Read an Excerpt
A New Direction
Where I've Come From
In 1944, on my first birthday, my father lay in the hospital with a brain tumor. The doctors knew they had to operate if he was to have any chance at all, but they had no confidence that he would survive the surgery. "We just don't know, Mrs. Philbrook," they told my frantic mother. "This is experimental surgery, and we cannot give you a guarantee about the outcome."
My mother would leave that hospital and take a bus across town to where my brother, age three, lay in another hospital, so thin that his knees and elbows looked like doorknobs held together with lengths of bone, huge red sores all over his emaciated body. "We just don't know, Mrs. Philbrook," the doctors there told her. "We've done all the tests, but we don't know what's wrong."
Then my mother would come back to care for me. I don't know what arrangements she made for my care in her absence; I only know what she told me laterhow at that early stage in my life, I seemed to experience the misery of abandonment. Unable to explain the terrible demands on her life at that time, Mother would rock me and sob. She was only 30 years old, facing widowhood and the death of her oldest childand pregnant with her third baby.
Only a few years before, my maternal grandmother had committed suicide. Her alcoholic husband, my grandfather, had taken a job in Needles, California, one of the hottest places on the planet. My grandmother, her body coveredwith the eczema that had plagued her all her life, simply couldn't face the prospect of month after month of 100- to 115-degree weather. One morning when the family had left for work and school, she put a rifle to her chest and pulled the trigger. Finally, my grandfather stopped drinking.
* * *
Thirty years later, I woke up in a hospital room two weeks after putting a rifle to my midsection and pulling the trigger. I opened my eyes and finally managed to focus on what turned out to be a man leaning over me. He was the surgeon who had saved my life. Dangling from his lips was a cigarette containing the longest ash I had ever seen. I was fascinated by that ash, watching it move up and down, back and forth, as he talked, wondering when it would fall, wondering if he had dropped one of those ashes inside me as he was sewing me up.
"I don't know how you lived through this," he announced, with a great deal of energy that sounded to me like anger. "That bullet should have killed you. I would suggest that you find out why you're alive." He saved my life in the operating room, but much more significantly, I know that he saved my life with that terse speech.
No one had ever spoken to me in that way. I was familiar with getting informationwith strong feelings attachedthat I should do or be something because it benefited the person giving the information. But this clearly wasn't to benefit him. This was to benefit me.
Lying in that hospital bed, I began thinking, through a haze of morphine, about what the surgeon had said. I had spent my whole life trying to do what people wanted me to do, failing miserably. It may not have seemed so to others, but I really had put forward my best effort to fit in.
* * *
I was learning disabled, but that was before the term became common, back in the days when intelligent kids not doing well in school were said to have a "bad attitude." I don't think I ever got a report card that didn't say, "Cheryl is not working up to her potential." I can remember sitting at the kitchen table night after night trying to do math problems, unable to get them right, and finally throwing the book across the room in frustration. Then the teacher would send home a note that said, "Cheryl isn't trying." I gave up on teachers, school, education, and experts in general. I gave up on the system, but I never quit trying.
I had received all the right messages about how I should go to school, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job, meet the right guy, get married, have kids, bring them up, and save money for retirement. But I couldn't believe that people really thought that was all there was to life. I had noticedand therefore could not imagine that others had not noticedthat we human beings have some pretty big problems in front of usproblems that make retirement look like nothing. Here we are rocketing around in space on this clod of dirt. We don't know how we got here, what we're doing here, where we're going, or what's going to happen to us. Hasn't anyone noticed that?
I got really nervous when I realized that if people had noticed, they didn't seem to express the concern that I thought the situation warranted. You're going to die! I don't care how much money you make or save, you're going to die!
I was clearly the odd person outthis was before the 1960sand it seemed in my best interest to try to get going in the same general direction as the crowd. I went on to college, but lost what little enthusiasm I had for that venture when my mother died. I was 18. I had already met a guymaybe not the right guy, but at least a right enough guy, so we got married and started the requisite family.
