Tag Archives: Zen

Free Will & Faith (Say Yes)

We, the descendants of the Age of Reason, have been nurtured to raise a suspicious eyebrow at suggestions like have faith, or, trust the universe, or worse, let go & let God, because it insults our conviction in the power of our own free will…our capacity to be self-determined, autonomous individuals…masters of our own destiny…captains of our ship.

Then, by means of direct experience with the tumultuous and liberating changes that occurred throughout the sixties, or else by dint of our good fortune in happening upon a teacher, some of us became “spiritual.”

Part of being spiritual is the realization of our inter-connection with the world, and by extension, our influence on it; through every action, every word, and even every thought, we affect everything in known and unknown ways. Coming out of a God-fearing era, in which one didn’t dare assert one’s power over the mysterious workings of the divine, this was huge. By reclaiming our power, we assumed our role as creator, or at least co-creator. And we liked it. We took to the idea of manifestation like a cat takes to a newly-emptied box. It pleased our sense of doing and gratified our need for control. After all, if we can simply choose our thoughts and direct our intention, then we can shape the world we want to live in.

We can’t stop our thoughts, the reasoning went, so we might as well learn to master them and so we willfully embraced our role as co-creator of our destiny. The idea of activating our ability to manifest tangible things, like cars and money, as well as the more elusive intangibles, like health and well-being, made us feel powerful.

I eagerly stepped onto the bandwagon.

But, then I asked, what if this, too, were but a stepping stone, a bridge, to a more exalted plateau, still? What if, all of life amounted to this one question:

Can you release even that—the need to make choices at all… can you release the need to co-create?

In other words, can you say yes to life on its own terms?

But, rather than seeing it as a denial of free will, why not look upon this gesture of renunciation, as “the ultimate act of free will?”…as the most courageous choice there is, which is to melt away, that you may move about, like two feathers on a bird, where no difference exists between your will and divine will.

Yogis have always been renunciates. And by Yogis, I mean all seekers, who have abandoned material comforts, mundane temptations and distractions in their passion to find God. So intrinsically a part of spiritual life, renunciation is considered to be the final stage of life in India’s religious traditions.

I propose that the truest gesture of renunciation is internal, rather than external, which is to say, unseen. It is implied in our courage to let go of even the pretense of control. And to the extent of our willingness and ability to do this—to truly surrender—we are Yogis without necessarily looking like Yogis…Yogis as householders…as ordinary people in ordinary surroundings, wearing ordinary clothes, doing ordinary things.

The only thing extraordinary (but doesn’t have to be extraordinary) is the degree of presence one brings to one’s life, since presence is proportional to the extent of surrender, as every wily attempt by the mind, to grasp at anything, is a step out of this moment.

I am reminded of an old Zen Koan about the man who encountered a tiger.

A man was traveling by foot, when all of a sudden, a tiger came running after him. When he reached a precipice, and could run no more, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, he looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. As if things couldn’t get worse, he then noticed two mice, gnawing away the vine; the only thing that sustained him. It was at that very moment, that the man noticed a luscious strawberry within reach, so he ate it. How sweet it tasted!

Can we laugh at the ultimate paradox of life? The exquisite beauty that exists within and alongside the ephemeral. The moment we try to possess it, it vanishes.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, we all have the ability to “transcend” our situations and dramas, but that transcendence is discovered through the relinquishment of our perceived identities in this life, especially our role as the “doer.” More profoundly, it is expressed through our willingness to offer up thanks and laugh with the beauty and apparent absurdity of it all. But really what we’re doing is giving the whole thing over to a higher power.

And, “giving it over” isn’t to “give up,” in the ordinary sense, it’s rather, to begin to relate to a larger field of creation. Giving up, in the ordinary sense is the ego’s way of saying, in a passive-aggressive voice, “I can’t have my own way,” so I’ll act like I never wanted it, anyway.” There’s a lurking resentment there. Whereas, in the truest form of surrender, it is of the soul, rather than the ego. It is not only to identify with a larger—so large so as to be infinite—perspective, but to come into a genuine state of allowing. It’s as if the you, that you thought you knew, disappears into this infinite self. So that you are nothing, but at the same time, everything.

And this expansion occurs to the point where, even your need to figure things out, e.g., the hows & the whys, begins to fade. You just trust. It’s not that you trust any being in particular…you just trust. It’s a state of being.

And this brings us back to the ultimate act of free will; it’s a choice to trust. To trust that everything is going to be OK…that everything is already OK…that everything is unfolding just as it should….that even this tempest you’re in the middle of right now, is part of it all…and it’s perfect. It’s to know that the workings of the divine, and your purpose within it all, is beyond what the mind can comprehend.

