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.

The Zen Warrior Solution to ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is currently one of the most overdiagnosed conditions around the world and especially here in the United States. This is widely accepted as a fact by many experts in the field of psychology. In 2011, the CDC reported that 11% of children aged four to seventeen were reported as having been diagnosed with ADHD, a 35% increase in only eight years. There is no doubt that the condition that we know as ADHD exists on a spectrum and that medication can certainly be justified in some extreme circumstances. But there is also no doubt that subjective, biased and incomplete evaluations by clinicians and parents has led to a lot of children being unnecessarily medicated.

This might be not be a big deal if it wasn’t for the fact that commonly prescribed drugs such as Adderall can be detrimental over the course of prolonged use. Adderall, an amphetamine, is addictive and has the potential to cause some pretty serious side effects, including but not limited to heart palpitations, hallucinations, tremors, high blood pressure and drastic mood shifts. It’s the type of drug that should be used with caution and only when it’s absolutely critical for one’s well-being. And while Adderall may seem like the perfect tool to focus, it also serves as a crutch, inhibiting the user from learning the skills to focus without it. A child growing up with Adderall will likely be totally dependent on it as an adult.

The Zen Warrior learns to work with the complexities of the mind by separating the experiencer from the experience. In other words, we notice thoughts and feelings as they come and go without attaching ourselves to them. We see that the thoughts and feelings are not who we are, but, rather, what we are experiencing in that moment. By learning to differentiate between our thoughts and feelings and our presence, we exercise impulse control. Thoughts are just uncontrolled impulses, some of which are useful and some which aren’t. Being present is a learned skill which involves a dedicated practice of harnessing one’s attention. One must learn to see when the mind is wandering to and from the past and the future and focus it in the reality of the moment. Most people who would never be diagnosed with ADHD still have a very hard time with being present. The mind is constantly going from one thing to the next; from what you had for breakfast this morning, to the meeting that you’re not looking forward to, to the weird thing that person just said to you, to how you’re going to manage to pick up the kids from soccer practice and still be home in time to cook dinner. People with ADHD simply display this type of mental behavior in a more obvious and sometimes detrimental manner than the rest of us.

I practice mindful communication with a group of about thirty people on a regular basis. We spend eight hours a day once a month working on delivering clear, authentic communication to each other while staying connected to ourselves in the present moment. Many of us also practice this same skill for several hours each month in small groups. We actively observe the flow of communication while attempting to be completely ready to take action and speak when our input is appropriate or needed. This is not an easy task. The mind wants to wander when it’s bored and it wants to react when it’s triggered. It wants to judge yourself and others for things that have been said or not said. It wants to remember the thing that it had to say and blurt it out when it’s no longer relevant. It wants to either control the situation or leave the room. It is truly a discipline to simply be with yourself for a long period of time while being truly present and engaged with a group of thirty other minds. Through this practice, I have learned that it is clear intention that makes the biggest difference when it comes to focusing on the present. Intention is the direction that we choose to give our minds. Strong intention can only be accessed deliberately through connecting deeply with what one desires in life. Intention gives context to the present moment that the present moment doesn’t have without it. What am I going for in my life right now? What do I need to do right now in order to build my life in the direction of my choosing? With this disciplined attention, every moment begins to have context that we have created for it and the mind can more actively focus on the present because it’s focused on what matters to us.

By teaching both children and adults with ADHD mindfulness practices and the power of intention setting, they can begin to discover the peace and quiet that resides within them when they are not at the whim of every direction the mind wants to take them. They can begin to see that it is up to them to create meaningful context out of what is occurring in the present moment that will support them in living the lives that they truly desire. Without intention, the mind has no direction and will roam around endlessly.

