From 24/7 news cycles driven by partisan politics both local and global to climate change, mass migration, and rising nationalism, these times aren’t for the faint of heart. They are, however, a worthy challenge for the committed practitioner. Here are eight principles to help you cultivate an authentic spiritual practice during a time of great fear and equally great opportunity.
The Eight Principles
Let me start by telling you a story about two next-door neighbors. They decide they both want to plant a fruit tree. The first neighbor plants her tree in the front yard very close to her house. She waters it, nurtures it, and protects it, all the while thinking that when the tree is fully grown she’ll get to enjoy its sweet fruit.
The second neighbor also plants her tree in front of her house, but she plants it farther from the house, near her garden fence. She too waters, nurtures, and protects the tree. And she thinks that one day, when this tree is fully grown, everyone who passes by will get to enjoy its sweet fruit along with her. Both neighbors have exactly the same work to do. They water, nurture, and protect the tree. But the reach of their actions is completely different.
What I’m suggesting here is that we’re living through not just a transformation of the way we do things but possibly a deeper transformation of why we do them in the first place. Are we here to maximize our own reward, or to generously share the fruit of our labor? From a practice perspective, there is great power in intention and how it can shape the present moment and even the future—because if you approach this present moment with wisdom, kindness, and a sense of responsibility, you won’t have to worry about the future. It will take care of itself.
Here are eight principles to help you deepen your practice of awakening during anxious times.
1 Serve the Light
What is the light? You are the light, with your ability to be conscious and mindful, and to act with wisdom and foresight. To serve the light means to show up—by which I mean, to be present—for yourself, as your best and highest self, and to show up for others in your life as well.
I remember sitting in the garage with my nephew, who was 6 years old at the time. He had had a few tough days at elementary school and needed an adult to talk to. I had a ton of work, but in that moment I had an opportunity to be a light for him: to just be there, listen, love, and shine the light of my experience and awareness on the problems he was facing. He relaxed, a sigh of relief came over his lips, and a sense of confidence and composure came back into his speech.
That is what being a light is all about. It didn’t take much on my part, just the decision to show up when needed. When the opportunity arises, be there to share your wisdom and to be a light for yourself and others.
2 Break the Norm
By break the norm I don’t mean to spray-paint slogans on someone else’s property. What I mean here is to break your norm. Break with your own conditioning. Break through the fixation and the tightness binding your opinions, your righteousness, your judgments, and your incessant blind criticism. To break with the norm means to be first a revolutionary in your own mind, someone who breaks down the rigid power structures and egoic defenses within through mindfulness and awareness training, and through love and compassion.
Bring your limiting beliefs up to the surface. If you have a hard time identifying what those limiting beliefs are, travel more—even if it’s just to someone else’s home. In The Thirty Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, the 14th-century Buddhist master Gyelsay Togmay Zangpo says, “Give up your homeland— this is the practice of bodhisattvas.” This is because the moment you leave the circumstances you’ve grown accustomed to, you are in foreign territory, and it’s easier to realize how much narrow-mindedness you are carrying around, including all your opinions, judgments, habits, and so on. Get yourself out of your comfort zone.
3 Love with Abandon
To love with abandon is about kindness and compassion, but it’s also about gratitude. Remind yourself right now of all the things people have done for you in your life, from the time you were a small child needing food, clothing, shelter, training, and education, up to today. Think of all the people who had to show up today so that you can be in a warm, well-lit, friendly, comfortable environment reading this article right this minute.
There are countless people who work hard on themselves when you are not around so that you can enjoy this very moment. They get up early in the morning, they do their yoga, they do their meditation, they practice their craft, and they contribute to making the world a friendlier place for all of us. Love is rooted in gratitude, it’s rooted in appreciation, and it’s rooted in not forgetting all of the things that are done for you by others every single day.
