Killing Death

For Emily: a poor and clumsy yet heartfelt answer to your recent question, with all my best wishes for the successful arrival of the next child through whom the irrepressible laughter of your father and my brother will, I have no doubt, vibrantly resound.


IFFor most of us, death is an “enormously puzzling” problem indeed, as Watts says. In the traditions that Watts studied and popularized back in the 1960’s, the contemplation of death — specifically, one’s own death — is a central focus of the meditative life. When I began studying Zen, the master there challenged his new students to do just that, as far as each of us could go with it.*

But again, for many of us, death doesn’t grab us that way. Most people encounter it as a family matter, often beginning very early in life. I recall my first funeral: I was 7 or 8 years old and was taken to my grandmother’s. At the wake, my little brother and I were absorbed into the line of people approaching the casket. I was confused about what to do; maybe a little scared. I walked by the open coffin quickly, glancing at my grandma’s face and feeling a wave of strangeness pass through me.

I didn’t understand this feeling until nearly two decades later, when my mother died and there was another wake. This time, the setting was different: there was no crowded room, for we in the immediate family were the first to arrive at the funeral home. I was finally able to articulate that wave of strangeness that I’d sensed as a boy: this…thing…in the coffin wasn’t Mom; it just wasn’t. It was stuffed and dressed and powdered and preserved, like a mannequin in a shopping mall. I turned away from the coffin and noticed that someone was playing music, very faintly, as if in another room. It was an organ — apparently a cheap electronic organ — and it played the tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.” I looked at my oldest brother, who was now standing beside me, and said, “do you hear that?” He smiled grimly and bowed his head. I was getting a little hot, but still tried to keep my voice to a whisper: “John, are they fucking kidding? Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” John laughed gently, but then took my arm and led me outside to air out and settle down a bit.

IFAll the deaths that have struck near me since — my other grandmother’s, my father’s, the smoky shroud of death that covered my city in 2001, two brothers, and most recently the animal I had lived with for 13 years — each one has further exposed and weakened the hard and garish network of lies that comprises our culture’s attitude towards death. Now, the skull remains within me; but most of its teeth are gone.

The point is that death isn’t a problem to be solved or a discomfort to be endured and then repressed, as if it were a fart in church or a bad night at the tavern. If we let its teaching voice speak within us; if we follow it through and past the formaldehyde fairy tales of cheap incense and whispered pabulum and laminated mass cards — we approach something real, which mere intellect can observe but never express. What we find there, in fact, coincides with all the vast and incomprehensible strides of the science of the past century.

Einstein demonstrated, with as compelling and complete a level of certainty as the human mind can deliver, that space and time are each, in isolation, mere illusions; there is only spacetime. Then he made a similar conclusion, with the same mathematical precision, with respect to matter and energy (their separation is the illusion, for they are different expressions of the same reality). Quantum mechanics tells us of a phenomenon known as entanglement (which was mocked by Einstein himself as “spooky action at a distance”); and of the Higgs Boson a/k/a the “God Particle”.** There is also a compellingly demonstrated theory, from Princeton physicist Juan Maldacena, that our universe is a mathematical projection or hologram: Brian Greene tells us that “the holographic principle asserts that our universe is exactly mirrored by phenomena taking place on a distant bounding surface, a physically equivalent parallel universe.”

My point in bringing up this science is not to draw any ontological or psycho-spiritual conclusions from it (I don’t need to be trolled by logical positivists); but instead to show the paradox of how weak and bumbling our language is revealed to be, the nearer our science approaches the borders of a reality which would, not long ago, have been ridiculed as the stuff of superstition.***

So let’s transition back to our main topic, this time with the help of science fiction**** — in fact, one of the hallmark creations of science fiction, Star Trek. We begin with Captain Picard, who is enjoying a glass of wine and some Satie as he awaits his own (seemingly) imminent death after having given the order to self-destruct the Enterprise. After that, we go aboard Voyager to hear Captain Janeway’s reflections on the possibility of an afterlife.

It would be somehow reassuring to me to discover that such a sense of wonder and uncertainty could exist in the 24th century. As Aristotle told us so long ago, wonder is the beginning of wisdom. Brian Greene begins his own book on the strangest and most recent flights of scientific inquiry, the idea that our universe is part of a network or continuum of universes, by telling of his childhood bedroom and its two facing mirrors. Einstein rode lightwaves through space during adolescent daydreams before he constructed his special and general theories of relativity. Newton believed in God (or said he did) and concluded thus of his own work and influence upon history: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have only been a boy playing on the seashore, diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay before me all undiscovered.”

crow1Wonder, then, is the fuel that, combined with each individual’s unique abilities and passions, gives human intellect both its energy and its vector. This applies to scientists, philosophers, visionaries, and spiritualists. It also applies to ordinary working stiffs like me. Without the synergy of wonder and invention; without the creative spirit firing the inquiring mind, there could be neither discovery nor insight. Thus, my response to a positivist’s complaint (or more frequently, calumny) against “woolly thinking” is that I worry more about “woolly feeling.” For when we successfully kill fear and prejudice within ourselves, thought clarifies without any effort.

Too often, thought is isolated and monarchized in the human self and in our societies. This goes for religion as much as it does for any positivist doctrine, by the way: the heart of darkness in every institutional religion is in its ideas rather than its visions. Wherever thought and its gilt-edged proclamations are shoved onto the stage of life naked and alone, I sense that presence of “woolly feeling” doing the pushing. And nearly without exception, the emotion driving such blindness is self-doubt; it is at the back of all prejudice, all hatred, all destruction. Doubt is frequently the light of the intellect; but it is darkness to the heart. When we feel free to explore our emotional lives, we grow in trust of our true selves; but when we repress that voice and attempt to stampede through every problem with intellect alone, we are like someone trying to do brain surgery with a chain saw.

My most recent experience with death has shown me this, that thought alone cannot and will never penetrate the mystery of death, no more than it can lead us to a love of life. That this experience involved the death of an animal is no random coincidence: it has led me, by the most urgent necessity, back to my own animal nature. I could never, will never arrive at the remotest understanding of the unity that Watts spoke of — the unity of death and life — until I can touch and hold once more the symbiotic and collaborative union of thought and feeling; of the words and the music of life; of intellect and instinct.

The animals can understand this without the need to articulate it (or perhaps they do and we simply haven’t learned to decode the message yet). One thing, however, is certain to me by now: the animals are not drunk on thought as we frequently are; therefore, they cross into the next dimension, the next phase of being, without the burdens of ego that we humans ordinarily carry towards the other side. Thus, I feel similarly certain that it is our primary responsibility as intelligent organisms — you might call it a cosmic duty — to strip ourselves psychologically naked during this life; to relentlessly examine every idea and emotion within and around us, discarding whatever is blinding, corrupting, neurotic, or passively derivative. This can’t be done with the blunt, linear tools of thought alone — it must be the work of every member of the family of the psyche, operating democratically and co-equally. If each of us can make this a daily practice within our lives — not an obsession or even a vocation, but just an ordinary activity of quotidian existence, as natural as bathing, defecating, eating, and sleeping — I feel sure we will avoid much pain and struggle in the crossing that awaits us when we leave our physical bodies behind.

IFSo far, the signs are not good for humans in this respect: all our religions and much of our education, acculturation, and academic practices are founded on pain, struggle, resistance, self-doubt, fear, and isolation. Therefore, I follow the teachings of my animal guide; I seek my own animal within me, I call to it and ask that it lead me in the stripping away of ego’s shrouds of despair and arrogance, so that the glow of my original nature may light the space of my life. I sense clearly, at last, that to free the energy of my animal body is not to deny my humanity but to affirm it.

I have a child who I hope will carry this practice forward, this animal sense of involvement in and union with the grateful and naked origin and destiny of life. My mother, who my daughter never knew, lives vibrantly within her; that is as clear to me as the sense of continuance I feel within myself from my brothers who died, one after the other within six months, some three years ago. I suddenly find people listening to me, attending to me as if I had something meaningful to say — just as people did with my brother Hank. Lately, I burst into spontaneous and raucous laughter at modest or invisible jokes — just as my brother John did. People of all types and socioeconomic strata have been approaching me recently with their personal problems and pains, exactly as they did during the lives of both Hank and John. And now, as I have been scraping away the foul crust of prejudice and ego-arrogance that separates us from Nature (and especially our own animal nature); I distinctly feel that remarkable passion for good food that Night (my cat who died last May) made the signature of her personality, along with her ability to simply dwell in whatever moment the world may bring. The supreme reality of spacetime, I now find, is not merely a scientific truth, but an animal one as well. The wholeness of a presence that includes and then surpasses the linear and the logical — this is the water that carries Charon’s boat across the realms between dimensional arrays; between this holographic universe and the event horizon from which it is projected.

So I have no doubt of the reality of continuance, even if I have no words or doctrine as to its shape, direction, and detail. If you still believe that death is mere termination, annihilation, eternal and irrevocable emptiness; I ask you: Where was death before the Big Bang? If it came into being with every other potential and kinetic energy at the birth of our universe, then where is its darkness, and of what is its void?

