Garma C. C. Chang on the Practice of Zen (Part 1)

Part 2 is here.

Have you read a book that changed you fundamentally—one that you return to time and again only to discover things you’d never seen before?

Such a book is like a lover who stays with you for decades, calls you on your bullshit, and loves you unconditionally at the same time.

Since 1973, when I first encountered it, The Practice of Zen by Garma C. C. Chang has become such a book for me.

I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve reread this. It is, like Ezra Pound said, “news that stays news.”

I read a lot about Zen and humbly attempt to practice it. But out of the vast literature on the subject, The Practice of Zen grants me the most clarity. 

So, I’m reading the book again and posting my notes. This will be in two parts, and I hope that you enjoy the ride.

Taking enlightenment lightly

There is a part of me—the result of being raised Lutheran—that approaches spirituality not just seriously but fearfully. This makes sense if you believe that the whole game is about avoiding an eternity of torment in a special place reserved for nonbelievers.

In Zen Buddhism, this perspective is largely absent. The practice is serious but not solemn.

In fact, there is attitude of detachment and humor that pervades the whole teaching. It echoes G. K. Chesterton, who said, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Chang quotes a dialogue between two Zen masters that proceeds in this spirit. It illustrates the Zen ideal of moving from abstract concepts to concrete details:

One day Chao Chou and Wen Yuan played a debating game. They agreed that whoever won the argument would be the loser, and whoever lost the argument would be the winner. As a prize, the loser should give the winner some fruit.

“You speak first,” said Wen Yuan to Chao Chou. 

So the following dialogue ensued:  

Chao Chou: I am an ass.  

Wen Yuan: I am the stomach of that ass.  

Chao Chou: I am the feces that the ass has dropped.  

Wen Yuan: I am a worm in the feces.  

Chao Chou: What are you doing in the feces?  

Wen Yuan: I spent my summer vacation there.  

Chao Chou: All right. Now give me the fruit.

Before Zen study, I saw story this as gibberish. With Zen study, I see that it points to the core of Buddhism. 

If I ever hear a conversation like that between two Lutheran ministers, I’m going back to church again.

What is Zen?

Believe it or not, there is a simple answer to this question. According to Chang, Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch’an, a Chinese word for meditation. And Ch’an is a corruption of Dhyana, a Sanskrit word for meditation.

“In other words,” Chang notes, “Zen is a mispronunciation of another mispronunciation!”

If asked to define Zen during a happy hour conversation, this is probably what I’d say. I’d sidestep the real challenge—that Zen is profound and nearly impossible to describe.

Even for Chang, a Zen monk and Buddhist scholar, Zen is something “round and rolling, slippery and slick.” 

This is not a bug in Buddhist mental software, however, but a core feature: The practice aims at a life-changing and intuitive insight that transcends words.

Beyond clinging to concepts

If there is a unifying theme in all the Zen literature I’ve read, it’s enlightenment as seeing the world without the screen of concepts. Chang gives this example from the sixth Zen patriarch’s remarks to his student, Hui Ming:

“If you have come here for Dharma, you should first cast aside all mental activity and let no thoughts whatsoever arise in you. Then I shall preach the Dharma for you.”

After a long time of silence, the Sixth Patriarch continued, “Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, right at this very moment, that is your original face.”

Hui Ming was immediately enlightened.  

The same theme comes to us from many other sources. See, for example, In My Own Way, the autobiography of Alan Watts:

It [Zen] continues, in its own way, the general practice of Buddhism, which is to free the mind from its habitual confusion of words, ideas, and concepts with reality, and from all those emotional disturbances and entanglements which flow from this confusion. Thus the ego, time, the body, life, and death are all viewed as concepts having neither more nor less reality than abstract numbers or measures, such as inches or ounces.  

Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master, says:

If you are thinking, then all Zen books, all Buddhist sutras, all Bibles are demons’ words. But if you read with a mind that has cut off all thinking, then Zen books, sutras, and Bibles are all the truth. So is the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster: all things are teaching you at every moment, and these sounds are even better teaching than Zen books. So Zen is keeping the mind which is before thinking.  

And in Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, John Stevens describes the origin of satori, a Japanese word often used as a synonym for enlightenment:

This can be translated literally as (sa) distinctions (tori) remove—that is, to remove all artificially constructed distinctions such as mind/body, self/other, correct/incorrect, archer/bow, arrow/target, and so on. In short, satori is “to transcend dualities.”  

But my favorite rendering of this teaching is a poem that Chang lovingly translates from Zen Master Hung Chih:

Silently and serenely one forgets all words;
Clearly and vividly
That appears before him.
When one realizes it, it is vast and without edges;
In its Essence, one is clearly aware.
Singularly reflecting is this bright awareness,
Full of wonder is this pure reflection.
Dew and the moon,
Stars and streams,
Snow on pine trees,
And clouds hovering on the mountain peaks—
From darkness, they all become glowingly bright;
From obscurity, they all turn to resplendent light….
Oh look! The hundred rivers flow
In tumbling torrents
To the great ocean!

Revisiting the Gurdjieff Work: Does It Still Matter?

To encounter the Gurdjieff teachings is to permanently leave behind the world of New-Age-feel-good-self-help fluff.

Forget about “manifesting your desires” through some “law” of attraction.

Forget about visualizing paradise and chanting affirmations to create your ideal circumstances.

