Sunday, October 30, 2005

How and Why to Meditate

Try this. Close your eyes and try to quiet your mind. Do that now, for just a moment. Then return to the page.

Did you notice that quieting your mind was no easy task? Usually, when I try this, I become anxious and agitated. That happens because, without the practice of dis-identifying ourselves from thought, we believe that we are our mind, so it has ultimate sway over our attention. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t think I’m my mind,” guess who said that? Right, your mind!

Now try this. Close your eyes once again, and place all of your attention not on your thoughts but on the sensations you feel in your body. Perhaps you can rest your attention on the temperature of your hands or on the weight of your legs or on the tension in your face. Be careful not to observe emotions, but rather sensations.

If you notice that you’re feeling sad, for example, go deeper into the inquiry, and study what sadness feels like. Pay no attention to what thoughts are associated with the sadness or to the undesirability of the emotion. Just observe where sadness resides in your body. What, in fact, is sadness? Is it tightness in your face? Heaviness in your throat? Fluttering in your belly? Whatever it is, let it be. It’s entirely OK. Study it as you imagine a scientist would study it. Try to dissect it with your consciousness. Notice how long it lasts and how it dissipates, how it goes away, with no mental effort on your part.

Notice how all sensations in or on your body have this same quality. They arise, remain for a time, and then cease. Be kind to yourself. Whatever you feel is OK. In fact, think of the sensations as fuel for your consciousness. What Ram Dass calls “grist for the mill.” There is no prerequisite to enlightenment. It can’t happen in the future. It can only happen now. As Ram Dass says, “Be here now.”

Twelve steps for a simple meditation practice:

Sit comfortably in an upright position with your back straight, arms comfortably in your lap.
Keep your eyes and your mouth closed.
Take three “cleansing breaths,” forgetting you cares.
Commit to using this time for self-inquiry, not thought.
Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils.
Don’t try to change anything you notice. Accept it as it is.
8.7.Give yourself a brief reminder to maintain perfect awareness and perfect equanimity or acceptance throughout this process.
Begin to become aware of the sensations over your body. Move your attention up and down your body, uncritically noticing whatever feelings arise.
If you become bored, distracted, frustrated, or overwhelmed, realize that these, too, are just sensations. Observe them as you do all other sensations or thoughts.
Practice for at least twenty minutes. Do as much as an hour at a time. It’s best to practice both in the morning and in the evening.
Use this same practice any time something upsetting or stressful occurs during your day. Bring your attention, as quickly as possible, into your body and away from your thoughts.
Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts; you are not your mind.

Because of the habit of your mind to take over, you’ll believe you have to think about this. You don’t. According to the Third Zen Patriarch,

“Stop talking and thinking, and there’s nothing you can’t know.”

I’ve often found it helpful, when my mind picks up a train of thought that it doesn’t want to let go, to remind myself of Barry Weiss’ words. “Your mind will constantly try to fool you into believing that whatever you’re thinking about right now is vitally important.” Don’t let it fool you!

The practice of observing your sensations will lead you towards liberation. You should commit yourself to at least twenty minutes per day, simply observing your sensation, noticing when your mind tries to take over the show and draw you into a thought loop. Whenever that happens, simply smile at the current habit pattern of your mind and return your attention to your sensation. Notice how it flows and changes. Watch how what started as what some might call bad feelings will often melt into good ones. Begin to recognize how feelings you used to suppress or indulge become like clouds moving across the sky. They come, and they go.

As you practice the art of simple observation, what the Buddha called vipassana meaning wisdom, a very interesting thing will begin to happen to you. As situations arise in your life which used to cause you to react negatively, you’ll find yourself more and more quickly leaving behind the churning of your mind; the part that says, “This shouldn’t be!” and directing your attention with curiosity and wonder at your inner sensations.

Since you’re learning to experience the temporary nature of your feelings, you’ve nothing to fear and nothing to fix. The problem will take care of itself. In fact, if anything, you’ll appreciate the opportunity to feel the emotion and get in touch with areas of your consciousness in places where you’ve become addicted to certain outcomes. You’ll learn to laugh at yourself and have compassion for both yourself and the people or situations which generated your negativity…all in all, a pretty remarkable benefit for a reasonably meager investment of time.

The Spiritual Path

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of finding what I called our “essence.”
I described it as vital to our emotional and spiritual well-being to reach beyond the ego to a place of stillness and truth deep within our souls. As we embark on that journey, questions arise.

What is it that we seek within? How do we seek? What will we find there? Is there a road map? Fortunately, there are several such maps. Every world religion and philosophical ideology provides a path for self-inquiry. Let’s look at five points upon which virtually all can agree:

1. First, the path must be universal. Regardless of the religion you choose or which has been chosen for you, the path to the discovery of your essence must not violate or contradict its basic tenets.

2. Second, the path must be experiential. That is, you must be able to find what you seek. We are not interested in blind faith here. We are looking for a method for learning to experience yourself differently, in all your glory, and your learning can’t be based on something that someone else tells you. You must feel that your tools are working. Otherwise, you’ll either stop using them or you’ll collapse into dogmatic reiteration of someone else’s beliefs.

3. Third, the path must be alive. Each day, each moment you should derive sustenance from touching the divine within you. It’s what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the famous Buddhist teacher and author called “fresh baked bread.” Yesterday’s truth isn’t enough to sustain you, any more than last year’s bread will nourish you today.

4. Fourth, the path must be practical. While cloistering yourself in a monastery is certainly an option if that’s what you choose, it’s more likely that you’ll need to find ways of attaining liberation while simultaneously doing homework, holding a job, raising a family, taking vacations, making dinner, and all the other mundane aspects of existence.

Finally, the path must be understandable to your conscious mind. This is not because your conscious mind needs to be involved in the final attainment, but because your mind can be a strong and persistent adversary when it is not comfortable with your choices. If your intellect doesn’t view the path as worthy, logical, or practical, you will find it very difficult to get quiet, which is the crux of your work.

We find our essence in the space between our thoughts. It’s what naturally arises when we cease to uphold our previously erroneous view of who we thought we were. It can’t be found in the future, and it can’t be found in the past because neither of these exists right now. It’s found in the relinquishing of all sense of time, all thought, all identification with our minds.

There are many, many ways of reaching this state of mind, some more reliable than others. Understanding that the goal is creating a spacious, quiet mind, you might begin to imagine some possibilities for yourself: perhaps a long walk along a deserted beach or down a wooded trail, or deep absorption in a labor of love like an artistic project, or allowing yourself to get lost in the sound of a rainstorm.

Each of these activities has the quality of demanding that we become present, that we have our attention on what’s happening in that moment, as opposed to being lost in thought or preoccupation with some past or future event. If we’re walking down a path and we find that our mind is engaged in an event not currently happening, we must remind ourselves that we are, in fact, outdoors at that moment. The indoor world we’ve escaped is not present and must not be allowed to steal our focus from what is.

Because our minds are so adept at taking us out of the moment, and since this moment is all there is, and since no true peace, contentment, or liberation can manifest any time but now, we must take advantage of the tools at our disposal for remaining present.

Notice the beauty

One of these tools is noticing the beauty around us. Try to give your surroundings more than a passing glance. Drink them in as if they were your nourishment, as indeed they are. Resist the temptation to jump back into your head, and let your senses revel in the enoughness of the moment.

Many of us suffer from what I call the “Clark Griswold Syndrome.” If you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Vacation, you’ll remember Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, arriving at the Grand Canyon after a series of unfortunate events. He gets out of the car, looks into the abyss, bobs his head up and down for about three seconds, nods and says, “OK kids, let’s go!” And off they go. They got nothing from the experience, but, at least they could say they “saw the Grand Canyon!”

Extreme weather

Another tool which may help you remain vigilant is to spend time outdoors in extreme, inclement weather. This does two things. First, it forces you to remain present, as you have no choice but to be aware of the sensations acting upon you. Second, it helps you discover the truth of your early childhood programming.

When I started hiking onto the frozen lake behind my home at the prompting of a meditation friend, I encountered enormous resistance. A voice in my head kept telling me to go inside or I’d catch my death of cold. It wasn’t long before I realized that it was the voice of my mother disguised as an important rule. As I challenged that rule, I discovered that if I were properly dressed, the cold had no power over me, that I became healthier and hardier rather than sick, and that I was able to develop tremendous equanimity, even joy, in experiencing the cold air on my exercised warm body. Nothing up to that point in my life had ever offered me such a startling, beautiful sense of being absolutely present.

Meditation

An important component to seeking our essence is meditation. The practice of mindfulness or Vipassana meditation fits all the criteria we’ve discussed. You may, like many people, myself included, have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of meditation. You may be thinking, “I can’t meditate. I’ve tried it before, and I just didn’t have the patience.” If that’s true for you, you’re probably expecting meditation to be something other than what it really is. Many people start out thinking that the goal of meditation is to enter an altered state. If they don’t enter that state, they feel they’ve failed in their task of meditation. Their impatience is towards the elusive state they imagine they’re supposed to achieve. They get bored and discouraged waiting for it to show up.

