to the national song, and slowly but certainly, our national chorus can move from cacophony to beautiful melody.At every instant and from every side, resounds the call of Love:
We are going to sky, who wants to come with us?
We have gone to heaven, we have been the friends of the angels,
And now we will go back there, for there is our country. –
Rumi

Myth and Meaning

“The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” – Viktor Frankl

“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.” – “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular – though profoundly mistaken – definition of myth as falsehood.” – Rollo May

To enter into a discussion of “myth” we must let go of our understanding of myth as either some fairy-tale or way in which ancient, long-dead cultures expressed themselves.  This is a misunderstanding of enormous importance for it completely ignores that just as ancient cultures revolved around stories of their origins and destiny, their heroes and villains, of opportunities and challenges, so do we today.  In many ways, the “myths” of individuals and societies are more important to a person’s or society’s sense of purpose, motivation, and well-being than the “facts.”  Myths are what we do with the facts, including sometimes ignoring them to create “alternate facts,” a capacity of the human mind that often leads to disaster.

Frankl and May were two particularly important psychological theorists of the mid-twentieth century who were foundational in the development of what is known as “existential psychology,” a psychology that sought to look at the problem of human neurosis and character in terms of the human need for meaning through stories of who and what we are as their driving themes.  They saw very clearly how crises for persons and society arose when life seemed to have no sense of meaningful and inspiring myths or when the myths took on the character of the “shadow” or dark side of human imagination.  Make no mistake about it, humans need to have meaning in their lives, and in the absence of positive meaning, we will readily embrace the negative, the shadow, all that is without regard for the sanctity of life and the dignity of others.

There is a reason why human beings have developed religions and mythologies, even economic and political ideologies.  There is a reason why humans create art and invention and go to war and dream of a peace that is more than just the absence of war.  There is a reason we create stories in films and books about villains and heroes.  And there is a reason we live inside stories that are deeply implanted in our minds about whether we are or are not good enough, worthy enough, capable enough, to live happy lives.  We are myth makers, just as we are culture makers and tool makers.  It is what humans do.

Existential psychology acknowledges this need and looks to engage with this dimension of the human psyche that conventional psychologies largely ignore.  Existential psychology emphasizes that both a successful society and full, happy human beings function best within living, inspiring myths that give positive meaning to our existence, and likewise, it tells us that to be possessed by dark myths of grievance, tribalism, suspicion and ignorance will bring suffering.  The important question for modern Americans is, to what degree do the myths of our modern era give vibrant or dark meaning?  And for far too many, are their myths so shallow and petty that they just bring a feeling of being lost?

Frankl, a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist, a survivor of the Holocaust, in an essay on the therapy technique he developed called “logotherapy,” stated that challenging physical and psychological circumstances can be transcended precisely “because of the self-transcendent quality of human existence, [that] being human always means being directed and pointing to something or someone other than itself.”  He is stating that a meaningful life is always pointed beyond the self-interest of the physical or personal psychological dimensions toward the dimension that can be loosely described as spiritual, yet he is also pointing toward the requirements for true sanity and mental health.  He declares that for stable and reliable mental health, there must be the experience of deep connection with life that is the realm of the human spirit, and there must be the ability to choose as one’s motivation and anchor a sense of self that is greater than who we are as individuals and our circumstances.  He posits, because he is living proof, that a human being, in even the most extreme of catastrophic circumstances, has the freedom to choose and to will a sense of transcendent meaning that allows us to face any darkness, whether it is within ourselves or in the world. 

Frankl is making the very radical assertion that there is an intelligence, a drive, within each human that must be acknowledged and accounted for in understanding humanity as individuals and collectively.  He further points out that this drive, this need, looks for meaning beyond itself. Everything beautiful created by humans has arisen from this need.  The problem is that this need for meaning can be perverted to serve the dark side of the human psyche as well, as did the hateful Nazi myth that destroyed Europe and victimized Frankl.  What makes Frankl so remarkable is that he, as so often happens in these kinds of persecutory circumstances, refused to accept the victim myth for himself, choosing rather to live the story, the myth, of a survivor who turned his personal misery into wisdom for others’ betterment. 

It can also be argued that modern materialism, narcissism, and the myth of the “organization man,” a popular descriptor originating out of the 50’s corporate and bureaucratic identity, is robbing people of vitality and meaning in their lives, and this became an important focus for Rollo May.  Existential psychology argues that the challenge for a healthy individual and a healthy society is to find and express meaning that inspires toward inclusion beyond selfish interests, to embody traits and attitudes such as courage, compassion, spirituality, creativity, originality, even soulfulness in a manner to facilitate healthy and resilient living.  It says we need courage in the face of challenge, adventurism in the face of boredom, and authenticity in the face of the shallow and superficial.  We need to be able to see ourselves heroically, yet still humbly, to fulfill this need.

The world in which Frankl and May were formulating their view had just come out of the senseless slaughter of the Second World War driven by the murderous myths of fascism at a time when the traditions of the old European and American society were falling apart.  Frankl’s views were directly resultant of his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, and he declared from within this hell created by the perverted myths of virulent racism and fascist nationalism, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” 

Frankl chose life over death, optimism over despair, courage over surrender, love over hate, beauty over ugliness, meaning over meaninglessness.  He looked to his ability to choose his attitude and view in this extreme circumstance as the power that could save him and he realized, as a psychiatrist, that this capacity to see and choose positive meaning over meaninglessness or perverted meaning had the same power to reclaim lives from neurotic despair.  He saw the power of the positive myths such as humble hero, loving person, or spiritual mystic as what made possible overcoming the myth of being a victim.  He also saw and warned against the false allure of finding meaning, that is, significance, in dark myths like religious or patriotic “true believer,” “organization man,” “great leader,” follower of “great leader,” in being a winner – or a loser – for this too can be a myth, an identity that hijacks a person’s life.

May, on the other hand, reflected the American experience of the War and post-war years, of the growing elevation of the national American myth and of the individual cut off from traditional roots in pursuit of the American Dream myth in an increasingly opulent world that simultaneously demanded conformity.  May was a deeply feeling explorer in the world of American materialism who saw the prevailing myths of individual accomplishment, of wealth and status as life’s goal as spawning narcissism and sociopathy while simultaneously generating depression and anxiety.  There never can be enough when the soul and heart are empty.   

Frankl and May felt constricted within the prevailing psychologies based in scientific reductionism that failed to understand and account for that which is in the human experience that cannot be reduced to behavioristic or psychoanalytic formulas.  They and others created what was known as a “third force” in psychology – humanistic and philosophically existential.  While remaining grounded in traditional psychology, they looked upward into intuitive, synthesizing wholeness, even soulfulness.  They saw the cure for individual and social confusion and madness in the fulfillment of human potential, a view remarkably similar to Buddhism’s insights into addressing “suffering” and “dissatisfaction with life.”  Frankl and May saw the need for the ancient place of myth, of the hero’s journey, to be translated into modern life.

The world today is in many ways different from Frankl and May’s mid twentieth century, yet in many ways, not.  The crisis in meaning for individuals and societies may well be even more acute.  The myths, the stories, that animate us toward meaning, are probably more confusing than ever.  Our political divide could well be reduced to the clash between a vision, a myth of America as a pluralistic, open, progressive, and inventive society and the myth of the traditional world of white privilege and conservative political, economic, and religious practices and dogmas.  Since WWII, The United States has been grappling with a growing challenge to the majority population in which the myth of white, male, capitalist, main-stream Christian cultural, political, and economic dominance is being confronted by those inspired by new myths of an increasingly pluralistic and democratically open society.  Simultaneously, the old myth of the Earth and Nature being humanity’s personal domain to plunder is beginning to pummel us into awareness as the winds blow harder, the fires and summers burn hotter, and viruses emerge from plundered jungles.  New myths of Humanity finding meaning as tenders and caretakers of Nature’s bounty are absolutely essential for meaningful human existence beyond mere survival.  Yet, ominously, we are seeing the old culture, in its desperation, turning increasingly authoritarian and corrupt, generating false and dangerous myths that no longer reflect any semblance of truth in its attempt to hold its grip on society’s meaning and power. 

Equally important, as we all emerge out of the old world, is the challenge for individuals to examine the myths that have shaped their personal lives that do not seem to be fulfilling their need for meaning. There is a need to engage a process of opening into new myths of heroic presence in the world-as-it-is.  In this time when a frightening number live in myths based in dangerous and out-of-date concepts of America and patriotism, of Christianity and faith, where the myths have ceased to be expressions of what is real or have positive meaning, the world needs heroes of truth, what Buddhism calls Dharma, if it is to shape new healthy and inspiring myths of meaning that can take us into the future.  We must myth our way toward the unification of our beautifully diverse collection of American cultures into a circle of a shared and nurturing society happening within an increasingly stable planetary human society on a healthy planet.  How do we wish to see ourselves?  What myths, what stories can we imagine and manifest that will give inspiring meaning, stability, sanity, even soulfulness to our individual and collective lives?  There are futures to build.  Let them be heroic and true.

Simplicity, Clarity, Spontaneity

“The goal in Buddhism is simplicity, clarity, and spontaneity.  A person with these qualities is extraordinary.”                                                                                                                                                        – Thubton Chodrin                    

Simplicity is showing up in the moment completely receptive to the truth of the moment.  It is also in showing up with only kind intention.  Kind intention is especially important for it is only with kind intention that we can be simple, as Jesus said, “like the little children,” for it complicates life much too much trying to keep track of how we have manipulated or competed with others in our efforts to be a complex and sophisticated person.  If we have the simple intention in every situation to seek what action expresses kindness, and along with kindness, truth and honesty, for there can be no kindness without truth and honesty, this simplifies our lives significantly. The moment will tell us what is needed, what its truth is, and we will find that usually the moment needs nothing, that it is good in and by itself.  To know this is then to live by faith and trust.

Our purpose is simply to be witness, to be appreciator and co-creator with the moment as it is.  In those times in which the moment calls upon us for our input and action, then simplicity is in calling upon our lifetime of gathering knowledge and skills to bring with efficiency and minimalism that which will fulfill the expression of the moment.  This too, arises from trust – and nurtures intuition, allowing spontaneity to inspire and inform us.  We then can allow the moment to settle back into its own simplicity of goodness, step away, and return to witness – full and complete within the fullness and completeness that is the moment. 

Simplicity is having simple guides to carry us through, such as when the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness,” simple and easily understood, yet an immensely challenging way to direct our energies into the world when society and our own ego keeps telling us to be clever and manipulative.  To live “religiously,” that is, as our essential guide and commandment, in – are these actions or words kind? – will help us bring the intention and action into the world that keeps our life simple.  Simple, yes, while incredibly challenging, for we who have been raised to be complicated and competitive in a devious world.

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Clarity is living as a well-polished mirror, reflecting without distortion what arises, learning to trust that the moment is manifesting as and through us, in interaction with, as the ancients expressed it, the “ten thousand things,” the incredible diversity of existence happening within unified harmony.  It is in realizing, as our true nature, no polishing is needed, that we, as life, just as does all life, perfectly reflects our own nature and purpose.  It is in trusting that our purpose is to show up intently anchored in the reality of the moment.  Clarity is living in knowing that there is an intelligent design deeper than human intelligence that is the Universe unfolding in its perfect balanced complexity within unity and that this intelligence is happening through us.  This deepens the sense of faith and trust we can bring into our lives. 

Clarity is the felt-sense that our purpose is to be a channel for life and to trust the Universe is acting through us in its expression of intelligent balance, in the dance of interconnectedness, impermanence, and harmony.  This clarity is what Buddhism calls “emptiness;” it is when we are empty of egoic intent to benefit this “self,” this “me” that is a construct of self-interest in the mind.  It is to take our place, as all spiritual traditions express in some form, within life and death, good and bad, willing to face it all unflinchingly and in acceptance of its unfolding.

Clarity is seeing into the mystical yet very real what-is of the moment, in being witness without judgement, yet with precise discernment, into what clarifies the what-is and what obscures, confuses and damages it.  Clarity is faith that by showing up in the moment as “nobody,” asking not what is in the moment for me, rather, what does the moment need of me, that our way will be shown.  It means that we can be perfectly content knowing that most often the moment needs nothing from us other than our witness, while by consciously being witness, we are contributing to the fulfillment of the moment.

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Most importantly, we must realize that simplicity and clarity rely upon spontaneity.  Spontaneity is being alive as a channel for Life.  It is to feel how we are a system of energy connected to and within systems of energy, the Earth beneath us, the Heavens, the Cosmos above and all around us.  It is to know we are here to “play in the fields of the Lord,” in the world of Sacred Creation that is all about us in human, animal, plant, and mineral forms.  It is to know that every “thing” is an energy-form within and emanating from the vast and boundaryless energy that is the Universe, so that its, and our own, apparent separate thingness is, at a deeper level, an illusion.  It is in feeling the energy of Life, what the Chinese call Chi, flowing through us connecting us with the life-energy that is the “ten thousand things.”  It is THIS moment, and we ARE this moment arising in awareness with the faculties of a human mind and body that, when surrendered to the moment, will know exactly what is needed.

