Walking in the Woods with Alan Arkin

log benches

On one of my woods walks this week, I listened to an episode of the ID10T Podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick interviewing Alan Arkin.  Most people know Arkin as an actor and particularly for comedic roles in work like The Kominsky Method, Argo, Little Miss Sunshine, Slums of Beverly Hills, Glengarry Glen Ross, The In-Laws, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and Catch -22. He has 111 acting credits alone on IMDB.

Hardwick’s excellent long-form interviews frequently take you to places in guests’ lives that you knew nothing about, rather than the usual celebrity talk show fare.

In this podcast, Arkin talks a lot about his meditation practice of 50 years, why he abandoned therapy and Freud, and also his acting life starting out in Second City improvisation.

Arkin also has a new book, Out of My Mind, to add to his shelf of non-fiction and children’s books. Despite its title, it is not about insanity or focused on the actor’s life.

Like many people, and certainly myself, after an existential crisis in his 30s, he began a spiritual journey to find something to believe in.  This led him to the study of Eastern philosophy. This short memoir (which he subtitles “Not Quite a Memoir) talks more in-depth about his spiritual experiences, reincarnation, how meditation helps him, and how that search for meaning often ends in self-discovery.

I think you should read the book and listen to the podcast, but here are a few takeaways that I literally wrote down in my notebook in the woods while I was listening.

  • Comedy, meditation, and life are much the same thing.
  • He’s been practicing meditation for 50 years and he’s not there yet because you can’t get “there.”
  • A Freudian therapist told him the high he felt when he was “in the zone” acting was called “regression in the service of the ego.”
  • Don’t worship what brings you into the zone – meditation, basketball, running, whatever. The goal is to be able to be in that zone all the time.
  • Samādhi is a state of meditative consciousness that is commonly called “the zone.”  In the yogic and Buddhist traditions, it is a meditative absorption or trance, attained by the practice of dhyāna.
  • Talking about acting “practices.” Arkin aligned with the Stanislavsky method which he seems to connect to Buddhism, while he rejected the Actor’s Studio method, which might be more like American Zen.
  • All the laughter and all the applause does not equal love.

I liked Arkin’s story about realizing that when you meet someone and ask who they are you might get an answer such as “I am an actor, or a teacher, or a lawyer or a carpenter.” They are defining themself by what they do. You are not what you do.

He further retells a section from his earlier book where he imagines an alien approaching him.
“Who are you?” asks the alien.
“I’m an actor.”
“What is an actor?” the alien asks.
“You pretend to be another human.”
“But you are a human. Don’t they like you just being yourself?”
“Not so much,” replies Arkin.

Alan Arkin wrote in that earlier memoir, An Improvised Life,  that knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five. “Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was.” But we are all improvising every day. We need to be better at it and have a practice to follow that can help us.

The Wisdom of the Sufis

Geometric tiling on the underside of the dome of Hafiz Shirazi’s tomb in Shiraz via Wikimedia

When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a course in religion and literature that really changed how I viewed both topics. The course had a long reading list and the professor (Thank you, Dr. Ellen Weaver!) had us read many books of both fiction and source non-fiction.

One of those books was The Wisdom of the Sufis which is printed in many different forms. I learned about things that were totally new to me: prayers and legends of the Sufi mystics, dervishes and how this mysticism grew out of medieval orthodox Islam.

In class, we learned about the Latifa prayer and tried it as a group in the classroom in a spiritual, not religious, way. This ancient Sufi prayer is meant to connect us with the essence of our being. At one time, this prayer was secret knowledge meant only for initiated disciples because it was considered to be a very holy and powerful practice.

I use the word “prayer” because that is the word used in translations and because it does come from a religious tradition, that is a loaded word to use for non-Sufis or non-religious people. You could call this a meditation if that makes more sense to your practice. I have tried to use it as a morning practice.

It is a simple prayer but one thing that makes it different from other prayers is that the words are accompanied by hand movements. The words are connected with a specific body part.

Non-Sufi believers now use the prayer as a guided meditation and I have seen yoga centers that use this much like the chakras in Indian spirituality.

The Latifa prayer was once a secret prayer only for initiated disciples, but the prayer is out there now. I’m not sure this pleases the Sufi followers or if they are gladdened to see their practices being more widely understood.

The prayer is a succession of seven themes:

I exist
I long
I hope
I trust
I release
I love
I am prepared

But then, the movements…

When you say, “I exist,” you place your right hand on your left hip with the help of your left hand while thinking about why you exist.

