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While cleaning out my basement and attic this month and boxing up books to give away, I came across my long-unread copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is a paperback that I bought when I was in high school, but never read until I was in college.

In this classic scripture of Tibetan Buddhism— A friend recommended it. She was far ahead of me in spirituality. She told me it was traditionally read aloud to the dying to help them attain liberation. I bought it more to impress her than with any intent to prepare for my own death.

It wasn’t until college that I really recognized that it was a classic book of Tibetan Buddhism. I came to understand that death and rebirth are seen as a process and understanding that process helps one recognize the true nature of mind.

At least that is the intent. Reading the book didn’t bring me there. I doubt that any book can bring you to understand the nature of mind.

Most modern translation come a bit closer to the psychology of death and dying. Those are still topics I would prefer not to consider, but I am much closer to them than when I did my first reading of the book.

The book and my college experiences in the 1970s also introduced me to writers such as Aldous Huxley who wrote about the inner journey and mixed Western thought and Eastern spirituality. The path I wais pointed down also had stops with indigenous religious practices, and psychotropic drugs.

I was a seeker and experimenter, but also a bit too frightened to go all the way down the psychotropic rabbit hole. Huxley’s own first psychedelic experience in the 1950s “was in no sense revolutionary.” He was disappointed, as I was, at not experiencing the visions he had read about in the Bardo or the writings of William Blake.

Still, Huxley felt a shift in consciousness and that continued for the rest of his life, as did his experiments with psychedelic drugs.

When Huxley was on his deathbed, he requested that his wife inject him with 100 micrograms of LSD. In the short video up top, Laura remembers the day, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And in the letter above, which you can read in full at Letters of Note, she describes Huxley’s last days in vivid detail to Huxley’s brother Julian and his wife Juliette.

A book that connected The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Huxley was another paperback on the same shelf that I was sorting through. It is a book I bought around the same time titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead  This book – which I think of as being “very 1960s” – is an “instruction manual” intended for use during sessions involving psychedelic drugs.

It was published in 1964 when this kind of experimentation by people such as Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert were mixing the therapeutic and religious/spiritual possibilities of drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD.

I knew back then that the band The Doors had gotten their name from Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and I had read that the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) were aware of the book (and LSD) and used a bit of the text in the lyrics of their song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from their 1966 album Revolver.

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

Huxley’s wife Laura read to her husband The Tibetan Book of the Dead. as seen through the psychedelic experiences of Leary and others. Her husband did not want to die and fought his cancer. But in his last days, he came to terms with death and decided he wanted her to give him two 100 microgram doses of LSD. People who were there reported that Huxley left without pain and without struggle.

I hope that is true. Today, we often drug those who are dying to free them from pain, but the drugs generally dull the senses and mind.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between is another translation of the original done by Robert Thurman. The edition’s foreword is by the Dalai Lama, which should not be surprising since it is still a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom and religious thought.

I’m surprised that The Tibetan Book of the Dead hasn’t had more of a resurgence lately, not only because of what it might teach us about death and dying and how to live our life, but because psychedelics have seen a resurgence. A few years after Huxley’s death, the US and UK governments banned almost all psychedelic research But it has recently become once again an object of scientific study once again, and thanks to the reporting, and experimenting, of writers like Michael Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind. that I read and wrote about earlier this year. Westerners may soon once again use psychedelics to take the inner journeys our culture does its best to discourage and denigrate.


You may also want to explore Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics by Nicholas Knowles Bromell and The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows: A Biography by James L Desper Jr.  I discovered that the phrase “tomorrow never knows” was a line that Ringo came up with when the song was being written. Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is an easier read than The Book of the Dead, if you are so inclined.

time in mind

You probably have heard the idea of “living in the moment.” I tend to associate it with Buddhist traditions, but it has Eastern and Western origins.

Living in the moment means that you take little thought for the future, but do whatever enhances what’s happening right now. there is also the phrase “living for the moment” which means that it’s those special moments that make life worth living.

These seem to be valid philosophies and I would guess that most of us want to be living in the moment or living in the now. But it is not that easy. Too often our thoughts take us to the past or future.

This is a kind of time traveling that is not only possible but probable. We go back to things to earlier points in our lives all the time. That’s not a bad thing. But sometimes we go back and dwell on particular turning points in our lives and imagine how things could have turned out differently.

These “What if?” and “If I had only…” kinds of thought can become obsessions.

The term in psychology for this is counterfactual thinking.

We all know that thoughts in the present about the past can never change the past, so why do we do this?

Some kinds of events prompt this kind of thinking about alternatives to life events. Yes, we know that this is thinking that is “counter to the facts,” and yet we do it.

Studies about this way of thinking are not new. Early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato pondered why we have “subjunctive suppositions” about nonexistent but feasible outcomes.

“Counterfactual” mean “contrary to the facts.” Lately, the news has been full of talk about facts, alternative facts, false facts and other rather ridiculous versions of “facts.” I saw a review of Hillary Clinton’s book that came out after her election defeat, What Happened, and the book was described in a way that made it seem like a book-length counter factual about “if I/we/they had only…”

This kind of thinking is understandable as a coping mechanism.

