Bare to the Bone

DavidThe Naked Monk is not just a brand. It describes you as much as me. We care passionately about life. We feel the ground constantly shifting beneath our feet; we wonder what to do; we identify with no particular religion or philosophy; we feel instinctively that all truths are small-t, that life’s purpose is what we make it. We’re trying to be real, and accept anxiety as par for the course; we do not turn away; we value dignity, empathy and insight; we’re unwilling to wrap ourselves in false certainties or denial, willing to shiver in our nakedness. We aspire to be an honest product of our times.

No Reality, Just Perception

Woody Allen is at the peak of his powers. His movie Blue Jasmine is well told, brilliantly acted and tightly edited, but I hated watching it. It didn’t just make me squirm. I felt he was trying to douse my every hope.

Every generation has its myths, and the one that’s dragging us into the future right now is the notion that we can live without myth. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and the other main characters, wealthy and poor alike, dance like puppets on the strings of a faceless god. Flashes of clumsy mirth bring momentary respite from their otherwise sordid existence. Their lives are unenviable.

This is Dr. Phil territory. Even Buddhists would concede his Life Law #6: “There is no reality, only perception.” Allen portrays this insight skillfully, but where Dr. Phil and the Buddhists think we can do better, Allen’s subtext is that we’re a sorry lot with no chance of redemption. The only light shines in a dark workshop where Jasmine’s stepson Danny, a minor character, obstinately nurses his integrity. Allen used to cloak his pessimism in neurotic comedy, but there are few laughs here, and they are cruel.

I abhor gratuitous happiness and false positive thinking

A life without effort or direction is empty. On that I’m with Allen, but I’ve always been ambivalent about his work. Although he flaunts the conventional rules of success and still succeeds — something I admire — the underlying premise is bleak.

Not that I’m some sort of Disney freak. I abhor gratuitous happiness and false positive thinking. I have serious doubts about progress, though with perseverance and luck it can happen. I know we can change the perceptions that form our reality. However, the conventional majority hardly imagine it while the new-age minority reframe those perceptions as if they’re just semantics; as in, “It’s all good.”

Our attempt to escape our own perceptions by obscuring them with denial and lies is both understandable and unforgivable. Jasmine is a caricature of this essential human malaise. Allen’s depiction of that is brilliant.

However, this film holds no glimmer of hope. Whether you call it redemption, enlightenment or self-improvement, Allen has either given up on it or has pointedly omitted it. He has uncanny insight into human nature, but seems depressed by it.

It’s rare that we improve our plight, but not impossible. I learned that as a Buddhist monk (see my memoir), but experienced it only years later. In that no-man’s land between hope and discovery I couldn’t shake off the perception of being an island unto myself. That’s where Jasmine is stuck. Like her, I brooked no compromise. I felt viscerally that to seek support was a weakness; so much so that I abandoned even the fragile consolations of belief. It wasn’t irrational, but it was painful. I lost myself once again to the isolation that had chased me into monastic community in the first place. Only when I finally met someone of like mind did I understand the meaning and purpose of moral support: that it could take me out of myself. By reconnecting to the chaotic imperfections of society, I perceived myself as something else, less exalted and more likable.

Who among us has never balked at the terrors of intelligence?

Jasmine flaps around like a marooned fish, hanging on grimly to the made-up certainty of who she is. She pays the ultimate price — not her life but her sanity. She can’t bring herself to reach out humbly to another human being, even when she has the perfect opportunity. That alone would open her to the possibility of change, but she won’t let go her pride; she just can’t. It’s her only, desperate, paper-thin identity. Her perception — her reality — is that to abandon her self image is to break the prime rule of survival. It’s inconceivable.

Jasmine is a model of willful ignorance, and who among us has never balked at the terrors of intelligence? Because tragedy is so human, Woody Allen is lauded for his depiction of reality. For his communicative and technical skills he deserves it.

But this is a heartless, dismal and cynically one-sided perception. Yes, life is often like that. No, it’s not inevitable.


You Don’t Have to Believe in God to Get Mad at Him

A 21st century dilemma

“I’m mad at God, Stephen. I’m sorry but I can’t help it.”

“I don’t blame you Johanna,” I said.

This was no time to argue metaphysics. Johanna and Stan, clients I’ve become fond of, lost their son unexpectedly over Christmas. Just when they thought he was recovering from a road accident, he took a turn for the worse. She described his decline in horrifying detail. “It was terrible,” she said. She wasn’t weak; she wasn’t tearful. She was defiant.

“That’s awful,” I said. “I can’t imagine how you feel.”

“No one should have to bury their child, Stephen.” She wished me a Happy New Year and hung up.

I was mute. What could I say? I have no more stomach for platitudes: “Resting in the arms of Jesus.” “Bound for the Buddhist Pure Lands.”