So, you just live. And, like the man on the precipice, rather than trying to figure it out or outsmart the process, or improve God’s timing, you surrender to this moment and eat the strawberry. And everything is delicious. And perfect…as it is.

To Accept “what is” or Pursue your Passion?

follow your passionIs the highest attainment in life realized when we’re able to accept where we are, without striving? Or, are we supposed to chase our dreams and pursue our passions? In my book, Buddha in the Classroom, I speak of the importance of acceptance, as an expression of our capacity to liberate ourselves from the endless chain of yearnings that characterize existence and from the resistance and corresponding angst that comes up when those yearnings aren’t fulfilled .

A snippet of that part of my book —

(Excerpt from Chapter 19—Passion; Accept, Adapt, and Abandon Hope)

The real problem with our fixation on passion is the near certainty that even a blazing fire will dim with time.

Then what?

Even when passion is pursued and found, the affair won’t last forever. Passion changes. We change. A dancer friend recently shared with me the common experience among the cast members of a famous musical. Far from reveling in prideful accomplishment for having been part of one of the longest-running shows, they’re sick and tired physically, and mentally jaded. Many are dancing on old injuries, and are scarcely able to find the motivation to go onstage night after night; yet somehow they manage to put themselves into their postures and glissade, on tiptoe, onto the stage, one more time, because it’s how they make their living. It is the same motivation that gets most of the world to work every day.

It reminds me of the ancient Greek myth about Sisyphus: He is condemned by the gods to push a gigantic boulder up a hill, over and over, all day long, even as it continuously rolls to the bottom of its own weight as soon as he gets it to the top. The gods understood the futility of wasted labor, so assigning it was the perfect, wicked punishment. In retelling the story, the French philosopher Albert Camus likens the absurdity of the task to the everyday predicament of every single one of us, pushing our rocks in our own way, as we struggle to meet deadlines, deal with coworkers and bosses, and solve the problems that are part and parcel of any workday, anywhere.

But Camus was an optimist.

Despite his fate, it is Sisyphus himself who decides to be happy. He can whistle and hum happy songs while he pushes his rock, or he can lament and endlessly curse his fate. The irony is that as soon as he realizes the power inherent in his own reaction, he is liberated. He makes his fate his own. It is he alone who decides to be happy or miserable. In a nod to our own capacity for liberation, Camus says, “We must imagine Sisyphus smiling.”

Dharma: The Lesson for Teachers

Sisyphus’s existentialist smile resonates with the Buddhist reminder to let go. Sisyphus smiles because he accepts his fate. To let go is to accept. And through acceptance, Sisyphus liberates himself from his sentence. To accept is to simultaneously stop resisting. When you stop resisting, you are able to enjoy your experiences, which is to say, your life.

Accept, adapt, and abandon hope, Zen says…

Do I still think this is the Truth?—

Yes, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s true on one level, just as, when you’re a certain age, following a rule of conduct is important, but it’s also true that this same rule may no longer apply, at another stage or moment in your life. There are different truths for different stages of our journey. Acceptance is true and passion is true.

Consider Gandhi. He had a passion for restoring justice and liberation to India, but every time they threw him in jail, his only savior was surrender. Acceptance was the rule of the hour. It didn’t mean he was giving up his broader plan. It just meant he had the wisdom to know when to act. There’s a time for everything. Thus, we can be our own captors (through resistance) or liberators (through acceptance).

There’s a time to express our passion in life. And this is what I would like to now give proper importance to.

Very simply put, if we’re interested in what we’re doing, that interest will carry us through the inevitable challenges that come along with anything. It reminds me of an oft recited quote by an unknown author:

Without enthusiasm, you’ll find any reason to quit. With enthusiasm, you’ll overlook every reason. ~unknown

Whether or not to follow our passions depends largely on the choices we have available. If we are lucky enough to live in a physical environment in which we are politically free and financially able to pursue our desires, we might consider the luxury we have been given in this incarnation and go about it with zest and gratitude. But, if this is not the case, then acceptance for the karma we have chosen for ourselves in this existence will serve us well. 

Even with this said, acceptance is a tool that serves us, even then, for no position or pursuit is all paradise, all the time. We will always deal with difficult people and occasional burnout, but when the joy and sense of purpose is greater than the misery, or put another way, when it uplifts more than it drains, we carry on, knowing that we’re serving the world through the work that we do. And again, gratitude for the opportunity to do it, will carry us. Acceptance is a great succor and support in every part of life.

A more profound reason to give voice to our passions.

