Noticing the Weather Patterns in Ourselves: And the Ruins and Beauties of the Past Remaining in the Present

I feel⎼ my feelings are so complex right now. I feel myself sitting in this chair, warm in my midsection, with a hint of coldness in my hands. Outside, the sun shines brightly on the white snow that covers the ground. There is such beauty in the first snows of the season, in the contrast between the utter white of the snow and the brown gray of tree trunks, the tan wood supports of the carport, the blue jays and cardinals on the ground, people walking on the wet street.


The world seems so clear, fresh, and alive. Yet, behind my eyes, a tension threatens to impose itself on or obliterate what I see.


How do I face this tension? This looming sense of threat? Do I focus on thoughts that arise, question them, or follow them back like an archaeologist exposing the ruins of the past that remain in the present?


Or do I focus on the specific details of a perception? The call of the blue jay? The snow resting on the bare branch of an apple tree? Or do I let my eyes rest on the entire scene?


Or do I feel the air entering, refreshing my body? Passing over my upper lip and moving inside, down to my chest, belly, and even feet. Each in-breath with a beginning, middle, and end. And then a pause. Everything quiets. And then my belly and diaphragm push up. An exhalation begins.


Or as I inhale, the area expands and the tension in my forehead, temples, or jaw is diffused. And as I exhale, I let go.


The scene outside might seem so permanent, almost. Sometimes. It is so easy to think that nothing will ever change. That the threats of today will continue. And it is true there will always be threats. But there will also always be beauty and love.


This scene only exists because it is constantly changing. The earth itself, which can seem immobile, frozen in place, is moving through space while spinning on its axis, so we have day and night, and seasons. It moves in relation to other planetary bodies, like the moon, so we have tides. It moves internally, which is why we have earthquakes, the migration of continents, volcanoes, weather patterns⎼ and wind, rain, and snow. And we know how dangerous as well as beautiful many of these changes can be.


Outside the window, two crows glide into the scene crying raucously.


We, our body, and our emotions, can also seem so set, permanent. Yet, we are alive because of the constant movement of breathing. We see because of the constant movement of and in our eyes. We hear because of the changes taking place every second in our ears and brain. We are sad, then happy. We are 6 years old, then 60. We know this⎼ yet we don’t. It’s obvious everything changes. What’s not so obvious, borrowing from Buddhist teacher Albert Low, is that everything is change….


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

Love and Compassion Are the Other Faces of Beauty

I look out the window of our den and notice the standing Buddha in the garden has a hat of moss, of both a light and dark green with a lighter tone on the right side of his nose. He also has a shawl of moss over his robes. Does it keep him warm? His smile is so calming and clear it draws me in. Then he seems to dance, or is it breathe, or maybe the whole scene is breathing as my eyes dance over him.


My breath and his are after all the same breath.


He looks so beautiful to me. Is this what beauty is, a quality of me or a way of relating to something or someone else, a quality of focus, attention, or breathing? A drawing in. And can everything in this scene or anything anywhere that draws us in be touched like this? There is a large stone behind him ⎼ rust, grey, green, and shaped like a mountain. It also looks beautiful. What about the bush, the tree, the flowers, the weeds? In the right light, the Buddha looks bigger than a mountain. But why does he draw us in?


We say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Maybe it’s this quality of attention of the beholder in the specific moment. Right now, is beautiful. I had a plan for this morning, but the Buddha took it over. Or maybe beauty did that.


Buddhism and other traditions say the separation we often feel between ourselves and others, between us the seer and what we see, is an illusion. But what does that mean? Can we feel as if we were the statue breathing? Is that possible? And who wants to be a statue? Instead, maybe it means that we live each inch of space occupied by mind.


We see something and think that statue, that person, that dragonfly or flower or car is over there, and I am here. But what about the air an inch from my face? Or the pavement I am standing on? What about the suffering we see over there or the injustice? The thing or person next to me is next to me all the way to whatever. Why separate the me here from the you there, the eyes from the eyed? Why forget all that is there between us linking us? Don’t we live the world we breathe in?


