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.”                                                

[Message clipped]  View entire message

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.

Let Us Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light Into The World

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

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

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

“Be a light unto yourself.”  – Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

What is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Dharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zen Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zen And The Art Of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silent Mind Awaits

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

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

Jean Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  • Alan Watts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belief And Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise Of Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Triple Gem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path of Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awakened Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude Is A Healing Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wave On The Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needing Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come To Your Senses

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

This Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perception and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concentration and Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behead Yourself!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between, Before, and After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Stand Up in the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budda and Mara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is It That Is Aware?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Ok?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Clouds In The Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiencing One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Your Whole Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom From Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                             – Frank Herbert in the Sci-Fi novel, Dune

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


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

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

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

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


Buddha’s Four Noble Truths

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


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

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

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

The Four Noble Truths are: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Sit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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

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

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

As Watts outlined his thesis as based in both Western science and the philosophy-religions of the East, he was pointing to another taboo which is the realization that true spirituality must be a confirmation of e