Yes, it is true, that within the faculty of mind, this moment is colored by experience from the past and intention for the future – yet this moment has more to tell us about the reality of the past – for this moment is built upon it – and what the future will be – for the future is built upon what we do in this moment – than any imaginings of our mind.   Living deeply in this moment opens us to the meaning of the Buddhist notion of karma, that all that happens is action built upon the foundation of preceding actions. It teaches us that all we need, in any given moment, is to be deeply present, to feel this action-energy emerging into the present moment and then to either merge with it, actualizing its flow or make a conscious choice to alter it with our energy and will, creating a new karmic action-energy path.  Spontaneity is in showing up with our intention being to let go as much as possible of our assumptions and colorations, that we are here to experience and express this moment in its suchness, in its exactly-what-it-isness. 

Important to realize is that spontaneity happens best when we get out of our own way, not over-thinking the situation, when we operate from trust, having faith that in spontaneity we have the best chance to bring our lifetime of experience and knowledge to the moment – with the moment being that which summons our actions and not our ego.  From this will emerge “flow,” the merging of self and the moment into exactly what the moment calls for.  Buddhism teaches us to get the “self,” meaning ego, out of the center of our experience to allow experience to be the center of our self.  With this, the moment manifests through us with its own clarity and energy, and our thoughts and actions will reflect this clarity and energy in the service of the moment rather than some neurotic agenda of the ego-self. 

                                                                        * Buddhism teaches that the faculties of human body and mind are best expressed when we realize there is an intelligence deeper than egoic mind, and this is intelligence that flows from the Universe itself, and if we can learn to quiet our minds, to enter into what the great Zen master Dainin Katagiri describes as “no-sound,” the no-sound of the Universe that is the silent all-sound, we will know what sound is the truest expression of who we are, what Katagiri calls “wholehearted presence.”  If the sound we make in this world arises from no-sound, we will fulfill this call to manifest with simplicity, clarity, and spontaneity, for this is the beautiful dance known as Zen, the translation of which is “just sitting.”  We, meaning our essence as consciousness, will be just sitting, awake, within the vastness AND the particulars of existence, with full awareness that this passing moment in the world of sound and things is all happening within a great unfolding.  Then, while “sitting” we can reach into the world of sound and act, and then and only then, can our actions be the mysterious no-action that Zen teaches as, “just so” – and the “sounds” we make will be “extraordinary!”

The Monk and the Bandit

There is a Zen story about a bandit who is terrorizing a village, stealing, smashing, hurting and killing the villagers.  In this story a little Zen monk, half the size of the bandit, steps into his path and, without evident anger or fear, tells the bandit he must stop what he is doing, that he must stop harming the villagers.  A bit taken aback, the bandit recovers himself and bellows, “Little man, you don’t seem to realize who I am.  I could cut off your head and not blink an eye!”  To which the monk replied with a fierce calmness, “Oh sir, it seems you are the one who does not realize who I am.  I am the one whose head you could cut off and I would not blink an eye.  I will not stand by while you harm these people.  You will cease this instant!”  Now the bandit was completely taken aback, his entire idea of courage and strength was toppled, and the villagers, witness to this display of selfless courage, stopped running away and began to step forward, standing with the monk.  As the legend goes, the bandit was so stunned and disoriented by these happenings that he was stopped in his tracks, defeated.  He was, in fact, so shaken by this display of true courage and strength that he forswore banditry and became a dedicated student of the little Zen monk.

Now we can look at this story strictly on its face value and marvel at the strength, courage and faith of the monk, and how this is inspirational for us to find the courage to face up to sources of harm in our world.  We can also see it as an allegory for the transformation of human society, the forces of egoic violence and awakened consciousness engaged in confrontation for the fate of humanity.  This struggle is as old as human civilization, the forces of enlightenment, compassion, science, humanism and democracy challenged with daunting odds in the face of cruelty and selfishness, with bigotry and dogmatism, with anti-democratic authoritarianism.  What is heartening is that, just as in our monk and bandit story, in the story of human history, eventually the more enlightened view, the view that is based in truth, courage, inclusion and compassion, moves in the manner that a great and courageous “monk” of a more modern era, Martin Luther King, articulated as: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In actuality, this little story is both pertinent to the personal and the collective human experience – for we live in both the personal and the collective worlds of human evolution.  The collective is driven by the personal and the personal is shaped by the collective – and each is evolving through courageous dedication to truth, compassion, and inclusion by the few who come to inspire the many.  While often the boisterous, selfish, closed-minded, and callous seem to consume all the attention and seem to hold the power, there will always be that small but steady, confident and courageous voice of compassion somewhere holding the line.  And this voice, if it can speak clearly and unwaveringly for peace, wisdom, inclusion, justice and expanding democracy, will eventually prevail.  We know this to be true because it is exactly this balance and expanding harmony that is the way of the Universe, is the Universe, and it is the way of human history, when viewed in its entirety.  Like a trickle of water on rock, over time, this unassuming yet persistent voice for justice wears down the hardened heart of cruelty in individuals and society.  And sometimes, after a long period of having seemingly little effect, there will be voices that begin to be heard, and the call to rally and stand will grow.  And in such moments, everything changes and evolved individuals can move the collective to stand together against the callousness, selfishness and cruelty.  And so, human society evolves.

We are not faced with bandits and bloodshed, but we are faced with dishonesty and manipulation by those in pursuit of power, whether it is personal power or political power.  We are faced with communities that fall under the spell of the “bandits” of manipulation, of those who promise “greatness” or “righteousness” for those who will follow blindly.  And for a while, there will always be those who do follow, and the collective weight of those mesmerized by the false promises is a weight that crushes and robs as surely as any bandit.  Sometimes these bandits wear the mask of the politician, sometimes of the religious leader, sometimes of the commercial dazzler, sometimes it’s just the narcissistic individual manipulating their way through life, yet they can always be known by their greed, power-lust, and lack of true empathy and compassion.  Though they will make empty declarations of caring for those they exploit, their only caring is for themselves.

Our story tells us to have the courage, to have the voice that stands up to selfishness, cruelty and injustice, that though we may seem to stand alone at first, the voice of justice and compassion will always find its way to the hearts of those who need to hear it.  It will be discovered that ordinary people who stand in truth, compassion and courage can be a beacon for all humanity of the vision of what can be.  Over and over in the evolution of human society, the bandits threaten to rob the people of their peace, dignity and security.  Yet, while the bandits may run free for a time enjoying impunity for their crimes, human history is not on the side of the oppressor, rather, it is on the side of the liberator.  We must be willing to lose everything without blinking an eye so as to preserve the integrity of our souls and keep the arc of the moral Universe bending toward justice. 

In the Buddhist tradition, this is known as the Path of the Bodhisattva – an enlightened person who could stand to the side, serene in their personal capacity for peace and perspective while the world unfolds in all its good and bad, justice and injustice, kindness and cruelty. Yet the enlightened know there cannot be true personal peace while there are still those who suffer.  We are at times called to come out of our personal safety and peace, by circumstances and by history, to be the ones who will not stand by while the cruel do harm to the innocent, nor blink an eye in the face of threats, or even the actuality of harm.  And do not be put off by the concept of “enlightened,” for enlightenment is not some exalted status.  Rather, Zen makes it clear, enlightenment is any ordinary person in any moment when self-centeredness dissolves into the expression and need of the moment.  As is sometimes noted, it is “nothing special,” even though it looks to be so  – it is just what is true and is needed, and it is what is represented by our humble little monk.

There are times when we are called to have faith that if we serve as instruments of the moment, of compassion in action, whether we personally get to see the results or not, the arc of history will bend, and humanity will increasingly cease to quake and run when confronted with the banditry of those who only serve themselves.  The spirit of the little monk is in us all, for it is our true nature.  And when this spirit and nature stand for, as, and in compassionate courage, the people will lose their fear and will stand with the “monk.”  And in such moments, even the “bandits” can be transformed.

Maybe

There is an old Zen parable about a poor Chinese farmer who lived near the Mongolian border in the time of the Mongolian conquests.  This old farmer lived with his only son on a small plot of land and their only significant possession was one horse to help them work the land, but one day the horse ran away.  All the villagers came to offer their condolences to the farmer, for they all believed this must be a catastrophe for him.  The farmer thanked them for their kindness but replied to their opinion of this occurrence as a great misfortune by simply saying, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”

The next day, the farmer’s horse returned and brought with it a Mongolian pony.  Now the farmer was twice as rich as he had been and the villagers came and congratulated him on his good fortune, to which he replied, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”  Shortly thereafter, his son tried to ride the new pony and it bucked and threw him, fracturing his hip, and of course, the villagers came out to offer their condolences over this turn-of-events that must be terrible for the farmer, and he thanked them for their kindness and replied, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”  Several weeks later the Chinese Army came through conscripting young men to fight the Mongols, but because of his son’s injured hip he was not conscripted and the villagers expressed how fortunate this was, for many of the young men would certainly be killed, to which the farmer replied, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.” …. And here the parable trails off, the point being that the old farmer while materially poor was very rich in wisdom, for he knew that all things change and things are not always what they seem to be.  What seems fortunate today may be opening the way to misfortune and likewise the other way around.  The point of life is to live it, not to anticipate or judge it.

As this column comes to circulation, an election is taking place, the results unknown at the time of its writing.  What is not unknown is that whatever the results, there will be many, many people who are very unhappy with the results while many people will be very pleased.  We are in a time when, quite possibly not since the Civil War, the American electorate is as polarized as it has ever been and this probably will create a time of severe tension leading to we know not what.  Whichever side of this divide we may find ourselves, it is good to remember the wisdom of the farmer whose only certainty was that things change and we know not the meaning of any given event in isolation.  The farmer knew that above all else, the true skill in life was to abide with what-is, remaining patient and calm, available to the next turning of the page, to live life as it presents itself, essentially a mystery.  He knew that what is important is to keep showing up each day doing the best we can with the best intention and without judgment, knowing that whatever this thing that is happening is, it leads to the next thing and we know not what that may be.  Or – perhaps – if we take the long view, we CAN know what this up and down unfolding of things mean – they mean human society is evolving.

Through all the ups and downs, we can look at human history and see that overall it moves toward increasing economic and political democracy – we can certainly see this truth if we look from the vantage point of a 13th century Chinese peasant farmer.  We are no longer ruled by emperors or kings and hereditary aristocracies, slavery is abolished, the majority of people do not live at peasant subsistence levels, women are no longer viewed as subservient to men and people are no longer prisoners of class divisions – in ever-increasing portions of the world.  And the list can go on concerning accepted views that held sway only a short historic period of time ago concerning race relations, gender non-conformity, and a host of other conditions that were quite oppressive as viewed from modern society, yet, in their time, their unfairness and cruelty were accepted as what was normal.

Human evolution is happening.  Our ego wants it to be this nice process of things getting better without pain, yet this is not how evolution happens.  With human society, nations, groups and individuals, evolution happens in what can best be understood as an ascending sine wave – progression building upon regression.  Things get bad enough for us to pay attention, and we begin to look more deeply into the truth of what-is, and we begin seeing what we had been blind to.  We begin seeing some of the root of our unhappiness is in having too small a view on reality.  We begin creating a more coherent and balanced ecology – the relationship of self to reality.  Then things get better, for with this increase in consciousness, there is created a more expansive and complex, yet more inclusive sense of self, and greater harmony results.  This is evolution not only for individuals but for all of society.  At one level there is good and bad – yet – from an expanded view – inevitably there is greater complexity existing within relative coherency and harmony.  Good and bad come together to create better because we have evolved.

So then we have a period of relative ease and peace, and we get lazy, and ego, that part of us that is self-serving, impulsive and indulgent, begins to reassert itself and we become increasingly unconscious, not paying attention, just running the routines of the ego, believing things that please our ego yet may well not be true, and things begin to deteriorate.  Our attention is paid to that which is ego-gratifying and delusional, and less attention to what is real and we begin to slip down the slope of the curve again. This is regression into unconsciousness, and it always leads to increased suffering. Then things get bad enough that we once again begin to pay attention and we move into making needed changes to reestablish some semblance of harmony. And so the cycle goes.

Two things are important: We never slip back as far as the previous troughs, and we can live in faith that the process of evolution is inexorable and we generally will continue to increase in consciousness individually and collectively.  When we find ourselves in such troughs, we can find assurance and confidence if we understand this.  We just have to start paying attention to what-is once again and begin acting according to the truths that are apparent and let go of the ego delusions that had taken us backwards.  The movement upward into greater integration with what-is and increased consciousness-directed action will result.  Were we to graph this sine-wave process and draw a line connecting the peaks of the waves, we would see how inevitable the process of progress is – despite the regressions.

It is for this reason that it seems to me that to be a political progressive working for a more inclusively democratic society is to be on the side of history and evolution, that a person who is dedicated to becoming increasingly conscious would naturally settle into being progressive – even the Dalai Lama calls himself a political socialist.  Conversely, to be a conservative seeking to hold back this integration is always, eventually, to be on the side of what history and evolution are moving beyond.  The conservative, in the long run, always loses the ideological battle – think about it.  What conservative position continues to dominate society as it once did?  Slavery? Monarchism?  Hereditary aristocracy? Religious sectarian absolutism? Racism?  Sexism?  Classism?  Homophobia?  These latter battles may still be ongoing, yet these regressive attitudes and beliefs are not the mainstream of society anymore.  This is evolution.

