I Want To Be... Insightful (July 2012)
suffer, according to Buddhism, not because there’s anything inherently
wrong with us but simply because we misunderstand the nature of reality.
SYLVIA BOORSTEIN on developing insight into the way things really are.
was walking through the airport terminal when my eyes met those of a
baby approaching me, strapped into a carrier on his mother’s chest, and I
knew that baby was me. A thrill went through me. I knew in that moment it did not matter that I was aging because that baby—me, in a newer, fresher guise—was on his way up in life.
recall laughing, maybe even out loud, as the baby and mother passed by.
I knew that the others around me were all me too, and the mother and
baby and each other as well, coming and going in this airline terminal
and in life. I felt happy and said to myself, “Thinking about
interconnection is one thing, but these moments of direct understanding
are great.” I sat in the boarding lounge feeling tremendous affection
for my fellow travelers.
an understanding of interconnection comes, in Buddhist practice, from
awareness of the three characteristics of experience, also known as the
three marks of existence. The first is impermanence,
or as one teacher put it to me, the idea that “last year’s Super Bowl
is in the same past as the Revolutionary War.” The second is suffering, which he described as the result of “the mind unable to accommodate its experience.”
two characteristics, or insights, are fairly easy to make sense of, and
when I first began my Buddhist practice, I found I had a basic grasp of
them. I thought, “Who doesn’t know these things?” But the third
insight that there is no enduring self that separates anything from
anything else—seemed more elusive to me, and not particularly relevant
to my life. I liked the rest of what I was learning and practicing, so I
figured I would just let that one alone for now.
insight about impermanence was, in my early years of practice, what
seemed most dramatically evident— although not in a comfortable way.
There were periods, especially on retreat, in which it seemed to me that
all I could see was the passing away of everything. I saw, as I hadn’t
ever before, that sunsets followed every dawn and that the beautiful
full moon immediately waned. As I came upon a flower that was newly
opening I simultaneously envisioned the wilted look it would have three
days hence. I remember tearfully reporting to my teacher, Joseph
Goldstein, “It’s so sad! Everything is dying!” He responded, “It’s not
sad, Sylvia. It’s just true.” I found that calming at the time, but I
would say it differently now. I would say, “It’s not sad. But it is poignant.”
has a life cycle, with beauty in every part of it, and the passing of
any part of it evokes a response, either of relief or nostalgia.
Eighteen-year-olds are usually glad to be finished with adolescence and
off to whatever they’ll do next. A woman in a class I was teaching
recently said her daughter, at that point anticipating her marriage a
week hence, was sad that all the excitement of planning and imagining
would soon be over forever. An elderly man who once took a seniors’ yoga
class I was teaching thanked me after the class but said he would not
be coming back. “It is too hard for me,” he said. “But I would like to
tell you that I was a member of the 1918 Olympic rowing team.”
find now that time seems to be speeding up. I’ve become seventy-five
years old in what feels like a brief time. The woman I see when I look
in the mirror is my Aunt Miriam. It still startles me, but it also
inspires me. Knowing that I have limited time left inspires me not to
mortgage any time to negative mind states. I am determined not to miss
any day waiting for a better one. “Carpe diem!” has never seemed like a
more important injunction.
immediately helpful aspect of my earliest insights into impermanence
was the increased tolerance and courage I experienced in difficult
situations. However much I had known intellectually that things pass,
more and more I knew it in the marrow of my bones. I responded better to
difficult news. Hearing that my father had been diagnosed with an
incurable cancer I felt both deeply saddened and uncharacteristically
confident. I thought, “We’ll manage this together. We’ve run 10K races
together. We’ll do this too.” On a more mundane level, I noticed that I
was more relaxed about ordinary unpleasantness. “This painful procedure
at the dentist is taking very long, but in another hour I’ll be out of
the beginning of my practice, the insight about suffering, especially
the extra mental tension that compounds the pain of life’s inevitable
losses, made sense to me. A melancholy boyfriend I had when I was in
high school enjoyed reciting Dylan Thomas poetry to me. I found it
romantic, in a Brontë kind of way, but also depressing. I definitely
thought it would be wrong to “Rage, rage against the dying of the
light,” and I knew I didn’t want to do that. When, years later, I
learned about Buddhism’s four noble truths, I was particularly inspired
by the promise of the fourth noble truth, the path of practice that I
thought would assure me of a mind that did not rage.
When I first began to teach, I would explain the four truths this way:
Life is challenging because everything is always changing and we continually need to adjust to new circumstances.
Adding struggle to challenge creates suffering. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.
