Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Automatic Pilot

Life is the sum total of our habits.

In this way, practice can become the habit of stepping outside our habits.

For many of us, our days are filled with routines--the breakfast routine, the commuting routine, the end of day routine. During these times, we may not be paying attention to what we are doing. Think of the times when you have been driving somewhere you have been many times. Often, you can find yourself there with no conscious memory of the trip.

Instead, our minds wander. We construct scenarios in our heads. We may have discussions and even arguments that are completely fabricated. And we miss life itself.

The paradox is that we seem to need a routine to take us out of our routine. To bring us here, to this moment.

Maybe it is the hourly chime of a clock. Maybe it is the ring of a phone. Maybe it is the breath we take before we hit "send" on that email.

Each time we notice what is happening, even if it is only to notice that we are lost in our own stories, is a small victory.


Monday, November 29, 2010

The Road Less Taken

There is a reason they call it the easy path and the hard path.

The easy path is the one of least resistance. It is the one that does not challenge you. It is the one where nothing changes.

Most of our lives are lived on the easy path. The easy path is our daily routine, both conscious and unconscious. And it can be our ways of avoiding problems, whether we see we are doing it or not.

The hard path, now that is where the work is. The hard path is where we learn about ourselves, about all of the ways that we try to escape this moment. The hard path is a long look in the mirror instead of looking away. The hard path must result in change, because the hard path is the very essence of change.

We don't have to spend our entire lives grinding away on the hard path. But we do have to spend some time there. Just like vines in rocky soil make the best wines, so we are at our best when we are mastering our challenges instead of running away from them.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I am out of the office tomorrow traveling, so today let me pass along my best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving.

I'd like to talk about what I am thankful for. Some of those things may not surprise you--my wife, my daughter, my two sons. My wife is an amazingly supportive partner and friend. And it is a privilege to watch our children grow and change, with all the blessings and challenges that brings. I'm thankful for our home and health. And for our extended family--parents, siblings, cousins, and friends.

But I am thankful for all the difficult times, too. Because I have come to realize that, like it or not, it is the hard times that make us grow the most. It is the hard times, the courageous decisions that we have to make, the difficult relationships that we have, that really stretch us and show us what we can be. And I am truly grateful for that.

Until next Monday, Happy Thanksgiving. Love to all. And thanks for whatever this wonderful thing called life brings our way.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Left and Right

I've talked before about the different roles of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. (For a primer, see this beautiful presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor.)

But the question can be what to do with this. When one is in the timeless state of pure awareness (the world as seen through the right hemisphere), it can be difficult to even find a sense of self. So the notion of going through your to do list or being more productive may not make a lot of sense.

As we get more familiar with this pure awareness, though, we seem to be drawn to it more and more. And if we train ourselves, if we keep pointing ourselves to this state, it begins to blend more with the logical, list-following left hemisphere. It becomes something we can bring to work.

When this happens, our work lives can change profoundly.

We can be focused, and yet we can set aside our agendas.

The boundaries between ourselves and others begin to dissipate.

There is less to defend, and less need to get credit.

We begin to look at the world as a collective effort, rather than a win-lose negotiation. And whether we are in law, or sales, or dispute resolution, we find that our work gets easier, and we are more effective in it. I call this state, where we can work with both the left and right hemispheres equally, pure presence. And in pure presence, we begin to work with our deepest wisdom, regardless of our narrow personal interests.

Because we see that narrow person is just a construct. Just a thought, like any other.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Work and Practice

We often think of a contemplative practice and a work life as two separate things. But I have not been able to find a separation.

If I am meditating, thoughts often arise that are related to work. And when I am at work, more and more, I find that I can enter into, and reside in, a calm open space rather than automatic, fear-based reactions.

At work, as in the rest of our lives, we can be taken over by scripts, reactions that happen without our conscious knowledge and put us on autopilot. Often these scripts are related to things that happened to us in childhood. Because work so often involves relationships with authority figures, it can trigger scripts that we have about our parents or siblings without our being aware of it. We can react around issues of respect, or control, or getting our way. And sometimes, as we raise our automatic defenses, we can hurt people before we even realize it.

Work presents some rich opportunities for becoming more conscious of these automatic responses. Much of our practice comes down to noticing what is happening in any given moment. Whether that is clarity or confusion or resistance, we can just notice, without feeling the need to change anything.

