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.

Whoa.

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.

The Dirtiest Word in the English Language

Some people think fuck and shit and cunt are really dirty words—I wouldn’t disagree, but, in my book, an even dirtier word is should; a term that causes immense self-hatred, fuels animosity among friends and violence among cultures, and, maybe most of all, guides our efforts with fear rather than marching us forward with sincerity.

Where does it come up in your life?

Two Types of “Good Attitude”

Imagine you are hiking with a friend and they aren’t paying attention and step into a 6 inch puddle, completely soaking their right foot.

What is that friend like with a bad attitude?  A good attitude?

A bad attitude is miserly, complaining, angry, grumpy, irritable.  It’s possible that the rest of the hike will be “ruined”.  A good attitude is accepting, playful, humorous, optimistic, kind.  The tone of the hike wouldn’t change a bit—they would be just as pleasant.

Obviously, the world is better when good attitudes are present.  It’s helpful to know the two different routes into a good attitude.

One is through thinking, called “looking on the bright side.”  It’s when we convert any “negative” thoughts into sunny, optimistic ones.  We think, “oh, it’s not a big deal, it could have been worse, it’s just a wet foot, an opportunity to practice a good attitude!”

Looking on the bright side is an extremely valuable life skill—I highly recommend cultivating it.

The other route is through mindfulness, called “looking at the nature.”  It’s when we don’t even engage with the stories/thoughts and the various emotions/feelings.  We rest in a place of equanimity.  A wet foot is happening.  Irritable thoughts are happening.  Negative emotions are happening.  We just observe everything happening, inside and outside, refusing to get involved and continue on the hike with a smile on our face.

Looking at the nature is an extremely valuable life skill—I highly recommend cultivating it.

Reading on western psychology has been very helpful for me in cultivating the thinking approach.  Meditation has been very helpful for me in cultivating the mindfulness approach.  For both, it’s been very helpful to observe other people’s attitudes, taking note of what the people who have good attitudes are like.

Perhaps most helpful is observing what I’m like after I step in the metaphoric puddles of life.

Just observe.  That’s enough.

On Wealth

After a few years of saving money, I quit my job and was finally ready to embark on my open-ended spiritual journey.  My bank account read $25,000.  I felt extraordinarily wealthy.  Basically everything I had envisioned doing was possible with that kind of money.

Nearly four years later, I’m working not for money but for room & board on a vegetable farm in Northern California; and, I’m still living off that initial 25 grand.

A few days ago, while in the middle of the work day, I was pulling weeds from the farm field when I looked up and saw a red tail hawk swooping overhead.  I smiled, standing still as ever, and it suddenly struck me that I had never been more wealthy; ever since returning to America five months earlier, I had a very steady feeling of contentment with my life situation, my opportunities, my possessions and, even more so, my lack of all of those.

For most people, wealth means having lots of cash, possessions or choices.  For me, wealth means not craving more than I have.

I spent many years wanting exotic travels, spiritual insights, more REI goods, big bags of bulks foods from the grocery store, a great romantic partner, and on and on.  In retrospect, I realize the wanting of those things I didn’t have prevented me from deeply appreciating what I did have.

It’s hard to appreciate a red tailed hawk when your thoughts are in the future.  It’s hard to appreciate a farm fresh dinner when you’re craving a pizza and a beer.  It’s hard to be content when you’re looking for something to complete you.

It’s not that I suddenly dislike those previously desired things.  If they happen—great.  If they don’t happen—equally great.  This is more than just talk.  It’s something I feel deep inside.  It’s what lets me say that even when my back is sore, my bank account is low and my future is uncertain, still, that peace is with me.

Some people have considerably more than $25,000 and still want way more than what they have.  It never ends.  If you truly want to be wealthy, a good place to start is to notice every time you feel like something in your life is lacking.  Study that mental-emotional state.  What if in the simple act of noticing it, you could “step back” and become okay with that sense-of-lack?

Perhaps, in that moment, you will feel as wealthy as you ever have.

On Anger

When I was younger, I used to believe that I didn’t get angry.  Nonsense!  While I may not have had much aggression or hostility, the actual meaning of anger is much broader—it’s more or less synonymous with aversion, with the sense of disliking or resisting something.

It’s helpful to think of anger on a spectrum.  On one end, there is minor frustration and irritation.  On the other end, there is major aggression and hatred.

