BOOK REVIEW: Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel

Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids by Eline Snel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever taught children mindfulness, concentration, or relaxation knows that one can’t use the same tried and tired approach one does with adults. One must recognize the strengths and weaknesses that children’s level of cognitive development brings. [That said, I’ve found myself in front of a room full of kids who sat with the unflinching stillness of bronze Buddha statues, but that’s because regular practice was part of their school experience.] This is the twin premise of Snel’s book: that one needs to tailor one’s approach to teaching children to be mindful, and that their practice needs to be integrated into their life on the whole.

It should be pointed out that the book isn’t just a collection of exercise for children. It’s also a book for parents to help them align their approach to parenting to the mindfulness that the child is developing. It’s also a book of application. That is, it’s not about practicing mindfulness meditation in the abstract; it’s about using the understanding that arises from that practice to improve behavior and emotional coping.

Chapter 1 introduces the topic of mindfulness and sets up the book’s approach as well as explaining the use of the audio exercise that go along with the book. The second chapter explains a mindful approach to parenting by which parents can adopt a calmer and less emotionally charged approach to interacting with their child. Chapter 3 explains how and why breath is used as the basic anchor point to life in the here and now. Chapter 4 suggests how attention can be improved, and mindful eating is used as a tool to advance this objective. The next chapter explores how mindfulness can be practiced using the body as a means to anchor one’s awareness while simultaneously being more aware of what’s going on with one physically. There is discussion of mindful walking, but most of the chapter is about teaching children to be more cognizant of what they feel as a precursor to being more emotionally aware.

The next several chapters cover emotional awareness and how to improve response to emotional situations (both for the child and for the parent.) Chapter 6 uses the analogy of a weather report as a means for children to evaluate their emotional state. Chapter 7 expands on the topic by considering how one can manage one’s response to emotions. The crucial topic of witnessing the changing nature of emotional states is the subject of Chapter 8.

The last two chapters examine how to cultivated desirable character traits in children. The penultimate chapter describes how kindness can be fostered as a skill in children. The last chapter is entitled “Patience, Trust, and Letting Go” and that probably adequately describes the gist of the topics covered. The concept of an “inner movie theater” is discussed as a tool to facilitate building the desired characteristics.

There’s a single page bibliography and a table of audio exercises at the end. As far as graphics are concerned, they are mostly whimsical drawings of frogs.

I found this book to be concise, informative, and designed to appeal to the child’s need for concrete–as opposed to abstract—conceptualization of this, otherwise cerebral, topic.

I’d recommend this book for parents, teachers, and others who interact with children.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to be more observant while avoiding the pitfalls of drawing faulty conclusions based on unsound reasoning, tainted memory, or faulty assumptions. Examples from the canon of Sherlock Holmes (i.e. the 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) are prevalent throughout the book, but Konnikova also discusses Doyle’s limited real life investigations as well as those of the men who influenced the writer. Doyle lived at time when science and reason were making great strides in overcoming superstitious and spurious ways of thinking, and so the Sherlock Holmes works were cutting edge for their time.

The book is neatly organized into four parts with two chapters each. The first part is entitled “Understanding Yourself” and it unpacks what we have to work with in the human brain. One learns how one’s brain works and how it sometimes leads one astray. It also introduces how the scientific method can provide a framework to harness the brain’s strengths and avoid the hazards of its weaknesses.

Part II investigates how one can become more skilled at investigation, as well as the role played by creativity and imagination. We learn how our attention is much more limited than we feel it to be.

The third part reflects upon the building one’s powers of reasoning as well as the importance of knowledge-building in the process. Konnikova describes “deductive reasoning” using Holmes’s favorite term. [She doesn’t really get into the whole muddle of—as many have pointed out—the fact that Holmes more often uses induction than deduction, i.e. going from very specific observations to draw broader conclusions.] The second chapter considers the importance of being knowledgeable and broadly educated. Holmes’s conclusions often hinge on fairly arcane knowledge about a range of issues: animal, vegetable, and mineral. However, a large part of the discussion is about the idea of degree of confidence. It’s also pointed out that knowledge can be double-edged sword—an impediment as well as a tool. Extraneous knowledge may lead one down the wrong path.

The final part suitably closes the book with one chapter on practical advice for how to put all of the knowledge discussed in the book to work and another on the recognition that even the best minds can go astray. The first chapter summarizes as it offers pragmatic advice. The second of these chapters discusses a fascinating investigation of a supernatural phenomenon (i.e. the existence of fairies from photographic evidence) upon which even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind led him astray.

