Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Heart of Being


We live in the Psychological Age. Every modern malady is traced back to psychological roots. Another mass shooting? Mental health problem. Homelessness? Mental health problem. Depression and anxiety? Mental health problem. What is the deal with Donald Trump anyway? Mental health problem.

            There’s no doubt that psychological healing modalities – talk therapy, wisely applied pharmaceuticals – have healed families and saved countless lives. But by ascribing nearly every form of human suffering to mental health imbalances we might be missing out on a deeper, even more foundational dimension.

            Western psychology is after all only a hundred years old. With roots in the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud and William James, psychology was born largely out of the medical sciences. Some maladies could simply not be traced to physiological causes. They seemed to rise up out of the uncharted depths of the mind. And if we wanted to do anything about it we needed to chart those depths.

            In the twentieth century psychological knowledge grew by leaps and bounds. Mistakes were made, as in any endeavor, but great gains were realized. As James taught us, we ought to judge the value of any practice by its pragmatic value, that is, by whether or not it works. Are there measurable positive benefits? Good. Then we’re moving in the right direction.

            But what if the psychological approach alone is not enough?

            What did people do before the invention of psychology? To whom did they turn when suffering from debilitating sadness, alienation, anxiety, or worse – suicidal fantasies, psychosis, and violence? They turned to the tribal healer, a multi-faceted practitioner knowledgeable not only in botanical medicine, but also in divination, shamanism, and ritualized spirituality.

            In other words, what we now call psychological problems were for 99% of human history known as spiritual problems. Maybe it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with this perspective.      

Throughout the world’s mythologies and religions there is a unifying archetype – the idea that the sensory world is a foreground behind which lies a hidden background beyond the reach of sensory or even conceptual awareness. And that this unseen background is superior to and in fact the source of the foreground. Most cultures conceptualize and personify this hidden background as gods or goddesses, or as the one true God. Others understand it to be a non-conceptual, impersonal force like Dao, Brahman, or Being. But the fact remains – everything in the seen world is rooted in the unseen world, (and in the end both are simply dimensions of one singular reality). When we lose our original relationship to our sacred source, by whatever name you call it, we feel lost, alone, frightened, and deeply unwell, as if we’d been hollowed out. For indeed we have.

            Spiritual practices then are designed to bridge the two worlds so that the infinite wisdom and creative energy of the unseen world can imbue the seen world with its restorative powers. This is why we pray, worship, study, meditate, chant, walk the labyrinth, serve, and perform all manner of sacred acts. Throughout time and across cultures an unshakable realization has taken hold – our lives are an expression of that unseen source, and the closer we stay in touch with it the closer we stay in touch with our own essential nature.

            Organized religions began with the best of intentions. But for many of us, their attempt to codify these insights into narrowly define doctrines and practices did as much harm as good. It is the sad history of all institutions that their original intentions are eventually and inevitably drowned in a sea of self-preservation. Soon it is not the teachings of the founder that matter – it is the maintenance of the institution that matters. Many of us still participate in the faith traditions that have meaning for us, while at the same time maintaining somewhat embarrassed distance from the most regrettable aspects of our tradition’s teachings. It is often the case that those who most stridently claim to speak for God have the least to say of any value or consequence. As Laozi put it, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.”

            That is why more Americans than ever before are defining themselves as spiritual, not religious.

            It would be foolish to advocate for the abandonment of the psychological model in favor of the spiritual. For me, it’s never either/or but always both/and. I see both psychology and spirituality playing crucial roles in the maintenance of our sanity both individually and collectively. I have benefited greatly from periods of psychotherapy in my life, and I have been woven back together again and again by spiritual practices. I see absolutely no reason not to use every tool in the box.

            So what now? What drove me to a study of philosophy and religion in the first place many years ago was my own alienation and depression, coupled paradoxically with a nearly ecstatic conviction that the universe was a holy place. I could feel it. I felt it just on the other side of the sadness, on the other side of the curtain – that infinite healing, ungraspable beauty, the mesmerizing thrum of the sublime. I didn’t have words for it, but it called me into its heart. The closer I got to it, the more I came home to myself.

            For me, philosophy, religion, and spirituality are healing modalities, like talk therapy, surgery, and pharmacology. And when I look out at the world, and within myself, I see an endless need for healing. That’s what drives me to this work.

