Category Archives: General

General

Dao De Jing + Astronaut Training = Aim to Be Zero

Therefore the Sage manages his affairs without ado.
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

  • Selection from Chapter 2, Dao De Jing, translated by John C.H. Wu

These lines are from the classic Chinese text, Dao De Jing, a guide to enlightenment and leadership. How might we decipher these archaic lines?

I discovered one answer and modern example in reading Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. You may remember Chris as the star of the first space music video:

Don’t make the mistake of taking Chris too lightly like I initially did. He’s actually a very well trained and experienced leader as a retired military pilot Colonel, Director of Operations for NASA in Russia, Chief of Robotics, and three flights to space including Commander of the ISS. So, he’s knows something about training and leadership. And the book is an easy and great lesson in how to train leadership and like the title says, a guide to life.

In regards to joining a new crew, he writes:

…I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Upon entering a new group, you will be seen as a negative, zero, or positive addition. It’s interesting he doesn’t say that you can BE a negative, zero, or positive addition but rather how you will be judged as one of those three by your crewmates. What should you do? Aim to be a -1, 0, or +1? If you answered +1 then you’re wrong. Chris writes:

Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.

Of course, everyone wants to be a plus one yet coming into a new team trying to prove your value will certainty lead to you being seen as a minus one. Again, perception regardless of reality is how he expresses it. Why is this the case? How could wanting to be helpful and bringing your skill sets to help a team be seen automatically as a negative?

This experience actually happens often at the Monastic Academy. Our goal is to train the next generation of contemplative leaders in the skills of wisdom, love, and power.

Many new folks enter the Academy and want to help fix all the problems that they see. They have bright ideas and opinions about everything. And being a spiritual center, everyone is so nice and caring that it feels safe to finally share all your ideas. While the new folks have good intentions, they’re also blind to the context and can end up causing us more trouble. The fact is Monastic Life and Training is often radically different than what anyone has ever experienced before.

One example is when I first joined, I was put onto the business team behind our mindfulness in schools program. We were looking to generate more revenue. I had an internet marketing background and pushed aggressively for my vision and boasted that I could easily raise significant amount of money doing online advertising. Turns out, I was wrong. We made very little. Furthermore, I was ignorant of the years of prior efforts that I was repeating the same mistakes and learning.

At MAPLE, we filter people out by intentionally putting people in stages of training starting with Love/Equanimity. How does this look? Similar to what Astronaut Chris Hadfield says, we begin by placing new trainees in a forced zero position. We often assign people physical manual jobs which have a minimum chance of negatively impacting the rest of the organization whether it’s cooking, landscaping, or cleaning rooms.

But, if they have existing skills and experiences, why not immediately give them the power and opportunity to help and excel? Chris writes:

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary.

As a new addition, it’s not actually possible to be a plus one. The best you can aim to do is to be a zero, a net neutral force. Chris says:

When you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s not the time to show off. You don’t yet know what you don’t know—and regardless of your abilities, your experience and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.

To try to birth some major project will end in failure because you simply do not know the context you are operating in.

At MAPLE, after time, beginners understand how and why we do things the way we do them. In return, new participants gain a rare chance at humility: learning how to listen, pay attention, see what the reality on the ground is first, and support others without your own preferences, ideas, and judgments on how things should be. This process of observation and non-interference naturally develops the capacity for Wisdom.

Knowledge is simply knowing about things independent of conditions. Wisdom is the skill of applying the correct, appropriate knowledge to the current situation or person. In Buddhism, they call this upaya or skillful means. This could be its own long form post in itself. Actions happen within a context. You have to understand the context first before applying action.

Once you have love/equanimity and wisdom, how do you go about contributing without losing that open minded wisdom and humble love?

Chris speaks about one of his role models:

And yet during our course in Utah, he never imposed his expertise on anyone or told us what to do. Instead, he was just quietly competent and helpful. If I needed him, he was there in an instant, but he never elbowed me out of the way to demonstrate his superior skills or made me feel small for not knowing how to do something. Everyone on our team knew that Tom was a plus one. He didn’t have to tell us.