The use of the Sherlock Holmes character is beneficial as many readers have consumed the entire Holmsian canon, or will do so, because it’s short and readable even today. Even those who haven’t read it will at least be familiar with the lead character and his proclivities as well as the other essential characters, such as Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler. There are too many television shows, movies, and pop culture references to not be aware of these characters. One needn’t have read all Doyle’s Holmes to benefit, as Konnikova offers the essential background. However, one might find it a bit more intriguing if one has read the canon. At the end of each chapter, Konnikova offers a set of references that point to the sections in the Sherlock Holmes canon relating to that chapter’s discussion. Konnikova uses quotes and stories that aren’t attributable to Doyle to good effect throughout this book as well.

Graphics are used sparsely and only as absolutely necessary. There is a “Further Reading” section at the end of the book in addition to the end of chapter pointers. Besides a list of the Sherlock Holmes books, there are chapter-by-chapter prose suggestions of relevant key readings.

I found this book interesting and informative. While it may be most useful for someone who wants to become more attentive, less prone to biases, and more effective in drawing conclusions, it could also be enjoyed by Sherlock Holmes fans as a way to drill down into stories a bit further.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of MeditationThe Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thích Nhất Hạnh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book by the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, activist, and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers pointers on how to live a life of mindfulness. Like most of Hanh’s works, this one is brief, concise, and the front and back matter account for about as much verbiage as the chapters themselves.

The seven chapters that make up the book proper examine mindfulness from various angles, with various approaches, and have a loose organization. The most readable of these chapters–owing to its narrative format–is the last, which retells a Tolstoy story about an Emperor who receives three questions and–unable to find suitable answers by offering a reward to his subjects–dons a disguise and visits a hermit sage. Needless to say, the sage (and life events) enlighten the Emperor, and the answers revolve around the theme of mindfulness. Among the most thought-provoking of the chapters is one that proposes that one take one day of the week to focus on mindfulness. Hanh offers advice on how to best select and structure such a day.

While the appended matter of some of Thich Hhat Hanh’s books can read like filler (intended to reach a page quota), that isn’t so much the case with this book. The most valuable of the appendices gives 32 exercises for building mindfulness. Many of these exercises are variations on a theme, and some are much more extensive than others, but it’s a crucial section and might even be called the heart of the book. Likewise, there are five sutra translations that will be appreciated by readers who are actually Buddhist. (Non-Buddhists may find the sutras to be a less colorful and more repetitive restatement of what Hahn has told them in the chapters. If one pays attention to the chapters and does the exercises, reading the sutra’s isn’t necessary for those who are not students of the religion.)

There is an odd postscript by one of Hanh’s students that is like those I’ve seen in other Hanh books. It’s an odd little testimonial. I put it in the filler category as anyone buying the book knows who Thich Nhat Hanh is and about the accolades he has received and, therefore, they don’t need a prologue telling them how awesome he is. It actually detracts from his persona as a wise man, because it makes one wonder who inspired the little ego trip. I suspect this is more a publisher desired addenda than an author inspired one, but, at any rate, it’s not useful. It can be interesting to hear about the war days, but there’s an outlet for that. Furthermore, I would think the place to tell us how awesome the author is would be at the beginning of the book–not the end. If one gets to the back matter, he must have done something to impress one.

I’d recommend this book for meditators, would-be meditators, and anyone who thinks that life is slipping through his or her fingers because of constant stress and a runaway mind.

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In [Atheological] Praise of Grace & Fasting

IMG_1214Those who’ve read my posts, or who know me, probably know me to be areligious, which–contrary to popular belief–isn’t necessarily the same as being atheist. Personally, and on the whole, I’ve never found enough virtue in religion to outweigh what I believe to be its vices. That being said, I do find behaviors to applaud among the faithful.

First and foremost among these commendable activities is the practice of saying grace before each meal. Of course, what appeals to me isn’t the notion of saying, “Hey, God, you are really groovy for laying this food upon my plate, and it’s my most heartfelt wish that you’ll keep up the good work. Thank you ever-so-much,  and YEEAAAH, God!” [Though if a less borderline-sacrilegious version of this kind of grace is your bag, more power to you.]

What I commend is the taking of a moment to be still and introspective before eating, of taking time to recognize the importance of our food. Of course, one can do this same sort of thing without invoking a God or gods–and some people do so.

