Universal Consciousness

“You don’t ‘have’ a life, you ‘are’ life. The One Life, the one consciousness that pervades the entire universe and takes temporary form to experience itself as a stone or blade of grass, as an animal, a person, a star or a galaxy.”  – Eckhart Tolle

Scientists, and thus our culture and our psychologies, cannot seem to grapple with the phenomenon of consciousness, its appearance and ubiquitousness in nature, because we have yet to shake off the anthropocentric view that only humans are truly conscious, and that consciousness arises from our brain.  In the general population there may be acknowledgement of consciousness in other animals, but then it usually remains isolated to what we consider higher level animals like our dogs, cats, or the apes – again, only through association to humans can we accept functioning self-aware consciousness.  Only recently has the possibility of consciousness just as complex as that of dogs been attributed to pigs and elephants, somewhat less so in cows, and then more generally to the mammal species, while complex, seemingly self-aware intelligence in some non-mammal species, such as in octopi or crows, is also being acknowledged.  As usual, we have humanity at the center of the universe and there is an outward spiral of relevance from there, always the reference point being association with human identity and interests.  We are an egocentric species living in an egocentric culture.  We are a dualistic culture, which means we understand things by disassembling them. 

We are quite blind to a very different perspective which has been held by mystical philosophies of every culture dating back thousands of years, which holds the Universe as THE organism of our cosmic reality and every star, planet, life-form, particle of sand, molecule, and atom is an appendage, an expression of, a cell, an organ in the body of the Universe.  This goes not only for matter, but for consciousness, for these perspectives hold that there is no material world without the world of consciousness pervading and generating it. In the ancient Vedic tradition of South Asia, the progenitor of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is viewed that the Universe is primarily unmanifested consciousness called “Brahman.”  This could equate to Western religions’ notion of God, except that there is no projection of human qualities or volition to shape or interfere in the affairs of humanity; there is simply pure creative infinitely intelligent potential that bursts forth as the physical world, which in its human manifestation is referred to as “Atman.”  The Way of Brahman is called Dharma, quite transcendent of human interests, for Brahman is manifesting an entire Universe.  Wisdom traditions tell us it is wise to align with Dharma, but humans want the Universe to bend to us. This is our fall from Grace.  

Atman roughly equates to the Western notion of soul, yet this does not quite correlate either, for the Western notion of soul has implications of the continuation of the ego or personality, whereas “Atman” is more understood to be the true and original Self which is pure consciousness, the “witness consciousness” of Brahman experiencing and interacting with itself.  Importantly, it is understood that every physical manifestation – every person, animal, plant, mineral formation – is Brahman manifested, Universal consciousness channeled through whatever cognitive capacity the entity possesses – humans more complex than other animals, animals more complex than vegetation, vegetation more complex than mineral, yet, at its essence, through the many, resides the One.  So, this perspective is called non-duality, the recognition that all the Universe is One, manifesting as many.

 So here we are, now thousands of years later, with our anthropomorphic notion of God, our personal, judgmental, lawgiving, divisive notions of God that have been the source of endless divisiveness, conflict and war, which have humanity separated from Nature in a callous relationship of exploitation.  Our science has been the butcher, carving up all of Nature, figuring out how the various cuts can serve humanity, failing to recognize divinity anywhere in our world, not even in humans.  Our theology has God in Heaven and humanity fallen, separate from God, and all the world is just the makings, the great hardware and grocery store for humanity to get our consumer goods.  And we are damn near at the breaking point with this planet-as-store-for-humanity ideology.  God is nowhere to be found. Dharma is ignored.

AND….. almost miraculously, our science, in its slicing everything down to its next level to better discover how to exploit the world, has found….. consciousness.  Science is beginning to recognize consciousness in plants – real cognition, storage of information, and communication kind of consciousness.  Any pre-European invasion Native American could have told you this.  And more.  They would tell you of the animals, the mountains, the rocks, the trees and plants, the rivers and the winds possessing wisdom and speaking to us.  They would also tell you that this phenomenon of consciousness is in all things because it is the consciousness of the Great Spirit.  And in their condescension, Europeans called these magic people superstitious heathens.  As Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and mystics in every culture would tell you in their own cultural vernacular, we are not the source of consciousness; we are channels, receivers, processors, and broadcasters of consciousness energy originating from Spirit, God, the Cosmos permeating every atom of the material world.  This is also the discovery with which modern Western science is grappling.  Our reductionist bias has had us taking the physical world apart and studying it for four hundred years, and we finally took it apart down to the subatomic level, the quantum-world level, and we find… consciousness in particles interacting with each other, energy waves becoming particles under observation and particles popping out of and back into the quantum soup.  Consciousness beats our hearts and balances the genius biome universe in our guts as well as concentrating, focusing, and working in the very complex organization of matter which is the human brain.

The difference between Western religions’ idea that God created the world like a potter, and the Vedic, the aboriginal, and mystics’ sense that God is IN the world, is the game changer.  The challenge is for humanity to reframe its religious impulse from worshiping the idea of God standing outside of Nature and our everyday world into the sacred spiritual sense of the mystical non-dual traditions.  Science now has evidence corroborating that consciousness pervades not only ourselves but every animal, plant, and mineral of this world.  If we are ready to accept the obvious, that consciousness seems to be functioning not only in our brains but in every cell and organ of our bodies and at the subatomic level of matter, this opens us to a science-based spirituality which heals the human-Nature rift of the modern world.  Yet, science seems unable to cross this boundary to address the very real possibility that there is Universal Consciousness (and what else could we give the name God?).  It is simply too threatening to the existing dualistic, materialistic, egocentric, reductionistic basis of our culture.  With this realization, however, a new civilization can be born – not based in strife and exploitation – but rather in reverence for ALL.  This revelation opens the way for humanity to move forward in this Universe with a viable, beautiful future relating to all as sacred. It takes us out of the dead-end we are now facing.

When you go to a yoga class or a meditation class, there is a good chance you will encounter the greeting phrase “Namaste.” It is a Hindu word which translates as “God within me recognizes and salutes God within you.”  While most of today’s Westernized Hindus do not live this philosophy any more than Christians demonstrate Jesus’s core teachings of universal love, tolerance, acceptance, and non-materialism, a new and viable human civilization will need to be built on a religious foundation of Namaste, not so different from Jesus’s all-encompassing love, the recognition that “we are ALL God’s children,” even the animals, flowers, waters, earth, and air.

The Vedic tradition teaches consciousness, mysterious, infinitely intelligent and creative consciousness energy, in perfect harmony and balance, is our core Self.  To know our true Self, we must penetrate the noise of the egoic, personal mind to find the silent intelligence of infinite, dynamic stillness which flows through us – Its source, the Universe. This is the true purpose of meditation – to find not only our true Self-as-consciousness, but our kinship with all of Life.  How wonderful a realization!  How wonderful a home in the Cosmos, in Nature, in Infinity awaits us there!  Everywhere you look, you discover, as the Vedic teachings tell us, Tat Tvam Asi, I am That.  Life, Sacred intelligence is at work everywhere, unblemished by human ego.  In the Western traditions, this is Eden, and it can be reclaimed.  Western science does not need to be banished; it can be celebrated as the vehicle that took us from ignorance to wisdom at last, its purpose now not to exploit the world, but to protect and join the energies of consciousness and manifestation in harmonious unity.

But first – we must recognize the error, the horror, which is human egocentrism, the viewpoint of separateness and our compulsion to stratification of who and what does and does not count in our mindset of exploitation.  We must begin working our politics, our economics, our religion, and our science toward the true principles of the spiritual impulse that flows through humanity.  We must recognize and realize the intelligence, the Universal Mind of our Source, which tells us our purpose is to celebrate the sacredness of every person, every animal, every plant, and even mineral.  To do this, we must learn individually, and then collectively, to quiet down our restless, greedy, insecure, thinking, emoting minds to find our Source, to find intelligence that is vast and wise and compassionate and knows Dharma.  This is who we are. Then we will know what to do to heal ourselves, our societies and our planet.  This Earth, this Universe, is our real temple.  Let us come home to worship.  Instead of living in the delusion that we have the answers, let us begin living in the open question of the wonder that is human life, always open to include what we had not been able to include before.

The Joy of Wisdom and Virtue

“Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” – Gautama Buddha

We live in a society which looks to the concepts of morality and ethics as moderating forces on self-interest.  This is to foster the social contract, the recognition of the need for people to treat each other honestly and kindly if we are to promote safety and well-being among the citizenry.  These represent “shoulds,” essentially coercive commands, and one seldom finds any joy in obeying a moralizing command. Yet, there seems to be the perhaps unexpected benefit that when a person embodies moral and ethical behavior, not as a coercive “should,” but as one who can relax into the social contract instruction of such teachings as The Ten Commandments as the “right” way to live without a compulsion to impose their judgments on others, there comes a natural ease and joy in life.  There is joy in living in a manner which values honesty and kindness and is free of the weight of dishonesty and personal animosity.

While the first five of the Ten Commandments – no other gods, no idols, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, observing the Sabbath, and honoring one’s parents – are focused upon supporting the practice and culture of Judeo/Christian/Islamic religion – the next five have to do with ethical conduct – to not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.  These instructions are voiced in the negative “Thou shalt not…,” commanded by a vengeful god.

There is, however, a human resistance to negative moralizing and so, it can be seen that after several thousand years of Western society living with these commandments, they have done little to truly bring peace, joy, kindness, and honesty into the world.  We live in a materialistic society, strong on moralizing religion, yet clueless to real spirituality, which tends to look to such moralizing as justification for harsh punishment of blatant violations of social and economic order while ignoring the nuanced and subtler implications of what they mean, too many seemingly living by the code of “what can I get away with?”  Yet, for those who have taken such instructions to heart, there does seem to be the effect of bringing peace and joy as they build their lives around what the commandments are pointing to – recognition and faith in some guiding higher power and a life of honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, and kindness.

While it is true that Eastern cultures do no better than Western societies at applying a code of conduct for honest, kind, and compassionate social contract among people or toward the natural world, what also seems to be true is that for those who sincerely practice the teachings of the Eastern religion of Buddhism, there seems to be some very positive effect on well-being.  There may also be less passive-aggressive circumnavigating these teachings because Buddhism does not teach morality and ethics in the manner of Western religions.  The Buddha seemed to intuit that coercive commands about how to or not to behave triggers the very human response of opposition to such coercion.  So instead of morality, Buddha emphasized the development of wisdom and virtue, which is more an instruction in how to live happy and peaceful lives, lives free of unnecessary suffering. No one wants to live a life of suffering, so Buddhism begins, not with commandments, but with an insight – that humans experience and perpetrate a great deal of unnecessary suffering, followed by the observation that there is a way to be free of this suffering. This gets a person’s attention far more effectively than commands of “Thou shalt not….”

Buddha’s first instruction, known as The Four Noble Truths, acknowledges that humans suffer unnecessarily in ways which no other creature experiences.  He then notes that this suffering is caused by ignorance (lacking wisdom into the true nature of existence) and through craving for and attachment to all sorts of experiences we hope will bring us happiness but eventually fail to do so in a complete manner.  He then offers us hope by saying there is a way to overcome this problem and finally offers his prescription for curing this malady.  For this the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician,” though he might be better described as “The Great Psychologist,” for his prescription is very much pointing to how one can live increasingly free of neurosis and character flaw – which I believe is the “suffering” he is pointing towards.  His prescription is called “The Eightfold Path,” presented as a series of “right” ways to approach Life, the actualization of which will open us to increasing peace and well-being.  They are:

(1) Right view – This teaches understanding into the true nature of the unfolding of Life and our place within it.  It identifies the core problem as investment of identity in ego and advises us to “empty” ourselves of the false notion of our separateness and to recognize that all things are “empty” of an absolute separate self, that impermanence is an irrefutable aspect of manifested forms, both physical and mental.  Right View addresses the challenge of breaking free of our sense of separateness from life, others, and even ourselves, while emphasizing an ever-deepening appreciation for the miracle of Life in its underlying genius and seamless vast interconnectedness.  Right View fosters wonder, gratitude, and compassion, and a dedication to inquiry into and honoring the mystery that is Life, recognizing that Life happens always as this moment, requiring calm yet alert presence, while past and future are distorted shadows of the mind. 

(2) Right intention – This recognizes that we cannot achieve Right View without diligent and dedicated self-examination and inquiry into all aspects of Life. It calls us to bring the power of positive and unshakable intention into all that we do while recognizing that thoughts of desire, fear, attachment, judgment, hatred, and harmful intent act as obstacles to a life of peace and well-being.  The brilliance of intention is that it is a guide which having strayed from we can always return to, keeping us on course.  It is humble self-compassionate honesty and dedication to truth.

(3) Right speech – Teaches us to bring awareness to our speech patterns to communicate effectively to the best of our ability only what is true, what is necessary, and what is kind. It advises against harsh, insinuating, or manipulative speech, against lying, gossip and slander, types of speech that not only harm others, but will likely come back to burden us.

(4) Right action – is to refrain from physical misdeeds such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct, while acting to develop what is best in being human in skill, helpfulness, reliability, and courage not only with others, but with ourselves and with all the natural world.

5) Right livelihood – choosing as our occupation what is constructive and helpful rather than exploitive, freeing us from the weight of a bothered conscience or the need to harden ourselves against our conscience.  These restrictions against doing harm foster positive feelings and relationship in the material world while supporting our exploration of the spiritual dimension of consciousness energy which exists beneath and interpenetrates the material, connecting all of Life.

(6) Right effort – is to develop skillfulness, determination, and perseverance in our effort to achieving an awake, compassionate life, along with vigilance in discerning what is helpful from harmful, unwanted, or unwarranted effort.

