Switching From Fear to Love

I just received a peculiar bit of spam email (maybe you did too) from someone calling himself or herself (not sure) “Tinker.” The language is difficult, and I have questions about much of what is being said, but there is a core that I think I can put into my own words. Something like this, with apologies for any misrepresentation of the original intention. Tinker’s own delightfully unique words can be found at www.bltr.org.

The essential problems of humanity all spring from a common source. There are many different ways to talk about this, but essentially the human mind is driven by fear of the unknown. We each have a gatekeeper in the mind that examines whatever is happening around us, and compares that to what is already known and familiar, and admits entrance only to what matches what is already known, and then figures out what to do with that which is unfamiliar. The gatekeeper has many strategies for dealing with the unfamiliar, depending on just how threatening the new is to what is already known. Those strategies include reinterpretation, outright denial, attacking the messenger, silent internal ridicule, automatic reassertion of the familiar, arguing and criticizing, and in extreme cases, physical or character assassination. The mind fears what it does not know. And it goes to great lengths to preserve the known in the face of the unfamiliar.

Lesser threats that can be incorporated into the gatekeeper’s current paradigm are massaged into place. Greater threats to the familiar are resisted by whatever means. The more persistent the threat, the more violent the self-defense.

The primal fear driving this mechanism is social exclusion. The gatekeeper’s rule is finely tuned to the behavior it sees around it. It has a pretty good idea what is socially acceptable and what is not. Rebellion of the individual is usually well within the bounds of an accepting subculture. There are very, very few who are willing to risk being rejected by everyone else in order to admit the truth and speak the truth and go where the truth leads.

Every single one of us has access to the truth. We don’t need religions or gurus or politicians to tell us what is true, although they can sometimes be helpful. We know what is true. We are in no way separate from each other and in no way separate from God, so we know what is really true. It is simply that we shut off our trust in that truth because we fear the unknown. The truth does not come to us as dogma, or as beliefs that tell us in advance what to do and what not to do. The truth comes to us as a deep knowing in the moment of what is right and what is not right. We all know the feeling, that inner compass that points us in the right direction moment to moment. And we all know the feeling of denying that inner compass because it points us away from what is socially acceptable, away from what we think will win us approval from our peers or those in authority, away from what is safe and predictable.

This is such a strong mechanism in all humans that it is hard to see how it can be overcome. We can try to teach our children and we can try ourselves to be morally strong, which means to trust that inner compass when it points away from societal norms. And there have always been a very few who have been able to achieve this. They end up being revered as spiritual leaders or killed, or both.

But for most of us the fear is just too great. The fear of being thrown out of society, killed even. The mind that is conditioned to respond to what is socially acceptable is too strong.

Tinker is proposing that the solution to this problem, and it is an urgent problem — our very survival as a species, and the survival of many other species is at stake — is to change the social norm. To make it socially acceptable to listen to the inner compass. Then there will be no conflict. He has a plan for making this happen. I wish him luck. It may be possible. After all, every one of us knows what this is about. We know exactly what it feels like to deny our inner compass and go with what the crowd expects. We know what that fear of rejection feels like.

We also know what it feels like to be true to that still small voice within. We know that it is reliable. We know that it is a voice of love and peace and truth and integrity. But it never gives us the final answer so it leaves us moving constantly into the unknown. This is our true condition anyway, but that true condition is plastered over with the ongoing monologue of the gatekeeper who is constantly turning the new and surprising and frightening into the old and familiar and comfortable. But we know how horrible it feels to deny the truth we deeply know and go with what is merely socially acceptable.

My own feeling is that social acceptability is not the path to awakening individual conscience. Tinker seems to be assuming we are all separate and need to have some external force that will grant us approval to know what we already know. That’s the same mistake religions have always made, I think. Individual conscience isn’t really individual. It is the deepest knowing of life itself manifesting in an individual mind. It is God’s own truth bubbling up in our own being. We have the freedom to ignore it, to trust the crowd instead, to trust the dogma, to trust the inherited belief system. And we have the freedom to listen to that deep knowing, to allow it to act through us, regardless of the fear it arouses. We all have that freedom. It is a given. Trusting the rule of society gives us all the catastrophes we see, the wars and the destruction of the earth. Trusting the inner compass is trusting the source. It is love. It always manifests as love. It never wants to do harm to anyone or anything. It never coerces or manipulates. It never wants to shut anyone out. It has no enemies, for it is the essential nature of everyone and everything.

