Friday, December 30, 2011

The New Atheism

This article was originally published in the January/February 2012 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.

Atheism isn’t really new. It’s as old as the idea of God itself. At the dawn of history the first time someone said “there is a God” the guy standing next to him said “no there isn’t.” And we’ve been arguing about it ever since.

In the ten years since 9/11 a raft of writers have published best-selling books championing the well-worn idea that God is an invention of our over-active collective imagination, an invention humanity would be a lot better off without.

At the head of the pack of the so-called New Atheists is Richard Dawkins whose book The God Delusion, published in 2006, spent 51 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and has since sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and has little patience for any truth-claim that cannot be supported by empirical evidence. For him, belief in the virgin birth, Creationism and the existence of an invisible cosmic overlord is utterly groundless and worse – “Religion,” said Dawkins in a recent New York Times interview, “teaches you to be satisfied with non-answers.” In other words, religion makes us stupid.

Dawkins is not alone in his critique of the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. He joins a brilliant and esteemed list of philosophers including Hume, Sartre, Camus, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Nagarjuna, Mill, Chomsky, Santayana and Foucault.

Other famous atheists range from the not at all surprising (Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud) to the unexpected (Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller). Thoughtful, inventive, creative and courageous people throughout history have, at sometimes great personal and professional risk, dared to question the central paradigm of western civilization – that the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad is real.

But atheism doesn’t just ask questions – it asserts answers. By making a specific truth claim, namely that there is no God, atheism is vulnerable to the same criticism it levies against theism. Whether you claim there is a God or not you still have to supply evidence to support your claim and present that evidence in a framework we can all accept. The devil is always in the details.

Where Dawkins’s brand of atheism falls short is in its misestimation of the human capacity to know. For Dawkins, religion is a failed science – a science utterly without evidence or sound hypotheses. What Dawkins is unwilling to consider is the possibility that religion and science do not share a common epistemology. The process by which one establishes knowledge or certainty in science is utterly different from the process by which one establishes knowledge or certainty in religion. Scientific certainty is founded solely on empirical, that is, sensory evidence whereas religious conviction is founded on externally unverifiable inner experience. Religious claims are therefore prone to a host of criticisms from an empirical epistemological stance. To scientists like Dawkins religion is nothing more than a long list of misunderstandings amplified through time and concretized by tradition. Gone from even the realm of consideration is the possibility that there are ways of apprehending reality other than through sensory data and conceptual thought. What if non-sensory awareness or direct, unmediated experience carries its own epistemological weight? As Native American philosopher Vine Deloria puts it, “We may misunderstand, but we do not misexperience.” Learning to humbly trust the authority of our own inner-awareness gives birth to an epistemology unbound by mere intellect and the limiting mechanics of logic.

Ironically, atheism does religion a great favor by laying bare the absurdities inherent in any attempt to conceptualize the ground of being. If the formless ground of being that we commonly personify as God is the source of all reality, (including our conceptual minds), then of course any mere concept of God falls woefully short of the reality it purports to describe, leaving all such concepts susceptible to ridicule.

Whether we like Dawkins’s conclusion or not, any thinking person understands and appreciates the urgent importance of his inquiry. Throughout history, the God idea has done as much harm as good. Religious wars, oppression, conquests and crusades have left us battered and bloodied. Given the rise in popularity of atheism in the post 9/11 world it is clear that a great number of people are frustrated by religion, especially fundamentalism in all its many forms. Atheists like Dawkins capture a wide audience because they deftly skewer outdated and outmoded God-concepts that never really worked anyway. In other words, the God-concept attacked by atheism is a God-concept many of us have already left behind – the angry, judgmental, anthropomorphic God (think Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel) who commands unquestioning obedience to an endless list of confusing and often conflicting dictates administered by an authoritarian church. It’s a shame, however, that in their haste to abandon religion so many people have cut ties with their innate spirituality as well.

A genuinely scientific and open minded approach to the God question would allow for the possibility that while the existence of God cannot be proven within the narrow bounds of empirical science, God may still exist. In this sense Dawkins does not disappoint. Dawkins believes that evolution is progressive and inherently leads to increasingly complex forms. The emergence of conscious beings from the primordial ooze strongly suggests the possibility of significant future evolutionary development. If there was no God “in the beginning”, could there be one now or in the future? “Yes,” says Dawkins, “it is highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures,” and if there aren’t, there could be someday. Such is the power and potential of evolution. Admittedly, these are not the sort of gods that populate creation myths the world over but are rather the result of a long, unguided process of mutation and natural selection of desirable traits – the culmination of evolution, not its genesis.

What Dawkins is unwilling to concede, despite eons of experiential evidence, is that God-consciousness is not just a future possibility, the end-point of eons of evolutionary progress, but the starting point of it all. If God-consciousness is the source of everything, and even more to the point the essential nature of everything, then it is impossible to turn God into a mere concept let alone a logically sound one. Trying to define God is like trying to see your own eyes. “The source of consciousness cannot be an object in consciousness,” said Nisargadatta Maharaj in his classic of Vedanta philosophy I Am That. “To know the source is to be the source.” In other words, we cannot turn God into a thought because God is the very act of thinking itself. Asking us to explain God is like asking a fish to explain water. We cannot point to a disembodied thing called God because God is what everything is. This brand of religious philosophy, dismissively and misleadingly called pantheism by mainstream theologians, offers a third alternative to the tired theism/atheism debate.

By challenging an outmoded concept of God and the crippling propensity of mainstream religious doctrine to jettison rational thought Dawson is performing an invaluable service. Arguably, he is helping us all move forward out of millennia of dogmatic authoritarian hearsay and toward a spirituality grounded firmly in experiential knowing. As Jung famously remarked, “Religion is a defense against the experience of God,” and as such ought to be critically examined by all who wish to deepen their authentic spiritual practice. Dawkins’s well-reasoned attack on traditional religious belief is pushing us away from the shallow end of the pool and into deeper waters. From here we can see the other side.

In any debate, theological and other wise, the goal is not to eliminate dissention and compress the baffling complexity of reality down to a single, simplistic proposition. No matter how deep our longing, humanity’s search for meaning cannot be reduced to an up or down vote on the existence of God. The object of thoughtful discourse is to allow conflicting truth claims to polish each other to a shining luster in the rough and tumble give and take of rigorous yet mutually beneficial dialogue. And in the great sorting, the chaff is left on the granary floor, laying bare the wheat that nourishes us all on the long road to wisdom. Moving past simple scenarios of this or that, we finally begin to appreciate the need to grow beyond slavish attachment to rigid opinions or positions. Maybe the question of God’s existence can never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. “The great and most important problems in life are utterly unsolvable,” said Carl Jung, “they can never be solved, but only outgrown.” Instead of childishly regarding the new atheism as either true or false, it is more likely that it is yet another facet of the unfolding of evolutionary consciousness, a welcome corrective to our natural tendency to cling to old narratives and conceptual frameworks that no longer serve our highest good.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Simple Misunderstanding

At big family gatherings Aunt Sally always prepared a ham. As her older sisters watched, she would carefully cut a large chunk off the end of the ham before placing it in her over-sized roasting pan. Being gracious house guests, none of her sisters said a word, deferring to their host’s culinary wisdom. After many years the oldest sister Martha finally spoke up.

“Why do you always cut off the end of the ham before roasting it?” Martha asked.

“Because that’s how mom always did it,” Sally replied. “It makes the ham more delicious.”

Martha went out to the living room to fetch their old mother.

“Mom,” said Martha, “Sally cuts the end off the ham like you always did because you said it tastes better that way. Is it true, does that make it taste better?”

“Oh no dear,” said their old mother as she ambled into the kitchen, “I had to cut the end off the ham so it would fit into my tiny roasting pan.”

As individuals, families and societies, we are often bedeviled by past practices that no longer have meaning and worse – they’ve been clothed in the unassailable garb of tradition and now lie beyond reproach. Cutting off the end of the ham did nothing to improve the flavor. It was just an empty ritual based on a simple misunderstanding.

In his illuminating book Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond recounts the story of how we all got stuck with the QWERTY keyboard on our computers. Named for the first six letters on the left end of the upper row, the QWERTY keyboard was first designed in 1873 with the express purpose of slowing down typists. The levers of these early typewriters were prone to jam, so in order to make typing as difficult and awkward as possible the most commonly used letters were scattered all around the keyboard instead of being placed conveniently in the center. To make matters worse, the most common letters were placed on the left side where most people are weakest. Fifty years later in the 1930s the mechanical issues had been resolved and the hammers no longer jammed. Newly redesigned keyboards increased typing speed by 95 percent. But it was too late. The QWERTY keyboard was deeply entrenched into the culture, and there was no going back. The productivity of typists throughout the twentieth century was sacrificed to the tune of 95 percent on the altar of “but we’ve always done it this way.” Even computer designers utilized the horribly awkward QWERTY configuration for their keyboards. Introducing a new keyboard at this point would be commercial suicide. No one would buy it. We like our absurdly designed and maddeningly difficult keyboards just the way they are.

