Acceptance vs. Understanding: Tales from the Road

ok-1186364_1920A friend and I were in Myanmar, sitting in the bus station lobby, ready for our 12 hour trip to Bagan.  After waiting patiently for an hour, the bus finally arrived and began letting passengers on board.

When we handed the driver our tickets—entirely written in Burmese—he looked at them, looked at us, looked at them again, and then said, “I’m sorry, you are on the wrong bus.  This bus is going to Bagan.  These are tickets for the bus to Mandalay.  It’s the complete opposite direction.”

As it turned out, the woman we bought the tickets from gave us the wrong ones; and, as the bus to Bagan was now full, we were stuck in the same town for another day.

Bummer.

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Knowledge Is Power vs. Ignorance Is Bliss

knowledge is power picture

Shortly before I went for my 21 month retreat, I told a friend I wasn’t really an anxious person and that I experienced anxiety maybe four or five times a year.  Shortly after completing the retreat, I told another friend that I experienced anxiety just as much as everyone else—maybe four or five times an hour.

It’s not that intensive meditation made me more anxious; instead, it showed me what had always been happening in my mind on a much subtler level.

Upon hearing this comment, some people wonder why I would ever want to be aware of something so unpleasant as frequent anxiety.  I tell them there’s two basic life positions: “knowledge is power” and “ignorance is bliss.”

Knowledge isn’t always comfortable (have you ever read “A People’s History of the United States”!?); but, with respect to my four-to-five times per hour anxiety, I now have a choice on how to handle it that I once didn’t have.  Sometimes I still act reactively, but more and more, I manage to act out of a deeper sincerity.

I’m not sure I could give a greater endorsement for ‘knowledge is power.’

Authenticity vs. Sincerity: Experiences of a Meditator (Part 2)

This is a continuation of the previous post on the difference between authenticity and sincerity.  Today we dive more into “the eye to others.”

Part III: Our Innate Eye To Others

While running an electronics business in my mid-twenties, I spent many hours a week on technical support calls.  They were tedious and redundant.  For the first couple years, I was usually impatient and irritable with the outsourced tech support people.

And, then, just before my 26th birthday, I went on my first 10 day silent meditation retreat—diving through layer upon layer of my own “inner noise”, before ending the retreat off by myself in the woods, weeping uncontrollably, only able to utter the phrase, “there’s so much love, there’s so much love.”

A couple months later, after finishing a particularly long tech support call, I realized that not just on that call, but on every call since that retreat, I had been consistently patient, kind and understanding with the human beings on the other side of the line.

How to explain the shift? Continue reading

Authenticity vs. Sincerity: Experiences of a Meditator (Part 1)

Introduction

While sincerity and authenticity are pretty similar qualities, there is also a major difference.

On a technical level, authenticity means being true to oneself, while sincerity means being true to oneself with an eye to others.  On a more practical level, someone could be authentic and also be a total jerk, while it’s very difficult to imagine a sincere person being a jerk.

In this two-part post, I’ll share a bit of my life story, though above all, I hope to paint a very human picture of a path that blossoms from surface-level authenticity into a deeper sincerity.


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Part I: The Blessings and Shadows of Authenticity  

I grew up in a strong evangelical christian household, not really knowing about other belief systems or ways of living.  Following Jesus was my reality.  And, so, when at age 12 I started to have a deep intuitive sense that the christian story was not actually true, I had no real outlet for that, no outside information or mentor to guide me.  Instead, I suppressed my inner voice. 

From ages 12-17, I pretended I was a good christian and played by the rules, while internally, I numbed and distracted myself from the basic reality that I did not believe the christian myth.

My first wake up call came at age 16 when I got caught smoking marijuana (my first time trying it!).  After an intense and tear-filled conversation with my parents, I resolved to change my ways and never smoke again.

While I didn’t smoke again for a while, I will still living the same “double life” I had been since I was 12.  Eventually, something had to give.  About a year after that first conversation, I started smoking again.

After a couple months of not-so-covert usage, my parents sat me down in the living room one evening and said, “we know you’ve been smoking pot again.” 

This time, I smirked and nodded with acknowledgement.  I listened to their concerns, quite relaxed, and accepted their punishment with a curious indifference. 

Something big was happening inside me. 

When we had just about finished, I looked them right in the eyes and said decisively, “by the way, I’m not going to church anymore.”

That moment was without a doubt one of the most important of my life—it was the first time that I dared to be truly authentic.

In the years that followed, I went from shy, soft-spoken and self-conscious to brazen, gregarious and outspoken.  Interestingly, this shift took me from social misfit to someone people actually seemed to like.  In turn, I went more deeply into this mode, becoming a bit rough around the edges.

