The Magic of Compassion
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Compassion for our fellow human being is a cornerstone of many the world’s spiritual traditions. It is one of the great transformative human emotions because in showing compassion we transcend he constraints of our self and embrace a broader, more open-minded view of life that emphasizes human connectedness rather than individuality. This sense of kinship brings insight and healing both to ourselves and to the people toward whom we demonstrate compassion.
The key to compassion is empathy.
Without the ability to feel our way into how life feels like for others, we won’t be able to respond with compassion. Here is how Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer described his experience of empathy:
“Listening to people talking I could enter into their lives, feel their tattered clothes on my back, walk with my feet in their shoes; their desires, their needs, all passed into my soul, or my soul passed into theirs.”
It is a balm for the soul when someone reaches out to us and tries to tune in to what is going on for us.
I remember a moment last year when I was very worried about financial matters. I tried to bottle up my anxiety and keep my ordinary life going. One day I was sitting at the hairdressers feeling tight and stressed. A young stylist came up behind me an placed her hands gently on my shoulders. Then she asked, “How are things going for you?” I immediately began to cry. Afterwards I felt a great relief. It was as if this simple gesture and question had allowed me to get in touch with what was going on for me.
The difficulty is that we can’t really know exactly what someone’s experience is like. Experience is something unique to each individual and each moment. But if we let go of pre-formed ideas and allow ourselves to be open to what the other person may be feeling, we can get a sense of how they are.
If our ultimate goal is to show compassion to everyone, we might assume that it would be easy to start with the person closest to us - our partner.
It’s often easier to show compassion towards a complete stranger than toward the person we love most.
When we see our partner suffering, we often respond with anxiety or frustration instead of compassion. This is because any suffering we see in our partner can trigger a fear of loss and a sense of helplessness in us. After all, our lives are intimately intertwined and we can be sure that whatever suffering our partner is experiencing will impinge on our own life as well. All these uncomfortable emotions, such as fear and resentment, can get in the way of feeling compassionate toward our partner. And yet it’s vital to practise compassion in relationship because it is the path to forgiveness and can be a lifeline for your partner in times of grief and pain.
Even in the most fortunate lives there will be periods of grief and mourning, when compassion will be requires. If your loved one is suffering, you may find that you are pulled in two different directions: on one hand, you may feel an instinctive aversion to their anguish or pain and wish to turn away from it. On the other hand, you may find yourself wanting almost to embrace their suffering, to take on the burden and “make it better” for your partner.
Think back to an occasion when your partner broke down in mental anguish - for example, on hearing of a bereavement - ore endured severe physical pain. What was your response? If you find such suffering hard to face, remember that breathing - centering yourself through breathing slowly and deeply will give you the strength to show your compassion when it is most needed.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that allows us to connect with our own suffering and that of others. It is called Tonglen. It is a way of awakening the compassion that is in each one of us, no matter how cold or unfeeling we might seem. Teacher Pema Chodron gives the following instructions:
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain…
Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness.
Compassion is not just a luxury that we can afford when our life is going well. To cultivate compassion and empathy is essential for the survival or our species.
© Mary Jaksch
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Courtesy of Daily Mantra.
1988 docudrama about "the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter." It was created by Dutch director Piet Hoenderdos. Features interviews with Douglas Hofstadter and Dan Dennett. Dennett also stars as himself.
Original acquired from the Center for Research in Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University. Uploaded with permission from Douglas Hofstadter.
Then the real point -- an article from the Guardian UK that looks at the real reasons behind the Tibetan and Xinjiang uprisings -- capitalism and growth, i.e., modernity.
From the Voice of America:
China's Communist Party newspaper is calling on the government to "resolutely crush" Tibet's independence movement.
A commentary in the "People's Daily" Saturday accuses the Dalai Lama of plotting recent anti-government protests in Tibet in hopes of undermining the upcoming Beijing Olympics and splitting Tibet from China.
Dalai Lama gestures as he speaks to the media in Dharmsala, India, 18 Mar 2008
The Dalai Lama has denied calling for protests.
Reports from China say Beijing has sent elite units of the People's Liberation Army into Tibet to crack down on the protests.
Witnesses in the Tibetan capital said armored troop carriers and other military vehicles in use there had their identifying numbers and insignia concealed.
In Lhasa Saturday, Chinese authorities raised the official toll from the past week's riots to 19 dead, including 18 civilians and a policeman. Tibetan exile groups say at least 80 people were killed in Lhasa, and that clashes in other Chinese provinces claimed nearly 20 lives.
The official Xinhua news agency has said police firing in self-defense during a riot wounded four people in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province earlier this week. However, human-rights groups have released photographs showing what appear to be corpses with bullet wounds. They allege that police killed 15 people during the clash in Sichuan.
China has expelled all foreign journalists from Tibet and tried to prevent others from reaching neighboring provinces. Before they were forced to leave, journalists were able to report on a buildup of thousands of troops, along with blockades and checkpoints across a wide swath of western China.
Meanwhile, it's possible that other ethnic groups may also seize this opportunity to gain international attention for their plight.
said 19 people died in in the Tibetan capital last week and official media warned against the unrest spreading to the northwest region of Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims bridle under Chinese control.
The official media of the northwest region ofwarned against outbreaks of unrest there inspired by Tibetan protests.
"No matter whether it's Tibetan independence, Xinjiang independence or Taiwanese independence, their goal is all the same -- to create chaos and split the motherland," said a commentary on the official Xinjiang news Web site (www.tianshannet.com).
"China and's holding of the in 2008 has led separatists at home and abroad to believe they have a golden opportunity. To put it bluntly, if they don't wreck things, they won't feel comfortable, because they won't have achieved their goal of spoiling China's image."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pressed Beijing to be more open and let the rest of the world see for itself what is happening in Tibet.
In the late 1980s, unrest in various Soviet block nations led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (with the support of the American government). We have a unique opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese to grant autonomy to the various ethnic groups in China that struggle under the oppressive Communist government. Yet the issue may not be freedom as much as tradition.
Pankaj Mishra, writing for the Guardian UK, sees the issue not as a revolt against the Chinese Communist system, but against the utopian vision of modernity that the Chinese economic growth has fostered, with rampant development and the slow but steady Westernization of Chinese society.
This is a long quote from the article, but the points are subtle and crucial -- the author may be more correct in this assessment than any of the pro-religious freedom advocates in the US.
