Monday, December 22, 2008

Ten Ways to Deepen Your Life

The party’s over. We’ve taken down the lights, recycled the wrapping paper and returned the battery powered reindeer sweater we got at the white elephant office gift exchange. Hey, it was fun while it lasted. The holidays consumed us. Now it’s back to the business of living the rest of our lives.

Feeling a little disconnected? Are you skittering over the surface of things unable or unwilling to take hold? Feel like you’re missing something? Want to get down to the sweet stuff? Here are ten way to dig down deeper into the significance of your own life.

1. Slow Down

For a seed to take root it has to hold still. Is there any stillness, silence or emptiness left in your life, or have you filled it all with pomp and circumstance? Step out of the incessant stream of doing and sink down into the pool of being. The good news is you don’t have to create depth and significance in your life. It’s already and always there. You only have to slow down enough to sink into it.

2. Read Good Books

Good books are like a lit match in a pool of gasoline. Set aside twenty minutes a day for reading – maybe first thing in the morning when your mind is still open, unformed and available. The best books don’t indoctrinate, they liberate us from all doctrines. Like shafts of light in a dark forest, they illuminate our own hidden knowing. They give us to ourselves. “Every writer,” said Lu Chi in the second century A.D., “is an entrance into the mystery.” What are the great books? That’s your search my friend.

3. Listen

Most of us spend a great deal of energy maintaining our story. We talk a lot about our past, our problems, our resentments and all of the reasons why things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. Every chance we get we tell ourselves and anyone else who will listen about our grievances and fantasies of entitlement. Instead of dwelling on your own story, lean into someone else’s. Listen, really listen. This is harder than it sounds. That is until you realize how easy it is. When you really listen to someone you bring a wordless presence into the room. You both feel it and are healed by it. You don’t have to do a thing.

4. Let Art Open You

Make time in your life for great art. Educate yourself about what that means if you need to. See important films. Listen closely and with full attention to good music. Read poetry. Attend a dance performance and sit as close as you can. Go to the theater. Stand in front of great paintings. Do any of these things and feel your smallness disappear. Feel yourself pulled into larger orbits. Let great art usher you to the head of the table at the sacred banquet of your own life. Let it challenge you, strain you, teach you, feed you, remake you, break you open with tears of remembrance. Let it heal you and draw you in from the cold. Let it make you glad you are a human being.

5. Cultivate Your Spirituality

Spirituality has little to do with religion, dogma or theology although many people find it through those things. Spirituality is just an awkward word we use to describe an experience – the experience of something larger and more beautiful than ourselves. It may well up as you contemplate the eternal laws of nature or the sudden rise of the moon. Or when it hits you that we, like the moon, are beings of light. Our bodies are literally composed of the food we eat, and the food we eat is made by photosynthesis, that is, by the sun. Therefore, we are literally made of light. Try contemplating that and not feeling spiritual.

6. Find Teachers

In all the hero myths there are always mentors. Luke had Obi Wan. Frodo had Gandalf. Buffy had Giles. In each case, the teacher was a familiar person the hero had overlooked and underestimated. Who are you overlooking and underestimating? When you are on the right path, the right people come into your life. Be ready and step toward them. They need you too. You fulfill each other’s purpose.

7. Accept Help

You are never more powerful than when you admit your limitations. But humility is not the same thing as humiliation. Get that figured out. See a therapist if you’re confused. Join a sangha. Build a community of like-minded, conscious, positive people around you. Let this raft of souls carry you to distant shores. When you open yourself and show your vulnerability, you draw out the innate kindness in others. Ask for help and accept it. We inspire each other with our honest admission of powerlessness. And then miracles start to happen – miracles that lonely, isolated and prideful people can only imagine.

8. Face What Needs Facing

Start telling the truth about who and what you are. Without drama and the need to place blame, simply admit the facts. Without an honest recognition of the problem, no healing can take place. Life’s too short to stay sick on purpose. Let the truth set you free.

