Sunday, March 30, 2008

It is Hopeless

Sometimes, deep looking causes me to wonder about certain cultural assumptions we make. In recent years, one wide-spread assumption in particular seems to have a dubious benefit, at best. I'll apologize in advance, because I know to question this assumption will possibly upset some people.

I no longer think that "hope" is a particularly strong virtue.

In fact, I think a case can be made that "hopelessness" is, in fact, of stronger spiritual merit.

Now, I think that hope plays a perfectly fine role in helping people get through truly dreadful times, since it effectively tells us that nothing remains the same forever, and that this terrible moment will inevitably change into something else in the next moment.

But as I look around, it appears to me that there are many people who turn hope into a way of life. And when you look closely, it becomes evident that hope fits into the same family of human experience as dissatisfaction and regret. Hope, in effect, is the future tense, with dissatisfaction the present tense, and regret the past tense.

All three mind states are the result of disagreement with what is. Regret is disagreement with what was in the past, dissatisfaction is disagreement with the present, and hope represents a strange sort of dissatisfaction with our expectations for the future. We would not hope at all, were it not for our fear that the future will look exactly like the present.

The essense of hope is a desirous wishing for conditions to be other than what they are, and I don't know how, exactly, we have turned this into a culturally sanctioned virtue. Could there be anything less conducive to happiness than to constantly wish for things to be different?

It takes only a very slight shift in perception to see that there is virtue in hopelessness, because to be without hope implies a full, embracing acceptance of the present condition of things. In this moment, if I am without hope, it is because I have fully embraced the present and am responding to it automatically, without desire or aversion.

Desire and aversion, otherwise known as hope and resentment, don't in and of themselves accomplish anything. They are simply unhappy mind states, and in fact they exist because we cling to stasis rather than going with the flow of the universe. The antitode, it seems to me, is to fully and entirely inhabit our experience, our moment. To act, instead of hope.

An example:

Once or twice a week, I bypass the bus and walk home from work, which gives me a rather vigorous two hour hike of almost 6 miles. On this walk, I pass through a somewhat shabby area of town near highway overpasses where trash is often strewn about. Over the course of several walks, this stretch of two or three blocks caused me to feel disheartened and saddened by the selfish behavior of the human race.

Then one day, ahead of me, a girl on a bicycle acted in the most perfect manner. Coming across loose newspapers, she simply reached down, picked up a single piece of trash and threw it away. She clearly wasn't at all unhappy about it. It was simply the thing to do. One piece of trash.

I began to do the same. Coming across a cracked liquor bottle under the underpass, rather than fume about the selfish bastard who threw it from a car, I just picked it up and threw it away. It cost me no more time or effort, and my poor mind state was instantly relieved.

Responding automatically, intuitively, with simple logical action is perhaps all it takes to eliminate fear and resentment and longing and hope.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Clever, clever gadget

If ever there was a timepiece perfect for the Buddhist, or the non-demoninational nihilist, this is it. Check out the


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Early Morning Thought

One day in the garden called Eden, Adam and Eve decided that they were tired of all things being true, and that they would prefer to decide for themselves what things were true. To this day, they're still arguing about who exactly had this brilliant idea first, but for all intents and purposes, we can say that they decided it together.

At the moment they said to themselves "we have decided that these are the true and good things," all the other things became, by definition, false and evil.

And with that realization, Adam and Eve grumbled to themselves and left the garden. They weren't thrown out; they left of their own choice, because Paradise didn't match their expectation of a flawed world.

They left a symbolic world where all things were true, going instead to a mundane, literal world where it was necessary to choose truth on a case by case basis. This is what they wanted for themselves. They also were looking for the first Macy's store, needing clothes to cover their naughty bits. The literal world is much colder than paradise.

And that's pretty much where we've been ever since. We suffer because we reject symbolic reality, where one thing can mean many things; and insist on literal reality where one truth must exclude the others. I'd argue that the mantra of the suffering human condition can be summed up in these words: "This, not that."

From time to time, a few people have been able to look back over the river from Literal Land to Symbolic Eden. They are, by and large, the artists, poets and mystics, although they actually come from many vocations.

As I look at my bookshelf this morning, I see some evidence of these symbolic thinkers. One shelf up on the left is the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas, where Jesus is quoted as saying "heaven is right here in front of them, but they know it not."

The literalists, though, intent on their one reality, banished these words from the collection that went into the Bible, insisting that no, heaven had to be a tangible, real place that IS NOT HERE. Also: the flood REALLY HAPPENED. It didn't represent the symbolic truth of period catastrophe and re-creation.

A few books down is a collection of writings from Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, the 13th/14th century German Christian mystic. In one of those sermons, Eckhart says, in effect "forget that literal virgin birth stuff. What we should realize is that to experience God, the truth, we must empty ourselves and become virginal in terms of competing beliefs. We must all become virgins, if the infinite truth is to take root in us."

But the literalists of the day, insisting on their one truth, very nearly had Eckhart executed for the expression of these most logical symbolic truths. Nope, Mary WAS a virgin. And this IS Jesus' corpuscles you are swallowing. How dare you suggest symbolism.

On another of my bookshelves is a volume of collected works by William Blake, containing a poem where he says that holy joy becomes ours when we "see the world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour." Elsewhere he notes that "if the doors of perception where cleansed, we would see all things as they truly are——infinite." This is a perfect expression of symbolic life—living in a way where one thing means many things.

But the literalists, for whom an infinite universe is enormously threatening, have largely dismissed Blake as a diseased crackpot.

On the other shelf to the right of the window, there are all the books by Joseph Campbell. In The Masks of God Volume I, he makes the interesting observation that modern man has a more arid spiritual life than primitive peoples largely because we insist on literalness. The primitive tribesman doesn't really belief the spirit of his grandfather inhabits the tree standing outside the village; he doesn't really believe there are spirit voices in the sounds of water. But he finds that it makes him feel connected to the larger world, he finds the spirit of play nourishing to his soul, to enter into this playful "What if." The symbolic life is a more meaningful and rewarding life than a narrowly literal one.

Modern men, on the other hand, insist on that their beliefs must be more than beliefs, that they must be the one and only truth. No room for expansive symbolic truth, only the narrow literal pretense to truth. And their souls become spiritual deserts because of it.

When I scan my fellow modern men and women, I see something interesting. The happiest are those who have room for the symbolic life as well as the literal. I know a man once who recovered from serious mental illness—the kind that causes many to wind up carrying their belongings in a shopping cart. He acknowledges that he recovered when he found it possible to hold many realities at the same time. "I needed medical, scientific help, yes," he said. "But mine was also a psychological problem. And it was a religious problem. And a mystical problem.

