Thursday, August 20, 2015

Becoming What We Do

[This piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the July/August 2015 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced her with permission.]

They lived thousands of miles apart on different continents, in different centuries – two men that would go on to become the most influential philosophers in history. They never met, but they shared a common question. What are the mechanics of moral transformation?

In 6th century B.C.E. China, Confucius taught that action precedes internal transformation. We become what we do. Confucius believed that human nature was essentially good, but our innate goodness existed only as potential. In order to actualize our potential, we need to cultivate three primary virtues: shu, ren, and li.

Shu is the consciousness of empathy; the imaginative understanding of how our actions impact others. For Confucius it came down to one simple rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

On this empathetic foundation one then cultivates ren or kindness, the willful decision to work for the good of others with no thought of what we might receive in return. Moving from quid pro quo toward altruism, Confucian morality favors duty over self-interest.

Still, the seeds of shu and ren bear no fruit until they are embodied in the actions of our everyday lives.

Li means proper behavior or decorum – all of the little rituals of life that demonstrate our care and respect for one another. For Confucius, human excellence, like any other art form, is realized through conscious choice and willful practice, in the same way one masters the violin. You don’t get good at violin by thinking about it, or admiring it from afar. You have to pick it up and play. After a lifetime of practice, virtuous behavior becomes internalized and unconscious. What began as rote repetition attains graceful naturalness in time. Our innate goodness is externalized through action. We become good. And everyone benefits.

A century after Confucius and half a world away, a young student at the Platonic Academy in Athens began to formulate his own ethical theories, eventually emerging from the shadow of his famous teacher Plato. Like his mentor, and in a curious alignment with Confucius, Aristotle taught that humans were by nature good, but our goodness was a seed that would flourish only with proper cultivation. For a human being to reach their full moral potential, four things would have to happen: education, reason, habit, and character.

Education is essential because it trains our faculty of reason, and reason is required to discern the good. Then the good must be practiced repeatedly until it becomes habit. And habit constructs character. As Confucius argued a century earlier, we become what we do.

For example courage.

For the ancient Greeks, courage was the most important virtue because without it none of the other virtues are possible. One must be brave to be compassionate. But how do we zero in on courage? How can we tell if we’ve stopped short in cowardice, or overshot into rashness? For Aristotle only reason can make this determination. Critical thinking and rational deliberation are requirements for moral action because they correctly identify the Golden Mean, the virtuous middle point between the vices of excess and deficit. On this Aristotle and Confucius agree – we cannot become good without first developing keen discernment and an iron will.

From the Confucian and Aristotelian perspective, the mechanics of moral transformation are fairly straightforward. Correctly identify the good. Practice it until you embody it – act courageous until you embody courage, choose compassion until you embody compassion. Watch old habits fall away, replaced by new habits that give full expression to your innate goodness. Thus is the good, both individually and communally, realized.

We aren’t talking about mere conformity to arbitrary norms or obedience to whatever fleeting laws currently hold sway – we’re talking about becoming who we really are.
In the end, by embracing transformation and embodying virtue we become integrated, no longer in conflict with ourselves. Our thoughts and actions align with our innate higher nature resulting in serenity, freedom, and happiness. For Confucius and Aristotle, the fully realized life is natural, joyful, and deeply rewarding. Who doesn’t want that? And it begins with action.  

Time Away


Music is impossible without silence. There is silence between every note. The best musicians learn how to play the silence as well as their instruments.

There is empty space between every solid object. Even the atom itself – the building block of the so-called solid world – is 99.9999% empty space. Emptiness is an essential component of somethingness.

Every sixteen hours we drop into eight hours of unconsciousness – paralyzed, deaf, dumb, and blind in our beds. Sleep is a requirement. Without this daily oblivion we would die.

The surging forth of spring and summer are only possible because of the retreat of fall and winter. New life emerges from nutrients freed up by the dissolution of earlier forms. Decay and death form the foundation of all that is. There can be no advance without the oscillation of retreat.

How then can we align our own ebb and flow with these inexorable maxims? Are we not also a part of nature, a drop of dew in this great, unbroken cosmic morning?

