Andrew Weil on the Power of Breathing

Would you like to access a mind-expanding and stress-reducing treatment — one that’s simple, safe, effective, free, and always available? 

You can, because it’s literally right under your nose. 

That treatment is breathing. 

In his audiobook Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 1999), Andrew Weil explores the subtleties of breathing. 

He also presents a series of breathing exercises to promote physical health, regulate emotional states, and directly experience our spiritual nature.

About Andrew Weil

Weil directs the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. 

Integrative medicine seeks to combine the best of mainstream and alternative medicine. It’s based on the idea that the body can heal itself if given a chance. Dietary change, herbal remedies, and stress reduction are some of the recommended strategies.  

Stress, says Weil, is a primary or aggravating cause of most illness — even disease with clear organic roots. 

Fortunately, we can change our breathing in specific ways to reduce stress. 

Weil’s patients use breathing techniques as part of their treatment plan for problems with digestion, circulation, insomnia, anxiety, and more. 

“The single technique that I get the most positive feedback about in a positive way is the breath work that I’m going to teach you in this program,” Weil adds. 

Ironically, it is a technique that he was never taught in medical school. 

Breath as a metaphor for spirit

In several languages, Weil notes, the words for breath and spirit are the same. 

Spirit refers to something that’s immaterial and yet powerful enough to change matter. 

Breathing has that kind of power. Even though it’s invisible, we can regulate it to create measurable changes in our physical and mental state.

Weil also makes a fascinating comparison between spirit and spirits — as in distilled alcohol. 

As originally practiced, distillation concentrated the essence of wine to produce whiskey — a beverage with a higher alcohol content. Through distillation, something with less material substance gained more power to affect the mind and body. 

In a similar way, we can see breath as the “distilled” essence of our being. Simply by paying attention to our breathing, we can calm our nervous system and experience altered states of consciousness.   

Buddhist tradition even holds that the breathing can take you all the way to enlightenment. For more details, see the sutra on the Foundations of Mindfulness.

The dual nature of breathing

Breathing offers a bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds. By meditating on your breath, says Weil, you might gain surprising insights and remember more of your dreams.

Breathing can also be voluntary or involuntary. We can intentionally change its depth and rhythm. Or, we can simply let breathing proceed without our conscious awareness.

Nature will continue to breathe us, whether we choose to intervene or not. 

What’s more, breathing gives us a felt sense of expansion and contraction. This is the primal rhythm of all living things — of all creation, in fact. Nature cycles between poles of expansion and contraction: Day and night. Warm and cold. Birth and decay. 

Even stars can expand and contract. And the Big Bang was the radical expansion of a contracted seed of matter. 

Through breathing, in short, we connect to a dynamic that transcends ourselves. And by paying attention to our breathing, we discover a place where many dualities are harmonized. This in one aim of many spiritual practices.  

The physiology of breathing

Breathing directly affects two part of our nervous system — sympathetic and parasympathetic. 

The sympathetic nervous system is the one that gears us up for the “fight or flight” response. The resulting changes — including increases blood pressure and heart rate — shunt blood away from general circulation and directly to the brain. 

As the sympathetic nervous system revs up, our breathing also becomes more rapid and shallow. Our thoughts tend to race as well. 

Welcome to stress.

Over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system underlies many common disorders — high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, digestive problems, and anxiety, and more. 

For many of us, this system is chronically overactive. It’s as if we’re constantly preparing to run away from a mysterious threat. 

In Japan, Weil says, autonomic nervous system imbalance is an accepted diagnosis.  Western medicine, however, tends to overlook this imbalance and tries to suppress the sympathetic nervous system with drugs. This strategy can lead to a rebound effect and drug dependence.

Breathing offers another option. 

By changing our breathing, we can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This system decreases  stress by reducing heart rate, slowing our breathing, and calming mental disturbance. 

Over time, breath work improves “parasympathetic tone,” as Weil describes it. 

This offers many advantages. Breathing techniques are free and non-toxic. And rather than trying to suppress symptoms, these techniques get to the root of nervous system imbalance. 

In short, breathing offers us a safe space. By paying attention to your breath, you “switch to neutral.” You divert attention from agitating thoughts to pure physical sensations instead. 

Four keys to better breathing

Weil suggests that you practice making your breath:

  • Deeper
  • Slower
  • Quieter
  • More regular

Notice the qualities of your breathing when you’re feeling calm. Chances are that some or all of the above terms will accurately describe your experience.

Also notice what happens when you feel angry, afraid, or otherwise upset. Your breathing is likely to be more shallow, rapid, noisy, and irregular.

As Weil points out, you can’t just command yourself to stop feeling upset. But in any moment, you can change your breathing to make it deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular. 

Over time, you’ll find that this practice can alter your emotional states. The changes might be subtle at first. But they can reduce your suffering enough to make a difference.

Breath work supports behavior change, too. 

Suppose that you’ve sworn off desserts as a way to lose weight. Then you go out to eat, see a dessert menu, and suddenly feel an urge to devour a piece of chocolate cake.

Just notice the urge and breathe into it. Make your breathing deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular. Use your breath to “surf the urge” until it passes away.

Preparing for breathing exercises

If you take yoga classes, you’ll probably do some pranayama — breathing exercises. Over the last couple thousand years or so, yogis have developed pranayama into a high art with complex practices. 

Pranayama teachings are powerful. They’re best transmitted in person, directly from teacher to student. Without proper guidance, says Weil, pranayama can lead to psychotic breaks with reality. 

Weil recommends starting with the simple and safe exercises described below. As you begin, keep these points in mind:

Find a posture that promotes relaxation and alertness. The full lotus posture is not required. If you sit for breathing exercises, just find a comfortable chair with enough back support to keep your spine straight. Wear loose clothing. You can keep your eyes open or closed. 

