Consciousness & happiness

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Like It...but Is It Meditation?

An Appreciation of Everyday Mindfulness

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. --Abraham Joshua Heshel

My life is full of meditation: I gassho before I eat. I turn the shower on ‘cold’ before I get out. I visually check the state of the tide in our bay every morning, en route to our local coffee shop. I do the New York Times crossword over my coffee. My pal Mike and I play pool at our neighborhood bar Monday nights. I take my kayak out on Humboldt Bay several times a week. I usually check the stars (or, more likely, the overcast) from the darkness of our hot tub before going to bed. These are my rituals.

Meditation? What’s all that got to do with meditation? Well, it depends how you define it. Strictly speaking, and in the soto Zen tradition that is my practice, meditation is sitting quietly on a zafu, eyes half-open, paying close attention to my breathing. It starts with a bell ringing and ends with a bell ringing. Kinhin--walking meditation--is an extension of shikintaza, “just sitting.”

But that’s what I think of as “formal” meditation, thirty minutes or so a day. Then there are the myriad openings for informal meditation, like what I mentioned above. Pool? Crosswords? Tides? Oh sure, and much more. The daily--hourly, even---opportunities for mindfulness, to stop and pay attention, to take a breath of gratitude, to appreciate the Ultimate Fact of Life: I’m here!


For the first 1500 years of its existence, Buddhism was mostly confined to monasteries, with strict rules, timetables and hierarchies. In contrast, Zen in America today finds the majority of its followers in the lay world, where most of us “zennies” have families, jobs and homes. Our zendos are places to visit, perhaps daily, but more likely once or twice a week, refuges, perhaps, from the “real world” of money, responsibility and regular folks who don’t know the doan from the dharma.

Along with the “layification” of Zen has come a sharp distinction, for most of us, between meditation and the rest of life. While the monks of old lived and breathed, day in day out, year in year out, in an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation—their entire lives were one unbroken meditation!--we modern zennies stop what we’re doing when we sit, and restart our everyday lives when the bell signals that time’s up. The result of this is a dichotomy: either I’m meditating (on my zafu, often in the zendo, sometimes at home); or I’m not meditating (the rest of the time).

What’s lost in this either/or distinction is the idea that meditation is what I choose to make it. Sure, I can define meditation rather narrowly, i.e. the time spent on my cushion. But if I do so, I’m elevating sitting over everyday awareness, and thus diluting the possibilities for all those other quotidian opportunities for mindfulness.


So what is meditation, if it’s not zazen? It’s easy to think of it in terms of the zazen process: solitary (even when you’re elbow-to-elbow with fellow sangha members), quiet, physically upright, mentally focused (in most forms), precisely timed, free of outside stimulation. That’s usually how meditation is defined, in terms of how it looks and what we do for those 30 or 40 minutes.

Another way to look at it is in terms of what it offers. I recognize that this is anathema to many meditators--for years, on being asked why I meditated, I’d say something like, “I don’t know, I just do it.” (Attainment? Oh please!) The fact remains that, consciously or unconsciously, I do things for a reason. I wasn’t born a blank slate, I came with a standard-equipment brain that constantly make decisions based on the available information. At some level, whether I’m aware of it or not, I meditate because of some perceived benefit.

I suspect it’s the same for everyone--I’ve asked fellow meditators the same question, and they all give me some reason, from “Helping me get through the day,” to “Taking me to the root of things,” to “seeing the big picture of life.”

My list is something like this:
* a sense of gratitude (Hey, I’m alive!)
* self-awareness (I’m aware that I’m aware, amazing)
* humility (Don’t take myself too seriously)
* intimation of mortality (This breath is one breath less…so don’t squander!)
* playfulness (My mind sure knows how to have fun)
* creativity (I’ve got to remember that great idea for later)
* adventure (Wonder what’s coming next?)

All these gifts usually appear to me at some time or other during zazen. But the rest of life offers so many opportunities for welcoming exactly the same gifts, so long as I’m willing to notice and accept them. It just (just!) takes the slightest mental nudge--effortless really--to transform the usually unnoticed happenings of my life into rich servings of observed experience. It helps to think of them as rituals.

Take pool. I’m a mediocre--make that bad--pool player, but I’m also lucky. Sometimes, when I’m in the flow, I’m like Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie, effortlessly potting one ball after another. At those times, I’m never more alive, never more aware of the sweetness of this life, gratitude balanced by poignancy: one day this will end. And the humility (oh! the humility) of watching the cue ball roll unerringly towards the corner pocket. It’s meditation writ large, it’s fulfilling and engaging and just plain fun.

Same with solitary kayaking, cold-showering, struggling with the crossword, gazing up at night--with all of my rituals, in fact: appreciating the enormity of it all compared to this meager body and mind, the refuge of my breath, the shock of finding myself here, the gratitude for being a player in life…all available for the noticing.


It’s not that there’s anything wrong with zazen--in fact, I credit zazen with helping me to pay attention to non-zazen events. It’s that when I put so much stock in formal meditation, I forget that it’s only one way of helping me see the magic that is me and that surrounds me. Redefining meditation simply as “the opportunity to notice” opens up a world of possibilities.

That is, seeing zazen as simply one more activity--no more or less meaningful as solving a cryptic clue or watching a pelican dive-bomb for his lunch or sinking the eightball--helps level the playing field between “sitting” and “the rest of life.”

And guess which of these I spend more time in?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Does the moon call upon the gnat to move the mountain to the sea?

--and other zenny answers for your friends.

You’ve been practicing for awhile now, and some of your friends are starting to be concerned. Have you been co-opted by a cult? Are you about to fly off to Nepal with a one-way ticket? Have you changed your will to leave everything to the local Zen center? Have you (gulp) changed?

They may start asking you questions—just what is it that you’ve gotten yourself into? How do you know you aren’t being brainwashed? What does Zen teach, anyway? Rather than try to answer them directly, you’ll sound much cooler and wiser if you respond to their well-meaning questions with one of these tried-and-true all-purpose no-answer answers. It also saves you the bother of actually thinking.

1: Your question comes from the relative world, but now I inhabit the realm of the absolute.

2. Does the moon call upon the gnat to move the mountain to the sea?

3. As the Buddha said to Ananda, a flower is not a flower, a tree is not a tree.

4. Is the finger that points to the moon, the moon?

5. The Buddha’s teachings have lasted for near 3000 years, they have been verified by time.

6. Only when you have practiced as long as I have will you understand.

7. Your question tells me you are still asleep. Come back when you are awake.

8. Words are inadequate to answer your question

9. He who knows does not say, he who says does not know. So I will remain silent.

10. You already know the answer to your question.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Black Cat of Desire

The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.
--attributed (like so much else) to Confucius

Do you ever get confused about the official Buddhist take on “desire”? I sure do. As I understand it, if my desire to end desire is sincere enough, then I just might end up with not desiring anything, in which case the whole exercise would be moot, because now I’ll have gotten what I don’t want…

Second-guessing the Buddha on the topic of “desire” might seem pretty brazen, if not for two mitigating circumstances. The first was his insistence that we were lights unto ourselves, and not to take his word for anything. The second is that he came up with the Four Noble Truths a couple of thousand years or so before the birth of the modern science of evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain much of our behavior now in terms of the psychological adaptations that evolved to solve problems way back then, in the environments of our ancestors.

Prince Siddhartha’s suite of Noble Truths was his response to the undeniable fact of human suffering. We suffer, he said, because we live in a state of desire…but we can eliminate that state by following the eightfold path. What he may only have dimly grasped is that our brains are hard-wired to desire. It was desire that got our ancestors through the bad times of drought and famine, and now we’re stuck with it in our genes. Because of our genetic mandate to be dissatisfied with what we’ve got, we humans are both blessed and cursed with insatiable desire, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Seeking an end to desire is like looking for that non-existent black cat in the dark room.

The blessing, of course, is that we probably wouldn’t be here to discuss it if our ancestors hadn’t lived in a more or less chronic state of dissatisfaction. That’s what worked, back when our forefathers and mothers were struggling to survive on the African savannah a million or so years ago. Any incipient trait for contentment with the status quo would have usually led to one's genetic line being abruptly severed, as Ms. or Mr. All-blissed-out got eaten by a passing sabertooth tiger. The ones who survived and reproduced--that is, our ancestors--were the ones who spent their days worrying about where the next meal was coming from, whether the water hole was about to dry up, what was needed for the tribe to survive. Anxiety and desire were successful traits for survival back then--and today we’re born, not as blank slates, but with brains genetically programmed to worry and want.

So desire for more was an undiluted blessing back when life was really tough, whereas nowadays, when most of us have at least the basics of food, clothing and shelter taken care of, the constant curse of craving for more, newer and better can dull us to the bounty of the present moment. Instead of dancing around gratefully in what physician-poet Lewis Thomas called “a contented dazzlement of surprise,” I’m more likely to find myself noticing what’s wrong with my life, and what I imagine I need to make myself happy.

