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.

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