The best leader or team member does not have to show off. In fact, the most respected and valuable player is the one who cares first and foremost about the shared vision, then the group, and lastly themselves. They’re willing to do whatever is necessary. Because they have the experience of understanding the reality of what’s happening, they have the wisdom skill to know what’s needed while also having the equanimity of not bugging out about reality not meeting their expectations or assumptions. This consistent, grounded quality of wisdom and competence naturally earns respect and power from others.

Even as the most experienced person, even as the leader, it’s important to maintain the humility to see one’s self as always a student, a zero. This is the crux of the wisdom of first aim to understand and then be understood. This is having a fundamental trust that in the long haul truth and merit will win out.

Chris writes:

It was also a big part of what made him a plus one on our crew. Not only did he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, but he conducted himself as though no task was beneath him. He acted as though he considered himself a zero: reasonably competent but no better than anyone else. That made a lasting impression on me. Especially when I’m entering a new situation and don’t yet have the lay of the land, I think about how to aim to be a zero and try to contribute in small ways without creating disruptions

The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible. One benefit of aiming to be a zero: it’s an attainable goal. Plus, it’s often a good way to get to plus one. If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.

Let’s return to the full text of the Dao De Jing Chapter 2:

When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, this in itself is evil.
Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.
Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado.
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

Taking the language of this classic Chinese text onto Chris’s teachings to a modern guide to life:

When you try to make the world recognize your brilliance, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world judges good as good, this in itself creates evil.
+1 and -1 create each other.
By aiming to signal and be seen as a +1, you automatically cause -1.

The Sage does his duty without showing off. He stays as a zero. There is no polarity to zero. Zero is a non-identity, it’s letting your actions speak for themselves. It’s the fluidity and flexibility of wisdom and equanimity to know when to take appropriate action and when to sit back and just listen.

General

A Modern Monk : My Next Life

EnsoZen

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

Today was my last day working as an IT professional. I worked at my former company for ten years. Tomorrow will be the first day I’ve ever been without a paying job since I was 17. That’s huge. As high up there as my first retreat. Maybe even more than losing my virginity. The fear of being financially destitute has haunted me as long as I can remember.

Tomorrow, I’m driving to Dai Bosatsu, a Rinzai Zen monastery in Upper New York. I’ll be practicing a week long retreat with the Mondo Zen school.

After the retreat ends, I’ll drive immediately to The Center for Mindful Learning (CML) in Johnson, Vermont. I’m joining their small group of full time, young residents for at least six months.

After 2.5 years in Boston, I’m leaving my job, my friends, and most of my old life.

Friends have quizzed me about my future life in Vermont. Can I have guests? What kind of work will I be doing? How long will I be there? What will I do afterwards? I don’t know. I have no backup plans. I visited the center once and meet with several of the residents and the teacher, Soryu. I found out about CML from my friend Daniel. I meet him three years ago when I volunteered at the Buddhist Geeks conference. It’s ironic to think that I went to the conference with hopes of finding a mindful company I could join. Three years later, it sort of worked out that way.

Months ago, I was contemplating what I would do next year. I bounced between different extreme options. Apply for a divinity or counseling graduate program? Move to urban residential center? Travel around the world while working remote? Move to CML?

I’ve always wanted to practice intensely in a retreat center. I worried though that it was for the wrong reasons. Did I want to go to escape from life or find some magic enlightenment pill so I wouldn’t ever feel lost or suffer again? The idea of taking vows for life never appealed to me. But I did feel an extended practice period would be necessary. I also felt there was a fear of giving up my existing life. My freedom, my income, my friends. But I knew if I had a million dollars, I would absolutely go to CML… Okay. I don’t have a million dollars though. My concern is related to finances. Could I afford to go? I carry zero debt. I have enough savings to last me more than enough time to find another job even if it’s not ideal work. So, becoming a monastic wouldn’t destroy me financially. The real fear is opportunity cost then. Would I be gaining more by going to CML versus keeping my job and continue to build my life by myself?

