•March 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m at a place that feels a lot like New Culture Camp. A lot of concerns about, is everything packed, and logistics. Renee is with us. We go downstairs and plan what we’re going to do. I don’t really see the need for this kind of planning. I’m about to go to sleep; there are two beds in my room but my roommate hasn’t shown up yet, if I have one. My mother is in the den and I’m sitting on the couch (parts of it feel like the house). At one point my mother says that I left a bunch of stuff outside my door, toiletries or something, and this upsets her somehow.

I have a lot of transcription stuff to do, but our schedule was that we would go to lunch together. I wanted to participate in the whole schedule. I realize I need gas, so I go to the gas station at the center of Oxford (again, parts of this feel like home, parts not) and I ask for gas. They tell me I can get $10 at a time out of an ATM or from a clerk that they point to. So I go inside and there’s a room with a really sloped floor. When I look in the mirror, I see that the shirt I have on is a very feminine tank top thing that doesn’t really suit me. Someone gave it to me, and it says something on it, but I don’t remember what. I realize there are ways to adjust it and even give it sleeves somehow. I also put on this blonde wig, and when I look in the mirror, it just works. It doesn’t look anything like “me” but it WORKS. The colours, everything matches so well. A guy tells me, “Go ahead,” in the way he might say it to a woman, and it feels really good. I dance or at least I really want to dance. To the left of this lighter, sloped room is the cashier window. I decide to take $20 out and then think it might be a little too much — then realize I don’t have to use ALL of it for gas.

I go back to the sloped room. There are actually a lot of friends with me, all girls, and I see them all run up the slope and out a door into someplace else. I ask them, “Where are you going?” but they don’t answer me. So I run up and through the door and through so many different rooms and corridors, looking for them. I end up in a place where this other group is having a meeting. I ask them if they know where my group might have gone. They tell me my group left me. They overheard people in my group saying, quote, “I’m done giving my support to men.” This confuses me and hurts me and I have no idea what it means.,,

 

Rosh Hashanah, finding ground and rootedness

•September 30, 2008 • 1 Comment

Not until after this sort of breakthrough did I realize it was Rosh Hashanah.

The overwhelm has not really gone away but I notice in it a sort of longing.  Suddenly early this evening I found myself inexplicably attracted to Judaism and thinking, I need to find a synagogue. I want to remember my roots — which to some extent are Jewish. I feel like Judaism is really the only way I can connect with my roots both culturally and spiritually. Catholicism of my French and Italian ancestors is not so much rooted — it doesn’t feel as deep or connected to heritage, or like something I could really celebrate.

But with Judaism, not only do I feel rooted, I feel grounded. At least that’s my sense of it so early on. Now, Judaism in some ways reminds me of the Native path of walking in beauty, and the Buddhist appreciating what is — my idealized image of Buddhism is slowly sipping tea out of a nice mug while sitting by the river. Really what I appreciate about so many traditions are simplicity and apprecitation of beauty and finding power in that simplicity. The notion that the simplst action can change the world. That attracts me to Buddhism and also to Judaism.

I have felt vaguely Christian all my life but have never been quite sure what that meant. I didn’t know what it meant to live it. I love the Gospels but I need more than just following Jesus’ model. I needed some kind of active, deliberate practice — actions beyond simply guidance about how I should live my life. I needed something I could feel, guidelines if not strict rules regarding observances that might help me connect with the divine.

I like meditation and sweat lodges because they are participatory and creative practices. I haven’t really been able to find that in Christianity. Communion is about the closest to that that I can think of, but Judaism somehow fits me in ways other traditions do not, if not necessarily in terms of belief, then in terms of attitude and approach. Washing one’s sins away in a river… so many sensual aspects of Jewish life and ritual.

I think the sacredness of the Christian sabbath has often been lost by many, but in Judaism, it still seems very much alive, and not something done for God to be pious, but for our own enjoyment. Shabbat is a treat. The power of words and actions in Judaism, as I said, is beautiful to me. A sense of our innate goodness as people which doesn’t necessarily find itself in Christian tradition is important to me. The importance of awe in my life is very Jewish; the importance of enjoying and celebrating what is here to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Buddhist practices are valuable to me, but something is missing there: to be a Buddhist wouldn’t necessarily help me live every day in awe and wonder. So much of it, when it gets down to the no-self and all of that, is a bit confusing to me. It isn’t my culture, either. i suppose what is missing there is a place for my longing and a psychological approach that at least in some way resonates with my Western psyche. I love Buddhist practice, but to make it my entire life, there are certain needs of the Western psyche — or at least mine — that Buddhism doesn’t seem to address. Particularly, Buddhism just doesn’t give me those cultural and hereditary roots.

I’ve thought lately about spiritual community — that, in many ways, a reason to get involved in a particular tradition, for me, would be that I resonate with a community of people. I thought about Christianity. People like Thomas Merton and Howard Thurman and Matthew Fox could inspire me to be Christian but where are the communities built on their visions?