But, meditation has nothing to do with altered states. There’s nothing to wait for, so how can you be impatient? Meditation is simply observing the truth of the moment. Whatever you feel is part of your meditation. There are many meditation techniques, and different ones appeal to different people. They all have one thing in common: the goal of a quiet, focused mind with a connection to a deeper part of ourselves.

In a subsequent article, I’ll explore meditation in greater detail. For now, make a commitment to seek a form of meditation or mindfulness practice that suits you, and begin using that tool to bring you closer to your essence.

Discover Your Essence

I’m sitting in a crowded café. Straight ahead is a young couple, the woman staring intently at a computer screen, the man writing feverishly in a notebook. They work steadily, not looking up or speaking with each other. Ahead and to the right sits another couple. The young man sips from a large cup. He stares blankly ahead and then looks around aimlessly. The young woman concentrates on some of the artwork on the wall, turning occasionally to comment on the pieces. The young man breaks his reverie to nod agreement with her opinion. The counter is populated on the customer’s side by a young woman, digging busily in her purse for money, and on the servers’ side by a still younger woman with dreadlocks and a simple cloth skirt over a pair of jeans.

Everyone I see is busy. Whatever they’re doing seems so important to them. They’re very serious. They don’t smile. They seldom interact. If I were a visitor from another planet, I’d say that these Earthlings are a very troubled, very preoccupied species. Actually, they all look hypnotized, dazed, entranced.

I watch the flow of life going on around me. I’m at peace. I’m content. Are there things I could be doing? Yes. Are there things I could be planning, reviewing, or worrying about? Sure. I’m human. I’ve got a life. But, for right now, I’m choosing to be in the moment. For me, there is no past, no future. Just now.

From this perspective, many things become clear: one is just how not present most people are. Another is how unnecessary it is to live anywhere but in the present moment. Our preoccupation with our difficulties is routed in the mistaken idea that something is terribly wrong and must be fixed. The first words to ponder in the workbook for The Course in Miracles by Russ Wise are these:

Nothing matters

That’s it. Just those two simple words with the infinite power to change our entire lives.

Now, I can hear many of you reacting in defiance against this principle. And that’s OK. You’d get lots of agreement from society at large for the insistence that some things do matter. What about war, disease, injustice? Don’t these things matter?

Yes and no. From a human perspective, of course they do. We try our best to live within certain parameters and help when we can. But from a spiritual perspective, it’s all neutral. Nothing has the inherent quality of goodness or badness. It just is what it is. We humans attribute those qualities to the people and things around us. Devoid of judgment, the world actually becomes a friendlier place.

How would you treat others if you were God, or Jesus, or the Buddha? Would you accept some people or situations and reject others? No. You would love and cherish all beings and circumstances. You would treat everyone, regardless of his actions, with respect. You’d see those who acted inappropriately not as unacceptable, repulsive beings, but as confused children who had lost their way. How would you treat yourself? As a broken, hopeless mass of neuroses, or as a cherished, wonderful, and innocent individual, perfect exactly as you are?

We simply don’t have the right to sit in judgment of ourselves or others. We have neither the experience nor the perspective to see the whole picture, and our judgments are necessarily skewed by the culture in which we were raised and the beliefs we’ve unwittingly imbibed.

That is why the great spiritual leaders of every age have advocated detachment. Detachment is the ability to step back from our mental constructs and look at the world from a neutral perspective. It’s what Barry Weiss, a meditation teacher of thirty years, calls “being backstage.” In other words, we recognize that all our thoughts, plans, beliefs, judgments, prejudices, problems, and solutions take place on the stage of life. But here’s the good news. We’re not who we think we are! We’re not the ongoing monologue between our ears. We are, in fact, nothing more nor less than pure consciousness. We are backstage while the play of our life takes place before our eyes.

What is essence? Christians call it soul. Quakers call it that still small voice. Hindus call it the Atman. Buddhists call it consciousness. It is the fundamental you below your learned behaviors, thoughts and preferences. Look at the things that bring you joy: a beautiful sunset, an inspiring piece of music, a laughing child. Nobody taught you to love those things, because the appreciation you feel is inborn. It’s part of your essence. At the deepest level, you are pure essence, and none of the things you use to identify yourself are truly you.

You can’t think your way to that realization because anything you can think is happening in your mind, which is a limited form of consciousness. You need to reach this place in a distinctly different way. It requires courage and discipline to extricate yourself from the mistaken belief that you are your mind and, by extension, that every thought you have is vitally important. It is, however, vital if you’re to break free of your limitations and experience what the Buddha called “liberation,” what Jesus called “salvation,” and what has been termed by spiritual leaders throughout the eons as “self-knowledge.”

Eckart Tolle, the brilliant author of The Power of Now, begins his book with a fable. He tells the story of a beggar, sitting on a box, asking passersby to give him some money for food. One day, a man comes along and says, “I have nothing to give you, but what’s in that box you’re sitting on?” The beggar says, “This old box? Nothing. It’s just a box I sit on.” “Have you ever looked inside?” asks the man. “No, I haven’t.” “Take a look!” The beggar pries the lid off the box and to his astonishment finds it filled with diamonds and precious jewels.

Tolle goes on to say that the beggar represents each of us. We spend our lives begging for scraps of approval, attention, status, financial well-being, sex, sensory pleasures, power, and a host of other things, when our true wealth lies closer to us than the riches in the beggar’s box. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and all else will be given unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)

He also said, “The kingdom of heaven is within.” (Luke 17:20-21)

A simple logical deduction, therefore, is that if we seek within, our outer needs will be met as well. The path towards self-realization is one of the most important paths upon which we can embark. Nothing will provide contentment until we learn to touch our own essence. In a subsequent article, we’ll explore the attributes of a path to connecting with that thing we call essence, but for now, let us leave this subject having made the commitment to the pursuit of our deeper truth. If you do no more now than to recognize the importance of this aspect of growth, you’re certain to be met with opportunities to discover the methods that suit you for attainment of that truth.

Do Over

One of the great cinematic moments I can think of is the scene in City Slickers in which Billy Crystal’s character talks to his friend about how, when they were kids, if they were playing a game and something happened that they didn’t like, someone would yell, “Do over!” He then says, “That’s what this is. My life is a do-over.”

Previously, Crystal’s character had been a sullen, bored, depressed “working stiff.” He was turning forty, and although nothing in his life was particularly wrong, none of it was quite right. His wife and daughter loved him, and his job was adequate, but he felt no sense of purpose or meaning.

On his wife’s prompting, he takes a trip to a working ranch, where he and a few friends drive cattle across the Wyoming plains and, along the way, encounter hardships, challenges, and some very dangerous situations. He faces the challenges, commits to an outcome, and pays the price of success. In the end, he gets his life back. He regains a sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and energy. He falls in love with his life all over again. He gets to do it over.

There is nothing whatsoever stopping you from having your do-over. Nothing, that is, except the conviction that it can’t be done.

Your outer life need not change at all. In the movie, Billy Crystal’s character goes back to the same life he left behind. All that changes is his inner experience but that’s all that needs to change. When you change on the inside, everything around you changes as well.

For me, the journey has been remarkable: remarkably good and remarkably difficult. I’ve encountered an enormous amount of my own negativity and have walked down more blind alleys than I can count. I’ve made progress which I’ve quickly undone through pride or fear, and I’ve gotten stuck for what seemed like lifetimes in the quagmire of confusion. I’ve tried in vain to resolve the paradoxes that any thinking person is bound to face as he or she begins to ask questions.

Although they’re ultimately unsolvable, few of them really need to be solved. Part of the journey of a successful, intelligent person is the recognition that ambiguity is part of the game, and the ability to live with ambiguity is a prerequisite to contentment and happiness. Besides, as mentalist and philosopher Roderick Russell says, “Life isn’t a puzzle to be solved. It’s a mystery to be resolved.”

What I’m suggesting is that the road is not a straight one. Many believe that successful people got there with no effort or discouragement. That isn’t the case. Virtually everyone, no matter how successful, has faced despair and failure. You should expect that you will too.

That’s good news, though, because it’s probably not just the material rewards which you seek. You seek a better life. And part of a better life is the ability to tolerate, even celebrate adversity. When you shift your consciousness so that you’re able to welcome any experience that arises, you’ll reap rewards that you’ll feel on the inside much more deeply than any superficial pleasures available from gaining an external prize. I recommend that you embark on this journey of self-creation with an attitude of openness to whatever comes your way. By doing that, you’ll find it much easier to get back in the race whenever life puts up a hurdle, and you’ll have much more fun.

Take a mental inventory

Take an inventory of your life as it is right now. What works? What doesn’t work? How much of your discontent is generated by your outer circumstances? How much is just a feeling from within? Where would you like to see yourself a few years from now? Do you have a clear idea, or is it vague? Are you starting from scratch, ready to create a life from nothing? Or, are you stuck in a life you don’t like, ready for a do-over? Have you faced disappointment thus far? And, if not, are you willing to do so in the future if that’s what’s necessary to accomplish your ultimate goals? What do you perceive to be the primary factor holding you back? Is it an outer circumstance or an inner attitude? Is it a habit of not taking the necessary steps?

