Sometimes, It Seems I’m Split in Two: Taking Us Where We’ve Always Wanted to Go but Never Knew We Needed to Go There

Sometimes, it seems I’m split in two. Did you ever feel that? Don’t we all at times feel divided against ourselves?

 

I hear a catbird complain and a cicada call out, continuously. A background concert the universe plays for me right now. Other birds join in. A car races down the road. A raven responds raucously. And I write about that. I write a blog about the comfort of nature, love, meditation, art, overcoming fear, feeling at home.

 

Then I hear the news, about DJT, the Supreme Court, Jan 6, new legislation in Congress, climate emergencies, people being flooded or burned from their homes. All accentuated, fueled by a warming planet that so much industry and GOP politicians want to hide from us. I feel anxious. I feel a desire to meet people and bring us together, to act, to speak. To change it all and resurrect justice. And I write about that.

 

And the two sides of me can feel so different, in opposition even. I feel wonderful after writing the first blog. There’s so much appreciation, gratitude, joy there. So much anxiety, worry, anger in the second. Concern. Care. I am so glad I wrote not only the first but the second blog. I feel I had to write it. There is power, strength in saying it. But it hurts.

 

There is care in both. Compassion. I touched on this in my last blog. They are both fueled, I realize, from the same yearning.

 

There are not two sides, but many. Maybe an infinite set. And maybe we always wish to be one being in agreement with ourselves, but we’re not so easy to pin down. Maybe it’s not that I’m split in two, meditative on the one hand, angry on the other. Maybe it’s just that since the universe itself is so indescribably complex, interconnected and ever-changing, it presents us with so many different faces that our face must change, too⎼ a new face with each meeting.

 

Sometimes, we’re just damn lucky. We see a person smile. The wind bends two trees together, so we hear them speak. Or it rains, and instead of a flood, it ends the drought, and the air feels lovely, cooling. Or we read a passage in a book, and it takes us right where we’ve always wanted to go but never knew we needed to go there. Nothing in or around us stands in our way or fights with us. We see it all up close and personal and the person we see or passage we read goes right to our heart and beats for us.

 

Other times, it’s more difficult to see how we and the universe fit together. But who said life would or should be easy?

 

In the first blog, ‘I’ disappear. It’s not just that my being at peace and yours are not separate. Looking at the tree in my front yard, hearing the catbird, the cicada⎼ that is home. It is where I live. And in the second type of blog, ‘I’ jump to the forefront clothed in fear, hurt, and pain.

 

Pain so easily closes us into ourselves or consists of us closed into our self. But what if we noticed some space between the beats of pain? Or we felt how much space there was around us, in whatever location or whatever room we were in? Or instead of taking in less, we took in everything? Then the pain becomes just one beat out of many, one place in a vast universe….

 

**To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

The Delphic Belly of the Earth: Listening To the Sounds Of The World As If Listening To An Oracle Speaking

Once upon a time there were places where rulers, politicians, or any person faced with a difficult decision would go for insight, wisdom, and peace. One such place is Delphi, Greece.

 

The story of its founding tells us the Greek god Zeus decided to discover the center of the earth. He sent out two eagles to circle the planet in opposite directions, one from the east and one from the west, and they would come together at the earth’s navel. The eagles met on Mount Parnassus in Central Greece, and there Zeus placed an oval stone to mark the world’s center. The stone was sculptured in the shape of a beehive or egg and was covered with mesh or chains. The egg could signify birth and the chains signify the linking together of all humanity.

 

It was here that a sanctuary and temple was built, first to Gaia, the earth. And later, Apollo, god of light, order, ethics, spring, and prophecy, etc. He resided there in spring and summer. And in winter, Dionysus resided there, god of wine, gladness, indulgence, and transformation, who was linked with Demeter and Persephone, deities of the earth. And the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia, was installed there to answer humankind’s deepest and most troubling questions.

