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Questioner: I am what I know myself to be.

Nisargadatta Maharaj:  You cannot possibly say that you are what you think yourself to be! Your ideas about yourself change from day to day and from moment to moment. Your self-image is the most changeful thing you have. It is utterly vulnerable, at the mercy of a passerby. A bereavement, the loss of a job, an insult, and your image of yourself, which you call your person, changes deeply. To know what you are you must first investigate and know what you are not. And to know what you are not you must watch yourself carefully, rejecting all that does not necessarily go with the basic fact: ‘I am’. The ideas: I am born at a given place, at a given time, from my parents and now I am so-and-so, living at, married to, father of, employed by, and so on, are not inherent in the sense ‘I am’. Our usual attitude is of ‘I am this’. Separate consistently and perseveringly the ‘I am’ from ‘this’ or ‘that’, and try to feel what it means to be, just to be, without being ‘this’ or ‘that’. All our habits go against it and the task of fighting them is long and hard sometimes, but clear understanding helps a lot. The clearer you understand that on the level of the mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker you will come to the end of your search and realize your limitless being.

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Questioner: All teachers advise us to meditate. Why should we meditate?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: We know the outer world of sensations and actions, but of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness.

Incidentally the practice of meditation deeply affects our character. We are slaves to what we do not know; of what we know we are masters. Whatever vice or weakness in ourselves we discover and understand its causes and its workings, we overcome it by the very knowing; the unconscious dissolves when brought into the conscious. The dissolution of the unconscious releases energy; the mind feels adequate and become quiet.

Q: What is the purpose of meditation?

Maharaj:  Seeing the false as the false, is meditation. This must go on all the time.

Q: We are told to meditate regularly.

Maharaj:  Deliberate daily exercise in discrimination between the true and the false and renunciation of the false is meditation. There are many kinds of meditation to begin with, but they all merge finally into one.

You may choose any way that suits you; your earnestness will determine the rate of progress.

Q: No hint for me?

Maharaj:  Establish yourself firmly in the awareness of ‘I am’. This is the beginning and also the end of all endeavor.

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For me, Nisargadatta Maharaj is an incredible inspiration. Like many before me, I have been touched deeply by the teachings and insights of this remarkable man.  I am That, a collection of dialogues with his students, is free from cultural and religious trappings. The wisdom he expounds is stripped bare of all that is unnecessary. If we lived in a world were we could only possess a single book, you would surely find a copy of I am That in my bag. I’ve read and reread this book a number of times, and decided this last time to pull out a number of passages that I find helpful for navigating this crazy existence. I plan to share a few of them over the coming months.

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Questioner: At what point does one experience reality?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: Experience is of change, it comes and goes. Reality is not an event, it cannot be experienced. It is not perceivable in the same way as an event is perceivable. If you wait for an event to take place, for the coming of reality, you will wait forever, for reality neither comes nor goes. It is to be perceived, not expected. It is not to be prepared for and anticipated. But the very longing and search for reality is the movement, operation, action of reality. All you can do is to grasp the central point, that reality is not an event and does not happen and whatever happens, whatever comes and goes, is not reality. See the event as event only, the transient as transient, experience as mere experience and you have done all you can. Then you are vulnerable to reality, no longer armored against it, as you were when you gave reality to events and experiences. But as soon as there is some like or dislike, you have built a screen.

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I mentioned previously that I had envisioned a framework for 2011 based on a book recommendation from one of my most goal-oriented and motivated friends, Marc.  The book is Your Best Year Yet, published in 1994, yet ever prevalent in today’s world. The premise is simple: Keep your goals simple, focused and close at hand.

clip_image001During my time in Corporate America, specifically at IBM, a routine part of my career was goal-setting, execution, and review. Throughout the year I would examine my responsibilities, direct them towards my goals and hopefully be rewarded financially for meeting them at the end of the year.  I believe I took for granted how helpful such a process is in moving one forward towards their aspirations. Why not apply such a process to all aspects of one’s life?

