I've started work on my second book. Just in case people are curious I thought I'd put out excerpts as blogs occasionally. You'll find a first draft of the introduction below. Enjoy!
ps: the working title of the book is The Life and Death of “I”: Evolution, Transformation, and the Future of Humanity. Feedback welcome. Here's the intro:
We are like children playing in a burning building. Such was the image the Buddha used to describe the human condition 2500 years ago. We are fixated on unimportant things--our pleasures and our pains, our aspirations, our preferences and opinions, our presumed flaws--while our hearts wither and chaos flourishes in the world. We cannot see the ways in which we are deprived of our natural state of joy and peace by processes, by habits of thought and assumption, that we do not choose and which operate autonomously and universally within each human mind.
The image is even more relevant now. It has always been the case, it would seem--ever since humans developed the capacity to call themselves "I"--that the great majority have been unaware of our predicament. Such is the case even now, despite the publicity afforded by modern technology to the consequences of our ignorance, which include prejudice, economic oppression, racial and gender discrimination, and other disastrous things. Originally the building that burned was merely the state of individual consciousness; locked, as has generally been the case since we learned to think, within inward processes of self-sabotage. Since the agricultural revolution and the advent of inequality that accompanied it, our inner confusion has manifested with greater and greater power as outward injustice and cruelty, but it’s only in recent times that we’ve acquired the means to actually destroy ourselves. We stand, it appears, at the brink of catastrophe. And yet the process is the same: still we focus on party and class, on who is right and who is wrong, and most perniciously on our own individual gain, while we ignore the degradation of our environment, the corruption of our institutions, and the hovering threat of nuclear holocaust.
Something, clearly, must be done—but what? How may we possibly alter the self-deceiving course of human history; how may we evolve beyond our selfishness and self-centeredness, and escape from the unconscious processes that poison our relationship with Life and with the world around us, and cause such pain and sorrow? Clearly we must awaken as a human family to the cause of our suffering, and as a species transcend the confusion that has crippled harmony and our true happiness thus far. And there is a way to do it. This way is the same that the Buddha discovered so long ago, which has been passed from one courageous person to another to this present day. This book will attempt to describe this way, so far as I comprehend it, as it relates to our situation in this post-industrial world.
When I was twenty-nine I entered a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. I had only a dim understanding of my motivation at the time, and I could have articulated it even less, but even then I sensed there was a way to escape from the burning building. I felt a latent power within my heart and mind to break out of the prison called "me", to understand what is truly going on and what life is all about. I wished to end the angst and sorrow that robbed me of a happy life; I hoped to learn how to access the peace, perhaps even the joy, that I had once known but had somehow lost. Following that hope, I lived and trained at the monastery for the next eighteen years.
As a monk I lived in silence. Each day I followed a full schedule with the other monks that included meditation, periods of work, meals, and regular exchanges with the teacher. If any communication were necessary we used pen and paper, and we avoided making eye contact with each other. There was a certain intimacy that developed between us, though we did not talk: a connection that was impersonal and yet profound. The experience of a bond that transcended personality is one of the aspects of my monastic life that I feel most grateful for. As a monk I did not read or write unless the monastery asked me to do so. I had permission to write letters to family occasionally, but otherwise I maintained no commerce with the world beyond the monastery gates. There was no sort of distraction available: no music, no books, no movies or other media, no travel... There was no physical human touch in my life all those years. As a monk I made almost no decisions for myself; the monastery determined for me what I would eat and what I would do, with the understanding that my job was to accept it all and let go.
During those years of training I digested no news, and so I had little idea about the things that transpired in the vast world beyond the monastery property. Unbroken silence is a rare thing in this world; after a few months with no media or other inputs you sort of forget that there actually is a world out there in which things are happening. I remember the first time I really got how remote my life had become, and how clueless I was. It occurred at the end of my first one-year stint. It just so happened that Princess Diana died during that year—in August, I believe. I did not hear of the event, though apparently it was one of the most talked about occurrences of the decade. In December I left the monastery for my once a year, one week vacation with my family. At a dinner party one evening someone mentioned Diana's death. Overhearing, I said, "Did she die?" Instantly there was silence in the room. Everyone stared at me like some weird creature in a zoo. What rock had I been hiding under, I'm sure they imagined, that I did not know?