When you inhale, move your belly outward. Full abdominal breathing moves more air through your body than shallow breathing. Place a hand on your belly once in a while to make sure that your abdomen expands with each in-breath.  

Do breath work consistently. Set aside a regular time for daily practice. Also find a place that’s quiet and free of distractions. 

Breath work doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Consistency matters a lot, however. 

Over time, new breathing habits can produce big changes in your energy level, sleep pattern, digestion and circulation. 

Experiment with doing breathing exercises first thing each day and again right before going to sleep. Also do these exercises throughout the day as needed to manage stress. 

Exercise: Following your breath

To begin, just pay attention to your breathing. Do not try to change it in any way. If you notice that your attention wanders, then just gently bring it back to your breath. 

This exercise is a form of meditation. The essence of meditation is directing your attention to an object. And in this case the object is breath — the most natural object for meditation. 

You’ll discover that the mere act of observing your breathing tends to make it deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular. 

Following your breath is something you can practice at any time. Doing this exercise for even a few seconds represents spiritual progress, says Weil. 

To take this exercise to a deeper level:

  • Notice where you observe your breath. You could sense the movement of air through your nostrils. Or you could notice air moving through the passages of the nose, the throat, or the abdomen. You can also notice your breath in more than one place. There is no “right” point of observation. Just choose. 
  • Notice how difficult it is to pinpoint the exact change between inhalation and exhalation. Weil describes it as an almost “dimensionless point that you pass through.” 
  • Notice also how the breath comes of itself. It simply flows through us without effort. Like the great Tao, its source is hidden in mystery.

For Weil, following the breath “is the most subtle and most powerful form of breath work — both terribly simple and terribly difficult.” 

Exercise: “Reversing” the breath cycle

There are two Chinese characters for the word breath, Weil says. One is for inhalation. The other is for exhalation, and it goes first.

We can take this linguistic cue to inspire another breathing exercise. Instead of assuming that the breath cycle starts with an in-breath, experience it as starting with an out-breath.  

And why not? “Breathing has no beginning or end,” says Weil. “It is a universal, continuous wave form. There’s no point at which you can say that a breath cycle begins and a breath cycle ends.” 

To do this exercise: 

  • Begin by observing your breath in the usual way — in, out, in, out. 
  • Then mentally begin each breath with an exhalation — out, in, out, in.
  • Again, just follow your breathing. Don’t try to influence it in any other way.

One benefit of this exercise is deepening your breathing. By focusing on out-breaths, you can expand the powerful muscles that remove air from your lungs.

Exercise: Squeezing more air out of the lungs

“Most people use effort to inhale and very little effort to exhale,” says Weil. “And as a result, exhalation takes about one-third the time of inhalation.” 

The aim of this exercise is to deepen and lengthen exhalation. As it begins to match the length of inhalation, you move more air through your lungs:

  1. Inhale through your nose as deeply as possible.
  2. Exhale through your mouth.
  3. At the end of your exhalation, try to squeeze out a little more air.
  4. See if you can squeeze even a little more.
  5. Finally, inhale normally.

Note that this exercise prompts you to use the intercostal muscles between the ribs. You will probably feel the effort.

Exercise: The stimulating breath

The purpose of this exercise is to stimulate your nervous system, increase alertness, and focus your attention. Weil often uses it in the afternoon when he feels sleepy.

You might also feel warmer as a result. That’s because this kind of breathing is “real exercise,” Weil says — especially for the muscles at the base of your neck. It can be fairly noisy, too.

First comes some preparation. Yoga philosophy holds that our nervous system has two poles, variously described as positive and negative, solar and lunar, or male and female. To connect these currents, put your tongue in the “yogic position”:

  1. Touch the tip of your tongue to the back of the upper front teeth.
  2. Slide your tongue up just a bit until it’s on that ridge of hard tissue between the teeth and the palate. 
  3. Let your tongue remain there, touching lightly. 

By holding your tongue in this position, the yogis say, you conserve the prana (subtle energy) generated by breathing.

I don’t know if that’s true. But fortunately you don’t have to believe this idea in order to experience the benefits of this exercise.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Put your tongue in the yogic position.
  2. Inhale and exhale rapidly while keeping your mouth tightly closed. Make your in- and out-breaths as short as possible and equal in length.
  3. Do this for 15 seconds and then breathe normally.
  4. Practice these steps daily. Gradually add five seconds to the total time with each repetition until you reach one full minute.
  5. After you end the exercise, pay attention to any changes in your physical sensations and mental state.

Exercise: Letting the universe “breathe” you

This exercise involves some playful and active imagination. Weil likes to do it in bed, just before falling asleep and again right after waking up in the morning:

  1. Lie down on your back and close your eyes.
  2. Rest your arms alongside your body. 
  3. Let go of any control over your breathing. Just allow it to happen. With each in- and out-breath, imagine that the universe is filling you with air and then withdrawing it. You are simply the passive observer of this process as it unfolds without any effort on your part.
  4. Feel the breath as it penetrates your entire body, all the way down to your fingers and toes.

Exercise: The relaxing breath

Weil describes this exercise as his most powerful relaxation method. He teaches it most of his patients: 

  1. Put your tongue in the yogic position described above.
  2. Inhale through your nose quietly to a count of four. 
  3. Hold your breath to a count of seven.
  4. Exhale slowly and completely around your tongue and through your mouth to a count of eight. As you exhale, make a whooshing sound while pursing your lips outward.

Repeat these steps for a total of four breath cycles. Don’t worry about the exact length of each inhale, hold, and exhale. Just maintain the 4-7-8 ratio. 

With practice, you might find that you can slow each cycle down and hold your breath longer. 

Do at least four of these breath cycles — twice per day. After one month, try eight breath cycles, twice per day. Don’t go above that amount.

