Endless Changes

A short verse from Dongshan, a 6th century Chinese Zen teacher:

Not getting caught by it is or it isn’t
Do you have the courage to be at peace with it?
Everyone wants to leave the endless changes
But when we stop bending and fitting our lives
We come and sit by the fire.

It takes courage to not be caught by “it is or it isn’t” by liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting, good and bad, and right and wrong. We all want clarity, and of course some things are good and bad, and some things are right and wrong. And yet, how do we have the courage to hear other points of view, to not dismiss those who don’t agree with us?

The reality of change can be daunting. When I’m teaching, I sometimes suggest that if you don’t fully embrace the reality of change, just look in the mirror. Is that person now, the same person I was looking at yesterday, last year, ten years ago. The reality of change is potent, mysterious, sacred, and freeing.

And, let’s all stop bending and fitting our lives. The last line in the verse, come and sit by the fire, I find as an invitation not only for rest and acceptance, but and invitation to act without anything extra.

I find so many practices in the midst of this short verse:
– letting go of dualistic, yes and no thinking
– leaning in to change
– finding effortlessness in the midst of effort

Our Guides Along The Journey

I’ve been enjoying re-reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, published in 1949, describing the similar archetypal path of humans, throughout time and across cultures.  The first three parts of this path are named as:

–       the call to adventure

–       refusing the call

–       supernatural aid

The first part of the human journey is to be called, usually unexpectedly to do something, find something, or achieve something.

The second part, is refusing the call. Often, we don’t want to answer the call – we are too busy, or it’s too dangerous, or we have other things to do.

The third step along the way, as described by Campbell is supernatural aid.  He uses this term to describe our guides along the way; the people that seem to almost “magically” appear to help us.

I’ve had so much help, from so many people. I don’t generally think of it as being supernatural, but this help and guidance is certainly usually unexpected and surprising.   “Even to those who apparently have hardened their hearts, the supernatural guardian may appear.”

This is an excellent topic to think about or write about. Who have your guides been?  And, who are you guides now, in your life?  In what way is your heart hardened, and in what way is your heart open?

Seven factors of cultivating freedom

The Buddhist tradition names what are called the seven factors of enlightenment.  Enlightenment is a fancy word for finding more freedom, real confidence, and emotional flexibility. These factors are meant to be practiced, not just during meditation practice but throughout daily life:

1. Mindfulness – awareness practice is the basis for cultivating more freedom

2. Discernment – this is the practice of seeing more clearly

3. Energy – making just the right amount of effort

4. Joy – cultivating an open, uplifting state of mind

5. Relaxation – staying calm in the midst of activity

6. Concentration – the ability to stay engaged, present, and focused

7. Tranquility – skillful engagement

Choose one of these practices and try it on this week.  How does it show up in your life? What is the resistance or difficulty? What supports you in this practice?

Practicing With Paradox

I have come to believe that embracing and responding to paradox — turning our assumptions upside down, expecting the unexpected, comfortably holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time, resolving conflicting requirements, and so on — is the key to waking up to ourselves and the present moment and discovering the right thing to do. Paradox is the doorway to insight, just as falling is necessary for learning how to balance on a tightrope. We all want more clarity, more ease, more connectedness, more possibilities, more compassion, more kindness. We want healthy relationships in order to thrive at our work and to be effective in all areas of our life. What is hard is knowing in any given situation what the appropriate action or response should be. We want the insight to know how to achieve all these things, but our vision and experience are limited.

There is an expression from the Zen tradition, “Don’t be a board-carrying fellow.” This refers to the image of a carpenter carrying a wide wooden board on his or her shoulder. The board blocks and limits vision, allowing the carpenter to see only one side of things. This expression is meant to caution us from thinking we see fully and clearly, when we see only partially. We are all board-carrying fellows. We usually just see the world from our ordinary, habitual viewpoint and neglect the mysterious, the profound, the obvious. If we don’t know or acknowledge that our viewpoint is limited, we will find it virtually impossible to gain the insight that allows us to respond in new, more successful ways. To become aware of our limitations, to achieve the insights we crave, we need to wake up.

Accepting the power of paradox is one of life’s ways of waking us up, shocking us into awareness, so we can find our balance again. Waking up can be cultivated, practiced, so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes our habitual approach to life. Then we may become as skillful as a tightrope walker, who lives on the edge of falling and yet (almost) always catches him- or herself in time.

