Saturday, March 30, 2019


After eight straight years of record-setting drought, the rain finally came to California. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are packed with snow, ensuring full rivers and lakes all summer long. The Giant Sequoias finally got the deep watering they so richly deserve. And the 40 million people who call California home can breathe a little easier after years of anxiety. Until next year anyway.
            But it’s the way the rains came that really made a difference. A long series of storms kept the water falling for much of January and February. Not only were the wildflower seeds lying dormant in the chaparral germinated, but the young plants received a steady rain growing deep roots, wide foliage, and setting a record number of blooms. When those buds began to unfurl in mid-March the foothills of the Golden State burst into flame – the good kind – golden poppies, lavender lupine, yellow mustard, deep blue ceanothus, and a thousand other varieties scattered by region and elevation. Then came the butterflies.
            Clouds of migrating Painted Ladies drifted over the many-hued landscape like fluttering prayer flags. It’s as if the flowers had taken flight.
            But flowers and butterflies aren’t meant to last. None of us are. We are all passing through, and the ephemeral nature of all embodied forms is once again brought home to us with bold alacrity. The flower fields of March and April rise up from the ashes of last season’s fires, and in a blink of an eye return to the dust from which they emerged.
            It is in our nature to look for meaning – to search the signs and symbols of the natural world for wisdom, wisdom that we can apply in our faltering, fumbling lives. Nature is a language to be read with the faculty of intuition, or so the Romantic poets claim. It is not facts and theories that flowers and birdsongs give us, but a just-as-certain resonance that defies conceptualization. Feeling in your heart the golden light of a California poppy field lifts you over all contradiction and paradox leaving you aloft in a knowing beyond the mind and its pedestrian definitions.
            This is what draws us into nature: freedom from the tyranny of our own thoughts. We think and think and think, thinking that this next thought will set us free. But it never works. Thought only leads to more thought. Meandering out into a flowering field frees us from the wearisome charade that life is a problem to be solved, rather than a reality to be experienced.
            Walking through the woods, or the desert, or the hills, or along the beach returns us to our bodies, and our bodies return us to our original relationship with the earth, our sacred Mother from which we and all forms arise and to which we return. Feeling her power and presence rise up through the soles of our feet and move through us like a wave realigns the scattered and fragmented bits of our psyche into an integrated whole – we’re too present now to drift into abstraction, too enthralled to argue. This beauty, this light, this scent, this sight, anchors us in something real – not lost in tired thoughts-about-things, but fully awake to things-in-themselves. This, finally, is the grounding reality we’ve been longing for.
            Over-thinking is killing us. Instead, just be. In his longest lesson, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the imagery of nature to lead us back toward groundedness. “Do not worry about your life,” he said. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you? Seek first his kingdom…and all these things will be given to you as well.”
            And what is it to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Christians and other wisdom seekers have been wondering what to make of that for two thousand years. For many in his audience, the familiar Jewish phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” meant a literal political kingdom – the reestablishment of the free nation of Israel and the end of Roman occupation. But many believe Jesus was pointing to something beyond nationalism. For him the phrase became a poetic metaphor for God-consciousness, a mind-body state of illumined realization characterized by peaceful loving kindness. And where are we to find this kingdom? “The kingdom of Heaven is within you,” Jesus tells us. And in the Gospel of Thomas he says, “The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” Turns out we have a perception problem, not a proximity problem. The kingdom of heaven is here and now. Only we are not.
            This is what the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart meant when he said that “God is always home – it is we who have gone out for a walk.” Entering the kingdom of heaven is not about going out there – it’s about going in here. And contemplating the beauty of nature’s fleeting forms draws us deeper and deeper into the eternity of the present moment, where all of the doors swing open. “What you look for has come,” Jesus said, “only you do not know it.”
            With this in mind, it seems clear that we need to drop the idea of the search for truth and exchange it for a process in which we simply slow down, stop searching, and realize what we already are. And one of the best ways to do this is to leave your four walls and walk out into a field beneath a wide open sky.
            In the beauty of a wildflower field, beside a seasonal creek, the puzzles, conflicts, and tortured logic of the discursive mind all unravel leaving in their place a soft, beautiful openness, a melodic indeterminacy, a timeless awareness beyond thoughts and forms. Enlightenment, awakening, nirvana, or the Kingdom of Heaven are not destinations, they are where we already are. As the twentieth century spiritual teacher Krishnamurti put it, “True spiritual practice springs from, not toward, enlightenment. Our practice does not lead to unity consciousness – it is unity consciousness.” When we meditate, pray, or walk with vulnerability, purpose, and open-heartedness the truth and presence that we already are wells up through the cracks between our thoughts and reveals itself as our essence, like wildflowers leaping from the dry earth in the spring rain.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Calling Off the Search

When on their 1987 masterpiece Joshua Tree U2 sang “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” everyone knew exactly what they meant. We seem hard-wired to search, a behavior we no doubt learned hunting and gathering all around the world these last hundred thousand years. An unquenchable longing pushes us toward ever new horizons. We can’t stop.