A Day of Rest

            Shabbat is Hebrew for “rest” or “cessation.” In the book of Genesis the seventh day was set aside – one day a week to step away from productivity and toward stillness; to change from a human-doing back into a human being. For Jews and later Christians, there are many ways to practice this principle, some strictly observant, others less so. Whether these are your traditions or not, there’s something wise about stepping off the treadmill once in a while to catch your breath.

By leaving aside the world of work and accomplishment we enter a sanctuary of peace, a place where we are not measured by our work product, but by our inherent value. We come to embody the knowledge that who we are, right now, is enough, no matter what we’ve done. This gracious self-appreciation solidifies our foundation and strengthens our core.  Far from diminishing our productivity, the respite of the Sabbath lengthens our reach. By temporarily setting aside our professions, our personas, and our ceaseless activity we heal wounds our busyness masked. Our marriages are strengthened. We come to know our children as the rich and nuanced human beings they are. We see the beauty of the natural world, and the sacred comes into focus. As the familiar Jewish saying goes, “It is not the Jews who keep the Sabbath – it is the Sabbath that has kept the Jews.”

Yet in the end, this principle transcends any single faith tradition. What Jewish and Christian teachings point to is a universal truth – without ritualized rest we lose our essence and become what poet T.S Eliot called “hollow men.” We are not ciphers or machines who “measure out our lives with coffee spoons,” – we are living, breathing manifestations of the mystery of mysteries. Only in rest can we come to understand this deep and vibrant truth about ourselves.

Growing Stronger

            In our efforts to grow stronger, it turns out the most important element is rest. When you run or lift weights you cause traumatic injury to your muscle tissue – it literally rips apart. It is only when you step away from the gym that your muscles heal, building new muscle tissue as they repair the damage. It may seem paradoxical, but it is only in a resting state that muscles grow stronger and larger.

            This is true in other growth processes as well.

            Time away from your instrument makes you a better musician. A brisk walk through the neighborhood does more for your writing project than hours of staring at the screen. And as we grow deeper into our relationships with each other, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is leave people alone to be who they really are without meddling and interference.

Time Away

            There’s a reason they call it recreation. When you take time off to play, you literally re-create yourself cell by cell, returning to your default settings and restoring your natural rhythm. Tastes vary, but the universal truth remains – we all need time away.

            For some it’s an hour with a good book. For others it’s surfing, hiking, camping, cooking, or bicycling. Or picking up an instrument and playfully exploring some untried direction or style. There are as many ways to recreate as there are human beings – some sedentary, some active. But the common element is this – if we do not break away from the monotony of our ordinary, routenized lives we lose touch with our authentic nature – that part of us from which our best creativity and productivity emerge. We may know how to work, but we forget why. Time away from the treadmill helps us recover the core values that fuel our passion.

            It’s not how we recreate that matters, it’s that we recreate. The most important piece is abandoning routine and discarding normal patterns of behavior. It is vivifying and revitalizing to remove one’s customary support systems and go it alone.

No one saw it coming: Cheryl Strayed’s little memoir Wild becoming a monster best-seller and now a Reese Witherspoon movie – a story about a grieving, recovering addict with zero backcountry experience attempting an ambitious hike of the Pacific Crest Trail all by herself. It evidently struck a nerve – permit applications for the PCT have leaped tenfold from 300 a year to 3,000.

Strayed’s ordeal may seem far from restful, but here’s the parallel: by going into the wilderness and relying solely on her own wits to survive she discovered a bottomless well of resources within. Though our Sabbath, our time away, may take less extreme form than Strayed’s we too can tap into this wild inner strength.

There is a deep and abiding hunger within us to be reborn, to leave the confines of this womb – once comforting, now confining – and step out into the unknown. It is rebirth we’re after, nothing less. By shattering our limits we come to know ourselves more deeply, an impossible feat when ensconced within the insulating layers of the known world.

            It’s not too late to plan a wild summer getaway. Find a three-day gap in your upcoming calendar. Block it out. Scrape together some money. Get away from this, whatever this is. Go alone, or with a trusted other. Show the kids the resiliency they have hidden and unrealized deep within them. Wake up in a strange city. Find your way. Meet who you’re going to meet. See what you’re going to see. Let the mystery reveal itself to you. You have nothing to lose but your complacency.

