Turn on the Stars

I was steeped in writer’s block, boosting my self-esteem by rescuing bears in Candy Crush, when my daughter phoned with the news. You’ve probably heard by now, but I just have to write it down myself: Scientists have discovered that when dung beetles roll their balls of animal feces at night, they navigate by looking at the Milky Way!

I know what you’re thinking: Thank God some intrepid scientists asked themselves, as we all do, “How the hell do dung beetles navigate at night?” And thank God these scientists did not remain on the couch playing Candy Crush! No, they took a bunch of dung beetles to a planetarium, where they let them see different simulated night skies: some dark, some with stars visible, some showing only the Milky Way. And here’s what they found out:

 


*Dung beetle path illustration from Current Biology (Volume 23, Issue 4). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212015072

Is this not cool, I ask you? Dung beetles who can see the stars (specifically the Milky Way) roll their poo-balls in fairly straight lines. Those that can’t just wander around haphazardly, probably trying to think of something interesting to write.

I take great comfort from this information, because I basically spend all my time rolling around a big ball of poo called My Life. I arise, make the bed, brush my teeth, and sometimes show up at my computer to work. But most of the time, like today, I don’t feel I’m making any significant progress toward anything. I’m just pushing my poo-ball around, hoping no one notices that I have no idea where I’m going.

Today I have a gimpy back and not much pep. In five hours I’ve written maybe a thousand words on my current book. A few hundred of them may even be useable. Today the ball of poo feels huge, and my progress infinitesimal. It’s enough to make you just stop rolling.

I had to lie down to process all this, which of course means I’m accomplishing even less than before. But then I had a thought. I am not only a dung beetle pushing a sphere of crap; I am also a human, who can take the beetle to a planetarium and show it the stars.

I know how to do this, I’d just forgotten. I forget all the time, even though it’s a ridiculously basic instruction. When I’m moving in random patterns, not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, I have to stop pushing my ball of poo. I can leave my life alone for a minute—I’m not making any progress anyway.


Once I’ve stopped pushing, I have to go to the planetarium, and the door to the planetarium is stillness. In stillness, we humans can do all kinds of magic our dung beetle selves can’t even comprehend. Once I get still, I can feel for the action that—right here, right now, for me—will turn on the stars. I can recognize it by my feelings. Anything I can think of that lifts me, that makes me feel relief, or relaxation, or just a little bit of joy, is the starry blur of the Milky Way. It may not be very clear or very bright, but I can navigate by it.

Today, the Milky Way appeared when I confessed my fear of accomplishing nothing to a loved one. I got a wonderful hug, and a comment: “Honey, you’re thinking work is important. But that’s not what you’re feeling. What are you feeling?” And just like that, I knew that watching a movie with my family and cuddling our new dog was my path. And here’s the funny, counterintuitive thing that always happens when I turn on the stars: as soon as I committed to doing what brightened my inner world, my writer’s block went away.

I am steering this poo ball like a mofo.

I know I’ll lose the stars again. I know I’ll wander aimlessly, feeling exhausted by all my shit. But I swear next time I’m going to do better. I’ll get still sooner, feel for my own joy more carefully, and do whatever lights up the Milky Way in the little messed-up planetarium that is my mind.

P.S. We will soon be releasing the details for African Star 2018: A Self-Transformation Adventure Retreat where the milky way is so close you can hear it singing to your soul. If you want to be sure to get them right away jump over here and sign up for the first-to-know list.

 

The Law of Attracting Trojan Horses

People talk about “the Law of Attraction” as a way to hook Hollywood headlines, Washington power, and Wall Street wealth. I believe in the Law of Attraction, but I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, I direct a slightly bitter laugh at the whole concept of thinking ourselves to success. Haha.

Here’s the sobering truth: We don’t attract what our minds want. We attract what our souls want. The mind, despite its amazing abilities, is powerless to do miracles unless it’s in cahoots with the soul. And what do our souls want? Not the cabana on the beach, not the well-oiled, nubile partner, not our names in lights.

Our souls want us to wake up.

Dammit!

Because of this, we draw into our lives—inexorably, unintentionally, with maddening repetitiveness—exactly the things that lead most directly to awakening. In many cases, that’s our deepest suffering.

You know how the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Well, the road to heaven is paved with apparently horrible mistakes. In order to wake up, we must not only observe people who bring up the most unenlightened parts of our egos—not even merely encounter them. We must give birth to them, move in with them, invite them into the bathtub and the bed right along with us.

