Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Surfing



            I grew up in Ventura, California, a small, sleepy beach town an hour north of Los Angeles. There wasn’t much to do. But there were miles of beautiful, empty beaches. The Pacific Ocean pulled us toward her like iron filings to a magnet.
            Perched out on the horizon were the Channel Islands, uninhabited chunks of California that seemingly broke off the mainland and drifted out to sea. I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at those mysterious alien lands and wondered just how terrifying it must have been for the Chumash to paddle their river reed canoes over the open maw of the sea to fish her coves and sleep exhausted on her sandy leeward beaches.
            All summer long someone’s mom would drop us off at the beach with our Styrofoam boards and small inflated rafts. All day long we’d ride the waves on our bellies, learning how to read the shifting plane of the water, an energy field without beginning or end. The feel of hot sand under bare feet, the smell of Coppertone, and the taste of fifty cent grilled cheese sandwiches from the State Beach snack bar are embedded deep in my amygdala. And the never-the-same-twice shifting face of the sea and sky. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning the lesson of impermanence, and how the beauty of the world lives not in its surface forms, but in the mystery hidden just beneath them.
            At the rocky points and deep water reef breaks we saw the older guys surfing, riding hard boards made of fiberglass and resin, daring to stand as equals with waves as big as houses. Because we loved the sea and knew her so well it was the next logical step – to leave the safety of the shore, to go deeper, and commit completely.
            My mom bought me my first surfboard at a neighborhood garage sale. I immediately broke the fin standing on it on the lawn. She brought home a swath of fiberglass and a can of resin from the hardware store. “There,” she said, “now you can fix it.”
            I spent that summer learning how to stand up on my board, surfing small beach breaks near the pier. Late one August afternoon after the dry Santa Anas softened and the air hung thick and hot, I caught a long left in the evening glass. I rode that wave for what seemed like ages. It just kept rising up to meet me, its concave face reflecting the fiery sunset above, like I were engulfed in flame. My breath caught in my throat. A feeling of belonging swept through me so overwhelming I nearly wept. I felt at once deeply at home in this strange world, and deeply at home in my own skin. For an awkward adolescent this was a revelation – to no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land.
            That Christmas I got my first O’Neil wetsuit. It cost a lot. It was a big sacrifice for my working class mom and dad. They knew I was serious. And the fact that they took me seriously was empowering. It helps when the people who love you believe you are capable of things before you are. It carries you through the difficulties ahead.
            There were many dark mornings paddling out before high school in the freezing winter air. There were big winter swells that churned the water and turned your stomach. But the challenge pulled you forward. You knew this sea, you knew this break, even if each looming wave on the horizon was a treacherous stranger. Facing them, you face yourself.
            Everything changed when we got our own cars. My first car was a 1954 Studebaker Champion station wagon, rescued from Mr. Steinberg’s garage across the street where it had languished abandoned and broken for decades. My oldest brother Eric, ten years my senior, eager for yet another automotive restoration project, hauled that rusted hulk into our family garage and together (o.k., mostly him) we stripped it down and rebuilt it. Once it was operational I mounted surf racks on the roof. Now me and my friends could range much farther up and down the coast, no longer beholden to mom’s ride or the contraption we’d rigged up to haul our boards to the beach behind our bikes.
            My next car was a 1968 Datsun 510 wagon, a far more trustworthy and reliable transport. Teenagers with cars. You know the rest. You know the trouble I got into in that car. The bong hidden under the seat, the girls, parking at the beach at night, but not for the surfing.
            Every chance we got my best friend Steve and I would load our boards onto the roof and head up the coast checking every break between Ventura and Rincon Point. The best days were when the beach breaks broke into perfect, clean lefts and rights and the sun came out from behind the overcast and the water sparkled under your board as you flew up and down laughing, breathing hard, feeling alive and free because the sea does that to you – it strips away everything that’s unessential leaving you awake and aloft in the heart of your own best life.
            Maybe I liked surfing because it was an essentially solitary sport. You paddled out with a friend, but often spent the day out of range of each other, both on your own lonely hunt for the next wave. Unlike most sports, there was no clock – no beginning, no end. No one was keeping score. No one had to lose so that you could win. You simply abandoned yourself to the will of nature, and did what you could to quiet yourself and move into accord with it. You cannot impose your will upon the sea – instead, you must relinquish your will and slip into deep cooperation with her vast and enigmatic design. Surfing teaches you to wait. It teaches you how to align your energies with the energies of the cosmos moving around you. It teaches you to stop interfering and start cooperating.
            When I began studying the world’s wisdom traditions in Professor Barret Culmback’s philosophy classes at Ventura College, I had years of lived experience in the sea to frame and contextualize the insights his lectures and readings afforded. The real revelation came when I read the Daodejing, the 6th century B.C.E. book of Chinese wisdom by Laozi. I immediately understood what Laozi meant by wu wei, or effortless effort – that the best action is natural, spontaneous, creative, and unforced action in harmony with current conditions. When we blindly impose our arbitrary preferences and plans onto the fluid reality around us we fail. When we move with the current, on the other hand, we amplify our effort and achieve more by doing less.
            In the end it isn’t books, lectures, or teachers, no matter how profound, that awaken us to our own best life. It is the lived experience of our days. If we pay attention. It is of course possible to live one’s entire life and never realize a thing. But every life offers a sea of opportunity to awaken to the wisdom we see, feel, and are. If we’re curious, brave, open-minded, open-hearted, and willing to take risks, the waves of life become our teacher.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Let There Be Art