So is meditation the answer? After all, that’s why many of us were attracted to the practice in the first place, in the hopes of silencing the chronic voice of dissatisfaction in our lives. Isn’t meditation supposed to be the antidote to our hunger for something else, the answer to our craving for more?

This is where cracks in the logic of the Noble Truths become apparent, as the spotlight falls upon the paradox of desiring an end to desire. It seems to me any effort I put into my meditation practice is doomed to failure. Effort only serves to reinforce my discontent with what I’ve got--in fact, it’s my effort that’s the problem! My experience as a meditator is that trying to achieve a less grasping, calmer, happier, more compassionate, more aware state is just about the worst possible approach to practice. As Buddhist teacher Bon Ryun puts it, “Trying to make yourself have a clear mind is like trying to make muddy water clear by stirring it.”

Not only is the notion of “desiring an end to desire” pretty nutty, but it takes me right out of an appreciation of this: this moment, this life, the way it actually is. Perfect equanimity is impossible—my genes have seen to that—but I can at least acknowledge the fact, and make the best of it by surrendering to the reality, accepting what is (including my resistance to it!).

“Surrender” and “acceptance” are pretty tricky concepts. They make it sound like there’s something to be done, some goal to be achieved--which is my problem in the first place. In fact, it’s more like surrendering to the realization that there’s nothing to be done (not even surrender!), and making the best of the situation.
Making the best of it, for me, takes the form of noticing, what Jiddu Krishnamurti labeled “passive awareness,” open to undifferentiated everything and nothing. That’s what meditation is for me: it’s still active, in the sense that I deliberately set it up, by stopping my usual daily activity in order to sit or walk quietly. But in practice it’s passive, meaning I’m open to the adventure of whatever pops up (not unlike my iPod set to “shuffle”).
So…does it work? [Spoiler alert!] Somehow, against the all the odds of logic, this “sit down and shut up” approach does pan out for me, in the sense that I've stopped beating myself up with debilitating self-criticism for not achieving my spiritual goals (whatever that might mean!). And itworks in the deep sense that I seem to have accepted that my desire for desireless will be forever unrequited and my hope for change will never change.

Now you’ll have to excuse me while I look for a certain black cat. Answers to “mu.”

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Play's the Thing: The Lighter Side of Meditation

In 1978, I sat a nine-day silent vipassana retreat with the then-89-year-old Cambodian Thervadan Buddhist monk, Bhante Dharmawara--who went on to live another 20 years. One day deep into the retreat, we were standing on the grass outside the dining hall awaiting the bell that would tell us our afternoon snack was ready. Bhante was sitting on a plastic chair when suddenly one leg sank into the soft ground, propelling him backwards into a rosebush. He lay there with his orange robe akimbo and legs in the air, looking undignified to say the least. As we all rushed to help him, horrified that he might be hurt, he burst out laughing. Thirty years later, I can still see him flat on his back, giggling, a modern incarnation of Budai-Hotei, the Laughing Buddha.

I’m not sure most people would immediately think of laughter in relation to Buddhism. Starting with the first Noble Truth, much of the philosophy of Buddhism is concerned with the inevitability of suffering (dukkha) and what we can do about it. Given Buddhism’s overt preoccupation with suffering, it seems to me that we sometimes forget about dukkha’s opposite, sukha, usually translated as “happiness” or “bliss” (or perhaps, “chuckling while lying on your back in a rose bush”).

Newcomers to our practice, on the (rare!) occasions that they return after their first session, have often told me they’re intimidated by the formality and solemnity of our practice. Those black zafus and zabutons and robes, the bowing and deference, the general air of earnestness and correctness, all promote a general sense of gravity. I know what they mean, since I’ve certainly been guilty of taking the practice very seriously, which really means taking myself very seriously.

Two years ago, I had tea with an old friend, now a Zen monk. We were discussing our experiences of Zen practice, and found ourselves in disagreement over whether there were any rewards. “After all these years of playing around with meditation,” I said, “I’m not sure there’s anything to actually get out of it.”

He looked surprised, and frowned: “Maybe if you had taken it more seriously, instead of playing around, you might not feel that way now.” We agreed to disagree, although I realize now that part of our disagreement was semantic—while I take my commitment to the groups I help lead seriously, I take the practice itself lightly--especially when it comes to talking about future rewards, which I believe are nebulous at best. As they say in the investing field, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

The way I see it, Prince Siddartha, before he was designated the Buddha--the Awakened One--didn’t go back to his five self-denying friends and say in a grave voice, “Greetings, oh monks, I have something very serious to impart to you that I’m calling the Middle Way...” No, I think he ran to them chortling: “Hey guys, guess what! It’s not what we thought! It’s not about being ascetics! It’s not about being anything! We don’t have to do a damn thing, it’s all right here!”

I know, I wasn’t there at Sarnath. Maybe the Big Guy was more of a dour John Calvin type than an exuberant Mahalia Jackson…but to me, it makes sense that he’d have offered a joyful, playful message to his fellow ascetics—after all, they already knew how to be serious. I’m guessing that they resonated right away to what he had to say because it was fun, because he was fun.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years or so. To paraphrase Sophie Tucker (among others), “I’ve been playful and I’ve been serious: playful is better.” It’s not either/or, of course, but I find now that approaching meditation with a generally playful attitude simply feels better. We all know how to play--it came naturally to us when we were kids. Grief, sorrow, loneliness, anger and the other “darker” emotions still come up for me, of course. But approaching meditation with a light heart means that when they do come up, they don’t have the same grip on me as they did when I approached it with more earnestness.

Perhaps I can best explain my present point of view by trying to put into words the sort of experiences I typically have during meditation:

OK, here I am sitting on my zafu, trying to concentrate (I can’t type that phrase without smiling), pretending that it matters exactly how I hold my fingers, how I breathe, even how I think (“I think I should be thinking something else”), putting effort into my sit, going along with the notion that equanimity is some quality that can be achieved (--as if!), that sitting is cumulative and that my thousands of hours on the mat actually count for something.

…And then, seeing how I’m clinging to all that, affecting an attitude of, This, now, is all there is…

...And then I take that to mean something…

…And on and on, until the sheer silliness of all my thoughts and ideas and beliefs floods in. I realize that this sloppy trillion-neuron-brain can never make sense of itself and that illusion is my natural condition. This self will never consent to its non-existence (duh!).My desire to be free of desire is unquenchable and my hope for change will never change. My own liberation is accepting my incarceration. OK, got it! That’s how it is! So now all I’ve got to do is…

…and the bell rings. Oh god, it’s so stupid! I’m so stupid! It’s hard not to laugh out loud. After all that, how can I possibly take any of it seriously?!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My soul

Seems like the English language is designed to keep us in the comfortable cocoon of dualism, the idea that a person is essentially an immaterial soul that "possesses" a body and a mind. So "my leg," "my thoughts," "these eyes of mine," and so forth. We can even happily talk about "my soul" and "my essence" with hardly a qualm about, just whose soul/essence we might be talking about. Note that we differentiate between animate and inanimate parts-"The dog bit my (or your, or his, or the horse's) leg, but not, usually, "The dog bit the table leg."

It's gets even squirlier when talking about so-called out of body experiences. "During the procedure, I saw my body on the operating table."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Shuffling Mind

I'm fond, too fond, of saying, "I don't have a mind, I just mind." My problem with "mind" as a noun is the implication of incorporeality—in Descartes version of dualism, we consist of material bodies and non-physical minds. How does one affect the other? Via the pineal gland, chosen by Descartes because it is the one organ in the brain that isn't duplicated, where somehow the non-physical influences the physical in some weird way. These days, almost all scientists and philosophers are solidly materialistic, so to speak, and discount the existence of a metaphysical mind or soul. What you see, or can measure, is what you get, no more, no less.

So much for logic. In real life, I know, and I'm sure you do, what "mind" means. I probably use the word a dozen times a day: "I've made up my mind." "My mind wandered all over the place during meditation." "Great minds think alike."

"Whose mind is like the wind on a sea of wheat…" wrote Louis McNeice in his poignant Autumn Journal, of his almost departed girlfriend.

So after one particularly rambunctious period of meditation, I was able to note that the best way I could describe the workings of my mind was top compare it to Apple's ipod: put it on "shuffle" and the machine randomly picks songs to play from its entire library of music. The metaphor works particularly well when the song that pops up is at first unfamiliar (you can store a LOT of music in eight gigabytes of memory!). Music starts, I think, "Do I know this?" and a moment later there's a click—oh yes, of course, that's Queen's "Spread Your Wings," haven't heard it for years.

Just like memories. "Where did that come from?" I think, as a flash of 16-year-old-me inviting Jenny Hay out for a date, calling her "Jennifer" in my awkwardness. (She declined.) Next moment there I am slogging up Mount Shasta…and then my knee hurts…and I notice my breath count 135...136...clanking along in the background.

As I tell the guys in the jail, "It's always an adventure," before I ring the bell and we begin our meditation shuffle.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Myth of the Experienced Meditator

[Published in Tricycle, Spring 2008]

...I tell [Kyodo Roshi] I want to take my practice to a deeper level. “Deeper level?” He laughs again. “What you mean ‘deeper’? Zen practice only one level. No deep, understand?”