In my own experience, the falling away of the fear comes when it is clearly seen just how this whole mechanism operates. When the mind sees very clearly how its own gate keeping is threatening its own survival. Then that deep survival instinct is harnessed in service to seeing the truth and reorienting to the deep truth. When the mind sees that its gatekeeper is the source of the danger, it loosens its grip and reorients toward reality. It prefers reality to the gatekeeper’s story about reality. The gatekeeper may remain, but in a much diminished role. The gatekeeper is no longer the source of personal identity.

I have no plan. I have no advice. But I do know that the truth of love is within and around every one of us at all times. The change we need is as simple as flipping a switch. Switching from fear to love. From running with the crowd to trusting our inner compass. From drowning out reality with our monologue of explanation and rationalization and criticism, to listening deeply to reality, to loving reality in its incomprehensible splendor. This love does not need to be learned. It is our true condition. Fear is imposed on top of it. It takes no effort and no time to acknowledge the fear, to see through it, and to step into the love of reality, to fall into the embrace of the unknowable vitality of life itself, to acknowledge the feeling of the truth, to use Tinker’s words.

And I think that because we are not in any way separate, when anyone does this, it happens in some measure to everyone. So I think maybe the edifice of fear is falling and the foundation of love is being revealed. That wall of fear can fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. In fact, it is already happening. If it can happen to me and it can happen to a mechanic in the Netherland Antilles called “Tinker” it must be happening to all of us.

Not To Be Missed

I have written surprisingly little in this blog about the natural world. When I first conceived of The Natural Contemplative I had a double purpose in mind. First, I would write about contemplation from the perspective of one who sees contemplation as a natural part of every life. I have read that only about 1% of the human population are “natural contemplatives.” With this I wholeheartedly disagree. Whatever these others mean by “contemplative” it is not what I mean. We are all natural contemplatives. Most of us are merely unaware, perhaps even a little afraid, of our contemplative core. Unaware and perhaps a bit resistant to the truth of our own being. Or perhaps we know it, but call it by another name.

Second, I wanted to write about the natural world that is so dear to me, especially the whales and seals I have come to know in myriad ways over the past 13 years or so. I thought I would be writing about the intimate link between our contemplative nature, and the contemplation of nature. The link between our deepest nature and the deepest nature of all life. The inextricable bonds and intertwinings and interdependences. The song we share with whales and seals and birds. How meeting another wild animal can thrust you instantly into an understanding of your own true nature. The fallacies of independence, autonomy, mastery, domination, conflict, exploitation, self. The unutterable damage we are inflicting on ourselves through the damage we inflict on each other, on earth. The ultimate conclusion that there is no “other.” All damage is ultimately self-inflicted. The harm we do to another is done to ourselves.

It turns out these are really hard things to write about.

There is no common language, no common frame of reference within which to discuss these things. The belief in separation is so profoundly written into our language and our ways of thinking that it is nearly impossible to talk about the perfect unity of being.

Both eastern and western spiritual traditions are usually caught in apparent dualities. I grew up in the Christian tradition, so I know quite well its dualities. Good vs. evil and all that. Its emphasis on achieving eternal life and rather peripheral concern for the life we are living right here, right now, especially the rich and beautiful lives of other animals, of rocks and rivers and trees and soil and sky. There is little if any love for these living entities. There is even a denial that we are animals. There is us, made in God’s image, and then there is everything else, everything lesser than us. We are going to heaven, if we believe the right things. The dominant tradition hardly seems to care where everything else is going or about loving the richness of this life.

But I have also spent time among believers and practitioners of eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. And like the Christian longing for heaven, the eastern traditions have their preference for enlightenment, nirvana, transcending this illusory world and dwelling in some purely spiritual plane that is free of the hurt and illusion of this bodily, animal life. Even among self-proclaimed “non dualists” there is a not-too-subtle dualism that prefers “pure consciousness” or “being the observer” or “detachment” to the complexity of being matter-earth-animal-human.

Even the non dualist who proclaims “everything is consciousness” can’t seem to escape from a subtle dualism. This goes back to the language problem. Immediately the mind wants to interpret this statement by countering, “so everything is not body.” Consciousness=good. Body=bad.

I started this blog because I was tired of hearing two things: that spirituality is basically about personal salvation or personal enlightenment, and that the material world, the earth, the animals, our own bodily lives, don’t have any spiritual significance. Bodies suck. Best get free of them. And the bodies of animals and rocks and rivers really suck. Best get free of all that. After all, those things die. What good can they possibly be?

