Reflecting Reality

Mindful Reflection Tip #3

The meditative lifestyle isn’t just about the inner life; it’s also about reconnecting to the outer world: not just mindfulness but also reflection.

A few days ago Caroline and I were enjoying the warm sun of a late summer afternoon when she closed her eyes for a few moments to settle her mind. As they opened again she gasped quietly and whispered to me to turn my head. There in our backyard stood a magnificent heron — ramrod-straight and oozing untamed dignity.

Speaking of untamed, our garden is quite unlike our neighbors’ manicured patches. By late summer it teems with overgrown life; perhaps the heron deemed it some wild oasis in the monotonous suburbanscape.

Whatever its motives, it graced our afternoon. Its head turned to one side with an indifferent eye on us, the bird shocked the familiar from our eyes, returning us to the reality of where and how we lived: in a world that is not ours. For all our mastery of nature, our technological progress and environmental destruction, we’re just visitors with a brief lease on life, of no particular significance. Even our environmentalist instincts set us apart from nature for, let’s be honest, deep down we’re designed to care more about humanity than the planet.

Since childhood I’ve been urged to consider my mortality daily, the better to keep life and perspectives in order. With aging it grows easier to do, and harder to ignore. This brief meeting had a similar effect, bringing the ticking of life’s unstoppable clock to the fore and pushing my daily worries back to the farthest reaches of triviality.

Perhaps this is why we seek out intimate contact with nature. To feel once more naked, free and unbearably vulnerable — eventually to be recycled, though not just yet.


Life With No Foundation

I was thirty when my teacher Geshe Rabten first asked me to address his Buddhist group in Geneva, I knew the material and had long felt a calling to teach it. Afterwards, a woman, very much my elder, beamed at me and exclaimed, “Such wisdom in one so young!” Her companion nodded enthusiastically.

These were just the words I’d hoped to hear, but they didn’t bring me any comfort. I squirmed. My teachers all had decades of experience under their belt. I hadn’t even one. Buddhism is a transformative practice, not just a belief system or philosophy. I’d had no blinding flashes of insight, no visceral feelings of universal compassion and bliss. My meditation was scarred by chronic distraction and self-doubt. I was mired in the petty concerns of ego. I felt like a fraud. Furthermore, protected as I’d been by the rules of monastic life, what did I know of the stressful and complicated lives of these people?

I quit not only teaching but monkhood. It was a momentous decision, more complicated than words can say, but I rationalized it thus, as an act of integrity. Twenty years were to pass before I once more took up the mantle. In the interim there’d been no drama. As I’d continued my practice it had simply dawned on me in bits and pieces that the pursuit of supernatural experience was a blind, that the path of insight was not spectacular. There were no colored lights, no comic quakes and no heavenly showers. The way to freedom consists simply in relinquishing the illusions that make life seem reasonable, safe and pleasant.

The thought of life without foundation is scary. Teaching is the process of nudging people towards that abyss. They go willingly or not at all, but the teacher must know deep down that it’s okay, that letting go isn’t the fulfillment of your worst fears but a discarding of your self-imposed limitations. The shock of sudden descent is real, the fear of hitting hard rock and smashing every bone is palpable — but the impact never comes. As you gradually you get used to that, your practice blossoms.

I love to teach. I enjoy formulating a deft phrase or, even better, a well-laid trap. Those who attend my workshops come to hear the truth (small-t), to be disabused of all the spin that’s pumped out by religion, consumerism and technology. The human world is a monument to the arts of illusion. It’s no mean feat to read between the lines and see the fiction, to even want to break through the veil.

I learn as much from my workshops as my students do, perhaps more. I’m indebted to them. I honor and respect them. Even as they teeter at the edge, half scared to death, they dare to peer into the chasm. My job is to reassure them that the leap, when it comes, is an affirmation of  faith in themselves, and not in any higher truth. How else can we live to our full potential?

