Tag Archives: Zen

The Crazy Element that Makes Art… Art

What Does Art Have?—

Aesthetics has always asked, What does all good art have in common? Is there some common denominator? What is art, anyway? What is beauty? There may be more than one answer to those questions. Sometimes art does different things and serves different purposes. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes stood as art (and not Brillo Boxes) because of what they were “saying” about consumer culture. I spoke of that here.

Lessons Unit: Brillo: Is It Art? – The Andy Warhol Museum

As Immanuel Kant said, art invokes within us, a sense of awe and deep pleasure. Like nature, it takes us where words cannot.

This helps us understand what art does, but still feels inconclusive, as far as what art has. Or is.

Yet, after taking great interest in aesthetics as a philosophy student, through my 20s, I still couldn’t answer, at least to my own satisfaction, the question: What does all good art have in common? Even if there are multiple answers, or none at all. (Maybe it’s like asking what religion is… there is no common denominator. Only what scholars have termed “family resemblances.”)

Nonetheless, it is only now, through direct experience, after 30 years of painting in watercolor, and writing poetry… and writing in general, have I started to get a glimpse of what I feel to be a truthful response.

But first, indulge a memory with me… I promise, it’ll bring us back to the question of art!

The Storm Rolling In—

I remember running to the classroom window, pushing aside those heavy beige, vinyl drapes, to see the sky turning dark, and the sudden burst of light that illuminated the asphalt outside. Then the rumble. And the anticipation it brought on… how loud will it get? How close will it come?

It wasn’t merely because we rarely get ferocious storms in Southern California. My excitement, which I still feel when storms approach, reveals more than that. Alluding to Kant again, who recognized that nature most powerfully elicits that sense of awe, that all art is but a kind of exemplar of the sublimity we find in nature, we find our clue as to what makes both art and nature riveting in the same way. And, the storms outside of LA were all the more so.

It was in the Midwest somewhere… we heard it coming. Like a high speed train roaring. Getting closer. As we ran to open the door, the wind pushed it against the wall. Yet, we couldn’t resist and so we charged into the flurry and out into the middle of the street and it felt like the world was coming to an end. We stood and watched with wild hair and our arms outstretched against the electric jet stream of warm air. We were buzzing. Suddenly turned the heavens poured out a river and in 20 minutes, it was gone.

Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience—

I felt that frenzied excitement when I saw John Bonham’s son and his Led Zeppelin Experience last year. My own reaction was totally unexpected. But that’s the whole point, as I’ll explain below. A genuine reaction to art is, and has to be, totally uncontrived. And to do that, the art will possess some element that is wild, like the storms above. More on that in a moment. When those first notes of Immigrant Song exploded, I was, at that moment, like a teenager. I remember jumping up out of my seat, straining on my tiptoes to see… at any cost and discomfort… perhaps managing to blurt out Oh My God a few times because I couldn’t say anything else. Because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Because teenagers do crazy things. Because teenagers have energy (except for when they can’t get out of bed).

Presence (The location of Beginner’s Mind)—

More to the point, a youngster’s sense of physical presence exceeds their mental ruminations. And since thinking is draining, the result is vitality… and there has always been an inverse relationship between presence and the degree to which you are in your head. Meaning, the more you are in your head, in the world of thoughts, the less present you are. It starts when we become adults. When we become rational. Teenagers haven’t gotten there yet. So, they are still free.

That’s why we adults have so much fun at events like that, we don’t just act like teenagers for that moment in time. We become as kids again. Because we are in our bodies… not in our heads. The music (and all art… and nature) is a conduit for feeling. We are feeling the music, and leaving the world of thought behind for that moment. And thus, we have no sense of “should be’s.” We act naturally, in all our exuberance. In Zen, this is what it means to have a “Beginner’s Mind.” To be blissfully ignorant of the world’s ideas and judgments. And so, free to express oneself authentically.

Crazy… It’s The Same Criterion for Both The Artist and The “Feeler”—

It’s not holding back. When a singer moves us it’s because she’s not holding back. She’s willing to sing at the edge, right at the place where her voice might crack. But she’s not concerned with that. She’s not playing it safe. She’s not tightened or constricted or self conscious. It’s what good writers do. It’s what good actors do. She’s doing, in her art form, what we wish we could do in life. She’s purging emotions as we wish we could. And thus, there is a purification process in the art exchange, for both artist and viewer, through the feeling of release.

