BOOK REVIEW: Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh & Nguyen Anh-Huong

Walking Meditation (With DVD)Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This brief guide to walking meditation lays out a basic practice linking breath and stride, and then explores such topics as: how to apply the practice to varied environments, coping with emotion through [and during] walking, the social dimension of walking meditation, and a few thoughts on applying the practice to jogging. The book is nominally attributed to the beloved Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who recently passed (i.e. January 2022,) Thich Nhat Hanh, but it seems the bulk of the book was written by the co-author (Nguyen Anh-Huong.) That said, it’s a clearer distribution of labor than usual for mega-guru books; not only does the author get a co-author credit but the words of Thich Nhat Hanh are presented as textboxes with bylines.

The book is less than a hundred pages of text, but the edition I have came with a CD and DVD (if anyone still has a player for these antiquated technologies. If you’re paying full price, I’d make sure you have some means to play the CD and DVD. I obtained a used copy at a low price, so it wasn’t a concern.) The book’s brevity has both pros and cons. On the pro side, it keeps things simple. The practice is a straightforward one of linking one’s breath to one’s stride, and there’s no tedious elaborations or variations with which to contend. On the con side, if one is looking for insight into improving alignment or biomechanics of walking, that’s not covered in this book. That is probably for the best, because it’s hard to avoid overthinking the practice if one is given extensive directions on stride and the like. This isn’t so much a criticism as an attempt to temper expectations for those who may feel they would benefit from some sort of anatomical or biomechanical insights on walking or physiological insights about the breath.

If you’re looking for a quick and straightforward guide to practicing walking meditation, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breathe! You are Alive [i.e. Anapanasati Sutta] Trans. & Commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of BreathingBreathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

One evening at the end of a rainy season in Shravasti (present-day Uttar Pradesh near the Nepali border,) the Buddha taught a practice using awareness of breath to quiet the mind. This is a translation with commentary by the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh [RIP, FYI – he passed away on January 22nd.] (To clarify: Annabel Laity translated the book from Vietnamese to English, Thich Nhat Hanh translated versions of the sutra from Pali and Chinese.) The teaching is called the Anapanasati Sutta (i.e. “Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.”) It consists of sixteen variations on the theme of “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

The sutra itself is only a few pages long, leaving commentaries and appendices to stretch the book to its barely one-hundred-pages. This isn’t a criticism; the commentary is beneficial because the sutra is bare bones. Even being somewhat aware of basic Buddhist concepts (e.g. impermanence, emptiness, liberation, etc.) I still found that the commentary offered some valuable insight about how to understand these ideas as well as how they relate to the practice. The Appendices consist of a variation on the practice and a translation of Chinese version of the sutra. The latter is a bit redundant, but one can also see little differences in translation that may be informative for some.

Besides presenting the practice, the book explains how it relates to (and is built around the principles from) the “Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness.” This book outlines the Four Establishments clearly enough to see how the Anapanasati practice is shaped by them. However, it’s worth noting that Thich Nhat Hanh also produced a translation and commentary on the Four Establishments that is entitled “Transformation & Healing.”

As someone who has found breath practices to be among the most effective tools for improving the mind, I benefited from this book tremendously. Besides its discussion of the practice and variations, I learned a lot from the philosophical elaborations that were made. I’d highly recommend this book.

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POEM: Insight: Or, The Benefits of Meditation

Once, tsunami waves crashed ashore,
catching me off-guard.
In wonder of just what’d hit me,
I’d sit – soaked and scarred.

The more I’d sit, watching my world,
the more I’d see storms howl.
I’d still get drenched, but, sometimes,
I could reach my towel.

Often, when I’d witness my mind,
I’d see the squalls approach,
and I could pack my things and go
before the surge encroached.

I never learned the magic to
turn the winds away,
but I could see the distant clouds
and shelter from the fray.

BOOK REVIEW: Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and CreativityCatching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book consists of a series of topical micro-essays – the shortest being a simple sentence and the longest being a few pages, with the average being about a page. Lynch is most well-known as the director who created such works as “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Twin Peaks.” As the subtitle suggests, the overarching theme of the book is the nexus of meditation and creativity. While many of the essays explicitly touch on how meditation influences consciousness, which in turn influences the creative process, not all of them do. Some of them are more biographical or about the filmmaking process – including discussion of technical considerations (what is the optimal type of camera and how high definition can be too much definition for its own good) and what a neophyte such as myself might call the managerial considerations of movie direction (how to best get one’s vision across through the actors.) Along the way, one glimpses how Lynch shifted from his first artistic love, painting, into the world of cinema.