One can take a moment to remind oneself to be mindful of how one eats, to not eat too quickly, and to recognize when one is full. (Bodily full not mentally satiated, the two are often not the same and the former will usually arrive first.)

One can take a moment to remember a time in one’s life when one was hungry or thirsty and concerned about whether one would have enough calories or safe drinking water to get through.  In our modern age, I suspect many have never been in a situation to experience such a thought, and are the poorer for it.

One can recollect the image of some hungry soul,  scraping to gather enough food to survive.

One may simply say, hara hachi bu, as Okinawan people do to remind themselves to eat only until they are 80% full.

Whatever you think or say, the goal is to keep eating from being a mindless activity, done on automatic pilot. Failure to be cognizant of what one puts in one’s mouth is the number one killer among human beings–and not just the obese. OK, I admit that I made that statistic up. But of how many statements can it be said that one is better off behaving as if it’s true–regardless of whether it is or not.

On a related note, I also applaud the act of periodic and/or partial fasting as carried out by many religions, as long as the safety of the individual is put before religious dogma, which–to my knowledge–it usually is. One shouldn’t be what my father called a Red Lobster Catholic, the kind who went to Red Lobster on Fridays during Lent and ordered the most sumptuous seafood feast they could afford–missing the point entirely by treating themselves. One also shouldn’t fast to the point that one feels starvation, and then binge and gorge.  One should cut one’s intake in a safe and reasonable manner in order to observe what it’s like to feel biological hunger (as opposed to cravings of the mind,  or boredom hunger.) Then take advantage of the fact that one’s stomach capacity shrinks surprisingly rapidly, allowing one to control one’s intake much more easily.

One needn’t believe that one has to make oneself suffer as a sacrifice to a higher being to see the value of fasting. Fasting done mindfully, and not dogmatically, increases one’s bodily awareness, one’s thankfulness, and one’s pleasure in eating.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Study Thai Yoga Bodywork

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher.

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher

Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB), also called Nuad Boran (ancient bodywork) or Thai Massage, is a system that integrates assisted yoga-style stretching, reflexology, acupressure massage, and elements of Ayurvedic healing to stretch and massage the body. Its history is believed to date back 2,500 years to Northern India, where its roots lay with Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha–a physician in Buddha’s community. However, the art reached its perfection in Thailand, the nation with which it remains most closely associated.

I recently completed an introductory course in this system in Bangalore through the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.

Before I moved to India, I thought a lot about what I would like to learn while I was on the other side of the planet. There’s a great deal of expertise on subjects sparsely taught in the US, and it can often be had at a bargain in comparison to American prices.

Some of the skills I wanted to foster were to be expected. I wanted to learn more about meditation and the ways of living in the moment and with a quieter mind. I’ve played with such practice for a long time, and I came to believe that becoming a better martial artist  and person depended upon cultivating fudōshin— an immovable spirit. I’ve seen no route to that state that circumvents quieting the mind, and that requires observing and training the mind. One can only become more physically capable for a time, then growth depends upon the mind, on shedding petty impulses, on being incapable of manipulation, and on being unswayed my the vagaries of emotion. I’ve begun working on this objective through visits to meditation centers and by making my own practice more regular.

I also want to learn about other martial arts, besides the one I’ve been learning my entire adult life. It makes sense to learn something about the indigenous martial arts of the places I visit. I want to experience the similarities and differences of these arts, and to learn about the cultural elements that shape those differences and elements of uniqueness.

However, one of the biggest surprises has been my new-found interest in studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) When I visited Thailand last fall I studied Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) for a week and Thai cooking for a day, but it didn’t occur to me to take one of the many Thai Massage short courses until I was back home. My interest in TYB is reflective of a broader desire to learn more about the indigenous healing methods of Asia, and that goes back a few years.  I developed a vague feeling that I wanted to study such things a couple of years back when I realized my body was deteriorating too fast for comfort, and Western medical treatment consisted of advising me to stop doing a number of the activities that I love.  Still, I must admit that I didn’t really give  a lot of thought to this interest until I started this course.

