Wednesday, December 13, 2006

life, death, sacrifice

Yesterday one of my best friends wrote to me about sacrifice.

He reminded me of how this word means "to make sacred." We more often conceive of it in terms of giving up. Either connotation seems fine to me.

One of the images that always occurs to me when I think of this idea isn't the one of Christ on the cross. It's Abraham, preparing to sacrifice his son to God, at God's command, and being willing to go through with it. Only at the last moment does God stay his hand.

The concept seems barbarian at first glance. How could any man do such a thing? It's only when we examine it as allegory that we see it means a man must be willing to go to extraordinary lengths- to give up what he holds most dear- in order to create a new possibility for himself.

In the sacred arrangement between biology and the cosmos, we all make the supreme sacrifice of our entire lives at the end of our lives. Every organism does this- it's an irrevocable part of the deal. It's pointless to fret about whether the deal is fair or unfair: it's just the deal.

In a very definite sense we are all nothing more than vessels designed to take in and hold the impressions life feeds us. In a way too mysterious to explain, these all become a kind of food for God when we die. The moment every organism reaches at the end of its natural life, where it gives up-surrenders- all of the impressions it has gathered into itself over the course of a lifetime, is literally the moment of truth.

This is the moment when everything that is true for that organism, from its birth to its death, becomes apparent as one whole, now irrevocable, Truth in that single, final moment of epiphany. The summary moment where the entire contents of the vessel is absolutely surrendered to the Will of God, to absolute truth, without any choice.

This is a tricky thing, to see that the purpose of life is all aimed at that one single moment. No one should want to meet it without being able to face one's entire life without shame. Of course this is very difficult- we probably all have many things to be ashamed of- but it is in the effort we made to overcome those shameful parts of ourselves that we may earn something respectable enough to carry us through the moment of death without despairing.

It would be nice, after all, to try and make sure we're not tipping a vessel with really crappy contents towards the infinite mouth of Truth.

Wouldn't it?

Traditional cultures seem to get this idea better than the modern ones. Tibetans, for example, have a strong tradition that all of life is merely a preparation for death. It's true, I think. Who wants to meet their last moment the wrong way? As Gurdjieff once said, we want to earn enough for ourselves in this life that we don't "die like a dog." That is, in a state of dependence and fear.

There is one other possibility available to us. That is to reach this moment of complete surrender before we die. If we are able to do that, we surrender what is God's to God- what belongs to Truth to Truth- by choice. This is the moment where, as Meister Eckhart describes it, the Will of God is born in man. The moment where he gives up everything that is his, that he "dies," so that something entirely new can enter him.

Of course this is theoretical for us. Of course it's idealized. Nonetheless, I think each of us can initiate a search deep within ourselves that takes us on a trek towards a moment when we might finally allow ourselves to let go of this egocentric, misunderstood life and find a better way. We can make our whole life sacred by surrendering it all, now, while we still live and breathe.

Abraham had tremendous courage. He was willing to go the distance. Most of us cling much too tightly to our life as it is to step over such an awesome and terrifying threshold.

The search for that moment goes on. If we absolutely have to go somewhere, I think it's better to try and get there on our own than it is to lie around waiting for someone to pick us up. After all, we don't want to be late for our own deaths.

As my busily, currently sacrificing friend always tells me, when he dies, he'll say to himself:

"Jeez, this is great! I should have done this years ago!"

The science delusion

I am a sometimes admirer of Nobel Laureate Richard Dawkin's work (see "The Ancestor's Tale, a very good piece of science writing) , but he has certainly overstepped his bounds with his new book "The God Delusion." This book is an irresponsibly blunt, if not downright arrogant, dismissal of God.

If a minister or a yogi were to approach Mr. Dawkins and state that they had plumbed the depths of, say, physics, and answered its most essential questions without a proper and accredited education on the subject, and with no experimentation whatsoever, he would rightly dismiss them. He does not seem to understand that, in any discipline, just as in science, proper investigation of any serious set of questions requires many years of study. In the study of the question of God, it requires rigorous inner discipline, prayer, and meditation.

Surprise! Mr. Dawkins would have us believe he knows what the results of this study are without ever having acquired the education or performed the experiments himself. Then again, perhaps that is not really so surprising. Men who are stuffed full of facts and consequently believe they know everything are a dime a dozen, as Plato so deftly pointed out in his Apology. What is interesting here is that Mr. Dawkins-- a "scientist"with credentials-- so blindly presumes to have a kind of knowledge he has done no work whatsoever of his own to acquire.

Perhaps the the bliss of ignorance makes a fair substitute for that of saints and yogis, but I sincerely doubt it.

Despite the standard arguments- we've heard them all, thank you-, blaming religion for mankind's woes is sheer foolishness. Practice demonstrates a surpassing ability on the part of mankind to exercise stupidity all by itself, without any heavenly assistance. Countless historical misdeeds have been initiated without ever once invoking the name of God- in other words, the world's scientists, aetheists and agnostics have been just as guilty of moral outrage as those who profess religious leanings. We could cite Hitler or Stalin, or Ghengis Khan-- or, for that matter, Edward Teller.

Sadly, the vast preponderance of what scientists and their technologies have so generously given us as they wax is an exponentially accelerating ability to destroy not only men, but the ecosphere of the planet itself. All this from an enterprise that claims to be driven by "intelligence." Measured against this, the concept of a God seems a relatively innocent and minor delusion by comparison. Once again, this problem stems from knowing far too many facts and having far too little wisdom, a disease Mr. Dawkins and his kind are far more prone to to spread than to find cures for.

To add to all this, I try to picture to myself a world where we build gothic cathedrals, compose hymns of praise, and paint great artworks to celebrate- what? Molecular biology? Quantum physics? It takes a special kind of idiot to believe in such a world. Frankly I find it far easier to believe in God as a bearded man on a cloud in a white gown.

If Mr. Dawkins properly understood the magnificent question of God, he would understand that it lies at the root of consciousness, the physical universe, entropy, biology, and properties of emergence. He would further understand that investigating this question can form a completely new inner relationship between a man's organism and his mind.

He doesn't, and because he has already made up his mind, he will not. As his education, attitudes and opinions so eloquently demonstrate-- and as anyone with any common sense knows-

Watchmakers aren't blind, but watches certainly are.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Our father

Okay, today we're going Out There.