Paradox means many things and can be worked with and utilized in our lives in many ways. Many Zen stories embody or are steeped in paradox, and I use them often in my work, as I do in this book. Yet paradox can also simply be a startling, peculiar, playful, or unexpected observation that challenges our habitual way of thinking. It is asking, “What is this rhinoceros doing in my office?” It is the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson observing that spaceship Earth is so well designed that we have no idea we are on one. Here we are, hurtling through space at a million miles per hour with no need for seatbelts, plenty of room in coach, and excellent food. Imagine. Paradox is anytime you hear that whisper in your ear, “Wake up, the world is extraordinary. This life you take for granted isn’t what you think!”

(From Know Yourself, Forget Yourself)


The Practice of Right View

I was drawn to Zen practice as a path and practice to finding real freedom, to owning, respecting, and trusting this ordinary, precious life. My practice began, and is regularly encouraged by noticing where and when I am not awake, where I am holding, avoiding, tight. I didn’t know it at the time but, this could be a description of the practice of Right View.

As I was preparing to give a recent talk, I noticed a part of me was tight. My reaction to this tightness was to further contract. I thought – oh, won’t it feel better when this talk is over. What a relief that will be. I was looking into the future, and avoiding any kind of stress, any kind of being uncomfortable.

Then I had to smile, to laugh at myself. Here is another opportunity to step right into contraction, not avoid or suppress it, and step into the moment. After all, no one is dragging me out to talk. In fact, for me speaking in public is how I let go of fear and tightness. As I was thinking about this talk, my hope is to step out of my comfort zone, and ideally for us all to step out of our comfort and habits. I hope that what I’m discovering, as well as what you are discovering is contagious, and we can all find more ease and freedom, right here and now.

So, my question, that I began asking early in my life – What does it mean to be a human being? And more recently what does it mean to be a human being on earth, at a time where living systems are declining, where the actions of our society are threatening the planet we call our home? I’m particularly interested in the way these seemingly separate issues – our own views and perceptions, our spiritual practice and how we engage with environmental issues, with war and peace, with are planet, are connected – how it is a mirage that these are separate issues. What is right view?

Right view is the faith and confidence that we can transform our views, transform our deeply held perceptions and reactions.

Just a few days ago President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace prize; and simultaneously spoke about war, and a just war and peace. Is there such a thing? What is the perspective of right view – killing people to make the world safer? What is right view in this situation?

At the same time, our world leaders were meeting in Copenhagen. Nearly all agree on the severity of the problem – from the economic costs to the threat of the health and survival of our planet.

This so called ordinary world is anything but ordinary – Buckmister Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed, we have no clue we are on one – hurtling through the universe, unaware of the speed, no sense of danger, no need for seatbelts.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. Of course, no one would sleep that night. We might all be joined by a sense of rapture and joy. Instead, the stars come out every night, and we play video games or watch television.

What if we didn’t take our hands, our eyes, our hearts for granted. What if we realized that the trees, and flowers, the wind and the rain, our planet earth is not separate from our bodies and minds? What if we could experience the miracle of our bodies, of our minds, of our ability to read other’s energy.

Quantum physics describes that we live in an infinite number of universes. What we call Events, happen not in one universe, but many. The question “Who am I?” is merely a 20-watt fountain of energy operating in the brain. This energy doesn’t go away after death. Energy doesn’t’ die; it cannot be created nor destroyed.

Quantum physics (and Zen Buddhism) says that space and time are not what we think. Everything we see and experience right now is a whirl of information occurring in your mind. Space and time are the tools for putting everything together.

“People like us know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Einstein.

From an ancient Buddhist text – “You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you manifest the nature of an ordinary person, without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.”

How can we live in the spiritual universe and simultaneously live in the ordinary world, the world that needs food and shelter, the world of compassion, and the world of violence and of pain – incredible destruction of our planet. How can we see that these are not two worlds, but one?

Our practice is to cultivate the yoga of ordinariness while simultaneously cultivating spiritual practice. As soon as we see ourselves as separate from nature, or even see ourselves as separate from the troubles and cries of the world; this is a problem.

A basic understanding of right view, is that people/beings are not separate. In fact, separate beings don’t exist in the way we think they do. Separateness is much like the illusion that Einstein described about time – a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Right View is seeing that we don’t need to manufacture love and deep reverence for life. We only need to let go of our views, our deeply held beliefs that get in the way of the love that fills us.

A piece of a poem by David Whyte:
To be human
Is to become visible
While carrying
What is hidden
As a gift to other.

To remember
The other world
In this world
Is to live in your true inheritance.

…What shape waits in the seed
Of you to grow
And spread
Its branches
Against a future sky?