As for religious freedom, the Tibetans have had more of it in recent years than at any time since the cultural revolution. Eager to draw tourists to Tibet, Chinese authorities have helped to rebuild many of the monasteries destroyed by Red Guards in the 1960s and 70s, turning them into Disneylands of Buddhism. Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have even inspired a counterculture among Chinese jaded by their new affluence.
Indeed, Tibet's economy has surpassed China's average growth rate, helped by generous subsidies from Beijing and more than a million tourists a year. The vast rural hinterland shows few signs of this growth, but Lhasa, with its shopping malls, glass-and-steel office buildings, massage parlours and hair saloons, resembles a Chinese provincial city on the make. Beijing hopes that the new rail link to Lhasa, which makes possible the cheap extraction of Tibet's uranium and copper, will bring about kuayueshi fazhan ("leapfrog development") - economic, social and cultural.
Tibet has been enlisted into what is the biggest and swiftest modernisation in history: China's development on the model of consumer capitalism, which has been cheer-led by the Wall Street Journal and other western financial media that found in China the corporate holy grail of low-priced goods and high profits. Tibetans - whose biggest problem, according to Rupert Murdoch, is believing that the Dalai Lama "is the son of God" - have the chance to be on the right side of history; they could discard their superstitions and embrace, like Murdoch, China's brave new world. So why do they want independence? How is it that, as the Economist put it, "years of rapid economic growth, which China had hoped would dampen separatist demands, have achieved the opposite"?
For one, the Chinese failed to consult Tibetans about the kind of economic growth they wanted. In this sense, at least, Tibetans are not much more politically impotent than the hundreds of millions of hapless Chinese uprooted by China's Faustian pact with consumer capitalism. The Tibetans share their frustration with farmers and tribal peoples in the Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, who, though apparently inhabiting the world's largest democracy, confront a murderous axis of politicians, businessmen, and militias determined to corral their ancestral lands into a global network of profit.
However, Tibet's ordeal has been in the making for some time. Before the railway line speeded up Han Chinese immigration, China's floating population of migrant workers, criminals, carpetbaggers and prostitutes conspicuously dominated Tibetan cities such as Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse. Half of Lhasa's population is Han Chinese, who own most of the city's shops and businesses.
Chinese-style development, which heavily favours urban areas over rural ones, could only exacerbate economic inequality and threaten traditions, such as nomadic lifestyles. Not surprisingly, Deng Xiaoping's post-Tiananmen gamble - that people intoxicated with prosperity will not demand political change - failed in Tibet. Like predominantly rural ethnic minorities elsewhere, Tibetans lack the temperament or training needed for a fervent belief in the utopia of modernity - a consumer lifestyle in urban centres - promised by China.
Far from losing his aura during his long exile, the Dalai Lama has come to symbolise more urgently than ever to Tibetans their cherished and threatened identity. It has also become clear to Tibetans that they pay a high price for other people's enhanced lifestyles. Global warming has caused the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau, which regulate the water supply to the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze and Yellow rivers, to melt at an alarming rate, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of millions in Asia.
Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist, told me that not even the cultural revolution undermined Tibet as much as the feckless modernisation of recent years. The rail link to Lhasa has further deepened the Tibetan sense of siege. No Tibetan I met last year in Lhasa had any doubt that the railway was devised by and for the Han Chinese, thousands of whom had already begun to pour into the city every day, monopolising jobs and causing severe inflation.
In the past two decades, new railways have economically integrated China's remote provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang, making them available for large-scale resettlement by the surplus population. China, its leaders insist, will rise "peacefully"; and they may be right in so far as China refrains from the invasions and occupations that Japan resorted to in its attempt to modernise and catch up with western imperial powers. But it is not hard to see that China has employed in Xinjiang and now Tibet some of the same means of internal colonialism that the US used during its own westward expansion.
Would Westerners support the Tibetan independence movement if it were seen as a desire to maintain traditional, tribal structures in their culture? I don't know. But I do know that if the issue is framed as "religious freedom" then the support is lined up and vocal.
We are hypocrites. We want to modernize Iraq and the Middle East, but the same people support the Tibetan desire to maintain their nomadic, tribal lifestyle, complete with their magical-mythic version of Buddhism (at least, among the general population).
While the educated Tibetan monks have exported a more rational version of Buddhism to the West, the general population, being largely uneducated, tends to still hold the older Bon-infused version of Buddhism as their real religion, which is largely pre-rational.
Maybe because the fundamentalist Islamic tribal culture is more violent, we find it easier to demand that they modernize. But now that the Tibetans are becoming more violent in their desire to maintain the "old ways," will we demand that they modernize as well?
An interesting article from Jonathan Raban in The London Review of Books. More thoughts below the quotes.
Here is the key quote:
In a recent issue of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, an Obama sceptic, complained that his positions on foreign policy and national security had ‘a certain homeopathic quality’, more calculated to appeal to his ‘legions of the blissful’ than to meet the needs of an ‘era of conflict, not an era of conciliation’. ‘I understand,’ he wrote, ‘that no one, except perhaps Lincoln, ever ran for the presidency on a tragic sense of life; but if it is possible to be too old in spirit, it is possible also to be too young.’
I think Wieseltier raises the right point, but gets it the wrong way round. For a tragic sense of life is exactly what has marked Obama’s candidacy from the beginning. His powerful memoir, Dreams from My Father, written in his early thirties, is shot through with that sense: its gravely intelligent, death-haunted tone, beautifully controlled throughout the book, is that of an old voice, not a young one – and the voice of the book is of a piece with the plangent, melancholy baritone to be heard on the campaign trail.
Those who hear only empty optimism in Obama aren’t listening. His routine stump speech is built on the premise that America has become estranged from its own essential character; a country unhinged from its constitution, feared and disliked across the globe, engaged in a dumb and unjust war, its tax system skewed to help the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer, its economy in ‘shambles’, its politics ‘broken’. ‘Lonely’ is a favourite word, as he conjures a people grown lonely in themselves and lonely as a nation in the larger society of the world. (Obama himself is clearly on intimate terms with loneliness: Dreams from My Father is the story of a born outsider negotiating a succession of social and cultural frontiers; it takes the form of a lifelong quest for family and community, and ends, like a Victorian novel, with a wedding.)
The light in Obama’s rhetoric – the chants of ‘Yes, we can’ or his woo-woo line, lifted from Maria Shriver’s endorsement speech, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ – is in direct proportion to the darkness, and he paints a blacker picture of America than any Democratic presidential candidate in living memory has dared to do. He courts his listeners, not as legions of the blissful, but as legions of the alienated, adrift in a country no longer recognisable as their own, and challenges them to emulate slaves in their struggle for emancipation, impoverished European immigrants seeking a new life on a far continent, and soldiers of the ‘greatest generation’ who volunteered to fight Fascism and Nazism. The extravagance of these similes is jarring – especially when they’re spoken by a writer as subtle and careful as Obama is on the printed page – but they serve to make the double point that America is in a desperate predicament and that only a great wave of communitarian action can salvage it.