"It wasn't one thing," he concluded. "It was—and is—all things."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Science of Meditation?

Thanks to Michelle, at Full-Soul-Ahead, for showing me the following video. It gets just a little bit "new age" near the end, but you should remember that this is the experience of a neuroscientist who had a catastrophic brain event that showed her something mystical in nature.

What was most interesting to me was that her observations are consistent with what many people experience in meditation, and it suggests a left brain, right brain explanation for mysticism—and suffering—that could appeal both to spiritualists and to scientists.

Citizens of 4F

subbtitle: Straight Eye for the Gay Guy.

Thomas and William get on the northbound 7:12 am 4F bus about five blocks apart. They are aging gay men in their mid 60s, of modest means. They clearly know one another, though I don't take them to be close friends. It is perhaps simply that they are acquainted from years of riding the same bus, or perhaps they have mutual friends in the neighborhood. They converse with smiles, but without the closeness of good friends.

I judge them to be gay mostly because I perceive in them a kind of superficial precision of appearance and style that I associate with gay men, a precision that I, like many men, secretly admire. There is perhaps just a bit of the effeminate in their speech and hand gestures, but it is a subtle thing. They are not politically, stidently gay.

Thomas has the appearance of a modern monk. The color pallet of his clothing is always in browns and cream colors. He has a carefully clipped gray beard, and a circle of brown-gray hair floating around a bald spot on the center of his head. He always wears a calm smile that never seems to vary, no matter what the circumstances. No matter how hideously slushy the spring morning, Thomas is always—always—immaculately neat. I have no idea how he accomplishes this.

William has something tenderly comical about his appearance. His badly worn shoes are always polished to a sparkling gleam. Oddly, he wears an expensive knit cap pulled down so low that it hides his ears, but the edges of the cap are very carefully folded twice, in opposite directions. It is a clear fashion decision, one that might have worked just a bit better on a younger man. William wears an earring in one ear, highly unusual in a 65-year-old man who is not Harrison Ford. William's trousers always have a carefully pressed crease down the front.

They are both gentle men. Gay gentlemen have it a little easier in the modern world of modern women, for it's my observation that when a gay man leaps to his feet to offer his bus seat to a women, it is rarely interpreted for anything but polite etiquette. Young professional women, in particular, sometimes resent the inference that they are weaker; but this resentment seems to be quickly set aside if the man offering the seat appears gay.

Mostly what I admire about gay men is their fluency with personal style. William and Thomas are men of extremely modest means, yet they find quiet elegance and satisfaction in the simple acts of good grooming and maintaining their clothing. There is nothing trendy about their wardrobes, yet they somehow look far more stylish than I'll ever manage.

Some time back, I realized during an important board of directors meeting that I had dressed that morning with a sweat sock stuck to the inside of my sweater vest.

On my very best days, I wouldn't even be allowed in the land of metrosexuals.

It's why I generally prefer the wilderness.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

That's What Friends Are For

Last week I got to hang out with a old friend that I haven't seen in more than a year. This friend, dear to me as a sister, has many of the same spiritual interests as do I, and so naturally this constitutes a lot of what we talk about.

Over coffee one morning, at one point she cocked her head and looked at me with a sort of bemused grin.

"What?" I said.

"Of all the people I know with some sort of serious spiritual practice," she said. "You might be the only one I know for whom the practice actually makes their life better, happier."

This statement both pleased me and saddened me. My friend almost certainly sees me as a little more serene and "together" than I actually am. I struggle mightily with insecurities and self doubts, though I have become kinder to myself in recent years. I catch myself behaving stupidly all the tim. But she is right in some ways: it is undeniably true that spirituality has made my life genuinely better, and this was the piece that pleased me--that the fact was obvious to others.

What saddened me was that the other half of the statement was also true. Lots and lot of people aren't really made better or happier by their spiritual practice at all, and this is truly a shame. And it suggests that something is wrong.

Quite a long time ago, I decided that the only legitimate goal of the spiritual instinct should be the pursuit of a genuine happiness and peace of mind, and it was perhaps this that my friend sensed in me. As we talked, though, we realized how many people we both knew for whom spirituality meant different things.

There are quite a lot of people, many of them participants in traditional church communities, whose traditions seem intent on convincing them of their loathsomeness, their shame. This was largely what the Lutherans wanted for me, all those years ago, and it was why I said no to that club. And in all the years since, I have rarely seen a Christian or Jewish worship service that didn't premise itself on the principle that humans are incorrigibly awful to start with. Nothing very happy in any of those places, at least that that I could see.

And we both knew people, many of them belonging to new age spiritual movements, who seemed to use spirituality to hide from their inherent unhappiness, changing directions frequently whenever the discipline of the month was no longer able to mask the truth. This kind of thing has been no more acceptable to me than the religions of damnation.

All this is largely why I tended toward the Buddhist philosophy a while back. Here, there was no deity, no real liturgy, only something that made common sense. For there is really only one prayer in all of Buddhism, and although the precise words vary, the idea expresses precisely what I believe:

"May all beings know happiness, and the causes of happiness."

I thought this expressed with brilliant simplicity what the spiritual instinct wants from our evolution, and thus that's the way I practice.

Spirituality for me, then, is actually rather scientific. The goal is to analyze the constituents of true happiness, to pursue behaviors that move us in that direction, and avoid behaviors that deter us from that goal. I have had moments that might rightly be called "mystical," but arriving there has always been a matter of following common sense and the logic of experience.

As we talked, I realized several things about the way I live (this is what good friends do for you: show you things about yourself).

First: I have gradually come to see that my times of unhappiness have largely been the result of attaching my identity to phenomenon that are inherently fleeting and impermanent. If I am not attached to one particular identity, I have nothing to defend and hence no loss to fear. And what sense is there in saying "That is me"? "That" changes in the very next moment, anyway, leaving "me" entirely in doubt.

Second: I learned that genuine, durable happiness had nothing to do with the pursuit of ecstatic excitement. It was not an easy lesson to learn, for I was something of an adrenaline junkie as a young man. Happiness for me, though, turned out to be equanimity and peace, not a pounding heart.

Third: Unhappiness always melts if I can introduce spaciousness into my experience. Suffering and unhappiness comes with the illusion that things are concrete. Space always brings happiness.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Little More about Meditation

If you have a meditation practice of any kind, at some point you may want to try a variation known as tonglen, sometimes known as "taking and sending" meditation. Although I believe it originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice, the exercise isn't a religious ritual of any kind, so I think it's not likely to trouble anyone, even Christians.

