Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Constancy of Change

[This was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the January/February 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

"You can't step in the same river twice." ~ Heraclitus

The only thing that doesn’t change is change.

The transient nature of life puts us in a precarious position. Lulled into complacency by the apparent solidity of the world, again and again we are shocked by life’s sudden transitions – the terrible phone call, the cancer diagnosis, the death of a friend. Like Charlie Brown we fervently believe that this time Lucy will hold the football in place. But every time we go to kick it, it isn’t there.

In Buddhism this fundamental fact is known as anitya or impermanence. The evidence is all around us. Sure, things change at different rates, but change they will. A mayfly lives 24 hours, a proton billions of years. Yet both are bound by the same inexorable law: change.

If one follows this reasonable premise to its logical conclusion, we arrive at another core Buddhist teaching, shunyata. Shunyata is usually translated as “emptiness” or “the void,” but what shunyata actually conveys is the fundamentally indefinable nature of reality. Whatever all of this is, it is beyond language and thought. Shunyata is the nameless field of pure potentiality out of which all forms arise and to which all forms return. Yet shunyata itself remains formless. So in that sense reality is empty of fixed forms. But look around – it is most definitely not nothing.

We think we live in a universe comprised of solid objects distinct from one another. But ancient wisdom traditions and modern physics confirm the illusory nature of our misperceptions. So-called solid reality is 99.9999% empty space. Turns out the Buddhists were right.

Shunyata is like a clear sky and things are like clouds. Clouds arise, appear to have form, last a while, and then disperse, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. This is the nature of things. As he lay down to die, the Buddha left his friends with one final thought. “Remember this,” he said, “all forms arise and all forms fade.”

Embracing the fundamental transience of reality enables us to navigate the strange and beautiful arc of our lives with a modicum of dignity and joy. We realize we don’t own any of this. It is all borrowed and we must give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. Yet in the face of impermanence it would be wrong to conclude that nothing matters – quite the contrary. Everything matters – more than you ever imagined.

Every fleeting moment has a magical quality, a sacred ordinariness that we mostly miss, caught as we are in dreams of yesterday and tomorrow. Only when we come into the presence of this now moment do we tap into the real.

We cannot change the past. It is forever out of reach. The future is equally elusive and beyond our grasp. What we call the past or the future is only a thought and thoughts by their nature exist only in this present moment. We are only and forever rooted in the now. This is where we think, act, feel, love, and have our being. Yet most of us spend very little time here, caught forever in thoughts of the past or the future.

Buddhist practice seeks to draw us out of our thought-world and back into an immediate awareness of our authentic nature. But what is it going to take to get us out of our head and back into our heart?

Meditation, devotion, prayer, service, mindfulness, loving-kindness, empathy, compassion – these are the core practices of all spiritual traditions. As the Tibetan saying goes, “Want to go to hell? Think of yourself. Want to go to heaven? Think of others.”

When things change, and they will – when those we love are taken from us, when we find ourselves alone in a field with nothing but the wind to hold onto – we are drawn into a powerful and liberating awareness. We see through our tears that no matter what, there is an unbroken light, a boundless consciousness, an unchanging love, and an immutable being that binds it all together, despite the apparent transience.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Be Good

What’s the point of being a good person? Nobody else seems to be bothering, so why should we?
            It’s every man for himself, right?
            But something inside still nags at us – serving our own needs to the detriment of the needs of others leaves us feeling disconnected, out of sorts, lost in the loneliness of our own empty castle. A piece of the puzzle is missing. Somehow self-centeredness didn’t deliver the joy it promised.
            What if there’s no such thing as private happiness? What if our happiness is inextricably intertwined with the happiness of others? What if our own private happiness was never the goal? What if we’ve got it wrong all along?
            Cultivating virtue is an ancient dream and a present necessity. It’s plain to see that if we do not become better people, individually and collectively, greater and greater suffering will be unleashed sweeping millions of innocent people away in its maelstrom. This is no time for hand-wringing and intellectual paralysis. The urgency has never been greater. It’s time for action.
            When we turn to the world’s wisdom traditions we find no shortage of serious deliberation on these issues. The ancient lament has never dimmed – why are human beings so notoriously unwilling to cultivate their own virtue? Every philosopher, prophet, and visionary has cried out the same sad song. If we are serious about finally committing to real change, there are plenty of road maps to suit all styles. Some are religious and rely on a traditional monotheistic God-concept. Some are more nebulous in their conceptualization of the transcendent. And others are utterly secular, based on reason alone. Take your pick. Any map will get you there.

