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.]

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Ten Rules of Art

In 1967, Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffin were the hottest songwriting team in the business. As King told David Remnick of the New Yorker, they were walking down Broadway one afternoon when a limousine pulled alongside them. The window rolled down and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records stuck his head out. “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha,” he said. “How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman.’” The window rolled up and the limo pulled away. That night after putting the kids to bed they sat at the piano and banged out one of Aretha Franklin’s most enduring masterpieces.
In the creation of art, what’s more important, inspiration or perspiration?
When I was finishing up my BA in religious studies at UCSB I had completed all of my required courses and just needed a few elective units. I took a songwriting class in the music department. The instructor was a commercial jingle writer and producer from LA with recording credits in pop, rock, and film. He gave us a simple assignment. Every week we were to write, arrange, record, mix, and present a finished song. We were forbidden from recording any existing material – everything had to be written and recorded from scratch that week. We scoffed. “What if the muse doesn’t strike?” we asked. He sighed. “Look,” he said, “when your client comes to you and asks you for a soundtrack, or a jingle, or a cut for the new album by so and so, you don’t say, O.K., I’ll send you something if and when the inspiration strikes. You just sit down and do it.” As artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
As the semester progressed, it dawned on us. Making art is not a mysterious process. Making art is like making anything else – building a house, cooking a meal, planting a garden – most of the battle is just showing up, getting serious, and demanding results. Of course not everything turns out great. It never does. But if you don’t suit up, show up, and do the work, how and when is the inspiration supposed to strike?
In an interview, great American writer John McPhee revealed that in his writing process, he takes a belt from a terry cloth robe and ties himself in his desk chair with a big double knot, then spins the belt around so the knot is behind him. He stays there until he’s put in his shift. If you only write when you feel like it, you’re not a writer. If you only make art when you feel like it, you’re not an artist. You’re a dilettante. In a word, you’re pretending. It’s time to get real.
If you are really serious about creating something of value, you will fight for it, even if the forces you’re fighting against are your own distractedness, self-doubt, sloth, or adolescent mood swings. Oh, you don’t feel like it? Nobody cares. Do it anyway. Does your heart surgeon walk out of the room mid-surgery because he just isn’t feeling it? Does a farmer plant only half her field because she’s not in the mood? Does an architect leave out the bathrooms because, well, they’re not that fun to design, and he’d rather design high-ceilinged foyers, split-level decks, and grey water reclamation systems?
I spoke with prominent artist Douglas Schneider about his process. He was in his Oakland studio preparing another series of paintings for an upcoming gallery show in San Francisco. Schneider is one of those rare artists who has managed to blend commercial success with autonomy and authenticity. His paintings are mesmerizing dreamscapes anchored by everyday objects bathed in an atmosphere of bottomless longing. It is the beauty of the ordinary world that Schneider paints, thereby returning us to the infinite significance of our own lives, a place where mirage-like waves of memory and perception distort as much as they reveal.
When a gallery show comes along, he starts to paint. He knows people are counting on him – his agents, his curators, his patrons, his fans – and he simply gets to work. He often works on several pieces at once, never knowing exactly where the ideas come from or where they’re going. He just begins. All of the technique is there from years of formal education and arduous training, but it’s the imminence of the deadline that impels him, sparking a workman like sense of humility, obligation, and gratitude – gratitude that he even gets to do this for a living. The shock of that fact alone frequently stops him in his tracks. He knows that all work is service, and that these paintings need to be made, for someone. As the deadline approaches, he paints at an increasingly furious pace with a sacred sense of urgency – get out of the way, get out of the way – sometimes even shipping his large canvases wet, knowing they’ll dry by the time they’re installed. As the paintings are birthing it’s terrifying. And blissful. Schneider, like any real artist, knows that inspiration matters and bliss happens, but only after you find the discipline to pick up the brush.
As you reflect on your own artistic and creative process, no matter your medium, bear these ten truths in mind.
1.      Your work is not your own – it belongs to the audience. Put them first. What do they need?
2.      Your work is an act of service, not a private indulgence. Art is communal – it only exists in the space between us, not in the secret heart of its creator.
3.      Inspiration is overrated. Work is underrated.
4.      Be true to your own aesthetic. Don’t chase trends. Don’t pander to your audience – draw them toward you in communion.
5.      Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Cut, edit, alter, and delete  with brutal decisiveness. Art is no place for self-indulgent sentimentality.
6.     The one rule: authenticity.
7.     Beautiful and pretty are two different things. One’s abiding, the other fades; one’s deep, the other’s shallow; one’s challenging, the other’s facile. Go for beauty every time.
8.     You don’t have forever. Do it now. Finish it.
9.     Perfection is the enemy of the good. As many have said, art is never finished, only abandoned.
10.  Nurture your love of art like a garden – feed it, water it, sunlight it. Care-take your body, your mind, your heart, and your soul. Drink in the beauty of the world. Read. Listen. Travel. Love. Take risks. Timidity has no place in art. Be bold. But be kind, because kindness extended to others strengthens the heart, the instrument of our creating. Let your art come from your loving.
All of us are artists, and our lives are our greatest work. A well-lived life is a masterpiece. The ten rules apply to the creation of any art project, including the most important project of all – becoming fully human.