While the events transpired on September 11, 2001 I happened to be in a grocery store in North Carolina buying food for a retreat the monastery offered there. It was one of the eeriest experiences of my life. Suddenly the background music stopped and the news came on over the store's loudspeakers. I listened in confusion and horror to this, my first experience with the news in years, and it seemed impossible it could be real. Then the news abruptly stopped and the musac began again. Once the retreat was finished I drove from North Carolina back to the monastery in California with another monk and my teacher in a donated minivan, as it was our only way to get there. At the monastery, I'm told, there was a brief announcement that a major terrorist attack had happened in New York, and that was it. This was one of two announcements related to outside events during the entire eighteen years, the other occurring on the evening Barak Obama was first elected president. I imagine I am just about the only person in America who was an adult during 9/11 that still has not seen the videos of the airplanes and what they did. Perhaps I will watch them at some point, I don't know.
I understood that I was out of touch, but it didn’t trouble me much, as I was entirely focused on my own inward journey. I did not have the attention for the sufferings of others; I was too consumed with my own. I find that this has changed, however, since I left the monastery and began to look and see what goes on in the human world. I have the attention for it now. My heart is moved by the tremendous misery and injustice suffered on this planet by so many different people, in so many different ways. I still have no patience for the drama and manipulation embedded in the daily news, but I am hungry for an understanding of the way in which the human world operates on a process level, and all the vast consequences of our collective unconsciousness on the lives of the beautiful people who inhabit this planet. These past years since I re-entered the world at large I have peered through the insight and understanding I gained at the monastery at the human condition as it plays itself out in our current times. From this vantage I can see that the source of all the dysfunction and conflict, all the ignorance and prejudice, and all the violence and oppression that fills the news is the same collection of unconscious processes that I struggled to work through within my own mind.
During the years of my training I learned how to love myself and others, how to let go of the suffering that imprisoned me, how to follow the guidance of Life, and the other essentials of a happy adventure on this earth. I learned how to truly live—a gift for which I am profoundly grateful. In the middle of September, 2014, I left the monastery to take the next step forward in my life and practice. It had become clear over time that I needed new challenges and new opportunities in order to continue to grow as a human being. I did not know what would become of me in the world beyond the monastery gates, but I hoped I might be useful. I expected to live a quiet and humble life, as I still do, and I longed to do a bit of good.
I have found that, in general, people are not happy in the world beyond the monastery gates. This was not a surprise, of course, but it has moved me to see what this means in the context of people’s lives. Some suffer overtly and hideously, but most do not. Most suffer in a way that is invisible, to others and even to themselves. I have seen that people suffer because they simply don’t know how to be happy: people are not aware of how they are unhappy and the simple but profound choices that become available as soon as they understand how suffering is caused.
I propose to explore in this book this cause of our suffering, both as individuals and as our entire human family. The two, in fact, are the same. This is the realization that has most moved and inspired me since I left the monastery, that the inner and the outer are identical: the way we suffer as particular people is no different than the way we suffer as an entire collective whole. The self-destructive processes that operate within our cultures and societies mirror the same process inside our heads, just on a larger scale. Because of this, the way we may end suffering outwardly is the same as the way we end it inwardly. The forms are different, but the process is the same.
There is no way to end the tragedy of our modern existence on this planet without addressing the unconscious processes that underpin it. From what I can see, even the activists who are working so heroically to address the issues we face on the content level often do not attend to these underlying processes. If a person is acting from the same places of unconsciousness that are causing the problem he or she is attempting to address, that person is contributing to the problem, even if he or she is mitigating the results. In order to end the suffering of the world, to really end it, we need to end such things as selfishness and dualistic thinking. The only way to do that is to end those processes, as individuals, within our own minds.
I do not claim to have any special insight or abnormal clarity—far from it. I am a regular human with typical human challenges; I struggle just like everyone else and expect to continue in this way until I die. I am in possession of a technology, however, that it appears few people have grasped. I know how to look inside to see how I cause myself to suffer, and how to end suffering. I know how to hold myself in unconditional love through all the inevitable pain of life. I know how to practice happiness even in this troubled world. This is my one gift, and I'll do my best to offer it through the following pages.