Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rather than practicing, I recommend actual-ing

I had a great question come up at the all-day silent retreat that White Mountain Sangha offered this past weekend. I gave an answer that I think met the question of the moment, and I also left the retreat still pondering the question. Like I said, it's a good one, so here it is: what should I do for practice, how much should I meditate, and how often?

Start by recalling that this is the moment. This, this one is the one, with your sweatpants on and the laundry spilling out of the basket and nothing much in the fridge. There's nothing to practice for, you're already an expert at ... This. Stay with This. If you can follow This sincerely, kindly and passionately, it's enough. Breathe in ....This. Feel the texture of ...This. Hear the sound of ...This. Just This. Always This.

Now you're likely to notice how often, despite your long-cultivated expertise at being This, how very often you drift into a fantasy, a non-real realm, one that's better or worse, future or past of this moment. Notice how you jump 10 seconds ahead when someone's talking to you, notice that you're already bracing and gearing up your argument. You miss what is communicated in those 10 seconds. Notice how you begin to harangue and despise yourself for spilling the cereal, or forgetting the dry cleaning. You add an entirely unnecessary dramatic narrative during that time, taking you away from what's right here. Notice how you contract, turn away and escape from the kid in a bad mood in your kitchen. You just missed the window for compassion or clear reflection. Notice how you're having a blissfully good time, and then a thought comes along that reminds you that your best friend is still annoyed at you about something you said last week. You just brought in a character and event from the past, adding these to this moment for no apparent reason. Notice how you just wolfed down twice as many chips as you have any business eating. Now your stomach is upset. Notice how you sat on your foot for so long it went to sleep. Now you're going through the painful, prickly waking up phase.

Practice is designed to bring this constant habit of checking out, avoidance and covering over into conscious attention, so that you stop losing out on the vast majority of life. The purpose of "practice" is to consciously direct yourself to live the very moment-to-moment life you're receiving and experiencing. In meditation circles it is named practice, but really it's turning toward the real thing. It would be better named "actual-ing" rather than practicing!

By "actual-ling", you're cultivating a new habit to stay here, in the aliveness of the moment. It actually shouldn't feel like practice at all, more like a constantly refreshing curiosity or appreciation for what's here. Practice to me connotes rote repetition and getting better at a particular skill. (How dreadful and deadly sounding!) But this "skill" is so elementary and essential to you that there's no way to get better at it. What will happen is that with intention and attention, you'll invite more deeply and richly, fluidly, this living as aliveness. Still, it's clear that it's an activity aimed toward stripping away all of that unnecessary stuff you've been adding. And it's okay to call that activity practice.

How can you tell when aliveness is present for you? Notice yourself taking inordinate interest in the ordinary. Notice that food has flavor, that there's color in nature, that there's pain and pleasure in your body. These things have been there all along, and suddenly you experience them as if like new. Notice that even your thoughts become curiously interesting, and every kind of thought at that. How interesting, the places you go, the problems you create and inflate, the fictions you create. Notice how ordinary people and places become dear, that the whole thing feels like home.

Here's my full disclaimer: I meditate formally just about every day, and spontaneously pretty much constantly. I have found this to be essential to cultivating the habit of living my actual life. I also set time aside for all-day, weekend and weeklong retreats a few times a year. These periods are where I felt aliveness really wake up in me, at more profound and sustainable levels. There is something that centuries of contemplatives in all traditions have discovered about silence: when you deliberately structure some quiet for a time, it helps the system settle so you can see everything I've talked about here clearly. To me, it's invaluable.

I can't say what will work for you. You need to try some things, and see what is conducive to inviting you more and more into living in a truly alive way. I think it's possible for just about any activity to cultivate awakening, if pursued with focus, heart, curiosity and openness to infinite possibilities. Try some awareness practice of your own. I've got more to say about this, more toward inquiry. I'll save that for my next post. Have some fun with this for now.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is it okay for the other guy to win?

Two years ago, on the morning after election day, I was riding pretty high. It was the first time, since I had embarked on the pathless path, that the party I voted for had won big. What a high! There's nothing juicier than having your whole body and heart feed back feelings of happiness and joy. I gotta say, I enjoyed it all immensely.

A few days later, I was sitting with a group of people who, after some time in silence, were articulating their views about the future, based on the election's outcomes. Most were grateful and hopeful for a future where open hearts would prevail and fear would not be the driving force in the public arena. What came to me in those moments was something different. I felt connection with the "losers."

Let me be clear. This was not pity. Pity is that distorted sense that comes up, based on the belief that "I'm better off than you, I'm smarter or richer or saner than you. Poor you for not having what I have." Pity strengthens separation rather than dissolving it. Pity reinforces a Me that holds itself better than the Other. No, this was more like a view into the past and future at the same time. This was compassion, coming out of the certain knowledge that many times before, and soon enough again, I also have had and will have the role of "loser." And that along with losing comes concern for the future, and a sense of lost possibilities, exactly as I was hearing the losing party describe having in their situation.

Every time anyone runs for public office, they're working hard with a good chance that they'll come out the loser, with all the difficulty that entails. It's tough work, and I imagine heartbreaking when you find yourself having to walk away without the chance to make a difference, or being sent home without the satisfaction of finishing a job you started. Given all of that, at that moment, I took a vow to support every public servant who willingly placed themselves into the arena of battling for what they know to be best. That doesn't mean I stop speaking or roll over if bad choices are being made. It means I treat every candidate and office-holder with respect and dignity, and that I do so in thought as well as in word and action. It means that on the Day After, I send my best wishes and hopes to those going off to do the work. It also means that I vow not to cultivate fear, judgment or disdain toward anyone.

Flash forward two years, and here I am. The party that best represents how I'd like to see people supported and society structured is out. O-U-T, out. At least for now.

And I'm remembering my vow.

Is it okay with you if the other guy wins? Is it actually possible to know who should win, or what government should decide and implement? I can think of lots of actions over the years that I thought were all washed up, that turned out to have some merit. I can also think of lots of actions I favored that had strange, unwelcome consequences. And vice versa to all of that, of course. We live in a big, messy country, with all kinds of people having all kinds of high-minded and greedy intentions. This system we have keeps us lurching along, swinging left and right just enough to keep us all as honest as we can muster. It's obvious to everyone that it's not perfect or anything close to it. It's peopled by we imperfect beings, so it's a system that perfectly reflects our imperfection. It is exactly and precisely what it is.

I choose to keep my attitude clear. Do what I know to be correct, best I can tell. Deploy my life energy toward the best efforts I can locate. Recognize the vast amount of imperfection that I can't personally resolve. Rest in the knowing that it is all unfolding, lurching, and stumbling along the way it's gotta. It's a perfect mess. God bless it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happiness is a side effect... Let Freedom Ring!

It's got to be about freedom.

I was looking at this today. Specifically, I was bringing the best teachers ever to walk this earth to mind, and asking myself how they pointed out this way of living as awakeness. It's quite an activity, actually bringing to mind the superstars of wakefulness and comparing yourself to them. It's thrilling and inspiring, and also scary; it has the potential to sound cocky, even like you've gone right off the deep end. People have been ostracized and even killed for talking like I'm about to talk, for heaven's sake.

It's also a perfectly reasonable thing to do. If you bring to mind your own work on this earth, whatever that might be, isn't it a great idea to emulate the best and brightest? If you are an aspiring quarterback, wouldn't you benefit by studying Peyton Manning's methods, tactics, capabilities, and strengths? Not to become a blind imitation, but wouldn't you do so to determine how you might benefit by incorporating the best of what you see into your own unique way?

So bringing the best to mind, and pondering how they pulled off such spectacular teaching, I found the following:

The Buddha invited us to Be Awake. The name Buddha is nothing more or less than the Sanskrit term for The Awakened. He didn't call himself The Happiest or The Peacefulest. When he saw what he saw, he found himself so transformed that he felt it important to rename himself, and he called himself The Awakened. His description, and this is the best I've gathered from all the third generation reading I've done, admitting freely that I haven't studied the direct translations much; his description of the transformation was having been liberated from that conditioned belief in himself as one bound by the suffering inherent in this conditioned way of being. (What a Catch-22, eh?) For the Buddha, it's about freedom. Freedom accompanied by a big side order of happiness.

