A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality


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Thank you, Donald Trump; A Buddhist Perspective on Our Real Fears About the Republican Primaries

Even before Donald Trump formally launched his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015, it became fashionable to both dismiss him and  diagnose him as a mere narcissist.

In fact, early on very few pundits took him or his candidacy seriously. Now as his nomination seems more likely every day, dismissals and diagnoses have given way to statements of fear by his political opponents and an all-out campaign to defeat his nomination by the elite members of his own Republican party. Critics who agree on little else seem to be of one mind on Trump: he is dangerous and must be stopped at all costs.

What is it exactly that we don’t like about Donald Trump? Sure, his style is provocative and rude. But more to the point, his conduct is aggressive, grandiose, self-important, entitled, manipulative and completely lacking in any consideration of the feelings or needs of anyone other than himself. Why does this push so many buttons?

Jeffrey Kluger’s TIME article Donald Trump’s Very Strange Brand of Narcissism sums it up nicely:

“I spent a lot of time in the mirror-world of the narcissist when I was writing my 2014 book, The Narcissist Next Door, and most of the experts I spoke to and studies I read define the condition as a sort of toxic mash-up of grandiosity, entitlement and lack of empathy. Trump checks those boxes almost every day—most recently and disturbingly the lack of empathy one.”

What is narcissism? According to the DSM IV, the professional compendium of psychological diagnoses, narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by any of a number of symptoms including:

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Sense of entitlement or superiority
  • Belief in oneself as “special,” only understood by special or high-status individuals
  • Strong need for admiration, flattery and respect
  • Lack of empathy, unwilling or unable to recognize the feelings of others
  • Manipulative or controlling behavior
  • Focus on getting one’s own needs met over the needs of others
  • Arrogant behaviors and attitudes
  • Interpersonally exploitative
  • Higher levels of aggression
  • Difficulty taking feedback about their behavior
  • Envious of others

If this sounds at least a little bit like just about everyone you know, that’s because narcissism is rampant in our culture. In his book, Kluger makes the case that we are all narcissistic to some degree and that by all surveys, Americans are becoming more so every year.

According to one Psychology Today article, for example:

“One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test. That number has doubled in the last 30 years. Another study reported a 40 percent decline among young people in empathy, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism, since the 1980s.”

The irony, of course, is that because we all consider ourselves special, we are all alike. Indeed, what bothers us most about Donald Trump is that we are all a little like him to some degree.

For millennia, Buddhists have used slightly different language to point out this human propensity toward narcissism. Nearly 3000 years ago, the Buddha taught about “ego clinging” as the root cause of suffering. Like the narcissistic politician arrogantly clinging to an out-sized sense of her own importance, sentient beings ignorantly cling to an “I” or “ego” or “self” that doesn’t actually exist. This phantom ego the Buddha described as

  • Singular
  • Separate
  • Independent
  • Most important
  • Owner of everything

We all know that voice inside our heads that irrationally tells us we should be at the head of the line. It goads us to get impatiently aggressive when we’re in a hurry and it sometimes causes a rude expectation that others should get out of our way when we’re on a mission. That’s the voice of the imputed ego calling the shots, and the Buddha taught that giving way to its demands is the one habitual mistake we make that prevents us from experiencing perfect peace and happiness and spreading peace and happiness to others.

The reason Trump scares us is that we recognize our own ego-clinging attitudes in his speech and behavior. In psychological terms, we deny our own selfish shadow tendencies and project them outside ourselves as the demon or villain.

Buddhist practice (dharma), on the other hand, requires self-reflection, self-knowledge, and self-transformation. In other words, we summon the courage to look at our own thinking as the root cause of everything in our own lives. When we cannot see our own faults clearly, we learn to rely on those we trust (for Buddhists, teacher and close sangha) to reflect to us what we cannot see clearly on our own.

It is easy to project what we don’t like in ourselves out there where we can demonize it. It takes courage to instead recognize that we are responsible for what we experience, whether that be light and love or the politics of hatred in our midst.