Lynch is a long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM,) which is a mantra-based meditation in which the meditator silently repeats a mantra given to him or her by a teacher. The central analogy posed by Lynch is that meditation expands the consciousness and this allows one to catch bigger fish (more profound and creative ideas) through one’s art. He’s not suggesting that the ideas come directly within the process of meditation, but rather that meditation facilitates one’s ability to deepen the pool and pull up bigger creative fish.

He does engage in a fallacious form of thinking that I’ve critiqued in other books, and so I figure I should mention it here as well – even though I found it a little less troubling because of his free flowing “artsy” approach to presenting ideas. But this fallacious bit of reasoning goes something like this: “See how science is talking about this confusing issue and admitting that no one fully understands it yet? And see here how these scriptures are describing this nebulous idea with a few kernels that sound vaguely similar to what the scientists are talking about? From this we can conclude that they are – in fact — talking about the same thing, and that the ancients actually understood this all in much greater detail than we do today.” He does this mostly with reference to the unified field theory (which still hasn’t unified gravity into its ranks, let alone establishing some kind of oneness of all things.) It’s what dear old Dr. Sherrill used to call the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which is thinking that back in the day they knew everything any we are presently just stumbling around in the dark trying to get back on track. [One should note, there is an equally fallacious counterpart that he called the “outhouse fallacy,” which assumes that because people in the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots.]

For cinephiles, the book provides a lot of interesting tidbits about Lynch’s filmography. [For non-cinephiles such as myself, some of this will make sense, and some of it won’t. I occasionally had to make a Google run while reading the book to figure out some obscure reference about one of his movies.] For those interested in meditation, there is a great deal of fascinating thought about how creativity happens and how it’s advanced by having a meditative practice.

The most notable ancillary matter is an appendix of interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Lynch has a foundation that works to bring meditation into the educational process and the two former-Beatles support its efforts enough to do an interview. The McCartney interview stays more on the topic of meditation — particularly the Beatles’ interaction with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the creator of TM and a guru who taught the band both during a visit to the United Kingdom and in his own home base of Rishikesh. The Ringo Starr interview is actually much more about the musical history of Starr and the band.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read. It’s a little all-over-the-place, but not in a bad way. A lot of the writing has a stream of thought feel that seems appropriate to the subject matter. If you’re interested in the films of David Lynch the book definitely has some inside insight for you. If you are interested in the meditation and the mind, you’ll also receive some good food for thought. If you are just looking for a way to spur creativity, it’s also worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pain: Considering Complementary Approaches by NCCIH

Pain: Considering Complementary ApproachesPain: Considering Complementary Approaches by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Online here

 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has put out a new edition (dated 2019) of its pamphlet (about 50 pages) about how useful various complementary practices are in helping patients reduce, or cope with, pain. The NCCIH is a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how alternative and complementary practices perform in treatment of various ailments. While alternative (instead of mainstream medicine) and complementary (in conjunction with mainstream medicine) are quite different, in almost all cases this work herein is reporting on the latter basis. The complementary practices in question include: yoga, taiji, meditation and mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, relaxation methods, and others.

Complementary approaches to treatment of pain is a particularly salient topic these days as the mainstream medical approach (giving patients pills to gobble down) has resulted in what many have called a “crisis” of opiate addiction. So, if it’s possible to reduce the grip of pain with practices that at best have numerous other health benefits and at worst do no harm, than that’s a pretty good outcome.

Chapters three through eleven form the pamphlet’s core, and all but the last of those look at one complementary practice each, including (in order): acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, taiji (a.k.a. tai chi, or tai chi chuan), yoga, and dietary supplements and herbs. Chapter 11 discusses a few additional (less popular) practices. These chapters follow a three-prong approach: 1.) is it safe? 2.) does it help mitigate pain? and 3.) where can I find more information? [Spoiler alert: In almost all cases the answer to #1 is roughly “Yes, for most people, but possibly not for you. Check with your doctor,” and to #2 is usually something like: “there is some preliminary evidence that in certain cases certain people may have benefited.”] The chapters before (ch. 1 & 2) and after (ch. 12 to 14) provide background context and additional information.

On the positive side, it’s great that this information has been gathered together and packaged into a readable format with pictures and easy to read text.

On the down side, this was clearly a document put together by a committee of bureaucrats in consultation with lawyers. It is so laden with qualifiers and spongy speak that it’s impossible to discern how strong the evidence is for the various practices or how one compares to another. I felt that they could have given the same information in a three-column table in which the first column is the practice, the second column is “can’t hurt to try*” [*provided your physician concurs,] and the third column would be “nah, this stuff is fake.” [Spoiler alert: almost everything besides homeopathy would have the first column checked, but the consensus seems to be that homeopathy is pseudo-scientific quackery designed to sell water at medicinal prices.]