9. Cultivate Discipline

Honor and recognize your part in the creation of your own life. Yes, once you plant the seeds they grow by themselves. But you have to earn the seeds, hoe the rows, amend the soil and dig the irrigation channels. We do not create water, but we do create the openings through which it can flow into our fields. All of this requires scheduling, goal setting and hard work. Cultivate new habits. Studies show that if you do something for twenty one days in a row it will become a habit. First comes discipline then comes naturalness. Most people try to skip the first stage and go right to the naturalness. Their fields are fallow.

10. Surrender

When the work is done, let the infinite creative energy of the universe take care of the rest. The farmer who tugs anxiously on his seedlings is sure to uproot them. Let things unfold in their time. Surrender to what is. You don’t have to run the whole world anymore. Quit trying to control everything – what other people do, how they drive, what they say, how they live their lives. Accept as deeply as you can the truth that below the inevitable conflicts of life lies a hidden harmony, a deep unity, and that everything is, after all, okay. Give your ego the year off. Live in the timeless presence of this moment. Allow grace to well up through the cracks in your old way of thinking. There are deeper waters. Let them rise. Drink deeply. And feel your own life deepening as well.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hard Work

A lot of people think art is all about inspiration. They think people who accomplish great things are carried there on a magical cloud of divine intervention. It’s not true. Inspiration is overrated. “I always thought inspiration was for amateurs,” says eminent visual artist Chuck Close, “the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Inspiration is the refuge of the undisciplined. Waiting around on the sidelines for inspiration to suddenly strike is a formula for failure.

Of course inspiration is real and powerful and important, but it does not occur in a vacuum. Before inspiration visits you, three preliminary stages must be crossed. First comes love, then comes thought, then comes hard work. What use is gasoline if you don’t have a car to burn it in? Let’s build the car, then look for a gas station.

The first step is love. Only do what you love. Don’t confuse this with enslavement to base appetites or superficial desires. Instead, give the soul what it is asking for. “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell told his students, and don’t let anyone or anything throw you off the beam. Following your bliss changes you. And it opens doors you didn’t even know were there. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna told Arjuna, “you become what you love.” In other words, love is a particularly effective form of focused consciousness. Thoughts have transformational power.

It’s natural for our thoughts to swirl incessantly around the things we care deeply about. That’s normal. That’s why it’s important to care about the right things – true things, real things. When we do, our thoughts become intentions and affirmations and they begin to manifest in the material world. The universe has no choice but to respond to powerfully focused conscious intentions. Thoughts may not manifest in the way you think they will, but they will manifest. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” said the Buddha in the Dhamapada, “our life is a product of our mind.” It is a grave error to underestimate the capacity of consciousness to construct reality. “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal,” said Thomas Jefferson, “and nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” For Henry Ford it was this simple: “If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

From thoughts come actions. Actions repeated become habit. And habit constructs character. Our lives are the results of our thoughts and actions. We become what we love, we become what we think, we become what we do. Our choices set into motion complex webs of causation that interface with the lives of countless others and the consciousness of the universe itself – what some people call God. One-pointed love, conscious intention and disciplined action are an unstoppable force. Cultivating the habit of hard work is the single most important element of success in any endeavor. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” said Thomas Edison. Squeamish about work? Then don’t complain about the gulf between you and your dreams.

Stop looking for the magic formula or the right self-help book. You’ve read enough. You’ve prayed enough. You’ve thought enough. Now get to work. “Every habit and faculty is preserved and increased by its corresponding actions,” said Epictetus in the first century, “the habit of walking makes us better walkers, regular running makes us better runners.” Want to write better songs? Write songs everyday. Want a better gig? You know what to do. Want to break the cycle of addiction? Act like a sober person. Want to overcome fear and cultivate compassion? Ask yourself, what would a courageous, compassionate person do, and then do that. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Aristotle, Judaism and Confucianism all make this point loud and clear: action precedes internal transformation. Fake it till you make it. Act as if. Act as if you were talented, fabulous, gifted, creative, powerful. It’s one of life’s most delicious paradoxes. Yes, thoughts and intentions give rise to actions and behaviors. But actions and behaviors also shape consciousness. It’s a never-ending feedback loop. Thoughts give rise to actions and behaviors in turn transform consciousness. That’s how we become what we do.