And so, we’ve come around to what I feel answers the question… What does all good art have in common?

It could be said this way: It’s the element of crazy. Something wild and crazy has to happen in that painting, in the dance, in the routine, in the song, in the performance.

Why? Because art unleashes something that has been laid to rest in the depths of our soul… Ultimately, it’s fear. At the very least, it reveals what we wouldn’t do in “real life.” In that sense, it is therapeutic. It is revelatory. It reveals the capacity to let go and to abandon ourselves. It reveals possibilities we thought weren’t for us… to be whimsical, carefree and unguarded. To be fearless.

Which ultimately means… To be FREE.

When asked, “what does freedom mean to you?“ the iconic singer Nina Simone simply said, “to be fearless.”

But we don’t dare, in our everyday lives. We were taught to be rational. We’re careful. We’re measured. We’re prudent. We’re tight. We don’t dare take a chance!

The Wild Stuff Makes it Special—

It’s the big, bold tree stroke in the foreground of a painting. The stroke that makes you think, as an artist, or someone watching from behind, as you’re about to do it, “Oh no!… You’re going to ruin it!“ because the background was done so carefully. Reason will dictate… Leave well enough alone.

That’s where art steps in. Art messes it all up, like crazy hair. Like that sky that turned black before it opened up and flooded the streets for those 20 minutes.

Art is where convention is, ipso facto, irrelevant, since creativity is by its very definition, the birthing, or the configuration of something new. And this process often looks weird or wild or simply… crazy. To be clear, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean harmful. Nor necessarily loud. But it does mean bold… in myriad ways. Think John Cage in his silent symphony. Think Marina Abromovic, in her meditative, interactive art. Think Cindy Sherman in her performance pieces, which feature herself as objet d’art, in different guises. All pushed boundaries and convention in their own weird and wonderful way. Keep in mind, to sit still is bold. To be quiet is bold.

In a more prosaic example, I remember seeing footage of Joe Cocker singing at Woodstock, as a girl… I asked my mom what was wrong with him… why was he shaking? Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

Nothing new? The row over Marina Abramović's next show | Apollo ...

Beginner’s Mind—

It’s that element of crazy, again. It feels like freedom—the most basic human requirement. It’s the quality of being uncontrived. The Zen masters call naturalness. And it springs forth from the “Beginners Mind,” which is a mind that is free of concepts. In plain terms, it is a mind that is free of the “should be’s”. Free from fear of failure. Free from the corruption of other people’s judgments and opinions. Free from the rules of convention that we spoke of. Totally spontaneous and totally yourself. Joe Cocker let the spirit move through him (and the drugs). Cindy Sherman had to disappear, in a sense, in order to become the characters she became.

A Strange and Perfect Pairing of Chutzpah and Selflessness—

It’s chutzpah. It’s bold. It’s brave. It breaks the rules. It can’t be tamed. It’s why every new genre has to break from the past. It’s rock and roll. And by rock and roll, I don’t only mean rock and roll as we think of it today. Using it loosely at this moment, I mean that which possesses that quality of boldness that I have been speaking of… Vivaldi, by this standard, was as rock and roll as it gets, with his reputed flamboyance and innovative spirit. He just couldn’t “plug in.” He was wild, like all rockers, who do whatever the hell they want to do. They scream and yell and kick and move their hips, like Elvis. They growl like Gregg Allman and Leon Russell… just growl on tune!

But, in some measure of paradox, the artist has to lose himself, through the boldness. Or, said differently, the boldness must not come from ego, lest it be contrived, which is the antithesis of beginner’s mind. And the same is true for the viewer. And together, the journey is taken into abandon. And this is freedom.

It’s what good acting does… The actor loses himself. He lets go of control, for that moment. He becomes the character, as effort gives way to effortlessness. It’s why Joshua Bell, the violinist, once said that at the moment of performance, all practicing is let go of. He has to trust at that moment that it’s in his bones.

The Enzo Brings it Back Around—

enso-zen-circle

The Japanese Enzo displays this element of naturalness and spontaneity. Which is wild and irrational in its appearance of not-caring. And… free. Like all good calligraphy, you would never “go back over it.” Because perfection has nothing to do with it. Because perfection is in the head! The question is rather, is it “felt?” Not, “did you think it through?” Were you inspired at that moment? Was it free? Was it confident (and thus, bold)? Was it authentic?