It’s common for people to feel lightheaded when they first do this exercise. This will pass with practice, Weil says.

After doing this exercise, you might also experience a pleasant altered state of consciousness. 

As a variation on this exercise, do the stimulating breath for one minute. Then immediately do eight cycles of the relaxing breath. This is an ideal way to prepare for meditation.

How to learn more 

I recommend listening to the full recording of Breathing. You’ll get to do breathing exercises in real time with Weil’s step-by-step guidance.

Also see this article about breathing practices. It includes links to videos of Weil demonstrating the exercises.

Remembering Ram Dass and ‘Be Here Now’

For me, there is life BBHN (Before Be Here Now) and life ABHN (After Be Here Now). 

And now there is a weird third chapter that I’m learning how to negotiate — life after Ram Dass, the book’s guiding light, who died just before Christmas 2019.  

I read Be Here Now for the first time in 1972, inhaling most of it in one sitting. Sunlight streaming through a nearby window baked the pages of that homely paperback, and I swear that it started to glow. 

The book became a sacred object, and has remained one ever since. 

When Be Here Now appeared, Eastern spirituality was still considered weird. To meditate or practice yoga — like eating wheat sprouts or protesting the Vietnam war — was to automatically brand yourself as a member of the counter culture. 

If you’d told me back then that these practices would one day go mainstream, I would have laughed in your face. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Be Here Now — lovingly self-published, with all its typos and lack of citations — was a love letter that gave me permission to be weird. 

And I’ve not been alone. Still in print after almost 50 years, Be Here Now has sold over two million copies.

Its influence is immense. After Be Here Now you no longer had to scour the shelves in “head shops,” health food stores, and  antiquarian bookstores for information about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taosim. 

Instead, you could stride confidently into a B Dalton Bookseller (remember them?) or any other major bookstore and find a section openly labeled Eastern spirituality

Before Deepak Chopra, before Eckhart Tolle, before Oprah, there was Ram Dass. He with a handful of others — including Jack Kerouac and Alan Watts — launched a cultural conversation that’s still growing. 

Life as a “9 to 5 psychologist”

The first section of Be Here NowJourney (The Transformation: Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D. Into Baba Ram Dass) — is my favorite. 

This is a page-turning, first-person account of events that have been narrated so many times: Ram Dass’s former life as an academic, his first psychedelic experiments with Tim Leary, his expulsion from Harvard in 1963, and the journey to India that led him to Maharaji, his guru, and his dharma name. 

Ram Dass wrote this part of Be Here Now to set the record straight:

I want to share with you the parts of the Internal Journey that never get written up in the mass media. I’m not interested in the political parts of the story: I’m not interested in what you read in the Saturday Evening Post about LSD. This is the story of what goes on inside a human being who is undergoing all these experiences.

The story begins with worldly success. As Richard Alpert, Ram Dass had appointments in four departments at Harvard along with research contracts at Yale and Stanford. He owned a Mercedes-Benz sedan, an MG sports car, a motorcycle, a small airplane and a sailboat. And after work he hosted “very charming dinner parties” at his antique-filled apartment in Cambridge. 

Yet it was all hollow at the center, Ram Dass recalls. Even though he succeeded at “the academic trip,” he secretly saw himself as “a very good game player” rather than a genuine scholar:

My colleagues and I were 9 to 5 psychologists: we came to work every day and we did our psychology, just like you would do insurance or auto mechanics, and then at 5 we went home and were just as neurotic as we were before we went to work. Somehow, it seemed to me, if all of this theory were right, it should play more intimately into my own life.

It didn’t work that way, Ram Dass recalls. He got diarrhea before giving lectures, drank heavily, and spent five years in psychoanalysis. When he decided to stop, his analyst told him that he was too sick to quit.

“The nature of life was a mystery to me,” Ram Dass recalls. “All the stuff I was teaching was just like little molecular bits of stuff but they didn’t add up to a feeling anything like wisdom.”

The night that Richard Alpert disappeared

That changed shortly after Ram Dass began hanging out with a new colleague — Tim Leary, who was researching the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelic drugs. In 1961 Leary got a test batch of psilocybin from Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company. On a winter night, he invited Ram Dass and a few other friends (including the poet Allen Ginsberg) to sit around his kitchen table and sample it. 

When the bottle of psilocybin pills was passed to him, Ram Dass took a 10 milligram dose. After a few hours he noticed that the “rug crawled and the pictures smiled, all of which delighted me.” 

Then came a more disturbing vision:

…I saw a figure standing about 8 feet away, where a moment before there had been none. I peered into the semi-darkness and recognized none other than myself, in cap and gown and hood, as a professor. It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated from me.

The figure changed several times, cycling through the roles that Richard Alpert played — socialite, lover, pilot, and more. One by one they dropped away, along with his basic identity, “that in me which was Richard Alpert-ness.”

This was scary at first. But after a while he resigned himself to this fate: 

Oh, what the hell — so I’ll give up being Richard Alpert. I can always get a new social identity. At least I have my body….

But soon his body started to disappear as well. Head, torso, limbs — one by one they vanished until all he could see was the couch on which he’d sat. He panicked, convinced that he was dying.

Suddenly a voice sounded inside him, and all it said was ”…but who’s minding the store?”:

When I could finally focus on the question, I realized that although everything by which I knew myself, even this body and life itself, was gone, I was still fully aware! Not only that, but this aware “I” was watching the entire drama, including the panic, with calm compassion. 

Ram Dass directly experienced an “I” that exists beyond social roles and physical identity. 

It was a moment of divine joy. 

Suddenly back in his body, Ram Dass ran outside into the swirling snow flakes, exuberant and laughing all the way. He lost sight of Tim Leary’s house, but “it was alright because I Knew.”

