reviews

“Loving Kindness,” by Deborah Underwood

loving kindness by deborah underwood

Rather than purchasing from Amazon, please buy from the publisher (MacMillan),  Indiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

Deborah Underwood kindly sent me a copy of “Loving Kindness” in late 2021. As a fan of books on lovingkindness for children, and as a fan of Deborah’s work in particular, I fully intended to write a review in the new year — of 2022. That was more than a year ago!

The delay has nothing to do with the quality of the book. The book is excellent. It’s just that 2022 was intensely busy for me, and I set the book aside. And then (literally) set another book on top of it. And then another. And another. It was only after I’d published a review of Sumi Loundon Kim’s “Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story” that I remembered Deborah’s book and dug it out from the pile on my coffee table.

So here’s my belated review.

First, the author. Deborah Underwood has been a firm favorite in my household for years. My daughter was addicted to the Sugar Plum Ballerinas series of books, which have Whoopi Goldberg’s name on the cover but which Deborah wrote. I read these to my daughter at bedtime for months, and we both loved them. It was only later that I discovered that Ms. Underwood had written books for younger children as well. Her “Quiet Book” and “Christmas Quiet Book” were absolutely lovely, but came out a little too late for my own children to appreciate.

“Loving Kindness” is another of her books for younger children.

It’s a beautifully affirming book, with charming illustrations by Tim Hopgood. The text, Deborah told me in an email, was “inspired by the lovingkindness meditation, which I’m pretty sure I first learned from you.” It’s lovely to hear that I (might have) had a hand in inspiring this book. I’m not particularly good at teaching meditation to children, and so it’s wonderful to have others take up that task.

The text is designed to be read to a child by an adult. “You are a blessing,” it tells the child. “You are beautiful just as you are. You are, loved and you love.”

What a lovely message for children to receive!

Title: “Loving Kindness”
Author: Deborah Underwood, Tim Hopgood (illustrator)
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 978-1-250-21720-2
Available from: MacMillanIndiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

Children are also reminded that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that mistakes are how we learn.

They’re reminded that they dream and dance, and feel the sun’s warmth, and that they touch the earth that connects us all. The book teaches them empathy by reminding them that others too dream and dance, and feel the sun’s warmth, and touch the earth that connects us all: This little girl does. And animals. Everyone does.

We’re all connected by the fact that we all do these things. And above all (or below all, supporting everything) is the earth, connecting us. That universal connection to the earth is a vital part of this song of connection.

Just reading through this book on my own helps evoke kindness in me. It even helps me be more forgiving of myself for the long delay in writing this review.

My kids are in their teens now, and too old (or think they are) for a book of this kind. But I will be treasuring my copy of “Loving Kindness” as I await the opportunity to read it to a younger child.

See also:

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“Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story”

goodnight love, by sumi loudon kim

Please order books locally, rather than from Amazon, through, Shambhala, Indiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK)

A little while ago I received an email from Sumi Loundon Kim, telling me about a new bedtime book for children that she’d just had published. The book is an adaptation of a traditional Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, which helps us to develop warmth and kindness, and to take our own and others’ well-being into account.

Sumi’s family practiced this meditation every night for five years as they snuggled in bed. She went on to teach it to other families. and discovered it was a popular approach that many parents and children ended up doing together.

When my review copy arrived, my heart melted! The warmth and love embodied in the cover image by Laura Watkins is simply stunning. In fact, the illustrations are gorgeous throughout: full of life and love.

Sumi Kim’s text gives a lovely, child-friendly guide to bedtime loving-kindness practice. There are a few pages that describe a series of brief practices that prepare the ground for kindness to arise: arriving by acknowledging that snuggling we’re in bed; grounding ourselves with deep in and out breaths; relaxing (“soft and heavy, melting into our resting spot”); and connecting with kindness by placing our hands on our hearts and picturing a warm glow radiating outward.

