Wishing the great and compassionate teacher Dr. Rick Hanson a happy birthday today. Rick is a scientist and meditation practitioner who is doing the courageous work of explaining the neuroscience behind contemplation, compassion, and mindfulness. I’m lucky to call Rick a friend but I’m posting this because I believe Rick and others like him will change our future in incredibly profound and positive ways. If you’ve never read Rick’s work, check out his amazing books like Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Hardwiring Happiness. Also, Rick has a year-long online course he’s teaching called The Foundations of Wellbeing that everyone could benefit from. Sign up at the link and please join me in sending Dr. Hanson some birthday metta.
Here’s a little meditation trick that, even if you only have one minute, always helps me. Stop what you’re doing, become still, breathe, and imagine your body is filling with crystal clear teal blue water (perhaps even with shimmering golden sun rays if you’re feeling creative). Let that clarity and light and freshness flood into your whole being and heart. Then Repeat as needed.
Like taking a shower, this is a great way of starting your day over. And even better, it doesn’t use any actual water.
Recently, I was writing at a cafe and couldn’t help overhearing two girls talking about a break-up one of them was going through.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” one girl said. “I’ve surrendered it to the universe, you know?”
“Totally,” her friend said.
You hear comments like this a lot these days, particularly in cities like San Francisco. People substitute an “intelligent universe” for the word God because the word God is associated with some dude in the sky sentencing people to hell or condemning gay marriage. This “dude in the sky” God, for many of us, feels like really lame and mean Santa Claus. Not only is he not believable. He’s not cool.
But I’m not sure we should toss God out so easily. Here’s why. Great religious mystics throughout the ages – take Rumi or Patanjali or Hafiz or Thomas Merton – all spoke of God in much the same way the Jedi use The Force – which is completely accessible to most modern people, secular or not. Unfortunately, political institutions have often changed the meaning of those mystics’ words about God into something fear-based, something for political control, making many of us who believe in an intelligent universe – or those of us who believe love unites us – wary of using the word God.
This is a shame because:
A.) The word God carries a lot of power and it’s sad to give that power up to people who, in my view, are just power hungry and looking to have some claim to truth.
B.) Those mystics are some of the greatest thinkers who have graced humanity. Their words and thoughts and deeds have made us who we are as much as Newton, Mendel or Einstein. Also, they discovered secrets about love and happiness that I personally haven’t found anywhere else.
I could use about 100,000 different quotes to show that many religious mystics – including those who are part of huge religious institutions – view God as an intelligent universe, or love, instead of that angry dude in the sky, but here’s one recent one by Anthony of Sourozh, the Russian Orthodox mystic who, for many, is the greatest Christian thinker of the past century.
“When we speak of God, and we say that God is love, we do not mean that He is infinite feeling. We mean something deeper than this: that God is a plenitude of life and of being. And this applies also to our human love. Someone who is possessed by love is a man who has a plenitude of life in himself, in whom the sense of life, the power of life is so full, so great, that life is sure of itself.”
“The plentitude of life” sure as heck sounds a lot like The Force or an Intelligent Universe to me – a force that underlies all creation and is ultimately good.
Einstein knew this well and had no qualms speaking about physics as researching “the thoughts of God.” As physics evolves, particularly on the quantum level, we are seeing more and more how intelligent our universe is. We have a long way to go, and clearly, there are huge differences in how scientists and spiritual folk go about their daily lives in finding “Truth.” But with the exception of the zealots out there who are using religion or science to divide us farther apart, everyone else seems to be trying to hear the secrets of an intelligent universe with an open mind and heart. Everyone is trying to decipher the thoughts of God.
This is a topic too vast for a mere blog post and I plan on writing about it in a lot more detail in my next book (also covering Buddhism and God, which is a topic for another day). But for now, I just have to say this: let’s not shy away from the word God just because some folks view God as something other other than the “Plentitude of Life” – of love – that Anthony of Sourozh spoke of, or the intelligent universe Einstein spoke of.
In reclaiming the word God, I think we take a step toward uniting humanity under the banner of truth seeking we’ve been on for millennia. We get closer to uniting our past with our present.
Well, I dropped off Kaifas, our 2.5-year-old, at pre-school this morning, and he threw his 154th separation-anxiety tantrum. These used to torture me, but I now know they only last about 30 seconds after I leave. He then goes and has a blast with trains or glue or flushing the potty too many times.
I also know that Kaifas suffers from the same sort of social anxiety his mom and I did as kids (we were both painfully shy) and that a supportive school is the best place for him to expand his boundaries. So, in sum, the tantrums don’t bother me anymore because I see Kaifas growing into a being who’s flexible – probably one of the most important traits in life.
