Monday, November 17, 2014

Practicing Gratitude

No matter how urbanized, technologized, and commodified we’ve become, we still feel in our ancient, primordial bones the gratitude of the harvest season. We come from farmers. We are hard-wired to the celestial cycle. Autumn comes and the wandering days of summer give way to hearth and home. We start nesting. We take stock and store up for winter. We plainly see how flush our lives are with abundance. We grow thankful.
We may not have everything we want. But we know we have everything we need.
Half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, lives on less than $2.00 a day. That’s an annual income of $712. From that meager amount they have to pay for housing, food, clothing, water, healthcare, education, and fuel. 20% of the world lives on less than $1.00 a day. 40% of the people on earth do not have indoor plumbing. In developing countries, 90% of sewage is untreated and discharged directly into lakes, rivers, and streams. 95% of the people on earth do not own a car. If you own a car, you are in the world's wealthiest 5%. The United States makes up only 5% of the world's population, but we own 35% of the world's cars. 5% of the people on earth own a computer. 20% own a smart phone.
If you own a car, have indoor plumbing, have a computer in your home, and have a smart phone, you are obscenely wealthy by global standards.
Yet no matter how much empirical evidence you amass, that nagging feeling never seems to leave us – we don’t have enough.
It seems we need more and more just to stay in the same place.
Psychologists and marketing analysts have a name for this. It’s called the hedonic treadmill. As on a treadmill where one must remain in motion to stay in the same place, our appetites and cravings keep reaching for the next thing despite the obvious abundance of our lives. Even lottery winners, after the shock, thrill, and flush wears off, return to their previous happiness set point. This is also known as hedonic adaptation – we simply and unconsciously adjust to the new material reality. But inside, nothing’s changed.
In other words, happiness cannot come from rearranging the outer conditions of our lives. Happiness is an inside job.
This is why it’s essential to shift our thinking about gratitude. In our normal way of thinking, gratitude comes after a need or a desire is fulfilled – it is an endpoint arising only when just the right outer conditions come into existence. What if instead we began thinking of gratitude as a starting point, a decision we make here and now, regardless of external conditions. In one sense it isn’t hard to do for most of us. Look around. By world standards we have everything we need. All that’s left is to change our thinking.
“Gratitude,” Cicero wrote, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Courage, compassion, serenity, wisdom – all of these human excellences begin to develop only after we come out of the self-centered consciousness of scarcity and recognize our abundance. And when we recognize our abundance, we recognize our interconnectedness and the extent to which we co-create each other. None of us does any of this alone. We all carry each other. And we are supported by an infinite, conscious universe. When we start with the warm glow of humility and thankfulness, we experience an inner alignment and availability to our other higher functions. Gratitude opens the door to greatness.
How many times have we convinced ourselves that when we get that new car, that new guitar, that new job, that new lover we will finally be satisfied and happy? How many times have we fallen under the same old spell? You’d think we would have learned by now.
And pouring gasoline on the fire is the relentless marketing machinery of our capitalistic economic system which requires ceaseless and ever-expanding consumption. If a business’s income stays the same year after year, it is by the curious standards of capitalism failing. The job of corporate advertising is to create ever-knew “solutions” to the problem of human dissatisfaction. This car, that vacation, another pair of jeans. This furniture, that beer, another diamond pendant. Whatever we have, advertising says, isn’t enough. You need this thing too. And this thing. And another. And the coup de grace is to surreptitiously align their product with our nameless emotion longing. They craft beautifully produced mini films called commercials to peel back our rational defensiveness and cut right to the heart. Owning this kind of car proves your fatherly wisdom. Buying this kind of mayonnaise proves your worthiness as a mother. We already mistakenly believe that our happiness comes from external objects. And we bear so many wounds, labor beneath so much self-doubt, and harbor so many insecurities. Show us a pathway out of our pain. We aren’t that hard to sell to.
The favorite word of mercantilism is “new.” Like Pavlov’s bell, it sets off immediate salivation in the maw of the American consumer.
But the fact remains, we need each other, and we need each other’s goods and services. Our interrelationship is an economic one to be sure. In the struggle to survive, we’re all selling something – our ability, our talent, our service, our product. We are not debating the worthiness of one economic system over another. We are on a deeper hunt. We are looking for our freedom from delusion. There must be a way to honor our creativity, our profession, our work product, and still help each other awaken from the nightmare of, as some have dubbed it, affluenza – the disease of more, more, more.
It begins with choosing new thoughts. Start with the empirical evidence. Have an old, undesirable car? You’re in the wealthiest 5% on earth. Have a plumbing problem? Four out of ten people on earth don’t even have plumbing. They get their water from a creek – a creek that also serves as the village sewer. Struggling with a glitchy, old computer? 95% of the people on earth don’t own a computer. Then, after you take a cold hard look at the facts, begin to shift from the consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of gratitude. This transformation isn’t a one-time thing. It takes time to replace old habits with new ones. Begin a gratitude journal. Gratitude is a verb, not a noun. Chronicle your emerging gratitude day by day. After a year you’ll be a different person. Change your thoughts, change your life.
It is not an impoverished austerity we’re after. Asceticism is just another form of self-indulgence. The final goal is generosity, abundance of spirit, and the real and unapologetic enjoyment of life. We can enjoy our things and be at play in the field of forms without pathological attachment to any of them. We can create solutions, manufacture tools, master skills, and serve the needs of others without buying into the lie that happiness is measured by the pound. We can choose quality over quantity. We can do more with less. And we can fall in love with our lives just the way they are. It begins with practicing gratitude.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Welcome to the Show