It all began in an anti-moment’s compression of Infinity that somehow exploded (or expanded) into what we perceive as Being: everything that was before us, that is now, and that ever will be, through every galaxy and every universe of the Multiverse, outside of linear Time and in a spaceless space with no direction, shape, or physical properties. If we are all of That — then how can a single one of us, born or dead or as yet unborn, not be a part of one another — individual threads in the endless cosmic tapestry; unique notes in the same song of eternal transformation?


*This was back in the late 80’s at New York Zendo Shobo-ji in Manhattan’s upper east side. My teacher was a remarkable American Zen master named Clark Strand, who would later become editor-in-chief of the Buddhist periodical Tricycle. He is the author of some very remarkable books and, so far as I know, still teaching the “Koans of the Bible” in Woodstock, NY.

**Some physicists will admit that this might not be that much of a misnomer, given that a Higgs particle or field would have been the spark necessary to ignite the Big Bang.

***My favorite example of this has to do with the notion of “weakness” in the universe. Scientists assure us that gravity is by far the weakest of the four known forces; yet it is another, stronger force, that is given the name “weak” (the weak nuclear force). Another has to do with the choice of the bizarre term, quantum entanglement: how can a beautiful phenomenon of interdependence be construed as entanglement? They should have opted for the old Buddhist term, mutually dependent arising.

****One potential shitstorm I prefer to avoid is that surrounding the claims of an afterlife experience (via NDE, or Near-Death-Experience) made by a neurologist named Alexander, and made famous in his book Proof of Heaven. I have a feeling that Dr. Alexander’s experience is in some sense or degree real, though his telling of it treads within the mundane and borders on the maudlin. That is to say, even if he’s not a very good writer, his experience can no more be dismissed than many of the thousands of other NDEs on record.

Animal Teachings, or Knowing When to Stop

Recommended: let Einaudi’s “Berlin Song” play while you read what follows…

Cockcrow penetrating to heaven. Perseverance brings misfortune. (line 6 of Hexagram 61 of the I Ching, “Inner Truth”)

IFVery often, the clearest interpretation is the simplest. What purpose does a cockcrow serve? What message does it send? “Wake up, wake up — damn it, wake up world!”

When I received this line of the I Ching the other day, its blunt candor struck me in a very personal way. I write here with the purpose of provoking an awakening whose potential lies at the very core of our character as these oddly self-aware vessels of cosmic consciousness, however obscure or even impossible that potential may otherwise appear.

IFBut it is possible, even common, to push the most salubrious stimulant too far and hard. In Nature’s realm, of course, the rooster does not become anxious when there is little or no awakening in response to his morning cries; he just crows until it is time to stop. There are other tasks in the day awaiting his presence.

This is a lesson that I, and perhaps many others in our culture, need to give a deeper and fuller attention. The cry of awakening needs silence to complement and thereby reinforce it; otherwise it becomes a mere din, an invitation to isolation, even to disaster. Every call to awakening must be suffused with the silence of wonder and the music of love, else it becomes the ponderous drone of the priest amid the creaking of the wooden pews beneath the bored weight of the slumbering congregation.


IFWonder is the ground of respect, which in turn is the cornerstone of love. This is one reason why I make no difference between the psychological and the spiritual: they are not distinctive spheres of inner or personal experience, but rather comprise a field of feeling relationship in which the individual and the social merge and harmonize. What I am and where I am are merely two aspects of the same organism.

The crucial point here is that every relationship starts inside you: wonder, respect, love — these are not external phenomena that you must conquer or abandon or replace. They are members of your own inner family; players on a stage where the drama, like all great art, is both deeply personal and at the same time universal — yet it cannot be shared out-there until it is consummated in-here; within the solitary heart of uniqueness.

IFTo experience this play of interdependence between the relationships within us and those that form around us is to breathe the fresh air of sanity. But many of us are trained to skip that initial step of relationship: we seek to command and control others before we’ve even examined, let alone corrected, ourselves. I feel certain that if we can learn to perceive and then clarify the relationships going on within us, that the impulse toward command-and-control in our outer relationships will then be burned clean from our being under that light of self-understanding. If we are no longer at war within ourselves, there will be a lot less fighting out-there as well. This principle applies to families, lovers, spouses, races, genders, and nations.

This is equally important to all facets of life, including work, which we ordinarily think of as utterly divorced from the rest of our “personal” lives. One of the primary errors made in our workplaces and academic institutions involves a loss or repression of wonder. I am convinced that this is one of the reasons why science is so indifferently perceived among the general public; and here the exception proves the rule: when a scientist actually embraces a sense of wonder at the universe and lets it guide his work, the public tend to respond enthusiastically. Consider the recent popularity of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s renewal of Sagan’s Cosmos series on TV.

IFBut wonder has been actively repressed in Western science since the Enlightenment; and has been in some scientific quarters positively banished since the 19th century. Even as discovery now points us well beyond the mutely mechanical vision of the universe; far past the billiard ball banalities of adolescent science; still we cling to the linear, the oppressively automatic model and its brutishly myopic vision of objects bouncing around in empty space.

But it has been known for so long (and can be known again) that inside and out; self and other; wonder and reason; are different faces of a single coin, emanations from the same quantum field. This, of course, is why I study and practice the I Ching, for that is the ground of its philosophy, its view of the universe and humanity’s place in it. So the secret of a successful life becomes suddenly obvious and simple — to hold or at least touch the coin, without a thought of one side being bigger or better than the other.

To dwell within such a realization means doing nothing more complex or demanding than merely watching your own mind. To imagine that a regular practice of thought-watching is difficult or strange or impossible is, in my opinion, to indulge one of the most destructive and self-limiting illusions of the modern era and its dominant cultures. It is, as the Zen people say, to put legs on a snake; or in our own vernacular, tits on a boar hog.

IFThat is, we tend to place certain attributes onto activities like meditation or psychological self-examination — attributes that Nature constantly exposes as so many lies. One job of inner work, in fact, is to strip away these rags of belief to reveal our true selves in their sublime psychological nudity. When the image drops away from us, so does the fear that feeds it. This is when we learn to live in fullness, from the center of each moment outward.  No attainment or buildup or learning is necessary to this process; only the courage and the commitment to undress — to stop and examine ourselves regularly, and to discard the excess that we find.

Thus, the rooster does not ask when the time is right to cease his morning’s shouting to his world. He just stops, and goes on to all the other tasks and joys of his life. I now hear, more clearly than ever, the rooster’s silence. I will follow it to see where it might lead me.


Awakening to the Unreal Self


Calabi-YauWhen string theorists attempt to draw or diagram what a “string” looks like, they don’t draw strings but vibrations — specifically, mathematical vibrations in multiple dimensions. For there is no final and fundamental particle, thing, or substance: when we are done dividing, we find that only the insubstantial remains. That is the ground of being; or at the very least it’s as good a candidate as a theoretical speck of matter.

Now you may want to ask: how can there be vibration without a string? How can something come from nothing? Now if I were a Zen master, I would assign you that question as your koan, a personal puzzle or problem that has no solution in the realm of thought or calculation. I would tell you to go to sleep and wake up with it; to take it to the bathroom with you; to eat it and drink it; to caress it and kick it; to follow it, hunt it down, and be pursued by it.

Such an approach is actually an intense variation on a well-known theme. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of solving an intellectual problem or general life conundrum by first burying yourself in it and then abandoning it — “losing it” in a temporary stream of activity that took you out of the problem — sleep, sports or games, sex, or even a different problem. Then you came back to the original puzzle and found it solved within you.

The Zen people merely magnify this process, with a focus on the matter of conscious attention. This, incidentally, may help to explain why there are so many artists, meditators, and psycho-spiritual seekers among the scientists and technicians at CERN, where the mysteries of creation are being explored within the Large Hadron Collider. We are already well into an era where the common findings of quantum physics and astrophysics are more bizarre and surreal than any celestial or infernal system of religion or esoteric fantasy. The universe as it is revealed to us is far stranger and more wondrous than anything we could have concocted in the wildest dream of expectation or projection; and there is a lesson in that for our everyday lives.

teslaquoteBut in Zen, the way into such a realm of realization is typically a long and convoluted path of conscious struggle. They always acknowledge that it really is easy, or is supposed to be anyway — but then they lead (or follow) the student down a rabbit hole of analysis and into every trap and cage of thought, so that he may eventually realize that the answer is so much closer and clearer than anything that thought could concoct or conceive.