I agree completely. And here's another quote that explains both his appeal as a speaker and his skill as a listener and thinker:
Always by necessity a chameleon, Obama picked up in Chicago the style and rhythms of the black charismatic preacher, just as he’d picked up vernacular Indonesian when he was a child in Jakarta. He can now instantly turn a basketball stadium, a high school gym or a university auditorium into the pumping heart of a black church, with uninitiated whites taking their cue from him (‘Yes, we can,’ he murmurs into the mike, to signal that a hallelujah would not be out of order) and from the blacks in the audience who’ve been doing this on Sundays all their lives. For the suburban white kids, it’s a novel transportation into an exuberant community of souls. No wonder the French class was a wash-out.
But his rallies, galling as they must be to the Clinton campaign, convey a misleading impression of his political skills. Better to eavesdrop on him, via unedited video on the internet, at dinner with four constituents in a DC restaurant or answering questions from the editorial board of a local newspaper. What strikes one first is his gravity and intentness as a listener and observer: a negative capability so unusual in a politician that, when one watches these clips, it’s hard to remember that he’s running for office and not chairing a seminar in a department of public policy. When his turn comes to speak, he is at first hesitant, a man of many ums and ers, but as he articulates his answer you realise that he has wholly assimilated the question, inspected it from a distance and seen around its corners, as well as having taken on board both the character and the motive of his questioner. The campaign trail is the last place where one expects to see an original intellect at work in real time, pausing to think, rephrase, acknowledge an implicit contradiction, in such even tones and with such warmth and sombre humour.
Bush the second famously claimed in the 2000 election campaign to be a "uniter, not a divider." Too bad that phrase has fallen on hard times as a result of Bush being the most divisive president in recent history -- Obama is a uniter in the truest sense of the word.
Some may fear his communitarian instincts, but Obama is also incredibly thoughtful and educated. He may be the best (and only) example of a healthy worldcentric politician. While Bill Clinton had a remarkable grasp of the systems element in politics and how to manipulate it, Obama has a remarkable grasp of the human element in politics and how necessary it is to generate hope and a commitment to change, from the interior of the population. Yet Obama also knows how the system works, allowing him to work with a more integrated understanding of situations.
I've been trying to avoid the word integral, but that is my sense of Obama -- someone who works with aperspectival thinking and understands that the only way to make sense of chaos is to generate meaning. Some may not approve of the meaning he seeks to generate, but compared to the other options, he is the most advanced mind in the game.
I think he has also recognized one other crucial element in the electorate this time around, which the others seem to have missed: Americans want to be moved by the words of their leaders, what Meta Wagner calls A Return to Rhetoric:
Obama is both heralded and criticized for the degree to which his appeal rests on his rhetoric. But an important point is overlooked in these reactions. Obama’s speeches not only encourage people to aspire to their better selves, they’ve also made people aware of a hidden yearning. Long past the days of the eloquent Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, Americans have rediscovered the desire to be absorbed by words, stirred by words, even awed by words, again. That, in itself, is proof that our better selves exist.Obama wants to touch those "better selves," what Lincoln called our "better angels." As the article in the LRB points out above, he has mastered the art of the Hallelujah element in Black churches -- but what they don't mention is that in doing so, he instills in his listeners a desire to be a part of the change. In its own way, this is evangelical politics.
Obama gets that many, if not most, Americans are disenchanted with politics, alienated and even angry. He has the ability to reshape that sense of angst into a sense of hope, a sense of purpose, and a sense of involvement. And again, as the LBR article suggests, this would not be possible if his words were just "empty optimism." He may be young, but he has an old soul, one that though privileged by some standards, has still been through a lot.
My teen years were not that different than his. No father, seeking escape in drug use, involvement with "sketchy" people. And like him, I changed all of that and went to college, got excellent grades and have become a better person for having gone through those hard lessons.
We need a leader who hasn't been squeaky clean his/her whole life -- who did inhale, who has been down and depressed and lost, who is a fully rounded human being. I am much more willing to follow someone who has been through the shit than I am some "silver spoon" politician.
The weekly Dharma Quote of the Week from Snow Lion Publications.
(Each day before breakfast the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, Thubten Chodron, gives a morning motivation for residents and guests. Below is a teaching given during March 2008.)
Have you ever had this experience? You walk outside, and all of a sudden the silence strikes you--it's in such sharp contrast to the chatter that's going on in the mind.
We live in a very quiet place. We walk outside and it's pretty quiet--a few birds chirping, sun shining. Then suddenly the chatter in the mind stops because we see that it's just chatter. It's in such stark contrast to the silence that's outside.
We want to learn to notice that chatter before we even have to walk outside. And we want to be able to find that quiet place inside ourselves and keep it with us, so that even when we're in a place where there is a lot of noise, the mind can be quiet.
All that mental chatter is basically negative conceptualization. If we were thinking about emptiness or developing compassion with that kind of mental activity, fine! Continue that outside, inside, everywhere. But most of the time what's going on is, "I like this. I don't like this. I want this. I don't want that. Why does this person do this? Why don't they do that?" That kind of mental activity makes the mind quite stressful as well as accumulates negative karma and wastes a great deal of time.
As soon as we can catch it and be aware of what's going on in our mind, and come back to that silent space inside, the more peaceful we'll be. Our lives will be more productive in terms of having the Dharma grow in our hearts, and well be more focused in whatever daily activities we're doing. We won't be quite so distracted.
A national geographic video about the world invisible to the unaided eye.
Friday, March 21, 2008
I've been reading some of David Deida's work again. When I encountered him initially, I didn't really appreciate what he had to say -- I thought he was perpetuating sexual stereotypes. I was wrong.
His explanation of sexual polarity in relationships actually makes a great deal of sense to me. Perhaps it was because I had never really felt it experientially that I didn't get it before. I don't know. For whatever reason, it's making a lot of sense to me now.
Here is an article from his website, from the Men's Work section, that explains the basic concept of sexual polarity and why it is important in a sexual relationship -- any relationship, gay or straight. Essentially, what he is describing is the basis for Tantra in its truest sense.
The more a man is playing his real edge,
the more valuable he is as good company for other men,
and the more he can be trusted
to be authentic and fully present.