And forget about setting and achieving goals as a way to “get what you want” and steadily but surely create the “life of your dreams.”

I can imagine sitting with Gurdjieff in a Moscow cafe on the eve of World War I and spouting ideas like these to him. He’d throw coffee in my face and laugh me out of the room.

Confronted by Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff says that I have no real emotional life. I am dominated by negative emotions, worry constantly about what other people think of me, and am ready to take offense at any moment.

Even the emotions that I label as love and compassion can flip into their opposites in a split second when people do something that violates my expectations.

Gurdjieff says that I live my life in a state of waking sleep. I am not a human being but simply a bundle of unconscious reflexes and habits.

Gurdjieff says that I am not one “I” but a constantly shifting succession of “little I’s”. From moment to moment, I identify with a parade of passing thoughts, desires, and external stimuli that happen to catch my fancy.

In one moment I identify with the “I” who vows to rise at at 6 a.m., exercise, and eat a carb-free breakfast. But at 6 a.m. the next morning, I identify with the “I” who wants to sleep in, avoid physical activity, and eat pancakes with syrup.

Imagine a country where every citizen gets to be president for five minutes, do whatever he or she pleases, and make decisions that are binding on all the other citizens.

This, said Gurdjieff, is the story of my inner life.

Waking up

It is possible for me to escape my current condition — to attain unity, will, and consciousness. But the odds are greatly stacked against it. And, the path to freedom involves a prolonged period of voluntary suffering.

By myself I can accomplish almost nothing. Instead, I must find an organized “school” of people who want to wake up. These schools can only appear under certain conditions, and they are not advertised.

If I do happen to find a school, then I must voluntarily submit to a student who has already attained a higher level of being and receive teachings that can only be transmitted face-to-face. That person’s job is to reveal my chief feature (primary weakness) and assign me a series of tasks that systematically reveal it.

What I still want to know is this: Is any of this stuff true? And if so, what shall I do about it?

Who was Gurdjieff?

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff has been described as a mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and saint. He has also been called a scammer, a fraud, and a cynical manipulator of his students.

Possibly he was several of those things. Much about him remains mysterious.

We’re not even sure when Gurdjieff was born. The Britannica Reference Center lists the year 1877 with a question mark and Armenia as his birthplace.

Britannica also states that Gurdjieff “is thought to have spent his early adult years traveling in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, India, and especially Central Asia, learning about various spiritual traditions.”

In any case, Gurdjieff settled in Moscow about 1913. He gathered groups of students there and in Saint Petersburg, where he met the writer P. D. Ouspensky.

With financial backing from his students, Gurdjieff founded several schools — places where his students lived together, assembled for lectures, and did spiritual practices. The latter included sacred dances known as the “Gurdjieff movements.” These are performed to music by composer Thomas de Hartmann, who studied personally with Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff’s most well-known school was the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, located in Fontainebleau, France.

What were Gurdjieff’s sources?

Gurdjieff described his teachings as a grand synthesis of ideas from many sources. These probably included Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Gurdjieff, in fact, sometimes said that he taught esoteric Christianity. The most commonly recommended introduction to his teachings — Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching — includes these passages:

Christian is one who lives in accordance with Christ’s precepts….In order to be Christians we must be able “to do.” We cannot do; with us everything “happens.” Christ says: “Love your enemies,” but how can we love our enemies when we cannot even love our friends?

Gurdjieff wrote his own books, of course. One is a trilogy titled Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.

Another is Meetings With Remarkable Men, an account of Gurdjieff’s travels throughout Asia in pursuit of esoteric knowledge. Peter Brook directed a film based on this book, with sacred dances choreographed by Jeanne de Salzmann, a Gurdjieff student.

Those books, along with Life is Real Only Then When I Am are what remains of Gurdjieff’s grand All and Everything project — “ten books in three series.”

The Fourth Way

Gurdjieff’s teachings are often described simply as the Work, or as the Fourth Way, an alternative to:

  • The way of the yogi, which centers on understanding and intuitive insight
  • The of the monk, which centers on devotion, compassion, and other altruistic emotions
  • The way of the fakir, which centers on mastery of the physical body

Gurdjieff said that his teachings enable us to develop all of these capacities with a single set of practices.

In addition, the Work is designed for people who live ordinary lives that are filled with work and family activities. Gurdjieff saw this as his major contribution — a way of ultimate transformation designed for the modern world; a path that does not require permanent retreat to a monastery or ashram.

Entering the Work

During the 1980s, I joined a Gurdjieff reading group. This gathering may have been the outermost ring of a Gurdjieff school, probably long disbanded by now.

We assembled on Saturday or Sunday mornings at a coffee shop to discuss passages from In Search of the Miraculous

The man who led the group urged us to practice self-observation and share whatever we discovered. Forget grand revelations, he said. Look for concrete insights — simple moments of self-discovery that give you something practical to work with.

During those years I lived next door to a man who let the front door slam whenever he exited his house. I must have heard that sudden and unpredictable sound of wood slap-crashing against wood hundreds of times. I judged my neighbor harshly and reveled in my superiority to him.

Then one day I walked outside the front door of my house and heard my own front door slam behind me.

I stood frozen for a full minute.

As the sound of that door slam passed through my body, I realized my lack of self-awareness. I saw through my righteous anger at my neighbor. And I instantly understood that I had no basis to judge him or anyone else.

