The Rhetoric of Reperception: 8 Paths to Creative Thinking

As a college student I had the good fortune to meet Bob Gish, an English professor who turned me on to Styles and Structures: Alternative Approaches to College Writing by Charles Kay Smith. 

This head-exploding book is a liberal education between covers. It begins with one big idea:

The premise of this book is that patterns of writing enact patterns of thinking, that by finding and practicing ways of writing we can literally think different things.

That sentence was a revelation that I’m still unpacking. In particular, I’m drawn to Smith’s process for unleashing creativity.

Creativity for all of us

Many of us have a romantic view of creativity. We see it as a rare event — a sudden flash of insight that emerges from the Eternal Mysteries. This means that only a few people blessed with special abilities can be creative. 

Another option is to see creativity as a skill that anyone can develop. This skill involves: 

  • Stating an assumption
  • Transforming it by rewriting it
  • Evaluating the results

Smith calls this the rhetoric of reperception. As an example, he starts with this assumption:

The Middle Ages was a repressive and intellectually stagnant period, whereas the Renaissance flowered into a time of great creativity.

We can transform this statement in eight specific ways.

1: Reversal Transformation

Take the major terms in our assumption and switch their places in the sentence:

The Renaissance was a repressive and intellectually stagnant period, whereas the Middle Ages flowered into a time of great creativity.

Sound strange? Perhaps. But Smith finds evidence to confirm it, including the works of Dante, Chaucer, Albrecht Dürer, and other artists of the Middle Ages. 

2: General-to-Specific Transformation

Replace abstract terms such as  Renaissance and Middle Ages with concrete details, such as the names of specific people:

Erasmus, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and da Vinci were men of great creativity, whereas Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, and Dürer were repressive and intellectually stagnant.

This transformation immediately reveals a flaw in our initial assumption.

3: Comparative-Quantity Transformation

Here we often the wording of our assumption so that it becomes less absolute. This simple change yields a fresh viewpoint:

Only some types of intellectual endeavor, such as painting and sculpture, displayed great creativity during the Renaissance…whereas only some types of endeavor, such as lyric poetry and individualized portraiture during the Middle Ages could be said to be intellectually stagnant.  

4: Definitional Transformation

Notice the key terms in our initial assumption:

  • Middle Ages
  • Repressive
  • Intellectually stagnant
  • Renaissance
  • Creativity

We can take each of these terms, question their definition, and explore the consequences.

For example, what does Renaissance mean? Does this term refer to a specific period of time? If so, then when did it begin and end?

Perhaps Renaissance does not refer to a period of time. What if we instead define this word as a creative process that’s been practiced throughout human history? With this definition we can take our thinking to new places.

5: Implicit-Assumptions Transformation

Look for mini-assumptions that are buried within a single statement. For example, our initial assumption implies that:

  • Creativity can happen suddenly in the midst of stagnation. 
  • Conditions can change radically in a short period of time. 
  • People can change radically in a short period of time. 

If we can counter any of these smaller assumptions, then new ideas become available to us.

6: Implicit-Criteria Transformation

Many assumptions reinforce value judgments such as innovation is inherently good and stability is inherently stagnant. And yet these are simply additional assumptions for us to question and test. 

7: Figurative Transformation

Our initial assumption contains a figure of speech — “the Renaissance flowered into a time of great creativity.” To Smith, this is an image of “some sort of swamp flower blooming above a stagnant pool.”

What happens if we use a different metaphor?

For example, we could describe the Middle Ages as the seed or nurturing soil that allowed the Renaissance to bloom. We can see the two periods of history as continuous rather than unrelated.

8: Diagrammatic Transformation

We can also translate our initial assumption from words into visuals. 

For instance, we could count the number of inventions and works of art produced in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Then we could arrange those numbers in a table or diagram that allows us to compare the two periods of history in a visual way.

***

We can apply these eight transformations  to any assumption — and have fun with the process. 

To get the most value from the rhetoric of reperception, approach it like a child at play. Experiment and stay open to pleasant surprises.

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Where to Learn More

I am delighted with Deconstructing Yourself, Michael Taft’s website about meditation practice. His teachings about nonduality are precise and accessible. Check out any of the following. 

Nonduality: Defining the Undefinable

“Nonduality is the experience of intimacy with all things; a sense of identity with the entire universe. In this experience, the sense of being a witness or seer of things vanishes completely, and instead you feel yourself to be whatever thing you are beholding. You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong.”

Meditation — Why “Deconstruction”? 

