Contemplations on Death

images-1When I returned from retreat in Nicaragua back in February, I wrote a blog post about my experience in retreat, and in that post I mentioned the Buddhist practice of the “three death contemplations.” Since that post, several people have written asking about “the three death contemplations,” so I thought I’d elaborate upon them a bit.

As we know, many spiritual traditions place a good deal of attention on death as a point of contemplation, as a pathway to living more fully. The Christian Bible says “Anyone who wants to save his life must lose it. Anyone who loses her life will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Most traditions of Buddhism speak of dying to the false self and taking refuge in our essential self. Meditation is often used as a practice in dying. Kathleen Dowling Singh calls this form of meditation a way to “relieve ourselves of all of our mistaken identifications, loosening our attachments to them, letting them go.” And in some sects of Hinduism, monks sit in the presence of bodies being cremated on platforms—a practice of becoming profoundly intimate with dying.

All of these practices are designed to teach us not to recoil from death, but to use it as a reminder of how we want to live in this moment. The traditional Buddhist practice of the “three death contemplations” poses three questions we can (and should) use every day to bring alertness and awareness into our lives.

1) Is death inevitable?

2) When will death come?

3) What will be meaningful to me when death does come?

I think it’s obvious that we move through the first two questions fairly quickly. Of course death is inevitable. And of course we never know when death will come. (Even though most of us act as if such an inevitability is way off in the future.) We have a keen array of defenses surrounding our fragility and mortality.

The third question, though, is disturbingly provocative, and not so easily addressed. And as it is phrased by Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, it instills a high degree of urgency: What is most important now? We have to ask this question (over and over) while we still have the capacity to thoughtfully make decisions and choices.

So here’s a common Buddhist teaching designed to help us address this last question without becoming overwhelmed by its enormity.

First, ask yourself, What do I care about above all else? Make a list of those things.

Next, ask yourself, What exactly am I giving priority to in practice in my daily life? Make another list. Be honest about the ways you spend your time, your money, and your energy.

If you find a striking mismatch between these two lists, you are not alone, and your work is cut out for you. If you find that the two lists look pretty much the same, you are well into sainthood.

Now you’re in a position to decide how to adjust your practices or your lifestyle or the company you keep so that these two lists align. What needs to change to allow you to live the life you say you want to live, and be committed to the ideas you say you want to be committed to?

No judgment allowed in this exercise. No denigrating yourself or others. Simply use the exercise to learn how your aspirations and your habits are aligned. Each day, we get to choose what we do and what we say and what we think. And if we do that daily, with care, devotion, and compassion, our final death contemplation will be much, much easier. It will be simply another practice.



There’s Never a Right Time

images-1If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that one of my favorite podcasts comes from Tim Ferriss, curator of all things high performance. He interviews “high performing” people from a huge range of disciplines: sports, the arts, business, the sciences, health and wellness, athletics. His interviews are in depth—sometimes running 2 hours, and sometimes suffering because of his insatiable desire to apply his guests’ knowledge to his own life. But he is charming, curious, and very intelligent.

There is a gap in his interests, though; he seems to have virtually no interest in literature or metaphysics (two of my favorite topics), and he very rarely ventures into areas of psychology, and then very cautiously. Still. . . I’m a huge fan.

This week Ferriss posted a really wonderful Q&A with graphic designer and artist Debbie Millman, who he interviewed several months ago. That interview turns out to be one of his most popular podcasts ever, so he brought her back to answer listeners’ questions. If you are at all interested in the creative process, this 45 minute Q&A is worth your time.

Here is one of the highlights for me:

“No amount of money, no amount of security is ever going to give you the sense that this is the right time.”

I so want to encourage myself and my clients to hold on to this idea.  If we keep waiting for “the right time” to do something, we might be waiting our whole lives. Is it ever the perfect time to have a baby? go back to school? buy that house you love? take that risk you’re considering? ask that fascinating person you met last week to dinner?

We can come up with a million GOOD reasons to postpone action, can’t we?

But here’s what I’ve learned.  It’s important to know that feeling nervous or uncomfortable about a bold move we’re about to make is entirely natural.  Our job as creatives is to learn to allow our prefrontal cortex to over-ride this message that comes from the fear center of our brain (the amygdala), whose only task is to keep us right where we are, for our own safety.

But there comes a time when we must move out of what is familiar and into bold, new territory. And feeling a little uneasy about doing this is ENTIRELY NATURAL. (first italics, and now all CAPS—must be important) In fact, such discomfort might better be taken as good evidence that you’re moving forward in your life.