The larger question Jared Diamond raises in Guns, Germs and Steel is this: in the evolution of human societies, why do some cultures embrace technological innovation while others remain entrenched in old ways of thinking and deeply committed to outmoded and inefficient behaviors? The same question could apply to each one of us individually. Why do we mindlessly cut off the ends off the ham even though our pan is plenty big enough to hold the whole thing?

The answer is right in front of us. We are habitual creatures and do not embrace change, no matter how beneficial. We don’t like learning new things because we don’t like feeling incompetent and awkward. Both as individuals and societies we’ve become attached to our thought-systems and past practices.

Another dynamic that impacts technological progress is the fact that new inventions are sometimes ignored because they simply do not align with current cultural values or needs. Gun powder and guns were invented in Asia long before they were ever seen in the west. But as tools of warfare guns never caught on in medieval Japan. Guns were seen as crude and dishonorable under Samurai code, an ethos that celebrated the elegant choreography of swordsmanship and the rare courage of elite warriors. Killing your enemy from a distance by blasting lead balls through steel tubes dehumanized the ancient art of honorable combat. Technology must always serve the deepest needs of a people, not the other way around.

It is also the case that invention is rarely born from necessity. When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 no one “needed” a phonograph. He was just messing around. He certainly was not trying to invent the music industry (although that’s what he did) – recording music was the last thing on his mind. As inventors often do, Edison completely misunderstood the wider applications of his own invention. He simply wanted to record the last words of dying people, record books for the blind, announce time and teach spelling. Edison was convinced the phonograph would have no lasting commercial value. It was only later that some ingenious entrepreneurs used Edison’s technology to invent the jukebox. Soon there were jukeboxes all across America in bars and restaurants, swallowing the coins of patrons thirsty to hear the latest popular song. The record industry was born and music would never be the same.

But it is never simple. Technological innovation does not drive culture as is often assumed. We embrace or reject new gadgets based on their affinity with our current value system. Sometimes rock throwing tribes do not adopt bow and arrow technology even though they’re surrounded by enemy tribes that do, simply because they prefer the old way of doing things. There’s no judgment here. Technological progress is not an unmitigated good. The Samurai settled regional conflicts by sending one warrior from each of the warring states to engage in a battle to the death with each side accepting the outcome. That would be like locking Rambo and Osama bin Laden in a room and whoever walked out would be the winner and no one else would have to die. Does anyone really think we do it better now?

The lessons from these stories seem clear. But that doesn’t make them easy to learn. On one hand, we sometimes embrace changes that erode our most cherished values, allowing technology to shape humanity instead of the other way around. In that case, change is bad. But most of the time, like Aunt Sally, our unwillingness to innovate, improve and change is rooted in a deeply irrational and unconscious attachment to ways of thinking that no longer serve our highest good. We simply do not have the eyes to see all the myriad ways we are caught in a web of ignorance, tradition and conformity. For some reason we do not have the wisdom to see when change is good. Maybe the Buddha was right when he characterized our attachment to old ways of thinking, being and doing as a disease of the ego. Along the way we came to believe that our current patterns of thought and behavior defined and embodied our identity, and to alter or abandon these patterns would be to alter or abandon ourselves. This was a fracture our ego simply could not endure. But down deep we know that we are not bound by our thoughts or our patterned behaviors. Beneath the layers of social conditioning and fear-based attachment we are infinitely free. Sometimes change is good. Sometimes change is bad. Wisdom is the capacity to discern which is which. Let’s hope we stop cutting off the end of the ham for no reason. Let’s hope we finally grow out of this simple misunderstanding.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Wisdom of Winter

Just as each of the seasons of our lives – infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age – bring their own challenges and rewards, so too each season of the year offers an opportunity to shift into deeper awareness and align our lives with the larger forces around us. Every season is an invitation to reorient ourselves to the wider world, and as the world changes around us, we too are changed.

Winter is subtle – it hides its treasures beneath a blanket of cold, grey stillness. It reminds us that nothing is ever known by its surface alone. We have to go deeper. And nothing invites us so powerfully into the depths of our own lives as the wisdom of winter.

Slow down. Winter teaches us to move differently. In the rain and snow we change our pace. Slipping and falling on ice is sudden – the first sign of trouble is your skull smacking the ground and your groceries skittering down the driveway. Haste does indeed make waste, and not just the spilt milk. Rushing ahead to some imagined goal, we miss the ordinary perfection of the here and now. Why we are so eager to abandon this now moment in exchange for an illusion is a mystery wise women and men have been pondering for eons. Even though it is counterintuitive and paradoxical, all our best evidence points to the fact that slowing down gets us farther.

Withdraw. In winter, plants and trees draw their energy down and into the roots. They drop their blossoms and leaves and take on a dull, dusky hue. No longer concerned with outer growth and attracting attention, they shift inward and settle down for a long, slow period of stillness. Safe in the knowledge that a far-away spring will one day awaken them from their dream world, they rest peacefully, nested where they stand. Winter is also a good time to drop our busyness, pull back from the realm of achievement, and retire from the ceaseless competition that normally characterizes our lives. It’s O.K. if you don’t answer every email, voice mail and text message. Your silence is answer enough for now.

Take comfort in simple things. The days grow short and the nights grow long. Cold winds bring rain and snow clouds from the north. Walking through your neighborhood in the falling darkness you see the lights of home and the smoke from the chimney trailing out across the stars. On the porch you kick the snow off your boots and inside you hang your coat on the hook by the door. The smell of the soup rises up like a prayer of thanks to the earth and you let it soften your heart and unwind the last coils of your busy mind. You break bread with the ones you love by the fire. No Taj Mahal or Palace of Versailles could possibly compare with the joy and comfort of your own four walls. A hot bath, a warm bed and clean sheets are all you need to ever know about heaven.

Learn how to wait. Winter places everything on hold. Time slows down to a crawl. It’s dark most of the time. There’s nothing you can do to change any of this. The bulbs of spring lay dormant under a blanket of snow. It takes some imagination to see a white snowfield as a colorful meadow of columbine, but that’s what it is – the two contrasting conditions separated only by time. Winter withers our demands by simply waiting them out. Winter helps us leave behind our tiny orbits of craving and satiation by lifting us into the infinitely generative cycles of the natural world. As we surrender to the larger forces around us we are liberated from our small-minded petulance. We let go of me-time and enter into the grace of eternity.

Learn how to trust. A hibernating bear surrenders to a deep unconsciousness, trusting in the safety of its cave. We too can learn to trust, safe in the knowledge that the wheel of the heavens is turning without our anxious interference. Trust is an opportunity waiting for us within the core of each moment. Religious people call it faith. Simply put, it is the consciousness of optimism – the knowledge that despite current appearances, the universe is by nature an abundant field of unlimited possibility. Contrary to popular usage, faith is not believing in things for which we have no evidence. Faith is a way of being in the world, an empty-handed acquiescence into the wonder of it all, a deep and joyful knowing that we absolutely belong here. Faith is the simple-hearted recognition that despite all the temporary set backs, in the long run the universe is conspiring in our favor.

Renew and restore. In winter the earth and all her energies turn inward because without this necessary time of rest, the bursting forth of spring and the bounteous fruition of summer would not be possible. Winter and summer are not two separate things – they are two points on one circle. The circle cannot be broken anywhere without damaging it everywhere. Taking the time to rest and restore your body, mind and soul is an essential and often-overlooked aspect of our productive creativity. It is literally true that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is nothing.

Let silence speak. In winter the world lies muted under a blanket of silence. The raucous frenzy of the spring mating season is months away. A few remaining birds stare silently from their frozen perches, their coal-black eyes set deep in their ruffled faces. The voices of hidden springs are muffled beneath thick drifts of snow. Only a faint wisp of wind high in the pines reminds us just how silent it really is. In our own lives, winter calls us away from the clatter and clamor of the world of commerce and so-called productivity, and invites us into the wide open space of our own weariness. We sit bone-tired on the bus, or stuck in rush hour traffic. We wait for the light to change. We stand in the driveway under a full-moon sky and taste tomorrow’s rain on the wind. We are inspired by the unexpected kinship we feel with these fellow travelers all just trying to go home, and with this moon, and with this wind, and with tomorrow’s rain. And we have no words, no clever thoughts with which to frame all of this unmediated experience. It feels right not to talk. Winter has shown us how. And in the silence we hear the words that can never be spoken, the melody that can never be sung, and the knowing that can never be grasped. And in that moment we are amazed, and we know now how to go on.

Winter gives us all of these things and asks for nothing in return. It doesn’t need anything. In fact, it is busy letting go of what little it has. And in the letting go there is a great freedom, a great emptiness, and great openness and a great clarity. We have only to slow down, wait, trust and feel ourselves awakening to the wisdom of winter.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Wisdom of Music

Music is an opportunity. Music is an invitation. Music is an open window to a world beyond the walls of our conceptual mind. For musicians and listeners alike, music cleanses our souls and washes smooth the rough edges of our lives. Music heals. If not for music, most of us would go insane.

