Let’s Talk About Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a subject that has never gone out of style. It seems to be encoded into our human DNA to take on resentments and then hold tightly to them, as though we no longer think that we will be okay without them. For many people, once someone has “done them wrong” once in life (and this someone can be one’s own self), everything that person does from that point on only adds to the accumulation of resentments. Like spiky leaves growing around the heart of an avocado, we add layers of protection to keep us from experiencing the vulnerability of our own hearts.

Most people know at least something about forgiveness. Breakups, divorces, being picked on and getting fired from jobs are all pretty common experiences, after all. Some people forgive reluctantly because they feel that it is something they “should” do, which, in my opinion, actually isn’t real forgiveness. Others genuinely forgive and move on. Some even forgive for the most extraordinary atrocities imaginable (don’t take my word for it, watch the extraordinary story of Eva Kor, Auschwitz survivor, here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxqQbXoDtIc)

Eva Kor’s story is beyond what I or anyone who is likely to read this can relate to. That being said, I have definitely earned my title as an authority on the subject of forgiveness. My life was permanently altered at the age of twenty-four, when a drunk driver caused me to become paralyzed from the waist down. There were two directions I could have gone – unimaginable suffering, or towards the power of forgiveness. I say towards because, in my experience, forgiveness rarely just happens all in one moment. Our hearts have to gradually learn to make more space for the feelings we harbor.

My process of forgiveness started shortly after my accident, when I first saw the perpetrator (who wasn’t harmed, everyone always asks) in the hospital. If I hadn’t been on morphine, I might not have had the courage to forgive him, but since I was, I did. At least I began to. My forgiveness of him was a process that took many years. It was much easier to forgive him when I was having fun with friends or sit skiing in Colorado. It was much harder to forgive him when I was spending over two years collectively in hospital beds.

What I have come to discover about resentment is, like anything, it exists as a phenomenon of energy within our physical and emotional bodies. It is part of us, but only as much as we relate to it as being a necessary part of our experience. In its purest form, anger, sadness and resentment are simply raw energy. For me, my practice of meditation and breathwork forced me to experience this raw energy firsthand. In the beginning stages of my meditation practice, the feelings would be so intense that I would lose focus and space out and fall asleep. This was my mind’s way of protecting me from the trauma. Everyone I’ve ever worked with does this to a degree to avoid feeling their own traumas.

With time, I learned to take this raw energy and move with it, let it move through my body and filter through my breath. What I discovered is that when this raw energy is circulated, it could actually be used productively and intentionally for creating more of what I desired in my life. All that was required was for the energy to move through my energy centers (or chakras, as they are called in yogic traditions). When the energy moved through my heart, at first it was painful, but eventually, it was met with love. When the energy moved through my head, it initially created nightmares, but, eventually, it began to open up my intuitive channels. Now, I am in no way implying that this has been easy. It has been the challenge of a lifetime. But it is possible, and that’s why I feel so compelled to share this as a learnable skill.

In this year of 2017, there is a tension in the air that people seem to be feeling around the world. Many people feel that human civilization itself may even be on the brink of total collapse. If you’re following the news, you may feel that the hope you still have is being eroded every day. This naturally leads to anger and resentment towards those who are causing the greatest harm. If this anger is allowed to fester unconsciously in your mind and body, you will inevitably seal off your energy centers in an attempt to protect yourself. This will then diminish your capacity to experience love in your heart, groundedness in your being, and intentional focus in your mind. However, if you learn to harness the power of this raw energy and transform it with forgiveness, you can take the necessary steps towards creating the world your heart envisions.

Your Sanity is for Sale (Here’s How to Get it Back)

Your sanity is for sale, and, if you are like most people, it will be increasingly difficult to buy it back. The culprits responsible are the tech behemoths who analyze your every move and every public thought (please don’t think those privacy settings on Facebook make any difference) in order to keep you hooked on the screen. Before you dismiss the title of this blog as hyperbole and clickbait, let me explain why it is not.

Sanity is the ability to respond with reasonable and rational behavior to one’s inner and outer environment. Responding in such a manner is predicated upon having the ability at any given moment in time to make a decision to direct your mind towards that which is in your own highest good. If you are a social media user (most people reading this are), and you can’t relate to scrolling through your newsfeed mindlessly and without a clear intention, then you are probably in denial. So why would you be doing something that you have no intention to be doing?

