Conversation as Win-Win: David Bohm on Dialogue

Today we are governed largely by people who have stopped listening to each other. It’s no accident that election races and and military battles are both called campaigns.

There is an alternative to this spectacle, and it is a radical one — the vision of dialogue proposed by David Bohm.

Bohm was Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of London. He wrote many books, including Wholeness and the Implicate Order and On Dialogue.

Bohm had so much to say about dialogue, all in the spirit of open-hearted wisdom. I could never do justice to his work in a single article. So, I will simply focus on a few key distinctions.

Dialogue transcends righteousness

Imagine entering into a conversation with no position to defend and nothing to win. Also imagine that this the person you’re speaking with has the same attitude. 

This, my friends, is dialogue — a shared state of radical openness and transparency. Have you ever experienced it? I never have, and it is something that I want.

Dialogue calls on us to shed our “righteousness” — the conviction that we are always right, and that other people can be tolerated only as long as they agree with us.

In dialogue, we respond to differing opinions like a good doctor. Well-trained physicians welcome another opinion. During a conversation, we can open our minds in the same way.

When we’re defending a position, we cannot be intelligent. The essence of intelligence is not arriving at final truth, said Bohm. Rather, it is “the softening up, the opening up, of the mind, and looking at all the opinions.”

Dialogue is more than discussion

Bohm saw dialogue as a “stream of meaning” that flows through people. He also drew a sharp distinction between dialogue and discussion:

…which has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion.” Discussion really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view. A great deal of what we call “discussion” is not deeply serious, in the sense that there are all sorts of things held to be non-negotiable, untouchable, things that people don’t even want to talk about. Discussion is like a ping-pong game, with people batting the ideas back and forth in order to win the game. 

Contrast this with genuine dialogue, in which there is no attempt to dominate or defend a point of view. During a dialogue, people play with rather than against each other.

“In a dialogue,” Bohm wrote, “everybody wins.”

Dialogue is coherent

In ordinary light, the waves are out of phase and scattered — incoherent. In a laser beam, all waves go in the same direction. The light becomes a force of pure coherence and power.

Like ordinary light, discussion is incoherent. Ideas are fractured and scattered in many directions. Opinions conflict and ultimately cancel each other out. No one really listens. No one changes. Nothing happens.

Imagine what would happen if we entered a conversation without defensiveness. What if we were really willing to put all our assumptions on hold? In this state, Bohm said:

…the whole structure of defensiveness and opinions and division can collapse; and suddenly the feeling can change to one of fellowship and friendship, participation and sharing. 

This way of being with each other has focus — and the power to change us.

Dialogue is common consciousness and pure possibility

The aim of dialogue is not for everyone to finish up and leave the room with the same opinion. Far more important is our shared state of mind. When everyone suspends their assumptions and opinions, we share a common consciousness.

In Zen, this is sometimes called the “mind before thinking.” It is a state of pure potential from which something truly new can emerge.

In dialogue, we are open, relaxed, receptive. We stop being experts. We can begin afresh, taking other people along as allies rather than enemies.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” said Shunryu Suzuki, “but in the expert’s there are few.”

I’m going for possibility. Please join me.

To learn more, see Bohm Dialogue and Maria Popova’s graceful presentation of Bohm’s ideas.

Bohm personally demonstrated the power of dialogue in his many conversations with Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Quoted passages in this post are taken from “On Dialogue” by David Bohm, Noetic Sciences Review, Autumn 1992, No. 23, 16–18.

‘You Are Not the Guilty Party’—Bubba Free John on Original Sin

I remember standing in a hospital maternity ward. It was the day after my daughter was born. There were rows of newborns in warming beds, all wrapped in blankets. 

I stared at those tiny beings, trying to comprehend the fact that my life had changed forever: I’d become a father.

Then suddenly — for no particular reason — I remembered the doctrine of original sin.

This was a teaching I’d received from the Lutheran church of my childhood: Human beings are born morally depraved and condemned. Only baptism and belief in the Apostle’s Creed can save us.

The default setting for a human being is hell? I said to myself. Really? All these innocent, unbaptized babies?

At that moment, I knew in my gut that original sin is absurd.

***

Soon afterward I heard two talks by an American spiritual teacher — Franklin Jones, who was once called Bubba Free John:

  • The Dreaded Gom-Boo — or, The Impossible Three-Day Thumb-and-Finger Problem
  • You Are Not the Guilty Party

In these teachings, Bubba gave words to my nascent insight in the maternity ward, expanding it in ways that yielded clarity and comfort. 

After hearing Bubba, I dropped the notion of original sin forever. And I vowed that I would never inflict the teaching on anyone, let alone my own children.

What follows are excerpts from those two talks. Were they playful and yet inspired insights — a “divine shout”? Were they self-indulgent excess and delusion? Or something else?

I offer a sample of Bubba’s words so that you can decide for yourself. 

***

Note: This post comes with a caveat, and it is a big one: Remember to separate the message from the messenger.  

Over the years Bubba changed his name several times, acquired more disciples, and started behaving in ways that I could not defend

Perhaps the greatest insight I’ve gained from studying spiritual traditions is that teachers can have profound insight and still act in harmful ways. Ethical behavior is not the fruit of meditation practice — it is the pre-requisite. 

Over the long run, kindness counts far more than claims of enlightenment.

It is only with this caveat that I offer you the following taste of Bubba’s early teaching. 

The Dreaded Gom-Boo — or, The Impossible Three-Day Thumb-and-Finger Problem

Have you all heard about the Dreaded Gom-Boo? Or the Impossible Three-Day-Thumb-and-Finger Problem? 

Aha! You see? Nobody tells you about these things except me.

There is a myth that has been going around for many centuries now that mankind is diseased, that all beings are suffering from what I have diagnosed as the Dreaded Gom-Boo — also called sin, maya, ego, suffering, separated individuality, illusion, delusion, profusion, confusion, and indifference.