Peace is possible. In the middle of a complicated life, the mind can remain at ease.
path for developing this kind of mind involves attention to ethical
behavior, to disciplining the habits of mind through meditation, and to
loved the third noble truth, the truth that liberation is possible. I
felt that after hearing about the ubiquitous ways that we are
challenged—and how heedlessly and habitually we respond to the
challenges in unwise ways—it was a great relief to hear, “Peace is
possible!” I said it with great conviction and I believed it then and I
believe it now. What I’ve started to add now, out of my own experience,
is that however much I know that struggling makes things worse, I still
suffer. If I am pained enough, or disappointed enough, or anxious
enough, I still suffer.
life experiences bring us to our knees. Someone in a class I was once
teaching, after I had talked about the intensity of even terrible
experiences modulating with time because “everything passes,” said, “In
my case I think I am going to pass before the horror of this passes.” I
was humbled by the anguish I heard in what that person said, and it has
kept me more real and more honest.
a while, in an attempt to be honest but lighthearted, I added what I
called the third-and-a-half noble truth: that the intention to
“surrender to the experience” doesn’t necessarily cause it to happen.
These days even light-heartedness seems glib to me, so I don’t do it
anymore. I say, “When the mind is able to surrender to the truth,
grieving happens and suffering lessens.” But there is no timetable for
that to happen and the only possible response I can have is compassion
for myself and for other people. Maybe that truth—that
we suffer in spite of knowing that peace is possible, and sense it is
true for everyone—contributes to our sense of kinship, the sense of
feeling like I’m accompanied that I sometimes experience in a crowd of
The idea of no separate, enduring self—emptiness—is a
peculiar idea until we have a direct experience of it. It certainly
feels that there is a little “Me” living in our bodies that decides what
to do, that sees out of our eyes, that realizes it has woken up in the
morning. The “Me” has thought patterns that are habitual associated with
it, so it feels enduring. If I woke up one morning thinking other
people’s thoughts it would be deeply disturbing.
it was a complete surprise to me, some years into my retreat practice,
to be practicing walking meditation, sensing physical movements and
sights and smells and heat and cool, and realizing that everything was
happening all by itself. No one was taking that walk: “I” wasn’t there. I
a few seconds later, recovering my balance after the “uh-oh” feeling of
“if no one is here, who is holding me up?” I thought, “This is wild!
There really isn’t anyone
in here directing the show. It is all just happening.” I understood
that the arising of intention causes things to happen, and that
intention arises as a result of circumstances such as hearing the
instruction, “Do walking meditation.” Hearing the instruction was the
proximal cause of walking happening. The habit of following
instructions, developed since birth, was another cause.
years since, the understanding that everything anyone does is a result
of karma—of causes and effects—has helped to keep me from labeling
people as good or bad. Circumstances and behavior can change, of course,
but at any given time no one can be other than the sum of all of their
contingent causes. A student in a class discussion about this topic once
said, “When people ask me, ‘How are you?’ I always answer, ‘I couldn’t
be better. Because, I couldn’t!’” It’s true. We couldn’t, any of us, be
better. In our most out-of-sorts days, we couldn’t be better. If we
could, we would. Suffering happens, but no “one” decides to suffer.
a beginning student, I wondered whether hearing about the three
characteristics of experience, rather than discovering them for myself,
would diminish their impact—that thinking about them wouldn’t count as
much as discovering them directly. Today, I know that thinking,
pondering, and reflecting on them count as well as direct moments of
experience. Everything counts.
a practice that directly evokes the truth that there is no separate and
enduring self, meditated on in the context of interconnectedness.
these instructions and then sit up or lie down with your spine straight
and your body relaxed so that breath can flow easily in and out of your
body. Close your eyes. Don’t do anything at all to manipulate or
regulate your breathing. Let your experience be like wide awake
sleeping, with breath coming and going at its own rate.
you’ll be aware of your diaphragm moving up and down as your chest
expands and contracts. Of course you cannot feel that the exhaling air
is rich in carbon dioxide and the inhaling air is rich in oxygen, but
you probably know that. You also probably know that the green life in
the world—the trees and vines and shrubs and grasses—are breathing in
carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen back into the environment. The green
world and your lungs, as long as they both are viable, are keeping each
Without any volition on your part, your body is part of the world happening, and the world is part of your body continuing. Nothing is separate. Your life is part of all life. Where is the self?
Boorstein, Ph.D. has been a psychotherapist since 1967 and a dharma
teacher since the mid-1980s. She is a co-founding teacher of Spirit Rock
Meditation Center in Woodacre, California and the author of five books
on Buddhism and mindfulness, including Happiness Is An Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.
