A coaching client of mine, a successful entrepreneur and scientist, once showed me his happiness assessment. Every day he ranked on a scale from 1 to 10 how he was performing on a variety of areas: work, relationship, spiritual practice, hobbies, exercise, and a few others. He would then calculate an average of these numbers to determine his daily overall happiness quotient. He showed me a chart he kept, tracking the daily rises and falls of this measure. It looked much like the Dow Jones stock market index, with its various trends up and down, seesawing between deep valleys and steep climbs.
I admired his effort to pay attention and measure his level of happiness. This can be a useful self-awareness tool. He used this tool to determine which parts of his life needed more focus and attention. You, too, could use this approach to provide a quick, daily snapshot.
A Zen teacher from the 9th century in China could sometimes be heard having a stern conversation with himself: “Master Zuigan!” he would call out. “Yes?,” he would inquire, “Are you here?” “Yes!” He responded to himself.
How sweet, how odd, and how wonderful! This Zen teacher underscores how challenging it can be to be present, to show up, to be present for ourselves, and for our lives. And he didn’t have a smart phone, the internet, or television to contend with. It seems that showing up and being fully present has always been challenging.
I’ve been reading a book by poet Jane Hirshfield called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. In an essay about concentration she says:
“Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.”
How can we learn to attend to ourselves, to our relationships, our work, our lives? What prevents us from the simple act of showing up? Fear, greed, wanting what we don’t have, not wanting what we have. Or as Jane points out – the distractions of interest or boredom – the need to be entertained or the anxiety and distraction of not being entertained.
How can we be more present? By practicing again and again, noticing when we are present and when we are not. By leaning in toward our fears, and our discomfort. As well as embracing our joy and our appreciation. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, being present for the “full catastrophe” of being alive, of being human.
I like the practice of Zen teacher Zuigan, “Are you here?” He asks himself. “Yes!” We can all try this – are you here? – when listening to another person, when driving a car, when eating your food. Checking in with ourselves – what’s happening, right now, with your thinking, your feelings. What’s in your heart?
We learn from the past what to predict for the future and then live the future we expect…. Predictions based on the past allow for more efficient brain function in the present, but can lead to mistakes.
— Regina Pally, The Predictive Brain
In the Zen tradition, there is a famous dialogue between two leading teachers in sixth-century China, a time when Zen was flourishing. One teacher asked another: “What is the Way?” This is another way of asking — How can I live a happy, meaningful life? Or, How can I find real freedom? The other teacher responded, much to the first teacher’s surprise, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
I find this to be a wonderful, encouraging answer, as well as a terrific way to cut through our ideas and assumptions. This was not the answer that was expected or assumed, then or now. Ordinary mind is the way. Just trusting, or returning to, our ordinary mind is the way to find happiness and meaning! To find satisfaction, composure, and results — we don’t need anything extra, fancy, or special. We don’t need to do or add more; we need to do less! We just need to let go of some of our assumptions, particularly our thinking that our freedom and happiness lie someplace else, or during some other time, or with some other mind. Instead, let’s be guided by our inclusive, playful, mysterious, and plain ordinary minds.
When my two children were in elementary school, a weekly day of doing less was an important part of our family ritual. We borrowed some ideas from the Jewish Sabbath as well as Buddhist Day of Mindfulness practices. At the heart of our day we had three simple rules that we applied from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday evening:
Rule #1: There was no spending money.
Rule #2: There was no watching television.
Rule #3: We did something together as a family.
These three guidelines produced significant results in the quality of those twenty-four hours. What a relief to not buy anything, not have the television on, and spend time simply enjoying each other’s presence. My wife and I talked more with our two children; we read books, told stories, played games, went for walks, and shared meals. The biggest benefit of this structured break was that, for a day, the pace of our lives slowed down and our family connections increased.
