The Skill We Most Want to Learn is Intimacy

It is so easy to lose sight of what originally inspired us to do what we do. We can focus more on how others might think of us, what material goods we might gain, or what grade or prize we might earn. And then we forget the meaning in what we’re doing and lose contact with the truth in ourselves.

 

When learning a skill or studying subject, we can forget the joy of learning itself, or the joy in doing something skillfully. When we use a cellphone or other device during a meal or movie, we can lose the pleasure in eating or engagement with the movie. Or if we read the news on our phones or write or text as we take a walk, we can forget the joy of walking, forget to notice the birds, trees or people around us or the feel of our steps on the earth.

 

Even with meditation, we can get caught up in goals that meditation might advance, like increasing focus, improving health, finding intellectual answers, or reducing stress. By centering on these goals, they become impossible to achieve. We lose the meditation itself.

 

If we meditate, for example, to get an answer to a problem, then as soon as a possible answer pops into our head we might stop meditating in order to write it down. Or if we meditate to reduce stress, what happens if, during a meditation, we realize our heartbeat is speeding up, or notice tension in our body?

 

Instead of treating the stress as part of the meditation, as an opportunity to learn from it, we might try to hide or end it. And the stress gets worse. Our mind becomes the act of hiding and we think of ourselves as unable to face what we feel.

 

Sometimes, we do need to distance ourselves from a painful memory or moment or switch our object of focus. And we need to respect that need, especially after 18 months or so of a pandemic and four years of DT anxiety. We can use different strategies to help us let go of tension and fear. When meditating we can focus on our feet on the floor instead of the breath in our chest, or on the sounds outdoors instead of thoughts indoors.

 

As Peter Doobinin describes it in his book, Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure, we can use thinking to strengthen thinking. Instead of trying to stop all thought, we can use it skillfully to feed awareness instead of distraction and to keep alert. if we get caught in a thought, for example, we can step back, and note what is happening. We can say to ourselves, “in” as we inhale, “out” as we exhale. (If you are not experienced with meditation or mindfulness, please read or listen to the book to get the full practice.)

 

The breath goes through stages: the beginning, middle, and end of the inhalation, a pause; then the same with the exhalation. We can ask ourselves where we feel comfort inside us, or what is the quality of the breath⎼ rough or smooth, fast or slow, etc. If they don’t go by too quickly, we can observe which stages are more easeful, comfortable. By noticing, we feed awareness and allow the body to regulate itself. We discover the pleasure in the breath. We might notice, for example, an ease and comfort in the pause and in the middle of a longer, softer exhalation. And then the comfort can spread….

 

To read the whole piece, p-lease go to The Good Men Project

When Joy Is Hidden in the Very Air We Breathe

Have you ever had this feeling that right outside the bedroom window, on the other side of a surface you’ve touched, like the bedsheet, or a stone in the garden⎼ like a voice carried in the wind that you can’t quite make out, there is an insight, a joy waiting, hidden right there? And all you had to do is breathe a little more deeply, shift your perspective a hairsbreadth, and you’d see it in whatever is felt, hear it in whatever is touched?

 

This isn’t a hope you have but something else.

 

I feel this almost every morning when I wake up, if I don’t rush off or I’m not too angry or depressed by the pandemic or the GOP. Right behind my last dream, sitting next to the stiffness in my back, there is this sense, this urge or yearning to look deeply at the red bee balm in the garden, the yellow daylilies, the cats that lie near my feet.

 

When I took a walk yesterday, I tried to remember a time in my life when something hidden was suddenly revealed, or a work of art created itself with my hands. Something dramatic, that I hadn’t already shared with people; but nothing came to me. At first.

 

There are many examples provided by famous visual artists, athletes, poets, and composers. Zen teacher David Loy provides many in his book The World Is Made of Stories. He quotes the artist Escher talking about his drawing taking on a life of its own. The composer Stravinsky hearing music compose itself; he didn’t do it. The writer Borges saying, “I don’t write what I want… I don’t choose my subjects or plots. I have to stand back and receive them in a passive moment.” The poet Blake talking about poems coming to him almost against his will.