Tonglen, like most forms of meditation, is a breath-based practice, and its essence is very simple: On inhalations, you visualize that you are taking in the pain and suffering of other people; and on exhalations, you are giving away your goodness to the world—offering up any and all pleasant feeling and good will you can find within you.

When I first started the practice, I was surprised to find how much resistance I had to it. Though I imagined myself to be a more or less compassionate person, there was a silent resentment to the notion of giving away my goodness and breathing in the pain and suffering of others. I began to see how conditioned I was (perhaps how conditioned we all are) to defend ourselves against pain and suffering, and to collect and hold whatever kind of pleasantness we can find in life.

Tonglen offers a way to test out what it might be like to drop that habitual defensiveness and territoriality. The results are best experienced when the practice no longer seems symbolic, but when you adopt it quite literally. You genuinely do feel that you are giving away all that is good and pleasant within you, and that you are absorbing very real pain of others. On every outbreath, you take a leap of faith and offer every last ounce of happiness you have, with no expectation of return.

If you can take the leap and practice this way in a very literal fashion, a pretty stunning realization soon sets in. No matter how much goodness you give away, more reappears instantly to replace it. It isn't a limited resource at all, but one that flows freely if you simply unclog the pipes. Even at a moment of deep despair or depression, you can, on every exhalation, always find some goodness to be handing off to others. In fact, times of low spirit are the best time to practice tonglen. And rather than feeling depleted by the suffering of other people entering you, it begins to feel like a form of nourishment. The pain you inhale is the fuel that is transformed into the peace you breathe back out. It is like the carbon dioxide inhaled by plants that they may exhale oxygen.

Your assumptions pretty soon get turned entirely upside down, for you recognize that there was never any reason to defend yourself, nor any reason to hoard goodness in any way. Rather than living in a miserly way, counting pennies, you can freely walk, because the ground is pretty well covered in gold coins. Rather than living from a perspective of poverty and deficit, we start to feel free .

Like many such practices from my adopted tradition, tonglen isn't so much a moral practice as a practical one. This is one aspect that seems quite alien to people who come from a Christian/Muslim/Judaic tradition. Giving away goodness isn't a sacrifice we make in order to be deserving of goodness in return. We do it because the tangible evidence shows that softening the ego and reversing our habits makes us feel happier in a genuine way.

Unlike some Western traditions, which are based on a kind of economic model in which we must "buy" our happiness or salvation through good deeds, in this tradition we just follow the evidence. Living in openness just plain feels better, and that's the only reason we need. It's not a matter of living in a manner that pleases some higher power into rewarding us. We live this way because it works, here and now.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Citizens of 4F

On Sunday night before St. Patty's day, Bruce Springsteen's concert encore in St. Paul ended with a rousing Irish sing-along called American Land. It's a Woody Guthrie-inspired of the immigrant heritage of American, and among it's lyrics are these:
What is this land America so many travel there
I'm going now while I'm still young my darling meet me there
Wish me luck my lovely I'll send for you when I can
And we'll make our home in the American land
This morning on the northbound 4F bus, I saw this young family that clearly came from somewhere far, far south of here, originally. It was likely an important morning trip, since at this time of day it costs $10.00 for a family of five to ride the bus. Perhaps they are going to the clinic; one of the children has a bad cough.

The story I visualized for them was entirely from my imagination, but in all likelihood is precisely the story of some immigrant family, if not this one.

The young parents are among the most proud and ambitious and hardworking of their extended families somewhere in central Mexico, south of Mexico City. They would have to be among the best and brightest, to pull up all stakes and travel 3,000 miles north, to a land of bitter snow to seek their fortune.

Like many of their fellow central American immigrants, they have taken exceedingly low paying and physically demanding jobs. The mother cleans rooms at one of the high rise hotels; the father works on one of the residential roofing crews, which in this area work all winter long, the workers clothed in thick insulated canvas bib overalls against the bitter cold. Come late summer, he may travel down to the Green Giant vegetable fields in southern Minnesota and Iowa to work 5:00 am to 10:00 pm harvesting peas and beets and green beans for the big commercial canneries, leaving his family behind in Minneapolis. The work is back-breaking, but unlike some of the jobs he's had in the city, the company doesn't take advantage of non-resident workers by stiffing them on the paycheck after squeezing two weeks of labor out of them.

The parents' paychecks will have taxes withheld for federal and state income tax; yet should they ever fall into difficult times, many citizens around here will resent the fact that they receive a bit of public assistance. And they also pay social security taxes, and medicare taxes, even though they will never receive any benefits whatsoever, unless they manage to naturalize as citizens, a feat that has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

The three children are approaching school age, and although their parents pay taxes, there are those that will regard the education of these kids as larceny. Like many such family, it may be the children learning English in the schools who translate for their parents at parent-teacher meetings. It likely will be from the children that the parents perfect their English. Like many central American children, these kids might prove themselves to be terrifically hard-working in the schools. My wife, a middle-school employee, has seen this again and again: Peruvian or Mexican or Tibetan of Somali kids triumphing against all odds.

If the parents and children work very hard, in 15 years or so the oldest of the kids might qualify for college—an accomplishment that would move this family from third-world status into modern times. But the governor of Minnesota, frantically trying to position himself as a Republican Vice Presidential candidate, has promised to veto a bill that would allow non-residential foreigners who have gone to local highschools for at least two years to go to college at residential tuition rates, rather than paying out-of-state tuition.

So these kids, if they're lucky enough to qualify after 15 years of hard work, will pay more to go to college than the privileged white kids from Wisconsin, who happen to enjoy reciprocity with Minnesota.

This kind of mean-spirited policy is shrewdly concocted by Governor Pawlenty, since he knows it will cast him as being tough on immigration with the Republican party machine.

Soon before the family departs the bus on Lake Street, the little girl sitting on the end catches my eye, and her face lights up in a beautiful shy smile as she buries her face in her mother's sleeve. As they leave the bus, the little girl looks back and waves at me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tramps Like Us....

My head is a little numb today, the result of spending hours at a rock concert last night. Unexpectedly, a work colleague had four tickets to Bruce Springsteen, which I gobbled up in a flash.

It was the sixth time I've seen Springsteen in concert, though there was a lapse of more than 20 years since the last concert I attended. Raising kids and building a career sort of got in the way for a long while.
My brother, my 21-year old son, his friend and I went to the St. Paul event, and none of them has seen Springsteen before, and had no idea what to expect. I myself was 21 the first time I saw Springsteen, and the crowd last night was largely made up of my peers. I heard many of them talking about seeing Springsteen in the 70s.

