Friday, March 2, 2018

Life On Purpose

I didn’t make soil, or blood, or light. I didn’t make the water I drink. I didn’t cause the sun to hang in the sky or the crops to grow. I didn’t design the system by which plants cast off oxygen as a waste product, oxygen that keeps me alive. Nor did I extract the crude oil from the ground and refine it into gasoline to fuel my car. And I wouldn’t, for the life of me, know how to make a car from scratch either.
            I didn’t grow the cotton, weave and dye the cloth, or sew it into these clothes. I didn’t invent language, write the world’s literature, or teach myself how to read. I didn’t discover electricity, design this computer, pave these roads, build this house, or make all the art that lends depth, significance, and beauty to it all.
            My life is supported by countless natural systems, and the work of hundreds of thousands of people who I’ll never meet.
I don’t do anything. I just get up in the morning, put on my pants, drink some coffee, and try to keep up. Everything I do, everything I build, everything I create, is only possible because of the boundlessly supportive universe in which I find myself. All creation is co-creation. There is no such thing as the self-made man. Even if you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, somebody else made the bootstraps.
            In Vedanta philosophy these dynamic relationships are known as dharma. The Sanskrit word dharma comes from the root dhri meaning to support, to sustain, or to hold. In its most basic sense, dharma is the supportive nature of universe, including the laws of physics, the maxims of biology, and the breathtaking harmony of all of these systems nested within systems that make life possible. But it doesn’t stop there. Dharma also means the social order, the way human ingenuity weaves a web where all of our contributions intertwine to create sustenance for us all. We are clever builders with opposable thumbs and an insatiable drive to create.
            There is no such thing as insignificant work. From the field hand to the brain surgeon, the cafeteria worker to the Nobel laureate, every human effort matters, because it all exists in an interlocking edifice of inter-being: pull one brick out and the whole thing comes down.
            And now the moral dimension. Dharma imposes an ethical obligation. It’s imperative that we pitch in. In the same way that we are supported, we are morally obligated to take the talents, passions, and abilities we have been given and offer them as contributions to the sustenance of the universe. For some mysterious reason, the sacred formless source of the universe took form as you. Trust the source. Allow the fledgling idea that you are infinitely significant to take flight. There has never before been a human being exactly like you with your sensibilities, talents, and gifts, nor will there ever be again. You’re a one-off. And there must be some reason why the sacred, eternal, formless source of the universe took form as you here in the world of time-bound, embodied forms. You’re needed. There is work to do – work only you can do.   
When seen through this lens, the work that we feel called to do is a sacred calling. Our calling is that still, quiet voice within us nudging us to take risks, think big, and throw ourselves into the flow of our own best life. Something’s tugging us toward self-actualization the way sunlight tugs the branches of trees upward in ever grander expressions of themselves. How do we discover our dharma? Your mind doesn’t know, but your heart does. Your love will lead you to your purpose. As the Sufi poet Rumi put it, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the pull of what you really love.”
            You have eyes. You see the woundedness of the world. You have a heart. You feel the pain of injustice and cruelty. You have ears. You hear the quiet voice of the truth hidden just beneath the din. You have hands and a mind and two strong legs. You can help. In fact, your own happiness depends on it. As we feed we are fed. As we teach we are taught. As we heal we are healed. As we love we are loved. Our joy arises only insofar as we are able to lift the joy of others.
            As you discover the places where your passion meets the needs of the world, you are uncovering your dharma. And when you live in accord with your dharma – when you are true to your sacred purpose – two amazing things happen. One, life gets easier. It gets easier because you feel yourself being lifted. You’re no longer struggling alone. Allies and resources mysteriously show up when you least expect them. And two, the quality of your work elevates. Your work is better now because you are weaving your unique contributions into the supportive outpouring of literally everything else. In cosmic cooperation, our efforts are amplified.
            In chapter three of the Vedanta classic The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Every selfless act is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. He is present in every act of service. All life turns on this law.” In other words, in the consciousness of surrender to your higher purpose, working not for your own gain but in the consciousness of service, the flow of the universe is pouring forth from you like water from a fountain. You are not doing the work, the work is doing you. In the theologies of the west, where God is personified, a similar concept is found. It only sounds different. Jews, Christians, and Muslims say things like “God, use me. Make me an instrument. Lead me where you want me to be. Tell me what you want me to say. Thy will, not mine be done.” The result is the same – selfless action performed not for self-interest but for the good.
            Peak performance in any endeavor is realized only through self-forgetting. When we are attached to selfish outcomes, we fail. When we put other’s needs first and act for the sheer joy of it with no attachments to specific outcomes, our egos disappear leaving an opening through which the light of the divine reveals itself. We didn’t need to seek greatness, we had only to get out of its way.
            All work is service. We must cultivate the consciousness of seeing our work as a love-offering. This shift will liberate us from the chains of craving and attachment. We’ll no longer be working for a private reward alone. We know we’ll get paid. But we know the wealth and wellness our work co-creates goes far beyond self-interest, far beyond dollars and cents. As we work for these larger purposes, our deeper reward will be the embodied knowledge that we are fast in the arms of a conscious, loving universe. You can’t get that from your 401K. But you should have one of those anyway.   

