GDP and the Limitations of Personal Growth

After taking seven semesters of economics, I left the university with a clear understanding of GDP—it stands for Gross Domestic Product and basically means how much an economy produces/consumes every year.  It’s a standard measure of success for an economy—although, the measure isn’t so much about GDP itself as it is GDP growth from one year to the next—as in, if country X produced 1,000 apples last year, they’ll only be satisfied if they produce at least 1,040 apples this year (a 4% increase).

What I found remarkable in those classes is that never once was I taught the underlying reason of why growth was so great.  It was just assumed that growth was success, that producing more and more every year meant wide-spread happiness.

When people first wake-up to the fact that “there’s more to life than this”, they generally test out the spiritual and self-help marketplace.  Yoga.  Tai Chi.  Detox Diets.  Meditation.  Mindfulness.  Christianity.  Buddhism.  Affirmations.  Exercise.  Therapy.  Energetic healing.  The list goes on and on.

When I set out on my journey back in 2012, I head a deep underlying sense of not being okay with myself.  On the outside, I seemed happy enough and I was relating to life with energy and enthusiasm; but, on the inside, something was off.  In the previous years, I’d already tried a number of things to attain enduring happiness—all of them were unsuccessful.  So, this time, I pursued spiritual practice and dove deeply into yoga and buddhism, climaxing in a 21 month meditation retreat.

Somewhere during that retreat it struck me that the basic cause of unhappiness is the belief that we can be more happy.

This came shortly after attaining a very high level of meditation practice, when I still saw a background voice that said, “well, my practice is good, but I can do even better!”  I saw so deeply that even if I got enlightened, that voice would still be saying, “well, the first stage of enlightenment is nice, but now lets go get even more enlightened!”

I see so many friends and modern citizens caught in that same cycle—endlessly pursuing “growth”, trying out those different practices in the marketplace, endlessly looking to be a better self, never relaxing, never allowing themselves to contentedly have a cup of ice cream and watch a tv show.

Of course, it’s all a balance—no one would tell country X that next year they should produce 0 apples and allow everyone to starve.  Instead, maybe they figure out the amount of apples that everyone needs to feel nourished and contented; and, rather than constantly try to get more apples, just stick with that—whether it be 50 apples or 2,000 apples.

Basically, the constant pursuit of growth, of trying to get more in order to be happy is a great downfall of our times; oh how I wish everyone from suit-wearing politicians to spiritual seekers could figure out that it’s actually about balance and contentment.

Meditation Is a Doctor

For minor issues, like a light cough or abdominal pain, a doctor might actually be able to cure you in a single session.  However, a doctor’s true purpose comes out more on the major issues.  For that, their job is to identify the root causes of what’s wrong and, perhaps, offer a direction towards wellness.

Similarly, thirty minutes of meditation can indeed remove minor anxiety, apathy or stress.  However, all our minor mental-emotional issues are just like weeds in the farm field—you can chop them off a million times, but unless you get to roots, to the core causes, they will come back again and again.

In other words, the truer purpose of meditation is to reveal those roots to us, clearly and precisely, and to tune us deep enough into our intuition that we have a strong sense of direction.

An intensive retreat is a good way to reveal these root causes—it’s sort of like a surgery for the heart-mind, and at times is absolutely crucial.  Although, just as the best medicine is a good diet, consistent exercise, sufficient sleep and a balanced lifestyle, so too does the best heart-mind wellness program unfold over the long term.

It will unfold as meditation becomes a foundation of your life.  As you naturally want to do “formal” meditation every day.  As you naturally find the meditative mind just sort of happening all by itself, whether you’re driving, eating, talking, pooping or whatever else.  As you naturally start to make more intentional and skillful choices, both in the little things like what you have for lunch or choosing complements rather than complains, and in the big things like what job you take or what friends you keep.

In this sense, meditation definitely isn’t your standard western doctor, just looking for quick, superficial fixes—rather, it’s like a wise integrative doctor, using steady practice to bring awareness into your entire life—from your subtle inner reality to your life situation—showing you to yourself in order that you can conduct your days with a deeper sincerity.