Maybe we separate because there’s hurt here or there, and over and over we re-build a wall to shield us from the pain. We all have hurts. But the wall can be more like a suit of armor we wear wherever we go. And everything we try to touch has the wall, the metal suit, standing in the way. All we ever touch is the inside surface of our armor and so we feel that just on the other side and way too close, a battle is raging.


Gently, consciously, we can find a safe way to name what we feel, or find a place of comfort inside as well as outside ourselves. By doing this gently, mindfully, our mind becomes gentler, and we perceive more consciously, and clearly.


Constantly, we are switching perspectives back and forth….


**To read the whole article, please click on this link 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.

Educating Perception

You might think the world is the world, what you see is what is there. The truth is the truth. Yet, how does the world feel with no hands to touch it? If your ears were sensitive to sounds lower in pitch, would you hear collisions of molecules in the air? What a different world that would be! If you could see a tree in infrared, would the tree have a halo around it and seem blessed? Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 cycles per second. Mice, whales, and bats can hear sounds at 100,000 per second. How would your experience of the world change if sound were your dominant sense, not sight? A dog can differentiate over 250,000 odors, a human maybe 10,000. How would your experience of the world change if smell were your dominant sense? The world perceived is dependent on the sensory system that perceives it.


A tragedy occurs in your social world and for you “the world is tragic.” You see a red rose, a frightening auto accident, and a beautiful sunset. Are the red of the rose, the fear, and the beauty objective elements that exist independent of humans? And the classic: when a tree falls in the forest and no human or animal is there to hear it, is there a sound?


To what degree is the truth perceived dependent on the person who perceives it? The world appears differently to different people, but how big can the difference be? A human baby’s sense of smell and taste, and the sensitivity of their skin, is well developed at birth. Sound takes a little longer. A baby immediately looks for and can see faces right away, but seeing full people, or the whole context of a room they are in, develops gradually over a year or more. Not everyone can see colors. If you have the ability to see color, imagine the world from the perspective of a color-blind person. Or imagine what it would be like for a person from the 12th Century to visit the US today, or vice versa. It makes great science fiction. Yet, most of us insist our view of what is real is the one and only view. To some degree, we need that to survive. How long would you live if you stepped off the curb, a car came at you, and you stopped to debate whether you should see the car from the perspective of an ant or a human? Culture, historical time period, personal history, age, social context, etc. all condition your perceptions and ways of thinking.


How do you answer these questions? And how could a teacher explore them with students? One way to explore this is through developing mindful self-awareness. Another is through studying the science and analyzing the vocabulary of perception. For example, what differentiates a sensation from a perception? The two words are often used similarly and ambiguously. Sensation is often used in psychology to refer to the stimulation of sense receptors or to raw sense information, before the information is interpreted or becomes conscious. However, a perception is conscious.


So how would sound be defined? It too is often used ambiguously. Is a sound the sound wave produced when a tree falls? Or the perception of the sound waves produced by a tree falling? If it is the latter, then an ear is necessary for hearing to occur, and there is no sound without a hearer, no taste without a taster.


Children of all ages enjoy trying to figure out optical illusions. In schools, you could study what these illusions demonstrate about your senses and sense of reality. For example, there is the figure-ground principle and salienceSalience means value or importance; your brain assigns value to certain parts of the visual field. Your attention is selective. You don’t (consciously) perceive all that passes before you (even if some part of us is aware of it all). We have thresholds, dividing lines in all the senses, above which you are aware, below you are unaware. If you were consciously aware of every stimuli in your environment, you would die, burn out. Figure-ground refers to how you pick out elements of a visual stimuli to focus on and the rest becomes background. For example, there are illusions of faces, like the Rubin Vase or the old-young woman figure. (Take a look at the provided links to see examples of the illusions discussed.)