We need to understand the nature of sexual passion and spiritual openness. Sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity, the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles. All natural forces flow between two poles. The north and south poles of the earth create a force of magnetism. The positive and negative poles of your electrical outlet or car battery create an electrical flow. In the same way, masculine and feminine poles between people create the flow sexual polarity.
The force of attraction that flows between the two poles of masculine and feminine is the a dynamism that tends to disappear in modern relationships. If you want real passion, you need a ravisher and a ravishee; otherwise, you just have two buddies who decide to rub genitals in bed.
Each of us, man or woman, possesses both inner masculine and inner feminine qualities. Men can wear earrings, hug each other tenderly, and dance ecstatically in the woods. Women can change the oil in the car, accumulate political and financial power, and box in the ring. Men can take care of their children. Women can fight for their country. We have proven these things. Just about anyone can animate either masculine or feminine energy in any particular moment. (They might still have a strong preference to do one or the other, which we will get to in a moment.)
The bottom line of today’s emerging 50/50, or “second stage,” relationship is this: If men and women are clinging to a politically correct sameness, even in moments of intimacy, then sexual attraction disappears. I don’t mean just the desire for intercourse: the juice of the entire relationship begins to dry up. The love may still be strong, the friendship may still be strong, but the sexual polarity fades, unless in moments of intimacy one partner is willing to play the masculine pole and one partner is willing to play the feminine. You have to animate the masculine and feminine differences if you want to play in the field of sexual passion.
It is up to you: you can have a loving friendship between two similars. But in the moments when you want strong sexual polarity, you need a more masculine and a more feminine partner.
It doesn’t matter if both partners are men or both are women. It doesn’t matter if, in a heterosexual relationship, the man plays the feminine pole and the woman plays the masculine pole. It doesn’t matter if every day you change who plays the masculine pole and who plays the feminine pole. For sexual polarity, you need an energetic polarity, an attractive difference between masculine and feminine. You don’t need this difference for love, but you do need it for sexual passion.
For some people who have what I call a more balanced sexual essence, sexual polarity doesn’t really matter. They don’t really want much passion in intimacy. They don’t want a loving tussle full of sexual inspiration and innuendo. They would rather have a civilized friendship, full of love and human sharing without the passionate ups and downs. And for these people, this course will be irrelevant, perhaps even offensive.
Your sexual essence is your core. If you have a more masculine sexual essence, you might enjoy staying home and playing with the kids, but deep down you are still driven by a sense of mission. You may not know your mission, but unless you discover it and live it fully, your life will feel empty at its core, even if your intimate relationship and family life are full of love.
If you have a more feminine sexual essence, your professional life may be incredibly successful, but your core won’t be fulfilled unless love is flowing fully in your family or intimate life.
The “mission,” or the search for freedom, is the priority of the masculine, whereas the search for love is the priority of the feminine. This is why people with masculine essences would rather watch a football game or boxing match on TV than a love story. Sports are all about achieving freedom, by breaking free of your opponent’s tackle or barrage of punches, and about succeeding at your mission, by carrying the ball into the end zone or remaining standing after 10 rounds. For the masculine, mission, competition, and putting it all on the line (indeed, facing death) are all forms of ecstasy. Witness the masculine popularity of war stories, dangerous heroism, and sports playoffs.
But for the feminine, the search for love touches the core. Whether in soap operas, love stories, or talking with friends about relationships, the desire for love is what appears in feminine forms of entertainment.
The feminine wants to be filled with love, and if the bliss of real love is not forthcoming, chocolate and ice cream—or a good romantic drama—will do. The masculine wants to feel the bliss of a life lived at the edge, and if he doesn’t have the balls to do it himself, he’ll watch it on TV, in sporting events and cop shows.
Even though all people have both masculine and feminine qualities that they could use in any moment—to kick corporate ass or nurture children—most people have a more masculine or more feminine core. And this shows up in their preferred sexual play as much as in their chosen entertainments.
Trying to squeeze your masculine or feminine essence into a falsely balanced persona affects virtually every part of you. Many people with a true feminine essence manifest a range of disturbed physiological symptoms as their feminine energy “dries up” through running excess masculine energy through their body, year after year, in order to fit into a masculine style of work. And many people with a masculine essence, seeking to fit in with a feminine style of cooperation and energy flow, disconnect from their sense of life purpose and inhibit their deep truth, afraid of the consequences of being authentic to their own masculine core. Hence, the frequent complaints about too many ballbusters and too many wimps.
Furthermore, when you deny your true core, you deny the possibility of true and real love. Love is openness, through and through. And true spirituality is the practice of love, the practice of openness. People who deny their own essence and hide their true desires are divided and unable to relax into the full openness of love. Their spirit becomes cramped and kinked. Unable to feel the natural ease and unconstrained power of their own core, they feel threatened and frightened. This fear is the texture of their inability to open fully in love. Such people are spiritually handicapped, obstructed at heart, even though they may have achieved a safe relationship and a successful career.
According to Bacevich, the Republican party has abandoned conservative ideals (as he defines them in this article). And strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, he sees Obama as a better choice than McCain.
The Right Choice?
The conservative case for Barack Obama
by Andrew J. BacevichBarack Obama is no conservative. Yet if he wins the Democratic nomination, come November principled conservatives may well find themselves voting for the senator from Illinois. Given the alternatives—and the state of the conservative movement—they could do worse.
Granted, when it comes to defining exactly what authentic conservatism entails, considerable disagreement exists even (or especially) among conservatives themselves. My own definition emphasizes the following:
- a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
- a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
- veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
- a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
- respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on humane values;
- a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history.
Accept that definition and it quickly becomes apparent that the Republican Party does not represent conservative principles. The conservative ascendancy that began with the election of Ronald Reagan has been largely an illusion. During the period since 1980, certain faux conservatives—especially those in the service of Big Business and Big Empire—have prospered. But conservatism as such has not.
The presidency of George W. Bush illustrates the point. In 2001, President Bush took command of a massive, inefficient federal bureaucracy. Since then, he has substantially increased the size of that apparatus, which during his tenure has displayed breathtaking ineptitude both at home and abroad. Over the course of Bush’s two terms in office, federal spending has increased 50 percent to $3 trillion per year. Disregarding any obligation to balance the budget, Bush has allowed the national debt to balloon from $5.7 to $9.4 trillion. Worse, under the guise of keeping Americans “safe,” he has arrogated to the executive branch unprecedented powers, thereby subverting the Constitution. Whatever else may be said about this record of achievement, it does not accord with conservative principles.