And finally, when we fully engage in a life of action, that’s when the inspiration hits. Inspiration can never be the goal. Inspiration just happens when we show the universe that we are willing to do our part. We pay our dues. We show up prepared. We do our homework and learn our craft. We demonstrate our readiness in our everyday actions. Writers write, singers sing, lovers love, painters paint, creators create. And in the abundance of our fully-realized commitment, miracles happen. “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” said Edison. Stop searching the sky for that bolt of lightning. Keep your eyes on the work in front of you. Let the universe make miracles through the work of your own hands. In the end there’s only one thing that delivers us to the life we long for and so richly deserve: hard work.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Playing Small

Like all artists, musicians are caught between two conflicting fears. We’re afraid no one will come to the show. And we’re afraid they will. We can’t decide which is worse: failure or success.

We need an audience, but we really want to be alone. We loath the anonymity of failure almost as much as we fear the utter exposure of success.

If you aspire to be anything in this life – a teacher, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker or, God forbid, a singer songwriter – you’re going to have to negotiate this paradoxical minefield. Many of us are paralyzed. We don’t take the next step because we don’t want to get blown up.

But what is it really that’s holding us back?

The common assumption is that we fear failure. We don’t reach for greatness because we’re convinced we’ll fall short. We don’t want to look stupid. It’s so much easier to hold still, risk nothing and nurture the illusion that we’re satisfied with our incompletion. We wear our dissatisfaction like a badge.

But there’s another, subtler fear that lurks behind the more obvious one. Fear of failure is one thing. What about fear of success?

Marianne Williamson, in her bestselling book A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles in A Course in Miracles, wrote very powerfully on this subject. This quote has been circulating the internet for years. It is often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela. That’s because he adapted this passage for his inauguration speech in 1994 when he was elected the first black president of South Africa, a country painfully emerging from the mud of apartheid. Mandela had been imprisoned by the white regime for twenty seven years. He had a lot of time to think about the big questions. What holds us back? What moves us forward? How can we heal ourselves, heal our nation and heal the world? One can only speculate about how this passage affected Mandela. As you read it, ask yourself, is this about me? Williamson writes,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? […] Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Our practiced unwillingness to cultivate our own greatness deserves deeper reflection and contemplation than we normally allow. What if she’s right? What if the possibility of our wild success is more paralyzing than the possibility of our utter failure? Why do we feed, day after day, on the bitter bread of our own indifference, our own apathy, our own resentment? Why, now, have we given up? Surely the fear of failure is an inadequate explanation.

Where did we get the message that our greatness was threatening to others? Where did we learn the lie that the best way to help other people feel good about themselves was to mute our brilliance? Who told us that we did not deserve love, prosperity, health and joy? And why did we so readily believe them?

Somehow we confused mastery with arrogance, creative abundance with egotism, brilliance with narcissism. We are right to guard against arrogance, egotism and narcissism. But we are wrong, dead wrong, to eschew mastery, creative abundance and brilliance in the name of a distorted notion of humility.

On the contrary, is it not ultimately more egotistical to hide our light for fear of looking foolish? What are we protecting? Real humility would be to get our ego out of the way and honor the gifts we have been so graciously given by the all-knowing mind of the universe – to cultivate the courage and discipline to live fully, fearlessly and authentically, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.

We stare through the bars of our fear-wrought prison; we torture ourselves with doubt, confusion and false humility. But don’t despair. Mandela lived in a literal prison. He was routinely tortured. Yet he ultimately triumphed. Mandela believed in the light, and in the power of ordinary people to be great.

