Monday, November 29, 2010

Every Day Is Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, I enjoyed seeing how many of my friends and family posted a statement of gratitude on Facebook or Twitter, mentioning the things for which they are thankful -- or simply acknowledging that they are thankful. It seems we now post on social networks the things people used to say at the dinner table with their hands joined in prayer. Praying around the dinner table is so last-century, but at least public displays of gratitude are still in.

Wouldn't it be nice if every day was like Thanksgiving? Imagine how different our world would look if we spent every day being thankful for what we have, rather than complaining about what we don't have, worrying about losing what we do have, feeling jealous and bitter about what other people have, or scheming to get something else.

If you're like me, you grew up with the folk wisdom that advised you to "count your blessings" and "be thankful for what you've got." If you didn't like your food, you were encouraged to think of the orphans who must eat gruel, or the poor children in Africa who don't have any food at all. If you didn't like to exercise, you were encouraged to think about the paraplegics or the people who must live through tubes and machines.

But now that you're all grown up, answer this question: If you put on one side of a scale all the time that you, as an adult, spend feeling content and grateful for what you have, and on the other side you put all the time you spend feeling restless and discontent and complaining irritably about what's wrong or scheming to make things better, to which side would the scale tip? Be honest.

The Buddha taught that the restless mind of discontent and craving for something better is the very cause of our suffering. He called it tanha, which means thirst or craving. When we are caught in the grip of our own thirst for something better, then it is impossible to feel contentment and gratitude for what we have. Unable to experience the basic okayness of contentment and gratitude, we constantly search for something outside ourselves to make things okay. We feel we have to get something, ingest something, go somewhere, do something, get involved with someone, have some kind of experience, become something -- always, always looking for something other and something better than what we have and what we are right now. This is the wellspring of what the Buddha called dukkha, which is usually translated as suffering but is more accurately described as a kind of persistent, aching feeling that life is out of balance and something is missing. Our craving is like a hole inside us that needs to be filled, but nothing we put into it seems to fill the hole in a reliable or lasting way.

The Buddha also taught that underlying our craving or thirst is another, deeper problem: avidya, or ignorance, which is the cause of craving in the first place. We misunderstand the nature of our own being and the nature of the world in which we live, and this misunderstanding traps us in the endless cycle of thirst and aching. We believe we truly are this separate, pathetic little self, and so we are always looking outside our selves for something to prop up the fiction of the person we imagine ourselves to be. But since nothing can really prop up a fiction, we are on a fool's quest.

Here is a truth that ought to be self-evident by now: No amount of material wealth or political power or emotional abundance or pleasurable experiences or even spiritual richness obtained from the outside can bring us contentment if, on the inside, we are determined to be discontent. If you haven't seen sufficient proof of this, you either haven't lived long enough, or you haven't been paying close enough attention.

Isn't it futile to hope for world peace when nearly everyone's mind is locked in habitual patterns of discontentment and unrest, and everyone is hoping for a change in the outer circumstances to secure their happiness? Now bring it closer to home: how could you hope to be at peace with your own life, and to find peace in your marriage or other relationships, if your own mind is habituated to focusing on what's wrong and what needs to change in order for you to feel okay?

The Tree of Contentment

Question: How could you escape from the sound of footsteps chasing you when the sound is really coming from your own running feet? How could you escape the spectre chasing you when it's really just your own shadow?

Answer: Stop running, and sit down in the shade of a tree. Both footsteps and shadow instantly disappear.

The tree, in this case, is the tree of contentment, and the cooling shade it provides is called gratitude. Take a moment today, if you haven't already, to stop and sit beneath it. The good news is that this tree is always somewhere in our vicinity; it may sometimes look far away on the horizon, and we may have to walk towards it, but we always have the opportunity to sit down beneath it if we choose. The bad news is simply how well-programmed we are to keep running, and to ignore this tree -- except, maybe, once a year on Thanksgiving.

And the ironic news is that there is really nowhere we can run to, no matter how fast or long we may run. We are always strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, and mistaking it for real life. We are consummate method actors who seem to have forgotten that we are playing a role at all. This is why we are so often shocked and appalled when the curtain falls unexpectedly.

