Monday, October 3, 2016

The Three Truths

Life is dizzyingly complex. It’s easy to feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed. So many conflicted voices clamoring for our attention – it seems impossible to cut through the clutter and find the essence. But in the end there are only three truths: impermanence, presence, and love.
On the surface, everything’s impermanent. Nothing lasts. All forms arise and fade. Not only does every wisdom tradition attest this truth, but more importantly, we see it confirmed in our own experience over and over again. There is a graceful fluidity to the process of becoming and be-going that makes life achingly beautiful. But it’s also true that impermanence sparks continual suffering. Everything we touch slips away. For the 2nd century Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius this unimpeachable fact was liberating – our impermanence frees us to more fully live in the moment and truly enjoy our lives. Even as Emperor he knew his fame and importance was illusory and fleeting. His writings are filled with the names of previous luminaries – Augustus, Caesar, Plato, and the question: Where are they now? Reduced to dust. One day we will be lowered into our grave, and all the mourners standing around will one day be lowered into their graves as well, and their loved ones after that, until many, many years from now no one will know any of our names. It will be as if we were never here. The whole world will come to an end. Far from lamenting this, Marcus Aurelius suggests we look with clear eyes at this truth so that we might live with authenticity, courage, and enjoyment. An awareness of impermanence drives us into the depths of the significance of this now moment. This is, after all, all there is.
When we fully acknowledge, accept, and even celebrate the transitory nature of all things, we are freed of our debilitating attachment to any of them. Coming out of the mind and its endless dissatisfactions, desires, and fears we show up disarmed and awake in the simple, uncluttered, and concept-free awareness of this present moment. No longer enamored with the thought-world, we fully enter the real world. Even our sense of self is amended – we experience ourselves not as a separate entity, cut off and alienated from the whole, but as an egoless aspect of the whole. This is a freedom the conceptual mind can only imagine.
Through practices such as meditation, contemplation, reverie, aesthetic rapture, and immersion in nature we begin to experience for ourselves a realm of being formerly hidden from us – the background beneath the surface of the fleeting surface of impermanence. This abiding presence was always with us – in fact, it is us. It has many names in the world’s wisdom traditions – Inner Christ, Buddha-Consciousness, Atman, Inner Witness, Holy Spirit – and yet no name can fully describe or contain this depth-reality. It eludes our conceptualization and defies any attempt to clothe it in language. All of our words and concepts merely point to it the way a trail sign points to the path ahead. The sign is not the destination, the menu is not the food, and the map is not the place – yet we rely on these referents to show us where we need to direct our active engagement, knowing that when you walk the trail you leave the signpost far behind.
One thing that all the sages and seers report, and a claim we can confirm in our own experience, is the idea that this nameless presence hidden just beneath the surface of the fleeting world of forms is silent, still, abiding, and changeless. Unlike the world of surface forms, it never wavers. It hovers beyond all qualities, categories, processes, and concepts. It just is. And in its stillness it seems apart from the impermanent realm. Calling it permanent is probably excessive and unnecessary – we should avoid calling it anything. Names and concepts distort more than they reveal. But what we’re left with is this – it feels like something. We may not be able to think it, but we sure experience it. There’s a deep, abiding stillness and peace in the presence. We experience an aliveness here, a sense of refuge, and a loving warmth. It’s easy to see why in many belief systems this sacred background, this abiding presence gets personified as a deity, and how teachings, doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and institutions spring up around this primarily experiential awareness. You can call it God if you want to. But you don’t have to. It is possible to remain in the presence of this abiding, underlying reality without clothing it in language, concepts, or religious ideologies.
If we had to name the feeling we have when we realize this presence, we’d probably just say “love.”
Love is the only word left standing after we’ve eliminated all the others. Of course it too is inadequate. But it’ll do.
The most immediate and acute way to experience this for yourselves is in the wake of the death of a loved one. Your beloved is gone. They took form, graced your life, and have now returned to the formless realm. And yet in their absence, you feel more keenly than ever before their presence and the absolute love that you shared. Love is unaffected by the passage of time and the transience of forms. Love is the name of the infinite field out of which forms arise and to which they return.
Armed with these three truths – impermanence, presence, and love – we return to the battlefield of our lives full of humility, yet brave enough to take a stand and do what needs to be done. Love is our power now, and love overcomes every fear, every foe, every lie, and every limitation. We see clearly the beauty and pathos of these lovely, fleeting forms around us. We accept the changes that we and everything else are going through. We no longer cling to the past or crave private happiness. We simply intend the best outcomes, and work diligently to bring them about, letting go of attachment and practicing deep-tissue acceptance of whatever comes our way.
We cultivate a practice of conscious intentionality. We live our lives on purpose. We leave time and space for reverie, joy, meditation, prayer, contemplation, and connection, knowing that these are the windows through which the sacred presence behind the veil of impermanence floods into our lives like sunlight after a storm. No matter what is happening in the outer world, we remain aware of the sacred background, the stillness and silence of our inner being.
Love and only love enables us to withstand the suffering brought on by impermanence. In our pain we reach inside to touch the presence within and are in an instant restored. Love is who we are, what we are, and what everything is. When we live and have our being in love, we are on the beam and held aloft from darkness, ignorance, and meaninglessness. In love we rise to our full stature as beings of infinite value. And we fall in love with the whole messy, beautiful world.     