4 Own Your Shit
Recently I took a group of practitioners on a trip to Bhutan, the beautiful Buddhist kingdom nestled between China and India. Bhutan has a long tradition of something called crazy wisdom. This tradition, which celebrates unconventional expressions of enlightened behavior, is most closely associated with a man named Drugpa Kunley, who in the 15th century spread the Vajrayana teachings in Bhutan and who was also a lush and a lecher. All over Bhutan, large-scale depictions of phalluses are painted on houses, and carved wooden phalluses are installed prominently on homes and above thresholds and doorsteps, both to honor the teachings of crazy wisdom and to serve more quotidian purposes like protecting against jealousy and malice. During our trip we met with Bhutanese dignitaries, and someone in our group asked, “Can you tell us more about the tradition of crazy wisdom? What does it mean to the people here in Bhutan?” One of the dignitaries replied, “You want to know what it means? It means cut the crap.” Cut through the narcissism, the hypocrisy, and the self-indulgence; cut through the mental noise and confused storylines in your own head that amplify ongoing drama in your life and in the world, and finally show up wherever you are needed, or wherever you find yourself, fully present.
When I say own your shit, I also mean engage in some kind of process of restitution. In December, I, like so many others, was moved by the video of the forgiveness ceremony at Standing Rock between Lakota Native Elder Leonard Crow Dog and Wes Clark Jr., the son of the retired U.S. Army general and former supreme commander at NATO, Wesley Clark Sr. It took five hundred years to get to that moment.
Own your shit means to first reveal where you do or have done things that have caused yourself or others harm. Reveal it to your own mind and awareness. Lay it all open. Don’t walk around hiding your shit from yourself. Second, once you reveal it and you actually see it, allow yourself to feel the regret that naturally arises when you realize you’ve hurt yourself or someone else. Third, reconnect with the part of you that knows better, the part of you that cares, the part of you that can understand, the part of you that is wise. And finally, redirect your ways. Commit to a different course of action, like the U.S. veterans who came to Standing Rock with Wes Clark Jr. to apologize.
5 Fear No One
This principle is about the separation between us, about so-called high-status people and low-status people, the haves and the have-nots. These separations and divisions cause us to be afraid of one another and to be afraid of ourselves. Fear no one means to least of all fear yourself. Get to know yourself and start to consider the possibility of true equality. Equality doesn’t mean that you don’t stand out for how beautiful or how smart you are, or for all the gifts and talents you posses. Equality means that everybody else has those qualities too. Equality is about giving up the constant desire to lift yourself above others so that you appear superior to them. Awakening is about lifting everybody up together with you.
To fear no one means to not be intimidated. Not by speakers on a stage, not by spiritual teachers with titles, not by lawyers, doctors, congresswomen, or senators, not by presidents. Don’t be intimidated. Simple: Fear no one. You are like me, like everyone, immersed in the process of ripening and maturing your potential. You are ripening spiritually, you are ripening emotionally, you’re ripening intellectually; you’re ripening in your capacity to lead, and there is nobody you need to fear. You are as valuable and as important as anyone who has ever given you a talk, a teaching, or a lecture. Just because somebody is standing in the spotlight doesn’t mean that they are superior to you or you to them. We are in this together, so fear no one. That is the fifth principle.
6 Dance in the Fire
To introduce part of this principle, I am going to lead you through a short exercise with your emotions. The first emotion that I would like you to connect with is the emotion of sadness. Think of a time when something hurt or disappointed you; when someone or something broke your heart. Let that emotion arise and experience it. Maybe you lost something or someone special. How does your body experience sadness?
How does your posture express sadness? Now change that feeling by remembering a moment when something went your way. You experienced a success, a real personal triumph. Remember how proud everyone was of you? You knocked it out of the park! Let that emotion come in. Feel the success, the exhilaration and satisfaction of that moment. Let it show in your posture.
Now switch back to sadness again. Reconnect to that emotion from before.
And now change your state of mind again. This time, remember the first time that you fell in love—maybe the first time you held that person in your arms. Let this experience of love fill you. Feel the love of that extraordinary moment. Maybe the moment that comes to mind is when you had your first child, or you got engaged, or you fell head over heels for a dog at the animal shelter. Let the feeling of love arise in you and let it transpire in your attitude.