I Want To Be... Peaceful (July 2012)
enlightened qualities start with a peaceful mind, one that is stable,
open, and awake. It all begins, says JAMES ISHMAEL FORD, with the simple
practice of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention.
you’re stressed. No doubt this is the age of stress. Fortunately, there
are many things you can do about it. Among them, a number of styles of
meditation will help to slow things down, give you a bit of space, a
moment of calm in the storm. There sure seem to be a lot of storms that
need calming. So it’s natural that many are turning to meditation as a
significant help toward mental and physical well-being.
course that’s not the only reason people turn to meditation. Nor is it
even the most important. Perhaps you’ve experienced some spiritual
question. Maybe you have a sense there’s something missing in your life.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that whether things are going well or badly
there always seems to be a hole. This longing for some sense of
wholeness is what brings many to meditation.
maybe you’re thinking that things are possibly not the way everyone
seems to think they are. You’ve noticed discrepancies between what
you’ve been told and what you actually see and hear and experience. And,
with that, perhaps you have an intuition that meditation of one sort or
another might point you toward a deeper, more accurate take on what
is interesting is how meditation can be so important for us, whether
we’re looking to enhance our well-being, hoping to get a bit of a better
handle on our lives, or throwing our lot into the great exploration of
this life’s meaning and purpose.
the reason we take up meditation, what I’ve found is that when we stop
and look, step away from our assumptions just for a moment, and take up
the spiritual discipline of practice, things do happen. It can be
shocking to discover how much is in our hands. William James observed,
“Each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what
sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” Synergies begin
when we bring our attention to the ways of the world, and the ways of
our hearts. We discover new territory and new possibility. An old and
dear friend summarized this, observing how the cultivation of a
“peaceful mind can blossom into a profound mind.”
course, there are many kinds of meditation, one or another for every
purpose under the sun. Personally, I’m a bit of a minimalist. And so
whatever your reason for considering meditation, maybe someone
interested in minimums might be helpful to you.
what I have to offer: I find the practice of sitting down, shutting up,
and paying attention is the most useful path to a more healthy life. It
will help us find peace and sometimes open us up to ever deeper
down. Shut up. Pay attention. These are the points that allow the
synergies to happen. As the modern Chinese master Sheng Yen said, “As
the mind becomes clearer, it becomes more empty and calm, and as it
becomes more empty and calm, it grows clearer.” This is the spiral path
of clarity. The more deeply we engage it, the deeper we become. It is
here we find that peaceful mind. With this we find the place is set
where we can find a profound mind, opening ourselves to a path of wisdom
in a world of confusion.
I first began Buddhist meditation I met a woman who was a longtime
student of Zen, and who was considered to have achieved deep insight.
What is important to note here is that she was a quadriplegic; since her
accident she’d never “sat” in any traditional way. Whenever I talk with
people about sitting, I remember her. In fact the Buddha told us there
are four postures suitable to meditation: standing, walking, lying down
and sitting down. They all work. They all have a place.
said, for most of us it seems best to begin the practice by sitting
down. Taking our place this way establishes our intention and allows us
to focus on the basics of the practice.
someone says something like, “I don’t need to sit, my spiritual
practice is golf” (or knitting, or archery, or target shooting), I think
they might well be missing something. Now, I have nothing against golf,
or any of these activities. While each of them brings gifts, true
meditation—at least the meditation disciplines associated with
Buddhism—bring us to something more important. And we start by taking
our place, by sitting down.
sit. If you can hold your body upright it is better. You can sit on the
floor on a pillow or on a chair. Whichever you chose, it helps to have
your bottom a bit higher than your knees. This establishes a triangular
base that supports your torso. Pushing the small of the back slightly
forward and holding the shoulders slightly back helps create that
upright position. Sitting this way, you can immediately feel your lungs
opening up and each breath invigorating your body.
your hands in your lap. In Zen, we like to sit with our eyes open. Many
traditions prefer to close the eyes. Experiment a little. Find what
seems to work best for you. Personally, I like to see where I’m going.
you’ve heard the story of the professor who visited the Zen master. The
professor talks and talks and talks, until his throat is dry. Finally
the master offers him some tea. The professor thanks the teacher, who
then sets out two cups and begins to pour tea into the first cup, and
pours and pours. The tea flows out of the cup and covers the table.
of the time when people hear this story they identify with the Zen
master. We all know people like the professor, people who just don’t
know when to shut up. But the truth is that we’re such people ourselves.
That is you. That is me. It’s a human thing.
the most part we are running a steady commentary on life. We’re
judging, we’re refining, we’re planning, we’re regretting. We tend to
run tape loops around anger or resentment, around desire and wanting,
around how we think things are or are supposed to be. What if we did
just shut up?
