Refuge, Love, Action

November 11, 2016

I went to see my teacher, Peter Doobinin, last night. He was speaking about what meditation can teach us about healthy political engagement with the catastrophic events of this past Tuesday. “It basically comes down to three things,” he said: “Refuge. Love. Action.”

We have to act. I heard a yoga teacher say the other day that anyone who perceives bigotry and hatred in the world is merely perceiving the reflection of bigotry and hatred in his or her own mind. That attitude, to put it bluntly, is bullshit. We cannot grow, either emotionally or spiritually, until we understand that other people are the owners of their actions, until we hold them responsible for those actions, and above all, until we see that love itself is action. Love is not love if it sits quietly in the face of abuse, cruelty, and persecution.

So we need to act, but we need to be careful of reacting. For when we rush into action, into this or that expression of anger, we end up not only hurting others but ourselves too. We get taken in by the rhetoric of fools who think that anger will somehow set in motion some messianic historical change. We get disappointed by our failed attempts at changing the world. And most importantly, we get blocked off from our hearts, which are the source of our truest power and ability to persuade others.

This is why the first step is not action, but refuge. We have to understand that when a campaign of hate seizes the highest political office in America, we are going to be in shock. It doesn’t matter how many blogs you read or how much you think you saw this coming: you are in shock. And like a person in shock from a physical accident, you don’t completely understand the pain you are in. This is why the first step is to put yourself in a safe space: the company of those you love and trust. You have to focus, first, not on changing anything, but on remembering your wish to be safe, supported, and held by those who can hold you. Don’t skip this step.

There are other kinds of refuge too, most importantly: refuge from your thoughts. The Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism calls this “creating duality in the mind.” When political disaster strikes, we often get lost in our views and opinions about what happened, and while some analysis is necessary to keep from making the same mistakes twice, when our analysis of current events gets into blaming, we begin to delude ourselves that attacking the past will somehow change the future. It never does.

This is why we need to come into the heart, into a place of love. A lot of people misunderstand what this mean. They think their options are either to hate the opposing side or to force themselves to have compassion for the opposing side. Actually, the most important person for you to have compassion for right now is yourself. Compassion is different from self-righteousness. Compassion is expressed in the words, “This is hard for me right now.” It is a movement away from the confusion that comes from unfocused anger and into the clarity and relief that come from holding ourselves, from accepting ourselves as people who are up against something big and difficult right now.

And then we act. How do we act? We act from an understanding that, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu always says, “Politics is an expression of generosity.” In other words, we don’t ask the question, “What’s wrong with this world?” We ask the question, “What can I give right now?” For it is a mistake to think that you can change everything, just as it is a mistake to think that you can help everyone. In material generosity, you figure out how much extra you have to give, and then you give the gift whole-heartedly where you think it will be best received. Well, it’s the same with political generosity, so be careful not to “love beyond your means,” for many so-called revolutionaries who have failed to see their actions in terms of generosity have ended up drowning in their own bitterness.

So keep asking, “What can I give right now?” And then feel in your body, in your heart, for the answer. You might find the truest political acts right now are not simply signing petitions or going to protests, but also, comforting those who are in pain and fear. You can give your whole-hearted attention to this day, to your surroundings, to people of all views who need to be heard. And as you give yourself skillfully to this crisis, you will see how much you have to give. That’s what’s going to get you through the next four years, so take good care of your actions and take good care of your heart.


“A letter always seemed to me like immortality,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. What she meant, I think, is that a letter — the old-fashioned, handwritten kind you get in the mail — shows us something about the non-physical nature of intimacy, and in doing so, gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to love someone beyond death. So often, when people die, their loved ones report feeling closer to them than ever, and while we struggle, in our clumsy way, to define these feelings in terms of “souls” or “ghosts”, one thing seems clear: the intimacy with others we seek has less to do with getting an immediate, physical response from them than it does with recognizing their goodness, despite — or perhaps because of — the distance. There is something of this experience in writing letters to those who are still alive. When we write a handwritten letter, we cannot get the recipient’s feedback as we write, and once the letter has arrived, we are in many ways no longer the same people we were when we wrote it. Yet something true is accomplished, and we feel its brightness, just as we feel the light from those long-dead stars that hold our gaze and wonder though they are no longer there.

