Thursday, September 30, 2010

Living Life Backwards

I've been struggling lately with my purpose. I think all of us go through this kind of existential crisis from time to time. Why I am here? What should I do? What is my contribution to make to the world? It can be depressing to feel as if you are wandering about with no direction. It's our instinct to think there's a map out there--that all we have to do is find it.

I've spent some time looking at this recently, and it occurred to me that maybe I have it backwards. Do we find our purpose, and then do things consistent with that purpose? Or does our purpose emerge based on the things we do?

If you feel drawn to a cohesive set of actions, that's great. But for the rest of us, we can use our apparent lack of purpose as an excuse not to engage with life. And in doing that, we can keep ourselves from doing things that we want because of the risk that we might make a mistake. After all, without that map, how do you know you are headed in the right direction?

But wait a minute. Where is there to go? We are here, now, and we will always be here. There is no other place to go. There is no other place we can be. In that sense, there is no wrong direction. There are no mistakes--there is only what is happening--and whether we label it a mistake or a success or a learning opportunity is something we do after the fact, not before.

We are going to do what we do, probably because we want to, or maybe for reasons we cannot identify or understand. What we make of it is based on the story that we tell ourselves. And again, we tell ourselves why after the fact. Not before.

So tell yourself whatever story you want about your life so far. If you feel you have a purpose, that's great. Do things consistent with that purpose. But if you have no idea what your purpose is, don't let it get in the way of doing everything you want to do anyway.

Mapmakers can only draw the places they have already been. Ahead is uncharted territory.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No Way Out

Sometimes I like to think that I am further down this path than I really am. Of course, this ignores a couple of pretty important things.

First, there is no path. In this moment, we can't find a past or a future, except in our thoughts. So the only path that we see is literally the one that we are creating right now.

Second, whatever is happening is what is happening. No more or less.

Sometimes, life throws you for a loop. It's just part of the experience of being human. And when things happen that you don't want, sometimes your thoughts start spinning. You may be in denial, or angry, or depressed. You may be confused. You may doubt that you are in the right job or working for the right company. You may want to quit or run away or hide.

None of this is pleasant, and our instinct is to do something, anything, to make our experience stop. We desperately want it to change.

What do we do when this happens?

Despite our instincts, we stay. We do our best to fully open to the experience.

When you think about it, you really don't have a choice. On some level, you are going to experience what you need to until you don't need to any more.

But when you embrace the experience, when you welcome it, all that channeled up energy and resistance is free to move around and do its thing. Whatever needs to happen might happen a little faster. You might be able to relax a bit, even to laugh.

And you might see that we all get caught sometimes.

One of my favorite Zen sayings is "if you can conceive of a Buddha, you will be obstructed by that very Buddha." And if you think that you are free, that very freedom can turn right around and trap you. And the only escape is to see that there is no freedom and no trap.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

So What?

I talk a lot in this blog about things like resting in awareness, or in the space before questions or thoughts. And it can seen abstract and intellectual, or like word games.

I think a completely appropriate question to ask is "so what?" I've been pointing at this space of peace and healing, but it really feels more like a void sometimes. As a reader, what do you get out of it? What's the point? How does this relate to what I do at work?

In the work place, we all have things we need to get done, every day. Sometimes these are simple tasks--on the level of sending an email or running an errand.

But more and more, we are asked to come up with new possibilities in how we relate to people and ideas.

When we do this, we often bring a host of assumptions to the table. We have ideas about the people we are working with that may lead us to talk about some things and not others. We may have fears about whether they like us or support us, or whether they want all the credit.

Similarly, when we are asked to create new ideas we often use it as an opportunity to defend our old ideas.

When we come at things from a space of not knowing, we have no agenda. We are open to anything happening.  And in that space, we can be more connected with people, and more creative. We are just as willing to work with people we like as we are with people we don't. We are equally willing to work with  others' ideas, or to have others work with ours, or to create something wholly new, because we are not trying to defend or justify or take credit for anything.

When we are open, there are many more possibilities. And many of these are things we never thought we could do.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Beyond Yes and No

Many of us spend at least some time thinking about answers to the "big questions."

