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New Year's Eve Message (12/31/16)

It is deeply instilled by evolution into the wiring of the brain, not to mention embedded in all our cultural institutions, that we should seek security and meaning by producing, achieving, and accumulating. The ethos in a nutshell is ‘work and shop until you drop,’ an approach to living that lands us in what has been referred to as the rat race, the hedonic treadmill, the daily grind, the drudgery, survival of the fittest, the battle of life. Given the nature of these summaries is it any surprise that the Buddha noted in his first noble truth that life, as it’s commonly lived, is often stressful?
We’re set up to be enthralled by the rich neural rewards of the cheesy slices of pizza, yet we seldom recall the gastric discomforts that may well follow; we may feel magnetically drawn into the Apple store, hypnotized by the array of beautiful, thin and light gizmos, but the possibility of buyer’s remorse rarely comes to mind. A pair of jeans might look perfect in the store mirror, but back at home similar pairs have been relegated to the darkest niches of the closet.
There are many reasons that peace of mind and security cannot be purchased:
First off, the brain tends to prefer and reward novelty, which means we can habituate to just about anything: Louis CK has a well known routine about people on commercial flights complaining when the WiFi drops out, which means they are taking for granted the experience of hurtling 500 miles per hour, 30k feet above the earth in tin cans; crossing continents in a matter of a few hours. This is the sad truth of goods, objects, services and progress: Nothing enlivens us for very long.
Secondly, the jolt of dopamine that underlies the bulk of our thrills, security and perks is fleeting. Whether it arises from an intriguing Tinder match, a popular post on facebook, a step up in one’s career or the perfect pair of shoes found on clearance sales, dopamine makes us feel invulnerable and brilliant, but only for 20 minutes or so before the rust wears off and we’re back to neurotically trudging through the routines and responsibilities of daily life, seeking more rewards.
Thirdly, the compulsion to achieve and acquire is invariably an attempt to bypass feelings of emotional distress; we are sold a delusion that, somewhere out there, in those glassy modernist towers that line the river, there are people living without ever experiencing old age, indigestion, love handles or spiritual malaise; the beautiful people live completely free of aches and pains. If we could only find the perfect job to buy a roomy condo in one of those buildings with spectacular river views, livingrooms with home theaters and surround sound speakers, closets crammed with fabulous clothes, oh the parties we’d throw, attracting the most interesting people, who would laugh at all our jokes and life would be just perfect.
In the reality that lies beneath the Matrix like fantasies promoted by marketing and advertising boil down to a Sisyphean travail, where  day in and out happiness is pushed a little further down the line, just out of our reach, while this very moment—the present, which is the only time we’ll ever be able to achieve peace of mind—is portrayed as lacking.
When we accept the underlying ethos that we’re born incomplete and have to continually accomplish and achieve to be worthy of love and happiness, then we are condemned to striving and surviving, not thriving. Life becomes a matter of getting through this moment, then another moment, hoping that some time in the distant future a suitable moment will occur when we can really relax and enjoy life. It’s akin to a highway where signs might promise that a rest stop is always a little further down the road; we only get to stop when we run out of gas.
Perhaps, once alienated from consumerism, we may try to locate alternative sources of happiness by accumulating it through other means. For example, we may try to amass wisdom via self-help books, or the flood of advice found on the internet, propelled by the belief that profound spiritual insights can attained in wise sounding thoughts. But filling the mind with ideas is often just another form of consumerism. No matter how many books we read, real wisdom is the result sustained inquiry, kindness, generosity, gratitude, meditation, self-care; peace of mind is not hidden in obscure ideas, it is produced through years of practice.
Another existential dead end is the hope that lasting satisfaction can be found in filling one’s days with an endless array of exciting experiences. Yes, visiting remote religious shrines in India, taking ayuasca with ecuadorian shamans or  dancing away the nights at Burning Man amidst beatifically smiling yogis may provide cool states of consciousness and notable sensory events, but if it disappears when you return home, if its not available unconditionally, then it’s not the answer. Journeying after new experiences can be enriching, but we’re in for a big letdown if this is where I’m hoping serenity is lurking. The answer to life’s ingrained anxieties and insecurities must be unconditionally available, no matter when, where, wealthy or strapped for cash.
Eventually, if we’re lucky, we experience a profound disappointment in life the way its commonly lived, in trying to acquire peace of mind or security; this discouragement (nibbida) is actually magnificent, for it is the fuel of spiritual practice. Given all the aforementioned dead ends, we are fortunate that some 2,500 years ago the Buddha located three sources of security and peace of mind, each of which we can rely on in any situation to provide comfort and direction.
The key lies in understanding that meaningful change begins when we learn to investigate experience, rather than simply trying to change it. Rather than trying to control others, we understand and connect with them; rather than repressing anger or fear, we endearvor to hold, nurture and heal our emotional wounds.

