my father’s enlightenment and why i struggle to pray

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:37 pm by Administrator

toward the end of his life, my father was something of a hermit. he did not leave his house. he slept fifteen or sixteen hours a day. he ate a mostly liquid diet that was bland and derived from nutritional supplements and powders. and he talked mostly about his physical state: his bowel movements, his teeth, his discomforts, his energy level.

some people have remarked to me that my father’s nineteen years with cancer were a reflection of his resilient spirit and his disciplined lifestyle. but my mother and I never saw his journey as a particularly inspiring one. I think that he died a slow death that transpired over years, and his social isolation was the result of intense self-focus and even self-absorption.

but there have been moments recently when I’ve reconsidered this idea. I’ve remembered other things about my dad’s final years: how he slept under a map of the stars, how he occasionally journaled about his thoughts and feelings, and how he stopped actively reflecting on aspects of his life that had once given him purpose and meaning. I realize now that my father’s great fixation in his last years was not on his physical pain but rather on his emotional suffering; and the conclusion he came to in the end was that his suffering was largely of his own making. just as he relinquished most of his physical possessions, he also surrendered much of what he had once considered his identity. he gave up the idea of being my father; he became dead to his brother and sisters; and he became simple—a man surviving his circumstances and defined by his moments of living.

i would not say that my father’s last years were beautiful. but neither is it fair of me to say that they were not beautiful or vibrant for him. he took his own road away from ego and identity until he truly was in the body and absent of preoccupations. yes, i have to say that my father, in his own way, found enlightenment. and i hope that what this means for him is that his cycle of suffering has come to an end.

this reflection is not one that gives me peace or satisfaction. it is just a passing idea, as my father is now just an idea to me. but it does frame my own living to a degree, because i can see that the idea of life that he once passed on to me—one of exceeding him—is at odds with the wisdom he might have earned in his later years. it makes no difference how a man appears to those around him, even at the end. outwardly he might seem surly, disconnected, or angry. the thing that truly matters is the quality of life that one’s state of mind affords him.

for seven weeks, i have engaged in meditation, and life has changed for me. there are no weekdays or weekends anymore. there are no workdays, nor are there nights of reprieve. there is no purpose to the days; and there is nothing vital to be achieved. i do not feel intensely. if there is a destination to which i travel, it is not the meaning of the travel. the moments do not exist to be filled, and as such, the emptiness of my life is utterly sufficient. i require no metanarrative. my moments are not fundamentally different from those experienced by the spider at my front gate or the leaf of a tree that i brushed with my fingers. we drink of water; we feel the motion of air.

for seven weeks, i have engaged in meditation and i have been unable to pray. i have tried. i have tried several times. a couple of days ago, i recited the Lord’s Prayer. i could not understand the words, much less derive from them a story or a sensation, because every line of the prayer is filled with ideas that require so much conceptual work to understand. what does it mean that God is in Heaven, and that Heaven is where His will is done while Earth is where His will might be done? why do i ask for the forgiveness of God—to what end? why do i ask for God not to lead me into temptation? what is temptation, and why would God lead me into it? evil too is an idea, and i do not understand what that is. is evil from without or within? if evil is self or part of self, as some scriptures suggest, then what does it mean to be delivered from evil?

when i turned to the Lord’s Prayer, i assumed that it would be simple and straightforward, because it was the prayer that Christ Himself left to us. but it is a poem that is inescapably complex, every layer of it built upon another more foundational concept, all of it working together to imply a story that is mysterious and somehow incomplete. the Lord’s Prayer is an imagining of relationship and of identities—self-identity and divine identity—and thus it is a conceptual labor, a toil of ruminations. i mulled over the Lord’s Prayer for ten minutes and could not fathom it. to pray was to suffer, and this surprised and saddened me, and i held that feeling but i did not allow it to overtake me. what i learned from holding the feeling is that i have at last come to understand why the Buddhist does not concern himself with eternalisms of any kind. it is because the present moment is always sufficient, consummately so, and to impose upon the present moment a grand story of origins and destinies is to shatter it completely. for me, this cannot be. this cannot be.

