How Do We Return to Society?

In Zen training we start with The Search for Ox, the Ox being our true nature.

With diligent practice over time, we move through stages that lead to an enlightened return. Examining the evolution of Zen training is essential when we think about how a commitment to mindfulness meditation can positively influence society and encourage students to keep going.

If you’re interested in a thoughtful overview of the stages of Zen training (with a good portion of the book dedicated to teaching meditation technique) I recommend Katsuki Sekida’s book, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy. However, for the purpose of this reflection, I want to call your attention to the final three stages.

They are:

  • No Ox, No Man (A state of mind called, “nothing” or “the great death.” A thorough purification of consciousness, a vanishing of the ego and attachment to circumstances)
  • Returning to the Source (Going back to the start, the stage of the beginner but now with awakened consciousness. Seeing with new eyes and new hearing)
  • In Town with Helping Hands (Mingling with the world, caring of nothing other than the joy you bring to others. All antagonism is dissolved. Freedom, playfulness and positivity.)

I have found in my own practice and when listening to others on the path that it is natural to feel lost during periods of training, like when we experience The Great Death, or the Void.

According to Sekida, the stage No Ox, No Man is enlightenment when normal consciousness ceases. However, when there is a break in this state of mind (as it often occurs for most students) we are confronted with gnawing feelings of unease. We may ask ourselves: What do I do with this awareness? How will I ever integrate into normal society? Do I have to engage with society at all? What is the purpose?

When these questions arise, I have found it helpful to learn from teachers, many of whom contribute their experience and wisdom in literature. When a student is in a period of readiness, they are drawn to a teacher or a text… not by chance but as if the mere asking beckons a response. 

As we discover truth in literature, in the teachings, we can lean on this knowledge with expectation. We know more that if we keep moving forward, we can anticipate another change of being. This might feel like innocence and inspiration and later, much later— curiosity for being In Town with Helping Hands.

This notion that our practice, our calm, our bliss, a dedication to Self and resting in our true nature is ultimately leading us to a presence that brings joy to others is a very powerful knowing.

So, how do we progress from stage to stage?

Simply, it’s in your dedication to a daily practice, to sitting in meditation, to reading literature on the topic, talking and listening to teachers who demonstrate a commitment to the task, taking care of yourself and your instrument, that which is your body. It’s trusting your capacity to expand beyond what you can possibly imagine.

I realize there’s a certain surrender about this work but there is also foresight. There’s strength in this balance of knowing, learning and mystery. We are sitting at the intersection of life’s greatest koan, of effort and letting go.

As I progress from one stage to the next, I’m observing my life choices and how they are leading me to fulfill my purpose. I want to express courage and freedom, to help us see life’s beyond beyond. I want people to feel at home and loved and rested — especially those adults who have walked the road alone and there’s vulnerability and neediness.

That just feels beautiful and important to me.

Another Virus Weakens Solidarity

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin is a virus that will injure and kill countless human beings and continue to debilitate our sense of agency and unity. This attack is particularly egregious because it comes on the heels of COVID which has weakened tolerance, trust and energy globally. It is incumbent on us to address feelings of powerlessness and find ways to cultivate individual and collective agency. We can’t let this act of aggression distract our resolve and work to bring in a kinder, gentler world that is balanced and in harmony with nature and inner peace.

While viruses are recognized as a natural part of our ecosystem, the transmission of illness and disease can also be attributed to human behavior and activities such as health and well-being, sanitation measures or polluting. Similarly, while an invasion of a country or war may be accepted as a ‘normal’ in world history, they can also be perceived as indicative of destructive patterns of thinking.

Our perspective matters. Perspective influences how we respond individually and collectively. If we think an illness or an invasion are natural or inevitable conditions of humanity rather than something we can prevent or control— we may not feel a sense of agency. We may not take responsibility.

Social media, technology and news reporting have made it difficult to assess what’s true and what’s happening in the outside world. Still, we are effected intimately. Information about the pandemic or events surrounding a war can appear both clear-cut and elusive depending on how it is presented, but still, we are effected intimately. Extreme contrasts lead to confusion, feelings of powerlessness and greater division in society because we distrust what we can not see, we retreat.

How can we gain perspective at a time when we are faced with global conflicts that are complex and appear life-threatening? How can we mitigate feelings of powerlessness and continue to exercise agency?

