The only news is that there's no news at all

Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.

We have a soft garden in here.

The continents blasted,

cities and little towns, everything

become a scorched, blackened ball. 

The news we hear is full of grief for that future,

but the real news inside here

is there's no news at all.

--Rumi (Trans. by Coleman Barks)

Many of us these days seem to believe that the state of the planet and of the human condition is worse than it’s ever been. But how can you or I accurately compare then and now? And if we do hold this view, how do we react to it? Definitely we can say that we’re more acutely aware these days than ever before of the innumerable ways we could end our tenure on earth—and destroy our children’s future. But beyond that, who knows?

The events that are transpiring daily at an ever quickening pace, or so it seems with our 24/7 news cycle, compel our attention with their immediacy and intensity, and we may feel it our duty to keep track and respond in some way. So we check the internet and watch the news regularly, filling our minds with statistics, predictions, opinions, detailed reports, and endless images of conflict, starvation, and devastation. But how does this preoccupation benefit us and the world around us? How does it serve those we love (however broad that circle may be), the environment, or the future of life on this planet?

If we do it to gather information that then empowers us to take effective action to respond to the many critical situations  that confront us, then watching the news can be an invaluable resource—though of course we would do well to choose our sources wisely lest we be misinformed, a sizable task of discernment in itself.

But if we ingest the images, statistics, and opinions that constitute what we loosely call news in order to satisfy an insatiable hunger for variety and drama or to fuel a depressed, frightened, or agitated mood, we’re allowing this material—which is after all nothing more than a stream of thoughts—to undermine our connection with the richness, completeness, and mystery of reality just as it is, beyond the mind. 

Any dream we inhabit—even if it’s a consensual dream, a worldview we share with others of a similar persuasion—seduces us back out of the pure light of our innate wakefulness into yet another illusion, with its own belief systems and corresponding emotions and attachments. If we’re committed to staying awake, we need to shine the light of awareness on our relationship with the news, penetrate its mesmerizing, dreamlike quality, and realize that what’s occurring now, no matter how disturbing, is just an expression of the one deeper and indivisible reality. Assess the situation realistically and take appropriate action if we feel moved to do so, but don’t mistake the dream for the deeper truth. Beneath the proccupation with past and future scenarios that every dream entails lies the hidden possibility of opening to the timeless, radiant, ungraspable Now.

Consider our preoccupation with the preeminent newsmaker of our historical moment, Donald Trump. We’re all aware that Trump’s primary agenda is to polarize and divide, and in so doing to strike at the heart of our deeper knowing as human beings that we are undivided and inseparable. For this reason, among others, just about everyone I know has strong opinions about him. But what is ironic and unfortunate is that, in our passionate antipathy toward Trump and everything he stands for, we risk doing precisely what he goads us to do—polarize and divide, not only from him and those who support him, but from the core of our being, our nondual essential nature, our deepest inner knowing.

So let’s read the news, but stay aware as we do. Notice what gets stirred up, where the mind goes, what we make of the words on the page, how we construct some hypothetical version of reality and then act as if it were truth. Allow the events we witness or read about to touch and move us, but resist the temptation to see the narratives and interpretations the mind is prone to concocting as more than just provisional. Let any response arise from the deepest place inside, rather than from some beliefs about how reality is supposed to be.

And let’s remember what Rumi tells us: Beneath the so-called news lies the eternal silence and stillness of our essential nature, which abides undisturbed amidst the endless creation and destruction, gain and loss, advance and decline, pain and pleasure, of manifest existence. Here--no matter how dire the circumstances, in the nothing at the heart of everything--there’s always no news at all.

In love with the world

Many teachers of nonduality—the term itself is ironic, since nonduality, which is after all the nature of reality,  can’t be taught—offer guidance in waking up out of the dream of separation to recognize our inherently awake and radiant true nature. But very few teach how to live from this realization in every moment of life—the crucial, ongoing, lifelong process of embodiment, of being the love and emptiness we know ourselves to be even in the most challenging circumstances. 

After all, if we don’t live our understanding, what’s the point of waking up?

