Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Value of Failure

When we are successful we keep doing the same thing. Often we close down around a routine or formula. We are on autopilot. But when we fail we try something new. Small failures along the way keep us open to new ideas. We remain flexible and vigilant.

Failure also teaches us about the power and wisdom of renunciation. Commitment requires renunciation. If you commit to an early morning meditation schedule then you can’t stay up late watching TV. That can be a tough renunciation for some people.

If you commit to an evening meditation schedule you can’t eat a big dinner because then you just want to veg out. It takes a lot of energy to meditate. You have to be alert. So you have to practice renunciation.

As a culture, Americans are not good at renunciation. It’s kind of a bad word because we live in a consumer culture. For years we have been treated like consumers and now it seems we’ve begun to see ourselves as consumers. Indulgence has become a conditioned cultural value. Extravagance and flamboyance are associated with American lifestyles. Our worth is measured by our possessions, status, and relationships. These values benefit corporate America but they cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the rest of us.

Renunciation protects us. It keeps us from closing down around our desires. If you go to a social gathering with a strong desire to find a romantic partner, all you see are ring fingers. You’re not interested in talking to anyone who’s wearing a wedding ring, so you are closed off.

What we want determines what we see. Since my wife retired she has been cooking wonderful dinners. But she also travels a lot since she retired. When she’s away, as I drive home from work all I see are restaurants. I don’t see anything else, just restaurants.

To stay open and engaged in what’s actually going on, we have to be aware of how much influence our desires have over us. There’s a Sufi saying that when a pickpocket meets a saint he only sees the saint’s pockets.

Any kind of commitment requires renunciation. Renunciation is a matter of putting aside our immediate desires just a little bit so we can stay focused on something bigger. When we were waiting and watching the horizon for signs of big wave, one that would carry us all the way in, it was tempting to take whatever wave came along.

Training in renunciation involves seeing our immediate desires as they arise without indulging them. If you indulge a desire what happens next? Another desire arises. And another and another. The faster you can indulge your desires the faster they arise. What happens to your life in all this chasing around? Where does it go?

But if you investigate the nature of desire rather than indulge it, the pattern is broken. When the next desire arises, here’s your opportunity again to investigate. As your understanding deepens the stream of desire slows to a trickle. It never dries up; but it loses its power over you.

 

 

The Wisdom of Humility

 

Humility comes from the root word humus, which means earth, soil. The dictionary defines humus as the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth.

Naturally and organically we are creatures of the earth; Alan Watts used to say that the earth is peopling. We came from the saltwater of the oceans and from the richness of the soil, which includes everything. It is aerated and moist because it’s not separate from the air and clouds.

Humility allows you to go all the way to the fertile ground, not stick up like you’re some big deal because you’ve got something that others don’t have. When you sink all the way to the ground you actually are a Big Deal—not because you are you but because you are not you. You’ve sunk down to the fertile ground of all being, which is not a solid ground. It is aerated with all sentient beings, so aerated that there’s no solidity at all. It is completely groundless.

With humility we may even experience the groundless ground from which all of reality arises and takes a particular shape and function for a little while in the conventional world. Then it returns to the groundless ground of interdependence and interpenetration. Humility is realizing in a visceral way that we are not separate from anything else. It allows us to sink down into the rich soil, all the way to the bottom.

The more naturally humble you are the more confident you are. It’s not a childish, arrogant confidence that is based on some accomplishment that you are proud of. Relaxed confidence doesn’t depend on accomplishment because it is the parent of accomplishment not the child of it.

You don’t have to be right all the time. If you worry about being right then you have a very fragile confidence. But with humility your confidence is steady, it can withstand turbulent times when things don’t go the way you thought they would. When you fall down you just get up. Falling down is no problem. Asking for help is no problem.

Confidence without humility is heavy, so heavy that it’s hard to get up when you’ve fallen. It tells you that failure means you can’t do it. You’re embarrassed and even ashamed to ask for help because that means you’re not good enough. Confidence without humility is rigid. It breaks easily because it is clinging to something specific.

Zen practice is about sinking down into the humus, where humility and confidence come together naturally to create a humble feeling of being at home in your body, wherever it is, whatever is happening. In the soil, we discover a way of being that allows us to experience the world as alive and part of who we are.