Throughout this process, your success will be proportional to your level of willingness to take responsibility for your life. To the extent that you place the focus of your problems and their solutions outside yourself, you will fail to see progress and will likely relapse into old, stuck ways. To the extent that you own your life, the good and the bad, the glowing and the repulsive, and that you fail to yield to the temptation to blame others for your misfortune, you will succeed and ultimately change the environment in which you live.

The journey is exciting and manifold. If you’re willing to make the effort, you will be rewarded. While I can’t promise you a life without pain or challenges, and while you’ll still have those days when things don’t seem so great, you can create your life exactly as you want it. That’s your birthright. Are you ready for it?

The Power of Kindness

Sometimes a random word of kindness is all that’s necessary to transform someone’s entire existence, and it’s so little cost to us. There’s a wonderful story I heard several years ago. The teller, we’ll call him John, claimed that it was true. John had just come from a self-help seminar in which the instructor had recommended that the participants find something good to say to everyone they meet. Walking down the street, John encountered a homeless man, dirty, dejected, slumped, and dressed in rags. He asked for loose change, and John obliged him. Then, remembering his instructor’s advice, he sought something nice to say to the beggar, but all he could notice that wasn’t hideous were the man’s socks. They were red and appeared cleaner than the rest of his outfit. John looked the man in the eye, said “Nice socks!” smiled, and walked on.

A couple weeks later, John was walking down the same street, and he saw the same man. But this time, he wasn’t begging. He wasn’t dirty. He wasn’t slumped. And, he wasn’t dressed in rags. He recognized John at once and walked briskly towards him, smiling, with moisture in his eyes. He shook John’s hand vigorously and told him the following story. “For the last few years, my life has been very hard. I fell on bad times. I lost my wife, my family, my job, and my home. I began to drink and lost all sense of pride. Eventually, I sank as low as I could go. The day you saw me, I had decided to kill myself. I’d already gotten a gun and was going to use it on myself that afternoon. I’d reasoned that my life didn’t matter and that nobody would miss me. I was certain that there wasn’t another human being who even noticed me as a person. When you stopped to speak with me, you looked kind. You looked right at me, as if I really mattered. Then, you complimented my socks. They were new and the only thing in which I took any pride. Your words and your kindness made me think that perhaps there was more hope to be had than I realized. Perhaps I did matter. Perhaps I was noticeable. I resolved that day to turn over a new leaf. I got cleaned up. I found nice clothes at the Salvation Army. I stopped drinking. I went to an AA meeting, and I even started looking for a job. I want to thank you…for giving me my life back.”

Then, he hugged John, looked him deeply in the eye and walked away, leaving John in a state of shock, his eyes filled with tears and with a stronger appreciation than ever of the power of a kind word.

How often are we given the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life and fail to realize the power we possess? How often do we take our words for granted, unaware of their life-changing capabilities? How often do we opt for being curt or dismissive, when it would take no more effort to be empowering and loving? I hope that you, like me, are moved by this story and that you’ll now make the effort to say words of kindness and encouragement…on the chance that they will change someone’s life.

The Spiritual Side of Humor

The use of the two primary tools of witnessing and sharing, discussed in a previous article, is closely tied to one of our most precious commodities: a sense of humor. What is the quality we call a sense of humor and why is it so highly valued? Understanding the answer to that question will raise the level of desirability on those two fundamental tools and will hopefully make us want to cultivate them more completely.

Remember that witnessing is observation or awareness plus equanimity or acceptance. Sharing is openness or willingness to connect plus honesty. In observing what we call a sense of humor, we see that humor requires perspective. To be able to laugh at a condition or a situation, one must have sufficient distance from it. If we’re too strongly identified to a thing, our emotional reaction to it will lack detachment, and we won’t be able to laugh at it. It’s only when we step away from identification with a thing and communicate either its inner workings or our own workings that humor arises. In other words, it’s only when we witness something, somebody, or ourselves, and share our observations that we are exhibiting a sense of humor. We see what is, we maintain adequate distance so as not to judge it, and we report our findings. Think of the episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry spends the entire show trying to remember his new girlfriend’s name. It’s stressful to him because he’s in the situation, but to us it’s hysterical. The quicker we can accomplish an attitude of detachment, the quicker we can find humor in the circumstances of our lives. You’ve heard people say, “Someday we’ll look back at this and laugh.”

I say, “Why wait?”

Total honesty + total acceptance=Humor

Certainly, much humor seems to be laced with judgment, but if we look more deeply, we’ll find that there’s compassion and love behind the judgment. Perhaps the individual evoking the laugh is using judgment, but we’re laughing because of our delight with that person’s way of sharing. In other words, we’re creating humor together. They’re supplying the honesty and we’re supplying the acceptance. Both of these need to be present for humor to exist, and each of these is a component of the tools we use for making connections with others. Humor embraces rather than rejects life’s ironies, allowing us to celebrate our flawed humanity.

Humor is one of the highest forms of communication, more capable than any other form of communication of eliciting states of delight and ecstasy, putting both the giver and receiver in touch with the divine within. Take the time to find the humor in your every day life. You’ll be elevating your consciousness and that of others.

Appropriate Distance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my contribution to others and my commitment to loving presence. In that regard, I’ve adopted a concept I call appropriate distance. In previous articles, I’ve suggested a philosophical stance for our interactions with others and implied that it’s our obligation to meet everyone with respect and equanimity. I’ve also suggested that humor and honest communication can help fill in the gap when we fall short of that obligation.

What do we do though, when we encounter an individual towards whom we have an uncontrollable aversion? What do we do when, despite our very best intentions and efforts at applying tools of sharing and humor, we can’t get unattached from our negative view of them?

In those cases, we must withdraw, but we must do it with wisdom and understanding. We must recognize that if we were perfectly enlightened, their behavior would have no effect upon us. We must interpret our inability to tolerate them at close distance as our shortcoming, not theirs. We must commit to finding the appropriate distance necessary to love them.

Even if an individual in our lives is dangerous or abusive, and our well-being requires our withdrawal, we must withdraw with an enlightened attitude, striving for the highest degree of understanding and forgiveness possible. Our growth demands that we explore our own responsibility for the situation from which we’ve extricated ourselves. This exploration is necessary if we’re to avoid repeating the same situation with someone else.

Some people are easier to love than others. Some people are loveable when they’re standing right in front of you, stepping on your toes. Others require a bit of distance to be appreciated. You must move them to their proper place. Picture a trombone. Your task is to slide the mechanism of that trombone to the perfect position to play a perfect, balanced note. Likewise, your task with those people who unbalance you is to slide them down to the position where you can live a perfect, balanced life. As you extricate yourself from close association with those people, you’ll find a particular distance, frequency of interaction, depth of conversation, choice of topics, etc. from which you can think of them fondly and experience none of the aggravation they caused you when they were too close. You will have then discovered their appropriate distance.

In acknowledging the fact that you don’t have the ability to tolerate these people up close, be compassionate with yourself. Understand that all of us have limitations and areas of aversion which are more than we can bear at our current levels of consciousness. Just manage the problem as it exists now, remain as respectful and loving as you can and realize that as you grow in consciousness, you’ll be able to shrink your appropriate distance with everyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Show Your Work

In seeking support, I have a concept I’ve often shared which has made a profound difference in how enthusiastically the support has been delivered. I call it showing your work.

When we were in school taking a math test, the teacher would say, “Show your work.” We’d lose points for not showing our work, how we arrived at our answer, even if our answer were correct.

The reason for this was that the teacher was more interested in our method for solving the problem than in the answer itself. We might have arrived at the right answer for the wrong reason, and there’d be no assurance that, in the future, we’d arrive at the proper solution to similar problems. Showing our work reassured the teacher. It showed him or her that we understood how to reason, and showed that, even if we made an error in calculation, resulting in a wrong answer, we could be relied on to think clearly and logically. That was the important thing. Nobody really cares how far down the track two trains will pass if one leaves New York at 9am traveling at 67 mph and the other one leaves Chicago at 10am traveling at 74 mph, but they do care that we can use our reasoning powers to solve problems in life.

It’s like the story of the guy who says to his friend, “I wish I had the money to buy an elephant.” His friend asks, “What would you want with an elephant?” He replies, “Nothing. I don’t want an elephant. I just wish I had the money.”

Showing your work, as it pertains to eliciting support, means letting people in on your thinking process. There’s a big difference in terms of the support you’ll receive between saying to someone, “I need to borrow a thousand dollars for a trip to Guatemala.” and saying, “One of the things that will feel rewarding to me is working in a small, indigenous village in Central America, helping the natives with their health and sanitation needs. A lot of people are concerned about safety in that part of the world, so I’ve done some research online to find out where the safest places are that are still in need of help. Guatemala has many villages crying out for help, and it’s completely safe. My plan is to spend six months working on my language skills and then to fly into Guatemala City where I’ll be met and taken to the town of Chichicastenango to work for six months. The only obstacle I’m facing now is finding the funds for my flight….”