Bear with me.

In "The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas," Dogen says:

"When you examine "the entire earth" or "the entire universe," you should investigate them three or five times without stopping, even though you already see them as vast. Understanding these words is going beyond buddhas and ancestors by seeing the extremely large as extremely small and the extremely small as large. Although this seems like denying that there is any such thing as large or small, this [understanding] is the awesome presence of active buddhas." (p. 83, "Beyond Thinking", edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambala books 2004.)

This saying reminds me of my own work with the Lord's prayer, specifically the first two words of that prayer.

If duly contemplated, the first word of this prayer, "our", extends well beyond the limits imposed by our anthropocentric view. It implies the entire universe- all of reality in its myriad manifestations. It can be experienced as both personal- in the sense of our person as it contemplates- and impersonal- as our person attempts, through an attuned awareness and inner sensation, to extend its understanding past the established boundaries , to include all that is.

This may or may not include visualization, but to visualize actually isn't necessary. It is the act of sensing this commonality that invokes a relationship with a certain kind of vibration. This commonality extends from the "strings" of vibration that create reality at the quantum level all the way up to the galaxies that populate the universe. ... and of course it's called the universe because it is all one thing. So the universe is our common property- we belong to it and it belongs to us.

The United States of Vibration.

The United States of Vibration inevitably contains all the collective consciousnesses of the universe, so it has an inherently conscious property. You can't take the consciousness out of this unity without denying consciousness itself. By this we absolutely know that one of the properties of the universe is consciousness- and if the universe at its root is one thing, one single supreme state of vibration, well, consciousness is part of its nature, isn't it?

"Father," the second word in the prayer, refers to the single source of prime arising that gives birth to reality- the sacred Om, the single prime or "male" vibration that penetrates the female nature of all matter, collapsing the quantum state and giving rise to what we call material reality. This force is also at once both personal and impersonal. It too is an indiviudal- that is, an undivided being- composed of a single thing, which is vibration. Its individuality is too vast to comprehend, however. I say it's impersonal because it is also objective- that is, untouched by human concerns. Alien to us and supreme in purpose- a single manifestation of truth alone.

In the act of contemplation and sensation during the study of this prayer, I can attempt to sense within me the intersection of both the incomprehensible scale of the universe and the "quantum web" of vibration that gives rise to my being. This exercise connects a "cellular" or "magnetic" sense of being to the vastness of all that is. Here the extremely large- the universe- becomes small as I try to allow it to dwell within me, and the extremely small becomes large, as I try to encompass and accept the vibration at the root of reality. I'm extending my experience of being in both directions, upward and downward, from a center of sensation and awareness that forms a bridge between these levels.

There is rich ground to explore here. It needs no manipulation, only participation. In and of itself it already knows what it is. I'm the one who is still in the dark.

Within the exercise it's sometimes possible to gain a taste of what Dogen is saying. We find within it that tangible bridge between Zen and Christianity which so fascinated Thomas Merton- and within it, too, we find a gesture that underscores a hidden connection between the two "opposing" forces of science and religion, which, as Gurdjieff pointed out, actually have the same aim.

There's a lot more to work with this prayer, of course. The first two words are just an appetizer for a meal that will take a lifetime- or perhaps several of them- to consume.

One last note: Dogen asks us to contemplate "the earth" or "the universe" three or five times without stopping. Perhaps this is a suggestion that in meditation, we try to examine the question from the point of view of three or five centers- in other words, to sense this question with all our various minds, rather than just the one that plays with words.

There are other exerices more specifically attuned to that undertaking but they lie beyond the scope of a blog.

Love to you, my various friends and strangers-


Saturday, December 9, 2006

Additional intelligence

Gurdjieff teaches that each center has a "brain," or mind, of its own.

We encounter glimpses of this concept in other systems, but no matter where we encounter it, it probably seems theoretical and inaccessible. Body and mind and emotion may be separate "brains" in man, but we think we experience them simultaneously, and perceiving separation becomes difficult.

The difficulty is that there's no way to think about this. The idea isn't tangible unless the "brain" of the body wakes up, that is to say, it begins to manifest consciously on its own, next to the brain of the intelligence. And then it isn't thought about, it is sensed, which is different. So our perception of our being is one centered, or, based on observations from only one brain. Living our lives from one center's point of view, we cannot even know what the other minds or centers "taste" like.


Each of the six main "minds" or "brains" in man are alseep. These correspond to the six "lower" chakras in man (the seventh being understood as belonging to another, higher level.)

By using the word "asleep " we try to indicate that they are not functioning with full awareness. They are on autopilot, and they do not interact with each other very much. Each one has its own active intelligence, its own "thought" process- which may not manifest as what we usually call thought at all- and its own agenda.

Instinctive center, for example, may decide it would be good to eat a lot, no matter what intellect, emotion and body have to say about it. The next thing you know we get fat, and then a tense struggle ensues because the centers are not listening to each other.

In ordinary life, we are accustomed to finding what we call "I", or our sense of being, within the context of the thinking mind and the emotions. What we don't realize is that what is called "real I" in the Gurdjieff work-- and would represent a state of relative enlightenment in other works- emerges when most or all of the centers wake up and start to work together. This inner act of reassembly of the separated inner minds is an esoteric meaning of the task of "self re-membering" Gurdjieff calls on us to engage in.

In this re-awakening, re-attachment, no one center replaces another as superior to the others. Instead they re-exist simultaneously, in conjunction with one another, but always distinct.

What emerges from the mind can only ever emerge from the mind. So this piece of writing emanates from one mind and enters another. It carries seeds of ideas that might touch the other minds in other bodies but of itself it cannot be more than what it is.

All it does, in other words, is advise intellect that there are other minds in the body it could cooperate with. Five of them, to be exact. If you have ever wondered why we human beings often seem to function as though we're about five times stupider than we ought to be, this could well be the reason.

The body is one accessible place to begin to sense our additional intelligence. Over the years I have begun to learn that it really is an intelligence all its own, separate from this intelligence which speaks and writes, but equally valid. This gives me a new repsect for it: there is much, much more to me than the part that thinks. Like that part which regulates breath (the instinctive center's mind) the body's mind is a deeply intelligent awareness of its own that has serious work to do- often far more serious than what my "monkey mind" comes up with in the course of a day. It just expresses itself quite differently than my mind's awareness, which takes the form of thought.

