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
Need, wanting, and the sublime
There’s an old saying: to be given everything, you must give everything up.* While inspiring, if living an ascetic life actually resulted in 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?
And, if to be given everything, you must give everything up were actually true, why would we ever feel a sense of lack? Or of longing? Or of need?
But, at the same time, why does it feel so great to give? Why does it feel so sublime when we’re kind, generous? And how come we feel a powerful tinge of something bigger than ourselves when we see Scrooge transform into a kindly, giving soul on the big screen, say nothing for the boundless happiness we feel when we witness random acts of kindness in real life?
As we embark on the season of giving, and also on Q4 – that most important quarter that ascertains 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 actually be happy? What does it take to feel truly free? How do we design our lives to remain 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? When, and how, can we know that we what we already have, is more than enough?
We’ve got it wrong?
After 20 years of zen 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 it grossly wrong.
(fwiw: zen is not some blissful la-la land. it’s acute attention to right now, sitting in absolute still silence, eyes open (but cast down), and anchored to your body, and the present moment, by your breath, not moving, yet complete aware, for long periods of time)
“To be given everything, you must give everything up” is most always misunderstood as self-sacrifice. Misunderstood because, unfortunately, modern self-sacrifice is seen as self-abdication. And self-abdication ultimately leads to an even more intense sense of suffering, as we loose connection to ourselves in search for connection elsewhere, to the other. Whether that other is to a person, an ideal, or a even god, any self-renunciation inevitably results in 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 more often 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 look a bit closer and pay better attention. (Just like you are completely connected: don’t go looking elsewhere, it’s no where else to be found than right here. Or, go and try to see what you can find everywhere and anywhere else, but I hope you come back to yourself after you’ve sought outside of yourself 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, to quote Stephen Mitchell, an empty boat.
Ha. Easier said than done.
The “everything” this phrase urges us to give up, the everything that we must give up in order to be truly charitable or humble, much less to have it all, is the giving up of yourself. This is not self-sacrifice. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s deep connection to your self, a profound intimacy with your self, which — when done with integrity and determination––inevitably leads to a falling off of the small, ego-bound self.
So, in a way, it is losing yourself. But it’s losing the small self that’s tethered to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure. Those ideas are not the full, whole self. The whole self, paradoxically, includes all the polarities of existence, including greed and sloth and slander.
But, to lose this small self identified with our successes and achievements and senses of morality, for all of us, is to lose what we think is our everything. I mean, really: what more is there in this life than your idea of yourself? Who are you without your idea of who you are?
Well, you’re everything. Counterintuitively, the small idea of yourself is the “everything” that must be given up in order to find real peace, and actually experience the everything you are.
At its heart, the work is the the letting go of the self that thinks there is something to gain, or something to lose, it’s letting our small-selves die off.
This work we need to do this is constantly, repeatedly giving up our idea of who we think we are: it’s the letting up of our small identity, and working to see through our constantly-changing needs and desires.
Again, this is easier said than done. More, it is the work of a lifetime. And, as lofty as all this may sound, it’s shockingly practical. And based solidly in science.
It’s only when we let our small self die that we can see and feel our big, fully-connected self. This big self is the whole that we naturally are, that we can never be separate from, just as water can never be separate from wet. This isn’t airy-fairy spiritualism: 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; it takes time to get the idea from your mind into your bones), then you realize that nothing is ever lacking, and that you always have more than enough. In giving up everything (i.e., giving up your small, ego-bound self), then you really do get everything. You get the all the universes among universes.
But be careful, as our 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 (remember Carl Sagan? We are all star stuff), and then we think we need more. Then we seek externally for security, love, recognition, connection, esteem and value. And then, we suffer. We need more. And more. Because it feels far away. But it’s right under your nose.
When your small self eventually falls off through dedicated practice (mindfulness meditation), you come to know that even in suffering, in loss, betrayal, hunger, pain and, ultimately, in death, that you have really do have more than enough. You realize that you already have more than all the security, love, recognition, connection, esteem, and value that you could ever need or want.
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 noble when you’re kind, or even just see kindness: you’ve momentarily re-connected to the higher self that you are, to the you that you always have been, and always will be. 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 then becomes extending that feeling to all the other moments of your life, especially those moments of profound lack and disconnect (again, this big self connection is a feeling, not a knowing: astrophysicists know this, but rarely live in peace among the vicissitudes of the world). You can know this intellectually, but it’s only when you sit in still quiet with this notion for long periods of time can you begin to feel it.
You can’t do this
Counter-intuitively, to let our small self die is not an active endeavor. You cannot smash, eliminate, or kill your small, ego-bound self. Trying to do so will only make it worse. The only way to see 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 each new idea of an achievement, of a failure, a goodness, or a badness arises, you sit with it. You allow it. You watch it with a sense of detachment, curiosity, and non-knowing. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is a great inspiration here: even he had to practice this until the day he died.
When you spend time in still silence paying acute attention to your self (anchored, of course, to your breath), you naturally become progressively more intimate with that small, ego-bound, self. As you do, you get to know that small, ego-bound self really well. And, as you get to know it better, you can’t help but get distance from it. Because, as you become more intimate with your small self, you realize — more and more — that the small, ego-driven you is not permanent.
You see that your idea of your self – your supposed identity – is constantly changing: changing its mind, vacillating from one extreme to another, 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. Once you feel that you are that whole thing that Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke of, you can’t help but know that you don’t lack anything, and never have, and never will.
The Ugly, Mean, and Loving
But, this realization on the deepest levels 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 cannot 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 figures history considers “masters” spent 40, 50 years or more in determined still, silent practice. It took 15 years on the mat for me to even begin to honestly hear these words, and another five to then begin to live them. You don’t have to go that far. But you do have to start. 5 minutes, even one minute, each day, is all you need. 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. Those few are those that regularly sit with themselves.
So, 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. In times of great stress or upheaval or emotional heavy, I sit with even more determination. And, when a sense of lack or need or want 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 then I 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, reach out. I know many great organizations and teachers (I am highly biased to the incredible teachers at Still Mind Zendo in NYC), but for the corporate or executive set, who want to start 2019 more centered and mentally strong, I have a limited number of team trainings available at 50% off for the holiday, and a few one-on-one coaching packages left as well. I mention these because, for many, the idea of meditation is a great one, but actually doing it — regularly and with determination––remains a great idea, but never an actual daily practice. If you can do it on your own, you don’t need me. Just sit. That’s all this takes. It is the most important practice. But if you need accountability and support, reach out.
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 a calm, peaceful, and fully connected holiday season.
* Adapted from chapter 22 of the Tao Te Ching.
† Paraphrasing the work of 13th century Zen Master Dogen Zenji