Unfortunately I cannot promise anyone big bonuses through this process, but I think you will find it satisfying and if anything, allow you to cut out some of your less than fruitful activities.

The process is simple; you can choose to read through the book or simply jump to the workshop and refer back to the sections when needed.  Eventually you will end up with a one page summary like this:

Keith’s Best Year Yet 2011

GUIDELINES

  • No place to go, nothing to do
  • Trust my intuition: choose nourishment over diminishment, always.
  • Do the difficult things first

NEW PARADIGM

  • My Inner work is evolving into a creative means of service to humanity

MAJOR FOCUS

  • Writer

TOP TEN GOALS

  • Develop a formal writing process and implement it: 2 blog entries a week and personal journal with weekly goal review and reflection
  • Lead and complete technical peak climb of at least Grade III, 7+
  • Innovate business idea and financial plan to support it
  • Organize and take a destination trip with my family

The intention of the short summary is for you to have something concise and easily referenceable (You’ll be able to essentially memorize it after a couple weeks).

Several aspects of the process stood out to me as particularly helpful:

1. Getting to the Guidelines. You look at the previous year, your accomplishments, your disappointments and the lessons learned from these.  Your guidelines stem from the lessons learned – almost if you could go back to the start of last year and give yourself advice.

2. Developing the Paradigm shift. I thought this part was extremely innovative. You look at your last year, analyze the What do I say to myself to justify why I didn’t meet my goals? For example, I found things such as:  I’m not a creative person; I am in a place where I need to develop myself first before I can help others, etc.  You then turn these excuses (limiting paradigm) on their head, basically shifting a world-view you hold of yourself.

3. Determining the Focus:  The workshop takes you through a process of cross-referencing your roles in life (boyfriend, athlete, yogi, and writer) with your values (self-realization, loving others, creative expression, etc.).  You then put tic marks next to each role when it helps you focus on one of your values.  This is where certain goals that you may have been holding onto for some time fall away. For example, I’m always saying that I want to re-learn Spanish. Yet it doesn’t fall into this matrix at all, and therefore (this year at least) is not a tangible goal.

After this process, you ask yourself, If I were able to put a big checkmark next to one of my roles at the end of this year, signifying a sense of mastery in it, which one would it be? This becomes your focus. For me, writer.

Finally you walk through your life roles and write 3-5 goals for each. You painstakingly have to trim this list down to 10 in total. This can be difficult, but it is one of the jewels of this process: remaining focused. Now a month after finishing these goals, I sometimes feel the 10 are unobtainable. I can only imagine if I started with 20.

And that’s it. I keep a copy of this list on my iPhone for quick reference, referring to it weekly or as needed. It has already helped me on a few major decisions where I am teetering back and forth. Instead of a long debate with myself, I simply say, is it on my list? When having to choose where to direct my energy, I have a set of guidelines that I can fall back on.

I did this process as a slow-burn over the course of a couple of weeks. But if you’re motivated you complete it on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone works differently, but my recommendation is to plan on at least two sittings. The first to read through the book and understand what is being asked from you. Then let it incubate a bit. Come back and actually do the goal setting exercises.

Here’s to your best year yet!

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After publishing my review on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I realized that I wanted to add some more personal insight. As I travel, procuring food is without a doubt my most time consuming activity. Every region of every country has different cuisines, customs around eating and food delivery. It can be taxing at times when you just want that quick meal (today I walked around for an hour trying to find breakfast), but overall I am gaining an appreciation for where my food comes from and who cooks it. I watched a woman cook my dumplings, bought apples directly from the farmer and had tea likely grown within a few miles of here. I really enjoy walking around the markets in each little town I visit. It really allows you to put your finger on the pulse of a place – especially with regard to the food and the people who bring it to you. Today was a little disgusting as I watched the butchers hack off the heads of a couple of Yaks, but for the most part its vendors selling fruit and vegetables, locals getting what they need for the day and random tourists like me asking if I can take photographs of dead Yaks and ducks.