for all my life, as long as i can remember, i have suffered because of the stories i have told myself about who i am and what the world is. i thought it was necessary, because stories are what brought tribes out of pre-history and into the era of civilizations. stories are what guaranteed the transmission of memories and the beliefs that surround these retellings. but the stories i have told myself have spawned a life that is endlessly defined by what is next or yet to come. these stories have fueled anxieties, fears, and preoccupations that have robbed me of my moments and clouded my senses. they have inspired feelings of identity and belonging that have led me to assume connection with some and rivalry with others. for decades of my life, my imagination has been dominated by ambitions, violent schemes, envy of others, desires for what i did not have, and fears of what might become of me; and beneath this constant swirl of incessant and destructive thought, there was a growing sadness and even remorse about what i was doing to myself. there was no cure for this relentless addiction to identity. i covered broken identities with new identities; and the more identity i accumulated, the heavier and more stifling my experience of life became.

it has been more than seven weeks since anthony bourdain ended his life, and it has been seven weeks since i began mine. my rebirth began with the experience of a moment—a single moment wrested from the illusion of time, rescued from the deathly grip of the future, liberated from the stranglehold of the past and its distortions. i fell like a feather into the cushion of my body; i felt the motion of the world and my stillness within it; i breathed for the first time in my life, and something dead within me stirred and began to come alive. no, i do not aspire to be one with God or with the universe. i just want to live. to God, to society, and to every other story, myth, and idea lined up at my door and seeking entry into the fragile space of my mind, i kneel upon my threshold and beg with my fists balled to my chest: just let me live


nagging background reflections

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:57 pm by Administrator

I generally feel that this focus on awareness and the emptying of identity is right for me. but there are nagging reflections in the background.

there is only one idea of community in the history of the world that I view as almost unequivocally good. no other organization—not a nation, a church, a company, or a tribe—has escaped the inevitable corruption that stems from the exercise of power. I’m thinking of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have not personally experienced AA, but I know many people who have, and I know people who have experienced off-shoots of it (NA for example). it is in my mind an example of not only purposeful community but also worthy community as well, meaning that it accomplishes good for its participants without concomitantly generating suffering for them.

when I consider the twelve steps of AA, I am struck by their emphasis on self-examination, disclosure, and the making of amends. there is this idea at the core of their philosophy that true transformation of self hinges upon reconciliation of self with self and with others. I think that this resonates with me because it is something good that I have experienced in my life, especially within the church. in fact, I may go as far as to say that the confession of sin (and of vulnerability in general) and the non-judgmental, communally-supported, and collective emphasis on repentance is the only thing of enduring value that I have experienced in the church. the rest of it—the laying on of hands, the learning of spiritual disciplines, the theological teaching, and the exploration of the bible–now strikes me as much ado about nothing.

now, why have the confession of sins and the emphasis on repentance been so vitally important to me, in my church life? because it is through this view of self and of others that I have been able to experience the emptying of burdensome identity and also the equally delightful experience of new identity. the moments when I disclosed something shameful to me and received loving encouragement to be new or even veritably reborn were powerful moments for me. thus, when I read of Jesus’s encounters with the adulteress about to be stoned and the prostitute who washed his feet, I am reminded of my own similar experiences with God—moments when I was truly seen in my helplessness and trouble, moments when I was delivered from an anxiety or fear and empowered to seek out a different experience of life.

this core practice of Christian living is at the foundation of the twelve steps of AA, and I believe that it is what makes both AA and the experience of Christ so compelling. this core practice is not shared by the Buddhist, and the ramifications of this are evident. while Christianity must be practiced in community and for the purpose of experiencing a redeemed personal identity, Buddhism’s trajectory is necessarily toward the isolation of self and the separation of self from personal experience. in the Buddhist frame, there is no strong rationale for intimate human interaction or self-actualization; and as a result of this, the rebirth of self so strikingly preached by Christ cannot be experienced by the Buddhist. the transformation of psychology experienced by the Buddhist is not the result of new identity but rather the consequence of an emptying of identity.

there is truth in both paradigms for me, and there is tension between them as well. this is where I experience some struggle at this time in my life. because I have seen what is truthful and good in both traditions, I want to have the best of both—but the mindset of each is in many ways opposed to that of the other. it is not an irreconcilable conflict, but it is a conflict nonetheless


all the way through

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:00 pm by Administrator

last night I got to meet brian catling, which was a great pleasure.

a couple of days ago I had difficulty opening my combination lock after my morning workout. after the third unsuccessful attempt, I felt something. it was frustration. I realized in that moment that it was the first really intense feeling I’d experienced in quite a long while. I took in a breath, and I became present with myself, with the locker, and with the feeling that had begun but not yet come into fullness. then, I placed my fingers on the lock, and I ran through the numbers slowly, and when the lock opened, I held the frustration in the palm of my hand, just long enough to see it for what it was. it was not a natural reaction. it was a signal of preoccupation. and so I went into meditation, and I cleared my mind, and I saw the non-self that all things are made of.

