Psyche and Mind Soul and Spirit

10 Percent Less A$$hole

“The cancer changed me. . . After my illness I am 10 percent less asshole.” My friend laughed. Something touched me about this mirthful comment. After decades of meditation, shadow work, and spiritual integration I thought “10 percent less asshole? I’d take that”

Why? Transformation is rare and oftentimes really difficult. A cancer diagnosis, the threat of physical disfigurement, significant hearing loss, potential loss of taste and smell due to months of chemo. That’s a pretty arduous path to transformation and for many people even that does little to change them. 

For those on transformational paths be it spiritual, psychological or both, there often seems to be little change in their day-to-day personality. Are they doing something wrong? Are the tools and practices flawed? Not necessarily. The difficulty of transformation lies in the complexity of our psyche. 

The human psyche and personality is organized around something very primal: Animal survival. Our habits, mannerisms, relationships, and vocations all echo back to this primitive drive to survive. Our smiles might hide feelings of anxiety, lust, repulsion, loneliness and emptiness. Of course we might just be happy or warm, but all too often we human beings have turmoil just a few inches below the surface.

That turmoil when brought to the surface in times of loss, illness, conflict and uncertainty is the fuel for our transformation. It cracks our shell so to speak. It sparks or fuels what some call the enlightenment drive, the desire to know what is deeper and more true within us, even to know what transcends death.

It is of course not enough to know this in some didactic or performative way as do so many frauds and charlatans. The true enlightenment drive will settle for nothing less than direct experience of something greater than ourselves. We become thirsty for the waters of deeper wells: peace, wisdom, compassion, courage, joy, clarity . . .

Transformation comes by drinking these waters. But as appealing as they sound, they are deadly to our sense of self our defenses and protections. They threaten our survival. So we turn away, or we take sips and then run back to safe ground, or we try to imitate the qualities in hopes of having them without having to pay. Since however it doesn’t work that way, we end up with some new language and maybe cooler clothes, but with little real change. 

For true change we have to give something. Maybe it is giving up control, maybe the need to prove ourselves, or feel powerful. The list is long, but at the beginning, middle, and end is giving up being so fucking hard on ourselves. This means our self judgments and ridicule, our harsh expectations, and our comparisons with others. 

After decades of my own work and working with others here is my message: no one is complete. If we are all pearls we all have flat spots, we are all bumpy in places, in others we do not shine. We grind, and polish and fill our craters, but we will never be that great singular ornament that shines with perfect luminescence. 

The more we understand this, the more we let the great world spin, the more our shells soften and we become transparent to the luminous waters of the deep well. So while we as people are not complete, our deepest nature is completeness and drinking from that well of completeness brings more glimmer to our rough surfaces, shines up some of our uneven patches, and rounds out some of our flat spots. And if you are as lumpy and bumpy as myself you will deeply appreciate even 10 percent. 

Meditation Psyche and Mind Soul and Spirit

Hacking enlightenment

I recently heard about a high tech “Master Program that brings you the benefits of 21-40 years of advanced Zen meditation in”—get this—5 days! To be clear I subscribe to the idea of “whatever works” and would happily try this combination of bio-feedback, diet, “pod-practice” etc. If I had the disposable $15K. 

It is not the program, but the claim that grinds against my sense of truth. First of all there couldn’t be anything less zen than distilling zen into a commodity.

Break open 

a cherry tree

And there are no flowers,

But the spring breeze

Brings forth a myriad of blossoms


We human beings are an ever unfolding universe. The Universe as humanity and as the unique human individual. Like nesting dolls we are within everything and everything is within us. We succeed or fail, shine or dim within the fabric of all things. The terrible and wonderful truth is that each soul has her own pace of growing and blossoming. 

Have you ever had your heart torn open? For those that have, the last thing they need is to be placed in a sleek pod with electrodes on their scalp. What we need is connection.  And just now:

Eclectic and comfortable cafe, writing in a cozy chair near a ceramic log fire and a large lounging tabby cat with his own leather armchair, the thud of a little girl falling to the floor behind me. Dad sweeps her into his arms and Mother says “that was scary wasn’t it?”. Moments later she is laughing once again.

No diet, nor pod, nor brain scan can repeat or replace this experience, nor can it provide it for those who fell to the floor and sobbed without response in their own childhood. Forty years of meditation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Life and death are happening. Countries are rising and falling, great joys and calamities befall us. In most mystic spiritual traditions it is understood that the self is assembled and then dismantled only to reform and be scattered to the wind once again. Our lives are as much the turning of the leaves as they are winning a contract or securing a bank balance.

The culture that cajoles us to success and achievement is missing the point. The scriptural question of what it means to gain the world, but to lose our souls should bring us to our knees. Humankind could weep for a thousand years over this loss. There is no heart in seeing ourselves as a commodity. We desperately need an inner life, a place to be touched and from where to touch.

