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I Want To Be... Insightful (July 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2012
You'll find this article on page 36 of the magazine.

I WANT TO BE...

Insightful

We 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Such 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.”

These 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 characteristic, emptiness—the 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. The 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.”

Everything 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.”

I 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.

An 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 here.”

From 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.

The path for developing this kind of mind involves attention to ethical behavior, to disciplining the habits of mind through meditation, and to ardent intention.

I 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.

Some 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.

For 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 strangers.

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.

So 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 was there 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.

In 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.

As 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.

Meditation: Interconnectedness

Here’s a practice that directly evokes the truth that there is no separate and enduring self, meditated on in the context of interconnectedness.

Read 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.

Probably 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 other alive.

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?

 
Sylvia 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. 

From the July 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.



I Want To Be... Peaceful (July 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2012
You'll find this article on page 32 of the magazine.

I WANT TO BE...

Peaceful

All 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.

Perhaps 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.

Of 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.

Or 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 really is.

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.

Whatever 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.”

Of 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.

Here’s 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 possibilities.

Sit 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.

Sit Down

When 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.

That 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.

When 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.

Just 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.

Place 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.

Shut Up

Maybe 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.

Most 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.

For 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?

In 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.

The 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

But 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?

Here’s 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.

Many 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.

He 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.

Sure 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.

Finally, 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.

Perhaps 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.

Get started with mindfulness meditation by trying this basic mindfulness meditation, which appears alongside this article in the July 2012 magazine.

From the July 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.



Books in Brief (July 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2012
You'll find this article on page 83 of the magazine.

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)

In 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 several chapters.


The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards

By William J. Broad
Simon & Schuster 2012; 336 pp., $26 (cloth)

Do 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)

Memoirist 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)

According 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 clarity.


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)

Author 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 Dakota.

From the July 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.



Review: Mainstreaming Mindfulness (July 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2012
You'll find this article on page 77 of the magazine.

Mainstreaming Mindfulness



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

A 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.”

These 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.

The 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.

Scientific 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.”

Faced 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.

Contrary 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.

These 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 assertion.

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.

Ryan’s 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.”

Taking 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.

Ryan 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.

It’s 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.

Inspired 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).

With 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.

But 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?

Meng’s 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.


From the July 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.



Editorial: Suddenly and Without Warning (July 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2012
You'll find this article on page 11 of the magazine.

Suddenly and Without Warning

By MELVIN McLEOD, Editor-in-Chief

There’s 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 Taavel.

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.

Raymond 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 street.

Later 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.

On 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.

I 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 true warrior.

* * *

No 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 important.


From the July 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.




See also: A Poem — "For Raymond, and for all of the Raymonds, which is to say: for everyone," by Tanya Davis


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