Where to begin?  A doctor’s visit, of course!

On Sincerity and Doing Whatever You Want

The Path of Sincerity does not suggest treating yourself like a child.  If you are in the grocery store and you want a candy bar, then put a candy bar in your shopping cart.  Unless you are about to do something outrageous, it’s best not to restrain yourself.

The way to work with desire on The Path of Sincerity is to cultivate enough self-awareness to know what you truly want.

Yes, there may be a superficial impulse to grab a candy bar, but there’s probably also a deep inner yearning to live healthily and prudently, only consuming what is necessary.

When present moment awareness is strong, there is a felt sense of the impulse to grab the candy, but there is also a felt sense of the deep inner yearning.  Early on, even after checking in, it might seem as if you do actually want that candy bar—then grab it!

Just keep observing what you do and how you feel on those deeper levels.

When you grab that candy bar, do you feel any inner dissonance (or resonance!)?  How about after you eat it?  Totally at peace?  And how about when you abstain from grabbing the candy bar?

Just keep up with that for a few years and you might suddenly realize that your sense of what you truly want is quite different than what it used to be.

Gentle self-inquiry goes a long way.

How do you feel about how you have spent the past hour?  What does that tell you about how you’d like to spend the next 10 minutes?

Peace of Mind in Three Levels of Quietness

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig discusses how peace of mind comes in three levels of quietness: physical, mental and value.

It generally takes some physical quietness to produce mental quietness, and some mental quietness to produce value quietness.  However, there’s also many levels within each level, and as we go on, we begin to work on all three at the same time.  Anyhow, my interpretation of these levels looks like this:

1. Physical quietness means a relaxed body.  Initially it’s helpful to train ourselves in not moving the body—a fun experiment is to see how long you can sit still without needing to adjust your leg, shift your spine, move your tongue or even swallow.  Initially, you won’t last much longer than a few minutes (if that), but over time, your body will learn how to let go of tensions and relax itself, which translates into even more relaxed movement across the day.

2. Mental quietness means having no compulsive thinking.  Most people who get their body settled soon notice that their mind is wildly thinking all day long, like a butterfly in a meadow, going from one tangent to the next.  No compulsive thinking does not mean that thoughts do not happen.  Instead, it means becoming instantly aware of our thoughts as they pop into the mind; and, from there, either consciously choosing to explore them (rather than doing it out of compulsion)—or, more likely, letting them go instantly as like 99% of our thoughts, we recognize they serve no real purpose.

3. Value quietness means living truthfully.  This means living our duty or purpose without wavering or being pulled aside by temptations, distractions or anything at all.  Initially, this means behaviorally, as in not acting on the desire to check facebook, eat a cookie, have an affair or make frivolous purchases.  Its deepest level is where we’re so fused with our truth that the desires to go off course don’t even arise anymore.

Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is be silent.  Occasionally, that actually means not talking.  But more profoundly it means going about our day-to-day with these three levels of quietness infused in our every action—an absolute embodiment of sincerity.

The “Inner Gravity” of Sincerity

In 2009 while living on a farm, I was sitting in the community house on my off day, just trying to grab a quick snack before heading off to write.  However, before I could get out the door, someone else came in and we exchanged pleasantries for a couple minutes.  Just as I was about to leave, he asked, “hey, I need some help moving my canoe down to the river, do you mind giving me a hand?”

Ahhhh!  Even though it was only a 15 minute task, inside I absolutely did not want to help.  I had a plan.  Not just any plan, but a plan I was really stoked about.  Even though my body was in the kitchen, my inner gravity was already at my desk with pen in hand.

Noticeably conflicted, I stuttered out, “sure, I guess I can help”.  He very clearly noticed by discomfort.  In the 15 minutes that followed, we lifted the canoe but there was a real disharmonious energy that both of us could feel.