 (7) Right mindfulness – is tuning into Life with practiced relaxed, inquiring, non-judgmental, compassionate presence, developing awareness of awareness as our essence, our true Self.  This keeps us grounded in the present moment discerningly, aware of our body, thoughts, emotions, and the nature of the world and people around us with clarity and compassion.  This is also an instruction into meditation, which is mindfulness of our own consciousness and mind, practicing “peaceful abiding,” “insight,” and “Vastness,” or oneness with all things and ultimately the Universe. This training of the mind into subtle and deep observation is what gives confirmation to the truth of this teaching.

(8) Right concentration – developing skill at holding mental focus so we can effectively explore Reality with ever-deepening discernment, supporting clear composure and open, compassionate curiosity in all situations.

These paths represent the way of wisdom and virtue, leading to a virtuous life, and rather than commandments of what to and not to do, these teachings are offered as recommendations to those who are ready to take on the challenge of liberating themselves from the ways humans cause themselves and others to suffer.  The result, rather than being a constricted life of moral observance built around not trusting oneself, others, or life, is a joyous faith that develops as we learn increasingly how to handle ourselves in any situation to the best possible result both for ourselves and for others.

Morality tends to be “preached” while Buddhist wisdom and virtue are encouraged as how a person can improve themselves and the world.  When we say someone is moral, is there not some sense of a restricted person, perhaps even pinched in their character and expression, of being judgmental and meddlesome?  On the other hand, to say a person is virtuous and wise, does this not conjure a description of a dynamic person who is solid and friendly, kind, discerning, and dedicated to doing good?  Within Buddhism, there is the sense that this is a person of courage and conviction, of strong will and character, yet not “pinched” in any way.  Such a person is rather expansive with a strong sense of connection with the world and the people around them.  Often, a great sense of humor and spontaneity is associated with such a person, for they see the connections between things which can often be ironic and humorous. Such a person is attuned to the rhythms and energy of Life and so, is effective, subtle, and graceful in their actions.

Buddha is most often represented in carved images as a calm, beneficent presence radiating peace, clarity, and wisdom, but there is also the corpulent laughing Buddha, arms thrown joyously in the air, and sometimes Buddha is represented as curled over, weeping.  This is a total and realized human being expressing the full spectrum of positive human experience, a guide that can be far more inspirational than being told, “Thou shalt not….”  It represents a path that leads to peace and joy, even in the midst of all the pain and suffering in the world inflicted by human ego and punishing morality.

“Full of love for all things in the world, practicing virtue, in order to benefit others, this person alone is happy.” – Buddha

Crossing Over Into Silence

“It is difficult to receive and accept oneness because human speculation doesn’t catch it. But if you practice with full devotion, finally you will come to the final goal—silence. When you touch the core of existence and see the fundamental truth, there is nothing to say; you are just present in silence. This silence really makes your life alive. Then, even though you don’t say anything, your silence has lots of words, demonstrating the truth in a physical and mental way, which can be seen by others. This is Buddha’s teaching appearing through the form of a person who sees into the pure and clear depth of human existence.” ― Dainin Katagiri (Each Moment Is the Universe)

Dainin Katagiri (1928 – 1990) has always been the teacher who could take me the most directly to silence with his words, demonstrating the true paradoxical nature of Zen.  Katagiri titled his first two books Returning to Silence followed by You Have to Say Something.  He was a profound teacher with a great sense of humor.  Both his profoundness and his humor arose from his dwelling in the space of silence where all things connect, giving rise to words and actions, which reflect the truth of “the pure and clear depth of human existence.”  The third and fourth books of his teachings were Each Moment is the Universe and The Light That Shines Through Infinity, the titles pointing us to the truth of existence beneath and beyond the noise and distraction of the man-made world that so confuses us.

There is a Zen parable which tells us the realization of Zen is like discovering there is a pure land of our true nature where the point of Buddhism, the cessation of mental suffering, is realized.  This land, however, is like a shore which lies across a river, and we must cross this river to arrive at this other shore, and to do this, we need a raft.  The teaching goes on to say that having arrived at the other shore, we must leave the raft behind if we are to explore and come to know this new land.  To carry the raft would only encumber the exploration.

In this parable, we are beginning this journey from our usual confusing world of conventional and hectic striving for happiness and avoidance of unhappiness.  This is the shore of the life we have been living.  We have heard of a philosophy called Zen coming from the far reaches of Asia that promises to take us beyond confusion and unhappiness to a quite different kind of way of experiencing life, a way which offers real peace, that is deeply spiritual without being a religion in the usual sense.  In this parable this is called “the other shore.”  And so, we decide to read about Zen and to take up its essential practice, meditation.  This is the beginning of building our raft.

Our own confused and conflicted mind is like the river – the width, current, and turbulence of the river, unique to each person, and it is this confused and noisy mind we must cross to get to the other shore, the shore of peace and clarity.  What we do not know when we begin is that this other shore is silence, the dimension of consciousness which lies beneath our confused and noisy mind.  If we read the great teachers, like Katagiri, we have heard this, but we are unable to know it, perhaps even to believe it, for all we know is life inside our active mind.  So, in hope and on faith we begin to build our raft studying the teachings of Zen and most importantly engaging the practice of zazen – Zen style meditation. 

The word “Zen” means “sitting” and so we must stop our running around, physically, and mentally, to “sit.” We must sit right here, right now, in the middle of our life, in the middle of the Universe, to contemplate who we are and what being human really is, just as did The Siddhartha Gotama, 2600 years ago.  As he sat, entering deeper and deeper into silence and stillness, into the infinite mystery which is a moment, he became “Buddha,” the word in the Sanskrit language that means “Awakened One.”  Our goal, as was Siddhartha’s, is to wake up out of the trance of conditioned mind, what we have been told we are and what life is, to discover what lies beneath these stories of being a confused and anxious human in a world with too much cruelty, conflict, and contradiction, to find within us a completely sane, peaceful, and wise human being. 

So, we set aside twenty or forty or sixty minutes to stop running around in our life and we sit. We engage and inquire into our unruly mind.  We find insight.  We find peace.  We may find this moment in awareness is our true self.  Then we go back to our lives, perhaps a little calmer and with some new perspective. Eventually, we learn to “meditate” in any situation, for “sitting” is really a relationship to mind, but, in starting out, and thereafter in deepening our exploration, we sit in the Zen manner called Zazen, quiet and erect, eyes half or fully closed.  We focus our attention at first on our breathing to corral the wayward mind.  Then we enter into an inquiring relationship with the activity of the mind.  Who is this anxious, conniving, striving, wanting, sometimes happy, sometimes miserable, sometimes angry or despairing, often bored or lonely, insecure person generating these thoughts?  And who is it that sees this mental activity and has perspective on it, that sees yet is not caught in the thoughts?  Who am I?  What am I? 

The teachings tell me I am Buddha, as is everyone.  How can this be?  We sit in this manner because, as the teachers tell us, this is the optimal way to meet ourselves, and this meeting of ourselves is the real purpose of Zen.  If you want to meet the Buddha within you, it helps to sit like the Buddha, erect, fully relaxed yet brightly alert, ready to meet your true self, your Buddha-self, here and now. So, we sit like Buddha, and eventually, ah, yes, we begin to see and feel Buddha.

“Who are you?” is the greatest of Zen questions or “koans.”  We sit and we meet ourselves in the form of our unruly mind and undisciplined body resisting the instruction to just sit and be quiet.  Yet, we meet silence and stillness as well.  We meet the silent mind which looks compassionately upon the noisy mind, and we realize there are two types of mind to this human life.  There is this noisy mind we have been believing is who we are, and there is this silent mind, a realm of intelligent dynamic stillness which sees and envelops the noisy mind in its peace, wisdom, and compassion. 

This mind, this “buddha-mind” says nothing.  It just looks on in silence, yet it speaks without words, without thoughts.  It is the realm of wisdom, of knowing.  We begin to realize we are our own raft, and each time we sit, we begin, with the first conscious breath, to build the raft again and venture out onto the river, into the current of our thinking mind and self-centered ego.  We begin to realize we are both the river and the raft.  We will also come to know that we are the other shore, the shore of peace, wisdom, compassion, and insight. The raft of Zen is taking us to our true self where we discover we are everything, all the noise and the silence, the self-centered foolishness of everyone and the wise and compassionate Buddha that is the Universe having a human experience. We begin to “receive and accept oneness.”

Buddhism emphasizes that Buddha resides within all beings, not just humans, but all beings – the birds, the fish, the deer, and bear, the squirrel, the mosquito, and amoeba, the world of plants included, even the rocks, and mountains, rivers, and wind.  In fact, we begin to realize in our silent knowing that all the Universe is in the silence and the noise we find within ourselves.  We begin to realize in the silence which envelops everything, including ourselves, there is one great silent Being that generates all beings, all the everything that makes all the sounds of the world. 

“Buddha” realizes “dharma,” which means the natural and true way of the Universe, and all beings are naturally and only their natural selves – except humans.  Humans have this evolutionary capacity other creatures of nature do not have, and it is a noisy, self-seeking, very creative mind that imagines itself outside of dharma.  We imagine and think about all kinds of things, mostly about what is desirable to us and what is frightening to us, what will make us “more” and what we fear will make us “less.”  Birds and bears and daffodils do not do this.  They all abide within silent minds doing their bird or bear or daffodil life without thinking about it.  Humans think about these things and confuse and frighten themselves.  This too, of course, is what is naturally human, but when we do not also know our silence, we do not know our true and complete selves or the true and complete world around us, and we feel lost and incomplete.  Buddhism calls this “dukkha,” – suffering.

Zen is “returning to silence,” to know ourselves, to know ourselves and the world in its completeness, and with this knowing, we end our suffering. This is the other shore.  And when we arrive through study and meditation practice, after we have crossed over into silence, we must leave the raft of practice formality behind to explore this new land of natural wonder, of sound and movement, all experienced within its ground of underlying silence and connectedness. We “have to say something.” We, of course, return naturally to zazen, and to contemplation, for it is the natural raft of stillness and silence which IS the other shore, and we know and can feel it as our true self, but now, Zen becomes everyday life, magnificent, mysterious, and powerful.  This is how we become ourselves – natural and wondrous human beings.  Katagiri describes this dynamic presence thusly: “Silence is not just being silent.  You are silent, but simultaneously there are many words, many explanations, and many representations there.  Dynamic actions, both physical and mental are there.  In other words, silence is something deep and also very active.  In Japanese, the word for this silence is mokuraiMoku means “silence” and “rai” means “thunder.”  So, silence is quiet, but there is an enormous voice like thunder there.” (Each Moment is the Universe).

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.


“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 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. –

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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


“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.


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.


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 practices, more political or economic complexity and cleverness that is all too often egoic deceit.  Rather, our journey is in turning inward towards our own silent knowing.  It is to find The Light within while also looking outward into the quiet simple truths in the infinite energy of Nature, harmonizing these inner and outer worlds until it is recognized there is no inner and outer.  It is to realize there is just the Universe and its Dharma of interconnection and balance, of compassion, kindness, and love, that manifests through the dance of creation and destruction in the service of Creation, what Native Americans called “The Great Giveaway.”  This is The Light that is in each of us and all of us.

We might recognize that we are all Light and dark, essential harmony AND egoic confusion, but we must have faith that The Light is our truth and is actually stronger than the dark, for this egoic kind of dark is an aberration, and is destined to disappear into lumination as individuals, societies, and eventually the species, find the wisdom to walk guided only by The Light.   Each of us is a unique expression of the Universe manifesting a unique person, dancing the dance of Light and dark.  Our sense of religious task can be to strengthen The Light and better manage the dark, for the dark does have an important purpose.  Just as death and destruction are natural in the dance of Creation, so too our own darkness can be an important element in our dance of creation, destroying and reorganizing, giving new life and perspective to our world-view and expression of ourselves.  This is how we evolve.  This is how we move to The Light.

What is important is that in this dance of light and dark, we must commit ourselves religiously to being guided by The Light.  We must realize that whenever we are seduced by the dark and it becomes our guide, we of course become lost, for we cannot see clearly in the dark, and so we become dark ourselves.  This, our histories as individuals and societies, have taught us.  Look to The Light that is you, to the you that is Dharma.  Know your darkness well and own it so that it does not own you.  Knowing darkness can lend itself to creativity and insight, yes, but for knowing and being who you truly are, you must move to your Light. 

The Fullness of Emptiness

“Become totally empty.  Quiet the restlessness of the mind.  Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.” – Lao Tzu

Our typical American life is very full with possessions, work, recreational activities, and very busy minds.  Yet many struggle with a feeling of emptiness.   We acquire more and more things, and we are, to a degree, grateful for what we have, yet the feeling of completeness, of needing nothing more in order to be fulfilled eludes us.  We keep acquiring more and more and striving for more and more, yet the abiding sense of gratitude that makes life truly full and rich beyond circumstances seems out of reach.

Buddhism and Taoism have a great deal to say about this conundrum.  These ancient Eastern philosophies tell us that our problem stems from attaching our value and well-being – importantly, our very identity, in our external circumstances.  We confuse having with being.  We believe that the more we have materially, along with having social status and affiliations, and having positive emotional experiences, the better we are.  We depend on these circumstances being advantageous for our well-being, but there is no lasting certainty to any of this.  So, our well-being swings with the advantage or disadvantage of our circumstances.  Our problem is that in order to be okay we need to feel filled with advantageous circumstance, and this is pretty shaky ground upon which to build a life.

When the great fountainhead of Taoism, Lao Tzu, advised us to become totally empty, he was telling us to go deeper into our foundational self, to empty ourselves of all dependency on possessions, status, and affiliations, all ideas, philosophies, emotional dependencies, and preconceptions, like pouring out the contents of a cup to realize the infinite potential of the cup itself as a vessel for anything, for everything.  A cup of tea is a cup of tea; the cup is full with one thing and has no room for anything else.  When we empty the cup it is a space filled with infinite potential, with the Universe itself, ready to accept whatever is needed in the unique circumstance that is a moment of life.   

