Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Choose Dependable Shipmates

In a previous post, I talked about how to identify--and how to deal with--the people in your lives who suck away all your energy and leave you feeling wiped out and utterly drained. I refer to them as black holes.

But in your quest to live your life more consciously, more joyously and more honestly, you may find yourself dealing with people who are not quite black holes, but who may be a negative force in your life nevertheless. The question becomes: What to do with them?

If you think of loyalty as one of the highest virtues, as I do, it can be extremely difficult to know when or if to cut ties with a friend or acquaintance, especially if they've been in your life for a very long time.

I've been struggling with this as of late, as people who have been friends for a long time have been behaving in ways that are draining, inconsiderate and sometimes downright hurtful. If these people were behaving this way with direct malice or awareness of what they were doing, the answer would be fairly easy: you can cut ties with someone who is trying to hurt you. That's a no-brainer.

What's not so easy is when someone you care about is totally oblivious to the pain they've been causing you. For some of these people, confrontation is an option. You can initiate a discussion with them, where you ask them why they're behaving in a certain way and get an honest conversation going where you get things aired out and figure out how to get back into harmony.

If you think you can do this, I'd definitely try that approach first.

If, however, you find yourself trying to gently broach the subject of what's going on in your friendship and are quickly met with stonewalling, defensiveness, even anger--well, the chances of salvaging things go down.

If you are able to completely cut ties, this might be an option. Just do it. Move on. However, if, like me, you hold out glimmers of hope that your friend will wake up to their bad behavior and be open to improving your relationship, cutting ties doesn't feel like an option.

What I've realized recently is that when you can't talk to a friend about problems in your friendship, the only thing that will work is for them to come to you. And the only way to make that happen is to make new friends, and move on without cutting ties.

You might still be able to respond and be polite, but you will need more distance to protect yourself, and your boundaries will need to be much clearer. As you begin to spend more time with other people, your older friends may miss you. If they don't, well, what's the loss there, really?

If they do miss you, however, and you pick up on that, you can begin to ease back into conversation about your friendship. See if they've softened their defenses. See if they actually, actively want to be your friend.

My husband and I were both raised to be incredibly loyal, devoted people. Yes, we're busy, but when someone expects us to be there, we do our damnedest to be there. I think we are sometimes shocked by how few people feel this way.

I think it's harder than ever to find people who are loyal and honest and open, but since they must be out there, we'll just keep looking. If you can honestly assess yourself and say, "Yes, I'm a good friend" and yet your friends are flakes who constantly let you down or betray your trust, I exhort you to do the same. Again, none of this is easy, but having a few good, trustworthy and dependable friends is essential. None of us can go it alone in this world, so find your shipmates, and don't hesitate to leave the flaky ones behind. When the weather gets rough, you'll be glad to have spent the energy on this search.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

When Telling Stories Causes Suffering

One of the ways you cause yourself suffering is by making up a story. What do I mean by this?

Let's say you have a friend whom you've invited to a party, and she says she can't make it. Maybe she gives an excuse, maybe not.

Whatever she says or doesn't say, you can cause needless suffering by telling yourself a story. "She doesn't want to come because the last time I saw her I made a political comment she didn't like, and now she likes me less. Or maybe it's because she's upset that I didn't call her back that one weekend when she invited me to see a movie. Or, maybe she just finds me boring and doesn't want to spend a Saturday night hanging out with me."

Whatever. You could go on and on. And because people do behave according to some internal motive, it's possible that any of the above reasons are the ones she doesn't attend the party with you. But without asking her point blank, it's impossible to know for certain the reason why. All of the stories you've told yourself are pure conjecture, and none of them might be true. It could be that her grandma died. Or she has swine flu. Or she is having one of those weekends where she wants to sit on the couch and read a huge book she's been meaning to get to.

The point is, you cannot know. But in the meantime, what are you doing with the stories you're telling yourself? Causing needless suffering for yourself. Feeling hurt and depressed. Wondering what's wrong with you.

None of these things are useful. If you truly fear that something is wrong between you, don't make up stories. Uncover the truth. If you've been a bad friend, she'll tell you. (And if she can't talk to you, or she changes the subject, then you've learned something about the nature of your relationship, which you can then utilize later to make a decision about how to proceed.)

This story-telling can cause problems anywhere in life. Before I began practicing yoga and tai chi, I had developed a pretty bad case of runner's knee, especially after I completed a rigorous training schedule for a marathon. Even after the marathon ended, the pain went on and on--not just for months, for years. I ran through it, it would flare up, I'd rest, and it would feel better. Then I'd run again, and voila, back to the pain. The pain was just pain. But the suffering came in when I would tell myself that I'd never run again or that I had permanently damaged my body or that I'd get fat like that health teacher I had in high school who told us she'd injured her hamstring and had never been able to be physically active again.

Every time the pain would flare up, I'd tell myself these stories. I'd grow sad and frustrated and angry.

Though I didn't know it at the time, yoga and tai chi would heal my knees completely and I'd be able to run again. None of the stories I'd told myself turned out to be true. I believed those stories at the time, though, and suffered more than I would have just by feeling the pain.

So, what stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? If you think they are, do you know they are? Really, do you?

In yoga, I've learned that feeling discomfort can be observed without any narrative. I can just feel, just be, and the burn in my legs just is. I can become detached and observant, like a Buddhist monk. (Well, maybe I get close, anyway.)