So many of the things that transfix us, the things that make us fall madly in love, are Trojan horses. We think they’re a gift that will make us happy, and for a while they do. But then our time to awaken arrives. The new baby who’s slept angelically for two weeks develops colic. The perfect lover quits antidepressants, cold turkey. The friendly new coworker smilingly throws us under the bus in a meeting.

The soldiers are out of the horse.

There’s an awful period of resistance when this first happens. We go through all the stages of grieving our own deaths, because part of us is dying: the ego’s attachment to the story of the thing that’s going to make us happy forever.

So, here we go. You know the steps to this dance:

Denial
This isn’t happening. At worst, it’s just a blip. Everything will go back to normal soon.

Bargaining
If I try harder, if I do a better job and really make them happy, everything will go back to normal.

Anger
I WILL NOT PUT UP WITH THIS HAPPENING! EVERYTHING HAS TO GO BACK TO NORMAL, NOW, NOW, NOW!!!!

Grief
Nothing’s ever going back to normal. I want to die. I can’t get out of bed.

Acceptance
Maybe I can find a new normal. True, Troy is now being run by the damn Greeks. But on the other hand, we’ve got a really nice big wooden horse.

This sequence happens when we fail to get an expected email or our favorite sitcom gets cancelled, let alone when we lose a job, a love, or a lifestyle. I’ve been through it several times lately, on a moderate scale. And here’s what I’ve seen, every time:

I’ve seen that what we’re most afraid to lose is never a thing, person, or situation, but our story about how that thing will make us happy, conform to our ego’s desires, and remain forever unchanging. This is true even when the thing is our own body.

I’ve seen that when we relinquish our stories—when the truth of our soul kills the narrative we’re spinning out to impress ourselves and others—we reach acceptance and suffering ends.

I’ve seen that on the other side of death lies peace. Not the peace of the unsuspecting Trojans before they got that awesome horse, but the peace braided through their epic poetry and psychologically compelling myths.

This is what our souls attract. This joy, this disappointment, this euphoria, this depression. This death after death after death. Ultimately, I believe that we can let all our stories die. Then we’ll accept every Trojan Horse, every betrayal, as precisely the gift we most needed in order to awaken.

The meta-learning I take from all this is simple: know that your story is your own invention, and that it will die. Hold it lightly. Enjoy your gift-horse. And when the Greek soldiers pour out of it, offer them your sword.

Are you ready to live like Jumping Mouse?

One of my favorite stories EVER comes from many Native American traditions, and is estimated to be at least 10,000 years old. I read it when I was 15, in the book

Seven Arrows, by Hyemeyohsts Storm. I didn’t know why I began to sob as I read this apparently simple tale of a mouse who wants to find his way to the sacred lake that is the source of all things. I didn’t know until decades later that the story is a guide to awakening, that it metaphorically traces every step on the way to enlightenment.

The story is called “Jumping Mouse.” It’s about an ordinary mouse who can’t stop hearing the call of the rushing river (which symbolizes spirit or source). Little Mouse heads off on a journey to awakening. As it begins, a frog appears and insists that to follow his yearning, Mouse must jump. He must jump very, very high. After a few hesitant tries, Mouse puts all his tiny strength into one huge jump. He falls down into the sacred river, which terrifies him, but the magic has happened—at the highest point of his highest jump, he has seen the mountains of his soul’s home, where the still lake of spirit waits to show him his true self.

After that, Mouse gets a new name: Jumping Mouse. He no longer moves by creeping and crawling. He bounds along, leap after leap. (There actually is a species of mouse that gets around this way).

The point—everything that happens to Jumping Mouse has a point—is that once we’ve set out in search of Home, we can’t move by creeping and crawling any more. We can’t tiptoe, keep our profiles low, avoid exposure. Life becomes one leap of faith after another.

This is not an easy way to live. Jumping Mouse doesn’t have an ordinary mouse life. He has adventures that terrify and injure him. But along the way, he encounters and integrates great realizations, unusual friendships, deep wisdom, and finally his true self. Have you been to the river? Have you begun to live by leaping? If not, start now. Leap at the next chance that speaks to your heart. One leap of faith at a time, we’ll all get Home at last.

Imagic-nation

I have two magical daughters. This story concerns the younger one, Elly, who as a toddler befriended an imaginary red fox. I won’t divulge the fox’s name, because he told it to her, not me. I used to hear her side of their conversations. “My friend Leah said God is everywhere,” I heard her say when she was three (she was in the empty kitchen, I was in the adjoining room). “Does that mean God is sitting on me?” I think this is a solid question, though I didn’t hear what the fox answered.

