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!
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.
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.
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 (https://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.
The Indian sage Ramana Maharishi was asked, “How should we treat others?” He replied, “There are no others.”
For years I’ve signed my emails with One Love. These are no casual or trivial words. One Love invokes the Bob Marley song but it also speaks to the older and widespread concept of “oneness.” This core idea of interdependence, interbeing, of common humanity and common source can be found in a broad spectrum of cultures, both ancient and modern. This idea is at the ethos of the African idea of Ubuntu, which translates into “I am because we are.” It exists in the Native American idea that we are all part of the “web of life.” It is manifest in the Indian greeting of Namaste, which expresses that the divine resides within us all. It is in the teaching of Christ who calls us to love one another. It is within the Jewish call of Tikkun Olam to heal and unite a broken world. Marley’s invocation of this idea was a call to love and unity, and a reminder of our origins and destination — “As it was in the beginning (one love), so shall it be in the end (one heart).”
One Love, however, is not about sameness. It is about individuality and unity, together. Bob Marley was a talented musician who made soulful — and rebel — music. Marley understood the potential of harmony as well as the power of an individual voice.
A guitar has different strings tuned to different notes. Together, they create harmony. What is needed is tuning to harmonize the notes and skill to play in tune with others. Skill is something that can be acquired with practice. And, playing in a musical ensemble, requires collective attunement. When we listen to a band, we can hear the individual instruments but we hear the music as a whole created by the musicians. It is not a zero-sum game. Each player adds to the value of others. Something bigger is born of the interactions.
Jazz as a form of music relies heavily on improvisation. It necessitates that the musicians listen to each other and pick up on unspoken cues. This is possible in small systems, but how does it work with large systems and strangers?
Consider two sports teams meeting on a field for the first time for a game. Each team seeks to win but the game, which can unfold in countless ways, operates by a common set of rules. In yet another space where we interact — with higher stakes, literally putting our lives in the hands of strangers — is on highways. We don’t know who is in the other cars, where they are headed, or the level of their driving skills. Yet we trust their competence by default. Accidents do happen, but far fewer than we might expect. This is because we generally follow a set of rules for driving — staying in our lanes, signaling, overtaking in a certain way, following road signs, etc.
Driving in India, where I come from, is far different from the US because people have a different understanding of what the rules are. Watching Indian traffic move seems like chaos but sped-up looks like a ballet (https://youtu.be/KnPiP9PkLAs?t=29). The patterns of the flow, seemingly chaotic, become more apparent and choreographed.
These indications that we can be socialized to play together, suggests a lot of room for cooperation and individuality by strangers operating in shared spaces. When there is a breakdown of shared understanding, we collide.
Today, the pace of change requires much adaptation and we are uncertain of what the modes of behavior should be. With the pandemic that is underway, there is no consensus on mask-wearing or quarantining. The government can institute rules but people need to opt in to comply. Part of this is a dissolution of trust and a lack of belief in fairness. Some efforts have tried to reframe mask-wearing not as an infringement of personal liberty but an act of kindness and love for others.
Love involves trust and a desire to see the people we love thrive. We love our families, we love our sports teams, we love our countries, we love our pets, we love certain places, we love specific kinds of music and songs. When we do, we feel a togetherness, a comfort in presence and interaction. We want what’s best for the ones we love. This simple act of wanting what’s best for others affects how we behave. When we have the opposite, we mistrust the actions of the people we hate and seek to harm them. It becomes a zero-sum game. Imagine a musical performance, football game, or driving down a busy road if we are to operate with a zero-sum orientation.
In dystopian scenarios, we find ourselves in these zero-sum situations — a breakdown of trust and competition without rules of engagement (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/compassion-contagious-too-lyndon-rego/). We revert to our baser instincts. When we imagine utopian scenarios the opposite is true. Everyone is happy and engaging together kindly.
This is illustrated in a story of the difference between heaven and hell.
In a dream, an angel demonstrated the difference between heaven and hell. The dreamer was shown two doors. Inside the first one was a group of people gathered around a table with bowls of fragrant, steaming soup. Yet everyone around the table appeared sad and famished. They each had spoons with extraordinarily long handles that they could dip into the stew but which were too long to reach into their own mouths. That is hell, explained the angel.
Then the angel said, let me show you heaven. They entered the second room and it appeared just the same. A large table, many people, delicious stew, and long spoons. But everyone was happy and well-fed. The dreamer was puzzled at first and then saw what was different. What the people here did was to use the spoons to feed each other.
Love is a verb. Unless it manifests in actions, it is empty and invisible. When we truly love something, the love we feel for the other is visible and expressed. When we are unable to show love or share it, fades. Love is not a zero-sum game. It multiplies.
Relationship researcher John Gottman, has found that the mathematic ratio for happy relationships is not the lack of negativity but the ratio of positivity. The ratio is 5:1. This means that for every negative interaction, there are five positive interactions. Happy couples share more positive actions than negative ones. It is a reminder that if we create negative interactions, we need many more positive ones to offset them.
There is a kind of love that moves beyond exchange and is extended regardless of reciprocity. People with religious faith love God and believe that God loves them in turn. This belief is felt within themselves and validated by the benevolence they feel in counting their blessings — for food, shelter, health, family. They express gratitude in prayer. This gratitude, like Gottman’s ratio, provides a sense of happiness. Gratitude is something that can be cultivated within us (more on this in a future post).