The Politics of Cynicism

Canada’s just kicked off a federal election campaign. Once upon a time this would have been purely regional news, but I’m seeing something that’s mirrored in the US and Europe too — deepening cynicism among voters, politicians profitably disconnecting from reality and democratic values turning into shells of cliché and empty rhetoric.

None of this is new, and that in itself makes me think. In recent days I’ve watched a video of a twelve year old girl telling off the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, an eloquent, new yet classic anti-war rant, a beautifully produced (another) manifesto against blind conformity and an old, old recollection of Jimi Hendrix’s If 6 Was 9, which promotes individuality against both culture and counter-culture.

It all resonates for me. It always did. The twelve year old girl’s speech was so timely I assumed it was yesterday; in fact it was delivered two decades ago. Old rants against the phoenix of old wrongs, both perennially renewed. The outrage of my sixties generation was unprecedented. We were uncompromising. We weren’t pretty. We were communists and anarchists. Some took up arms. We were sure to turn the tide of corporatism, money and war. Instead, we were slowly recruited into the fold. Today, power-brokers spin the concepts of freedom and democracy while racking up obscene profits at the cost of our planet, our health, our sanity and our social cohesion; some of them are my old comrades.

The English philosopher John Gray said, “…intolerance for reality is innate in the human mind.” In Canada, our prime minister has spun the concept of political coalitions — a venerable, practical feature of parliamentary democracy — into a spectre of lingering evil. His opponents have fallen hook, line and sinker for this misrepresentation and spent time, money and credibility defending themselves against it and accusing him of doing the same thing, as if it were a problem — or even an issue. It’s a non-debate — a diversion that treats voters with unprecedented contempt. Perhaps we deserve it.

The intellectual and emotional level of political debate seems to have reached an all time low. Instead of exchanging views and perspectives, political foes today cast aspersions on one another’s intelligence and integrity. This ignorant disrespect is reflected and magnified in hundreds of thousands of comments on political blogs — disheartening forums of insult and abuse that split the political spectrum into your side and mine. Fix your allegiance and slag the other. It requires no thought, no study, no effort, and apparently delivers enormous, obnoxious self-satisfaction. Here are our neighbours, parents of the next generation, power-brokers of the future. Many are university-educated in specializations so narrow that they’re actually profoundly ignorant of the context in which they spout their ‘opinions.’ Is the educated class a thing of the past?

It all makes me wonder whether our forefathers were right to give a vote indiscriminately to every man and woman. Shouldn’t that right be a privilege, conditional on actually contemplating the issues, or at least acknowledging that other points of view might have merit? How can anyone be so sure of themselves?

Which brings me to my field — the contemplation of human motives. I recognize blunt certainty: it’s a cover-up of existential unease, of the instinctive knowledge that nothing is sure. How few people — even fewer public figures — acknowledge that life is a mystery for which we have many theories but no answers. The healthiest among us take their knowledge with a grain of salt and keep their minds open. Those who cling to certainty with violent conviction are driven by forces that may originate within them, but from which they’re profoundly out of touch. John Gray continues, “The pretence of reason is part of the human comedy.”

We need a thoughtful society. It’s asking a lot — so much that you’re probably already shaking your head, incredulous at my naïveté; but how can we ask for less? What about the omnipotent, omniscient, fictional ‘they’ to whom we always pass the buck? Will they do something about it? Shall we continue the long wait for human institutions to act humanely? ‘They’ will continue to pursue their own interests by clumping into power structures too big for any of us to bring down, short of violent revolution. Real solutions will not trickle down from the top; they can only swell from the bottom up — from us. Be mindful, think reflectively, learn empathy. Teach your children, with words at least but more importantly by example.

Our society has become a frenzy of acquisition that may well implode. We have more stuff than our forefathers, more than we need; far too much to make us happy. Managing it is so onerous that we find ourselves under stresses that are poisoning society and killing us — and ours is the fortunate, developed, ‘advanced’ society. More stuff stimulates more need, more greed, less introspection. Maybe one day the battle lines will be drawn and we’ll bring it all down by force. But then, just like our prime minister’s foes, we’ll have fallen for their spin and will just rebuild in the image and likeness of those same old aggressive passions. Study history: it’s happened before with numbing regularity.