I still get tired. it is difficult to change my instincts and to temper my thoughts. there are different kinds of thinking. not all kinds of thinking are intense and self-harming in the same way. perhaps not all identities can be undone or redefined. I have begun listening to the thoughts of Eckhart tolle, and they are very interesting. when I listen to him, I like listening to the way that he talks about things. what he is saying—that is something different, and I am not always inclined to enter the conceptual space. I imagine it is also difficult for him.

identity upon identity upon identity. there are moments when I wonder if the destination of this journey is total inertness, a folding upon self like the obscuring of planets in liu’s three body problem. at the end of this, do I disappear? there are moments when I wonder if there is a trajectory toward human interaction or community of a certain kind. should there be such a trajectory? but then the voice within me says beware of the concepts, and dedicate yourself to this. go all the way through. there is no halfway, there is no projection, and there is no end to be mindful of. there are only the moments. go all the way through, to where this goes for you, and when possible, sense instead of believe. it is belief that causes your suffering. have sensation, beyond belief. breathe, all the way through


what meditation looks like for me

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:29 pm by Administrator

I woke up this morning and knew it right away: I was unsettled.

I took breakfast the way I ordinarily do and not in a particularly mindful state, as my mind was already moving ahead of my body with the force of preoccupation. I let it happen, knowing that I would soon have an opportunity to reel my mind back in. my confidence in my ability to do that was remarkable to me, and in fact it set the stage for the meditation that I moved into an hour or two later, as I sat in my car.

in my life, meditation is not prolonged. the length of my commute is frequently the length of my meditation, though I work in frequent intervals of brief meditation throughout my work day as well. I’ve found that the recurrent interruption of thought and rumination prevents the accretion of feeling; and I am now able to recognize how aware I am at any given moment by the intensity of my emotional state. nowadays, I’m very unaccustomed to intense feelings of any kind, and in fact I cannot recall the last time that I felt something very strongly. there’s a certain color and texture to the state of being I’ve taken on. I’d describe it as generally neutral and unperturbed but peppered with frequent and ephemeral moments of satisfaction and even delight. if I could offer a visual of what this looks like, it is as if my emotional state were a still lake, but there are small leaping fish that frequently break the surface of the water, introducing color and movement to what is otherwise an untroubled surface perfectly reflective of the sky.

I don’t cry. I don’t feel anything one way or the other about drivers on the road. I drive more slowly as a matter of fact, and I slow down when I see a yellow light because I know that the extra time at the stoplight will give me more moments of rest. and when I talk to people, I am more aware of the energy that I project. I try to project less, in congruence with the energy that I personally experience of myself.

what is happening to me when I meditate?

I focus on my breathing. if I can, I close my eyes. I feel the air moving through me, and I feel my breath as it passes out of me. usually, in the beginning, there is resistance to the movement of air, as if my body is resisting the passage of the air, as if the breath is being forced through all unintegrated parts of my respiratory tree. by the third mindful breath, I am breathing without effort. by the fifth breath, I am aware of my body and my posture and have assumed a posture of relaxation. by the tenth breath, I am aware of my thoughts and of any feelings that are coming off of those thoughts, like steam off a hot surface. beyond that tenth breath, I am holding those thoughts in the open hand of my mind, feeling them settle or rise, sensing them move as I tip my hand to release them.

this morning I held in my two hands two lurking preoccupations: one about responsibility, and the other about approval. my preoccupation with my responsibility leads to random darting anxieties about money and how my family is spending it. sometimes those darting anxieties lead me to judgment and then to anger or fear. but when I hold the preoccupation of responsibility in my palm, I can see that it is just a small thing, almost weightless. I can toss it up in the air, not because it is trivial but because it is so round and small that it almost begs to be toyed with. in fact, once I have tossed it up in the air a few times, it stops falling back into my awaiting palm, and I wonder where it has gone. it will return; I know it will.

the same goes with my preoccupation with the approval of others. I do not ruminate on why it is or where it has come from. I just hold it without grasping it, and I study it as it rolls back and forth across my open palm. it is a curious thing, but it is not a dangerous thing the more I gaze upon it. it is just a fact, signified by its weight and its lack of inertia. when it is time, I simply tip my hand and feel it slide and fall away. it is not resolved, nor does it need to be. but it is not necessary, and perhaps it will someday realize that.