Title: “Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story”
Author: Sumi Loundon Kim, Laura Watkins (illustrator)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-61180-944-2
Available from: ShambhalaIndiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

As is traditional, the loving-kindness instructions begin with adopting a kind and loving attitude toward ourselves: “May I be healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be happy and peaceful.” They then widen into cultivating kindness and love for our families and loved ones, our friends, including friends who are hurting, and then out yet further, into forests, mountains, oceans, and the whole world.

In case you think it’s odd to wish a mountain well, the illustrations make it clear that we’re considering not just a hunk of rock, but all the living creatures that live on and around it. The same is true for forests and oceans.

Finally — and this was a really lovely transition — we come back to the intensely personal, as the adult reader wishes their snuggling child well: “And now, little one, it is my turn to share my love for you: May you be healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be happy and peaceful, always and forever.”

The return from the universal to the intimate was very effectively done. This must be so pleasing to any child, reminding them that out of all the billions of being in our world  they have a very special place in their family.

My children are about the same age as Sumi’s — they’re both teenagers – and beyond the target age for this book. I really wish something like this had been available when they were younger, because I’d love to have had the experience of sharing it with them.

I wholeheartedly recommend Sumi Loundon Kim and Laura Watkin’s book to all parents of young children. Books like this are rare. They are important tools for bringing more love and kindness into the world.

See also:

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My latest book: “A Year of Buddha’s Wisdom”

Over the summer I wrote a book. The idea was presented to me by the publisher, who had decided that they needed a daily practice guide based on Buddhist teachings, and they wanted me essentially to fill in the blanks.

It turned out to be a bit more involved than that, because their original outline wasn’t realistic. So we worked together to create a new outline, and the book ended up having four components: brief guides to meditation, reflections, mantras, and quotes from the Buddha.

Almost half of the entries are meditations, and I have to say I particularly enjoyed having to come up with something like 160 distinct approaches to meditation. The reviews so far have been excellent. Even very experienced meditators have said they they’ll be turning to it for inspiration.

The Kindle edition is now available. Using the same link you can order the paperback version, which gets released on the 4th of January.

It’s not yet available on Apple Books or the Kobo store.

I consider Amazon to be a pretty awful company, so please do consider supporting your local bookshop buy pre-ordering there.

Publisher: Rockridge Press (January 4, 2022)
Language: English
Paperback: 264 pages
ISBN-10: 1638783004
ISBN-13: 978-1638783008

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“Grammar for a Full Life,” by Lawrence Weinstein

Perhaps because of unhappy memories from school, many of us tend to think of grammar books as dry-as-dust bore-a-thons obsessing about distinctions (“that” versus “which,” “affect” versus “effect”) that are hard to grasp and slip from our minds almost as soon as we’ve finished reading about them.

This is despite the welcome arrival of entertaining and accessible best-selling grammar books such as Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” and Benjamin Dryer’s “Dryer’s English.” We can now add to the list of entertaining and accessible books on grammar Lawrence Weinstein’s “Grammar for a Full Life.”

Weinstein taught writing at Harvard University from 1973 to 1983, during which time he co-founded Harvard’s Writing Center. He then joined the English Department of Bentley University, where he became the director of Bentley’s Expository Writing Program. He’s also a playwright who has had two full-length plays professionally produced. His personality comes through in his writing as warm, empathetic, and unusually curious about the effect that our words have on ourselves and others.

And that is where the concept of grammar for a full life comes in. I would describe Weinstein’s book’s topic as being, surprisingly enough, grammar and spirituality. More broadly it’s about language, and how it can help or hinder our abilities to live mindfully, to communicate kindly and empathetically, to have an appropriate sense of modesty, and to be free from the limitations that our own and others’ perceptions of us can impose.

This book is, as they say, right up my alley. I write books and articles, and how to use words to effectively persuade or move an audience is important to me. But even more importantly I often lead meditations, and when I’m doing that I have to be aware of whether or not my use of language helps people to relax and to be present, calm, and curious about what’s going on within them. “Grammar for a Full Life” is very much about those topics. How can our language help us to be more present, calm, and curious with regard to our lives? How can it help us communicate with others in a way that helps them feel truly heard and that helps them too to be more present, calm, and curious?