I am trying to provide some context for the quote in the image above; because one obvious objection to Tesla’s observation is that the brain is a transmitter, too. Technically, that’s true; but what Tesla was talking about was creativity and discovery. That is to say, when we focus on the brain-as-receiver, we open ourselves to another source or origin of the creative, and avoid the arrogance of intellectual conquest. Those Zen masters want to get their students to exactly the same place that Tesla spoke of — that invisible core from which all creativity and inspiration flow toward the heart of humility and the hand of pure effort. The Zen strategy is to access that core by undermining the authority of thought; and they do that by burning a hole in its body. Indeed, one of their primary metaphors on the action of the koan within the student is “swallowing the molten ball of iron.” The problem presented by the koan defies calculation; it burns the wooden wings of thought. Intellect cannot digest it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo the student eventually passes through that charred hole of mind and into Tesla’s field of inspiration, where life meets experience in a starkly beautiful realm with no division, no conquest, no thought. Such moments often occur under the commonest of circumstances and environments: a Zen priest I once knew “solved” his first koan while he was sweeping up on the back porch of his temple. I have heard of others who broke through their koans while cleaning the toilet or washing the dishes.

Me? Nah, I’ve never “solved” a koan. I’d be in the loony bin before I got halfway to the end of it. But I have had these moments in which the entire city of the monuments of shadows collapsed before and around me; suddenly there was an energy in sensation and being that was, well, like sitting amid the arcs of a Tesla coil. The problem with such moments is that something inside us is compelled to grasp at them and attempt to hold  them. You may as well grab hold of a hot ball of molten iron.

IFCan there be an end to such folly? Another koan. Take the red pill or the blue; there is no purple. But on that note, let me repeat something I mentioned earlier this year: if the universe and our lives are in fact a hologram or a matrix, then how is it that they are also “fake” or “unreal” (as the science writer in the link above says)? Is it not far better and nobler that I am a mathematical projection than the lumpy and sin-riddled creation of a clumsy and violent toddler-God such as the Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship? An equation is not an enemy of reality, but simply a different expression of it. The only enemy of reality; the only poison to the body of both Reason and Spirit; the only death worth fearing is the darkness of a hatred that parades as Faith; the violence of a tyrant disguised as God; and the delusion of priests dressed up as Truth.

So I am a hologram, and so are you. We are creations of that pure art of mathematics; we are expressions of the golden ratio; we are algorithms and not ideology. We are vibrations with no palpable string to make them; these amazing Somethings derived from Nothing — or better still, amazing Nothings coming out of Something. We are energy independent of (but not opposed to) matter. And you’re saying this is not real? As if that were a bad thing? I can scarcely imagine any discovery that would rate more as “gospel” — good news — than this: the deep understanding that we are not real according to the superficial measure of our cultural stereotypes. It’s a truth I’ve long felt, and so I look forward to astrophysical science closing the case.

Of Systems


IFSeparate from spirituality;
Extinguish wisdom,
And there will be benefit for all.

Discard all pretence
To piety and benevolence,
And the people will help one another.

Close the academies;
Extirpate the feudal rites,
And sorrow will be annihilated.

Banish investment vehicles,
Impoverish the profit-takers,
And there will be neither thieves nor frauds.

These are the ornaments of my teaching,
But hardly the essence, which is this:

Rely upon your inner discernment;
Return to your original purity;
Wear down your ego;
Break out of the circle of desire.
(Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 19, from my translation)

I have no system to offer you; I do not believe in systems. I use them, but I have no belief in them. I make this disclaimer because this field in which I write — the general area of the psycho-spiritual — is filled with systems and system-makers. Perhaps I know better because I have worked with systems, in technology, for some two decades. I know systems for both their worth and their weakness, and I therefore see no payoff in turning an exploration of the psychological self into a systemic effort. An architecture of technique tends to muddle one’s message, just as an over-dependence on tech in ordinary life has a way of turning a human walk into a drunken stagger; a life into a lapse.

I feel that the body is primary, and that spirit, to the extent it makes any sense to speak of it, must be subservient to and supportive of the interests of body. The point here is that I don’t just have a body; I am body. So if I learn to liberate and to care for the health and clarity of body, then spirit will become mature, beautiful, and wise all by itself; and I will gradually come to feel the division between these — body and spirit, body and mind, body and self — dissolve.

IFIt is only a superficial paradox that as we erode that inner division, we tend to better understand and use systems. A system, after all, is a tool for living, something that is designed to release and enhance the life of the individual, instead of holding him within its walls. This applies to all kinds of systems — from the system of democratic government to the system contained in the metal box at my feet, with its motherboard, processors, and what Joseph Campbell called the “hierarchy of angels” embodied in the electronic nano-web of the computer.

Beyond the Three G’s

A good system, then, is a means and not an end; a facilitator and not a warden; a guide and not a god. Whenever I am involved in the planning, design, implementation, and testing of a system at work, I try to keep this in mind, that a well-designed system leads its end users away from what I call the three G’s: Goals, Guards, and Gods.

  • A good system obviously has purpose and direction, but its goals and benefits — what the marketers call “the value proposition” — will be unique to its users, depending on what they need it to do for them.
  • Similarly, a system’s protective elements — be they in the form of antivirus software in a computer or checks and balances among branches of government — will function to support freedom of action within and beyond the system rather than as a mechanism of self-defense on the part of the system itself.
  • Finally, any technology worth its salt or its circuitry — from a constitution to a cell phone — must remain true to the original meaning of that word, technology, whose Greek root, techne, means skill, art, or craft. The greatest mastery is revealed where there is no Master; the natural good is never made by a God. The ancient Chinese used to say “the master potter leaves no trace,” meaning “no trace of himself, of his ego, of the craft’s or the art’s Big Boss.” No art has a Boss, nor even a single creator.

IFI feel that the Greeks probably meant by techne something very similar to what the Buddhists refer to as upaya, or skillful means. Both concepts refer to an approach, method, or technology that is not systemic in the sense of catechismic or dogmatic, but as an energy of encounter that precisely suits the needs and the purposes of the situation, the person or people involved, and the moment. The Taoists capture this in their concept of wu-wei, or unforced action that is not self-consciously or stridently directed.

So there can be upaya within systems — why not, then, pursue a system of personal development and psychological healing? I suppose it would be fine, as long as it’s understood throughout that the skillful means are merely wingmen of the mind, temporary markers on a path of presence that has neither purpose nor goal of which we can be conscious in advance.

IFThis brings me back to one of the fundamental problems I have with systems: they always seem to come bundled with projections and expectations. Or else, as in the case of government, they become corrupted with that foul air of institutional demand and the iron grasp of authority. We can’t run such a risk in the most important of all undertakings, the recovery, liberation, and release of your true individual self, the one whose like has never been made nor ever will be again. There is no system that can grasp you; but when you become free of the systemic, you can contribute to any system you choose. That is to say, you do not start with upaya; but you can grow and teach with it. Skill arises from understanding; I do not think it works the other way around. A system’s skill, its techne, can work as far as the understanding that uses it. The less you cling to it, the more it serves you.

Stripping Down to the Animal

So I speak and write not of building up but of stripping down. I strip out the code that has been drilled into me by those learned pains and prejudices — all the fears of a lifetime — the better to see and feel what Nature originally wrote there, within this worn and riddled but still living body. I seek not what is perfect but only genuine. The Zen masters constantly challenge us with questions: if your finger pointing to the moon or over it? Are you and your practice revealing or obscuring your light? No system of belief, no taxonomy of the psyche, be they ever so well designed and implemented, can write the truth of your life; only experience can do that. So I choose to begin there.

IFIf I am to better reveal and cherish my animal guide, I must liberate my animal nature. How can such a guide touch, let alone lead, the life of one who is walled round with spells about the inferiority, stupidity, violence, and lust of his animal nature? So I shoot them down as I find them, these dragons of arrogance; I ask the Universe to help me in destroying them all and dissolving their remnants. For every time I kill such a demon, then she — my enduring animal friend and guide — touches a deeper string within me and draws out my light with the pure gravitational force of her love.

Yes, there is desire to it — even longing. Perhaps that is part of the mourning; it has only been four months. I still have moments where I think something positively inane such as, “I’d give ten years of my remaining life to have her back here beside me…” Ah, that old theme of spirituality as commerce: the purity of my longing and pain, coupled with a promise of good behavior, in exchange for some miracle, some sign, some blessing. There is a spoiled-child aspect to this mindset, and you find it among followers of every institutional religion on the planet — including such religions as Positivism (science as catechism) and Freudian psychology. It is not enough to reject it intellectually; that only drives it deeper within us. Such beliefs must be thoroughly cleansed from within. They comprise a viral code was written over our original nature, cast like a shroud over a candle. It is our job to take it all apart and see what was there all along, waiting to be revealed and loved. We take off that hand-me-down clothing of belief and affiliation; the better to feel the living beauty of psychological nudity. This is the way back to our animal nature, which is not opposed or subject to the so-called higher brain.

IFSo every time I clear away those weak, broken, and buried beliefs, I also clear a better space for her. This is why, in spite of my persistent delusions, it all keeps making sense and calling me deeper in. So I follow her further; shedding artificial expectations, delusory certainty, and a learned fear as I go. Even the longing weakens, the more its most strident desires are surpassed by the simple light of experience. I longed for a sign and received a song instead; I yearned for the past and I discover a luminous presence in this moment. Experience guides me further; past the tone-deaf noise of despair and into the music of her presence, the animal who leads me back toward myself.


You can listen to an audio version of this essay.