Beyond LSD

This insight persisted long after Ram Dass shifted his focus from psychedelics to yoga, meditation, speaking, writing, and service projects (including fundraising for the Seva Foundation

During a 2012 conversation with Tami Simon, he talked about the 1997 stroke that slowed his speech and restricted his physical activity.  

“I think my body got the stroke, and I am in the body,” said Ram Dass, “and there’s no reason to think that I had a stroke. My body had a stroke.” 

He was still coming from the place he celebrated during the snow storm — the “I” beyond Richard Alpert and his body, that place beyond life and death. 

By the time Be Here Now was published, in fact, Ram Dass had already transcended psychedelics. Though he included them in his list of spiritual practices (upayas), he carefully noted their pros and cons.

Pros: Psychedelics can give you a glimpse of enlightenment. This in turn encourages you to keep keep purifying yourself of attachments via other spiritual practices.

Cons: The psychedelic experience is impermanent. You come down, and you might really bum out. You can also get attached to getting high. And eventually you need to purify yourself of that attachment as well.

“Because the psychedelic agent is external to yourself, its use tends to subtly reinforce in you a feeling that you are not enough,” Ram Dass wrote. “Ultimately, of course, at the end of the path you come to realize that you have been Enough all the way along.”

Cook Book for a Sacred Life

In Be Here Now, Ram Dass shot for the moon. In addition to a memoir, he attempted a complete manual for turning daily life into a spiritual practice. And he succeeded to a degree that still surprises me. 

Consider the section titled Cookbook for a Sacred Life with its headings for: 

  • Guru and Teacher
  • Renunciation
  • Asanas
  • Mantra
  • Transmuting Energy
  • Sexual Energy
  • Drop Out/Cop Out
  • Money and Right Livelihood
  • The Rational Mind
  • Time and Space
  • Dying

… and much more.

Some of the suggestions still sound goofy — for example, the idea that advanced practitioners transcend the need for food and can live on light alone. 

Be Here Now also mentions siddhis — the “powers” that long-time meditators supposedly gain as they increase their power of concentration. Siddhis, Ram Dass wrote, make it easier for you to manifest what you want — money, lovers, or whatever else you desire.

The danger is that you create a new train of attachments along the way. And this only reinforces the illusion that you need to get something outside of yourself in order to become complete over time.  

So, if you do happen to gain powers, just acknowledge them, Ram Dass wrote. Detach from them and continue your spiritual practices:

When Jesus said, “Had ye faith ye could move mountains,” he was speaking literal truth. The cosmic humor is that if you desire to move mountains and you continue to purify yourself, ultimately you will arrive at the place where you are able to move mountains. But in order to arrive at this position of power you will have had to give up being he-who-wanted-to-move-mountains so that you can be he-who-put-the-mountain-there-in-the-first-place. The humor is that finally when you have the power to move the mountain, you are the person who placed it there — so there the mountain stays.

Stay grounded, be kind

Ram Dass also urged spiritual practitioners to live responsibly in the material world — to manage money, take care of the household, and be a dependable family member.

“Just because you are seeing divine light, experiencing waves of bliss, or conversing with Gods and Goddesses is no reason to not know your zip code,” he wrote.

And in a time of deep partisan divisions, Ram Dass’s pleas to let go of an “us versus them” mentality sound remarkably fresh:

Thus, the rule of the game that everyone work on himself in order to find the center where “we all are” within himself in order that he can meet with other human beings in that place…. You may disagree with all his values, but behind all of them … HERE WE ARE … all manifestations of the Spirit.

Related

Ram Dass’s obituary in the New York Times

Ram Dass is ready to die. 

Stream 150 Ram Dass talks at the Be Here Now Network

Tony deMello on the Power of Awareness

Tony deMello’s books have innocent titles such as The Song of the Bird, Taking Flight, and The Way to Love

These might lead you to expect pleasant homilies, New Age affirmations, and an author’s uncritical love.

In reality, Tony confronts our illusions and challenges us to change at a deep level.

Tony was a Jesuit priest steeped in mysticism. He directed the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India, wrote best-selling books, and gave many public talks. (There’s a bunch on YouTube.)

Tony also displayed a healthy cynicism about the spiritual games that people play. 

To begin, Tony described our normal waking consciousness as a delusional kind of sleep.

“Most people don’t live aware lives,” Tony wrote in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. “They live mechanical lives, mechanical thoughts — generally somebody else’s — mechanical emotions, mechanical actions, mechanical reactions.”

His core message, reduced to its essence is: Cut the crap and wake up.

If you want a solid introduction to Tony’s work, then Awareness is the place to start.

This book is a near-verbatim record of talks that Tony gave shortly before he died. What we get in these pages is his mature understanding.

I return to Awareness often. What stands out for me are the following ideas. I’ll introduce each one with a quote from Tony.

We resist real happiness

I want to run your life for you; I want to tell you exactly how you’re expected to be and how you’re expected to behave, and you’d better behave as I have decided or I shall punish myself by having negative feelings. Remember what I told you, everyone’s a lunatic.

When we suffer, Tony said, we don’t really want to be cured.

What we really want is relief. And this is something that we try to get by making people behave according to our expectations.

Our quest to control other people is doomed, however, because we cannot actually determine what they say or do.

Despite all our efforts, we live with a nagging fear that other people will disappoint us or reject us. Instead of being happy, we get jerked around like puppets.

According to Tony, happiness has no cause. It is unconditional. It does not depend on controlling anyone or having anything.

Happiness arises as our natural state once we drop our illusions and unconditional demands.

Do we even have a natural need to be loved and appreciated?

Tony said no. This is just another demand, another illusion.

What we do have is an urge to love unconditionally.

