Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Through the Cracks

“No one should abandon duties because he sees defects in them. Every action, every activity, is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke.” – Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 18:48

In every creative act – from planting a garden to writing a song, from baking a cake to raising a child – you fall short of the ideal. Nothing ever comes out quite the way you thought it would.

The aim for perfection sharpens our decisions and hones our actions. But in the end we must abandon perfection and surrender to what is. There is no shame in acknowledging limitations. We have to learn to let the accidents along the way lend their hand to the shape of things. We don’t control most of what happens. None of us does anything alone. Every act of creation is an act of co-creation.

I was writing a song the other day. I had a couple of good verses, but I needed a chorus. I tried and tried and tried to wrest one from the ether, but I just couldn’t find it. I settled on a woefully inadequate place-holder chorus, a stand-in until the real chorus came along. Each time I sang the song I cringed. I thought the chorus was awful. Then something odd began to happen. As I sang the song over and over, the place-holder chorus started sounding better, as if it had been the right one all along. The chorus wasn’t the problem. The problem was me.

I recently performed the song for the first time in front of a packed house. It got the loudest applause of the night. After the show, that was the only song people mentioned to me, again and again. My initial, knee-jerk rejection of the chorus, based on who knows what, was way off.

It’s important to discern the good from the bad, the effective from the ineffective, to separate the wheat from the chaff. But playful humility leavened with a dose of patience frees us from the tyranny of our prejudice. It is often in our best self-interest to admit that we are wrong. What we initially misjudge as bad might turn out to be a hidden jewel not entirely of our own making.

As a six year old boy living in Canada, Neil Young caught polio, a frightening disease of the nervous system that often left its victims without the use of one or more of their limbs. He recovered, but he was never the same. I sometimes wonder if Neil Young would play guitar the way he does had he not contracted polio. Would he hunch over his Les Paul a little differently? Would he have become more of a finesse player instead of settling on his trademark thumping claw hammer style? Would he have written hundreds of brilliant songs about the pain of isolation and loneliness had he not suffered the terror of a life-threatening disease at such a tender age? “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” sang Bob Dylan in his song It’s Not Dark Yet. It is from our wounds and imperfections that beauty arises. If we really understood this would we rush to mask every flaw, numb every pain, and sand smooth the sharp edges of our lives? “There is a crack in everything,” sang Leonard Cohen in his song Anthem, “that’s how the light gets in.”

There is an old Indian story about a young girl whose job it was to fetch water for her village. Every morning she would walk down the long path to the river and fill two large clay jars. When they were full she would fasten them to both ends of a yoke and lift the yoke onto her shoulders for the long walk home.

One morning when she reached the village she noticed that one of the jars was a lot lighter than the other one. She looked behind her and saw a thin line of dark, damp soil alongside the path. One of her jars was cracked.

“What a shame,” she thought, “what a waste. My stupid, leaky jar has wasted water and wasted my time.”

She told her grandmother about the leaky jar.

“It’s o.k.,” she said, “just do the best you can.”

Everyday for many weeks the young girl continued to do her best, but everyday the jar over her right shoulder leaked all the way home from the river. She became increasingly frustrated. She even began to hate the leaky jar. She felt like a failure.

Then one day the young girl woke up with a terrible sickness. She was so weak she couldn’t stand. No one in the village knew what was wrong with her. For two weeks she laid in her hut feeling awful. She didn’t know what was worse, the sickness ravaging her body or the shame of not being able to fulfill her duty.

Finally her strength returned. Her grandmother came into the hut.

“Come with me little one,” she said, “I have something to show you.”

They walked out onto the dusty path. The young girl couldn’t believe her eyes. On one side of the path, the side where the leaky jar had spilled, a long line of beautiful flowers grew. Orange poppies and deep blue lupines wound along the path all the way down to the river, as if the orange sun and the blue sky had poured themselves out onto the earth.

“See,” her grandmother said, “there are no mistakes. The Great Spirit moves through all things and works with what is, not with what should be. Remember this when you are sad and angry at your own imperfections.”

Inevitable flaws and unintended outcomes plague all of our actions. Some of the outcomes are good, like flowers nourished by a leaky water vessel. Some outcomes are bad. Feed the homeless and you create a destructive cycle of dependency. Write reasonable laws to protect people from poison and you fill the jails with harmless drug addicts. Send humanitarian aid into war-torn regions and you enrich local warlords. The laws of karma are beyond anyone’s control. No event stems from a single cause, just as no event results in a single effect. The best we can do is to try to do what’s right, and let go of the outcome.

As we embrace our imperfection we know that there will always be collateral damage as well as unintended beauty. It is our sacred duty to draw on the fire of our hearts and minds to light the world. And where there’s fire there’s smoke.

Perfectionism prevents action because no outcome is ever perfect. Only those willing to make peace with imperfection, only those willing to let there be cracks in the world, only those willing to let their work be flawed leave space enough for the good to get in. If you say no to imperfection, you rob the world of the light that gets in through the cracks.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bridge Generation

The low sun of December casts a long shadow. There’s more darkness than light. But the darkness holds a promise. Something is waiting to be born.

I’ve been thinking about the twentieth and twenty first centuries, how we are the bridge generation between the two – born in one, living and dying in the next, one foot in the old world, one foot in the new.

It was only ten years ago that the great twentieth century – the most violent century, the most inspiring century – came to a close. A time of unprecedented brutality and catastrophic environmental degradation, the twentieth century stands forever as a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when we put a narrow sense of tribe and short-term profits before the needs of the earth and the human family. Yet the twentieth century was also a time of hard-won gains in basic human rights, a time when entire categories of people began to emerge from centuries of oppression, a time when the sciences and the humanities joined forces to envision and manifest a world that works for everyone – in short, a time of awakening.

What will the twenty first century bring? We’re ten years in, and it’s still too soon to tell. If we’ve learned anything, it’s the complete unpredictability of the future.

Yet here, in the early morning of the twenty first century, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re awakening from a long dream, and in the gradual dawning of our new awareness, we are re-imagining our core values and the social structures and institutions that emerge from those values. We are redefining success. We are redefining peace. We are redefining prosperity. We are learning how to let our vision lead and our practicality follow. We know that a small group of people can change the course of history – we’ve seen it happen too many times to ignore. And we know that no matter how dire the situation, no matter how dark the night, there is within every human heart enough light to illuminate the whole world.

We don’t trust government as much as we used to. We know that we cannot wait for others to solve our problems. We know that within each of our homes, our families, our neighborhoods and our spiritual communities, it is we who lead, it is we who set priorities, it is we who articulate values, it is we who vote with our dollars to support businesses that uphold our vision of the good.

It is our growing conviction that each of us has wisdom within us, wisdom that emerges as insight, intuition and compassionate action each time we are faced with injustice and needless suffering. It is drawn out by our increasing awareness of the tremendous need around the world. We no longer think of ourselves as just Americans or just Mexicans or just Canadians, but as citizens of the world proud of our local affiliations, but not bound by them. Old institutions are crumbling and new institutions are taking their place. New technologies are shattering barriers that used to keep us apart. We are no longer beholden to powerful information distribution systems however well-meaning they may have been. Just as in the twentieth century the train, then the automobile and then the airplane closed great distances, today the internet (and whatever’s next) has destroyed the very concept of distance itself. With each cataclysmic change much was lost, and much was gained. We have had to learn to let go, over and over again. And we have struggled to adapt new technologies to the service of our humanity, not the other way around. With each change, the underlying constant remained – us. It is the indomitable human spirit that springs forth forever new from the dissolving forms of the past.

And here we are ten years into the new century, on the verge of the teenage years. I believe we have a choice. I believe that each of us has the power within the privacy of our own conscience, our own decisions, our own actions, to co-create with those around us the world we hold in our visions. We know that our intentions have creative power. We know that evolution isn’t over. We know that something is emerging, and we get to decide what that is.

Evolution has been going on for a long time. It’s absurd to think it has stagnated or that we have reached the end. If anything, we are in a period of accelerated change. This is not the final stage. As we continue to fall forward into the ever-new world, we carry with us the values and convictions that serve our deepest sense of the good. We let the old ways fall by the wayside. We take what we need and leave the rest. We buy less and give more. We move into smaller houses. We drive smaller cars. We consume fewer resources. We finally believe that there’s nothing more we really need, and that our wants are often born from the wound of spiritual dissatisfaction, and so we learn to feed ourselves not at the mall, but at the well that springs from the sacred source deep within us and all things.

Maybe you’re discouraged. Maybe you’re moved to despair by the endless bad news streaming into our awareness. Make sure you’re looking in a balanced way at the information you use to reach your assessments. Yes, there is abundant evidence of brutality and misery. But there is also ample evidence that we live in a time of great transformation where change-agents famous and obscure are working tirelessly around the world and making real progress. Find a place to lean in and help us push away the debris of the old forms that no longer serve us. Make a decision: stay caught in the disease or be a part of the healing.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world,” wrote Margaret Mead. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We won’t always agree about how to change the world. But we share the conviction that it is our sacred duty to do so. If not us, who? If not now, when?

