What the Laughing Buddha Knew — Part 3 on Transforming Suffering

In the last two posts, we explored the nature of suffering (http://spiritualsushi.com/making-sense-of-suffering-part-1/) and how to transform it (http://spiritualsushi.com/attend-befriend-part-2-engaging-transforming-suffering/). This third post in the series is about building the inner capacity to make this shift. There is a story of the Laughing Buddha that helped me see this pattern.

The Laughing Buddha was a jolly monk who lived in the 10th century in China. He’s often pictured with a big belly and a giant sack. The sack was key to his work. He wandered around town carrying the sack with things in there to give away to people he encountered — money for someone in need, a bit of food for people who were hungry, toys for children, and a smile for everyone. When he encountered people with means, he asked for something to add to his sack. 

The Laughing Buddha was recognized by the people around him as compassionate and in touch with a deeper source of being. One day, an admirer asked him what is the essence of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha smiled, put down his sack, and settled into a seated meditation. The observer was puzzled and then asked his question again, reframing it, what is the expression of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha opened his eyes, laughed, grabbed his sack, and went on his way to continue his work. 

This story was a revelation to me. Through this illustration, the Laughing Buddha expressed where he found inspiration for his compassionate actions — the space within — and how he expressed this inspiration — with his work in the world.  I have found this pattern in the lives and actions of many great souls who spent much time in meditation and solitude as an enabler of their efforts. But why does this work?

Meditation is about turning within, to silence, to the space of emptiness. One of the things that happen here in this infinite space of emptiness is the ability to connect with the oneness of all things. As we’ll explore in a future post, form (physical or mental) is bounded while emptiness is boundless. God, in many traditions, is understood to be formless, boundless, infinite. In dropping boundaries, it is possible to feel the divine and a deeper sense of unity and connection. This state of being can’t really be expressed in words, but it can be experienced. 

Another aspect of meditation or prayer is about becoming more centered and rooted in how we respond to the outer world. Gandhi once said I have a busy day today so I need to meditate an hour extra. What he indicated was that this inner work was needed for him to show up as present, calm, and intentional regardless of the external turmoil. This is often the reverse of what we may tend to fall into when there is greater stress and demands.  I tend to tip into trying to do more, working harder to milk more output from time. But, of course, under duress, we’re often not equipped to do — or be — our best. 

The Dalai Lama indicated that while meditation was not about thinking, it was not akin to sleep. It is, he explained, about being able to see more clearly. Our minds are busy, cluttered with a flurry of thoughts and emotions, especially under stress. We can’t see or think clearly unless we can let this noise settle. Part of seeing, is turning our sights to what’s within us and becoming aware of our own thinking, emotions, and behaviors. 

To practice Attend and Befriend (http://spiritualsushi.com/attend-befriend-part-2-engaging-transforming-suffering/), we need to catch ourselves in the throes of unconscious and uncontrolled reactivity (http://spiritualsushi.com/making-sense-of-suffering-part-1/) and move our response to conscious choice. It is not easy to do in the moment unless we are predisposed to doing so — roots after all take time to set. This is where steady spiritual practice comes in. 

In the end, spiritual practice serves not to help us escape the world, but to live more intentionally in it. What do you think?

Attend & Befriend (Part 2 — Engaging & Transforming Suffering)

In the last Spiritual Sushi post, about the nature of suffering (http://spiritualsushi.com/making-sense-of-suffering-part-1/), the focus was on how do we shift from suffering to acceptance and compassion. Here I offer the most helpful guidance I have found. 

As humans, we are wired to react to threats with a fight or flight response. We respond by fleeing the source of the pain or turning around to attack it. Our brains are wired for this. The amygdala at the root of the brain stem is quick to respond automatically — almost unconsciously — to save us from threats.  To turn this around, we need to engage consciously instead.

The teacher Tara Brach offers a way to do this with the path of “attend and befriend” in place of fight or flight. The “attend” stance is to turn to see the other — the source of the threat or attack — with conscious awareness. The “befriend” response is to engage them with compassion. 

The following story from Terry Dobson when he was studying in Japan illustrates this well.

An American aikido student in Tokyo was headed home one afternoon on the train when at a stop, a big, drunk man stormed into the cabin roughly shoving a slow-moving woman with a baby ahead of him. He glared around the cabin looking to see who might challenge him. The aikido student thought if there was ever a reason to apply his practice it was now. 