To those who have had some realization and seek wise guidance in this process, I recommend In Love with the World, a remarkable memoir by the young Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. I don’t read many spiritual books these days and haven’t reviewed one in years. But I found this one captivating because the author, a highly regarded lama from an illustrious spiritual lineage, has the courage to chronicle, with utmost honesty and humility, his own process of freeing himself from the beliefs and emotions that bind him to a separate sense of self.

While telling his own story, the author articulates profound spiritual teachings on the emptiness of self and phenomena in accessible, jargon-free laguage. And he presents a path beyond awakening for using difficulties as opportunities—or as he calls them, “logs on the fire”—to let go of the dream of past and future at ever deeper levels. 

His clear, wise counsel goes beyond Buddhism and appeals to all those who have some understanding of their nondual spiritual nature and seek to embody it. His emphasis on an endless journey of deepening and clarifying, so characteristic of the Buddhist tradition, is a refreshing alternative to the popular view these days that “one and done” is sufficient—or even that awakening is unnecessary because we’re always already awake.

Mingyur Rinpoche grew up as the youngest son of the great Tibetan meditation master Tulku Urgyen, who introduced him directly to the “nature of mind.” By the time he was 17, he had already done an intensive three-year retreat, received advanced teachings and practices from his father and several other teachers, and  experienced deep and abiding insights into the nature of reality . But he eventually comes to realize that his status and comfortable life-style reinforce a limiting identity as a teacher and authority figure. Resolving to break free of even this “positive” identity, he leaves his monastery in the middle of the night and sets out on a four-year journey as a homeless renunciate, living without money, begging for food, sleeping outside on the ground. 

The story of this pilgrimage forms the central thread of this book, around which the author weaves wisdom teachings and simple practices for working with attachment and identification--practices that he does himself as his journey unfolds. During the first few months, shortly after giving up his crimson Buddhist monk’s robes for the saffron garb of a sadhu, he gets violently ill from eating leftovers he’s begged and nearly dies. Instead of calling his monastery to rescue him, he feels moved to  allow himself to “die before he dies” and surrenders to the gradual release of the five elements as his body slowly shuts down. Having practiced bardo meditations as part of his own training, he now applies them to his own dying, and in the process drops all trace of separation and merges with the nondual nature of reality. (Unconscious and near death, he’s rescued at the last minute by a stranger to whom he had offered meditation instruction.)

As an extraordinary account of a contemporary Buddhist teacher’s journey through the bardos to spiritual awakening, this book is destined to be a spiritual classic. But it doesn’t feel lofty or inaccessible. Quite the contrary, Mingyur invites his readers to join him and avail themselves of the same process of clarifying and embodying that he himself undergoes. It’s both a riveting story and an eminently practical guidebook. I highly recommend it.

 

 

The mystery of our interrelatedness

I found myself reflecting this morning on the mysterious and paradoxical way that Spirit—the timeless, radiant essence of what is—expresses itself in just the right forms to invite us, as human beings, to recognize and fall in love with it—that is, to fall in love with our Self. Somehow, through some divine good fortune, we find ourselves surrounded by objects and experiences that appeal precisely to our primal need for certain colors, sounds, shapes, and smells. The variegated reds and pinks of roses and bougainvilla, the echoing coo of the doves, the constantly changing blues of the sky and the sea fulfill in us a deep, inchoate longing. It’s as if our senses were made to see precisely these stones and these trees, the ones that are in front of us right now, to hear precisely this music and these words, to feel precisely this surface, this breeze. 

At the same time our lives are somehow miraculously filled with people who take the part of our friends, our lovers, our sisters and brothers, our parents and children. Even when we realize at the deepest level that there is really no one here, no abiding self to which this name applies, we still respond in the most tender, personal, human ways to certain people in ways we do not respond to others, and feel moved by certain words and voices while others do not have a similar resonance.

This deep, mysterious interrelatedness—at once completely impersonal and beyond our comprehension and at the same time intimately personal and filled with love and meaning—shapes the arc and direction of this particular human life: your life, my life, our life.  This is the mystery of spirit made flesh, the way it perfectly expresses itself in every moment and form. Any spirituality that devalues the intimate interrelatedness of life on this human plane is fundamentally dualistic because it rejects our embodiment; preferences certain experiences over others; and denies our wise and tender human heart.