We are the people born in a time of great pain and promise. We are the people born in an age of unprecedented change. We are the people who remember where we came from, and hold a vision of where we are going. We are the people who know in our bones that it is possible to give birth to a world that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just. We have been given all the tools we need. We have each other. We have trust, faith, hope, love and wisdom. We can span the distance between the world we imagine and the world we behold. We are the connection between what was and what will be. We are the bridge generation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Light Sense of Self

Is the ego our enemy, our friend, or just another tool in the box?

Even the most casual student of the world’s spiritual and philosophical traditions knows that self-centeredness is the blade that cuts us off from wisdom and well-being. We must relinquish selfishness the sages tell us. Egotism is the enemy. And yet a nagging cluster of questions remain: Is my innate desire to learn, grow and create egotistical? Is my sense of identity such a bad thing? Don’t I need personal ambition to get anything done?

These questions arise in any walk of life, but they seem particularly acute in the arts, especially the performing arts. If you’re going to get on stage and demand people’s time and money, you’ve got to believe that what you’re offering has value. You need a strong, clear sense of self. Nothing is more important on stage than confidence, which, by the way, is very different from arrogance.

What is the ego? It is that thing we refer to when we use words like I, me and mine. It is a concept of self, an identity that is separate from everything else. It is one of the truths about us. But there are other truths.

In the spiritual and philosophical wisdom traditions of the world a few recurring principles arise again and again. Aldous Huxley called these recurring principles “the perennial philosophy”. Foremost among these universal ideas is the concept of Oneness, the notion that behind the veil of differentiation there is an underlying unity. All separate things, then, are expressions of the One. Whether you personify and deify the One or think of it as an impersonal force is purely a matter of preference. Some call it God, others call it Dao or Brahman or Spirit or Source or Divine Mind. “The Truth is One,” says the Rig Veda, “the sages call it by many names.”

Why the One became the Many is the great mystery of existence. We don’t know why. But it did. As humans evolved, spiritual traditions emerged, girded by philosophy and clothed in mythology. Imbedded in these traditions are maps left for us by those who went before, maps that make clear that realizing our unity with Oneness is the highest form of wisdom; to rise up out of the consciousness of separateness characterized by agitation, fear, competition, scarcity and craving and into the consciousness of unity characterized by serenity, clarity, kindness, community, abundance, compassion and gratitude. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and countless other truth-traditions all lead by different paths to the same summit.

In this context then the ego is neither good nor bad – it is simply one aspect of a complex array of energies and faculties nested within the phenomenon of consciousness. The ego, that sense of separateness, is a necessary construct. The ego serves us well. It encourages us to invest considerable time and energy into the maintenance of our own lives, materially and spiritually. I enjoy being me. Initially, I may think that I’m doing all this for myself. But it’s equally true that as I get stronger, smarter, more creative and more skillful I’m equipping myself for greater acts of service. Maybe the ego with its love of achievement, accomplishment, competition and attention is all part of a larger plan. By cultivating our own excellence we are adding to the wealth of the world. As I expand my capacity for self-expression, I am simultaneously deepening my connection to the Source and becoming a widening channel for Source to express Itself through me. In this way the false dichotomy between my individuality and the One begins to dissolve.

All one hundred trillion cells in your body emerged from a single cell, the egg. After fertilization, it quickly divided into two, then four and so on. The rapidly multiplying and expanding cells began to specialize – some becoming bone, others becoming skin, still others becoming brain tissue with the capacity for self-awareness. Deepak Chopra asks an excellent question. Are the heart and the brain different? Yes. Are they separate? No. They are differentiated expressions of one, unified organism. Differentiation is not separation. In this same way then all of reality is One, despite appearances to the contrary.

The problem arises when we mistake the ego for our entire being. We may fault the ego somewhat for playing along with this self-serving delusion, but it is certainly not the ego’s fault. It’s just doing the job for which it was designed – leading the parade. But thinking that one lousy drum major makes a parade is a big mistake.

“Person” and “personality” come from “persona”, the Latin word for mask, specifically the masks actors wore on stage in Classical plays. Our personality is the mask we show to the world, behind which lurks all the immeasurable mystery of our little slice of the One consciousness. Our identity, the way we are known to the world, is a cluster of associations made up of a complex and interwoven tapestry of threads – race, age, ethnicity, profession, looks, skills, mannerisms, voice, preferences, opinions and so on. This cluster of elements we call a “person” is led by an ego, an organizing principle that ties together all of these otherwise disparate elements. In this sense then the ego is our friend. We would be hopelessly fragmented without it. Before we demonize the ego it is probably wise to remember that the ego is, after all, yet another manifestation of the One.

Still, the dangers of egoic attachment are very real. Mistaking the ego for the entire depth and breadth of our being is the source of all our suffering. Putting the ego in charge of our lives is like letting a flea rule the world. In the end, neither the flea nor the world prospers.

What if we re-conceptualized our ambition as emergence, our hunger for more as sacred expansion, our yearning to be heard and understood as holy communion? “You have the right to work,” Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward.” The Buddha also counsels non-attachment in the midst of deep engagement. And Confucius says, “The inferior person asks ‘what’s in it for me?’ The superior asks, ‘what is the right thing to do?’” The highest form of action is selfless action rooted in the ground of Being. When the ego recedes its as if the clouds fall away from the sun – the whole world is enlightened.

Cultivate your excellence. Revel in your expansion. Don’t hide your light for fear of appearing egotistical. What matters most are your intentions. Are you working for egoic glory born in the consciousness of fear, or are you working in the consciousness of service, joyfully allowing Transcendence to express itself in you, through you, as you? Make something happen. Be a channel of the creative manifestation of the sacred energy of the universe. Participate in the healing of the world. Co-create your own best life out of the raw materials within and without you. Do it with a bold sense of Oneness. Do it with a light sense of self.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bring it Back

In 1983 at a talk called Explorations delivered at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, Joseph Campbell revisited one of the central themes of his lifework. He claimed that the artist plays an essential role in the formation and maintenance of the psycho-spiritual health of the human race, and that artists far from being mere entertainers or decorators have a sacred duty to brave the depths of the unconscious and bring back treasures that inspire us all to realize the depth and beauty of our own lives. In other words, for Campbell, art is as important as the air we breathe. But unlike air, art does not fall out of the sky ready-made. We have to make it.

How does the artist minister to the psycho-spiritual health of humankind? By setting before us the archetypal symbols of our own awakening and drawing us into ever-deeper forms of self-knowledge.

It begins with a long apprenticeship. Every chance encounter, every tug of the heart, every starry sky, every word, sound and moment forms a sea in which the fledgling artist swims. The artist’s greatest skill is discernment – what to leave in and what to leave out. From nothing less than the entire sphere of human experience the artist begins to mold her vision of beauty. But she must first learn the techniques of her craft. She must find a teacher.

After mastering the vocabulary of her medium she reaches the first crisis. As her own unique voice begins to emerge the teacher becomes obsolete. She must break away. Art is so much more than mimicry. It is time to move on.

With her apprenticeship behind her and a growing body of high quality work taking shape, the young artist stands at a threshold. No matter her medium – paint, sculpture, dance, photography, film, poetry, prose or music – she must brave the hero’s journey into the underworld of the unconscious and face the dangers of madness, loneliness and poverty in order to reach the transcendent goal: nothing less than the realization of unity, integration and the resultant healing of the world.

According to Campbell, there are three main realization symbols: the heiros gamos, the atonement with the father and apotheosis. The heiros gamos or sacred marriage is the profound healing and integration of the animus and anima, the male and female energy found within each of us. This often takes the form of boy meets girl. There’s a reason there are so many love songs. On the surface they’re about finding someone to love. Deeper down, they’re about healing the rift between the conflicting energies of our own souls. The second realization symbol, the atonement with the father, is the satiation of the universal longing for the source. As Luke Skywalker goes searching for his father, we all want to know where we came from as a means of finally answering the primal question, what am I? If we knew what made us, we would know our own essence. This is why we love songs about the road and songs about home. It turns out take me home country roads isn’t really about West Virginia after all. And finally, apotheosis means realizing the divine nature of our own essence, as Buddha experienced under the bodhi tree when all his illusory mental constructs and so-called understandings faded away in the bright light of the realization that he was one with the universal consciousness from which we and all things come. All of us, whether we realize it yet or not, want what Buddha has, what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven, where we realize that in the depths of our own being we are one with the Father. Great art can give us these three gifts, sometimes all in one overwhelming moment.

It is the challenge of every authentic artist to bring these gifts out of the depths of their own understanding and re-present them to us in new and relevant forms. “The point is that what you have to bring,” said Campbell, “is something that the world lacks – that is why you went to get it. The daylight world doesn’t even know that it needs this gift you are bringing.” So this isn’t going to be easy. In fact, at this stage of the journey, the artist faces a perilous decision. As she struggles to create works of art should she stay true to her own private invention and vision, or should she speak in the pedestrian language of mass culture? Should she be an artiste or a hack?

