The Law of Attraction is a Half-Truth

The law of attraction is so appealing. I hear more and more about it online each year. People trying it out, talking about it.

It’s appealing, I think, because it’s truthy. It has truth in it. But it isn’t the whole truth. And for that reason it may even be a dangerous teaching.

My own summary of the law of attraction goes something like this; and this is of course a summary and a personal spin on it so it won’t do the whole thing the justice it does perhaps deserve. ‘Reality is such that we live in a quantum hologram and our perception influences the outcome. So if you believe bad things will happen then they will. And if you believe success or good things will happen, they will’.

There’s truth to that. The universe wants us to be well. Also, if I believe bad things will happen or are due to me, then that will be my mental story and I will go about organizing reality to fit my belief. I will be an agent of change to my reality in as much as I will sub-consciously filter information, influence relationships, change circumstances, blank things out until they fit what I believe is going on. When the bad luck comes, I am then able to say “this always happens to me” or “there, I told you so”, and this feeds my pain body. My pain is fed. I can continue to justify to myself my pain and my drama. And so it goes on.

On the flip side, if I believe good things will happen or are due to me, then that will be my mental story and I will go about organizing reality to fit that belief. I will be an agent of change to my reality in as much as I will sub-consciously filter information, influence relationships, change circumstances, blank things out or allow things in until they fit my belief. When the good luck comes I am then able to say to myself “that was the law of attraction. It works”.

All that’s going on here is that our default state as human beings is that normatively we expect negativity. We all have a drama; a karma; a story. Quite often that story will be based on our conditioning. And quite often our conditioning has been negative in one way or another. And so nine times out of ten we are following the law of attraction negatively.

All that the law of attraction does is say that there’s a principle here and if you believe you can have positive change in your life you are more likely to get it. Now, that’s true. But not becuase the law of attraciton is true, but because through that discipline, that new habit, we thereby jettison the sub-conscious negative patterns. In doing so we are more awake to what is really going on; less likely to filter out information that would fit our negative story and so on.

All that the law of attraction is doing is encouraging us out of our everyday negative micro-dramas and mini-stories. Our subconscious controls. Once we have a method of doing that (of any kind) then of course we will see change in our lives.

But you don’t have to follow the law of attraction in order to attract all the success you can get, all the happiness you can get, all the joy you are able to experience. You just have to be awake. Alert to the present moment. Aware of what is really going on rather than what fits your drama.

And that’s really really important. Because sometimes reality will give me a wake-up call. Buddha was right, you know. Life is full of impermanence. Impermanence and entropy are the staple diet of the fabric of reality. And from those things arises pain and suffering. Pain and suffering can jolt us into awareness, and there comes the benefit of them. Enlightenment is often found the hard way. Again and again. And that will always be the case.

Now, a heavy jolt – some bad news – won’t fit a picture of the law of attraction alone. Sometimes it will disrupt that picture. What will we do if it does, and we believe in the law of attraction? Blank it out and blame ourselves. Maybe I wanted this to happen subconsiously! Maybe I wanted my cat to die! Maybe on some level I needed this bad thing to happen!

No. It’s just life. Deal with it.

For me the law of attraction is a new age version of the American prosperity theology. It’s no better than “go with bliss”. “Go with bliss” and “happiness bubble” and “avoid negative people” is not enlightenment. Enlightenment is sitting next to a difficult person until they are no longer difficult. Enlightenment is going with pain until it is nolonger pain.

Enlightenment is a knife edge. You are god but try holding on to that without ego. You can change your reality, but really you can only do that by being awake to the ways you tend to manipulate information to fit a picture and choosing a different set of options. It’s good to have dreams, but you can’t have dreams without a self; and the self is an illusion.

I’m learning to have dreams. I’m learning to set plans that will be a happy way to carve out a future. And that feels alien to do because of my karma. So I know I need to do it. And those plans may come to fruition. They may not. But I’m not going to get them to become real if I don’t believe they will (the law of attraction). Then again, they may just not; and that will be just how it is if that’s what happens.

Reality is not a vending machine or a self-service website. The Way is not a magic trick. And the law of attraction is not the whole truth.


The Mind Cannot Know Itself

The mind is a reference engine.

Actually, language is self-referential. It’s a web of “signifiers”; we can only explain one “thing” by using a bunch of “signifiers” to explain it; and we can only explain signifiers by using other signifiers. It’s even how we learn a language.

And we haven’t found out whether language comes at the same time a thought arises, or after the thought.

But it’s probably safe to say that the mind is a reference engine, or system. It is constantly comparing things. I like/don’t like/remember/want/have/did/did not. Knowledge is built on comparison or categorisation.

Our internal chatter is self-referential too. “But I didn’t do this, or I wanted this”. It continually energises the illusion of a self.

When you tell someone that they are “like” a particular characteristic, or “not like” something, you see their eyes go off to an angle. “Am I?!!?!”  Their mind starts calculating. “How much of that statement is true? How much of it false? What does it mean for my social status right now? If it is true, what does it tell me about myself that I didn’t already know? And if I didn’t already know it – why didn’t I know it? How infuriating that others can see me better than I can see myself!”

The illusion of the self has to be believed as absolute. But really it is a mental construct. So the mind is easily perturbed by anything that offers to revise it. Self-revision or self-recreation on the other hand is OK as far as the ego is concerned. (And it’s a further illusion.)

In our ‘everyday minds’, we cannot know ourselves. We cannot fully objectively understand our ‘self’ because our selves are simply constructs of our minds – and our minds cannot step outside of themselves to look at themselves, so we never have a complete picture of the construct of ‘self’ which we believe ourselves to be.

Only One Mind, Big Mind, the All aspect of consciousness can be at peace with Knowing. From this dimension of consciousness the perturbations abate. We are no longer flustered by the fact that we can’t objectively know what we believe to be our objective self; because we see it as a construct; because we know it is not who we are.

The consciousness of the universe that every living being shares is at peace with itself; it is peace. That inner peace within us does not question itself. That inner peace within us looks at our mental preoccupations with a smile.

My mind might be bothered about its limitations. How can I master myself if I don’t understand myself? It’s true that if I have self-mastery I can “win at the game of life” and also that I can know others better. So it’s something my ego yearns for  but can never have. The All within me knows this to be just a self-referential game.

Mastering my ‘self’ by letting my ‘self’ melt away, I have mastered myself. I am a winner with life and Life Itself smiles. And only when I have mastered myself can I truly understand others, and smile at that. No more game.


Ministry of Silly Walks

Before too long on mystical travels, one finds oneself observing one’s own (and other people’s) silly walks.

These are the habits, the psychological nervous ticks, the background dramas we all have; the familiar comfortable painful mental patterns we walk with and freely share with others without a care for why we have them and let them take control all the time.

There’s one over there. Every third step in the walk has to be a bow, a hip rotation, and a salute. And another one there. See him wringing his hands and looking nervously around as he makes his way down the path. What about this one? She’s crawling along on her hands and knees. I wonder why that is? Then there’s me. Keeping my head artificially high whilst nervously clutching to my belly so nobody can see my soft underside.

And so on.

Once it starts to look as ridiculous as it really is, my love affair with it starts to be over. When I notice (those lucky times I do) my own silly walk, I think, ‘why on earth do I do that all the time? Oh yes. I remember now. Well how silly!’ The silly walk can start to turn into what it needs to be; a walk. Not extraordinary. Not slouching. Not tense. Not half asleep. Alert, but not hyper. Just what it needs to be and nothing more.

And then my walk can be a ministry to others, because I’m not giving them my bizarre body movements to contend with on the path as well as their own. I can deal with theirs because I can see mine. And that means I can share the same path more easily.