 

The 12 early Greek city-states would stop their fighting to meet and negotiate in the god’s presence. The texts of Greek laws were inscribed there, so the laws would be validated by the authority of the god. Some of those laws included punishments for rulers who abused their authority. Others protected property rights, order, but also relative equality under the law⎼ for male citizens. And there the people and their leaders would ask their questions. Responding to and interpreting the oracle’s answers was, however, a puzzle in-itself. Scholars conjecture that her pronouncements, if not from her own intuition, were the result of inhaling hallucinogenic vapors found rising from the earth at the site.

 

In 480 BCE, when the Persian invaders led by Xerxes threatened Athens and the city sent its representatives to consult the oracle, the oracle first told them to flee. Unhappy with that prophecy, they asked for a second. The second prophecy was closer to what they wanted but interpreting what it meant created controversy. “Though all else be taken, Zeus, the all-seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail.” What was the wooden wall?

 

Many argued it meant they needed to build a physical wall around the city. But the Athenian General and politician Themistocles argued that the wall was a fleet of wood ships that could outmaneuver the Persian vessels and protect the city. He succeeded in building the fleet and defeating the Persians.

 

The Roman Emperor Nero traveled to the oracle in search of answers and was told to “Beware the age 73.” He thought this meant he would live to be 73. What happened was a Roman general age 73 rebelled against him.

 

Delphi is incredibly beautiful. I visited Greece when I was on sabbatical from teaching secondary school to write a guide to teaching with philosophic questions.

 

The road we took to Delphi winds between two old forts, through Medieval sized streets, and then up the mountain on a twisting road. The road overlooked the Corinthian Sea in the distance and was surrounded by olive orchards, pine, and cypress trees….

 

*To read the whole piece, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

 

A Question that Brings Us Right to the Ground We Stand On

How many times have we changed our viewpoint or come to like what before we disliked? We all have done this, but for many of us, it’s not easy. A feeling of like or dislike can seem so set and permanent. More part of a thing perceived and not an artifact of our own mind.

 

Yesterday, my wife and I needed to put the news aside for a moment and decided to look at woodblock prints by a contemporary Japanese artist named Shufu Miyamoto. We both found many of his prints distinctly beautiful, but one stood out in a peculiar way. It was called A Spring Dance. I noticed it before she did and liked it⎼ then I didn’t. Something seemed off to me.

 

It depicted a field being planted, with yellow flowers both in the foreground and towards the back, with a forested mountain behind the field and a pink-orange sky. And in the very middle, a magnificent tree, maybe a cherry tree, covered in white blossoms, with many of the blossoms blown about in an invisible wind. These features were what attracted me to the artwork.

 

But the field under the tree was plowed into rows only faintly outlined, in a dull brown or grey, and the farmer or gardener planting the field was so indistinct as to barely make his, her, or their presence known. They almost faded into the field. I thought it a mistake by the artist.

 

Then my wife joined me and immediately said she loved the piece. Loved not only the tree, which stood out for her, but the contrast between the bright flowers and the soil. And she admired the way the gardener faded into the field.

 

So, I looked again. I realized I generally like the quality of openness in a work of art. I like being taken inside the scene. With this work, the haziness of the field, the indistinctness, mystery, or moodiness at first made it hard to grasp what I was seeing. Or it asked something of me that I wasn’t yet ready to give.

 

What is indistinguishable can gnaw at us. Like a question. Questions can be hypnotic. Some questions can be so big we wrap our lives around them. “What drives my life? How can I feel the depths and joys of life more consistently? How can I stay informed yet clear-headed and sane? Can we create a less violent and more caring, just society? How do we face death?”

