On Stumbling

“Even now one rarely hears of people achieving great things unless they first stumble in some respect.”
― Meister Eckhart

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In searching for an image for this post, I came upon the lotus. It’s a beautiful flower and might seem not at all to evoke stumbling, or falling, or “mistake-making.” But it’s a good image for this because a lotus flower rises from the mud, from the muck, from the dirt at the bottom of a pond, quite literally from “pond scum” that has settled to the lowest depths of the pool. This is why it is such a ubiquitous image in Buddhist iconography–the lotus teaches us: from dirt comes beauty; from the lowest deaths flowers the most sublime sights.

When we stumble, when we make mistakes, we are in the lowest depths of human existence. These depths are characterized by suffering, in both extreme and not-so-extreme measures. If we are in a state of desire, we are suffering. If we are caught up trying to achieve something, we are suffering. All suffering can ultimately be understood as a kind of metaphorical mud.

But it is a very fertile mud; a mud from which insight can flower. Suffering exists to wake us up, to help us become alive to this present moment and to all that is.

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When it comes to spiritual things, we often expect those we look to for advice to be “perfect,” to have a “perfect” life. But in actuality, those who have experienced some of the most profound shifts in consciousness are those who have visited the lowest depths of human suffering. The question is not “what has this person done before,” but rather how has this person overcome the suffering and ignorance which is the root cause of all harmful action. What we should expect is not a perfect “past,” from an awakened one, but rather, an peaceful, happy, and harmless NOW. In fact, the person who has walked through darkness and found the light is best suited to tell those of us in darkness how to ignite the spark of insight within ourselves.

This is the point behind the Buddhist tale of the murderer Angulimala.

Angulimala was a killer of men and he was proud of his murderous ways. He set out to kill the Buddha, but upon meeting him received the teaching and was awakened from the nightmare of ignorance which motivated his actions. He rose from the mud and scum of suffering, flowering into wakefulness and harmlessness.

“Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.” –Meister Eckhart
Let us then not look upon our stumbling as the end of our story of awakening–using any past mistake to convince ourselves that we are unworthy of awakening–but instead, let us look at our stumbling as the beginning of insight. Let us accept our stumbling and examine it closely, without judgment, and let it teach us its lessons. And, let us not expect of others a life devoid of “stumbles.”  Just as within the dirt of the pond lives the root of the lotus, so too within our mistakes lies the root of awakening.

Knowing Others

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When we meet people, we see the color of their skin and we think this means something. We see the way they dress or how their hair is, or if they are wearing a wedding ring, or if they have tattoos. We listen to how they speak, and we think this means something.

But all of these things, and everything like it that is not mentioned, comes down to little more than style. And style is produced by context (Where did this person’s ancestors come from? Where did they grow up? What have they been exposed to?) None of these things tell us anything “essential” about the person.

That is because there is only one “essential” thing to know about any other person–which is that the difference between them and you is philosophical, not actual. Aside from style of body, dress, or manner, what is the difference between you and another human being? What is the difference between a deer from Ohio and a deer from Michigan? It’s not a difference we consider hugely significant. Yet as humans we consider these differences in style to be monumental when we think about how we relate to others and who we will relate with.

You and every other human is caught up in the same striving for happiness, for safety. We all eat daily, shit frequently, talk, have family members, gather with friends, read books, seek out entertainment, and sleep. Only the style of these things differs; but on a fundamental level, we are all caught up in the same things.

And yet these aspects of “style” filter how we perceive people. What “bodies” do we understand as wise, as learned, as enlightened? To what extent do these filters in our own minds color how we perceive others? Can we see how our thoughts about “another person” are produced by cultural context and not by the encounter we are having *at that moment* with the other person?

Stereotype is the opposite of Zen, for it relies upon a historical thought process to exist. And even when we interact with someone we have known a long time, instead of engaging them new each moment, we often judge them through the filter of that history. We stereotype them in a “local” way; we always see them based on what we think we know about them from before that present moment.

Yet, we are all new each moment, the context is new each moment. Is there anyone in your life whose changes you have failed to notice because you only see what your mind has constructed them to be rather than what they really are?

Is there any “type” of person for whom you have a solidified and preconceived expectation, a filter already existing in your thought matrix, through which you understand all of their behavior?

Zen means dropping all of that. It means realizing that there is only the present moment and what once was no longer exists, and what will be, has yet to exist. This means everything we think we know about others is only “real” to the extent that those others continue to manifest that historical memory in themselves. But we can encourage them to come into the present by seeing them as they really are, and not through the filters and lenses of style, of history, of memory.

