J U L Y   2 0 1 8

Say you wake up one morning and notice that something is different about you. There’s a beautiful quietness inside your body that you haven’t felt before. It seems to emanate from the middle of your chest, a clear quietness opening from your heart area, filling the entire volume of your body. You sense how your skin envelopes this silence, but inwardly it seems to be without limit. The quietness disappears into the depths your body without coming to a boundary.

quietnessIt’s an unfamiliar feeling but not alarming; it has a peaceful and spacious quality to it. So you sit in a chair and allow the inward quietness to have its way with you. You notice that you can’t really stand outside of the quietness to look at it — it takes up the whole interior of your body. There’s no place for you to be except within the quietness and pervaded by it.

Your attention is drawn to the boundary of the quiet where it touches the inside of your skin. You feel how this inner silence defines the shape of your body. And then an extraordinary thing happens. The quietness within you seems to open right through your skin and expand outwardly, or perhaps it’s just the opposite: the quietness of space outside your body instantaneously meets the quietness you feel inside. You are within the quietness and simultaneously held by it. Encompassed.

Although it’s purely intimate with you, you sense the quietness also has a numinous feel of otherness to it. You are it while at the same time it’s infinitely beyond you. Your private experience as a sensate body and distinct person arises within it and is somehow an expression of its vast, silent, and indefinable presence.

As you sit there experiencing all this, you feel a great tenderness — the quiet that pervades you and encompasses you is alive with a kind of tender warmth, though not a warmth of temperature. It’s intimate and dear and tender and not even approachable by these words. You feel safe.

After some time you get up from your chair and begin to attend to the necessities of the morning. At first the presence of the boundless, intimate, and safe quiet is still palpable to you — it’s everywhere as you move around and as normal sounds and sensations occur. Its intimacy unites with the phenomena of the world around you — you are within everything while at the same time you remain your unique bodily experience.

The sense of tenderness pervades your awareness of the people and things you encounter. When you touch something, a button on your shirt, a piece of toast, a cup of coffee, your touch seems to come from the tender quiet you have recognized. When you listen to someone speaking, and when you speak, the words seem to come from and be held by the same tender quiet. The sense of safety makes you gentle and unhurried.

Later, when you realize the world’s noises and your own thoughts and feelings have obscured the all-pervading quiet, you start to feel annoyed with yourself and with the people around you for taking the quietness away.

That’s when a second extraordinary thing happens. As you notice your annoyance, you see it for what it is. You see it’s given you a position from which to complain. The moment you feel the constraint of that position, you experience yourself outside it, as if you no longer needed to care whether the quiet has been obscured or not. You relax. The feeling that you’re missing something falls away, and in that instant, glory be, the tender quietness opens from your heart again as if it never left.


The Place Where Nothing and Everything Meet

J U N E   2 0 1 8

If you walk into a forest and put your ear against a tree, you will hear a silence in there that is like your own. It is a silence that has no end. Empty silence is the background to everything we perceive, in the same way that space is the background to everything we perceive. mistMost people don’t like listening to that silence because it makes them feel alone, and they equate aloneness with loneliness. But the silent aloneness inside us — and inside all being — is not lonely.

The Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, once said, “When you see the bottom of your life, you see emptiness right there. You are standing by yourself, completely left alone in emptiness. That is a very deep sense of aloneness.”

Accepting emptiness like this, accepting our perfect aloneness, is not isolating; it is an essential part of our awakening. As Katagiri puts it, accepting emptiness allows us “to stand up in a new way.” When we stand up like that, with recognition of the ground of emptiness everywhere, we enter the reality of what he calls togetherness and creativity. 

By accepting our perfect aloneness we embrace our perfect togetherness. Our aloneness extends to others because we see that everyone shares this same empty nature. “A bodhisattva,” Katagiri concludes, “constantly becomes alive from emptiness, and that life helps others.”

Sufis have a different way to describe all this, but it amounts to the same thing. “Essence is emptiness,” Rumi tells us. “Emptiness brings peace to your loving.” And this:

Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?
This invisible ocean has given you such abundance…

And this:

…lying in a zero circle, mute…
when we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
we will have become a mighty kindness. 