The first time Elly visited me in the California countryside, a red fox–rare in these parts, where grey foxes prevail–walked in front of our car, stopped, and stared at us calmly. We began to give her fox-themed gifts. The holidays, when my kids come to stay, got ridiculously foxy. Look:

This year, the day my daughters arrived, so did Sol (short for The Solstice Fox). Mangy, skinny, and shivering, he crouched right by the front door, squinting at us as if to say, in a quavering mangy-skinny-foxy voice, “Is Elly here? Elly, is that you?”

He looked so miserable a visiting neighbor suggested a festive holiday euthanasia-by-shotgun, which didn’t go down well in our animal-loving, bleeding heart family. Instead, we had the following discussion:

“Hey, why don’t we give him what’s left of that chicken we ate last night?”

“Wait, do foxes eat chicken?”

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Fox in the henhouse’? What do you think he’s doing in there, sketching?”

I left the half-eaten chicken carcass a few feet away from Sol, who looked troubled, but was too weak and miserable to run away. A few minutes later, my other magical daughter, Kat, saw him with the chicken, not sketching it:

 Watch another Sol, The Solstice Fox, video.

The next day, Sol trotted past the house, eyes open, head up. For the rest of the holiday, we put the leftovers of our feasts where he could find them. By New Year’s Day, he was downright frisky.

I’m glad Elly’s imaginary friend wasn’t a bear, or a mountain lion, or a dragon, because we don’t have room up in here for that level of festive. Sol the fox was perfect.

So happy 2017, my friends, and remember this year to use your imagination deliberately and wisely. It really does seem that whatever holds our attention, whatever calls to us, eventually comes calling.

How to Live Your Truth

“If you think life’s a vending machine where you put in virtue and you get out happiness,” a character on the TV show “Six Feet Under” once noted, “then you’re probably going to be disappointed.” Most people find this out the hard way. I suspect you did. The times when you obeyed all the rules and got punished anyway, ate righteously and still got sick, worked yourself half to death to achieve a goal only to feel depletion and disappointment rather than the happiness you expected — the happiness you paid for, by God!

For thousands of years, wise observers have pointed out that whatever’s in charge of the universe “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” And for thousands of years, the rest of us have answered: “Wait — what?” No matter how routinely it happens, we’re shocked and appalled to see good folks shivering in downpours of ill fortune while their villainous, luxuriantly tanned enemies send postcards from sunbaked beaches.

Perhaps this indignation arises from some innate sense of justice. That’s what the French doctor Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard started testing in 1801, when he took on the care of Victor, a “wild child” who’d spent an estimated seven of his first 12 years in the woods (being raised by wolves … or squirrels — we’ll never really know). Victor had only a rudimentary understanding of human language and social convention. Yet when Itard experimented by punishing him for behavior that usually earned him a reward, the poor child struggled mightily against his punishment.

Whether or not we’re born with it, we’re certainly socialized into the belief that the nickels and dimes of virtuous acts will drop snack-size potato chip bags of happiness into our lives. Our parents offer praise for obedience; our bosses give productive employees promotions and unproductive ones pink slips; our courts (at least try to) punish misbehavers and recompense the wronged. And of course, an endless stream of books, movies and TV shows offers us narratives in which the good guys win, over and over, while the bad guys ingloriously fail.

No wonder we’re stunned when we follow the path of compliance into catastrophe. This doesn’t feel like bad luck; it’s like an unfathomable malfunction that, in the words of Anne Lamott, “would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” While we’re coping with our misfortune — the cancer, the divorce, the bankruptcy — we may also lose faith in the basic rightness of life itself. Some of us spend years kicking the cosmic vending machine, raging at anyone (parents, psychiatrists, lovers, politicians) who might be in a position to cough up the happiness we’ve paid for, or at least give us our money back.

Of course, like any impossible task, this effort produces only exhaustion and despair. At some point, even the strongest burn out. Maybe you’ve reached this limit, plunging from violent outrage into numb nonresistance. Or perhaps — especially if your suffering has been intense — you’ve tried to find relief. Maybe you finally went to a therapist, or learned to meditate, or found yourself downward-dogging away in the yoga pants you swore you’d never wear.

These kinds of responses teach us to stop attacking the imaginary vending machine; instead, we sit down beside it, in all our furious disappointment, waiting for new insight to arise. And here’s the thing — though this approach won’t prevent a lifelong do-gooder from getting cancer or keep a lightning bolt from striking down the nicest person in town, that insight will arise. Following paths of stillness and curiosity, rather than rage and despair, we eventually make a fascinating discovery: Although the righteousness-reward theory hasn’t worked for us so far, it contains a bright thread of truth. There is a kind of virtue that really does buy happiness. The problem is, we’ve been taught to use the wrong kind of virtue and expect the wrong kind of reward. We’ve been plunking euros into a machine geared for dollars, expecting chocolate from a machine that contains only fresh fruit. To get the machine functioning correctly, we need to tweak a couple of definitions.

