GPS of the Mind (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
The GPS in your car
can tell you the best road to take, but what helps you navigate life? What you
need, says SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, is a...
GPS of the Mind
The GPS in my car
never gets mad at me, no matter how many times I turn to avoid the torn-up
street she has recommended. She just says, “Recalculating” and directs me to
turn right, and then right again, until I am back where she wanted me—on the
street blocked by construction.
Again I select an
alternative route. She quietly but firmly repeats, “Recalculating,” and I say
back, “Hold on. Keep talking if you want. I know where I’m going. I’ll soon be
where you want me to be.” When I finally rejoin the route she was aiming for, I
almost expect her to say, “Good girl, Sylvia! You did it,” but she never does.
We drive together quietly until the next time I need to disobey her
instructions and she is right there again, firm but never impatient, ready to
straighten me out.
I am trying to
cultivate a mind like a GPS. My mind GPS would be ever vigilant to where I am and
unwavering in clarity about my destination, all the while never losing its
patience and never challenging my confidence.
My car GPS supplies
a running graphic of a tiny car driving along my intended route and showing
roads branching off from it that it hopes I’ll avoid. It offers advance
warnings—“In two miles, keep left”—so I can avoid mistakes.
My mind GPS would
help me choose, moment to moment, the route that cultivates and maintains
wholesome states in my mind. Any detour would immediately initiate a warning
signal: “Leading to Unwholesome! Slow down! Consider! Maybe you need to back
up! Or turn around!”
I especially value
the Return Home icon on my car GPS, which automatically routes me back to my
home address in California. The Return Home icon on my mind GPS would
automatically reroute me to Mindful (for clear seeing), Concentrated (for
confident stability), and Wise Effort.
Mind GPS is
particularly helpful in moments of hurt or confusion, when we are most likely
to take the wrong route. Here’s an example of how mind GPS works—how moment by
moment it calculates my mental position and guides me toward the wholesome and
away from the unwholesome.
I’m with someone
beloved to me—a close friend or family member—and suddenly they say something
that startles my mind. Perhaps I hear it as an unjust criticism. Or it sounds
cavalier. Or foolish. I feel my mind contract around the remark, notice the
unpleasantness of that contraction, and feel the impulse to protest arise in my
simultaneously (but actually next) I see a “rap sheet” unfurl in my mind
listing the many, many times this person has said or done something similar,
thus building the case for a protest. But if my mind GPS is alert and steadily
intending toward the wholesome, I also see the possibility of relaxing the
impulse to act.
This moment of ease
allows my mind to return to its normally wider view that includes the many
sterling qualities of this beloved person. The confusion in the mind
disappears. I can carry on the conversation as if nothing more significant than
a sneeze had happened.
When I make the
right choice at this fork in the road—avoid the route that leads to tumult and
take the one that builds closer bonds of connection—I feel, “Whew! Just dodged
a bullet. I could have messed up the afternoon, mine and the other person’s,
and I didn’t.”
Or imagine this
recent experience: I was standing on a New York City street corner on a cold
November evening buying gloves from a sidewalk vendor. I was shifting and
tapping my feet side to side trying to warm them.
“Back up a little,”
the vendor said to the person behind me. “Don’t crowd in so close.”
“Hey,” the man
behind me replied, “I’m just watching the old lady dancing.”
I felt tears in my
eyes. I paid for my gloves and left. “Old lady?” “Dancing?”
I continued down
the street toward Lincoln Center imagining my mind as a deflating balloon, my
sense of myself as chic and sprightly morphing into old and humiliated, and
then giving way to a list of self-critical remarks beginning with “You should
have remembered to pack gloves!”
I was just about to
start an internal lament about how the evening I was anticipating was ruined,
how the zest for it that I’d felt in my mind was all gone, when I thought,
“Stop! The remark happened back there. The ruining is happening now!”
I started to laugh
at this point, thinking how easy it is for my mind to run away with itself down
a road going no place good. It’s as if it becomes intoxicated by a whiff of
drama—“Such a sad story happened to me today walking down Broadway”—that it
forgets that clarity, the plain truth, is the antidote to confusion.
