Monday, April 27, 2015

The Rising Lotus

[This piece originally appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2015 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]
The lotus flower is a powerful visual metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. Rooted in the mud beneath the pond, the stem rises up through the water, breaking through the surface and blossoming into startling beauty. To the casual eye, the exquisite refinement of the lotus blossom seems superior to the muck at the bottom of the pond. But in contemplation we come to know that there is no hierarchy between the mud, the water, and the rarefied air – each proves to be an essential environment for the unfolding.
The lotus blossom is not an alien visitor from a transcendent world. Its vibrant color and delicate form are simply an expression of the root, hidden deep beneath the mud at the bottom of the pond. Sure, the flower gets all the attention. But where would it be without its formative period? Our analytical mind divides the process into parts and stages, even imposing preference for one stage over the others. But the fact remains – each stage contains all the other stages. We are witness to a seamless unfolding not of sections, but of an indivisible unity.
Enlightenment, it turns out, is our natural, innate state. But in the depths of gestation, it’s easy to forget our original nature.
In the Indian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism the lotus stands as a wordless lesson – we are all on the way to our fullest realization, and our highest manifestation exists already within us in embryonic form.
Awakening is not becoming something we’re not – it’s becoming what we already are. Our dawning realization is a birth process – we are all at once the mother, the midwife, and the newborn. And as with childbirth, there is little to be done other than to ensure that optimal conditions exist within which the natural process can unfold on its own.
How then can we give birth to our highest, most fully-realized state? By what steps can we become more empowered? A lotus plant can live for thousands of years. We don’t have that much time.
Here’s a shortcut that could save you years of needless searching: Empowerment is not acquiring power you did not previously have; empowerment is uncovering power you had all along. You don’t need anything. You only need to remove obstacles. We become who we are, wrote Meister Eckhart, “not by a process of addition, but by a process of subtraction.”
In the great hero myths of all cultures, the hero finally uncovers his or her power when all of the stultifying comforts – misunderstood as supports – are stripped away. It is only by dying to our previous stages of existence that we are reborn into our newly revealed authentic expression.
The obstacles to our empowerment are many. It’s naïve to ignore external conditions like poverty, violence, trauma, and the debilitating stress they cause. But where we can often do the most immediate good is by claiming our freedom to assert new thoughts in response to these vexing conditions. In his landmark book Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl noted that among his fellow inmates at Auschwitz, the ones who survived all shared a common characteristic – they imposed meaning where there was none. Out of the depths of their being they mustered the will to live and a genuine optimism despite unbearable conditions.
In Camus’s analysis of the Greek myth of Sisyphus we see a similar theme. Sisyphus had been condemned for eternity to roll a large rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down while he slept. Every morning he rose to commit the same futile task. Yet Sisyphus overcame the absurdity of his existence through a sheer act of will. He could have succumbed to the apparent meaningless of existence, but by his willingness, courage, and perseverance he transcended his fate.  
Empowerment is an inside job. It begins with a decision. “Once you make a decision,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the universe conspires to make it happen.” What if our awakening were inevitable? What if the end was already assured and we had only to attend to the means? What if our limited thinking is the biggest hindrance to our empowerment?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wisdom, Incorporated

What is Wisdom?
Wisdom isn’t an idea. It isn’t a doctrine or a belief. It isn’t a theory or an ideology calling for our consent.
            Wisdom isn’t a product to be bought or sold. You can’t possess it or hold it.
            Philosophy, religion, and art point to it, but they cannot contain it.
            Wisdom lies outside all ideological boundaries and conceptual frameworks. It can never be conveyed with words or teachings. Yet words and teachings point the way.
Like water, wisdom is impossible to hold. Like air it is impossible to see. And like water and air, we can’t live without it.
            How can something so elusive be so essential?
            The good news is this – wisdom is not mysterious. It is not distant, arcane, or esoteric. It is nearer to us than the blood in our veins.
            Wisdom is simple as sunrise and rich as rain.
Wisdom is a way of being in the world.
Wisdom belongs to the body, to the wholeness of what we are. It rolls through our bones like a seismic wave. It brightens our sight from the inside. It lifts our feet when the path is true. We do not gain wisdom, learn wisdom, or understand wisdom – we embody wisdom. We incorporate it into the very fiber of our being. We become wisdom.
Wisdom is what we are when we finally learn how to let go of our illusions.
The tree of wisdom has many fruits – humility, simplicity, love, willingness, and freedom. One taste is proof enough that it is real.