 

I remember taking a course in Ericksonian hypnosis and the teacher asked a question, then let us sit there and realize how captivated we were by what he had said. When I was teaching, I suggested to students that if they started an essay or a story with a good question, the reader would be hooked and continue reading until an answer was uncovered. Or if I started a class session with an engaging and open-ended question, the session itself would become an adventure, a communal treasure hunt for an answer….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

Speaking for the Majesty of An Eagle Taking Flight: Even the Rain Is Threatened

Listen. It’s raining. It hasn’t rained for more than a few minutes in weeks. In fact, it hasn’t rained steadily for months, but at least there have been no forest fires. The sound is beautiful. Too often, the rain comes like a storm, harsh, or like a shadow, here then gone. But not this, now. Like the sound of crickets and cicadas, it is absorbing and surprisingly comforting.

 

Even the muted light is soothing today.

 

I notice the fallen leaves, yellow, burnt orange, a bit of startling red. The leaves almost cover the grass which looks deep green, like it’s eagerly drinking the rain. The earth is thirsty.

 

I close my eyes and just listen. The sound gets more distinct. There are currents in the rain. The pace of falling water speeds up, striking the gutters, trees, creating a wind of rainwater pushing against my body even though I am in my house. Then it softens, slows to barely a whisper. There is an occasional bird call. What before seemed steady and continuous is now revealed as something else, something unique. When I simply listen, there is more to hear.

 

We were driving into town 2 days ago. From the opposite side of the road, just before the farm stand where we often buy corn, an eagle rose out of the tall grass. It majestically and ever so slowly took flight right in front of a dark van. Its wingspan was wider than the van, yet somehow the eagle wasn’t hit. It flew off right in front of my car window, unhurt. But the driver of the van pulled off the road and stopped….

 

To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project.

 

 

A Tree’s Sense of Time, A Human’s Sense of Agency

I’m looking out my window at the trees in the yard, an apple, oak and cherry. Today, it’s raining so they look more grey than brown. I feel a sense of gratitude that they’re there, to shield the house from heavy winds, to block the sunlight on hot days, to provide fruit. I admire their beauty.

 

And I wonder, if a tree could sense time, what would that sense of time be? Think about how different time would be for a tree, or a snail for that matter. They both move at so much slower or different a pace than we humans do, and their world, for so many reasons, is so different. They’d miss and be totally unable to concern themselves with almost anything we concern ourselves with, yet they’d notice changes, elements of the world we are blind to.

 

As we speed up or slow down time, like speeding up or slowing down a video, we change how we see the world or the pace at which everything appears. Time is, after all, the rate of change.

 

Lately, my sense of time has frequently been warped. Right now, I can see the rain falling. I can’t see the wind, but I can see how it bends and shakes the limbs of trees and bushes, and how it affects the flight of birds. And I hear it. Oh, how I hear it, all around me, pulling at my attention.

 

And I can remember how different it was yesterday, when it was sunny, in the 60s, quiet, and I felt so calm.

 

And then I turn on the news. The pace at which my inner body moves speeds up. Even if we’re isolated at home, time speeds up. Worries about the coronavirus and how it is affecting family and friends, affecting our sense of security, are like the wind blowing, bending our limbs.

 

And then the political chaos turns the wind into a hurricane….

 

*To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project.

The Better Rebels of Our Nature: Friends Can Help Us Remember to “Be the Change We Want in the World”

Three close friends and I recently had a reunion. We visited Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we went to school in the 1960s and rented a house together for a long weekend. When we are together anything can come up for conversation and does. At dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant, we discussed everything from free will to selling out, from politics to Ancient Sumeria, to the music of Dylan, Cohen, and Ramstein, and Michigan football.

 

My friends were not shy about bringing others, who happened to wander by or be standing around us, into our conversation. We were debating if we had free will or if it mattered if we believed that we did, and soon our waiter was involved in the conversation. He and I basically agreed. One of my friends said since our actions were purposeful and the motivation for those purposes were largely unconscious and thus beyond our control, how can we claim to be free? We are more like machines than we like to think.