One of my favorite parts of this ritual was the formal ending. We observed the Jewish tradition of looking for the first three stars to become visible on Saturday evening, signaling that Sabbath was over. It was fun and exciting for the four of us to stand on our deck together, seeing who could find the three stars as the sun faded and nighttime slowly emerged. Of course, since we live in Marin County, dense fog sometimes forced us to use our imaginations.
To go to war or not to go to war? To act or to wait and see? Women’s rights or the rights of the unborn? Collaborate or challenge? Step forward or step back?
What is our real motivation? How do we decide? Where do we stand?
There is a story, a koan in Zen: “How do you step from the top of a 100 foot pole?”
I was thinking of a New York Times book review I read some time ago about the life of Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex research scientist. His research and books regarding the trends and variety of sexual practices were groundbreaking at the time. The review described the book as an exposé, highlighting the paradox and the alleged gap between Kinsey the person, contrasted with the public image of being a completely detached, non-involved, non-emotional scientist. The book describes Mr. Kinsey as a human being whose emotions were messy and whose personal life was colorful and erratic. The book points to the animal side, or the range of uncontrolled emotions and instincts; in contrast to the more scientific or spiritual side of human beings. The point of the book is in some way the scientific or spiritual is not real or solid, in comparison to the fact of our animal side.
Animal side, spiritual side; in what ways are they connected or opposed? Native American cultures and shaman traditions and many wisdom traditions have well-developed ways of integrating the so-called animal and spiritual sides. Each of us, particularly we as westerners, steeped in the scientific tradition, when we hear these words, has our own spin, history, opinions, conditioning. It is easy to get caught by these words and ideas, to think and believe, and fight wars over these ideas and distinctions.
From a Buddhist view, all emotions that keep us from seeing things as they are, or emotions that unnecessarily push us out of equilibrium can be called destructive. Our practice is to become intimately familiar with our so-called animal side and spiritual side, to go beyond these labels and return to our authentic, free and un-nameable natures. This koan says that in order to do this, to be genuine, we must be willing step from the top of a pole. That is, to step outside of our usual safety, to go beyond our comfort zones.
What are you really feeling? What’s under that, and what’s under that? It is so easy to hide from our real feelings and to obscure our feelings and emotions.
This is one reason why working with a teacher and working with a community is so important. All of us, no matter how much effort we make, are not always capable of seeing clearly. We are like fish in our own tank. Little by little the water can get dirty, and since it is just a little bit each day we don’t even notice it is dirty. Then our friend or teacher comes into our space and it is so obvious – hey, the water here is pretty dirty. Even though we may be working hard each, with the intention of cleaning the water, we may not notice the subtle leaks, the ones we can’t see, that may be obvious to those around us.
Stepping off the 100 ft pole can be as simple as paying attention, truly investigating reality. It may mean really listening to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes this means inquiring deeply about our feelings and emotions. Sometimes it means being open to a friend or teacher; being willing to be open to the perceptions and perspectives of our friends and teachers.
Destructive emotions can be summarized by five negative emotions: hatred, desire, confusion, pride, and jealousy. The more you examine, the deeper you look into the source of the human mind, the more these emotions appear, and the more they fade and disappear. At the core of these destructive emotions is actually a core of clarity, and brilliance, something not in any way harmful.
These obscuring emotions can be on the surface and they can run deep, getting in the way of how we see the world, the nature of things, our view of permanence and impermanence. These emotions actually cause us to lose our freedom. Thoughts become chained in a particular way, affecting how we think, speak and act
Meditation practice is another way to work with negative emotions. Sitting practice allows us to investigate the reality of our minds, feelings and emotions, to just watch. At a subtler level we can begin to allow some space in our thinking and feelings, to undo some of our conditioning; the embedded way that our feelings and emotions are part of our bodies. We see that the emotions themselves are not the problem; it’s the attachment to the emotions, the way they take hold of us and the gaps between our emotions and what really is.
1) If you are feeling hatred, practice love and compassion.