Like me, at that concert… when we act naturally, out of beginner’s mind, there is no limiting or constraining sense of “should be”… there’s no sense of embarrassment. There’s no sense of “not good enough.” Like the wild storm, you just pummel through and do what you came to do… with no inhibition.

For a plant or a stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem… The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. Then you have naturalness. ~Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryo Suzuki)

In this way, art conveys what we wish we could be in “real life.” We long for that spirit of abandon. It’s why we love road trips; it’s why we love falling in love (“we are not in our right mind”… it’s been called a kind of temporary insanity, but we love it). That’s why we miss being children.

The Magic that Happens in Stillness (The Four C’s”)

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In stillness… You go beyond the words and the names, behind the labels and the judgments, beneath the doubts and the mental commentary… to the raw experience of now. At this level of awareness, the distinctions between breather and breath, seer and seen, listener and sound, experiencer and experience, past and future… and between self and other… become blurry. There is just Christ consciousness… Om… emptiness… pure presence… samadhi… enlightenment… Source.

Any of the tools of spiritual practice serve as keys for entry. Breath, sound, prayer… or being in nature.

There is an anecdote about Buddha, and how breath is used to get to this place of stillness:

“How do you attain enlightenment?” One disciple asked.

“Simply be aware of your breathing,” he replied.

It’s not that the breath is all that interesting. It’s only a convenient focusing device. I remember my own Zen teacher calling it a “gimmick.” Zen teachers can be cheeky that way. He was driving home the simplicity of it… focusing on your breath gives your mind something to do, other than spin circles around. The Christians use prayer. The dervishes use the spinning motion of the body.

Out of the mind and into the body. And ultimately… into pure presence.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There’s magic and power there!

Not willpower… Because that would be about asserting the ego. That would be a self-righteous, “pushy” kind of power. That would be an agenda-driven, attachment-charged kind of power.

No. This kind of power comes from what Buddhists call the “unstuck mind.“ We’re not only aware of everything; we’re aware with everything.

In this place of alignment (which is always by degree, as long as we’re in human form) we are able to tap into what I have coined, The Four C’s”:

1. CONNECTION… This is the state of oneness that all spiritual traditions describe. This is the basic meaning of Yoga, “to connect.” Because now the divisive shell of ego has melted down.

2. COMFORT… This is the state of calmness, in which we feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is the place of surrender. It feels like everything is going to be okay. It feels safe. Because now the insecurities and fears of the ego self have subsided.

3. CLARITY… This is the state in which we are in touch with what is right for our soul, rather than the habit momentum of earthly addictions. Because here, the loud and conflicted voice of the ego has quieted.

4. CREATIVITY… This is the state in which we tap into what Law of Attraction calls, “the energy that creates worlds.” Because here, with the conventional routines of ego in the backseat, the flow of Chi is destined to expand.

I Don’t Have to Figure It All Out Right Now

A very simple question:

What’s the big deal about Now?

I remember one of the advanced monks asking this question to Roshi, at a Zen meditation retreat, many years ago. From Ram Dass’ 1971 classic, Be Here Now, to Eckhart Tolle’s contemporary bestseller, The Power of Now, and the ubiquitous self-help emphasis on mindfulness, it warrants the asking. It has become standard among mental health practitioners to champion this most basic of meditation practices, for its proven benefits for those suffering from depression, to PTSD to the more benign, but inescapable varieties of generalized anxiety, all as common as daily bread. And surgeons recommend it for pre-treatment nerves, as well as post-op recovery. Mindfulness is, at its most simple rendering, the ongoing act of bringing your attention to this present moment… here and now.

Sooo…..

What’s the big deal about Now?

First, let’s answer that question with another question…

Because… What if this moment, here and now, is full of pain and misery? (Why would we want to be present with it?)

The answer to this last question, is that this present moment is not full of anything, at all. It is only our heads that are full of commentary, or as my Zen teacher used to say, ruminations. He loved that word. It comes from the Latin word for chewing. Makes sense. We like to chew on stuff. And chew some more. Then, chew some more. Even when — and there usually isn’t, unless you’re solving some mathematical equation — there’s no nutritive value left in whatever it is you’re chewing on.

Why do we do this?

