When the Storms Come

May 2, 2013 § 37 Comments

The storms have come.

The waters rise in the wetlands surrounding my home here- dark pools amidst the tall pines.  The drenching rain, cascading off the metal roof, creates waterfalls just outside the windows.   You can feel in your bones the resonance of the rumbling thunder.

When that echoing thunder subsides, I go to the sea.  Beneath the angry sky, the ocean is a roiling and foamy cauldron.

Some of these dark and stormy days I stand on the beach and scan the long arc of shoreline in each direction.  Not another soul, for miles and miles.

I love the sun, the feel of it on my skin, the magic it creates shimmering across the water.  But this gray and forbidding time, I love this as well.

Perhaps I sense that nature is showing me her turbulence and disorder, screaming her existence, and in that way, mirroring my own inner turmoil, offering her stormy kinship.

Or perhaps it is just the feel of that cold, sharp wind on my face and the freight train roar of the sea when it’s up and charging.  I think, who could stand on this beach right now and not feel alive?

The sun will return, the sea will fall back into its rhythm.   She will whisper again the message that helps me keep my footing.  I will feel her strong but gentle pull, righting me to my center.

But when the storms come again, when her voice rises in that insistent roar, I will also feel nature’s message.  Live, she demands.  Live right here, right now.  Live this one life you have been given.

Feel inside the scream of existence that I model for you.

When the storms come again.

The Passion We Must Never Lose

May 31, 2012 § 12 Comments

“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”   Tao te Ching, Chapter 37

The Tao tells us, again and again, that we must lose all desire.

Yet I cannot imagine a life without what we think of as desire, a life without passion.  The longing, the feel of the passionate embrace, the electricity of another’s presence.  Also the passion for art, for moments of intense experience, for life itself.  To lose all sense of desire and passion would be to feel numb and adrift.  It is for me an unimaginable form of existence.

And so how can I reconcile the Tao teaching with the indispensability of passion in my life?

The “desire” that the Tao would have us lose is the desire for some thing or some outcome.  Simply wanting sex or more money is this sort of desire.  This desire is present when we seduce another or when we feel “driven” to achieve some outcome.  It is this kind of dualistic thought and scheming that the Tao counsels us to set aside.

When we feel the passion that is not wrapped up in outcome, we are fully present and engaged, simply existing in our passionate moment.  We may be in the arms of another, or standing before a transcendent work of art, or simply feeling the sting of the salty air whipping across the sand.  In such a moment, we lose all sense of separation, no time exists but that moment, we seek nothing beyond what is right there, right then.  This is what we live to feel- the passion we must never lose.

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.

Cool Zen

May 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Steve McQueen was not the greatest actor of his generation- but he was the coolest.    Although he starred in many movies that projected this aura of coolness, his role in the movie “Bullitt” is iconic.  If you watch that movie today though, you will notice something unusual.  The movie is nearly devoid of some of the contemporary markers of action flicks.   The McQueen character, Detective Frank Bullitt, does not shoot very many people- only one in fact – and does not blow things up- if you don’t count the gas station that erupts as the bad guys’ car plows into it at the conclusion of the famous car chase scene.

McQueen’s character embodied coolness differently.  He was a man of few words and unhurried movement.  He remained fully present in each situation, in each moment of the movie.  Never distracted, never lost in emotion.   Always ready.  He was strong and he did what needed to be done.  Frank Bullitt was a very cool character.

But what does all this have to do with Zen and the Tao?

Many people see Zen as too passive, as a set of ideas that don’t fit the “real world.”   For them the robed monk with shaven head who resides in a mountain monastery is what Zen is about.   All well and good in theory, they say, but hardly a way to navigate the hectic and relentless path of “real life.”

But I see Zen also in Frank Bullitt and, more meaningfully, in the very best of the businesspersons and lawyers, the teachers, coaches, counselors, and others, whom I’ve known over the years.   Whether they were consciously aware of it or not, these exceptional people embodied the ideas of Zen and the Tao.  Seeking to be fully present in each moment, open to whatever comes, rock strong, possessing a rooted sense of self, these men and women devoted themselves to the tasks at hand with all their will.

To embrace the ideas of Zen and the Tao does not require us to retreat from the world at all.  We do not become passive.  Instead, we operate at the fullest range of our capacities.  To be strong, centered, and present is not just to be Zen.   It is what “being cool” means.


May 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

Each action, each choice, each aspect of our lives possesses a deep simplicity.   What we see as the complexity of things only serves to obscure that simplicity.   If we can keep to the simple, we will be better off.

Okay, that sounds good and when you are sitting peacefully reading this passage, it even seems possibly true.  But then you turn away and the world comes crashing in.  You begin to plan your day, the mental list of important tasks arises and grows.  As you turn to the first thing at hand, another thing interrupts you.  You get busier and busier, the pace of life accelerates, plans come undone.  Pretty soon, the crush of cascading events and obligations washes away that conception of simplicity.

In our personal relationships, a similar process arises.   “It’s complicated” has become a common description of our relationships with others.  Thus, we question our relationships, we wonder why the person we care about seems often so maddening to us, we wonder about their feelings toward us.  But here too we will be better to keep to the simple.   Underneath what seems a complex and changing set of emotions is the simple essence of love.

