Chapter One
It Starts with Questions
 
I sit on my porch and look out at a mountain, a mountain that in spring is lush, radiant—a vibrant sea of green. Although it is very close, sometimes it drapes itself so fully in a cloak of clouds that I cannot see the faintest hint of its outline. Yet, I still believe it is there.

What other realities are out there that I cannot see, hidden behind clouds in the mind?

As I sit on my porch I ask myself, “What shall I do today?” And as I ask, I realize again that this is not an easy question. Good fortune has smiled on me in many ways. I have a beautiful home in the mountains, good health, close friends, a reasonable bank account.

In my younger days, I was filled with ambition: for power, for fame, for wealth, for experience, for knowledge, for passion. I felt a burning desire to save the world from pain, confusion, and suffering.

I have ambition still.

But I‘ve also had enough achievement to know that one more success of the same variety, or a dozen more, will not quench my thirst. If there is a really thirst-quenching drink to be found, it must be mixed with a different set of ingredients.

I say this with some conviction, for all of my past accomplishments have not brought me peace, or happiness, or fulfillment. Oh, there have been many wonderful moments generated by accomplishments, victories, and success. But such moments have been amazingly short-lived. And when they are over, there is usually a crash, followed by the growing urge for another rush, another shot of the adrenaline of challenge and achievement.

And disconcertingly, the moments of elation following victory seem to shorten as the age beside my name continues to mount.

There is another problem. Each time I set out to accomplish something, feelings of failure usually come along for the ride. It happens like this: I set off in pursuit of some goal (often naively, in relation to the challenge, expecting a quick and easy victory), and the next thing that happens is a series of failures—at least in relation to my expectations. But if I am willing to: (a) persevere, (b) devote increasing amounts of time and energy to the task, (c) learn from my mistakes, and (d) modify the goals as I proceed, then sometimes success will come. However, by this time, weeks, months, even years have gone by. Who I am now is different from who I was when I began. Sometimes the “me” who committed to the goal is nowhere to be found when the delayed and modified goal is achieved. Is this victory?

Perhaps if I could say, “I want this” and it could be instantly fulfilled, I would experience the pleasure anticipated with the thought. But if time must flow between the wish and the fulfillment, who knows what the result will be? If the goal can be reached only in the future, I might no longer want the same fruit. Or the “me” who is present for the eating might even be repelled by the taste.

This is one of the most insidious problems of life, this problem of time. Even if I know clearly what I want right now, how do I know I will want the same thing at some point in the future? Most fulfillments do not come instantaneously; the inevitable pause between wish and fulfillment requires that moments of my life spent getting “this” cannot be spent getting “that.” Yet how do I know, when the moment of fulfillment comes, that I would not have preferred “that” to “this”?

Well, maybe I’ll get both, if I work hard enough.

Perhaps that’s true for you. But my images and desires do not seem to be limited to two, or three, or ten. I seem to have an unlimited number, all of which will take time to achieve—usually a great deal more time than I anticipated at the beginning (if they can be achieved at all). And most, if achieved, will not provide the fulfillment I imagined when I began. Yet I passed up the pursuit of “that” in order to achieve “this.” Oh, no!

Consider this image: Our lives could be compared to a gambler in the casino of life. In this casino, the “chips” are the minutes of our lives, and the prizes are wealth, power, relationships, fame, wisdom, inner peace, love, joy—and anything else you wish to name. We each have a bag of chips but cannot look in the bag to see how many chips remain. We walk around the casino, observing each game in progress, trying to decide where to place our bets. Shall I enter this game? Will it last ten minutes—or ten years? What if I have a great hand and believe I am close to victory when another player ups the ante and I reach in my bag and discover that I’m out of chips?

Perhaps I should play several small games at once, trying to accumulate many small victories. But what if something crucial happens in one game while I’m concentrating on another? And gradually I notice that my bag of chips is getting lighter with each passing day, whether I enter a game or not.

As I sit on my porch and look out at the mountain, a ruby-throated hummingbird, psychedelic neck glistening in the sun, perches on our feeder. Those who study such things say hummingbirds fly to the Yucatan Peninsula in the fall, crossing the Gulf of Mexico in one nonstop flight. I tend to believe them, since it is written in all the best scientific texts. (I also believe because I have a great deal of respect for hummingbirds.) Yet I have never seen one hummingbird make such a flight. Moreover, when I read the history of science, there are many facts contained therein that seem patently ridiculous today.[1]

Is this the first age in the eons of human history that has gotten the facts right? Or are scientific facts accepted today that will seem ridiculous to those who come after? If history teaches that this is the most likely result, which facts shall I make the bedrock of my reality? On which facts shall I rely as I decide how to spend the remaining “chips,” the remaining minutes of my days?

