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

Life is Short

I watched a strange video clip on YouTube the other day. A woman in childbirth gave one last push and her baby flew out of her like a cannonball, soaring through the air screaming and aging as he arched over the Earth’s surface. He reached his apogee already balding and middle-aged, then plummeted downwards, crashing with an ignominious thud into his eternal grave. With that, the video was done. The poor sod had barely enough time to savour his breath before it was all over.

I watched horrified, wondering why we have to keep reminding ourselves that life is short. Isn’t it obvious?

In the battle between head and heart, logic is no match for emotion

Perhaps, but we have a remarkable tendency to ignore the fact. When any particular transition proves too scary or unbearable, we have an innate ability to deny it with all our heart. It seems to get us off the hook, but that turns out to be an illusion. Sooner or later we find ourselves still hanging there, swaying between indecision and procrastination.

The only way to move forward is to regard our unwanted dilemma as an opportunity, not a tragedy. Like life’s brevity it’s obvious when we think about it, but just thinking doesn’t change much. In the battle between head and heart, logic is no match for emotion.

Turning to face unpleasant changes in life takes determination and a steady hand. That used to be the domain of prayer. It still is for a faithful few, but for most of us that contemplative option is no longer on the table.

The secular alternative is meditation. This is tougher than faith in the Almighty. It takes faith in yourself. Blind faith of course is just arrogance, but if we learn to trust our ability to learn from our mistakes we can conquer change, or at least not be victims of it.

Chanting mantras and visualising peaceful scenes might be calming, but they’re not real meditation

What overcomes the emotional resistance of denial is emotional intelligence, and the only way to earn that is by falling flat on our faces. Logic doesn’t really help.

However, just making mistakes isn’t enough. We have to learn from them too. Meditation gives us space to reflect on and strength to face those things we’re inclined to deny. It’s a gentle but powerful tool that makes us healthier and, in the long run, happier too. However, it’s not magic. Chanting mantras and visualising peaceful scenes might be calming, but they’re not real meditation until they confront us with our own resistance to change.

Leaving home, struggling to survive, making friends, losing them and eventually losing ourselves are all normal consequences of living, but we literally wake up each morning hoping things won’t come to that. It’s an utterly illogical survival reflex. It puts our worst fears on the back burner and enables us to deal with daily necessities, but as a long-term strategy it’s disastrous.

Both life’s transitions and our resistance to them are practical realities. When we bring a practical approach to them we experience serious growth spurts at any age. We may think we’re all grown up, but we really keep growing right up to the moment of that ignominious thud. Until then, there’s no time to lose.

How to Reset Your Brain

I had a bad day last week. I crawled out of bed for a very early Skype conference, but the connection went down. I tried fixing it for a frantic half-hour, but ran out of time. Then I went to my yoga class only to discover it had been rescheduled. I sat in the car breathing quietly until it was time for my next appointment. I got there on time, but my contact didn’t show.

I headed for the office with a sinking feeling. So many things to do in there; so many to go wrong. It was barely mid-morning and I already wanted to cancel the day. I’m not superstitious, but I know when things are going to get worse. Bad things happen of course; but bad days are about attitude, not just luck.

It’s all in our expectations. To plan on things going our way is to set ourselves up. That’s no great mystery; we all do it, we all know it. But why, if it’s so clear and simple, don’t we stop doing it? Stubbornly ignoring reality seems to be in our blood, or at least in our brain.

We find relief by understanding that default reactivity. The patterns we aquire through life are a template for how we respond to the things it throws at us. They’re learned, not hard-wired, and yet we identify them as ‘who I am.’ Who can change who they are?

I was heading for the office when I had a brilliant idea. If expectations are undermining my day, why not do something unexpected? I turned around with no idea where I was going. I didn’t care. Actually, I did care: I wanted to not know; it was time for a reset.