Parting the Curtain
Immersion in the world’s wisdom traditions takes you on a surprising trajectory. What at first seemed convoluted and contrived becomes simple and innocent. What at first seemed dry and doctrinaire becomes limber and poetic. Rules and creeds give way to the immediacy of wordless knowing. More and more you come out of thinking and into being. You finally start to see through the curtain and realize that wisdom is vast, formless, and unlike ordinary knowledge.
Knowledge is full of concepts, analogies, propositions, and finite rational sequences. Wisdom is empty and infinite.
Knowledge is the weather. Wisdom is the sky.

Closing the Gap
If wisdom is the content-free awareness of how to live well, then how do we gain wisdom? How can we close the gap between our messy, chaotic life and the promise wisdom offers? How do we move out of these clouds of confusion, suffering, and dysfunction and into the clearing of joy, freedom, and wellness? The journey begins and ends in humility.
We must first admit our ignorance. We must first admit that all of our ideas about everything are second-hand. After a great house cleaning of belief, superstition, unexamined assumptions, and self-serving delusions we stand empty handed at the edge of a great wilderness. We respect the past and the well-intentioned teachers we’ve known. But we start fresh.
We start walking.
And if we are willing enough the entire universe conspires in our favor. The right books, the right people, and the right situations show up just when we need them most. They shine light on the tender shoots of our budding insights, nurture our dawning realizations, encourage our virtues, and embolden our convictions. Sometimes this divine assistance manifests as loss and destruction. Old forms are torn asunder to release the energy and raw materials necessary for the miracles ahead.
Wisdom knows a lot about letting go. Soon enough, we do too. As our old understandings (which were just opinions anyway) turn to ash, we are freed to see anew. The world opens up to us as a beautiful, grace-filled place of abundance and healing. Even our sorrow slips into its rightful place in the grand unfolding. We stop craving pleasure and distraction. It is enough to breathe, and be a part of it all. How could we ask for more? We come to gradually know, not in our minds, but in our bones, that we are O.K., and that this is enough.

Wisdom Incorporated
We had it wrong all along. We mistakenly believed that wisdom was a kind of knowledge, a cadre of secrets that would solve our riddles and cure our confusions. We can be forgiven for this naiveté. How can the unwise know what wisdom is?
            Through direct experience we come to know the simple truth – wisdom is not advice, or rules, or someone else’s idea of the good life. Wisdom is a lived realization that defies expression. We can sing about it, dance about it, point at it with painting, film, poetry, and music. But whatever “it” is, it eludes our conceptual grasp. We cannot think wisdom, we can only be wisdom.
            When we incorporate wisdom, that is, hold it in our corporeal form, we embody it and feel its thrum in all of our energy systems – the wisdom of digestion, the wisdom of perception, the wisdom of cognition, the wisdom of emotion, the wisdom of intuition, the wisdom of loving-kindness, the wisdom of willingness, the wisdom of pain, the wisdom of healing, the wisdom of action, the wisdom of reciprocity – in short, the wisdom of our inter-being. For we are not alone. Our being is everything’s being. We exist in a continuum of causation that entwines all consciousness, matter, and energy – what the theistic religions call God. But no matter what your faith-family of origin or current belief system, the fruit of wisdom is the same – a well-lived life.
            Wisdom doesn’t mean you have all the answers. But you move more graciously through the questions. Wisdom doesn’t set you free from the pain of being alive. But it teaches you that suffering is optional. Wisdom doesn’t set you above anyone else, in fact, it destroys all hierarchies. Wisdom doesn’t make you rich. But it shifts your understanding of wealth and success. Wisdom doesn’t make you clever and powerful. But it sharpens your mastery in the midst of a deep acceptance of the messiness of life.
            Letting go of the notion that wisdom is a thing to be coveted and grasped, we are free to move into its influence, the way a sailboat finds favorable wind when it heads in the right direction. Loose hand on the tiller, eyes on the horizon, and joy in the heart – this is the wisdom incorporated.        

