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All of Life is an Arrow

Life's Arrows

Being the beautiful humans that we are, we tend to think about our thinking quite a lot. We unnecessarily complicate life when it’s absolutely not required. There’s no blame here or fingers to point. It’s simply a misunderstanding of two simple, but crucial factors.

1.) Do you know where your experience comes from?

2.) Do you know who you are?

When we forget these two things, we fall into a variety of traps, all mentally created, but seem entirely too real. Some of the traps that are innocently created for ourselves are:

  • Feeing as if we need to know everything about something before we really dive in and explore.
  • Needing to have control of other people, places, and things.
  • Needing to know how things are going to turn out.

We spend so much time looking outside of ourselves for some magical answer that’s going to cure us of being human. A magical answer that will take all of our bad feelings away and leave us in a permanent state of happiness with no failure, no pain, and no uncertainty.

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.

The bad news is there’s no magical answer outside of ourselves. That’s not possible and that’s not how life works. The good news is there’s no magical answer outside of ourselves. That’s not possible and that’s not how life works.

The great news is that our experience comes from a world of Thought and not the outside world.

The even greater news is that things like failure, suffering, and uncertainty are also all made of Thought.

More often than not, the things we obsess over are completely out of our control. I used to feel this way. There was a time in my life when I was passionate about a project involving sharing my work in a public setting. I sat paralyzed  for months with the fear of trying to nail down every detail that I never moved forward. I constantly worried where I should hold the presentation, if I should charge a fee, or worse not charge at all in case the people attending hated my guts or asked questions that I could not answer. Sounds like a nightmare right? The beautiful thing about nightmares is that we don’t have to try and fix them, we just need to wake up. Once we see nightmares for what they are, suffering quickly subsides. The same is true of our thinking. Once we see it for what it is – everything changes.

Here’s the thing. We don’t need to know everything beforehand. We don’t need to (we can’t anyway) control people, or know exactly how things will turn out. The answers we seek always show up in the moments we need them if we’re present enough. Life is always pointing.

What’s great is that no effort is required for this to happen. The miracle itself is that we’re thinking and this thinking takes place whether we like it or not. When we can see that thoughts are transitory in nature, we get less bogged down because we understand that there’s a new thought coming along at any moment.

What a gift that as humans we have the ability to experience all emotions. What a gift to be able to experience anything at all.

Life is always pointing us inside. Now, there really isn’t an “inside” but this is a good way to look at it, if you’re new to this work. We are so much more than the content of our thinking or the flesh of our bodies.

We are pure awareness.

We are the screen that the movie of life projects itself on. Horror, Drama, Romance, Comedy – They all come to life on the screen, begin and end, and all the while the screen remains untouched. And this is who we are, no matter how bad or dire our situations may seem. This is because awareness is never truly affected by what it experiences. Just as a movie screen is never affected by the images that float across it. Looked at another way: resilience is built into us. As humans, we’re able to pick our selves up and dust ourselves off even after the most traumatic of events. Healing is always possible because at our core we’re already wonderful, perfect and whole to begin with.

It’s human to have questions. It’s human to experience pain, anger, and fear. If you can remember that we’re also more than human, you will see that all of life is an arrow and it’s always pointing.

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Damning the Man, Damning Myself, No One to Damn.

DAMNING THE MAN

Picture this: 150 bodies crammed into a tiny, sweltering, basement. We’re like sardines sandwiched tightly inside of a can. Our energy is buzzing with anticipation and excitement for what is about to transpire in this small magical space.

The first note rings out and our bodies instantly go from rigid to malleable and we sway as if the music is commanding us. The drums stomp along with the rest of the band in one thunderous roar. Our bodies rise and fall while the long dissonant feedback from the amplifiers instruct us to wait just a bit longer.

The tension now is almost unbearable. Like a flash of lightning, the band kicks in and our hundreds of bodies thrash around inside of a space which moments ago didn’t seem to have the capacity to even hold us.

Like a laser beam I could focus on the intricacies of the guitarists fingers in what seemed like slow motion even though he was literally blazing away at 190 beats per minute.

Back then amidst the chaos, I remember experiencing moments of bliss. I remember my mind being so clear and present, I felt free. More than anything – I felt OK.