Music is the most powerful and mysterious of art forms. We enjoy its intrinsic value, but we also learn from its potent presence. Music is a masterful teacher. After over forty years as a performing musician, here is what I’ve learned from the wisdom of music.

Practice. Transformation is possible if you are willing to discipline yourself and practice the behaviors you wish to embody. We become better songwriters by writing songs. We become more compassionate by practicing compassion. We become more courageous by practicing courage. There is no short cut. Just begin to behave like the person you want to be. New habits will form as old habits fall away. It isn’t mysterious at all. Action creates transformation. Do what you want to be.

Stay in the moment. Unlike other art forms, music happens only in this now moment. A painting, on the other hand, hangs statically on the wall and it is the viewer who controls the experience. We decide when and for how long to look, the eyes freely wandering across the canvas. Music robs us of this autonomy as we fall under its spell, drawn inexorably deeper into the present. In this sweet surrender we are unburdened of the exhausting task of egoic control and slip instead into a liberating selflessness. Usually caught up in the twin thought streams of past and present, we rarely experience the freedom of this now moment. Music reminds us and brings us back. What beauties would be revealed if we lived our life as music and surrendered to it with the same willingness?

Find the natural rhythm. When playing with other musicians, and even in solo performance, there is always a rhythm underway and it is our task to find it and fall into it. This requires deep listening, rapt attention and the longing for union. When you allow your own body’s rhythms to align with the rhythm around you, the walls of the limited self dissolve leaving only boundless awareness. Bringing this same attentiveness to all aspects of your life creates the opportunity to move into accord with the energies around you enhancing both your effectiveness and your joy.

Find the balance between effort and effortlessness. The best musicians know that the ideal is only realized in the mysterious alchemy where effort and effortlessness merge. Those who try too hard or not hard enough are equally doomed. A good rule of thumb is to put vigorous effort into the practicing process, but on stage let it fly. The same rule applies in life. Show up prepared, then get out of your own way.

Take the lead, but be guided. Having the courage to step forward and lead – in a difficult moment of parenting, in the struggle for social justice or in a guitar solo – is essential. But every leader knows that the most important quality in leadership is attention. Listen, perceive and feel with the utmost sensitivity and be willing to be guided by the truth of what is.

Play. There’s a reason they call it playing music. Despite the years of discipline and hard work that lay behind musical mastery, in the end it is from a deep sense of joy and fun that music arises. As Confucius asked, “Is it not after all a pleasure to express what one has learned?” Playing music with friends, dancing at a wedding or blasting your favorite song a little too loud in the car is just plain fun. And fun is the body’s way of rewarding itself for doing such a great job of staying alive all these years.

Let beauty happen. Something amazing happens when you awaken to the confluence of elements that make up this now moment. Beauty is not wrestled to the ground by muscle nor is it trapped by cleverness. Beauty, like happiness, is the natural byproduct of a well-lived life, born into fullness when you stop seeking and start allowing. Simply do what is yours to do, let go of the outcome and let the joy of the work sink in. Beauty is the eternal presence shining through the veil of the fleeting moments of our lives. It is seen, heard and felt; never grasped, possessed or controlled. When you try to hold it you lose it.

Become an instrument. Just as a guitar is a channel through which music flows from the musician to our ears, so too our bodies, thoughts, words and deeds are the instruments with which we play our life-song. The instrument does not make the music, the musician does. The instrument is the means by which the unmanifest is made manifest. As the composer weaves threads of memory, longing, melody, rhythm, and rhyme into a song so too the constituent elements that make up our lives are woven together by an unseen hand into a work of singular beauty and power. Find the courage to be your instrument, that is, live your life, in a way that honors its sacred source.

The courage of intimacy. Are you brave enough to let all your defenses drop? Are you willing to be seen as you are, unguarded, naked, bereft of all pretence? The courage to allow real intimacy requires a deep sense of self-acceptance – the conviction that who you are, just as you are, is enough. This is what makes master musicians so compelling. They’re fearless. We can’t take our eyes off them. They somehow find a way to let everything fall away except the truth of this moment, and their honesty becomes a mirror in which we see our own authentic life emerging.

Be tender and tough. Great music requires a light touch and relentless heart. Novice musicians often overdo it. They play too much, they play too loud and they play too hard. They mistake toughness for talent. Only later do they discover that real power lies in subtlety. Their eagerness is understandable – we all mistake bluster for mastery at first. In music, as in life, real strength lies in the ability to be tough and tender all in the same moment. Let there be silence and restraint, but strike boldly when the time is right.

Surrender. If we do it right, music overpowers us and takes us over. It sets the rhythm of our heart, binds the meter of our breath, flushes our face, fires our soul and frees us from the arid drudgery of our intellectualized existence. So too our lives can awaken from their dreary slumber when we stop struggling and surrender to the energies of the cosmos flowing through and around us. By opening our ears, our hearts and our minds – this is how we learn from the wisdom of music.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ten Years

I remember being ten years old in 1968 when Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sitting on the curb in front of my house on another long summer afternoon I wondered what my life would be like in 2001. It sounded so impossibly far away. I did the math. I would be 43. That’s practically dead. Would I be married? Would I have kids? Would my wife look like Cammie Ramelli from fifth grade home room, because that would be awesome. Would we have flying cars?

Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was still a brand new album. Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and were the hot young things on the radio. David Gilmore had just replaced Syd Barret in Pink Floyd. Johnny Cash had just left his wife for June Carter and they wrote a little song about it called “Ring of Fire.” Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. A lot of my big brother’s classmates were dying in a place none of us had ever heard of called Vietnam. That’s a lot for a ten year old to absorb. I sat on that curb in front of my house a lot.

Ten years later I was a twenty year old pulling out of my parent’s driveway in my overloaded Datsun 510 wagon on the way to UC Santa Barbara. It was 1978 and The Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack dominated the airwaves. An unknown band out of Pasadena called Van Halen and an obscure singer-songwriter named Elvis Costello both released their debut albums changing the way the rest of played guitar and wrote songs forever. Getting the most spins on my turntable that year was Bruce Springsteen’s new album Darkness on the Edge of Town.

By the time 2001 finally rolled around the world had changed so many times I’d lost count. The vinyl albums and turntables we’d used to play the soundtracks of our lives had given way to cassettes, CDs and mp3s. Although her name was not Cammie, my wife was gorgeous, we didn’t have any kids and we most certainly did not have a flying car.

2001 turned out to be a pretty big year. In May, after ten years of part-time teaching at various community colleges in San Diego, I finally landed a full-time tenure-track position as a philosophy professor at Southwestern College. In June, a few weeks later, I turned 43 years old in the Vista jail on my first and last DUI. That September brought the horror of 9/11. And in October the San Diego Troubadour was officially launched.

The Troubadour was hatched on the kitchen table of Lyle and Ellen Duplessie. They recruited their good friend Liz Abbott, an experienced artist, editor and graphic designer to captain the ship and Liz’s husband Kent Johnson to handle the crucial tasks of advertising and distribution. The four of them started calling everyone they knew lining up stories and writers.

Why bother? Why go through all the agonizingly hard work? Why launch another free weekly paper in an already crowded market? Clearly there was no real money to be made – this was a break-even project at best. But something had to be done, and somebody had to do it. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

Frustration is the womb of creation. The idea for the Troubadour was born out the frustration at the lack of media coverage for the music that mattered most to the Duplessies. San Diego had just come through an incredible decade of unprecedented musical output, the nineties, and the major papers in town had too many other things to write about to adequately cover it. San Diego had always had a vibrant music scene going all the way back to the dawn of rock and roll, but the nineties saw the rise of the coffeehouse circuit where venues like Java Joe’s and Mikey’s spawned a long list of acoustic singer-songwriters that went on to garner Grammy’s, White House command performances and gold records. Genres like alt-country, Americana, folk, jazz, gospel and roots music of all stripes were routinely overlooked in the mainstream media. Something had to be done.

So the San Diego Troubadour was born.

Ten years later, the Troubadour is a well-established musical mainstay in the San Diego region with a raft of contributing photographers, top-tier journalists and a reputation for humility, integrity and passion, three qualities not always found in the smarmy, oh-so-ironic hipster world of music journalism. Its DIY vibe and down-home feel stand out in an industry dominated by corporate media and revolving-door writers on their way to better and bigger things. One outstanding exception to the rule is San Diego Union-Tribune’s long-time music writer George Varga whose encyclopedic knowledge, nuanced insight and genuine love of music shines through every word he writes. Like many local luminaries, his professional excellence earned him a spot on the cover of the Troubadour in 2004.

By playing against type and reaching out to a vast clientele and readership grossly underserved by its competitors, the Troubadour has secured its place in San Diego journalism history. And the story’s just beginning. Having proven itself as a legitimate player in a crowded field, the Troubadour continues to expand its coverage and influence through digital, audio and visual media. Who knows what the next ten years will bring.

