A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality


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Relationship; It’s Habit-forming

In recent posts I have openly portrayed relationship challenges, mostly spiritual in nature, as they have appeared in my life. Here’s the latest.

My beloved and I did face that fork in the road and we did, indeed, decide to walk separate paths. (See Relationship IQ) It was coming for a while and closure feels good. We stayed long enough to express the enormous gratitude we have for one another and for the process and path that we walked together. Seeking personal transformation when we came together, we faced enormous personal fears and challenges. When we reached the top of those mountains we were complete, both as individuals within the relationship and as a couple. Some day I hope to write about this in more depth and detail and to chronicle a wide perspective on the healing miracle of love and relationship in my life. Until then, I have some observations, a witnessing of my current spiritual path. I’d like to tell you how I am doing now.

The past many months and weeks have been a continual process of letting go. At first I let go of the newness of our union, the giddy coming together and the freshness of each new thing we discovered about one another. Next I let go of the things we discovered together, as more of our experiences became patterns and routines. Lastly, I have had to let go of the idea of being together permanently, the hopes, dreams, fantasies of making a life together. I have had to release the belief that we could be anything other than what we are now. This last thing — the idea that anything or anybody can ever be different from what they are at this moment — this is the thing that must die a permanent, gruesome and memorable death if I am ever to be truly happy.

I have thought a lot about impermanence. Like life itself, romantic relationship is precious because it is fleeting. As I grieve the loss of this life, the life of “us,” not yet ready to begin anticipating a new life ahead, I see that the only problem is habit. As soon as the relationship becomes a habit, it is dead. As soon as relationship leaves the stage of newness it is already declining. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to get a new relationship. It means that it is time to wake up to whatever is new.

I spent part of last week waking up to my life, noticing the grief inherent in each moment that held associations with my former beloved. Monday was the last dinner we will ever eat together. Tuesday is the first day that I will not speak to him. Wednesday is the first time I will not hear about his yoga class. Friday is the day I will tell my son that we are no longer together. This is the first weekend that we will not hang out together, sleep in late together, make lazy love in the afternoon. There will be no “family Sunday dinner,” tonight.

Each morning as I awoke, alone in my own bed, I reviewed my habits of mind: thinking first about him when I awoke, planning out time together, reviewing teh many wonderful times we have had together. Eventually I experienced the involuntary nature of these thoughts. I began to ask myself, “if I were not thinking of the past with him, what would I think about?” I began to play with allowing my mind to wander to other things — the sunny morning sky and fragrant Daphne right outside my bedroom window; my growling stomach eager for breakfast oatmeal, the quiet space containing my life as I sit at my computer to write.

There is no need to be violent, wrench the memories and reminders of our life together from my consciousness. But neither is there the need to dwell, to enable and ingratiate sentimental thoughts when they arise. So I will continue to ponder the fact that habit — being asleep — suffocates every relationship. Waking to the present, even when it is painful, remains the greatest gift of Love.

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How To Be New at Anything

You don’t have to be a professional newbie to join the exhilarating ride called the learning curve. Whether you are looking to bring passion and excitement to the mundane aspects of your life or just anxious about an important upcoming life change, learning to embrace the beginner’s mind can enhance your experience.

I arrive at a downtown hotel, on time but rumpled and sweaty after hiking three blocks in my best heels. I stop for a name tag and choose a seat among dozens of jovial professionals as my panicky thoughts begin to drown out the din in the massive ballroom. Will I fit in? Will I say something stupid? Will they know that I am new?

I have just entered my first continuing education luncheon in my new career as a real estate broker. I stop to take a deep breath and ponder my current situation: middle aged, divorced, on my third religion and embarking on my fourth career, once again I have no idea what to expect. Yet having played the role of newbie hundreds of times in my life, I know that I will get a lot more than chicken salad out of today’s meeting if a follow my own simple rules for being new.

First, give up all pretensions of expertise. No matter how well you have polished your shoes or your story, everyone can spot a beginner. Once I began to relinquish my need to know every fact and my obsession with looking like I know what I am doing, I relax into the kind of in-the-moment intuition that opens doors and increases my learning capacity. Others agree.

