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Inside the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine Print



Look inside the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine

FEATURING: Judy Lief, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, and John Tarrant on The Real Problem with Distraction; George Saunders on kindness; the way of freerunning; plus: Sakyong Mipham on why believing in basic goodness is our hope for the future; Andrea Miller on America’s Next Top Model winner (and Buddhist) Naima Mora; Twin Peak‘s Dale Cooper is recalled as a “dharma friend” as the series returns to the public consciousness; plus book reviews, About a Poem, and more.

Click titles below to read excerpts and select complete articles.

this issue's editorial:

The Practicality of the Profound

Melvin McLeod on distraction, enlightenment, and what Buddhism offers us as we try to cut through to the very root of our suffering.


special feature section: the real problem with distraction

Buddhism’s deeper take on a modern obsession

The Dharma of Distraction

What is it we’re working so hard to distract ourselves from? It’s enlightenment, says Buddhist teacher Judy Lief. She explains why letting go of all our distractions and entertainments is the path to awakening.

The World Catches Us Every Time

It can be hard to tell what’s distraction and what could have real meaning for our life. But either way, says Zen teacher John Tarrant, there’s no going back.

The Doors of Liberation

No self, no form, no goal—the worst possible news from ego’s point of view. Thich Nhat Hanh on the deep truths we’re distracting ourselves from.

 

The Myth of Multitasking

We have the illusion that multitasking makes us more efficient, but that’s not true. Sharon Salzberg offers tips for getting work done well without getting worked up.


more features

George Saunders on Kindness

The famed writer talks about a little girl named Ellen, a failure of kindness, and a convocation speech that went viral. An interview by the Shambhala Sun’s Melvin McLeod.


Run for Freedom

Freerunning, or parkour, isn’t merely a daredevil’s game. It’s a way of being. Vincent Thibault on how running, jumping, and climbing can beautify our cities—and our lives.With a photo essay by Andy Day.


I Did Not Lose My Mind

It took an illness of the brain to discover her inherent sanity. Meg Hutchinson tells us why her breakdown was actually a breakthrough.


other voices

Who Are We, Really?

Believing in humanity’s basic goodness, says Sakyong Mipham, is our hope for the future.

 

Going Full Superman

We overlook the Man of Steel’s greatest power, his selflessness. Koun Franz on why he and his son aspire to be superheroes.

 

Model Buddhist

For Naima Mora, being a model goes beyond striking a pose. As she tells Andrea Miller, it’s about making the world a better place.

 

It's for You

Sometimes after a phone call, nothing is ever the same. But if you let it, says Douglas Penick, the bad news can come to feel a little like falling in love.


Tree of Wisdom 

Oak and maple, palm and pine—trees are our closest neighbors and most patient teachers. Henry Shukman on the common roots of people and trees.


reviews & more

Into the Light with Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, Blu-ray set reviewed by Rod Meade Sperry

Books in Brief

This issue, Andrea Miller's roundup features books by Shamar Rinpoche, Ava Chin, Leza Lowitz, and more.

 

About a Poem

Pat Enkyo O’Hara on an anonymous poem by a Sung Dynasty nun



Shambhala Sun, March 2014, Volume Twenty Two, Number 5.

On the cover: Taken at the Nam June Paik Art Center, Gyeonggi-do, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Ana Nance/Redux.

To order a trial subscription to the Shambhala Sun, click here.

 
Editorial: The Practicality of the Profound (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

EDITORIAL

The Practicality of the Profound

Like a lot of families, we have a screen problem. Sometimes we’ll all be in the same room on our own screens, separated from each other, from our environment, and ultimately, from ourselves. We share the space, but otherwise we’re in our own worlds.

When people talk about distraction these days, this is usually what they mean. It’s a very real problem, and to help us deal with it, the meditation tradition offers us helpful techniques to create gaps and pauses in which we can unplug and reconnect with ourselves. But as simple and immediately beneficial as that is, it could also be the first step on a path that goes very far—all the way to enlightenment, in fact.

