Contemplative Journal Blogs

contemplative journal

Would the Buddha Watch the News?
October 25, 2016

These are testy times for the spiritually minded. Domestically, we have the presidential campaign. Internationally, we have masses of refugees drowning in rickety boats while the world looks on – in 2016!

It all starts to look like a spiritual train wreck; a daily assault on human kindness; fertilizer for our savage impulses. Violence begets violence, rage begets rage, and ugliness in your face, 24/7, is sure to bring out the worst in a person. I’ve heard more venom spewed from the mouths of “spiritual” folks I know this year than ever before. It’s hard to point this out, of course: “Are you aware that you sound like Mussolini if he were voting for Jill Stein?” you’d like to ask, but you don’t. Continue reading

The Virtue of Vice
August 2, 2016

Years ago in India, an 80-year-old man in Coke-bottle eyeglasses took my hand and said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. We were talking about human virtue, the ongoing struggle—which I’d just described to him with some pain—of trying to perfect oneself on a spiritual path, to eradicate one’s vices only to fail again and again. On this particular day, I found myself in my usual torment of self-exasperation when this old guy set me straight. “Baba loved scoundrels,” he told me, referring to Meher Baba, the late, great Parsi god-man whose personal attendant he’d been for 30-plus years. “Of course, Baba loved everyone. All the `broken furniture,’ as he called human beings. But scoundrels were his special children.”
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Your Secret Life: Why Every Life Needs Secrets for Awakening
June 16, 2016

Every life is a patchwork of secrets, half-truths, evasions, shams and disguises. The most authentic among us have hidden compartments, shadowy corners, and taboo behaviors we keep under wraps for fear of destroying our public image.

I know a wonderful Buddhist teacher who sells pot for extra money, a radical feminist whose sexual tastes call for chauvinist pigs to restrain her in bed, a vegan who eats bacon out of town, a priest who doesn’t believe in God, a bestselling author who doesn’t write, a poet who slept with his best friend’s adult daughter, and a college professor who used to turn tricks.
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A Mother’s Gaze: How Mothers Affect Our Inner Growth
May 19, 2016

You learn the world from your mother’s face. The mother’s eyes, especially, are a child’s refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother’s eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love. And about how being ignored—which every child is sooner or later—makes the good feeling disappear. Continue reading

Light in Action
February 26, 2016

A few months before he died, 83-year-old Spyros Sathi, widely regarded as the greatest Christian mystic of modern times, agreed to sit down and talk with me in his first American interview. Known simply as the Daskalos (“teacher”), this powerful Cypriot healer had once frightened a group of hard-nosed reporters, apparently, by rocking a lame child in his arms and setting him down a few minutes later on legs that were suddenly functional. Rumor was that he was a healer of the first rank. Continue reading

Beyond Us Versus Them
January 28, 2016

The greatest spiritual crisis of our times continues to be tribal hatred, the inability of opposing groups to recognize each other’s humanity, forgive the past, and live together in some kind of peace. With 2016 just beginning and crises involving refugees, immigrants, and terror insurgents dominating the news cycles, we ask ourselves: how long can this continue? Continue reading

Indestructible Gratitude
December 7, 2015

Thanksgiving is a tricky business. Though we long to be unconditionally grateful, it’s not easy in a suffering world. As spiritual seekers, we wonder how it could be possible to be truly thankful in the face of so much pain, with terrorists waging their unholy war, and refugees on TV every night. What sort of gratitude could be big enough, flexible enough, to contain so many contradictory things, heartbreak and sadness, outrage and terror, love and the utter loss of love? What would indestructible gratitude look like? Continue reading

Is Your Spiritual Teacher Legit?
November 1, 2015

It strikes me as bizarre that while no sane person would think of hiring a surgeon with twitchy hands or a pilot who’d never left the ground, Americans by the busload turn their spiritual lives over to teachers who claim enlightenment but, on close inspection, are just as cracked as the rest of us. Continue reading

Where is Home?
September 16, 2015

A few years back, I traveled around the United States doing research for an article about the epidemic of homelessness in our country. Like many people who’ve never slept in the street or been housing deprived, I believed before making this journey that homelessness was a geographical-financial condition, in essence, and one that could be remedied simply by giving folks a place to live. Continue reading

Sex Isn’t Everything
July 6, 2015

A friend of mine became a monk. This was 30 years ago, after we’d been at college together for four years, and although he’d been a libidinous guy, his hunger for God trumped his craving for sex so he hung up his mojo and joined an abbey. Continue reading

Who Wants To Be Perfect?
May 20, 2015

The downside of living in a feel-good culture is that we rarely, if ever, feel good enough. Obsessed with living Our Best Life, turning 60 into the new 40, therapy-busting every neurosis, and OM-ing our way to eternal bliss, we forget the importance of imperfection, the value of our limitations, the power of our unfixable parts to remind us that we’re messy, mortal beings, not perfection-waiting-to-happen. Continue reading

Tempus Non Fugit
April 20, 2015

Time is a cruel bitch goddess. We measure our lives in coffee spoons and wonder why we feel so crushed by the tick-tock of minutes piling down on us through the burying years. We chop existence into nanoseconds and struggle to fill up every one, fearful of wasting a moment to leisure, hoarding time as if it really were money. Rushing through the measured world, we forget that ours is the first civilization to be so obsessed and bedeviled by time. The unhelpful image of God as a celestial clock keeper, stop watching our every move from above, has shown no sign whatsoever of blinking. Continue reading

How to Make Loss Your Guru
March 13, 2015

The Sanskrit word guru means “darkness to light.” Anything that enlightens us is our guru. As we come to locate the strength in our weak parts, the gifts in our losses, the counterintuitive uplift of even the most difficult changes, we realize as well that our wounds are our teachers; that the wound, in fact, is the guru. Continue reading