This applies to having that uncomfortable talk you need to have with someone, to speaking your truth, to starting a new business, to quitting a debilitating job, to moving to a new house or town.  All change will engender some degree of unease.  Sometimes, we can use this unease as a guide to a new place of flourishing.

How long are you willing to keep waiting to have the life you keep pretending you want to have?




Breaking the Grip of Self-Sabotage

images-1In last week’s post, I was ruminating on JB Spears’ advice to scare ourselves in order to really live. (See his interview with Dave Aspry.) I want to continue this week by sharing his thoughts on self-sabotage. This is a topic I think about a lot, largely because I’m pretty much a master of self-sabotage.

Let’s just take today, a day supposedly devoted to putting a post on my blog. I got up early to begin the task. It is now 1:00 p.m. and I’m just now sitting down to write. In the last 5 hours, I’ve cooked a delicious, large breakfast; run two errands (neither of which was critical); organized stuff for a garage sale this Saturday (it’s 5 days away!); washed two loads of laundry; emptied the dishwasher (the glasses were still warm); paid some bills and even decorated the envelope of a check I am sending to my assistant. I’ve planned smoothie flavors for the week; reorganized my linen closet; and called Caladium World and placed an ordered 40 Miss Muffitt caladium bulbs.

Ya think I’m avoiding something??

In the work I’ve been doing with accountability groups over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of creatives using masterful avoidance tactics that come dangerously close to being a form of self-sabotage. So what is this all about?? Why do we do this??

According to Sears, “self-sabotage is typically a symptom of unresolved emotional pain and/or disempowering beliefs of ourselves.” Just what I was afraid of. In some cases, though, I think he’s right: when we find reasoning, excuses, or drama that take us away from the deep work we want to do, or the creative project we want to bring into the world, we may actually be avoiding  patterns of depression, sadness, anger, disconnection, or behaviors of unworthiness.   Spears suggests that self-sabotage is an “expression that validates a disempowering belief of self or a pain of self.”

And in fact, this is consistent with a lot of situations I’ve seen with clients who suffer from two conflicting beliefs. On the one hand, they desire to express themselves in some creative form; on the other hand, they hold a belief that they are not capable of doing it. And there they remain until clarity arrives about the nature of the hidden and self-sabotaging belief.

Are we doomed to stay locked in the grip of these two opposing beliefs? No, says Spears. And he offers a helpful line of questioning that can disarm self-sabotaging beliefs.

The first is simply, “Okay, what do you do?” In other words, recognize and then catch yourself in the very acts that allow you to avoid doing the thing you seemingly want to do but don’t do. When I start re-arranging the paint cans out in the garage, I’m pretty sure I’m avoiding doing something that scares the heck out of me. I am actually making fun of myself here, calling myself out, and labeling the exact actions (avoidance tactics) that I was pretending were so important to do.

Question two, Spears says, is “Why do you do what you do?” This can be tricky to figure out—and for some of us takes decades of therapy— but most of the time, if we get really still and really open, we can find the honesty to see our behavior as actually serving us in some way, and that’s why we do it! The behavior actually serves us by keeping at bay a fear we will have to face if we are successful in our intention.   In Field Training, this is called counter-intending. We say we want to write a book, but in actually we are afraid of all of the attention we’ll get if the book is a raging success, and so we self-sabotage the completing of the manuscript. Philosopher Philip Golabuck, founder and former director of the Field Project, offers a helpful question at this point in the process: “What bad thing happens if I actually achieve the goal I’m after?” There’s almost always an answer to this paradoxical question. And the answer to that question is the reason we are self-sabotaging.

So then, question three is “How does part of me benefit by doing this?” Spears says it is very important to get to the “story under the story of our self-sabotage, get beyond the symptoms to the root of why we do what we do.”   Early on in our lives, we might have constructed a story about who we are and we continue to carry it around, even after we’ve outgrown the story. These stories can keep us locked in unconscious reactions that are ultimately destructive to us, and that keep us in patterns of self-sabotage.

Hmmm. This might be too much psychology for you. I get it. But still, whether you analyze it or not, we’re left with the need to drop self-sabotaging behavior. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series on fear & sabotage to learn some helpful ways to release the grip of a counter-intention.

In the meantime, I hope you find Spears’ three questions helpful as you address any version of self-sabotage you may be experiencing.

Until next week. . . I’ll be out in the garage, organizing the paint cans by color and size.