The plain truth is
that I am an old woman. And I was, so to speak, dancing at the vendor’s stand.
And I did forget to pack gloves.
Also, I was meeting
a friend I love for an evening of dinner and a concert on a cold night in New
York City, where all the trees on Upper Broadway are wrapped in strings of
white lights. It was an easy decision whether to embellish the glove story and
suffer or to take the other fork in the mental road and rejoice in my good
fortune at being alive and well in this moment.
In the end, I spent
a relatively short time wandering on a side road of discontent before rescuing
the evening, but I could have done it sooner. I could have avoided a lot of
struggle by addressing the pain immediately. I could have, at the moment when I
heard the remark and tears came to my eyes, acknowledged to myself, “I’m in
pain!” Instinctively, I would have taken some slow, deep breaths—always a comforter
to anyone in pain—while I was paying for my gloves.
Perhaps I would
have thought to myself, “Relax, sweetheart. These things happen. You got
startled. You’ll be fine.” Holding myself in compassion would have inhibited my
mind from making negative judgments about myself. And, as I walked on, had I
felt that an echo of pain was still reverberating as confusion in my mind, I
might have brought my attention to the people all around me and felt supported
by their company. I might have appreciated the lights in the trees on Broadway
and admired the skill of the people who had strung them all through the
Here is the short
formula for recovering from confusing distress. This is the time when the GPS
for the mind is the most useful, since it is when we are in most danger of
taking an unwholesome path.
Acknowledge the distress. “I’m in pain” always works for me, regardless of the
particular flavor of challenge.
2) Do something to
regain your balance. Deep breaths usually work well for me.
3) Notice how your
mind, awakened, sees possibilities clearly.
4) Choose the road
that leads to happiness. Pay attention to the present moment, without opinions.
5) Enjoy the relief
of a mind restored to ease. This builds confidence and makes it a habit.
Such moments of
restoring the mind to comfort happen to me all day long. Things happen. It’s
incredibly easy to become annoyed. Or dispirited. Or bewildered by lust,
restlessness, or doubt. The Buddha named these energies of confusion the five
“hindrances to clear seeing,” because they arise in the mind in response to
challenge and subvert clear decision-making.
Probably most of us
can recall an instance of finding ourselves eating a slice of pizza or a
Dunkin’ Donut and thinking, “How did this happen? I was walking along the
street on my way home and suddenly the smell of pizza (or doughnuts) wafted by
my nose. Apparently I veered into the store, and here I am eating.”
Although eating a
slice of pizza or a doughnut is usually a benign action, sometimes—for people
with certain allergies or illnesses—it isn’t. Other impulses, those motivated
by clearly unwholesome impulses such as greed, anger, or revenge, are never
mind GPS remembers that between every impulse and resulting action is the
possibility of careful reflection. It signals, “Slow down. Think. Where do you
want to go? Recalculate!” The experience that triggers the mind GPS into action
is always a moment of realizing something does not feel right.
“Where do I want to
go?” is the reference point for my practice. If I say, “I think my practice is
working,” I don’t mean that I never fall into dismay or never act
thoughtlessly. I do. It means I become aware, sooner than I used to, that I’ve
taken a wrong turn and am heading into confusion and distress. That moment of
clarity dispels confusion and I recognize, from the sense of peace and ease I
feel in it, that I’m back on the right track.
is the central teaching in the Buddha’s Discourse to His Son Rahula. He
advises Rahula to think before, during, and after every action about
motivation. “Is what I am about to do (am doing, or just did) for my benefit as
well as for the benefit of all beings?” And, of course, the Buddha goes on to
say that if the answer is no, then the action should not happen or should stop.
Amends should be made for any negative impact that has already happened.
I think it would be
easy to misunderstand this instruction as mandating moving very, very slowly
all the time and hesitating before any move. That would make ordinary,
relational, everyday life awkward. I think it’s actually much easier than that.
I think that the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula (and to us) can be understood
as, “Cultivate wholesomeness—generosity, patience, candor, kindness—and enjoy
the pleasure of their ongoing presence in your mind. Notice any arising of
unwholesome states in your mind and discourage them. Steady your attention.