The band was a full hour late taking the stage, and I worried a bit if this indicated the Springsteen might have lost his respect for audiences. Like other long-time rock acts sometimes are now guilty of, would Springsteen go through the motions in a prefunctory 45-minute set, in order to catch an early plane to Milwaukee, where he plays tonight?

I need not have worried. The concert lasted a solid 2-1/2 hours, and there were times when the band, loud as it was, was drowned out by the 45- and 50-year old audience singing along with the lyrics.

From time to time I glanced over at my son and his friend, to see them looking about awed at this songwriter/musician's hold over the audience. At any given moment, when Springsteen holds a microphone into the air, 19,000 people will bellow out the lyrics. While this goes on, Springsteen looks around at his band members and shakes his head in emotion and amazement. At one point last night during Born to Run, the crowd held all the lyrics for a full two minutes. Behind me was another father with a fifteen year old daughter, who kept looking around at the crowd, giggling with delight.

At 58, Springsteen no longer leaps off the pianos, but his energy still would put most 20-year olds to shame. His fondness for audiences is legendary, and there isn't a moment when you don't see his delight. He's become steadily more political in his old age, and last night there were moments of celebration that we're coming to an end of "8 years in the dark ages," and an admonishment to protect our civil liberties against illegal wire taps. We were asked to donate to a midwest food shelves charity set up in the lobbies.

Mostly, though, we were just flat-out entertained by an event where the audience is every bit as important as the performers. It is hard to know exactly how Springsteen manages to put so much of his soul into every performance. Six times now, and they mark the six best concerts out of dozens of different rock concerts I've seen.

On the way home, my son's friend said, hoarsely. "So, I suppose that must be pretty much what it was like back in the days of the Beatles."

Not quite, I thought to myself. But it will do. It will do.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Alaya, part II

Since Sacred Slut and Glamourpuss asked for more information, I'll add just a bit to the somewhat overblown description of a Buddhist meditation exercise posted previously. First, though, I'd like to add that I have no desire to convert or convince anybody that my way in the world is somewhat right. I'm quite aware that it's not for everybody, and I offer these ideas simply because they work for me, for the benefit of anyone who might be interested in such things.

Sacred Slut asks "what's the point", and then argues that Buddhism's attempt to "erase consciousness" is counterproductive.

Speaking for myself, the answer is that the point of such practice is to experience a different kind of consciousness in which there is genuine freedom. We're not trying to erase consciousness at all, but to find it. The frantic mental activity that is called consciousness in common vernacular is, for us, a rather hollow phenomenon. For myself, the practice is actually quite scientific, since I do nothing except follow the evidence of my own experience.

I practice because I'm happier and freer for it. I did not find this freedom in traditional scientific pursuit, though I did indeed try mightily for a long while. Science didn't make me happy. This does.

Glamourpuss then concurred with Sacred, at least partially, saying that she felt more akin to the practice of trantra than Buddhism.

This is fine. In reality, true tantra arose out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and all Buddhists would have genuine admiration for disciples of tantra.

While tantra today is sometimes criticized for a hedonistic practice, in truth the goal of all tantric practice is the pursuit of enlightenment in a single lifetime, rather than in repeated rebirths. So rather than avoid earthly, sensual experience, these energies are welcomed and harnessed in the hopes that new consciousness will be opened. Tantra is a perfectly viable spiritual practice.

True tantra welcomes all the pleasures (and pains) of life, knowing that they are natural and exist for a purpose. These are extremely powerful energies, though, and practitioners are always cautioned to be diligent. The goal isn't pleasure for its own sake, but pleasure as an energy of awakening.

By the way, Sacred Slut and Glamourpuss are extremly talented writers. You'd be well advised to check out their work. They are bookmarked in the list to the left.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rest in the Nature of Alaya

There is a Buddhist meditation exercise that is translated as “resting in the nature of alaya,” or sometimes as “resting in unborn awareness.” The practice is relatively simple, though it does require a relaxed kind of precision. The experience of alaya is quite powerful—so much so that upon glimpsing it a novice may well imagine that he’s very nearly all the way to enlightenment. In reality, though, this is an instruction given to beginners, and arriving at a recognition of alaya only indicates an entry to more serious, fruitful path.

In the Buddhist psychological system, there are many types of consciousness—some schools list eight. There are the various consciousnesses of the physical senses, for example—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Then there is the consciousness of recognizing thoughts as they occur. And there is the consciousness that fully experiences the “waterfall”—the cacophony of all the other consciousnesses bumping off one another in cause-and-effect fashion. This seventh consciousness might be called an awareness of karma.

Behind all this, though, is a state of consciousness known as alaya, which is a “store” or “ground” consciousness out of which all the others are thought to originate. This is a state which makes no distinctions or judgments, but simply knows things as they are. It is non-dual awareness which makes no particular distinction between subject and object.

As anyone engaged in serious practice comes to understand, a lot of the focus and concentration practice—carefully following the breath in mediation, for example—is aimed at nothing more than bringing us to the preliminary recognition of alaya. You can practice for many years, hone your ability to focus intently on the breath, only to finally realize that you’ve reach a starting point where all this focus can be surrendered in order get to the real business at hand.

I’d like to say that after 30 years of meditation practice I rest in alaya all the time. This isn’t even remotely true, unfortunately. There are many meditation sessions where my jumpy mind never relaxes enough to rest there, and even during a very good meditation session, I may feel like no more than a few minutes of an hour session has really put me in this territory.

But even a few minutes resting in alaya can flavor your outlook for days to come. I will sometimes enjoy a full week of a remarkably peaceful and harmonious outlook on life after a good meditation session.

I think that everybody needs to develop their own means of courting alaya, but for me the process is something like this:

Once a basic breathing meditation has calmed and slowed the mind enough that I can easily recognize the various activities arising and falling there, I begin to pay attention to each and every instance where the mind judges or catalogs or distinguishes between this and that. I allow each of these value judgments to dissolve without clinging to them in any way. Gradually, as I stop gripping onto judgments of good or bad, desirable or undesirable, a consciousness of an entirely different form arises. My sense, when this arrives, is that I’m seeing things more as they truly are.

At first glance, you may dismiss the feeling as one of inner laziness, since there is utterly nothing to do, nothing to accomplish in any fashion. You are simply experiencing, and there is no goal whatsoever. However, there is also a laser-sharp clarity to this consciousness that is entirely unique. There is nothing drowsy about this state, at all, so you’ll recognize that it’s something entirely different. Your attachment to language, even, begins to be surrendered.

