A Field of Potentialities

I am writing today from my small room in Crestone Colorado. An arctic cold front has moved through Colorado, providing us a foot of snow, and 10F (-12C) temperatures. I moved from Boulder to the Crestone Mountain Zen Center on October 1st. I feel as though I have written a blog post like this before – in fact, I did, in 2011!

9 years later, I am making a similar choice. A synchronistic set of circumstances came together to allow this to happen. First, earlier in the summer, my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker Roshi, who was forced to remain in the US due to the pandemic, decided to unretire and began teaching and managing the monastery again. There were some significant leadership changes this summer at the monastery and several of my closest sangha friends over the years agreed to support my teacher through this transition. Suddenly a space that had felt uninviting in recent years was very open and welcoming to me.

In June, Roshi invited me to live at the monastery in any capacity possible. As my health at that time was still very compromised, I knew I would be unable to make an immediate decision. All my advisors were very clear that making big decisions in a state of depression and ill health, was not a good idea! Therefore, I left the decision open as my health improved until I felt more capable of a decision requiring a big change. With time, I noticed my heart was feeling increasingly at ease with the idea of returning to a monastic existence, and there was some excitement at the concept of being invited to participate in a part-time manner, something I will discuss below.

This time, the circumstances are wildly different. First, I will not “be dancing on loves stage with a beautiful Dutch woman” as I wrote 9 years ago. One of the more difficult aspects of moving here was choosing to leave behind two deeply satisfying and nourishing romantic relationships that had developed in recent months. At the monastery, my risk tolerance for coronavirus merges with the risk tolerance of the entire sangha – and that is a very low tolerance. Essentially the group here is self-isolating to keep our residents safe (Three residents are over 70 and my teacher is nearly 85). Aside from essential medical or shopping trips, my only engagement with others outside the monastery will be outside walks or Zoom calls. Anyone with significant exposure outside the monastery must quarantine and test before returning to communal practice life. The positive side of this is that it is as-if the pandemic does not exist here – because of the group self-quarantine, we do not need to wear masks, we eat and work closely together, hugging and touch are encouraged and what was once normal to everyone outside, remains normal here. Today I shared practice and meals with a group of 18 people which feels incredibly nourishing and intimate after the long period of chemo and corona isolation.

Although nearly four weeks have passed since I arrived, a clear sense of timelessness has accompanied living here. The schedule, the first teacher, is repetitive and unforgiving. The wake-up bell rings at 4:30, although many of us need to stir even earlier to prepare for our various practice roles. I am finding such deep nourishment in my daily meditation. Post-chemotherapy, I took an unintended hiatus from regular practice, possibly for the longest period since I began meditating regularly a decade ago. Each morning, despite the cold and darkness, I eagerly seek that cushion, coming back home to one of the most intimate places I have discovered in this life.

I am experimenting with a part-time schedule here, participating in about 2/3 of the daily activities while allowing myself extra space for ensuring I get enough rest to continue my healing. This means I skip the afternoon work period and the evening meditation – I would prefer not to miss this meditation, but it means I would not get to sleep until past 9. Right now, I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to remain healthy and not deplete my immune system. Once I see the clock strike at 8 pm, it’s lights out for me, which seems unbelievable, although completely necessary!

The other benefit of being on a 2/3 schedule is that I have some flexibility to remain connected to the outside world with better frequency and I am continuing to pursue several threads that have become very important to me in the last year. Authentic Relating is one of the primary ones: I am teaching an online course in Authentic Relating and am also mentoring several people in a leadership development course. I have also headed up a crowdfunding project for the Realness Project where we are raising funds to get authentic relating workbooks into prisons to bring some light to incarcerated people who are facing much more difficult and isolated conditions than many of us. There are a few other threads I may describe later, but the point is that my agreement with the staff here makes it possible for me to occasionally miss part of the morning work period for a meeting or to take a couple of days here or there to teach or take an online course. Normally such half-time positions are not possible, but because I have a long relationship and a developed practice with this monastery, we have come to this seemingly mutually beneficial agreement.

I think I’ll leave it here – I had intended to reach into the subtle aspects, the emotional and spiritual shifts and reflections, however, the practical points took over!  I hope to continue writing more consistently and plan to take you all along on this next stage of my healing and evolution!