The world’s creation myths pose an essential set of questions. What is the relationship between the creator and the created? Are the two separated by an unbridgeable chasm, or are they two aspects of one fundamental unity?

         In every story it’s the same. The primal unity splits into a duality, and from the duality a multiplicity pours forth – from one comes two and from two come the ten thousand things – for it is only in this way that the sacred source can know itself: in relationship.

         In Egyptian mythology Atum, all alone, mates with his shadow and expectorates the primal male and female gods Shu and Tefnut. In Greek mythology the primal goddess Gaia creates her own partner Uranos, and from their union all the other gods are born. In the Mayan Popul Vuh God longs for humans who will love him and say his name, and goes through several failed human prototypes before he perfects us. In all of these origin stories one theme remains constant – creation is a manifestation of the generative energy of love. It is a great cosmic loneliness that begets the creation of the world and everything in it. Love, literally, makes the world.

         When we create – whether it’s an artwork, a tech start-up, or a home-cooked meal – we participate in this same sacred unfolding. In any creation process, we become a channel through which pours the primal creativity of the cosmos itself.
        

This dynamic is beautifully expressed in the Vedanta tradition of the Indian Upanishads. In Sanskrit, the sacred source is called Brahman, from the root bhri meaning “emergence.” Brahman is not a personified god – it is the sacred formless source of all things, including the gods. We too are Brahman, and like everything else, are emanations of this divine singularity. It is Brahman’s nature to pour forth ever-new and beautiful forms. This therefore is our nature as well.

         When you feel the creative urge, pay attention. It is a sacred calling, a God-nudge to participate in the one unfolding that arises unceasingly from the primal ground of being. We make use of the things we create, but we do not create for ourselves – we create so that the universe can continue giving form to itself. Your songs, poems, paintings, films, and solutions to problems – all of it – are action-prayers, ritual participation in the birthing of the real. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

         What if you don’t feel inspired? Can you still create if you’re not feeling it? The answer is yes. We must. Creation is not a hobby, a trifle, or a pass-time to while away the hours. It is far more necessary than that. It is self-indulgent to stand idly by, waiting for inspiration. As contemporary visual artist Chuck Close put it, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

         Creativity is work. Suit up, show up, and put your tools in your hands. “Inspiration exists,” said Picasso, “but it has to find you working.”

         Stop waiting. Get out of your own way. Take your mind off of the finished product, and put it squarely into process itself. As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than arrive.” By your participation alone, you are signaling your readiness, willingness, and openness to the creative flow that you are.

         And the final realization is this – each of us is an artist and our masterpiece is our life. It is not the objects and art-forms we craft that have the most lasting value; it is our virtue, integrity, and loving-kindness that best express our sacred origin. When we lovingly participate in the healing of the world we are the divine eternal Mother-Father manifesting in the field of time. When we awaken to this realization we become this realization, and get down to the messy business of birthing the world anew. 


[This piece was originally published in my column called "A to Zen" in the May/June 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Five Ties That Bind



For French Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, the only important philosophical question was: Why should I not kill myself? Talk about getting to the point.
            Most of us choose to go on living. But why?
            As we struggle to answer this question we’re forced to give voice to difficult, elusive truths – the pervasive sense of the value and beauty of our lives, the simple, unadulterated joy of experience, and the tantalizing possibility that, despite our frequent moments of malaise and ennui, there just might be something amazing waiting for us in this next moment. We wouldn’t want to miss that, right?
            So we go on.
            Despite the pain and loss everyone inevitably endures, there is an unfolding treasure at the heart of every moment, a treasure we often overlook in our haste to rush forward into whatever’s next. The art of living well requires the ability to hold still, grow quiet, and allow the hush of the sacred to slowly rise up through the gaps between our thoughts. And when we do, five key reasons to go on living come into view. These are the five ties that bind us to this brief and beautiful life.

