Is altruism the way to happiness? Is giving the way to peace?
With a favorite poem to illume the holidays below, and link to our holiday sale for a stronger 2019
There’s an old saying: to be given everything, you must give everything up.* While it's inspiring, if living an ascetic life actually lead us to having it all, and set us free from all pain, and absolved all suffering, wouldn't we all aspire to austerity? Wouldn't we yearn for less?
If the only way to have it all–to have everything–meant giving it all up was actually true, why would we ever feel a sense of lack? Or of longing? Or of need?
But then, at the same time, why does it feel so great to give? Why does it feel so good when we're kind? And why do we feel a powerful tinge of something bigger than ourselves when we see Scrooge transform into a kindly, giving soul on the big screen, much less the boundless happiness we feel when we see random acts of kindness in real life?
As we embark on the season of giving, and also on Q4–that important quarter that determines success solely by growth and increased sales–I come back to things I've questioned deeply most of my life: what do we need to happy? What does it take to be free? How do we design our lives to feel consistently content, and thoroughly at peace? How do we reconcile our needs for more, with our needs for less? What, if anything, do we need to give up to find freedom? How can we know that we have more than enough?
After 20 years of practice, and being with gain and loss over and over again, I believe the wisdom in that old saying is 100% true, but the problem is that most people get grossly wrong.
"To be given everything, you must give everything up" is most always misunderstood as self-sacrifice, leading – unfortunately – to even more suffering, and imprisonment to the very things we try to give up or give out. Worse, "giving everything up" often manifests as false charity, or false humility, or–at extremes–of someone giving up all worldly things in an attempt at some theoretical “higher” connection.
By false humility or false charity, I mean that there’s still ego involved: there's still some subtle (or overt) sense of goodness or rightness or morality or giving to the act. By "theoretical" higher connection: they're searching in all the wrong places. You can't disconnect from something you already are. It's like water going on pilgrimage to the desert to find wetness. It's already is wet. It doesn't need to go anywhere to find it. It just needs to pay better attention. (Just like you are completely connected; don't go looking elsewhere. Or go, but then come back to yourself after you've sought elsewhere for long enough).
True humility or charity means there is no one who's giving, and no one receiving. The “you” that gives has completely dissolved, and – equally – the someone who receives your humility or charity is just an empty boat.
Easier said than done.
The "everything" this phrase urges us to give up, the everything that we mustgive up in order to be truly charitable or humble, much less to have it all, is the giving up of yourself. Which is–to all of us–everything. What more is there in this life than yourself? That is the everything we must give up if we want to find peace.
The work is constantly giving up our idea of who we think we are, of our identity, and of our ego needs and desires. It is the work of a lifetime. And, as lofty as this may sound, it's shockingly practical. And based solidly in science.
At its heart, the work is the dying of our small-selves, the death of the ego-self, the letting go of the self that thinks there is something to gain, or something to lose. Be careful as this small self is necessary: it enables our survival as individuals and as a species. The problem occurs when we conflate our identity with this small, needy self. When that happens, we can never have enough. When our ego and identity become everything that we think we are, we become disconnected from the whole that we actually are, and think we need more. Then we seek externally for security, love, recognition, connection, esteem and value. And, we suffer.
It's only when we let our small self die that our big, fully connected self can be seen. This big self is the whole that we are, that we can never be separate from, just as water can never be separate from wet. As Carl Sagan repeatedly said, we are all star stuff. We cannot be separate from the whole that is the universe, the earth, and everything else. We ARE it.
When we realize this in our bones (you may get this intellectually, but this understanding will not help you when you feel abandoned or insecure), you realize there is never anything lacking, and that you always have more than enough. You know that even in suffering, in loss, betrayal, hunger, pain and, ultimately, in death, that you have more than enough. You know that you already have more than all the security, love, recognition, connection, esteem and value that you could ever need.
It sounds impossible, but it's not. I've seen it. And, 2,500 years of teachers before me have lived it. You too can live this way.
You've felt it before: it's why you feel great when you're kind or see kindness: you've momentarily re-connected to the higher self that you always are. Your small mind got out of the way for a moment, and you connected to the big you, the whole you, the you that includes both the giver and the receiver. The work now is to extend that feeling to all the other moments of your life, especially those moments of profound lack and disconnect (again, it's a feeling, it is notknowing: astrophysicists know this, but rarely live in peace with the vicissitudes of the world).
Counter-intuitively, to let our small self die is not an active endeavor. You can not smash, eliminate, or kill your small, ego-bound self. The only way through the small self (and the only way to realize your big self), is to sit in still silence, being present to your small, ego-bound self.
And again, this work is continual work. It's a constant dying, again and again, as new ideas of our achievement, failure, goodness, or badness consistently arise and change. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is a great inspiration here: even he had to practice till the day he died.
When you spend time in still silence paying acute attention to that small self (anchored, of course, to your breath), you become progressively more intimate with that small, ego-bound, self. You get to know it really well and, as you do, you get distance from it. As you become more intimate with your small self, you realize – more and more – that it’s not permanent. You see that it’s constantly changing, never solid, never steady. As you realize this impermanence of your small self, you realize there is no fixed, permanent self. You realize that the you–the small you who you think you are–doesn’t actually exist. And this is life changing.†
When you realize that your idea of yourself is just that, an idea, you can't help but also realize that you are also the whole thing. As the small, disconnected self drops off, the connection to the bigger self becomes more and more apparent. You realize that, just like a wave on the ocean comes from the ocean, returns to the ocean, and can never separate from the ocean, you too are from, and returning, and never separate from the whole of everything.
This is how you get everything when you give everything up. It's not self-sacrifice, it's self-intimacy. With practice and determination you get – in your bones – that you are not separate, and therefore you get that you actually are everything. You become intimate with yourself, and when you can feel that you are the whole thing that Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak of, you can't help but know that you are never lacking.
But, this realization only comes from decades of sitting still and being present to yourself – your whole self. This includes the good, bad, loving, ugly, mean, generous, greedy self that you are. It’s a big concept, and it can not be understood with the thinking mind. It can only be felt in deep still, silent connection to the ever-changing now. This is why mindfulness is such a big thing: it naturally leads to a deeper self connection. But the peace it promises only comes with determined, regular, and extended practice of sitting with your self, and the everything that it includes.
Most of those historical figures considered "masters" of the self spent 40, 50 years in determined practice. It took me 15 years on the mat for me to even begin to really hear these words, and another five to begin to live them. Again, every astrophysicist can attest to the veracity of the claim that you – that we all – are the whole and not separate from it. But very few, if any, are at peace with that reality. Very few know in their bones that there is nothing to gain, and nothing to lose.
To be at peace, you must sit. You must sit with yourself. That's all it takes. Start today. Start with five minutes. Start now.
I work on it everyday. I sit still, even when my mind is racing. I sit with determination. And, when lack inevitably rears its ugly head and the entrapments of this world seem like some sort of answer or way to higher peace, I look to the wise masters of the past to remind myself why I do this work of letting go of my self, and sit some more.
I write this to encourage you to make the time each day to sit in stillness and silence, so that you, too, can find real peace. You don't have to join a monastery or sit for hours on end, but you do need to start. Five minutes a day is great. If I can do this, you can do this. If I can be of help to you in this journey, let me know. I have a limited number of group trainings available at 50% off for the holiday. Check it out, and think about giving you and your team the gift of peace and mental resilience ... it is the most important practice. It can save a life.
To illume all this with words graceful beyond my capacity, I share with you one of my all-time favorite poems, written by Zen Master Shih-tou in the 8th century:
I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it's been lived in – covered by weeds.
The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn't live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn't love.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can't help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can't be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines --
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can't compare with it.
Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn't understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?
Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up.
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don't separate from this skin bag here and now.
–– Shih-t'ou (700-790), Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage
Wishing you all a calm, still, peaceful and fully connected week,