We’re driven by the illusion that some new acquisition, some new lifestyle, some new understanding, some new something will transform our lives into shimmering palaces of wisdom and bliss. We’ll be finally, completely happy, and we won’t have to search anymore. But there’s just one problem: when we finally get what we want the restlessness lingers. We carry our confusion and neurosis with us into every new situation. Wherever you go, there you are. Different day, different job, different house, different marriage, same old suffering.
Some people even think that if they pack up and move to another town everything will change. In the recovery world that’s called “doing a geographical,” the desperate hope that we can shake loose our demons if we run fast and far enough. But they all hitch a ride – every single one of them. Our demons don’t live in the outer world – they’re within us. They are us.
When Dorothy awoke in her own bed after her mystical journey to Oz, she realized the truth – “There’s no place like home.” And we are always home. Not only can we not outrun our problems, turns out we also can’t outrun our solutions. We carry them all within.
This is why the paradigm of spiritual searching fails. How can we search for truth when not one of our steps leads away from it? As we chase from one explanation to the next, trading one ideology for another, we’re forever cast adrift on the surface: all our doctrines, theologies, and philosophies exist only at the level of thought. They are purely conceptual constructs. The unbreakable whole of life eludes concepts, words, and explanations. Leaving here and going there won’t make a difference. But slowing down, stopping, and opening up will.
There are no real, lasting solutions at the level of conceptual, theoretical, ideological thought. The menu is not the food. The map is not the place. To search through thought-systems for real transformation is like wandering through a market with no money to spend. You’re just looking around – you don’t get to have any of it.
There can never be real freedom or joy at the level of thought because thoughts are always about the past or the future. Only in the eternal presence of the Now is real freedom possible. And it is the work of all authentic spiritual practice to draw us into the present moment and out of our thought-abstractions. That’s what ritual is for. That’s what contemplative, centering prayer does. That’s what luminous, sacred music does. That’s what solitude in nature does. That’s what selfless, sacred service does. That’s what meditation does.
One of the most powerful reasons present-minded consciousness is so liberating is because fear withers in the bright light of the eternal present. Fear is by definition future-thinking. It’s imaging harmful future outcomes that have not and will not happen. Fear deals exclusively in the what if. What if I get cancer? What if I forget my lines? What if this plane crashes? And yet, here and now, we’re cancer-free, we remembered our lines, and the plane is still in the air. Coming into the present moment eliminates fear – it simply can’t survive here. Truth won’t let it.
Freedom from fear is found only in the now.
           When you come fully into this present moment you awaken into the realization that there is nothing you need, nothing you want, nothing you resent, and nothing you fear – you are safe, you are loved, and you are whole. The whole world could fall away and not even a ripple would cross the pool of the bottomless stillness in which you rest like a lily pad.
            And it is only from this stillness that you can return to the field of action and do the significant work that needs to be done, not from an egotistical stance (I’m here to save you), but with the humble heart of a servant (How can I help?)
            Of all the practices designed to bring us into the liberating present, none does so much so fast as meditation. Meditation is the art and science of slipping beneath the surface of the thought stream and sinking down into the silent depths beneath the waves. Nothing else so thoroughly and effectively liberates us from the grasp of our habitual over-thinking. In meditation we simply practice shifting into what Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita calls the Inner Witness, that still, silent presence within us. As we learn how to witness our thoughts instead of identifying with them a subtle shift occurs – we no longer are our thoughts. Instead, we watch our thoughts drift across the sky like clouds. We thought we were the clouds, but turns out we’re the sky – the boundless, spacious awareness in which thoughts arise and fade. And when we make this shift a subtle joyful peace washes over us. We go beyond the mere concepts of peace, wellness, and wisdom – we become peace, wellness, and wisdom.
            In the world’s wisdom traditions this is called embodiment, realization, awareness, or direct experience. It is not properly “knowledge,” because knowledge is conceptual. Embodied wisdom has nothing to do with knowledge, religion, theology, doctrine, ideology, beliefs, faith, scripture, dogma, ritual, liturgy, or anything rooted in the realm of conceptual thought. 
This is why searching for the truth always fails. The entire model of searching is based on a false premise. Truth is not something over there. How can you go out looking for something you already are? In his classic book I Am That Advaita Vedanta teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj put it this way: “You are universal. You need not and you cannot become what you are already. Having never left the house you are asking for the way home. Don’t rely on your mind for liberation. It is the mind that brought you into bondage. Go beyond it altogether. Enquire Who is ignorant, and ignorance will dissolve like a dream. The source of consciousness cannot be an object in consciousness. To know the source is to be the source.”
            Krishnamurti often warned his students about the perils of attachment to ideology and doctrine, or even teachers. Be wary, he said, of those who talk about the path. “Truth,” he said, “is a pathless land.” There is nothing to seek, and nowhere to go. Instead of seeking, slow down, go within and realize what you are and always have been.