Ten years is a long time. Ten years is the blink of an eye. But what’s most striking to me is how a vision, born out of love – love for music and a keen desire to share that music with a much wider audience – spanned the chasm between the possible and the actual. Never letting the how interfere with the what, Lyle, Ellen, Liz and Kent and the great team of people they surrounded themselves with kept putting one foot before the other, never completely sure that any of this was going to work, but trusting in the knowledge that if you do good things, people will find you and support you.

It wasn’t always easy. In fact, in never was. In February, 2004 Lyle lost his beautiful and loving wife Ellen to a long battle with cancer. Four months later Lyle died of a heart attack while surfing with his family in Mission Beach. They both left us way too young. But they also left us with a vision and a passion and a willingness to keep doing the hard work of putting out a fresh edition every four weeks without fail, knowing that there are always more stories to tell, more music to share and more community-building to actualize.

Good journalism tells the truth. Great journalism reconnects us with the things that matter most. As we read these stories and see these pictures we are looking into a world very much like our own – filled with everyday heroes who plug away at their dreams, willing to risk it all on the off chance that passion really is worth living for, no matter how depleted our checking account becomes. Always a passion-first and a business-second endeavor, the San Diego Troubadour stands as an inspiration to anyone willing to take a chance on something they believe in, no matter how many consultants tell you it’ll never work. As you gather around your kitchen table with friends to consider your next move, ask yourself a few important questions. What’s frustrating you these days? What does the world need? Is there something trying to emerge, trying to be born? Are you the one to help midwife the next stage of our collective evolution? What if we let go of our fear and lived our lives instead from wonder and joy? Maybe tonight around a kitchen table somewhere a new project is beginning to take shape. And ten years from now we’ll all wonder how we ever lived without it. Where will you be, who will you be and what will come through you in these next ten years?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Remembering 9/11

This article was originally published in the September/October 2011 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.

We knew it would come. We knew that one day the hurt, the anger, and the confusion would recede like tide sliding back into the sea. We knew that pain so explosive and so blinding couldn’t last. One day, we would have to start breathing again.

Ten years ago, in the moment before the attack, America was a profoundly different place. But everything shifted at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit the south tower at 9:03, our hearts turned to ice and our heads struggled in vain to comprehend the inconceivable reality of large-scale warfare in lower Manhattan. When the Twin Towers collapsed to the ground our innocence collapsed with them.

Nothing we had ever experienced could have prepared us for the horror of that morning. News from the Pentagon and from the Pennsylvania crash made it clear that this was a concerted attack and that America was in fact at war. And it was not just an attack on America. Among the 3,000 dead that day were citizens of fifty six countries and members of all faiths, including many Muslims. On the seventeenth floor of the south tower there was an Islamic prayer room where devout Muslims from all walks of life met for daily worship. The murderous brutality of the attack staggers the imagination and defies logic. Across the country and around the world a crushing grief descended on us like a plague.

The stages of grief and healing unfold on their own schedule. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance each take their turn at the wheel. In our spiritual practice we focus on the last stage, acceptance, and for good reason. The consciousness of acceptance is both the end and the means of our deliverance unto wisdom. When we let go and surrender to what is, we move out of confusion and into clarity. But it takes time. It takes time for silt to settle back to the bottom leaving the water clear. It takes time for waves to soften into stillness. It takes time before the moon can once again be seen reflected on the surface of the water.

But it doesn’t just take time. It takes effort. After we let the body’s knowledge lead us through the necessary seasons of our grief, feeling fully every wrenching seismic shift, we gradually find the courage to take our lives back. Our prayer and meditation practice opens windows to the light. No longer satisfied to be a leaf in the wind we find our inner compass, that part of us that longs to thrive and be well, that yearns to heal and be a part of the healing of others, and we step boldly forward not knowing where the road will take us, but knowing that up ahead lies something beautiful and true.

We know that all forms arise and all forms fade. We know that to everything there is a season. We know that death and birth are two names for one circle. And we know that Life, in all its myriad forms, will go on forever and ever. We even know that this body we call our own is made of dust and will return to dust. But knowing all these things doesn’t stop the heart from longing. We long for that crisp taste of apple, that first kiss, the feel of sun on our skin. Life is just too beautiful to let go easily. But the beauty itself holds the key. Behind the veil of the world’s fleeting forms lies a Divine Ground, a changeless source known as God, Brahman, Tao or the Nameless. It is out of this formless Source that the world of forms arises. The beauty of the world is the beauty of the Eternal shining through the surface of things. It’s the apple we love, but it is the orchard, rooted deep in the ground, that expresses itself as the apple. When with sickening finality the Twin Towers collapsed we saw with our own eyes the undeniable truth of the impermanence of all things. And yet in precisely that moment, we knew in our hearts that the love and truth that gives rise to all things can never be broken, no matter how many apples fall to the ground in the storms of autumn.

When we come together to pray and sing and breathe in the silence, we stand on the shore of a sea of knowing that goes down and down and down to the place where we are all one. It is from this knowing that forgiveness and acceptance arise. Together, in our families, in our spiritual communities, in the boundlessness of nature, we feel beyond thoughts and know beyond words that despite the horror of the foreground, in the depths of the Source there is a peace that surpasses all understanding and we have only to allow it to carry us. When we stop struggling we feel ourselves begin to lift like a wing on a wind not of our own making. Let these hands hold us. Let this love lift us. Let this wisdom lead us. We cannot stop the arising and fading of forms any more than we can seize the setting sun. But we can feel in our bones the peace of acceptance.

Tragedy and loss are universal. When a terrible fire swept through 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide’s property, with characteristic Japanese minimalism he wrote his most famous two-line poem: “Barn’s burned down, now I can see the moon.”

With every loss we have an opportunity to see things anew – wonders that were right in front of us but for one reason or another we overlooked.

This is how we heal. By opening our eyes and our hearts to what is, knowing that none of this is ours, that everything we own and everything we love is only on loan to us, and that we must give it all back, every bit of it – often without warning. Wisdom means living in the consciousness of gratitude that we ever even got to touch any of it. Be patient and forgiving. Let your life be a proud testament, not a sad apology. You belong here, but only for a while. Stand up and be amazing. Release your mistakes. Rise out of the ruins.

We remember the dead and we will always love them. But memorials aren’t for the dead. The real purpose of memorializing is to affirm and celebrate the infinite value of this baffling mystery called life.

We have lost so much. But now we can see the moon.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Ends of Things

It’s been ten years since the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed under their own terrible weight taking all of our innocence with them. The unmitigated horror of that day knocked the breath out of us. Many of us kept walking – life goes on – but our souls still linger at the killing ground where so many lives of incalculable beauty were crushed and destroyed in the name of an ideological beef. But the militant extremists who planned, funded and carried out that attack were not just killing Americans – citizens of 56 countries died in the towers that day including many Muslims. On the seventeenth floor of the south tower there was an Islamic prayer room where devout Muslims from all walks of life met for daily worship. Not that it mattered to the killers. When your heart’s set on killing, nothing matters.

What we learn from loss is this: fate can take everything from us – our husbands, our wives, our children, our home, our money, everything we love, and yet just beyond the veil of this incalculable suffering is a still-point, a changeless refuge, an island in the stream. We cannot name it, conceptualize it or understand it, but there it is nonetheless. Some teachings call it serenity, others call it the peace that surpasses all understanding, and still others call it acceptance. Some have tried to describe it as nirvana, the kingdom of heaven, moksha, satori or sat-chit-ananda. Wisdom traditions all over the world and across the centuries have zeroed in on this universal aspiration: how to navigate this treacherous minefield called life and come out unscathed. The answer? You can’t.

The point is not to avoid suffering. The point is to feel the pain and live your life anyway.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life hurts. Everything that comes into being goes out of being. Because we live in linear time everything is in constant flux. The ends of things hurt. The one fundamental experience we all have in common is loss.

Among the many gods of the Hindu pantheon one god stands out – Shiva. He is charged with the task of destruction. Like any gods, the Indian gods are simply personifications of the many powers of the one power and presence in the universe, the divine ground, the sacred, cosmic intelligence of the matrix out of which all forms arise and to which all forms return – what George Lucas called the Force. Why then would the act of creation stand out as more sacred or more important than the act of destruction?

In the most common depiction of Shiva he is shown dancing on one foot surrounded by a ring of fire, his other leg sweeping before him like the wing of a bird. In one of his four hands he holds a tiny drum with which he metes out moments of time. In his other up-raised hand he holds the flame of transformation which will consume all forms.

His other two arms sway sinuously near his waist, each hand formed into a gesture, a hand-sign called a mudra. One of the mudras is an invitation to liberation, an opportunity to join in the dance and say yes to change, yes to loss, yes to the inevitable cycles of creation and destruction that swirl in and around us. The other mudra means “don’t be afraid.” Surrender your fear and live in the knowledge that all forms are temporary. Know that beneath the waves of change lies a depth undisturbed. Be liberated from the gut-wrenching illusion that we own any of this, that we have the right to possess or cling to anything. Everything we see, everything we touch, everything we own, everything we love is only on loan to us, and we have to give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. Stay in the consciousness of surrender to this truth and feel your appreciation for the beauty and value of everyone and everything increase. Fall in love with the world and all its folly. Get ready to laugh and love and feel more deeply than you ever have before. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when you let go of everything you will feel closer to everything than you ever have before. It is only in the consciousness of surrender and acceptance that you become truly capable of loving. As Gandhi said, the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is fear, and where there is fear there cannot be love and where there is love there cannot be fear. The two states are mutually exclusive. The consciousness of loving-kindness is just another word for freedom from fear. This is why Jesus, like Shiva, continually told his students to “be not afraid.”