The pretense that we know what life’s about
is for those who just can’t accept its treachery

The pretense that we know what life’s about, and what follows, is for those who just can’t accept its treachery. Some people are compelled to say something — anything — even if it’s ineffectual, even if it’s make-believe. It’s supposed to help the bereaved, but I can’t see how. To be bereaved is to be inescapably face-to-face with loss. These one liners are for those who are not currently afflicted, a vain attempt to keep death at arm’s length.

Johanna’s mind is on something more immediate. “I can’t believe I’ll not speak to him any more.”

Of course, she does believe it. That’s where the pain is. She’s not denying the truth but voicing her disillusionment. She feels the urge to deny reality, but how can she? So she’s mad at God.

Why not? It’s her way of coping.

I found that I hadn’t been seeking security
after all, but freedom. Big difference.

Coping isn’t always so dignified. Our daughter once had a friend over for the afternoon and we met her mother. When Caroline mentioned that she had multiple sclerosis the woman exclaimed in her cheeriest voice, “Oh, I knew someone with MS. She died!” She laughed involuntarily. Caroline and I looked at each other. In her clumsy attempt to make things better, she made everyone feel worse.

People who face life’s sufferings simply don’t behave this way. They can’t; they’re in touch with reality. Idiocy is a trait of those who try to deny suffering and maintain their illusions about life’s intrinsic goodness. They’re somnolent, zoned out.

The pursuit of happiness may be natural, but the denial of suffering is dumb. My distrust of people who have all the answers turns quickly to anger, but that’s not entirely fair. After all, I’ve been there myself.

As a young man I had qualms about all systems of moral security, but out of insecurity I dared not trust my distrust. Alarmed by the thought that no one knows what life’s all about, I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I suspended my disbelief and gave the benefit of the doubt to one orthodoxy after another: Christianity, Communism, Buddhism. I wanted very badly to believe, so I did — at least, I tried to.

That’s another story, but eventually I was sorely disillusioned and had to understand why. The result was my memoir, The Novice. In writing it I realized that I hadn’t been after security at all, but freedom. Big difference.

As I approach old age my doubts diminish. Nobody has a handle on everything; everybody has their insecurities; few people admit either of those things. I’ve figured out a few things, but no longer fear what I haven’t.

Life can be good, but it also hurts like hell, and it ends. Pretending otherwise makes me dumb and insensitive. So if I’m silent in the face of Johanna’s agony, I know at least that my honesty frees me from pretentious, patronizing and ultimately harmful illusions.


Empathizing Anger

The therapist was just starting to dig into my childhood. “Why were you so angry?” he asked.

“No particular reason,” I said blithely. “I was just an angry person.”

“Really?” he asked. “Surely something or someone made you angry.”

I was dumbfounded. How could I have missed that?

When what’s obvious to everyone else strikes you as novel, you know you’re on to something. I didn’t just gain the freedom to stop blaming myself; I also got a rare opportunity to examine an unexamined assumption: that anger is bad.

There are still families today in which children are expected to be seen and not heard. Respect for elders is demanded of many who receive little in return. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they internalize their frustration until sooner or later the dam bursts. This ‘proves’ their lack of control and justifies those who accuse them. The worst of it isn’t just that they’re labeled as angry people, but that those they trust reflect this image back to them relentlessly, until they end up believing it themselves. Without therapy or mindful reflection, they grow into dysfunctional parents themselves, continuing the cycle of disrespect and bottled-up rage.

It’s not anger that’s poisonous; it’s carrying it around

As I untangled my ball of defensive yarn in the weeks following that conversation, I realized I had a right to be angry. It was natural. It’s not anger that’s poisonous; it’s carrying it around. Sometimes, it’s the only appropriate response.

The mind is not a lump of clay. It’s a tumbleweed of interdependent thoughts and feelings interacting with a constantly changing world. We have a say in it — enough to keep up appearances — but if experience is contingent, how can we expect to control our minds? All we can do is manage the way we respond to thoughts and feelings — and even that’s conditioned. Accepting such powerlessness flies in the face of the self-control we expect of ourselves. Meditators especially want that control; if we’re determined we may find peace in retreat, but returning to ordinary life we find ourselves as bound as anyone else.

Turning away from your own negativity is utterly self-centered

Just this week I got angry. First at the Boston Marathon bombing, then at the media frenzy that fed on it. Our local press was at the airport interviewing people returning from Boston as if they were celebrities. It was obnoxious. I was angry.

What? Am I supposed to feel calm and collected?

I’m not afraid of negative truths. I want to know the facts of the world I live in, but I can’t languish in so much tragedy. I have to reserve myself for those in my world. When the news gets too much, I turn it off. On the same day as the Boston bombing fifty people were bombed to death in Iraq, and over a hundred armed conflicts were ongoing around the world. Are we supposed to feel it all?