Being nobody being somebody

With all the talk in nondual circles these days about the problem of “spiritual bypassing” and the importance of psychological and spiritual integration, I thought I would share some of my own direct experience. As a monk at an American Zen center many years ago, I was in training to be a teacher and gradually being given more responsibility for sharing the Dharma with others. Yet I knew that I lacked the spiritual wisdom and emotional maturity necessary to be of genuine benefit, and I could see old reactive patterns and difficult emotions like anger and fear continuing to arise in painful and troubling ways. 

When I expressed these concerns to my teacher, a well-known Japanese Zen master, he just told me to sit more. I think he considered meditation to be a panacea for all life’s ills,  and I know he didn’t recognize the need or the value of Western psychotherapy. In fact, Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Zen lineage in which this teacher had been born and ordained, once described meditation as “dancing on the heads of demons,” a revealing image suggesting that he believed troubling emotions to be intrusive, unwelcome, and best avoided at all costs.

While I was being advised that meditation alone would take care of my emotional and psychological issues, I watched those who were already functioning as teachers, including the roshi himself, abuse their authority, sleep with their students, and otherwise engage in unconscious and insensitive behavior. I couldn’t go along with the popular rationalization that this acting out was an expression of “crazy wisdom,” meant to challenge and teach the rest of us. Quite the contrary, I knew that something fundamental, not only about the perpetrators of this unconscious behavior but about the approach they were teaching, was deeply misguided, and I realized I couldn’t in all conscience keep climbing the hierarchical Zen ladder without dealing with my own baggage, unless I wanted to end up like them.

But where to go and what to do? I had made a lifetime commitment to the Dharma when I took my monastic vows, and these were my friends, my colleagues, my community, my “whole world of meaning,” as Zen teacher Robert Aitken once put it. What alternative could I possibly pursue that would be equally fulfilling? 

At this opportune moment, I attended a conference sponsored by the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology entitled “What Is Sanity?” As it turned out, it was one of the first gatherings of psychologists and meditation practitioners to address the interface and dialogue between Western psychology and Buddhist wisdom. Among the presenters were Daniel Goleman, who would go on to write several books on emotional intelligence (a term he popularized); Dan Brown, who in recent years has become a well-known teacher of the Tibetan Buddhist approach known as Mahamudra; and Jack Engler, who, along with Brown and Ken Wilber, authored the book Transformations of Consciousness. In it, they made a statement that became a controversial meme in Buddhist circles: “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody. 

Now, I no longer believe this pronouncement to be true—after all, plenty of confused and troubled people awaken to the emptiness of self. In addition, it’s not even entirely clear what the statement means—originally, the authors were apparently referring to individuals with a fragmented or inadequate self-structure in the Western psychological sense. But it does point to a more fundamental truth that lies at the heart of spiritual bypassing: Each of us is both no one and someone, and if we hide in our inherent emptiness and refuse or otherwise fail to address our human embodiment, we repudiate our responsibility to live from the deepest truth of our being in every moment of life.

 As Ken Wilber puts it, there appear to be two separate but interdependent lines of development: waking up and growing up. Growing up without waking up—the goal of most Western psychotherapy— may give rise to a well-adjusted, optimally functioning, moderately happy human being embedded in a life of mutually beneficial relationships with others. At the same time, there may be a gnawing hunger for a deeper understanding of the nature of reality, and the deeper peace of mind that follows, that never gets satisfied. Waking up without growing up, on the other hand, may give rise to a quiet joy and a peaceful spaciousness and detachment from the drama of life—but yield an individual whose insights into emptiness of self and other appear to give them license to act in unconscious, insensitive, and self-serving ways. This is the problem of spiritual bypassing.

