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Life throwing you curveballs? Sometimes it’s best to sit back and let Jianzhi Sengcan, the Third Patriarch of Zen, remind you that you needn’t be troubled by slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here are the first stanzas of Sengcan’s “Hsin Hsin Ming,”* containing all the instructions you need for avoiding suffering and removing every obstacle to enlightenment. (And all in just 151 words.)

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such
erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

While this might sound easy, it takes practice to step away from what society labels “reality” and march to the beat of the one universal drummer.  To remind ourselves to practice at every opportunity, we’ve boiled “the Ming” down to it’s key component and wear it close to our hearts. (Four words even harder to forget!)

*Perhaps you’re wondering what “Hsin Hsin Ming” actually means. Different translators have rendered the title in different ways. Here’s a few to ponder:

  1. On Believing in Mind (Daisetsu Teitarõ Suzuki)
  2. On Faith in Mind (Dusan Pajin)
  3. Trusting In Mind (Hae Kwang)
  4. Trust in the Heart (Thomas Cleary)
  5. The Perfect Way (translator unknown)

**When it comes to t-shirts, you could always wear one of these. (Although we have no preference either way.)

Not long ago in human history, it was easy to find peace and quiet just by wandering outside in the middle of the night and gazing up at the stars.  It was quiet. It was peaceful. And because there was no such thing as light pollution, you could see them clearly.

Now, whether it’s mass media, social media, the hum of traffic, the illumination of a digital billboard, or a postcard from a realtor promising you riches if you list your home with her today, modern homo sapiens live in a constant state of sensory overload. You name it, and it probably has the ability to distract you from your true state of consciousness.

But most of us now live in urban areas, not in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where astronomers do their best work unencumbered by digital billboards, .  For us to experience what they do, we must seek alternative ways to power down from the constant stimulation engendered by the material world.

So how do we really unplug from the artificial? Why not try taking away one of your senses for a few hours, and see how the experience modifies your way of thinking.*

A blindfold is a good start. Without the use of your eyes, what do you conjure? Researchers from the University of Rochester have found that even in absolute darkness, we still think we see. The question is, what images are visible to you when you’re in the dark? What do you smell? Is your hearing more acute? How about your sense of touch? Pick something up from your desk and roll it around in your hand. Interesting the difference between a roll of scotch tape and a pair of scissors, no?

When it comes to choice of blindfold, a piece of fabric will do, although we prefer a comfortable sleep mask to really block out the light. This way, you can continue to benefit from its quality construction at bedtime, or on long flights (in the distant future).

If you wanted to try this experiment without a mask, there are still a few places on Earth that you can go.  Places like the Dark Sky Reserve on Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula and the NamibRand IDSR in Africa are among the best locations. And if you want your community to go darker, why not join the International Dark Sky Association, which keeps track of light pollution and monitors how much darkness you really get in places across the globe.**

*Future related activity: Sensory Overload Day (coming soon).

**April 19-26 was International Dark Sky Week, in case you want to keep the celebration going.

Opening Day is normally associated with the beginning of the major league baseball season, bringing a sense of hope that at the very least, sub-freezing temperatures are behind us and spring has finally arrived.

But we see no reason why the pastime should only be relegated to balls and strikes. Here are some suggestions for celebrating opening day outside of a ballpark, tavern, or Best Buy electronics store.

Open a window. Not only can open windows boost mood by letting in some fresh air, the very act can be good for the environment. Indoor air pollution has been described by the EPA as a primary environmental health problem. In addition, the American College of Allergists states that 50 percent of all illnesses are caused by polluted indoor air. So grab that sash and fling wide the windows. You’ll be glad you did.

Open a jar of sauerkraut.  In addition to going great on a hot dog (the classic opening day meal of baseball enthusiasts), sauerkraut has amazing health benefits that might actually negate the harmful qualities of the frankfurter.

Open your “third eye.” Known as the ‘Ajna chakra’, the third eye is a source of intuitive wisdom and has the potential to lead you to the highest form of intelligence. Try some third eye meditation, with eyes closed, focused on the area between your two actual eyes. Once you start seeing a bluish-white light, you’re halfway there to healing your chakras and getting in touch with a further dimension of existence.