If I listen to it more carefully, it often surprises me. It consistently informs me of my life in a different way. For one thing, it remembers I'm alive- something my mind, with all its machinations, has a way lot of trouble doing, believe me. In remembering this, it repeatedly calls me back to a greater sense of attention.

That kind of support can be vital in a spiritual practice. Through a continuing observation of the different minds, or centers, within me, I can gradually encourage them to participate more wholly in this thing we call life.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The inner structure

I've been very fortunate of late.

There's a lot of serenity in my life. I'm blessed by a great deal of work to do, challenges to meet, family and friends to support.

This means I have to be active a lot and do a lot of things I don't want to do, and deal with difficult people like my wife and children and friends and co-workers.

And myself.

So my plate is full and I'm under a lot of pressure: financial pressure, pressure of relationships, pressure at work.

Technically speaking I should not feel serene at all. So I've been trying to figure out just how, and just why, I can have a hands-down, yell-at-each-other fight with another person and still feel pretty darn terrific inside... and not even really be mad at them. How I can be under tremendous pressure at the office, with certain situations absolutely melting down, and yet still feel that life is... well.. fundamentally OK.

Certainly a large part of it comes from working to form a support structure inside- which is very different than the external structures I discussed yesterday.

After all, an inner structure, if it's sound, can be far more durable than an outer one. It has a resilience born of the fact that it's built out of my natural parts: not ersatz mental concepts I imported from books about psychology or architecture or even my various esoteric disciplines. It's tangible and immediate and more practical than that. It's built out of breathing and digesting and eliminating. Out of loving and thinking and exercising. These are pretty durable qualities.

So part of this improbable serenity is the inner support structure, all right. But perhaps more important than that is what the inner support structure connects to. That's much more subtle. And it's up to each seeker to discover that for themselves, because the reflection of one's inner gems cannot be put into words. Collectively they call on something much more essential- and expansive- than the corner my personality usually backs me into.

Serenity may be felt by the emotions, expressed by a quality of mind, and sensed by a relaxation of the body, but it's born of seeing the rich pasture of relationships within my organism, and seeing the relationship of the organism to life.

Within this pasture, gratiutude arises. I see that my wish is to become ever less of a warrior and ever more of a farmer. To take those swords of my negativity and not beat-but coax- them into plowshares of support and compassion.

It's no fun hacking people up, anyway. Competition does not serve- it demands. Some people never seem to get tired of it, but I for one am increasingly worn out. Sure- I can, and will, play that role as long as it's demanded, but, as the ineffable Mr. Gurdjieff once put it,

"only with my left foot."

These days I just want to raise a little maize on the back acre.

Have a terrific day, everyone!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006


We usually feel meaning is attained through structure. That is to say, things happen and we put them into order of one kind or another until a structure emerges, and that becomes a meaning for us. This is how we justify: we discover meaning through structure, and that is what we think will create our validity.

It works, more or less, when we're organizing things or trying to discern patterns in nature. But the everyday events of life are so chaotic that they generally defy classification.

In doing so, they subvert structure- no matter how hard we try to impose it, something constantly comes along to upset it. In doing so, the meanings we construct gets lost, because we were expecting them to emerge from the structure- and it turns out the structure isn't fundamentally valid. No matter how hard we try to order things, something unexpected comes along to put a spoke in the wheels, and all of a sudden it seems we're starting from scratch again.

That seems unjustifed to us. It's not fair. We have worked like the very devil himself to create this structure of understanding and then >>blap!<< something comes along and upsets the whole applecart.

There's an alternative to this hamster wheel we're on: we can attempt to discover what inherent justification might mean.

What is inherent justification? Inherent justification arises from the fact that everything is just so. It doesn't need to be any different. Structure and lack of structure are immaterial to inherent justifcation.

Things begin as already justfied.

If the meaning we perceive and accept is inherent, discovered in the simple nature of the moment itself, rather than the organization we discover within the moment, well, that's already different, isn't it? Meaning of this kind becomes, in a sense, invulnerable, because it stems from the experience itself- and not the definition of it.

And wouldn't another word for "invulnerable meaning" perhaps be "Truth?"

Something as simple as attention to our breathing in our ordinary life can help feed the parts of us that are able to receive this impression. The breath is connected to parts that are not concerned with the elaborate structures our mind is forever working on. Breath is directly connected to a physical part that knows, all day long, every day:

Do this at once, or we will die. Not sooner or later: we will die NOW.

This understanding contains an urgency the mind is fundamentally unable to sense. They live side by side, but nonetheless we are not aware of that part. That part's understanding is so deep and so urgent that it functions even when we're asleep. It can't afford to take any time off.

A part like that can really help us care more about our practice.

It's worth investigating.

On valuation

I had one of those days today where I'm just grateful. It was another very hectic day, but at the end of it, as I walked out of the office, I was glad that I have the job I have and work with the people I work with. I'm glad I have the problems I have. All of it helps me to learn something new about life.

This isn't a matter of psychology. When we're really glad about things there's no need to engage in tricks to help make ourselves think we're happy. Happiness is intrinsic. There's no way to think one's way into it.

Another way of looking at it is that it's organic. I know I keep coming back to that word almost obessisvely- are you sick of hearing about it? Sorry about that. But I keep using it for a reason.

The reason is that when it comes to satisfaction, we have to find what we are seeking within the organism first. Trying to find it in the mind is useless. The mind is a dog that endlessly chases its own tail.

We already know a little bit about that because we understand the satisfaction that comes from a good meal: some risotto with mushrooms, for example, or a nice bowl of soup. But we don't know enough about it.

All the impressions we take into ourselves during a day are food, too, and generally speaking they are excellent food, if we receive them correctly. Once we begin to straighten out the way we receive impressions, they feed the whole organism differently. Air tastes different. Colors look different. Yelling at our kids feels different. All of that stems from an active engagement with our inner being, and an active force that arises within the body. When the mind develops a deeper connection with the body life just feels better, that's all there is to it. It's an end in itself.

I was speaking to a person I work with yesterday and we were discussing an exercise, and I reminded him : Don't do it with the mind. The difficulty is that we try to do just about everything with the mind.

In the traditional stories, every Zen master repeatedly points towards this. We have to go beyond the mind to go anywhere real.