Occasionally, similes occur to me that indicate what my experience of alaya is like.

If consciousness is a sandy beach, alaya is present when the waves have erased all ripples in the sand, all footprints, all sand castles. Normal consciousness tightly defends footprints in the sand; alaya consciousness relaxes into the plasticity of sand.

If consciousness is an ocean, reaching alaya consciousness is to drift down beneath the turbulence of surface waves and foam, and dwell in the peace of the ocean depths, out of which waves come and go freely. It is, however, a kind of water which doesn’t drown you, but feeds your lungs.

And sometimes, peculiarly, I see alaya as vast, felt-covered billiards table. And rather than being obsessed and attached to the action of pool balls careening about in cause-and-effect geometry, I find it possible to rest in the background without concern for temporary things.

It is important, though, to understand that resting in alaya is just a practice in pursuit of the goal. It is not the goal itself.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Have a Drink, Miss Kelly

Naturally, I'm disappointed and outraged over the spectacle of another prominent politician betraying the public through his arrogance and lack of moral control. And I really don't like the fact that New York governor Eliot Spitzer is a democrat. Republican vice amuses me; democratic vice disappoints me.

But the whole hooker-gate event does raise a somewhat academic question in my mind:

What can a call-girl possibly do for you that might be worth $4,300?

Some years ago as I was dining alone in a hotel bar in Vegas, a stunningly beautiful woman approached me and after a naive few minutes of conversation, she offered to do whatever I wanted, for hours and hours, for the sum of $400.

Rest assured that there are many, many reasons such an experiment did not then, nor is ever likely to, happen. Performance anxiety, cheapness, and yes, that pesky moral character make me one of the most boring men in America. A mildly flirtatious woman makes me blush furiously. You can imagine my reaction to this event.

But I now confess to wondering what in God's heaven a man might purchase for $4,300. I ask myself what might coax me to consider such a tryst for this kind of fee—assuming I had that kind of loose cash laying around.

First of all, I can tell you that certain credentials would need to be met. To start with, the professional lady would need to be the spitting image of Grace Kelly, from the era of "Rear Window."

And there would be certain educational requirements to be met. Certainly a master's degree in comparative lit or religious studies from a prominent college, followed by a PhD in debauched sensuality from Anais Ninn University. I like a good conversation in between workouts.

And for $4,300, I'd think I'd be entitled to a 24-hour-a-day libertine adventure for at least two weeks. I'd insist on a contract to that effect.

I told you I was cheap. And I have high expectations.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reality on the 4F

Last night I left the office promptly at 5:00, and this combined with the fact that it was the first evening of daylight saving time meant that I commuted home in broad daylight for the first time in months. It's been a long, long lonely winter here in Minnesota, but now, even when the temps are a mere 20 degrees, the sun is beginning to burn away the glaciers heaped over the curbs and sidewalks. We've yet to have that glorious evening when the temperatures stay well above freezing all night long, but even so the crusty mounds of ice are now shrinking by the hour. Soon, they'll have vanished entirely from the visible city streets, and it will only be deep in the back alleys in the canyons between tall buildings where the ice will continue to live. Most years, a bit of ice lives back there until early June.

The 6:00 pm city this time of year looks much different in broad daylight. But although clearly Spring is coming, what I saw as I looked out the bus windows in detached reverie last night is not pure growth and renewal, but a strange sort of dance between the energies of creation and of decay.

Everywhere I look there is creation and decay existing side by side. New buildings are sprouting while other buildings are corroding away. On some of the existing buildings, new roofs or siding are coalescing, even as the old materials are sloughing away. In some of the buildings, businesses have decayed and died, while new businesses take shape and move in. This is true of all businesses. Even Microsoft will one day fade away, as did TWA and other monster corporations before it.

The sun itself is decaying beautiful ice formations, even as it is warming the flesh of trees and prompting them toward new buds. We pass by a beautiful brick building that is being gradually eaten by the new creation of thick vines that have sprouted up and are enveloping the structure with greenery that will gradually devour the mortar.

We pass by a small park on Bryant Avenue, and on the sidewalk a bright young mother pushing an infant in a stroller briskly passes by an ancient woman walking with a cane in tiny steps, her bowed head nearly hidden by a thick scarf tied beneath her chin. I am struck by the fact that these two women are closely related, that they depend on one another for the reality of who they are at this very moment.

The dance between decay and creation is so close, so intimate, that it is virtually sexual. The two energies could not possibly be separated.

There is nothing whatsoever qualitative about this truth. It simply is what it is, and for that reason is completely noble and elegant. All our judgments and preferences for creation over decay are human conceits alone, and have no bearing on the truth of the world. The fact that human beings often are pleased by newness and freshness and repulsed by decay is entirely irrelevant. The fact that we may be attracted to a fresh young baby and repulsed by the specter of aging and death says nothing about one being preferable to the other.

At most, this human preference is merely a manifestation of the universe's creative energy. The fact that we like newness is nothing more than the universe's creative energy channeling through us. The energy of decay also flows through us, since it may also be common for us to decry change, to prefer seasoned age over plastic newness. Perhaps even our occasionally self-destructive behavior is nothing more than a natural expression of the energy of decay.

The world takes on a different appearance in this frame of mind. There is a certain beauty in decay, as it is the natural forerunner to creative newness. A building facade ornamented with a vandal's colorful grafitti is not inherently much different than the same store front painted with the admonishment of a store owner to COME IN AND BUY. A pot-holed, cracked street isn't particularly ugly, but a promise that some day the earth will reclaim the tarmac and cover it over with meadows. An elderly gentleman, stooped with arthritis, causes me to imagine his possible grandchildren, who at this moment may be growing at the same rate this old fellow is fading.

There is no reason to pass judgment on this fact. It is what it is, and is hence beautiful and perfect.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Good News...and Bad News

Just when I had fully relaxed into my middle-age status, a complication arose.

Today, an extended survey I found in U.S. News & World Report told me that I'm not 52.3 years old (my chronological age) but rather that I have a REAL age of 46.3 years.

I truly don't know what to do.

This computation is based on an elaborate, multi-page survey. Wanting to know the complete dirty truth, I was fully, brutally honest, even. I was forthwith about my weight (which is fine if I was 6 ft. 3" tall; unfortunately I'm 5 ft 8"), and about the fact that my cholesterol and blood pressure are just a touch on the high side, though not so much that I need medication for it.

I was ruthlessly honest about the red meat I eat, and about the fact that I do no weight-training workouts whatsoever. I truthfully indicated that I have a nasty sweet tooth. I 'fessed up to my occasional insomnia, my allergies, the arthritis beginning in my feet.

