The Summoned Self

How will you measure your life?  This is often the question that we Americans ask ourselves when we move forward with major and even minor decisions. This line of thinking, as termed by David Brooks in a recent New York Times article, is considered the Well-Planned Life approach. Promoted by Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, this approach is about creating a strategy to come up with an overall purpose, and making decisions about allocating your time, energy and talent. Christensen reminds us that people with a need for high achievement tend to focus on tangible and near-term accomplishments (such as closing a sale or finishing a paper) instead of aspects of life that may not yield fruit for some time – such our relationships, family and health. Just like any successful business project, focusing on both near and long-term goals will lead to success. When following this model, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.  Sounds so nice doesn’t it? But if you’re like me there is something about that approach that just doesn’t feel right at all!

Brooks moves on to discuss an alternative view of life, one that is not as prevalent in American society that he coins The Summoned Life. This view approaches life with a completely different perspective, believing life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored.

Short of quoting the entire article (its short, just read it!), the Summoned Life is about emphasizing, What are my circumstances asking me to do? over the What Should I do? approach of the Well-Planned life. 

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning. Moreover, people who think in this mode are skeptical that business models can be applied to other realms of life. Business is about making choices that maximize utility. But the most important features of the human landscape are commitments that precede choice — commitments to family, nation, faith or some cause. These commitments defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

Brooks believes that the first vision is more American, while the second vision is more common elsewhere and that ultimately both are useful to combine into a Well-Considered Life, where Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.

This article really touched on something that has been incubating inside of me for the past couple of months, since my return to America. My life prior to 2009 was clearly a Well-Planned life; a life centered around achievement, accomplishment, career, possessions, hobbies, etc.  A fear of commitment to certain things (read: relationships with women) always existed because they clearly add a variable to the well-planned life that could not be controlled to produce the desired result.  I think I’m not alone in this, as I see so many people around me driven by this project of life: completing tasks, improving their situation, moving up. The problem is that this entire approach is rooted in Ego. When Ego drives, the feeling is that the world is separate from you, therefore you act from it and by default act in self-interest. This may have the temporary effect of improving your financial or material situation, but from my experience will not satisfy the burning questions in life – those like: Why am I here, What happens when I die, What is my purpose? Why do I suffer? How do I find (lasting) joy? 

Having a tremendous amount of time to myself recently, I am fortunate to be able to watch subtle patterns in my consciousness, see the roots of emotions rising and visualize more clearly my own habits that are rooted in various schools of thought.  This process can’t be viewed through traditional lens, its one that requires an element of quietness and an element of stilling both my external activities and the activities of mind. This combination has led me to the sensation that I alluded to earlier, one of standing still as the rest of the world rushes on by. A lot of this has been beautiful – friends and family growing and changing, people finding new careers, welcoming new babies into families, new relationships beginning, others ending to allow a new exploration. Outside of my immediate circle, the patterns of the world do something similar – the wars continue, as does the poverty, the materialism, the nationalism, consumerism, etc, etc.  Yet my perception of the world shifting. These things aren’t grabbing hold of me, entering into my way of thinking and consciousness.  They are becoming more like background music in a beautiful play where the main actors are Beauty, Love and Compassion.

Yet, the Ego is an elusive fellow.  I have felt a tremendous amount of self induced pressure to produce the results of well-planned life through a summoned life. This is clearly an effect of the remnants of the Well-Planned life construct– projects (life) have targets and goals, and there should be measureable progress along the way.  However, measuring the immeasurable is simply impossible to do. I constantly have to remind myself of this before getting mired in self-judgment and doubt, which unfortunately happens more often than I’d like. The reminder is that this beautiful gift of a human life is a process, one with no beginning and no end, completely timeless and by its very definition, already perfect.

That’s all I have time for today – soon I will be discussing the realities of such an approach in the modern world.

Negotiating the Way

Is what I have been doing for the past couple of months. This is a Buddhist term for balancing our everyday world with the non-dual nature of the universe. Sounds deep but its really what we are doing in every moment. The difficulty comes in remaining aware of this continual negotiation. Negotiating the Way is often described as striking balance between the two truths – ultimate reality and worldly or relative reality. They are not different, not the same, inseparable yet distinct.

medium_diverging_pathsI’ve been home for a little over two months, finding myself swirling around in a state very unlike those of my past. While I was traveling in India I had many ideas and images of what life would ‘be’ and ‘look like’ when I came home. As life tends to do, it destroyed my expectations, wishes and ideas and completely threw everything up in the air when I first arrived home. Its things like this that place one right back to the present reality of this moment. Clichéd, but true. People left my life, others entered, many changed, but one thing was for certain, is that despite the many changes of scenery, the pulse of life is always calling one home.

Despite an urge to remain off the grid, I’ve slowly made some moves to reintegrate into society; I recently paid my first rent check in over 12 months, bought a car and a laptop. There are simple realities of living in America that I’ve discovered are easier to adopt rather than go against the grain.