It must be emphasized that focus is a learned skill that takes years to develop. The unconscious mind is a powerful force for anyone, no matter whether one has ADHD or not. Thoughts and distractions are constantly ready to direct our attention away from what’s important. For those with ADHD, this can be debilitating. But there is a solution. The Zen Warrior Training solution is to discipline one’s brain to incrementally learn how to gain control of its faculties so that it can be the servant of our true desires rather than the obstacle.

 

From Whole to Broken to Whole: Rediscovering Personal Power

One fateful night in 1999, my sense of wholeness was gone in a split second. Just a moment before, I was having the time of my life. At the age of twenty-four, I was a cycling tour leader and had just finished leading a 3,800 mile journey across the United States. An avid snowboarder and skier, I had plans to spend the month of January living out of my car at a ski resort in Vermont. I hiked the mountains of Western Massachusetts on a regular basis. I played guitar with my best friends in a college funk band. I went to a dojo and studied the fluid art of aikido three times per week. There was a complete alignment between my mind, body and spirit. My days were filled with classes at a college I loved, laughter with friends and regular outdoor adventures. Life was a blast.

A trip out to a bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday put an end to the party instantly.

Our trip stopped short of our destination when the driver hit a tree at about fifty miles per hour. My T12 vertebra exploded on impact, damaging my spinal cord and leaving me completely paralyzed from my waist down.

A spinal cord injury is unlike most other injuries in that it doesn’t heal. Any other bone in the body can be broken, and within a few weeks or months, you should be good to go. Break the spine and it’s a life sentence of paralysis.

I spent forty-five minutes slumped in the backseat of the car desperately trying not to move even the slightest amount for fear of further damage to my spinal cord. I pleaded with God to set the clock back so that I could make a different decision while going nearly mad considering the implications this event would have on my life.

In that moment, my sense of wholeness was replaced by a sense of brokenness. My spirit was determined to not give up, but my sense of identity was crushed in ways that felt unrecoverable. I complained as little as possible and took on this new life with a stoic and resilient attitude. But beneath the surface the wounds went deep, both figuratively and literally. Cumulatively, I spent more than two years of the the next fourteen lying flat on my back in hospital beds due to complicated surgeries from pressure ulcers. I spent an additional year lying down at home and unable to leave my bed. I became dependent on my family in ways that I could never have imagined.

The only thing that kept me sane was turning my attention inward, finding a sense of peace that wasn’t dependent on my life looking any particular way. It was here that I found the eye of the hurricane. I couldn’t control my circumstances, but I could control the way that I responded to them by living from this spacious place within.

As I practiced meditating my way through the months of complete motionlessness, I began to see that my predicament was simply an exaggerated form of the same basic theme that many people around me were experiencing. When I was confined to a hospital bed, I talked to doctors and nurses and got the distinct impression that they were all waiting on some time in the future when things would be better. These hopes and dreams remained perpetually unreachable. I may have been the one stuck in bed and unable to move, but it was clear that I was actually far less paralyzed than a lot of the people who weren’t. On a daily basis, I saw people who were creating their own prisons around themselves, held hostage by their own uncontrolled thoughts and feelings. Here I was the patient, and yet, ironically, I felt more free than the majority of the people who weren’t.

For many years, I had my own unmet goal, the goal to once again become able-bodied. I worked diligently with a movement specialist who had had some success in helping people with paralysis to recover lost function. I set my sights on recovery and was warned to not be complacent, lest my body atrophy beyond repair. It was a lofty goal since, as far as I knew, no one diagnosed with complete paralysis had ever recovered any movement or sensation. It took me over ten years to acknowledge that, on some level, I was embarrassed to be paraplegic. I had convinced myself to not fully engage in the world. I had created my own prison cell. As this came to my attention, I committed myself to a deeper level of self-knowing, recognizing the fact that true freedom could only come from embracing my circumstances exactly as they were.

As my energy became stronger, people who were struggling with their own prisons sought refuge in me since I had conquered such seemingly impossible obstacles. I had inadvertently become a specialist in tackling challenges not through stubbornness or stoicism but through yielding to whatever the present moment brought, by finding my inner Zen Warrior. By creating harmony around my circumstances, I had access to the vital energy needed to manage my situation and to live from a purposeful state of mind.