Of Moderation

IFMy topic today is moderation, which is one of the more misunderstood of virtues, either through distortion or outright ignorance. I’d like to start with some reflections on the iconic 1960’s TV show, The Prisoner, as I have some connections to make that may appear odd, but only at first blush.

As Prisoner fans know, much of the dramatic tension of the show occurs between two characters: the protagonist, #6, and whoever happens to be sitting in that round chair occupied by #2. Now #2 is usually exposed as a petty tyrant who has no true leadership qualities but instead plays the role of chief thug for the shadowy state that rules the Village. Yet on the other hand #2 occasionally exposes the impulsiveness and escape-obsession of #6. Some of the most humorous moments of the series appear when #6 pushes the good-guy persona over the edge, as in the election episode.

Now this dynamic may be familiar to students of the ancient Chinese oracle I Ching (or Yijing). Each of the oracle’s 64 hexagrams are built of six lines, from the bottom to the top; and each line is either a yin (broken) line or a yang (solid) line, thus:


Now in the I Ching, the 2nd line from the bottom typically shows a person who has talent, ability, and perhaps even a little power, but is still in development and therefore runs the risk of pretending to be more than he is at the moment. The 6th line tends to show a person who has great power, energy, and purpose yet has exceeded the limits of his time and circumstances and is therefore fit for persistent adversity or outright destruction. Number 2 and Number 6, drawn some two millennia before the production of Patrick McGoohan’s masterpiece.

So where is the point of balance, of moderation, and how do we find and maintain it within ourselves and throughout our lives? It is an age-old question of philosophy and spirituality, particularly in the great schools and masters of Eastern wisdom. Yet as we shall see, this theme was also very well developed within Western philosophy.

flowersThe Buddhists developed a “Mahayana” or “middle way” (literally, “middle vehicle”), which describes a psychology of moderation, though not necessarily between extremes as beyond them. The Mahayana is most thoroughly expressed in the Zen school of Japan, which became popularized in the West during the 20th century by Eastern teachers such as Daisetz Suzuki and Western masters such as Alan Watts. The 18th century Zen master Hakuin made these remarks in a letter to a Buddhist nun — they seem to briefly capture the essence of the Mahayana:

The Lotus (renge), while its roots lie in the mud, is in no way soiled by the mud, nor does it lose the wonderful scent and odor with which it is blessed. When the time comes for it to bloom it sets forth beautiful blossoms. The Wondrous Law of the Buddha mind is neither sullied nor does it decrease within sentient beings and it is neither made pure nor does it increase within a Buddha. In the Buddha, in the common man, among all sentient beings it is in no way different. To be sullied by the mud of the five desires is to be just like the lotus root lying covered by the mud.

IFYou don’t have to be out-of-it to be with-it; you can not only live a vibrant spiritual life right here in the mud of daily life — you can actually find the roots of your growth and blossoming within it. No escape, no retreat, no monastic checking out is required for either self-realization or salvation. This comprises much of the appeal of Zen: it delivers the affirmation that the most truly mystical life is in the ordinary. A famous Zen haiku announces this sense of absolute wonder in the quotidian realm where action becomes sublime amid the Mind of Presence:

I draw water, I carry wood:
How wondrous, how mysterious!

This gives us one of the essential characteristics of true moderation: it is active. It is not a passive state; for in passivity lies the corrupt assumption of division or estrangement between actor and act, person and world, individual and universe. This theme is also developed in the I Ching hexagram that I’ve drawn above; let’s consider that now.

Hexagram 15 is Qian, which is normally translated Modesty; sometimes as Humility or as Moderation (most notably by R.L. Wing in her well-known I Ching Workbook). This hexagram is extraordinary for several reasons:

  • Its text affirms the active essence of Modesty or Moderation: the opening or “Judgment” speaks of one who “carries things through” or “works things to conclusion.”
  • Its individual lines (corresponding to each of the six lines above) reinforce that message with notes of encouragement and beneficence. Indeed, this hexagram is the only one among the 64 whose message throughout is positive and replete with “good” auguries. Line one speaks of one who is able to “cross the great water” — that is, to overcome ego and reveal one’s true self and thereby accomplish wonders without effort. The 2nd line speaks of “modesty coming to expression,” from which virtue touches the hearts of others and communication is made great due to the individual’s own inner consonance. The third line underscores the Judgment text: the person of merit and modesty carries everything through to its natural conclusion. Line 4 describes “modesty in movement” that is beneficial to everyone involved in the situation of the inquiry. The fifth line describes one who does not boast of his wealth and is therefore able to attack and destroy his enemy (in the psychological terms in which I use the oracle, this means making a directed and successful effort against the ego and all its fears, delusions, and self-images). Finally, the 6th line tells of the capacity for inner expression and the ability to “set armies marching against one’s own city and country.” Again, in the same sense as in line 5, this military metaphor speaks of great success in clearing the ground of the self of its greatest and only enemy, ego.
  • While the text supports inner action and outer achievement and reconciliation in relationships; the image of the hexagram speaks of a guiding humility that is the foundation of all true and enduring action, be it within or without. The image is of a vast stillness below, often symbolized by the lower trigram’s natural metaphor, Mountain; whose mighty quiet nourishes the upper trigram of Nature, Earth, or Receptivity. The Chinese saw this as a uniquely dynamic combination, and found no irony at all in the notion that quiet strength and earthy receptivity could synergize into a meteoric force of personal transformation and interpersonal unity.

Now to the average Western and especially American mind, all this makes no sense in terms of plain experience. Who ever heard of a quiet and receptive politician, CEO, media star, or professional athlete? Now while it is true that I could offer you some living examples of these, they would be so few as to be exceptions to prove your rule, that only loud, brash, arrogant, wealthy, domineering people really succeed. So I’d rather we consider whether we instead need to rethink just what we mean by success.

Here, the Eastern view of Buddhism and the Taoist/Confucian roots of Zen are unequivocal: arrogance and display and self-aggrandizement are, without exception, failure. No matter how wealthy, famous, or powerful they become, the arrogant are failures, because their might is the slave to money and to both the feeling and fomenting of fear. Money and fear cannot be either the foundation or the framework of success. Rupert Murdoch is a failure; the Wall Street banksters are failures; nearly every politician in Washington is a failure; the wife-beaters and child-abusers of the NFL are failures; and so on.

This brings us to a second essential characteristic of moderation, which is balance. Here we find that the origins of our Western philosophies are in agreement with the East. For in both East and West, balance is not merely a moral, political, or practical concept; it is a principle of art and aesthetics. Aristotle spoke of a “golden mean” that is found in every true art and whose essence lies in harmony. Plato added that as politics is an art, it too must be practiced with the strength of a quiet balance. In all their arts and literature; their architecture and their mathematics, the Greeks held to a single ideal, that human affairs could only be successful through the pursuit of this “golden mean” of harmony, balance, and moderation.

Well. That’s pretty boring, isn’t it? Why do you think no one studies this stuff anymore? But it’s much the same as with Eastern meditation: if we think about it superficially, then it loses any meaning it might otherwise bring to life. For when the Greeks thought about a golden mean, they were conceiving not a dull linear midpoint but a relationship that is today known as the golden ratio. This is far more than a dull linear model, but is a mathematical reflection of what exists in Nature and within ourselves. Consider it for a moment using the images from that I Ching hexagram for Modesty — I’ll use the equation for the golden mean, a+b / a = a / b:

Strength + Receptivity is to Strength as Strength is to Receptivity

Fibonacci_spiral_2taichiNow whether or not you like my application of this equation, it actually invites the metaphor. For this equation is what the mathematicians call “elegant” — it describes so much more than arithmetic proportion; it reveals the dynamic balance within natural relationships. Wherever there is harmony within each individual, it will be reflected and fulfilled in the social relationships between individuals. The picture at right shows a variant of the golden mean, the Fibonacci spiral (which I’ve doubled in mirror fashion) alongside the famous tai-chi or “yin/yang” symbol. Looking at this image, you might wonder if “West + East is to West as West is to East.”

IFI have often wondered how much saner our world might be if instead of making vapid speeches about morality, sin, and good behavior, Western priests would instead sermonize on mathematics as an example of the pure voice of God. The essential tools and genius of mathematics were, after all, born in Babylonia and Persia: algebra, trigonometry, and the earliest known algorithms were not only made amid the heart of Islam; they bear the names of their creators. And now Western high school students know exactly who to blame for it all.

In fact, virtually wherever one or more great spiritual traditions took root, a mathematical revolution also occurred: India (Hinduism and early Buddhism); China (Taoism, Confucianism, early Ch’an or  Zen Buddhism); Egypt (the mythological roots of the Judeo-Christian fables of pilgrimage and sacrifice); and of course Greece (the mysticism of the Pythagorean system and the rationalistic monotheism of Socrates and Plato, which heavily influenced the development of Christianity, whose four synaptic and various gnostic gospels are all written in Greek).

