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The Gift   

Question: If one has no thoughts, no ideas, no reflections, and no mental processes - how can one have a Buddha's knowledge of everything in all its aspects?Answer: Once the false ideas no longer arise, as soon as one abstains from all of them, the true nature which exists within the core of our own being reveals itself and omniscience together with it…. The Buddha-nature which is ours from the very beginning is like the sun which emerges from the clouds, or like a mirror which, when rubbed, regains its original purity and clarity. (217)”--Ho-shan Buddhist Scriptures 
 "If those who lead you say, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, andyou will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." thewords ofJesus Christ according to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (3) 
 “Know thyself.” --Socrates
"Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution.
It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it."
   --Neils Bohr, Nobel Laureate and father of quantum mechanics 

   December is upon us, the season of gift-giving is here. As Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza , and the Winter Solstice approach, I have been thinking about the most precious gifts I have received this year, and pondering on how to engage in skillful gifting.  I hope that the quotes above from some heavyweights (you may have heard of them) in the fields of spirituality and science will not scare people away – it is my goal to keep this site as secular as possible. However, the frenzy around “gifting” this time of year can get overwhelming, and the emphasis on creating happiness through materialism begs for a moment of mindful contemplation of the essential and fundamental gift we all carry inside of us, and the priceless gifts to humanity that have come from the teachings of our most enlightened spiritual leaders. 


 Most days I think I have the best job on the planet.  As a psychiatrist I have the opportunity, every day, to sit with people who share with me their suffering, their joy, their experiences, thoughts and dreams. To be sure, there are moments when their suffering is so great that the risk of suicide fills me with worry and stress, but fortunately these moments are relatively rare and they pass away, like all phenomena. There are many days when I am the armchair traveler, seeing and experiencing more of the world than I ever could by myself, and the ride can be thrilling, inspiring, and humbling. And on the days when a client has a major insight, experiences a breakthrough, or “wakes up” --their mind no longer clouded by the delusions, “false ideas, thoughts and mental processes” described in the quote from the Ho-shan Buddhist Scriptures-- I am filled with tremendous gratitude.  In those moments I am keenly aware of the transformative power that comes from knowing oneself.   

One of the pearls of twelve-step recovery is that happiness is an inside job.  It does not come from all the external things we try to acquire, hold onto, desire, crave, or fantasize about.  A new relationship, a new car, finally becoming a homeowner, finishing college, losing 10 pounds, winning the lottery – all these things bring moments of happiness that rise and fall, and eventually pass away.  A more lasting happiness is achieved when the change that happens is internal to us.  A spiritual change. By paying attention in meditation, we learn how to see ourselves and the world more clearly.  We discover that long held “truths” – about ourselves, others, life – may not be true.  We begin to see life as it really is.  And we do this not by distracting ourselves from the problems we face, but by looking at them square in the eye, leaning into sometimes very painful feelings and experiences, and from the crucible of that experience (to borrow from Jon Kabat-Zinn), from all that pressure and heat, a new awareness is created, like a diamond from black coal.  As Neils Bohr observed, the solution to a problem is frequently revealed when we pay attention and look closely at that problem.  Psychotherapy facilitates this process, just as meditation does. Combine the two and then “you’re really cooking with gas”, as my father used to say.  I have observed that my patients who combine the two tend to make great progress.   

 The keys to the kingdom of a lasting peace and happiness are found within us, and we unlock our bound and constricted experience of life by knowing ourselves fully, and by changing our thinking.  Many of my patients come to therapy thinking of themselves as somehow defective, missing something, lacking an essential part which, if acquired, will “fix” them.  I recently saw the wonderful film “Hugo”, from the book The Invention of Hugo Cabretby Brian Selznick, in which the main character, a plucky orphaned boy named Hugo, says:  “I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and types of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason, too (p. 378).”  Rather than allow all of the tragedies which have befallen him to make him feel less than, broken, or superfluous, he is able to hold onto a view of himself as being just as he should be in the grand scheme of the universe.   