            When you return, you’ll bring with you an abundance of perspective and conviction. You’ll see with new eyes and once again remember the reason you chose this field of work, this spouse, this home. Or this – you’ll realize that your life is off-track and you’ll have the courage to make the necessary changes to recover your original joy and purpose.

            But none of these benefits will be yours unless you find the courage to stop what you’re doing and take some time away. 
 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Trusting the Mystery


As I turn another year older – just a couple of clicks now away from 60 – I grow more and more convinced that the single-most destructive force to peace, beauty, humanity, and all that is good in the world is certainty. Or the presumption of it anyway, since all but the most foolish among us have long ago abandoned any pretense of it, along with the tired and thoroughly discredited notion that popularity plus bombast equals truth. Just because a proposition has long been proclaimed to be true by a great many enthusiastic people is in no way a guarantee of that proposition’s veracity. In fact, it’s often the other way around. Group-think and confirmation bias prop up a hollow idea long after its circular logic has collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. Extremists of every stripe, on all sides of issues, speak for no one but themselves leaving the mass of humanity somewhere in the middle, busy putting bread on the table, appeasing the landlord, and keeping abreast of ever-changing tax policies, and when there’s time to breathe, maybe picking up the guitar, grilling some hot dogs, and playing fetch with the dog.

            But the din of absolutism intrudes upon our tenuous serenity from every angle. There is no rest for the weary as we are preached to endlessly by the indefatigable curators of dogma who bolster their claims with passages from ancient texts, the same texts that a few pages later spout savage nonsense no one any longer believes – executing people for working on the Sabbath for example. Do the fundamentalist, self-appointed stewards of scripture really think a quote from Leviticus, a provincial record of specific religious doctrine, social rules, and tribal history from 25 centuries ago, has any universal authority in today’s global, multicultural, and pluralistic world? Yes, they do. Because the ancient Hebrews were clearly squeamish about gay sex – that’s just how some tribes are – dogmatic literalists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam decree that it is “God’s Law” that homosexuality is a most grievous sin demanding a great deal of scrutiny, suppression, and in extreme cases, violent elimination. Adultery, in stark contrast, although equally taboo in Leviticus, earns at most a passing glance and is considered largely a private family matter. Thankfully, extremists in the Abrahamic faiths are increasingly outnumbered by more moderate voices.

            We know so much more now about human sexuality and the fluidity of gender designation and sexual preference. These days most of us accept the fact that sexuality is a mystery. When someone tells us who they are and who they love, we believe them.

            In his autobiography Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, preeminent religious studies scholar Huston Smith wrote, “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.” The bracing honesty and disarming humility of this declaration catches us off guard, for it is at once an affront to our own carefully maintained belief system, and a bold affirmation of our deepest suspicion – that none of us really knows what we’re talking about.

            We don’t know what being born really is. Where did we come from?

            We don’t know what being alive really is. What is a person? Protoplasm with an urge? A spark from Divine Mind? A worthless sinner?

            And if we cannot answer those questions, how can we say what death is?

            Still, you can’t throw a stick without hitting someone who thinks they have all the answers. They know what we are, why we’re here, who made us, and where we’re all going. They’ve got the whole enchilada rolled up, plated, and ready to serve. They’re deaf to the criticism levied by the mystics of all faiths: that any explanation of the mystery distorts more than it reveals. The wordless silence of contemplative prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate service far surpasses the recitation of learned scrolls, no matter how reverent.

            It is in our blood to wonder; of this we can be sure. The philosophical quest, undertaken in all cultures and utilizing every conceivable method – reason, revelation, and metaphor to name three – is a long and winding cord of interlacing strands, like the veins of a river delta viewed from space. Claiming that your strand is the only one requires willed ignorance of the wide array of thought-systems all around you.

            Living with uncertainty requires great courage and considerable elan. Your unwillingness to plant your flag in anyone’s camp makes you a threat to all of them. But you’re no longer content to simply shop for the best entrenched position to which to pledge your allegiance. You are flagless, beyond all borders, and alert to the fragments of truth hidden beneath the surface of all contradictions. You’re willing to change your mind as more is revealed. As Walt Whitman wrote in his poem Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” If we are part of the mysterious whole, then provincial partiality seems dimwitted at best, dangerously arrogant at worst.