This booklet is available on the web for free, so if you’re interested, check it out. But don’t expect to come away with any profound insights. It’s not that kind of booklet.

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An App for That: Profound Yogic Practices You May Not See in Class

To the average person, yoga consists of a series of poses that stretch the muscles and strengthen the core.  In truth, often the most profound and life-altering experiences had by yoga practitioners involve only a seated or lying posture. If you practice yoga, you’re probably aware that postural practice, or asana, is just only one element of yoga, and perhaps you’ve experienced some of the other elements of yogic practice. However, it’s not always easy to access such training at the local studio.

 

These days there’s another way. These practices can be accessed through apps such as EKA.

 

Below are five powerful yogic practices that you might not find taught at your local yoga studio, but that you’ll find on EKA.

 

5.) Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra translates to “yogic sleep.” It’s a practice in which one stays in the mind-state between wakefulness and sleep, i.e. hypnagogia, for an extended period while working through a sequence of practices. Yoga nidra is extremely relaxing, but also allows one to access the subconscious in a manner similar to that of self-hypnosis. This makes the practice useful both for people who have trouble with sleep or settling into rest, but it also allows one to influence the subconscious so that one can make changes in areas where subconscious influence is strong.

 

For example, a person seeking to lose weight understands that they need to be careful about what they eat. However, the subconscious isn’t always on the same page as the conscious mind, and cravings for sugary or fatty foods may win the battle. In yoga nidra, we use sankalpa — a resolution, to help win the subconscious over. We also use practices like visualizations to gain insight into what is happening outside the bounds of conscious thought, and to exercise influence over it.

 

4.) Kaya Sthairyam: Kaya Sthairyam translates to bodily stillness, or steadiness. If you’ve done any meditation, you were probably taught to adopt a position in which you could be as still as possible throughout the practice. The reason for this is that even subtle movements can distract one, weaken one’s concentration, or have a stimulating effect. In yoga, kaya sthairyam is used to achieve a state of maximum stillness. If one wishes to increase one’s ability to concentrate for extended periods, one must build one’s capacity to remain still. That said, kaya sthairyam need not be thought of as only a prelude to meditation. The tranquility that arises from these practices make them worthwhile in their own right.

 

3.) Bija Mantra: In India, chanting is a very popular practice among yoga practitioners, and many have found great clarity in it. In one of my early classes teaching yoga to children, I found that as soon as the kids sat in a cross-legged pose many of the younger children spontaneously started softly reciting the gayatri mantra. That’s how intense was their association between sitting down cross-legged and chanting.

 

In the West, mantra chanting is less familiar. The six bija mantra, or seed mantra, are a beautiful way to introduce oneself to mantra chanting because of their simplicity. Because the bija mantra (LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HUM, and AUM) are all monosyllabic, easily pronounced, and are related sounds, they can be picked up quickly and easily.

 

2.) Witnessing Meditations: The yogic teaching that has had the most life-changing effect on me has been dispassionate witnessing. While it’s not a complex idea, it requires some explanation.

 

Let’s first consider what minds usually do in the face of a problem. There are two common responses that are not particularly healthy.

 

The first is to distract oneself from the problem. In some cases, this distraction can be an unhealthy activity — such as drug abuse, but it might also be something neutral like watching television. However, even if you distract yourself with a wholesome activity like volunteering at a soup kitchen, the problem is still there and it will have its say. If not directly, then indirectly through nightmares, indigestion, or a stress-induced illness.

 

The second option is obsessing. The brain tries to lessen the sting by anticipating the worst possible scenario. The trouble with this obsession is that to find our worst case scenario — we have to hang toxic labels on all possible events and invent possibilities that are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. And having invented such dire cases, we often give them too much weight. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  The negativity piles up and causes stress and anxiety to balloon out of control.

 

In dispassionate witnessing, we don’t ignore or distract ourselves, but we also don’t strap on value judgements or build worst cases. We simply recognize what we are feeling, acknowledge it, but don’t feed our anxieties.

 

One of the most basic witnessing practices involves watching sensations in the body. Imagine you’re doing this practice and you feel an ache in your back. If you try to ignore the sensation, the mind may turn up the intensity to get your attention.  If you obsess, you’ll soon convince yourself that this sensation is really an ache… no, a pain… no, it’s agony… oh no, could there be a tumor growing on my spine? [That may be exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.] However, if you focus your attention on the sensation without labeling it, you’ll probably find that the sensation passes. In essence, the body says, “Hmm, the brain examined this sensation and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, let’s move on.”