This sense of wholeness is not abstract or conceptual, but truly tangible. It is learning to sense that life is perfect in its imperfection. It takes a commitment to experiencing life as an adventure. Enlightenment is not a state of nirvana, but a discovery that we have the power to choose how we experience our circumstances.

The road to wholeness is unique for every individual, but the principles are always the same. Rigid attachments to one’s ego must be acknowledged and then allowed to dissolve. One must learn to trust his or her higher self and see that what seems like unbearable pressure is exactly what’s needed to transform and, thus, be able to serve the greater good. Around the world, people are waking up to these principles, and, by doing so, taking charge of their destinies in previously unimaginable ways. While the victim cries foul to what they perceive as the malevolent intentions of others or of the universe, the Zen Warrior looks for the opportunity for self-actualization that they know is embedded within the challenge.

 

Beware of the Should Police

I woke up this morning with a persistent thought that I should be doing something that I wasn’t doing. It was aggravating and draining. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. I felt myself absorbed in a cloud of low-level shame and lethargy, and over what I didn’t know.

Then it dawned on me. It was the Should Police. The Should Police are the voices inside my head that insist that I’m not living up to my full potential. They are the inner critics who are constantly condemning the growth work that I’ve done so much of because I’m not living in a state of perpetual inspiration and empowerment. They quickly judge the fact that there is so much work yet to be done without allowing me to appreciate how far I’ve already come and the degree of commitment that I have to my life.

They tell me that I should be more grateful.

They tell me that I should be farther along the path.

They tell me that I should be more focused.

They tell me that I should be more responsible.

They tell me that I should take better care of myself.

I notice the Should Police in the minds of the clients I work with every day. It’s so easy to pick up from the outside. I remind them that what they think they should do is actually just an illusory and disempowering thought, a mental construct based on the mind’s comparison to some picture of the ideal self that the ego has fabricated. It is the opposite of authentic inspiration.

But despite the fact that I remind my own clients about the Should Police so often, I am still subject to the same experience. These thoughts are insidious and difficult to detect when we are in the midst of having them. Once I become aware of what is actually happening, I can take steps to get out of it, but not before.

The path of the Zen Warrior involves training the mind to be in a state of non-judgment; in other words, developing the clarity and presence to simply observe things as they are and to not get entangled in the web of obfuscation and drama that the mind is so easily capable of.

When I stop thinking that I should be more grateful, I instantly feel gratitude for my life.

When I stop thinking that I should be farther along the path, I instantly see that I’m exactly where I need to be, and that the path has no beginning and no end.

When I stop thinking that I should be more focused, my mind begins to focus on what’s needed.

Beware of the should police.

Isla Vista – Rethinking the Unthinkable

The recent Isla Vista shooting has thrown our country back into a very familiar pattern. After the initial shock and remorse felt across the nation, we quickly moved straight into politicizing the event. These types of shootings are now so commonplace that people practically jump to their political arguments before even having a moment of silence for those who have lost their lives and their families.

Liberals immediately renew their argument for gun control. Conservatives insist that the right to bear whatever types of arms they desire outweighs the loss of lives. Some paranoid libertarians even insist that these shootings are staged by the government in order to take our guns away.

Some focus on the structure of our mental health system and argue that we need to do more to give unstable people the help they need, in the hopes of forestalling such heinous acts of violence. Still others claim that this particular shooting was due to a culture which promotes misogyny. It is clear that Elliot Rodger did, indeed, exhibit a toxic combination of both mental illness and a misogynistic attitude.

But while many of these emotional policy arguments can be justified from their respective angles, they fail to address a key underlying issue that can’t be solved by any lawmaker or law. With a tragedy this severe, sometimes a little time needs to pass before we can look at the situation from a less emotional and more objective angle and see the obvious — a problem which is far more difficult to uproot: America has a major fear of death.

