CRAVE – Series 1 October 27th!

Join us and learn to uncover the habits that are getting in the way of the life you want. You will learn how and why we do the things we do, how are brains hold us back and how we can change them. You will learn simple techniques to cultivate greater self awareness and make the shifts in your life that will last.

October 27th
Subculture – 45 Bleeker Street
2pm – 5pm
Tickets below or at the door

http://sparkshift-efbevent.eventbrite.com

October swim

It was the 3rd of October in 2004 and my girlfriend (now wife) and I had just moved to Long Beach California from Chicago. We were so excited that it was 70 degrees outside that we took the dogs and went to the beach and immediately ran into the water. It was glorious to be able to walk to the ocean and to swim in October. As we emerged from the water we saw that everyone on the beach was staring at us and pointing. We looked into the water to see if there was something we missed, a shark maybe? And then we noticed that they were all in long pants and wearing light coats – they thought we were insane. It was almost “winter” there and definitely too cold to go into the water.

Their conditioning for experiencing cold and for determining swimmable weather was different from ours, and yet we all firmly thought the other was “wrong”. I casually just said that it’s all relative, as I have so many times in my life. What I was realizing without realizing is that all of our habits are conditioned and relative only to what we know and experience.

The Psychiatrist Mark Epstein so brilliantly pointed this principle out in his book Without a Thinker;

“When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are made so that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution”

The good news is that we can shift our constitution. There are a few ways to create a wider awareness without fully having to experience someone else’s pain or happiness. When we move our perspective outside of ourselves and imagine what it may be like to live someone else’s reality. We are all seeking happiness, contentment, pleasure and we get in our own way because we don’t expand our scope – we don’t realize that without contrast in perception or experience we become conditioned and thus don’t appreciate the relativity of our situation.

I grew up poor in a very wealthy suburb of Chicago, which had its pro’s and con’s. I was fortunate to go to one of the best public school systems in the area, but I was surrounded by people who lived very different lives than me. One of my best friends grew up very wealthy and during our senior year her family lost all their money, her parents divorced and she and her mom moved from their beautiful home to an apartment just a mile down the road from the condo complex my family lived in. She was miserable, her whole life had fallen apart. I remember feeling that it was harder for her to experience being a “have not” and the divorce of her parents than it was for me. My family was on food stamps, we received donated Christmas presents, picked up food from a pantry, it was the reality I knew – so while unpleasant I found contentment in it. For my friend the extreme of her reality shifting so severely was much more difficult. She grew up getting all she wanted and needed, Christmas Break skiing in Vail, car at 16, you name it. To go from that to not having money is a shock to the system. I found compassion in that and it helped me gain perspective on my situation and cultivate a tiny bit of gratitude.

Take a moment and think about what in your life is causing you pain or suffering, now shift your perspective, just slightly – think of someone somewhere that may be experiencing this is a more extreme way. Think of a time in your life when this situation was better, what was different. Now a time when it was worse. I am not suggesting that this will eliminate your pain, or frustration, or anger or whatever emotion/feeling that is associated, but it will shift your perspective. When we take the time to really dig in to our suffering we can see the relativity of it all – and maybe it subsides just a bit. This is the beauty of impermanence, thoughts, feelings and emotions alternate all the time, we just have to pay enough attention to when it happens to appreciate the nuances.

Two years later, still living in Long Beach, California we wouldn’t have dared swim in October – it was too damn cold!

with love.

Inside out

Who are you that they are that? How do we contribute to the behavior and reactions of others?

Watching

watch your thoughts for they become your actions, watch your actions for they become your habits, watch your habits for they become your character, watch your character for it becomes your destiny

– paraphrased from Ghandi

Light in the shadow

In the light of emptiness we are all one (borrowed from the Prajnaparamita) And yet it is so easy to see ourselves as set apart either in the shadow, unequal, unworthy or the beaming light, out-shining all beings around us, creating the shadows and blinding the seekers.

