Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who Is Your Black Hole?

Everyone either knows one, or has one. Similar to the vampire, the black hole sucks away all your energy. But unlike the vampire, the black hole does not actively pursue your energy. In fact, your black hole may not even know that you're there.

Like a cosmic black hole, a person fitting this description is an unlimited vacuum, with an insatiable appetite. But whatever you throw at this person--the energy, the love, the affection, the anger--it is instantly destroyed. Not even the residue of your energy remains. Literally nothing can escape the destructive power contained within this person.

Because I am a caring, compassionate human being with love and faith for people, I have found myself uselessly slinging energy into these black holes. Indeed, I used to think that I could only be a caring, compassionate human being IF I flung my energy at these black holes.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea these people were black holes. They were people I loved and cared about, felt attachment to and affection for. But now that I see their true nature, I am no longer slowly destroying my own life to save theirs. I still love them. But I now know I can't save them.

The person who is a black hole has the same kind of fearsome pull that these gravitational marvels do. They hurt themselves, hate themselves, hurt others, hate others, destroy themselves, try to destroy others. Their desperation and misery are what makes nice people like you and me so eager, so willing, to help them.

But here is the lesson: No one--and I mean no one--can help them. The only help they will ever have must be of their own volition.

In the meantime, until you learn this lesson, you will do many things: You will neglect your own pursuits, you will neglect your health, your family, your friends and your neighbors. You will neglect your career and your hobbies, your sense of humor and your civic duty. But wait, you say--I have friends, I have a family, I have hobbies.

But if you have a black hole in your life that you are actively attending to, you are showing up, maybe, but you have little left to give to those things. You are not really there. And the reason is because the energy you're slinging into that sad, inescapable darkness is never returned to you. You are being sucked dry.

The saddest part of the black hole/energy donor relationship is that you may be doing everything you can to perpetuate that person's misery. Sure, it's unintentional, but the maw of this ravenous beast only grows larger the more it has to devour. In fact, while you can't help this person, you may actually speed the process of their self-help by starving the beast of your energy.

Now, of course, not everyone who needs help is a black hole. But if you've read this far, you already know if you have one in your life or not. Their energy is unmistakable, their sadness and emptiness seemingly infinite.

Here is another lesson: You are not selfish or wicked if you no longer want to dump your energy into this abyss. Far from it. You are not lazy or bad. Nothing you did caused this black hole, and so nothing you do can repair it.

Reclaiming your energy from this enormous drain is, if you can believe it, the least selfish thing you can do. Because actually, thinking you--one person--can solve this person's incalculable suffering, is actually a very egotistical act. You may be great, even a hero to many. But this level of darkness requires a force far greater than a single, fallible human being. Your ego may hope that you can work miracles, you may yearn for the day when you can say you saved someone, because that would feel so good. But that's your ego, and it's not telling you the truth. What that person needs is the kind of seismic spiritual shift that cannot come from the material world, and that includes you. So, yes, you're important, but you're also not that important.

So reclaim your energy. No matter where you put it--be it for your health, your intellect, your cooking, your job--no matter where, it will be better than where it's going right now. It will do more good for you-- and for the world--for that energy to not be uselessly, futilely, instantly destroyed.

I wish that those of you struggling with black holes may find peace.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How to Watch

This picture, taken this April, is of Thomas Jefferson's terrace garden at Monticello.

I was there recently, and while I'd been there once while I was in high school, I'd forgotten what a beautiful, serene place it is. No wonder Jefferson desperately wanted to return there after his presidency was over.

One of the things I forgot (or maybe didn't ever know, hard to say) about Jefferson was that he was a committed, passionate gardener. He ordered seeds from catalogs, shared cuttings and seeds with neighbors, and kept detailed logs about what he had planted and how it did.

Interestingly, I learned that he met with failure again and again and again. For example, he was determined to try to grow wine grapes, but never succeeded.

