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GPS of the Mind (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

The GPS in your car can tell you the best road to take, but what helps you navigate life? What you need, says SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, is a...


GPS of the Mind

The GPS in my car never gets mad at me, no matter how many times I turn to avoid the torn-up street she has recommended. She just says, “Recalculating” and directs me to turn right, and then right again, until I am back where she wanted me—on the street blocked by construction.

Again I select an alternative route. She quietly but firmly repeats, “Recalculating,” and I say back, “Hold on. Keep talking if you want. I know where I’m going. I’ll soon be where you want me to be.” When I finally rejoin the route she was aiming for, I almost expect her to say, “Good girl, Sylvia! You did it,” but she never does. We drive together quietly until the next time I need to disobey her instructions and she is right there again, firm but never impatient, ready to straighten me out.

I am trying to cultivate a mind like a GPS. My mind GPS would be ever vigilant to where I am and unwavering in clarity about my destination, all the while never losing its patience and never challenging my confidence.

My car GPS supplies a running graphic of a tiny car driving along my intended route and showing roads branching off from it that it hopes I’ll avoid. It offers advance warnings—“In two miles, keep left”—so I can avoid mistakes.

My mind GPS would help me choose, moment to moment, the route that cultivates and maintains wholesome states in my mind. Any detour would immediately initiate a warning signal: “Leading to Unwholesome! Slow down! Consider! Maybe you need to back up! Or turn around!”

I especially value the Return Home icon on my car GPS, which automatically routes me back to my home address in California. The Return Home icon on my mind GPS would automatically reroute me to Mindful (for clear seeing), Concentrated (for confident stability), and Wise Effort.

Mind GPS is particularly helpful in moments of hurt or confusion, when we are most likely to take the wrong route. Here’s an example of how mind GPS works—how moment by moment it calculates my mental position and guides me toward the wholesome and away from the unwholesome.

I’m with someone beloved to me—a close friend or family member—and suddenly they say something that startles my mind. Perhaps I hear it as an unjust criticism. Or it sounds cavalier. Or foolish. I feel my mind contract around the remark, notice the unpleasantness of that contraction, and feel the impulse to protest arise in my mind.

Seemingly simultaneously (but actually next) I see a “rap sheet” unfurl in my mind listing the many, many times this person has said or done something similar, thus building the case for a protest. But if my mind GPS is alert and steadily intending toward the wholesome, I also see the possibility of relaxing the impulse to act.

This moment of ease allows my mind to return to its normally wider view that includes the many sterling qualities of this beloved person. The confusion in the mind disappears. I can carry on the conversation as if nothing more significant than a sneeze had happened.

When I make the right choice at this fork in the road—avoid the route that leads to tumult and take the one that builds closer bonds of connection—I feel, “Whew! Just dodged a bullet. I could have messed up the afternoon, mine and the other person’s, and I didn’t.”

Or imagine this recent experience: I was standing on a New York City street corner on a cold November evening buying gloves from a sidewalk vendor. I was shifting and tapping my feet side to side trying to warm them.

“Back up a little,” the vendor said to the person behind me. “Don’t crowd in so close.”

“Hey,” the man behind me replied, “I’m just watching the old lady dancing.”

I felt tears in my eyes. I paid for my gloves and left. “Old lady?” “Dancing?”

I continued down the street toward Lincoln Center imagining my mind as a deflating balloon, my sense of myself as chic and sprightly morphing into old and humiliated, and then giving way to a list of self-critical remarks beginning with “You should have remembered to pack gloves!”

I was just about to start an internal lament about how the evening I was anticipating was ruined, how the zest for it that I’d felt in my mind was all gone, when I thought, “Stop! The remark happened back there. The ruining is happening now!”

I started to laugh at this point, thinking how easy it is for my mind to run away with itself down a road going no place good. It’s as if it becomes intoxicated by a whiff of drama—“Such a sad story happened to me today walking down Broadway”—that it forgets that clarity, the plain truth, is the antidote to confusion.

The plain truth is that I am an old woman. And I was, so to speak, dancing at the vendor’s stand. And I did forget to pack gloves.

Also, I was meeting a friend I love for an evening of dinner and a concert on a cold night in New York City, where all the trees on Upper Broadway are wrapped in strings of white lights. It was an easy decision whether to embellish the glove story and suffer or to take the other fork in the mental road and rejoice in my good fortune at being alive and well in this moment.

