Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Renounce and Enjoy

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

When asked by a reporter to sum up his philosophy in three words, Gandhi replied, “Renounce and enjoy.”  It isn’t easy to summarize the complexity of Vedanta philosophy in three words, let alone 300, while at the same time conveying the essence of the world’s wisdom traditions. Maybe that’s why they called him Mahatma, the Great One.
And what is it to renounce? It is to relinquish the illusion of control, move out of the ego-mind and into a deep and restful state of acceptance and surrender. Renunciation is the conscious decision to stop resisting what is. When asked “What is your secret?” the great 20th century spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi simply replied, “I don’t mind what happens.”
Yet for Gandhi renunciation was no sack cloth and ashes asceticism. The goal is not withdrawal from the world but full immersion. Free from the tyranny of our own ego demands, we are for the first time truly capable of experiencing joy. It is a terrible irony that the endless search for happiness is the very mechanism that generates perpetual dissatisfaction. Joy, it turns out, is our natural state. When we realize that happiness and joy are already inherently ours and not the result of the fortuitous arrangement of external circumstances, we loosen our grasp.
Renunciation and enjoyment are two sides of one coin – you can’t have one without the other. When you are truly enjoying something, you are accepting it as it is, you are surrendered to it, and you are aligned with it. And when you are accepting, surrendering and aligning, you are enjoying.
Yet how are we to practice renunciation in the midst of this busy, active life? Do we not set goals? Do we not strive to achieve them? If I practice renunciation, who’s going to do all this work?
In the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi’s favorite book, we read Krishna’s words of counsel to the beleaguered warrior Arjuna as he lies crumpled on the battlefield, paralyzed with anxiety. He knows that no matter what he does, terrible things will happen. For Gandhi the battlefield is a metaphor for the field of action in which we all stand. Each of us is the Arjuna of our own lives. We may not literally be warriors, but every day we face a daunting phalanx of rivals, impossible tasks and Sophie’s choices. When Krishna tells Arjuna to fight, he is telling all of us that life brings agonizing dilemmas, and we can’t opt out – we must act. Inaction and action both bear fruit. As Jean-Paul Sartre reminds us, when we do not choose, that is still a choice. There is no reprieve from our radical and inescapable freedom.
The only choice we have is what kind of action to take – selfish or selfless. Krishna tells Arjuna to act without attachment to the fruits of action. We must do the right thing, intend the highest good, and let go of the outcome. When we renounce attachment to results we become a channel through which the infinite good manifests itself.
Things will go wrong. Unintended consequences will unfold. Take action anyway. “Every action, every activity,” says Krishna, “is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke.” Practicing renunciation, we don’t cling to mistakes or define ourselves by them.
Beneath it all is the teaching of non-duality. Everything is a manifestation of the one divine reality, the Godhead Brahman. Therefore, everything that happens is ultimately a manifestation of Divine Mind. The only thing that can interfere with this sacred outflow are self-obsessed people trapped in ignorance, imposing their own limited and limiting agenda on the world. In renunciation we move out of self-will and into accord with Divine Mind becoming its instrument. Then even in the midst of conflict the background hum of divine harmony can be heard. Sometimes it even rises to the surface.
In 1943 my father Hilbert Bolland was taken from his native Holland by the Nazis to be a slave laborer in Germany. It seemed as if the world had come to an end. Yet during those long years of war, each spring the trees blossomed, the deer in the forest gave birth to fawns and the world renewed itself, oblivious to the travails of man. One evening, my father was startled by the trill of a nightingale singing unseen high in the boughs of a Linden tree, its beautiful melody drowning out the din of distant artillery fire. In that timeless moment he knew he was going to be alright. He knew that there was a sacred presence beneath the surface of things, an eternal ground of being upon which everything stands, far more real than any man-made mayhem. By surrendering to that we gain our footing, find our path and realize our joyful nature.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Good Old Days