I created an effort called CoMetta (www.cometta.co). Metta means loving-kindness and CoMetta is shared or community loving-kindness. Metta is a practice of wishing others well (more on this in a future post). As we related in the story of the dogs in the house of mirrors (https://spiritualsushi.com/indras-net-the-amplified-universe/), when love radiates, it reflects and returns to us.
The Christian mystic, Thoman Merton wrote: “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
The Sufi mystic, Hafiz, also expressed this eloquently in verse:
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.”
The abundant light of the sun — shining for billions of years — manifests from within itself. Like the sun, we have a capacity for love that can be generated from within us. We all know people who shine and radiate kindness regardless of the hardships they face. They seem happy. We are happy to bask in their presence.
The Dalai Lama is a shining example of the kind of person who radiates happiness, even as a celibate monk, a person in exile — a refugee — and an agent seeking the liberation of his people. His happiness is all the more impressive with these barriers. He explains: “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” He states, “When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
There is this internet meme that expresses this idea well.
So, One Love is intention and expression. It is a skill to be developed, much like the musicians who play together. It is a choice we can make. Its source is not finite for it can be generated endlessly from within. And when it is generously given, it returns with abundance, advancing our happiness.
This is great a great truth is why the mystics, sages, and Marley speak and sing repeatedly of love. Perhaps, one day, we will join them in this expression.
I hope one day you will join us, and the world will be as one — John Lennon
When that day comes, when we manifest the intention, skill, and readiness to radiate compassion to all around us, the light of love will illuminate the earth, brighter than the rays of the sun. This is our original source and our ultimate destination.
As it was in the beginning (one love), so shall it be in the end (one heart) — Bob Marley
The Way that can be named is not the true Way — Lao Tzu
The menu is not the meal — Alan Watts
There is an Eastern story of a scholar who was determined to learn all there was to learn. He was relentless in this pursuit, studying vast bodies of knowledge at renowned schools of the day. What else is there to learn? he asked his teacher as he completed his final course at an illustrious academy. Well, said the teacher, there is a sage who lives on an isolated island in a lake who is said to have mastery over many deep mysteries. The scholar immediately arranged for a boatman to travel to the island.
On the island, he found the sage sitting in quiet reflection in a little hut in the woods. The scholar introduced himself, his credentials, and his great quest for learning and asked if the master would teach him something truly important. The sage obliged, reciting a mantra about humility. In a flash, the scholar interrupted him, correcting the master’s pronunciation of the verses. He then recited the verses in the way he had learned at a distinguished school. The sage followed the scholar’s instruction, dutifully reciting back the verses. The scholar, deciding that he had little to learn from the old man, swiftly gathered his things and made it back to the boat. On the way back to the mainland, the boatman stopped rowing suddenly, his mouth agape. The scholar turned around to see the sage walking on the water to the boat. When he caught up with the boat the sage bowed and asked the scholar, “can you recite the verse again? I wasn’t sure I got it quite right. “
The story illustrates the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The scholar was learned with a vast internal library of knowledge, but the master was wise with great capability and humility. Asked to teach, he was able to discern what the scholar needed to learn, and then taught not by telling but by example. In this way, he didn’t simply add incrementally to what the scholar knew but transformed his very worldview.
The Book of Proverbs says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” The Tao Te Ching echoes this point. It begins with the verse, the Way you can see is not the true or eternal Way. There is always something beyond our knowing. The wise ones know that the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. This is because we are most aware of what we don’t know just on the periphery of our knowledge. When we know little, the periphery of awareness is small. To learn, a Zen teaching offers that we must first empty our cup a little, for the cup that is already full can hold no more liquid. If we think we know, we can’t learn.
The Zen symbol of the enso, the incomplete circle, represents form (what is seen) and void (what is unknown) in a graceful dance (more about this concept in the future). The visible form of the line sits in the greater field of the unknown.
This acceptance of the larger field that lies beyond what we know was also expressed by Gandhi who said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” But Gandhi was willing to be continually challenged and evolve his thinking.
The sage in the opening story offered a lesson about humility with no words of instruction, only action and example. The menu is not the meal, said Alan Watts. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon is a famous Zen saying. The sage chose not to cocoon himself in libraries but in solitude, near nature and the greater source.
In the story of the sage and the scholar and expressions of Watts and Gandhi, we see that wisdom is not ignorance nor the acquisition of more and more knowledge; it is seen in the willingness to embrace what we don’t know and to bow to the mystery of all that is unknown with grace and humility. To paraphrase Shakespeare: The wise man knows he is but a fool. Only a fool believes himself to be wise.
For my part, I see that much of my own quest has been like the scholar chasing knowledge. I accumulated degrees and filled my home and office with piles of books and papers that covered every surface. I was hungry to absorb as much knowledge as I could, yet each door led to more doors. Much of what I read quickly vaporized, for it was not truly experienced or lived (more on the process of learning in another post). What stuck with me were the simply stated and somewhat inexplicable expressions found in short works like the Tao Te Ching that challenged my worldview. What these works offered, much like the sage in the story, was a call to contemplate the question and the empty space beyond the lines. The biggest revelations came to me not within the pages of books, but in space of reflection. My journey continues and I try to throw open the doors and windows of my rooms rather than fill them with books. I understand better now the wisdom of Rumi: Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.