1. Taking Refuge in Spiritual Practice
If we abandon the shopping carts in the aisles and remove ourselves from the race of the bargain hunters, we can contemplate being in and of itself, becoming aware of what is left with when we put aside the delusions that true peace isn’t available right here and now, or that we’re something missing important, or that we need to be fixed or solved. We are not broken, so let’s liberate ourselves from the regime of self-improvement in favor of opening those vast wonders already available within our rich inner landscape. Being alive is an amazing experience, filled with interwoven processes of breathing and movements that are all too easy to overlook. In meditation we lie down not to sleep, nor walk to get anywhere; we lie down, sit, stand or walk simply to investigate those states for the depth, beauty and wisdom they contain. Having a humanbrain gives us more processing power than all the world’s computers combined; we have capabilities more astonishing than traveling the entire universe when I explore the inner resources of the mind.
Breathing in and of itself is astonishing if we observe it with enough persistence. Under close inspection, each inhalation and exhalation are different than those which came before or may come after. Despite having the pains and losses felt by all beings, we can actually learn to enjoy the ceaseless parade of perceptions, feelings, thoughts and moods, if we rest in a seat of non-reactive awareness. So we find refuge in the Buddha, whose name means nothing other than the state of being awake.

2. I Take Refuge in Spiritual Wisdom
Most of us, with the possible exception of diehard conservatives, understand that despite appearances, the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Yet many individuals, such as Galileo, suffered for politely suggesting that what appears natural and true isn’t necessarily valid at all.
• Glass is actually a liquid.
• The moon is never larger or smaller.
• Neither you nor I lie at the center of the known universe.
• Our thoughts do not lie at the epicenter of the mind, controlling all our actions, making all our choices. This is no more true than the belief that the universe revolves around the earth. Thoughts are actually the product of the brain’s slowest wiring; they arise well after impulses have appeared, in the briefest of intervals before we act out our unconscious compulsions. Thoughts can play one of two roles: they either put the breaks on harmful ideas before we act on them, or they go along for the ride, providing rationalizations and justifications for even the worst impulses. The more we’re lost in thought, the more likely it is we’ll blindly follow our ingrained habits.
To transcend our settings we need to discern which intentions are healthy and which causes suffering; it’s hard to become aware of our true motivations while we’re hypnotized by the constant inner chatter. [DFW quote?]
This is the role of the dharma, insights which are freely available and help us overcome our default, self-centered programming. The dharma encourages us to refrain from destroying life, taking what isn’t offered, harmful speech, intoxication that harms self or others, misconduct in one’s sex life. We will conclude tonight’s ceremony many of us will chant these intentions.

3. I Take Refuge in the Sangha
It should be noted that true refuge doesn’t come entirely from inner resources. Meaningful, secure, empathic connection to others is an absolute requisite for developing any regulation of our emotions, respite from our feelings of uniqueness and separation. In the reassuring glance of another spiritual practitioner, received as I disclose our most challenging urges and emotions, I locate a bond and care that heals even the deepest wounds inflicted when shamed, abandoned, rejected. As the buddha taught, “I do not see any quality by which the skillful arises and the unskillful subsides than friendship with admirable people… [From our teachers] I learn what is beautiful in the beginning, the middle and the end, surpassingly pure. The spiritual life is one of mutual dependence, for together we can cross over the flood of ignorance” by which he means the craving and influences that push us in the wrong direction. Connecting with others is the most challenging of the refuge, for it requires a risk even greater than sitting and observing the inner horror shows and ludicrous fantasies the mind can project. In opening our hearts to others, we risk once again being deserted and shunned, that which we fear the most. But there’s really no alternative; openness and honesty are the foundations of trust, and so resilience, even if its born of the desperation of loneliness, is key. We can develop this skill incrementally, taking calculated risks, that’s fine, but take the plunge, its worth it.

For the Purposes of Training I Take the Precepts
In entering the spiritual journey its not enough to commit ourselves to the destination, we have to ‘seal the deal’ as it were by renouncing actions that sabotage our pilgrimage, loading me down with the heavy baggage of guilt, shame and unworthiness. The refuges based on blind belief, they should not be mistaken for the commandments found in theistic spiritual paths. In our spiritual transformation we will make mistakes; after such errors there’s no role for self-judgment or self-punishment; the process is simply one of learning from mistakes and returning to practice with renewed conviction.  We’re on a journey that requires perseverance and forgiveness, of myself and others.
As the Buddha assures in the wonderful Kalammas sutta: “If there no life after this one, no rebirth, then, at the very least, by refraining from harmfulness in this life, I will live with ease, a mind clear of the agitation born of hostility, animosity, free from all the trouble such actions bring.” What a wonderful promise, ease and freedom, a state more comforting than anything purchased and consumed. It is, indeed, the only game in town.


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