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” – William Shakespeare

We stand in line, pay a pretty penny, and cram into sweltering rooms.  We sit on uncomfortable chairs or stand for hours – all for that moment, that moment of transcendence when the performer on stage digs deep and rips away the dull façade that hides from us the explosive vitality of our own lives. The veil falls away and for an instant we see into the heart of the mystery.
Then we file out into the night, drive home, and drift off to sleep still humming the chorus, feeling the beat of our hearts, drifting through the shimmers of insight and elation that broke through our indifference like shafts of light through a forest canopy. We love show business, even with all its absurdity, arrogance, bombast, and schmaltz. There’s something about it. Musicians, actors, directors, designers, producers, engineers, when they’re good, are as good as gods who create a world, draw you in, and set the crown upon your head. In the best art, we are all king or queen for a day, flush with power, ripe with wisdom, overflowing with love. We get it. The world, with all its possibilities, is ours.
Sometimes it even happens in front of the TV. I was five years old in February, 1964 when the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was dumbfounded. How could four lads with guitars and drums drive hordes of strangers into ecstasy? What strange magic was this?
Is there a connection, a relation, between stagecraft and so-called ordinary life? Is there something about the artistry of performance that holds a mirror up to the various roles we play in our own lives?
As I grew up I began to notice a discrepancy. I noticed it first in others. Then I discovered it in myself. We are one person in private, and another in public. In the solitude of our inner lives we roam freely down the canyons of consciousness following thought-streams wherever they lead. We stare into space because that’s where we’re going, and it’s smart to keep your eyes on the road. But when other people are around you have to pay attention. They might say something. They might shift in their seat in some meaningful way. Was that a sigh or was that a sigh? There are a hundred non-verbal cues to process, not to mention the vagaries of vibe. It’s exhausting. Maybe that’s just my introversion talking. But to some extent, this is true for all of us, introvert and extrovert alike. When we’re together there’s a certain amount of play acting involved. No longer autonomous, you consciously and unconsciously mirror the speech and behavior of others. The monologue’s over. It’s time for dialogue.
I don’t mean to say that we’re all a bunch of phonies. This observation isn’t born in despair. Good things arise in relationship. We absolutely need it. It’s just that initially anyway, dialogue calls for a little mimicry and play acting.
We play many roles in our lives – the good son, the loving daughter, the ardent bride, the faithful husband, the nurturing mother, the stalwart father, the trusted colleague, the insightful mentor, and loyal friend. When we get it right, we lose ourselves in those roles and use them as opportunities to be of service to the good, for it is through the aggregate actions of our individual lives that the collective good is realized. The danger, of course, is identifying too completely with any of those masks and dehumanizing ourselves by become merely actors, cogs in a machine devoid of sensitivity, empathy, and compassion. The goal of the hero in any hero’s tale is to sacrifice their comfort in service of others, and thereby fully realize their previously submerged authentic selves. It’s ironic. We become who we really are by playing a part, for it is only in the field of action that our inauthenticity is burned away. And it is through our selfless service that the world is healed.