Importantly, every moment of our life is like a cup, and only when we enter it empty can we be filled with the moment’s own unique preciousness, but we do not generally enter the moments of our life empty.  We enter the moment carrying a train of previous memory-moments and anticipated future-moments filled with our subjective interpretation of what the value of those moments has been and will be, shaping our sense of the value of our life.  The momentum of this train of impressions and judgments is so great that we fly on through each present-moment as we encounter it, adding an occasional strongly positive or negative moment on as one more box-car on the train of our life speeding on to some future destination where we hope to find fulfillment or, as it is for too many, just a train to ride, going they know not where but fearing it goes to nowhere.

Lao Tzu advises, “Quiet the restlessness of the mind.”  Our restless mind, seeking fulfillment, is what already fills our cup and drives our train.  We enter the moment projecting into it our memories, expectations, desires and fears.  We have no room in our cup to be present in wonder because we are rehashing where we have been while looking further down the track.  We do not know how to empty the cup, to stop the train.  We don’t know that we must quiet the mind that restlessly pushes us forward, to avail ourselves fully to this moment where Life is actually happening.  We don’t know that there are miracles and wonders to be experienced while we are unavailable because we are already filled and racing forward.  The result is that for too many we experience life, instead of being filled with gratitude for these wonders, as filled with grudging acceptance, dissatisfaction and anxiety over the perceived contents of our lives and our minds.  They are filled but still empty, racing into an uncertain future.  The miracles are lost as unnoticed blurs as we speed past.

Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.”  It is quite remarkable and quite a privilege to be alive at a time when science is discovering the underlying quantum field nature of reality.  Just as the ancients intuited, it seems to be true that every thing arises from no-thing.  The underlying reality of the universe seems to be a field of energy potential containing no gaps or no separations, truly a Uni-verse, a single story/source of Creation.  From this proto-energy field arises spontaneously the building blocks of atoms – electrons, gluons, quarks, Higgs-boson particles that all become the stuff of the world, the stars and the planets, the oceans and the mountains, the trees and the rocks, the rivers and the streams, the vegetation and the animals, and you and me.  All these things arise from what is a no-thing because it has no boundary, and no boundaried things within it.  Everything unfolding from emptiness.

So too, our minds are quite possibly like quantum fields.  In fact, the once very enlightened view that the brain is like a computer that stores bits of information in memory and has a remarkable retrieval mechanism that allows us to creatively mix and match the up to 100 terabytes of information stored in a human brain, is giving way to a view of the brain as a quantum storage, retrieval, and reorganization biological information technology that, like in the world of physics where particles pop into materialization from out of what seems to be a vacuum but is now described as “quantum foam,” so too, quite possibly, does information in the mind.    

From this universal field of potential that precedes and permeates everything, both the physical world and the world of mind materialize, exactly as they need to so as to create a world of perfect balance and harmony with layer upon layer of harmonized strata.  When the balance is upset by too much of anything, the balance is restored naturally, but in the human mind, Nature has created an anomaly, a phenomenon that identifies and quantifies itself as separate from all else, creating imbalance, felt as a kind of anxiety that no other creature experiences.  This sense of separate self, or ego, builds and builds on itself, erroneously hoping to manage the anxiety with more of itself, but this is a tactic that simply does not work.  Just more imbalance is created, in individual humans, human collectives, and in the world inhabited and dominated by humans.

Yet within us is the way back to balance.  The mind must empty itself of established ideas and emotional experience which create this false sense of self.  We must learn to make ourselves available for new insight and perspective while realizing the truth of the ancient teachings that tell us we ARE Nature, already complete, just as is all of Nature.  We must remember the ancient ways of emptying the mind, of entering deeply into fertile silence, remembering that only when the mind is relatively free from running on its default mode of holding onto and seeking itself in things can it realize itself in its original potential.  We must rediscover that only when, even for a moment, the mind is empty of running its story of filling cups and rushing trains through time can it realize its fullness as this and every moment arising in consciousness, the Universe manifesting and realizing itself, a great miracle and wonder happening as a human life.

Then we can begin to reorganize our lives, both individually and collectively, not as cups or trains that we fill, but rather, simply as witness and participant in Creation, where we and every moment materialize from the field of infinite potential that is the Universe, where our cups empty and fill magically with the contents of the moment, with what is needed to experience and build our lives based in the natural harmony of Nature.  I have often thought that this is the real meaning of the Biblical phrases that direct us to live our lives “at play in the fields of the Lord” and to be “like the little children” who show up in the moments of their lives empty of the baggage of a developed ego-self, to experience life “unfolding from emptiness.”  Human civilization will not collapse for letting go of the ego-myth that more is better; it will find its way back to harmony, no longer a train rushing to a burned out bridge somewhere up ahead, but rather a magical caravan that fully experiences, explores, treasures and creates the terrain of Life as it appears, fullness arising from emptiness.  Our cups will become cornucopias that magically empty and refill moment to moment while we are full in the magic of emptiness.  And gratitude for the miracle that is Life can travel with us as our constant companion.        

Back to the Garden

“If we are unable to create a new path by which to discover our true nature, the human race may be condemned to disappear.  Never in history have we had to face such potentially calamitous dangers… The economic, political, and military systems we have established have turned against us and imposed themselves on us, and we have become increasingly ‘dehumanized.’” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Just consider what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying – “If we are unable to create a new path by which to discover our true nature, the human race may be condemned to disappear.”  – Can you sit with that statement for a few moments?

We may wonder whether this man a hysterical prophet-of-doom.  Hey, those have been around forever, and we’re pretty much OK.  Aren’t we?  The sky isn’t falling in.  Or is it?  For those of you who have read Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, you know this person may be as sane as it gets.  This Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Vietnamese Buddhist monk is telling us that our social systems are completely failing us, and the continuation of human civilization with any quality of existence requires our reclaiming the institutions of our society and redirecting them toward the rediscovery of what it truly is to be human.  He is not saying it would be a good thing to have happen.  He is saying it is the necessary thing if humanity is to avoid catastrophe.  And he’s right, and if anyone is insane, it has to be the vast majority of our society that behaves as if Thich Nhat Hanh’s warning is not something to take with urgent seriousness, for by no stretch of the imagination are we OK.  Our scientists have been telling us for years we’re headed for a cliff, for unimaginable social dislocation and environmental destruction.  Does that sound like we’re OK?  It sounds more like the sky IS falling in, which with the increase in floods and cataclysmic hurricanes that are occurring, it does seem so.  Ask the people of the Bahamas.

As I write this, a category 5 hurricane has devastated the Bahamas with significant loss of life and has skirted the coast of the U.S., bringing serious and very costly flooding – this just one of the mounting number of freakishly record-setting violent acts of a rebelling Nature the world is experiencing.  It would seem that humanity is at a dead-end and Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us we have to backtrack, to find a new path that leads us back to what is essential in us.  The artificiality of this culture has taken us as far as it can; it has taken us to where we are in grave danger of being completely lost, of losing what is true and human in us.  He’s telling us we have to get in touch with our humanity, and when he uses the Buddhist term “true nature” what he is of course saying is we have to get in touch with Nature, for we seem to have forgotten the most important insight of all:  we ARE Nature.    

In America’s political world, the 2020 election is also bringing a hurricane of some sort, as a choice between two starkly different visions of America will be made.  Whatever happens, America is at a defining moment.  The America of only a decade ago is gone.  We will either decide to stay on the course that brings category 5 hurricanes and the radical degradation of democracy the current administration has brought or go in a completely new direction with a vision for building a new society that honors all persons and all life, including the environment.  We have to choose dystopia or utopia, muddling along will not do.  One leads to death, the other life.  This is the historic moment we are in.

As evidence of the watershed nature of what is before the American people, the candidates running for the Democratic nomination to the presidency all seem to share the sense of urgency for environmental policies and expansion of economic democracy that only a couple years ago were marginalized as radical.  Various candidates have put forward plans described in heroic language such as an “environmental moon-shot,” “environmental Marshall Plan,” and “Green New Deal.”   Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that global warming is a major threat, the only question is are they ready to actually make the changes that will be required?   For even if they are very good changes, even necessary changes, changes that will improve quality of life for everyone  – people just don’t like changing. 

On the other side, appealing to misguided nostalgia and the tendency to inertia, playing upon fear and mistrust, Donald Trump and the Republicans are busy dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency while greenlighting fracking and oil-drilling, calling the warnings from the science community a hoax, as they simultaneously dismantle our democracy.  They are determined to stay the course of corporate profits from an out-of-control consumer economy and the privilege of the wealthy over human and environmental welfare.  This is the nature of the division in political and social vision that this country is stumbling through while that cliff is getting closer and closer.

As this column began with a quote from one of the great spiritual leaders and consciousness teachers of the modern era, what he is clearly calling for is not just a political movement, but rather a huge leap in collective consciousness for our society.  Thich Nhat Hanh has always been political; he understands that politics is only the means of implementing social vision and ideas, and that this change in collective direction is as great an idea as was the notion of democracy upon which this nation was founded out of the 18th century era of divine-right aristocracy and monarchy.   While the political upheaval and military action that went into implementing that idea was called the American Revolution, it was actually a momentous act of evolution.  It required people thinking in ways they had never thought before, and so too, this call is for another momentous act of evolution, of thinking in ways we have not thought before.  Just as that (r)evolution was born out of what was called The Age of Enlightenment, when reason and humanism were elevated as guides for human political conduct, a New Age of Enlightenment is called for where again, reason and humanism, now fortified with both spiritual and scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, is necessary.

Many are beginning to realize that the notions of democracy and justice born in the American Revolution MUST be extended to all persons and, very importantly, all life, if we are, any of us, to have a measure of security, prosperity, peace and stability going into the long future.   We must begin to truly include within the idea enshrined in our Constitution of “We the people” written at a time when the evolution of society could only include property owning white males in that definition, that all people must be included.  It must, in fact, be expanded to even include the animal world and all of Nature.  And it will take the same kind of courage and vision that created this nation out of a world that had never seen its like before, for the world that is now necessary has also never been seen before.

A very literal “New Age” is needed.  Not the sweet, syrupy idea of peace and love, esoteric religious practices, flowing music, clothing, and perhaps the existence of benevolent alien-beings that has been called “New Age.”  This requires a major evolutionary step forward for humanity actualized in the realization of this Earth being not just a great resource for human consumption, but  The Garden from which all life emerges and depends for sustenance, not only of belly, but of soul, much like our aboriginal ancestors believed and lived.  This is the evolutionary step of harmonizing the ancient notion of our being OF Nature and kin with all Life WITHIN Nature held by the ancients with the most forward looking technology of the most advanced futurists.  And for this evolution to occur, compassion is the essential ingredient for the politics that can get us into the next human era, for a continuation of the politics of greed and self-interest practiced presently will close the door on there being a next era for humanity that has any true quality of life. With wisdom and compassion we can evolve human society; without it, we are certain to devolve into a very dark time.

We MUST find our way back to The Garden, but now a garden that is understood as Nature tended lovingly and reverently through merging human spirituality and technology.  We need not abandon our technologies, but realize all technology that is assaultive of the Natural world is “sinful” – missing the mark of humanity’s purpose in this Universe as witness and co-creator of the magnificent Natural Universe. We must find our way back to the Garden and bring our technology into its celebration and protection, and in doing so, finally begin to realize and celebrate our true human nature, for we are actually, as the bumper sticker declares:  One People, One Planet, One Future.  There is no other sane choice.

Beyond Dissatisfaction

Now if one is honest, they’d have to admit much of their life is spent in dissatisfaction.  We’re unhappy with this and we’re unhappy with that.  Along with undeniable moments of happiness and satisfaction there seems to be an underlying disgruntledness that percolates in us looking for reasons to push through, and it usually does not take much to push us into grumbling and complaining. 

It could be said that the teachings of Buddhism or any of the myriad “spiritual” teachings, whether religion-based or secular, like Eckhart Tolle, are mostly about the human problem of dissatisfaction.  Humans feel dissatisfied quite regularly, some practically live in this state, and this is a big problem, not only for the dissatisfied humans but for those they affect; and in fact, ultimately for all life on this planet.

All of Nature lives in a simple realm of sufficiency except humans.  For humans, finding sufficiency seems to be an impossible task.  An animal or a plant does or does not have what it needs to flourish in its basic nature, but for humans, there seems to be an endless challenge in finding sufficiency, perhaps because we have no idea of our basic nature.  Having been taught that to be sufficient, we have to be “the most we can be,” it seems we must have “more,”  and as for how to quantify this “more” or what is “enough,” seems quite beyond us.  This is then a kind of insanity.

Please understand I do not use the word “insanity” lightly.  Insanity is generally understood to mean having lost touch with reality, and if reality is anything, it has to be “enough.”  But since humans do not live in reality, but rather in artificial worlds made up in our minds, both as individuals and collectives, we know very little of reality or enough.  We have lost touch with our basic nature because we seem to have lost touch with the basic way of nature.  Buddhism makes a very big deal of this, for if reality is anything, it HAS to be nature, which HAS to be enough, for it is all there is.

Zen Buddhists like to use phrases, like “just this” or “thusness” or “suchness” to refer to reality and whatever particular “this” might be in front of us.  But what is “this?”  Zen calls “this” a koan, a riddle to be entered into with one’s whole mind – not just intellect, but senses, emotions, and particularly intuition, as well.  Ah yes, intuition – a koan in itself to a Westerner.  This is why Zen also recommends sitting with bright, relaxed attention in silence – discovering the silent mind of intuition beneath the cacophony of the sensory, emotional and intellectual noise chamber that is a human mind, chronically dissatisfied, always wanting more.