It’s hard to believe, but looking back years from now, these will be the good old days. Even though right now it’s been a rough week, a tough month and a difficult year.
The problem is this – we seem incapable of accurately assessing this present moment in its proper context. Instead, we see it only through the lens of our tenacious discontent, our single-minded focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s right, and our escapist, fantasy-addled mind. Only much later, in retrospect, do we see how magical and spot-on perfect this moment was. The trick is this – how do we learn to see this present moment as miraculous and perfect while we’re still in it?
Today you feel old. Years from now you’ll look back and marvel at how young you were back then. Today you feel stressed. Years from now you’ll look back and marvel at how easy life was back then, when you had all your strengths and capacities. Today you feel scared. Years from now you’ll look back and marvel at how blessed your life was, how you were always surrounded by protecting angels who defended you against the worst and opened doors to the best.
It’s important to reflect on these things. If we don’t examine the process by which we arrive at our assessments and judgments, we fall prey to them. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In the field of psychology we learn more and more about how the mind forms its view of the world. It turns out we have a strong tendency to exaggerate the negative and overlook the positive. This negativity bias, as it’s called, distorts our assessment of our current situation. Only year later, looking back, is the proper balance restored. Our practiced capacity to visualize every possible negative outcome turns the present moment and the near future into a treacherous mine field. When we creatively imagine negative outcomes we think we’re just being clever and perceptive when in fact we’re not being clever at all – we’re simply caught up in an unconscious distortion. This is why people resist reform no matter how untenable the current situation is. The apocalyptic handwringing over the Affordable Care Act is a perfect example. If you leave out Obama’s name and poll people about the specific components of Obamacare one by one, a large majority of Americans support them. When the same people are asked if they approve of Obamacare they of course say no. It’s new, so it must be bad. They see every potential problem, and none of the benefits.
There is a simple explanation for this. It seems evolution has selected this cognitive trait for us. Over the last 9,000 generations, (300,000 years), the Homo sapiens that worried the most lived the longest. If you believe there’s a crouching saber-toothed tiger behind every boulder you’re less likely to be surprised by one, and more likely to pass on your genes. If all you do is pick daisies and wax poetic about the pretty, puffy clouds, you’re lunch, and die childless. In other words, natural selection favors negative thinking.
But now that there are no more saber-toothed tigers, what are we to do with this negativity bias? Become aware of it so that we can override it. But moving from unconsciousness to consciousness isn’t easy.
All freedom, whether political or psychological, has to be deliberately chosen and fought for. The first step is identifying the problem. We’ve done that. Now comes the hard part – learning to see with new eyes. But maybe it isn’t that hard. Maybe that’s just our negativity bias talking.
What if we allow it to be easy? What if we simply come fully into this now moment and forsake all future and past thinking? What if we come out of the thought stream altogether and find ourselves simply aware, breathing, noticing without judgment? Instead of labeling every event, naming every feeling, and categorizing every experience what if we practiced choiceless awareness – the simple, bias-free apprehension of all that is, as it is? What sounds like a tall order turns out to be a simple, natural thing, an immediate knowing outside the bounds of our normal cognitive circuitry with its all too familiar negativity bias. To see again as a child, not through a glass darkly, but with sparkling clarity and immediacy, to have what Zen Buddhism calls beginner’s mind, to walk again in the Garden of Eden and leave behind the machinations that inhibit our innate spirituality. This is what’s at stake – in a word, everything.
This isn’t just a onetime thing. It’s going to take practice. It’s a decision that’s going to have to be made over and over again. Passing inspiration and fleeting lucidity are nice, but persistence and vigilance are far more rewarding. A lifetime, indeed ten thousand lifetimes, of negativity bias cannot be undone with a snap of the fingers and a short-lived intention. We need to wear a groove even deeper than our negativity. That’s going to take some doing.
There’s one destination, but a thousand roads that get there. Here are some concrete suggestions and behaviors that will heighten your choiceless awareness of the present moment.
Stop and breathe.
Spend time with animals.
Get outside under a big sky.
Walk without a destination or schedule.
Read good poetry.
Stop isolating yourself from the messiness of love.
Forgive yourself.
Learn the high art of meditation.
Listen to the music of your willingness, dance to the rhythm of your enthusiasm.
Practice intentional consciousness.
Pay attention to the miracle right in front of you.
Pray with your eyes, hear with your heart, love with your will.
Drop everything that doesn’t matter.
Get out of your head and into your body.
Follow your wisdom wherever it leads.
Be drawn to clarity.
Laugh at your own pompous proclamations.
Look past imperfection in yourself and others.
Surround problems with light.
Feel the healing that is always welling up from within.
Learn to see the good hiding in plain sight.
Allow it to be easy.
Know that these are the good old days.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Broken Places