It was a moment of self-remembering.

For one moment, I was awake.

What would it be like to live my whole life with that kind of clarity?

I might see the world without the screen of my egocentric illusions — what Gurdjieff called objective consciousness.

This is the possibility that Gurdjieff holds out to me.

Does the Work still exist?

Gurdjieff died in 1949, designating no successor. Some argue for this reason that the Work died with Gurdjieff.

His impact continues, however, through the many books published by and about him.

I recommend starting with Ouspensky’s books, especially The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution and In Search of the Miraculous.

In addition, you’ll find many websites devoted to the Gurdjieff teachings. These differ greatly in quality.

If you’re online, start with the writings of Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, including G. I. Gurdjieff and His School.

And if you happen to find a practicing Gurdjieff group, be careful. You may have stumbled on to something authentic. Or, it may an ego-driven cult led by a pretender. Or something in between those extremes.

In her review of In Search of the Miraculous on Goodreads, sjdoherty offers a reasonable perspective:

Having read just about everything written by or about Gurdjieff…and having been drawn by them into spending years in a Gurdjieff “school,” and being familiar with the traditions on which the Gurdjieff approach was based, I take a lot of the “fourth way” material with a large grain of salt. The core of the “work” is a powerful methodology, but no more so than, say, vipassana, zen, dzogchen or other solid, meditation-based tradition….The biggest difference is that Gurdjieff left behind a legacy of fraudulent teachers and cults….Regardless, I strongly recommend In Search of the Miraculous. It’s the single best book on Gurdjieff’s work ever written.

As Gurdjieff himself said (quoted in In Search of the Miraculous):

On the fourth way a man must satisfy himself of the truth of what he is told. And until he is satisfied he must do nothing.

I would add: Enter the group with a clear aim and look for results. 

My aim, for example, was freedom from negative emotions. And in this area the Work granted me many blessings — a subject for another post. 

Disputing and Defusion: Two Options for Dealing With Upsetting Thoughts

Consider how you respond to self-critical thoughts such as:

  • I am unlovable.
  • Nothing good ever happens to me.
  • I’ll never amount to anything.

For decades, the strategy used in psychotherapy was essentially search and destroy: Root up such irrational beliefs. Unmask their logical contradictions. Expose their negative consequences. 

In short, use the scalpel of pure reason to dispute irrational beliefs. Then systematically replace them with more rational alternatives.

Today, however, many psychotherapists question this argumentative approach. They worry that it can backfire and even reinforce irrational beliefs. Instead, these therapists suggest defusion.

Both of these approaches have helped me, and in this post I’ll explain how I use them. I’m not a scientist or therapist, so keep in mind (as always) that “your mileage may vary” with these suggestions.

The ABC model of human misery

In his many books, the psychotherapist Albert Ellis proposed the “ABC model of emotional disturbance”:

  • A refers to an Activating event
  • B refers to Beliefs about that event
  • C refers to Consequences of those beliefs

According to Ellis, most of us assume that Activating Events lead directly to certain Consequences, such as feeling miserable.

Say that I interview for a job and don’t get hired (A). I might conclude that I’m un-employable (C) and stop looking for work.

Ellis maintained that the “A causes C” model often leads to depression, anxiety, shame, rage, and other negative emotions. His solution was to notice the “B factor” — the role of Beliefs in creating such emotions.

According to Ellis, interpretation is everything. It’s not what happens to us (A) that creates our misery. It’s what we believe (B) about what happens to us.

We can interpret any event according to rational beliefs or irrational beliefs. If our beliefs are irrational, we’ll suffer greatly (an undesirable C). But if our beliefs are rational, we’ll suffer less and rebound faster (a more desirable C).

For example, a rational belief about interviewing for a job and getting turned down is: I can rehearse better answers to common questions and do better at my next job interview.

I might feel sadness about the lost job opportunity. But talking to myself in a constructive way about happens next offers real benefits. I am less likely to quit looking for work or sink into depression.

Disputing irrational thoughts

In short, Ellis said that the key to mental health is adding another letter to the ABC formula: D for Disputing. This means looking for the logical flaws in our self-defeating beliefs and exposing the lack of evidence for them. The result is more rational thinking, more flexible behavior, and more happiness.

Ellis called his approach Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Its impact was enormous.

Years ago I saw Ellis in action at a conference. He asked for volunteers to do a short therapy session in front of the audience. Man, that guy had an edge. He didn’t just criticize irrational beliefs. He attacked them mercilessly.

Ellis was a man with a mission — to free the human race of irrationality.

How disputing can backfire

In A CBT Practitioner’s Guide to ACT, Joseph Ciarrochi and Ann Bailey take a fresh look at the practice of disputing irrational beliefs. (CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.)

Ciarrochi and Bailey say that disputing can fail for several reasons:

Disputing leads to suppression. Here’s a thought experiment to demonstrate this point: Right now, do everything you can do avoid thinking about a pink elephant. Do not under any circumstances allow any image of a pink elephant to enter your mind.

Did you succeed? Probably not. In fact, you probably experienced how attempts to suppress a thought can have exactly the opposite effect. You just couldn’t help thinking about that pink elephant.

Here’s the paradox: In order to suppress that mental image, you had to bring it to mind in the first place.