Sometimes I sit quietly, 

Listening to the sound of falling leaves.

Peaceful indeed is the life of a monk, 

Cut off from all worldly matters.

Then why do I shed these tears?


Climbing out of our pods, the world needs our empathy more than it needs our success, our appreciation rather than our domination, and perhaps most of all our humility. To start, how about an intention to reclaim our hearts? Let’s do it fiercely. Not in a fawning, sentimental, or cloying way. How about looking at ourselves, the world around us and even our enemies and saying “I will never kick you out of my heart. Even if I fear you, am angry at you, rejected by you, or hate you, you will never be utterly out of my heart.” [a caveat here: in cases of abuse and deep inner work we might have to explore annihilating our abusers in order to reclaim our power]

Importantly we cannot leave ourselves out of this fierce heart embrace. In this case “ourselves” means the entirety of our experience, in particular our inner lives. Splitting away any part of ourselves is compartmentalizing reality. Good/evil, human/nature, God/devil ultimately divide us from the direct experience of life. 

In practical terms, think about which of your own experiences you describe as “positive” and which as “negative”. To go further, what do you do with the “negative” experience? Do you stuff it, talk yourself out of it, act it out on the world around? How about meeting it, nodding and saying “I see you there, I know there is a reason for you, and I also know your perspective is not the whole story”

Next we turn our fierce hearts towards truth. As confusing as truth has become in the world today, we can learn to stop and say “this is true for me now: I am hurting; I am sad; I am angry; I am alive and filled with wonder.” Frankly this is easier for some than others. This phase can be helpful: your feelings are non-negotiable. We can ask ourselves multiple times a day “where am I now, what is my experience now” right or wrong has no bearing on this. Your emotion may be based on a false reading of reality, or on a past experience superimposed on the present moment so it isn’t an ultimate truth, but it is a step toward deeper truth. 

Stopping and looking directly towards the center of any emotion, or feeling will inevitably reveal something deeper, something more true. Anger for instance is often a defensive emotion. To stop, acknowledge without judgment, breathe, and really feel that anger in the body will usually reveal something like . . . “I am hurt” or “I feel alone”

But why? Why the laborious truth telling? The secret is this: the passion with which you direct your fierce heart to truth is the flame that keeps you passionate for life. This is also a process through which you become an authentic human being, one who can touch and be touched. You become a dynamic core that radiates outward and receives feedback in a continuous cycle of creation. You are the universe dancing the unique form of your individual self, and that form can implicitly understand the dance of all forms.

If you cannot find the truth within yourself, where else do you expect to find it?


Psyche and Mind Soul and Spirit

Enlightenment in Tatters

Enlightenment in tatters: a primer in spiritual maturity

In an instant all your illusions fall to the ground. All karmas, attachments, and life challenges are swept away. You, the awakened one, realizing yourself as pure love, awareness and emptiness walk through the world carefree, joyful and at ease. Flowers bloom in your wake.

So the enlightenment myth would have it. Reality dances differently. A moment in the mountains or meditation hall reveals that all of reality is luminous awareness . . .immersed in a group chant or in the presence of a guru we fall in love with everyone and everything. . .peace and equanimity can blanket us so completely it as if we never had a chattering mind at all.

And then in time or suddenly the suffering and the calamity return. We struggle in relationships, lose a friend to addiction, suffer illness or financial collapse. Loss, dysfunction, agitation or depression can wash away our precious enlightenment making it seem as if was all an illusion. 

So what is spirituality all about anyway? Often it can seem as if we stand between two lines of trumpeteers, one blowing the tune of growth and personal evolution, the other the sweet sounds of instant enlightenment–the realization that we are already whole and complete as we are–perfect spirit. 

Should we head for the mountains and find a cave, perhaps we should just master manifestation? Maybe resolve our mother issues, or conquer a yoga asana? The spiritual marketplace can be as loud and disorientating as any other arena of life.

If however, we can begin to grasp that there are two sides of the coin (at least) that is spirituality: 1. Our innate and perfect nature from which we have become estranged and 2. Our unique manifestation as a human being which is always growing and changing, we can more easily determine which areas of our lives require diligence and attention and where there is a need for surrender. Of course for the purist this coin is ultimately “one”, but for the sake of sanity let’s make a discrimination.

Spiritual practice is mostly geared to giving us experiences of the ineffable, invisible reality of love, unity, peace, universal truth, etc. Ultimately we can come to realize that these are not simply experiences that we have, but the essence of what we are. 