For a long time I have had nothing to say about who I am spiritually — quite a few years — it used to just overwhelm me and remind me that I didn’t know anything. Every time I tried to write about it, it came to nothing. But now I think I may be getting somewhere. I’m able to talk about it — not precisely about what I believe about the nature of the divine, but about the nature of the relationship I seek to have with the divine.

The Digital Transcription Service

•August 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I haven’t posted lately as I’ve been working on getting a small transcription business off the ground. It’s the Digital Transcription Service and we specialize in the transcription of digital audio relating to sustainability, personal growth, and human rights. We’ll transcribe just about everything but we find this particular focus most rewarding. So far, our clients have been awesome. I love the opportunity to network with such interesting people. We’ll transcribe everything from focus groups about how to best bring bicycle infrastructure to a city, to radio interviews about therapeutic journaling, to podcasts about human rights. Our website is also going to host a sustainability blog, and it will be a resource on right livelihood: how to make a living and simultaneously do good in the world.

Our website is going to undergo a lot of changes in the next few weeks so stay tuned. I’d actually like the blog on my website to be this one — bringing a sacred dimension to business! — but I’m not sure yet how to do that.

On Hopelessness

•December 22, 2007 • 4 Comments

I wrote this meditation on hope and hopelessness on 9/11/2007 and a friend suggested I post it anywhere that’s appropriate.

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by frost.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

In some ways we obviously minimise the challenges that our planet faces, but I think some of us who are acutely aware of these challenges take an alarmist attitude that, while understandable, may be based on fear and conditioning as much as actual knowledge about the forces shaping the future. I’ve met people who are absolutely convinced that we’re screwed. It is obvious to me that humans are doing some insane and stupid things that seem capable of throwing the earth metaphorically (and actually) off its axis, and that it’s necessary that we take immediate action to reverse these trends, but our knowledge about how royally we’re screwing up doesn’t equate to knowledge about how complex dynamic forces will actually unfold and shape the future; how risilient nature is when put to the test; how resilient humans are when put to the test. The view that we’re doomed and that our problems are insurmountable is just that, a view — and others with the same information come to different conclusions. Some people in sustainability circles seem to look at the mainstream structures and bemoan, “If only you had the truth,” forgetting that, really, they don’t have the truth, either. No one posesses the full truth; and humility as to our not knowing is important. We may see the pain others are causing, but we must acknowledge that we don’t have the truth, either. Yes, we may be closer to it, in some sense, but we don’t have it. Jesus said on the cross “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What did they not know? Perhaps they didn’t know what suffering they brought to themselves in the act of killing another. Perhaps they didn’t know they were crucifying the Son of God. But even those who cherished Jesus and saw the cruelty of the crucifixion did not really know what was done. They did not and couldn ot know that in this event lay the salvation of humanity. And the full meaning of that is a mystery; simply, we don’t know how spirit moves, and that’s a blessing.

This isn’t to say that we should dismiss theories such as global warming because we “just don’t know”; rather, we should take them very seriously, and accept the worst-case scenario as a precautionary principle of action. There’s a concept from engaged Buddhism: committed action, non-attachment to outcome, which is extremely powerful and incredibly difficult to put into practice. I think that the extent that one is able to put this into practice is the extent to which we’re truly living. There are so many examples in my own life where attachment to outcome prevents a fully engaged, present, committed action. I’m afraid of losing love so I’m unable to be fully present for it. I’m afraid of death so I’m unable to be fully present for life. It seems that truly committed action — action that comes from our core and deepest vitality — can help us achieve non-attachment to outcome; and non-attachment to outcome can help us learn committed action. I’m getting some chills at having just made this connection; but it’s just as Morrie Schwartz says in the wonderful book Tuesdays with Morrie: “Learn how to live, and you’ll know how to die; learn how to die, and you’ll learn how to live.” Learn to be a little less attached and we can be more present and committed. Learn to be more present and committed and we can be a little less attached. That is, we can truly live; and be free. This is a powerful exercise, from the Maverick Sutras, that I should probably make it a habit of practicing. I originally heard about it from Gil Fronsdal, and here it’s put so well. Simply, remind yourself every now and then, “I don’t know.” “Not-knowing is unlimited; knowledge is limited. Not-knowing is the ground of mystery, the land of wonder; a haven to be visited daily. It is the source of creativity, inventiveness, and tranquility all in one. Not-knowing is the only place from which freshness can emerge. Of all the knowledge which you consider ‘yours,’ how much is merely the leavings, the conditioning of others? What have you truly learned on your own, through observation, intuition, enquiry? Return to not-knowing! Rest there a while. Expect nothing. Then emerge gently to view the world with fresh eyes. Not-knowing. Go there daily! This is meditation, rejuvenation, the source of creativity, even therapy, all rolled into one.”