I am a new gardener, and have already learned a lot that I didn't know. So much knowledge has not been passed on, and so though it exists somewhere on the web or in a book, each discovery feels as new to me as anything could. For example, I had no idea that lettuce "bolted" in hot weather. I didn't know how much plant was created to grow one single crown of broccoli. I mean, wow, broccoli is a massive plant!

Thinking of Jefferson in his garden, season after season, whether meeting failure or success, is a profoundly calming thought. In fact, being in my garden is a profoundly calming activity, even though I often meet with failure.

Why should this be? Why do I find failure in other areas of life so frustrating, but not here?

I think because my approach, much as I have read Jefferson's to have been, has been one of a fascinated experimentation. Everything is new, and everything is a surprise. Everything is something to watch. I am not as eager for the results--though they can be delicious--so much as for the satisfaction of cultivating something living, surprising and literally wonder-full. I know it is a cliche to be amazed by a tiny carrot seed becoming a carrot, or a little broccoli shoot becoming a towering plant, but it is only a cliche until you have experienced it yourself. Once you have seen it with your own eyes, you realize the miracle.

There's a big movement, at least in the U.S., to grow your own backyard veggies. Since Jefferson always envisioned a nation of self-reliant, educated citizen farmers, I think this is a very good thing for our spirits, as individuals and as a nation.

While I advocate gardening, it's certainly not mandatory. But I think what should be required of every bliss-seeker is the kind of watching--the expectant attention--that the gardener gives his plants, but to as many things and as many people as you can.

It's easy to form an opinion, to have a thought, to say your piece, but it's much more important to Watch.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Always Be Seeking Truth

That's the answer, as best I can guess, to my good friend Teddy's question to my previous post. He said:
The challenge becomes holding on to the vision you've enunciated, because the forces of the world keep clouding our line of vision, making us see nothing but the narrow, trivial, parochial day-to-day details that we need to just survive. How do we hold onto the timeless while we try to hack it now in time?
If you haven't seen the great movie Glengarry Glen Ross, there's a scene where Alec Baldwin's character is talking to a bunch of salesmen, wherein he gives them the formula for success in sales: ABC--Always Be Closing. He repeats it like a mantra, and tells them that if they are going to make it in that business, they'd better listen.

So, lately, like a mantra, I've been seeking the Truth, but with a capital "T." Teddy's right: the forces of the world do conspire against us to keep us small and upset and shriveled. The people in "power" do not want us to reach our potential, have an interest in keeping the status quo, have an interest in confusion and obfuscation. On a more micro level, it's also just the minutiae of daily life--earning a living, taking care of the house, educating the kids, what have you--that keeps us myopically focused on the here and now.

I know it's unfashionable of late to say that there even is a Truth. After all, isn't truth just what we think it is? Isn't everything relative? My truth is what I believe, your truth is what you believe, etc. ad infinitum.

But the only way we "hold on to the timeless while we try to hack it in now time" is to attune ourselves to Truth. Which means there must be at least something that's universal, something that's True.

But what is it? Does it even exist?

First, it's a mistake to think that you can solely come to Truth through reason and rationality. You need these things, but reason can serve our basest, most depraved instincts, too, so it must be checked by something else. After all, the intellect can perform mighty tricks of ratiocination that can lead to somewhere very, very dark.

But it's also a mistake to think that you can rely entirely upon emotion to find Truth, since emotion and the instantaneous reactions emotions can elicit often take us to improper conclusions, at best, and terrible deeds, at worst.

But you do need both of these tools, so how do you harness them properly? What causes them to go so profoundly awry?

In my search for Truth, I recognize the culprit again and again and again, both in my own life and in my study of history: Ego.

Ego is the entity that lies to us all about our importance, about what we want and need, about the importance of the ephemeral world. Once we can begin to act in ways not driven by gratification of Ego, we begin our journey toward seeking truth and serving truth.