I had the great fortune to learn a valuable lesson this weekend. One of light and love and room for all. I invited my teacher, guru, learned friend, lama, whatever you want to call him, to my house for lunch. He is quite a famous guy in the world of western Buddhism, so I never expected him to agree as I thought he may not find little me worthy. But he did agree. And as the big day came closer I sent a confirming email, assuming he may need to back out, and didn’t hear back. And so I sent another, the day before the big lunch. And didn’t hear back. So as my mind filled in the blanks and created a story I told myself this was bound to happen and he’s very busy with more important things and people. So I didn’t prepare for his arrival. I worked and played with my son and gardened on the sweltering 90 degree day. And then sat at the kitchen counter dripping sweat, cooling off with a beer when a little voice in my head said “what if, just what if he still comes?” Ignoring it I chatted with my mother in law visiting from out of town and my wife – as I casually checked my email to find an email from said guru. “Beam me in Scottie- I am 20 minutes from your house and need directions.” Shit!! I hadn’t made the promised lunch, beer and chips were on the counter and he was minutes away.

We managed to clean up and throw a blueberry tart in the oven just as he pulled into the driveway. When I greeted him and mentioned that I didn’t think he was coming he was perplexed. “I said I was coming, why wouldn’t I come?” I explained the email exchange and of course there was some technical issue with his email and his responses didn’t go through. But that isn’t the point, the point for me is two fold – what my mind does when something seemingly goes awry, the story I concoct is usually not a positive one. In this case I assumed something/someone more important came up. Which leads me to the second point, Lama embodies equanimity – to him I am a person, just like him. He doesn’t differentiate between beings, he sees the inter-being of all of us.

It was a lesson for me in seeing the light and the shadow as two sides of the same, one not better or worse than the other, not more or less worthy.

If we shift our thinking of light and of shadows and of emptiness we can see it is all one. You cannot have one without the other – thus we can learn to ebb and and flow and make space for the great equanimity of life.

Namaste my friends

We never change, do we…

We never change, do we…

This could be posed as a question or a statement, and I am not sure where I fully stand on it yet. I believe that we only uncover our true selves when we change, so are we really changing or just shifting?

Our conditioned existence poses so many challenges to us, and many of us decide that there is nothing we can do about it. Maybe we are worriers, or defenders, or yellers, or overeaters, or drinkers, lazy, pessimists…you name it, we have a label for it. But we do not need to be embody these habits, they are untangle-able, undoable, movable, shiftable. For any habit that has formed can be reformed, gently nudged, replaced, a different choice uncovered.

The key here, however, is recognizing the choice in the matter. For when we say “this is just who/how I am” we are implying that we are victims to some set of circumstances or DNA that made us who we are, when in reality, we are choosing to think or feel or behave a particular way. Or maybe you will argue that we don’t choose our thoughts and feelings, in that case, we still choose our reaction, and thus the ensuing behavior.

I recognize in myself the habit need to be right and as a result resist. For example, when a decision of mine at work was challenged and overturned, I grasped at all the reasons why the new decision was wrong. I spent hours, maybe even days searching for evidence to support my position. Over the course of that time the situation hadn’t changed, and I only found my self deeper in my self pity, anger and frustration. For every bit of evidence I collected I felt self righteous, and concluded that I was right and they were wrong – but still the situation didn’t change. So where did I find myself? Bitter and angry and stuck with all of the bits of evidence in my misery. And so when all else failed I finally surrendered and meditated. I found some space in my breath, and I looked closely at my need to be right.

Settling in, awake, alert, aware. Just breathing. Letting go. Letting be. Ahhh. What was my real motivation? Was it moral, ethical? Did I want to feel important? Had I really considered the other perspective? What would it mean for me to let go? And I found a mix of answers. Number one, It wasn’t an ethical situation, and that was hard to differentiate. Sometimes when something feels right or wrong to us we assume they is an ethical or moral implication. But really, is there? In this case the real answer was no. I wanted to feel important, that was clear – my ego was standing strong. I also truly felt the wrong decision was being made, and that other people may suffer because of it. But when I looked at the greater context it was clear what the motivations were (right or wrong) and it was clear that nothing was going to change that reality.

So I decided to surrender and to accept the situation as it was, to find a way to work within it, not against it. After all, that is the ultimate teaching of the dharma, isn’t it? To surrender to life as it is and to find a way to weave into it, not to fall down and not to push against – but to ebb and flow within.