The seed must die for the tree to be born. Shiva is ultimately a creation god – destruction is merely the means by which he creates. That we celebrate birth and fear death is evidence of our limited understanding of how things really work. The ends of things make way for everything we are trying to create, everything we are trying to become, everything yet to be.

Fear and anxiety are the disease. Surrender and acceptance are the medicine.

In the grace beyond judgments of good and bad, where the lion lays down with the lamb, where tears of joy and tears of sorrow flow together and no one counts them up, there is a deep and final forgiveness where all the thoughtlessness, cruelty, self-centeredness and ignorance fall away leaving us once again awash in our original oneness, returned at last to remain in that state we have only visited in our dreams.

Don’t try to understand it. Feel your way through the thicket of thorns. See, even in the eyes of your tormentor, the frightened child walking within all of us, barking orders and sacrificing beauty on the altar of self-protection. Once we know that our essential self needs no protection because it is imperishable, we soften our grasp, open our hands and release our resentments. Those who were once our enemies are now seen in the light as victims of their own illusions, and with compassion we begin to move out of conflict and into cooperation. Life hurts, and there are enough tears to go around. Let us breathe into the knowing that we are free to choose our thoughts and free to bring to bear on anything we encounter the wisdom dwelling within all of us. We already know how to feel joy and gratitude for the beginnings of things. Let us expand our awareness to embrace with joy and gratitude the ends of things as well.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Wisdom of Water

Water permeates and shapes everything it touches. It carves mountains into sand and swells seeds to fruition. It grows forests and destroys cities. It fills our bodies, builds our blood and bathes our cells. Nothing is as simultaneously ordinary and miraculous as water. But like a draught of forgetfulness, its ever-presence lulls us into complacency. It is so like us to forget to pay attention. When we reawaken our imagination, however, water offers up its lessons freely. Let us soak in the wisdom of water.

Follow the natural line. Unlike us, water doesn’t conjure up cravings in a vacuum and then impose them on the world. Instead, it humbly feels for open channels and falls effortlessly through them. Like water, find the openings and be led by something other than fear and craving.

Don’t struggle. Water doesn’t strain or strive. The power of water comes not from willful assertion but from the unintentional force of its presence. Your true power comes not from the ego and its schemes but from your ability to manifest the one presence and power that runs through everything.

Go around obstacles. When a stream comes upon a boulder blocking its path it doesn’t freeze, panic and spiral into resentment and victim-consciousness. It just goes around. Like water, avoid struggle by simply going around problems.

Be soft in your strength. When it is time to exert force, be fluid. You harbor a great store of life-force which is capable of manifesting itself mentally, physically and spiritually. When it’s time to assert yourself, blunt the edge of your attack and be willing to bend and absorb the myriad influences of the energies around you. You accomplish far more in cooperation than you do in dominance.

If you want clarity, be still. Wind and waves stir up silt and make water murky. Only when the wind and waves subside does the silt settle back to the bottom. Then the surface becomes a mirror and the depths become visible. So too we can deepen our insight only when we grow silent and still. Moving out of the narrow channels and endless agitation of the thought-stream and into the boundless stillness enables us to quietly perceive signals drowned out by the day to day noise of our lives. Things that were hidden in plain sight are revealed.

Circulate, don’t stagnate. Stillness is important, but don’t hide. Cut off from the flow, stagnant pools fester and rot, drowning in their own imbalance. Healthy, clear water stays engaged in the flow of life and scrubs itself clean by breaking open to oxygenation and transformation. Like a healthy river, find ways to balance periods of languid stillness with vigorous activity, letting each of the phases of your life inform and nourish the others.

Persistence is stronger than insistence. A frenzied flurry of activity is never as effective as long-term persistence. Slow and steady wins the race. Over time, a tiny, trickling stream erodes a deep canyon. Take a high pressure fire hose to a granite monolith for an hour or two and see how far you get.

Allowance is stronger than resistance. When you stab your fist into water it doesn’t fight back or resist, and when you pull your fist out, the water closes over as if you were never there. By allowing your fist to pass through, water exerts much less effort and experiences far less harm than if it had mounted a complicated counter-offensive. In our own lives, resistance to things only makes them stronger. By defining events as “problems” and people as “enemies” we manufacture conflict where there was only confluence. When Jesus says “resist not evil” he is trying to teach a very elusive notion: what you resist persists. Instead of resisting and fighting back, let powerful storms pass until they expend their wild energy and settle back into the peaceful flow of life all on their own.

Be needed. Nothing surpasses water for its usefulness, therefore it is valued everywhere. In your creativity, in your work, in your generous service, give people what they genuinely need. This way you will always get paid, you will always get fed and you will always have friends. Become an inextricable part of people’s lives by carefully perceiving their authentic needs and fulfilling them.

Be humble. Water always seeks out the lowest places and quietly goes about its business. Water is often underground and hidden from sight. Ninety nine percent of the water in the ocean lies beneath the surface. You can accomplish far more behind the scenes than you can in the spotlight. Let others grab the glory. Be a part of the support system that makes it possible for others to blossom and shine.

Don’t give problems anything to hold onto. You can’t grab water with your fingers or catch it on a hook. By living in a state of deep acceptance of whatever is happening in this moment, you achieve the slipperiness of water. Events arise and fall. Difficult people assert their ludicrous demands and fade away like flares. By remaining fully present in this now moment you rob both the past and the future of their power to distort immediate experience by imposing both unrealistic expectations and egoic cravings on the perfection of this.

Resonate. The waves crashing on the shore aren’t the only waves in the sea. Sound waves also travel great distances through water. The low frequency songs of humpback whales travel thousands of miles around the curvature of the earth through the oceans, guiding other humpbacks on their migration routes. Like water, stay open to the energy frequencies that reverberate around us. Let yourself be inspired. Let your consciousness be a conduit of that which is best in all of us. Identify the values you hold dear – kindness, generosity, willingness, courage, compassion – and amplify those values in your own actions. “Universe” means “one song”. Let the song of the universe resonate in you, through you, as you.

All is one. A raindrop only seems to be separate from the other raindrops. As it falls from a cloud high above the sea the force of the wind around it keeps it separate from the other drops. When it hits the surface of the ocean it does not cease to exist; only its temporary boundaries dissolve as it loses its illusory individuality, returning to the source from which it and all other raindrops come. So too we and all things arise from the divine ground and stand apart for a while as seemingly separate entities. As beautiful as this dance may be, it must one day come to an end. But Consciousness doesn’t end. It simply expresses itself anew as evolving, evermore mellifluous beings of sound and light. Let your brief time here be worthy of the source. Let your life be a breathtaking expression of the grandeur of the cosmos. From time to time, move into the stillness and brush up against the wordless understanding of oneness, an understanding that can never be reduced to a concept, just as water can never be defined by the vessel containing it. These miraculous bodies we inhabit are comprised of nearly eighty percent water. Isn’t it natural then to allow yourself to be an expression of the wisdom of water?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Wisdom of Trees

Summer time is a good time to go outside. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods to clear away the debris of worry and woe. Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who say the least, and in the silence of their presence we feel innate wisdom welling up through the cracks of our own lives. The best teachers might be trees.

Feeling stuck? Feeling sad? Feeling nothing at all? Find a winding path through a canopy of trees, leave your worried mind behind and let the voices of the wind lead you deep into this present moment. As your awareness begins to shift, you will notice, gradually at first and then suddenly, that trees are silent teachers and the lessons they offer would change our lives if we had the patience and courage to learn them.

Here is what trees know.

Grow where you’re planted. We do not choose our parents, our families, our birthplace, our century, our genes or any of the other accidents that inexorably shape our lives. Like trees, we must learn to accept the things we cannot change and thrive where we are. As a tree grows from a tiny seed and rises up through the challenges of its environment, adapting adversities into advantages, wisdom begins with acceptance and self-knowledge and ends with ascension and transcendence.

The invisible is the source of visible. Unseen beneath the surface, roots grow deep giving trees the stability to stand tall and reach for the light. Trees instinctively know this, and put far more energy into root growth than branch and trunk growth in the early stages of their lives. Only when the roots are firmly established do the upper branches and leaves unfurl. We too should attend first to our inner growth before we get top-heavy with adornments and accessories.

Young and old have different needs and different gifts. A tiny sapling is weak and tender and needs protection from hungry mouths and trampling feet. The same tree, many years later, is able to provide protection, shelter and sustenance for others. Our roles change as well as we age and grow. But no matter what our stage of development, strength comes out of our own nature, not our busy efforts. Stand in the truth of who you are at this moment in time. Accept help when you need it, but don’t stay helpless and dependent forever. Allow yourself to grow so big that others take refuge in you.

