Friday, February 5, 2016

Meditation


Meditation is the fine art of stillness.
            It’s difficult at first because our mind, like a torrent after a storm, doesn’t know how to be still. The mind’s nature is motion.
Beginning meditators all make the same mistake – they try to control the mind. Of course it doesn’t work. They fail, give up, and say things like, “I can’t meditate.” I have a better idea. Instead of fighting against mentation, what if we stopped struggling and slipped beneath the thought-stream?
            In that stillness we’d realize that meditation is easy because meditation is doing nothing.
            In fact, once you strip away all the concepts, suggestions, and specific practices proffered by skilled teachers for thousands of years, meditation is as simple and elemental as breathing.
            At first glance, meditation seems childishly simple-minded. Silly even. But upon deeper reflection the truth looms into view. Only something this simple, natural, and unadorned could lead to such indescribable treasure.
            It’s hard to say when meditation began. The earliest record of its practice dates back 3,000 years to ancient India. In the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other sources we read accounts of yogis who learned how to still their minds to the point where finally, for the first time, the thrum of underlying existence could finally be heard. By investigating this vast, interior space yogis began to realize that ordinary, everyday consciousness is caught up in the immediacy and noise of our individuality – a cloud of conflicting desires and fears centered primarily on self-aggrandizement. But with a little practice they learned how to slip beneath the waves of surface consciousness and into the infinite depth within.
            They gave this nameless depth a name – Brahman-atman. Around the world others discovered it too. They called it by other names, some personifying it, others leaving it impersonal. All of the gods were born here.
            The great discovery of the Upanishads, and of the mystics of all traditions, is our fundamental identity with this ultimate ground of being. We are That.
            And the most direct method for realizing this oneness is meditation. Sure, there are other ways – devotion, worship, study, selfless service. They all work. Nor are these various methods mutually exclusive. Blend and adapt them in any way that works best for you.

How to Meditate
            Keep it simple. Sit in a chair. Uncross your legs and put both feet flat on the floor. Let your hands rest comfortably in your lap. Close your eyes and allow your breathing to follow its own natural rhythm.
            Without strain or struggle, slightly lift the top of your head so that your spine straightens. Allow your shoulders to drop. Let any tightness in your neck and shoulders slip away. Feel your body move into a state of relaxed alertness.
            Turn your attention toward your thought-stream. Notice that a steady flow of thoughts continually arise and fade. No matter the specific content of these thoughts, notice that you are not your thoughts – you are the witness of your thoughts. Your thoughts are not having you – you are having thoughts. This simple awareness is the beginning of an enormously significant shift.
            Simply observe your thoughts come and go without trying to control any of them, as you would watch traffic from your hotel room balcony in a foreign city. The light turns green, the light turns red, here comes a truck, there goes a taxi. We control none of it. And we identify with none of it. We are not the traffic. We are simply the witness.
            Soon you begin to realize that you have identified with your thoughts for way too long, and this fixation has kept your attention turned away from the boundless depth within, the witness of those thoughts.
            Feel the peacefulness of the awareness beneath the waves of the thought-stream. Without turning it into a thought, simply feel the aliveness of Being. It is not an experience you are having because at this level of awareness there is no more you – there is only awareness. The distinction between subjective and objective has dissolved. That duality was just a thought. We have moved beyond the realm of thought.
            When the busy-mind generates thoughts, and it will, simply witness them come and go without resistance or judgment. You are free.
            Begin to bring your attention back to the surface. Move your hands and arms. Open your eyes. Choose gratitude and appreciation. Feel the deeply relaxed aliveness in your hands, your arms, your face, your entire body. Feel the peacefulness and acceptance that lingers like a scent. Carry this gratitude and serenity into all of the activities of your day. Look behind the eyes of everyone you meet and know that they too are the temporal presence of this eternal, infinite aliveness. Feel mercy, understanding, and loving-kindness buoy you through the storms that lay ahead. In meditation you have found your core, and the understanding that you are not alone – that you are one with the infinite significance of existence itself. With neither arrogance nor false humility you stand in equanimity and egalitarian harmony with all that is. You are not better than anyone, nor are you beneath anyone. All of reality is a field of infinite value, and We Are That.
           