Donald Trump is a daily reminder to check our thinking, to ask ourselves, in what way do I “build walls” against the things and people I dislike? When do I try to silence my beneficial critics, who are often the ones who love me most? Whom have I made my enemy out of jealousy or fear? Where do I consider myself above reproach, becoming defensive and puffing up my accomplishments to dodge others’ blame? To what do I feel entitled? And most importantly, what do I chase after as the supposed cause of my happiness, whether wealth, friends, food, alcohol, control over others, etc.? If it’s outside my own thinking it will never give me the power and happiness I desire.

Although it’s not pleasant, I’m happy that Trump is dominating TV news coverage, Internet and the radio airwaves right now. His candidacy serves to point out the greed, hypocrisy, and self-centeredness rampant in our government, our  communities, our society,  but mainly in our own thinking. While voting one’s conscience is a civic duty I support, I am convinced that the cure is not to be found at the ballot box, but within our own hearts.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for the constant reminders to check my own intentions, to stop projecting and expressing my own fear and anger and to instead courageously transform my negative thinking into compassion and love, right here, right now, in my every day life.

Let me be the condition of peace, happiness, gratitude, love and service that I seek in my community and my country. If not me, who? If not now, when?

Let it begin with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Desire for Perfection

IMG_9852I had the opportunity last week to participate in an enlivened discussion at the first-ever video-taping session for Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map Book Clubs. It was an intimate meeting of women who have completed the Desire Map process and are helping others to discover the wonders of tuning-in to their own “core desired feelings.” You could feel the transformational energy alive in the room even before the cameras started rolling!

What did it take to get seven Portland-based women to spill our guts on camera to Ms. LaPorte’s worldwide audience? It took facing and overcoming the fear of not looking, sounding, acting and being PERFECT.

I can’t stop thinking about perfectionism. It’s a shadow that many of us live under, and yet it can be so hard to relax our standards, even when our health or relationships are at stake.

The slogan that keeps running through my mind is “Progress, not perfection.”

While contemplating that in the shower this morning I realized that my core desired feeling, Enlightenment, is indeed the “perfection” of my positive thinking.

Perfect. (Pun intended.)

I like this because each positive thought really is one step toward enlightenment. We don’t just wake up enlightened one morning. It’s a steady walk on the path, one foot in front of the other.

It’s progress toward perfection!

There is nothing wrong with reaching toward perfection. How else do we make art, excel at our worldly endeavors or maintain a spiritual practice? But can I practice toward perfection while being gentle with myself, laughing rather than getting down on myself when I make a mistake, and allowing others to do the same?

What is your relationship with perfection?


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Resistance: Review of a Book Every Creative Should Read Now

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With his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield has done for us creative types, what the Buddha did for spiritual seekers 3000 years ago.

Upon awakening, the Buddha taught the first cycle of teachings, The First Noble Truth, long-misunderstood by legions of pundits to mean, “Life is suffering.” Actually the Buddha was identifying the problem, suffering, in order to set out the solution. Life is not suffering, suffering is not our nature, yet we must learn to identify suffering and its causes if we want to attain happiness. This reasoning is sound. Every successful military general knows that if he is to defeat the enemy, he must know as much as possible about it. Knowledge is power. Forewarned is forearmed.

Likewise, internationally successful author and screen writer Pressfield makes a brilliant study of what he calls Resistance, that particular quality of our thinking which keeps us grumpy, small, creatively frustrated and angry about it. He makes a masterful study, wonderfully pith and poetic, of the root negative thinking behind every type of procrastination known to sentient beings. Not just a manual for artists or writers, The War of Art is a must-read for anyone who has ever put off doing what they love or dilly-dallied their virtuous aspirations. I know I have done that. Have you?

With so many wonderful books, blogs, methods, systems, religions and TED Talks devoted to inspiring us to be our most creative and productive selves, why should we focus on the problem, rather than the solution? Because as the Buddha taught so long ago, and Pressfield proves, it is in knowing the problem that we understand the solution. By delving into the way thinking is hard-wired, we can short-circuit the habits that keep us from putting our butts in the seat and our feet on the path. Pressfield’s book is the place to start and for many years it has been my go-to manual whenever my own symptoms of resistance – sleeping in, skipping meditation practice, criticizing others, participating in family drama, etc. – kick-in and start to wreak havoc with my ambitions. I have read it countless times and I suspect I will read it countless more.

