Monday, December 16, 2013

The Voice That Doesn't Use Words

For better or worse, people have always remarked upon my quiet, calm demeanor. Some people complain that they can't hear me because I speak so quietly, or because I communicate with a poker face that betrays little emotion. Some people are unnerved by my — or anyone else's — propensity towards silence, and they ask me, with visible discomfort, "Why are you so quiet?" They seem to need to have every moment filled up with speech of some kind, even if it's the noise of a television set in the background or the earbuds pumping a constant stream of music into their ears. Still others are thrown off by what they describe as the intensity of my gaze, which appears to be communicating a great deal without uttering a single word. It's the rare person who finds comfort or solace in my quietude.

What few people (except my closest friends, who know me well) seem to realize — for I've become very good at hiding it — is that beneath my quiet, calm demeanor lies the same incessantly chattering "monkey mind" from which every other human being suffers. When I sit down to meditate, the mind that I encounter is usually not a calm, still lake; it's a roiling sea of thoughts, hopes, fears, judgments, fantasies, memories, plans and dreams. It is what Bhante Henepola Gunaratana called a "screeching, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless."

But then, there are moments, fleeting glimpses, of what lies behind or beneath all that. The simple ground of awareness, uncontrived and unburdened from the baggage of concepts and language and commentary and ideas. And a glimpse — whether it's five seconds or five minutes — is all it takes to remind me that there is an eye of calmness within the center of my storm, a calmness that is accessible to me anytime I choose to drop down through the layers of clouds and the blowing winds and rain and make contact with the empty space and the stillness and silence that lies at the heart of it all.

"Zen practice is always about returning to that place where there are no words. Early on, I realized that to use words, you have to live life beyond words, before words, without words. Only then do you have the right to speak." - Seido Ray Ronci

Lately in my meditations I've been trying to observe the difference between still mind and moving mind — which is another way of saying between quiet mind and chattering mind. What happens when you release the mind's habitual tendency towards saying something — anything — about anything at all? What is left over when you stop conversing with yourself, remembering, fantasizing, planning, or even commenting upon what's happening in the present moment? What happens when you stop worrying about whether you're meditating correctly and just experience what is actually happening without talking to yourself about it? Who are you when you finally shut up and — for ten seconds of your life — stop talking about yourself and your experience, and just experience it?

What does the voice of your naked awareness sound like when you're not trying to make it say what you want it to say?

"There is a voice that doesn't use words," said Rumi. "Listen."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Meditation 101

As people begin preparing their resolutions for the New Year, many will have "learning to meditate" near the top of their lists. In my observation, the best way to learn to meditate is through face-to-face instruction from someone experienced in the practice, who can answer questions and help you work with obstacles that may arise. If you can do it that way, I recommend it. But that's not always possible; and, in any case, it's also helpful to read written instructions.

The following basic instructions in meditation practice were first published on this blog five years ago. I'm reposting them now because — whether we are brand new to meditation or have been practicing for years — we can never hear them too many times. And each time we hear them, we may hear something new.

The first time I heard meditation instruction, it was presented in terms of three simple building blocks — a mnemonic device that I’ve always found it helpful to recall. The three basic building blocks of sitting meditation are: Body, Breath, and Mind.

Even within Buddhism, there are many types of meditation that utilize different techniques designed to accomplish different things (not to speak of all the meditations found in other spiritual traditions). The type of meditation described here is called shamatha, translated as Tranquility or Calm Abiding or Peaceful Abiding. As those labels suggest, its main purpose is to calm the mind, and to help us train in the ability to “abide” or stay present with what is happening right here, right now.

Training in this kind of Tranquility meditation is the first step in really getting to know our own minds, and creates a foundation for everything we do on the spiritual path.

"The method that the Buddha discovered is meditation. He discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him that manifested itself only in the absence of struggle. So the practice of meditation involves letting be."

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

A: Body

The first part of the practice involves how we work with our body during meditation. Taking the right posture is essential, because the state of the body reflects and affects the state of the mind: the mind-body continuum. A slouching posture leads to a slouching, dull state of mind — and vice versa. A proper, upright posture embodies the qualities of strength, dignity, and bravery, and sets the stage for engaging with your mind in the practice of meditation.