The path to happiness does not lie in being desired by someone and expecting them to satisfy our needs. It lies in contact with reality — seeing that no one really has the power to make us happy or unhappy.

When we forget this, we are the mercy of circumstance. We don’t act — we simply react to the behavior of other people.

Tony told a story to make this point:

A guru was once attempting to explain to a crowd how human beings react to words, feed on words, live on words, rather than on reality. One of the men stood up and protested…. The guru said, “Sit down you son of a bitch.” The man went livid with rage and said, “You call yourself an enlightened person, a guru, a master, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” The guru then said, “Pardon me sir, I was carried away. I really beg your pardon; that was a lapse; I’m sorry.” The man finally calmed down. Then the guru said, “It took just a few words to get a whole tempest going within you; and it took just a few words to calm you down, didn’t it?”

We are more than passing mental states and labels

Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed: after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed.” But there’s a difference: I don’t identify with it any more.

In addition to being at war with other people through our unconditional demands, we are at war with our internal states.

When sadness, fear, or anger arise, we try to make them go away. We turn on the television, surf the Internet, head to the bar for happy hour — anything that will distract us from those unpleasant feelings.

Our mistake, Tony said, is to believe that happiness means feeling good all the time.

Actually, this belief is the source of our unhappiness. This is not reality. It is addiction.

The solution starts with language. Stop saying things such as I am depressed or I am anxious. That’s the state of identification — taking some impermanent aspect of our experience as the whole of ourselves.

Instead, say I am experiencing depression right now. Or, I am experiencing anxiety right now.

Does that sound like a verbal game? Actually, it’s a better description of reality.

Our feelings — pleasant as well as unpleasant — are constantly changing. They come and they go, eluding our direct control.

Our job is not to fix feelings. It is simply to witness how they change.

When we do this consistently, we learn something: The observer inside us — which Tony called “I” — doesn’t change. It merely watches the passing show of thoughts and feelings — the ego, which Tony called “me.”

When we relax into the role of observing, we stop identifying with anything. We’re willing to let any thought or feeling arise. We watch them as they pass by like clouds in the sky. We see that anything that comes and goes is not “I.”

Also think about the other ways that you complete the sentence I am…. You might respond by describing a role — I am a writer…a lawyer…a doctor…teacher…a father…a mother. 

But these are merely labels. These, too, are subject to change. Roles and labels are not “I.”

When someone casually asks who we are, we can make the appropriate small talk. But this is mere convention.

Ultimately we know that the best way to complete the sentence I am.… is to remain silent.

Negative emotions offer insights

There’s only one reason why you’re not experiencing bliss at this moment, and it’s because you’re thinking or focusing on what you don’t have…. right now, you have everything you need to be in bliss.

The surest sign that you’re asleep, Tony said, is that you’re suffering. 

Just as persistent physical pain is a sign of underlying disease, persistent dissatisfaction is a sign that we’re not in contact with reality.

In this sense, suffering is a gift. It’s feedback on our spiritual state. 

Suffering exposes our demands for what we don’t currently have. It exposes our attachments and irrational expectations.

Like the Buddha, Tony often used the words clinging and craving. To understand how they work, think about how you would complete the sentence I absolutely refuse to be happy unless I get….

Any answer you give is a form of craving.

Again, self-observation is the antidote:

Think of a time when you were heartbroken and thought you would never be happy again (your husband died, your wife died, your best friend deserted you, you lost your money). What happened? Time went on, and if you managed to pick up another attachment or managed to find somebody else you were attracted to or something else something else you were attracted to; what happened to the old attachment? You really didn’t need it to be happy, did you?

How do we deal with craving? One common response is to renounce or resist it. But this just gives the craving more power, because we get locked into constant battle with it.

Instead, simply observe the craving. Just see through it, said Tony, and it will naturally drop away.

The path is about subtracting — not adding

“God” is only a word, a concept. One never quarrels about reality; we only quarrel about opinions, about concepts, about judgments. Drop your concepts, drop your opinions, drop your prejudices, drop your judgments and you will see that.

All Tony tried to do was describe our falsehoods. When we’re willing to drop those, he said, truth appears. Instead of talking *about* it, we see it directly.

Here Tony echoes the insights of other spiritual teachers.

“If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything,” wrote Seng-tsan, the third Zen patriarch. “To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

“God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul,” Meister Eckhart stated, “but by a process of subtraction.”

Being unhappy is a sign that we’ve added something to reality.

“And if you examine what you have added,” Tony said, “there is always illusion there, there’s a demand, there’s an expectation, a craving.”

Do you agree with all this? Do you disagree? Tony didn’t care.

There’s nothing to be gained by arguing about it, he said. All he asked was that we adopt an attitude of openness, observe ourselves, and be willing to discover something new.

Tony insisted that the truth cannot be contained in language, including belief systems and ideologies. Words make distinctions. They divide the world into separate people and objects. Words ignore the concrete differences between things and obscure the fact that things are constantly changing.

Even our attempts to find purpose and meaning in life are doomed. These attempts just lead us to more verbal formulas.

“Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning,” Tony said. “Life makes sense only when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.”

Awareness unleashes insight and wise action

No judgment, no commentary, no attitude: one simply observes, one studies, one watches, without the desire to change what is…. The day you attain a posture like that, you will experience a miracle. You will change — effortlessly, correctly.

Do you want to change the world? Then begin with yourself, Tony said.

And do that by observing yourself: “Don’t interfere. Don’t “fix” anything. Watch! Observe!”

This takes effort and the willingness to stop judging ourselves. Insight hinges on acting as an impartial witness.

When we judge ourselves, we fall into the trap of expectation — focusing on what should be rather than what is. We react based on our fears and delusions rather than acting with wisdom and compassion.

We get busy trying to fix things before we have any insight into how they work. And what we judge, we will never understand.