Read The War of Art. Locate your own favorite habit of resistance within its pages and then chop that repugnant enemy to bits. Or laugh it off and then go out and do what you have to do with a joyful heart. Today.


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Patience or Tolerance? What’s in a Word?

wireheartIn my work with coaching clients, seekers, beautiful and truly well intentioned people, I see sloppy language at the heart of many of our deeper dilemmas. We use words that we haven’t properly defined for ourselves and it’s so easy to hide behind them. Words such as “spiritual,” “angels,” “grace,” “compassion,” “positive thinking,” and “judgment” seem to be common places to store our misunderstandings about who we are and how things work. Yet as often as not, a few minutes of contemplation and research on our “spiritual” vocabulary can clear up a belief or habit of thinking that is keeping us stuck and unhappy.

Last night I attended a Buddhist teaching on patience. Along with generosity, discipline, diligence, mindfulness and knowledge, patience is one of the Transcendent Perfections or “Paramitas,” the heart of the bodhisattva’s practice.

After the teaching the group got into a discussion about tolerance. Wasn’t tolerance the same thing as patience? Shouldn’t I strive to always, under all circumstances, quietly put up with unacceptable behavior from others? Isn’t that the peaceful Buddhist way?

Well, no. This is a misunderstanding of the term patience. If we look closely we see that tolerance usually has an underlying flavor of anger. We don’t like something – a behavior, a person, or even an idea – and yet we refrain from acting, stewing about it all the while, presumably because we think that eventually some good will come of our forbearance. We should speak up when we see injustice or harm and try to muster the thought, “May this person be free from suffering and its causes!”

Unfortunately, a good result can never come from a negative intention. True patience means not reacting in anger, whether in thought, word or deed. At first this is a mighty challenging thing, and yet we improve with practice. Perhaps we first reach for tolerance, non-reaction, while understanding that we don’t like the anger that we’re feeling. Eventually, if we renounce our anger, true patience has a chance to take root.

It all starts with a word and the understanding of its true meaning.


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The Fragile Heart

FragileHeartA gift box arrived in the mail this week. It revealed a beautiful blown glass heart, exquisitely hand made in rainbow colors. I can’t help but notice that it comes at a time when my own heart feels fragile.

At the start of the summer I decided to work on re-branding my business and deepening my connection to my work. I set things into motion: hired a branding expert and coach, enrolled in a training and credentialing course, and set lists and deadlines for accomplishing the many detailed tasks associated with moving my creative life forward. With everything planned and organized, neat and tidy, I then went on vacation, looking forward to giving these tasks refreshed attention upon my return.

Life happened instead, and I returned home to find the ground literally shifting under my feet. I first got the news that we had to move and immediately began the process of finding  a new home. The day after signing the lease, a close relative landed in critical condition in a hospital in the Midwest. I dropped everything and flew to be with family. I returned with barely enough time to pack and prepare for moving day, while monitoring my nephew’s progress long distance. And yet life hasn’t let up. There are rescheduled client meetings and make-up classes to attend, doctor’s appointments and birthday parties, Back to School Night, and volunteer responsibilities, new assignments and deadlines. It seems everything, including dinner, has a deadline.

Today I finally said it out loud. I expressed my frustration with not finding enough time to care for myself and a wise woman replied with a question, “Where is your heart?”

It was a gentle question that nevertheless pierced right to the core. What does Carrie need right now? How can I take care of her? I was stunned not to know the answer.

When did I lose the ability to check in with my own heart? Was it when I was a child trying to survive a dysfunctional upbringing? Was it when I got older and learned to associate my emotions with drama, manipulation and shame? Was it as an exhausted mother and exasperated spouse just trying to get one more thing done?

My Mahayana Buddhist training tells me to do everything I do while holding the enlightened intention to become Buddha (True Happiness) for the sake of freeing all beings from suffering. And yet because of my own personal growth work in the past – everything from therapy and 12 Step recovery, story-telling and memoir writing, to yoga and Buddhist meditation – I recognize the self-destructive side of doing for others to the point of exhaustion. I know I am not alone in this particularly feminine style of dysfunction whose root cause sends women to pharmacies and breast cancer surgeons in droves. We women are suffering because, in the face of all we are expecting ourselves to do and be, we are failing to get our own emotional needs met. At the risk of being blunt, we are shirking our number-one priority and responsibility, to take care of our own fragile hearts.