1.      Life is Short 
          It’s not as if we’re going to live forever. No matter what, we only have a little more time. No need to end it prematurely. We might as well see what’s next. The brevity of life drives us toward reluctant decisiveness. We wish we had forever, time for a thousand wrong turns. But we don’t. Sure, there’s time for a few mistakes here and there, but as the years fly by it hits you – this matters, you have to choose, and your choices define you. There’s freedom in mortality. Knowing that we don’t have forever frees us from the tyranny of infinity. There simply isn’t time to dawdle or equivocate. This is it. Strike while the iron’s hot. Risk everything. Don’t let fear rob you of your joyful authenticity. Have the guts to be who you really are. You owe it to yourself, to the world, and to the creative energy that birthed you.

2.      Life is Free 
          Sure, you need money to survive. But life itself is free. In our overly commodified world where everything gets bought and sold, it’s easy to overlook the fact that life’s richest moments come unbidden not from what we’ve purchased or possess, but from what moves fleetingly through our grasp – a child’s laughter, a passage of music, the flight of an owl through the pines at twilight. The feeling of belonging in a family, whether a birth-family or a family-of-choice. The joy of knowing you did the right thing. The satisfaction of a job well done. You can’t buy any of this – because it doesn’t belong to anyone. It just is. And so are you. These joys are born from the countless intersections of experience that constitute a life. We participate in them, but we do not possess them.

3.      Life is Beautiful 
          This is the heart of the matter: we are awash in beauty. Awakening to the wonder of it all is the business of every man and woman. When the scales fall from our eyes even the most ordinary things shimmer with significance. We ache with recognition when we open our hearts and souls to the limitless grace of the infinite array around us – every stone an altar, every tree a tabernacle, every shaft of light a prophecy. Even in the grittiest places, the so-called ugly places, there is a grandeur hidden just beneath the surface of things. These broken down ruins tell a story, a story of aspiration and creativity and the undaunted heroism of those long gone who toiled and triumphed for a moment in the sun, before the inevitable impermanence that haunts all things came to reclaim what they had built. Even in dissolution and decay there is an elegance and beauty we often overlook.

4.      Life is Bigger Than Us
          As much as we like to think that we are the center of the universe, that much egotism is actually quite exhausting. It’s a relief when we finally realize that we don’t matter more than anyone else – that no one is worse than us and no one is better than us – and we take our place right-sized in the family of things. We know that this world was not made for us – that we are not apart from it – we know that we are it, that the earth is our mother and father, and the very elements that constitute our bodies are earth-elements. We are not visitors from afar. We are this. We have the home field advantage. When we understand all of this, not intellectually, but in our bones – when we embody this awareness – we begin to move through life purposefully, humbly, and powerfully, because we know now that our life is not our own – we are a manifestation of the creative impulse of the universe, what some personify as God, and as such, everything we think, say, and do matters. It is through our actions that the mandate of heaven manifests itself. We are the hands, hearts, thoughts, and voice of eternal God-consciousness here in the temporal realm. We are the formless taking form. When we surrender to this realization, we are liberated from the tyranny of egotism and the loneliness of nihilism. Because all of this matters, we matter. Even in the depths of our sadness we know a quiet, ineffable joy. It is through us that God returns to himself. As Carl Sagan said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

5.      Life is Love
          Everyone comes to this realization in their own time, in their own way. I came to know it most pointedly when my mom died. Lying there in the bed we’d set up for her in the living room of her home, surrounded by her own art and her father’s hand-carved furniture, the light from her beautiful summer garden streaming in through the open windows, she slipped in and out of consciousness. She’d lost her husband, our father, two years earlier. She’d lived a long, wonderful life. And she was surrounded by family. Holding her hand, whispering the last words a son tells his mother, kissing her forehead, I realized as she slipped away that none of these beautiful things – her art, her home, her garden – will last. Objects don’t matter. The only thing that bears the heft of eternity is love – it’s the only thing that’s real enough, big enough, and true enough to bear the weight of ultimacy. In the weeks, months, and years since my mother and father died I’ve felt their presence more acutely than at any time during their lives – it’s as if they never left. I can’t explain it. I certainly don’t mean their ghosts are hovering here in the room – that’s a crude way of conveying this ineffable truth: consciousness returns to consciousness, and as we participate in that one consciousness, all mediation and distortion burns away in the light of awareness – we know in our bones the unimpeachable truth of our oneness and timelessness. This cannot be put into words. Well, maybe one word: love.