The Religion of Tomorrow – A Book Review

Last night I finished a rather thick and dense book by Ken Wilber called The Religion of Tomorrow. All 806 pages. I dove in two months ago upon a recommendation from my friend Bodhi. I’ve been generally interested in Ken Wilber’s teaching and work around Integral philosophy, spirituality, psychology, etc.… the Integral Center used to be a thriving institution in Boulder. However, I sadly missed participating much during its prime years as I lived in Thailand. The Authentic Relating movement that I am now more intimately connected with had its roots here… as did many other beautiful offerings.

Part of my logic of tackling such an academic project was to combat the expected and very real chemo-brain that comes with extended chemotherapy treatment. Netflix series would not be the solution! Chemo-brain is a catch-all for a variety of brain-relating malfunctions such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating on a single task
  • Problems with short-term memory; forgetting details of recent events
  • Feeling mentally “slower” than usual
  • Confusing dates and appointments
  • Misplacing objects
  • Fumbling for the right word or phrase

And yes, if you ask anyone who has spent time with me the past three months, these factors have been present in various degrees. Similar to avoiding issues with old age, an antidote to such malfunctions is exercising the brain: crosswords, reading, playing games, etc. Hence this book…

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It made my hair fall out

The premise of The Religion of Tomorrow is that the great religions of the world are at a crossroads. First, Wilber commends the major paths for helping countless individuals awake to the astonishing reality of the true nature of themselves and the universe. Then he explains how, through centuries of cultural accretion and focus on myth and ritual as ends in themselves, this core insight has become obscured, and religions risk disappearing along with their powerful awakening potential for individuals.

Wilber argues that for the great religions to survive into the future while remaining faithful to that original spiritual vision, they must incorporate the extraordinary number of scientific truths learned about human nature in just the past hundred years–for example, about the mind and brain, emotions, and the growth of consciousness. The original practitioners of the great religions were simply unaware of and thus were unable to include in their meditative systems.

What got me very excited about the book was that Wilber declares in the beginning that he would take Buddhism as an example, partly because it is the main religion that he has studied and practiced over the years, and also because in many ways, it is poised to take what he calls ‘a fourth turning’.  The third turning he argues happened almost 1000 years ago. Buddhism is also the religion I have studied the most formally myself.

Wilber demonstrates how his comprehensive Integral Approach–which is already being applied to several world religions by some of their adherents, can avert a cultural disaster of unparalleled proportions: the utter neglect of the glorious upper reaches of human potential by the materialistic postmodern worldview. Additionally, he shows how we can apply this approach to our personal spiritual practice.

For those who have studied Integral before, much of this book will be repetitive. Wilber has a very circular way of writing which is great for learning but he does chew up a lot of pages to reiterate certain points. He spends most of his time reviewing States and Stages (hundreds of pages). Wilber writes that states and structures of consciousness are two of the most important psycho-spiritual elements that humans possess, each having their own development spectrum. States, states of consciousness, or spiritual experience are those that the religions have explored for thousands of years. Wilber refers to these as the WAKING UP process.

Stages or stages and structures of consciousness is what Wilber considers spiritual intelligence and necessary for GROWING UP. 

Oversimplifying greatly here, Wilber argues that the great traditions are not taking into account the modern developments in structures of consciousness that humanity and individuals have developed over the past hundreds of years. And because of this, a spiritual master may have achieved the highest state of nondual consciousness possible, but be stuck in a lower stage of development and manifest that nondual spiritual religion through an ethnocentric or mythic worldview. Wilber refers many times to the challenges and problems that arose as many highly state developed East Asian Buddhist teachers began integrating with a western society that was more evolved from a stage perspective (views on race, sex, etc.) and the confusion and pain this often created.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book – for me it served as in introduction to Integral teachings: quadrants, levels, lines, states, etc. I also appreciated how Wilber can quickly move between very academic and scholarly language and then suddenly be guiding a meditation on nonduality. I had some inspirational moments of reading this in the middle of the night in chemo and steroid-induced mental states.

I also appreciate gaining a new understanding of the stages of consciousness and their relationship to spiritual development. Wilber shed light on a number of confusing situations I have experienced where highly realized (states) teachers were manifesting their teachings and actions from a lower vantage point (stage) of realization. It helps remind me of the criticality of taking a more holistic approach to development in life in general (cognitive, interpersonal, moral, spiritual, emotional, somatic, etc.). High states are not enough.