Lawrence Shainberg, Ambivalent Zen

I am, unfortunately, an experienced meditator. From the time I stumbled into an introduction to Transcendental Meditation in Vancouver, Canada, in 1970, through multiple eras (including my present 15-year old Soto Zen practice), I’ve sat and stared at many walls (and mandalas and candles, and the inside of my eyelids), reveled in sundry “bells and whistles” mental experiences, got bored, decided I was going crazy, became enlightened (no, really!), and now I’m ready to share everything I’ve learnt. It won’t take long. In fact I can sum it up in one word: nothing.

Not that ‘nothing’ is to be sniffed at. For years—decades!—I thought there was something to learn, and that all those thousands of hours on the mat were cumulative, that the more I sat, the more aware and compassionate and wonderful I would become. In a world where the attainment of goals is seen as a virtue, thirty-eight years of realizing nothing didn’t come easily or lightly.

By definition (mine!), if I did think I knew something about meditation, that wouldn’t be meditation. Sort of like God—if you can describe God to me, that ain't God. If, as I believe, meditation is simply awareness, then any past knowledge I have about it is not only useless, but slops over into my immediate experience. Knowing is antithetical to openness, and it’s the adventure of not knowing that’s the genius of meditation. Not for nothing (so to speak) are two of the most popular contemporary books on Buddhism called Beginner’s Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) and Only Don’t Know (Seung Sahn). I have this fantasy that next time I open my copies of these books, I'll find only blank pages.

So what is meditation about? I’ve heard many claims for the practice over the years, that it’s about: gratitude; emptiness; deepened, (or if you prefer) heightened, awareness; compassion; spaciousness; the discovery/realization/dissolving of one’s true self (your choice); attaining liberation; self-realization; being present in the moment; opening to the wonder of it all; finding inner peace; encountering one’s Buddha nature; becoming one with everything; cutting through delusion; (fill in the blank___________).

It seems to me, though, that meditation isn’t about anything: meditation is meditation. Any attempt to define it in terms of something else simply confuses the issue, making it vulnerable to being treated like any other self-improvement system. Lord knows, these days we are offered enough ways to be better people, get closer to God, find ourselves and enhance our circumstances. We’re swamped with therapies, self-help books and techniques—what the British philosopher called “the thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques”—which treat our lives as projects to be tweaked and fixed. Isn’t meditation (if it’s anything at all) a relief from all this? Isn’t it the opposite of repairing and adjusting and striving and perpetually wanting things to be different?

For me, meditation is the haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It's not just that there's no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there's no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is. So when I hear words like “effort” and “discipline” and phrases like “deepening one’s practice” and “advancing along the spiritual path” spoken in the same breath as meditation, I wince. Just sitting (“shinkantaza”)—doing and wanting nothing, breath coming and going unbidden, eyes seeing, ears hearing—in this effortless state, thoughts flurry like falling leaves

So can a so-called experienced meditator offer anything to someone new to the practice? Probably not. If what we’re really talking about is awareness, how can we help someone notice what’s going on? This is what's going on: no more, no less. Unlike a subject like, say, carpentry, where we learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, meditation is defined by spontaneity, by not knowing. As the roshi says, “practice only one level.” Perhaps the best we can do is to reassure newcomers that each of us starts over with every sit and every breath.

Trust me. I'm an experienced meditator.

As If I'd Never Left

Some facts just resonate and resonate, can’t get enough of them....

* We consist of two parts, soma and genome. Soma arrives and leaves regularly, genome just keeps on. My genome represents unbroken chain that started over three billion years ago, essentially immortal. So when I claim to be mortal, that’s only half the story.

* The universe is the most efficient simulation of itself. Similarly, a random number is the most efficient way of expressing itself. Lovely, profound, satisfying.

* Search for meaning in life is pointless, the universe is what it is, no more and no less. Nothing to do or achieve. Such a relief.

* We’re not designed for happiness, we’re designed for survival and reproduction. Happiness, when we experience it, is an epiphenomenon. Again, a relief.

* So much “artificial” unhappiness is created by unrealistic expectations of happiness. As Geneen Roth pointed out, despite spending at least half our lifes in discomfort, we keep thinking happiness is our normal condition.

* Just to rub it in: happiness, happenstance and haphazard have the same (Greek) root. Happiness isn’t something to be figured out, it’s an unexpected gift of the gods.

* To sit still and become aware of the stuff of mind: chaos made (more or less) visible. Mind minding. Breath breathing. (Ears earring?) Gratitude for life, gratitude for awareness of life...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Meditation 101: Less is More

My instructions for first-time meditators are becoming more and more minimalist. These days, it’s something like, “Sit quietly and notice what’s going on.” It used to take longer—when I was the meditation instructor at Kannon Do sangha in Mountain View, I would spend 30-40 minutes telling newbies how to sit, how to breathe, how to bow--not to mention how to enter and leave the zendo, how to ask a question, and (talk about setting them up!) what to expect.

Part of my ‘quickie’ approach these days is dictated by logistics. At the jail where Pete, Michael and I take turns with the men’s meditation program, we are almost always with folks who have never meditated before, and we have limited time. I want to give them a taste right now of the essence of meditation. And when I’m leading our Eureka Wednesday evening group, new folks always seem to walk in as I’m about to ring the bell, so it’s a quick, “Welcome…shoes off, please…chair or cushion?…so OK, why don’t you just sit and notice what’s going on for the next 30 minutes…thank you.”

That’s it? What about eyes open? 45-degree head tilt? Cosmic mudra, thumbs just barely touching? Spine as straight as the proverbial tower of gold coins? Tongue on roof of mouth? Breath awareness? Counting? Attention on the hara? Letting thoughts through without stopping for a chat? All this is fine to experiment with once someone’s made the decision to practice, but for first-timers? I like giving them a big field to play in by following my core belief about meditation, that there’s no way to do it wrong… opposed to just about everything else in my life! There’s often this underlying editorial commentary, on the lines of, “Hey, good job, Barry…uh-oh, you really screwed up there…man, you’re doing well…oh god, the day’s gone and I’ve done nothing!” While meditation, on the other hand, comes and goes, the antidote to goal-oriented existence: I meditate because I meditate, and for the most part, I don’t try to improve it or tinker with it. It is what it is.

My concern with detailed meditation instructions is that by their very nature, instructions imply there are good ways and bad ways to do it. They say, this is what you should be doing, this is right, this is wrong. Instructions set up goals, just like in ‘real’ life.

I wonder if this is why so many people try meditation once—and quit, feeling they’ve somehow failed? At Kannon Do, we estimated that out of five or six people who came the first time to the instruction session (followed by a sit) we saw just one of those folks again. For the vast majority, that one time was enough. How many times have I heard something like, “Yeah, I tried meditation once, but it didn’t work for me…I just couldn’t do it right…my mind wouldn’t calm down…”?

If a newcomer does have questions or concerns, I encourage them to try it first and to ask the questions after. My belief is that someone sitting for the first time learns more about meditation in 30 real-time minutes than any experienced meditator can explain to them in that same amount of time.

Because meditation isn’t a set of instructions: it’s an adventure.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Gratitude List

There's nothing like a gratitude list to move on, get with the program, leave the blues behind…Here's mine for today:

1. Writing. Thanks, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Chaucer…
2. Internet. Thanks, Tim Berners-Lee
3. Really, really bad movies (to help appreciate the good ones). Thanks, Danny "Sunshine" Boyle.
4. NYT crossword. Thanks, Wil Shortz.
5. Sad, funny music. Thanks, Leonard Cohen.
6. Sunshine. Thanks, carbon resonance (and Fred Hoyle for explicating).
7. Being here. Thanks, 100% non-childless ancestors.
8. Prescription lenses. Thanks, Salvino D'Armate.
9. Vaio laptop. Thanks, Akio Morita.
10. Bicycles. Thanks, John Starley, John Dunlop, many more.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What am I pretending not to know?

Seems to me the US is going to hell in a hand basket, and much of the world with it. Yet to many of us, it’s so obvious what’s wrong: acquisitiveness and materialism, lack of critical thinking, environmental negligence, ignorance of other cultures and values. In Dark Ages America, Maurice Berman compares our fate with that of the Roman Empire, nibbled away from the inside with delusions of grandeur. He lists four characteristics of our common fate, that of Rome and Washington:

1. The triumph of religion over reason
“A writ of infallibility…guides the inner life of the White House.” (Ron Suskind). And not just the White House--59% of Americans belief in the literal truth of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelations

2. The breakdown of education and critical thinking
11% of young adults can’t find the U.S. on a world map…12% of Americans have passports.

3. Legalization of torture
Alberto Gonzales, the same man who wrote the legal briefs justifying torture, now heads the Justice Department. (George Orwell would have understood!)

4. Marginalization of the U.S. on the world stage
For instance, the World Health Organization rates the health care system of U.S. 37th in the world; meanwhile, our annual trade deficit is half a trillion dollars (offset by foreign loans to the tune of $4 billion a day in 2003)

I suspect readers of my modest blog don’t need to be told any of this. So what’s meditation got to do with any of it?