 

I am retired now, but the memory of my years teaching soon came to mind. Many times in the classroom the right way to reach a student or right answer to a question just appeared, flowed from my mouth spontaneously, unplanned. Painfully, not all the time.

 

Too many times, especially when I was inexperienced, the right response to a student often eluded me. But over the last few years of working, the number of wonderful moments were multiplied, when I was well prepared yet open, trusting the students and trusting myself. I also practiced mindfulness regularly in some classes.

 

As I was walking back home, down the steep rural hill, suddenly through the trees there was a view that went on for miles. It was only a peek, a break in the trees visible for a few steps when the road turned just right. I stared for a moment, absorbed, gleeful.

 

And a thought popped into my head. The reason I might touch a surface and a new reality whisper to me was because that is exactly what happens sometimes. We touch the hand of a lover and suddenly there aren’t two separate people anymore. There is only the touch. We quiet our minds, even though our hearts might be jumping wildly, and a new reality is born. We touch and are touched simultaneously, love and are loved….

 

*To read the whole post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

One Gift of the Arts is Help Us See with A Diversity of Eyes

It all started one night after getting totally engrossed in viewing Japanese woodblock prints, particularly the night scenes by Kawase Hasui. Hasui was one of Japan’s most prominent and prolific printmakers who died in 1957. He created landscapes that beautifully merged humans⎼ their homes, boats, shrines, castles, and temples⎼ into the land around them.

 

I was looking through several paintings and when one stood out, I’d wonder why that was so. I’d imagine myself in the depicted scene or sit with the mood the print and my seeing of the print created.

 

One night scene was of the Chuson-ji Temple, in the town of Hiraizumi, Japan. A long series of wide steps leads up through trees to the temple. There is moonlight and a bright star, but no moon. I allowed myself to slow down, stop rushing, and just linger on the scene, to sort of let my eyes feel the steps so I could walk up them and reach the building itself.

 

Then I’d close my eyes and let the scene rest inside me, before opening them again to allow whatever new details I had noticed enter the picture. By touching in this mindful way, we are touched; we feel what we see. The artwork has more dimension. I learned this practice at a retreat organized by psychotherapist Lawrence Leshan, and by The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, by Frederick Franck.

 

After doing this for a few hours, I drove into town to buy groceries. Along the way, the scenery took on a totally new quality. The homes surrounded by trees, the lights amidst the dark, the moon over the hillside⎼ one minute, the scene around me was the physical road and trees. The next, a beautiful portrait of the same.

 

A few days later, in the daytime, a similar experience occurred. As I walked up the rural road where I live, I saw as I might normally see⎼ light breaking through the hillside forest roof and bouncing off the leaves of the trees ⎼ and then as Hasui might paint it. By viewing the art, my eyes were tuned to beauty; I now had two sets of eyes, two ways of seeing.

 

Hasui seemed fascinated with how not just art was a creation, but vision itself. He was almost too prolific. He painted the same scene in different times of day and different seasons. There are at least three renditions of the Chuson-ji Temple, for example⎼ one at night, one on a spring day, another in the snow. But what we see in each painting is one moment; we see each instant as a once in a lifetime event.

 

We can see how everything changes or is change itself. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, said: “Reality is flowing.  This does not mean that everything moves, changes, and becomes; science and common experience tell us that.  It means movement, becoming, change is everything there is, there is nothing else.  There are no things that move and change and become; everything is movement, is change.”

 

The beautiful red temples Hasui painted were not just an external scene he perceived but an element of the artist, his history and mood, the time of day, the weather and quality of light, the remnants of the past in the present. We are not a being locked in a wall of skin, but one movement in a universe dancing itself into being….

 

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

The Party of Hungry Ghosts: What Reveals the Origins of Our Thirst So We Find the Water that Fulfills Us

The political situation we are in today reminds me of a frightening dream I had as a teenager. I was outside, at night, on a mist-filled city street and felt something calling to me. I didn’t know what it was, but I followed it anyway to an old storefront, the kind with a door set between two showcase windows, which were empty of everything but darkness. The door was partly open, so I stepped inside.