Life doesn’t feel good like that.  I call it “shame-based helpfulness”, when we do good things based out of what we think we should do rather than what feels true.  Let me emphasize: helping others is important, but the path is about cultivating a very genuine sense of wanting to help.

In 2016 while living on a farm, I was leaving the community house on my off day, having just grabbed a quick snack and on my way to write.  However, I was intercepted at the door by someone else and we exchanged pleasantries for a couple minutes.  Just as I was about to leave, he asked, “hey, do you think you could grab a load of firewood and bring it to the house?”

It was roughly a fifteen minute task, but I had a plan.  Not just any plan, but a plan I was really stoked about.  However, my inner gravity was very much where I was—not lost in ruminations and not already at the desk.  I reflected for a moment and I said with great presence, “yeah, sure, I’d be happy to grab it”.  We parted with a warm smile and over the next 15 minutes, I felt the satisfaction of harmony.

Life feels good like that.  I call it “sincerity-based helpfulness”.  It comes easiest when we have no other plans or agenda or desires; but, let’s be honest—most the time in life we have some of those.

The distinction is that while our inner gravity might be moving some other direction, like towards an afternoon of writing, it’s still stable enough in the present that at the snap of our fingers we can very genuinely and purely shift ourselves, like towards the wood shed.

This is just a little example, but it has big implications.  A friend asks you to help them financially or, perhaps, implicitly asks for emotional support by way of your time.  Your boss asks you to take a bigger role on a work project.  Your partner asks you to increase your commitment to the relationship.  Life asks you to care for someone in need.

If your inner gravity is a “clear no”, like I was in 2009, then saying “yes” to those requests probably actually will do more harm than good.  You will likely feel off-center and out-of-harmony even though you’re helping out—that’s because it’s coming from shame.  The most sincere thing to do is to just say no.

However, as our inner awareness deepens over the years, we realize we actually have a fair amount of control over our inner gravity—and, if some part of us purely and genuinely wants to help, we find we can do that quite effortlessly, without any resistance and with a sense of centeredness and sincerity.

If the above examples seem too trivial, consider this experience a close friend recently shared with me:

My friend already had a busy schedule with a job, a marriage, friends, hobbies and a leadership role in a weekly group, among other things.  However, a friend of hers was diagnosed with lung cancer and the outlook was bleak.  In the three months from diagnosis to death, my friend spent nearly every day at the hospital—shifting her inner gravity from her own concerns to supporting her friend.  The shift was not out of shame, out of feeling like she should be there; rather, it came from a very sincere place of wanting to connect and help and support.

In other words, everyone knows life is richer when we’re connected to others; but, what’s understated is just how important it is to do that with sincerity rather than shame.

In doing this, the key thing is to tune into our inner gravity; to honor it, to say no when we feel no and yes when we feel yes—and, just as importantly, to learn about it, to see how it changes, to know it so deeply on an experiential level that we realize how at the snap of our fingers, we can very sincerely shift it.

Authenticity vs. Sincerity

Joe goes into work in the morning and promptly heads over to the coffee machine.  In general, he only drinks two or three cups a week—far from a steady habit.  This particular morning, he’s reasonably awake and in good spirits, and so he doesn’t feel like he particularly needs a coffee, but nonetheless he thought it would be a nice little treat.

Before he pours himself a mug he notices there’s only enough coffee left for one more cup (and there’s not enough beans left to make more!).  He loosely knows there’s still three or four people who haven’t even arrived to work yet and at least one of them is generally grumpy and irritable until they’ve had a little caffeine.  Nonetheless, they haven’t arrived yet and if he did take the last cup, no one would ever know.

If Joe were a highly “authentic” person, how might he handle this situation?

It’s tough to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he went ahead and drank that last cup—after all, he was in the mood and then walked all the way to the coffee room, clearly illustrating that he did actually want it.

Alternatively, if Joe were a highly “sincere” person, how might he handle this situation?

My gut feeling is that a highly sincere Joe wouldn’t drink that last cup.  Both authenticity and sincerity imply some kind of “being true to oneself”, no pretenses, totally natural and genuine; but, with sincerity there’s also connotations of caring about others, of warmth and considerateness.