“Sensory experience is the substance of our lives; it is what our time on earth is made of. Anything that can give you a handle on sensory experience, a way to work with it, therefore gives you a handle on your life. Deconstructing an experience is a very effective and concrete way to get a handle on yourself, your life, your emotions, and your relationships with others.”

How to Deconstruct Yourself 

“The sense of self is composed or constructed out of thoughts and feelings…. If you examine your thoughts and feelings very, very carefully over time in a systematic way using mindfulness meditation, this ‘constructedness’ of the sense of self will become intuitively obvious.”

Deconstructing the Self with Mindfulness Meditation 

“…there is one sensory experience that is categorically different than all other sensory experiences: the experience of being ‘me.’ The sense of being a person, an ego. The deconstruction of the sensory experience of being an ego is one of the most powerful and meaningful things a person can do.”

Nonduality and Mindfulness — Two Great Traditions that Go Great Together 

“…most nondualists (especially neo-advaitins) could use a little more of the mindfulness attitude, and most mindfulness practitioners could use a little more of nondual outlook. Working together they could, like peanut butter and chocolate, form something much more excellent than either on their own. Something we might call Nondual Mindfulness, or Practical Advaita.”

Escaping the Observer Trap: Free Yourself by Observing the Observer  

“It is quite common for even very dedicated mindfulness students in observation-based traditions to get stuck in observer mode forever…. Being the observer, a neutral meditator ego, is not such a bad place to be; certainly it is much preferable to the unconscious, robotic mode of life lived without any self-reflection. However, it impedes all deeper progress toward real awakening.”

The Universe Is NOT One 

“The misstep here, and it is an epic one, is to think that what your experience in your meditation (a first-person, subjective experience) has anything at all to do with how the external universe works (a third-person, objective reality). You think you are discovering the hidden truth underlying reality, but that is not what’s going on at all. Instead you’re discovering the hidden truth behind all of your experience, the secret of who you really are—which is arguably much more important.”

What Is the Self? An Interview with Thomas Metzinger 

“The first thing to understand, I believe, is that there is no thing like ‘the self.’ Nobody ever had or was a self. Selves are not part of reality. Selves are not something that endures over time. The first person pronoun ‘I’ doesn’t refer to an object like a football or a bicycle, it just points to the speaker of the current sentence. There is no thing in the brain or outside in the world, which is us. We are processes.”

Meditation on No-self 

“No-self is hard to talk about, but is actually extremely simple as an experience. No-self is the direct recognition that the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your body are just passing experiences. Even more, it’s the recognition that although it feels like there’s a person in there, who is having those experiences, that feeling is just another one of those passing experiences.”

Emptiness of All Arisings (Guided Meditation)

“When we see directly that everything is nothing other than a mental construction (i.e. empty), we have learned something incredibly important. When seen as empty, things lose their “bite.” We no longer feel so reactive and upset by what’s happening, because we see it’s nature clearly. The deeper we see the emptiness, the more freedom we feel, the less reactive we feel. See a little emptiness, and you will feel a little relief from reactivity. See more emptiness, and you will feel more relief. It’s that straightforward.”

How to Love God According to Meister Eckhart

“In the triumphant end to the sermon, Eckhart sounds exactly like a Zen master: You should love him as he is, a not-God, not-mind, not-person, not-image — even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Integrating the Experience With Daily Life

The experience of nonduality comes with bells and whistles. For me, it was a revelation, an epiphany, a cosmic parting-of-the-curtains. 

There are lots of jokes about spiritual teachers experiencing “Oneness.” My response is: Hey, don’t knock until you’ve tried it. 

When the boundaries of the self dissolve and your body becomes the whole world, there comes peace and completeness. For a moment, it is the end of searching. 

Yet I’ve struggled to integrate this experience with the rest of my life. 

One challenge is simply talking about nonduality while sounding grounded and sane. Another is understanding the true impact of the experience. Failing to do this can create some thorny problems. 

The following perspectives help me a lot.

Avoiding the observer trap

For years I believed in something called the Witness self, a detached observer somewhere “inside” me. Thoughts and physical sensations came and went, but the Witness remained to sit back and watch it all. 

I now see this as an error. Meditation teacher Michael Taft calls it the observer trap, or meditator ego

In nondual experience, the observer also falls away. It is also just a bundle of passing thoughts and sensations. 

Ironically, mindfulness teachers sometimes talk about “becoming a witness of experience.” This preserves the meditator ego, which can become a barrier to deeper awakening. 

