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

Kindness Picture

In today’s post, I will talk about the difference between two closely related ideas: authenticity and sincerity.

These two qualities have a ton of overlap – they both imply being true to yourself, to not putting on pretenses, to deeply committing oneself to transparency, honesty and genuineness. 

It’s not easy to do this.

Sometimes being true to oneself means doing things that are uncomfortable, like being vulnerable and sharing our true perspectives & feelings, or making bold choices, like choosing a line of work that’s in line with our passion but is less secure, or ending a relationship that “works” but deep down we know isn’t fulfilling.

There’s a way that this can be uncomfortable for ourselves, but often times, it’s also uncomfortable for those around us.  If, for example, we assert a boundary in a relationship, this might not be easy for someone near us.  If we move to a different area code, change jobs, or make significant shifts to our lifestyle, this can have real implications for those around us.

But if we’re willing to work through that un-ease, there’s a profound reward: the peace of mind from knowing we’re living truthfully. 

If a person has spent their entire life living this way, there really are no regrets.  There’s an ability to rest in the present and to trust that things will work out, because if we just keep following our inner voice, we know it will always point us in the right direction.  And, if for a moment we should veer off course and do something that isn’t really “true” for us, we know our inner voice will get us back on track sooner rather than later.

Living truthfully, and being able to listen to our heart unapologetically is one of the essential life skills I would love for everyone to have.

However, there’s also two distinct ways to go about living truthfully, that are really quite different: sincerity and authenticity.

Basically, you can be authentic and still be a jerk, but it’s impossible to be sincere and be a jerk.

Think about it.  Is there anyone you know that you would call a very sincere person that’s also a jackass?  I haven’t.

However, I have certainly met some rude, insensitive and abrasive people who were extremely authentic, but I would absolutely not call them sincere.

One scholar defined sincerity as, “being true to oneself with an eye to others.”

But it’s much bigger than just “an eye to others.”

The path of sincerity, opposed to authenticity, is about seeing a world bigger than just ourselves.  It’s about expanding beyond selfishness.  It’s about deeply considering our impact in the world, and knowing that there’s a a lot of cadence and nuance into how we live our truth.

For example, I recently had an interaction with someone who was really rude to me.  At some point in the conversation, I started to feel a little agitated and noticed an impulse to make a snarky comment.  This certainly would have been “authentic,” but at the same time I tuned into my genuine desire to be a force of kindness in the world, and to see the best in people.  In turn, I felt the surge of anger, acknowledged its presence in my being, but didn’t act on it.  I remained committed to my deeper truth, and after I left, I felt that deep peace of mind of being true to myself.

However, sincerity isn’t always so straightforward, particularly in close relationships when our genuine needs/desires are different than our companions.  Part of this path is being able to stay present amidst those murky waters, and see both the importance of our truth, and their truth, and trust our deeper wisdom to handle it with care, compassion and discernment.

In brief, authentic is a more broad word that points at the entire spectrum of being true to yourself, whereas sincerity is more focused, and brings in wisdom, care and a perspective greater than oneself.

As a final point, it’s worth noting that most babies are very authentic – there’s something more innate and natural about this mode.  Of course, modern society often stomps the authenticity out of us, and just re-learning how to be authentic can be a huge step.

However, basically no one is born sincere – it’s something we develop, cultivate and train over the years.  Things like meditation and spiritual traditions help.  So too does being in close relationship with other people who really care, and learning from each other.  It’s a tall enough enough task, and a worthwhile enough endeavor that I even named the blog after this quality!

If being true to oneself brings on a deeper layer of peace and happiness, adding in the eye to others helps take it to the next level.

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

Mlk Faith Photo

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 usually means believing in something even without rational proof.  This can certainly be an admirable quality, but it’s not even the right conversation.

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 worthwhileness 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.

However, while the term saddha can apply to virtually anything, in the context of Buddhist practice, it’s invariably paired with wisdom.  In other words, people like Hitler and Mao undoubtedly had great saddha, but they were also horribly deluded, and then caused incredible amounts of suffering.

The Buddhist flavor of wisdom essentially refines our sensitivity to which actions/thoughts/beliefs causes happiness and which ones causes suffering, both in ourselves and others.  But even if we understand that on an incredibly deep level, if there’s no saddha, we won’t do anything about it!

Saddha and wisdom are often said to be like the two back wheels on a chariot.  When they are in balance, you can go quite deep on the journey; but, if one is very underdeveloped and the other is very strong (or both are weak), you will have a rather lumpy or non-existent ride.

In any case, the whole point of this article is largely to think about “faith” in a new way – one that doesn’t mean blind belief, but rather implies a sense of conviction that leads to real action.

What do you feel great saddha about?  What are you really putting your heart into these days?  A relationship, your work, adventure, art, distracting yourself, comfort, etc.?

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.