But it struck me this morning that many of us big people stop dropping ourselves off at pre-school. What I mean by that is we avoid situations where we might want to throw an anxiety tantrum but that we know will be good for us over the long run. We’ve spent years seeking out patterns / places / relationships that are the most comfy for us. This is ok because life has a lot of difficulties as it is (getting old, paying taxes, dying) but still, we would all benefit from taking ourselves back to our first days at pre-school now and again.
So here is the Fear Project homework I’m giving to myself this month and I’m inviting y’all to join me. Pretend you’re your own parent and try this:
1.) As your own parent, first love yourself for the amazing, quirky, well-intentioned, imperfect being you are. And really feel that love just like you love your child (or can imagine loving your child). That’s real. You’re lovable just as you are.
2.) But once you’re done with the good self lovin’, think honestly about a few areas you would like to see yourself do better. Maybe you get sweaty palms at dinner parties and you’d like just be able to just be yourself and crack some silly jokes. Maybe being alone in silence makes you panic because you start to hear your own thinking. Maybe you’re scared of being creative because you decided at a young age that you’re a terrible artist. Whichever the case, commit to dropping yourself off at pre-school at least once a week this month. If you fear silence and loneliness, try sitting alone somewhere beautiful for 15 minutes with a cup of tea and just breathing. If you get sweaty palms at dinner parties, try throwing one this month with just a few people and commit to staying mindful through it so you see where your trigger points are.
3.) Whatever you decide to do, set up zero expectations for the outcome. I’ve dropped Kaifas off at pre-school hundreds of times. Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he doesn’t. But over the course of a year, I see growth regardless of the fact that he still throws a fit sometimes. We humans grow slowly. So be patient with yourself and know that by pushing boundaries, you are expanding through fear and toward more of the good stuff – peace, love, joy, courage, and compassion.
Had a dream last night that a polar bear was chasing me through the wild. He was batting and kicking me. I was terrified, but at some point I decided to just let go of the fear and face him straight on. Suddenly, he stopped attacking! And when I asked him why, he said it was because his instincts are trained to attack fear. Now, I’m not so sure this would have happened with a real polar bear, but it does seem to be a principle that humans and animals have an unconscious instinct to shun or even attack those who are afraid. Predators prey on the afraid because there is less of a chance they’ll be injured. When searching for mates or friends or employees — even if we have compassion for the afraid — we sense apprehension and fear and ultimately don’t trust it because we know fear is wild and unpredictable. We’re all afraid and nervous from time to time, and those who have read The Fear Project know I spend a lot of time talking about how to use good fear to your advantage. But this dream reminded me that when you’re doing something difficult, you don’t have to trust the fear as intuition. The fear will be there if you’re venturing into something new, but feeding it only makes the polar bear more ferocious. Facing it down will almost certainly yield unexpected results.
Like sea anemones
Battered by the brine
A heart will close and open
Retract and bloom
How natural to feel shut down
To be afraid
And how natural
That all nourishment
Comes with vulnerability
Arms stretched wide
Toward day or night
Sometimes when when we’re caught in the darkest storm waves and feel the most helpless, we’re actually being brought to the deepest insight. Here, Kai the sea turtle is not only caught in some terrifying waves. He’s sleeping!
But he’s about to wake up and see his life in a new light. And his new way of seeing will change the lives of turtles everywhere.
Turtles Don’t Surf will be printed in October folks. Get your pre-order on
We come from the sea. The sea gives life. The sea is our home.
Now we can start understanding how our minds interact with the big blue! I am so fired up for this book by my friend, scientist, and waterman Wallace J Nichols. Check out the description.
A landmark book by marine biologist Wallace “J.” Nichols on the remarkable effects of water on our health and well-being.
Why are we drawn to the ocean each summer? Why does being near water set our minds and bodies at ease? In BlueMind, Wallace J. Nichols revolutionizes how we think about these questions, revealing the remarkable truth about the benefits of being in, on, under, or simply near water. Combining cutting-edge neuroscience with compelling personal stories from top athletes, leading scientists, military veterans, and gifted artists, he shows how proximity to water can improve performance, increase calm, diminish anxiety, and increase professional success.
BlueMind not only illustrates the crucial importance of our connection to water-it provides a paradigm shifting “blueprint” for a better life on this Blue Marble we call home.
(Btw, Wallace J. Nichols and I will both be on a panel tonight for Courage By the Sea, recently written up in the Mercury News. Hope to see some Bay Area folks there.)
Since finishing reporting The Fear Project, I’m amazed how many times fear still rears its head on any given day in my life. But the thing that sticks with me day-to-day (both from science and from experience) is that the most successful way to “beat” or transcend fear is to embrace it rather than run — sometimes even to praise its unique talents: the ability, for example, to grant us instant energy even when we’re most fatigued; the ability to intuit danger from a slight glance or scent. Fear has its many negatives (we know those all too well) but aversion to fear so easily becomes fear of fear, and then we lose perspective altogether.