Going beyond mind involves finding not just the lotus, but the root of the lotus. In western culture, we believe that it's the flower of the mind that sustains our being, but actually it is the exact opposite.

The root of being, planted in the firm, warm mud and exquisite darkness of the body, is what nourishes and sustains the flower of the mind. As we cultivate our garden, it informs our lives and gives birth to leaves of attention.

These spread themselves in gratitude to receive the sunlight of our impressions. And we learn how to pray not just with words, but with our whole life.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Terms of Exchange

Every event I perceive is a transaction between my inner self and the outer conditions. We could say there is an exchange between the two.

How does that go?

Whenever things don't correspond to my terms, I react negatively to them almost the instant they arrive. I see this in myself all the time. For example, I am sitting at work and I get some unexpected, annoyingly nit-picking demand in an e mail that's going to take time and effort to execute, and I get angry right away.

It invariably takes a second to stop and remind myself that this is what I get paid for- that it's entirely proper for me to have to do this, and I should acquiesce and take care of it, not react belligerently.

Usually- after I pause, breathe, and tell myself that it's not so bad, really- it gets done and it turns out it was no big deal. Certainly not as significant as my initial reaction to it was.

I tend to identify things that don't conform to my expectations as obstacles. I want to control everything, you see, and I don't understand that life is not about control of the exchange. It's about participation in it. So I misunderstand the terms of the exchange from the very beginning.

Why do I do that? I think it's because of fear of outcome. I want to control the outcome of every exchange so that it satisfies me. I don't see that (a) that's completely impossible and (b) entirely unreasonable. After all, it's an exchange, and the half of it that lies outside myself is forever entirely outside my control. Even if I do what appear to be exactly the right things, they may not produce the expected results. So, as the saying goes, it's all in God's hands from the get-go. What's required of me is to make my best effort, and I can't do that if I start out by misunderstanding the terms of exchange.

In order to better understand the terms of exchange in my life I have to be willing to surrender the fear of outcome. If I go into exchanges unburdened by that fear, then some new things can happen.

First of all, I don't have a negative inner tyrant automatically making all my decisions for me. He's still in there, sure, but his voting power is diminished. There's a flexibility available.

Second of all, conditions don't automatically get labeled as obstacles. We all have a machine in us that does that on a 24 hour basis. Once a condition doesn't get identified as an obstacle, I can begin to perceive it differently.

I can get creative with it.

Maybe that condition is an asset! Who knows? I definitely don't- every condition that arrives is actually is new and untested- and only by exploring it can I inform myself. In my own case, it's downright surprising how many conditions that I would have- or did- label as obstacles turned out to be assets.

Accepting the terms of exchange and surrendering the fear of outcome is a lifetime work, I think. These ideas help remind me of why cultivating acceptance is so vital to my inner practice.
The obstacles I encounter, inner and outer, are obstacles only for as long as I continue to refer to them as obstacles.

If I can perceive them differently- participate in their existence, so to speak, instead of trying to batter them down and trample them- they begin to slowly melt.

It takes time, but a little sunlight can melt a lot of ice.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Light and creation

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent. It's a time when the whole Christian world begins the month- long process of celebrating the fact that a new force can enter our world. That the old order can be turned upside down and a new one established.

Christ called on us all to become open to an inner light. We remember His birth as an occasion of Joy because of His message to all mankind that everyone can become available to this light of God.

Christians aren't the only ones who cultivate this practice. The Buddhists refer to enlightenment- the process of becoming filled with light. The Mevlevi Dervishes whirl not just to pray, but because they understand they have a sacred duty to bring light down into the world from above. The Jews celebrate Chanukah, the festival of lights.

This idea, it seems, is shared by most of mankind, and it offers us all hope- hope that things can improve, that the dirty little crevices of darkness we all covet and carry around inside us can be illuminated, then swept clean with a broom made of sturdy twigs. All of this to leave room inside us for something much bigger than ourselves.

The idea even goes a bit deeper than that. Suns are the engines of creation. All of the elements in the universe begin as hydrogen, which in the vast nuclear crucibles of suns are fused into the heavier elements.

Creating an inner sun within ourselves is analogous. We can literally begin to create new substances in our bodies which are, under ordinary circumstances, either completely lacking or in very short supply. This is important, because in order to erect a more durable and useful inner structure, we're going to need all those additional elements. If all we have in us is that elemental hydrogen, we're basically nothing more than bags of hot air.

It's often helpful to me to understand by analogy in this manner. It helps me to form a deeper sense of the absolute interconnectedness of all things, and of how every level of the universe works in a similar way : from suns to bodies to cells, everything engaged in one perpetual act of creation.

There is no destruction. Everything we call "destruction" is just transformation, as new states continuously emerge from old ones.

When speaking of this unity, Dogen once said, "In the great way of going beyond, no endeavor is complete without being one with myriad things. This is ocean mudra samadhi." ("Beyond Thinking," p. 78, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambala Publications 2004)

When we open our eyes, we all find our dwelling place in this ever-emergent ocean of truth and light.

I hope December affords us all myriad opportunities to open ourselves ever more deeply to this light and to love, and to share the gift of life as openly as possible with others.

The inner solar system

Yesterday I said I'd make a few more remarks on the idea that during our life, we are in the process of forming an inner solar system. Agreed this idea is a bit theoretical, but we can't discuss practice without occasionally delving into analogy.

Think of it this way.

Life explodes around us like a supernova. Outward events are a massive, seething sea of energy that pours into us from the instant of birth to the moment of our death. As these impressions of life arrive in this vessel we call the body, they are completely disorganized. Until we begin, as an infant, to form the basic inner structures needed to understand them, we can't see, we can't walk, we can't talk.

It becomes the work of a lifetime to bring an intelligible order to all of these impressions, and, as more and more impressions fall into the "event horizon-" the place where the outer world meets our inner world- that becomes more and more difficult.

At first everything is a disorganized gas cloud. The materials attract each other and begin to coalesce into "inner planets." These correspond to various elements of our psyche. Some are aggressive, like Mars. Some are loving or sensuous, like Venus. You get the idea.