This finding the silent mind is very important in this quest for satisfaction for what more does silence need?  More silence?  No – silence does not actually exist in time, so what is more silence?  Really.  Sure there is more quantity of silence, but silence isn’t a quantity; it is a quality, a state of existence.  When silent, is not this moment as the silence all that exists?  To want more is to come out of silence and into some intellectual, emotional notion of wanting more of what cannot be more.  Silence is completeness, like our intuited notion of the Universe – a vast silent space within which all matter and sound happen.  The intuited Universe is vast – it is space, it is silence.  Zen knows.  This is “this.”  It is Thusness, Suchness.  Even in the petals of a flower, or the bee that follows its nature to the heart of the petals, or the winter wind that kills the flower and takes the bee into the hive to survive.  Thus is suchness.  It is Nature.  It is enough.

For a human then, what is “suchness?”  What is our basic nature?  Zen knows it cannot be separate from the Nature that is the Universe; otherwise, that would be crazy, not real.  So, as humans get further and further away from Nature, from what is real, we get crazier, and this is our dissatisfaction, and this brings us back to that very big problem not only for the dissatisfied human, but for the collective of dissatisfied humans that is society, and, of course, for Nature, which all these dissatisfied humans trample and use so thoughtlessly.  Buddhism calls this not only dissatisfaction, but suffering.

This phenomenon of crazy human dissatisfaction and all of the suffering it causes drove a human named Siddhartha Gautama to sit beneath a tree some 2500 years ago vowing not to get up until he’d figured out this dissatisfaction.  It could be said he was on a quest for satisfaction, on how to be human and be satisfied, and he did indeed figure it out in what is called his “awakening.”  It is called this because he figured out that humans live mostly in a dream-like state making up a world in our heads, which being an artificial reality, can never be enough, because real IS, has to be, enough, and these worlds in our minds are neither real nor enough, and so these artificial realities are what drive us crazy wanting “more” without ever knowing what this “more” might be.  So we abuse our lives and abuse each other and abuse nature in this quest for more.

Because his sitting resulted in this “awakening” Siddhartha became known as The Buddha – which means “Awakened,“ and the tree he sat beneath became known as the Bodhi tree – the tree of awakening.  The teachings that flowed from this awakening became known as Buddhism – the practice of awakening, and the practice of sitting in silence, listening into Nature, into our nature, into the Universe, while taming and quieting the unnatural human mind, became known as Buddhist meditation, or mind-training in awakening.

So, to train in getting beyond dissatisfaction, it is recommended to take one’s seat at the foot of the metaphorical Bodhi Tree.  Sit in meditation, in contemplation, in stillness with the intent to receive guidance from the Universe, from God if this is your frame of reference for the Ultimate.  For the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pantheist, secular mystic or contemplative, the path beyond dissatisfaction likewise leads inward – to silence – and then – out into the Great Silence that is the Universe.  Here, we can discover the center of all things.  We discover that each of us is A center where the Universe enters the World through a human life, or a bird or a tree, even a mountain, river or stone.  

Here, we can learn to see how all the things of the World circle a center of consciousness that is what we really are, like on the rim of a great wheel, all passing and passing while That which watches at the center does not pass.  We watch love and hate, life and death, beauty and ugliness, peace and violence, generosity and greed, wisdom and ignorance, creation and destruction circling and circling. While here at the hub of the wheel, at the foot of our Bodhi Tree, we sit experiencing what it is to be enough.  We discover we are That which does not pass and are filled with the great thick thusness of all that does pass, now beyond dissatisfaction.  We discover we are free to do what we do and possess what we possess (because this is human nature) while holding to the Truth of Nature that instructs to not take from others more than is actually needed.  We discover enough is enough, and we will know satisfaction at last.  And when we all know satisfaction, we and the world will be safe, for we will know we and the World are the same.

Born in a Star

“Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning — already gone —
thus should one regard one’s self.”

The Japanese Zen monk and poet, Ikkyu, wrote these words nearly six centuries ago; his intent, generally considered to be the extolling of selflessness and focusing our minds upon the impermanence of all things, including ourselves.  Yet there is another, and perhaps even deeper, insight to be had in the recognition that just as these images represent manifestations of Nature, so too, we are manifestations of Nature, perhaps with more substance than dew, but still, just as the dew consists of atoms of hydrogen and oxygen combined to create water, we too are essentially a combination of atoms – all born billions of years ago in the furnace of a far-off star.  Just as the flash of lightening is a discharge of energy when atmospheric conditions are conducive, so too, we are energy discharged into the world because conditions are conducive for this combination of atoms to be breathed with life into the creation of a person – and in the vastness of the Universe, a single human life is no more than a passing apparition, a flash of lightning – and yet – an expression of the totality of the Universe, just as is the flash of lightning. 

It took the Universe over 14 billion years to create human life, an absolute miracle of an evolutionary process of increasing complexification occurring within a unified organism.  For instance, when we look at our own hand, we are looking at a miracle of evolution.  That our thumb sits in an opposed position to our fingers is a truly remarkable advancement in biological technology, allowing for a level of manual dexterity possessed only by creatures of the primate family that includes humans.  That we can consider the implications and importance of this opposable-thumbed hand is an even greater evolutionary triumph by the Universe, the sole domain of the species hominid, for the cerebral cortex of a human with its trillions of neurons and connecting pathways is the most complex organization of biological matter allowing for the most complex and advanced awareness and creative relationship with our world of any creature on Earth.  Yet, this complexity and dexterity of hand and mind seems to be working against the flourishing of life on our world.  Some have come to view humanity almost as a devolutionary and destructive force, like a highly advanced virus infecting the organism that is the planet, killing off the intricate web of life-forms necessary for the Earth to be healthy and support life.  The question is – is this so, or is this really only a phase in a larger process?  Could it be that this perfect and balanced Universe created an imperfect and unbalanced being, or is a larger view needed to make sense of this?

It cannot be denied that humanity and all life on this planet is suffering because modern civilization lives from a dysfunctional view of humanity’s place within the Universe.  The evolution of the human species has led to what amounts to a geologic force such as no other animal could possibly pose.  Humanity is now capable of altering the conditions on this planet so as to diminish the possibilities for the continuation of the flourishing of the vast diversity of life that co-inhabits this planet with humans.  Our civilization and way of life face an existential threat such as has never been seen before as we are confronted by twin catastrophic possibilities of a nuclear wasteland caused by war and environmental catastrophe caused by our consumer-materialism style of living and relationship (or non-relationship) with Nature.  Could humanity be but a passing apparition in the life of the Universe, the 350,000 years of Homo sapiens life on this planet being no more than a flash in the 14+ billion years life of the Universe? 

Yet, born in the stars, actually born with the Universe itself in a pinprick flash of unfathomably dense photonic energy that expanded into the totality of the Universe, first as hydrogen and helium atoms, and then into dense hydrogen/helium clouds that condensed into stars and then into the entire spectrum of atoms formed in the fire of these stars that then exploded into the vastness to form the material for planets and moons and comets and meteors and all forms, including life-forms on the planet Earth that then evolved into human beings.  In a very real sense, we could consider that our existence is as old as the Universe; that we have always been – for the totality of the Universe is present in the atoms and molecules and cells of these human bodies.

In this expandingly intricate dance of evolution of over 14+ billion years, the result of joining atoms in ever more elaborate combination has all led to this most complex of all things, the human brain.  And along with this complexification of matter, there has evolved through this human species increasingly complex systems of understanding of the nature of the Universe and humanity’s place within it from ancient mythic representations to modern scientific understandings.  We have evolved cosmologies from nature-based representations of Spirit manifesting Life, through pantheisms of human-like gods, through medieval notions of a human and Earth-centered Universe with God-the-creator in Heaven (which despite a vague sense of evolution and a solar system and galaxy based universe, largely remains the modern common person’s underlying experiential belief) to astronomical, quantum and field theoretical physics, which now see a vast integrated Universe in which the properties of consciousness can be found operating at the sub-atomic level everywhere.  Astonishingly, the mystery of consciousness is being found at the very foundational level of all matter, pervading the Universe, with immense implications for human relationship to the entire Universe.  In these new models, which intriguingly mirror ancient mythic cosmologies, the question becomes vivid – where do we actually begin as conscious beings and where do we end?  Is there actually a continuity of consciousness existence that transcends a physical life-span, for just as physical matter-energy cannot die, only recombine, could this be true for consciousness-energy as well?  The ancients answered, “Yes,” and we now, as modern science-based rational beings, have to give this possibility real consideration.

In shifting our focus from an anthropocentric view based on individual lives that come and go, to a view centered on the Universe itself in which we are a continuation of a billions-of-years process of increasing complexification of matter and consciousness in a Universe that seems to be intent on creative realization of itself, bridging the gulf of the manifested world of matter with the unmanifested world of consciousness, our current seemingly purposeless individual and collective lives take on a cosmic purpose.  To view each human life as an evolving organism within the evolving human species organism that is an integral expression of the evolving organism that is the planet Earth that is an integral expression of the evolving Universe, is to give new and vital perspective to this human expression. 

We have labored for centuries with the delusional cosmology that we humans, as we are, represent the final expression of Creation, whether Divine or Natural, and this view carries with it a karmic consequence of exactly the kind of cataclysmic destiny we are currently shaping.  But – what if we adopt a new cosmology based in our new sciences that sees and experiences our individual existences as enfolded within larger and larger macro-existences?  And what if we come to understand the human species as continually evolving, much like an individual human evolves through developmental stages of life, and we can identify that the current egocentric, materialistic human culture, deficient in empathy and compassion, stumbling self-indulgently through existence without much thought to the consequences of this behavior can be seen to be very similar to the way an early adolescent human behaves and views themselves in the world?  What if we could see that our true task as individuals and as a species is to evolve into our adult stage as responsible co-creators with the Universe?  As we look at our current circumstance and appropriately ask – Could humanity be a mistake? –  Could we not see that just as a world of only thirteen-year-olds would make no sense, the world we shape now with much the same egocentricity and callousness of a thirteen-year-old requires our collective growing up to begin to make sense?

Born in the stars, journeying for billions of years, matter and consciousness evolving with a destiny to reflect and manifest the perfect harmony that all the Universe expresses, can we not see our existence in this way and take responsibility for our place among the stars on this beautiful and unique planet where the Universe has brought together a collection of atoms in a most propitious environment for life to flourish?  Born in the stars, can we take our place among the stars as mature tenders of a beautiful and abundant expression of the Universe’s evolution? 

Yes, like dew, our individual lives pass like apparitions in the vast unfolding of the Universe – yet – in ways we are only beginning to comprehend, the matter and consciousness that combine to create this one human life has always been, and so, will also always be, journeying in co-creation with the Universe.  Perhaps, “Thus should one regard one’s self.” 


To study Buddhism 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. – Dogen(13th century)

In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that the basic problem with humanity is egocentricism or egoism, the placing of the idea of “me” and “mine” as the centerpoint of what is principally to exclusively significant in a person’s life.  Egoism expresses itself in relationship with all that is not me and mine in a manner that ranges from appreciative consumption, to disregard, to exploitation, to outright hostility and wanton destruction.  It is an approach to life that says happiness is achieved by maximizing what me and mine can get out of life without serious consideration or concern for the cost to all else, and it also makes us blind to seeing the patterns of interconnections and interdependence that actually make life work.   Seeing egoism as a problem, however, is actually not new at all; it is at the heart of any true spiritual tradition, and Buddhism makes a very particular point of noting egoism as the source of human suffering, importantly not only for others, but for ourselves, and points out It is a very counterproductive strategy for life. 

In American culture, however, this notion of egoism as a problem is very new and very radical for we are a culture built on the celebration of the individual and the individual’s “pursuit of happiness,” a very egoistic notion (not that happiness is egoistic, but “pursuing” happiness creates an egoistic purpose to life that can become terribly distorted).  After all, we are a nation built not only on many noble ideals and great industry, but on genocide of the native inhabitants, enslavement of an imported racial population, despoiling the environment and the extermination of many native species in our pursuit of happiness.  Our economy is based in conspicuous consumption and exploitation of resources and labor, all to enhance status and wealth for those favorably positioned in this zero sum game.  We seem to be unable to address seriously a growing climate-change crisis caused in significant part by our great industry and appetite for consumption because of what seems to be an addiction to this egoism.   Egoism could well be considered the dark side of the American personality. 

Increasingly, however, there is growing understanding of the problems brought by this addiction and the counterproductivity of egoic consumerism as the way to sustainable well-being and happiness.  There is a dawning awareness that while a certain level of material security is important in keeping us out of unhappiness, increasing amounts of ego-feeding materialism seems to have the opposite effect, and ancient spiritual traditions that offer this warning are being found to have much to say about our modern psychological health and even continued societal viability.

Egoism blinds us to the realization that life really only has meaning and functions best in the experience of its interconnections, in appreciative loving and caring relationship, happiness best generated when we are free of self-centeredness, instead immersed in life with all its “myriad things,” including, of course, the people around us, focusing on their well-being and happiness.  All the terrible things that humans do that can elicit the question, “Why do people do such things?” can be answered with the word egoism,  the hopelessly small idea we have of a self that is always desperate to make more of itself, generally at the expense of the myriad things of the world including other people.   Experiencing self in ego leaves us alone and small in the world and ego keeps attempting to build itself up by using, abusing, consuming, and tearing everything and everyone that is not “me” or “mine” down.  Ego is, of course,  quite blind to all of this, defending its right to self-interest, and is also quite paranoid in that it projects its own predatory and competitive nature onto everyone else and onto Nature, and since it is really only an idea of a person, it is hopelessly inadequate at realizing fulfillment.

Zen, and all mystical spiritual traditions, instruct us that fulfillment can only be realized, as the word fulfillment  suggests, through full-filling, but not a full-filling through the material aspects of life, but  rather, the spiritual, and spiritual full-filling cannot happen when our minds are already filled with the story of the striving and anxious “me.”   The sense of full-filled can only happen when we are empty of the egoic story of the dissatisfied “me” and rather, our sense of self is in the world, the myriad things, the morning sun, the wind in the trees, this simple household chore, the happiness of the person in front of us.  To be happy is not in the using and consuming of the myriad things, but, as Dogen advises, by being actualized through them, that is, being filled by our sense of connection with the myriad things, self having been forgotten.