In addition to this clarity, I felt compassion for everyone around me. Feeling intimately connected even though we’d never met. Any problems going on in my life ceased to exist when I was in that space. These strangers and I had a sense of purpose. We weren’t just thrashing at punk shows. Showing up itself was an act of defiance. Defiance against an outside world, a sick world we knew was at the root of all problems.

Had you asked me then what I was going to do with my life, what I was going to “be” when I grew up, well that was it. The question would have appeared absurd to me because the totality of my purpose was within the four walls of wherever a band was gracious enough to share their art. The rest of the world could go grow up and live “normal” lives for all I cared. I was staying right there where I felt wanted, needed, and whole.

But, great as this all was, it didn’t last.

As many years passed I saw friends falling into addiction, some became homeless, some deceased, and many unhappy with their circumstances. The world around me was still full of war, poverty, and suffering. The freedom and clarity I used to feel was now replaced with a deep sense of fear, insecurity, and doubt. Where did all the happiness go? Maybe the music wasn’t causing me to feel good. Maybe hating the system wasn’t filling me up with freedom. Maybe I had no clue at all.

DAMNING MYSELF

All of my family and “non-punk” friends seemed happy. Everyone of them appeared to be glistening at all times of the day. The perpetually made up women always smelled intoxicating in their designer wear. The men wore their pants high with shirts tucked in and hair combed just right. I remember them feeling so big, so grown up. I felt so tiny.  So childlike. To me they had a grip on life and all I had to do was reach out my hand and grab it. Then I too would glisten and comb my hair just right.

And so, starting from the time I graduated high school, I threw myself into job after job. I made money and it felt really good. While not exactly a grip, I felt like I was beginning to have a grasp, small as it might have been. I met my first partner, fell in love and now understood what everybody around me was saying. “This is it!” I thought. I was on my way to happiness.

Then something happened. The good feelings began to disappear and I began drowning in a maelstrom of disorder trying to keep up and appease the happiness Gods. I was being attacked by all sides:

Buy this!

Try this!

Wear this!

Own this!

Fix this!

Change this!

I became filled with more anxiety than I’ve ever felt. Instead of feeling free, clear, and present, my head felt frantic, heavy, and muddled. I was only in my early twenties at the time, but I constantly worried. How would I retire or buy a home? What if I couldn’t marry or provide for my girlfriend? What about our future family? In other words, how to Survive. I felt anything but OK. There was a constant nagging voice haunting me to be more, do more, and have more in order to achieve happiness, but, I didn’t feel happy. I felt worthless. I began to think that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the good life and it was reserved for a special few. However, years later I looked again to those glistening people and not all were still glistening. Some of them got divorced, loved ones died, some of them were laid off, and many of them unhappy with their circumstances. Happiness was not to be found here either.

NO ONE TO DAMN

It took me twenty years to find out that I was wrong about happiness and where it came from, but what I discovered next was worth all the time in the world.

Not long ago, I stumbled into an understanding discovered by a migrant welder from Scotland living in Canada named Sydney Banks. Mr. Banks had a profound spiritual experience which over time, revealed to him three fundamental principles that are the foundation of all human experience. Upon reading about this understanding, I was quickly impacted by its simplicity and truth which on some level I felt like I understood my whole life, but had merely forgotten.

One day working what I considered another dead end job, I had an insight that completely rocked my world and shook me to the core of my being. I was alone and stocking the shelves early one morning when I was hit by a feeling of being unconditionally loved. I felt so safe, cared for and grateful. In that moment I knew that it was not the world outside of me causing my unhappiness. It wasn’t my job causing me feelings of boredom, distress, or angst. It was my thinking.

See, we’re all living in thought created realities and this is the only way in which we have to experience the world around us.

Simple, but beyond powerful.

Constantly searching with no end in sight, I was never happy. This was because I thought my happiness came from out in the world. The next hit of fulfillment was always one more band, creative act, or defiant scheme away. Likewise my happiness of this new “grown up” path was always right around the corner attached to another dream job, financial goal, or higher level of self-esteem. Surely if I could figure that stuff out, THEN I would be OK. But, it doesn’t work that way.

Let me clear things up a bit with an example.