One logical effect of disputing irrational beliefs is the assumption that we should suppress them. Unfortunately, this sets us up for the “pink elephant paradox.” Trying to suppress such beliefs can actually increase their frequency.

Disputing links experiences with irrational beliefs. When a client stated an irrational belief, psychotherapist Albert Ellis asked: “Where’s the evidence?” That’s a reasonable question, since many irrational beliefs have no supporting evidence.

But there’s a potential problem with asking for evidence for an irrational belief: It forces us to filter experiences through the lens of that belief.

Suppose that the belief under dispute is I am unlovable. And for an entire day, I make a resolution to look for possible evidence that supports this belief.

Now all my interactions with people during these 24 hours become tinged with the question: “Is this person rejecting me or not?” Instead of being freed from the irrational belief, I am forced to refer to it more often.

Disputing implies that thoughts cause behavior. One purpose of disputing beliefs is to change the self-defeating behaviors associated with those beliefs. Yet it’s easy to fall into another trap here — the assumption that we have to change our beliefs before we can change our behavior.

This assumption is false. In fact, we can deliberately act against our beliefs. For instance, you can ask someone for a date even if you believe you’re unlovable. You can sign up for a public speaking class even though you believe you’ll fail.

Ironically, Ellis often encouraged his client to dispute beliefs by acting against them. This was the basis of his legendary shame-attacking exercises.

Disputing assumes that we’re motivated by the accuracy of our beliefs. Disputing reveal inaccurate beliefs. However, we hold beliefs for many reasons other than accuracy.

For example, stating an irrational belief can elicit social approval. If you tell a lot of people that you’re unlovable, you’re likely to get some positively reinforcing responses: “That’s not true at all. You really are lovable.”

Disputing is inefficient. While disputing, you isolate individual beliefs, tear them apart, and systematically replace them. While this can help, it’s also a lot of work. If you dealing with dozens of irrational beliefs, you might be signing up for weeks of months of effort.

An alternative — defusing

Instead of disputing and replacing thoughts one by one, defusing allows us to unplug from whole streams of thoughts immediately.

To understand this approach, first consider the concept of fusing with thoughts. In a state of fusion, I identify with my thoughts. I believe that I am my thoughts. And, if I have “bad” thoughts, then I must be a “bad” person.

Defusing reverses this process. When I defuse, I step back from thoughts. I detach from them. I observe them. I no longer am those thoughts. I simply have thoughts.

This is like meditation, which is often described with the “cloud analogy”: Imagine yourself watching clouds as they float through the sky. As each cloud appears, you notice its characteristics (shape, texture, color).

However, you don’t become personally involved with or emotionally attached to any individual cloud. You simply observe each one as it arises and passes away.

Something like this happens with thoughts when we meditate. Like clouds, thoughts float into our field of awareness. And like clouds, thoughts are impermanent. They will billow up and float away if we just let them arise and pass without judgement. 

In Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith define defusing as being able to “watch your thoughts without belief or disbelief, without entanglement, without struggle.”

Ways to defuse

Hayes and Smith authors many exercises to build our defusion muscles. Following are some I’ve used.

Label your thoughts. Preface them with an introductory phrase, such as I am having the thought that….

Instead of saying “my life’s a mess,” for example, say, “I am having the thought that my life’s a mess.” Adding the extra words gives you some distance from thoughts and helps you to stop fusing with them.

See thoughts as leaves floating down a stream. Each time a thought pops into your head, visualize it as a leaf that’s dropping into a gentle stream and floating away. Your goal is to stand by the stream and just watch that happen.

Don’t try to control which leaves fall into the stream. Don’t try to change the speed of the stream. If the stream stops flowing because you fixate on a certain leaf (thought), or because your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the image of the stream.

Say it slowly. Take a judgmental thought and say it slowly, out loud. Elongate each word.

If the thought is I am worthless, for instance, then:

  • Stretch out the word “I” so that it lasts for one inhalation of your breath.
  • Say the word “am” for the whole exhalation.
  • Then say “worth“ for your next inhalation and “less” for the next exhalation.

The purpose here is to experience thoughts simply as simple sounds and moving air — not statements of fact.

Say it in a different voice. Speak judgmental thoughts while doing an impression of Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, or your least favorite politician.

Turn the thought into a song. For instance, take a cue from “The Sound of Music.” In a loud and full voice, sing “My mind is alive—with the thought of sadness.”

Broadcast the thought on “bad news radio.” Like a cable news station, your mind broadcast thoughts without interruption. Using an announcer’s voice, “report” the judgmental thoughts that pop into your mind:

This is bad news radio! We’re here 24/7. Remember. All bad news. All the time. Flash: [insert your name] is a bad person! Really bad, in fact! More at 11.”

Adding both disputing and defusion to your toolbox

I find value in both disputing and defusion. Perhaps you, too, will find them useful in different times and circumstances.

Isn’t it wonderful that we have both options to use?

Revisiting Eckhart Tolle: 20 Years After the Power of Now

I remember Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, before he became a spiritual superstar. 

Before Oprah co-opted him. 

Before most of his best-selling books. 

Before the lecture tours, and before his online marketing machine

Lately I’ve been wondering: How did he survive all that commotion? Twenty years after the The Power of Now appeared, what — if anything — does Tolle have to say?

As it turns out, there’s enough to still matter.

The perils of spiritual stardom

Tolle was a relatively new phenomenon when a client of mine recommended The Power of Now to me in 2000. I browsed through a copy of it at a bookstore and scratched my head. 