By cultivating our greatness we are better able to serve others. And then the real miracle happens: “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”. Far from intimidating others with our light, we inspire them. Cultivating your authentic, creative, generous self is your greatest gift to the world. In fact, it’s your obligation and your duty. Not for ego, not for glory, not for fame and not for money. All those things may or may not happen incidentally. They were never the goal. The real goal is and always has been service. By cultivating your authentic, creative self you are participating in the sustenance of the universe. And we can’t do it alone. We need as many people as possible to cultivate their own greatness. Perhaps we are reaching the tipping point as more and more people are liberated from the chains of limited thinking and fearful ignorance. As we awaken to our deeper reality, others are inspired to awaken as well. We serve nothing but our own fear-based ego by playing small. Living our dreams, dreams planted deep within us when the dream of the universe was born, is our sacred duty and honor. Live the life of your dreams. Risk everything. You have nothing to lose but your fear and your egoic confusion. Trust the light. Live big. Live bright. Your soul is crying for it. The time has passed for playing small.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Silent Church

On August 18, 1963 Jean-Luc Poirot set out of Boston Harbor in a fully stocked thirty two foot schooner, intent on sailing solo around the world. He was never heard from again. Twenty years later, in 1983, a merchant vessel blew off course in a storm near Malaysia and spotted a signal fire on a tiny, uninhabited island out in the middle of nowhere. Drawing closer they saw a man with a very long beard jumping up and down on the beach. It was Jean-Luc Poirot.

The captain of the merchant vessel and a few of his men dropped a skiff into the water and ferried over to the island. They landed and stepped out onto the beach where Jean-Luc stood in disbelief, tears of joy streaming down his face. As the men helped Jean-Luc gather up his meager belongings to take back to the ship, the captain noticed that Jean had built three beautiful huts from drift wood and palm fronds, decorated with shells and strands of betel nut and dried flowers. The captain was very impressed.

“What is that building there?” the captain asked, pointing to the first shelter.

“That’s my house”, Jean said proudly.

“What’s that second building?” the captain asked.

“That’s my church,” Jean said, a hushed sense of reverence coming into his voice.

"Then what’s that third building?” asked the captain.

“Oh,” Jean said, “that’s the church I used to go to.”

I have to laugh every time I hear that story. Many of us have “churches we used to go to”. And some of us, if we ever went at all, stopped going to church a long time ago. About 50% of Americans attend a weekly worship service of some kind – a mosque, a synagogue or a church. That number is much lower in Europe, especially northern Europe where in some countries it hovers well below 10%. And like Jean-Luc, most church goers are not attending the church they used to go to.

In the 19th century American Christianity began to split into nearly infinite variety. Buffeted by wave after wave of immigration and a steady stream of new ideas and practices, American religion became as fractured as American individualism. Alternate spiritualities spread like fire through the dry and desiccated theologies of our forefathers. By the twentieth century the transformation was complete. We became a nation of seekers. A new paradigm of religion as an individual path of discovery replaced the old paradigm of religion as a socially binding tribal affiliation. The gale force winds of religious freedom had blown down all the doors. Our individualism and commercial consciousness turned spirituality into a marketplace and each of us into shoppers.

Many of us call ourselves “spiritual”, not “religious”. We are no longer fed by the old institutions and rituals, preferring instead the direct experience of spirit in manifold forms. We know that the God of our understanding, and the God that surpasses all understanding, is bigger than any church. That’s what makes Jean-Luc’s story so funny.

Some of us feel the sacred presence in nature, and as we walk alone in the woods or on a lake shore we sense an infinite expanse no scripture or doctrine could convey. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman who sees the Lord everywhere.”