Let’s consider virtue first. Most of us have been taught that it’s a trait synonymous with adherence to social rules: our family’s way of loving, our peer group’s way of achieving, our social class’s politics and manners. We think it’s virtuous to do what other people want. We may believe this so deeply that we override our innate inclinations. Psychologist Stanley Milgram famously designed a study in which a researcher instructed ordinary people to administer painful electric shocks to a fellow study participant (actually there were no shocks; the subject was an actor pretending to be in pain). Even when they heard a fellow human screaming and begging for mercy, many people went on shocking him just because a scientist intoned, “The experiment requires that you continue.” Following rules? Not always virtuous, it seems.

Now consider happiness. You may believe it comes from external phenomena: praise, money, status, adoration. But even when we attain these things, the happiness they create is temporary and unreliable. External rewards may bring a surge of elation, but it quickly fades, leaving the millionaire still fearing financial loss, the beloved actor still suicidal, the aging supermodel still hating her body. If you’ve experienced this pattern — effort, followed by achievement, followed by elation, followed by a letdown — you may still be tenaciously striving, thinking just a little more money, fame or beauty will make you happy. Observe the evidence. Save your strength.

Try this: Define virtue as living in perfect alignment with what you most deeply feel to be true, and happiness as an upwelling of joy that arises directly from this alignment, regardless of external factors. Then run your own experiment. With these new definitions, you’ll find that the virtue-in, happiness-out vending machine works. It really, truly does.

I’ve experienced this myself. Several times, I’ve broken the rules of my culture to follow my sense of truth — ended my marriage, left my church, chosen to be vocal in my dissent. Each time, I’ve lost relationships and money, experienced social shaming, even suffered threats to my life and liberty. I won’t lie: It hurt. A lot. Yet, paradoxically, each choice also increased a flow of happiness that seemed to arise for no reason except that I’d stopped blocking it. I was amazed to feel peace trickling through sorrow and disappointment, gradually dyeing everything some shade of happy.

When people experience this — despite outward losses — they begin blooming like flowers, from misery to surrender to thoughtfulness to inner peace. Alignment in, joy out. In sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, that machine works.

If you’d like to experience this for yourself, join me in something I call an Integrity Cleanse. The word integrity (from integer) means “wholeness.” Living in integrity means expressing and doing what’s true for you in all situations. Depart from your truth in any way—offer a fake smile, flatter your awful boss, marry for money—and you become two people: the truth knower and the lie actor. That’s duplicity. And duplicity, not social noncompliance, is the real enemy of joy.

To start the Integrity Cleanse, first ask yourself, “Where am I out of integrity?” Where are you not feeling what you feel, knowing what you know, saying what you believe and doing what feels most right? Once you’ve identified the duplicity, come back into integrity. Speak your truth. Act on it. No matter what.

Sound radical? It is. Plop integrity into an unfair system, and you’ll get back disapproval or attack. People have been imprisoned for living with integrity. People have died for it (sometimes moving society a little closer to equality and liberty in the process). Even if your consequences are relatively minor — your parents object when you leave graduate school, your book group mocks your political stance — they’ll still sting. At first you may feel the same old outrage: “I put in virtue and got back punishment!” Stay the course. See what happens.

I’ve watched many people take Integrity Cleanses. They often leave (or experience rejection in) situations that don’t match their truth. This can feel like the end of the world — because it is: the end of the illusory world where rule following buys happiness. Refusing to give a drug-addicted loved one more money; quitting the secure, horrible job; stating your beliefs to bigots — such actions may feel like dropping atom bombs on your own safety. You’ll certainly be afraid. Maybe sad and angry as well. But almost immediately, you’ll also feel an indescribable relief, as if a broken bone that healed badly has been reset in its correct alignment.

Continue your Integrity Cleanse and you’ll begin to see how the cosmic vending machine really works. You’ll find ways of thriving in the world as yourself, not someone else’s puppet. Despite all the challenges, that will feel good. In fact, it will feel amazing.

But don’t take my word for it. Try putting complete integrity into the vending machine of your own life, and sample what you get back. Even though the reward may not be what you expect, and although some bitterness may mingle with the sweetness of living your truth, I doubt you’ll ever have tasted anything quite so delicious.