The next time you hear yourself making up stories about why something is, or how something will be in the future, stop yourself. Ask yourself if you have any basis for the story. If not, take a deep breath and clear your mind. Just be. Just feel. No thoughts. No judgment. No stories.

Less suffering.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Flight Level 390

Wow, I totally missed October, didn't I? Ah well, I'm back for the beginning of November, anyway, and ready to type.

Lately I've actually been wondering if it's time for me to move on from this blog and start a new project. I don't know what the answer is yet--and feel free to send me your vote--but the reason is that I am so much happier in my current career that I don't feel nearly as compelled to write about how to escape a bad job or life situation.

That's pretty self-centered of me, isn't it? I'm happy, so why worry about all the people who are in the position I was in only a year or so ago? Well, trust me, I still care, but I lack the immediate experience of misery as a motivation.

I still believe strongly in working out what you are suited for and how to follow a path that is the truest and best and most authentic one for you, but lately my ideas have gone beyond the workplace and career.

Still, I don't want to wander aimlessly and drift about, writing abstract, meandering posts about all the big philosophical and societal stuff that interests me, because then this would just be a navel-gazing blog and all about me, rather than about the reader's experience.

Recently, I discovered a blog that has totally captivated me. It's called Flight Level 390 and I can't tell you how amazing I find it. It's written by an airline captain, and it is the most compelling writing I've read in a long time, in either web or print. I have no idea if others will find it as interesting, especially as I am biased toward aviation topics (my dad was a pilot), but he's doing something here that I think is maximizing the potential of a blog. He's capturing something real, but distilling it into something beautiful and breathtaking. I guess I'd like to make sure my blog is doing something as fresh and as real, or otherwise, what's the point?

Anyway, I'd love to hear from you. What's on your mind? What do you think--what do you want from this blog? Is it time for me to move on? What do you still want to think about, talk about? Where does the topic of bliss finding rank for you these days?

I'm all ears, because I believe in listening. So talk to me, and trust me, you will be heard.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Do Good Work

As promised (though a little late), I have a few words to add on the subject of Mike Rowe's talk.

First of all, I couldn't agree more with his assertion that in our culture, generally speaking, work--real, hard work--is denigrated. As he says, it's explicit and implicit: in the way we're taught to think about work, the way advertising is always promising us ways to escape from work, and the get-rich quick mentality that infects the culture from the top to the bottom.

However, I think that it's not entirely fair to blame workers for feeling this way. Much of the time, workers come to a job ready to do their best, work their asses off, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done, whatever the job. However, where things go awry is when the worker is not allowed to do his job. I suppose it's true that there's some number of people who can't be trusted, but rather than micromanaging them, I say, fire them. They'll figure it out faster that way. And besides, the vast majority of people want to do a good job, and want to work hard. So there are a few bad apples? Why make life miserable for everyone else?

And yet, this is what happens. And so good, hard-working people find themselves in jobs that are controlled from three management levels above them, by people who have no inkling of what the details of the job really are.

Much like Mike Rowe's anecdote about the animal rights people in an office somewhere dictating how a lamb should be castrated.

That's why I think Mike Rowe has found that the people who do the dirty jobs are generally the happiest. They are generally allowed to do their jobs without a lot of interference or second-guessing. They are trusted to do their work. They know they will suffer consequences if they do a poor job, either in terms of job loss or job safety. They understand and are allowed to employ personal responsibility.

In the "knowledge" work that so much of the country does, the culture is nothing like the "dirty jobs" culture. And the people who work under the micromanaging egomaniacs suffer mightily for it. What do they produce? Not much. Who takes credit? Not them. Where is the satisfaction? Missing, it appears.

As a freelancer, I do "knowledge" work, but on my own terms. This makes my risks and rewards that much greater. And trust me, it is certainly not easier. But it is more satisfying, and I know that the more I put into it, the more I'll get out of it. Not so at any of my old jobs. One of my mantras is "The worst day working for myself is still better than the best day working for someone else."

One other point: Mike Rowe, in his speech, says the worst advice given to young workers is to "Follow your passion." He then goes on to talk about guys who made a ton of money improving on an old business model, or finding some niche that no one else was filling, and going into that. And he says that they are extremely happy, even though what they are doing is not the stuff of dreams.

He says these people have found success and are extremely happy. I won't question that. But the reason, I think, Mike Rowe thinks "Follow your passion" is bad advice is because we so often confuse passion with profession. Maybe your passion is singing or painting, but you can't make that your profession. I think the important thing is that whatever you're doing is coming from someplace authentic. If you enjoy business or lawyering because you are good at it and you get a lot of satisfaction from it, nothing says you have to quit it all to be an artist or musician. It's just that you have to feel passionately about whatever it is you're doing. If you're not able to feel excited and compelled by your work, well, you won't be happy. Furthermore, if your passion is something that doesn't earn money, "Follow your passion" doesn't mean you have to earn money. It means you can do that thing whenever you can, even if you have to do another kind of work for money.

Of course, hopefully whatever work you are engaged in for your living, it should be one that gives you the autonomy and responsibility and satisfaction that is the heart and soul of a good job, of good work.

P.S. As a refresher, here is a post discussing my idea of what makes work good: "It's Not You, It's Me."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Thought-Provoking Video: Mike Rowe on TED

Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel's peerless "Dirty Jobs" series, gives a talk about passion, the nature of work, and where we're headed as a society with regard to the work we do.