When I began to suspect that what was wrong with me was manic depression and learned that that disorder runs in families, a good number of things fell into place. I realized that in addition to the difficulties life had handed her, my mother must have been dealing with this debilitating condition. I felt great sympathy for my grandmother's inability to face such a dismal future. I could see that my uncle's alcoholism masked his depression. I realized that my aunt's compulsive eating was her way of dealing with her depression. We were a depression "stream" going back as far as anyone could remember. When I looked at the various ways in which my family had chosen to handle our "problem," I decided that my grandmother had had the best idea.
* * *
As I lay in that hospital bed, it occurred to me that although I had put a lot of effort into doing what I was supposed to do, what I had never tried to do was be happy. I had worked so very hard to do the things that people implied would lead to happiness, but I had never been happy. I had been angry, guilty, sad, confused, and overwhelmedbut never happy. I decided to see if I could be.
I wanted to know two things: how other people handled this "rocketing around on a clod of dirt" situation, and how people managed to be happy in spite of the uncertainty of life. I thought that the world of philosophy would be a good place to begin.
I read philosophy from the Greeks to the present, and I found a lot of interesting ideas and pertinent questions. But it was clear that ultimately they were in the same boat with me: They did not know how things worked, and they did not seem all that happy with what they supposedly did know. I phrase it in that way because it was obvious to me that there was an awful lot of speculation passing for knowledge.
My next stop was the world of religion. Having been raised without any religious background, religion had always fascinated me. In my early teens, I badgered friends to take me along to the churches their parents made them attend. Only one of my friends was sincere about her religion and went to church by choice. I was intrigued by that, and I admired the way she lived from her beliefs. I wished I could be that way but knew I could not make myself believe, no matter how hard I tried. I was deeply disappointed, because I wanted to believe.
Soon I left Western religion behind and went looking toward the East. My first stop was India and the aphorisms of Patanjali. Wonderful, but nothing I was moved to pursue. With the Sufis, while I loved the poetry and could sense the wisdom, I didn't feel inclined to go deeper.
Buddhism seemed the strangest of allalthough the story of the Buddha did sound a lot like the story of Jesus, just without the "Son of God" aspect. Again, parts of it were attractive, but I couldn't imagine believing it.
A little book by D. T. Suzuki introduced me to Zen. I had read references to this practice and had a sense of its mystery, but I had never encountered it directly. When I picked up that book and read the first paragraph, my breath quickened. As I began the second paragraph, I realized that I had stopped breathing; I was holding my breath. My heart was beating fastI was excited, thrilled, high. I raced on, my hands trembling. Never had I experienced anything like it. It dawned on me that I had no idea what the author was talking about! But I knew he knew what he was talking about, and I knew he knew what I wanted to know. Yes! That was what I'd been looking for!
Butnow what? How to proceed? Would I need to go to Japan?
As it turned out, in that wonderfully weird way of life at some points, there was a Zen monastery less than 25 miles from where I lived. In the early 1970s, when there were only a handful of Zen monasteries in the country, and only a few books on the subject in English, how could there be a Zen monastery a few miles up the road from the podunk village where I was living? I have always filed that remarkable circumstance under "Blessings abound."
From the moment I walked onto like monastery property and met the Zen master who became my teacher, I never wanted to do anything with my life except practice awareness. The practice of awareness has changed my life, put an end to my sufferingand has brought me the happiness I sought.
* * *
My passion for Zen, for awareness, has only grown over the years. I owe my life to this practice, and my life is dedicated to assisting anyone who chooses to practice for themselves the process of awakening and putting an end to suffering.
In this book, I have attempted to present the necessary steps in that process, as well as articulate the attitude of mind required for the journey. I will describe significant junctures in my own journey, the points at which these various steps became available to me. I will also share with you stories of others who have followed this path and have managed to extricate themselves from the ignorance and delusion that had kept them in the bondage of suffering.
I invite you to join me on this journey. If you follow the process outlined here, I can promise you this: It will work. My start in life was as inauspicious as that of anyone who will be attempting the journey, and if I can reach a place of freedom, anyone can. People meet me today and think that life has always been easy for me. They assume that I didn't have to go through the kinds of life problems they face. No matter how often I tell them that I have, indeed, "been there," all they can see is the person I am today. I assure you I have taken each painful, terrifying step along this path to reach the place where I am now, and I have great confidence that if I am graced with more years on this planet, I will have the opportunity to take many more such steps.