Meanwhile, the terrorists win whenever we feel terrorized. The only way I know to resist that is by harnessing my anger.

I was reading other news last week. I didn’t realize until I turned the page that I’d scrolled indifferently past the story of a father killing his own children. I turned back and read it, partly out of guilt, partly thinking ‘I shouldn’t ignore this.’ The story was sickening; my seeing it as commonplace was almost as bad. That makes me angry, thank God.

So there. I’ve made my point. But the question remains, can we really change the way we process anger? Is accepting our animal nature incompatible with empathy?

For years I turned the other cheek
thinking I was being morally superior

Not at all. I was never more self-centered than when turning away from my own negativity. Empathy means feeling-into. If we don’t bathe in our own emotions, how can we feel into other people’s? Religious, spiritual and new-age attempts to transcend contingency and remain positive at any cost are not just fantastic; they’re also counter-productive.

Saying that we need to see and feel things as they really are isn’t secret code for some transcendent reality. It means seeing without projection, without yearning for things to be otherwise. That uncontrived perception is peaceful. Clarity and empathy are conjoined twins. One can’t go without the other. To care properly, we must be clear; to be clear we must extend beyond ourselves.

It’s not complicated, but it takes time to change habits of perception. More than anyone else, my wife Caroline has been a role model for me. She’s a particularly honest and forthright person. Disrespect her and it won’t go unremarked, but she’ll tell you what she has to say quietly, directly, without rancor. She has tact. Right there and then she gets it off her chest — literally. There’s very little residue.

This is a successful life strategy; the feedback encourages her and she keeps getting better at it. The way I once saw myself as inherently angry was a very different sort of feedback loop, one that carried me deeper into negativity. Such is the power of habit.

For years I turned the other cheek thinking I was being morally superior. In the name of ‘compassion’ I pretended that ignoring the barbs of my adversaries was a kindness to them. I didn’t speak my mind until I was at boiling point, and you can imagine how much tact went along with that. It was neither courageous nor honest. It certainly wasn’t a kindness.

Every state of mind is contingent. Certain situations will make us angry, but whether they increase or diminish our empathy depends on how we process that anger, not on how we judge it. To the extent that we are unhesitating, clear and frank we grow more stable.

Peace and calm are not the goals of mindful reflection; they’re just tools. What we need to carry into everyday life is the instinct to explore our feelings as they are expressed, to know our underlying motives and to not waste time trying to be good.


The Complications of Simplicity

The yoga teacher started off: “Empty your mind. Be simply present. Don’t think of the things you have to do today.”

Right. Guess what I started thinking about.

The power of suggestion can trigger habits, but it can’t stop them. Besides, emptying the mind is a wild goose chase. I tried for years. I lived with people who believed implicitly in it. Questioning it was taboo. There’s no room for exploration in the company of doubtless people, so I left.

Consciousness cannot be empty. Just as we can’t see without seeing something, we’re always conscious of something. Information floods in. We render it all — even our reactive sensations and feelings — into the symbols that make us distinctly human. All is impregnated with the dust of ideas, ordered according to the rules of language and cloaked in the illusion of objective truth. It’s oddly more comforting to believe that the order of the universe is a mystery than that we omnipotently create it. We invent one thing after another with such desperate compulsion that we long to stop. Sadly, the longing too is an invention.

Some things should make us feel angry, afraid or guilty

We crave an impossible sort of self-control. We may even sign up for a meditation course hoping that it will change everything. We are taught that simplicity is our birthright. We have only to let go.

But let go of what — negativity? The pursuit of pure positivity is a fool’s quest. Some things should make us feel angry, afraid or guilty. What binds us to cyclic thinking, repetitive patterns and general torpitude is the vain hope for happiness and simplicity. Spiritual teachers target our desire to be happy; it’s what we all seek, they say. They’re right, but if we expect them to lead us there, that’s our mistake.

Eckhart Tolle is not the first to claim that
history is heading somewhere lovely

Eckhart Tolle artfully blends insights that ring true with predictions that we deeply want to be true. Human consciousness, he tells us, is on the threshold of profound transformation. He wins our trust, then points us toward the great dream.

He’s not the first to claim that history is heading somewhere lovely. The end of days, the second coming, the day of judgement, the final renovation, the completion of the cycle, the end of suffering and the withering away of the state are all variations on this theme. These are the respective destinations of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Marxism. All portend the end of negativity and the fulfillment of our destiny. There’s a modern version too: according to scientific materialism we’re steadily growing more reasonable.

Foolish leaders promise an end to confusion and leverage the human failing of cognitive dissonance. In 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger showed that rather than testing beliefs against facts, humans will enthusiastically reinterpret the facts to fit their needs. If your beliefs are indistinguishable from your hopes, you’re probably doing that.