In the end, I spent a relatively short time wandering on a side road of discontent before rescuing the evening, but I could have done it sooner. I could have avoided a lot of struggle by addressing the pain immediately. I could have, at the moment when I heard the remark and tears came to my eyes, acknowledged to myself, “I’m in pain!” Instinctively, I would have taken some slow, deep breaths—always a comforter to anyone in pain—while I was paying for my gloves.

Perhaps I would have thought to myself, “Relax, sweetheart. These things happen. You got startled. You’ll be fine.” Holding myself in compassion would have inhibited my mind from making negative judgments about myself. And, as I walked on, had I felt that an echo of pain was still reverberating as confusion in my mind, I might have brought my attention to the people all around me and felt supported by their company. I might have appreciated the lights in the trees on Broadway and admired the skill of the people who had strung them all through the branches.

Here is the short formula for recovering from confusing distress. This is the time when the GPS for the mind is the most useful, since it is when we are in most danger of taking an unwholesome path. 

1) Stop! Acknowledge the distress. “I’m in pain” always works for me, regardless of the particular flavor of challenge.

2) Do something to regain your balance. Deep breaths usually work well for me. 

3) Notice how your mind, awakened, sees possibilities clearly.

4) Choose the road that leads to happiness. Pay attention to the present moment, without opinions.

5) Enjoy the relief of a mind restored to ease. This builds confidence and makes it a habit.

Such moments of restoring the mind to comfort happen to me all day long. Things happen. It’s incredibly easy to become annoyed. Or dispirited. Or bewildered by lust, restlessness, or doubt. The Buddha named these energies of confusion the five “hindrances to clear seeing,” because they arise in the mind in response to challenge and subvert clear decision-making.

Probably most of us can recall an instance of finding ourselves eating a slice of pizza or a Dunkin’ Donut and thinking, “How did this happen? I was walking along the street on my way home and suddenly the smell of pizza (or doughnuts) wafted by my nose. Apparently I veered into the store, and here I am eating.”

Although eating a slice of pizza or a doughnut is usually a benign action, sometimes—for people with certain allergies or illnesses—it isn’t. Other impulses, those motivated by clearly unwholesome impulses such as greed, anger, or revenge, are never benign.

A well-functioning mind GPS remembers that between every impulse and resulting action is the possibility of careful reflection. It signals, “Slow down. Think. Where do you want to go? Recalculate!” The experience that triggers the mind GPS into action is always a moment of realizing something does not feel right.

“Where do I want to go?” is the reference point for my practice. If I say, “I think my practice is working,” I don’t mean that I never fall into dismay or never act thoughtlessly. I do. It means I become aware, sooner than I used to, that I’ve taken a wrong turn and am heading into confusion and distress. That moment of clarity dispels confusion and I recognize, from the sense of peace and ease I feel in it, that I’m back on the right track.

Deliberate choosing is the central teaching in the Buddha’s Discourse to His Son Rahula. He advises Rahula to think before, during, and after every action about motivation. “Is what I am about to do (am doing, or just did) for my benefit as well as for the benefit of all beings?” And, of course, the Buddha goes on to say that if the answer is no, then the action should not happen or should stop. Amends should be made for any negative impact that has already happened.

I think it would be easy to misunderstand this instruction as mandating moving very, very slowly all the time and hesitating before any move. That would make ordinary, relational, everyday life awkward. I think it’s actually much easier than that. I think that the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula (and to us) can be understood as, “Cultivate wholesomeness—generosity, patience, candor, kindness—and enjoy the pleasure of their ongoing presence in your mind. Notice any arising of unwholesome states in your mind and discourage them. Steady your attention. (Concentrate!) Recognize these unwholesome states as painful, temporal, and insubstantial and be attentive to their disappearance. (Be Mindful!) Choose to maintain a clear and untroubled mind. (Make Wise Effort!)”

I think as human beings we are born with prototype mind GPSs preset to aim generally in the direction of feeling safe and happy. We do the best we can to make our way through the inevitable challenges of our lives. My practice goal is refining my attention and intention so I am more able to hear my GPS signaling me to notice either “You’re in pain, Sylvia. Recalculate!” or “You are holding steady in a good direction, Sylvia. Continue!”

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a cofounding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author of many best-selling books on Buddhism and mindfulness, including Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.


Inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine Print

Look inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine

FEATURING: Pema Chödrön's 4 Keys to Waking Up; bell hooks & Eve Ensler on fighting domination and finding love; Sylvia Boorstein's "GPS for the Mind"; Lisa Carver on Yoko Ono; Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Goldberg, book reviews, and more.

Click titles below to read excerpts and select complete articles.

this issue's editorial:

"Buddha's Daughters"

ANDREA MILLER on why this issue of the magazine shouldn't be considered special.


Pema Chödrön on 4 Keys to Waking Up

On retreat with Pema Chödrön at Omega Institute, the Shambhala Sun’s Andrea Miller explores these four essential ways to walk the walk.


The Bearable Lightness of Being

When we honor life but don’t make it a big deal, we lighten up, open up, and become more joyous. The fancy name for that, says Pema Chödrön, is enlightenment.


Being Love

Awash in the pain of betrayal and a failed marriage, Laura Munson practices Pema Chödrön’s teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it helps.


A GPS of the Mind

The GPS in our car tell us the best route to take, but what helps us navigate life? Sylvia Boorstein shows us how to stay on the wholesome road. 

Strike! Dance! Rise!

Fighting domination, finding love, connecting with our bodies—feminist leaders and meditators Eve Ensler & bell hooks in dialogue. 

Plus: When I Enter the City of Joy

In war-torn Congo, Eve Ensler learns what love can really do.


The Work of the Moment

When we and our work are one, says Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and beautiful.

Plus: Pat O'Hara on how to Make All Your Work Meaningful


Under the Volcano

Vacationing on Hawaii’s Big Island, Judy Panko Reis suffered an unspeakable crime. Decades later, she sees that out of even the darkest violence a new life can emerge.


Thanks to Yoko

Performance artist Lisa Carver celebrates Yoko Ono, who taught her to do what “isn’t done.”


other voices

Empty Graves and Empty Boats

At her grandfather’s grave, Rachel Neumann’s anger erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains? We are all like empty boats bumping against each other.


Show Up Exactly As You Are

Taz Tagore, one of the two founders of New York City's Reciprocity Foundation, on taking kids from the streets to a new life. (It starts inside.)


Losing Katherine

She was the kind of person who might suddenly ask, “How do you know love?” Natalie Goldberg on loving and losing a special friend.




Review: Lying, by Sam Harris

Reviewed by Karen Maezen Miller


Books in Brief 

This issue’s roundup features books on conflict resolution, yoga, stress reduction, ecology, and more.

About a Poem

Ruth Ozeki on Ono no Komachi

Shambhala Sun
, March 2014, Volume Twenty Two, Number 4.

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Books in Brief (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Books in Brief


Healing from Suicide and Loss

By Robert E. Lesoine with Marilynne Chöphel

Parallax Press 2013; 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Longtime Buddhist practitioner Robert Lesoine was at the dentist with his mouth full of equipment when his cellphone rang. It was his best friend’s ex-wife calling, but she was screaming and crying so hard that she was incomprehensible. Finally Lesoine understood: his best friend had killed himself. For two years following this loss, Lesoine kept a journal to help him work through his profound grief—the shock and disbelief, the rage and sorrow. Unfinished Conversation incorporates moving sections from the journal, plus writing prompts, meditations, and other practical suggestions for finding support in the wake of a loved one’s suicide. Lesoine’s collaborator, Marilynne Chöphel, is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in the treatment of acute and relational trauma.


The Life of Ikkyu

Story by Ven. Miao You, art by Yan Kaixin

Buddha’s Light Publishing 2013; 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Buddhist Light Publishing is translating a series of Chinese graphic novels telling the life stories of great Buddhist monastics. Wind and Rain is the biography of the Rinzai Zen monk and poet Ikkyu. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of Emperor Go-Komatsu, he was a fifteenth-century vagabond who is celebrated for attaining enlightenment at Lake Biwa when a crow cawed. Wind and Rain is the sanitized, all-ages version of his story. There’s no mention of his notorious consumption of alcohol or his late-life lover, Mori, a blind singer. The emphasis is instead on Ikkyu’s deep commitment to justice. From a young age, he criticized the corruption he saw in both the aristocracy and Buddhist institutions and he sought out teachers who, like him, shunned material wealth and titles. Amid the hardships of war, he organized relief for the poor and helped create and rebuild temples. Ikkyu passed away in his eighty-eighth year in the middle of autumn.