Soul Speaks—

I call it Soul Speaks…as when a child shows signs of his/her inclination early on. This is a sort of magic that gives our life a sparkly quality and makes us feel we have something to live for. It is our inner longing showing up before we even understand it or know how to give voice to it. It is our soul speaking. This voice, that starts out as a little whisper—such as when we’re first attracted to some activity—may one day combine with skill, and this fusion in time and space is like the key that unlocks the door to brilliance.

If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you directly to your purpose. ~unknown

Power Spot—

The power spot is another little expression I have to describe this kind of brilliance…such as when Pavarotti sings. When you hit your power spot, everyone around you feels it, although they may not know what to call it. It is felt. A pop phrase for this inexplicable phenomenon is the “it factor.” A person is shining in their craft, doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. And their radiance glimmers like a shining gift to the world.

Is there such a thing, metaphysically, as “purpose?”—

Which opens up another question. And this is what it all hinges on…do we really have a purpose? If we did, who gets to say what it is? How will we know what it truly is? Do we have only one? Can we choose to do something else?

It all comes down to trusting our own feeling. No one else can decide for us. It is not an intellectual decision, that can be decided by a list of pros and cons, as we were taught to do in school. We will know our purpose because it feels right. And yes, that purpose can change, just as our relationships can change. Just as some relationships are karmic in nature and are finished when the karma has been played out the and lessons have been learned. Our purpose at one time can shift into a new direction after we have served in that area and our time there is finished.

More about “feeling” it—

When we’re not doing what we’re “supposed to be doing,” everything in our life just feels “off.” We feel drained, rather than uplifted and satisfied. Everything feels much more laborious than need be.

Life is not supposed to feel like drudgery, anyway—this is an outdated and misguided belief based on guilt. When we’re on the path that is right for us, everything falls into a flow, what one of my teachers calls effortless effort. This is the law of abundance; everything will fall into place when we trust and when we align ourselves with our heart.

The Way of Efficiency—

Besides being in tune with what feels right, there’s a sense of efficiency and capacity that becomes evident when we are in the “right place.” Not only do we tend to thrive, personally, but our performance has the potential for excellence. Although we might like to give some activity a fair chance, for the sake of curiosity, we may or may not be any good at it. I remember when my father gave dancing the good old college try for the sake of pleasing my mother, but a Fred Astaire this scientist was not!

Along these lines, we may consider a tree or a houseplant. Although it can adapt to different environments if necessary, it simply does better in “the right” environment, and will produce better fruit. Some plants need more light, more water, etc. In human terms, we call it “being in your element.”

Or, consider a car. You may eventually get to your destination on subpar gasoline, or low oil, but it will do better on better gas and more oil. In human terms, it’s our choice—we can waste energy or work more efficiently, by being in tune with our soul’s purpose.

Establish your passions on a day to day basis. Whatever you attach your conscious and undoubted passions to will manifest. ~Guru Singh

In spiritual teachings, it is said that this is how we know when we are going the right way or not. God…or, if you prefer…higher wisdom, or angels, or the universe…will assist us and give us signs when we’re going the right way, and lay down hindrances when we’re going the wrong way. Sometimes they may give very loud clues if we’re deaf or daft and are not getting the message! Does this mean we should give up when too many obstacles befall us? Not necessarily! This is the art of walking a line only we can walk for ourselves.

Again, it comes back to the necessity of being present in our bodies, so that we can recognize the many ways that information that is felt, rather than intellectualized. So that we can know on a deeper, more intuitive level. So that we we can trust in our sense that it is not just a challenge, but a sign of something awry.

This connection to Self opens the door to personal joy, which we then shine like a lighthouse out to the world. It is why another one of my spiritual teachers once told me to “follow my bliss,” for when I do, I then bring that de-light to everything and everyone I touch.

Internal Conflict (not desires) Causes Suffering

It is not desires that are the root of misery, angst and suffering. It is conflict of desires.

On Desires—
Firstly, many desires may be seen as intrinsically noble, such as the desire to be enlightened, or, the desire to serve the world through one’s unique skill set. Secondly, many desires are simply natural, such as the desire for the next breath. Thirdly, many desires may be classified as “neutral,” such as the desire to learn to play the violin. With all of them, problems and frustrations arise only when we don’t know how to manifest them, or when there is a conflict with another desire. It is this latter point that I will focus mostly on, below.

Of these many varieties  of desires, there is only one sub-species that I would call inherently “bad,” namely those that include causing harm to others as a motive. The others are not inherently bad, in and of themselves.

Internal Conflict—
The real problems start when we are torn and divided. This is what I’ll call internal conflict and it is at the root of all disharmony, frustration and all havoc, from benign to catastrophic. From the everyday nuisances, like wanting to eat the whole bag of cookies to the huge life-changing situations, such as divorce.