In this issue, we take a deeper look at the problem of distraction. It is not just a modern obsession. According to Buddhism, it is ego’s fundamental defense mechanism. What we are actually distracting ourselves from—what we are protecting ourselves against—is the open space and full intensity of reality.

Enlightenment is both a promise and a threat. Take a look at what are traditionally called the three doors of liberation, which Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us about in this issue. The three doors are no self, no identity, and no goal. Is there worse possible news if we’re holding onto the experience of ourselves as solid, continuous, and fixed? Liberation sounds good, until we realize that what we’re liberating ourselves from is ourselves. From ego’s point of view, enlightenment is the worst possible news.

To shield ourselves, we must always stay occupied with goals, distractions, entertainments, and experiences. In fact, you could argue that our very world is a form of distraction. We need other to confirm self, and so we create an entire universe of perceptions, emotions, and concepts to protect ourselves against the ultimate reality of no self, no identity, and no goal.

Distraction is a form of ignorance, and as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out, ignorance is extremely clever. The ways that ego creates constant distractions, entertainments, and occupations are myriad and deceptive. In her insightful teaching in this issue, Judy Lief unpacks the world of distraction layer by layer. She takes us on the journey of working with distraction, a path that starts with taking a few minutes away from our screens to breathe some fresh air, and ends when we’re face-to-face with the complete openness and intense energy of enlightened mind.

This is the union of the practical and the profound, and it is Buddhism’s great genius. If ignorance is the root of our suffering, then the antidote is deep insight into the true nature of mind and reality. So the really practical solutions are found in profound understanding. And profound understanding is found in addressing the human condition. Real practicality is profound; real profundity is practical.

Chögyam Trungpa talked about the spiritual path as a kind of surgery. Cutting through our discursive thoughts—or our screen addiction, for that matter—is like making the first incision. It is only the beginning of the operation. In the end, we must cut through to the very root of our suffering—our distractions, our struggles, our fears, our very experience of self and reality. If we don’t do that, if we stop at the first incision, we will not really be cured. This union of the profound and practical is what Buddhism offers us. 

—Melvin Mcleod, Editor-in-chief




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

It's for You (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

It's for You

Sometimes after a phone call, nothing is ever the same. But if you let it, says DOUGLAS PENICK, the bad news can come to feel a little like falling in love.

It begins with a phone call from the doctor, and it is, as I’ve often and unwillingly imagined: “I’ve got bad news.”

There is a silent, airless implosion. I force myself to breathe, pull myself together, and ask whatever I can manage. The call ends and I feel like the world is pulling away, and I am being left behind. I put down the phone and make some notes about the disease, the treatments, the calls I’ll need to make, then I burst into tears.

Outside the window, there’s a bright sunset and dark pine-covered mountains. There’s a cool evening breeze. How to tell my wife, my son, my family, my friends? I imagine how they are leading their lives assuming everything is going on as before. It’s inconceivable that so much love, so much intensity, can just end. But a door has just closed. Everything in the world will vanish, and I will vanish. Though it may not be immediate, it’s now real. An innocuous little bump on my forehead has been diagnosed as nodular melanoma, and mortality is no longer abstract. It’s strange that I feel so well.

There is, suddenly, an almost painful intensity to everything. I think of how Trungpa Rinpoche used the phrase “genuine mind of sadness” to point to an essential part of our lives. Sorrow and the love of being alive are inextricable.

The next days are taken up with trying to understand this form of cancer—its development, treatments, prognosis. My wife, Debbie, and I, always close, grow closer as we face a newly tenuous future. I tell my son and my good friends. Without being overly pessimistic or optimistic, I try to put them at ease. I try to continue with my normal activities, which now seem frail and contrived. More tests are scheduled and visits to surgeons and oncologists set up.

I think back to years ago when an acquaintance, Carlo, was dying of liver cancer. He wanted to go out with some guys, but not ones he’d been so very close to. Three of us went to a restaurant. Pasta with bottarga and all kinds of special dished emerged; wine too. Carlo would suddenly be happy. Then in almost the same moment, he’d be desolate and heartbroken. He’d look away. Although my condition now is nowhere near as grave as his, I realize how extraordinary was Carlo’s willingness not to shrink from the overwhelming waves of love and sorrow.