The Storm Before the Calm

landscape-695137_1280No matter how many times I experience The Storm Before the Calm, it always sneaks up on me. I never recognize it until I’m fully lost in it; bruised, drowning, desperate for relief. Storms are devilishly clever at disguising themselves. “I’m Hurricane Bob!” “I’m Tropical Storm Betty Sue!” “I’m Low Pressure System Barry Manilow!” Don’t let them fool you. No two storms have the same name, but they all wreak the same kinds of havoc.

Of course I don’t mean literal storms. I’m talking about periods of intense disturbance we go through prior to deep and lasting personal growth. I suspect we all have these Storms Before the Calm. But I don’t think most people recognize them. So it’s about to get unbearably metaphorically meteorological up in here.

A Storm Before the Calm begins long before we see it. It’s born in deep wanting—maybe a subtle itch, maybe a yearning so strong it rattles our teeth. It begins down in our guts, and eventually we begin burping it up, asking God (or Whatever) for resolution. Maybe we consult priests and offer formal prayers; maybe we gag out strangled cries that never even make it to language. Either way, we’re begging for change, for fulfillment, for something better.

We want this to happen smoothly and prettily, a sunrise illuminating a perfect summer morning. We expect it to happen this way.

And Whatever says, “Mmm-hmm.”

We forget that to give us more than we currently have, life must make us more than we currently are. And that the first act of every creative change is the destruction of the existing order.

Make no mistake: when we ask for better lives, we are calling the whirlwind.

When the Storm hits, we don’t connect it with our wanting, with our calls for help. We feel blindsided by misfortune, attacked by circumstances, drowned in agony we can’t control.

Loss of control is the essence of the Storm. We may lose control of our emotions, our actions, our work, our relationships, our bodies, everything. It all devolves into chaos—not just the normal inconveniences of daily life, but disruptive, preoccupying chaos, events and feelings we can’t ignore. Plans fall through. Efforts fail. Jobs disappear. Relationships end, or become fractious and impossible. Controllable? Ha! A Storm Before the Calm barely feels survivable.

I tend to recognize the Storm Before the Calm just after I become convinced that I’m cursed. During some of my worst Storms, I’ve felt like a cockroach that God (or Whatever) was trying to kill, first with a rolled-up newspaper, then with a shoe, then with a ton of bricks. After every mammoth blow, I’d be dismayed to find myself hideously alive, missing my head and most of my thorax, but still able to creep forward on my single remaining leg. While, I imagined, God rushed off to deploy the nuclear warheads.

That’s when I remember.

Wait, I think with my tiny, headless-cockroach mind. There’s something about this feeling, this horrible, horrible feeling…it’s not like ever before, but yes, it’s that bad. I think it may be the Storm Before the Calm!

And God (or Whatever) whispers, Bingo.

That dim flicker of recognition is the moment I feel the sea change. I’ve done it enough to know roughly how it’s going to play out. I relax into the belief that Storms Before the Calm come to destroy us, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And that this is grace unfolding. I know that the greater the gift we’ve requested, the wilder and more violent the storm will be, and the deeper the grace.

Contemplating this—that the Storm isn’t a curse, but preparation for the blessing—ushers me into the Calm. Right then, just like that, I feel the pain ease. Before the wind dies down. Before the argument is resolved. Before the disease heals. Before the rent is paid. The Calm doesn’t come because the Storm is over. It comes because I’ve moved into the truth.

Truth is always calm. Still. Gentle. Quietly and intensely alive.

I think almost everyone goes through this pattern. If we look, you can probably remember breaking through a few Storms into the Calm yourself: “Oh, right! After my nervous breakdown I discovered meditation and Klonipin, and things got so much better,” or “True, it was after Jack left that I finally got the nerve to quit my job slaughtering cattle.”

Right then, just with that tentative step toward a different interpretation of ill fortune, the Calm begins. It feels faint at first, but dropping attention deeply into it—focus more on it than on the Storm—begins to reveal that it’s VAST. So huge a million hurricanes could rage inside it and never disturb its peace. That Calm itself is what we really are. Every single pathetic-looking little human is bigger inside, far bigger, than any storm ever seen on earth.

Sometimes, when I can’t reach the Calm, I’ll just stomp into the Storm, betting wildly that it’s more benevolent than it seems. With a sort of inner Viking war scream, I’ll open the grim and complicated spreadsheets from the bank, or go get the painful medical test, or initiate the conversation I’m way too afraid to have. If there’s nothing else to do, I’ll sit in a silent room, refuse to distract myself, and face the tempest in my mind.

If I do this bravely enough, a weird thing happens. Right at the center of every Storm I find its eye—the one part of my flailing self that can see clearly.

From that still place right inside the storm, all the horrible luck, the stress, the pain, the shame, the loss, begins to reveal itself to me as an incomprehensibly perfect, intricately choreographed rearrangement of the universe, meant specifically to do one thing: Fulfill my longing.