There is, as I see it, only way to move beyond simplistic, polarized and lock-step thinking: to stop. That is, to literally stop and notice what’s going on. Most of us have all the information we need to figure out that there’s something totally weird going on. We know (don’t we?) that forming our opinions solely from Fox News and right-wing talk radio is the opposite of critical thinking...we know (don’t we?) that our own culture is one of many, and that the fact about 16% of U.S. citizens have passports may make us a tad chauvinistic...we know (don’t we?) that 9/11 wasn’t just the evil guys attacking the good guys...we know (don’t we?) that Iraq is about oil and U.S. hegemony?

The information is out there, and most of us have at least some sense that not questioning authority is going over the cliff with the rest of the trusting herd. Well, maybe we do, but sometimes it takes courage and honesty to allow our skepticism to surface. And more: it takes stopping and allowing dissenting thoughts, awkward thoughts, to percolate from our unconscious.

Many years ago I partook in a training where a banner above the door of the training room “grew” day by day. The question on the banner was, “What are you pretending not to know?”

Answer, then and now: so much. But at the deepest level, the answer is always the same: I’m pretending not to know how deluded I may be...I go through life pretending I'm right.

Is meditation--the act of stopping and noticing what’s going on--the antidote to delusion? It sure helps! I'm not saying that G. W. Bush is going to sit quietly staring at a wall for half an hour and realize that maybe he God isn't on his side. But for those of us whose minds may not be quite so set in concrete, the simple act of stopping and noticing can be a major step to acknowledging that something, indeed, is wrong.

And best of all, sometimes comes the greatest and most important awareness of all: I may be deluded.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Happiness: the way out

So happiness, again. Take a look at the origin of the word...

Happenstance, haphazard, hapless, luck, the blessing of the gods. That’s what the Greeks thought way back when, before neurology, before we started thinking about free will. Ties right in with Julian Jaynes notion that prior to say 1000 B.C., humans weren’t self-conscious, they heard voices in their heads (one hemisphere informing the other) which they interpreted as the gods telling them what to do. If you were lucky, and the gods weren’t jacking you around, you got good advice, resulting in happiness. Nothing to do with any effort you put in. Your happiness was out of your hands.

These days, it seems to me that we’re pretty well addicted to the notions that (1) happiness is our birthright and (2) claiming that birthright is entirely up to the individual. I say this by simply noting what sells--most of the non-fiction bestsellers are self-help how-to-be-happy books. (“Non-fiction” is, of course, a relative term!)

So which way lies happiness, the gods or ourselves?
There are so many reasons why almost all our efforts to be happy fail.

1. The very yearning for happiness brings unhappiness, for it reminds us that we’re dissatisfied with what we’ve got.

2. Even if we set up our lives by optimising our actions to bring future happiness, it ain’t gonna happen. We’re different people in the future, and what we thought would bring them happiness may not work anymore.

3. Happiness is self-limiting. The very awareness of being happy leads to a variety of messages, all of which take the edge off it. For example, “Yeah I’m happy, but I think I should be happier;” “The first time I did this, I was a lot happier than I am now;” “I’m happy now, but for how long?”; “I wish I’d done this sooner;” and on and on. I don’t think it possible to be aware of happiness and stay neutral to it, without commentary and judgement.

All this can be explained by evolutionary theory (see Skip the Car). In a nutshell, unhappiness and dissatisfaction promoted survival and reproduction. A gene that emphasized satisfaction wouldn’t get very far down the evolutionary path.

So if being dissatisfied with the status quo is built into our genes, what’s to be done?

The only way out I see is to do stuff for no other reason than novelty, that is, doing things for which we can’t really figure out the outcome.

It’s called “adventure.”

Death, according to George Wald (1970)

"It’s rather odd that we regard mass suicide on the part of lemmings as an aberration, as a kind of psychopathic behavior; whereas our way of dealing with the same problem [too little food] is considered normal. Where the lemmings go off to die, we go off to kill; for it’s equally true for the human migrants that there is no other place for them. Every place is occupied. Have you ever heard of people migrating to a place fit to live where there were no people before? There are always people. If the migration ends in a colonization, that’s through conquest. It is strange that we look on that as normal and proper, whereas the lemmings seem to be doing something aberrant; for biologically there is much to be said for the way lemmings go about it.

"On the one hand, the way the lemmings do it, there is a minimum of dying. As soon as enough lemmings have left the center of population, there is enough food for those that remain, so the migration automatically stops. Second, there is no destruction. The lemmings’ home territory is just as good as it ever was. Third, and whenever I say this I shudder, since I can’t jump over my shadow, but a selection process is at work. It’s the hungriest lemmings that go off to die; the ones that are doing better stay home. Whereas in the human way of doing things, we pick the flower of our manhood to go off to kill and die. The lemmings are exercising better biology."

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Not talking about God

Feynman described himself as a 'non-believer.' ...When I asked him what he meant, he said, "You describe it; I don't believe in it." Feynman was not saying he didn't believe there was a god; he was saying that any god that you can describe is too limiting for him to believe in.
Colleague of the late Richard Feynman

I don't know how to talk about God(s)/god(s)/G-d. We're dealing, presumably, with the ineffable, that which is incapable of being expressed. I guess I’m like Feynman: you tell me what you mean by God and this isn't God to me. This isn't saying I don't believe in God, just that I haven't a clue what we're talking about.

According to scholar-writer Karen Armstrong, “Some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated. Some went so far as to say that it was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God.”

So am I an atheist? Don't know! I need to know what a theist believes in first. In our Western culture, that’s usually one god, I understand (unless you insist that Christianity is polytheistic—unlike Judaism and Islam—if you grant Jesus’ separate divinity). This is one of those awkward situations where a word is defined by what it’s not, like vacation and chastity and, for that matter, death. In this case, theists set the rules, so to say you’re an atheist is normally to say you don’t believe in a (or the) Christian God. As self-proclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins puts it, “Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.”

Believing in God isn't like believing in fairies, or bigfoot. As it happens, I don't believe in fairies, but I'd know one if I saw one, dancing around a circle in the moonlight, pixiedust in her hair. Bigfoot, same thing, sans pixiedust. But God? How would I know God if God suddenly appeared or spoke to me? Just because a burning bush announces itself as God doesn't make it so. I need to redefine here, open it up a bit.

I resonate with a 2006 Salon interview in which Michael Shermer says, “It doesn't matter to me if you call it God or the cosmos. We're all talking about the same thing, whether it's religious people or New Age spiritual people or Buddhists or scientists. We're all talking about having a sense of awe and wonder at something grander than ourselves.”

I’m not sure we all are, but let’s go along with this and rephrase the God question as, Do I experience awe and wonder? then, You betcha! I suppose the best I can do with the idea of God is to grant it—the concept—shock value: some new, unexpected feeling or awareness or gratitude. So to try to list such experiences is a bit of a paradox (—there went the shock!). But here goes anyway, to give a flavor:

· Louisa and I pause in silence for a few seconds before eating—and often for me it's, “Good grief, here I am still! I’m alive! How did that happen?!”

· Water cradles my body as I float on my back in a mountain lake: just this.

· Consciousness is the experience of experiencing. Oh!

· I put on my glasses and see leaves on a tree 200 feet away. Individual leaves! What would Caesar or Charlemagne have given for corrective lenses?

· The firing of neurons creates awareness—how about that? This experience—-all of it!—-is a physical process.

· And colors aren’t ‘out there’ in the world, just wavelengths. Red isn’t so much a color as a psychological state of my brain.

· I navigate to the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant naked-eye object by far. Photons self-destructing on my retina began their journey when Lucy walked in Africa.

· My tiny GPS unit hearkens to three or four satellites some 12,000 miles distant. I walk five paces, it knows!

· Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, start of the final movement. Shivers. Ineffable.

· My best pal and I are talking a mile a minute. We stop, seeing only eyes, forgetting our separate selves.

· Where do words come from? Where do they go?

· Time. Haven’t a clue. Really!

· And what about the “bad” stuff? Unexpected news of cancer? The death of a friend? Part and parcel of the fabric. Can't have one without the other. For me, a work in progress...

OK, then, do I believe in God? Oh yes. Many.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Introduction and Postscript

If you’re not happy here and now, you never will be.

Taisen Deshimaru

I do love Joe Bob Briggs ( Joe Bob reviews B movies, drive-in movies, cheap movies, bad movies, the sort of movies you probably wouldn't want your kids to see. Movies with titles like American Nightmare. His reviews always conclude with a tally of the important stuff—here’s how his review of A.N. ends:

Four breasts. Eight dead bodies. One burial alive. Corpse- beating. Grave-stabbing. Slicing. Dicing. Filleting. Multiple stab wounds. Outdoor rave bikini-dancing. Drug-induced wife-stabbing. Gratuitous shower scene. Voodoo Fu. S&M Fu…Three stars. Joe Bob says check it out.