So I sit on my porch and ask, “What shall I do today?” There is no necessity for me to hunt for food, seek shelter, or protect myself or my loved ones from predators. (Except the occasional developer, who in these hills can, at times, be predatory; I know, I’ve been one myself.)

The blessings of my life are many. I live in a time and a place where it is not necessary for me to take up arms or build walls or moats to protect my dwelling. I am not called upon to fight in foreign wars (that burden being borne by those much younger than me).

Don’t get me wrong. I have a number of urges still: for excitement, for wealth, for recognition, for fame. But these urges are not demandingly strong. Perhaps they are not strong enough, for although I feel such desires, they do not propel me off the porch into the thick of the battle with the numerous gladiators already signed up for the next fight. Having signed up many times in the past myself, the prizes today don’t seem so alluring. And other prizes, some that might be incompatible with the old games, seem equally important. Or more so.

“Such as?” a defiant voice asks. Well, perhaps friendship, love, wisdom, joy, inner peace, wholeness, salvation, enlightenment. A connection to the source of things, an experience of the ground of being.

Not easily deterred, my inquisitor persists: “Well, perhaps wealth, power, and fame will bring you all these other goods—will bring them along in their wake.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. This is part of the wager we each must make. But the report of many of those who seem to have embodied wisdom, joy, peace, and love is that wealth, power, and fame can be hindrances in achieving these other aims. “Who said that?” the voice demands. Well, Christ and Socrates and Buddha and Henry David Thoreau. Gandhi, Moses, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and Hildegard of Bingen. Then there are Hillel, Dogen, Ramakrishna, and Immanuel Kant, as well as Shankara, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, and Tolstoy—and many, many more (but you get the point). Of course, I don’t have to take their word for it. But their instruction does give me pause in rushing to a quick and easy decision.

I have now been sitting on the porch a long time, and there is a chill in the air. Perhaps I’ll go inside and record some thoughts about this journey on which we are all embarked, drawing a map of the terrain as I see it—while realizing that this map may someday be as out-of-date as old maps found in musty shops that depict America as a turtle, or a part of China. Perhaps getting it all exactly right doesn’t matter; perhaps, as T. S. Eliot said, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” (T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World/Harvest, 1971), 31.)

Where to begin? Do I start with religion, or psychology, or philosophy, or mythology? Art, sociology, or economics? But then I realize that, in the end, “What shall I do today?” is a question about life. What it is. What it’s about. The lived experience of life cannot be broken down into categories. In the living, the categories overlap endlessly in the woven tapestry that becomes a life.

What I sense is that this individual “me” can experience life only as an interconnected web of thoughts and feelings that intertwine, intermesh, and interact—forming one seamless bolt of cloth. This “whole cloth” of “me” is not separable into individual threads, for if the cloth were unwound into threads, there would be no “me.”

Further, when I try to look outside, at whatever reality really is, at whatever is “out there,” separate from “me,” it can be dealt with, thought about, and experienced only through this nexus of “me.” It is as if this organizing field of “me” is a magnet, and from this magnet, all the metal filings of my reality align themselves into patterns flowing out from the center—patterns that become “my” experience. The assumptions of my mind form an energy field that rushes out continuously in streams to shape and mold the reality that will become my experience.

To put it a bit differently, each one of us sees and experiences life through a lens, a set of assumptions enculturated in us as we grew up, then modified by the decisions we made over the years about where to focus our attention, with whom to spend our time, and what we would believe—and disbelieve. This lens is our worldview, the way we understand who we are and what life is about. It is the underlying framework within which we make our decisions and understand our lives—and it is the prison that keeps us from seeing and knowing our world and ourselves in a more complete way.

This book, then, considers the most basic questions: What am I doing here in this life, on this earth? Is there a meaning to my life, and if so, how do I find it? How is my worldview aiding and how is it hindering my journey? Where do I look for guidance, and how do I make the best possible decisions for living? How do I deal with conflicts—both those with others and those within myself? In short, what will I do with my remaining chips, the remaining moments of my days?

[1] Like the belief in parts of Europe for several centuries that the earth was flat, in spite of earlier knowledge to the contrary. Or the belief that germs did not cause disease. (Louis Pasteur was greeted with a firestorm of derision when he sought to prove, little more than one hundred years ago, that disease was being spread by health practitioners.) Or the view that Newtonian physics fully explained the world, or that giant meteors had not struck the earth. Or the ridicule directed toward a young, obscure Australian physician who, only twenty-five years ago, suggested that bacteria were a primary cause of ulcers (now accepted as true).

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