Finally – Wilber tangentially dives into teachings on chakras, subtle and causal bodies, shadow work, culture wars, state and stage dysfunctions, and a number of other areas that are definitely worth a read.

One of my main disappointments of this book is that Wilber never actually reaches the point of discussing how the fourth turning of Buddhism will manifest – after addressing this in the introduction and promising that he will use Buddhism as an example, he simply never returns to it. My hunch is that after 800 pages he decided it warranted another book, which I just discovered has been written (The Fourth Turning), somehow in the years before The Religion of Tomorrow

Corona Brain Syndrome

As I attempted a short walk today I was contemplating the overload of information that has poured into me these recent days. I’m calling it corona brain syndrome (or CBS). Many people are writing about the different opportunities that are coming with this pandemic such as slowing down, getting outside, spending time more with family, and getting in shape. Do you really need a pandemic for this? I applaud the people who are on the optimistic side of this thing. Yet there is an even more fundamental opportunity here – to deeply examine long held patterns and beliefs around attachment, health, self and other. I hope to use CBS over the coming days and weeks to explore these themes for myself.

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Today I was contemplating the difficult choices that governments and individuals are making and the trade offs between these choices. In today’s news that ranges from lock it all down to live life as you always have and everywhere in between. Only time will tell who made the best choices with the limited information we have. We will analyze our individual and political choices for years to come. YET, what I am asking now is slightly more subtle: Wherever we fall on this lock down / isolation spectrum, WHAT is it that we are protecting, saving, etc. though the locking down, isolating or quarantining? 

I think the default, unexamined answer is simply physical life. Being alive is assumed to be better than dying or being dead. I agree with this, most of the time! However, is this physical organism really the most important thing to protect? It’s an old question that our illness and death-averse society has avoided for a long time. Now I’m not arguing against the plans of those who can stay home alone or with their families for a week or two. This seems like a prudent, wise choice right now, one that is rather selfless and in the interest of the greater good. On the other side, I have one friend who advocates for letting the elderly and immunocompromised fare for themselves- Darwinian warfare!

But what if, our government’s decree that we need to isolate for a month, for two, for four…  Let’s assume in a perfect world we didn’t have to consider financial concerns and this was possible for everyone. Then we might have to ask ourselves what does it mean to be alive – is breathing and eating and procreating enough? Or might we need some meaning in our lives? Let’s not wait until we are forced to ask this question. I will leave you with a hypothetical choice to grok:  You have a near-death experience and and your guide at the end of the tunnel tells you that it’s not your time yet, you need to go back to the world but you have a couple of choices for your remaining time:

      CHOICE 1:  5 years of life, healthy, routine, unexciting.

      CHOICE 2:  1 month of life, also rather routine and unexciting – but touched by one very particular moment of ecstasy – be it falling in love, seeing the divine, experiencing a union with cosmos.

I’m not sure if this is a fair question – but your answer may say a lot about your current state of mind!

Two Hearts

Have you ever wondered what the dimensions of the human heart are? As I reopened a study of anatomy to understand what is happening with my recent diagnosis, I noticed a coincidence – my tumor is approximately the same size as my heart, sitting a little bit to the left (sorry Ramana!). The human heart averages about 11cm x 8cm x 6cm. My tumor is 9cm x 8cm x6m. Throughout the last month and during my first days of chemo treatment I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate this auspicious similarity. A total coincidence? For me, in this lifetime, probably not!

This healing journey for me is expansive. For sure it includes the chemotherapy treatment to reduce and eliminate the malignant b-cells in my body (as my little backpack attached to my chemo port has been reminding of since Monday). And it also includes the aspects of existence that may have contributed to stagnant energy in chest, to a blockage or otherwise karmic message coming through this process.

Keep in mind as I write this, I am sharing my own explorative investigation into this more internal and deeply personal relationship with myself and my life, I am no means expressing any certainty or expressing any master or knowledge on these topics! My background in yogic teachings and healing already led me down a certain direction with my spiritual self-diagnosis. First signs of the disease? A large tumor on the left of my chest (meaning the more receptive, feminine, yin aspect, and close to, nearly touching my heart.