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, recently did a TED Talk on this topic. Harris is now directing his time and attention to helping technology companies consciously and ethically shape human potential (that’s a potentially controversial subject for a different post). He has the inside scoop on what many of us intuit but which most of us do not fully grasp in terms of the severity of the situation. In the present paradigm, the success of any social media platform or search engine depends on its ability to keep your attention and to keep you coming back as frequently as possible.

Many of us are old enough to remember the “don’t touch that dial!” voice that would pop in at the beginning of the ad break on TV shows enthusiastically encouraging us to keep watching, and then midway through the ads, we would be told that the show would be “right back,” if we just stayed tuned. They knew they had a limited amount of time to feed us ads before we would need some encouragement to keep watching. In some ways, this is no different, but the personal data that is collected about you is being used to keep your attention in a far more insidious and manipulative way than it was during “Three’s Company.” Increasingly, it is like having an online avatar that knows you inside and out and can easily convince you to keep scrolling, liking and commenting by customizing the content you see in order to bypass your logical thinking and appeal directly to your emotions. But what emotions are they designed to appeal to? As Harris says in his TED Talk, content that makes you feel calm is a lot less compelling to your emotional mind than content that makes you feel outraged. Anyone feel like you are more frequently outraged these days than you were a few years ago? Let’s just say this, it’s not a coincidence. You are being played. Now, does that cause you outrage? Great, I grabbed your attention. Keep reading.

So what does this have to do with me and Zen Warrior Training®? The practice of Zen gives us a process by which to better understand the nature of the mind so as to not be a victim of its own unconscious thinking and patterns of behavior. This is an important skill to develop no matter what era you are living in, but particularly during times when you, me and the rest of the developed world are being preyed upon by outside influences vying for control over our attention. With a mindfulness practice, you can separate from your own thinking and behaviors and see your mental tendencies neutrally and objectively. You develop impulse control and find a peaceful centeredness that prevents you from getting caught in mental traps. The battle to be in charge of your own focus of attention and quality of mind is the most challenging battle of all, which is where the warrior part of Zen Warrior Training comes in. It takes consistent, dedicated practice to do so, which is why I predict that most people will not make it through this era of attention hijack with a high degree of self-control.

Physical addictions are fairly obvious; it’s pretty easy to see the devastating effects of alcoholism, drug use, etc. Much less obvious are the mental addictions, particularly when the excuse that we tell ourselves is that we are using social media to “stay informed” and maintain good relationships with friends. These cut to the very core of our emotional needs to feel informed and loved.

The good news is that this is a wakeup call. If we recognize how we are being manipulated and take action to deal with situation, we can see that this is simply a reminder of how important it is to build and maintain authentic relationships with people, speak from truth as opposed to from unbridled emotion, and perhaps make the world a safer, more peaceful place for all.

What Turns You On (and How to Get More of it!)

For some people it’s sex. For some, it’s football. For others, it’s the thrill of being at a rock concert, dropping acid in the woods, skydiving… you name it. For every rush, entire industries exist to make sure that you can get off on whatever excites you the most. People will go to extreme lengths, pay top dollar and take huge risks to experience their turn-ons. These ineffable thrills can feel like they give temporary meaning and purpose to an otherwise underwhelming and mundane life.

For a few minutes or at the very most a few hours, we feel the aliveness that we felt in our youth, connected deeply to our vitality, perhaps even closer to God. But as soon as the activity is over, the buzz begins to wear off and we are back to our normal lives, dreaming of the next time we can have a similar experience. After a few reliable highs from doing what we most love to do, our minds begin to create neurological pathways to hardwire in the association between the activity and the subsequent high. In other words, we start to convince ourselves that it is only through doing this activity that we can feel this way. Because this happens at an unconscious level, we never even realize that it is occurring.

If these types of fleeting experiences of joy are all you know, you are like most people. It is rare that someone even questions this way of experiencing the world. But throughout the ages, a few among us have recognized this tendency and deeply committed themselves to challenging it. These deeply devoted souls have undertaken the seemingly impossible task of discovering this pleasure in regular, otherwise unnoteworthy moments. These are not exceptional beings any different than you or I. They are ordinary people who recognize that the feelings that are created during these experiences are actually something taking place internally, inside our own bodies. The activities simply serve as a catalyst to activate more of our own native energy, which otherwise remains dormant.