As the Indian mahasiddha Naropa described it, living in conditioned existence is like “licking the honey on the razor’s edge.” Knowing that we are close to the edge of it all being lost brings to life a sudden intensity of love. Even if my mortality might be imminent, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for everything that comes my way. Dare I say it, this disease has made me feel more alive.

I write about this to a friend who endured a long siege with lymphoma. He replies, “I certainly hope your ‘mortality’ is not that ‘imminent.’ But as you imply, it could be. To feel that is a great thing. I’ve always, always looked at my cancer as a great gift.”

My sister-in-law enjoyed a long remission after grueling treatments for ovarian cancer. She was, as she acknowledged, utterly grateful for the transformation she experienced. She had no more time for the petty negativities that had previously undermined her. “I’ll never regret it,” she tells me.

Relatives, friends, and acquaintances from all over begin to send me words of encouragement, prayers, and good wishes. Some I barely know: a local music critic, many friends of my wife, members of her mother’s church. The expanse of kindness is overwhelming and humbling. Many have been through a similar experience and almost all at least know someone who has. What is happening to me is in no way unique.

When the test results indicate that my situation is less grave than it might have been, the congratulations from those around me convey a collective relief that I don’t yet feel, though the warmth of everyone’s embrace is palpable.

My surgery has been successful in removing all the melanoma that was detected. My prospects are good. Nonetheless, I’m reluctant to view what I’ve been through as merely a scare or an unpleasant episode. I run into a friend who had a brain tumor. The surgery was risky, and many of the potential outcomes were terrifying. She told me how, now that she’s recovered, people want to say it’s over and behind her. “I can’t tell them,” she admits, “but really, in a way, I don’t even want it to be.”

For me, a door has opened to living with less certainty, greater intensity, and far more gratitude. Fear of the cancer’s return, future treatments, pain, and dying bring an enduring sharpness. Buddhist practice in this context is, as always, simply not getting caught in discursive elaborations.

Thoughts and feelings come and go. We do not choose what we think or feel. Love and friendship, the scent of the summer air, the shadows by the stream are each uniquely valuable. So deeply to be loved. Everything seems new, bright, strangely exhilarating. It is, I feel shy to say, something like falling in love.




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

Photo by Martin Fritter.

I Did Not Lose My Mind (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

I Did Not Lose My Mind

It took an illness of the brain for MEG HUTCHINSON to discover the inherent sanity of her own mind. Her breakdown was actually a breakthrough.

I was twenty-eight years old when my life fell apart. I had been quietly struggling with depression since I was nineteen, but increasingly the lows were followed by periods of ecstatic exuberance and boundless energy. What I had always written off as an “artistic temperament” was starting to become an exhausting ride.

Earlier that spring, I’d been selected to participate in a whirlwind musical tour of the U.K., performing with several other bands. We drank too much and slept too little, and it all felt easy to me. I was quick to laugh, suddenly extroverted, filled with creative energy. But when I returned to Boston, I quickly spiraled downward.

I began having trouble sleeping, even for an hour. I got lost driving in my own neighborhood. My reflexes slowed down and I had trouble playing the guitar. When I tried to pack for a trip to Minnesota, I found it difficult to make decisions. My brain could no longer handle even simple tasks. How many clothes would I need for a two-week trip? How did that knob on the washing machine work? What season was it?

As I felt the fog closing in on my life, bewilderment turned to fear. My brain was racing in tight circles of anxiety, but try as I might, I couldn’t untangle my thoughts. I felt as though I was rapidly developing Alzheimer’s.

I was experiencing what I later learned is called a “mixed state,” in which someone with bipolar disorder is suffering mania and depression simultaneously. After five days of total insomnia, I called my family. It took tremendous courage to say, “Mom, there is something chemically wrong with me. I’m coming home.”