 

I disagreed. Yes, our actions derive from many unconscious determining factors.  But included in those determining factors is the whole universe, in which we are a part. I brought up the Chinese Taoist concept of Wu Wei, which can be defined as “effortless action” or “acting without acting.” Our actions arise as part of the whole universe moving interdependently together. We can never step out of the universe to view all the consequences of, or influences on, our actions. However, we, meaning our body, memory, intention, and way of thinking participate in determining what we do, along with everyone and everything else in and around us. We all act together.

 

One of my friends asked the waiter about his own life. It turns out he had been a doctoral candidate in ancient middle eastern religions and was studying Akkadian, Sumerian, and other languages as a required part of his study. Then he got bored with learning these dead languages, quit the program, and got a job as a waiter. We wound up discussing Gilgamesh, the first written extended story or epic poem and one of the earliest takes on male friendship.

 

One of my friends then asked, Did I sell out? Have I given up the ideals I fought for in my youth and has my life become merely the pursuit of money and power? Is what I am doing worthwhile and should I continue doing it?

 

We discussed the important successes he had achieved in his life. The question arose how did the world, or the state of U. S. politics, get so bad ⎼ and were we responsible for T?

 

This turn in the conversation reminded me of one I had had in the gym earlier in the week. After greeting me, a man who was more than an acquaintance but not yet a friend asked what I was doing with my life. I mentioned house repairs, teaching martial arts twice a week, and writing. I asked him the same question. He replied by switching topics and stating that all the people from the 1960s who dropped out of society to “go back to the land” (implying that I was one of those people) were responsible for the awful state of our nation today. We should have stayed in society, he said, become CEOs and reformed the corporate world.

 

Although I could understand his argument, I was incredulous. He seemed to be following a meme inspired by conservatives of blaming the 60’s for almost anything. I agreed that if conscientious people do nothing, they therefore leave the world in the hands of those who think only of their own power and money. But making people aware of this was what the 1960s rebellions were about.

 

I don’t think anybody who knows me would say I had dropped out or given up. In the early 70s I did move to a rural location to build a house with my then girlfriend and now wife. We moved with a group of people involved in creating a free school, not-for-profit businesses, and a community development fund. We were intent on changing the economy and the values that drove this society.

 

Going back to the land was not a running away from responsibility but a refusal to live by materialistic values. It was a way to educate ourselves in how to live in a more sustainable and less destructive way. If we had joined the corporate world and tried to change it from within, how long would we have been able to sustain that motivation if we hadn’t, first, learned how to live without all the material rewards of corporate wealth?

 

The 1960s rebellions warned us about the dangers we face today, of narcissistic leaders, of politicians lying to the people, and of alienated men and women who refused to look at the state of our world and the dark side of technological advances. The 1960s, or people like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Berrigan brothers, so many writers, artists, musicians, and activists, taught us that poverty, racism, sexism and the lust for power do not just hurt the people immediately affected by these blights on humanity, but undermine the whole society.

 

There were also people like G. Gordon Liddy, one of President Nixon’s “plumbers” who organized the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and illustrated just how far alienated men could go. His autobiography, Will, described a man whose hero was Adolf Hitler and whose primary motivation was to become as powerful as possible. Besides admiring Hitler, he envied and tried to create in himself the power and emotionlessness of machines. Here was a man who had not just accepted the simplified metaphor that humans were machines, but glorified the possibility.

 

The argument by the man in the gym was akin to blaming the victim. The people responsible for putting profit before people ⎼ and personal power before the health of our world ⎼ were primarily responsible for making working for the common good and democracy impossible.

 

But, since we are all interdependent, every one of us is part of us, part of all that is happening. Because we can be affected, we can affect others. Our true power and freedom lie not in escaping emotion and our responsibility for what happens in the world, but in becoming more aware of it. Only by increasing our mindful awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that affect our behavior can we have any conscious power to direct that behavior.