Finding Serenity and Peace with Mindfulness Meditation

By Joseph Emet

Tarcher 2013; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)

The first noble truth in Buddhism is dukkha, which is most commonly translated as “suffering.” But as Joseph Emet points out, some leading translators are now rendering this Pali word as “stress.” Buddha’s Book of Stress Reduction begins by exploring the stressful impact of our to-do lists. The average toddler smiles six hundred times a day, but as we grow up our focus shifts from the present to future goals, which limits our happiness. Emet is not suggesting we throw away planning or any of our other adult life skills, but he is recommending that we take more time to enjoy the present moment, even in the face of the need to get things done. Emet goes on to address the myriad elements of stress, such as past wounds, worry, irritation, anger, fear, work, and relationships.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Environmental activists get a bad rap for being dour. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, however, is anything but. Instead of finger-pointing and calling for austerity, his solution to our environmental crisis is mindfulness. Through mindfulness, he says, we realize that the Earth is not simply the ground beneath our feet—we are the Earth. Every cell in our body comes from the Earth and is part of it. “We are a living, breathing manifestation of this beautiful and generous planet,” he says. When we know this, we fall completely in love with the Earth, and as with anything we love, we naturally do whatever we can to take care of it. I particularly appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s heartfelt description of seeing for the first time photos of the Earth taken from space. He saw a glowing jewel and recognized the Earth’s fragility. “Dear Earth,” he thought, “I didn’t know that you are so beautiful. I see you in me. I see me myself in you.”


The Art of Transformation

Edited by Debra Diamond

Smithsonian Books 2013; 328 pp., $55 (cloth)

Yoga: The Art of Transformation is the sumptuous catalogue of a recent exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. A visual feast, it also offers essays by scholars tackling the convoluted history of yoga. In today’s yoga studios, it’s commonly believed that the earliest evidence we have for yoga is a third-millennium BCE clay seal from the Indus River Valley. According to scholar David Gordon White, however, this depiction of a figure seated in a cross-legged posture is not conclusive evidence that yoga was practiced at that time. After all, images of figures in this very same posture also hail from ancient Scandinavia and other locales. Additional thought-provoking angles covered in this book include the fact that European bodybuilding influenced modern yoga, and that yoga is not just connected to Buddhism and Hinduism but is also deeply connected to Jainism and Islam. Indeed, Muslim interest in yoga dates back a thousand years to the scholar al-Biruni, who translated Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras into Arabic.


A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution
By Diane Musho Hamilton
Shambhala Publications 2013; 218 pp., $16.95 (paper)

When she was growing up, Diane Musho Hamilton’s extended family had parties at her grandmother’s house. By 9 p.m. the conversation was always lively, but by 1 a.m. arguments were brewing and soon someone was storming out the front door. Hamilton was sometimes at the heart of the fray, at times an ally in the fight, and at other times an unbiased observer. Curious about these different roles, she went on to study mediation, and Everything Is Workable comes out of her many years of work in that field. This book offers readers a new way of thinking about conflict. It unpacks what Hamilton believes are the three personal conflict styles and the three fundamental perspectives in any conflict situation. Conflict is an inevitable part of life, Hamilton teaches, and if we try to eradicate it in one area, it will simply manifest elsewhere. What we can do—what we will ultimately find more useful and satisfying—is to accept conflict and integrate it into our spiritual path.


Tales of Compassion and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child—to Delight and Inspire
By Dharmachari Nagaraja
Watkins Publishing 2013; 128 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Some monkeys had a penchant for stealing the king’s peaches and plums, and they were so wily that the gardener was never able to catch them. One day, the cook’s daughter suggested laying an enticing trap of cake. Sweets, she said, would make the monkeys sleepy, and sleepy monkeys would be easier to catch. The shoemaker’s son also had an idea: he’d make dazzling high heels, which the vain monkeys would be unable to resist. It’s difficult to run away, he said, when wearing impractical shoes. A few days later, the monkeys slipped into the orchard and found a cake stand weighted down with cream-filled cupcakes and tree branches hung with pumps. Indeed, the monkeys could not resist. They ended up trapped in the king’s zoo and it took them a good long while to escape. “The Monkey Thieves” is just one of the stories from the children’s book The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime. Like every story in the collection, it’s a modern retelling of a Jataka Tale and it exemplifies a principle of the noble eightfold path. Do not be greedy or vain is what this story teaches.