But inside there is no definitive center of gravity, or if there is one, it's weak. At best the sun inside us- the part that is supposed to provide the central force of gravity around which the other planets orbit- isn't well formed. So the elements of our personality are chaotic; they orbit errtically, crashing into each other and creating all kinds of havoc in our lives. Our inner sun is a massive planet like Jupiter- a "failed sun," a gas giant that has never quite acquired the materials or gavity it needs to ignite. Like Jupiter it's a troubled planet, obscured by clouds and fraught with mysterious, massive storms. It's not even the center of the system as it should be. The other planets are racing around inside, each one trying to become a sun themselves, even though none of them are properly suited for that work.

It's a mess. There's no one in charge.

In the diligent inner work of meditation and life-observation, we discover an opportunity. We can gradually begin to create a gravity in ourselves that brings a new kind of order to this "inner cosmic chaos." As the inner planets align themselves there are less collisions. And we slowly begin to draw new material into the center of our solar-system-in-formation.

With the practice of discrimination, we begin to realize that our inner sun, if it is ever going to ignite, needs certain kinds of material in order to form. We can't just take in any old set of impressions willy-nilly. For example, if the sun needs more "hydrogen" in its make-up, but what we're taking in is "iron," we're creating an imbalance. We have to begin to know what the inner solar system needs. We also have to be careful that Venus or Mars, for example, aren't sucking up most of the "hydrogen" our sun needs. They want all that good stuff for themselves, too, and if no one is in charge- well, they'll just take it.

Even more important we have to learn you can't get rid of anything. In our inward solar system, everything that comes in- all the impressions of a lifetime- stay in there permanently. Once impressions have arrived, there's absolutely no practical way to get rid of them, and enough disruptive impressions can create inner situations that are difficult, if not impossible, to correct. We all know people, for example, who are relentlessly pessimistic or negative.

Some instinctive part of us knows we can't fix that problem, and fear arises. Some ways of trying to escape the tyranny of our existing impressions are drugs, alcohol, excessive work, escapism, hedonism, and so on. Most or all of them are destructive, and since these escape mechanisms are exercised strictly within the confines of our inner solar system, the ultimate result is that they destroy any possibility of order. They burn up valuable fuel making us temporarily feel better, and in the end they all rob us of the very material we need to set things right.

It's our responsibility to see this and to assume responsibility. If we see, for example that we took in too much "iron" earlier in life, and are consequently too hard on ourselves or others, the best we can do after we realize this is to learn how to compensate. Acceptance is part of that practice.

So we agree with ourselves to become engineers. We begin to attend to our lives through discrimination and right practice to first put things in order- as Gurdjieff said, "repair the past"- and then try and acquire useful materials- "prepare the future." To do this we use the present- that is to say, every immediate moment of practice can be turned to this effort.

As we progress on this path the inner sun-in-embryo begins to gain in strength. Eeventually it has enough gravity to right the orbit of the planets, and then things inside us change a lot. Instead of every planet pulling us in a different direction, each one begins to orbit in an orderly manner.

Eventually, we begin to bring the light of this new inner sun to our solar system. That's the aim of the work- to illuminate. We gradually become a light unto ourselves- at which point we may begin to participate in a much larger structure called a galaxy.

And galaxies are maginifcent.

Love to you all today,


Saturday, December 2, 2006

On being ordinary

As human beings, we're all terrifically attracted to the extraordinary. Nothing satisfies us more than the amazing: breathtaking landscapes, extraordinary music, fantastic artwork, profound literature.

Perhaps above all, though, we're perversely attracted to what is both amazing and horrific at the same time: disaster positively fascinates mankind. As if mother nature wasn't already capable of providing enough of it for us (today's photograph is a view of Mt. Vesuvius from a field of poppies at Pompeii), we engineer it for ourselves with great enthusiasm. There's nothing more fascinating than violence and death. And if we can't deliver it in cold, hard, grim and bitter reality, no problem.

We use special effects and film it.

Our media feeds on this need for input excess. The whole information age is a massive paroxysm of never-ending, 24 hour a day overstimulation. Even serenity itself has become something which is pushed at us and sold in excess; yoga, for example, has become an industry pumping out an endless series of catalogs filled with special products. It's not a spiritual discipline any more; it's an exercise regimen or a fashion trend.

We show our dissatisfaction with the ordinary in other ways, too: the whole world thrives on the "vacation" industry, which basically consists of all of us rushing off to different places that are somehow supposed to be better than where we are. More interesting. Groovier, more important, more spiritually feeding. And more often than not, when we get there, there are still things wrong anyway, because where we are never seems to be quite good enough, no matter how much we rush around and how much money we spend doing it.

What's THAT all about? How come the ordinary, everyday life around us isn't satisfying?

We're built inside out. We're trying to drink in satisfaction from outside, and it doesn't work that way. Satisfaction has to begin inside us, and then find its relationship to the outside of us. If we form a better inward relationship, then the most ordinary routines in life begin to become very satisfying indeed. Pencils can become as interesting as the Taj Mahal. In this regard, inner satisfaction is the great equalizer.

All of this has to begin with an interest in ourselves: how we are inside, the way the parts are connected. If the parts in us don't begin to function in a better, more whole relationship, we could become billionaires and acquire tremendous power and there would still be something missing. This comes back to the idea of in-formation, the idea that we must become responsible for forming something within ourselves that is stronger and deeper than the outside world. We need to acquire an inner gravity.

All of the equipment to do this is in there, but, generally speaking, we're so utterly taken with the outside world that almost no one stops to examine themselves very carefully. Modern life is just too damned fast and too damned complicated. We've turned it into a freight train and tied ourselves to the tracks, because it's so darned exciting!

In order to begin from a different point of view, we need to STOP and apply the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Slow down. Remember our breathing. Take an inner inventory: how am I right now? Am I physically tense? What's my relationship to my body?

Or, to sum it up, as my own teacher once asked me:

What is the truth of this moment?

Ordinary, daily life provides us with every bit of material we need to begin understanding what a path of inner satisfaction could consist of.

This is an act of "world creation," and we cannot engage in it if we consistently let the outside world dictate the terms of the creation of our inner world for us. Those of us in spiritual works are, collectively, engaged in the process of trying to form and maintain an inner solar system.

I'll write a bit more about this tomorrow.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Inhabiting my life

I used to be driven.

I grew up wanting to be an artist, and for many years I pursued that vocation with formidable intensity. There was a tyrant in me that demanded I produce art. Lots of it. It had something to prove and, damn it, it was going to prove it.

