I am confused, unsure, unclear.
The quiet mind has brought me here.
Yet answers are hard to hear.
A. Spirituality as the Naturalness of Life
The tragedy of the accident that killed my parents and brothers, combined with my personal crisis and developing spiritual practice, sped up my recognition of life itself as the living expression of the divine. This life energy has been the protector, guidance counselor, advisor, and direct presence I have sensed from the beginning of my life. What sped up this recognition was my encounter with a way of living that over the past fifteen hundred years has known this reality intimately. Because of the many professional pressures to “publish or perish,” my simmering interest in Zen meditation grew considerably in the 1990s to the point of sensing a need to find a teacher. I had been reading and collecting every book on Zen I could find, from classics to obscure ones. Among the ones with the most impact, aside from Watts’ The Way of Zen, were Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which drew me to the appealing story of Siddhartha, the prince who gave up everything to become the Buddha. Similarly, Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel captured my fascination with a unique Eastern way of thinking and how it differed from the mindset I had developed in my childhood and adolescence. Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind opened my eyes to the possibilities available in the practice’s doing. Finally, Rodney Smith’s Stepping Out of Self-Deception felt like the last book I needed to read to finally understand Zen and the deception of the self. This avalanche of books fed my growing appetite to learn all I could of this fascinating way of being.
What I extracted from these readings is that Zen is a distillation of a way to see and reveal truth. Like science, Zen is fully open to testing one’s intuitive experiences and discarding things that make little sense. Puzzling, irreverent, and even mysterious, the ultimate essence distilled, after discarding an awful lot of previously built-up mythologies, is the knowledge that life is. But what does that mean? What I have learned after forty years of practice is that life is extraordinary in its ordinariness, and what I have called spirituality is nothing but naturalness interacting with this ordinariness. That life is means that each event, each moment of life is special, unique, and perfect—meaning no other possibility exists except the one at that moment. It also suggests that these unique events do not obstruct other events, and all things flow unencumbered to accomplish their functions. This is as close to my understanding of what the Buddhist mean by Emptiness or Great Void, as I can express.
In what most of us think of as normal life, we define miracles to be those extraordinary and special events transcending the moment, which we take as repetitious, boring, and easy to ignore. What I learned to appreciate in Zen is just the opposite. Life’s ordinary moments, of talking, walking, sleeping, seeing, eating, thinking are miracles and extraordinary events in themselves. I can vouch as a scientist, and one who studied these topics, that we still do not know how they happen. As we focus, penetrate, and examine each of these ordinary behaviors, we encounter the infinite, the sacredness, the majesty, and the beauty of life. Science and spirituality come together seamlessly at such a time.
Take, for example, the act of seeing, a perfectly normal behavior we perform with so much ease we hardly ever give it a second thought. We typically define seeing as the sensation we experience when light, usually reflecting on an object and within a narrow range of frequency, enters our eyes. Yet, the machinery and mechanics of the eye, let alone of the brain interpreting the visual signals, are extraordinarily complex. We have learned some things, but much remains shrouded in mystery.
And if we recognize the mystery, we let it be. This understanding is more than intellectual understanding, for it does not just make up specific and detailed information regarding the mechanics of the action, rather an appreciation of the aesthetics of how it works. Such an appreciation of the mystery is not superficial, for there must be deep intuition to gain such an aesthetic insight. Unfortunately, I know most of us do not reach such aesthetic insights regarding ordinary things and thus experience a compulsion to ignore or change them, that is, to change the negative for the positive, the bad for the good, etc. Most of my Cognitive Science colleagues, and perhaps most academics, will not understand this because they see life as flawed, problematic, and in need of technical and other kinds of correctives or fixes. What we rarely understand is our confusion of technical answers with real answers, all the while ignoring the deeper underlying truth.
For example, what is behind an inconvenience? Some would argue that inconveniences are the impetus for the technological marvels we have invented. Perhaps. My sense is that ultimately the better solution is not to remove the inconvenience, to find a technical bypass to it, but to address the real issue of why it bothers to begin with. If we examine the real problem, we recognize that what needs to change is our perception of what bothers us. Otherwise we create and give life to a make-believe problem. This begins by examining and understanding who we truly are, getting rid of the egotistical stories we know as ourselves, and seeing the perfect essence we are. Perfect not in a platonic ideal sort of way, but seamless and unadulterated in being the only state possible. And so is everything around. When we recognize this unique reality, our personal energetic flow synchronizes with life’s flow. What bothered us previously does not anymore, for the little stream has become the larger stream. I see the inconvenience for what it is. It no longer bothers, and thus does not call for a “solution.” We have created technological marvels such as smartphones that put the world’s knowledge in our fingertips. Yet these devices are isolating us from each other. I can go down the list. When solutions are devised by a mind not synchronized with life, it can create more problems than solutions.