So, we’re all supposed to hear this traditional teaching and realize how diseased we are, and submit ourselves to the local religious hospital, where a father or mother doctor will come to us, confirm our disease to us, and require us to submit ourselves to various regimens for our own healing and ultimate cure for the rest of our lives.

This is the basic proposition of traditional religion, and it begins with the diagnosis of the dreaded disease. 

Yes, we’re all by birth — by virtue of our very existence even now — diseased, sinful, separated from the Great One.

What a horror!

Yes: What an obscenity has been laid upon us through the traditions of society which, merely because of the impulse of survival in gross terms, has required all human beings for centuries now to invest themselves with the belief in this disease and to suppress their own life-motion, which comes only from the Great One, in order to fulfill the presumed needs of our chaotic society.

I come to tell you, as I stand in the midst of all these priests, that not even one of you is suffering from this disease. 

It is an imaginary disease. It is a terrible disease, but altogether imaginary. 

No one has ever actually had this disease. 

Not one single being has ever had the Dreaded Gom-Boo, or the Impossible Three-Day-Thumb-and-Finger Problem. 

It has never happened. 

It does not exist.

What is the Truth? We are happy. We live in God. 

The Great One is our Very Being. 

The Great One has magnified Itself in the form of sexual beings, human beings, sexless beings, earth-world, form and fruit and wood and wall and space and star and sky and cloud and tree and life and death. 

The same Great One takes all these forms — completely indifferent, completely free, completely happy in all of these excesses. 

This is all the Great One. 

The Great One creates nothing. The Great One is everything. 

What a Paradox! 

What a Mystery! 

So this is what I tell you and it relieves you of the conceit of your suffering, the conceit of your disease, the belief in your unhappiness. 

You are relieved of your willingness to submit yourself as a patient for the rest of your days.

So in every moment what is the practice? 

To understand this belief in our disease — this observance of the Impossible Three-Day-Thumb-and-Finger Problem — which gets projected day after day after and tomorrow into one more day of hopeful hopelessness. 

All of our plans, all of our asceticism, all of our self-indulgence, all of our strategies — all this foolishness with which we engage in our unhappiness — must be purified by our happiness, by our awakening, by our understanding, by our freedom from self. 

This is the fundamental import of my teaching. And it makes you free to be human, free to be related to one another, free to love one another.

It is the great humor, the great joke, the great plan-less-ness of the excessive God.

There is nothing wrong with the human body. 

Not even the slightest thing is wrong with it, with its hairs and talking and eyeball-ness and rotting-fleshiness. 

God did not create one thing. God always stands in place as pure delight, as love, as self-radiant being. All the effects that change appearances arise in God, but they’re the results of that interest.

Understand your own causality, your own effect, and be free of the disease suggested by these appearances. Realize the Living One is the condition of life, the condition of all forms, and be happy. 

This is sufficient to purify you. 

This is the only gospel.

You Are Not the Guilty Party

No matter what arises in body or mind, you are always observing it. 

These faults, these sins, these impediments, these inadequacies, these obsessions, these darknesses — all of these things you simply watch. 

You simply know them, do you not? You observe them.

You are not the guilty party. You are the watcher, the witness, of these things. 

Even this moment: You have a thought there? You are watching it, are you not? 

Are you aware of this body? Are you aware of all these beings here? 

Everything that has ever occurred, you’ve only observed it. Is that not true?

So you’re not guilty of these things. You are observing these things. Even this guilt itself — even this sense that you’re angry, disturbed, not adequate, not perfect — even that is something that you observe. 

All these things that you receive at the level of the mind, all this garbage that we inherit socially as part of the effort we’re all making to somehow keep from murdering one another — that has absolutely nothing to do with the truth.

There is no reason whatsoever why we should be possessed by an image of our own existence that is somehow guilty, inadequate, limited, unimportant, angry, or however you might describe it. 

It’s only people who tell us to assume that position. But we never actually are in that position. 

You are always in the position which is simply aware of these conditions.

This understanding washes us. 

This is forgiveness — penance — to understand this most profoundly and accept it. 

But all throughout your life, you’ve been indulging in beliefs that you are the body, the mind. You are this limit, that limit. You are this circumstance, that circumstance. 

Look at the power of that which is observed — how it can determine that attitude, the moods, the presumptions of that which observes it.

So there is a great liberation involved in simply, just very directly, noticing your actual condition. 

Now there’s more to enlightenment than that, but that is the beginning of it — just begin to really accept your actual condition. 

Forget philosophy and religion. What precisely is your actual condition in this moment?

You are that which is witnessing this.  There’s no doubt about it. There’s no way to deny it.  

And therefore there’s no need for a savior to release you from your guilt. That has nothing to do with anything. 

You have never been in a position where you need such a savior, where you need such a god. 

You already stand in the transcendental place, the free place, the divine place. What you need to do is to be submitted to that.

And the first stage of that submission is to understand what you are observing, submit it to a real discipline, be free in relationship to it, realize that you’re already happy, accept the grace of the spiritual master, feel that transmission, be already happy in it and not be striving to be happy.

Give up your need for forgiveness. Give up your guilt. 

Give up your self-identity, your ideas of yourself gotten from your past, how you look, and all the rest of it. 

Give it all up in one flower, one leaf, one cup of water. Do it in one act and give it up completely and be totally free of it forever.

Realize that we are in continuous communion with that which is perfect, that which is absolute, that which is grace. 

Give up all this petty nonsense about our inner character, our hidden faults. 

Everybody is full of faults. What’s perfect anyway? Have you seen something that’s perfect today? 

As the sixth patriarch said, “Who woulda thunk it?”

That our original mind is pure from the beginning.

That what we are is already free.