And – in the dynamic of social evolution, the conservative position has an important place.  It is the brakes on progressive overreach.  A progressive moves in the direction of social evolution, yet their view may be too far along this road for the general population to embrace, and a conservative moves in the direction of slowing this progress down, and politics is the push and pull of these forces, sometimes one view dominating, sometimes the other.  Together, the progressive and the conservative create a dynamic which moves our social evolution exactly as the collective of our society is able to accept as the new normal.  Yet the overall direction toward progressive inclusion of those people and issues which were once excluded from acceptance do become accepted, all moving towards that most visionary of concepts placed into the American Constitution of “a more perfect union.”

Over and over we have seen that progressive periods overreach the tolerance of many in the collective.  I would guess that the election of a black man as president along with the last fifty years’ breakthroughs in women’s, civil, and gay rights and the increasing gentrification of America were among the reasons we are now experiencing a conservative backlash that placed a barely disguised racist, person of no observable compassion, empathy, generosity, scientific or spiritual curiosity or sophistication, with blatantly anti-democratic authoritarian tendencies and a special talent for exploiting these regressive attitudes into the White House on the tails of Obama.  Regression.  Yet – the whole of society will never go back to the attitudes on social issues that were normal fifty or one hundred years ago. 

And now, in what have become increasingly perilous times for this country  under this “conservatism,” the injustices of lingering systemic racism, the folly of holding to unscientific bias in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-change, the lie of “trickle-down economics,” the giving of faith and allegiance to a narcissistic con-man who promises to make us “great again,” as code words for reimposing white, male, straight, conventional religious and rural lifestyles, when his real allegiance is only to  himself and to his own privileged predator capitalist class becomes increasingly undeniably evident.

So, I believe we are poised to move into another progressive period, the folly of the regression, having served its purpose of exposing the rot of the outdated, yet clung-to, beliefs, while allowing that some ideas – such as examining the benefit of a simpler, small community-oriented society over a hyper-sophisticated and impersonal gentrified mega-city culture has real merit.  Perhaps left and right can come together in seeing the real source of our problems is the concentration of wealth and power into a mega-corporate and rich minority, the modern equivalent to a self-serving aristocracy, that benefits from an unconscious population open to manipulation, playing to fears and desires rather than the cultivation of higher virtues, which would cut into profits. So, however this election plays out, there will be first impressions and reactions of it being great or terrible, but the wisest position might be to settle into: “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”  The short term will mean one thing; the long term will, however, eventually and intractably mean progressive evolution into a more perfect human planetary society.  And in this, both progressives and true conservatives, meaning those who rightfully are concerned with the breakdown of values in society, will be able to celebrate.  We cannot achieve this harmonization without both the preservation of basic human values AND the expansion of who and what is included in the valuing – until no one and no element of life on this planet is excluded.  Just consider how far we’ve come since the Mongols scourged across Asia at the time of our farmer of proverb.  Up and down.  Any given event – is it good?  Maybe.  Is it bad? Maybe.  We’ll have to step back and watch – and then we will see – over-all – it is all to move us toward consciousness.

CREATING A SPIRITUAL TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY

“Today, with the development of scientific civilization, the human spirit, which should be making use of material things, has steadily weakened, while the power of material things…  has daily grown stronger, conquering that weakened spirit and bringing it under its domination; humans therefore cannot help but be enslaved by the material.

– Sotaeson  (founder, Won Buddhism, 1924)

There is no question about it.  Humanity is at a crisis point.  Our relationship with this planet Earth, our home and sustenance, is strained to the breaking point.  Our ability to continue into the long future with any true quality of life is seriously threatened and we are looking in the not-too-distant future to catastrophic dislocation of populations in environmentally threatened areas while social conditions very likely will deteriorate to dystopian levels UNLESS we find a way to address this crisis and alter our course.  Yet this is not happening because it has to be this way.  It is happening because humanity has lost its essential sense of what is valuable and what is secondary.  In our enamorment with technology and its capacity to master the material world, we have forgotten that the purpose of our original technology was to protect us from the dangers and difficulty of living WITHIN Nature, what would seem to be a good thing and it was.  Yet it carried with it a progression that took humanity from protecting itself within its relationship with Nature into separating itself into an antagonistic and exploitive relationship with Nature, and this brought the consequence of separating humans from our sense of BEING Nature.  And this comes with a terrible cost in psychological destabilization for individuals and in human social misery. 

Even before humanity stumbled into the limits of its rapacious relationship with the planet’s capacities as it entered into the 21st century, there was a growing sense that something appallingly wrong was happening within the human sphere.  As the industrial revolution and increasing mechanization and urbanization of populations occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, entirely new kinds of enquiry emerged in philosophy and medicine.  In philosophy, existentialism sought to address the consequences of this alienation which brought with it an explosion of mental illness requiring medicine to develop a new specialty called psychiatry.  The horror of world wars, civil, ethnic and religious conflicts escalated with modern weaponry became frightening realities.  The middle 20th century saw the threat of global nuclear destruction become a real possibility.  The loss of community and individual expression in craftsmanship which gave way to assembly-line mass production and assembly-line life and then into high-tech virtual-realities and international economies lived in concentrated transplanted urban and suburban lifestyles forged a growing sense of disconnection and dis-ease.  Extended families living together in communities for generations working the land on small farms and at craft and small shop manufacturing in small towns increasingly disappeared into a mobile, transferrable, out-sourceable work force, and alienation became a word that found increasing expression.   And now, environmental destabilization caused by human technological metastasization threatens to collapse our civilization.  Yet we seem to be whistling our way through this graveyard.

Aboriginal cultures, which were rich civilizations, had, of course, basic technologies, yet they also lived with a powerful sense that the soul of what it is to be human lies in connection with Nature and in tribal kinship, and so the limitations of their technological development had a profound wisdom to it.  Remember that while humans have occupied all corners of the planet for thousands of years, it was only in the “high” civilization areas, that is, the most technologically developed, that the levels of human misery originating out of human-created catastrophe far outweighed the dangers of living within Nature.  Religious and national wars of vast devastation, pollution, exploitation of fellow humans, the creating of vast differences in wealth and power between individuals, and nearly universal problems with mental health only exist in the materially advanced cultures.  And it is important to note that I write of aboriginal cultures in the past tense, for the flowering of these cultures is all in the past, murdered by the encroachment of cultures based in invention and not Nature, their unquenchable thirst to acquire and dominate caused by the loss of knowing what is essential.  Violence far exceeding the dangers of Nature seems to have been a consequence of humans spreading “civilization.”

Why is this so?  It would seem in good part to be caused by investing value in the material rather than in the essential, the human, the natural, and the spiritual, in the experience of connection, the feeling of oneness with Creation as well as with our fellow human kin.  In contrast, egoism and materialism brings the experience of separateness requiring the acquisition of possessions, wealth, power, and prestige to prop up the shaky sense of inadequacy that comes with lacking the sense of spiritual connection.  And as I address this crisis as spiritual, it would seem that religions ought to be a counterweight to this egoism and materialism, yet have been unable to be such. 

While there are plenty of religions in the world, and certainly within those religions there are true spiritual teachings and some truly spiritual people, the principle effect of religion on modern society seems to have been to create more divisiveness and the imposition of judgmental morality – all of which is completely counter-spiritual.  The materialistic/egoistic impulse to separateness and to competition seems to have corrupted most of the world religions and only contributed to the madness.  If we consider the root understanding of “religion” to be that which we most religiously value, for most Americans it would seem that material possessions and identity in ego-driven affiliations are their religion.  And for too many who consider themselves particularly “religious,” it would seem that religious freedom represents their right to impose their idea of religion and its coercive morality on others.  In response to the loss of tribal/community/familial identity security, we find, emerging in the 19th century and escalating ever since, the finding of a new kind of tribal identity in dogmatic religious, political and national identities that cause fracturing and conflict within the human family, and in as much as religions play a large part in this, they cannot be considered spiritual in this expression.

The Dalai Lama tells us that, “Physical comforts cannot subdue mental suffering, and if we look closely, we can see that those who have many possessions are not necessarily happy. In fact, being wealthy often brings even more anxiety.” And in another instance he shares: “Because of lack of moral principle, human life becomes worthless. Moral principle, truthfulness, is a key factor. If we lose that, then there is no future.”  Yet we must believe the future of humanity does not have to descend further into “worthlessness.”  There can be a different vision, one in which there is dedication to an American and world-wide human renewal based in the principles of political, economic, environmental and racial justice and fairness, in expanding political and economic democracy, where the destructive addiction to greed, exploitation and prejudicial views are confronted and admitted.  There can be a universal admission of how lost we have become, and, like with a chemical addiction recovery program, humanity can do an honest inventory of the harm that has been done and we can collectively engage in making amends.   We can alter course and begin to have our political decisions driven by scientific truth in tandem with the spiritual impulse to connection, harmony, balance and compassion.

As an exercise in envisioning, I ask you, what do you honestly see if our society continues on its present trajectory?  What do you honestly believe we can expect our society to look like 100 years from now if nothing fundamental changes in our society’s consciousness, if we continue to relate to the Earth and our fellow humans as resources for exploitation primarily for the benefit of a super-rich and powerful minority?  What if we continue in denial of this tear between our values and Nature, including human nature?  What about in 200 years?  Do you not find yourself staring into dystopia?

But imagine what our world CAN look like if we apply the most visionary of science, guided by true spiritual values aimed at a rebirth of our society where there is a commitment to building an environmentally rich and sustainable, far more economically fair society based in interconnectedness and compassion.   What if we dedicated to truly being stewards rather than exploiters of this planet and committed to true brother and sisterhood among people and even with all Life, where our “tribe” is all humanity connected with Nature?  Envision what this kind of society could look like 100, 200 years from now.   We can start imagining the fulfillment of humanity as the flowering of this planet rather than as its destroyer.  Instead of dystopia, we can build a utopia, and utopia is not naïve idealism, for there is no other realistic way for humanity to survive with quality of existence into the long future.  The terrible karmic cost of egoism and materialism demands it. The great challenge socio/politically/culturally of this century has to be the shift in consciousness away from materialism and domination toward a truly spiritual while scientifically advanced perspective.  We are challenged to develop a contemporary spirituality that engages our capacity for technology in its original purpose – for truly protective purposes, not only for humanity but for all of Life, for this spirituality recognizes there is no separating the two.   We must look to those who have evolved beyond ego and material identification and into a spiritual consciousness grounded in our link with Nature and with each other to guide us into a non-violent society that heals the rifts caused by millennia of ego-incited conflict, exploitation and domination.  There must be a partnership formed between the scientific technological community, the political community, and those who are deeply sensitized to the empathic sciences, attuned to the humanistic, mystical and spiritual perspective, to build a world-wide society in which Nature and humanity can flourish.   We must enter a new evolutionary phase for humanity where the original human expression for civilization WITHIN Nature is reawakened but now merged with the second human evolutionary phase of technological development.  Only in an enlightened merging of these human capacities can a flourishing humanity advance along with its entire planetary kin into the long, long future.  There is no other way.

The Fabric of Dharma

We are what we think, having become what we thought.
Like the wheel that follows the cart-pulling ox,
sorrow follows an evil thought.
We are what we think, having become what we thought.
Like the shadow that never leaves one,
happiness follows a pure thought.

(The first two verses of the Dhammapada, a canonical collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha)

In Buddhism, Dharma is the path and the way to achieve awakening and enlightenment.  It is also the guide for understanding the nature of human suffering and how to overcome it.  And it is the Universe and lessons learned in honoring the principles of unity, balance, interconnectedness and interdependence that hold together the fabric of the Universe.  While there are many writings and teachings concerning Dharma, essentially it is never static or moralistic.  Rather than being a moralistic religion, which is built on a collection of judgments concerning good and evil, right and wrong, Buddhism emphasizes the development of insight, discernment and virtuous attitude and behavior so as to ascertain that which is supportive of Dharma and that which violates it. 

“Good,” “right,” and “pure” are that which is in accord with Dharma, which is not always the same as how we would want things to be, for, of course, Dharma includes sickness and death, earthquakes and hurricanes, periods of regression and uncertainty, all necessary for there to be birth and rejuvenation, and even the awakening of consciousness, for there can be no awakening that does not arise from being lost in unconscious delusion.  Evil is that which violates this harmony, balance and flow – attempting to make Life conform to ego’s wishes to make more of itself without concern for the cost to others, creating a tear in the fabric of Life-in-balance, and evil can only exist through unconsciousness.  To be conscious is to be in Dharma, for to be conscious is to see that we are Dharma and its violation is a violation of ourselves.

Buddhism is a religion, yes, but it is more a philosophy of life and cosmology and perhaps primarily, a psychology of both the individual and collective human condition.  Its great value is that unlike Western psychology which focuses on the categorization and treatment of mental illness with practically nothing to say about the actualization of mental health, Buddhism images for us and guides us to what can be understood as optimal mental health, the highest realization of human potential.  This could be called “enlightenment,” but since this word carries so much inflated meaning, perhaps it is better to simply say “right mind” or “awakened mind,” for the translation of the word Buddhism is “the practice of awakening,” and this “awakening” concerns seeing ourselves, others, the world and the cosmos in its “true nature,” to realize Dharma, and this in Buddhism is called “right view.”