Some of us broke down the walls of our perceptual prisons with drugs. Like Carlos Castaneda, and usually without the tutelage of a Don Juan, we roamed the desert stoned out of our minds, seeing the world with new eyes and riding waves of consciousness to distant shores and back again. Then, after time, the drugs themselves became a prison, dulling our sensibilities and driving us deeper and deeper into lonely lives of isolation. We grew small and hunkered down into the long night, a beer in one hand, a bong in the other, caught up in the pseudo-rapture of our own egoic fear, craving and resentment until the only thing we really cared about was the next buzz. Sometimes you need medicine. And then you get sick from the medicine.

Some of us uncovered our spirituality in recovery. In church basements and cafes, AA and NA and other 12-step movements presented a new vision of freedom, a vision the ego has no chance of understanding. Laying bare the mechanics of our compulsions, we learned that it is only through surrender of the ego that real joy emerges. The discursive mind chafes against the illogic of gaining power by admitting powerlessness, but through direct experience we came to understand.

Some of us found the truth in organized religion. Faith communities centered around a specific scriptural tradition gave us the necessary framework within which we could experience the divine. We all remember Dylan’s born-again phase. Sometimes a powerful theology and more importantly the community that embodies it draws us into its loving embrace. At its best, this approach heals us and softens us into our deeper humanity. At its worst, this approach leads to provincial or even bigoted thinking and the delusion that one’s religion is better than all the others. As Joseph Campbell quipped when asked to define mythology, “Mythology is other people’s religion.”

Some of us find our joy in service. Through the attainment of professional mastery we cultivate skills that enable us to be of use to others. We become doctors and lawyers and writers and musicians and builders and counselors and creators of all kinds. We use our work to experience the depth of our connection to the source energy that runs through all things. In a life of duty and service we feel a vast, divine presence gently wresting the reins away from our fading ego.

Some of us draw profound sustenance from a life of study. We read great books by poets and philosophers and geniuses of all disciplines and through their polished lenses we come to see a little farther and deeper than before. Religious experience is not always about leaving the intellect behind. “The mind is indeed our prison,” the Maitri Upanishad says, “but the mind is also our liberator.”

Mohandas Gandhi was asked by a journalist once to sum up his philosophy in three words. “Renounce and enjoy,” he said, quoting the Isha Upanishad. Surrender the ego, give up attachment to this outcome or that outcome, release all petty desires, learn to love the world and all the imperfect people in it just the way they are. But stay fully engaged, vitally alive and completely committed to the creative path you have been given. Grow your business, write your book, heal the wounded, plant an orchard, harvest the fruit. Make something beautiful out of the seeds you have been given. Then give it away. You will be paid in full in ways your ego can never even imagine.

You might not need the preacher’s sermon or the theologian’s doctrinal argument. You might not need the ancient scriptural passage. You might not need the sacred ritual or the solemn hymn. Each of these are spokes of the great wheel, and all spokes lead to the center. But none of them contains or fully expresses the mystery of the center. “We shape clay into a vessel,” Laozi writes in the Daodejing, “but it is the emptiness within that holds whatever we want.” We grow attached to the outer forms of things – our doctrines, our churches, our ideas – and we forget the treasure those forms were made to hold. Emerson remarked, “I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching,” and we know exactly what he meant. Out of the depths of our own being, heard only in silence, we hear the one wordless voice, the voice that speaks to each of us in our own language. As we walk our paths, sometimes alone, sometimes together, sometimes in song, sometimes in silence, we finally realize that in all our restless seeking not one of our steps leads away from the truth. Your true church is right where you are.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

15 Things You Have To Do This Summer

Feel like summer passed you by? It’s not too late. There are still plenty of prime time summer days stretched out ahead of you. But you’re going to have to make the first move. Here are fifteen things guaranteed to jump start your summer.

1. Go barefoot

We all love our many shoes and flip flops, but once in a while leave them behind and feel the curve of the earth beneath your feet. Cool grass, white sidewalks, wet sand, smooth pebbles, that brown dirt path down to the lake – don’t let your shoes get in the way of these things.