Jesus offered salvation. What do we need to be saved from? Can I put it in the following way?: We are saved from all the conditioned habits and patterns, labeled sin in most people's understanding and languaging of Christianity, that leave us feeling separate from the direct experience of the Divine, or the direct experience of God, in Jesus' language. How are we saved from all these? By forgiving ourselves and others of the painful conditioned habits and patterns we all share and instill in each other. Recognizing the depth and breadth, the pervasiveness, the universality of these conditions, and the fact that we're all co-creating the very system of it, forgiveness is almost moot. We are simply saved by the realization that since we're all in the same boat, nobody's any better or worse off than anybody else and let's just give up all this judging and self-recrimination. Let's all grant ourselves our own freedom, and in doing so we naturally and instantly grant everyone else the same. What happens when we stop judging ourselves and everyone else for all the stuff we literally can't help happening? There is a huge sigh of relief, and I mean HUGE. The first time I experienced it fully, I couldn't stop laughing at myself and the world, and this was in the middle of a silent retreat!

Let's look at an even more modern example: the Dalai Lama. Here's his Facebook post (yes, the Dalai Lama is on Facebook, and he wants to be your friend!) from September 23rd:

To be kind, honest and have positive thoughts; to forgive those who harm us and treat everyone as a friend; to help those who are suffering and never to consider ourselves superior to anyone else: even if this advice seems rather simplistic, make the effort of seeing whether by following it you can find greater happiness. 

Sure, the Dalai Lama most often speaks in ways that point to developing and supporting happiness for ourselves and others. Nevertheless, look closely at this quote. Isn't he saying that, to attain happiness, we need to give everyone their own autonomy and full worth? "Treat everyone as a friend" and "never to consider ourselves superior to anyone else," what are these but instructions to stop the attack and defense mode of living?

I say, announce the  universal surrender and liberation already and enjoy some peace, and yes, happiness that is not dependent on the vastly inferior and impermanent stuff you've been trained to believe in. Go after real freedom, and notice how much happiness comes along with the bargain. Seeking after happiness is a fine way to get started, but if it remains your only goal, you may have some hard falls in moments when it feels as though happiness is nowhere to be found. Freedom is always available. Granting yourself the freedom to be exactly who and what you are, even feeling not at all happy, this gives you a strange and paradoxical gift of being perfectly happy in your grief, or fear, judgment, whatever. (And just to reassure you, you'll find that the grief or fear or judgment doesn't tend to stick around very long, when you grant it true freedom to be. It only stays if you hang on to it or try to get rid of it. That's going back into that damnable Catch-22. Don't fall for it!)

Being perfectly free and happy while prideful or fearful, or joyful for that matter, being free in all conditions feels so open and fine that you stop needing to manipulate conditions around you to support that old habit of material-based happiness. So no more falsely manipulating people or possessions to find happiness. Imagine the energy you would free up for yourself if you retired from THAT job! Yes, you'll still interact with the world, still do whatever you do to eat and such. But you'll have freed yourself from the vast majority of the work you currently do. It turns out that it's really hard work, staying in judgment, scrabbling after and constructing possessions, conditions and relationships that you keep believing are the source of your happiness, even though they never, ever deliver in a lasting way.

Free yourself. Notice when you're experiencing limitation, and ask yourself if you can be free instead. You don't need to go anywhere else to be free. You don't need anybody or anything else to be different. You don't even need anyone else to be any more or less awake to their own freedom than they are right now. You just have to give yourself your freedom. Give everyone their freedom, to be as free or as confused as they are. Make freedom the top dog. Really give yourself and everyone else their freedom. It's infectious. Try it just even a little, and see what happens to your attitude, to what comes out of your mouth and where your feet take you. Try it and see. See if you awaken. See if you're saved. See if you feel the direct presence of God. See if you experience a form of happiness unlike any you've consciously felt before. And also, see if you start to act in ways that eliminate all the old questions about the right way and the wrong way.

This is the most important part. It's frankly the only thing that works. Try it and see for yourself. You know you want to!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is anything ever lost?

Here's an article I wrote that was picked up by the Concord Monitor today. This points to an episode of contraction, a moment of perceived loss. 

Wisdom says, open your arms wide and also tie up your camel. Heart says, try staying wide open and see what comes of it. And I just keep stumbling forward, noticing both views coming and going...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can you follow the shape of yourself?

Can you follow the shape of yourself?
Can you follow this shape, into a fiction we call the future?
There are ten thousand versions of me, all around,
each calling out my name.

This one points a finger at me, and shames me into stepping toward it.
That one is perplexed, not knowing a single thing.
Another is intrigued by the adventure of the moment, asking
What is it like, to follow a me?

There’s one who sobs in the corner, so you go there and find
a new you,
sometimes one that scoffs,
or commiserates,
othertimes pities,
or simply sits, attending to the grief.

What do I find, when I step into a shape?
What could you ever find, but a new mountain of roles and scripts,
pouring in through the mailslot?

There are ten thousand versions of me, all around,
and ten thousand versions of every other.
The stage traffic gets to seeming impossibly heavy.

It’s good to blink in and out, not clutching or avoiding,
And get cool with the rest just doing the same.
You and I, we’re trying out different us’s against each other,
Just trying out
until we settle, and expand, into the parts we love to play.

--Margaret Fletcher
(note: this is one in an occasional series I call Bad Poetry. I don't know anything official about Good Poetry, so I call it Bad Poetry for truth in advertising purposes. Enjoy.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quit working! I can show you how, call before midnight tonight!

(A note to readers: please make sure you have a relatively quiet space, and a good 15 uninterrupted minutes to read this. There is some homework baked into this post, so it's best to read this when you can give it your full attention. Thanks.)


You make the world. You make life, entirely, constantly. You can make this whole adventure called life into a constant struggle, a never-ending work project of unlimited scope, or you can live a life of ease. Which one sounds like what you want?

This is a serious question. Lots of people claim they would enjoy nothing better than to relax, smile, and enjoy life. These people would dearly love to stop arguing, railing, feeling annoyed, depressed, just to stop whatever version of overriding discomfort they're suffering from. And these same people are working very hard to maintain their own steady diet of work:  drama, conflict, self-righteousness, self-defeatism, self-improvement and/or just plain busy-ness to exhaustion.

What do you really want? Shakespeare tells us, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts."If you love the drama, the whole show, and you don't want to walk out from the great comic-tragedy role you are playing your life out as, then don't read on. However, if you know that you really want ease and joy, more than anything else, read on. Read on with an open, curious mind. If you read on, do so with the mind that senses potential for something radical, new and even miraculous.

Stop for a moment, right now, and consider the real possibility of something vastly transformative. Please take the time, lower your eyes, and call this forth for yourself, the possibility of not working one second longer than you already have...

And now notice the quality of this moment. How does your body feel, and your breath? What's present in your mind? When there's mystery and promise and pure potential present, what do you feel? Consider, never working again... Take another moment, really answer this for yourself ...

Now see if you can stay with that felt sense of possibility, and the quality of being that accompanies it, and keep reading...

So continuing... how is it that you are making all this work for yourself in the first place? You make the world, so you must make the work, every bit of it. This feels absolutely backwards to most people. The common perception is that the world is a big place someone or something else made, and that it's throwing all kinds of stuff (people, conditions, events) at you. Some of the stuff you like a lot, and lots of it you really can't stand. So with that as a foundation, the deal must be to work hard to get what you like, to work hard to avoid what you dislike, and maybe to find a few moments between the bouts of work where you can experience some peace and enjoyment. This is a system that most of us believe in and follow. We believe it so much that we don't even see it AS a belief system. It is THE WORLD. With this foundation, this widely accepted belief system, the world is made to be so, just like this, by all who accept and follow it. It's stronger than a religion, because we don't even see that we are subscribing to a belief system. There are so many people making this belief-world of constant work, in fact, that it seems ridiculous to question it. It seems deeply counter-intuitive, the idea that there could be another world, another dimension if you will, that doesn't ask you to live out your life as Sisyphus. You remember, that poor king in Greek mythology whose lot was to roll a heavy rock interminably up the same hill. He would get a little break every now and then to watch the rock roll down, then he'd have to trudge down and start pushing it up again. Does life feel like this to you? Do you notice that this heavy load is a constant, and that you're pushing it up hill with every major and minor annoyance and argument and egoic injury you sustain?