What is “healthy” is that which is manifesting and supporting our and the world’s true nature, and what is ill is that which is the diminishment, imbalance, or violation of what is true nature.  The issue of mental health and mental illness can then be addressed in this manner.  Mental illness is how a human being falls out of harmony and alignment with the nature of what is true concerning human nature and potential, and we can best address this imbalance and contortedness by becoming mentally healthy – by finding our ‘true nature,” by finding our way to alignment with Dharma.  This is true for individuals and it is true for the collectives of human society, for if mental illness is rampant among individuals in our society, it is so precisely because the collective mindset of our society is most certainly out of Dharma and profoundly ill, a society increasingly unable to see, admit and address the challenges before it – much like a mentally ill person.

There is little need to go into the minutia, detail and history of how this imbalance occurred for a given individual or our society.  The fact that it occurred is found in our conflicted view and behavior in the present; the causation or categorization of which is mostly irrelevant.  In any case, the overriding causation is all we need to know, and in its many variations and manifestations always comes back to non-alignment with Dharma.  It always comes back to investing identity in one’s particular dysfunctional and delusional egoic view, that contorted projection that is the jumble of confusing ideas and doctrines that go unexamined, assumed to be true, yet profoundly in error.  If we understand Dharma as the underlying fabric of existence, there is a tear in the fabric, and in order for health to be restored it must be mended. 

Buddha identified the cause of the tearing 2500 years ago when he identified a completely unique kind of suffering that human beings alone experience in all of Nature in attachment to ego for sense of self, and to conditions in the external world for our well-being.  Humans identify themselves and all the elements of the world as caught in separateness because of the evolutionary adaptation unique to humans, an abstracting capacity of mind which brings with it the capacity to think, to symbolize the world and live in the symbol and not Reality, and we can think all kinds of completely crazy – that is, out of Dharma, things.

Instead of living in direct embedding within Dharma as the entire non-human world does, the very fact that human beings have to create philosophies that point to Dharma, tells us just how great the tear is.  We do not live in the world as it is; we live in a world that we think it to be.  As the Dhammapadainstructs – as we think in contorted ways, we contort our experience, and evil, that is, the suffering that comes with being out of alignment with Dharma and Life results.  And as the Dhammapada instructs – with pure thoughts, that is, thoughts in alignment with Dharma, there will result increasing harmony, clarity, and skill – that which can be understood as mental health.

In Buddhist practice – which is more accurately called Awakening practice (to take the religious connotation out of our discussion), it is taught that ego, both individual and collective, creates a story of who we are that is filled with contradictions and conflicts, and therefore, insecurities.  And where there are insecurities there is the need to compensate for these insecurities through defense mechanisms of the mind and behavior, and these defense mechanisms operate in ways to maximize a sense of self-importance at the expense of truth, of “pure thought.”

Self-absorption, a fixation on how to make the most of “me,” takes over with an obsession on the story of “me” in the past and of “me” in the future, filled with anxiety that the future will not support “me,” and for the purpose of gaining clarity and sanity, this is best seen as a black hole of confusion that is best not to enter – rather – to understand its existence and escape its pull.  What is needed is the capacity to be profoundly present in what-is so as to experience the present moment clearly and to build a future based in truth and necessity, in Dharma.  This is why Buddhist meditation and Dharmic instruction is meant to provide the energy and guidance to make this escape into the vast clarity of The-Moment-As-It-Is, the clarity that can be understood as mental health, in which mental illness simply has no place to attach and energize itself – and so its pull and control diminishes.

To accomplish this, meditation, the training of the mind in deeper levels of quiet, calm, and precise self and world examination, is necessary because it is only in quieting the mind’s endless repetition of social and personal conditioning that we can discover Dharma happening through us, as us.  Buddhism, more than any other religion, probably because Buddhism is more a philosophy of life and cosmology than a religion, stresses the path it teaches is a personal one, the teachings only meant as guides – as is often stated, fingers pointing the way.  To deepen our understanding of who we are and what is the true nature of reality, we must accept the challenge to find our own way back to where we begin, for it is only in the beginnings and origins that we can be certain of the purity of what is uncovered. Everything added on is obscuration.  And so the Zen teacher challenges: “Show me your original face.”

A great Zen teacher, Shodo Harada tells us: “We think we see, but it is just superficial.  We think we hear, but it is just superficial.  Our awareness is more complex.  Crowded with preconceived notions, we confuse ourselves.  We have to clear all of that away.  In that fresh clarity of no preconceived notions and not being caught on any thought whatsoever, we have opened our eyes to the sight of Buddha’s knowledge.”

The evil thought, the thought that pulls us to distorted projection of preconceived notions originating in social/cultural/psychological conditioning into ego-centeredness will inevitably lead to an insensitivity to how we bring harm and disharmony into our personal world and the world around us.  While surely, the pure thought, the thought free of this self-absorption, that focuses on the Dharma truths of interconnectedness, interdependence, the good of compassion and empathy, will lead to peace and harmony within us and with the world around us.  This IS the fabric of Dharma, and it is the guide that can lead individual humans to health and sanity, and very importantly in these challenging times, is the necessary template for the collective of our society and species to find its way to health and sanity.

Connection, unity, compassion, selflessness, virtuous honesty and empathy lead to what is healthy and harmonious, to happiness, for they are the fabric of Dharma.  And as the world parades division, manipulation, selfishness, dishonesty and callous disregard, remember we cannot be happy, prosperous or peaceful when we tear the fabric of Dharma. Let us commit to healing in wholeness, to heal the tear, to heal ourselves and the world. Let us think and be “pure,” which is not impeccable in all things, but intending to be so, and doing the best we can with impeccable intention to goodness and honesty.

Trauma, Empathy, and Compassion

“In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet… who is this person?  It is the True Self.  As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart.  You will never lose the sense that something is lacking.  Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are.  This is the objective of Life.”  – Sekkei Harada, Zen Master

Our accepted sense of ourselves in the world is that we are separate objects in a world of separate objects.  This is what our senses tell us and this is what our culture reinforces.  This is a misperception that both the wisdom of the ancients and modern quantum physics and cosmology inform us must be corrected if we are to realize who we truly are and to find our place and purpose in the Universe.  We are individualized expressions of a complete unity that is the Universe as is every life-form and as is every material form.  We are systems of perfect harmony and balance at many levels of organization from the sub-atomic to the molecular to the cellular to the collection of sub-organisms and organ systems coexisting within the complete organism that is a single human being and beyond, reaching into vast cosmic levels, yet at the psychological, familial, social/cultural, national, trans-national and ecological levels, we fail to experience and express this unity and harmony.  Something is happening at the psychological level that amounts to a disconnecting trauma that must be understood and corrected.  To experience ourselves only at the level of the boundary contained within the skin and as this separate and striving person in our minds is to be lost in the vastness and complexity and to be exiled from the experience of the harmony and balance.

Every animal has this experience of skin-boundary separateness, yet this does not throw the organism out of its sense of harmony with its environment, with its own or other species, or with itself, except for humans with their far more complex psychological sense of identity (ego).  This problematic experience of separateness in humans is essentially a psychological state of isolation, and if we are to identify what trauma is, it has to be as degrees of solidification of this sense of psychological separateness and vulnerability that generate the emotion of fear, and fear causes contraction deeper into the separateness and isolation.  And so, a feedback loop of injury and fear causes increasing psychological isolation from our true essence of Beingness in connection with all that is.  Our “True Self” is unable to make contact with others and the world, and this is what Buddhism points to as “suffering” and why we feel insufficient and life as unsatisfactory.

Trauma therefore can be understood as injury in the development and functioning of the psychological ego-structure that causes a sense of separation, as broken connection from our True Self and the True World, which in turn causes the ego-structure to contract and solidify around a story of the injury and isolation which in turn intensifies the experience of broken connection to others and to Life itself.  This, of course, leads to great dysfunction and harmful relationship with self and others.  It can be seen, in fact, as the root of mental illness, and here I designate mental illness as not only the extreme manifestations our culture allows as such, but the cultures themselves and what the cultures consider the “normal,” yet terribly dysfunctional way we conduct our lives and run our societies.  What is mental illness, after all, if not a delusional state of separateness from this sense of security and connection that is the true core of every human, amplified by the story of separateness and competition that has been the story of human cultures from the dawn of civilization?

This “traumatization” begins in the slow and persistent process of acculturation and socialization of an infant and small child using their fear of separation to essentially hypnotize into the child stories about who they are in the world based in their vulnerable separateness, a process that continues throughout a person’s life.  We come to believe and experience the world as a dangerous place in which we must become skillful combatants and manipulators and that those who cannot be skillful combatants and manipulators will be victims.  We thus begin sorting out into who will be socially dominant and effective and who will be insufficient and ineffective.  Injuries begin to pile up, and for some the injuries are of such amplitude that they qualify for the identity of “victim with PTSD” and this identity is in itself a great injury, causing an even deeper sense of isolation.  Yet who, in all this is not a victim, and who does not suffer the trauma of the terrifying sense of separateness and vulnerability against which we engage so many ineffective and often destructive tactics to ameliorate?

Very powerfully and paradoxically, while trauma separates us, it can then also be a powerful force for connecting groups of people who SHARE a sense and story of their own traumatization, and we can see what is currently being identified as “tribalism” as the grouping together of individuals into shared victim identity and this can be a very dangerous phenomenon.  An individual who identifies as a victim can be a very dangerous person precisely because they have no sense of their own validity and strength that comes from feeling connected and in balance with larger systems than themselves.  They therefore believe that if they are to assert themselves they must summon powerful emotion and engage all the ego’s defense mechanisms including projection, rationalization, denial, and displacement in order to have even minimal effect, thus their “defenses” translate into offensive and dangerous behavior.

This is why those who are the perpetrators of so much trauma to others have in some fashion inevitably been victims themselves of the trauma of ego-damaging insecurity.  No person who is secure in their sense of inner harmony and connection with others is going to be so dangerous.  This is equally true with collectives who live within their own perceived story of victimization – even including those groups who actually hold power, for they perceive at some level the illegitimacy of their dominance and they project threat from those they dominate.  It is a truth that nearly every human being carries a story of their trauma and so too, every collective carries some story of the need to solidify around and defend their separateness from those perceived as threats – and, of course, perception becomes reality.  Trauma begets more trauma and the insanity spins on.

So here humanity is, in the beginning of the 21st century.  Individual mental illness is rampant, collectives within our American society and within the global community feel threatened by and hostile toward each other, our social institutions are dysfunctional, running on unquestioned momentum yet failing to support humanity while demanding that humanity support them.  Humanity’s broken connection with Nature is about to set loose a cataclysm of disaster upon the ecosystems that humanity and its fellow life-systems depend on and that support our societies, and we are set on a course of disaster that we do not seem able to alter.  Yet – we can.  For if the problem is broken connection, the solution has to be in reestablished connection, and for this we must look to the most precious of human capacities – empathy.

Empathy is the opening of the ego-boundary to encompass the subjective reality of another where there is no “me” separate from “you” or “it” – there is only this moment of Life in shared identification.  We all know what this moment is for we have all experienced it.  It usually happens quite by accident in the finding of commonality with another human – or even with an animal with which we invest common comfort such as our pets.  We see the sacred right to life and happiness, the right to not have suffering inflicted.  We feel what it would be to have that suffering inflicted, and so in that moment could not possibly bring harm.  Empathy is an opening of receptivity to the commonality of another in this terribly vulnerable experience that is Life, and from this resonance in the inner psychological field arises compassionate action so as to heal the rifts in the actual world.  And it is here in the recognition of our common fear-based functioning and the damage that it causes that we can find common cause and action, calling us to common compassion.  We must let down our guard to be actually present with each other in our common vulnerability to reassure each other we have nothing to fear when we have recognized our bonds of connection that need to be healed and strengthened.

Our task as evolving beings is to bring this capacity for empathy increasingly into our lives with every encounter – and with it, our capacity for compassion, the action that naturally arises from empathy.  We must come face-to face with the inauthentic egoic-self that has brought us to this historic and evolutionary crisis and restore it to its proper function and dimensionality as servant to us, rather than we as servant to it.  We must find our way to meeting our True Self – as individuals and as human collectives.  Can there be any doubt that in the vast Universe of harmony that humanity HAS to find and express itself as this same harmony?  Lost, however, in our unawareness, our unconsciousness, seeing only outer form, unaware of shared inner essence and interconnectedness, we spin on, caught in the inevitability of acting out the stories of our perceived threat from each other and from Nature, mechanistically acting out our own demise.  Humanity faces the very real possibility of social and economic collapse, possibly even serious mortal threat to entire populations in the coming century – unless we find the capacity to reinvent human society away from the violent competition that causes individual and collective traumatization, into social systems based in empathetic, compassionate and healing connection among human groups and with all of Nature.  We must find the courage and faith to reopen our ego-boundaries to allow the energy of Life to flow through us unimpeded as it does through every life-form, to open the false boundaries between human individuals, groups of humans, and humanity with Nature.   We must receive each other in empathic embrace, acknowledging the wounds we have inflicted upon each other, the trauma imposed and passed from generation to generation in individual defensiveness, in tribal hostility and suspicion, in violence of every imaginable magnitude from subtle interpersonal insult, to demeaning, threatening, exploiting and objectifying each other, to our institutions dehumanizing and exploiting us, to bitter tribal political and religious antipathy, to war, genocide and ecocide.  Compassion must mark the new era of human civilization.  Empathy must be employed universally to heal our trauma and set humanity on the course toward a new and flourishing era as expressions of True Self.  As Master Harada said “This is the objective of Life.”