  • Sit up straight, allowing the spine to lengthen naturally — as if an invisible string attached to the crown of your head were lightly pulling you upward. If you're in a chair, you might try sitting forward rather than leaning against the back of the chair; your feet should be flat on the floor. If you're on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you.
  • Let your arms drop to your sides, then gently lift only your forearms — keeping your upper arms parallel to the torso — and bring your palms to rest lightly on your knees or your thighs. The placement of the hands should not be so far forward that it causes your shoulders to slouch, and not so far back that it pinches the shoulder blades. Find the right spot to allow your back and shoulders and neck to rest upright, without straining.
  • Keeping the eyes open, direct your gaze down at a point three to six feet in front of you, not looking at anything in particular but allowing the gaze to rest in one spot rather than roaming or following distractions. Allow your eyelids to relax, and soften the gaze so that you're "looking without staring." If you've practiced other meditation techniques that involved closing the eyes, it may seem awkward at first to practice with eyes open, but give it a try and see what happens. Keeping the eyes open is a step towards integrating the practice of mindfulness into everyday life, rather than making mindfulness something separate from your life that can only be practiced under restricted conditions.
  • Relax the stomach muscles, the torso, the throat, the jaw. Bring the tip of the tongue to rest lightly on the spot where your upper teeth meet the roof of your mouth, allowing the lips to part slightly if it feels comfortable.

B: Breath

The second part of the practice involves where we place our minds during meditation. We could choose almost any object — an image, a sound, a particular word or series of words — but most people find that the simplest and most convenient object to use in shamatha meditation is the breath. It's free, you carry it with you everywhere you go, and it's already happening — it requires no particular effort. In one sense, sitting and resting our attention on the breath is the simplest thing we could possibly do; yet the cumulative effects and implications of this practice are profound. Breathing is an expression of the present moment; each breath is slightly different from every other breath, and it is only happening right now. Tuning in to the breath is tuning in to the present moment.

  • Breathe naturally, however you find yourself breathing in this moment: fast, slow, shallow, deep, whatever. Don't make any particular effort to breathe in a certain way, or to control the process. Just be with whatever kind of breath you have right now. If you can, breathe through the nose.
  • Bring your attention to rest lightly on the full cycle of breathing, both in and out. Allow yourself to identify with the soothing quality of the breath.
  • Notice where you feel the physical sensations of breathing most acutely. Maybe it's in the rising and falling of the abdomen, or in the slight warm and cool tickling sensation at the ends of your nostrils as the breath goes out and comes in. Wherever it is for you, rest your attention on that physical sensation.
  • If you can, place a slight emphasis of attention on the out-breath. Feel yourself going out with your breath and dissolving into space, letting go of conceptual mind. Allow the in-breath to happen naturally, and again go out with the out-breath and dissolve.
  • Notice the quality of the moment after one breath has gone out, before the next breath has started to come in. What is your mind like in that moment?

C: Mind

The third part of the practice involves how we work with our minds. Having attempted to sit and rest our attention on the breath for a few moments, we have probably discovered — perhaps to our dismay — that our mind is restless and prone to wander away. We find ourselves thinking about lunch, reliving an argument with our ex-boyfriend, reveling in a sexual fantasy, fretting over our job, stewing in old feelings of shame or resentment, worrying about our loved ones, or desperately seeking entertainment by looking for shapes and patterns in the carpet in front of us: the possibilities are literally endless. Our minds seem to hop from one distraction to another with total disregard for our noble intention to stay with the breath. Welcome to your "monkey-mind." Through regular shamatha practice, we can begin to train the monkey to stay in one place for longer periods of time, and we can even learn to regard its antics with humor and compassion.

Usually, when we have a thought or a feeling, we run with it: our minds seem to control us, rather than us controlling our minds. By practicing shamatha, we train in the ability to recognize our thoughts without being driven by them. But the goal of shamatha is not to "get rid of" thoughts — this is a common misconception. The goal is to see ourselves clearly, and with compassion, by touching in with whatever we're experiencing, and then coming back to the present moment and the object of meditation. Precision and gentleness are the keys.

  • When you become aware that your mind has wandered off into a thought, feeling, or fantasy, gently touch on it and return your attention to the breath. Whatever kind of thought or feeling it was, try to see it without judgment or criticism: in the practice of shamatha, there are no good thoughts or bad thoughts. No thought is to be condemned or praised — that's just more thinking.
  • You may find it helpful to mark the moment of transition between thinking and returning to the breath by "labeling" your thoughts. When you recognize you've been thinking, say to yourself mentally: "Thinking." Apply this labeling technique with a light touch -- like touching your thoughts with a feather. Don't try to shoot down your thoughts or squash them, but simply recognize them, let them go, and come back to the breath.
  • Above all, be gentle with yourself, and relax.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Hammer of Insight

We all have those days sometimes when nothing seems to go the way we want it to, and everything gets under our skin. They seem to happen disproportionately on Mondays, when most people are returning to their jobs from the relaxation of a weekend.