Perhaps today will be the day I attain enlightenment…

I wake up from sleep, or I wake to my senses in the presence of the moment, and think to myself – I could be experiencing satori 24/7. There’s nothing to stop me from being enlightened all the time; so why don’t I?

Why isn’t today ‘the day’!?

The day everything suddenly clicks and there is no looking back: for 24 hours of every day, walking the earth, going to work, washing the laundry, feeling centred, being filled with the wisdom of the universe, allowing the light contained in the body-mind to do its healing and balancing work as it knows how to do when I don’t get in the way, and spouting a thousand wisdoms from my mouth between breakfast and bed?

Well, it hasn’t happened yet!

So why not? I have no excuses. Only episodes of forgetting. Getting wrapped up in the day’s affairs, and often the affairs of days ahead in the future, or back in the past.

Is it because I favour the everyday way of being? Is it because my ego is still too strong? Is it because full attainment is something that happens to other people- never me?

My hardships here, I realise, I share with countless others. We are all practising. Spiritual practice is called ‘practice’ for a reason, I’m told. We don’t get there overnight. (Of course, in Zen we say, to want to get ‘there’ is to never reach ‘there’. ‘There’ is only an idea of There. Not the There that’s real.

The eagerness of the way-seeking mind is at least one thing! Back to the meditation cushion I go…

This is the end of suffering. Nirvana. The present moment stripped of psychosis. Mindfulness. The second coming of Christ through you. You’re another Buddha walking the earth when you’ve died to yourself like this. It’s that good!


Below is roughly the main body of the talk as I gave it Tuesday 19 March 2013. There may be inaccuracies.

If I’ve encouraged you to meditate regularly by the end of tonight, or give it a go, find out more, I’ll measure my success on that.

Meditation helps us reach an inner peace, see what’s coming from ego, become more compassionate, more loving to others and ourselves, reduce stress, and helps us deal with suffering. It’s very practical stuff. Unfortunately I don’t have time to give practical advice about meditating tonight but you can always read a book or go to a group or something. The ancient masters are the best teachers for aspects of posture and so on.

 Specifically, I was invited here to talk about using meditation in preparation for lent…as a Buddhist! So I haven’t got the wrong building tonight; I’m meant to be here. I looked at all that in the last session and said you can’t use meditation to prepare for lent because lent is lent and meditation is meditation. If you use any subject of study during meditation, it’s not meditation; it becomes something else – contemplation, reflective study. Instead, meditation is about quietening the mind, emptying of ourselves, so the idea is to have no object of study at all.

But I also said that something profound happens through the practice of meditating – and you could call it, I coined a phrase, ‘a Lenten journey of the heart’ because like all those stations in the Passion story, someone ends up dying and after death there is the promise of freedom, of something better. So in that sense there is a relationship between meditation and Lent. The organisers suggested I expand on that concept a bit with a second session looking at how to approach suffering. This tied in with advice from a senior to prepare something on the four noble truths. So that’s how we ended up with this title, ‘Beyond Pain and Suffering’, and here goes!

Early on in the Gospel of Luke (9:24), is a record of Jesus saying: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will save it. Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

It’s very profound, and it comes immediately after Jesus predicting his own death. It’s also hard to understand. So we skip past it for these reasons. And doing so, we put the focus back on him: it’s him who is to die, it’s him who is to be crucified. After all, he’s the Christ; it’s his job to save. But he’s not saying that at all. Not here at least. What he’s really saying here is yes, I’m going to die horribly. But really if you’re into following me you must (no choice about it) crucify yourself every day, because only that way will you save your own life for yourself; by losing it.

He can’t mean literally. Last time I checked, it was only possible to kill yourself once and no more times than that. He also can’t mean ‘die with me when I die’ – again that word ‘daily’ is critical in the meaning. So does he mean humility? Humility is just a behaviouristic.

To me it’s a Zen koan. It’s dense in the meaning.

Here’s a mind-bender for you (in my own words):

To prevent all pain, God would have to stop time. Life is in constant flow in all directions simultaneously outside of time. So life does just fine. But space only exists because there’s movement, and movement requires time, so that’s why birth and death have to happen. Without them there’s no movement, and without movement there’s no space, and all reality ceases to exist. Animals and plants have to die so that we can eat and give birth. Stars are born, but they have to die. So God is stuck. Such a shame! I always thought He was omniscient. Maybe there’s stuff that He doesn’t know!

I’m not here to discuss free will….

We’re the ones who are stuck. We want to be immortal. But we’re not. And this is the root of all suffering on an individual and shared level.

We don’t accept that pain can’t be prevented, that death is inevitable: we don’t accept that it’s how reality is. So we try to make certain things, things we attach to, static in time (which only the source of life can be), and that’s when suffering starts. I want to make things prevailing and timeless for me, so I manipulate things, and other beings, to fit my own pictures and ideas, and this increases the pain level for me and for them. Why do I do it? I don’t want to die. I’m afraid of my death. So is everyone. So we inhabit a sort of matrix of suffering that we make for each other because we are all experiencing movement, birth, death, and spacetime on the one hand, and feeling life (which is not the same as being alive) – life beyond time in the other. On one plane of existence we don’t want to die, but on another plane, this life stuff over here we sense is really cool, and never dying. How confusing! Can we make mortal living eternal like the source of life is? We can’t. But we’re trying all the time. We suffer.

In Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and other Dharmic faiths this birth, death, suffering matrix is called karma. In Christianity it’s called, at least in part, fallen nature. But the matrix doesn’t exist anywhere in reality outside of ourselves. It always starts as just an idea. All that’s real, outside of us, is what Jesus dubs the “kingdom of heaven”.


So what can we do?

Pain is inevitable. We can’t stop it. “god” can’t stop it. But we can overcome our fear of death and break out of the matrix. If we can come to terms with the fact that we will die, and if we can live in a way that we are constantly (daily) ready to be dead, then our actions won’t be determined by our fear of death (which is also our drive to persist, our ego), and this means we won’t inflict suffering on others but it also means we won’t suffer so much – even when there’s pain. Awareness changes, and in that instant of dying to ourselves, we will have denied ourselves and saved our own lives. That’s what Jesus is on about here.

There’s no magic to it, and God doesn’t enter the equation. A daily self-denial in order to discover life, to reconcile our existence is what he’s pointing to… Jesus is instructing us to go beyond suffering for ourselves and each other, and in that way rise again in what he lovingly dubs “the kingdom of heaven” today, accepting things just as they are in this present moment.

This stuff is subtle, profound, hard to get. So if you don’t mind, I’ll repeat the same message using different words. (Again my own.)

The ego evolved in us to protect our primary objective to persist – to survive. And it’s our ego that wants to live forever.

It’s misunderstood our existential situation. It tries to reconcile life, birth, and death by making death stop instead of by accepting or even seeing any distinction between the temporary nature of living and the eternal nature of life to which there is no death.

Why does it do that? Because it’s very good at its evolutionary purpose – keeping us going – but it’s become too powerful.

So you could rephrase all this again by saying, do what Jesus said to do, and what you’re really doing is stepping out of your own self-involvement and waking up to life’s sparkle by denying your ego.

Do that, and you’ve let things settle back into paradise for you and those around you a little more.

Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus is saying save our own lives immediately after the miracle of predicting his crucifixion. Especially if it’s meant to be his resurrection that saves us, his resurrection that’s the good news?

All Jesus says we must do, and he says it in several different ways, is deny ourselves.

