What is it like to be alive? Sam Harris’ Waking Up app

Among the multifude of meditation apps available, Sam Harris’ Waking Up app is different, very different, and is one I can whole-heartedly recommend without reservation. 

First, the overall purpose of Waking Up is not about finding peace or touching bliss, although those things may indeed happen. It is about the adventure of discovering the nature of your own mind. Harris’ approach is mindfulness, punctuated by Dzogchen techniques, and goes beyond simple present-moment awareness into a gentle exploration of consciousness and your mind’s relationship to it. The goal, Harris frequently reminds practitioners, is never to become “a better meditator,” but to become more present, resilient, and compassionate throughout the situations of the day.

Secondly, although carefully curated, Waking Up has a wide variety of meditative approaches. Yes, Harris’s daily guided mindfulness practice dominates the app, but the “Practice” side of the app also includes meditation courses in the amazing “Headless Way,” metta (compassion) meditations, Zen koans, meditative poems from a Christian contemplative perspective, meditations for children, and more.

Thirdly, Waking Up isn’t just about the practice. There is a “Theory” side of the app, featuring  “Conversations,” a podcast full of interviews with fascinating people with penetrating insights into human nature and cultivating happiness, from Mingyur Rinpoche (Tibetan lama) to Leo Balbauta (blogger), to Laurie DiSantos (professor), David Whyte (poet) and an ever-increasing roster of others.  

“Theory” also has “Lessons,” a series of insights by Harris on consciousness and spirituality. The two lessons on free will alone have the potential to change your life, and I say that with all seriousness from my own experience. 

Waking Up also has a feature for tracking days used, which helped me truly establish a daily habit of meditation, something that eluded me even after 12 years of studying with a Zen master. In addition, you can invite others through the app to join you in a session. 

One caveat: please do not check out the “Daily Meditation” when you first open the app, it will likely feel off-putting and not make sense. Listen to the “Start here” instructions, and then go to “Practice,” and begin the Introductory Course. After completing that, the instructions in the daily meditations will make superb sense.

Waking Up is the next best thing to having a spiritual teacher of your own, and is an excellent resource even for those who do. Its subscription price is $100 / year, which is barely a quarter a day, but I find it invaluable. It has helped me maintain my mental health during the challenges of the pandemic and, I believe, to become a somewhat better person.

Get it from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Also, see the Waking Up website.

The Bamiyan buddhas and living as light

I found myself thinking about the giant statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan today. They were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, and across the world, there was outrage and regret for the loss of monumental works of art, timeless reminders of history, the icons of a spiritual path followed by millions. 

In her book, Buddha, Karen Armstrong states that the earliest icons of the Buddha were not of something present, as buddha-images, but of what wasn’t there: such as an empty footprint, marking the passing-by of the teacher who had lived, taught, and “crossed over.”  The massive empty alcoves in the cliffs are a potent reminder of what had been there, unintentionally becoming icons themselves under the older aesthetics.

Much has happened since the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed: terrorist attacks, and attacks to prevent terrorist attacks. Revolutions and counter-revolutions. Prosperity and recession, protests and repression, peacemaking and hope, unprecedented travel and unprecedented quarantine. These all come and go, with effects that also come and go, as we, too, come and go.

However, several years ago, the Buddhas of Bamiyan briefly returned, as figures of light (see above). Perhaps the original sculptors would have chosen this medium if it had been available to them then. I’ll take it as a reminder to try to live as a light.

Is God hidden? A letter to a friend

Andromeda galaxy
A reader in the UK sent me an email recently asking among other things “why God keeps himself hidden from the world?”

These were my thoughts in response:

We often think of God as a “Person,” or Supreme Being, separate from Creation, and following the logic of what “personhood” seems to convey, we might assume God has motives, will, desires, emotions, can change his mind, and can even be so temperamental as to destroy the world when really pissed off, as in the Flood story.

I have come to believe that God’s personhood, what I call “the personal metaphor,” is just that, a metaphor. Needless to say, it is used often in both testaments, and Jesus himself used it fairly consistently in referring to God. But it’s important to note that many other metaphors are used in the Bible. God is a fire, a spirit, a dove, a wind, a rock, light, and love itself. And whenever Jesus referred to the God as a person, he cast that person as “Father,” certainly to bring forth God’s benevolence.

The very word “persons” invites misunderstanding of Trinitarian doctrine. The Latin word personae could mean the characters in a play (the dramatis personae in theater programs), or even the masks the characters wore! God wearing three masks.

Eastern Orthodoxy developed the idea of the essence of God as being distinct from the energies of God, and maintains that the essence of God is beyond “beyond,” while God is known through his energies, and that we may unite with his energies in theosis.

Energy is force, and actually, I find “the Force” a more useful metaphor for God now. Not in every way, of course. I don’t believe that the Force is generated by living things and obeys commands, like in Star Wars, but I do believe that thinking of God as non-personal, and Force-like helps me.