The sufic equation of dissolving into emptiness and emerging as love is identical with the image of the bodhisattva constantly becoming alive from emptiness. It is the movement of awakening described in Sufi teachings as fana and baqa. Fana is deconstruction of the self-illusion, most often translated as annihilation of the self. “I honor those,” Rumi says, “who empty the self and have only clear being there.” 

Baqa is what comes after. As Coleman Barks describes it: “Baqa is the coming back from annihilation with cleansed enthusiasm for particulars. In the state of baqa one reenters the moment fully, doing small quiet work, sewing the robe of absence.” This is Katagiri’s “standing up” in a new way, the way of togetherness and creativity. Or, as Sufis might say, it is the expression of love and of doing the beautiful that naturally flows from emptying oneself into clear being.

In my own life this “move” has become a practice that happens — in shortened form — dozens of times each day. Let’s try it together now. As you follow the practice below, notice the subtle kinesthetic sensations that occur in you. When you do this a number of times, those sensations will begin to elide, and the “practice” will happen almost instantaneously.

As you sit reading this, notice the clarity of your vision. Notice there’s nothing in the way of your seeing these words. 

Now notice the clarity of the awareness in which these words appear. That clarity is unobstructed — there’s nothing in the way of the words appearing in your awareness; there’s no color or background, your awareness is perfectly clear. 

Bring your attention now to the space between your forehead and the back of your head. Notice that the space inside your head is also perfectly clear. This clarity is emptiness. 

Notice the sensations of your breathing. Notice how each inhale arises out of nothing and, at the top of your in-breath, it vanishes into nothing. Your out-breath does the same. Very gently, notice the space surrounding and pervading each breath. Recognize its clear, empty quality.

Now allow your intuitive openness to expand, seeing how this clarity, this empty quality, is not bounded by anything — it is all around and through you, it is everywhere, like space is everywhere. 

There is nothing you need to do to “hold” this recognition of the empty quality that pervades you and all the people and phenomena you encounter; it is always present. Relax in, and as, this clear, empty presence. 

This is the “intentional” aspect of this practice. What happens next is where the magic is: baqa; “standing up in a new way;” reentering the moment with “cleansed enthusiasm for particulars.” However this occurs will be unique to you and the moment you are part of.

The place where you stand up is the place where nothing and everything meet. It’s not a place where your intellect will be of much use. We might call it a “heart space,” though it’s a heart space that pervades reality, not just the space inside your chest. In the place where nothing and everything meet, love opens all by itself, amazed and kind and creative.

Only this ancient love
circling the holy black stone of nothing,
where the lover is the love,
the horizon and everything in it.
                                 — Rumi


Befriending Unfriendliness

M A Y   2 0 1 8

While the world we encounter day to day is not always friendly, it is our job to befriend it. Of course, befriending the world’s unfriendliness is a profound challenge; it requires equanimity and a great capacity for love and compassion.

Black Lives Matter PhotoWhen Jesus was being nailed to the cross he prayed that his executioners be forgiven. Although we may honor his response as an ideal, when someone criticizes us or expresses animosity toward us, what is our response? Most often we react with defensiveness: we try either to defend ourselves or to return the attack in ways that will diminish the accuser. Yet we can see from the world’s history of conflict, violence, and revenge the predictable outcomes of this kind of reactivity, just as the many small examples we can think of from our own lives show us the painful results of our own defensiveness.

Befriending unfriendliness is not something easy to accept, especially when we consider the horrendous examples of victimization and oppression throughout human history — befriending that unfriendliness can look like passivity, or foolhardiness, or even cowardice.

As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I grappled at length with the dilemma of pacifism — and it is far beyond the scope of this essay to deal with its many nuances — but most succinctly, for me it comes down to “situational ethics”: our job is to befriend the world, yes, but sometimes so many mistakes have been made, so many opportunities for befriending have been missed, that there is no alternative but to say No! and to stand up to oppression, as the Allies did when they stood up to the Axis war machine in the Second World War. Befriending must be our natural response in nearly every situation we encounter, but when it is too late and the only recourse to prevent even greater disaster is through force, then the use of force may be justified.