As Tony said, “The beauty of an action comes not from its having become a habit but from its sensitivity, consciousness, clarity of perception, and accuracy of response.”

When we have that clarity, change happens without self-conscious effort on our part. Awareness releases reality to change us. All we have to do is cooperate with the process and let our ego stay out of the way.

This is wu-wei — spontaneous action as described in the Tao te Ching: “When action is pure and selfless/everything settles into its own perfect place.”

Awareness is not a technique

I’m talking about self-observation. What’s that? It means to watch everything in you and around you as far as possible and watch it as if it were happening to someone else…. It means that you look at things as if you have no connection with them whatsoever.

Tony refused to dispense methods and techniques. He simply told us to switch on the search light of self-awareness.

Don’t turn awakening into a goal, however. Don’t try to push yourself into waking up. Enlightenment cannot be planned or scheduled.

When you turn enlightenment into a self-improvement project, your ego gets involved. You start looking for signs that you’ve finally “made it.” You might even judge yourself as superior to the rest of the sleeping people in your life.

The moment that you think you’re a saint is when you stop being one.

Waking up frees us to truly love

I can only love people when I have emptied my life of people. When I die to the need for people, then I’m right in the desert. In the beginning, it feels awful, it feels lonely, but if you can take it for a while, you’ll suddenly discover that it isn’t lonely at all. It is solitude, it is aloneness, and the desert begins to flower. Then at last you’ll know what love is, what God is, what reality is.

Tony described our ideas about relationships as crazy. And the fact that they are widely shared does not make them right: “…if everybody agrees on something, you can be sure it’s wrong!”

Consider the possibility you’re not really in love with anyone. Instead, you’re in love with your impressions of them, which are colored by your hopes, fears, and illusions.

Until we wake up, we can’t really support or help anyone. We’re simply accepting or rejecting our images of each other.

“What does it mean to love?” Tony asked. “It means to see a person, a situation, a thing as it really is, not as you imagine it to be. And to give it the response it deserves.”

Also remember that loving people is not the same as needing them. If we need someone, we can only use them. We’ll stay focused on ourselves rather than on doing what truly benefits others.

Ironically, Tony said, the requirement for truly loving other people is the willingness to be “utterly alone.” This does not mean becoming a hermit. In fact, we can be alone in the midst of crowds of people.

Solitude means dying to the need for other people. It means that we stop holding them responsible for our happiness or misery. Those things are solely a function of our contact with reality.

Forget success — just wake up

Having a lot of money has nothing to do with being a success in life. You’re a success when you wake up! Then you don’t have to apologize to anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about you. You have no worries; you’re happy.

Our endless quest for the passing riches of money, prestige, and popularity distract us from the simple pleasures of life: Work. Play. Laughter. Contact with nature. The company of people who love us without conditions.

Awareness allows us to enjoy these things without over-indulging in them.

Instead, we’re brought up to need other people. We get addicted to their approval and applause — concepts, Tony said, that “do not correspond to reality.”

Tony emphasized that happiness is not the same as excitement, entertainment, or stimulation. Satisfying a desire can be thrilling, but the cost is anxiety about when the next one will be fulfilled.

As we identify less with the ego, we can be more at ease. We release the need to impress people. We can experience pleasures without craving for them to be permanent. The result is that we relax at existential level:

The whole enjoyment of a symphony lies in your readiness to allow the notes to pass…. Learn what it means to experience something fully, then drop it and move on to the next moment, uninfluenced by the previous one. You’d be traveling with such little baggage that you could pass through the eye of a needle. You’d know what eternal life is, because eternal life is now, in the timeless now.

Living With Ease: the Heart of the Tao te Ching

A student asked a Zen master, “How long will it take me to become enlightened?”

“Seven years,” the master answered.

“That’s too long,” the student replied. “How about if I try hard and put forth great effort?”

“Fourteen years,” the master said.

The point: We can act spontaneously and effectively in the world — without internal struggle or excessive effort.

***

On the spiritual path, we are meant to walk with ease and joy.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Even when working long days, Gandhi said he was always on vacation.

In the midst of activity, we can be at rest.

This is one of the core messages in the Tao te Ching — often described as the most translated spiritual text in the world after the Bible. And it is one of many insights that make this book a manual for living serenely in the midst of chaos.

About the Tao te Ching

Both the date of composition and the name of the author of this text are matters of speculation.

Legend holds that Lao-tzu — a contemporary of Confucious — wrote it in the fifth century BCE. The occasion was his retirement from the position of archive keeper in one of China’s many kingdoms.

When Lao-tzu tried to leave the country, the gate keeper demanded that he first reveal the essence of what he’d learned.

In response, Lao-tzu sat down and composed 81 verses of poetry on the spot. Afterward, he mounted his horse, rode away, and disappeared forever. What he left behind was the seed of the Tao te Ching.

Actually, this book may have many authors. It has passed through editors and translators for over two thousand years.

All we have, really, is the text itself. I agree with Stephen Mitchell, who created a superb translation of the Tao te Ching:

Like an Iroquois woodsman, he [Lao-tzu] left no traces. All he left us is his book: the classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.

Where to start

If you decide to read the Tao te Ching, your first challenge is to choose a translation.

Oy! There are so many of them. And, they are so different.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman jokes that “the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!”

May I make a suggestion?

Start with Stephen Mitchell’s translation

Then go deeper with Jonathan Star’s Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition. There you will find extensive commentary and word-by-word translations of the original Chinese characters.

Once you discover the riches of this ancient text, you may want to read it many times.

This is a text to study for a lifetime and live by every day.

Two aspects of Tao

The Tao te Ching is rife with paradoxes that are stated and then transcended.

Verse 1 — widely regarded as the essence of the text — is a case in point.