            For 27 years I’ve been teaching philosophy and religious studies in academic settings. And for the last ten years I’ve ventured further and further off campus to bring the life-changing insights of the world’s wisdom traditions to audiences far and wide. For the last four years I’ve been leading meditation workshops teaching and encouraging others to deepen into the wisdom welling up through the cracks of their own suffering. And through it all my guitar was always close at hand – I keep writing and performing songs from this same place – the longing for healing and connection.

            And all of that work is coming to a head on Saturday, September 8 when I’ll be facilitating an all-day retreat at The Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California called “The Heart of Being.” My partnership with The Chopra Center, one of the world’s premier spiritual healing institutes, is a wonderful synchronicity – we were bound to cross paths one of these days. And when we did we both agreed that what we wanted to create was an all-day immersive experience where all of these different elements were woven together into an integrated whole – guided meditation, philosophical inquiry, spiritual practice, meaningful dialogue, interactive engagement, musical performance, and more.

            What’s at stake? Everything. As Ramana Maharshi said, “Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render the world.” After our day-long retreat we will return to our messy and wonderful everyday lives renewed, realigned, and restored to our rightful place in the centered wholeness of the Heart of Being.
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To make reservations for the one-day Heart of Being mindfulness retreat at The Chopra Center on Saturday, September 8, 2018, click here: https://www.meetup.com/Conscious-Living-Meetup/events/252379767/

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Two Faces of God


Let’s talk about God.
            It isn’t going to be easy. Is there any more charged word in all of the English language?
            It seems that any conversation about God gets immediately bogged down. So before we begin, some simply housekeeping is in order.
            What do we even mean by the word “God?”
            As passionate, partisan voices rush forward to answer the question, the more ambivalent among us turn away. Why would we want to stick around for that? We’ve heard it all before.
            But maybe there’s a way to bring us all back together. Let’s turn to ancient India for a refreshingly inclusive approach to the whole God question.
            In the religious philosophy of India, ultimate reality is conceptualized in two distinct ways, personal and impersonal. In the earliest sources, the Vedas, God or ultimate reality is always personified. The Vedas are rich with worship of various gods, most notably Indra and Agni. In the later Upanishads a new idea took root – that all of the personifications of ultimate reality are a foreground that in some ways obscure a still deeper reality called Brahman, an ineffable presence much like the Force in Star Wars.
            Brahman is the ultimate, sacred formless source of all things, a boundless energy that gives rise to all matter, consciousness, and forms, including the gods. As such, Brahman cannot be thought because thoughts are forms, and Brahman is beyond all forms. We cannot think about Brahman because Brahman is our ability to think. As 20th century Vedanta teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj put it, “The source of consciousness cannot be an object in consciousness.”
            Later, further refinement occurred. There arose two ways of thinking about Brahman, Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman. Nirguna Brahman means Brahman without qualities, while Saguna Brahman means Brahman with qualities. Let’s take them one at a time.
            Nirguna Brahman is beyond all thoughts and forms. It is utterly indescribable because it transcends all thoughts. The less we say about it, the better. In fact, the more we try to understand it conceptually, the more it eludes our grasp. The only way to “know” Nirguna Brahman is to realize and embody our oneness with it; not by intellectual understanding, but through pure awareness.  
            Saguna Brahman, on the other hand, is the one we talk about. Here we can apply all sorts of qualities and attributes to ultimate reality, and in fact we do. At this level of consciousness we can call him or her by many names. This is where personification begins – the curious act of attributing human characteristics to the divine. We ascribe gender and all manner of personality traits to the personifications we conceive. Personification of ultimate reality is ubiquitous throughout human culture – we see it everywhere throughout primordial and recorded history. There’s something about the structure of human consciousness that leads to this inevitability – we need to relate on a personal, human level to the sacred source. It’s hard to relate to an intellectual abstraction. As Aristotle said, nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of conceptual specificity the imagination runs wild.
            This same dichotomy between an impersonal God and a personal one is found throughout world religions. For the majority of the world’s Christians, God is a personified entity, an assertion further concretized by the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not just a spiritual teacher but God in the flesh – the ultimate example of personification. And yet among Christian mystics, God is far less tangible. He (or It) is not a distant sky God, but an ineffable presence best felt within the immediacy of our sacred awareness.
            The good news is we don’t have to choose. The two forms of God, personal and impersonal, are not mutually exclusive. In most religious traditions it’s understood that while one modality might remain dominant, the other is always present. It’s not either/or, but both/and. You conceive of ultimate reality any way you like since, in the end, ultimate reality transcends all conceptualization.     
And still more good news: if the emphasis is placed on the impersonal or non-personified form of God, then a bucket of cold water gets poured on the fiery theism vs. atheism debate. Once you remove all the anthropomorphic personifications and conceive of God as a non-local energy, atheism loses its nemesis. It’s the personifications that atheists have been railing against. Even famed physicist and astronomer Carl Sagan refused the label “atheist,” finding it too limiting, preferring instead “spiritual.” Turns out both theism and atheism were too narrow and limiting.
            This is what makes the Indian example so arresting and consequential. By including and honoring both the personal and impersonal approach to ultimate reality, Hinduism models a synthesis that has eluded us in the west where the tiresome and false dichotomy between science and religion has Balkanized us into two intractably warring camps. What if the God of Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg could be the same reality as the God of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad? Since all God-concepts exist at the level of Saguna Brahman, they are therefore provisional, anaological, and metaphorical even. They simply point to ultimate reality like signposts.
Calling God “Father,” as Jesus and his followers do, is a clear example of the metaphorical nature of God concepts. Christians do not mean to say that God is their biological father, rather, that he is like a father in a poetic sense, as the creator of the universe. In a way, all thinking is analogical and metaphorical – we see the world through a grid of signs and symbols largely of our own making. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something profoundly real behind the masks we make.
            Perhaps no other wisdom tradition gets to the heart of the matter as quickly as Daoism does. In the opening line of the Daodejing, Laozi writes, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao,” meaning, that whatever idea you have of ultimate reality, rest assured that your concept does not contain ultimate reality. In fact, as the Zen Buddhists say, all of our ideas and concepts of ultimate reality are like a finger pointing at the moon, and only an idiot would confuse a finger with the moon. The menu is not the food, the map is not the place, and the concept of God is not God.
            This is why it’s so vexing to be asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” Which God concept are you asking me to affirm or deny? It can never be a simple yes or no answer until a long discussion has transpired, one a lot like the one we’re having now.
            Maybe the deeper understanding we’re cultivating here will take root and bear much fruit. Building a more nuanced stance on the God question will bring enemies together around a common understanding – that even though we call it by many names, and conceive of it in many ways, the ground of being contains and honors them all. Within our own families, and in the entire human family, there can be peace surrounding the God question as long as we all agree to look past our surface concepts and into the unified depth they conceal.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Why I Meditate