Japanese monasteries, a novice monk would have his place in the
meditation hall pointed out to him and he’d just go sit there. Shutting
up in the external sense would be obvious to him because in old Japanese
monasteries if you got out of hand you could catch a beating. But as
for handling those loops of noise inside the head, well, almost nothing
is said about that.
invitation here is not to put a complete stop to our thoughts, whether
they’re those old tape loops we run over and over, or more creative and
possibly even useful thoughts. Truth is, stopping all thought is a
biological impossibility. But we can slow it all down. We can stop our
thoughts and feelings from grabbing us by the throat.
Shutting up is the invitation.
Just be quiet.
pay attention to what? Our minds can wander, and wildly. We plan and we
regret; we wish for something else. We rarely are simply present. So,
how to deal with it?
a start. Take five breath cycles, putting a number on each inhalation
and exhalation, counting one as you inhale, two as you exhale and so on
to ten. The invitation here is to notice. When you don’t notice—and
realize you don’t notice—return to one. Don’t blame yourself. Just
return to one. Don’t blame something else. Return to one. Just notice.
Just pay attention.
Or you allow your attention to ride on the natural breathing without counting.
Or you can just pay attention.
years ago there was an American who made his fortune doing business in
East Asia. Financially comfortable, he decided to retire and to enjoy
the fruits of his labors. Along the way he’d become fascinated with
jade, and decided to learn all there was to know about it.
hired the foremost authority on the subject, who instructed him to come
to her home once a week for a tutorial. As he arrived on the first day,
he was greeted and given some tea. Then the man was handed a large
piece of jade, and with that, the tutor disappeared for an hour. When
the tutor returned she claimed the jade, thanked the patron for his
time, and told him his next appointment was scheduled for the same time
the following week. The man wasn’t sure what to make of this experience,
but he’d learned patience in his years in business, and deferred for
the time being to the reputation of his tutor.
enough, the same thing happened again the next week. This time the
patron was less willing to defer, but he restrained himself, and came
back for a third time. And then a fourth time. Each visit repeated
itself exactly: some tea, some small talk, the piece of jade was put
into his hand, and the tutor left for an hour.
after many weeks, he was once again handed the jade and the tutor
departed. At the end of that hour he couldn’t contain himself any
longer. Everything that had been boiling within him burst forth when the
tutor returned. “I have no idea what you think you’re doing! But I’m no
fool. You’ve just been wasting my time and my money. And now, to add
insult to injury, this time you put a piece of fake jade into my hand.”
And he was right— it was fake.
Just pay attention.
you’re stressed. Perhaps you have some burning question about life and
death. Perhaps you intuit there is something more to all this than
you’ve been told.
Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention.
You never know when it will reveal what is true and what is fake.
James Ishmael Ford is a guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen and a Unitarian Universalist minister. He is the author of Zen Master Who? and coeditor of The Book of Mu. His new book, If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes From a Zen Life, will be published in September by Wisdom Publications.
Books in Brief (July 2012)
Books in Brief
By ANDREA MILLER
The Magic of Awareness
By Anam Thubten
Snow Lion Publications 2012; 160 pp., $16.95 (paper)
In The Magic of Awareness,
Anam Thubten teaches that enlightenment is always available. Indeed,
it’s our birthright. Regardless of our culture or religion, every single
one of us has buddhanature, and—whenever we are ready—we can awaken to
it. According to Anam Thubten, embracing real life is key. Many of us
are lost in our heads, in thoughts about the past and the future. Yet
real life—the life that is presently unfolding—is much more interesting
than our fantasies and ruminations. Anam Thubten grew up in Tibet and
trained in the Nyingma tradition. Now he is the teacher and spiritual
advisor for the Dharmata Foundation, a nonprofit based in northern
California, which is dedicated to making the Buddha’s teachings
available to everyone regardless of background. He is also the author of
the best-selling book, No Self, No Problem.