Get the idea? In the second scenario, you’re showing your work. Even if they disagree with your conclusion, they can’t fault your thinking, and they may invest in you on the merits of your preparedness alone.

It’s likely that when you show your work, people will ask you more questions. Don’t be annoyed by that. Think of their questions as an opportunity to further clarify your thinking, justify your choice, or highlight areas of research you still need to do. Even if the questioner brings to light insurmountable problems with your plan, that’s a good thing. If the plan is unworkable, you’d rather know it now before going too deeply into its execution.

Waking Up

Picture this. You’re sitting in the audience at a hypnosis show. A hypnotized subject on stage has been told by the hypnotist that he hates the show, that he’s not hypnotized, and that there’s an invisible wall in front of him, preventing him from leaving the stage. On cue, the subject jumps up, yells at the hypnotist, and begins to storm off. But he hits the wall and recoils back, furious about this impediment. The hypnotist tells him that he’s free to go, but he can’t. The hypnotist asks him if he’s hypnotized, and he says, “Of course not!” “Then go,” says the hypnotist. Still, he can’t. “What’s stopping you?” asks the hypnotist. “There’s a wall,” cries the volunteer. “There’s no wall,” says the hypnotist. His words fall on deaf ears. The illusion is simply more powerful than reality. Yet, the subject insists that he’s fully awake.

Another subject is given an onion and told that it’s the most delicious fruit he’s ever tasted. He munches it happily, commenting on its delectable sweetness.

How do these stories relate to our reality? What if we’re all hypnotized, stuck behind invisible walls that exist only in our minds? Suppose our preferences were actually colored by hypnotic programming and that what we felt we deserved was similarly the result of hypnosis. How would we know it? Could it be that our conviction that we’re fully awake is a misunderstanding of the facts? If so, how can we see through the illusion to embrace the limitless potential that awaits us? How can we discover and achieve what we really want, separate from the set of desires hypnotically imposed upon us, and predictably become fully engaged in life? How can we wake up?

What does it mean to be hypnotized?

The simple explanation that we hypnotists use says that the mind is divided into both a conscious and a subconscious part. The conscious mind is that part of our thinking that we’re aware of, and the subconscious mind is that part of our thinking that is below our awareness. The theory suggests that it’s the latter, the subconscious, which is more important in determining our behavior; that is, we end up making important decisions about what to do and how to interact with the world around us largely for reasons we never get to understand or to consider on a conscious level. The pathway through which those thoughts came to live in our subconscious mind is the result of hypnosis.

If you don’t think highly of yourself, or if you’re afraid of clowns, or if you’re a chain smoker, someone can tell you to think more highly of yourself, or that clowns aren’t scary, or that smoking is bad for you. Chances are, people have tried to tell you how to think or behave before, and it hasn’t worked. Why not? Because they were communicating with your conscious mind. To make an impact, a message has to reach deeper into the subconscious mind, and this requires techniques for bypassing the conscious mind. Think of your conscious mind as a sentinel, standing guard over your subconscious mind. It only allows thoughts to enter which are consistent with what you already believe. In order to slip in a new belief, you have to lull the guard to sleep. That’s what I do.

That’s also what’s been done to you by your parents, teachers, mentors, and society in general. When your guard was off duty, when you were too young or impressionable to fight it, messages were delivered to your subconscious mind, bypassing your critical faculty, the part of your conscious mind that deflects unwanted information. So, without your awareness or permission, you were hypnotized, and your subconscious mind is now full of stuff you didn’t put there and may not want. What are the messages we’ve been hypnotized to believe? Everything from who we are in relation to our world, to what we want, to what we deserve, to what we’re capable of accomplishing. Sometimes, these things come into conflict with one another and suffering ensues. For example, you might have come to feel that you want great wealth, but also that you don’t deserve it or that you’re incapable of achieving it. Such a combination would result in significant psychological pain, and as long as your hypnotic programming remained intact, you’d be powerless over that pain.

Why don’t we feel hypnotized?

Does a fish see the water in which it swims? Of course not. The medium in which we live and have lived since we developed conscious perception is invisible to us. We think hypnosis should look a certain way, so we disregard all the evidence that indicates that we’re hypnotized. But being hypnotized doesn’t feel like anything. It’s just a condition of being conditioned. That’s it.

One of my favorite stories is about the child who slips into his grandfather’s bedroom and paints Limburger cheese, an extremely smelly cheese, onto his grandfather’s mustache while he sleeps. On awakening, the grandfather sniffs, considers a moment, and says, “This room smells like Limburger cheese!” He leaves the room and goes through the house, declaring that each room smells like Limburger cheese. Finally, he steps out onto the porch, sniffs, and cries, “Oh, my God, the whole world smells like Limburger cheese!”

I remember reading somewhere that we see the world, not as it is, but as we are. Like the grandfather in my story, what’s actually coming from us appears to be coming from everything around us. Our trance is so strong and compelling that we have no hope of seeing through it to the truth. This may seem like bad news, but knowing that we’re in trance can liberate us. If we’re entrapped by our unconscious adherence to an illusion, it is our conscious recognition of that fact that will ultimately set us free. Gurdjieff, the esteemed philosopher, said, “The first step to escaping from prison is realizing you’re in prison.”

What is life like after hypnosis?

A life without hypnosis is a life of freedom. Buddhist notions of liberation and enlightenment derive from the concept that we’re living in illusion, and that, freed of that illusion, we experience joy, contentment, enthusiasm, love, compassion, and a whole host of other qualities that we’ve mistakenly sought elsewhere. It is possible to achieve liberation from our illusion, to wake up from our trance, to become unhypnotized.

With this possibility looming in front of us, the wise person has no choice but to dedicate him or herself to the pursuit of an awakened state. I council my clients to learn such tools as meditation and mindfulness in order to take advantage of the benefits they offer. Much is available now to help us go beyond the excuses we’ve used for not starting that journey, such as books, tapes, and classes.

None of the reasons you’ve probably used for failing to take these steps is viable, and no matter how big an obstacle you think separates you from practicing these skills, it’s simply not worth sacrificing your own vitality. By learning the tools of transformation, we can begin to wake up, start over, and create the life we’re meant to live.

Inducing Consciousness in Others

Over the last few years, I’ve clocked some serious hours on my meditation cushion. Sometimes, serenity evades me despite my best efforts. But at other times, I get a glimpse of liberation. I’ve come to understand that that state is present and available whenever I’m able to interrupt the constant stream of thought that imprisons me in my self image. Interestingly, although I didn’t choose these professions with that in mind, I’ve spent the last several years working as a hypnotist and magician; careers which are designed to do just that; to interrupt the stream of thought and bring about a transient experience of liberation. As I think about it, I believe that the pursuit of enlightenment is often accompanied by the desire to guide others there as well.

We all have the capacity to deliver at least one of the experiences that induce enlightenment. Perhaps you can tell a joke or a funny story and make someone laugh. Or maybe you can create a soothing physical environment in which people can relax into their essence. You might fill your house with beautiful music, pleasing visual stimuli, and live plants to induce a shift into harmonization with nature. If all else fails, you can always use your skills as a great lover to induce enlightenment through sexual ecstasy!

Even if you possess none of the skills I’ve described, however, you still have one thing which can stimulate liberation in others, and that is presence. Merely attending to another person creates an environment for spontaneous growth and healing.

Suppose you were to make a commitment to giving your undivided attention to everyone you encounter, to empty your mind of all thoughts and be so completely present that the other person had nothing with which he or she had to compete.

Have you noticed that it’s very easy to tell when someone is really listening to you? Attending to you? Have you noticed how quickly you become aware when someone with whom you’re speaking becomes distracted or preoccupied? Have you also noticed that it’s very difficult to talk to someone who’s not listening? I don’t mean that it’s difficult to get them to hear you. I mean it’s actually difficult to construct your own thoughts.

Communication is an organic process. It requires a giver and a receiver. Absent of a receiver, the giver is incapable of doing his or her job. The system backs up, not just to the mouth of the giver, but all the way back to the brain. The mechanism for thought-creation freezes and the giver loses the ability to think clearly. Once that ability is suspended, the giver becomes edgy, confused, and blocked. You’ve no doubt experienced this state and have wondered why you felt that way. I call this the inability to show up. We must be witnessed if we are to show up. We talk into someone’s listening. Our essential message, the clarity of our expression, and the recognition of our own truth require a receiver or they can’t become manifest. The enfolded remains enfolded. We cease to be creative. We become depressed, isolated, and insecure.

That is what we do to others when we fail them as listeners. We wound their souls and cast them into suffering. Don’t think for a moment that you can get away with providing inadequate attention, that it goes unnoticed or that its effects are unfelt. If you know it when you’re not being received, you can be sure that others know when you’re giving less than your full attention.

Conversely, when we resolve to give others our undivided attention, they can show up. They can touch their own essence. They can discover their own inner resources. They can become who they’re truly meant to be. And as they unfold, we get the benefit of seeing who they really are. We get to discover bridges between us and them that we never knew existed. Not only do we end their isolation, we end our own as well. Life is more fun when we take the time to make real connections.