Well, I probably won’t. Not because I don't trust Joe Bob. (Who’ya gonna believe? Joe Bob or the Netflix reviewer—read amateur—who says of the same movie, “This movie is a celluloid nightmare. Pure torture.”)

I read Joe Bob because he’s entertaining. He can write. Long ago, he penned a column in which he ruminated about writing. This is my recollection of what he said:

People come up to me and say, "Hey, Joe Bob, you're a writer, right? Got any tips for writing?” and he says, "Sure. Write every day.” And they say, "Yeah, OK. The thing is, I've got a terrific idea for a novel and I'm just trying to lick it into shape…” "Great,” he says. "Write every day.” "You don't understand,” they say. "This is a really fantastic idea. It could easily go from a bestseller to a screenplay and a major motion picture.” "Wonderful!” he says. “Write every day...”

I tell you this because I’m sometimes asked about writing. And because I write most days, not every day, I fall back on my Joe Bob story. I don't even know if it's true.

I write a lot. Mostly in coffee shops, mostly early morning, mostly in Eureka (Humboldt Bay, way up the California coast). At 6 a.m., I’m often Hasbeans’ first customer of the day, a buck for a good cuppa joe, table by the window. Right now it’s dark out, can’t see the bay. Ella sings Mister Paginini. Joanna’s making fresh coffee, Christine’s in back baking scones. Lights of a fishing boat heading out the bay. Police cruiser checking out something or someone down on Second Street. Nothing and everything.

I don’t know what consciousness is, but I write about it. I do know about travel, and write about that, too. The best advice I ever heard was, Don’t listen to my advice. Something like that, I forget.

I live in a culture where there’s this emphasis on improving our inner lives, fixing and tweaking and generally reminding ourselves that we’re not quite good enough the way we are. I'm 64 already, I'm tired of fixing myself. I could be 94 and still not be OK. I’m never going to be OK.

This is as good as it gets.

That's it. You can skip the rest.

Thursdays at the Jail

Thursday nights four of us 'zennys' take turn facilitating meditation at our local county jail. Room 322 is rather a sad little space, cinder block walls, plastic chairs, heavy metal tables. When I arrive, I push the tables back to the wall and arrange a dozen chairs in a rough circle, making sure my seat is closest to the door.

Not for safety reasons--in six years, I've never felt unsafe, barring the one time a big guy asked if I ever did felt unsafe. That did elicit a little spinal tingle. I sit close to the door so I can reach the light switch easily and get back to my chair in the gloom. We can't achieve darkness in our little space, but it's the closest the inmates ever get to it in all their time inside.

Soon after seven, in their orange jumpsuits, they trickle in, one dorm at a time, until we agree that no one else is coming. I usually begin: This isn't a meditation class, (despite that it's billed that way on the sign-up sheets). That's because I have nothing to teach you and you have nothing to learn. The beauty of meditation is that you just do it, you sit quietly noticing what's going on. That's it. OK if I turn the lights out?

In the semi-darkness, I ring my little Tibetan chimes three times. "Listen as the last chime dies away," I say. "Follow it down." I give them a chance to appreciate the gloom, allow them to shuffle and readjust in their seats, perhaps they're wondering what they're doing here. "I'd like you to check out your body, starting from your feet and working your way up to the top of your head. Notice any areas of stress and imagine breathing the tension out when you exhale." Much deep breathing.

"Notice how you're sitting. Notice what it feels like to be you, right now. Notice how you're breathing. Notice where you're aware of your breathing." I imagine they're doing as I am, becoming aware of my body, slightly amazed at this whole wondrous mechanism.

The mood of the room changes from week to week. Sometimes I sense much tension, other times a deep acceptance. It's a stressful, noisy, overly bright environment the guys are in, 24/7. "This is it," I say, "your life, my life. Right now. This is what's happening."
After 15 minutes of this, we check in. "How's it going?" "Man, I feel peaceful." "I'm more tense than when we started." "I really tried to calm down, but my mind's going crazy." "I fell asleep." I'm always out of my depth, and say so. "All I'm here for is to create a safe, quiet environment. Sorry I can't do more," I tell them. "That's OK, bro."

We end with 20 full minutes of silence--a major stretch for many of them, who have never sat still for more than two minutes at a time in their lives. To stop and notice--that's new, sometimes scary, sometimes exciting
One evening, there seemed to be a lot of tension in the room. Towards the end of the 20 minutes, I heard myself breaking the silence. "Whatever you're feeling, however you're sitting, whatever you're thinking, you're doing it right."

A few minutes later I rang my chime for the last time, switched the light on, and thanked them. As we were putting the chairs and tables back, a young man approached me. I noticed his eyes were watering. "I just wanted you to know that in 25 years, that's the first time anyone told me I was doing it right," he said.

I hope he still is.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Turtle Problem

Galapagos, 1985

Quite possibly the greatest book ever written on the subject of turtle stacking.
Lisa Simpson on Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Suess

You’ve probably heard the story about the astronomer from the U.S. who was visiting India, giving talks around the country on the state of the science as seen through western eyes. At the close of one of his lectures on the cosmos, an old lady stood up and said, “Actually, the earth is supported on the back of a giant turtle.” The astronomer was taken aback, but stepping up to the plate, said, “I understand, madam, but can you tell me what the turtle is standing on?” to which the lady said, “Another turtle, of course.” Taking a deep breath, he said, “Well yes, but…” “It’s no good, sonny,” she interrupted. “It’s turtles all the way down!”

The story has been repeated so often by, or with references to, so many famous people—Bertrand Russell, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Justice Antonin Scalia, Stephen Hawking— that it’s acquired a life of its own. The Turtle Problem is now routinely used as shorthand for the philosophical notion of ‘infinite regression’. I’ve seen it cited in reference to such issues as ‘the policing problem’ (who polices the police…and who them…) and (so-called) Intelligent Design (if the world is so complicated that it took God to create it, who created God…and etc.).

The Turtle Problem can, I think, also be applied to consciousness. I’ll be meditating, thinking, “Hmm, I’m sitting here, staring at a wall, feeling pretty good.” Then comes, “Who is having this thought?” (a standard technique in some forms of meditation). Followed, instantly it seems, by, “Who’s having the thought, Who’s having this thought??” And before you can say infinite regress, my mind’s off and running down mirrored corridors, bouncing the question back and forward (as I imagine) between the twin hemispheres of my brain.

Suppose we allow that when we notice we’re thinking, we’re having a ‘meta-thought’, and that this meta-thought is somehow more ‘real’ than the original thought. So the next thought--the one about the meta-thought, i.e. the ‘meta-meta-thought’--is presumably even closer to reality At what point do we get to reality itself?

And what the heck am I talking about? What is reality? Can we ever experience the world (including ourselves in it) as it really is? As the memsaab would have said, “It’s no good, it’s turtles all the way down!”

Monday, October 30, 2006

Make Me One with Everything

Sometimes when I'm meditating, I'll have an experience of
spaciousness, when it seems that Barry is no more, there's
just everything else, the entire universe, a vastness of
oneness, absent this particular being. Sometimes there's a
light—white light, blue light, filling up my entire being.
Sometimes there's absolutely nothing, no sensation, no
thought, no body, zero. Sometimes it seems as though I've
broken through to an entirely new and unexpected realm of
consciousness, where there is no ‘I’, no difference between
the seer and the seen.

I believe it’s all mindgames. Of course it all mindgames.
Whatever it is that is experiencing (and something is, by
definition, else there would be no awareness) is
intrinsically no different from that which is being

Titling a book (as Mark Epstein did), Thoughts Without a
Thinker, plays into the folk-wisdom idea that it is possible
to experience in the absence of a thinker or a self, that is,
nonduality. But what use is a thought if it isn't perceived?
What is an unperceived thought? Is such a thing possible?

I don't think so. While it may indeed seem (to me!) that
I’m having thoughts without ‘me’ being present, the
question, “What, then, is perceiving this absence of a
perceiver?” leads to absurdity. To perceive or to know or to
be aware is to come from the position of the perceiver, the
knower, the one who is aware, however seductive the

So I have these far-out experiences, and there's this feeling
that comes, expressed in words by something like, “Wow!
How cool is that?!” with the inevitable undercurrent of,
“How cool am I?” (Even writing this, how cool am I to see
through all the promises and teachings? And cooler yet to
acknowledge it...sigh.)


If you’ve gotten this far with me, you know how much I
admire Sue Blackmore, the British writer, teacher and
interviewer on all things to do with consciousness. Our
paths diverge over this crucial issue of no-self, or non-
duality. In the very last chapter of her Consciousness: An
Introduction, after a crisp and engaging overview on the
science of consciousness, she goes woo-woo on us. After
decades of both studying consciousness from the outside
and, as it were, experiencing it from the inside--that is,
meditating--she wonders if the problem of consciousness
might be solved by knowledgeable people who have no-
self experiences.

She writes, “Might the psychologists, philosophers and
neuroscientists working on the problem of consciousness
see non-duality directly for themselves? ...This way the
direct experience of nonduality might be integrated into a
neuroscience that that only knows, intellectually, that
dualism must be false.”

