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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

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Last autumn I wrote here about the idea of “forest bathing,” which sounds like it might require getting naked in the woods and some water. It doesn’t.

The practice began in Japan in the early 1990s and was known as Shinrin-yokuwhich translates roughly as forest bathing.

More recently I heard an NPR story about someone who went for a forest bathing adventure on the pocket of forest outside Washington D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island, on the Potomac River. If that doesn’t sound wild enough that seems to be part of the point of the activity.

You don’t need hundreds of acres of forest or water or miles of trails or a destination. You probably don’t need a certified forest therapy guide either, though some guidance is always helpful.

Forest bathing is about slowing down and becoming immersed in the natural environment. Immersed is a good word. It does mean to plunge into a liquid, but the dictionary also says to involve deeply, absorb and to baptize. In a good forest bath, you would plunge into the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. Touch the tree bark, smell the pine needles, loam or the black walnuts, taste the mulberries.

It is meant to cleanse the mind of the accumulated mental detritus from the outside world.

One of the exercises that might be done in your bath time is the body scan. It is a technique I learned many years ago in a mindfulness workshop. It can be done any place, but in a natural setting it will take on another dimension.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed. Then, turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.

Think of this as a guided meditation, though easily self-guided. You move focus to the sole of your right foot, then right ankle, and move up to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg.

When I first tried this I was so relaxed by the time I had moved up my torso, through my back, chest and shoulders, that when I tried to focus on my head, scalp and hair, I fell asleep. That is not what is supposed to happen, but it did. I have used the technique to fall asleep on nights when my brain can’t shut down.

A body scan is not a trick. It is a way to shift your focus and train your mind to go where you want it to go. In an age of many distractions, being able to control when you want to let your mind wander (which can be a creative thing) and avoiding drifting into worry and doubt is a powerful ability.

This all sounds very “new age” and a lot of people unfortunately use that term in a disparaging way. They lump together everything from well-documented practices like yoga and meditation to more fringe practices. For example, many people would probably dismiss aromatherapy and yet we all experience emotional responses to aromas in our lives – the smell of baking bread, the scent of herbs you brush against in a garden or the pine forest you walk through.

Forest bathing is being studied as an alternative kind of therapy or medicine. The NPR story I heard said that a 40 minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and a real decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol .Excess stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis, among many other ailments.

The idea of trying in your day to “Be here, not there” seems so simple, but is so difficult for most of us.

Henry David Thoreau knew that his little Walden woods didn’t need to be very far from Concord to be an escape. I have my own nearby small woods that certainly doesn’t qualify as a forest but allows me to turn off the outside world. It is more than walking or meditating or being mindful in your home, office, or on city streets. Those are all good things to practice, but this is about being in the natural world.



Listen to “A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation” for a guided body scan.

Learn more about forest therapies at natureandforesttherapy.org. Perhaps you might even become a guide one day.

Teresa of Ávila s a young woman by François Gérard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of an organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey . The year I was 13 I had for my class a young and kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of Ávila whom she was named after until many years later. The Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa grew up in a wealthy household in the province of Ávila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was 14, and her father sent her to convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in my thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul  by Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle was inspired by a Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

 

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth  and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13 year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” — W. H. Auden

I was thinking today about spring fever. It is spring, but today was a cold, rainy day and didn’t feel like the spring I have been waiting for since last December. It was November in my soul and I was craving an ocean view.

We pay extra for an ocean view. Why?

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. ”    – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I was feeling that pull to the sea today. I wanted to spend some time staring at the sea. Staring at the sea is more than a song collection by The Cure, and staring at those waves is more than doing nothing.

Our brains really do love the ocean. Scientists have studied this. This  human-ocean connection is sometimes referred to as  BLUEMIND.

But I don’t need ocean science to tell me that watching the ocean reduces stress.

Those new to meditation are often perplexed by the idea that mindfulness means emptying your mind. The perpetual rolling of the waves is an excellent mantra.

A satori is an instant awakening, a brief moment of enlightenment when things become clear, or you have a deep realisation. Monks can achieve satori by staring at a blank wall or a circle, so it seems entirely possible that it can happen while staring at the sea.

In case you don’t have a nearby ocean, you can listen to the entire album Staring at the Sea free while you stare at a nearby wall, or a photo or video of the ocean.  But before you start knocking people’s hats off, get thee to the ocean.

There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.

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

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Yes, that’s where I’m at today. Not so long ago, but it already seems far away. Makerspace action. At the opening of the NJIT Makerspace. Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire.

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