The Science of Meditation
The Science of Meditation
Mind & Life Institute, reports ANDREA MILLER, explores the
intersection between ancient meditative disciplines and modern science.
is no contradiction between science and spirituality because “each
gives us valuable insights into the other,” says His Holiness the Dalai
Lama. “With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion
and spirituality have a greater role to play by reminding us of our
Mind & Life Institute, founded by the Dalai Lama, entrepreneur Adam
Engle, and the late neuroscientist and philosopher Francisco Varela, is
a pioneering nonprofit organization that brings together scientists and
contemplatives for the purpose of understanding the nature of reality,
and ultimately creating a healthier, more balanced society.
first Mind and Life conference was held in 1987 in Dharamsala, India.
It was structured as a five-day dialogue between Buddhists and
specialists in cognitive sciences, and was attended by the Dalai Lama,
six scientists, two interpreters, and a few observers. Since then, Mind
and Life has convened twenty-two conferences, some by invitation only,
others large public events. About three thousand people participated in
the 2005 conference in Washington, D.C., which focused on the scientific
and clinical applications of meditation.
addition to its landmark conferences, Mind and Life has research
initiatives. Notable among them is the Mind and Life Summer Research
Institute (MLSRI), an annual weeklong program held at the Garrison
Institute in Garrison, New York. At once a retreat and a scientific
conference, MLSRI encourages collaboration among behavioral scientists,
neuroscientists, biomedical researchers, and practitioners and scholars
of the contemplative traditions, and features presentations by some of
the most progressive thinkers in those fields. Since 2004, more than
1,000 faculty and participants have attended through competitive
long-term objective of MLSRI is to advance the training of a new
generation of scientists and contemplative scholar–practitioners.
Research fellows participating in the summer conference have the
opportunity to present studies they’ve conducted, and, afterward, may
apply for the Mind and Life Francisco J. Varela Research Awards. So far,
Mind and Life has distributed $1.175 dollars in funding to support
emerging scientists. The research areas of recipients have included
mindful awareness practices for preschool children to improve attention
and emotion regulation; the effects of mind–body interventions in
supportive care for people with cancer; and mindfulness training as both
a way of treating drug addicts and investigating the mechanisms
involved in addiction.
theme of Mind and Life’s 2011 Summer Research Institute, being held at
Garrison from June 12 to 18, is “New Frontiers in the Contemplative
Sciences.” The focus is on unresolved challenges for the advancement of
contemplative neuroscience, contemplative clinical science, and
contemplative studies in light of the progress made since MLSRI’s
Great Expectations (July 2011)
want the sun; we get the rain. But where does the doorway of
ELIZABETH BROWNRIGG on disappointment as a painful
but necessary treasure.
I’ve been disappointed by pretty much everything at one time or another: work, school, vacations, lunch, Desperate Housewives after the third season, marriage, friendship. The list goes on.
feeling of disappointment can be shock or a slow sinking. It can be the
rigidity of denial, followed by the collapse of acquiescence, followed
by the vertigo of loss. It can be a slight sadness, soon forgotten. It
can be a cataclysm so profound that its lessons are obscured for years.
There’s an internal shift as the expected result becomes more ephemeral,
and the actual moment becomes more real.
What are our disappointments trying to tell us?
were staying at a resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. From the lanai
that served as our kitchen, we could hear the rustle of palm fronds in
the trade winds. The electricity depended on a generator, and when they
said lights out at 10 p.m., they meant it; ready or not, we were plunged
into the velvety darkness of the tropical night.
drove to a black sand beach along a road lined by guavas ripe for the
picking. Turquoise waves curved and exploded into white foam. Nude
sunbathers, their bodies gorgeously tanned, dove into the sea. Children
ran along the water’s edge and built obsidian castles from the shining
man rolled a joint and was suddenly surrounded by five new friends, all
desperate for a hit. A little boy howled. His mother told him to shut
up. She crouched next to the man with the marijuana, waiting her turn.