And yet that noticing can change everything.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trigger Happy

One of the things that continues to get in the way on our path is triggers.

What do I mean by a trigger? Simply, something or someone that sends you down an unconscious path.

Often, we have triggers from when we were growing up. And, without realizing it, someone might say something, or look at us in a particular way, that reminds us of a parent or a sibling. And suddenly, we are back twenty years, or more, reacting exactly the way we used to react. Without thinking about it. Without stopping to question what we are doing.

We end up following a script that was written years ago. And we have done it so many times, that we can do it perfectly. The grooves in our brain are deep and efficient.

Sometimes, we don't even realize it happened.

As we try to become more conscious of how we are in the world, becoming aware of our triggers is an important step. As we bring more and more awareness to our interactions, we can begin to spot them, and notice if they are useful. Sometimes, they are--maybe there is a particular phrase that someone can say that reminds us of how our father used to inspire us to do our best.

Often, though, they are not. And bringing them into the light--seeing them, exactly as they are--is the best way to begin to see them fade.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Goldilocks Syndrome

I can be pretty picky.

When life presents opportunities, it can be easy to say, "well, that's nice, but it needs to be a little more like this, or a little less like that." I do that with everything from shopping to career choices.

In doing this, I only create struggle. I only create resistance to what is.

Perfect is an interesting concept, but it is only a concept. It's just a bunch of thoughts and preferences that we have, and like everything else, they are changing all the time. The life situations that we come across seldom fit with every one of our ideas. (And let's face it, they often are almost completely contrary to our preferences.) But it can be useful to watch ourselves try to fine tune our experience because it is not exactly how we would like it.

The amazing thing is that if we can stop doing this, or even start doing it a little less, we can begin to see that life is already "just right." Just as it is. Even if we want it to be different.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Need to Know

Much of our suffering is caused by our need to know things. Or maybe more specifically, by the the fact that we think we should be able to know more than we do.

We spend a lot of time wanting to know the future. When I am planning a presentation, I would like to know how a prospect is going to answer a question or react to a statement. When I pick a stock, I would like to know if it is going to do well or not.

I'd like to know that my kids are going to be happy, that my wife and I are going to be fulfilled, and that I can meet my professional goals.

I'd like to know that when I am speaking in a difficult situation, that my words are going to be understood in the way that I intend.

But I don't know any of those things. The truth is, I don't even know what I'm having for dinner tonight.

That uncertainty can be terrifying.

But would it be even more terrifying to know?

What if I knew that I was going to die a horrible death, or that my children were going to suffer? Would I behave differently than I do now? In all likelihood, I would do some things that that I otherwise would not do. Even if what I knew was good I would look at the world differently.

When we know something, or even when think we know something, we close off possibilities. We see the world in a way that is limiting. We see our jobs and our mortgages and our daily routines, and little else.

When we don't know, our options are limitless. Every moment is new and fresh. We can see the world for the miracle that it is.

And it might begin to feel a little less terrifying.


Monday, November 15, 2010

A Helping Hand

Great post from Jonathan Fields.

When we focus on helping others, we activate a lot of different behaviors, all good.

Giving to others, without expectation of anything in return, simply feels good. It connects us to the right side of the brain, which is linked to compassion and creativity, among other things.

We find that we do things, simply because we enjoy doing them. We enjoy the connection and everything it brings. And it starts a virtuous cycle. When we give, it tends to come back to us, and then go out again, ever stronger.

But strangely enough, the rewarding part seems to be the giving, and not the receiving. So much of the time, we miss that.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Phases of Consciousness

In the spiritual world, particularly in the wisdom traditions of the east, there are a lot of road maps to developmental evolution. Most of them are pretty difficult to understand.

I tend to talk about this work in a few distinct phases. Of course, any model is a generalization, a conceptualization that we have to be very careful using.

The first phase is when our life is on auto pilot. We see things and react to them. We are in many ways operating based on scripts and triggers that we are not even aware of. Some of this programming comes from our parents and childhood. Some of it comes from society and our environment. There are a lot of fundamental assumptions here that we never question. Things like "there are countries that are good and countries that are bad," or "there is a correct religion," or "I need people to like me," or "if I get enough of the right stuff (including knowledge), I will be happy." These are the stories that we believe about the world. We are unconscious of many of them.