Crazy Wisdom and Criminal Charges: Coming to Terms With Bubba Free John

Once upon a time I hit bottom with spiritual teachers. So many of them captured my mind and broke my heart — Krishnamurti, Chgoyam Trungpa, Alan Watts, Osho, and others.  

But above all there was Bubba

That one hurt the most.

Bubba’s brillance

Bubba was Bubba Free John. He was born Franklin Jones in New York, 1939. Later he was also known as Heart Master Da, Da Love Ananda, Adi Da, and other honorific titles. 

I just stick with Bubba.

I still get a kick out of the titles of his books, such as:

  • Love of the Two-Armed Form
  • The Knee of Listening
  • Compulsory Dancing
  • Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced By The White House!
  • The Bodily Location of Happiness
  • Crazy Da Must Sing, Inclined To His Weaker Side

But what turned me on most about Bubba was his speaking. 

That guy gave the greatest dharma talks. They convinced me that Bubba really knew something. 

I wasn’t alone. David Lane — philosophy professor and author of The Paradox of Da Free John — gave voice to my initial enthusiasm:

There are very few spiritual teachers in the 20th century who could be termed religious geniuses. Da Free John is one of them. Since the beginning of his formal ministry in 1972 in southern California, Da Free John has produced a body of work that is unparalleled amongst new religious thinkers for its radical insight, comparative depth, and force of expression. He has won wide critical acclaim for his writings, eliciting praises from sociologists, psychologists, and theologians.

That’s exactly how I felt about Bubba back in the 1970s. 

Then came the 1980s. 

Bubba’s downfall

In April 1985, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles describing Bubba as the leader of a coercive cult. 

One month later, the Today Show aired its own exposé (transcript here).

The accusations were the same that we’ve seen them leveled at so many gurus since then: sex with disciples. Drug abuse. Physical abuse. Rampant narcissism. Entrapment of people who tried to leave his community, and more. 

How do we make sense of all this? Lane offers one possibility:

…it may well be that much of Da’s deep psychological insight into the human condition didn’t stem from his self-proclaimed “enlightenment” but from observing day to day his own neurotic behavior and his own self-centered interactions with those closest to him.

Eventually I accepted the credibility of the charges against Bubba. My illusion turned into disillusionment — and then into a healing insight that I retain to this day: Never confuse the messenger with the message.

Three propositions for spiritual seekers

Reviewing Bubba’s body of work, I still think there are gems to be had there. But after all these years and all the sordid revelations, how do I relate the message to the man? 

Based on my experience with Bubba, what lessons about spiritual teachers can I carry forward into the future? Following are my current answers:

1: Move beyond total acceptance versus total rejection. I’ve always seen myself as a flexible thinker. But far too often my thinking about Bubba — and about spiritual teachers in general — has been exactly the opposite.

The trap is the “do it my way or hit the highway” fallacy. It’s the assumption that when someone gives a brilliant talk, I’m thereby obligated to believe everything that person says and buy into the teacher’s whole organization.

That kind of binary, “either-or” thinking is a big red flag. 

2: Remember that enlightenment involves a continuum of experiences that vary in depth and breadth. The process of “waking up,” however you define it, is exactly that — a process. It is not a unitary state of being that is achieved once and for all. Nor is it synonymous with total transformation. 

In fact, it’s possible for spiritual teachers to possess a lot of insight while drinking to excess, having sex with multiple partners, and otherwise creating wreckage in their personal lives. (For examples, see Sex and the Spiritual Teacher by my friend Scott Edelstein.)

Spiritual evolution is not a straight path where all the elements of a person change at the same pace. The path takes time. And, people stumble along the way. 

Michael Taft, a meditation teacher, says it well:

Awakening and psychological growth are largely orthogonal. While one can definitely help the other, they are entirely different things. You can be very awake and still be a total asshole (as well as anxious, depressed, conflicted, avoidant, etc.). From my viewpoint, awakening is just the beginning of the path, and nothing like the end.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous make this point when they describe recovery from addiction as a matter of “progress — not perfection.”

3: Look for alignment between teachings and behavior. I’ll never forget something that Shinzen Young said: The true test of a spiritual teacher is how he or she behaves while driving in rush-hour traffic.

The idea is to check for alignment between words and deeds. If you see disconnects between a person’s teachings and their behavior, then proceed with caution. Stay open-minded, but also keep your crap-detector handy

If you can’t trust teachers to guide you ethically through this material world, then why assume that they can guide you through any other plane of reality?

David Lane offers a suggestion that’s reasonable and easy to remember:

Perhaps the best way to keep one’s critical faculties in tact when dealing with a so-called Master’s questionable behavior is to ask one simple question: Would we accept the same conduct from an elementary school teacher interacting with our 8 year old child? Simply put, it is the disciple’s responsibility to have a very high standard when it comes to his/her chosen guru or master. Otherwise, we become easy prey for charlatans and madmen who use spiritual entitlements for their own personal gain. [Boldface added.]

More fuel for thinking critically about spiritual teachers

  • Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts — Monica Furlong’s biography presents a round picture of Watts, from his brilliant books and lectures to his heavy drinking and sexual infidelities.
  • Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center — Michael Downing’s book  tells the story of Richard Baker Roshi, founder and guiding teacher, who was forced to resign after several members of the Center confessed to affairs with him.
  • Wild, Wild Country — This six-part Netflix documentary about Rajneesh (Osho) takes us from the guru’s early work in India to his ashram in Oregon and eventual deportation after charges of attempted assassination, mass food poisoning, and other crimes.

Testing Your Practices in the Fire of Suffering

During her last trimester of pregnancy, my daughter was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. 

This news took me through waves of shock, denial, sadness, fear, and anger. Eventually I simply accepted her cancer as a new reality and focused on how to respond.

Today our grandson is a healthy 2-year-old. And, my daughter is cancer-free.