Listening to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, “Rewinding and Rewriting,” brought this topic to mind. They spoke there about the things that usually generate this kind of thinking. First, the past incident had a clearly negative outcome. It is likely to be something out of the ordinary. And it was something in which you played, or could have played, a key role in changing.

We imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if only we had done something differently. We might not have even been a part of the event, but we could have been there.

The more serious the event, the more likely it is that we will turn to counterfactual thinking. So, when we don’t put money in the parking meter to run into a store quickly and we get a ticket, that mat seem like something we could have changed, but it’s relatively insignificant. You probably won’t dwell on that thought for days, weeks, months or years. But if an accident results in a serious injury or death and you feel you could have prevented it if you (or someone else) had done something differently, that will linger in the mind.

I had an accident the first week I owned my first car. I turned down a street on the way home and misjudged distance and clipped another car. I was a new driver, but really I had gone down that particular street, which was not the way I would normally go home, because I was hoping a girl I knew who lived there would see me driving my new car. I was angry with myself, and for weeks after I thought about how I could have just gone home the normal way and avoided the accident. My mother followed a different philosophy. She would say that maybe if I had gone the usual way I might have had a worse accident. I’m not sure if that is optimism or pessimism.

Two examples that I found online of counterfactual thinking point out how it can be harmful and useful. One case looks at Olympic Medalists. The study found that counterfactual thinking seems to explain why bronze medalists are often more satisfied with the outcome than silver medalists. Silver medalists tend to focus on how close they were to the gold medal and think more about what they might have done to get gold. Bronze medalists tend to think about how they could have not received a medal at all. The researchers call this downward counterfactual thinking.

Another study from the same researchers looked at the satisfaction of college students with their grades, which is not that different from the Olympic athletes. The study is called “When doing better means feeling worse: The effects of categorical cutoff points on counterfactual thinking and satisfaction.”  They studied the satisfaction of college students based on whether their grade just missed the cut off versus if they had just made the cutoff for a grade category. Students who just made it into a grade category ( for example, just barely got a “B”) tended to downward counterfactual think and were more satisfied. They thought that things could have been worse. Students that were extremely close to making it into the next highest category but missed (for example, they got a high “B” but just missed the “A” grade) showed higher dissatisfaction and tended to upward counterfactual think. They focused on how the situation could have been better and things that they “could have” done.

I believe that living in and for the present moment is very important. I try not to dwell in the past. I try not to be counterfactual in thinking about past event. But it is easy to fall into the harmful habit of wanting to change the past.

I saw an article years ago about a survey that asked people, “If you could travel to your own past, what time would you return to and why?”  The most common answers involved going back to change something the person either had done or had not done. Some people wanted to go back and relive a moment – the birth of a child, a great day with a loved one – but most people wanted to change the past in order to change the present.

Most scientists who have pondered time travel have said the same kinds of things about the experience. Most of their ideas don’t make for a good story plot.

We could go back in our own timeline, but we could not travel back before we existed. You’re not going to do anything about Hitler or the Kennedy assassination unless you lived through hose events.

If we went back, we would simply relive what had happened and we could not change anything. It would put us in a loop where we would again move through time until the point when we traveled back and then return and do it all over again. It’s the movie Groundhog Day.

If we went back and did change something, the entire series of events after that would change. In fact, they might change in ways that would eliminate us from the world that follows. What happens to us then?

This killjoy kind of science is a reminder that we can’t change the past. We live in the moment of now, and we need to be very conscious of the now and appreciate it.

I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

 

cow grazing under the full moon

The Moon will be full today in Paradelle at 5:42 pm. It is probably best known as the Corn Moon, Planting Moon, and the Hare’s Moon. The Arapaho Indians referred to this Full Moon as “when the ponies shed their shaggy hair.” It is the Flower Moon in Algonquian.

I chose one of its lesser known names, the Milk Moon. During May cows, goats, and sheep (at least they did and may still if they are free to do so) get to enjoy the newly-sprouting weeds, grasses, and herbs in the pastures and so produce very rich milk.

The exact moment at which the moon is fullest — when the sun, Earth and moon align — won’t be visible to observers in North America, because the moon will be below the horizon. On the U.S. East Coast observers will see the moon rise a few minutes before 8 p.m., 2 hours after the full moon’s peak. (Find out what time the moon will be visible at your location with this moonrise and moonset calculator.)

According to folklore, it is lucky to hold a moonstone, a gemstone that looks like a milky moon, in your mouth at the full moon. It is said that it will reveal the future.

Folklore also says that a the eyes of a cat will be open wider during a full moon than at any other time.

Though the term “moon struck” usually means mentally deranged, crazed or dreamily romantic or bemused, it originally meant a person was chosen by the Goddess and the person was said to be blessed.

Vesak Day is one of the biggest days of the year in the Buddhist calendar and is celebrated by Buddhists all over the world on the day of the full moon in May. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, it commemorates the birth, enlightenment (Buddhahood), and death (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha in the Theravada or southern tradition.