The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life
By Elisha Goldstein
Atria Books 2012; 288 pp., $23 (cloth)
the introduction to this new release, Elisha Goldstein quotes the
psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “In between stimulus
and response there is a space, in that space lies our power to choose
our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The Now Effect is
about developing awareness, or mindfulness, of this space and thereby
recognizing and letting go of habitual ways of living that don’t serve
us well. Benefits, according to Goldstein, include being able to focus
better at home and at work; feeling more connected to ourselves and
others; and relaxing more effectively in moments of distress. The book
is choc-a-block with resources—questions to reflect upon, handy cheat
sheets, and practices that are at once straightforward and profound. For
those with a Smartphone, Goldstein teaches some of these practices in
videos, which can be scanned using the bar code images featured in
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards
By William J. Broad
Simon & Schuster 2012; 336 pp., $26 (cloth)
you want to cultivate health and happiness? Do you want to be slim and
attractive? Do you want personal growth, love, sexual satisfaction, will
power, or longevity? Whatever you want, somebody has claimed that yoga
can deliver it. But are the claims true? In this groundbreaking book,
William J. Broad unpacks what scientists say are yoga’s real risks and
rewards. The most alarming of Broad’s findings is that certain postures,
including shoulder stand and plow, can cause stroke by reducing the
blood flow through the vertebral and basilar arteries. But on a brighter
note, I’m apparently not crazy for feeling so good after doing asana.
Yoga, according to scientific studies, will not necessarily help people
lose weight or improve cardiovascular health, but it does make people
feel measurably better. Even those new to yoga experience significant
rises in the GABA neurotransmitter, which fights depression, along with
improved moods and lessened anxiety.
The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life
By Dinty W. Moore
Wisdom Publications 2012; 152 pp., $12.95 (cloth)
World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down
By Christian McEwen
Bauhan Publishing 2011; 368 pp., $22.95 (paper)
Dinty W. Moore was frequently asked how Buddhism had influenced his
writing, yet he never gave what he felt was an adequate response. Then
Moore had an epiphany: the river of influence actually ran in the
opposite direction. It was his struggle to write that had enabled him to
recognize the wisdom of the four noble truths. In The Mindful Writer,
Moore explores the role of mindfulness in the writing process. The book
is composed of a series of quotations from writers, artists, and
thinkers, each followed by a pithy, thoughtful response from Moore.
World Enough & Time is
about how our creativity is nurtured by slowing down— when we do
sitting practice, or take a leisurely walk, or write a letter instead of
firing off an email. Christian McEwen has a rich, lyrical voice and she
deftly weaves together her personal experiences with the fascinating
wisdom of Henry David Thoreau, Meredith Monk, Matthieu Ricard, and a
host of other contemporary and historical figures.
Everyday Enlightenment: The Essential Guide to Finding Happiness in the Modern World
By Gyalwang Drukpa
Riverhead Books 2012; 188 pp., $25.95 (cloth)
to His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, there’s only one blessing in life—
to possess genuine understanding and compassion. “From compassion
springs kindness, generosity, patience and, of course, happiness,” he
writes in Everyday Enlightenment.
“Asking for any other kind of blessing in life—for luck, for a boy or a
girl, for money or success—all these things are temporary. Ask instead
for a light so that you may see the world in an understanding way, and
that’s all you will ever need.” Gyalwang Drukpa is the head of the
thousand-year-old Drukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. His humanitarian
work includes promoting gender equality, establishing medical clinics,
and rebuilding heritage sites in the Himalayas. Additionally, he’s the
founder of the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India, which grounds
local children in their own culture while simultaneously equipping them
to thrive in the modern world.
Emotional Chaos to Clarity: How to Live More Skillfully, Make Better Decisions, and Find Purpose in Life
By Phillip Moffitt
Hudson Street Press 2012; 304 pp., $25.95 (cloth)
Phillip Moffitt was editor in chief of Esquire magazine
when he abruptly resigned. Friends and colleagues thought this was a
strange decision, yet he felt it was refreshingly authentic—he never
again wanted to get stuck in overvaluing worldly accomplishment. Now
Moffitt is a co-guiding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in
Northern California, and the founder of Life Balance Institute, a
nonprofit organization that helps people find direction and meaning in
their lives. Drawing on his own experiences, as well as on the
experiences of his students, Moffitt helps readers develop inner
strength and happiness. There are three parts to the book. The first
lays the ground by addressing what it means to be human and reconnecting
us to what really matters, the second focuses on developing the
behaviors necessary to meet life more effectively and authentically, and
the third offers strategies for overcoming obstacles on the road to
Thai Taxi Talismans: Bangkok From the Passenger Seat
By Dale Konstanz
River Books 2012; 159 pp., $30 (paper)
Earth Meets Spirit
By Douglas Beasley
5 Continents Editions 2011; 112 pp., $34.95 (cloth)
and photographer Dale Konstanz moved to Bangkok in 2003. After several
years of getting rides in rainbow-hued, heavily ornamented taxis, he
began taking photos of them. Thai Taxi Talismans is
the culmination of Konstanz’s efforts—a fun and colorful visual feast,
as well as an engaging cultural study of Thai beliefs and popular
design. Bangkok cabbies decorate their vehicles with everything from
artificial blooms to stuffed toys, but Buddhist iconography plays a
major role: Bodhi leaves dangle from rear-view mirrors, sacred symbols
and scripts adorn steering wheels and taxi roofs, and Buddha statues
lend themselves to dashboard altars.