One recent Monday I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. My mind was foggy, and I felt psychologically oppressed by the pressures of work that were looming ahead of me. A complex matter in my personal life was also weighing heavily on my mind. And my foot was hurting. On the subway, someone had vomited. I sat on the bench across from it, at the far end, to distance myself. Everyone who entered the subway car saw the pool of vomit and turned in another direction, except for one oblivious woman who stepped right in it and then realized her mistake. She came across and sat right next to me, tracking the vomit on her shoe. I felt a wave of irritation and revulsion, but breathed through it. Then the person on the other side of me sneezed without covering his mouth. My irritation surged again, and I started holding my breath.

Once off the subway, the streets were barricaded and filled with jeeps, police cars, and uniformed infantry. I suddenly remembered it was Veterans Day, and the epicenter of the Veterans Day parade is directly beneath my office window. I zig-zagged my way through the barricades, negotiating with police officers to reach my office building and weaving through squadrons of soldiers, firemen and former PoWs on Harley Davidsons. All morning long, the noise of drums and bagpipes filled my ears, distracting me from my work. Despite my English and Scottish ancestry, the sound of bagpipes has always been to me like nails on a chalkboard.

A Toolbox for Coping with What Life Throws at You
So what do you do when you're having a seriously bad hair day? A day filled with stressful pressures, vomit on the subway, people sneezing at you, and bagpipes grating on your nerves? What tools do you draw upon to keep yourself from completely losing it?

One good place to start is to remember to breathe. When stress gets the upper hand on us, our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and breathing becomes shallow. The sympathetic nervous system becomes over-stimulated. Just pausing for a moment and breathing slowly and deeply into the belly can help us insert space into a cramped situation. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the physiological effects of stress and promotes relaxation.

Another useful tool is to laugh at yourself. Take a step back and look at how seriously you take everything, and see the humor in it. Laugh at yourself. Are you saving babies or performing brain surgery? If not, ask yourself: do I really need to be taking all of this so seriously?

Big Teachings Come in Small Packages
I remember meeting with my spiritual teacher once when I was having a day like this. He was only in town for a weekend program, and I went to see him with a small group of people on a Friday night, coming straight from work. My mind was buzzing like a beehive of stresses and irritations. He looked at me and asked me how I was doing. I beat around the bush, not really wanting to bother him with what I knew were mostly petty, mundane concerns. I said I was okay.

"Why just okay?" he asked.

Again, I beat around the bush, not really forming a clear answer. I mumbled something about life in New York City being like a roller coaster.

Suddenly, in the middle of my mumbling, he grabbed me by the shoulder, looked directly into my eyes, and said quietly, so only I could hear him: "You died two months ago."

I was stunned into silence, not sure at first what to make of this bizarre and ominous-sounding statement. "Just imagine," he repeated: "You died two months ago."

In that moment, the hammer of insight struck me upside the head. I saw that it wasn't the external circumstances that were putting me in that stressed-out state of mind: it was me. I saw how silly and unnecessary it was to do that to myself. What a waste of time and energy. I was putting myself at the center of a huge emotional drama, and making such a fuss over it all — and for what purpose? Soon enough, death will come for me, as it comes for everyone. What if I had died two months ago, and I hadn't even been there to experience all this drama? Would it still carry the same importance to me?

Even more importantly, what if death comes for me two months from now? Is *this* how I will want to have spent those months? Life is short for us humans even in the luckiest of circumstances. Do I want to fritter away whatever precious time I have left wallowing in emotional dramas and stressing out over external circumstances that I cannot control? If I were on my deathbed right now, how much would I really and truly care about the pressures at work, the vomit on the subway, the bagpipes in the street? All the plans and ambitions, the hopes and fears, the unfinished projects, the worries and concerns, the grudges and attachments — do they really amount to a hill of beans in the end?

Sometimes the most profound teachings come in the smallest packages.