Nancy Thompson recently put her corporate business travel career on the back burner to follow her passion as an event planner. Her company, Flourish, targets successful women like herself by offering forums and events to enhance the body, mind and spirit. With the open mind of a newbie, Nancy soon realized that despite a formidable professional business plan, she had no idea what she was in for. It wasn’t until she abandoned the plan, slashed her budget and scaled back her operation that her concept began to take off, attracting best-selling authors in intimate venues, events which bring women back month after month. Says Nancy, “by letting go of the way I was supposed to look, I filled an unmet need in the Portland community.”

Embracing rather than squandering your amateur status is another technique for the new in the know. “You will never be more focused, more curious or more passionate about your subject than you are at the beginning,” says. Nikki Gardner, top producing realtor at Windermere Realty Group in Portland, Oregon. Just a few years into her career, Nikki used her natural “drive to find out” from the get-go. “Having more questions than your clients,” pays off when it comes time to compete for a listing or represent buyers in a transaction. Nikki understands that by replacing her fear of the unknown with a curiosity for what might be, she let her enthusiasm substitute for the momentum that she lacked. Beginner’s luck is anything but!

Successful newbies also take advantage of their status as the new kid on the block. You will never be more popular or attract more good will than when you are new. When I was learning to windsurf in the Columbia Gorge, I rarely had to worry about getting my rig off the car alone in 40 knot winds. And if I was having difficulty with a particular move in the water, impromptu lessons regularly happened. People in this world-class windsurfing capitol were more than happy to share their experience with me and to show me their secret tips.

For some, being new is a well-developed art form that begins out of necessity. Rahul Vora, software engineer for the multinational software company, Autodesk, has mastered the art of being new. On arriving in the United States from his native India 23 years ago, Rahul confesses being overwhelmed by the changes. Now as chief architect for multi-million dollar software products, he uses the skills he honed as a student in a brand new country. Stress levels soar when deadlines loom and cultural and communication issues arise. “When I go into a high level meeting with the thought that I am hearing these issues for the first time, I begin to relax and become more creative. Often my relaxation is enough to ease the tension of all the participants in the room.”

I take a break from writing to attend my 12 year old son’s Little League game. Asher doesn’t know that he is my favorite coach in the art of being new as he readies himself to pitch for the very first time. Good-naturedly warming up until it’s time to take the mound as starter, he walks the first batter, strikes out the next, and then fumbles the ball resulting in a stolen base. One of his throws sails way over the catcher’s head. His team rallies behind him, cheering him on until the inning ends without a score. Asher’s wide grin across freckled cheeks tells the whole story of how to be new at anything—enjoy yourself and don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes!


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Awareness Practice

I’m not big on meditating for hours, chanting at the feet of a guru or flogging myself mercilessly, although I have tried all of these things (albeit mental floggings only!). I do believe that one can practice spiritual awareness with or without religion and spiritual tradition. Here is one of my favorite practices. I call it the License Plate Game.

I make a habit of noticing vanity plates when I am out driving. At first I just enjoyed deciphering the cryptic messages. But soon I began to notice synchronicities. A few years ago while driving south on I 5 with a friend, we became engrossed in a conversation about the Gen X generation. We spoke about famous people and popular cultural icons representing the group. Eventually our conversation drifted to people we know and how they typified their generation. I mentioned a friend of mine who drives a black Jetta, the car I had decided most typified Gen Xers. Just then a car pulled up very fast behind me. I moved to the right lane and as it passed we noticed in amazement that the vanity plate read “Jen X!” These license plate connections happen all the time.

Just several days ago I experienced a transformative personal event that brought up a lot of fear. Shortly after releasing the fear completely, the problem totally dissolved. The next day I as I pulled out of a parking spot in my neighborhood I noticed a car drive by with a plate that read “Freadm.” I don’t know what the owner of the plate meant to convey, but I connected Freadom (Freedom) to its opposite, Feardom. I made a major shift in that moment and a realization followed my recent experience: I saw that the path to freedom is always to let go of fear. As if to punctuate my realization, I saw the car again later that morning.

My little vanity plate epiphanies are rarely amazing or profound. But they do occur regularly. I have broadened my awareness to synchronicities involving billboards, signs, songs on the radio, and just about anything that contains a message. A few more examples follow.