I was honest about every last thing they asked.

But it appears I have enough healthy habits to more than compensate for these vices. I clicked the smallest option for number of alcoholic drinks per day (I'm more like one drink a week, much less per day). I walk somewhere between 20 and 3o miles a week. And my fondness for cheeseburgers is apparently neutralized by the nuts, grains, and vegetables I happily eat.

Now, although it's not a terrible thing to actually be younger than I am, it does leave me with a dilemma. I was very much looking forward to the senior citizen discounts I technically become eligible for when I'm 55 years old. Just what am I to do in 2.7 years? I don't lie easily, and if I say 55, when in reality I'm 49, I'm sure to get busted.

And now, do you suppose I'll have to send back my AARP membership card?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Age-old Mystery Answered

To the south of us, 23 miles, of the very suburban fringes of our region, there is a movie theater with a monster screen--at the end of this multiplex is a gargantuan 600 seat screening cavern with a movie screen so large you can barely take it in.

My wife and I are seriously addicted movie buffs, and so whenever a new "spectacle movie" opens, we'll travel down the interstate to the monster screen to see it. There is no way, for example, we will see the upcoming Indiana Jones sequel anywhere else in Minnesota.

Nothing truly good was playing this weekend, so we went down to see "10,000 BC," which just opened.

Much to my amazement, the movie actually answered one important historical question that has been haunting scholars for many, many years. Just how, exactly, did the Egyptians manage to construct the pyramids with their limited technology?

The answer has now been given: they harnessed woolly mammoths, imported from the northern tundra, to gigantic sleds that hauled the massive stones up ramps.

Lord in heaven, ladies and gentlemen, you have never seen such silliness on a movie screen in all your life. In the year 10,000 BC the neanderthals wore dreadlocks and somehow managed to trim their beards into neat fu manchu styles. Some neanderthals had already learned to harness and ride horses. From northern Europe, the sands of the Saraha were but a week's walk away.

("Sure," my wife said. "The continents were all pushed closer together then, don't you know.")

The giveaway that this film might not be historically accurate came in one bit of dialogue:

"Take care in this jungle," said one wise old neanderthal to his young ward. "For this unholy place is teeming with computer-generated saber-toothed tigers the size of greyhound buses."

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Thoughts on a Cold Morning

It was a long, odd week, and I very much needed the three-hour walk in 5 degree temps this morning to clear my head of it all. Friend Stacey might say that it was a week where certain alignment of heavenly bodies led to spiritual discomfort for us all. I'm admittedly a bit skeptical of the horoscopic diagnosis, but I have to admit that everybody seemed at a higher pitch of prickly edginess than usual this week.

At work, I noticed that lots of people were elevating the smallest provocation to disastrous proportions, and this would have offered a fascinating subject for study, if it wasn't for the fact that they seemed to want me to solve each catastrophe.

But it did give me an opportunity to once again observe a very common little human trait. It was present in spades all week long, and yes, there were also times when I caught myself in exactly the same fallacy.

We all have a tendency to think that our perceptions--our thoughts and feelings about a given circumstance--are actually objective facts. It's not so.

"X, he hates me," one worker said to me matter-of-factly this week, speaking of another coworker during a one-on-one session.

"Really?" I said in surprise. "I didn't know that. When did he tell you?"

"He hasn't told me" my worker said. "But he hates me."

"Mmm," I said. "I am surprised. X tells me lots of things, but he hasn't mentioned this yet. Did you hear it from somebody else?"

"No," I was told. "But I know it."

" Did you see it in a memo he wrote?"

"No," came the reply, impatiently. "Can't you take my word for it? It's a fact. He hates me."

I decided to take just a small step. "Well, it appears that you FEEL that X hates you. That's the fact I'm seeing."

My worker looked at me blankly. "What the hell are you talking about?"

How would my worker take the next idea, I wondered. It was worth an experiment, even though I really should have known better. "Your thoughts, your feelings, are inner events," I said. ". They're only true in the world of your mind. They say nothing about the world out there."

I had gone too far, I saw immediately. Introspection isn't for everybody.

Once upon a time, there came a somewhat life-changing moment for me when I suddenly recognized that an enormous amount of emotional baggage I had been wrestling with for much of my life was quite simply NOT REAL. These things were nothing more than mind states, and had no connection to larger, concrete truth whatsoever. A few inches outside my skull, none of the anguish I had been feeling existed at all. This recognition was unbelievably freeing to me. I simply didn't have to lend a lot of weight to anything that had no objective reality. I didn't have to keep feeding energy to such nonsense.

What this implies, ultimately, is that the only world we really know is a world of mind, and so that's where the problem-solving efforts need to dwell. I one had a worker tell me that he had worked for 15 bosses over the years, each one of which who had deliberately intended to set him up for failure. The stunning nature of such a coincidence did not register with him. Somehow, he had stumbled upon descendants of Hitler in 15 consecutive jobs. For 20 years he had bounced from job to job, each time believing that his mildly paranoid feeling was based on a concrete truth "out there" rather than an inner condition.

My wife and I have a friend who has been in relationships four times to selfish men. Each time, she expects to cause changes to her partners; but she has yet to wonder why it is that she seeks out men so skilled at making her miserable. "Men are such shits," she says, "why won't they change?" as we silently change the pronoun. The strange twists of logic used by this friend are too numerous to mention.

These are dramatic examples, but I think on quieter levels we do the same thing almost every day. We react to thoughts and feelings as though they represent laws of physics, as though they are monuments of stone.

I can hear an argument building from some of my friends that are highly skilled in logic, so I'll address it right away.

I'm not trying to argue the case for solipsism--the belief that the mind is what literally creates the physical world. I think solipsism represents a terrible form of human arrogance. But I would argue that most of what causes us to suffer is a subjective, inner event, not a fact of the world.

When we're suffering, it makes no sense to try and change the world. What makes sense is to return home and heal.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Supersition and the Curved Cosmos

Over the last year or two, a cultural shift toward anti-religion has become pretty prominent in popular media. My profession is the printed word, and in the Religion category in various publishing digests, you'll now see prominent discussion of best-selling books condemning religion and touting atheism. Five years ago, it was Christian fiction dominating these categories.

In blog land, it's much the same. Recently I have come across some extremely intelligent, articulate, and skillful blogs that exist almost exclusively to torpedo religious extremist views, or religion in general. A couple of the better ones, in fact, can be seen if you browse my list of recommmended blogs shown in the left column.