To learn more, see Michael’s instructions for watching the watcher.

Seeing through the ego

Transcending the ego does not mean getting rid of it. Rather, it means seeing through the ego.  

We need a functional ego to carry out the tasks of daily life, such as working and building healthy relationships. We can also function at this level while knowing at a deeper level that the ego is not who we really are

More precisely, the ego is constructed by the mind. It is a concept overlaid on the stream of sensations that appear and disappear in awareness. This concept is useful but not ultimately real. 

Avoiding claims about the nature of reality 

My experience of nonduality initially left me feeling like a prophet. I believed that I’d discovered hidden meanings about the nature of reality as pure Oneness. Books like The Tao of Physics reinforced this viewpoint.

This, too, was delusion. Seeing nonduality offers many benefits, but it doesn’t make anyone an expert in physics or astronomy.  

Meditation reveals much about direct experience — how sensations get mixed up with thoughts and desires, which drive us to act in compulsive ways. 

However, meditation does not confirm that the world outside our head is Pure Consciousness or Absolute Mind, Being, or any such hifalutin thing. And vague references to quantum mechanics will not change that.  

Let’s leave cosmology to the scientists and get back to meditation. 

Continuing to practice

One framework for meditation is immediate enlightenment: We are already enlightened, and there is nothing we can do to become enlightened. All we need to do is see this fact in a single instant. No practices are necessary. 

Another framework is the gradual enlightenment: Our mind is clouded by layers of clinging, aversion, and ignorance. We practice for a life time to penetrate these layers and reach ever deepening layers of awakening. 

Buddhist monks and scholars have spent centuries debating the merits of these approaches. After searching for a resolution, I finally let go of it all. 

Is enlightenment immediate or gradual? My answer is yes: Both views are useful. This is a paradox, not a contradiction. 

If anything, I choose to “err” on the side of the gradual path. If I’m still suffering in a particular area of life, this is a cue to keep practicing. 

Keeping nonduality in perspective

Nonduality is no panacea. Meditators with deep spiritual insight can still struggle with the tasks of daily life — choosing a career, making money, forming relationships, recovering from addiction, and more. 

Meditating more is not always the answer. Sometimes our practice is to gain new skills, get counseling, and change habits

Insight into nonduality grants me a sense of wonder, reduces my emotional reactivity, and lessens my fear of death. It lightens the load as I get on with the rest of my life. This is enough, and for all of it I am grateful. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Ways to Talk About It

I’ve already posted about my first experience of nonduality, a life-changing taste of awakening. 

Almost immediately, however, I faced the inevitable problem — trying to tell people about it. 

Honestly, I do want to tell you about this. But every attempt seems ridiculous. 

As William James noted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences are both noetic and ineffable. They have the force of revelation — and they defy description. 

Some meditation teachers simply refuse to discuss any of this. Who can blame them? If you keep pressing for an answer, they might just deflect the question and walk away. (A Zen master might give you a nonsense reply or a stern slap on the face. )

Being human, however, we can’t resist talking about the things that matter most to us. But what we can do is talk about nonduality in ways that prevent misunderstanding and point to the experience of it, beyond all words. 

Following are two ways that help me. Both of them are examples of the via negativa approach used by theologians: While we cannot define what God is, we can discuss what God is not. This applies to nonduality as well. 

What’s left when everything passes away

Given the subtle nature of nonduality, we might assume that it takes years of meditation practice just to get a glimpse of it. 

Not so, says Michael Taft (whose teachings about nonduality are the clearest I’ve found). Instead, we might simply notice nonduality in any moment:

You know all the feelings in your body? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

You know all the words in your head? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

You know all the pictures in your imagination? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

Any other content of sense experiences—like smells or tastes or whatever—just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away, too. 

What’s left when all that passes away? Nondual reality. 

Like Ajahn Sumedho says in The Mind and the Way, the teaching of the Buddha is simple, really. There are conditioned phenomena that arise and pass away. And there is the Unconditioned, which does not arise or pass away.  

Again, this description might leave you disappointed. All I can do is encourage you to learn meditation, which offers a direct way to experience the Unconditioned. 

Removing the subject-object distinction

We typically experience the world with a sharp division between subject and object. 

We call the subject me or I. These words refer to the sensation of standing back “inside” our skin and looking “outside” at the world. 

Everything other the subject is an object — the people, things, and events that seem to exist independently of us.

The subject-object distinction seems obvious and undeniably real. And yet in deep meditation, this distinction simply disappears. This is what happened to me during that retreat when my body suddenly became the world and there was no “inside” or “outside.”