There is always conflict underneath. In the first example, there is a conflict of more than one desire, since on the one hand, you may want to eat the cookies, but on the other, you don’t want to consume all that sugar, or gain weight (so, the other desire would be to maintain your weight). And, in the second example, you may want a long-term marriage, but you also want an honest marriage. If you’re in a situation where this isn’t possible, it will likely blow up in some way, such as in a divorce.

Another example may be: you want to go to Europe for a month, but you don’t want to miss work (so, the other desire would be to continue being productive at work). Again, the internal conflict will likely blow up. Not in such a cataclysmic way, as in divorce, but in a subtler way, such as in the everyday vexations that we all experience in life.

Lurking underneath what Buddha called dukkha, or suffering, you will find that there is an unacknowledged secondary desire. It is just a matter of digging a little deeper in your contemplation.

As a final example, imagine you were a homeowner who wanted very much to get going on the construction of your house. It is taking too long, and if you had it your way, you’d simply call a contractor and tell him to “make it happen.” But real life is more complex. You have to wait for your spouse, who is too busy with work priorities to share in the planning and expenses. So, you have to wait. In this case, we can say that underneath the desire to continue with construction is the pre-existing desire to keep peace in the household.

If it were as simple as wanting to build a room, with nothing standing in your way, you’d simply manifest the desire and move on. The desire, alone, would not be the problem. When something is standing in your way, such as lack of funds, or bad-timing, as in the play-out above, the obstructed desire transmutes into an unhealthy attachment.

As such, it is the internal conflict, caused by discordant desires, that causes suffering.

Choice

CHOICE chart


Commentary:

I made this chart to show the different ways of interfacing with our moment to moment decisions in life. Even the most subtle decision is vast and carries with it the potential for extensive repercussions. For example, whether we decide to breathe into a moment of frustration or channel it into verbal abuse toward a loved one makes a tremendous difference in our lives, especially, as those moments add up and habit patterns set in.

I make the assumption here, that we’re not always at our optimum. But, life is a process of evolving, if we are fully awake and have the courage to look at ourselves squarely. This means embracing our freedom to make a choice at every moment and owning those decisions. Thus, it also means accepting the consequences of those choices without making excuses for ourselves. This chart shows us that only when we can truly do that, do we evolve into the optimal version of ourselves.

The caveat against making excuses comes from Zen Master Nyogen Roshi, who reminded us very often, during Dharma talks, to (1) Not DECEIVE ourselves (2) Not make EXCUSES for ourselves, and to (3) Take RESPONSIBILITY for ourselves. In my book, I captured this teaching with the acronym, DER.

These injunctions encourage honest, conscious reflection and enable continuous growth—which is what we’re here for! To evolve in our own way and according to our own propensity, is our overarching purpose on earth.

But, sometimes we find ourselves stuck. We call it a problem when we’re unsure how to get unstuck. This chart demonstrates what Yogi Bhajan said—that there is always a pathway through every problem. Curiously, we often access this pathway by letting go. This is the feminine aspect of the dance of life.

This chart shows us that even when we feel we have not acted optimally, in a situation…say, by lashing out instead of breathing, as in the example above, we can use that moment as an opportunity for conscious reflection, rather than self-reproach. For, emotions like guilt, serve only to block our growth. But the recognition that there may be some fear, like the fear of losing control, underlying our frustration, will set us free. It disables that fear.

Very often, this moment of consciousness is enough for clearance to occur. As I’ve said in my classes: “a moment of awareness is a moment of healing.” This is the D, the E and the R, altogether! We haven’t deceived ourselves, we haven’t indulged in excuses, and we’ve taken responsibility, which in this case, entailed nothing more than ownership of our action.

The masculine aspect of doing, comes into play inevitably, as every step, however subtle, is a form of action, but through our willingness to surrender to the outcome, we manifest the feminine. Without that feminine aspect, we lock ourselves into an insecure need to control—bereft of the trust that comes from connection to what isIt’s as Lao Tzu advised: “Know the right, but keep to the left.” The left is the feminine quality of receptiveness. And in this way, we form a relationship with the way and the rhythm of the universe. The dance of life is an interplay of masculine and feminine energies.

The feminine is all about surrender, which trumps the ego’s need to control. It is a must, if we choose to grow. We must welcome what is, with a heart full of grateful acceptance, in order to go forth. We have to be good with where we are before we can get to where we want to be, since the moment we push it away with excuses, we allow the useless emotions of guilt & regret to subsume us, forming, in turn, a murky blanket of resistance to life’s lessons and the evolution of our own consciousness.

It is as such that we behold the interplay of self-acceptance and self-improvement. We often defeat ourselves by trying to have the latter without the former. But, self-improvement, on its own, quickly devolves into an obsessive game of chase, creating a gap in our consciousness, between who we are and who we want to be. It leaves us un-whole. 

