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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

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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Toward the end of Richard Russo’s novel Bridge of Sighs, a middle-aged widow named Tessa Lynch recalls a wild ride on the back of a motorcycle. A teenager at the time, Tessa defied her parents by secretly consorting with Declan, a reckless, dangerous man, recently discharged from the army, who rode an Indian motorcycle. When  Declan invited Tessa to ride with him, she eagerly accepted. And when he opened the throttle she showed no fear. In Declan’s eyes she was “a natural the way she rode . . . leaning into the curves instead of away, as you would if you were afraid.”*

In Russo’s novel, the act of leaning into the curves becomes a metaphor for a bold and open attitude toward life. In similar fashion, the meditation teacher Pema Chodron employs the metaphor of leaning-in to illustrate a way of dealing with fear, anger, and other destructive states of mind. Enlisting the Tibetan concept of shenpa, which she translates as “hooked,” Chodron advocates a three-step method, the first step being acknowledgment that one has been “hooked” by negative feeling. The second step is to “lean into” that feeling:

Step Two. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and lean in. Lean in to the energy. Abide with it. Experience it fully. Taste it. Touch it. Smell it. Get curious about it. How does it feel in your body? What thoughts does it give birth to? Become very intimate with the itch and urge of shenpa and keep breathing. Part of this step is learning not to be seduced by the momentum of shenpa. Like Ulysses, we can find our way to hear the call of the sirens without being seduced. It’s a process of staying awake and compassionate, interrupting the momentum, and refraining from causing harm. Just do not speak, do not act, and feel the energy. Be one with your own energy, one with the ebb and flow of life. Rather than rejecting the energy, embrace it. This leaning in is very open, very curious and intelligent.**

Having learned to “lean in,” to “embrace the restless energy,” we can proceed to the third step, which is to “relax and move on.”

As Chodron readily acknowledges, leaning into uncomfortable emotions is far from easy. It takes awareness, and it also takes practice. If, for example, someone unjustly accuses us, our habitual response may be to counterattack—or flee the scene entirely. Rather than remain “awake and compassionate,” we are more likely to blame the accuser and retreat into a “storyline,” in which others appear as vicious tormentors and we ourselves as virtuous victims. And what we resist or attempt to elude is not only the object of our fear or anger; it is also those emotional states themselves. Rather than encounter and attempt to transform their negative energies, we escape into self-exonerating fantasies. Hooked on shenpa, we inflict suffering on ourselves and others, while also putting distance between our abstract thoughts and our ever-changing feelings. We lean away from the reality of our lives.

Yet it is possible to do otherwise. Merely by stopping, checking in with ourselves, and bringing awareness to our mental states, we can begin to “unhook” ourselves from destructive, habitual responses. And over time the practice of mindfulness can also incline our minds toward direct contact with our inner and external lives. Reflecting on recent studies of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Dr. Daniel Siegel, a physician and meditative practitioner, offers this perspective:

One of the elements of research on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that I find most impressive is the work that Richie Davidson and Jon [Kabat-Zinn] have done showing that even after one eight-week MBSR course, a “left-shift” has been noted, in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Such an approach can be seen as the neural basis for resilience. With a mindful way of being, you’ve developed your skill to stay present for what you might otherwise try to escape. From that point of view, diagnosis would be enhanced, because denial would be overcome. If you think about it, this is the mind doing what is most helpful for mind and body. Ignoring is maladaptive.***

Paradoxically, it takes courage to face one’s fear. For many of us, the “approach state” does not come naturally, and leaning into the curves is an acquired skill. But the New Year has arrived, and a resolution to lean into our experience, however pleasant or unpleasant, delectable or undesirable, is well worth considering. As New Year’s resolutions go, it is difficult to think of one more capable of transforming fear into fearlessness, anger into compassion, and habitual denial into wisdom.

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*Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs (Knopf, 2007), 475.

**Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (Shambhala, 2009), 40.

***”The Healing Power of Mindfulness,” Shambhala Sun (January, 2011), 49.

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“Calm the heart’s dark waters,” advised the third-century Chinese poet Lu Chi. “Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.”

I was reminded of Lu Chi’s admonition the other day, when I came upon a poem by the Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson (b. 1927). Entitled “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” the poem concerns the children of unwed mothers.  Embedding Irish-Gaelic phrases within his English text, Hutchinson presents two, very different ways of describing such children. In so doing, he also presents two contrasting perspectives on human frailty.

“She fell asleep in the sun,” explains the narrator of the poem, is an Irish way of saying that a young woman got pregnant unintentionally. “That’s what they used to say,” the narrator recalls, “in South Fermanagh / of a girl who gave birth / unwed.” Shifting the scene to County Kerry, the narrator invokes a phrase used in that part of the country: “leanbh on ngrein: / a child from the sun.” As a third example, he describes another “child from the sun”: a “little lad running round a farmyard” in North Tipperary. Watching the child, his “granda” remarks that the boy is “garsuinin beag mishtake.” That phrase may be translated as “the little lad’s a mistake” or “the lad’s a little mistake.”

Taken together, the Irish phrases in Hutchinson’s poem express an attitude of realism, acceptance, and forgiveness. In subsequent stanzas, the narrator praises that attitude—and wonders whether it can survive in modern times:

A lyrical ancient kindness

that could with Christ accord.

Can it outlive technolatry?

or churches?


Not to mention that long, leadranach,

latinate, legal, ugly

twelve-letter name not

worthy to be called a name,

that murderous obscenity—to call


any child ever born

that excuse for a name

could quench the sun for ever.*

Pairing a narrow morality, as preached in certain churches, with the worship of technology, these lines inquire whether the Christ-like kindness of the older culture can endure in twentieth-century Ireland. Embodied in the phrases of an endangered language, that kindness seems itself endangered, a mode of feeling that may soon be leaving the world.

Among the forces eroding that mode of feeling, Hutchinson cites a  “legal, ugly, / twelve-letter name.”  As the reader may readily infer, that unspoken, Latinate name is illegitimate. In contrast to the vivid, concrete Irish phrases, the abstract English word conveys a tedious (leadranach), judgmental attitude toward the mother’s “mistake” and the child who must bear the consequences of her actions. Rather than welcome the child into the human family, the English word defines him as an outcast, murdering his spirit and quenching the life-giving sun.

Of the two perspectives in his poem, Hutchinson clearly favors the first. Adopting that perspective, we might empathize with the plight of mother and child. We might look into the conditions that brought her son into being and try to imagine the life ahead of him. And we might also admit that at times we have done foolish, irresponsible things ourselves. Adopting the second perspective, however, we might observe that the child is indeed illegitimate, as judged by accepted norms, and that to call him a child from the sun is to soften a social reality, poeticize a legal fact, and implicitly condone unwed motherhood. In passing we might note that calling a child a “mistake” may be only a little less damaging than calling him illegitimate.

One of the virtues of meditative practice, Zen included, is that it allows us the space and freedom to examine our responses to human frailty, whether judgmental or compassionate or somewhere in between, before taking action or saying a word. In contemporary American culture, the judgmental response has become reflexive, even in putatively “spiritual” circles. But a compassionate response is also possible, and the mind of compassion is often more penetrating than that of moral judgment, which tends to distance us from the conditions of human suffering. And should we deign to look deeply into the heart’s dark waters, we may discover that in our own ways we too are children from the sun.

_______________

*Pearse Hutchinson, “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, ed. Wes Davis (Harvard University Press, 2010), 183-4.

Garden sculpture by Robin Caster Howard.

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