Strength comes from struggle. Twenty years ago when scientists built Biosphere 2, a vast, enclosed ecosystem in the mountains of Arizona, they planted, among other things, trees. The trees inside the sealed enclosure grew more rapidly than their wild cousins outside. But they were thin and weak with underdeveloped root systems. Some even fell over from their own weight. At first scientists were mystified. Why would trees not thrive in this “perfect” environment? Then they realized that the trees were weakened by the absence of the one thing not included in Biosphere 2: wind. In the wild, trees must withstand strong wind and as a result develop what botanists call stress wood – strong, fibrous wood that vastly improves the quality of life for a tree. In our own lives, it is hardship and struggle that spurs our growth and strengthens our core. As we work hard to overcome the difficult people and challenging situations that threaten our serenity and steal our comfort, a toughness develops within us that informs everything we do. In light of this truth, gratitude, not resentment, is the wisest response to the forces that oppose us.

Nature is more cooperative than competitive. Survival of the fittest is true up to a point. Life begins with self interest. Inevitably, however, organisms, both within and between species, realize that their own survival is deeply intertwined with the survival of others. We’re much stronger together than we are apart. The well being of others becomes our own well being. The lie of individuality is laid bare by the truth of interconnectedness. Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, we too are cells in a wider ecosystem utterly void of boundaries. Life is one vast phenomenon – conscious, aware, perceptive, intelligent, creative, adaptive – systems nested within systems without beginning or end. As individuals, if you can even call us that, we are simply one momentary expression of the vast field of consciousness that expresses itself as stars and dandelions and blue whales. To not know this is to remain deeply ignorant of your essential nature.

Nothing is wasted, everything has value. In nature, there is no such thing as trash. Last year’s leaves become next year’s soil. Every individual form arises out of material left behind by previous organisms. There is no new matter. At the molecular level, matter simply reforms and recombines into new aggregates and arrangements. Nothing is ever lost. In the forest, there is a thin, diaphanous veil between birth and dying. Consciousness moves through the veil like the in and out breath of a sleeping god. In our own brief lives we too are formed from the materials of those who went before us, just as the things we cast off are re-embodied. Nothing is ever thrown away. There is no such place as “away”.

Be only who you are. Cedars don’t come from apple seeds. Have the courage and humility to surrender to your own nature. Don’t waste time trying to be something you are not. Without pretense or guile trees effortlessly express their own nature. They make it look easy. But it is not. For us, a thousand threads of desire, envy and illusion tug at our hearts and pull us away from the simplicity of our essential core. It takes discipline and humility to learn how to distinguish between the authentic energy of our own nature expanding and the inauthentic egoic cravings and desires rooted in fear, anxiety and ill-founded feelings of inadequacy. Do you want to become a singer because singing is your authentic calling or do you want to become a singer to salve a wound caused by feelings of inadequacy? If the latter is true, no amount of fame and glory will ever heal that wound. If the former is true, the music itself will fill you with satisfaction. In other words, is singing rooted in your authentic nature, and end in itself, or is singing a means to an end, namely self-aggrandizement? Before you embark on any strenuous journey, be it a career in the arts, a marriage or any other attempt to craft a life of joy and meaning, deep soul-searching is needed to sort this out. Spend some time under a big, shady tree. Life isn’t long enough for a thousand wrong turns.

Don’t be afraid to grow. Trees never apologize for growing new leaves and branches. They don’t intentionally stay small in a misguided effort to appear humble. You don’t do anyone any favors by shrinking, holding back or hiding your gifts. Let what is trying to emerge through you emerge. Become a channel through which the creative energy of the universe can sing one more song. But go slow. A tree never hurries, and every movement is in keeping with its current strengths and abilities. There is no need to struggle and strain. Natural effortlessness is far more effective than hurried grasping.

Chances are there are woods not far from your home. The forest is lush, green and full of secrets. Take a day and walk alone through shafts of light and fragrant breezes. There is so much to learn from the wisdom of trees.

Friday, June 10, 2011

California College Commencement Address

The following commencement address was given at Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, San Diego, California on June 9, 2011

Good afternoon graduates.

I am very aware that as a commencement speaker I am the one thing standing between you and a well-deserved evening of fun and celebration.

But as a teacher I also realize that, even though you have been sitting still and listening to teachers your whole life, this might be the last time you sit still and listen to a teacher, and I feel a certain obligation to not let this moment pass by without one last attempt to say something important, or try to.

I am a philosophy teacher.

I have spent my life trying to understand what wisdom is.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Wisdom is not something you know – wisdom is something you do.

You don’t attain wisdom by simply agreeing with all of the right theories.

Wisdom is not something you get only after you’ve read all the right books.

Wisdom does not even mean having an answer for everything.

Instead, wisdom is a way of being in the world.

Wisdom is the accumulated depth within you, born of ten thousand choices and actions made in the course of a thoughtful, deliberate life – and if your life is anything like mine, a life full of missteps and mistakes and damage sometimes so profound it can’t be fixed – we can only walk away from the wreckage saying, “well, I won’t do that again.”

And wisdom is not just an intellectual event; it is the child of many mothers, the most important of which is action.

If you are tired of the way fear interferes with your life, if you’re tired of the way fear holds you back from achieving the goals your soul is asking for, if you’re tired of the way fear robs you like a thief of your happiness, and you want to become more courageous, how do you do that? What does wisdom suggest?

Wisdom suggests that if you want to be more courageous you simply have to act more courageously. You have to ask yourself, the next time you feel afraid, “what would a courageous person do right now” and then do that.

If you want to be more compassionate, act more compassionately. Ask yourself, “what would a compassionate person do right now” and then do that.

If you want more self-discipline in your life, and you’re tired of the way laziness and procrastination and runaway cravings get the best of you, simply ask yourself, “what would a disciplined person do right now” and then do that.

Wise people know that we become what we do. Personal transformation is not mysterious. Our lives are the sum of our choices and actions. We are responsible for the consciousness that we bring into every situation. What at first sounds like an accusation or a condemnation is actually heard, with the ears of wisdom, as a call to freedom – that no matter what is going on around us, we are free. With every breath we are free to choose our responses to the events around us. And with freedom comes responsibility. We are responsible for our responses.

Our thoughts shape our words, our words give rise to our actions, our actions repeated become habit and our habit constructs character. Our lives are the sum total of our thoughts, words, choices and actions.

We become what we do. And this is how wisdom begins to emerge.

Choose your thoughts and your words and your actions wisely, in the fully awakened awareness that when you choose your thoughts, your words, your actions, you are in fact choosing yourself, inventing yourself, creating yourself out of the raw materials your ancestors gave you.

Every one of us is free today – free to begin living the life we so richly deserve. Commencement means beginning – and today each of us begins again, unhindered by the past. Every day of our lives is a commencement. Yes, our past choices and actions got us here, but in this next moment, we are utterly and completely free. Wayne Dyer puts it this way, “The wake does not drive the boat.”

The past has no power in this present moment. Only our thoughts about the past have power. And we can choose new thoughts.

And as I look out at all these graduates today, I am looking at a group of people who knows that everything I just said is true. You don’t need guys like me to tell you this stuff. Wisdom is not something anyone can give you. It is discovered within; it wells up through the cracks of our everyday lives. You have let go of the past. You have chosen and acted wisely. You have decided to feel the fear and do it anyway. You have decided that you are worth it. And you have freely chosen to open yourself up to the possibility that life holds for us even bigger dreams than we dared to dream for ourselves.

Now, teachers have been asking you to do stuff for decades. And I ask you today to do one more thing for me. I ask that you stay humble.

You have every right to be proud of your accomplishments. Feel proud. What you have done is no small thing. All of us here know that. But never forget that the professional skills you have mastered do not make you better than anyone else. Each of us is a being of infinite value, even the least among us, and you and I are no better than anyone else, no matter what our accomplishments. Nor are we beneath anyone else. Never believe for a moment that anyone is better than you. Everyone you will ever meet is a being of infinite value, and we walk alongside our sisters and brothers, not before them, not behind them, and every single one of us brings a unique and vitally important set of gifts to the world.

If anything, your hard-earned professional skills enable you to be of greater service to your fellow human beings. And that is why we come to college, and work so hard. Not just to make more money or to prove that burned out high school counselor who told us we’d never amount to anything wrong, or for some other egotistical reason.

We don’t go to college to heal old wounds of inadequacy or to feel superior to others.

The real reason our soul wanted to go to college was because our soul knows us better than we do – our soul knows that what we really want is to be a part of the healing of the world. And we come to college to gain the knowledge and the skills and the wisdom to more ably be of service to a world that so desperately needs us, that so desperately needs us to show up strong, brave, masterful, aware, willing, compassionate and committed to something bigger than ourselves.

