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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Zumba Dharma

11330015_10152922117146616_507874434507975438_nThere’s a new Zumba instructor on Thursdays and I’ve been noticing a pattern of arriving late to her class. She has brought new music, different choreography, and a whole new culture, including new folks I’ve never seen at the community center before.

As I sneaked into her first class of the new year this week, there were already 35 women grinding their hips to the beat and I had to find a spot away from my usual place near the door.

On the other side of the room I suddenly became aware of a new perspective. Beginner’s mind kicked-in and I could see my own resistance to this new situation. I decided to look at my own fear in that moment with a new-found curiosity. I found myself asking, “What would Kimo do?”

Kimo is the instructor I see the other five days of the week. She is a gifted teacher and choreographer: joyful, funny, real, demanding in a good way, and so good at dancing. Always able to go with the flow, I have seem her tie her shoes in the middle of a number without missing the beat; deftly step around a puddle from a leaky roof; overcome technology glitches with the stereo system, speakers, iPod, and microphone. She even taught in bare feet one day when, for the only time in her long career, she forgot her workout shoes. The show must go on and Kimo does, day-in, day-out with grace, humor and aplomb. (There are links at the bottom of the page to view Kimo’s dance artistry.)

But my favorite thing about Kimo is her way of “telling it like it is” in charmingly Japanese-accented English. I find myself using Kimo’s wisdom, not only to get me through the challenge of Zumba, but the challenges of being a human being.

Here’s a little of Kimo’s dharma applied to Zumba and life in general:

Show up and do your best

This is my first chance to focus on the positive. I’m in the room and that’s half the battle. It is far better than procrastinating, sitting at my desk wasting time,  or worse, not going and then complaining that I don’t like the new teacher. I owe it to myself to acknowledge the fact that I am here and to do the best I can.

Look at the instructor’s reflection in the mirror

Rather than being pulled off by those around me (distraction) or watching the instructor’s feet (tunnel-vision), if I concentrate on the teacher in the mirror, I see the whole picture. Everything I experience is a reflection of my mind. Watching Kimo or Kristine in the mirror, I can much better understand my own movement. This is instantly relaxing and centering, even though I must keep reminding myself to do it. Seeing the instructor smiling, I realize that I have the karma to experience such a beautiful sight, such grace, power and coordination. I smile back at the reflection.

Keep marching when you don’t know the steps

It’s not about being perfect, but moving to the music. The more I march in place, the easier it is to find my rhythm and step in time with the others. Again, a wave of relaxation comes over me as I stop trying to do anything other than feel the music and keep marching. Soon I am effortlessly catching onto the complex choreography and laughing to myself with every “misstep.” How often in life do we psyche ourselves out when, if we just keep going, our problems will naturally work themselves out?

“I have faith in your booty!”

Kimo actually said this one day and instantly had everyone laughing. She encourages us to play, have fun, laugh and not take ourselves so seriously, and yes, shake our booties! Having faith in my booty means to stay grounded in knowing that I don’t have to be perfect, but just move and allow my body to lead the way. A baby doesn’t worry how she looks during those wobbly first steps. She just wants to get from point A to point B. And for those of us who think it is silly to shake our booties in middle age and beyond, Kimo puts us in our place. As long as we are able, we should shake it, and have fun doing it!

Don’t forget to check yourself.

If you want to really learn the dance, watch yourself in the mirror to check if your moves match the choreography. Once you can do it while looking in the mirror, you will develop the muscle memory that allows you to dance rapturously oblivious to outside cues, just feeling the music and letting your body lead the way. Similarly, we can’t expect to learn how to live a virtuous and happy life unless we observe our own thinking and conduct, looking at ourselves first when there is a problem. Self-reflection and self-correction help us to develop the habits that produce a meaningful and happy life.

Keep coming back!

The last and most important of Kimo’s instructions: “Keep coming back!”  No repeat, no result. Progress, not perfection. There are many ways to say it, but the bottom line is that unless we do a little every moment, every hour, every day, week in, week out, we can’t get to the bigger goals. So just remember not to bully the small efforts you make every day. Congratulate yourself often for showing up, again and again. Your attitude will improve and you will develop a strong and positive new habit where there was once complaining and procrastination.

After reminding myself to act like a brand-new beginner and to heed Kimo’s masterful words, I know that I will now look forward to classes once again. I have broken through my negative attitude about the new Zumba instructor and I look forward to this coming Thursday – a new day, a new dance and a new dharma.

Kimo’s Facebook Page

Kimo’s Choreo YouTube Channel

Kimo’s Zumba Website






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Resistance: Review of a Book Every Creative Should Read Now


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.