Sunday, April 24, 2016

Noble Friendship

[This piece was originally published in my my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2016 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]         

          A friend is a window through which we see more deeply into ourselves. A friend is a silent affirmation of that which is best in us. A friend is a salve to our wounds, a shaft of light to our darkness, and a key to unlock our shuttered hearts. Like air, food, and water, without friends we perish.
          Ever since we crawled down out of the trees on the African savannah a million years ago we’ve needed each other. We band together for safety, for comradery, for warmth, and for laughter. We think we choose our friends, but we don’t. As Emerson wrote, “My friends have come to me unsought…I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one.” We recognize our friends in the crowd because the divinity in us recognizes the divinity in them – the very meaning of the word Namaste. We feel at once at home in their company, safe in their regard, and cherished in their acceptance. Friends shatter the illusion of our isolation.
          In the development of early Buddhism, three ideas gained prominence. They are known as the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher who embodies wisdom and guides us in the process. The Dharma is the path, the teachings that lead us toward our own budding wisdom. But neither of those matter without the Sangha, the community of friends within which the Buddha and the Dharma take root. When we meditate together, grow together, and serve together, we know, feel, and become more than we ever could alone.
          During the European Renaissance the ancient philosophy of Plato loomed large. Under the patronage of the Medici’s in Florence, a priest named Ficino coined the phrase “Platonic love” to convey that particularly deep and lasting bond that arises between friends who share an affinity for beauty and truth. Some of us are drawn into league with one another not by physical attraction or shared hobbies but by our mutual love of higher wisdom, timeless beauty, and the ineffable mystery of the transcendent. This kind of spiritual friendship knows no material or temporal bounds for its eyes rest sublimely on the eternal realm. 
          In the Vedanta tradition of India the ancient practice of satsang embodies these same principles. Sat means being, truth, or ultimate reality. Sang, as in sangha, means a gathering or community. So satsang means a gathering around truth or noble friendship. And it never fails – in satsang as we meditate together, share spiritual inquiry together, and dialogue together in vulnerable, truthful, and meaningful ways, wisdom wells up through the cracks of our own lives. Truth is not something we know – it is something we are. And through noble friendship that embodied truth slips its vessel and rises into view in the space we share. 
          If all energy, matter, and consciousness are one, as the perennial wisdom traditions teach, then true friends are those whose protective shells are diaphanous. Because of their openness and vulnerability we see past the surface and into the depths of our communal oneness. And when they see us in the same light the illusory walls of our isolation dissolve. 
          So how do we give and earn the gift of friendship? Start with yourself. “We must be our own before we can be another’s,” wrote Emerson. And when it comes to attracting and maintaining friendships, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Until you love yourself, you cannot truly love others. As Wayne Dyer used to say, "You must be what it is that you are seeking." 
          Friends don’t fix us. They don’t solve all our problems. They don’t have to. Their mere presence is enough. Keep it simple. As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.” So my friend, you do not have to say the perfect words, or fight my battles. Just walk with me.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Beyond Conflict