I know this video has me thinking about things, and I'll post a response to it in the next day or so.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Make A Decision, Period

The most frequently visited page to this site, by a large margin, is to the post titled "How to Make a Big Decision."

In that post, I dispensed some advice, based on my own experience, on how to use your imagination, reason and emotions to pick the correct path when faced with a difficult choice.

Recently, I realized that there's a different kind of decision-making process to take into consideration. This realization came after talking to a friend who is in a hell of her own making, but not because she can't make a decision. Indeed, she's made many, many decisions. Many of them even appear to be wise, good decisions, that should help her travel a successful and happy life path.

But, nope. So what's the trouble then?

I think it boils down to a lack of commitment. For various and sundry reasons, she can't get behind the decisions she makes. There's no conviction, no faith, no whole-heartedness.

In fact, that lack of heart is the crux of the problem. The reasons the decisions look good from the outside, and indeed, might be great decisions for any other person is that they make intellectual sense.

Indeed, many of our decisions start out, and even rely on, the rational faculty. A cost-benefit analysis. A list of pros and cons. For the extremely rational, the geeky and analytical, a post like this can certainly help. But creating a "grid analysis of multiple criteria" or "calculating the expected value of every outcome" can only get you so far. It's true that you can base a big decision on this kind of analysis, but beware: You might end up like my friend.

You may know someone like this. He or she makes a decision. To take a new job, let's say. And it looks, on paper, to be the right thing. The pay is better. It's in a nicer city. It has a clearer avenue for advancement.

But if this person does not choose--mind and heart--to be there, to really inhabit that decision, the chances are good that the decision will only lead to later paralysis and despair.

You might think, given this, that to really commit to a big decision that you'd have to be 100 percent sure, or at least more than 90 percent certain. Ironically, I don't think certainty plays into whether a decision will stick or not.

As with so many of the most important things about this human existence, making a decision that works comes down to faith.

So many people, it seems to me, lack this ability. And I'm not talking about the ability to believe in a higher power, either. I mean the ability to put aside hesitancy and simply leap. To believe whole-heartedly that this is your path that you've chosen and you're gonna stick with it.

So what stops people from doing this? I suppose a lot of it is fear, but to a larger extent, I think it really reflects a lack of practice. Somewhere along the way we have learned to trust others to make decisions for us--parents, teachers, government, authorities--and so we've lost the ability to trust ourselves to do this kind of leaping.

Just as in art-making, the more you get comfortable with the unknown, with the uncertainty of it all, the more you can make your way based on your inner compass. Your true self and your decisions begin to align. Your decisions, even when made with uncertainty, are based in something authentic. You are not inhabiting a false self, living a false life for others. Instead, you are choosing a path that is yours, one entirely of your own making.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Be Thankful for Your Limitations

First, a bit of good news re: my last post. I have been stretching my writing muscles, writing a new bit of creative writing every day. Right now it only amounts to exercises of about 250 words, but just as you can't run a marathon without training...well, let's just say I'm dusting off some cobwebs through this practice, getting ready for longer sessions. Still, even this feels so good.

Which brings me to today's thoughts on limitations. One of the ways I'm getting back to writing is through predetermined prompts, not of my own making. For example, tonight's exercise was this: "Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird."

Most of the time, we think of limitations as obstacles. As in, "If only I didn't have to go to work, I'd get this done," or, "If I had X amount of dollars, I'd be able to accomplish X." (I think that most people's major limitation gripes have to do with time or money, but of course, it could be something like, "If I had a smaller nose, more men would like me," or some such thing.)

While it's true that limitations narrow the range of possibilities for certain things in your life, it would by no means be utopia to have no limitations whatsoever. If you had endless time, you could get a lot done, but would you be motivated to? If you had a mountain of cash, you could buy whatever you wanted, but once you did, then what? Where would value come from?

We are accustomed to looking at our world in a very dichotomous way: black or white, love or hate, good or evil, rich or poor. We are, for the most part, always thinking in opposition, looking at one aspect or the other, but not able to hold the possibility for greater complexity in our minds.

But I submit that you could take even the most terrible seeming limitation and wring something out of it that you could argue is an opportunity. If you have an hour to yourself, and that's it, the opportunity to make that hour really count appears. If you don't have a lot of money, but want to achieve something, you must apply creativity to figure out how to do it anyway.

Will limitations make life less convenient for you? Probably. Might there be additional frustration? Likely so. But if struggle and frustration and limitation were the end of the line, would so many be attracted to life in New York City, or to art careers or to parenthood?

I believe we each have an inherent knowing (not always acknowledged) that we can thrive under limitation, and that in fact, we may even thrive because of limitation. My writing exercises impose limits, but they also get me to be more creative than I might be just staring at a blank page and asking, "Now what?" I am forced to find a good work-around to get started and keep going.

What I'd like you to do today is list your limitations. All the ones you can think of. Then, next to that list, I want you to list how each of those limitations could present an opportunity for greater creativity, motivation or achievement.

Hold the possibility in your mind that your limitations--whatever they may be--may in fact be your greatest assets in your quest to live a fuller, more blissful life.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why I Stopped Following My Bliss, and What I'm Doing About It

Today, this post is all about me. I hope you'll forgive me, and indulge me. If not, that's okay, too.