            The world’s scriptures are the invaluable creations of our ancestors struggling to understand their place in the mystery. Through the lens of their entrenched sociological structures, tribal belief systems, and unavoidable personal biases they framed the mystery of existence in vocabulary inherited from their fathers. Any claims of authority, let alone divine revelation, must be met with tentative and respectful skepticism. Theology is born in disputation and therefore always has a ring of belligerence to it – what made it to the page was fought for long and hard. We can therefore forgive its authors their bold assertion of infallibility. But we have come too far to remain bound to arbitrary traditions that belong to another time, another place, and a completely different set of circumstances. It is for us now to read with our inner sight the writings of the ancients, and come to trust our own interpretive authority. We can be emboldened by the way Jesus and Paul rejected the orthodoxy of the Temple leaders, or the way Muhammad criticized the tribal codes of Bedouin culture, or the way Buddha defied the authority of the Brahmins. The founders of the world’s religions were revolutionaries who pushed boundaries, challenged injustice, questioned authority, and drew deep from the well of direct experience. Let’s learn from them.

            As the Zen teacher Matsuo Basho cautioned his students, “Don’t seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old, instead, seek what they sought.” It isn’t enough to pick a group and join it. It isn’t enough to follow a teacher, no matter how wise and illumined. It isn’t enough to assuage your fear by subscribing to a ready explanation that puts your tribe in the winner’s circle. If anything, let the discomfort and angst of your uncertainty sharpen your edge into a blade with which you cut away falsehood. Being uncomfortable is good. Insight is born from the chaos of cognitive dissonance and takes root in lived experience. When you’re knocked off your seat you find your feet. Teachers, traditions, rituals, texts, and communities are all powerful tools we use to build our lives. But they mean nothing if there is not beneath it an inkling of one’s own, a gut feeling, a resonance, an alignment, a beam of light unbidden that rises up and feels at once familiar and known, even though its origin is a mystery. Moses trusted his mystery. Muhammad trusted his mystery. Jesus trusted his mystery. Buddha trusted his mystery. Why do we not trust our own?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

True Identity

[This piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the June/July 2015 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Sometimes spiritual work is simple. We just make it complicated.

When we look at our hands we realize they are a part of us, that they accomplish remarkably deft tasks, but that we are so much more than just our hands. We use our hands, but we are not our hands.

So too when we examine our thoughts, we realize that we use them to accomplish remarkably deft things, but we are so much more than just our thoughts. We use our thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.

Once you realize that you are not your thoughts, you have begun to awaken.

As you witness yourself having a desire, a memory, or an emotion, you also realize that your ability to witness thoughts proves that you are something more than thoughts – you are their witness. This deep and abiding awareness beyond the thought stream goes by many names. In Zen Buddhism it is called your Original Self. In the Bhagavad Gita Krisha calls it the Inner Witness. Revealing and realizing our identity with this primary consciousness is the work of the world’s great spiritual traditions.

The twentieth century Vedanta teacher Ramana Maharshi used to lead his students into meditation around the question, “Who are you?” Contemporary teacher Adyashanti shifts the question slightly – “What are you?” Either way, meditation teachers in every tradition urge us past the surface definitions of self, clouded as they are by empty associations with tribe, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic class. We all wear many labels. But when you remove all the labels, what remains?

The first century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna refers to the thought realm as “ordinary knowledge.” Ordinary knowledge is comprised of thoughts, concepts, rational sequences, and logical processes. The deeper realm of awareness he calls prajna, or “transcendent knowledge.”  Prajna is non-conceptual, intuitive, mystical awareness beyond the reach of conceptual thinking. Ordinary knowledge is of course highly useful and profoundly powerful. The entire realm of human accomplishment has its roots here. But prajna or transcendent knowledge is that vast boundlessness beneath the thought stream. When we consciously practice witnessing our thoughts, we move deeper and deeper into prajna.

This is why meditation is such an essential practice. Meditation is nothing more than allowing yourself to sink beneath the waves of the thought stream and enter the vast field of awareness of your authentic being – your true identity.