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Fear of Courage

Fear is not a weakness. Nor is it a childish indulgence. Fear plays an essential role in the unfolding of our lives. Fear keeps us from touching fire, swallowing razor blades, and kissing rattlesnakes. Fear in and of itself is not the problem. It’s the misapplication of fear that causes all the damage.
For the ancient Greeks courage was the most important of virtues, for without it, none of the other virtues are possible. How can we be compassionate without the courage to love? How can we be strong without the courage to push past the limits of our endurance? And how can we be smart without the courage to admit ignorance and press onward into new areas of learning and mastery?
            But courage is frightening. It asks us to risk everything.
I think we’re afraid of courage because courage asks us to abandon the supports we have worked so hard to construct. Courage asks us to sacrifice our safety and comfort. To be brave is to venture out beyond the reach of our protections, into an unknown field where none of the old rules apply and everything we know is irrelevant. To be courageous is to be vulnerable.
Courage begins with the willingness to let go. Courage and renunciation are two sides of one coin. Not only do we have to let go of our old support systems, we also have to let go of the idea that we are not enough. To be courageous we have to come to understand that there are qualities and strengths within us that have not yet been realized. Renouncing our old, limited, and limiting self-definition goes hand in hand with courage.
Courage is also an affirmation of the goodness of the universe. Fear, on the other hand, is often a misguided overreach of the ego feebly asserting its so-called power in an attempt to control everything. The fearful mind believes that we are not enough, and the universe is not enough either. Courage, on the other hand, means letting go of control and trusting that if the means are pure, the ends will take care of themselves. We must learn to use our egos, and not let our egos use us.
This then is the metaphysical foundation of courage – the view that all is one and that our lives are sacred expressions of the formless ground of being beyond all thoughts and forms. Debilitating fear is only possible when we have forgotten our original relationship with the divine. Again and again Jesus counsels his students to “fear not,” because anxiety and fear sever our delicate tether to the eternal. Coming out of fearfulness and into courage opens the portals to higher consciousness.
In the world’s hero journey tales the hero must face the monster again and again to be tested, and even more importantly, to have everything about them that is underdeveloped and inauthentic stripped away by the ferocity of the ordeal. While we may not literally be fighting monsters, the underlying truth remains. There are obstacles between us and the life we were born to live. Without cultivating the courage to face them, we rob ourselves and the wounded world of the healing elixir our transformation would bring both to our own lives and the lives of innumerable others, for when we heal ourselves we take an enormous step toward healing our families and communities. Instead of running away from fear, we should be running toward it. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Without courage we will never know who we really are. Only courage unlocks our sacred potential, latent within us and, for now, hidden behind a fog of fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to act in spite of the fear – to feel the fear and do it anyway.  