Is there a God? Is there good and evil? Is there a right way and a wrong way to be in the world? Am I on the right path? What should I do?

These questions have been with us since we have been human, and no one has found a definitive answer to them yet (though many argue they have). Why is this?

It seems to me that one possible answer is that the same human brain that is trying to answer the question is the one that created it in the first place.

Our brains seem to work by dividing and conquering. At its simplest, this means dividing the world into "things I like" and "things I don't like." The brain seems compelled to divide its world into categories, and then sort the things it sees (or doesn't see) into those categories.

We do this with food, with people, with jobs, with beliefs. We create codes of conduct--is it wrong not to tell the truth if doing so would hurt someone's feelings? Is it wrong to steal if my children are hungry?

But what exists before our brains do this dividing? Before this separation of the world into questions and answers? Just the world as it is. This is so obvious that most of the time it escapes us. Each of us creates our world by dividing it into categories. It seems that this created world is solid and real because much of the time, our concepts agree. You and I can generally agree that the purple thing in the corner is a chair, for example.

But every one of our arguments is about how our concepts disagree with each other. And this is the big hint that points us to the way we each create our own world.

What exists before that act of creation? The simple act of not knowing. Even to say "I" don't know is too much, because even that "I" is just a set of thoughts and concepts.

Just for a moment, resist the urge to answer your questions. Instead, rest in not knowing. In the world as it is before questions. The answer is not an answer at all. It is to go beyond the question.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Living with Uncertainty

This has been a decade of uncertainty.

In the past, it seemed like there were solid truths that we could count on--

That we would work for a company for life (and that the company itself would exist beyond that).

That we would retire with a pension and Social Security and health care.

That the stock market would go up about 10 points a year (give or take).

That the United States would lead the world as a force for good.

That, if we lived our lives in the right way, we could be happy.

I'm sure you can add many others. They may or may not have actually been true, but after a decade in which we had September 11, the collapse of several well known companies (and even industries), a couple of wars, and a near meltdown of our global financial system, it seems that the very things that comprised the American Dream, that we clung to as hope and truth, are themselves looking fragile.

This can sound very depressing. When nothing is certain, what do we do? Where do we turn? Where is our happiness now? But at the same time, this uncertainty can be a gift. Because even though we would like to think differently, nothing has ever been certain, and this has been the source of much of our suffering.

The only truth, it seems, is that we don't know what's next. And yet there is something looking through our eyes that is doing this not knowing.  What is this something? What can we say about it? In times of uncertainty, can we find solace, or peace, or even happiness, in the one thing that does not change?

This is our practice. And it has never been more important than it is right now.


Thursday, September 23, 2010


When we begin to notice our experience, it does not take too long to notice that on some level, we are uncomfortable most of the time. Perhaps things are not going as they should. Or perhaps our main problem is that we don't know what is going to happen, and yet we think we should know. This kind of discomfort can easily become fear, or anger.

Much of what we do to cope is aimed at easing these emotions. We may eat or drink as a way to numb ourselves. We may spend many hours at work to avoid confronting an issue or a disagreement at home (or, occasionally, the opposite). Or we may dive into something from an intellectual perspective, trying to learn and know as much as we can about a topic or hobby. Sometimes that hobby can be ourselves--constructing theories about why we do the things we do. We can turn discomfort into an intellectual exercise, and in that way get some space and relief from it.

But instead of numbing ourselves or distancing ourselves, another approach is to fully open to our discomfort. This can sound absolutely crazy. The prospect of confronting our fears can itself be truly frightening, and not many of us are capable of actually being with our experience for even a few moments.

What happens when we do this? First, we find that the experience itself is always changing. What we fear in one moment can become something completely different in the very next moment. Pain can be followed by laughter, and vice versa. It can be surprising to see how fleeting our emotions are when we just let ourselves experience them, without resistance, without clinging.