So, he locked eyes with the man, who snarled and stepped towards him. As the student braced for the physical engagement, a voice from the other side of the cabin called out– hey! The two men wheeled around in the direction of the voice. It was an elderly man with kindly eyes. Have you been drinking sake, he asked the drunk, beaming? What’s it to you? said the drunk, now stepping toward him. Well, I love sake too, said the older man. Every night, I sit with my wife in my garden with my wife and we enjoy some warm sake. Do you also sit with your wife in the evenings? he asked the drunk, who was taken off guard. The man blinked and stuttered, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a job, I have nothing. Then, tears burst down his cheeks. Here, here, said the older gentleman, patting the seat beside him. The drunk tumbled forward, slumping into the arms of the older man. The student watching it all unfold in amazement observed: Today, I learned what true aikido is. 

This story illustrates the power of compassion. It may seem idealistic but, as we’ll explore in the next post, is exactly how great social change leaders have created great change. 

This practice of attend and befriend can also be applied to ourselves. When we are upset with ourselves or our circumstance, we also tend to resort to the fight or flight response — to blame ourselves or others, or try to avoid and bury the anger. The attend and befriend response is to tune in and acknowledge our feelings with compassion. What I have found is that many things, when acknowledged, are released. 

My daughter, when she was a toddler, liked to run. Unsteady on her feet, she’d often fall, sometimes on the sidewalk. I found that I could tell her to be careful but this would cause her to wail more loudly; if I gave her a comforting hug instead and asked if she was okay, she’d quickly smile, nod, and so be back to her cheerful self. 

Kindness offered is not quickly forgotten and paid forward.

You may recall the classic Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion. Androcles, a runaway slave who had taken refuge in a cave, found himself face to face with a fierce lion who was sheltered there. The lion roared and Androcles was terrified. But the lion then raised a paw. There was a giant thorn there. Slowly Androcles summoned his courage and approached the lion and gently removed the thorn. The lion licked Androcles in gratitude. When they parted ways, Androcles and the lion were both captured. Androcles was put into an arena to be fed to the lions. As he was pushed into the ring, a lion was let loose from the opposite side. The lion charged at him but then recognizing Androcoles turned into the likes of a puppy, embracing and licking Androcles. The stunned emperor who was watching the spectacle summoned Androcoles. On hearing the story, both Androcles and the lion were released. 

Attend and befriend doesn’t avoid or seek to avenge harm but heal the cycles of abuse and hurt that ripple through the world. The truth is we all have plenty of thorns stuck in us that cause us pain and anger. These may be hard to see and frightening to engage. Yet, like the lion, we want someone to attend to our pain and offer us kindness. We too can offer compassion to others for the hurt that they may be carrying.

In a future post, I’ll write about how we can build our inner capacity for compassion. For now, what has been your experience in how to respond to harm with compassion?

Related posts:

Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness

Anger! (and Conscious Choice)

Compassion is Contagious, too

Making Sense of Suffering (Part 1 – Awareness & Intention)

Experiencing pain and suffering are a salient part of being human. We have all have been served with hardships and loss, some of us to a far greater degree than others. Pain experienced repeatedly and left to fester becomes embedded trauma. Trauma unhealed metastasises and is triggered again and again. In this pattern, a lot depends not just on what happens to us, but how we process and heal the hurt. I had an ‘aha‘ about our response to suffering reading the framing of The Book of Job by Stephen Mitchell. It cast that Biblical story in a new light for me. 

In this telling, Job is a righteous and successful man. He has a big family, good health, a good reputation, and a prosperous business. One day it all changes. His business fail, his children die one after the other, he loses his health and is reduced to being destitute, living by the side of the road, sick and covered in sores. His former friends passing by accuse him of having done something evil in order to be punished thus. Job knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve his lot and lamented endlessly to God. One day, God takes him up to heaven where he sees for a moment with God’s eye. In a flash, he takes in the breath of the universe and its many interlinked connections that ripple across the span of people, place, and time. It all makes sense. Job bows down with acceptance and humility, Who was I to doubt? 

This story recognizes that we don’t know why bad things happen to good people and we may never know what ripples forth in the grand scheme of things. It offers that there is meaning beyond what we can see and our job is to accept what has happened with grace. This acceptance is a way to release the mental suffering that can eat us up on the inside. 