 

The dark and emptiness continued inside the front room. But the call grew stronger as I walked. I followed it to an even darker back room where I could feel but could not see. And the room was not empty. The call was ringing in my mind, emerging from one corner filled with what I thought were people standing eerily still. I approached one, then another, tentatively reaching out to identify them. They were not breathing, not alive. I started searching more frantically, to find the source, the being, the life that was calling out for me.

 

And then I felt it, there, before me. A powerful, child-sized mannequin with a voice. But it had no head.

 

Teenagers can easily feel a type of solipsism, a fear that they are alone, isolated, or afraid that what they feel, no one else feels. That they are, in a way, the only human, or only human like them. Their need calls out for them, but they fear no one will be there when they respond, so they don’t. Adults can, of course, feel something similar. It is too easy to lose touch with the rest of the world.

 

Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida, in his classic book Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, said we suffer when we don’t understand the reflecting action of consciousness. Although the world is always whole, never divided, we don’t always experience it that way. We first sense the world, then have thoughts about or reflect on what we sense, then reflect on reflections.

 

This goes on moment after moment. We reflect on what has already gone and can mistake the reflection for the reality. Consequently, we are always rushing to catch up. The reflection can be powerful; but it is so much smaller than the total reality that gave birth to it.

 

Out of such thoughts self-consciousness is born. Self-consciousness can mean “aware of oneself” or distant from oneself and uneasy about it. We separate the object of awareness from the act of being-aware and create this distinct being, with specific characteristics and history who has thoughts. We fashion an ego and then try to pin it down, give it life, and maintain it, but we can’t. Because it’s an apparition. It’s more like a suit of clothes we put on than the body that wears them.

 

One of the key battles of human history is to feel the life of the world, the life that resides in all of us. To feel that the world is alive, not dead ⎼ not a machine, not just dead matter. So much of the world breathes and feels. We struggle as a species to even feel the reality of others and thus to come alive to the reality of ourselves….

 

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

 

How Beautiful Is A Good Belly Laugh: We Expect a Hannibal Lecter but Instead Find Mr. Rogers

Can you imagine or remember a moment when simply looking, listening, or tasting was all you needed in life? When time disappeared and nothing else was desired, nothing was thought missing? Or when something was just so beautiful and unexpected, all you could do was smile or laugh?

 

In No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan, a translation of the classic collection of Koans or public records of conversations between master and student that led to enlightenment, the poet and translator David Hinton wrote “once mind is emptied of all content… the act of perception becomes a spiritual act.” It becomes selfless, simply a mirror reflecting what is there before it. Slow, respectful. Letting each thing be utterly itself. No violence is possible. No anger or let down. Closer to an act of love than anything else. Just loving by sensing.

 

Hinton says this perceptual clarity is a way of awakening, of seeing the world and oneself in the same instant. It is a way for one being to meet another.

 

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

We experience such moments in so many ways but lose them somehow in all the bustle of our lives. We stare transfixed at a work of art or nature or hear a song that stops all thought, or we read a poem that takes us to a new world. The beauty clears us of ourselves.

 

When I was younger, I hitch-hiked from New York to California and stopped at the Grand Canyon. I remember standing at the edge of it, just staring, immobile, barely breathing. From behind me I vaguely remember voices of other tourists arriving but didn’t want to turn away from the canyon. A woman I didn’t know approached closely and suddenly saw what it was all about, suddenly saw what was there ⎼and maybe what wasn’t. Whatever idea she had of the Grand Canyon was inadequate or wrong. All she said, and she repeated it over and over again, was “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

 

Mary Oliver, in a poem titled “Mysteries, Yes”, said:

Let me keep company always with those who say

            ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,

            And bow their heads.