Embracing fear doesn’t mean listening to it or reacting from a place of fear. It’s simply accepting that it’s there — a part of life, and deciding not to fight so much as observe and breathe. It’s that acceptance, I think, that creates space in the heart and mind to make smart decisions. When acting out of fear, we avoid the risks necessary for success. But when fighting fear on some vigilante crusade, we can miss the gifts of intuition that grip the gut and heart.
Anyhow, all this sounds good in theory, but the actual act of embracing/observing/accepting in the midst of fear and stress is a different story. In my experience, it often requires art — a song, a poem.
The other day I stumbled on these lines in the beginning of Robert Hass’s book of poetry, “Praise.” Not a bad one to commit to memory.
We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrible, and
unpredictable. He hesitated to
answer, and then said judiciously:
“I think I shall praise it.”
As many of you know, over the last couple decades, meditation has been one of my primary sources of stability and inspiration. But sitting in silence always seems much better when you do it together. I feel lucky to have a house now where I can host a weekly meditation evening — followed by some tea and discussion. I’m thinking of hosting in our backyard Zendo (Ocean Beach, SF) either Tuesdays or Thursdays around 7:30 PM. Let me know (on Facebook or Twitter) if you’d be interested and which would be a better night for you.This won’t be a religious gathering (all faiths welcome though): just a way to help us stay present, appreciative, and compassionate, as well as connect like-minded folks. No experience necessary. There will be some basic instruction. The Zendo looks small but I think we can sit about 15 in there. And if there are more, we can always move into the house or build a fire in the backyard.
During college — around 19, basically invincible — I volunteered briefly with Hospice. I only ended up caring for a few dying people and can’t say I did much for them. But the month-long training we volunteers had to go through stuck with me. For that month, we were laser focused on what we were used to avoiding utterly — our own inevitable death and the death of loved ones. As we did things like visualize what we would do and say to loved ones in our final weeks, days, hours, the feeling was the opposite of morbid. I honestly remember that month as one of the most vibrant months of my life. I even fell briefly in love after chatting up a girl I might have passed had I not been reflecting on the impermanence of it all! Anyhow, I recently wrote this little poem, remembering my hospice teacher, an incredible woman named Radha Mallery, who, as far as I know, is still the volunteer coordinator at Hospice Santa Cruz and a fantastic yoga teacher at Mount Madonna.
The other day I was struggling over a decision and wishing I wasn’t. Then I thought: wait a second. Would I change any of the struggles I’ve gone through thus far? After all, they’ve made me who I am, made me stronger, offered insights I never would’ve had, and certainly given some material for writing. The obvious answer — after making exceptions for some really lame stuff I did as a teenager (sorry to all of you who endured those years) — was no. I wouldn’t change my parents divorce, or that nasty break up, or (for the most part) even those less-than-sage choices I’ve made. In the end, they’ve been the most important catalysts for good, for love, for wisdom.
For most of us, I think it’s sort of easy to appreciate past difficulties as blessings. So why is it so darn hard to see present ones that way? There’s probably some good neuropsychology answer for this question that I don’t have at my fingertips, but I also don’t think we necessarily need one. Just reminding myself that my past struggles have been good makes me feel better about the current ones — and that’s worth remembering.
Struggles keep up sharp. Make us better. Give life spice. So why not embrace the BS we have now like we embrace the old BS we’re now giving thanks for.
I’ve been thinking about all the things I’ve identified with over the years: skater, surfer, artist, science geek, vegetarian, bacon-lover, child, adult, spiritual, agnostic, religious, drinker, straight edge, writer, musician, snowboarder, math lover, math phobic, free-bird, homebody, party animal, hermit. The list goes on forever. The funny thing is that I’ve often called renouncing a former identity an epiphany, a sort of “I’ve moved on” and now, finally…I’m X! Thank goodness I’m no longer that ridiculous other guy.” But I’m starting to see that trying to land somewhere firm, some hard identity, has been the main source of frustration and limitation. ALL of these things are “the real me.” We’re complex beings with complex yearnings and complex thoughts. We don’t fit in boxes and trying to fit ourselves in boxes for presentation to the world only limits the originality of our creations, not to mention our happiness. Maybe the key is seeing the “self” as big enough to contain all past identities and all identities yet to come. Celebrate them all now! Anyhow, here’s a little journal riff that got this whole line of thinking started.
On the eve of our second son’s due date, it seems appropriate to give away a song that I wrote for my incredible wife, Amy. It’s called “Wedding Day” and I actually wrote it on the due date of our first son, Kaifas. As we were nervously awaiting his arrival, I remember one of our friends saying that having kids cracks your heart open and your heart stays open. I sort of rolled my eyes at the time — thinking, yea, while it also cracks my free-time into pieces — but she was right. Here’s to love and family (in all its different forms)! And if you want the song for, say, a friend’s wedding, I’ve made it available for download here.