Start with the term Tao itself. Tao is the unity beneath all differences. It’s the enduring reality from which all seemingly separate things emerge. It’s what we see when we release the artificial distinctions imposed by language. 

Possible synonyms for Tao include:

  • Absolute Reality
  • Supreme Reality
  • Self
  • God
  • Brahman

In this the Tao te Ching itself, Tao is also called:

  • Non-being
  • Origin
  • Nameless

Keeping these synonyms in mind allows the Tao te Ching to slowly reveal itself to you.

Tao becomes te

Tao is impersonal. When it manifests in the form of a human being, however, it becomes personal. It becomes te — a singular expression, form, or aspect of the underlying unity.

In many translations of the Tao te Ching, te is also called virtue. This refers not to morality but the power of the Tao to move — to find its perfect expression in all the separate persons and things in the world.

For the same reason, te is also called Being and the Mother of all things. The One — Tao — gives birth to the many.

What makes this expression so perfect is that Tao remains essentially unchanged — even as it manifests as countless changing objects.

As fire, Tao is hot. As water, Tao is cool. As a human being, Tao emerges at birth, grows older, and dies. 

But Tao itself never changes, ages, or disappears. It has no beginning and no end.

In his introduction to another fine translation of the Tao te Ching, Jacob Needleman sums up verse 1 beautifully:

The metaphysical doctrine now stands before us in outline: an unformed, ungraspable, pure conscious principle lies at the heart and origin of all things; it is referred to as the Tao. This principle moves, expands, descends into form, creating the hierarchically, organically ordered cascade of worlds and phenomena called “the ten thousand things,” or simply the great universe — and this movement, especially as it can move through humanity, is called Te, Virtue.

At the same time, there is a great tide of return to the source, back toward the undifferentiated, pure reality of the “uncarved block.” This movement is also termed Tao. Finally, the supreme whole composed of both movements is also given the designation Tao.

Seeing the world before words

The Tao te Ching reveals that separations and dualities exist only when we use language to name things and make distinctions. This is the difference between the named and the Nameless.

To see this and feel it at a gut level is enlightenment, which I describe as the world before words. This means perceiving the world without symbols, including language and images.

Does all this seem too abstract? Then discover the Tao for yourself. Meditate or do any spiritual practice that stills the mind and stops the constant chatter inside your skull.

Words carve up reality into the “ten thousand things.” When we let them go, what we glimpse is the underlying unity — Tao.

Spiritual practices offer direct paths to the Nameless hidden behind the named. Through such practices, as Eckhart Tolle says, you discover that “God is as real as your hands and feet.”

The end of suffering

Why would we care about discovering the Tao? 

Because it can relieve us of the fear of death and other kinds of suffering. 

It is nirvana, the “peace that passeth all understanding.”

This is what’s described in verse 13 of the Tao te Ching (Jonathan Star’s translation):

When a person does not identify himself with the body
tell me, what troubles could touch him?

Just remember that anything you can name is te, not Tao. The Nameless cannot be contained in any word.

“Just as you cannot fit the ocean into a cup” Star writes, “you cannot fit the limitless universe into your mind.”

Living in harmony with Tao

Many verses in the Tao te Ching point to the virtue of living in harmony with Tao.

Our job is not to conquer nature or have “dominion” over it as described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. We don’t find our place in the world by trying to conquer it. Instead, our practice is to live in harmony with the cosmos, the greater whole.

A key term here is wu wei — “non-doing.” This kind of behavior is spontaneous, effortless, and selfless. In his translation, Stephen Mitchell describes wu wei as trusting “your natural responses” and allowing everything to “fall into place.”

Wu wei happens when we allow feelings to rise and pass without attachment or aversion. Resisting unpleasant feelings and grasping at pleasant feelings takes a lot of energy. When we let go of that constant struggle, we gain emotional balance. And as we release negative emotions, we can act with natural compassion.

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen gives an example related to Buddha’s teaching about “right speech”: Before you speak, notice your emotional state. If you’re feeling angry in the moment, then refrain from speaking:

If you would awaken, the point is not so much to be concerned with the actual words you speak, or even the tone. Instead, be concerned with observing your own heart and mind. Then speak out of your awareness of what you observe — in your heart, mind, and situation. The words you select, and their tone, will follow appropriately. And you will be speaking and listening out of wisdom and compassion.

One misconception about wu wei is that it leads to laziness and passivity. Actually, people who cultivate this virtue can get a lot done. They can even disappear into flow states — also called “being in the zone.”

As Stephen Mitchell notes:

A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.

When we live according to wu wei, we can relax into action.

We can also free ourselves from trying to remember many of the techniques, strategies, and “life hacks” presented in self-help books.

Instead of mechanically imitating someone else’s past behavior, we can simply act with clear attention to the current situation.

This is living with ease, taking the Tao te Ching as our guide and fellow traveler.

Talking to Lao Tzu About Time Management

What if Lao Tzu — purported author of the Tao te Ching — came back to life and we tried to explain time management and goal setting to him?

How would he respond?

It’s easy to dismiss this thought experiment. After all, Lao Tzu died over two millennia ago. We’d have to catch him up on centuries of human history and teach him a few things about our technology besides.

Impossible, right?

But consider how much about our species has not changed since Lao Tzu lived.

We’re still dealing with same primordial human problems, after all — our longing for sex, success, and material comfort.

Our interpersonal conflicts and struggles to coexist with people who differ from us.

Our attachment to pleasure and our aversion to pain (especially in the midst of a global pandemic).

And, above all, our coming to terms with death.

Lao Tzu looked deeply into all of these issues and spoke directly to them in the Tao te Ching.

So let me imagine the impossibly old man smiling enigmatically at my questions. Instead of answering them directly, however, he’d ask for a pencil and paper to put his response in writing.