I meditate because it frees me from the tyranny of my to-do list.

I meditate because twenty minutes on the cushion adds inestimable time and space to my day.

I meditate because when I honor my deepest calling, I feel every fiber of my being aligning into integrated harmony, a state I cannot create any other way.

I meditate because when I do I fall in love with the world and everything in it all over again.

I meditate because meditation is the great homecoming, the return to our authentic nature.

I meditate because in the stillness all of our interlocking systems -- intellect, emotion, energy, body, spirit -- return to their natural set-point and are restored to their ideal interrelationship.

I meditate because I'm a hedonist at core -- I'm drawn to the higher pleasures and the joy they afford.

I meditate because life is short and none of us has that much more time, and I might as well actually be here now instead of running madly through the echo chamber and hall of mirrors of my own conceptual madhouse.

I meditate because the world deserves the best possible version of myself; at core, all spiritual practice is world service.

I meditate because my greatest single contribution to world peace and enlightenment is to show up as awakened as possible.

I meditate because freedom, real freedom, is freedom from the tyranny of the thought stream.

I meditate because I'm drawn to the real, and find it every time in the silent boundless spaciousness beneath and between my thoughts.

I meditate because of the way love wells up through the cracks of my suffering when I hold still long enough to allow it.

I meditate because it is beautiful and subtle and profound.

I meditate because something deep within me asks me to.

I meditate because there is great and tremendous freedom in the word "yes."

I meditate because I can feel the darkness and fear dissipating when I do.

I meditate because. Just because.