With your left hand, place your right hand on your right hip and say to yourself: “I desire” while thinking about the things you desire and how they influence your life.

“I hope” is connected to your right hand on your left lung aided by your left hand. Think about what you are hopeful about and how that feels.

Move your right hand to your right lung and say “I believe and I trust.” Trust comes out of hope and trust makes you stronger.

Now, your right hand goes to your neck as you say “I let go.” Think about what you need to let go of – maybe sadness or anger.

Move your right hand to the center of your chest and tell yourself “I love.” Think of a love that is strong and pure and try to feel that radiate through your body.

To finish the prayer, your right hand goes above your navel, and you place your left hand on top of it. Now, say “I am prepared” – to face the world and to know your own voice within.

Something else that separates this from what you may know as prayer is that it is for inner peace and self-affirmation. That may not be what you associate with prayer since many people pray for things. We pray for the material things we want, things we want to happen or not happen, things we want to change. The Latifa is about finding things in yourself, not outside.

The Sufi parables in those books of wisdom were short and reminded me of Zen parables.

An example:
An old man accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life.
Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.
“I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl, and this is how I survived.”

There are many Sufi parables online and in books if you’re interested in reading them. Many have been translated in modern English versions but are rooted in classical Sufis, such as Rumi, Attar, or S’adi.

A video of someone doing the Latifa and showing the movements with the words would be very helpful, but I couldn’t find one. I did find a guided version of the prayer, but it doesn’t show the movements. If you find a good video of this, please leave a comment here for others.

Since religion can be divisive and even political, I will mention here that Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. Though it has produced some beloved literature (such as the love poems of the 13th-century Rumi) it has also come under attacks by other modern-day Islamists because Sufis cherish tolerance and pluralism – which are not qualities that in many religions unsettle extremists.

An earlier version of this post appeared at One-Page Schoolhouse

On the Spiritual Path

I was talking with a friend this past week and he said, almost apologetically, “I’m not really religious but I guess I’m what you’d call spiritual.” I don’t see being “spiritual” as anything to be uncomfortable about admitting to be, but I know he felt it was somehow below being “religious.”

He is not alone in that feeling or that self-evaluation. A Pew Research study this year found that:

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

I think the path of spiritual growth is not just stepping away from formal religion, but it is not a clearly defined path. There isn’t even only one path to take toward enlightenment. Even in a structured philosophy such as Buddhism, it can be confusing. The Buddhist tradition gives a variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga). There are the Seven Purifications, the Three Dharma Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, the Eight Gates of Zen and probably more numbers that I have not remembered.

For myself, looking back I can see stages that I went through in my own journey. I can’t say that everyone follows this path, but I suspect that anyone who feels they are on a path to spiritual growth goes through similar stages.

The starting place is actually before you step on the path. This is a time when someone has no awareness or connection to any spiritual self. You don’t acknowledge that there is anything other than the material world. Some people live their entire life in this way and may be successful and happy.

If at some point, a person has the sense that there is something more to life than what they see, then they may search for a way to find that unseen something. They may not have a name for it. They may not call it spiritual.

This seeking may be triggered by a crisis or difficult period in our lives. It may come from an experience that we label as “spiritual.” For me, it happened because I came in contact with other people who were already on a spiritual path.

Realizing that there is something more to this life and actually starting out on a path toward it may not happen immediately. You can stand at the edge of the path for years before you take that first step.

Some curiosity about spirituality grows and you begin to investigate and seek out knowledge and others. At this stage, some people will embrace an established religion or an organized group. That makes sense because it follows the school model we have grown up following. Why find our own path when others have found a path that works for them and will help you along the way. That can feel safer.

I tried several of those well-established ways, but none took me to the place I felt I needed to go. more and begin to wonder about our existence. This can be a difficult time for some. Many people jump into an established religion at this stage. Thought this is right for some, it can also come from discomfort at the uncertainties of spiritual life.

This is an important stage: finding your spiritual path.  It may be one that has been well-traveled by others before you. It may be one you blaze on your own. Your own path may cross or at times follow others’ paths for a time. This is a stage of exploration and openness and you need to have some comfort with uncertainty when you strike out on your own.

You step onto a path and begin your journey.

If you took a path that others have taken and that is established, there are probably lots of guides, writings and others to help you. If you have decided to find your own way, as I did, that doesn’t mean you can’t read about other ways and talk with those traveling other paths. This eclectic approach was the one I felt most comfortable walking. And I walk slowly.