In recognizing my habit of resistance I had a choice to make. We don’t and won’t always make the choice to behave differently, but we can allow for the possibility by;

recognizing we are making a choice
driving a wedge between the stimulus and response by cultivating self awareness through mediation (this concept of the wedge between stimulus and response gracefully borrowed from Lama Surya Das)
being as honest and we can with ourselves about why we are reacting or behaving a certain way

If we can start with those first three simple steps we can start the journey of shifting our habits to lead a happier life.

“because of ignorance our minds are obscured. We falsely divide reality into subject and object, self and others, existence and non existence, birth and death” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Separation

Separation, differentiation, comparison and competition, these are all ways in which we must have survived from the beginning of time, in order to evolve and survive. I can’t help but wonder why we haven’t stopped to ask ourselves if these means are still critical to survival, our habit to separate has continued yet I think instead of propelling forward it is now holding us back. What drives us to think that our well being, happiness, ect… feels greater if someone else’s is less than? You making more money than me, or being happier than me does’t take away or add to my reality. I think in the end it is a zero sum game, we don’t need others to “lose” in order to “win”.

Our conditioned ego’s have taken over and many times we only feel good when we think we are smarter, happier, richer, funnier, better looking, kinder, more loving, wittier, than the next person. My triggers are endless, probably like yours. When I find myself being particularly triggered by another person and I can pause enough to make the choice to separate or come closer to together, I imagine both the person and myself as children. For me it works almost every time. When I picture the person as an innocent two year old playing in the grass and smiling and only needing love and protection I can’t help but soften.

We are all part of one another, nothing exists by itself. The Prajnaparamita or better known as the Heart Sutra, tells us that there is no attainment, nothing is produced or destroyed. This paper that I am writing on is part of the sun, without the sun the tree could not grow, without the sun the logger would not have food, without the logger the tree would not be transformed into paper, and so on.

In emptiness is everything – it isn’t nihilistic, devoid of anything, it is that we are all part of one thing. We all just want to be happy, healthy safe and free at the very core of who we are – and that brings us together. Ponder that for a while.

With love.

Oh how we suffer

The idea that we create our own suffering is not new, yet we haven’t figured out how not to do it. Suffering becomes a self fulfilling prophecy very quickly. It isn’t because we are all martyr’s and masochists, it is because becoming aware of our thinking, noticing the ways in which we create our own suffering is damn hard. Harder still is cultivating the honesty with ourselves to admit it, to be as honest as we can with ourselves. And then if it is going to shift or change we have to act on it, which means constant awareness and deliberate thought and action. After all, this thinking of ours has become a lifelong habit, it doesn’t just go away because we know it’s there.

I, probably like you, have discovered a number of ways in which I have created my own suffering, none more painful or difficult to face than how I was contributing to the unhappiness in my marriage.

Just over a year ago, as alluded to in my post on Roman Ruins, I almost gave up on my marriage of 7 years. I had hit a point where my unhappiness was unbearable, and my habit was to look outside myself as to what the problem was. So I blamed and blamed and I collected my evidence that I was right. That our lives had moved in fast forward for the past 9 years, moving 5 times coast to coast and overseas and back again – that when we were finally in one place and things had slowed the unhappiness couldn’t be pegged on the change or impending change – the unhappiness was right here. Or in my case, over there, it was my wife’s fault. I my mind I had a list of things I needed her to do/change about herself before I would be willing to go to couples therapy. The problem with collecting evidence to support your own argument is that you resist the truth, even when it smacks you in the face. As we are on our path of collecting we aren’t going to pick up those ideas or examples that don’t serve us. So I found myself deep in the well of self deception, drowning in my own blame.

Resentment builds and resistance increases and with each attempt on my wife’s part to talk it through, to go to therapy, to look it in the eye and see it for what it was, I ground myself in deeper. And it continued in that direction for months until one day it didn’t. Her persistence endured and I begrudgingly agreed to one couples therapy session.

Showing up to that session I was certain that I would not budge from my position that was my was at fault, she wasn’t going to change, and maybe wasn’t capable of change. And then we got arrived, to a small office building in a town just north of Amsterdam. I sat down, crossed my arms and shut down. And then our very skilled therapist started asking questions – and my very well defended wall was by an objective third party. As I left the session I had to decide just how much I wanted to continue to build resentment and to resist my life. I had to take a serious look at how I was creating my own suffering. And stop looking outside myself.