The book was structured like a big FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) web page. It seemed haphazard to me. I put the book down and forgot about it.

But for Tolle everything exploded. The Power of Now sold like crazy and became impossible to ignore. Tolle entered the world of spiritual stardom — a career path that’s loaded with land mines.

For one thing, there are your followers. If they tell you over and over again that you’re enlightened or (God forbid) divine, you just might start to believe them.  

Thankfully, Tolle has not suffered this fate. But he did descend into another occupational hazard — spiritual jargon

People who are new to Tolle can struggle with terms that Tolle imbues with his own special meanings — Being, formless, Source, Unmanifested, and more. 

The other potential frustration for Tolle’s followers is that he doesn’t teach spiritual practices. That is, he doesn’t really give you anything to do, like meditation instructions or yoga postures.  

Perhaps truly enlightened beings rise above the need for practices. But the rest of us down here on the ground need some concrete suggestions. 

An authentic awakening

Even so, I cannot dismiss Tolle. For one thing, I still resonate with the account of his awakening as described in The Power of Now

Until he turned 30, Tolle recalls, he “lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression.” 

One night he woke up in the early hours of the morning with a “feeling of absolute dread” that nearly drained him of the desire to continue living.

What happened to Tolle next was an experience of non-duality:

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe”, I thought, “only one of them is real.” I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy…. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void.

Tolle awoke from the altered state of consciousness to the sight of his bedroom furniture in his London apartment. Everything was bathed in the morning sunlight. He remembers that it all seemed “fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence.” 

Tolle got out of bed, dressed, and walked the streets of London, “marvelling at the beauty and aliveness” of everything he saw. This was followed by living “in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss” for the next five months. 

Eventually these feelings faded. But Tolle found that “he could still function in the world, although I realized that nothing I ever did could possibly add anything to what I already had.”

A “thunderous truism”

Beyond this story, Tolle’s teaching offers a lasting insight. Dan Harris — journalist, avid meditator, and critic of Tolle — sums it up well:

It’s this thunderous truism: We all know on some level that we are thinking all the time, that we have this voice in our heads, and the nature of this voice is mostly negative. It’s also repetitive and ceaselessly self-referential. We walk around in this fog of memory about the past and anticipation of a future that may or may not arrive in the form in which we imagine it…. 

The possibility that Tolle holds out to us is that we can walk out of this fog — and wake up to who we truly are.

More specifically, Tolle’s teaching boils down to one big distinction — living from ego versus living from presence

Living from ego

Ego is our typical way of experiencing life — with constant commentary from the Voice inside our head that Dan Harris describes. This stream of thought is reactive, irrational, and judgmental. Tolle describes it as mental noise that makes us suffer. 

Being human is like living with someone who is constantly complains and never shuts up — only that “someone” is us. 

The Voice inside our head also creates the sense of a separate self — that is, an ego. That’s because much of our mental noise centers on me and my problems. These, we believe, are largely caused by other people and events that violate our expectations.  

Ironically, the concepts of I, me, and mine are not present at the level of pure sensation — what we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel. The ego arises only with language: We use personal pronouns to imply that someone “owns” the sensations, which arise spontaneously without our conscious control.

In the state of ego, we maneuver through the world as fearful, isolated entities, constantly trying to arrange the circumstances of our lives for maximum pleasure and minimal pain. This involves constant effort because those circumstances are forever in flux. 

To live from the ego, says Tolle, is to enter the world of time. The underlying assumption is: I’ll finally be satisfied when I get married, when I get a job, when I get promoted, when I have children, when I retire, or when [fill in the blank with your favorite attachment]. 

Unfortunately, that magical moment of satisfaction never arrives. Or, it arises for a short time and then fades away. In the Landmark Forum, this is called the “myth of someday.”)

When functioning from the ego, we define ourselves by what’s happened in the past. We also assume that our mind is housed in a body — a physical form that is limited in space, separated from every other physical form, and fated to die. 

Living from presence

For Tolle, presence means allowing the self-critical and self-referential Voice inside our head grind to a halt. We’re willing to notice our experience without judging it or identifying with it. Instead of saying things like I feel happy or I feel sad, we simply notice that moods are impermanent and impersonal.

Using a more concrete metaphor, Tolle talks about entering a gap — the space between thoughts. If you meditate long enough, you experience this when the mind becomes so still that your internal chatter spontaneously stops:

When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental stream — a gap of “no mind.” At first, the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will become longer. When these gaps occur, you feel a certain stillness and peace inside you…. With practice, the sense of stillness and peace will deepen.

No mind is the point after one thought disappears and before another thought arises. In that space is pure awareness with no ego, says Tolle. It is outside of time, not located in space, and not subject to birth and death. 

By dwelling in this still point — this space between thoughts — we can stop defining ourselves by what happened in the past. We can witness our thoughts and feelings without identifying with them. And, says Tolle, we can experience a sense of fulfillment that does not depend on achieving any goal in the future. 

Those are all grand claims. But I can attest that the experience of no mind is actually possible. 

Benefits of releasing the Voice

Through practices such as yoga and meditation, you can observe the Voice as it gradually winds down. You might not experience cosmic thunderbolts of enlightenment, but who cares? You get to release the Internal Critic — if only for a moment — and taste the peace that results.