And as we move deeper into prajna, we are increasingly liberated from the limited and limiting thoughts, judgments, concepts, and opinions of ordinary knowledge. As the Zen saying goes, “Don’t seek enlightenment. Just get rid of all your opinions.”

 The ego is a concept like any other – useful but ultimately limited and provisional. Concepts like I, me, and mine are place holders, sign posts, or directional arrows. Like words on a theater marquis, they are not the movie, just its name. From the perspective of prajna, we are boundless awareness existing in a deep state of interconnectedness with all things. From the perspective of ordinary knowledge, we are a separate entity in conflict with everything else. The problem is this – most of us remain stuck in the realm of ordinary knowledge. We fall under the spell of the conceptual realm. Instead of seeing oneness we see multiplicity. We come to believe that concepts are real things. We forget that they are just shadows cast by cloud-thoughts flying through the sky of our endless awareness.

This is what makes transcending the ego so challenging – the ego fights for its existence with the tenacity of a honey badger. And its favorite weapon is its own perceived woundedness. In his book Grace and Grit philosopher Ken Wilber writes, “The ego…is kept in existence by a collection of emotional insults; it carries its personal bruises as the fabric of its very existence. It actively collects hurts and insults, even while resenting them, because without its bruises, it would be, literally, nothing.”

Notice how we use our perceived woundedness and victim status as glue to hold our fictional ego together. What if we let go our tired grievances? Who would we be without our resentments and self-righteousness? For many people, these questions are simply too frightening to consider. But the answer is simple. We would be free.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Seven Marks of a Leader