Life is a process. If we learn to enjoy the process, life is an enjoyable journey. If we remain in ignorance and delusion, life is filled with suffering. There is nothing to fear in awareness. Awareness only makes life better.
And here is the greatest secret I can offer you: If you go through life with someone who loves you, who sympathizes with you, and who has compassion for your struggles, life will be a joy-filled, exciting adventure. We each have within us what it takes to be the wise, compassionate, loving presence we have wished and longed for. The Buddha said, "You must work out your own salvation diligently." We each need to be saved, and we each are that which can save us. This is not something to wish for, to hope for, or even to believe in. This is an actual moment-by-moment experience that is available to all of us. More than that: It is our birthright.
So, with this book, I offer to others the basic elements in the awareness practice that has so profoundly changed my life. I invite you to take an active role in the process of developing a deeper, clearer awareness of how you operate in lifeand how to go beyond what prevents you from having and being what you want.
Wanting to Change
If you are like most people, you have decided to read this book because you want to change. There is something different you want to do or have or be or get.
We are socially engineered creatures, and trying to be different is what we do. We want to be thinner, fitter, richer, more generous, less anxious; we want to work less, complete projects, learn new skills, feel more excitement, forgive the past, let go of a habit, have more enthusiasm, feel loved, be more loving, be more energetic, be content, be in love, be happy, enjoy life morefill in whatever it is that you want to change about your life. Attempting to gain control of ourselves, our lives, and even the lives of others is a human obsession. Of course it's not an accident that we're obsessed with change and control. As children, we learned early and often that how we are, as we are, is not okay. We are subjected to social engineering in the form of conditioning, because as we were when we arrived, we were not acceptable to society.
My image for our struggle to see ourselves clearly, to recognize who we are and what we have been taught, to let go of the erroneous and extraneous, and learn to accept ourselves, is "socks in a washer." All those socks are so intertwined, going every which way, that they're impossible to sort out. If you want any clarity on those socks, you need to separate them, pull them away from one another, and lay them out. As soon as you do so, you can see which is which and what goes with what. The same is true for the tangled ball of conditioned beliefs, assumptions, aspects of the personality, and unexamined projections that each of us has learned to call "I."
We tend to be spectators more than participants. Sports, movies, television, and Internet surfing encourage us to sit back, relax, and be entertained. The process of bringing conscious, compassionate awareness to a socially conditioned life, however, definitely requires active audience participation. A strictly intellectual understanding of the process of life is as meaningful as an intellectual understanding of flying or parenting. If you want to take full advantage of the impulse that caused you to pick this book up, I strongly encourage you to do all the work as suggested.
* * *
In addition to teaching this process in workshops, meditation retreats, and at our Zen Monastery Practice Center, recently I also offered the opportunity for a large number of people to participate in two daily e-mail workshops, one ten months in duration, the other two months. These workshops were "interactive" in a low-tech sort of waythat is, people would read what was e-mailed to them each day, respond if they wished, and some of those responses would be made available for the other participants. Many of the personal accounts included in this book are from those workshops, along with questions, observations, and stories from other students I have worked with (all names have been changed). I hope their words, as well as mine, will encourage you to question, observe, and respond for yourself as a way of making this practice your own.
Language for the Journey
As with any foray into foreign territory, it can be helpful to learn the language of the natives. In this practice, you will encounter terms and phrasing that differ from customary patterns of expression. We intentionally use language in these ways to make certain points. At first it can sound like jargon, but I ask you to keep this in mind: We are searching for words that will communicate that which is outside our normal way of perceiving. If we use the same old words, we are stuck with the same old meanings, and that leaves us in the same old places. To draw our attention to a new and different perception, we use words that help catapult us out of the habitual world of everyday reality and into the fresh, awake, aliveness of the present moment.