Open your browser and search for “Smead Jolley”.  There’s nothing more enjoyable than discovering arcane knowledge about some of the more colorful players of yesteryear, Smead being one of them. Jolley was an outfielder in the 1930s who once committed three errors on a single play.* But did Smead let his ineptitude in the field get him down? No! After getting dumped from the majors due to his poor fielding skills, he spent the rest of his career hitting the cover off the ball in the Pacific Coast League.  Back then, the PCL paid their established players in a manner commensurate with the majors, so Smead did okay for himself.  Not only that, he was inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003.  Oh, and his nickname was “Smudge.” You can’t ask for more from a ballplayer.

*First he let a ball roll through his legs in the outfield. After allowing it to carom off the wall, the ball rolled back between his legs in the opposite direction. When he finally recovered the ball, he heaved it over the third baseman’s head and into the stands. **

**Although the ump took pity on him and only scored it two errors.

 

Happy holidays! Here at SuperOptimist headquarters, we favor meditation as a way of detaching from the madness of the material world and connecting with the universal truths that transcend trade wars, social media, and the quandary over wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” vs. a “Happy Holiday.”

To that end, in the U.S. a person interested in “mindfulness” is often told to begin their practice by meditating 20 minutes a day. They’re also encouraged to download a Headspace app, buy a special cushion and mat, purchase a statue of the Buddha, and sign up for a weekend retreat in the Catskills.

In India, it’s a bit different. There, a teacher would tell a beginner to start by  meditating 6 hours a day — no questions asked.

So how do you go from 0 to 6 hours all at once? Teachers encourage the practice of “Japa;” repeating a mantra or a divine name over and over again so it takes root in the mind.  Whether you choose “om,” “1-2-3-4,” “hare krishna,” or “cocoa butter” filling the mind with a simple word or sound will lead the practitioner away from the grasping, clinging and suffering generated by material world thinking and move you towards a higher realm of existence.

Sure, 6 hours of meditation a day may seem excessive. But if you want to rid yourself of anger, fear, sadness, and petty grievances (and gain the benefits of pure consciousness), why not give it a whirl?

The truth is, whatever practice you undertake can ultimately grow to 24 hours a day. It goes beyond sitting on a custom made zafu waiting for the chimes on your iPhone to go off.  Every waking moment you can actually be awake!

If you find this hard to do, we recommend you join a like-minded sangha, or spiritual group, so you may gain energy from others on the same path. Here’s one in the northeast where you’re always welcome.

In the meantime, may we all give a cheer for Jesus of Nazareth.  Whether or not he was the son of God, he was surely a bodhissattva with his message of love and tolerance.  No doubt he’d appreciate us putting aside our supposed differences to remember we’re all just flesh and blood. (And teeth that we can flash, if we’re so fortunate.)

*Notice the pictures of the monk and Jesus laughing. Our petty concerns would certainly elicit a chortle from both.  True, you often see them depicted as serious and dour.  But the monks we know have a great sense of humor.  We’re taking the leap and assuming Jesus did as well, since he was human like the rest of us.  Considering that every night Jesus would sit around a camp fire with twelve guys after a long day of speechifying and miracle work, it stands to reason there would be plenty of room for a few guffaws.

One of the most unpleasant tasks a present-day human can undertake is making the dreaded “phone call to customer service.”

A typical experience might involve, oh, say Verizon Wireless and a customer representative named “Cyrus.”* After waiting on hold for the requisite 25 minutes — a length the company hopes will provoke you to abandon your quest — the endless loop of grocery store jazz clicks off.

“Hello, thank you for calling Verizon customer service, my name is Cyrus, how can I help you?” comes a less-than-ebullient voice, hoarse with (presumably) cigarettes and coffee.

“I want to cancel my account,” you say with practiced authority.

There’s a long pause. Too long.  “Are you there?” you ask. Cyrus clears his throat, then asks for your first and last name, and the phone number associated with your account. You spell both names out so he’s crystal clear, and slowly recite the digits so he has time to type them correctly. Long pause. He asks you to repeat all your information again.  You do.  He asks you to spell your name again.  You clench your teeth. Now again with the phone number. Really? You wonder if Cyrus is in need of a quality hearing aid.  Or perhaps Verizon teaches him to torture you as much as possible.

Now Cyrus asks how he can help you.  You repeat your request. “I am calling to cancel your account and I want to assure that this takes place today, as I will no longer be paying an exorbitant bill for services that don’t measure up.”

Another long pause. Cyrus tells you he’s very sorry to hear that, and he will do everything in his power to assist you. Then comes a bombshell. “Unfortunately, I must tell you all the systems are down at the moment.”

You take a deep breath. You’ve prepared for this sort of dodge, so you ask Cyrus if there’s a street address he can give so you can write Verizon and cancel your account that way. He says no, the only way to cancel an account is through a customer service representative like himself, except of course that the systems are down so there’s nothing he can do right now.

