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 :