As with every Republican leader since Reagan, President Bush has routinely expressed his support for traditional values. He portrays himself as pro-life and pro-family. He offers testimonials to old-fashioned civic virtues. Yet apart from sporting an American flag lapel-pin, he has done little to promote these values. If anything, the reverse is true. In the defining moment of his presidency, rather than summoning Americans to rally to their country, he validated conspicuous consumption as the core function of 21st-century citizenship.
Should conservatives hold President Bush accountable for the nation’s cultural crisis? Of course not. The pursuit of instant gratification, the compulsion to accumulate, and the exaltation of celebrity that have become central to the American way of life predate this administration and derive from forces that lie far beyond the control of any president. Yet conservatives should fault the president and his party for pretending that they are seriously committed to curbing or reversing such tendencies. They might also blame themselves for failing to see the GOP’s cultural agenda as contrived and cynical.
Finally, there is President Bush’s misguided approach to foreign policy, based on expectations of deploying American military might to eliminate tyranny, transform the Greater Middle East, and expunge evil from the face of the earth. The result has been the very inverse of conservatism. For Bush, in the wake of 9/11, ideology supplanted statecraft. As a result, his administration has squandered American lives and treasure in the pursuit of objectives that make little strategic sense.
For conservatives to hope the election of yet another Republican will set things right is surely in vain. To believe that President John McCain will reduce the scope and intrusiveness of federal authority, cut the imperial presidency down to size, and put the government on a pay-as-you-go basis is to succumb to a great delusion. The Republican establishment may maintain the pretense of opposing Big Government, but pretense it is.
Social conservatives counting on McCain to return the nation to the path of righteousness are kidding themselves. Within this camp, abortion has long been the flagship issue. Yet only a naïf would believe that today’s Republican Party has any real interest in overturning Roe v. Wade or that doing so now would contribute in any meaningful way to the restoration of “family values.” GOP support for such values is akin to the Democratic Party’s professed devotion to the “working poor”: each is a ploy to get votes, trotted out seasonally, quickly forgotten once the polls close.
Above all, conservatives who think that a McCain presidency would restore a sense of realism and prudence to U.S. foreign policy are setting themselves up for disappointment. On this score, we should take the senator at his word: his commitment to continuing the most disastrous of President Bush’s misadventures is irrevocable. McCain is determined to remain in Iraq as long as it takes. He is the candidate of the War Party. The election of John McCain would provide a new lease on life to American militarism, while perpetuating the U.S. penchant for global interventionism marketed under the guise of liberation.
The essential point is this: conservatives intent on voting in November for a candidate who shares their views might as well plan on spending Election Day at home. The Republican Party of Bush, Cheney, and McCain no longer accommodates such a candidate.
So why consider Obama? For one reason only: because this liberal Democrat has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq. Contained within that promise, if fulfilled, lies some modest prospect of a conservative revival.
To appreciate that possibility requires seeing the Iraq War in perspective. As an episode in modern military history, Iraq qualifies at best as a very small war. Yet the ripples from this small war will extend far into the future, with remembrance of the event likely to have greater significance than the event itself. How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.
The neoconservatives understand this. If history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war. The “freedom agenda” will command as much authority as the domino theory. Advocates of “World War IV” will be treated with the derision they deserve. The claim that open-ended “global war” offers the proper antidote to Islamic radicalism will become subject to long overdue reconsideration.
Give the neocons this much: they appreciate the stakes. This explains the intensity with which they proclaim that, even with the fighting in Iraq entering its sixth year, we are now “winning”—as if war were an athletic contest in which nothing matters except the final score. The neoconservatives brazenly ignore or minimize all that we have flung away in lives, dollars, political influence, moral standing, and lost opportunities. They have to: once acknowledged, those costs make the folly of the entire neoconservative project apparent. All those confident manifestos calling for the United States to liberate the world’s oppressed, exercise benign global hegemony, and extend forever the “unipolar moment” end up getting filed under dumb ideas.
Yet history’s judgment of the Iraq War will affect matters well beyond the realm of foreign policy. As was true over 40 years ago when the issue was Vietnam, how we remember Iraq will have large political and even cultural implications.
As part of the larger global war on terrorism, Iraq has provided a pretext for expanding further the already bloated prerogatives of the presidency. To see the Iraq War as anything but misguided, unnecessary, and an abject failure is to play into the hands of the fear-mongers who insist that when it comes to national security all Americans (members of Congress included) should defer to the judgment of the executive branch. Only the president, we are told, can “keep us safe.” Seeing the war as the debacle it has become refutes that notion and provides a first step toward restoring a semblance of balance among the three branches of government.
Above all, there is this: the Iraq War represents the ultimate manifestation of the American expectation that the exercise of power abroad offers a corrective to whatever ailments afflict us at home. Rather than setting our own house in order, we insist on the world accommodating itself to our requirements. The problem is not that we are profligate or self-absorbed; it is that others are obstinate and bigoted. Therefore, they must change so that our own habits will remain beyond scrutiny.
Of all the obstacles to a revival of genuine conservatism, this absence of self-awareness constitutes the greatest. As long as we refuse to see ourselves as we really are, the status quo will persist, and conservative values will continue to be marginalized. Here, too, recognition that the Iraq War has been a fool’s errand—that cheap oil, the essential lubricant of the American way of life, is gone for good—may have a salutary effect. Acknowledging failure just might open the door to self-reflection.
None of these concerns number among those that inspired Barack Obama’s run for the White House. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama’s habit of spouting internationalist bromides suggests little affinity for serious realism. His views are those of a conventional liberal. Nor has Obama expressed any interest in shrinking the presidency to its pre-imperial proportions. He does not cite Calvin Coolidge among his role models. And however inspiring, Obama’s speeches are unlikely to make much of a dent in the culture. The next generation will continue to take its cues from Hollywood rather than from the Oval Office.
Yet if Obama does become the nation’s 44th president, his election will constitute something approaching a definitive judgment of the Iraq War. As such, his ascent to the presidency will implicitly call into question the habits and expectations that propelled the United States into that war in the first place. Matters hitherto consigned to the political margin will become subject to close examination. Here, rather than in Obama’s age or race, lies the possibility of his being a truly transformative presidency.
Whether conservatives will be able to seize the opportunities created by his ascent remains to be seen. Theirs will not be the only ideas on offer. A repudiation of the Iraq War and all that it signifies will rejuvenate the far Left as well. In the ensuing clash of visions, there is no guaranteeing that the conservative critique will prevail.
