Pointless Pursuit

June 8, 2012 § 9 Comments

What I pursue eludes me.  What I treasure simply comes to me.

We lead driven lives.  Driven to succeed, driven to achieve our objectives.

We know that this way of living is stressful.  But worse yet, it is also pointless.  What we chase seems always to elude us- even when we succeed.

Whenever we separate our sense of self from the thing we chase, we create an object of our desire.  The object might be a new job, a romantic conquest, or the acquisition of some material thing.

When we don’t get that thing we covet, we of course feel a sense of failure.  But even when we do succeed, when the job comes our way or we acquire that sleek new car, it often feels less glorious than we had hoped for or imagined.   We feel unsatisfied.

Only when we stop pursuing things or external objectives do we have the chance for a sense of true fulfillment and wholeness.  The deep satisfaction that comes from a good day’s work to which we committed ourselves, the sense of connection with someone we love, those moments of real significance to us- these all simply came to us.  We didn’t target them as objectives; we didn’t grasp for them as objects.  The moments that mattered came to us because we were open, ready, and present.

And so I recall the deep sense of fulfillment in writing a passage that was true and truly put, the transcendently peaceful moments with my family on a Lake Michigan beach, the sense of spirituality that came upon me standing alone in the mist on a remote Austrian mountain.  Not objects, not achievements.  Just precious moments.

Stop Doing Things

May 17, 2012 § 7 Comments

The Master does nothing,

Yet he leaves nothing undone.

The ordinary man is always doing things,

Yet many more are left to be done.

Tao te Ching, Chap. 38 (Stephen Mitchell translation)


Our lives often seem like nothing but doing.  Making lists, moving from task to task.  Doing, doing, doing.  Worse yet, we are judged, and we judge ourselves, by what we get done- or fail to get done.  Relentlessly.

I used to be a very important person.  I knew this because I was so busy working on so many important deals.  My days were nothing but coffee, cigarettes, and doing.  Busy, busy in my head- thinking, thinking, thinking.  Knocking down the tasks, one after the other.

But here’s the problem.  The busier I got, the longer my list grew.  And my performance- when I was honest with myself- was often not so great.  I became what I called “the busiest and least productive person I know.”

The Tao lesson shows us the way out of this trap.  “Do nothing” does not mean go to some mountaintop and sit there.  It means that while you navigate your busy, engaged life, you must seek to move out of your dualistic way of thinking.  There is no you and the task.  Just one thing.

We each know what this feels like.  Immersed in reading or riding the exercise bike or designing the building, we can lose the conscious awareness of the activity.  We are just reading, just spinning, just creating.  These aren’t simply moments of immeasurable pleasure; they are also the times of our highest productivity.  Sadly, for most of us, those moments are too few and too far between.

So stop doing things.  Seek to immerse yourself in each moment and feel the weight of dualistic thinking fall away.  Do this and you will become the least busy, and the most productive, person you know.

A Warrior in Enemy Territory

May 15, 2012 § 3 Comments

They were careful

As someone crossing an iced-over stream.

Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.

Courteous as a guest.

Fluid as melting ice.

Shapable as a block of wood.

Receptive as a valley.

Clear as a glass of water.

Tao te Ching, Chap.15 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Zen, the Tao, meditation, mindfulness.  Many people associate these ideas with passivity, even weakness.  That’s all fine, they say, if you want to live your life in a Buddhist monastery in Big Sur.  But if you want to live in the hectic, demanding real world, you’d better leave your meditation mat in the closet.

This is just all wrong.

Consider this.  Imagine the great athlete, someone who thrives in the intensely competitive world of professional sport.   Then imagine them at a moment of peak performance.  Maybe it’s Usain Bolt powering down the track, or Laird Hamilton carving into a swell, or Lionel Messi weaving through the defenders to attack the goal.  Each of them- in their moment- is precisely and only living in that moment.  Just running, just surfing, just dancing across the pitch.  Their movements are strong but fluid.  Amidst the fury that surrounds them, their minds are quiet and focused.  They are Zen.

The truth is that the practices and conceptions of Zen and the Tao are not so critical for one who lives in quiet solitude in the hills above the Pacific.  Such an existence is simply and naturally filled with peace.  These practices and conceptions are needed right here- in the world of ringing alarms, relentless demands, hectic pace- the world in which you and I live.

Like a warrior in enemy territory, we are surrounded by danger- thoughts that would sap our strength, defeat our will, and bring us low.  But if we can be fluid as melting ice and clear as a glass of water, if we can find and hold our mindfulness, we will be like the athlete in the moment of performance- strong, willful, and riding high.