My contention is that there can be no ‘direct experience’ or
‘nonduality’ or ‘thoughts absent a thinker.’ And that all the
teachers and teachings and hours spent meditating and
drugs and spirituality and austerities and practices bring us
no closer (but no farther away) from ourselves.


Here's what I believe: No thoughts are better, none are
worse, none are more or less spiritual or aware. The
thoughts of someone who is meditating for the first time--
his or her very first minute--are essentially no different
from those of the devotee who has spent thousands of
hours on the cushion. Thoughts about thoughts are still
thoughts. Awareness of an absence of thoughts, or of self,
when perceived, is a thought. Perception is dualism.

All thoughts are the same.

Everything else is bullpaddies.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Search

You have invested everything in one basket, self-
realization, and, in the end, suddenly you discover that
there is no self to discover, no self to realize. And you say
to yourself, “What the hell have I been doing all my life.”

U.G. Krishnamurti (no relation to Jiddu K.)

Years ago, soon after Louisa and I stumbled into each
other, literally (we were at a sensory-awareness workshop,
aka touchy-feely group, getting to know each other by
touch alone, since our eyes were closed), she interviewed
me. The idea was to create a tape recording to send to her
family members, to introduce her new beau to them.

“Who are you?” she asked me (this was the 70’s, when
such questions were just coming into vogue). “A seeker,” I
responded, very seriously. Well, in retrospect, pompously.
Probably trying to impress her sibs.

At some level, I was a seeker, though. My journals and
letter of that era rumble with wanting—enlightenment,
self-awareness, peace, silence, contentment—even as I
paid lip service to, for instance, Ram Dass plea to “Be Here
Now.” I tried, I really tried, to be here and now, somehow
seduced into believing this was the key to happiness: once
I reached the here-and-now state, all craving for something
else would be over, I’d have arrived.

I never did.

Sure, I had some wonderful ‘bells and
whistles’ experiences, each one simultaneously a gold star
for how far I’d come, and a reminder for how far I had yet
to go. I’m not sure when it finally dawned on me (although
I must have read and heard it dozens of times) that doing
something to be present was, as Buddhist Bon Ryun puts it,
akin to trying to make muddy water clear by stirring it.

Writer-philospher Steven Harrison’s first book was,
“Doing Nothing.” The title says it all. For Harrison, it’s the
very act of doing something—searching, meditating,
studying—with the goal of achieving some better state of
mind—that keeps us from appreciating just this. This
unimproved, unchanged, messy, klutzy, needy, screwed-up
self/no-self (whatever!). It’s the search that’s the problem:
“There is no technique, philosophy, instruction or religion
that will help us experience silence. Everything that we
acquire is in the way because the inquirer is in the way.”

Here’s how Lawrence Shainberg puts it in Ambivalent Zen
(for his reference to Zen, you can subsititute almost any
‘spiritual’ practice): “Everything we do in Zen is based on
the belief that we can free ourselves of desire. Isn't that the
greatest desire of all?...Is any desire more virulent than the
dream of no desire at all?”

Not that any of this is likely to make a scrap of difference.
We’re designed, from our brains on down, to want more.
It’s in our genes, we’re stuck with desire. Fame, fortune,
contentment, sex, understanding, enlightenment, no-self,
the state of desireless: we’re built to want one or more.

We’re supposed to desire! That’s the hand we were dealt
with at birth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


I daily honor my teachers by ignoring them. Steven Harrison

There surely are things we can learn about from teachers--global warming, calculus, cholesterol, skiing, music appreciation--but when we're talking consciousness (Harrison's speciality), how can anyone help you how to notice what's going on? This is what's going on. No more, no less.

I spent years trying to attain certain states of consciousness that I'd heard about, always wanting more, until it finally dawned on me: I'm never going to be closer to whatever it means to be alive than now. As Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said, We cannot put off living until we are ready…Life is fired at us point-blank.

The problem, as I see it, is that most teachers respond to their students desire to be yet closer yet with at least something--they're teachers, right? Hence such wooly wisdom as this, from a book by a well-known meditation teacher:

It is easy to get caught in the notion that there is a goal, a state, a special place to reach in spiritual life.

Sure is. But then in the very next paragraph, we hear:

When we enter the gateless gate, we come to the end of seeking...Finally, we enter the gate of the eternal present and discover that we are not going anywhere.

So is there a goal or isn't there? If we haven't entered the gate of the eternal present (a special place?), I guess we're not quite there yet. Sigh.


There's a story about an intense young seeker from California who, after many weeks of traveling, tracked down U.G. Krishamurti (no relation to Jiddu, the better-known Krishnamurti) outside Bangalore. He finally got to meet the irascable non-guru guru, and asked, "Sir, what is your message?"
UG responded, "It is quite simple: You are not going to get anything here, there is nothing to be given. You are wasting your time. I have nothing to give, you have nothing to take. Pack up and go!"

Another time he said, "Anything I do to help would be adding to your misery."


Most Thursdays when I'm in town, I visit our local jail to lead what's billed as a Meditation Class. The first thing I always says is, "I've nothing to teach you, and you have nothing to learn."

Sometimes I'll tell them the story of the traveler:

A traveler came to the bank of a wide river and wondered how to cross. Spotting a yogi in deep meditation on the far side, he called out, "Hey you! How do I get to the other side?" The yogi slowly opened his eyes, looked about him and saw the traveler.

"You're on the other side!" he replied.

Nowhere to get to. Nothing to do. We're already there.


The Buddha's last words are supposed to have been, "Be a light unto yourselves." What could be clearer? Yet two of the three "treasures" of Buddhism--Buddha and Dharma (wisdom-teachings)--invite us to look outside ourselves for assistance and advice. We--students of Buddhism (!)--engage with teachers regularly in dokusan (formal interview), trusting the teacher to act as a guide in our quest along the path of life. Despite the heart sutra, that bottom-line zen sutra, insisting that there is "no path, no attainment."

Yet we do--that is, I know I do, and (since you're reading this) I suspect you do--look outside ourselves for a helping hand. And for every seeker, there's a seekee, a teacher, someone who's only too willing to respond to our most profound questions. Ask me--anything--and I'll step right up to the plate.

· What's life about? Living.
· How can I be happy? Give up trying to be happy.
· How can I stop smoking? You can't if you're asking me.
· What should I invest in? Index funds.
· What happens after death? You're already dead if you're worrying about that.
· Does God exist? Many.
· What is enlightenment? What isn't?

See? It's easy. The problem is that (to paraphrase Sartre) the role of the student in Buddhism is simply to be neurotic in order to affirm the teacher's authority.

Please ignore the above.

Who is the teacher?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Real simple

Look it's real simple. We all know this, but here it is again.

Right now is all there is (and even that's a bit iffy)...

The past is frozen:

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
Rubáiyát: Khayyám/Fitzgerald

The future ain't here, never will be:

We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.
Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness



Wednesday, August 23, 2006

57 POVs

1. Life is up and life is down, there's no way to be consistently happy.

2. Any effort I put into being happy will almost certainly result in unhappiness.

3. I'm designed to be much more concerned with what isn't than what is.

4. Genes don't care about my happiness, they care about survival and reproduction. I'm playing with a stacked deck.

5. If my suffering is caused by desire, greater suffering is caused by my desire to end it. Most suffering results from my belief there's a way out of my suffering.

6. On balance, things won't get better.

7. I am ultimately alone in life. My experience of loneliness is natural.

8. 'Now' cannot be experienced. Knowledge about 'now' can be, but then it isn't 'now' anymore. 'Now' is a concept.

9. Guilt is my way of avoiding doing something I think I should be doing.

10. When I can't make myself the way I think I should be, I want the world to be the way I think it should be.

11. There's no such thing as 'self-deception' by definition. If I think I'm telling the truth, then I'm telling the truth. I lie best when I lie to myself.

12. Evolution saw to it that I'm more likely to be anxious than content.

13. A few good things happening to me can make me happier. A few bad things can kill me. So I focus on the bad things, hence the dictum: losing hurts twice as much as winning feels good.

14. On my deathbed, I'm more likely to be thinking, "I wish I hadn't taken it all so seriously," than, "I wish I'd been a better person," or, "I wish I'd achieved more."

15. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do. This is as good as it gets.

16. My culture generally supports the notion of life as a self-improvement project, where my "self" can be tweaked and fixed to edify my inner experience.

17. I think in thoughts. Not in words or pictures. Not linearly.

18. My mind is usually involved in escape, where I define what I want by what I don't want.

19. All my experience is processed, evaluated and filtered prior to awareness.

20. Life is a fluke. My life is a statistical near-impossibility.

21. I constantly (almost) forget I'm alive.

22. Awareness of my happiness dampens the feeling of happiness.

23. I don't know what I seek, in fact I am convinced there is nothing to be found. I I am, however, addicted to the search.

24. There was never a time when I wasn't aware, from my point of view. I won't be aware that I'm dead. To all intents and purposes, I'm eternal!