Over the past weeks, I have briefly eluded to several of these explorations and words of from other spiritual healers. First was Louise Hay, also known as one of the founders of the self-help movement. Her first book, Heal Your Body, was published in 1976, long before it was fashionable to discuss the connection between the mind and body. Her remarkable book tries to make connections between physical, emotional and mental aspects of disease. For cancer, she describes something like a deep hurt or a longstanding resentment. Or even a deep secret or grief eating away at the self.  This can manifest in carrying hatred to having a “What’s the use?” attitude. For most ailments she offers antidotes or affirmations that help us reverse the trend in our minds. For cancer, hers is: I lovingly forgive and release all of the past. I choose to fill my world with joy. I love and approve of myself.

Louise specifically correlates lymphomas with:

A tremendous fear of not being good enough, a frantic race to prove one’s self until the blood has no substance left to support itself.

As I’ve explored around my own heart and soul and bodymind connections, this one lands strongly for me. During my early symptoms of cough, many people would suggest I look into grief or despair that is often correlated with the lungs and chest, like not feeling worthy of living life fully. However this never resonated strongly with me. When I look hard, I can find some grief around lost relationships, or the loss of my spiritual community last year, but none of these are overly pervasive.

Intuitively I knew my struggle was more fundamental, on the level of giving and receiving, on being full worthy and accepted in this world.  (Side bar: I am compressing about five years of shadow work, therapy and self reflection into one paragraph!). This not being worthy is not like some kind of shadow that follows me around like a depressed cloud all day. Its more the opposite, it has propelled me in life – rather than ever allowing myself to be exposed in full vulnerability, openness or fear, I move forward in word and action and avoid exposure. The lone wolf, not relying on others, not needing anything. It is far easier and safer to meet the world alone, detached, aloof, and stoically.

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Recently I have been enjoying the book, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown where she shares :

One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on "going it alone." Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into those who offer help and those who need help. The truth is that we are both.

Intellectually I am fully aware that I am completely interdependent on the world around me, that I am dependent on so much and so many others, out there. However there is a a big difference between being aware of this and actually enacting it in daily life and relationships.

‘I’m fine’ has probably been the main mantra of my life.

And if I have learned anything in this last month, it is certainly that I am NOT fine, that I am utterly reliant and dependent on the gifts, offerings, support and love of others. What has appeared so powerfully for me in these weeks of diagnosis/prognosis/treatment has been the outpouring of support, unconditional love and friendship from people that I genuinely did not expect. 

I have offered so little in the past – why is it being offered back to me??

This is my current contemplation and reflection, also considered by by Brené Brown:

Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.

Most people in my life will describe me as warm and kind being, very capable of love and care. What is not seen, possibly, is my inability to receive that very same love and care from without. To deeply, fully, profoundly receive it.

With deep humbleness and gratitude I continue to be thankful for all that I am receiving – my words are only a fraction of acknowledgement for what is appearing in and through and beyond this experience, for this mystical dive into the opening of my heart.

To be continued…

Vision Quest

I am sitting cross-legged before an odd altar – a hawks feather, animal bones, a meteorite, a power stick and a wooden Buddha. I’m dirty, sore, sunburned, and very hungry. I have been fasting for 3 days on the top of this lonely mountain. Sitting quietly at 12,500 feet in arguably the remotest part of Colorado. No trail took me to where I am now. It is just an hour before my solar return- the moment the sun returns to the same exact location in the sky as the moment of my birth. Not just any solar return. This is will complete my 40th trip around the sun. Before I cross that threshold, let’s discuss how this all began.

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Three months ago, I enjoyed a retreat with my dear dharma friends Peter and Eveline in there hermitage in northern Bali. Often, the three of us would find ourselves in shared conversation after meals or during breaks. At one point, Peter shared his experience of a vision quest in his 40’s, pointing to some of the incredible insights that he received during his time on the side of mountain in Cyprus. The seed was planted.

In ancient cultures throughout the world, Quests were used as doorways to enter spiritual realms. A Quest could take the form of a retreat into nature, a Vision Quest, or a pilgrimage. These extraordinary journeys often revealed sacred visions, personal direction and life purpose to those who pursued them. Western culture has no modern equivalent- so I decided to craft my own quest to seek the ream of mystery and spirit beyond the senses.