This having been said, it is important to understand that ego in itself is not the problem, nor is ego bad. This is a mistake often made by those on the spiritual path.  Ego certainly is not to be eradicated; it cannot be eradicated, for it is an essential capacity of any living organism.  It is a necessary element of an organism functioning in the world, identifying and meeting its needs, of being a manifested object interacting with manifested objects.  The squirrels and birds engaged in their squirrel and bird activities are fulfilling their needs as organisms and doing what is needed to fulfill their squirrel-ness and bird-ness.  This is squirrel and bird ego in action. 

With human-beings, however, to fulfill our human-beingness is quite more complicated, for our human-beingness is not only in meeting biological needs, but psychological needs as well.  To be writing these words and communicating to the reader is a very high-level function of the ego that creates these mind-objects called words and employs the invention of writing and word-processing with a computer, and fulfills the desire to communicate ideas to the reader who wants to experience these ideas.  We are fulfilling an essential need of human-ness, to explore concepts and grow conceptually.  This is all activity of ego that is healthy, necessary and good, even spiritual, for it is about connecting and valuing. 

Likewise, to have a sense of a spiritual journey and to make the choice to understand what that journey is and make the necessary commitments to engage and follow the spiritual path is human ego in its healthiest manifestation.  After-all, no other creature needs to create a spiritual life.  To pursue a spiritual path, however, motivated by the idea that it is attractive in its mysteriousness, and that its mystery makes me a “better” person, even a more interesting person to others, or because there may be intriguing rituals and philosophical ideas that somehow imbue me with some specialness, is a misapplication of ego.  This is egoism, not fundamentally different from wanting to be a physician because of the status and wealth the profession offers, not because of the pull to healing, an important manifestation of selfless service.    

No, the problem is not ego; it is egoism, the misplacement of this natural psychological function into our identity, and placing ego expression and gratification as the purpose of life when egoism actually deprives life of meaning for it stands as an impediment to experiencing the connections and wonder of life, that which actually gives life meaning.  Egoism sets humans upon a frantic and fruitless search for meaning in ever more egoic pursuits, seeking security through acquisitions, status, power and the diminishment of others, all in a fruitless attempt to acquire personal fulfillment.  These are all impossible strategies for it is like drinking sea water to quench our thirst; it only makes us thirstier and sickens us.  

Egoism is what is behind racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, and religious and political tribalism, people finding identity and meaning in identification with collective egos that can function very destructively in the world.  In its most malignant form, it is what drives criminality, sociopathy and psychopathy, the making more of “me” by victimizing others.  In its most mundane expression, it is in everyday conversational gossip or holding judgmental opinions of others which when examined closely, are about elevating ourself through the diminishment of others.  Egoism can even be expressed through the sincere study and practice of religion and religion’s rebellious cousin, spiritual practices, when such practices are about feeding into the need to be part of an exclusive community or for enhancing one’s aura of specialness.  It is even in the diminishment of everyday experience into restlessness and boredom, elevating our own importance above the commonplace and ordinary. 

In a very important way, egoism represents what is metaphorically expressed as “The Devil” in Western religious culture.  It is that which entices and seduces us into destructive behavior, in diminishing the sacredness of life, all life, in favor of the elevation of me and mine.  If the origin of sin is, as Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel describes, in “the denial of the sublime wonder of life,” it is egoism that whispers these denials, these diminishments in our ear.  To find happiness, to find true sanity and fulfillment, it is quite clear, we must follow Dogen’s advice and forget ourselves.  We must be actualized and filled wondrously by the myriad things, by Life in all its miraculous interconnections, complexity, perfection and balance.

Evolving What-Is

“To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it.” – Alan Watts

We all think we know what is going on.  We think we have some basic sense of what is true and not true concerning who and what we are, what our family and social interactions are about and what is true about our society and the world.  We would be shocked and offended if someone were to say that we were delusional about much of this, but it actually is quite true that a good deal of our view of “reality” amounts to a delusion of sorts.  It is a delusion built on convention, and convention is really a shared habit of interpreting the world and responding based on unseen forces of evolving culture and society going back through generations into the mist of unknowable origins.  It’s “the way things are” or “what is” at any given place and time, and interestingly, for being “what is,” it is always changing.

It is very important to realize that the world-view we believe in is profoundly different from that of a 10th Century Arab, who similarly believed that their world-view was true, or for that matter, a 21st Century Jihadi Arab, or perhaps, in very important ways, a fellow 21st Century American who votes for a different political party.  Most importantly, OUR world view and sense of who we are, our “what is,” may be very different from what it was ten or twenty years ago.  How can this be?  We all live on the same planet, with the same senses and brain.  We are all of the same species.  A 10th century squirrel and a 21st century squirrel, no matter where they are on the planet, have a pretty universal squirrel “what is.” Yet, we humans from different places and times have very different notions of what is true and not true.  This is because humans have abstracting minds that generate what amounts to virtual realities, stories about who we are, and what is true and not true created by cultural, historical, social, and psychological perceptions, all quite subjective.

What IS true is that we humans mostly live inside these stories in our minds about what we want and what we fear and what we believe to be true – repeated over and over creating the effect for us that these stories ARE true and real – when they are not.  Within a relatively narrow range of political, cultural, religious and personal differences, white, financially secure Americans have a large overlay of agreed consensus-reality, such as America being the best country in the world with the best system of government, which is the same belief most citizens of other countries have about their country despite all the complaints they may have about the country’s actual functioning.  Most “mainstream” Americans similarly believe that the American capitalist consumer economic system is the best system despite mounting evidence that it does not lead to happiness or fairness, and is threatening the environmental sustainability of the planet.  That Native Americans, many people of color, those who are in poverty, or those who have studied these issues carefully might not agree with these stories doesn’t really seem valid to the “mainstream” American.  So if these stories of American exceptionalism may not be true, what IS real and true?  It might be helpful to remember the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Yet, it is important we seek to have as good a grasp on the possibility of truth and reality as we can.   Zen addresses this conundrum by seeking to guide us into the fine-honing of all our sensory and mental capacities through training in in-the-moment awareness.  It teaches that we are mistaken in believing we are the activity of our mind, all these thoughts and emotions, but rather that we are the energy of consciousness prior to any belief or opinion of this or that.  It teaches us to be vitally present, to be increasingly aware of being the witness of the moment, to bring non-judgmental questioning into the “thusness” or “what-is-ness” of the moment, including the stories our mind is telling us.  It encourages us to acknowledge the underlying mystery of existence while conceding that we must believe and do something, for the world must also be approached in a practical and functional manner.  For this, convention is useful.  It is just important not to mistake convention for truth.  It is A way, not THE way of any situation.

Buddhism tells us that which IS real is the unfolding moments of life at multi-dimensional levels from the microscopic to the cosmic and everything between, including humans with their stories.  It is a dance, an interplay of phenomena, energies, forces, Nature, history, institutions, persons and intra-psychic conditions and conditioning.   It is also the projection of our stories onto whatever and whoever is happening in front of us.  It is an acknowledgement that whatever our truth is in the personal, cultural, social and political spheres may be as true or untrue as any other, that what really matters is what actually works to minimize unnecessary suffering in the world.  It warns that our anticipations of the future are mostly unlikely, just as our memories of the past are mostly distorted projections of whatever is OUR story.  Even more importantly, Buddhism points out that we are seldom truly present for whatever and whoever is happening in front of us.  Rather, it cautions us, to notice that we are often only partially present for the what-is that unfolds around us, and instead are caught up in telling and projecting our mental stories.  We are missing Life as it happens.  In a very important way, this is simply insane.

To be truly sane, to be what Buddhism calls awakened, is to realize that these stories are a kind of virtual reality created by the mind, and instead of continuing to be pulled into and motivated by these stories, to get in touch with and respond to the realities of the what-is in the moment as it unfolds. This is mindfulness. To be mindful is to engage the moment as the observing awareness that can watch these stories arise within us and others, noting their shifting, morphing, unstable and impermanent nature, and how they pass, making way for another story that will arise, have a duration and then pass. To be mindful is to realize this witnessing awareness is completely stable and enduring, as is Nature, and so this awareness is OUR nature, and it has been the witness that is the true core of who we are for our entire life.  And it is entirely sane.  Action that arises from this mindful engagement will then be more likely true to the situation and beneficial.

To be mindful is to train in stabilizing awareness as our present-moment self, in penetrating with ever-increasing subtlety of awareness into the flow of the moment, to realize awareness as our true presence that can penetrate the “what is” of the moment in a balanced application of our senses, intelligence, emotions and intuition.  This has been the reality of every mystic in every culture throughout human history.  It is the perception that allowed Socrates to note the nature of wisdom over 2500 years ago, interestingly at approximately the same historic time that Lao Tzu was making such an observation in China and Buddha in India, perhaps because the civilization-myth-as-reality was fully replacing human identification with Nature about that time.

As long as we live out of the stories that pass nearly randomly and involuntarily through our field of consciousness, we will be unable to address effectively the real and true challenges or celebrate the real beauty of life. This is true for individuals and it is true for society. We are unable as a society to address effectively the challenges we face precisely because we are living out false and limiting stories concerning what-is, and instead we act out of the false narrative of stories that no longer apply. This is why our politics and governing is so dysfunctional.  To evolve is to become increasingly aware and adaptive to what-is, and never in human history has it been more imperative than it is now to let go of living out of stories of what was and come into the real challenges of what is. 

To have enlightened and effective societies we must first do the work of becoming effective and enlightened individuals. We must STOP LIVING INSIDE THE OLD STORIES. We have to be ready to face the very real possibility that the story of American society may be about to change dramatically in the coming years and it is imperative that those who want to shape that story in a more enlightened and compassionate way are unafraid and capable in the face of whatever new “what is” may come along.   We must be ready to break free into the “what-is” that unfolds moment to moment with a questioning and open mind.  There is no doubt that we can create beautiful lives individually and collectively, but only if they are built on the true shifting sands of what-is with humility, wonder, skill and faith that no matter the what-is we can find a path of action (or non-action) that will sustain and nourish us and lead our society in the path of enlightened evolution.

The Promised Land

I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know…, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many find it hard to make sense of modern day America and they feel that sincere efforts to influence the society toward greater inclusion, fairness, ecological consciousness, toward public policies based in idealism and effectiveness don’t seem to be bringing the result they feel they need to maintain optimism. As a result, they are losing hope and feel like disengaging.  Listening to the news can be enough to send a person into depression. It could be asked, is the American Dream of life and society always improving over? Possibly, yes, if you think in terms of immediate results as you imagine them to be. But that’s the point. It is a dream of things always making sense as we interpret sense and of effort producing desired results as we want them to be. To be honest this is very egoic and narcissistic, and it is very American.

Does the current situation make sense? Of course it does. It is exactly the result of America being a materialistic, bigoted, dogmatic, jingoistic, instant-gratification, stimulation-addicted consumer society that is a major contributor to humanity’s current path toward destroying the ecological balance of the planet.  Adding to the discouragement, there are many, if not most, in America who either disagree with this assessment or seem to have very little concern about it.  AND… at the same time, in counterbalance, there is a growing presence of progressive and evolved political and social thinking taking root for a more inclusive, sustainable, and fair society than would have seemed possible only a short time ago.  There is a strong historic strain of democracy, responsibility and fairness that runs through the consciousness of our society that sometimes quite surprisingly turns public thinking around in what seems like quantum leaps. 

Recent elections have placed more women and minorities into office than ever, serious legislation concerning climate change and greater economic fairness are challenging the establishment, and in Chicago, a gay, black woman was elected mayor while exceptional minority and progressive politicians are succeeding across America.  Two powerful states of political consciousness, one regressive and the other progressive, strain our political and social system.  Our situation is, of course, reflective of our past trajectory into this moment exactly to these results.  This is the meaning of the Buddhist notion of karma.  The present is exactly the summation of the past.  To stay realistically engaged requires knowing this and seeing our current circumstance in a broad historic context.

Will sincere effort to bring us to a course correction toward idealism and sane public policy that actually addresses the problems we face bring good result?  Of course it will – yet most likely not in the time-frame many wish for or in quite the way we hope, nor will it happen without our suffering consequences from harmful conditions long established and continuing.  There is no escaping karma.  The problems that not only America but humanity faces are the result of an entire epoch of human history and evolution that has been based in human egoism, materialism, narcissism, and rigidly dogmatic belief systems quite disconnected from reality.  The problems we face will not be corrected without shifts in consciousness that seem nearly impossible given the current preponderant mindset, yet this shift is happening. 

There can be no doubt we will evolve and progress toward an order of harmony and wisdom that presently seems impossible.  This will happen because it must, and evolutionary dynamics are just as inexorable as karma.  We will adapt because we are challenged by vast social, economic, and geo-climactic forces, by the growing dysfunction of our social, economic, political and cultural institutions. How we adapt will determine whether the near future is beautiful and sustainable or dystopian, as is depicted in so many of the currently popular movies and television shows, with a deeply diminished quality of life in American society and on this planet.  In either case, we are a resilient and creative species, and Nature is endlessly creative and resilient.  The evolutionary trajectory of humanity eventually will lead us to living in the wisdom of harmony, and it is this harmony that is the Promised Land.

This brings us to another ancient Buddhist principle called dharma, the principle of the way things work, the laws of the Universe.  Dharma tells us that only through evolving the collective consciousness of human society will the trajectory of human society and life on this planet begin to move in significantly healthier and saner directions.  It also tells us that the collective consciousness of human society is progressed only through individuals who progress in consciousness, increasingly understanding and living within the truth that all phenomena are interrelated and interconnected.  Dharma tells us that the Universe and humanity-as-an-expression-of-the-Universe are inexorably evolving into more complex unities capable of manifesting intelligent harmony, and so, for one who understands dharma, all that is necessary is to find and manifest intelligent harmony in themselves, both personally and in the public sphere.  Karma and history will move humanity in the necessary direction. 