Presence, Discernment, and Action, No Fear

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
– From Dune by Frank Herbert.

There is no benefit to anxiety.  It is best to not do worry.  Anxiety and worry are precursors to fear, and if given enough of our mind, anxiety and worry will turn to fear, and fear IS the mind-killer.  Fear builds a prison from which truth and reality are exiled.   We cannot see beyond the wall of dread that we create and so, cannot see what actually is or can be, and if circumstances are precarious enough to elicit worry, we certainly want the ability to see what actually is as clearly as we possibly can.  There is no way to address our real problems unless we are able to see them accurately in their dimension and particulars and when in a state of fear, this is impossible; we can only see our wild exaggerations and imagined catastrophes.   

I say not to DO worry and this is not a grammatical error, for anxiety is an action of the mind, it is something we do – projecting negative consequences and results upon the unknown, when it is best to let the unknown be the unknown.  In the face of precarious circumstance what we want to do is positive action arising from discerning presence that addresses the circumstance.  We certainly do not want to do worry that saps our skill for accurate perception, examination, analysis, and clear action.

 In a twist on this, we may do the opposite and rather than doing blind worry, we might do blind hope, and through the ego-defense mechanisms of denial and rationalization, we may minimize the real situation and believe in hopeful, magical solutions as a way of managing our fear.  Not exaggerated, not minimized, we must see our challenges as they actually are.  The mind of fear makes this impossible, and to a certain degree, the mind of hope, as an irrational defense against fear, also makes effectively addressing our challenges more difficult.  This is why I do not juxtapose fear with hope, as is often done, but rather, what actually sits juxtaposed to both fear and hope is clear discernment and positive action. 

The ancient Stoics had a rule of discipline of mind which is to let a thing be the thing it is and not take the next mental step which is to superimpose some sort of judgment upon the thing as good or bad, certainly not dire or hopeless, to let the thing just sit as it is, no judgement, ready for close discerning examination.  It is another way of stating a basic Zen principle of approaching life with “original mind,” free of any judgements.  The great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki called this “beginner’s mind,” the point being that only from a mind clear of assumptions and projections can we approach a situation free of the idea that it is impossible or that it ought to be experienced with fear.  It just is what it is, and it may well deserve great caution, and if it is ascertained to be a real problem, it certainly deserves action to manage whatever may be dangerous about it, but anxiety in anticipation of its danger and fear as the response to its danger will only incapacitate us.  All this is true for individuals, and in these times, it is equally important to realize this works at the level of large groups of people and whole societies.

Our world right now is too dangerous for us to be afraid and worry does us no good.  We are a population which is faced with being visited by sickness and death by the Covid-19 pandemic and there is certainly very little that is more anxiety-provoking than the possibility of death.  There IS, however, benefit to discerning anticipation followed with a clear plan of action, and in this we have failed, largely because we have engaged in too much of the blind hope based in denial and rationalization that we’ll be all right because, well, we want to be all right and do not want our routines and comforts disrupted.  The same is true of even larger threats of environmental catastrophes looming not far in the future.  We do not want it to be so, therefore, we act if it is not so.  This is not Stoicism or Zen.  It is just dangerous foolishness.

We also are confronted – again – with the fact that a very large segment of our population lives with the very real fear of malignant racism that erupts murderously through our law enforcement agencies and legal system.  Black lives matter.  What a tragic thing to have to say.  Even more tragic is that from the element of our society that most harbors and excuses the continuation of racist attitudes is the smug retort “all lives matter,” when if they really believed this, the need to emphasize that black lives matter would be unnecessary.  Yet this segment of white working class people DO live in fear of not counting, quite legitimately, because for our bureaucratic and capitalist system, it is true their lives, their health, their economic security, their children’s education and prospects for the future matter very little, but these real insecurities are diverted by cynical politicians into projecting their fears onto people of different racial, ethnic, political, educational and regional identity. 

No discernment.  Just anxieties and fears manipulated.  The discerning truth that we will ALL be most secure when ALL are secure and ALL people matter is lost to minds made dead with manipulated anxieties and fears.  So, within the very real threats of environmental and economic insecurity that we factually face, too many live in blind denial and hope, while very unfortunately, all too many live in irrational fears of that which does not exist.  There are no hordes of rapists and murderers streaming across our southern border and ANTIFA terrorists are not behind legitimate demonstrations against very real racial discrimination and a national policing policy that has taken on aspects of military occupation.

Yes, we are in a time of fear.  Our world IS being turned upside down – and this is necessary – for the old ways have clearly reached their limit.  As I write this for a publication that will be distributed many weeks from the time of writing, I have no idea how upside down our lives will have been turned by the time this is read. What is true is the fact that our lives are being turned upside down, for it is already so, and it is only in its beginning stages, and we are at a crossroads with this turning.   Nearly every segment of our society is feeling insecure and discounted.  The police are not the bad guys – there are some bad police and the culture of policing is much too violent.  And among the courageous and idealistic protesters there are people out to do bad and violent things while there are some naïve people who have overly-simplistic ideas of how to reshape policing and society.  Everywhere, people are struggling because our culture is much too violent AND naive.  We so need to be WITH each other rather than at each other.

We can either be lead by fear, be manipulated through fear into making exactly the wrong choices that will only lead us deeper into trouble and conflict or we can become truly present in what-is, discern what is happening and why, stay out of projected judgments so as to move step by step through what-is into what can-be.  Hope will not get us where we need to be and certainly blind despair will not either.  Only accurate discernment and positive action will lead us constructively through this time into the time that needs to be created.  We must use this scorching and rather than be destroyed by it we must use this fire of change to give rise to a new culture and society. 

Both our motivation and our obstacle to this great achievement is fear.  Right now, we may feel lost.  Our old world is gone, some would say, long overdue.  We sit at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, completely imbedded in 20th century ideas of what is what.  This is how this mess happened, and we must open our eyes to the great question of what is needed to bring humanity peacefully and prosperously into the 22nd century and beyond.  Until we become fearlessly present, able to see that the consciousness of fear and ignorance is what has brought us to this crisis, we will remain mired in it.  And only when the consciousness of the truth of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all Life is realized and becomes the template for our social and cultural reconstruction, can we begin forging the solutions to our real problems.   Both Stoicism and Zen tell us – have faith – what we need is already within us.  We just must get blind fear and naïve hope out of the way to come into this historic moment as-it-is and begin building on truths that have always been, yet we were too lost in fear or blind denial and sometimes false optimism to see and act upon.

PERHAPS THE STOICS HAD SOMETHING TO SAY TO US

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” – “Keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” – Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 A.D.)

Marcus Aurelius was known as the last of the Five Good Emperors of ancient Rome and ruled from 161 to 180 A.D. and is noted as being possibly as close to Plato’s ideal of the Philosopher King as any ruler in history.  He is also known as one of the greatest of Stoic philosophers, Stoicism being the most enduring and inspiring of the Hellenistic philosophies emerging from the Socratic/ Platonic tradition, the others being Epicureanism, which extolled the pursuit of pleasure albeit with a certain philosophical moderation, and Cynicism, which taught the development of reason and virtue within an extreme asceticism and an unyielding criticism and rejection of cosmopolitanism, extolling a life-style attuned with Nature. 

Marcus Aurelius, and the Stoicism he and other philosophers such as Zeno of Citium (336 – 265 BCE), Cato (95-46 BCE), Seneca (4 BCE- 65 A.D.) and Epictetus (50-135 A.D.) taught and lived, was probably as close to Buddhist philosophy as any Western school of thought.  It extolled virtue, truth, goodness, simplicity, courage, self-knowledge and mastery, and self-reliance in the face of adversity, while living in meditation on what it is to be in accordance with the wisdom of Nature.  Stoics also believed in a supremely intelligent order to the Universe known as logos, a perfect web of interconnection underpinning existence,with which humanity must seek alignment if wisdom and virtue were to prevail.  In similarity to the Cynic philosophy there was emphasis on reason and self-reliance, except that Stoicism, like Buddhism, represented a kind of middle way, in that, unlike Epicureans, it preached modesty in lifestyle while not the Cynics’ asceticism and rejection of social convention.  This makes Stoicism an accessible philosophy for practical people who are functioning within society, particularly those with authority and responsibility. As Aurelius was known not just as one who espoused but lived the philosophy, it is easy to see why he was regarded as a “good” ruler. 

Which brings us to today’s world and the challenges we face.  As Aurelius was faced with external and internal threats to the stability and continuation of the Roman Empire, we are faced with external and internal threats to the continuation of the American experiment in liberal democracy, which amounts to a sort of empire, as American values have succeeded in dominating the modern world in much the way Roman values dominated the ancient world.  Well worth noting is that many among the American founding fathers, including Jefferson and Washington, were admirers of the Stoic philosophers and the United States at its inception was intended as an experiment in governance by the stoic principles of reason, goodness, virtue, and justice bestowed equally to all  (acknowledging that both societies engaged in slavery, severe classism and many prejudices).  What is important is not the purity of their understanding and implementation, rather that their intentions were directed toward establishing a course for the society guided by these principles.  As other great American leaders, such as Lincoln and both Roosevelts, can be seen as embodiments of stoic political philosophy, it could be said that Stoicism has helped shape the founding and development of the American state, and it may be that in this time of great uncertainty the Stoics may offer some important perspective on how to move America into its next era.

The period of the Good Emperors is extolled because it was a period of sincere attempts by the emperors to rule with wisdom, nobleness of character and fair justice.  Yet while the rulers may have been inclined to Stoicism, it can well be said that the dominant attitude and tastes of the people of Rome was hedonistic well beyond Epicureanism, pursuing a life of extravagant and even obscene indulgence and vice.  Like with Rome, it might well be seen that excesses of materialism, sensationalism, vanity, selfishness, shallowness, and corruption have eroded the character of America and now threaten to leave us as incapable of addressing the challenges that face our future as was the case with post-Aurelian Rome.  Rather than reason and truth being held as absolute guides, now uninformed opinion, wild speculation, conspiracy theory, lies and slander increasingly are taking over our political and social discourse.

As Rome fell under the inept and corrupt leadership of Marcus Aurelius’s son Commodus and the chaos of succession that followed while external pressures and internal deterioration grew, the question arises, is America at the end-point of any expectation for nobility in its leaders or its political culture?  And is this crisis of virtuous and courageous leadership reflective of the absence of nobility in our general culture as materialism and self-indulgence have replaced the nation’s founding ideals – as had become the case for ancient Rome?  Has lurid media replaced the Coliseum?  And has populism, the empowering of ignorance and whim, taken over as was the case in Rome as “rule of the mob” took over, thus making virtuous and wise leadership nearly impossible?  Are we at the end of America’s greatness and idealism just when it is needed the most?  How can we marshal vision, compassion, wisdom and courage in the rebuilding of our society toward greater internal political and economic justice that includes not only all people, but the realm of Nature as well?  Are we so lost in short-sighted and foolish jingoism and barely disguised racism that we believe it is best if we stand alone in the world behind walls and trade and tariff-wars just when the international community looks to us for leadership as the entire world faces the collective challenge of halting and reversing environmental degradation?

We can only hope not.  Yet hope is no basis upon which to entrust the future of our society and the world.  We must, as both Buddhist and Stoic teachings instruct, look to recognizing inherent virtue and self-reliance as our nature; otherwise, we are faced with the very real possibility of our society devolving into some variation of barbarism, as did Europe through the Dark Ages.  The Stoics believed the supreme good to be an “honorable” life and that an honorable life requires the perfection of human nature through development of courageous, humble, compassionate, wise and virtuous harmonization with Universal Nature – and I can think of no better set of values upon which to build an American renewal than these.

It might be observed that Aurelius’s failing was in his not holding his society and his offspring to the same standard of virtue that he held himself, and so the fall of Rome came about from a rot within that was unable to withstand the growing storm without, much like what will fell a great oak tree.  Perhaps as in the two thousand years separating our time from Aurelius, social evolution has moved the authority of society from an absolute ruler to the democratic will of the people, and with it, the obligation to hold themselves and their political and institutional leaders to a much higher standard than we are now too often witnessing.  Perhaps what is necessary in our society is the development of collective philosopher kings, where people accept their democratic responsibility to rule with wisdom and compassion, elevating to offices of governance only those who embody stoic ideals rather than the corrupt narcissists all too often now elevated to public office who believe the office and the country are there to feed their lust for vanity and power.  Yet I do have hope – for I know there are many who long for a more virtuous politics and national purpose, and perhaps this is a call to just those citizens to step forward – and many are.  The good news is that while one polarity of our political life seems to be following the worst impulses that felled Rome, there is a growing sense of compassionate and courageous duty which is motivating those who still believe in a virtuous America.  May the wisdom that lives by the simple stoic philosophy of trusting in our own resilience, in truth, compassion, reason, modesty, and the imperative to do our best in service to our country, humanity and the World come to carry the day and the future.