 As it turns out, I was fortunate at the time to begin working with a body-oriented psychotherapist who also happened to be a student of Zen. After some powerful breathwork sessions that revealed layers of childhood anger and pain, I decided to set aside my monk’s robes, leave the Zen center, and study Western psychology (and go into therapy myself) with the intention of bringing a deeper understanding of the human psyche into my work as a spiritual teacher. Now, more than 30 years later, I continue to integrate the two interpenetrating dimensions of psyche and spirit in the individual sessions, satsangs, classes, and retreats I offer, combining the psychological and emotional insight and the spiritual wisdom I’ve gained through my own personal experience and professional training. 

 Waking up is just part of an ongoing, lifelong journey of realizing and expressing the truth of our boundless, timeless, all-embracing, and compassionate true nature in the manifest world of work and relationships. As soon as we think we’re finished, we’ve stepped out of the endless river of Being and reasserted the illusion of a separate self that thinks it has it all figured out.

 

You’re not your karmic bundle

When we embark on the spiritual journey and begin to pay attention to the habitual patterns and core stories that have such a powerful hold over us, we discover that we’re endowed with a unique set of issues and circumstances that we don’t necessarily share with others. Some of us have health or relationship problems, others have difficulty with money and career. Many struggle with feelings of unworthiness, others with anger, aggression, entitlement, and a competitive drive to dominate. Whatever form they may take, these patterns are not our own creations, though we may consciously perpetuate them. Rather, they’re somehow handed to us through some combination of childhood conditioning and genetic endowment and then reinforced or modified by the experiences we encounter as adults. 


This  collection of tendencies, beliefs, limitations, and challenges, which was passed along to us without our conscious consent, I like to call our karmic bundle. It’s essentially the set of givens we encounter in this particular human life. We didn’t choose it and are certainly not to blame for it, though we may mistakenly believe it’s our fault. If we’re on the path of awakening, however, we’re ultimately responsible for coming to terms with it and releasing its hold over us. Often it’s  passed like a hot potato from one generation to the next—unquestioned patterns, issues, and tendencies shared by family members down through the ages— until one person has the courage and tenacity to face it and see it for what it is, without judgment or identification.

In the deepest sense, our karmic bundle is our most demanding teacher, uniquely suited to provoke our reactivity and cause suffering and stress, which in turn forces us to look for a deeper ground and identity beyond the separate self. It’s not personal, though it usually feels that way, and it doesn’t define us; it’s not a being but a mechanism that runs on autopilot. The more we see this bundle not as what defines us, but as an object in the awareness that I am, the more easily we can release its hold once and for all.

More broadly speaking, our karmic bundle also contains talents and skills, emotional sensitivities and psychological strengths, that serve us well in this human life and make us wiser, more successful, and more compassionate human beings. But these too are not our personal creations, but the gifts (givens) we receive, which, like the burdens we carry, do not really belong to or define who we really are. You are not your karmic bundle, positive or negative, but the ground of awarenes—spirit, or consciousness—which is beyond limitation or definition and welcomes whatever arises as an expression of its very own essence.

The problem with Buddhism


I’d like to preface this blogpost by saying that the only problem with Buddhism is the three letters at the end of the word. Truth can never be confined to a belief system, no matter how venerable or refined, even though the practices and pointers it offers can help guide us on our journey.

My first Zen teacher, Kobun Chino, was considered a rebel in the highly stratified and ideologically strait-laced world of mid-20th century Japanese Buddhism. Trained at the principal Soto monastery, Eihiji, schooled at the Zen stronghold of Komazawa University, with an MA in Buddhist studies from Kyoto University, he was being groomed as a young man for a post in the Soto Zen hierarchy. Instead, Kobun broke with his master, declined to inherit the family temple, and answered Suzuki Roshi’s call to the US to help establish an unconventional, coed monastic community in the wilderness near Big Sur.

Kobun encouraged his students to practice what he called “guerilla Zen,” that is, taking our meditation out into our lives and not adhering to traditional rituals and practice forms. When he ordained me a monk, he ad-libbed the ceremony, shaving my head himself and giving me his own robes to wear, rather than the new ones generally reserved for acolytes like myself. In fact, much of what Kobun did was unconventional and even provocative by Buddhist standards. 

