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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.)

We don’t know about you, but here at SuperOptimist headquarters, the past couple of weeks have been filled with more than our share of unfortunate events: a car battery dying at an inopportune time, a dog spraining his right front paw, chaotic deadlines at the office, a pulled muscle in the lower back, and an errant glass of water spilling on a laptop to the tune of a $1500 replacement.

So when we discovered that the planet Mercury had gone into retrograde on October 13th, and will continue that way for a few more days, we weren’t in the least surprised. After all, the hallmarks of Mercury Retrograde are often negative and doom-laden. Disruptions, miscommunication, and worrying more than usual are but some of the troubles one can expect.  And all this comes in the midst of voting for the U.S. president, as friends, neighbors and the country-at-large are made frantic by the possibility that we’re in for another contested election.  (Guess when the last presidential face-off to happen during Mercury Retrograde was? That’s right. Yikes.)

So whether you’re a believer in astrology or you think it’s all hocum and nonsense, this latest cycle is due to end at 12:50 pm on November 3rd. Whether this is good news or not, will depend on how you play it.

SuperOptimists, believing that every negative is a positive in disguise, do not run from the trials of Mercury Retrograde. In fact, we welcome them!  Consider that these are not negative events, but moments designed to wake us out of the semi-conscious state in which we often pass our time.

In our case, the unwelcome expenditure on a laptop reminds us that hey, it’s only money and now we’ll have a faster hard drive and more memory; our dog’s sore paw helps us honor the animal kingdom by loving her even more and give her an extra treat,  the bad back an opportunity to slow down, take stock, and correct mistakes we made trying a power yoga move when we should start with mild stretching.

Just as spiritual practitioners welcome pain as a teaching tool, our Mercury Retrograde exposure helps us foster patience and focus the mind. As we rise above present discomforts, we’ll be better prepared for whatever comes next. (Including 6 more months of social isolation, our candidate not winning the election, and the cancellation of our favorite program on netflix.)

Best of all, without Mercury Retrograde, we wouldn’t know how good we have it when it’s not Mercury Retrograde. And for that, we’re eternally grateful.

*Mercury Retrograde doesn’t mean the planet has suddenly changed direction, but that from the perspective of the Earth, it appears to be moving backwards against the constellations of stars that form the zodiac.  So it’s an illusion…but then again, isn’t everything?

Another day, another set of absolute miracles taking place. And in every direction!

Wait, you didn’t see them?

Perhaps you have become inured to such marvels. You are not alone. Since humanity started about 6 million years ago with primates known as the Ardipithecus, miracles have become so plentiful in life, we take them for granted.

Yet all it takes to reignite the senses to the incredible phenomena that surround us is to pause and consider that it wasn’t very long ago that humans walked on all fours and had body hair they could neither groom nor shampoo. And today? In haircare alone, you have your choice of hundreds of fabulous shampoo brands! (Here are the statistics on the favorites from 2018.)

See how everyday occurrences we take for granted can become jaw-dropping revelations, just by reframing your perspective? Here are a few more examples that we’ve recently found deserving of deeper appreciation.

DAILY COMMUTE: We take a “train” pulled by a “diesel engine” that runs on “steel tracks” from one “state” to another. That’s amazing!

PLACE OF EMPLOYMENT: We work in a “building” that’s 52 stories tall, has 21 “elevators” and 189 “water fountains”. That’s amazing!

LUNCHTIME IN THE CITY: We eat a “pulled pork sandwich” from a “food truck” one block away, and they give us an “extra side of coleslaw” because it’s almost closing time. That’s amazing!

CHANCE AT GREAT FORTUNE: Twice a week we buy a “ticket” that qualifies us to win hundreds of millions of “dollars” if our numbers are chosen. That’s amazing!

MOBILE PHONE: We all stare at a “computer” the size of a human hand that offers endless news, games, televisions shows, weather, and “shopping opportunities”. That’s amazing!

STREET BUSKER: Every morning there’s a man near the 42nd St. “shuttle” who wears a “paper crown” on his head and plays “House of the Rising Sun” on a red Telecaster “guitar”. That’s amazing!

We could keep going like this all day. And you can too!  Any time you feel the heavy burden of routine starting to drag you into the darkness, close your eyes, click your heels, and remember that you have eyes and heels to close and click.  Then open your eyes, point at the nearest object, and marvel at it out loud.

“Wow, that’s a ‘metal file cabinet’ that contains sheets of ‘paper’ with words and pictures on it.  That’s amazing!”*

*Note: You may need to explain to onlookers why you are behaving like this, as they probably aren’t as attuned to the miracles of everyday existence as you are.

We are raised to believe that there is “good weather” and “bad weather.” So we learn to say 80 degrees and balmy is good, and 33 degrees and rainy is bad.  Above 90 degrees is “miserably hot,” below 20 degrees is “freezing cold,” and what we are experiencing now with the polar vortex is just plain awful.

Yet what if we were to drop the designations of positive and negative, and just accept that the weather is simply weather; constantly changing, oft times challenging, and always interesting!

Sometimes when the weather seems ungodly, it is a fine exercise for to run out the door and experience the truth of it.  Bitter winds, jaw-dropping temperatures, the works. If the spirit moves you, scream and howl and let your body awaken to it.  Feel the truth in your body, not what the 5-day forecast is telling you. You will almost immediately discover that the weather may not be bad at all — but is actually quite stimulating.*

On the flip side, severe weather can remind us that the world is made up of forces bigger than we are, which makes our issues feel minor in comparison. Plus, there’s less social pressure to get together with others, which means you won’t have to make small talk about “how f-ing cold it is” or hear about your neighbor’s latest trip to Florida “where it was sunny and 85 degrees.”  Better to hunker down with a good read and a cup of soothing Djarling. How about Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat?