Weinstein’s book isn’t just about writing, but about speaking as well. In fact many of his examples refer to conversations rather than the written word. And beyond that, even, his book is about how different ways of thinking affect us. Much of our thinking, after all, is verbal, and so naturally involves grammar. Our thought, and the speech and writing that springs from it, can help us to be closed or curious. It can help us to be rigid or relaxed, “hyper” or calm, depressed or optimistic, aware of ourselves as fixed or as evolving.

So stimulating was “Grammar for a Full Life” that the moment I finished it I sat down and wrote an entire article (Love, Grammar, and Magic) based on ideas from just one chapter — “The Active-Passive Hybrid No. 1.” The title from the book might sound dry but the chapter itself is rich, fascinating, and even magical. I could probably several articles based on thoughts sparked off by each chapter. This is a rich book.

There are too many gems in the book for me to give you more than a very general sense of its contents, but one other example that stuck with me is a “grammatical stratagem” (as Weinstein calls it) for stripping away “second-hand thought” and getting in touch with a sense of how we really think and feel about something. Simply beginning a response with some form of words like “To be honest with you…” or “I have to say…” or “I wish I could agree with you, but…” we can dig down to find our own voice, and lose some of our fears of expressing ourselves authentically and of bucking convention.

This is a book I highly recommend. The chapters are short, accessible, and every one of them is thought-provoking. I enjoyed my first reading of it, and as soon as it was over I found myself wanting to go through it again. And I’m sure I will.

“Grammar For a Full Life” is available from Amazon or, even better, an independent bookstore near you.

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“Aging with Wisdom: Reflections, Stories and Teachings” by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle

Aging with Wisdom

Available from Amazon or Indiebound.

The book’s title describes a daunting challenge. For our aging to have the blessing of bringing us wisdom – who does not wish for this? Most of us, by the time we have reached middle age, have had up close experiences with the aging of family and friends. We know that aging brings many guaranteed changes, most of which are unwelcome. We understand that decline and losses are inevitable as we age. And we have learned that wisdom and aging have at best an uncertain relationship with each other. No matter how much we hope and imagine our aging will be graceful and will be touched by the hand of wisdom, we all, when we find our attention unable to be distracted from the reality of our old age, disease, and death, wonder with trepidation what truly lies in wait. So this book’s title is easily heard as holding a kind of promise. Not only is it possible to age with wisdom, this book will tell me the way.

Aging with Wisdom is not a how-to book. It is, as promised, a record of Reflections, Stories and Teachings. These reflections, stories and teachings are the very personal ones of Ms. Hoblitzelle. The people we meet, their stories, the experiences described, all have a richly personal intimacy. The reader is kindly and deliberately invited into her world of encounters with truly remarkable teachers, family and friends. Indeed, at times the writing is framed as if in a personal conversation as the “dear reader” is asked questions or commented to directly. Sometimes this works successfully, sometimes it has an awkwardness as we can never quite forget that the people and experiences of her personal world are quite different from those in our own.

The experience of aging is woven skillfully throughout the various lives we come to know, and throughout the reflections, recollections and hopes that are shared with us. This is a high accomplishment. A book whose focus is on old age, disease and death goes right against the three things, as is written in Buddhist teachings, “the whole world wishes to avoid”. Yet this book addresses all three directly, fearlessly and engagingly. Drawing the reader’s direct attention to the losses, real and threatened, that aging brings is done in a respectful, even gentle way. It contains no harsh truths or face-slapping realities of the effects of aging. The tone is one of encouragement; a reminder that our life experiences have value if appreciated rightly. The adventure of our facing our own aging and death honestly, as with other great adventures we have endured, will require openness, learning from others, humility, and courage. The author, and the people we meet in the book — the “Wayshowers” — exemplify why this adventure can be a worthwhile one.