This is not to say that we should abandon the subject-object distinction. We need it to make sense of the world most of the time, and to meet the demands of daily life. 

However, we can hold this distinction lightly and use it in a flexible way. In the experience of nonduality — the satisfaction of being complete in the present moment — we are free to let subjects and objects fall away. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: ‘Intimacy With All Things’

During my first formal meditation practice, I disappeared — not physically, but spiritually. 

It happened on a sunny fall day at a former convent in southeastern Minnesota. The event was led by Shinzen Young, who followed the traditional schedule for Vipassana retreats — 12 to 14 hours of sitting or walking meditation per day, with 5-minute breaks every half-hour. 

You cannot meditate that much and remain unchanged. Something is bound to happen, and it’s impossible to predict. 

If effect, you are sending out an invitation to the universe: Here I am. If you’d care to send a cataclysmic life-changing experience my way, well — I’m open

What eventually happened was that the borders of my body disappeared. 

At first, there was disorientation and fear. Then deep peace flowed in waves.

How long did this last? A few seconds, perhaps, or a few minutes. It’s impossible to say, because time disappeared.

By the time Shinzen signaled the end of the meditation period, I was back in my body and safely located on the space-time grid. I was a person with a name, a personal history, and not the slightest idea about what had just happened. 

Eventually I described this to Shinzen. He told me that it was an experience of no-self, or nonduality

In the decades since that retreat, I’ve talked to other people about nonduality and read everything I can find about it.

Eventually I stumbled on a post by Michael Taft, a meditation teacher and colleague of Shinzen’s. Michael gave the best words to my retreat experience:

Nonduality is the experience of intimacy with all things…. In this experience, the sense of being a witness or seer of things vanishes completely, and instead you feel yourself to be whatever thing you are beholding. You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong.

Ironically, millions of words have been written about nonduality — an experience that transcends language. (The Ashtavakra Gita is one key text, but there are many more.) 

Well, I’m about to add few thousand words more to the mix.

This is the first post in a series about nonduality, with some ideas about the potential benefits and pitfalls of this path. I hope you find it beneficial.

Remembering Robert Pirsig’s ’Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

I’ve read Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values several times — once during each decade since it was published in in the 1970s.

Each time I read the book at a different level. And each time I am reminded of the defining feature of a great book: You can reread it for decades without exhausting it.

My original copy of ZMM (as Pirsig abbreviated the title) is defaced and nearly destroyed.

The pages in that battered paperback are splattered with underlines, circles, exclamation points, question marks, and numbered lists.

I read the text passionately, almost aggressively, arguing with the author paragraph by paragraph, line by line.

Great books invite that kind of engagement. Each time we return to such works we see them fresh and whole, discovering layers of meaning that previously eluded us.

Reviewing our annotations and remembering who we were when we first turned those pages, we index ourselves.

Pirsig’s craft

People ask what ZMM is about.

Don’t get me started.

A topical index would include everything from Aristotle to Zen Buddhism — with references to welding, abstract painting, rhetoric, and non-Euclidian geometry tossed in for good measure.

It would be easier to say what ZMM is not about.

On one level, ZMM is the story of Pirsig’s cross-country motorcycle trip with his son.

It’s also the story Pirsig’s attempt to reform Western civilization.

And the story of Pirsig’s obsession with abstract questions.

And his gradual descent into insanity. And his recovery.

And, it works. Against all odds, the book hangs together — a miracle of writing craft.

To achieve this, Pirsig invented a genre that blends narration and exposition, storytelling and explanation. Chapters are divided into sections — scenes of action and dialogue alternating with essays that are dense with ideas.

This simple device keeps you oriented while Pirsig steers his bike from freeways to back roads and the conversation shifts from Plato to industrial solvents.

In terms of craft, ZMM is as close to a perfect book as anything I’ve ever read.

Pirsig’s enemy

My first encounter with ZMM took place in 1975. Barely out of adolescence, I immediately tuned in to Pirsig’s sense of rebellion and desire to do battle with the “System.”

I wasn’t alone. ZMM immediately became associated with the last waves of the counter culture movements that flowered during the 1960s.

What some readers missed, however, was the radical depth of Pirsig’s assault.

He wasn’t out to simply burn draft cards, picket factories, march on Washington, or protest the military-industrial complex. He knew that would never be enough.

No, he wanted to dismantle the whole desiccated and dying thing in the only way he thought possible — by a full-frontal assault on its metaphysical roots.