I believe this is because a sincere person has a more expansive sense of self.

The “purely authentic” Joe is only true to Joe himself.  What Joe wants, Joe does.  There is very little if any filter about what that means for the rest of the world—in other words, Joe could be authentically a total jerk.

On the other hand, while a sincere Joe still values himself and honors his own needs and wants, he has also internalized the feelings and perspectives of other people.  In this way, when his co-worker has that last cup of coffee and instantly gets a big boost of aliveness, Joe actually feels happy inside.  Or, when sincere Joe finds out another co-worker just lost a parent, he’ll instantly feel a wave of compassion and likely be one of the first to offer kind words, a hug or support.

Sincere Joe acts and feels this way because on a very deep level, he actually experiences his sense of self as including his friends, family, co-workers and fellow humans—regardless of race, profession, political/religious leanings or nationality.  He takes heartfelt joy in the well-being of others.  He is saddened when others are suffering.  He actually cares.

In more pragmatic terms, sincerity = authenticity + empathy.

Think about the sincere people you know.  Would you agree?

The Buddhist Understanding of Saddha: Or, Faith vs. Conviction

The Buddha often stressed the importance of saddha, stating that it’s the absolute foundation of applying yourself to anything worthwhile.  As most Buddhist literature has been translated by people deeply entrenched in judeo-christian vocabulary, saddha is generally translated into English as faith—a term that usually means believing in something even without rational proof.  This can certainly be an admirable quality, but it’s far from what the Buddha meant.

A better translation of saddha would be conviction, not so much a thought-based position (aka a belief), but rather a movement of the heart towards action.

For example, to be strongly convicted of the worthwhileness of eating broccoli doesn’t mean we sit around thinking in circles about broccoli.  It also doesn’t mean we believe people who don’t eat broccoli will burn in hell for eternity.  It just means that we have such a strong sense of its goodness that we are going to adamantly include it in our own diet.

In other words, conviction doesn’t mean we sit around thinking something.  It means we’re called to act on it.

On a grander level, if we have a strong conviction towards, say, living harmoniously, we actually live it.

Maybe we do sitting meditation every morning.  Maybe we clean up our diet.  Maybe we shift from spending time with friends who represent the “old us” and towards those who connect with the “new us.”

Maybe we de-clutter our schedule, taking the risk of going against society’s message to be crazy busy, achieving, producing, attaining and, instead, make more time for simple moments with ourselves, our friends and family.

There are so many possible ways of acting on our deepest convictions.  While all true spiritual practitioners find their convictions point their lives in a similar direction, they also veer slightly different ways.  This is normal.  The path is about acting on your inner voice, not mine, not the Buddha’s, not Jesus’, not your best friend’s (of course, you would be well advised to listen to all of them!).

Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is that for the Buddha—one of the wisest people of all time—faith isn’t even in his vocabulary; instead, he advocates cultivating conviction in order that we consistently act on our deepest aspirations.

Your Mind Is an Inbox

Balloon Beacon

You can’t predict the next email that will appear in your inbox, but depending on which companies you’ve given it out to, the newsletters you’ve signed up for, the friends you’re in touch with and the recent emails you’ve written, you probably won’t be too surprised at the next email that suddenly appears.

Your mind works the same way—the thoughts and emotions that seem to come out of nowhere are really just a product of what you’ve been doing with your life.

Unless you’ve been in a coma since birth (at which point you wouldn’t be reading this), then it’s essentially impossible to not have some “inbox activity.”  That’s ok.  The idea isn’t to shut down your account.  Rather, it’s to be judicious about to whom “you give your email address,” and even more judicious about to whom “you send emails.”

Hang out with grateful people.  Read inspiring stories rather than cynical analysis.  Hang out with generous people.  Watch thoughtful movies instead of reality TV, time-killing sitcoms, the news or the football game.  Hang out with kind people.  Work a job that contributes over one that simply makes money.  Hang out with wise people.  Take up a spiritual practice and pay close attention to your unskillful habits.  Hang out with… you get the idea.