If you've read this far and you find yourself already scoffing or rejecting these ideas, you're done, and you could stop reading because you're back to work now. One of those Shakespearean dramas is now playing out, and you are working the role. It's probably a role you've played before, so you're very good at it, and it's difficult to step out of the role once you've identified with this strong character. You might be taking the role of the Undeserving One, or the Superior One, the Long-Suffering One or the Sick One, the Over-burdened One or the Skeptical One. For whatever character, there is a degree of work required. It's hard work to keep maintaining the character. For some of the characters, it may be enjoyable to play their scene out for a while. But their useful time never lasts very long, and then it's a pile of work because you want to keep them going when their scene and lines have truly run their course. For other roles, they're just outright unpleasant, but you have no idea how to climb out of the costume and exit the theater.  Or there are just the ones where you're lost entirely, don't have a clue what the script is, and what the other players are at or about. In any case, with any of this, the accustomed character keeps working the scene, on and on, until a new character takes over.

It's not a problem that this happens, by the way, getting lost in the role. It happens to everyone from time to time, myself included, and getting lost will last as long as it lasts. Whether over the short or long term, the role has to play itself out. In fact, paradoxically, the role itself is the means to seeing through all of the work. The role provides you with the means to become thoroughly tired by or simply to question the necessity of all the work the role demands.

To repeat, getting lost in the role is not a problem. It's an opportunity. You get lost in the demands of the role to find your way out of the demands of the role.

As you are considering that as a possibility,  if you are, just in the moment as you read this, is it possible to feel yourself directed back to that open, curious attitude? And pause?... Pause and notice what is present...  What's different, if anything?... In that movement away from scoffing or rejecting and toward openness and wondering, is there a noticeable shift?  And with the shift, is there a release of the constant work project?  Check this; lower your eyes again and investigate this. Notice your breath and the muscles in your body, and your attitude. Take your time...

If the answer is "yes, I sensed the shift and felt the change," you are now in the "other" world, the world where there is curiosity, openness, no struggling. As this shift occurred, you released the work of that moment. Here's how this happens. For instance, if you were reading and your reaction was to scoff, one of your characters, the Superior One, entered the stage. This role is hard work, demanding that you hold yourself better than others. There's even a sense of enjoying being the one who knows more than everybody else, even with the stiff back and gut, tense jaw, and the holier-than-though attitude that believes something like "I know how the world is, it is certainly not the way it's described here, and this writer is way off base." When your attitude moved away from identifying as better than, and back to curiosity, you released the work required to protect or defend the firm belief. With the release of that attitude and character, there is the release of the associated work, and then there is ease, an openness to all possibilities. In this openness, you open to the infinite universe of moments that are available to you. Can you sense, is this other place full of wonder and potential? Is there any work to being here? (and if your answer above was no, please notice what is still present in this customary world... are the body and mind tense, contracted, is the jaw tight, the face set? Do you discover somewhere the unnecessary work that is happening in the body and attitude? Now ask yourself if it needs to be this way. Repeat as necessary.)

Now please notice: with this shift, you didn't go anywhere physically different. You didn't undertake a project to fix yourself or to change any condition around you. You just asked the question, is it possible that the world is other than the way I have always thought it to be? And when you asked the question, without pushing anything away, the work of maintaining the Superior One naturally released, and you found yourself naturally in the world of curiosity, ease and openness. Simple, right now, right here.

This shift is a waking up, to the fact that you had been lost for a time, and to the sense that you no longer want to live that old life of hard work. (Bonus Tip #1: the waking up habit is helped along significantly by cultivating the human capacity for consciously attending to what's happening in each moment. In other words, meditate. Consciously set aside time daily to hone this skill. This invites more attending to what's happening, more curiosity, more awakening, more frequently, and therefore less life-as-work. You see? You can hone this skill in many ways, not just by sitting on a cushion, by the way. In whatever activity you choose, notice the moment-to-moment coming and going of the sense of difficulty, of "work," and notice the effect of asking if it needs to be hard work. Do this as a sincere training. Repeat as necessary, and notice the cumulative results over time.)

Okay, admittedly, maybe when you started reading this, you thought I was going to tell you that you don't have to get up in the morning any more and slog to the office, or the airport or garbage truck, or wherever your place of employment is. So if you feel cheated, by all means ask for your money back. But if it's been worth your time to read this, take this away with you: 

There is a different world, a new world with an entirely different foundation. It's right here on earth. It's right in front of your face. It is peopled with the very people you know, covered with the same roads and businesses and meadows and forests you know. In this world, ease is always available. It's available at your home and at your place of employment. It's available as you move into the repetitive, daily, necessary work of living, and it's available when you decide to toss off an old job that just doesn't fit anymore. This world's defining characteristic is ease. It accompanies all the joy, the tears, the expansive brightness and the peaceful smallness that naturally comes to everyone over the course of a human life. To live in this world, it's only necessary that you begin to experience it a little, and see that it is possible to live your life in ease, every moment. 

As you become familiar with this new world, you will also notice that there are ten thousand ways you leave this world each day to go back to the old work. However, it's not actually necessary for you to inventory and dismantle all ten thousand ways. You only need to experience the truth of this: if your life feels like work, right now, you only need to ask yourself if it has to be that way. Once you ask the question, if you've spent any time at all in the world of ease and joy, the answer will always be obvious. (Bonus Tip #2: once the answer is obvious, it will also be obvious if it's time to change something. Maybe slow down? Maybe stop doing what you're doing? Maybe do more of it, and dump the plan for doing another thing that you actually don't need to do but were worried about? Maybe take a break? Maybe spend more time with people who support your new sense of the world, and less time with those who only like the drama? Maybe ask for help if you sense assistance would usher you more efficiently into this world? Many options, no rules. Just try dancing with it!)

Remember, just ask, do you prefer to do all that work, or would you rather spend your days in the world of openness, curiosity, ease, and joy? 

With true curiosity and a willingness for any answer to be true, just ask: Does this need to be so hard?

What do you discover when you ask? What world do you gravitate toward? Does the play "play on," or are you willing to step off the old, accustomed stage and explore the spontaneous, the unknown?

There are literally infinite places to take this exploration from here. I'll say one more thing for now, which is that there are so many questions people have about how it's possible for life to continue responsibly in this new world. They are good questions, really important questions, and I'd be happy to look into them with you. And they are all questions coming from those inner characters who want to keep you pinned in the work world. Just so you know. Therefore, it's critical to look into them, otherwise they will keep you solidly planted in your 24 X 7 work detail.

Please enjoy exploring the truth of what's offered here, for yourself. And if you'd like to look into these things, together, please bring your questions to satsang. It's a place that always locates itself in the new world, so it's the right place to explore the questions. The schedule for White Mountain Sangha satsang meetings can be located at: http://whitemountainsangha.org/calendar.html

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

For Those Interested in Awakening

I write this to state as clearly as I can what is possible for those who want to live honestly, fully, in and as awakeness.

First, there are two conditions necessary. For one, you must know that you’re lost, at least somewhat lost. You must see that something is off, that something doesn’t add up, that there’s got to be a better way somehow to do “this,” (“this” being LIFE.) The other is that you must truly desire to remedy this situation, and the desire must be greater than the habit of living in this accustomed, seemingly safe, but actually often lost and uncomfortable way.

When these two conditions are present, you can wake up to a new way of living. You can see the value of living as your true self, your natural self, that which is not attached and confused by the habit of being lost. Once you experience living as your natural self, you are waking up.

You can experience awakening right now. Locate yourself in a relatively quiet place for a few minutes. Lower or close your eyes, and begin attending to the spaces that occur between thoughts arising in your mind. Don’t worry about the thoughts, what kind, the content, how charged, anything. Let thoughts be. Only continue attending to the spaces between thoughts. Attend in openness to the quality of being you experience when no thought is happening.

Experiencing the quiet between thoughts may be fleeting at first, just glimmers of space between the busy output of thinking that has been cultivated in you and that you habitually experience as yourself. This is not a problem. Relax and be willing to let the momentum of mind spin it’s energy out. Trust that the spaces are there now, and that your ability to attend to this quiet, to experience your natural self, will grow as you attend in this way.

Continue attending to your natural self. Move your attention gently in this direction as often as you sense the possibility, the invitation to do so. Over time you will observe that it’s possible to attend in this way not only sitting quietly by yourself, but also when you’re in company with others and even as you are involved in movement and conversation.