Imagine you’re walking around outside on a beautiful day. The sun is shining, it’s warm, and there are just a few clouds in the sky. You decide to pull out your smartphone and record the sights around you to share with your friends and family when you arrive home.

“I want them to experience what I’m experiencing!” you think to yourself moving the camera around the gorgeous landscape. You innocently believe capturing your experience is as simple as saving exactly what you’re seeing to an external device. While this may seem very convincing, it’s not actually what’s happening.

Our minds do not work like smartphone cameras objectively recording moments in a world outside of us. We exist inside a world of thought and though it really feels like we’re existing within a world of outside experience, all of what took place on that beautiful day – the happy feelings, the contentment,  the joy, and the relaxation are actually happening inside of our own minds. The truth is that our minds work more like projectors. As author Mara Gleason puts it “From the human mind via thought, we create a picture of life and project it out onto the screen of our experience. We live in a movie of our own making.”

Take again the beautiful day scenario from above. This time imagine that you are the sky and the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing are like those few clouds. This may not be apparent when we’re stuck in a particular thought that’s passing by. Even more so if we deem it negative. Often, the longer it takes for a cloud to pass we forget that we’re even looking at a cloud.

It’s ok to feel bad. It’s ok to feel good.  It’s ok to have negative thoughts, positive thoughts, or any kind of thoughts. The trouble comes when we forget they’re thoughts and identify with them – treating them as permanent objects that need to be fixed or changed. On the contrary, like clouds in the sky there will always be a new one passing by at any moment. The “real” you remains untouched as our default state is one of happiness, wellbeing, resilience, and infinite creative potential.

And there you have it. I spent a large portion of my early life damning the man, hating the system, and resisting each moment because I thought the changes to be made were all “out there” in the world. When that didn’t work, I frantically looked outside of myself to material objects, money and self-image, hoping to be happy, healthy, and whole. This too proved to be inconsistent and short-lived.

Finally, I realized that there is no one to damn and no one to blame because all of this suffering arose from a simple and innocent misunderstanding of the mind and where experience comes from. Naturally, when all our thinking falls away, what’s left is the compassion and intimate connection I used to think was provided by a certain atmosphere, building or crowd.

Now I know that I’m ok. That I was always ok and that we’ll all be ok – No matter what. Although, I still try to comb my hair just right.

The Coffee, The Rambling man, and the Case of our Runaway Thinking.

Just moments ago, I walked into a bookstore to write this blog. There was a man talking to himself. He appeared to be angry and was rambling on incoherently.

“This ain’t no place, you wanna get f*cking gas I’ll kill you motherf*cker because this ain’t no place man you want gas this ain’t no place this nasty you f*ck I want gas my f*cking arm damn you punk this aint no place”

After, a few minutes of perusing the bookshelves, I needed an outlet for my laptop and the only one available was beneath a table near where the rambling man was sitting. I carried my things over to the table, set up, and sat down to write. Fear entered my body when just minutes before it was non-existent. I felt stiff, alone, completely exposed and vulnerable. I felt like the whole world was unsafe and maybe any second this man was out to get me. My thoughts were racing and I just knew that surely, I was going to be berated, attacked, or worse.

Something happened though..

In the midst of all of that noise in my head, I caught a glimpse of what was really going on.  I noticed that I was sitting in a lovely cafe, at a table, enjoying the coffee in front of me. I saw that I was caught up in my thinking, just like the man was caught up in his thinking, and the woman at the table next to me in her thinking, and the older couple waiting in line in their thinking.

And so it was with everybody all around me.

Insight immediately struck me and as I calmed down the man seemed to calm down as well. As my own fearful thinking settled, The man didn’t seem as scary anymore. He was still angry, rambling, and talking out loud, but my fear subsided almost completely. It was quite remarkable. As author Michael Neill described in one of his books, “Nothing’s changed, but everything is different.”

It’s easy to look outside of ourselves and say “Look, there it is. The problem is out there and I need to stop it for things to be ok. For me to be at peace.” But, peace is always available – in any moment. In fact, peace is what’s always present but for our own thinking getting in the way.

It’s easy to pass judgement and get so lost in thought that we think “they’re crazy, I’m the normal one. Look at the way they’re acting. They’re so out of touch with reality.”