Whenever I have one of those days now — and I do still have them, more often than I care to admit — I try to remember that teaching. I look at whatever it is that I'm getting so worked up over, and I ask myself: would this really matter to me in the end? How would the situation be different if I had died two months ago? How would it look different to me if I knew I was going to die two months from now?

That's what a good spiritual teacher does. It's not about the books they write, or the talks and workshops they give. It's about the tools they give you for cutting through your own trip and getting a better view of reality. It might be five simple words whispered in your ear, but those five words might contain the one message that pops your bubble and brings you back down to earth, and reminds you of what's really important.


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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Smartphone Addicts Anonymous

You've seen them before: the zombie hordes of people walking down the street, not looking where they're going, staring into the glowing screens in their hands. The groups of friends sitting around the dinner table or standing in a bar, not talking to each other, staring into the glowing screens in their hands. The business meetings where colleagues barely pay attention to each other or to the subject of the meeting, absorbed in other business that's happening simultaneously on the glowing screens in their hands.

Full disclosure: I'm one of the zombies too (or at least a part-time zombie). I have a small device with a glowing screen that I carry with me everywhere I go. It connects me to my work. It connects me to my friends. It connects me to my family and my partner. It connects me to my teachers and sources of inspiration on the path. But it also, at times, disconnects me from all of these things and becomes an annoying distraction from the things that are truly important. As my friend Mario put it, "I would feel lost and isolated if it wasn't for my cellphone; but I've also felt lost and isolated because of my cellphone, if that makes any sense."

Mind-Altering Technology
Smartphones are a powerful, mind-altering technology that is transforming the way we interact, the way we work, and the way we live. We've become addicted to the constant buzz of activity and the never-ending flow of communication and information that streams invisibly through the air and into our pockets, our purses and our hands. Like Pavlov's dogs, we hear the ping or feel the vibration of an incoming stimulus, and we salivate. We reach instinctively to take in the stimulus, often acting on auto-pilot. We don't pause to think. Buzz buzz buzz, we react.

It doesn't matter where we are, or how inappropriate it is to be interacting with a glowing screen. The buzz comes, and we need that fix. It might come during a romantic dinner, and we are lured away from the beauty of the present moment because we have to check to see if that email was important. It might come during yoga class, and we are drawn away from our practice because someone commented on our Facebook post about going to yoga class. It might come while we are driving, and we are distracted just long enough by that text message that we run a red light and crash into another car.

These are not made-up examples. These things happen in real life, all the time. And they are fueling a growing backlash against our societal addiction to smartphones. There are laws now against texting while driving because too many people died or killed others while doing it. Even the number of people injuring themselves while walking and talking on their cell phones is soaring; one expert estimates it may be as high as 2 million people per year. There are pleas before every movie not to use your phone during the movie, because some people are so self-absorbed that it doesn't occur to them (without being told) that a glowing screen or a phone conversation in a silent, dark theater might actually bother the people around them. I've been to yoga classes where almost everyone in the room sits up from the final relaxation posture and reaches immediately to check their smartphone, without even standing up first. One yoga teacher I know makes a habit of going around the room and turning people's cell phones face-down (because they apparently don't think to do it themselves), so they don't actually stop in the middle of a yoga posture to see the photo of what their friend is eating for dinner.

Down the Rabbit-Hole
Like any other mind-altering technology, smartphones have their usefulness. I love mine. Actually, I recently got a new one and have been experiencing a renewed phase of immersion as I get to know the device's features. But I also struggle, like many people I know, to find the right balance. How do I use my smartphone in a way that is actually smart, a way that modifies my experience for the better? How do I avoid becoming lost in the trance of technology and information? How do I respond mindfully to the constant buzz buzz buzz that tugs at my attention and pulls me out of the present moment and into a glowing, virtual realm of stories and news and pictures and comments and videos? How do I avoid becoming a smartphone zombie? There are no easy answers.

One of my colleagues at work — a programmer, someone who works with technology for a living — carries an archaic flip-phone that isn't good for much more than phone calls. Pecking out a text message on it is so time-consuming that it becomes an unattractive proposition. She refuses to upgrade to a newer, smarter phone. Perhaps that is her way of fighting the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps she knows that once you go down that rabbit-hole, it's hard to find your footing again. It's a slippery slope. Once you start spending as much time photographing your afternoon cupcake with your smartphone, enhancing it with digital filters, and posting Instagram pics of it as you spend actually enjoying the cupcake, you know you have a smartphone problem. (And if you use hashtags like #cupcake and #booyah to describe your cupcake, God help you. You've gone all the way down the rabbit hole.)

