Friday, February 27, 2015

Attitude


[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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Here Be Dragons



Every January I get that same, giddy feeling. Another year full of potential lies before us like uncharted territory. But there could be trouble ahead. As cartographers used to write on unexplored lands – here be dragons.
Will this be the year we finally lose weight? Win the lottery? Have unforeseen surgery? Finally get married? Finally get divorced? Move?
Lose that last, dumb, bad habit? Lose the house in a fire?
It’s exciting when you think about it – so many possibilities, so many potential disasters. Here be dragons indeed.
Maybe this year we’ll go camping. Or volunteer at the after-school literacy program. Or start painting again. Or finally watch the rest of Game of Thrones. Or not.
One thing I’m finally going to do for sure is update all my software, and back up all my files to an external drive and the cloud. Yeah. Sure.
And clean out the garage, and take those dried up paint cans to the recycling place – and the old electronics and computers too. As soon as I download all the documents and folders off of them. Any minute now.
And I’ll finally get my office filing system purged, sorted, and well, filed.
And the photos. Oh God, the photos.
So January is looking pretty busy.
But then I stop and tell myself, wait. Hold on. Why are you doing this again? Why are you creating all these ridiculous scenarios, these bright fantasies of accomplishment? It’s one thing to have aspirations – it’s another to be delusional.
What’s really going to happen is this. On that fine January morning I’m going to get up, have some coffee, read for a bit, then log on and take care of correspondence. A dozen emails to write, website updates to create, performance and speaking schedules to manage. And then there are upcoming writing deadlines to prioritize, and articles, columns, and courses to plan, draft, format, and finalize. By then it’s lunch.
After lunch I notice that the kitchen could use some attention. I’ll empty, then fill the dishwasher. And throw in a load of laundry, or three. Maybe pop over to the store for some food, and get a plan for dinner going.
Then I remember that the car needs gas, and there are a few things at the dry cleaners that need picking up. I’ve forgotten them so long they probably sold them by now.
Pulling back into the driveway I see my neighbor raking the last leaves of winter from beneath her bare trees. We chat for a while about neighborhood stuff and recent travels – hers to London, ours to Sedona – and then I hear the drier buzzer. Time to swap loads.
Coming back into the house with my groceries and dry cleaning I see that the cat has vomited in the hallway. I clean it up.
I put away the groceries and wonder what surprises all those unmarked containers in the freezer hold. They must be something good or I wouldn’t have frozen them. I’ll figure it out later.
Then a cool song I heard in the car by Dawes or Steve Earle or somebody rises up in my head and I grab my guitar to chase whatever comes along. A new song takes shape. I am only vaguely aware that I have anything to do with it – it seems to be writing itself, or simply arriving. I have two verses, a chorus, and part of a bridge when the buzzer sounds again. I take the hot, dry clothes out of the dryer and load in the cold, soggy ones from the washer. I push the buttons.
I see that the mail has arrived. Including those two checks I’ve been waiting for. I sign them and deposit them with the credit union app on my phone.
The phone rings and I talk to a friend for half an hour.
The sun is getting low. Better start dinner.
And fold the laundry.
When Lori gets home from her long day at work, we finish making dinner and eat. Then more dishes.
And now it’s dark. It’s been a long day. Feet up.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll get to that garage clean-up and all the rest of the things on my to-do list. But now, I got a peaceful, easy feeling. The work is done.
Some laughs. Stories. Reconnection. Holding hands as we fall asleep.
What’s the point of having a home if you don’t stop to enjoy it? Your house shouldn’t only be a work site, a place of unending obligations and incomplete tasks. A home should be a refuge, a safe place to hide, a soft place to land. A place to dream dreams.
I’m taking a second look at my January plans.
Maybe this time I’ll just keep it simple. One thing at a time. As I engage in each task, really be present in that task, instead of thinking about the next nine things I have to do as soon as I finish this one. And leave plenty of time between for neighbors, songs, and the beauty of the world pouring in through the windows.
A contemplative mood is one of the special treasures of winter.
January may be a time of starting over. But it’s also a time for looking back. January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, the keeper of keys and doorways. (Janus is also where janitors get their name – they too have the key to every door). Janus has an unusual feature. You’d notice it right away if you ever saw him. He has two faces – one looking back and one looking forward. This gives Janus a breadth of awareness many of us lack. Most of us focus only on our own narrow, immediate interests.
But Janus sees it all. The wisdom he’s gained from his long perspective enables him to correctly assess the value of this present moment. He’s well aware of everything that’s been lost. And he’s also aware that up ahead there be dragons. But it doesn’t stop him from turning the key and opening doors anyway. He doesn’t hide from the past, nor does he fear the future. His is a total and heartfelt acceptance. In his wisdom he knows what to do, and he knows how to do it.
So do we.
The balance we strike between intention and renunciation is the vibrant nexus from which our most authentic creativity comes. Are we willing to show up fully alive in this next now moment, free from the past and heartily accepting of the future? More than any other force, the consciousness we bring into this moment shapes whatever unfolds. When we resolve to live purposefully, deliberately, authentically, and courageously, the doors begin to open. We hold in our hands the keys of Janus. And damn the dragons. “Once you make a decision,” Emerson wrote, “the universe conspires to make it happen.”