Where are our hearts?

Each of us must answer this question for ourselves. It is only by staying true to our own hearts that we can truly serve others. As women, when we authentically check-in, we do not find lists and deadlines, flow charts and decision matrices. If we are honest, we find tenderness, vulnerability, moods, knowing without being able to show our work, and decisions that fluctuate and flow.

For me, staying too long in my head leads to dysfunctional emotionality. Without the balance of time for meditation, contemplation, dreaming, praying, creating, giggling, cuddling my cat, window-shopping and trusting my wacky self, I become needy and emotionally out-of-control. This always manifests as a messy house, jerky communication, and a chaotic life. These outward signs tell me it’s time to pause and contemplate, to discover where I have given myself away or sold myself out.

I’m sure you can discover your own patterns, positive and negative, if you investigate and make it a priority today.


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Everybody is crazy

IMG_1356I have worked very hard to make a life for myself, to go after the experiences I want, to befriend the people with whom I enjoy spending time, to spend my income only on the things that I value. I don’t know whether I have been more conscious about my choices than most folks.

From the beginning, I set my sights on a lifestyle that happened to differ from my upbringing. I spent more time alone than with my siblings or the kids on the block. I loved school and  excelled in art class.  I went to college, unlike my siblings, and attended a big university, something never done in my entire extended family up to that time. I became a Buddhist. I was different. Or was I?

Part of my life-long makeover  has included estranging myself not only from the lifestyle in which I was raised, but also from my place of birth and the people closest to me. At first I easily justified my distance. I was off to see the world, to study abroad, to work in the big city. Now I see that my habit to move forward has helped me deny my past and escape the painful memories of my childhood.

Escaping has been easier since my parents died. My siblings and I, literally scattered across four different states, rarely speak. Unlike our upbringing, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, our children do not know one another. My support system involves a community of wonderful like-minded individuals, people with whom I share values, people who love and respect one-another. Wonderful people who help me distract myself from the pain of missing my history and roots.

Everything changed on Saturday. While enjoying a quiet  evening with my son, I got a “next of kin” phone call from the other side of the continent. My youngest sibling, a brother, had been admitted to the hospital with a suspected brain aneurysm. As he struggled in terrible pain in a hospital bed, I retreated to ponder the meaning of it all. I went, where I have always gone when chaos hits, to the safe, quiet place in my mind. I realized that I had no idea what to do.

There was, in fact, nothing to do. It was midnight. I was alone.  The next of kin, still the little kid, retreated to her room to “figure life out.” Waiting to hear, unable to sleep, I got on the Internet to research my brother’s condition. That’s when grace arrived in the form of an email from a cousin, an innocent Facebook comment on a photo I had posted earlier in the day. I don’t know what made me do it, but I hit “chat” and told her of my brother’s plight.

I awoke the next morning to a downpour of love and support. Aunts and uncles called, no matter that nine years had passed since the last conversation. Cousins put out the word and organized an impromptu prayer circle. Two cousins on Facebook conspired to send out word to track down my sister with whom I had lost contact years before. I spent the day — between phone calls to Mass General to  monitor Don’s condition — receiving the unconditional love and support of both sides of my extended family.

By the time I went to bed I was wrecked.

It’s about time. I have begun to relish the breakdown more than the control. Two sides of the same coin, I see that whether life is neat, tidy and arranged or whether it resembles the tilted deck of the Titanic, we are all in the same boat. I don’t know why everybody is so crazy. I do know that since at least the time of the Buddha, and most likely further back than that, people have suffered. We all want happiness and we are all doing our best to attain it. There are many strategies, many methods of coping. I’m not ready to say that I have the answer. I do understand today, however, that choosing my path does not necessitate rejecting all others.

I’m in a new mood to accept myself as one more crazy member of a sane and very loving family, and one more happy member of the suffering human race.