The boy’s back was half-covered with an oozing, sand encrusted gash. The
breakers were so rough we had to fight our way in, tossed about and
gasping, before we could reach the deep swells beyond the surf.
Back at the resort, I opened the kitchen cupboard. A very large rat stared back at me. I hurriedly shut the door in its face.
a bright winter’s day in Williamsburg, Virginia, I walked down a
cobblestone street that stretched exactly one mile from the edge of the
college campus to the end of the Colonial Williamsburg historic
district. I was walking away from the school, down a road that led
nowhere but the past. I had just flunked out.
Williamsburg was an empty, beautiful place with each building freshly
painted, each boxwood trimmed to a perfect shape. There were no chickens
wandering the streets, no sewage, no arguments, no signs of the lives
that were lived there in the eighteenth century. It was a town
historically accurate in its physical details, and much farther removed
from reality than three hundred years.
reached the end of the street and turned around to walk back to the
school that no longer had a place for me. How could this have happened? I
was cast adrift in this empty town of artifice.
had been majoring in biology. I hated the stench of formaldehyde, zoned
out during the lectures, was bored by the reading, dreaded chemistry
lab, and yet was absolutely convinced that I should be a biologist
because I loved nature so much. I had been punishing myself with
positive thinking, ignoring the signs of my own discontent.
my failure, I stayed on in Williamsburg and waited tables on the
low-paying breakfast and lunch shift. I struggled to find what it was
that I really loved. I tried writing poems and stories. There was one
beautiful thing that I managed to notice through the fog of my misery.
Every morning, as I walked past Bruton Parish Church on the way to my
dead-end job, peals of organ music floated through the early spring air.
hard time was an opportunity for gratitude. My college roommate kept me
hidden in the dorm room, and spirited food from the cafeteria until I
could find an off-campus apartment. After I’d been floating in a lost
world for a few months, my parents took me back home and paid for a
creative writing class.
reapplied to college, and returned as an English major. I plunged
happily into all the courses I had missed while I was pretending to be a
biologist: “Tragedies of Shakespeare,” “Art of China,” “History of
Film,” “Modern British Literature,” “Burmese Supernaturalism.”
disappointment is the only thing that can slap you hard enough to wake
you up. It turned out that the path of the writer was my way into the
natural world. Now I write articles about bat surveys, birding
festivals, sea turtles hatching.
I was eighteen, I spent a summer as a nurse’s aide in the hospital
where I was born, in the small town where I grew up. I worked the night
was a county hospital that served everyone, from the extremely wealthy
to the most impoverished. I sat up with old farm women whose unbound
hair flowed to their waists. I lit a cigarette for an ancient man who
was as thin and dry as a stick. He suckled the cigarette in a single
drawn-out breath until it was one long red ember.
the nursery, a baby screamed. When I went to investigate, I saw a
tapeworm six inches long writhing next to the baby’s head. The nurses
told me that the anti-parasite medication had driven the worm out
through the baby’s nose.
was the other nurse’s aide. She was black and in her thirties, a
generously proportioned woman who liked to make me blush by saying,
“There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned orgasm. Don’t you agree?” I
nodded as though I had any clue what she was talking about.
worked together on our rounds, changing sheets, taking temperatures,
emptying urine from bloated Foley catheter bags. Edith wrote me little
notes: “Dear Elizabeth, you are cordially invited to a Foley Cocktail
Party!” Blanche was a patient who had come in for a gallbladder
operation months ago and been brain-damaged by the anesthesia. We
changed her sheets and turned her so she wouldn’t get bedsores. She
spent her waking hours wordlessly howling, except for when Edith said,
“Blanche, Blanche, what’s the matter, baby?” Blanche grew silent and
turned her unseeing eyes in the direction of Edith’s voice.
young black man was admitted with a gunshot wound. He had to use a
bedpan. Edith tended to him with the gentleness of an angel. “He likes
to keep himself clean. He doesn’t like to be dirty.”