It’s a compulsion. And we all do it. We are all obsessive compulsive. We’re problem solvers. We want to figure out that which can’t be figured out. We want to solve… even when it’s unsolvable. And know the unknowable. We want to have all the answers, ironically… right now. We’re not so good with the idea that there’s more to come, just around the bend… and relaxing with that. It makes us feel nervous and insecure not to be sure… not to be certain about things. Although, as denoted in the Alan Watts book that started it all for me, The Wisdom of Insecurity, there is an unmistakable prudence in simply letting life dance its dance. We don’t obsess about getting to the end of the dance, or rush to get there.

When we can summon up enough faith to do that, we will have enabled within ourselves a different relationship with this moment.

And that is the answer to the first question… it’s not the now, that has so much importance, it’s our relationship to the now. When we’re living easily with what is happening now, then we will be resistance free. And being resistance free is what every spiritual tradition, everywhere, from the beginning of time, has extolled.

And how do we do that?

After 30 years of practice, I still wouldn’t call myself an expert at it. At all. But, that’s why they call it a practice. It’s never really, fully and finally, accomplished. But, I do like the Abraham-Hicks access code:

I don’t have to figure it all out, right now.

This is like a golden key. A doorway into the state of nonresistance… into a more peaceful relationship with whatever this moment holds. Use it like a mantra. Say it to yourself when panic taps its familiar tap. It works because it’s general. If it were more detailed, and applied to some specific problem, the mind would find some argument, and the ruminations would continue. But in generalized form, it dislodges the ruminations.

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Be Neutral; Be Knowing; Be Glowing

Yogi Bhajan - in whiteOn occasion, I receive messages from Yogi Bhajan, who I think of as Yogiji because the ji functions as a term of endearment. Sometimes I share these messages and others, I simply tuck away into a journal, to be compiled in a book, one day.

But along with this particular message, was the injunction that it be shared. It came as a response to a personal plea for strength, as I have recently been going through a demanding life-challenge. Here is the message, followed by my interpretations of each of the three parts:

Be Neutral; Be Knowing; Be Glowing

Be Neutral—

Meaning, don’t “emotionalize” as you go about your business; just go about your business.

In other words, refrain from running stories in your head about how wrong the other person is…how out of line the company is…how unjust the situation is, etc., etc. It’s not for us to play the role of judge. And anyway, victim consciousness is the lowest form of consciousness (since nothing that happens is personal—more on this below).

But it also doesn’t mean you sit and do nothing when conflict or wrong has occurred. When you’ve already tried to settle the situation peaceably to no avail, you proceed by going through appropriate channels, but without additional energy wasted on vengeful thoughts. (As Zen says, that would be like wearing two heads!)

In short, don’t “personalize” the situation or the other person’s actions, since, those actions were never about you, anyway, they were always about the other—betraying their own state of consciousness. And on a more metaphysical level, those actions are merely impersonal obstacles, like little mazes meant to navigate, so as to reap the lessons they offer, and to able to then move on, and nothing more.

Be Knowing—

My own teacher, Guru Singh, was one of Yogiji’s first students. This is a line from one of his devotional songs, called “Fortunate:”

To be confident that the infinite will take care of it…

This line best sums up the meaning of the second part of Yogiji’s message. It asks us to know, to really know, in our heart, that the universe is truly supporting us.

You are divinely guided! You really do have angels. And what’s more, you have more inner resources than you ever imagined.

Whatever name we call it by…God, the divine, the supreme infinite...doesn’t matter. It means there’s no reason to worry.

Don’t live in fear—have faith. Surrender. And once you do, you’ll see the beauty all around you, as well as all the signs that your angels (in the form of helpers in your life or in spirit), are carrying you.

Consider that whatever challenge you are facing is akin to what mystics have characteristically referred to as “the dark night of the soul,” which always precedes the light! It is a time of reordering, in which something has to die in order for something more beautiful and infinitely more liberating to be born. And this necessitates a kind of chaos, as all birthing experiences do.

But open your heart to faith throughout the process—outrageous faith…faith in your own mission, which comes in the form of divine instructions and your courage to finally listen and follow these instructions! This is freedom, this is light.

Be Glowing—

This is a reminder that our true power and strength is on the inside and this will supersede any physical situation. Meaning, whatever your situation or challenge is, it is of little consequence to fret about possible outcomes, especially those based on what other people’s experiences have been, based on google searches, or based on hearsay. Your inner glow and light, which radiates outward and is felt by all who come near you, will affect the material context in ways that others are unable to understand. It’s like a secret.

~Donna Quesada

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.