Sunday, 11 October 2015

The "Human" narrative

A few days ago I was in a leadership workshop and we were discussing the narratives that influence our lives.

Narratives are stories about the way that life is and have been handed down to us by our parents, schools, friends and culture. Often, but not always, these narratives are very useful and show us how to survive and function well in a particular culture, time and place.

The reason we were discussing narratives in a leadership workshop is that seeing and understanding how they operate in our lives can be extremely liberating and can prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering for us and those around us. Seeing though our narratives also makes a space for us to discover other ways of being in the world that are closer to our own heart and thus more authentic.

By themselves narratives are neither good or bad, they are just stories, helpful in certain situations and places, unhelpful at other times. They can, however, be dangerous, disastrous even, when they blind us to the actually reality of a situation.

The was a lot a talk during the workshop about being “human” - the fact that we live and function in the space of language. As a long-time practitioner of Zen meditation and koans, I know there is also a place outside of language and thought where we also reside, where everything and all “beings” reside. It’s a very intimate place of “not knowing”. So an another narrative that came to mind for me during the workshop was one that I have been thinking about for quite a while and touches me deeply. It’s the narrative that we are “human” beings versus “sentient" beings.

The consequence of blindly believing the narrative that we are “human” beings rather than “sentient" beings leads to much suffering for those who share the planet Earth with us. When we see our selves as separate and distinct “human” beings we more easily ignore or create suffering for other sentient beings, beings that care for their young and form social communities just like we do.

Beings that are sentient, suffer, experience joy and share the same basic instinct for survival that we do. The darkest implication of the believing this narrative is that we feel free to kill and experiment on other beings. We also use and destroy our environment as if its just another disposable consumer product. This is clearly a narrative that not only has serious implications for the survival of our species but also for the survival of all life.

This is just a very brief introduction to the implications of being unconscious about holding a “human” versus “sentient" being narrative. The interesting thing is that when we become conscious of this narrative and explore its implications - we change and often we become motivated to show and help others live in a more authentic and wholesome way. This is leadership.

Here are two people who saw the implications of an overly human centric narrative and consequently lived lives that touched the world so deeply that we still feel their presence today. They are Martin Luther King Jr. and Leonardo Da Vinci. This is how they responded to this narrative that was passed down to them.

One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall have then discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.” Martin Luther King Jr.

I have learned from an early age to abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” Leonardo Da Vinci

When we touch the true essence of life, we change. If we develop ourselves as leaders, we can help the world change as well. It's a beautiful calling.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

A felt sense

In the early evening, just before dusk arrives and when colours are no longer washed out by the brightness of the sun, the trees and grasses reveal a deeper presence. A dog sitting on a porch looks up and smiles. In that very moment, before any thought has risen, eternity is revealed, and with no need of language you understand it.

Zhaozhou, the ancient and great Zen master, was asked by monks who were lost in argument and thought, whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature. Zhaozhou replied, “no”. This is a “no” that stops any ideas or thoughts we have about things and creates an opening, like a wormhole does in space, to a direct experience of something seemingly far removed from us - eternity, awakening.

Another Zen koan, “save a ghost”, can also take us to a new place. One of the really interesting things about this koan is that it DOESN’T say “SAVE YOURSELF”, it says “SAVE A GHOST”. Zhaozhou’s “No” may be helpful to us when we start devising plans and schemes to save ourselves from seemingly frightening and anxious ghosts. What happens if we drop our ideas of saving “I” and wormhole our way over to the ghost galaxy?  Well, something really surprising and life giving!

For most of us, the thought of actually doing this with a real ghost (a particular fear, anxiety, our sadness in our life) is truly terrifying. A Zen meditation practice, slowly and surely, gives us the strength and curiosity to save ghosts and bravely step into the places that scare us. There are other ways as well.

There may come a time when we have no choice but to be with a ghost, circumstances may drop us smack in the middle of one. Many Zen students have told me stories of times in their life when they founds themselves suddenly in a very dark place, and to their surprise, there was a strange peace and heightened awareness of the richness of life there.  American philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin also noticed something similar in patients who could notice a place in themselves outside of thought and language, a “felt sense” place as he called it. Gendlin noticed and wrote extensively of the healing power of this place in psychotherapy.

Noticing a “felt sense”, saving a ghost, feeling eternity in a particular moment, entering Zhaozhou’s “No” wormhole, or having all your doubts extinguished when you see peach blossoms on a spring day, are all different expressions, in varying levels of intensity, of this true place that Zen practice is.

August 22 2015

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Like water for chocolate

Senjo lived a long time ago and is the heroine of a famous Zen koan – Wuzu asked a monk, “The woman Senjo and her spirit separated. Which is the true Senjo?”

Senjo showed up at my studio recently, she said she was feeling lost and disconnected and so on a whim decided to call me. I was really excited to hear from her and invited her over to my studio for a visit. After pouring her a glass of wine I passed her a large coffee table art book. As Senjo started flipping through the pages her heart started beating wildly, like water for chocolate. On each page was a beautiful art image, an image that, to her surprise, was her own art work. Maybe it was the wine, but she started to feel a warm glow and an excitement building deep inside her.

I took Senjo's hand and we walked into the Art Gallery next door. It was full of people mingling, wine and hors d’oeuvres were being served. Large beautiful paintings were hanging on the wall and the room was full of excitement at their unveiling. Music, Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" was playing in background. Senjo and I walked around around the room, hand in hand, looking at the beautiful artwork, all the pieces had Senjo's signature on them.

Senjo set her glass of wine down on a nearby table and with Leonard's music pouring all over us, Senjo leaned into me and put her lips to mine.