 

For example, our theories and beliefs about reality tell us how much power and choice we have in affecting that reality. If we think we are machines with no free will, then we are more likely to abdicate responsibility for our actions and allow ourselves to act mechanically.

 

Our fault in the 1960s was not in our building communal groups and rebelling against jobs and politics as we knew them.  It was in not understanding how complex the struggle would be. It was in focusing so much on our own righteous need to achieve our goals that we couldn’t compromise or adapt and believed we could and had to change the world in a few months or years. The result was that when the revolution didn’t happen, many gave up the struggle.

 

Even though we children of the 60s embraced a sentiment later attributed to Gandhi about being the change we wanted to see in the world, or about living the revolution, we didn’t know how to do it. And we are still learning this. Learning how to be the change is what life is about. And our deepest friendships can help remind us of this, and how to be the better rebels of our nature.

 

This post was syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

 

 

 

 

How Wide Can We Open the Door to the Mystery of Ourselves?

The More Troubling the Social-Political Environment, the More Important It Is to Understand Ourselves (and Get a Good Sleep).

 

Last night, I woke up in the middle of a dream. And almost immediately, the world of conscious reality reappeared with only a hint of the dream remaining. Only a hint that I had dreamed at all and that there were worlds aside from this conscious one. This fascinates me.

 

When I was teaching secondary school, discussing dreams, as well as learning more about their own psychology, fascinated most students. They wanted to understand from where or why these crazy images or stories showed up in their lives. Many people, as they age, lose this drive for self-understanding or it is socialized out of them.

 

But regarding sleep ⎼ teens get too little of it and tend to push the limits or even rebel against it. Each night we go to sleep ⎼ or should go to sleep. This is the rhythm of life. We sleep and wake. We forget our dreams in the daytime and lose or reshape the daytime world in our dreams. We might have no awareness that we dream at all or resist the very idea. Yet, we do dream. It is a necessity. Exactly what dreams do is not known. But when we don’t dream or don’t get enough sleep, we pay an enormous price.

 

Scientists say when we dream, we show rapid eye movements (REM) under our closed eyelids, as if we were watching a scene played out before us. But the rest of our body remains mostly immobile. Our brains are active; the large muscles of our bodies inactive (REM atonia). This is called paradoxical sleep.

 

According to Mathew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Dreams and Sleep, during dream sleep our brain is free from noradrenaline, which produces anxiety. At the same time, emotional and memory-related areas of the brain are activated. This means that, in dreams other than nightmares, we can experience emotional content without all the stress. We can process emotional experiences more openly and heal.

 

Walker discusses the negative health consequences of the consistent loss of even one or two hours of sleep including accelerated heart rate and blood pressure, an overstimulation of the threat response system, weight gain, and an increased risk of dementia…

 

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

Facing Nightmares and Healing the Wounded World

I am tired of my computer. Like many of you, I go to my email and there are 150 – 250 a day, most asking for money or to save something like, well, the air we breathe or the water we drink, or whales or forests or planned parenthood or NPR or freedom of speech or the right to vote or a public education or our children from gun violence. Nothing important. So I get caught up, reading and checking on what I read, and sign petitions, send emails, or call politicians. And before I know it, two hours have passed. It feels like days have passed.

 

And during all this time, I haven’t talked to or held one physically present human being. Except sometimes, a real person answers a politician’s phone. And we chat, or mostly I chat and say what’s on my mind or ask a question. And if the other person is polite, even if I was angry to begin with, I thank the person and wish him or her a nice day. Because I want a nice day. I want change to happen. But it hasn’t. Not yet.

 

And digital social media can be fun and helpful, but also another tremendous time drain. Several people I know have said they’re taking a temporary or permanent FB sabbatical. I understand. When I’m on social media (which I only do on my desktop, never on my phone—I do have limits), I often notice, like my friends on a sabbatical, a subtle sense of distance from myself. Especially when I look at news shares, I get impatient, and the world can feel like it’s spinning so quickly it’s about to spin out of control.

