On Mindfulness: Dogs vs. Humans

I was at a friend’s house and we were watching her dog run excitedly from the couch to a chewing toy to pretty much everywhere in between.  Just minutes earlier the dog was pouting in the corner of the room.

My friend said, “I really admire just how present dogs are—when they’re sad, they’re sad; when they’re excited, they’re excited.  They don’t sit around ruminating about things.  And when they’re with you, they’re fully with you—not thinking about all their problems or things to get done.”

“Well, in a way that’s true,” I said, “but remember just a couples hours ago when she was with us and the second she smelled food in the other room, she started frantically barking and ran over to the counter, oblivious to anything happening in the world other than your roommate fixing lunch.”

Mindfulness practice is about much more than being “present”.  For example, just consider how crucial it is to be mindful of our intention.

Continue reading

The Inner Voice vs. The Ego

I was recently talking to a friend who was laboring over whether or not to move in with her boyfriend.  She had previously lived with a partner and it didn’t go well.  She had much apprehension at the thought of doing it again—especially after less than a year of dating.

After listening to all her nervousness, I said, “then don’t do it”.

“But he’s so wonderful”, she said, “we have such an amazing connection… and, logistically, it just makes a lot of sense”.

“Well, then do it,” I said.

“But I told myself I wouldn’t do this again unless I was 100% sure he was the one—and I guess I’m not totally sure yet”.

Sound familiar?  Maybe for you it’s not a relationship decision, maybe it’s related to your career, a big journey, what kind of communication to maintain with old friends or perhaps something as simple as where to eat for dinner.

At some point or another, we all have an inner conflict similar to my friend.  Some situation where voices inside us are pointing two opposing directions.  What to do?

Continue reading

Mindfulness-based “Stress Reduction” vs. “Wisdom Cultivation”

The basic difference between Buddhist meditation (BM) and secular mindfulness practices, like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is the objective of practice.

In both practices, the foundation is present moment awareness; however, in most secular mindfulness practices, awareness in and of itself is the goal—a sort of mental stability and groundedness.  When we are aware, we are not lost in mental-emotional chatter (aka the proximate cause of most stress).  In turn, we are able to stay more focused and in alignment with our deeper values.

Inversely, BM uses goes beyond mental stability and uses that awareness as a foundation to learn about the nature of body and mind—for example, when anger arises, what does that feel like?  What sorts of thoughts and sensations are connected?  How long does it last?  What precedes it?  What follows it?  Is the experience of it pleasant or unpleasant?  Most importantly, what are its roots?  These are not questions to analyze with thinking, they are questions to explore with awareness as they are happening.

The effect of all this learning is the development of understanding or wisdom.  When, on a very deep level of mind, we know that McDonalds isn’t good for us, we simply stop eating McDonalds; likewise, when we know to a similar depth that anger is not good for us, or that indulging in mental-emotional chatter is not good for us, we simply stop doing it—stress reduces and positive mental qualities increase.

The base is the same, but the difference is that the aim of Buddhist meditation is a bit grander; when the weeds of mind arise, MBSR cuts them off above the soil, whereas BM yanks out the entire root.

If the Buddha spoke in the contemporary lingo, he may very well have named his system mindfulness-based wisdom cultivation.

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

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, authenticity 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 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.?