Monday, January 1, 2018

Don't Be Buddha

There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of all self-improvement work: You’re perfect just the way you are, but you could use a little improvement.
            Whether you categorize your self-improvement process as spiritual, religious, secular, psychological, or some combination thereof, the fact remains – something about the way you’re living your life isn’t quite right. You’re stuck in self-defeating cycles. Bad habits keep tripping you up. You’re tired of being angry or afraid or sad all the time. There’s a pervasive sense that the sweet stuff of life is just out of reach and you don’t know how to bridge the chasm. In a word, you’re unhappy.
            And yet you know intuitively that the worst thing you could do is indulge in the downward spiral of self-loathing, the false idea that you’re not good enough, and that you’re broken beyond repair. This kind of negative thinking only throws gasoline on the embers of your despair and helplessness. And upon deeper analysis, self-loathing may be yet another symptom of debilitating self-obsession. Life thrives only where there is love. A healthy, humble dose of self-love heals us from within.
            Teachers and models help. They embody and demonstrate for us the self-discipline, wise choices, and best practices that lead to increasing wellness. If we are willing to be led, teachers lead us toward our best life. In the same way we seek out expertise when we need our hair cut, our car repaired, or our taxes done, so too with maladies of the spirit we seek out discipline-experts who’ve devoted their lives to the soul-healing arts. They know more than we do not because they’re better than us, but because while we were doing other things, they were doing that. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make experts.
            But what should our relationship with our teachers be? This is where it gets tricky.
            Confucius said, “I give a student one corner. If they can’t bring back the other three, I stop teaching,” a profound statement about the teacher-student dynamic if there ever was one. Wisdom can never be packaged and delivered from one person to another. The best a teacher can do is provoke. The student has to do almost all of the work.
            And then there’s this – the dangers of devotion loom large. In the practice of psychotherapy it’s called transference. As the patient feels the fog of neurosis lift they erroneously transfer their elation from the process to the person. But it’s not about the practitioner – it’s about the practice. This is a dire occupational hazard for every healer, minister, guru, therapist, and teacher. Many a teacher and student have fallen prey to the seduction of this delusion. Did even Jesus struggle with transference?
            In chapter 13 of the Gospel of Thomas Jesus asked his disciples to define him.
“You are like a just messenger,” said Simon Peter.
 “You are like a wise philosopher,” Matthew said.
Then it was Thomas’s turn. “Teacher,” Thomas said, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”
            “I am not your teacher,” Jesus said. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”
            Is Jesus the tender of the bubbling spring, or the spring itself? In this metaphor Jesus is not the water, he is the groundskeeper, maintaining a clear channel through which the life-giving water of wisdom can move. His role is to clear blockages and provoke us into openness. This interpretation is clearly out of step with mainstream Christian orthodoxy where we are called into a devotional relationship with Jesus. In traditional Christianity Jesus is the spring, not its tender. Still the deeper question remains: what’s more important, the message or the messenger?
            For both Confucius and Jesus, the onus is on the student to get it right. And for both of them, teachers are initially essential, but ultimately expendable. For Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven” is within us. It is not to be received second-hand from another, but discovered within and realized. No teacher could give it or take it away.
            As a well-educated Jew, Jesus had his mentors too. But if Jesus had conformed perfectly to his teachers and their traditional practices, there would be no Jesus, and no Christianity to boot. Wisdom requires breaking rank with authorities.
            The same holds true for Buddha, the 5th century B.C.E Indian teacher. Born into the ancient tradition of Hinduism, he studied under many gurus and was well-schooled in the wisdom of the Vedas and the science of yoga. But if Buddha had conformed to the demands of his teachers he would never have become the Buddha, and there would be no Buddhism. Great minds don’t follow, they lead.
            Both Jesus and Buddha were shaped by their respective religious traditions. Then they abandoned them. Instead of obedience to others, they obeyed the unimpeachable authority of their own experience. They had the guts to go it alone and trust that Brahman, God, or the universe spoke most clearly through the sound of their own voice.
            It is in this spirit that the 17th century Japanese Zen poet Basho wrote, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old, rather, seek what they sought.”
            So too the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, challenged the elders. They were not content to follow Muhammad – they wanted to be Muhammad; to experience directly the divine as he had.
            Mainstream religions are sometimes described as elaborate institutions constructed around someone else’s religious experience, someone who lived long, long ago. What if we respected, or even revered the teachers of the past, but then went out and had our own spiritual experiences? Buddha didn’t follow anybody. Jesus didn’t follow anybody. Muhammad didn’t follow anybody. Maybe we shouldn’t either.
            In spiritual circles there’s even a thing called the no-guru movement where one abandons all paths, teachers, and teachings. But the “pathless path” has its dangers. If you rely solely on your own experience, with no checks and balances from teachers or a trusted community, you’re vulnerable to confirmation bias and other cognitive errors. Once again, Buddha’s middle path comes to mind. Wary of his student’s propensity for devotional adoration, Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” But he also offered a method, a path.
But don’t try to be Buddha. Be yourself. “Imitation is suicide,” Emerson wrote. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”
            In an old Hassidic tale, Rabbi Zusya was worried that when he got to heaven God would be disappointed in him because he hadn’t been as great as Moses, or David, or Solomon. When Rabbi Zusya finally stood before the Almighty, God's only question was, “Why were you not Zusya?”

