Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Buddha likened our normal, everyday awareness to being asleep. Vedanta teaches that the world presented to us by our senses and framed by our conceptual thought is an illusory portrait called maya. And in his letter to the Corinthians Paul said that “we see through a glass, darkly.” For all its boundless potential the mind limits us as much as it empowers us. As the Maitri Upanishad says, our mind is a prison, but the mind is also our liberator.
            There’s nothing “wrong” with our minds. A craftsman never blames his tools. The breakdown comes in the manner in which our tools are used.
            Of all the academic disciplines philosophy is the one most specifically charged with the task of thinking about thinking – an inherently problematic task. Using thought to examine the nature of thought is like trying to see your own eyes – it’s hard because you use your eyes to see. The American philosopher William James said that trying to understand consciousness is like trying to understand the dark by turning on a light – what you hope to examine is obliterated by the act of examination. That’s why the Zen Buddhists counsel us to practice no-thinking, an inelegant term for simple awareness. In contrast to ordinary thinking where the phenomena of the world are run through a mediating filter of preconceived judgments and conceptual structures, simple awareness sees the world as it actually is.
            The irony is this – it’s difficult to keep things simple. As Zen practitioner and Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there you can move mountains.”
            The mountain we have to move is our own monolithic, over-wrought busy-mind. And the method that best moves that mountain is mindfulness.
            The Buddha left behind an eight step process for reducing self-obsession and thereby reducing suffering known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Item number seven is Right Mindfulness. It means gently monitoring and shaping mental content. Simply put it means paying attention. Really paying attention.
            Mindfulness means coming out of the fog of past and future thinking. Mindfulness means dropping the habit of endlessly comparing, judging, craving, and pushing away. Mindfulness means coming out of the agitation of the thought-stream and settling into the serenity of boundless awareness. Instead of fighting anything and everything you move into simple acceptance of what is.        
            The practice of mindfulness may be thousands of years old, but in the modern era it came into prominence largely through the efforts of one man, Boston professor of medicine and Buddhist practitioner John Kabat-Zin.
            After being introduced to Zen Buddhism by renowned teacher Philip Kapleau, Kabat-Zin went on to found the Stress Reduction Clinic and later the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In a brilliant move, he dropped mindfulness meditation’s explicit association with Buddhism and began to refer to it simply as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Buddhist traditionalists weren’t pleased, but Kabat-Zin was right. By teaching thousands of patients and health care professionals to quiet their thoughts and come into present-awareness, he opened the door and changed forever the way the Western medical tradition viewed pain management and the intimate link between consciousness and physical health.
            But it wasn’t until the publication of his ground-breaking and perennially best-selling book Wherever You Go, There You Are in 1986 that Kabat-Zin took mindfulness into the mainstream. Suddenly, millions of us were learning about mindfulness.
            Today there are mindfulness training classes in elementary schools, prisons, sports teams, corporate executive retreats, and medical facilities all over the world – even in Congress where it is perhaps needed most.
            A quick survey of the growing body of research around the efficacy of mindfulness meditation shows that not only does mindfulness reduce stress, it also bolsters the immune system. And the benefits don’t end there. Cardiac recovery patients who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced a 41% reduction in mortality rates compared with those who did not. The connection between mind and body has been irrefutably established.
            But no one saw this coming. It’s one thing to experience reduced stress and improved health as a result of the practice of mindfulness. But now we’ve learned that the transformation goes much deeper. The regular practice of mindfulness spurs the brain into building new neural pathways and circuitry resulting in long-term, permanent benefit. When we give new shape to our thoughts, we give new shape to our brains. And when we transform the instrument with which we process the world, we change the world.
            Twenty five centuries ago the Buddha said, “Our life is a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts of yesterday shape our life of today, and our thoughts today shape our life tomorrow. Our life is a product of our thoughts.” We are learning more and more about how this is true. And more importantly, we can learn to experience this for ourselves.
            Take gratitude.
            The decision to view one’s life through the lens of the consciousness of gratitude instead of fear and scarcity has measurable benefits. When we cultivate gratitude with practices like keeping a daily gratitude journal we create new neural habits. The decision to focus one’s attention on what one does have instead of on what one does not have reaps a harvest of well-being. Not one single thing in the outer world changes. But the way in which one views the outer world will never be the same.