But this much we can say for certain: electing John McCain guarantees the perpetuation of war. The nation’s heedless march toward empire will continue. So, too, inevitably, will its embrace of Leviathan. Whether snoozing in front of their TVs or cheering on the troops, the American people will remain oblivious to the fate that awaits them.
For conservatives, Obama represents a sliver of hope. McCain represents none at all. The choice turns out to be an easy one.
Twelve Keys of Emotional Intelligence
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Eugene Yiga of Varsity Blah.
Ever since Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence, the subject seems to have made its way into success literature all over the world. But what exactly is emotional intelligence and why is it so important?
Well, the “why” is quite clear. Many people find themselves successful in all the traditional ways (i.e. with money and all its flashy friends) but still not satisfied. Creating meaning in life requires strong relationships and doing so requires emotional intelligence.
So, how does one go about creating a greater sense of emotional intelligence? In this post, I will outline the twelve aspects involved and offer brief descriptions of each:
- Awareness. Recognising individual emotions as they occur, understanding why they occur, and understanding the effects (both good and bad) they have on you.
- Control. Resisting impulses and urges (delaying gratification), remaining calm even as chaos ensues, and always thinking clearly when those around you can’t.
- Assessment. Knowing strengths and weaknesses, learning from mistakes, and constantly striving to build on what you have in an attempt to make yourself better.
- Vision. Creating a sense of direction in your life, having the foresight to anticipate problems/needs before they arise, and paying attention to the details.
- Creativity. Thinking outside the box, developing a tolerance for ambiguity, and maintaining an openness to change.
- Innovation. Seeking out unconventional solutions to problems, keeping an open mind to novelty in the world, and applying creativity in practical ways.
- Ambition. Setting tough but attainable goals, constantly raising the bar in pursuit of excellence, and feeding the need for achievement whenever you can.
- Initiative. Taking the first step when opportunity arises, never sitting back because it’s not in your “job description”, and bending the rules (occasionally) when it comes to making progress.
- Conscientiousness. Accepting responsibility for personal performance, adopting a focused approach in your work, and understanding that nobody else is to blame for your shortcomings.
- Adaptability. Admitting when you’ve failed, remaining flexible in the face of obstacles, and never being too stubborn to change.
- Independence. Living with an unshakable sense of who you are, making your own decisions in the face of peer pressure, and acting despite tremendous risk and doubt.
- Optimism. Understanding we all make mistakes, choosing to persist no matter how many times you’ve failed, and always remaining hopeful that success is just around the corner.
Those of you who are familiar with Zen Habits know that a great way to create a habit is to do so in a month-long trial. Start at the top of the list and work your way down over the next year. Or simply choose whichever you feel will benefit you most right now and take it from there.
For example, to create a greater sense of awareness you could start meditating, even if it’s for only five minutes a day. For assessment, you could take some time off to be alone with your thoughts, by treating yourself to a solo lunch or spending the afternoon at a local park. Or just drive to work with the radio off.
Slowly but surely, you’ll begin to see the changes. As long as you take the time to really imprint these new behaviours they’re bound to stick and you’re bound to feel the difference.
Eugene Yiga is a post-graduate student at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and is the editor of Varsity Blah. For more resources and tips, download your free copy of “Work in Progress” exclusively from Varsity Blah.
Metropolis Ensemble performs Bartók's Rumanian Folk Dances with Avi Avital on Mandolin.
Here he plays with The League of Crafty Guitarists, a group that began as a workshop and then began to do some shows. He has released several albums with this group.
Enjoy the weirdness.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
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MSNBC reports some agreement on what the war has cost the nation as of last fall:
They also agree on the easiest figure to peg: the actual budgetary outlay by the U.S. government so far. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported last fall that $368 billion already had been spent on the Iraq war plus another $45 billion in benefits for the wounded and survivors of those killed in action.
Assuming this total were accurate for the five years we have been in Iraq, which it isn't (see above), that works out to $413 billion for the nation, or based on the $504 billion figure above:
- $4,681 per household
- $1,721 per person
- $341.4 million per day
The US budget for Iraq in FY 2007 came to $4,988/Iraqi. This is triple Iraq's per-person GDP. It's like spending $121,000 per person ($484,000 per family of 4) in the US. Why not just bribe the whole country?
Or consider this outdated (and badly written) breakdown from Wikipedia:
As the total passed 450 Billion dollars, the cost for the Iraq war reached approximately $1500.usd per person in the United States. If the Iraq war were to wind up costing 1.9 trillion dollars, the cost would be over 4.2 times higher ($6,300 per United States citizen.) This would put the expense at $25,000 for an average family of four ( or $32,000 per family if Afghanistan is included.)
As a comparison, with this money he estimates that one could have built 8 million houses, paid 15 million teachers, paid for the child care of 530 million kids, paid for the scholarship of 43 million students, offered social safety net during 50 year to Americans. Stigltz also said that United States help for Africa is only $5 billion soon to be superseded by China. $5 billions correspond to only the spending of 10 days for the war by the United States.
If Bush and the Congress want to create an incentive package for the economy, getting out of Iraq would be a good start.
Are you getting your money's worth?
This is a very useful article for anyone in or entering a romantic relationship. All too often we get caught up in the initial blissed out state of enmeshment and forget that we are forming a partnership. Of course the blissed out stuff rocks our world, but we also need to make time to negotiate what we want, expect, or need.
From The Vancouver Observer:
By Pohsuan Zaide
There isn’t a magic formula that works for everyone as there are too many variables and complexities involved in human relationships, but there are certain dispositions and attitudes that would guide us towards discovering what it is we are to do if we want to love well.
I am not giving you a set of precise instructions; rather, I am suggesting a road map to guide the way towards creating a love that is deep, vibrant, satisfying, and peaceful.
All relationships have three parts: I, You and We.
First, let me address the I and You parts of the Love Equation. It makes sense that the best relationshiping comes from when people can be their best selves. By that I mean that individuals who are happy with themselves and their lives, who have no hidden agendas that they are consciously or unconsciously needing someone else to solve or take care of, and are personally willing to learn and grow – they have the most to contribute towards healthy and loving relationships.
It follows to reason that we all have work to do, before we are truly ready and able to participate in loving relationships. Think of it as relationship preparation. If we are willing to learn, with each relationship we become more skilled at it.
The act of loving and the ability to love someone else depends on how skilled we are at loving ourselves and our own lives. Therefore, the actions that each person, the I and the You parts of the relationship, have to take are:
1. Learn about who you are and what drives your life; what values, goals, and passions motivate you and give your life meaning and purpose. This allows you to enter into a relationship with credits instead of debits, in a position to contribute to rather than take from the relationship.