It’s liberating to realize that you don’t have to have an opinion about everything. It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to withhold judgment, wait, and let things play out. It’s even okay to let the other guy be right once in a while.
            Wisdom is a fluid way of being in the world, not a rigid position paper. Conflict is fathered by certainty. Peace is mothered by patience.
            As the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
            On one hand, it’s important to carefully discern between truth and falsehood. We gain little by leaving truth-claims unexamined. On the road to knowledge every step counts.
On the other hand, when we elevate our momentary assessment of the moving target of reality to the level of dogma, we distort reality to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable. We trade in the messiness of the real world for a conceptual cage of our own making. Lost in the rarefied air of our own self-serving thought-constructs we slip further and further away from the fact that reality is a vast, interdependent field of energy, matter, and consciousness too fluid and fast-moving to ever be reduced to a simple, fixed set of truth-claims.
We have become masters at accumulating information. We’ve mistaken information for knowledge. Not everything can be Googled. Just because you can provide a link or a YouTube clip does not mean you understand. In fact, there may even be an inverse relationship between information-accumulation and insight. Sometimes too much knowledge clogs up the works, clouding our natural, unadorned insight. As Laozi wrote in the Daodejing, “The more you know, the less you understand.” Clarity is the fruit of emptiness. A busy mind is barren ground.
When the Oracle at Delphi declared that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens it sent Socrates on a quest. He didn’t believe he was wise, so he set out to interview everyone with a reputation for wisdom to see how he measured up. He quickly realized that while these allegedly wise men had lots of opinions, they knew no more than he did. In fact, their endless opinions obscured their insight and impeded their ability to learn. The damage caused by their habit of mistaking unfounded beliefs for facts far outweighed whatever actual knowledge they may have possessed. This led Socrates to conclude that since he knew nothing, and admitted it, he was in fact wiser than all of these supposed wise men. From this ancient tale we get a clear message – humility and the admission of ignorance are a sign of real wisdom. As the Zen saying goes, “Don’t seek enlightenment. Just get rid of all your opinions.”
When we move past rigidity of thought we open up to infinite possibility. As the complex and fluid phenomenal realm unfolds before us, we stay in the present moment, keenly aware and awake to what is revealing itself. All energy, consciousness, and matter connects together into a single field of awareness of which we are an integral part. In the language of the mystic Meister Eckhart, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Individuality slips backstage while unity consciousness steps front and center. Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “What you are looking for is what is looking.” All of this is true, according to the Hassidic tradition of Judaism, because “The creator and the object of his creation are a unity inseparable.”
This is why reducing the whole of reality into tiny conceptual boxes is an act of violence. The fluidity of not-knowing allows everything in, while the arid rigidity of conceptual categorization blocks everything out – we never get at things-in-themselves, only our thoughts about those things. This is why Laozi wrote in the Daodejing, “In the pursuit of knowledge everyday something is added. In the practice of the Dao everyday something is dropped.”
In a famous Zen story, a learned professor of religion and philosophy went to visit a Zen master. When he arrived the master set the table and began to serve tea.
“Why have you come to see me?” the master asked.
“I have come to learn about Zen,” said the professor. “I have studied all the world’s religions and philosophies. I have learned the languages and read all the books. I am known as an expert the world over. There is very little I don’t know. But Zen eludes me.”
As he was speaking the master poured tea into the professor’s cup. When the cup was full he kept pouring. The tea brimmed over the rim, spilled onto the table and into the professor’s lap.
“What are you doing?” the professor cried as he leaped up.
“Your cup is already so full,” said the master. “There isn’t room for anything else.”
If, as these ancient sources show, emptiness is an essential quality of wisdom, then how do we attain it? By letting go of the illusion that we are in control, and renouncing the delusion that we have to solve every problem, iron every wrinkle, heal every wound, and right every wrong. Far from the philosophy of acquiescence or apathy, this open-hearted stance is a starting point for genuine growth and healing. Our actions are purer, stronger, and more effective when we work without attachment either to our own ideas or to a specific outcome. We should not work to see our own narrow ends met – we should work collaboratively with others and with the energies coursing around us intending simply to do good. Krishna calls this “working without attachment to the fruits of work.” In this consciousness of renunciation we become instruments through which the highest good manifests itself. The Daoists call this effortless-effort or wu-wei. You don’t have to know the final destination before taking the first step. You just have to move in the right direction and let the rest take care of itself.
Otherwise there’s a danger. If we instead seek to impose on the uncarved whole of the world our narrow, cookie-cutter conceptual framework, we give up any chance at genuine wisdom. When we build a limited and limiting worldview full of answers and inflexible doctrines, we have lowered ourselves into a well from which we can only see a tiny piece of the sky. And from our narrow view we see alternative perspectives as the enemy. We live in perpetual conflict with one another, and ultimately, with our own, truer self. This is no small thing. The whole world pays the price for this parochial narrow-mindedness. In his 1933 essay “The Triumph of Stupidity” Bertrand Russell wrote, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And I think we all know what happened to Europe, and to us all, in the dark years following 1933. It is a mark of wisdom to have doubts. It is a sign of danger to have none. Certainty is both the refuge of fools and the bludgeon of bullies.
Certainty is the seed of conflict. Unity is born from humility. As we learn to move beyond conflict into the consciousness of peace, we turn again to the words of Rumi, and this time include the next line: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Freedom of Work