IFOK, it’s a mere random coincidence, if you like. I’m not going to push this association beyond the point I’ve already made, that our religions could do a hell of a lot worse than hearing and teaching the presence of God in mathematics instead of throwing hellfire and brimstone at us over what we do in consensual privacy with our naked bodies. But I’ll leave that be and try to complete a picture of the attributes of moderation.

So far we have seen that moderation’s voice is active and its body is in an internally harmonious balance. It gets things done in the right measure and direction, from a position of quiet, centered stability, rather than rushing headlong or impulsively from a dogmatic arrogance of ambition. Turn on your television and you’re likely to hear which of these approaches dominates our current culture.

Therefore, it is necessary that we as individuals explore the alternative to that obsession of the collective around us. It is equally important that we do it together, in the same spirit of relationship as that symbolized by the golden mean and the Fibonacci spiral dance. And this suggests what I see as the third great attribute of moderation, which is the principle of gravitational attraction that appears in our world as the force of love.

It is only a superficial paradox that scientists tell us that gravity, the cosmic force of attraction, is a “weak force.” The enduring strength of such a force is to be found in its clarity and purity rather than in any power or size. Lao Tzu described the attributes of a life in harmony with Tao similarly:

The one with the lantern shines the least.
The one making progress seems behind.
The easiest path seems tortuous.
Natural strength appears weak and hollow.
And the greatest virtue seems too small.

nightgazeSince the “weak forces” of the true self work beneath the level of appearances, they only seem lacking to the superficial gaze of ego. Love does not compare itself with other forces; therefore it is incomparable among all the energies of the universe. Its effortless gravitational necessity calmly persists while other, mightier forces cancel one another out.

This is the life of moderation, of modesty: though it lacks ambition, it carries things through to completion; though it moves through the muddy world of darkness, it blossoms with a sparkling, lotus-like balance; and though stronger forces deliver intense power with an infinitesimal focus, the gravitational force of love has a range and depth that, in its eternal dance, swirls the dress of Infinity.

Stupidity in the Information Age


So you don’t believe in things you can’t see; you distrust and perhaps even fear the unseen. Well then: show me the truths you know — not the facts or the evidence or the object of belief, but just the truth. Let me see that; hit me upside the head with it. Put your love down on the table here: I want to touch it, see it; I might even hear or taste it. If I can’t see or sense it; if I can’t prove it or demonstrate its existence by purely empirical means, I can’t accept it. How can your love and your truth compare with the easy perfection of hard data?

In one of television’s greatest moments, Patrick McGoohan’s iconic The Prisoner, a story was drawn of a man who saw past appearances to deeper realities. That seeing, that perspective of his also revealed the warped parallel reality of the world that was his cage — a world of sideshow surreality that had a single demand of him: information.

pianonightWe are dominated, often driven, by data, by Information. It is now so much easier and faster to obtain information than perspective. Truth, through its vibrant agent insight, is perspective nourished by information; it is the invisible elephant in the room of our culture. By day, I work in technology, and I can tell you that information has in some respects become an intellectual priapism that is often empty of direction or perspective — it is effectively impotent. Big data is not even big; it is merely voluminous. As with wealth, having a lot of something does not make you better; it typically just leaves you burdened.

Insight, of course, takes some work. The search string of the whole being can’t be typed or even spoken. It requires a different effort. Information is fingertip-friendly and virtually numberless in its volume (the brand name “Google” is of course derived from the vast number “googol,” or 10100 — the number 10 with 100 zeroes after it). Truth is rarer and more elusive; for while information lies in heaps, waiting to be picked, insight dances. Information can be taken; insight must be courted.

IFPerspective comes from a much deeper and rarer place than search engines and numbers. Alan Watts once warned that God, if He existed, would be omniscient, but not in a banally encyclopedic fashion. Compared to awareness, knowledge is a fairly cheap trick. To have all the facts is to put but one foot on the ground of truth, and that earth does tend to move.

The more deeply we open to the potential energy of perspective and seek its source within ourselves (rather than trawling for mere data from an artificial source), the saner we become. We tend to gain a certain comfort and even affection toward the person in the mirror. This is the awakening of intelligence, which is the galaxy that both contains and surpasses the planet of intellect.

Stupidity, typically, is not a product of Nature but of impudence. It has little or nothing to do with intellect: some of the most obtuse idiots I have met in my life have had above-average IQs. Stupidity is all clothing and no body; it wears the robes of arrogance while it rides in the carriage of ignorance. Stupidity is learned, manufactured, derived; intelligence, on the other hand, is inherent and is liberated by unlearning the beliefs, fears, and prejudices of stupidity.

dangerWe all have some clothes to strip away from ourselves; we all have some stupidity to release. This is why we need to do the work of insight, to make truth our priority while allowing information nothing more than a supporting role in the story of our growth. Governments and corporations would define you with data; but they are not the source and destiny of your life.

Now the work of insight is personal rather than popular. How you go about this will be unique; it may even appear odd or weird to others. That’s fine — the how of it will develop naturally as long as you remain calmly committed to the path. The search is for awareness over mere knowledge; and it will involve the attraction engaged by mere receptivity more than it will be a mission of achievement. Your search will be different from mine, maybe even deeper.

Lies are not easily shattered, for they are typically the product of years or decades of breeding and cultivation. Dissolving is probably the better approach: wear down the illusion until it loses its phantom power. But here again, the how of it matters less than your attitude in doing whatever it is you do to rid yourself of the lies inside you. For if you imagine that “I’m doing it all” or “I’m clearing this ground” or “I’m making it happen”, then you are merely writing another lie into the circuitry of your being. Alan Watts used to joke about the silliness of the very idea of self-improvement: if the same messed-up self that needs improvement is the one doing the improving, then how can there be improvement?

So it would appear as if we need to choose one of two methods or attitudes in dealing with this rather insane scenario: we can leave it all up to an external entity — a guru, priest, psychoanalyst, or other expert in improvement — and drop all our troubles and doubts at that doorstep; or we can simply accept the folly of our situation and go ahead anyway, but with one fresh facet added to our consciousness: the awareness of an energy, will, or presence that embraces and also surpasses us as individuals, and thereby completes the work that we are ridiculously unprepared to accomplish by the very nature of our position as the snake who tries to nourish itself by eating its own tail.

IFThis, by the way, is the point of Krishnamurti’s ironic expression that the only pure will is the one that makes no choices; the one that has no choice to make. By this he did not mean that escapist fatalism of our current culture that throws up its hands and says, “what can we do — it is what it is“. What I think he meant is something quite different: he wanted us to undertake a program of self-improvement without an object of improvement defining it.

Personally, I find that whenever I start a new or changed style or practice of meditation or exercise, it doesn’t go very well for a while, until I reach a point where it happens in the same way I make my blood flow or my heart beat or my food become digested. Now scientists, perhaps merely as a matter of expediency in classification, make the distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” functions — they even classify our central nervous system itself, dividing it into subsystems that they call autonomic (involuntary) and somatic (voluntary).

scaryBut you have one body, one nervous system. Everything that makes your personal uniqueness possible proceeds from a universal or at least general ground — the capacity of life to support, maintain, and will itself along with each heartbeat, synaptic firing of neurons, glandular emanation, or any of the other autonomic activities of our 100 quadrillion or so body cells.

So this may be what Krishnamurti meant, or part of it anyway, by that curious declaration of his that the perfect will makes and indeed has no choices to execute: when we join our personal or local will with that universal will of autonomic regulation, then we may find that what we choose is no longer chosen; that our action becomes necessary rather than voluntary or contingent; that we are guided rather than driven. Now I have never had a genuine moment of what the Buddhists call moksha, satori, or enlightenment; but I imagine that such a state of will must be as close as we might come to a place of pure awakening.

In the context of today’s topic, which is stupidity: I also feel that what Krishnamurti was talking about was a natural escape from the pit of stupidity as I have described it above, as a fundamental error of self-aggrandizement and therefore self-isolation; as an inflation of arrogance rather than a want of intellect; as a failure of perspective rather than a lack of information.

IFNow, even if you accept that argument, the question may arise in your mind: can it be done? Can such a union of the personal or local will with the supra-personal  or universal will be achieved? Well, no, of course it cannot be done; but it can happen. This is another aspect of the shift in attitude that I referred to before: we can follow the greatest teachers and adopt the best practices of self-improvement and still fail miserably — either through perceiving ourselves on the same treadmill as the one we pushed at the beginning, or worse still, imagining ourselves as having succeeded in climbing to the clouds of an elitist spiritual realization.

My point here lies in exposing the idiocy, the fundamental stupidity of what Chogyam Trungpa used to call spiritual materialism. For when you reduce spirituality and spiritual ambition and self-imagery to the level I am talking about here, you come to some laughable absurdities: “My Christian hypothalamus can release its neurohormones far more effectively than those filthy Muslim hypothalamuses.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet everything we are discussing here has to do with what is ordinarily classified as spiritual: the purpose and benefit of activities such as meditation, prayer, and even physical exercise such as yoga and tai-chi; and their relative capacities to improve us either as groups or individuals. From that very point of absurdity we touch the diamond of the purposeless, and all our efforts at self-improvement and the search for the intelligence that is already within us become as beautifully pointless and as effortlessly directed as dancing naked across our bedroom or singing in the shower or digesting our breakfast, in those moments of pure and unconscious humility in which will becomes Will.

Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself. (Basho)

IFI am certainly no Basho, for I sit loudly. My morning rooftop meditations are like a Metallica concert on an airport tarmac, whose audience is a horde of Sunday political shoutfest TV pundits. Yet I do manage to stay with the noise within and around my skull; I attend to it until it merges into the traffic noise some 50 feet below me (a bus rumbles by and I feel the roof beneath me tremble).

The way, the path, is the destination; it goes nowhere because it has no end, no finish line. When you can just get one foot onto it, you’re “there yet,” to borrow the proverbial child’s question from the back seat of the car. Watts used to make this point about the Chinese expression Tao — it’s the whole thing, the object of all our seeking and yearning and praying. He called it, “the Which than which there is no Whicher,” in his jocular rendering of Anselm’s ontological argument.

It goes nowhere, does nothing. It grows by itself. It is a koan that seeks the edges of its own body; it is like Rumi’s invitation: “out beyond the mind of wrong and right, there is a field where I can meet you.” Speak that sentence again, and replace “wrong and right” with “failure and success;” “loss and profit;” “end and beginning;” “death and life;” or the linguistic combatants of your choice. Let that become your koan.

IFI scatter myself amid my morning rooftop meditation, like the water condensed from the evening air that streams languidly along the gentle black slope. I listen and then watch: the noise recedes and I sense, as if out of the corner of an eye within the ear, the presence of Night, my animal guide. She moves like midnight rain through a downspout, invisible yet as palpable as the soft autumn chill of sunrise. She too, is Tao: for as soon as my mind reaches for her, she has dashed down and out to the same distance as the one I’ve just made with my grasping. But she never evades the reach of my love.

The work is to abandon effort; the way is to let go of direction; the light suffuses me when I embrace my dark. The grass grows by itself, beneath the sun of the heart of wonder.

Yet the world calls me back with its urgent, solipsistic noise, as if I weren’t paying attention. Our difference is that I can’t pay it the taxing, forced attention that it demands of me. But even here, on my rooftop temple amid a benighted town diseased with obesity and despair, I know that the world is overrun with soldiers; even the police are militarized now. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace is now raining bombs on seven different nations, as the military might of institutional ignorance writes its carbon death sentence for our species into the air and the seas of our home.

IFIt is a darkness that has sprung from the denial of the Dark; a tyranny that arises from a failure of self-governance. This is a fatal failure that may not allow for recovery. But that is a judgment — ego’s stain upon the heart of Nature. Recovery is always possible to even the blackest and most poisoned, cancerous heart; for all its disease is derived and overlaid, not immanent. I can sense the error in my judgment; feel my self-made wrong. I approach a little nearer to Rumi’s field.

What is it that makes us appear to choose death over life; addiction over recovery; madness over sanity; separation over union; corruption over growth; regression over development; despair over perseverance? Would it have something to do with a fundamental self-denial — the insane choice of Fear, which says “there is no choice”? There is no choice but to rain bombs, to spread carbon death, to make war our blood and surveillance our vision?

IFSitting quietly, doing nothing; amid dawn’s sky and supported by this glistening dark, whose body will soften today in the heat of that rising star. Somewhere far below me, as if at a great distance, the grass grows by itself, even in autumn. I ask my animal guide to embrace me, to draw the ignorance from me and hold, for just a moment, the aberrant noise of my thought. It is as much as I can seek; the only prayer I can cast into the vast Cosmic Consciousness that lies so far, far away, inside me. I can feel it, this warm and glowing inevitability — that if I can be present to this moment, sitting quietly and doing nothing — then everything will be done; action will find its own purpose, measure, and direction; and then I will dance in Rumi’s field of Immensity.

Healing: the Reality and the Delusion

You are responsible for your fate in life, and you are helpless against it.


The new DSM-5, the psychiatric diagnostic bible of mental illness, defines delusion as follows:

Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g. persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, grandiose).[…] Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences. […] The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity.

IFThis is interesting since it accounts for only one of Karl Jaspers’ original criteria for delusion, which include certainty, incorrigibility, and falsity. This, along with the DSM’s ambivalence over the distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea, leaves plenty of room for fellows like me, who could otherwise be easily deemed delusional. I suppose we should thank Heaven for small favors.

Alan Watts once spent an hour of a seminar he held especially for psychotherapists and other mental health workers, during which he invited them to ask him questions as if he were a patient in a psychiatric institution who believed he was God. It is an extraordinarily entertaining encounter, well worth the hour you spend with it.

The truly delightful part of that encounter, of course, is that Watts was actually “under the delusion” — it was the cornerstone of his teaching, that we are all divine, all of us Gods.

IFNow my personal delusion is that we are all, as it were, favored by god — that is to say, there are sources of help available to every one of us that go far beyond the human, the institutional, the mechanical, and the economic or political sources of visible, worldly help.

Unfortunately, however, there are other, actual delusions which impair the truthful operation of the helping-cosmos delusion. I’ve quoted one of these at the top of this page, which arose during a recent meditation. Since we’ve been listening to Watts today, I’d like to quote another of his characteristically accurate phrases: the belief that I heard in my meditation — “you are responsible for your fate and helpless against it” — is what he would have called a “double-binding” belief. That is to say, you’re both responsible and helpless. But isn’t this precisely how many of us conceive or face fate?

IFI’ve already touched on the bizarre sense of inadequacy and despair — classic fatalism, if you will — that is built into our culture’s language and attitudes towards fate, in my analysis of “It is what it is”, which is one of those cultural memes whose poison pervades the blood stream of our society. This time, I would like to focus on the notion of helplessness, which is the monozygotic twin of fatalism.

Think of all the sources of help to which we typically appeal in our lives — banks, corporations, government, technology, religion, the media, connections both personal and professional — and you begin to see where the real source of delusion lies. It’s no wonder that we collapse so quickly and easily into helplessness.

Let’s take another look at that DSM definition: fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Capitalism, in light of recurring and worsening recessions over the past century or so, not to mention a disease of social inequality that only gets more endemic with time? Christianity, in light of its institutionally un-Christian behavior (war; social disparity; feudal-era fixations of both belief and action; sexual perversions rampant through its clergy; etc., etc.)? Government, in light of its maddening deafness to common sense, as evidenced by its recurrent usage of and dependence on the other two wells of delusion?

IFNow my point here is not to brand money, religion, and government as evil. In fact, there is no such thing as evil; but that is another day’s topic. No: the point is that when we leave the use of language up to institutions like the psychiatric collective behind the DSM, we get these wrong-footed definitions such as the one for delusion. You see, the DSM, along with all other group-based definers of delusion, waffles the entire picture of delusion with this disclaimer: “…not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences.” Ah…so if enough of us “peers” believe the same delusion, it’s no longer a delusion, even if both “ordinary experience” and the “light of conflicting evidence” tend to completely undermine and defy that belief.

Now why would a body of supposed clinical experts and healers choose such a weak and Janus-faced vision of delusion? Well, for one thing the DSM and the entire structure of modern mind-medicine is a group-based and group-oriented system of belief. It has pharmaceutical companies to answer to; it has a vast system of physical institutions — hospitals, psychiatric centers, mental health clinics, and even prisons — to answer to; and it has its own internal association of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and related professionals to answer to.

IFThe problem here is that, as peripherally useful as institutions, clinics, drugs, and degrees may be, the healing encounter is not an institutional experience. It is at its heart a personal, interpersonal, and I would add a trans-personal phenomenon. Whenever I have done therapy or personal counseling with someone — whenever I have done it well, at any rate — I have remembered to call a third element — the unseen therapist, the invisible helper, into the encounter. This goes, incidentally, for other and more familiar relationships as well: romantic, spousal, child-parent, professional, and personal relationships.

Perhaps this is the kind of point that Watts was leading to in his entertainment with the therapists in that recording: that sense or intimation of another presence that invites the sacred amid the profane; that restores both balance and unity to mind and body, self and other, seen and unseen, physical and quantum, matter and energy. Presence is the ground of the universal; that third element is the ineffable quality of healing which cannot be fit into a book, a diagnostic manual, or a body of belief, delusional or otherwise. Our institutions — medical, political, governmental, spiritual, and economic alike — can only fulfill their social missions by acknowledging and supporting that invisible sense of presence and intimacy, which Watts reveals in his dialogue with those clinicians. But to the extent they raise themselves and their parochial agenda above and beyond the sacred space that contains the healer, the seeker, and the presence that joins and supports them — to that extent, all institutions fail; they become, in fact and in effect, delusional.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow before I close I’d like to return to that delusion of mine that I quoted at the top. You are responsible for your fate in life, and you are helpless against it.