A few of the many pitfalls of spiritual practice are worth mentioning here: 

1. The idea that spiritual experience will solve all our problems (or make us indifferent to and above them), 

2. The dilemma of attaining lasting realization rather than a series of beautiful glimpses. 

3. The ease with which we can become lost in the dogmas and dysfunction of our particular spiritual path. 

4. Not to mention the difficulty that some have even attaining a glimpse of their true nature i.e. satori. 

If we are lucky enough to find our way to an abiding or at least consistent realization of our spiritual nature, other challenges will arise.

Pause for a moment to consider one particular but fairly universal spiritual realization: unity. The realization that all forms of reality are the same fundamental nature or substance. This is usually a lovely and relieving  concept and even more powerful experience. The implications however are beyond mind-blowing. YOU sitting here reading THIS are the universe–EVERYTHING–all that is, was, or ever will be! 

You are the big bang, the supernova and the black hole, you are the setting sun, the cool breeze, the ocean of life and the lava flowing from the core of the earth. Once we begin to see through the veils of the separate person who has to earn a living, put her clothes in nice piles in drawers, and get along with other people, and we realize the immensity of what we ARE, the wild aliveness that animates everything starts to take over “your” life. All the tidy piles, all the gnarls and knots that have been swept away or bundled in the basement begin to demand recognition.

Fortunately all of these unresolved aspects of yourself are none other than spirit wanting to live, thrive and be creative. Unfortunately it can be a real hell of a ride. The Greeks knew this all too well in telling the story of Zeus sending Pandora with her jar of chaos down upon the family of Prometheus who “stole fire from heaven”. If you are going to realize yourself as everything, you are going to have to deal with everything!

This brings us to our unique individual self. One caveat here: we can endlessly philosophise about how oneness can also be an individual self or we can suspend our disbelief and simply admit that it happens. Each of us is the universe walking around as a little four limbed version of ourselves. 

Some new tools emerged in the twentieth century to deal with unpredictable and elusive self: psychology and psychiatry. As rife with quackery and charlatanism as the spiritual traditions before them, these fields nonetheless offer tremendous insight into the human psyche. In particular: understandings of the subconscious mind, ego development, and more recently trauma and the body/mind connection.

The practice of self understanding rivals any spiritual discipline in liberating the conditioned self and goes further than most spiritual practices in helping us cultivate a self that is capable of channeling the powerful forces of life into a coherent, creative individual; aka a self-actualized human being.

Psychological illumination can give us a clear and accurate understanding of who we are as a person. We can uncover the hidden motivators in our behaviour and learn to tolerate the strong emotions that lead to reactivity in our lives. With a skilled practitioner we can come to trust intimacy and  embrace vulnerability. Psychology gives us an understanding of how corrosive our judge and inner critic can be to our growth. The therapeutic relationship can cultivate a profound compassion for our “flaws, faults, and mistakes” and see them rather as coping mechanisms needed for survival. With tenderness and attunement even the most contracted knots and  traumas can soften, open and integrate into a mature adult self.

Unity will once again be useful here as we begin to recognize that spirituality and psychology are not really two disparate fields, but rather a continuity–the spectrum of our human experience.  One portion of the spectrum inevitably informs the other. For example someone who struggles with financial insecurity and worry despite never having been in actual poverty can begin to understand the psychological roots of this insecurity in their history. Perhaps their grandparents struggled during the depression and this was passed on through mother as scarcity behaviour around food, clothing, and expansion in general. 

From the spiritual end of the spectrum this may be felt as a painful lack of capacity or support. It may feel as if one is weak, devoid, and even empty of the ability to support oneself. This reveals a spiritual disconnect–an absence of the sense of trust that life itself will has endowed us with the capacity that we need–the sense of “I can” and “I will”. Here something more than mental understanding is needed, we need to “fall through” the beliefs, self images, contractions, and fear into a deeper sense of reality. A reality that is holding, abundant, positive, creative, and intelligent. Ultimately we need not only to feel this, but know it as the indivisible core of ourselves.

The takeaway here is that there is an important distinction on the spiritual journey. The distinction between the ascending journey, the movement of transcending ordinary thoughts, emotions, and desires and the descending journey, the process of  developing, and cultivating ourselves as a person. 

We ascend to touch the transcendent love, peace, wisdom and intelligence of our true nature, We descend or embody our capacity for growth and learning in relationships, vocation, and play. The flow of ascending and descending, expanding and contracting, forming and unforming is really life at play as YOU. The inner work, the practices, the nitty gritty of daily life are nothing more than the universal energy of life finding the best way of being the unique individual that you are. 

Spiritual maturity to the degree that such a thing exists is a consistent connection, a feeling of being at home in ourselves. It is also an acceptance of and compassion for our quirky and sometimes clunky humanity. We see ourselves at the surface, we see ourselves at depth and we love what we see.