The truth actually hit me hardest while doing a circling intensive weekend in NYC. The reality was that I rely on myself so much to get things done. I have a hard time relying on others. I had tried to build external groups and structures to hold me accountable whether it was the dharma house, joining coaching programs, or cultivating practice groups. Even going so far to buy a RV and travel cross country to force me out of my comfort. But, at the end of the day, I can’t fulfill my dreams by myself. I kept thinking that the really serious people who take dharma as their life are probably at a center, in a divinity program, or actually doing the work. They are not going to show up to beginner drop-in

CML was a opportunity to have others support me and keep me accountable. Everyone wakes up at 5am to practice. There would be no escape from each other or myself. I would grow and benefit in Vermont. Whereas, another year in Boston? I don’t know how much would really change. It would mostly be on my shoulders as it has for so many years now.

In addition to the meditation practice, CML offered a sort of dharma, startup non-profit. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial itch but how to apply this to mindfulness without becoming a hypocrite? This was one of my greatest questions of figuring out Right Livelihood. Here I would have the chance to explore this Great Question with other brothers and sisters.

To be sure, it hasn’t all been roses and sunshine. The past few weeks, I’ve felt a mild undercurrent of dread, fear, and excitement. Every morning, my very first thought is about Vermont. It still feels unreal.

Just a little over a year from now, I’ll be 30 years old. In my time in Boston, I’ve gotten more and more confidence in that I can be the person I truly want to be. My entire life previously had felt like a series of compromises. That there was no space for me to be the person I wanted. Whether it was feeling lost as a Korean American that didn’t even fit in amongst other Korean Americans. As a young student wanting to pursue video game development or web development but finding universities did not take it seriously. Or a graduate student interested more in contemplative practice than philosophical knowledge. Each time, I took the financially safe choice. I followed the money and thought I could do it by myself. Each time, I found myself later years ahead my time. Video game and web development are huge billion dollar industries now. Contemplative education and research is huge with meditation even taught in university classrooms. I see mindfulness now reaching towards a peak moment in popularity, impact, and recognition. I see other role models carving unorthodox paths that interest me. I’m going to trust my gut this time. I have the finances to carry me. I’ve exhausted my other options.

Right now, I can only keenly feel what I’m losing soon. Impermanence. Constant change. My old friends like Dan, Shuo, and Jimmy who were why I came to Boston in the first place. My dharma communities in Kwam Um Zen, CIMC, and Shambhala. All the friends who feel like my tribe. My people. This is the best time I’ve ever had in Boston. I feel the pain of giving that up.

I remember an old college puzzle. The aspirant on the path fears making the leap of faith into the unknown. The bottomless depths impossible to grasp. Yet, once the jump is made, the surprise, the joke, the absurdity that the leap was no leap at all. There was solid ground always there.

I’ll be making that leap tomorrow and next week and for the rest of my life. I hope that I find solid ground more times than not. But I’ll be okay either way. In the end, the choice is no choice at all. I remember my graduate thesis between Sartre and Buddhism. Beyond good faith and bad faith, there is authenticity. To live the mystery of being myself or running away. Let me keep finding the courage, faith, and support to stay at the edge of being myself.

Years ago, my mentor Dr P gave me a thoughtful note summarizing me: “I find myself to lose myself. I lose myself to find myself.”

General

Ding Ding Ding

Everything constantly changing.
Thoughts and emotions turning.
Happiness in the morning over a pleasant email.
Discomfort in the afternoon over the heat.
Sadness in the evening over a disagreement.
Mind keeps thinking of possible opportunities.
Lost loves keep haunting my dreams.
Excitement over meeting someone new.
Exhaustion over having to try again and again.

The meditation bell rings. Ding. Ding. Ding.

Letting go. Dissolving into the present moment. Just awareness.

Noticing a gadget plugged into the wall. Its blinking red light. Blink. Blink. Blink.

Has it always been there? Has it always blinked?

Touching back into this Primary Point, there is no struggle. Not making good or bad, not making pleasure or pain then there is no problem.

Everything simply is as it is. Can I accept that? Can I allow that? My resistance only brings suffering.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

But it’s the second turning that’s still challenging. Form is form. Emptiness is emptiness.

The present may be done. But the future is still uncertain. How shall I act?

An agitated mind. All these uncertainties in the near future. All these changes that need to happen. Yesterday’s fruit is today’s rotten fertilizer. It’s time to move forward.

Keep re-evaluating my story. How strange and odd it is.