All this began when I first saw Hieronymous Bosch's painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" at the Prado in Madrid. I was all of 9 years old. (That was the same year I saw the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a subject we'll have to leave for some other time.)

In any event I was determined to do massive art, and I did. I got a degree in art and off I went, sometimes even making a bit of money at it. I kept doing art even after I realized it was not much of an income producing option and entered the business world. My friends would tell you I was very productive- true- and very talented- of that, I am no longer so sure.

This dictatorial engine drove my life until I was forty-five years old. It was my constant companion through ten years of alcoholism, then twenty years of recovery, serious spiritual work, and meditation.

I was enslaved. Convictions like this one, you see, justify themselves in ways impossible to resist, because they are part of an intense delusion: that we create our personal value by doing things. That is, the value in life lies outside of ourselves, and we have to create it. To leverage it, to show everyone- but above all ourselves- how we're valuable.

Then one morning I woke up and everything was completely different. I don't know quite how to explain that. But something fundamental had changed inside me, and for the first time I can ever recall in my life, I understood I was valuable without doing anything.

I walked around feeling positively ecstatic for a number of weeks, because I started out every day already being worth something. When I breathed in my first breath of the morning I was grateful for this very beautiful life (I still am.) The very act of just breathing was a blessing (it still is.) Touching the sheets in bed was a blessing. It was a time when I began to understand that Christ's "Peace of God which passeth all understanding" is real; within us we carry the seed of a magnificent flower.

All this, paradoxically, took place at what was possibly the very worst time of my life (short of my recovery.) I had just gone through an incredibly destructive marriage and divorce where I had lost custody of my children, lost my house, been fired from my job, and had lost all my financial reserves. I was alone, back in the New York area, eight hundred miles away from my kids, and starting a very demanding new job.

There was absolutely no reason to feel so good. But I did.

Of course this state changed. Everything does, and trying to hold on too tight is a sure way to crushing the blossom. But an undercurrent of this understanding has stayed with me.

What it has helped me to do is to make more efforts to inhabit my life.

I see that becoming more whole in an inner sense has little to do with the outside world. It starts from inside and works its way outward, whereas what I had tried to do for my entire life was start outside and work inward. My life-understanding was upside down all along! (Fortunately, I continue to discover that's not unusual with me. The times when I find out I'm completely wrong and accept it are always the most valuable, because then I really do learn something new!)

One meaning of inhabit is to wear, as in a monk's habit. I express this understanding as one of inhabiting my life, because the outer conditions of my life are like clothing. We take clothing off and put it on but the clothing isn't us.

For me, this is a way of understanding non-attachment. We wear clothing, but it is just a garment. It can be dirty or clean, afford us more or less protection or status, but it isn't us. Our inner self- the essence, that spark of divinity indside each one of us- is already the fundamental value, before the first "sock" of our life goes on in the morning. So when I make the effort to inhabit, I'm "inside" this life, accepting its conditions, wearing each one of them as it comes along -but organically knowing in a part of myself that the life-condition is not me.

This experience comes from what I call the "organic sense of being"- to me, that's attaining the marrow- inhabiting the very bones of my life.

I don't do much artwork at all anymore. I do play music, but I'm pretty relaxed about it. I spend a lot more time these days devoting time to attempts to simply inhabit my humanity- all part of the effort to become, as Gurdjieff used to say, "a man without quotation marks."

In attempting this practice of inhabiting my humanity, I discover a new possibility: to retain a hidden, positive and joyful core of being, right down in those bones-- no matter what happens.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wood and trees

Day before yesterday the local fire department cut down a beautiful old juniper tree next to the local skating pond in order to erect a massive flagpole.

I liked that bush. It had a presence and I'd been walking past it for years. From what I could see, there was room for the bush and the flagpole. In fact from my point of view it's the flagpole that seems superfluous. You can walk a hundred yards - maybe less- to the fire department itself and there's another huge, almost identical flagpole. Just how many assertive displays of patriotism do we need in a hundred yard radius?

I guess sometimes we can't see the trees for the wood.

Men like to make things out of wood. In our modern cultures of personality we cut trees down and then make objects and worship them. Buddhas, Christs, Shivas. Poles with flags on them. What have you.

In the old days, in the primeval cultures of essence, men used to worship living trees, not dead ones. They would go out in the woods and create the allegory of their spiritual food from the living roots and branches and leaves of the tree itself. Not a static, dead symbolic representation of a living truth- they fashioned their inner myths from contact with life itself.

Simon Schama wrote a great book about this called Landscape and Memory. Go check it out, it is very much worth reading. You'll discover that the origins of all human cultures spring from a deep relationship with the living earth, and that the earth shapes our cultures in subtle forms more than our cultures will ever shape the earth with machines. We are the earth- or rather, one particular expression of her. As we slowly hack her into pieces, we dismember ourselves.

In the early cultures of mankind there was an understanding of relationship with the planet. Not a romantic, naive one in which nature was a benign, compassionate Gaia. It was tougher and more resilient, and much more frightening and powerful, I think. There was a humility in it. We've progressively trivialized mother nature as we-in our imaginations, at any rate- grow more distant from her. It's only the occasional event like the tsunami of 2004 that remind us we're not in control- and then only for a moment. All too soon we succumb once again to that hypnotic sleep induced by technology and artifice.

Deepening our relationship with our practice involves reawakening an awareness of that connection. It is an awareness that extends not just upwards but downwards, until our cells themselves vibrate in an awareness of our connection to the planet. Extending our consciousness downward into the living roots it springs from creates a foundation for us. Without that foundation, the trunk of our inner tree is weak, and the leaves are feeble. So when I sit, I like to reach down inside myself seeking that living relationship first.

Then I wait to see what the heavens might show me.

The deepest heart

"There is no "I"- there is only Truth. The way to the Truth is through the heart."

One of my ongoing habits is to believe I can think my way into being loving and compassionate.
I am probably not alone. Mankind in general seems to believe this.

Our concepts of love and compassion are born of the ordinary mind, and our attempts to reach them are born of the ordinary mind. This leaves our love and compassion weak, because the ordinary mind is weak.

The emotions want to have their say in the matter, too, and that's equally confusing. They contradict the mind a lot of the time, and the mind and the emotions end up waging an inner war where we feel crappy and act crappy, despite the fact that most of us get up out of bed intending to act noble and feel noble. When it becomes apparent to us that the whole mess isn't working, instead of admitting to ourselves that we're without any real understanding in this area, we create elaborate mental constructions that support our emotional negativity by outsourcing the responsibility.

