Those Moments

July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments

Those moments.  When it all seems too much, when you feel overwhelmed, lost, falling.  When you want just to give up, to go away, to stop the noise.  When you feel beaten down, used up.  Crushed and finished.  Those moments.

I have many of those moments, harrowing moments of weakness.

But there’s a strength there too because however deep the crevice into which we tumbled, we are still here, still struggling to hold our presence in this moment.  Arriving at this moment means that we climbed out of the crevice and went on.

The cliché- “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”- actually reflects a deep wisdom.  All those bleak and crushing moments are behind us.  And as we stand in this present moment, we stand as survivors, ready to be strong and present in this, our moment.

We will fall again.  We will experience more of those moments.  But right now none of that matters because in this moment we possess the glorious chance to be strong, centered, and present- right here, right now.

The Raw Courage of Artistry

June 20, 2012 § 9 Comments

Many of us yearn to create, to be an artist.  But we come up short.  The work we produce seems derivative, banal, or just a big mess.  Not art.

To create art is an act of will and courage.  So long as we are trying to achieve some objective or emulate some other creative artifact, we fail.

Only when we step off the cliff with nothing but a sure sense of self, shedding all expectations of accomplishment, only when we boldly risk rejection and ridicule, only when we sustain our sense of wonder, our “beginner’s mind,” do we have a chance- and even then only a chance- to create truly.

It’s not for the faint of heart, which explains why true artistry is rare- and why it should be adored and venerated.

The Prison of My Own Construction

June 19, 2012 § 4 Comments

I spent most of my life in a prison of my own construction.

I tried to be a good son, a good student.   I looked for the approval of my peers.  I took prideful note of my ascending career path.   I collected external markers of success.  I saw the worth of my life reflected in the regard of others.

I want now to be done with all that.

This has nothing to do with not caring about, or feeling disdain for, others.   My connections with family and friends are precious.  But however much I care for them, I cannot look to them to tell me who I am or how I’m doing.

The Tao teaches: “When we seek the approval of others, we become their prisoners.”  They become the lens through which we view ourselves.  When they are pleased with us, we are good.  When they are unhappy with us, we are bad.  We are so busy meeting their approval, there is no time for becoming conscious of one’s self and living an authentic life.

Escaping this prison is as simple as it is difficult.  Stop measuring yourself in the reflection of what others think of you.  Better yet, stop measuring yourself at all.  Be yourself.

Intensely Practical, Intensely Zen

June 18, 2012 § 15 Comments

For many of us, self-forgiveness is the greatest challenge.  We look back and see our mistakes.  We can’t believe we were so stupid, so lazy, such a fool, so unworthy.

We often manifest that self-judgment by crappy behavior towards others- projecting arrogance, dealing out harsh judgments.  On the surface, this crappy behavior seems the antithesis of self-doubt.  But that arrogance and those harsh judgments are all born from our own self-loathing.

The great and wondrous thing about staying in the present moment is that it frees us from this pointless and corrosive way of being.  Whatever we did, or failed to do, before is gone.  All we have is this moment.  In this way we cut off the oxygen of our self-judgment and all the negativity it spawns.

Many people think the Zen and Tao lessons are just fuzzy New Age mumbo-jumbo.   That’s wrong.

Try this.  Be self aware and the next time you start to beat yourself up over what you did or didn’t do, just stop.  Exhale.  Reboot.  Recall that each moment is a fresh start.  Feel the freedom, feel the strength return.

It’s a glorious thing.

Intensely practical, intensely Zen.

Be Like the Wind

June 6, 2012 § 4 Comments

This is one of my most treasured passages from the Tao.


Express yourself completely,

then keep quiet.

Be like the forces of nature:

when it blows, there is only wind;

when it rains, there is only rain;

when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

Tao te Ching, Chapter 23 (Stephen Mitchell translation)


A simple thought, a source of strength.

When Negativity Pulls You Through

June 4, 2012 § 22 Comments

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez

And it’s Eastertime too

And your gravity fails

And negativity don’t pull you through.

Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”


From countless sources, again and again, we are told that we should seek positivity.  Be optimistic.  Find joy in all that you do.  Surround yourself with positive people.  Positivity will extend your life and make you happier.  On and on.

I seek the positive, of course.  But I also need the negative.

I need to experience weakness, sadness, and despair- full bore.  I need to experience those terrible feelings because without them, what would it mean to feel strong, happy, and hopeful?  Only when you’ve been to the depths of despair can you experience fully and truly the rapture of those moments of strength and hope.

I also need the negative in another way.  Some of the most important people in my life struggle with dark thoughts and self-doubt on a pretty regular basis, as I do.  I couldn’t imagine a life where I would turn away from them because they were not “positive people.”  It’s not just a feeling of empathy for those exceptional friends and family members.  I learn from them; I draw strength from them.