Pirsig’s strategy

Pirsig’s ultimate foe was dualism — divorcing science from spirituality, technology from art, business from compassion, reason from emotion, and actions from consequences.

You can tear down a factory that pollutes rivers, Pirsig wrote. But if the dualistic system of thought that created the factory remains intact, then you’ve gained nothing.

For that reason, most of Pirsig’s battles took place not on the streets but in what he called “the high country of the mind.”

He became a militant philosopher, something that was not uncommon in those days. Pirsig believed that if we purged our thinking of delusions, then we could act ethically — in ways that no longer harmed people or the planet.

Ultimately Pirsig aimed his metaphysical firearms at a core distinction in Western thought — the distinction between subject (I, me) and object (you, it, them). It was attachment to this distinction, he believed, that led people to do evil things to each other.

Unfortunately, the subject-object distinction is hard to remove. Without it, you’d be hard pressed to walk through a parking lot let alone drive the freeway during rush hour.

Survival in such circumstances hinges on protecting ourselves as subjects as while navigating an environment filled with large and potentially lethal objects.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to speak a single sentence in the English language that’s not predicated on the distinction between subject and object.

Linguistic constraints didn’t stop Pirsig, though. He kept trying to articulate a way of seeing the world that merges reason with emotion, us with them, you with I — and saves us all from destruction.

Pirsig’s solution

Pirsig found his solution in the realm of values — specifically, in the concept of Quality (a word that he capitalized throughout the book).

Quality, he thought, could be experienced directly and defined precisely. Quality is both objective and subjective. In terms of world view, it is Romantic and Classic.

If you truly understood Quality, Pirsig wrote, you would live each moment of your life differently. You would handle the material details of your life with exquisite care. You would think, speak, and act impeccably, ever mindful of karma — your actions and their consequences.

You would even repair your motorcycle in a way that benefits all living beings.

Mindful of Quality, you would never intentionally do violence to another being. By loosening the tight grip of the subject-object distinction, you’d know in your gut that harming others is the same as harming yourself.

Pirsig’s failure

Interestingly, Pirsig’s metaphysics of Quality probably failed. He in effect acknowledges this in his sequel to ZMM — Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

Lila opens with a character who offers a detailed and withering critique of the ideas in ZMM. In response, Pirsig presents yet another metaphysics — a rewrite of ZMM. This time Pirsig’s fundamental distinction is not between subjective and objective Quality: It’s between static and dynamic Quality.

But I’m not convinced by this, either. Pirsig ultimately missed one of the core insights of Zen Buddhism — that reality is too messy to capture in any grand philosophical system.

In fact, Zen practice takes us to the Mind before thinking, the world before words. We can experience this world, but anything we say about it is inaccurate.

This is why the Buddha himself refused to teach metaphysics. He confined himself merely to the fact of suffering and the path beyond it. The older I get, the more wisdom I see in this.

Pirsig’s price

Pirsig’s insights came at a horrific price. He became so obsessed with task of defining Quality that he did little else.

Eventually he lost interest in relating to people, working, and handling the tasks of daily life. For a time he sacrificed everything to his philosophical quest — his job, his family, and his sanity.

ZMM includes a plot line based on Pirsig’s stay in a mental ward and ego-death through court-ordered electroshock therapy. This account is complex, heart-breaking, and exquisite.

I won’t even attempt to summarize it. All I will say is that every time I read ZMM, I emerge almost gasping for air and glad to be alive.

“It’s going to get better now”

Fortunately, Pirsig survived unspeakable horrors and returned to our consensual reality with a serenity that approaches Enlightenment.

Pirsig hints at this in ZMM’s closing paragraphs, recalling a day near the end of that motorcycle trip with his son Chris, passenger at his back:

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and it is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.


More about Robert Pirsig and ZMM:

Sheldon Kopp’s Eternal Truths: An Eschatological Laundry List

Decades ago I read If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients by psychotherapist Sheldon B. Kopp (New York: Bantam, 1972). It blew me away.

What speaks to me most from this book is a couple of pages from the Afterword — An Eschatological Laundry List: A Partial Register of the 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths. I’ve included this list below.

Reviewing it after all these years, I find some of the items to be dated and at odds with what I’ve learned about Buddhism. But much of the list still resonates with me — especially the first and last items.

(Please forgive the sexist language, by the way. This was published a long time ago.)