That is why we are drawn so powerfully toward art, especially the art of performance. As we vicariously live through the character, the song, or the agonizing dilemma, we feel the truth of the depiction in the depths of our own soul. If our imagination is keen enough, and if we surrender our disbelief and fall under the spell, it is as if we live through the events on the stage ourselves – so clear is the mirror great art holds up to our own lives. Great performance gives us to ourselves in a way we are incapable of achieving in solitude. It happens in the space between the performer and the audience. We’re just built that way.
I played a solo show at Java Joe’s in San Diego a few weeks ago. It was a hot Saturday night and the room was full. After Chad Taggart played a wonderful opening set, I buttoned up my vest, put on my guitar, and stepped up to the mike.
It is an exhilarating feeling, looking out at an audience, that pregnant pause, the silence before the first downbeat, the void and formlessness before the creation, that moment when anything’s possible, the love and trust inherent in the deal you’ve made with the audience – you take time out of your busy lives, buy a ticket with your hard-earned money, bring all of your aliveness and passion and trouble into the room and take a seat, and I’ll stand and face you alone, and with my hands draw music from this guitar and with my voice sing stories and poems that hold a mirror up to your sorrow, your joy, your defeat, and your triumph. We will trust the power of music and song to reach deep into us and heal wounds we didn’t even know we had. And on a lucky night, when all the pieces come together, we experience something together that’s bigger than any one of us. A communion, a gathering of animals around a watering hole, a tribal band around an ancient fire beneath a field of stars we haven’t even named yet.
In that moment I was the troubadour, the bard, the oracle, the jester, the priest, and the fool. I played the bread and sang the wine of the Eucharist. I opened myself up for scrutiny. By the shear boldness of performance we are all emboldened. We watch performers very closely because we want to know, if I open myself up to scrutiny, if I come out of hiding, if I let the world see the truth about who and what I am, will they see me, will they know me, will they love me? This longing to be known in our authenticity drives so much of the relationship between performers and audiences. That’s why we leave shows, the good ones, feeling more alive, more courageous, and more willing to revel in our humanity. We forgive ourselves our transgressions and limitations, we love our broken places, and we know in our bones that we walk through a world full of good but wounded people just like us, and that we are safe among them, and as we learn to love them we learn to love ourselves.
          I’m packing up for another show. My guitar is safely stowed; my gig bag is full of gear.  Got the venue address in my phone and a Google map queued up. Soon I’ll set up my stuff in a room I’ve never been to before and step up to the microphone. I’ll look out at the audience, a room full of strangers, and I’ll see in their faces my own face, my own questions, my own joys and sorrows. They will embolden me. And I’ll step up to the mike and I will say, “Welcome to the show.”