We manufacture the complexity we see in the world.  We create the sense of busyness and frustration in our lives, as we create the idea of complication in our personal relationships.  Even the most task-filled day consists of only one thing at a time.  Even what seems a difficult relationship is grounded in the feeling that you care about the other person.  Simple.

Even knowing this, we will still often feel anxiety about the busy day ahead and may sometimes have moments of doubt about our relationships with those we love, of course.  But if we can recall that those emotions are a product of our busy minds and that they obscure the essential simplicity, we may yet return to the simple, where we belong.


April 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Last year I purchased a balance board.  When I first began using it, I had great difficulty staying up on the board.  In time of course I got better and was able to maintain my balance for extended periods. It takes energy and physical effort to stay up.  The constant small muscle twitches and movements take their toll.  But the mental fatigue is the biggest problem.  When I concentrate consciously on the activity, I begin to tire and before too long, I step off the board.  But when I am not thinking about the activity, when I am just on the board, I feel as though it is all effortless.  I feel as though I could stay on the board forever.

Something like that applies to the practice of being in the present moment.   When you consciously try to stay in the present moment, you will be able to stay in that posture for only a short while before the sense of mental fatigue sends you “off the board.”  But when you are present more naturally, without the conscious sense of effort and will, you feel no fatigue, no resistance.  Thus the challenge is not in the maintenance of your conscious effort, the challenge instead is in finding and sustaining the absence of conscious effort, in sustaining the natural posture of presentness or balance.

This isn’t to say that we must find a way to stay always in that kind of natural centeredness.  Who can really do that?  Zen monks spend years in the pursuit of this way of being and still falter.  The idea is that we should strive for that natural, centered way of being, knowing that, as with the balance board, we will fall off.   But each moment that we are just in balance, just present and centered, will bring us a strength and peace that is beyond words.


April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

In Zen we say that the soft overcomes the hard.  “Hard” conventionally connotes strength, as “soft” connotes weakness.  So how then does the hard overcome the soft?  In the physical world the effects of water provide the best example of the soft overcoming the hard, as the river carves a canyon through the rock.  But in human affairs it is also true that strength is misunderstood and the soft overcomes the hard.

A famous actor once remarked that as he prepared to play a “tough guy” he recalled some advice given to him years before.  His teacher had told him- remember, the most powerful person in a room is likely to be the one who says, and moves, the least.  Talking in a loud voice, stomping around, are often symptoms of anxiety and weakness.

Each of us has been in the presence of someone who feels like a force of nature, so powerful that his leadership emerges organically and not bureaucratically.  Such a person usually gets his way but not out of hierarchical authority, or brute intimidation, but rather out of the strong and sure sense of self that permeates him.  He is willfulness, embodied.  A person who brings this kind of strength and willfulness to the negotiating session may not get everything that he desires but he will get what there is to get.

How then do I obtain such strength?  It is simple and it is difficult.   Such strength can only come from within you, no one can give it to you.  It must be earned, moment-to-moment.  If you can be aware, alive, unflinching, and fully present in each moment, you will possess this strength.  You will be the “boss” of your space and moment.  Whatever you do from that place of centeredness will be the correct action.  This does not mean that others will simply fall into line.  Such strength, while it will influence others, is not to be measured by the response of those around you.   Possessing this posture of centeredness is strength, period.   Nothing more is needed.

Thus, strength is not what we suppose.  It is both simpler in its nature and more difficult in its maintenance than we imagine.  It has nothing to do with how loud we are or how much our voice dominates the conversation.  Yes, a strong person sometimes raises her voice and demands her way.  But she does so consciously, even calmly.  She is like a force of nature.  She is strength embodied- moment by moment.

A Force of Nature

April 6, 2012 § 4 Comments

Almost all of us feel a gap between the life we would aspire to live and the reality of our lives.  Sometimes we define that gap in material terms- I have too little money, I should have been the CEO, and so on.  Sometimes we define the gap in terms of personal qualities- I do not work hard enough, I am too often weak and afraid.  We often ascribe our difficulties to external contexts and actors- the economy is in meltdown, my boss rewards suck-ups and not the real producers, and on and on.  In one way or another, for one reason or another, the life we experience seems to fall short of our imaginings and our ambitions.

Everything about this way of thinking and feeling is wrong.    Our life is not a product of anything and certainly not determined by our context or the actions of others.  There is no gap between the life we dream of and the life that we live.  There can be no such gap because there is no other life than the one we live.  Dreams and imaginings about alternative lives are simply fantasies.  We cannot possibly know what any other path would look like.  We should let go the very aspirations that we create and then hold up to judge ourselves.

We should seek instead to live a life that is ours.  We should experience that life in the only way that life can be experienced, that is, moment to moment.  We should not look back, nor look forward.  When we live this way, there can be no gap between our imagined life and our life as lived.

Such a life is not easy or assured.  In fact, it is achieved only by a ceaseless struggle, moment to moment.  But it is a life free of despair and regret.  And if you live in this way, as much as you can, you become the most powerful person you can be.  You become like the storm that is coming ashore, even as I write these words in a small coffee shop on the Florida coast.  Natural and strong, moving across the water, overcoming or swirling around the objects in its way, and passing on.   A force of nature.

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