In this spirit he often admonished me, “Never call yourself a Buddhist.” Yet, at the same time, he wore his monk’s robes wherever he went and taught classes on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most arcane scriptures in the Mahayana Buddhist canon. He was a walking paradox, devoting his life to essential Buddhist principles yet fiercely averse to any ideological limitations.

Since my formative years with Kobun in the 1970s, I’ve had a number of wonderful teachers who have inspired me to transform my life at the deepest level. And every one of them has taught that, when you wake up to your true nature, you wake up out of a tradition and a belief system and into your own autonomy and independently verifiable realization. Though the tradition may have been invaluable in providing guidance on your journey, you now no longer need it to tell you how to think and act, because you’re guided by your own awakened heart and mind. When he taught the Buddhist precepts, or guidelines for conduct, Kobun explained them not as a set of rules imposed from outside, which is the more conventional understanding, but as a description of how a truly awakened person would naturally behave.

At his enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly declared, “Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one”—meaning that this realization is complete, all encompassing, and self-sufficient, nothing more need be added or realized. Buddha would no doubt have never called himself a Buddhist or his teachings Buddh-ism; indeed, the term is an oxymoron, since Buddh means awakening, and ism refers to a pre-established viewpoint. As I tell my students today, you are the path—there’s no cookie-cutter approach that’s right for you, you have to find your own way and allow yourself to be drawn to the teachers and teachings that appeal to your deepest yearning for truth. “Everything is impermanent,” the Buddha told his students on his deathbed. “Please devote yourself to discovering your own liberation for yourself.”

Does pot have a place on the journey of awakening?

I generally avoid taking a position on controversial topics because I have an appreciation for all the different points of view. In the case of marijuana, however, I felt it was important to provide a counterweight to the growing tendency not only to legalize pot, but also to legitimize regular use even among folks on the spiritual path. Recent research suggests that it can be detrimental to our health, and our spiritual unfolding, in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Here’s my latest blogpost.


About 20 years ago, at the age of 15, my stepson began smoking pot. Since I no longer lived with him and only saw him occasionally, and since most teens hide these things from their parents, I had no idea until about six months later, when he started to report hearing voices that seemed to be plotting against him. At first, he told me, he only had these hallucinations when he smoked, but soon he was having them all the time. Increasingly terrified, he quickly unraveled and had to be put on antipsychotic medication just so he could function at a minimal level. Unfortunately, the medication numbed his affect and made him so withdrawn that he was barely relational. On our annual river-rafting trip, he hardly spoke a word.

Fortunately, his mom, a psychologist, pursued aternative remedies for his malaise and eventually discovered a nutritional and herbal regimen that gradually weaned him off all medication. Now in his 30s, he shows no vestiges of the schizophrenia that sidelined him socially for years and led him to drop out of high school. At the time, we suspected that the pot smoking may have precipitated his paranoia, but there were other factors involved, and we couldn’t be sure.

ecent research has corroborated our hunch—pot-smoking does seem to correlate with an increased risk for schizophrenia, not only in adolescents, an age when schizophrenia often begins, but in middle-aged users as well. And there are other risks, which have been downplayed in our rush to legalize ot. According to a new book by Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, research into the effects of pot have been inconclusive and underreported, but studies do suggest, if not prove, that marijuana use—despite its reputation as a mellow, feel-good high— correlates with increases in violent behavior and fatal car accidents, as well as reductions in motivation and cognitive functioning. (And the supposed health benefits of cannabis are largely unproven, despite the hype suggesting that CBD* is a miracle cure for a range of ailments.) These are rather serious potential consequences for a substance that is still heralded by some as a source of inspiration, creativity, even spiritual insight.

(*I realize that CBD contains little to no THC, the active mind-altering ingredient in pot, and that many people have found it helpful with their health condition. But so far scientific research into its effectiveness has been inconclusive, despite individual, anecdotal evidence for its benefits.)