I have been traveling for 4 months in Asia and over countless hours staring out the window of a bus, I have been able to watch the entire life-cycle of rice. In Japan in June, the rice was just being planted. I progressively I watched it grow in Thailand and Laos, ultimately seeing signs of the harvest in Indonesia and then China as the rains came to an end. The one thing in common despite the phase of growth was the hard work of the farmers. Driving or walking past rice-fields, you see people bent over, working the fields with their sickles or bare hands, carrying ungodly amounts on their backs, from dawn to dusk. Rice has been the most visible, but I have no doubt that all the other crops that end up on my plate take just as much work. So they are farmers and this is their job, big deal, right?

Actually it is a big deal. When I see the work that goes into delivering a cup of rice to my table, that rice does not look or taste the same. Not to mention when its complimented with a variety of vegetables, tofu, sauces, etc. Its a reminder of the interconnectedness of the world, and an appreciation for the work others do to allow me to pursue other things in life, not spending the majority of my time cultivating food.

I began thinking about this at my Zen Buddhist meditation retreat back in April. Each meal during the retreat is cooked, served and eaten very ritualistically, and part of the meal chant directly before eating contains this:

Innumerable labors brought us this food,
know how it comes to us.

Receiving this offering, consider
whether our virtue and practice deserve it.

Desiring the natural order of mind, be
free from greed, hate and delusion.

We eat to support life and to practice the way of
Buddha.

This very simple, but powerful paragraph acknowledges what I said earlier. Over the past several months, I’ve committed to a small mantra before each meal, putting my hands together and saying at least the first sentence of the above to myself, recognizing the pains and labors that ultimately ended in the plate of food before me. I often forget, usually when very hungry or distracted in thought, but slowly over time it is becoming more and more a part of every meal. This allows me to feel more connected with what I am eating, the people who bring it to me whether the farmer, shopkeeper or chef. Its really about awareness – and why not be aware of what you are putting in your body?

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Food. Its interesting how much more time I spend thinking about it on the road – especially when in new places and countries, attempting to find what works and doesn’t work for me. At home, our industrial food system (as Michael Pollin) calls it, makes it easy for us to not think about food, relying on the system to deliver what we need, when we need it. Today, American’s spend a smaller percentage of their income (around 10%) on food than any society in history. While our industrial food system may be providing cheap, easy food, Pollin is suggesting that we may want to spend more time getting to know what we eat, and I happen to agree with him.

Michael Pollin explores in detail 4 different meal options available today:

1. A meal provided by the Industrial system – culminating in a McDonalds Happy Meal

2. An ‘Industrial Organic’ meal through Whole Foods

3. A ‘Beyond Organic’’ meal grown and created on a sustainable, closed eco-system family farm

4. A meal hunted and foraged.

This book has been on my radar screen for some time, especially since I became a vegetarian 4 years ago and started looking much more carefully at what I was putting in my body. I funny side story is that I picked this book up in Bali, only to find out that the guest house where I found it was not selling it! Despite my pleading, generous offers of money and trading another NY times best seller, I ultimately didn’t end up with the book…. Two months later in Chiang Rai I stumbled upon it in a small bookstore and grabbed it immediately – it was a sign!

Pollin goes into excruciating detail with a detective/journalistic approach to the various food chains. A few things really stood out for me:

1. Corn. Our entire food chain has been predicated on corn. We feed it to our animals and fish, we use it to create everything from soda to gasoline, drastically altering the natural order of things (especially when he looks at the life of a cow growing up on corn – horrific).

2. Industrial Organic. Pollin points out that 2 farms in California produce 90% of the organic produce in the United States. And despite the labels, most of these farms are do not adhere to the original principles of Organic, rather following loose guidelines from the USDA and essentially creating a corporate industry of Organic. That organic asparagus shipped in from Argentina has a much greater cost (calories of energy to deliver to the plate versus calories when consumed) than the non-organic, local variety. I’m not knocking Organic – it still means that the tons and tons of pesticide are kept out of the environment and the food is likely more nutritious. Just don’t throw blind trust into the word organic.