The tibetan word Sem mean discursive thinking, it is the way in which we get in our own ways. Rigpa on the other hand mean wisdom mind, it is a way of cutting through things and seeing them as they are. For 14 years I had created this story and self image of me the mindful buddhist, and meanwhile I was just as self deceptive as the next person.

Pema Chodron says that being concerned with our self image is like being deaf and blind. It is like walking through a field a beautiful flowers with a black hood over our head. I decided to take my hood off. I hope you do too.

Looking outside of myself

I turned 35 yesterday.  Funny how some ages hit you and others don’t.  35 hit me.  I have always been an overachiever, trying to prove to everyone that I am different than my parents, that I won’t be a victim and that I can succeed regardless of my circumstances.  In most things I never had innate talent, just a will to be better than people thought I could be.  I measured myself on whether I was working harder than everyone else, because I assumed that was the only way to set myself apart.  For many years I was right.  I ended up playing Division 3 basketball, but not because I was talented, because I worked my ass off.  Unfortunately, once you hit college trying harder can only get you so far – talent in addition to effort will surpass you (and size).  So I was 6th or 7th off the bench when I was used to being the star of the team.  This was my first lesson what worked for me in the past may not work for me now.  Life changes, perspective changes and what you put in will not always get you the same results.

I am having a similar experience in my life now, turning 35.  I have always been the young one in my peer group at work, always.  It felt good, to exceed people’s expectations, to surprise them.  My gift has been my intuition for people, how to connect with them, how to motivate them, how to help them uncover their best self, and my insights. I live for the moment that I would be sitting in a room full of executives in some seemingly important meeting.   I would revel in the moment that I would wow someone with an observation or insight.  I especially loved the moment when someone was there that didn’t know me, and would make small talk after and ask me my age and the look on their face would make my whole day.  I felt special.  Wow, they would say, you are wise for your age, or you are an old soul, or, where did you learn how to do that at your age.  The point is, I felt like an overachiever, I felt different.  I stood out.

Now, I am 35, and for some time now the things I have accomplished are no longer special.  The job(s) or roles I have held are now what could/should be expected at 35.  So yesterday, more than any other time, it really hit me, I look to others to validate my success, my worth, my being.  Does being the age that others are make me any less.  No.

So it got me to thinking.  In what ways am I looking outside myself for validation?  So I did a sort of meditation on my life.  And thought through everyday experiences (big and small) such as my bike ride to work and whether or not I looked like a tourist or a local (I live in Amsterdam) compared to the person next to me, or to being at the park with my son and comparing myself to the other parents or comparing him to other kids, and to having friends over for dinner, what would they think of the wine, the food, was my cooking better or worse than theirs, was I serving better or worse wine, and when I am at work, do I find value in my work if others don’t praise it, or what if they are the same age or younger than me and doing a similar level job, do I feel less special or like I am less valuable?

You get the idea.  Once I catalogued all these situations in my mind, I stripped the outside people the “others” away.  I started to imagine each scenario without someone else to compare to or someone else to praise or criticize me.  And I found that in most of my life I am looking outside as opposed to inside.  The funny realization for me is that I felt like i have been doing this work for years, uncovering neurosis, building self awareness, following my intuition, having a strong sense of self etc…and have been coaching others to do it themselves.  I laughed.  Sometimes you can convince yourself you are living the work you do, but really you aren’t.  Awareness is everything, almost.

Clearly the journey is never ending, what we think we know we can know again, in a different way.  The uncovering of self and who we are with others never ends.  So my new practice these days is to visualize a situation in which no one else had an opinion or judgement, and it was just me.  What would I do then?  What would I think of myself if there was no one to compare myself to.  Who am I, really?  I pick one a day and journal about it or just meditate on it, or sit with my coffee and think alone.

I encourage you to try the same.  In what ways are you defining yourself compared to others?  Who are you when there is no one?

Now, I realize that this is the other extreme, it is just an exercise, to create more awareness, to create more space for other possibilities.