This practice of stilling the mind has made a difference in my daily life, leading to the following benefits that continue to surprise and delight me.  

Releasing reactivity. When the Voice is active, I tend to act impulsively. If someone makes a cutting remark, I am likely to react in kind. If a driver cuts me off in traffic, I am tempted to honk or flash a stiff middle finger.

This is not inevitable, however. Instead, I can enter the gap of no mind. 

I can sink in to the space between thoughts by taking a deep breath, checking in with my body, and simply noticing what physical sensations are present. (Tolle is right: Time is a product of the mind, of thinking; the body exists in the present moment.)

The power of this simple practice is that it delays an immediate reaction to the cutting comment or rude driver. That reaction is likely to be equally toxic. 

By pausing to enter the present moment, I can let all those little irritations go. They are simply passing moments. They don’t really matter.

This practice has helped me to defuse tension, prevent conflicts, and smile more often. I am convinced that it will save my life someday.

Releasing the need to be right. We can easily become attached to a narrow range of opinions. Over time we can instinctively divide people into two opposing camps — us versus them

People are “right” when they agree with us. They are “wrong” when they disagree. And if they say the “wrong” things, we feel personally attacked and compelled to defend ourselves. 

How refreshing it is to enter the gap of no mind instead. This allows us to notice the need to be right as it unfolds in real time — and to simply drop it. 

Tolle says it well:

Once you have disidentified from your mind, whether you are right or wrong makes no difference to your sense of self at all, so the forcefully compulsive and deeply unconscious need to be right, *which is a form of violence, will no longer be there. You can state clearly and firmly how you feel or what you think, but there will be no defensiveness or aggressiveness about it.

Releasing problems. It is also possible to release all your problems — right now, in the present moment.

Again, I’ll quote Tolle:

Focus your attention on the now and tell me what problem you have in this moment.

I am not getting any answer because it is impossible to have a problem when your attention is fully in the Now. A situation needs to be either dealt with or accepted. Why make it into a problem?

I find this quite useful. 

If you’re troubled by a situation in your life, then in the present moment you have two sane options: 1) do something to change it or 2) simply accept it until you can do something about it. 

But many of us do something else instead: We dwell on the situation mentally without taking action or practicing acceptance. And it is this mental obsession — not the situation itself — that creates suffering

As Tolle notes:

The mind unconsciously loves problems because they give you an identity of sorts. This is normal, and it is insane. “Problem” means that you are dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now and that you are unconsciously making it part of your sense of self.… 

All it takes is a simple choice, a simple decision: No matter what happens, I will create no more pain for myself. I will create no more problems.

In other words, do something about the situation now. Or not. But in either case, don’t dwell on it. 

Simple, right?

Easy? No.

But it is something to practice. And it lightens the load considerably.

Writing as Spiritual Practice: Cultivating Deep Humility

The Sixth Patriarch asked Huai Jang: “Where do you come from?”    

Huai Jang replied: “I come from Mount Su.”    

The Patriarch said: “What is it and how does it come?”    

Huai Jang answered: “Anything I could say would miss the point.” 


Every time I finish a piece of writing, I see again the terrifying truth: Reality transcends anything that I could possibly say about it. 

Language, though necessary and beautiful, is a crude and blunt instrument.

I write until I see that there are certain things that cannot be communicated in words. 

Then I hit publish.

But what I don’t tell you is: I write to destroy the illusion that I know anything.

I write to stay humble. 


Life, as someone said, is just one damn thing after another. 

But writers impose an artificial order on experience. 

When I experience art, I don’t want life. I want an extract of life. 

Are you old enough to remember a movie called The Tree of Wooden Clogs? This film chronicles the mundane events of its characters’ lives. We see them grooming, cleaning, cooking, eating meals, washing dishes, and doing the hundred other things that fill our days.

It was excruciating. 

I sat through all three hours of this film in a theater and walked away saying: This is not art. It’s life.

Art is life with the boring parts left out.  


Writing is about beginnings, middles, and ends.

In stories, I want to see what happens when a character — someone I care about — faces a problem that matters (the beginning). I want to see what she does next (the middle). And I want to find out whether the problem is ever solved (the end). 

Of course, our daily lives are seldom like this. We experience problem after problem that we never resolve. We run into potential solutions and fail to recognize them. And often we fail to realize that we even have a problem in the first place.

But writers give us complications, developments, and resolutions. 

For a moment, life stops being one damn thing after another.

Of course, this is not really true. Order is an illusion. But sometimes it is necessary for us to take refuge there.


Every time I sit down to write, there is a part of me that feels afraid.

I know that I am about to fail.

Every article, every book, every blog post represents the destruction of a perfect idea.

Writing — especially the process of revising — is crap detection. Factual errors, gaps in logic, and fluffy sentences become obvious when they stare back at you from the page (or screen). They beg to be rewritten or simply deleted.

Sometimes, in fact, I discover that I really have nothing to say.

I end up deleting everything. And there I am, back at a blank page.

Welcome to the abyss. It is one of my oldest and dearest friends.

Sometimes I just want to publish that blank page. That would at least be honest.

But, alas, there’s no way for you to know what led up to that empty space.

And we’ve already agreed that pages exist to be filled with words and images.

It’s OK with me, as long as we remember that it’s not always true.