Another book of photography, Earth Meets Spirit,
presents images of sacred places such as the Buddhist monument
Barobodour in Java, Indonesia, and the Temple of the Jaguar in Tikal,
Guatemala. Photographer Douglas Beasley interprets “sacred” in the
broadest of senses, in the sense that sacredness is all around us, in
the everyday. Some of his most haunting shots are of dead birds, trees
reflected in water, and the strong, soft back of a horse in South
Review: Mainstreaming Mindfulness (July 2012)
The Emotional Life of Your Brain
by Richard Davidson
Hudson Street Press 2012; 304 pp., $25.95 (cloth)
A Mindful Nation
by Tim Ryan
Hay House 2012; 203 pp., $19.95 (cloth)
Search Inside Yourself
by Chade-Meng Tan
HarperOne 2012; 288 pp., $26.99 (cloth)
Reviewed by ED HALLIWELL
story told by Mark Williams, director of the Oxford Mindfulness
Centre, illustrates the dim view of contemplative practice that was once
common in health care circles. During the early days of
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), the course he developed with
John Teasdale and Zindel Segal to help people prone to depression,
Williams recalls being accosted by a colleague at a psychology
conference. “Is it really true what I hear?” the colleague spluttered.
“That John Teasdale is meditating with his patients?” “It is true,” replied Mark, “and so am I.” The man, he says, was “clearly appalled.”
days, such a reaction would be highly unlikely in the medical
mainstream. Programs that teach mindfulness, like MBCT, have the weight
of scientific evidence on their side, and people who would once have
scoffed are eulogizing the healthgiving effects of meditation.
change arguably began when Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching a stress
reduction course at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, bringing
his Buddhist training to a context where it seemed more skilful to teach
meditation in a distinctly secular way. Out went religious robes,
gurus, and shrines, and in came raisin-eating and randomized controlled
trials. As the approach spread, meditative practice shed some of its
hippie, New Age associations, and flourished, perhaps in its essence, as
a practical, testable method for the relief of suffering.
studies of the courses, showing many benefits to well-being, started to
bring an impressive credibility to what had previously been seen by
many people as weird or flaky. Peer-reviewed literature on mindfulness
has been growing in volume for years, and this is now being matched by
mainstream publications. The pedigree of some book authors is
interesting, too. It’s not just meditation teachers, therapists, or even
celebrities like Goldie Hawn who are urging us to be mindful nowadays,
but politicians, corporate whiz kids, and professors of neuroscience.
The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect The Way You Think, Feel, and Live—And How You Can Change Them is
a career autobiography of Richard Davidson, the world’s preeminent
neuroscientist of meditation. His unfolding story offers a fascinating
marker of how times have changed over a working life. In one of the many
enchanting anecdotes that bring life to the book, Davidson recalls the
disapproving reaction of one professor to his first published study,
which revealed that experience in meditation was associated with less
anxiety and improved attention. “Richie,” he was informed sternly “if
you wish to have a successful career in science, this is not a very good
way to begin.”
with such resistance, Davidson parked his curiosity about the
mechanisms of meditation and turned to examining the brain signatures of
well-being and distress, hoping to find clues to a healthier, happier
existence. This quest formed the core of his early work, and he was able
to establish that people with an upbeat, engaged approach to life also
tend to show more activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain,
as measured by EEG readings. Meanwhile, those who are less sunny in
their manner, tending more toward anxiety, depression, and an avoidant
style, have less activity in the left prefrontal cortex and more on the
right side of the brain.
to prevailing scientific orthodoxy, Davidson also found that these
markers of well-being were not set in stone. Whereas it had been thought
that mental disposition was basically fixed, and that people were more
or less stuck with the outlook they’re born with, Davidson’s research
suggested that emotional style is far more malleable, sometimes changing
greatly over the course of a lifetime. This was significant, because it
heralded the possibility that we can take conscious action to change
our temperament, a hypothesis that would have seemed barely credible to
scientists when Davidson began his work.