Now maybe that man was lost in thought more than you and I. Or, maybe not. We’d like to think so. We’d like to call him crazy, but if anything he was just engaged in a more intense version of what we all do on a daily basis. It’s an innocent misunderstanding of how the mind works and where our experience actually comes from.  I’m not denying that perhaps there was a biological contribution at play in this man’s behavior. I’m simply saying that experience always follows thought.

Just think about a time when you were really worried about something. It engulfed you so much that you were lost in it. The world was just as scary as your thoughts. So much so, they felt like reality. So much so, they became your reality. Like the man I encountered in the book store, you too were speaking out loud – only inside your own mind. You would swear that the world was a worrisome place causing you to feel this way. But, that’s not how it works. Your worried thoughts were creating the illusion of a worried reality around you.

When we become deeply lost in thought we forget that what we’re feeling is not the world around us, but just our thinking in the moment. We forget that the painful thinking we’re caught up in will pass.

Sometimes, it may take longer than other times,

but it will pass. It always does. 

Mind the Gap

This morning I was lying in bed wide awake and I could tell that it wasn’t time to get up yet. I felt surprisingly well rested even though it was early. Still, I wished I could have stolen a couple more hours of sleep before work. Despite my wishes, something inside pushed me to get up and write, but before even thinking to make a decision, the words began to flow. Faster than I could keep up with, this blog post began practically writing itself in my mind. For weeks, I was starting to believe I wasn’t cut out for this writing stuff. Needless to say, this little creative surprise visit was an unexpected, but welcome change.

But…I didn’t get up.

Almost as quickly as the inspiration hit, my thoughts bombarded me with reasons why I was better off staying put:

“It’s early. You have work. You really should stay in bed. You need sleep. You can start writing this when your alarm goes off.”

These thoughts spiraled into the beginning of what seemed like a never-ending chain of criticism and doubt:

“But if I wait, I’ll only have an hour to write. Hell, if I make breakfast, get my coffee, and prepare for work, I won’t have any time at all.

I tried to ignore my thoughts and decided to get up when they ferociously charged in again:

“You’ll be tired. It’ll be a long day at work!”

Before I knew it my thoughts were in an all out war with themselves:

“But I’ve been tired before and the day went fine!”

“Ah, yes, but think of it. You’ll be standing at your station, barely able to work, and wishing you got more sleep. That’s a LONG day.”

Now, even though I was peacefully lying on a soft mattress, in a warm apartment with a roof over my head, I could begin to feel this long day. In fact, the whole world felt tired and life felt hard. That one thought about a long day didn’t just shape that specific morning – Those thoughts, in that moment, shaped my entire world view. As I laid in bed and imagined how difficult work would be in my sleep deprived state, I was filled with horrific thoughts and feelings of all the times life felt difficult. Likewise, not only did I notice how tired I thought I was in that moment, but how tired I was in past moments, and how tired I would be in future moments.

“This,” my thoughts threatened, “is why you shouldn’t get up.”

I didn’t actually know if this was true. I had no idea if it would feel like a “long day,” “short day,” or how’d I’d feel about the day at all, but our thoughts are great at convincing us that they are solid and real.

Still, I continued to lay there. I finally decided once and for all to get up and write, but my thoughts would not give up so easy.

“Not so fast!” my thoughts crept in. “Look, you wanna get up, but can you even remember all the good stuff that came flying out before? You won’t even remember. You’ll just get up, go to your computer, type a few words and struggle for the rest. That’s not even worth it. And, what’s the point?, You’re no blog writer. Besides, it’s early and you need the sleep. You’ll be sorry.”

Now obviously, I did get up and write this blog. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. So, what happened? How did I manage to get up and write when it felt like the whole world was against me?

I noticed, what I like to call – the Gap.

I first experienced the Gap when I was in the middle of an intense moment one day. I was sitting alone in my car feeling angry, isolated, and hopeless. I felt small because my world seemed small. Not knowing what to do, but desperate for control, I screamed at the top of my lungs and repeatedly hit the passenger seat next to me, in an attempt to show how real and horrible my life was. I’ll never forget what happened next because suddenly, in my own version of Hell, I saw peace. I felt peace. I knew peace.

I didn’t literally see the Gap, but in that moment I absolutely knew that instead of one giant, solid, reality “out there” making me happy or sad – two things were happening.

