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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Seven Best Things

There are many wondrous things to behold in this brief and brilliant life. But of all the ways the infinite universe baffles our senses, defies our explanations, and sustains our lives, these are the seven best things.

1. Freedom
Freedom is both a heartening gift and a terrifying responsibility. It comes in many forms – freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech. But behind every form of freedom is a single guiding principle – as rational human beings, each of us possesses the tools to best determine the course of our life. This optimistic assessment stands up to close scrutiny, which is not to say that everyone always makes the best decisions, whether for themselves or for the interests of the community. Still, our humanism demands it. It is a profoundly loving act to grant another their freedom. When we remove the hindrances to freedom we honor our highest calling and facilitate the fullest possible expression of our inherent greatness.

2. Love
In the game of life love trumps every other hand. Nothing matters more than the sustenance love offers. What is best in us grows strongest in its nurturing light. Each of us is called by our natures to both receive and offer this eternal spring. Love takes many forms and finds its way through innumerable channels, penetrating even the most hardened barriers. Yet in the end, love is just a word, a word we’ve chosen to signify the interconnective tissue of Being itself. Love is the name we’ve given to the nurturing energy of life – a name for the fundamentally nameless. Love informs our simple kindness and emboldens our struggle for justice. It is the yearning of the sapling for the sun, and the longing of an infant for her mother. We reach out for each other, sometimes skillfully, sometimes not, knowing instinctually that love is the food that sustains all of our souls.

3. Truth
Truth is a word we use for that which is ultimately real. Whenever the word “truth” is used the first question that pops up is, “Whose truth?” But here we are not using the word in such a pedestrian fashion, as if unlimited and transcendent Truth could be contained in any single proposition. Truth statements, bound as they are by language and thought, are necessarily partial and limited. This is not a debate. We are simply using the word truth to point to the ground of Being itself, beyond all thoughts and forms. In traditions willing to personify this ultimate reality we hear the many names of God. In traditions less interested in personification words like Brahman and Dao emerge. But beyond the names and forms lay a simple, universal source. Because of the limitations of human perception and cognition, we must make peace with the fact that our knowledge of truth remains a work in progress, comprised of little more than fleeting insights, partial glimmers, and a general sense of direction. A sailboat never moves in a straight line. It moves to and fro zigzagging across the moving surface of the water. So too we move dialectically across the landscape of our collective understandings, trusting the overall direction more than the momentary tack. Truth is the harbor calling us home.

4. Beauty
One of the great contributions of the Renaissance was its assertion that Beauty is Truth, and that God reveals His infinite perfection through the pleasing forms of this world, both natural and created. This revolutionary declaration simultaneously elevated the role of the artist in society and redeemed nature from the degraded state to which it had been assigned by the medieval church. Artists were no longer seen as decorative laborers or worse, liars, despite their crafty use of illusions and metaphors, but as geniuses whose vision and expertise opened up the gates of heaven. And celebrating natural beauty as a divine realm paved the way for the later Romantic and environmental movements. Beauty is a language to be read with the faculty of intuition. And intuition is that faculty of knowing best equipped to apprehend truth. Our love of art and our awe before nature enlivens and nourishes our moral sentiment, strengthening our courage to honor truth and embody love. Beauty is our source and our soul. Without it we would whither like flowers cut from the vine.

5. Grace
Grace is a word normally associated with Christianity. But when we lift it off the platform of a single faith-tradition we find a boundless, universal phenomenon that defies easy explanation. In personified theologies like Christianity grace is God’s way of supporting everything in creation. In the less centralized theology of India dharma expresses the sacred sustenance that upholds the fabric of reality. Even atheists and agnostics know that they live within a natural order whose interconnected and mutually supportive structures do more for us than we could ever do for ourselves. We do not make the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that sustains our life, or the sun that grows our food. In every way we are supported by forces not of our own making, and by the work of thousands of people around us, most of whom we’ll never meet. Grace is a simple word for a beautiful and complicated thing. And without it, none of us would for one moment continue to exist.

6. Life
On our worst days we forget, but on our best days we remember. Life is a priceless gift. And like a birthday gift, its bounty is only revealed when we tear off the pretty packaging and dig deep into what’s inside. Being alive means feeling everything, the pain and the glory. Despite all our setbacks and suffering we know it’s all worth it. We would endure a thousand lonely, hollow days for that one golden moment, that single breakthrough, that shattering illumination. And when we grow a little older and settle down we learn to stop chasing those moments and realize that they come unbidden to those who know how to wait, grow still, and see the world anew with each breath. This is it. And we’re glad it is. A self-actualized life informed by freedom, love, truth, beauty, and grace is the Holy Grail, nirvana, and the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the treasure of the quest, the prize of the sages, the rapture of the saints, and the birthright of every beating heart.

7. You
None of the first six best things would have any power at all were it not for our ability to perceive and experience them. As your gratitude for these priceless jewels rises and informs your thoughts, your actions, your rituals, and your relationships, add yourself to the list of miraculous wonders. For some reason the universe decided to express itself as you, in this time and place, and imbue you with all its consciousness and creative capacity. The worst offense is to waste your life. Beginning now, vow to honor these seven gifts by removing for yourself and for as many others as possible any and all impediments to self-actualization. It is our birthright to be amazing. And it is our sacred responsibility to get out of our own way.