One of the reasons I started this blog, and wanted to think about what it takes to follow one's bliss is because I was fairly certain I'd found something worth pursuing. For me, that something was writing, and especially creative writing. Because I'm so verbally wired, and because I love reading and because I love the way both writing and reading make me feel, I determined pretty early on that I wanted to be a Writer.

For a long time, I wasn't sure how anyone really did that. I stumbled around, writing bad poetry, taking classes that had the words "creative" and "writing" in the title, and spending time at night and on weekends doing something that seemed to be natural for me. Putting words down on paper.

I started to think that maybe there was something more formal one could do to achieve this goal of being a Writer. I had a friend who wrote, and who talked to me about writing, and one day he unveiled an entire pathway I didn't know existed: He said he was going to get his MFA. I didn't even really know that you could go back to school for writing, so this was tantalizing. Then, he got in. To the Iowa Writer's Workshop, which is only the most famous MFA program of them all. (I went from not knowing about MFA programs to quickly understanding where they all ranked. How American of me, right?)

Well, after this, I had a new bug up my butt. I too, was going to go get my MFA in writing. I was working at a miserable job, where I slaughtered language for political purposes, doing so for humorless ogres that looked like this. I had to get out, and that was that.

So off I went, into the application process--which is not easy, I'll tell you that--burning with the desire to get minted into a Writer. Eventually, I got a few acceptances, and even some generous offers of funding and teaching, and settled on the University of Arizona.

The next two years were a blur. I moved to Tucson, sacrificing proximity to my boyfriend (now husband) because he couldn't find work in Tucson and I desperately needed to be a real Writer. I gave up a lot, is the point, to do this.

My experience is probably pretty typical. I breezed in, thinking, Hey, I must be pretty good at this writing thing if they let me in and gave me money and a teaching job! Of course, I quickly realized that what they let me in for was based more on potential than on actual skill. This caused some major paralysis, but I got over it once I remembered that I was there to learn, not to just show them all how great I already was.

Incidentally, Tucson is the place where I began seriously understanding and contemplating what ego is, and how it can make us so crazy.

Eventually, after some very, very tough semesters, I came to the end. People began to say things in workshop that were very, very encouraging. Accomplished writers and professors were admiring my work, telling me how much I'd grown, how things I was writing were close to publication. Then, that last semester, I got my first story accepted at a journal. I felt like a Writer.

But after graduation, things slowed with my writing, and I got discouraged. No matter how many revisions I made to these stories, I couldn't seem to get another one accepted. No matter how hard I tried to understand what was missing, I couldn't. I got rejected a lot, and the worst part was I had to wait months and months to get rejected. It was agony.

In the meantime, good things were happening in my personal life. I was getting married. We'd bought a house. I had friends and a comfortable job with a nice salary. It became harder and harder to tear myself away from these things, with all their attendant positive feedback, to do something all by myself that no one much cared to see.

Also, by then, it was becoming obvious that the entire publishing complex was undergoing an earthquake, and there were fewer and fewer print venues with each passing day.

I thought, I'll just put my writing aside for a little while. That was in 2006.

And I've been telling myself that ever since. While there have been some bursts of activity, it's time to face facts: I quit.

I never said so formally, announcing it. But that's what I did. I closed the door, unofficially but definitively, on my creative writing efforts. I stopped trying to be a Writer, or a writer.

I'm here, telling you this story today to tell you that I'm recognizing that I'm unhappy about this. I'm facing it. I've been lying to myself and others so long, pretending that there were *reasons* I wasn't writing. Too much going on in my life, or a fear of the post-print media landscape or a million other things that seem perfectly plausible.

While plausible, making art, writing creatively, doesn't arise out of reason, doesn't depend on circumstances. And I, of all people, should know that. But I've been afraid. I think I've mainly been afraid of the enormous effort that writing every day requires, especially as it means I must give up time for things and people I enjoy. The sacrifice, again, for something no one seems much interested in.

But, I found a quote by Stephen DeStaebler yesterday in David Bayles' and Ted Orland's book, "Art & Fear," that sums up the situation: "Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working."

And I have to say, the pain right now is pretty intense. How often I wish I could let it go, say goodbye to this urge to write! But I'm at the point where I feel like a teenage boy who's been trying for total celibacy, without even the relief of his right hand! A too-graphic image? Perhaps, but we all know what happens, and the point is, it makes a mess of things. My urge to write and create and use words in artistic and interesting ways is nearly as strong an instinct as the sexual one, or the will to survive. I don't know how to explain that from an evolutionary perspective, but all I can tell you is that it's true, and real. If I suppress this instinct for too long, it begins to manifest itself, to surface, and in ways that are not healthy or productive. I get moody. I cry a lot. I feel emotions I don't usually feel: anger, resentment, jealousy, despair.

I don't want to be someone who used to write. I don't want to have quit. But at this moment, I am, and I did. Fortunately for me (and for the people who love me and enjoy my sanity), there is nothing in the world that says I can't start again.

My motivations will be different now, I think, as will my goals. But I will be writing creatively again. I may even share some of it here. If you don't care to read it, that's fine, just don't tell me. Let me put it into the world somewhere, okay? It's so hard to leave it always in the dark. If you don't like it, or don't want it, just skip it. There will be other stuff for you to read, I promise.