Dying to ourselves doesn’t sound very nice. Not something you might choose to do on a Sunday afternoon! So why would we want to go and do a thing like that? Jesus said we had to. But even if you want to follow him, which not all of us here tonight are saying we do, How can we do something if we don’t really understand what it means? It’s difficult because if we don’t understand, then we have no motivation and no goal. That’s why we get confused.

Remember the TV ad. With the “la, la, la I’m not listening musical fingers” {in the UK}? Our egos can be like that. Ego fights to reach immortality, even if it means fabrication, which is what it has to resort to because immortality on this plane is not possible. So it fabricates lies to support other lies we make ourselves.

We end up making bubbles of unreality to inhabit for ourselves, but because these bubbles are subconscious, we mistake the bubble for reality itself. This is like where our delusion starts. And our clinging. Our greed. Subconsciously.

So in another sense it’s not so much that we don’t understand what Jesus’s saying – silly Jesus for being so cryptic – as that we don’t want to hear it so we block it out with those la la musical fingers.

Our egos prefer to think the good news means Jesus saves us, rather than we save ourselves by following his instruction, his example.

And this is a classic example to me at least of the ego deflecting any sense of threat to itself by shifting the emphasis on to something else: in this case from us to Jesus.

Why’s it doing that? To do its job in protecting us from any hint of death. Creating more delusion so that we can persist with the delusions we’ve already made for ourselves in our attempts to cheat on death.

It is a grim illustration Jesus is using. Carrying the cross oneself was what Romans made their convicted do in their crucifixion ceremony so that the convicted would face the ultimate mental humiliation walking themselves to their own death – and face all this before the ultimate physical humiliation of being pinned to a roughshod public wall. This stuff is barely beaten in its brutality by what happened to people at Auschwitz.

So Jesus is saying humiliate yourself as much as humanly possible! Walk yourself to your own death! Then you’ll get it! You’ll be free. He has to be stern about it, and brutally illustrative, because if he wasn’t he wouldn’t get the message past our musical fingers. And still often doesn’t despite trying.

There’s nothing selfish about desiring freedom from pain and suffering: my suffering is tied up with yours, because of this matrix we live in. My freedom is tied up with your freedom. If you are not free, neither am I. How can I free you? By freeing myself.

Is the world fallen? Is that why there is pain and suffering?

I don’t see any change happening to this present world planet Earth in the Eden story.

I only see a change in perception happening to human beings. 

A new perception that the self is separate (without which there’s no awareness of being naked).

So it’s caused by an emerging idea of individuality; the point in our evolution that was the birth of the ego and the end of community with all creation.


The ego is where it all begins, so the ego is where it all has to stop if planet Earth is to become paradise again.

This, incidentally, and it will be no surprise to you if I say this now, is also what Buddha said. In his first sermon called the four noble truths he says:

Life is dukkha: a sense of dissatisfaction because reality is different from how we would like it to be. The world never lives up to our ideas. And this includes our ideas of ourselves – our self image. How we believe we are. We want to hold on to these ideas forever.

He says the source of this dissatisfaction is thirst. Insatiability. Always chasing for more, for something else, or when we do have what we want but become bored from it, for something better instead. Pleasure itself is no problem, but thirst creates anger. We struggle with ourselves and each other because we try to impose our schemes and ideas onto reality instead of really seeing reality just for what it is outside of ourselves. He says the source of this thirst is ignorance of the impermanent nature of life. We believe most of the time that the schemes we create will last forever, and that’s the ignorance. Nothing lasts, and it’s not meant to.

He says there’s a way beyond this suffering. If we want to extinguish suffering, we have to extinguish our thirst. Our insatiability.

Finally he says this way beyond is a path with certain qualities. While being qualities to have ambition for, they are also qualities that describe someone who is on the spiritual path. Our character, our quality changes naturally over time as we walk the spiritual Way. This natural way is a way to live without being possessed with ourselves. A way to live in communion with all nature. Once this opens out for us, we can see our thirst and it starts to have less effect. When it has less effect, we get less angry. With less thirst and anger, we are less dissatisfied. So, by simply following the Way, everything follows, we open out to the universe, and we become peace.

Buddha sees a sickness, demonstrates its symptoms, says there’s a cure, and makes a proscription: a life of self discipline as a route to stepping past our ego, our small self, and coming alive to everything outside of ourselves – including freedom, peace, and joy. Extinguishing our illusions, greed, anger, so that what’s going on in this present moment becomes vivid and alive for us as it should be without our own designs on the world fuzzying the picture, and without all those favourite kinds of negative drama that create our suffering for each other.

We have to decide for ourselves if Buddha’s diagnosis is correct. In fact, Buddha said this. He said, I can’t teach you this. But try it out and tell me I’m wrong.

This is Jesus’ instruction too, and it’s practical guidance.

Why do I need to die? Because if I don’t, then I’ll never taste freedom – and neither will you because I’ll keep snatching it from you. I don’t know that this is what I’m doing when I do it. It’s subconscious. But it’s still true, even if I can’t see it at the time because I’m deluded or possessed with myself – my own demons and designs on the world.

Later on in the Passion story, when Jesus is dying, he cries out  “forgive them Father” (He means for crucifying me) “They don’t know what they do!”

He really means it. The Roman soldiers he’s talking about can’t see their own psychosis!

If they weren’t deluded and suffering, the soldiers would not have wanted to kill another man. They didn’t get it, so they killed what they didn’t understand. They are we. Killing what we don’t understand – and not seeing our own psychosis.

It starts in our heads, just as an idea. Then we make it real for ourselves and others as much as possible. Our bubbles influence reality as much as they can. But it all starts personally.

If you don’t get what I mean, here are some examples for you to consider:

We want to be more holy but we don’t manage it so we suffer. We want things that make our health poorer – drink, chocolate, cigarettes – but we also want to be fit, so we suffer. We want a relative to still be alive, but they died, so we suffer. We were given a country to run, but we’re afraid of losing our inheritance, so we build nuclear warheads to stop death and we create much suffering a thousand fold. We are insatiable. This is our psychosis.

But we can’t fight the ego and win. It’s too strong, and too clever: fabricating delusions all the time to out-fox our conscious minds. It’s not a demon, it has a use, it is after all a good idea to stay alive and this is what the ego is designed to ensure.

So we have to let it be, and step to one side so that it’s not all that we are. That’s why it takes self-discipline. Call it spiritual if you want.

This is the path to our own Calvary that Jesus says is mandatory to walk every day. Without ego bothering us, we can step past our own desperate attempts to preserve the world the way we want it to be, our attempts to freeze time or exist beyond the effect of time – acting like a God outside of time and living forever in mortal reality – and see more clearly how and when we add layers of our own pain and suffering onto everybody else’s. Then we are humble (there’s the humility bit), because we do see our own psychosis and know what we do. If we see it, we can change our response, walk a different walk.

Well why should I have to die first? The world’s a mess because of everyone else’s doo dah! Not mine! Well, that’s the ego talking. That’s my ego.

When I was preparing this, I decided it might be a good idea [because Jesus’ spin on the message is so brutal and stark] to point out some mistakes people commonly make to watch out for when it comes to a path of self-denial. [Pema Chodron is good on this, by the way, and I’ve probably paraphrased her material in the making of this bit.]

Nihilism, suicide, death fixation, self hatred, false humility, trying to be nice for everyone else.

Life from the point of view of someone who has already died has nothing to do with any of those! If you find yourself favouring any one of them then you haven’t grasped it yet!

It’s simple stuff. It involves letting go; stopping doing things rather than doing more things. But it’s subtle. Simple but subtle. So we practice daily. Then we see.

Here’s another classic question:

If God is love why is there pain and suffering?

Pain there has to be. Life there always is, and was, and will be. There’s some solace in knowing that life is indeed eternal. But the suffering part we make, and in that suffering, to use a line from a song, we pave paradise and put up a parking lot in its place.