Life Without Smartphones?
When I lived in the monastery, we were in a very remote, rugged place, an hour's drive away from the nearest cell phone signal. And I have to admit that, after the initial detox period, there was a tremendous feeling of liberation that came from having no cell phones around. No annoying chirps or musical ringtones to shatter the silence, no incessant little tug at your attention, no relentless stream of largely useless and pointless information, no buzzing in your pocket that calls you away from your meditation session and into the realm of other people's distractions. One thing you find out pretty quickly is that you can manufacture plenty of distractions to keep your mind occupied, all by yourself, without any assistance from a little glowing screen that follows you everywhere and feeds you a constant diet of sensory and intellectual stimuli.

Now that I live back in New York City, smartphones surround me once again. And to be honest, I think having a smartphone makes living in a city like New York easier. This is not the monastery, and my obligations and activities are very different. I don't relish the idea of living here without one. But it's a double-edged sword.

My friend Mario was riding the tube in London recently, with another friend, and he looked around to realize that almost everyone else on the train was staring into the glowing screen in their hands. He was reminded of this scene from the film Wall-E, which seems alarmingly like the dystopian technological future into which we are all heading.

Getting a Grip on Your Smartphone
Lately I've been working with a couple of simple practices to help me develop a bit of mindfulness — and do some harm reduction — around my smartphone habits. Sometimes when my partner and I sit down to dinner, we put our phones face down on the table — or, better yet, leave them in the other room — and agree not to check them until we've finished our dinner together. Some people have adopted even more extreme measures: when you're out to dinner with a group, everyone stacks their phones in the middle of the table, and the first one to check their phone picks up the tab.

Another thing that I find helpful is something the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa recommended to his students when they watch TV: he told them to try, while watching TV, to maintain an awareness of the physical space between themselves and the TV set. I try to do this sometimes with my smartphone. Just to be aware of that two or three feet of space between me and the glowing screen in my hand helps me step back and frame the experience, rather than getting lost in it.

As with any addiction, the first step towards getting better is to admit that there's a problem. So let me be the first to say it.

My name is Dennis, and I'm a smartphone addict.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Get Over Yourself: Resisting the Tyranny of Ego

When I lived in the monastery, one of the most profound and challenging aspects of our training as monastics was the principle of choicelessness.

As humans, we ordinarily spend a vast amount of time — maybe even the majority of our time — fussing over our personal preferences about everything from our food to our clothing and appearance to the creature comforts of our home. A big chunk of this time goes into trying to get our way and impose our personal preferences on other people, and negotiating all the conflict that arises from clashing preferences. Our partner feels like eating sushi tonight and watching a certain TV show, but we feel like eating pasta and watching a different TV show.

Dropping the Habit
Like Goldilocks in the children's fable, we jump constantly from one experience to another, always searching for the one that's "just right" — the one that fulfills our personal preferences. We spend our lives trying to make ourselves comfortable by selecting and acquiring the objects that meet our criteria. But our preferences are fickle and quixotic, and things often don't live up to our expectations. The movie we so looked forward to — and coerced our friends into seeing with us — turns out to be dreadful, and we leave the theater feeling disappointed (and chastened by our friends). The pasta that pleased us yesterday bores us today. The shirt we loved when we bought it last season looks like a fright when we put it on now.

In the monastery we were encouraged to drop this self-defeating habit and to work, instead, with the discipline of choicelessness.

  • Forget about your appearance. Leave your fancy hair products behind. Shave your head like everyone else. Forget about jewelry and make-up and accessories and your favorite clothing — they're not allowed. Wear the simple robes that are given to you, which (surprise!) look like everyone else's. Stop trying to be "unique" and to "express yourself" with your appearance. That's just your ego.
  • Forget about your eating preferences. Eat the food that is prepared for you, and eat it only when it's placed in front of you at the appointed hour. If you don't like the food, you're cordially invited to keep your complaints to yourself. Or don't eat.
  • Forget about your creature comforts. Sleep in the bed that's offered to you. If you don't like your roommate's snoring, you're cordially invited to get over it. Try wearing earplugs.
  • Forget about sleeping in, or planning your day according to your mood. Wake up with the others and follow the schedule. Do your practices. Do your chores. Do your work. Don't like the schedule? You're cordially invited to get used to it.
  • Forget about escaping on Open Day into the movie of your choice. You can choose to watch the one movie that is provided on Friday night — which is selected by majority vote — or you can choose not to watch it. Don't like it? Leave the room. Go to bed early.

