Where Is the Me? Where Is the Joker?


Let me play!
Let me play!


Where Is Me?  The Joker Revealed


            This morning in meditation one of the questions that arose was, “where is attention, where is awareness?” It wasn’t an intellectual question. It was as simple as, where’s my other sock? I started looking for it.

            As I gently guided my attention to look for awareness itself, I could immediately feel it— feel awareness itself, easily, obviously present. Things were rising up in awareness— thoughts, physical sensations, images, memories, sounds from the street outside. So in order to keep my attention on awareness itself, I had to resist the habit of attending to all these things that were rising up in awareness.

            The simple feeling or experience of awareness itself is subtle, and feels a bit tenuous, even fragile. And yet, it also feels very natural, very familiar, commonplace. It’s the “background” feeling that we all know all the time, like the feeling of wearing socks.  We’re not accustomed to putting our attention there— on our socks—yet when we do, the feeling is familiar, comfortable, ordinary.

            Such is the feeling of awareness itself.

            Sitting, resting with the feeling of awareness itself, another question spontaneously arose: where is me? Or more specifically, where is the me?  And even more particularly, where is Bear Jack?

            Resting as awareness itself, it was quite obvious: the “me” – and more particularly the separate entity known as Bear Jack—was not—is not– awareness itself. That entity is something that rises up in awareness, and then falls away again. That entity does not have awareness. That entity is a set of mental and emotional constructs, ever changing, ever elusive, ever disappearing that rises up in awareness itself. That entity is in fact a house of cards, in relation to awareness itself. And not even a real player— it’s the joker.

            Stretching that metaphor just a step, let’s pretend that the things that naturally rise up in awareness itself— such as the sun, the earth, the wind, the coffee cup or our belly buttons —  are individual cards in the “deck of consciousness,” the deck of awareness (two words for the same magical presence.)  The separate entity that views itself as separate from all these things is indeed the joker— it has no real place or function or meaning in the game.   

            Things rise up in awareness itself— the jack of hearts, the two of clubs, the seven of diamonds— are played, as it were, and then discarded. That’s the delicious game. That’s what’s here happening for us to enjoy. When we throw in the joker— when we insist that the separate entity has a time and place and function in the game— we are playing a game, of our own invention, that we can’t win, won’t win.

            When we discard the joker, seeing that it has no real awareness, no real function of its own, and rest in awareness itself, we immediately, spontaneously begin to see and experience the real game being played here, and how the cards are falling. With such seeing, such experiencing, we win the jackpot.

            Or at least, that’s how it felt— feels— in this morning’s joker-less meditation. 


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Unplugging the Inner Answering Machine

            I realized this morning that I had accidentally installed an “inner answering machine” that responds with a pre-recorded message to just about everything that happens in my life. It’s somewhat annoying.  

            I’ve lately been reading a lot about the nature of awareness, and attention, and how the universe may in fact be “self aware.” (See Amrit Goswami,  The Self Aware Universe, What the Bleep Do We Know, etc. ) It  has been pointed out to me that things rise up in awareness. Thoughts, objects, perceptions, feelings, sensations, the world itself all rise up and fall away in awareness. But awareness itself is still, is ever-present and thing-less, as it were.            

            Awareness itself is not a “thing,” not an object with neatly defined edges and textures. Edges and textures rise up in awareness, but awareness itself is edgeless, texture-less. (I’m not being airy-fairy here. I’m describing our common experience. Just take a look, see for yourself!)   

            Since awareness is “thing-less,” it is also timeless, always just “right now.” Memories of the past rise up in awareness, and projections of the future rise up in awareness, but awareness itself is always only right now.  

            Enter the inner answering machine.

            Seems like no matter what happens—no matter what rises up in my awareness, be it in my physical body, in my mind, or in the bird feeder outside the kitchen window—a little voice automatically switches on. The voice starts commenting on whatever it is that is arising— agreeing with it, disagreeing with it, welcoming it or rejecting it, basically “leaving a message.”   