Why Meditation Works

morning meditateWhen I was growing up, it seemed everyone was impressed with those who could fix computers or who were technologically savvy in some way. They’re so intelligent, they’d say. And then there was always that family superstar who could answer the questions on Jeopardy before the contestants. Everyone would ooh and ahh, admiringly.

But, from the point of view of our soul, we are not here to fix computers or recite historical data.

Philosophy was impressive, too. While I wasn’t the one you’d call for a hard drive on the fritz, nor the one yelling out the answers to civil war trivia, I could talk about free will or argue about the existence of God. Of course, I didn’t choose this line of study in order to impress people, but as a girl in my twenties, I could already count on the type of reaction I’d get when asked what I’m majoring in.

That is…until I went to a real Zen monastery.

When I was in my 20s, I was already drawn to the eastern traditions—I knew about Zen and emptiness. I had read Alan Watts and even knew about koans. And for the first time, no one cared.

The bald man in robes, who they referred to as “Roshi” spoke that day. He said we were all there because we were “neurotic.” No words were ever truer! None of the brilliant papers I’d written seemed to matter at that moment. I still had my hang ups, just like everyone else. Because I still had that head of mine. All the studying in the world doesn’t seem to do much when it comes to true transformation.

That was when it dawned on me: Even the geniuses are screwed up! It’s like this passage:

Have you seen all these people who drink, who search for a partner, and who look for drugs? They start the search in earnest, or have the urge to do it, after 4 p.m. Why do they need drink? Why do people feel they need to take drugs?  They do all that out of an instinct to seek stimulation. At those times their biorhythm has gone down, and they feel irritated. They cannot exist like that and have to have a change…The root cause is that your basic biorhythm of energy, your mental projection and strategy are not reflected in a unisonness of character. Those zones are natural times that shift your energy level, your mental projection, and your performance. That is the time you must direct the mind, refine it, and create a consolidated unisonness of character and projection. ~Yogi Bhajan

The point is, what we are really here to do is guide the mind rather than let it be guided. Guided by what? By our own emotions, by other people’s expectations, by traffic, by disappointments, by the media…by endless, daily provocations (the worst of these being our own thoughts). Neither techie skills, nor historical data, nor a big bank roll can do this for us.

To me, it all boils down to this question: Are you a sanctuary for yourself?

Can you be still in your own solitude? We become a refuge for ourselves only when our mind is at peace. And only then is it remotely possible to be a source of peace for others — because our mind is the wellspring of every word we speak, every decision we make and every action we take.

How do we become our own sanctuary? When we discover our neutral center—the crowned sovereign over all the noise, the judgments, the neurotic outbursts and the incessant tug of war between positive and negative. The neutral channel is the balm that quells the drama that turns people’s lives upside down.

That neutral eye sees right though the drama. Thus, this quality creates vastness of character. This is true greatness. And this is what we’re here for.

If you have not established some vastness in your attitude, then your habits and facets, your fears and pettiness will betray you. ~Yogi Bhajan 

What is meant by “vastness?” No matter what spiritual tradition we’re speaking of, it all comes down to union, or, said the opposite way, letting go of the illusion of separateness. Where is that illusion kept? In the mind. Zen calls it the small self. Yoga calls it the finite self. No matter what we call it, this ego-based identity is what drives the pettiness in our lives, which in turn, makes spiritual union impossible. This is why governing the mind is the first task in any spiritual practice.

How do we refine the mind, in this way? It’s too bad you can’t just take a 6-week course, or a workshop, or an intensive. The old masters weren’t lying when they said you have to sit. There’s no way around it. It’s not as easy, of course, as taking a course and sticking some degree on your wall, but that’s also why there are so few truly enlightened beings in the world.

So how does it work?

Consider this car analogy: Before driving off to work in the morning, you warm up your car for a few minutes. As the engine warms up, a distinct alteration takes place within the engine that affects the oil pressure and viscosity, which prevents wear and tear on your car and gives you a smoother drive. In a similar way, it is through meditation, that we “warm up” our systems by better preparing our minds to handle the stress of daily living, to make the choices that need to be made and to navigate our way through our own doubts and anxieties. Through the refinement process that only meditation affords, we give ourselves a smoother drive.

Not only is there an alchemical process taking place, via the glandular system and the nervous system, but by coming to stillness, we develop a capacity to stay present even when things seem unpleasant. This translates into less reactivity and more patience in the “real world,” as we interface with difficult people and everyday dilemmas.