There are numerous practices available for those who wish to tap into this energy on a more regular basis. Yoga, meditation, breath work, qi gong and tai chi are disciplines which were created specifically for this purpose. Those who dabble in these practices may get little more than a good stretch and a bit of temporary relaxation. But those who powerfully commit, who are willing to take the dive into their bodies and psyches and stay the course day after day, week after week, year after year, no matter what happens, tend to unlock something far more profound. Some may describe it as “enlightenment,” a poorly understood word, and others may describe it as a remembering of their authentic selves. Most begin to regularly embody the boundless energy of their youth but with the groundedness and maturity of adults and with deep insights into the nature of the human experience.

Somewhere along the way, we learn that pleasure is contingent upon certain activities which “give” us our thrills. This generally begins to take place sometime in early childhood, and by the time we are adults, we have spent decades slowly and consistently denying ourselves access to our own spontaneity and joy, believing that this type of freedom is a product of innocence and youth, rather than who we really are.

For those who wish to break free of their own inner prison and regularly experience joy, a lot of unlearning must take place. We must be willing to discover the pain, trauma, and insecurities that we learned to identify with and unknowingly allowed to fester over the years. Recovering one’s freedom is not for the meek of heart, as it requires consistently allowing oneself to feel one’s own unconsciously self-imposed limitations. After all, the blocks that we create become part of our self-image and our personalities. This is what’s meant when people describe “ego death.” It is the shedding of the layers of protection that we have put on ourselves. While brief moments of satori (sudden enlightenment) may happen, fully transforming requires years of dedicated practice in self-awareness.

The reward for the committed soul is the ability to access deep joy and freedom even in some of the darkest and most challenging situations. That is something that no amount of money can buy.

 

We’re Living Backwards

One of the most common problems I see with people is what I might call “struggle without context.” It’s the tendency to become absolutely consumed with challenges which feel meaningless, when our present day problems seem to be preventing us from living the lives that we believe that we deserve to be living. This existential pain feeds on itself until an emotional reaction of some sort ensues, providing what feels like temporary relief, but which is, in fact, only a release valve for feelings which creates more problems than it solves. Every attempt to deal with challenges in this manner ends futilely.

I attribute this anxiety-producing struggle partly to living backwards. Most people experience the present moment as a byproduct of their past experiences, including all the stories and judgments that they have told themselves over the years about who they think they are and how they either fit in or don’t fit into the world. Most of what our minds associate as the “self” is actually a complicated and often paradoxical mishmash of unconscious thinking created from our half-assed attempts to make sense out of the world from the time we were born. But what if we have it backwards? What if we are not actually who we think we are based on our past creating the conditions of the present moment? What if we are actually our future selves, yet to be created, pulling us in the direction of greater self-realization?

This puts an entirely different spin on the nature of reality, because, while we have no control over what has happened in the past, we do have the ability to consciously shape our futures.

Let me use a personal experience to illustrate what I am referring to. A few years ago I had to undergo several surgeries and spend two months in hospitals and an additional two months bedridden at home. This was not the first time I’d had an experience like this. I have been bedridden for over three years of my life, two of which were in hospitals. Without going into unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that I was not only physically, but emotionally, challenged. I was married and I was in the process of creating a business which was just getting off the ground. This was going to put an enormous amount of pressure not only on me, but also on my wife. The situation was devastating. The first thing that happened was I began to be haunted by all the insecurities I had thought were behind me about how my entire life might be destined for failure. I acknowledged the fact that this might destroy both my marriage and my career. I felt stupid and weak, like this was something that I should’ve been able to avoid.

After this initial stage of remorse and self-pity, it became clear that I needed to step up my game in practicing what I preach about the power of intention. Our lives are shaped by intention. So what kind of intention would have me going through this personal hell? I realized that this was not something that could be explained to me by God, but something that I actually had the power to decide for myself. I turned my attention towards the three main areas of my life, namely, my personal health, my relationship with my wife and my career. I made myself commit to the intention to use this challenge to improve all three areas of my life. In essence, I imagined where I wanted to be in the future and let everything that was happening in the present moment be framed as an opportunity for growth in that direction.