The Purpose of a Guru
February 17, 2015

“I just don’t get it,” my friend said after we left the ashram, searching for our abandoned sandals amongst the hundreds of pairs left on the doorstep by pilgrims. “They worshipped him like a god. Did you see that?” Continue reading

Embrace the Beginner’s Mind
January 12, 2015

We live in the Age of Authority where the highest value is placed on expertise, being know-it-alls, and masters of the universe. In this era of achievement obsession, great emphasis is placed on knowledge over wisdom and on information over truth. We look down our noses at amateurs, feel judged when others call us “beginners,” and view starting over as a form of failure. Continue reading

The Paradox of Loss
December 15, 2014

Every human life brings myriad forms of loss and disappointment, yearnings that are left unsatisfied, pieces of us that fall away never to be returned, hopes that are dashed and ideals that fall by the wayside. To live in the material world as mortal beings is to be in a perpetual state of loss, of course. The question is, can we lose with grace and recognize that loss is grace, too? What are you most afraid of losing? Continue reading

How Do You Live?
December 15, 2014

Two weeks before she killed herself, my older sister Marcia showed up at my house, wanting to ask an important question. She stared at me for a long time, looking haggard and sad after months of depression, till finally Marcia came out with it. “How do you live?” my sister asked, looking deep into my eyes. “How do you do it?” Continue reading

The Wisdom of Insecurity
October 9, 2014

There’s a wonderful story about Ajahn Chah, a great Buddhist teacher. Many years ago, a number of meditation teachers I know went to Thailand, where they visited Ajahn Chah’s forest refuge. In Thailand, people tend to use the Buddhist abbots and monks the way people in this country use therapists or astrologers. Someone in the group was speaking to the master about coping with the uncertainty of life, especially the anxiety over losing people we love. Continue reading

The Art of Surrender
September 15, 2014

Surrender has long been a dirty word in a culture steeped in do-or-die machismo, in which willfulness is next to godliness, and giving in (even when fighting is useless) is often seen as “giving up.”

Even in spiritual circles, surrender is a point of contention. Just the other day, I asked 30-odd participants in a workshop what surrender meant to them and was surprised by the chorus of negative takes (defeat, resignation, cowardice, losing, and shame were the top five responses). Only one person spoke out in favor of surrender; he was a man in his 40s who had recently come through a terrible life-and-death situation and subsequent depression. “I wouldn’t have survived without surrender,” he said. “You can’t fight natural law.” Continue reading

Time to Unplug
August 12, 2014

Summer is the season for letting go. It’s our time to be unserious and reasonably irresponsible. “Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability,” as Sam Keen says. Amen to that.

Unplugging is harder than it sounds, of course, in our push-or-die world. There are five primary reasons for this, themes that keep us stuck on the wheel of virtue and running as fast as we can: time, guilt, desire, vice, and the siren call of abandon. Continue reading

The Purpose of Wonder
July 7, 2014

It’s amazing to learn that the physical body is primed for awe on a cellular level. Did you know that every morning when you open your eyes, the previous day’s top layer of vision receptor cells are literally scorched away by the entering light, exposing new cells that have never before seen the light of day, thus giving you “new” eyes? Or that the first sound you hear on waking actually vibrates away the prior day’s auditory cells, meaning that when the rooster crows you hear it with physiologically fresh ears? Continue reading

The Internet Ate My Inner Life
June 18, 2014

For 25 years, barring crisis, illness, or acts of God, I began every day of my life with an hour of quiet time, reading a soul–sustaining book, writing in my journal, and navigating the inner life before the madding world rushed in.

I loved this sattvic part of the day when, as the Vedas teach, spiritual work comes most easily to us, the mind still soft from sleep. This private hour stabilized me for what lay ahead and neutralized yesterday’s woes, clearing the mental accounts, revivifying the inner life. Continue reading

15 Ways to Help Householders Practice Spirituality
May 16, 2014

I came home from my first trip to India full of spiritual ideas. What was enlightening and what wasn’t. What was holy, sacred, pure; what was decadent, ignorant, unworthy. There’s nothing worse than a convert and I was completely obnoxious. Then—on a date with a down to earth person—I had my holy bubble popped.

I’d been regaling this person for half an hour about my spiritual adventures, which were real but overblown, going on about my favorite teachings (“The Dhammapada!” “I am That!”) and the meaning of Enlightenment (capital E) when my date blinked and looked completely lost. After a pause, he asked, “Do you mean kindness?” Continue reading

The Power of Solitude
April 7, 2014

I went to the woods to be alone. It was at the beginning of my spiritual search. I believed that self-imposed exile in a hunter’s cabin, miles up a mountain road with no phone, car, computer, or human distraction, would automatically change me for the better, bestow on me some kind of mystic vision, and hasten the quest for enlightenment.

Instead, I was miserable. I ground my wheels. I hated myself. Hard as I tried to enjoy hermitage, I didn’t have a day of peace. It was like sitting down to meditate for the first time and imagining that I would have a satori by closing my eyes and crossing my legs. Nothing could have been less the case. My lonely cabin was like my mind, a prison cell full of screeching monkeys. No equilibrium anywhere. Although I was alone, there was no solitude. Continue reading

The Fiction of Being
January 23, 2014

Every life is a work of fiction. That’s what I tell my memoir students. People come to me wanting to tell their life story, the narrative that sums them up, the myth that captures their essence. They expect to find this story hiding inside them like one of Michelangelo’s statues trapped inside the marble, fully formed and waiting to appear. Continue reading