This morning I woke up early. The frogs have been quite noisy lately outside my bedroom window. I’ve read up on their croaking trying to figure out why they make so much noise and, more importantly, hoping to find a kind way to help them simmer down. One thing I’ve noticed is that they tend to go quiet when people or animals are near. This has added the ironic twist that in moments in the night when they are quiet I find myself wondering what kind of large creature is prowling around my house and kind of wishing the frogs would croak again. Lately I’ve decided the only thing to do is accept them as they are. It is what it is, after all. So when they wake me I get up and meditate, write or — lately — check my phone to see what Donald Trump might have posted on Twitter overnight.
This particular morning I got up and went downstairs to have a warm tea and meditate a bit. I sipped my tea, smiling as its warmth greeted my organs. It’s something the Taoist grandmaster Mantak Chia taught me, saying good morning to your organs. So as I sipped my tea I began quietly: “good morning kidneys, good morning liver, good morning heart” and then I sat in silence amidst the chorus of the frogs. My mind wandered from the frogs into the dreamy space of my thoughts until I became aware of a new sound, a thudding on the ceiling above my head. It reminded me of the sounds the upstairs neighbors at my first apartment would make when they fought. They were deaf and unaware of the noise generated when they stomped and stormed about the house. When it would get to be too much I would knock on their door and ask them to quiet down, after which they always looked at me bewildered, as if I was making the whole thing up. Today’s noise was like that, just not as angry. I thought about going back upstairs to see what was going on but I was a little too lazy, and besides I already had the noise of the frogs.
As I focused on the thumping, I began to notice a beauty and rhythm to it that I had initially missed. It wasn’t just banging; it was purposeful yet free. I soon realized I was hearing my daughter’s feet hitting the floor as she danced. Jadyn, our youngest, is a talented artist. She sings, plays piano, writes music, and most recently dances. She takes classes in ballet and hiphop dance at a nearby studio. We set up her room to allow her to practice and bought her a ballet bar. It’s common for me to see her prancing around the house calling out exotic-sounding dance terms like tombe padebure glissade assemble. But it was a new experience to hear her dance. The thuds and banging became an enchanting soundtrack to my morning as I imagined the joy in her heart and the smile on her face as she graced the dance floor of her dreams.
The Zen teacher and author John Tarrant once told me something interesting. We were meditating together at my home when my dog began to bark. He sensed my agitation and said in his rich Tasmanian accent, “Don’t be snobbish about sounds. They’re all just sounds.” Those words have stuck with me. We tend to get very picky about noise in meditation. We consider particular music, or chimes, or chants, “beautiful,” while the noises of everyday life are a “distraction.” It’s like another teacher told me once as he instructed me to open my eyes during meditation: “We exclude so much of life when we close our eyes.”
That tends to be a major theme for most of us in spirituality — trying to use spiritual practice or beliefs to exclude the parts of our lives we see as bad. In fact, if we’re honest, a desire to tune out all the stuff we don’t like is usually the motivator for tuning into spiritually in the first place. I learned to meditate for that reason. I wanted to be like the images I’d seen in movies where the blissful monk floats above the issues of the world seemingly oblivious to anything but the angels strumming a golden harp on his shoulder. It’s what I imagined I’d find at the Shaolin Temple until I got there and found monks with iPhones and the same hopes and dreams and fears as the rest of us. They just practiced skills to navigate it all.
There are lots of stories in the spiritual world about gurus with special powers. Most of my teachers were students of those gurus and many have amazing tales of what they witnessed at the feet of their teachers … miracles we might call them. I like those stories and I tend to believe most of them. But I also chose long ago not to make that the basis for my practice. I never wanted a fantastic story or magical belief as the foundation for my spirituality. It’s just too easy for it all to fall apart that way — with a scandal or exposé or a bucketful of cold reality. I chose instead to find teachers who I identify with as people and who live life in a skillful way that I wanted to emulate. In short, I chose practice over parables.
I learned this as a young man working at the flea market. The owners were the first millionaires I’d met. Early on I attributed myth-like status to them. They were, after all (cue the bells and whistles) … millionaires. In time though I got to know them as people. Real people just like me. There was nothing special or magical about them. Not that they weren’t unique and interesting, it’s just that they weren’t out of this world. This realization allowed me to fathom for the first time that I too could achieve what they had, because they were just humans who’d developed a set of skills for success.
This was the same experience I had with my mentor Michael Rapino, a brilliant, strategic, and powerful man whose leadership amazed me but who never put on airs or thought of himself as “above” the rest of us. His humanity, more than any other trait, is what drew me to him and caused me to want to learn from him. He taught me the skills to become a leader while not allowing my ego to get out of check. To this day, despite all of his achievements and proximity to rock stars and business luminaries, the notes he sends me are usually about simple human experiences, helping a coworker, spending time with his kids, making a difference. The unwritten message is always that he’s human … just like me.
There’s no area where this is more important than our spirituality. While I enjoy the stories of fantastic feats of enlightenment, I admire, on a more human level, the stories of real-life mastery. Sharon Salzberg doesn’t walk through walls like her teacher Dipa Ma is said to have, instead she rides a taxi through midtown in rush-hour traffic to her meditation classes while practicing the skill of mindful living. Guru Singh can’t manage the weather with prayer as Yogi Bhajan may have, but he braves the storms of life while practicing the skills of teacher, husband, father, and grandpa. Wang Bo hasn’t grown any special powers to levitate or punch holes in trees as the monks of Shaolin are rumored to have done in times gone by; instead he’s navigating growing into a man in Los Angeles while practicing the ancient teachings of his temple. My teachers, in all their glorious humanity, allow me too to be human, they make spiritual mastery possible in real life as they invite me to focus on the practice of opening my eyes and heart to the world around me and not be snobbish with my spirituality.
That experience — that we’re in this together, that we share a common humanity, that even as we learn and grow we’re already worthy — is why I write. It’s what I want to share and it’s what I hope you feel when reading my essays. I want to return the gift that life has given to me, the lessons of Michael Rapino, Guru Singh, Sharon Salzberg, the experience I was given at the flea market: that we’re all human, that we’re doing our best, and that ultimately the meaning of our spirituality is realized through the practice of finding meaning in every-day living.
Big hugs of love,