Another powerful reframe is the story of Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. As a young Jewish psychiatrist from Austria, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Trapped in this horrific environment — with brutal labor, bitter cold, starvation rations, beatings, and the constant threat of being killed — there was little reason to feel anything but deep suffering, grief, and despair. But Frankl flipped this script of hopelessness. He decided that he would use the little power he had to make a difference. He chose to comfort his fellow prisoners, help them where he could, and share the little food he had with those who needed it more desperately. Over time, he felt his power grow until he felt more powerful than his captors. He said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”   

What Frankl discovered — the philosophy he called logotherapy — was that we can’t necessarily control what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. The Buddha also focused on this very idea. He said, I come to teach one thing and one thing only. The nature of suffering, and the end to suffering. 

If we don’t transform this suffering, we can retreat in despair, become defeated, or grow angry and bitter, weaponizing the pain for attacks we launch against ourselves and others. We see this pattern play out with some powerful people in business and politics who do enormous damage as a result of the inner hurt they have experienced, often as children. 

At the same time, people like Mandela, MLK, and Gandhi are leaders who create great change precisely because they have suffered great ills and injustice (I will explore this further in future posts). Mandela wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

In all these examples of engaging hardship — with acceptance, resilience, compassion, or transformation — we see that the hinge that swings us backward or forward is the internal meaning we make of suffering. How we process hurt and the story we create around it for ourselves changes everything. The Buddha, in his parable of the Two Arrows, asks: If you were shot by an arrow, would it hurt. The listener answers, yes, it would. And, continued the Buddha, if you were shot a second time, would it not hurt even more. The answer is, of course it would! The Buddha then says, the first arrow is the thing that hits us from the outside. The second arrow is the one we shoot at ourselves in response to the first arrow. It is the suffering we create for ourselves with our response of anger, fear, hurt, or despair. And, it can become a far more grievous wound. This is a lesson I have to continually remind myself about when bad things happen and I reach quickly, automatically, and unconsciously for the second arrow.

So, the key is choosing not to fire the second arrow but to turn our suffering into an instrument for engaging hurt and injustice with compassion and courage. But how? This transformative practice is not easy but possible. We will explore some spiritual ideas and practices for that in a future Spiritual Sushi post. For now, what is your experience with suffering? What enables you to release or transform it?

Related Posts:

Walking in the Garden of Forgiveness

Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness

Healing the Heart of America

Living the Time of Your Life (Sisyphus and Groundhog Day — An exploration of time)

At the start of the year, I saw a cartoon showing a couple of aliens in a spaceship watching the fireworks flash over the earth. “What’s going on down there?” asked one. The other replied: “they’re celebrating their planet making a loop around the sun.” New Year’s is an arbitrary event that we infuse with much meaning. For many of us, it marks an opportunity for a new start. A chance to begin again. A time to try to make things better. But the opportunity for change comes around more frequently than a circuit around the sun. The issue of time revolves around how it is spent.   

The Greek myth of Sisyphus is a story of endless punishment using the weight of time. Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a giant rock up a hill to cast it over the top, only to reach close to the summit after a day of pushing and have the stone slip and roll down to the bottom. The next day, he is forced to begin again. I wonder what Sisyphus felt. He never gave up, determined that he’d one day get the rock over the top. And yet he somehow never changed his actions, repeating the same failed approach day after day.  

There is another story from one of my favorite films, Groundhog Day. In the film (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it), Bill Murray, an arrogant news reporter is somehow forced to live a single day over and over in a small town he detests. At first he tries to escape, then he runs wild and crazy knowing that his actions have no consequences as the day will repeat. In the end, he’s finally redeemed when he chooses the day to make things better for the people he encounters. It is his way out of the endless loop into a life he loves. 

I had another encounter with the concept of time that was real and mythical all at once. I had been invited to Chile to receive an award and was seated next to a rather unassuming Norweigan who also was invited to receive an award. He was Erling Kagge, a remarkable adventurer who was the first person to make it to the three poles of the earth — North, South, and Everest. His story was quite remarkable. He had travelled to Antartica to ski to the South Pole solo. On arriving, he disposed of his satellite phone battery so he’d be truly alone. To make the journey with the food he could carry, he had to ski 16 hours a day for 50 days across the endless terrain. I asked him what happened to his mind in this time of being alone, skiing endlessly over an endless terrain. He said his mind just emptied. He was one with nature, the way a tree is alive, present, and growing quietly. This is a target state in mindfulness, to achieve a blissful state of just being in the present. 