I have spent some time recently reading the work of Adyashanti, who is a spiritual teacher, about my age, coming out of the Zen tradition. I initially enjoyed encountering his writing because his approach to meditation resonates with my own, and that is a very, very rare thing. Even among meditators I have always been a bit of an oddball. I still deeply appreciate what Adya is carrying into the world. His message is very straightforward, relatively free of spiritual jargon, and clearer than any I have heard for a long time. He goes to the root of the thing in a way many people can understand. I have never met him (I will next spring) but my impression is that he is carrying a loving presence with people that is quite rare. About 90% of what he says makes perfect sense to me. Read his book Emptiness Dancing if you are interested.

But I find myself increasingly frustrated with his lack of concern for the natural world and the body. In a recent interview he was asked, “Are the body and physical sensations illusory?” His reply was “Yes and no. Ultimately everything is a dream, and yet you still have to deal with the body… it’s still going to hurt if you bump your head.”

What a sadly impoverished sense of what it is to be a body! Good God! It’s just a bloody inconvenience? Not a word as to the glory of the web of life. Not a word as to the incredible beauty and grandeur of mountains and whales and wolves. Not a word as to the joys of rain and sun and feeling the caress of wind on skin. Not a word about the intricate and intelligent web of life. How sad. And Adya is one of the better ones. He speaks of the danger of getting stuck at the place of “being pure awareness” and how important it is to carry that awareness back out into life. He speaks of the importance of not trying to hang out in a false bliss state. Yet he has little good to say about being a body and he doesn’t seem to care if we trash the planet. Oh well, everything dies. That’s the way it goes. It’s all a dream anyway.

So as you can see I have a fair bit of anger about this. No one seems to be talking about the deepest insights of contemplation – the riches that flow out of silence and the understanding that the sense of being a “separate self” is a mind-created illusion – while at the same time really loving this animal life. I wanted to try to do that, to bring those two worlds together, to reunite heaven and earth, spirit and matter, but it is turning out to be a tricky business, which just goes to show how foreign it is to our ways of thinking about and seeing the world and our place in it. In trying to explain it I more often feel torn in half than successful at reunification.

If I am anything, and I resist all labels, I am probably some kind of non dualist. From what I have seen, there is only one thing. Spirit and body are the same thing. Distinctions exist only in the mind. They are a story, a convenience, a fiction, an illusion. Really, there is only one thing, one being, one energy matrix that forms and reforms into temporary nodes, including of a type (which we call a “nervous system”) that is able to “read” itself after a fashion. Who knows what is really going on? No one! All we know is what a tiny portion of the brain says it thinks is going on, or what it invents to fill in the gaps in its knowledge.

My whole adult life, and maybe longer, I have wanted to understand the very root of the reason why we are here in this form, and the reason for all the apparent misery, personal and planetary. I have wanted to know why we are so unhappy, so destructive, so exploitative. And I have wanted to know what is possible for us. Is the peaceable kingdom a fantasy or a reality? Is it a description of an afterlife or a description of this life – a hint at the underlying reality of this life that we merely fail to see? Is this mess for real, or are we merely blind and ignorant and locked in our own limited perceptions and mental frameworks? What is really real?

I have had enough glimpses of a vibrant, beautiful, glorious, sacred, joyful, generous, loving, welcoming reality hiding in the cracks between all our misery that I have needed to understand deeply what the hell is going on here. I have needed to understand the workings of my own mind, with the understanding that my mind isn’t essentially different from anyone else’s. We are all working with the same basic mechanism. And it determines how we see the world and how we respond to the world, far more than most people want to admit.

But trying to understand the mind, even observing one’s own mind at work, is a dense thicket. It’s fascinating, but one can get rather tangled up in it.

I keep having to pull back to the basics. Yes, I want to understand the very root of suffering, the root of greed and violence and the feeling of separation. I want to understand the root cause of devotion to ideology. But I also want to recall what I do know and to embody it.

Explanations, theologies, philosophical frameworks aside, one thing is clear to me. The foundation is Love. This is not an idea I have, it is something I have seen very clearly, more clearly than I have seen anything else. Clearer than a clear blue sky. I can not for the life of me, for all my thinking and investigating, answer in a way that satisfies my mind or anyone else’s, why deep love should take the form of war and rape and child abuse and flood and famine and children blown apart by land mines and drug addiction and exploitation of the planet and religious fanaticism and all the rest of it.

But I do know that all of that mad mess is also an expression of this one beautiful thing. Somehow maybe it just has to be this way, for no particularly good reason. I don’t know. But given the choice between this world exactly as it is and some imagined bliss world, I would take this world any day (well, most days!), for the simple reason that I have been around long enough not to trust my fantasies of perfection. In the end those fantasies have caused me much more suffering than anything life has sent my way. And the things I love most in my life happened like accidents. I never saw them coming, and I would never want to have lived without them. Good things and “bad” things.