when I open my eyes, I gauge what I feel. I feel very little, as I have accomplished little and convinced myself of nothing. my times of meditation are in fact very empty of purpose, just like my life is intrinsically empty of meaning. but that does not mean that the time is wasted. what I have gained from the emptiness of meditation is a pleasure in the moment before me. after I meditated this morning, I took in a breath of air, and it was profoundly pleasurable to me. it struck me as something of a miracle, that every breath that I take is so perfectly satisfying to my whole body. there is nothing in the air that I breathe that forces my body to struggle or to react in any way. like the food that I eat, like the experience of articulating a word, taking in a breath is such a subtle delight, and it is so good that I choose to take another breath. I breathe, and I breathe again. and the pleasure is profound and new, every time


God, David, and great causes

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:06 pm by Administrator

recently i have reached out to God in prayer—outside of meditation, but also outside of the usual space i occupy when i pray. and the prayer i offer Him is not prayer as i have previously understood it. i offer no praise; i offer no thanksgiving; and i request nothing in particular. what i seek is a basic understanding. do i approach you truthfully? are you as i imagine you to be? do i presume false identities when i call upon your name?

the God i sense now is different from the God i once constructed from my feelings and my needs. He was once jealous, passionate, angry, sorrowful. He was once very much a projection of myself, or perhaps i modeled my own sentiments after the example that i saw in the scriptural story. the God i sense now is basic—and what i mean by that is that God is consummately present in the fibers, the energies, and the interactions that cohere the universe. this sounds terribly abstract, but what it means for me is that when i fall through layer upon layer of identity and expect to get lost in nothing, i find myself buoyed by something. i cannot name what that is, because i have never been given a name for it. but it is fundamental like bedrock, and it is softer than stone, and moreover it inspires both trust and compassion. it is the idea that if i were to stop trying to keep my life together, were i to completely cease all effort to bring purpose and beauty to my world, God would still be there, and all would cohere regardless.

once upon a time, i did experience this God. this was the God of my adolescent years. long before i called Him the God who takes the death out of my life, He was God my refuge, God who transcended the expectations of my society. when others saw me as a student who needed to strive for something, God was the one who met me in quiet places and assured me of my sufficiency. i took walks with Him during my lunch breaks; on my bus rides home from school, i meditated on Christ’s instructions not to worry about how i will feed myself or survive. i did not know it at the time, but the walks and quiet times i had with God were precious moments when i emptied myself of identity. perhaps in a vague and conceptual place, i understood that i was chosen and therefore purposeful; but in my day to day reality, i contemplated my identity from afar, and i deconstructed the expectations of others. i found a place in the presence of God in which destiny, the future, and the very idea of mission became entirely irrelevant. in many ways, i am rediscovering this God in my times of meditation.

something happened to me in my young adulthood that changed my orientation toward God. i became consumed with the work of identity. i became preoccupied with ideas of responsibility. i fixated on various ideas of my unique calling. i developed a sense of who i was from my gifts and abilities that i considered relatively unique, and i constantly negotiated with others to solidify this identity. like others of my generation, i sought to leverage myself, to develop my narrative, to build a story of meaning from events of my past. i lived, breathed, and worked within a conceptual state of mind, and i lost any connection to the God who emptied me of these ideas. it is not surprising then that these years of my adulthood were filled with suffering—first the suffering that i caused myself as a result of impossible and irrelevant self-expectations, and then the suffering that i caused others because of my own unremitting suffering.

when i think of these things, i feel some compassion for the man that i once was. and i am reminded of David, an enneagram 4 like myself who lived a troubled, passionate life full of violence and misfortune. for many years i modeled myself after David because his experience of life resonated with me. now, i see the life of David in a new way. his emotions were his suffering; his emotions were derived from the constant work of identification; and this work was driven by traumas and betrayals that defined him and controlled his thoughts. for his entire life, David was a prisoner of his passions. he sought out God because his suffering was so profound, and God defended David, but God could not save David from what he was. even at the end of his life, David was consumed with fear and with rage; his last words to Solomon were filled with plots of vengeance and violent intentions. we have upheld the idea of David all these centuries because we thought of him as beloved by God; but i think of him now as one of the most tragic figures of biblical history, because he suffered constantly, and because his suffering caused so many others to suffer with him.