Another principle is that of meaningfulness. No perception is without interpretation and meaning, and this meaning usually appears as an element of the objects perceived, not as an element of the mind perceiving. This is illustrated by the blind spot in your eye. In the back of the retina there is an area where there are no receptor cells. It is where the optic nerve forms to transmit information to the brain. Yet, you don’t see an empty spot in your visual field. Your brain “fills in” the spot. Other illustrations of how the brain can fill in “holes” in your field of perception to make the scene meaningful are the illusion where a Dalmatian dog appears out of a scene of black and white spots, or when you perceive an incomplete figure as complete. Did you ever drive at dusk or at night in a fog and misperceive something in your peripheral vision?


A few other principles can deepen the discussion. For example, a perceptual set is a pre-set or habitual manner of perceiving phenomena. This can be illustrated in various ways. For one, the young-old woman ambiguous figure. Show one half of a class of students pictures of old women. Show the other half pictures of young women. Then show them the optical illusion. There’s a good chance the students who saw the pictures of the young women will see the young woman first in the ambiguous figure. This would work better, of course, if none of your students had ever seen the ambiguous figure. The principle can also be seen with illusions of perspective, for example, those which illustrate how train tracks appear to narrow in the distance—or illusions of context and expectation, such as the one above where you see the 13, when you read 12, 13, 14; or you see a B as you read A, B, C.


With ambiguous figures, all the information to perceive either figure is present. You only see one figure at a time. For example, in the Rubin vase illusion, you can either see a vase or two faces—you never perceive both the vase and the faces at once. When you see the vase, you will swear the drawing is only of a vase. Yet, you can go back and forth between interpretations. There is no correct way to see the ambiguous figure, but you can understand the ambiguity of perception.


The depth and accuracy of a perception can be increased (or decreased) by how the perceiver is educated.


Does this mean that there is no truth? I think it means that truth is interdependent with context, mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears. Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we don’t see what is really there. We experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” (page 68) To a large degree, perception is a subject meeting an object or other being. The world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two. It is not just the sensation by itself which determines how much pain or joy you experience, but how you interpret or perceive it.


So, when you perceive someone as threatening, or think your view of the world is the only correct view, you might consider whether you are looking at the vase or the faces.



*If you teach high school and want a resource for your students to read, or just want a deeper discussion of these issues for yourself, read: Letters To Vanessa: On Love, Science and Awareness in an Enchanted World, by Jeremy Hayward, physicist and Buddhist teacher. You might also read: The Butterfly’s Dream, by Zen teacher Albert Low.

Orienting Ourselves

Every morning when I wake up, I resurrect the world. I check the time, look out the window, remember my schedule. When at home, I especially check up on those I love. I look over to see if my wife is next to me. I look for each of my three cats and worry if one is missing. They have a cat window and go in and out at will. I think of my Dad and other family members. This is, of course, what caring and love entails. But love, especially when it leads to marriage or an ongoing relationship, is much more than the emotion of love. It is part of my identity. It is a way of saying ‘yes’ to the world. So every morning, to orient myself, I check on those I love.


If I don’t find one of our cats, I think of him or her as lost, missing. Lost is an awful place to be. It is a black hole in my consciousness that disorients me. Being lost, or not knowing what has happened, makes my day difficult. I try to fill in the hole with conjectures but can’t quite make any conjecture stick.


We create this disorientation or sense of something missing in many ways. It is one primary way we torment ourselves. I formulate a goal and create a sense of something missing until the goal is achieved. I see something I want and feel the lack of it until I get it. I have a discussion with someone and don’t say all that was in my heart to say, and feel what was unsaid as a missed opportunity or a lie. I have an idea of how my class will go; I have my lesson plan. But if it doesn’t go as I wanted it to or how I thought it should, I feel bad afterwards, or that I am just not as good a teacher as I should be. And then there are the ways other people/institutions treat me or I interpret how they treat me. These lacks are disorienting and knock us off-center.


It is easy to lose sight of how we each orient ourselves. A few years ago, I was on my first visit to Turkey. It was a tour, and we were in a new place every second or third day. I woke up one morning with a sense of panic. I didn’t know where I was. The smells were confusing, and the curtains opposite the bed were clearly not from my home. We think we wake up and are just there, wherever there is, and don’t realize what goes into being there, or here.