The “Aging” referred to in the title is quite straightforward. The “with Wisdom” is less so. This may be because aging can be defined with some easy, specific, and generally agreed upon understanding. Defining wisdom is more slippery. Most dictionary definitions include in their definition of wisdom some combination of “knowledge”, “experience” and “judgement”. Thus we have the Oxford Dictionary definition of wisdom as “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgement.” Aging certainly brings with it experience. An increase in knowledge (general or specific) usually accompanies experience, so a natural connection exists. But judgement? The relationship between judgement and experience is not straightforward or predictable. The same for the relationship between knowledge and judgement. Aging with Wisdom leaves the wisdom aspect turbid. Sometimes the wisdom seems to be used in the more generic “counsel of elders” sense. At other times, particularly with the personal stories and with the “Wayshowers”, the wisdom seems to be of a more spiritual nature, having to do with a sense of inner peace or clarity. In Buddhist traditions wisdom usually refers to a deep understanding of “things as they really are”. In other spiritual traditions wisdom may have other meanings, for example in Abrahamic traditions it may be accepting the will of God. So the book leaves a question about the nature of wisdom and its relationship to aging. Does aging courageously and with full attention to declines, losses, diseases, death mean one attains to a kind of wisdom?

Aging with Wisdom is a book well worth reading. It turns our attention squarely to our own thoughts, associations, images, worries, and confusions about our becoming old. And to our own death. It does so in a way that is gentle, compassionate, kind and fervently personal. It gives inspiration and encouragement. Any reader who receives this from a book has a been given a rich and rewarding gift.

Available from Amazon or Indiebound.

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“It Came From Beyond Zen,” by Brad Warner

It Came From Beyond Zen, by Brad Warner

Buy from Amazon or Indiebound.

“It Came From Beyond Zen” is Brad Warner’s follow-up to “Don’t Be a Jerk.” Both books are commentaries and paraphrases of the Shōbōgenzō, by the Zen master Dōgen, delivered in Warner’s characteristically irreverent, witty, pop culture–infused style.

Dōgen, if you haven’t heard of him, is a big deal. At the time “Don’t Be a Jerk” came out, NPR had recently published an article by Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” who described Dōgen as “the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of,” arguing that he deserved to be ranked alongside Heidegger and Husserl in terms of his contributions to philosophy. (Actually I think he ranks higher.)

Dōgen lived from 1200 to 1253, and founded the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan. His teachings are often couched in a paradoxical, dense, and obscure style that is often hard to translate, as evidenced by the wide variety of ways one passage can be rendered by different translators. It’s these characteristics — plus the great length of the Shōbōgenzō, that make books like “Don’t Be a Jerk” and “It Came From Beyond Zen” necessary.

Each chapter is in the same format: an introduction by Warner, a paraphrased and summarized chapter from the Shōbōgenzō, and then some explanation from the author, in which he tells us what the original text said, as compared to his paraphrases and pop culture references, and gives us his take on the teachings. Warner’s explanations about his paraphrases are a bit like a magician doing a trick and then telling you how it was done; it adds to the entertainment, makes you appreciate the skill involved, and is also informative. For example, he paraphrases “Has the disciple arrived at the state without doubt?” as the more approachable “Are you sure about that?” and “tea and rice” (medieval Japanese shorthand for something seemingly mundane) becomes “eating cornflakes and doing the dishes.”

Warner is mostly working from a number of translations, but he also knows at least some (I’m not clear how much) Japanese and sometimes takes us under the hood to show us the inner workings of the Shōbōgenzō — something I find fascinating.

The actual contents of the book are varied, because the essays the Shōbōgenzō comprises are varied as well. Some were presumably aimed at an audience with a very basic understanding of — well, just about anything. As Warner points out, many of the monks would have been uneducated young monks straight from the farm. Others teachings are among the most profound Buddhist texts ever written.

I was particularly interested in the chapters on ethics and compassion, since I haven’t seen much discussion of these topics from a traditional Zen perspective (as opposed to what modern Zen teachers have contributed, which is considerable). I found myself comparing teachings like Zen’s 10 Grave Precepts with the 10 precepts I follow, which come from the early Buddhist tradition. There’s some evolution evident in these teachings, as where abstention from slanderous speech becomes “No praising or blaming” and abstention from false views becomes “No abusing the Triple Treasure: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” It’s kind of refreshing to see a familiar old teaching presented in new words, but also a bit disorienting, which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

I can’t leave without pointing out that the book’s title is actually very clever. For a number of years Warner worked in the Japanese film industry, with a company that made cheesy monster movies. “It Came From Beyond Zen” obviously refers to science fiction monster movies “It Came From Outer Space” (in which an alien spaceship crashes in the Arizona desert) or Stephen King’s “It.” The “it” in these movie titles refers to something so beyond our experience that it’s unnameable.