While reading the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, I took a break one day to walk to the coffee place around the corner. As I left the place with my steaming cup, a man opened the door and we met face to face and said a few words. Something in the book had affected me profoundly and I felt an incredible outpouring of love for this stranger. At that very moment I heard a loud noise and looked up. A truck was going by with the words “Ekhart Moving Company” painted in large letters on the side.

I delight in the magic of synchronicities every single day. I love the way I seem to look at the clock each afternoon at 2:22. I love the way the number 22 follows me around, as when on a recent trip to Chicago I was assigned row number 22 on the airplane, the taxi exited the freeway at 22nd Avenue on the way to the hotel, I was on the second floor and the room service number that I used everyday was #22. Even my skeptical friend Chris had to admit how funny it was that I happened to be in his old car the day the odometer read 222,222!

I know that some of you are wondering what this has to do with spirituality. I can feel the eye roll I’m getting from certain folks. One or two of you are saying, “So what. This is just coincidence, nothing more.” Others might counter that there are mathematical and statistical laws that account for these random occurrences.

To these objections I say, you are totally missing the point! The whole point is to wake up. What better way than to notice things, lighten up, relax, smile, have fun, wonder, open up to new explanations, free the mind? In my life it has made no difference whether I watch my thoughts, watch my breath, or watch license plates. All that matters is that I am watching. There is watching. Who is watching?

PS. Six hours after I posted this I got an email saying that a periodical would like to publish one of my pieces. While celebrating–this is my first published piece of writing–I noticed that the time stamp on the email is 2:22!


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What is a Spiritual Practice?

img_0685The short answer: I don’t know. That is, I don’t know what it is for you. I have read about the spiritual experiences of mystics and saints and ordinary people throughout the ages and I have had to conclude that a spiritual practice is a deeply personal experience. Many roads lead to the same destination. I do believe it is my life’s purpose to describe my own experience in the hope that my words will be helpful to others. I want you all to have what I have.

The essence of my spiritual practice is this: Pay Attention to Everything. I watch myself reacting to every situation, word, action, condition, both “belonging” to me as well as to the outside world of people and things. In the past several years I have added my own thoughts to this list. Everything.

Everything? At first I could only pay attention to other people: my mother, my father, my siblings. I was an infant. Next I added myself; I paid attention to being hungry or cold, lonely or bored. Eventually I added in the rest of the world but I could only pay attention to the bad or the good things they were doing. At some point I realized that if I wrote them down, I could pay attention to my thoughts. And that lead to paying attention not only to the situations and things produced but also to the words that others used. I was capable of paying attention to everything brought to me by my five senses and my thinking mind as well. That is everything. I had become fully aware.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a practice. I may be aware but I am not yet able to pay attention 100% of the time. Although I consciously remember doing it for the first time as a preschooler, I once went two whole decades without paying attention. And yet, eventually, I paid attention to that. I had awakened.

Time passed and one day I noticed that I was paying attention to myself paying attention. Uh oh. That’s when I got scared and tried not paying attention for a while. But paying attention had become a habit I could not break. I searched for ways to do it. I tried drinking, but the hangovers really bummed me out. I tried drugs but my “attention payer” was much too paranoid to allow me any fun. I tried sex, but there she was, commenting on every move, wondering when the orgasm would happen. I paid attention to the suffering that I was undergoing, the exhaustion of all the paying attention and I stopped. I’d had a realization.

I realized that I was going mad. My life was chaos from all the attention paying and reacting. I had very few clues about how to improve my situation. And what to do about my attention payer? She was there to stay. So I decided to give her just one thing to pay attention to, something to keep her occupied. What would that be? So many choices, lots of suggestions out there. I began to do more reading. I reread all the books by the mystics and saints and ordinary people and they had all paid attention to something. Things like the breath, or their drinking, or God or Love or their thoughts or sex or the words of a teacher.

Wow! What would I choose? I went on, paying attention like crazy, unable to decide, feeling more lonely and scared while things fell apart all around me. And this went on for the longest time. I tried everything to control my paying attention. I tried the breath, and drinking and God and Love and my own thoughts and sex and the words of a teacher. Then another teacher and another teacher and another teacher…

The words of the teacher. One after the other. I began to listen. That kept my attention payer very quiet. Things began to settle down. Life was not so chaotic when I was paying attention to the teacher and just living my life the rest of the time. Eventually the teachers began to multiply. Soon they were everywhere. I began to see the teacher in every person I met, every story I read, every word that I wrote. I began to see myself as the teacher. I began to see the wise teacher within and that’s when I started to pray. And as odd as it sounds, I prayed to myself and my prayer went like this:

“Please guide me and give me the courage to follow the Guidance.”