Along with attending to your natural self, you must become curious about how much you are still lost, how often, how long, how deeply. You must be willing to observe that instilled in you is a deeply held belief in yourself as a person who only knows being lost. And, you must be willing to question this belief, and remember the new experience of living as your natural self. You must remember the desire for, and the enjoyment of living in the relaxed openness that you have discovered. You must remember that the desire to live in this awakened way of being is greater than the habit to live in the old accustomed, uncomfortable way.

Evidence of living in the lost state includes experiences of fear, anger, self-judgment, frustration, greed, superiority, judgment of others, futility, depression, inferiority, jealousy, despondency, annoyance, worthlessness, and also includes the behaviors that come from acting out of these states. The defining characteristic of the lost state is discomfort, unsatisfactoriness, that old sense of something not being right. The reason it has always felt as though it’s not right is that, it’s really not right!  When these states are observed, please don’t make a problem of experiencing them as they continue to arise. They have a lifetime’s worth of momentum carrying them, so it takes time for them to spin out. Just as with allowing thoughts to arise without becoming caught up, you must allow these experiences to arise, be met fully, and pass away, without becoming caught in them. As experiences come and go, simply continue to attend to your natural self as often as the space arises to invite that. This is the way that the habit of being lost naturally, spontaneously falls away. Making a project to actively dismantle the habit of lostness only directs your attention toward the old ways, which is how the habit of lostness gained such power in the first place. Don’t succumb to this temptation! Simply notice having been lost, notice this without judgment, and redirect attention to the growing, ever-strengthening association with the natural self.

Judgment of yourself for not being “awake enough” or clear enough, or kind enough, or fill-in-the-blank anything enough, is evidence of living in the lost state. Judgment of others for not being “awake enough” is, equally, evidence of living in the lost state. Everyone is lost sometimes. We are all either living out some state of being lost, or we are living as the natural self available to each of us equally. When we are lost, we have no control of it. If a person could awaken in any given moment of being lost, they would and they do. Having experienced the movement between being lost and awakening, this is recognized about all others, and compassion arises. It’s painful to be lost. It’s like if you’ve experienced the pain of a certain illness. When you hear of someone else with that same illness, your heart just goes out to that person fully. When you are living as your natural self, seeing someone experiencing that condition of being lost that you yourself know so well, your heart just goes out.

As the awakening process continues, you will experience awakeness and the experience of feeling lost. As you continue to live out periods of feeling and acting lost, you must continue to cultivate the new habit to direct your attention toward living as your natural self. At any time as you experience the habit of being lost, this habit of believing yourself to be lost can be recognized. This is the perfect moment just as it is, without any reason to analyze or judge having been lost. It’s perfect because the recognizing is the waking up. Now you are awake, or better said, you are living as awakeness. You are living as the Awakened Presence that you are. There is no need to take any further action in terms of waking up. So you can relax.

Your natural self is Awakened Presence. You are Awakened Presence. There is no separation, no you that is different from Awakened Presence. You = Awakened Presence. This equation is equally and absolutely true for all beings. And as you more and more clearly associate with Awakened Presence, you know that each life around you is sharing in this Awakened Presence. All = You = Awakened Presence. When you are experiencing connection with another, this is Awakened Presence recognizing and enjoying Awakened Presence. This is profoundly delightful when known in its full context. It is impossible to overvalue this experience.
When you begin to live as Awakened Presence, you will start to feel the ever-shifting energies of that begin to move through you, through your life movements. Different life conditions call out different aspects of Awakened Presence to move through you. The names we give these energies are love, compassion, joy, kindness, connection, wisdom, generosity of spirit, clarity, humor, equanimity, peace. They are all natural facets of Awakened Presence. You have experienced these purely many times, so you can rest assured that you have lived spontaneously as Awakened Presence many times without understanding it in this way. Now the invitation is to live constantly as Awakened Presence, and to see that these energies are the ones associated with your natural state. You may also recognize what it feels like to try and “fake” any of these qualities. Forced kindness or peace is not natural and does not serve any good purpose. Better to become quiet instead and attend to what quality of the lost state is actually arising, so that it can be known, seen and allowed to spin out its’ momentum.

Awakened Presence knows what to do with whatever worldly conditions are calling for attention. Now let Awakened Presence guide action or non-action. There is no rule book about what to do, if this or if that. There is no need for commandments for Awakened Presence. If there is acting out of lost emotions, once this is seen from Awakened Presence there is knowledge on what to do to correct the direction. If there is lost action in others, Awakened Presence knows how to move to meet that with wisdom and an open heart. If there is any question, abide in the quiet of Awakened Presence, and follow your feet where they take you.

This term I am using, Awakened Presence, and all terms used here, are mine. They are relative to my experience, and therefore most meaningful to me. Find your own language for all of this. This will make it most meaningful, powerful and available to you.

To summarize! Three instructions:
·        -Attend to your natural self, Awakened Presence.
·        -If you are experiencing fear, disconnection, or emotional pain, you are temporarily lost. Notice this without judgment. That which notices without judgment is Awakened Presence. You are Awakened Presence. In the simple noticing, you return to your natural self. Direct your attention to your natural self, Awakened Presence.
·        -Enjoy yourself!

Please freely enjoy the unfolding of yourself as Awakened Presence, and that means enjoy all of it. Hold all experiences as precious in the unfolding process. When you are waking up from an episode of being lost, sense the gratitude in now knowing another aspect of the old habit that can be seen, and thus allowed to naturally unwind. When you are enjoying life as the many facets of Awakened Presence, sense the gratitude in receiving the gift of such a life. It is all precious and deserving of your reverence and delight.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Last bow to a great teacher

Last Friday, after a short battle with cancer, my cat Plink died. Our family, minus Boston-based daughter Laura, accompanied him to the veterinarian's and stayed with him as the vet administered a lethal dose of  anesthetic. Plink had stopped eating and drinking, and we knew the rest of his potential time would consist only of suffering it out to the end, so we made the decision for him to avoid all of that. He was brave and sweet and clear to the end.

Plink was the most dedicated member of my local sangha, here at home; above is a picture of him on my meditation cushion. When I sat, he sat. He also sat a lot without me. He did not need me in that regard.

Plink was a great cat master, embodying his true nature without attachment, aversion, pride, humiliation, or concern for past or future. When he was hungry, he ate. When he was cold, he found a lap. When he was done with you, he walked away without a backward glance. When he was in need of exercise, he took himself for a walk. When he was playful, he'd tussle with you, but never really use his claws. When he was affectionate, he'd rub himself on your leg, meet eyes with you, and bump up against you again. When he was without need for activity, he sat with eyes at 3/4 mast, ready to move if called to move, otherwise still and at ease, in deep cat-samadhi. Most of all, when he was tired, he slept. A lot! He was a cat, after all. It's one of their highest powers, to rest deeply. Throughout his life, Plink conducted himself as a cat perfectly at all times. He gets an A+ from me for his essential catness.

I bow to Plink's embodiment of a life lived beyond the bonds of craving and aversion. I learned a great deal by watching his example, and hold it as an ideal to live the life of grace and ease that he enjoyed.

I was blessed to share this cat's life. There's a part of me that misses him, and grieves his departure. And there's the concurrent knowledge that nothing separate really came or departed with the appearance and dissolution of this furry, house-dwelling creature we called Plink. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Long live Plink. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The secret truths about floor wax

Funny things can happen to you on a silent retreat. For instance, you can end up talking with your teacher, in complete sincerity, about floor wax.

At White Mountain Sangha, we try and have at least two silent intensives or retreats each year. This is time for sangha friends to explore truth in a supported, structured environment that encourages clear seeing of what is. All the normal life stuff happens on retreat. Joy. Boredom. Grief. Annoyance. Laughter. Anger. Fatigue. It all happens, only maybe more so. What is it like to refrain from speaking and socializing, yet to agree to come together to support each other's inquiry and unfolding into the truth of this life? I can't really answer that because it's different for each retreat and each individual. What I can say is that retreat has been essential for me, irreplaceable, and also sweet and dear.

The first retreat I sat was also the first retreat I managed. Hah! That's usually the way with me: I want it, I go get it! My teacher, Norman Scrimshaw, had been teaching here in NH for just a few months, and I was already bugging him for a retreat. He told me, if you want a retreat, somebody needs to run it. So I volunteered. It was a lot of work, organizing housing and food, taking registrations and answering questions. Never mind actually finding participants! But somehow we said it would all work out, and it did.