And for anyone who's gotten this far, I want to tell you that you and I could be good friends, if we're not already. I appreciate you sticking with me, and hey, maybe you're in the same boat. Maybe reading this will get you to figure some things out about the creative parts of your life. I hope so.

One thing I do know: My efforts from this point forward will be dedicated to my husband. Because for all I've put him through in this writing journey, he has never once--not once!--wavered in his dedication to me and his belief in my work. So thank you for that, pickles. I love you.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How to Be More Productive

If you spend any amount of time on the interwebs, as I do, you will stumble across countless blogs and articles promising new ways to be more productive and efficient. Mostly, these have to do with finding out how to get more done in a day, be it through better organization of lists, or syncing of desktop with mobile devices, or keeping a daily time log. Actually, all of these things are great ideas, and I think these are resources to investigate.

But today, I want to think about productivity and efficiency in a slightly different way. I began thinking about what it means to be "efficient" when I pulled that word out of a bowl at my yoga class. My teacher had placed little "angel cards" into the bowl, each with a word on it, like "love" or "harmony" or "clarity." The idea was that you would use that word as the inspiration for your practice--your intention. I drew "efficiency," and had to smile. Of all the things to strive for in a yoga class!

I didn't think getting more done was really possible in yoga, so I looked at other interpretations. I recognized that one aspect of efficiency has to do with minimizing wasted effort. So, instead of using a lot of extra movements to transition from one pose to the next, one could try to be as streamlined and graceful and efficient as possible. No wasted effort.

What I found in trying to do this was that in order to move fluidly, and with intention, that I had to be extremely focused. I couldn't let my mind wander at all, or inevitably, I'd move more than was really necessary. I'd step out before stepping in. I'd scratch my nose on the way.

What I think I discovered was how important--how incredibly essential--focus is when it comes to productivity. Not just because you don't waste effort and therefore have more time and energy, but also because you don't produce something of poor quality.

After all, what's the point of being productive if all you're producing is crap?

So, how to be more productive in this way?
  1. Before you begin your day, write down what you intend to accomplish. Think of intention as the gentle reminders your GPS lady gives you as you proceed on a planned route.
  2. Before you set out to start your planned activities, make sure you close your eyes and breathe deeply, if only for a minute or two. Beginning your day's journey on calm seas will make you far more likely to meet with success than throwing yourself out there in rough waters.
  3. Once you are on your way, you will inevitably drift off course. But as it is with meditation, so it is with staying focused and productive. If an unwanted thought comes up in meditation, rather than worrying about it, you visualize it as a cloud, simply drifting by. You do not judge it, or get attached to it, but rather, you just let it go. Same with work. You begin to read something you hadn't intended, or you find yourself on a phone call you didn't want to be on, and as soon as you realize it, don't fret, but let it go. Stop reading, and return to your task. Tell the person you've enjoyed talking, but it's time to get back to work. Don't feel bad, just move on.
  4. What happens if you meet with a roadblock that prevents you from completing one of your tasks? Don't let it throw you off course. Decide how important it is. Do you need to complete it today? Or can you return to it tomorrow? Assess this calmly, and then you will know how to proceed. After all, life requires adaptability, but this doesn't mean you have to lose focus. You can simply reroute around the trouble and calmly proceed.
  5. Remember, it isn't about quantity. It's about quality. Don't expend energy on useless or worthless efforts. Don't let anyone else convince you to, either. It's your life, your career, your home.
If you follow these guidelines, I think you'll find yourself moving through life with less friction and with more to be proud of. The rewards of focus, too, go beyond having something to show at the end of the day. The emotional and psychological benefits you'll experience are vast, and in short order, you'll never want to be a distracted, frantic productivity-without-purpose person again.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Happiness is not pleasure..."

Another wonderful piece in the New York Times today by Pico Iyer. (See this previous post for the last one.)

It's a look at the Dalai Lama, and his practical approach to achieving true happiness. I really appreciated this, especially since I hope to emphasize the practical in this blog. I know that I often deviate, and get going on the big ideas--because they excite me--but I am heartened to know that the advice I give about shifting attitudes and practicing new ways of perceiving the world is the kind of practical advice that the Dalai Lama would likely approve.

An excerpt:
The Dalai Lama I’ve seen is a realist (which is what makes his optimism the more impressive and persuasive). And he’s as practical as the man he calls his “boss.”

The Buddha generally presented himself as more physician than metaphysician: if an arrow is sticking out of your side, he famously said, don’t argue about where it came from or who made it; just pull it out. You make your way to happiness not by fretting about it or trafficking in New Age affirmations, but simply by finding the cause of your suffering, and then attending to it, as any doctor (of mind or body) might do.
I hope that the many posts I've offered here have helped to identify, analyze and isolate those arrows that cause suffering, and have inspired others to do what they can to pull them out. I love that the philosophy articulated above does not shun intellectual effort (such as analysis), nor is it passive, awaiting the intervention of some remote deity. I've always preferred prayer for guidance, rather than intervention, and the saying "God helps those who help themselves" to "Dear God, please help me."

