I think, therefore

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

When I first started to write, in my teens and early 20’s, I was hugely influenced by an eclectic group of American writers that included vocal social critics from the earliest years of the 20th century. People like Theodore Dreiser, who wrote famously clunky prose, but whose An American Tragedy (1925) was a stinging indictment of greed in our culture. Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis depicted the soul-crushing conformity of a milieu we often imagine as small town innocence. But greater than any other influence was Henry Miller, who demonstrated the power of personal essays. His books, like The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945) shaped my view of our dominant culture.

It was natural that this kind of critique, along with that of more recent writers and essayists like Michael Ventura, should influence  my blogging. But this spring something strange happened. At the start of Lent, though I do not celebrate the season in any formal way, I announced that I would “give up” negative posts for the duration. As expected, the experiment was more interesting than I expected.

"Rodin's thinker?" by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Rodin’s thinker?” by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve already blogged about some of my findings, especially the obvious ones, like the preponderance of bad news in all varieties of media. And I knew in advance there would be less to say if I excluded negative themes. What I didn’t expect was to find myself wondering whether it mattered – it’s virtuous to write about things like climate change and income inequality – isn’t it? A very interesting question since I don’t really believe many writers and artists change social ills directly. Maybe Charles Dickens did, or Jacob Riis, with his photos of child labor, but Dreiser didn’t eliminate greed and Miller didn’t break the ruts of conformity. Writers and artists sometimes change individual hearts and minds, but how does that work? That is not a rhetorical question, but something I often wonder about. How does it work?

Perhaps it was this kind of question that moved Phil Ochs, one of the best of the 60’s protests singers, to write, “You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty / Ah, but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.” Maybe it’s what led Henry Miller, in his last years, to write books like, My Bike and Other Friends, and to focus on his watercolors.

Henry Miller paintings

My biggest discovery, while turning away from negative stories during Lent, concerned inner dialog rather than outer events. I’ve attended to this in a focused way in the past at various times, but not for a while. Mindfulness practice appeared on the cover of Time, so it must be gaining fad status, but that does not diminish its worth. It’s an ancient contemplative discipline that involves simply watching the contents of consciousness. Not fixing, fighting, or merging with, but simply observing what flits through awareness (here’s a good introduction to the practice).

I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find a subtle but persistent stream of critical inner narrative on self, others, and events. The narratives tend grow in the darkness yet dissolve when observed, the way shadows disappear when you turn on the light in a room. Observation eventually leads one to suspect that thoughts have no more substance than shadows, and no more inherent reality, and yet they can have profound effects. I suspect we have all had interesting synchronicities, met things in the world corresponding to our inner states. And if one subscribes at all to notions of the effect of collective thoughts, an idea given names like, “tipping point” or “hundredth monkey,” then the contents of consciousness take on a meaning beyond their effect on oneself alone.

I follow the Dalai Lama on Facebook and often note that when he is asked about topical issues like climate change, he always gives a thoughtful answer, the tone of which is invariably, “I am hopeful.” If I learned anything with this Lenten experiment, it is how hard it can be to cultivate a hopeful attitude. I also cannot imagine anything more important. Can there be a more important seed to plant than this one – “I am hopeful?”

Permission to be ourselves

Not long ago, I came upon a post by Zen practitioner, Tomas Qubeck, called “Zen: How to Recalibrate Myself Back to Zero.”  Tomas discusses his love of solitary retreats.  I’m with him on that score, but then he adds an unusual twist – “Just recently I have realized that this ‘zero’ refers to ‘zero purpose’.”

Enso circle.  CC-by-SA-3.0

Enso circle. CC-by-SA-3.0

I know from experience that letting go of purposeful action for any length of time is a very difficult practice.  Why would one even bother?  Tomas observes that an urge to be purposeful often “shows up in my mind, [as] an image or…a sense of how I want to feel or be. All of this necessarily involves a moving away from how and what I am just at this very moment.”  Sometimes busy-ness can be an addiction, he says.

