Going Nowhere

brick street

Can going nowhere be a journey?

The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.

It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”

Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing  The Lady and the Monk.

He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.

So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.

All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.

There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.

He does not promote or reject attaching a  religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.

I have written here about a good number of things that seem to fall into this non-category, such as forest bathing, Internet sabbaths, and lots of meditation and spending time in nature.

I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.

More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com

Walking in the Woods with Alan Arkin

log benches

On one of my woods walks this week, I listened to an episode of the ID10T Podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick interviewing Alan Arkin.  Most people know Arkin as an actor and particularly for comedic roles in work like The Kominsky Method, Argo, Little Miss Sunshine, Slums of Beverly Hills, Glengarry Glen Ross, The In-Laws, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and Catch -22. He has 111 acting credits alone on IMDB.

Hardwick’s excellent long-form interviews frequently take you to places in guests’ lives that you knew nothing about, rather than the usual celebrity talk show fare.

In this podcast, Arkin talks a lot about his meditation practice of 50 years, why he abandoned therapy and Freud, and also his acting life starting out in Second City improvisation.

Arkin also has a new book, Out of My Mind, to add to his shelf of non-fiction and children’s books. Despite its title, it is not about insanity or focused on the actor’s life.

Like many people, and certainly myself, after an existential crisis in his 30s, he began a spiritual journey to find something to believe in.  This led him to the study of Eastern philosophy. This short memoir (which he subtitles “Not Quite a Memoir) talks more in-depth about his spiritual experiences, reincarnation, how meditation helps him, and how that search for meaning often ends in self-discovery.

I think you should read the book and listen to the podcast, but here are a few takeaways that I literally wrote down in my notebook in the woods while I was listening.

  • Comedy, meditation, and life are much the same thing.
  • He’s been practicing meditation for 50 years and he’s not there yet because you can’t get “there.”
  • A Freudian therapist told him the high he felt when he was “in the zone” acting was called “regression in the service of the ego.”
  • Don’t worship what brings you into the zone – meditation, basketball, running, whatever. The goal is to be able to be in that zone all the time.
  • Samādhi is a state of meditative consciousness that is commonly called “the zone.”  In the yogic and Buddhist traditions, it is a meditative absorption or trance, attained by the practice of dhyāna.
  • Talking about acting “practices.” Arkin aligned with the Stanislavsky method which he seems to connect to Buddhism, while he rejected the Actor’s Studio method, which might be more like American Zen.
  • All the laughter and all the applause does not equal love.

I liked Arkin’s story about realizing that when you meet someone and ask who they are you might get an answer such as “I am an actor, or a teacher, or a lawyer or a carpenter.” They are defining themself by what they do. You are not what you do.

He further retells a section from his earlier book where he imagines an alien approaching him.
“Who are you?” asks the alien.
“I’m an actor.”
“What is an actor?” the alien asks.
“You pretend to be another human.”
“But you are a human. Don’t they like you just being yourself?”
“Not so much,” replies Arkin.

Alan Arkin wrote in that earlier memoir, An Improvised Life,  that knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five. “Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was.” But we are all improvising every day. We need to be better at it and have a practice to follow that can help us.

The Iceman Cometh

Cover photo from Becoming the Iceman

I’m not a fan of the cold. Winter is my least favorite season. When my feet are cold, I feel terrible. All of that goes against the philosophy of a man named Wim Hof.

Wim Hof, (AKA “The Iceman”) holds some world records for endurance and exposure to cold from doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes and running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle. He stood in an ice-filled container for more than 112 minutes. This guy really believes in the natural power of the cold.

He teaches breathwork and the health benefits of cold plunges. He has millions of followers who say his method results in a wake-up call to the brain and body. Some say it has cured a variety of things from depression to diabetes.

Hof is Dutch. He is 61 years old. He summitted Kilimanjaro in 31 hours nearly naked. Climbers often take a week to do that with all kinds of cold-weather gear and oxygen tanks.