As a culture, we don’t write personal letters much anymore. I could join the chorus of ranters bemoaning short attention spans, digital noise, etc., but I won’t, mostly because I don’t think there’s anything stopping anyone nowadays from developing a letter-writing practice and reaping its benefits. For many years, I didn’t write letters, but more and more, letter-writing has become as integral to my day-to-day life as my meditation practice. In many ways, the two are one: meditation and letter-writing, despite their apparent differences, are both a type of reflection whose goal, as I see it, is to touch something timeless in the heart that transcends the noise of daily life. Anyone can do this practice. It only takes an understanding of why a letter is different than, say, talking on the phone or sending an email, and a willingness to explore an intimacy that is not always intuitive for us.

I first discovered letter-writing when I was fourteen. I had to leave my mother, friends, and worst of all, New York City behind as I moved to a small town in the Midwest to live with my father. I remember a few friends who faithfully wrote to me and the sense of security their letters provided. That was before the Internet and email, but there have always been plenty of ways for humans to distance themselves from each other, and what I remember so vividly about that time was how close I felt to my friends back in New York, not just in reading their letters, but even more so, perhaps, in writing to them. When I rediscovered letter-writing in my thirties, it struck me how little had changed. I was in many ways the same lonely kid, still searching for a way to connect to others, and once again, I found solace and intimacy through the practice of letter-writing.

So what is it about an old-fashioned, handwritten letter that connects us to a deeper kind of intimacy? One thing I have found is that intimacy is not just a matter of meeting the right people, but of appreciating the accidents that bring us together. No matter how “scientific” technologies such as Facebook or Tinder become in predicting what will connect people, there is no substitute for coincidence: meeting someone at a bus stop, sharing a difficult situation with a stranger. What a handwritten letter does is embrace this same type of coincidence, only internally. When you sit down to write a letter by hand, you may have a general idea of what you want to express, but as soon as you start writing, different voices in your head will surface, and you will have to make sense of these in the present moment. It is this process of listening to the voices in our heads (what T.S. Eliot called “auditory inwardness”) that gives our thoughts resonance and creates a deeper connection with those for whom they were intended, even before those thoughts ever get read.

Intimacy also depends on devotion. In the Bhagavadgita, Krishna says defines devotion as focusing on an action without any desire for the results. The same is true in all our relationships, religious or not: our anxiety about getting certain responses from people short-circuits the possibility of intimacy, of devotion. When you are talking or texting with someone, it is so easy for the love you are trying to covey to be derailed by a desire to get an immediate positive reaction from the other person. With a handwritten letter, on the other hand, you have less influence over the outcome. It will be a while before the other person reads your words in a light and context that you can’t control. And strange as it may seem, there’s a lot of freedom and peace in that loss of control. The time and distance a handwritten letter has to travel also mean that you have to do your best to say things that will still be true when the letter arrives. Your focus narrows to what is essential, also another requirement for intimacy.

One interesting thing that comes up when you write a lot of handwritten letters is that you sometimes don’t get replies. I’ve found that this, too, is part of the practice. There are so many reasons why people don’t reply to handwritten letters — fear of intimacy, fear of not sounding intelligent, fear of slipping into territory associated with intense romantic relationships — but the lack of perfect reciprocity in letter-writing is no different than the lack of perfect reciprocity in life. Not every seed you plant sprouts, but the lesson, as I see it, is that if you cultivate enough seeds patiently, a garden will grow. I have at times become angry at the failure of people to respond to my letters, only to be surprised, years later, when those same people got in touch to tell me how much my letter meant to them, how they kept it and thought of it, and how close to me it made them feel. The path that leads to intimacy is not a straight one, but it is a path we can follow nevertheless.

There are so many uses for handwritten letters. I have found an angry, unsent letter to be a particularly good way of dealing with being upset with someone. The process of writing out grievances keeps me from either repressing them or expressing them mindlessly, and unlike email, a handwritten letter is harder to send accidentally. I sometimes enjoy writing letters that are full of appreciation, or letters that just ask a lot of questions that open space for the other person to feel seen. Different letters serve different occasions, but to me, they all reveal one common lesson: intimacy requires reflection, a quiet space in which to observe our thoughts and feelings. Our cultural bias is that “working on a relationship” involves long, protracted conversations, and so we neglect this other, contemplative side of connection, probably because, in the absence of an immediate response, our fears about impermanence get triggered. But try as we might to fight impermanence, we’re just here for a moment, and we only have that moment to express our love, fold it into our literal or metaphorical envelopes, and send it off, hoping for the best.


