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.

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.

Blogging Drought

For some reason, I just can’t finish a blog entry. I have several started and almost finished, including Nepal and the Annapurna circuit, Kathmandu, Tibet (over 6 weeks ago!), and now, India. I’m not sure what it is exactly – I think the knowledge that I will be home in less than a week pressures me to be out doing something rather than sitting with my face in the laptop. My other excuse is that that I’ve found it very difficult to find comfortable, quiet places to write in Nepal and India. A positive to this delay is that completing these entries once IMG_4281home will allow this portion of my trip to live a little longer as I revisit them. OK, enough with the lame excuses, the truth is I haven’t had  clarity to write my more meaningful entries, those involving the self. I have been exploring some very subtle aspects recently around my past and my ego. The simple concept of “To be or Not to be” has been occupying a lot of space – can I exist in this world without the desire to become anything? What does that look like? My ego desires are rooted in this concept of becoming, even when they are directed towards loftier ends. How does one separate ambition from energy or vitality? Questions, questions, questions. A more recent focus has been around my first two chakras, root and sacral, as time and time again, body and energy workers have confirmed that they are disconnected and not functioning as they should. Yesterday I experimented with a Korean method called Su Jok, where the therapist found my sacral chakra blocked. No surprise! In addition to my own psychological and spiritual work around these, how can I exist materially in this world (career, actions, hobbies) to improve the Kundalini flow in my chakras? Kundalini is Hindi for "sacred transformative energy that awakens consciousness".  Examples from self proclaimed Internet Gurus (my most recent Google search) on grounding and opening the root chakra include things like touching the soil every day, having red flowers in the home (red is the color associated with the chakra and mother earth), anything that involves the use of muscles, raw love-making, walking barefoot and eating food that comes from the ground. Let the experimenting begin.

Really, this was just an excuse to connect with everyone, letting people know that I am well, enjoying my final days and am really looking forward to continuing this conversation at home. My next update will likely be from Boulder – Namaste!

Reflections @ 6 Months

Thank you to everyone who wrote to me recently, I realize now that I projected an image of being quite pathetic a few days ago! I’m back in Kathmandu, looking at spending a week here as I wait for my India Visa to come through. I made the mistake of not beginning this process before my trek and am now faced with numerous days of queuing, waiting, queuing, waiting, and hopefully I’ll have a visa in my hand on Friday. Several people I met at the embassy had this turn into a multi-week saga. There are definitely worse places to be than Kathmandu. There is a great traveler vibe, an abundance of western comforts like book stores and coffee shops, perfect weather and cheap food. The major annoyances here are the tiger balm touts and excessive noise pollution. I didn’t do anything touristy on my first run through the city so I’m planning on seeing a few sights between coffee shop visits and blogging 🙂 I have not updated my blog since leaving Beijing over a month ago – sorry!

After my last post, I should clarify some things around my trip home. Its also time for everyone’s favorite post – my bi-monthly, “Reflections”. First, my decision to come home in December was actually made IMG_3904almost 2 months ago, during my travels in China. I reserved a flight using frequent flyer miles, knowing I would have the option to cancel the flight if I decided to stay on the road. I can’t quite recall my decision making process, but it was at this time where I began to feel a sense of momentum and speed to my travels that had gotten a little out of control. It was during this time that my plan to travel through Mongolia, back to Tibet and onward to Nepal and India became real, and the days ahead were no longer as free and open as I once envisioned. People since have asked or suggested – Why not just stop? Just sit still, change course and throw out all of the preconceptions? The irony is that this feeling was no different than one that nagged me the past couple of years at work. Its not that I didn’t want to go to the places I did – I very much did. Its more that there was an undercurrent of not being completely true to myself in some way or another.

  Its clear that there is something much more fundamental at work in one’s sense of freedom than outward appearances, physical location or commitment levels. Needless to say, I endeavored ahead. I saw and experienced an incredible amount in a few short months. I have not a single regret. But I am exhausted. I mentioned a few days ago that this feeling doesn’t go away no matter how much I rest. Its my body (and spirit I believe) telling me to go home and rest.

It’s not just for physical reasons that I am coming home. I’m considering my forthcoming time at home an opportunity, an exploration if you will. I significantly overestimated the amount of time I would have during travel for investigation of the more practical aspects of life. Examining career possibilities, networking with people from home and teaching myself Spanish were all on the list when I left. I laugh now, but in Japan I started a concept of using one day a week as a work day where I would sit in a hotel or coffee shop and do some of these things. The burdens of travel, the quality of Internet in 3rd world countries and the speed of my travels quickly made this an idea of the past. My notebooks are riddled with one liners and thought bubbles that require a 24 inch screen LCD, a comfy chair and Google to investigate more thoroughly. I find myself frequently wanting to reach out to call people, to discuss something, quickly to realize I’m nowhere near a phone or even if I am that its 4:37am in the Colorado. My business school professors would consider this a midyear review.

A midyear review in conjunction with setting ideas into action. This entire trip has been about ego deconstruction, self awareness and exploration of truth. Seeking to be a vessel of divine will, not a creature of whim and momentary desires. I’ve been able to sit with many different aspects of myself, digging deep into my habits and my conditioning. I’ve broken down a number of these to their roots, seen how certain fears and attachments to the past drive my actions and words. There are many, ohhhh so many, aspects of being that continue to ask for my patience and careful watch to reveal their true nature to me. The people and places of the world have been great gifts for me in this discovery process. But right now I want to experiment with the application of these gifts in my daily life in the place where I plan to spend a large part of my life – Colorado. The meaning of a retreat is to go away, reflect and to return. I mentioned in my 4 month reflections that long-term travel, the endless vagabond journey will never be my forte. I have collected many golden nuggets from this journey and my bag is getting a little heavy. Its time to bring them home and smelt them into something useful.

Why would I pick the coldest months of the year to return to Colorado? Well, steep turns in knee deep snow at Berthoud Pass comes to mind very quickly… 🙂

The truth is I’m just ready. I miss my family, my friends, the small daily joys of my existence in Boulder. And despite our countries share of problems and clear disregard for so many things – I’ve never missed her comforts and opportunities so much.