Halfway through my four years working at a natural foods co-op, I approached a friendly co-worker and said, “don’t you think it’s pretty rude that you always leave your register and dilly-dally around the store while the rest of us are taking care of customers?”

Even though there may have been a kernel of truth to my words, I was neither empathetic nor her supervisor, and the conversation that followed led to a year where we didn’t speak to one another.

This was the sort of thing I had become accustomed to doing—saying exactly what I felt with no filter; or, being unapologetically authentic.

Around the time I graduated college, I was feeling a deep existential unrest.  I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I knew my life situation wasn’t helping—working as a bartender, socializing and drinking most nights, and, in general, not really challenging myself very much.

Slowly slowly, I was hearing a deep inner voice go from a whisper to a talk to a shout, simply saying something must change—and, so, I bought a one-way ticket to Southern Mexico to start a new life.

Like the conversation with my parents, this one-way ticket was one of the most important and beneficial things I’ve ever done—it was me stepping out of my comfort zone and into what my most authentic self knew to be best.

A few months after re-locating, I went to a baseball game with a new friend.  About midway through, I was feeling a growing boredom, irritability and desire for some solo time. 

Without any discussion or even making an effort to relax and let go into the shared experience, I simply stood up and said, “I’m going to leave.  I’ll see you later.”  As I walked away, he looked at me with a sort of bewilderment; again, my way of living was still brazenly authentic.

In daring to follow some of these inner voices, like with my parents and my one-way ticket, and even with the little day-to-day choices like leaving a baseball game when I didn’t want to be there anymore, I was experiencing one of the great blessings of authenticity—deepening alignment between my inner truth and my outer reality.

I want to pause here a moment.

When we are used to living our whole life according to what other people want or our own voices of fear, we never get to this point.  In one ancient story, the Buddha talks about four types of happiness—and the first three revolve around doing what we want.

Those five years I spent from age 12 to 17 were incredibly painful.  On the surface, everything seemed fine, but I was dead inside.

Basically, I’m pausing for a moment to really validate brazen authenticity.  Being true to ourselves is so incredibly important and life-affirming that if we need some brazenness to get there, then my two cents are that it’s absolutely worth it.



lonely walkerAnd yet, and yet, how much deeper the rabbit hole goes!

As I analyze a bit in The Three Levels of Truth, my authenticity around that stage of my life was pretty shallow, colored with self-centeredness and absent of any deeper understanding of what it means to be an integrated person.

Western culture tends to say that “doing whatever you want” is happiness.  While my brazen authenticity was certainly better than the lie, it still left me with a somewhat hollow happiness.

We are a social species, and when our so-called authenticity erects barriers between us and the outside world, it tends to limit our happiness in a very real way. 

In that three levels of truth essay (and in that ancient Buddha story), the missing link is dropping into spiritual truth.  This allows us to integrate our personal authenticity with those deeper layers of love, wisdom and connection—something that I call “sincerity,” or being true to oneself with an eye to others.

In the next post, I’ll detail the blossoming of my own sincerity journey beyond surface authenticity!

A Fascinating Comfort Zone Experiment

We all have our favorite ways to distract ourselves from the rawness of being.

We have a few hours free, so we pop on the computer, have a snack, read, socialize, drink a beer, make a tea, clean, fix or build something, watch television or maybe even exercise, practice yoga or meditate.

These various distractions are our comfort zone.

There is nothing inherently “right” or “wrong” with comfortable activities.  On one hand, doing things in our comfort zone is a rather pleasant part of human life—one must enjoy oneself!  On the other hand, it often keeps us from seeing and embodying our deeper layers of authenticity.

What is that yearning inside you that you aren’t living?
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On Meditation: Three Ways to Handle a “Brick Wall”

climbing brick wall

When we sit down, relax and bring our intention to present moment awareness, some days it’s quite pleasant and effortless, but other days it’s one brick wall after another.  There’s three basic ways to handle this:

At times, it can be useful to actually stop meditating—if, say, we’re just falling asleep in a sitting position, it might be more worth our while to take a nap instead.  However, if we just quit every time there’s a brick wall, we don’t learn anything, we don’t develop, we don’t realize our deeper sincerity.

Secondly, we can use sheer willpower to force ourselves to keep sitting and endure, pounding our way through the sit.  We could power through with the aid of a tool, a “meditative sledgehammer,” like mindfulness of breathing, mantra, counting thoughts or whatever else.  We could also just psych ourselves into an attitude of intensity and determination.

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The Importance of Ready Position

During my middle school baseball days, I would run from the dugout, glove in hand, over to second base to play defense.  Every time the pitcher hurled the ball to the batter, I would lightly bend my knees, hunch forward with weight on the balls of my feet and ever so slightly sway side-to-side.  This body positioning wasn’t my invention—it was what the coach spent hours training us on during practice.  He called it “ready position.”