And wisdom also knows that the old dichotomy between self-interest and altruism is a lie. We do not have to choose between serving ourselves and serving others. In the depths of our wisdom we already know that giving and receiving are two names for one circle, and that the best way to increase our own happiness is to cultivate the happiness of those around us.

We receive only what we give.

We thrive only when those around us thrive.

So as you go forth on this beautiful summer day and begin your life as professionals, please remember that all work is service. Cleaning bathrooms, balancing account ledgers, changing diapers, managing teams of people, writing computer code, mastering the minutia of lab protocols, caring for the grievously ill and dying, helping our new neighbor carry a couch upstairs – all of it is service. With each act of work you are bringing order out of chaos. You are binding the wounds of the world together with your love and your skill and your kindness and your presence. Walk into every situation with the awareness that there is no other place, no other time – there is only here and now, and this moment is where we have our best shot, our only shot at bringing the ideal of heaven down into this now moment, into these real lives we share with each other.

This is it. No more rehearsal. No more what ifs. No more some days.

It all matters. It’s all important – every meeting, every email, every moment. Now you can step proudly into the life you have worked so long and hard to create, knowing that with every thought and word and deed you are shaping yourself and shaping the world around you.

Finally, I believe the fruit of wisdom is happiness. That’s what we’re all in it for. And happiness is never a private affair. Our happiness is forever bound up in the happiness of those around us. So make your work a sacred offering. Look the people you meet in the eye, and really see them. Let them know, not by your clever words or practiced gestures but by your open heart that you really care. Slow down. Be the presence of healing in this world, no matter what your chosen profession is.

And once in a while – promise me this – once in a while, stop. Just stop. And feel the joy of the work sink in.

Graduates, and all the people gathered here who love them, remember this moment. Remember this perfect June evening when you took the time out of your busy lives to join together in a ritual honoring all that is best in us. Take this honor and this dignity with you and into all of the struggles and dark nights of the soul that lie ahead, and know that the world needs you only to be exactly who you are, nothing less and nothing more.

Thank you for this opportunity to be a part of your celebration this afternoon. I’m proud of you, and I’m inspired by you, and I’m deeply honored to witness this beautiful wave of humanity rolling out into the world. It’s staggering really to contemplate how many lives will be changed for the better by meeting you, by the love and the mastery and the service that you will bring to everything you do, everyday, for the rest of your lives. It’s overwhelming, and I know you feel it too.

And I know I speak for all teachers when I say, that we have learned as much from you or more than you have learned from us. And for that we are forever grateful.

Thank you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Letting Go

So the world didn’t end on May 21, 2011. This isn’t the first time. Ever since the Bible was written thousands of end-times predictions have come and gone. Despite the consistent and continual failure of all end-times prophecy people seem perennially willing to buy into the next one. Why is that?

The promise of impending disaster clearly feeds a deep psychological need. The zeal with which people foster and foment doomsday scenarios – catastrophic and irreversible environmental disaster, the collapse of the global currency market, the Biblical rapture, and all other forms of apocalyptic expectation – is evidence of the deep attraction disaster-scenarios hold for us. Something inside us wants to let go of the illusion of control – it’s not working anyway – and feel the freedom of surrender and non-attachment. Since we’re not very good at cultivating surrender and non-attachment consciously, the unconscious takes over. We unconsciously long for something or someone to come along and tear it all down.

We know that we live in a world of perpetual change. We know that all forms arise and all forms fade. We’re exhausted from trying to keep it all going. We want to let go but we don’t know how.

Learning to let go means willfully overriding tens of thousands of years of human evolution where fierce attachment and anxious worry ensured survival. Qualities that once served us now stand in the way of well-being.

Given the difficulties of retraining a mind shaped by the glacial forces of evolution, most of us don’t bother. We stay stuck in the consciousness of clinging, craving and conflict, drunk with the delusion that it is only through our own strenuous effort that anything good gets done. Some of us find our way to one or more of the world’s wisdom traditions which all invariably teach us to surrender and relax into the wonder of it all. The rest of us want to stay angry and resentful.

But the soul never for a moment stops asking for what it wants, what it needs. Our soul longs for the surrender of peace, but our mind refuses to give up the fight.

Things have a way of working themselves out. If truth is not realized in the conscious mind, it has a way of welling up from the unconscious mind. So powerful is our longing for surrender that out of the collective imagination fanciful scenarios emerge where everything is taken from us and everything is lost – the end of the world.

Most of us watched with bemusement as the recent doomsday prediction came and went. But what struck me was the powerful hold such prophecies have over their believers. Apparently reasonable people – writers, realtors, teachers, business owners – sold their businesses, said goodbye to their unbelieving family members and spent every penny of their savings in the days leading up to May 21, 2011. Many of them reported a deep peace welling up within them as all their worldly worries were lifted. “I’m not thinking about retirement funds anymore,” said one financial planner, “you know, 401Ks, annuities, commodities, stocks, the bond market or tax strategies. I’m living in the moment. I feel like a terrible weight has been lifted off of me.” We may find his belief system baffling, but this much is true: collective end-time mania has at least taught a few people the benefits of non-attachment.

Entering into the consciousness of surrender and acceptance frees you from the bonds of your own ego – there is no one there to do the controlling, no one to aggrandize by diminishing the other. Because you surrender to the reality of your own infinite value and the infinite value of the other, the idea of trying to control any of it seems ludicrous. All is as it should be, no matter what is happening. And frankly, it’s just exhausting trying to run everything, isn’t it?

The need to control is born from the consciousness of fear and the mistaken notion that we have to fight, claw and struggle our way through this world. An agitated, fearful and conflict-oriented mind experiences everything through the lens of its own violence. A gracious, surrendered mind finds its way through life’s challenges the way water flows through a boulder field – only effortlessness will prevail. Most of us are too busy trying to move boulders with our bare hands.

If unacknowledged, this soul-longing for tranquility and peace can deviate into dangerous pathology. Our unconscious longing to surrender control often manifests itself in unhealthy ways – drugs, alcohol, random sex, reckless driving, mindless consumerism, slavish devotion to gurus and other ideologues, and a myriad of other self-destructive, high risk behaviors. There’s nothing like diving off a bridge high above a river gorge with a bungee cord wrapped around your ankles to, for a moment anyway, free yourself from the tyranny of the busy-mind and drive you deep into the knowing that your joy lies in the surrender of letting go.

If we consciously acknowledged this, it wouldn’t manifest itself in such destructive and ludicrous ways. We would no longer need to concoct and cleave to elaborate impending disaster narratives that forcefully strip us of all control. If we made non-attachment our conscious practice, a new-found freedom and joy would arise. Gradually the destructive impulses would be replaced with an utterly ordinary sense of well-being.

In the pursuit of our careers, in the cultivation of our mastery as artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and entrepreneurs, in our continuing drive to deepen our relationships with our husbands, wives, parents, children and friends, we must allow our innate longing for peace and surrender to manifest itself in healthy and meaningful ways. When we stop struggling and learn how to live in accord with the deep currents flowing forever around us we awaken the ancient dream – a dream retold in every wisdom tradition – to put first the kingdom of heaven, to accept as your birthright the peace that surpasses all understanding, to still the mind until, like a lake, all the silt has settled leaving nothing but clarity and depth. All of our endless grasping and clutching only stirs up mud clouding our vision and robbing us of our simplicity. The more we cling, the more we struggle, the more we suffer. The busy-mind works tirelessly to perpetuate the illusion of its own importance. When we awaken to the reality hidden just beneath the surface of the illusion, we move into wisdom. And wisdom means letting go.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Meaningful Work

In my role as a professor I have the opportunity to counsel many young people as they face the endless options before them. What should I major in? What kind of career should I work toward? Should I do what I love or make a living? I’m not there to tell them what to do or who to be. In my counseling work I don’t try to change people. I help them tell the truth to themselves about themselves. The healing comes from that.

When students agonize about their majors, their college choices, their careers – in other words, their futures – what they are really agonizing about is a far more fundamental question, the most important question of all: who am I or even more to the point what am I? No other question so effectively clears out the accumulated debris of years of fear and misunderstanding leaving us clarified and ready to act in accord with our essential nature.

Although he is terribly out of fashion and much maligned, the philosopher Karl Marx made a powerful point when he suggested that instead of homo sapien, our species would be more aptly named homo faber. Homo sapien means “man the thinker”. Homo faber means “man the maker”. For Marx, the single most defining characteristic of our species is not our ability to think but our ability to shape the world around us. Yes, birds make nests and bees make hives, but human beings reach into the ground extracting iron, oil and other elemental substances and then with our opposable thumbs and creative visions we turn the earth’s elements into space shuttles, heart valves and iPads. Like gods we pick up clay and breathe our essence into it. In the alchemy of transformation, work is our talisman.

It is in our nature to work, to create, to combine, to innovate, to synthesize and to build. The things we make, whether they are songs or skyscrapers, are externalizations of our essence. And as we shape the world after our own visions, the world in turn shapes us. It is hard to know where our consciousness ends and the world begins. When we invent the world we are inventing ourselves. And work is the sacramental act that binds it all together.

