8 months ago

You Are a Trained Elephant

Earlier this week I saw something clearer than I remember having ever seen it.

Think about this for a moment. We do we do things that are not in our best interests?

For example, why do some people gamble themselves to death? Why do some people pair up with abuser after abuser?

Or, in my case, why would I have starved myself day after day for years?

My answer: because we’re trained elephants.

There’s a story about training an elephant. I don’t know if it is it true. But it is a useful story in this case.

The story states that if one tethers a baby elephant to post using a heavy chain, the baby elephant soon learns that it cannot escape.

The story goes on that as the elephant grows, one can use rope, then twine, then eventually nothing. The elephant will remain close to the post. The elephant doesn’t try to escape.

What on earth do I mean by all of this?

Here’s what I saw: I work hard most of the time to generate and maintain habitual states.

These states are rarely actually desirable in any meaningful sense. They are often unpleasant, in fact.

But I am trained to stay in these states.

I will go to great lengths to stay in these states. Even if it requires starving myself.

Even if it means believing a great big lie: the lie that such a state even exists in the first place.

It was all a lie.

We all got so mixed up. Confused. Disoriented.

We don’t even know what we’re doing.

But take a look. Pay attention. You’ll see.

You’re working hard to create and maintain states.

And that requires so much effort and strain all the time.

Worst of all, it doesn’t produce the benefits we hoped it would.

Like safety. Or okayness.

You can try to use this insight for self-help if you want.

But there’s a problem. That problem is that the big side effect of being a trained elephant is that you view everything that is not your “safe zone” as a threat. Anything more than a few feet away from the (non-existent) post your mind is tethered to – to you that is the danger zone.

You work hard to maintain states because you think you want to avoid the danger zone.

You’re completely blind to what is in the danger zone. And self-help requires that you can see where you’re headed and know whether that is correct or not.

There’s another option that is not self-help, though.

That option is this: LET GO.

Letting go means you’ll drift into the danger zone.

Don’t grasp.

Allow the states to come and go. Allow the fear to ebb and flow.

8 months ago

I’m Spaced Out

First, two things:

  1. Luis and I are recording at Completely Ordinary episodes again. And Luis posted a request for submissions from audience members about the purpose of life here: http://completelyordinary.com/whats-your-lifes-purpose/ Unfortunately, my email server was down when that happened, and nobody got notified (I don’t think). So please go check it out. And send us your submission.
  2. Also because of my email server outage, nobody got notified when I posted here a few days ago. If you’re interested, check out the previous post as well. It’s about Who Am I?

Okay, .Now for the topic of today’s post.

I was lying in bed this morning. And I noticed something in a way I hadn’t noticed before.

I’m sharing this with you, but not so you can live vicariously through me. Rather, so you can look for yourself.

Seriously: if you don’t look for yourself, what are you doing? Otherwise, you’re just reading a menu. No matter how many times you read a menu, it won’t give you the actual experience of eating the food.

Eat the food. Taste life. Go all in.

Okay. So I was lying in bed. And my kids were bouncing around. This was not a classically relaxing time – not a time conducive to what most of us think of as the opportunity for self reflection, etc.

Point being, you can do this now. Whatever is happening. You can look for yourself. Don’t put it off.

I noticed all this emptiness. All this space. The sense of it “within”.

And then I noticed how full this space is.

It’s completely full of space. Filled with emptiness.

Look for yourself.

Don’t analyze it. Don’t think about it. Just look for yourself.

Don’t be bothered looking for an answer here, either. Don’t waste your time trying to get it right.

Just feel. Just experience. Notice. Pay attention.

Maybe you don’t call it space. Or emptiness. Maybe you have a different sense of it.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Point is, the experience is full.

This, whatever is happening right now, this actual experience – regardless of how I conceive of it or you conceive of it…

It is full.

I don’t need to fill it. And I cannot hope to get rid of it.

This is full and alive.

But please don’t waste your time trying to file that away for a rainy day.  It won’t work.

This is full and alive and it is only accessible right now.

Why wait?

It’s full and alive with confusion, doubt, fear, regret, sorrow, grief, pain.

It eats all.

Despite its fullness, it can devour all. And there is just totality.

This is not ecstatic, either.

It can be, of course.

But it is not guaranteed to be ecstatic.

It is ordinary. Mundane. Miserable as well.

The emptiness or space or ordinariness or unpleasantness or discomfort or whatever we normally overlook or dismiss…

That is it.

We tune it out because of conditioning.

Too boring. Too painful. Too mundane. Too uncomfortable. Too disgusting. Too scary.