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Drop of Ink

When you put a drop of ink in a clear glass of water, the whole glass goes dark. When you put a drop of ink in the ocean, nothing happens. A tiny dot of darkness is no match for the immensity of the sea.
So too the smallest slight can darken our whole world. Does an unkind word from a colleague ruin your day? When a driver changes lanes in front of you without using their turn signal do you see red? When a loved one overlooks an opportunity to shower you with love and attention, do you construct a grimly exaggerated narrative that they don’t love you anymore? These drops of ink, these trigger moments, have the capacity to cloud our minds and shift us into sadness and anger. What if there were a way to defend ourselves from these useless and self-destructive interludes? There is. And it begins with a better understanding of the nature of consciousness.
We use the word consciousness to refer to the entire cluster of awareness and cognition known as the mind – all of our memories, our emotions, our understandings, our concepts, our beliefs, our perceptions, our capacities, our fears, our aspirations, and our sense of self. In its broadest sense, consciousness is not housed solely in the brain. Each of the 100 trillion cells that make up our body are in a way conscious, if by conscious you mean aware, for each of our cells is in communication with the cells around it, sending and receiving signals and making decisions based on shared information. Cells make decisions the way flocks of geese make decisions – one turns, they all turn. This requires a great deal of attentiveness and responsiveness – in a word, consciousness.
So consciousness isn’t a thing – it’s a phenomenon, a happening, a cluster of interdependent events. Given its cloud-like structure, it’s difficult to talk in simplistic terms of cause and effect. Rather, everything is causing everything without boundary, beginning, or end. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and…
When new experiences occur – a co-worker’s unkind word, an inconsiderate driver’s slight, a distracted lover’s momentary apathy – we experience that event through the grid of our worldview, a narrative so well established that it takes on the air of truth, despite the fact that it is largely fictional. We perceive everything through the filter of our preconceptions, judgments, and assumptions. Nothing gets through unfiltered. As the Jewish book of wisdom the Talmud points out, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
There are many pieces to the puzzle of consciousness, but a few stand out. One is our woundedness. We have a knack for remembering every insult, every hurt feeling, and every rejection. Positive events don’t seem to make it to long-term memory as well as the bad stuff does. So understandably we become hypervigilant at scanning the horizon for any possible incoming harm, keeping our defenses raised. This ardent self-protection closes us off from the imperfection of others, thereby diminishing our capacity for mercy and compassion. Instead, we are quick to criticize the failings of others, unaware that it is our own weakness, incompletion, and underdevelopment that most irks us. Somewhere along the way our ego learned to bolster its own importance by pushing others down. When we condemn the other, we feel a momentary flush of superiority. But it is short lived, and the beast must be continually fed. We grow crueler and more aloof, falling further and further into a pit of judgment and isolation.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this morass. It’s called meditation.
When we practice meditation, we slow down and slip through the gaps between thoughts and sink into the boundless stillness of awareness itself, a region beyond language and concepts. Here we realize that we are not our thoughts – we are their witness. This simple shift is enormously significant. The instant you realize that you are not your thoughts, they lose their grip on you. In a word, you’re free. And with that freedom comes an abiding sense of joy and well-being. You realize that joy is not something you seek, it’s something you are. It is your natural, innate state. All that’s required is the removal of the hindrances that hide our joy from our sight, namely, the illusory narrative of the thought-stream. No persuasive essay can accomplish this shift. You can’t be talked into it. You simply have to experience it for yourself. Then, by the unimpeachable authority of your own experiential awareness, you will know.
When you begin to spend a little time in the boundlessness, you carry a piece of it with you wherever you go – into the workplace, into traffic, and into your relationships. Then, when the slights occur, and they will, you’re better equipped to perceive them correctly and in proper proportion. You will no longer exaggerate their power. A drop of ink has no power over the sea. You will respond to them wisely, kindly, mercifully, compassionately, and everyone walks away unharmed. This is how we build peace, both in our relationships, and in the whole world.
It’s as if by slipping down into the infinite stillness beneath the separate ego, you realize your identity with the one ground of being that informs all things. From the perspective of this vast field of awareness everything slips into its rightful place. The final illusion fades – the mistaken notion that consciousness is a private possession, existing in isolation from everything else. Instead of a glass of water, you’re the vast, immeasurable sea. When a drop of ink falls in, the waters do not darken. The ink has no power here.
All of these claims are wordlessly verified in the depths of our own awareness when we grow still enough to slip loose from the grip of our thought-structures. This cannot be achieved by thinking, no matter how beautiful, deep, and profound our thoughts. This level of awareness has nothing to do with thought. It is pure awareness itself, content-free, and silent. The more we talk about it, the further away from it we go. It cannot be explained, only experienced.
You have a choice to make – continue suffering, or heed the call coming from deep within your own soul to move toward healing. By incorporating a simple meditation practice into your life, you begin to experience a softening of the symptoms of your discontent. The world will gradually, steadily right itself. Meditation won’t answer all your questions or solve all your problems, but it will move you to a place where your questions and problems no longer have the same disruptive power they used to have. You will no longer see yourself as tiny and insignificant, isolated from the totality of it all. You will feel in your bones a deep aliveness and wellness lifting you over all chasms and obstacles. From this new stance of increasing wholeness and freedom you’ll be better able to create the life you deserve with the people you love, and with the sea of strangers around you.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Third Buddha