 

Or, in the poem “When Death Comes,” she tells us,

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

We often expect that life will be like a shove from behind, or merely a bump. Unexpected, yet not, we are surprised and turn around with clenched fists. We build in our mind a Hannibal Lecter but instead find Mr. Rogers. Or instead of a threat or an enemy we find someone as surprised as we are. Someone who openly welcomes us with kindness. We realize the contact was an accident. And we laugh. All the tension dissolves in an instant, and butterflies fly from our mouth instead of curses. We feel delicate and open instead of iced and closed….

 

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

Stories that Free Us from Limiting Thoughts: Turning the Best of What Might Be into the Reality of What Is

The psychologist Milton Erickson was a transformative figure in therapy, using stories as ways to motivate, change, or de-hypnotize us from hurtful and limiting patterns of behavior. When I was teaching, I used his and other stories to make a point and engage students when their attention drifted, or when they needed something real but approachable to appear in the classroom.

 

One example of a story I always loved was how Erickson taught an athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. This version was told by Sidney Rosen in his book My Voice will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson.

 

A high school athlete named in the book as Donald Lawrence had been practicing to set a national high school record for throwing a shot put. But after a year, he could only put the shot 58 feet, way short of the record.

 

His father brought him in to see Erickson, who at their first meeting helped Donald go into a trance and feel his muscles one by one. On the next visit, after repeating the trance for muscle awareness, Erickson asked Donald if he knew a mile used to be four minutes long. The record had stood for many years until Roger Bannister broke the record. Erickson asked, “Do you know how?”

 

Bannister had realized you could win a ski jump by a tenth of a second or a race. Since a four-minute mile was 240 seconds, all he had to do to set a new record was run a mile in 239.9 seconds, or 239.5. One tenth or one half a second faster.

 

“You have already thrown the shot fifty-eight feet…Do you know the difference between fifty-eight feet and fifty-eight feet and one-sixteenth of an inch?” Donald said no. Erickson slowly enlarged the possibility of what Donald could do in his mind until 2 weeks later Donald set the high-school record. He went on to set more records until four years later he brought home the Olympic gold.

 

Erickson, says Rosen, used obvious truths to plant suggestions for personal growth. He told Donald, “You’re four years older now. It would be all right if you take the gold medal.” The first was true; the second could be true. By juxtaposing them, Erickson made the unrealized realizable, the unknown known. He demonstrated the control Donald had when he moved step by step and eliminated the anxiety that can erupt from the past. Donald was left with each moment being the first and only moment to focus on. And then he, or the real person ‘Donald’ represents, won the gold.

 

Likewise, each of us can be freed from many of our fears and limitations….

 

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

The Joy of a Tango in the Morning: Even Our Shadow Can Surprise Us

Despite the recent horrendous killings in Boulder and Atlanta,  there were two moments this week when somehow I broke out into a deep smile and dance. Somehow, we must find joy between the sadness.

 

There have been so many large scale downs and ups in recent years. January 6th was an historic down, January 20th an exciting up. Before the inauguration, I too often felt fright, anger, revulsion, grief and sadness about our world.  I had taken refuge from the viruses of DT and COVID in friendships, meditation, creativity, political action and exercise.  But this week, two seemingly small events turned moments of my life from a waltz to a tango.

 

The fact that it’s spring and it feels like multiple winters are ending at once certainly has turned up the volume on life. On Sunday, a blog of mine that referenced morning light and sounds was going to be published and I wanted a photo of the morning to put on my website. So I woke up and went for an early walk. I walked for maybe an hour and a half, taking twenty or so photos, not trying to capture but simply express the moment. And what a moment it was. The clear, almost baby blue of the sky. The freshness of it all. The expansiveness.

 

Part of the joy was the newness. I usually walk in the late afternoon, when the sun is already partly hidden by the hills. But not today. Today I was not caught up in doing things in the house or in cold shadows.

 

Over the last year, I have walked this road so many times, almost every single day, and the familiarity has transformed it into something else, not just a home, but a way of greeting myself. On a steep section of the road, a tree stood on the edge of the bank, three feet of roots exposed, it’s inside turned out. There is an old stone foundation just beyond the pine forest that was abandoned decades, maybe a century ago, a house-sized unknown reminding anyone who looked that even here, where now there is forest, there is a human past.