Now about the floor wax: we were housed in a family residence near Norman's house that was mid-way through a restoration. As retreat manager, I was responsible for replying to any emergency notes that people left. On our silent retreats, we agree to refrain from speaking and only pass along notes that are highly necessary. And I had received an "emergency" note regarding what kind of product one of the retreatants should use on the newly refurbished wood floor. Now I was also charged, as retreat manager,  with checking in with Norman at the end of each day to report any issues, concerns with the retreatants, etc. So that night, in my precious interview with the teacher, I asked about, you guessed it, floor wax. Norman was gracious, gave me the lowdown on what to use, and that was that.

And the next morning, suddenly out of nowhere, came the replay of this comically serious retreat interchange. It was then necessary for the retreat manager to lose it entirely on the back porch of the retreat lodge, laughing until tears rolled down my cheeks, tailing off and then starting all over again. I was fairly well gone with hilarity for about 15 minutes. My husband came to check on me, to make sure I didn't need to get shipped off for observation. And the gift of this: I have not been able to take myself perfectly seriously almost ever again since that moment. What a treasure!

White Mountain Sangha will be offering a weekend retreat late this fall. Why not consider coming, to laugh or cry, to walk and eat and relax with absolutely no agenda, to sit still and see what happens?

I hope to see you there. Don't forget to admire the shiny floors.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Attention dilution disorder

It’s an interesting dilemma, seeing both the power and the risk inherent in today’s vast array of attention-drawing technologies.  Columnist Ruth Marcus recently diagnosed herself in my local paper, the Concord Monitor, as having a “bad case of the shallows,” in a June 9th column headlined as Cyberspace Dunderheads. She tells us that’s actually the title of Nicholas Carr’s new book on the impact of modern communication technologies on the brain. I still need to check out the book, but the concept is familiar. You know that habit you may have, as you work at your computer, that causes you to just skate over information, constantly clicking to the next link to scan, and then move on? Never really landing and immersing? Maybe even noticing this bleeding into time away from the screen, say when you arrive home, now away from your work screen. Maybe you spend a little time glancing at the mail, not really tending to it before this little chore or that amusement draws you here, and then there, and now over here... Does anyone else recognize themselves in this dilemma? I found myself right there with Marcus.

Fortunately, there’s another technology that’s been developed to counter this malady. It’s called mindfulness, or meditation, and it’s been in development for centuries. It’s nice to know it’s been around that long: at least we can feel a little less disadvantaged, realizing that the challenge of cultivating control over attention is not new to these times. With this age-old technology, we use the most sophisticated and flexible hardware/software gadget we have, the body/mind, and we work with its’ capabilities to develop awareness.

Are you willing to see your mind, the neural network that includes your brain and all the neurology that runs through every part of the body, as a technology? Meditators do see it this way, and they work with their own hardware/software gadget to develop their attentional capacity and skills. I am such a practitioner. We meditators go to all this trouble in order to live out the quality of life we choose for ourselves, rather than having external forces like Blackberries and Facebook unconsciously drive our experience. The basic premise of mindfulness is that attention can be trained, that we can train ourselves to take in the facts of the present moment and work with these facts skillfully. When we are able to attend to present moment experience in this way, we can benefit by a number of valuable effects of this practice. We are able to make better choices about how to use our time, we become better able to interact with ourselves and the world effectively and kindly, and we can learn how to take care of the things that need taking care of right way, rather than allowing them to accumulate into bigger problems later on.

How is it that just paying attention to present moment experience makes all of this possible? Look at the challenge mentioned by Ruth Marcus. She describes the way she is now using computer and communication technologies to do her job. She talks about “spending hours skittering across the virtual surface of the web,” which prevents her from focusing properly on any one presentation of information. She even points us to studies and to Carr’s book (which I have not read but certainly plan to), which explain how this type of interaction with technology is teaching our brains to feel this as normal.

From personal experience, I know exactly what she’s talking about. In the most recent corporate setting I worked in, most of the communication happened via e-mail, even though 95% of the conversations were taking place between people who work on the same floor. As an established meditator, what this experience showed me is how anxious-making this is. Trying to attend to multiple e-mail “conversations” to discern attitude, issues, level of severity, to glean what was important to me from the vast amount of chaff, this was subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly exhausting. Someone who practices present moment awareness is able to know the body tension, shortness of breath and the emotional discomfort that this kind of multi-tasking promotes, just as it’s happening. In fact, I’ve decided that multi-tasking is a harmful myth, at least for most people at today's work pace. You really can’t hold multiple tasks and conversations simultaneously in awareness. What you can do is give only a chopped up, partial, sub-standard version of your attentional capacity to each thing as you briefly turn to it. Does this sound like a way to work effectively? What I found in the situation I describe above was that is was tiring and ineffective, and having really seen this, I took some steps with my team to bring about better ways to share information and update each other.

I’d like to suggest that if you relate to this issue, you begin by turning your attention to this question: Is it valuable for me to cultivate attention so that I can place it fully where it is needed in any given moment, and thereby respond to each moment the best possible way? If you sense the answer is yes, I recommend that you move your attention now toward taking action to develop your own awareness in the direction you would like to see it go, rather than allowing today’s external technology to do that for you. Happy meditating!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Look, Ma, I can do this with one arm tied behind my back!

Have you ever heard of frozen shoulder? This is not some new, chic cut of beef at your local chophouse, folks. I currently have roughly 30% of normal range of motion in my left shoulder. And as a once-per-week yoga teacher (meaning, not professional, but still very much engaged with teaching and practicing) this can really get in the way. Forget demonstrating a pose with arms out to the sides, what about even the business of working to find a comfortable position to sleep, or strongly regretting reaching up mindlessly to attempt to put a pony tail in my hair. Ouch!

Okay, so this is not all that tough, honestly. I've been through childbirth, breast cancer and reconstructive surgery, not to mention some long drawn-out periods of outrage and remorse before. Like every other human on this planet, I have some experience with difficulty. With this, the worst I can say is that it's a constant vigilance to remember that I'm not at 100% on that side, or else dealing with the immediate reminder of pain that comes when I twist through a doorway a little too quickly, say. And in the long run, I feel I'm at peace with the fact that there's likely to be some pain and loss of function sometime between now and when I finally shuffle off this planet. I can even say that as one of the long list of side benefits of a meditation practice, I have become something of a connoisseur of discomfort. It's the only way to really look at and gain insight into this aspect of life, the suffering part, you know? What is this sensation? Burning, throbbing, pressure, tingling, etc.? Is it static or changeable? Unpleasant or simply intense?

What inquiry really comes down to is, what attitude arises relative to the discomfort? I've mentioned that the physical discomfort thing is just fine right now, for however long or short, and intense or light, that it needs to be. But what about the discomfort of having your capability taken away? What is it like to be a yoga teacher who is limping around the studio with one broken wing?

One answer, a real temptation, is to go into pity mode. Why me? When will this ever be resolved? And worse, how can I practice or teach without my down dog pose (you maybe know this one, hands and feet on the floor, butt up in the air, like a two-sided human tent)? Then there's the pride option: I'm going to look pretty strange, hobbling between my mat and the wall of the studio, trying to keep up and failing any appearance of that. There are also the temptations of anxiety, depression, resignation, denial, annoyance, frustration, sloth; there's a multitude of lousy places to take this, right? Some of these have attempted a visit as well, trust me.

Today I was at my beloved Thursday morning yoga class with Jeanne Ann Whittington. Jeanne Ann, ever generous, had agreed to focus this class, at my request, on shoulder function and alignment. As an acupuncturist, Chinese medicine practitioner and super-alignment Anusara yoga teacher, Jeanne Ann is an expert in my book at helping one work wisely with such a shoulder disability. So here I was, facing a movement class designed at my specific request, with a choice. Do I skip the class? The shoulder's been hurting more in the last few days, and I certainly know I need to protect it from damage. But I also know that it's possible to stay very present to sensation and actually learn a lot by working through the physical experience of this shoulder moving in its limited range. And I prefer if at all possible to keep the rest of my body awake, open and strong. So I went for it. And if you'd been a fly on the wall, it would have looked pretty strange, this asymmetrical, floppy arm, half-there series of movements I followed.