  1. This is it!
  2. There are no hidden meanings.
  3. You can’t get there from here, and besides there’s no place else to go anyway.
  4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.
  5. Nothing lasts.
  6. There is no way of getting all you want.
  7. You can’t have anything unless you let go of it.
  8. You only get to keep what you give away.
  9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
  10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good does not often pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
  11. You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless.
  12. It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
  13. You don’t really control anything.
  14. You can’t make anyone love you.
  15. No one is any stronger or weaker than anyone else.Everyone is, in his own way, vulnerable.
  16. There are no great men.
  17. If you have a hero, look again: You have diminished yourself in some way.
  18. Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself).
  19. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
  20. All of you is worth something, if you will only own it.
  21. Progress is an illusion.
  22. Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.
  23. Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solutions.
  24. Childhood is a nightmare.
  25. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of-yourself-because-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown up.
  26. Each of us is ultimately alone.
  27. The most important things, each man must do for himself.
  28. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.
  29. We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that’s all there is.
  30. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.
  31. We must often live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
  32. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
  33. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
  34. No excuses will be accepted.
  35. You can run, but you can’t hide.
  36. It is most important to run out of scapegpoats.
  37. We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
  38. The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
  39. All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
  40. You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.
  41. What do you know…for sure…anyway?
  42. Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again….

What I Told My Children About Religion

When I became a father, I knew that I would one day become responsible for my children’s spiritual education.

This was a problem.

I’d been raised Lutheran. I came of age during the 1950s and 1960s. My parents were kind, fun-loving, and naturally compassionate.

But their religion was the opposite. It was soul-crushing and life-denying.

Lutheranism taught me the doctrine of original sin. It taught me that human beings are born intrinsically flawed.

It taught me that the default setting for a new human being is to be condemned to hell, and that the only refuge is immediate baptism and eventually confirmation.

Hovering between shame and guilt: What good can ever come of that?


I remember when my daughter Missy was born, in 1983. I stood at the glass window to the infant warming room in Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis.

There were maybe 30 babies in there, including Missy, all lovingly arranged in cribs in a temperature-controlled room.

I stood there, staring — sleep-deprived, wide-eyed, with a heart as big as the sun.

I looked at all of those babies — tiny, wrinkled, perfect, holy — and thought: The religion that I was raised with says that at this moment all of these babies are condemned.

If — God forbid — one of them died, they would go straight to Hell.

And then I thought: How absurd it was that I ever believed that, or that I was ever taught that.

It was then — at that very moment — that I promised myself that I would never teach my children anything that was ugly, mean, or stupid.

Little did I know how difficult this would prove to be.


Fast forward to a decade later.

Okay, I thought. My children, both of them, are now standing well above my waist.

We have this whole matter of religion. I need to say something about this.

I have no idea what to say.

Maybe we could go to go to church.

Okay! Let’s go to church!

Let’s delegate this whole matter of religion to someone else who is willing to talk about it. Because I am definitely not comfortable talking about it.

The question is: Which church? Oy, there are so many!

So we sampled churches.

We started with Unitarian Universalist churches. As it turns out, this was a huge mistake.

There’s an old joke: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehova’s Witness?

Answer: You get a person who goes knocking from door to door with nothing in particular to say.

My actual experience was that Unitarian Universalist church services consisted of marking time until after the service when everybody got to go to the social hour and drink coffee and eat pastries.

If they had told me at the beginning at that this was a religion founded on coffee and pastries, I would have respected that as being honest. After all, food is grounded in reality — bodily sensation, pure pleasure. Pure Zen.

But of course, the Unitarians did not do that. They made large claims about being “a liberal religion characterized by a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Translation: Coffee and pastries.

You can’t raise your children on that.


So, we left the Unitarian Churches and went to a Baptist Church. I had concerns about this, but the church was near the University of Minnesota and had a lesbian minister. So it must be okay, right?

We forced our children to attend some Sunday school classes at the Baptist church, and I went to religious education classes for adults during that time.

And do you know what our first reading assignment was? Chapter 1 of Acts of the Apostles. This is from the most deadly part of the New Testament (almost everything after the four gospels, which are juicy and contradictory).

Yikes! I thought. I’d come full circle. From cruel Christianity to boring Christianity.

There has to be a better way than this.


So, we gave up on churches altogether.

Joanne and I decided to just do yoga and meditation with the kids on Sunday morning. We bought four yoga mats and built an addition to our house. We did yoga in that room followed by a short sitting meditation.

Here — finally —was something that worked.

My kids still talk about it to this day. I am convinced that our homely Sunday morning sessions made a difference to them.