I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. — THADDEUS GOLAS

Writing is one of the most transformative practices that I know. It forces me to take my cherished beliefs and subject them to the withering scrutiny of revision. 

Only the ideas that I absolutely cannot destroy will survive. And there are precious few of those.


Letting go of the fluff in your writing — especially when it’s stuff that you actually believe — can be painful.

The Buddha talked about overcoming “attachment to views and opinions.”

But what I’m talking about is more than that. It’s about being battered, broken, and ultimately opened.

Karlfried Graf von Durkheim described this:

Thus the aim of the practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to let go of his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites…. Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.  

Dürckheim was writing about Zen. But his words also apply to the fire of editing.


I’d like to write to write one true sentence before I die. 

Writing as Spiritual Practice: Organizing for Creativity

There’s a persistent myth about creative people — that they’re inherently messy and disorganized. 

Moreover, many of us assume that disorganization is essential to creativity.

I invite you to question these assumptions. 

Many creative people are organized. In fact, artists often cultivate a meticulous process that allows them to produce a body of work. (Chuck Close, the visual artist, offers a fascinating example.)

In this post I offer a process for writing that blends spontaneity and organization to fuel creativity. The aim is to kindle your intuition as you refine your ideas and share them with the world.

The essence of creativity

This process is for you — even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer or other kind of artist. To get started, keep one thing in mind: Creativity happens any time that we make new connections between existing ideas. 

In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler called this bisociation — the “perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.”

Matt Ridley and James Altucher describe this in more graphic terms — “letting ideas have sex with each other.”

Recently, for instance, I re-read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In this book he combined his love of jazz and passion for writing in a quest to marry the two art forms.

This led Jack to compose long-flowing lines with cascading phrases, much like an improvised jazz solo. The result was a new hybrid art form — Kerouac’s musical prose. 

Creativity for all of us

Writing is a way for everyone to practice the creative process. If you already keep a diary or personal journal, you’ve got a start. 

To become more creative, remember that creativity is a process. Like any process, it involves inputs, processing, and outputs. As a writer, I prefer the terms collecting, revising, and testing


You’re swimming in many streams of information on a daily basis — voice mails, emails, snail mail, articles, books, podcasts, conversations, meetings.  On top of it all is the constant flow of thoughts running through your head.

Much of this information is transient and forgettable. But a tiny percentage of it is worth capturing for later use. 

Stay alert to seeds of inspiration — ideas that could develop into a blog post, book, presentation, video, podcast, product, service, or something else that you want to create. 

One thing you can count on: Many of these seeds will occur to you at the most inconvenient moments. So, be prepared to capture ideas on the run

I use Apple’s Notes app for this purpose, since I almost always have my iPhone with me. I can pull it out whenever an idea occurs to me and create a short note to expand on later. 

But of course there are many other options. These include good old-fashioned pen and paper stashed in a pocket, pack, or purse.

If you’re not sure what information to capture, then take a cue from Tiago Forte and his concept of resonance: Don’t make any explicit rules about what to save. Just capture whatever resonates with you in the moment, for any reason — even if you’re not sure that you’ll ever use it. 

In short, let intuition — not reason — be your guide to collecting. This makes room for the unconscious aspects of the creative process.

Also allow yourself to collect without committing. You are under no obligation to further develop any idea that you capture. These are just possibilities, not obligations. 


Reduce. If you systematically capture ideas over time, you’ll accumulate a lot of notes. Avoid the collector’s fallacy, however: a mounting pile of notes that just gather dust. Collecting is not the same as creating. 

Instead, revisit your collection periodically to purge notes that you’ll never refer to again. Better to have a small volume of carefully curated notes than a large volume of outdated and useless notes.

Often I reduce the length of individual notes as well, keeping only their key passages and deleting the rest. I also break up long notes into series of shorter ones.  

Restructure. At some point you’ll start seeing relationships between notes that you choose to keep. Combine those notes so that the ideas can have sex with each other.

Rob at Cultivated Management has a different and equally useful metaphor for this process. He refers to it as “crunching” ideas. This means revising your notes on a topic to: 

  • Delete redundancies. 
  • Add new ideas.
  • Look for ideas that complement each other. 
  • Look for ideas that contradict each other — and possible ways to resolve those conflicts. 

Reword. Many of my notes are direct quotations pulled from their original source (which I cite within the body of the note). I reduce these notes even more by expressing the ideas in my own words. This helps me understand and remember the key points. 


It’s important to test the results of our creative thinking — to get feedback about what actually works and what does not. You can test ideas by:

  • Publishing the results of your creative thinking. This can be anything from a self-published book to a post on your personal blog or simply an email to your colleagues.  
  • Presenting the results of your creative thinking — anything from a formal presentation to an informal conversation with friends. 
  • Practicing new ideas by turning them into new behaviors (such as Tiny Habits) and observing the results as they unfold in your life.

It is here that you reap the rewards of organizing for creativity: You are learning. You are turning information into action. 

You are changing from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of knowledge.

Immersion + incubation = Aha!

What’s so cool about the creative process is that you never have to start from scratch. Instead, you simply collect information that interests you, play with it, and let the whole stew simmer until a project emerges that begs for completion.

And, you’re never done. This a continuous cycle with no finish line — a lifetime of creative practice.  

Collecting, revising, and testing your notes are ways to immerse yourself in information and incubate ideas over time. These create the conditions for an “aha” moment — a flash of illumination when you suddenly see how to place old ideas in new contexts.  