            Yes, the voice, this inner monologue, this inner answering machine is also something that is rising up in awareness. Yet I see the voice is actually quite mechanical, “pre-recorded.”  The message that the inner answering machine offers to whatever is arising is always based on memory, past conditioning, habit.  Curiously, I notice that I am deeply habituated to identifying not with the awareness which is alive, radiant, alive and clear, but rather with the stupid answering machine, the pre-recorded messages! 

            I now recognize that to simply “answer” the momentary call of life— to most lovingly, intelligently relate to whatever is arising in awareness in this moment— it behooves me to unplug the inner answering machine. Like an old friend calling, I “answer” life’s call— to see what’s new, what’s happening, what’s up—  by simply being present, being aware (two words for the same thing-less thing).

         Recognizing that there is in fact an “inner answering machine” is the first step in unplugging it. Awareness itself, attention itself, melts the plug. Fortunately, life itself does indeed have my number, and calls repeatedly!









At Peace with Mourning

I wish I didn’t have to go to my Uncle’s funeral today. I wish he hadn’t died. I wish he could have stayed healthy and lived forever.

            Nevertheless, I’m going to my Uncle’s funeral today. Bummer.


            In my professional life, in my personal affairs and in my spiritual walk (three areas of my life that are in fact not separate.) I teach— and engage— a simple cognitive process I call the “peace practice.” I’ve learned that practicing peace of mind is the most important thing we  can do for ourselves and everybody around us. And I’ve learned that to have peace of mind we need to be at peace with thoughts and stories we’re entertaining in consciousness. There’s no other way. So if I’m not a peace with a thought or story I’m telling myself, or someone else is telling me,  I’ve learned that I have two options:

            a. drop the thought or story with which I am not at peace and find or create a thought or story with which I am more at peace; or

            b. choose to be at peace with the thought or story with which a moment before I was not at peace.


            When I teach this, clients often ask how it’s possible to be a peace when their outer circumstances are so stressful—relationships are strained, or health is impaired, or finances are in shreds. Or maybe one’s uncle has recently passed, and one must attend the funeral—later today.

            One thought at a time, I tell them. One story at a time. For example, “I wish I didn’t have to go to my Uncle’s funeral today.” Am I at peace with this thought, this story? No, not right off. So okay, I have two options, per above. Can I drop the thought, and find one with which I am more at peace? Maybe, for a minute or less. But the funeral is in a couple of hours, and I have to go. So what about option b— can I be at peace with the thought which a moment before I was not at peace?

            I wish I didn’t have to go to my Uncle’s funeral today.”  Can I be at peace with this thought? And more precisely, can I be at peace with this feeling?

            Yes, it’s the most peaceful thing I can do. This is what mourning feels like. Wishing it hadn’t happened. Wishing we didn’t have to deal with it. Wanting things to be different than they are. This is a natural, spontaneous, widely experienced human feeling. I don’t have to deny it. I don’t have to fight it. I don’t have to try to make it into something else.   

            I wish I didn’t have to go to my Uncle’s funeral today. Nevertheless, I’m going to my Uncle’s funeral today.

            Can I be at peace with this story? It is, after all, a choice.

            So yes, I can be at peace with my reluctance, I can be at peace with my feelings, I can be at peace with my sense of loss, and sense of wanting to run away. These are what rise up in me. I can consciously decide not to fight these feelings, these stories. Simply be with them. Nor need I exaggerate them. I will simply let them be what they are, rising and falling as they do. This is mourning. This is life. This is today.

            This is beautiful, this ache, this wanting to run away, this wanting it to be otherwise, that is present in me now.

            I’ve learned that Peace has many, many faces, with many wrinkles. 


The Protection and Cure: At Peace with the Swine Flu

Yikes, yikes, yikes! An invisible demon is out to get us! Everybody, stay in bed!. Get under the covers. While you’re under there, wash your hands! 


            Although we naturally, spontaneously offer great compassion and sympathy for those folks whose families have suffered the loss of a loved one due to the recent outbreak of H1N1 – e.g. The Swine Flue— or are currently suffering the yucky symptoms of that flu, nevertheless the quick regress of our medical and media communities into adolescent enthrallment and systemic paranoia is to be laughed at. In fact, laughter is the healthiest thing we can do!