Conditioning: The internal programming by which an individual is turned into a person who will fit into a given culture. The conditioning process is initiated (usually unconsciously) by a child's primary caregivers, and continued and supported by family members, institutions, and society at large.
Conditioning is complete when a person knows what to think, how to feel, what to do, how to actand is unlikely to question that knowledge.
A conditioned response to disapproval is to assume one is at fault.
Egocentricity (or ego): Literally, "I" as the center; the sense of a separate self resulting from the process of social conditioning; the subjective "I" that is in relation to the "objective" universe (the question of objectivity is addressed in the text).
Egocentricity perpetuates the belief that one's survival must be assured, no matter what the cost to others.
Fear always arises from egocentricity.
Egocentric is often used to modify conditioning.
Egocentric conditioning produces the feeling that "I" is alone.
(In the way we use language here, saying "'I' is ..." is a way of indicating that the "I" is an illusory viewpoint rather than the center of the universe that it believes itself to be.)
Suffering: The experience of being caught in the illusory world of separateness. Suffering can range from mild discomfort to abject misery; sometimes it is defined as dissatisfaction, in the broadest sense.
After practicing meditation for several months, Tom
realized that even when things seemed to be going well,
he experienced a constant if subtle level of suffering.
This practice enables us to free ourselves from the world of suffering.
Subpersonality: An aspect of the illusory separate self, a persona, one of many such aspects that make up the personality. Subpersonalities are split off from the primary identity as a child encounters obstacles and is conditioned to deal with them in socially approved ways.
Johnny was afraid of the dark as a child, and as a result, he developed a superhero subpersonality who is afraid of nothing.
Through the day, we move through numerous subpersonalities, without necessarily being aware of how appropriate each one is to the actual situation we are in.
Center: The present moment, here and now; the experience of being fully with what is. When we are centered, there is a sense of ease, completeness, belonging, well-being, a larger perspective in which the illusion of separateness is dispelled.
When Bob and Sally stepped back from their roles as adversaries and into center, they could each see alternative solutions for their shared problem.
At center, there is nothing wrong.
Disidentification: The movement out of a subpersonality into center.
Disidentification involves taking a step back, seeing what part of our conditioning we are identified with, and choosing to be present instead.
While driving to work, Janet suddenly disidentified from the "good daughter" image and became aware of how much effort that role required.
Disidentification can also be the movement from one identity into another.
Rick is "just one of the guys" as long as happy hour lasts, then he goes home, disidentifies, and assumes the role of "Mr. Domestic."
Projection: Attributing to others qualities in oneself (usually qualities that are not recognized or are difficult to acknowledge).
A person whose conditioning includes intense concern about a given subjecttidiness, punctuality, looks, moneyis likely to project that other people make judgments based on the same degree of concern.
In awareness practice, it is important to become aware of one's projections.
Some of the terms you will find in this book are familiar from psychology. Our use of those terms is likely to be different, in subtle but profoundly important ways. I would encourage you to pay close attention to those differences rather than assuming that you already know the meaning of such words. If you encounter terms or usages that you do not understand, keep reading, with an eye on allowing yourself to discover the experience within that the words point to. This in itself is a most helpful approach as we undertake this journey into awareness.
People live in one of two worlds. The first of these is ordinary reality, which consists almost entirely of an idea of how things should be, based on an imaginary past and future. The second world is the present moment of oneness with everything that is.
The ordinary reality is illusory. It is created through the process we call egocentric conditioning, by which we come to experience ourselves as separate from everything else. Egocentric conditioning is all that stands between you and what you are seeking.
Most of us live most of our lives within the conditioned reality of egocentricity. That means that, at any given moment, we are suffering to some degree from a belief that life is not as it should be, that there is something wrong. From that sense arise fear, worry, insecurity, resentment, criticism of others, self-criticism, tension, boredom, indulgence, guilt, blame, shame, confusion, and all other forms of misery and dissatisfaction.
In rare moments, we are present, here and now, not identified with an egocentric, conditioned, illusory belief in a separate self, but experiencing the ease, well-being, sufficiency, openness, acceptance, expansiveness, compassion, and even joy of nonseparateness. Such experiences tend to be brief; through tiny gaps in the near-constant barrage of messages from egocentricity, we glimpse the world in which nothing is wrong.