Should she stand in the corner of an art gallery in Manhattan and caterwaul like Yoko Ono or should she go to Nashville and churn out the next formulaic hit? Should she paint what her soul sees or should she paint Thomas Kinkade fairy houses? If she’s true to herself she runs the risk that no one will care. Art for an audience of one (the artist) is a lonely life. At this point she may flee to a cabin in the woods to paint the masterpieces nobody wants in the hopes that some future generation will lionize her as they did Van Gogh. Or she may utilize her extensive skill to give the people what they want, thinking to herself, when I make enough money painting this commercial slop, then I’ll paint what I want. But that day never comes.

The third and most courageous alternative is to find a way to stay true to your depth vision and develop a vocabulary that hooks the public without pandering. Campbell calls this the pedagogical path. Here, you help your public connect with their deepest needs and initiate them into a process of realization by bringing your silent answers into alignment with their unspoken questions – the artist as teacher.

In the language of the hero’s journey, the hero must go into the underworld to retrieve the boon or the prize. In the first scenario, the artist who refuses to communicate and hides in the woods is guilty of what Campbell calls “the refusal of the return”. It’s a common pitfall, to dismissively condemn the untrained masses and blame them for your failure. In the second scenario, the artist returns but doesn’t deliver anything; they simply give the public more of what they already have which doesn’t help them at all. In the third scenario the hero returns with the boon and finds a way to deliver it to the masses in correct proportion to their ability to receive. This, says Campbell, requires great sensitivity and compassion on the part of the artist. Having the patience and skill to draw your audience in is a loving, ego-less act. It’s so much easier to hold your audience in contempt, take your toys and go home. Or become a soulless panderer. But the path with heart, the sacred opportunity, is to bring the treasure right into the marketplace and integrate us all in the process. If you are an artist, do you have the patience, loving-kindness and courage to do this? When it comes to transcendent wisdom, do you have the guts to go get it and the compassion to give it away? There is so much need for healing. Develop a voice, believe that there is something worth singing about and be that voice. Trust that you are the one we all need. Then without ego, grounded in the profound depth of humility, find the treasure and bring it back.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Runaway Train

How do you stop a runaway train? How do you break that racing chain of thoughts and worries and plans and schemes? How do you stop the spinning kaleidoscope of all-possible-scenarios that flood the mind’s eye with a dizzying array of fragmented colors and lines that lead nowhere? If the mind is such a powerful part of life, why do we over-think everything to death?

From the perspective of evolutionary biology, it makes sense that the early human beings who worried a lot and excelled at imagining elaborate worst-case-scenarios would have a better chance of survival. The hyper-vigilant hominid perpetually anxious about whether or not there was a saber-toothed tiger in the bushes was far more likely to survive and pass on his genes than his more lackadaisical brother, you know, the one they call “Tiger Food”. Traits like the capacity to worry were naturally selected by the process of evolution. The result? Modern humans have an inordinate capacity to vividly imagine every conceivable negative outcome and spend a lot of time worrying about the worst possible future, a place where everything goes wrong, everything is lost and everyone hates you. Early humans who worried about scarcity of resources would work harder to store up food. They would envision future problems and work hard to prevent them by creating elaborate plans. As a result, they would be far more likely to survive than their live-for-today neighbors who never worried about a thing and died from easily preventable missteps. We are the children of worriers.

So here’s the problem. We modern humans have plenty of food and adequate shelter and extremely long odds on the possibility of saber-toothed tiger attack, yet we still carry around with us this vestigial and irrelevant conditioning. Our capacity for worry and fear far outstrips our actual risk factors. The mind, once our greatest asset, is now our greatest liability.

Have you ever woken up at three in the morning, mind racing, thoughts crowding, worries bearing down on you like angry bees? It’s dark. Everyone’s asleep. You’re lying there perfectly safe in your bed. You’re not thirsty and you don’t have to pee. There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. And yet there you are, adrenalin-sopped, heart racing, blood pounding, desperately envisioning endless possible negative outcomes, inventing problems and emotionally inhabiting them for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It’s all just conditioning playing itself out, echoes of once-useful impulses. There are no saber-toothed tigers.

Maybe it’s time to turn these giant brains of ours back on themselves. Maybe we should do a little thinking about thinking.

The first thing you have to do is laugh. It’s all sort of silly how the thought-stream sucks us into a vortex of anxiety despite the absence of any legitimate cause. And when you laugh, the death-grip of the mind is loosened. I always worry a little when I visit churches or synagogues or mosques or classrooms or satsangs where no one’s laughing, where a desperately serious and self-important air hangs over the entire room and every soul in it. Without laughter, people too easily fall prey to the ever-pervasive thought-stream. When we laugh, the whole charade is exposed and we, for a moment anyway, return to our original selves, free and easy, as we were before these giant brains took over. That’s why laughing feels so good. It is a glimpse of freedom.

The second thing to do is decide to set into motion some different patterns. Now that the shackles of the busy mind are no longer hidden, it’s time to search for the right key to unlock them for good. Techniques like meditation, centering prayer, physical exercise, music, dance, immersion in the beauty of nature, practicing loving kindness toward others – these are all proven and effective methods for breaking the tyranny of the thought-stream. There are also a whole host of other remedies that are far less effective: television, shopping, drugs, alcohol or any other form of sensual escapism. The problem with these “solutions” is that they tend to create as many or more problems than they solve. Some people realize this after the first bong hit. For others, it takes thirty years of addiction for the bloom to fade from the rose.

My friend the spiritual teacher Will Newsom uses the analogy of a compass. When we are trapped in the thought-stream, drowning in currents of worry and fear, it’s as if our compass needle is jitterbugging all over the place. How do we get the needle to settle back to truth north? How do we restore our original inner-peace, our naturally joyful equilibrium? We cannot force the needle to go where we want it. In other words, you can’t solve the problem of over-thinking with more thinking. “A problem cannot be solved,” said Einstein, “with the same consciousness that created it.” Like trying to see your own eyes or bite your own teeth, we cannot cure the mind with the mind.

Wayne Dyer writes that a sign he saw on the wall of a church basement where he attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting burned into his psyche like a brand: “Our best thinking got us here.” Relying on the mind to cure the problems of the mind is a fool’s errand.

Does it help to replace bad thinking with good thinking? Certainly. Does it help to set positive intentions and craft a plan of action? Naturally. Right thinking is a necessary preliminary step in the process of restoring sanity. But it is only a preliminary step. Right thinking alone is insufficient.

Instead, Newsom and many others suggest a far simpler approach.

Quiet down, rest in the silence and wait.

You don’t have to fix anything or solve any problems. That’s just more mental manipulation. Instead, sink beneath the mind. For most people, meditation and centering prayer are the best paths to this goal and are profoundly effective if given a chance. When we meditate or practice centering prayer, we practice presence in this now moment and drop down beneath the level of thought. Deepak Chopra calls it entering the gaps between thoughts. Don’t try to stop your thoughts. Resisting them only makes them stronger. Instead, simply notice them, laugh, and settle down like a rock sinking to the bottom of a pool and watch your thoughts slide by above you on the surface as if you were watching clouds drift by in the sky. You are not the clouds; you are not your thoughts. In the content-free, thoughtless silence your compass needle will naturally return to true north all by itself, through no effort of your own. In the same way that we do not consciously digest our own food, grow our own hair or heal our own cuts, inner peace is not an achievement of the mind. It happens only when you break free from the tyranny of the mind.

Great spiritual teachers from Jesus to Yoda all make the same promise: peace is possible – as individuals, as families, as communities and as a planet – if we somehow learn to get off of this crazy, runaway train.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Smooth as Stone

I have a smooth palm-sized river stone on my desk, right beneath my computer monitor, a nice juxtaposition of high tech and no tech. I sometimes hold it in my hands when I don’t have anything to say. Silence is the language of stones.

It feels heavy and cool on my skin. I feel it pulling toward the ground, waiting for my wrist to twist or my fingers to part so it can slip from its perch and return to mother earth. I never let go. Stones teach patience.

No rock begins this way, smooth and round. Rocks begin jagged. Then sand and water and other rocks bash and scrape and grind away at the edges until only the smooth round middle remains. Everything unessential is gone. Songs and poems and people and ideas and nations and marriages begin the same way; messy, unfocused, complicated, overwrought, cluttered. Then along comes the scouring. Without the friction and the conflict and the constant, painful cutting away, the beauty of the final stage is never revealed, cloaked forever beneath peripheral layers of obfuscation and detritus. The secret of life is learning to love the cutting away.

As we strive to create our best lives, as we endeavor to hone our craft, fortify our fortunes and magnify our excellence, we learn the art of intention and practice the law of attraction, thinking that by drawing toward us everything we lack we will eventually be fulfilled. Manifesting situations, conditions and objects out of the field of pure potentiality is a worthy goal. But lost in this model is the simple truth that we already are everything we seek.

