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Who Are We, Really? (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014


Who Are We, Really?

Although the world gives us plenty of evidence to the contrary, human nature is basically good, says SAKYONG MIPHAM. Believing in humanity’s basic goodness is our hope for the future.

Throughout history, the deepest minds have come to the conclusion that there is something profoundly worthy about being human. In the Shambhala tradition, we call this the sun of basic goodness. The sun is a symbol of life, warmth, and wholeness, like the wisdom that is naturally within the mind. When we practice the view of basic goodness, we enter the heart of being human by connecting to our inherent dignity.

Right now there seems to be a not-so-subtle feeling that humanity is bad. The tragic stories we read in the news are often a sign that people are not connecting with their own and other people’s goodness. The moment we do not respect ourselves or others, we have bought into a system that destabilizes our dignity as individuals and as a society. For what is society but a network of relationships among people?

How we conduct our lives is based on our values and understanding of ourselves. Through the ceremony of daily life humans collectively perform, we contextualize our existence and come up with a sense of self-identity. At the same time, our environment has a tremendous influence on our sense of who we are. Based on this feeling of self-identity, we determine how life will proceed. This is what the Buddha called interdependence.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s most recent book is
The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure.

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

The Myth of Multitasking (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

The Myth of Multitasking

We have the illusion that multitasking makes us more efficient, but it only makes us unhappy. SHARON SALZBERG shares some tips for getting work done well without getting worked up.  

We would like to believe that attention is infinite, but it isn’t. That is why multitasking is a misnomer. The brain can focus only on one thing at a time. We take in information sequentially. When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, what actually happens is that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less attention to both. This does not mean that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, of course. What we cannot do is concentrate in the same moment on two distinct, input-rich activities that require our attention. While we may be able to talk on the phone and stir coffee simultaneously, we can’t carry on a conversation and text at the same time without losing information and time. Studies show that when people are interrupted and have to switch their attention back and forth, they take—on average—
50 percent longer to accomplish the task and make up to 50 percent more errors. That’s because each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a complex process to disengage the neurons involved in one task and activate the neurons needed for the other. The more you switch back and forth, the more time you waste and the lower your quality of work.

Strung out by information overload, however, many of us are becoming habituated and addicted to distraction. “Successful” multitasking has been shown to activate the reward circuit in the brain by increasing dopamine levels—the brain chemical responsible for feelings of happiness. The danger of this is that the dopamine rush feels so good that we don’t notice we’re making more mistakes. This is comparable to the rush you might feel while playing the slot machines in a casino. Stimulated and entertained by the flashing lights, the ringing bells, and the distracting, carnival-like atmosphere, gamblers go into a pleasure trance, addicted to the illusion of winning money when, in fact, they’re going broke. It’s important to be aware of how multitasking can stimulate us into mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while stealing our focus and harming performance. “When you are walking, walk. When you are sitting, sit,” is ancient wisdom. Hopping rapidly from one thing to the next, answering the phone while we’re shuffling papers while we’re sipping a latte, we fritter away our attention and forget more easily. In addition to dopamine, multitasking prompts the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which contribute to short-term memory loss as well as long-term health problems. This also means that the information we take in while multitasking is harder to retrieve later than information we take in while concentrating. That is why learning to be a unitasker in a multitasking world is so vital.

Rather than divide our attention, it is far more effective to take frequent breaks between intervals of sustained, one-pointed attention. A Web designer named Brian figured this out for himself with no knowledge of neuroscience. “I work for a community news site and have to be online from nine to five,” Brian says. “It can really fry the brain and get tedious. I’ve found that if I take ten minutes or so for every hour of work to do something for myself, like read somebody’s blog or take a walk, it helps me concentrate when I turn back to my duties.” Although this may sound difficult, Brian’s increased focus enables him to return to the task at hand with surprising ease. “Instead of hopping from thing to thing—which is so tempting with the Internet—I focus on what’s in front of me. Then I let myself dillydally to give my brain a rest. When it comes to work, less is definitely more in terms of feeling satisfied. And efficient.” While this may sound counterintuitive, relaxing our focus for regular intervals and pacing our sustained concentration sharpens attention and renders the mind more flexible.

Debunking the myth of multitasking, we become much better at what we do and increase the chance of being able to remember the details of work we have done in the past.


The Pauses That Refresh Us

Being more in touch with our motivations or intentions will reveal a lot about the ethical dimension of our actions. Before a conversation, pause for a few moments to determine what you would most like to come out of it. Do you want most to be seen as right or as helpful? Do you want to foster progress or hinder it? Also pause before sending an email, with the same reflection: What do I most want to see come from this communication? The other party to feel diminished or encouraged? Them to go away or increase their involvement in my project? And do the same thing before a specific choice or decision—What do I most want to see as the outcome? Peace or excitement? Ease or stimulation? You don’t need to condemn what you see or decide you’ll always see the same thing inside yourself, like a fixed characteristic, but try to become more sensitive to what is motivating you in this moment before you speak or act.