 

Sometimes, I get lost in thought as I walk. I’d remember passing an old tree that is half rotted, with a metal fence growing through its belly. And then I’m 200 feet up the road, in the oak and maple wood, where an old house lies snapped in half, like some giant named age and abandonment had just grabbed both ends and broke it in half over his knee. I take a few breaths and continue.

 

And then, around a bend in the road, between two trees, I saw my own shadow. It surprised me. It had been tailing me all along but because of the angle of the sun relative to the road I hadn’t seen it. Now, what had been behind me was in front. And my focus deepened. Any thoughts that arose sprouted into reminders to look around me at the snowdrops and other new flowers, or to listen to the sound of water running in the streams and ditches along the road….

 

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

How Does the Wind Move Us?

The wind can storm, tornado, hurricane as well as breeze. It can frighten or comfort depending on what shape it takes, or we take in our response. It can also play tricks on our hearing.

 

I was walking up a portion of our rural road that is forested on both sides, and suddenly I heard and felt a roar of sound, like thunder, or like a massive truck was headed in my direction. I looked around and there was neither a truck nor a storm. All there was to see were the trees, some bending, moving in their own way, and the sky, a clouded blue. But what a sky it was. And those trees, so stiff and yet firmly rooted. And my attention now so awakened by their thunder.

 

A road can become a funnel for sound. When I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone,I lived in the bush off the unpaved main road. Between villages, huge trees covered the road on both sides. I could hear a truck coming from many miles away. Flagging down a lorry was the only way for anyone in the village to get a ride anywhere. So, if I was intent on going somewhere, I could go into my house, finish packing a bag, and walk leisurely out to the road in time to flag down the lorry for a ride.

 

Hearing, like smell, is a sense that spreads out on all sides. We can home in on a sound by moving our head. But unlike sight, which is mostly aimed directly in front of us, or touch and taste, hearing sweeps our entire 360-degree sensory environment.

 

Each part of the day has its own music. We hear the morning, for example, not just see it. In the spring and summer, birds, and in warm weather, cicadas welcome the rising sun. When I lived in Sierra Leone, as sunrise approached, the jungle awoke with an increasing volume and variety of sounds, culminating in a concert of insects, birds, possibly monkeys and other creatures. It felt like the earth itself was waking up, a mouth opening to speak. The dusk is another time the world clearly speaks to us. What does an eye or an ear opening and closing sound like? Is one sense a chorus for another or do different qualities of light have a specific sound component?

 

For some of us, yes. Synesthetes, for example, can see or feel sounds. A strong wind might be perceived as a specific color.  The word ‘synesthesia’ derives from the Greek meaning “to perceive together.” People who have the condition unite or switch sense modalities, hear color, or taste sound. The condition is rare, about one in 2,000 people share it. It is a biological condition, not a hallucination; it runs in families, and is more prevalent in women.

 

What is the weight of thunder? The shadow of a car horn? The taste of the words we speak?…

 

 

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

 

Finding Comfort Within: Flying Like A Bird or Setting Like the Sun

What brings you comfort?

 

It’s a wonderful sunny day. Despite the cold temperature, I open a bedroom window and take a breath. The air feels remarkable, clean and tasty. It’s been weeks since we’ve had a day like this.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully, or as much as you feel comfortable doing, take a nice breath in, and out, and taste the air. Just enjoy being nowhere but here for a moment. Then let come to mind a time you felt a deep sense of comfort. What was the situation? Where were you? Were you by yourself or with others? What were you doing? Notice what comfort means to you.

 

When I think about this question, I realize the answer has changed throughout my life. As a child, I remember walking my dog in the wooded area in our neighborhood. Sometimes, we’d take off on a run and all else would be forgotten. All that existed was us, running, together.