Whatever justification we have, we’re overlooking what is staring us in the face:

This is it. Whatever we are hoping to find somewhere or sometime else…we’re fooling ourselves.

Because this right now is already totally full.

Then will be full too, of course.

That’s the comfort we can always turn too. We can’t escape it.

We are like the Prodigal Son in that way.

But why wait?

Look now.

9 months ago

Who Am I?

It’s such a big joke, that question. But I would not have guessed as much once upon a time.

I took it seriously.

After all, Ramana – that revered saint – is said to have said it was serious. Just asked that question earnestly enough, and *shazam!* you’re enlightened. Just like him.

So enlightened. So very enlightened.

Which, by the way, was code for “I won’t have to experience the stuff I don’t want to experience any longer.”

Do you see what a joke it is?

But it gets better.

Way better.

First, a little diversion to provide some context.

This summer I moved to Vermont.

And I got bitten by a few ticks this summer.

They are so tiny, some of them. So tiny you can easily mistaken them for specks of dirt.

Anyway, I got bitten a few times by these tiny, tiny, speck-of-dirt-like ticks.

And I found myself so completely exhausted that I was sitting, staring at a wall for half an hour before I worked up the energy to stand up.

A familiar experience. One that I recall from the lowest points in my Lyme disease journies.

I thought hard about it. And I decided to take antibiotics.

I went to the doctor. Got the prescription. Took the drug.

And within days I felt better. WAY better.

I finished the 21 day course.

Then, a few days later, the symptoms returned.

So I went back to the doctor. Got another prescription.

This time, a higher dose.

At the higher dose, the symptoms stopped. But I got more than I bargained for.

I became incredibly irritable. Zero patience.

I felt as though I was in a vice. And the vice kept tightening and tightening.

Squeezing out everything.

All my ideas of myself…no room for them.

Who am I?

We look at questions all wrong.

We think the value is in the answer. We think we’ll be rewarded by answering correctly.

We think we’ll find out who we are. Then the heavens will part. Then the good times will roll.


Look at the question differently.

Let the question point right back at the emptiness, the absence that is already here.

At its best, a question can do that.

Who am I?

Stop looking for the answer. Just look and see that the question and the questioner and the entire context are equally empty.

And that seeing does not change anything. It doesn’t bring about the good times. It doesn’t part the heavens. And it most certainly doesn’t get rid of experiences. It doesn’t even get rid of preferences.

We can be so blind that we don’t even see how blind we are. We don’t even know how narrow our concepts are. We don’t even know how crazy we are.

We honestly believe that we have to fix things. That we have to get rid of what is unwanted or scary.

It’s a huge joke.

Who am I?


9 months ago

You’ve Been Edged Out, Stop Clinging to Staplers

In the late 90s I saw a movie called Office Space. It was pretty funny to me because I’d had just enough corporate experience to recognize some of my experience in it.

There was a character in the movie who had been fired. Nobody wanted him there. But he wouldn’t stop showing up. They even moved him to the basement. All by himself. But he kept showing up.

Then they took his stapler. And it was the last straw. He freaked out. He’d been clinging to the stapler as his lifeline. Grasping desperately at something. Anything.

We’ve been fired. We’ve been edged out.

Take a look. It’s laughable how much we’ve been edged out.

I’m typing this while sitting out under the night sky. About 140 degrees of dark sky and stars and a few moving, blinking lights from airplanes surround my head. Hurricanes just beat the shit out of the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding regions. Massive earthquakes hit Mexico. Attacks in Afghanistan. Bali is being evacuated because of a volcano. The planet is hurtling through space at something like 63.5 gazillion miles per hour.

And that’s just superficial stuff.

Then there’s all this god damned experience stuff happening. I mean, the stuff that happens now and now and now and now.

Like whatshiface in Office Space, I’m clinging to staplers. And by staplers, I mean agency.

I’m not going to waste our time getting in arguments about whether we have any agency. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? Who cares?

What’s obvious if only we take a moment to see it is this: whatever agency we might have is infinitesimally small.

Now, of course, something being small doesn’t mean it’s worthless. I’m not suggesting that. But in terms of how much leverage I honestly expect to have in all this whole big mess…well, let me just tell the truth: not much.

I pretend and lie to myself a lot. I imagine that I have a lot of leverage.

Here’s one such lie: I can be good.

Now, again, I am not going to waste our time arguing that I cannot be good…within a very, very, very small window of agency. Perhaps I can. Meaning, maybe (maybe) if the stars are aligned right and all my history and everything else is just so I will get to choose between being a little less nice or a little more nice.

Or, if things are a little different – just one little thing a little different here or there – maybe that choice is radically different. Instead, now I get to exercise my choice between being slightly less murderous or slightly more murderous.