Reading books on Zen sparked and motivated my interest in this way of living and seeing. What I could not extract from all the reading was a way to actualize and embody the philosophy. This next step appeared to require instructions specific to me and my circumstances. Thus, the recognition came to me around 1994 that I needed a spiritual teacher.
B. The Need for a Spiritual Teacher
Joko Beck (1917–2011) had become a well-known Zen teacher in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. When I met her in her seventies, she sported short, gray hair and a grandmotherly demeanor yet a youthful exuberance. I found her to be serious regarding her teaching, yet had a wonderful smile arising occasionally from her seriousness. I liked the fact she had shed many of the cultural trappings of Eastern Zen, including chanting and wearing of the robes. She had developed a new approach to teaching called “ordinary mind.” It was Zen simplicity at its finest, which proved tremendously appealing. When I first met Joko, the serenity surrounding her had a striking, palpable, and compelling quality. In retrospect, she reminded me of my childhood friend, Pablo, and the calm aura surrounding him. I began attending Saturday sesshin meditation sessions and then three-day retreats. During each session, I met with Joko in dokusan (teacher–student interviews).
“Zen training,” she would remind me each time, “is learning how to work so you do it right, perfect in fact, with no extra anything, whether it is your job, gardening, shopping, whatever. In fact,” she would continue, “this requires little sitting—it’s more relating to everything in your life and taking care of it.”
“Do I need to come to the center to learn to do this?” I would ask.
“Practice occurs anywhere and with anything,” she responded. “What happens at the center is I can provide you with encouragement and advice, but the real practice is with your life in every moment. Life becomes your true teacher.”
My knowledge of Zen grew slowly as she imparted such wisdom during the four years I stayed as her student. My relationship with Joko turned into an apprenticeship of the heart, one continuing with reading and reading of her book, Everyday Zen.
My dissatisfaction with science kept growing alongside an increasing interest and understanding of my spirituality. Eventually, I realized that both paths are opposite sides of the same coin, for they have given me insights into my true nature from two different perspectives. I came up for tenure in 1996. Getting tenure is a landmark event for an academic and being up for consideration stirs many anxieties. I turned to Joko for advice during a dokusan session.
“I feel anxious concerning my upcoming tenure review,” I remember saying to the cross-legged Joko.
“Why do you feel anxious?” she asked.
“I guess it’s the possibility of failure or not getting tenure that has me worried. I don’t know what I will do if it doesn’t come through,” I responded with a voice sounding higher-pitched than normal.
“Maybe it would be better if you did not get it,” she said nonchalantly.
It stunned and confused me. How would it be better? What did she mean? Does she think I have not earned it? My mind began to turn her advice into a self-centered drama. “I have to chew it over,” I replied as I made my bow to leave.
“Don’t think too much,” she commented as I exited the small room.
Her advice floored me and made me resentful of her callousness. Looking back and on reflection, I understand her perspective. I had become attached to achieving such a goal without realizing it. Her advice showed classic Zen understanding. Attachment to ideas and objects is the basis for the discontent and unhappiness that torture a human mind. According to Zen, the best way to deal with becoming attached to ideas is to avoid them. If one can’t avoid them, then don’t engage them. Don’t allow your self-talk to give them solidity. Eventually they drop out of existence. As luck would have it, I received tenure and felt overjoyed. Not particularly a good Zen student, I could not let go of my attachment to receiving such a gift.
Despite not being a good Zen student, I learned several important lessons from Joko. I found the most important lesson to relate to one’s teacher. In her view, a teacher is fine to have during the early going, but the best and true teacher is life itself. In this perspective, what is most needed is sensitivity and attentiveness to life lessons. The idea has reverberated in my mind ever since. Little by little, I have turned over my life to this wonderful teacher.