One of the prevailing narratives in pop culture is that work is for suckers. We wallow in fantasies of winning the lottery, picking the right stock, or striking it rich when our tech start-up gets grabbed by Google. We wish we were sitting on a beach somewhere with our toes in the sand and a drink in our hand as nearly every Kenny Chesney song testifies. Rap and hip hop are no different with their endless stream of imagery equating material excess with liberation. The message is clear – work is something to be escaped. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, work is a four letter word.
            This pervasive escapism speaks to the alienated nature of the contemporary worker. In capitalism, Karl Marx argued, workers are cut off from their essential nature. It is in our nature to create, he argued, to wrest raw materials from nature and fashion them into tools and other beautiful things. In this natural process our essence is contained in the thing we make. But when we work merely for a wage, and own neither the means of production nor the products of our labor, we lose touch with our essential self. We become strangers to ourselves, what T. S. Eliot called “hollow men.” Under these conditions, Marx declared, the only place where we feel whole is in the “freedom of our animal functions.” Sex and material comfort become our obsessions. All we have left is looking good and surrounding ourselves with the trappings of material culture. Listen to the lyrics of pop music and you’ll hear all the evidence you need. Pop songs circle around two principle fixations – sex and leisure. We look divine in the club, but Monday morning we’re back in the cubicle.
            What if we’re wrong about work? What if we’ve misunderstood work entirely? What if work is not the means of our imprisonment, but the means of our liberation?
            I know the animals aren’t talking, but I’m pretty sure if they did, they wouldn’t even have a word for work. They would just call it life. Wolves hunt elk, elk forage for grass, grass grows up through the soil, and birds scatter grass seeds – each inadvertently serving the needs of the other as it serves its own needs. It’s not work – it’s a way of being in the world. Their “work” makes them part of something larger than themselves. So does ours. Through our work we build the world.
            When I was very young, like my brothers before me, I was drawn into the culture of work. It began with a few simple chores, whatever my small hands and feet could accomplish – cleaning bathrooms, sweeping the garage. When I grew a little older, I washed the car and mowed the lawn. Like a lot of kids I received a small weekly allowance. But I was never paid for chores. It was just understood – we all live here, so we all share in the upkeep and maintenance of this home.
            When my mom cooked dinner she’d call me into the kitchen to help her chop celery or peel carrots. I learned the difference between mince, chop, and julienne. To this day the smell of frying onions is the smell of home, a celebration of the alchemical transformation of the earth’s elements into elixirs of life. Preparing food for people you love is not work, it’s worship.
            I learned how to find pleasure in a well-set table, a communal meal, a beautiful garden, a clean bathroom, a made bed, and a well-organized garage.
Around the age of 12 the range of my work expanded. I began mowing lawns for neighbors. It was a pleasure to bring order to their chaotic yards, and a few dollars in my pocket felt exciting. Work was allowing me to wrest power and freedom out of thin air with the tools of my intention and will. Through these labors I came to embody the unshakable truth that no matter what became of me, I would always be able to offer my time, talent, and energy in the consciousness of service and be rewarded for my efforts. That’s a lot for a twelve year old to take in.
The week I turned sixteen I rode my bike to a supermarket a few miles from my house and applied for a job. An older friend who worked there vouched for me, and I was hired. I worked my way up from grocery bagger to stock clerk to cashier. I often worked till midnight, then got up at 6:00 in the morning to surf before class. The crazy schedule didn’t exhaust me – it energized me. Even in the cold winter rain I rode my bike back and forth to work. It never occurred to me to bother anyone for a ride. One day I missed a shift. I’d been struck in an intersection by a red light running drunk driver. I wasn’t hurt too badly, but I did get a new bike out of the deal.
I ended up working at Vons for twenty two years – through high school and college and grad school, through a few girlfriends, the last of which I married, and even into the first few years of my early teaching career.
You learn a lot of good things at work, like how to do things you don’t feel like doing, and how to be around people you don’t like. You can’t cut and run when things get unpleasant. Instead, you dig deep, honor your team, and push through. You learn that perseverance is more rewarding than preference. What you want to do is not nearly as important as what you should do.  Duty is not a dirty work. When we offer our time, talent, and energy in the consciousness of service, we are drawn inevitably into the fabric of our interconnectedness. And our own joy inexorably increases.
What if far from alienating us, work is the cure for our alienation? There were so many days, and there still are, when I don’t feel like working, but I suit up and show up anyway, and it happens every time – it turns out that when I drop my selfish resistance and give myself over to a purpose larger than myself, namely, the needs of others, I feel the weight of alienation lifting off of my shoulders. To be of service is to become intimate with life’s innermost secret – that none of us is ever alone, and that when we join forces together we affirm our true, authentic nature as beings of infinite value. This is a pleasure a self-absorbed hedonist can never experience.
I brought all of these dawning insights into my work as a musician, a writer, and a student of the world’s wisdom traditions. Playing guitar as well as I heard it in my head was going to take time, intention, will power, sacrifice, discipline, and commitment. Same with writing and academic pursuits. I knew it wasn’t mysterious. I knew that if I simply intended excellence and got to work good things would come. And they have.
When we protect our children from work, when we do everything for them, or when we pay them for chores, we rob them of this life-long storehouse of embodied wisdom.
All work is service. All work is an opportunity to be a part of healing of the world. And anyone with eyes can see that the world is in dire need of healing. When we finally understand the real source of our joy, power, and freedom, who among us would ignore the call and hide away from the world of work?