But then what?

This is the crucial point — there are endless possibilities for the healing power of friendship to avert violence and oppression before they have a chance to spread. For example, if something like the Marshall Plan had been initiated following the First World War, the Second World War might never have happened. As the lines I often repeat from Wallace Stevens tell us:

After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future world depends.

And so it is in our personal lives. We can and must say no to abuse and meanness, and to our own unfriendliness toward ourselves, but even that no has its roots in our love for life and for the well-being of all. Our everyday work must be to water those roots. There are many ways we can do this, most of them quite small and intimate — practicing kindness, forbearance, patience — but the most profound way is by opening our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence (or whatever name we wish to call it).

This is the gift of the mystic path. In its essence it is not a complicated path, but it asks of us complete openness and release of self-concepts, opinions, and judgment.

To the extent we can open our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence we realize that its nature is love, a love that is light-years beyond what we usually consider that little word to signify. It is unconditional. It’s the love that flames the stars and spins every atom. It’s the gift of this beginningless, endless moment, the infinite generosity of now.

When we recognize that this love is at the root of our own nature and the nature of all being — even though it is so often eclipsed by fear in the human realm — we open ourselves to the unshakable power of befriending.

* * *

NOTE: while there isn’t space here to recount personal stories and examples illustrating the power (and challenge) of befriending unfriendliness, I have often told these kinds of stories — if you’re interested you can find some of them in the archive of Notes from the Open Path —  in particular: 

The Gift of the Flower
The Tears of the Bank Robber
A Prayer in the Militant Mosque
Link Arms and Sing
The Beautiful Revolution


This essay was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of FRESH RAIN, the Sufi Way E-Letter, which was devoted to the theme of friendship.


Easter Egg

A P R I L   2 0 1 8

On a festive day when I was three I found a lavender egg beneath a tree. It was Easter and the air was full of morning and the sun was shining, little children were running about, and then all of a sudden something happened, something that’s actually the first memory of my life.

easter egg treeI saw (and in that moment everything became quiet, at least in my memory it was quiet) I saw a glint of lavender in the leaves beneath a tree — a lavender egg half-covered by brown leaves nestled in the bosom roots of a tree that went way up into the sky.

It was so quiet, though the children were squealing in the front yard, and in the silence my small hand reached out, and I knew, I felt, something magical was happening, something intensely beautiful was being born from the dark beneath the leaves out of where the tree grew and the darkness down there began.

I took the egg into my fingers and touched its perfect seamless shape. Egg. Lavender egg. I held it to my cheek. It was as smooth as my cheek, its touch so tender and smooth, so secret and whole. I placed the egg into my basket, on the green grass inside my basket and it remains there now in my memory, lavender on a green nest, and the memory of my little selfless self contemplating it remains there too, and the quiet beneath the soaring tree remains, still there in my memory with the lavender egg.

Now seventy years have passed from that moment to this and it is Easter again and I know more, I know that Jesus made Easter by dying on a tree like the countless trillions of leaves that die and sail down between the trees and crumble into dirt and into the dark of the ground, and that the wetness of rain draws them down to the roots where they wait like Jesus until Easter comes and a little boy no bigger than that sees a glint of lavender appearing from the dark, from the fecund dark, from Jesus’ cave, resurrecting into the little boy’s hand, touching smooth against his cheek like a kiss from his mother.


The Intimacy of the Real

M A R C H   2 0 1 8

Perhaps the most startling moment in nondual inquiry occurs right at the beginning when you turn your attention inward and ask: What am I? What is it that is seeing the world around me? What is feeling the sensations of my body? What is experiencing these emotions? What is it that is asking these questions? What is this me?

chairThe startling part of this kind of inquiry is that you can’t find an answer. You can’t find anything “there.” Where? Where are you looking? Some seekers veer off at this point and find a mental construction to substitute for the lack of an answer — for example, “Well, I’m not a thing, I’m the sum total of all the conditions that make me — my body, my thoughts, my memories,” or “There’s no solid me in here, I’m simply awareness.”