When you start to pay close attention to “your incoming emails,” your thoughts and emotions, and you don’t really want to keep reading about increasing your manhood a few inches, which politician or entertainer has it all wrong and how the world’s glass of water is half-empty, then you might start to make those choices a little differently, and your inbox will slowly become a joy to read.

And, most importantly, imagine how the quality of thoughts and emotions you receive will effect the quality of actions you write.


Why I Became a Monk

alms round 2014

After a friend married his longtime, live-in girlfriend, I asked him, “you two have been together so long; now that you’re married, does it feel any different, or is it just the same old dynamic?”

“It’s definitely different,” he said, “I guess it just feels so much more real.”

Of course, there are many reasons why I went to Myanmar for nearly two years of intensive meditation, but rather than remain a layperson, I decided to take on the monk’s robes, went out begging for my meals and vowed to keep a set of 227 rules ranging from not touching money to not eating after midday—why?  That’s easy.  It made the whole thing so much more real.

It was a symbol to myself that I was really serious about this path, that it wasn’t just another passing amusement.  It was making it a little more challenging for me to back out at the first sign of difficulty.  By walking around bald-headed in flowing, burgundy robes, it was sending a loud message to the world that I was absolutely committed to the spiritual life.

There’s a lot of power in making our values, passions and commitments more real.

If you write, start a blog.  If you play music, go to an open mic.  If you enjoy speaking other languages, go to a meet-up group or even travel abroad, off the beaten path and into communities without English.  If you love someone dearly, put a ring on their finger and declare it to your community.  If you’re crazy about meditation, put on some burgundy robes.

Eventually, I hit a point where I saw the fundamental realness I was going for had little to do with being a monk and everything to do with being my perfectly imperfect self wherever I was, no matter what I was doing—I promptly disrobed and returned to America.

Interestingly, having that experience of making one of my passions way more real—being crazy about meditation—it helped me tap into a deeper sense of who I was and what was really important in this life.  It now seems like everyday is a little more real than it used to be.

Realness is not a burden, it is a gateway to sincerity, I highly recommended it.

Laughing Buddha vs. Still-Faced Buddha

A buddha is an awakened being devoted to the welfare of everyone.  Go to any Eastern imports store or just browse Buddha images on google and you’ll keep finding two different archetypes.

One is of a buddha sitting completely still and solemn in a meditative posture.  This represents the sort of peace, equanimity and stability of mind that supports a task as epic as living for the welfare of others.

The other is of a buddha in any number of positions wearing a giant, laughing smile.  This represents the joy and lightheartedness that come from realizing on a very deep level that it’s not so serious.

Even though I’ve spent over two years on solitary retreat—the quintessence of still-faced Buddha—I still tend to resonate more with laughing Buddha.  Why?  Sincerity is a lot about embracing our humanity.  We can’t do this fully until we stop taking ourselves (and life) so seriously and, inversely, bring joy to the day-to-day.

Have you ever been in a group of people where someone tells a joke and only one person laughs while everyone else is scratching their heads, “I don’t get it, what’s so funny?”, they say.  This is often how the laughing Buddha feels in everyday life.

For a laughing Buddha, life itself is a great big cosmic joke.  The absurdity of it all—who can explain dark matter, consciousness or what happens after death, let alone why we feel the way we do.  The nature of illusion—how a moon can look like a human face, how a promising opportunity can really be a destructive turn.  The facade of more—how people spends their whole lives striving to achieve and become and succeed only to one day realize that all along they’ve been a “serious, strain-faced human” and they missed the joke!

The laughing buddha has relaxed, chilled out and appreciates “the joke”—however, their buddhahood implies that they aren’t just sitting around doing nothing.  No, not at all!   Instead, they apply themselves diligently in the direction of their “personal truth”, not to achieve some grand outcome, but rather because that’s what a Buddha does—live with sincerity.