For instance, if I were to ask why does gravity keep itself hidden, you would probably say it doesn’t, it’s just there, wherever there’s mass, there’s gravitation. We just need to notice how things act to notice its actions.

In a similar way, I don’t believe that God intentionally keeps teachings hidden, or himself hidden, (I’ll make a leap now and say Itself) It is everywhere, in all things, and discovering God is a matter of seeing things with spiritual eyes, of “loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul,” and “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

When we can do those things as Jesus said, we can see everyone as the child of God, and live in the kingdom of heaven, which is within us.

St. Hildegard of Bingen called God Haecceitas which means “This-ness,” and Meister Eckhart called God “Is-ness.” This titles are far beyond “personhood” as we think of it. This is a Force beyond forces. This is what creates and holds the Universe together, every Planck-instant of every second, everywhere that is. It is Everything, and beyond Everything, but more than anything else for our purposes, It is Love.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis.

Although it’s been a long time since I’ve been active in the Church, I am, and will always be, a fervent admirer of the “alter Christus,” St. Francis of Assisi.

“Pope Francis” almost sounds like an oxymoron … St. Francis abhorred pomp, ceremony, and virtually everything distracting him from his chosen path of poverty—real poverty—to find the Lord in “perfect joy.” But the “pope” part is not what this new Francis chose. It’s merely an affectionate customary title, not even a spiritual one, which all Bishops of Rome immediately become known by. Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, didn’t choose “Pope.” He chose the name “Francis.”

That’s an impressive choice. And a news release from the Vatican clarifies that Francis chose his name not for Francis Xavier, or any other Francis, but for the nature mystic of Assisi. Francis, in this age of cellphones and Facebook, of scandals, and outrage, of global warming and multi-national corporate greed.

I have no illusions that this Francis will be the saint of Assisi on the papal throne. He has his own story, his own strengths, his own faults. He will follow God according to his path, and I according to mine. But there is something about hearing “Pope Francis” that inspires me. And more than that, realizing that he chose the name Francis, gives me hope.

God bless you, Papa Francis. May you inspire the world and lead the Church in love and wisdom. May you be well and strong. May you be guided well and listen true. May you be an instrument of His peace.

Announcing Jedi Life

Dear Readers,

I’m happy to announce that Jedi Life, at http://jedilife.com, is now live. I’m excited about it. There are already several complete posts lined up,and I’m seeking guest posts as well. While Jedi Life is the successor to this blog, in some ways it is very different. The theme is “renew the body, free the mind, feel the Force.” Running, diet, nutrition, life hacking, all will be frequent subjects as will practical matters such as breaking bad habits, forming new ones, seeing through societal conditioning, and so on. Spirituality will be an important part of Jedi Life, but I intend it to be more accessible and actionable than my personal philosophical musings here.

I’m also writing an e-book, geared towards the completely out-of-shape, on how to get into shape, start running safely, and love it.

The Wild Things of God will remain here. At this point, I’m not sure sure how often (or if) it will be updated. I may continue to use it for more personal blogging, or just keep it as an archive of my life from 2004-2011. Keep it in your RSS, just in case. So what are you waiting for? Head over to Jedi Life, and give me feedback there! Also, I wouldn’t mind some free publicity. If you could “like” it or tweet it, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Thanks

Words to live by: Jobs on death

Steve Jobs spoke in 2005 to Stanford’s graduating class on how mindfulness on death and the brevity of life aids focus and purpose in life.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer …

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog … On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, … Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Listen to an excerpt on NPR.org, or read the entire address, or watch the video of it below.

Coming Soon: jedilife.com

The “new direction” I wrote about earlier has become clear. I’m pleased to announce that within the next few weeks, I’ll be launching a new blog, jedilife.com. Its theme will be on physical, mental, and spiritual renewal. Besides being a blog of my own thoughts, it will be a self-help resource geared to everyone who wants to redesign their lives apart from the assumptions of consumerist society. I’m thinking an August 1 launch, but it may be sooner. Stay tuned and please share the news. Thanks!

jon

A New Direction

Le blog c’est mort… Vive le blog!

It occurs to me that my slowdown in posting over the last couple of years has been an effect of changes in my life, resulting in some uncertainty about the direction it should take. However, I’m gaining clarity in this.

What I’m going to be writing about more is the challenge of becoming the person I want to be, and being more authentically the person I am. I’ll be writing even less about spiritual “ideas” (of course, I already have been writing less about that), and more about challenges in living. However, I might expand and separate some of my preexisting material into ebooks.

I’ll be writing more on things I find helpful and interesting, rather than traditional reviews (those have been sliding too).

In short, this will be a new blog; it may have a different name (or not, not sure yet), but it’s going to be a bit different. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

How a bookstore coupon changed my life

Just over four years ago, a friend of mine at work gave me a little magenta coupon for a bookstore that a friend of his was starting up. Although I had a backlog of books to read and wasn’t very interested, he practically pleaded with me to visit the bookstore, and help his friend out, if possible. Since I strongly believe in supporting independent booksellers, and I’ve never met a bookstore I didn’t like, I gladly accepted it and decided to check it out after work.