Buddhism too deals with the unnameable: reality, which can’t be adequately expressed in words. This reality defies description. As Warner very neatly puts it, “Any description of anything involves … mental measurement. But no possible description of this something — this it — will ever suffice, because there’s literally nothing else to compare it to.” This “it” (in Dōgen’s text it’s the Japanese inmo) is beyond Buddhism. It’s beyond Zen. It’s beyond any attempt to conceptualize it.

If you’ve never heard of Dōgen, read this book. If you’ve heard of him and want to learn more, read this book. If you’ve a Dōgen expert, you probably won’t learn anything about the original essays, but might (I’m just guessing here) enjoy the book for its entertainment value and for Warner’s perspectives.

Buy “It Came From Beyond Zen” from Amazon or Indiebound.

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“Make Peace With Your Mind” by Mark Coleman

Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, as well as an executive coach and founder of the Mindfulness Institute. And he’s written a very rich, readable, and practical book on the practice of self-compassion.

Although we’ve never met, Coleman and I started our spiritual paths in similar places. Back in 1984, while I was throwing myself into Buddhist practice at the Glasgow Buddhist Center, Coleman was doing the same at the London Buddhist Center, both of which are part of the Triratna Buddhist Community. Our spiritual paths, even though they have diverged since then — I’m still practicing within Triratna while he embraced the Insight Meditation tradition — have also converged, in that we’re both deeply involved in the practice and teaching of self-compassion.

For both of us, there was an intense practical and personal need to do this. We were both angry young men, and full of self-hatred. We both now see the importance of compassion in this difficult world we find ourselves in — for ourselves and others.

The constant theme running through “Make Peace With Your Mind” is the “Inner Critic” — that all-too-familiar nagging voice that tells us over and over that we’ve messed up, that we’re not good enough, that things we did were idiotic, that we look bad in photographs, that people will judge us because we’re too fat, too skinny, too old, and so on.

Coleman explains over a number of chapters the problems that self-judgement causes in our lives, from the undermining comments we make about ourselves, to “imposter syndrome,” which causes very accomplished people to doubt their abilities. (No less than John Steinbeck wrote, “I am not a writer. I have been fooling myself and other people.” Wow!) He points out that self-judgement is universal. We all have this trait, and it’s a relief for many people to realize that they are not alone in suffering from self-criticism and doubt.

He helps us to understand the inner critic too, showing us that it has a role in protecting us from transgressing rules, or doing anything that might bring censure. “The problem,” as he points out, “is that it does not go away. It’s like a broken record, constantly repeating.” And this continues, sometimes, though our whole lives. We accumulate many such self-critical habits as we go through life. Each one has the function of protecting us, but the toll they take outweighs the benefits, and they can end up making our lives hell.

Coleman provides a lot of information about the inner critic, and it’s all useful. It’s a long time, however, until we get to the point where he explains how to work with our self-criticism.

We start with mindfulness, recognizing that our self-critical thoughts are indeed no more than thoughts and that we don’t have to take them seriously, practicing non-identification, and even learning to laugh at the inner critic’s antics.

Coleman also explains how to be kind to ourselves and stop treating ourselves as “the enemy,” and even to “befriend our own pain as much as we do with our loved ones.” This involves accepting and turning toward our pain, opening up to our vulnerability, and relating to our pain compassionately.

Toward the end of the book he takes us “beyond the critic” — beyond mere freedom from self-criticism, and into a positive appreciation of the good that is to be found in ourselves and others, and into a life in which peace and ease naturally arise.

