Occasionally it is helpful

retreat

to retreat from the ordinary affairs of our life and take refuge in silence and solitude.

For those on the path of self-cultivation, a personal retreat provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the practice of self-reflection, meditation and mindful movement.

The purpose of retreat is to reduce our usual distractions to as close to zero as possible. With no phone, computer, TV, nothing to read, and nobody to talk to, the outward flow of our attention reverses. We begin to more closely investigate the interior landscape of body and mind. Hour by hour, day by day, we sharpen our focus and attune awareness to the subtleties of our direct experience. Through persistent application of sustained attention, the accumulated effect of our most repeated patterns becomes crystal clear. We literally see the law of cause and effect in action; karma is nothing other than the current state of our body and mind.

We are what we most frequently repeat.

The realization dawns: transformation is only possible if we change the habitual patterns of body, mind and breath.

On retreat, all sorts of unforeseen insights bubble up. Changes in perspective give rise to a newfound sense of clarity and purpose. With no place to hide, we muster the self-honesty to face ourselves in all Nine Spheres of our life.

As you might suspect from these ramblings, on retreat is where I’ve been since the last blog post — out beyond the reach of cell phone service and wifi internet — nestled into the quite forest, attention turned within, “contemplating my navel,” as the saying goes.

I return thinking of you, wondering how you’ve been.

How is your practice?

How is your heart?

In the midst of all that must be done to orchestrate your life, are you making time for silence?

Time for magic?

 

 

 

It’s all about feeling

touch her

Feel how she wants to be touched.

Feel how the body wants to breathe.

Feel how the spine wants to move.

Feel how the silence wants to be peppered with notes.

Feel how the canvas wants to be caressed.

Feel the form inside the form.

Feel the pose inside the pose.

Feel the quiver of stillness.

Feel the heart of every living being.

Feel the naked presence of this precious fleeting moment.

Faith is not necessary

walking in water

Confidence is indispensable.

Without confidence, we easily spiral down into a vacuum of cynicism and nihilism. “If nothing matters, why practice at all?” we grumble. This attitude results from not having enough success in our practice (and in our life). “Nothing I do yields any real fruit,” we secretly think to ourselves.

This is usually where the sales pitch for faith begins. Religion — and the industrial-spiritual complex — feed on mind-states like pseudo-apathy and grasping. Insert your favorite religious tag line or corporate marketing slogan:

Jesus loves you.

Yes we can.

It’s all one.

Namaste.

The problem is, faith doesn’t work on smart people. And you’re too smart.

Faith is a conceptual belief that we hope to be true, but have little or no personal experience to prove. Faith always corresponds with a nagging intuitive sense of doubt. “How do I really know,” the skeptic asks. And right she does. Because insanity might be defined as the act of silencing the intuitive sense of doubt we have about our own beliefs. Silencing is what faith attempts to do with broad statements that are impossible to prove or disprove. This is the basic tool of dis-empowerment: divorce your innate wisdom and follow us.

On the other hand, we find that doubt and freedom from our own beliefs are actually marks of sanity, or at the very least, sobriety.

If faith is not helpful, and our own beliefs are unreliable, where do we get true confidence?

From our own direct experience.

Direct experience means bare physical sensation. This is the level of our immediate somatic experience. Everything in our life has a corresponding sensation in the body. This is where reality happens. Nothing stands between us and the living truth of our very flesh. What is needed, in terms of genuine awakening, is a thorough investigation of this sensation-level situation. With a little concentration, we can access the same insights as the yogis and Buddhas of antiquity.

Below is a simple model for gaining spiritual confidence through daily practice:

Curiosity > energy > effort > insight > wisdom > confidence.

This cycle is strengthened each time we repeat it.

 

Perfectly in process

yin yang being

You are perfect as you are; already and always complete.

At the same time, you are constantly evolving and learning.

These two truths are mutually supportive: innate wholeness and eternal growth.

It is easy to overemphasize the personal development side of our practice. We can “work on ourselves” until our final breath, but what about contentment right now? Have you noticed how “the day when I get my shit sorted out” seems to move forward in time as you do? Self-cultivation can become a carrot we dangle just beyond our own reach; a cruel game of spiritually intoxicated self-judgement.

It’s helpful to be motivated — to cut through our conditioned reactivity and strive for a more full expression of our capacity — but not at the expense of our heart’s need for total self-acceptance. At the deepest level, we don’t need to be healed, fixed or improved. What the heart yearns for is Being.

To navigate the delicate balance between perfection and process, this is our life-long practice.

Self-observation

monk moon

gives us first-hand information about our experience.

This is the best type of research we can do.

Too often, we rely on what we’ve learned from outside. This second-hand information can be dangerous. It places a gap between us and our own direct experience.

On the path of self-cultivation, we easily fall trap to lofty ideals of how we ought to behave based on a set of “higher” concepts. Knowledge gleaned from outside can make our mind overly busy. Seeking. Seeking. “One day I’ll get it right,” we say to ourselves.

The whole game is a hoax.

We end up becoming something we are not. Everything we need to wake up and thrive is contained within. Our innate wisdom is fully operative — all the time — we just need to recognize it.

Through the process of self-observation, we identify and release what we are not. As we do this, a  sense of openness emerges.

The heart lightens.

 

Are you curious?

Wonder

When you are curious about something, the ability to focus comes naturally. With focus, a new dimension opens. The artist catches the muse. The dancer enters the flow. The inventor cracks the puzzle. It’s about sustained attention; entering the place where everything disappears, even you.

In that place, only the living moment remains. Everything seems to happen by itself.