 

When I returned home during my college years, to visit my parents in New York City, I remember late nights, after everyone else was asleep and the city had quieted, my mother and I would sit and talk, openly, like at no other time.

 

When I first moved to Ithaca, my future wife and I lived with a group of people near a gorge and waterfall. When I’d go out and stare into that waterfall, I’d see first the flow of water. Then my perspective would shift to focus on one drop, one amongst the multitude, racing down, crashing, disappearing into the current of the creek. Any tension I had previously felt, any thoughts, would be washed away. I’d be left emotionally calm and mentally clear.

 

Now, after getting up and doing basic exercises and stretching, I love to sit with a book that inspires or challenges me. It is a grave mistake to think of reading as an automatic or passive activity that involves simply repeating in your mind someone else’s words. When you give reading your full attention you get to see the world with someone else’s eyes. And this new perspective illuminates depths missed in yourself.  Without a quality reading, the quality of the writing is never perceived. This is why holding a book can feel like holding a mystery or a treasure chest. Reading online or with a kindle doesn’t do that for me no matter the content. In fact, it turns me off.

 

Or writing⎼ I love to write stories, blogs, poems, etc. in the morning, when my mind is fresh. The words enable me to transform into other people, or to fly like a bird, to rain and snow and set like the sun or cuddle with a cat. Creativity can be so satisfying….

 

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

When Trees Speak: The Dark Does Not Descend on Us. It Emerges from Inside Where Eyes Meet Others

My wife and I took a long walk late in the afternoon. The sky was mostly dark grey. It had rained earlier, with a touch of snow. With the dropping temperature, the rain turned to ice, which coated all the bushes, tree branches, and electric lines. There was just a hint of the setting sun, but that hint was reflected and augmented by the ice, so everywhere we looked there were individual hands and fingers of light, thousands of them.

 

As the light disappeared further, instead of the dark descending on us from above, it was as if it emerged directly from inside everything we noticed⎼ from each tree or bush my eyes met or from the road itself. Details and colors, and the remnants of light icing the branches seemed to be sitting on darkness and winking out.

 

In previous years, during the winter I did not often go outside to exercise. It takes heavier clothes and boots, mittens, and hats, and the road and paths are often slippery. I used to work out in the gym or martial arts dojo. My wife did yoga classes. Now, due to the coronavirus, especially with new and more virulent strains⎼ and the vaccine so close yet not widely available⎼ our home is our gym and we hike steep hills in almost all sorts of weather. An added benefit is we also see our neighbors more than we used to, or at least the ones who walk.

 

Walking has become a stable part of our day, not only a way of getting out of the house and getting exercise, but a classroom and a way to constructively structure time. As we walk, we study how the light plays with the road and trees, and how the trees play with sound. By paying careful, mindful attention, we better understand and feel more at home wherever we are.

 

It’s usually so quiet we can hear the other residents of the road. Three ravens live in the pine forest and often fly over us, speaking with their hoarse cry. The trees speak with unexpected voices. The pine forest occasionally makes sounds like a cat calling out. When I first heard the sounds, I responded, shouted out the names of my cats to see if one of them was in there. But no cat emerged. Other times, especially when it was windy, the pines sounded like wind chimes. Further up the road, a very different voice. Oak, maple and ash trees leaned into each other, speaking in groans, sighs or whispers. Each tree or pair of trees had its own voice.

 

When we arrived home today, the mail was waiting for us. It was not just ads but a package. A new book, or actually an old one I had to search for, a translation of The Four Chinese Classics, by David Hinton. I took off my coat and gloves and sat down, excited to see what the book would offer.

 

I opened to a random page. It was in the Chuang Tzu, one of the two most important books of Taoism, and read the following passage spoken by an adept named Piebald: “In the awesome beauty of mountain forests, it’s all huge trees a hundred feet around, and they’re full of wailing hollows and holes⎼ like noses, like mouths, like ears, like posts and beams, like cups and bowls, like empty ditches and puddles… When the wind’s light, the harmony’s gentle; but when the storm wails, it’s a mighty chorus.” …

 

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