Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Ordinary Miracle of Meditation

There’s an inherent paradox in meditation: it is at the same time easy and hard. It’s hard because ever since birth we’ve falsely identified with our thoughts and that’s a hard habit to break. But meditation’s easy because once you learn a few simple techniques you’re able to slip beneath the thought-stream into an indefinable depth. And then you realize – you are that depth, beyond all concepts and boundaries. This is less an achievement and more a discovery. In the crudest sense, meditation isn’t something you do, it’s something you allow. It’s as natural as breathing. But it helps to have a teacher.
            On the third session of my most recent six-week meditation workshop, a man I’ll call Richard raised his hand – it was clear he was very eager to share. Richard was a confident, accomplished man in his late sixties with a firm handshake and a resolute eye. He was the perfect combination of focus, fearlessness, willingness, and wonder – the ideal meditation student.
           “You know Peter,” he began, “I just really want to thank you for what you’ve taught us. I’ve never meditated before in my life. I didn’t know the first thing about any of this stuff, and it’s been amazing.”
“I’ve spent my whole life getting things done and being very successful. I’ve led companies, I’ve built things, and I’ve traveled all over the world. By most measures, I’ve been very successful. But now I know something was missing. Ever since the first session of this meditation workshop there’s been a shift. I was always really good at playing a role, but I didn’t know who I was. I never even thought about it. But now that I’m meditating every day, I’m coming to know someone I’ve never even considered – the real me.”
            Everyone in the room leaned in.
            “Let me tell you just one story about a meeting I had. I met this man through a mutual friend. He’s a very wealthy, very powerful guy. In the past, I would have been a little intimidated, but for some reason, I wasn’t. We got to talking about a business idea I had, and he was interested. So he invited me up to his Orange County office to discuss it. When I drove up there, before I went in, I sat in my car and meditated – you know – like you taught us, the body scan, the deepening, slipping beneath the thought-stream and shifting our identification to the inner witness, the whole thing. And it was amazing. Our meeting was scheduled for thirty minutes, and we talked for two and half hours.”
            “How did it feel?” I asked.
            “I was so calm, so peaceful,” he said. “Free.”
            “How would you have conducted the meeting before you’d learned how to meditate?”
            “The old me would’ve run that meeting very differently. I wouldn’t have had any of that stillness inside. I would have pushed my ideas on him, hard. I wouldn’t have heard a word he said. I would have been racing inside, and scheming and planning. It would’ve been about closing the deal, no matter what. But instead, I saw him as a person, and we connected on a very human level, and from that relationship all of the details just fell into place. Instead of the heavy burden of having to force everything, I trusted the stillness. Suddenly, everything became effortless and easy. Creativity was happening without my interference. Instead of making it happen, I was watching it happen.”
            You could’ve heard a pin drop in that room. Everyone knew exactly what he was talking about – the mysterious way that meditation leads you to a place where solutions and connections rise freely on their own out of the depths of your own experience, solutions and connections that your surface consciousness simply cannot muster on their own. Some call it intuition. Others call it divine intervention. And others call it spiritual realization. Whatever you call it, it works.
            A week later I was having lunch with my friend Swami Harinamananda, the resident monk at the San Diego Vedanta Monastery. Hari is young, warm, kind, brilliant, and movie star handsome. We were swapping origin stories about how we’d found ourselves in these curious lives, he a celibate Hindu renunciant and I a married householder, writer, and teacher. We’d ended up in such different places, but in many ways our paths were the same. We were both first-generation Americans – his parents were from India, mine from the Netherlands. From the outside we had been reasonably accomplished and competent young men, but inside was a different story. We’d learned how to play the game, how to fit in. But behind the mask swirled a sea of doubt and tempestuous emptiness. I sought refuge in grad school to become a philosophy professor. After he finished grad school and spent some years in the professional world, he sought refuge in a monastic order.
One day he went to see his swami at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood.
            “I had known the swami my whole life,” he said. “He had always been such a kind and loving teacher. There was just something about him. When he walked into the room, you could feel his presence. I was about to pour out all of my questions, my doubts, my confusion. But he just looked at me, and instead of solving my questions he dissolved them.”
            Hari paused. The other patrons in the mostly empty Thai restaurant receded into the distance. The air carried a faint electric charge. The colors got brighter, deeper.  
            That’s it, I thought. Not solved, but dissolved.