While being hospitalized is not typically associated with building a career, I made it so. I decided that this was going to be continuing education for Zen Warrior Training. I coached nurses and other patients while I was hospitalized, honing my skills at supporting people in challenging situations while going through my own challenges. I set a clear structure with my wife, Meghan, about how she could and couldn’t support me. For instance, I told her that she was only to visit me in the hospital if she did so completely on her own volition without feeling some kind of pressure to do so when she didn’t have the time or energy to be present and supportive. And I committed to taking even better care of myself through nutrition and exercise, which was going to be essential for making me healthier in the future. I let my intentions for the future create the context for everything that I was going through, and the more powerfully my mind was committed to that direction, the less I suffered and the more I learned. These intentions created structures that were necessary for me to get to where I am today.

When I was finally given the doctor’s approval to sit in my wheelchair and go out again after four months of bedrest, the first thing I did was go to lunch with a couple friends. They remarked on how unbelievably healthy, vibrant and present I was after going through such an intense ordeal. Without minimizing the challenge, I pointed out that it was now all in the past, and my reality was not being created by my past, but by my future self.

If I had not chosen to choose how I wished to perceive the circumstances of my life by intentionally framing them in a positive context for the future, things would’ve turned out quite differently. The suffering that I would’ve gone through would likely have set me back months or even years.

I suggest we all take a look at whether we are living backwards.

Barriers to Meditation

For many people, the notion of meditation, simply sitting alone with one’s eyes closed and focusing on nothing, seems like a complete waste of time, if not a horrifying, anxiety-producing experience. We want to know that the activities in which we are choosing to participate have some value, and the novice meditator may see little value in sitting still with his or her own thoughts and feelings. As humans, we tend to look for things outside of us that we can control, things that might help us to make more money, maintain our friendships and relationships, relax, etc. But we frequently wind up feeling unfulfilled with our endeavors to find what we are looking for as we perpetually seek some abstract experience that must be right around the corner, assuming we play our cards right or get lucky.

 

Approaching life from this angle does not take into account the power of the subconscious mind (or unconscious, if you prefer) to control our experiences of reality. If you have ever felt that you were basically the same person having pretty much the same experience and the same emotional triggers day after day, you have been a victim of the power of the subconscious. The subconscious mind includes a vast array of memories dating back to the moment we were born (and perhaps before), and it seems that its principle duty is to protect us from harm through constant analysis of ourselves and our surroundings. While this served as an essential survival skill with our early ancestors, it has more recently adapted to take on the job of analyzing our own individual psychology and individuality in a world where we are less likely to be consumed by tigers and more likely to be consumed by that relationship that went south.

 

Our memories constitute how we experience reality. They are the framework around our awareness and the choices we make. We decide what’s good, what’s bad, what’s wrong, what’s right, and remain somewhat fixated with our preferences, the origin of which we can’t necessarily determine. Without really questioning it, we assume that our experience in the future will be roughly the same as our experience of the past. As our subconscious goes about its job of trying to keep us alive, it sifts through memories that seem to give our lives context. This tendency keeps most people bouncing back and forth from the past to the future in their thoughts and missing out on the substance and value of their own presence.

 

Meditation, far from being simply a means by which to relax, is the most effective tool for working with, rather than against, this powerful subconscious influence. By committing to a meditation practice, to showing up and sitting with one’s self regardless of how one feels about doing so on any particular day, one can begin to separate the observer from the object of observation; in other words, we can see our own thoughts and feelings from a detached perspective, almost as though they were happening to someone else. By doing so, one can become more empowered to choose which thoughts and feelings to follow and which ones to ignore. The thoughts and feelings that emerge from inspiration can be noted, while those that contain self-judgment or random musings can be dropped.

 

This separation from one’s incessant thinking and the deep relaxation that comes about as a result must be earned. Just like any skill, we have to practice meditation regularly if we wish to receive its benefits. It is particularly difficult for people living in a results-oriented culture to practice something which only has benefits if you eschew the desire for results.

 

The biggest barrier that people face in meditation is not financial (it doesn’t cost anything) and it’s not logistical (you can be anywhere, anytime). Like most obstacles, it is our own minds getting in our way.