Not all of us need to hear this message in equal measure, unfortunately.

The kingdom of heaven is available right now in the present moment. Easter came! When you deny yourself, all of creation fills your core, and the resources you need to handle an ever-changing universe in your everyday life are never far away.

Everything the Universe knows, you will know.

This is being peace. This good news is really good for everyone. This is the path to your own Calvary. This is the Way that Jesus talked about.

I would even stick my neck out and say that this is the same way that Buddha talked about. That Lao Tsu talked about. And feeling really brave, I’d stretch it even to this: This is the very inner surrender of Mohammed to Al’Lah.

This is the curtain torn down to the holy of holies.

This is entering the kingdom of heaven like a crucified thief, like the birds who don’t worry about tomorrow, like children at play – alive only to the present moment.  This is the end of suffering. Nirvana. The present moment stripped of psychosis. Mindfulness. The second coming of Christ through you. You’re another Buddha walking the earth when you’ve died to yourself like this. It’s that good!

To me, these are all illustrations pointing to the same thing.

There is only one Easter path. One Calvary road.

Not because there is only one true religion. But because there’s only one problem to solve: my ego. For an hour today. For a day tomorrow. For a lifetime with practice.

We robbed ourselves of knowing this. For Power. For Control. For Domination. You can blame the church. But we should blame ourselves too, every day that we don’t deny ourselves. Every day we fear death, and prefer to believe we don’t have to die – only Jesus does. Only somebody else that’s not me. Only God. But God can cope and trick death so everyone wins. Nobody got hurt really!

Jesus gave us this teaching and said do it “daily”. He ducked under crowds to go and be alone as much as possible. When people asked him “how should we pray?”, his answer was tantamount to “use as few words as possible”, and if you don’t believe me read the Lord’s prayer again – what does it really say, in sum? Not much!

He suggested that paradise is the giving of our last penny: the sort of behavior we can only afford if we’ve already accepted life from the real inevitability of dying. It’s not somber, but it does take work. Why should I do what Jesus said? Because I want to be free from suffering.



Some questions were asked and answered. I don’t remember enough to accurately record them. But I did say that what I thought about whether Jesus was the Christ or not was off topic for me tonight, and was largely irrelevant. What I said I was getting at was this: Whether you think he was who people said he was, or wasn’t, you have to acknowledge that he gave this teaching, and it’s very profound, and it points to something we have to do, which we don’t generally accept because we want to carry on with our own delusions. We want a quiet life, but it’s never quiet that way – we create trouble for ourselves and each other if we ignore what he’s saying.

Foot notes

If that’s true – what about “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father but by me”? John 14:6.

Some doubt the accuracy of John’s record of what Jesus said. I don’t think you have to doubt the accuracy of John at all. I just think that even taken phrase by phrase this statement of Jesus’ is very deep. So it’s another one of those misunderstood passages because our egos don’t want to accept what it’s really telling us: to me it’s so similar to the quote studied above. It’s almost an identical message in different words. We make it something it’s not so as to deflect Jesus’ instruction to die to ourselves.

According to web sources because I don’t know Greek or Aaramaic:

I AM – this part is apparently the same as the I AM statement made by God.

Way – John’s written in Greek so Hodos here means road or, metaphorically, course of conduct.

And truth (alētheia, knowledge accessing reality)

and life (zōē– fulfillment).

There are no definitive articles in Aramaic, so we don’t know that he said “The” Way, “The” Truth, “The” Life, just ‘way and truth and life’. Then that’s immediately followed by oudeis erchetai: ‘No-one comes to the Father but by me” – two distinct beings – him and Father. He steps from non-dualism into a dualistic way of speaking, so within this quote itself is a marrying of the two planes of existence: of divine and present.

CK Barrett’s 1978 commentary understands this second part as “the way which he himself is now about to take is the road which his followers must also tread. He himself goes to the Father by way of crucifixion and resurrection; his followers do the same thing and that’s what the way is.”

So if you felt bold you could offer a translation more like “I Am God without separation – not distinctly two parts. We are One. I am course of conduct, knowledge accessing reality, fulfillment. You have to come to the Father the same way that I have to: go die yourself so that you rise again because that’s The Way.”

The present moment is the kingdom of heaven.

I was recently asked to do a seminar on meditation for Christians who are preparing for Lent. The person asking knew that I am not Christian, and that I sit Zen style, so this was going to be interesting!

This is roughly what was in the event programme: Trevor Barton grew up as a Christian. He is now ordained in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition. Drawing on experience from both, and speaking just on his own behalf, he asks ‘what has meditation got to do with Lent’?

What you’re reading below is expanded notes given more or less as I said them (but not as I wrote them when I was preparing). I may have missed a few things out and I have certainly re-worded a few things since I said them – for better or worse!

Enjoy 🙂


I’m here on invitation from Carla Grosch-Miller, the Minister of St Columba’s URC in Oxford. I was specifically asked to speak on using meditation in preparation for lent, but I’ve turned that into a question – what has meditation got to do with lent? – because I think that’ll be more helpful.

Going somewhere?

Who meditates regularly? Who has meditated at all? Who thinks meditation doesn’t sound very Christian?

I don’t have anything I want to give you intellectually. Instead I want to point to something you will intuit yourself. Also we have to go beyond intellectual understandings when we are talking about spiritual matters. Experiential. Empirical.

What has meditation got to do with lent? Nothing! In a very real sense.

If you have an objective with it, that’s form/ideas. And meditation is about bringing forward what is beyond form within yourself. So in that sense, there’s no connection at all, and in fact lent would be a distraction from meditating  – just like any other subject of reflection could be.

However, we meditate, and then a passion story inside ourselves takes place. And this creates freedom in life like we’ve never known it before. So I’d like to briefly explain what I mean by that.

The Passion is human story and it points to something (that’s why Jesus said take up your cross – he was pointing to something that we have to do, not him – and isn’t that deeply profound when you think about it because we spend a lot of our time thinking it’s just him who has to make that level of sacrifice, or only him who can maybe).

It’s true about life, about existing. True for Jesus. True for us. We all have to die. But moreover, we all have to die before we die, because if we don’t then we’re missing out on life. And this is what Jesus points to both in his life, in his teaching, and in the passion when he says, ‘take up your [own] cross, [dudes and live this way too – this isn’t about me]’.

Meditation sounds foreign. That’s because it is. My tradition is Zen and it’s from Japan. Before that, it’s Chan and it’s from China. Actually I think in the UK most of us think Hinduism when we think meditation. Maybe ‘cause of the Beatles. But also…hold on! Contemplative monastics! Where do contemplatives get their idea of stillness from? Ascetics, desert fathers. A long and proud tradition there. Very long. Over 1,000 years.

But we forget it, largely. I don’t know why. Maybe church history. So we have to look somewhere else for inspiration if we want to know what meditation has to do with lent; why it’s even useful. Why it’s not controversial. Why it’s bread and butter of spiritual life stuff. Not fringe activity.

The best authority for Christians is Jesus. So let’s look there: Jesus’ life. Retreating to the desert. Ducking under the crowds with every opportunity. It’s there. Retreating in gethsemane, of course. He withdrew a heck of a lot for someone who lived such a public life, certainly in his last 3 years anyway (both the public and the ducking).

And look at his answer to ‘how should we pray?’  This is often overlooked, but it’s crucial. How does it go? You said it just earlier: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…’ (It boils down to this: God is great. God’s will be done. Give us what we need (not much). Forgive us.) It’s so simple we don’t want to believe it. There must be more to it than that?!