My parents are former hippies. My sisters and I went to an alternative school and were raised on homeopathy and co-op foods. In my family, if you’re feeling “blue” you eat a little more kale, go on another hike, or write a poem. But I was no longer in control of my brain function; none of the things that had helped me with depression in the past were having any effect.

It took all of my focus to drive those two and a half hours home to the Berkshires. The Mass Turnpike was still relatively empty as the sun began to rise. Looking at the colorful morning sky, I realized I wasn’t responding to beauty. It was like the channel through which I perceived life had turned a muted gray.

People who have never experienced severe depression often imagine it to be an extreme sadness. Those of us who have lived with it know that it’s beyond that. It is a profound dullness, and it manifests in the physical body as tangibly as any major illness.

As I drove that morning, I had lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time” stuck on repeat in my head. They were lines I had painted on my bedroom wall as a teenager:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade...

What’s madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance?

Those words seem like foreshadowing to me now. I felt myself sinking down into the deeper recesses of my subconscious mind, wondering what I might find lurking there. I focused on the word “nobility.” I thought, let me handle this absolute confusion with some kind of nobility.

I pulled the car into my mom’s driveway and walked up the path to the house I was born in. “I have never seen you look this way,” my mom said. I saw the first wave of fear cross her face. As a child, I was so happy and calm that Mom used to call me “Buddha baby.” I’d always been emotionally self-sufficient, and my response to adversity had been to work harder and stoically wait it out.

Yet now I couldn’t solve my problems on my own, and it was beyond the abilities of my family too. For several days my sisters tried everything—salt baths, warm food, massage, slow walks, sleeping medication, valerian root, therapy—but finally we agreed it was time for the hospital. Fortunately my younger sister was studying for her master’s in social work and was able to educate all of us about psychiatric illness and advocate fiercely for me.

I checked myself into the psychiatric inpatient unit at Berkshire Medical Center, where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and stayed for twenty-one days. I fought to stay alive with my whole being while the illness ravaged my brain and made me desperate to escape my body. That is where this story really begins.

Because my brain was so compromised, I had a tremendous opportunity: I had the chance to see what remained. I didn’t have words for it yet, but what remained was a deep thread of consciousness connecting me to something at my core. A breakdown, I came to find out, is actually a kind of accelerated spiritual lesson. So much is accomplished so rapidly when the brain undergoes a terrific malfunction. One’s entire identity is shattered.

I was suddenly stripped of everything I had ever counted as my “self.” I was wearing a combination of my sister’s clothes and hospital pajamas. I was sharing a desolate room with a total stranger. I wasn’t allowed many personal possessions, and none of the food resembled anything I normally ate. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read even a paragraph, and when I looked in the mirror, my eyes were so dark and my face so thin that I didn’t recognize my reflection. None of the ways I’d defined myself in the world had any bearing.

On a psych unit, no one cares if you were a straight-A student, if you were a three-season varsity athlete, if you were popular or successful. Your personal narrative is useless in there. In fact, I experienced a strong allergic reaction to my own ego. I was overwhelmed with memories of my arrogance and competitiveness and felt a strong regret for all the ways in which I had judged others.

Reality is totally up for grabs on an inpatient unit. When I said, “I’m a folk musician and I was on tour in Europe,” I got the same impartial stare from the social worker in group therapy as the guy next to me received when he claimed there was a devil living in his neighbor’s garage.

I had none of the tools left with which I’d always oriented myself in the world. Instead, I discovered a deep knowing that was a witness to my experience and guided me even when my brain was failing. What remained was a quiet gentleness, a belief in something larger and greater than the excruciating emotional pain at hand. It was this deeply ingrained instinct, however faint, that kept me safe from even myself. I did not lose my mind that summer. I found it.

It took six weeks for me to sleep long enough to dream again. The first night I did, I dreamed I was walking up a steep mountain road with hundreds of fellow refugees. The earth was gray and dark, but we were all dressed in bright colors and carried our few belongings on our backs. The dream was vivid, and I woke the next morning with a strong sense of hope.

The second night I dreamed that I was walking along a forest path. The trees were tall and green all around me. I began to run faster and faster, leaping higher and higher until I lifted right off and flew.