Maybe we have it backwards. Maybe instead of adding this skill and that quality and this new piece of equipment, we ought to be letting things fall away, jettisoning everything that isn’t genuinely, authentically real. When we let slip the limiting labels we use to define ourselves, our essence begins to emerge. 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart said that we become who we really are not by a process of addition, but by a process of subtraction.

In a famous anecdote about the sculptor Michelangelo, he was asked by an admiring patron how he managed to create the masterpiece “David”.

“When I approached the marble,” he replied, “I simply removed everything that was not David.”

Like most philosophical advice, this is easier said than done. How do we cooperate with the forces around us, the forces that will peel back the cocoons of our own becoming?

How did this river rock reach this stage of its own beauty? By bumping up against the messy world, by following the flow of larger currents, by letting itself be pulled away and dragged and dropped until it lost all sense of separateness. With each encounter it left its mark on others, at the same time feeling the shape of its own life change. People often try to change all by themselves. Rocks do it together.

We do not have to know what all the steps are. Nor do we have to choreograph them. We only have to willingly surrender to the yearnings of our own deeper nature, then step forward courageously, humbly and in the consciousness of service. Let the river do the rest. Life will meet us head on. Difficult people will scrape up against us. Circumstance will rip away all our carefully constructed comforts. Our own misguided instinctual drives will draw us into destructive decisions and actions that will take years to repair. Pain will shatter our façades and death will flag our every step. But throughout the rough and tumble of this watercourse, we grow smoother and smoother every year as the disingenuous artifice is ground away by the hardships of our lives. “The trials we endure,” wrote Epictetus, “introduce us to our strengths.” In our dawning maturity, we thank our enemies and honor our failures, for without them, this growing wisdom would have fallen stillborn to wither on the bright plains of our misspent youth.

“All first drafts are shit,” said Ernest Hemingway. Having the backbone to cull the garbage from your writing, your song, your poem, indeed your life is the mark of a great artist. The only thing worse than a half-baked song is a half-baked songwriter. If our lives are our masterworks, then everything is at stake. We have been given an opportunity in the march of these days to step to the beat of our own drum or follow the beat of another. From the copious bounty of our lives we draw the sustenance that will fuel our muscles for the march, knowing that there is always another meal and another cool drink of water around the bend. Letting go of thoughts and behaviors that no longer serve us, mindfully culling the clutter from our homes and to-do lists, leaving room for new growth to rise up, take root and bloom – these are the gifts we receive on the road toward our awakening, this joy is the fruit of our renunciation, this verdant emptiness is the silence out of which the music of our lives emerge.

“Pay attention to your enemies,” wrote Antisthenes in the 4th century B.C.E., “for they are the first to discover your mistakes.” As a devoted protégé of Socrates (and witness to that tragic ending), Antisthenes taught that misfortune and opposition ultimately serve us better than easy living and blind support. Unlike friends and lovers, enemies have no stake in our fortune – they’re success is utterly unhinged from ours. In this light, difficult and abrasive people are a profound gift; they are sandpaper to our soul leaving us lighter, smoother and more deeply beautiful.

Would we rather be rough-edged, difficult to warm up to, loud, caustic, inelegant, chaotic, bloated, overblown, ineffective, awkward and hard to love? Or would we rather be simple, smooth, graceful, centered, grounded, powerful, clean, elegant, quiet, concise, clarified and effective? Let life wear away your sharp edges. Thank your enemies. Honor your challenges. Know that when you lose, you win. Welcome the struggle. Let it bring your essential, authentic self to the surface. Learn to glide. Let everything that’s false fall away. Become who you really are. Become as smooth as stone.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Endless Becoming

The San Diego County Fair comes around every June and wraps up right after the 4th of July. An annual summer ritual, the fair brings over a million people together on a prime piece of real estate in a coastal estuary just north of Del Mar, California. Warm sun and cool ocean breezes play tag while fairgoers part ways with their hard-earned cash in exchange for wildly inappropriate and oddly compelling food items like chocolate covered bacon and deep-dried butter.

The fair, like the top car on a Ferris wheel, comes around every year without fail and we file in knowing that everything will be exactly as it was the year before – the same sheep in a row, the same magic mop demonstrations, the same greybeards in Hawaiian shirts playing geezer rock – and yet we keep coming back year after year. There’s something comforting, even beautiful about the symmetry of it all. Going to the fair is like stepping into a time machine, a very particular time machine – not one that delivers you to the past or the future but one that delivers you to a realm completely outside of linear time. The fair is an eternal, changeless moment that we fall into summer after summer. We don’t go to the fair to return to our childhood. We go to the fair to stop the wheel of time entirely and experience, for a while, the wide open freedom of timelessness. “Time,” Plato wrote, “is a moving image of eternity.” And I think I saw him on the midway in a Harley-Davidson bandana handing out cotton candy to kids, beaming with joy, the kids and Plato.

I have a friend who never goes to the fair. “It’s just the same old crap year after year,” he says.

“That’s why I like it,” I say.

Not going to the fair because it’s the same old crap year after year is like saying why go to the beach, I’ve seen waves breaking before, or why go to the forest, you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen ‘em all.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” wrote Thoreau. “I drink at it; but while I drink, I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Beneath time’s shimmering surface there lies a depth that goes down and down and down. We long to swim in those waters, but the only way to them is through the surface. Only by letting go of the rope swing and plunging through to the depths will we know the full measure of the beauty of our own ephemeral lives.

The fair, like any hash mark on the wheel of time, is a sticky-sweet reminder of the simple pleasures, the bounty of the land and the chance to come together as a community to celebrate each other. And besides, it’s fun. “The secret of life,” sang James Taylor, “is enjoying the passage of time.”

There is an innate human tendency to celebrate and honor the recurring moments in the annual cycle of time. Lent, Yom Kippur, Ramadan and Groundhog Day are just a few examples. As with the fair, we don’t celebrate these events year after year in order to return to the past. We celebrate them in order to move into a deeper consciousness of the fundamental unreality of linear time. We celebrate them in order liberate ourselves from the tyranny of time. “The distinction between past, present and future,” said Einstein, “is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” The apparent relentless march of time, which we normally allow to tyrannize and torment us, is temporarily lifted when we enter into the joyful celebration of these annually recurring events. Birthdays, anniversaries and the like restore us to our original purity as beings of infinite awareness and infinite value. That sort of thing gets washed away by the torrent of time.

The same pattern, the same apparent, but ultimately illusory dichotomy between motion and stillness occurs in music. A good song has to accomplish two contradictory aims – it must be fresh and familiar. It must be rooted in the known while breaking new ground. If new music does not somehow fall within the parameters of familiar tonal and rhythmic spectrums while also delighting and surprising us with something novel and unique, we turn away. From Bach, Handel and Haydn Mozart learned where the boundaries were, and then he pushed them. Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Bob Dylan showed the Beatles the road to their own genius, and they never looked back. Everyone who’s ever written a song or played in a cover band knows that if you really want to move an audience you must take them on a journey, but you must also always bring them home, home to the heart of their own lives. People want to be moved. But when it’s over they want to sleep in their own beds.

Life itself turns on these same illimitable laws. All forms arise and fade but the totality remains unchanged. Each year we grow older. Our faces continue to change right before our eyes. But the I within, the silent witness, knows nothing of the passage of time. Past, present and future are all continually occurring in this eternal moment. The mind cannot understand this. The mind is just a squirrel strapped to a rocket, convinced that it’s steering. Poor squirrel.

I turned fifty two last month and am, on my better days, deeply grateful to be alive. I’ve been to too many funerals of friends my age and younger whose lives were cut short by hard living, heart defects or the vagaries of cancer. I’m also grateful to my parents for many things, foremost among them good genes. Bollands tend to stick around awhile. When I talk to my eighty eight year old father I feel the full width and breadth of his life – the maddening struggles, the heroic choices, the simple beauties – and I know that none of us has forever. And yet we do. These transient forms around us – that song on the radio, these vibrant bodies, the warmth of the hand we hold as we walk through the midway of our lives – these will all slip from our grasp. But behind the shimmering veil there is a constancy far more real than any passing image. Developing the ears to hear it, the eyes to see it and the heart to feel it is the lifework of any lover of wisdom. Only then, in the timelessness of this eternal moment, are we freed from the wrenching sorrow of the world with its endless cycles of birth and death. The fair, like a good song, can only last so long. Like a long, slow ride on the Ferris wheel, life winds down. Below you the midway lights shine on clusters of teenagers careening though the barkers and the colored balloons. The sun is sinking into the sea. It’s time to go home. It’s time. But if you let it, time opens a door through which the flood waters of eternity pour, holding us and nourishing us like amniotic fluid in the wombs of our endless becoming.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

To Live Deliberately

The campfire faded down to a bed of embers. Lori had already crawled into the tent and fallen asleep. I heard her deep and steady breathing.