This discomfort. This uncertainty. These are the feelings I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to master and control.

I thought great success or great failure would teach me.

But after so many attempts at mastery, I know the only option left is to learn how to stay present here.

And I wonder. If or when I go job hunting. What shall they think? What if my future love reads these words?

Will they see courage? Will they see wisdom? Or will they see melancholy, foolishness, and naivety?

So many unfinished drafts trying to put into words what cannot be expressed.

Why don’t I write about programming, minimalism, travels, or something else?

I look over an old writing:

Jan 2011:
    it is not wealth, it is not fame or power I truly seek. It’s always been a self-overcoming. At some point I decided that I was still too attached and wasn’t going to get past my problems via inner training alone. Fear of poverty, aversion to pain, wanting companionship, and so on. And reminded of Osho’s model of Zorba the Buddha. So I changed my view. After all, even the enlightened person still keeps living in this world. And I’ve yet to see one that’s like the idealistic stereotype. They have flaws, they’re human.

    So I would seek enlightenment by putting an end to those fears and desires by satisfying them. Wealth, traveling, social dynamics, relationships, so on. But even years ago, when I wrote my self-story, I would have great success before vanishing from the world to do intense inner training and be truly free.

    I daydream sometimes of great success or of great danger and lost. In either case to override my ingrained fears. To get above the pleasure seeking and aversion to pain wired into all of us.

    a game i’m playing to get out of games.

General

Meditation Is Not Enough? …Living Mindfully in the Real World

DSC01218

As the year 2014 approached, I thought what am I going to do now?

The previous year, 2013, I focused on deepening my meditation practice and contentment. I tempered my ambitious career goals, did not look to date anyone, traveled very little, and lived a boring, routine lifestyle.

The mystic Osho once said,

…to be real is always difficult. To live with a wife and to be happy is really difficult; to live with children and to be blissful is really difficult. To work in a shop, in an office, in a factory and to be ecstatic is the real difficulty. To leave everything and just sit under a tree and feel happy is not difficult — anybody will feel that way. Nothing to do, you can be detached; everything to do, you become attached. But when you do everything AND remain unattached, when you move with the crowd, in the world and yet alone, then something real is happening.

The true challenge is not going off to a retreat center to gain some insight. Doing so can be a valid path, but it would be escapist for me right now. The challenge is living a full, mindful life. Last year, I drastically simplified my life to see if I could be mindful and content again. For the most part, I succeeded. Now, I want to address those big challenges again of livelihood, relationships, and health.

I’m uncertain how or if it is possible to be both ambitious and content? Will I fall back into cynicism, hopelessness, and judgment? Every time I’ve returned from a retreat, my old habits always crept back in and overpowered me in the most important emotional moments.

Is it just a matter of patience and more practice? Or something else? Over the months, I’ve been mulling over this question and asking others.

 

Zen Story

In December, I did a weekend retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center with Master Bon Shim. During our private interview period, I posed a question:

Me: You said before that even enlightened individuals still have conditioning, a conditioned ego?

Master Bon Shim: That’s correct. Even after realization, there is karma. Enlightened does not mean perfection. Masters still make mistakes, still get things wrong.

Me: So, is meditation enough then? Can meditation, by itself, unravel or undo or burn through all karma, all conditioning?

Master Bon Shim: Well, there is the example of Siddhartha, the Buddha, who reached complete nirvana, complete awakening….

In general though, too many students have this “checking mind”, of constantly evaluating their teacher. This is not so good. Clearly, there are some bad teachers, and you should be careful of abuses. But, this “checking mind” that’s looking to find a perfect teacher or faulting good teachers for not being perfect is not good.

(paraphrased from memory, my apologies to Master Bon Shim if any of this is incorrect)

Although I gained a lot from our interviews together and that weekend in general, I felt dissatisfied with the answer.