Another excerpt:
I’ve been spending time for 18 years in a Benedictine monastery, and the monks I know there have likewise found out how to be delighted by the smallest birthday cake. Happiness is not pleasure, they know, and unhappiness, as the Buddhists say, is not the same as suffering. Suffering — in the sense of old age, sickness and death — is the law of life; unhappiness is just the position we choose — or can not choose — to bring to it.
Just last week, my yoga teacher demonstrated this approach. We were in Warrior II, and he had us hold the pose for quite a while. Eventually, a fire starts in the muscles. "Likely you're feeling a burn," he said. "But instead of popping out of it, what if you hold it, stay there, exploring that sensation? What if you look at it not as pain, but as a purifying effort?" I desperately wanted to release the pose, but considered if I could withstand the effort and do as he asked.

He went on: "Likely, this is not the worst pain you'll ever feel. Likely, at some point in your life, you will hurt much worse. How will you react?" His words rang true for me, especially now, as I approach childbirth. So, I stuck it out, figuring if I buckled from a tired quadricep, I'd never survive giving birth! What was interesting is that, like the above excerpt, I shifted my position toward the pain, and gained a great deal of mental (and physical) stamina and strength. And you know what? Once I did, the burn became more a curiosity, something to withstand and investigate, and less a source of suffering. I guess my point is, you can choose your pose toward suffering, and suffer less.

I think you'll enjoy Iyer's essay. Read the entire piece here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to Fall in Love With Your Body

Regular readers of this blog might wonder if I will ever tire of talking about yoga or tai chi. Sorry, no. Amazing things have happened in my life thanks to these two ancient practices, and as long as I'm physically able, I will be practicing these Eastern arts.

One of the reasons for this devotion is that these traditions have given me tangible, impressive gifts. I often talk about the emotional and psychological gifts that I get from yoga and tai chi, but today I'd like to talk about the physical gifts.

I discovered one of those gifts today, while practicing yoga at home. When I started yoga in earnest back in Tucson, Arizona in 2003, I had a book of asanas (or poses). One of these, tree pose, or Vrksasana, is a standing balance pose, where you press the flat of one foot against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. Your arms can be pressed together in prayer pose (anjali mudra), or lifted up or whatever. The basic idea is that you balance on one leg.

My balance was pretty good when I started yoga, though it has gotten better through practice. But the book suggested that when you had mastered the balance pose, that you could go deeper by closing your eyes. Apparently, we rely very heavily on visual cues to maintain balance. This is why it's often easier to balance on one leg if you are focusing steadily on one single point on the wall or floor or wherever.

Anyway, I thought, "Hey, I can do this," and so I closed my eyes, and nearly instantly fell over. It was startling how fast my balance was yanked out from under me. Without my eyes open, I had no balance.

I've tried it over the years, and while I had improved a tiny, tiny amount, I still lost my balance very quickly when I closed my eyes.

I've now been doing tai chi for about 8 months, and so while I was in tree pose today, I thought, "Hmm, maybe I'll try closing my eyes." I did, and I was startled to discover that I no longer need visual clues to maintain balance. I stood there, like a bird on one leg, arms overhead, eyes closed, perfectly balanced.

I suppose it is difficult to convey what a sublime moment this really was, since it's not something most people are aware of, much less testing out on their own. But to feel this steadiness from within--and it was truly from within--was extremely powerful and even moving.

For starters, the first time I'd tried it all those years ago, I was so skeptical that anyone could really do it, it was that difficult. (Seriously, stand next to a wall so you can catch yourself, and try it right now.) To feel something change that dramatically is a rush, for sure.

But also, as someone who struggled for so many years between the union of mind and body, it is so satisfying to feel the body and consciousness fused so inextricably. There is a new power in this body of mine, and I am thrilled to experience it, both mentally and sensually. Furthermore, it's fun! It does kind of feel like a superpower.

It dismays me how many are discouraged from trusting in their bodies, simply because they are not fast, or muscular or innately athletic. I hated my body for so many years, because it didn't perform properly, nor was it "perfect" like a model's.

But now? Now I realize that my body is the most amazing thing, and that, hey, guess what? It turns out I am flexible, and have balance, and am actually perfectly suited for pursuits like yoga and tai chi. It makes me sad to realize how many children, especially the ones who don't excel in P.E., will turn against their bodies, frustrated with them, when all they really need is a way to learn their bodies in a mindful, supremely intuitive way.

It's something I wish I'd known about, wish I'd been able to do as a young girl. I know I'll teach it to my child, and I also know I'll never hate my body again.

So, no matter what you look like, your body is beautiful, and is capable of doing beautiful things. And, when you fall in love with your body, with its abilities (and its flaws and limitations!), you will be a happier, more harmonious, more blissful creature, for sure.

I'll leave you with this beautiful video, which shows you the form of tai chi I'm learning.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How to Cut the Crap

Bullshit. We should all know it when we hear it, and if you don't, then there is nothing I can recommend more than tuning up your bullshit detector. (See my earlier post on rhetorical analysis for some ideas on how to do this.)

Lately, I feel as though the world is awash in bullshit. It is all I hear on the news, on the radio, from most people I know casually. People have forgotten, or have never learned, how to speak directly.

I've been reading Walden, and Thoreau, though wordy, is not bullshitting. He is unafraid to say what he wants ("to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life") or what he observes ("the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation"). I read a work like this, and it only further highlights the difference between what is direct and true, and what passes for the same these days.