Lying on the ground and looking up at the stars I felt the pull of gravity pining me down like a moth on a corkboard. A warm desert wind moved through the sage. The stars spread out in a vast field from one rim of the horizon to the other, too many to count. The darkness seemed insignificant in the light of all those blazing suns.

A deep and timeless silence fell over the desert.

I shifted.

Suddenly I was looking down at the stars.

They were spread out beneath me in a vast emptiness. Normally we think of the stars above us and the earth below, but in a surprising reversal of relational perspective, I was certain that I was glued by gravity to the bottom of the earth, peering down into a pool of boundless space below me.

The vertigo passed in an instant, eclipsed by a warm sense of peace and a deep surrender. I felt oddly safe and entirely lucid. The earth above me and the sky below – I wondered why this had never occurred to me before.

And with this came a knowing – all perspectives are relative. There is no such thing as up or down, over and under, above or below. Those terms only make sense from one limited point of view. If you move out of your own perspective (or any singular point of view) and take on instead a universal perspective, all orientations dissolve and there is only here, now. In other words, if you drop your local awareness and adopt a non-local awareness, you see in one singular moment the incomprehensible oneness of all existence. Freed from a parochial, provincial orientation where one ego-identifies with a particular time and place, you move instead into the formlessness of Being itself, an expanded consciousness where the ego recedes to its rightful place, as a captain of a tiny vessel, not lord and master of all it surveys. You don’t have to go anywhere to get this awareness. You’re always in it. You have only to shift. But going to the desert helps.

One of the great services wilderness provides is this opportunity to leave behind our small view of the world. As we leave the city and head into the hills we enter a realm of existence where nature reigns and the arising and fading of forms unfolds in an endless symphony utterly apart from the machinations of human activity. Stepping out of the car and walking into the woods or the desert or along an empty shore brings you into direct contact with a timeless presence untrammeled by the human mind, well, until we get there anyway. Spending time in nature gives us a chance to take a break from the torrential thought stream and its oh-so-important assessments and judgments. And when we do, we have a shot at recovering our original simplicity, our primal purity, our childlike awareness, that Garden of Eden consciousness where we walked in the cool of the evening with God, and we didn’t even know that we’re different from anything we saw.

It’s not our mind’s fault that we’re so easily trapped in an illusion of separateness. It’s just doing what it’s supposed to do – naming everything, judging everything, ascribing value to everything, craving, pushing away and attaching to everything. Bravo mind. Nice job. Keep it up. We need you. But once in a while, it’s nice to remember who’s really in charge. Once in a while it’s nice to say, mind, you work for me, not the other way around. Thanks for everything you do, but go ahead and take the rest of the day off.

In Walden, everybody’s all-time favorite back-to-nature manifesto, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To deliberate means to cautiously reason our way toward the ideal. And how can we live deliberately if we don’t understand the essential facts? For this process to work, we have to have good information. As you deliberate about the big questions like what is the good life, what is the purpose of life, what is the purpose of my life, what should I be doing with these few short years I have left, isn’t it supremely important to first understand the most important question of all: what am I? Only in nature, or better yet, wilderness are we unceremoniously stripped of all our careful constructions and reduced to our essential core – simple, unadorned, non-local awareness. We are no long defined by the social roles and definitions that layer over us like sediment. We realize that beneath all the layers we are pure, undifferentiated consciousness. With this essential fact in hand, we can re-enter the human world of family, job, duty, citizenship, moral obligation, creativity and community with a new-found sense of direction and purpose. We know now what this is all for. Our priorities have been re-ordered. Our eyes are firmly set on what really matters. And we are willing to let the rest go.

Wilderness has always been our greatest teacher. For millennia, humans have known that despite the comforting safety of our shelters, it is only when we step out under the sky unprotected that we emerge like birds from the confines of our shells. We need the nest, but we need the sky more.

Although it’s been years, I carry with me that night in the desert when I, for a few fleeting moments, saw the stars spread out beneath me like a sea of pearls. That one shift, that reorientation, forever loosened my attachment to the fleeting forms of the world and the careless devotion we place in our limited perceptions, assessments and judgments. I know now that there are not only two points of view for every problem – there are millions. I know that I can set myself free anytime I want from the Promethean chains that bind us all to a dangerously small view of the world and of ourselves. I know now that it is not only possible, but it is absolutely necessary for my survival and for the survival of the entire planet that we learn to live from the core truths of our existence and not the surface trivialities, that we learn to live as if it mattered, that we learn to live deliberately.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Paying the Price

Violin virtuoso Friedrich Kriesler was approached by an admiring fan after a concert.

“I would give my life to play violin like that,” the woman gushed.

“Madam,” said Kriesler, slowly measuring his words, “I have.”

Kriesler’s droll response succinctly sums up one of life’s great truths – that evolution toward the ideal, whether of an individual or of an entire society, is never quick and easy. And yet so many of us act like it is.

If we put even a fraction of the energy we waste on envy, coveting, resentment and victim-consciousness into the process of cultivating our own greatness we would be amazed at the beautiful butterfly we have become. But we love our cocoons too much.

The Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome called it paying the price. Craving something that you are unwilling to work for is the height of folly. And from there it’s a steep slide into misery.

Wondering why you can’t keep your weight down while refusing to exercise and reduce your food intake is a prime example of wanting the prize without paying the price. Idly wishing you were a rock star while doing little or nothing to further your mastery of musicianship, singing, songwriting, arrangement, recording technology, stagecraft and the intricacies of the music business is nothing more than a pipe dream. Wanting a lucrative and rewarding professional career without sacrificing years and lots of money toward education and training is simply unfair. Whatever you were doing those six years when you could have been in college and grad school, well, that bore certain fruit too. Every decision and action plants seeds. And there is always the harvest. You can count on that.

Every choice entails sacrifice. When you say yes to something, you are saying no to everything else. That’s what makes choosing so torturous. Kierkegaard, Sartre and the other existentialists are fond of pointing out that we are radically free and that we invent ourselves with every choice. When we refuse to choose, that too is a choice. There is no escape from our freedom.

Let’s not waste any time on remorse and regret about the wasted years and the way fear robbed us of our joy. Own your choices. Forgive yourself. You have a good life. Don’t be tortured by all of the paths not taken. You did what you felt was best at the time. You paid whatever price you were willing or capable of paying. And now you’re home looking in the shopping bag at what you got. It’s too late to complain now. But it is not too late to begin making different choices. Set a new wheel in motion.

It is natural for us to compete with one another. Our tendency to feel envious of others is understandable. We can’t help but notice the amazing lives others have created and wonder, why not me? What do we do with this feeling of envy? Do we let it eat us for lunch, or do we let it jolt us awake and spur us toward the life we so richly deserve? We stand at a fork in the road. Down one road lies a life of creativity, emergence and mastery. Down the other lies a life of safety and regret. Let your envy drive you like a lash. Let it pitch you out of your fear and into your love. Gandhi said that everything we do is driven by one of two things, fear or love. Which road will you choose?

Now it’s time to get to work. Instead of envy, feel inspired. Let the success and accomplishment of others convince you that so much more is possible. The only thing holding you back is your limited and limiting vision of yourself. Success has little to do with manipulating objects and events in the outer world. Begin within. Success is an inside job.

Believe that you deserve it. Trust your instincts. Know that there are people all around you willing and able to contribute in powerful and unforeseen ways to your emerging sense of purpose. Show up in the spirit of cooperation and co-creation. None of us are alone, even when it feels like we are. Feeling alone and isolated? You aren’t. Snap out of it. That’s just your fear trying to take back control.

Do three things everyday to further your dream – just three. By the end of the month, you’ll have completed ninety concrete, specific tasks. Put a few months together and see the inevitable progress. Three years from now a whole new life will have taken shape.

There were three brick layers at a construction site. A passerby asked, “What are you doing?”

The first one said, “I’m laying bricks.”

The second one said, “I’m building a wall.”

The third one said, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Which one do you think is going to do a better job? Which one is going to work through the exhaustion and tedium? Which one invests each stroke of the trowel with love and precision? Which one sets each brick as if it were the single most important thing they’ve ever done? Which bricklayer are you?

There is no secret. This is not mysterious. The tools for building a great life are lying all around us. We have only to pick them up.

Are you wasting time and energy on regret? Are you drunk on the poison of envy and resentment, caught in the grips of fear, defeated by the delusion of powerlessness? Or are you awakening to your own boundlessness? Are you sick and tired of feeling sick and tired? Are you reaching for the tools with which you will build the life of your dreams? Don’t deny your own infinite potential. What a tragedy, the Afghani saying goes, to die like a pomegranate with all one’s seeds still locked up inside.

The world desperately needs you, the real you, to show up. But it’s going to take some work. Like Friedrich Kriesler, are you willing to sacrifice your life for something amazing, something bigger than any one of us? Are you willing to pay the price?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ten Steps to a Great Marriage

It’s coming up on wedding season. Many young and not so young couples are planning their summer nuptials. Everyone loves a great party, and while it is sensible to put some thought and energy into all of the details surrounding catering, décor and bridesmaid gowns, it is far more important to think deeply about what marriage itself actually means. A lovely wedding does not a marriage make.