Second, we begin to notice some space around our experiences. When we open ourselves fully to what is happening, right now, we see how little of it is actually the things that concern us. The sun still shines, the flowers bloom, the rain falls. Children laugh and play. Everyone else around us is in their own world, and we begin to notice, perhaps for the first time, that what is happening to me isn't all that important to many people but me. That can be the beginning of freedom.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Open, Spacious Being

There are times when we need absolutely nothing. When we are even beyond the idea that we could need anything, that we have ever needed anything or will need anything again. Maybe it happens when looking at a sunset. Maybe it is when we are in line to get the rental car. Who knows? But in these moments, we are complete.

In these moments, if we look for needs or suffering, we can't find them. We are here, and yet we can't even find a sense of an "I" that is experiencing the moment. There is just the experiencing--no division between experiencer and experienced.

To call it anything, even beauty, would be to start to lose it, to kill it, to turn it into a concept or a story.

And when the moment is gone (whether that is five seconds later or five days later), we want to get it back.

We want the formula to get it anytime we want. Sit this way, think of this, focus on that.

And yet there is no formula for grace. All we can do is notice. And be thankful. This is unconditioned awareness. This is nirvana. This is what the sages have all pointed to. And we have had a glimpse of it.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Delayed Gratification

Every wisdom tradition points to meditation as a practice that, over time, can bring dramatic and transformative personal change. Yet I don't know many people who meditate regularly, even those who are on a contemplative path.

We're not very good at doing things now that are good for us later. There is a lot of research that shows that people have a hard time, for example, not eating the chocolate cake that is in front of them when they are trying to lose weight, or going to the gym when another temptation (even sleep) presents itself.

Unfortunately, meditation falls into this camp, too. While there is no doubt that meditation can create changes in the brain that are related to attention, decision making, stress reduction, and compassion, these changes take awhile to manifest. And while that is happening, meditation can be boring, messy, even unpleasant. It can be easy to find that things are getting in the way of meditation--sleep, work, friends--even when we have the best of intentions.

So how do we encourage ourselves to go against our own programming? Here are a couple of suggestions--feel free to let me know what has worked for you.

Start slow. We may think that meditation is something that we should be able to do for twenty or thirty minutes the first time, but that can feel like an eternity when you haven't done it before. Just like you work up to running a 10K a little bit at a time, so it goes with meditation. Five minutes done regularly is a great start.

Work with a partner. If you can commit to meditate with a friend, it is a lot harder to blow it off. Even if you don't live near someone who wants to meditate, you can do this. I have found it can be incredibly powerful to sit in silence together on the phone.

Lower your expectations. While we all want to get something out of meditation, it tends to be best not to expect anything out of meditation, at least not at first. If we get some good feelings, if we feel a little bit calmer, that is great. But there may be times when we feel incredibly uncomfortable, when it can be difficult just to continue to sit. And that doesn't mean we are bad at it. Those sessions can be a good sign that there is some major rewiring that is beginning to happen. In fact, it is best to enter meditation with no expectations (a practice that is beneficial in the rest of life, too.)

Don't worry about technique. The most important thing at first is just to sit quietly. There are plenty of things to read about different practices, but reading, and the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to meditate, can get in the way of actually sitting down and doing it.

Reward yourself. Give yourself a treat if you meditate every day for a week. Buy a book you have been wanting. Have lunch with your meditation partner. Anything that can create a short term benefit while you are waiting for the habit to establish itself can be incredibly powerful.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Noticing What Works

A lot of the practice of inquiry is simply asking the question "What works?"

What works to lessen our suffering? To make our lives open and joyful rather than constricted and fearful?

Unfortunately, our instincts in this area are pretty bad. We tend to think about doing more or having more, rather than doing or having less, or simply being with whatever is happening at the moment.

But a question we can bring to our experience is simply to say "When I do more of this, am I happier?" And conversely "When I do less of this, am I happier?"

Often, we can answer instinctively. "Of course I am happier when I have a better-paying job." "Of course I am happier with that red convertible." "Of course I am happier when I am busier."

Is that really true? Is that true today, right now? Will that continue to be true?

Or is it possible that we might be happier with less, or with doing less? Is it possible that we can do more by doing less?