In Buddhism, this sense of lack is likened to thirst. When we’re thirsty we feel the pain of missing fluid and nutrients. Our body needs nourishing. But how do we think about our thirst or what story do we tell ourselves about how to fill or end it?


We often try to fill this lack and orient ourselves with beliefs, ideas, identities of all kinds, often stories and images of who we are as somehow separate from the rest of the world. A story can fit elements of the world into a narrative in order to make sense of it all. Space and time are how we lift the story of our self from the pages of memory, emotion and intellect into the three (plus) dimensional world we live. The world is whole and complete. But the story is never complete, and can’t be completed. Reality always far exceeds our ability to imagine, explain, or write about it. To expect any story to fully capture or complete us is doomed to fail, is doomed to add to our sense of thirst, confusion, or of something lacking in us and/or the world.


We might never be able to totally free ourselves from narrating our lives. But since this story making is near the heart of our world, when we slow down our thoughts and aren’t judgmental, we can be aware of what we do and how we do it. We can step out of any particular story of lack but not the reality of how stories are created. Zen teacher Albert Low said: “When we awaken, we do not awaken from the dream; we awaken to the dream.” We can realize ourselves as the story-maker, not just the story; or more accurately, as the act of creating, as well as the creation, a moment when the world speaks, not a separate self. When that happens, we are more clearly oriented and the story that is written is likely a good one, and a loving one.

The Story and the Reality

A big event occurs. You graduate from high school or college, you win the lottery, get married, and what do you expect next from your life? You imagine the joy of seeing the winning numbers going on forever. You imagine the ceremony, the parties, the honeymoon. But after the celebrating, what then? Do you imagine cleaning the house? Taking out the trash?


We expect the world would be changed or we would be changed. That the quality of our experience of life would be better, heightened, maybe. Or the quality of our mind would be different. And it is, but not like we expected. We are always changing. But we easily get caught up in the idea or the story we tell ourselves and miss the reality.


Daniel Kahneman described this as a “focusing illusion.” When we’re thinking about the wedding or the graduation, it is big, tremendous. When we’re in school, we might think that, when we graduate, life will be so different. Or we’re in love and imagine that, once the love is celebrated and wrapped in the marriage license, we will feel more secure and loved. But what we find is a new moment and a new day. We forget about adaptation, getting used to living with a spouse or getting used to the job or whatever it is we do after graduation.


We forget where feelings come from. We think the person we love creates the love. We think the achievement creates the thrill of success. We forget that to feel loved one must love. To be touched, one must touch. Jack Kornfield wrote a book called After The Ecstasy, The Laundry. We can even view enlightenment, whatever that is, in the same way. “Once I get enlightened, all will be different.” Or, “If only I’d get enlightened…”


All we ever have are moments. Hopefully, most of these will be spent with more clarity than confusion, more compassion than anger, more love than greed. When I first fell in love with Linda, the woman I eventually married, I wrote a poem in which I described her as “the apple-mad lady with a third eye.” We built a little cabin in an orchard and sold apples with friends and made apple cider. I saw her as almost a goddess. Guess what? Neither of us was either divine or, thank God, even an approximation of perfection. Our feet were very much made of clay, or skin and bones, and we made mistakes. Yet, luckily, we stayed together.


A marriage agreement* proclaims (I hope) that you will, henceforth, be real with each other. What first attracted you to the other person will eventually become an obstacle to really seeing the other for who she or he is. Once the illusion is over, some retreat; some mistake this as a signal to leave the relationship. But really, this is the moment of awakening. Now you are real, to see what was always there; now you see yourself and the other for what you both are, not for what you wanted from the other, not for your own projection. The other can be seen to exceed whatever you can think, explain or contain. As you affirm your commitment, you affirm not only the relationship, but you take yourself to a deeper level. The other is accepted and you are accepted, too. The same with a graduation ceremony, getting a new job, whatever.