THE BODHISATTVA VOW ‘S RELEVANCE TODAY

I vow to help all beings overcome their suffering.

I vow to understand and overcome delusion and egoic confusion.

I vow to deepen my understanding of The Way to Awakening (The Dharma).

I vow to attain Awakening into the truth of existence (Enlightenment).

In Buddhism there is an ancient tradition of the Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who chooses to use their own experience of what it is to be liberated from ignorance and suffering to continue the work of bringing all into enlightenment and out of suffering.  These are beings that could walk away from the world of conflict and confusion in perfect equanimity, capable of realizing themselves in samadhi, oneness with all that is.  Yet, feeling the suffering that still exists in the world and knowing they are not separate from the human collective, they dedicate themselves to remaining in the world as teachers, as healers, as visionaries, as beacons of what it is and can be to live in peace, harmony and wisdom.   

We don’t have to be Buddhists to find wisdom, inspiration and hope in this tradition.  Buddhism is, I believe, increasingly leaving behind the confines of religion to be simply an approach to life that is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Vow without any trappings.  This would seem inevitable as Buddhism has none of what are considered traditional religious declarations of faith in some anthropomorphic deity that “reveals” absolute laws through prophets and priests; rather, it looks to what is called dharma, or “way,” meaning the natural, psychological, and metaphysical laws of the Universe to which its adherents are dedicated.  It looks only to truth, discovered in the fullest application of human capacities for intelligent observation, analysis, contemplation and meditation.  In a sense, religious dedication, meaning that which we religiously bring conviction and intention to, concerns being awakened into the realities of the human condition and its place and responsibility within Creation.   Unique among religions, the only faith Buddhism emphasizes is faith that we have within us everything we need to realize truth and the nature of existence, just as did Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as The Buddha – The Awakened One.  The Buddha, therefore, is not to be worshiped, but rather seen as the example of what is possible for every human.

And so, here we are, two decades into the 21st century in very difficult times.  Modern human society, in its quest to liberate human beings from the dangers and discomforts of Nature, has created an artificial reality society in which this antagonistic relationship with Nature brings us to the place where all our arguments over political, economic, racial, and religious differences are about to be eclipsed by the consequences (Buddhism calls it karma) of our alienation from Nature and its laws of balance, interconnectedness and interdependence.  The imbalances in Nature and our socioeconomic systems brought about by human industrialization and the relentlessly competitive and materialistic philosophy of the contemporary world are causing increasing disruptions in our lives and economy through two parallel imbalances; the first, increasing crises brought by our exploitive relationship with Nature, and the other, the failure of our economic system to serve the complete community of citizens as wealth coalesces increasingly around the already wealthy.  And now we are faced with society brought to its knees by a microbial pathogen, a virus crossed from the animal kingdom, for which we have no acquired immunity, and our social, political and economic systems are being laid bare as inadequate to the challenge.

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that our hierarchical social and economic organization is failing to address these threats and is rather creating impediments to the true task ahead of us of coming together in harmonious unity to effectively confront these challenges.  We are discovering that the economic and political organization of the previous centuries is failing us, for it is not based in dharma, in wisdom, yet we continue to hold to it as if class-system capitalism with its economic Darwinism are religious truth.  We are finding that as these entirely new circumstances confront us, there is required entirely new thinking to address the challenge, and we are flailing about not knowing how to reorder our priorities to adequately address these times.  Again, without becoming a Buddhist, it might be that we can look to a very ancient source of wisdom in The Bodhisattva Vow as an excellent way to conceptualize the challenge we face and see in its teaching the core of an answer with its direction to awakened wisdom, compassion and courage.

At the core of the Bodhisattva Vow is the recognition that human suffering is caused by delusional thinking and egoic confusion, the mistaken notion that each of us is a struggling individual quite separate from the collective of humanity and Nature.  We feel insufficient and so seek to make more of ourselves by living a life of taking and consuming.  We are obsessed with the idea of “me,” then pluralized to “mine,” as exclusive in importance to all that is “other.”  If we are to address the issues of psychological, spiritual, economic, and social suffering that the challenges of this century place before us, we must address the delusional causes that are generating the suffering.

Humanity is a web of interconnection within the web of Nature and the well-being of all is interdependent.  Can this be disputed?  Yet, we generally fail to function within this truth.  Thus, it cannot be denied that we have established our societies and our economies on the fiction of human superiority over Nature and levels of hierarchical human value within the human community.  This has been the course of human society for thousands of years, and it has also been the source of massive amounts of suffering for those thousands of years in the form of wars, criminality, human and natural resource exploitation, unnecessary poverty, and the ill that Buddhism directly sought to first address 2500 years ago, spiritual and psychological suffering.

And so, humanity has stumbled along making some progress in addressing the ills of the delusion of human differences according to class, race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual preference, etc., while remaining mostly blind to the delusion of human separation from Nature, and it is this blindness that is catching up to us.  We are faced with an escalating number of environmental-related crises of monumental challenge presented by the consequences of the growing imbalance between humanity’s artificial reality and Nature’s absolute reality.  What could be more telling than having our mighty economic juggernaut societies brought to a stall by the tiniest of natural phenomenon, a virus?

Yet perhaps Nature is being kind with us, tapping us on the shoulder, telling us to wake up.  This virus is only a small indicator of how vulnerable we are.  Just as scientists have warned of this pandemic threat to a power structure that does not wish to listen to any suggestion of the need to dramatically democratize our society to include not only all people, but all of Nature, so too have we been warned of the complete devastation that awaits our societies through massive dislocation brought by climate change.  There can be no doubt that societies based in exploitation cannot survive the challenges that the century before us presents, yet our governing social institutions doggedly resist the shifts in thinking that are necessary.

Here, I return to the vow of the Bodhisattva.   After all, the word “Bodhisattva” means, “Awakened Being,” and can we really be awake to the realities of this world and not pledge ourselves, vow, to do what is within our capacities to help alleviate the suffering that awaits us if we remain mired in delusion?  For the interconnectedness of our situation is undeniable.  No amount of wealth or power can insulate anyone from the consequences of a virus released, or the rising of the seas, or the droughts and famines and dislocations that will send the entire world-order into panic and collapse.  We are all in this together or we will all go down together.  This is Dharma.

Thus, the first vow, to help all beings overcome their suffering, arises from the state of being awake and leads directly into realizing that we are in the situation we are in because we have lived in a manner that celebrates human ego, the very capacity unique to humans that generates delusion and confusion, that prioritizes individual power and significance over community well-being, and with it, an inability to see that the human community MUST include all of Nature.    And so, we must commit and vow to deepen our understanding of the Way of Nature, the Dharma, as the guide to the resolution of our social, economic and environmental challenges while realizing that only an enlightened society, comprised of individuals who are dedicated to continual humility in the face of the unfolding Truths of the Universe can create and sustain such a society.  The Way of the Bodhisattva and the vow that comes with it may be an ancient tradition, but it arises from a time when humanity prized wisdom over cleverness and humility over egoic arrogance.  It is a reminder that the time surely has arrived for humanity to place wisdom rather than power at the center of its civilization, or there will be no civilization worthy of the name.  It is a time for Bodhisattvas not the narcissists and sociopaths, the purveyors of egoic delusion that now run our society – to step forward and to fulfill the vow – while there is still time.  The only sustainable society possible must commit, must vow, to also being an enlightened society.

Pain-Body

Every emotional pain that you experience leaves behind a residue of pain that lives on in you. It merges with the pain from the past, which was already there, and becomes lodged in your mind and body. This, of course, includes the pain you suffered as a child, caused by the unconsciousness of the world into which you were born. This accumulated pain is a negative energy field that occupies your body and mind. If you look on it as an invisible entity in its own right, you are getting quite close to the truth. It’s the emotional pain-body. – Eckhart Tolle

Within and around us flowing through the muscle fibers of our body and radiating from our body is another body that Eckhart Tolle calls the energy-body.  This field is energy not recognized by Western science but is fundamental to Eastern, aboriginal and mystical cultures.  This inner body is made of the energy of Life; it is called chi, ki, aura, or simply Spirit. It can be felt and seen, but only through an extraordinary development and integration of the senses and intuition.  This energy field is indistinct in its boundary, sometimes contracted in tightly deep beneath our skin, sometimes reaching out gently and with curiosity.  Sometimes it lashes out into the world and towards others.  It can be the invisible reaching hand of love, appreciation, and empathy.  It can also be the mental fist of our ego projecting anger, fear, and even hate.  It can collapse deep within us in a frightened cower of despair.  It can be the curious reaching eyes of wonder.  It is what connects us with the world around us and gives us great capacities for balance, insight and flow.  And because it is the energy of consciousness itself, it has deep and true intelligence and capacity for emotional resonance.

This energy-body is a dimensional interface of elemental Universal consciousness energy and the physical form-energy of a person.  It expresses itself as compassion, for it feels the pain of the world.  It is also fear and anger, for it is afraid of the pain of the world and anger is its protection.  It is the realm of emotion, where concepts and experiences resonate with the body and create feelings, for we feel emotion.  We do not feel thoughts, even though thoughts can be the trigger of emotions.  It is a way we can understand emotion and feelings as karma to thoughts, certain thoughts consistently bringing forth corresponding emotions, and we are constantly creating states of feeling through thoughts that resonate in the body as feelings. 

The origin of these thoughts is conditioning, each of us developing a story of who we are through and coming out of childhood, and then shaping and reshaping our story through adult life.  This story not only has a narrative, it has a felt-sense to it.  We live inside a feeling of what it is to be who we are.  We are energy-beings manifesting within and from an energy-Universe.  We are permeated with the energy of the Universe because this energy is our source – we are not separate.  Yes, our physical bodies create a separate form but at the foundational level of the Universe, there is no way to be separate – except in our minds. 

Though we are undeniable, irreducible energy, our bodies are perceived and experienced as objects, not energy, for there is most certainly solidity and separateness to the physical body.  We are both energy and form, yet it is form and solidity that dominate our experience.  So too with mind, though on a much subtler level, for the energy of mind, of consciousness, is always of unity.  Yet, within mind a world is constructed out of thoughts, of separate bits and pieces of information.   These thoughts have the experience of solidity and reality, of thought-objects that capture and hold our attention, and while the basic energy of mind is a unity, the realm of thought-objects is often filled with contradiction and conflict, for they can be any crazy imagined thing.   

These contradictions and conflicts create great disharmony in the energy of mind that creates mental discomfort and pain, sadness and despair, fear and anxiety, anger and hatred.  There is rage, rage at the world and rage at ourselves.  As we are angry outwardly, we are anger itself inside and this is a great tension.  This tension is resonated through the nervous system into the tissues of the body and depending on its intensity, this tension can be painful.  This tension is contracted musculature and contracted consciousness energy that takes on, through appropriation by ego, a story of self, and this contracted consciousness energy is what Tolle describes as the pain-body, an energy-field contracted and shaped along the contours of our imaged emotionally painful mindscape.

Pain-body is built out of a story.  It is a story of a person in conflict with the world and with themselves and in this story there is a lot of tension and pain.  And this pain-story is looking for evidence of its validity, and of course finds in the world more stories of pain, of anger, of anxiety, of despair, of suffering, and it incorporates these stories into its own.  You know an angry person when you see them.  The anger is a state of mind, but the body is its megaphone, and the energy of their body is unmistakable.  So too, you can recognize a really anxious person when you see them.  Anxiety, too, is a state of mind, but it is broadcasting through physical posture and resonance into the physical world.  So too with depression.  You know it when you see it.

What is important to realize is that at varying levels of intensity these mental/emotional states are nearly always operating in us creating a mental/emotional personality contour.  This is what makes for what psychology calls neurosis.  We are carrying and projecting a subtle – to at times, not so subtle – story of an angry or anxious or depressed person, or more likely, some combination of all three, most of the time.   Not only are we projecting these mind/body energy stories, we are feeling them, and it is this feeling state that we can work with as we embark on the journey of healing.

To our salvation, we also carry within us stories of a loving, gentle, forgiving, confident, calm and joyous person.   These stories have a very different feel from the story of pain.  Whereas the story of pain is contracted, tense, jumbled, dark, sometimes implosive, sometimes explosive, the story of our joyful and loving self is expansive, relaxed, clear, light, balanced and radiant.  We can feel the difference, and importantly, as they are actually states of mind generated by thought and resonated into the body, we can change the feeling by changing the thought, for thought is available to management by intention.  First, however, we must commit to the intention to profoundly change our story, and this can be quite challenging for the pain-body, as the story of me is very resistant to changing.  It is resistant because to do so means the pain-body must relinquish its hold, and as strange as it might seem, very few people are really ready to let go of their story of pain for, as uncomfortable and troublesome as it is, it is all they know.  To step into the unknown of freedom can be quite scary.