This much is certain: the curtain will fall, and unless we grab the curtain and bring it down ourselves, it will fall in a way for which we didn't plan -- and probably too soon. "Life," said Suzuki Roshi, "is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink." Every boat -- that is to say, every sentient being -- that ever has been or ever can be built will sink. No one gets out of here alive. If life were a casino, every table would be rigged against us from the very start. We might win a hand here and there, but if we think we're going to beat the house consistently or permanently, we are leading ourselves down a road to emotional ruin. When we get lost in the cycle of discontentment and ingratitude, we are just hoping for better cards.

Trees and boats and runners and actors and casinos: by now, this is an awful mess of mixed metaphors, but you get the point. Most of us are, as the old country song goes, "Lookin' for love in all the wrong places." We are searching for contentment everywhere except the only place it really awaits us, which is in the mysterious and uncharted depths of our own being.

None of this is to say that we should always just accept the status quo and be grateful. There is nothing wrong with trying to make the best of our situation or bringing improvement where it is needed. But we play the cards we are dealt by life, and much of our neurosis comes from wishing our cards were different.

Some cards are easier to play than others, of course. The hardest thing of all is to rest in the shade of gratitude and contentment when the casino deals us a particularly shitty hand. Our bodies break down and get sick, or our sanity comes into question, or the market collapses, or the lover who we thought was so reliable and who was going to make us and keep us happy suddenly leaves. The royal flush becomes a toilet flush.

I remember being with my friend Charlie in the hospital several years ago, as he was battling lymphoma. During one of my visits, the nurse came into the room with a bag of chemotherapy chemicals for Charlie. She wore safety gear that resembled a hazmat suit just to handle the bag; the bag itself was marked with large biohazard symbols to indicate its extreme toxicity to humans and other living things. With horror and fear and the most awful hope, Charlie watched the nurse connect the bag to his IV line. He stared at the industrial markings on the bag and at the dark-yellow liquid inside, and he began to cry. Putting the nightmare inside that bag into his body was the only hope he had for fighting the nightmare that was already inside him. In the end, it didn't work -- the lymphoma was too aggressive, and Charlie lost the fight within a few months of his first diagnosis.

A few weeks ago I was in the only supermarket in the small town of a few hundred people near the Abbey where I'm living. A man and a woman who knew each other from the town stopped in the aisle near me to exchange greetings. "How are you?" the cheerful woman asked.

"I just had my right lung taken out," the man replied.

My eyes bugged out as I passed by, and I couldn't stop myself from shooting a curious glance at the man. He caught my eye and looked back at me matter-of-factly. There was no tone of complaint or self-pity in his statement, and his look was not a plea for sympathy. It was simply the blunt truth. "How are you?" "I just had my right lung taken out."

There is nothing that I could possibly have taught Charlie, or the man with one lung in the grocery store, about gratitude or contentment. Anything I could say about the subject would sound glib -- or, worse, condescending, like a slap in the face. Rather, they were the ones who ended up teaching me about it, although neither of them was trying to teach me anything. I walked away from both of them feeling a little bit more grateful for the cards I have been dealt so far, and a little bit wiser to the fact that -- good cards or bad cards -- it's all quite temporary.

Gratitude is the key that unlocks the treasure chest of contentment within our own hearts. And what lies within that chest is really the only thing that can make us feel rich -- or even okay. The sooner we learn to stop looking outside ourselves for the love and the wisdom and the richness that we already carry within us, the sooner we'll be able to get on with the business of living properly and peacefully as human beings. For a limited time only.

"If you say only one prayer today," said Rumi, "make it: Thank you."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Be Here Now

Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.

Be here now. Those three simple words are the title of a classic 1971 spiritual book by Ram Dass -- which, for some reason, has haunted my mind for about 25 years. I haven't looked at a copy of Dass's book since I was a teenager -- but it made a strong enough impression on my mind at that tender age that I still clearly remember the design of the book's cover.

It's not so much the content of Ram Dass's book that has haunted my mind all these years, but its title. And lately that title has been haunting me more than ever. I've been thinking a lot about those three simple words, and how they capture the entire practice of meditation. This line, in my opinion, would be a top contender for the prize of "greatest meditation instruction of all time" -- if there were prizes for such things.