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Thanks to Yoko (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Thanks to Yoko

Everyone, it seemed, liked to tell LISA CARVER what she couldn’t do: it wasn’t proper, it wasn’t art, it wasn’t done. But Zen koans and Yoko Ono—now eighty-one—turned all that upside down.

Decades before the dark and angry performance art/No Wave scene of the late eighties and early nineties, Yoko Ono was creating radically unconventional conceptual art. Raised Buddhist and Christian in an upper-class family in Tokyo, Yoko was expected to be peaceful and pretty without any anger, without revolt. “I was like a domesticated animal being fed on information,” she told the Evening Standard in 1968. “I hated it.”

Her goal as an artist was not to train her audience. She wanted to untrain them. When she showed up at an art gallery and stood there screaming and moaning with no context, no introduction, no band, no melody, who of the shocked attendees could have guessed she was a classically trained musician and opera singer?

Yoko’s pieces are a kyosaku to the noggin. She’s not afraid of fear. She does not avoid lust or rage. She acknowledges and respects them. In “Revelations,” she sings, “Bless you for your anger. It’s a sign of rising energy. Bless you for your greed. It’s a sign of great capacity. Bless you for your jealousy. It’s a sign of empathy.”

Many commenters on YouTube say about Yoko’s singing things like “She hurts my ears!” and from that they deduce she is insane. (I’m not exaggerating; go look!) In its natural state, though, pain is for teaching, not dominating us. It’s only when we’re forced to believe—or pretend to believe—what is not true, that pain hurts: when your abuser tells you This is love, when your forced-memorizing school tells you This is learning, when pyramid-scheme social structures tell you This is family order.

Conceptual and performance art and unorthodox singing and experimental film and writing employ the pain of confusion, of shaking things up, to expose and fight the pain that is already there, accepted. In the moment of disarray, art, like Buddhism, says to you, “Is ‘That’s just how it is’ really how it is?” That question can turn walls to windows, just large enough to crawl out of. . . and then you can set off running.

In 1985, when I was sixteen years old, having so far only lived with one parent or the other in small towns, and without even a visit to an art museum, I bought a twenty-five-cent used copy of a Yoko Ono record. When I lay the needle down on the spinning disc, a disjointed cacophony rose up and filled the room with angles and senselessness and the raw. All I had known before was Scooby Doo and Columbo on TV, songs by Bread and Anne Murray on the radio, and assigned reading at school. None expressed the sort of preexistence struggle I heard in Ono’s voice. She sounded foreign, but also not categorizable by foreignness. I thought, “Why on earth would anyone make music like this?!”

That question led to others, ending with this one: “Why don’t I make music?” And then I did. That led to a ten-year career in studio and stage in six countries.

In that first moment with her record, I wasn’t aware of what Ono was doing for me: opening everything up, unwrapping my tight little life. The Why not? decisions I was starting to make felt like my own thoughts spontaneously erupting. And they were. Ono did not (and still does not) try to impose an ideology. She doesn’t try to make something, anything, in particular happen. She doesn’t even fully score her music, because she wants the musicians to make it different, their own, an accurate reflection of the moment, each time. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a remarkable lack of ego, most notably in encouraging her listeners/lookers/readers to find whatever they want, not what she wants.

Around the same time I first heard Ono, I happened upon a book of Zen koans at the library. At Protestant Sunday school I had been admonished, “Who are you to question the Lord?” So it was hard at first for me to believe that Buddhism really did want me to ask questions, much less decide for myself which answers I believed. Similarly, in my blue-collar upbringing it was accepted, about any art, film, or music that did not conform to formula, “That’s not art!”

It amazes me to realize now that in the thousand or so times I’ve been interviewed in the nearly thirty years since then, I’ve never once mentioned Zen Buddhism’s catalytic role in the performance art, “unlistenable” music, and “unwatchable” short films I went on to create. What Zen did was remind me to gently ask, “It’s not?” when everyone around me was saying, “That’s not real music you’re making” or “That’s not a real marriage” (my husband and I lived in separate countries more often than we did the same one) or just, “That’s not how people live!” (Like, with no furniture in one of my apartments.)

Buddhism whispered, “It’s not?” in my ear and supported my every crazy endeavor. Ono did, too, as I began to read about her unorthodox views on family, women, work. She almost never brought Buddhism up either, though its that’s-not-a-wall-that’s-a-door-why-not-walk-through-it? influence is apparent in just about everything she does.

I guess that makes sense: Buddhism doesn’t draw attention to itself as the thing that matters. Rather, it’s a vehicle to get you to the thing that matters. Or back to.