Researching this blog trend shows that some blogs like to puncture one religion alone. There are a lot of blogs that seem intent on skewering Islam, as well as lots of them that want to set the world free of Christian extremism. A number of the more compelling ones are written by former evangelicals who have escaped that world. Other blogs are multi-denominational, and will point out the ridiculous and bigoted aspects of any faith. Still other blogs celebrate science as its own religion, and argue that science alone offers the road to truth.

I am fascinated by this trend, as well as awed by the skill of many of these bloggers. And I do think its justifiable to point out the lunacy inherent in much religious dogma—that's why I read these blogs. How can you not roll your eyes in disbelief when you listen to strict Christians ignore the evidence of biological evolution; or when you hear of Muslims trying to force toy stores to stop selling piggy banks because swine are unclean animals?

But I also sometimes fear that we want to throw out the baby with the bathwater during this anti-religion jihad. Is there room, I wonder, for denouncing the silliness of religion while still holding a space in our hearts for what William James called the "Religious Experience."? (See his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.")

The God depicted in the Christian/Judaic bible, the Quran, is a quaint mythological representation of something inexpressible. And I agree that it's not only silly, but dangerous, to insist that such an entity exists in literal form, and that he has graced you and your friends with his favor.

But I will also insist on my right to believe in the spiritual impulse behind it all, and I'll also express my strong intuition that there is a spiritual and evolutionary goal that causes us to seek an enlightened state of mind.

That's all God really represents, after all: our desire for a peaceful existence.

And I also think that some apologists for "science" are just as deluded as any snake-handling hillbilly Christian in the mountains of Tennessee. Elevating science to a religion is complete folly—a fact that all the true geniuses of science have acknowledged. Scientific theories are always just theories, and the history of reason shows that these paradigms are nothing more than useful fictions, which can be discarded and replaced as circumstances require.

Do you think, for example, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? Then you haven't been reading your modern astro-physics, which now suggests that the cosmos is a curved phenomenon.

Any science and any religion is equally silly and dangerous at the point where it begins insisting that it owns the keys to certainty. This is the principle human folly, in fact—to insist on certainty, and I'd argue that it is the impulse behind most everything we think of as evil.

But what other option is there? I've heard people ask. Our job as rational humans is to find the truth, the certainty. That's what we do. Isn't it?

That's what most people do, I'll grant you, which may explain the condition of the human world. It's not the only way, though. The other way to live, the path less taken, is the one described by Irish song-writer Van Morrison, among many others:

Let go, into the mystery.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Citizens of 4F

On the 7:00 pm southbound 4F bus the other night, three young black men, strong and tall, boarded at Hennepin and 5th St. in downtown Minneapolis just as night was falling. At the end of rush hour, the buses are no longer densely packed, and this one had a few empty seats and no one was standing.

A number of white passengers tensed noticeably when the young men boarded. Time was that Minneapolis was just a large small town, but no more. The town has its share of racial tension these days, and for many white citizens, young black men traveling together is reason for nervousness.

White women sitting near the front of the bus drew their knees together and clutched bags closer. Some of the white men frowned, their lips pressed in tight lines. The three young men were clearly Warriors, and this unsettled the middle-class white folks headed for the southern residential neighborhoods and the inner tier suburb to the south.

Much as I wanted not to, I also felt a bit of unease when two of the young men sat close to me on either side of my center-facing seat, and the third sat directly across from me. They literally towered over me.

Like virtually all fear, though, its reason for being evaporated almost immediately upon clear seeing. These young men were indeed Warriors, but it was because their black stocking hats proclaimed it. Their "gang" was the DeLasalle high school basketball team, and it appeared that the three had simply been having a bit of fun downtown after school before going home. They talked quietly among themselves, joking about their coach and basketball practice. Their eyes were dark and beautiful, and each young man had that faint haze on the upper lip, common to all boys who aren't quite old enough to shave.

"Your coach, is he a real hardass, or is it just his coaching act?" I said to the boy sitting next to me. There was a moment of dead silence; they were, I think, surprised to hear me talk to them. Then they laughed warmly and told me some stories about their basketball coach. They seemed genuinely tickled that this middle-aged white guy would eavesdrop on their conversation and talk to them. It doesn't happen all that often, I imagine.

They began to talk about their physics class then, and I respectfully left the conversation, since I had no desire to be obviously stupid in front of 17-year old boys.

The young man across from me was carrying a small shopping bag from the Hallmark store, and I wondered if under the flowering white tissue paper there was a gift for some sweetheart, or perhaps a sister or his mother. A sheet of paper peeked up out of the bag, and I saw that it was a job application. In addition to being an athlete- scholar, the young man was looking for a part-time job.

The three young black men left the bus on 46th St., and I heard several of the passengers sigh and give reflexive laughs of relief.

It's a pity they hadn't really seen these young men.

Monday, March 3, 2008

I went to a funeral service for the tragic death of an acquaintance over the weekend, and was surprised at the nature of the Mennonite service.

I was raised a Lutheran, and have plenty of friends of this and other Protestant denominations as well as Catholic acquaintances. So I have a working knowledge of the principles of most Christian denominations. Frankly, none of them has really spoken to my soul, which is why most of my adult life has been spent studying eastern philosophies and disciplines. I'm not sure you could really pin me to any religious group, though if the issue was pushed I'd fit most neatly into the Buddhist club.

So this was my first ever exposure to Mennonites. This particular congregation belongs to what is commonly called "modern Mennonites," which means that they are main stream ocitizens that don't wear any special clothing, and wh by all appearances live pretty much like the rest of us. Many years ago, the Amish split off from the Mennonites because they wanted a much more conservative, disciplined practice.

In fact, though I was aware that Mike, the deceased, was a highly religious man, there was never a moment where he visibly "witnessed" his faith to the world at large. Mennonites are pretty private people, and would rather die than proselytize as do the Mormons, for example,

The first major surprise was that compared to other Protestant groups, the modern Mennonites have almost no discernible liturgy to their services. No creeds, no ritualized prayers, no communion. I"m told they do not even bother with baptism. The service was filled with music, and with personal stories about the deceased, and this appears to be what almost every worship service consists of. The members of the congregation move around the chapel quite freely during the service, and may roam about talking to one another, or may pop out to the lobby for a drink of water at any time. The kids roam about, and all the adults care for them as though they're parents.

The closest thing to gospel readings were a couple of brief quotes from Jesus, in which he instructed people to care for the poor, the sick, and for children with great compassion.