2. Drink water from a garden hose

Some well-meaning health department wonk probably warned you not to, but “health” has many meanings. What about soul-health? We lost a little of our moxie when we put down the hose and picked up the pomegranate flavored vitamin water. Next time you’re thirsty step outside, grab that hose and crank it up. I don’t know why, but it’s liberating. And free.

3. Go swimming in the ocean, in a lake, in a river and in a swimming pool. Repeat.

Let your body slip under the water and remember, if not consciously then at least at the cellular level, the first nine months of life when you floated blissfully in embryonic fluid. Drift downstream and feel what it’s like to fly. Oceans, lakes, rivers and pools all have their different flavors, literally and figuratively. Make sure you hit them all. Do whatever it takes. Make it happen. If you only do one of the things on this list, make this the one.

4. Fall asleep in the shade under a tree

The blue sky light speckles beyond the leaves. Shapes without names. A thousand shades of green. The simple Being of a tree. Rootedness. The way it lives its whole life in one place, satisfied, purposeful, full of grace. If you let go of your incessant thinking and do this right, you will feel the earth turning beneath you in space as you slip into unconsciousness.

5. Hike the backcountry

Head for the hills and move under your own power over fields and streams, the way we moved for hundreds of thousands of years before we invented those confounded bicycles and automobiles. Feel the machinations of your routinized life dissolve and reconfigure into more natural shapes. Get reacquainted with your mother earth.

6. Make sandwiches and show up at a good friend’s workplace and kidnap them for lunch

Chance meetings and surprises are the sweet spots of life. As far as I know, there’s no rule against orchestrating these chance meetings just a little. Show up at your friend’s work with a picnic and whisk them away on an urban adventure. (Spouses, lovers and exes are also prime targets). An egg salad sandwich, potato chips and a crisp pickle on a bench overlooking the San Diego River can do wonders for a mid-week slump.

7. Wander around on foot downtown with no agenda for four hours

Get out of that glass and steel bubble called your car and see the city at eye level at three miles an hour. Stumble onto bookstores and cafes and Greek restaurants you didn’t know about. Get a little lost. Look up. Makes friends with architecture. Marvel at what busy humans have accomplished. Feel vicariously proud.

8. Rent a kayak and paddle around

Summer is the time when even novices are welcome, even expected, on the water. Take a sailing lesson, rent a row boat on a lake or paddle a kayak out through the surf at La Jolla Shores and explore the sea caves at the base of the cliffs. The sound of water lapping on a hull needs to be fresh in your mind if you know what’s good for you. You’ll kick yourself for not doing this sooner.

9. Go to a library and read poetry

Sure newspapers and websites and magazines and novels are all important, of course they are, but don’t forget where it all begins. Nothing celebrates the power of language like poetry. Language is our best attempt to get a handle on the wild and winsome energies of the universe and poetry is language distilled down to its most potent essentials. Good poets are magicians who wring the cosmos like a rain-soaked bandana and paint the page with its mercurial drops. Rapt in their shamanic spell we see with new eyes the transcendent, blessed ordinariness of our own lives. Then come the cleansing tears.

10. Pick up an instrument you don’t know how to play and try to make music with it

Caught in a rut of tedious proficiency? Tired of being so damn good at everything? Return to what Zen Buddhism calls “the beginner’s mind”. Make god-awful music on an instrument you know nothing about. Drop your ego, stop assessing everything and let your childlike fumblings wrest something new from the uncarved block, the field of pure potentiality that practiced artifice obscures.

11. Write a nine page letter to an old friend

Don’t think too much about what you’re going to write. Just start. Around page four you’ll start getting to the good stuff. You know what I mean. You might not even have to send it.