You remind Cyrus of the Verizon promise, which reads: “With a positive culture and integrity throughout, the Verizon customer service team is one of a kind.” he hears you out without commenting. You then tell Cyrus you’ll be cancelling the recurring charge for Verizon services on your credit card in two days, so you demand he take your information down and then call you back when the system is up and he can cancel your account.

He says he will definitely take your information down, what was your name again? You repeat your name through teeth so clenched you fear you might crack a molar, and he asks how to spell it, for the third goddamn time. You spell it again for him. There is a long pause and he says sure, he will take care of this when the system comes back on line and give you a call back.  When can you expect to hear back from him? you wonder. Cyrus says he’ll “most likely” call you before the day is out.

But you don’t believe him.  Why should you, he’s done nothing but stonewall since the conversation began. You ask for his last name, the name that comes after Cyrus, for with his full name you can make sure he’s held accountable for his actions. He says he can’t tell you that, it’s company policy. You ask if you can have his extension number, so you can stay in touch with him and not one of the other 40,000 customer service representatives there to not help you. He says unfortunately he doesn’t have an extension, none of them do, that should you call back you’ll be helped by whichever one of the 40,000 unhelpful CSR’s answer the phone first, and adds that the individual could be anywhere in the world.

So after all that, after 49 minutes of your day that you’ll never get back, you do the unthinkable. You thank Cyrus.  You thank him because even though you know he won’t be calling back, there’s still a shred of hope that he will.  You hang up, defeated.

So what are the positives in all this?

  • You took action and made the call, knowing deep down that nothing would be accomplished. In SuperOptimist practice, this is known as “detaching from the outcome.” Maintaining equilibrium regardless of success or failure is a big step towards achieving nirvana.
  • You held back from calling Cyrus a “stupid f(&#@ c&*.” This shows that you retain level of empathy for your fellow human, who can’t help it if working in a call center in South Carolina is the best he can do at present.
  • You avoided telling Cyrus of the possibility that an explosive device could be detonated at his particular call center (a head fake, for sure, but perhaps effective to spur action from a minion at the multinational telecommunications conglomerate.
  • You are able to “defervesce” when you hang up the phone, adding a new word to your vocabulary in the process.
  • You decided that the $40 a month you’ve been wasting on the Verizon GoUnlimited plan you no longer use really isn’t that much to spend to avoid another call with the likes of Cyrus.  So you’ve detached from money too, which you’ve been trying to do for awhile now and maybe, just maybe, this is the experience that will free your mind from ever worrying about such petty matters again.  (Or at least until you get next month’s bill.)
  • You give yourself a gold star for all of the above.

* Verizon was chosen from a myriad of corporate behemoths who operate customer call centers. We could just as easily have featured Amazon, Wells Fargo, or 1-800-My-Pillow as teachers of transcendence for this experiment.

Do you have a spirit animal?  If not, the owl is a very wise choice.*

By claiming the owl as your totem, you’ve picked a symbol with deep sagacity, not to mention “gut instinct.” With the owl by your side, your ability to see what’s hidden to others will flourish.  Let the owl guide you beyond illusion and deceit to the true reality. But don’t flinch: often this reality isn’t what we’ve been led to believe by our teachers, parents and local news outlets.

In addition, if you’re ready to explore the unknown, with its potential for mystery and magic, the owl offers the courage necessary to venture into a parallel universe without fear.

*Here we reveal the SuperOptimist totem named “Oooty,” performing a ritual known as “meditating as if one’s hair is on fire.” Stare at this rendering and you’ll soon absorb the intuitive knowledge that will keep you awake, alert and in touch with what’s really going on!

If you find it getting stuffy in your home, office, car or — most especially — cranium, take a cue from Aldous Huxley and open some doors.

Now we don’t advocate taking drugs to break open the head.  Rather, we recommend literally opening the nearest door, walking out of the confines you are currently in and towards a meditation center, nature preserve, or art studio.* All are more genuine ways of breaking through to the other side, without the nasty side effects.

As Aldous said, “The ordinary waking consciousness…is by no means the only form of consciousness, nor in all circumstances the best. Insofar as he transcends his ordinary self and his ordinary mode of awareness, the mystic is able to enlarge his vision, to look more deeply into the unfathomable miracle of existence.”

So open all the doors.  And windows too.  Especially if there’s a nice breeze to be enjoyed.

*Huxley himself began practicing meditation years before he experimented with substances.