The act of connecting is a deliberate one. We must decide to become and remain present. We can’t wait for the circumstance or our mind to make that decision for us. If we do, we’ll be distracted by the constant stream of thoughts in our head which are completely unrelated to the interaction at hand, as well as by the mental chatter evoked by the interaction. Judgments, evaluations, questions, and uncomfortable emotions are all likely to surface as we stand face to face with another, and, within a very short period of time, left unchecked, our mind will create a movie screen of images between us and the other person. It’s only our commitment to presence that prevents us from withdrawing our focus of attention. We must do our very best to direct attention back to the present moment and to the person or group with whom we’re interacting. In doing so, we’re giving a gift that won’t go unnoticed.

As we become clearer channels of presence, we provide an environment in which those around us can touch something profound within themselves. As they do, they can become liberated from their own mental limitations and from the suffering those limitations create. It’s remarkably gratifying to know that just being present can, and often does, bring about incredible growth!

Discouragement , Doubt, and Despair

If I were to measure the success of my various attempts at accomplishing particular goals, I’d have to divide that success into two categories. One would be the actual results from the standpoint of the stated goal. The other would be the degree to which I was able to rise above any emotional resistance, whether or not I got what I set out to get.

It may very well be that the real purpose of all our goals is the mastery of ourselves that comes from dealing with our emotional obstacles. In regard to discouragement, doubt, and depression, the three Ds, it’s especially challenging because each of these emotions carries a belief system within it that the feeling is real, that our limitations are real, and that it’s useless to resist the pull of that emotion. But resist we must.

Doubt is the feeling which makes us think that even starting the journey is futile. We are, in our estimation, hopeless, or the technology we’re being given is, in our judgment, incapable of changing anything. To combat this, we must suspend our disbelief. We must look on doubt as a suspect emotion. That is, we must turn doubt in on itself. We must doubt doubt.

The opposite of doubt is humility. We must humble ourselves before a higher authority. If Jesus, the Buddha, Wayne Dyer, Mark Victor Hansen, and I all tell you that you can succeed, who are you to argue?! Your doubtful stance represents an arrogant adherence to identification with an outmoded idea, the idea of limit and lack. It’s not universal limit or lack that has resulted in your current predicament, so you can’t use it to justify the notion of impossibility you’re trying to sell yourself.

Discouragement is the deflating feeling of impossibility that appears to result from intellectual evaluation of your current progress. You start out enthusiastic and hopeful, and then you encounter obstacles in your path. Not knowing how to meet these obstacles, you consider them stopping points and decide that you can’t accomplish your goal after all. Sometimes discouragement comes quickly and early in the process, before you’ve even had a chance to fail at one of your steps. All you might need to encounter discouragement is the recognition that you don’t have one of the prerequisites for success. You want to be a long distance runner, but you realize that you have terrible form and weak lungs.

To overcome discouragement, you only need one word. The word is yet. Put this word at the end of every sentence that starts with “I can’t” or “I don’t.” I can’t run any distance….yet. I can’t maintain my breath for more that five minutes…yet. I don’t have good running form…yet.

Then, the limit becomes an obstacle on your list. Every obstacle has a solution. The solution becomes an action step. And you’re back on track!

Of all the three Ds, depression is the most debilitating. I’ve suffered from some degree of depression most of my life, so I believe that I’m qualified to share some insight in this area.

Depression can result from faulty thinking, but it is just as often the reverse. Faulty thinking can result from depression, and it can be very lonely and frustrating to explain your predicament to people who’ve never been afflicted by this horrible malady. Whenever personal growth gurus told me to cheer up, I felt like punching them. Even the Dalai Lama was in danger of a punch or two if I ever got close enough to him. Being unhappy is a pervasive and persistent problem.

Granted, conditional unhappiness, the kind that results from a specific set of circumstances, like losing a loved one, is easily curable. Usually a bit of time and a deeper understanding of the transient nature of reality are all that are necessary for healing to occur. We should always strive to maintain equanimity in the face of all circumstances, never allowing the absence of a specific condition or the presence of another to sway us from a positive outlook.

However, what do we do about unconditional unhappiness, the experience of feeling unhappy, discontented, and apathetic regardless of our life circumstances? In my experience, dreaming and goal setting go a long way towards correcting this condition. Even in the depths of depression and apathy, I’ve been rescued by my own efforts at redesigning my future. Imagination brings hope, and hope conquers despair.

Still, sometimes this isn’t enough. It is possible that your depression is biochemically induced. You may have a chemical imbalance, which creates what scientists call “false mood syndrome.” If you fit into this category, chances are you’ve contemplated or tried antidepressant medication. If so, it’s likely that you’ve met disappointing results. If so, I recommend strongly that you read The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. It’s a life-changing work about the chemical environment of our brains, and how we can positively change it through diet, exercise, and the use of certain supplements which replenish the neuro-hormones that create our moods in the first place. If you’re plagued by constant mental pain, you may be the victim of an easily corrected nutritional deficiency. Discovering the right supplements for you might mean the difference between a life of misery and a productive, happy life.

We’ve looked at the three Ds, doubt, depression, and discouragement. We’ve explored strategies for combating each. I’d like to close by saying that we’re served well by maintaining a certain amount of scientific detachment from these feelings, seeing them for what they are, but being careful not to identify with them. In so doing, our essence is maintained, and we have the greatest chance of moving beyond these debilitating emotions.

Passion vs. Detachment

As a student of success for many years, I’ve become familiar with the idea that we need to generate a passion for our goals, a burning desire to see them brought to fruition. Yet, as a student of spirituality, I’ve spent a lot of time embracing the idea that desire is the root of all suffering. With desire, says the Buddha, comes clinging and aversion, the two seeds of discontent which imprison our souls and keep us striving for yet never achieving real happiness. Similarly, success trainers tell us we must live in the future, drawing clear and vivid pictures of the reality we want to create, while spiritual teachers tell us we must live in the present moment, for that’s all there is. How do we resolve this dilemma and find a path that leads us to happiness and contentment?

One way is to choose camps, that is to decide that you’re an advocate of one or the other philosophy and accept the inherent dictates of that view.

If you’ve chosen Buddhism as your path, you’ll guard against any flowering of desire within you, witnessing each desire with detachment, affirming its transience, and ultimately letting it go. Your desires will not cause you to react by taking action towards their attainment, since your path is one of extrication from the whims and wills of the mind, and your happiness will be derived from the conquering of desire inherent in your renunciation of the object of that desire. You’ll seek happiness in the here and now.

If you’re a student of success strategies, you’ll actively seek a clearer connection with the part of you that has desire. You’ll then draw vivid pictures of your future happiness, including the objects of your desire in the pictures. You’ll develop a passionate, almost obsessive intention to accomplish your aims, reasoning that it’s the acquisition of your goals that brings about happiness. You’ll work diligently towards the attainment of your objectives and won’t allow yourself to be content until you’ve achieved your aims.

I believe there’s a third way to proceed. It’s a synthesis of the two extremes. Let me explain. In my view, cultivating inner peace is a high priority, and experiencing happiness unconditional upon the absence or presence of a particular circumstance is essential to mental health. Therefore, I practice detachment and observe my desires without feeling that they demand attention or acquisition. I imagine myself to be a kindergarten teacher, and my desires are the desires of the little kids in the class. I watch them get excited and enjoy their passion, but I’m not caught up in it myself. Still, I want to have fun, so sometimes I’ll decide to play with the kids. I’ll get just as passionate and excited as they are, and I’ll play the game completely, hoping to win. That means that, at times, I’ll take on a goal and get passionate about its attainment. I’ll commit to its completion, work diligently, and dream of the day I’ve manifested it. I’ll become a bit obsessive and driven and look for all the ways that the universe becomes involved in helping me achieve my goal.

Since I’ve been practicing detachment and present time consciousness, however, I won’t lose sight of how I’m feeling right now. I’ll check in with myself and notice whether or not I’m getting out of balance. If I’m far out into the future and becoming intent on a particular result as a condition of happiness, I’ll pull back and stop or slow the game. If I find that I’m developing an addiction to certain conditions being met, I’ll meditate, pray, walk, or do anything but pursue the goal. I’ll remind myself that it’s just a game, and that the outcome has no more significance than that which I give it.

I practice spirituality because it reminds me that there are no conditions necessary for my happiness, and that this moment is perfect, exactly as it is. I set goals because it offers me the chance to create. Creation is part of our birthright. Plus, in setting goals, I have a structure within which I can live, love, and play. I find that very comforting.

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

In India, the method for training an elephant is the following. When the elephant is very young, its leg is tied to a small post with a thin piece of rope. At that age the elephant hasn’t the power to break the rope or dislodge the post. It tries for a while and then gives up. As the elephant grows, there’s no reason to increase the girth of the rope or the post. The elephant of course reaches such size and strength that it could, if it wanted, easily break free from the restraint. But having tried and failed earlier, it stops trying, convinced that it’s entrapped….Doesn’t that sound like us?