Reflecting on the experience, a question floats to the top of my mind. It’s especially relevant after my decades of learning about self-care and spiritual practice: What actually helps when the shit hits the fan?  

I invite you to ask the same question — especially when life backs you into a corner and brings you to your knees. 

There’s nothing like suffering to focus your attention and reveal what works.

To stimulate your thinking, I’ll share three things that work for me.

Asking better questions

When my daughter shared her diagnosis, there was only one word on my mind: Why?

WHY is this happening to my daughter when she’s so young? WHY couldn’t it happen later — at least until after her baby is born? And WHY does it have to happen at all?

When I asked why questions, I noticed two results. First, I got no answers. Second, I felt worse — sometimes much worse.

So, I gave up on why and started looking for better questions to ask. This brought relief. 

Michael Hyatt wrote a post about this. He tells a story about rushing out his house for work one morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Unfortunately he slipped on a carpeted step, fell flat on his back, and broke an ankle.

Michael was laid up for the next 10 days, coping with pain and recovering from surgery. But instead of asking Why am I so clumsy? or Why did this have to happen during such a busy time at work?, he focused on: What does this make possible? 

This is not the first question that most of us would ask in similar circumstances. Yet it turned Michael from victim into victor. He used his down time to catch up on sleep, start a blog, and slow down to “smell the roses.”  

I like Michael’s question about possibility. This is not positive thinking. This is not looking for a “silver lining.” 

This question is about gaining perspective. It’s about becoming less reactive and more responsive. It’s about turning suffering into resilience.

Michael’s question is one of many that I find useful when facing a major obstacle. Others include:

  • What’s another way of looking at this situation? 
  • How is this situation likely to change over the long-term — in six months, one year, five years or more?
  • What areas of my life are still okay — and will continue to be okay despite this setback?
  • Who can I ask for help?
  • Who’s already stepped forward to help, and how can I thank them?
  • How can I respond to this situation in a way that aligns with my values?

I also find that these questions from psychotherapist Gail Brenner can expand my mind and open my heart:

  • Where is my attention going? Is this supporting peace? 
  • What is life asking of me? 
  • What would love do? 
  • How does life want to move me right now? 
  • How can I bring ease to my experience in this moment? 

Asking such questions allowed me to notice the generosity that flowed to my daughter after her diagnosis — the loving letters, emails, conversations, and donations. I’m also grateful for her medical team, a steady source of compassionate and competent care.

Returning to the present moment

Given a situation that rocks me to my core, I can invent worst-case scenarios. I can focus on all the things that might possibly go wrong. 

This is self-defeating. Those scenarios take me into the future — an abstraction that exists only in thought. I get torn from the present moment, the only point at which I can do something constructive.

This is where yoga and meditation enter the picture. These practices gently guide my attention back to the here-and-now. They shift my attention to the present-moment physical sensations of movement (yoga) and the mental space created by silent sitting (meditation). These are places where I can take refuge.

I created some slogans to remind myself of the present moment. They are simple enough to remember even when I freak out:

  • Keep breathing. 
  • Keep moving.
  • Stay here now. 

The practice of yoga nidra — deep relaxation — also helps. A good yoga teacher can guide you through this practice with carefully worded instructions to slowly and systematically relax every muscle in your body.

You can do yoga nidra even when you’re going through tough times. The benefits of this practice do not depend on being problem-free. Yoga nidra offers a taste of unconditional serenity, which you can experience even when life falls apart.

I invite you to sample yoga nidra first hand with these guided meditations by Shar Hills-Bonczyk, one of my yoga teachers.

The Serenity Prayer

I grew up in Iowa, where both my mother and father were raised on farms. Our family was steeped in homespun wisdom, and our primary texts were the Des Moines Register and the Bible (both of which we took literally).

I have vivid memories of visiting relatives as a child and going to rural churches on Sunday mornings. There I often encountered the following words in a sermon, devotional book, or wall plaque:

Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

As a kid I saw those words and rolled my eyes. Now — with the perspective granted age and accumulated suffering — I see the Serenity Prayer as a royal road to sanity.  

This prayer makes for a great writing prompt. When faced with a problem, I list everything about the situation that I can control. As the principles of Constructive Living remind me, these boil down to 2 things: where I place my attention and what I choose to do. 

Next, I list everything about the situation that I do not control. This also boils down to 2 things: the outcome of future events and what other people choose to do. 

I’m reassured by the power of this simple practice. As I remind myself about what I cannot change, the next thing that I can change often becomes clear. 

Thomas Merton in the Snow

Tonight we drove 
Against all odds 
To the Edina Grill

Everyone at the bar was sad 
And eventually left.

It is February 
Another name for the great crushing weight of winter 
Which lasts too long 
Which lasts just long enough 
To purify us for spring.

I drank two martinis 
And ate the sacred salmon
It was like going to Mass 
With a smiling priest 
Who knows everything 
And communicates it all 
In a single glance

(He is secretly agnostic).

Joanne drove us home 
And then I shoveled our driveway

And then I thought of you, 
Thomas Merton 
And shoveled the neighbor’s driveway as well.

I want you to know that I will always remember you 
Thomas Merton 

I look at the titles of your books —
Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Raids on the Unspeakable
The Wisdom of the Desert
The Way of Chang Tzu
The Seven Story Mountain
And I miss you terribly.

How is it even possible that you died?
And in such funky circumstances?

I want you to know 
That tonight I will read you 
Deep into the night. 

I want you to know 
That snow still falls in Minnesota
The crushing cold 
Pure, unforgiving, sacrificial, holy 
And instantly sobering
Washes us clean. 

I set aside my shovel 
And stared into the full moon 
I would have gladly stood there all night 
And frozen to death

But I retreated inside 
To die into another night’s sleep 
And wake into another day. 