In my role as a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I’ve worked with a number of people who’ve claimed that pot has helped them along their spiritual journey. Even such a purported authority as Ram Das has smoked pot regularly and recommended it to others. But in the cases I’ve encountered I’ve found that marijuana use tends to dull people’s minds, hinder genuine insight, short-circuit motivation and devotion, inhibit authentic, heart-centered relatedness, and add endless distractions to the already overly distractable mind we all share. Those on the path who continue to use pot regularly despite persuasive evidence for these debilitating side-effects seem to be lost in the smokescreen of denial and craving that every addiction generates—and it’s a difficult addiction to kick because there’s so much cultural rationalization to support it. Unfortunately, legalization adds to this rationale. If it’s legal, we may think, it must be OK, even beneficial.

Now, occasional, judicious use of a psychedelic like psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, or ayahuasca does sometimes seem to elicit profound insight into the nature of existence, which may propel one forward on the spiritual journey. For a fascinating account of some of the new research into the spiritual and psychological effects of these substances, I recommend Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. In my own case, several pivotal “trips” in college convinced me that drugs did not constitute a path unto themselves but did provide a window into a deeper dimension of reality that I could explore by gentler, more tried-and-true means. After my last acid trip, I went searching for a zendo in New York City, where I attended school, and began the lifelong practice of meditation. 

But as Adyashanti has pointed out, psychedelics steal from our  house, that is, they wrest by force an innate wisdom that might be more effectively mined by more gradual means. As with anything else, it’s most important to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and trust our heart wisdom, our intuitive discernment, about how best to proceed—wisdom that, unfortunately, is generally dimmed by marijuana use.

Closing the gap

Most of us are habituated to avoid the unpleasant and seek the pleasant. Like the proverbial pigeon in the psych experiment that will tap a bar to receive a reward until it’s too weak to tap the bar anymore, we may be addicted to positive experiences and find difficult ones frightening or threatening. This is an understandable predilection, given our evolutionary history and genetic endowment, but it can prevent us from welcoming parts of ourselves we don’ t like and resisting the natural movement of our essential nature toward the complete embrace of all the many energies and levels of the psyche.

In a mentoring session recently, a student mentioned that she gets nervous when she feels certain emotions or impulses because she’s afraid she’ll lose control of herself and go crazy. In her twenties she did act out sexually in ways she now regrets, but there’s no evidence in her history or genetics that she would ever go insane. Even though she knows the fear is baseless, it still comes up from time to time and freaks her out because at some primal level she believes she stands to lose her marriage, her career, indeed, everything she holds dear.

Such fears are not uncommon, especially after we’ve experienced some awakening. We may have peered into the unknown and felt the ground of the familiar shift and give way beneath our feet. But we haven’t fully recognized that awakening is not a matter of falling into an abyss, but rather of recognizing and coming to terms with the fact that we already stand on groundless ground, and the belief that life is predictable and controllable is just an illusion.

In the spirit of welcoming whatever arises without identifying with it or pushing it away, I advised her to welcome the experience of fear with compassionate awareness while being curious about the stories that may have given rise to it. Then, I recommended going even further and surrendering to the fear completely and inviting it to destroy her, if it possibly could. Instead of tightening and contracting against the fear in a protective posture, she could experiment with softening and opening to it without resistance. In this way she opened the possibility that the fear could finally dissipate in the realization that who she is, and who we are, is all-embracing and indestructible.

Only by giving ourselves completely to fear or other intense emotions, which otherwise would be lurking in the shadows and controlling our behavior, can we heal the splits in our psyche between the difficult emotions and the parts that resist them at all costs. Ultimately, the integration of nondual realization involves welcoming every experience without exception, as just another expression of the essence, the awakened awareness, that we always already are.

Love is the way

In the face of the hatred, conflict, and subterfuge that seem to be consuming our civic and political discourse, many of us find ourselves asking, How can we bring the deeper understanding of our essential inseparability to bear in our actions for the benefit of all? How does our awakening have an impact in the lives of our fellow human beings and the rest of the planet? What can we do in these contentious times to make a difference?

The answer is simple: love. Love is not a quality, an emotion, or an element; it is the essence of what we are, our life blood, the ethereal energy out of which we’re made. We don’t make love; rather love shapes and infuses us and animates our every action. Of course, we can ignore or deny this love through years of conditioning, and the exploration of what separates us from love can be the work of a lifetime. But love keeps surging forth to reclaim us, mend our wounds, heal our broken hearts, and make us whole again. 