I am no expert on marriage, although Lori and I will be celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary this June, and I suppose that counts for something. Along the way we’ve gotten a few things wrong and a lot of things right. It really isn’t that mysterious. As a wedding present to all of you soon-to-be newlyweds, please allow me to share some of the things I’ve learned. Let’s call this Ten Steps to a Great Marriage.

1. Never Stop Being a Girlfriend/Boyfriend

I’m often shocked at the utter contempt some married people display toward each other. They act as if their spouse is the least important person in the world, little more than an annoying roommate, sibling or co-worker. This is easily remedied. Remember how you acted when you were dating? Do that. Put your best face forward. Call them on the phone for no reason. Put erotic notes in the pockets of their coats. Pack them a lunch. Bring home their favorite candy bar. Take care of your self, keep the weight down, dress nice, bathe. Look them in the eye. Listen. Act like you care, because you do, don’t you?

2. People Don’t Change – Choose Wisely

Don’t marry a musician then complain because they’re gone ten nights a month. Don’t marry an artist then resent their poverty. Don’t marry an ambitious go-getter then complain that their career always seems to come first. Don’t marry a momma’s boy then act surprised at his weakness and indecision. Don’t marry an assertive man then whine to your friends that he’s too controlling. Don’t rescue a damsel in distress and resent her for not being a powerful, competent life partner. Don’t marry a quiet man then complain because he never talks, or a talkative woman, then complain because she never shuts up. Those traits were there in full display the first day you met. Perhaps they were hard to see through the fog of your own denial, desperation or fantasy but you chose this person out of the billions of people on earth. There was something about those traits you wanted, even needed. Try and figure all of this out before the wedding bells chime.

3. Be Kind

No matter what’s happening, find a way to be gracious and kind. Your anger is your problem. Try to avoid using your spouse as a garbage disposal, a convenient place to dump all your darkness and bile. This is the one time when it makes sense to treat your spouse like a stranger, that is, restrain yourself. Courtesy and decorum pave the way for genuine bonding.

4. One Bank Account

Real intimacy has nothing to do with taking your clothes off. Real intimacy is pooling all of your resources and blending your fates into one. Only when you know you are responsible for the whole damn thing do you rise up out of your childish selfishness and become a full grown man or woman, someone who practices good communication and is intimately acquainted with prudence, restraint and generosity. If you can’t let go of control, you aren’t ready to be married.

5. On Big Decisions, Everyone Has Veto Power

Respect your spouse and believe with all your heart that this person really does have your back. Trust their judgment. Honor their opinion. On the really big decisions, everyone has veto power. What are the really big decisions? To have kids or not, to have a dog, where to live, major expenditures, vacations, religion, money. Again, all of this should be fully explored before you shove wedding cake into each other’s faces. And by the way, don’t shove wedding cake into each other’s faces. That is so over.

6. Let Your Spouse Be Who They Are

Naturally, you both need to put the marriage before your own childish desires. Foolish obsessions that pull you out of the marriage are to be avoided. You might have to let go of those World of Warcraft all-nighters. But this most certainly does not mean you are a slave to the other. Set your spouse free to be who they really are. Not all of your interests have to align. In fact, it would be weird if they did. A good marriage is a safe place to be true to yourself. To some extent, have separate lives.

7. Avoid Danger

We’re only human. Be smart about situations and environments that erode loyalties. This is controversial I know, but it’s pretty risky for married people to have close friends of the opposite sex. Intimacies develop. Attachments form. Secrets are shared. Pretty soon, lines get blurred. Good people go bad. A world of suffering can be avoided by simply avoiding certain situations. Some married couples have one shared email address. Not a bad idea.

8. Sex is Not an Option

This just in from the Obvious Department: sex is an essential, profoundly transformative experience. Open and honest sexuality between committed partners cements bonds in ways that no one really fully understands. Regular and frequent sex creates an atmosphere of trust, celebrates generosity, concretizes love, bolsters self-acceptance and heals wounds you didn’t even know you had. Sex makes everything better. A sexless marriage is a three-legged dog – it still gets down the road but it isn’t pretty. And here’s a surprise you don’t hear much in popular culture: married sex is way better than single sex. It is. And if your sex life starts to lag there’s a simple reason: you’re lagging on steps one through seven.

9. Men and Women are Different

Men and women have different needs and different ways of doing things. Wise women know that men are simple – if a man knows that he is loved and admired by his woman, he will do anything for her. Wise women also know that men show affection by mowing lawns, washing cars and painting mailboxes. Wise men know that women are complicated, and that satisfying them is a mysterious art requiring intelligence, awareness, vigilance and an almost preternatural sensitivity to the subtlest of non-verbal cues. Husbands, pay attention. Get out of your head and into your heart, then feel your way. You’ll be fine.

10. Mindfulness in Action

Marriage is a microcosm of the whole world. The same energies and actions that create a great marriage create a better world. Cultivate the sensitivity to hear what the other is saying as well as what they’re not saying. Ask questions. Say what you mean without drama and embellishment. Ask for what you want, but keep it simple. Be willing. Stop saying no all the time. When you’re feeling lonely and misunderstood, come out of yourself and give. When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself, what are three concrete, specific things I can do today to make my spouse’s life easier, better and more beautiful? Then do those things – and watch your own joy increase. That’s the most beautiful thing about a great marriage – you realize that your well-being and happiness are forever intertwined with the well-being and happiness of others. Loving is an action that does not know the difference between giving and receiving. Giving and receiving are two names for one circle.

These are the ten steps to a great marriage. Share them with your fiancé and have a nice long talk. Then after that you can get back to the important things, you know, napkin rings or linen origami?

Have a wonderful wedding. But have an even more wonderful life.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Hidden Meaning of Easter

“Death is not the opposite of life. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” -- Eckhart Tolle

Lately I’ve been trying to grow cilantro. Having an inexpensive and unending supply of the versatile herb is very appealing to me. But it happens every time. As soon as there are enough leaves for one good harvest the plant goes to seed, shooting up a thick leafless seed stalk. Cilantro doesn’t seem too concerned with what I want, or its own survival for that matter. All it cares about is the next generation. Its sole purpose seems to be to produce seeds, then promptly die. The fresh, pungent leaves that perfect my guacamole and chicken pad thai seem an incidental side effect.

Out on the patio, bent over another failed planter box of cilantro on a radiant spring morning, I can’t help but ponder the circling spiral of birth and death framed by the one changeless constant – forms may come and go but Life itself is eternal.

In world mythology and religion there is a long-standing tradition of drawing images and metaphors, and indeed entire theological scenarios from the world of nature. For Laozi the Dao is like water or a tender blade of grass. For Krishna, Brahman is like the sea that never imposes its own shape but takes on the shape of the shore as its own. For Jesus, God’s love is like rain, the Kingdom Heaven is like seeds, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and by our fruit we shall be known. Jesus knew how to talk to farmers, even disheartened backyard cilantro farmers.

Every year in the spring billions of Christians all over the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Many believe it was a literal event – that Jesus actually came back from the dead. For others, the story is a metaphor signifying the undying nature of Spirit. Either way, Easter signifies the triumph of life over death, a theme ancient agricultural people would have no trouble understanding.

Even a cursory glance at the world’s mythological and religious traditions reveals the widespread presence of the dying god motif, the archetypal tale of the gift-giving god whose sacrificial death brings rain or corn or eternal life. From Osiris to Quetzalcoatl to Odin to Attis to Dionysus to Jesus the god must die, often hung from a tree and then buried in the ground, planted like a seed only to rise again. The loss becomes a gain. The seed becomes grain for the bread of life. Sacrificial death, initially seen as an act of destruction, becomes an act of creation. As old forms dissolve, new forms arise. The tomb becomes a womb.

It is no accident that the dying god motif originated in early agricultural societies. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that early farming cultures, bound by the seasons, would recognize the cyclical nature of birth and death. Seeds are the source of new life and it is only in the death stage that plants produce seeds. Life comes only from death and from no where else. It becomes clear that death and birth are simply two points on a circle. The yin-yang symbol, the archetypal image of the snake eating its own tail as well as the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, Navajo sand painting and Jungian psychology all illustrate the universal awareness of this essential principle.

Also prevalent in early agricultural societies is the archetype of the Mother Goddess. Intimate with the generative energies of the earth, early farmers began to characterize the earth’s powers as feminine. Like mother earth, human mothers give life out of their own bodies and then sustain and nourish that life from their own bodies. The alignment of the twenty eight day lunar cycle and the twenty eight day menstrual cycle further concretizes this primal symmetry.