Clarke was the nursing supervisor. She had risen through the ranks and
was a blend of skill and compassion. Every night she stopped in at the
nurse’s station to shoot the breeze with the other RNs. She guided me
through my menial tasks. She didn’t hesitate to call me on the carpet if
I hadn’t been working hard enough or to compliment me when I’d done
well. She set a standard that I tried to reach.
wanted my help with a man who had had a colostomy, but first she asked
me, “Are you sure you can handle this? It’s a pretty rough sight.” After
we had emptied the colostomy bag and resealed the opening into his
abdomen, she shook her head. “That man is riddled with cancer, and he
nurse’s uniform was spotless and starched, her cap always pinned in
place. We didn’t see doctors on the night shift. Instead, Mrs. Clarke
ran a universe of patients in intensive care, newborn babies and their
mothers, starving children, accident victims, and every possible
condition, from the dying to the merely malingering.
the end of the summer, Mrs. Clarke invited the staff to a cookout at
her house. I asked Edith if she was going. She didn’t look at me when
she said, “No, I’m busy that day.”
Clarke’s house was a small brick ranch on the outskirts of a
neighboring town. In the kitchen, the nurses were already drinking and
laughing. Mrs. Clarke kept a sharp eye on me and wouldn’t let me near
the alcoholic punch. The rest of the women were married with children of
their own, and even a few grandchildren. I carried my potato salad to
the picnic table outside and came back into the kitchen. Mrs. Clarke was
in the middle of a story, “I don’t know what that nigger was doing,
meeting her boyfriend out in the parking lot most likely.” She was
laughing so hard she was almost crying. “Every single damn night. And
you know she was all over that boy with the gunshot wound.” It took me a
minute to realize who she was talking about. The wide grimace of racism
was revealed like a skull’s grin beneath the skin. Edith had never been
invited to this party.
can tell you two things about Mrs. Clarke: She was an excellent nurse,
and she was a bigot. Both are true. Each observation is like peeking
through a keyhole and seeing only a tiny facet of the complicated person
she was. As the privileged white resident of a southern town, I rarely
noticed the racism that Edith encountered every day; the crack of
disappointment exposed that truth.
I left to go back to college in the fall, Edith’s farewell gift was a
tiny red plastic pocketbook with a folded note inside: “Dear Elizabeth, I
hope you will remember me.”
does the doorway of disappointment lead? If we’re willing to walk
through it, we can see all possibilities: the caring nurse and the
racist; the rat in the garden of Eden. We can discover the assumptions
that we’ve been making all along. Disappointment is a necessary, painful
treasure that reveals ourselves to ourselves.
Wouldn’t it be terrible if you were never disappointed again?
Elizabeth Brownrigg is the author of the novels Falling to Earth and The Woman Who Loved War.
Illustration by Katherine Streeter.
Sea Change (July 2011)
Teenagers "get" mindfulness; they soak it up like sponges and it transforms their
GINA BIEGEL on the best ways for parents, teachers, and mentors
to introduce teens to the practice.
recently went to Hawaii for the first time, and a friend suggested we
go snorkeling to experience the beautiful tropical fish firsthand. I try
to be open-minded about checking out new things and I enjoy seeing with
fresh eyes, so even though I had learned to swim only a few years ago, I
said yes straight away. But it wasn’t long before fear and worry set
in. I began to think about how I wasn’t a very good swimmer, how I often
get motion sickness, and that I would probably get seasick. I was sure
the fish would bite me. This flood of thoughts about my past and my
future filled my mind and offset any anticipated enjoyment.