A Lesson From a Bird

A bird flew in my front door the other day while I was enjoying a cup of tea, and it landed on my desk. Behind the desk is a large window, but it was closed and had a screen on it. The bird made several futile attempts to go back to the great outdoors, but the invisible window kept getting in its way. I came over to offer some assistance, and by the time I did, the bird’s level of stress was beginning to show. As I reached my hand out and attempted to grab it, it became even more stressed. I managed to wrap my hand around the little bird and carefully escorted it back to the door through which it had arrived. In one last effort to escape, it wrangled its way out of my grasp and fell on the doorstep. But upon getting up unscathed, it took back its rightful place in the sky.

The bird brought with it a message that I would like to share. If I had not been able to help it, it would very likely have spent the rest of its life attempting to escape through the closed window. Here there was all this light right in front of it. Clearly, that was the open space it was used to flying around freely in. But why couldn’t it get back to the open space? The more attempts it made to get to the open space, the more panicked it became. Despite all evidence that this should work, every attempt failed. Had this gone on for a few more hours (or days), the bird’s energy would’ve been drained and it likely would have eventually died, even though the open door was just a few feet away.

How often in life do we act just like this little bird? It is so easy to try to tackle a problem using what seems to be a sensible solution only to end up getting nowhere and feeling confused and stressed out. But it’s easy to try to persist anyway, doing the same old thing over and over and adding to the anxiety. Meanwhile, the open door is right there, staring us in the face. All we have to do is stop banging our heads against the window and look for another opening.

Human minds frequently act just like this bird’s mind. We go with the first obvious solution without fully studying the consequences. When it doesn’t work, we try again and achieve the same result, only with more stress. In order to not get perpetually stuck, someone with a more expanded perspective needs to come along, scoop us up, and redirect us towards the opening. But we will likely resist this help, feeling like it’s an attack. Our defenses may tell us that we know the best way out. The person who is moving us may or may not treat us with a gentle touch. While the opening might be obvious to whomever is redirecting us, it’s not obvious to us. What’s obvious to us is that there’s something that appears to be an opening but that is not working the way that it ought to. After desperately trying to escape our helper’s grasp, we may finally allow ourselves to be redirected to the opening. And as we fly away free, frequently we don’t even look back to acknowledge the helper.

This is why we need teams in our lives, friends, colleagues and learning partners who have a broader perspective on certain things than we do. If we allow ourselves to stop, breathe and reassess the situation, there is always an opening just one pivot away.

The Trumportunity

Wow! What an extraordinary election season this has been. It has brought out the full spectrum of emotions – optimism, love, naivety, fear, resentment and vitriol! It’s like an emotional version of one of those breakfast buffets at a Las Vegas casino. A few delicious things and a bunch of crap that is hard to digest. It all culminated in last night’s verdict that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States. I don’t think there has ever been a more polarizing election in the history of our country. The decision was a momentous one. At the core, the question for voters was whether to vote for an establishment candidate who would maintain and reinforce the status quo, or to vote for a total wild card with a penchant for arrogance. The country opted for the wild card. I’m not giving an opinion or taking sides here, simply looking at the situation from an objective, unemotional and mindful perspective.

The common denominator is fear. Supporters of Clinton fear the notion of Donald Trump having the most influential job on earth. Supporters of Trump fear that if our government doesn’t change, they will feel increasingly disempowered. People on “both sides of the aisle” are both experiencing a ton of fear and, frequently, letting that fear take over.

In Buddhism, there is a term called “maya.” Maya is an illusion that we live under which prevents us from experiencing the true nature of spiritual reality. Essentially, it is a waking dream where we think that what we are seeing in present reality is the one and only reality, when, in actuality, it is only an experience of what we think of as reality based on our preconceived thoughts and feelings. Over the past few months, I’ve seen both Democrats and Republicans fall victim to maya. This victimhood shows itself in emotional reactions, both positive and negative. In my experience, anyone who allows their own emotional state to be dictated by circumstances beyond their control suffers from being in a state of maya. Doing so means that one has ceded control of their own power by saying that they can only be happy if the reality that they experience conforms to their preferences. You can’t kidnap your own happiness and give the universe a ransom note filled with demands and expect the universe to fulfill those demands.