The Human In the Details

October 1, 2016

You may have heard the expression, “God is in the details.” You may also have heard the expression, “The devil is in the details.” And you may have thought to yourself, “Well, which is it?”

One of the remarkable features of the human mind is its ability to fill in nearly any scenario, real or imagined, with specifics. If I say, “Picture a zorksus,” your mind, confused though it may be by my request, already begins to sketch in certain particulars. But details, as every aspiring fiction writer knows, also possess a kind of magnetism, so that the more you focus on the specifics of any thing — a chair, a flower, whatever — the easier it is to focus on similar, related details. To use the Buddha’s phrase, the mind gets “bent” in that certain direction. If you’ve ever played the unfortunate game, “All the Things That Are Wrong With My Partner,” you know that once you start playing, it becomes easier to come up with things that displease you about the other person and harder to remember his or her good qualities. This is the problem with the logic that being critical is being objective, for awareness does not only see things as they are, but as it is in the habit of wanting them to be.

Details are like a car’s accelerator.  The more details, the faster the mind heads in that direction. If the direction is a desired one, then details are a good thing. If the direction is a wall or a tree, so to speak, then details are not so good. In Western appropriations of Buddhism, there is often the prejudice that “mindfulness” is a matter of always being detail-oriented, as though a microscopic focus on washing dishes or eating a grape were enough to guarantee enlightenment. But the Buddha didn’t teach a single kind of focus: he taught “appropriate attention,” which means the ability to make decisions not only about what you focus on, but also about the level of detail you bring to that focus. Stopping to smell the flowers may be a skill you need to work on more, but it’s not a skill you want to work on when you’re on your way to the hospital.

Generalization, on the other hand, is like a car’s brake. Again, we often assume that generalization is a bad thing (“To generalize is to be an idiot,” wrote William Blake,) but if you’ve just lost your job and it’s midnight and you’re trying to get some rest, a very general thought such as, “I have no idea how things are going to work out, but more will be revealed tomorrow,” might be the one that allows you to get some sleep. Of course, some people live their whole lives going from generalization to generalization (“It is what it is,” “It had to happen,” etc.,) which is like never taking your foot off the car’s brake: life doesn’t move forward that way. But to ignore the positive psychological function of generalizing is equally dangerous.

When people come to breath meditation, it often takes them a while to understand how to use both the brake and the accelerator. When you sit down to meditate with a head full of worries and anxieties, you have to start with a loose, general focus in order to slow your mind down to a manageable pace. You have to think thoughts such as, “Look, I don’t need to fix my whole life right now; I just need to sit here and feel my breath.” But once the mind has slowed a bit, you can’t just leave the meditation there, for a bland, neutral state of mind is not a worthy goal either. You have to begin to use your capacity for detail to picture, feel, and discern which parts of the breath feel good, which rhythms and textures in the breath capture your imagination. When you can find specific examples of ease and pleasure in your breathing, you can begin to find them in the rest of your life. But you can’t force things. A student of mine told me recently, “When I focus on a fine, narrow breath at the tip of my nose, I feel like I’m suffocating.” I asked her why she chose to breathe that way. “I thought I was supposed to,” she said. That’s the human condition in a nutshell: We keep grinding against the same unpleasant details because we somehow think we have to.

The practice of gratitude works the same way. We all know on some level that we have to be grateful in order to be happy. But what keeps us from being able to acknowledge our blessings is that we often focus on the wrong details. We get the idea, for example, “I should be grateful for my job,” but for whatever reason, focusing on that topic accelerates us in the direction of other, stressful details (“I’m not really doing such good work,” “How long before they fire me?” etc.) It’s hard for us to assert that we don’t have to feel grateful at any particular moment for anything that doesn’t feel good. It is far better to think general thoughts of gratitude (“I’m grateful to be learning every day”) or particular thoughts of gratitude for some tiny detail of your life (“I’m grateful for the gold color of the leaves this fall”) than to labor joylessly trying to build some huge cathedral of thanksgiving for the things you’ve decided in advance ought to make you feel grateful.