25. Life isn't fair.

26. Compassion and the question "Why?" (did you do that/say that) are antithetical.

27. The more choices I have, the more I worry I'm making the wrong one.

28. The common promise of all religions is, "success."

29. Man with many keys, many worries...the more I have, the more I worry.

30. When good things consistently happen, I raise the bar on happiness. When bad things consistently happen, a cup of coffee can bring ecstasy.

31. Ice cream test: the better it is, the sooner I feel blue.

32. Therapy offers new and richer ways to be unhappy.

33. The best way to give is willingly, cheerfully, abundantly, joyfully.

34. The best way to receive is willingly, cheerfully, abundantly, joyfully.

35. However bad things are, I'm aware and alive (or I wouldn't know how bad things were). This is better than the alternative.

36. The notion that the present is simply part of a continuum from past to future is baloney.

37. I cannot be convinced that I don't have a "self," since there would then be nothing to be convinced.

38. Humans may well be the only self-aware life in the galaxy.

39. It is wise to doubt that which I would most believe.

40. Self, mind, time, God are all undefinable metaphors.

41. The kindest words in the world are, "Tell me."

42. The best way to colonize Mars is with one-way trips (as the Americas were colonized by Europeans). Life is a one-way trip, anyway.

43. Trying to achieve a clear mind is like trying to clear muddy water by stirring.

44. I am only conscious of what I am conscious of. I have no idea what "unconscious" could mean.

45. Everything is subjective. There's no truth independent of brain.

46. It's better to be the first to apologize. That way, I get to make my antagonist wrong.

47. Human bodies evolved in a climate of physical activity. We're not designed to sit at desks.

48. I'm likely to favor anything I've spent time or money on (the "allegiance effect").

49. Typologies involving bimodal distribution (e.g. Myers-Briggs) are suspect, since behavior (and most everything in nature) can be plotted on a normal (Bell) curve.

50. Resentment is usually a sign of unset limits.

51. It's all neurons! Memories, feelings, desires, fears...

52. The universe doesn't care.

53. I am capable of both enmity and amity. My nature results from my distant forebears living in cooperative tribes, which in turn were competitive with other tribes. That's built in to the architecture of my brain.

54. I can never be sure I am not deluded.

55. My genes don't "care" about my happiness. All they "want" is to get to the next generation.

56. How much I drink (whether it's water or milkshakes) doesn't affect how much I eat, since (until recently) all calories came from food.

57. My opinions are as useless as anybody else's.

Monday, August 21, 2006

And around we go

Every so often--usually when we're out in the country somewhere--I find myself staring at the moon, trying to viscerally experience my place in space. Nothing more humbling, nothing like it to bring me fact-to-face with the fact of the wonder of simply being.

We move--walking, driving, flying--across the surface of our sweet, unlikely planet, never more than 8,000 miles from anyone else. Everyone and everything man-made (excepting a few tons of space probes and clutter) lie within an 8,000 mile sphere, centered on me. Or you. All the ongoing wars, all the babies now being born and people dying, all the fish in the sea and books on library shelves and saints and terrorists--all lie within our small spheres.

And we're all in this together, moving through space, taking a year to whiz 300 million miles around the sun--nearly a million miles a day. Let's leave off the sun's galactic motion for now: I want to focus for a minute on earth's wide orbit, imagining (per Copernicus) our star to be a fixture. Our annual road trip is an elongated circle--an ellipse--around our parent body. How can we have any awareness of this at all? This table, this chair, this me, are as fixed as anything I can imagine. How can I experience the fact of whirling around the sun?

What I do is catch the moon at last quarter, that is, when just half of it appears in the morning sky. (I might have to wait two or three weeks for this to occur, depending on where we're at with the moon's phase. Exactness doesn't matter, a few days either way will do--for 2006, the best dates are August 23, September 21, October 20, November 18, December 18.)

OK, so here I am, outside on a clear morning: I check out the position of the sun and the half-circle of moon. Now I imagine I'm hanging on to the end of a rope attached to the sun, I'm swinging around on the end of it, in the direction of the moon: hanging for dear life onto a 92 million mile long rope, heading towards the moon. At 40,000 mph. Hang on tight!

That's it. At last quarter moon, the earth is heading (more or less) in the direction of the moon as it goes around the sun. In six hours, I'll be where the moon now is: that's how fast I am (and you are) going, and that's the direction we're all traveling.

Do try this for yourself. For me, the exercise evokes a profound realization, a "getting it", that takes me out of my tiny consciousness into the realms of something much bigger, a vastness of space and motion.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Catch-22 of self-acceptance

If I accept myself as I am, I will never improve, I'll be stuck with being uptight, judgmental, depressed the rest of my life. I need fixing, not accepting.

The quote is from my pal TC, with whom I've been having a dialog about self-acceptance. I regard the whole idea of self-acceptance as a chimera, on two grounds:

1. Self-acceptance isn't all it's cracked up to be in the conventional wisdom of our New Age. Given that the term means something (it's a bit hard to pin down), we just not wired to be self-accepting. Our internal critical dialog teaches us to learn from our mistakes--that's the burden an evolving conscious being has to put up with.

If we (i.e. the human species) didn't learn, we'd die out pretty fast. The world's a tough, complicated place, where it's impossible to avoid every pitfall and false step. When we screw up, our self-correcting mechanism reminds us of it, so we we'll learn and do better the next time. Sometimes that mechanism comes as a gentle nurturing voice, sometimes as a harsh criticism--either way, we get the opportunity to learn from the experience. The alternative (self-acceptance--"You did just fine, don't worry about it") would have us making the same mistake over and over.

2. If I accept myself as I am... is one of those contradictory phrases that pop up repeatedly in self-improvement literature, like, Just realize you're perfect the way you are!

You see the problem, right? This is the way I am, this screwed-up, not-self-accepting, not-realizing-I'm-perfect being. Any system, religion or teaching that starts off their "how to be ok" speil with, All you have to do is... or Only... or Just... is telling us we're not ok as we are.

Maybe we're not, and you know what? That's never going to change, the architecture of our brains takes care of that.

And maybe that's ok.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Wondering what she was on

If you're reading this, you may well be a fan of Richard Linklater's Waking Life--not just a film about lucid dreaming, but a dream of a movie--filmed as live action, then kinda-sorta traced by a team of animators working on Macintosh computers. The result is not quite real but much more so than regular animation.

This afternoon I saw Linklater's adaption of Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly, also rotoscoped, a wild ride into the future of mind-altering drugs (written 30 years ago when Dick was in the throes of his own drug mania). Do see it, it's a fabulous movie. Now I need to see it again to try to catch up on some of the double-double plot twists. Again, rotoscoping was perfect for this crazy half-real, half-hallucination tale.

So the lights go on and I see that besides me, the only folks left in the theater is a couple about my age. He's explaining the rotoscoping technique to her, how it's made as an actual (digital) movie before being animated. Long pause, then she says, "I didn't realize it was animated."

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jim's question

Last night, Jim asked (brilliantly I thought), "What's the best question I can ask to start a discussion about consciousness?" I replied, of course, that he had just asked the best question. My answer fell short--here's my best effort:

Start off the conversation by trying to define consciousness. It's a bit like pulling yourself by your bootstraps, but here goes.

Philosopher Ned Block makes a useful delineation between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. Access consciousness is the availability of the brain's resources to respond, analyze, react, speak, make decisions. The sort of stuff, in other words, that we assume a smart computer will be able to do in a decade or so, what has been called (see my post What's the problem, anyway?) "the easy problem."

Phenomenal consciousness, or phenomenality, is the hard problem, given flesh by the question, What is it like to be me? Thomas Nagel posed this question some years ago: What is it like to be a bat? Not a bat with a human brain asking itself that question--that's not a bat. And if you were an actual bat, you wouldn't be you, asking the question. Nagel concluded the problem was insoluble.

But we can ask What is it like to be this cup in front of me, that a few minutes ago held coffee? Well, I guess it's like…nothing. We can, I think, agree that it's like nothing to be a cup. Or a wall. Or a tree. Or a bacterium. Or a fish…

Uh oh. This is where it gets squirly. Is it like something to be a fish? A dog? A bonobo? A baby? You?

OK, let's assume that it's like something to be you, just as it's like something to be me--there's a certain quality of barryness here, now. That's what I mean by consciousness. That ineffable feeling that it's like something to be you.

So let's take another look at that teletransporter (my post, Natural-born dualists). You're standing in this booth about to press the button that will analyze you--every last nuance of your physical structure, down to orbiting electrons and a zillion microcurrents of charge in every cell of your body--and send the information across town or across the world where you'll be reconstructed, every last detail complete and in place. Would you push the button? Would I?

Well, it's all well and good, I think, for my material self to shift effortlessly, just like in Star Trek. (Apparently Gene Roddenberry dreamt up the transporter to save the cost of portraying a huge spaceship landing on alien worlds--cheaper by far to film just the crew arriving!) But what about my barryness? What happens to that?

Answer 1: (Monism) Don't worry, be happy! My barryness, my consciousness, my sense of self, is part of the package. Reassemble my physical body and you've got everything, including consciousness.

Answer 2: (Dualism) Don't push the button! Consciousness is something extra, non-physical. It may stay behind while the rest of me goes!

