Thursday, June 28, 2018

Why I Meditate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I meditate because it is beautiful and subtle and profound.

I meditate because something deep within me asks me to.

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

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

I meditate because. Just because.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Planting Seeds

When a gardener plants seeds, she intends to yield a harvest. These dry, hard, yellow kernels will give rise to tall green stalks laden with ears of fresh, delicious corn. If everything goes right.
            There are many phases to the process – deciding to plant a garden, envisioning the outcome, learning everything you can about soil, compost, weather patterns, fertilizer, insects, and the elliptic of the sun. But no matter how much we learn and how hard we work, the most important part of the process is intention.
            Intention is the potent act of out-picturing – allowing our vision to move from the realm of thought into the realm of manifestation. We don’t control the weather, the sun, the bugs, or the corn – we are only their witness and collaborator. All creation is co-creation.
            The wisdom traditions of the world warn us of the perils of confusing intention with attachment. “Work without attachment to the fruits of work,” Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad Gita. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus counsels us in no uncertain terms to renounce all anxiety about the future. Worrying isn’t going to add one inch to your corn. And Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching put it this way: “Rushing into action you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.” You can’t make the corn grow faster by yelling at it, tugging on it, or nervously pacing up and down the rows.
            Our job is not to grow the corn. Our job is to co-create the conditions in which the corn can grow itself. Corn already knows far more about how to become corn than we do.
            Whether we are growing corn, raising children, or building a career, the same principles apply. All we can do is set intentions, hold aspirations, and envision fruition. But the minute you slip into the seductive delusion that you are in control, chaos reigns and the only crop you’ll yield is suffering for all involved.
            Many of us have worked for micromanagers, bosses who hover over you directing your every move. Under these meddlesome taskmasters workers lose their two most potent qualities – innate enthusiasm and creative problem solving skills. Nothing quashes the enthusiasm and creativity of a work team faster than micromanagement. Instead, hire great people, create the conditions in which they can thrive, and get out of the way.
            Under micromanagement, employees stop trying and stop caring because they’ve received the message loud and clear: their essence isn’t valued or even necessary. They’re seen not as human beings but as extensions of the boss, robotic appendages without heart or vision. When you’re dehumanized, your soul lives in exile. The only reason you show up now is for the paycheck. Is that what anyone wanted?
As a leader you have two principle tasks – articulate the group’s intention, and manage the structural processes so that your employees don’t have to. As a leader, your only question to your employees should be, “What can I do to support you today?” 
A leader is a planter of seeds. Taking leadership in your own life is a matter of humbly but boldly setting intentions, then letting go. As Lao Tzu wrote, "If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself."

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August 2018 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Ordinary Miracle of Meditation

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