The first notion I was very familiar with: my thoughts were chattering on and on of their own accord. I didn’t have to identify with them, they existed regardless of my relationship to them. Second, I noticed there was a deeper space within myself of amazing peace separate from all the noise. While the thoughts were ever-changing this peace was always there.  While the thoughts may distract us from this peace, they cannot negate it.

The insight I derived from this experience: we are not our thoughts.

The world wasn’t actually small. In fact, there was an entire world population filled with friends I had yet to meet. Life wasn’t actually out to get me. When I was caught up in my bad thoughts the world was bad. The truth is the world is neither good or bad. The world just is.

When we forget that we are experiencing our thoughts rather than experiencing the world, life can seem scary, hopeless, or even impossible. We might feel stuck or unable to change but this is just our thinking in the moment. We forget that a new thought will come along, with the potential to change our reality at any moment. This feeling of existing in a space where we are not or thoughts is the Gap. The good news is we don’t have to force or struggle to search for the Gap, because it’s who we are.

So, this morning I did it. I woke up and wrote this blog. I went weeks thinking I couldn’t do it. I thought I didn’t have enough time or enough interesting content. I needed to find the “right” time or else I was destined to failure. When life felt unchangeable I believed I had to fight my way into productiveness.

You know the phrase “This too shall pass?” Well, it did. It always will. I was too busy fighting thoughts of doubt, so distracted by them I didn’t realize they too would pass. I fought so hard that I literally had to fall asleep for my mind to quiet down and access the Gap.

The most beautiful part of all is that I didn’t need the struggle. The doubt and desperation that came with trying to force creativity resulted from being stuck in doubtful and desperate thinking.

 When we mindfully exist within the Gap, we become a conduit for our true creativity.

Answers are not the Answer

Have you ever had a great idea or solution come to you while out on a quiet walk or in the middle of a nice shower? Have you ever struggled coming up with an idea or solution to a problem only to have the answer reveal itself once you’ve let go and stopped trying so hard?

Most people, when faced with a challenge, respond in one of two ways: We either use our current knowledge to develop a solution, or we’re paralyzed by the fear of not finding an answer and screwing it up by making the wrong decision.

When our knowledge doesn’t provide us with an effective solution – we end up beating our head against the wall frustrated that nothing is working and blaming ourselves as a result. The problem with the first approach is that we think it’s our responsibility to search throughout the myriad of thoughts and select the right answer. When our minds are stuffed to the brim with what we already know, there’s no room for fresh ideas to come through us.

The other response is to become so filled with anxiety that we get lost in the chaotic frenzy of our minds, left feeling helpless. When our minds are spinning with thousands of ideas, each one claiming to be the truth, begging us to choose them and reprimanding us when we don’t – it’s nearly impossible to see a way out.

“But I need an answer!” we demand. “I’ll never figure this out!” we cry. And so, we continue our fight of pushing, pulling, coaxing, doing anything we can because certainly, it’s better than doing nothing, right? Here’s the thing, though:

In an already noisy mind, knowledge is not power. It’s more noise.

What if the solution you’re looking for is not found in piles of more and more answers? What if instead of doing anything you could to figure it all out, you did nothing? What if instead of being so full of knowledge and preconceived ideas you simply allowed yourself to become empty?

I am reminded of the anecdote by the Japanese master, Nan-in about a university professor who has come to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” said the professor. “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

We also have a teacher in our lives, but traveling to far away places for an invitation isn’t necessary. We only need to look within. The teacher I’m talking about here is not a Zen master, but our own innate wisdom, available to us any time the noise in our head quiets down enough for us to hear it. This is why a problem you’ve been struggling with can resolve itself while walking your dog and just as easily a brilliant business idea can reveal itself mid-shampoo.

Parallel to the story above, if we continue trying to jam more things into our already full minds, like the tea spilling onto the floor, we just end up with a mess of our own, albeit internally.

The answers we are desperately seeking are not themselves the answer. Continually looking for solutions inside of ideas that are not working and hoping for something new is both tiresome and futile. We must point ourselves towards the source of wisdom, from where all answers originate.

It’s only when we stop the search and look to nothing – there, in that moment,

the exact answer we need will present itself.