Because whatever happens, my agency – to the degree that I have any (which we won’t debate right now) – is, at best, infinitesimally small.

But I cling to staplers.

Until I don’t.

What a relief.

A guy wrote me the other day. He seemed very earnest. I could relate. I had been like that once. I wanted relief so badly. “Just tell me what to do. What is the truth? Please help me!” is what I was silently shouting.

But the truth is here. It’s the earthquakes. The tsunamis. The hurricanes. The crickets. The music. The breath. The stars.

And it’s that god damned experience happening.

I suggested to the guy that maybe he could just stop giving attention to thought as if it was trustworthy. Or, put another way, just stop believing it.

I didn’t mean that he should or could get rid of the fear and doubt. That’s very unlikely to happen.

I just meant don’t believe the thoughts. Just see what is happening without giving so much attention to the commentary.

And, bless his heart, he clung to staplers. He replied, “But if I don’t believe my thoughts, I’ll do bad stuff.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist.)

Just let go for a moment. Maybe you could try it out for just a few minutes each day. See what happens.

Chances are, not much that doesn’t already happen.

10 months ago

What Bullies Taught Me (Without Knowing It)

When I was a kid I was bullied.

A favorite of bullies was to swing their fists at my face, stopping just short of making contact.

“Made ya flinch!”

Ah! Flinching is shameful! Flinching is the problem! If I can stop flinching, I’ll be okay.

So I toughened up.

Ironically, I developed a chronic flinch as a way to protect against flinching. A chronic flinch – a clench.

This is what I am. This clench defines me. Without it, what am I? Who can say? Who can know?

Now I have to defend the clench. I have to maintain it. It is me!

The bullies may not have known it. But they were offering something. A coded message.

I’ve decoded it. Here it is in plain English.

Flinching happens. Life consists of reactions. Don’t pretend otherwise.

Those reactions include shame, discomfort, anger, fear, frustration, etc.

They happen.

Flinching is allowed.

Now, about that clenching…

Notice how you do it.

I don’t mean to analyze it or think about it. I mean pay attention, observe, see how you do it. I mean how you physically do it.

Then let go.

Forget about the idea that letting go will be a permanent attainment. It won’t. So forget about it.

Just let go.

And you’ll re-clench. It’s practically certain. So don’t mind it.

Just notice that you survived.


10 months ago


First, some context for today’s post.

I recently received an email from somebody in which he wrote to me about an insight he had regarding why he suffers. Although such insights may be interesting, maybe even true, giving attention to them as though they offered salvation is a mistake.

The search for salvation is the only proof that salvation is needed. Give up searching for a moment.

Next, and coincidentally, I received an email from my friend John Veen in which he shared what I think is a very important observation. That observation is that inner awareness and outer awareness are simultaneous. And, in fact, I am convinced, the same.

As I write this, one of the pieces that John shared with me – “Metaphor stew” – is still up for reading on his site. If it is still there when you read this, I recommend it to you.

Thirdly, I received another email  from somebody else I have occasional correspondence with, and the topic of it is so coincidentally aligned that I was inspired to write this post.

In that email he observes that despite having discovered the impermanence and emptiness of form six years ago – and despite having experienced a lightness coincidental with that discovery – there remains misery and the sense that the misery is a problem.

The sense is that the misery is a problem is based on an assumption. That assumption is a type of clinging to certainty, to identity.

And ironically, it is also why misery is miserable.

The misery of misery is the clinging, not the misery itself.

Once this is seen, just don’t bother with the “inward” mess any longer.

Of course, you will still bother. You cannot help it. But when you see what is happening, just leap.

What do I mean by “leap”?

I’ve probably related this here on my blog before, but it is worth recounting. When I was a child I used to go to the pool with my dad. The pool had a shallow end and a deep end. At the deep end was a diving board.

The diving board captivated me. I wanted to jump off it into the water.

I climbed the ladder to the board. I walked out to the edge. I peered over. And I froze.

The fear was overwhelming. Though I logically knew that jumping wasn’t likely to kill me – I had seen people jumping off it for months without anyone getting so much as a scratch – that logic didn’t help me.

I eventually climbed back down the ladder.

But I was still drawn to it. So I would climb and walk to the edge again and again. I wanted to jump, but I couldn’t get past the paralysis of the fear.

Eventually, I saw what was going on. I recognized that repeating the same practice over and over was not going to work. I wasn’t getting closer. I wasn’t making progress. I was just repeating the same thing over and over.

Then I leaped.

And, hey presto, I survived.

From then on, the fear remained. Jumping off a diving board into a pool is scary.