There is an old Zen saying that tells us “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and perhaps we become ready when living with the pain just isn’t worth the familiarity of our story and the identity that comes with it.  And so, our practice must begin with faith that not only are we pain, we are also joy and light and understanding.  We know this to be true because we have experienced it, and, though it may be difficult to believe because we have known ourselves caught in pain for so long, this light is really who we are.  Life is EVERYTHING and we are Life.  How can we not be?

We are the dark AND the light.  We are selfish and grasping, but also loving, gentle, forgiving, compassionate, confident, calm and joyous.  We are a person with the capacity for conscious intention, and it is this intention we must muster.  We are a person who IS awareness, the witnessing energy of consciousness that can see, feel and think.  We are a person who can recognize when we get caught in the pain-body because we can feel the constricted, contracted, erratic, implosive and explosive energy taking us over.  We also have the capacity to bring intention to break free of the unconscious programming of our dark conditioning – to pause, to look, to breathe and relax the contraction, to shift into seeing and expressing that we are also light.  We were born as light and have always been light.  We are just covered over with the dark conditioning, and this knowing then can be the faith and buttress that can guide and strengthen our intention.  We can intend to think lovingly, compassionately, forgivingly, acceptingly of others, ourselves and the conditions of Life, and in this choiceful, conscious, intentional shifting of thought, we shift our feeling from constricted pain-body into joyous, soft and loving Being.  We can begin to let go of resisting Life-as-it-is for it is this resistance that, as Tolle realized, causes the energy to block and become painful, to become suffering.  Over time and with practice, we will no longer feel or think as isolated and alone in our pain and confusion; rather, we can begin to know that we are merged with the energy of Life, for we ARE the energy of Life.  We can gently and lovingly release the pain-body and its story to be healed, reconnecting with the flowing energy of Life itself and the panoply of beings all around us.  We can choose, we can intend, to bring consciousness in its fullness to our experience, and this is what Buddhism refers to as being awake.  It is being awake to self as the flow of the Universe, and with this path we begin to free ourselves from the suffering of the pain-body.

Searching for Reality

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. –  Lao Tzu 5THcentury BCE

Reality is not what we think it is.  We live inside our minds, believing the picture show happening there to be reality, and in one way of looking at reality, it is.  It’s our reality.  People of the same socio/economic/cultural orientation have a lot of overlap of their realities, yet even with siblings, there can be startling variation in what they believe concerning the history and experiences they have in common.  Imagine comparing our notion of reality with a person of another historic/cultural orientation entirely, say with a 5th century BCE Chinese.  We would find the area of overlap to be much smaller than with a person of our contemporary orientation and the areas of difference to be much larger.  In a very real sense, we collectively think a 21st century America into being while 5th century BCE China was thought into being by the minds of those who lived that experience.  Individuals and historic periods have stories they tell and call these stories reality, when, other than relatively speaking, they are not.

The swirling thoughts and images which fill our consciousness are creating a virtual reality in our minds made of a soup of information (and much misinformation) about who we are and what the world is about.   From the moment of our birth, society and culture, in the shape of parents and all the social influences around us, begin creating this idea of a world for us that we accept as real and true when it is only real and true in an extremely limited way.  It is a very selective and limited representation of the everything that reality actually is.  In returning to what it would be like in 5thcentury BCE China, one interesting variation of this scenario is the question:  if you were born into this world, into an entirely different historical and cultural period, would you still be you?  Could you be born into any other circumstance other than the one you WERE born into and be you?  It all depends on what you believe the real you to be.   Are you the perspectives and attitudes and beliefs you hold, or are you something much more fundamental? 

Could it be there is some essence of a person that transcends the mental illusions they hold about reality, an essence that is like the clay that society, culture and experience, both shared and individual, shape into a socio-historic person that has a particular take on reality, a reality that from other perspectives might be considered delusional madness?  I think we would have to say absolutely yes, for the total disorientation of a 21st Century person and a 5th Century BBCE Chinese person in the others’ world, which would at first feel like madness, would slowly give way to more and more shared reality constructed out of the new experiences.  Some essence of the person, a consciousness not shaped by conditioning, would, over time, cause our total disorientation to give way to adopting more and more of the contextual reality of the place and time we found ourselves.  We would still be the human being we are, with our own particular uniqueness, beneath any of the new conditions, circumstances or beliefs we held concerning reality.

From a Zen perspective, the real you, the essence of you, could be born into any circumstance and still be you, for you are not considered to be the social/cultural/personal psychological content that goes into the mind, but rather the consciousness that is the basis of mind itself.  This consciousness energy is then shaped and individualized into a unique expression and way of perceiving that is a person.  The uniqueness, however, precedes the conditioning. As Zen draws its reference for reality from Nature, it recognizes that for humans, just as with leaves and snowflakes, there is the commonality of the leaves, snowflakes or humans, yet each is unique, no two are exactly the same.  In Nature, the law of reality is a unity of Life replicating uniqueness within commonality through dimension after dimension.     

Born into this world a unique person, we experience our separateness, reinforced to greater or lesser degrees by how our culture emphasizes separateness, yet there is always some instinct, some insight, some intuition, that separateness is not a true and total picture of reality.  Despite our senses registering separateness, there is this deeper sense that pulls us to oneness and connectedness, to the Way of Nature, as ultimate reality.  This is why a contemporary can read the writings of the 5th century BCE Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, the fountainhead of Taoism, and recognize truth as he beckons us to look to Nature to find the template for a wise and true life.

So, when the Zen master exhorts us to show our “original face,” what is being asked, and how is one to find this “face?”

We must realize that one level of reality is how the human brain processes the information of our senses which then, within our field of consciousness, constructs a “reality.”  This virtual reality matrix of our psycho-social-cultural conditioning is held together and in place through constant movement of the contents of mind, retelling the story of this virtual reality with every perception that leads to an interpretation of the perception consistent with the story.  We live inside a swirling and mostly opaque screen of thoughts and images holding together our virtual reality, and as long as this swirling movement is all we attend to we have no sense of the truths and reality that lies deeper. 

And so, one common reality for humans of every era and culture has been, when searching for deeper understanding into reality, to learn to slow down and even stop the swirling matrix so as to discover a vibrant, dynamic energy of stillness where the Universe enters into manifestation through an individual human life – there to glimpse the deeper principles of Reality, of the Universe itself. 

Lao Tzu’s Taoism and its philosophical offspring, Zen, are just such attempts to search for deeper and deeper levels of reality.  They recognize that the matrix of spinning ideas and images must be penetrated to see what is beneath them, to understand their place and purpose in the unfolding saga of what it means to be human.  And so their first task and teaching is to slow down, perhaps even stop, this spinning matrix to see what is beneath and prior to it.  Profoundly, the word “zen” translated into English means “sitting,” and the genius of Zen as a practice for penetrating into Ultimate Reality is that it realizes that if we just stop, if we just “sit,” if we quiet the swirling manifestations of our virtual-reality minds, there we find the Universe as-it-is.    Here, this moment, without projecting any of our conditioned virtual-reality upon it, we feel, we see, the illusion of our matrix for what it is. 

When the illusions of our conditioned reality as individuals or an entire society’s illusions, begin to fail us, this then becomes the time for stopping, for “sitting,” for waking up to look for deeper levels of reality.  It becomes time to check in with our deeper reality and truly see what works and what does not, to see what is needed to reconnect and establish flow with changing conditions – and we will always find that what will be required is more honesty, more inclusiveness, more compassion, more creativity, more courage, and more connection with what is natural and true.  We must change our reality.   We must evolve our reality to contain in harmony what it could not previously contain while we also let go of illusions, false concepts that had been accepted as true, but which our new, expanded view exposes as false.

The great 20th century scientist, Albert Einstein, observed that problems cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created the problem.  He also shared that his great insights into the nature of the physical universe would come to him, not through thinking, but through silent contemplation, or even quieting the mind by taking a walk or swim.  Without being a Zenist, he was realizing Zen, for the art of Zen is in the cultivation of ever-increasing skill in penetrating through our swirling thought-show to experience deeper and deeper levels of truth into what-is.  We must stop so as to see and feel Reality.  Thinking and language then become the tools we use to express that which emerged from silence. We really do not have to go to 5th century BCE China to realize that this reality we accept right now has not always been our reality.  After-all, how much of our own reality has changed through the course of our lifetime?  True Reality is always a fresh horizon awaiting our willingness to see it for what it is at subtler and deeper levels than we ever thought.   Sitting in the here-and-now with quiet mind opens the portal through which we can view the horizon ahead with fresh insight, to realize and create new realities, new consciousness, to solve the problems created by old realities that have outlived their purpose and are now creating rather than solving problems.  We must let go of what was to find what can be.

Managing Negative Emotion

“No self, no suffering.” – Buddha

Buddha is said to have stated, “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and the path to its transcendence. That’s all I teach,” but what this is also saying is that The Buddha taught entering into a deep examination into negative, problematic human emotions – what causes them, and the means to effectively managing them.   This is so important because no matter how “smart” we may be, there seems very little correlation between the kind of intelligence that makes a person an expert in some field of study, in the academic or professional worlds, and emotional stability.  There may even be, in many cases, an inverse relationship where with higher and more complex intelligence, there is little practical wisdom and little of what is sometimes called “emotional IQ.”

The Buddha taught that in all of Nature, humans, because of their evolved brains, are unique in their ability to create a virtual reality called culture and to develop techniques and tools for living in a complex and exploitive relationship with Nature.  This is a good thing from the standpoint of greatly freeing humans from the dangers and limitations of Nature while releasing us to be creative, making ever-more complex culture and tools.  But Buddha also realized there is a very big problem connected to this evolutionary human trait of complex brain function.  To borrow from a modern paradigm drawn from the very complex tool of cybernetics, humans live in very much what are virtual realities constructed of information manipulated by these complex brains, and this virtual reality generates a sense of a virtual-reality-sense-of-self that psychology calls ego that is quite disconnected from our true nature and from Nature itself with serious consequences for both us humans and for Nature. 

Buddhism teaches a model of mind that considers thoughts and emotions to be mind-objects or forms that exist within the formless energy of mind-consciousness that individuates into awareness, the faculty for directing consciousness energy with its inherent intelligence into the examination of experience.  In recognizing this multidimensional model of mind, Buddhism then gives us a methodology from which we can train in building skill at managing the contents of the mind by directing awareness into this examination.  The Buddha further taught that having realized this dimension of awareness that can examine the contents and activity of mind, the insight becomes natural that we then must not be the contents, the thoughts and emotions, as most people assume and our culture reinforces.  Rather, if awareness can examine the contents and activity of the mind, then who we fundamentally must be IS this awareness and not the contents and activity.  We are not egos that have awareness; rather, we are awareness that has an ego structure so as to engage the world.  This shifts our experience of mental activity from one that seems helpless in its management to one that is interactive and opens the way for skillful management.

While Western education focuses intensely on feeding the mind full of information and ideas along with methods of logic for putting these ideas together effectively for utilitarian application, it teaches nothing about managing these contents in a manner so as to maximize mental stability, serenity and wisdom.  The Buddhist model, on the other hand, emphasizes that we can manage mind through meditative techniques where mind examines mind, shining the light of awareness on the content of mind giving us perspective and insight, while developing awareness of awareness, allowing us to explore its potential for intuitive insight into the nature of existence.  We discover that as awareness, we are free of the contradictions and imbalance of the egoic mind, and we can deepen the exploration of life lived as awareness, the dimension that is the true source of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and insight.

To continue borrowing metaphor from the cybernetic world, as the saying goes: “Garbage in, garbage out” and any crazy thing can be programmed into these computer-brains of ours, much of it being completely contradictory and at odds with actual reality.  Most importantly, these reality-virtualizing brains generating a virtual-self experiences itself as unique and separate from all else in the world, and this virtual-self is acutely aware of its vulnerability and its mortality; living in a story of itself in time, the past defining us and the future challenging us.  This sense of limitation, vulnerability and dependency on the external world for stability and validation, and the too-often failure of the external world to provide consistency and validation, causes the contents of mind to be all too often marked by anxiety, frustration and unhappiness.

At the core of most negative emotional experience – of depression, anxiety, anger and loneliness – is an exaggerated sense of this virtual-self in personal isolation along with a time-focus in the past or future.  Most of the time, our focus of attention is on our “self” in our story-line in time that is too often distressing.   Even anger, which in a given moment seems to be present-moment activated, has a strong component of residual past distress and disappointment brought into the present situation and is often carried quite inappropriately into the future, the ego chewing on its grievance over and over.  The world, with the exception of whatever or whoever may be the focus of stimulating the emotion, has receded far into the background of our attention.  Even the stimulating event or person is being experienced principally in its distressing connection to self, not in its larger context which would give the experience more sense and proportion, and thus greater acceptability.  The world has to some inappropriate degree collapsed into the situation, thoughts and emotions orbiting our focus on our self.  

Buddhism recognizes this and teaches us to realize the antidote to such a perception is to expand the field of awareness to deliberately include what is NOT about our virtual-self and our distressing situation, thus preserving context and perspective.  It teaches us to give full awareness and attention to what is NOT our emotional quagmire, our self-imposed exile from Life.  Rather, Buddhism teaches that we must direct attention into the sublime everyday with such presence that the miracle and wonder, the interconnectedness of who and what we are with everything, begins to be increasingly apparent.  Here, we re-enter the flow of Life, and the emotions associated with our perceived isolation then fall into the background, realized as either illusory, or now, much more manageable.