This is where spirituality enters. The moment of illumination is not something that you control. It wells up from a source beyond the conscious mind — God, Spirit, intuition, Buddha Mind, or whatever else you want to call it. 

In any case, all we can do is open ourselves and wait patiently for that moment of grace to arrive.

Writing as Spiritual Practice: Headlong Into the Abyss

Writing is the hero’s journey. It calls for vast reserves of energy and initiative.

To write consistently in the midst of solitude and fickle moods is superhuman. The phrase “being a self-starter” fails to do it justice.

Through writing, we understand the Zen Buddhist aphorism about courage in facing the blank page: “Climb to the top of a 100-foot pole. Then take one step forward.”

When I describe writing as spiritual, I mean that it includes dynamics that are also present in meditation. What stands out for me are the following.

Facing the abyss

The Encarta® World English Dictionary offers several definitions of  abyss:

a chasm or gorge so deep or vast that its extent is not visible…. something that is immeasurably deep or infinite…. a situation of apparently unending awfulness…. hell thought of as a bottomless pit….

Ouch. Kinda grim.

Yet while writing, you might find that such definitions acquire a dim resonance.

Just pull out a new sheet of paper. Or, open up a new file on your computer.

It’s blank.

That’s the abyss. Your job is dive straight into it and fill it with words.

In her book Yes, Please, Amy Poehler captures what I’ve felt about this process:

Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone” – blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book…. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.

Fortunately, the literature about spiritual practices abounds in description of the abyss. It’s been called the dark night of the soul, the cloud of unknowing, emptiness, the void, and more.

You can take comfort in this literature. It means that when you enter the abyss, you are not alone. Plenty of people have gone there before you.

And, they lived to tell about it.

Watching mind states come and go

Some writing teachers counsel you to avoid the abyss.

Never open up a blank space, they say. Pull out something that you’ve written before and revise it.

Or, do some free writing. Just start moving your fingers and write anything at all. Fill up the void as quickly as possible.

I understand the reason for such strategies. Facing a blank space strips us naked, psychologically speaking.

While we write into that space, thoughts and feelings of all kinds to rise to the surface of our awareness. These might include mental states that we’d rather not face.

Even so, there are benefits in entering the abyss on a regular basis.

What I’ve learned from years of meditation is that any feeling that terrifies us also has the potential to liberate us. The key is to simply greet it with mindful awareness, moment by moment.

If we drop the habit of resisting unpleasant mental states, we can simply observe them as they arise and pass away. Over time we develop a still point of internal stability — a place that is immune to changing conditions.

This is one way that writing merges with meditation.

Doing a daily practice

Like meditation and other spiritual practices, writing is also something that we do every day — often at the same time and the same place.

We don’t postpone writing until we feel inspired. Instead, we place our butt on the chair and get to work no matter how we feel.

After all, inspiration is fleeting and fickle. It arrives on its own schedule. We can’t control it.

What we can do is create conditions for creativity. Above all, this includes the act of showing up daily, no matter what. 

This might mean writing 1,000 words. It might mean writing 100 words. It might mean revising what you wrote yesterday. Or it might mean simply re-reading what you wrote yesterday.

All of these actions — even the smallest interaction with your own text — count for daily practice. It’s something solid and stable that you do in the midst of all your changing mind states and circumstances.

Like novelist Haruki Murakami, you might also discover that your various daily practices — writing, reading, exercising, meditating — all reinforce each other. When interviewed for The Paris Review, Murakami said:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

Service to others

As David Foster Wallace said, good writing means overcoming our self-centeredness in the service of readers.

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader,” Wallace said. “If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

When we do that work, we create an experience of effortless flow for readers:

They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it — the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.

There’s an aphorism from David Reynolds, author of many books about Constructive Living: “Self-centeredness is suffering.”

When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on how other people are failing to give me exactly what I want. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

Writing is a way to refocus my attention and restore perspective. Even though it seems so internally focused, writing means opening up to the world outside my head. It means working hard to create value for readers.

This is something to remember every time that we sit down and commit an act of writing. First we can take a few conscious breaths and pause to affirm our courage and generosity.

This makes it a little easier to continue scribbling into the abyss.

Conversation as Win-Win: David Bohm on Dialogue

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

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

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

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

Dialogue transcends righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

Dialogue is more than discussion

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

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

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

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

Dialogue is coherent

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

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

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

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

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

Dialogue is common consciousness and pure possibility

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

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

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

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

I’m going for possibility. Please join me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a horror!

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

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

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

No one has ever actually had this disease. 

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

It has never happened. 

It does not exist.

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

The Great One is our Very Being. 

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

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

This is all the Great One. 

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

What a Paradox! 

What a Mystery! 

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

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

So in every moment what is the practice? 

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

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

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

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

There is nothing wrong with the human body. 

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

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

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

This is sufficient to purify you. 

This is the only gospel.

You Are Not the Guilty Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This understanding washes us. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That our original mind is pure from the beginning.

That what we are is already free.

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

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

But above all there was Bubba

That one hurt the most.

Bubba’s brillance

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

I just stick with Bubba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then came the 1980s. 

Bubba’s downfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three propositions for spiritual seekers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Taft, a meditation teacher, says it well:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More fuel for thinking critically about spiritual teachers

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