Three Books That Changed My Life

Every time I pick up a new book, I remind myself to be reckless: to court radical possibility. To remember that the future does not have to be a reactive and automatic extension of the past. To remember that I can think and act in new ways that make a difference in daily life.

Books are maps for doing all those things. 

So, I find it valuable to periodically to ask: What books changed my life? 

Even better is to take those books and distill their key insights in my own words. 

This is a great journaling prompt. Simply ask yourself what you want to remember from the book and what you will do differently based on what you read. 

Surprisingly, it’s often possible to reduce a 50,000- or 100,000-word book to a single page or paragraph of pure power. That’s enough to capture the essence that matters to you. 

Following are three books that matter to me.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

Often mistaken for a time management book, Getting Things Done (GTD) is really about 1) becoming aware of all the agreements you’ve made and 2) knowing how you will fulfill them.

Allen makes several distinctions that take you light years closer to that clarity. The main one is the definition of project as any outcome that takes more than one action to produce.

Agreeing with yourself to start a business is a project.

Agreeing with yourself to lose weight is also a project.

So is agreeing to spend more time with your friends.

The practice of GTD hinges on asking:

  • What are all my current projects in life?
  • What’s the very next thing I will do—a physical, visible action—to move each project forward?

If that sounds simplistic, just try filtering your calendar entries and to-do lists through those two questions. Do they immediately reveal your current projects and next actions? If not, then you can benefit from GTD. 

I immediately saw that I paid lip service to a number of ill-defined outcomes and had no idea to produce. These are the problems that GTD solves. 

As I learned in the Landmark Forum, the world works when people keep their agreements. GTD is a huge step in that direction.  

Constructive Living by David K. Reynolds

Reynolds champions an approach to mental health that is based on three core maxims:

  • Accept your feelings
  • Know your purpose
  • Do what needs to be done

The liberating message here is that we can stop trying to fix our feelings. We cannot directly control them, anyway.

On the other hand, we often control our behaviors. This means that we can take constructive action even when we feel sad, mad, or afraid.

Or as Reynolds points out, we can feel mildly depressed and still do the laundry. And, we might even feel less depressed when the laundry is done.

As soon as I truly understood this, I realized that I can always respond effectively to my circumstances—no matter what they are, or how I feel about them. This is a taste of unconditional freedom.

For more, see my posts about the principles of Constructive Living and slogans that capture the key points.

The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas

Golas admits that when life backs us into a corner and we really start suffering, we’ll find it hard to remember the contents of any book. But there is a chance that we can remember two words:

No resistance.

This helps me immensely. Resistance is what the Buddha called craving:

  • Denying unpleasant thoughts and feelings—pretending that they don’t exist or trying to push them away.
  • Clinging to pleasant thoughts and feelings—trying to make them last, even though they pass away.

The practice is to see your resistance in the present moment and drop it, or simply be willing to drop it. This allows us to experience clean discomfort (unpleasant sensations) rather than dirty discomfort (unpleasant sensations plus resistance).

A variant on no resistance is: “Love as much as you can from wherever you are.”

Nice. There’s not much I can add to that.

Alas, Thaddeus left us many years ago. But he left behind The Lazy Man’s Guide and other books — an enduring legacy. 

Cultivating Spaciousness: Ten Perspectives on a Practice

Recently I’ve been toying with ideas about the value of creating space — in our mind, our heart, and in the external circumstances of our lives.  

The more that I poke at the concept of space, in fact, the more it expands. This idea unites so many of the teachings I’ve received over the years. And the benefits just keep unfolding.

1

My first practice is to tweak my language. 

How many times have I described someone as being “spaced out” or acting like a “space cadet”? More than I care to remember.

I’m also sure that other people have applied those terms to me.

Using the words spacious and spaciousness helps me get past such negative connotations. Creating clear space also works. 

2

We join spokes together in a wheel,  
but it is the center hole  
that makes the wagon move.  
We shape clay into a pot,  
but it is the emptiness inside  
that holds whatever we want.  
We hammer wood for a house,  
but it is the inner space   
that makes it livable.  
We work with being,  
but non-being is what we use.  
— From the TAO TE CHING (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

3

One of my favorite books is The Mind and the Way: Buddhist Reflections on Life by Ajahn Sumedho. He’s got a whole chapter about noticing space.

Start by reflecting on what happens when you walk into a room. What happens to your attention? Chances are it goes to the walls and floors, along with any objects and people who are present.

But what if you did a figure-ground reversal and noticed the space in the room? You don’t have to get rid of any people or objects. Just shift your focus of attention.

The result is a subtle sense of peace, says Sumedho:

The objects in the room can excite, repel, or attract, but the space has no such quality…. When we reflect on the space in a room, we feel a sense of calm because all space is the same; the space around you and the space around me is no different. It is not mine; I can’t say “This space belongs to me” or “That space belongs to you.” 

Space, in fact, is unlimited. It contains the room you’re in, the other rooms in the building — and all the objects in the world, in fact. 

In space there is room for everything. And as objects come and go, the space remains unchanged.

Likewise is the spacious mind. Just as you can notice the space around an object, says Sumedho, you can notice the space around a thought. It does not matter whether the thought is pleasant or unpleasant. The spacious mind remains open, unharmed, and unchanged by passing mental events.

When we forget this, we suffer. We try to make less space for unpleasant thoughts. We try to close the space around pleasant thoughts so that we can hold on to them longer. 

These attempts to control our inner experience call for constant and exhausting effort. 

The sane alternative is to simply make space for whatever shows up. As Sumedho points out:

Rather than making a big problem about the obsessions and fears that go on in your mind, you can open your attention and see those obsessions and fears as mental conditions that come and go in space. This way, even an evil thought can take you to emptiness…. Devils or angels — they are all the same.