 

So I ask myself, when I feel an impulse to turn to any social media platform, “Why do I want to do this now? Is it simply habit?” Developing a pause or gap between impulse and response can give us more insight into our behavior and control. How often, once we’re on FB or wherever, do we ask ourselves: “How do I feel now? Do I feel my life has been enhanced, my compassion deepened?” Practicing mindfulness of feelings and thoughts can help reduce both media usage and anxiety, both for adults and children. In fact, without such mindfulness we can contribute to our own oppression, by undermining our ability to think clearly and feel how to create a fulfilling life.

 

But no matter how difficult it is to face, our political world is spinning, and many of us are getting dizzy and angry from it. It is not a delusion or anxiety nightmare. Our civil rights and the remnants of democracy are threatened and are quickly being taken away. The earth itself is wounded and threatened as our water, parks and public lands are sold off for the gain of a few, and the safeguards on public health and safety undermined or violated. The level of corruption and nepotism is beyond anything ever seen before in this country.

 

So, I might complain about all the emails and calls, but what I really want is Trump impeached and his policies stopped. The nightmare is real, but we can’t afford to treat it as only a nightmare. We can’t run or hide or go on a sabbatical from politics. Like the monsters from nighttime nightmares, when they’re faced, political monsters turn into frightened, vulnerable weaklings—although even weaklings can bite. Even though hearing Trump’s or Ryan’s voice might make us feel sick or angry, when we face what’s happening politically, or when we make calls, march, vote, or whatever, we can feel more of a sense of power. We can feel how much the history of the moment flows through us.

 

We can slow the spinning world and turn the nightmare into something we can work on, face, and, with the help of others, alter. The world, even though it’s wounded, can heal. So, let’s work together on healing the world and ending this nightmare.

Mindfulness Reveals Your Values and Improves Your Quality of Mind

The values you hold show up in the subtlest ways. Values can include the conscious principles or standards you hold as well as what you unconsciously hold dear and deem worthy of your attention and awareness. What is valuable to you is what activates your energy and attention. It motivates your goals, intentions and actions and is a basic part of how you feel each moment. If you feel off in some way, dissatisfied, in pain, studying what you value can be crucial in understanding how to not suffer and how to act effectively to end the dissatisfaction.

 

To understand what you value, it helps to be mindful not only of thoughts, but sensations and feelings. Notice not only what you like, dislike, or don’t care about, but what you approach or avoid. What do you open to, find difficult or confusing? Feelings give life to values.

 

Meditation is the science of studying mind and heart, thoughts and feelings. It develops not only depth of concentration and focus, but the ability to discern and examine both conscious and even some of what is usually unconscious components of experience. This ability can allow you to change your values and change your life.

 

But to do that, when you meditate, you need to value inner knowing, and value meditating itself, not what you might get from it. It might seem paradoxical, but if you meditate in order to reduce stress, what happens when you have a stressful thought or image? If you meditate in order to derive great insights, then as soon as you have an insight, you will want to stop and write it down. You will lose the meditation. Which do you want more—the written record of the insight or the mental state which produced it? Which is more important—telling others your deep realizations or living a depth of experience?

 

To meditate, you value whatever is there for you. You value presence. Otherwise, you are looking into an image, concept or abstraction, not what is actually there, now. You divide mind into a now and an idea of a then and lose the sense of present experience. Another definition for being distracted is thinking of another time or activity as more valuable than where you are, or what you’re doing, now.

 

The Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, said: “When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity.” The quality of mind that you have determines the life you experience.

 

For example, if you teach and value the very act of teaching, teaching will be all you need in that moment. You will be committed to it. Whatever arises, whatever happens, you will greet as something to learn from and incorporate into the lesson, not as a distraction, not as something to repress or hate. If you’re a student and you value learning, you focus on developing an open, clear, discerning mind, and you will learn a great deal. You might learn even more, or maybe something different, than anyone expected. You will feel more spontaneous, free, and engaged.