A second important lesson concerned the spiritual search itself. While searching is necessary and recommended, misunderstandings of what the spiritual search is can create problems. For example, the outcome of the search could give a false sense of what is being searched for, as the act of searching itself creates a phantom target. In reality, instead of gaining, the search process is more akin to getting rid of things, like false expectations, ideas, needs, virtual me, etc. Once we have emptied the trunkful of expectations and ideas, we recognize that what we thought missing, and thus searched for incessantly, is in fact already present—a reality uncovered by getting rid of the trappings of the ego. Yet, I needed the continuous and unrelenting practice of meditation to build up muscles of commitment to look where I didn’t want to look. I, for one, did not want to look at my attachment to receiving tenure in 1994. Instead, I secretly craved prestige, accolades, and the reward for all my work. Yet, as Ecclesiastes: 1-12 confirms it, “All is vanity.” But it takes courage and committed practice to recognize this. We must confront and uncover the hidden psychological hurts, the expectations we’ve built up, and face the mythologies we’ve created head on. When we do, and there are few sticky thoughts or mythologies left, what remains is the nowness of life—the jewel we have been searching for, the naturalness of being. As I wrote in a poem to describe this:
Live in the here and now.
For in that space God lives,
And life is real and flows, as it is meant to do.
No problems, no questions, no answers.
Just life being a dancer
Beautifully moving and inter-being,
Creative and all-seeing,
Joko further clarified for me what our spiritual search is, namely, recognizing our true nature, the heart of who and what I am, what we all are. What becomes clear and overwhelming when one sees the ordinary, with the naturalness of being, is the recognition that one is part of the whole. There are no discontinuities. One can sense and appreciate the connection with all aspects of life.
This sensibility differed from my scientific mindset, where I saw the world as the object of study and me as the subject studying it. Once I understood that what I am is not distinct from the rest of life, and a sense of unity began to pervade, I could not maintain this scientific duality. In my case, the spiritual insights co-mingled with and pervaded my scientific understanding. When the integration of these two paths occurred, another phase opened up. A phase presumably that is never-ending and has been immensely satisfying because the work here involves clarifying the relationship between my experience of unity and my experience as an individual. We never lose our individuality and the unique ability to see the universe from such a specific viewpoint. Yet, this is only one viewpoint out of many. The totality of those other viewpoints is itself a whole, and you are part of it.
C. Being in Touch
With the family tragedy, my divorce, and a new marriage as backdrops, my inquiry into the mystery of my true nature and relationship to ultimate sources continued unwavering. Gradually, the momentum sped up. Then a change happened. One I would describe as the crossing of a gateless gate, as Buddhists describe it, rather than a big bang. But, in effect, a bit of both. Like my experience as a nine-year-old when circumstances forced me to detach from everything I knew, now I had detached from much of the mythologies of me I had known. And I began to experience moments that slowly reshaped my personality. I would like to think of these changes as more of a realigning rather than a reshaping to what had been there all along. More than anything, I came to appreciate the beauty, sacredness, and nonseparateness from Life. As Lama Surya Das has described, it is an “awakening to the sacred.” And, as he describes in his book by the same name, at this point the mystery described in the Tao Te Ching, considered the foundational text for Taoism, becomes understandable:
Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth,
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven.
At a certain point in this period, I stopped automatically killing insects. During my youth in Honduras, while living in our new home in Comayagua, I had become the designated fly killer. In the tropical climate of Central America, flies and insects were inevitable and abundant. I remember the dozens of flies I swatted every day to maintain a fly-free environment inside the house. The goal proved unachievable. Yet I seemed to enjoy the effort, and gave no thought to the flies themselves as I gained proficiency at swatting them, even out of the air. Now, the awareness of their intricate structure, the time to grow such a detailed and beautiful body, and most important their value as predators, parasites, and prey prevent me from killing them. The more the wonders of nature revealed themselves to me, the more sensitive I became. Rather than killing the mice, spiders, flies, insects, worms, silverfish, and other creatures making their way into our home in California, I trap them and release them outdoors. It is with a great deal of pleasure that I now spare their lives.
From this reflexiveness to preserve life, to my growing awareness of the unending textures, shades, colors, and forms of trees, plants, and flowers I encounter in my daily walks, I began to sense the vast intelligence staring me in the face. My nature walks had assumed a spiritual sense as they seemed to bring me closer to the presence I felt all around, besides inspiring my poetic muse. Ultimately, the walks themselves became spiritual exercises.
These feelings were clearly in my mind on an early February morning when I went walking on the beach. The past days were overcast and rainy, not the thunderstorm type of rain but the slow drizzle typical of San Diego. That Saturday morning, the sky cleared. No prediction of rain made my body itch to exercise and walk around. I headed to my favorite spot, the Del Mar beach, and planned to walk back and forth between the Torrey Pines beach area and Dog’s beach in Del Mar, a distance of about three miles. I parked the car three blocks from the beach area in Del Mar and headed in that direction when a strange thought whooshed across my mind: “The distance between Heaven and Hell is a change in perspective.” I had not been mulling over anything in particular, and it surprised yet pleased me by what it implied. “I am in Heaven or at least Paradise,” I thought to myself as the beauty of the day unfolded before me. “But I suppose it would take one simple thought to turn Heaven into Hell.” I continued to muse.