 

 

Wake Up from the Trance of Unworthiness

For many people, living with deeply ingrained feelings of unworthiness has become the norm. The veils of unworthiness—which often include guilt, shame, remorse, anguish, and resentment—can be so dense that we feel like we’re sleepwalking through life.

Feeling unworthy is behavior based. We have the capacity to change our behavior. But first, we have to see clearly that the behavior patterns that cause us so much pain are based on cognitive misperceptions and coping mechanisms that sustain rather than dissolve our of unworthiness.

The primary trance-inducing veil is fear-based thinking. When we’re stuck in fear-based thinking we are driven by a need to succeed or dominate in order to feel that we have value in the world. We act out in inappropriate and destructive ways. The more we do this, the deeper our trance of unworthiness becomes.

It’s important to recognize that fear-based thinking is evolutionary. It’s called the negativity bias and as a survival mechanism it makes sense. Imagine that one of our early ancestors saw rustling in tall grasses. If his instincts consistently told him it was a tiger rather than a rabbit his risk of extinction decreases.

Today, in first world countries we do not live in life-threatening situations. But the fight/flight/freeze response still gets activated, mostly through the movies inside our head. When our mental movies are fear-based we tend to be either overtly or passively aggressive, conflict-avoidant, or frozen through indecisiveness.

The PECSI Group (Psychologists with a Buddhist Orientation) talks about the scary movie analogy. We enjoy scary movies where we willingly suspend our disbelief and allow our emotions to flow with the content of the movie, like being on an emotional rollercoaster.

But we don’t realize that we also suspend our disbelief in the movies inside our head. As a Zen teacher the movies I hear about from my students have a common theme: I’m not good enough to calm my mind. I’m not disciplined enough. My mind is too chaotic and my emotions are too sticky.

What is going on when people think they can’t meditate?

Well, for one thing, in meditation we are alone with our patterns. When discomfort arises in the form of physical or emotional pain, our tendency is usually to fight it, becoming agitated and irritable; but we have no distractions, so we’re stuck with it. Or we try to escape the discomfort through fantasy and then feel guilty or shameful. Or we freeze up like a stone, holding our mind in a state of rigid, unfeeling blankness. In meditation we see that fight/flight/freeze is still our knee-jerk reaction, even to ordinary life situations and within our relationships.

The second veil is emotional reactivity, which is also fear-based. We often use people, food, or activities like shopping or gambling or even worshipping to help us to avoid our reactive emotions. Maybe we use spiritual objects like altars. You may have an altar in every corner of your house. Well, that’s fine if it’s meant to remind you that your entire house is an altar and that everyday life is the place of enlightenment.

If you think that religious life is separate from ordinary life, that a spiritual calm is separate from the unruly surf of life’s great ocean, then you are caught in a mental movie about living a spiritual life. In real life, it is the nature of the ocean to create surf.

Emotions are powerful. They tend to drive our lives. Drive sounds negative, but it can also be positive. Look at Barack Obama. He’s smart. He can run different narratives simultaneously—philosophical ones, psychological ones—but it’s the depth of his hope, courage, joy and love that sustains him.

Adolf Hitler was also smart. But he was driven by anger and the painful emotions of betrayal. Look at how far these unwholesome emotions took him because he kept them revved up with rhetoric and compulsive thinking. He almost ruled the world.

The key is to bring our strong emotions into our awareness without fueling them with our stories. In meditation we learn to see a strong emotion as it arises. We feel its intensity and notice where in our body it is held. Eventually, we begin to see our reactive patterns. We notice how we magnify and generalize. How we weave a web around the emotion that constrains, dominates, and hypnotizes us. When we cling to our stories we are caught.

Yes, fear-based thinking is instinctual; but human beings are not limited by instinct. We have the capacity to choose, to change our behavior, and to cultivate skillful ways of responding to the world.

It begins with an acknowledgement that unworthiness is behavior based. Living skillfully means noticing (in a non-judgmental way) our thought patterns, their associated emotions, and our reactivity to those emotions. Buddha said, “All that we are is based on our thoughts.” I would add that our thoughts emanate from our understanding of the world and our place in it. From a Buddhist perspective our world is thoroughly interconnected and your place in it is right where you are.