discoveries formed a platform from which he could return to the study
of meditation. By this time a respected professor at the University of
Wisconsin, and inspired by a growing wealth of research that showed
remarkable plasticity in the human brain (with functional and even
structural changes occurring in response to events), Davidson started
applying himself to the question of what kind of
activity might promote neural well-being. More specifically, as even
mental events— thoughts and emotions—had been found to change the brain
and its workings, could it be that mental exercise might help the mind
be happy? This, of course, is a claim traditionally made for meditation,
and since the early 1990s, Davidson has rigorously tested the
results have helped transform meditation from scientific pariah to
darling of the day, simultaneously giving birth to the field of
contemplative neuroscience. From the study of expert meditators (those
happy yogis who have clocked more than 10,000 hours of practice) as well
as novices, Davidson’s lab has produced paper after paper suggesting
that training in mindfulness and compassion leads the brain toward
greater well-being, just as physical exercise trains the body to
fitness. Stressed workers who took an eight-week mindfulness course
showed a tripling in left-side brain activation, Tibetan monks in the
lab produced more gamma activity (a sign of neural synchrony) than ever
before reported in the literature, and compassion practice reduced
distress and increased meditators’ desire to help others.
Written with journalist Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain presents
sometimes dense material with verve, and the interweaving of Davidson’s
personal narrative lends a welcome structure to proceedings. If it
sometimes feels that the identification of six distinct emotional styles
is a distraction from the main story (albeit an empirically
demonstrable one), then the short self-help section at the end brings
things neatly into harmony (the advice, in summary, is: “Meditate, it’s
good for you”). We’re still near the beginning of a scientific journey
to understand what’s going on in the brain when we train in these
practices, but whatever happens next, Davidson’s shoulders will be ones
that future researchers stand on.
Without scientific work like Davidson’s, it’s difficult to imagine Congressman Tim Ryan’s A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit getting
written. It’s quite the remarkable document: a sitting member of the
United States Congress comes out as a meditator, and puts a passionate
case for placing mindfulness at the heart of public life. A Mindful Nation begins
with a personal account of Ryan’s own journey into meditation, and
expands to advocate ardently for its adoption into fields as widespread
as health care, education, the military, economics, and the environment.
argument is strongly grounded in research, and that’s what may make it
persuasive in a culture where this could be dismissed as off-the-wall,
soft, or even un-American. Ryan doesn’t mince his words, stating that if
mindfulness brings the benefits that science suggests, it would be a
dereliction of his duty not to shout about it from the political
rooftops, using his position to enlist the support of government.
“Although it may seem like an unusual way to approach serious practical
problems,” he writes, “I am convinced that our capacity to be mindful is
the natural pathway to addressing so many of the difficulties we face.”
a tour of some of the settings where the “heroes” and “pioneers” of
mindfulness are at work, Ryan describes how their efforts are
transforming lives. He visits research laboratories to learn how stress
affects the brain and body, and finds that meditation can bring our
nervous systems into balance. He explores its impact on health, by
reducing inflammation and a range of stress-related illness, and sees
huge possibilities for easing the strain on the American health care
system. He attends schools where the practice and brain science of
mindfulness is taught to first-graders (as well as their teachers), and
reveals how “mindfitness” is being introduced to the Marines to help
them cope better with the intense stress of being deployed in hellish
war zones. He makes a strong and earnest plea for mindfulness as a way
to bring more compassion and community into economic and social life,
and to slow the rampant and unwitting destruction of our environment.
identifies mindfulness as a key for letting go of unskillful habit
patterns, and rediscovering the wisdom and bravery that could help us
build a kinder, more resilient world. At its heart, his message is that
mindfulness is a simple and effective trainable skill, and there’s no
good reason for not realizing its potential to foster the values of
connectedness, caring, and courage that ought to define America. These
are values that Ryan himself models in risking such a stand from the
vulnerable position of public office. That this now seems possible for
an elected politician to do, without it being an act of career harakiri,
signals another milestone on meditation’s journey to respectability.
less surprising, perhaps, to find search engine giant Google ahead of
the game, having already planted mindfulness at the center of the
company’s people development scheme. The spur for this comes from
engineer-turned-executive (and now meditation teacher) Chade-Meng Tan,
whose official job title as Google’s “Jolly Good Fellow” seems only a
half-joke. Google is famous for its “20 percent time,” in which staff
are encouraged to spend up to a day a week on projects outside their
usual remit, as a way of enabling out-of-the-box creativity. Meng used
some of his 20 percent time to work up Search Inside Yourself, a
mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course.
by the power of meditation, Meng’s not-so-small intention is to “create
the conditions for world peace,” first by developing and refining the
SIY curriculum internally at Google, and then offering it out to the
wider world with the Google stamp of approval. He’s reached readiness
for phase two, so here comes the training manual, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Profits, Happiness (and World Peace).