A former student recently wrote to me through Facebook and relayed a struggle he was having. His heart and his gut were telling him to major in religious studies but he knew that with only a BA he wouldn’t be able to teach or in any other way earn a living with that degree. Grad school in the foreseeable future was out of the question and without a Masters degree his fear was that he would have to settle for some menial job outside his genuine interests – something just to pay the bills. As he framed it, the dilemma was between making money and meaningful work. He asked me what to do.

When a philosophical dilemma arises the problem is often rooted in the way we frame the issue. In other words, to make any headway on this dilemma we must first step back and examine the words we are using. What are our underlying, unexamined assumptions? What does “meaningful work” really mean?

What we have are two conflicting truths. On one hand is the notion that each of us must realize our passion by finding work that is deeply and personally meaningful for us. By finding a career that aligns with our deepest purpose we realize joy. From this perspective, the greatest blunder is selling-out for the almighty dollar and letting our sacred purpose wither.

On the other hand is the equally compelling notion that any work, so long as it does not profit from the suffering of others, can be profoundly fulfilling if the attitude of the worker is deeply committed to the consciousness of service. In this truth the so-called dilemma between making money and meaningful work dissolves. Any work can be meaningful work because meaning is found in the consciousness of the worker, not in external conditions or circumstances. It is this second possibility that often gets short shrift from both career counselors and spiritual advisors. The idea that any work can be meaningful is just not as sexy as following your bliss.

But not everyone gets to be an astronaut or a rock star. Very few earn a living at poetry or painting. Mystics and monks may get manna from heaven, but money? Not so much. And last time I checked, mothers don’t earn a dime. Clearly there must be a way to shift our consciousness into realizing that the sacred nature of work is only incidentally related to income stream. If your dream job has not yet materialized and you find yourself having to take whatever kind of employment comes your way to put food on the table and a roof over your head, consider this. There is great honor and dignity in being a part of something bigger than you, even if that something is an assembly line, a muffler shop, an office suite or a corner cafĂ©. Some of the most deeply fulfilled people I’ve ever met are humble people with simple jobs – taxi drivers, janitors, warehouse workers, shipping clerks, gardeners.

When you surrender yourself to the choreography of your work, you slip into the now moment where you encounter other human beings, beings of infinite value, and you have the momentous opportunity to bring your training, skill and compassion to bear on their suffering and unmet needs. Making sandwiches, filing paperwork and cleaning rooms may seem like humble work, but it is no less essential than rocket science – without either one the world would be immeasurably poorer. No matter the nature of your work, realize that you are playing an essential role in bringing order out of chaos. As you trim hedges and stock groceries and wipe tables and deliver packages you are participating in the healing of the world. You are mending hearts. You are creating beauty. You are bringing people out of darkness. You are feeding them body, mind and soul. With every kindness you are restoring the faith of the people you serve. Your work is the connective tissue of the body of humanity. To recast an old theater adage, there are no small jobs, only small workers.

Whether we are called teachers or not, all of us teach. The way we treat other people teaches them who they are and who we are. Every encounter, no matter how mundane, is a holy meeting.

So while it is true that we must follow our bliss it is also true that we must guard against the tendency of the ego to hijack our hearts and twist our minds into thinking that we are too good for menial labor. When the Zen student complained to the master that after three weeks at the monastery he had still not learned a single thing about Zen the master asked, “Have you eaten?”

“Yes,” said the student.

“Then wash your bowl.”

All work is service. And service is the work of heaven. Who would think themselves too good to perform the work of heaven?

It is right in the midst of these everyday chores that we realize wisdom. Sweep the path. Wash the sheets. Lift up those around you who have fallen. Let go your empty dreams of fame and glory. They were only the projections of your fears and self-aggrandizement. Instead, embrace your role as a part of the whole, not beneath anyone else or better than anyone else. This is our meaningful work.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Real American Folk Music

One by one they walked up to the microphone, each taking a turn. The stone amphitheater carried the sound deep into the canyon. High overhead a red tailed hawk soared across the sky in unraveling spirals. From our seats we could see deep into Mission Gorge where the San Diego River winds beneath a canopy of sycamores and oaks, through the heart of the ancient homeland of the Kumeyaay. For 10,000 years the original Americans lived in these canyons in the stillness of the pre-industrial world.

This was a very different kind of open mic. There wasn’t a guitar case or a folk singer to be seen. Guitars are after all the instrument of the conquest, brought here by the Spanish. Instead, this was an open mic celebrating the original American folk music – Native American flute.

For thousands of years Native Americans have played a simple five or six-holed flute. Designed and crafted to play a pentatonic scale (the black keys on a piano), they are relatively easy to play. Their simplicity is deceptive. No other instrument has the power to evoke so much with so little. In the right hands, these humble wooden flutes call forth, like all great art, the full measure of the grandeur of the land, the sky, the sweep of time and the boundless consciousness that connects all things in a sacred web of being.

I first met Benny Mullinax at the Potrero Library in the tiny hamlet of Potrero, California, fifty miles east of San Diego just north of the Mexican border. I was playing a concert – just me, my acoustic guitar, my folk songs and room full of the good people of Potrero whose warm hospitality made me feel like a long-lost friend. After the show I visited with the locals, swapped stories and sold more than a few CDs.

Life has a different feel in the backcountry. Things move a little slower. People take their time with each other. There’s really nowhere to hurry off to. The sun shines a little brighter, the night sky is a little deeper, and the sound of the wind through the trees is like a spirit voice that calls all of the names of everyone you’ve ever loved. It’s easy to see how people who come to visit sometimes never leave.

Benny was a Native American flute player. I told him I was a huge fan of the music, often playing my R. Carlos Nakai CDs all day long in my office. He invited me to come to their monthly meeting. I asked him where it was, thinking Potrero was a little too far to drive for a Native American flute circle.

“San Diego,” he said, “Mission Trails Regional Park, the amphitheater near the visitor center.”

“That’s a mile from my house,” I said.

“The second Sunday of every month, from 1:00-3:00, we meet there and play. Flute players from all over come and swap songs – some real pros and some folks just starting out. You should come.”

So I did. And I ended up buying two flutes from Benny.

Now I get the genuine pleasure of beginning.

Starting out on a new instrument is always exciting and illuminating. After years and years of playing guitar, I remember the first time I played dulcimer and dobro and banjo and mandolin, fumbling around in a terrain just familiar enough to make me feel hopeful, but alien enough to make me feel utterly lost. Persistence, patience and a playful willingness eventually opened the door enough for me to get at least one foot in. I eventually smoothed it out enough on all of those stringed instruments to even use them in recording sessions. But apart from harmonica, I had never played a wind instrument. My older brother John is an accomplished clarinetist. I grew up watching him make unexpectedly beautiful music by blowing hard across a paper-thin reed on the end of a tube with about a million holes in it, each hole covered with a felt-lined stopper attached to an intricately complex system of rods and levers. What he was doing seemed impossible to me. I reached for my guitar and never looked back.

So now, all these years later, I’m finally braving the world of wind instruments. But I’m starting small.

The Native American flute first came to prominence in 1983 with the release of R. Carlos Nakai’s first album Changes. Nakai was a classically trained trumpet player with an ear for jazz until a car accident injury made it impossible for him to do the tightly controlled and challenging lip work of trumpet playing. Of Navajo and Ute heritage, Nakai eventually completed his Masters degree in Native American Studies at the University of Arizona, while simultaneously pursuing mastery of the Native American flute. With seven Grammy nominations and over 40 albums under his belt, Nakai has almost single-handedly brought Native American flute into the mainstream. Before Nakai, the Native American flute was largely unknown by the general public, loved only by a few New Age spiritualists and Native Americans far off the beaten path.

It’s wrong to say that Nakai’s car accident was a good thing, but without it, the world of music would be a very different place.

Now my wife Lori and I both have our own Native American flutes. We don’t play them together because they’re in two different keys – hers is in A and mine is in G – but it’s a beautiful thing to hear a plaintive melody ringing out from across the house, a melody thousands of years old, a melody older than this or any other empire. Some musicologists say that the Native American flute is the third oldest instrument on earth after the drum and the rattle – perhaps 60,000 years old. The simplicity and clarity of its tone, the timeless quality of its primal melodies, the way its song rises and falls like wind – the Native American flute is perhaps the mother of all music. It is humanity’s first attempt to make a singing tool, a tool that gives men and women the voices of birds. Its simple call connects us to the deepest elements of our collective consciousness and burnishes the sacred shine of all things ordinary and sublime. It speaks of a time before the conquest, before the Europeans arrived with their breast plates and swords, their Bibles and crosses, their guns and guitars. In other words, Native American flute is real American folk music.

The second Sunday of this month and every month, from 1:00-3:00, they’ll gather again under the open sky in the amphitheater by the visitor center in Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego. One by one they’ll descend the stone stairs to the stage with their hand carved flutes, their pre-historic melodies drifting out over the ancient homeland of the Kumeyaay like circling hawks. And a few of us will be there just to listen.