At seventeen, I moved to California and at nineteen, I moved to Paris. I sought out any goes-too-far weirdo looking to destroy the current order so they could create, if just for an hour at a show, a new world. As I got to know some of these artists, I realized we all came out of abusive and frightening childhoods, occasional forced psychiatric “care,” hypocritical relationships to religion and status, and lots of sexual exploitation and substance abuse.

In short, nothing was as it seemed. With our art, we tried to remove all the “seemed” and spotlight instead the chaos and the ugliness hidden beneath. Some of us did shock operas on stage. We said, and showed, what one doesn’t, shouldn’t, can’t. What we were aiming for, crudely, was to elicit that split-second realization that anything is possible, that anything you were told may be a lie, and that anything you haven’t thought of yet may be the truth.

We wanted to shake things up. For us, peace had to come through violence. Emotional, social, intellectual violence would do. It was our native language. We’d never had serenity, so how were we going to learn it from serene art or literature or relationships? Those things were unrecognizable to us. They didn’t look real. Gentleness had to be explained to us in the language we already knew, which was a rough one. If you come from a world of repressed and hidden hate, the next step isn’t necessarily to love. Instead, it’s to expose the hate that has always been there, to meet it face-to-face and come to love it, or love it inside you. Then you love you. Then you just love. That’s how messed-up people do it, from what I’ve seen.

William Burroughs, that murdering junkie, was a big influence for a lot of us. He said, “We must learn by acting, experiencing, and living; that is, above all, by Love and Suffering. A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid suffering has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration. You were given the power to love in order to use it, no matter what pain it may cause you.”

For me, public speaking is pain, because I have stage fright. But in my mind, for an audience to have to sit through the reading of something already written, often years earlier, is like diners being force-fed already digested meals. So I try to come up with something interactive when I tour in support of my books. For my book on Yoko Ono, Reaching Out with No Hands, I traveled up the West Coast attempting what may have been the world’s first conceptual-art cover band. The audience and I reenacted some of Yoko’s pieces, or “instructional poems”—as made famous in her 1964 book, Grapefruit, whose sequel, Acorn, appeared just last yearalong with her film Up Your Legs Forever.

Her “Wall Piece” consisted, in entirety, of this instruction: “Hit a wall with your head.” So at a club in Oakland, I told the crowd, “Hit a wall with your head.” Nothing happened. People went on talking, drinking, and waiting for the show to begin. I didn’t mind. If ignoring me was what they did with it, then that would be the show. Then one girl said, “Okay.”

She bashed her head really hard into the wall, slowly and deliberately, maybe five times. She looked all starry-eyed after and she was smiling. She said, “That felt good.” I’d never hit a wall with my head, either. This wall was cement. I touched my forehead to it hesitantly. Then harder. It did feel good! It felt concentrated. I felt everything right there at the top of my face and nowhere else in my body, as if all sensation had drained upward. It was cool. I had a tender feeling; I felt fragility. Most of the time you don’t feel your head and face. You see out of them, so you can’t see them—only images or reflections of them. We have such a floaty life, gelatinous. If there is no boundary between self and universe, as some practices or philosophies conclude, then what do we even have these bodies for? The sudden contact of head to wall delineates it. It is a uniquely satisfying sensation.

Next, a Harvard-educated attorney said, “I’ll do it.” That was a precious brain she was bashing! Her boyfriend said, “No, thank you. I’m good” and remained in the semi-dark on the club’s couch with his un-throbbing head. It was like any other night for him.

Up and down California on that tour, people hit their heads, “watched” a choreographed dance in total darkness, and walked on treadmills naked. Or didn’t—and had the experience of being the one who would not take off their clothes, and having that feeling.

Some remarked that it was their first time being naked as an adult around other adults without having sex. It’s kind of strange how steadfastly we cling to covering. We spend so much money and time and heartache focusing on this body, changing it, starving it, operating on it. We hide and abuse it, allowing our shame to keep us from simple things we feel like doing, like go swimming or dance funny, because someone might get a glimpse of us, of our underneath; someone might not like this body. But who are these someones?

When people got naked on my “Ono covers” tour, nothing happened. Nobody reacted. I was really curious and wanted to ask the naked people what it felt like, how they saw it. I’m a journalist and I probe. But Yoko never does that, so I never did that, all tour long. It hurt me to not ask.