 

If you feel an injustice has been committed, and you respond with empathy and energy to better understand the situation, you will think more clearly about the situation than if you take the situation as another burden, as something life shouldn’t ask of you.

 

To concentrate on the quality of your mind is to value your life in a very authentic manner. It means you value all who you meet or whatever you encounter. Other people are not on the other side of an unbreakable wall, but are essential to your being. You observe others more closely and deeply. You observe even the constantly shifting stories your unconscious creates to explain and integrate the various elements of your life, and you create a life that goes way beyond any story.

 

 

Especially nowadays, with this President, I think it is important for you to value your own experience for itself, value its depth, which is the same as valuing life. Valuing life not for any reason, not for what it can get you, but for itself.

 

 

In this country, everything is consumerised. People are too often valued in terms of what they can do for you, or how much they make, not for who they are. Education is monetized in terms of how much “value [is] added” to a student by a teacher. This leads to thinking of your own mind in “value added” terms, or what a thought or an emotion can get you. The problems with such a way of thinking have been discussed by many people, Buddha, Karl Marx, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr.—just for a small sample. What is new in this time of history is that more people have access to more information on how a value system influences your life experience.

 

 

From one perspective, the election of this President has brought to the forefront the battle in our society about what it means to be a human being, or successful as a human being. Is success measured by how much money or power you accumulate? Or how you relate to others? Are you valuable because you are a living being? Or valuable only if you can earn more than others? Is power about controlling others and forcing them to agree with you? Or about controlling your own mind and behavior? Our nation in the past was too quick to monetize everything. This must be reconsidered if we are to continue as a democracy.

 

 

**If you’d like to do a short mindfulness meditation, here is one way to begin: Maybe set an alarm clock for two or five minutes. Set an intention that, until the alarm clocks rings, you will put your attention on the mindfulness exercise. Give yourself the freedom to explore and find practices that foster clarity, calm and develop in you a sense of autonomy.

 

If you’d like, sit cross-legged on the floor or near the front end of a chair, and sit comfortably straight up, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Close your eyes partly or fully. If you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Or chose a photo or natural object you find comfortable or beautiful. Then turn your attention inwards to your breath or outwards to the beauty. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing. If you’re observing an object, let your eyes roam over the surface, studying it, noticing shades of light and color.

 

Notice what it feels like to take in a breath or to let your eyes rest on the object. Notice if you  your body expands slightly with the breath. You don’t have to do anything except be aware of the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body might let go, settle down, relax a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.

 

You might feel your attention drawn toward or away from a thought or memory. This is simply the natural flow of mind. Just notice the response. If you find yourself drifting away, just notice that your attention drifted and has now returned. Feel free to be glad you noticed. Gently focus your awareness on the breath or the beautiful object.

 

Sit for a moment with a sense of your mind being quiet, at ease with whatever arises.

 

With your mind quiet, you can ask yourself: What is it I most value? What is most important to me? And then notice the thoughts and the feelings that arise when you think of valuing what you do.

 

**The more I meditate, the more I recognize how often my thoughts go to others, the more I recognize how interdependent I am with others. So speaking out against the racism, anti-democratic speech and actions of this administration is one result of mindfulness⎼and one way to remember and honor the work of people like Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a “true revolution of values” in his speech “Beyond Vietnam–A time To Break Silence.”

An Open Mind

 

I was recently meditating, at home, in the early afternoon. Outside, intense snow squalls alternated with a few minutes of sunshine. Schools started two hours late that morning because of the weather, and before meditating I had wondered if the after-school class that I was supposed to teach would be cancelled. I concentrated on my breath and soon became calm and focused and lost all sense of school and snow. Then the phone rang. My wife picked it up somewhere in the house. I couldn’t hear the conversation but knew it was the school calling about the class and I began to wonder, again, if it would be cancelled. I tried to return my focus to the breath, but couldn’t do it by increasing my concentration. So, I tried another strategy. I made my response and interest in the call the object of awareness. I simply noticed what was there, in me, without judging it. That did it. My mind calmed.