Just to open to that possibility of noticing our actual experience, rather than our thoughts about what we should be experiencing, is a precious gift. And to continue with that, just noticing when we notice (and noticing when we don't!), can be transformative.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Obstacles on the Path

I've been writing about paths to happiness, and yesterday I spent some time on the Path of Being.

The idea behind the Path of Being is that since it is based on something we already are, something that it is impossible not to do, that the chances are much higher that we can find happiness on this path than the others.

And yet, many people would still say that they are not happy. If we are always here, why do we not feel that way?

One of the paradoxes of being "here" is that we often are seemingly not. We are thinking about the future or the past. We are wanting things to be different. We are thinking about how we want some things and want to avoid others. We are constantly assessing how things are going--how we are doing against some list of ideals that we have decided will make us happy (see the earlier discussion about The Path of Having).

When we look closely, though, we can sometimes sense that the only obstacle to being happy is the thought that we are unhappy. And the question arises, then, how do we stop that thought?

The short answer is that we don't. But over time, as we become more familiar with our thoughts in contemplative practices such as just sitting, we can see through these thoughts. We can see that they are just thoughts. That our thoughts do not define us. That in a very important sense, we have thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.

Who are we without thoughts? What are we when we are not thinking? What is in that silence?

Peace. Peace that is available right now, but that can also be cultivated. And if happiness is the absence of need, even going beyond need, then happiness is in that peace, too.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Third Way

The last couple of days I have talked about happiness, and a couple of paths to getting there.

The first path I called the Path of Having, which is based on acquiring things and accomplishments and status. Happiness on this path can certainly be real (I am in no way saying that having things is bad), but it also seems temporary.

The second path I called the Path of Doing, which is about getting absorbed in what we do, and literally losing ourselves in it. It is based on the concept of flow. While also temporary, the satisfaction from the path of doing can seem deeper, and more rewarding.

As human beings, we quite naturally look to having things and doing things. Activities arise, sometimes with great focus and passion. There is nothing wrong with doing or having. But it can be disappointing to base our happiness on what we have or what we do, because each of these things is always changing,

If there is a way to be happy all of the time (or at least a lot more of the time), it seems like it would have to be based on something that does not change. Something that does not come and go. And that something is what a lot of the entries in this blog are pointing to--our very sense of being. Awareness itself. The witness. That which is looking through our eyes.

This awareness is beyond categorization--it is unrelated to our gender, our history, our age. It does not seem to care about our worries or problems. To cultivate this space, to be able to rest in it for even a few moments, is tremendously healing.

And as we increase our capacity to be here--to just be--we find that we can experience a deeper happiness that is not linked to any of our outer conditions. In that sense, we can be happy in the midst of confusion or pain or suffering. We can be happy at any time--even outside of a sense of time.

This is the Path of Being. And it is not a path at all. It is what we are right now, and it never stops.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Path of Doing

Yesterday I talked about what I call the Path of Having. Many people assess their happiness based on what they have, whether that means material possessions or job title or education or skills or experiences.

There is nothing wrong with having things. For most people, though, the happiness that results is fleeting at best.

Today, I'll explore another way, and tomorrow, a third.

I've written about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago before. He's written several books about what he calls flow, in which the sense of self is lost and we are completely engrossed in our work. It is here that we are most engaged in our lives and here where our creative energies are the strongest. An example of this might be the athlete who says, after the fact, that she was "in the zone," or that the game "played itself." This loss of the sense of self is the goal of many of the wisdom traditions as well. In fact, those who speak of enlightenment almost always use words like "the dropping of the self."

The second path, which I call "The Path of Doing," then, is not about doing a lot of different things, but about finding one or two things in which we consistently lose ourselves. The concept of flow gives us guidance on how to do that (and here are some other ideas in this guest post at Zen Habits). In essence, it's about finding something that challenges you but does not overwhelm you. This can be learning a new skill, or providing an additional challenge in a skill you have already mastered. The notion of focused practice is very strong here.

Unlike The Path of Having, which I wrote about yesterday, the satisfaction that comes from The Path of Doing is more than fleeting; in fact, it can be deeply satisfying. But it still requires conditions. It requires the right approach with the right activity. It requires a continual refining of the challenges that are presented. And it includes temptations--if some doing is good, how much is too much? How does the Path of Doing not turn into something darker, or even addictive? In that sense, the Path of Doing and the Path of Having are similar--the brief glimpses of peace we get can make us want more, and make us do more to get them.

