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.