Tikkun Olam
             In Judaism there is a phrase, tikkun olam. It means “repairing the world.” From the many threads of Judaism – the Mishnah, Hasidism, Kabbalah – comes this fundamental affirmation of the essential role of human agency and action in the continuing creation of the world. When God rested on the seventh day the Creation didn’t end. It is ongoing. Only now, it is we who must work to heal the wounded world. It’s as if the world is a broken saucer, shattered into a million pieces, and each of us has a shard at the end of our fingertips. It is our sacred duty to share in the task of putting the saucer back together with the glue of kindness. Each of us is a spark from the divine, and with our open hearts, keen intelligence, and dawning courage we feel, see, and act to carry out God’s unfinished work. Tikkun olam is both our obligation and our opportunity for it is only in service to others that our own joy is born. So it is that our kindness heals ourselves.
            Working for environmental restoration, animal rights, human rights, economic justice, social justice, curing diseases, addressing poverty in a meaningful way, working in education, journalism, law, and medicine – these are all obvious examples of tikkun olam. Less obvious are the smaller, private acts of kindness in an ordinary day – allowing someone to merge in front of you on the freeway, holding the door, silencing your cell phone in a theater – these everyday kindnesses create a world that works for everyone, where each person feels respected and acknowledged. This is not to say that we are to sacrifice our joy and unduly take on the endless burdens of the world as our own. We cannot singlehandedly fix the world. We are only to lift our own piece of the load. As the Talmud enjoins, “It is not for us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.”

            The Hindu tradition of India teaches that the universe is a supportive, orderly system called dharma. The laws of nature as well as the social norms that bind human society are all a part of this mutually sustaining interconnected system. Since each of us is supported by the universe – we did not make the air we breathe, the water we drink, nor the sun that grows our food – we too must share in the mutual sustenance of the whole. Our moral obligation is to discover whatever latent talents, strengths, sensibilities, and tools lie within and develop them into a skill set that serves the wider world around us. When we live purposeful lives of service we are fulfilling our dharma. This can take many forms – creating a thriving business, raising conscious children, bringing beauty and edification to life in vibrant works of art – whatever work lifts up the lives of others while meeting your obligation to yourself and your family. Dharma is all about the win-win. When you thrive, I thrive too.
            In chapter three of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna spells it out. “Every selfless act is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead.” In other words, when you share in the healing of the world, you become an instrument of the highest aspirations of the universe itself. As the Sufi poet Rumi puts it, each of us a reed through which the spirit of God blows. The “uni-verse” is the one song. Our intentional, conscious, compassionate actions are the music of the cosmos.