Slowly, each day, the world returned to me. My sister took me whale watching off the coast of Provincetown. We had been on many whale watches in our lives, but this one was extraordinary. Three whales came right up to the side of the boat and began to breach and splash backward into the water. They danced and played, staying beside us for a long time.

I stood at the rail, holding my sister’s arm, laughing and laughing with her in the salt air. As the sun went down, the sky turned the most amazing purple and gold, and I felt the beauty reach me. I thought about that Roethke poem again: In a dark time, the eye begins to see. I was seeing the world in a way I never had before.

This is not a miracle story. I survived because I got help. My brain stabilized because I already had a solid foundation of health and a good support network, I took medication diligently, went to therapy, and changed my lifestyle. I healed because I walked through that door the illness opened for me.

I no longer think of that summer as my “breakdown” but as the year of my “breakthrough.” At age twenty-eight, I was given a wake-up call, which will inform the rest of my life. I was given a profound teaching on the truth of suffering, on the nature of reality, and on the preciousness of human life. Without that pain, I may not have woken up until I was a very old woman. Or not at all.

I have always had an interest in Buddhism, yet it was my experience that summer that prepared me to meet my teacher and take refuge. For many years I’d been walking past a Buddhist monk on a path near my house. I’d always felt a strong connection to him but hadn’t felt bold enough to say hello. After returning to Boston, a friend invited me to dinner with a Tibetan lama. It turned out to be that same monk I’d been walking past all those years. I was ready now to become a student.

In these seven years of recovery, I have found a middle way between Buddhism and Western medicine. In order for me to practice meditation, I’ve finally accepted that medication must play a role in keeping my brain healthy. But it’s the spiritual work that has allowed me the most profound healing, both physically and emotionally.

I think we’ve made a grave mistake in calling psychiatric illnesses “mental illness.” This implies that at our core, we are essentially diseased. Many illnesses of the brain are severe enough to cloud our mental consciousness, but my experience confirmed for me that the mind and brain are not the same thing.

It took an illness of the brain for me to discover the inherent sanity of my own mind. Now I meditate every day to strengthen that clarity. I meditate to give it more and more space in my life, to ensure that this inner witness is even stronger the next time I have to go through something difficult. Having lived through a small death, I recognize the importance of practicing for the bigger death of this physical body.

There is no greater incentive in recovery than the realization that we have always been well. We come into the world with the “nobility of soul” that Roethke talks about. No matter what the circumstances are, that purity remains and we can find our way back to it. Illness can break our hearts, but it can also break our hearts open.




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


Photo: Meg Hutchinson, by Stephan Hoglund

About a Poem: Pat Enkyo O’Hara on an Anonymous Poem by a Sung Dynasty Nun (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

About a Poem: Pat Enko O'Hara on an Anonymous Poem by a Sung Dynasty Nun

 

Searching for spring all day, I never saw it,

straw sandals treading everywhere

among the clouds, along the bank.

 

Coming home, I laughed, catching

the plum blossoms’ scent:

spring at each branch tip, already perfect.

 

Everybody is looking for something. The writer of this poem, a Sung Dynasty nun, is seeking “spring.” How do you seek spring? How do you seek happiness? Or enlightenment?

Well, seeking requires going somewhere or doing something in order to find. And yet, it is that which seeks that is what is sought. With this nun, we traverse a mountain path, hear the creaking of straw sandals, find ourselves among clouds and at a riverbank. Trailing her, we feel the grit of our own longing, our desires for more.

Then she catches the scent of plum blossoms and laughs. It’s as if, suddenly coming to her senses, she realizes what’s been there all along. How could she have missed it? There is “spring at each branch tip, already perfect.”

We can experience the scents, sights, and sounds of spring only in this moment. Spring or awakening can only be experienced when we drop our idea of it. When we come home to its reality in our daily life, then the gnawing of “I want” becomes the joy of “I am.”

 

Pat Enkyo O’Hara is the abbot of the Village Zendo and the author of  Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges.

Poetry translation by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton from The Poetry of Zen.




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

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