Notes: Giving Up the False Refuges

I'm tired of taking refuge in all that is false. I'm tired of taking refuge outside of myself.

I pray may this finally become a truth I hold with the deepest clarity: there’s no reliable refuge in this material world of ours nor in all the experiences we chase after with glee.

In drugs, sex, partners, friends, work, money, homes, rock-n-roll, the internet, pluses, likes, tweets or anything else. Even this planet will burn up in a fiery ball. All experiences are as fickle and changeable as the wind. And the material isn't nearly as solid as you may think.

Thoughts and emotions are even worse! They seem so real and alluring, but will lead to nothing but trouble if you don’t let them pass right by. Thoughts and emotions are a big waste of time; better to rest in the essence of mind. Avoid harm, do good, and tame this mind of ours.

Instead of running for refuge from all one's twisted beliefs and stormy emotion, let them rise up and let them dissolve. It’s all just like a film. Momentarily so vivid and real. Till the lights turn up in the movie theater.

When death comes knocking - it could happen at any time - all that has happened will seem no more than a vague dream. Can you even remember what happened just a few hours ago?

This was a thought-provoking and powerful passage from Sandra Pawula's latest letter (subscription required).

Mindfulness Experiments: Discovering the Blanket

I've been exploring mindfulness for the past few weeks and with that I've been making a conscious effort to fully recognize when I'm not present. When I notice that I'm not 'here', I remove myself from whatever is pulling me away from that moment.

A few days ago I noticed that I had become not present after sitting in front of the computer for three hours. To break up what would've been an all-day session, I spontaneously went for a walk in the local state forest.

It's mid-winter here in the northeast Untied States and I was greeted by a thin coat of fresh snow blanketing the forest floor. With a bitter cold breeze blowing at my face and a bird chirping somewhere in the distance, I looked around and noticed something unexpected: I still wasn't present.

As conducive as the forest was to mindfulness, simply being in the forest didn't make me feel present and mindful. 

Then I noticed something else: the cold wasn't the only thing wrapping around me; there was something resisting my desire to fully experience the present. I tried to consciously release it, but it maintained its grip.

After about an hour of walking and releasing thoughts as they arose, I began to feel something else strange. I felt myself 'gaining ground' on the present, somehow 'catching up' to it. 

It was as though the stickiness of modern life was slowly melting away.

What had created this resistance? What had created this strange phenomena?

Was it possible the externalization necessary to interact with people and information in a non-physical space like the Internet had actually pulled me away from the present moment to such a degree that it created a false sense of awareness?

When I began walking in the forest, I thought it would take perhaps a few minutes to feel mindful and present again. It was cold and I hadn't planned on spending much time walking.

It took almost two hours before I began to feel mindful and present. (I spontaneously recorded a short video towards the end of my walk.)

I do not believe in the elimination of technology to solve problems that we ourselves create by misusing technology. (Just as a gun doesn't kill people, technology doesn't make people unmindful; we do that to ourselves.)

Taking a one-month digital sabbatical would only put a bandaid on the problem. I would rather learn how to create harmony in my life by experimenting with new ways of living and interacting with technology.

To begin, I sought out the greatest sources of distraction in my life by asking myself two questions throughout the day:

Where am I and what am I doing?

Is this activity pulling me away from the present moment or returning me to it?

What I learned surprised me: the greatest source of regular distraction from present-minded awareness in my life came from activities related to email.

I spend a lot of time working online and a large amount of my communication with others happens through email. That said, my email is quite manageable. I have a system in place that keeps things organized.

Despite receiving more than a hundred emails a day and writing dozens of replies, I don't feel overwhelmed. Why then, was my email the greatest source of distraction from the present moment?

The answer, I determined, could be found in my relationship to email and in the way that I gave it my attention.

Normally, I would check for new email dozens of times a day and immediately reply to any messages that would take less than two minutes of my time.

I would also check email on my phone dozens of times a day, sometimes replying but usually just scanning their contents and allowing myself to reply later from the computer. (What a waste of time... always reading emails twice!)

What was so important that I needed to check for new email dozens of times a day and read the same email multiple times? What would happen to my daily mindfulness if I reduced that to checking email once a day and reading every email just one time?

Testing a Proactive and Conservative Approach to Email

Here's how I'm going to start experimenting with mindful email:

- I will read and reply to email only once a day, preferably towards the evening so that my vitality and creative energy are available to my other, more present activities like creating, learning, and reflecting. I will not enter the inbox until I'm ready to actually focus on the activity of reading and replying to emails.

- I will keep my email responses short and to the point; I will resist any urge to go into depth in a single email and instead choose depth over time by asking better questions and conversing across multiple replies. The goal isn't to be laconic, but rather pithy and succinct.

- I will use my phone to scan for emergency business-related emails, but I will never open the emails on my phone; I will only use the phone to scan email subjects.

The intention here is to be more deliberate with how I use email as a form of communication, to be proactive and instead of reactive to inbound requests for my attention.

In the few hours since I began this experiment, I've become aware of just how habitual checking email has really become. Any time my focus wandered while writing this Journal, I found myself with the urge to check my inbox or browse a social media site. 

To reshape those habitual patterns, I've started turning my focus away from the computer or simply get up and walk away from my computer for a few minutes.

These mindfulness experiments are not about disconnecting more; I'm not trying to remove myself from technology or go on a 'digital sabbatical'. The goal here is to spend more time connected to the present while simultaneously using the tools provided by technology to grow and live better.

This Moment

Close encounters with death are the ultimate reminder that each day, each breath, is indeed a gift, a precious privilege that we must respect and protect, a reminder that each moment is an opportunity to express the qualities we are worthy and responsible for living, qualities of courage, curiosity, compassion, kindness, and creativity; qualities of strength, intelligence, peace, love, and humility.

This isn't an opportunity we can waste. It's not something we can put aside until we have more time. We must use this moment to live with zest, with vigor, and with veracious valor. We must use this moment to express what it means to be a living breathing human being. We must use this moment to live fearlessly responsible for life because the next reminder we get may not leave us with another moment.

Slowing Down for Suffering

Photo: Death Valley, California

His frail body was draped in a black coat, hung from bones that outlined his figure. He stepped off the grass and onto the pavement, blocking my path and turning to look at me with recessed eyes that spoke of suffering, desperation, and loneliness. As the car rolled forward, he turned and began limping down the road, still blocking my path but glancing back every time he tripped on his leash.

What could I do? Should I stop and give him some company, perhaps remove his leash so he wouldn't struggle so much? No, that would be risky; he might be sick. Should I call animal control so they can take him away and give him food and a place to sleep? No, he'll probably just end up on a table being put to sleep permanently.

I waited for him to step back onto the grass and then watched as he limped down a hill. As I drove away he lapped water from a soggy patch of grass in the rearview mirror. Then he looked up and stood motionless, holding his head high as if confident that he'd somehow find a way to survive.

What should I have done? Was I being cruel and cold-hearted by leaving him there? Did I make the right choice by doing nothing? He was an animal, but I still felt pity for him; why didn't I do anything? Why did I let him suffer?

Those thoughts reminded me of the suffering I witnessed while traveling through India last year, the endless dichotomy of slums and skyscrapers side by side. It made me think of the wealth and prosperity of the country I'm currently living in and how a handful of the worlds population hoards what others need for basic survival.

Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of oncoming cars stopped in the road. Sitting at the curb and facing the traffic was an old lady in a motorized scooter trying to get across.

The cars in front of me whizzed by one by one, ignoring her situation and leaving the 'problem' for someone else to deal with. Just as I did for the dog a few moments earlier, I slowed down. I held the traffic behind me and watched as she smiled, waved, and crossed to the other side.

That's when I realized something: If we don't slow down, we risk contributing to suffering.

It's easy to witness suffering and avert our eyes. It's easy to see a problem and leave it for someone else to deal with. It's even easy to allow ourselves to suffer, to let the busyness of life numb the pain inside while we redirect our discomfort into the outside world.

Life moves fast. It's easy to let things get pulled forward by momentum. But slowing down requires deliberate action. Slowing down requires recognizing that there is something worth slowing down for, something worth making a conscious effort to notice and then attempt to change.

If we do nothing in the face of suffering -- if we don't even slow down -- then what happens to us? We build skyscrapers next to slums, we let the homeless sleep on the street, and we stuff our faces while children around the world die of hunger.

If we don't slow down, we even risk torturing ourselves, suffocating our passions and caging our dreams. Instead of being an inspiration to others, we spread our suffering around, pushing the brunt of our irresponsible decisions onto those around us.

Slowing down for the old lady took nothing out of my day, but it gave her so much. Slowing down for the dog took nothing out of my day, but it gave me insights that I'm now sharing with you (and perhaps my brief but empathic interaction even gave him a little confidence to move forward).

Slowing down to face my own suffering over the past few years has continuously improved my focus and direction. I'm here today sharing these thoughts with you because I made the conscious decision to slow down and address the internal pains that were preventing me from growing and evolving.

We need to stop deferring action to the passage of time. Suffering, whether our own or that of someone else, isn't necessary. We are not apathetic machines designed to live without emotion. We are conscious beings capable of making our own choices, capable of spontaneous evolution, selflessness, and empathy. Use your humanity. Slow down.


A whisper, “look!” In the flow, we go; traversing the land, not separate, but in sync, in silence. Step. Thought. Step. No thought. We exist, woven by time into the fabric of now. In fields of gold we lie, on a plateau, greeted by acrobats of the sky. An oasis, an adventure, a walk beside the mountain. In the breeze, between the trees, in the green valley caressed by the sea, we sit.

A whisper, “there!” Time frozen. Beauty, an earthly embrace shared not by two, but three! On a hair of grass, in the wind, motionless, a hummingbird floats. A heartbeat, its wings move like magic and we smile. In the moment, in the beauty of the present, there is no ‘other’, no separation, no tomorrow, only now, only ‘one’. Together.

Unexpected Evolution

Evolution doesn't happen when you want it to. Instead, it arrives unexpectedly, blindsiding you at the most challenging points in your life, or during halftime, when you're relaxed and life seems in perfect order, it creeps up from behind and whispers in your ear, "it's time."

Time to evolve. Time to drop what you know and reconsider everything. Time to grow. Time to become a wiser person than that of a few moments ago.

Don't look, but be ready. Don't cling when it arrives, but hop on and enjoy the ride. Learn from the new perspective. Embrace the moment of clarity. Swim in the stream of awareness. Capture and appreciate the opportunity to evolve.

Video: Always Live Mindful and Conscious

[Note to E-Mail and RSS readers: You may need to click through to the site to view the embedded video.]

Join me as I cook dinner and contemplate the need for always living mindful and conscious. The book mentioned in the video is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (aff). It's a fantastic book and if you haven't read it, I really recommend you pick up a copy.

Living mindful and conscious is a choice that you can make at any moment, even this moment right now. It's not magic and it's not something you need to have special powers to do. Try it right now. Become aware of how you're sitting, your posture; how your neck feels; relax your jaw and mouth; take a deep breath and collect yourself.

It doesn't take a few hours, or even a few minutes. This takes a few seconds. No matter how busy you are, you do have time to do this exercise. And by doing it, you're going to improve your entire day. Or at the very least, this moment.