there are people in scripture who encountered the God who empties us of identity. Abraham, who was childless, was emptied of all ideas of legacy in his walk with God. so too was Jacob, whose ambitions led him to ruin and even to physical disability. Moses fled his great cause and with the burden of having been a murderer, utterly losing himself to anonymity in a strange land. Nebuchadnezzar fell from his exalted place and wandered the earth as a leper; indeed it was not the end of his enlightenment but rather just the beginning of it. God did not save these men by fortifying them with names, ideas, and identities; He saved these men by emptying them of what they were, so that in the place of profound emptiness they might become consummately aware of God, the basic God.

my wife wants to know if the Buddhist renounces all great causes and necessarily resorts to passive reflection on all things. what about systematic injustice? what about children held captive in cages? what about activism against racism, police brutality, and political cruelties?

i understand that question, but it forces me into a place of identity, and then i can sense the suffering that will ensue. to me, she speaks of things that are both real (because real people are experiencing the consequences of these things) and ideas (because many of these things transpire in a place where i am not physically present). where is the good in any feeling i might create in response to this thing that i cannot be present with? if i were with a person who were suffering, then my conduct could conform to relieve that suffering in whatever way i can. but if i am asked to react to something that cannot be to me anything other than an idea, then all i can do is to sit with it—to be aware of it, as best as i can. the feelings i might create in response to an idea would result in nothing other than my personal suffering. i cannot live out an activism of persisting in a conceptual state; it accomplishes nothing and only increases the suffering of myself and of those that i love.

so much of the suffering in the world results from the best of our intentions. from what i understand, our wars, our terrorist acts, and our verbal violence against one another do not originate in malevolence but rather in what we believe to be idealism, compassion, and benevolence. we who share this world do not suffer for lack of high-mindedness and excellent intentions. we suffer for our inability to be genuinely present with one another, to be aware of what is at the root of all ideas, and to recognize God when He or She is among us.

when i think of my wife’s question, i think of this: that i do not want to train my children to fixate on values and to lose themselves in a world of ideas. i want them to discover the joy and the peace of consummate awareness; and i would hope for them that all values, principles, and ambitions they might entertain might be subservient to awareness, that they may be defined only by what they are and not by what they imagine themselves to be


clear ideas

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:56 pm by Administrator

I was very struck by the Magritte exhibition I recently saw at the SF MOMA. i was captivated by one work in particular: Les Idees Claires (Clear Ideas)—a painting depicting a boulder suspended between the sea below and a cloud above. the audio commentary on the painting offered by the MOMA app was poignant and probably the best i heard, and it left me with a sense of forces in conflict: gravity in conflict with the weightlessness of the heavens, the material suspended between the subconscious and the seemingly sublime. regarding the work, jeff koons says “we all feel this pressure on us, but all of a sudden we have something that is free of that.”

it came to me today that when i look at the sea, the rock, and the clouds in “Clear Ideas”, i see not myself in it but rather the person of Christ. there’s the sea of everything murky and devastating in the history of the Jews, and then there’s the cloud of all the heady ideology and prophecy offered by the apostle Paul, but in between and in an impossible place exists the life and death of the man Jesus, who is forever suspended between history and ideology without really belonging to either.

when i meditate on the nature of the story surrounding the Christ, i am struck by how unnecessary it actually is to understand Christ in the context of the biblical Old Testament. i am also struck by how little the doctrinal ideas of Christ’s significance offered by Paul, James, Peter, and John actually deepen my connection to the man Jesus, whom i consider my savior. when i meditate and i allow much of the meta story surrounding Jesus to fall away from the simple accounting of his words and deeds, i feel an incredible unburdening of my spirit. i begin to sense the sheer amount of mental energy i have exerted over all these years to bring the old and new testaments together, in a manner that holds up and dignifies the life of Christ. in truth, the life of Christ requires no dignification. suspended in time and transcending all story, He breaks any stranglehold of identity; He defies the chapters that would house him; He lets the mythologies run their strange and errant courses all around Him, but none of them do Him justice. like the otherworldly material suspended between the ocean and the clouds, Jesus occupies an impossible place, embodying an indescribable thing. this is how i see Him. i think that this is how i have always seen Him.

writing these things, just like praying these things, is a hard work of preoccupation and of identity. it doesn’t bring the joy that it once did. but i submit these things, because i want to remind myself here and always that the work of identity is not necessary to appreciating the life of Christ. my faith can be salvaged; my life can be saved. i can be aware of God at work, if only i am willing