For more about this, see David Chapman on spaciousness as “freedom from fixed meanings.”

4

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain. 
As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping,
infinite space is there — open, inviting and comfortable. 
— From FREE AND EASY by Lama Gendun Rinpoche        

5

Loosening the grip of compulsive behavior means creating space between stimulus and response. 

When I forget this, life starts to break down.

My behavior is driven by urges that are barely conscious. I roll through my days like a robot on wheels, my actions largely determined by stimulus-response chains.

I see a photo of a large café mocha made with whole milk and dark chocolate, topped with whipped cream (stimulus).

I feel a desire that starts in my gut (response). I remind myself to try not to drool.

The urge to immediately act on that desire — before I even know what’s going on inside me — is strong. 

Suddenly I notice that I’m in a coffee shop. There’s a steaming mocha in my hand. I’ve just spent five dollars. I’m about to gain 500 calories and God knows how much saturated fat.

6

Or, I’m walking through an intersection and almost get hit by a driver who’s speeding and runs a red light (stimulus).

I leap back to the curb and scream at the driver (response).

This did not change the driver’s behavior, of course. But it did raise my blood pressure, strain my voice, and infect me with an emotional negativity that lingered for hours.

7

There is another option: To live like a conscious human being. To wake up. To create space between stimulus and response.

The late Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, developed a way to do this — Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). 

MBRP was created for recovering alcoholics and addicts who still feel urges to drink alcohol or use other drugs. Marlatt taught them to “surf the urge” — that is, to feel a desire and refrain from acting on it.

Suppose that a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar he used to visit. A thought arises: I could just step inside and see if anyone I know is there. That thought triggers an urge to drink alcohol, and the likely response is a relapse.

The mindful alternative is to surf that urge. This involves five simple steps that are summed up by the acronym SOBER:

  • Stop your current behavior.
  • Observe your thoughts and feelings in the present moment, without judgment.
  • Breathe deeply and notice the resulting sensations.
  • Expand your awareness to visualize the likely result of acting on the urge — in this case, entering the bar.
  • Respond with another behavior that sustains recovery, such as walking quickly away from the bar.

This is a technique that all of us can use. It’s a simple and practical way to deal with urges for self-defeating behaviors of any type. 

Stopping, breathing, breathing, expanding — they’re all ways to create a space inside yourself.

8

When you experience a little space between your thoughts and the consciousness which is the background for thought, thoughts begin to lose their power over you. With dis-identification comes choice: You can choose to act from the thought, or to release it without action. Ultimately, this kind of choice is synonymous with true freedom.

— Judith Lasater

9

Silence is another way to create space (and intimacy).

Robert Rabbin wrote about this in The Sacred Hub: Living In Your Real Self. In that book he describes his experience with the practice of intentional silence — the decision to refrain from speaking for a certain number of days. 

For Rabbin the result was insight into the mechanical nature of conversation. So often we speak automatically, he wrote. We react impulsively to what others say. And sometimes we speak simply to fill the void when a conversation lapses.

After days of silence, Rabbin felt “relaxed, still, and quiet — just like a cat sleeping in the sun.” He also noticed that his thinking slowed down, sometimes to the point where his mind was completely quiet.

Eventually that widening space between thoughts led Rabbin to a non-dual experience. “I couldn’t find ‘me’ anywhere,” he recalled. “‘I’ became ‘all’”: 

My teacher, Muktananda, had told me to meditate on the mantra hamsa…. by paying attention to the point between the incoming and outgoing breath, or to the space between thoughts, one could experience the truth of hamsa. He taught that hamsa was the pure vibration of life itself, unconditioned by form or thought, and that it pervaded everything. In my experiment with silence I must have stumbled into hamsa.

10

The spaces I’ve described so far — gaps between thoughts and behaviors — are invisible. 

We can also benefit by creating visible space. 

I will admit that I’m a fan of Marie Kondo and her methods for decluttering homes. Her work reminds me of the connection between creating space in a room and space in your heart.  

There’s also the pleasure of creating space in my schedule. This is in contrast to what I thought years ago, when I saw a full calendar as evidence of success. All those appointments seemed like proof of my personal importance: So many people needed me! 

Now I can open up my calendar app and see entire days with no scheduled events. This space in my schedule delights me. I have the luxury of stretching out meal times, lingering a little longer in conversations, and taking a daily guilt-free nap. 

Though aging occasionally scares me, I take great comfort in these things.

Having an empty calendar also makes it easier to be generous. The greatest gift I can offer to another person is my presence — my time and attention. This is easier to do now. 

Today I revel in having more space for relationship, recreation, reflection — and the kind of moments that novelist Don DeLillo described:

The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web. There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running luster on the bay. You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web. 

Letting Go of Goals: Consider These Alternatives

In previous posts I present some of the flawed assumptions behind goal setting and invite you to give up goals as a means to success and happiness.

In fact, you can do this without descending into chaos or drifting aimlessly through life.  

Systems

One option is to experiment with systems.

This is what cartoonist and entrepreneur Scott Adams recommends in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. His main points:

  • A system is something that you do every day, like exercising or writing.
  • Instead of setting a goal, put a system in place. Instead of setting a goal to write a book, for example, make it a daily habit to write 250 words every day. Instead of setting a goal to lose 20 pounds, make it a daily habit to end meals with fruit instead of dessert.
  • Systems are more rewarding than goals. “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out,” Adams notes. “Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”

Habits

I’m also a fan of the Tiny Habits program developed by BJ Fogg, a Stanford University psychologist. He defines a Tiny Habit as a behavior:

  • You do at least once a day
  • That takes you less than 30 seconds
  • That requires little effort

Tiny Habits also include a trigger that reminds you to do the behavior. For example:

  • After I brush, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

Looks simple, right? Actually, I struggled at first to choose habits that were tiny enough. If they’re too hard or time-consuming, I just avoid them.