Why Meditate
            In our current age, the Age of Science, we insist on facts. Mystical experience is no longer verification enough. We need proof. Fine. There’s plenty to go around.
            A long and growing list of studies document the medical efficacy of meditation. Meditation heals our depression, reduces our drug and alcohol addiction, strengthens our immune system, speeds our post-surgery recovery, and literally, physically alters our brain. The parts of our brain that specialize in fear, stress, and anxiety shrink. The parts of our brain that generate joy and satisfaction grow larger. Neural circuitry is rewired. To say that meditation changes us is no figure of speech. Meditation changes us in profound and lasting ways – such is the power of consciousness to heal itself.
            There are many varieties of meditation and numerous teachers and techniques. YouTube is a great resource. Attend a local workshop or satsang. Maybe Vipassana is your style, or Zen, or Transcendental Meditation, or Mindfulness Meditation. Some varieties are linked explicitly to a spiritual tradition, others are entirely secular. Some use mantras or visualizations. Others just focus on the breath. But one thing’s for sure – meditation is no longer exotic or unusual. It’s gone mainstream. It’s as American as apple pie.  
            Laugh about it. Have fun with it. Experiment. Trust yourself. Meditation works because it opens a door, a door that’s been closed for a long, long time, and through that door our own inner light begins to illuminate the path before us.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Constancy of Change



 [This was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the January/February 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]
 
"You can't step in the same river twice." ~ Heraclitus

The only thing that doesn’t change is change.
              The transient nature of life puts us in a precarious position.  Lulled into complacency by the apparent solidity of the world, again and again we are shocked by life’s sudden transitions – the terrible phone call, the cancer diagnosis, the death of a friend.  Like Charlie Brown we fervently believe that this time Lucy will hold the football in place.  But every time we go to kick it, it isn’t there.
              In Buddhism this fundamental fact is known as anitya or impermanence.  The evidence is all around us. Sure, things change at different rates, but change they will. A mayfly lives 24 hours, a proton billions of years. Yet both are bound by the same inexorable law: change.
              If one follows this reasonable premise to its logical conclusion, we arrive at another core Buddhist teaching, shunyata.  Shunyata is usually translated as “emptiness” or “the void,” but what shunyata actually conveys is the fundamentally indefinable nature of reality.  Whatever all of this is, it is beyond language and thought.  Shunyata is the nameless field of pure potentiality out of which all forms arise and to which all forms return.  Yet shunyata itself remains formless.  So in that sense reality is empty of fixed forms.  But look around – it is most definitely not nothing.
              We think we live in a universe comprised of solid objects distinct from one another. But ancient wisdom traditions and modern physics confirm the illusory nature of our misperceptions. So-called solid reality is 99.9999% empty space. Turns out the Buddhists were right.
              Shunyata is like a clear sky and things are like clouds.  Clouds arise, appear to have form, last a while, and then disperse, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly.  This is the nature of things.  As he lay down to die, the Buddha left his friends with one final thought.  “Remember this,” he said, “all forms arise and all forms fade.” 
              Embracing the fundamental transience of reality enables us to navigate the strange and beautiful arc of our lives with a modicum of dignity and joy. We realize we don’t own any of this. It is all borrowed and we must give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning.  Yet in the face of impermanence it would be wrong to conclude that nothing matters – quite the contrary.  Everything matters – more than you ever imagined.
              Every fleeting moment has a magical quality, a sacred ordinariness that we mostly miss, caught as we are in dreams of yesterday and tomorrow.  Only when we come into the presence of this now moment do we tap into the real. 
              We cannot change the past.  It is forever out of reach.  The future is equally elusive and beyond our grasp.  What we call the past or the future is only a thought and thoughts by their nature exist only in this present moment.  We are only and forever rooted in the now. This is where we think, act, feel, love, and have our being.  Yet most of us spend very little time here, caught forever in thoughts of the past or the future.
              Buddhist practice seeks to draw us out of our thought-world and back into an immediate awareness of our authentic nature.  But what is it going to take to get us out of our head and back into our heart?
              Meditation, devotion, prayer, service, mindfulness, loving-kindness, empathy, compassion – these are the core practices of all spiritual traditions.  As the Tibetan saying goes, “Want to go to hell?  Think of yourself.  Want to go to heaven?  Think of others.” 
              When things change, and they will – when those we love are taken from us, when we find ourselves alone in a field with nothing but the wind to hold onto – we are drawn into a powerful and liberating awareness.  We see through our tears that no matter what, there is an unbroken light, a boundless consciousness, an unchanging love, and an immutable being that binds it all together, despite the apparent transience.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Be Good