In Buddhism, one who understands and lives by dharma for the benefit of all beings is called a bodhisattva, an awakened being.  A bodhisattva knows that an evolved and enlightened human society is inevitable, in a sense, a promise, and knows they will most likely not live to see it, yet they dedicate their existence to its accomplishment.  This is known as The Path of the Bodhisattva, and a bodhisattva realizes that Life makes perfect sense. Karmic forces (the state of consciousness and the ensuing actions) have created the results we presently live with and will shape all future results. And, very importantly, a bodhisattva knows that the ultimate sense and purpose of Life is to evolve and to be committed to the betterment of life for all beings – because it is what is needed by all beings, not because it is what they need. 

What we can have faith in is that if we do our part to evolve in compassion and wisdom, the collective of humanity is just that much more compassionate and wise, and others will find inspiration and courage to make their own journey and to take their own stand for what is right and good.  We can have faith that no matter how much cruelty and ignorance are manifesting presently, it is less so than was previously and will be even less so in the future.  Within the human community there is an inexorable increase in wisdom and compassion with each passing generation.  There are periods of regression, most certainly, and it could well be argued that we are presently in such a regressive phase, but the pain, confusion, and harm done by this regression is really only setting the stage for waking people up and propelling us into the next evolutionary progression.  This is happening not for our own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, but because it is inevitable.  We can have faith and find solace in knowing our own development and evolution are for the betterment of all beings, that we are instruments of human evolution. There is no place for personal discouragement, for these forces are not operating on the scale of the personal. It is in the full knowledge that, as the modern bodhisattva Dr. Martin Luther King declared – “I may not get there with you. But… we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

What is the Promised Land? It is an evolved human society built on harmony and wisdom buttressed by respect and compassion for all life. When will we get there? When a sufficient number of humans have done the work of becoming selfless – that is, wise and compassionate, aware and awake, thinking far less about how to make more of themselves while focusing far more on the well-being of their fellow humans and all the life that shares this planet, our collective home.  How does this happen? Through individuals doing the work of their own evolution and refusing to become discouraged, by doing little personal acts of kindness and compassion daily while we seek to do what we can to influence politics and policy, holding to a much longer vision than needing today’s efforts to yield the desired results today. It is in having the wisdom to see that even perhaps in a particular political policy or candidacy defeat today, we have articulated and handled ourselves in a way so as to realize a more compassionate and wise result tomorrow or next year or in ten years or a hundred years.  We WILL get to the Promised Land.  It is inevitable. The time is now.  The time is always now.  The future is built on now.  Be a bodhisattva. Do what is necessary to become awake and set the ground for others to become awake. This is how life can make sense.  This is how The Promised Land will be realized – for future generations.  And… we may be very surprised at what progress we can see in our lifetime.  For a person who is today seventy years old, they have seen barriers in racial, gender, and sexual identity discrimination fall in ways that could never have been anticipated in the world they were born into in the late 1940’s.  More work in the struggle for human rights and economic fairness needs to be done, as well as work in recognizing animal rights and the right of the Earth to health and balance.  This is the work of the next seventy years and beyond, and great progress will be accomplished.  This we can have faith in because progress has shown itself as the true long course of human history before.  We are shaping the karma of future generations today by doing what we can to shape a more resilient, idealistic, compassionate, and wise America and world.  Do not be discouraged; just do the work because the work is needed.  The Promised Land is just over the horizon.         

The View Into Infinity

Who we are is the Universe peering into itself from billions of points of view. – Alan Watts

Zen teaching emphasizes the most important of all koans: “Who/what am I?”  Of course we have an immediate answer that it is “me,” a human being, a mind and body with a history and identity; to which the master replies,  “Superficially yes, but you must go deeper, go deeper.  Who/what is this ‘me’?  Meditate on this.” 

When you meditate, what is happening?  Is not meditation the stepping back of the sense of self from entanglement in sensations, thoughts and emotions into looking at the sensations, thoughts and emotions that flow through the field of mind?  So who/what is looking?  It cannot be the sensations, thoughts and emotions because they are what is being looked at.  Perhaps it works to say the sensations, thoughts and emotions are the egoic “me,” a personality with unique traits, but at the most fundamental level, who/what is looking? 

A very powerful practice can be to close your eyes and try meditating on the view beyond your closed eyelids.  You must realize that the closing of the eyelids does not extinguish the faculty of vision, it simply keeps it from being entangled in the immediate environment.  In a sense we are looking into infinity.  This can be very liberating and enlightening.  So returning to the koan, who/what is looking into infinity?  Is it your mind of thoughts and emotions?  It is quite possible that while doing this meditation, thoughts have ceased entirely, so certainly it is not the mind of thought.  Typically those initiated into meditation will answer that it is awareness that looks, but what is this awareness?

We have stumbled upon the energy of consciousness, that which we never give any consideration to in our culture.  Like fish swimming in water that have no sense of water, it is very difficult for us to have a sense of consciousness since consciousness is the constant of our experience.  We focus attention on the varying and changing contents of consciousness but not on consciousness itself.  Of course without consciousness we would have no experience of anything, but what happens when we begin to be aware of awareness, of consciousness?  Going deeper, we must now ask what is this consciousness?

Ancient Vedic culture, the precursor to Hindu and Buddhist culture, described the origin of existence as a universal consciousness (Brahma) that brought forth the form of the world and all the forms in the world, including human, and these forms are pervaded with consciousness and the consciousness of a human being is a microcosmic extension (Atman) of that macrocosmic consciousness.  Modern quantum and field theory physics describes a universe that is a unified field of proto-energy out of which the energy of matter as sub-atomic particles spontaneously emerge and then engage in the great dance of merging and joining and complexifying that eventually leads to a human being with a brain that is the most complex organization of matter in the known universe.  Furthermore, experiments and theoretical extrapolation have us stunned by evidence that the behavior of these sub-atomic particles, even the way they manifest varyingly as particle energy or wave energy, demonstrates consciousness and the capacity for inter-particle communication.  It seems this ancient cosmology that expresses existence in poetic language may well be finding validation through modern science!

In our human-centered culture and religions, we limit assigning meaningful consciousness to humans while acknowledging limited consciousness in animals, but is this an accurate identification of the realm of consciousness?  Consciousness is defined in a google search as “The state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings,” “The awareness or perception of something by a person,” and “The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.  Consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain.”  Immediately we are struck by identification of consciousness in these conventional definitions with humans and with the brain.  But, does a tree not have consciousness that turns its leaves to the sun, that causes its roots to reach to nourishment and water sources, that has trees even communicating with and nurturing other trees, as recent studies are indicating?  Is there not a type of consciousness that beats the heart and moves the lungs and performs a thousand intricate and balanced functions in every animal organism?  What of indigenous peoples who believed and lived within a world in which mountains and rivers, even rocks or places on the ground manifested different qualities of consciousness and even spoke to them?  Was this just superstition or a more refined ability to sense and resonate with consciousness that pervades all things?  Vedic culture believed that rather than consciousness emanating from us, we emanate from consciousness.  We are not a body and mind that has consciousness, we are consciousness that has a body and mind.

What if the answer to who/what am I? is that we are a biological technology evolved over 14 billion years by the Universe to interact creatively with itself, and that these complex brains that have a neural network design tantalizingly similar to the extrapolated patterns of the network structure of dark matter and energy (which make up 96% of the Universe) are microscopic reflections of this macroscopic design that function as receivers and tuners for consciousness energy originating from and as the infinite vastness of the Universe entering into the finite?  What if what we are is a portal for consciousness energy between the dimensions of the infinite and the finite?  The intuited truth of this postulation is in the summation of ancient Vedic cosmology voiced by Alan Watts in the opening quote of this column and there is no question that Buddhism has clearly identified the essence of who we are as awareness, the field of consciousness energy though which flows all the content of mind.  All that is left to have a cosmology and ontology that reconnects the human experience to the Universal is the recognition that the energy of consciousness is not personal, but rather universal, and that awareness is the individual channeling of this energy that pervades the Universe.

We currently have no sense of ourselves within an unfolding evolving cosmos and this leaves us adrift and insecure in the vastness of the universe, and so too on our planet, in our societies, our families, even our own skin. Even when people do look at the stars, it is usually within a romantic sense centered on themselves. But what if when looking into the starlit sky we could see ourselves?  What if we could see in the stars the source of every atom that comprises our bodies and the world around us and to have a sense that our eyes are the eyes of the Universe looking into itself, infinity gazing into the finite as well as the finite gazing into the infinite?  Would we not be more likely to see our existence as a responsibility to serve as an instrument of the Universe realizing itself – given the gift of a planet that is paradise – and would this not lead us to behave not as destructive consumers but in ways that honor the sacred task we have of understanding, preserving and creating within a great intimate dance?

Cosmologist Brian Swimme offers and warns, “We need to put our energy into inventing new cultural forms for initiating ourselves into an ecstatic sense of involvement with the community of beings that is the very universe.  If we refuse to devote ourselves to this work, we’ll just have to make the necessary adjustments to deal with the river of misery flowing out of the perverse way of life yoking insatiable greed with drugs known as consumerism.  Cosmology when it is alive and healthy in a culture evokes in the human a deep zest for life, a zest that is satisfying and revivifying.”  We could at last feel at home and with purpose in the Universe, on this planet, in our societies, our families and in our own skins.

Zen is the simplest yet most challenging of practices – it is to train in experiencing the simultaneity of the day-to-day with the eternal, the finite with the infinite, to know we are always both here in the most immediate way and in the vastness of existence. “Be here now” is not just a catchy phrase – it is the essential koan directing us to experience how we exist as immediately as this place where our feet stand and our senses perceive AND we are that which can only be perceived with the intuitive sense – that sense which our culture ignores completely – as infinite, the vast Universe that is also the here and now. Breathe and be. We are this flesh and blood AND the dust of stars AND the infinite streaming energy of timeless and boundaryless consciousness. To walk the world in this knowing is Zen. It is to be complete and free of the insecurity of never being enough that has plagued humanity for millennia.  When we know we are a wave on the vast ocean of infinite consciousness energy, meaning we are also the ocean, it is more than enough.  Wherever we are, it is home.

The Open Vista of Original Mind

Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. Reach, and it can’t be grasped. Above, it isn’t bright. Below, it isn’t dark. Seamless, unnamable, it returns to the realm of nothing. Form that includes all forms, image without an image, subtle, beyond all conception. Approach it and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end. You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life. Just realize where you come from: this is the essence of wisdom. – #14 – The Tao Te Ching (Mitchell)

We are a society and culture mesmerized by the objects of the world. We find value in and through objects like our possessions, and one of our strongest myths tells us that material wealth will lead to happiness and well-being when evidence proves this is not so.  Likewise, we look to belonging to identity groups like our nationality, religion, race, political and interest group affiliations as well as our social status to give placement and meaning to our life.  We accumulate things and affiliations, seeking to allay a haunting feeling of not being enough, and ultimately no matter how many things and affiliations we acquire, this feeling continues.  We need to fill our lives in order to feel OK, and there just doesn’t ever seem to be enough, and we are seldom unequivocally OK.

On a much subtler level, this is true with our relationship to mind itself. In Buddhism, thoughts, emotions and sensations are referred to as “mental forms” and we tend to define mind and our subjective sense of self through our thoughts and emotions.  We seek pleasurable sensory experiences to enhance desirable emotions, as if this gives life special meaning.  We look for ideas in the world that conform to, confirm and expand the ideas we already have so as to buttress our sense of self.  Unfortunately all this seeking and accumulating of ideas and emotions can also entangle us in the contradictions of the contents of our mind and this can make life most uncomfortable, if not at times crazy.  The mind can become like a rat’s nest of entangled ideas and emotions that plagues us.  When all is done, we find that none of the forms, material or mental, can give us lasting happiness, peace and well-being.

So, as “mental forms,” sensations, thoughts and emotions, are the stuff, the objects of the mind, just as material objects are the stuff of our lives, we tend to fixate on these mental objects and confuse them for the totality of mind when they are no more the totality of the mind then material objects are the totality of the world. In both cases, the space in which the objects occur is quite neglected, and this neglect causes us to miss the true value and meaning of existence. A world made only of objects is impossible, there must be space in which they occur, and too many objects in a limited space is rightly called cramped. A compulsive hoarder’s home is an assault on the senses and we usually feel uncomfortable in cramped and cluttered places.  In the opposite direction, we are drawn to the experience of open space, and it is why we climb to mountain tops and seek out places of vista, and why deserts have a mystical quality to them. So too, our cramped and cluttered minds are quite uncomfortable, particularly when it feels like the runaway contents of our minds are closing in on us and there is no escaping their suffocation.

We have no cultural tradition for recognizing the spacious mind as the real source of comfort, peace, and well-being, and despite all evidence of how crazy and dangerous so many of our thoughts and emotions are, we invest the realm of thought with intelligence and our emotions with much of our sense of self.  We neglect all our experience that shows us that it is the spacious silent mind that is the true source of intelligence and wisdom.  We fail to give proper notice to how it is that when we are caught in swirling circles of thought and emotion, we might take a walk or a shower or bath, or play with the dog, or wash the dishes, and out of the silence the insight that had been eluding us emerges.  But nothing in our culture validates this, so few give this insight the affirmation deserved. Even our psychologies, philosophies, and religions are filled with complicated ideas that seem to bring us no closer to peace and wisdom.

That real happiness and well-being most often occur when NOTHING is happening, as during the quiet space of the moment in an experience in nature, with a treasured person, or when just sitting alone, gets completely overlooked.  An equally valuable insight is that just as we seek open physical vistas for comfort and inspiration, so too it is wise to look to a spacious and quiet mind for happiness, insight, and well-being. Yet, since this is not an object in the mind – you cannot seek it, as many a frustrated seeker experiences – you can only allow it.  As many an intellectual or spiritual seeker experiences, they may fill their mind with many esoteric ideas and engage in many elaborate spiritual practices, but it brings them no closer to peace.