Mostly, this tsunami of bullshit has been perpetrated through language, through the corruption of words and their meanings. As a writer, this disturbs me to no end. As of late, I feel as though my tools are damaged, dirty and, often, dangerous. (Consider the word "dangerous." Everything is "dangerous" now. That medium-rare burger. The dog down the street. Freaking carbon dioxide.)

As of late, I have wanted to say less, and to say it directly. And yet, that is not the straightforward task it would seem to be. Because corrupted words do not uncorrupt depending on who is making use of them. The magic of words is that they contain layer upon layer of meaning, yet take such a compact form. But of course, these layers are applied over time by many, and cannot be removed easily, if ever. ("Villain," once a word for a simple farmer.)

So, it is harder than ever to communicate, especially as we retreat into our own righteous sects, certain we know what it means to be (insert label here). We spit out words without thinking, redefining them to suit our purposes, accepting redefinitions from others intent on their own shaping of public opinion.

And all this time, hardly anyone is thinking, analyzing. Instead, we're just readying the next load of bullshit.

Maybe you know a person who doesn't speak very often, because he is mostly listening. And people often ignore him, because of course he's not clamoring for the spotlight, hoping to have his ego stroked, to have his mean little jokes laughed at. And then, after a long silence, he speaks, and everyone is astounded. Not just that he has spoken, but that what he has said is very incisive, is amazingly considered.

My blog is about finding bliss, that's true. But honesty is essential to bliss, and even if others insist on lying to you, you don't have to 1) lie to yourself, 2) accept the lies of others.

It will take concentration, and some degree of fearlessness, but I exhort you to be more like that person I described above, and to do what you can to reduce the amount of bullshit you either generate or are exposed to in life. Whether it's from the nightly news or from a friend hardly matters. What matters is that there you are, striving for honesty.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Bells of Munich: My Case for a Weekly Spiritual Experience

I took this video with my little digital camera while I was in Munich last week. It's the Frauenkirche, and it's the Sunday bells. This clip is only 15 seconds or so, but these bells--and the bells of all the nearby churches--rang out for at least 15 minutes, calling the faithful to service.

It was so overwhelmingly beautiful. Early morning, cool air, bright, silvery sun, and the loud, clear tones of bells swirling together to create the most stunning audio landscape I've ever heard. It felt like the sound had color, the harmonies were so thick and insistent.

Walking out of our hotel into this scene, I was overcome with emotion. I started to cry, and I couldn't help myself. The bells inundated me, passed through me, striking a deep, largely inaccessible hollow of stillness, and caused it to vibrate.

I was being rung by the bells.

And this ringing within me shook loose profound feelings and brought them up into my awareness: joy, awe, gratitude, wistfulness, a powerful sensation of being alive. For those few minutes, the "I" part of me dissolved, and "i" was there, rooted, connected, expansive. A white, purifying Love--the love that is bliss, that is god--was called up, and it, in the most welcome way, demolished me.

When I finally came back to my senses and was able to speak, I mentioned to my husband how wonderful it would be if we had anything like this at all. (And by "we," I meant back home, in America, in most places; in other words, if humans could be called out of their narrow trances once in a while and reminded of the eternal and ineffable that is invisible but pervasive.)

This is what is supposed to happen in churches, I know. And for the first time in a long time, I was tempted to go to mass at the Frauenkirche. Unfortunately, I stopped myself with all kinds of silly reasons--I wasn't dressed right, I wouldn't know where to sit--all of the stupid human reasons that don't matter in the presence of pure love and god. (If only humans in church could be persuaded to ignore such things!)

But I am more convinced than ever after this experience that human beings, whatever their beliefs, need regular encounters with what is holy. Because you don't have to believe in "God" or Jesus or Krishna or any anthropomorphic deity to recognize the holiness that exists in life. Indeed, the people unable to see or acknowledge that our lives retain sacred mysteries and that there is holy beauty and holy love are the ones who are most profoundly sick, whatever their blood pressure reading or therapist says.

In America, we don't have choirs of bells calling out to us. We will have to find some other way. I go to yoga and receive some measure of this experience each week. If I lived near an ocean, I might go there. But I urge you to find a way to get this experience, in whatever way you can, at least once a week.

Be rung, be rung, be rung!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Simple Analysis for Everyday Life

There is a fundamental, primary skill that I believe every human being should possess, if he or she is to avoid as much suffering and anguish as possible.

It is a skill based in intellect, and I observe that it has never been taught to most of my fellow humans.

The fancy term for this skill is rhetorical analysis. Though I've taught a rhetorical analysis unit at the University of Arizona, I'm hardly an expert. But I did see the effect that learning this skill had on my students, which I'll get to in a minute. For now, I'll summarize what this skill does.

Essentially, when you hear a speech, or an opinion, or see an advertisement or look at almost anything containing text, symbols or a "message," you do not accept it uncritically. What I mean by this is that before you metaphorically consume something, you evaluate it--a "sniff" test, if you will.

With this skill in practice, you should be able to determine what someone is *really* saying, what they are trying to convince you to do, whether they are telling the truth or using bad logic or an appeal to your emotions, and whether you want to accept the premise and argument as sound.

In school, you ask these questions, but they are good for life, too. My students, whom I mentioned earlier, entered my class largely willing to believe what they heard or saw. They accepted speeches as factual, arguments as persuasive, and advertisements as effective. While this makes life seem smooth and easy, it results in a person being deceived, and worse, acting according to the deception much of the time.