What’s the point of being a good person? Nobody else seems to be bothering, so why should we?
            It’s every man for himself, right?
            But something inside still nags at us – serving our own needs to the detriment of the needs of others leaves us feeling disconnected, out of sorts, lost in the loneliness of our own empty castle. A piece of the puzzle is missing. Somehow self-centeredness didn’t deliver the joy it promised.
            What if there’s no such thing as private happiness? What if our happiness is inextricably intertwined with the happiness of others? What if our own private happiness was never the goal? What if we’ve got it wrong all along?
            Cultivating virtue is an ancient dream and a present necessity. It’s plain to see that if we do not become better people, individually and collectively, greater and greater suffering will be unleashed sweeping millions of innocent people away in its maelstrom. This is no time for hand-wringing and intellectual paralysis. The urgency has never been greater. It’s time for action.
            When we turn to the world’s wisdom traditions we find no shortage of serious deliberation on these issues. The ancient lament has never dimmed – why are human beings so notoriously unwilling to cultivate their own virtue? Every philosopher, prophet, and visionary has cried out the same sad song. If we are serious about finally committing to real change, there are plenty of road maps to suit all styles. Some are religious and rely on a traditional monotheistic God-concept. Some are more nebulous in their conceptualization of the transcendent. And others are utterly secular, based on reason alone. Take your pick. Any map will get you there.

Tikkum Olam
             In Judaism there is a phrase, tikkum olam. It means “repairing the world.” From the many threads of Judaism – the Mishnah, Hasidism, Kabbalah – comes this fundamental affirmation of the essential role of human agency and action in the continuing creation of the world. When God rested on the seventh day the Creation didn’t end. It is ongoing. Only now, it is we who must work to heal the wounded world. It’s as if the world is a broken saucer, shattered into a million pieces, and each of us has a shard at the end of our fingertips. It is out sacred duty to share in the task of putting the saucer back together with the glue of kindness. Each of us is a spark from the divine, and with our open hearts, keen intelligence, and dawning courage we feel, see, and act to carry out God’s unfinished work. Tikkum olam is both our obligation and our opportunity for it is only in service to others that our own joy is born. So it is that our kindness heals ourselves.
            Working for environmental restoration, animal rights, human rights, economic justice, social justice, curing diseases, addressing poverty in a meaningful way, working in education, journalism, law, and medicine – these are all obvious examples of tikkum olam. Less obvious are the smaller, private acts of kindness in an ordinary day – allowing someone to merge in front of you on the freeway, holding the door, silencing your cell phone in a theater – these everyday kindnesses create a world that works for everyone, where each person feels respected and acknowledged. This is not to say that we are to sacrifice our joy and unduly take on the endless burdens of the world as our own. We cannot singlehandedly fix the world. We are only to lift our own piece of the load. As the Talmud enjoins, “It is not for us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.”

Dharma
            The Hindu tradition of India teaches that the universe is a supportive, orderly system called dharma. The laws of nature as well as the social norms that bind human society are all a part of this mutually sustaining interconnected system. Since each of us is supported by the universe – we did not make the air we breathe, the water we drink, nor the sun that grows our food – we too must share in the mutual sustenance of the whole. Our moral obligation is to discover whatever latent talents, strengths, sensibilities, and tools lie within and develop them into a skill set that serves the wider world around us. When we live purposeful lives of service we are fulfilling our dharma. This can take many forms – creating a thriving business, raising conscious children, bringing beauty and edification to life in vibrant works of art – whatever work lifts up the lives of others while meeting your obligation to yourself and your family. Dharma is all about the win-win. When you thrive, I thrive too.
            In chapter three of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna spells it out. “Every selfless act is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead.” In other words, when you share in the healing of the world, you become an instrument of the highest aspirations of the universe itself. As the Sufi poet Rumi puts it, each of us a reed through which the spirit of God blows. The “uni-verse” is the one song. Our intentional, conscious, compassionate actions are the music of the cosmos.

The Golden Mean
            As Aristotle wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics, “The ultimate purpose in studying ethics is not as it is in other inquiries, the attainment of theoretical knowledge; we are not conducting this inquiry in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good.” For Aristotle and his mentor Plato, virtue meant human excellence. We become excellent when we have the rational capacity to discern between deficit and excess on the perilous road to virtue. Courage, for example, is a middle point between cowardice and rashness. Healthy self-love is a middle point between self-loathing and arrogance. To find and stay on the Golden Mean takes rational deliberation, practice, and habituation. Finally, we become what we do – we become virtuous by consciously practicing virtue. Our repeated actions construct our character. And when we live in accord with our fully realized virtuous natures, we experience a deep and abiding satisfaction and joy. Aristotle and Plato didn’t need theology to bolster their vision of the good life – they were humanists to the core. We bring into this world everything we need to be good. As the Chinese philosophy Mencius said, “Human nature tends toward goodness the way water tends to run downhill.”  Being good isn’t is hard as you think it is.  
            Being good is a decision. Seek whatever supports and nourishment you need to begin and sustain this urgent work. If your heart turns to God, let it. If you feel stronger away from traditional religious structures, find your own path. Don’t stop and get caught up in debate. The need is too great. Do whatever it takes to be good.