Originally I considered a 7-day and 7-night quest, but when an opportunity arose to join a men’s retreat in the days leading up to my birthday, I settled on 4 days and 3 nights, as an extension of the group retreat. I will write separately about the men’s retreat- but for now, know that I departed from that group of men virile, inspired, and open-hearted.

I drive away from the retreat center, send a final text to my sister informing her of my plans shortly before I lose signal. I park my car at 2 in the afternoon at the trailhead. I gather my belongings. It feels odd to fill a backpack for 4 days without a morsel of food. Everything ready, I sign in at the trailhead register. Only 12 entries over the past 2 years. I will be alone, no doubt about it.

I walk excitedly towards the place I had pinpointed in advance, researching between topographic and google maps. I expected about 5 miles of walking and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I walk for a while, my new boots feeling good on the ground. My mind racing from an encounter with a beautiful woman just hours earlier… I hear Chris, my retreat leader, in my head saying – the first tool in uncovering your purpose is to eliminate distractions! Slowly the physicality of the uphill hike with a heavy pack takes over and I return to my breath and the beauty of the surroundings: wildflowers, running streams, snow-laden peaks.

I decide to sit down – I watch a large moose across the meadow, unnoticed for a while. Eventually she catches my eye and jots into the distance. She pauses, looks up, as if to show me something. I follow her gaze upwards. I spy two beautiful rock outcroppings on top of a distant mountain. Something clicks. That is where I must go. Vision quests are all about paying attention to signs – not necessarily planning every detail but trusting your inner compass can be guided by the natural world.

I check my map. A 12,600 foot peak, no trail, and steep terrain leading to its summit. I make a plan, step off the trail and start walking. No coincidence that the men’s retreat was called Ascending the Sacred Mountain. I pass a pile of bones from a recent kill. Another sign. I stow the sacrum, pelvis and a leg bone in my pack. I keep walking ahead…Its getting late, exhaustion is setting in. I can no longer see the top, I’m somewhat lost and disoriented in a forest of deadfall. Should I just stay here? A voice in my head propels me upward. As sunset nears, the trees thin, a herd of elk greet my arrival above tree line. Alpenglow shines in all directions as my destination is reached.

I set my pack down. Its late, I’m exhausted and I decide to just lie down. Reaching for my water, I realize it is all gone. One small but important detail before I fully settle down. I vaguely remember a patch of snow as I first glanced at this peak – I set out in search, luckily discovering it a few hundred feet downhill. Filling my bottles with the snowmelt, I make my way back up, and fall blissfully asleep in the silent dark.

Drop, drop, drop… rain falls, accelerating in intensity. I should have known better – the weather can change up here in a moments notice. I scramble to erect my rain tarp amidst the gusty winds – with an odd combination of stakes, rocks and trekking poles it will work for the night.

In the morning I proceed to officially create my Sacred Circle, a detailed process that I will refer you to the books I used to support my process. It involves setting up a series of rocks and sticks in the cardinal directions, ritually opening and closing the circle, invoking the spirits of the cardinal directions and a few other details. Maybe now is a good place for a disclaimer: If anyone is generally interested in this kind of process, its highly recommended to do your first quest supported by others, not to just strike off alone like I did… Two great resources that supported my Vision Quest are the following books:

1. Quest by Denise Lynn

2. Vision Quest by Steven Foster

Both can help you understand more of the details and guide you to sources that offer supported Vision Quests…

Now the rest of the time up there started to get interesting- as I reflect on those days – there existed an overlapping mix of subtlety, exquisite detail, and magic.  I can continue to write about the details of the outer journey – as in when my sleeping bag was caught by a wind gust and launched over 60 feet in the air, nearly getting stuck on a rock, well out of reach…. but these were minor compared to the inner details that were unfolding.

I examined my life. I looked at my fears and attachments. I offered gratitude, I called for a vision.

I stretched, I meditated, I journaled, I slept, I waited out rain storms.

My friend Peter, mentioned earlier, had suddenly passed away 10 days earlier in a traffic accident in Bali. His inspiration and presence were with me often– he being one of the few people I know who would have also done something as crazy as this. I felt close to him and as if I was supporting his passage with my own process – in addition to offering this quest to all beings, I specifically offered it to Peter.