Those with a spirituality too focused on the earth may suffer from hopelessness; but for me bringing my awareness to the cosmic dimension of spirituality — gaze at the stars with wonder and maybe you’ll know what I mean — is an anodyne to this hopelessness. To quote once again that amazing poem by Patricia Lay-Dorsay, “But it’s OK if sometimes we’re out of balance because the Universe goes on whether we’re along for the ride or not.” She continues, “Nothing humanity can do will disrupt the perfect balance of the Universe. We are not that powerful. Even though our choices can throw certain elements like climate species survival land and water ecology out of whack nothing we can do will throw off the beauty of the Universe itself.” This to me is a perfect example of balancing our caring for the earth with a cosmic perspective that cannot possibly allow us to be stuck in hopelessness. The entire poem, which I think I will get into the habit of reading every day, or at least every week, in order to allow its wisdom to seep into the fibers of my being, can be found here. I think a person has to have a pretty developed cosmic spirituality in order to deal in a dignified way with the despair one encounters everywhere if one takes the time to look at world events and the consequences of our way of life; and I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t want to unwittingly open for anyone a door into awareness of the challenges we face who lacked such a spirituality (or some mature — uninhibiting of actualisation — way of coping.) Of course, deep pain is often the yeast of an expanded spiritual sense; but I see people who are lifeless, because they’ve cared so much, and have given up hope because they think they know. It’s very uncomfortable to be around such people.

For a long time Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been for me a model of this sort of cosmic spirituality. It’s a perfect allegory for modern times. As Gandalf says: “Despair, or folly? It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” For Gandalf reminds us, “Even the wise cannot see all ends.” Some people delude themselves with the strength of their conviction that the future is hopeless. They see the end beyond all doubt, or they think they do. Perhaps they’re afraid to live in uncertainty and would rather choose hopelessness over that. In any case, I’m awed by Tolkien’s work, and its spiritual relevance for modernity. I think I’m going to ask a friend to read the Lord of the Rings with me; it brings me spiritual nourishment, and the idea of reading with someone makes me happy.

We talked about this on Saturday: our focus on the negative, our despair, may very well be a product of our cultural upbringing. To seek out the good that is happening, and to believe that such good things are possible, is a rebellious act. I wonder: how do other cultures deal with despair? What are the psychological processes that various cultures have used to come back into balance? How do existential issues manifest themselves cross-culturally? I haven’t begun to explore these questions, but I’m thinking about this possibility: even the despair that leads us to deny the possibility of a positive future may be culturally conditioned; and, perhaps moreso, the way we relate to our feelings of despair may be culturally conditioned. I’m aware that in certain situations and around certain people, I am more connected than despairing; and in other situations and around other people, it’s all but obvious that hope is dead. In both situations I’m exposed to the same information, so why is my attitude, and hence my orientation towards hope, so very diffent in these two sitautions? What this says to me is that hope and hopelessness don’t originate in facts. A person who is hopeless isn’t so because of the facts before her. Hopelessness does not derive from the intellect. It’s influenced by something more subtle: our orientation towards life; the orientations of those around us; our spirituality; what we focus on; our cultural conditioning; our general mood prior to being exposed to the information. Here’s my hunch: put me in a room of ten people discussing global warming, peak oil, or species extinction who look at the facts and determine the situation is hopeless, and I’ll feel pretty hopeless, too. But put me in a room of ten people discussing the same information, but who are hopeful and have a spiritual strength with a cosmic reach, and I’m likely to feel pretty hopeful (nay, a better word: reslient) as well. I may assume the reason I’m hopeless because of the facts themselves, but really, it has a lot less to do with the facts, and a lot more to do with the people around me (among other situational and existential factors) than I give credit; I don’t want to admit that I am so easily influenced, so I think it’s the facts that have made me hopeless. I can remind myself, when I feel despair and hopelessness, that these feelings are not me. What’s more, these feelings aren’t even in the facts themselves; they’re just interpretations. Our hopelessness is not a product of the facts but of the orientation we develop within ourselves; which is influenced in part by the people we surround ourselves with, the millieu of our entire culture, past experience, and maybe even the fact that it’s a cold and dreary day. In the end, we really don’t know. And that’s powerful.

There’s so much more I want to write, about a lot of things, but I think that’s the end of my ruminations on hopelessness. The world will never be without suffering and it’s not meant to be; we’ll always be disappointed if that’s what we’re expecting; but the universe is beautiful, and the source of our earth’s beauty is something we can never destroy. Somehow I’ve been able to write this in a way I haven’t been able to write in years. It feels pretty good. There are many more things I have to say — and hopefully I’ll be able to say them in a way that feels as good as this feels — but this is what I’ll share, for tonight.