That's all I remember.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ten Thousand Feet Down

“In the sea of Ise, 
10,000 feet down, lies a single stone. 
I want to pick it up that stone,
without getting my hands wet.” 

I taught this koan at a recent one-day retreat. 

For me, with no pun intended, this is a deep koan, it’s a koan that only shines when the world and self have disappeared and a single stone glows with the light of the whole universe. So I was concerned that his might not be a good koan for a one-day retreat, but just as any ocean regardless of its depth, has a beach somewhere with shallow and sandy places where people can play in its waters, I thought the same might be true for this koan.

To my surprise, the koan captivated everyone. Everyone was coming into dokusan* with their own story of the koan. Some were focused on the 10,000-foot depth, so deep that they could never reach that far down, another person was not worried about getting wet but something much more important - how could he breathe down there?  Others noticed the things in their life that seemed unobtainable, like the stone, and felt a sense of hopelessness with no idea of how to reach it. A few people wondered why all the interest in the stone? It wasn't gold or an iPhone. They then noticed things they chase in life that are worthless - and wondered why? It occurred to someone that if they grabbed the thing they really wanted in life, things would get really messy, really wet.

These koan presentations were all insightful, genuine and sincere. I was moved and opened by each of them.  Yet - yet - I kept wanting someone to just reach out and grab the stone. Really, really, wanting them to pickup the stone. I had a strong urge to reach out and grab the stone myself but didn't want to steal thunder that wasn’t mine. My urge for them to pickup the stone got stronger and stronger through out the day. I kept thinking - don't worry about getting wet, what's there to get wet anyway, just grab the stone! Then halfway through a dokusan, as someone was sharing the koan with me, and I was looking into their eyes, something in me melted. I sunk to the bottom of the ocean and my whole perspective changed - they are picking up the stone - just the way they know how - I am the one worried about getting wet. A subtle shift that changed everything for me and I just felt love for whoever was sitting in front of me.

Zen is such wonderful work, even in the depths of stubbornness and focused drive, a koan can show the simple truth of love and tenderness. Waves of kindness, like waves of gravity, unseen but felt, reach even the thickest of us.

Later, I received an email from someone thanking me for the retreat, they wrote: 

"Guy, thanks for everything you do. Feels like love.”
I know!

*Dokusan, is a Japanese Zen word for a private interview with a Zen teacher.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Big love

There is a beautiful path in Springbank park, it's a tree-lined walkway along the river that is often dotted with mom's and baby carriages, joggers, bikers and other such people. All in all, it is a very scenic and tranquil place. It does however feel too fairy-tale like, in a Thomas Kinkade painting kind of way, for my taste.

This morning, not feeling scenic and tranquil and not looking to feel that way either, I ended up up there - I was in the neighbourhood.  As I was waking down the pathway I noticed two young women standing talking together, when they saw me they both made a beeline towards me. It was all rather sudden and then they were in front of me wanting to talk.

My first thought was that they were Jehovah Witnesses, turns out they were Mormon missionaries, one from the States and the other from the Philippines. They wanted to know if I knew of the Book of Mormon. I told them I hadn't read it, but I was a big fan of the TV series "Big Love". A banal reply, but looking at the both of them together - it came from an honest place in me. They laughed said they only had one mom and that they get that all the time. Classy response.

The girls had a job to do - and so the questions started. Did I have relationship with Jesus Christ? What was the purpose of my life? Would I be interested in learning more about the Book of Mormon, etc., etc., etc.? Usually I would have been polite and moved on, but my energy was different and when I looked into their eyes I saw something I have seen many times in dokusan, a certain kind of warmth, so I stayed.

They asked if I had questions, and so I did find myself in dokusan. I was happy to be there. I immediately liked them and was touched by their dedication to their practice, I sensed something real about them and found myself wanting to get a sense of who they were, to see if we could connect for a moment.

I asked what their relationship with Jesus is like? How does it feel, how does it interact with their life? One woman said for her that when she feels incomplete or has messed things up, it comforts her to know that because Jesus died for our sins, she will be OK. With Jesus in her heart she knows everything is OK. I said, I get that, even when things get messed up, things are still OK and we’re still OK. I got the sense she feels she messes things up a fair bit - that's a pretty real response.

Then, they told me, in detail, where we come from. That God created the world so our spirits could come here, learn and evolve, and after a while die and go back to God where they are judged. I asked if they know this to be personally true, do they have an actual experience of this? One woman looked at me for a while and said, no she doesn't actually know this to be true. The other woman said it’s faith for her, its OK not to know for sure, not knowing for sure was just part of it. I told her I liked that, not knowing is most intimate.

Our conversation moved to shades of grey. One woman said she did not like all the talk about shades of grey in life. It seemed deeply important to her that truth was black or white, you were either for God or not. I could tell this touched something deep in her. I asked a bit more and she said she knows darkness, and it’s not shades of grey - it is black! I know, I said, you are either turning towards the light or towards the darkness, towards awakening or away from that. She seemed very happy that I was with her and gave me a slightly startled look and asked - what do you do?

I told her that I teach Zen, she didn't really know what that was, and so I mentioned something about stepping into awakening and living out of that. That didn’t help either, so I added that meditation was involved. "Oh!" she said. I need to do that. Then they said, happily, we are going to send everyone over to you. I asked for their cards and told them I would put them on our bulletin board. Big smiles, warmth, real connection. Just like dokusan.

So bodhisattvas* hang out in the pretty and scenic places too, they look a little different but are bodhisattvas none the less.

I have been carrying the following koan with me recently.

BCR Case 89: Yunyan’s Hands and Eyes

Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use all those hands and eyes?”

Bodhisattva* - a Buddhist archetype of compassion.