Perhaps — in the spirit of the Tao te Ching — he’d compose something along the following lines.

1

What is most real cannot be named.
What is closest to us and most ordinary is the greatest mystery.
Time is like this and defies every attempt to control it.
Even the most finely honed effort will not expand or contract it.

When we stop trying to explain time, we know what it is.
When we stop trying to control it, time opens into eternity
And our burdens are lifted.

Acting without intention, we accomplish all our plans.

2

People place great faith in planning and doing.
In setting and achieving goals, they seek fulfillment.

Instead of wealth, they seek money.
Instead of honor, they seek fame.
Instead of loving, they seek lovers.
In restless activity, they seek stillness.
In impermanent things, they seek permanent happiness.
In acquiring things that decay, they seek immortality.

All this effort burdens us with complexity.
The means are all we know, and the ends elude us.

3

People forget that every solution creates a new problem.
Every success creates a fear of its loss.
Every completion gives birth to something unfinished.
Every goal achieved creates a condition that changes.
Every achievement points to an area where we are still lacking.

4

Moments of joy are timeless, but people seek them in time.
Happiness comes uninvited, but people try to control it.
Peace comes by releasing struggle, but people try to force it with willpower.
Serenity comes when we relax the body-mind, but people grasp at it by redoubling their efforts.

5

When people sit in stillness and wait for what comes from silence,
They see that time does not exist and there is nothing to do.
From that same stillness they enter the marketplace and do their work.
They make friends, make love, pay taxes, and cultivate gardens,
Understanding that activity proceeds from prior fulfillment.

6

Nothing that I have to say is new.
Fulfillment is full feeling — pleasant or unpleasant — without resistance.
Happiness is immediate.
Peace is already present.
If you can’t awaken where you’re already standing
Then where will you go to do it?

What keeps people from seeing this is their belief
That nothing simple can be true
That nothing worthwhile can come from relaxing effort
Even for one moment.

7

What if this is all there is
And it never gets any better than this?
Can you live with that?

Is the present moment really so difficult
When you relax into it with no resistance?

Get rid of your problems in one stroke, right now.
Either do something about them or stop dwelling on them.

8

When teachers present their personal preferences with the force of law,
Their tools and techniques sound like prescriptions,
Though they are merely options that you can take or leave.

Tools and techniques are not the point.
Simplicity is.

Productive people are divinely lazy.
They create the desired result with the least possible effort.

If you want to change your behavior, then take it easy
And don’t ever try.
Don’t attempt anything that depends on motivation or willpower.
The minute that you step on the exercise mat
Celebrate the act of showing up.
Anything that happens after that
Is beside the point.

9

Contemplate death daily.
Focus on people as well as projects.
Life is only relationship.
Nothing else matters.

10

Planning means choosing what not to do.
Release is peace.

When we pay attention to what’s happening right now,
Life changes in ways that we cannot explain or predict.
We cannot force a new quality of life to appear.
We cannot schedule transformation
Or make an appointment with paradise.

Paradise can only be recognized, not created.
Fulfillment takes place outside of effort, outside of seeking, outside of time.
We can only act with exquisite attention and release our preferences.
We can open ourselves and wait
While God and grace do the rest.

A Song for My Father

Psychologist B. J. Fogg has a habit of saying “Today’s going to be a great day” as soon as he gets up in the morning. I do that, too, and here’s why.

My dad, Don Toft, is a guiding light to me.

He laughed a lot. He played music. He sang. He painted pictures. He wrote poems.

He loved me very much. I know that because he told me.

My dad was a commercial artist who worked from home during the 1960s — long before anyone considered that normal.

I remember his office in the basement of our house on Seneca Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa. It was filled with paper and paints, triangles and T-squares. It was all so exotic.

I remember standing in that office one night when I was 10 or 11 and staring at every object, trying to figure out what each one was for.

When I was 14, my dad bought me my first electric guitar — a solid body, 3/4-size Fender Duo-Sonic. It was painted cherry red and had a neck of polished wood that felt like velvet. Next to a sunset, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

I will never forget that guitar. It was a Christmas present. At midnight on Christmas Eve that year, I snuck out of bed to peek under the tree. I saw the long, flat case wrapped up in bright green paper with a red ribbon on top. I knew exactly what was inside.

The next morning, when we opened presents, I pretended to be surprised.

During the years after that Christmas, my dad got sick from time to time.

Real sick, actually.

When I was in 8th grade, he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis. None of the adults told us was what was really going on. I found out years later that he almost died then.

Fortunately dad had more years of good health while I finished high school and college.

Then, in 1974, he started developing symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It was the beginning of a long, slow decline. I pray that you and all the people you love never ever have to go through something like that.

During the 1970s I went to college. I studied philosophy and religion and wondered how I could use my studies to help my dad.

Meanwhile, he was slowly losing the ability to walk and talk.

Finally, I sat in my room one night and wrote a letter to him. It was a short letter. I told him that I loved him and didn’t want him to die.

That was all, basically: The fruit of my tuition payments. The sum of my knowledge.

It was the truest thing I ever said to anybody.

I am glad I wrote that letter. Mom said that that dad kept it in his desk drawer and pulled it out to read over and over again.

Watching my dad die taught me not to put off saying the important things that are hard to say to the people who the matter most. You never know when they will be taken away from you. Forever.

My dad died on Mother’s Day, 1982. He was 53 years old.

Even after all this time, I can hardly believe that he’s gone. When I think about it, I still get stabbing sensations in my stomach.

There is still a part of me that thinks dad will call me on the phone or knock on my door.

There is a small child in each of us who never gives up hope.

When my dad died, I promised myself that I would think of him every day. I have never broken that promise.

Every morning, when I get out of bed, I check to see if I can still walk and talk. Then I remember my dad. And then I know that no matter what happens, today will be a great day.