In the book, Becoming the Iceman, he says that it is unfortunate that we are taught to fear the cold and protect ourselves from it. Hof believes that the ability to control the body’s temperature is not unique to him, but is an ability that can be adopted – and should be adopted – by everyone.

What is called the Wim Hof Method includes a lot of breathwork.  It’s breathing that is like controlled hyperventilation.  Here’s an example: Do three to six sets of 30 to 40 deep breaths. That means a strong inhale through the nose and a relaxed exhale from the mouth. On that last breath of each set, you exhale and hold for one to three minutes. I tried that. It made me a little dizzy and there was no way I could hold my breath for even a minute. I guess I need a lot of breathwork training. After that held breath, you take a recovery breath and hold it for 15 seconds.

This may sound familiar to you if you have done meditation or pranayama (kundalini yoga’s breath of fire) or the tummo of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. All of these are rhythmic-breathing disciplines. I have tried these techniques in the past. Some people enjoy the resulting buzz in the brain as a natural high. Some people feel dizzy and start seeing flashes of light. Not everyone feels it’s a good thing.

As I said at the start, I don’t like the cold. Hof would tell me that after all that intense breathing, what I need next is cold exposure. He is of the school that believes you should immerse in freezing water, but he would be okay if I started with even a minute or two under a cold shower to get an effect.

The initial effect is panic in the brain. Like a meditator dismissing the intruding thoughts, he says you need to dismiss the panic and relax and focus. That focus can be visualizing heat inside you and generating warmth in your body.  (I agree. Warm is good!)

That cold shower also floods your brain and cells with oxygen. Your vascular system gets a boost. Endorphins, which are structurally similar to the drug morphine, are released. They are natural painkillers. Your opioid receptors are activated. They can bring about feelings of euphoria and general well-being. Hof believes it brings you fully into the present moment.

I read a long article in Outside magazine about Wim Hof. He has turned his philosophy into a business. That always makes me apprehensive.

He might answer my apprehension like this: “This method is very simple, very accessible, and endorsed by science. Anybody can do it, and there is no dogma, only acceptance. Only freedom.” That comes from his book, The Wim Hof Method, which I plan to read this winter while sitting in a warm house, possibly under a blanket.

Then again, maybe I will venture out into the cold after reading it. I do find that stepping out a cold morning for my daily walk is very “bracing.” Of course, I’m not naked or wet, so it’s nothing like what he is preaching.

He has a company called Innerfire and, despite his entrepreneurial side, he is a “counterculture” hero. He has more than a million Instagram followers. He has written or contributed to a shelf full of books. He hosts seminars around the world and there are certified Wim Hof instructors offering their own workshops. This is a business.

I tried out the free minicourse on his website and it was an interesting teaser and I could certainly try some of the basic techniques on my own. But I am not ready to do any polar bear plunges into the Atlantic Ocean.

I would say this Iceman has arrived.

Wim Hof
from Hof’s Instagram page where he writes “If you trust the messages of nature, then nature entrusts you to be a messenger. Breathe and use the cold.”

Ground Yourself

lightning strike

Have you ever heard the remark that someone was “grounded”? You probably have an appliance in your home (stove, washing machine, dryer, etc.) that is grounded. Your car has grounding straps. Tall buildings have lightning rods.

You certainly have shuffled your feet along a carpet or pulled off a jacket on a dry day and then touched a metal doorknob and felt and maybe seen the zap of a small lightning bolt. That static electricity in you was grounded – quite literally – to the metal.

Grounding – in a more figurative sense  – is an ancient technique. It was practiced in Chinese medicine. Indigenous people around the planet have done it. We still follow this today in behavioral health, doing yoga and meditation, and connecting in some way with nature.

Grounding can be defined in a number of ways. I feel grounded when I walk barefoot on the earth or in the water of the ocean, a lake or creek. Why? Grounding in its many forms helps us be more present in the here and now.

The Fitbit on my wrist reminds me to be active. The Fitbit blog reminds me that there are techniques to help me be more grounded.

Lightning rods are an old-fashioned device. It is a metal rod mounted on a structure and intended to protect the structure from a lightning strike. If lightning hits the structure, it will preferentially strike the rod and be conducted to ground through a wire, instead of passing through the structure, where it could start a fire or cause electrocution.