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Power of Silence

There is just so much noise.
We are limitless in our capacity to fill the silence with so much clutter that even God can no longer hear himself. If there is a God I mean. Why don’t we debate that again. That sounds fun.
Humans invented writing about 5,000 years ago. But we’ve been talking for far longer than that. No one knows when humans first formed words with our mouths. 50,000 years ago? 100,000 years ago? But one thing’s for sure – once we started, we never stopped. That’s a lot of chit chat.
It cannot be denied that language and its capacity to externalize thought has been a tremendously transformative development in human evolution. The art of language has in many ways unlocked the cage door and released us into wider and wider freedoms. Yet it is also true that words trap us in limited and limiting definitions, squeezing the uncarved whole of the experiential realm into lifeless categories and concepts. Language promises freedom, then becomes another prison. Words obscure as much as they reveal. The more we talk, the more we feel the essence of this mysterious existence slipping away.

From Concepts to Conflict

In many creation myths, primal man is given the task of naming the world. In Genesis 2 Adam gives names to all the animals. In the Mayan Popul Vuh, God goes through several iterations of proto-humans before he arrives at the final model, one that could finally remember and say his name. The ability to allot a word to every little thing in creation seems primary to the formation of human consciousness. But this great gift costs us something. By naming the world we also ascribe hierarchy, setting all things in opposition to each other. This is especially evident when we divide humanity into ethnicities, races, and tribes. These are of course useful concepts, to a point. But they too readily facilitate conflict. The words we call ourselves, and the words we call each other, like flags, set us into unavoidable strife. When we identify more with our tribe than with the whole of humanity, when we lose our capacity to empathize and see our unity, we descend into ethnocentrism, racism, hatred, genocide, and war.
Twentieth century teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti put it this way: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why this is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”
It is in this same spirit that John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.” Language, concepts, and categories kill.

The Illusion of Self
Once we cut the whole of the world into parts, we didn’t stop there – we turned the blade on ourselves. When human consciousness became conditioned to hierarchical multiplicity rather than unity, it’s only natural that self-awareness would calcify into ego, becoming the ruling monolith of our lives. Words like I, me, and mine create a fiction – a phantom of enormous power. As Spiderman reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. But the ego has yet to embody that wisdom. Instead, the ego exerts most of its energy on self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and criticism of others. It takes responsibility for nothing. If everybody else is wrong then I am, by default, right.
Everybody’s a critic. Emmet Fox wrote that, “Criticism is an indirect form of self-boasting.” By pointing out everything that’s wrong with everything and everyone around us, we construct solidity. We know who we are by knowing what we are against.
And then there’s our meticulous tallying of every perceived slight. In his book Grace and Grit philosopher Ken Wilber writes that, “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.”  It’s important to bring this process out of the shadows of unconsciousness and into the light. Notice how we use our perceived woundedness and victim status as glue to hold our fictional self together. What if we let go of our tired grievances? Who would we be without our resentments and self-righteousness? For many people, that question is simply too frightening to consider. But the answer is simple. We would be free.