But I had the experience. I knew it. It wasn’t logic. It wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t vicarious.

It was the real experience.

Now I can jump any time I wish.

This is exactly the same when it comes to spiritual pursuits.

There is some sense of bondage that drives us to seek for freedom.

We don’t know what that freedom is because we only know it theoretically as the theoretical remedy to the bondage that we perceive ourselves to suffer from.

Eventually, we find ourselves at the precipice consciously. Before that moment, we’ve been at the precipice, but unconsciously.

In that moment we recognize that we are on the precipice, and we see that freedom is already the case, but we need to leap to experience it consciously, to know it and embody it.

The only problem is that the fear of leaping is overwhelming. So we usually turn to thought. We analyze. We use logic. We convince ourselves that we are making progress, working on it, etc.

But what is needed is to leap, to have the experience.

So leap. Just leap.

The leap is reckless. It flies in the face of all our conservatism. It is wild and illogical. The mind says to stop and think this through, to be sure.

The leap is to disregard all the “inward” and instead leap into the outward. Ignore all the known for a moment. Release yourself entirely and irrevocably into the outward.

No parachute. No cord. No safety net.

Don’t misunderstand me, however. I am not saying to live your life in a reckless fashion, to quit your job, leave your family, default on your mortgage. That’s not the leap I’m talking about.

The leap is from chronic inward focus, trying always to solve the problem of me and my life, to a total release into the outward.

Like jumping off the diving board, this leap is not sustained forever. It is momentary. It is a flash. Like a bolt of lightning, it slices through the dark and illuminates everything for just a split second.

But though it is not sustained, it leaves its impression. Like that flash of lightning imprints an image on the brain of the one who sees it.

Once seen, once experienced, it cannot be undone.

Like leaping off the diving board gives the confidence to do the illogical, reckless release into the outward again and again, so too does the leap I am describing.

This leap means to let go of all the thoughts, the obsessions, the clinging, the clenching, the support, the identity, the reliable, the solid. Just for a moment. That is all that is needed.

This does not solve the problem. All the misery remains.

But it does make clear that the misery of the misery is a function of the clinging. That clinging is the chronic inward focus. That clinging is the attempt to solve the problem of me and my life.

Again, this will not get rid of misery, unpleasantness, fear, etc. But once this is experienced, it is accessible. And each leap reveals the false as false.

Don’t try to solve false problems.

Misery is a false problem.

Me is a false problem.

My life is a false problem.

All my faults and shame is a false problem.

The absence of a sustained state of bliss or a sustained state of leaping is a false problem.

Just leap. See what’s what.

Before I wrap this up, I’d like to share with you a specific example from my life of what I am talking about here.

I used to be anorexic. I write that I used to be. That is not because some of the same obsessive programming isn’t still operating. It is only because I ceased to give chronic attention to it.

Imagine this for a moment. Imagine what it would be like to perceive food and your bodily sensations as a threat – a major problem to be solved. Imagine that this obsession occupies all your waking hours. Imagine that while other people are socializing around you, even enjoying life, you are giving all your attention to what you have eaten or what you might eat and how that makes you feel.

That is what my life was like for a long time.

I had long thought that the solution to that problem was something I could figure out and do. But the more I tried, the more chronic the obsession became. I was not closer to a solution. I was producing the problem.

The solution has not been anything I have figured out or done. The solution has not been to get rid of the fear and anxiety. The solution has been to leap.

Leaping didn’t instantly change my behavior. And it most certainly did not change or get rid of the fears and obsessive tendencies.

Leaping, in this case, has greatly expanded my vision. It revealed how myopic I had been.

Myopia is not wrong. But it is myopic. And if you have the misfortune to be fixated on something rigid and painful, myopia is terribly unpleasant.

The thing about such myopia is that one doesn’t know that one is myopic. It can genuinely seem that one’s limited view is the totality. It can seem that the whole of life is utter misery in the most nightmarish form. This is one reason people kill themselves.

Leaping reveals that the myopia is myopia. It is like that lightning flash that illuminates for a moment the whole of life. It doesn’t change habits or tendencies. But it reveals the context. And context matters. It matters perhaps more than anything else.

You may not be anorexic. But you are myopic. We all are.

Leaping will not be likely to solve your myopia. But it will certainly reveal the infinite context of your myopia. And that changes everything without changing anything.

11 months ago

Should You Do Spiritual Practice?

Life can seem miserable sometimes.

For some of us, it has seemed really miserable a lot of the time.

If and when life seems miserable there is incentive to do something differently.

Hence, we want practices. It seems reasonable; just do the right practices and you’ll get out of jail free. Eventually. Maybe. Hopefully.