The great thing about fear and anxiety is that these emotions serve a purpose. If we allow the feelings to take over our conscious minds, that purpose cannot be served. We become consumed by the feeling and the emotion then becomes unusable. But by learning to separate from the thoughts in our minds and the feelings in our bodies, we can see that who we are is not the identity created by thoughts and feelings, but the powerful spirit that provides a container for them. This is not some nonsense that I’m spewing, but a perspective gained after years of mindfulness practices. Let’s look at a very tangible example. Everyone has either been in a car accident or, at least, a close call. When these events happen, we are triggered into a fear reaction which makes perfect sense. Our feelings of safety have been temporarily compromised. However, once the initial shock has subsided, we don’t go on identifying with the fear. That is because we are not the feeling. We are the witness of the feeling. The same thing that happens on a micro level (a car accident or a close call) also happens on a macro level (electing a president), but the feeling is amplified by a collective cultural anxiety, which then makes it feel that much more real and permanent.

The question that I feel we all need to ask ourselves is how can we use the outcome of this election to create positive change in our worlds? Rather than focus on what we can get from our “leaders”, we need to be the leaders. The quality of your life is almost entirely in your power to create, no matter what appears to be happening in the world around you. This is a wake-up call for people to learn how to access their own inner power. Become increasingly vigilant about your own tendency to slip into states of mind that feel powerless. You have an extraordinary power to be able to adapt to any circumstance that life creates, but the desire to be in charge of your own life and your own sense of freedom has to be larger than the emotions which get in the way.

You’re Not Going Crazy… You Are Evolving.

There is a palpable sense of anxiety in the air these days. In the United States, many people are reconsidering the notion of our country being the moral leader of the free world. What used to be considered the greatest democracy in the world has evolved into a plutocracy without borders which appears to have an agenda to gradually take control of the entire world’s economic and political systems. In terms of the environment, only the most insensitive people could look at the condition that our land, air and oceans are in and not be apprehensive about the future of humankind if we stay on our current trajectory. The media feeds us a powerful concoction of reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be fearful twenty-four hours a day, which contributes to a perpetual state of anxiety and psychological paralysis. Make sure to stay on guard about the next terrorist attack, and, in the meantime, wouldn’t you be a lot happier if you had this new car and this medication? Financing plans are available even for people with poor credit! Buy now!

The global conditions affect the local conditions and the local conditions affect the personal conditions. As individuals, we are inseparable from the rest of the world. The systems that many people have relied upon in order to feel some sense of permanence – a permanent job, a permanent income, a permanent family, etc. – are beginning to decay as we see the inherent design flaws of our political, economic and social structures and discover that, whether consciously or unconsciously, we have been living in a system which often creates more problems than it solves.

For many people, this reality shift feels like being caught between two paradigms. The old paradigm of work hard in school so you can get a good job so you can get married and have kids so you can buy stuff so you can someday retire and die is beginning to fall apart at the seams. Jobs that once felt secure are quickly becoming obsolete. People are questioning the conventions of educational systems, of family, of wealth and accumulation. This restructuring of societal norms has made a lot of people uneasy. Humans fear the unknown.

The new paradigm is beginning to emerge but only if you know what to look for. Some people are realizing that all of these problems are but one giant wake-up call for humanity to learn better ways of relating and taking care of ourselves and our planet. Rather than panic about the old paradigm dying out, they embrace its death as a necessary part of human evolution. Living purposefully in a way that supports the health of living systems is the antidote to anxiety.

The more we try to hold on to the way things were in the past, the more we suffer. Losing what we are accustomed to needing in order to feel comfortable is always traumatic. When I lost the use of my lower body due to paraplegia and went through years of complications, I felt helpless in many ways. This created a deep and lasting emotional and psychological paralysis that affected me for years. I felt broken, unlovable, deeply vulnerable and codependent. I had to learn how to gradually let go of the perception that I had of myself from the past in order to once again feel whole, and that was a process that involved countless hours of coaching and meditation.

While most people do not have to suffer from a spinal cord injury, everyone has some form of paralysis that affects them in life. This feeling of uncertainty, this lack of stability, creates anxiety and can easily make someone feel like they’re going crazy.

The great philosopher and mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti had this to say about impermanence.