And this is about the only "rules" by which the modern Mennonites live: to try and emulate this compassion as modeled by Jesus. They don't really care about this "Jesus is the son of God" thing; they just believe it's the greatest good to care for others. They spend a lot of effort and time building schools in third world countries, rebuilding homes in places like hurricane ravaged Louisiana. And they do it pretty much without trying to convert anybody. This was what Mike's life had been about, and while he wasn't perfect, I can't point to many people who tried any harder to lead a good life.

I'm sure that digging a little deeper would reveal some not-so-nice features of the Mennonites. But my quick glimpse of it made we wonder if the Lutherans and the Catholics and the Pentecostals might not get a clearer picture of what Jesus was really thinking by paying attention to this little group.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Gospel According to Mercurious

My friend Kiyoto, at The Dragon (see list at left) asked me to repeat a list of messages sent to me from a spiritual friend. They are descriptions of what an enlightened existence includes. There are twelve of them. Here they are, with just a bit of amplification for each.

• It Is Not Elsewhere

The Christians and Muslims have it wrong when they say that heaven (enlightenment) is something we'll only enjoy in some kind of afterlife. Much the contrary. The blissful state is at ready reach, here and now, at every moment. There is never any reason to look for it beyond ourselves, for it is not found in a different place, a different time, or even a different frame of mind than the one we find ourselves in right now.

• It is Fond

While I have no argument with the Christian idea that God is Love, it has never felt that way to me. Love, as it's normally defined, is full of possessiveness and ownership and longing, and these things seem antithetical to the true goal. On the other hand, truly peaceful moments are full of quiet fondness for just about everything. This fondness is quiet and lacking in the ferocious passion that characterizes love as we normally know it. Fondness, I think, is characteristic of the enlightened state.

• It is One

False spiritual pursuit is quite often about separating and dividing and catagorizing one group of people as superior to others. There is nothing so clearly faulty than this attitude, and thus a great many religious traditions and practices are clearly false ones. On an individual level, we undermine our spiritual growth by creating separation between our selves and our experiences. The object-observer, subject-object dichotomy must be abandoned if we're going to glimpse the pure state.

• It is Precise

There is nothing gray or wishy-washy about the state of mind we seek. It is precise,and like all precise things, it is very, very simple. Complexity always hides the truth.

• It is Our Nature

Enlightenment, genuine happiness, is the logical outcome of evolution. Our spiritual growth doesn't come through fighting our nature, but by realizing it. Unhappiness is an artificial, unnatural state; peace and happiness is what is natural. Any spiritual practice that argues for inherent evil and corruption is dead wrong.

• There Are No Words

"It the beginning was the Word..." No, it wasn't. The true nature of things is more like the Taoist principle, which states, "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao." Words by definition are symbols, and symbols, by definition are representations of objects, they are not objects themselves. Dwelling in words alone is automatically to keep yourself separate from your experience. The enlightened state is found in a place that is pre-verbal, best approached by abandoning language altogether. The waterfall of thoughts and analyis that fills our minds is not enlightenment, but a hindrance to enlightenment.

• It is Not Me

Heaven is not a place for I-me-mine, and the insistence on dividing the world into I and Not-I is the thing that prevents us from realizing it. We fear that abandoning ego will cause us to cease to exist, when in reality, to surrender the tyranny of the self makes us far, far larger than we could ever dream. In a meditation sitting, to abandon the I, even for a moment, gives a glimpse of what is to come.

• This, Too

We spend much of our lives in simple disagreement with whatever happens to be true in the moment. We think we must change things,strive for different things, when it fact we could not keep things static, even if we wanted to. Small glimpses of a truly peaceful existence shows that it is marked by a simple acceptance of whatever arises. Every moment is a perfect one, since it is the beautiful, logical result of what has preceded. To disagree with the moment is the worst kind of folly.

• It is Free

We try to capture peace and tranquility. We try to understand and catalog it and fix it in time and space. But this effort is the very thing that prevents us from knowing it, because the nature of enlightenment is that it flows endlessly and cannot be captured in any fashion. To know happiness, do not try to grasp it.

• It is As Water

Ever flowing, completely malleable. Always changing, never static. One moment, an ice crystal at the top of the atmosphere; the next, a molecule of ocean at the bottom of the deepest sea trench. Indestructible.

• It Knows

The enlightened state is not one that requires knowledge, but simple awareness alone. Dwelling in the part of the mind that simply knows, without judgment or evaluation of any kind, is the approach to peace. Unhappiness is always a function of flawed seeing. Clear seeing always leads to bliss.

• It Is What It Is

It isn't a mystery or secret; it is open right before your eyes. I used to think that the truth required a search to some cavern deep, deep within the soul. It does lie within, but only barely inside the front door. The truth is right in front of your nose.

The unhappy man is the one who spends his life trying to keep one particular sand castle in pristine condition, constantly defending it against wind and waves. The enlightened man surveys the truth of the beach, then takes delight in playing with sand.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Mike and I have known each other for 20 years. We became acquainted when our sons entered kindergarten together, and as the boys played soccer together, wrestled on park board teams and the highschool wrestling team together, Mike and I saw a lot of each other then, not so much now. We're not close, close friends, but good acquaintences nonetheless. During the kids' highschool years in particular, our families saw a lot of one another, and would occasionally socialize at one another's homes.

As the boys graduated high school and drifted apart into different lives, MIke and I saw less of one another, but when we run into each other at neighborhood festivals or political meetings, we always catch with 15 or 20 minutes of enjoyable talk.

Mike is a very devout Mennonite, which puts us on slightly different planets, me being a fallen Lutheran and mostly Buddhist these days. But for a strongly religious fellow, Mike never pushes his belief on others. And I admire the good quality of his life. MIke and his family host foreign visitors from Africa frequently. They travel to central America to do social work in depressed neighborhoods. MIke has also overcome some personal problems in an admirable manner. Mike is an all-around good guy, who has rightly earned the respect of others.

Last weekend Mike traveled up to Fargo to handle funeral arrangements for his father, who just passed away. One night he went out for a jog on the streets of Fargo, and a driver struck and killed Mike on a blind corner.

Mike was 53 years old, just months older than me. He leaves a wife and two sons, ages 23 and 18——exactly the same ages as my kids.

It was pretty somber at my house last night. My son was home, and he seemed especially quiet. We were all, in our own ways, reflecting on the fact that life is so precious, so fleeting, and so uncertain. I'm sure my son was thinking about his friend, imagining what it's like to lose a father so suddenly, so randomly.

If ever there was a fellow who deserved to live happily into decrepit old age, it was Mike. But there is nothing whatsoever fair or certain about life.

And so we must live it right now.