The depth of prayer and grace: everyday life as casual banter with God

•December 19, 2007 • 3 Comments

I haven’t written in months because I have been in the very midst of awe. I’ve been in the midst of some of the most astounding and baffling synchronicity I’ve ever known, a synchronicity that seems always to be guiding me in precisely the direction I need to be guided. I’m not quite sure how to begin describing it to someone who has never experienced this before, but I think I can offer some guidelines for someone who might sense that this is what they need: first ask for it, pray for it in earnest; then keep your eyes open and watch for anything that suggests something to you, anything that might be a sign; finally, follow your heart, trust, and surrender. I’ve learned about awe these past few months. I’ve learned about grace. I’ve been reading a lot of Paulo Coelho lately, because the magical way the universe functions in his books, is precisely how the universe now seems to function for me on an everyday basis. That famous quote from The Alchemist never felt so true: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

My life has been so full of awe that I’ve written all about it in my personal journal but somehow neglected this one! What I’ve written there, and I say this in the humblest way I know how, seems to be divinely inspired. I believe we are all capable of writing that is divinely inspired, but lately, I feel it acutely: what I write seems to flow through me from something deeper and wiser than my conscious self. Perhaps I will share some of my entries from that journal here. I feel this writing needs a wider audience…

I’ve learned a lot about the patterns we find in our lives. Often life’s transformative power is greatest when on the surface it feels the most stagnant. Life had been stagnant for me. I wondered whether anything new might emerge for me, but all the while, something was indeed moving beneath the surface. I was struggling with an existential loneliness. And yet, the universe seemed to be communicating with me in deep and casual ways, and I couldn’t help but attach meaning to this. The synchronicities were so incredible that I couldn’t help but feel connected. I couldn’t help but cry at such frequent and beautiful manifestations of grace.

I’m not sure when it started. Over the summer I attended an alternative education conference in Troy New York that helped me transform and discover so much about myself. Part of what I needed to learn there is that oppression is not inevitable; that there is always the possibility of living with hope and dignity. That weekend unfolded almost magically, and at the end of it, I sat on a dock on the Hudson River. I poured the waters of that river over my head, and over my heart, in gratitude. I simply meditated on the coolness of the river, this bearer of life, and gave thanks. I prayed. It was not until this year, perhaps, that I discovered how transformative prayer could actually be. I prayed that I might continue to find that which “reflects me, helps me feel my life, protects me, cradles me and connects me to everything” (from, one of my favourite songs, The Hudson, by Dar Williams). I couldn’t have imagined a better weekend, but just then, I looked out onto the water and saw the most beautiful rainbow. There were no rain clouds in sight, but I saw a rainbow. It lasted a few minutes, and I stood there incredulous. This was grace…

The weekend was so transformative but it took me quite a while to integrate everything. I became quite sensitive to everything. One night I felt particularly lonely — existentially lonely — and a friend suggested I look up at the stars and ask the universe a simple question: “What’s up?” Beware the power of such words. He told me that, when he asked this simple but powerful question, his life became simultaneously easier and more difficult, but it aligned him with exactly where he needed to be. So, at first fearful, I got up the courage to ask this powerful question of the universe. Right away the universe seemed to respond to me in a new way. It was bizarre: I’m not sure whether I actually expected anything to happen. Life started moving so fast. Synchronicity became “synchronicity on steroids” as I termed it. Life propelled me in the most unexpected directions.

A few days later, I took a late night walk, and hoped that I might encounter a shooting star. Already on this particular night, everything seemed to come together, to connect me — so many synchronicities I can’t begin to remember them all — but I especially remember walking through a brightly lit parking lot, not even looking directly at the sky, when I saw a bright shooting star dash across the horizon. I couldn’t have missed it. I cried that night. I felt a divine embrace. I knew I wasn’t alone. That night, during the walk, I listened to John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High for the first time: “You can talk to God, hear the casual reply.” The synchronicity around that wouldn’t be complete until weeks later when I discovered, while sharing this story with my new love, that the previous line was: “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”

Grace. It happens all the time. It is most glorious when it happens in nature with rainbows and shooting stars and waterfalls and wind and rain and lightning. When we lose nature we lose such a significant source of grace. What I have shared here are just some of the bare essentials of my experience over the last few months that have put me on a new path forever. If you were to look closer, you’d see a fractal: divine guidance and synchronicity at every level of detail, from the most trivial, to the most cosmic. We are all capax Dei; capable of God.

I had kept a journal for over seven years. I hardly ever read back through older entries, reflecting on my past, but now I felt so connected to mystery and to cosmic patterns in my life, that I felt compelled to explore my past in order to understand my present circumstances. So, I undertook a project of reading and reflecting on my journals from the very beginning. And an incredible project it turned out to be.