As I said, this phrase arose to me during a meditation, in which I actively called for that help, that insight, which arises from the very presence I refer to above. The skeptical response to that, I suppose, would be: you’re fighting one delusion (the double-bind statement about being both responsible for and helpless against the same thing) with another (the belief in a helping cosmic force or invisible energy that can somehow defeat or “untie” the double-bind).

Well, first of all, I have no belief in that cosmic force. It’s just there, I experience it. You may as well say I believe in the air that I breathe or the gravitational force that holds me to the earth. That is to say, the third element of healing and growth — what Joseph Campbell used to call “hidden hands” — is not something I made up; it’s something I revealed or discovered within myself.

Second, there is an actual healing or, if you will, clinical function behind my connection to this energy. Its influence goes beyond the merely diagnostic: it doesn’t just show me the source of my trouble or the impediment to my growth or healing; it tells me how I can surpass that impediment by stripping off the corrupt clothing of group belief and derived despair.

Third, it works. I have no data on that beyond my experience with others and in my personal work. It’s not the only thing that works; but I think it is an essential aspect of every successful healing (though obviously you won’t experience it as I do, for each healing is as unique as the person being healed). Drugs often help (I have had both personal and therapeutic experience on this front); other kinds of traditional and so-called “alternative” therapies and medicines can work; and technology can be an enormous help to the healing process.

But if you place all your eggs into the basket of the mechanical, the institutional, and the empirical, then I doubt if you will have either healing or growth. For then you will have crossed over into delusion.

I close, therefore, with my personal definition of delusion: it is a belief that has forgotten that it is only a belief. A delusion suffocates and then forestalls true experience by attempting to control it. Thus I see far more of delusion in our institutions than I do in people. But as I implied above, this is entirely correctable, if we as individuals can demand that our institutions be responsible not to their agenda or their general ledger, but to us.

IFFinally, I ask that readers test these ideas of mine not so much in their minds as in their lives. Let your experience be my judge, and I will accept the verdict. After all, much of what I am learning these days comes from a creature who once lived with me in this realm, and now teaches me from another world, a world that is also within me. Perhaps I am indeed mad; or perhaps that delusion of Alan Watts is leading us, paradoxically, to the clearest of all possible perceptions.

Purpose: The Illusion and the Reality

IFIt is a primordial music of mind that sings from the depths of our species’ history and within the forgotten past and presence of each individual: the wonder of self-recognition in the perception of pattern all around and inside us.

As children, we lay back in the grass and saw the clouds taking shape and coming to life (what do you see in the picture at right?). It wasn’t fantasy or infantilism at work: it was the operation of a natural faculty; our inviolable connection with our primeval origin — the capacity to sense, respond to, and create, order.

We sense patterns and a seeming design around and within us because the universe, in all likelihood, is a design — perhaps a holographic one. We may never understand the design intellectually; but that does not mean we give up on our apperception or on our scientific curiosity — both of these arise, after all, from the same essence within us. Einstein rode light waves through the spaces of his adolescent daydreams before he was ready to revolutionize science. In any event, the least that can be said without skepticism is that we are pattern-receivers, even if there is no objective or “real” pattern or design to perceive.

IFStill, whenever you talk about this natural receptivity to the universe’s pattern-making capacity, you feel the need to defend yourself from being perceived as just another “intelligent design” mouth-breather. Well, I have no particular defense to offer on that front. Insight tends to provide its own protection. It is a matter of following life over belief; pure experience has no room for ideology. What I am learning (and therefore teaching) is not a function of linking backward (the meaning of the Latin root of the word “religion”); it is instead about connecting inward.

When I use that word “inward,” it is not in a solipsistic or navel-gazing sense. Inward is the way to the universal, that’s the sense I have in mind; of a connection that opens the gate of cosmic consciousness and our shared identity in the great web of being.

Thus, to say that our species (among others) tends to perceive pattern in the universe does not mean that we assume purpose. Alan Watts used to highlight this distinction by talking about dance: there is no finish line on a dance floor; we just move and sway in rhythm to the music until we are done, without looking for any destination or encrusting the experience with Purpose or intent.

dragonTherefore, sensing the presence of pattern within and around us is nothing to be self-conscious about, even for the most hard-boiled empiricist. Pattern is just pattern; purpose is something superadded that, whenever it is projected (one might even say “pre-jected”), always seems to ring false or hollow. For when we allow it to, reality always far surpasses whatever purpose or outcome we might have saddled it with in the arrogance of our expectation.

It has been my experience in my own life that purpose is discovered rather than prefigured; revealed instead of written. So I do not deny the reality of purpose; only our capacity for ordering it into being before its time. Most of us find our purposes retrospectively, after the dust of an affair or a relationship or a series of events has long since settled. But until then, purpose is something that is best left to mature in silence, beyond the noise and artifice of our expectations and fears.

When we talk from the pedestal of expectation and demand about purpose, we are typically seeking an answer to a question that has no practical meaning. Nearly as often, we complicate the matter further by answering the wrong question after all, because we are misdirected by our assumptions. Consider Dr. Tyson’s remarks in the video below: is he answering the question being asked?*

IFThe question is: “does the universe have a purpose?” Not: “does the universe have a purpose for humans?” The answer to the original question, to my mind, is: of course the universe has a purpose; it probably has many purposes, in fact. I’m just pointing out here that we don’t know them and probably can’t know them. How can we guess the purpose of a dolphin or a cockroach (or, to use Tyson’s example, gut bacteria), let alone the purposes of alien beings in other star systems, other galaxies? The universe’s purpose is not within our neurocognitive scope; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. To me, all that means is that purpose is forever elusive to our ideologies and our pre-calculations. On that point, it would appear that Dr. Tyson and I are in a certain agreement. But his percentage-based estimate is a meaningless dismissal which again fails to address the actual question that is being asked.

In the grip of ego’s assumptions, we tend to project our own blindness, our own limitation of perspective, onto the beings and spaces around us. If humans are purposeless, then the universe must be too! Well, all right: if that’s the game you wish to play, very well, have at it. I just think it’s a curious and probably myopic use of the gift of reason. This leads me back to the holographic universe theory, which is almost always couched in terms such as, “we and our entire universe are just (or mere) mathematical projections…”

IFThe other day, I was sitting in an application development meeting, when one of the managers of the project announced that the database component of the app hadn’t yet been finished, and he concluded: “but that’s just a technical matter…” The developer interrupted him here: he smiled and said, “did you just say ‘just a technical matter’?” Everyone laughed, but the point had been made.

In the same sense, to claim that we are “just” holographic projections is to deny the beautiful reality of mathematics. It is a very strange statement for a scientist or a science writer to make; but look at the reporting on this topic on the Internet, and you’ll see it all over the place. Now really, science: do you need a no-name office worker and part-time Taoist pyscho-cosmologist like me to tell you this? Should I have to be the one who tells you that — for a universe or a human person — it is far more significant, far more wondrous, to be a holographic projection than a silly clay creation of the Hand of some fairy-tale God from the deserts of the Middle East?

You may see this differently, but I would tend to feel a far greater sense of purpose as a hologram than as a distant scion of Adam and Eve. This, in fact, is precisely the point: as a mathematical entity, I do not need to know my purpose in the way that the intelligent design believers seem to demand theirs. It is enough that I feel its presence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPresence, after all, is purpose. Not merely physical presence, though: I am referring to conscious presence — the living sense of being here and now in this almost intolerably beautiful place and moment within the space-time continuum. True presence can’t be planned, expected, deduced, empirically demonstrated, and least of all known (in the sense of thought).

Presence — this kind of presence, anyway — is within you. It doesn’t have to be learned, bought, derived, or even believed. It can’t be, for it is yours and no one else’s; so it must be experienced. When you have discovered that experience, you will find that there is no longer any room for doubting your purpose. For even if you can’t know it, you will never stop feeling it. And that will be more than enough.


*Let me be clear about one thing: I have immense personal respect for Dr. Tyson: I lived in New York City when he took over the directorship of that planetarium at the Museum of Natural History; so I know what an extraordinary contribution he has made to science and to civilization. The point of the exercise above is to show that unexamined assumptions can lead even the greatest minds (and Tyson’s is clearly a great mind) into a swamp of error. Having gone into such swamps many, many times in my life — far more, I’d bet, than Dr. Tyson has — I can offer some good news: it is not hard to extricate oneself. You just need to keep your awareness open and your heart humble.


An audio version of this essay is available.

Meditation and Sexuality: A Vibrant Symbiosis

I’ve been working on a particular practice that can transform and enhance sexual energy, and I have some reporting to offer on that matter. I had thought of writing down some personal circumstances that have drawn me toward this kind of a practice, but better judgment prevailed. My story, it is true, informs why and how I teach this stuff; but it is not the teaching itself. The time may come for that; but for now, I begin this introduction to…

The Microcosmic Orbit

IFI am working with a method I learned (or, to be perfectly accurate and honest, was exposed to) many years ago at the Healing Tao Center in New York. It is called the microcosmic orbit, and is in fact related to another practice you may have heard of, kundalini yoga. I will also admit to having a specific purpose: I am adapting the microcosmic orbit practice to activate the energy that Freud called sublimation.

