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


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.  

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.”

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.

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 na├»ve 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?