Nothing has such a direct impact on our success in life as our beliefs. Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, says “What the mind conceives and believes, it achieves.” Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of Magical Child, says “Belief effects perception.” Our beliefs affect what we see and what we accomplish.

If you’re to succeed in achieving your life’s dreams, you must begin to adopt what motivational speaker Wayne Dyer calls “No Limit Thinking.” What you can’t do is only what you can’t do yet. You are equipped like every other human being with the capabilities necessary to accomplish your goals. Author Richard Bach says:

“Nobody is given a dream without the power to make it come true.”

Unfortunately, our beliefs are resistant to change because of the method we use for applying evidence to substantiate them. Sometimes we develop a negative belief which starts as a misinterpretation of an event in our lives. That misinterpretation is reinforced by subsequent misinterpretations to the point that the original misinterpretation is now seen as incontrovertible fact. We make our beliefs into reality.

When I was five years old, my family moved into a new neighborhood. The neighborhood kids had been friends with the previous occupants and weren’t open to newcomers. The day I arrived, half the neighborhood kids were in my backyard on my swing set. When I went out there to join in, they wouldn’t let me. They told me I didn’t belong there and that I was stupid and ugly. The wound was substantial. In that moment, I decided that I was undesirable.

From then on, I carried that scar with me. Each new interaction was colored by my decision that I was undesirable. Somehow, I would telegraph my undesirability to others who would use that information, received unconsciously by them, to hold me at a distance. I’d sense their distance and would use it to prove to myself that my notion of my undesirability was accurate. Each new interaction would reinforce my belief, and my belief would recreate the types of interactions which proved the belief true. Further, the inner feeling, which I’d been trained to trust as accurate, would deepen my conviction about my own undesirability. But was I really undesirable or was I just the victim of my misunderstanding of the original situation?

If I were to choose to change that belief, what would I have to face? Well, I’d have to face the feeling that the belief was true, and I’d have to face the voices in my head that would remind me of all the times that things happened which proved the belief to be true. To change the belief, I’d have to fly in the face of both historical evidence and bodily knowing in the form of emotions. That’s a lot of power! What’s the answer? Where could I find the strength to overcome such powerful evidence?

The answer is something known as reframing. Reframing is a technique for looking at a particular situation or set of circumstances and challenging oneself to find the most empowering, resourceful interpretation of that situation. It often requires creative thinking and is underlined by the idea that no situation has an inherently correct interpretation except that which we give it. In other words, there are many ways to view any circumstance and our charge is not to find the right interpretation but to find the most useful interpretation, the one that helps us meet our goals, the one that we will also accept as viable.

Suppose it’s my goal to be happy. Which is a more useful frame to put around the story I told about my childhood? That I was, in fact, fundamentally undesirable or that I was a perfectly normal child who happened to stumble into an unfriendly situation? Which evaluation would have served me more in my growth?

There are probably some among you who, like me in my past, feel that reframing a situation is inherently dishonest. If you’re one of them, let me suggest that you consider the underlying belief that your negative interpretation of a situation is correct. Just because it feels true and has a historic context, does that make it true? Is it not possible that your interpretation is really a misinterpretation? Perhaps you’re holding yourself back from thriving because of outmoded adherence to an indefensible view. Whenever I feel that I must maintain my view of anything, I try to remember the words of Ram Dass, who says, “You’re not who you think you are.” If you’re not who you think you are, how can you defend your position?

Here are some powerful reframes, which, once adopted by your deep subconscious mind, will activate your enthusiasm, creativity, and sense of possibility:

There are no problems, only opportunities.

Those who cause me emotional pain are my teachers, helping to point out the emotional addictions I need to overcome.

What I’ve failed to accomplish doesn’t prove my incapability but my lack of adequate knowledge to this point.

There is no failure; only feedback.

When I share my pain, I become more truly human.

Take a few minutes to make your unconscious beliefs conscious. Ask yourself what you believe about yourself, about your role in society, about your capabilities, about the world around you, about family and friends, about men, about women, about your past, about your future, about God, about life and death, and about the role of belief in your future.

Take these questions one at a time and spend one minute writing as many answers as you can to each as quickly as you can, without pausing to reflect. Look for ways of reframing your unresourceful beliefs, finding empowering ways to look at your situation without sacrificing your hold on reality. Be as diligent as you can. With time, you will find your life becoming more satisfying and manageable, even before you’ve actually done anything to change your life circumstances.

Mindfulness and Addiction

There’s a fairly recent story from my life that I’ve come to call the “Angela’s butt story.” It’s a controversial tale, and its main character still doesn’t understand the remarkable significance of the experience as it applies to my life and attitudes.

As a typically shallow person of my gender, I happened to take notice of a certain physical attribute of this female friend. It started innocently and unintentionally as I glimpsed her bending over my colleague’s desk while they spoke. At the time, she was wearing a pair of burgundy velvet pants that fit like a glove. Inadvertently, I found myself obsessing about her anatomical perfection in that particular region. From there my mind began to wander into areas better left unexplored, and this friend became an object of my lustful fantasies.

As a student of consciousness, it’s my commitment to witness all thoughts and feelings that command my attention and to become aware when my mind is trapped by a particular thought loop. This obsession with Angela’s derrière required some exploration on my part.

I decided to dedicate the better half of a road trip alone not to replaying the desired imagery but to noticing the thoughts and feelings of lust the imagery had evoked.
As I sat quietly, calming my mind and directing my attention inward, I found that my body hurt. There was tightness in my chest, heaviness in my throat, and an ache in my belly. My thoughts revolved around the degree to which I wanted something I couldn’t have. Then my thoughts spun off, reminding me of all my feelings of inadequacy as result of “not getting the girl.”

Further reflection brought to light the recognition that this was the set of thoughts and feelings that I’d experienced all my life from focusing on the physical desirability of women. Yet, I continued to seek out this experience. Why?

Could it be that I was suffering under the effect of an addiction? Could it be that part of the quality of addiction is its power to create a sense of incompleteness, and then propose a solution, the completion of which might make us feel satisfied?

I’ve shared this realization with many people, and I’ve invited them to notice what their longings really feel like. Inevitably, everyone tells me that they discover the same thing. Whether they’re longing for love, sex, a relationship, or a new pair of Banana Republic jeans, they all find that the focus on that thing has an addictive, obsessive, painful quality…yet they can’t seem to stop thinking about it.

I invite you to try this experiment yourself. The next time your consciousness is arrested by a strong desire, particularly one you’re unlikely to fulfill, take a moment to turn your attention inward. Notice the exact nature of the feeling. Notice how your thought process wants to draw you back into the same set of questions and judgments it has always repeated every time you’ve been in the same situation. Notice, as you try to quiet your mind, how strongly it’s pulled back to the object of your desire and to thoughts like “Why can’t I have that? What’s wrong with me? It’s not fair. Boy, I really want that…”

Keep your attention upon the inner sensations. Forget, as best you can, the trigger, the object of your desire and obsession, and become aware of what’s going on inside of you. Here is what you’ll notice.

As you quiet your mind and study your sensations, you’ll feel pain. Somewhere within you will be an ache, a sharpness, something. As you continue to allow your attention to focus on the sensation, it will begin to change. It will shift, perhaps, to another part of your body. Or it will spread out. Or maybe it will start to throb or tingle. Your mind will likely perceive this as a sign of danger and will try to draw you out of your body and back into the inquiry. But fight that urge. Stay with the feelings. They won’t harm you, and, if you wait long enough, they will disappear.

This process of studying our sensation is how we overcome addictions. We weather the storm, but it’s not just that. We also bring awareness and equanimity to the process. That feeling which used to own us and direct our thoughts is now just a harmless, passing set of sensations. We experience freedom from our addictions, and we find that feeling of freedom is far superior to any imagined happiness that we might experience as a result of getting the object of our desire.

My sense of incompleteness, and the square yard of flesh that caused it were part of a complex program, a belief structure, which I unwittingly imbibed as a child or adolescent, kept in place by my subservience to my own feelings. In essence, it was hypnotized into me, either by others or by myself. As long as I allowed the script to keep playing, I would remain forever hypnotized. Every time I would feel the feelings, I’d think the thoughts which would perpetuate the feelings which would enhance the thoughts, etcetera, etcetera…By choosing observation of my inner senses and allowing any waves to pass without reaction, I unhypnotized myself, and I gained a measure of freedom.

Once we’ve begun to use these tools, and to attain this perspective, we see the world and ourselves very differently. Addictions to substances, relationships, or thought patterns vanish, as we reidentify ourselves correctly, not as our mind, with all its erratic and inconsistent thoughts, but as our essence, our self, our soul, our pure consciousness.

Commitment and Change

Ten years ago, I was living an entirely different life. I owned a large chiropractic, holistic health clinic. I was the president of my state chiropractic association, and I was seeing many hundreds of people for their health concerns each month. I was, by all outward measures, successful.

Yet, I was discontent. Everything on the outside seemed alright, but I couldn’t get excited about my life. I felt bored, anxious, frustrated, and unhappy. I started to notice that I had developed the habit of looking at my watch more and more often. In the final days of my practice, I would have looked at my watch about ten times by 9 a.m., and I’d only arrived an hour earlier!