Practically speaking, I have found that there are already ancient practices meant to aid humans in truth seeking, in diminishing the power Ego has over us. In many ways, it is the role of ritual and religion, though many of those practices--especially in the West--have been profoundly corrupted by man's Ego.

For me, the practice of yoga, meditation, and now, tai chi, have done wonders for my ability to perceive and move through the world in a less ego-driven fashion. The temporal world is still there, but I am more likely to see through it and less likely to be tempted by its fleeting and material promises.

As they say, there are many paths to the kingdom, but I truly believe there is only one kingdom. It has many names: Nirvana, paradise, heaven, enlightenment--even happiness and bliss.

Every culture in every part of the world speaks of this kingdom. But we make a mistake when we conceive of it as being "out there" or as a place. The kingdom--bliss--is not out there. It is the oldest Truth and it is within us. It is hard to grasp, because in a sense, there is nothing to grasp. There is no "it" and there is no "other."

We find this unified, harmonious experience when we meditate on what we know in our bodies and in our consciousness to be fundamental and universal: the great, the wondrous, the awful, the beautiful, the terrifying Mystery.

So, again, practically speaking, the next time you find yourself distracted by the stuff going on all around you, repeat to yourself: Always be seeking Truth.

And that, friends, is what I have to offer for preserving this penetrating, clear-eyed vision when the duststorms blow and men work as hard as they can to wound you. And as you go to work, and mow the lawn, meditate there, too, and there you will ask the questions that will lead you to an ever more satisfying, blissful life here on earth.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I Was Wrong

I abandoned the blog, I abandoned my readers, and I abandoned my pursuit of bliss in a big mistake.

What happened? I made the all-too-common error of confusing bliss with livelihood. While I still maintain that our livelihoods should bring us satisfaction and even joy if we're lucky, our bliss does not rest anywhere external.

Fundamentally, bliss is gratitude and equanimity, even in the face of great challenges and long odds.

When the economy imploded last fall, I made the mistake of thinking that bliss would be unattainable for all of us. My business was suffering, and it hardly seemed to be the time to encourage others to leave paying work to pursue something insubstantial. That was a mistake, to a certain extent.

I now see, in retrospect, that the world's cycle is always rising and falling, falling and rising. We must not ride the outside of the wheel, must not be attached to fortunes or failures, but we must be at the center, at the hub. There we will find balance and peace and bliss.

So if you have a crappy job, it does not mean you cannot have bliss. If you have a great job, it does not mean you have bliss. Bliss only comes from finding the center in any circumstance, during any event.

So instead of asking, "What is bliss?", we should also ask, "Where is bliss?", and, "Who is bliss?" and, "Why is bliss?"

For me, after suffering a very strong re-action to the world's falling fortunes and struggles, I came to a place of detached observation. I still participate in the world--passionately at times--but without attachment to the outcome. Instead, I choose to act--not react--according to my own beliefs, principles and values. If the world challenges me, so be it. I am not here to please the world. I am here to be here. I am not exactly here to please myself, either. I am here to acknowledge and venerate my time here, make something of it that is in service to spirit and not ego.

I went to the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit recently, and was amazed by the glory of the ancient Egyptian society, now lost. The world as we conceive it--the trappings, the politics, the buildings and men--are all impermanent. But we can each profoundly know what is permanent--the blissful constant of the universe--because each of us contains that spiritual beauty.

Slave or pharaoh, merchant or priest, none of us individually can spin the wheel of fortune in our favor or out of our favor. But what actually turns the wheel? Isn't it the axle, moving through the wheel's center? As a centered, blissful being, even the slightest pressure--a leaning more than a push--has more power to move that wheel than does anything we might try at the wheel's rim.

What passes for power in the ephemeral world is simply force. Real power--and real bliss--emerges like a divine light in the middle of darkness, and it never uses force. Its ability to do good in the world can only--has ever only--come from its ability to inspire men.