Now, change your state of mind again, and this time tune into joy. Let pure joy arise within you. What does it feel like? What does joy want to do through you? What is the message joy has for you? Open up to it, let it come in, let it express.
All of these feelings and emotions carry great intensity. That brings us to the sixth principle: dance in the fire. We’re talking about awareness of a mind that is constantly liberating emotions and experiences. In the midst of it all, you can realize that you’re actually not trapped. You’ve just illustrated through the exercise above that you can switch emotions quickly if you give yourself permission to do so. All it takes is a shift in your thoughts, a shift in your attitude, a shift in your focus, and your experience changes. You’re free to make that shift at any time. The question then becomes: What will you do with that freedom? How will you use it, and to what aim?
7 Invest Trust
Usually we like to think of trust as something that has to be earned. Not only does the world have to earn your trust, other people have to earn your trust as well. But the world and other people are always changing, complex, and uncertain, so your trust stays small.
You can wait and say, “Well, maybe one day when everything is under control I can trust more. Or once I can predict what everybody else will do and say, maybe then I can trust a little bit more.” But of course that day never comes. And so you live small, you shrivel, and your trust shrivels as well.
What I’m suggesting here is that you flip that idea on its head and choose to invest trust instead, simply because you can. Rather than waiting for the world to become safer, or waiting for other people to become more predictable, you walk forward with trust because it is the right thing for you and the world. And because it’s good for you: trust makes you open, calm, relatable, peaceful, and happy. Those qualities will inspire someone else to invest more trust as well.
What keeps you from investing greater trust is something I call the “what-if red flag.” Whenever you think “what if,” you usually add a disempowering messaging afterward. What if it all goes to hell? What if I lose my job? What if my marriage fails? What if my health fails? What if I don’t have enough money? What if I don’t have enough time? What if she or he doesn’t like me? What if I make a fool of myself? And on and on. What most don’t realize is that anything and everything we add after “what if’ is by nature pure imagination. And if it is imagination, that means it can be changed and that we have a choice.
From now on, every time that you hear or think the words “what if,” I want you to imagine a large, strong-willed Viking woman waving a huge red flag saying, “Stop, my dear! You have a choice here!” The choice is that you can imagine something different. What if you’re OK? What if it’s going to turn out all right? What if you will have enough money? What if you will have enough time? What if you will be healthy? What if people do like you? What if you can turn this ship around? The fact that you’re still here able to read this is proof that for most of your life, if not all of your life, you have found or received what you needed.
Why live in fear of your neighbors, your world, and of life itself? Enough of that. Invest trust; choose to be the one who is not waiting around for others to be predictable or the world to be unchanging. Choose to be the one that invests trust again and again, because it’s as good for you as it is for the rest of us.
8 Stand on Truth
The eighth principle is about standing up for or standing on truth. Here I am referring to what we often call timeless truths—what we could describe as the golden mountains. Everybody has opinions, but opinions are hard and heavy to carry, because you have to argue and defend them to yourself and others even in the light of contradictory data. You constantly have to prove why your opinions should be better than anybody else’s opinions.
Then there are the golden mountains. Golden mountains are universal truths. Golden mountains don’t need you to carry them. They are there for everyone to see in plain sight. Whenever you talk about the golden mountains people say: “Yes, that’s true, that’s timeless wisdom”—not because it is your opinion, but because it’s true. You have a finely developed BS detector inside you. That BS detector is very sophisticated and consistent if you let it work for you. It will let you know what is true and what is not regardless of other people’s opinions. To stand on truth means to cultivate that, to trust that, and to rely on that. Rely on truth.
These are the eight principles for our times. They will help you stay the course. You can share them with your friends and colleagues, your family, and your children. By practicing them, you will be able to find ground in the groundless and a clear direction in a volatile and uncertain world.