Through meditation, instead of simply reacting at once, we create space around every stimulus, whether pleasant or unpleasant and whether internal or external.  Our minds challenge us at every turn, like a toddler pulling at our pants for an ice cream, but as we persist, we become solid. We become a witness to the ways of our own minds, which is what Buddha meant when he urged us to study the Self.

To be sure, being a witness does not mean being passive. Nor does it mean being narcissistic. Not passive because we retain our intention to cultivate our awareness even when we get up off the cushion. Not narcissistic because as spiritual warriors, we know all too well the effect of one mind on the world at large.

We know that even a few minutes of warming up our engine daily, will shape every decision we make, in every area of our lives, from relationships to work. This is why it is the highest form of self betterment—because we are getting to the root of our being.

The Power of Positive Thoughts

Buddha ThoughtsIn the Dhammapada, Buddha speaks of the power of thoughts when he says, “all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Yet, Zen master Suzuki seems to dismiss that power, when he likens those same thoughts to passing waves, urging us to learn to let them go, for, they are not who we are.

It seems contradictory. But we can look upon this delightful little enigma as an invitation to reconcile both aspects of the polarity. It’s kind of like light…now it’s a particle, now it’s a wave.

Where thoughts are concerned, the catch is that they can and do pass…when we let them. As weary travelers pass continuously through the revolving doors of the grand hotel, so our thoughts go flooding through our minds. As Yogi Bhajan says, thoughts erupt at the astounding rate of 1000 per blink of the eye. At this rate, it’s hard to imagine we could catch any of them, but this is exactly where it gets tricky.

The problem happens when we get stuck on a thought. Like gum stuck to our shoe, we then begin to wear it, exude it, transmit it. And then, it wears us.

What are we to do?

Through the simple practice of mindful meditation, we practice letting thoughts come and then letting them go. We practice non-attachment to those thoughts. Like anything worthwhile, it takes a lot of practice (which is why the monks and Yogis have traditionally retired to their caves for a life of seclusion and long hours on the cushion)…because let’s face it—most thoughts only get us into trouble!

But as we become more comfortable with this process, we learn how to work with our thoughts in more skillful ways. MRI screening now confirms what Patanjali told us 2000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras, namely, that through focus and conscious intention, we can convert pesky thoughts into more uplifting ones. Cultivate counteractive thoughts, he said.

What it all boils down to, is living a more fulfilling life because when our thoughts have got us by the nose (to use an expression my Zen teacher once used with me), we become too engrossed in our internal battles to truly enjoy life.

This is where positive affirmations come in. By learning how to actively work with our thoughts in a more purposeful way, we can affect our physical, mental and emotional well-being, as well as usher in the kinds of positive changes in our lives that may have once seemed out of reach. In other words, by learning to work with affirmations, we may even open doors to the realms of the miraculous.

Judge Not Lest You Be Judged (Here’s Why)

This teaching is part of the common thread that runs through all wisdom teachings. Here, I explore the reasons why.

1. Because we don’t have access to the Akashic records. The universal perspective is not always revealed or in accordance with our clock, our limited perspective or our expectations. Life and its workings are too vast.

Case Study. Consider the old story of the Taoist farmer whose horse runs away. His neighbor is quick to come and appraise the situation: “What bad luck!” he declares. The farmer just shrugs his shoulders. When the horse comes back with another horse, the neighbor comes again: “What good luck!” The farmer just shrugs. When the farmer’s son tries to saddle the newly acquired, wild horse and breaks his leg in the process, the neighbor comes again: “what bad luck.” The farmer shrugs. Finally, when the army comes, ready to haul the kid off to a bloody war, they take one look at his broken leg and decide to leave him behind. “What good luck! Your son sure picked a good time to break his leg!” the neighbor proclaims.

A broken leg is generally not seen as a “good” thing, but in this case, it saved the kid’s life.

The farmer was too wise to get involved with these assessments. He knows he doesn’t know what’s good or bad in the big picture. He is able to let it unfold and is willing to honor the process. This takes wisdom, humility and courage. Wisdom to know we don’t know. Humility to yield to the unknown and courage to be fine with it, regardless of the outcome.

It’s a willingness to live in trust, rather than in fear.

2. Because everyone has lessons to extract from each and every event that appears in their lives. And as my teacher often puts it, the messenger will keep coming back until the message has been delivered. Everyone has their karma (which doesn’t mean punishment).

3. Because, by judging, you now take the karma. (Doubly: for interfering and because you have demonstrated need for the lesson and compassion for that perspective.)

4. Because the judging is more a statement about you, than the object of your criticism. Our reality is shaped and limited by our thoughts and experiences, meaning, our perceptions provide us with a very limited viewpoint. This means, further, that it’s guaranteed we don’t have the whole story. Only at the end of time can we make over-all assessments. Who will be here? This is why the wise know better than to speak.