The second day the hunger really started to set in, and I felt as if I was hallucinating that afternoon. I was called out of my circle for a short period to explore the rock formation around me. I observed the exquisite details of the ancient lichen surviving on stone, I collected what appeared to be a fragment of a meteorite, I stumbled in the awe and beauty of the majesty that was around me, in me, through me. Seeking something from the sky for my altar, I as if by magic a large feather floats from the sky and lands at my feet.

I find myself on a delicate rock outcropping, a few exposed 4th class moves to a seat sitting high over a precipice. I sit on this ledge for hours. It seems the totally of my first 40 years were coming to meet me right then and there. The pains, the joys, the loves, the heart breaks, all of my relationships, all of my missteps, all of my successes, all of my guides and allies and enemies. Right there on that rock. By any imaginable standard I would have appeared mad- sunburned and dirty, screaming and shaking my fists and stick into the air, then laughing hysterically, then crying with gratitude to all and everything. Over, and over and over…  darkness approached and I made my way back to my circle. Two coyotes, as if waiting for me to leave, ascended the rocks and howled into the evening sky.

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The third day I didn’t leave my circle, sitting, sitting, lying, stretching, counting the hours until my solar return meditation.

And now I’m back to the beginning. Its 3:43 on July 23rd, and I complete my 40th year. I meditate another hour to appreciate the power of the hiatus. Did the vision come? Was it too obvious or too subtle to see? Time will tell. A few days later I am still processing insights and moments of reflection from those days.

I planned to spend that final evening in an all-night vigil of sorts – I remember Peter telling me about the Death Lodge practice on the last night of his quest. Where the aspirant builds a circle of stones too narrow to lie down within, and commits to remaining awake until dawn and not moving outside the circle. One spends the night envisioning ones own death and inviting in all of one’s fears and all of ones relationships into that space.

After my solar return meditation, there was a clear feeling that it was time to go. I underestimated the physical exertion of climbing to high altitude and fasting for 3 days. My death lodge will have to wait. I packed up my things and prepared to head back down the trail-less mountainside.

Before leaving, I glanced around in all directions, thanking this mountain and its spirits for hosting me, and inviting me into its womb. What had I offered in return? My mind went to the most prized item in my possession. My yak tooth mala (beads) that I purchased in Nepal 10 years ago and that have accompanied me everywhere since… I slip them off my wrist, offer them to the mountain, turn around and start walking.

An hour after leaving the summit, a dark and ferocious storm rolled in. I had to take cover from hail for a while – at one point I looked back up to see the rock I camped next to being struck directly by several bolts of lightening. I am glad I trusted my intuition.

Absolutely depleted, as darkness envelops the landscape, I put one foot in front of the other until I return to the trailhead and my car.

Worlds Collide

Today as I glanced at my YouTube feed I noticed an odd video: Dave Rubin and Eckhart Tolle discussing mindfulness, consciousness, and spirituality as a means to bring balance to one’s life. Huh? I rub my eyes – this cannot be, guys like Dave Rubin focus on political and intellectual issues whereas Eckhart Tolle focuses on spirit and awakening.

Most of you have probably heard of Eckhart Tolle, the famous spiritual teacher and best selling author. However I bet that many of you have never heard of Dave Rubin or his show.

How did I get interested in a guy like Dave Rubin? Well, over the past few years  I found myself increasingly fed up by the polarization of left and right, not just politically and socially but also in the media. Many organizations consider themselves ‘non-biased’ but hold strong ideological leanings – Fox on the right, NY Times on the left, and the list goes on and on.

The icing on the cake last year was observing how so called journalism played a role in the collapse of my yoga school. A number of ideologically charged, biased and slanderous opinions were put forth from reputable news organizations as ‘journalism’. Attention was not paid to details or to facts. Today, simply observe headlines from different organizations referring to the same news events – the bias is already there in the title and headline.

Generally what I see are individuals and organizations lining up along ideological lines – and anything that doesn’t align with their message is considered wrong or even dangerous. The term used for this today is Identity Politics. For many years I considered myself a left-leaning liberal, but I started to notice that the left was taking positions on issues I simply did not agree with. I could no longer easily identify myself along traditional political lines.