            The Katha Upanishad calls it “spiritual osmosis.” When wisdom simply becomes you. Not as conceptual thought, but as wordless awareness. It feels like it comes from outside of you, from another person, and in some ways it does, but really, it rises up from the one ground of being which we all are. Plato was right. Wisdom is recollection. But sometimes it takes a meaningful encounter with another to shake us awake to our essential nature.
            This is why guided meditation is so important. Of all the spiritual and philosophical practices in the world's wisdom traditions, meditation cuts through illusion the quickest. Study is wonderful, devotion powerful, and selfless service essential. But meditation, even in the early stages of practice, parts the curtain that hides us from our essential authenticity. Meditation doesn't deliver you to exotic modes of transcendent consciousness. If anything meditation leads you around and back to the miraculous ordinariness of your own life. Through tears of recognition you realize that this is what you've been longing for to feel finally at home in your own skin and in the heart of this beautiful world. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sound and Silence

Like every other folk singer, I’ve played some unusual shows. Stuck in the corner of a restaurant’s empty back patio, playing for no one, while the crowd inside watched football. Set up alongside a marathon route, playing for an endless stream of somewhat preoccupied runners. Performing on a cruise ship’s main stage with a pick-up band as the elegant room tossed and lurched in a violent storm. But of all the countless shows I’ve played, this was the oddest – a concert at a week-long silent retreat at The Chopra Center.
            The Chopra Center for Wellbeing is one of the world’s premier mind-body healing and educational centers. Nestled on the grounds of the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, California, the Chopra Center offers a full menu of spiritual and physical healing programs, as well as off-site retreats at Asilomar, Sedona, Costa Rica, and beyond. Built over twenty years ago on the groundbreaking work of Drs. Deepak Chopra and David Simon, the Chopra Center has changed countless lives and cultivated a bevy of teachers and facilitators, and I am honored to call myself one of them. Since I’ve entered into partnership with the Center I’ve offered two events, with two more on the calendar for this summer and fall. Mostly they’re lectures, or all-day retreats. But the one I did last month was different.
            I arrived a few hours early on the afternoon of the concert. I set up and waited. I drank some herbal tea. A palpable quiet permeated the space. As the start time approached, in they came, alone, or in twos and threes. No one said a word. They were coming from massages, Ayurvedic treatments, or meditation sessions. Many were wearing robes. It was their first full day of silence. We greeted each other with eye contact, nods, and welcoming smiles. When everyone was seated, the retreat leader introduced me and I began.
            As Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating said, “Silence is the language of God. All else is a bad translation.” And as any musician knows, music is the art of deciding exactly how to ruin the silence. Still, I was bound to do my best to provide a worthwhile soundscape for these silent retreatants to enjoy. I thought long and hard about the set list. I plotted every tempo flow, key change, and lyric theme. I kept it simple. I kept it clean. I kept it quiet, and I leaned on songs that had a restful glow at the center – nothing too fancy or busy. I played my most soulful and reflective originals, and a lot of great covers with the same broad, expansive, contemplative vibe.
            After my first song they applauded. O.K. good, so they were allowed to clap. That helped – a welcome dose of reciprocity. Then by the third song, something began to open up, like a rose blooming, revealing a hidden beauty and blush. They were leaning into me and I into them. We were holding each other up. To some extent that happens at every show, well, the good ones anyway. But this was different. This was more urgent, hungrier, more penetrating. It’s as if with their power of speech gone, their sense of hearing expanded. I’ve never felt the presence of an audience more deeply. I’ve never felt more heard. They hung on every note, every word. Both of us, on either side of the guitar, were daring vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes intimacy.
            In some ways, this concert at the silent retreat was the natural culmination of the trajectory my musical career had taken for years. I’d played in loud rock and roll bands in college, my Les Paul like a lit fuse in my hands, the din of amps and drums ringing in my ears for days, (and robbing me of a good chunk of my hearing in middle age). Later, folk duos dominated, the tone of unadorned acoustic guitars proving richer and more enthralling than a rack of effects pedals through an amp on eleven. Eventually, I left all that behind to focus on solo performance. Something about emptying out the sound and leaving more space called to me. I’ve noticed that about my songwriting too – my songs keep getting shorter and simpler. Every time I remove an element, the impact increases. Less really is more.
            So when I entered into partnership with The Chopra Center, I jumped at the chance to bring my guitar and perform. It wasn’t even my idea. I pitched myself as a lecturer, a teacher of Asian philosophy, and a meditation facilitator. But I guess they checked out my website and found out about my other life. I was surprised when they asked. And of course I said yes. It made perfect sense.
