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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Bowing in gratitude

However much we may differ in other ways, nearly all of us share one common trait. We all have bad habits. And for those of us who are married, one of the chief functions of a spouse, it often seems, is to point them out.

My personal repertoire of unfortunate habits includes leaving cupboard doors open in our rather small kitchen. After opening one to fetch a plate or bowl, I sometimes neglect to close it. So it was the other day, when I banged my knee on a lower cupboard door, and my wife kindly noted that if I stopped leaving cupboard doors open, I might also stop banging my knees, or my head, as the case may be. Perhaps after a day of nursing a sore knee, I have finally got the message and will make an effort to mend my ways.

Such efforts can sometimes be successful, at least where behavior is concerned. Far more difficult, I have found, is any attempt to change one’s habitual attitudes. By their very nature, habitual attitudes are resistant to change. Driven by what Buddhism calls “habit energy,” they bear a force as powerful as tornadoes and no less capable of causing serious damage. As with habitual behavior, each time we voice or demonstrate a particular attitude, be it kindness or hostility, reverence or derision, we reinforce that habitual attitude and the energy behind it, making it all the more difficult to change.

One such attitude is that of habitual complaint, which seems close to universal. Is there anyone among us who can emulate the example of Sono, the woman in an old Zen story who ended each day by saying, “Thanks for everything. No complaints whatsoever”? For one thing, the habit of complaint has probably been with us from the cradle. And for another, we have plenty of things to legitimately complain about—the environmental degradation caused by fossil fuels, for example, or the polarization of our polity, or, not least, the dramatic rise of toxic noise pollution in American life. But all that said, the habit of complaint, as distinguished from the justified choice to complain, is one we might well prefer to eliminate, for others’ sake as well as our own.

Unfortunately, if there is one thing that recent research on habits, as reported in such books as Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2020), has determined, it’s that few if any of our deeply ingrained habits can be entirely expunged, as if they were ugly stains in a carpet. Yes, we can become aware of our habits, as Zen teachings describe, through the practice of mindfulness, and thereby gain a modicum of control. But, as Duhigg convincingly explains, the most effective way to change a habit, behavioral or mental, is first to become aware of it, and, second, to consciously replace that habit with another.

With respect to the habit of complaint, the prime candidate for such replacement is the habit of gratitude. As the Zen teacher John Daido Loori once pointed out, it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time. Likewise, the attitudes of grievance and thankfulness are largely incompatible. In contemporary American life, it’s fair to say, the presence of the former threatens to overwhelm the latter. Many of us expend far more energy complaining than we do expressing gratitude. But the restoration of a proper balance between complaint and gratitude, at both the personal and societal levels, will probably not happen all by itself. It will take concerted effort. And giving thanks once a year—or even once a week—or noting our good fortune from time to time will probably not suffice.

What is needed is an active, regular practice. Bowing every day in gratitude, as Loori recommends, is one such practice. Making a daily list, as others have suggested, of those things for which one is—or might be—grateful is another. Having recently adopted that practice myself, I can attest to its efficacy. Indeed, having made it one of my daily rituals, I have been surprised by the number of things I have to be grateful for. The list, it would seem, is endless.

Whatever practice one chooses, however, the important thing is not so much the means as the ultimate aim: the habitual attitude being created, cultivated, and integrated into one’s everyday life. It is all very well to celebrate Thanksgiving once a year or to count our blessings at periodic intervals. But with disciplined daily practice, the habit of gratitude can become more than a matter of lip service or pious self-congratulation. It can become an authentic way of being: the governing principle behind our every action and the lens through which we view our troubled world.

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Photo: A two-year-old recovered coronavirus patient bowing to a nurse outside a hospital in East China.