It’s hard to keep hope, and yet — fortunately — we’re programmed to keep hoping. It’s irrational, probably impossible, but I can’t help it: I want a sensible world. What little we can do is dictated by circumstance, not by whim and certainly not by belief. Will we cultivate sensitivity to circumstance, to the messages from the biosphere and from those within it? It’s the incontrovertible message of the stewards of the Earth — the aboriginal cultures — but will we ever again find such clear simplicity?

Feel helpless and outmatched if you must, but don’t leave it to ‘them.’ Go inwards; seek insight. By simply pursuing personal balance we model it to others, and remind each other to be respectful, clear-headed, thoughtful and forceful in expressing what we believe while acknowledging that that doesn’t make everyone else wrong. Whatever else we might do, it has to begin with this. Take little steps and long strides may follow. Take no steps and you foster the growth of cynicism.

Decisions, decisions

Quiet Mind student Falk Kyser asks, “using the Buddha’s teachings, how do you make an important life or business decision?” Falk is not one for little questions.

Spiritual pathways like the Buddha’s are making some impact in the business world, but only baby steps. There’s still a long way to go in overcoming the perceived gulf between spiritual and material pursuits. I say perceived, because there’s no practical difference at all. Let me explain:

My own introspective life, as well as feedback from meditation students, has shown me that much of what we call perception is in fact preconception — we tend to see what we expect to see, sometimes even what we want to see. Buddhism draws attention to this by guiding us in mindfulness practice towards bare perception (manasikara) — sustained attention to something in the present moment — usually the breath. As beginners, we discover that bare perception is almost instantly overtaken by the feelings, attitudes and mental constructs that constitute the inner chatter. Among other things, mindfulness slows down the interdependency of those mental events so we can: a) see how the untrained mind works, and b) develop focus and make more informed decisions.

Most business leaders see meditation and spiritual pursuits as woolly-minded and impractical — something that, if you really have to, should be done outside of the workplace. It’s hard to blame them. On the other side of the imaginary divide, ‘spiritual’ teachers and practitioners consider themselves at war with greedy materialists, and favour wishful thinking over hard-nosed materialism. What both camps are missing is that authentic paths to mental freedom don’t separate the spiritual from the material but reunite them in organic, practical and everyday ways. That’s what core Buddhism’s all about. Of course, Buddhists can be woolly-minded too; wishful thinking’s a natural tendency of the human mind. Just because you ‘believe’ in the Buddha is no guarantee that you’re actually following his example. The point, as the Buddha himself made on many occasions, is to explore your own mind and, knowing it, come to your own decisions.

There’s another perceived conflict between business and spiritual thinking: goal-oriented versus non-goal-oriented behaviour. Organized managers and business leaders favour rational thinking and planning for good reason, but they often lose sight of the fact that people are driven by emotion. Scientific studies have shown that most reasoning takes place after the fact—to justify a foregone decision. The good news is that emotional decisions aren’t necessarily wrong ones; the bad news is that we often think we’re being rational when we’re being emotional. If you’re looking to know your own mind and how it works, such rationalized excuses are just more mental constructs that pile layer upon layer of mental chatter, adding to confusion and causing bad decisions.

The most common source of confusion in business is thinking that the bottom line is money. It’s not — it’s survival; money is only one component of survival. Ethics, satisfaction, self-esteem, integrity, dignity, honour and compassion are qualities that serve both individuals and organizations, promoting long-term growth, happiness — and survival.

The practice of mindful reflection develops these qualities by combining mindfulness —sustained attention to what is (as opposed to what one wants), with insightful reflection — an understanding from your own experience of how you’ve made decisions and how they’ve worked for you. By focussing quietly on your mind in the present moment you clear the fog of preconception and, instead of falling for your own rationalization, see past it to your emotional motives.