On the other hand, I often find my tiny behaviors expand without effort. It’s easier to floss more than one tooth once you get started, for instance.

This method works. Fogg has supporting data from over 40,000 people who’ve done his Tiny Habits program. You can easily test it for yourself. And it’s free. I find Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything far more useful than most self-help books.

Projects

Setting goals can get you bogged down in a lot of fuzzy terminology. I still don’t understand the differences between long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals. Every writer offers a different set of timelines.

I also got frustrated while trying to “prioritize” goals. So many time management authors tell us to rank each one according to some complicated system of urgency and importance — A-level priority, B-level priority, and so on.

Are you kidding me?

From David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, I got something much simpler and more useful — the distinction between projects and next actions.

A project is any outcome that requires you to take more than one action. Examples of projects include:

  • Finish my book manuscript.
  • Clean out the garage.
  • Hire a new employee.

There’s no need for long to-do lists. For every project, just write down the very next action — a physical, observable behavior — that you will take to eventually complete the project. For instance:

  • Write a chapter heading for my book.
  • Toss one item from the garage.
  • Ask a coworker to recommend someone to hire.

Today I don’t think about goals and priorities. I just think about projects and next actions. It’s so much simpler.

Starting from fulfillment

The great teachings of the East also raise another possibility — unconditional fulfillment. A serenity that does not depend on external circumstances. An emotional stability that does not depend on achieving or failing to achieve any goal.

Dean Ornish, M.D., describes this in his program for reversing heart disease, which includes yoga and meditation:

At the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, stronger, and happier, remind yourself that these feelings came about not because you got something you thought you needed, or because you fooled somebody into thinking that you are worthy of his or her love and affection, but rather because you simply quieted down your mind enough to experience what we all have, all of the time, if we just remember.

If you ever experience something like that on a consistent basis, you have a new possibility.

You don’t have to set and achieve goals in order to become happy.

Instead, you can already be fulfilled and then set goals or list projects — not to get happy, but just to get organized.

In other words, you can take the conventional goal-setting process and put it in reverse. You might even conclude — as I did — that the giddy goal setters just got it all backwards in the first place.

Setting goals can feel so much lighter when you do it without attachment. There’s less greediness and grasping associated with it. There’s no demand that achieving any goal will shimmer you with eternal bliss.

When you ask what you want, on what ground do you stand? In the place that the yoga teachers describe — the state of prior fulfillment with the whole cosmos supporting you? Or do you see yourself as fundamentally incomplete and needing stacks of goals and action plans in order to get happy?

These two stances generate entirely different answers to the question, What do I want?

***

In The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Thaddeus Golas said it well: “There is a good attitude to take towards any goal: It’s nice if it happens, nice if it doesn’t.”

That guy knew how to let go of goals.

Letting Go of Goals: Freedom From Flawed Assumptions

In a previous post I invite you to consider giving up on goals. It is possible to be successful and happy without setting goals. And, letting go of all the baggage that surrounds goal-setting can lighten your load. 

One source of that baggage is some sloppy thinking that plagues the self-help genre.

Linking happiness to wants

The main problem is banking our happiness on the answer to a single question: What do you want?

The definition of happiness as getting what we want dates back to the early twentieth century. It was a meme of the New Thought movement and the basis of many early best-sellers in the success genre: James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

This lineage continues to the present — Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The works of Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, and many more.

Much of this literature boils down to one assertion: Happiness means getting what you want by setting goals and taking action to achieve them.

If you buy in to the “law of attraction,” you get by with a lot less: Just visualize what you want and watch it “manifest” effortlessly in your life.

Getting what you want in life is not so easy, however. Nor is it a direct path to happiness. The goal setters and law-of-attractors simply assume that:

  • You know what you want.
  • You can get what you want.
  • Getting what you want will make you happy.
  • What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask.

Poke at these assumptions, however, and each of them crumbles.

Assumption: You can know what you want

But who, exactly, is doing the wanting? Who are you?

This is the question the Buddha started with. He didn’t ask what he wanted. He asked who he was.

After years of meditation, he concluded that all of our inner experience — thoughts, feelings, urges to act — are in constant flux. We have no permanent identity. To say that we have or are a self is ultimately untrue. Our true nature is anatta, which literally means “unselfed.”

Moreover, human beings are desire machines. Desires fuel our goals, and the mind manufactures desires endlessly. They shift from moment to moment, contradicting and warring with each other.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman reminds us of an image for this reality:

In religious literature the desires — physical as well as emotional and mental, the wishes, hopes, fears and so forth — are often symbolized by animals. It is as though within man there were a thousand animals, each seeking its own food and comfort. Some of these animals are, moreover, the very food that the other animals seek…. By identifying himself with these animals, man forfeits the possibility of inner unity and wholeness, a possibility which represents another level of existence for him.

What we gain by focusing on what we want is not happiness. It’s a direct glimpse of our inner chaos.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Someone at this level of development can truly want. But most of us are still feeding our animals.

Assumption: You can get what you want

Walking around constantly expecting life to give us everything we want is not only comically entitled and ridiculous, but would make existence a hell of perpetual frustration — ERIC BARKER

Getting what I want usually translates into I’ve got everything in place: I have the job I want, the lover I want, the friends I want, the home, the car, and all the rest.

This approach to happiness is fundamentally about control. And yet there’s so much that we don’t control: Friends and family members die. Jobs end. Lovers leave. Health fails. Money disappears. 

Seeking to get what we want can send us on a fool’s errand — trying to impose permanence on impermanent events.

Here we benefit from the Buddhist practice of reciting the Five Remembrances, which reminds us of the only thing we can hope to control — our own behavior:

  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Assumption: Getting what you want will make you happy

Human happiness is a hot topic among researchers. And, the research does not support clear links between happiness and getting what you want.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, wrote a book about this: Stumbling on Happiness. It is a joy to read — folksy and rigorous at the same time.