A Heart Blown Open Book

I keep thinking back to a book where American teachers question the Dalai Lama on explaining how it is possible senior teachers make such grievous mistakes:

        A dozen Western Buddhist masters, from many different backgrounds, were brought to India to participate in the conference. They sat in an audience, with His Holiness on stage taking their questions. Kelly was near the front, and he listened as one of the American teachers brought up a troubling question: A high ranking Tibetan teacher had gotten into trouble for sleeping with some of his female students, and had been sued and forced into a kind of hiding from the uproar he had caused.
        …
        "How do you explain his behavior, your Holiness," the questioner asked, perhaps hoping for a psychological explanation. The Dalai Lama, smiling, leaned forward.
        "The problem," he said, gently, "is that their insight is not deep enough. When the insight of your true nature is deep enough, it transforms all parts of us, so that Basic Goodness and compassion naturally and effortlessly arise. This prevents the kind of deluded behavior we see with him." He sat back.

        Kelly, incredulous, waited for someone to challenge the statement. He raised his own hand and the Dalai Lama pointed to him.

        "Your Holiness," Kelly offered, "may I use a word here?"
        "Please," came the answer.
        "Bullshit," Kelly dropped, and a collective gasp went up from the audience…
        The Dalai Lama chuckled.
        "I know this man we’re speaking of," Kelly continued. "He took three three-year cave retreats where he saw only his master and lived in the wilderness with no power, no heat, no bed. That’s nine years of the most intensive monastic training. He trained with you, your Holiness, for a decade. And he spent another decade training in the States. This man trained for thirty years, and you’re telling me his insight isn’t deep enough? I’ve met him, I’ve talked to him. I’ve practiced with him, and I’m telling you, that explanation is, with all due respect, bullshit, your Holiness."
        Kelly sat back, smiling. The Dalai Lama nodded his had and chuckled again, his eyes shimmering behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
        "That is because your insight isn’t deep enough," he said with a kind-hearted smile.
        Kelly’s mouth popped open. As the Dalai Lama waited patiently for Kelly to respond, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. (p275-6)

Reading this passage was really exciting to me. Here was a teacher that asked the scary questions. If dedicated meditation for decades was not enough then what’s the point?

It would be easy to say the Tibetan teacher who took advantage of his students was a fraud,. The scarier truth is that maybe he was truly awakened AND still wrongly took advantage of his own students. That even the highest among meditation masters are capable of human faults and mistakes. As Zen Master Bon Shim said, even enlightened people still have their habitual conditioning remaining.

Therefore, is a high level of insight, of seeing into the fabric of reality is not enough, not sufficient to living a good householder life, to transforming one’s ego and habits?

To some degree, I worry I am doing what Zen Master Bon Shim said. “Checking mind” and wanting perfection from my teachers and myself. Yet, there is this doubt that perhaps my practice could be improved, that there was something I was missing.

Junpo also shares similar doubts. Despite his practice and experience, despite having received transmission from his teacher, Junpo says:

    The years of meditation had created a stillness in his mind that made seeing what arose there easier. In the quiet he could sit with his arising impulses, emotions, and thoughts. For most of us, we react to life — someone cuts us off in traffic, and we get angry right away…Our reactions are conditioned, meaning that for most of us we don’t notice that the energy of the emotion must first arise, and then we have to react to it. That we could, in fact, choose a different reaction if we could slow the whole process down.

    Kelly, because of his insights and quietness of mind, had greater freedom to choose his reactions, but he had little understanding why those particular impulses arose within him in the first place. Perhaps, the difference was cultural or perhaps it was indeed because his insight wasn’t deep enough, but Kelly did not agree with Dalai Lama. His Holiness, after all, ha had lived in the rigid container of a monastery for his entire life, and was a man who had taken a monk’s vows of celibacy. In Kelly’s experience, it was intimate relationships that were the most likely to activate one’s old conditioned patterns and allow for the emergence of emotional energy that one would never encounter in a monastery. (277)

My frustration and seeking stemmed from this tension of insight and ego. I could go off to a retreat and experience absolutely beautiful moments of truth and reality. I would experience the joy of simply being alive where the sound of my breathe is music, and the work of ants is a symphony. And after all that, I return home to find my old habits and emotional triggers return. My relative, ego life remained buried in my subconscious.