For example, I was recently referred to a new client by a supplier who, over the years, has passed several opportunities my way. After the job, the client alerted me to a problem which I fixed immediately at no charge, the unspoken assumption being that I’d ‘overlooked’ it first time around. A week later, my supplier called to explain that the client was in the same situation, and was now upset.

My instinct was to protect my reputation at all costs. In fact, my hand was on the phone to tell the client I was on my way, but at that moment I detected the pang of resentment. I put the phone down and stopped to reflect. I’d been careful to do the job right second time around, and knew I could guarantee it. Looking deeper into my own motives, I realised that I resented going back because the only explanation was that my client had ignored my advice on how to implement the job I’d done, and had in fact spoiled it himself. He must have known this but, unwilling to assume responsibility or pay me fairly for a subsequent visit, he blamed me.

I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic — perhaps he thought his emotional decision was actually a rational one. I’d explained to him the dangers of modifying the job I’d done, but he’d insisted that he had to do so, and was therefore able to (wishful thinking). Clearly, he lacked the knowledge to troubleshoot his modifications and now expected me to do so. On the one hand, I realised I should have looked more closely into the terms of the job before I began; on the other, his decision was his own responsibility.

Recognizing that the situation was irresolvable, I decided to sever my link with him and suffer the consequences rather than proceed deeper into the mire of an untenable relationship. In seeing my own resentment in time and recognizing it as a red flag, I’d avoided wasted time, personal recrimination and more damage to my reputation. I’d also stopped enabling him to believe in his own non-existent skills and learned an important business lesson: to carefully consider the terms of any contract in advance. As any competent negotiator learns, that’s a skill you just keep revisiting; there are always new mistakes to learn from.

The Inhuman Condition

I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 32

Theory & Practice

If I were stranded on a desert island with one book, I’d want it to be Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. This poetic exploration of not-doing is a sure remedy for the busy mind. Look:

The great scholar hearing the Tao tries to practice it
The middling scholar hearing the Tao sometimes has it, sometimes not
The lesser scholar hearing the Tao has a good laugh
Without that laughter, it wouldn’t be Tao
—trans. Stephen Addiss & Stanley Lombardo  (Hackett 1993); Section 41

I was reminded of this yesterday when my daughter Melanie came home for the weekend with an assignment on it. “But what’s this not-doing?” she asked. “I’ve read the whole book twice and I still don’t understand; at least, not in any way I can explain.”

What a wonderful summary of not-doing! It reminded me once again why I left academic study behind years ago, and am still impatient of scholasticism. Reading through the Tao-te-Ching twice seems to me a torture beyond compare. If you’re looking for lucid explanations, Lao Tzu is as stubbornly silent as a rock. Instead, he delivers paradoxes that don’t just defy logic, they deride it:

Tao called Tao is not Tao
Names can name no lasting name
—ibid. Section 1

Nonsense? Perhaps, but it’s endured for well over two thousand years, while other fine compositions have fallen by the wayside. What’s its secret? The only way to know is to sit with it. You get Lao Tzu not by reading him cover to cover but but by pondering his words a few at a time. That means suspending disbelief and assuming he was on to something. Read one section each morning. Pause after each line. Let it sink in. Take a single stanza or couplet to carry through your day. You might spend a week on one section; or a year. Try it—it’s worth the time and effort.

I’m glad Melanie’s being exposed to this wonderful text, but saddened by how the academic agenda discourages reflective reading. But then, that’s the nature of everything intellectual, and school these days—not to mention the society it serves—is blinded by intellect; insight and intuition have to put on a shirt and tie and sneak in the back door. By contrast, Greece’s Akademia (sanctuary of Athena, goddess of wisdom)—to which today’s institutions are supposedly heir—were more like monasteries or art schools than today’s goal-oriented, job-training universities.

We’re human beings, and we’ll always depend on abstract thought, but too much cleverness is unwise. We need to settle the mind and let it absorb the reality that life is an inconceivable mystery. To survive and prosper requires that we also stop and be still.