Lenses

The mental condition meditation seeks to undo can be thought of as a pair of invisible glasses through which we see the world.

If a person’s experiences, from the earliest times, are traumatic then they will be wearing “trauma lenses.” Imagine a child, say 5 years old, who walks into her attic one day only to find that a parent has committed suicide there.

This traumatic experience shades and contours everything the child experiences after that such that every experience is not only itself; it is the experience + the traumatic conditioning of that experience. Such a person might seem strange to others whose conditioning is different (for everyone is conditioned in some way), but such a person can undo that conditioning so that what is left (after the undoing) is just the experience, as it is.

To overcome trauma, to undo conditioning, one must sharpen the faculty for noticing what is going on *now.* And, one must begin to notice, to “see,” the lenses themselves. Once the lenses are no longer invisible, the person can take them off. When you know you are wearing glasses, you can remove them. If you don’t even know they are there, then you don’t realize there is something to remove.

We can undo our traumatic (and all other) conditioning through the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is like a light in the darkness; it cuts through blindness and reveals what we could not previously see. It reveals our individual filters which color our perception of the experience of being alive.

To be mindful, notice your breath. Become aware of where you are now, how you feel now, what your situation is now. Do not write a story in your head about it. Simply accept the raw facts of the moment and do not layer it with ideological or historical meaning. Being here now means accepting things exactly as they are without framing it through an experience you had before.

In this way, we drop our glasses and notice–maybe for the first time–that things have changed. And then we notice, that they always change (impermanence is the nature of the universe) and that we need not cling to the past (the traumas we cannot release) because those conditions no longer exist.

Cultivating Strategic Recklessness for Awakening

It is said that the Buddha became enlightened when he sat beneath a bodhi tree for 7 days and 7 nights. He is said to have thought to himself: *I will not get up from here until I have awakened.*

He recklessly disregarded his need for food, for water, and for the bathroom. He put aside all concern for suffering, of looking like a fool, and of failure. He essentially said: let wind, rain, insects, hunger, the constraints of the body, and whatever else kill me–but I will not move from here until I am enlightened.

If you pierce the teaching of Jesus’ story, you can see a similar disregard for the flesh in pursuit of ultimate redemption. Jesus allowed himself to be crucified in order to “save the world,” which we might understand to be about bringing an enlightened teaching to the world which instructed us towards a radical acceptance of all that is. Hence Jesus did not contest the circumstances of his world, but went with the flow of events even to his own death. His ascension, after having acted only out of love without regard to pain, death, or suffering–is a metaphor for his enlightenment.

The lesson for us, as practitioners, is to move recklessly towards suffering as opposed to away from it, to “bear a cross,” as Jesus did, to face Mara as the Buddha did.

I have used the word “reckless” here though I could have used the word “courage.” But reckless works better because “courage” seems a heroic principle that we often judge ourselves to lack. But we are all capable of deploying recklessness! Recklessness is the everyman’s courage.

So let’s look closely: A feeling comes up, a thought comes up, an urge comes up and we immediately recoil from it. “I don’t like this,” is our immediate response. Then, we begin to attach a story to it. “I don’t like this feeling/thought/urge because it means I have no will power; it means I am weak; it means I am a bad person.” So then we are entrenched in negativity, which is an experience of cognitive trauma (in Buddhism it is sometimes called a “defilement), and we produce a low vibration, a harmful affective state ensues, and we walk around polluting the environment with that low, traumatizing vibration.

But this low vibration, the cognitive trauma, is not caused by the thought/feeling/urge itself. It is caused by our attempt to stop the sensation (affective or cognitive) of the event. On the deepest level we are saying: “I don’t want to experience this.” This is, therefore, the opposite of radical acceptance.

So we dam back the sensation in an attempt to get rid of it. But it doesn’t work. It’s like pressing down on a wound hoping it will go back into your body and disappear. Obviously, it will not. If you press down on it and try to push a wound into your body so it will disappear you will only infect the wound more deeply and hurt yourself more deeply, delaying your healing.

If you let the wound out to air–do not expand the wound, do not pick at the wound, do not obsess over the wound–but simply let it out by observing it, then, slowly, it will heal. Over time, it will disappear entirely.

Everyone has disturbing thoughts. The degree to which those disturbing thoughts impact your actual behavior is directly related to how much you suppress those thoughts. Again, not suppressing isn’t the same as wallowing or encouraging. It’s simply observing.