The second phase is when we begin to see some of these stories and question them. We bring them into our consciousness. We see our reactions and realize that it was our story that caused the reaction, not the person who triggered the story. We might begin to see, for example, that we need people to like us, and see that need as motivating us to do a lot of things that we might not otherwise do, and often don't actually want to do.

Some people go through a third phase, where they see that they can change their stories. They may use things like affirmations or neurolinguistic programming to change the way that they behave. Sometimes, these methods can have dramatic results. And they have both the advantage and disadvantage of involving conscious choices about what we are going to value in life. This might also be the phase where we set very detailed goals for ourselves. Sometimes those goals can be incredibly helpful, and sometimes they can cause us frustration.

The fourth phase is when we not only see our stories, but we see through them. The stories are there, and they pop up from time to time, but we are able to catch ourselves. We are able to see, more and more, when we are in the grip of a story or a reaction or a trigger. We're not perfect--this is not about perfection--but we are slowly working through things that might have caught us in the past.

The other part of this fourth phase is that we become less afraid of not having a story. We are more willing to step into the void of simply not knowing what it is that we are supposed to do, and recognizing that the idea that there is something that we are supposed to do is just another thought. We are learning to be able to rest in not knowing, and we begin to see the wisdom that arises in this space.

In the fifth phase, we no longer think about stories. We just are. And we just do. There is no way to know what we are going to do until we do it. Life is one spontaneous surprise after another.

The funny thing is that we are already in the fifth phase. We may think that we know what we are going to do, but how often have you thought one thing and done another? The only thing that seems to be missing is our trust in this not knowing. And the joy that can arise in that spontaneity.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Fundamental Insight

One of my favorite coaches, Michael Neill, writes of an insight that he thinks is so fundamental that people cannot make significant progress until they see it.

That insight is that our world is literally made of up thoughts. We do not think about our world. Instead, we think our world into existence.

Almost everything that we think of is an interpretation of something, or a labeling of something, or a conceptualization of something or an evaluation of something. And those somethings that we create and interpret include events, people, and every our very sense of self.

We take our pure experiences, which are beyond language, and use language to categorize them and file them away. And then, we use them as evidence that the world is the way we think it is.

Until we see the way that we do this, we have no hope of making fundamental change. But when we do see it, it is almost impossible not to change.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Travel Plans

This week, like many, I am on the road part of the time. Sometimes we can use travel as an excuse to do things differently.

I know, for example, that I use travel as an excuse to eat more and drink more than I might otherwise.  Having a young child at home, travel is a wonderful opportunity to get more sleep usual, but it often doesn't work that way. And I might not get in as much meditation time on the road as I would at home. I might not get in any exercise, either.

For me, travel is generally done as part of a group, which means that, more than usual, there is peer pressure. And it can be hard not to go out for one more drink or to get that extra rich dessert.

There is nothing good or bad in any of this, and the changes are not always negative. I tend to get in a lot more reading on the road than at home, for example. But it can be useful to notice these tendencies. When you have habits and your routines change, your habits can change, too.

Maybe we don't need that dessert. But it might be nice to enjoy one every now and then, too.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Challenge of Language

One of the challenges of this work is that there is a vocabulary that has grown up around it in the spiritual world that is often based on Sanskrit, Japanese, or Tibetan words that do not translate easily into English.

My premise is that while these terms grew up in spiritual traditions, they are pointing at something that is not inherently spiritual. In fact, it is free of any content at all. It is before notions of content and lack of content, just like it is free of notions of suffering or lack of suffering.

To communicate "this" is a challenge. Even to point at it, at this that is aware of the world, can be difficult.

But the value of resting here is clear.

Here, there are no boundaries. We see ourselves and others without the lens of our personal identities and our agendas. We can simply be. And there is peace and healing here.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Finding Your Limits

We get so caught up in our own rules that we don't even notice them.

If you want to conduct an interesting experiment, walk into a Starbucks and order a Big Mac. If you want to push it, ask for a manager when they refuse. Do it at 8 in the morning, in front of a long line of people. Let yourself get really angry. Push it. Get rude. Indignant, even. Stomp out muttering how you will never go to a Starbucks again. What horrible customer service!

If you are like most people, you began to picture yourself in that situation, and you got a bit uncomfortable. That discomfort can be an interesting pointer to some of the rules that we all have.

Maybe you thought that you would be uncomfortable with the people in line watching, or potentially having to wait for you.

Maybe you got uncomfortable with how the employees might react to you.