“Oh,” I notice. “The illness came to teach me to relax.” Or, “Oh. The job loss came to teach me that people will help.” Or, “Oh. I failed because I had to discover that I’m worthy of love, no matter what.”

Oh. I called the Storm. It came because I asked. And it’s exactly—exactly—what I needed.

At that moment, I realize what my favorite yogi Nisargadatta Maharaj meant when he said, “Don’t you see? God is doing this all for me.”

Not to me.

For me.

Oh.

The Turbulent Secrets to Soul Renewal

unnamed-15Some of my favorite writers are fond of housework as a kind of counterbalance to spiritual attainment. Jack Kornfield, writing about enlightenment, says, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” And Zen teacher John Tarrant (see this month’s book recommendation below) advises his readers, “When something wonderful comes our way, it is good to do the dishes.”

I thought about this today as I listened to my washing machine run in one room, the dishwasher in another. I’m lucky enough to have machines for both tasks, but however you clean clothes and silverware, the process involves common elements: soaking, sudsiness, turbulence, rinsing, drying.

It occurred to me that I haven’t been willing to allow these processes, so obviously necessary for cleaning my sheets and plates, to run their course as they clean up my life. I’d prefer a steady state of peace and happiness, please—and would you mind liberally sprinkling that with delirious joy? I forget that in the material world, the process of renewal and refreshment often requires stewing in my emotional and logistical gunk, enduring high-temperature turbulence, and occasionally (when the newfangled methods fail and the old-fashioned ways come out of retirement) getting pounded on rocks or scraped with sand.

So here’s my new favorite meditation: Load up your dishwasher or washing machine, press the buttons, and then sit by the magical cube as it does its magic. When it roars and sloshes, hear the echo of your fear, anger, and despair. When it spins, recognize your own times of confusion, of apparently pointless repetition. When it seems to have finished, only to rev up again, think of the times you’ve had to start over. And realize that all this bashing and crashing is your soul being cleaned, renewed, and made fresh again. Once you relax into the process, you’ll learn the great secret: It is through doing the laundry that we find our way to the ecstasy.

Loving Your Inner Pup

pupThe other day I heard something that hit me like a wrecking ball. Along the coast of California, thousands of baby sea lions are dying. The herring their mothers live on have disappeared, so the mothers had no choice but to leave their babies to starve.

Not long  after hearing this, I had the extreme good fortune of speaking with Byron Katie, who I believe to be a fully enlightened being, and whose work has literally kept me alive (check her out on YouTube if you don’t know about her yet).

“I use the tools you teach, Katie,” I told her. “I question all my thoughts. But I can’t get over the sea lion pups. No matter how hard I try, this makes me so sad.”

And Katie said, in the calmest, most untroubled voice imaginable, “Well, sweetheart, why don’t we start by helping the one pup who’s here right now?”

I came unglued, of course. I’d been trying to embody the pain of ten thousand starving mothers and babies, thinking that somehow this might help. (Right. Because that always works.) The pain had closed me up in a “protective” shell of fear and hopelessness. Katie’s words broke the shell. There it was again, that thing that keeps catching me whenever I fall: Infinite love. Grace. Comfort.

I’ll do what little I can to help to the sea lions. And the polar bears. And the pups of every kind, everywhere. And the human beings suffering various forms of misery all over the planet. But to do so, I have to return, over and over again, to the simple act of allowing kindness to touch my own broken heart. When we do this, possibility and healing replace despair and paralysis.

Today I put out water for the animals who are suffering from drought in my own neck of the woods. I encouraged a sad friend. I let myself believe that though we’re always dying, we’re held by something bigger than death. Right now. Always.

Try it. Give love and comfort to the starving pup inside you. Then let the love and comfort guide any action you take. It’s a simple little practice. It might not save the world. But then again, it might.

Photo courtesy of FerrF

How to Know You’re on the Right Spiritual Path

My religion is called Do-Be-Do-Be Do, pronounced “doo-bee-doo-bee doh.” The final “doh” (Japanese for “the Way”) is more properly written like this: Do-Be-Do-Be means “the Way of Do-Be-Do-Be.” According to the religion’s only member—me—it aims to balance the active “doing” of Western religions with the serene “being” of Eastern religions.