Life Does Not Revolve Around You
You learn very quickly in the monastery that life does not revolve around you and your personal preferences. As in the military, there's a structure and a program to be followed for pretty much everything. You either get with the program, and learn to be generally okay with it, or you make yourself miserable by struggling against it. That's your choice. Which one is more appealing?

That may sound harsh, and in some ways it is. But when you actually embrace choicelessness as a practice, a form of spiritual training, it can open you up in unexpected ways. You start to see that the quick thrill of getting what you want pales next to the deeper sense of contentment that comes from accepting that which is, without complaint or struggle.

You've spent your whole life trying to get everything and everyone around you to align with your personal preferences. How's that working for you? Maybe, just maybe, it has caused more trouble than it's worth. So how about dropping all that and just letting things be as they are?

Sometimes a Burrito is Just a Burrito
You may still hate the burritos that are served every two weeks, like clockwork; you may still hate the film that was chosen by the group for movie night. You may hate the schedule, and feel a burning resentment at being coerced out of your warm bed and into the cold meditation hall at 6 a.m. for the first practice session of the day. But after a while you start to glimpse that your personal preferences are just that: they're just your personal preferences. You begin to see that you are enslaved to them, and they make you miserable because you take them so seriously and believe it's your job to satisfy them all the time. The less seriously you take them — that is, the more you stop whining and get with the program — the less miserable you make yourself and those around you. You begin to taste the freedom that comes from not blindly following your own patterns and urges.

Maybe you discover that the burrito is not the dramatic culinary insult that you have made it out to be. It's just food, after all, and you could actually do something completely contrary to habit, like choose to eat the burrito anyway, without throwing a temper tantrum because it's not what you like. In doing so, you may even experience a faint glimmer of gratitude that, unlike so many other people in the world, you have a burrito to eat in the first place. What's that, you say? A burrito isn't what you wanted? So what? Who said life was supposed to give you everything you want all the time?

Choicelessness in Everyday Life
You don't have to go to the extremes of shaving your head and living like a monk or a nun to work with the practice of choicelessness. You can experiment with it in your everyday life. Take one small opportunity each day to notice when your ego is trying to manipulate a situation to get your way — and when you notice that, just see if you can drop it. If there's a discussion between you and your partner or your friends about what to do on a Friday night, make a conscious decision to drop your personal agenda and just do what they want to do instead. Watch your ego kicking and screaming like a brat as you eat the burrito. Eat it anyway. It's food. What's the big deal? Notice, afterwards, how your whole world did not, in fact, come crashing down as your ego predicted it would.

The spiritual path is about learning to recognize and peel away the layers of our individual ego — with all its demands and distortions, its likes and dislikes — in order to uncover the egoless, undifferentiated Being that is our true nature. As long as we are caught up in the lifelong momentum of trying to satisfy our ego's preferences and keep ego happy, it will be hard to make much progress at peeling away those layers. The practice of choicelessness is a tool that helps us, moment by moment, drop down through the onion, one layer at a time.

It's a lifelong practice, and I'm not sure that anybody really gets it perfect. But the more you can drop your mind's struggles to acquire what you like and push away what you dislike, the more possible it becomes to glimpse the truth and to find a more abiding form of contentment.

Seng-ts'an, one of the forefathers of Zen Buddhism, put it like this:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against. The struggle of what one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind.

You are cordially invited to get over yourself — starting right now.


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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Slay Your Own Dragons: Freeing Yourself from the Grip of Materialism

"We are living in a material world. And I am a material girl."

With that simple lyric, Madonna pretty much summed up modern society. But she was only pointing out the obvious: this is a world where materialism dominates. The phrase, "The one who dies with the most toys wins," is not just a sad joke but is actually many people's life philosophy. Madonna mocked materialism while simultaneously milking it all the way to the bank and becoming one of our society's wealthiest pop icons. Her song was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the materialism Madonna sang about goes much deeper than pop culture. It's rooted in the prevailing philosophical outlook of our times, which is scientific materialism. This outlook tells us, with a lot of very convincing studies and theories to back up the idea, that we are nothing but physical matter. Any experience of consciousness we have, whatever thoughts and emotions we feel, whatever inkling we have of some kind of spiritual dimension of our being, is only the byproduct of chemical reactions, material neurons firing in a material nervous system. Not surprisingly, this view encourages us to focus on maximizing our own material well-being and pleasure, since there is nothing else to live for.

