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.

Life in Rishikesh

Hi friends. I know I haven’t written or called or e-mailed in a while. That’s on purpose. This has been a calculated effort to dive deep into the land and practice of the Yogis, experimenting with life and self and soul without the energetic influence of my relationships and habits from home. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to have stepped aside, to be purposely introspective and examining of everything I have called reality until this step of my journey. 

IMG_4506I’m nearing the end of my month long course and I will soon have the element of time returned to me where I can share many of the practices, postures, cleansings and spiritual insights that I have gathered. I have learned more about my body, mind and soul in one month than I have in any other single month in my life.

My life has been monastic in quality – with the exception of a single motor bike excursion I haven’t left the the quaint area of Swarg Ashram in Rishikesh. A brief insight into my daily life here:

7:00 Wake-up to the mixture of a cool morning breeze rattling the windows and children playing outside next door. I do my morning “Kriyas” which include scraping the tongue, cleansing the nasal passages and gums with rock salt and washing out the eyes with cold water.

7:15: My favorite part of the day. The walk from my guesthouse to the Yoga Ashram. Indians generally do not get started this early, so early morning is an extremely peaceful time when the morning light mixes with the first signs of motion on the street. My first hello is to the same cow that occupies the same space each and every morning, waiting for my orange peel. I provide the aforementioned and move on towards the yoga ashram, passing the bums pretending to be saddhus and nodding hello to the chai walla as I enter the ashram for morning meditation. A small group of 4-6 usually sit for the optional meditation and I find it an opportunity to set my intention for the day. The teacher usually reads a poem or small section of a book and off we go, asking who am I? for an hour.

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8:15: Meditation ends and I use my break to get a 10 cent cup of chai, eat a couple of oranges and mingle with the animals and fellow yoginis on their way to class. My favorite cow is usually around and walks up to me to say hello and get his orange peel. I generally sit between the cow and the dog in the photo below. The bums are usually trying to talk me into buying them a cup of chai in broken English and the monkeys are beginning to descend looking for unsuspecting people not carefully guarding their fruit. Turn your attention away for a second and poof!, a monkey will be happily snacking away on your food and grinning at you from a nearby rooftop or tree.

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8:30: Yoga! Practice usually lasts 2.5 hours, the first 30 minutes dedicated to answering questions and learning the technical details of a new asana (posture). We discuss which chakra(s) we are activating, where to focus our attention and various alternatives for the asana if it is too difficult. We learn the transformational and healing effects of the asana that come with extended practice. For example, improved abilities to give and receive love when focused on the heart chakra. We move into our full practice, which generally takes a total of two hours.

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11:30:  Moon Dance Cafe for for conversation and breakfast. A group of Nepalese guys run the place and they provide amazing food and service. Depending on how hungry I am, its either a bowl of muesli/fruit/curd/honey or a couple of eggs on toast, washed down with a lemon ginger honey tea. Usually I will mingle with various people from, class or town, discussing the Yoga practice or something else.

13:00-15:00: My only real down time of the day. Generally used for doing laundry, cleaning, shopping, checking e-mail or anything else to beat the heat.  The temperature in Rishikesh has been steadily increasing since my arrival – now in the mid 90’s during the high part of the day. The first week here I was wearing a jacket in the morning and evening, now that jacket is firmly packed away for the season.

15:15: Stop by the German Bakery to see Lila and his son, another Nepalese family who make killer Yak Cheese/Avocado/Tomato sandwiches and juices. I will usually find my friends Marcelo, Karina and Dave here discussing something New Agey – Gurus, Clairvoyance, Chakras, energy, on and on. I join in the fun and sip on either a pomegranate or mango juice and if alone, jot a few thoughts down in a notebook.

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16:00: Time for afternoon Yoga. Similar to the morning except we simply practice. We begin with Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), making 12 devotional salutations to the Sun. In the final six, we chant the various Sanskrit words for the Sun. Surya Namaskara allows me to scan my body and mind, let go of the various attachments and thoughts I’ve built up throughout the day and drop into practice. We then continue with our typical practice, usually doing different asanas in the afternoon, sometimes focused more specifically on a single chakra such as the heart or third-eye. Afternoon Savasana (final relaxation) is always very powerful for me and when I walk out of the ashram I generally need a few minutes to fully return to my body.

18:30: My favorite (I know I already said this!) part of the day: Taking the back roads from back to Moon Dance Cafe for dinner along a windy stone walled path lined with massive trees. The sun has just set, the birds are singing their evening love songs, the dogs and monkeys and cows are making their final preparations for night. I like to call this the Jewel of the Day, those waning moments between sunset and darkness that are charged with energy. As I reenter my body I try to walk meditatively, sometimes holding my hands at my navel as we do in the Zen tradition as a reminder for mindfulness. Once at Moon Dance I will say hello to my friends and usually take my food to go so I can return on time for evening lecture.