This name is meant to sound silly, because along with Reinhold Niebuhr, I believe that “laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But when it comes to religion, I can be as serious as typhoid. Born into an intensely religious tradition I would later leave, I’ve studied and pondered the subject intensely. I’ve come to believe Marx’s dictum, “Religion…is the opium of the people.” Or, at least, part of it. Marx wasn’t wrong—but he didn’t know that opiates aren’t purely negative. They can drug us or poison us or sustain us. In fact, we naturally produce the “endogenous opioids” necessary for happiness. So a quest for truth isn’t about being a glazed-over religion addict or cold-turkey atheist. It’s about learning which opiates are healthy and testing each new idea before we take it into our systems.

Flying High on Faith

My friend Drew never thought much about spirituality until a college friend took him to hear a charismatic preacher. Drew was immediately hooked. Listening to Preacher X, he remembers feeling “high as a kite. I would have walked on fire, juggled rattlesnakes, done anything the guy said.” Drew embarked on a religious journey that now makes him blush. “I’d always questioned authority, but when I met Preacher X, that way of thinking sort of zoned out. I was like an addict—I felt stoned on being part of the group and on thinking we had the Truth. You know, no questions or uncertainty.”

Drew dropped out of college and moved into a commune with other followers of Preacher X. “I was euphoric for more than a year,” he says. “Then problems started coming up, some from inside my mind, some from outside.” Drew found himself questioning Preacher X’s insistence that he alone knew the mind of God. Soon after, a 17-year-old friend told Drew she and Preacher X were sleeping together. This major buzz kill finally jolted Drew out of his religious “high.”

Drew regrets this whole uncharacteristic episode, but he was following deep-rooted patterns of human behavior. The great sociologist Max Weber hypothesized that every cultural movement began when a charismatic leader gathered a group of followers. The word charismatic is important: Though we use it to describe charming or impressive people, charisma also means the ability to connect with the divine. People follow charismatics because they purport to speak for God, providing compelling truth claims that help people feel guided, protected, and united.

This psychological pattern is the reason people attach passionately to value-based groups, from teenage gangs to political parties. It’s why reasonable people may become irrationally loyal to such groups. We’re wired to experience euphoria when we belong to a band of people championing common values. It literally intoxicates us.

Compared with the other side effects of religion, getting high off religious participation, even becoming “addicted,” as Drew says he was, is a relatively innocuous one. In addition to the obvious Jonestown-style cult craziness, mainstream religions present their own dangers—because their substantial history, sizable population, and organized structure make their members even more certain that they have the Truth. When another group shows up with another version of the Truth, all hell breaks loose. “Us versus them” thinking can swell from prejudice to unspeakable violence. The Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, and countless other atrocities had religion at their cores. The perpetrators were so stoned on being Absolutely Right that they never noticed the mind-blowing irony of hating in the name of love, killing to defend the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and waging war under the banner of peace.

One regrettable consequence of this is that onlookers often conclude that religion causes the violence done in its name. Many well-meaning atheists believe that getting rid of religion would eliminate ideological discrimination and violence. Some believe this so strongly that they become angry, even violent, and…oh, hello! Here we are, back at holy war! If you doubt that doctrinaire atheism is as dangerous as doctrinaire religion, study the history of communism in the 20th century. You’ll find the same charismatic leaders claiming to know the Truth, the same us-versus-them psychology, the same intoxicated evangelism, the same unfortunate habit of slaughtering people by the millions to improve their lives.

In short, absolutism is the opiate that turns the masses into ideology-addicted murderers, whether religious or irreligious. Doctrinaire atheism keeps the bathwater aspects of religion and forcibly ejects the baby—the one thing religion has that atheism lacks: spirituality.

Make Your Own Opiate

Remember those natural endogenous opioids produced by healthy bodies—the ones Marx never knew existed? As a depressed teenager, I became addicted to them. I exercised maniacally, triggering surges of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, until my body basically fell apart. I developed a chronic pain condition that left me too crippled to do much besides lie still and breathe. Since it was one of the few things I could actually do, I began meditating. I hated meditation, but only for about 10 years. That’s how long it took me to realize that this practice could “turn on” the same natural opiates I’d once gotten from exercise. Unlike the rush-and-crash of my physical fitness addiction, however, meditation seemed to slowly fill a calm reservoir of joy that pervaded my life. I’d become my own source of connection to the divine. Literally and figuratively, I was making my own opiates.

The following is my recipe for Home-Brewed Charisma:

Embrace Uncertainty

The most powerful protection from the inherent dangers of spiritual seeking is to accept that human knowledge can never be absolute. I mean, you could be dreaming right now—of course, you aren’t…but if you were, how would you know?

René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern science, dwelled on this question until he felt, by his own description, “dazed.” Ultimately, he decided that the only thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t sure. Most people know Descartes’s famous statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). But he actually wrote “Dubito…cogito, ergo sum.” “I doubt…I think, therefore I am.” Though we like to ignore it, uncertainty, not certainty, is the philosophical foundation of science.