Now, before you judge me for being harsh or inconsiderate, please hear me out. I feel pain as much as anyone. In November 1999, I was the victim of a car crash caused by a drunk driver that left me permanently paralyzed from the waist down. On top of that, complications from my injury have required me to be completely immobilized in hospital beds at times, at one point for the better part of a year. While this is obviously not the same as being killed in a shooting or being a family member of one of the victims, I do have a lot of experience with suffering, and my heart gets crushed every time another shooting happens. No one should have to endure that type of suffering.

When tragedies like the one in Isla Vista happen, rather than digesting the extreme pain that comes with losing innocent lives, we tend to immediately project that discomfort onto the people who don’t think like us. They are to blame, not us. It’s the conservatives. No, it’s the liberals. And every time another mass shooting happens, we become a little more desensitized to it, because we never actually accept the fact that we are all partly responsible. We are responsible because we have created a jaded ethos around the whole idea of death. People frequently ask why this particular type of gun violence is so common in America, but not elsewhere. What we fail to realize is that we are tacitly contributing to the problem through our collective panic.

We as a culture are so uncomfortable with death, especially with the idea of innocent people close to us dying “too soon,” that we create the conditions that fuel more mass shootings. We are obsessed with the idea that death is an end, that death is eternal darkness, that death is painful and to be avoided at all costs, that death is the great void. We cling to the belief that no person should have to succumb to it before they’ve had the opportunity to live for as long as their bodies can sustain them.

For most of us, this subtle paranoia lingers in imperceptible ways in our day-to-day lives. But when you add up the sum total of the fear of death in our society, it creates a very powerful force in the collective conscience guiding our behaviors.

Our terror of death gives those who are mentally unstable and wish to take revenge against others a powerful incentive to do so. Elliot Rodger wanted nothing more than to finally be seen as an alpha male before taking his own life, and he couldn’t think of a better way to do so than to exploit our fears by acting out what most people would consider unconscionable.

So how do we neutralize this fear? After my spinal cord injury, I turned to Zen philosophy and meditation as a way of coping with my own challenges and my brush with death. Through years of practice, I was able to shed the suffering that I was experiencing and see myself not through the lens of my victimhood, but simply as someone who is awake in the present moment. The notion of “Why me?” gave way to “Why not me?” With enough practice of Zen meditation, I even began to feel gratitude for the challenges I had faced. Gratitude for no longer being able to walk; no longer able to feel my bowels and bladder; no longer able to have normal sexual intercourse. Would I like to have those things back? Of course! But working with their absence has given me a gateway into a type of awareness that was previously unavailable to me because I had to look my fears and suffering straight in the eye and deal with them. This process has been so life-affirming to me that I started a mentoring business called Zen Warrior Training™, where I work with my clients to help them to develop the skills and awareness needed to master themselves.

Speaking to an audience in Ojai, California in August of 1955, spiritual writer and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti helped raise one possibility of how to deal with the subject of death.

“If you know death already, then there is nothing to be frightened of. But do you know death? That is, can you while living put an end to this everlasting struggle to find in the impermanent something that will continue? Can you know the unknowable, that which we call death, while living? Can you put aside all the descriptions in books, or which your unconscious desire for comfort dictates and taste or experience that state, which must be extraordinary, now? If that state can be experienced now, then living and dying are the same… It is only when the mind ceases to think in terms of its own continuity that the unknowable comes into being.”

Krishnamurti proposes a solution to the problem of our fear of death that one doesn’t typically hear – knowing death while still living. He is not the only philosopher or spiritual teacher who has spoken of such things. The Buddha taught that what we experience as our “self” is merely an illusion, and that we are, in fact, dying in every moment, only to be reborn over and over in a similar illusion. To grasp this illusion – not conceptually, but experientially – he said, was the key to true freedom, and the cessation of suffering. If we accept this view as being legitimate, it certainly does not alleviate the pain caused by innocent people being murdered. But what it can do is give us some insight into the root of the problem and how to deal with it, which is fundamentally a personal issue, not a political one.