One day shortly after I began my prayer. I began to get Guidance and I began to follow it. It caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect such an immediate response. After all, I was praying to myself, a known procrastinator. Also disturbing, I clearly heard the Guidance and It said that I must act now, without waiting for the courage!

During the three to four month period that followed, I did everything Guidance told me, even though I was terrified every day, so terrified that I could barely leave my house. I stopped returning phone calls. All my clients went away. Money stopped coming in. I spent hours alone, frightened and unable to move. Sometimes Guidance told me to get up, take a shower, and brush my teeth. That’s all I got. At other times Guidance told me to spend time with a friend or my son or to take a walk or play with my cat. Guidance told me what to wear, what to eat, what to say. Guidance told me to write and I wrote, shaking like a leaf, so afraid.

From time to time I would try to disregard Guidance and terrible things would happen. A friend’s feelings would get hurt. I would burn my fingers on the hot stove; a business deal would fall apart. But mostly I would feel disconnected and even more afraid. Now I was afraid to follow Guidance and I was afraid not to follow Guidance.

But the fear would not subside until the whole world, it seemed, was fearful too. Terrorists attacked a city I had airline tickets to visit. Americans began making runs on the bank. People became afraid of losing their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods. Guidance could barely get through with all the fear. So I turned off the radio and tuned in more closely to my inner transmitter. I listened until one day, very gently, Guidance said. “You are a coward.”

My spiritual practice today can be summed up this way: Pay Attention to Fear.


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The Truth of Memoir

Every once in a while I pick up a book that transports me directly to Truth. The book Take Me to Truth, by Nouk Sanchez and Tomas Viera, is just such a volume. I recently met Nouk and Tomas and found them to be ordinary people and extraordinarliy gifted teachers. They possess the ability to clearly articulate their own personal spiritual experiences in a way that exposes the underlying truth beneath. Appropriately, their work is about ego release and they bring a contemporary framework and sensilbility to the oldest of spiritual disciplines.

I also have a personal history with Truth. As far back as I can remember I have lain awake at night searching my thinking for answers. As a small child I trusted the universe that was accessible purely through my own contemplation. At the age of three I would wait for my younger sister to fall asleep at night so that I could luxuriate in my favorite inner dialogue which sounded like this:

“How big is the universe?”

“As big as the sky.”

“Then what is beyond the sky?”

“The sky is limitless.”

“What does this limitlessness look like? Is it square like a box, or round like a ball?”

“It can’t have a shape because then there would be something beyond it.”

In those days I always fell asleep before I came to the answer, or “final cause” as I later learned to call it when studying Aristotelian philosphy in graduate school.

Recently I have returned to thinking about what it takes to expose the Truth. As my interests have turned to writing I have begun reading while asking the questions, “What is my experience of Truth? What is my relationship with Truth? How do I recognize Truth? How is Truth different from belief? Is there such a thing as Objective Truth? Is there such a thing as shared Truth? What is the nature of Truth? How is Truth expressed? How is Truth held in the body?

Recently answers have begun to come in such an interesting way.

I am writing memoir as a spiritual discipline. Each Saturday I get together with a half dozen committed writers and we read our pages out loud. Acclaimed memoirist Jennifer Lauck moderates as we struggle through the telling of closely guarded secrets and family legends, all through a process called “on the body.”  The idea is this: get into a quiet state and see, hear, feel, taste, and smell your story. Transcribe. That’s it. And like meditation, it is surprisingly difficult.

As I have begun to get into the flow of the daily writing process, the daily process of being in my body in the present moment, I am noticing a funny thing. The most quiet places of my mind cradle the wise, innocent, inquisitive child that I am. Like time travel, my practice immediately  transports me right back to my bed as a preschooler, right back to the original project and my quest for Truth. And like that wise little child I once was, still am and have yet to become, I know that Truth is indeed found inside me, if only I have the courage to go after it.