The Golden Mean
            As Aristotle wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics, “The ultimate purpose in studying ethics is not as it is in other inquiries, the attainment of theoretical knowledge; we are not conducting this inquiry in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good.” For Aristotle and his mentor Plato, virtue meant human excellence. We become excellent when we have the rational capacity to discern between deficit and excess on the perilous road to virtue. Courage, for example, is a middle point between cowardice and rashness. Healthy self-love is a middle point between self-loathing and arrogance. To find and stay on the Golden Mean takes rational deliberation, practice, and habituation. Finally, we become what we do – we become virtuous by consciously practicing virtue. Our repeated actions construct our character. And when we live in accord with our fully realized virtuous natures, we experience a deep and abiding satisfaction and joy. Aristotle and Plato didn’t need theology to bolster their vision of the good life – they were humanists to the core. We bring into this world everything we need to be good. As the Chinese philosophy Mencius said, “Human nature tends toward goodness the way water tends to run downhill.”  Being good isn’t as hard as you think it is.  
            Being good is a decision. Seek whatever supports and nourishment you need to begin and sustain this urgent work. If your heart turns to God, let it. If you feel stronger away from traditional religious structures, find your own path. Don’t stop and get caught up in debate. The need is too great. Do whatever it takes to be good.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Buddha likened our normal, everyday awareness to being asleep. Vedanta teaches that the world presented to us by our senses and framed by our conceptual thought is an illusory portrait called maya. And in his letter to the Corinthians Paul said that “we see through a glass, darkly.” For all its boundless potential the mind limits us as much as it empowers us. As the Maitri Upanishad says, our mind is a prison, but the mind is also our liberator.
            There’s nothing “wrong” with our minds. A craftsman never blames his tools. The breakdown comes in the manner in which our tools are used.
            Of all the academic disciplines philosophy is the one most specifically charged with the task of thinking about thinking – an inherently problematic task. Using thought to examine the nature of thought is like trying to see your own eyes – it’s hard because you use your eyes to see. The American philosopher William James said that trying to understand consciousness is like trying to understand the dark by turning on a light – what you hope to examine is obliterated by the act of examination. That’s why the Zen Buddhists counsel us to practice no-thinking, an inelegant term for simple awareness. In contrast to ordinary thinking where the phenomena of the world are run through a mediating filter of preconceived judgments and conceptual structures, simple awareness sees the world as it actually is.
            The irony is this – it’s difficult to keep things simple. As Zen practitioner and Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there you can move mountains.”
            The mountain we have to move is our own monolithic, over-wrought busy-mind. And the method that best moves that mountain is mindfulness.
            The Buddha left behind an eight step process for reducing self-obsession and thereby reducing suffering known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Item number seven is Right Mindfulness. It means gently monitoring and shaping mental content. Simply put it means paying attention. Really paying attention.
            Mindfulness means coming out of the fog of past and future thinking. Mindfulness means dropping the habit of endlessly comparing, judging, craving, and pushing away. Mindfulness means coming out of the agitation of the thought-stream and settling into the serenity of boundless awareness. Instead of fighting anything and everything you move into simple acceptance of what is.        
            The practice of mindfulness may be thousands of years old, but in the modern era it came into prominence largely through the efforts of one man, Boston professor of medicine and Buddhist practitioner John Kabat-Zin.
            After being introduced to Zen Buddhism by renowned teacher Philip Kapleau, Kabat-Zin went on to found the Stress Reduction Clinic and later the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In a brilliant move, he dropped mindfulness meditation’s explicit association with Buddhism and began to refer to it simply as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Buddhist traditionalists weren’t pleased, but Kabat-Zin was right. By teaching thousands of patients and health care professionals to quiet their thoughts and come into present-awareness, he opened the door and changed forever the way the Western medical tradition viewed pain management and the intimate link between consciousness and physical health.
            But it wasn’t until the publication of his ground-breaking and perennially best-selling book Wherever You Go, There You Are in 1986 that Kabat-Zin took mindfulness into the mainstream. Suddenly, millions of us were learning about mindfulness.
            Today there are mindfulness training classes in elementary schools, prisons, sports teams, corporate executive retreats, and medical facilities all over the world – even in Congress where it is perhaps needed most.
            A quick survey of the growing body of research around the efficacy of mindfulness meditation shows that not only does mindfulness reduce stress, it also bolsters the immune system. And the benefits don’t end there. Cardiac recovery patients who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced a 41% reduction in mortality rates compared with those who did not. The connection between mind and body has been irrefutably established.
            But no one saw this coming. It’s one thing to experience reduced stress and improved health as a result of the practice of mindfulness. But now we’ve learned that the transformation goes much deeper. The regular practice of mindfulness spurs the brain into building new neural pathways and circuitry resulting in long-term, permanent benefit. When we give new shape to our thoughts, we give new shape to our brains. And when we transform the instrument with which we process the world, we change the world.
            Twenty five centuries ago the Buddha said, “Our life is a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts of yesterday shape our life of today, and our thoughts today shape our life tomorrow. Our life is a product of our thoughts.” We are learning more and more about how this is true. And more importantly, we can learn to experience this for ourselves.
            Take gratitude.
            The decision to view one’s life through the lens of the consciousness of gratitude instead of fear and scarcity has measurable benefits. When we cultivate gratitude with practices like keeping a daily gratitude journal we create new neural habits. The decision to focus one’s attention on what one does have instead of on what one does not have reaps a harvest of well-being. Not one single thing in the outer world changes. But the way in which one views the outer world will never be the same.
            With the dawning of gratitude, a feeling of freedom and joy gradually replaces the self-obsession, pain, and victim-consciousness so many of us allow to fester in our lives. In the conscious practice of mindfulness we learn a valuable lesson – we are the authors of our own experience. This profoundly empowering insight emboldens us to drop our self-serving narratives as beleaguered combatants and realize our unbreakable communion with all that is. We no longer squander energy resisting what is but instead gain energy by moving into accord with what is becoming. We no longer fight with everyone and everything. We realize that there is no such thing as private happiness, that your well-being and my well-being are one inextricable whole. Our religious views shift, our ethical views shift, our political views shift, and we begin making different decisions as spouses, neighbors, consumers, and citizens.
            By simplifying our minds we simplify our lives. By simplifying our lives we come into immediate contact with the essence of all that is. We are reconnected. We come back home to the vibrant center of our own aliveness. No longer lost in the exile of the thought-stream, we realize the simple truth – who we are and what we are is enough. And the healing begins.