Those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say ~Tao Te Ching

But in the guise of “being concerned,” we speculate, condemn and as Zen author Karen Maezen Miller is wont to say, we run commentary. The base assumption is that the other—even when (especially when) the other is a family member—needs our concern. That energy could be better directed inwardly, toward our own needed improvements, for we are all a work in progress.

If you have reached a state of human perfection and have no need for continued work and improvements…Congratulations! Your work here on earth is complete.

Here is an example that both highlights the absurdity of making judgements about others and at the same time, illustrates the workings of truly turning the pointer to the inside, rather than toward others:

Case Study. Your aunt tells you your wife needs to dress differently because her way of dressing, she feels, will influence her daughter to dress in a way that solicits male attention and fosters promiscuity.

But, in your reflections, you note that when it comes to alcoholic beverages, your aunt tends to serve herself generously, sometimes to the point of excess. If we look from a wider lens, and follow her own logic to the end, we see that this, too, might be setting an undesirable example—it may foster alcoholism, or at the very least, irresponsible drinking in her children. Of course, the whole thing is absurd and endless, for, everybody has “stuff.”

I have a dear friend who now avoids a member of her own family for habitually starting sentences with “You need to…” As we become more conscious, we also become more aware of how often our words express this kind of judgmental attitude toward others.

Here’s what it boils down to:

❖ Everybody is a mixed bag, with aspects that we might label as “good” and others as “bad.” And everybody has a history, complete with skeletons and dregs of many varieties. Acceptance of people as evolving entities, like ourselves, fosters better relations.

❖ We are shaped by countless influences, from our Zodiac sign, to our favorite TV show growing up, to our first kiss, our first best friend, our first broken heart, to more obvious, genetic and social factors. Meaning, we are a confluence of infinite influence.

❖ We don’t know how others will perceive us (The young girl in my example will probably only see the good in her aunt. As in The Little Prince, only adults discriminate. Children see through, to the heart of a person.)

ACCEPTANCE; Life in the balance – accept it all. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. It is the nature of the universe to establish balance; thus, trying to prevent perceived bad will also block desired good. Instead, welcome challenge and difficulty, enjoying the indicated activity, and growing in each situation.” ~Guru Rattana

God and Prayer

I remember my beloved grandmother teaching me how to say my bedtime prayers when I was little. I liked saying them. They made me feel secure. And for many years, I felt that something was missing and incomplete if I forgot.

Perhaps a certain spiritual longing was always there. Because I also remember relishing the opportunity to go to church with a very religious friend, during my adolescent years.

But then, as a college student — especially as a philosophy student — I encountered all of the arguments against God and later even lectured on Aquinas’ notoriously flawed five proofs for the existence of God, in my own classes. I pointed out all of the irrefutable logical fallacies in those five proofs, to my own students.

During those years, I wondered about the absurdity of it all. God, that is. And by extension, the whole idea of praying to a God. In my logically trained young mind, I wondered about the idea of a God that would proceed with his plans for annihilation and devastation, only to suddenly cancel them at the request of a petitioner. After all, I reasoned, that’s why people pray, to convince God to alter some undesirable course of events. I wondered about the idea that he might change his mind so whimsically.

But then one day, I realized how differently things can look when you flip them around. One day, I flipped around my own viewpoint about it all. Or, it was flipped around for me.

I came to see that God is within, not without.

Additionally, praying isn’t about loving a God out there, somewhere. And changing the course of events is secondary to the understanding of prayer as connection, rather than petition. It is about connecting with that which may be called, infinity, for there is no adequate way to convey the sense of going beyond the confines of what you thought of as your finite self. (Nor is there any adequate way to convey that which is beyond the confines of reason.)

And it isn’t about fear, as in the idea of fearing God, for, there’s no room for fear where divinity lives.

And about the business of changing some course of events; coming to divine consciousness – becoming conscious of our own divine nature – reveals our role in creating that very shift we seek. And that makes it nonetheless incredible, but all the more awe-inspiring and wonderful.

As Zen says, “you create your own universe.” And as Yoga says, “you control the universal consciousness.”

But alas, it isn’t really about personal pleas, petitions and procurement, at all. It is really just the personal expression of gratitude and completeness. Praying, that is. For no other purpose. Like a flower reaching up toward the light, leaning over permanently to one side with time, devotion expresses this feeling of affection and longing, but with no object of desire.

What’s Wrong with Distractions?

Can you just sit, without the need to go shopping, have a drink, play some slots, meet some girls…or guys,  place a bet, see the game, look at magazines, call people, surf the net or have a smoke?