In this TED talk, Gilbert presents the gist of his findings:

  • We tend to assume that happiness means getting what we want.
  • However, we are notoriously poor predictors of what will actually make us happy in the future.
  • We don’t find happiness; we create it based on enjoying our existing conditions in life.
  • We can often create happiness even when we don’t get what we want.

His bottom line:

The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.

Assumption: What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask

Actually, there are many other options. For example:

  • Who am I?
  • Who do I love, and what do I care about?
  • What am I committed to creating? (courtesy of TK Coleman)
  • How will I contribute? 
  • How can I help? 
  • How can I make a difference? 
  • How will I serve?
  • Given that I will die, how shall I live?
  • Given the scope of human suffering, how will I respond?
  • What is the world asking of me? 
  • What’s missing from the world that’s valuable and that I can provide?
  • What have I received from others? What have I given to others? What difficulties have I caused others? (core questions in Naikan reflection)

Those questions nudge us toward self-transcendence — something bigger than becoming a rich rock star or using the law of attraction to manifest a new Porsche in the driveway.

Focusing on getting what we want is simply one option for a life purpose — and perhaps a superficial and ultimately uninteresting one at that. 

As Huston Smith noted in his book The World’s Religions, “The self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.”

Assumption: Getting what I want will benefit others

At times, I wonder if the authors of success literature have read beyond their genre.

Do they know Macbeth?

Have they read The Great Gatsby?

Do they understand the concept of tragedy — that sometimes our goals can corrupt us? That getting what we want might hurt other people and even destroy us?

Consider the ethical scandal that resulted when Wells Fargo imposed unrealistic quotas on employees, demanding that they sell high numbers of new accounts to customers. Employees responded by opening up thousands of fake accounts in customers’ names.

Those quotas were goals.

Reading the success literature, we get the impression that human beings live in a moral vacuum — that actions have no consequences.

Self-help writers too often ignore what Stephen Covey calls “the law of the farm”: You sow what you reap. Or: Whatever you do to others, you do to yourself.

Yes, those are clichés. And they are priceless.

It’s not enough to ask what we want. Let’s also ask if it aligns with the greater good, the Tao, and the Dharma.

Spiritual teachers are wise to remind us of moral standards: in Christianity — love, charity, and service. In Buddhism — compassion and the bodhisattva ideal. In Hinduism — ananda and karma yoga.

All of these teachings lift our eyes to the horizon beyond satisfying our isolated individual desires — beyond setting goals. 

Letting Go of Goals: An Invitation

Once upon a time I went to a workshop. 

It was led by a guy who talked about creating the life of your dreams. How? By getting what you want in every area of your life.

This guy passed out stacks of index cards to everyone in the workshop. Then he told us to write one thing we wanted on each card.

You want to get married? Write get married on a card.

You want to end world hunger? Write end world hunger on another card.

You want to change careers? That goes on another card.

You get the idea.

Don’t worry about how grand or ambitious your goals are, the leader said. Just write everything down. Don’t censor yourself.

The leader glowed when he saw those cards piling up beside participants. The more cards, the better.

It’s a lotta work

Next, the leader gave instructions on what to do with our goal-cards. Now it’s time to get real, he said — time for the the rubber to hit the road.

Our next task was to create action plans. The goals we’d written earlier were long-term goals. Now it was time to take a chainsaw to them and carve up our goals into smaller chunks. This meant:

  • Writing a series of mid-term goals that would take us one step closer to achieving each long-term goal.
  • Writing a series of short-term goals that would take us one step closer to achieving each mid-term goal.
  • Finally, writing actions that would lead us to achieving the short-term goals — items to add to our calendar and to-do list.

Wow. I thought I had a lot of cards earlier in the workshop. But after adding all those new goals and actions, my stack could be measured with a ruler.

There was more to do, of course. The leader asked us to assign a level of priority and category to each card. And some other attributes also, which I’ve long forgotten.

What I do remember: There were a lot of cards—in my case, about 200 of them.  

Choosing to let go

I will admit that there was something kind of juicy about filling up all those cards. I got a sense of possibility and a shot of adrenaline.

Those feelings lasted until the workshop ended. And then came the aftermath.

I got back to my office and noticed what was already on my plate: A full email inbox. Calls to return. And reams of additional information coming from the news, the Web, and all the people in my life. 

Great, I thought. All that plus 200 cards to do.

Still I persisted with my goal setting exercises. Surely this works, I said to myself. It sounds so reasonable. I must be doing it wrong.

One day I summoned the courage to admit the truth: 

I hated all those cards. 

I wasn’t creating the life of my dreams. 

I was crushing myself under the weight of obligation—endless lists of outcomes to produce and actions to take. Endless effort, self-discipline, and willpower. 

So, I eventually took all those index cards and hurled them into the recycling bin. 

I remember that moment. 

I tossed those cards and then stood there and felt waves of pleasure. It was a moment to savor.

Goal-less and competent

The moment that I tossed my cards finally realized something: None of the wonderful things in my life emerged from writing long lists of goals and action plans arranged in vast deductive chains.

All those things — such as learning to play guitar, becoming a writer, getting married, having children — happened organically. They emerged from keeping my nose close to the ground, discovering something that delighted me, and following where it led.

And I did those things all with no particular goal in mind.

I notice this about other people as well. I ask them if they have lists of prioritized goals arranged in strict temporal categories and fleshed out into finely-honed action plans.

What I often get in response is a raised eyebrow and a question: Why would you do something like that?

These people are my friends and family. They are competent and compassionate people. They live wonderful lives. They’re not just aimless slackers.

So…how about you?

Are you a goal setter?

And is it working for you?

If so, great.

If not, I invite you to let go of goals.