But here's what was cool: this practice became very clear because I had no idea what I could do. You know what that is: It's beginner mind! I had a million questions to work through...How can I move this? Can I do this pose at all? What does it feel like? Where is the edge between comfortable work and painful striving? How does it feel to crumble on the mat and give up when you'd normally be flowing through the thick of it? What can I do here, and what can I gracefully (maybe, I'm ever hopeful)  surrender to not having, today? Everything was new today on my mat. What a gift!

There came a point when I remembered that this is always life, and will be until my last breath. There's arising and passing away of strength, of mobility, of physical capability. I had a view of myself in my last day on earth, breathing. I pictured myself saying, what do I have here? Okay, got breath, nothing else anymore. So how is this breath? Is it as full as possible, right now? How about this one? Not really with all these words, but just tasting, exploring and maybe even enjoying the experience of still being priveleged to breathe, whether quietly, or labored or panicky.

So don't worry about me, or my shoulder, or anything. Because I won't. It's all an adventure, seeing what I've got today and doing the best I can with that. And how about you? What can you do, right now?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hey, slow down, pal!

I was driving on one of the main streets in my hometown of Concord recently, behind one of those phantom-driver cars. You know the ones I’m talking about? There is no apparent driver, at least that you can see from behind, just a normal-height headrest with nothing sticking up over.

This phantom was driving super slowly and hesitating at every intersection even though we had the right-of-way at each one. The reason I bring this up is more in reference to the guy who was behind the phantom for a while and in front of me. This pickup driver was in some kind of hurry. It was important to him that he weave back and forth, right on the butt end of the slow car. Eventually the slow car pulled over for a bit, and the pickup gunned his engine and sped by. Then I filled in and proceeded behind the stately paced phantom driver.

We are all in such a big hurry. I have to admit, I also had to do a little deep breathing to keep peaceful pace behind the 15 mph-below-the-speed-limit person. My guess is that the driver was searching for an address, or just really cautious behind the wheel these days. This gave me a valuable opportunity to slow down and notice what impatience feels like. Strange, too, because I did not have any deadline that I was about to blow, so there was no concern about inconveniencing another person, or missing the plane to my daughter’s wedding, or anything like that. Just driving more slowly than I’m used to on that road, feeling my chest and throat stiffen up and my gut buzz most unpleasantly. Then, right following this curious attention toward impatience came blessed release from most of the tight buzz. Breathe...right, there’s no rush... settle back. How wonderful!

I actually used to be that pickup truck guy, not too many years ago. I can remember this one incident, standing in line at the sandwich counter in the building where I worked. The deli worker had the audacity to pick up the phone and take an order while she was waiting on me at the counter. She scribbled the other order down, asked a few questions for clarity’s sake, and then hung up and came back to me. Where is the justice, I fumed, the sense of first-come-first-served? Is my time not important? Was I not standing at the counter, in the flesh, rather than calling from a remote office? I remember going into full-blown retail fury mode, giving this person a piece of my mind about proper queuing protocol for customer service optimization, or some such annoying blather. I’m sure this was extremely instructive for this person, what with the orders piling up and people still waiting in line behind me. Not!

Time is a funny phenomenon. When we firmly believe that there’s a finite amount of it, we horde it and get real worked up if someone tries to steal some of ours. Like that deli lady “did” to me. What if there’s actually all the time in the world for everything to happen perfectly? I think about all the times I’ve been so worked up in a hurry, and then actually been truly late for whatever I was racing to. I can’t think of a single time where anybody died, any relationship was rattled for more than 10 minutes, or there was any meaningful deterioration to any aspect of my life. Further, for those times when there has been a true emergency, the resources were fully there to move like lightning, to take care of what needed attending, and to accept what the outcome eventually was, for good or ill. And even more magically, all of that happened without any reference to time, and whether there was enough of it. Granted, I’m not an emergency response professional, but I have to guess that these people must somehow come to grips with the fact that they’re giving their all, using the time, skills and resources available, and that whatever happens comes from their best efforts and is therefore the best outcome possible.

In the deli situation, everything was also happening perfectly. I was perfectly invited to contact some patience with and compassion for a service worker in a tough situation. (As it happened, I missed that invitation. No problem, I’ve had many, many similar invitations over the years, the perfect amount in fact. I’m hearing them nowadays pretty consistently, thank you very much for asking.) And yeah, the deli worker was invited to listen beyond my irate tone and actually consider whether there might be an adjustment to the first-in-first-out process that could keep everyone feeling respected. And I did get my sandwich, and so, I presume, did the person on the phone. And there was exactly enough time for all of this to happen perfectly.

So stop racing around in a dither like you’re running out of time. Take a breath. Give the driver in front of you two car lengths. You might actually find the chance to notice that there’s a lot to enjoy when you stop racing past it all. Check this out for yourself, and let me know what you discover.

Friday, April 30, 2010


What is it about getting together with people that makes things more powerful than doing stuff by yourself?

I'd love to explore this question with a few really experienced groups who could help me go deeply into this question, and I think the first group I'd like to talk to today are the Goldman Sachs executives. Now there's a group of people who together made a tremendous impact, that, by themselves they may never have dared to attempt. I speak of course of the recent exposure of GS's successful intention to structure financial investments that had the primary purpose of making money for the executives. (This as opposed to what I believe their publicly stated purpose was, that of structuring financial investments that offered the investors a means to make a reasonable, profitable return in the market.) Now what is it that's in play with something like this Goldman Sachs revelation, that makes bigger things happen than the sum of the parts?

I'm titling this entry Sangha, which is a word I borrow from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists use this term to refer to the third element of the three foundational components, or "jewels" of their worldview. The first in this trinity is Buddha, or in my way of thinking, the Truth, the essence of everything, beyond words or images, what permeates and binds it all together. The second, the Dharma, is the law, the teaching or way of it, how we experience this unseeable truth. The third, Sangha, refers to the community that comes together around this Truth and supports the teaching and seeing and living out of it. So Buddhists, like most other gatherings in fellowship, see the community as equally important to the truth itself and the expression of it before our eyes. There's something about "whenever two or more of you are gathered" in the name of X that amps up the energy. We feel it, we feel supported and sustained by it, we learn from it. And if it's too rich for our blood, we'll even be driven out by it. But what is it?

There are as many examples of this sangha effect as there are interests and directions we go in. Anyone who has found success with a twelve-step group can tell you about the sangha effect. Political parties with a clear core principle know about this. Every successful business has leveraged the ability of a collection of people to come together and brainstorm, collaborate and invent something bigger and better than what existed in any of their heads independently. Which brings me back to Goldman Sachs. I can't begin to understand or explain what the heck they invented, but I do know that it was bigger, more complex, and wildly successful relative to their true goal, that intention to make the groupthink inventors involved an obscene pile of money while the making was good. I think it can't be helped. When you invite a bunch of the brightest and most money-oriented people in the country, maybe the world, to get together to run something, they will place their own monetary success as their highest intention, and they will build the business to serve that. I mean, what good is a big pile of money if it's not yours? This doesn't mean it has to all take the short route to hell in a handbasket. The long and selfish view says that you structure products somewhat reasonably, to keep the customers around and thus the money rolling into the executives pockets for a long, long time. The Goldman Sachs guys got caught going after too much too fast in a season of steep peaks and valleys. But this is beside my point. It was the deeply shared highest intention that they fostered and grew together that made it all get so big.

And this brings me to the main driver of the value of sangha, for good or ill. Whatever the true intention of a group is, if it's deeply held and felt, will be exponentially enhanced with the addition of each person who shares the intention and joins the effort. What you want, if you place your highest intention toward this, will be given in spades when you join your energy in that direction with the energy of others. The more purely each of you desires this, the more powerful the effect for all. I think there's a best-selling book about this: The Power of Intention. I haven't read it, but I'll guess that there's something in there about coming together with others to underscore and support the successful achievement of your intentions.

This all feels like an interesting description of the effects of intentional community, but what's at play really? The best way I can think to describe it is in-tunement. My husband is a musician, and he has described to me how stringed instruments will produce "fatter" sounds when they are well-tuned to each other. There are more overtones created when the strings are all vibrating in a super-complimentary fashion, which create a much richer sound effect. And so it is with any effort. When there is heartfelt agreement on a direction, when there is very clear alignment among individuals, then there is a richer experience, a "fatter" vibration.