The Power of Silence
            There is an alternative to this madness. And it is nearer to us than our jugular vein.
            The first thing we need to do is stop. Just stop.
            Stop clothing every experience, every passing impression, every iota of awareness in language. You don’t have to name everything. You don’t have to reduce every dynamic and nuanced experience to a concept. You don’t have to compare and judge everything on some arbitrary and self-serving hierarchical scale. Let it be. Learn to be still. There is a Zen Buddhist saying: “Don’t seek enlightenment. Just get rid of all your opinions.”
            Meditation is a good idea. By practicing the art of silence and no-thinking, we learn to slip beneath the waves of our incessant thought stream and descend into the depths of our own stillness. Each of us carries an infinite boundlessness within us. It goes by various names in the world’s many wisdom traditions – Atman, Buddha-consciousness, the Kingdom of Heaven. But they all agree. It is not somewhere out there. It is within us.
            It is what we are.
            We do not have to struggle to become something different. We have only to let fall away the hindrances that inhibit our awareness of our primal oneness. “God is not attained by a process of addition to the soul,” wrote 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, “but by a process of subtraction.” What we must subtract is the busy mind and its addiction to language and concepts. What we do is so much more important than what we think. Who we are is so much more important that what we say. Instead of delivering a learned treatise on theology or arguing yet again with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus knelt and washed feet.
            And didn’t say a word.

Friday, February 27, 2015


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

An attitude is a portrait of the world painted in colors drawn from our hopes and fears, framed by our expectations and assumptions. Mesmerized by the picture, we forget that we are the artist. As Shakespeare wrote, life is neither good nor bad, only “thinking makes it so.”
Thinking that we see things as they really are is the most injurious hindrance of all. As the African proverb says, each of us lives at the bottom of a well. Looking up we see only a tiny blue dot and mistake it for the entirety of the sky.
An attitude is an explanation, a value-laden and limiting description of a vast phenomenal realm. As we construct a worldview out of the infinite array before us, our attitude says more about us than it does about reality. As the Talmud says, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
When you have a negative attitude you are projecting your own fears of scarcity, loneliness, and hopelessness onto the uncarved whole. When you have a positive attitude you are projecting your boundless gratitude, optimism, and loving-kindness onto the uncarved whole. As Buddha said in the opening lines of the Dhamapada, “Our thoughts of yesterday built our life of today. Our thoughts of today build our life of tomorrow. Our life is a product of our thoughts.” The interesting question is not whether we live in a hopeless or hopeful universe. The interesting question is Why do we gravitate toward one explanation over another?
Albert Einstein said that the most important question you need to answer is Do I live in a friendly or a hostile universe? The way you answer this question determines the entire course of your life. If you believe you live in a hostile, dangerous universe a thousand consequences follow – a negative view of human nature, a pessimistic assessment of current conditions, and a powerful expectation of disaster. Everywhere you look you see problems, conspiracies, and failure. If you believe you live in a nurturing, supportive universe a thousand different consequences follow – a hopeful view of human nature, an optimistic assessment of current conditions, and powerful expectation of abundance, healing, and justice. Everywhere you look you see solutions, possibilities, and evidence of our imminent awakening.
A nice play on an old saying comes to mind: “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” becomes, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”
Psychologists call this confirmation bias. We all do it. We exaggerate evidence that supports our preconceptions and dismiss evidence that challenges them. This, from the point of view of critical thinking, is an unmitigated disaster. Turns out the mind loathes one thing above all others – change. It will do anything to stay the same, even distorting inflowing information to suit its needs. Distortion after distortion – it’s a wonder we can think at all.
In 1950 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to a grieving father bereft at the loss of his young son. In an attempt to console him, Einstein proffered a bracing vision of the human condition. “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Here, as many wisdom traditions teach, the alleged limitations of the world are nothing more than limitations within us. We have the power to choose the way in which we see the world. With each elevation in consciousness a new world is revealed. But it isn’t always easy. Nothing beautiful is. In wry recognition of this invigorating freedom and terrifying responsibility Einstein wrote, “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.”
It is for us alone to do the work of seeing past surfaces and laying bare the essential nameless truth, beyond all categories of understanding, hidden in plain sight in this ordinary, wondrous world.