Through a regular meditation practice our heart and mind open up to an experiential understanding of interconnection. Gradually, our thoughts change, our behaviors change, and the trance of unworthiness begins to dissolve. It is a very natural and organic process.

 

Excerpted from Burkett’s upcoming book Our Mystical Reality: A User’s Guide to Living in this Interconnected Universe. He is also the author of Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are

Are You a Delusion?

When our ancestors looked into the night sky they were captivated by the heroes and villains who lived there. They traced lines around star clusters and projected wonderful characters onto them. They told stories about how these sky beings passed their stories down from generation to generation.

The constellation Orion is the most recognizable constellation in the night sky. If you live in the west, you probably know Orion as a great hunter. Over his left arm hangs a lion’s skin for a shield. In his right hand he wields his unbreakable club. He is locked in battle against his eternal enemy Taurus, the mighty bull, with splendid long horns and fire darting out from his eye. Huddled behind Taurus are the Pleiades, the seven sisters, distraught and frightened.

However, if you live in the Middle East you may know Orion as a heavenly shepherd. In some European tales he is a magic archer. The Vedic hymns of ancient India know him as the deer Mriga, who is surrounded by hunting dogs.

What stories we tell! Constellations are just stars and stars are whirling clouds of cosmic dust at very high temperatures. Many constellations are made up of smaller constellations, which in turn are made up of still smaller ones. We know that the stories we tell about the stars are just fabrications. But what if you discovered that you are also a fabrication?

Buddhism offers a model of the self that is based on constellations, or aggregates. According to this model, you are comprised of five major aggregates: form, sensation, perception, impulse/emotion, and consciousness or thought. Each of these five constellations is made up of smaller constellations and together they account for every aspect of your experience.

In Buddhist psychology, an understanding of the self as a constellation is an example of upaya, or “skillful means.” It offers a way of relating to our lived experience with lightness, buoyancy, and resilience, holding our sense of self lightly, regardless of what happens in our lives.

Through a regular meditation practice we come to realize, as Buddha did, how we fragment and divide what is ultimately a dynamic, undivided whole. Human consciousness is not separate from the great oceanic cosmos, whose form, color, taste, smell, and sound are created within our own mind.

The stories we create provide a sense of structure and security in an uncertain world. Security is important–but the fear that glues it together can be limiting. Through meditation we begin to see both the value and the limitations of our story-telling mind and discover the freedom of a mind unburdened by these limitations.

For meditation practitioners there are often two distinct phases to their practice. The first is about settling-in and it may be quite pleasant. There is more bodily awareness, more awareness of breathing, some moments of real calmness occur, along with the realization that we can be calm regardless of what’s going on. We begin to feel comfortable in our meditation and in daily life. Concentration becomes steady and the ability to stay with the breath builds confidence and resilience. Posture improves. The mind still chatters but it doesn’t dominate quite so much. We feel lighter, less burdened.

But many Zen practitioners enter a second phase. As our practice matures and our thoughts slow down, a sense of separation and loneliness seeps into our awareness. Comfort vanishes. Anxiety bubbles up and we begin to experience more psychic pain than we had before. We may quit or blame the teacher and search for a different one. This can be a difficult time for both teacher and student. It is painful to lose a student just when his or her practice is beginning to yield something deeply significant.

There’s a wonderful Zen anecdote that compares the ego to an eggshell. The student is inside pecking to get out while the teacher taps from the outside. The metaphor is another example of skillful means, helping us to dis-identify with the egoic thoughts and emotions that make us feel separate and isolated.

The second phase of meditation can be disorienting. It is meant to disorient–so we can re-orient to a self that is not contained within a rigid ego shell. This transformative stage is always marked by difficulty. It’s painful to recognize that you’re confined within a limited and constricted space, one that lacks abiding joy and spiritual freedom. To move through the pain, first you have to get very close to it. This is what’s referred to as pecking the shell.

Learning to relax into whatever is happening, even our pain, is what Zen practice is about. As a teacher, my job is to help people stay with their difficulty and experience it fully, without withdrawing. An acceptance of our own pain and suffering with an attitude of kindness allows us to connect with others. As our heart opens it dissolves our shell of separation.

In 1950, Albert Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to a grieving father who lost his son to polio. In this letter, Einstein wrote:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.