I’ll leave you to read his reflections, which have nothing to do with quitting our jobs, living in caves, or any other oddball decisions his title might suggest if you take it literally.  My own thoughts veered in a different direction.  Thinking of “purposeful action,” reminded me of something I heard Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown say at a day long retreat:

“No matter what you do, your inner authorities will not be pleased.”

I’ve written several posts about Edward Brown.  I enjoy his humor, the deceptively “simple” depth of his insights, as well as the wisdom he gained as a chef and the recipes he shares in his Tassajara Cookbook.  I’ve attended three retreats with him in as many years and jotted down some of his pithy statements.  In Zen, one carries such sayings in the mind, turning them over until fresh meaning emerges.  Here are four others I’ve found valuable.  I often remember them at interesting moments.

What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.

Are you going to be a rule follower, or are you just going to be you?

No one else can give us permission to be who we are.

There is no by-the-book way for you to be you.

As you might guess, Edward Brown, who was trained in traditional Zen by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is charting his own course these days.  If you want to learn more about his style of cooking and Zen, you can visit his home page and and listen to some of his teachings at The Peaceful Sea Sangha website.

This is post #17 in a series of reflections on spirituality and living that fellow blogger, Jason, has been posting every Monday. Each post relates to a letter of the alphabet. Who knew that “Q” could generate such a useful series of thoughts that are both timely and timeless? – Morgan

Living In The Now

This is my seventeenth post in a series, where each Monday (if possible) I will post about a point of reflection or insight that I will use to reflect and meditate on during the week. In order to make it a bit more focused and interesting, I will attempt to do this with topics beginning with letters from A to Z. I have often found that having a specific topic to reflect and/or meditate on during the week really lends itself to interesting insights and growth, because you not only have several days to reflect and meditate on the topic, but you have several days to put any lessons and insights that you discover to work in your every day life. For those that follow me on Twitter (@JasonLivingNow) I will try to write updates as the weekly topics come up during meditations, moments of reflection, or just during everyday…

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A Retreat with Anam Thubten Rinpoche

I recently heard the results of a poll that I found surprising: 50% of Americans report having had a “spiritual experience,” but of that group, 80% say they never want to have another. That was exactly the opposite of the 70 or 80 people who gathered on Saturday for a daylong retreat with Anam Thubten Rinpoche, sponsored by the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group.

Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Rinpoche is a Tibetan word meaning, “precious one,” and is usually only applied to those recognized as reincarnations of spiritual leaders or teachers of the past, most famously, the current 14th Dalai Lama.

I first attended a retreat with Anam Thubten in December, 2005 and have been fortunate enough to get to a half-dozen more since then, for his home and teaching center, the  Dharmata Foundation in Point Richmond, CA, is not far away.  In the years since I first heard him, the clarity, resonance, and joy contained in his teachings have brought him greater renown:  his book, No Self, No Problem, originally published by the Dharmata Foundation, has been picked up by Snow Lion Press (a self-publishing success story!), and he was chosen to kick off the ongoing series of online retreats at Tricycle.com

In my own efforts to write of the concept of no-self last December, I quoted Anam Thubten for his simple, experiential way of presenting the concept:  “this ‘I’ is a fictitious entity that is always ready to whither away the moment we stop sustaining it.  We don’t have to go to a holy place to experience this.  All we have to do is simply sit and pay attention to our breath, allowing ourselves to let go of all our fantasies and mental images”

It should be clear that any culture like Tibet, that believes in Rinpoches, is not using the concept of “no-self” to tell us we don’t exist or that life does not continue after death.  In Anam Thubten’s vision, “no-self” means an end to the painful illusion of seperation, an end to isolation, an end to living in a friend-or-foe, fight-or-flight world.