Much that is beautiful and moving in our world came from the wellsprings of darkness.   Mozart, Van Gogh, Matisse, Pollock, Tolstoy, Styron, Plath, and countless others labored to create their magnificent art through a lens of despair and darkness.  The absence of their work would impoverish all of us.

So, yes, embrace all that is positive in the world.  But keep also the space for the negative.  If you open yourself to the negative, in yourself and in those around you, it can help pull you through.


Ready for Death

June 1, 2012 § 4 Comments

When I was young, I conjured a lot of foolish thinking- some of it about death and my mortality.  I was a wreck on my 30th birthday, thinking that death was coming according to some actuarial table and that somehow this was the beginning of the downhill slide.  So stupid.

I now understand that death does not come to us on any schedule, actuarial or otherwise.  It may take us at any moment, young or old.  We may be given some sense of its arrival or it may just swoop us up one day.

I no longer fear death.  Nor do I harbor any illusions about its schedule.  I know I have this moment, that’s all.

But it’s not enough to lose one’s fear of death.  We should be ready for death.

We become ready for death in the way that we live in each moment.  The Tao tells us how.

The Master gives himself up

To whatever the moment brings…

He doesn’t think about his actions;

They flow from the core of his being.

He holds nothing back from life;

Therefore he is ready for death,

As a man is ready for sleep

After a good day’s work.

Tao te Ching, Chap. 50 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Forgive, forgive, and forgive

May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Forgiveness is a powerful force, second only to love, with which it is intertwined.  It is a source of strength, hope, and peace.

Many believe that forgiveness is a gesture, a gift we give to others.  But it is more than that.  Through forgiveness, we save ourselves.

As the Tao teaches, until we understand and live forgiveness, we are lost.   Lost in anger, resentment, and self-loathing.  Lost in a vortex of negative thought that cripples us.

Some foolishly think that to forgive is the weak move.  But the forgiving person is strength incarnate.  Positive energy flows like a river from such a person.

As always, the lesson is simple to state but harder to live.  Just forgive, forgive, and forgive.

Walking the Edge of the Cliff

May 21, 2012 § 7 Comments

If the Zen way is so right, if mindfulness is so powerful, if being centered is where I belong, and if all these posts of mine are so true, then why is it hard for me to stay on the path?  Why do I often feel as though I’m on the edge of a cliff?

I spent much of my life in my head- scheming, thinking- all the while disengaged, unsure, afraid.   In recent years, that’s changed.  Seeking to be consistently present, strong and mindful.

If you asked me if my life is better today, I’d say yes, absolutely.  If you asked me if my life feels easier, I wouldn’t know quite what to say.

I can still feel the pull of the old thoughts, all the time.  They beckon me to a familiar haunt.  Although it’s a place of anxiety and fear, they are the devils I know.  When I’m there, I can just keep moving, jumping from thought to thought, never landing, never putting my chips down.

I don’t think this pull will ever go away.  But I’ve come to see that tension as a precious thing.  A life worth living will entail struggle, always.  Yes, our aspiration is to achieve the state of centered being, held in a simple natural way, each moment of our lives.  But who actually gets there?  Who seeks this way of being and doesn’t struggle?

So my one aspiration, my one great hope, is that I will have the strength to stay on the edge of the cliff, every moment that I can.  And when I do fall away, as I have and will, I seek the strength to climb back up and start again.  Moment to moment.   Again and again.

Climbing the Cross of the Moment

May 18, 2012 § 4 Comments

We would rather be ruined than changed

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

The Age of Anxiety

A common form of despair, in both one’s professional and personal life, is the feeling that we have wasted ourselves in a life that is somehow less than what we could have had.  It is of course pointless to think this way.  What is past is gone now.   Backward looking, whether with despair or with pride, is not a useful exercise.

But many of us live in a way that almost guarantees that we will arrive at that dreadful sense of things.   The passage from Auden captures perfectly this idea.  We fear change.  We imagine that what we are, and what we have, is the presumptively safe and secure choice.  We say that we are open to change, ready to make a move when the right time comes, but often it seems the “right time” never comes.

This way of thinking stands on an illusion.  We suppose that we can remain in the shelter of our fixed existence.  We imagine that we can evade the risk of change.  Just stay put.

But change is our inescapable constant. We experience change in each moment of our lives.  Change can be small, the sun goes behind the clouds, or large, the storm rips apart the oak.  The only certain thing is that our existence in the next moment will not be what it is now.

We all know the aphorism-  “everything can change in a New York minute.”  We may be hit by a bus or be offered the opportunity of a lifetime out of the blue.  But what few of us really understand is that we exist in a sea of swirling change, moment to moment.  There is no steady state for us.

If we can understand this idea, that change is our only constant, that each moment is a new moment, perhaps we can fear less this thing we call “change.”  Whether we realize it or not, our battleground is the “cross of the moment.”  Whether to live fully and presently in each moment is the only choice we have.

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