On the morning of November 5th I wrote:

“My hope had always been that when I found a girl to share life with we would on some special day sit side by side and read through my old journals together. This was not a narcissistic wish — I would with as much delight sit through her journal — but rather, it was a desire to offer the gift of my past to a special person, so that we might relive together what we had experienced apart. Over the last few weeks I’ve felt an inner imperative to begin exploring my journals, even though I happen to have no one to share them with, and when I did, I discovered that I’ve forgotten so many of the details, and that the story of my life has been beautiful. I realised I had been neglecting my past. Disowning it. But my past is to be loved! To disown my past is to disown myself, because my past is here — the entire journey converges in this very moment. Without it I would not be me. Learning where I came from tells me so much about who I am.”

It was simply the right time to confront my past — with or without a love by my side. The process amazed me. My past was not a random collection of events but a beautifully-woven tapestry that had pattern and meaning behind it. Again, November 5th: “I see in so many ways that my life has a trajectory, a purpose, and I feel so… ecstatic… when I see so clearly in my own life what Billy Jonas sang: “you do what you do what you do and the light comes through.” It does. And I’m seeing meaning in the most “insignificant” events in the past that were symbols of my journey, clues to who I was to become. I’m seeing my life with a mythic consciousness. Everything has meaning!!! …. It feels like I’m going through years of therapy all at once. I’ve forgotten so many of the influences that shaped me. Reading through my journal, I actually love myself more. It’s blowing my mind. I read my past entries and suddenly who I am makes sense! What I value in life makes so much sense — I see myself becoming myself — and I see the experiences in which these values originated …. Rereading my journal, I have more self-esteem. Maybe it’s temporary. I realise that some of my self-esteem and confidence issues are carried over from various times in the past when I was a very different person! It doesn’t make sense to feel this way about myself because of something that’s no longer part of my identity!”

It was that very day — November 5th — that I stumbled upon the girl that I would be able to read through my journals with, a girl that I knew I loved, from the very first sense of presence, and she knew she loved me. Those intuitions have been confirmed, in the following weeks, beyond my wildest expectations, and I never knew such a connection was possible.

When I told my friend — the one who suggested I ask the universe what’s up — that all this synchronicity had culminated in literally stumbling upon the love of my life one day, he responded: “ask and ye shall recieve, well, at least sometimes……prayer is VERY surreally powerful when it works. it can seem as if creator guides us, especially those who are doing its work. ask to be put in the right place, and you often are put there. and the road can be rocky and transformative, but always growth producing.”

I have much to share, but a bit at a time…

For now, here are the lyrics to the song which helps me connect with the meaning and depth in life every time I listen to it:

The Hudson
by Dar Williams

If we’re lucky we feel our lives
know when the next scene arrives
so often we start in the middle and work our way out

we go to some grey sky diner for eggs and toast
New York Times or the New York Post
then we take a ride through the valley of the shadow of death
but even for us New Yorkers, there’s a time in every day
the river takes our breath away

And the Hudson, it holds the life
we thought we did it on our own

The river roads collect the tolls
for the passage of our souls
through silent silver woods and flowers and snow,
and past the George Washington Bridge,
down from the trails of Breakneck Ridge,
the river’s ancient path is sacred and slow

And as it swings through Harlem,
it’s every shade of blue
into the city of the new brand new

And the Hudson, it holds the life
we thought we did it on our own
I thought I had no sense of place or past
time was too slow, but then too fast
the river takes us home at last

Where and when does the memory take hold,
mountain range in the Autumn cold
and I thought West Point was Camelot in the spring.
If you’re lucky you’ll find something that reflects you,
helps you feel your life protects you,
cradles you and connects you to everything.
This whole life I remember as they begged them to itself
never turn me into someone else

And the Hudson, it holds the life
we thought we did it on our own

And the Hudson, holds the life
we thought we did it on our own

Buddhist Psychology: a different way of thinking about ourselves

•August 13, 2007 • 11 Comments

Western psychology tends to speak of the unconscious. There are notable exceptions — even James Hillman, whose work is with imagination and archetype, never mentions the unconscious — but since Freud, the unconscious has played a major role in the way we think about and understand ourselves. I tend to think of the unconscious as a vast inner storage space that contains all my memories, my pain, my desires, my habits, and everything else I’m not explicitly aware of at the moment, and perhaps will never be. I’m sure I’m not alone in forgetting that the unconscious is merely a model, just one metaphor describing how we seem to function. We speak of the unconscious as a realm, a place deep within us, and Freud spoke of dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious.” The unconscious is a place, an aspect of ourselves, and we have a tendency to identify with it.