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Secret of Yoga

Most mornings, after coffee and quiet reading, as soon as dawn starts to show, I take my yoga mat out into the backyard and I roll it out on the deck beneath the rustling trees. I face the rising sun. Then, as the last star fades, I begin.
            I don’t remember every pose. I haven’t been in a yoga class for years. But I remember most of them. The more I practice, the more I remember. They come back to me as I come back to them. There’s a lesson right there.
            In English they’re called sun salutations. In Sanskrit, if anybody’s interested, it’s surya namskara. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward cycle of poses that begin and end in a standing position. There are many variations on a common core. Just Google it and you’ll see what I mean.
            What’s beautiful about surya namskara is its simplicity and effectiveness. Any beginner can do it, yet it tests even the most advanced practitioner. It stretches major muscle groups, stimulates circulation, deepens flexibility, and all while warming and awakening the mind. After a few rounds of surya namskara you remember what a sacred blessing it is to be alive.
If you’ve never done yoga, it’s essential that you begin with a teacher. There’s a lot to learn about proper posture, breathing technique, and avoiding injury. Videos and other online resources are great, but there’s no substitute for a real flesh and blood teacher in the room, someone who can help you adapt the classic poses to your body type and ability, and who can make tiny but significant corrections to your poses. Teachers save you a lot of suffering – trust me. Then once you get the basics down and know how to take care of yourself through the process, online videos and other digital resources are useful amendments to your practice.
            What you might not know is this – that what we call “yoga” in the west, the breath and body work, is part of an ancient curriculum with six other key components. Together they are called Ashtanga (Eight-Limbed) Yoga. The breath work (pranayama) and the body work (asanas) that comprise your typical yoga class are numbers three and four of the eight-limbed process. So, what are the other stages, and what is yoga’s deeper, hidden purpose?
            The first limb is called yama. Here, we commit to a life of moral integrity by relinquishing bad habits like lying, stealing, sloth, covetousness, and addictive disorders. It’s difficult to move forward on a program of whole-life awakening when you’re an obnoxious creep with self-destructive compulsions.
            The second limb is called niyama. Here, we commit to spiritual and mental well-being by deepening into our sacred practices whatever they may be – prayer, study, service, or contemplative walks in the woods. Attend to your cleanliness and self-care. Make an intentional practice of gratitude and contentment. Decide to be happy.
            With our life set right by the practice of yama and niyama, we’re ready to move into the deeper stages.
            The third limb is called asana. This is what you think of when you hear the word yoga. Asanas are the poses that strengthen, stretch, and vitalize the body temple, a sacred house in need of deep care and attention. As other ancient wisdom traditions attest, (Aristotle comes to mind), our mind, body, and soul are three aspects of an integrated singularity. A healthy body is a prerequisite to a healthy mind and a healthy soul. A violinist cannot make beautiful music if her instrument has fallen into neglect.
            The fourth limb is called pranayama. This is the breath work that accompanies the body work of the asanas. Your yoga teacher will really help you with this. Most of us take breathing for granted and, believe it or not, don’t do it right. It matters how you breathe. You’ll be amazed by how deeply transformative this one step is. Breathing is, after all, kind of a big deal.
            The fifth limb is called pratyahara. At this stage we begin to disengage from the outer world of sensation. We deepen and go within. Sure, you stay engaged with the outer world – you can’t help it. But you add to that a renewed focus on the inner life. It is out of this deep introspection that insights begin to arise regarding the formerly unconscious processes that enslaved us. It isn’t easy undoing decades of unconsciousness. Simply slow down and feel the realization arise that you are much more than your body, your property, and your persona.
            The first five stages were all merely preparation for what’s next. Now we are ready to go even deeper.
            The sixth stage is called dharana, meaning concentration. As we gain practice moving into deeper states of intentional consciousness, we notice that our minds are a mess – a cacophony of competing cravings and fears. The practice of dharana helps us navigate this debris field and, believe it or not, quiet the chaos. Different teachers recommend different techniques. Some suggest concentrating on a mantra, a simple, repetitive phrase. Others suggest focusing on the breath. Find a technique that helps you still the thought-waves of the mind and deepen into dharana. As we get better and better at this still-point concentration, we are poised for the seventh stage.
            The seventh stage is called dhyana, or meditation. Now that we’ve sharpened our ability to concentrate, we move into proper meditation. In the practice of dhyana we grow adept at deep, soft-focus awareness without a specific idea, topic, or point of concentration. We shift from being the thinker of thoughts to the silent witness of the thinking process – we have unhooked from both the thinker and the thoughts. We realize that we are the spacious, empty field in which both thought and thinker arise. We slip beneath the thought-stream and enter a state beyond all concepts, words, labels, and distinctions. We are moving toward the eighth and final stage.
            The eighth stage is called samadhi. This is where it’s all been heading. Here the duality between the experience and the experiencer dissolves. We realize that we are one with everything. Only there is no longer any “we” to realize this. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “There are no enlightened persons. When enlightenment happens, there is no one there to claim it. There is only enlightenment.” The intellectual, conceptual construct of a separate self is just one of the many thought-forms that dissolve in the awakening process.
            What’s most surprising about this ancient eight-limbed practice is how all that breath and body work we learned about in our yoga classes was originally conceived and designed merely as preparation for the deeper and more important work of meditation and awakening. There’s no harm of course in doing your sun salutations on the patio without the other six stages. In fact, there are enormous benefits. But now you know there’s more. Much more. It’s about awakening to the truth of who you are. And that’s the secret, hidden agenda of yoga.