Notice how your brain immediately came up with a scenario for you. Even though you are probably here, still reading, and have not done the experiment.  Notice how you think it is not necessary to do the experiment anymore. Because you think you know what will happen. But do you?

How often do you do things or not do things because you think you know what will happen? And how often are you correct?

Our brains make up so much of our lives without us even realizing it. We decide if things are good or bad before they even happen. Not only does this impact how we life our lives, it affects if we live our lives.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Free Book Inside

I'm not kidding.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog that I refer to from time to time, has just released a new book.

It's about Focus in our age of distraction. No need to say more here. Happy Reading!


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Elections and Uncertainty

Every election, we engage in some magical thinking.

When we pull the lever or punch the card or tap the screen for our candidate, we believe at least three things, none of which is true.

First, we think that we know and understand all of the issues, and that our opinion is correct on those issues.

Second, we think that we know and understand each candidate's position, and that they fit well, at least on the important issues, with our own views.

Third, we think that the candidate will actually be able to act on those positions and get things accomplished if elected.

I suppose there is a fourth, but we rarely seem to get there these days. The fourth is that the legislation enacted will work as intended.

All of these are demonstrably false. The issues we are dealing with are far too complicated in a world of sound bite, character-based campaigning and governing. It's way to easy to spend your time in office talking about the bad things the other guy did. And doing nothing else.

The last several elections have each been a referendum against the party in power. While our problems only grow. If we want to get things done, we are focused on the wrong things. We spend way too much time talking about what we want to do separately, when we should be talking about what we can do, together.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to pull in campaign contributions. But now that we are back to split government, it appears to be the only way forward.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Shop Till You Drop

I had a breakthrough at the mall.

As I was pushing my son's stroller, it hit me why we were all there. Sure, some of us were killing time or running errands, but the mall has almost become church for many of us.

I'm not familiar with your church, but mine spent a lot of time telling me that I was bad, and that it had everything that was need to fix me.

It seems like today's mall performs a similar function. By showing us images of people who are younger, wealthier, and more beautiful than we are, we learn that there is something wrong with us. But by carefully paying attention to what these people wear and have we can be just like them. Problem solved, with only an outfit, or a piece of jewelry, or an electronic toy. At least till the next visit.

But it only works when we assume there is something wrong. And if we look at this moment, right now, we can see that there is nothing wrong with it. There can't be. Like you, like me, this very moment is perfect as it is. Because it can't be anything else.

If this moment includes shopping, then the shopping is perfect, too. But if you want to shop, shop. Don't think you have to fix anything, because there is nothing that needs to be fixed.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fear and Elections

This last weekend you may have seen coverage of the rally on the National Mall with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

The "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" was part in jest, to be sure, but it made a very valid point--people think differently when they are afraid, or angry, than when they are not. So much of this blog has been about the "lizard brain" and how it gets in our way. But it seems fight or flight is carrying a bigger load these days.

So much of our media cycle is driven by fear. Fear, of anything from infected remotes to global warming to impending socialism, is what passes for news today. It pulls in viewers--"what's in your water that might kill you?" has a way of making you curious, no?

Rational discussion seems to have departed the airwaves. Why bore people when you can stoke their fears?If you can convince people that the opposing candidate is like Hitler, they are pretty motivated to go to the voting booth. With the elections today, let's hope than reason, and reasoned differences, prevail over screaming and name-calling.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Getting Comfortable

When we do this work of natural presence, of effortless authenticity, more and more, we find ourselves right here. With nothing to do.

My friend Elias Amidon recently wrote of some of the confusion around this idea that there is nothing to do.

"Nothing to do" doesn't mean that we don't do anything. It doesn't mean that we kick back in our recliners and turn on the TV (and it doesn't mean that we don't do that, either).

Instead, it means that our actions come from a different part of ourselves. Though words do not seem adequate, the words that come to me are "spontaneous love."

We operate from a position of utter honesty and vulnerability. We do what we are compelled to do, we ask for what we need. We have no pretenses.

We laugh and we cry, without hesitation.

It is a mystery where our actions come from, and why we do things, but we do them nevertheless, with complete trust.

Sometimes, we are completely uncomfortable, but we are better at accepting that discomfort.

This is only different from our usual way of being in one way.

We stop questioning ourselves. After all, when we really look for where our actions come from now, we can't find it, either. We only pretend we can.

When admit that we are not in the driver's seat, we can enjoy the ride so much more.