The big thing missing in today’s conversation is CRITICAL THINKING. It’s so much easier to repeat talking points or take a pre-defined stance on the big issues. But have you ever actually sat and pondering any of them? Have you listened to alternative view points on big issues like race, feminism, immigration or economics?

I starting seeking alternate voices.  I found them in the so called intellectual dark web or IDW. Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, Claire Lehmann are some of the leading voices in this movement. Quillete.com is a blog that publishes articles considered to ‘radical’ for the mainstream media. The traditional media establishment is trying to define this group into neat ideological corners – conservative, liberal, radical, this or that. However they do not form alliances based on their identities or tribal affiliation. They vary in gender, sexual orientation, race, and political affiliation. But they all share two distinct and (now) uncommon qualities. First, they are willing to disagree fiercely, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject worthy of public discourse: religion, abortion, gender identity, race, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Many of the opinions they hold on such topics can sometimes be in contrast with the orthodox opinion of their respective tribe. Second, they are intellectually honest and thus resist parroting what is politically convenient or politically correct.

In essence, they are critical thinkers, not aiming at political correctness. This gets them attacked in the public at large, even to the point of losing their jobs or speaking engagements. Yet, due to the rise of alternate media like YouTube, they have managed to find wide audiences and are being heard. For example, Jordan Peterson has over 2.1 million followers on his YouTube channel. A good introduction to this movement can be found in this video from the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel.

I may write more on this in the future, but to be honest I hesitate and fear posting any political or ideological thoughts online in the current climate – it almost feels dangerous.

Coming back to the beginning – I always saw my spiritual pursuits and my intellectual/political interests as very distinct boxes or compartments in my life, with very little overlap. To see these two boxes come together, really brought a ton of joy to my heart – and I genuinely hope that as part of an overall healing and evolution of public discourse and human evolution we will see more and more of this integration.

Enjoy:

Missionary Position

Now that I have your attention, this post does not have anything to do with sex. Sorry.

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I’m referring to the position of being a missionary, rather than missionary position. First made famous by the Christians, this attitude and practice has long been adopted by many sects, ideologies, and groups to promote their vision and ideals.

Last year the yoga community I was living in imploded after a series of sexual harassment claims were directed at the founder and main teacher. Sadly, this triggered a series of events that dispersed many in the community to far corners of the world.  I observe my friends, many trained in yoga, mediation and tantra for over a decade, attempt with varying levels of success, to build their own personal brands and offer teachings around the world.

I also have this calling – to share, to give back just a small portion of what I have received. I have been examining this impulse closely over the last months and have observed that this missionary energy is well-established inside me too. 

Where did it come from?

One of the great gifts that my yoga teacher possessed is of inspiring others to practice yoga. I cannot tell you how many people took their initial steps on the path of yoga after hearing one of his lectures. In the 500-hr. teacher training program, which I completed in 2013, there were a series of commentaries on the great Bhagavad Gita, specifically two aspects: where:

1. Action is said to be superior than inaction (promoting the path of karma yoga in the world, and teaching spirituality) and

2. Where Krishna instructs the protagonist Arjuna that of all those in the world, those who teach yoga properly are most dear to him.

Inspiring, no?

What is interesting is that my initial background in Zen Buddhism was in strong contradiction to this view. Zen is what you can call a very anti-missionary teaching. Even people who come and knock on the door of the monastery are often turned away or forced to endure some kind of initiation that proves that they are sincere seekers and not just following a fad or looking for food and shelter.

When I look into my heart and question why I want to share, I find two aspects, one is the genuine desire for others to experience the beneficial aspects of the practices that I have personally befitted and observed others benefitting from.

Then there is the shadow side of this missionary desire. The one that seeks to justify one’s own choices, lifestyle and habits by proclaiming it superior to other ones. When we make choices there often residues of doubt, uncertainty. What if I took the other path? And this can lead to a doubling-down on your choice, and missional practices.

Today I decided to actually look-up this statement in the Bhagavad Gita – from Chapter 18, the Chapter on Liberation from Swami Sivananda:

67. This is never to be spoken by thee to one who is devoid of austerities, to one who is not devoted, nor to one who does not render service, nor who does not desire to listen, nor to one who cavils at Me.