The book continues

…he saw that the path to true freedom had to hold both truths as real. There was a small, conditioned ego that could impede every part of your life, especially your spiritual insight. Worse, it could deeply distort spiritual insight with its neurosis and pathology. But there was also the Absolute, the ground of being where Kelly had taken his seat. They were both true, in every person – a relative, temporal, and finite ego that would blink out of existence a few decades after it became self-aware, and an immortal, timeless, an utterly imperturbable deeper self that did not come and go….both of them needed to be integrated for true insight, true wisdom, true freedom….

…And spiritual teachers, likewise, were often some of the most neurotic people out there. Many…wanted to simply get away from their small, broken selves, as if becoming Enlightened or Awake or one with Christos or God would somehow magically fix all the broken parts of their smaller self. As if one ever transcended the ego. One did not – insight came through an ego, always, never around one. (280-1)

Here was the crux of the problem. I had often focused only on the spiritual insight path OR on the self-improvement ego path; switching between the two but never integrating them together. My meditation practice and my regular life felt like opposites to me.

It was only after I started doing therapy that I realized the bridge between these two worlds was my emotions. I realized just how much of my own emotions I was avoiding. How judgmental and hopeless I often felt about myself. Somewhere in my early meditation practice (and really just my early adult life), I got the mistaken belief that emotions are not a valid object of meditation but a distraction.

So much of beginning meditation is focused on setting up pristine, peaceful environments to practice because it can be so difficult to even be mindful with positive feelings and places.

However, reality is not so kind. It provides whatever arises whether that’s joy or pain. The mistake is judging a painful moment to be not suitable for meditation and that one should solely focus on the breathe. Or, judging one’s self for feeling pain or suffering and thinking meditation should “fix” this illusory pain. Expecting to stay with the breathe in all those charged moments though is ridiculous. Instead, staying present with those emotions, with those situations and seeing them as they are is the true challenge. Getting to the core of experience and emotion to see the world and one’s self without filter. Going through the emotion is the meeting point between meditation and daily life.

Likewise Junpo writes:

Doshin nodded. “Not much point to spiritual insight if you don’t understand your emotions at a core level.”

Kelly nodded. “How many times have awakened teachers screwed up because of something emotional? An affair? A flash of rage? Addiction?

Doshin nodded again.

"We need to create koans centered around emotions, koans that train us to transform negative emotions within our awakened minds. Therapy and shadow work ain’t enough. Meditation isn’t enough. The stronger the emotion — depression, anger, anxiety, lust, jealousy — the more fuel there is to drive us to our true nature, to wake the fuck up."  (304)

Often, meditation is presented as a way to feel less stress and be more productive. Yet, there seems to be so much chaos in one’s mind when meditating. In reality, those feelings and thoughts have always been there, but our lives move so quickly we don’t even pay attention.

In fact, I dare say we subconsciously want to both be distracted and be present. There is a part of us that fears the doubt, pain, and chaos within ourselves and thereby wants our smart phones, our social media, everything to keep us distracted. On the other hand, there is the genuine side of us that regrets the lack of connection, the lack of presence in our lives..

I’ve meditated for several years. Despite knowing better, I thought I could meditate my way out of feeling negative things. I could somehow be aloft, above and beyond such small, relative ego problems. The truth is that you can never go around problems, you can only go through them.

It is very difficult to just be with difficult emotions, people, and situations. The natural instinct is to fight, flee, or fix. One lesson that has helped me tremendously though is that by being present with a difficult experience, I can unpack what is going on. I can see that underneath the anger is fear. Underneath the fear is a great caring. While it is easy to get judgmental about myself being angry, once I can see its source is a great caring then I can be compassionate to myself, I can see things as they are. Likewise, I can be very judgmental about others based on their surface actions and speech, but can be compassionate once I feel the source of those actions in their actual core emotions, their core needs

One of the things Mondo Zen seems to be doing is intentionally triggering those intensive emotions to have a safe place to mindfully look into those charged emotions.

Dharma House

As a next step, I’m also looking to start a Dharma House. At its core, the house is a place where we live together in supporting each other’s practice. In terms of everyday life though, it’s an intentional, safe home where our egos come into contact, and we willingly stay present in that charged situation so that we may learn to communicate in a mindful way. It’s a practice I’m not sure many of us ever get to consistently try except with our spouses and maybe business partners.