In the mindfulness teachings, the message is that all we have is now — the present. In the Power of Now and Be Here Now, we are reminded that we only exist in the present and we often miss it reliving in the past or planning for the future. But what do you do when the present is what you want to escape from? 

There is a lesson about this in another one of my favorite films is the Damma Brothers. It focuses on a group of prisoners in a maximum-security prison who are locked up for life. They are angry and trapped. Many feel that they don’t deserve their punishment. In the film, they learn to meditate using Vipassana and find a measure of freedom. While still locked in prison, they find a place of peace and joy within themselves to escape to. The endless weight of time is lifted.

Truth is that we don’t know how much time we have. But we have a choice about what we do with our time. Do we act like Sisyphus, helplessly bound to fate and routine? Do we choose to be like Bill Murray at the end of Groundhog Day and find meaning in making a better life for others? The choice of focus on the outer world is also contrasted by the choice to tune inwards. In Vipassana, the teacher Goenka repeats the catchphrase at the beginning of each session: “Start Again.” Every moment — not just the New Year — is an opportunity to start again. This echoes words attributed to the Buddha, “Each day we are born again. It is what we do today that matters most.” 

In the end, it’s not just what we do with time but also how we engage it. Sisyphus perhaps found meaning in his endless pursuit as much as the Norweigan skier did and the prisoners did by shifting their mindframe. The Bill Murray character transformed his endless day through a simple but profound shift in mindset. The day that dawned as a result was the same and yet completely different. This in the end is the power we have over time. We can’t stop time but we can still ourselves. We thus transform from being slaves of the clock to masters of our days. 

Related post:

An Encounter with Eternity

Out Beyond Right and Wrong (Seeing our Way Through these Troubled Times)

The mystic Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

We are in a time in history when fierce battles of righteousness are being waged. In the US, in the wake of the bitterly contested elections (and long before), we are outraged by the actions and perspectives of others, who are also outraged by our own actions and perspectives. There are calls for unity but often these call for adversaries to unite behind our own positions. Is there another way?

When I worked in Africa I heard a story at a school that stuck with me. At the boarding school, a student was caught stealing from other kids. Based on the honor code, the student had to be expelled. On the morning he was to depart, he was encircled by other students and teachers who knew him well. One by one they spoke, sharing the things they appreciated about him, naming the good he did and was, and wishing him well. While the student was expelled for his actions, his actions didn’t negate the good that he represented. It was important for him to hear this. It provided a basis for healing — for him and them.  

When I was in Arizona visiting a Native American settlement, I heard of a tradition of how spirits would come to visit a village seeking out naughty children. The parents would loudly call out an apology for the child’s misdeeds but also name all the good qualities they had, beseeching the spirits to spare the child. The spirits were of course fellow villagers in costume and the calling out of the good qualities by the parents was not for the spirits to hear, but for the child. We can certainly name the wrongs others have done, but we can also see and acknowledge the good that they do? 

Along with a couple of colleagues, I have created a tool for community dialogue named I See You (https://cometta.co/i-see-you). It is meant to help us see and hear others. The expression I see you comes from the Zulu greeting Sawubona. What does it take to see someone more fully? Part of this is hearing their story, their struggles, their hurts, and their dreams. This builds empathy. 

In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill attacks in the US, I was struck by a statement offered by a protestor from North Carolina, the state where I now live. The 67-year-old retired landscaper had said: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!” 

Indeed, people everywhere are hungry to be seen. I believe that much of the harm that we do to others is a result of the pain we feel. The columnist David Brooks who writes about the state of America honed in on this as well. He said:

“Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone. People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension. Employees feeling invisible at work. Husbands and wives living in broken marriages, realizing that the person who should know them best actually has no clue.”

The call to see others is a call not to ignore them but it is also not a call to ignore the actions that have may have caused harm and hurt. In the African practice of Truth & Reconciliation, truth-telling precedes reconciliation. Our actions have consequences and there is a need for justice and restitution. Yet, the Truth & Reconciliation process recognizes that we truly want in the end is peace and reconciliation.