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Sounding Joy

[This article first appeared in my A to Zen column in the November/December issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Every day at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. the bells ring out from the monastery.
Perched on a mesa overlooking Mission Valley, nestled in the quiet San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights, the Carmelite Monastery is home to the daughters of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic. The nuns live simple lives of silence and contemplative prayer. Keeping with tradition, the bells are rung by a different nun every day so their rhythm and cadence varies – an aural expression of the unique human hands on the other end of the rope.
These cloistered mystics have little interaction with the outside world, yet the sound of the bells penetrates every fiber of matter in a two mile radius – the homes and bodies of thousands of people. For 82 years, twice a day, nearly 60,000 times, these bells have startled an entire community out of their distracted, busy minds and into the sacred thrum of this present moment; the ringing clarity of the here and now. Sound does that. It gets your attention. It passes unimpeded through every cell of your body and leaves you changed.
The Book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning God spoke the world into being. He could have pointed his mighty finger or simply intended the universe into existence with his divine mind, but instead he chose sound and language as his creative medium – the original spoken word artist. “Let there be light,” he said. And there was light. And it was good.
In an act of alchemy the spoken word transforms intangible thoughts into physical vibrations that travel through the air and alter distant objects, even the fabric of reality itself. Words have power. The well-intentioned nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” turns out to be disingenuous if not downright false. While it is true that no one can shame us without our permission, it is also true that violent hate speech greases the skids to actual violence. Stemming one curtails the other. Words, it turns out, are real things.
This is why the Buddha made Right Speech one of the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. If we are serious about transforming consciousness, then along with increased mindfulness, right action, and meditation, we must learn to use words thoughtfully, compassionately, and truthfully. As Don Miguel Ruiz pointed out in The Four Agreements, our negative self-talk is the first place to start. If the spiritual practice of being impeccable with our word is to bear any fruit, it must begin with self-affirmations strong enough to counteract a lifetime of habitual self-loathing and denigration.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it does not make a sound. The impact of the tree makes waves in the air that travel a mile in five seconds, or 767 miles per hour. These waves cannot properly be called “sound” until they are perceived by a hearer. When they hit our eardrum our brain converts these waves of soundless energy into an experience called “sound.” Sound, like color, exists only in the mind of the perceiver, not in the outer world. Perception is an inside job.
So it is that sound connects us to each other and to the outer world in an intimate, symbiotic way. We co-create the perceptual field in concert with the stimuli around us. We are all creators who hear and speak the world into being.
Every time the nuns ring the bells, despite their vows of silence and chastity, they join with us and with the world in a way that transcends the categories of corporeal and spiritual. Sound joins us to each other and to ourselves by avowing our boundless, indefinable nature. The toll of the bell moves through us and shifts us on a molecular level. Throughout world philosophy this truth is affirmed – the soul itself is a musical harmony, and the sound emitted by all things impacts the physical and metaphysical composition of all other things. In this way, we are all one in sound. May we have the ears to hear the needs of others. May we speak the truth, and sing our love. May we choose to create instead of destroy. May we repeat the sounding joy in this and all seasons.