This is a rich and comprehensive guide to the practice of self-compassion. It contains moving anecdotes and examples from the author’s own life and from the lives of others he has known in his capacity as a teacher. It’s particularly enriched by the inclusion of a practical guide at the end of each chapter. Even the more theoretical parts of the book conclude with us being asked to turn to our experience. And so my earlier comment that it takes a long time to get to the chapters on dealing with the inner critic should be tempered with an awareness that these practical guidelines foreshadow the later material, and give us plenty to do. The first chapter, for example, which is on the topic of recognizing how the brain can change and grow in response to our experiences, ends with suggestions to observe things in a public place that we dislike or like, and also to reflect on things in ourselves that we appreciate.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone suffering from self-criticism or self-esteem issues. It offers a rich and varied selection of tools for moving from self-hatred and the suffering it brings, to living more lightly, joyfully, and self-compassionately.

Available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Indiebound.

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Join me on Insight Timer!

reviews
2 Comments

bodhipaksa's Insight Timer profile

Most of the time when I meditate, I use the Insight Timer app on my iPhone. (It’s also available on Android). I use it to time my sits, and at the end, when it shows me how many people have been meditating with me (and sometimes that’s more than 5,000!) I say “Thank you for sitting with me” to some of the meditators using the app that live locally. It’s a great way to feel supported in your practice.

I’ve never used the guided meditations on the app, although I have contributed a few. Recently I was checking the stats that the app’s creators have made available, and was rather stunned.

At the moment by guided meditations have been played 440,500 times by 115,500 meditators, who have cumulatively spent 164,000 hours listening to them. That’s almost 19 years! Wow! I’m grateful that the app developers have helped me reach such a wide audience.

There are loads of other teachers on the app as well.

If you don’t use the app, I’d highly recommend it. There are buttons below, linking you to the iPhone and Android versions.

Here’s a link to my profile, which shows you which guided meditations I’ve made available. And if you do give it a try, please do check out my meditations.


Get Insight Timer on Apple App Store


Get Insight Timer on Google Play Store

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Watch SIT, a short documentary

SIT – Short Documentary Film from Yoko Okumura on Vimeo.

Chris Ruiz, one of the producers of SIT, a short documentary by Yoko Okumura, suggested that I might want to share this video. Yoko Okumura is the daughter of Shohaku Okumura, a Zen abbot and Eihei Dogen translator. Confounding stereotypes of Zen strictness, Shohaku is a really easy-going guy. Her brother, Masaki, lacks direction, and although he’d like to go to college to learn to cook, he’s perpetually “not ready” to take any concrete steps, seeming to have retreated into a world of video games and finding interaction with the world to be scary.

As Ruiz said to me, the documentary helps “dispel myths about the traditionalism, closed-mindedness, and rigidness attributed to Asian families.”

It’s a very short documentary, and slow moving. It’s rather interesting and surprising, though.

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Mindful eating with the “Sati Tala” — so sane it seems crazy

sati tala

The other day I got an email from a couple in Israel who are launching a new mindfulness product. It’s one of those things that is possibly just crazy enough (or sane enough — I can’t tell) to really take off.

Basically, it’s a tool for mindful eating. What’s the tool? Well, you are, along with one other person, the Sati Tala eating surface, and two simple seats. What this means is that you and your eating partner become part of the table as you sit on the seats and rest the surface of the Sati Tala on the laps. (Sati Tala is Pali for “mindfulness surface.”)

What this means is that you’re physically connected as you eat, which seems rather lovely and even romantic. It’s also more difficult to jump up and start doing something else, since doing so requires the cooperation of both people. And so you’re more likely to stay put and just focus on your meal.

On the other hand, if you do have to get up (to answer the door or a call of nature) dinner’s pretty much over until you return, and I can imagine that if you have a fidgety partner things could get ugly.

Still, this is the kind of thing I can imagine becoming a crazy amongst Hollywood celebrities!

Tany and Sagie, who came up with the idea, are launching a Kickstarter fundraiser, which you can read about on their website.

There’s also a video where you can see the Sati Tala in action:

P.S. I haven’t tried this product, have no connection with the company, and don’t benefit in any way by bringing it to your attention!

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