Meng’s self-deprecating humor, a peppering of off-the-wall cartoons,
practices with names like “The Siberian North Railroad,” and tips on
topics such as “Being Effective and Loved At the Same Time,” “How Not To
Strangle Your Mother-In Law,” and “Mindful Emailing,” Search Inside Yourself makes for a ripping read.
don’t be fooled—the occasionally slapstick tone shouldn’t detract from
what is actually a first-rate (as well as fun) meditation training. The
practice sections are innovative, easy to navigate, and clear, and
they’re backed up by plenty of crunchy data for the rationally minded.
And whereas the “B word” doesn’t get mentioned in A Mindful Nation, Meng has no issue with combining traditional Buddhist presentations and practices (such as tonglen)
with twenty-first-century understandings of the brain, all served up
with the kind of irreverence, dynamism, and freshness you might expect
from one of Google’s early pioneers. It might be tempting to raise an
eyebrow at his unrepressed enthusiasm for changing the world, but given
that Meng has already played a role in engineering major habit shifts
among a large percentage of the planet’s population, who’s to say he
(and Google) can’t do it again?
model for the widespread adoption of meditation is physical exercise,
the health-inducing benefits of which were firmly established in the
twentieth century and now lie unquestioned. “I want to create a world
where meditation is widely treated like exercise for the mind,”
concludes Meng. In the company of eminent scientists such as Richard
Davidson, daring politicians like Tim Ryan, plus a little Google gold
dust, the fulfillment of that goal may not be so far away.
Editorial: Suddenly and Without Warning (July 2012)
Suddenly and Without Warning
By MELVIN McLEOD, Editor-in-Chief
an old Buddhist saying that death comes suddenly and without warning.
That contemplation helps us to live each day with the wisdom that comes
from knowing it might be our last. In the modern world, of course, with
our medical knowledge and long life expectancy, death usually comes with
considerable warning and preparation. But it did not for Raymond
Raymond was a much-loved colleague at the Shambhala Sun for
twelve years. He was assistant circulation manager, on the face of it a
rather dry and geeky job. But Raymond was just the opposite: fun,
cheerful, gentle, and outgoing. He was a committed Christian, a
political activist, and a leader of the LGBT community in Nova Scotia.
He made our lives here at the Sun more enjoyable, interesting, and meaningful.
died violently in the early hours of April 17th. He intervened in an
assault that was taking place outside the gay and lesbian bar where he’d
been enjoying the company of friends. The assailant, a large man with a
history of violence, had been given an unescorted pass from a forensic
psychiatric hospital. He turned on Raymond and killed him there on the
that day I went into Raymond’s office. I saw his running shoes on the
floor, his Obama “Hope” poster we both loved, and the pen on his desk he
had casually left there the night before, certainly expecting to pick
it up again the next morning. As we all would.
Years ago we published a Zen calligraphy in the Sun that I’ve often pondered. It was the character shi—“death”—and
the inscription read, “One who penetrates here is truly a great
person.” For death is the great original koan, particularly one that
comes suddenly and without warning. A pen left on a desk, and no one
there in the morning to pick it up—this I confess I cannot penetrate.
What I have seen clearly since Raymond’s death is love. So much love.
the evening of his death a thousand people gathered on the street where
Raymond was killed to express their love for him. They talked about his
caring and quirky character and the way he brought people together with
gentleness and consideration. He was described as an activist without
anger, and following his example, none was expressed that evening.
Here at the Sun we
came together as a grieving family, sharing tears and consolation and
mutual support. Never have I felt so clearly the value of a caring
community, one based on principles of spiritual practice. I think we are
all very grateful to have each other. I know I am.
would also like to express my gratitude to so many of you—our readers,
friends, and partners— who have let us know that you too have been
touched by and share in this loss. Many people have asked what the best
way to honor Raymond’s life is. My answer is that we should continue the
work he gave his life to, and possibly for—working gently and without
anger toward a world in which all people feel free and safe to be
exactly who they are. In a society in which that is far from true,
Raymond was Raymond to his last breath. In my tradition, we call that a
* * *
spiritual teacher offers us better counsel about how to live with
difficulty than Pema Chödrön. I want to let you know about a “virtual
retreat” on July 14 that will mark her 76th birthday. Pema Chödrön is
spending almost all of this year in solitary meditation retreat but on
that day, practitioners around the world can join her for a day of
meditation dedicated to the theme of Practicing Peace. Ani Pema has
recorded a special teaching for this occasion, which you can access at
pemachodronfoundation.org. This is a precious opportunity to join this
beloved Buddhist teacher in a day of meditation devoted to peace. From
peace in our hearts to peace in the world, there’s nothing more
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