Ned FlandersBut getting there wasn’t easy; its only sign wasn’t readily visible from the road and it was in a run-down neighborhood. The building might have been a laundromat in its previous life, but whatever it had been, it still wasn’t attractive. I walked in, and was greeted by a very friendly blond-haired guy with an ear-to-ear Baptist smile and the most desperately helpful attitude outside of Ned Flanders’ yard.

I explained I was just looking, and he let me browse, begging me to let him know the instant I needed anything. I don’t know how long he had been in business, but I had the impression I was one of only a very few customers to walk in that day, and maybe the first. Browsing was disappointing. There weren’t very many books, maybe just a few hundred titles in the entire store. And at least half were in Spanish! (Anything you don’t see we can order for you, the owner had assured me.)

None of the English titles appealed to me; they were all overstocks of unpopular titles. I browsed the Spanish titles (I couldn’t read any Spanish, but I recognized the name of a familiar author. There were several titles by Paulo Coelho, the author of one of my favorite books, The Alchemist as well as others such as The Fifth Mountain, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. I found myself looking for a copy of The Alchemist in Spanish. I couldn’t read Spanish, but hey, how hard could it be? I had grown up on the Mexican border, taken some compulsory Spanish in school, and could recognize lots of cognate words. (I had never had any trouble understanding “Se Prohibido Fumar” on signs!)

I thought if I bought it, I might be able to learn Spanish from it, and who knows? Barcelona had intrigued me ever since the ’92 Olympics—maybe someday I’d visit it. Maybe I’d even learn Catalan. Who knows, maybe I’d even pick up my long-forgotten, never-spoken Esperanto? Probably not, though. Mainly I just wanted to buy something, because I couldn’t stand the prospect of walking out empty-handed of this guy’s store even though his business was obviously hopeless. I announced I was looking for The Alchemist in Spanish, and there was a little problem; that was the only Coelho title that he didn’t have in stock. (Apparently even El alquimista was too popular to make the overstock collection he had purchased.)

Finally, after several weeks, my special order of El alquimista came in. I found out that night that there’s a big difference between being able to read a No Smoking sign and a single prosy paragraph of a novel in a foreign language! But I was stimulated now. In my high school and college years, I had studied German and Russian, and on my own I had studied some Esperanto and Biblical Greek and Hebrew. Of course, I hadn’t learned much of any of those, and what little I had learned was unused and long-forgotten. But maybe I could actually accomplish what I and the majority of my countrymen fail to accomplish: learn another language to the degree of actually being able to use it.

I commenced teaching myself Spanish with simple grammars, audiobooks, and podcasts. After about eight months, I was very frustrated, and felt I needed to learn a simpler language first, and return to Spanish after I had successfully trained myself to learn a language. I decided to concentrate on Esperanto for a while. I found I really enjoyed Esperanto, and launched a very small Esperanto club with the help of a friend. Esperanto was designed to be exceptionally easy, and within six months, I found I was fairly conversational, and made plans to go to an international Esperanto congress in Montréal, Québec.

But I knew Esperanto would be enough only as long as I hung with just the Esperantists; the main language of Montréal was French; so surely I should study some French, too! That I did, visiting Alliance Française meetups, while I continuing to focus on Esperanto. I had four wonderful days in Montréal where I used Esperanto and French almost exclusively.

Back from the conference I continued to study Esperanto and also Spanish as well. I was determined to visit Barcelona sometime. Esperanto fell into place as my second language without much further active study as such. Practicing with friends at the Esperanto club, listening to Esperanto podcasts, writing my journal in Esperanto, and reading in it occasionally made it almost effortless. And over the next two years, I went to national Esperanto congresses in St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., where I made friends from all over the country.

Spanish was much more difficult for me—the irregular verbs seemed almost impossible—but I persisted and made it beyond the beginning barrier into an intermediate zone through study, reading books and websites, watching Spanish-language movies, and practicing the language at meetups. (I also studied what little Catalan I could.)

I made it!This summer, I realized my dream of visiting Spain and spent a wonderful two weeks in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca. Naturally, I did a lot of sightseeing, but my greatest experiences were simply talking with people. I struck up conversations in plazas and parks, on the street, and in the subway. Language enabled me to have a far richer experience of the country than I could ever have had without it.

I’m planning on going to California and Brazil for more Esperanto-fueled travel, and I want to return to Spain, for a much longer stay in the future. Linguistically, I’m continuing work on my Spanish, and will probably learn a little Portuguese as well for the Brazil trip. (And I still intend to pick up French where I left off, and to “reactivate” my high-school German sometime.)

My last four years have been full of language meetings, books and film in foreign languages, travel across the country and far beyond; friends, acquaintances, drinks, meals, and memories. And I’m looking forward to a future filled with travel and language ahead of me.

Which all started because of someone giving me a coupon for a doomed bookstore.

How will what you do today change someone’s life? How will someone change yours? The most insignificant thing you do today might change the course of events beyond anyone’s expectations. This is life, and it’s amazing!