Finally, I’ll end with what Junpo has to say about the Dalai Lama’s insight is not enough response:

"I’m curious what you think now about what the Dalai Lama said to you a decade ago. How it relates to this."
    "That my realization wasn’t deep enough?" Kelly asked, laughing. "He was right."
"But I’m curious what you think about the idea of what he said. That if one’s realization is deep enough, it transforms all of his being, and there is no need for psychological shadow work."
    Kelly considered. His lips drew in and his eyes momentarily turned inward. "He was right," he said at last. "If you realization is deep enough, it transforms the entirety of the human being."
    "But?"
    "But there are only a handful of people on the planet who wake up that completely. For the rest of us, it’s a process that our shadows interfere with. But completely Awake, Doshin, is completely awake."  (305)

Is meditation enough? Yes. But, only if I can apply mindfulness in all situations including those I most want to avoid and run from. The traditional meditation center and teachings don’t have all the answers, it’s up to us to find our ways to train mindfulness into our everyday life.

One day I hope we can all completely wake up.  In the meantime, I continue seeking ways to deepen my practice on and off the cushion, inside and outside the meditation center.

 

*——

A Heart Blown Open: The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Dennis Kelly Roshi by Keith Martin-Smith is an amazing book and highly recommended even if you’re not into meditation. Kelly lived a most extraordinary life having experienced the wholeness of life from drugs, sex, and wealth to abusive father, cancer, and prison. I’ve read the book two or three times now.

I did not include more information on his emotional koan process as this post was already too long. I also have no personal experience with the koans, but I’m hoping to do a Mondo Zen retreat later in the year.

This post was exceedingly difficult to write. I have several drafts approaching it from many different angles, but all of them addressing how to integrate mindfulness and daily life better. Part of me feels like this is a “no-duh”, that’s so obvious life insight, but I don’t know, it means a lot to me.

Photo is from a mountain hiking trip I did last month, beautiful weather and scenery

General

I’m not depressed or going to kill myself.

DSC00503

My last piece, A Letter To My 22 Year Old Self, received nice comments. However, some folks were worried about my emotional health.

In response, I’ve been pondering, am I actually depressed? And what happens when you are so radical honesty in public?

Four years ago, I started this blog writing:

Welcome to my virtual home! This is a lifelong experiment to living transparently.

Putting yourself public on the internet goes against the norm unless you’re a celebrity, own a web business, or insane. After all, what about those drunken picture from St. Patty’s bar crawl where you’re passed out on the street at 2pm? We can’t let others find out!

Sure, there will be negative consequences, but in the end, I take responsibility for my actions and not trying to please everyone. Besides, my friends know I’m a little nutty.

If I was to be totally honest (eh? eh?), my early posts sucked in terms of honesty. For example my RV stories had an element of bravado even with the negative stories like getting robbed. I was “fronting” or crafting a false “personal brand”.

I started thinking about this topic after reading James Altucher, who has a great post entitled 7 Things Happen to You When You Are Completely Honest:

People confuse “honesty” with a type of “happiness”. He can be honest because he is happy. But it’s not true. Life is a series of failures punctuated by brief successes. That’s honesty. Failure is not necessarily bad. It’s reality.

But branding tries to reverse that. With a “personal brand”, you suddenly pretend to be super successful, a “businesswoman” in Kardashian’s case – failure is non-existent, and out of your mind comes the exact mathematical formulas that if someone drinks your Cola and snorts your Ecstasy then they too will  have the pretty girl, the success, the money, the accoutrements.

….

Honesty is about the scars. it’s about the blemishes.  But it’s more than just bragging about failure, which could be a form of ego. It’s about truly helping people.

Funny. I have heard and have voiced the same opinion in different ways. Like, it’s easy to not worry about money when you’re rich. Or it’s easy to not care about your appearance when you’re beautiful. Likewise, it’s easy to be honest when you’re just full of good stories and joy.

Yet, the past year brought forth my most honest writing as I wrote about my broken dreams, doubts, and past failures like Confessions of a Failed Internet Hustler - Part 1. Not surprisingly that last year, I published the least number of pieces, often with months of silence.

