The Future of Religion

I have always been tolerant of religions. I think good comes out of them as well as bad. Besides, the religious impulse is a part of human psychology and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Live and let live, I say.

At least, I used to. My thoughts may be changing. I was at a young cousin’s memorial this month. The family was gathered in small groups, talking and reaching out to one another. A sad and dignified affair it was until a Catholic priest rose from the assembly to perform the requisite rites. He spoke of a loving God and of eternal life, as if we’d somehow forget that we were burying a 28-year old.

I was incensed. “How dare he stand there and spout such nonsense,” I said to a friend. “These people are grieving, for God’s sake.”

The poor girl had it bad. It’s an insult to her memory to suggest that she’d left sorrow behind; that the misery of her life didn’t matter any more. If I were looking down from her heavenly height, I’m pretty sure I’d feel ripped off. I’d want someone speaking up for me.

With automated incantations pouring from his mouth, the dreary little man in black painted his fable in sunny colors; he made preposterous promises; he made little eye-contact with his congregation, lifting his gaze from the missal only to stare into space at the abstractions he believes in. He knows as well as you and I that life’s as fragile as mist, but that takes second place to higher knowledge, which he finds reassuring.

He’s hooked on it, too committed to admit that knowledge is just as fragile as life. It would terrify him, which is why he’s a terrible role model.

Grief is hard, not bad. Anyone who encourages you to escape it at this most crucial time is simply irresponsible. As a matter of public mental health we need to speak honestly and openly with one another, without recourse to childish metaphors, without tolerating denial. The human race has never been more informed, or more exposed to the world. We’re all growing up. If we’re to move intelligently into the future, our religious leaders need to join the rest of us.


In memoriam: Chloe Ann Haboush


Fame & Enlightenment

People tend to desire the most famous gurus, presuming they must be the most enlightened.

This would hold true if enlightenment were self-evident, but it isn’t. Who knows who’s enlightened and who isn’t? Therefore, the fame of gurus results from something else.

Those who promote the rich and famous know all about that. Fame is not accidental. It comes from good marketing.

Perhaps you’re shocked to think that behind The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle you’ll find spin. Perhaps that makes you angry or cynical, but whether they or anyone else is enlightened is beside the point. It doesn’t even matter. If you want to wake up, just get on with it. No guru can do it for you.

Dalai Lama Kalachakra Washington D.C. July 15, 2011

Flying Free

FreefallIt’s strange how Gotama’s path to freedom became an organized religion—but then, Buddhism is a treasury of paradoxes.

It’s also a cradle of iconoclasts. How many owe a debt of gratitude to the very foundations they’ve smashed. For twenty-six hundred years the institutions of Buddhism preserved the history and pickled the words. Siddhattha’s human story was turned into trite formulas—noble truths, folds of a path, heaps of consciousness—untouchable arrangements of words that as easily bog you down in dogma as unleash your imagination. Yes, the paradoxes abound.

To be more specific, we owe a debt of gratitude to those Buddhists who work in the uneasy shadow of paradox, wrenching fresh meaning from dry words and usurping the local establishment.

It’s always local. There’s no monolithic Buddhism, just a thousand regional interpretations and communities, each sprouting its own its left and right wings. It comes down to the tension between the conservatives and the progressives, one claiming to own the original and the other claiming it can’t be owned. Gotama himself cut off his beautiful long hair and abandoned his family, driving a knife deep into the hearts of his loved ones. If he were around today he’d be trashed in the tabloids and trolled on social media.

Liberation must be wrenched from dogma

Liberation cannot be guaranteed. It must be wrenched from dogma, puzzled over like a cryptic equation until the simplicity is unlocked and you feel, “Yes! Surely, this is what he felt.” Somehow, it must explain his audacious claim.” Perfect enlightenment indeed.

One thing’s for sure. Breakthrough takes special courage—an outrageous leap of faith in oneself, one that cannot coexist with the certainties of any ancient and venerable tradition.

I’m Back

Change. Sometimes we choose it; sometimes it’s thrust upon us.

Caroline and I have just gone through a series of changes—chaotic and nerve-wracking, but on the whole, good. The result is that we’re in a new house, and I have a new office. In the midst of a world gone mad, all is calm here.

During that upheaval my work also moved to a new footing. has become a portal for daily meditation and a pragmatic online presence. I’ll be offering videos, streaming audio, webinars and online courses. Yes, mindfulness for the masses, I’m on the bandwagon now, but it’s more a widening of scope than a change of direction. It’s about getting to work.

The Naked Monk has continued to attract visitors in my absence, whom I welcome. My newsletter subscribers have for the most part remained. Hi there. It’s good to be back.

This website is more specifically about Buddhism: the theory, the politics, the scholasticism and the happenings. I’ll maintain my stance as a critic from a short distance. Every religion has its cast of players: conservatives like the Dalai Lama, critics from within like Stephen Batchelor and critics from the outside like The Naked Monk. I’m not any old outsider though. I’m an apostate. For eight years I strove to conform, rise through the ranks and become enlightened. You can question my motives, my approach and my goals, but I was just trying to do what everyone else seemed to be doing.