(Concentrate!) Recognize these unwholesome states as painful, temporal, and
insubstantial and be attentive to their disappearance. (Be Mindful!) Choose to
maintain a clear and untroubled mind. (Make Wise Effort!)”
I think as human
beings we are born with prototype mind GPSs preset to aim generally in the
direction of feeling safe and happy. We do the best we can to make our way
through the inevitable challenges of our lives. My practice goal is refining my
attention and intention so I am more able to hear my GPS signaling me to notice
either “You’re in pain, Sylvia. Recalculate!” or “You are holding steady in a
good direction, Sylvia. Continue!”
Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a cofounding teacher of
Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author of many best-selling books on
Buddhism and mindfulness, including
Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.
Inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine
Look inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine
FEATURING: Pema Chödrön's 4 Keys to Waking Up; bell hooks & Eve Ensler on fighting domination and finding love; Sylvia Boorstein's "GPS for the Mind"; Lisa Carver on Yoko Ono; Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Goldberg, book reviews, and more.
Click titles below to read excerpts and select complete articles.
this issue's editorial:
ANDREA MILLER on why this issue of the magazine shouldn't be considered special.
On retreat with Pema Chödrön at Omega Institute, the Shambhala
Sun’s Andrea Miller explores these four essential ways to walk the
When we honor life but don’t make it a big deal, we lighten
up, open up, and become more joyous. The fancy name for that, says Pema
Chödrön, is enlightenment.
Awash in the pain of betrayal and a failed marriage, Laura
Munson practices Pema Chödrön’s teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it
The GPS in our car tell us the best route to take, but what
helps us navigate life? Sylvia Boorstein shows us how to stay on the
Fighting domination, finding love, connecting with our
bodies—feminist leaders and meditators Eve Ensler & bell hooks
In war-torn Congo, Eve Ensler learns what love can
When we and our work are one, says Roshi Pat Enkyo
O’Hara, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and
Vacationing on Hawaii’s Big Island, Judy Panko Reis
suffered an unspeakable crime. Decades later, she sees that out of even the
darkest violence a new life can emerge.
Performance artist Lisa Carver celebrates Yoko Ono,
who taught her to do what “isn’t done.”
At her grandfather’s grave, Rachel Neumann’s anger
erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains? We are all
like empty boats bumping against each other.
Taz Tagore, one of the two founders of New York City's Reciprocity Foundation, on taking
kids from the streets to a new life. (It starts inside.)
She was the kind of person who might suddenly ask, “How do
you know love?” Natalie Goldberg on loving and losing a special friend.
Reviewed by Karen Maezen Miller
This issue’s roundup features books on conflict resolution,
yoga, stress reduction, ecology, and more.
Ruth Ozeki on Ono no Komachi
Shambhala Sun, March 2014, Volume Twenty Two, Number 4.
Books in Brief (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Books in Brief
Suicide and Loss
By Robert E.
Lesoine with Marilynne Chöphel
Parallax Press 2013; 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)
practitioner Robert Lesoine was at the dentist with his mouth full of equipment
when his cellphone rang. It was his best friend’s ex-wife calling, but she was
screaming and crying so hard that she was incomprehensible. Finally Lesoine understood:
his best friend had killed himself. For two years following this loss, Lesoine
kept a journal to help him work through his profound grief—the shock and
disbelief, the rage and sorrow. Unfinished Conversation incorporates
moving sections from the journal, plus writing prompts, meditations, and other
practical suggestions for finding support in the wake of a loved one’s suicide.
Lesoine’s collaborator, Marilynne Chöphel, is a marriage and family therapist
who specializes in the treatment of acute and relational trauma.
WIND AND RAIN
The Life of
Story by Ven. Miao
You, art by Yan Kaixin
Buddha’s Light Publishing 2013; 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Publishing is translating a series of Chinese graphic novels telling the life
stories of great Buddhist monastics. Wind and Rain is the biography of
the Rinzai Zen monk and poet Ikkyu. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of
Emperor Go-Komatsu, he was a fifteenth-century vagabond who is celebrated for
attaining enlightenment at Lake Biwa when a crow cawed. Wind and Rain is
the sanitized, all-ages version of his story. There’s no mention of his
notorious consumption of alcohol or his late-life lover, Mori, a blind singer.
