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.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Skillful Means

The Buddhists have a concept called upaya – “skillful means.” It grew out of the simple observation that one shoe does not fit all feet, and that we often have to change our approach as the situation around us changes. Principles and rules are fine, but without the freedom to adapt to the realities before us, we fail.
            It began in early Buddhism as the acknowledgment that different people employ different techniques to attain enlightenment. Some meditated in solitude, others committed acts of compassionate service, while others devoted their lives to philosophical discourse and intellectual rigor. If enlightenment is available to all, a fundamental Buddhist precept, whether a learned king or an illiterate pauper, then surely the paths to wisdom are many and varied. What matters is the outcome, not obedience to someone else’s path. Upaya simply means: do whatever works.
            The Lotus Sutra tells the famous story of the man who saved his children’s lives by luring them out of a burning house by lying to them. They were too young to understand what fire was, and were too engrossed in their play, so yelling “Run!” wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he told them that outside the gate of the house were all of their favorite toys, the toys they had been begging their father for. Out the gate they ran, only to discover there were no toys waiting for them. Instead of toys, their gift was escaping a horribly painful death. While in principle it may be wrong to lie, clearly, in this case, it was the right thing to do. The crux of the matter is this – one can waste a lot of time arguing in the abstract about whether or not it is ever morally acceptable to deceive another. Or one can leave such idle musings to the scholars and philosophers and simply forge ahead into the messiness of real life, doing one’s best moment by moment to cooperate with the unfolding chaos of the world and work toward the best possible outcome, knowing that paradox, absurdity, and contradiction dog our every step. Upaya reminds us that sometimes the real question is not What is right and what is wrong? but How can we make things better than they are right now? Progress, not perfection.       
            The concept of upaya is particularly useful in the realm of spiritual practice. When I teach meditation, I guide participants through a set of suggestions about how to sit, how to breathe, and how to move through the process of deepening into a state of relaxed stillness. But I make it clear that all of my suggestions are just that, suggestions. In any guided process, whether it’s meditation, yoga, or contemplative prayer, one must adapt the process to one’s unique individuality. Only you know the peculiarities of your body, your mind, and your current energy state. This is not to say that we ignore all suggestion and guidance – there’s a reason we go to teachers and give them our trust. They are discipline-experts who lovingly pass down the best practices of all of those who went before us. But blind obedience to past practices is counter-productive to the ultimate goal. Our teachers and all of their valuable suggestions are like the notation on a sheet of music – it isn’t music until we translate those notes with our living, breathing fingers, hands, hearts, minds, and voices into the vibrations of sound. In the end, we are the instruments through which wisdom manifests itself. And no two renditions of a song are ever alike.
            Nowhere is upaya more evident than on the fringes of religion and philosophy. In the first book of Carlos Castaneda’s remarkable series, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Castaneda recounts his apprenticeship with the Yaqui shaman Don Juan. In the initial stages of the process, Don Juan used jimson weed and peyote to shatter his apprentice’s habitual, conditioned mode of consciousness. As soon as this was accomplished, he promptly dropped the use of all psychotropic substances. They were simply a skillful means to an end, not an end in themselves. It was never about the drugs. It was about the transformation they afforded. So too, as generations of seekers, under the influence of Castaneda’s widely-read books, sought their own mystical visions in the deserts of the southwest in the fog of intoxication, many confused the journey with the destination, descending into drug-soaked oblivion. For some of us, the judicious use of psychotropic compounds under the loving guidance of a trusted friend might be an excellent beginning to a deep and meaningful philosophical and spiritual transformation, as it was for Carlos Castaneda. For others it might prove disastrous.
            Another example of upaya in the fertile fringe of religion and philosophy is the area known as Tantra. Tantric practices had an enormous impact on both Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps as a reaction against the overly controlling rules of some yogic and Buddhist monastic practices, Tantra brought the messy worldliness of folk religion, mythology, and shamanism into the ethereal and otherworldly sensibilities of formal religion. If all is One, as Hinduism and Buddhism teach, then why divide the whole of reality into two disparate realms, the sacred and the profane, celebrating one while eschewing the other? Instead, Tantra suggests that we use all of the dimensions of our mind-body experience to heighten spiritual insight, including sexuality and inebriation. Naturally, these activities are especially prone to abuse and misunderstanding, so they must be practiced under the guidance of discipline experts. But at their best, for some people, Tantric practices can be a powerful path of awakening, even if they embrace behaviors that seem on the surface to contradict the core principles of the religions they claim to embrace. Buddha taught against the use of intoxicants. In the disciplined path of Ashtanga Yoga, the mother-path of all yogas, we are to reduce our enmeshment with the material, sensory world, pulling back into an interior awareness of our inherent, abiding, Universal Self. Yet in Tantra, the very opposite seems to be happening. How does this make sense? It doesn’t. Not everything in this big, messy world fits into neat boxes. Sometimes you just have to find your way through the thicket of competing truth claims and trust your own inner-knowing. Sometimes you just have to do what works, and rules be damned.
            While rigid adherence to principle may seem on the surface admirable, in the actual give and take of life, it can lead to outcomes nobody wants. We have to find a way to on one hand adhere to principles when the winds of expediency blow, while on the other hand be willing to bend principles to the realities before us. A guiding notion might be this – as long as love is our intention, not naked self-interest, we can’t go wrong. Principles, at their best, help us guard against self-centeredness and harming others. But when principles fail, we always have upaya to lead us through the terrain where there is no path.