Very importantly, when a human is in this flow of Life, there is very little of the preoccupation with the ego or virtual-self.  Awareness blends like a surfer riding a wave with the present moment.  These are the moments of our greatest adaptivity, balance and skill.  In a very real sense, the ego-self disappears, leaving behind what is a genuine and intelligent human organism that IS the moment in flowing consciousness.  There is no isolated “self” struggling with “out there.”  There is only the blending of self and the moment, of meeting the challenge.

With training in Buddhist meditation we begin to transfer our sense of self from the activity of the mind reacting to the world “out there” into the awareness that witnesses the activity of the mind.  We move our sense of who we are from the virtual-self to the authentic-self, a unity with what is happening.  Once this state of being as witnessing discerning awareness begins to actualize as our operational self, we increasingly can engage the world in a manner that Buddhism refers to as “mindful,” and we can begin to live more and more in a sane and adaptive manner.

 We will continue to have negative emotional states, but now rather than being helpless in their grip, we know them for what they are and what they are not.  Most importantly, they are not who we are.  We know ourselves as awareness, and this awareness is trans-personal.  In a very real way we become what Zen refers to as “nobody,” not identified with the virtual-self.  And where there is no virtual-self, there is, as Buddha said, no suffering.  Yes, there will be pain.  Pain is a natural part of Life, but there will not be as much suffering over our experience of physical and emotional pain.  Nor will there be this self telling itself over and over of the unfairness of having to endure pain.  Pain translated into suffering will not blot out all the beauty and miracle of Life, but rather the painful takes its appropriate place in the dance of everything that is real Life, and we can manage the emotional pain with much greater skill and acceptance.

The Path Ahead

Humanity is at a crossroads.  What lies ahead is a choice to continue on the path we have trod for thousands of years through many formulations of political organization or to head in a radically new direction.  Why head in a radically new direction?  Because we must.  For if we stop and look with absolute honesty at the circumstance of human civilization we will probably be horrified, for we will be looking at the devastation of Eden and a future marked by escalating social chaos.  We will see a beautiful and bountiful home planet that has been terribly defiled, facing exhaustion and violent environmental change in the not distant future.  We will see a growing imbalance between the reality of Nature, which is marked by harmonious coexistence, and the actions of humanity, which seem to be marked by the impulse to dominate and exploit not only Nature, but also each other. 

Until recently, the vastness of Nature and the limits of human technology were such that the planet could contain humanity’s rapacious activity, but the equation is rapidly shifting.  Humanity is now, for the first time in its history, of a dimension in its sheer numbers and technology, capable of exhausting Nature’s capacity to support the web of myriad life-forms on this planet while also threatening the civilizations that depend on environmental stability.   Should this happen, while the planet will regenerate itself in geologic time, humanity faces disaster.

Should we stop to look honestly, we would see that there is something in the character of humanity that has placed us in an antagonistic relationship with our own environment while pitting us in continuous strife amongst our various nations, races, religions, classes, and ideologies.  Further, we see that there is something in the human character that can have the evidence and the consequence of this antagonism unfolding right in front of us yet fail to sufficiently come out of denial concerning the inevitable looming catastrophe to do what is necessary to change course and avert disaster.  We see human history for what it has been – the endless confrontation and competition among individuals and groups in which too often, not the wisest and noblest, but the strongest, cleverest and most aggressive dominate.  The phrase is “dog eat dog” – but it is not dogs that connive to break and dominate each other – it is humans.  With this, we also see the plague of psychological illness that results from a culture based in interpersonal competition that gives rise to emotional insecurity.

That’s the bad news.  If, however, we continue to look honestly, we see not just a single path marked by aggression, competition, excess consumption and domination.  We also see that another path intertwines and has always been present.  We also see a path marked by wisdom, honest intelligent curiosity, dedication to truth, compassion, inclusion, generosity, justness, courage, creativity, and the impulse to harmonious beauty.  It is a path with its own particular strength and has been a constant modifying force to the path of aggression and domination.   Human history has not been steered solely by the impulse to power, its abuses and iniquity, but also by these nobler impulses.  In other words, within the human character there exists paradoxically both the impulse to dominate and deny Nature and the impulse to reflect the same harmony and balance that is Nature.  These paths intertwine, yet it seems one path has, to date, dominated and set the overall direction for humanity’s journey, and so far, it has been the path of greed and willful ignorance that now leads us all toward the cliff of disaster.

These two paths have been identified for millennia, and even given names.  The first path is that of human ego, that capacity unique to humans within all of Nature to abstract its experience out of Nature.  It is the legendary fall from Eden, the source of original human sin.  It is the capacity to separate ourselves psychologically as individuals and as a species from the interconnected web of Nature, to deny its laws of balance, to use, consume and destroy only for the purposes of our own aggrandizement.  But there is also this second path that reflects the interconnectedness of Nature.  It is sometimes called wisdom, sometimes called spirituality, sometimes called love, and its laws of harmony and connection are deeply imbedded within us, for in truth we cannot be separated.  It is the source of all spiritual truth and psychological insight concerning humanity, and it is the source of political and economic justness.

We have to recognize that within us exists the capacity for our own salvation and we must dedicate ourselves anew to living in truth.  While we may have forgotten our interconnection to Nature, Nature has not forgotten us.  It has operated as the unconscious impulse to all that is good and has been the saving grace of humanity.  It has been the counterbalance to the arrogance, lust for significance, power, and the blind need for excessive consumption that has often erroneously been described as “human nature,” but is really aberrant to our deepest nature.  Perhaps silently, unconsciously, the path of wisdom has always guided us over the long road of human social evolution, for actually we have moved increasingly and inevitably in its direction intertwined with the dominant  path of power and domination.

Now, however, we must recognize that which has been unconscious and make it conscious.  Humanity’s identification with ego and its destructive impulses must be seen for what they are and overcome while we choose and open to a conscious flowering of our own interconnectedness.  We must realize that we cannot continue functioning in denial of truth or it will most surely bring about humanity’s downfall.  Buddhism refers to this denial and attachment to ego as dukkha – suffering  – while other religions refer to it as sin – and the suffering that awaits us should we fail to change paths is certain to be immense, even catastrophic.

While Buddhism addresses our circumstance eloquently, this concept of ego’s fatal allure is not entirely foreign to the West.  In our very beginning, the ancient Greeks, who valued balance, beauty, and wisdom above all, also had a term for this denial.  They called it hubris, described as the overweening arrogance of assuming human equality, even superiority to the Gods (Nature).  Hubris exalts the pursuit of glory, of power, of wealth and conquest and in the ancient world this egoic hubris was embodied in imperial Rome supplanting the Greeks as the definers of Western civilization.  And though Imperial Rome lasted five hundred years, hubris took it inevitably to its fall.

So now, several millennia later, it would seem we are perhaps headed for our fall, a fall like no other, and humanity must find within itself the wisdom and courage to change its path from this egoic hubris.   Available to us is the path of awakened consciousness, the knowing of our appropriate place within Nature and the Universe.  This too is not a new message.  It is the foundational teaching of Buddhism as it was for the Greeks.  It is the message of wisdom, and it has journeyed with humanity from the beginning of civilizations, mostly hushed and treated like a step-child.  But now, it must be given its place as the true pathfinder leading into the future.  To not do so surely will be even more catastrophic than it was for the Romans and Western Civilization that fell into the long historic period known as the Dark Ages, for while culture fell, the world of Nature was safe to nurture new civilization.  Now, it is Nature itself that is threatened.

Buddha knew, the wisest of Greeks knew, and the prophets and seers of all the ancient cultures knew that truth is heard, understood and manifested only when the human egoic mind is stilled, allowing the quieter subtler wisdom of humanity’s deepest nature to be heard in its whispers.  The path of wisdom is here for us.  It always has been, emerging out of our ancient past, the guiding hand of all of humanity’s noblest actions.  It is not the Greek Fates, but we who will decide.  Fear and domination cannot be the way; we must embrace each other and Nature as kin and source if we are to avoid a dystopian future.    Ego’s tricks are endless and its allure is very strong, but its call is a lie that has led us to this existential moment.  Even the slightest allegiance to truth tells us it is time to change paths.  We must go within once again into our inner nature to find the wisdom, will and strength to choose truth, to choose to love each other and all of Life, to live in balance and beauty.  We must reinvent human society and culture before chaos and massive disruption send us into a new dark age.  We must leave the path of greedy cleverness we have trod for so long and now choose the ancient path of humble yet noble truth, harmony, and wisdom.     

Move to the Light

“Be a light unto yourself.” –  Buddha

Buddhism is very different from Christianity in that rather than the “light,” the good and perfect, being embodied in a demi-god-being bridging the realms of the Divine and the worldly while humanity exists in the profane world of “fallen,” Buddhism holds that what is true and good is in the nature of everyone, for that matter, in everything.  The Buddha is not meant to be the object of worship, simply the model of a fully realized human being.   As a very logic-based, rather than magic-based religion, Buddhism simply teaches that it is logically impossible that the perfect harmony that is the Universe is not at the very core of every manifestation of the Universe, including humans.   This, of course, presents a problem for us, as clearly there are destructive forces in the world which cause us to recoil.  There is the dance of life and death, the wolf killing the fawn, the virus bringing horrid illness and death; there is cancer and famine.  There are terribly destructive earthquakes, hurricanes and wildfires caused by lightning. There is pain and suffering.  We feel that this cannot be light; this cannot be harmony and good.

There is also a particular kind of human darkness and evil beyond the realm of Nature’s catastrophes.  There are Hitlers and Charles Mansons, the evils of hate, war and vicious criminality.  There is also all the everyday petty meanness, cruelty, dishonesty, and hurtfulness that people inflict upon each other, while society seems to be organized around the mundane heartlessness of corporations and bureaucracies.  It is right to ask: where is the perfect harmony, the good and perfect, the light in all this?

Buddhism teaches that while within us is the perfect harmony of the Universe, just as it is within every squirrel and bird, there is a problem in that in humans this core of harmony gets covered over with social/cultural/psychological conditioning telling us all kinds of crazy things about who we are and what the world is.  We do not experience ourselves within an infinitely connected, harmonious and balanced universe.  Rather, we experience ourselves alone and struggling, with but a few tenuous connections of family, friends and affiliations which all too often feel broken.  Buddhism calls this Dukkha – a unique kind of suffering experienced by humans caused by our misperception of ourselves in separateness and our clinging to an identity and value system based in this separateness.  This is a violation of what Buddhism calls Dharma, the Way of the Universe or Nature, with its infinite interconnection and interdependence.  Our light is obscured and our harmony upset, but Buddhism, and all true spiritual traditions, point out that while the light may be obscured, it is not, cannot be, extinguished, for, and here I move into mystical language, The Light is who we are. 

Life needs death, Creation needs destruction; they are inextricable.  This is Dharma.  The difference in Nature is that all death is in the service of Life; all destruction is the necessary making way for creation.  Hurricanes and forest fires caused by lightning are natural occurrences that cleanse and clear away so that new growth can occur.  An ecology needs predators to maintain balance so that the herbivores do not strip away vegetation causing imbalance that will lead to the reimposition of balance through death by starvation.  To the surprise of many, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park has reestablished a balanced ecology where all species flourish more abundantly.  Life moves to balance.  Always.

But humans do not destroy and kill within the laws of harmony and balance; they clear-burn and clear-cut forests, forever destroying ecologies. They callously, thoughtlessly, industrially raise, slaughter and process animals who never experience a moment of freedom or comfort in their short lives.  They make war on each other and Nature.  They steal, swindle, lie, cheat, abuse, kill and destroy so as to make and take more for themselves, and this creates imbalance in The World – it creates dukkha.  Cynics, nihilists, and some atheists point to this enduring fact of human history as proof that there is no transcendent intelligence, no balance, no hope, no Light, yet, they typically neglect that it is NOT true that we are moving inexorably toward darkness.  To the contrary, history proves that we are moving toward The Light, and that The Light has always been with us and within us. 

The nihilist view neglects that for thousands of years humans lived in magnificent and rich cultures on the American, Australian and African continents in complete harmony with Nature.  It neglects that Western and Asian history has moved from tyrannical and violent monarchical class systems into ever growing democracies, being pulled by the light of reason and compassion to move their societies toward justice, fairness and compassion, no matter how much further is still needed.  The Light is in us and pulls and guides us as human collectives and as individuals, even while the darkness misleads and confuses us.  This is the dance of the human experience.  What seems undeniable is that the Universe has given us just a bit more Light, for otherwise, all would have been completely lost long ago.

As it is a commonality of all religions to call us to move to The Light in whichever way the religion depicts it, perhaps we can reframe the entire notion of religion to that which calls us to our basic “religious” task of uncovering this basic ground of goodness and bringing it into the world, whether we consider ourselves identified with an organized religion or not.  Perhaps we can make our religious task to be that Light unto ourselves that Buddha called us to when darkness and confusion surround us so that we can then bring this Light into the world.  Our journey into healing can be found it would seem, individually and collectively, not through adding on more complicated psychological, religious or spiritual jargon and p