The emphasis is instead on Ikkyu’s deep commitment to justice. From a young age,
he criticized the corruption he saw in both the aristocracy and Buddhist
institutions and he sought out teachers who, like him, shunned material wealth
and titles. Amid the hardships of war, he organized relief for the poor and
helped create and rebuild temples. Ikkyu passed away in his eighty-eighth year
in the middle of autumn.
BUDDHA’S BOOK OF
and Peace with Mindfulness Meditation
By Joseph Emet
Tarcher 2013; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)
The first noble
truth in Buddhism is dukkha, which is most commonly translated as
“suffering.” But as Joseph Emet points out, some leading translators are now
rendering this Pali word as “stress.” Buddha’s Book of Stress Reduction
begins by exploring the stressful impact of our to-do lists. The average
toddler smiles six hundred times a day, but as we grow up our focus shifts from
the present to future goals, which limits our happiness. Emet is not suggesting
we throw away planning or any of our other adult life skills, but he is
recommending that we take more time to enjoy the present moment, even in the
face of the need to get things done. Emet goes on to address the myriad
elements of stress, such as past wounds, worry, irritation, anger, fear, work,
LOVE LETTER TO
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)
activists get a bad rap for being dour. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, however, is
anything but. Instead of finger-pointing and calling for austerity, his
solution to our environmental crisis is mindfulness. Through mindfulness, he
says, we realize that the Earth is not simply the ground beneath our feet—we are
the Earth. Every cell in our body comes from the Earth and is part of it. “We
are a living, breathing manifestation of this beautiful and generous planet,”
he says. When we know this, we fall completely in love with the Earth, and as
with anything we love, we naturally do whatever we can to take care of it. I
particularly appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s heartfelt description of seeing for
the first time photos of the Earth taken from space. He saw a glowing jewel and
recognized the Earth’s fragility. “Dear Earth,” he thought, “I didn’t know that
you are so beautiful. I see you in me. I see me myself in you.”
The Art of Transformation
Edited by Debra
Smithsonian Books 2013; 328 pp., $55 (cloth)
Yoga: The Art of Transformation is the sumptuous catalogue of a recent
exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. A
visual feast, it also offers essays by scholars tackling the convoluted history
of yoga. In today’s yoga studios, it’s commonly believed that the earliest
evidence we have for yoga is a third-millennium BCE clay seal from the Indus
River Valley. According to scholar David Gordon White, however, this depiction
of a figure seated in a cross-legged posture is not conclusive evidence
that yoga was practiced at that time. After all, images of figures in this very
same posture also hail from ancient Scandinavia and other locales. Additional
thought-provoking angles covered in this book include the fact that European
bodybuilding influenced modern yoga, and that yoga is not just connected to
Buddhism and Hinduism but is also deeply connected to Jainism and Islam.
Indeed, Muslim interest in yoga dates back a thousand years to the scholar
al-Biruni, who translated Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras into Arabic.
A Zen Approach
to Conflict Resolution
By Diane Musho
Shambhala Publications 2013; 218 pp., $16.95 (paper)
When she was
growing up, Diane Musho Hamilton’s extended family had parties at her
grandmother’s house. By 9 p.m. the conversation was always lively, but by 1
a.m. arguments were brewing and soon someone was storming out the front door.
Hamilton was sometimes at the heart of the fray, at times an ally in the fight,
and at other times an unbiased observer. Curious about these different roles,
she went on to study mediation, and Everything Is Workable comes out of
her many years of work in that field. This book offers readers a new way of
thinking about conflict. It unpacks what Hamilton believes are the three
personal conflict styles and the three fundamental perspectives in any conflict
situation. Conflict is an inevitable part of life, Hamilton teaches, and if we try
to eradicate it in one area, it will simply manifest elsewhere. What we can
do—what we will ultimately find more useful and satisfying—is to accept
conflict and integrate it into our spiritual path.