Would they have gotten more from church services and Sunday school? Maybe, but I doubt it.


So, this is what I recommend to you: Teach your kids to do a little yoga. This grounds spirituality in movement, which makes it real. Then follow up with the intimacy of shared silence.

Most of all, practice what you preach. Kids learn wisdom and compassion from what they observe, which is what you actually do in daily life.

No scripture can match the power of setting an example. And if there’s any contradiction between what you say and what you do, you can count on one fact: Your kids will tell you about it.

This is what surprised me, and the biggest lesson of all: I worried so much about finding a spiritual teacher for my kids. And in the end they became my teachers.


P.S. For extra credit, get a recording of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Play it a hundred times for your kids, and turn it up loud.

Coltrane was a saint who lived among us, and when you hear this recording for the 101st time, it will open up to you like the four gospels.

The Enlightened Person Lives Without Intention

I’m re-reading Steve Hagen’s wonderful book Buddhism Plain and Simple. This is what I recommend to anyone who’s new to Buddhism and wants the essence.

One of the things I admire about Steve is that he had the guts to present an astonishing Buddhist teaching — that the enlightened person lives without intention.

Throwing our paradigms in question

To say that this teaching goes against the grain of Western thought is a gross understatement.

If the Buddha was accurate on this point, then some of our most basic assumptions are thrown into question.

The whole field of time management — based on goal-setting and achievement as a means to happiness — is shattered.

So are countless popular books in the New Age/self-help category, such as The Power of Intention and The Secret.

Understanding the Buddha’s teaching about intention is not for the faint of heart. This is a subtle and sophisticated insight that transcends our ordinary perception of the world.

Ultimately, you can only “get” what the Buddha meant by meditating — not by trying to figure it out intellectually. But I’ll do my best to explain it anyway.

Meditation erases distinctions

Let’s get back to what Buddhist meditation cultivates: Relaxing the activity of the mind. Letting thoughts come to a rest. Perceiving the world without the filters imposed by thinking.

One of the key functions of the human mind is to make distinctions. The mind separates people, things, and events into opposing categories — for example, inside versus outside. Past versus present versus future. Self versus other.

These distinctions exist only in our mind, however. They are present only in language, not in Nature.

When thoughts come to rest during meditation, all these distinctions fade away. Suddenly there is no self and no other. No inside, no outside. No past, no present, no future.

Instead, we gradually come to perceive the world as a unified, seamless Whole. Though this is hard to describe, you can experience it for yourself. That’s what meditation is all about.

No distinction, no intention

Here’s the rub: We set goals and take intentional action to achieve them only because we believe that there are things “outside” ourselves that we don’t “have” and need to “get.”

Uh-oh. That previous paragraph is full of distinctions: outside versus inside. Having versus not having. Getting versus not getting. If those distinctions disappear, then the attempt to “attract” and “manifest” what you want is pointless.

As Hagen points out in Buddhism Plain and Simple:

There isn’t anything “out there” that ultimately satisfies. There isn’t anything “out there” that we must acquire or repel. In fact, there isn’t any “out there” at all.

Does this mean that we become passive victims who don’t do anything?

Not at all.

The Buddha talked about ethical behavior and right livelihood. He urged us to manage our household, take care of business, and do what needs to be done.

The key is to live without our primary delusion — the belief that anything we gain by thinking and acting will make us permanently happy, satisfied, and complete.

P.S. I don’t expect you to agree with this, by the way. All I want to do is point out one thing:

When a spiritual teacher or self-help guru starts talking to you about the power of setting goals and intentions, remember that there is another way of seeing the world.

The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment: ‘No resistance’

Though it’s fallen from the limelight, The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas is one of my favorite books. That’s been true since 1971 when I found it on an obscure shelf at a local bookstore.

I still have that copy — heavy underlined and filled with marginalia. It’s stained with coffee, red wine, and few tears for good measure. Over the years the pocket-sized paperback has morphed into a homely, sacred object.

I remember the bolt of realization that hit me when I read the Guide’s first paragraph:

I am a lazy man. Laziness keeps me from believing that enlightenment demands effort, discipline, strict diet, non-smoking, and other evidences of virtue. That’s about the worst heresy I could propose, but I have to be honest before I can be reverent.

By the end of those 42 words, I was hooked.

I still am.

How the Guide came to be

When you pick up the Guide for the first time, please be patient. It has some opaque passages. The 1960s language is dated (hippie jargon and lack of inclusive pronouns). I also find myself in loving disagreement with some of Thaddeus’s ideas. 