If the unconscious is a place, it makes sense to say, “There is so much anger in me.” It makes sense to say “There is so much sadness in me, how can I ever be happy? I need to get rid of that sadness somehow before I can ever be happy…” We have a tendency to think of the unconscious as a storage space, as containing things, whereas Andrew Olendzki suggests that “the foundation of Buddhist psychology is a process view of personhood.” In the Buddhist view, anger simply arises and disappears, arises and disappears. Sadness arises and goes away. Phenomena come and phenomena go; the sadness and anger are not “always there.” That perception probably causes a lot of suffering. We may even feel happy, but as soon as we remember how “messed up” we are, how much pain we have “in there,” we convince ourselves that actually we’re not happy, and the happiness we were experiencing just a moment ago is nowhere to be found. We tell ourselves, “This isn’t the way I really am. This won’t last. I’m not a happy person. I’m an anxious person,” and so we fail to appreciate the moment of happiness. The happiness goes away! Buddhism tells us that one of the main causes of suffering is the attempt to cling to identity. We’re always reminding ourselves of the reasons we shouldn’t be happy. We think we can’t be happy because we identify with all the crap we assume is down there in the unconscious. As long as we have that story, how can we be happy?

While Western psychology speaks of the unconscious, of this “realm” that one can encounter by traveling down the “royal road,” Buddhist psychology takes a process view and speaks of seeds. Seeds are potentials. We each have within us the seed of anger, of joy, of love, of appreciation, and we can choose whether to cultivate these seeds or not. If we cultivate them, they’re more likely to arise, but the wonderful thing about Buddhist psychology is that, until they arise, they are merely potentials! What matters is the present moment and our experience here and now. Rather than saying “I have so much anger inside of me,” and identifying with that, a Buddhist approach might suggest that, yes, I have great potential for anger, it arises easily within me, but it’s not true that it’s there all the time; or that I am “full” of anger; it arises when it arises, and when it’s not arising, it’s merely a potential. I was sitting in meditation a few days ago and it occurred to me how wonderful this was! At moments when I am not feeling anger, it’s simply not there! The potential for it is there, as it is in everyone, but that’s all. It’s a seed. When I’m experiencing happiness, I’m really experiencing happiness! When I’m experiencing calm, I’m really experiencing calm! The Western mind, trained to think in terms of the unconscious, might think: “Yes, I feel happy now, but deep down, I’m miserable.” A person is likely to water the seeds of misery this way. Too often the stories we tell ourselves, even in the name of psychological healing, water the seeds of misery. We tell ourselves we are a certain way. That we are depressed, that we are angry, that our hearts have been irreparably wounded, that there’s something wrong with us. It can be so valuable to pay attention to moments in our day when we are not depressed or angry. We may want to tell a story about ourselves based on the unconscious, but the Buddhist perspective reminds us, “No, this is happiness. This is the moment. Anger isn’t here right now. Sadness isn’t here right now. Depression isn’t here right now. Enjoy.” Every moment matters. Every moment is an opportunity to choose to water healthy seeds and not water unhealthy ones. Olendzki writes, “[The doctrine of independent origination] elucidates how the present mind moment is influenced by preceding mental states, and how present states condition succeeding moments of experience.” That is, in every moment, we have the opportunity to condition the experience of the next. The seeds we water in this moment affect the next one.

Our experiences of depression or grief or fear might be pretty manageable if it weren’t for the looming possibility that somehow they consume our identity. “I feel depressed now, and I’ll always feel depressed!” We even say “I *am* depressed.” We identify with it and can’t imagine feeling any other way. In meditation we see that one session is so very different from the next, that the constant thoughts coursing through one’s mind are gone just a few hours later and replaced by, say, a sadness, or an excitement, or a calmness, and we come to the realisation that life is always changing. We will never “always be this way.” It may not be that we are depressed, but rather, that an experience of depression is happening to us. I am sitting in meditation with great anxiety, believing I will never again be calm, and the very next day, I’m sitting in meditation, and I’m experiencing a considerable calmness. Conditions change. We don’t think they will, but they do. Eventually we may become aware of our thought — “it will always be this way” — and see it for what it is — a thought. Not certainty. Not identity. A thought. Simply one aspect of our experience in the moment. We have deeper faith (from experience) that despite this thought conditions will change. We learn about impermanence by paying attention to the moment as it arises for us. Each moment is new if we look deeply.

There’s a common misconception about what it means to be “in the moment.” We often think that being in the moment means we can’t have thoughts about the past or longings about the future. In reality, we can’t escape from being in the moment, but we forget that we’re there, and we get entangled in our stories: that’s the problem. The moment is so full and so rich, it contains both the past and the future. When we remember something from our childhood, this is something occurring in the present moment. If we forget this, it can be easy to get wrapped up in that memory; but if we remember that the memory itself is occurring in the present moment, this awareness is enough. More important in Buddhism than the stories we tell about our past or our future or our identity is our experience in the present moment (which, as I’ve said, contains everything.) This very moment, we may be experiencing happiness. We may be experiencing happiness regardless of our awful experiences in the past. There is no need to taint our experience of happiness with stories about how we are not good enough, or how much pain is there, because the fact is, happiness is there now. We can appreciate it, and we can cultivate it. Buddhist psychology is in many ways about not complicating things. There’s a saying that suffering = pain x resistance. One could also say in more general terms that suffering = (pain or pleasure) x (clinging or resistance). We can cling to our happiness, or we can resist it, but either way we create suffering