This outlook tricks us into thinking that we can make ourselves permanently and securely happy if we just line up the right material circumstances. Get our bodies in shape, make lots of money, surround ourselves with nice things and pleasurable experiences, live in the right house and wear the right clothing and accessories, hang out with the right people and consume the right food and drink, get the right surgeries….the list could go on. And there is nothing wrong with having any of those things. But if we believe that material objects or experiences are the key to sustainable contentment, we are setting ourselves up for failure. No matter how much good stuff we have, as human beings we are wired to want more, and we are also wired to fear losing what we already have. We feel attached to our pretty things, but our pretty things don't last. Therefore, we suffer. "Mo' money, mo' problems," as another pop song wisely observes.

More Than Skin Deep
But materialism rules our minds and causes us to suffer in even deeper, more insidious ways—ways that are more subtle, harder to see. We also become attached to our ideas and points of view, and we harden them into ideologies that give us a more solid sense of identity and control over our lives. But our ideologies—our "isms"—end up putting us in a box, and anything that doesn't fit in our little box of ideas, anything we disagree with, becomes our enemy. Look at the front page of the newspaper and you can see where this leads us. Our world is locked in a maelstrom of warring ideologies and conflicting belief systems. And everyone thinks they are right.

For those of us attempting to walk on a spiritual path in life, there is a third kind of materialism—which is perhaps the most insidious kind of all. The pioneering Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa coined a term for this: he called it "spiritual materialism." We fall into the trap of spiritual materialism when we begin to use our spiritual practice to build up our ego—our spirituality becomes a project for building a bigger, better, happier, more secure "me."

Authentic spiritual practice, on the other hand, makes us less self-centered, less interested in making "me" happy and satisfying the demands of the ego—and more open and compassionate towards others. Genuine spirituality is actually rooted in having seen through the game of ego and the whole project of "me," and no longer quite believing in the stories that ego constantly tells about itself. From a Buddhist point of view, what we regard as "me"—the ego—is illusory, like a mirage. It appears to be there, but it's only a trick of perception. And it's as changeable and unreliable as the weather. We use the crutches of material comforts and ideologies and beliefs to prop up this illusory ego and convince ourselves that it's solid and real.

When Ego Hijacks the Spiritual Journey
Unfortunately, the ego can also hijack our spiritual practices and use them to further ensnare us in a web of illusions. We can become attached to religious forms and rituals—which are, after all, only tools—and confuse religion for spirituality. We can play dress-up and present ourselves to the world as a very "spiritual person," someone who floats through the room in white clothing and prayer beads, whispering words of wisdom while inwardly judging and looking down on others as being less "spiritual" than we are. We can get lost in the ego's craving for "bliss" and convince ourselves that our yoga and meditation practices should just make us feel good, and that everything is supposed to be "love and light" all the time. We can walk away from anything on the spiritual path that challenges us or makes our ego feel uncomfortable. If we take this easy way out, then we merely skim along on the surface of spiritual inquiry, never going beneath to discover the deeper and darker layers of our psyche—our shadow, our dark passengers—which also call for our attention and our care.

In the Gnostic gospels, Jesus warned: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

If we engage deeply enough and authentically enough with the spiritual path—regardless of which tradition we are practicing—we are bound to discover truths about reality that insult our ego. Even without a spiritual path, life itself is bound to deal us blows that humble us and bring pain. And by turning our attention within, we are bound to get in touch with aspects of ourselves that are unsavory and would be more comfortably left unexamined. Yet it is precisely these things that will set us free when we bring them into the light of compassionate awareness.

"Learning to look deeply to see into the true nature of things," wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, "having direct contact with reality and not just describing reality in terms of notions and concepts, is the practice."

The authentic spiritual path is not a walk in the woods. Or, rather, it is, but those woods are not all dappled sunlight and chirping birds and warm breezes. The woods that make up our lives also include dark and haunted passages, swampy bogs with poisonous airs where the unwanted, unseen parts of ourselves lurk like ghostly villains in a fairy tale. To live our lives fully, to awaken and have direct contact with reality and not just describe it in terms of our concepts, we must leave the comfortable, ivy-covered stone walls of our ego's protective castle and journey out into the uncharted and unknown reaches of our actual experience. The journeying may not all be pleasant. But wherever we go, whatever we find—it all belongs to us, and we must come to know it. It is the kingdom to which we are the heirs, and we must pass through every square inch of it, bogs and ghosts and all. We must go out and slay our own dragons. No one else can do it for us.