One Thing at a Time

In this meditation, we try to be more fully present with every component of a single activity. At a time when you’re not likely to be distracted or disturbed by obligations, make yourself some tea. Fill the teakettle slowly, listening to the changing tone of the water as the level rises, the bubbling as it boils, the hissing of steam, the whistle of the pot. Slowly measure loose tea into a strainer, place it in the pot, and inhale the fragrant vapor as it steeps. Feel the heft of the pot and the smooth receptivity of the cup. Continue the meditation as you reach for a cup: Observe its color and shape and the way it changes with the color of the tea. Put your hands around it and feel its warmth. As you lift it, feel the gentle exertion in your hand and forearm. Hear the tea faintly slosh as you lift the cup. Inhale the scented steam and experience the smoothness of the cup on your lips, the light mist on your face, the warmth or slight scald of the first sip on your tongue. Taste the tea; what flavor do you detect? Notice any leaf bits on your tongue, the sensation of swallowing, the warmth traveling the length of your throat. Feel your breath against the cup creating a tiny cloud of steam. Feel yourself put the cup down. Focus on each separate step in the drinking of tea.


9 Tips for Stealth Meditation at Work

1. As you sit down to work, scan the sensations in your body, from your head to your feet. Notice areas of tension and breathe into them.

2. Nourish yourself! Eat a meal mindfully, noticing the colors, the flavors, the textures of what you are eating. 

3. Try to perform a simple, conscious act of kindness every day. It can be as simple as holding an elevator door or saying thank you in a sincere manner.

4. Mentally acknowledge those who have helped you learn the skills you have, who have taught you to be better at your job. We are all part of a larger web. 

5. Notice how you are holding something in your hand—a pencil or a cup, for instance. Sometimes we exert so much force holding things it exacerbates tension without our realizing it.

6. Every time you feel bored, pay more attention to the moment. Are you listening carefully or are you multitasking?

7. Read an entire email twice before composing a response. 

8. Travel to work some days without your iPod, book, or phone. Experience the transition to work as a journey.

9. For an upcoming one-on-one conversation, resolve to listen more and speak less.

Reprinted from Real Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Workman Publishing

Illustration by Andre Slob.

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

May All Beings Be at Ease! (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014

May All Beings Be at Ease!

Metta—kindness or goodwill—is one of Buddhism’s most valued virtues. With compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity, it is one of the four “divine abodes” (brahmaviharas) of the enlightened ones. In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha teaches his monks how to live a moral and upright life, with metta at its center. In these stanzas, he tells us how to live with complete kindness.


Whatever living beings there may be;

Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,

The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,


The seen and the unseen,

Those living near and far away,

Those born and to-be-born,

May all beings be at ease! 

Let none deceive another,

Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will

Wish harm upon another.


Even as a mother protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings:


Radiating kindness over the entire world

Spreading upwards to the skies,

And downwards to the depths;

Outwards and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill-will. 


Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,

Free from drowsiness,

One should sustain this mindfulness.

This is said to be the sublime abiding.


Translation: Amaravati Sangha

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

Tree of Wisdom (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014


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.

There is a cabin in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico that stands on the side of a steep, wooded ravine. It is hidden deep among the huge ponderosa pines that thrive in the high air. Near the cabin, one lone dead pine soars a hundred feet into the sky. It has been dead a few years now and is known as the “Corkins Tree,” after the cabin’s last owners, and there’s a story attached to it.

The Corkins lived in the cabin for many years and stayed on even after they had sold the property to a friend of mine. They became good friends with him, and my friend was intrigued by the way the husband always referred to the then healthy giant pine as “his tree.”

“We’re close,” he used to say. “I swear, the day that tree goes, I go too. And vice versa.”

Henry Shukman’s latest collection of poetry is Archangel, published by Vintage. He is a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage.

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

The World Catches Us Every Time (May 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2014


The World Catches Us Every Time

A mysterious beast captures your attention. Is it distracting you or calling you? It can be hard to tell, says Zen teacher JOHN TARRANT, what’s distraction and what could have real meaning for your life. Either way, there’s no going back.

Abiding nowhere, the heart comes forth
Zen koan

Distracted from distraction by distraction
T.S. Eliot

When people ask about distraction, I suppose they mean something like my life: I am leaving the house but I can’t find my truck keys. By the time I find them, mysteriously, my phone has gone missing. While I’m looking for the phone, it rings—it’s my friend, also my board president. Then the sheep make a hullabaloo about something so I walk down to the paddock, but it is just a kind of sheep party with baaing, while the border collie cheers from the sidelines. I feed the sheep alfalfa, come in, and sit down to write.

Then emails—a friend has cancer, someone wants a bio, a friend who’s a physicist has cool things to say about koans, my daughter opens a Google hangout from Tokyo and wants to talk about Jane Austen and also new uses of Ngram Viewer. I open Ngram Viewer, which gives the frequency of a word’s use over time, and it turns out that the words “distraction” and “distracted” were most used in Jane Austen’s time but are on the rise again.

And wait, here’s a link to a piece that claims that the thylacine, the Tasmanian marsupial tiger, which is a sort of totem of mine, isn’t actually extinct. With so much going on, it seems that I don’t need to leave the house after all.

Nothing is wrong with any of those chunks of experience. The question is whether I can have enough space and silence inside them to take them in and claim them as my life. Distraction can have a long arc, and until the end of the story, you can’t say what’s a distraction and what’s a calling.

John Tarrant is the director of Pacific Zen Institute and the author of  
Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life.

Illustraton(s) by Mark T Morse.

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

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