2) If you feel jealousy, practice kindness and joy.
3) You go first:
If what you want from your friend or spouse is more openness, acceptance and love, then you go first. You practice being more open, accepting and loving of the other person. If you want and need more vulnerability, sharing and risk taking; then you go first – be more vulnerable, more disclosing and more risk taking. Your actions, your going first is the antidote for whatever it is you find lacking in others. You have the courage and skill to take these actions because through your meditation practice you have a taste of impermanence and a taste of emptiness, – you come to know that everything is empty of being separate.
Since our lives are so short, everything we do is quite significant. And, the fact that we are not separate from others doesn’t mean that therefore we don’t have to take things personally. Again, just the opposite. Everything is personal, everything is important.
The koan says that you step from the pole. It doesn’t say that you wait for someone else to step from the pole.
Stepping from the pole is being willing to enter new territory, to say things that are not rehearsed, not safe, not part of our conditioning. The term “beginner’s mind” is easy to mention, especially when talking about others. But what really is beginner’s mind? How do we practice beginners mind not only on our meditation cushions but in our lives – with our spouses, lovers, children, parents, co-workers.
Stepping from a 100 foot pole is to step out from behind ourselves and our habits. This doesn’t mean to step away from our pain and confusion, and our messy, unpleasant emotional life. Instead, stepping from the 100 foot pole is just the opposite – we step directly into our feelings and emotions, our motivations and condition. We step and embrace whatever is most messy and difficult. We inquire. Ask others – Is there a way that my words hurt you? Have I done anything that causes you pain? Please tell me. Please let me know how I can support and be there for you. How can I express my love and care for you?
Why is it so difficult to talk with those we love in this way? What kind of armor do we have on that prevents us from being real and disclosing? What is this treasure we are protecting, this idea that we need to keep things safe?
You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole,
Although you have entered the Way, it is not genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
And the entire universe is in your eye
The goal of our life’s effort is to reach the other shore…the true wisdom of life is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached. To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living.
– Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind
It is important to have goals, in our work and in our lives outside of work. Goals provide a target to aim for, whether we want to reach certain revenues, develop new products, reduce disease or violence, or lose weight. Goals provide benchmarks and allow us to make appropriate and useful adjustments as we move along the path toward meeting these goals.
Whereas goals act as the “what” we want to achieve, our intentions can act as the “how.” Our intentions can clarify the spirit and attitude with which we want to pursue our goals. Goals, by definition are something in the future. An intention can be right now, in this moment. We may have a one-year or three-year or five-year goal. Our intention can begin immediately and can act as a container in which we move toward our goals.
I understand that intentions have gotten a bad name (i.e. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”) Of course, decisions we make with certain intentions may have outcomes that were not intended. We can’t hide behind our intentions. Instead we can act both boldly and with humility, learning from our mistakes, adjusting as needed.
Having goals can be powerful. Taking an idea and committing to it has weight and gives energy and meaning to our activities.
Setting intentions can also be powerful. Our intention might be to work with less stress, to live with more joy, to meet difficulties and opportunities more openly and directly. Intentions can act as a compass to keep us more alive and more focused, as we pursue our goals.
In the Shunryu Suzuki quote above he is saying that our real goal, the goal that truly matters in our lives is the goal of finding complete freedom, to live a life of responsiveness, of joy, love, and compassion; to free ourselves from small-mindedness, self-centeredness, and an ego-centric existence. This is the true goal of being a human being. Our deep intention is to live in a manner in which we are reaching our goals in each moment, without waiting. We don’t need to be attached to some outcome in the future. We make our best effort, not only to meet our goals, but to set an intention to live with freedom and compassion; right now, in this moment.
I recently led a 3-day retreat called Step Into Your Life. We began the retreat by asking everyone to write down their intention for these days together. At the end of the retreat we all checked in with what we wrote at the beginning of the retreat.
What is your intention for today, for this week, and this year?