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19:00 – 21:00: Yoga Lecture time – various topics from the morals and ethics of Yoga, things like nonviolence (ahimsa), nonattachment, vegetarianism, karma yoga etc. We learn things like conscious dreaming (Nidra Yoga), music meditation and of course discourses on the many branches of Yoga. We discuss topics such as healing through Yoga, Brahmacharya (sexual continence) and tantra. Most of the lectures have been fantastic – I will discuss this more later when I review the entire first month. There is so much information that comes at you that you have to mine it – I found myself primarily focusing on the physical practice, pulling various items from the lectures that I could apply or incubate into my daily life. After lecture, I would sometimes have a juice with friends or simply return to my room for some reading or a movie to unwind, crawling into bed simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, looking forward to repeating it again tomorrow.

There you have it – nowhere near the action-packed adventure of 2009, but equally powerful on the subtler planes of existence. This time its much more about penetrating deep rather than seeing it all. Turning the lens inwards.

Namaste.

Return to the Zendo

This year I decided to do something a little different on New Year’s eve. I sat on my cushion. Literally.

IMG_0802I actually spent much of my week on my cushion. On Monday I traveled to the Zen Monastery in Crestone Colorado to participate in a 3-day New Year’s seminar where Abbot Roshi-Baker led a seminar on the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi was Roshi-Baker’s teacher and the first teacher of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West.

Generally, most Buddhists are well asleep by midnight, but the 31’st was special – not only was it the final day of the decade, there was also a full moon. I participated in an ancient Buddhist ceremony which consisted of ringing the densho bell 108 times leading up to midnight, as the sangha members practiced zazen (sitting meditation) intermixed with chanting and bowing. We finished with a toast of sake in the kitchen (yes Buddhists can drink!) and as I slowly walked to my room the bright full moon overhead gave me a few minutes to reflect on the transformative days I just experienced.

As many of you know, I spent a week at the Zen Monastery in April prior to leaving for Asia. That week I undertook my first intensive meditation retreat and was introduced to the formal practices of Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Richard Baker Roshi. Despite leaving the country for almost 7 months, returning to this sacred place high in the mountains above the San Luis valley I felt as though I had never left. This week’s seminar was much less formal than a sesshin, which is silent and grueling physically. However, we did sit for 3-4 hours a day, in the morning, evening and prior to Roshi Baker’s discussion periods. There were about 22 of us attending, some full-time residents of the monastery, others of us very new to the practice. What I enjoyed most about this week was time spent talking to others about the Dharma teachings of Baker Roshi. During breaks and transitions I would often find myself walking in the woods or sitting quietly in the main hall with another, talking opening of our experience in relation to the Dharma teachings and themes that were being developed and explored throughout the week. To connect soul to soul with another person, without boundaries, ego and fear, even if only for a few moments, is for me, one of the most precious and beautiful aspects of existence. As I rebuild my life in Boulder, my few days in Crestone helped create a new intention in my life; that is directing my life in such a way that it supports my practice. Practice being the craft of Buddhism, learning to relate to an interdependent, momentary existence.Teachers-Winter_ZENDO

It is often difficult to explain the teachings and my experiences of the week due to the nature of them often being very individual and momentary, but I would like to comment on a few tangible things that I am taking away with me.

First, this week we developed and explored a topic called body fullness, or perceptual immediacy. This is essentially an ancient yogic practice of giving order to the mind through the body. The job of our consciousness is to make the world predictable, and to give us a sense of continuity (ego, existence, memory, etc). But consciousness alone can take you into a place of idealism, fantasy and untruth. Consciousness demands order in a world that is not moving towards entropy. Our practice in this Yogacara/Buddhist manner is to embody teachings, to embody truth, to understand the bodily aspects of every state of mind. This is using a concept or intention to help the body, through the mind, to bring order to the body. Eventually a monumental shift can occur, where you are no longer living in self-referential or continuity-based thinking but finding identity in your immediate existence.

Chew on that for a while 🙂 For me, this is in alignment with the direction my practice was taking towards the end of my travels – getting back into the body, or “establishing a mutual body” with the world, exploring my chakras and intricate workings of my physicality through breath, silence and stillness.

Adjacent to this teaching is the effort to identify ourselves in the world as  activities, not entities. We (especially in the West) tend to view ourselves as distinct entities, separate from everything and everyone else, acting upon or being IMG_0759acted against. A very simple example of this is the use of chopsticks or drinking tea from cups with no handles in Buddhist cultures – the chopsticks serve as an extension of the hands and therefore aid in the activity of eating. As for tea cups, most Asians use both hands, holding the tea cup at the chest first and then raising the glass to their mouths to drink. There is no entity drinking tea, there is simply the action (imagine your experience the moment you raise a mug of tea to your mouth). I don’t think I’m doing a great job describing this – but to return to the chopsticks – we see food, we see a table, we see a fork and spoon and we see ourselves. We then tend to act as an entity to move and manipulate these entities in order to get the food into our stomachs. What I’m trying to do is view the entire process as an interdependent, simultaneously inseparable and yet unique experience of eating.

To take the above to a relationship level – if you relate to someone only through a mental process (as an entity), they will feel contained. We all know what this feels like. Can you relate to someone bodily? I’m not talking about only physical touch, but with your entire being (senses, emotions, posture, etc. Can you relate without boundaries and in the particular moment of existence? This is the beginning of love.

I think that is enough for today. I will end with a quote Baker-Roshi gave us that I thought was quite beautiful ( I can’t recall the author):

"I enter the broken world through the paths of love”

Happy New Year everyone.