I started this entry during the middle of my last 10 day visit to my Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado. Today I’m a few days away from returning for my forth week this summer. In retrospect, I would have preferred to spend a single, longer period of time there, instead of multiple experiences of back and forth between a very disciplined life and the one of complete non-discipline, but what this back and forth has provided is very clear insight into certain patterns in my life that are not conducive to awakening.

When I talk about Zen practice I mean much more than just sitting meditation (zazen) or chanting and bowing – ultimately I’ve come to learn that is the easy piece.  The harder piece is practicing compassion with fellow residents when you are exhausted and upset, dropping petty desires and attachments; Addressing subtle shifts in consciousness before they disappear behind attachment or aversion or ignorance; Practicing compassion and patience inwardly, not judging oneself for absolutely detesting the 4:30 wake-up call or 3 hours of work in the hot sun followed by cleaning toilets. A strange phenomenon occurs for me in my drifting in and out of the monastery: despite the absolutely rigorous schedule, lack of sleep and fantasies about how much freedom I will have when leaving and returning home, as soon as I do return home there is a slight sense of deflation, of the volume being turned down on life despite the overwhelming amount of stimulus and choice(“Free Will” available. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it completely, but its as if our world of physical freedoms and choices masks our ability to see our Self or true nature. In a place where you are denied these freedoms, even to the level of your own time and sleep, transformation can take place.

Zen practice provides a framework, not a dogma that so many religious institutions are so quick to provide. A quote from that as I recently read so brilliantly in Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen on Meditation and Thinking:  “[Dogen] challenged and urged practitioners to critically reflect on how to practice their own religion for the sake of alleviating suffering for all sentient beings in the world.” Zen is notorious for not allowing practitioners to grasp onto teachers, teachings, holy objects or otherwise. It is designed to return you to yourself, to force you back to developing your own religion(or of you don’t like that word – try your own path, process or world view).  Throughout the summer and my weeks at the Zen Center, outside of an occasional discussion group, there is no formal training, but subtly there is a lot going on. Rituals are designed to bring you back to yourself – 3 hours of meditation a day, sutra service, silent breakfast ritual (Oryoki) and probably most important, the support of the resident sangha for your practice. The teaching can be in the form of words, but more often it is by example – watching senior sangha members do dishes, prepare food, work on the property or simply communicate with each other. Speaking from first hand experience in India (and also some observations from home), it is easy to see how one can become too holy (focused on the ultimate reality), neglecting the world, this body, attaching to those things that are unspeakable and supreme. BUT, as the two truths doctrine states, there is a middle way, a delicate balance between these two aspects of our Self.

On a more practical side, I’m now officially considered one of those long-term unemployed you hear about on the news, surviving on a couple hundred dollars a week. I’ve been trying to stay within my means and enjoy the gift of not having to work to put food on the table. Today I’m spending time with my favorite baby Eva, working really hard to count 5 and repeating various animal sounds. Woof Woof!

One would assume with all of this additional time that I’m getting out to climb, doing all of those things that I was unable to while slaving away to Corporate 50 weeks a year for the past 8 years. But I’m not. I’ve dabbled in climbing, Yoga, backpacking. I’ve been very careful about not jumping into any single activity – moving slowly, slowly. I’ve yet to get a gym membership and have not spent much time in the going out scene. While I still love doing these things, several as a wonderful expression of myself, I find that I am dis-identifying with them.  Some my take this as a disheartening approach to life, but I’m taking more of the  “Nothing Special” approach: while certain activities no longer completely consume me, I’m finding that in general all of my daily activities are heightened with more interest: simple time with friends, extra time in the car because I forgot my keys and had to turn around, doing dishes or simply sitting quietly and watching the world go by. Which will lead me to my next blog post – this strange sense of standing still while everything else around me is moving…  But for tonight I leave you with a heady quote from Eihei Dogen (The Great Zen Master from the 13th century):

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In the Shobogenzo, “Bendowa” (1231), Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen: “The endeavor to negotiate the Way (bendo), as I teach  now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, and putting such a unitive awareness (ichinyo) into practice in the midst of the revaluated world (shutsuro).” This statement clearly sets forth practitioners’ soteriological project as negotiating the Way in terms of (1) discerning the nondual unity of all things that are envisioned from the perspective of enlightenment and (2) enacting that unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality now revalorized by enlightenment. Needless to say, these two aspects refer to practice and enlightenment that are nondually one (shusho itto; shusho ichinyo). ~Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen On Meditation and Thinking

Tushita Meditation Centre

As a sit comfortably in my friend’s home in Boulder, it sometimes seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was in the middle of an intense, silent, 10 day Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat high in the hills of India. Despite leaving the country and now being thousands of miles away, many of the powerful lessons of the week continue to walk alongside me.

I learned of Tushita from another traveler while in Rishikesh – originally my plan was to do a 10-day Vipassana retreat (right next door to Tushita), but given my interest and practice in Buddhism, Tushita seemed like a better fit. On the Vipassana course you can expect to learn a meditation technique and have the opportunity to practice it over 10 days of strict silence. Apart from a 90 minute video each evening, there is almost no teaching of the philosophy involved, while the emphasis of Tushita’s Introduction to Buddhism course is on explaining Buddhist philosophy, using a few different meditation techniques to help you to absorb and apply this knowledge to your own experiences. Sold!