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The artist and the lover in bed together

Brian Lockyear, "Yin & Yang," Woodblock, ed. 25, 10 x 10 inches

Brian Lockyear, "Yin & Yang," Woodblock, ed. 25, 10" x 10"

“If you cannot caress your canvas, or your sculpting medium, you cannot caress your lover’s body — and if you can caress your lover’s body, you are an artist.”

from “Entering the Heart of the Sun & Moon” by Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen

I am captivated by the process of falling in love. Being spiritually oriented as well as intellectually inclined, I can’t help gazing in wonder at the gift of love’s arrival in my life. In the moments when I am not actually gazing into my lover’s eyes, not physically entangled in his embrace, I simply must see love through the kaleidoscope of the various spiritual disciplines I pursue. I feel compelled to read about love and to chronicle my personal experience of the depth and height of the universal.

My Buddhist leanings dance with the Sacred Contracts work I will once again study intensively next week in Chicago.

In the book excerpted above, Entering the Heart of the Sun & Moon, Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen discuss a little-known Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice known as Khandro Pawo Nyi-da Melong Gyud or Vajra Romance. Spiritualizing relationship or relating spiritually involves two aspects. The first is to actively, consciously recognize the enlightened, complimentary qualities in one’s lover as a way of empowering those qualities in the self, for the betterment of all. Secondly, the romantic need to see, smell, touch, taste and hear one’s beloved, is opened wide to consciously include all of life, other people, our wider community, our experience of our own mind, our physical reality and everything. In Nyi-da Melong Gyud lovers challenge themselves to open to all of life and  to sustain the “falling in love” indefinitely through self-awareness and mirroring.

I have to admit that this practice perfectly illuminates my own sacred contract. With the Lover in the seventh house, I find that my passionate nature best expresses itself in interaction and relationship with others, but also in the spiritual pursuit of the inner or sacred marriage. My Mystic is devoted to a path of union with the Divine, in all forms. My Storyteller must talk about it even though my Coward fears such lofty pursuits!

Interestingly, I have fallen in love with an Artist. My beloved is currently following his heart. He recently left the safety and predictability of a long career in computer science to pursue his dream to become an architect and designer. His contract simply demanded creative freedom and self-expression. Fueled by a similar late-bloomer’s passion, we are meeting one another on familiar turf. Our union reminds me that the Lover and the Artist are quite happy in bed together, thank you!

It’s easy to see what the two have in common: a bridging of the spiritual and the material through passion, self-expression, appreciation, idealism, devotion and a desire to surrender to the chaos of creativity. In this light it would seem that the Artist and the Lover are one and the same. Instinctively we know that it is not so! (In my work as an archetypal consultant, I help my clients untangle such fine distinctions in order to uncover their own contracts for self-realization, self-guidance and growth.)

How then do the Artist and the Lover differ? I believe it is exactly in the dimensions of male and female described well in many Western as well as Eastern sources. The Artist defines his passionate relationship to the world  through creation (form) while the Lover passionately appreciates the creation (emptiness). Are they not the Yang and the Yin, the convex and the concave as Chogyam and Dechen express it?

And what of the romance that arises between them, the continual dance of emptiness and form? As a Lover I am experiencing the interplay as an illumination of my own inner Artist. In the process of being in love, I feel alive to express my joy, enthusiasm, and gratitude in the form of my medium, the written word. At another time in my life, an experience of love resulted in pregnancy and the birth of a tiny human being, the ultimate creation!

Likewise my beloved, the Artist, experiences the dance in his creative output, a masters thesis complete with renderings, models and prose. But through the lens of romance he also plays to his inner Lover. He connects with a newfound passion and appreciation for his work, a satisfaction present only when there is a beloved present to accept/receive his gift.

The Lover and the Artist thus reveal themselves as the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine of the creative archetypes. They dance as the Dakini and Daka, receptive and active romantic forces. In love as in art, it matters little which gender plays which role. The enterprise depends more on the dynamic foreplay of lover and beloved, the inspired ah ha with which the artist seizes his brush. Each sees the perfect enlightened complement in the mirror of other. Emptiness into form, form into emptiness. Both enter the spiritual dimension beyond time and space, beyond happiness and suffering, beyond gender, beyond self, the boundless creativity of the present moment.

May the Lover and the Artist enjoy a long and timeless love affair!

(thank you, sweetie, for the inspiration and the artwork!)