            A couple of basics: Yes, indeed,  normal people are catching swine flu , though  those who have a compromised “immune system” are most at risk for catching the flu—any flu (swine, bird, donkey, etc)  just as they are more at risk for catching a cold or the bubonic plague. And these same folks with compromised immune systems are, alas, the ones most likely to suffer the most severe consequences, including the dropping of the mortal coil. It happens every year, with all kinds of maladies, including normal human (Kentucky) flu.

            However, we don’t just have a physical immune system. We also have a psychological immune system. And now, even though we might have relatively healthy physical immune systems, our communal psychological immune systems are under heavy attack from the constant barrage of the media/medical community’s highly contagious fear, paranoid projections, and mass alerts of the possibly deadly pandemic at hand. Their fearful broadcasts have created countless false alarms and over-reactions around the world.  

            So how do we protect both our physical and psychological immune systems? Cutting edge medical research confirms that we do this first and foremost simply by staying centered, staying peaceful, staying happy and upbeat.  Duh. If you are running scared, worried about every sneeze, depressed and out of sorts, washing your hands won’t do you much good.  

            So exactly how do we do this—stay happy, healthy, upbeat?  Contrary to widespread assumptions, it’s actually quite simple. Dr. Charles Lawrence, the main character in  Practicing the Presence of Peace, observes that we stay happy and peaceful simply by enjoying the stories and thoughts we entertain in consciousness. We find peace, he says, by being at peace with our own inner dialogue. We suffer, and compromise our immune systems when we focus on and magnify the thoughts and stories we don’t enjoy, or with which we are not at peace.

            Dr. Charlie suggests that in order to protect our immune system whenever necessary or appropriate we can simply ask, “Am I at peace with these stories, am I happy with these thoughts, yes or no?” He says that if the answer is not an immediate and spontaneous yes, it’s a no. Thus, if we are happy and at peace with the thought/story of a worldwide flu pandemic, we are free to think it. If we are not at peace with such a story, we are free to drop it.

            Study after study has proven that our mental attitude has a huge impact on our physical condition. So I’m determined to simply enjoy, and be at peace with— not be too troubled by— the silly adolescent behavior of the media and the flat-earth medical people who continue to assault the mass immune system. And do my part, with posts such as these,  to simply say— I ain’t afraid of no swine. Think I’ll have a BLT while searching for cheap tickets to Acapulco.

            Maybe wash my hands before boarding.


I Ain’t Going to Work on Maggie’s Farm No More

          A non-combatant’s view of the book selling wars

             I’m tickled to announce that my new book, Practicing the Presence of Peace, has just been released by Pathbinder Books. It’s currently available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and from fine bookstores near you, if you actually go to the desk and ask them to order a copy!)  What a treat. What a moment! I’m tempted to sit back and smoke big cigars.

            But no. According to publishing traditions and business expectations, the publication of one’s book is just the first step.  An author then signs up or gets drafted into the book marketing wars!  According to tradition, I’m supposed to start battling— elbowing, nudging, cutting in line trying to get ahead of the other 180,000 book authors who will publish a new book this year. We’re all supposed to fight each other for a spot in The New York Times Review of Books, or for an invite to Oprah, for strong approval by Library Journal, Book List and Publishers Weekly, or, lacking these, maybe just a quick mention in the Wheatland County Haybale Times.

            But, as you can tell by title of my book, (Practicing the Presence of Peace) I’m a grizzled non-combatant. I’m really, really tired of the wars— all the wars, whether it be the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on obesity, the war on tobacco— ad infinitum with this war biz. I’m tired of them. Wars don’t lead to peace. Only peace leads to peace. So I’m not fighting any more wars. And I encourage others to likewise drop out, refuse to join. “The only way the wars will end,” Napoleon observed, “is when the soldiers refuse to fight.”  

            So what to do?

            Simple: Be at peace, both personally and professionally.

            I can decide (and it is a decision) to be at peace with the 180,000 other book authors. Not only at peace. I can rejoice. What a wonderful time and place we have all come to— we brothers and sisters in the book publishing biz. What a rich, fruitful, dazzlingly colorful era for writers and readers. Why fight this? No need.