This is the longest stage of the journey. I love the discovery of this stage. I like some of the ways I have changed as I walked this path.

I have come to accept that my spiritual path is not the only correct one. I am much less dismissive of other paths. I am more comfortable with the information that might contradict my beliefs. I believe this shows that I am more secure in my own spiritual nature.

There are times of bliss. There are also still times when I slip back into fear and doubt.

You enter a new stage when you establish a spiritual practice. Whatever composes this practice (meditation, prayer, writing, nature, walking, art, service to others, music etc.) becomes a regular part of your day and as comfortable as sleeping or eating meals.

Some people have a lot of trouble with establishing a practice. part of mine involves my daily writing, some of which I make public and some that is only for myself. Friends often ask me how I have time to write every day. I don’t want to criticize them, but they probably have time every day to watch television or surf the Net or check on social media. You may to give up an hour of one of those other non-spiritual “practices” in order to have a spiritual one.

Establishing a practice is like continuing to walk a path. You progress but that doesn’t mean you still don’t explore other ways or sometimes wander off and need to find your way back.

mountaintop in clouds

Reaching “enlightenment” seems to be the goal, but I don’t think it is a very realistic one. It puzzled me when as a younger person I read spiritual texts and someone would become enlightened and then continue on with their life. I had expected that something transformative would occur. Maybe I thought you floated into Heaven or Nirvana. At one time in my life, I believed you died. Now, I believe you just keep walking the path.

I see the path as one leading up a mountain. Eventually, I will be so high that I will enter the clouds. This is a good place to be, but the way ahead will actually be less clear for a time. I may never reach the top. maybe there is no top where the journey ends.

You can enter a stage when spirituality stops being something you think about very much because it is just a part of your being. This is a very difficult stage for anyone who has a job and responsibilities to a mate or children. Maybe that is why the enlightened ones are always shown as older and living in isolation. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to reach a spiritual maturity where everything is one and the illusion of separateness can fall away in the world most of us live in.

I am certainly not there, though I am closer than I have ever been before.

And, according to some spiritual quest stories, there will be a very low point on this journey yet to come when everything seems to fall apart. A dark night of the soul before the light or the spiritual maturity or enlightenment.

Where am I on the journey? I think I am in those clouds. I know I am farther along, but I am not sure that there is an endpoint. That sounds frightening, but I am okay with that. I think it may be all journey and no destination.

Gratitude Practice


“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” -Lao Tzu

So, I’m having a conversation over coffee with a friend the other day and he says “You’re so cynical.” I’ve heard that before and yet I consider myself pretty idealistic. I also get “sarcastic” occasionally, but I think both of those are just tools of my humor.

Let me examine this situation. Four years ago I wrote a post about using a “gratitude journal.” It is a journal/diary that is supposed to be written in on a daily basis where you record things for which you are grateful. The idea is to attention on the positive things in your life. Sounds simple and easy. It’s not.

Some studies have shown that people who used gratitude journals felt better about their lives, and reported fewer symptoms of illness. They can be used to alleviate depression. In the study I had found four years ago, the greatest benefits were usually found to occur around six months after treatment began. I never made it that long and I wasn’t one of the successful participants that continued to keep after the study was over.

I also tried a basic daily gratefulness practice. I figured that it might be easier for me to simply review the day when I was settled into bed for the night and note at least one thing I was grateful for in that day.

A “practice” sounds so much better than a “habit” and a bit less pretentious than a “ritual.” You can engage in a practice in a more formal way, but it can be done anytime, anywhere, and as often as you want.

My gratitude practice was meant to be as simple as slowing down and being conscious of your breath.

There are lots of websites about all this but how hard is it really?

What am I grateful for from today? What did the day present to me for which I can be grateful?

I may have made it more difficult by not allowing myself the easy gratefulness: I’m pretty healthy. I have two great sons. I am happily married. I have enough money to do things I want to do. But those things can’t be used in my practice. I need to come up with things from that day. New gratefulness.

My answers quickly became rather trite. I’m grateful that when I went for a walk today I didn’t fall and hurt myself. Lunch today was great. What a beautiful weather day it was today!  I’m grateful that my sister did not call today with some new complaint.

“You’re so cynical.”

Is that what it is? Am I so ungrateful?

On the site, tinybuddha.com,  it tells me to sit down with pen and paper or at my computer and start with I am grateful for …

So, I am grateful right now that I can sit here and type this blog post and feel no guilt that I am wasting my time, and that I will click a button and it go out into the world and some people will read it. That is pretty cool and I am grateful for being able to do it.