But what’s wrong with those things? You might ask.

In philosophers’ patter, let’s presuppose three things: (1) That the highest purpose of human existence is to awaken our consciousness (2) That by ethically wrong, we mean the deliberate causing of harm to a sentient being (3) That there is a difference between ethical wrongness and and spiritual wrongness.

With that in mind, we first have to understand what is meant by “wrong.” We can rule out the idea that anything is ethically wrong with those things mentioned (presumption #2)—because in doing them you’re not causing direct harm to yourself or others and you probably have no intention to. But, those kinds of attractions may be considered wrong in the sense that they fail to support us in our longing for true inner contentment. Moreover, they don’t serve in bringing us nearer to the most exquisite goal of spiritual awakening (presumptions #1 and #3).

We’re talking more about what an activity doesn’t do for us than what it does do. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever engage in amusements for the sake of amusement. It just means that we shouldn’t expect them to deliver what they are incapable of delivering.

Joy and happiness never derived from the external world. It is only the ego that looks habitually and incessantly for the next new thing—attached as it is, to the illusion of fulfillment by these things, as well as to the illusion that fulfillment happens at some other time. So, we are deceiving ourselves, from the beginning, by looking for happiness from anything, amusements, novelties, fantasies, experiences, in short, from things—things external to ourselves, things whose novelty quickly wears off, whose initial thrill wears away and whose very fabric wears out. All external things have a shadow side. The addict crashes every time and every time goes looking for another fix. The shopper needs the current issue, the gamer needs the latest version.

We even look to other people as potential sources of happiness, thus converting them into possessions and approaching them in the spirit of ownership, with negative emotions, like jealousy, suspicion and resentment the inevitable result of such an arrangement.

Meanwhile, we become prey to our own never-ending search for fulfillment out there. By doing so, we are essentially giving up our power to the world. And when we disempower ourselves, we become further distanced from the ultimate goal of awakening and further entrenched in illusion.

In Zen terminology, true joy comes from waking up to this moment. In Yogic language…from the realization of your own divine, abiding Self.

Nothing is more empowering than our liberation from the chains that bind us to the mistaken belief that joy is external to us. Distractions, by definition, keep us from this realization, thus leading us astray from our spiritual goal, wasting our time and disparaging our sacred purpose as humans.

And this, we may call spiritual wrongness (presumption #3).

The Long, Swollen Pause

The idea that pauses in conversation are bad has been indelibly etched into our belief system. We even have an expression for this unwanted interval: The awkward silence. Because in our minds, conversation should be a lively flowing exchange. The good conversationalist, we are told, should know how to keep the dialogue moving.

But even in the context of what we would call “small talk,” a well-timed pause is of great benefit; it not only allows for a moment of reflection, but gives a greater sense of intention to what will eventually be said.

In a potentially heated conversation, a befitting pause is not only beneficial, but vital. A deliberate pause can totally prevent fall out. In Kundalini Yoga, we talk a lot about the neutral mind. The simple act of waiting before speaking—for as long as you need to—can bring us there. Yet, as simple as it is, we forget to do it.

The neutral mind is the mind of the sage. It is the mind that stays cool, come what may. So called because it neutralizes our reactive tendency. Staying neutral is easier said than done. Yet we all know someone who is just naturally that way—unaffected by the things that throw most people into melt-down mode. The neutral mind allows you to step back rather than getting sucked into the drama.

This reservoir of calm, called the neutral mind, opens us up to our own intuition—that deep-rooted confidence and conviction that is quite outside of the senses. When our intuition is working, it is like a good radio antenna, which makes us more attuned to information that we don’t pick up through the noise of sense data.

The long, swollen pause is like Lao Tzu’s empty cup—it is that space which the universe can fill. The neutral mind is nonjudgmental. It listens without classifying or condemning. It has to, so that it can receive, rather than impose. And when it does, it’s like a trouble maker getting out of the way. That’s when a connection is made. That’s when the station is tuned in. That’s the state of no separation. That’s when we see through, to the other side of the words—the words that are so baffling: How could he say that??? That’s where we see the cry for help, attention, or  understanding—the true intention behind what is actually uttered (because, remember, people don’t always know how to say what they really want to say).

Finally, it is the neutral mind that is the bridge to reality itself, unfiltered by our triggers and reflexes, and all the story lines that give rise to them. It is pure and unspoiled by our criticism and preferences, and free of all the static that gets in the way of effective response and judgment. In short, it debars the reactive tendency.

As one of my teachers puts it, it is the neutral mind that allows us to see it and then un-see it. The pause is the way. But it takes courage because it means busting through what others expect of us, as well as our own old habits. But the rewards are well worth it because it is the key to effective communication.