            With the dawning of gratitude, a feeling of freedom and joy gradually replaces the self-obsession, pain, and victim-consciousness so many of us allow to fester in our lives. In the conscious practice of mindfulness we learn a valuable lesson – we are the authors of our own experience. This profoundly empowering insight emboldens us to drop our self-serving narratives as beleaguered combatants and realize our unbreakable communion with all that is. We no longer squander energy resisting what is but instead gain energy by moving into accord with what is becoming. We no longer fight with everyone and everything. We realize that there is no such thing as private happiness, that your well-being and my well-being are one inextricable whole. Our religious views shift, our ethical views shift, our political views shift, and we begin making different decisions as spouses, neighbors, consumers, and citizens.
            By simplifying our minds we simplify our lives. By simplifying our lives we come into immediate contact with the essence of all that is. We are reconnected. We come back home to the vibrant center of our own aliveness. No longer lost in the exile of the thought-stream, we realize the simple truth – who we are and what we are is enough. And the healing begins. 

Your Greatest Treasures

When we think of the word treasure we think of Trump-like wealth, Smaug’s lair, or a buried trunk of pirate booty.
             But upon deeper reflection we realize our real treasure is our loved ones – our children, our spouses, our families, and our friends.
            Yet in the ancient Chinese book of wisdom called the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu offers a very different definition of treasure. In chapter 67 he writes, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. These are your greatest treasures.”
            How are simplicity, patience, and compassion our greatest treasures?
            With each passing day we take on more and more, adding, never subtracting – more property, more commitments, more obligations, more appointments, more expectations. It’s a wonder we can even breathe. The more buried we are under layers of adornment and intricacy, the further we are from our essence. We lose our center and live increasingly in the outer world of thoughts, forms, and accomplishments. All of this busyness sets up a screen through which we try to view the uncarved wholeness of the world. But everything grows cloudy, distant, removed. We end up isolated in a thicket of our own judgments and thoughts. The real world – the people we love, the essential core of life – recedes into the haze. This is the disease of over-thinking and over-complexity. Simplicity is the antidote. As Lao Tzu writes, “In the pursuit of knowledge, everyday something is added. In the practice of the Tao, everyday something is dropped.”
            In his longest speech, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered similar advice. “Do not worry about your life” he said, “what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable then they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
            Simplicity then means simplicity in the outer world as well as simplicity in the inner world. “Simple in actions and in thoughts,” Lao Tzu writes, “you return to the source of being.”
Without lifting a finger we shift into awareness. As the Upanishads of ancient India proclaim, Thou art That – we are already one with the sacred essence of all things. No seeking, no struggle. We have only to grow still enough to allow the realization of unity to rise up from where it is hidden beneath all of our complexes. In this sense then, less definitely is more. The advice Henry David Thoreau offered for hikers in his 1857 journal was no doubt meant in a much broader sense – “The rule is to carry as little as possible.”
            If the first treasure is simplicity, then the second treasure is patience. “Patient with both friends and enemies,” Lao Tzu wrote, “you accord with the way things are.” How does patience put us into accord with the way things are?
            Patience is the virtue of accepting what is. Impatience generates anxiety, suffering, and conflict. Patience generates serenity, joy, and peace. Impatience says no, patience says yes.
            In Vedanta philosophy we often hear the word renunciation. It means relinquishing the illusion of control and coming out of ego-demands and into the consciousness of surrender. Renunciation is the path to awakening and enlightenment. In Buddhist teachings the focus is on non-attachment. Dropping our endless list of cravings and complaints we finally arrive fully alive in this now moment able to experience the depth of our own loving interconnectedness with all that is.
As the contemporary Zen Buddhist teacher John Tarrant puts it, suffering is the phrase “Not this,” while enlightenment is the phrase, “What is this?” The first stance is full of judgment and resistance, the second open-hearted and appreciative.
            Patience then is Lao Tzu’s word for that state of serenity wherein one is content in the present moment, no longer caught by the snare of craving something else. When you are free of expectations, the pace at which things unfold is exactly the right pace.
            And he’s specific about where we are to apply the virtue of patience – toward our friends and enemies. We all know that it is in the realm of human relationships that our serenity is most sorely tested.
            What if instead of silently demanding that everyone conform to our arbitrary expectations, we set them free to be who they are? Why are we so quick to demand our own freedom, and so reluctant to grant theirs? Let others drive the way they’re going to drive. It really is none of our business. Go around.