Let’s talk about bad bosses – the screamers, the belittlers, the tyrants terrified of any challenge to their throne, burdened by emotional baggage they toil ceaselessly to foist on everyone else. Then think about the great teachers, coaches, mentors, and bosses you’ve had, the ones who got it right – kind and thoughtful leaders who drew from you qualities you didn’t even know you had. If you distilled the essence of their excellence into seven core components, what would they be?
A good leader is bold. Timidity erodes confidence. But a good leader does not mistake bluster and aggression for boldness. Being bold means embodying courage – courage to overcome one’s own limitations and see past the limitations of others. Being bold means speaking the truths that must be spoken plainly, directly, and kindly. Being bold means having the guts to admit when you’re wrong, and being strong enough to stretch into empathetic understanding of your opponents. When your team members and subordinates see these qualities in you they reach deep into their own strengths and walk with you toward a well-articulated aim.
A good leader has vision. And they hold that vision while others around them lose sight of it. They don’t get bogged down by the minutiae of process, or the technical hurdles that always arise. They lift their eyes to the ideal while stopping short of using the ideal to denigrate current conditions. Staying positive, emphasizing what’s right and framing what’s wrong as temporary and under revision, a good leader inspires their team through sheer confidence in the notion that the impossible is possible if we’re relentless enough. Being a leader means having the imagination and the muscle to perceive the good and steer toward it.
A good leader is humble. They’re not afraid of saying the three most powerful words in the English language – I don’t know. They understand that wisdom begins with the admission of ignorance and blossoms under careful cultivation, in collaboration with thoughtful others in continual dialogue.  Where there is no humility there cannot be wisdom. Nothing diminishes the confidence others have in you more rapidly and permanently than arrogance and self-aggrandizement. Trash talk and braggadocio only spotlights your neediness and low self-esteem. The people we really admire are the ones who stand in the background and wow us with their quiet accomplishments. A good leader deflects the light so that it shines on others.
A good leader values creation over process. You never know where the real solutions are going to come from, and rigid conformity to existing processes stifles genuine growth. It is the task of managers to faithfully execute processes, while it is the task of leaders to test the limitations of existing processes. These two disparate goals need not be characterized by hierarchy and conflict. In fact, it is the duty of leaders to ensure that this disparity is lovingly honored. Leaders are kept afloat by a sea of managers, technicians, and other process experts – they must respectfully honor those whose task it is to carry out the processes crafted by previous leaders. Yet leaders must be creative enough to take warranted risks when emerging flaws in existing processes prove destructive. Managers will hunker down and try to work with what they’ve got. Leaders are willing to toss it all aside and start over. Both are right.
A good leader works harder than everyone else. They see themselves as a worker among workers, not as a superior. A manager sits back and directs the actions of others, pushing from behind. A leader gets out front and pulls. By setting the example, a leader creates the space in which her team members rise up and contribute, each in a way best suited to their own unique strengths. Leaders leave lots of room for this. You draw the best out of people by appealing to their better natures and attracting them into viable, mutually rewarding opportunities, not through browbeating and derision. The title of leader is not conferred for past accomplishments – it is earned through effort and vision. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. What matters is who you are. A leader embodies the principle that all work is service. Time and time again, a good leader proves his servitude and sacrifice, never asking for recognition or reward. The only reward a good leader needs is a thriving, enthusiastic, and competent team producing real results and creating work of lasting value.
A good leader brings stillness into every room they enter. Theirs is a calming presence. There is enough anxiety, resentment, conflict, and animosity inherent in any endeavor – no need to add to the problem. A leader’s role is to bring balance to imbalance, stability to instability, and medicine to dis-ease. A leader is a healer, a reconciler, and a builder of bridges. By modeling the consciousness of serenity and peace, a good leader deflates the self-righteousness of the messiahs, mollifies the aggression of the combatants, and soothes the wounds of the aggrieved. Peace begins in recognizing responsibility and acknowledging one another’s perceptions. But it only really grows in common ground. A leader looks for ways to establish and honor our shared mission, our complementary differences, and our common humanity. We are not our roles – we are human beings, struggling under the weight of a host of difficult demands at home and at work. A good leader draws our attention to what’s right, what’s working, and what’s better than it used to be. We already know what’s not working – it’s demoralizing to keep being reminded. Instead, good leaders help their teams slow down and relax, leaving space in which exploration, innovation, and accomplishment can arise. Peace equals progress.
            A good leader is emotionally intelligent. It really helps to be talented, smart, and insightful. But none of that matters if your virtues are eclipsed by emotional dysfunction. A good leader is compassionate, empathetic, perceptive, disciplined, playful, principled, and merciful. Trading enemies lists for the spiritual practice of continual forgiveness, good leaders grow beyond the consciousness of resentment, simplistic narratives of heroes and villains, and reductionist interpretations of complex, nuanced scenarios. They see past the self-serving black and white world of the emotionally wounded. A good leader is an optimist, honoring the best in themselves and others in even the darkest of times.      
In your family, in your classroom, in your committee, in your team, in your band, or in your boardroom, think about how these seven characteristics of good leadership apply. If you work alongside a leader, help them lead. If you are a leader, know this – you set the tone for your team. Who we are and how we walk into a room speaks volumes and sets patterns long before the PowerPoint presentation begins. Real leadership doesn’t come from the intellect with its data and talking points. Those are just the bricks. Real leadership is the mortar we use to bind it all together, made from the virtues of our character. The best leaders never set out to become leaders – they rose from the ranks on the loft of their uncompromising personal excellence. Despite the prevailing cynicism of our times, virtue is still recognized and rewarded, amplifying like echoes in a canyon. Just show up, do good work, hold a high vision for what’s possible, trust people, and get out of their way.    

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Braincalming

Brainstorming works wonders. When we let loose a flood of ideas, freely associating and playfully combining anything and everything that comes along, we often see past old boundaries and discover solutions to vexing problems. The stream of consciousness becomes a torrent that blasts through every snag.
If brainstorming opens formerly clogged channels, then what is braincalming?
Braincalming shifts us into a state of ease and placidity, trading frenetic energy for generative stillness. As the stream of consciousness settles and gathers in pools, real reflection becomes possible. When you’re talking, it’s hard to hear. When storms are raging, it’s hard to see straight.
When faced with an intractable problem, a stalled creative endeavor, a relationship snag, or any other kind of challenge, try one or more of these braincalming techniques and see if solutions arise on their own out of the depths of stillness.