*It’s also recommended to take your camera with you, for as the professionals say, “Bad weather makes good photographs.”

 

Lots of people play it safe as they age, and for good reason. “Safe” seems to be a wiser choice than “sorry.” But could it be that we actually have that backwards?

Adhering to a predetermined routine means you know pretty much what each day is going to bring, even before you live it.  In the meantime, the world around you is constantly changing, so the safe path you follow may be more uncertain than you think.

So how do we prevent ourselves from becoming ossified? To begin, The SuperOptimist recommends scheduling at least two risks a week into your calendar. But you don’t have to go skydiving right away. Try a few with a relatively high probability of success to start. Forgo the usual grape jelly and make yourself a peanut butter and honey sandwich instead. Break the routine and stroll down a different block on your way to the office. Turn off CNN and watch a video that offers insight into the nature of chance and probability.* Set your alarm for 5:00 am one morning and take in the sun rise. (Odds you can pull this off and not snooze alarm yourself back to 6:30? Let’s say 3 to 1).

Getting the hang of it?  Now you’re ready to double down on risk, where your adrenals kick up a notch and your sweat glands activate as you actually experience the shock of the new. Take a month’s pay and visit your local casino for a few spins of the roulette wheel. You could win enough to pay off your mortgage, or you might find yourself without any money for next week’s grocery tab. Audition for an off-off Broadway show, despite your lack of acting experience. Your long shot might pay off in a featured role, or you could be driven from the theater with catcalls and brickbats.  Approach a stranger and say hello.  It could spark a new friendship.  Or maybe not.

No matter what happens, the chance of you coming out on top is 100%! That’s because whether you win or lose, succeed or fail, you get to face your fears, collect more information for the next time, and have a swell story to tell your friends back at the salad bar, water cooler, or locker room (where they’re doing exactly what they did yesterday. But not you!).

Want to know more about the benefits of risktaking? Here’s what a cognitive researcher from Carnegie Mellon has written on the subject, and here’s why risk-takers are a smarter breed of human, according to scientists in Finland.

Vive la difference, et bonne chance pour la nouvelle année!

*Other words to add to your vocabulary include: odds, uncertainty, randomness, fortune, fate, hazard, unpredictability, and surprise.

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.

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!

There’s an ancient proverb that states: “If your own house is not in order, how can you possible help another to tidy up theirs?”

So before offering a hearty handshake to a friend, colleague, or local law enforcement officer, we suggest you start with yourself first.

Clasp your hands together. Doing so is a great way to get in touch with yourself, get centered, and remember “I am here now.” There’s a reason your own two hands clasped together is the inter-cultural symbol of prayer and spiritual growth.

Try to pay attention to what your hands feel like. Grab a knuckle and study your wonderful opposable thumb, the keystone of humanity’s progress. Those hands are loaded with more nerve endings and wired with greater familiarity to your brain than any other part of your body.

When you explore what your own hands feel like you can learn things about your own body, your temperament, your personality. Are they hard and tense — or soft and supple? Warm or cold? Damp or dry? If they’re dry, you might enjoy reaching for one of the 5,000 commercial hand moisturizing products and see how that feels.*

Saluting yourself, adoring yourself and sparking the divine in yourself is a great way to start the day. So slap ‘em together, give your own hands a good shake and say “hello, adorable friend.”

*While we are not endorsing any particular hand cream, lotion or balm, we do recommend choosing one that’s unscented.

Feeling stuck? Blocked? Like you’ve hit a brick wall?

You’re not alone. But rather than work yourself up into a froth, we suggest taking a page from Marcus Aurelius’ notebook.

True, it is a pretty old notebook. After all, Marcus was a Roman ruler back when you could count the centuries on two fingers. But that doesn’t mean he was ancient in his thinking. In fact, he was one of the first guys to carry around some papyrus and stylus and pen notes to himself to keep him on track.

It was his journaling, at first untitled, then known as “Marcus’ Writings to Himself,” and finally as the “Meditations”, where we gain our understanding of Stoicism, an early form of philosophy.

Stoicism sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be, how brief our moment of life is, and that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our view of the situation, not in the situation itself.  In fact, Marcus wrote to himself that any problem we might face could actually be opportunity in disguise.  As he put it: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

In other words, everything is opportunity.  Even the brick wall that you’re currently banging your head against. So there’s no need to panic. Being stuck isn’t “bad.” It just is. By stepping back from self-flagellation and gazing at the problem dispassionately, you can begin to accept it. And in the acceptance comes growth.

So enjoy every blessed obstacle in your path, and they’ll return the favor by offering you a chance to overcome them!

 

Want to shake off the midweek routine and turn the day into something special?  We suggest altering your reality by donning a mask. While not everyone is cut out to be a shaman, spirit channel, or voyager to higher levels of reality, this ancient activity allows humans to “check in” with their identity, superego, and true self. Moreover, 1 person out of every 362 has the potential to enter a higher dimension of time and space. Maybe it’s you!*

*To find out, fashion a simple mask from paper or cardboard (or cut out the John Wayne “Duke” model shown above). Place mask over face, then go look at yourself
 in the mirror. Is it still you? If not, who? Ideally, you will be transported from your current state of reality and have a mystical experience. If not, be patient and try again. You are also invited to conceive a more personalized mask based on an animal motif or other natural spirit-guide. Enjoy!