Answers like these give the mind some satisfaction, but they stop the inquiry process and allow the mind to continue business as usual. That business is based on the fundamental equation that says, “I (whatever that is) am in here and the world (whatever that is) is out there. I am the primary subject. Everything else is an object that I perceive. I walk from here to there. I pick up an object and move its position. Isn’t this obvious?”

This is where the inquiry must persist. One helpful route is to question your sense of relative location. Where is the world of objects? Where is the chair, the floor, the building, the person over there, where are they happening? Are these things of the world truly over there, or are they where I’m experiencing them, in here?

This can give us another shock. The chair I perceive as over there is actually and only perceived by me in here. The chair is in here!

This shock can be a helpful disorientation, but it only goes halfway.

When we look for the place where the chair is appearing in here, in our subjective experience of it, we can’t find that either. The chair is definitely appearing, but where is it appearing?

Now your inquiry must turn on itself once again. It must ask what is behind the notion of here and there? Yes, it is convenient to interpret the world as an arrangement of heres and theres — at least with regard to negotiating our movements — but is that how reality is?

If you’ve stayed with me this far you may sense the inquiry presents us now with another shock, one that upsets the whole equation of here and there, of me and other. This is no longer a mental exercise. It’s too close for that. We are confronted with the loss of the subject-object relationship. We begin to suspect that objects are not separate entities located in space distinct from a separate entity called “me” that is located in a different part of space. Whatever is happening is happening all at once in the same here.

Your inquiry has exposed the fundamental intimacy of the Real. You sense, free of mental reasoning, that reality is completely intimate with itself. Your reality and the world’s reality are identical, all-at-once. You recognize that the experience of reality as a subject-object relationship is a convenience, not a truth.

You’ve probably noticed that this line of inquiry doesn’t leave any room for a “you” to be somewhere special. It obliterates your privileged position. This can be experienced as an unacceptable outcome and your habitual psyche can — and most frequently does — retreat to its customary positioning of “me as subject” and “world as object.” This arrangement of experience into self-other is so embedded in how we interpret reality that even though we may have a strong insight into the sheer intimacy and oneness of being, we quickly categorize it with our minds and avoid its implicit self-effacement. After all, how can I have “relationships” with people or things if there is no subject-object distinction?

I’m reminded here of the Buddhist lama who remarked, in a symposium with environmental educators, “You speak of developing a good relationship with nature. What are you other than nature to have a relationship with nature?”

The nondual inquiry process, in its many forms, is not something you do once and it’s accomplished. You need to engage with it again and again in increasingly sensitive and original ways. In the moment that the surety of the subject-object interpretative setup weakens, when you glimpse the perfect wholeness of things, relax into that glimpse. No need to think about it.

Let the world be utterly intimate with you, no separation. Relax and open into the directness of that experience. It’s not even an “experience” since that word implies an experiencer and something experienced. Relax into the all-at-onceness that happens prior to the interpretation of self experiencing something other. This all-at-onceness is intimacy.

To the extent that you can open into reality’s all-at-onceness, you begin to recognize that intimacy is simply another word for love. Love is the desire for, and the celebration of, no separation, closer than close. Although nondual inquiry begins as an intellectual process, the realization it reveals appears through the centerless and boundless dimension of the heart. When your inquiry results in this intimate blossoming of love, your life is given a confidence and joy that serves all.

One final note: you may have clear moments of recognizing the all-at-once intimacy of reality (including “you”), but then find yourself distinctly back in subject-object world. This is not a failure. Our bodies and brains have evolved to interpret reality in this dualistic way. The point is not to remain in “nondual awareness” continuously, but to develop fluency between these two “worlds.” After all, they are not two. Recognizing their unity frees us from situating ourselves in any position. Then we can say with Rumi:

                         I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul,
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.