2. Clarify what it is you want from a love relationship, but do so with maturity, reasonable expectations, and wisdom. Discard fairy tale notions of love like rescuing someone or being rescued by someone. They don’t work when the honeymoon is over. They are a set-up for failure, blame, and resentment.
3. Take full responsibility for your own happiness. Read books or seek outside support, but do not make your partner responsible for your unmet needs or unresolved pain.
This is a relationship killer. Your partner can support and encourage you in whatever healing and growth you may need, but he/she cannot overcome the personal obstacles you need to face yourself.
This is in part what I mean when I say that we must all keep our own hearts. You have to be your own protector, in charge of your own vulnerabilities and healing.
4. Accept the fact that nothing ever stays the same, and everyone and everything changes. Put your energy into what you will do today and the choices you can make today. Do not live in the past or the future. Instead, make a commitment to what you will do today to enrich your own life and your relationships.
5. Learn about the behaviors and habits that you use to manage anxiety, fear and pain from past relationships. Get help in changing or managing them.
This allows you to become a less reactive, defensive and needy person. What you do not acknowledge is unmanageable, and what is unmanageable, creates pain in your own heart and in your relationships.
That was a short list, but a tall order. But that, in fact, is just the beginning.
We are all works in progress, and whatever is unresolved in our hearts we will bring to contaminate our relationships. So the action of loving requires a continual commitment to personal growth and healing.
When we are thus prepared, we are ready to enter into relationship. We may then enjoy the giddiness of falling in love, that wondrous, light, intoxicating feeling that is so full of promise and hope. But we savor it knowing that soon it will wear out, and we will then have to do the real work of being a part of the we in love’s equation.
Because we have something to contribute and we enter on the understanding that we are to be responsible for ourselves, the work does not daunt us. Thus, we are prepared to:
1. Openly talk about our vision of relationship with the other, and be willing to co-create a joint vision together. What are our individual and joint goals? What values are important to safeguard?
2. Dialogue regularly about how we will manage various aspects of the relationship such as money, conflict management, open communication, roles and expectations, and so on.
3. Work through problems fairly and non-defensively. We are also willing to get help if we hit a stuck point.
4. Treat each other respectfully, compassionately, and lovingly. Choose kindness and lovingness instead of bitterness and resentment, especially during difficult times.
5. Build the trust brings us closer to each other. Trust is not a house of cards built on promises. Rather, it is an alliance forged on kindness, compassion, forgiveness, strength, integrity, honesty, and yes, sometimes compromise and sacrifice.
6. Enjoy the peace and love that comes from two separate, unique and mature individuals who have chosen to share their lives with each other.
There are no done deals, no happy ever after, no guarantees that the beautiful spouse, grand house, white picket fence and 2.5 kids will ensure you a life free of emotional pain or turmoil. It’s all about how mindful or conscious we want to be about who we are, what we choose to do, and how we learn to love someone.
Loving and feeling loved in return brings me deep joy and fulfillment. The work I’ve done to become a mature, loving, joyful, passionate and confident person has enabled me to participate in co-creating the loving relationship I now enjoy.
Today's Daily Dharma from Tricycle.
A Sheet of Paper
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. "Interbeing" is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix "Inter-" with the verb "to be," we have a new verb, inter-be...
Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, it is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point out one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step; From Everyday Mind, edited by Jean Smith, a Tricycle book.
From the AP, via Huffington Post -- it appears that the protests have spread to other Chinese provinces.
China acknowledged for the first time Thursday that anti-government riots that rocked Tibet last week have spread to other provinces, while communist authorities announced the first group of arrests in connection with the violence.
The moves came as the government sent armed police into far-flung towns and villages to reassert control in the Tibetan areas of western China as sporadic demonstrations against Chinese rule in Tibet continued to flare up.
A top Beijing Olympics official vowed the unrest would not disrupt plans for the torch relay preceding this summer's Olympics in Beijing. One leg of the relay is to pass through Tibet, taking the flame to the peak of Mount Everest sometime in May.
The official Xinhua News Agency said "riots in Tibetan-inhabited areas in the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu, both neighboring Tibet." It blamed both incidents on supporters of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
The Xinhua report confirms previous claims by exile Tibet activist groups that the protests had spread. Foreign journalists have been banned from going to Tibet and stopped by police from entering areas in other provinces large with Tibetan populations.
The Tibet Daily reported that 24 people had been arrested for endangering state security, and for other "grave crimes" for their roles in last Friday's riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa.
"This incident has severely disrupted the social order, harmed people's life and property, and these illegal acts organized, pre-planned, and well-designed by the Dalai clique," Lhasa deputy chief prosecutor Xie Yanjun was quoted as saying.
"We have to strike the aggressive criminals on the basis of facts guided by law," he said.
Xinhua said late Wednesday that 170 people had surrendered for their role in last week's riots in Lhasa. China says 16 people were killed, denying claims by Tibetan exile groups that 80 died.
ABC News is reporting that the Dalai Lama would meet with Chinese authorities in an effort to end the violence if there is some evidence of pregress on the part of the Chinese.
The Dalai Lama says he's willing to meet with Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao.
But Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader said Thursday he would not meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing unless there was "a real concrete development." He said he would be happy to meet them elsewhere.
Chinese officials have accused the Dalai Lama and his supporters of organizing violent clashes in Tibet in hopes of sabotaging this summer's Beijing Olympics and promoting Tibetan independence.
Reuters is reporting massive arrests of protesters.
Tibet authorities said on Thursday they had arrested dozens of people involved in a wave of anti-Chinese violence that has swept the mountain region and prompted Beijing to pour in troops to crush further unrest.
China's response to last week's violence -- which it says was orchestrated by the exiled Dalai Lama -- has sparked international criticism and has clouded preparations for the Beijing Olympics which the hosts hope will be the country's "coming-out party" as a world power.
The prosecutor's office in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, said 24 people faced charges of "endangering national security as well as beating, smashing, looting, arson and other grave crimes" in last Friday's riots, the Tibet Daily reported.
They were the first arrests since rioting erupted across the remote region. Some outside groups say hundreds of Tibetans may have already been detained, and the China News Service reported Lhasa has broadcast wanted pictures of more suspects.
"The facts of the crimes are clear and the evidence is solid, and they should be severely punished," a Lhasa deputy chief prosecutor, Xie Yanjun, said.