Consider these strategies that can help keep your mind clear and focused on what matters:

  1. Balanced Technology
  2. Micro-Macro Thinking
  3. Seek Connection Novelty

Balanced Technology: Turn off your devices for a significant amount of time daily. This is not to say bury your head in the sand. Circumstances require you keep your eyes and ears open and that you read, however, information overload neutralizes sensitivity and our ability to discern the truth and the best response to a happening. Think about going into a perfume stop and trying on several fragrances one right after the other. Eventually, you can’t distinguish between scents. This is the same with information. Turn off your devices and replace moments with deliberate silent activities. Sit in meditation. Go for a long walk. No talking. Disconnect entirely from information bytes and input.

Micro-Macro Thinking: Make connections between what’s happening in your personal life to what’s happening in the world. This requires introspection. Pay attention to the fine details of your daily life and become aware of how you absorb and process your present experience. Then, slowly observe how similar patterns of thought and behavior appear reflected in situations in society. Ask: How does my personal experience (micro) show up in the collective space (macro)? What can I learn about these similarities?

Seek Connection Novelty: Do something new or spontaneous that involves another person. Connecting with a person (a friend, acquaintance, colleague), especially if they come from outside your ‘main’ circle– can be reaffirming that cultivating soft, kind and empathetic relationships matter. Often, when we’re bombarded with negative news, information overload or grappling with the stress of ongoing, confusing global events that make us feel pitted against each other and vulnerable–we stick in a closed circle, we shut down, we become repressed or defensive, we isolate and forget how to connect with others that may be different than ourselves. We need to practice simplicity and fearlessness with other people from all backgrounds. The novel experience can be as simple as getting together and telling an awkward truth, taking an unexplored route together, attending an event or simply breaking bread.

Change Agency from a Light Tower

“There is no loftier mission than to approach the Divinity nearer than other men and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

What do we owe the world if we are healthy and happy? How do we feel in the presence of a joyful human being? What does a person who is not suffering need? I’ve been contemplating these questions in the time of the Coronavirus.

I remember living in Abu Dhabi during the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring. At that time, I wrote a piece called, Losing the Middle East. It starts:

Forgive me, God- for I am writing this from the comfort of a five star hotel. While young men and women are battling each other for freedom on the streets of Cairo, I am taking a jog around a manicured Abu Dhabi, a safe haven while I toil with all that has become undone.

In the time of the Coronavirus, there are those who are sick and dying. Amen.

There are others who are fortunate and distancing. Some are outside protesting and dismantling unjust things. Others are waiting it out or stuck in survival-mode routines. And then, there are those who are healthy and happy and exercising agency from a light tower of their making. What does this mean?

It means that the world has changed and continues to change rapidly since the Arab Spring. Human beings are responding to change differently and each response is acceptable and worthy. More importantly, there is evidence to suggest that there is a growing number of people emerging, a new consciousness, if you will, moving toward a revolutionary activity I call Light Agency.

Lighthouse, Ríos, 2015

Light Agency is about letting go of fear and anything that makes us feel small, powerless, guilty and worried. It’s about choosing to live fully in the present moment and dedicating time to manifesting. It’s about revolutionizing the world by reviving the circuits within and then holding the live circuits open. It’s about sitting and basking in light, making a moment-by-moment commitment to focus on love, happiness and vitality. It’s about applying reiki to the world by paying attention to how you move your body through space-time for healing. It’s about infusing yourself with light because you know that nothing travels faster than the speed of light and you want to disseminate this feeling everywhere, to everybody, all the time.

Forgive me, Father—for I wanted to see the pyramids so badly! I had read about the energy, the power underneath! 
Forgive me, God— for today is Friday and from the comfort of my terrace, I see the white mosque over on the other side of the bay. It just floats out there as if it were being held magically over the water. And I am here with a fire in my heart.

Over the holiday, I sat with my sister holding her baby daughter who is a precious jewel. I observed the light bouncing off her eyes as they mirrored each other; it was the miracle of life and motherhood, infused with lightness of being, a sense of gratitude, peace and purpose. Delighted by this light, the curious teacher in me wondered: What can I say that will help my sister in this moment?

That’s when I fumbled and missed it.

I want to kneel down beside the barefoot men 
who are inside praying to you, our father.
But I choose to stay here and write.