We all wish that we could have our perspectives heard by those in power and that they would carve out laws which would keep us from further harm. When our voices go unheard, it only increases the feelings of anger and powerlessness, no matter what side of the aisle you are on. Unfortunately, that is exactly what contributes to more violence. It is exactly what gives people like Elliot Rodger, who himself felt powerless, delusions of power.

The fear of death is so ingrained into our individual minds and collective conscience that we should expect to see mentally unstable people continue to prey on those fears in the future. But if we as individuals can look at how our fears are contributing to the problem and take steps to neutralize those fears, then perhaps we will take away much of the motivation to kill.

The “Other Half” Must Die

It is time for the term “other half” to die.

He or she will never be your other half.

Stop it. Now.

People are suffering from the illusion of what it means to be married or in a committed relationship. Our culture has laid it on thick for a long time. Every romantic movie, song, religion and family has an idea of what relationships should look like. It is almost impossible to question what’s real and what’s not when entire institutions have been created around relationships serving certain functions. There is one thing that all these different dogmas have in common, and that is that your partner is your “other half.”

They’re not.

We buy into because it sounds so appealing. Wow… someone who will take care of my needs, who will come for me when I call. And we do our absolute best to be that person to the other, stoically ignoring our own needs in order to serve the greater good. We suppress the resentment that comes from the feeling of a life half-lived because we know that we are doing the “responsible” thing. Soon, we start to serve a mostly utilitarian function to each other. Make food for them. Listen to them vent about their day. Fold their laundry. Suck it up for the good of the relationship.

This is not to say that we should eschew responsibility. Quite the opposite. Our primary responsibility is to ourselves, not to the other. Then, and only then, our we responsible enough to be in a committed partnership with someone in a healthy manner. Ironically, it is only through not seeing our partner as our other half and instead seeing ourselves as two completely autonomous individuals who choose to be together that we have any chance of functioning as a cohesive whole.

Initially, this realization can bring up fear for people. “Well, if they don’t need me to feel whole, then doesn’t that mean that they could go away at any time?” Yes, it does. But the alternative is to destroy the polarity in the relationship by feeling that you need (or are destined) to be together.

“Well, won’t they potentially cheat on me if they don’t feel like they need to be with me?” That’s certainly a possibility. But cheating or having an affair is usually the byproduct of relationships which lost their polarity long ago, not healthy ones where each person acknowledges and respects their partner’s independence. In the former, one person acts outside of integrity out of frustration that their partner no longer feels like a good other half; in the latter, they simply move on if and when the love is no longer present in the relationship.

Humans are social creatures, and, as such, we rely on others for our sense of security and purpose in the world. We need to be very cognizant of the implications that has on the quality of our relationships. Most people rely almost exclusively on their partner to fill a supportive role that really needs to be distributed among a much larger group of friends, acquaintances, mentors and coworkers. That means that we need to look closely at what type of support we actually require and seek out people who have the capacity and desire to fill those needs.

Our energetic systems are biological batteries, requiring daily recharge in order to maintain optimum function and clarity. Try as we might, we cannot use someone else’s battery to charge our own. We must find the source of our own vitality and tap into it each and every day.

Love cannot be found in another person. It never could be, and never will be. Those of us who are fortunate enough to know true love know that we can only create love for our own lives through gratitude and a sense of abundance and then share that love with another. When we feel that we are not getting the love we need, we need to look no further than the mirror to find the problem. Acknowledging this truth can be painful, but the pain is simply the byproduct of fear of our aloneness. That fear is an illusion, and needs to be conquered. We are never alone. We never will be.

Our “other half” is the part of ourselves we reclaim by conquering the fear.