Psychological sublimation, properly considered, is a lot like chemical sublimation, which is the change of a solid to a gas with no intervening liquid state (think, for instance, of dry ice, which changes to carbon dioxide gas at room temperature). In the living body, sublimation is a spontaneous and rather dramatic change of state, in which one type of energy — sexual, for example — is transformed and redirected to serve another purpose. Not a higher or better purpose, just a different one.

Now this points to a distinct difference between what Freud meant by that term and what I mean by sublimation. Freud’s focus was on the transformation of libido and thanatos (sexual and destructive impulses or instincts) into socially acceptable behavior or occupations. My practice is also guided by transformation, but not under the assumption that either sex or physical force is in essence evil, threatening to society, or maladaptive — they are in Nature quite the contrary. Freud, of course, turned the stiff Victorian morals of his era into a quasi-empirical religion whose rank idiocy has only been exceeded among similar movements by Scientology. I have no system, no religion, no false science to offer you; I am simply interested in sublimation. Finally, I have zero interest or concern whether the activities or behaviors to which I channel my sexual energy are “socially acceptable” or not; it is probably better that they weren’t acceptable at all.

IFThus, my focus in practicing the microcosmic orbit is about using the vast and beautiful energy of sex to draw upon its creative and healing potential. To anyone who has ever been in love, the healing properties of sex are well known from experience. I recall a time during undergraduate school when my girlfriend and I both had the flu. She came to my dorm room looking as miserable as I felt. We both took off our clothes and she said, with a note of wonder in her voice: “what if we tried to fuck it off, the virus, the sickness? Just have such wild sex that it all burns out of us?” And that’s exactly what we spent the weekend doing. We began on Friday night-Saturday morning; kept at it all day and night Saturday; and by Sunday morning both of us felt remarkably better. We slept that Sunday away and awoke Monday morning completely healed.

As for the creative potential of sexual energy, well that’s fairly obvious at one level, which is of course pro-creation. But that is just the manifest creative potential of sex. For since the time of the Kamasutra (and no doubt before), the sublimely creative force of the sex instinct has been celebrated by poets, visionaries, and lovers. The Kamasutra itself is not just the position manual that it has become known as in the West; it describes a way of approaching moksha, which is the liberation of the true individual and universal self. The Chinese term for the same thing is Hsieh, the title of the I Ching’s 40th hexagram, usually translated “Deliverance.” Moksha and Hsieh denote the deepest of creative experiences, the act of self-creation through discovery and personal revelation — the revealing of all the beauty and perfection that lie beneath the crust of ego and the shroud of appearance, or that which the Hindus call maya, or Illusion.

So how exactly is the microcosmic orbit to be practiced to further these healing and creative ends? The video below, by Mantak Chia himself (leader of the Healing Tao organization, in whose New York City center I studied the orbit) presents the outlines of it, and I’ll add some explanatory points that speak to the sex-specific theme I’m exploring here.

Breathing into the Orbit

IFTo do the MO meditation, I start with a light stretching routine: I rely on a few Chi Kung stretches and a couple of standing yoga postures. Go with what works for you: the idea is to activate your body-consciousness — that is to say, your body as consciousness. The evidence for this experience is abundant — most recently in the “thinking fingertip” studies published in Nature Neuroscience. As long as your body is alive and aware, so is every one of its cells, which number in the quadrillions.

As for the meditation itself, I take a comfortable but reasonably alert sitting position, in which the feet touch and the legs are bent but also comfortably extended. My hands are usually positioned along the space between the belly button and the genitals. One additional physical note: I tend to prefer to meditate naked where possible. Some of you may have read my various discussions of the experience of psychological nudity: this is, to me personally, a fairly important focus of meditation. Thus, it seems appropriate to let my body mirror the state of my mind. After all, these two are not separate things.

But I’ve done a fair bit of experimenting before settling into any particular physical position; and I tend to remain open to experimenting. Your practice can and will be distinctly different from mine in these details. The activity from this point forward will be somewhat more common between us, though never an exact match. Remember, I’m learning a lot of this by calling on the spirit of my cat, Night. You may have an animal guide or other inner resource that leads you uniquely. One of the teachings of the moksha experience is that life endures beyond the body; and the orgasm is perhaps the most vibrant and primordial physical metaphor of creative continuance. One of the effects of the MO is the re-experiencing of the orgasm as a whole-body rather than a merely genital phenomenon.

IFOne way to begin is with the turbine-image that Chia recommends in the video: feeling that spinning movement behind the belly button and reaching down toward the genitals*. Its energy is upward, into the higher digestive organs. Whatever becomes kinetic in your pelvic floor (see below) will be drawn upward by that turbine. Remember that the cellular structures of your body are not merely mechanical but dynamic systems. Biologists teach us that the membrane of a cell is not a wall but a web of selective receptivity. It remains open to what is nourishing while chemically repelling what is toxic.

Once the turbine is running, I focus on breathing into the tailbone of the spine. As the back and trunk muscles expand on the in-breath, I feel the breath entering the lower spine and activating the tip of a conical cylinder along my pelvic floor, which is the end of the tailbone extending to the base of the genitals. With practice you will feel the active energy of the moving breath catalyzing the more dormant energy of the genitals (see below for a more dynamic variation on this). As the sexual energy is thus stirred up, the abdominal turbine picks it up and lifts it, raising it into the upper abdomen and chest. From there, it may rise spontaneously into your throat, face, and head. But there is no need to make this (or anything for that matter) happen. Just watch with all the sensation there is inside you; watch as if it’s a fascinating game or sports event, and you don’t have any rooting interest in one player or team or outcome over another. Keep it up for as long as it remains interesting — that is, for as long as you’re feeling something new and fresh. As you repeat it, you’ll most likely feel the desire to spend more time with it in each new session.

An Erotic Variation

IFWhat follows is probably best done privately at the start; but you’ll learn to practice it in public as well. Begin by getting yourself aroused by the usual means: mental, visual, physical — as if you were about to enjoy a nice, slow, languorous masturbation session. Now begin the MO meditation as above. What you will notice is that the sex-energy of your genitals isn’t as quiet as it was in a non-aroused setting. So as you draw the breath from the tailbone through the kinetic cylinder of your pelvic floor, you will feel something like a micro-explosive energy — as if your breath were a Mento candy being dropped into a cylinder of Pepsi. I know, it’s kind of a gross image, but go with the feeling of it: you’re going to experience what feels like a forceful chemical reaction.

If you do this often enough, you’re likely to have a range of experience. Obviously, what commonly happens is that you arouse yourself so much that you wind up “taking advantage of yourself” as Tom Waits once said about masturbation. Another thing that can happen is even more interesting than that: you remain aroused and feel the cum coming, but you stay with the breath and the orbit instead; and this can lead to the “body orgasm” that you may have heard about. Even if you doubt that such a thing can happen or that you’re capable of the natural discipline that this practice both nurtures and calls upon; it’s worth trying out. Your body is a nearly inexhaustible playground.

Sublimation is Not a Mechanism

taichiBefore finishing, I’d like to make one point very clear: sublimation is not a renunciation of sex. But as long as I don’t have a woman in my life, it makes sense to try these experiments in transforming my sexual energy into other channels of my life. Once again, the approach we need is not moralistic but practical. Make the proverbial chicken salad out of chicken shit.

The microcosmic orbit, however, is more than a way of transferring sexual energy into creative, healing, and spiritual realms of being. It is about learning to have a conversation with, and within, your body — a conversation that both includes and transcends words. With all due respect to Neale Donald Walsch, this to me is the first and most significant of all conversations with god.

In our increasingly insular and solipsistic society, with its bizarrely feudalistic socio-economic disparities and its handheld devices of brutish isolation; communication is arguably the one human ability in the most precipitous functional decline. I would like to submit that this failure begins within: we will never be able to communicate truthfully and productively among one another if we cannot first carry on an intelligent conversation within ourselves.

IFWhen we enhance our natural creativity; when we can make a fresh kind of love with and within ourselves and thereby reveal potential we might have never before known — this is not merely a psychological coping strategy; it is a fulfillment of Nature. Therefore, I completely reject the notion that sublimation is a defense mechanism, for it is neither defensive nor mechanical. It is, in fact, a pure and lucid form of communication among your body’s energies, systems, organs, and functions. When you can become proficient at that kind of communication, then penetrating the walls of ego and fear to truly connect with the people around you becomes rather simple.

This leads me to a point that I’ve made before but bears repeating: the life guided by meditation is not one of retreat from life but of a different and deeper encounter with it. To form a new and vibrant relationship with our own sexuality would seem to be a creative element of such an encounter; and a way of attracting far more nourishing interpersonal relationships. I will let you know what discoveries might await me there.


*After several weeks into this practice, I’ve discovered a natural wave-like movement within the abdomen that seems preferable to the more mechanical image of the turbine. I’ve also noticed that holding the tip of the tongue lightly to the upper palate, at the line of the teeth, helps to make the orbit happen without much effort or forced imagery about what’s going on below.