No Bridges

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

We are often told that we must build a bridge from where we are to where we want to be.  We must chart our course; we must plan our future.

And yet in Zen we say that you do not do something today in the hope that this will gain you something tomorrow.   Our way rejects such “gaining ideas.”

Of all the tenets of Zen, this one feels most at odds with life as we live it.  It seems that we ceaselessly employ gaining ideas.  In the simplest instance, I heat the water to gain the tea.  Or I write this post to gain the reader.  We act in the present for the purpose of gaining some future outcome, all the time.

Still, I embrace this Zen teaching- in the following way.

We will plan, of course.  But we must avoid consciously attaching an instrumental purpose to any activity.  The moment that I start thinking about the ends, I lose myself between the present and the future.  I am no longer just making the tea or just writing the post.  I am trying to do something and scheme about the doing all at once.  Yogi Berra famously said: “It’d hard to think and bat at the same time.”  He was right- and not just about baseball.

So the first reason to be skeptical of this bridge-building metaphor is the way in which it can take us away from the present moment.  But there’s also another reason.

The metaphor of a bridge is too solid, too linear.  If you really think about your life, it never works that way- at least not with regard to your larger plans and ambitions.  You plan and scheme and imagine the line of events that will take you from here to there.  But how often has that set of dominoes toppled according to plan?

So plan ahead, as you must.  But remember that our bridges are made of smoke, soon to be swept away in an unknowable future.

Knowing this, we must remain open and ready, agile and fluid.  And we must always, always keep our focus on the one place and time that is actually in our hands- the here and the now.

Walking the Walk

April 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

So far in this blog, I have been talking the talk, for sure.  But how about walking the walk?

The truth is that I am embarrassed a bit by writing and offering these posts to the outside world.  I am embarrassed when I think of the gap between my admonitions here and the life I have led.  Sadly, I have lived most of my life at war with these lessons.  I have lived too much in my head, allowing myself to be pulled into the vortex of negative thought, imagining all the bad things that might come, analyzing the myriad ways in which I had failed myself and others, paralyzed by my spinning mind, unable to complete projects, withdrawn and wary of others, and on and on.

I would like to say that I came to a point in life where that all changed.  I saw the light.  I achieved enlightenment.  I started walking the walk.  But that would be false.

Yes, in recent years my deepening focus on spirituality has helped me change the way I live in, and move through, the world.  But no, I did not simply turn a corner.  My life to this day is a ceaseless struggle to stay in the present moment.   My mind, the little voice in my head, are always ready to take me back to that way of living that is not genuine and often hurtful.

There is no cure to the affliction that is our karmic spinning mind.   It is a struggle, moment-by-moment, to live one’s life in a genuine present way.   The following passage from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is of special meaning to me in this regard.   In this passage, Suzuki refers to a letter that he received from a former student.

One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each page.  But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!”  Dogen-zenji [a great 13th century Zen master] said, “Shoshaku jushaku.”  Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.”  Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake.  According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen.  A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku.  This means so many years of one single-minded effort.

All that we have is the present moment.  And each moment offers us the opportunity to live, fully, in that moment.   It is not a matter of failure, or of success.  Such conceptions, with their backward looking way, distract us from what is right here, right now.   A single-minded effort in each moment, that’s all.

Leaving No Trace

April 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Usually when we do something that we see as significant, we attach a sense of accomplishment or pride to what we have done.  So we close a financially advantageous deal, or we complete a marathon, and we think of this as a great accomplishment.  But in thinking this way, we freight our actions with the traces of these thoughts and feelings.

You may say, how would it be possible not to feel a sense of accomplishment in such moments, and isn’t feeling this positive way about yourself a good thing?  The difficulty here is that once you start to attach these feelings and judgments to your actions, you complicate matters.  Sure, when you feel a sense of accomplishment in finishing the marathon, you feel good about yourself- I did an amazing thing, good for me.  But what if you had brought all your will and effort to bear and still you had been unable to finish, or what if things more urgent arose and you were unable to participate at all?  What then would you think of your non-accomplishment, your “failure” to complete the marathon?

Leaving no trace means keeping it simple.  When you are done with an action, you are done.   In Zen, burning yourself completely in a given action, whether it is meditation or closing a deal, means not just being in the present moment continuously, controlling yourself, seeking to be the force of nature that is a centered human.  You must also burn yourself to ashes, leaving no trace of yourself. When you are truly centered in action, you have no need to attach some thought or judgment to your action, or to your performance.  You will feel the centeredness and that will be enough, that will be all there is.

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