What counts is not what you believe but what you experience

Over time that didn’t sit well with me. I figured the Buddha would have done things differently, so one day I decided the best way for me to figure that out was on my own, away from the believers and the followers. By stepping away I honored the instinct that brought me to Buddhism in the first place: that what counts is not what you believe but what you experience—and how you respond.

The Naked Monk simply attempts to place Buddhism within the frame of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s a great exercise, for it makes you constantly wonder what the Buddha had in mind; you don’t get bogged down in one interpretation or another. Each Buddhist establishment has its own spin, which is fair enough, but the main job of every establishment is to defend its ground, and that’s not practice; it’s politics. Only those with no particular Buddhism to call home are really free to question.

That said, it’s scary to stand on shifting ground and good to know there are others of like mind. This blog has attracted such people, and for all of you I’m grateful. Please write and let me know your thoughts, your questions and especially your concerns. Let’s explore them together.

Are you ready for Christmas?

Imagine being told that one day next month you’ll get together with the people who know you best, and that you must be happy and loving towards them all. What’s more, your feelings can’t be contrived; you must be sincere and honest.

What? You can manage what you say and even—to a certain extent—what you think, but you can’t decide how you’re going to feel on a given day. How are you expected to make that happen?

The first thing you can do is not set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. If you hear yourself saying, “Aunt Betty better behave herself this year,” you’re putting your hopes in something beyond your control. Better let that one go.

Then there’s the selfless and impossible promise, “No matter how Brother Jack criticizes me, I won’t feel hurt.” Good luck with that.

Or, “If I just shut up there’ll be no fighting and no one will get hurt.” Sure, except that your bottled-up frustration will erupt one way or another.

Another thing you can do is prepare to have your buttons pushed. You know you don’t have to react to Jack’s jibes, but he has a knack of delivering them just when your guard’s down. You can’t reinvent yourself at a moment’s notice. You have to practice the art of not reacting so it’ll be ready for you when you need it.

There’s no need to compromise yourself. Not reacting doesn’t mean becoming a doormat. It means taking a deep breath, letting go of your habitual reactions and instead coming up with an intelligent response. If that response is novel or surprising, even better. When it comes to family, everyone expects you to stick to your role so that they can stick to theirs. Stir it up a little. If you act differently, people will react differently too.

How do you do that? Practice. All the willpower in the world won’t enable you to change who you are when it’s inconvenient to be you, but if you think about it in advance, you can become more than you think.  More open, more calm, more relaxed. There are more possible dimensions of you than you can ever imagine. Here’s a great way to open up new ones: each bedtime recall one thing you’re grateful for. See how it makes you feel. Do this every day and watch the momentum build week by week.

Rather than being stuck in old patterns, you’ll have more options. You’ll be prepared for the holidays in the best ways possible, and you won’t have to put on the cheer. It’ll be real.

Manage Stress from the Inside

Blood pressure up? Not eating well? No time for family & friends? Spouse anxious? Not sleeping? Ah, the things I could tell you about the pressure I’m under right now… but why bother? You’ve got your own stuff to worry about.

Everyone talks about how stressful things are today as if, once upon a magical time, they weren’t. This is life. Still, science has never paid so much attention. Psychology Today describes cortisol, the stress hormone, as ‘public health enemy number one,’ and big pharma would like you to think their drugs are on the front line. However, your body’s been dealing with cortisol for thousands of years. It knows precisely what to do, and does it without any side-effects: it releases endorphins.

Like cortisol, endorphins are hormones. Rather than making you hyper they calm you down. Ideally the two work together to crank you up when you need to be on your toes, then chill you out afterwards. Unfortunately, it rarely works like that. Once it gets going, cortisol hates to quit. As hormones go, it’s a control-freak. That’s why we tend to stay in react mode even after the source of stress has passed. To release endorphins on cue, you have to step in and take charge.

Daily exercise gives you a break and temporarily brings your cortisol levels down, but it doesn’t deliver a finely tuned balance. Vacations, laughter and other diversions are also helpful, but they don’t last and they don’t reach deep into the sources of stress. Alternating levels of stress and relaxation still place unhealthy pressure on your body and mind, making you susceptible to sickness and causing premature aging.

In the end, nothing’s quite as effective as the brain. Subconsciously, it’s involved in all hormonal activity, but you can also focus it consciously on your stress response, bringing the most proactive part of the brain to the front line. Now you’re looking at attention: something that can finely tune your stress balance.

Attention is the principal tool of mindfulness. It keeps you clear-minded and easy-going, less prone to anxiety. This and other mindfulness techniques help you fine-tune your stress balance from moment to moment.

Mindfulness is all the rage today, but there’s nothing new about it. It’s touted as an ancient Buddhist practice but in fact it’s found in every culture. It’s not rocket science. It’s brain science, except that it’s easy. When you see yourself under unnecessary stress, it gives you freedom to stand back and let go.

The only thing is, it takes a bit of effort. Take a class. Practice it. It really will change your life.