There’s baseball ready position, but there’s also kindness ready position, generosity ready position, patience ready position, and just about anything else you can imagine. Continue reading

Serious vs. Sincere: Experiences of a Meditator

During a stretch studying yoga in Southern India, another student and I went on early morning philosophy walks with a local holy man.  I felt in his presence a deep centeredness that I had rarely found in anyone on my multi-year spiritual journey.  And, so, even though the spirit of our walks was a light conversational dialogue, I would generally come prepared with a few elaborate questions on Indian spiritual practice.

One morning, as the dawn sun was glowing over the palm trees, I asked him, “if inner freedom is the goal of the Yoga Sutras, why does the text overwhelmingly talk about a single method of attaining that goal (samadhi), when that’s just one method among many?”

He made like a politician and talked around my question for about 10 minutes before asking if we had any other curiosities.  I forcefully interjected, “but you didn’t actually answer my question!”

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Formal vs. Informal Meditation

formal vs informal meditationFormal vs. Informal Meditation

This post will discuss the difference between formal and informal meditation, and the different nuances within each of those.

Before we start, here’s a metaphor to chew on: the difference between formal and informal meditation is like the difference between “lab science” and “field science.”

One of them is in a special room, with perfect conditions and all sorts of precise tools.  The other is out in the messy world, where nothing is controllable.  In spite of those obvious differences, at the core, they are both just doing science!

In other words, while formal and informal meditation have clear differences on where/when they’re done, they are actually the same practice—a relaxed awareness of the present moment.

Here are more specific and practical descriptions:

people meditating in parkFormal Meditation

This refers to taking a period of time, at least five minutes, where our sole focus is meditation.  This is an opportunity to get rid of all external distractions and work directly on our meditation practice.

Usually, it’s done in total physical stillness, like sitting or lying down.  However, it could also be done in motion, like walking back and forth, or even activities like Yoga or Qi Gong (assuming we know the routine so well that we don’t have to think about what we’re doing, and can put all our focus on awareness).

A special case of formal meditation is retreat.   Here, meditation is our sole focus not just for 20 minutes or an hour, but for a stretch of days.  For those who want to really deepen their meditation practice, a classic recommendation is to spend at least a week a year on retreat.

informal meditationInformal Meditation

This is sometimes called daily life meditation, and it means meditating throughout the day.  There are two basic types:

1) Micro-hits.  These refer to little spaces, ranging from 5 seconds to 5 minutes, where we take a pause in the day to make meditation our sole focus.  It could be while waiting for something, taking a minute before or after a meal, pausing before transitioning to a new activity, or just going into stillness anytime we find we have a few minutes to spare.

2) Background.  This is when we are meditating while doing many different activities throughout the day.  We could roughly say there are “easy” situations to have a background meditation, like cleaning, cooking or driving; and, there are “difficult” situations to have a background meditation, like socializing, reading or doing computer work.

meditaiton relationshipThe Relationship between Formal Meditation and Informal Meditation

My teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, entitled his most recent book, “When Awareness Becomes Natural.”  What this title suggests is that the more a person does formal meditation, meditating for periods of time each day, and going on occasional retreats, then it becomes easier and easier to do informal meditation.

More specifically, it’s as if our “baseline state of mind” becomes more and more hardwired to meditation.  The impulse and desire for micro-hits comes naturally.  The background meditation happens all by itself, and it’s not difficult to maintain. It’s as if the momentum of our practice has a life of its own, and it can keep going most of the day.

Remember, even though formal and informal meditation happen in different contexts, and they feed each other, they are actually the exact same thing: a relaxed awareness of the present moment.

Want to try out a 20 second micro hit?  Bring your attention to the contact point between your feet and the ground.  Feel the body sensations happening there for the next 20 seconds.  That’s a micro hit!

Working with Impulses in Meditation: The Rule of Three

One thing people often ask about in formal, sitting meditation is what to do with impulses?

To scratch an itch.
To sneeze.
To adjust some part of the body.
To use the toilet.
To change meditation objects (shifting from, say, the body sensations to a visual object or a mantra)
To consciously think a thought.
To turn on/off the lights.
To close a window.
To write down a quick note.
To stop meditating.

This flow of impulses is more obvious in formal meditation; but, it’s the same thing across the day. If we sit down to read or write for an hour, or whatever else, we’ll notice that if we aren’t highly engaged, there will be a constant flow of impulses to distract ourselves. This is the nature of the human mind.

In meditation, we aren’t so much trying to overpower these impulses (or even be extremely engaged in every task) as we are trying allowing them to flow through, gently, softly, gracefully.

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