When a bone breaks and heals, the newly grown bone material at the fracture is stronger than the intact bone around the break. If the bone breaks again, it won’t be there.
So too our character is strengthened by the painful stresses and fractures life so readily affords. The healed places become our strong points.
Seen in this light, the disappointments, failures and miseries of our lives become irreplaceable, essential experiences. Without them we would be incapable of rising to our magnificent potential, fulfilling our larger purpose and realizing our deepest happiness. Nothing strengthens our core as much as heartbreak.
Armed with this information, a reassessment is in order. It’s time to look at our lives differently. Fear, it turns out, is not our friend.
Avoiding risk, playing it safe, carefully hiding from challenges and seeking comfort are the worst things you can do. Instead, identify the things you are afraid of and run toward them.
This is why growing older is so often associated with growing wiser. As you grow older life’s miseries inevitably visit you with increasing frequency. Loved ones die. Goals go unrealized. Things fall apart. And as these trials are endured, a dawning realization arises. Despite all of the tears, you’re going to be O.K. Beneath the suffering of the surface lays a deep and abiding harmony. Every spring in the forest, without fail, the flowers bloom and deer give birth to fawns. As Woody Allen said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”
As our hair falls out, our skin begins to sag, our hearing fades and stairs get inexplicably steeper, there is a simultaneous expansion of our generosity of spirit – we no longer insist on seeing everything through the lens of “what’s in it for me.” We come to learn that none of us owns any of this, it’s all borrowed, and we grow defter at releasing our grasp and graciously accepting the transitory nature of all things. In this renunciation there is a deep and abiding joy – a joy reached no other way but through the acceptance of loss and the catharsis of tears.
As I write, my old dog Boone sleeps at my feet beneath the desk. He’s a handsome fourteen year old Brittany spaniel. Most of his hearing is gone, he falls down all the time, and the light is slowly fading from his eyes. I know that day is coming soon when I’ll lift him into the back seat of the car for one last, slow ride to the veterinarian’s office.  I’ll sit with Boone on the floor of the examination room and the vet and her assistant will come in and sit on the floor with us. We’ll look at each other without a word, and then I’ll nod yes as the veterinarian administers the lethal dose of anesthesia. I’ll hold him in my arms as he takes his last breath and his body goes limp. I owe that to him, to be there, to let him die in his favorite place – my arms. Sure, I’ll be bawling my eyes out. And I won’t enjoy it. But I’ll accept it. I already do. I have to. I knew this day was coming twelve years ago when we drove him home from the rescue kennel, a spry two year old, full of vim and vigor.
We know nothing lasts, but we fall in love anyway. It won’t be the first time I’ve put a dog down, and it won’t be the last. But saying yes to love means saying yes to everything else, and it’s childish to pick and choose experiences as if life were a simple consumer experience, a shopping trip where you only get what you want.
If you want any of it, you must say yes to all of it.
Our tears, our disappointments, and our failures are the engines of our emergence. In the end, we must have gratitude even for our suffering. Protecting ourselves from life’s vicissitudes stifles and ultimately extinguishes our spirit the way a shovel of dirt extinguishes a campfire. Besides, it isn’t possible anyway. No one escapes unscathed. Security is an illusion. The only choice left to us is moving forward with a yes on our lips instead of a no.
And suffering is not yet done giving gifts.
When we live consciously awake to our suffering, fully acknowledging the way our wounds construct the frame upon which our magnificence is built, we gain an unprecedented capacity for compassion. We empathize with a boldness the timid egotist dare not gamble. With new eyes we see the imperfections of others not as problems, but as opportunities. We still hold high standards and even higher aspirations for ourselves and others, but we accept ourselves and others as is. As the Zen saying goes, “You’re perfect just the way you are, but you could use a little improvement.”
We are now more readily able to forgive. We know that people are only as good as they know how to be. It isn’t moral weakness as much as cognitive error that drives the evil of the world – even the criminal believes they are actualizing their highest good as best they understand it. All of us are limited and bound by our current mode of thinking, our current concept of ourselves and the world. As we interact with others in the workplace, in our families, and in our communities, we soften our glance, stand firm, and sway to and fro like tall trees in high wind. Our flexibility is our strength. Our own woundedness and our own imperfection are the talismans that unlock our vision into the woundedness of others. We get better at hearing what isn’t said, seeing what isn’t shown and knowing what can’t be known. Yes it’s a paradox. But such is the mystery at the center of all things.
The last gift of our broken places is a deep and vibrant humility. Because we have been laid low by the body blows of grief and sorrow, we know full well that we are not in charge of any of this. We are merely witnesses.  We engage as effectively and powerfully as we can, intending to do good, aspiring to build great things and practicing our craft as consciously as possible.  And yet, no matter how flexible you are, a sudden gust can knock it all down. The ephemeral, transitory nature of reality humbles all but the most stubbornly ignorant among us. Wisdom understands its weakness in the face of larger forces.
The broken places, in us and in others, fortify us, teach us, and in the final analysis hold us all together. We are supported in all we do by the strength of our broken places. And there is still one final revelation. Not only is our strength, our empathy, our forgiveness, and our humility rooted in our wounds, but so is our love. Love is the flowering and the fruition of our strength, our empathy, our forgiveness and our humility – each of these experiences, each of these modes of consciousness leads us into the heart of the sacred fire, a fire that at once burns away everything about us that is inauthentic, while forging an unbreakable bond between all of the things that matter. From now on, every chasm bridged, every wound healed, and every longing fulfilled. This is how we grow whole from the broken places.