APPRENTICE AT BEDTIME
Tales of Compassion
and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child—to Delight and Inspire
Watkins Publishing 2013; 128 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Some monkeys had a
penchant for stealing the king’s peaches and plums, and they were so wily that
the gardener was never able to catch them. One day, the cook’s daughter
suggested laying an enticing trap of cake. Sweets, she said, would make the
monkeys sleepy, and sleepy monkeys would be easier to catch. The shoemaker’s
son also had an idea: he’d make dazzling high heels, which the vain monkeys
would be unable to resist. It’s difficult to run away, he said, when wearing
impractical shoes. A few days later, the monkeys slipped into the orchard and
found a cake stand weighted down with cream-filled cupcakes and tree branches
hung with pumps. Indeed, the monkeys could not resist. They ended up trapped in
the king’s zoo and it took them a good long while to escape. “The Monkey
Thieves” is just one of the stories from the children’s book The Buddha’s
Apprentice at Bedtime. Like every story in the collection, it’s a modern
retelling of a Jataka Tale and it exemplifies a principle of the noble
eightfold path. Do not be greedy or vain is what this story teaches.
Thanks to Yoko (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Thanks to Yoko
seemed, liked to tell LISA CARVER what she couldn’t do: it wasn’t proper, it
wasn’t art, it wasn’t done. But Zen koans and Yoko Ono—now eighty—turned all
that upside down.
Decades before the
dark and angry performance art/No Wave scene of the late eighties and early
nineties, Yoko Ono was creating radically unconventional conceptual art. Raised
Buddhist and Christian in an upper-class family in Tokyo, Yoko was expected to be
peaceful and pretty without any anger, without revolt. “I was like a
domesticated animal being fed on information,” she told the Evening Standard
in 1968. “I hated it.”
Her goal as an
artist was not to train her audience. She wanted to untrain them. When she
showed up at an art gallery and stood there screaming and moaning with no
context, no introduction, no band, no melody, who of the shocked attendees
could have guessed she was a classically trained musician and opera singer?
Yoko’s pieces are a
kyosaku to the noggin. She’s not afraid of fear. She does not avoid lust
or rage. She acknowledges and respects them. In “Revelations,” she sings,
“Bless you for your anger. It’s a sign of rising energy. Bless you for your
greed. It’s a sign of great capacity. Bless you for your jealousy. It’s a sign
Many commenters on
YouTube say about Yoko’s singing things like “She hurts my ears!” and from that
they deduce she is insane. (I’m not exaggerating; go look!) In its natural
state, though, pain is for teaching, not dominating us. It’s only when we’re
forced to believe—or pretend to believe—what is not true, that pain hurts: when
your abuser tells you This is love, when your forced-memorizing school
tells you This is learning, when pyramid-scheme social structures tell
you This is family order.
performance art and unorthodox singing and experimental film and writing employ
the pain of confusion, of shaking things up, to expose and fight the pain that
is already there, accepted. In the moment of disarray, art, like Buddhism, says
to you, “Is ‘That’s just how it is’ really how it is?” That question can turn
walls to windows, just large enough to crawl out of. . . and then you can set
In 1985, when I was
sixteen years old, having so far only lived with one parent or the other in
small towns, and without even a visit to an art museum, I bought a
twenty-five-cent used copy of a Yoko Ono record. When I lay the needle down on
the spinning disc, a disjointed cacophony rose up and filled the room with
angles and senselessness and the raw. All I had known before was Scooby Doo
and Columbo on TV, songs by Bread and Anne Murray on the radio, and
assigned reading at school. None expressed the sort of preexistence struggle I
heard in Ono’s voice. She sounded foreign, but also not categorizable by
foreignness. I thought, “Why on earth would anyone make music like this?!”
That question led
to others, ending with this one: “Why don’t I make music?” And then I
Editorial: Buddha's Daughters (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
At the retreat I report on in this issue, Ani Pema Chödrön
talked about a dream she once had. In the dream, she was in the country,
perhaps at a monastery, and everyone there was busily preparing for the arrival
of Khandro Rinpoche, one of today’s preeminent women Vajrayana teachers.