Our task as spiritual beings is to keep aligning knowingly with the love that we are, even though our minds may tell us that love doesn’t have enough power to make a difference. When we align with the love and invite it in to fill our hearts and radiate forth in everything we do and say, we become more authentically ourselves at every level and feel buoyed along by its energy and informed by its wisdom. Otherwise, we feel helpless, fragmented, and disspirited in the face of the seemingly overwhelming forces at work in the world. 

The only thing we need to do, in this regard, is to knowingly turn away from the countless problems and distractions that consume us, and from the helplessness and cynicism they may evoke, and attune to the love, again and again, until it dissolves the apparent barriers that seem to separate us. If we engage in an awareness practice, we can begin by resting in and as awareness, then recognize that this awareness is inseparable from love. From the perspective of this awakened awareness, we can appreciate the inherent perfection of what is, and wise and compassionate action naturally follows. 

Love is what we are—and it is the only way.

Falling in love with our divine imperfection

Many, if not most, of us come to the spiritual search bearing feelings of inadequacy, failure, and shame based on a tendency to judge ourselves harshly, which is usually rooted in childhood. In my work as a teacher and counselor, the most common core belief I encounter is some version of, “I’m not good enough. There’s something wrong with me. I don’t measure up.”

As a result, we can easily fall into the habit of comparing ourselves to the seemingly perfect examplars we read about in books or encounter in videos or satsangs. Instead of taking the “backward step that turns our light inward to illuminate the Self,” as the Zen master Dogen advises, we’re focused outward, as we’ve become accustomed to doing in the rest of our lives, efforting live up to some imaginary ideal. The great Hasidic rabbi Reb Zusya of Hanipol once said, “In the world to come, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ He’ll ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Just substitute Ramana Maharshi, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, or Mother Teresa, and you’ll have a good contemporary sense of what he means.

In the beginning, this ideal may inspire us to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our meditation or inquiry. But at a certain point we need to shed it like an old skin, because it prevents us from embracing ourselves just as we are. Isn’t this precisely what the great sages that we so admire advise us to do? “ Just be yourself,” counsels Ramana. What a relief! Otherwise we’re just transposing the self-judgment that’s at the root of much of our suffering and turning it against ourselves in the name of spirituality. Believe it or not, the journey of spiritual awakening is not another self-improvement scheme.

Rather, the fruition of the search is not the achievement of personal perfection, but the ability to “live without anxiety about our imperfection,” as the Third Great Zen Ancestory Seng-tsan puts it—that is, to encompass our ordinary humanness in the nonjudgmental, nondual embrace of our essential nature. From the perspective of awakened awareness, everything is as it should be because everything without exception is the expression of consciousness or source, including what may be the most difficult expression of all to accept—ourselves.

But even knowing this conceptually, we may still be so invested in the ideal of perfection that we keep struggling to attain it, albeit in more and more subtle ways. In my work with students, even those who have experienced genuine awakening, I find this to be a recurring theme—the ongoing work of identifying and revealing the insidious voice of the inner critic that finds us endlessly lacking and seeks to control our every action. We’re so accustomed to paying attention to it that we may accept the suffering it causes as unavoidable, an inevitable side effect of being human.

At some point, however, as our awakening ripens and expands to the heart, we may find ourselves feeling overwhelming compassion for the years of pain it has caused us. Then, in a sudden epiphany, our hearts may break with the pain of how hard and unforgiving we’ve been with ourselves—and spontaneously open to our vulnerable, imperfect humanness. With this epiphany comes the profound realization that everything, including this vulnerable human incarnation, is both the inherently perfect expression of true nature, like every other being and thing, and at the same time constantly stumbling and bumbling forward.

As one great Zen master confessed on his deathbed, my life has been a series of countless mistakes—thereby skewering any attachment to the one-sided spiritual belief in perfectionOn the journey of awakening, which is about freedom from beliefs and identities, we may end up treating ourselves harshly in the name of some spiritual ideal. Here’s my latest blogpost, dear friends. Love and blessings!. Or as my teacher Suzuki Roshi used to say, embracing the paradox, we’re constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance.