Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, and the Hero’s Journey

Who was Joseph Campbell?

Joseph Campbell was a leading 20th Century world religion and mythology scholar. He revolutionised the way that stories and myths are understood, and has had a great impact on movies, novels, the Arts and storytelling of all kinds since his classic works were published.

Campbell was born in 1904 and died in 1987. He was raised by a family of traditional practicing Irish Catholics, and the young Campbell adopted their faith, practicing well up until his late 20’s. After this, Campbell never really lost his faith, it just changed form.

The most significant event of his youth was perhaps the fire that wrecked the family home in 1919 and killed his grandmother.

After graduating High School he attended Dartmouth College, where he initially read Biology and Maths. After a while, he decided that he preferred the humanities. It was to be a seismic shift.

After gaining an MA in Medieval Literature, he proceeded to study at various universities around the world.

In 1934 Campbell accepted a job as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught for the next 38 years until retirement in 1972.

 

What was his Magnum Opus (Great Work)?

Over his career, Campbell wrote extensively on myth, legend, and religion with many works attributed to his name. What he is most famous for, though, is the great work of comparative mythology, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.

This book, considered one of the great works of the 20th Century by many reviewers, was written by Campbell in 1949.

Influenced by the great depth psychologist Carl Jung, Campbell’s main thesis was that despite having a multitude of different locations, characters and stories, many of the world’s myths contain a central thread.

Campbell called it the “monomyth” (after Irish writer James Joyce’s coining of the term).

The “monomyth” is also known as the Hero’s journey.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Campbell put it best:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

With this marvellous passage Campbell explains how the Hero is the building block for all myth, the narrative template for mythic consciousness.

In all myths and religions, you see this one story, this one narrative arc, shining out from behind the masks of the individual religions.

The arc of the Hero’s journey is laid out by Campbell in his book; he divided it into three parts:

  • Separation (The Hero leaves the world of common day)
  • Initiation (The Hero goes under intense trials)
  • Return (The Hero returns to the common day world with boons to bestow on his fellow man)

The Hero’s journey actually has many parts to it and can get quite detailed; however this pattern above is always the same.

 

A fascinating fact about Joseph Campbell

During the Great Depression (1929) Campbell decided that job opportunities were not going to be plentiful, so for the next five years, till !934, he took to living in a shack in the woods in New York State.

There, he basically lived the life of a hermit, surviving on meagre rations, and reading 8 hours a day.

He later said that he “would divide the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them … I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight.”

He also commented that this period was one of the most intellectually most productive of his life.

What was Campbell’s relationship with George Lucas and Star Wars?

George Lucas, the director of and creative genius behind Star Wars, was one of the first Hollywood directors to credit Campbell’s work as a direct influence.

In fact you could say that the original Star Wars film is a direct take on A Hero With a Thousand Faces, with Luke Skywalker as the archetypal hero. You can see other archetypes in the film such as Yoda as the Wise Old Man, plus Darth Vader as representing the Jungian Shadow, the dark side.

Now obviously stories of good fighting evil have been around for millennia. It is just these characters in this formation, with this plot, that gives a big nod to Campbell’s seminal work.

What is Campbell’s legacy?

Since his death in 1987, Joseph Campbell’ star has grown even brighter. In the 20th and 21st Century, many figures have claimed to have been influenced by him:

  • Novelist Dan Brown said Campbell’s work had inspired him to create the Robert Langdon character.
  • As mentioned above, George Lucas and Star Wars, bringing “The Hero…” to a new audience.
  • Many modern filmmakers’ work – Indiana Jones, The Matrix, Batman, The Lion King – all these have Campbellian themes.
  • Many novelists, songwriters, video game creators and writers of all kinds have taken inspiration from Campbell’s work.
  • Novelist Richard Adams said that novel Watership Down was heavily influenced by “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”.

 

However, despite “The Hero…”’s phenomenal success, many people will have heard of Campbell for a different reason, for the saying, “Follow your bliss”. Rather than being a hedonistic call to arms, the phrase was often used by Campbell to mean something higher, more spiritual.

Indeed, During his later years, when some students took him to be encouraging hedonism, Campbell is reported to have grumbled, “I should have said, ‘Follow your blisters’!

Typical of Campbell’s wit and humanity, even when being taken out of context!

Anyone who has seen a modern film or read a modern novel is dipping into Campbell’s legacy.

He lives on today, and for is all times and places.

 

 

Saint Kim Kardashian? The Fascinating Story of How the Saints Were the Celebs of the Middle Ages

St George slaying the dragon – Photo Credit 

St Christopher was one of the most popular Saints of the Middle Ages. He was the Patron Saint of travelers, so many Catholics would pray to him before embarking on a journey; a pilgrimage, for example.

His protection was seen as being powerful, and could protect a traveler against bandits, illness or accident en route. Many pilgrims would wear a pendant with St Christopher on it as a good luck charm.

Who Are the Saints?

Saints are people venerated in the Catholic Church as having led holy lives.  If someone is seen as having lived a life of “heroic virtue” then they can be put forward to the Vatican to be “canonized” (made a Saint). Such as process of canonization can take just a few years (in the case of Pope John Paul II) or even centuries, in the case of some medieval Saints.

There are only two qualifiers for Sainthood – living a holy life, and being dead.

Yes, Sainthood is only awarded posthumously. So if you are canonized, you don’t get to bask in the glory in this life!

In medieval times there was a great emphasis on praying to the Saints – the church taught that since they were holy people, Saints went straight to heaven after death. It was assumed that therefore Saints had the ear of God, and could “put in a good word” for the faithful on earth. This is called intercession.

There are literally thousands of such Saints in the Catholic faith. All seen as being exemplars of virtue, having led holy lives worthy of imitation. These Saints have a social function too – serving as the glue that held medieval society together, all helping the medieval person through the journey of life with their intercession.

Who are the Saints today?

But what about the modern world?

Who are today’s Saints?

Well, in the skeptical West, Catholic Saints have lost much of their lustre. So who has replaced them in our hearts?

Well, the answer seems to be celebrities.

From celeb royalty – The Royal Family – through to film stars, pop stars, TV stars and sports stars, the adulation, reverence and esteem that these stars are held in today very closely mirrors  the glory that the Saints were held in the Middle Ages.

Lives of the Saints – Just like Hello Magazine?

For example, a v popular devotional text from the Middle Ages was “The Lives of the Saints”. These came in various forms, but basically told stories of great virtue and heroism from those great figures of history

Whether it was a Saint killing a dragon, or one refusing to recant his beliefs to the point of death in Roman Times, all the stories were today what we would call hagiography – a mixture of myth and history.

Today, in the same vein, magazines like “Hello” and “OK” parade celebrities on their front cover, offering their readers a glimpse into a rich, glamorous life that the reader can aspire to.

In the same way, these modern lives are “touched up” to produce an almost unreal effect, similar to that of The Lives of the Saints.

Relics and Shrines

A similar theme can be struck between the tombs of dead Saints and the tombs of dead celebrities. I’m not the first to find a correspondence between a medieval pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela on one hand, and someone holidaying to Graceland today to see where their favourite popstar, Elvis, is buried.

In the Middle Ages, relics and pilgrimage was a massive industry. If a church or Cathedral was able to obtain what was thought of as a Saint’s relics – say, a lock of hair, or a bit of bone – then a whole industry of tourism would be built up around them.

There would be hostels to house the pilgrims, donations to the church, trinkets to sell them, and taverns to feed them. Whole towns sprang up to service this entire pilgrimage industry.

Something very similar greets people in Graceland, USA, when they visit. They pay the entry fee, revere the relics, and stay in the hotels.

There’s money to be made!

And In case you thought the pilgrimage was dead – last year almost 200,000 people walked the Camino in Spain – The Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela.

Not dead yet!

Change in Saints

Avid Kleinberg notes how the type of celebrity in the Middle Ages was not linear – it actually changed around the 12th Century. Before then, Saints tended to be spiritual athletes – hermits, ascetics, bearers of torture and stigmata – closely tied to their communities.

With the 12th Century, you get people like St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Padua, all figures who go beyond the normal mould. The fact that this new breed of Saint was recognized across a broad territory meant there had emerged the beginnings of a network of communication, and the emergence of new ideas.

Indeed there has often been a viable thesis put forward of a 12th Century Renaissance, which would work well here.

Who were some of the most famous medieval Saints?

  • St George – (d.303 AD) – One of the most famous medieval Saints, according to legend George was a Roman soldier who was martyred for his faith for refusing to recant his faith in the face of Roman persecution. George was also famous in legend for slaying a dragon. St George is the Patron Saint of England, Malta and Georgia.
  • Andrew the Apostle – (d.1st Century AD) One of the 12 disciples, Andrew is featured in the Gospels as a loyal follower of Jesus. He is one of the fishermen to whom Jesus says, “come, I will make you fishers of men.” Understandably, Andrew is known as the Patron Saint of fishermen and fishmongers. Many a fishermen has prayed to him for his intercession on stormy seas, I’m sure.
  • St Bede – (d.735 AD) – The Patron Saint of Historians. Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived in northern England during the Dark Ages. He wrote the classic “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, one of the first histories of England. Historians pray to him for his blessing during writing of their works.

 

Who Might Their Modern Counterparts Be?

  • Russell Brand – Patron Saint of addicts? Brand, the world famous UK born comedian, actor and You Tuber, suffered from addictions to various substances in his youth. These include heroin, crack cocaine, and sex. Brand recovered fully by taking the 12 step program in his youth. He has stayed clean and sober for years now. He could serve as a good role model for people struggling with addiction.
  • Jennifer Aniston – Patron Saint of unlucky in loves? Aniston is most famous for her role in 90’s sitcom friends, but also her roles in many rom-com’s subsequently. She famously has had a string of broken relationships behind her, and is seen as being “unlucky in love”. Many who were in the same position as her could certainly identify with her.
  • Justin Bieber – Could be the Patron Saint of Christians? A devout Christian, Bieber is known for his association with Australian megachurch Hillsong. He has been vocal about his faith, and speaks up for Christians undergoing persecution or strife.

Conclusion

It can be fun to make comparisons between the fame of medieval Saints and modern celebrities. But you could say that, despite the similarities, there are differences too.

Saints are known for their devout holiness, which seems far out of reach for us mortals most of the time. Celebs, on the other hand, are known for very much ordinary-ness, with their car crash lives, broken marriages and drug busts.

But while the Saints may be better role models (as writer Alain De Botton has pointed out) they are part myth, part legend, part history. Many of the Saints’ lives have been obviously made up. Even Catholic historians would agree with that.

So is it realistic to set up the Saints as models of holiness when so many are not realistic?

Well, as these stories have evolved over the centuries, they have taken on a colour that is attractive to many of us today.  We must ask ourselves the question: will today’s celeb stories be known by many in 1000 year’s time?

Perhaps the Saints stories have a longevity that will outlast modern celebs.

Perhaps the Saints are the real heroes, for that fact at least.

6 Common Obstacles to Meditation and How to Overcome Them

“Life is Difficult” – from “The Road Less Travelled”

So says psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in the first line of his seminal self-help book, “The Road Less Travelled”. The book has sold over 5 million copies in North America. Many of those buyers will have been tempted by that wise and instructive first line of the book.

So what does this have to do with meditation?

Well, meditation is difficult too. And just as in his book Peck says that if we truly accept this truth about life, we transcend it; the same applies to meditation too. That’s the power of acceptance.

But before we get there, we must confront some of the common-or-garden blockages that meditators face on their road less travelled. And there are many potential pitfalls – the contemplative traditions of the world have documented many of these in their voluminous writings.

What I’m trying to do here is to distill some of that wisdom, and to offer some guidance from an experienced meditator. There are potential traps that every practitioner is liable to encounter at some time or another, but that can be overcome.

Often in meditation, persistence pays off.

So whatever the reason that you are meditating – for inner peace, for self-improvement, for Enlightenment – then this post can help you on your journey.

Obstacle # 1 – Over thinking/busy mind

The biggie. Anyone who has sat, shut their eyes, been quiet, and listened to their mind, even for 5 minutes, will often be shocked at the sheer cacophony of noise that they are confronted with. Many people try meditation once, and are so shocked by this reality, that they vow never to do it again.

But this is the first step on the path. We must start somewhere.

The fact is that no matter how far we progress down the path of mindfulness, we will always encounter busy thoughts at some point during our sittings. They are part of the picture. Thoughts are simply what brains do. It’s how we respond to them that counts.

If our response is to get involved with the stream of thoughts in our heads, and try to rearrange them in some way, we are doomed to failure. This intervention is what our egos want us to do. To feed the monkey mind, the cocktail party in our heads. But this is not a skillful response.

Instead we should take a metaphorical step back each time we sit for meditation. We should just observe, non-judgmentally what is happening, rather like a dispassionate observer would watch a river go by. And as we do this, perhaps by focusing on an object like the breath, an amazing thing starts to happen.

Our mind starts to slow. And then, between the thoughts, stillness starts to appear. This is the beginning of true meditation, and the antidote to a busy mind – observation, non-judgmentally.

Try it, every day, for a week. Your life could change.

 

Obstacle # 2 – Tiredness

This is a tricky one. Tricky because meditation practice often takes place first thing in the morning, or last thing at night. This is when we are most tired, generally. And the mind will pay tricks on you, trying to persuade you to have 5 more minutes in bed during morning meditation, even when you are wide awake.

Sometimes we are genuinely shattered. Perhaps on the odd occasion we should give into the tiredness and have a nap or sleep rather than meditate. As the Dalai Lama says, “sometimes the best meditation is a long sleep.”

But not every time. Sometimes if we are sleepy we must fight it – but not directly.

If you are meditating lying down, try sitting up. A straight spine and practice can cure a variety of ills. The Zen masters have taught us that.

If that doesn’t work, try sitting in another room. Or turn the heating down. A too-warm room can sometimes work against inner peace.

Another tactic is to try meditating in 5 or 10 minute bursts. This is better than nothing and can get you back on the right track.

 

Obstacle # 3 – Dullness

Dullness is a Buddhist word which you may not be familiar with. It is related to feelings of laziness, sluggishness and torpor during practice. It basically means that you have lost focus and vitality during a sitting. It can go on for days, weeks, months, and monks say that it can hold you back from skillful practice in a big way.

Dullness is such a common affliction in meditation that its hard to assign a remedy for it. Sometimes it’s just a season in your practice, a phase that you may be going through. Just try to bring back your awareness to the breath as well as you can, and to cultivate mindful awareness. And don’t give up!

 

Obstacle # 4 – The three poisons – greed, hatred, and delusion

I’ve included a bit of Buddhist psychology here as I think it is relevant.

The Buddhist tradition teaches that the main obstacle to freedom in meditation is the three poisons – greed, hatred and delusion. These three basic attitudes are the Buddhist equivalent of Christianity’s 7 Deadly Sins – basic destructive thoughts that are the seed sins of all other destructive thoughts and behaviours.

Greed is essentially clinging and grasping onto good thoughts and experiences. Hatred is the opposite – the pushing away of “bad” thoughts and experiences. Delusion is the basic human sin – the ignorance of the true situation that keeps the whole thing going.

As the saying goes – so in meditation, so in life.

These three poisons combine to disrupt our meditation, and take us away from the humble self- acceptance that leads to the development of compassion, holiness, and wisdom.

So how do we combat the 3 Poisons?

Traditionally Buddhism has emphasised the application of the virtues of generosity, compassion and wisdom to counter each three of the sins.

Obstacle # 5 – Physical pain

Pain can be a blockage to mindfulness practice. I have personal experience with this – I have suffered from neck pain for years and find it hard to sit straight and meditate. This leads me to do most of my sessions lying down. Obviously, this can be problematic and it does lead to falling asleep on occasion, but I accept that and move on to a new session the next day.

So sometimes you just have to be pragmatic with bodily pain. Make sensible adjustments when you need to.

One tactic that I have used on occasion when I’ve had physical pain is to focus in on it, to observe it, to be mindful of it. What exactly does the pain feel like? What is its texture? Where is it located? Sometimes developing awareness can help put the pain in context. It can help.

Obstacle # 6 – Expectations

If there is a true mindfulness killer, its having expectations as you go into a session. The key to meditation is accepting non-judgmentally whatever is in the present moment. Expectations have you looking beyond the present moment. They have you looking to some now non-existent place that you inhabited once at a prior session.

In effect, having expectations in meditation – trying to create a certain type of experience that you previously had – is actually a form of nostalgia. Its about harking back to a day when you blissed out, when everything went right for you in a session. But as long as you are looking back, you cannot be centred and present in the here and now.

This is why, paradoxically, a great experience in mindfulness practice can actually put you back months. This is because pleasant experiences lead to meditative nostalgia, and constantly trying to recreate the past. Which of course you can never do.

It can be hard to let go of attachments to prior bliss.

Just let go. And let God.

Conclusion

Overall, I would say that experienced meditators will be confronted with all of these 6 obstacles at some point. The key is to make sensible adjustments, and carry on with your practice. Regular meditation is the key. Even if some days you only manage 10 minutes.

Persistence in mindfulness usually pays off; it can cover a multitude of sins.

Good luck!

 

A Pillar of Western Civilisation – Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Have you ever glimpsed what you thought was a higher non-dual realm during meditation? Thought that it transcends all other knowledge, and tried to explain that to your fellow human beings? Been met with resistance, confusion or mockery?

Then you will relate to this story.

The Allegory of the Cave was written by the Greek Philosopher Plato in roughly the 5th Century BC. It is found in a section of “The Republic”, Plato’s masterwork of political philosophy.

The goal of “The Republic” is to lay out what Plato thinks is the ideal society. Some of the ideas may seem strange to us today. For example, Plato famously shunned democracy as the structure of his society, in favour of rule by philospher-kings. These were to be people specially selected at birth and schooled in philosophy from a young age.

It was imagined that these rulers would rule wisely and justly. You could ask, though,  what is the difference between this system and a dictatorship?

No matter.

We are only concerned with the myth of the Cave here.

So What is the Allegory of the Cave?

Plato describes the Allegory thus: there is a cave. In it there are people, chained, facing the back of the cave. Behind them there is a fire, casting light on the back of the cave.

Between the fire and the people, there are figures being moved about, in order to create shadows on the cave wall. These shadow figures are the only things that the chained prisoners ever see. They think that these shadows are reality.

Then one day, a prisoner in the cave breaks free from their shackles. They see the fire, and shadows on the wall for what they are: just shadows.

The escaped prisoner breaks free from the cave, and reaches sunlight. Because he has been in the dark cave, the sunlight is very bright and hurts the man’s eyes.

But eventually he adjusts, and can look at the real world all around him. It is beautiful.

So eventually the escapee decides to go back down to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners of the real world that exists, out there, beyond the cave.

But when he gets back down into the cave, and tells his story, he is met with confusion, and anger. The prisoners don’t understand what he is saying, and plot to kill him.

So What Does the Story Mean?

The central message of the story is that there are, today, two worlds present – the everyday world of opinions, judgments and regular consciousness. This is represented by the shadows in the cave.

But what Plato seems to be saying is that there is also, along with the everyday world, another world inside of us. This world far transcends the ordinary world in terms of beauty, and sheer real-ness.

I would interpret this second world as being an inner, spiritual realm, accessible only if people would turn their attention inside.

But so often most people don’t like doing that. A recent study showed that most people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts.

And it can be difficult sometimes. But if we can just sit with our thoughts, and observe them, non-judgmentally, then an amazing thing starts to happen. The thoughts slow. An inner space opens up. And we begin to meet God face to face.

How Do I Access the World Outside the Cave?

I interpret Plato’s story of leaving the cave, with seeing Reality, directly with meditation and contemplation.

Scores of spiritual traditions have said down the ages that truth lies within.

Look at the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and Jesus’ words: “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21)

The Buddha’s path to enlightenment was based around meditation.

Plato seems to be saying something similar here – that truth, enlightenment, Reality; lies within.

What about the negative reception the escapee got from the other cave dwellers?

Well this is a metaphor for the way, over millennia, people have been persecuted for trying to voice and embody this higher truth of love, beauty and faith.

From Socrates to Jesus; to scores of medieval mystics; to modern day martyrs like Martin Luther King Jr; many people have been killed for representing their highest ideals.

Plato seems to be quite critical of the man-on-the-street in his allegory. He may have called it “the mob”. He sees them as unenlightened savages, pretty much.

Maybe a little harsh. But history tends to agree with him.

Conclusion

The Allegory of the Cave has been very influential over the past 2,500 years. Many writers have interpreted it in their slightly different ways.

It had big impact on Christianity, as the Church Fathers sought to integrate classical philosophy and Christian Theology in the Middle Ages. Many of those ancient Christians would have interpreted it in a similar way to me above.

The allegory has had an impact on movies too – The Matrix directors the Wachowskis cited directly the influence of philosophy on the film. With issues of “what is the real world?” running throughout the movie, its not hard to see why.

I’ll leave the last word on this post to philosopher AN Whitehead, who famously said once that:

“Western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes to Plato”

Such is his impact.

Adios!

 

Alan Watts – 21st Century Guru

This truly inspiring video from Zen guru Alan Watts has 7.5 million views on You Tube. Its a seeming mish mash of talks Watts gave during his life. It covers a range of topics such as human identity, reincarnation, the unconscious and The Cosmos. Yet it all comes together in a coherent whole. The music and graphics are great, too.

My favourite sentence from the video is:

“You are something that the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.”

So who is Alan Watts? – 10 Surprising Facts About the Millennials’ Guru

  1. Watts was a English/American philosopher who lived from 1915 to 1973.
  2. He is best know for popularising Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western Audience. He lived and taught in America for much of his adult life.
  3. His stature has notably grown in the digital era due to many of his talks being posted and available for free on You Tube. Many of his videos/audios have millions of views. He is particularly popular with young people, many of whom seem to admit themselves to the “spiritual, but not religious” category. Watts seems to meet this need.
  4. According to the critic Erik Davis, his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity”.
  5. Watts had a Christian upbringing and initially gained a masters degree in theology. He then became an Anglican priest, before becoming interested in Buddhism.
  6. He still referred to many Christian ideas in his Zen lectures.
  7. By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong, and talkative. He had a way with words, and a deep, gravelly laugh that endeared people towards him. He had the charisma that people who talk on spiritual topics with much certainty often have.
  8. There are rumours that Watts became an alcoholic in his later years. Wikipedia talks of “friends concern” at Watts “high alcohol consumption” in his later years. These rumours have tainted Watts’ guru status somewhat. How can you be enlightened if you are an alcoholic, after all?
  9. Watts married 3 times and had 7 children.
  10. The 2013 film “Her” features Watts as an artificially intelligent operating system, portrayed by Brian Cox.

Zen Story of the Week – “Empty your cup” – What Does It Mean?

Today’s Zen Story is one of the most famous, known as “Empty your cup”. The story is undoubtedly very ancient. This 19th/20th Century version comes courtesy of the blog “The Stone Mind“:

“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

So what can we learn from this brief tale?

This story comes with the trademark Zen brevity. Many Zen teachings are two line stories, proverbs and koans.

No extended philosophical treatise here!

The story seems to be telling us that the main barrier between us and enlightenment is our own “opinions and speculations”. In order to learn and experience reality, we must first drop our pre-existing ideas that we have brought to the table.

Its worth noting that the person who comes to the master is a professor – learned, knowledgeable, intelligent. But the wise master gives him a profound teaching.

This aspect of the story reflects the deep suspicion in Zen of book learning.

So what is wrong with reading books?

Nothing is wrong with it, per se. Its rather the attachment to the ideas that books tend to produce, a strong sense of ego, derived from the knowledge of other people’s ideas.

Zen is much more about intuition, a direct immediate grasp of reality, of Satori (sudden awareness or Enlightenment) rather than having many words, concepts and ideas from books.

Zen is not about second hand knowledge.

Zen is about seeing for yourself.

“Come and see,” as Jesus of Nazareth says in the New Testament.

The Christian word for the emptying out of our mind is “humility”. The Bible says God “gives grace” to the humble. This grace is, I imagine, the same that the Zen Master would give to his professor student once he had emptied his cup!

I’m reminded here of the line by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in his seminal book “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind”:

“In the beginners mind the possibilities are many. In the expert’s, they are few.”

The writer of “Empty your cup” is urging us to have a beginner’s mind, a “blank slate”.

So what is Zen, exactly?

The essential profound teaching of Zen is that we don’t need to gain anything to experience Enlightenment; after all, out truest self is our “Buddha nature”, our divine nature. What we have to do is not “gain” stuff, but drop it.

Drop our illusions, opinions, pre-conceptions about how life should be. And embrace reality as it is. Trouble is, so ingrained are these patterns of thought is that it takes years of meditation to begin to chip away at our “false self”.

Which brings me to the main point of the “Empty your cup” story, which I think that most people miss.

Many people see this story and think that the professor should “empty” his cup, in order to be filled with the Zen teaching. But that would be just more words, more ideas.

The truth is this: Zen IS the emptiness. The master would say he has nothing else to teach. Just to be empty of self. So you can fill up with…the Universe.

That’s it.

 

 

 

Why Mindfulness is Not Just for Sitting…!

When I was a kid, I used to do something a bit funny with a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. Don’t worry, not too odd, just a bit…strange.

Sometimes, when eating a bag of crisps, I used to eat them really slowly. Like, taking 15 minutes to eat a bag slowly. I used to lick the flavouring off, bit by bit, letting the salt and vinegar flavour zing on my tongue. I would then proceed to munch, very slowly through the remaining crisps, savouring the potato flavour as I went. I would repeat this charade through the whole pack, enjoying the whole process thoroughly.

What I didn’t realise then, as a kid, was that what I was doing was practicing mindfulness.

I guess I have an instinct for it!

For what is mindfulness if not savouring the present moment? I still occasionally do the same practice with food today (though not with crisps). As I slow down, I taste the food so much more. I let its taste tantalise my taste buds.

I was also doing it again the other day when going for a walk in a field. It was a sunny day, and the sky was a brilliant blue. As I looked up to take in the clear azure sky, I had the same feeling as when I meditate – stillness, peace.

I was mindfully looking up to the sky! Well done, Kevin.

The point I wanted to make with this blog post is that the practice of mindfulness is not just the 20 mins you sit still once or twice a day. What you need to be doing, to be an effective meditator, is to incorporate the patterns of stillness into your everyday life.

If you run, run mindfully. If you eat, eat mindfully. Whatever you do, pay attention undividedly and non-judgementally. Well that’s the goal. You will fall short.

But aspire to be a Buddha – permanently!

I found a good video that gives advice how to slow down and be mindful in every day life.

 

This nice video gives a few pointers to stay present during the day:

  • Be mindful of your thoughts – just be aware of what’s going on in your head can create a space for presence to arise. Just focus on one or two mindful breaths, and you will create a buffer between you and your thoughts. Just observe, that’s all. This buffer, in time, can become a vast inner space for you to dwell in, in deep inner peace.
  • Do one thing at a time – the old Zen masters used to say, when asked “What is Zen?” used to reply, “doing one thing at a time”. This still applies! When walking, walk. When eating, eat. When sleeping, sleep. The essence of Zen is throw yourself wholeheartedly at everything you do, with a purity of mind and mindfulness.
  • Try to take things slowly – My crisp example applies here!
  • Have a regular sitting practice. The skills you learn in practice you can apply in normal life.

So – mindfulness is not just for your 20 minutes on the cushion, it is about your whole life of lived experience.

Try using the tips here to open up to the vastness and intensity of reality inside you, and start living fully, not just on autopilot.

 

Worship Song of the Century? Hillsong’s “What a Beautiful Name” Wins the Internets

Ten Facts About “What a Beautiful Name” You Might Not Know

  1. The song was written by Brooke Ligertwood and Ben Fielding of the group Hillsong Worship.
  2. Hillsong is an Australian megachurch that has 100,000 attendants across 80 sites around the world, including London, Oxford and Birmingham.
  3. Millions of people all over the world every Sunday sing Hillsong’s songs – the church’s popularity is founded on its music.
  4. The song won a 2018 Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance”.
  5. The song has 125m views on YouTube – the most of any worship song on the web.
  6. The song was composed in Sydney, Australia in 2015 in preparation for the upcoming Hillsong Conference.
  7. Apparently part of the success of the song is due to its “singability”. The song has a small vocal range that does not strain the voice with too many high or low notes. Who knew?
  8. The song topped the Billboard Christian chart for 28 weeks making it the 2nd longest Christian chart topper in the chart’s history. (The longest topper in the chart’s history was Hillsong’s “Oceans” at 61 weeks)
  9. When asked about performing the song in church, Ligertwoord commented:

“Because the audience is part of the church and we sing these songs in church regularly, most of the people in attendance were already familiar with the tracks. As an audience, they are just super gracious and welcoming. Our mission is that the music will resonate with them. We’re not really performing—we’re simply vessels”

10. Amen for Hillsong’s awesome music!

Bible Passage of the Week – “Pride goes before a fall”

This saying has long been attributed to the Bible, but the actual text it refers to reads slightly differently:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” – Proverbs 16: 18

But what exactly is pride? Why is it so deadly? And how does it exactly trip us up?

Pride is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, as described by the medieval Catholic Church. In fact, the Christian tradition considers it be the deadliest of the sins.

Why?

Because it prevents us from changing.

All the other sins, when someone is committing them or is tempted to do so, still has hope. Hope that they can see the error of their ways, repent and reform. For example: if you were tempted to steal a wallet you had just seen someone accidentally drop on the floor, in the process you would still be aware, by your God given conscience, that it was a wrong thing to do.

Right up to the point of doing it, and beyond, there is still scope that you will appease your conscience, and admit that stealing is wrong. There is scope for change, for redemption.

However, with the sin of pride, there is no such hope. For pride, most dangerously, prevents us from changing. It blinds us to the truth, and actually skews our perception in a way that threatens our very well being and right standing before God.

CS Lewis put it like this: “The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

Pride caused the angels to fall from Heaven; it rose in the heart of Adam and Eve and caused them to eat the forbidden fruit, casting them, and us, out of Paradise.

But what exactly is Pride?

If you look it up in the dictionary, you will see it likened to concepts such as vanity, ego, arrogance, over-confidence, and conceit. It is essentially thinking too much of yourself. Leading medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas called it “inordinate self-love”.

In a spiritual sense, pride is essentially the placing of the self above others, and above God. It’s a form of malignant self-centredness that places the person right at the centre of their thinking and actions, no matter the consequences for others.

It, not money, is the root of all evil.

Ancient Greece

In the classical world, the term used for the sin of Pride was Hubris.

In ancient Athens, like the Christian world, this sin was seen as the deadliest cancer that can infect human beings. In the Ancient Greek religion, Nemesis was the Goddess who would always take retribution on those who were guilty of hubris. Nemesis believed that no-one should have too much goodness in their lives, and she always cursed those who had been cursed with countless gifts, as it often led to hubris.

The Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus was used to illustrate the grave potential consequences of committing hubris. The story goes that it happened that Daedalus and his son Icarus were stranded on the Island of Crete. Daedalus, who was a master craftsman, hatched a plan for he and his son to escape by making them both a set of wings out of wax and feathers.

So, they made their escape, and flew out into the sea, to escape the island. But Icarus was enjoying the trip so much that he forgot his father’s warning to not fly too high. So he did, the sun melted the wax in his wings, and he crashed down into the sea.

The myth is a morality tale, warning against the dangers of hubris, of flying too close to the sun. It’s essentially a warning about over-reaching yourself; of the lethal dangers of trying to be God-like.  If you ever do so, the tale teaches us you will swiftly find your Nemesis and crash into the sea like Icarus.

Back to the proverb

So, we can go back to the Biblical proverb, and see it emphasises the destructive power of pride – “pride goes before destruction…” The writer of this proverb obviously had a few ways to phrase it, but they chose the word destruction above others. I think this echoes the Christian tradition’s extreme horror and dire warning about this deadliest of sins.

I think the worst thing about pride is that you mostly don’t realise you are committing it. You just think you are being “right”. In this sense pride is a hidden sin, and, as I mentioned above, can easily blind you to the truth. In this way self-righteousness is another term for pride.

Be wary and don’t be ensnared!

Can Buddhism Help With Anxiety?

The Origin of Anxiety?

Anxiety. Angst. Worry. Apprehension.

Fear – in all its forms – has been a perennial “thorn in the side” of humanity since we first became conscious.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the “flight or fight” response – or fear, by another name –  evolved in us on the plains of Africa 200,000 years ago.

There, nomadic hunter gatherer proto humans faced many threats – other hostile tribes, wild animals, poisonous food. There was a strong need among the first Homo Sapiens to be aware of the many threats to their existence.

This need has served us well – over time, we have become the most successful species in history, spreading all over the planet, adapting to all environments. But it is said that this propensity to fear, this readiness to low-level anxiety – has not served us well in the modern world.

The psychologists tell us that modern psychiatric diagnoses and conditions, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, are merely the misfiring of the ancient human tendency to be concerned about their environment, in order to survive.

Following on from this materialist account of anxiety, treatments are offered according to the individual needs of the service user. Typically, medication and therapy.

Many people see recovery in these methods. But many struggle on.

So What About Buddhism? What Can it Offer the Anxious Person?

The Buddhist account of anxiety goes much deeper. It is much more psychological than biological, as described above. Rather than just trying to explain anxiety away as a epiphenomenon of evolution, the Buddha saw anxiety as laced within the very fabric of what it means to be an unenlightened human.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is usually stated as “Life is suffering”. The Pali word for suffering is “Dukkha” which can be translated as “dissatisfaction” or…”anxiety”.

So you could say that The Buddha’s entire project of Enlightenment is founded on eradicating worry or un-ease.

Remember when the Buddha says “Life is suffering”, he is not saying that every moment of life is miserable. That is clearly not true. What he is saying is that within all unenlightened experience, the is always an undercurrent of worry, or concern, or anxiety, or un-ease, like a “hum” in the background. This “hum” is a times, loud, at other times, just in the background.

From the Buddhist perspective, more-or-less perennial anxiety is so endemic to the human condition that just to it as recognise as a thing in itself, is a big achievement. After all, as the saying goes, “the fish is last to know the water”.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that suffering, anxiety, in life is caused by desire. There are a number of aspects to this statement that need clarifying.

What is desire?

Desire is, in essence, an unwillingness to have a still mind and to selfishly cling and grasp to thoughts and experience. To understand the nature of this desire, and how it disrupts your consciousness, you must understand the three poisons, as described by the Buddha himself (He was a keen listmaker!).

The Three Poisons

The Three Poisons are the unskilful roots or thoughts that keep us bound to suffering, and are the central causes of our unhappiness.

They are – Greed, Hatred and Delusion. They are the Buddhist version of the Christian “7 Deadly Sins”.

Essentially what these three attitudes mean is that in meditation, and life, we tend to cling greedily to good thoughts, emotions and experiences, and push away those that are painful or “bad”. So we are greedy for good things, and hating of bad. Delusion is the ignorance of the whole situation that keeps the whole thing going.

I noticed the three Poisons at work in a meditation yesterday, when I noticed that virtually my whole meditation time is currently used to try to escape anxious emotions.  I have also been at the same time chasing pleasant thoughts and emotions in my meditation.

This constant pushing and chasing, Buddhism says, is a great hindrance to peace of mind. The goal of meditation is to be free from greed and hatred, and to accept, non-judgementally what ever enters your mind in each moment. This is the path to peace.

So what’s the solution to anxiety?

Well, the Buddha taught that the only real solution to this problem of suffering in human life, of anxiety, is self-knowledge through meditation. Scores of scientific studies have shown that meditation is a great healer of anxiety and depression (which often go together). Many GP’s now prescribe it instead of antidepressants.

It’s hard to give one-size-fits all meditation advice. Just having a regular practice, finding a technique that works for you – this is half the battle. As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just turning up”.

Just through regular practice you will increase in self-knowledge. Try to find a place where you accept, non-judgementally, the present moment completely. This attitude will keep your mind still and clear, and release you from the unskillfulness of the Three Poisons.

With regard to anxiety – just try to “see into it”. Observe it. What does it really feel like? How does it change? Over time, with daily practice, just doing this this will decrease its power and hold over you.

True non-attached awareness is like the sun burning away clouds. Energy is always dissipated in the light of awareness.

Not even anxiety can survive it.