12. Visit a sacred place

I know, every place is sacred. But some places are more sacred than others. Find an ashram, a meditation garden, a labyrinth, a monastery, a church, a temple, a mosque – but go there when it’s empty. Emerson said, “I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching.” Sit still a while. Get out of your head. Slip into the space between thoughts, between words. Let the wooly eared theologians wrangle doctrine out in the parking lot.

13. Walk in the desert at night

Don’t fall off a cliff or stumble into a bed of cholla, but there’s nothing quite as cleansing as hot desert wind in the dark. Blood warm gusts swirl out of the sky like the breath of God, thick with the smell of stone and moonlight. Stars hang like sparks in the indigo between the mountains. Wonderful things begin happening to your skin and your muscle tissue and your troubled mind – a deep, profound stillness seeps into you like a drop of ink in water and your heart begins to beat in time with the rhythm of the earth’s deepest dream.

14. Go to a farmers market and buy some summer fruit

Buy some ugly little organic white peaches that flood your mouth with the fragrant flavor of river-fed orchards and blue summer skies and dew on the sage and poppies and lavender and bright Monarch wings and the morning star all distilled down into a fuzzy little ball that fits in the palm of your hand. Miracles come in small packages. Buy some for your neighbors and leave them on their porch. Refuse to take credit.

15. Get out of town for three days

Drive at least two hours (preferably more) in any direction and stay there a while. Hit the hotel pool. Get some sun. Read the local paper with an anthropologist’s eye. Watch the worst local TV news you can find. Make fun of the weatherman’s hair. Read maps and learn the names of new places. Make frothy drinks in the blender. Eat tacos. Watch old movies. It doesn’t take much to see that all our problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Catch up on your sleep. Feel your so-called real life slip back into due proportion. Feel the swelling of your self-importance recede. Let summer unwind you and leave you calm and collected, held by sensible boundaries, home at last in right-sized dreams. We do good work. We do important things. People are counting on us. But for now, let summer take you over. Live your life as if it were precious and brief and incomparably sweet. It is.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Love of Wisdom

Philosophy is one of those words we’re supposed to know the meaning of, but don’t. Most people think it simply means one’s point of view, as in “my philosophy of life”. For others it conjures up a memory of some awful philosophy class they had years ago in college where a kindly but uninspired professor droned on and on about ontology, phenomenology and the categorical imperative. For most everyone else, philosophy is just a vague abstraction they’d just as soon forget. I’ve been teaching philosophy for seventeen years to over 7000 students, and I’m still not sure what it is.

When I tell people what I do for a living they nod politely and ask “where” and “for how long” and things like that. I see by the look in their eyes they’re intrigued, but reticent. Part of me wants to launch into an introductory lecture that neither of us could endure and part of me just wants to hug them and tell them it’s alright to not know what philosophy is. Really, it’s O.K. Philosophy, by its very nature, is difficult to get a handle on. It’s thinking about thinking. It’s using the mind to try and understand the processes of the mind. It’s like trying to see your own eyes. Try it right now. Try to see your own eyes. You’ll go mad. Now you know why philosophy graduate students look so crazy.

Philosophy means the love of wisdom. (philo: love; sophia: wisdom) It is just the name of a longing that lies deep within us, a longing for what it true and real. Despite the best efforts of academic philosophers to render philosophy utterly incomprehensible to everyone but themselves – I know, that’s not what they’re trying to do, but that is the most evident result of their endless toil – philosophy is in essence a fundamentally innate universal human experience, like breathing or dreaming. It is not the sole purview of specialists – it is the birthright of every living, breathing, dreaming human being. It’s time to rescue philosophy from the philosophers.

If philosophy is the love of wisdom, then what is wisdom? Wisdom is different from practical knowledge (how to make an omelet) or theoretical knowledge (understanding the laws of thermonuclear physics or the causes of the Civil War). Being a master omelet maker, a thermonuclear physicist or a Civil War expert does not make one wise.