But what practice? How can you know?

And that’s where it get’s tricky. You can’t do all the practices. (I tried. I promise you, it’s not possible.)

So which will you do?

And how will you know when the practice is working?

It is a giant mess, actually.

Like a knot. A Gordian knot.

Most of the time we look for other solutions – more, better practices.

But I can tell you from my experience that none of the practices will solve the problem. None will get rid of the knot.

The practices just knot up the knot more, creating more urgency to solve it. Or they can lead to cynicism, which is another type of misery.

That can sound depressing. And it is as long as you insist that the knot must be undone, the problem solved.

But there is one thing that I have found that is highly effective in sorting everything out.

That one thing is to become aware of the infinite ways you try to solve the problem.

Not all in one fell swoop. Not to just get it over with and achieve a state of bliss.

Not to get rid of the problem or the ways you try to solve the problem

Just become curious. For its own sake. Pay attention.

It’s better than the chronic investment into problem solving.

You’ll still try to solve problems. You’ll still try to fix yourself and your life. And you’ll turn curiosity and paying attention into the new practice. Which won’t work.

But then you’ll see that too. And that’s it. Instantaneously the misery is seen not to be what you thought it was. So you’re instantaneously freed from what never bound you.

The discomfort won’t disappear. Nothing changes. But you see it differently. Just for an instant.


11 months ago

Ongoing Delusion, Simultaneous Freedom

I spend most of my time giving attention to thoughts, trying to solve problems.

This is, I believe, part of being human. I don’t have a problem with the tendency to try to solve (mostly made up) problems. To make that into a problem would be, I think, ironic.

But I have noticed that I do this. And seeing this, I instantly am freed from the delusion that any of my thoughts are capable of grappling with life.

instantly there is perfect clarity. Not clarity of an object. Not like something coming into focus. Not clarity of thought. Not that.

Clarity. Just clarity. Like a clear sky.

This is not a clarity that I can possess. Nor something I can gain greater access to. Nor something I can augment or that could augment me.

Of course, in the same moment I become aware that I am still giving attention to thoughts, trying to solve problems. Now I have the new (made up) problem of trying to maintain clarity.

It is funny in the right light.

There’s really nothing to get. Nobody can have this. Nobody can become this. There is nothing to gain.

Still, there is a huge relief in seeing this for yourself. Not to take my word for it. But to observe your actual experience – what is actually happening.

The delusion is ongoing. Freedom is simultaneous.

11 months ago

Agitation, Values, and Light

I offer a paid, online inquiry program. This program and my mention of it in some emails rubs some people the wrong way.

The reason I mention it is that I’ve gotten a few agitated emails about this in recent days, and they’ve caused me to observe something.

We – meaning me and some other people – seem to approach life with the belief that our values/beliefs are correct and true and that everything should fit into that framework.

If something or someone superficially appears to fit into that framework and then in some way or another does not, that generates agitation.

I have thrown out a lot of things – relationships, ideas, cultures, etc. – because of that agitation. I didn’t want to allow the agitation, so I got rid of the object of the agitation.

Maybe that is appropriate in some cases. But maybe it is a mistake in others.

The agitation is pointing to something I cannot reconcile with my values/beliefs.

Are my values correct? Are they absolutely true?

In my case, I can say that much of the time they are not.

This is dangerous, of course. Because when I start to honestly question my values, I start to discover that what I believe myself to be, what I cling to to give my life meaning and order, is not absolutely true. My life becomes chaotic as order disintegrates.

But there’s a flip side. I also become unburdened.

Interestingly, this is another meaning of the word “light”. I wrote in the foreword to John Veen’s recent book about light in the sense of attention. But that attention and honesty can reveal another aspect of light – lightness, to be unburdened.


11 months ago

The Objects of My Fear

The objects of my fear are my salvation.

For most of my life I tried to avoid fear by avoiding the objects of my fear.

Here’s an example I have used many times in my writing: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s was the object of my fear. I tried to avoid my fear by avoiding the object of my fear: McDonald’s.

It did not work. It had the opposite of the intended effect. It drew me into a nightmarish web in which fear was everywhere and I also perceived the fear that was everywhere to be the worst thing possible.

Fear is not the worst thing possible. It’s not even bad.

It’s just fear.

The objects of my fear – when I finally give in to them fully – save me from this nightmare.

They do so by revealing that the true nature of fear is not what I thought.

Fear is not even bad. It’s just fear.

It is also a strange kind of ecstasy. But not like I thought I wanted.

When I yield completely to the objects of my fear, when I stop trying to use them as tools to avoid my fear, I am saved from the struggle to be something separate from fear.

What a relief.