So, we have much that we disagree about today, much to feel angry about, and much we want to change. We want others to tune in and pay attention to us. Will we offer them the same? Listening is not offering agreement, but in listening, we might find an open space to build a fresh relationship. This is the field of possibility that I believe Rumi invited us to discover. Let us meet each other there.

Related post:



The Parable of the Stonecutter (and a Message about Goals and Grace)

The New Year is a time when we focus on setting goals, framing intentions, and sharing aspirations. We think about what we want to create in our lives. Wanting things that are different and better is a part of being human. It is also a delicate dance with acceptance of what we get and may not want. There’s an old story that illustrates this.

A stonecutter was laboring chipping away at the face of a mountain. It was hard work, and it was his reality day after day. As he cut the rock, a wealthy merchant passed by, carried on a palanquin by a team of porters. How fortunate is he, said the stonecutter to himself, while I labor endlessly his life is effortless. How I wish I were him. There must have been some magic in the air because he was immediately transported into the body of the merchant. He found himself on some plush cushions. Ah, this is life, said the stonecutter. But in a few minutes, he began to sweat profusely. It was a hot day and the sun was beating down. His silk gown was soon soaked. Glancing up, he said, how I wish I was the sun. It is up there unencumbered, overlooking everything. 

Once, again, in an instant, he became the sun. Up in the sky, he could see the world. But soon the sun found his rays blocked. There was a giant cloud. Again, discontent kicked in, the stonecutter wished to be like the cloud who could float through the sky and block the sun. And, in an instant, he was the cloud, floating freely in the sky. Suddenly, however, he found himself being pushed firmly against his will. It was the wind moving him around. How I wish I was the wind, said the stonecutter quickly. And he became the wind. The wind roamed about, rushing through the sky, through the trees. And then, it was stopped abruptly. It had collided with the mountain. I wish I was the mountain, said the stonecutter, and once again, there he was the mighty mountain, standing tall and firm. But, only for a moment, for there was a sharp pain at his base. Looking down, he saw a humble stonecutter, chipping away. The stonecutter wished himself back to his original form. 

This story illustrates at one level that desire is endless and no existence is beyond hardship. Many spiritual teachings emphasize acceptance. This act of making peace with our lot and finding meaning in it is illustrated in another story, that of a stonemason. 

A man was walking through town when he saw a team of men stacking rocks. What are you doing, he asked one of them. The man glanced up, annoyed, can’t you see?, he said, I am stacking this pile of rocks. The walker turned to a second man and asked again, what are you doing? The man looked at him with a joyful smile and declared, I am building a cathedral. 

This story illustrates the power of transforming our lives by transforming the meaning we attach to what we do. As you likely have, I have encountered and been inspired by people doing repetitious and difficult work with a sense of grace and joy. I wrote about this in a blog post when I lived in Mauritius (The Power of Positivity link).

Yet, desire and discontent is an essential trigger for improving our lives. Because we want things to be better, we work to address problems and create new things. Without this, we’d be relatively static, stuck wherever and with whatever we find ourselves. Our modern socialization emphasizes agency, empowerment, and innovation; it differs from the times when people were encouraged to be content with their lot and not rock the boat. People thus accepted lives of great hardship and poverty because that’s what was expected. Yet, because they accepted this, they may have suffered less than we who have much more and are less satisfied.  

Finding the balance between desire and acceptance is among the biggest balancing acts we face as humans. Continual desire for what we don’t have can place us in a constant state of stress and turmoil, where nothing is good enough. Passive acceptance of what is given to us can put us in a place of being at the mercy of circumstance and sometimes exploitation. 

Finding the place between action and acceptance is delicate dance. The sweet spot is expressed in the Prayer of Serenity by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference

The quote speaks of wisdom. Finding the wisdom to know the difference between what to accept and what to change is not easy or obvious. In the parable of the stonecutter, it is often what we only find through lived experience, finding that advancement doesn’t necessarily mean that problems go away. As we set our goals for the future, we need to leaven our desire for change with grace and acceptance for what happens. Finding ways to rise with courage and fall gracefully is a dance (much more on this in future posts). 2020 has given us much experience in encountering the unexpected. We can build on that, even as we reach forward with new hopes for the future. The future may not be as we hope but our effort matters in shaping outcomes. May you step boldly towards your goals in the year ahead and may you find grace in the dance. 