 

 

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For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality. (more…)

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I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail. (more…)

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800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” (more…)

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Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind. (more…)

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Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention (more…)

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Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

“Support for NPR,” announced National Public Radio’s Sabrina Farhi during the holiday season, “comes from Pajamagram, makers of matching holiday pajamas for the whole family, including dogs and cats.” After listing several other sponsors, Ms. Farhi concluded with a single declarative sentence:          “This . . . (pause),” said she,  “is NPR.” She might have been delivering a dramatic monologue, so pronounced was her emphasis on this and so protracted the ensuing pause.

Ms. Farhi has since abandoned that mannerism, but its temporary recurrence on Morning Edition, morning after morning, brought to mind the prominence of the word this, similarly isolated, in the Zen tradition. Generally speaking, in Zen practice this refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of conceptual thought. “Just this,” a phrase familiar to Zen students, is what we experience when we penetrate the filter created by dualistic concepts, particularly such ego-centered dualities as “self/other,” “I/they,” and “mine/not mine.” To remain in continuous contact with this, while also questioning its nature, is central to Zen practice. And to lose touch with or misconstrue the nature of this is likely to bring suffering upon oneself and others. (more…)

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Toward the end of the February 22 Republican primary debate, John King asked the candidates to define themselves in a single word. “Consistent,” replied Representative Ron Paul. In the ensuing commentaries, Dr. Paul’s response met with wide approval, even by those not partial to his views. “I’ll give him that,” Jon Stewart wryly remarked.

Ron Paul’s response stood out from the others, not only because it came across as honest and accurate but also because it pointed toward his history rather than his temperament. Where the others laid claim to laudable traits of character—courage, resolution, cheerfulness—Ron Paul alluded to his public record. By so doing, he appealed to conventional wisdom, which holds that a candidate may best be judged by what he or she has said and done. “Ask me,” wrote the American poet William Stafford, “if what I have done is my life.” Under most circumstances, the answer would probably be yes. And should the next question be, “Who am I?” the standard of judgment might well be the same. The self exists in time, and a person may best be judged by examining his or her background, actions, and abiding traits of character. By such means we hire an employee or choose a doctor or pick a president. (more…)

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“I coulda been a contender,” laments the boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront (1954). “I coulda been somebody instead of a bum . . .” If those lines are among the most famous in American film, it is perhaps because they express a familiar human desire. Which of us would not wish to be a “contender”?  To be “somebody” in others’ eyes?

Yet, as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi observes in his essay “Calmness of Mind,”* the desire to be “somebody” is costly to the human psyche. It steers us into trouble. And as Suzuki also observes, the desire to be somebody bears an intimate connection to the process of breathing, specifically inhalation. “[W]hen you are more interested in inhaling than in exhaling,” he notes, “you easily become quite angry. You are always trying to be alive.” When we are inhaling, we are “trying to be active and special and to accomplish something.” And when, in meditation, we make our inhalations the main focus of our attention, we may only add to our anxiety. In Suzuki’s view, conscious inhalation, striving, and the drive to be somebody are of a piece, and all conduce to suffering. (more…)

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76. Ordinary mind

It’s winter in Western New York, and this morning our driveway is filled with new-fallen snow. As I look out at that white expanse, I am reminded of a poem by Billy Collins, poet of American domestic life.

Entitled “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” Collins’ poem depicts two men at work in a snow-filled driveway. One is the narrator, who might be Everyman—or at least every man who owns a home and lives in a northern climate. The other is the Buddha, who, as the narrator observes, is out of his customary habitat:

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok

you would never see him doing such a thing,

tossing the dry snow over the mountain

of his bare, round shoulder,

his hair tied in a knot,

a model of concentration.

– – –

Even the season is wrong for him.

In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?

Is this not implied by his serene expression,

that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

Unlikely workmates, one might say. And though the two are toiling harmoniously together, they appear to have little in common. With every heave of snow, the narrator notes, they become “lost to each other / in these sudden clouds of [their] own making, / these fountain-bursts of snow.”  And even when they are visible to each other, their ways of working set them apart. (more…)

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