Having now thought about it, my interest in studying TYB is closely linked to my interest in martial arts. This notion might seem hard to reconcile.  TYB is a healing art, and martial arts, while they should be grounded in a sound moral philosophy, are essentially about inflicting damage on a body. The  two disciplines seem to be at odds. Still, they have a great deal in common. In each, mindfulness is key. Control of the breath is a common element of both. In Japanese martial arts there is a word, taijutsu, which means body skills, but which implies efficient use of the body. This means favoring bigger muscle groups over smaller ones where possible and taking advantage of the body’s natural alignment (e.g. straight spine) and body weight. These concepts that I had long practiced in budō were also ubiquitous in TYB. Furthermore, a number of the points that I had learned to attack, were now targeted to heal.

Still, some of these same points could be said to be common to any system of movement done properly, be it dance or exercise. So why I was drawn to TYB in particular? The most direct reason is to learn how to fix the failings of my body, and those that I’ve witnessed in others. I experienced these methods as a recipient in Thailand, and could see their value at once.

There’s also a benefit from increased understanding of anatomy and bodily awareness. One learns about how the musculature works to move the body in a way that isn’t easily picked up from textbooks. One begins to read bodies like others read books. One gains insight into the bodily deficiencies that one has taken on without even being cognizant of them. A martial artist may, on average, be a hundred times more bodily aware than the average person, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great room for growth. (It speaks to how sadly lacking in bodily awareness most people are as much as anything.)

Still, this isn’t the full story of why I wanted to learn this art. Another reason came to mind in the introductory session, before we even began learning the technique. The teacher was talking about how TYB teaches humility, and how one has to learn to touch a stranger’s feet with compassion and devotion to that person’s well-being–an act that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.  Admittedly, this isn’t a level of humility and compassion that I have developed in life to date. Though I am the son of a mother who–as a nurse as well as a mother–was probably more at ease with putting the well-being others above her own comfort than anyone else I’ve ever met, for me this is a struggle outside my comfort zone. The martial arts teach a kind of humility (a lesson that all too many practitioners find a way to make an end run around), but if one’s practice is separate from one’s career field it’s easy for the notion of service to be so abstract as to lose meaning.

This, of course, returns back to my earlier mention of the mind. One’s ego is the biggest barrier to personal growth. Ego makes one easily manipulated. Ego makes one subject to petty impulses. Ego makes one give into fear and anger.

Learning a stretch

Learning a stretching technique

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of the Guru by Rajiv Mehrotra

The Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual MastersThe Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual Masters by Rajiv Mehrotra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Mind of the Guru is a compilation of 20 interviews with various teachers and spiritual leaders. While most of the individuals are from Indian spiritual traditions or offshoots thereof, the author makes concerted efforts to represent a range of religious and spiritual traditions.

The list of interview subjects is impressive and includes: The Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism), Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen), S.N. Goenka (Vipassana), BKS Iyengar (yoga), Deepak Chopra (medical doctor and spiritual pundit), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living founder), Desmond Tutu (Christianity), and The Aga Khan (Islam.)

The book is at its best when these gurus are discussing their thoughts on development of the mind and spirit. Obviously, there is a lot of this type of discussion as that is the expertise of most all of the assembled teachers.

A brief forward by The Dalai Lama sets the theme of the discussion. His Holiness states that in Buddhist tradition one becomes a teacher because one has students. Consider this in contrast to traditions that fallaciously believe the title of teacher is granted from above. A master teacher may grant a teaching licence, but that’s just a piece of paper unless someone shows up to one’s lessons. He then goes on to say that one should abandon teachers who act in an unwholesome manner. This, too, is an important point. Having invested oneself in loyalty, it can feel like betrayal to leave a teacher who no longer suits one.

His Holiness is the lead chapter interviewee. In the early part of the chapter, he presents many thoughts on Tibetan mind science. “Mind science” may seem like a strange term, but there’s an important part of Tibetan Buddhism that deals not with deities and conceptions of morality, but with understanding and improving how the mind operates.

If one comes from a tradition in which science and religion are in tension, this may seem unusual, but there is a definite scientific approach (observing the mind and playing out experiments with it.) One doesn’t see a rift between science and religion in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, His Holiness says that if certain parts of the religious tradition were proved not to exist, they would have to be abandoned. (For those beginning to raise objections, shown to be unlikely and disproven are two different things.)

A second Tibetan Buddhist, Sogyal Rinpoche, addresses the topic of death, and lends the book one of my favorite quotes: “If you are worried about dying, don’t worry, you will all die successfully.”