This is the simplest most elusive undertaking; to keep the mind on point. If you try too hard, you get in your own way (and end up with a headache). Don’t try at all, and it’s endless mind-wandering.

The secret is curiosity.

Not brute force.

Attention flows naturally — almost effortlessly — toward whatever we are genuinely curious about.

Take the backward step

Ordinary Life

Self-cultivation is based on the idea of independent inquiry. It does not rely on authority, tradition or dogma.

The point is to face our life in all Nine Spheres. To do this, we need self-honesty and radical acceptance. We need to turn around and step fully into our situation, to feel the reality of our past choices and the total effect of our current circumstance.

It’s much easier to stand on your head, memorize some sutras, or learn a new movement form.

But even yoga, meditation and qigong can become modes of disassociation. Spiritual bypassing, as it were.

Awakening happens in the midst of life’s mess.

Wisdom is not transcendent, but utterly ordinary.

Genuine insight is found within our own direct embodied experience, nowhere else.

There is no such thing

Emotions

as a negative emotion.

Emotions are currents of energy that arise through contact with sensory experience. Emotions, like all appearances, are part of life’s great river of change. They come in every size, shape, and color. Some are intense, others subtle. Some enduring, others fleeting. Emotions can be heavy, light, hot, cold, explosive, stifling, ecstatic. There might be as many shades of emotion as there are people who feel them.

Emotions themselves know of no hierarchy, no segregation. They don’t need to be corrected, reformed or exorcised.

Emotions need to be felt. They need our genuine attention and presence.

All of them.

When emotions are felt, they are completed. Once completed, they self-resolve. Yet, when emotions get labeled as “negative,” they get suppressed and trapped in the body. A heaviness ensues; the back-log of unresolved life experience carried in the flesh.

It is our collective habit of dualistic fixation that artificially imposes the labels of “positive” and “negative” onto our emotional experience. All too often, we carve life up into little pieces, set the parts against each other, and invent conflict where none exists. All of this is an act of rejection of life, ourselves, and each other.

And it causes us great suffering.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Each emotion is equally valid and self-liberating. Like clouds in the sky, emotions arise and dissolve of their own accord. We can simply drop the compulsive habit of labeling emotions, and take up the practice of befriending and feeling them. When we do this, something radical happens. We return to our humanity. There is more space inside. We are infused with the energy of emotions without being overcome by them. It’s as if a rushing current is moving through us.

Nothing gets stuck.

Each new moment is fresh and rich.

Certainty is not required

dive in

Bring all of your doubts and hesitations to the practice with you.

Pile them up in front of you, like so many treasures, as you sit down on your cushion to meditate. If you wait for certainty to arrive before you sincerely start practicing meditation (or any contemplative method), you’ll never begin.

As soon as you notice some desire in yourself to awaken — as soon as you receive some teachings that apply to your life — don’t wait another day. Don’t let your inner yearning be diminished by the excuse, “I don’t yet know enough.”

Allow the heart’s longing to pull you forward anyway.

Put to good use what you already know.

This is the secret of how to gain momentum on the path.

Uncertainty holds the promise of surrender within it. Even after twenty years of practice there will be doubts and hesitations. It’s wonderful news, actually. It means we don’t need to have all the answers to achieve profound results on the spiritual path.

We can embrace uncertainty unabashedly. We can take refuge in “I don’t know,” dive into the great unknown. There is an open quality to this, a hidden potency. It brings freshness and curiosity to our practice. This is what is meant by the expression, “beginner’s mind.” A beginner is unsure and a little excited to see what might happen if they just go for it. There is a sense of playfulness to the whole dynamic.

This is the spirit of our practice.

How is your heart?

deeper-conversation

That’s what we need to be asking each other.

This simple act — performed with genuine interest and willingness to mindfully listen — has the power to change everything.

This one simple question can break the invisible walls between us. It opens a lens into our shared human narrative. It reveals a clear view of our common ground, and dissolves the artificial separation we’ve created by upholding an “us and them” society.

Husband. Wife. Parent. Child. Teacher. Student. Democrat. Republican. Christian. Muslim. Arab. Jew. Black. White.

We too easily polarize. Square off. Assume our defense postures.

There is no “them.”

We are all us.

Each of us is rich with experience and vast in complexity. At the most essential level, we all yearn for similar things: safety, acceptance, love, fulfillment. But we are too easily intoxicated by the shiny objects that so effectively distract us from ourselves: the rat race, the trivial moments of fleeting entertainment, the promise of immediate gratification. We too often hide from each other in our little bubbles of distraction, then suffer the pain of isolation in private. As a result, so many among us struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, rejection, self-hatred.

More often than not, these aren’t pathological in and of themselves, but symptoms of a wider-spread pandemic: intimacy deficiency.

This is the pathology of our time.

Separation.

This affliction plagues us in body and mind. It ripples though all Nine Spheres of our lives; our homes, our communities, our countries. The implications are global.

The suffering of separation is not curable with pharmaceutical drugs or surgery.

The medicine we need is connection.

Human connection.

It doesn’t have to be sticky or complicated or expensive. Anyone can administer the medicine of connection. It just takes a dose of mindful courage and the willingness to ask an honest question: How is your heart? If we can listen without judgement or expectation, a space of trust and vulnerability is created. The speaker feels safe and seen. The listener realizes they are not alone in harboring an ocean of feelings about life’s joys and pains. We begin to see ourselves in each other.

Through presence and connection, the human heart can release its burdens. A sense of community emerges; one that is free of the us-and-them of culture, religion, race, sexual preference, etc. As separation breaks down, our basic sanity is restored — the heart lightens — and we begin to live together with a greater sense of awareness, cooperation and compassion.