The basis for approaching anger this way–as synonomous with aversion, as existing on a spectrum–is a close observation of how we actually experience these inner events.  Everything on that spectrum has an identical mental root and an identical feel (it only varies by degree).

You don’t need to try too hard to observe this.  Most people experience anger hourly, if not minutely.  We are a tremendously aversive species.  However, forget the value statements on whether anger is bad/wrong or, inversely, even evolutionarily helpful.

Instead, firstly just realize it’s a normal human experience and that it’s often happening inside you.  That by itself is a rather revolutionary practice.  Once you recognize that it’s happening, even more important is recognizing how you handle it.

There’s five basic ways.  We will explore them in the context of this scenario:

It’s your mother’s birthday next weekend.  You go out to lunch with your sister and mother.  At some point, your sister, knowing the gift you have already bought for your mother, unintentionally but mindlessly mentions what you have bought for her.  The surprise is ruined!  A wave of anger/aversion sweeps through you.  Here’s how you could handle that:

1. Aggressive.

Just letting it out.  No holds barred.  Maybe you yell at her, hit her, make a nasty comment.  Obvious enough.

2. Passive.

Bottling it up.  You don’t say or do anything, pretending like it never happened, even though inside you’re actually angry.  At some point, perhaps tomorrow or a decade from now, the bottle may very well burst.

3. Passive-aggressive.

Revenge.  Maybe conscious.  Maybe subconscious.  It begins with the passive strategy, but the anger slips out in other ways.  Maybe 10 minutes later, you make irritable remarks to your sister.  Maybe three days later, you ignore her phone calls, or answer and act withdrawn.  Whatever you do, you pretend that you never actually got angry—but the facts don’t lie—your anger is covertly bubbling out.

…….

Obviously, none of those three ways is very skillful.  Thankfully, there exists some more skillful options.

…….

4. Mindfully-held.

You acknowledge your anger, feel it reverberating through you, understanding it to be just an emotion, just an object of awareness.  You make a decision to let it pass.

There’s a subtle distinction between this and the passive strategy—in mindfully-held anger we let it go, but only if we’ve genuinely come to terms with it.  So, if you’ve truly done that, then for the duration of the lunch and in the days and weeks to follow, you engage with your sister just the same as before, genuinely at peace with her mental slip.

…….

A challenge people often have with “self-development” practices is falsely believing that a “highly developed” person just accept everything that happens, essentially becoming doormats for everything from our loved ones’ destructive habits to wide-scale social injustice.  Nonsense!  Instead, the more you become skillful with your anger, the more you see that, yes, sometimes there is nothing to be gained by expressing your anger, sometimes it will just create more problems, so it’s most appropriate to just mindfully accept what happens and move on.  However, other times, the best response is to constructively channel that anger into some form of action or expression.

In other words, the more skillful we become, the more we learn to pick our battles.  When we choose to engage with it, we come to the fifth possibility:

5. Compassionate Expression.

Acknowledging your anger, mindfully observing and feeling it; and, after making sure that the heat of the emotion has cooled, you still feel like it’s something that needs to be expressed.

Perhaps after the meal, alone with your sister in a safe space, you mention that when she revealed your gift, you felt hurt and frustrated.  Perhaps you add that she did a similar thing a month ago.  Doing your best to abstain from accusations and criticisms (that won’t lead anywhere skillful), you simply express your inner reality, that it’s important for you to able to trust her, and maybe request that she be more careful in the future.

If it’s social injustice your pissed off about and you choose ‘compassionate expression, you’re still best channeling that somewhere specific.  This might not even involve words, but simply showing up for rallies, making donations or giving marginalized people our eye contact and respect.

If you’re angry at yourself, carrying around a sense of “not being good enough” as a person, a friend, a lover, a worker, an artist or whatever else; then, after you’ve mindfully made peace with yourself, perhaps you could compassionately transmute that anger into some form of inspired action.

……

In summary, anger is not the demon it’s often made out to be.  It’s a natural human experience.  It happens for everybody.  However, there’s a big difference between someone who lets their anger take control over them, and someone who takes control over their anger.

To be in the latter category, to come into more skillful ways of handling your anger, there’s two basic steps:

1) Be aware of when you are angry and when you are not angry.  Simple but extremely powerful.