Someone asked me recently what I think the biggest threat to humanity is. (A very general question, I know!) I was about to reply that I didn’t have one answer for such a large question, when suddenly the word “loneliness” came to mind. I’m not sure if I would give the same answer again, but it struck me then that a lot of what drives people to do horrible things is the sense of being alone, and while the human race has devised all sorts of technologies for bringing people together and making them live longer, it has not yet found a way to rid itself of a deeper sense of loneliness. And then it occurred to me that one way of looking at loneliness is as a lack of skill in being able to switch between general and particular ways of experiencing love. For example, a person is often relatively happy on his own, but then sometimes he finds another person, the two fall in love, and he discovers an even greater happiness, but then sometimes the relationship doesn’t work out, and he discovers an even greater loneliness. And the lesson in all of this, I think, is not that it is foolish to fall in love, but that as humans, we have to learn how to give ourselves fully to love when it takes the specific, detailed form of another person, and then, just as importantly, as Nina Simone said, “to get up from the table when love is no longer being served,” which requires an intimacy with a more general kind of love — a general sense that love is simply there, everywhere, for no reason at all, and that we are always deserving of it. This is what the Thais call “the happiness of the heart,” and it exists not to prevent us from experiencing the specific happiness of the world or the specific happiness of being with others, but to give us a steady ground from which we can choose the details of our lives — and therefore our destinies — more wisely.

(Featured image by Antonio Palmerini)

You Can Get There From Here

September 30, 2016

The Kabbalah tells of a magical city named Luz where no one ever dies, grows old, or is subject to separation. The text says that the only human who ever discovered the city’s location was King Solomon himself. Now, it happened that Solomon had two friends whom he loved very much. One day, some birds told the king that the Angel of Death was looking for his friends. Solomon was saddened by this news, so he called his friends to him and told them about Luz. “If you can get there,” the king said, “You won’t have to die.” So Solomon’s friends set out on horses in the middle of the night. When the sun rose, they came upon Luz, but to their horror, the Angel of Death was standing in front of the city gates, waiting for them. “How did you know to look for us here?” the men asked the angel. The angel replied: “Where else would I look for you? What you want most always carries the most trouble along with it.”

The moral of the story, as I take it, is this: Your problems always know where to find you. They know where to find you, because for the most part, you’ve created them yourself. The image the Buddha gave is of people strolling through a field, throwing seeds ahead of them as they walk, seeds that sprout over time. As we go through life, our actions create consequences that become clear only later. Sometimes the seeds we throw sprout into pretty flowers, but mostly they grow into thick weeds that tangle and choke our way. This isn’t a side of life we like to think about. We like to think that time smoothes everything. But that’s not my experience of either my own life or the lives of those older than me. It seems to me that, all things being equal, time makes shortcomings more extreme: addictions grow stronger, anger becomes more habitual, and small seeds of doubt grow into towering hedges. Our problems follow us, like the angel outside the gates of Luz.

If this were the whole picture, life would be pretty pointless. What the Buddha suggests, though, is that there is way for us to cut through the weeds that grow around us. That way depends, first and foremost, on learning to cultivate an awareness of the present moment. The present moment, despite what many New Age writers would have you think, is not necessarily a pleasant place. But it is the most important place, for two reasons: (1) The present is the only place from which you can see the seeds you are throwing ahead of you, and (2) it is the only place from which you can mitigate the effects of past seeds that are now sprouting. The present moment is like a fortress built on top of a hill: it doesn’t prevent your enemies from attacking, but it gives you the best vantage-point for seeing them coming and meeting them with maximum strength.

If “being here now” always felt blissful, we would always be here now, naturally. But that’s not the case. If you’re in a tense, dangerous, or emotionally volatile situation, checking your phone or watching TV might feel better than being present. The problem is that, over time, these forms of escape leave us vulnerable to the long-term consequences of physical, verbal, and mental actions that we might not even realize we’re taking. We might be throwing seeds of greed, hatred, or delusion ahead of us, only to experience their fruits much later on.