So we add detritus ourselves: ‘For thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for Ever and Ever Amen…’ He didn’t say that. It’s not there. Look it up.

I say this as an illustration for something we all do; we add detritus. That’s not morally wrong. It gets in the way. It separates us from everything.

Quiet time you do ‘cause Jesus did, yes? Quiet means quiet in the mind. Less thinking. No detritus. We don’t need to/can’t stop our thoughts. But we can slow them down. With practice. It takes time. Then in the gaps is a beautiful everything – the source of all life. Our ego is crucified and we open out to everything else.

Anything else I say now will just be versions on this. I have nothing else to share. Here it is again another way:


We tend to hold retreating in high regard, recognizing it as something important to do in many traditions – not just Christianity, but we don’t know what to do with slience once we get it. That’s not a Christian problem – it’s a human problem.

The author of ‘The Power of Now’, Eckhart Tolle, talking on TV, said Psychologists have found that 98 or 99 percent of our thinking is repetitive. And also a lot of our thinking is very negative. People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgements, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on. Many people live habitually as if the present moment were either an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment, and imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one, that is continuous stress.’

This is the dis-ease. This is the dis-order. It is from this that we must learn to extricate ourselves. It’s possible. Anyone can do it for themselves without spending a penny, despite west coast American authors say. Because the truth is that it is a return to a natural state – a way of being that is very natural. The source of all life is already intertwined with you in a beautiful line between heaven and earth, being and form. We have just forgotten it’s there half the time.

Eventually in the routine of meditating there is a panorama over life – my mind and thoughts no-longer possess me. I am separate from my thoughts because there is an observer. If I am the observer then I am not my thoughts. So already my thoughts have stopped possessing me.

This is step one. I continue to exist when my ego stops talking and making decisions for me. My ego doesn’t want me to believe it, but it’s true and I’m at the door to the kingdom of heaven when this happens. But that’s just the beginning. The beginning of the end of me. The beginning of everything else in me. That’s how this thing works.

So this kind of meditating is more like an emptying of the mind than a bringing to the front of our minds all our worries and concerns.

It’s very odd and very dangerous to me at least that we’ve started treating prayer that way. It hasn’t been the case for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, so why do we do it now? Our motivations might be pure, but is it actually getting in the way of the spiritual life being alive for us?

I’m not saying don’t pray the way you’re used to. I’m saying meditation is not prayer. Not that kind of prayer. Make sense?

Empty of our own discriminations, concepts, hopes, desires, fears, we surrender and then everythingness becomes clear. Not just everything. Everything. And a Lenten journey of the heart happens in that precise moment. It goes something like this.

If we look at the stations of the cross – the dramatic points in the Lenten story:

  • Gethsemane and keeping faith when there appears to be no hope
  • Betrayal and patient endurance when there is no peace to be found in our world
  • Condemnation or denial and loyalty to the way we have taken
  • Judgement and right action; not lying to protect ourselves
  • Carrying of pain
  • Carrying the pain of others
  • Lamenting pain
  • Mockery and humility in the simple way
  • Death and Burial, and then when the laws of physics have dictated that should
  • The promise of something much better

(Again, You could meditate to reflect on each of these things individually, and that wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s not meditation.)

I find so many parallels there between those steps and the steps I have to take in the spiritual life. Don’t you? For me it’s something like:

I come to meditation with faith that it will lead me to the divine, I endure with it when there is no peace, loyal to doing it when others condemn me for the light they see in my heart, I see my suffering much more clearly – even when it is pain shared with others, people of faith generally choose a simple way that’s easily mocked, and ultimately I die to my small self, my ego. And in that death lies the promise of something else.  Freedom. The whole passion story is there. We don’t have to think our way through it like a check list. We don’t have to try harder and harder to be holy, and get irritated when we snap back to our routine favourite negative behaviours.

We just surrender our ego, our small self, through meditation or quiet time or whatever you call it, and then our inner quality changes and the whole passion story just happens automatically as a result of following the Way. Then we know what Jesus meant when he said we have to lose our lives in order to find our life, or when he said ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’. Dot dot dot. So many examples. Which one today? Wonderful. Examples are just examples. What do they point to?

The present moment is the kingdom of heaven.

Meditation really is a kind of inward death or surrender. It even feels that way to our ego. When this happens, I am fulfilling Jesus’ direction to ‘take up my cross’. An activity filled with inactivity: acceptance that I have to die to myself.

What does that mean? Repentance means turning around me: changing us. So unfortunately we have to do the leg work on ourselves. That’s what Jesus and Buddha both point to in fact. That’s why Jesus spent 3 years describing a way to be, the natural way to live, the best way in this reality we have. Washing each others’ feet, not saying much when we pray, ducking the crowd with every opportunity, and keeping watch, accepting the divine love that’s always there the same way children can do, beyond intellectual understanding or trying too hard…you know what I mean? How kids can have a very simple up-front presence with reality that’s just with things as they happen? I think Jesus meant that. And that’s it. It’s not a trick. You, God, no separation any more. Curtain torn down to the holy of holies and it’s not going back up. For you, for me, for right now, in this present moment. How? Let go. Stop thinking. Don’t try. He went to great pains to point to this in his life, and we know repentance means legwork, so let’s do it! How? We have to stop being possessed with ourselves, our own thoughts, our egos. How? Meditation! Silence! Retreating! Stillness!

Quiet time of the mind.

If prayer is talking to god, meditation is listening. I like this saying. I read it on the Internet. But I don’t think that’s quite right. It implies a God who is beyond and a me who is listening meditating. Meditation is you and god together. No separation. Where’s God? Where’s You? Hello. What’s this.

Regular stillness gradually shows this way to live and gradually life changes in quality of its own accord and takes on more luminescence. We start to become holy. Holy as in set aside. Exceptional. Lit up. Alive. Wiser. More satisfied. Loving. And so on. But never trying to be those things, never manufacturing those things out of our own mental constructs about what they are. That requires separation. Without separation, without duality, this stuff just emerges and pours out of us. Suddenly we are in the kingdom of heaven and we understand the good news viscerally, not cerebrally. It’s written on our hearts not in our heads – remember that saying?

That’s all I have to give.

Most people I’ve heard talk generally about meditating suggest 20 minutes, three times a week, and I would add “for two months at least”. Any less, and you may as well not bother. I’m serious. Discipline is not a popular word but, meditation eats it like a horse.

Just focus on the breath. Clear the clutter. Shut the door on moggies and iPads. Watch thoughts as they arise. Don’t judge them. Something urgent – write a note. Then forget it. Expect nothing. See what happens.

Sitting on a chair you can do some of the important parts of correct posture for meditation. Sit upright, don’t slouch. Make sure the chair is flat if possible. Crown of head pointing to sky clears the airways. Relax the arms. A posture you can maintain without much muscle control – this is why we do it a certain way. It’s not to look special. It’s very practical. If you’re going to hold a posture for any length of time, it needs to be a good one; one that relaxes as many muscles as possible while also maintaining stillness. The ancient Zen masters really are the experts on posture.

Cast your gaze inward and focus on the breath.

Sound of bell.

As thoughts arise, just come back to the breath.

Notice how you can watch your thoughts. If you can watch your thoughts, you are not your thoughts. You are an observer. So already, your thoughts are not possessing you. You are free to let go of your small self. That’s where everythingness reveals itself. That’s where God is. In the gaps. Here in this present moment, because the present is the only time we have to meet God. This is where a Lenten journey of the heart takes place.

Sound of bell.

Each Moment Is the Universe (book review)

This is the title of a book by Dainin Katagiri. (The subtitle is ‘Zen and the Way of Being Time’.) Published by Shambhala and available from the International Zen Association UK (IZAUK) Zen Boutique, and elsewhere.