the same way, I’ve noticed that many of the teens I work with worry
excessively about things that are out of their control. They believe it
will change the outcome of what they’re worrying about—which we know
from hard experience isn’t the case. One of the simplest techniques I
use with teenagers is to help them notice when they’re engaging in these
past/future thoughts and help them see that worries can’t change
outcomes, no matter how much we would like them to. This small step can
often shift their thinking and lead to increased present-moment
began to use mindfulness with teenagers in my psychotherapy practice
when I saw that techniques that had traditionally been used with adults
in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program could work well
with teens. Not only were teens “getting it,” they were soaking it up
like sponges. I found they were often more open to the practices than
adults, if they were explained in teen language. Unlike many of the
other interventions I was using from other traditional psychotherapies, I
saw that mindfulness techniques and interventions dramatically and
quickly improved teens’ quality of life. They reduced stress and gave
the teens strength from within to solve their problems, which often led
to a shift away from “poor me” or judgmental thinking. I’ve now been
systematically teaching these techniques for more than seven years.
often ask me how to introduce teens to mindfulness. One of the best
ways to answer that question is to illustrate it through a story from my
own life, such as my snorkeling adventure. I find that mixing stories
with real-life examples from the world of teens—along with an
appropriate amount of self-disclosure—gets me a lot of mileage in
connecting with teenagers and trying to help them.
Now and Then
we go back to my worry-filled mind as I anticipated going snorkeling,
we can see that talking about that experience is just the kind of
opening that would help teens relate to a common pattern in their own
minds. A great intervention to use with teens is to have them find out
how many of their thoughts are actually about what’s going on here and
now. They can see that by spending so much time in their mind on things
that have already happened or are going to happen, they aren’t living
their life right now. How much are they missing in the present?
an exercise, you can have them jot down all the thoughts that come to
their mind for a period of three to five minutes. After they’re
finished, ask them to mark each thought with a “P” for past, “N” for
now, and “F” for future. It’s easy for them to see that most of their
thoughts aren’t in the now. The point of this activity is to help them
discover that by being mindful they’ll spend less time focusing on past
or future thoughts, many of which aren’t particularly helpful, such as
worries and judgments about oneself or others. People need to think
about the past and future, but if teens can focus more on the present
moment it might mitigate some of the mental and physical problems that
come from spending so much time in their heads.
Being in the Body
the day to go snorkeling arrived, I had knots in my stomach and my
hands were a little shaky. My body was sending out “red flags” that I
was not doing okay. I was still absorbed in thinking about the worst
possible outcomes. A great intervention for teens is to get them to use
the red flags their body gives off, which they usually don’t notice.
Many teens, and adults for that matter, are cut off from their body and
spend most of the time in their head.
teens to notice their breath or even count their breaths can help. For
example, asking them to notice their breath and say to themselves,
“Breathing in, one; breathing out, one; breathing in, two; breathing
out, two,” for a count of ten will connect them to their body. It will
give them a moment to just be with their breath and body, which
unfortunately teens often don’t do these days. Taking several conscious
breaths can give teens a few moments before they act or react, either
toward themselves or someone else. It can be a good anger management
strategy, or possibly prevent a teen from engaging in a self-destructive
behavior like cutting.
Probing and Listening
felt sick as I got on the boat, and it wasn’t even moving yet. I was
convinced that the boat ride and the snorkeling were not going to be
fun. I had predetermined the outcome, something teens often do. Try
asking them, “If this situation in your life was a movie, how would the
end play out?” Their response will give you an insight into their world
and a vantage point from which to help and support them. I’ve learned so
many times that something that might appear quite small to us could be a
teen’s Achilles heel or the biggest trauma they’re facing in their life
at that particular moment. Try to respect teens where they are, even if
you don’t agree with them about what is important. Doing this will get
you far. The opposite will stop you in your tracks.
listening and respect are offerings you can give no matter what role
you play in a teen’s life. Teens often don’t feel heard, particularly by
adults. If you can provide a different experience for them, you might
be able to build a stronger relationship. You might be surprised by the
quality of the communication and the respect you get back. Listening and
showing respect are not new concepts, but being present in a mindful
way deepens the shared experience.