I found myself on Rigaud mountain, and what a lovely fall day for it. I tried to check Google Maps, but my phone couldn’t get a signal. I looked for an unknown trail. There must be one. Instead of making the non-signal part of my ‘bad day’ scenario, I let it go and enjoyed the disconnect. The relief was immediate. My breathing deepened; the tension relaxed.

The trick is not to seek security but to embrace insecurity.

To change our habits we have to realize they’re not who we are. We get stuck in them as if we had no choice. The reasons are different for each of us, and understanding them loosens up that sense of being stuck as who we are; it provides new perspectives. Then, change comes naturally.

This is the purpose of mindful reflection, not just to calm down but to gain insight into who we are and what we aren’t, so we can grow in the healthiest possible ways. We want to stop short-changing ourselves and see our life flourish.


Down in the Flood

I noticed a damp patch on the basement floor last night. I’ve seen it before, and it always signalled leaky pipes. I looked around for a less troublesome explanation and remembered that Faith’s punching bag was anchored by a large sealed container of water. "Must be leaking," I thought. I shifted it, so that in the morning I’d see that the damp patch had moved too. I’d just have to find a way to empty the container.

Next morning, as you might expect, the damp patch hadn’t moved with the punching bag. Instead, it had grown damper. In fact, the floor was squelchy.

“So this is what enlightenment feels like,” I thought.

I knew perfectly well where all this was leading. I just didn’t want to go there. I decided that a small pipe in the adjacent wall must have sprung a leak after all. Our handyman William would make a surgical incision in the gyprock and solder the break. He’d done it before just a few months ago, and again a couple of months before that too. I was careful not to join the dots and come to the more realistic conclusion. That would be inconvenient.

By the time William arrived, a large bubble had appeared in the ceiling. A gentle prod, and it quivered. William joked that it was a water balloon ready to burst. I wasn’t amused.

William took to the wall and ceiling with a vengeance, and within minutes the basement steps and floor were a sodden mess. "There it is," he pointed to hot water spouting from a tight joist of structural beams. The pipes were tightly wedged and green with corrosion, the woodwork dark with water.

Having found the leak we could now turn off the main tap that connects the house to the city water supply. It’s on the other side of the basement. As soon as I touched it, however, I felt water. As I turned it trickled over my hand. Then I realized my feet were wet. I was standing in a puddle. If I couldn’t turn off that tap, the house was going to get wetter and wetter.

For several minutes I tried to convince myself that this was the same puddle as the hot-water leak, on the other side of the basement, but neither the water nor my denial could reach that far.

William said, "I can’t fix that. You need a plumber."

"To fix the pipe," I said. "And the tap?"

"To replace your plumbing."

"What, all of it?"

"It’s finished. Forty years is its natural lifespan. How old’s the house?"


This was going to disrupt my week and cost thousands. All my determination that this problem would be trivial evaporated like mist. In that moment the scales fell from my eyes. My denial was defeated. I awoke to the reality of our plumbing system.

"So this is what enlightenment feels like," I thought. I knew it was ineffable. I just never thought it would suck.


Mindful Parenting

Raising children is no joke. Parents often spend more time commiserating with each other than they spend listening to their children. ‘Kids!’ they exclaim; even worse, ‘Teens!’ All the grown-ups nod.

When parents are there for each other more than for their kids, things get tougher all round. We’ve all been brought up ourselves, all vowed we’d never do that to our children, all sure that, having been victims, we’d never be perpetrators.

“You’re not going to like this,” she said.

Unfortunately, human psychology isn’t that simple. How we forget.

Just six months ago our teenager was toying with the idea of dropping out. High school was tremendously stressful, but in the end she did well — almost. Her trusted math teacher Mr. S had a heart attack, and the substitute teachers were no substitute. We learned now, just as she was enjoying her summer job and feeling confident for the first time ever, that she’d have to resit her exam.

We didn’t tell her right away. First, we’d line things up. Caroline got the school on the line. Our daughter had tried hard and they’d promised to look out for her, but in the end she’d slipped through the cracks. Caroline gave them a good blasting. She’s good at that. You know you’re being blasted, but she gets you onside. ‘Empathy,’ she calls it.