The first part of this five part book also includes interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh and S.N. Goenka. The former talks about mindfulness and the “interbeing,” and the latter describes the Vipassana approach to meditation and its development. Interbeing is a term coined by Hanh to address a being who is connected to all things. For those unfamiliar with Vipassana, it’s a meditation practice that emphasizes 10-day intensive meditation retreats. There are many retreat centers where this is practiced around the world, including one in the city in which I currently live, Bangalore.

The second part deals with the unity of mind and body. BKS Igenyar, head of a self-named branch of Hatha yoga, opens the chapter with discussion of his background and approach to yoga. Deepak Chopra talks about the intersection of science and spirituality. David Frawley talks about Ayurvedic medicine as well as some more “out there” subjects, such as astrology.

I hadn’t heard of two of the three interviewees in part three, Swami Ranganathananda and Mata Amritanandamayi. However the third interview was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a guru well-known internationally for his soft-spoken teachings that combine yoga with a secular spiritualism rooted in Hinduism but not explicitly advocating it. Swami Ranganathananda is from Ramakrishna’s order, which was a secular spiritualism movement rooted in Vedantic traditions but embracing diversity of belief. Mata Amritanandamayi is one of only two women interviewed for the book, indicating women haven’t achieved equality in guru-hood just yet–for all the talk of enlightened thinking. (This is not a dig at the author, who probably went out of his way to include these two to have diversity in gender as well as diversity of tradition.)

The fourth part adds to the diversity by opening with an interview with Sufi Muslim, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Sufi is the mystical branch of Islam. (Mysticism meaning a belief structure in which God is considered to be part of one and is accessed by mindfulness and introspection. This in contrast to the largest strands of the world’s major religions in which God is conceptually something distinct from the self and is an entity to be worshiped. Most major religions have mystical elements or a mystical branch, including Christianity and Islam.) This interview eases us away from the traditions that are either of India or have their roots in India. (By that I mean that Buddhism has its roots in India, though, for example, Zen is different from Buddhism as practiced in India today.)I say “eases us away” because the mystical nature of Sufi would not create much cognitive dissonance in yoga practitioners, Hindu spiritualists, or Zen monks, but, instead, shares much common ground.

The second chapter in part 4 is that by the other female guru, Radha Burnier, who is a practitioner of Theosophy, which means “divine wisdom.” This modern development is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a particular religion, but rather engagement to fix societal problems and eliminate biases and divisions. In the interview we get a hint of the divides that plagued this organization.

Part four is rounded out by interviews with Swami Parthasarathy and U.G. Krishnamurti (not to be confused with Jiddu Krishnamurti, who probably would have been included in this book if he hadn’t died in the 1980’s.)The former speaks about the end of knowledge and the latter about his role as an anti-guru, rejecting traditional approaches to thinking about spirituality.

The fifth part of the book is entitled “The Ethics of Engagement” and I’m afraid it’s where the wheels roll off. It has six excellent authorities, Desmond Tutu, Baba Amte, Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Swami Agnivesh, The Aga Khan, and Karan Singh.I don’t criticize the selection of interviewees, but what happens here is that the chapters predominantly become about politics and policy. Some of this discussion is present throughout the earlier chapters, it’s a point that the author/interviewer finds either intriguing or salable. For example, he asks The Dalai Lama about the politics of Tibet and China, but only after much wisdom is shared.

Here is my–sure to be highly controversial–view on the subject. Wise people show the least wisdom when they’re speaking of politics and policy. I understand why readers may want to hear their thoughts, and I know that as leaders they shape movements in these domains. However, their thoughts on such subjects rarely pack the wallop of value they do when they are talking about subjects like improving one’s mind or living a moral life–subjects on which they have great authority.

What happens when the wise talk about policy is the same thing that happens when most people do, they fail to understand the complexity of the issues and they end up making a lot of “have our cake and eat it too” statements. The most common of these is that we need to: a.) raise all the poor to a certain standard of living (a noble cause), b.) eliminate attachment to materialism and consumerism (also a fine cause, no one should be addicted to “stuff.”)

As one trained as an economist, however, when I see these statements issued by the same person in the same interview, I laugh. We have no idea how to achieve these two things simultaneously; anybody who tells you they do is living in a dream world or is deceiving you. If everybody decided tomorrow that they didn’t need a bunch of new gadgets and widgets, this wouldn’t help pull the poor out of poverty. On the contrary, it would lessen their opportunities to raise their quality of life. Conversely, if you want to pull people out of poverty, they have to produce and sell things that other people want. Rising incomes result from rising productivity, and rising productivity comes with rising production–but someone has to buy that increased production. If you have a way to truly get around this dilemma and it’s one that economist haven’t thought of before and which hasn’t either been proved wrong or internally inconsistent, I will personally lobby for you to be nominated for next year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, and would place a bet on you to win.