Where' s the nobility? Paramahansa Yogananda taught us that we should try to cast ourselves in the role of a hero in our lives. Let's face it- heroes don't sit around whining like I usually do. They uncompromisingly confront the truths of their reality and use right action to overcome adversity.

Trying to work through my heart-- my essence, the innermost being-- requires that I give my negativity up, and I am very greedy inside. I don't want to give anything up, especially the myth that I am already basically OK. Seeking life through the heart requires, first and above all, admitting I'm powerless. That is, alone, my ordinary mind can do nothing.

I think our lack of love and compassion stems in part from a kind of denial similar to what alcoholics go through. I know a little bit about this, because I am one. After 25 years of sobriety, I am still working on admitting that "I"-- meaning this thing we call mind-- is powerless over my state- whether that state is one of alcoholism or a lack of compassion.

Other parts have to get involved for anything to change. The whole organism has to get in on the act. Turning this matter of love and compassion over to a higher power, as is said in AA, and discovering the heart involves overcoming an inner obstacle that is physical in nature, not psychological.

Why do I say that? In my own inner practice, I have discovered that-- for me, at least-- there is a literal, physical blockage where my heart is that prevents me from breathing in what would be needed to change anything ...I have to be willing to use my attention and my intention to go to that place and help it to open. After that I have to be willing to suffer the consequences, which is to let something entirely new and perhaps even frightening enter. To surrender all that garbage I carry around in me which I love so much.

So what's that all about? I think it has something to do with centers.

In tantric art, one convention is to depict inner centers as flowers. These floral images are not allegorical. They represent deep truths about what we have in us. There truly are such flowers within our bodies. They are so hidden, however, that mostly we do not even know they exist. It's as though they were buried under the sands of Egypt.

Right now they are all closed up tight- just the tiny buds of plum blossoms, waiting for winter to end-- or even perhaps to bloom in the winter-- who knows! However, we can attempt to change that through diligent practice. Our inner flowers can be encouraged to open- to participate in a new kind of exchange. Furthermore, each flower contains a nectar which is specific to its own work.

If we meditate with enough diligence, we can begin to understand that more practically for ourselves. Then perhaps we can sip some little bit of that heavenly nectar.

The heart is one of those flowers. If I can help it open a little, then I may be able to experience a little real- as opposed to psychological- love and compassion. But in order to do that, I have to go against everything "I" am- I have to, as it were, destroy the ego. Not with a hammer, but by the gentle, gradual action of clouds and water.

And that's a long term job.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Morning on the hudson

This morning I took a walk down to the Hudson river at daybreak. At this time of year, the salt marsh at the mouth of the Sparkill creek is mobbed with huge flocks of migrating redwing blackbirds. There are so many of them the sound of the flock out in the marsh sounds like the roar of a stream rushing over rocks. This is the second day I've walked our dog Isabel down there as the sun rose, just to appreciate the impressions.

It was a serene beginning to what turned out to be a very hectic day. I was bombarded from every side. I work as an executive in a fast paced business, and as if that weren't enough, there were important personal issues to deal with as well. Business and personal life don't tend to wait for each other.

Time may well be "the universe's way of preventing things from happening all at once," but time didn't seem to be doing its job very well today.

The only thing I have to fall back on in a situation like this is the sense of my body. It's a constant companion and a reliable reminder that I am here. Even if my mind is unable to remember that- it's weak to begin with, and distracted by the relentless demands of corporate multitasking on top of that- my body knows something more. It's smart that way. Like the emotional part, it's very powerful and well equipped for the kind of work it has to do.

So at every opportunity as things hammered away from the external side I tried to remember to breathe and to invest in sensation of my body. It repaid my effort by working with me off and on all day long. With that kind of companionship, things didn't seem so bad, really!-- which is the catch phrase of what I call my Stupid Man's Zen. No matter what comes along, at some point during its development I try to say to myself:

"It's not so bad, really."

There may be times when it IS rather stupid to say that, of course. No tool is universal (except Love, and none of us seem to be very expert in its use.) However, on examination, most everything I think is really bad and take personal offense at isn't so bad if I examine it a bit. And at least if I tell myself it's not so bad, I give myself permission to try and confront whatever it is in a more positive way.

Throughout my life, a lot of my work has consisted of this: finding little tricks to help myself get over the negative bumps. For example, I remember how, when much younger, I used to lie in bed every morning after I woke up and give myself permission to blow off work that day. Eveery day I would do that, and every day, as soon as I had given myself permission to be a total flake, I got up and went to work.

It may sound stupid, but whatever works, works.

That's what the stupid man's zen is all about: just working.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

esoteric practice

It's sometimes argued, in exoteric practice (for example, the Christian church) that esotericism is unworthy. Unnecessary. Folded in upon itself. In some cases it is even scorned as opposite to proper Christian practice. The active wants life to point outwards. Everyone ought to be out there saving the world, not sitting in a passive meditative mode, treading water.

In today's world, exoteric institutions cultivate an aggressive outwardness that is distasteful to esotericists in the same way. For the contemplative, everything points inwards. Not for us, the crass commercialism of contemporary religious culture! We're more organic. Those outward folks are missing the whole point.

The two sides of the question spend much energy objecting to each other. Such disagreement misses the point; what is forgotten is that a balanced work requires three types of "directional practice": exoteric, mesoteric, and esoteric. We could call them outward, convergent, and inward if we wish.

Left to itself, any one of these paths becomes a dead end. It's the exchange and dynamic between them that creates a living structure. Monasteries can't get membership without churches and congregations. Churches can't attract potential monks unless their practice is informed by a vital esoteric core. In the middle stands the congregation- the community. At any one moment one or the other of these forms of directional practice may need to be the chief center of gravity.

Our own inner lives are no different. We need our esoteric, our deeply inner, practice. We also need an attention to our mesoteric practice, that is, the place where inner and outer intersect (the place where our many "I"'s congregate.) Then we need the exoteric practice, when we live and work outwardly. The blending of the three elements creates a whole that informs itself by the inward flow of the outer towards the inner, and the reverse process, whereby what is formed inwardly reciprocates by informing the mesoteric self in its response to the outer ("wisdom.")