It turns out there is still another way. We're already doing it. And I'll talk about it tomorrow.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The List

We all have a list of the things that we think will make us happy.

If only we have the right job, right partner, right car, right children, right house, right neighborhood, right vacation, right friends, right education, right video game system, right brand of deodorant, right locally raised produce, right place of worship, right list of books to read, right movies and television shows to watch, right Internet provider, right computer, right cell phone, right clothes, right fragrance, right pen, right wristwatch, right running shoes, right luggage . . .

It is absurd on the face of it that we could have even a small fraction of these things.

And it also seems obvious that they bring at best fleeting happiness. So why do we spend so much of our time devoted to finding all these right things and experiences? Why are we stuck on the path of having?

I can think of two reasons, both arguably glitches in our human wiring.

First is that each of these "right things" do give us a fleeting sense of happiness. When we are happy, we look around and associate that happiness what what is nearby. And if that is new car smell, then the new car must have caused our happiness. This feeling of true happiness, or desirelessness, is rare, but if you remember BF Skinner, irregular rewards have the most powerful effect. So in a sense, we have been trained to look for happiness through our stuff, because we have gotten just enough rewards for the behavior to get us hooked. In that sense, it is an addiction, just like any other.

Second is that we are afraid to do otherwise. I have talked about the lizard brain a few times. Two of the ways that it is invoked most strongly are when we think we are going to lose something (called "loss aversion"), and when we think we might be violating social norms. Both are strongly present here. Acquisition of stuff is the norm in our cultures. Think of how many conversations we have that are about the latest thing that we bought or did or the vacation we are about to take.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. Except, perhaps, that we seem to think it will bring us happiness, when it is very clear that it doesn't.

Is there another way?


Monday, September 13, 2010

No Demands

I've just come back from a weekend with Peter Fenner as part of his Radiant Mind program, where I help as a coach for some of the students.

Peter said many things during the course of the weekend that I think express the purpose of practice, of trying to find a better way to be in the world. This is the purpose of the Radiant Mind program--to find a way of being, ever present, that eases our suffering.

"What we are doing," Peter said, "is exploring a way of being in which we make no demands on ourselves."

That sounds easy. And wonderful.

And yet much of the time we don't do it.

Some might say that they don't create demands on themselves. That others do, and all they do is respond. But there are people whose demands I routinely ignore. We are the ones who validate others' demands, so at least in that sense, all demands are ones that we have placed on ourselves.

Some demands--the demands of a boss for example--feel quite persistent. And if we want to keep our job (an interesting inquiry in and of itself!) we generally must comply. But almost all demands can be delayed for a time, or met in one of several ways. Almost all demands offer some space around them.

The invitation is to explore that space, and to see what arises.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Different Tastes, Different Flavors

I have been reading a lot of Longchenpa lately. Longchenpa is a fourteenth century Tibetan teacher, and speaks very clearly to the nature of awareness. Just to read his words, even in translation, is to open myself to a space in which it is clear that nothing more is needed.

What Longchenpa says is not important. What any of these teachers says, even Jesus, is not important. I realize that is a radical statement, but what spiritual teachers are pointing to cannot be said in words. It is before and beyond words. "To say anything is to miss the mark," is a famous Zen saying.

This isn't about rules or precepts or commandments. It isn't about ethics or being nice. Those things can happen, but they are not the point. Instead it is about finding the teachers or teachings that are for you, wherever you happen to be right now. Some people like vanilla, some chocolate. It's all ice cream.

Find what resonates for you and do it. Not because it is on someone's reading list, or because a friend did it, or because it is something that you have been meaning to try, or because it feels spiritual, but because it is what you must do. You have a built in compass. Use it. The only way it points is home.

Tomorrow I am with my teacher, Peter Fenner, and will not be writing. Until Monday--


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Gift of Being

Some of us spend much of our lives trying to persuade people. Maybe we are teachers, and are trying to get them to learn something. Maybe we are trying to sell them something. Maybe we are trying to win a court case or a debate or an election.