Yet although he mentioned this concept, which first drew me to his teachings, on Saturday he had a different focus, “Primordial Mind,” the unconditioned and indefinable base of what we are, prior to concepts, prior to ego, prior to all delusions.  The experience of this spacious mind is surprisingly near if we are willing to let go of fixed concepts, and practice a simple meditation technique, and if we are motivated by devotion, by longing for union with the absolute the way a thirsty man longs for water.

Anam Thubten’s book elaborates the concepts we need to let go  of as well as his favorite meditation practice – the simple but difficult art of learning to relax and let go of effort, even the effort to meditate “well.”  This longing – for God or the guru or Buddha; for oneness, or emptiness or, selflessness, or enlightenment – however we conceive of the ultimate good, is finally a longing for love, he said, and this is what remains when our fixed ideas break down.  In Anam Thubten’s teaching, God is love, or Buddha Nature is love, as it is in the words of many other spiritual masters.

My description is close to being new-agey, which is why Anam Thubten is the teacher and I am not.  He didn’t gloss over the difficulty and struggles involved in a serious spiritual search, and in his quiet and understated way he noted that if one is not receptive, “this talk will be very strange.”

In the end, it is the person of the teacher himself that does the convincing.  Is this person really what he seems – genuinely centered, full of peace and compassion?  I believe Anam Thubten really is a man of peace and joy and I trust his message that what he has found is accessible to anyone willing to look and make the effort.   More information and his teaching schedule can be found at the Dharmata Foundation website,  http://www.dharmatafoundation.com/

Dharmata is a word that means, “the way things truly are.”


A busy couple of days:  not only a bit of  furious blogging, but finishing up three separate writing projects and reviewing manuscripts for two critique groups.

This morning I attended the California Writer’s Club monthly breakfast and talked with a retired psychiatrist about what’s broken in our mental health care system (hint:  a drug for all that ails you).

After breakfast I came home, and finding this week’s Time in the mailbox, read one of the lead articles, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?”

After that it was time for final proofing and submission of entries to two of the writing contests I’ve mentioned here.  The submissions are on their way, one electronically, one by snail mail.  I’ll have results (or lack thereof) in June and November respectively.

Finally – finally, it was time to brew a cup of coffee in my new French Press (which I am just starting to master), kick back, and enjoy one of life’s greatest luxuries – SILENCE.

Strangely enough, I realize I can’t really say what silence is. It isn’t just lack of noise; the yard guys came with their leaf-blowers, and though I do not enjoy the sound, it didn’t throw me out of inner stillness today (though it sometimes does).

Silence is not just about lack of thoughts, though it does seem to be about experiencing them as impersonal events, like the weather.

Inner silence is not just about meditation, though paradoxically, I would not have found a way to get there if I had not been looking for it in meditative disciplines for years and years and years.

I didn’t learn to find silence on a meditation cushion, but at work, among the cubicles.  I didn’t find it through some technique, but because I quit smoking and really missed the hourly time-out-from-everything I used to enjoy when I’d step outside every hour for a cigarette.

I missed those time-outs long after the nicotine was out of my system.  I took to going outside every hour for ten minutes, thought at first I just did a lot of inner whining as I watched other people light up.

Then, at some point, it simply happened:  I found my time-out mojo, my inner stillness.  For me, it has to do with listening.

I think anyone can find it, it’s really easy.  What happens when someone says, “Hey, listen, what’s that?”

Silence is what happens!   Thoughts and distractions return soon enough, so you listen again.  Distractions come, listen again.

Maybe sounds work best for me because they are not my dominant sense and I really have to pay attention.  Thinking of attention I remember a Zen story that goes something like this:

A student goes to the master and says, “Sir, what is the key to enlightenment?”

The master says, “Pay attention.”

A few moments later the student says, “I am paying attention.  What is the secret?”

“Pay attention.”

The student begins to get flustered.  “I am paying attention.  Are you going to tell me or not.”

“Yes.  Pay attention.”

You get it, and presumably the student got it eventually too – the doorway into one of life’s greatest luxuries.