The fact is that life is like the river: endlessly moving on, ever seeking, exploring, pushing, overflowing its banks, penetrating every crevice with its water. But, you see, the mind won’t allow that to happen to itself. The mind sees that it is dangerous, risky to live in a state of impermanence, insecurity, so it builds a wall around itself: the wall of tradition, of organized religion, of political and social theories. Family, name, property, the little virtues that we have cultivated – these are all within the walls, away from life. Life is moving, impermanent, and it ceaselessly tries to penetrate, to break down these walls, behind which there is confusion and misery. The gods within the walls are all false gods, and their writings and philosophies have no meaning because life is beyond them.

Now, a mind that has no walls, that is not burdened with its own acquisitions, accumulations, with its own knowledge, a mind that lives timelessly, insecurely – to such a mind, life is an extraordinary thing. Such a mind is life itself, because life has no resting place. But most of us want a resting place; we want a little house, a name, a position, and we say these things are very important. We demand permanency and create a culture based on this demand, inventing gods which are not gods at all but merely a projection of our own desires.

Nature requires us to leave the past behind us, and not try to hold onto what no longer serves us, sometimes even when it served a useful purpose in the past. The intersection of the past and an uncertain future can make one feel like they are going crazy until they realize that this is all part of their own evolution. When a caterpillar forms a cocoon and turns into a butterfly, it must surrender to the transformation. But in the end, it’s more beautiful than ever.

The Power of Presence

What’s so special about what is happening right now? Why is there such an emphasis on being “in the moment” throughout Zen philosophy? What the ancient teachers have realized and passed down to us is that the present moment goes vastly underappreciated in most people’s minds. It’s easy to spend most of life thinking about things that either happened in the past or that might happen in the future or just going off on whatever trajectory the brain happens to roam in. The directions that the mind goes are dictated by many factors, many of which we aren’t able to understand because they come from the unconscious part the brain.

Feelings and emotions only complicate presence because the mind can easily become consumed in trying to find an answer to something that it identifies as a problem that needs to be solved. The feeling brings up memories of the past that it then tries to find a hypothetical solution to in order to protect you or to make you more secure and functional in your future. The only place that the mind isn’t is in the present moment. For many, the present moment is nothing more than where the past and future happen to intersect, and not worth exploring. After all, there are all these problems that we think happened in the past that we think need to be solved by thoughts about the future. Where are we going to find the time to focus on being present?

The present moment is, in fact, far more extraordinary than most people realize. After all, this it is the only time that is actually real. The past and the future are both extremely limited abstractions created by our unconscious brains. When you think about what you did this morning, do you really know what happened? You may have a bunch of random memories about things like what you ate and how long you showered and how you felt getting out of bed, but these memories don’t constitute reality. Only the present moment is ever real. Everything else is just a thought based off of a very incomplete perception of the events that have occurred.

Presence is hard work. Ask any monk who has spent decades in a monastery or any yogi who has done the same in a cave in the Himalayas. One has to have a pretty powerful incentive to commit themselves to a practice that they will be doing for the rest of their lives (and many lifetimes to come). For many people, this commitment to presence as a discipline starts with one or more undeniable epiphanies that forever change their perspectives on everything. These moments of enlightenment tend to share very similar qualities no matter who describes them. There is an emphasis on feeling connected to the entire universe. There is a feeling of deep love that transcends anything they previously knew to be possible. This is accompanied by heightened sensory awareness and a temporary dissolution of ego. Some describe it as having had a direct experience of being one with God.

I’ve personally been blessed with experiences like this on many occasions. These moments had such a direct impact on me that they helped to carry me through years of intense trauma from my spinal cord injury. As I suffered more than any human should have to, I couldn’t help but to come back to the realization that no matter how hard it got, nothing ever separated me from the entire universe except for me and my expectations that life should somehow be different than it was.

The practice of presence is a practice of living life on terms that you decide, as opposed to terms that seem to be decided for you. It’s about owning your inner power. You have the privilege and ability to create what you perceive in the world. By practicing presence, you begin to notice amazing things happening. Your relationships improve because the people you are in relationship with feel that there is more of you there with them to relate to. You stop blaming other people or events for anything because you realize that you were the one creating the experience you were having the entire time. You begin to emanate with your own light, like a projector that comes from your soul.