It is the Mother Goddess who ushers us into the world of forms. Every human being who ever walked the earth emerged from the body of a woman. From the goddess we come and to the goddess we return. The burial ritual is clearly a carry-over from this ancient realization. The dead, in burial, are taken back into the body of the earth-mother like seeds, completing the circle and thus overcoming the apparent finality of death. Circles, by definition, have no beginning and no end. As Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “there never was a time when you did not exist, nor will there ever be a time when you cease to exist.” Rebirth is not only suggested by the burial rite; it is assured, at least in the minds of its participants.

Since it is the Goddess so to speak that gave birth to us all, it should come as no surprise that gods too have mothers. The Mother Goddess sends forth her son, the dying god, as a willing sacrifice – a short-lived spark from the eternal realm bringing light into the darkness of the world. This fundamental narrative is repeated all over the world on every continent and in every mythology. Some dying gods, like Odin, Dionysus and Jesus are hung on trees (or manmade structures resembling trees like crosses) before they are buried underground or journey to the underworld. Jesus goes into the tomb for three days, the same length of time Jonah was in the belly of the great fish. Three days is also the length of time the moon is dark before beginning its journey back to fullness. Astronomical and physiological analogies abound. To modern people perpetually insulated from the night sky by their well-lit homes this may seem merely curious or even insignificant. To ancient people living under the stars for tens of thousands of years these alignments were as real as the night was long.

Central to the dying god motif is the theme of generative sacrifice. The death or suffering of the god always results in tremendous benefit to the world at large. In explicit violation of Zeus’s wishes Prometheus steals fire from Mt. Olympus and gives it to humankind, enraging Zeus and earning himself a horrible punishment. For all eternity Prometheus must remain chained to a rock while his liver is ripped from his body by vultures, only to grow back overnight with the whole process commencing anew in the morning. Talk about sacrifice. If given the chance to do it all over again, even with his infinite suffering, Prometheus wouldn’t change a thing. That’s just what gods do. And he isn’t the only one. Gods all over the world gave their lives in order that we might have corn or fire or everlasting life. Native American mythology is particularly rich with the theme of the gift-giving god who relinquishes his form yet somehow lives on.

In his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recounts an Ojibwe myth about the hero Wunzh (who Longfellow called Hiawatha). In the tale, Wunzh embarks on a heroic quest with all the requisite elements – hardship, danger, struggle, prayer and visions followed by electrifying encounters with monsters and magical beings. Just another day at the office, right? As Wunzh grows weaker and weaker he is approached by a mysterious figure called Mondamin, a youth “dressed in garments green and yellow…plumes of green bent o’er his forhead and his hair was soft and golden.” Mondamin is, naturally, a personification of corn, the primary food source and sacred substance of numerous Native American peoples. But Mondamin doesn’t just hand himself over. Wunzh is going to have to fight for it.

In a luminous Great Lakes twilight, Mondamin challenges Wunzh to a wrestling match. Weak from fasting, Wunzh agrees and the two grapple and fall to the dusty ground in a twisting, flailing embrace. Somehow, just touching Mondamin fills Wunzh with a renewed strength. For three sunsets they wrestle and struggle, Wunzh growing stronger and stronger with each encounter. On the third night, Mondamin congratulates Wunzh for his courage, conviction, purity of mind and perseverance. Then he makes a startling offer. When I return tomorrow evening, Mondamin tells Wunzh, you will kill me, and when you do, you must bury me in the ground and protect my grave from all disturbances. On the fourth night, just as Mondamin predicted, Wunzh prevails and buries the lifeless body of Mondamin as instructed. Soon, small green shoots of tender corn begin to peek from the ground.

Mondamin’s “death” was a self-directed, willing act of sacrifice that not only saved Wunzh from imminent starvation; it gave the Ojibwe their primary food as well as the central object of their ritual life. It isn’t lost on any of us that the very marrow of our life is won only through struggle, and yet the persistent vision remains that we live not in a hostile universe but in a profoundly nurturing and cooperative one. On the surface – struggle and scarcity. Beneath the surface – endless abundance, infinite creativity and a deep, resounding harmony.

In the Jesus story we see an amalgam of all these elements – the willing and self-directed sacrifice, the death and resurrection, the bringing of gifts and the presence of a divine order beneath the vale of tears.

But there is still a deeper layer yet to be uncovered.

What if the story of Jesus isn’t about Jesus at all?

To re-cast a famous Joseph Campbell saying, what if each of us is the dying god of our own lives? What riches are uncovered if we read the dying god stories not as literal, historical events but as metaphors for our own evolution from material, biological beings bound by instinctual conditioning into spiritual beings of awakened consciousness? Is it any wonder then that the dying god is so often born of a virgin or through some other non-biological process? Horus was conceived as his mother Isis hovered in the form of a hawk over the dead body of her husband Osiris. Mithra was born spontaneously from a rock. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Jesus, Quetzalcoatl and many others were born of virgins. The hero, the gift-giver and the dying god live and have their being in higher consciousness, not in the lower realms of ego, competition and conflict. In the Gospel of John, when Nicodemus asks for Jesus’ advice, Jesus simply says, “you must be born from above.” In other words, each of us must shift from lower consciousness to the higher plane of God-consciousness within. The virgin birth signifies that each of us, at the level of our divine essence, was not born from the union of sperm and egg but are identical and unified with the eternally Real, what Krishna called “the unborn” and what Jesus called “everlasting life”. Shifting out of body and ego identification is the work of every spiritual tradition.

If the purpose of myth is to teach us how to live our own lives, then what have we learned?

In Buddhism the central metaphor is that of awakening from the sleep of ignorance, suffering and conditioning. In Christianity the central metaphor is death and rebirth, coming out of our animal nature with its instinctual drives of acquisition and conflict and rising into the unitive experience of God-consciousness, transcending all boundaries and limitations. Resurrection is transformation. Rebirth signifies death to the ego, to limitation, to space and time. Rising from the “grave” of our lower nature embodies the realization of awakening.

Beneath the crests and troughs of the ocean’s waves lies an immense stillness, a stillness that is both the source of the waves and their destination. Is it not true that we “die” every night? Were it not for sleep, this cyclical, recurring “death”, this immersion into the sea of unconsciousness, our life would cease. Just as the silence between notes makes music possible, so too the empty formlessness of the Void makes possible the vibrant fullness of our conscious, waking life. In the end, the inner and the outer are the same. The surface mirrors the depth. The tomb is a womb. Nirvana is samsara, and the kingdom of heaven is lying all around us, only we do not see it. Not only is there a correspondence, there is an identity. Life, in essence, is synonymous with the eternal Ground of Being, the Real, what we in the west call God, and as such it is ultimately untouched by death. “Death is not the opposite of life,” Eckhart Tolle writes in Stillness Speaks. “The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” Despite centuries of theological calcification it is still possible for us to exhume the universal spiritual wisdom of the Christian story, that each of us is the presence of God-consciousness in the field of forms. Only, as Buddha pointed out, we don’t know it. Like the sun breaking over the horizon at countless sunrise services throughout Christendom this Easter, we too are gradually dawning to the truth of our divine nature. Dare to say it out loud. Let your sun rise. Let the wisdom within you shape your thoughts and words and actions. Become, finally, who you really are. This is the hidden meaning of Easter.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Unity Magazine

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Growing Pains

Spring is bursting out all over. New buds are pushing out through the bark of last year’s branches. Roots bore deeper into the earth while new leaves like pendants wave in the wind. Sun and rain chase each other like birds across the brightening sky. The whole earth seems to be awakening from silence and shadow. With the patience of Job, life emerges from the dormant forms of last year’s leavings, rising like the sun and moon – inexorable, indomitable, selfless and unafraid.

In our own lives we too feel the restless stirring of new life emerging. We sat down to write a quick note to our dads and a nine page letter poured out. We began humming a tune under our breath at an important meeting and wrote a song walking back to the car. We stopped at the grocery store on the way home and threw ourselves into a favorite recipe, the whole house cast under the spell of roasting garlic and rosemary. We faced down our old two-headed enemy resistance and avoidance and finally tackled that ugly pile of papers on our desk, reveling at last in the clarity afforded by uncluttered space and asking ourselves, why did I put that off for so long? Then we pick up the phone and make that difficult call – the one that’s been haunting us for months, even years – and learn the truth that by simply cultivating willingness we allow the irrepressible healing of love and forgiveness to well up and wash clean the wounds we have made.

It is the nature of all life to expand. In Indian philosophy, the word for ultimate reality is Brahman. The Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita teach that Brahman is not a god; it is the undifferentiated source of all things. Our idea of God is a stop-gap measure, a mere personification of this primal energy. Brahman is the underlying nature of reality itself, beyond all the dualities of being and non-being, existence and non-existence, God and not-God. Brahman is the ground of being, the sacred, formless source from which all forms are made. It is within all things. Everything is a manifestation of Brahman – every object, every thought, every particle of light. The whirling of electrons around nuclei, the energy of consciousness, the poppies in the field, the blue whales in the sea, the spiraling galaxies in the endless night, even the fabric of space and time itself – these are all Brahman. Therefore, so are we.