2) Having done #1, carefully observe how you handle your anger.  Which of the five types have you favored historically?  In each and every instance of anger, which one are you choosing (or not choosing) to enact?

And, importantly, don’t forget to be kind to yourself!

The Two Types of Desire: Wisdom and Craving

blueberry picture
If you’re anything like the rest of us, you probably want a lot of things.

Personally, I want to contribute to society.  I want to be an awesome writer who just sits down and effortlessly pumps out thousands of words of brilliant yet accessible writings.  I want to feel great all the time.  I want to be perfectly aware when I meditate.  I want to go for a walk in 70 degree weather every day, preferably with fragrant cherry blossoms or colorful leaves in my periphery.

In spiritual circles, these desires often get a bad wrap.  The messaging seems to be that you shouldn’t want things.  Nonsense!

As my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, often said, “just as craving wants thing, so too does wisdom want things.”

The basic difference has nothing to do with the object of desire and everything to do with the feel of desire.

Consider healthy eating.  Once upon a time, I had no desire to eat healthily, and, in turn, my body was out of tune, low energy and more prone to illness.  It was harder to live my truth.  Not having that desire wasn’t wisdom—it was foolishness.

But there are two ways to desire healthy eating.

Nowadays, when I go to the grocery store, I usually have a clear, calm and gentle mindset that simply knows to grab the fresh veggies and fruits, the whole foods and other healthy choices.

This is wisdom operating—it feels peaceful. 

There is no thought stream second guessing myself.  I’m not anxiously avoiding the candy isle for fear of being overtaken by a craving.

However, sometimes I do select things that aren’t the healthiest (like chocolate covered almonds!), but I don’t berate myself for doing so.

There may be a little craving-desire that reached for the chocolate, but a companion of wisdom is self-love, and even when we aren’t perfect, wisdom still shows up in the depth of our self-acceptance.

Inversely, a good chunk of my four years in Latin America and Asia, I desired to eat healthy, but had a difficult time finding healthy options.

I would often be irritable and annoyed, thinking “why is it so hard to find a damn salad!?”  Or, “stop putting so much freaking sugar in everything!”

This escalated to epic proportions when I was a monk and could literally only eat the things given to me twice a day.  I was trying to be a vegetarian in a meat culture, and soon became iron deficient.  I was also super annoyed with how oily and heavy the food was.

Yes, I had a noble desire to eat healthy, but when I didn’t get it fulfilled, I would become noticeably bothered.

This is craving operating—it feels agitated.

For you, maybe it comes up when your favorite fruit is out of stock.  Perhaps you fantasize about excellent physical health, losing weight or having a morning smoothie.  Maybe you’re nervous about not meeting your dietary needs.  Or, maybe you have resistance when a friend proposes a restaurant you don’t like.

This goes way beyond food.

Consider all the personal desires I initially listed.  Consider the following list, and see if any of them apply to you (or think of some other ones that are more central to your life):

I want to provide for my family

I just want to make it through the day
I want to be successful
I want to be loved
I want to make a difference in the world through (_____)
I want to love
I want people to be nice to me
I want to accept myself
I want to be excellent at time-management
I want stay continually motivated and inspired

It’s totally normal to have desires like these, to want to “improve” ourselves; however, the key distinction is the felt sense.

If you notice that trying to fulfill desires, especially when you fail, produces a feeling of tension or agitation, then that’s craving-desire.

If the process of trying to live those desires feels peaceful and relaxed, then you’ve stumbled onto wisdom-desire.

Wisdom-desire exists in the center of the great quote by Shunryu Suzuki, while craving-desire exists only in the second half:

“You are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.”

An excellent way to slowly move towards wisdom-desire is to study yourself:

Pick one of your desires that leans towards craving.  Start to observe how it manifests across the day.  What sort of thoughts are involved?  How obsessive-compulsive are they?

Most of all, what sort of felt sense accompanies it?

What you’ll notice is that the more deeply you become aware of that felt sense, the more you’ll see how it’s inherently painful.  This is what happened to my craving healthy food as a monk.  I began to realize it was more painful to resist eating meat as well as the heavy and oily food than it was to just eat it.  I let go, and felt peaceful and clear once again, even though I still had the desire to eat healthy.

Just study yourself; and, please please please, don’t have a craving-desire to turn your craving-desire into wisdom-desire!  Just notice.  Self-acceptance.  One day at a time!