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.

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!