 In my early days as a therapist, I thought it was my job to “fix” people, revealing an underlying false belief that (1) the patient was broken and (2) the solution resided in me.   And of course it was my belief in my own broken-ness, my own low self esteem, that needed the boost I thought would come from healing others.  I could prove to the world (and myself) that I was worth something.  I based my own happiness and self-regard on my success at getting others to change. Talk about false ideas, thoughts and mental processes!  What a recipe for disaster! Or burnout, which is what happened to me.   

 The solution turned out to be better than anything I could have hoped for.  After reaching my own personal hell, from the heat and pressure of that crucible, sprang the gift of desperation.  I needed that desperation to motivate me to try something different.  I had to admit to myself that my old ways of thinking about myself and relating with the world were not serving me well; they were only bringing me more suffering.  I was desperate enough to let go of old thinking, to surrender my old defenses.   

 A friend who had begun meditating brought me to an insight meditation group.  The talk that night was about Buddha nature -- the belief that within each of us resides our true nature which is closer to our true self, as perfect and as capable of enlightenment as any Buddha.  That the version of self I was most familiar with was a false self, filled with delusion and false ideas about just about everything. I heard that we wrap our life experiences around us as we grow.  We add layer upon layer of external events and phenomena --that have nothing to do with the original self-- cloaking ourselves in experiences and stories which become so tightly associated with “us” that we come to believe they are “us”.  They become our identities, and we cling to them, and cherish them, and suffer because of them.  We feel threatened when our view of ourselves is challenged by others.  We feel empty and unsatisfied if we have had empty and unsatisfying experiences.  We mistake our experiences for ourselves, and forget about the perfect being which has been waiting, patiently, under all those layers for all these years.   

 This was a revelation. It felt true.  It resonated with something deep in my body which said “Yes! This feels right! Pay attention!”  It sparked hope. For Buddhists, an everlasting happiness, nirvana, can be achieved by knowing oneself.  By seeing the true or ‘Buddha nature’ of self we see that we are actually one with all perfect beings.  The layers of identity, the boundaries of self, that keep us separated from one another fall away. And there is a suggested eightfold path that guides us in this process.  That the greatest teachers and spiritual leaders of humanity, separated by centuries and continents, arrived at similar conclusions about the path to lasting happiness is no coincidence, in my opinion.  Rick Hanson says this is his book The Buddha’s Brain:
 “…your true nature is both a refuge and a resource for the sometimes difficult work of psychological growth and spiritual practice.  It’s a remarkable fact that the people who have gone the very deepest into the mind – the sages and saints of every religious tradition – all say essentially the same thing: your fundamental nature is pure, conscious, peaceful, radiant, loving, and wise, and it is joined in mysterious ways with the ultimate underpinnings of reality, by whatever name we give That.  Although your true nature may be hidden momentarily by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist.  Knowing this can be a great comfort.   

 On the other hand working with the mind and body to encourage the development of what is wholesome – and the uprooting of what’s not – is central to every path of psychological and spiritual development.  Even if practice is a matter of ‘removing the obscurations’ to true nature – to borrow a phrase from Tibetan Buddhism – the clearing of these is a progressive process of training, purification, and transformation.  Paradoxically it takes time to become who we already are.”   

 Or, as a patient of mine recently said in a moment of insight, “It takes a lot of work just to be.”   

 This revelation about our true nature and the path to happiness has been the greatest gift and comfort in my life-- a balm to my soul.  And mindfulness meditation has been the tool which has allowed me to know myself. I know longer see myself or my patients as broken.  My job now is not to fix people, but to shine a light on the path that leads patients back home to themselves, to re-discover their true self and develop a sense of compassion and forgiveness for their experiences, and to begin to let go of their stories.  My job as guide frequently includes being a gently reassuring and encouraging presence as patients face down some long-held fears.  It is easier to stare into the abyss if you have someone by your side.   

 So as you contemplate your gift list this year, remember that you already possess the greatest gift.  It’s been hiding inside you all along. And my gift to you is my heartfelt wish that you find your way home to your true nature, to freedom, to living with ease, and to lasting happiness. 
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