After all, isn't that what meditation comes down to -- the practice of just being here now? Reduced to those three naked words, it sounds so incredibly simple -- and it is -- and yet there is so much depth hidden within that simplicity, waiting to be unpacked and explored.

Meditation is about coming back to basic being. Ordinarily we are caught up in the compulsion to do. We are always doing something -- or several somethings at once -- whether it's with our bodies or our speech or our minds. The way kids study these days is a good example: they'll have a textbook open in front of them, but they'll also have a reality show playing on TV, and a favorite album playing on the iPod, and several chats going with friends on the computer. Sometimes our compulsion to do takes the form of constant mental chatter, a rushing current of thoughts and commentary that sweeps us along and keeps our minds churning and busy. But what is it like to just be in this present moment, without doing anything extra? What's actually happening? We are just sitting here, being alive, breathing, just existing. Why do we think something else needs to be added to this? Can't we just be? In those moments when we allow ourselves to just be, we feel like we've come home after a long day at work. In reality, we are always being, but when we are just being, we discover a deep and abiding sense of peace and contentment that forever eludes us when we are caught up in grasping and doing.

Being here means, first of all, being here as opposed to somewhere else. Much of the time, in our minds, we are off in the jungles of the Amazon, or walking the streets of the East Village, or on a ship at sea in a storm -- in short, anywhere but here. The fantasies that take us elsewhere can be much more interesting than the seemingly dull reality of just being here, sitting on a chair in a room, staring at the wall or the floor or the back of the person sitting in front of us. The boredom of just being here can drive us to imagine ourselves in a million other places, doing a million other things. But not one of those million other places is where we actually are right now. In reality, we are always here, but when we are just here -- when we stop struggling to pretend we are somewhere else -- we step into a more open and trusting relationship with our world. We awaken to the vividness of our sense perceptions, and we realize that until now we were sleep-walking through life, only half-aware of the world that was always right in front of our faces.

Being here also means more fully inhabiting the body, the locus of our being here. The body is dense with layers of felt experience that are always happening right here, within our very being -- yet most of the time we are barely aware of a fraction of what is happening in the body at any given moment. Training in mindfulness means coming back, again and again, to the lived experience that is always unfolding here, right here, in our very own flesh and blood.

Being here now means staying present with what is happening in this moment -- neither reviewing the past nor speculating on the future, but simply staying here in the now. Now is a razor-thin moment of being that is always cleaving time into past and future. Training in mindfulness is learning to ride that razor, to stay upright on its edge without falling off to either side. But how much of the time do we normally spend riding the blade of the present moment? Ordinarily, we spend much of our time replaying old conversations, imagining new outcomes if we had said something different; or anticipating what we'll be eating for dinner or what we'll say when we see that person again -- planning out the coming weeks or years and dancing in hope and fear about things that have not yet happened, future moments that don't yet exist. In reality, it is always now -- past and future are merely memories and dreams, and the razor-thin edge of the present moment is all we ever have. Even when we are lost in memories and dreams, our memories and dreams are still happening now. But when we learn to recognize how our minds stray from the present, and we practice being here just now, we discover the magic of authentic presence and the richness of being alive now.

"Be" is the element of relaxation, letting go of everything except that which already is -- and then letting that go, too, realizing that what is is always turning into what was. "Now" is the element of precision and alertness, staying connected to that which is constantly changing, constantly unfolding in the present moment. "Here" is the experience that connects the two.

"Be here now" is the guru's whispered instruction, a key that unlocks the door of experience and realization on the spiritual path. Let go of the compulsion to do something, realize that nothing need be added to or taken away from this moment, and simply be; come back to your lived experience here, in this body, in this room, in this environment, and remember that life is not happening somewhere else; abandon your nostalgia and regrets about the past and your hope and fear about the future, and just be here, now, surfing the always-cresting wave of the present moment. Later, if you wish, you can plan and scheme and dream, and build and destroy, do other things and go other places. But for this moment, there is nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Just be here now. Life is an exclusive offer, non-transferrable, available for a limited time only, and valid only at this location. Use it or lose it.

The paradox is that whatever we do, we're always being; wherever we go in body or mind, we're always here (as the old saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are"); and whether we're tuned in to the present moment or lost in memories and dreams, it's always now. So why do we find it so challenging to just be here now? Isn't it really the simplest thing in the world?