See, Hear, Feel
I got in the water and began to snorkel, I noticed the flippers were
hurting my feet. I forgot to breathe only through my mouth, and took a
lot of salt water in through my nose, which was unpleasant. I felt cold
and noticed how different the part of my body above the water felt from
the part beneath. And then, “Oh my gosh—beauty, amazement!”
saw a world I’d never seen before: the colors, all the small and big
fish, the coral, and how it all formed a community. I noticed how the
fish moved in schools, how they glided through the water. I was
wondering why some fish were closer together and others farther apart. A
visitor to their world, I was seeing something with fresh eyes. I
encourage the teens I work with to see things with fresh eyes. I try to
elicit what they see in their world—what makes up their world and what
gives them purpose. I inquire about the different relationships in their
lives—what schools of fish they hang out with—to get an in-depth look
into their world. Sometimes their world can seem as new to me as
snorkeling for the first time.
find it quite helpful to use our senses to experience what mindfulness
is rather than relying on a definition. Have a teen tell you what they
see, smell, hear, touch, and taste in any given moment. First, it will
get them to be present, right here in this moment. Second, they might
notice something they have seen a thousand times, but never noticed. You
can ask them to share what they see, smell, and so on, and then share
things you noticed that they didn’t, and vice versa. You will learn from
them by doing this, which can happen in so many moments with teens if
you are open.
wanted to experience this first snorkeling adventure as my own, and not
how other people told me it was going to be. Don’t assume a teen’s
experience will be like yours or what works for you or what you enjoy
will be the same for them. Letting a teen experience mindfulness for
themselves is best. We all know how freeing a mindful moment can be,
like my first mindful moment snorkeling in the water. It’s most helpful
if you can provide a space for a teen to have such moments, rather than
trying to replicate your own experience.
I was in the water, I saw the fish as a sea community: all connected as
friends, siblings, parents, partners, teachers, and so on. We too play
many roles that connect us to a larger community. At times people ask
whose responsibility it is to teach our youth to be well-rounded,
educated people who are emotionally and socially savvy. Who is assigned
that task? We all are. If we are mindful, we can make a difference in
teens’ lives no matter how we encounter them. And, who knows, they might
teach us a thing or two and help us see with fresh eyes.
Biegel is the author of The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens and the
CD, Mindfulness for Teens: Meditation Practices to Reduce Stress and
Promote Well-Being. She is also the founder of Stressed Teens, which
introduces youths, families, educators, and professionals to the
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens program.
Illustration by Eric Hanson.
Books in Brief (July 2011)
Books in Brief
By Andrea Miller
Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara
By Colleen Morton Busch
Penguin 2011; 272 pp., $25.95 (cloth)
June 2008, a single lightning storm caused more than 2,000 wildfires
across California, and one of those fires surrounded Tassajara Zen
Mountain Center, the oldest Zen monastery in the United States. Fire Monks
is the true story of the five monks who, instead of evacuating, risked
their lives to save the center. The monks—four men and one woman—had
minimal training in firefighting but years of Zen practice, and they
were able to meet the fire with mindfulness, treating it as a friend to
be guided instead of an enemy to be vanquished. Colleen Morton Busch, a
former senior editor of Yoga Journal,
has done a remarkable job of both researching the fire and spinning a
good yarn. This book reads like a hair-raising adventure novel.
Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives
By Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperOne 2011; 160 pp., $22.99 (cloth)
“You have lots of work to do, and you like doing it,” says Thich Nhat Hanh at the beginning of Peace Is Every Breath.
“But working too much, taking care of so many things, tires you out.
You want to practice meditation, so you can be more relaxed and have
more peace, happiness, and joy in your life. But you don’t have time for
daily mediation practice.” If this describes your situation, Peace Is Every Breath
will be an excellent resource. It offers anecdotes, meditations, and
advice on connecting with your present experience without putting your
life on hold. Thich Nhat Hanh explains: “It isn’t necessary to set aside
a certain period exclusively for “Spiritual Practice” with a capital S
and a capital P. Our spiritual practice can be there at any moment, as
we cultivate the energy of mindfulness and concentration.”