Just keep reading and re-reading, however. Go slowly and let the words sink in. Over time some of them will sink into your awareness and massage your mind.

Knowing the context might help. At one time Golas was taking a lot of LSD. In fact, he originally wrote the Guide as a manual for coming down from a “bummer trip.”

What Golas — and thousands of loyal readers eventually discovered — is that his ideas can be lifesavers in the midst of any stressful situation, drug-induced or not:

My intention is not to pretend final truth, but to suggest certain simple attitudes that will work for anybody and stay with you in the most extreme freak-out or space-out, even when your mind is completely blown.

The big ideas: expansion, contraction, resistance, enlightenment

Golas’s premise is that our basic function as human beings is to move between states of expansion and contraction.

Expansion has a lot of synonyms — enlightenment, serenity, unconditional joy, happiness, present moment awareness.

Contraction, on the other hand is suffering, pain, unhappiness, fear, anxiety, insanity — you get the idea.

In any given moment, Golas wrote, we are in a state of expansion, a state of contraction, or somewhere in between. And in any moment we can expand — instantly, effortlessly.

How? By remembering two words that summarize the entire book: no resistance.

Resistance means:

  • 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 are fleeting and fluid.

This is nothing new. It echoes the concepts of attachment and aversion, which the Buddha pinpointed as the origin of suffering.

According to Thaddeus, enlightenment is nothing mystical or other-worldly. It simply means noticing your resistance and then dropping it.

What if you’re feeling so contracted that the very idea of dropping resistance seems impossible?

No problem. Just notice your resistance. And just be willing to drop it. Willingness is everything.

As Thaddeus put it:

Love as much as you can from wherever you are.

Note: This attitude of non-resistance does not mean that we turn into passive victims. Thaddeus is referring to internal resistance — the irrational demand that life should be free of discomfort. We can drop this demand even as we take action to solve problems and achieve social justice.

Taking pain-in-the-butt people as our teachers

It’s a New Age cliché to say that the people we find most irritating have incarnated along with us for a reason. They offers reasons to take all our ideas about unconditional love and actually practice them.

Golas says it in a more pragmatic way: We tend to condemn the very qualities in others that we deny seeing in ourselves.

Morever, it’s useless to lecture people or implore them to change their behavior:

If he knew what he was doing, he wouldn’t be doing it, true enough, but he is just as capable of knowing it as we are. If he doesn’t see it of his own free will, is he any more likely to do so when we tell him? By denying him his freedom to be wrong, we are equally wrong. Giving others the freedom to be stupid is one of the most important and hardest steps to take in spiritual progress. Conveniently the opportunity to take that step is all around us every day.

The lazy man, then and now

Thaddeus left his physical body in 1997.

Had he lived into the twenty-first century, he would have never appeared on Oprah. Even back in the day he refused to join the spiritual superstar circuit.

He didn’t lead workshops or seminars. And for decades he had only one title in print — the Guide.

When people asked him for further teachings, he demurred. Just read the book, he said. It’s all there.

Unfortunately, Thaddeus’s publications are hard to find. Seed Center Books published the Guide and other books by Thaddeus. I’d check other online booksellers, libraries, and used book shops as well. 

Livesavers

My favorite aphorisms from the Guide appear near the end of the book under the heading Even Lazier:

What am I doing on a level of consciousness where this is real?

Whether I am conscious of it or not, I am one with the cause of all that exists.

Whether I feel it or not, I am one with all the love in the universe.

Go beyond reason to love: it is safe. It is the only safety.

All states of consciousness are available right now.

Enlightenment doesn’t care how you get there.

There is nothing you need to do first in order to be enlightened.

This, too, can be experienced with a completely expanded awareness.

I wouldn’t deny this experience to the One Mind.

What did you think it was that needed to be loved?

When you learn to love hell, you will be in heaven.

Thank you, brothers and sisters, for letting my consciousness be in this place.

My letter from Thaddeus

Back in the days when people wrote letters, I sent one to Thaddeus to tell him how much the Guide meant to me. Shortly before he died, he replied to me with a kind note.

That letter from Thaddeus ended with a new aphorism that he described as “the sum of his knowledge”:

No matter what happens, I am conscious all the time.

Life has a nasty habit of occasionally backing us into a corner and bringing us to our knees. In those moments we’ll probably find it hard to remember Thaddeus’s grand summary.

But, again, there is a chance that we can remember those two words:

No resistance.

Thanks, Thaddeus, for reminding us.