I was talking to a friend recently about all of this, particularly about what happens to this power when you're away from the group. This may be familiar to you, this sense that you can absolutely feel what's powerful and shared and even feel the courage and strength to move in a new direction when you're with the group. And then, when you're back in your "regular" life, the sense of empowerment goes away. Actually, let's hope the Goldman Sachs guys were experiencing this sense of loss in the dark hours of some mornings, wondering if it was a good goal to align themselves with, this goal of slurping up as much money as possible, knowing full well that there has to be a loser for every winner in the money game.

Thinking back to the in-tunement concept, two things. First, there's the question of highest intention. I might have a strong pull in a given direction, but if there's any roughly equal force that runs counter to that desire, I'm going to have to work through the battle of these forces settling out a winner. I'll have to see clearly what the opposing forces are within me, and I'll have to work through what I really, truly want as my heart's deepest desire. And in the meantime, no matter how strong the group energy is, no matter how much it's supporting my own intention, when I'm alone, that battle will still need to ensue until the last man is standing. Secondly, in my experience with this, it can take some time for  intention to demonstrate its permanence. I've been pumped up about this and that over the course of my life for short periods, but many times once I was away from the group energy of it, the excitement faded. Turns out whatever it was, I didn't want it that bad.

I don't mean to sully the term sangha here with so much base comparison to political parties and Wall Street shenanigans. Sangha is that gathering of people who have located the highest intention of all hearts, to live as truth. For me, sangha is the sweet, sweet gathering of those whose highest intention is aligned to the highest expression of life, known and expressed in each moment. This is an unavoidably enriching and deep learning community, those who come together to learn how to "love well." This is the last instruction always given as we're released from silent retreat with Open Gate Sangha, one of the communities I sit with as often as I possibly can. The teacher for this group, Adyashanti, gives us this final teaching each time and advises us to live it out to our final breath, since there's no end to the exploration of that instruction. Love well!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Art of Allowing

I was talking recently to an organizer for a weekend retreat called The Art of Allowing. Her group describes itself as "a grassroots organization of conscious souls, raising awareness of the many dimensions of healing." Her name is Kim Grace, and she invited me to comment on their retreat theme, the "art of allowing." I don't know about you, but anyone with the last name of Grace who asks me to do something, I do it!

Generally, I profess to be in the Truth business. Sometimes I tell people my business is Happiness, Sales and Service. But you could just as well say that I'm in the Art and Science of Allowing business.

If I'm called to give the basic elevator speech regarding the Truth business, I might say that it involves the following basic way: see, know, live. Or to give it a little more detail, observe without judgment, connect with what is true and move accordingly. To do this well requires the commitment and focus of a scientist as well as the openness and spontaneity of an artist.

I can surely understand why the retreat organizers may have avoided using the word "science" in their retreat title. Nevertheless, I don't want to fail to mention the importance of focused, clear observation. Think about a naturalist, pursuing an exotic bird deep in the forest. There is an unwavering, one-pointed intention toward looking for the signs, the glimmers of the rare creature.  There is curiosity, and an exploration of a hypothesis with no demand for a particular result. Where will I find this bird? How will it appear? It takes a committed, patient, relaxed presence to not scare the bird into flight or hiding. Just so, in the exploration of truth, discovering a kind of organic discipline toward intentional, curious yet also relaxed observation of yourself and the world gives you the best chance for truth to unveil its' wisdom. In other words, the practice of meditation.

Then comes the art part, and it's this that really makes the truth business sing.  I have a painter friend who likes the term "seeing with artists' eyes." Along with the scientific focus and curiosity, in mindfulness one also cultivates flexibility, an openness and an accepting quality in this way of seeing and being. When you've worked with meditation as a practice, when you've inquired into the possibility of seeing life curiously, without judgment, then the art of the thing takes over. And this is the life of meditation. Now it's no longer a practice, but a way of being that is open, accepting, allowing. Every moment holds the possibility of, who knows what?! What a delicious question to explore!

Once, on a retreat I was on at Garrison Institute in New York, I had a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime moment that brought these elements together. When I practice silence for an extended period of time, such as during this retreat, I really get a chance to immerse myself in seeing what arises, in the conditions around me and in what that stimulates in me. The moment I'm thinking of was during a typical walk in the woods surrounding the beautiful monastery-turned-retreat center. By this time in the retreat, I had enjoyed a few days of setting aside the usual distractions of talking, socializing, attending to family and job, taking in the news and the neighbors.  From this kind of simplification often comes a deep inner quiet; such was the case on this day. It was mid-morning, and the sun was streaming in through the trees, strong in a few places but mostly dappled or shaded. I was strolling with no particular destination, no task to attend to, and knowing a bell would call me in for the next silent sitting, no particular sense of time passing. My senses were wide open, and relaxed. And I just happened to glance down and see the most spectacular rendition of Indra's Net I could imagine.

Indra's Net is an image from Indian scripture that describes a beautiful, infinitely large net with a jewel at each intersection of the net's strands. Enclosed in each jewel is the entirety of the cosmos, a sort of ancient hologram. This image speaks to the interpenetration of all beings and events across space and time. That's a very big idea for me to attempt to grasp intellectually.

Considering such a concept within the space of silence is an entirely different experience.

There must have been mention of Indra's net at some point during this retreat. As I strolled along, my glance happened down toward the forest floor, and there I saw a spherical spider web. This web was a complex three-dimensional orb. Drops of morning dew clung to each of the hundreds of intersections in this web. And as luck would have it, for just the minute or so that I happened by, there was enough moisture on the web and just the right angle of sunlight to present me with a thousand, thousand rainbows. I stood, taking in the web, and registering what it evoked in me. I was awestruck, then in tears for the beauty of this natural masterpiece, and the cosmic image it evoked for me. All the colors of the world were contained in each tiny drop, blazing out. I rocked back and forth gently, to see the play in the range of colors. This was more spectacular than any opera chandelier, just indescribable. What a show! In this moment, Indra's Net was perfectly clear and known.

It was only through open-hearted eyes cultivated through spacious, accepting attention that gave this gift to me. Being with exactly what presents itself, receiving sensation and understanding without resistance or judgment, and then moving in the direction toward which the heart is drawn. This is the art of allowing. And it can be consciously cultivated, through the practice of witnessing presence. Welcome to a life of meditation.


If you're interested, please learn more about the upcoming Art of Allowing retreat at :


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Cure for Common Confusion

You know how people are always talking about how great it would be if someone came up with a cure for the common cold? Well, I want to suggest something even better: the cure for common confusion.

Confusion is the term I use to describe the root cause behind what most people call angst, sin, violence, suffering, garden variety meanness, all the different causes and effects of suffering. The vast majority of people are living an unconsciously confused life. We're so deeply and consistently confused that we don't have any idea that anyone is at all confused, least of all ourselves. So since most of us are not aware of this confused state, we continue to perpetuate it on and for ourselves and others, and thus we continue to perpetuate all the various resulting violences, both big and small.

By the way, I think it was Brad Warner, a terrific writer and Zen priest, who suggested the term "confusion" to me, so I want to thank and acknowledge him now. Thanks, Brad!

To start, how can you detect whether you're living in this confused state? This one's fairly easy. If you are resisting what is right in front of your face, you're confused. You can tell if you are in resistance a few different ways. For one, there's some kind of mental complaint. There's a sense of something being not right, whether you want something you don't have, or you have something you don't want, or you have something you want and you need it to stay longer than it's likely to stay, or you want something to stay away but you know deep down it'll be back. Secondly, your body tightens up somewhere, whether you're aware of it or not. There may be muscular tension, or digestive distress, or constricted breathing. One way or another, you're suffering physically and it's not from an external injury or illness. Finally, you are emotionally uncomfortable in some way. This could manifest as boredom, rage, annoyance, depression, frustration, fear, bitterness, disdain, etc. These are all symptoms of confusion. Notice that some degree of unnecessary discomfort is the common element. Confusion equals suffering, not meaning physical pain, which is something one way or another we'll all share in during our lifetimes. It's the extra we add onto the physical pain, or create fresh if there's no external source of physical discomfort.