Reversing direction is tricky. We can’t stop thinking. We can clarify it, but no matter how straight our thinking, life is anything but. Still, clear perception in an open mind can reveal something of great value: the way we identify with our thoughts.

Ideas that seem important make us feel important. No matter how objective we think we are, we buy into belief systems and rationalizations from mostly subconscious motives. We may have good reasons too, but never in isolation. We forget that ideas are abstract approximations of experience, and that experience is multifaceted, interdependent and contingent. It doesn’t come in bite-sized chunks. It’s everything that happens to us. You can’t pinpoint such a moving target, especially since you’re part of it.

Thought is useful, though much of it is
as superfluous as a cloud of pollen

We resist this insight because it’s destabilizing. If we can’t rely on our own thoughts, what can we rely on? Again, the real question is hidden: why rely on anything? In this moment we are alive; we are conscious. Our need for that to be correct, or happy or simple is a prejudice. To the extent that we recognize this, thought is reinstated as a mere tool. We begin to think with a featherlight touch.

There’s no call to abandon reason. Thought is useful, though much of it is as superfluous as a cloud of pollen. Letting go means accepting nature’s prodigality, both in the world and in the teeming process of consciousness. There’s no stopping it.

Thought is essential, but incidental to experience. Imagining that ideas rise above circumstances to gain value of their own is superstition of the most primitive kind.

Teachers who claim to have emptied their minds or conquered suffering will always be with us. They voice a universal dream of the human race. They are a necessary stepping stone. Take their methods to heart, strive with uncompromising honesty, and you will break though the dream, find your own feet and know that you are competent.

The reality that lies beyond is not simpler. It doesn’t need to be.


Be a Spiritual Outlaw

Sons of AnarchyTV has come a long way. Used to be that crime show characters were either saints or sinners. Take Sons of Anarchy, about a biker gang in Charming, California. The cops are jerks, and the robbers have a sense of justice you can relate to. The moral lines that are so clear-cut in theories of law and order are actually a tangled mess.

I wondered, “Do bikers watch this?” Probably not; more likely, dentists and bankers, shopkeepers and ex-Buddhist monks. Guess I’m not the only one to dream about the outlaw life.

For me it all began in primary school. My childhood teachers called me a holy terror because I always brought up the awkward questions. If you want to understand your eternal afterlife, it seemed to me, you can’t just accept what you’re told. My teachers wanted me to because that would have made their lives easier, not because it was right.

Rather than suppressing my sense of rebellion, they spurred it on. Of course.

Entering the stream means exiting your comfort zone

Religious communities provide a secure and reassuring framework for life. By institutionalizing right and wrong they take a load off your shoulders. That’s okay for beginners and children, but accepting rules you don’t understand should always be provisional. From day one they should be nudging you toward independence of thought. In early Buddhism that turning point is called stream-entry. However, entering the stream means exiting your comfort zone.

In practical terms, some stay while others leave their spiritual home. Either way, it’s a struggle. Your relationship with truth and reality changes forever. Thinking independently doesn’t mean always being sure of yourself. Far from it, it means taking risks and learning from your mistakes. And yet, when you do step right, you know it and grow from it with integrity.

Be ready to question bad decisions and break bad laws

History is peppered with outlaws. Jesus was a renegade Jew who needled the temple authorities. The Buddha left his station to become a hobo. Can you imagine either one at the head of the multinational institutions that bear their names today?

You don’t have to be a full-time outlaw. You just have to be ready to question bad decisions and break bad laws. In exchange, you’ll be freed of conformity for its own sake, and even when you agree with the law-makers, you’ll do so with a clarity that’s out of reach for mere followers.

Still, go against the current and you’ll find yourself out in the cold, maybe even crucified. My writing has upset a range of people from orthodox Buddhists to hardcore rationalists. The accusation is always the same: in one way or another, I’m wrong.

We’re called on every day to tell right
from wrong; most of the time, we know

They don’t get it. The point of this blog is not to be right but to voice the doubts that lie just beneath your conscious threshold. You don’t have to agree; if you’re using your wits you won’t believe a thing I say anyway. This is just a starting point. You’ll figure stuff out for yourself.

Still those accusers do worry me, not because of their opinions but because of the way they hold them. Don’t they see that reality is constantly shifting, that our descriptions of it are provisional, that the unexplored human mind sees only what it wants to see? Perhaps they’re worried that deep questioning makes everything meaningless, even right and wrong. That’s misguided. We’re called on every day to tell right from wrong, and most of the time we know, even if we don’t do right. But that’s another matter.

To be an outlaw you have to be ready to correct the authorities, sometimes with diplomacy, sometime bluntly. The point is to seek fairness and truth while knowing it’s dangerous. Imagine if everyone were willing to step outside their comfort zone.

We stand alone, are born and die alone. Why would we not make our own decisions? As Caroline said the other day, “If you don’t have conflict, you’re not alive.”