The Next Eco-Warriors: 22 Young Women and Men Who Are Saving the Planet
Edited by Emily Hunter
Conari Press 2011; 262 pp., $19.95 (paper)
environmental activists, all under the age of forty, tell their
stories. These young people, who hail from across the globe, are using
every imaginable tactic to make a difference. For example, Tanya Fields,
an African American woman, is fighting poverty through guerilla farming
in New York City; Rob Stewart, a Canadian filmmaker, is shining a light
on the shark-finning industry through his film Sharkwater;
and Australian model Hannah Fraser is performing in a mermaid costume
to educate people on the importance of marine life. Emily Hunter, the
editor of The Next Eco-Warriors,
is the daughter of Greenpeace’s founding president and is herself an
environmental activist. Her work has included trips to Antarctica to
help save whales and the Galapagos Islands, where she was held hostage
when she tried to stop illegal poaching. Currently, Hunter produces and
hosts TV documentaries about environmental issues.
The Heart of the Revolution: The Buddha’s Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion, and Kindness
By Noah Levine
HarperOne 2011; 224 pp., $15.99 (paper)
age seventeen, Noah Levine hated happy people and depressed people. He
hated adults, teachers, cops, and hippies. He hated the world, and he
reveled in this hatred, smoking PCP, shooting heroin, stealing, and
getting in fights. Then he found the Buddhist path and he slowly began
to discover his true, loving heart. In this new volume—his third
book—Levine shares his story and offers the practices, which he used to
find in himself forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. The Heart of the Revolution
covers a lot of ground. It offers a fresh look at mercy, a term not
frequently used in Buddhism; includes an extensive commentary on the Metta Sutta;
gives the lowdown on personal and romantic love; and explores cosmology
and the three personality types according to traditional Buddhist
Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss
By Linda Leaming
Hay House 2011; 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)
At its core, Married to Bhutan
is a romance; it’s the true story of Linda Leaming’s love affair with
both her Bhutanese husband and with Bhutan itself. Leaming, from
America, visited the Buddhist nation of Bhutan for the first time when
she was thirty-nine. It would be “a nice diversion,” the travel agent
had told her. But as soon as that first trip was over, Leaming was
devising ways to return. The country was to become, not a diversion, but
her life—a life full of hilarious linguistic bumbling, a flexible sense
of time, and a sharp awareness of impermanence. “In the West, it is
possible to live and be asleep,” she writes. “In Bhutan one is compelled
to wake up.” Leaming’s husband is a renowned thangka painter and I very
much enjoyed the intimate look at his artistic process.
Dharma Road: A Short Cab Ride to Self Discovery
By Brian Haycock
Hampton Roads Publishing Company 2010; 256 pp., $16.95 (paper)
this, the first book by former cabdriver Brian Haycock, he unpacks Zen
Buddhist philosophy and practice through the lens of that job—the cars
and tips and traffic and dispatchers, the run-of-the-mill customers and
their small talk and the customers who are trying to score crack. But
you don’t need to drive a taxi to be able to relate to this book, writes
Haycock in the introduction. “We can’t all be cabdrivers. You’ll see
that life on the streets isn’t so different from your life. We all have
stress, distractions, delusions. We all get lost sometimes. And we can
find ourselves if we try.” I love the fresh premise of Dharma Road, and Haycock’s gritty stories and unpretentious, compassionate voice.