            All publishers quickly (and secretly) acknowledge they have no idea how to make a best-seller. A rave review in the New York Times or a strong review in the Library Journal may indeed help sales, in the short run. The one and only sure-fire sentence that an author can utter that always results in a best-selling book is this sentence: “It’s nice to be back again, Oprah.”  Without the opportunity to utter such a sentence, successfully selling a book is dicey. There are no guarantees.

            So we might as well enjoy ourselves in the process. Let’s not beat ourselves up, or others up, about what we or they could be, should be, might be doing to promote our books more vigorously, more widely, more expertly, elegantly, professionally, perfectly. Of course there’s more we could be doing.  This is my fourth book. I’ve learned that there are always more things to do than I or my publisher can do, or did do; always things we should have done, might have done that we didn’t. Welcome to earth.

            This time I’m going to trust that each of the 180,000 new books has its own sweet and perfect destiny, and will find its own natural audience. I’m learning to trust that each book does have its own energy, its own place in the sun, whether that’s in a hidden valley in Idaho or on the main streets of London and New York.

            As far as promoting our books, it’s the new millennium. Let’s just do what we enjoy to do, what’s fun to do, what seems right and natural and easy. Sure. There are those who want to make this book promotion business into a war. They’ll argue for pre-emptive bombing and sudden invasions and massive funds employed to support our cause.  To paraphrase the scriptures, “The poor (the war-makers) will always be with us.”

            I’m not going to listen to them this time around. Or as Bobby sings it, I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s farm no more. This time, I’m going to make the promotion of the book as much fun as was the writing of the book. This way, my real peace and prosperity are already immediately in hand.  

A Heart to Heart Talk

A sad, cranky, unkempt, fifty-something woman has been coming to see me off an on over the past couple of years, more for the chocolates I keep on my desk, I suspect, and the contacts I have in local social services than for any wisdom I might inadvertently bestow. So it goes.
She has reason to be sad and cranky (as do we all, in our way.) She is awaiting a new heart, because her old one only pumps on one or two cylinders. Enough to make anyone cranky. In our last visit she was complaining how tired she was.
As I’ve done with her for years, I gently reminded her of the Freedom Exercise and the Peace Practice. “It takes a lot of energy to be cranky,” I said, or more gentle words to that effect. This lady is disgusted with her doctors, disgusted with her ex-husband, upset with her kids, mad at the neighbors, ill-tempered with the Food Bank, has absolutely no patience with the political system, the religious traditions, the educational system or the prevailing economic conditions.
“I know your heart condition tires you out,” I said, “but how you think— what you hold in consciousness– can also tire you out.”
“My heart is 99.999% of the problem,” she quickly replied.
“I would estimate it’s only 99.998% of the problem,” I countered, with a grin, trying to break through.
“No, it’s 99.999%” she insisted. She wouldn’t budge one/one-thousandth on this point. I stopped arguing. (I make a point of not arguing much in general, but most especially with people who need a whole new heart.)
My friend Christian Almayrac, the French physician who first articulated the Freedom Exercise, discovered in his medical practice that patients who adopted the Freedom Exercise as a daily discipline seemed to improve much faster than those who didn’t. It’s taken more than a hundred years, but finally there is a growing recognition among the general medical community that this is the case — people who are brave enough to make their mental happiness a priority heal quicker, go into remission more often, and need less medication.
“I’m a realist,” my cranky friend insisted. In our times, when someone claims they are a “realist” most often what they mean is that they are a “materialist”— if they can’t touch it, see it, taste it with their physical senses, that means it’s not “real.” No airy-fairy stuff— such as observing how we habitually feel and think — for such a “realist.” There are no inner planes, metaphysical realities, subtle dimensions for such a materialist/realist.
Alas, it also means there is no— dare I say it— heart in our living when we deny these inner “realities.” Our lives are then lead on the surface. It’s all outer skin. And if it’s all outer skin, we soon become cranky, ill-tempered, out of sorts because we are being chaffed all day long!
I suspect this poor women’s heart is in fact finding some kind of nourishment in our chats— other than the chocolates — or she wouldn’t keep coming back. We do want to hear that our happiness is important, our peace is important, on a daily basis, even if our ingrained, outer cognitive structures are not yet ready to accept such simple good news.
We do affect each other, even when we aren’t trying, on levels we can’t even guess at. After the lady left, my heart felt heavy, and it hurt.