Friday, September 5, 2014

After the Loss

So a loved one died, or you got divorced, or you didn’t get the job you wanted. Unforeseen health challenges make real your mortality. The recognition you worked so hard for went to someone else. The childhood fantasy of what your life was supposed to look like failed to materialize. Mounting losses threaten to topple over and bury you in a landslide of broken rubble. How do you keep going? How do you teach yourself to give a damn? Is there any way to rediscover your original, childlike enthusiasm and zeal?
Of course there is. But it isn’t easy. Healing the wounds inflicted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune requires a steady effort and the many hands of a community. Our innate tendency to isolate has to be overcome through sheer will power. And the paradox is this – healing and wisdom rise up from within our own nature, yet they are drawn to the surface by the pull of the love we share with each other. We rend in monologue; we mend in dialogue. We heal ourselves, but only when we give ourselves over to something beyond ourselves.
A lot of us walk around grieving. We are ringed round with loss. We are born wanting, and it’s inevitable that multitudes of our endless needs go unmet. We want those we love to live forever. We want the recognition, admiration, or at least acceptance of our peers. We want our friends and family to love us on our terms, not theirs. We want different bodies, different hair, and different settings in which to show off our new fabulous forms. We want more money, more things, and a solid gold guarantee that none of it will ever be taken away from us. These endless cravings orchestrate a steady background hum of anxiety, depression, and resentment that characterizes so much of modern life. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In her 1969 tour de force On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages common to people in grief. Since then many others have amended and elaborated this typology, however, it still stands as a useful guide for people in grief. And that means all of us.
The first stage is denial and isolation. In grief and loss we tend to withdraw. It’s often rooted in embarrassment – we want to conceal the overwhelming emotional disintegration bursting through our carefully maintained façade. And on a more compassionate note, we simply don’t want to burden anyone around us with our pain – they’ve got their own to deal with. Or worse still we just plain refuse to acknowledge the facts before us. We wear our denial like armor.
The second stage is anger. Our unprocessed grief curls up like a snake and strikes at any convenient target – our loved ones, the doctors, the medical establishment as a whole, the bureaucracy that always accompanies death and dying, or even total strangers. How much road rage and domestic violence, I sometimes wonder, is the inappropriate purging of bottled up grief?
The third stage is bargaining. We’d do anything for a do-over. We blame ourselves and wish we could go back in time and make different choices. If only we had done this. If only we had said that. Knowing what we know now, every past decision and action gets subjected to the withering scrutiny of our self-loathing, judgmental second-guessing.
The fourth stage is depression. When it finally becomes clear that there’s no going back, a certain doom descends on the landscape. They really are gone. We really didn’t get that job. Our marriage failed. We really are getting old. Sickness and death will soon come for us. Why bother?
The fifth stage is acceptance. If we’re lucky, last long enough, and gain enough wisdom to arrive at this fifth and last stage, our hands unclench, our face softens, and we turn our attention away from what we’ve lost and toward the embarrassment of riches raining down around us. We suddenly see the whole wheel turning – the birthing, the living, the dying – as a beautiful river. Which part is the good part? The cloud? The rain? The mountain stream? The headwaters of the river, or the wide delta that merges into the sea? The cloud dies in the rain, the rain dies in the river, and the river dies in the sea, yet nature never grieves these changes. It knows that forms arise and fade, but the One from which all forms arise and to which all forms return is itself eternal and formless. Therefore emergence and dissolution is to be celebrated in all of its stages. Death is not wrong. It is not a mistake to be corrected. Why do we celebrate birth so joyfully and lament death so somberly? If we really understood the whole wheel, wouldn’t we honor birth and death equally?
In the face of loss the only sane stance is gratitude, and the mother of gratitude is acceptance. Instead of cursing the death of a loved one, we ought to be grateful they were ever born – especially in the case of a parent. I suppose it goes without saying, but if our parents hadn’t been born, we wouldn’t be having this whole grief problem. In other words, it is the very act of birth itself that ushers us into this terrible ordeal, this business of death, loss, and grieving. You can’t have one without the other. If you want to be born, then say hello to death. Life is death-defined.
This then is what it means to reach acceptance. We look the facts of living and dying in the face and we make peace with it, all of it. Sadly, many people die before they reach the stage of acceptance. They stay rooted in denial, anger, or depression. Sometimes those deleterious forces form the engine of their demise. Addiction, depression, suicide, and violent crime have many causes, but they clearly have roots in our inability to reach the acceptance stage. Prison is full of people who struggled to bring their inner lives into accord with the outer truths of existence. They gave into anger, rage, fear, addiction, and violence. Those outside of prison are not that different. We just haven’t been caught yet.
In some cosmic way it makes sense to say that each of us is responsible for our own inner lives. But claims like that are also cavalier and overlook the deep-tissue trauma that drives people to think and act like they do. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that “we are driven to action by our own natures.” And our natures are impacted and molded by our environment. Our hunger, our thirst, our sexual drives, our longing for love, acceptance, belonging, and self-expression all play a part in the formation of our consciousness and the forging of our choices and actions. Still, underneath all of these tiers of influence I believe we are free. No matter what, in each now moment we have a choice. I choose to believe that. I have to believe that. We may be driven by our natures, but we are not determined by them.
When we choose community, when we say yes to the messiness of relationship, when we forgive ourselves and others and learn to see with the eyes of love, we are renewed and restored to the center of our own lives. We come home to the beauty of being alive. But no one can move through these stages for us. We must put one foot before the other. There is a way to live after the loss, and we must take it.