Boone died on Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 4:25 p.m., two days after I submitted this column to my editor for publication in the San Diego Troubadour. He faded suddenly, and as he struggled to breathe on that long last afternoon, we eased his passing with an overdose of anesthesia. Just like I promised him we would.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Making Gratitude Real

[This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Unity Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.]

How a number two pencil became a magic wand that broke one spell and cast another

 I had to do something. I had to change my mind. I couldn’t keep trudging down the same tired road, stuck like water in a channel it did not choose. I needed to dig a new channel. But I couldn’t find the shovel.
Simply scolding myself to think new thoughts didn’t help. Habitual conditioning doesn’t break that easily.
I needed to take action.
I began to keep a gratitude journal.
Every morning for a year I got up and sat with my blank book and a pencil. I’d write, “I’m grateful for…” and wait. Sometimes it took a while. But I always came up with something. Even if I didn’t really feel it, I wrote it anyway. Action precedes internal transformation.
I often wrote about the same things – my wife, my work, my home. And sometimes fleeting moments crept in – the color of the sky, a hovering hummingbird, the smell of French onion soup.
Some days it was easy. Some days it was hard. But a certain tenacity, a stubborn doggedness took hold. I was not going to screw this up. My ego was on the line. Hey, whatever it takes.
After a few weeks something began to shift. I began to look forward to my morning writing. It was a chance to testify, to tell the simple truth about the life I live, to proclaim and record the evidence that life has infinite value and is fleshed out with a beauty that takes your breath away. It is surprisingly not often that one gets to say true things. It’s generally frowned upon in polite conversation. People look at you like you’re drunk.
Then a few months later I began to notice a subtler, deeper shift. The daily practice of writing concrete examples of gratitude made me look at my experiences through different eyes. As I went through my day I scanned the periphery like a predator for beauty, grace, and the generosity of the world, you know, things to be grateful for. Knowing that I had a writing assignment due in a few hours, I stayed vigilant, eyes wide for bounty. And do you know what happens when you look for something? You find it.
This is the secret power of the gratitude journal. In the end, the journal doesn’t matter. It’s just the leavings after the feast. It’s not the product, it’s the process that changes you. The gratitude journal is simply a device, a shovel for digging a new channel through which the restless mind can flow.
Before I began keeping a gratitude journal I passed the hours in worry and fear, convinced that I had to guard against the inevitable onslaughts of an uncaring world and navigate a sea of vaguely dangerous human beings all working at cross purposes. It was stressful. After keeping a gratitude journal for a year these old habits of thought were reprogrammed. The scales fell from my eyes and I began to see the world as a field of infinite possibility, a beneficent, nourishing, beautiful home filled with creative people all working toward the good as best they understood it.
I didn’t change the world. I changed the way I saw the world.
And then the final, subtlest and most important shift occurred. An insight arose from the marrow of my bones. In the authority of my own experience I came to know something I had previously only suspected, or read about second-hand in the world’s great spiritual classics, like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I came to know that I was one with the sacred source of all things, an integral member of an interconnected web of being. I made peace with paradox and declared an everlasting armistice with myself. My conflicted confusion gave way to confident serenity. My grimace of anxiety gave way to a smile. I began to laugh more easily and cry more deeply. The light returned to my eyes. I let go of the need to control, a need born of the fear that there is never enough. I came home to myself, and found that it was a pretty good place to live.
Who knew that a pencil and a piece of paper could do all of that?