Grounding yourself is a way to channel anxiety and stress into the ground and away from you.

Looking forward or backward can distort the present and grounding can bring you back to the present. But you ask, “How do I ground myself?”

This isn’t a how-to post, but techniques like diaphragmatic breathing appear to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, initiating the relaxation response. Lie down with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you inhale, feel your belly press into your bottom hand. As you exhale, feel your belly soften and fall. This (as with meditation and yoga) is intentional breathing. where you are conscious of your breathing, We breathe all day and pay almost no attention to it until there is either a problem (out of breath) or doing one of these conscious activities.

I wrote earlier about breathing. One simple technique is breathing deeply through the left nostril (holding the right one closed) which can lower blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety. Exhale normally.

You will also hear the term “Earthing” used, meaning the very simple practice of paying attention to the sensations of your feet against the earth, which can be in the woods or your backyard, a park, the beach, or any other natural setting.

Another relaxation technique I learned which helps me relax and sleep is doing a body scan. You can either start at your toes and work up to the crown of your head, or go in the opposite direction. What you are doing is to very consciously feel one body part to the next (toes, heels, ankles, calves, etc). Observe where there is tension, warmth, coolness, numbness, pain, pressure, tension. I first learned this by trying deliberately to tense that one area and then relaxing it. You don’t know hot without cold, light without darkness, tension without release.

Set a lightning rod inside yourself and push the anxiety into the earth where it can be dissipated.

Ben Franklin invented the “Franklin Rod” as a way to ground a structure before he ever did his famous and foolishly dangerous kite experiment. Much safer to ground yourself.

Take a Deep Breath

deep breath
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Humans take about 25,000 breaths per day. Think about that. No, I mean really think about that. Most of us, most of the time, give no thought to breathing. You would think about it if you were having difficulty breathing. That’s a panic situation. On the other extreme, you would think about breathing if you were meditating. That’s the opposite of panic.

I heard an interview with author James Nestor on Fresh Air about his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. A journalist, not a scientist or doctor,  James Nestor became interested in breathing when his doctor recommended he take a breathing class to help his recurring pneumonia and bronchitis.

I have done meditation and some yoga and fitness activities that ask you to focus on your breath. I know that breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is associated with a relaxation response and that when the diaphragm lowers, more air moves into your lungs and your body switches to a more relaxed state.

The nose breathing seems to be the key takeaway. Nestor participated in a study while working on the book in which his nose was completely plugged for 10 days, forcing him to breathe solely through his mouth. Not a way to feel better.

What’s so much better about nose breathing? Air taken in through the nose is filtered and warmed and it can trigger different hormones to flood our bodies, lower our blood pressure and even help store memories.

I didn’t know that the nose is more closely connected to our genitals than any other organ. It has the same tissue and when your genitals are stimulated, your nose will become stimulated as well. Some people even sneeze when stimulated (“honeymoon rhinitis).

It sounds like Nestor was also inspired to study breathing while working on his previous book, Deep, which was about the science of freediving where holding your breath for long periods is key.

It was also news to me that scientists believe that breathing is one way that our bodies maintain balance. When we breathe through our right nostril, circulation speeds up, so we get hotter, cortisol levels increase, and blood pressure increases. But breathing through the left nostril will reverse that – lower blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety. You don’t need to think about this as it occurs naturally, but you can think about it. I’ve had meditation breathing sessions where we try to breathe in through our left nostril – without holding our right one closed.

When you breathe through your mouth, you lose that balancing.

And exhaling relaxes the body. A deep breath in lowers the diaphragm and sends a lot of blood into the thoracic cavity, and when you exhale, that blood shoots back out through the body.

The really new thing I learned about is about “mouth taping” when you sleep to train yourself to breathe through your nose. There are commercial products for this, but Nestor said a small piece of micropore surgical tape will work. I have now tried it for a week. Besides my occasional problems falling asleep, I have been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. I have a mouthguard that helps but before I was diagnosed, everyone (especially my wife) was bothered by my snoring. It’s too early to report results on the taping but, according to my Fitbit. I have slept better this past week.