Or, we could just remain in our castle of materialism—bathed in luxury, our notions and concepts and ideologies unchallenged, floating on a blissful cloud of so-called spirituality—and pretend there isn't anything scary outside the walls of the castle. That's definitely an option. But for how long?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Top Five Regrets of the Dying

When my mother passed away in December, we were blessed to work with a knowledgeable and compassionate palliative care nurse named Kerry who helped to make my mother's transition easier. I was and continue to be in awe of the way that Kerry balanced the practical tasks of working with my mother's medical needs with the simple, loving way she could just be there with her and hold her hand and share stories and joke and laugh with her and honor her humanity.

Having now twice been through the experience of being present with another human being at the time of death, I consider the work that people like Kerry to do to be among the most important work that anyone could do. It is a vocation that, when practiced well, brings dignity and grace to one of life's most difficult and potentially frightening transitional moments.

When people like Kerry speak, I listen, because of the wisdom they have gained from their years of working with people in their final and most critical moments, when so many of the stark realities of life are stripped of pretenses and laid bare.

That is why I have so much respect for the observations of Bronnie Ware, who published a book in 2012 based on her years of experience as a palliative care nurse in Australia, called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. (The book is only $2.99 if you download on Kindle.)

Ware discovered through her many intimate conversations with people in the final stages of their lives that there were several common and recurring themes of regret. Below are the top five themes that she identified. If you were to find yourself, through some unforeseen circumstance, on your death bed in the near future, would any of these themes would ring a bell with you?

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

The great medieval Tibetan yogi and saint Milarepa said, "My religion is to live and die without regret." Death will come for all of us sooner or later; the problem is that we always think it will come later. If it were to come sooner than you think, would you feel any of these common regrets?

What are you doing today to make sure you don't feel that way when the time does come?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Alive in New York: Recent Photographs

I'm pleased to present a slideshow of some of my recent photographs taken in New York City. Enjoy, and feel free to repost and share with your friends. (Note to email subscribers: If you cannot view the slideshow in your email, please click through to the blog.)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Gabor Maté on "Toxic Culture: How Materialistic Society Makes Us Ill"

This incredible "Quote of the Day" post comes from an interview in the Toronto Standard with Dr. Gabor Maté, Nazi genocide survivor and bestselling author of Toxic Culture: How Materialistic Society Makes Us Ill.

Maté:  People have a need for meaning and for belonging. But this society defines the value of a human being by how much they can either produce or consume. For all our talk about human values, we don’t really value humans for who they are. We value them for what they either give or purchase.
In other cultures, elders are considered to be people with wisdom, with experience, with a contribution to make. In our society, we don’t talk about elders, we talk about ‘the elderly’ – in other words, we define them by their age. And once they’re no longer either producers or consumers, they lose their value. We know that the more isolated people are, the more likely they are to get sick and the more likely they are to die of their illness. This is a society that isolates people.

TS: Is there a way to be “in this world, but not of it," so to speak?

Maté:  The only way to live healthy in this culture is to be in it but not of it. And that means being able to see through a value structure that has materialism as its highest goal. By materialism, I mean that the control and possession of material goods are seen as the greatest obsessions. And the people that are seen as the highest achievers are the ones who acquire and wield more material control than other people do. To buy into that is to limit our human capacity, and therefore, to limit human health.

TS:  How can a person break through that?

Maté:  Does the person see the connection between their lack of joy or their depression or their mental illness or their alienation from work or life or nature – do they see it as a problem? If they don’t see it as a problem, then there’s no point of giving any type of advice.

More people are questioning; are we heading in the right direction? Do we hold the right set of values? Is it serving our physical and mental health? Is it serving our spiritual health? And by the way, that’s one of the failures of the medical system - is that it considers people only in physical terms. The fact that people have emotional needs is kind of recognized but the relationship of that to illness is not recognized. And the fact that we have spiritual needs? We don’t even talk about that.

TS:  Why do you think that is?

Maté:  Because the essence of capitalism is to reduce things to commodities. Or to reduce people to things that consume commodities. Everything else is secondary. So we have a lot of religion but very little spirituality.