Here are some parts of it that leapt out at me when I read the book.

p.116 ‘When egolessness comes up simultaneously with practice, practice is free from suffering. You become free from your own body and mind and experience complete spiritual security, stability, and imperturbability. THis is called emancipation. Emancipation – the individual, direct experience of human life – is the culmination of the quest. Sometimes we say this is realization, or actualization. Actualization is not just the manifestation of your individual experience of the truth; it us your life interconnected with a tree’s life, a bird’s life, water’s life, spring’s life, autumn’s life, and the life of the whole universe.

Buddhism teaches that all things – those we can see and those we cannot see, those we can think of an d those we cannot think of, those we can imagine and those we cannot imagine – must be accepted as beings in Buddha’s world. We should accept all beings and understand them: see where they come from, look at their face” and at the same time we should be ffee from all things. So just accept all aspects of human life, whatever they are. This is called freedom. Freedom is not escape from suffering or any of the various aspects of human life but acceptance of the ir true nature as beings in Buddha’s world.’


p.163 ‘Within each single problem there is an important opportunity to make the depth of your life mature. To realize this opportunity, first you have to throw away the usual sense of suffering and touch the heart of suffering. Deal with suffering right in the middle of suffering. Then suffering gives you lots of instruction. Whether you have a problem, pain, or pleasant feeling in zazen, please sit. That’s it! You must be tranquil and calm down. Otherwise you can’t see the panoramic picture of how existence is functioning every day.

Sit in zazen, calm your six sense consciousness, and then quiet the egoistic manas consciousness. At that time, basic consciousness touches all things, without exception – the whole universe. That is alayavijnana, the serene and tranquil state of consiousness that is the original nature of human life. This mind of tranquillity is called bodhi-mind, universal consciousness, or the Buddha Way.’


p.171 ‘Real spiritual power is the power behind power. The power behind power is the true meaning of effort. It is pure action without needing a particular goal. Instead of expecting to get a result from our effort, we give quality to our effort. This is a very important practice for us. That’s why spiritual life is very calm, very quiet, and very stable. That’s why you can be very stable and very calm’.


p.211 ‘We have to live within the law of causation, but we also have to turn the results of causation into eternal possibility. Eternal possibility is life with no limitation, no separation.’ p.222 ‘People don’t believe in a long-range life and always see life in the short-range. They want to do something; they want to finish something in this lifetime. Then they become nervous, irritated and cold. They experience stress and have a nervous breakdown. If you don’t take a long-range view of life in the human world, you become crazy. So you have to take care of your life with a long-range hope and just keep going. Every day form a habit of doing small things without expecting any satisfaction of your individual desire. Then your life is just going, in peace and harmony. …Most people get out of temper the more they practice meditation. This is not the real spiritual way of life. So even though you don’t like your busy life, let’s find small things that you can do right in the middle of that busy life. Just light a candle around you, one by one, day by day.’


If you want to read books, this one will do.

Will we carry our karma into space, too?

I’ve heard friends say it. I’ve heard a top business advisor in my area say it, and I’ve heard people I meditate with say it. ‘One day, we will have to go into space’.

The thinking is that one planet will not be enough. Aware that our lifestyles already require between 3 and 5 planets to be sustained at their current rate, or aware of overpopulation, or vaguely alluding to environmental crisis, or a combination of these things with a look to the future, people seem convinced that ‘space will be the only way to go’ if humanity is to have a future.

I have to take deep breaths when I hear it!

When I meditate, what I recognise with a non-dual mind is that everythingness and I are indivisible. Indivisible from the trees, the grass, the stones, the birds, the cats, the worms.

Knowing this changes my behaviour towards everything ‘else’, because it is indivisible from ‘me’.

It is human centric to think that if there are not enough resources for our preferences (actually, our insatiability) on one planet – we must get off this rock (in whole or in part) to pull in more.

Imagine we did find other planets to seed and inhabit. Imagine we did successfully exploit more of known space. Would we be happier?

Couples retire and sometimes buy property in warmer climates. Where I live, that’s usually in Spain. A few years ago there were stories of angry retirees selling up in Spain because of heat waves, recession, and in some cases simply divorce.

Wherever we go, our karma follows us like our shadow. It never fully leaves us. All we can do is gradually lessen the extent to which it governs and dictates who we are. Through practice. Mindfulness. Paying attention. Going to the still point of inner peace, and taking decisions from that place.

Karma will follow us to our new life in a hot country. And it will follow us to our new life on planet Mars.

When I’m walking on the pavement, I sometimes keep my eyes down, making sure to tread on as few beings by accident as possible. Last Autumn, because of climate change and a wetter weather pattern, there were tremendous amounts of snails. I tried to make sure I didn’t stand on them when walking past.

The snail on the pavement has as much right to its life as I have to mine, and Oneness teaches me this.

Oneness also teaches me that I really don’t need 5 planets to live happily. It is more important to extinguish my passion of insatiability. When I do, there is incalculable wealth in poverty waiting for me.

We must wake up quickly, I think, and understand that being at the top of the food chain does not mean we will always be there, deserve to be there, or have a right to be there. If we do not love our bees, or tend our trees, we will make the future very hard for ourselves.

Every being is important, and meditation teaches me this. If I do not take it to heart, then, I have not learnt a thing!

Peace, Beloved Community, Elders, and Digital Economic Nationalism

I’m on a snowboarding holiday in Austria with my partner, and a dear friend who I work with at a charity which works for peace (The Fellowship of Reconciliation).

We’ve been discussing what we have learnt about the nature of peace – what makes for it, how it emerges, how it is so much more than demilitarisation and has to do with the nature of the human spirit, and so on.


For me, which I’m sure I’ve blogged about before, the words of Thich Nhat Hanh ring in my mind like a meditation bell: if we put all the weapons and all the bombs on the moon, we would still make more weapons and bombs. So peace has to be about some other kind of transformation; not necessarily disarmament – at least not first (by which I mean, armament is an effect, not a cause).


On the other hand, for those who have discovered spiritual enlightenment according to their given or favoured tradition, inner peace becomes a reality of daily life. Om mane pemme hum. Discovering this for yourself, it is tempting to think that if all of humanity could make this discovery, the shift in culture, in society, in art, would be beyond measure. But the Way cannot be owned and cannot be forced to emerge in others. It goes where it goes.


Conflict of any kind is clearly a disease of the human mind; borne of our adversarial ego position, with which we are born. We are acculturated to allow the ego too much room in our minds. It possesses us, and the vital prerogative to keep alive – to persist – to thrive – for which the ego evolved to protect – becomes all consuming.


Hence conflict in the world, in communities, and the need for inner transformation in order for world peace to be attained.

But knowing inner peace for one’s self does not promulgate greater world peace on its own. The inner transformation has to also become outwardly transformative, and this is the point currently being made by evolutionary enlightenment thinkers.

In Zen Buddhism, a bodhisattva vows that ‘how ever innumerable are all beings, I vow to save them all’. This does not translate as ‘save’ in the same sense as a born again Christian might be instructed or commissioned to “save” others from an after life of hell. It simply means something like, ‘I have a duty of compassion and respect to all other living beings, and realizing one mind between us, I vow to save them from my own pain and suffering’.

If I can take my own illusion, anger, and greed out of the equation through death of the ego, then the world is more peaceful. Transformations occur simply because I am walking in the Way rather than pushing myself against the forces of the cosmos. Rather like a carpenter working with the grain of the wood. And such transformations in relationships, in work, in others around me, become immeasurable, tangible, unexpected, and beyond my own control. They are simply realized without effort.