Go Outside
Get away from your desk, your device, your office, your car, and step out under the sky. Leave the world of human machinations behind and return to the natural realm. For hundreds of thousands of years we lived outside. Rooms with ceilings are a recent invention on the long-term scale of human evolution. Electric light was invented yesterday. So many of us have lost touch with the elemental world that gave birth to us. Somehow, when we walk in the wind and stand under the sky, something shifts in us and we lean a little more willingly into the unknown. Held in the embrace of a wide, unobstructed horizon with the infinite space above, the impossible begins to seem possible.
Watch a hawk spiraling on an updraft. See how she chooses her flight line – a perfect synthesis of effort and effortlessness, assertion and submission. See a green leafed cottonwood tree in a dry creek bed, and know the sustenance running just beneath the surface of all things. Find a crow feather in a field of boulders and feel with your own hands the harmonious union of rigidity and delicacy. Such is the range of the manifest world. In the face of these apparent contradictions we come to peace with our own paradoxical nature.  

Sleep
Most Americans suffer from significant sleep deprivation. The results of this easily-remedied deficit are well documented – moodiness, irritability, diminished cognitive function, weakened immunity, relationship problems, stress, anxiety, depression, increased drug and alcohol dependency, just to name a few. And it gets worse – some estimates claim that 5,000-6,000 traffic fatalities a year are caused by drivers asleep at the wheel. Sleep deprivation endangers us all and unnecessarily complicates our lives. If you think that sleep is cutting into your productivity, you’re wrong. It’s the other way around. Sleep deficit chokes your output and steals your happiness. Depriving yourself of the enormous health benefits of sleep is a sure way to drastically reduce your quality of life across the board. It’s a perfect example of how stillness feeds us in ways activity never can.

Spiritual Practice
In longevity studies, researchers have identified a rather small number of factors that most contribute to long, healthy, happy lives. One of the most consistent is religion. And it doesn’t matter which one, or how traditional. It’s simple really – when people believe in God or some kind of higher power, they move into a more peaceful relationship with the conditions and circumstances of their lives. In spiritual or religious consciousness, you know that your ego doesn’t run the world. You relax. You do your part and let go of the rest. I know this is not what atheists like to hear. They gravitate toward the claim that religion is what’s destroying the world on an individual and global basis. Negatively judging the legitimacy of a metaphysical claim by the idiotic actions of a tiny minority of zealots is not only short-sighted, it’s demonstrably, logically unsupportable. The vast majority of people living within the guidance of any particular religion live lives of community, compassion, pluralism, and tolerance. We’re not arguing about the definition or existence of God – we’re simply noticing that an extremely beneficial shift in consciousness occurs when we surrender to the grace of the universe and allow it to do what it does so well – support us. Nor does any of this have anything to do with the tiresome arguments about which religion is the right one. Most of us have moved way past that. We’re simply recognizing that spiritual practice in all its forms moves us from the agitation of self-will and into the wide-open willingness of serenity.

Got Art?
Nothing calms, emboldens, and enlarges the soul like beauty. Art, in all its forms, celebrates the mystery of existence and calls us to our higher sensibilities. Some media like literature and poetry use words while other media like painting and sculpture uses color, line, form, shape, and composition. Film uses both, and more. But the real thrill of art is its inherently seditious nature. It defies the very forms it employs by making us see past the surface and feel the depth of our own lives – something we have been desperately longing to feel. Art brings us home to ourselves and leaves us awash in the stillness of our own infinite value. We know more now, we feel more. We see a little farther. And we take this empowerment into our moral action, our loving-kindness, and our willingness to talk less about the problems and move more into the embodiment of solutions.
In his poem The Great Wagon, 12th century Persian poet Hafiz wrote, “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty/and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study/and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument./Let the beauty we love be what we do./There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Whether we play a musical instrument or not, music has the capacity to break us out of the captivity of our own thought-cage.  Listen to music that has power and meaning for you. Let it lift you like wind lifts a wing. Let it carry you over your worries and endless mind-puzzles. As Beethoven reminds us, “Music is a revelation higher than all wisdom and philosophy.”

Braincalming
There’s more. But you know the rest. Eat better. Move your body. Get out of your isolation. Trust community. Travel. Take risks. Trade safety for love. Give away whatever it is you want to receive. Learn, again and again, the art of letting go. In these ways and others we move out of the maelstrom of thought-addiction and into the serenity of the eye of the hurricane – a place of calm and stillness where we finally see and feel our authenticity rising up through the cracks of the chaos of our former lives.