You’ll be vulnerable to “bad drug” religion until you can repeat these words without freaking out: “Nobody’s absolutely sure of anything, and that’s okay.” This frees you to do consciously what most people do unconsciously—make your best subjective judgment about the veracity or fallacy of any truth claim.

Test Every Idea with All Your Senses

The embrace of uncertainty replaces absolutism—the source of ideological toxicity—with a simple, open question: Since no truth claim is absolute, does this make sense?

That was the seditious thought pattern that made my friend Drew question Preacher X’s ranting. It’s what led Copernicus to dispute the religious “truth” that the Earth was the center of the universe. It’s what led the American founding fathers away from theocracy and toward democracy.

Asking if something “makes sense” has multiple meanings. It asks us to test a claim with both our common sense and our senses. Modern science owes its incredible advances to focusing on data perceived by our physical bodies. But other advances, like the “self-evident” truth of individual equality, resonate with a subtler, inner sort of knowing. Drew’s problems with his cult came from inside and outside his mind because our observations come from obvious physical experiences and intuitive ones.

We frequently reference physical sensations when discussing metaphysical ideas, calling on all five senses to describe something that ostensibly can’t be sensed: “I can see how that might be true,” we might say. “It sounds right.” Or, “Something about it feels weird. I smell a rat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” Some spiritual traditions refer casually to the five subtle senses, in addition to the five physical ones, and suggest we use all of them to decide whether we want to accept an idea into our belief system. That’s why I chose, as my own religious hymn, the song “This Smells Funny, and I’m Not Gonna Eat It.” If you get a queasy feeling from any of your 10 senses, back away. Don’t swallow it.

Notice Whether an Idea Unifies or Divides

The word religion derives from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together.” I finally fell in love with meditation when I felt it reconnecting me with my real self, with humanity, nature, the entire universe. This experience of oneness, at-one-ment, lies at the charismatic core of every religious tradition. So as you go along your spiritual search, observe the long-term effect of every doctrine and practice that comes your way. If it breaks, shatters, or destroys, it’s not religion—its absolutism. That drug’ll kill you. Real religion, by definition, makes things whole again. It heals.

“The problem for me,” Drew says of his youthful religious experiment, “wasn’t that I got high on religion. The problem was that the high was artificial. What I really wanted wasn’t just groupthink, it was love. Real love—the kind that takes time, testing, solitude, service, stillness, effort, the whole spectrum of religious practice.”

In other words, Do-Be-Do-Be.

So it seems Drew and I enjoy the same natural opiates, that we’re following the same basic religious path. We sometimes walk together and enjoy the other’s company, but we don’t need to be in lockstep. We trust our souls to the embrace of uncertainty, to the reliability of our senses, and to the grand, mysterious impulse that has always led human beings to create religion. Imperfect, foolish, and fallible as we are, each of us seems to be designed—and maybe even guided—to find our own Way.

The Rainstorm After the Calm

drought

Photo credit: Kym McLeod

Drought is a strange stressor, a parade of beautiful days that slowly become terrifying. The current drought in California is the worst in history. While the rest of the country shovels snow and preps for floods, we Californians dab on the sunscreen and freak out a little more each day.

I have reached the New Age-y point where I really do see how I’m creating many aspects of my reality: my friendships, my business, my sinus headaches. But so far, this drought has me stumped. I tried controlling it with my mind. It gave me a sunny sneer that lasted more than a year.

So recently, when our beautiful medicine man friend came to visit, my hopes were low. Way low. He stayed for a week, during which the landscape hummed with wild animals and an undeniable electric energy. But when the medicine man blessed some sand, laid it down, and told us it would bring the rain, my hopes were minimal.

The next morning we woke to a dense, drippy fog. The following day it rained. Then a few more foggy mornings, and finally, a day I spent editing a book and looking up every minute or so to relish the fact that, yes, it was still raining. For ten hours.

That night I turned on the local weather report to share the general rejoicing. Confusingly, the sad weather man said that no rain had been reported anywhere. No precipitation anywhere. It seems to have rained for ten hours almost exclusively on my property.

Was this a coincidence? A hallucination? I’ll never really know. California is still in a historically severe drought, clearly a punishment from God.  Or, perhaps, a chance to learn the hard way—really, is there any other way?—that miracles can happen.

Whatever your personal drought (a love drought, a health drought, a money drought), I know how awful it feels. I’ve been all the way through all those droughts, and come out the other side. I’ve learned that one day, when your hopes are so low you finally stop grasping at them, the rains arrive.