Sure. If we all attained this, there would be little to no conflict. We would deal with our conflicts more intelligently and compassionately when they arose. We would look upon the waging of war as the infantile, egotistical, stupid, and futile illusion that it is. An illusion because it can never be a path to happiness, or a path to success, or a path to peace. It never has been and never will be.

Perhaps there will be a tipping point. Enough of humanity will awaken, and enough people will awaken out of such illusion and suffering, that even those for whom awakening has not yet occurred, the illusion of ‘final solutions’ will fall by the wayside and into human history much like cannibalism has already done. And this is what the 2012 brigade are hoping for; galactic alignment will simply occur, causing a new great transformation in human history.


But there may be ways for peace to emerge which don’t rely on such a faith in galactic alignment (which, for some, is hocus pocus), or a belief in the power of the individual aligned with Spirit. Inner transformation work, when combined with a beloved community, can create communities of peace. And many peace NGO’s (including FoR), Christian emerging churches, Buddhist sanghas like Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, and others, are exploring and making this a reality in the world. In turn, these peace communities have a greater force of good karma than an individual standing alone. And they don’t have to be reatreatant in nature.


What my colleague and I were specifically grappling with in our discussion was the demise of imperial nationalism, and the emergence within living memory of capitalist nationalism; all nations still defend their own interests, but this is along economic and not imperial or religious lines. And because this form of nationalism is economic in nature, it is much more fluid than previous forms of nationalism – almost to the point where ‘nationalism’ is nolonger the right word, unless you think of it in terms of ‘imagined communities‘ rather than in terms of geopolitical areas. Moreover, transactions are made across the globe digitally, and allegiances often cross national and cultural borders. The project of the European Union is essentially a post-imperial form of digital economic nationalism. The EU is a monetary bloc, a cooperative where the merging of culture and humanist ideals succeeds, and does not precede, economic collaboration – at least at the level of governance between member nations.


In this context, ‘defense’ and ‘governance’ are closely tied to the economic prosperity of the privileged. This is not so much a military/industrial complex, as was witnessed in Hitler’s Third Reich (which heavily drew on the imperialism of the Christianised Holy Roman Empire – ordained by God to conquer), as a military/economic complex. This is important because economic growth now grows out from a centre of power much more organically than forced empire building. Sure, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait not so long ago, and this was the older form of empire building. But the nations who became concerned about this were not sort of jealous that they didn’t think of this first; nobody toppled him off that throne in order to take it for themselves in a 19th century fashion. An independent Kuwait was much more important a prize for the economic stability or availability of the oil resource, and reasserting such stability in that area required cooperative thinking between economic centres rather than competitive thinking; there was more to gain financially that way through trade.


Despite this level of cooperation in the interests of good trading, the possibility of colonial/ imperial/ military-industrial forms of evil reasserting themselves, or if not that then the fear of an as-yet-unseen “evil”, is enough to cause nations to build and maintain a defense system much in the way that it is sensible to have anti-virus software installed on your computer before being able to safely surf the Internet. The “war on terror” can be read in this context as a purge of a system bug – the bug being an organised group of dispersed, trained individuals acting like worms, trojans and phishers, and democracy in this context can be read as the global digital economic system working within ‘normal system parameters’.

THE MILITARY ECONOMIC COMPLEX PROTECTS GLOBAL SYSTEM NORMAL, RATHER THAN IDEAS OF A PERFECT SOCIETY (ideologies are dead – including left/right forms of politics as demonstrated by China’s capitalist-communism, or Blair’s free trade socialism), OR TRIBES (ideas of racial or creedal boundaries are all but gone in much of the world).


Global system normal sounds quite good. With economic stability comes other forms of stability – fewer abuses of power, fewer breeches of human rights and so on. But the problem is, and many people are talking about this, that organising human behaviour around purely economic grounds is beyond lame. Economics has no care for the real value of world resources, for sustainability, or even for its own perpetuation. Within this global system normal, the operating system itself is fatally flawed. It is only a matter of time, if left to its own devices, before the system will break itself down because we live on a planet with finite resources. Cynically speaking, the end of apartheid, of homophobia, of sexism, of ageism (which we are starting to see if not seeing) could all be attributed to global system normal rather than to brilliant advancement in human behaviour. These old distinctions simply don’t matter in the way they once did; all human units are potential consumers. It’s tempting to look at positive social changes from the 20th century and think that this means the democracy experienced in late capitalism is a good system of governance. But it isn’t. Not only is it fundamentally flawed, but it is also not the right way to look at it. We aren’t choosing democracy. Democracy is choosing us because we now organise ourselves within a global total digital economic system which requires certain ‘software’ to operate. This sucks.


Some peacemakers seem to prefer Anarchy. Especially the protester types who often forget that active nonviolence means not being violent. And we came back to the theme of beloved community.

My colleague’s question is – how do you have accountability, how do you fill the power void, in any community? To leave it empty would be anarchy, to fill it totally would be totalitarianism, so what else is there other than where we are now? The Quakers, for whom peacemaking has been a major theme throughout their history as a faith group, favour total democracy; all voices are heard and given equal balance. The trouble is that even this form of super democracy does not have within it the force to undo a fundamentally flawed global system normal.


There may be another option, and it’s an option which is already being experimented with by the Sanghas, churches, and groups mentioned above. It’s already prevalent in our religious heritages. It’s a system of eldership, and some of the oldest human civilisations thrived using this system.

What do we do with our elderly? We hide them away in shame. For some reason, our elderly stopped being our elders at some point. Perhaps this was because of the industrial revolution, and the disconnection this caused between human society and living natural systems. The very moment that rural communities were depopulated and urban centres grew, drew us away from these roots.

Or perhaps it is because of two world wars. Our elderly are not our elders quite simply because they fought in wars, whether they wanted to or not. Or if we are talking about our baby boomer parents as our elderly (which they have become), then it might be possible to talk of in terms of the self-centred hedonism which stereotypes a baby boomer. Rebelling against their parents whose worldview became darkened by wars, baby boomer culture was bright, colourful, indulgent, and insatiable. The world was not enough, and they can’t get no satisfaction.

I haven’t fathomed out what sort of system would be preferable for determining what makes an elder, but we all have built within us the capacity to know spiritual wisdom when we hear it, and there are many existing good examples of communities with elders where the elders themselves are accountable too.

I recently saw an advertisement calling for the Grandmothers of the world to unite as a voice for peace and wisdom, to admonish their sons about how they express their anger and fear in the world, to give their grandsons an aspirational sense of awe, and to remind their daughters and grand daughters the important gifts which women can give the world. This is a call to eldership.

I don’t expect to figure out a path to world peace after one year of working for a peace charity, one year of exposure to the peace movement, or two years of sitting in the Soto Zen tradition (even with Bodhisattva ordination). But this is a statement of where I’m up to on chewing that fat, as it were.

Inner peace has to be an essential component of sustainable peace in the world, but it is not the only component, and the dharma is nothing without the marketplace. The marketplace has to be community – the place where inner wisdom passes into fully manifested and realized action in the world. And communities require an organisational structure. In Soto Zen we are taught that our peers are more important than our blood ties, because one day a peer might be our Master. And our Masters, monks and nuns, are our Elders whom we go to when we seek wisdom.

All well and good for making world peace a reality within that closed community system; but what about peace and justice for all? And in that sense, I guess that communities which are outward-facing (in the same way that the Network of Engaged Buddhists Sangha is) are more likely to align with the nature of the peace which passes all understanding. That source of peace which has a life all of its own, which moves and flows not knowing boundaries of race, creed, colour, wealth, sexuality, gender, religion, type of being, or system of governance.