Finally, I realized that this couldn’t go on. It wasn’t fair to my patients who deserved an enthusiastic, committed doctor, and it wasn’t fair to me who deserved a rewarding, fulfilling life. I’d already attempted to light a fire under myself on several occasions by attending motivational and educational seminars, but the results hadn’t lasted more than a few weeks each time. It was time to make a change.

I knew that there were going to be a lot of unhappy people, who had come to count on me for a variety of reasons and that my parents weren’t going to be excited to learn that the investment I’d made of my time and, to some extent, their money, was now going to be wasted. Nonetheless, I had to be true to myself and trust that in doing so I’d ultimately be doing what was best for everyone.

I decided to embark on an adventure with no firm plans of what was next. I went to Guatemala, intent on spending a few months traveling around Central America, with no established structure. I thought I could use the time to reflect on what was important to me, to work on my language skills, and to drink in a new culture. It was an exciting proposition. Still, it was a bit scary. I didn’t know what I’d find there, and I didn’t know how well I’d fit into the fabric of Latin American society.

It was during my fourth day in Antigua that I discovered a small chiropractic office on a side street and off the beaten path. I sat in the waiting room until the doctor came out and found me sitting there. I introduced myself as Steve, a chiropractor from the USA, and he introduced himself as Todd, an American ex-patriot, living and working in Guatemala for the last couple of years. Upon learning that I was a chiropractor, he asked what most chiropractors ask of their colleagues. “Would you mind giving me an adjustment? I haven’t seen another chiropractor around these parts for the last six months!” I obliged him, and after trading adjustments, we walked out to the waiting room.

There, sitting in the waiting room by himself, was an American man about my age. He stood as we entered the room. He looked from me to Todd. He extended his hand to me, thinking I was the doctor, and said…

“Hello, I’m Steve. I’m a chiropractor from the USA.”

Todd and I looked at each other in disbelief. After a moment of silence, Todd introduced himself as the proprietor of the practice, and I introduced myself as Steve, a chiropractor from the USA. He asked me where I practiced, and I told him of my recent departure from the field. He responded that he, too, had just sold his practice of fourteen years (the same length of time I’d been in practice.) “What brings you to Guatemala?” I asked.

“I just wanted to have a place to reflect on my life and goals and to work on my language skills. And you?”

“The same.”

After his adjustment, Steve and I decided to get lunch together and discuss our common experiences. We walked out the door into the afternoon sun and simultaneously reached into our backpacks to get a cap. The caps we pulled out were identical, except for one thing. While mine said “100 Years of Chiropractic” on it, his said “Vermont,” which happened to be the state in which I lived. Turns out he had friends in my city and had been there several times in the past.

Over the next several days, Steve and I became friends, as we are to this day. We learned of many more coincidences, including the facts that we had both been married and were currently good friends with our ex-wives and that we both enjoyed adventure sports.

Weeks later, I was traveling through Honduras with my girlfriend. We were taking a boat ride around the island of Roatan, and I was telling her the now famous “Steve Story.”
As the boat came to the dock on the remote side of the island, we disembarked and climbed the steep wooden staircase to the restaurant above. My story was winding to a conclusion, but I couldn’t have anticipated that the last words of the story would be… “And that’s him, right there!” Ten feet in front of us sat Steve and his lunch guest, blissfully unaware of our arrival. We spent the next couple days catching up and telling more stories.

On arrival back in the USA, I made plans to meet up with Steve in his home state of Montana, as part of a plane trip I’d planned across the country. When I shared my travel plans with John, the doctor who’d purchased my practice, his questions led to the most startling revelation of all: John had lived in Montana, Steve had been John’s chiropractor, and John’s best friend had purchased Steve’s practice.

When I got back to Vermont, I shared this story with a very wise, spiritual man I know. I said, “What do you make of this bizarre set of events?” He said, “I think it proves that you were in the right place, because when you got there…there you were!” He then went on to remind me of all the fear and uncertainty I felt embarking on the journey, and how none of that existed any more. The magical quality of the meeting with Steve had reassured and supported me as I went along my path.

The universe has a way of supporting courageous action. Many people have had the experience of delaying a decision out of fear and then finally taking the leap, only to have a series of unforeseen events unfold to support their decision and help them along the way. In 1951, the Scottish explorer, W.N. Murray said:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.

Your commitment to a path of change is likely to yield far greater benefits than you might imagine. Embark on your journey, confident that there will be surprises which will help remind you why you’re taking the action you’re taking. Trust the universe to support your growth, and invite it to present you with delightful gifts that will prove to you that you’re on the right track. Never doubt that once you’ve established a firm foothold on your commitment to change, you’ll get support in ways unimagined.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Witnessing and Sharing

In this article, I’d like to share my thoughts on what I believe to be the two most important components of effective communication. These attributes, witnessing and sharing, are also crucial elements in our understanding of ourselves in our relationship to the world around us. We’ll discuss them in sequence.

Witnessing

Witnessing, as it applies to our communication with others, means bringing awareness to our inner state, our sensations and our thoughts. In previous articles, I’ve described the position we take in witnessing as one of “being backstage.” We notice our thoughts and feelings, but we don’t identify with them. We recognize them for what they are, but we don’t judge them. We apply the formula of awareness plus equanimity, or acceptance.

In the case of monitoring our interactive presence, it means noticing when we’re not being appropriately attentive and noticing what it is that’s drawing our attention away. It could be a random, unrelated thought. It could be a judgment of ourselves or of the other person. It could be a sensation in our body that’s distracting us.

Regardless of what it is, we momentarily allow ourselves to withdraw attention from the other person and from within our current thought stream in order to stand on the river bank and see what’s flowing by. We stop thinking what we were thinking and start noticing what we were thinking. We become curious scientists, studying the workings of our unruly minds. Then, having discovered the pattern of our thoughts and sensations as a result of witnessing, we proceed to the second tool, which is sharing.

Sharing

By sharing, I mean that we literally expose what we’ve just discovered about our present experience and, then, we either recommit to bringing back our attention, resolve whatever the issue is that’s caused the distraction, or we extricate ourselves from the conversation until we’re in a position to become more present.

Here are a few examples of what I’m saying:

“You know, let me stop you for a moment. I just noticed my mind wandering. I was thinking about this fishing trip I planned, and I was having trouble keeping my attention on what you were saying. Would you mind repeating it? I’ll be more attentive this time. Sorry.”

“Hey, before you go on, I have to admit that my mind got caught up with an earlier point you made, and I started getting silently argumentative. It’s possible that I completely misunderstood what you were saying, but I don’t want to stay caught in silent judgment. So could we revisit that point?”

“I don’t want to be rude, but for some reason this conversation is pushing my buttons, and I’m getting caught in my head. I don’t feel like I’m being fair to you because I want to be really present and open, but right now I don’t feel like I can do that. Let me take a couple hours to wind down and figure out what I need to say, and then we can revisit this topic. How’s eleven o’clock, back here?”

Nothing of value is as poorly taught in our society as the art of sharing. This is ironic because we are naturally drawn to those who do it well. We have so many negative, fear-based messages floating around in our heads about keeping our problems to ourselves that the notion of sharing automatically evokes a level of defensiveness in almost everyone with whom it’s discussed. We flee from showing our vulnerability. We blanch at admitting our errors, and we become apoplectic at the thought of exposing our pain.

What a profound irony! Because it is the very act of sharing honestly that makes us most admirable to others. People would far prefer an imperfect individual who admits his imperfections over a person whose actions seem well-executed, but who is unlikely to expose any of his foibles. With regard to our pain, it is helpful to remember the saying:

“When we share our pain, we become more truly human.”

With regard to our errors, admission usually brings about far more admiration for our honesty than disdain for our mistakes. With regard to our vulnerability, nothing so quickly mobilizes the compassion of others as the admission of our emotional fragility. Such an admission is not a self-condemnation. We’re not saying that we’re fundamentally flawed, only that we’re currently tender and sensitive. These are feelings to which everyone can relate, and if we communicate them clearly and properly, we’ll evoke from others an instant shift into careful, loving presence.

There are a few important rules to keep in mind when sharing your reality at a deep level.

1. Take complete responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. If you imply in any way that the other person is responsible, you’ll evoke defensiveness not empathy.

2. Remove any self-deprecation from your communication. Whatever you feel is normal and OK. You needn’t apologize for feelings.

3. Be as specific as you can about what you’re feeling or thinking and about whatever evoked it.

4. Admit the exact nature of your mistakes. People will much more readily admit theirs if you admit yours first.

5. State your intentions. People tend to receive communication much more willingly when they know what you’re trying to accomplish by sending it.