So–a thought arises. You simply notice: “Ah the thought has arisen that I want to trip my boss as he walks down the hall.” Notice the thought. *Do not trip your boss*

In fact, in general, do not act on thoughts and feelings *at all.* What is necessary to do is obvious: you must eat, sleep, take care of your body, avoid conflicts with others, avoid harming others, and avoid projecting your thoughts, desires, and feelings onto others. So please understand that the observation of thoughts and feelings, the radical acceptance of thoughts and feelings, does not translate into a radical acceptance of harmful behaviors that could be the result of those thoughts and feelings.

The power of this observations is to demonstrate to yourself that your thoughts and feelings are ephemeral things that need not have any control over your actions *at all.

Do not say, “I am an awful person. I am thinking negative thoughts. Why am I this way? I really need to do a mantra. I need to do more yoga. I need to…to cure myself of these horrible thoughts.” When you do that, you have invested the thought with so much energy and ownership, you are solidifying it.

Instead notice: ah, a thought about tripping the boss. See how long it stays. See how it produces body sensations (if it does): a constriction in the chest? A light-headedness? Simply observe the experience of the thought. And, because it arose, it will pass away. Notice it pass away. And then, let it go entirely.

Recklessness comes in here because we can say to ourselves: no matter how much a thought/feeling/impulse feels bad, scary, unwanted, negative, or whatever–I will not run from it. I will not try to explain it. I will not make a story about it so that I can feel it less. I will not move away from it–but no matter what, I will stay here and I will look at it and see it for what it is. I will not allow it to move me–to make me act, to seduce me into maintaining it through my own disgust and attempts to “cure” it. A wonderful writer once wrote, “To oppose something is to maintain it.” If you oppose the thoughts you “don’t like” in order to get rid of them, you will only strengthen them. So just recklessly decide that whatever thought comes up, you will not react. You won’t even move into a place of “like it” or “disliking it,” because to even identify it as “bad” or “wrong” is to oppose it and hence to maintain it.

Recklessly tell yourself: I don’t care if this emotion cuts me to shreds. I don’t care if this thought destroys me entirely. I will let it arise and I will observe it. I will not strengthen it but I will not run from it, no matter how painful, how weird, or how unexpected.

This is the courage, this is the recklessness, of confronting suffering that awakening requires.

Waking up from the nightmare of the human condition is like realizing that you are an actor who has forgotten you are in a play. Everything you were so concerned about before falls away, recedes like the earth beneath you when you climb the sky in an airplane. The details of the drama get smaller and smaller–like a building on the ground–until all that is left is the over view perspective of the patchwork grid of earth.

Or–it’s like this: remember when you were in high school or college? And you had friends and you and your friends had things you were concerned about–deeply concerned about. There may have been tears, fights, angry letters or words, maybe even counseling. But then, it ended. You graduated. You moved on. Your life reshaped itself and all the things you were so worried about before no longer have any meaning to you at all. Now, the thing you were *so* torn up about back then is funny to you. You laugh about it now.

We begin to wake up the moment we cease running from suffering. This does not mean one seeks suffering or wallows in suffering, but when suffering arises one abides with it, gently. One keeps watch and notices the intensity, the location, the texture of that suffering. One is mindful of it, but does not feed it or invite it. Think of yourself as sitting at the sick bed of another; your presence to suffering transforms it, transmutes it, into peace.

This is the purpose of our lives, the purpose of all matter. To witness and attend the event of suffering and to transform it into peace. As the universe experiencing itself as human beings, we are part of a great and magnificent unfolding evolution. We do this divine work by being present to what is and not sitting in judgment of what is, but instead radically accepting what is.

In doing this, we give ourselves wings. The mundane concerns of the egoistic mind recedes, like water wears done a stone. We become utterly harmless; and when you are harmless, you realize that this renders you incapable of experiencing harm. It is a peace which passes all understanding–for understanding is what the ego-driven mind seeks and craves. It wants to whittle the experience of being alive down into a small, manageable box with everyone and everything in a certain place.

All “isms” arise from that impulse to categorize and box. But when we come out of the box and our experience knows no bounds, no one–regardless of what they look like, or where they come from, or what they have done, or who they love–can be our enemy. To wake up means to wake up from the delusion of “me” and “you,” of “I” and “other” because to fly, to be free means to see that there is no one against you because there is no them, no you.

Universal Teachings

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It came to me at quite a young age that at the heart of every faith, is a divine teaching. All faith is founded upon a bedrock of universal wisdom: do not kill, do not cheat, do not steal, do not lie. There is no faith that instructs its adherents to kill, to cheat, to steal, and to lie.