He echoed the Chinese government's accusation that it was exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and his "Dalai clique" who had engineered the violence.
Read more. Based on the reporting in this article, it seems that the Chinese government's state controlled media has been successful in turning the average Chinese citizen against the protesters in Tibet -- they blame the Dalai Lama for orchestrating the riots and uprising.
Once again, as flawed as our media sometimes is in this country, it could be a hell of a lot worse.
Finally, if you would like to add your name to a petition in support of the Tibetan people, follow this link.
Petition to Chinese President Hu Jintao:
As citizens around the world, we call on you to show restraint and respect for human rights in your response to the protests in Tibet, and to address the concerns of all Tibetans by opening meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Only dialogue and reform will bring lasting stability. China's brightest future, and its most positive relationship with the world, lies in harmonious development, dialogue and respect.
Body Builder Show
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
My buddy Jay sent this to me yesterday, but I couldn't blog it this morning. No internet connection in my humble home at the moment.
This is a great post from Zen Habits. All of us - no matter our belief system - could benefit from putting these "rules" into practice in our lives.
12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m not a Zen monk, nor will I ever become one. However, I find great inspiration in the way they try to live their lives: the simplicity of their lives, the concentration and mindfulness of every activity, the calm and peace they find in their days.
You probably don’t want to become a Zen monk either, but you can live your life in a more Zen-like manner by following a few simple rules.
Why live more like a Zen monk? Because who among us can’t use a little more concentration, tranquility, and mindfulness in our lives? Because Zen monks for hundreds of years have devoted their lives to being present in everything they do, to being dedicated and to serving others. Because it serves as an example for our lives, and whether we ever really reach that ideal is not the point.
One of my favorite Zen monks, Thich Nhat Hanh, simplified the rules in just a few words: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” It doesn’t get any better than that.
However, for those who would like a little more detail, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve discovered to work very well in my experiments with Zen-like living. I am no Zen master … I am not even a Zen Buddhist. However, I’ve found that there are certain principles that can be applied to any life, no matter what your religious beliefs or what your standard of living.
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” - Shunryu Suzuki
- Do one thing at a time. This rule (and some of the others that follow) will be familiar to long-time Zen Habits readers. It’s part of my philosophy, and it’s also a part of the life of a Zen monk: single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re pouring water, just pour water. When you’re eating, just eat. When you’re bathing, just bathe. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating or bathing. Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”
- Do it slowly and deliberately. You can do one task at a time, but also rush that task. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.
- Do it completely. Put your mind completely on the task. Don’t move on to the next task until you’re finished. If, for some reason, you have no choice but to move on to something else, try to at least put away the unfinished task and clean up after yourself. If you prepare a sandwich, don’t start eating it until you’ve put away the stuff you used to prepare it, wiped down the counter, and washed the dishes used for preparation. Then you’re done with that task, and can focus more completely on the next task.
- Do less. A Zen monk doesn’t lead a lazy life: he wakes early and has a day filled with work. However, he doesn’t have an unending task list either — there are certain things he’s going to do today, an no more. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. If you fill your day with tasks, you will be rushing from one thing to the next without stopping to think about what you do.
- Put space between things. Related to the “Do less” rule, but it’s a way of managing your schedule so that you always have time to complete each task. Don’t schedule things close together — instead, leave room between things on your schedule. That gives you a more relaxed schedule, and leaves space in case one task takes longer than you planned.
- Develop rituals. Zen monks have rituals for many things they do, from eating to cleaning to meditation. Ritual gives something a sense of importance — if it’s important enough to have a ritual, it’s important enough to be given your entire attention, and to be done slowly and correctly. You don’t have to learn the Zen monk rituals — you can create your own, for the preparation of food, for eating, for cleaning, for what you do before you start your work, for what you do when you wake up and before you go to bed, for what you do just before exercise. Anything you want, really.
- Designate time for certain things. There are certain times in the day of a Zen monk designated for certain activities. A time for for bathing, a time for work, a time for cleaning, a time for eating. This ensures that those things get done regularly. You can designate time for your own activities, whether that be work or cleaning or exercise or quiet contemplation. If it’s important enough to do regularly, consider designating a time for it.
- Devote time to sitting. In the life of a Zen monk, sitting meditation (zazen) is one of the most important parts of his day. Each day, there is time designated just for sitting. This meditation is really practice for learning to be present. You can devote time for sitting meditation, or do what I do: I use running as a way to practice being in the moment. You could use any activity in the same way, as long as you do it regularly and practice being present.
- Smile and serve others. Zen monks spend part of their day in service to others, whether that be other monks in the monastery or people on the outside world. It teaches them humility, and ensures that their lives are not just selfish, but devoted to others. If you’re a parent, it’s likely you already spend at least some time in service to others in your household, and non-parents may already do this too. Similarly, smiling and being kind to others can be a great way to improve the lives of those around you. Also consider volunteering for charity work.
- Make cleaning and cooking become meditation. Aside from the zazen mentioned above, cooking and cleaning are to of the most exalted parts of a Zen monk’s day. They are both great ways to practice mindfulness, and can be great rituals performed each day. If cooking and cleaning seem like boring chores to you, try doing them as a form of meditation. Put your entire mind into those tasks, concentrate, and do them slowly and completely. It could change your entire day (as well as leave you with a cleaner house).
- Think about what is necessary. There is little in a Zen monk’s life that isn’t necessary. He doesn’t have a closet full of shoes, or the latest in trendy clothes. He doesn’t have a refrigerator and cabinets full of junk food. He doesn’t have the latest gadgets, cars, televisions, or iPod. He has basic clothing, basic shelter, basic utensils, basic tools, and the most basic food (they eat simple, vegetarian meals consisting usually of rice, miso soup, vegetables, and pickled vegetables). Now, I’m not saying you should live exactly like a Zen monk — I certainly don’t. But it does serve as a reminder that there is much in our lives that aren’t necessary, and it can be useful to give some thought about what we really need, and whether it is important to have all the stuff we have that’s not necessary.
- Live simply. The corollary of Rule 11 is that if something isn’t necessary, you can probably live without it. And so to live simply is to rid your life of as many of the unnecessary and unessential things as you can, to make room for the essential. Now, what is essential will be different to each person. For me, my family, my writing, my running and my reading are essential. To others, yoga and spending time with close friends might be essential. For others it will be nursing and volunteering and going to church and collecting comic books. There is no law saying what should be essential for you — but you should consider what is most important to your life, and make room for that by eliminating the other less essential things in your life.
“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” - Wu Li