The Natural Kitchen: Your Guide to the Sustainable Food Revolution
By Deborah Eden Tull
Process 2010; 250 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Deborah Eden Tull spent seven years as a Buddhist monk and cook at the
Zen Monastery Peace Center in Murphys, California, and this fall she
will be teaching a workshop based on The Natural Kitchen at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The Natural Kitchen
features a number of tasty recipes, such as, miso pesto and summer
fruit soup, but it is not primarily a cookbook. Instead, it is an
invitation to experience greater health, joy, and mindful awareness by
cultivating a more eco-friendly relationship with food. Full of news you
can use, it has chapters on these and many other topics: conserving
energy while cooking; managing food waste and composting; growing food
in your own backyard; introducing children to the delicious world of
sustainable food; and eating on the go. The final chapter is a workbook
and resource list.
Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Road to Tibet
By Michael Freeman and Selena Ahmed
River Books 2011; 340 pp., $65 (cloth)
the seventh century, Tibetans developed a taste for tea and it quickly
became a staple in their meaty diet. At the same time, China—struggling
to fend off the Mongols—found itself coveting sturdy warhorses. Since
Tibet had horses and China had tea, Cha Ma Dao,
or the Tea Horse Road, came into being. It’s a network of trails
covering nearly 2,000 miles, and was one of the most important trade
routes of the ancient world. This book by photographer and writer
Michael Freeman and scholar Selena Ahmed provides a rich visual journey
through many of the modern road’s branches. There are photographs of tea
and horse culture: teashops, terraced tea plantations, colorful tea
festivals, horse races, and saddle-making. But the scope of Freeman’s
stunning photography is much wider than that. There are also remarkable
images of Buddhist sculptures and temples, pilgrims, monks, and nuns.
This is a hefty book that deserves a place of honor on the coffee table.
Sunny Side Up (July 2011)
Sunny Side Up
SAKYONG MIPHAM explains how cultivating bravery gives us the confidence to live in the brilliance of the Great Eastern Sun.
is a highlight of the Shambhala teachings that were introduced to the
West by my father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. My last two columns dealt
with the first two forms of bravery—freedom from deception, and the
willingness to leap beyond our habitual patterns. Now I am focusing on
the third form of bravery—vision. To
live life with bravery, we need a game plan that’s not based in shallow
inspiration or lukewarm conviction. It must have genuineness that stems
from deep internal wisdom that is constantly radiating forth.
Shambhala teachings call such vision the Great Eastern Sun. It is the
mental conviction and prowess to engage in life with precision and
purpose. When we remove deception and cultivate the willingness to leap
into our own inherent brilliance, the forthright, clear intention of the
Great Eastern Sun shines through. This form of bravery keeps us always
word “forward” is conventionally understood to mean “onward, so as to
make progress toward a successful conclusion.” In Shambhala, our
conclusion is to practice living life with enlightened attitude and
conduct in every activity. Forward can also mean “toward the future.”
Thus it is linked with the word “continuous,” meaning that when we have
this kind of vision, the continuity of our intention is not severed.
also mean, “at or to a different time, earlier or later.” An
interesting twist in Shambhala logic is that in order to have the Great
Eastern Sun shining in our life—and thus to be always journeying
forward—we must first turn back to our origin: the primeval ground of
basic goodness, the unconditional purity and confidence of all. That
reverse journey happens through the relaxation we cultivate in
meditation. As we continue to practice, awareness of our nature arises.
Intellectually and intuitively, we know we are not wrong or bad; rather,
we are good. Such awareness gives rise to doubtless precision about our
basic goodness, which simultaneously illuminates the basic goodness of
the world, allowing us to perceive the multitude of individual
experiences within our sense fields, bringing incredible precision to
our warrior’s mind.
is the discovery of our basic goodness. “Eastern” is realizing that our
goodness was always there. “Sun” is the illumination that occurs once
that discovery has been made.
illumination of the Great Eastern Sun inherently shows us what is
directly in front, and thus forward. It might feel threatening because
it does not allow the wiggle room to put on the brakes. On any journey
there is the assumption that we should be allowed to avoid danger along
the way—at the minimum, to be a little careful. But if we think there is
a reverse gear in Shambhala vision, we are misunderstanding a basic
reality: life is perpetual motion. We cannot suddenly apply the
slow-motion feature, or push the “save” button and deal with it later.