Finally, at the next-to-last show, I realized that asking others about their experience, their perceptions, was how I protect myself from immersion (and fear of drowning) in my own. Journalism had provided me with the sensation of being in control of the situation; if I was feeding on and exploiting information, that meant I must not be filling the only other role I’d known: that of the exploited. 

That winter in California, forced by my own choosing out of what was comfortable for me, I got to experience what it feels like to stay in my own skin. It felt pretty cool. Thank you, Yoko.

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Editorial: Buddha's Daughters (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014


Buddha's Daughters

At the retreat I report on in this issue, Ani Pema Chödrön talked about a dream she once had. In the dream, she was in the country, perhaps at a monastery, and everyone there was busily preparing for the arrival of Khandro Rinpoche, one of today’s preeminent women Vajrayana teachers.

“Ani Pema,” Khandro Rinpoche said when she finally arrived. “Did you see the sunrise this morning?”

“No, Rinpoche, I didn’t. I was too busy.”

Khandro Rinpoche laughed and laughed. “Too busy to live life?” she asked.

Since having this dream, Pema Chödrön says that whenever she finds herself getting all caught up and habitually, compulsively doing something, she thinks, “Too busy to live life? Too busy to be there for the sun coming up or to notice anything?”

Did you happen to notice anything unusual about this issue’s table of contents? That is, did you notice the names of the contributors? From Ruth to Rachel, Laura to Lisa, they are all women. But we’re actually hoping that you didn’t notice. Look at the cover—we haven’t made a big deal out of there being only women on these pages or otherwise touted this as a “special” issue. As we see it, the presence of women’s voices shouldn’t be something special. It should be normal, and we’re treating it that way.

The reality, though, is that the publishing industry still has miles to go in terms of gender equality. For some truly eye-opening statistics on how many men versus women are published in magazines or have their books reviewed, visit, a website dedicated to women in the literary arts. Spoiler alert: Women are given significantly less ink than men in America’s magazine heavyweights, including Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

And this gender inequality in the publishing world is emblematic of a wider problem. I’m thinking about violence against women, an issue that’s addressed in bell hooks and Eve Ensler’s conversation “Strike! Dance! Rise!” Ensler, a rape survivor herself, has spent seven years in Congo working with women who’ve been brutalized and sexually assaulted. She and hooks grapple with such complex questions as: How can white people help people of color without reinforcing the framework of white privilege? How can trust grow between those who have privilege and those who don’t? And after suffering violence and trauma, what practices can help us come back to our bodies?

This issue also features teachings by three of America’s most remarkable women Buddhist teachers, each practicing in a different tradition. In “The Work of the Moment,” Zen teacher Pat Enkyo O’Hara asserts that it doesn’t matter if we’re a garbage collector or an engineer; all work is valid and meaningful. If we’re hung up on the status associated with our job or the results of doing a particular activity, then we miss out on the opportunity to fully experience the joy in the task at hand.

In “A GPS of the Mind,” Insight Meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein offers a fresh, modern take on classic Theravada wisdom for choosing—moment by moment—the route to wholesome states of mind. If you’re a Gen Xer like me, the word “wholesome” might come off as a little too unironic, but keep in mind that wholesome is what makes us happy, while unwholesome is what keeps us suffering. And, irony aside, who doesn’t want to be happy?

Following the article about my retreat experience with Pema Chödrön, there is a teaching by her on shunyata, or emptiness. She says that letting your thoughts go and just seeing what’s there when they’re gone is a way of experimenting with shunyata. “This is actually the essence of mindfulness practice,” she continues. “You keep coming back to the immediacy of your experience, and then when the thoughts start coming up—thoughts like bad, good, should, shouldn’t, me, jerk, you, jerk—you let those thoughts go, and you come back again to the immediacy of your experience.” When we experiment with shunyata in this way, we discover the open, boundless dimension of being.

If you enjoy the many varied voices of women in this issue, you might wish to check out Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. This anthology, which will be released on April 8, has been created in partnership between the Shambhala Sun and Shambhala Publications. It features teachings by Khandro Rinpoche, Pema Chödrön, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, and Sylvia Boorstein, plus nineteen other remarkable women teachers. In the Buddhist tradition, women have diligently practiced for the last 2,600 years, often without recognition. We hope this anthology, as well as this all-women issue of the Shambhala Sun, will serve as an inspiration for today’s women practitioners.

ANDREA MILLER, Deputy Editor

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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