I will say that some of the authors seem more savvy of the political and societal domain than others. For example, Mata Amritanandamayi says, “Even if we remove all nuclear weapons from our armories and transfer the to a museum [that last bit is, admittedly, a really bad idea], it wouldn’t bring an end to war. The real nuclear weapons, the negative thoughts in our mind, should be eliminated.” In other words, you can’t fix society’s problems through dictates, particularly when those dictates are in contradiction.

One of my lesser complaints with the book is that the author sometimes asks leading questions (i.e. he subsumes a conclusion in the way he forms the question.) However, almost invariably the speaker sets the record straight, but it makes one wonder about how the message is shaped by the interviewer.

There may be a little too much cultural self-congratulation going on throughout the book for some. There’s a primacy fallacy theme throughout the book that India had everything perfect until it was infected by Western ideas. This isn’t to imply there aren’t fantastic ideas and cultural developments that have come out of India. I wouldn’t have read the book if I didn’t believe there were, but there was also the caste system and some other fairly giant issues of institutionalized injustice like women essentially being sold off into marriage.

An example of this bias can be seen in the talk of Swami Ranganathananda. He says of Socrates, “Had he been in India, he would have been honored and worshipped.” Yeah, if he were of the right caste, maybe, but he also might have been bludgeoned to death in a fashion far more brutal than having to drink hemlock.

Overall, I would recommend the book. It is an impressive collection of teachers and all of them have something intriguing to offer in food for thought. One just needs to go back to The Dalai Lama’s Forward and not be so awe-inspired that you fail to look critically at the message of each.

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Mindfulness Meditation: Why be Mindful?

IMG_0430“Why be mindful?” That was the question asked to the group assembled at the Thubten Lekshey Ling Tibetan Buddhist meditation center on Sunday.

We had just completed a couple of rounds of mindfulness meditation. We’d been told that there are four themes of mindfulness meditation, but there can be variations on each. First, there is mindfulness of the body. This was the first type of meditation that we practiced. It isn’t about recognizing the body as an object so much as a field of perceptions.

Second, there is mindfulness of one’s feelings or sensations, in other words, mindfulness of the outside world as perceived by our sense organs. We did a meditation in which we were mindful of sound in particular. The key, we were told, was to hear everything–even the sound of silence. “Listening to the sound of silence” may sound like an oxymoron, but it makes sense as one experiences it. When one thinks in terms of hearing sounds, one begins to actively try to “catch” a sound. One may even try to anticipate sounds, particularly sounds in series–like a roofer using a nail-gun on a nearby roof. This active listening, rather than hearing, is not what one wants.

We also did a mindful eating/tasting exercise. We ate a tiny bit of snack mix. The whole processing taking many times what it normally does to shovel a bit of snack into one’s mouth and wolf it down. The food was raised to one’s face, experienced, placed in one’s mouth, experienced, chewed, experienced, and swallowed.

Third, there is meditation on the mind. That is, one watches one’s thoughts. We didn’t do one of these meditations. However, I’ve tried it in the past, and I find this particularly difficult . Watching thoughts go by as if they were rising bubbles or logs floating on a river suggests a division between the observing mind and the thought-producing mind. Recognition of the thought intrudes upon it, and this becomes a whole new line of thought.

Finally, there is meditation on emotion. We did not do one of these in this session either.

Our final meditation was another type of meditation on the body, but it was a moving meditation. We walked and experienced the motion of the body as it moved through the room. I particularly enjoyed this.

However, before the last meditation, we discussed this question of “why be mindful?” I had my own ideas, which I shared. Others had their own ideas, some closer and others farther from my own thinking, but all thought-provoking and valid.

My own thoughts were two-fold. First, mindfulness allows one to be more stable and grounded. Fear is about the future and anger and sadness are about the past. In the present one is neither afraid nor fearful. Second, by being mindful, we can come to see problems before they tumble out of control. We can catch our angry thoughts and dissect them before they do us harm. We can recognize the subtle problems with our bodies before they come full-blown ailments.

Of course, as a martial artist, I had always thought in other terms about mindfulness. There’s no time at the speed of combat to consciously recognize and consciously respond to attacks, one must be mindful to have any hope of surviving a surprise attack.