The course preceded my flight home to America by just a few days, and it met all expectations of being a fantastic way to center, prepare for returning home and of providing an opportunity to evaluate many aspects of my mind.

The initial afternoon provided a chance to briefly get settled in, chat with other people before the silence began, get my Karma Yoga job for the week (scrubbing toilets!) and explore the meditation center. I was immediately signimpressed by the facilities, specifically the main Gompa (meditation hall). The meditation cushions were very new, the building itself was beautifully designed in Tibetan fashion with Buddha statues, Thangkha paintings and was adorned with photographs of the Dalai Lama and other teachers in the lineage.  The meditation center itself was high on a hill above McLeod Ganj and was very near to where the Dalai lama lived for many years when he first fled Tibet into exile in 1959. The area was deeply forested and in habited by a large family of monkeys who provided endless entertainment in the wake of no television, iPods or other forms of modern distraction!

Our teacher, Venerable Robina Courtin, introduced herself to us on the first evening and with very little time to waste, dove right into the teachings. Robina, her teachers, Tushita, and the greater Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition(FPMT) all hail from one of the 4 major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelug, under spiritual direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This school was started by Lama Tsongkhapa around the year 1400, and follows a treatise called Lam-Rim, often translated as The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment.  At first I felt a little turned-off by what felt like cookie cutter Buddhism, but soon realized the beautiful simplicity of these teachings that struck at the core of Buddha’s message.

The teachings were presented as two wings of a bird: Wisdom and Compassion. On the Wisdom path we discussed things such as impermanence and death, karma and the law of cause and effect, Buddha’s four noble truths, dependent arising and emptiness. These teachings are core to any branch of Buddhism – whether Zen, Hinayana, or Tibetan.IMG_4693 I’ve read countless books intellectually explaining the meaning of each of these teachings, but until I’ve have a teacher skillfully deliver these teachings in the midst of a place where you can meditate and practice upon them, they haven’t resonated within my being. This has also been my experience in Zen practice. Robina, following the Lam-Rim method and her own teaching style and experience (living  Dharma – each teacher creates their own Buddhism built on a mixture of their teacher’s teachings and their own human experience), skillfully walked through the Buddha’s teachings in one of the most simplistic and logical manners I have experienced. The Gelug tradition is famous for its use of spirited debate amongst its practitioners and Robina used this method consistently with us as we asked her questions, really challenging individuals assumptions and worldviews. On the second day I noticed that the evening meditation sessions were replaced by teaching sessions and simply asked her why ( I was concerned that a Buddhist meditation retreat would only have a couple hours of meditation in the morning). Before I knew it I was in a challenging debate about the meaning of meditation, my attachment to a specific version of meditation and overall being constructively told to not question my teachers methods!  I really had to check my ego at the door during the debate because I clearly watched as my emotions around self-protection (being put on the spot in front of 50 people) were deluding my ability to have a clear conversation where I learned something from a teacher…

The other aspect of the teaching is the Compassion wing or path of the Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the wish to attain complete enlightenment (that is, Buddhahood) in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in cyclic existence (samsāra) who have not yet reached Buddhahood. One who has bodhicitta as the primary motivation for all of his or her activities is called a bodhisattva. The teachings followed methods such as cultivating equanimity, recognizing all sentient beings as One’s Mother (at one point in a past life throughout eons of time), contemplating the kindness of all beings, recognizing the short-comings of cherishing the self and the benefits of cherishing others and generosity. For me these teachings were extremely powerful and touching. One can follow a logical framework that clearly shows that we will not find happiness through ourselves. The path is through others. We know this at a heart level yet we live our lives so completely in conflict with this. I’m nowhere near living bodhicitta, but I’m looking to plant small seeds where I can, to start turning the ship around in an effort to sail this path.

Alongside the teachings we would do guided meditations, and in the evenings something called a vajrasattva purification practice, a visualization practice which is sort of like a confession for Buddhists, but purely within ones own mind you are purifying seeds of negative karma. I’m not even going to try to explain it here – as I was very skeptical myself at first but the results were incredible for me. I had a ton of purification happen during the week, a lot of release around old regrets and misdeeds, things that haven’t even been in my conscious memory in a long time.

The ten days went by much too quickly. The schedule wasn’t too rigorous and I found time to read, continue my Yoga practice and reflect quietly with a cup of chai as I watched the monkeys play. I found myself very in tune with the environment, spending little time thinking of home despite its nearness. I connected deeply with several people despite the silence and imagine we’ll remain connected for a long time. Karma ripening, Robina would say.  Its incredible how few words you actually need when people are living the dharma together, walking alongside each other in this beautiful journey of existence.

Ultimately my Tushita experience was an incredible opportunity to remain connected to my own mind, to watch habitual delusional and attachment thinking, to work on cultivating compassion and living a life more attune with wisdom, calm-abiding and love.