 

 

 

Pebble meditation is a technique to introduce children to the calming practice of meditation. It was developed by Zen master, best selling author, and  Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Thich Nhat Hanh. In A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles and A Pebble for Your Pocket, he offers illustrated guides for children and parents.

It can be practiced alone or with a group or family and can help relieve stress, increase concentration, encourage gratitude and help children deal with difficult emotions.

A very simplified how-to of the process:

  1. A participant places four pebbles on the ground next to him or her.
  2. At three sounds of a bell,  each person picks up the first pebble and says, “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Flower, fresh.”  Breathe together quietly for three in and out breaths.
  3. The next pebble is for “Breathing in I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid. Mountain, solid.
  4. Pebble 3’s recitation is “Breathing in I see myself as still, clear water, breathing out, I reflect things as they really are. Clear water, reflecting.”
  5. And the fourth pebble has us saying “Breathing in I see myself as space, breathing out, I feel free. Space, free.”
  6. End with three sounds of the bell.

This technique is not only for children. I would compare my own use of a grief stone to this practice. In some workshops, participants may find pebbles that can represent people in their lives and use that pebble when they breathe in and out and feel connection to that person.

There are pebble meditations that focus on specific areas of growth. For example, using the six paramitas, or six perfected realizations, are the elements that help us cross from suffering to liberation. The six are generosity, diligence, mindfulness trainings, inclusiveness, meditation and understanding.

Another pebble meditation uses the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), another uses  the Four Immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity).

Some people write words on the stones and use them on a regular basis.

What is there about the physicality of a pebble that helps one connect to a particular idea?

 

Here, Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation is presented by Plum Village brother Thay Phap Huu.
(From the DVD, “Mindful Living Every Day,” an orientation to the Plum Village practice of mindful living, available at Parallax Press

Saint Valentine would be surprised, perhaps even angered, to find out that he has become a symbol of romantic love.

As far as we can tell, he was a priest near Rome who was executed for his Christian beliefs in the third century. A feast in his name was first held in 496. For a millennium, he was venerated, not as a saint who stood for love, but as one associated with healing the sick and crippled.

By the late Middle Ages, he was seen as the patron saint of epileptics, especially in Germany and Central Europe, where artworks from the period depict him curing children of their seizures.

It seems that it was not until 1382, when Chaucer wrote a poem describing a February Val­entine’s Day, as a time when birds and people chose their mates.

The birth of the greetings card industry fueled an America Valentine craze in the 1840s. Today, 141 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged worldwide each year. One in ten couples get engaged on February 14.

The change in St. Valentine from being a saint of Christian love into a symbol of romantic love can be discussed as the change in our attitudes towards love over the centuries.

Japan has some interesting Valentine’s Day traditions. It is observed by women who present chocolate gifts (handmade ones are better) to men.

Honmei choco (“true feeling chocolate”) has also become “obligation chocolate” as women are expected to not only gift boyfriends, prospective boyfriends, and husbands, but bosses and almost any guy who has done them some favor.

There is also a reciprocal “holiday” called White Day which is celebrated one month later on March 14th when men buy candy and gifts for women. It is also observed in South Korea and Taiwan. White Day gifts are usually more expensive –  jewelery, white chocolate, and white lingerie are popular.

Black Day (April 14) is a South Korean informal tradition when singles get together and eat jajangmyeon (white noodles with black bean sauce) and is a celebration for those who did not give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day.

All these 14th day celebrations bring me back to Saint Valentine, who was martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D. There is an alternate origin story about him and the holiday that is more romantic.

In his time, there was a shortage of soldiers enlisting, so Emperor Claudius II forbade single men to get married in order to increase his army. Valentine’s priestly rebellion was to officiate secret weddings fo the loving couples. When this was discovered, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death.

According to legend, while he was on “death row” he fell in love with the daughter of a guard who visited him. On the day he was executed, he left a note for her professing his love and signed it “Love from your Valentine.” The original Valentine’s Day card?

If you want to turn up the heat a bit on this day, you might consider a Tantric approach to this holiday.

Tantrism appears in both Buddhism and Hinduism and influenced many religious trends and movements going back to the 5th century.

But Tantra in itself is neither a religion nor an “ism” but a fundamental spiritual science.

In the way that Valentine’s story went from religious love to romantic love, Tantrism is better known now by many Westerners in the context of Tantric sex.

It is an ancient sexual discipline inspired by Buddhist philosophy. Generally, it is a slower, more conscious and more spiritual version of lovemaking.

tantric yogaIf Saint Valentine might be offended by his modern holiday, you would think that Buddhism in the bedroom would also be offensive.

In Introduction to Tantra : The Transformation of Desire, you learn that the practice began some 2,500 years ago and was seen as a way to transform desire into a route to enlightenment. It was associated with the early practice of yoga.

A more modern-day and physical take on the topic can be found in Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century and is full of “cosmic orgasms, chakras, firebreath and the clench and hold.”

A middle ground between physical and spiritual, is the aim of The Tantra Experience: Evolution through Love.

It seems very seductive to think that this practice would enable us to contact the ultimate truths, but today might be a good day to start down that path.

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