Wisdom is the ability to live a good life – a life of depth, of value, of purpose, of dignity, of kindness, of creativity, of beauty, of mastery, of humility, of joy. To be wise is to thrive in a state of well-being where one’s potentials are fully realized. This requires great risk taking – embodying the courage to grow beyond one’s fear-based and self-imposed limitations. Life is both staggeringly difficult and unspeakably beautiful. How are we to negotiate these treacherous twists and turns, not hurt our selves or others, and still enjoy the beauties of the way? That’s going to take some wisdom.

If philosophy is a yearning, then when do we feel that yearning most keenly? One has only to look at one’s own experience. Standing in a cemetery and watching a casket lowering into the ground. Feeling the grip of the tiny hand of a newborn child. Lying on the asphalt along the interstate with paramedics hovering over you, smoldering wreckage scattered for a quarter mile. Standing by a campfire on the bank of river and watching glowing embers soar up into the darkness of a desert sky, turning into stars. Sitting in a tiny doctor’s office and hearing the word “cancer”. It is in these moments that the trivia of life drops away leaving a startling clarity – a clarity that seems to transcend thought. We are now in the field of pure awareness, liberated from our incessant thought-stream. And from this perspective, usually quite fleeting, we see with new eyes the challenges and beauties of our lives. We shift back into our deeper awareness – a silent, still witness that is usually hidden behind the thicket of our incessant thoughts and we catch a glimpse of something grander, something wider than our work-a-day world with its ill-timed troubles and endless pursuits.

These moments of awakening are the bricks and mortar of philosophy for it is from these insights that we begin to build a path to truth. “The unexamined life is not worth living” said Socrates, and in these moments of nameless clarity we know just what he means. Life, as it is normally lived, is like a dream. Part of us is completely caught up in the dream, attached to the imagery and invested in the delusion. But our deeper nature knows there is something more, something lasting and precious beneath the shimmering surface of the perceptual field. Seeing through the illusory nature of surface consciousness and drawing sustenance from the eternal presence it conceals – this is the central lesson of the world’s wisdom traditions. But we haven’t been very good students.

Throughout history remarkable individuals have experienced wisdom and tried to teach it to others, with varying degrees of success. Most of them are lost and long forgotten. A few of them live on in the words and teachings they left behind and in the traditions that arose around those teachings. Each of these teachers used the imagery and context of their own cultures to illustrate the path to the timeless presence beneath the surface of our unexamined minds. Some personified it and called it God. Others split the infinite energy of the universe into pantheons of countless gods, in conflict with each other. Still others preferred to leave the source nameless, fearing that if we name it we will become attached to the name and forget the reality to which the name refers. And in the deeper, mystical currents within each of these wisdom traditions lies the same essential claim – that we are one with the source, that we are identical with the ground of Being. Only we don’t know it. We are caught, for now, in a dream of separateness, enslaved to our lower nature, gripped by fear and lost in illusory loneliness.

Wisdom then is the ability to navigate the boat of our lives through these waves and into the far harbor of our ancient home. There are many maps and charts. But each of us has an internal compass as well, and must chart a course of our own. “Truth is a pathless land”, said Krishnamurti, and indeed, we cannot simply mindlessly follow the path of another. Wisdom defies formulization. Doctrines and dogmas can point the way, but they must ultimately be left behind.

To study the history of philosophy then is to study the history of love. We humans are philosophical animals – we tirelessly seek the object of our love, namely, wisdom. Our mythologies, religions and philosophies are, at their best, attempts to close the gap between us and the ground of Being from which we and all things come. Religion comes from the word religio meaning “to bind together” or “to connect”. We are tired of feeling alienated, alone, cut off. We want to awaken to the eternal energy of life coursing through us and all things. We want to feel at home in our own skins. We want to transcend and leave behind our divisive ideologies and awaken from this dream of separateness. We want to overcome ignorance and illusion. We want fall at last into the arms of our beloved. That is why we study philosophy.