As we let go of trying to contain reality or to protect ourselves with ideas, the richness of our life expands. We learn to trust ourselves to an unanticipated depth. The storytelling about our lives continues. But we recognize ourselves clearly as the storyteller, not the story.



*This is adapted from the text of an original marriage ceremony I performed and inspired by a Carl Jung analysis of the anima/animus archetypes.


Experiments with Awareness and Metacognition

Try these experiment with yourself and, if you’re a high school teacher, with your students. (I’m borrowing this from Zen teacher Albert Low with a touch of David Hume.) It might reveal and challenge accepted ideas and beliefs about metacognition and perception. Put your hand on the surface of a table. What does it feel like? Hard. Cool. A little sticky. Gross. How much of what you feel is the table? All of it? Half? Half the table, half you? Is the sensation of being “gross” from the table? Let me ask this another way. Does the feeling of grossness or stickiness belong to the table or the hand? Does the table “feel”? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. When you’re feeling the table surface as gross, what makes it gross? Is it the table? Are you mentally commenting on a memory of the table? Are you possibly feeling your own judgment or interpretation of a sensation?


With your hand still on the table, close your eyes. The table is obviously not the same as your hand. Nor is your hand the same as the sensation. But, does the sense of hand, table, smoothness all arise together or sequentially? When the hand touches the table, is all that you sense sensation? All you feel is feeling? Are you aware only of awareness?  Or even more precisely, cut out the you. There is just perception or awareness. If you are feeling your own interpretation, there would have to be a separation between the act of feeling and the object felt. Can feeling and felt ever be so separated?


Or what about other senses? Listen to a symphony. Where is the symphony? The instruments and musicians might be on the stage in the music hall.  The sound vibrations might fill the space. But the symphony? Or let’s re-phrase the famous question asked by the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley : “if a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound?” Without an ear (and a brain) is there a symphony? Or you see a beautiful sunset, with deep reds and vibrant yellows. Without an eye and a brain, where is the vibrant color? “Where does hearing end and sound begin?” Where does seeing end and color begin?


When we reflect, we think there is an ‘I’ who reflects. What does the ‘I’ reflect on? Another ‘I’? A memory or a concept of ‘I’? Some objective “fact”? But as we’ve possibly determined through our experiments, the “I” who sees and the “thing” seen are not separate. When we reflect, we reflect on our own perception or memory and then create a conclusion based on that memory. We’re reflecting not on some depersonalized truth but on a very personal creation. Are we the seen, the seer—or the seeing?


One more experiment. As you sit in a room reading this, sit back a little and just take in the whole space. You are at the center, yet all you are aware of, feel, sense is your surroundings. Just be aware of the whole room. Then, change your awareness to focus on one thing, maybe a word in this blog, a book, a table. Sense yourself at the periphery looking at the object of your gaze. This is another type of awareness. You can and constantly do shift easily from the center to the periphery and thus provide a necessary contrast. You need to be aware of the whole so the details can have a context and, thus, make sense. You need the details to construct the whole. Details and whole are interdependent.


But remember the first experiments. This word being read is not separate from the awareness reading. When you read a word, what is the nature of the awareness of the letters? The word comes to you as a whole. But the letters make up that whole. Albert Low argues you are aware not “of” the letters but “as” them. Can the letters have meaning without awareness-as them as letters? Pick up a pen and write a word. You can guide the pen to write a word because you have a non-focused awareness-as the weight, size, texture, and point of the pen. Or going back to the table; if you put your hand on the table to steady yourself as you stand up from your chair, you are aware-as the table. Or, even better, let’s say you turn on the music. You can be aware-of the music as you study and appreciate it. But as your feet start moving, are you aware-as the music as you dance?


What are the implications of these experiments in awareness? How can they help anyone? I find them fun. Each time I do them and try to describe what I find, I understand my own life and perceptions better. And possibly, if I understand awareness better at this very basic level, I can do a better job of recognizing and interrupting suffering as I notice it arising. I can better understand the role I play in the perceived world.