is always coming at us, or more accurately, we are always heading into
life. Being hesitant—standing still or looking backward instead of
forward—creates an immediate ripple effect. Life buckles behind us and
builds up pressure, blasting us forward. We are then coerced into
dealing with issues at an accelerated rate, beyond what is comfortable
or convenient. Such hesitancy, which is a form of cowardice, stems from
doubt in relation to our basic goodness.
bravery of the Great Eastern Sun indicates that the warrior has
abruptly come to this conclusion: life is a forward-moving endeavor.
Closing our eyes to this fact is like shutting them to oncoming traffic:
we are simply afraid to deal with life’s immediacy and brilliance. The
reason we maintain a regular meditation practice is to open our eyes and
have forward vision. Once we have confidence in the basic nature of
things, we are more immediate in our life.
the vision that engages life with forwardness does not mean we swallow
virtue and nonvirtue indiscriminately. If we engage in nonvirtue because
we think engaging in life with forward vision means doing what is right
in front of us, that is incorrect. Engaging in nonvirtue is putting on
the brakes and grinding our gears into reverse. Great Eastern Sun vision
is based on engaging in virtue. We understand that virtue is synonymous
with the word forward.
is East; East is richness; richness is virtue. The words Great,
Eastern, and Sun hold all the golden virtues. Virtue helps us move
forward, whether it manifests outwardly as generosity, or inwardly as
patience. In the tremendous heat of the sun, nonvirtue withers and
path of the warrior is paved with virtue, and what allows us to follow
it is the spontaneous insight of the Great Eastern Sun. This “brings
about the understanding of what should be avoided and cultivated,” said
my father, Chögyam Trungpa, who introduced these teachings to the West,
“from how to brew tea to how to preside over a nation.” In this way our
mind is both pragmatic and visionary.
the Great Eastern Sun shines and influences both the emotional and
intellectual workings of the mind. Intellectually we engage in East.
Emotionally we engage in Sun. Thus we become Great. Ultimately this
visionary principle gives us tremendous energy—a battery that does not
This vision occurs for three reasons.
we are confident and free from aggression and the self-centered
struggle. That allows us to have spontaneous insight, which demonstrates
itself as bravery in the form of gentle and unwavering steadiness. We
become like a tiger, tantalized by every blade of grass, and by the
dewdrop on each blade. Because we are not preoccupied with our
self-centered doubts, life feels strong and full of possibility.
engaging in life as a visionary eradicates confusion. We are no longer
imprisoned by petty mind and cowardice. Because we are not hiding behind
the veils of vacillation, we are not confined by narrow vision.
Therefore we know clearly where we are: in the lineage of warriorship.
the combination of steadiness, fortitude, and gentleness; the absence
of petty mind; and the knowledge of what to cultivate and what to
discard, allow us to unite the world of heaven, the world of earth, and
the world of humanity. From resting in the primordial space of basic
goodness to relating to our domestic world, our intention and activity
are united and synchronized. This synchronicity increases our confidence
notion of uniting heaven, earth, and humanity directly correlates to
being brave in mind, body, and livelihood. The vision that arises when
we engage in bravery allows us to have mastery over our minds—which
should be doubtless; our bodies—which should be unwavering; and our
livelihood—which should be free of cowardice. In this way, the Great
Eastern Sun shines over us, allowing us to be brave in every realm and
rule over our world.
our original ground of basic goodness, the Great Eastern Sun appears.
With basic goodness in our heart, we have a fresh start. Because we
understand our ancestral heritage from beginningless time, this vision
arises, which is Great—we are in a perpetual state of inspiration. Thus
the Eastern Sun shines, a result of both logic and heart, perpetually
allowing us to be warriors with vision.
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