3. A new appreciation for the sustainable farm – Pollin spends a week on a farm that is nearly a closed eco-system with a very few exceptions. The local farm manages his farm such that the plants and animals complement each other, recycling and reusing almost everything. People drive hundreds of miles to pick up his chickens and eggs at the farm. Not only do these people feel they are getting higher quality food, they also have a relationship with the person who grows their food (see # 4). I will be much more motivated to shop at the local farmers market and eat seasonal produce when I return home.

4. The system is designed to cloak. We have no idea what happens in a slaughter house (he was unable to see any because they are all closed to the public), even ‘free range’ can be a misnomer when it comes to industrial-organic food due to lax USDA regulations. Most of our food originates from corn and runs through a vast and efficient supply chain before it ends up on your Whole Foods or Wal-Mart shelf. We have been told to think all carrots are carrots, beef is beef, etc, despite the fact this is very untrue as carrots grown in Michigan are much different than those in Florida and of course grass-fed versus corn-fed cattle hardly compare.

5. Marketing. A recent grocery store slogan stated “We pile it high and sell it cheap!” American’s, despite out growing affluence, spend less and less on food. When it comes to other items (cars, electronics, clothing), we almost ALWAYS are willing to spend more for better quality. Why is food the exception? Because corporate marketing has gotten you to believe it is a commodity and not an important aspect of your life you should spend time considering.

6. A look into the merits of vegetarianism. Reading this book may make you come a vegetarian. However, Pollin does discuss the history and culture of meat-eating. Historically it was more ritualistic, with humans paying respect to animals, individuals in societies taking turns in the slaughter, etc. Basically there was a more direct relationship to the animal that ended up on the plate, and the meat slaughter/eating often became a large part of a culture’s identity and customs through the family eating a meal together.. He argues there is still a place for this, but we are very, very far removed from this in America.

I could go on and on, but will stop with this. I consider it a must read if you have any interest in improving the quality of food that you put in your body and simultaneously decreasing the footprint you create by eating and all of its hidden energy costs. The only way to truly change the system is to support local, sustainable farmers, ask your grocer questions about where they get their produce, and demand better. Of course this implies rising costs. But what are the long-term costs otherwise? Yes, you will have to spend more of your already busy life procuring food, but as Pollin believes, having a relationship with your food and people who grow it is important.

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First, thank you to my Uncle, Pete Kogut, for sending this book my way before I left the country. I read it twice while in Japan and it was a fantastic catalyst for inner contemplation at the commencement of my pilgrimage.

I’m attempting to write this review 6 weeks later, but the key messages stuck with me such that I feel I can cover it, especially what it conveyed for me. For some reason I just never sat down to type this. The author is Robert Bly, a famous American Poet. 

51KFRQEQS3L._SS500_The entire book explores masculinity throughout the ages via a Grimm Brothers fairy tale called Iron John which is all of 4 pages in entirety. Bly breaks the fairy tale down into many sections, commenting on each as a ‘gate’ in a mans development of masculinity. The story begins with the rumor of a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest. When any of the King’s men go in search of him they never return. Ultimately a brave hunter asks the King for work and the King challenges him to bring the Wild Man in. The hunter does just this – after realizing the Wild Man is at the bottom of a lake he brings back a hundred men and they empty the lake, bucket by bucket, bringing the Wild Man back to the kingdom where he is imprisoned. Every little bit of the story is riddled with metaphor – for example the concept of uncovering the Wild Man (really our inner wild man) bucket by bucket, not by brazen force.

The story then proceeds with the King’s son losing his ball in the Wild Man’s cage, and the boy ultimately sets the Wild Man free and goes off to the woods with him. Bly is very Freudian and in one of the most controversial parts of the story the boy finds the key to the Wild Mans cage underneath his mother’s pillow. This did cause an uproar amongst many feminists who think Bly is simply blaming women for men’s apparent lack of masculinity today. But Bly is actually blaming other men (I’ll get to this in a minute). Without repeating the entire fairy tale, the story proceeds with the development of the boy as he enters the woods, exits the woods, returns to the kingdom as a cook, meets the king and his daughter, goes to war and receives a wound, and eventually reveals his true identity, marries the king’s daughter and ultimately enables the Wild Man to return to society. Bly weaves in historical fact, mythology and poetry in an attempt to uncover a common theme in the development of masculinity among all people and societies. He defines classic initiation as follows:

  • Step 1: Bonding with the mother and separation from the mother
  • Step 2: Bonding with the father and separation from the father
  • Step 3: The arrival of the male mother, or the mentor, who helps a man rebuild the bridge to his own essence
  • Step 4: Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy such as the Wild Man, or the warrior energy (drinking from the waters of God).
  • Step 5: Marriage with the Holy Woman or the Queen

I believe in the book and throughout the fairy tale, we actually uncover about eight steps, but the five above are common in almost all historical accounts of male development. Returning to Bly’s premise, he believes that in general, today’s American male generally fails at step 3, because our society has done away with traditional male initiation. He describes a specific American Indian initiation where boys are forcibly taken from their mothers and enter the world of men at the age of 12, only returning to the tribe after learning of the tribal myths and developing the skills to be a man. While that is one end of an extreme, historically in American society we had larger families living together and men worked closer to home, therefore a boy was ‘initiated’ by men not through dramatic ritual, but by slow immersion. Today, in our post-industrial society, most boys have no idea what their father does on a daily basis (if they even have a father), and rarely have the opportunity to spend long hours with older male relatives. Most boys are initiated by other boys (think about frat parties or gangs), the blind leading the blind. Today this has created an issue that is many generations deep and many men really have no idea what being a man even means, outside of the rigid societal interpretations.

The book is rich in meaning and has really allowed me to look at the various aspects of my own development and that of the society around me. Its helped shed some light on past relationships, to release fear around slowly unbridling the Wild Man inside of me and also has helped explain many of the actions and words of both my male friends and today’s leaders. Bly describes the boy’s work in the kitchen as a descent into ashes, one of the steps pulled out in his book. Apprentice Viking warriors used to literally sleep in the ashes near the fire until their time came for full duty. Bly believes that many men never really make that descent, tasting the earth and poverty. While I can’t say I’m physically sleeping on the dirt (I’ve been close), I often liken this trip to some form of descent. After my long rise in financial and societal status at home I now write vagabond for occupation and for the first time in 10 years have no income or definition for who I am in the conventional sense.

Another important aspect worthy of discussion is that of the figurative ‘king’ in the book. Their are three kings in our world – sacred, political and inner. The sacred is often found through faith and in secular societies like ours, the political king often holds the sacred and political chairs. In addition to mentors, men need these Kings. I usually laugh when I’m in Thailand or Singapore and see the King’s face everywhere, and such a strong attachment and love that all of the people have for these leaders. But there is something very powerful in this that acts as an underlying glue for these societies and from what I can gather mostly a positive one.  Its been a long time since American society has seen such a political king – many older men point to the days that MLK or JFK died that they lost a big part of themselves. I started to look at my world – do I have a hero, a ‘king’? The frenzy behind Obama is an outcome of many years of a vacant seat at the throne. He has a tremendous opportunity to fill this role, as people have given him the opportunity. Lets hope he does or otherwise we as a society will dive even further into skepticism of political leadership. The inner King is a discussion in itself but the book alludes to the fact that for many of us today, that inner King is badly injured and quite inactive.

Bly does not attempt to provide solutions, so the reader is left to ponder themselves the initiatory processes and work in their own life. I have already sent this book to several of my very close male friends, and suggest anyone interested in exploring this further to pick up a copy. The tag line is something like ‘a book about men’ but I would argue that women would also gain some amazing insight into their partners, brothers and fathers by reading this. I’m actually searching for a feminist companion that may help me develop an understanding and compassion for the female process. I actually got so into the book at one point I was investigating academic programs around men’s studies and masculine theory. I don’t think I’ll go that route, but I am thinking seriously about building active mentor/mentee relationships, joining a men’s group and simply being much more active (cultivating intent) on my own process.

If anyone out there has read or will read it, please let me know as I’d love to continue the discussion!

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