After being empathized, the school counselor was eager to help. She researched the alternatives while I took to the road. Caroline coordinated us from her office, where she was online with the scholastic authorities.

At the summer school I paid the fees, bought the books and drove home. It was forty kilometers each way and cost me an afternoon’s work — expensive when you’re self-employed. Back home Caroline looked exhausted; also guilty.

“You’re not going to like this,” she said.

Desperate to right all wrongs, the blasted counselor had come up with a better plan. Instead of four, our daughter would have to sit only one exam. Instead of her summer being gutted, she’d manage with a weekend tutor. Plus we’d save money and time. The catch: it was a different school.

Grumbling, I retraced my steps, returned the books, got a refund, drove to the other school and registered all over again. Another afternoon. Caroline soothed and patted me and triggered positive thoughts. Back at work, realizing the sky hadn’t fallen in my absence, I grew proud of my selfless parenting. What great news we had for our daughter! She wouldn’t have to quit her summer job, lose income, be embarrassed or miss the start of college. Everything was back on track.

“What?” Her mouth opened in disgust. “I have to do math again?” She stormed off to her room. I followed, explaining how lucky she was, how we’d fixed everything. She burst into tears.

Caroline was horrified. “How could you?” she asked.

Me?” I was shocked. “I was just explaining….”

Ignoring her feelings, I turned
instead to her unreasonableness

When things get emotionally confusing, I rationalize. I lean into escape mode, wishing I were back in the monastery — no responsibilities, no ungrateful children, no overwhelming expenses, fewer challenges. All I had to do back in those days was watch myself and try to be good. Not that it’s easy, but there’s no easier place to do it.

Sure I learned a lot of stuff back then: philosophy, ancient languages, monastic discipline, Asian etiquette, coping with other neurotic monks. What I learn now is about feelings, irrationality, caring, love, empathy, self-observation in unpredictable situations — all stirred constantly by material stress. It’s much more difficult, much richer — much more error-prone.

Reason is about how things should
be; empathy is about how they are

It’s easy to follow deep habits, but hard to notice them. Our teen’s bad reaction triggered my righteousness. No way was I going to let go of the self-satisfaction of selfless parenthood. Ignoring her feelings, I turned instead to her unreasonableness.

Trouble is, you can’t talk anyone out of their feelings — not even yourself. I thought I knew that, and yet I didn’t know it in that moment. Reason is about how things should be; empathy is about how they are. Explaining her good luck to her was irrelevant. It was dumb. Worst of all, it was rational when reason was beside the point.

I did my job as a parent and expected gratitude, or at least good manners. I’m at that nice comfortable age where I can explain things quite clearly, but I also know that explanations count for little when it comes to feelings.

I’d fallen into the double trap. On the one hand we expect kids to do what we say. On the other hand, we judge them as beyond hope. That’s when we throw up our hands. It’s when they look like monsters to us and we look like monsters to them.

But we’re their role models. They’re thinking how they’ll never be like us, but unless someone deliberately breaks the cycle they will. One day, when they’re in their own parenting shoes, they’ll see us in themselves and try not to notice.

Kids often say, “I don’t care,” meaning they care so deeply they have no words to talk about it. This is a fragile window of opportunity. Say, “Of course you care,” and it will slam shut.

Real listening lets go of words. I learned this years ago, but I’m still learning it. Time and again, I have to remind myself to stop being reasonable and pay attention to the whole story, to break down my own shell and become emotionally naked.

Empathy is about perceptions, not feelings. It’s about the other, not the self. And yet it begins by asking, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ Only by acknowledging that can I let go of my defenses and see why she feels that way.

This post was written with the collaboration of Caroline Courey, director of New Way Personal Life Coaching, and also my wife. In fact, most posts are written with her collaboration, but this topic is very close to her heart.