The etymology of Brahman is clear and revealing. The Sanskrit word Brahman comes from brih which means “to expand” or “to grow”. It is the nature of God-consciousness to continuously move outward, to manifest itself as ever-changing forms. We are one of those forms. When we come to understand this, we can finally be at peace and stop resisting the never ending restlessness within us, that unsettling habit of never being satisfied, of always wanting more, of feeling that no matter how great this moment is there must be yet another accomplishment to achieve, another mountain to climb, another song to write.

And in our calm and clarity we move closer toward understanding another fundamental truth: growth hurts. There can be no growth without the necessary dissolution of previous forms – forms that once meant so much to us. Growing means forever letting go.

Seeds burst and die as new sprouts emerge. Flowers whither and fade as fruit takes form. Growth is always a kind of death, and to deny this is to live forever in a debilitating lie. We must say yes to loss and transformation. We have no choice.

With every new achievement comes a host of new problems. You want fame? Now you can’t go anywhere without people bothering you. You want money? Now you long for the simplicity of the lean years. You want success and mastery? Now the demands others place on you become staggering. But they can never equal the ridiculous demands you place on yourself – the nagging, haunting worry that you are never good enough, no matter what you do.

But all of this is healed in the light of wisdom – the wisdom each of us holds deep within the folds of our awareness. We are enough, because we are the presence of God-consciousness in the world. We are the Presence of eternity in the field of time. While the forms may come and go, that which we really are was never born and will never die. Brahman is Life. “Life is not the opposite of death,” writes Eckhart Tolle. “The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.”

Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and every other wisdom teacher worth his or her salt spent their whole life begging us to acknowledge this truth – we are not who we think we are. Wisdom means breaking free of our limited and limiting perception of ourselves and moving into the deeper realization of our identity with the infinite, eternal ground of being, what Jesus called the Father, what Buddha called Emptiness and what Krishna called the Self. When asked how he healed people Jesus answered, “It is not I who do these things, but the Father in me. And all of these things you could do, and more.”

Creating is costly. It hurts to be more. Most of us spend our lives cultivating comfort, asleep to the fact that comfort is the enemy of greatness. To expand and grow into what and who we really are is to stretch beyond our former bounds. Sometimes we feel like we’re breaking apart – and we are. Learning to love discomfort is the final hurdle. When we cross that hurdle and transcend our childish complacency we are born into a realm of limitless possibility. Knowing this, we can weather change with serenity, equanimity, generosity and compassion. The next time you find yourself surrounded by abundance, yet still yearning for more, you can smile and know that two contradictory truths are at play: we already have everything (because we already are everything), yet still feel the ceaseless expansion of our natures. The temporary forms that make up “the world”, including us, are forever emerging, expanding, colliding, conflicting, aligning, receding, dissolving and re-forming. It is our sacred right and duty to participate in this glorious emergence, this concert of co-operation. We are not to fear, avoid or resent this process. We are to practice loving-kindness, even and perhaps most especially toward ourselves. We are to join in and guide with a light touch this flowering and fading of which we are an inexorable part. This is our beautiful, glorious, heartbreaking life. These are our tears. These are the things we make. This is the light we bring with the flame of our growing awareness. These are our gifts. These are the things we must in the end let go. These are our growing pains.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Artist, Heal Thyself

What exactly do we want from our artists? The distraction of entertainment? The clarity of hard truth? The tingle of titillation? The scouring release of deep-tissue catharsis? Maybe what we want most from our artists is risk.

Artists take risks. They don’t have steady incomes. They don’t have health insurance. They don’t own homes. They can hardly make the rent. They hang all their fears, hopes, dreams and fantasies out in the open for public disdain. They walk into every room naked. They’re high on a tightrope without a net. Living vicariously through our favorite artists anchors us in the realization that life is dangerous – a realization that hopefully propels us to craft our own best lives. We risk little. But we ask our artists to risk it all.

The myth of the artist as noble hero is not entirely genuine. Sometimes people just fall into the arts because they’re not very good at anything else. Too wounded and self-absorbed to ever stand up straight, the artist makes a business out of selling their pain. In many ways the life of the artist is a life of perpetual childhood. Beholden only to whimsy and free without a moment’s notice to walk away from any and all commitments – these are the genetic traits of the artistic life. Yet despite all the potential for narcissism and havoc, artists still inspire us with their fearless commitment to themselves, their craft and the maddening quest for beauty and meaning.

More than anyone else, Vincent van Gogh has come to represent the quintessential archetype of the modern artist. Articulate, brilliant, visionary and utterly mad, van Gogh captures our imagination like no other. Fluently trilingual (Dutch, English and French), a voracious reader, deeply spiritual and unapologetically carnal, van Gogh lived a little bit larger than the rest of us. And yet his life was a muddled fog of isolation, poverty, obscurity and despair. Were it not for the continual financial and emotional support of his beloved brother Theo, Vincent would have accomplished little or nothing – as it is, he is the most recognizable, influential and admired painter on the planet.

Van Gogh did not invent the marriage between madness and art, (think Goya), but he certainly perfected it. It is from van Gogh that we get the now-trite narrative of the artist who abandons all restraint and sells every drop of sanity to buy one more inch on the road to genius. Even a cursory glance at art history reveals a long list of artists who flamed out young and died broken, and in the music business it’s a particularly crowded club. This is the question: to make great art do we have to sacrifice everything else? Does it have to be either/or?

The idea of the artist as genius was born in the Renaissance with the emergence of Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Before then, painters enjoyed the social status of laborers. Michelangelo belonged to a trade union of house painters.

With Raphael, the idea of the artist became synonymous with genius. Along came fame, wealth, glory and the birth of something with which we are all too familiar – celebrity culture. Raphael, like a rock star, enjoyed every privilege and unlimited access to every salon, parlor and throne room. Wealthy nobles competed to be seen with the young genius. Hard living, megalomania and boundless appetite take their toll. He was dead at 37.

Vincent van Gogh died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound at 37. Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix died from drug and alcohol abuse at the age of 28. Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun at the age of 27. John Keats was only 26. Sid Vicious, 22.

The die was cast. To this day we reward our artistic masters with infinite wealth, endless indulgence and open-ended forgiveness. Only Michael Jackson can allegedly molest children and simultaneously enjoy near-universal adulation.

Must artists, like vampires, entirely abandon normal life to gain their heralded powers? Must they sell their souls? Does the voracious and parasitic nature of artistic genius always kill the host? Isn’t there any other way?

In ancient China a different model emerged. Perhaps because of the pervasive influence of Confucianism, the idea of the individual beholden to no one never really took hold. The ideal human life was one of connection, community, humility, responsibility and cooperation. The single biggest mistake a person could make was to not be useful and productive; the greatest shame, to be destructive to the harmony of the whole.

In ancient China then, the idea of the artist as celebrity never happened. Art is just something you do. Everyone is an artist. When the accounts are balanced, accountants paint. Housewives design living spaces. Bureaucrats play music on the weekends. Being artistic isn’t reserved for the petulant few, it is the birthright of every human being – every meal a masterpiece, every conversation a poem, every garden a handmade heaven, every gesture a dance.

This vision of art is a long way away from the notion of art as self-indulgent and destructive. Instead, art, like breathing, is innate and natural. There is no need to pathologically set it apart from the rest of life, thereby relegating an entire category of people – artists – to the confusing and paradoxical binary status of masterful geniuses and bumbling knaves. Rather than art being a way to wrest beauty from nature and place it on the canvas or in a sculpture or in a song, art becomes a way of celebrating our integration with the natural world. Nothing special. Everything special.

In our culture, the iconic myth of the starving artist – someone who has given up the creature comforts to sacrifice it all for their art – is a vexing, tenacious paradigm which has long ago outlived its usefulness. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate a new model – a model that combines the best of the eastern and western paradigms. Maybe you don’t have to walk away from middle class comfort to make great art. Maybe it’s O.K. to stand on your own without patronage or poverty. Setting aside some money from the tip jar for catastrophic health insurance won’t compromise your artistic integrity.

We need our artists to take risks. They inspire us to test the self-imposed boundaries of our own lives. But we also need our artists to teach us how to cultivate the beauties of our own lives. As parents, as professionals, as butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, we want to be shown how to integrate art into real life. As you weave your intoxicating spells with sound and paint and clay and words and light, please show us also how to harmonize the often conflicting energies of our own lives. Dear artists, we need you to make your own life beautiful and healthy and whole. Are you willing to take the biggest risk of all – being happy? As is true for all of us, your life is your greatest masterpiece. If you would really serve us, you would find a way to stand strong on your own while searching fearlessly for beauty and truth. We need you to abandon the sorry notion that only through your suffering and your alienation can you create. Drugs, alcohol, poverty and dysfunction are not the requisite elements of the creative life. It’s time to let the lie die. Art, like any other form of truth-telling, is dangerous. But art, like truth, is also a healing energy. Show us our pain. But show us also our infinite capacity to grow and heal ourselves and heal those around us. It doesn’t have to always end in misery. Artist, heal thyself.