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I never thought of myself as a stoic, but I might be wrong. If you have heard of Stoicism, it might be because you learned about it briefly in some high school or college course. It is philosophy. You might say that Stoics are calm and almost without  emotion. They don’t show what they are feeling. Stoics can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. They accept what is happening.

But all that isn’t really accurate to the origin of Stoicism. For example, another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics made references to the gods in their writing, this was a philosophical, rather than religious, doctrine.

The Stoics were a group of philosophers who first began teaching their ideas in the Hellenistic period. Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno, who lived from 335-263 BC.

Stoics were not opposed to emotions entirely. They were opposed to negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.

I don’t think many people today would label themselves as stoic, but some of the principles of Stoicism can probably make you happier and a better person.

Zeno put death in the forefront of things to consider. But what that means is that you should cherish each day of life. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy that encourages living in the present. (Buddhism is another.) It seems quite modern to be “mindful” of the present moment and to make that a practice. That might involve meditation, or solo walks in nature.

It also means you are more conscious of being thankful for things that we do have. Zeno wouldn’t have kept a gratitude journal as some people do these days, but he would probably approve of the practice. This little act of mindfulness does have value, like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet so that you consciously spend some time considering what is happening to you.

In writing about what Stoicism is not, William Irvine says:

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

Stoicism was modified by the Romans, most prominently Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and you can still read their words, even on an e-reader.

Stoicism has evolved and a kind of modern stoicism exists. How would the Stoics of old cope in our times? Seneca said, “Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” People are still finding reasons Stoicism matters today.

Maybe more of us are Stoics than we thought.

 

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A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

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

White matter fiber architecture of the brain. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org

Have you already given up on a new year’s resolution? Do you think you could handle an 8-week plan to rebuild your brain?

Mediation and mindfulness training has been proven again and again to not only make people feel better but more recently shown to make actual changes in your brain.

An eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

A study conducted by a Harvard affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) shows some tangible effects of meditation on human brain structure.

Using MRI scans, they found “massive changes” in brain gray matter. The participants didn’t just “feel better” but  showed changes in brain structure that create the associated sustained boosts in positive and relaxed feelings. On of those changes is a thickening of the cerebral cortex. That is the area responsible for attention and emotional integration.

How long did they meditate? It’s not the 5 or 10 minute break you sometimes read about, but it’s also not hours or a weekend of meditation. An average of 27 minutes of a daily practice of mindfulness exercises stimulated a significant boost in gray matter density.

That density is focused on the hippocampus which is associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also decreased gray matter density in the amygdala. That might sound like a bad thing, unless you know that the amygdala is the area of the brain known to be instrumental in regulating anxiety and stress responses.

The control group of non-meditators did not have any changes occur in either region of the brain, so the simple passage of time was not a factor.

The one story that gets repeated over and over in the past 50 years is that there is far more brain plasticity – the changeable (or “plastic”) ability of the brain to change -into adulthood than was previously believed. You can teach old dogs new tricks.

 

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau

path1

It felt a little odd to download Thoreau’s essay, Walking, to my tablet to read. I’m not sure how Henry David would feel about digital books. But I know he would still recognize walking all these years later.

It appeared in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He must have liked it because between 1851 and 1860 Thoreau read the piece aloud ten times, more than any other of his lectures. “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.”

On the essay’s first page, he writes:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau mixed this essay in his lectures with another on wildness (not to be confused with wilderness) and says that private property is killing our capacity for wildness.

I love to walk. I try to walk outdoors every day. I try to walk, when I can, in whatever pieces of wilderness are nearby.

Like others, I find walking is a creative stimulant. I prefer a natural area but even walking in a city or around my suburban neighborhood can change the way you perceive the world.

sidewalk

A modern-day look at this is Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit which looks at  walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning. Th book discusses some famous walkers  that I admire (Wordsworth, Gary Snyder) and argues for preserving the time and space in which to walk in our world that lacks both wildness and wilderness.

Solnit cherishes walking’s “relaxed gait, one that allows us to take in sights, sounds, and smells that we might otherwise pass by” and its opportunity for private thought.

I am also not alone in thinking of walking in a health-minded way and as a low-impact way of shedding a few pounds and stretching a few muscles.

Thoreau and Solnit both use walking to lead them to other subjects. Walking and philosophizing make good partners.

Fossil evidence shows that the ability to move upright on two legs is the characteristic that separated humans from the other beasts and has allowed us to dominate them. I would say that walking connects us to those early walkers, but as I recently wrote about the stars, that is probably not scientifically accurate.

“Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris, which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C. Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.”

I suspect that those early walkers were walking with a lot more survival in mind than my sauntering. “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. We make some tradeoffs in deciding between presence and productivity.

Being present in a walk can help you to see. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” says Marguerite Duras. Try On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyeswhich records walks around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog. Yes, walk like a dog walks, like a child walks, be as mindful as Sherlock Holmes, be as tuned in as Thoreau.

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