A Sufi dancer swirls but stays centered; motion and stillness, in balance

Leave it at the Stream (Putting the Happy into the New Year)

We’re at the end of an exceptional year. The passage of one year into another is a time for reflection and intention. What do you leave behind? What do you carry forward into the future?

There is a story of two monks who were making their way home when they encountered a woman by the side of a stream. She was on her way to a wedding and dressed elegantly. She didn’t want to wade through the water and asked the monks if one of them could help her cross. One of the monks stepped forward, picked her up, and carried her across the stream. He splashed back across the water to his colleague and they continued on their way back home. On the way back, his colleague scolded the monk who carried the woman: “As monks, we’re not allowed to touch a woman! How could you have done that! How disgraceful!” The torrent of outrage went on and on until they reached the monastery. The monk finally turned to his friend and said, “I only carried the woman across the stream but you have carried her all the way home.”

Sometimes the other monk accompanying us is our own inner voice. What is it we carry and keep repeating to ourselves? This pattern of playing a memory over and over in our heads — the act of rumination — can color our mood and our outlook and, continued over time, our very state of being. 

The sage Lao Tzu stated, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

While we can replay the bad things that happen in our minds, we also can also choose to return to the good we have experienced. We can savor positive experiences, filling ourselves with a sense of wellbeing and gratitude. The practice of gratitude (more on this in future posts) is a superpower. 

I recently watched a video of people who had lived past 100 years (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AThycGCakk). What struck me was their sense of happiness and appreciation for their lives. This was not because their lives were bereft of hardships — they’d been through wars, loss, and waves of difficult times — but because they chose to focus on what was good and the things they still got to enjoy, however small (more to come in the future on practices for dealing with hardship). 

So 2020 may have been a very tough year. As we begin the New Year, we can choose to leave the carcass of 2020 behind, the ruins of defeat and loss suffered, and the blot of the things that tore at our souls, and carry forward the good and growth we experienced. For even in loss there is love experienced and good to be found. 

So let’s leave what burdens us at the stream and carry forward the good we want into the year ahead. Happiness is a choice. Happy New Year!  


Death and Eternity. A Matter of Perspective

We’re at the end of a remarkable year. With the outbreak, loss and death have also been on our minds. Death seems like a sharp and final event but is there another way to look at existence?

There is a story that I heard about Steve jobs. In the story, Jobs was invited to join his child at elementary school for a ‘bring your parent to school’ day. They were given creative tools, LEGO, and erector kits, and asked to spend time creating something together. Not surprisingly at the end of this effort, the Jobs duo had produced something marvelous. When the teacher and everyone had a chance to look at all the parent-child creations, she asked everybody to put the stuff away back in the boxes so they could be reused. Steve Jobs protested. He created something remarkable and he wanted it to be put up on permanent display at the school. The teacher agreed that it was indeed marvelous but said the real point of the day was really the engagement with the child and parent. Putting the materials back would allow other parents to have a similar experience. The story invokes the question of what is truly important. We often focus on tangible outcomes rather than the experience and intangibles.

If we see ourselves as single, solitary beings with a specific form, death is indeed an ending. If we see ourselves as parts of larger living systems — the way an individual cell is in our body — then we are present in things that continue and the contributions we make to others. A fruit falls down to the ground releasing the seeds. The seeds are carried away by animals who eat the fruit. The fruit itself may be gone but it is present in new plants and part of the animal itself. From this bigger perspective, the start of our existence began with the beginning of time and will only finally end when time ends — just changing form all the while. 

In the Tibetan practice of creating a mandala. monks gather and work painstakingly for days with grains of colored sand to assemble an elaborate circular image that represents the universe. At the end, when the creation is visible in its full majesty, the sand is blown away and the creation is dispersed. The sand exists, only the manifestation is gone. This ritual is meant to symbolize the nature of creation and dissolution. The nature of impermanence. This is understanding that all that we create in the end is reduced to dust. Yet what remains is the creation that lives within ourselves, the beauty that we created, the experience we had, the collaboration that emerged. The journey is not the destination. Neither are our lives just the things we create, rather it is also the experiences that we have and the impact they have on others.

In the West, as encouraged by Dylan Thomas, we tend to “not go gentle into that good night,” and rather “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yet, death can also be encountered with dignity and grace, like Jesus on the cross offering compassion and forgiveness, knowing that his contribution was only just beginning in death, and would be carried forward by the handful of disciples to billions of people in time. 