So which is more trustworthy here, life, or my idea of what life should be? I’ll take life as it is, thank you very much. This life is so rich and mysterious and wild, can I really imagine anything that would be an improvement?

I am inclined these days to think that the source of our worst problems is the belief that there is something better than this life exactly as it is. Paradoxically, the way to make this life infinitely better is to embrace it and be embraced by it exactly as it is. Everything in this body/brain thing has been trained to resist this life as it is. This body/brain has been taught that there is always something better. A better job, a sexier mate, a perfect heaven or state of pure consciousness, a faster car, whatever. The list goes on. There is always some safer, disembodied, detached, airbrushed, virtual reality that is better than this messy bodily life. There is always some reason to despise this that is. To despise the world. To despise our own lives. To despise our bodies. To despise the animals and the plants. There is always something better than this, just around the corner. Human meaning derives from striving for that something better. This is what we have conditioned ourselves to believe. This is what we are taught from the very beginning.

What if… What if all that striving for something better, and the lack of love for this right here exactly as it is, is what is making everything appear so messed up? What happens if we stop striving and improving and really get to know this right here? What happens if we fall in love with reality?

Oh my. It’s unbelievable. What riches we have been missing. What bliss! What joy! What wonders! What sorrows! What disappointments! What successes! What failures! What laughter! What tears!

There is no imagined, hoped for, or virtual substitute that can hold a candle to this life, exactly as it is. The “nothing” and the “everything.” The tangible, lively world and the unknowable deep silence out of which it pours. The material known that is a wave on the surface of the deep unknown. Grasp at one or the other and we live a fragmented life. Allow both together and we have heaven on earth. Right here. Right now. This. Exactly as it is. The whole shebang. Not to be missed.

The Kingdom of God Is Right At Hand

Where or what is the kingdom of God?

This is it. Right here. Right now.

It is not a future time. It is not some exalted place in the clouds. It is not even dependent on some set of conditions: perfect peace and justice. It does not appear after peace appears or after justice is established.

Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are not conditions on which the kingdom of God depends. The kingdom of God is not dependent on any condition. It is already here among us. It has only to be recognized. Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are dependent on the presence of the kingdom of God. It is in recognizing the kingdom of God, already present, that peace and balance are restored. We’ve been doing this backward for a very, very long time. Trying to create the kingdom of God by establishing peace, by any means necessary, including through war. Totally backward, right?

This is my understanding of why Jesus said, “seek ye first the kingdom of God… and all these things shall be added unto you. Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (KJV Matt 6:33-34).

Seek ye first the kingdom of God, because all else is dependent on it. Take no thought for tomorrow, because when tomorrow arrives, it is today. It is always today. It is always right now. Right here, right now is the only place we ever are. So if the kingdom of God is to be found anywhere, if it has any reality, it must be found right here, right now. It’s presence cannot possibly be dependent on any change in conditions.

So, this is it. This crazy mess called life is it. This is the kingdom of God, right here, right now. This is heaven. It is amazing to be alive. It is only in thinking and acting as if this is something other than the kingdom of God that we make it appear to be something other than the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is within us and around us at all times. It is what we are. It is life living itself through us and through everything. And it is deeper even than life. It is the source of life. Not an external source but the intrinsic source, the energy within matter. The stillness within energy. The incredible beauty and intelligence and creativity within stillness, within energy, within matter, within life.

The kingdom of God is everything, and it is that without which nothing could be. It is therefore immediately at hand, in everything. Pick up a stone and it is there. Take a breath and it is there. Fall into deep sleep and it is there. Awaken to the rising sun and it is there. It is in every encounter, every sight, every sound, every thought, every feeling, every joy, every sorrow, every happening. It is what makes all of that possible, and it is all of that, the interplay of everything. There is nothing you can do to escape the kingdom of God. You have never been anything or anywhere but the kingdom of God.

We think that we are separate from it, that it is far off from us either in space or in time. It is by believing that thought, by repeating it incessantly, that we make it appear to be true. But it was never true. And if we stop repeating these untruths and turn back to the immediacy of life being lived right now through all of life together, then the presence of God’s kingdom, its beauty and majesty, its wonder and surprise, its creativity and intelligence, its peace and harmony, become immediately apparent once again.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God in the dance of all things. Right here. Right now.

Look! The kingdom of God is right at hand.

Words Fail

One late summer day, six friends sat on the ground, eating lunch and talking about the state of the world, the nature of enlightenment, and our own paths and beliefs. I sat, eating, saying little, watching ants drag our crumbs away. As we parted one friend said to me, “I wish I knew what it was you weren’t saying.”