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Physician, Heal Thyself

Everyone in the healing professions understands this strange paradox – that they don’t heal their patients. No matter how clever, committed, or well-trained, doctors, nurses, and therapists cannot impose healing from the outside. At their best, they simply co-create the conditions within which our mind-body system can best restore itself to wholeness. We are largely self-regulating systems, in a million ways continually seeking to reset and restore the optimal conditions of our natural design. The only thing healers can do is remove the impediments to this innate process.
            When you cut your finger oozing blood flushes out foreign bodies. As it contacts the air blood begins to coagulate, forming a scab and sealing the wound. White blood cells rush to the area to fight infection. Around the wound blood vessels swell bringing an abundance of oxygen which accelerates healing. Red blood cells help form collagen, a tough connective substance your body uses to build new tissue. As the wound heals beneath the surface, the skin begins to close over the opening. Eventually, it’s as if the cut never happened – we are wholly restored.
And not one single aspect of this complex process is accomplished intentionally.
You do not have to will yourself to heal – it happens without your knowledge or consent. The body restores itself to wholeness. In this sense, we are all physicians.
This same principle is at work in our efforts to heal one another’s broken hearts. When we get the horrible phone call – one of our friends has suffered a sudden and shocking loss – we rush to their side. On the drive over we struggle to find the right words. But how can words buoy us over the depths of our grief? They cannot. Instead, we wander together through the labyrinth of despair and somehow keep breathing. By our presence alone, and through the space we hold together, healing begins to arise.
In Judaism this core principle is formalized in the ritual known as “sitting shiva.” For observant Jews, this shiva (seven) day mourning period ritualizes and facilitates the natural healing that slowly arises after the death of a loved one. For seven days the bereaved stay home and sit in low chairs as close to the ground as possible, signifying the wisdom of coming out of lofty abstraction and settling down into the stability of immediacy. A torn black ribbon is worn, symbolizing the impermanence of forms. All of the mirrors in the home are covered, to shift us away from self-centeredness and toward universal, sacred consciousness. You allow the quiet to envelope you. You let people come and take care of you. Simply being together in the stillness, in a period of focused presence and contemplation, you leave space – space through which the soul’s own healing power can rise up the way ground water seeps into a meadow. Soon, the flowers of our lives will once again bloom.
A century ago missionaries in Africa were on a three-day trek with a group of local tribesmen. On the second day the tribesmen stopped in the early afternoon and began setting up camp.
“Why are we stopping?” asked the missionaries. “It’s still early and everyone appears well.”
“Yes,” replied the tribesman, “but we covered so much ground yesterday, we must rest to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
In our increasingly fast-paced and fragmented lives, it’s more important than ever to create rituals in our lives that, in the words of the tribesmen, allow our souls to catch up with our bodies. Practicing conscious stillness whether in formal meditation or in more spontaneous acts allows our natural restorative processes to convey their many blessings. Maybe healing, health, wealth, and wellness are not achieved as much as they are allowed.
It is not our cleverness or ambition that draws infinite richness into our lives – it is our willingness to leave gaps in our busyness through which it may enter. In this way, we heal ourselves.

 [This piece originally appeared in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.] 