            On each day of the silent retreat one of the five senses was featured. The first day was sound – that’s where I fit in. The next day was visual – they were painting. The day after that was touch – they were crafting personal altars. And so on. I thought it was brilliant. And I was thrilled to be a small part of it.
            The composer Claude Debussy said that “Music is the silence between the notes.” The best musicians understand that they are always doing two things: playing music, and playing silence. Without the gaps between the notes, music would just be one long, horrible wail. As jazz master Miles Davis put it, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” I’ve often noticed this as I’ve collaborated with countless musicians through the years, some truly great, and others still learning. One of the quickest tells of who has experience and who doesn’t is how silent they are. The player who’s always noodling during rehearsal, or who over-plays every song, filling every gap with noise, is the beginner who mistakenly believes that musicianship is synonymous with flash and flurry. The seasoned pro, on the other hand, is as silent as a mouse during rehearsal, and during the song, they disappear into the pocket so deeply that you don’t know where they end and the music begins. A poor musician plays their instrument. A great musician plays the song.
            The same rule applies in public speaking, whether you’re a politician, a preacher, or a professor – all various forms of story teller. And as master storyteller Ira Glass, host of Public Radio’s “This American Life” puts it, “In radio you have two tools. Sound and silence.” The best speakers understand this. If you never stop and take a beat, and instead pummel your audience with a never ending slurry of words, numbness sets in. Your speech, no matter how eloquent, loses its power. If you take a pause, on the other hand, and fill the room with sudden silence, the gravitational field shifts. Everyone in the room looks up and locks eyes with you. What you say next is offered up on a silver platter and savored.
In the right measure, silence and sound work beautifully together. Sound conveys from without while silence draws up from within the treasures of our own insights and awareness that otherwise lay dormant, submerged, and hidden. Sound gives us the gifts of others. Silence gives us the gift of ourselves.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Real Freedom

Enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is the idea that freedom is a core American value. But the question remains – What is freedom? I think there are three stages of freedom, and until we carefully differentiate between them, all of our well-intentioned dialogue about this vital issue is doomed to end in frustration and confusion.
            Let’s call the first and most rudimentary form of freedom adolescent freedom. At this stage of our development freedom simply means doing whatever you feel like doing. As children we are ringed round with authoritarian structures dictating our every move. Adolescents necessarily rebel against these external control-mechanisms as they evolve toward personal autonomy. I think we can all agree that adolescent rebellion is a good thing, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. It’s how people are made. But personal evolution is rarely neat and tidy.
            It turns out that this first stage of freedom isn’t very free. As adolescents we are driven largely by unconscious needs and the forces of peer pressure. We only think we are free. Then we grow a little older and wiser.
          At the second stage of freedom we mature beyond hedonism and learn that our best self-interest is often served by postponing immediate pleasures for larger long-term gains. And on an even deeper level we learn that our best self-interest is entirely interwoven with the interests of others. We learn that there is no me without we – that there is no such thing as private happiness or private freedom. Our freedom and happiness cannot flourish if others are imprisoned and miserable. As Nelson Mandela wrote, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” At this second, mature stage of freedom our separate sense of self grows translucent, transparent even, as our sense of interdependency expands. We begin to see ourselves not merely as individuals, but as a part of a whole. We are evolving toward the third and highest state of freedom – awakened freedom.
            In awakened freedom we drop more and more of our cravings and attachments, we get better at accepting current conditions without resistance or resentment, and we move from reactivity toward acceptance. Spiritual teacher Krishnamurti called this state of consciousness “choiceless awareness” – to experience reality as it is without the neurotic compulsion to have an opinion about everything. Asked once what his secret was, Krishnamurti replied, “I don’t mind what happens.” Imagine how freeing that would feel.
          Awakened freedom means shifting from the consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of abundance. It does not mean receiving everything I want, but realizing freedom from want.
            Awakened freedom means allowing the ebb and flow of life to rise and fall unabated without taking it personally. Sometimes we feel strong. Sometimes we feel weak. Sometimes we receive joy unbidden, other times a nameless sadness overwhelms us. It’s o.k. In awakened freedom even our sadness becomes a friendly companion. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “Real freedom is freedom from the demand to feel good all the time.” We realize that we are deeper than our thoughts, deeper even than our pain. In the boundlessness beneath the thought stream, we are irrevocably free.
            Awakened freedom mean relinquishing the illusion of control, slipping into the unbridled miracle of the present moment, and resolving to walk through this brief, beautiful life awash in wonder and willing to love.

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permision.]