The divine teaching for humanity, then, is one of consideration and kindness, of regard for one’s human community over the darker promptings of the “self” which could violate this wisdom due to the often tempestuous vicissitudes of emotion: anger, jealousy, greed, lust, and fear.

In the Sermon On the Mount, Jesus advises the people to avoid making offerings at the altar if there is anger in the heart for one’s brother. He says, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”

This does not mean only one’s literal brother. It means all of humankind, one’s brethren. The teaching here should be understood to mean that one cannot worship if one’s heart is full of anger; if one is emotionally inflamed, then one cannot hear the voice of God. He goes on to speak against lust, against jealously, against even the very thought of the unskillful (what Christians call sin)–which has its roots in the volatile state of emotion.

What man or woman can turn their other cheek to a man or woman who has slapped them as Jesus advises his followers to do? One that is in control of his her or her mind, one that is trained in the art of equanimity.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”

This is what in Buddhism is called “radical acceptance.” It means that one offers no resistance to circumstances judged to be unfair; it means that one never asserts one’s will. It requires a selflessness, an equanimity, and such a boundless and boundaryless kindness that we rarely see the likes of it. Yet this is how Jesus defines perfection and advises his followers to fold themselves into the perfection of God by vanquishing the self and never acting in self interest.

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, which is in heaven is perfect.”

This is the universal and divine teaching of all faiths, articulated in this particular post through the words of Jesus Christ. If we have ears to hear, and eyes to see, the teaching is everywhere around us–the bedrock of this universal teaching is present in every faith.

When we partition and divide this universal and divine teaching ecumenically, we do so from a place of ego. In doing so, the teaching cannot reach us, cannot penetrate the blindness of “self,” and the tempestuousness of emotion. Let us open our ears to the song of the divine that is all around us; let us cease to see difference where there is only overlap; let us lose our “selves” and gain the whole Universe.

The Balance of your mind, The Balance of the World

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The presence of a strong emotion is always the sign of something you do not know.

When we are overtaken by feeling (and here I do not mean the rush of wonder one feels upon hearing amazing music or seeing a piece of art or taking in a scene in nature)–whether we think of it as positive or negative–we are always in a state of ignorance.

Let us consider two seeming opposites: love and hate.

When you are overtaken by love, especially romantic love, you lose the balance of your mind. You do not see the person’s faults or humanity, even. Instead, you only see them as the provocateur of that feeling, “love,” which is such a sensory overload of pleasure that you crave it. As time goes on, this effect decreases and then all of the things you “did not know” and “could not see” become all too apparent. The failings, the faults, the pure humanity of the person which before was softened under the chemical haze of oxytocin, now are thrown into sharp relief. Hence, one feels that one is “falling out of love.”

That feeling then, that intense feeling of “love,” was characterized by a “not seeing,” a “not knowing,” or ignorance.

Likewise, when we hate someone, we see them not as the full beings they are–instead, we only see them for the one word or phrase or action that has invoked our wrath. Their history and story and tragedies which led up to that moment of (perhaps) failure on their part becomes all they are as we burn in the fires of hatred. Our survival instinct kicks up, our bodies become awash with cortisol (the stress hormone), and we feel, strongly, that we must defend ourselves and all understanding is pushed aside as ignorance reigns.

Mindfulness and meditation cultivate an equanimity that, with practice, trains the brain against emotional inflammation. Then we can engage situations and people with a broader and more inclusive knowledge about “what is really going on.” At the same time, we spare our bodies the wash of hormones of stress and stimulation. We keep the balance of our mind.

And by keeping the balance of our mind, we contribute to balance in the world.

Making Problems Out of Nothing At All

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The thinking mind always wants a problem to solve. It desires to be busy so much that it will create problems were there are none. These problems are often imagined, but the mind tells us they are likely outcomes if we don’t do “this” or if we don’t do “that.”

Worrying about being sick, when one is not sick, is one way we make problems out of nothing at all. We worry there is an invisible disease and therefore ruin the moment thinking about something which does not (yet) exist. By not accepting the reality of the present moment–which is: I am not now presently sick–we neglect our health through denial, through a kind of psychological dishonesty.

Refusal to accept the present moment, as it is, is a kind of psychological dishonesty. We are lying to ourselves and cannot be happy in that state. If you have a problem *right now,* then address it. If there are no problems *right now,* do not create one by imagining a problem and thereby living dishonestly against the current moment.

Make no problems and when they do arise, you will have a clearer, more peaceful mind to deal with them.