This is why it’s not enough to talk about the value of “being present.” Our culture does a lot of that, to very little effect. We have to actively cultivate a desire for the present moment. The Buddha said that this is a healthy kind of desire. He also said that desire, like any living thing, can be grown with the proper conditions and nutrients. You might think you simply don’t have what it takes to be present, but that’s not true. If you follow certain steps in generating a desire to be present, you will want to be present more and more.

Here are some suggestions for cultivating more desire for the present moment. Some of these come from the Buddha’s teachings, some come from my own teacher, Peter Doobinin, and some I have learned the hard way: through trial and error.

1. See the present moment not as an experience, but as a learning experience

Part of the reason we don’t like to be present is that we are looking to have a certain kind of experience — usually one based on maximal pleasure and minimal pain. When we realize the present moment isn’t giving us the experience we want, we flee into our thoughts. It’s only when we stop asking, “Do I like this moment?” and start asking, “What can I learn from this moment?” that we find traction in the present moment.

2. See the present moment as an opportunity to practice generosity

We all know how good it feels to give a gift. The problem is that we tend to have a very narrow definition of generosity. Beyond material resources, you can give your attention, forgiveness, knowledge, compassion, and good humor to anyone. Including yourself. That means, in any moment, there is always a way to practice generosity. Just ask yourself, “What can I give to this moment?” Your heart will know the answer, and you will find yourself wanting to stay right here.

3. See the doubts you have in your ability to be present

We carry so many unexamined doubts in our ability to be present that we never develop faith that this is something we can do. But if you can see these doubts and begin to question them, you will see how flimsy and unreal they are. And you stop believing the voices in your head that tell you have to think about this worry or that regret, you will find yourself staying present more and more.

4. Watch the tone of voice you use with yourself

In a lot of our attempts to be present, there is the voice of an angry schoolteacher yelling, “Pay attention!” No one likes to be yelled at, and your mind is no different. If you direct your attention to the present moment out of impatience, judgment, or frustration, your mind, like any pupil, will rebel. But if you can develop a loving, yet firm, way of guiding yourself back to the present moment, your mind is much more likely to want to spend more time there.

5. Find freedom in being wrong

As we start to become more present, we often see more clearly the unhealthy things we are doing with our lives. If you hold that knowledge the wrong way, it will burden you and you will not want to be present any more. But if you realize that there is a freedom in being wrong, a freedom in realizing that life is greater than your narrow views of it, you will take more interest in the present moment.

What all our fears about being present have in common is the fear that the future somehow will fall apart if we just focus on the present. The irony, of course, is that taking care of the present is the only way to take care of the future. What you see in the present is your future, at least in potential form. There’s that old joke: “In Boston, you can’t get there from here.” It’s not actually a joke. Someone literally said that to me once when I asked him for directions to Cambridge. I remember thinking, “That’s absurd! If there are two points, there’s got to be a path between them.” And so it is with the distance between where you are right now and the happiness and fulfillment you are looking for. You can get there from here. You just need a “here” to begin with.

So don’t forget where you are. As my teacher always says, “Wherever you are is exactly where you need to be to learn what you need to learn.”

(Photo by Isa Marcelli)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

September 29, 2016

A few months ago, mail stopped coming to my house: no personal letters, bills, or even junk mail. I sought help at the post office on 14th St. — they sent me to the one on 23rd. The office on 23rd St. invited me to please call the United States Postal Service’s toll-free international customer-service number. A kind woman in India took down my complaint but never called me back. That’s it, I thought, I’m just not going to get mail ever again. I’ve slipped through a crack in the system and there’s nothing more to be done. Try to love your destiny, Paul.

Then, some six weeks later, about ten blocks from my apartment, I saw a woman delivering mail. I asked her if she knew who delivers to my building. “What’s your name?” she asked. I told her and she seemed startled. “When did you move?” she said. I told her I never moved (was this some sort of Kafka novel?) “Well I somehow thought you moved,” she said defensively. “So I stopped bringing you mail.” I was about to unload on her for making that executive decision based on absolutely nothing, but it suddenly occurred to me: why focus on the problem when the solution is right here? “So you’ll bring me my mail tomorrow?” I asked her. “Of course,” she said with a smile, and the next day she delivered six weeks’ worth of post.

