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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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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POEM: Confessions of Mindfulness Pimp

It’s disconcerting, discovering one is a pimp.

Don’t get me wrong;

-I’ve never slapped a ho’

-I’ve never even called anyone a ho’

-To the best of my recollection,

I’ve not even thought anyone a ho’

I’m empathetic to honest work reviled.

 

But I’ve known the hard-handed hustle of a product that’s felt about in much different terms than it’s talked about — felt an act of masochism but called “working late.”

-a product the customer wishes — with every fiber of his being — he didn’t need.

-a product around which distractions grow like weeds through the cracks of a post-apocalyptic sidewalk.

-a product the customer wishes he could fast-forward to the end-bliss, escaping the awkward preliminaries.

-a skill that the customer tells himself he’s good at, knowing if he had skills, monetary transactions wouldn’t be necessary.

I’ve dealt virtue like it was a vice.

“Psst, Buddy, want some clarity?

“I won’t tell a soul you’re out here looking.”

I’ve pimped mindfulness and wellness — unrepentantly.

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

Amazon page

 

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

Amazon page

 

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

Amazon page

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.