            This is especially challenging when it comes to our enemies. But in Jesus famous words, “love your enemies,” we hear an even deeper truth – there are no such things as enemies. There are only other people suffering like us, working with incomplete information like us, clouded by storms of chaotic emotions like us, trying to make their way and sometimes saying horrible things and acting in confusingly destructive ways, like us. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best when he wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
            In chapter 15 of the Tao te Ching Lao Tzu writes, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” Patience means leaving the universe enough room to provide you with solutions, mercies, and healings you did not foresee and could not create on your own. In chapter 64 he writes, “Rushing into action you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion you ruin what was almost ripe.”
            The third treasure is compassion. Lao Tzu wrote, “Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” How does self-compassion lead to universal reconciliation? It’s simple. If you cannot experience love, mercy, and forgiveness for yourself, how do you think you can offer these gifts to another? When you learn how to better love yourself, your love for others grows clear, pure, and genuinely nurturing. Still, how does this reconcile all beings in the world? Many of us already understand this: our spiritual awakening is our greatest contribution to world peace. It is through our spiritual growth that the whole world is healed. If one person shows up awake, everything shifts. Imagine if ten of us do, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand?
            Taoism avoids intricate ideology, elaborate doctrine, and complex ritual. Also missing is a specific list of prohibitions or exhortations. Instead, Lao Tzu simply draws us toward what the Zen Buddhists call our “Original Self.” Coming out of our busy minds and into our cores, we know what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why. We just feel it. That’s how great treasures work.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

We're Always Teaching

[A version of this piece originally appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the November/December 2015 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here by permission.]
I remember as a child paying very close attention to my parents, especially when they didn’t think I was. I’d hear them talking in another room. Their words might not have been clear, but I could feel exactly what they were saying.
I’d see their faces fall when bad news came. I’d watch the way they moved around obstacles, or got stuck in the mud of their own worst ideas.
When they took a bold risk, I’d see them draw deep from unseen reserves. When the money was tight, and it almost always was, I’d hear the fear in their voices. I’d see them shed ten years and the weight of the world whenever we camped in the Sierras. To this day, pine trees smell like freedom and grace.
I’d hear my dad breathing hard, leaning against his shovel as he dug a hole for a fruit tree. Then keep digging. I’d see my mom take her lifelong love of sewing and turn it into a business, making dresses for perfumed ladies in Cadillacs. I’d see exuberance pour out of my father’s eyes when he played a Scott Joplin rag on the piano in the living room. I’d see her quiet focus and creativity as my mom turned root vegetables into yet another no-recipe pot of homemade soup. Every Sunday afternoon I’d see my dad on the patio in our backyard with a portable typewriter on his lap, clicking away on double onion skins with carbon paper in between, long letters to both sets of parents back in the Netherlands. On weekdays I’d see my mom’s mood lift as three o’clock rolled around – dad would be getting home from work any minute. I’d watch the smile spread across his face as she kissed him at the door, not every day, but often enough. I’d feel their love and respect for each other as they shared a daily cup of afternoon tea.
I saw all of this when they didn’t think I was watching.
            We think we have the biggest impact on our kids when we make earnest speeches, but most of what our kids learn from us happens all around the edges of our careful lesson plans and ardent moralizing. They study us when we’re busy, caught up in the dance of our own lives, unaware that we’re being watched. As parents, who we are is so much more important than what we say.
            How do you handle adversity? Do you crumble at the slightest incline in the road? When things go wrong, do you look for someone to blame? Or do you simply get to work? When we bear down on our problems, we teach our children about the immeasurable freedom released in the exertion of discipline and resolve. And by simply deciding to work around obstacles, we demonstrate the power of thought. A problem becomes a challenge, a challenge an opportunity, an opportunity a solution, and a solution an unforeseen blessing. By simply re-clothing the events of our life in new thought, we turn scarcity into abundance.
            But explanations of these insights simply won’t do. We must embody them, model them, and prove their worth in the daily trials of our lives. Only then will our children come to mirror and embody these values for themselves.
            How do you treat the waiter when he gets the order wrong? How do you negotiate a dispute with your neighbor about who should pay for the tree service or the fence construction? How well do you weather criticism from a supervisor or a sibling? How do you react when the cat throws up on the rug, again?
            What do you spend your money on? How do you spend your time? What are the topics of your idle chatter? We know this – you spend your time, money, and energy on things you value. Your values are on glaring, continual display. Any child can see them.
            As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And our children are always watching.