Here's an example from my day: I brought my 8-year-old to Border's to pick up the next installment of her favorite pre-teen book series, Warriors. This is about fierce cats with clans and drama and battles and all that good stuff. Unfortunately for her, they did not have the book she needed in stock. This fact brought out a very loud and belligerent tirade from her in the middle of the store. So there we are. My choices are: A) fight this behavior, which is, I stipulate to, not optimal or preferred by me, or B) work with the facts of the moment. I was fortunate and found the ability to work with it, which consisted of stopping and drinking in the facts of an annoyed kid in a big store, and then following her outside to hang out for a minute while she vented her frustration and then listened to some options I came up with. And within about two minutes, she had worked her way around to a peaceful alternative, which involved going back into the store to explore whether there might be another book series she'd like to try.  A common confusion reaction to the outraged 8-year-old might have been to grimace, roll eyes, march her out, or launch into the shame lecture, all the while asking what I had done to deserve such a moment. But like I said, I've looked at this confusion thing hard enough so that I was able to stay open to the facts.

I refer to this as common confusion, but common insanity would be another way to put it. Not the deep pathological kind of insanity that we all recognize requires medical intervention, but the kind all of us  confused people suffer from. It's insanity to believe that this moment should be any other way than exactly how it is right now. If this itself sounds confusing to you, for just a moment, set aside the debate that instantly begins to form, about how you have to want things to be different in order to improve the world. Set that aside just for a bit, and think about whether it's possible to change exactly what is in front of you at this precise moment.

Is it possible that the following statement is ultimately and permanently true:       It is what it is.    

Did you agree that you can't change this precise moment? If not, you can choose whether to stop reading this and get on with your day, or consider whether you'd like to wake up from confusion and thus being in suffering so much of the time.

If you've continued to read, think about this. Of course it's possible to act to change things. One acts to bring about positive change, which results, of course, in a new moment. And perhaps as a result of your action, things turn out a little better. Wonderful! And what if things turned out not as you planned? Do you resist that outcome and suffer? Or would you rather see this new moment fully, perhaps even see something more wonderful or interesting than what you could have planned? Can you see the potential of this new moment, ready to see what actions you bring to the new world that is this moment?

Like standing for a moment in the middle of Borders with a kid railing loudly enough to warrant a compassionate smirk from a guy at least 25 feet away. I had a nice moment with that guy. Which likely helped me maintain my balance and access some compassion for the state of disappointment my kid was experiencing. I've felt that disappointed, and I know how much I've wanted to spit that feeling out in loud words. In fact, good for her for giving it voice, even with the talk we later eventually did get around to, about next time, how to express yourself with a little more mind to include the effect on the people around you.

What happens when you accept this moment just exactly as it is, whether it's what you planned for or not? Is there a sudden relaxation about what you've got to work with in this moment? Is there greater clarity about what is actually here right now? Is there a sense of adventure with each moment, unfolding into it's own new universe?

Why is this common confusion the cause of all the ill in the world? It's simple: whenever one of us is in resistance and suffering, we almost always act out of that state in non-beneficial ways. Sometimes we keep our suffering to ourselves, sometimes we take it out on the people around us, but one way or another it impacts the world harshly. Every time. And one harmful act almost invariably leads to more suffering and more harmful impacts. It's a super-tight system until you can bust out of it.

The way to bust out of it is to get clear about the present moment. Moment by moment. This is where meditation and yoga and t'ai chi and such come in. These are all ways of re-training ourselves to get better at staying with just the facts, ma'am. They're awareness practices, and they are the means to waking up from the confusion. Get started on one of these, now, and do it for waking up purposes. Don't worry about whether you're good at it or not. Just do it and start waking up from the confusion. You'll thank yourself, and the world will really appreciate it, too.

One last important point to mention: can you notice that this confusion business is an innocent system? It is what it is, and it is what you were brought up to live with as the normal situation. You never chose to buy into the confusion system. You have no idea you've bought into anything, in fact. All people who have not been invited to look clearly at this are equally blameless of buying in. This is an important point. You are not to blame for being in confusion. Neither is the terrorist across the globe to blame. There is no one to blame; there is no original cause of the long-standing confusion. If you can really feel that, you now have the freedom to stop blaming yourself and everyone else about everything that up to this point you have labeled "wrong" with this world. It doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot of stuff we can get better at. For Pete's sake, it's the thing that keeps us all jazzed about life, right, the getting better part, learning, serving? So keep your eye out and enjoy all the improving and learning, just stop issuing blame for how it is right now. When you stop blaming, you can see everything in a much more peaceful and friendly light. This frees up vast quantities of your energy and will give you a vastly better attitude to bring to your actions in the world.

Here's to the cure for common confusion!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It'll only take a second...

Waking up will only take a second. Actually even less: someone out there, remind me how the old sages measured the smallest increment of time... Whatever cosmically small description they gave to it, I remember that it's TINY. And as a perfect corollary, closing down to what is happens just as quickly.

I mention this because I was meeting with a meditation group last night, and we were talking about the act of closing down, of "checking out." This moment signals the end of happiness, at least as I define it in this blog. In my way of seeing things, happiness equals presence. And presence is defined as that quality of being available to each of us that meets just what is here, no more and no less. To be accurate, when I talk about closing down, it's not so much that presence ever really closes down, but it does get so fogged over or opaquely covered up that access to it appears gone for all human intents and purposes.

My example of checking out involved a common situation I seem to experience often in my kitchen. There I am, bustling around doing my typical busy doing mode, and also taking in the 8-year-old or the two 20+ year-olds or whatever else happens to be happening. And in the midst of this perfectly ordinarily clear type of moment, my husband innocently tosses off one of his charming, non-harm-intending digs at something. And then, for some uncontrollable reason there's a flicker of injury and an immediate reactive checking out from the reality of the Fletcher kitchen. I'm gone in a dark hole somewhere, not for very long, but long enough to miss my big opportunity.

Yep, that's the big opportunity for happiness in the world according to Fletcher. In hindsight, I will dearly wish that I could have stayed around and fully felt the little sling of that false arrow. That's what was present at that moment, the sting. And that sting presented itself as a chance to notice what strange, confused micro-fast assumption was being made that somehow translated into this hurt. When I am lucky enough to stay with presence and most particularly to stay out of judgment of reaction, and to see this all in action, the results are always well worth it. The simple seeing of the little drama shows itself as the fiction it is. The emotion that accompanies such seeing can range anywhere from awe to knowing chuckle to grateful humility to perfect equanimity. All good, very, very good. In fact, there's honest and true happiness in connecting fully and precisely with these assumptions and reactions running through me, regardless of what they consist of or whether the common person would label them as "happy" experiences.

Okay, yes, this is complicated to convey. Let's see if you can remember a time in your life when this seeming paradox was clearly showing you the perfection of a time commonly presumed to be negative. Think about being with someone who is very sick or very down. This would be a person you care about greatly and perhaps even grieve to see go through this experience. And there may be a moment of temptation toward interpretations of injustice or fault to be found. Somehow you feel injured. But then you shake your head... what were you thinking? and all personal concerns disappear, such is the severity of the situation. So there is likely a mix only of love, concern, compassion, and grief present with you. Tell me, is there unhappiness? When you take the situation into your heart, as a whole, without casting about to place blame, you are doing perfectly and able to be connected and really with this person. As long as there's no insane demand for a different moment than the very one you got, or for a better past that would have resulted in anything but this outcome, as long as you're willing to be right there in the midst of grief and concern, all is right with you. You are perfectly present and able to provide what is needed. And what is more, with this quality of love and presence coming from you, the other person is more likely to be receiving what is flowing from your eyes and mouth and heart, with no fog or cloud of self-referential confusion, and thus more likely to be experiencing this deep love themselves regardless of the conditions of the moment.

I have a friend who described spending time with her very good friend, who was dying over the course of a few short weeks last summer. My friend described what it was like in the bedroom where this woman had settled herself to spend these last days. This dying woman had pronounced that this place would be a no-BS zone. Only truth and clarity were allowed; no bemoaning, regretting, railing, obfuscating, brave-facing or tap-dancing around the truth were permitted. This was the dying woman's insight into a way to happiness for these precious days, and my friend told me later that she saw how true and powerful this was, and how much she herself longed to live this way as a regular thing. Happiness in the process of dying.

In these "big" moments, somehow this can be seen clearly, but then it's so easily forgotten or written off as an anomaly when we move back into regular life with all of its banality and repetition. Is it possible to stick with the truth of each moment, every big and little up and down, just as it is, and see from this the deep happiness that comes from living life directly and authentically? This is a question to live out the answer to, not mechanically or worse yet, masochistically, but curiously, with the intent to discover the answer rather than to take my word for anything. And be sure to notice, you don't have to turn this into a gruesome chore. This is no grand project, because it only takes a moment. After all, as you may have noticed, that's all there ever is.