Friday, December 1, 2017

The New Hedonism

Like anyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing pleasure. Whether it was food or other substances, I’ve done my share. And then some. And like anyone else, it’s often bitten me in the ass. The very thing I thought would do me good turned around and did me bad. Turns out, managing pleasure is not so easy.
It feels good to feel good. Naturally, we want more of it. Even a single celled organism swims toward the food and away from the pain. Freud called this universal dynamic the “pleasure principle.” Bentham and Mill called it the “principle of utility” and built an entire ethical system around it known as utilitarianism. And two ancient Greek philosophers, Aristippus and Epicurus, asserted that pleasure was the highest good, and that we were morally obligated to pursue it. The Greek word for pleasure is “hedone.” Their philosophy is called hedonism.
            Hedonism asserts that pleasure not only feels good, it is good. But Aristippus and Epicurus disagreed on the exact nature of pleasure. For Aristippus, all pleasures were equal, and no meaningful distinctions could be made between higher and lower pleasures. When you and I use the word “hedonism,” this is the version of hedonism we usually mean – pleasure for pleasure’s sake, the more the better, the sooner the better, and consequences be damned.
For Epicurus, on the other hand, a more refined definition of pleasure comes into view. In Epicureanism, an important distinction is made between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures engage the senses. Higher pleasures engage the mind and the soul. For Aristippus the pleasure derived from scratching a mosquito bite is morally equivalent to the pleasure derived from reading literature or writing music. Epicurus disagrees. For him, higher pleasures are of a much higher quality than lower pleasures, and are therefore preferable, even if in lesser amount or mixed with pain. Aristippus focuses on quantity, Epicurus on quality. Quantity or quality – what matters most to you?
            For Epicurus and his followers (known as Epicureans), the best life was a simple life of friendship, healthy living, and peace of mind. A good night’s sleep, a clear-headed morning, lucid thoughts, a keen sense of presence, and rich conversation offer deeper pleasure than the wildest evening of excess and revelry. Debauchery and conspicuous consumption, the hallmark of Aristippus’s form of hedonism, have no place in the Epicurean worldview for one simple reason – they do not in fact lead to more pleasure, but less. Sickness, dissipation, strained relationships, and that empty feeling that you’re wasting your life – these hardly qualify as “pleasure” let alone happiness. The well-lived life, Epicurus argued, was a source of deep satisfaction. In simple terms, less is more – restraint of appetite leads to a profusion of happiness. The mechanics of pleasure are more subtle and nuanced than we first imagined.
            Another important consideration in pleasure management is the element of time. How good are you at trading small, short-term pleasure for larger long-term pleasures? The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham called this consideration propinquity – nearness in time. For example, spending your entire paycheck as soon as you get it on fleeting entertainment vs. setting aside 10% of it for larger, more significant purchases in the future, like your next car or a trip to Paris. Either way it’s self-centered hedonism, yet clearly, one is more effective at maximizing pleasure than the other. If you’re really serious about pleasure, you learn how to wait.
            There’s a reason I quit drinking and drugging. There’s a reason I go to bed early and get up early. There’s a reason I read difficult books. There’s a reason I regularly exercise, meditate, and do yoga. There’s a reason I keep my desk neat and clean. There’s a reason I eat healthy, delicious, fresh, and wholesome food in moderate portions. There’s a reason I push myself to do challenging things that stretch me out of my comfort zone. The reason is pleasure. I do all of these things because they greatly increase my happiness. This is the New Hedonism.
            What used to be fun is no longer fun for me. The calculations have deepened and shifted. It’s still all about maximizing pleasure, but my definition of pleasure has changed. What used to be boring and dull is now exciting and bright. A walk through the neighborhood is a thrill. Waking up healthy and alive is a magnificent gift. Being of service is deeply gratifying. The simple grace of living in this miraculous mind-body, in relationship with all of these other innumerable mind-bodies around me, on such a beautiful planet, in this magnificent cosmos, is an inexhaustible stream of joy. By letting go, one by one, of the practices, thought patterns, and habits that no longer served my highest good, I grew simpler and simpler until the essential happiness dormant within each of us began to arise. It’s a process, not a destination. I don’t think I’ll ever be done growing and letting go. But with the loving support of the other awakening people around me, everyday becomes an opportunity to see just how much deeper, how much truer, how much more pleasurable life can become.
            What will the New Hedonism mean for you? What shape will it take?
            What practices, thought patterns, and habits no longer serve your highest good?
            What might a wiser calculation of short term vs. long term pleasure yield?
            What will a clear headed assessment of every source of so-called pleasure show? In the accounting of our own sacred wellness, only the most courageous self-examination will do.
            Without moralizing, without self-loathing, and without reference to any authorities other than your own instinctive good sense, what would careful and loving introspection reveal?
            Let pragmatism be your guide. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, let it go. One by one examine every behavior, every habit, every practice, and every thought-pattern and apply this simple test – does this behavior, habit, practice, or thought-pattern enhance my deep and overall happiness, or does it diminish it? Only you know. And again, without even the slightest appeal to religious authorities, cultural norms, or the opinions of others, ask yourself one simple question – is this enhancing my life or hampering it? Find a healthy balance between willingness to take direction and fierce independence.
            As Socrates reminded us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Without this sort of hard-headed scrutiny, our tendency is to just keep going on and on in the same stultifying patterns. Like sleep-walkers, we shuffle along chasing the same prizes that again and again have led to little more than disappointment and disillusionment. You deserve better. Your soul is asking for more. It’s time to move out of the darkness and into the light.
            As this year comes to a close, re-examine your relationship with pleasure. We love pleasure, and rightly so. All organisms do. Pleasure is good. Pleasure is one of the greatest joys of life. But what kind of pleasure? Only wisdom knows.