The awareness practice presented in this book enables us to learn which of these realities we are inhabiting, and how to move from one to the other.
* * *
It is not possible to stop suffering from within the world of suffering. Imagine this: You walk from the light into a dark house, down a dark hall, into a room with no windows or other sources of light, and you stand in the middle of it, ranting and raving about the darkness, hating the dark and yourself for being in it, despairing that it will never be different, wondering what's wrong with you for being there, and trying to figure out what to do. That is a pretty good image of what it's like to live in egocentric conditioning. Now, picture walking out of that room, down the hall, out of the house, and into the light. That is a pretty good image of the freedom that comes with awareness practice. We can walk out of that dark room anytime we choose.
Leaving that room is the choice we must make if we wish to end sufferingand it is imperative that we realize that choice is available only in the light. That is why we meditate. (Actually, we meditate not so much to enable us to walk out of that room into the light, but so that we can learn to recognize that we are in the room and eventually not go unconscious and walk into that house in the first placebut such distinctions are down the road a bit.)
The process we will work with here is extraordinarily subtle. I am going to ask you to learn to question your every assumption, everything you think you know. Your "koan" (a spiritual riddle, in the Zen tradition, that cannot be answered intellectually) is "Do I know that?" When, through a burst of intuitive knowing, you have successfully answered that koan, the next one will be, "How do I know that?"
Through this process, we learn to approach every moment of life without assumption, to cultivate a completely fresh awareness. If I hear a voice in my head say, "I'm not an artist," rather than experiencing a reaction to that statement and assuming that the reaction means the statement is truebecause the voice has always said that and I have always believed itI am going to question that voice. I will ask myself questions designed to enable me to examine the situation more carefully. "Is that true? How do I know that's true? What if it's not true? What does it mean if it is true? What would it mean if it weren't true? How did I get this information? Who is defining the terms? Who is setting the standards? How can I test this?"
The mind that asks these questions is open, inquiring, curious, alive, and free. Our purpose here is to bring conscious awareness to our moment-by-moment experience in order to see through and beyond the ways in which we have been conditioned, and to step free of what it is that causes us to suffer.
An Issue to Work With
Let's begin by selecting something you want to change in your life. Think of a problem you're currently having, a way in which you wish you were different, a circumstance that you can't seem to get out of, a behavior that is not leading you where you want to go, an orientation to life that is getting in your way, or something you've been trying to let go of but just can't seem to turn loose. What you're looking for is a quality or a behavior or an attitude or a habit. Choose something that has been around for a good while, something you've been working on, something you're familiar with and continue to be dissatisfied about.
Give yourself as much time as you need to identify the issue. This will be an issue that you use to practice awareness with as you go through this book. Pick just one issue. You will be learning a process that you can apply to any situation, but focusing on a single small issue in these exercises will make it easier to grasp each step as you untangle the problem.
Go over the issue in your mind as thoroughly as you can. See yourself as you are when you are in the throes of this situation. Take your time. It would be most helpful if you write down an overview of the problem or verbalize it into a tape recorder.
Personal Survey on Change
When you have completed your overview, carefully and thoroughly answer these questions:
What would you like to do or have or be or get that is different? (In other words, what is the problem? What exactly would you like to change?)
What makes this a problem? Is it that you don't like it, or that others don't like it? How do you know it is a problem?
How long has this been an issue in your life?
Is there anyone else involved?
What have you done about this issue in the past?
How has what you have done affected the problem? What has worked? What has not worked?
What would it mean for you to change this? How would you be different? How would your life be different? How would you/your life be better? Worse?
What stops you from having what you want?
Before going any further, I want to ask you to turn your attention to a subtle but crucially important point. When answering questions like these, it is very likely that your conditioning will immediately come into playin ways that will prevent you from gaining anything from the exercise and keep you from making any changes.