Peace is not mine to take. Compassion is ours to share from the heart of our own beloved community.

Life is just a party

‘Life is just a party, and if you don’t see this then you must be blind’

The line from a yet-to-be-released song in the UK.

Well, yeah. But also… all parties are hosted.

For your life to be a party, you have to help my party along too.

The world is already perfect. Life is already perfect. All that is in the way is all the forgetting of this fact. If we all live right now without illusion, without forgetting, then the perfect world will come. It will not come overnight. It will take time for everyone to remember. Forgetting is almost as contagious as remembering. Almost. And all of nature has been held up in our forgetting too, so nature needs some time to recover.

There is not no peace making

AJ Muste once said, ‘there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.’

I have been contemplating the many meanings of this for a few months.

It seems that there are many who are still looking for a route to global peace through carving a way towards it much like a snow plough fending off an avalanche of its own making.

Instead, peace is ‘the way things are’, ‘the way to be’, ‘the best way’, ‘the natural way’, ‘how things are generally ordered’.

Thich Nhat Hanh says (somewhere) that if you want to campaign for peace you need to write love letters. My own interpretation of his words is that getting angry about violence and militarism only serves to add fuel to the fire of insanity burning in the minds of military people. It props up the illusion they have made for themselves; an illusion about the wisdom of military conflict, an illusion about separateness from the ‘enemy’, an illusion of ego and vital prerogative. Instead, love letters are a bell bringing a deluded mind back into the present moment and inviting that mind to wake up.

Love letters, or any form of nonviolent action that is alive to the present and to spirit.

I guess that’s the difference between being a peacemaker living in the way of peace and using that state of being to mediate a ‘middle path’ between that state of being and the dukkha encountered, and being a peacemaker like a snow plough fending off an avalanche up a mountain.

I can see how easy it is to slip between middle path and snow plough. Both require an intention for peace for onesself and one’s world. Perhaps, sometimes, middle path is snow plough – confusing things even further. Greater mindfulness is needed in separating the two.

There is no peace ‘making’. There is not no peace ‘making’.

Boo. No boo.

One day the source is close. Meditation practice is potent with sense perceptions and insights. The next day (or minute) meditation practice feels like it is getting nowhere. Often this will be mental blocks coming from within myself. But sometimes it is simply because the source of all life has a life of its own.

In Dogen’s words it is the untamed dragon returning to the sea, or the tiger returning to the mountains. It cannot be caught in a net, or tamed. Here, there, everywhere, sometimes, always. Boo. No boo.

Surrender and fear

The difficulties I experienced as a child with the strong, Biblically literal, and bigoted opinions of those in my family and community being at odds with my own experiences of living in the world resulted in several things. One was that God, made in my own image, was a heavenly parent with whom to share favours; if I did favours for God and was a ‘good Christian’, God would keep me out of harm’s way and help me survive in an evil world. Another was that God could not be trusted.

Now that my self-made image of God has self-destructed, because nobody is ever safe from harm’s way, I am left not knowing the nature of God. There seems to be a life energy in the Universe. An energy that is life and gives life to everything. And one aspect of that is that the universe wants us all to be well. Beyond that, I do not know if God (if this life energy is God) answers specific verbal prayer requests, or responds better simply to us living in a way which embraces, harnesses, shares, and reflects the life energy that is in us and all things.

But in the absence of a heavenly Parent God, the world is as beautiful as it is vile. There are no crutches, and this mysterious life energy does not seem to intervene in my affairs the way I want it to intervene. My constant experience is that the more I open up to living in tune with Spirit, the more I realise my requests and wants are the wrong requests and wants; I am listening more than I am talking. In fact, in zazen, I am not talking at all. “Just thinking ‘not thinking'”, in the words of Dogen. In the absence of a heavenly Parent God, what has come back to me is this second aspect of my experiences as a child – that God can not be trusted – simply because I could not trust the advice of my elders growing up in a fundamentalist community.

So where I stand today is that I have unearthed another block on the Way. Another piece of duhkha – to use a Buddhist word. Or an illusion, to use a Hindu word. The block is this: I am afraid of fully letting go, and surrendering, and living ever more fully in the harnessing, sharing, and reflecting of Spirit. And I am afraid because I do not trust Spirit, because I did not trust God.

My challenge today is to embrace Spirit fully, and let go my distrust. My distrust, at its root, has nothing to do with Spirit or what I comfortably call the ground of all being. It was a distrust of my elders.

So, perhaps as Muslims might say, mine is to let go fear, and surrender to the will of the divine.

Enlightenment is not a bubble

My Aunt visits me regularly. We like to go out for coffees and lunches sometimes. It was she who introduced me to Eckhart Tolle, and it was Eckhart Tolle’s writings which led me to a ‘sudden awakening’. I am indebted to her; she is a skillful bodhisattva!

My Aunt thinks that enlightenment is like a bubble. If you have found this enlightenment bubble, then it does not matter what happens to you each day; you could have a bad run-in with a boss, a disagreement with a family member, someone could light your fuse, but you would remember your bubble and you would remove yourself from your immediate wish to feel all of those strong emotions. Instead you would replace them with calm, serenity, critical distance, and some compassion for yourself and for the other.

At least, I think this is how her bubble works; I am only guessing that this is what she means. However, I am cautious to regard enlightenment as a bubble. To be enlightened is to go deeper into our centres of pain – the relationships and the places that give us pain and suffering and grief – fully and deeply into them, so that we can understand all that there is to be understood about that pain and suffering, and from there we can start to release the energy of that suffering around that relationship or area and start to think more positively about it. This is the only way to be released from the perpetual cycles of suffering we are in; the network of suffering that is the human condition.

Considering that enlightenment is a bubble invites me to pretend that there is no pain or suffering. This is true; suffering is an illusion. But this is also not true; I cannot know for myself that I have foregone all suffering until I have gone into each area of my suffering fully and snuffed it out. Pretending that there is no suffering when I have not gone into the suffering and out the other side, in every area of my life, is not enlightenment. It is an emulation of nirvana, but it is not nirvana. It is looking for a shortcut that does not exist!

Enlightenment is more like a burning fire consuming all illusion until there is no illusion left. When all illusion is gone, there is just a calm glow radiating warmth and light. Which is best? A fire? Or a bubble? A bubble will feel nice today, but tomorrow when it pops the floodgates of pain and suffering will be open again. A fire will feel difficult to handle today, but tomorrow there will be less pain and suffering than there was today.

Going the other Way

Blocks on the path of the Way seem to keep returning in different guises. The previous block (interpreting non-attachment as a negative energy witholding life experience) has come back as an interpretation of the Way being a negative way to live. If this ‘Way’ is so amazing, then why does it feel boring, crummy, repetitious, serious, ascetic, and plain silly at times?

Of course it’s the other way round. Along pursuit of the Way comes a vast unknown quantity of potential, creativity, energy, light, life wisdom. It allows one to be fully alive to life’s present experiences and challenges, joys and wonders. In Tolle’s words, it opens up the beauty of life irrespective of one’s current life position. It can lead to unknown places, instead of being tied to holding patterns, stuck records, painful energy, and dusty scripts.

Going into the Way is embracing life – literally and on many levels. Is this what it feels like to be a ‘path winner’? If so, then this is my first glimpse of it – through the mire of what the Theravadin’s call the ‘great terror’ felt by anyone entering the gate.

The Way is the opposite of what my ego thinks it is. Or, in Christian language, this is topsy-turvy refinement going on; losing one’s life only to find it. Found. Lost. Found again. Lost again. Making found into lost. Making lost into found. Profoundly confounded. Backwards and forwards.

All very neccesary. How funny!