 

By shifting attention to what was there in my own mind and body, and being open to it, my mind became the state of openness. The result was both calm and insight.

 

Why do I have this drive to have an answer? To know is to hold information in mind and be able to use that information, to comprehend and own in myself. Even more, it is a drive for a concept to fit reality into, or this is one way to understand it. In the past, I thought that the drive for answers was a common and primal human drive. It was part of learning and growing up; humans were naturally driven to better understand the world and themselves—unless it was educated out of them. And putting what you knew into words to form a worldview was part of developing an identity.

 

You create explanations and stories to order your life. Having an explanation of any sort is often more important than its accuracy. Thus, you feel uncomfortable when you don’t-know. You take it as something missing, a lack, a hole in your universe. You then hate not-knowing, as it leads you to worry or feel anxious. Part of the joy of solving puzzles or watching a mystery movie is that, for a moment, you feel the anxiety of not-knowing, but in a controlled way. You prove to yourself that this situation can be faced and overcome. It is like an inoculation against fear. The puzzle creates just enough anxiety that by solving the puzzle you demonstrate your control over not-knowing.

 

But this day, I realized this explanation was not enough. I dislike not-knowing only to the degree that I am wedded to an outcome or idea, only to the degree that I cling to one answer, fear another, or think I am only capable of handling certain types of situations.

 

It is easy to cling to ideas, and think knowing is only about putting experiences into words. You value the memory over the “thing” or experience itself, the story about your trip to Africa in the past over the experience of a moment of your life right now. And by focusing so much on the words and explanations, you easily lose perspective on the important role not-knowing plays in your life.

 

There is a second type of not-knowing, an experience of your world being fully there, alive, not lacking. Every moment begins with this not-knowing. If the present moment were known and put into words, it would already be past. Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists describe stages in the formation of emotion. The first is an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Only later is memory activated, energy directed, liking and disliking begun, emotion and meaning created. In this sense, not-knowing is a step you need to go through to learn and understand anything. It is your original contact with the world. It is a non-verbal or incommunicable sort of knowing, the taste, the touch, the joy and agony of a body twisting in space, the rush of concentrated attention. 

 

In Buddhism, not-knowing is to perceive without preconceived ideas. It is to hold what you know lightly, and to put observation and experience before concept. It is a silence of concept mind so you can hear the world more clearly.

 

In the first sense of knowing, where you emphasize knowing as conceptualizing, you can miss, not fully engage in, the only moment you ever live in, the present. Your life becomes a memory, a story or explanation, and is lived almost secondhand. It is something you read about in your own mind or listen for in the words of others, not what you live each moment.

 

When you understand yourself in this almost secondhand manner, you cling to ideas and it is easier to get into energetic disagreements about points of view. When you think you know and have the explanation of an event, you feel in control. When you threaten a person’s explanation, you threaten their world. And when people in power and in the headlines manipulate information, say one thing and mean something entirely different, and lie repeatedly, even obviously, they are attempting to take away your power by undermining your sense that there is a clear reality out there. They can create psychological and social chaos. The lie is not just a lie. It is an attempt to undermine your sense of control over your life. It is an attempt to get you to live as if your life were a memory. With a truth, you can have a two-way conversation; a lie is an attempt to make it one-way.

 

To not-know in the second way, you can’t be manipulated so easily because you welcome and are fully present in your immediate experience. Thus, to be open to whatever arises in your mind, body and the world around you, and to be able to utilize both forms of knowing and not-knowing, is a revolutionary act. To face your fear and anxiety is a form of resistance to the powerful. It is to return to where all action begins and all thought is born. And that is a very powerful state.

 

*Two Resources Relevant to This Post:

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, by Rodney Smith