There are always second chances. Maybe not every situation gets resolved as easily and elegantly as the postal dilemma I’ve just narrated, but my story is still a good metaphor for our suffering and how we somehow find an end to it. In any experience, there is always an endless “bureaucracy” of things that can and do go wrong. No matter how kind we try to make our words, there are infinite ways they can be misunderstood. No matter how much we work on our bodies, there are infinite aches and pains lurking in every corner of our physical experience. No matter how wholesome we try to make our intentions, the mind still calls up thoughts of anger or sadness that we cannot control. Chaos is the rule, not the exception, to our lives, and sometimes its hard not to feel that we are completely at its mercy.

But there are always second chances. Maybe there isn’t always one postal clerk who holds the key to the whole problem, but there is always one thread that unravels the fabric of pain and frustration we are feeling. No matter how complex your troubles seem, experience can only reach you through your mind, the past can only reach you through the present, and so it is that you always get the last move in deciding how you want to relate to your difficulties. Whatever opportunities seem to have been lost, you still have this moment — this moment, in which to replace attachment with true love, self-pity with compassion, envy with appreciation, and worry with inner strength. And though this life is short, there is always enough time to think in this way. There is, in short, enough time to be happy.

A lot of what makes us frustrated is that we don’t see life as the puzzle it is. In any puzzle, you can’t understand the parts without understanding the whole, and vice versa. We tend to get hung up on the parts, like frustrated children who can’t understand why one jigsaw piece doesn’t fit into all the others. In our relationships, for example, we get upset when we only find part of what we are looking for in another person. We think, “Well that’s it: this person has gotten me stuck,” and we push our partners to fit into everything we want to experience — which is to say, to be perfectly shapeless and undefined — rather than appreciating their edges and contours, appreciating them for who they actually are.

What we don’t see, in our frustration, is that more has yet to be revealed: every person we meet is bringing us some quality or lesson that can only be fully understood in time, after we have a greater sense of the whole picture. So a beautiful practice, I’ve found, is to remind myself when someone is frustrating me: “I’m upset because I don’t know where this piece goes yet.” Thinking in this way opens up space between the situation and how my mind is relating to it and reminds me that my happiness depends on my actions, no matter what has just happened. You can’t lose at a puzzle as long as you still have some faith that the pieces mean something, as long as you are still willing to learn something new about how they fit together.

Sometimes I think the most important thing in life — more important than worldly success or even spiritual attainment — is simply to live free of resentment. I have seen so many people lose the thread of their happiness because of resentment, and it’s true: sometimes it’s hard to see resentments as they are forming. Resentment is like a mold in damp weather, in that it can grow on nearly anything. Sometimes we take actions that seem healthy, like going to the gym or meditating or taking self-improvement classes, but the secret intentions behind these actions are resentful. A trip to the gym can be motivated by resentment about how out of shape you feel. Meditation can be motivated by resentment about how stressed out or discontent you feel. And the consequence of all these resentments is that the otherwise healthy actions we take only give us the sensation of always being at the start of a very long, hard road. A path based on struggle always leads to more struggle.

But there still is time to catch these resentments and uproot them. No matter how long you have been feeling as though you are going nowhere, no matter how much circumstances around you seem stuck or fruitless, you still always get the last word in deciding what your motivation for doing anything is. If you have to run a tiresome errand at the store, you can still tell yourself, “I’m doing this because it will feel good to take care of myself.” If you hate your job, you still can tell yourself, “I’m going to work because it will feel good to have enough money.” In other words, the content of the labor that past circumstances have forced on you matters much less than your present intention for that work. And as you begin to replace your resentments with thoughts of self-care, your problems will begin to disintegrate — not because you are some god who controls the fate of the universe, but because you are a human whose mind has the power to incline you to joy.

So whatever you are facing right now, remember to face it as a creator, not just a consumer, of your experience. If you find yourself getting discouraged, think of discouragement as a grenade someone has pulled the pin out of, and try to chuck it as far from you as you quickly can. You have the strength and the reflexes to do this, and more importantly, you have the time. Your heart’s desire hasn’t passed you by for good. You haven’t missed the delivery. As the old film noir title goes: the postman always rings twice.

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