Buddhist psychology helps us become aware of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which we complicate our experience through resistance or clinging. Rarely do we experience pain as it is: we get annoyed by our pain; we complicate it in myriad ways. Think of the annoyance a fly can cause, crawling on the leg, or buzzing in the ear, and think of how much of that annoyance is of our own creation, is due to the stories we tell about those innocent sensations: a simple tickling on the leg, or a buzzing in the ear! Meditating on insects is a great and challenging way to become aware of the ways in which we resist (or cling to) and thus complicate our experience. “Insects are annoying! How dare they buzz in my ear like that!” The pain we feel isn’t about the experience itself but the story we tell about it: if it were a lover tickling us with a feather (which can feel much the same) the experience might actually be pleasant.

Shoma Morita, founder of the Zen-influenced Morita Therapy, has said: “Trying to control the emotional self willfully by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or to push back the water of the Kamo River upstream. Certainly, they end up aggravating their agony and feeling unbearable pain because of their failure in manipulating the emotions.” Once, when asked what a shy person should do, he gave a one-word response: “Sweat.” This is the simplest, least complicated approach to shyness! Don’t make yourself feel bad about being shy, or tell yourself all sorts of stories about why it shouldn’t be that way; just sweat. This is the Buddhist way: if you’re going to sweat, sweat, and don’t sweat it!

The seventh of the Eightfold Path is right mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is about, first, being aware of our experience without judgement, and second, being compassionate towards whatever we experience. The Buddha has an excellent sermon, on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which describes “the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding…” He speaks of mindfulness as “the direct path!” Indeed I’d be amiss to talk about Buddhist psychology without writing in a little more detail about the psychology of mindfulness. One incredible thing about mindfulness is that being mindful of states of suffering tends to have the effect of decreasing such states, while being mindful of states of joy and happiness and peace tend to increase such states! Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of holding one’s anger like a mother holds a baby. If we can do this, over time, we will slowly weaken the seed of anger within us. We have stories that we are not okay, but we can look deeply, and recognise it as a story. And we can have compassion for this story. As Thich Nhat Hanh might say, “Hello, story. I know you, my friend.” What is this story, really? It is something that’s happening in the present moment. It’s composed of thoughts and emotions and sensations. When we bring such awareness to it, it no longer has such power over us. According to Andrew Olendski, who puts it in more technical Buddhist terms, “The foundation of Buddhist psychology is a process view of personhood. One expression of such a view is the dynamic model of interdependent phenomena—the five-fold classification of subjective experience into material form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness. When we attend to our experience from this perspective it undermines our tendency to construct misleading theories of self, illuminates the changeability and impersonality of phenomena, and points towards the importance of our relationship to our experience. The discourses of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 28) and of the Full Moon Night (MN 109) from the Majjhima Nikàya help clarify these five important categories of experience.”

We can be mindful of everything we experience. In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness the Buddha speaks of being mindful of urine and feces and puss! It can be really joyful to pay close attention to aspects of our experience that we’ve never paid attention to before. What it feels like to stand up. What it feels like to breathe. What it feels like to breathe when you’re afraid. What it feels like to breathe when you’ve just eaten a big meal. The experience of really and fully tasting your food. What it feels like to have skin. As we cultivate mindfulness (which is another seed within us that can be watered), we may come to the conclusion that, no matter how much we hurt, our awareness itself can never be touched. We are aware of our suffering but our awareness never suffers. This can be a great refuge. I can be aware of a pain in the stomach but my awareness is not in pain. I may find myself bothered by this pain, and wish that it would go away. I may begin to feel anxious and then become even more annoyed at this pain because I want to eat in order to suppress all these feelings! But I can be aware of all of this: I can be aware of feeling bothered, I can be aware of the anxiety, I can be aware of wanting to eat, and the awareness itself is never affected! What if I began to identify, not with the pain or annoyance or wanting to eat but with awareness itself, with that which can never be touched?

Mindfulness purifies whatever it touches. Gil Fronsdal talks of mindfulness practice as soap and water gently washing through the mind, and in this article from The Humanistic Psychologist, Shinzen Young describes how mindfulness has the capacity to purify:

Whenever one brings mindfulness and equanimity to ordinary experience, an evolutionary process takes place, consisting of two aspects. One aspect is insight and the other is purification. Let’s talk first about what we mean by purification. We all have within us sources of unhappiness. You notice that very quickly when you sit down to meditate. You’ll feel just fine and then there will be something that will make your world less than perfect. You get sleepy, or your mind wanders, or this or that emotion comes up, negative tapes start to come up, traumatic memories appear, you feel angry, you want to jump out of your skin, you’re running all sorts of fantasies, doing things to divert yourself, you’re aware of inner conflicts. We are chock full of sources of unhappiness which are completely foreign to our being. It is not in the nature of consciousness to suffer. However, we have acquired certain limiting forces: cravings and aversions, painful memories, inappropriate yet habitual behavior patterns, and so forth.When we sit down and do this practice that’s all going to come up. So you don’t always feel good while doing Vipassana meditation. In fact you might feel lousy. I know, having heard that, some of you may want to leave right now. You say, “I thought meditation is supposed to make a person feel great.” Yes, in the long run, but an important aspect of meditation is to sit down and start working through the sources of not feeling great, whatever they may be. You literally eat your way through them, one after another, after another, after another. How? By just being mindful and having equanimity, that’s all. Whatever comes up, you’ll observe it and you’ll do nothing. You’ll be very aware and that’s all.Now that may seem trivial at best, stupid at worst. But it is actually quite powerful. Let’s say that one of these blockages to happiness comes up as we meditate—a negative tape, a craving, an aversion, an inner conflict, a congealing. If we reject it and say “I don’t want you,” we’re pushing it away. But in order to reject it we have to “touch” it, by pushing on it. If on the other hand we identify with it, buy into it and let it pull us away, then again we’ve “touched” it. As soon as one touches it, one recharges the energy supply of that negativity. If you try to push it away or you let it pull you, you are identifying with it, touching it. Any touch whatsoever means that this particular negativity is able to ‘recharge its individual battery’ as it were, from your general pool of your energy. But if we don’t touch it then it has to play itself out on its own power source which is quite finite and if we continue to be alert and simply observe, eventually the intrinsic energy source of that negativity dissipates and it goes away forever. It gets worked through.

This process of “watching negativity to death” is called purification. As we work through the blockages to happiness, our intrinsic happiness—the nature of our consciousness which is effortless effulgent joy—becomes evident. If the dirt is cleaned away from the window, the sun that was always there is able to shine through. The spiritual reality which is the nature of ordinary experience is able to shine forth.He describes the essence of the process:

So the essence of this practice can be stated as a simple formula:

ordinary experience plus mindfulness plus equanimity yields insight and purification. In this formula, each term is defined very precisely. Ordinary experience is defined as hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body and the thinking mind. Mindfulness is defined as specificity in awareness, clarity in awareness, continuity in awareness, richness in awareness, precision in awareness. Equanimity is defined as not interfering with the flow of the senses at any level, including the level of preconscious processing.

This is Buddhist psychology as I’ve experienced it in a nutshell. My intention here is merely to suggest that Buddhist psychology offers a valuable perspective that can help us think about ourselves and our experiences in a more healthy way. I’m certain I’ve forgotten something important. I’m certain this description of Buddhist psychology is painfully incomplete, oversimplified, and misinformed. I’m certain that even if what I’ve said here were clear, accurate, and complete, words cannot replace the experience of practicing mindfulness for oneself.I recommend these articles on Buddhist psychology and especially Andrew Olendzki’s Overview: Basic Themes, which also suggests Buddhist texts which address these themes. I recommend a Discussion of Buddhism and Mindfulness Among Psychologists which elucidates how the principles of mindfulness are relevant in a therapeutic setting. Most of all I recommend the talks by mindfulness teacher Gil Fronsdal which are available online for anyone to download and enjoy. His five-week Introduction to Meditation course is a joy to experience.

Generation Y and the Reinvention of Work

•June 24, 2007 • 5 Comments

I came across another article about Generation Y at entrepreneur.com which takes a more positive view of this generation. It looks at several myths about Generation Y. The argument is, much as the one I made in my previous post, that young people are adapting to changing social contexts: “What we discovered is that some of the ‘negative’ behaviors these young employees exhibit are actually intuitive responses to a changing economy. And if employers want to keep up, they better change, too.”

It’s not that younger people are more “lazy” or “narcissistic” or don’t possess qualities such as loyalty. These qualities simply manifest themselves in different ways in different generations, different cultures, even different individuals. As Bruce Tulgan says, “They’re very loyal. It’s just not the kind of blind loyalty you get to a kingdom — blind loyalty to the hierarchy.” Perhaps we could learn from Non-Violent Communication which suggests that we separate our observations from our interpretations. Rather than making blanket statements such as “you’re not loyal,” we criticise specific observations, such as “you quit your job three times in the last three months.” Of course, this is harder to do when we’re dealing with a generalised group like a generation, but we can still separate some of our specific observations about members of that generation, from our interpretations of that behaviour. If we do this, misunderstanding is less likely, and constructive dialogue is more likely to happen.

At the end of the article is a quote from Neil Howe: “And before these managers and employers start gloating about how much these kids are going to have to change, I think these employers should start asking the question: How much are we going to have to change?” This is exactly it. Younger people are questioning long-held assumptions about work. We are asking: is this work meaningful? What do I get out of it? What does society get out of it? Why does it matter? These are extremely valid questions to ask. These questions will rejuvinate work. Work needs to change, and it seems, my generation may be most equipped to change it.