Poor rhetorical analysis in a targeted audience is the dream of every marketer, politician, scam artist and intellectual fraud.

The good news is that you don't have to be a victim of these hucksters. The good news is that you can ask them questions, and work to uncover facts and realities and motivations, all of which allow you to live a more conscious, intentional life. And this is what I saw in my students. Once they could penetrate the smoke and the veils, they were awakened to how often they were being lied to, defrauded, convinced to behave contrary to their true principles. Indeed, this kind of analysis often helps reveal to you what your true principles are.

Like my students, I used to be far more willing to uncritically accept what was hurled my way. And life was easier, in that I didn't feel as though I had to think as much about what people told me. I trusted.

But that trust was given to the undeserving, and while you might consider me naive and blameless, I might argue that my ignorance and participation in the charade had no good excuse and in fact caused harm.

So, what I recommend to you all is to ask the questions. Chances are your emotions have already been telling you things seem off, but can't tell you the full story. Adding this kind of analysis to the messages around you will bestow on you a clarity of thought that cannot be bought or even valued. This is priceless, and essential.

For me, there is a transparency to the world and its actors, and it is a burden lifted. Someone is lying to me or using bad logic? Why trouble myself over her efforts? Someone wants me to buy something, but now I can ask myself if I want it or if they want me to want it. I can protect myself from a lot of negative actions--both others' and my own--just by taking a few moments to penetrate the rhetoric.

So what are the basic questions? This is my list for getting started:
  1. Who is the messenger, and what is his credibility or authority?
  2. Who is the message intended to reach? In other words, who is the targeted audience?
  3. What does the message hope to achieve? To inform, persuade, motivate, enrage, etc.?
  4. How is the message constructed? In other words, does it use facts, emotional appeals, logic, comparison, etc.?
  5. What is the message? In other words, what is the argument or thesis?
There can be more to it, of course, and one can go deeper into a message, but if you feel like you need clarity in your thinking, these five questions are a fine place to begin.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"The Joy of Less" by Pico Iyer

Something I found in the New York Times that I think readers of this blog would enjoy.

Pico Iyer, a travel writer, posted his thoughts on what he has found makes him happiest:

I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
And later, he says:

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Read the entirety of his post here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Against Franticness

There is something that's been bothering me. I've noticed it in recent years, but especially in the last year, and I have finally been able to put my finger on it. Perhaps this will not seem like a revelation to you, perhaps it will. Whatever it is, I think it's unhealthy, unproductive and causes needless suffering.

This thing that's been bothering me can best be described as a collective hyperventilation, a national franticness. (I know that's not a word, but I think it's clear what I mean.)

It's epitomized by the way people talk to each other: Not really listening, paying continuous partial attention, only hearing the words that will give them the jumping off point to say what they already know.

It's a literal rapidity of breathing and speech, a kind of anti-calm pervading conversation. It's the tenor of the television talking heads, constantly screaming.

It's the parents worrying that their kid is going to fall behind if he's not enrolled in preschool math tutoring, or the daughter who won't get into college if she doesn't excel at volleyball and academics and community service, and...the list goes on.

It's the colleagues who have heard of this Twitter thing, and worry that if they don't instantly jump on board, regardless of the value, they will lose their jobs, their employability--their very souls, it would seem, given some of the strident proclamations I've heard on the subject.

We're told, of course, that these things are necessary, that they make us more productive, more connected, more intelligent, more successful. But all I see is that the opposite is happening. I am no Luddite--I'm blogging, after all--and I don't blame technology for all of this. Technology is merely allowing our neuroses and fears to grow and be transmitted faster than ever, adding to the cacophony.

If everyone with an iPhone or Twitter account was calm and centered and at peace, those tools would serve some amazing thoughts, I'm sure. However, the majority of people I encounter are barely breathing, certainly afraid, and in a near-constant manic state.

If a body's health is measured by its ability to breathe deeply and maintain a calm heartbeat and a steady blood pressure, then our national body is profoundly sick.

Lately, for many reasons which I won't go into here, I find that I'm disengaging from this mass panic. I just don't buy it. I don't feel a part of it. I went running with my dog the other day, and enjoyed the cool morning air, still full of dew, enjoyed the wind rustling the pecan trees, loved watching my dog's pink tongue flop around as she ran. The world, despite its troubles, is still a profoundly beautiful place, if we only make up our minds to notice it.

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if people stopped trying to fix everything, stopped focusing on the drama and the pain of other people, and worked on creating peace and calm and focus within themselves. Then, when others truly did need you, you'd be able to help, you'd know what to do, how to listen, what you should do. You'd have inner resources upon which to draw.

None of these frantic people have any inner resources. All energies are being discharged outward, but in an undirected way. The energy and reserves are misapplied, wasted, lost.

My point, if I have one, and I'm not sure I do, is that I'm coming to the conclusion that the best thing I can do for myself, others, the world, is to be a person who is at root calm and peaceful. Someone whose mind is unclouded by the turbidity of rapid, fearful, undirected thoughts. The second best thing I can do is to help others figure out how to do this, when they ask.

I am ever more certain that being frantic is the worst possible course of action, in any circumstance.

The next time you find yourself noticing a rising sense of franticness, please stop and breathe, deeply. For as long as you need to, until that feeling of terror leaves your body and is replaced by a quiet calm. Then proceed with what you have to do. Then you will do what is right.

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.