 

1.) Pranayama: Probably the most under-rated yogic practice is pranayama, or breathing exercises. By controlling one’s breath, one can influence one’s emotional state, one’s physiological processes, and the state of agitation in one’s mind. Breath practices are the most direct means to counteracting the stress response. However, despite constantly breathing — day in and day out — most people remain unaware of the incredible power of consciously controlling the breath.

 

There are a variety of types of breath exercises. There are breaths that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and those that have a calming effect. Scientific evidence has accumulated that there are benefits to practicing slower and deeper breathing, and pranayama offers a systematic approach to building this capacity. No matter what kind of pranayama one is doing, there is a side benefit from holding one’s focus on one point, the breath.

 

Pranayama is a great lead-in to meditative practices. It helps achieve a state of mind which is neither drowsy nor agitated. That said, pranayama is also beneficial on its own.

 

If you’re interested in exploring any of these practices, the EKA app is a great place to start.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Sound Medicine by Kulreet Chaudhary

Sound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and BodySound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and Body by Kulreet Chaudhary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The Longfellow poem “There Was a Little Girl” has a line that says, “…When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid.” That’s kind of how I felt about this book. At its best, it reports findings about how practices involving sound (i.e. mantra chanting) effect health and well-being, and lends insight into why sound sooths. At its worst, it tries to sledgehammer the square peg religious / spiritual practices into the round hole of quantum physics and foundational physics, often engaging in leaps that are at best wildly speculative, while presenting them as though they are as likely as not.

My favorite professor from undergraduate studies was a folksy Religious Studies Professor who cautioned against two opposing fallacies. The first he called “the outhouse fallacy.” This is assuming that because people of the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots. Let me first say that, until recently, yoga (and other complementary health practices) suffered its fair share from this fallacy among doctors and the scientific community who felt that it couldn’t possibly help with health and well-being because it wasn’t rooted in the latest scientific findings. However, there is an opposing fallacy that my teacher called the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which assumes the ancients figured it all out and we are just bumbling around in the dark hoping to stumble back into what they once knew. Scientists are prone to the first fallacy and the second is rife among religious folk. As a medical doctor who turned to siddha yoga (a form that puts a great deal of belief in superpowers and magic), Chaudhary had a rough road to not fall into one of these fallacies and, in my opinion, she falls more into the second — sounding at times like the ancient yogis knew more about the subatomic world and consciousness than science ever will. Most of the time, she words statements so that a careful reader can recognize what is well-supported and what is speculative, but she’s rarely explicit about the degree to which speculations are such, and I don’t remember an instance in which she presented an alternative that would undermine her argument. (i.e. The unstated argument seems to be that mantra is special among practices, that its usefulness is embedded in the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and, therefore, that it works by mechanisms unlike other meditative / complementary health practices [i.e. by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so the body can make repairs using established biological mechanisms.])

In a nutshell, there is a “god in the gaps” approach to the book that says, look we don’t understand consciousness or all the “whys” of quantum mechanics, ergo there must be supernatural explanations. I don’t think that because we’ve used EEG since the 1920’s and fMRIs since the 1990’s and still haven’t yet unraveled the hard problem of consciousness that we need to say that god / supernatural forces are where we must look for explanation. The gap is ever closing, slowly but surely, and there’s no reason to believe it’s reasonable or useful to cram commentary from Vedas (or any other scriptures) to fill the gap.

It’s not only the science where Chaudhary presents a belief as though it is established truth without alternative explanations. Early on, she states that colonization is the reason for the decline of meditation in India. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as accepting that colonization resulted in a great number of evils as anyone, but it’s a leap to say that – therefore – every negative a society faces is because of its colonizer. I would point to Thailand, a society that was never colonized (except a brief period by the Burmese) and which is primarily made up of Theravadan Buddhists (a system for which meditative practice is considered central,) most of whom also do not meditate regularly today. I suspect a more logical explanation for the fact that most Indians don’t meditate today is that: a.) it’s hard work and time consuming (as a productive endeavor it’s not bread-winning and as a leisure time activity it’s laborious,) and b.) the majority of Indians (like the majority of Thais) probably never mediated. (When we look back in time, we often want to create this wholesome and uniform image that what we have writings about was how everyone lived, and that probably never reflects the truth.)

So now that my rant is over, I should say that I didn’t think this book was horrible, by any means. It has a lot of good information, and some of the speculative bits offer interesting food for thought. As long as one reads it carefully and with a healthy dose of skepticism, it’s a beneficial consideration of sound and vibration in health and well-being. It’s just that when I compare it to, say, Davidson and Goleman’s “The Science of Meditation” (which I reviewed recently) this book is far less careful about presenting the science, eliminating pseudo-science, and letting the reader know what is controversial and speculative versus what is well-supported by sound and rigorous investigation.

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