Using those rules, a helpful share might look something like this:

“I’m feeling nervous.” (Saying “I’m feeling…” and not “You’re making me feel…” keeps the responsibility on you.)
“So I wanted to share it with you.” (No apology for feelings)
“My gut started to tighten when you brought up our trip.” (What you feel specifically, and what specifically evoked it)
“I should have brought it up sooner, so I could have been more attentive.” (Admitting the exact nature of your mistake)
“I really want to talk about what part of this is making me nervous, so we can both be excited about the trip.” (Stating your intention for resolution)

By applying the tools of witnessing and sharing, we bring greater consciousness to our relationships and maximize the likelihood that we’ll be received with love and appreciation, rather than resentment and defensiveness. We also give the greatest gift possible to those with whom we interact on a daily basis; the gift of honesty. As we grow in the attributes of courage and compassion which such honesty requires, we also inspire others to do the same. The result is that we succeed in surrounding ourselves with the energy of respect, safety, and understanding.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Illness and Enlightenment

Well, I haven't been at my healthiest lately. I'm nursing a cold, and I haven't been sleeping well, so I've been exhausted a lot. Usually, having a stuffed head and a tired body results in an onslaught of negative emotions, and for a while that's been the case. However, in the last day or so, I've been in a kind of serene place. It feels like surrender. I think I finally stopped trying to fight my crazy mind and ailing body, and just go with it. So, now I'm a bit spacey, moving slow, rethinking some of my less healthy habits...but in a kind of comfortable, peaceful bubble. I wonder if I can preserve some of this serenity for the times when I'm actually healthy!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Spiritual musings

I've studied so many different forms of spirituality that my mind can look at any situation from a multiplicity of perspectives. This can be empowering, as I'm less inclined to take my own reactions at face value. For example, when someone disappoints me, I can notice my reaction, recognize my responsibility for the feeling, practice the art of neutral observation, choose forgiveness, invite God's wisdom, surrender the feelings to my higher power, or any number of other strategies. The down side of all this spiritual data is that it can be confusing. What, for example, should I do with the emotional discomfort that lives in the background of my awareness? Should I enter it more fully, feeling the intensity of the pain as my Vipassana training suggests? Should I "give it to God" as my Christian training recommends? Should I ignore it and focus on the positive, praying for deliverance....or is such a prayer a form of aversion, which Buddhism would suggest I simply observe with equanimity? These questions can be haunting and daunting. Those of us who have strong minds, curious intellects, and spiritual longings must face this confusion, and must also recognize that no other human being can give us a completely satisfactory answer. No one else lives inside our skins, and therefore we can't allow them totally into our experience. Our questions are filled with inadequate communication of our experience. The answers we get are likewise only a weak representation of the experience of the person delivering them, and how we hear them is once more distorted. So, we can only rely on our own experience. For me, the act of surrendering my confusion may be the most spiritual thing I can do...even if my mind is activated to question things like what is surrender and to whom am I surrendering. When those questions arise, I try to smile and recognize the inadequacy of my intellect to put a definition on any of this stuff. After all, it's the mind we're trying to transcend, and any attempt to understand the essence of the experience with that mind is doomed to failure. I generally know when I'm on the right track by the quiet that descends on me, however fleetingly, during my meditation. May I allow myself permission to open to peace without having to understand it...and may we all achieve peace that surpasses understanding.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

How our journey unfolds

We want a better life. We want a bigger house, a better car, a prettier girlfriend, a more successful husband, fame and fortune, and lots of other stuff. We hope that these things will make us happy. Yet we find that they don’t. We eventually come to realize the truth. Our source of happiness is within. Our striving for a better life does feed us and inspire us, but not for the reasons we think. We are inspired by the journey, not the destination. We are made more alive by the experience of co-creating our universe in conjunction with certain laws of nature. We come to realize that the laws of prosperity and success are the same as the laws of nature. All things come and go. They arise, remain a while, and dissolve. Everything is flowing. Everything is transient. We begin to embrace the idea that our happiness is tied directly to our ability to appreciate that flow. We stop holding onto things. We face the fear of letting go, and we experiment with the art of giving. We discover that when we give of ourselves, we always get filled back up. Nothing we have requires us to hold onto it so tightly that we squeeze out of it every last nugget of enjoyment.

We play with the idea of trust. We take baby-steps towards trusting the benevolence of the universe. We set goals and find that we are enlivened by them. We get what we want, become cocky and arrogant, then lose it and regain our humility. This happens again and again, and still we strive to improve ourselves. Sometimes, we get weary, and we become resigned. Surely it’s easier to stay stuck where we are than to risk yet another disappointment! But before long, the resignation feels like a death, and we become willing to take a chance on life yet again. We stumble upon wisdom. Universal truths present themselves. We start to notice commonalities between various philosophies, sciences, and religions. We become curious about the things that everyone seems to be saying; those things upon which everyone agrees can’t be ignored. We take note of the fact that science and religion are coming together. We hear that we have the power to direct our consciousness, and, that in doing so, we can create our lives.

The message is optimistic, but our experience frustrates us. In a world of infinite possibility, we ask, why do we continue to recreate the same limited reality again and again? So, in search of an answer to that question, we study ourselves. We find that our minds are habitual abusers of our souls, repeat offenders. We lament that if we were half as abusive to others as we are to ourselves, we’d be in jail. Our minds need training. We learn to use tools to bring about a shift in our consciousness, but we find that the mind is very clever. It uses our tools against us. We attempt to overcome anger and fear and find that we’re angry at our anger and afraid of our fear. We search for answers, and we gain, and we lose, and we gain again.

And here we are: all of us a bit wounded but resilient; a bit discouraged but hopeful. We’re ready to try something new, and although we have our doubts, we’ll take the leap, and we’ll rejoice at the end of the journey because...we are alive!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Burnout and Purpose Article

In our society, something called burnout is a common phenomenon. Most of us wrongfully assume that burnout results from working too much, too long, or too hard. This isn’t true.

Burnout comes not from a lack of time, but from a lack of purpose.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re on fire with enthusiasm for something you want to accomplish, you’re able to do it ceaselessly for hours or days at a time? The volume of work you can accomplish makes those regular work duties pale by comparison. Yet you experience no burnout. Burnout has nothing to do with being too busy. If you want to avoid experiencing burnout, all you need to do is to reclaim your sense of purpose. You need motivation. Simply put, motivation is knowing why you’re doing something. If you have a compelling enough “why,” the “how” will take care of itself, and you’ll discover inner resources you never knew you possessed, generating unexpected energy, enthusiasm, and ideas which will lead you towards your goals.

In all things in life and pertaining to your life itself, know your purpose. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing every moment of the day. Ask yourself frequently, “Why am I doing this?” Once you get an answer, focus on that answer while you go about accomplishing the task in front of you. Look as deeply as you can into that question until the answers you come to are satisfying and compelling. Make it an inner dialogue.

For example, as a student, you might find yourself experiencing burnout while doing a lot of homework. You would then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Your initial response might be “My parents are making me do it.” Not very satisfying or helpful as an answer. But you would then ask yourself other questions such as “Why am I listening to them?” in which case you might respond, “To earn their respect.” “To keep peace in my home.” “Because they know that by doing well in school, I’ll have a better life, with more options.” That might be enough to satisfy you and motivate your continued action. If not, keep asking more questions. Find the link between what you’re doing and what you ultimately want. Once you can identify the ways in which your current actions impact your desired outcome, the job suddenly becomes easier.

Having a sense of purpose for your life in general is a very helpful tool for remaining happy and motivated. To understand your life purpose, ask yourself: Why am I here? What do I have to contribute to the world? Where will my influence be felt? What am I good at? What do I enjoy doing? For what would I like to be known? Who do I want to be like? When am I the happiest?

Once you’ve discovered your life purpose, ask yourself if your day-to-day activities support that purpose. Are you on purpose? Are you using your time wisely to produce the results you want in life? If not, perhaps you should rethink the way you spend your time.

Several years ago, as a chiropractic physician, I realized that I was discontent. I was bored and anxious much of the day, and, although I was outwardly successful, I felt no joy from my success. In fact, I felt trapped. I’d arrive in my office early and immediately begin fantasizing about the end of the day. Everything seemed difficult and time-consuming. I was experiencing burnout. For a time, I tried to solve my difficulties by changing my schedule, limiting my workload. But none of my strategies made a lasting impact on my life.

Then I tried the exercise I’ve described above. Asking myself questions about what I enjoyed, what I felt was my unique contribution to the world, when I felt most alive, it became clear that my joy was in traveling, lecturing, and entertaining large groups of people. I identified my life purpose as being to educate, entertain and inspire groups of people, and to do it in an ever changing environment, incorporating travel and interaction with unique, unusual people. Clearly, the life I was living offered none of the attributes I felt were necessary for my purpose. I resolved immediately to change my life, to find an outlet for my skills and talents, and to contribute what I felt I was meant to contribute to the world in my own unique way.

Every one of us has something within us which sets us apart from all other people on this planet. Your special contribution is waiting to be made. Not only should you not feel guilty about designing your life to express that unique gift, you should feel guilty if you’re not doing that. If you fail to blossom into the person you were put on the planet to be, you’re ripping the world off. You’re withholding something the rest of us may need. Take the time to discover your purpose, and begin to live your life in support of that purpose. The rest of us are waiting for your gift.