So my inner work (centered around essence) needs to discover its right relationship within an effective mesoteric and exoteric side. This isn't too easy. My exoteric side (personality) is very dominant.

In this very daily life, inhabiting this organism, I want to be come more sensitive to what third force might mean in relationship to this question of the esoteric and exoteric- of essence and personality.

Dogen's extensive record

Today's picture is the andromeda galaxy. see the APOD web site for terrific daily photos of the universe.

I've been reading Dogen's Extensive Record (Eihei Koroku) translated by Leighton & Okumura for most of the year. Can't say enough good things about this book!

Much of what Dogen has to say can appear, at times, to be impenetrable. As is the case with many teachings, his words arrive from a thousand years and an entire world away.

Nonetheless, I continue to sense that they speak of matters that are directly next to me in this very moment.

The following passage is from p. 594, "All going together:"

"Wearing hair and sprouting horns, go together with others
In the boundless kalpa-ending fire, do not turn your head
Even withered ash and dead trees are scorched completely,
What face do you have that begrudges these conditions?"

"Wearing hair and sprouting horns" relates to the Zen practices of attending to the energies at the middle, right and left at the top of the head. In doing this, we attend to the inner relationships between our parts ("going together with others.") We attempt to form a new inward relationship. This relationship, if cultivated, acquires a sustaining force which can carry our being.

No matter what happens- in the endless and eternal moments that we meet, in which everything arises and is instantly is consumed by the fires of time- we must remain resolute in practice, never turning our heads.

"Even withered trees and dead ash are scorched completely." Nothing is excepted from this process- even death itself is consumed by time.

What face do we have that begrudges these conditions? Indeed. we have no choice but to accept-- to accept completely, to accept unconditionally-- every arising, every condition we encounter, including this absolute condition of transience.

I continue to make efforts to found practice on an acceptance of conditions. In doing so I see more and more how conditional I am. I find it's only through participation in an informed inner relationship that I can inhabit my conditions, instead of trying to control them.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Information Age

There seems to me to be an irony implicit in calling this the "information age." Mankind has more data available to him than ever before, but we're faced with the same problems we have always had- and far more of them.

Unsurprisingly, individual lives mirror this collective problem. At every moment, we have input pouring in from ten thousand sources, and it's hard to sort it out. It's as though we were a construction site where the trucks were pulling up every eight seconds with another pile of building materials and finding out the foreman isn't there. The result? Every truck just dumps its load of materials any old place and moves on to bring in the next load. Our inner workers frantically try to keep up, but the site is in chaos and every structure that begins to rise up doesn't follow the intention of the architect. The crews themselves become desperate- they know there is something wrong. They can't get a grip--they don't even speak the same langauges, to borrow from the famous parable--so they try to become architects themselves. New structures get thrown up and torn down right and left as competeing crews try to deal with the influx of material. They argue with each other. There's too much of some materials and not enough of others.

What we end up with is a huge pile of disordered rubble, all of which was intended to build something, but which goes terribly astray.

The idea of in-formation, to me, is not just data. It is the idea of forming something inwardly. In order to do this someone has to be in charge. There has to be discrimination- we can't just pile up materials on our inner construction site willy-nilly, we have to select materials intelligently. We need to know something about building and the site, and there has to be a plan. We're never going to get a tenant to move in if we can't create a suitable residence.

The process of in-formation invoves informing our inner parts. They're discombobulated: they don't talk to each other and in many cases they don't even know their partners are on the building site with them. So we need to get in touch with them and let them know there's an aim.

Increasingly I rely on my breathing to inform me. Every breath I take, if taken with attention, has the potential to help my construction crew remember what it's supposed to be up to.

With the help of my breathing, all day long I can remind them:

We're always on site, guys, and we are working against a deadline.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Zen and man's two natures

This line of ponderings arose as a result of a discussion I had with my wife Neal about a reading of Mme. de Salzmann's in which she stated that man has two natures- an animal, and an angel.

Many people are familiar with the two famous Zen koans:

Does a dog have Buddha nature?
What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Now, it's widely presumed that koans have no answers. However we already know that that presumption is false, because answers are, essentially, responses (check the dictionary on this one, you'll see that's one of the primary definitions of the word answer), and it's definitely clear that there can be responses to koans.

Over and over again in Zen, we see it's the immediate quality of the responses that matter. The logical intellectual content is apparently secondary. So koans do have "answers," although perhaps not necessarily in the way that we usually expect an answer to be understood.

Perhaps- just perhaps- these two koans both point to the issue of man's two natures?

In the first one, we see a redundant question. Why is it redundant?
Because according to both dogma and technical understanding in Buddhism, it's already understood by default that all of reality has Buddha nature. Buddha nature penetrates all matter because the state of is-ness itself is Buddha nature. So the question is rhetorical right up front. The answer is so obvious there is no need to ask it. This points to a suggestion: the question is not at all what it appears to be!

So, I asked myself- what if the Koan were about man, not about a dog? We are all "dogs-" that is, we have an animal nature that is not in relationship with our higher nature.

When we ask the question "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" we see that the answer can be either yes or no, depending on whether or not a man has formed within himself a relationship to his higher nature.

So there is an avenue to understanding this koan which seems perhaps unconventional until one considers its relationship to Mme De Salzmann's words.

That insight got me pondering koan number two. I asked myself- perhaps the second koan has the same intentionally allegorical direction in it? It, too, poses an apparent conundrum: What the heck IS the sound of one hand clapping, anyway?


Well-- I pondered-- one hand cannot clap, so this koan, like the other one, must be pointing to something other than hands and clapping, yes? Or so I reasoned.

Maybe the one hand represents man's animal nature?Then I realized- TWO hands CAN clap. That is, no "objective result"- sound - can arise from the action of one hand (one nature.) It is only if there are two natures in relationship that an answer can be obtained. When the Zen student "responds" to the koan it is the quality of the response that determines the master's acceptance. If it can be seen that the responses arises from an immediate relationship between the two natures, the response is valid- no matter what it is.

So like those of us in the work, the aim of the Zen practitioner is to form an inner bridge between his natures.

One other note- even if there is a higher nature present, without the lower, there is only one hand-- so-- no clapping.

Seems as though God's applause is reserved not for the angels alone, or the animals, but rather for their reunions.