But how can I talk about something that can not be described? One day, 22 years ago, a new perspective arrived that was beyond description, beyond any of the beliefs and opinions I had about myself and about the world. It wasn’t experienced in the way we normally think of experience, as an external happening. It wasn’t held the way beliefs are held. It was more a realization of what is false than an experience of what is true. Yet this realization stayed with me as the most vital moment in my entire life. As the false fell away, for that timeless moment, I had a sense of being at the very center of the outpouring of all that is, all energy, all matter, all Life. Every mote of dust, every animate and inanimate life, and the dance of it all was seen as the holiest of holies. Suddenly it was seen that this intricate, irreducible dance is our own true being and always has been. There is no “me” that is separate from everything else. It was terribly obvious.

But it was years before I could speak of it. There were no words for it. There were no concepts that could contain it. Words reduce the irreducible. I knew instinctively that such a thing could never be described, only lived.

So how do I convey this to anyone else, this indescribably beautiful, joyful reality in which all lives and moves, and has its being, even in the midst of what appear to be the horrors of the world? How do I demonstrate that nothing needs to change for everything to change?

I keep trying to explain. We live in illusion. We think that the beauty and balance and harmony we long for is off in some distant place and time. We think that we have to get that raise, or that perfect job, or avoid getting sick, or we have to elect the right leaders, or get enlightened, or go to heaven, or convince everybody to think the way we do, or solve all the world’s problems, and then we will be happy, then all will be well. All of that is illusion. All the beliefs we have about ourselves and others, all the concepts we have about the world, all the experiences we seek, all the fulfillment we think we need, all the stories we tell to make sense out of it, all the projection into the future of our dreams of perfection: exclusive devotion to all of that is the problem. Everything we need is right here. For thousands of years we have been devoting our precious life energy to our ideas about reality, and neglecting reality itself.

When I try to explain this, everyone gets the words. Everyone gets an idea that they fit into their existing framework of ideas. They add another chapter to the story that the mind tells to reduce the world into something the mind can understand. They don’t see the story-making process at work.

It is in seeing the process at work that the beauty behind the fiction is revealed. Blind devotion to the mind-made story, mistaking it for the real, is driving the chaos and destruction. As long as this continues, suffering continues. Not only personal suffering, but planetary suffering – the suffering of all that seeking and wanting projected world-wide. Often this astonishing beauty, this elemental goodness, only reveals itself when the story falls apart, through illness, through loss, or through a surprising encounter with the incomprehensibly real, a whale, a forest, a lover. Then the limit of the mind-made image is revealed, and Life itself becomes the real. And even Life is seen to be but a wave on the surface of the deeply real. To see this, to really see it, changes everything.

Are loss and ecstasy necessary to reveal this? I think not. This story-making is active all the time. The startlingly real is managed and reduced into the existing framework of belief and opinion and concept a thousand times a day. This can be seen any time, but the force of devotion to the unreal, half-baked stories of the mind is so strong, it can take a tremendous shock to divert attention back to the real, even for a moment.

What is the real, the actual, beyond the mind-made image? This, right here, is it. This, right here, right now, is alive. And being alive it can not be captured by an image in the brain. All we ever know is an image in the brain: the dead past. We are this being alive: the living present. Always. Yet we live in devotion to the known image. We constantly attempt to flee from the unknown reality. It frightens us.

Is there anything anyone can do or say that will dissolve that fear, and allow the real to live and breathe in our lives again? Can anything free the mind that lives in perpetual self-defense, the mind that needs to pretend it is the source of everything, the mind that thinks it can live forever, the mind that believes its image of the world is an improved substitute for the living world in its astonishing actuality? It only takes one moment in the embrace of the real, but the mind is perpetually fleeing from the freedom of that embrace. It wants more. It wants something, anything, other than this that is, right here, right now.

I know that reality is good and beautiful and generous, and that all that beauty is obscured behind a veil of concepts and beliefs and images and stories, the only things the mind can grasp. I know that to see this with total clarity in its complete obviousness is very, very good news, a huge relief, the easing of millennia of burden.

This seems very important. The end, perhaps, of the planetary catastrophe. The end of fractious belief. The end of conflict. But I don’t know what to say. Because when I speak of it, the words disappear into the mind-made stories that we tell about ourselves and the world. Once again the spontaneous gift of being alive is appropriated into the mind-made story of “me” and “mine.”

And I think that maybe it is better to keep silent, and let the silence ring, and let the wind blow, and let the galaxy spin, and let light reflect off water, and let hearts beat and whales sing, and let time and space dissolve into silence and reemerge again and again, and let the mind pretend it understands, and let the ants crawl away with the crumbs, and let reality speak for itself with much greater eloquence than all these words.