With this lens, we can consider not just our experience but what will live on because we did. Acts of kindness and courage ripple on in different ways than negative deeds. As in the story of Steve Jobs, if we hold on to just the visible manifestation of creation, then the end is the end and life is fleeting. What the teacher understood is what has the greatest staying power are relationships, memory, inspiration, and learning. This is what lives on in time. What remains of Jobs today is not his presence but the vision and inspiration he engendered that changed the world in many ways.  

So, our choice is to associate ourselves with endless energy or fleeting form. If it’s the latter then our presence is bound like the momentary manifestation of the grains of sand in the mandala. If it is the former, we have space to create enormous ripples of impact that live on long after we do. In 2020, hardship abounded, so did human kindness and generosity. My hope is the legacy of the good that flowed into the world will live on far longer than the hardship that we lived through. 

Related posts:


An Encounter with Eternity

Refrigerators and Relationships

Our refrigerator stopped working last week. The freezer was icy and the fridge was warm. We had to unplug the unit, empty and defrost it. I was forced to look at what was lurking inside, the things unseen and unpleasant that had been pushed to the back. We then wiped it clean, threw out the bad stuff, and restored the good stuff we wanted to keep. Plugged back in, it was back to humming cheerfully again.

It reminded me of relationships that can get taken for granted and gradually accumulate bad stuff in the back. They too need a pause, attention, and some cleaning to be refreshed and restored. If not, they likely get frosty and stop working. 

While you’re home over the holidays, check out the fridge and also find those relationships that may need attention and restoration. 


What is Real (And What is Water)?

If you’re like me, you are often caught in conversations about what is really going on, about what is real. So, what’s real?

There is a story about a turtle who dropped into a pond and encountered a fish. “How’s the water over there,” he asked. “Huh?” asked the fish, rather puzzled, “Water? What water?” 

The story indicates that the things we’re deeply immersed in are often invisible to us. The fish, without an experience of being out of water, didn’t have an understanding of water. 

Reality is a squishy thing. What we perceive is a function of our beliefs, learning, experiences, senses, and socialization. It is as much about the internal filters with which we see the world as it is the world outside us. 

The writer Anais Nin said, we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. In India, the concept of maya suggests that reality is something we project onto the world rather than the other way around. A well known Indian story describes a group of blind men who are brought to an elephant and each asked to reach out and to declare what they have. The man holding the tail says it is a rope. The man holding an ear, says he has a fan. The one grasping a tusk believes he has a spear. The one with the trunk finds himself with a snake. They all have a piece of the puzzle but the whole is unseen to each one alone. 

We are all caught in some version of this story as we hold different experiences and perceptions of what’s true. The deep political divides we experience are an example of this in play. Our perspectives may very well clash with a very different reality that someone else holds. We might assume they are misguided or even deceptive, but it could be that their filters are simply different. 

A lesson in the story of the blind men is to listen and share what we see to arrive at a fuller understanding with others. If we couple this with the concept of maya, we also recognize that our projections have a lot to do with our identity. In rejecting the views of others, we are also rejecting who they are. 

David Brooks, writer and columnist focuses on finding the middle, says that a lot of problems in the world are because we don’t feel seen. This suggests that the problem is less about seeing reality than seeing people. 

The classic expression of empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing with their eyes. Yet, the need to get there is as much about listening to someone’s voice and hearing what is in their heart. From this understanding, we can better get to agreements. This course takes grace and wisdom (http://spiritualsushi.com/what-the-wise-ones-know/). 

In my leadership development work in the world in conflict zones, we found that a way to deal with groups locked in disagreement was to set aside debates of what should happen but to get people sharing who they were and what they cared about. This enables empathy and the desire to find mutually beneficial outcomes. Theodore Roosevelt the pragmatic president observed, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’

To help us get better at seeing, I have with others launched a project called “I See You” (https://cometta.co/i-see-you) that is about getting people to share perspectives using images. While describing the meaning of images they see, people are really describing themselves. Rather than just hearing what they think about things, we also hear who they are and what matters to them. And when we do, it invariably widens our own worldview. Turns out that being a fish out of water can help us discover what lies beyond our own little ponds.


#perception #conflict #empathy #unity