The Most Practical Exercise On Earth

Based on Seven Empirical Observations

1. As monks and nuns of Heart Mountain Monastery (or simply as human beings walking on the earth) we have observed that the most practical thing we can do, for ourselves and everybody else, in every relationship and every circumstance, is to live our lives in peace.

2. We have observed that we live our lives in peace only when we are at peace with the thoughts we are thinking.

3. We observe that the most practical question we can ask ourselves, whenever necessary or appropriate, is, “Am I at peace with this thought (these thoughts, these stories?) yes or no? “

4. We observe that if the answer is not an immediate and spontaneous yes, it’s a no.

5. We observe that if the answer is yes (we are at peace with the thoughts we are thinking) that’s perfect. We need do nothing. We’re living in peace.

6. We observe that if the answer is no, (we’re not at peace with the thoughts we are thinking), then in order to return to peace, to live our lives in peace, we have two options:

a. drop the thought (or thoughts or stories) with which we are not at peace and find our create thoughts with which we are more at peace; or
b. choose to be at peace with the thoughts (and stories) with which a moment before we were not at peace.

7. We observe that it doesn’t make any difference whether we choose option a or option b, but rather what makes a difference is whether we are at peace with the thoughts we are thinking.


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A Naughty Neo-Netti Netti

We are too much identified with our thoughts, so the story goes. And even less subtle than our thoughts, we are too much identified with our bodies. Identified with our emotions. Identified with our circumstances, relationships, opportunities, pasts and futures. (Any identification with less than the Whole Shebang is a faulty identification, so the sages prompt us.) We are too much identified with life’s numberless limitations, we are told, and thus our sufferings continue, as we all have noticed, we all have confirmed, time and again.

And so of course all these tiny, faulty daily by day identifications come up in meditation. For example, sitting in meditation, I find I’m still a Bronco fan, a milk man and a crab-grass warrior, sweater wearer. Our teachers suggest that most of us are so deeply identified with the fragments of the material world that we no longer directly feel, glimpse, the true, absolute, eternal, infinitely tender nature that is here, prior to consciousness itself; the infinitely tender nature from which arises absolutely everything, from a single salt grain to the billions of galaxies. We’re too busy rehearsing what we’re going to say next time—or should have said last time—there in the grocery line, to notice the Wonder here Brilliantly Present.

To loose ourselves from these fragments, these false identifications, we have been guided, for many millennia now, to bring our attention again and again back to the Sanskrit words, Netti Netti— which means not this, not this. Nettit netti, taken from the Katha Upanishad, is a traditional mantra used in both Buddhist and Hindu meditation practices. The practice is simply to recognize that one’s true identity is not anything that can be thought or formed or spoken or envisioned, or seen or heard. Thus, for those in search of their deepest identity, the appropriate response to anything arising, interiorly or exteriorly, is the simple recognition that it is, “not this,” and then in the next instant, “not this, “ either. Or this. Or this. Netti, netti.

For those who have spent some time in meditation with netti netti it is generally recognized as a wonderfully powerful practice, a convenient mantra that quickly releases us from the limited identifications with the ten thousand things we tend to get caught with in our daily lives.Of course, by its own essence we ca not assume that this em>netti netti mantra is the final liberation meditation, but it’s a fun one, as anyone who has practiced it can attest, and will add a little ancient spice to the basic Buddhist practice of simply observing and letting go.

The basic practice is, when sitting in meditation, (or, for more advanced practitioners, when standing or walking or doing the dishes) to meet all the thoughts that that come up, be they profound or mundane, inside or out, with the single insight, “I am not thisnot this.” I’m not a guy sitting in meditation. I’m not the sound of the garbage truck outside. I’m not the next door neighbors fighting again about the cost of chicken. Not this, not this, neti, neti.