For twenty five centuries people all over the world have been inspired by the wisdom of a 4th century B.C.E. teacher named Siddhartha Gautama who, through his own meditation practice, woke up. As Siddhartha traveled around India and taught for fifty years people asked him, “Are you a guru? Are you a saint? Are you a god?” He would simply answer, “I am awake.” In Sanskrit, the word for “awake” is budh – Siddhartha became known as the Buddha, the one who woke up.

              At the core of Buddhism is this central claim – normal, everyday awareness is a kind of sleep, a conditioned state of consciousness that, it turns out, isn’t very conscious at all. But the good news is, like Buddha, we too can wake up. Buddhism shows us how.

              First, we must acknowledge that life as it is normally lived is characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction. Second, we must come to understand that our suffering and dissatisfaction has a cause, namely, our own cravings and attachments. Third, we must see that if we released our cravings and attachments, our suffering would decrease. And fourth is the Eightfold Path: eight suggestions for changing the way we think, speak, and act. If we follow these suggestions, our self-obsession would decrease, thereby decreasing our suffering. We would move closer toward nirvana, that state of consciousness where the agitation of fear and craving is replaced by the stillness of clarity and insight. Then we would awaken.

              When Buddha died his students struggled to codify and record his teachings and practices. Disagreements arose, splitting his followers into two groups: Theravada and Mahayana. As in the development of early Christianity, core questions fueled the dissent: Who was the Teacher? How should we regard him? Should we emulate his life and embody his teachings, or worship and revere him?

              As a way of approaching these challenging questions, a Mahayana doctrine called trikaya (three forms) developed. Although Buddha-nature is a singular reality, it manifests itself in three distinct forms. The first is nirmanakaya, the physical form, the flesh and blood man Siddhartha. The second is sambhogakaya, the spiritual form of the Buddha that inhabits the celestial realm where he receives our devotion and answer our prayers. The third form is Dharmakaya, the universal form that permeates all reality, including us. In this third sense, everything is Buddha-nature, an ultimate reality beyond the reach of the conceptual mind, but experienced in the awakened state.

              So which of the three Buddhas is the most important – the physical Buddha, the celestial Buddha, or the universal Buddha? It depends on your temperament. For the more devotional among us, the second Buddha has enormous appeal; a sacred power above and outside of us capable of hearing our prayers and offering supernatural assistance. But for the more philosophical and introspective among us, it is the third Buddha that holds sway; the idea that all matter, energy, and consciousness is already Buddha-nature, and we have only to awaken to this reality. In this scenario, the dynamic of spiritual seeking shifts. It turns out there is nothing to seek, nowhere to go, and nothing to become – we’re already there, and we’re already That. The purpose of our spiritual practice is to remove the hindrances that prevent us from realizing our intrinsic Buddha-hood. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”
               This is what it means then to awaken -- to come out of the fog of confusion and claim our rightful place in the clarity of this present moment. We are in the Kingdom of Heaven. We never left. We only dozed off for a little while and forgot where we were. Follow Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad is a beginning. But we must be willing to take the next step -- as the embodiment of Dharmakaya or Buddha-nature -- becoming who we have always been. As Japanese Dominican priest Father Oshida put it, "We are not called to be like Christ, but to be Christ." The third Buddha is us.

[This piece was originally published in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]