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”   Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

An unexamined life

Image

I just finished a lengthy discussion with an old friend of mine about life and labels and sexuality.  The last time we saw each other we were talking about what it may have been like if she ended up with two daughters and a wife instead of two daughters and a husband.  She has been in the middle of the sexuality spectrum since I have known her, and it was a toss up as to if she would end up with a man or woman.  Her husband is significantly older than her and it is likely that someday she will end up back in the dating pool, and may end up with a woman.  It would be such a pity if people jump to the conclusion that her marriage was a sham, or that she has been dishonest with herself or them all those years.

Because if there is one thing I think humans love to do it is label people, and put them in a box.  It is safe, predictable, comfortable, that is if they stay in that box.  By like me and you, most of us don’t.  Sometimes even the box we agree to be in is defined differently by you than it is me.

For example, I came out as a lesbian just as I was finishing my freshman year of college, I was about to turn 19.  Unlike many people I know, I came out before I ever had a girlfriend.  That isn’t to say I didn’t have a crush.  At the time I was dating men, and I had a lot of first and second dates, but rarely more.  I had met a guy, let’s call him Dan.  He was great, a school nurse, smart, funny, handsome.  I went out with him a dozen times.  But something was missing.  Parallel to dating Dan I was fantasizing about my best female friend, we will call her Sarah.  For all intents and purposes we were having an emotional affair, but nothing physical.  So, like many times before, I just told myself it was a fleeting crush, a phase and that it happened to everyone.  One night Sarah and I had plans to hang out just the two of us.  I was really looking forward to it.  It had been a long week of school and work and I only wanted to hang out with her.  Go to a bar, drink a few beers, talk and laugh all night.  Just as we were getting ready to leave her phone rang.  It was Joe, the dud of a guy she had a crush on that had been stringing her along.  Suddenly he wanted to go out.  “Do you mind?”  Sarah says…”He hasn’t called in weeks and I really want to see him.”  I knew that they would get drunk and have sex.  Gag.  So I slumped off and pouted and decided to call Dan.  He had just gotten back from the city teaching sailing lessons and yes, he would love to go out.  He picked me up and we went to Fridays, I guess that was a big deal when I was 18.  I shudder at the thought now.  I decided that I was going to do the same.  Get drunk and have sex, after all, maybe I would feel better and Dan was a great guy, nurse, sailing instructor, he had a JEEP!  We drank the night away (he was 21 to my 18 and the server didn’t seem to think I needed to be carded) and ended up at his house.  Halfway through the “adventure” I started crying, got up, got dressed and went home.  Immediately upon arriving my friend Sue was sitting in the kitchen.  “what’s up K” she asks.  “I am gay.”  As you can imagine that led to a few hours of talking and more crying and a few more beers.

At that moment I had never been more sure of anything in my life.  I was gay, that was it.  I am now a few days shy of 35 years old, married over to a wonderful woman (together 9 years last week) and we have a two year old son.

So what does this have to do with examining your life and labels and such.  Well, it wasn’t always so cut and dry.  I have struggled as a gay person, as many do.  It is damn hard sometimes.  Other times I forget, because I am really just a married person with a beautiful family.  So I moved from one label, straight, to another, gay.  And people have a whole different set of expectations of you depending on which you are.  Everyone in my life expected I would have children from a very young age, I always adored them and am a natural caretaker.  The minute I came out almost every person’s response was “but I thought you wanted kids?”  Hello, I didn’t give up my uterus!  I am the same person, same values, same everything, except now I want to date women.

My wife is more feminine than I am.  So of course once everyone got over the fact that we still both had our uterus’ they assumed she would give birth.  When in fact she wasn’t sure about being pregnant and I knew it I wanted to with every cell in my body.

You get my point.  As humans we label people and we expect them to behave according to that label.  And when they don’t we may question their authenticity, their honesty.  When in fact we may have no idea who they are or what they set out to think, feel, or do.

As long as you are self aware, and examining your own life and living as authentically as you can, screw what others expect.  It is your life.

As a practice I try to end my thoughts about other people with “maybe”.  Maybe there are this, or maybe there are that…or maybe not.  Nothing is certain.

As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

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