So much of persuasion is built on logic and facts. The thought is that if we put the right facts in the right order in front of someone, logic will compel them to do the thing that we want them to do. Anyone who has children, though, knows life doesn't always work this way. There are plenty of things that are beyond reason, including the way that we react to people.

There are people we do not want to learn from. There are people we do not want to buy from. There are people we do not even want to listen to. Why is that?

I believe it's about energy. Some people are constantly defending something. You almost feel like you have to get in an argument to ask them a simple question. There are other people who are always nervous or stressed out. I know when I come across someone whose energy I don't like, sometimes I just do what I can to avoid them. If they have something I need, I will find a way to get it elsewhere.

The best teachers say that they don't teach anyone. They are just present while the other person learns. The best sales people are not pushy. They present facts, and they do their best to look out for the prospect's interests as well as their own.

Our energy, our simple way of being, is our gift to the world. Often the best way to persuade someone is not to try at all. Instead, it is just to be with them while they decide what is best for them. And to celebrate when they do that. Whether it benefits us or not.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Finding Stillness

Great post on zenhabits.

The value of stillness is not something we often think about when we are at work. But the small break between phone calls, or emails, or projects, can make a big difference.

Stillness can allow the possibility of not knowing. Even one moment can allow the possibility of a fresh way of thinking, or connecting, or simply being.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Enjoying the Mystery

"No one knows why men do the things they do."
Don Draper, Mad Men

Sometimes, we do things that amaze us, that we did not know we were capable of. We have a great idea, or we say something particularly kind or helpful.

Sometimes, we can shock ourselves with how selfish we are, or grumpy, or downright mean.

We often take credit for the good things. Or we feel shame about the bad. But should we?

If we are convinced that each of us is a distinct identity, fully in control of and responsible for his or her actions, this might make sense.

If we are not in control--if things just happen to us and through us but not really from us, then this makes no sense whatsoever.

I have no idea which is true. Perhaps both are. At the very least, though, it seems as though we're not in full control of our actions. We're in the movie, and we have no idea what the characters, including ourselves sometimes, are going to do next.

We can bemoan this, or we can be amazed.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Feeling Incomplete

We spend a lot of time, perhaps most of it, with a feeling that something is missing in our lives.

We might think that, to be happy, we need a particular amount of money, or a certain job or partner or family situation. We might feel that there are certain things that we just can't live without, or just can't live with.

We seem to have two different types of thoughts about these types of situations--

First, that can't bear things as they currently are. Second, that we will be better when things are different.

It can be helpful to look at both of these thoughts.

The first is simply not true. We are bearing things as they are. We may not like it, but most of the time we are living our lives with this "horrible" thing that is there, and it only bothers it when we are thinking about it, or, perhaps more accurately, when we are wanting it to be different.

The second is unlikely to be true, at least for very long. Think about the goals you have reached, the big purchases you have made, the degrees you have gotten. For how long did your life feel different? Maybe a little while. But we get used to things pretty quickly, and then our brains find new things that are missing, or new things that we "simply can't bear!"

What do we take from this? Simply this. If you don't have the thought "I can't stand this!" you are actually doing just fine. And if you expect to get to a point where all your needs are satisfied, you might want to adjust that expectation.

Yes, we have difficulties, and it seems like often we have only fleeting satisfaction. But that does not mean we have to suffer. At least not as much as we do now.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ending, and Beginning

I've been working on a big proposal at work. 100 pages of documents and stories about our organization and the one we want to work with. A team of writers and subject matter experts pulling together to deliver what we hope will be the winning bid.

We are in the home stretch, and at this point things can get difficult. It can be tough to stay focused, to look at things with fresh eyes. I tend to review the same words that I have seen twenty times before and lose the ability to see the things that might still need to be changed.

The idea of beginner's mind can be helpful here. How can I, at this point, start over? How can I say at this point, that we need a different approach, if that is what is really called for?

In a sense, each page is a new document. Each sentence is a new sentence. And, one last time, I need to look at it for the very first time.