Presence is practiced through developing an awareness of the breath and body. The breath and body are always in the present moment no matter where our minds go. By simply beginning to notice the sensation of breath entering and leaving your body, you tap into a sense of spaciousness inside you. With practice, the thoughts and feelings that normally consume your mind show up less, and when they do show up, there is space that you’ve created for them to be there because you have been focusing on your breath. This is not to say that you can’t focus on other things, as well. In fact, by focusing on your breath, your ability to focus on what it is that you need to do in the present moment becomes accentuated because your mind is not as distracted. You are connected to your whole self, your body, your mind and your soul. From here, you can choose which thoughts serve the direction you wish to be going in. And you can delete the rest.

Connecting to Your Inner World

“Willed introversion, in fact, is one of the classic implements of creative genius and can be employed as a deliberate device. It drives the psychic energies into depth and activates the lost continent of unconscious infantile and archetypal images. The result, of course, may be a disintegration of consciousness more or less complete (neurosis, psychosis: the plight of spellbound Daphne); but on the other hand, if the personality is able to absorb and integrate the new forces, there will be experienced an almost superhuman degree of self-consciousness and masterful control. It cannot be described, quite, as an answer to any specific call. Rather, it is a deliberate, terrific refusal to respond to anything but the deepest, highest, richest answer to the as-yet-unknown demand of some waiting void within: a kind of total strike, or rejection of the offered terms of life, as a result of which some power of transformation carries the problem to a plane of new magnitudes, where it is suddenly and finally resolved.”

This is a quote from Joseph Campbell’s famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I like to read it slowly, sentence by sentence, and let every word sink in. What Campbell is describing is the direction which I am constantly going with myself and my clients. There is always more depth. There is always more to be gained. It is the ultimate rebellion. In order to discover yourself, you need to rebel, you need to reject the offered terms of life. You need to rebel completely, utterly. You have to see that the cultural notions of who you should be are the biggest impediments to truly knowing yourself, truly being free. Then you must direct your attention to the void that lies within you; not once, not twice, but every moment of every day, as often as you can.

Most people have never had an experience of the void. Their bodies instinctively know that it’s there, but their minds try to skirt around it, pretending that it’s not really there. But skirting around it is the worst thing you can do. By avoiding the void, you are avoiding yourself. The void is not the enemy. The void is your greatest asset. It is your gateway into a spiritual dimension, into the consciousness of love. Not romantic love, but true love. The mind, left to it’s own devices, will ruin your spirit. But the void will connect you to something far more profound; the energies of the earth and the energies of the universe that are not personal but spiritual, connected to all things. A timeless eternity lies within. But between your conscious mind and the void lies your unconscious, which will attempt to keep you from experiencing your own depth. It will fill your mind with stories and distractions and tell you that there is no reason for you to go within. It will tell you that there’s nothing to find in there. Then you will go back to your habitual patterns of distracting yourself. The void will again become the last priority. Onward goes the mind, to pizza, movies, Facebook, to-do lists, fart jokes.

The reason that people avoid the void is because they are addicted to their identities and they don’t even realize it. The void has no identity. As Campbell says, “the result, of course, may be a disintegration of consciousness more or less complete.” Who wants to disintegrate their consciousness? What a horrible idea, right? But the people who would shudder at the thought of disintegrating their consciousness are the same people who might have thoughts like “I am my own worst enemy. I’m constantly thinking too much. What’s the purpose of all this, anyway?”

I don’t know about you, but that, to me, sounds like a consciousness that needs to be disintegrated. Why would anyone care to hold onto those types of thoughts and feelings? They don’t serve any useful function. They are garbage thoughts. Yet people think thoughts like this all the time. Some people are so bombarded by thoughts that they have no idea what they are actually thinking at any given time. This is a mind without direction. The void will lead the direction if you give it time, learn to sense yourself from inside it. As Campbell says, “if the personality is able to absorb and integrate the new forces, there will be experienced an almost superhuman degree of self-consciousness and masterful control.”

My wife Meghan has joked with me in the past that I am a brainwasher. She’s right. I wash people’s brains. I help to clean them out. The brain needs regular maintenance, regular cleaning. But what I don’t do is put anything back in. That would be crossing a sacred boundary. It is not up to me what goes in someone’s mind. I don’t ever wish to replace their old ideas with new ideas. I want the inspiration to come from the void.