What do you think? (And do you have any choice in that???)

'nuff to get the conversation going?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Too involved with remodeling to post anything

Except this:

The meaning of "secure a building" in different branches of the military:

If you told Navy personnel to "secure a building," they would turn off the lights and lock the doors.

Army personnel would occupy the building so no one could enter.

Marines would assault the building, capture it, and defend it with suppressive fire and close combat.

Air Force personnel would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy.

Remodeling effort at

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Fat enough for you?

...if you drink a beverage--whether it's a soft drink or juice or beer--you don't compensate by eating less food later.
Barry Popkin: Nutrition Action Healthletter, June 2006

I'm a great fan of evolutionary psychology, which (to oversimplify) says that most of our psychological traits were genetically advantageous (promoting survival to reproductive age followed by reproduction itself) way, way back when. Or to over-oversimplify, we're atomic-age bodies with stone-age brains.

So, for instance, dividing the world up into "us" and "them" (we're the good guys, they're suspect) might have made total sense when our ancestors lived in tribes and vied with neighboring tribes for limited resources. Cooperation with the rest of "us" and aggression towards "them" helped our genes on their long journey from then to now. Today we call it (destructive) nationalism; back then it was (constructive) tribalism.

Or, on another tack, it's long been suspected that our passion for sugar, starch and fat (think double-thick chocolate milkshake) is inherent--we crave that stuff because it wasn't so plentiful a million years ago, and what little our great-great...grand-mothers and -fathers got of it was good for survival, good for reproduction.

Another (mostly overlooked) way our genetic legacy leads to poor health is the way humans evolved to respond to liquid and solid intake, that is, separately. Until very recently, human liquid intake consisted soley of water (and breast milk as infants). If drinking a lot of water had alleviated hunger, our ancestors would have starved to death. So our brains evolved two separate systems, to ensure we both drink enough and eat enough. How much we drink doesn't affect how much we eat, because all our calories used to come from food.

So nowadays, when we chug, say, a couple of cokes, it has no effect on our hunger. Our brains are still on automatic, "telling us" to eat whatever we would have anyway, if we hadn't drunk the cokes. So now we end up toting an extra 300 calories that convert into extra pounds.

In 1977-78, Americans (age 2+) got about 3% of daily calories from soft drinks.
In 1999-2000, we got about 7%.

100 years ago, that percentage was zero. Go figure!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Ocean motion

(email to Louisa)

Nearly but not quite halfway thru the year: you're reading this tomorrow in Guanajuato, at 7,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Madre. The ocean here doesn't roar, it's more like a continuous stage whisper, over there, in the misty dawnlight, a hundred feet from the open door of our van. I just drove over here, Samoa, found the little parking spot where we walked a couple of weeks ago after playing on that weird and wonderful concrete loading ramp on our bikes, remember? Steep up, steep down, don't fall down the hole in the middle. Good Earth tea tastes, well, earthy. Our van, our home. An hour ago, 4 am, I needed to get out of our alley home, out of Eureka. The ocean called--not the bay, quiet and serene, but the Pacific, this honest sheen of whirring water reaching to Japan. Now I'm sitting in "your' spot, on the bench seat, door wide open, waves right there, right here. A clear line cuts across the open door: white water above--grey sand below. Water meets land meets air.

Dancing images, wayward thoughts, fractal feelings contrast with the surety of the water. There's nothing ambiguous about the ocean, nor about the lone gull heading south down the shoreline. Completely incapable of being captured as a "scene." It's constantly in motion, the opposite of a still life, dead life. This is more like real life, then I remember that a still life--I think of Van Gogh's sunflowers--is a swirl of atoms in motion (the long-gone original or the ever-volatile oils). Nothing is still, no thing. Not even in death. When I'm dead, before I'm burnt, I'll be an active corpse, a zillion natural processes changing what is--we call it decay, but it's a living decay, no less vital than this breathing, typing-on-my-laptop not-yet-corpse. And later, even my ashes and smoke will be aswhirl with atomic motion. There is no "still" in still life, or anything else.

Notice what is, I instruct my meditators, pretending that there's an is to be noticed. There isn't. No here and now. No moment to be in. Me, when I meditate, I'm as active and alive as all get-up. As Joan (solid as a rock, 40 minutes at a time) famously said when I inquired about her meditation, "I'm designing my next home!" I count breaths, with all the peacefulness of a garbage truck.

We could do this anytime: drive over here, before the sun returns from her nighttime gallivanting somewhere down there, underfoot. Park, open to this big stage of ocean. Cuddle or walk or sip coffee. Consider the sand, admire the breakers, breathe the tang of salt, regard our good luck. Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call... --a woman sang Buffett last Saturday evening at Hasbeans, lips full and expressive, hands celebrating the full range of her guitar strings. Loud, daring, full-on.

All I really worry about is squandering.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dreamin' our lives away?

We do not perceive the world directly, as it truly is; we actively construct it. We construct ourselves, too. Our ordinary waking self is as artificial, invented, and illusory as the ethereal double selves we hallucinate in dreams and out-of-body experiences.
John Horgan: Rational Mysticism

The secret [why recollections seem so real] is that real-time experience is just as indirect!
Marvin Minsky: Brains, Vats, Hats website

Horgan and Minsky, each in their own way, say what most people I've talked to about this suspect: what passes for our "real world experience"--what William James called our "rational waking consciousness"--is a fable. We no more experience the real world than an actor in a play lives a real life. There's no color "out there" (a light wave has no intrinsic color--that all happens after it's hit our retina); there's no "sound" in a sound wave--just pressure differences in the air around us.

[To drive this home: Take a good look at the last music CD you burned (non-label side)--there's a boundary between the burned part (closest to the hole) and the unburned part. That inner ring, a little less shiny than the outer, is music--is that weird or what? Up to 74 minutes of Jimmy Buffett embedded on a little silver disk.]

It's not that we really do confuse dreams with waking life, as the Taoist master Chuang Tzu is reputed to have done ("Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"--which is anthropomorphism taken to the silly stage)--most of us, most of the time, and lucid dreams perhaps being the exception, know damn well when we're awake. Rather that we give too much credence to our waking experience.

Here are a couple of fine resources to challenge the notion that what we think we see is what we see:

(Check 'em out--amazement guaranteed!)

I struggled to express the oddness of the boundary between sleeping and waking in this piece, written a few years ago in Mexico:

I love waking not knowing where I am, who I am. Allowing the pieces of this life to fall gently into place, unhurried. The daily process of reinventing self. I suppose it's accurate, but I really have no way of knowing for sure that who I was last night and who I am this morning are one and the same, or whether the process of waking involves some arcane bootstrapping, where I create myself, my self, a whole new persona. But somehow the one that emerges seems to be recognizable to the other life form that mind accords the label "Louisa" in this place labelled "apartment." Yet again, there is no paradox.

Sound waves come first, photons later. I'm prone, on a moderately yielding surface, which must be "mattress." Dogs bark. Words and phrases come unbidden, the senselessness of my dream fragmenting, waking consciousness bringing order, syntax, vocabulary. I'm uncurious where I am. I want not to know. For long drawn out seconds, or whatever time units my waking-dreaming self employs, I'm in the void, savoring the not knowing.

I'm in Guanajuato. That's it. The womb-consciousness flickers and is gone, I'm here, in a place with a name. I have a history. Barry in Guanajuato. Limbo yielding ruefully to knowledge. I do a sound check. Yep, dogs. Birds. Distant traffic. And bells, always--here in Mexico--church bells.

[Which square is darker--A or B?]

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


A position used for greeting, with the palms together and fingers pointing upwards in prayer position; used in the Zen tradition, but also common in many cultures in the East. It expresses greeting, request, thankfulness, reverence and prayer.

Before eating, Louisa and I bow--for me, it's an opportunity to notice I'm alive--literally. I was 30 before I noticed that. I guess I was on "automatic" before then.

Before and after our weekly 'business meetings' we bow to remind ourselves that we're a team, especially in case we get into items we disagree upon.

On trails in Nepal, it was namaste to strangers: I don't know you, but my spirit acknowledges yours.

If I'm particularly grateful to someone (who may have no connection to Buddhism), a gassho is a way of expressing my sincerity. Ditto if I need to apologize for something.

Coming into the zendo, it's a 'memo to self' that I'm part of a long lineage of meditators, to whom I give thanks.

Before and after meditation, a gassho says thank you to me (bowing in to my cushion) and to the group (bowing out) for our communal presence.

In formal group discussions, it can take the place of a talking stick, keeping a semblance of formality to what might otherwise be 'just' chatting. At the end of the discussion, it's a way of saying, OK, we can talk 'regularly' now.

When Louisa and I need to connect after some awkwardness or upset, it's a way of cutting through our BS.

I've been gasshoing for years, so that now my body knows to bow before "I" do. I already have my palms together before thinking about it. Is this where the gesture for prayer came from? Buddhism preceded Christianity by several centuries (not to mention Hinduism...and whatever preceded that!)--maybe the act of putting palms together is deep-rooted in some collective cultural memory?