Just as space is the natural environment of a room before it is filled with objects, space is the natural quality of mind before it is filled with the objects of thoughts, emotions and sensations. This you can only relax into, breathe into, allow its natural presence. It is always there, for it is truly who we are, not the clutter with which that we compulsively fill it. This space of pure consciousness is what Buddhism refers to as “original mind” – mind before the clutter – and it is what all of Buddhism and its practices of meditation and mindfulness are meant to awaken.

Mystic traditions of all cultures, including Judaism and Christianity, recognize the contemplative and meditative mind, the quiet mind that is not seeking, but rather sitting in receptive reflection, as essential for higher levels of inspiration, understanding and spiritual realization.  Even higher levels of scientific inquiry as well as artistic inspiration depend on quiet, intuitive receptivity for breakthroughs.  Instead of focusing on the contracted mental energy of thoughts, this receptivity requires expanded openness of the energy of consciousness.  “It returns to the realm of nothing.”

An open outdoor vista is a good place to encourage and support this allowing, yet it is important to realize that your own true nature already IS the infinitely vast open vista of pure uncluttered consciousness. As this spacious consciousness is what makes experiences in the world meaningful, when space is experienced as a connecting energetic force rather than a source of separation, so too, it is this spacious consciousness energy prior to thoughts, sensations and emotions that is what creates the sense of connection within us.  When we train ourselves to abide in this quiet stillness, this openness, even amidst the clutter and noise of the world, this intuitive connection and sense of well-being remain.  In the mystical language of Taoism and Zen, rather than striving to be somebody looking for something, we become nobody abiding in the realm of nothing while everything swirls around us.  The open vista of original mind is felt as our source and stability. I encourage you into this allowing and finding of that which is not objects in the mind, but rather the vastness of Being, the space of consciousness prior to its energy contracting into objects of sensation, thought and emotion.  Just relax, breathe, allow, and expand into the space that is within and all around – and then – the objects that arise within and out of the space will be imbued with the beauty and wisdom of Reality. You will no longer experience yourself as a separate object looking to the accumulation of objects, whether material or mental, to validate you. You will know yourself as the consciousness energy that is the space, which can value what is natural and true without needing anything, and this is happiness, peace and well-being. There is no need to seek it, for you already are it.  Just learn to relax into it.


Love is not what we become but who we already are. – Stephen Levine

Pay special attention to what happens to the energy of the space that exists between you and a person or anything that you love as you are experiencing that love.  Does it not come alive and connect you with what or who is loved?

Perhaps this insight sounds completely nonsensical, but it is one of life’s most important discoveries and illuminates what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as “The Miracle of Mindfulness.”  All of Buddhist teaching is aimed at getting us to notice and pay attention to that which we typically overlook but which when closely observed and deeply experienced,begins to reveal the most important secrets of Life, and there is no more vital hidden truth in our culture than that the space between objects is living energy.  So too are the objects – even those we conventionally think of as inert – and this energy resonates with the quality of the consciousness of the person experiencing the space and the objects within it.  We are energetic beings in an energetic universe with consciousness energy pervading this unity.

So what is love?  We might describe it as to hold dear, to feel passion, desire, affection, to take pleasure in something or someone.  We know it is a very strong emotion that arises when we are very attracted to and strongly like or identify with something or someone, but does any of this really explain what is happening and why it is happening?  We need to know what is happening and why because we tend to have a rather passive sense of love – it happens or not – if it’s there it’s there, if it’s not, it’s not.  We don’t have much of a sense of whether we have any active role in creating love, cultivating it and sustaining it and this is unfortunate, for the cultivation of love is quite possible and very necessary for love to bloom optimally.  It is very important to know that we can have a very active and creative relationship with love, and that this knowledge contributes greatly to living an awakened life.

So – what is love?  Simply stated, it is connection.  Is it not?  For what is experienced when love is present if it is not connection?  But then, what is this connection?  As with every aspect of the human realm, there are two fundamental dimensions, and here I am addressing the egoic realm and the very poorly understood spiritual, or realm-of-Being dimension, that which we struggle to find words to describe, for our culture lacks any agreed-upon vocabulary for this most precious of experiences.  As we are a strongly materialistic culture, if an experience is not anchored in the material we tend to overlook it, and for this conversation concerning love, we will be entering what we might call the purely subjective heart-realm, and there is nothing material about it.

At the level of ego, that experience of our own separate and insecure identity in the world seeking to be buttressed and comforted, love is of course connection, but the quality of the connection is limited.  It is the experience of the ego connecting and identifying with a person, object or experience and seeking its own validation and significance through this experience.  It is the “I love it!” in response to a personal validation, victory, enhancement or stimulation, even if the “it” is another person.  The experience maintains a strongly dualistic quality even as a unifying connection occurs.  I am here – experiencing and loving that which is there.   If we pay very close attention, however, we might realize that there occurs an extension of our sense-of-self boundary to include the object of the love, and for this to happen, the space of consciousness energy that is our essence must amplify and now include the object of the love.  Almost amoeba-like an extension of the boundary of ourself extends and includes that which was not previously included.  To love means to have the sense of self expand to include what is loved – and this is non-dualistic; two becomes one in intense connection. The space between becomes alive with consciousness and connecting energy where it was previously experienced as a separation.  What is extended is the essential core of ourself and here we make a discovery: this essential core is love.

As consciousness energy extends and encompasses the object of love, the experience begins to shift from the egoic into the heart-realm, and now there is a very important choice to be made.  We can either retain much of our sense of identity in our separateness, continually assessing whether the enhancement of self-experience is sufficient to maintain the connection or we can release into real union – our Self-that-is-love encompassing that which is the focus of our attention.  If we remain primarily the separate ego-self, attention will drift, searching for some new experience.  We likely will find some deficiency in the object/situation/person, and the consciousness energy will diminish or withdraw completely.  We will return to our sense of separate and restless sense of self, and the thing, situation, or person that was loved becomes separate and just ordinary again, as do we.  Or – and here we have the opportunity to fully manifest ourselves as loving beings – we can, recognizing that our greatest fulfillment occurs in the state of connected oneness, deliberately energize the connection and sustain and amplify the loving heart-realm that is our truest self in enfoldment.  This is conscious loving.  We commit to the decision and intent to BE love.  Here, we surrender our separateness and commit to union.

To live the mystical life, the awakened life, is to know and practice this truth of the power of love as consciousness energy to connect with all the elements of Life all around us always.  It is to love all that passes through our field of consciousness – the bird in the tree and the tree, the clouds passing overhead and the warmth of the sun, even the previously insignificant or repulsive; it is to recognize and love as self everything.  This is, of course, particularly powerful and important with people, and of most importance with those with whom we are in loving relationships.  The wisdom traditions teach us that ego separates and conscious heart-felt presence connects, and this does not have to be random and accidental.  It can be the centerpiece of one’s spiritual practice, which is simultaneously a commitment to sane and healthy living, including our most significant relationships.  We can live as loving presence.

For this to occur, we must awaken to the realization of self-as-consciousness-as-love.  We have to take the concept of consciousness as energy that connects us to heart-realm out of the theoretical and into living reality and this is the real purpose of our mindfulness practice.  To do this, it is most helpful to repeatedly, choicefully, anchor into the present moment through our senses – seeing, hearing, touching the object, circumstance, or person with the intention to love without distraction.  We must be really present, as the heart-realm can only be accessed from within the present moment, realizing the present moment is the only actual reality.  Only then can silent, intuitive consciousness fully energize and our nature-as-consciousness-that-is-love come fully alive.  Presence, full presence without mental commenting or distraction, with full focus of consciousness-energy on the loved one, is essential.  Then we can deliberately further energize the space of consciousness with our loving essence to envelope what or who we have focused our loving intention upon to create what consciousness teacher Stephen Levine called The Beloved, a union of what was two that becomes one.

Loving human relationships are complicated.  Often they are filled with as much wound and disappointment as with shared beauty and this can be an obstacle to opening and sustaining the connection of the heart-realm in living consciousness energy.  Ego wants to hold on to and feed these resentments.  This is why all spiritual traditions have emphasized forgiveness and gratitude, and why making a practice of releasing any resentment or negative feeling towards our loved ones and replacing it with reasons for gratitude when the relationship is challenging is essential.  This shift from mental focus on the ego’s accounting system where resentment is stored (for the ego is always keeping track of whether it is getting what it wants) into the heart-space where gratitude is realized will open us and allow our consciousness energy-field to enfold and embrace, to shift us from two to one, from “me” to Beloved.  The Beloved is within you and right in front of you and all around you awaiting your choice to open and embrace with living consciousness energy, to discover the Beloved IS you.  The paradox is that while it is the ego that is tracking whether it is happy or not, the ego has no idea how to generate happiness.  It is the heart-realm that is the true source of happiness, both the giving and receiving of happiness, and for it to be actualized, the separation caused by the ego must be bridged and self-as-love uniting with Life realized.  When we open our heart-realm, understanding that this is really consciousness-energy, love – that which is our original and true nature – embraces us as it embraces others.  The Beloved comes alive as truly do our relationships and the entirety of our life.

Peace on Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awakening Into Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion As Politics

“My religion is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Miracle of Mindfulness

“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves… it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness.” –  Thich Nhat Hanh

Let me offer you a koan, one of those mess-with-your-mind word puzzles of Zen.  “Here we are.”  In the spirit of koan, if you penetrate deeply into the meaning of these words enlightenment awaits you.  Rational mind can get you to a surface understanding, but the full miracle, the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves, lies beyond the capacity of the rational mind.  That’s where a koan is supposed to take you, to the magical realm of intuitive insight.

The rational mind hears these words and says, “OK,” we are here, where else could we be?  Well, of course where we are is where our mind is, and much of the time, our mind is not “here.”  It is in there and then, or when or what-if.  We are not fully here.  We are here sufficiently to get by, to not trip over our feet, to hold a conversation, to fulfill a basic task, but we are not here in a way that the word “master” used by Thich Nhat Hanh could apply.  We are not completely here, wholeheartedly here, in a manner that could be transformative, that could restore us to wholeness.  All of nature has no problem being completely “here,” but for humans in contemporary culture, this can be a very great challenge.

If we are not here, where are we?  Of course, we are here physically, but who we are is certainly not our physical body.  I don’t think many would argue that a severely psychotic person, or a person in a coma is not truly here.  Given sufficient consideration, I think most would probably agree that who we are is a matter of consciousness.  Even a person who is severely distracted is often queried, “Where were you just now?”  They may be admonished to get their “head into the game,” the “game” being the matter at hand, here.

Even as we go about our lives assuming that we are “here,” it is worthwhile to ask, just where, actually, is a very significant part of us?  Wouldn’t we have to admit we are very much in our head in the where, when, what-if, world of mind-spin?  Are we not dispersed and unfocused in very profound ways?  We live in a time when inability to hold focus and attend with stability has been given a diagnostic label – attention-deficit disorder – and while most people do not fit the criteria for the disorder, few would say they are free of the symptoms.  So, most of us most of the time are only here, really here, in a rather superficial sense.

So, we might say to ourselves, like a tyrannical grade school teacher conjured in a bad dream, “Concentrate!  Really focus into being here!”  Should you do this, you might notice that you become rather tense.  Yes, concentration is an important element of being here, but concentration alone doesn’t seem to have this miraculous quality that Thich Nhat Hanh is calling us to with “mindfulness.”  And while the ability to concentrate has benefits, it hardly would rise to something we could call a miracle.

What then is this mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh attributes with miraculous power?  Let us come back to his use of the world wholeness.  Even in a state of intense concentration, when we are focusing into some element of the present moment, the descriptors natural and whole, and the word restore don’t seem applicable.  We are tense and there is a strong feeling of being separate from what we are concentrating on.  There is the “I” concentrating and there is the object of the concentration.  There is a clear division.

You might try an experiment to understand the difference between concentration and mindfulness.  Go outside and look at a tree.  Concentrate on the tree.  Really, eye squinting, concentrate on the tree.  Truly, you are present, yet nothing “miraculous” is happening.  Now, while concentrating on the tree, also notice your breathing, and notice the tension in your face and your body, and as you breathe, soften the tension, and with each exhalation, relax a little bit more – while still holding a very alert attention on the tree.  Awareness of your breathing is very important for this exercise.  Let the breathing be natural, not forced or regulated.  Still looking at the tree, notice ever more deeply the sensations of your breathing and your body.

After a little while, with this relaxing conscious breathing, we are still looking at the tree, but not concentrating now in the tensely focused manner.  Everything is softer.  Perhaps you may begin to notice small detail and texture to the branches, leaves, shape, and trunk of the tree.  You may begin to see the tree in more nuanced relationship to the other trees and landscape around it.  Instead of a very narrow focus, your focus may begin to expand, still with the tree at the center of the field of focus, but more and more of the context in which the tree appears becomes apparent whereas in the state of intense concentration, the tree alone was your field of focus.  You could not, in a sense, see the branches or the forest for the tree.

You may begin to be aware of the space in which the tree appears and in which everything around the tree appears, and as you continue with this softened directed awareness of the tree and its surroundings, it may occur to you that you are also in this environment that centers on the tree.  Instead of experiencing the tree as “over there” and you being “here” looking at and concentrating on the tree, you may begin to experience that “here” is the tree and you and the bird flying overhead and the cloud in the sky and the grass beneath your feet, all held in a relaxed state of vibrant presence.  In a flash of a moment, a feeling of wholeness, connectedness, restoration of a sense of place and belonging in this world may come over you.

You might feel real love for this tree that was just another tree only a few moments ago and with it a deepened sense of love for life, all of life.  If someone came along with a chainsaw and said they were there to cut down this tree, you might find this to be quite upsetting, for you have felt connection with this tree, and with the environment of the tree.  If the person with the chainsaw said the tree was badly diseased and had to be cut down, you would be sad but understand.  If the chainsaw person said they just hated raking leaves so they were cutting down the tree, you might have a deep sense of how wrong it is for people to have such a callous and destructive attitude toward nature and its beauty.