I’ve been much influenced of late by teachers such as Douglas (Hon Having No Head) Harding, John (You Were Never Born) Wheeler, Sailor Bob (What’s Wrong With Right Now Unless You Think About It) Adamson, Ramana Maharshi, Papaji, Andrew Cohen, Guru Mayi, Gangaji, Nisgradata Maharaj, Tich Nhat Hahn, and, in his best moments, Yogi (“Its so crowded nobody goes there”) Berra, all of whom point to That Place that can’t be pointed to, that is everywhere and nowhere and words slide off it like …

Netti, netti,” not this, not this, seems to work real nice to edge us up next to That Place. Often, when I’ve been using netti netti, and my little timer rings to signal that mediation time is over, I will push the button to immediately begin another session, it’s such a blissful state.

However, I’m a fairly mellow meditator, so when I’m in meditation and images or concepts come up involving my “temporary identities” involving, say, my wife, or daughter or grandchild or poker playing buddies, the netti, netti, not this not this insight, although true absolutely, seems a little harsh. I am relatively speaking, a poker playing grandpa with a lovely wife and crab grass in the lawn.

So, feeling free and easy in my meditative practice, I’ve also practiced using the mantra, “Not just this, not just that.” I’m not just a poker playing grandpa, I’m not just a guy sitting here in meditation, I’m not just this piece of consciousness in a vast swirling galaxy of consciousness. Somehow, with this meditation the limited that which was born and must therefore die, is not denied, but then again it is not a limitation. It might be, in its best moments, simply transcended. “I’m not just this garbage truck noise… not just the ticking of the clock.”

And then of course, the question arises, if I am not “just this,” or, more traditionally, if I am not this at all, what am I? That of course is Ramana Maharshi’s basic mantra, “What am I, Who am I?

Being much influenced by Eastern ways (as one might intuit) I am nevertheless from the cowboy west, and so when a question is asked, we do, at some point, want an answer. Any answer, of course, if couched in words, is going to be a limited answer, not quite infinite, not quite eternal, not quite absolute. Any answer spoken, or even thought with words is not going to be, as the Taoists are fond of saying, That which can not be spoken.

Still, the cowboy in me wants to throw a lasso toward it, see what kind of a ride it gives. So if I had to give a word for That which is beyond words, for That which was here before the Big Bang bonged, and will be here after the whimper of form returns to its formlessness— if I had to give a word to it, I would call it—I do call it—simply happiness. Or Happiness, if you get my drift.

So, back to the neti neti meditation. I have found it useful, and appropriate, and at least somewhat traditional, to use the meditative mantra, “not just this happiness,” not just that happiness.” When I think of my poker playing buddies during meditation, I’ll respond, “I’m not just this happiness.” When I think of my boss, and the troubles at work, I’ll again think,” I’m not just that happiness.”

Using this new, somewhat naughty (because it’s so fun, and personal) rendition of the old formula, I find that whatever comes up in meditation, be it profound or mundane, is first recognized as part of the Eternal Flux that is Happiness itself, and simultaneously not a limitation or description or encapsulation of that Happiness.

So in the end, yes, I let go of form, of personal identity with limited images and thoughts and feelings and circumstances and relationships, but I let go with a blessing—not this —happiness—not this—happiness—not this—happiness.

And those things that do not appear to me as “happiness,” such as the war, the suffering, — this, too, is the dream, and by seeing that it, too, is happiness, and denying that this is the final happiness, the final circumstance, we move on—we let go, we are free, and yet, we also embrace that which is ours to embrace.

(Anything that comes up in meditation is obviously something that still needs to be loved, embraced.” I am not just this happiness—the happiness of working against war, the happiness of knowing that nobody is left out of God’s eye and that all people, be they on this side or that side of the veil, are here with Him, with This happiness that is beyond words, even the word happiness itself. Not this, not this.

And this essay?

I am not this happiness, either. Or, more precisely, I am not just this happiness.

Everything that has a name and/or has a form is Brahman.

The absolute is impersonal.

Given that it dwells in every part of life not an agent who creates or destroys; he does not do anything.

How can we describe Brahman?

Netti Netti – not this not this (Upanishads)

Brahman is without qualities, unbound, without action, eternal, immutable.

The supreme Self is beyond name and form,

Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,

Without beginning, without end,

Beyond time and space, and causality,

Eternal, immutable.

We are not this understanding. We are not that understanding. Netti netti.

And then we go to the grocery store and buy some sweet ripe strawberries!