68. He who with supreme devotion to Me will teach this supreme secret to My devotees, shall doubtless come to Me.

69. Nor is there any among men who does dearer service to Me, nor shall there be another on earth dearer to Me than he.

While this can be interpreted as those who teach are very dear to God, a critical caveat is made here – that yoga should not be taught to anyone who is not interested in it or prepared for it. Therefore the Bhagavad Gita is not actually advocating a missionary-based approach to spirituality.

This is a work in progress for me – recognizing the world has changed a lot in the last several thousand years since this text was written and the original practices of yoga were unfolding.

I once asked another one of my yoga teachers “Who am I to teach” after completing a training program with him and being a novice in meditation and yoga. His response was “Who are you not to teach?”

My feeling now is that the best path is to continue deepening my own understanding, seeking community and sangha to practice with and within. Foremost a practitioner and student, secondarily a teacher when called upon by the circumstances. Following the impulse to illuminate, not the one to justify or defend.

To be continued…

Crisis of Meaning

Recently I have been spending a fair amount of time exploring the question of meaning – what exactly is it and where do I find it? Why does the search for it feel like such a driving force in my life as well as the lives of those close to me? I’m turning 40 this year. Traditionally this is the time of the mid-life crisis, which essentially is a crisis of meaning. This is naturally coinciding with a rather large transition in my life.   “What the hell am I doing?” and “Where do I find meaning? are constant mental companions.

I read an article this week that focused on some of the cultural shifts in the search for meaning in recent decades. The article is politically charged, however I feel the point the author makes about how the secularization of society along with the rise of individualism has contributed to this crisis:

Liberalism is an existential paradox. By unshackling humans from traditional cultural and social structures, it has freed us to pursue aspirations and experiences based on our own personal interests. This liberation has allowed many to explore a wider range of paths to meaning but it has also unrooted many from the most reliable sources of meaning. It has ushered in an era of individualism. The more people privilege an individual self (a self defined by personal attributes and interests) over an interdependent self (a self defined by cultural roles and duties), the more vulnerable they are to feeling like they don’t matter, that they lack social significance.

I see how this has been, and is still true in my own life. Even when located and rooted in a community, a spiritual teaching, a relationship or friendship that offers meaning, the mind and heart still seek for something better. The fact that we are so aware of other options diminishes the psychological security of the ones we already possess.a-27

One of the challenges I see connected to this paradox is what appears to be a search for the most meaningful pursuits. As if meaning was an objective, quantifiable commodity. It’s not, and never will be. Society may value some pursuits or paths more than others, but fundamentally, meaning is personal and subjective. The rising intellectual dark web (IDW) star and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, claims that responsibility lies in "finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.”  There is some truth to this – especially for those who lack any motivation or responsibility in their lives. Yet what about those who do have responsibility already? Family, companies, students? And despite this load, are still are wondering what it is all about? In another context he says:

There is no more effective way of operating in the world than to conceptualize the highest good you can imagine and then strive to attain it. Do you really have anything better to do? If you don’t, then why would you do anything else?

This one resonates with me strongly – it reminds me of something my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker Roshi has spoken about on several occasions – in a lecture he asks us to imagine the most perfected human being in the world and to try to envision their qualities. Then he asks us where to find them – and obviously the audience is silent as this person doesn’t exist. The only solution, therefore, is to become that person yourself.  And then he usually says “Do you have anything better to do?”  Oddly similar ideas from two radically different spheres of thought.

No, I don’t actually have anything better to do. Yet now we have another question at hand – what is the highest good or person I can imagine? This where the work is. Peterson will say, don’t wait until you answer this question, your idea of the highest good will evolve and change as you pursue it. I see this is where I get caught up at times. Analysis paralysis, so to speak, again weighing the many options that this time of individualism offers, seeking to step into the most meaningful direction.

When I sit deeply with this question, my fundamental Buddhist vow of living for the benefit of all sentient beings arises. For some years now this has taken the form of becoming a spiritual teacher – guiding others in meditation and yoga. What seemed so obvious for a while now is now not so obvious.  Living for the benefit of others – does this require one to be working directly in a field of service? Teaching, healthcare, therapy, etc.? I’m not so sure any more. I believe there are numerous means to benefit all beings, even if one chooses a life of greater isolation and introversion. (A topic I will explore in a future post).

That’s it for now. Please comment – I would love to begin a discussion on this topic.