Nestor mentions an experiment that had participants use the Sanskrit mantra Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ which I learned in a class on Buddhism to work on their breathing.

Another video Nestor links to is with Dr. Andrew Weil demonstrating the 4-7-8 breathing technique which can help you get to sleep. I’ve tried it and sometimes it does seem to work.

Videos about breathing linked on Nestor’s website

Listen to Nestor read an excerpt from Breath)

The Wisdom of the Sufis

Geometric tiling on the underside of the dome of Hafiz Shirazi’s tomb in Shiraz via Wikimedia

When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a course in religion and literature that really changed how I viewed both topics. The course had a long reading list and the professor (Thank you, Dr. Ellen Weaver!) had us read many books of both fiction and source non-fiction.

One of those books was The Wisdom of the Sufis which is printed in many different forms. I learned about things that were totally new to me: prayers and legends of the Sufi mystics, dervishes and how this mysticism grew out of medieval orthodox Islam.

In class, we learned about the Latifa prayer and tried it as a group in the classroom in a spiritual, not religious, way. This ancient Sufi prayer is meant to connect us with the essence of our being. At one time, this prayer was secret knowledge meant only for initiated disciples because it was considered to be a very holy and powerful practice.

I use the word “prayer” because that is the word used in translations and because it does come from a religious tradition, that is a loaded word to use for non-Sufis or non-religious people. You could call this a meditation if that makes more sense to your practice. I have tried to use it as a morning practice.

It is a simple prayer but one thing that makes it different from other prayers is that the words are accompanied by hand movements. The words are connected with a specific body part.

Non-Sufi believers now use the prayer as a guided meditation and I have seen yoga centers that use this much like the chakras in Indian spirituality.

The Latifa prayer was once a secret prayer only for initiated disciples, but the prayer is out there now. I’m not sure this pleases the Sufi followers or if they are gladdened to see their practices being more widely understood.

The prayer is a succession of seven themes:

I exist
I long
I hope
I trust
I release
I love
I am prepared

But then, the movements…

When you say, “I exist,” you place your right hand on your left hip with the help of your left hand while thinking about why you exist.

With your left hand, place your right hand on your right hip and say to yourself: “I desire” while thinking about the things you desire and how they influence your life.

“I hope” is connected to your right hand on your left lung aided by your left hand. Think about what you are hopeful about and how that feels.

Move your right hand to your right lung and say “I believe and I trust.” Trust comes out of hope and trust makes you stronger.

Now, your right hand goes to your neck as you say “I let go.” Think about what you need to let go of – maybe sadness or anger.

Move your right hand to the center of your chest and tell yourself “I love.” Think of a love that is strong and pure and try to feel that radiate through your body.

To finish the prayer, your right hand goes above your navel, and you place your left hand on top of it. Now, say “I am prepared” – to face the world and to know your own voice within.

Something else that separates this from what you may know as prayer is that it is for inner peace and self-affirmation. That may not be what you associate with prayer since many people pray for things. We pray for the material things we want, things we want to happen or not happen, things we want to change. The Latifa is about finding things in yourself, not outside.

The Sufi parables in those books of wisdom were short and reminded me of Zen parables.

An example:
An old man accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life.
Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.
“I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl, and this is how I survived.”

There are many Sufi parables online and in books if you’re interested in reading them. Many have been translated in modern English versions but are rooted in classical Sufis, such as Rumi, Attar, or S’adi.

A video of someone doing the Latifa and showing the movements with the words would be very helpful, but I couldn’t find one. I did find a guided version of the prayer, but it doesn’t show the movements. If you find a good video of this, please leave a comment here for others.

Since religion can be divisive and even political, I will mention here that Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. Though it has produced some beloved literature (such as the love poems of the 13th-century Rumi) it has also come under attacks by other modern-day Islamists because Sufis cherish tolerance and pluralism – which are not qualities that in many religions unsettle extremists.

An earlier version of this post appeared at One-Page Schoolhouse