By then I had reached the park-like area. As I scanned the horizon, the majesty of what I saw stunned me. The beauty of life is self-evident, yet difficult to capture in words. Following the rain on the previous day, the bright sun had burst through, creating a sparkle in the purple and yellow flowers and in the green leaves of the plants before me. The emerald green grass, just behind them, likewise shone as a layer of moisture reflected the light. In the background, I could see the white caps of a sparkling ocean contrasting against the bluest blue of a sky containing whiffs of white clouds, looking like adorning pearls. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude at the same time. I stood there gazing and feeling I had strayed into a painting of paradise where every single object stood perfectly. “And I am the beneficiary of all this,” I thought.
Immediately, a sense of sadness and guilt flooded my mind. “My God, my God,” the thought continued, “Why have you NOT forsaken us? We are the ignorant, the self-righteous, the violent ones, and we do not deserve your grace. Yet, we live with such a blessing, only to forget and not treat it as the gift it is.” Tears formed in my eyes as the thought of how humans, who should know better, have mistreated the earthly paradise we have been gifted.
Experiences of such intelligence in nature have accompanied me since youth. As a scientist studying the human mind-brain, I have had first-hand, ringside seat views of this intelligence. The complexity of the mind-brain is profound and infinite, and I do not accept the notion of accidental design. Those thoughts have now become more embedded in my consciousness. The recognition of this awareness is less intellectual and more intimate and personal. I appreciate not just the beauty and complexity of nature but also experience a deep sense of sacredness, gratitude, and an abiding sense of responsibility to do it no harm. I am part of it. Such an inside-out experience differs from my scientific perspective, which is more like an outside-in experience. What I mean is that science brings a third-person perspective to all its studies and insights. We gain understanding from the outside in, a presumably objective knowledge, as if studying life through a microscope.
Spiritual insights give me first-person sensibility, a subjective, inside-out experience. Therefore, I can no longer hold the view that human needs automatically supersede the needs of other animals. Killing might be necessary only if no other options are available, such as for survival, and then one thanks the creatures for their sacrifice. From my new perspective, I cannot conduct the type of animal research I had done earlier in my career. The change of mind comes with a deep sense that vivisection is not right in most of its forms. This new awareness has created a new view of life and of my role in it.
My old self-centered perspective comprised thinking that my reason for living was to adjust and manipulate the environment in any way possible to make it as comfortable for myself and family. Now I see my role as making things as free-flowing and beneficial for others first, including humans, animals, plants, the planet, etc.
Teaching classes primed this new orientation, and the sharing of this other-directed perspective has been a main motivation for this book. Being in touch with life in this way has promoted a relationship between my individual experience and my experience of unity, which I consider a continuous conversation. I don’t just “feel” connected to this larger source, I “know” it, like I know the sun will rise every morning. In such continuous dialog, concerns, problems, and mental blockages get processed and resolved almost by themselves. I sense answers in overheard comments, thoughts, a preacher’s sermon, TV ads, things I read, etc. It is what I call the dawning of an intimacy with life. Life itself is at work and uses anything and everything happening around me.
In 2016, two friends whom I had known for a while developed cancer, and their entire world turned upside down. As I drove home from work one afternoon thinking dark thoughts, the overwhelming sadness such a disease can bring washed over me. As I approached an intersection close to home, I looked up and saw the red light strikingly vivid against an aqua blue sky. I stopped and stared unthinkingly as whispers of white moisture streaked along the blueness of the California sky.
“What an appropriate metaphor for life this is,” the thought entered my mind. “A red light against a blue and hopeful sky.” For whatever reason, a calmness pervaded my body, and I relaxed, while the hopefulness of what life can be overwhelmed the thoughts of death. Gratefulness flooded my body.
What I sense in this growing intimacy expresses my true nature. What is happening to me can happen to anyone with an equal sense of caring to know this truth. As the author of The Gateless Gate, Mumon has said, “The Great Way has no gate, A thousand roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate, he freely walks between heaven and earth.” That afternoon at the stoplight, I felt the freedom to walk fearlessly between such a heaven and such a hell.