First of all, conditioning may manifest as resistance. If you find yourself suddenly realizing that you have more important things to do than this exercise, or thinking that this is silly and probably won't work, or discovering that the issue you chose to work with really is not a problem after all, you just might want to consider that those are common forms of unconscious resistance to change.
Conditioning also manifests in less obvious ways. For instance, let's say I realize that I said something insensitive to a friend. Simply appreciating that insight will enable me to bring clearer awareness to future interactions with my friend, and thus, be more sensitive in that relationship. But my conditioning may be to respond to that insight with something such as, "See what kind of person you are? You are cruel and hateful. You'd better watch out or you won't have any friends at all." The implication is that without conditioning to monitor, control, and punish my behavior, I will be a horrible person. In fact, it can be argued that conditioning is doing everything it can to prevent the insights that would free me from the conditioned survival responses that are causing (in this case) my insensitive behavior.
Becoming aware of how conditioning blocks change is so important that, at the risk of sounding repetitious, I am going to draw it to your attention at the end of each personal survey.
Remember: You are seeking greater awareness about this issue in order to better see the ways in which you have been conditioned. Your conditioning is not the same as your true self. Be careful not to allow your conditioning to use your awareness against you.
While doing this work, you will learn to see where you are, where you want to go, what you need to do to get from point to point, and most important of all, what stops you.
Now, I recognize that a lot of people don't want to do the work involved in learning these things. It's much more appealing to read a book, get some information, and congratulate yourself on your intellectual understanding. However, as most of us know from long experience, reading books does not change how we operate, and acquiring information does not develop a skill. You cannot learn ballet dancing from a book. You cannot learn to sing from a book. You cannot learn to swim from a book. You can fit information about those things into your conditioning, but until you actually begin practicing those pliés and singing those scales and swimming those strokes, you will have learned nothing truly new.
Only the moment-by-moment awareness practice that enables you to see through your social conditioning will allow you to be where you want to be. I will walk you through the process, and you can practice the various steps.
This is not an intellectual process. If you read the book but don't do the steps, nothing will happen for you. Then, awareness practice will be filed under "One more thing that doesn't work," and you will fail to notice that you never actually did it.
Keep in mind that everything is part of the process. As long as you don't quit, you are still participating. In fact, it can be argued that quitting can be part of the process, another step to explore, a detour rather than an end. One of my books is titled How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everythingwhich is true. If you really want to know how you are you, simply pay attention to everything, believe nothing, and don't take anything personally. Everything is a clue. Every resistance, every little bit of miserable conditioning, every cry of helpless victimization brings you a gift of clarity, wisdom, and compassion. Don't miss any of it.
Are you ready to begin?
Seeing into the Issue
To demonstrate how this process works, each chapter will provide questions for you to consider with respect to the issue you have chosen. The sample issue we will use is wanting to work for myself and not doing it. Substitute your own issue, and let's begin our exploration.
I want to [work for myself].
Working for myself feels like an important goal, but I never seem to make much progress in realizing it. When I mention it, people offer reasonable, concrete, even exciting suggestions for how I can make it happen. I need to have clear goals, they tell me. I need to be sure that this is an authentic ambition. I need to find support. I need to have a mentor. I need to be disciplined. I need to take certain steps each day. All these are excellent ideas for solving my problem. I can see exactly what I need to do to achieve my goal of working for myself.
But my immediate problem is this: I don't do those things. I don't act on the good advice of my friends. Day after day goes by without my taking any of the steps that I know I need to take in order to work for myself. I have made resolutions, called myself names, punished myselfand nothing changes. I feel completely frustrated, a failure. What can I do?
Often the answer to that question is, "Try harder. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." But when you've tried and tried and tried, done everything you know how to do over and over, and still gotten nowhere, the thought of trying yet again just leaves you demoralized.
I would like to suggest looking in a completely different direction. Meanwhile, here are some questions for your consideration:
Do you think you are the only person with this kind of difficulty?
Have you ever known or heard of anyone who had an issue they could not seem to resolve? Is your problem worse than theirs?
If you had a friend in this situation, what would you advise?
The next chapter is about going into, through, and beyond what stands between us and what we want.