Tiny Buddha says that by doing this I am tapping into something bigger than me and bigger than any current problems. This practice is “a bridge across those troubled waters to a resting place on the other side.” Now, that may be asking for too much from it.

They recommend that you write it down rather than just say or think it and I suppose it would be nice to be able to look back in my little gratitude journal and see 365 pieces of gratitude after a year.

I’m not sure that I agree with their advice that on a day when there is not a shred of gratitude you should just do it anyway. That sounds false.

They recommend – and this is very “practice” – that you choose a set time of day and stick to it. I like the end of day. By tomorrow morning, I have already forgotten a good part of yesterday.

Janice Kaplan  wrote The Gratitude Diaries and I’m not going to question her subtitle – “How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life” – I’ll just say that it did not work for me. She started on a New Year’s Eve and says that she realized that how she felt over the next months had less to do with the events that occurred and more to do with her own attitude and perspective.

I guess I have some work to do on my attitude and perspective.

(Janice Kaplan did a Talk at Google about her year - watch on YouTube.)

Aging and Work

I came upon Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job in a bookstore.  I am at a point in my life where I need to decide on either taking a new job, or not working any more.

Of course, not working sounds great. But working at something that you enjoy also is appealing.

So a book that is a guide to developing a spiritual life on the job sounds like a natural for me now.

The book draws on Buddhism which I seem to be writing about more lately, though I certainly have not suddenly developed a daily practice.

If you associate Buddhism with calmness and compassion through meditation, then the book might show you another side because the author is interested in the active, engaged side of Buddhism.

Richmond feels that aspect of the practice is the way to find creativity, inspiration, and accomplishment in our work lives. His own experiences as a Buddhist meditation teacher, business executive, musician, and high-tech entrepreneur convinces him that you can be the “chief executive of your inner life.”

I’m not sure that all of us could perform spiritual practices while commuting to and from work. (I’m not sure if I’d want to be on the road with you if you were anyway.)  I have actually tried in my office to “meditate” while sitting, walking, or standing and it’s tough.

But then while I was in the bookstore I also saw another book by the same author that fits right into my life moment. So,  I took Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser off the shelf and bought a cup of coffee.

In this volume, it is the aging process that awakens your spirit of fulfillment and transformation.

There is still a Buddhist basis for his approach. Everything changes. Aging – and not having to work full time – offers new possibilities, fresh beginnings, and certainly an appreciation and gratitude for the journey.

Not that aging is all goodness and light. The book addresses the fear, the anger, and the sorrow that many people experience when they stop working. There is also the coming to terms with what happens as your body can no longer do what it had done. You might even wrongly begin to associate those physical changes with no longer working.

Richmond divides aging into four stages. Right now I am in the “Lightning Strikes” stage which is when we “wake up” to our aging.

Am I ready for this? The book is not explicitly about retiring. You are still aging even if you continue working – and even if you are finding work to be a spiritual practice.

Therefore, the aging and the processes of adapting to that change are critical.

The book is not all Buddhism, if that scares you. There is plenty from scientific research, doctors, and psychologists mixed in with the contemplative practices. Healthy bodies and healthy relationships are pretty important to working and aging too.

So, have I decided about to work or not to work? Not yet. This is a tough one.


Contemplative Practices

I have posted on contemplative practices before and last year I posted about a brief guided practice using a bell sound meditation. But even at five minutes, it’s more time than many people are willing to give to quiet contemplation.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself? The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things.”

Looking at the website for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, I found other guided meditations, and I also found the Tree of Contemplative Practices which is a nice visual of seven branches of practices.

You can see that it ranges quiet practices for stillness (sitting meditation; centering prayer) to movement (walking meditation; pilgrimage). These practices can be done alone, but most of them actually involve others (work & volunteering; storytelling), and some produce tangible results – whether that be music, art, a house, a sacred space, journal or dialog.

click tree image for the larger image at contemplativemind.org

Do you deliberately set aside any time each day for conscious contemplation? You can’t count those ten minutes that you sip coffee while waiting for the train staring mindlessly at the tracks. Why not? Well, the mindless nature of it, for one thing.

There are activities not included on this Tree that I do. For example, gardening is one of my favorite ways to relax. It can be considered a contemplative practice when done with the intent of cultivating awareness, or developing a stronger connection with God or one’s inner wisdom. That’s different from just gardening. So, it is more than just sitting quietly, or walking in the woods, watching a fire, gazing at the ocean or resting on the couch.