“Ani Pema,” Khandro Rinpoche said when she finally arrived.
“Did you see the sunrise this morning?”
“No, Rinpoche, I didn’t. I was too busy.”
Khandro Rinpoche laughed and laughed. “Too busy to live
life?” she asked.
Since having this dream, Pema Chödrön says that whenever she
finds herself getting all caught up and habitually, compulsively doing
something, she thinks, “Too busy to live life? Too busy to be there for the sun
coming up or to notice anything?”
Did you happen to notice anything unusual about this issue’s
table of contents? That is, did you notice the names of the contributors? From
Ruth to Rachel, Laura to Lisa, they are all women. But we’re actually hoping
that you didn’t notice. Look at the cover—we haven’t made a big deal out of
there being only women on these pages or otherwise touted this as a “special”
issue. As we see it, the presence of women’s voices shouldn’t be something
special. It should be normal, and we’re treating it that way.
The reality, though, is that the publishing industry still
has miles to go in terms of gender equality. For some truly eye-opening
statistics on how many men versus women are published in magazines or have
their books reviewed, visit www.vidaweb.org, a website dedicated to women in the
literary arts. Spoiler alert: Women are given significantly less ink than men
in America’s magazine heavyweights, including Harper’s, The Atlantic,
and The New Yorker.
And this gender inequality in the publishing world is emblematic
of a wider problem. I’m thinking about violence against women, an issue that’s
addressed in bell hooks and Eve Ensler’s conversation “Strike! Dance! Rise!”
Ensler, a rape survivor herself, has spent seven years in Congo working with
women who’ve been brutalized and sexually assaulted. She and hooks grapple with
such complex questions as: How can white people help people of color without
reinforcing the framework of white privilege? How can trust grow between those
who have privilege and those who don’t? And after suffering violence and
trauma, what practices can help us come back to our bodies?
This issue also features teachings by three of America’s
most remarkable women Buddhist teachers, each practicing in a different
tradition. In “The Work of the Moment,” Zen teacher Pat Enkyo O’Hara asserts
that it doesn’t matter if we’re a garbage collector or an engineer; all work is
valid and meaningful. If we’re hung up on the status associated with our job or
the results of doing a particular activity, then we miss out on the opportunity
to fully experience the joy in the task at hand.
In “A GPS of the Mind,” Insight Meditation teacher Sylvia
Boorstein offers a fresh, modern take on classic Theravada wisdom for
choosing—moment by moment—the route to wholesome states of mind. If you’re a
Gen Xer like me, the word “wholesome” might come off as a little too unironic,
but keep in mind that wholesome is what makes us happy, while unwholesome is
what keeps us suffering. And, irony aside, who doesn’t want to be happy?
Following the article about my retreat experience with Pema
Chödrön, there is a teaching by her on shunyata, or emptiness. She says
that letting your thoughts go and just seeing what’s there when they’re gone is
a way of experimenting with shunyata. “This is actually the essence of
mindfulness practice,” she continues. “You keep coming back to the immediacy of
your experience, and then when the thoughts start coming up—thoughts like bad,
good, should, shouldn’t, me, jerk, you, jerk—you let those thoughts go, and you
come back again to the immediacy of your experience.” When we experiment with
shunyata in this way, we discover the open, boundless dimension of being.
If you enjoy the many varied voices of women in this issue,
you might wish to check out Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are
Shaping Buddhism in the West. This anthology, which will be released on
April 8, has been created in partnership between the Shambhala Sun and
Shambhala Publications. It features teachings by Khandro Rinpoche, Pema
Chödrön, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, and Sylvia Boorstein, plus nineteen other remarkable
women teachers. In the Buddhist tradition, women have diligently practiced for
the last 2,600 years, often without recognition. We hope this anthology, as
well as this all-women issue of the Shambhala Sun, will serve as an
inspiration for today’s women practitioners.
—ANDREA MILLER, Deputy Editor
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