After all, who wants to read about another person’s problems? One of my friends jokingly says she vicariously lives through me with my years of random projects and travels. So I can see how folks worried about me when my writing turned from goals and dreams to struggles and sorrows.

Further in the same article, James writes:

WHAT WILL HONESTY GET YOU?

#2 PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU ARE GOING TO KILL YOURSELF

The next thing that will happen is people will ask “are you killing yourself?” Because every blog post almost seems like a suicide note.

#3 PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU ARE CRAZY

Then people will send emails to your friends, “is he as crazy as he sounds?” And that’s how I make friends now because introductions will be made and people will have to find out for themselves.

#4 PEOPLE WILL GET FRIGHTENED

So they will call you names. Oh, that guy is just trying to be a “contrarian”, for instance. Or an “idiot”. Or worse. I’ve been called everything. I had to call the Brown University Public Safety office the other day because I got emailed a death threat and the guy didn’t think I could track him. The guy was a senior and had also apparently threatened the life of a librarian there.

They need to understand why you are telling the truth. Why you are being honest about what you really think. In meetings at the office everyone is quiet. You’re not supposed to speak up. So people will dislike you, try to put you down, post comments, whatever.

After reading his post, I laughed.

No, I’m not going to kill myself.

Despite my writing, I actually feel physically, mentally, and spiritually better than ever.

Not to say I have solved my life. I still have most of the same anxieties, doubts, fears, self-judgments, resentments, emotional triggers, and so on. And yet, I am feeling better. But how can I still feel the same things yet feel different about them?

How do I figure out this dichotomy? How do I make sense of where I am now?

Thinking of this dilemma, I I remembered a story from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart of A Buddha by Dr. Tara Brach.

Fearing she might harm herself, Marian sought counsel from an elderly Jesuit priest who had been one of her teachers in college. Crying, she collapsed in the overstuffed chair he offered. “Please, please help me,” she pleaded. He listened to her story and sat quietly with her as she wept. When she calmed down, he gently took one of her hands and began drawing a circle in the center of her palm. “This,” he said, “is where you are living. It is painful– a place of kicking and screaming and deep, deep hurt. This place cannot be avoided, let it be.”

Then he covered her whole hand with his. “But if you can,” he went on, “try also to remember this. There is a greatness, a wholeness that is the kingdom of God, and in this merciful space, your immediate life can unfold. This pain,” and he again touched the center of her palm, “is held always in God’s love. As you know both the pain and the love, your wounds will heal.” (207)

Perfect story.

I still feel many of the same, negative emotions. However, I don’t identify so dearly with them anymore. My entire life takes place in a larger wholeness, a larger context of spaciness.

I have a deeper trust, born out of experience, that whatever joys or sorrows arising are just fragments of a larger life to be acknowledged, accepted, appreciated and let be.

And those negative feelings that used to hang over me like a cloud for hours or days? Now, they last typically seconds, minutes, and yeah sometimes, hours. The difference is cutting off the judgments on top of judgments. And it’s not because I’m pushing the negativity away, but because I can see each experience’s proper significance and not overreact.

I’ll end with James’ last piece on what honesty brings:

#7 YOU BECOME FREE

At first we hug our boundaries in chains. We think “if we tell the girl we like her, she might not like me back”. We think, “If I say I like this candidate, my friends might hate me.” If I say X, everyone else might say Y. And so on. But more and more we start to feel where those boundaries are and we push them out. We push them further and further away from ourselves. Until finally they are so far away it’s as if they don’t exist at all. You don’t need money for that. Or a big house. Or a fancy degree or car. Every day, just push out those boundaries a little further.

We reach for that freedom. We never truly get there. We’re always striving to see how far they can go, just like a little child with her parents. But eventually, the boundaries are so far away we begin to feel the pleasures of true freedom.

And it feels good.

You’re right James. it feel good…even when it feels terrible.

———————

* Photo is actually from my RV cross country trip at the living roof top of San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences.

* Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the best books I read this year. I came across Tara nearly five years ago in her Washington DC sangha but finally read her book this year.

* James Altucher is a very interesting fellow, I don’t agree with everything he writes, but his life is pretty fascinating.

* I should preface every statement in this piece with “most times” and “usually” but that usually sounds terrible most of the time.