The full beauty and vulnerability of life may arise as a deep knowing in you.  That life is this beauty, and that this beauty and life are transitory and therefore all the more worthy of your full presence and appreciation may arise within you, and the wrong that is the mindless trampling of this beauty by those who cannot see it, but can only see the mind-spin of their shallow likes and dislikes may become very clear to you.  That we ARE this life in kinship with the tree and the birds and the lakes and the rivers and the air that we breathe and all the animals and people of this world may arise within you.  And in this knowing and experiencing we may feel a kind of wholeness that reconnects us to a feeling we last had as a small child, and perhaps we feel restored and as master of our life and not mindlessly lost in the busyness and striving we had come to accept as normal, but always with great unease.

This is mindfulness.  This is the miracle of mindfulness.

“This moment, what is lacking?” is a classic koan.  Allowing that the moment is, in fact, the totality of all experience, the answer is, “nothing is lacking.”  The moment contains everything.  To borrow a phrase from Ram Dass, the moment is “thick.”  It contains not only what is occurring in the present, but also past and future.  It contains happiness.  It contains sadness.  It contains good. It contains evil.  It contains satisfaction.  It contains want.  It contains love.  It contains hatred.  It contains the physical.  It contains the mental.  It contains the spiritual.  It contains you and me and everyone and all life.  When does the moment begin; when does it end?  Where is it not the moment?  It is as immediate as the blink of your eye and as vast as the Universe.

We might find ourselves realizing that everything occurring everywhere and all that has ever occurred or will ever occur exists only in the vast moment that is the Universe, and that all that exists does so because of what precedes in the flow of the great Universal moment and all that will be is the result of seeds planted in this moment, and so their fruition is connected with this moment. We might realize that “here we are” is all and everything, when a moment ago, in that universe in our minds where we and the tree were very separate entities in a universe of nothing but separate entities, there was just a tree we were squinting at while we tried to wrestle all the there and then and what-if in our mind into some semblance of quietude.   And we might have the insight that all the where and when and what-if swirling in our minds and all our likes and dislikes are pretty petty in the great Everything that is Now, and we may begin to let go of some of that mind-spin to find we are capable of living from a much quieter, peaceful and compassionate place.  I ask you, wouldn’t you call that a miracle?

The Wondrous Space

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

― Abraham Heschel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

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

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

Approaching Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expansive Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolving God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditate, Meditate, Meditate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey Into Consciousness

“The greatest sin is to be unconscious.” – Carl Jung

In its original meaning, from the ancient Greek and also in Hebrew, to “sin” is to miss the mark, the term drawn from the world of archery.  It also has as its meaning, “to be in error.”  It is pointing us to the realization of what the purpose of our human life is about – and to miss it is to be in profound error, leading to life-negating consequences.

The 20th Century Jewish theologian and mystic Abraham Heschel spoke of the origin of sin to be “in denial of the sublime wonder of life.”  In other words, Heschel is saying that to fail to be conscious of our being in the midst of mystery, of Creation unfolding, and to fail to be deeply present, curious and reverent in approaching this mystery will surely cause us to miss the point of life and will have us behaving in ways that are in error – disrespectful, manipulative, exploitive and harmful.  These attitudes form the precondition for egregious behavior, in other words, sin.

From this “sinful” perspective, we will objectify ourselves, others, and all that is in the world, and our relationships consequently will be conflictual and utilitarian rather than respectful and sincere.  Careless and thoughtless harm generates from such an attitude.  The cause of any action that could be called “sinful,” therefore, is a state of mind that is deeply in error – one that entirely misses the mark of the purpose of our existence as to be in harmony with the miracle that is Creation.

The issue of consciousness becomes relevant here in that when we look deeply at a thing, event, or a circumstance we begin to see detail, subtleties and connections not noticed by superficial looking.  What might seem isolated and disconnected, upon deeper examination, may begin to reveal subtle connections, and the more deeply we are able to look, that is, the more consciousness we bring to the investigation, the more subtle and far-reaching the connections reveal themselves to be.  From Jung’s depth psychology perspective, and from a Buddhist perspective, to be conscious is to see the event taking place within contexts of infinite connections without which the thing cannot exist.

In illustration of this point, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is known to offer the observation that this paper you hold is more than just a paper.  It is also tree, soil, sun, rain, the labor and the creativity and effort of the writer, the editor, the printers, the paper millers, etc.; in fact, if you look deeply enough, you can see the entire universe and its evolutionary history happening in this interface of the paper and the person who reads it, who brings consciousness to the event of seeing.  We begin to experience mystery, that is, a knowing that is both particular and vast – ultimately beyond our ability to articulate other than perhaps as poetry and metaphor.  The deeply observational consciousness of modern science tells us this is true, and the deeply intuitive consciousness of the mystic has told us of this truth for thousands of years.

And so too, what happens when we look deeply at ourselves?  Just as when we look deeply at what occurs seemingly outside of us, when we look deeply at and inside ourselves, we begin to be conscious of infinite subtle levels of connection, process and mystery.  We begin to be conscious that this seeming separateness is an illusion.  We begin to experience that inside, outside, self and other are all happening within one thing, the greatest mystery of all, consciousness itself.  Now we are arriving at the definition of consciousness that Jung is addressing – consciousness examining mind happening in consciousness, where that which looks discovers it is looking at itself from across dimensions and is capable of great compassion and insight; even realizing the looking becomes like an act of prayer, a communication with the infinite petitioned by the finite.  Sublime wonder and a sense of sacredness begin to arise naturally.

Much of Jung’s work focused on archetypes, that is, symbols and signs that point to deep and universal human psychic experiences, and the entire archetypal concept of God and the reasons religions exist are because of this human capacity for intuiting that consciousness is not some faculty of our separateness, but rather the vehicle of discovering our connectedness with all that is.  To be unconscious in this context is to be held by the sway of the myth of our own separateness and the separateness of all that comprises life, and even to create sciences, psychologies and religions that emphasize this separateness.  It is from this objectifying perspective, as Heschel observed, that we seek to make more of ourselves, to allay our terror at not being enough, by diminishing and recklessly exploiting what is perceived as not us, and the result is “sin.”  The result is the missing of the mark, the great error of living in insatiable hunger to fill a hole in our sense of being, what the 17th Century scientist/theologian Blaise Pascal described as “The God Shaped Hole.”

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.  –  Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

And we ask, what is this God that can fill this hole?  It certainly cannot be the conception of God that creates bloody lines of religious division throughout human history.  It has to be the realization of the unity of all things within which, and as an expression of, we exist.  It is the wonder that reveals itself when we look deeply enough and find, as mystics of all cultures have with their various meditative arts, that who we are is, as theologian/philosopher Alan Watts noted “the Universe peering into itself, from billions of points of view.”  We are consciousness that has a human life, body and mind so as to experience existence, and the natural result of this discovery is profound and sublime wonder.  Thus, finally, we reclaim our capacity to hit the mark, to be without error in our experience of this unity.

Only this wonder and discovery can fill the hole.  We slowly come to realize that who we are IS consciousness and that like the energy of matter, the energy of consciousness is a fact of the Universe, and that energy of either dimension shares the common property of indestructibility. The form, the vehicle of the energy is impermanent, yet the energy itself is indestructible. We have found and hit the mark.  This journey into consciousness, into sublime wonder, fills us and there is no longer a need for coercive morality policing a “sinful” nature for we no longer are in error as to who or what we are.  The fear that comes with being unconscious of this truth leaves us.  We are each other and we are the world and the Universe itself.  There is no abyss except in our mistaken state of unconsciousness, and there is nothing to fill for we already are everything.  We are the dust of stars and the consciousness of life itself journeying as a human being discovering we are, always have been and can never be anywhere but home in the vast Universe of here and now.   How sublimely wondrous!

Beyond the Poisons of the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Nothing Personally

Don’t Take Anything Personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. – From The Four Agreements don Miguel Ruiz

We take things so personally.  If someone likes us, we tend to like them and feel good about ourselves.  If someone dislikes us, we generally dislike them and can have our sense of well-being and personal peace disrupted.  If the world and the events around us are playing out in ways we favor, we are generally happy.  If the world and events around us are playing out in ways we do not favor, our happiness and well-being are typically affected negatively.  This can be in regard to something as clearly impersonal as the weather, yet we make it personal.  When it involves another person or groups of people, when it involves our personal desires and ambitions, we tend to take it very personally.

You might ask, “Shouldn’t we care what others think of us and shouldn’t we care if life is the way we want it to be?”  And the answer has to be yes and no.  Caring is one thing.  Personalizing is another.  To care means that we are taking circumstances and people seriously, and we care whether some sense of greater good is being served in how events are unfolding.  Personalizing means we are being a weathervane for every wind that blows, and there can be some very cruel winds in this world.

It is not uncommon for people to be having real difficulty with another person.  It may be that for whatever reason someone has targeted them and is behaving in a bullying and intimidating manner, or it may be that someone is being disrespectful to them, or ignoring them, or manipulating them.  There are so many ways that people behave that can be taken as assaults on our dignity, autonomy and value.  Likewise, the events of the world and the circumstances of our lives can turn distinctly to our disliking and personal disadvantage.

Should we care?  Yes.  We should care to understand what is happening and why, and we should care to do what we can if a situation can be addressed so as to bring about some greater understanding and we can address its effect in a way that minimizes harm and increases general benefit.  Should we personalize and find our own sense of well-being and balance dependent on people and events being the way we want them to be?  Of course not.  When we have our sense of balance, well-being and confidence dependent on events and persons outside of us, we have no real balance, well-being and confidence at all.

As for interpersonal difficulties, don Miguel Ruiz’s advice in the Four Agreements is very wise.  It resonates with a maxim from the Gestalt Therapy founder Fritz Perls who offered the observation, “Thou art projection.”  Human beings most often have a sense of themselves and the world that is not what is real and true, but rather is the amalgam of psychological, social and cultural conditioning creating a virtual reality of what they believe to be real, and they project this virtual reality onto others and the world.  In a very real sense, we are projection screens for others and they are projections screens for us.  Everyone is projecting their own assumptions and personal history and neurotic tendencies onto each other.  So it clearly cannot be wise to invest our sense of balance, security and well-being in this multi-plex of movies that is any gathering of people or set of circumstances.

I like to offer in illustration that we could take ten random people off the street and have them experience a person for a day, and then interview these ten people and we would get a breakdown of opinion that would roughly have three of them really liking the person, three of them not particularly liking the person and the other four pretty much indifferent.  Consider this when the next person out of ten is giving you a hard time and your whole sense of balance is being thrown by that person.

As for circumstances, it is important to pay attention to how everything can be going along just fine and then something “goes wrong” – and we become completely taken over by what we are judging to have gone wrong.  There are several lessons to be learned here.  The first is that we pay very little attention to what is going right – just like we give very little mental energy to the people who like us or have very little opinion of us.  That’s because these circumstances and people are not feeding into the insecurities of our ego.

A sad truth is that most people have really very insecure egos.  It’s kind of the state of affairs in our society.  It isn’t our fault and it doesn’t make us bad.  We are all shaped and conditioned by those psychological, social and cultural factors I mentioned earlier, and in our society, it is quite rare for a person to be raised in a manner that results in them being calmly confident and relatively free of depending on circumstances for their sense of well-being.  So, circumstances and other people’s behavior and opinions play a very great role in a person’s confidence and well-being, and in this matter, we tend to be a bit paranoid, that is, looking for the circumstances and people that shake our happiness and confidence.  And of course, we will find them, for life is everything and all kinds of people and all kinds of circumstances.  If we allowed all the things that go right and all the nice people who treat us quite well to register with the same importance we give to the problematic situations and people, we would not tend to get shaken so readily.

The second factor is this issue of what’s good and what’s bad for us.  There is a truth in psychological and spiritual teachings that difficult situations and people are really beneficial to us, for they give us the opportunity to see where our conditioning needs some attending, where our skill-set with life could use some development and improvement.  All of us can relate that there are times in our life that have been difficult and we would have absolutely preferred not to have gone through them, yet we can also look back and realize that often these times were ones when we learned a great deal about ourselves and about life.  They were times when, although difficult, we perhaps achieved some real growth, became more skillful, more discerning and more compassionate.  They were times when perhaps we became more discerning at the difference between compassion and codependence, perhaps more confident in our ability to handle the travails and setbacks of life, and learned better what to value and what not to, and which people to trust and which not to trust.  We may even have learned how to not trust someone compassionately, that is, to realize it is only their conditioning that has them behaving in this untrustworthy manner, so there is no need to dislike or hate them, that it is simply not wise to take them into our zone of trust, and certainly not wise to take their opinions and behavior personally.

There is a Zen saying that “obstacles do not block the path, obstacles are the path,” and it is that saying that applies here.  What is important is whether we will take these “difficult” times as opportunities, or whether we take them personally as set-backs and defeats, as confirmation that we are somehow defective, inadequate and not up to the challenges of life.

Life is perfect.  It is perfectly all things, and we are expressions of life, and so, we too are perfect, capable of facing all challenges if we hold our center knowing we are expressions of life.  If we face our challenges with curiosity and compassion rather than fear and projection, we can manage anything and anyone.  Another Zen saying says, “You may kill me, but you cannot defeat me.”  Not when I truly know who I am, and live in the unshakeable sense of “I am,” for that is what we are.  Not “I am this or that,” but rather simply and unshakably, “I am.”  Our spiritual and psychological journey is arriving in this unshakeable realization of who we are as a Being that is an expression of the Universe just like a bear or a bird that takes nothing personally and just lives the life it is given as skillfully as its faculties will allow.   Nothing is personal.  It’s just another thing to be understood and engaged in the great and sacred cosmic dance of life.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saner Than Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discerning Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Right” Choice

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consciousness Expansion and Contraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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