Zen and the art of social justice

William Wolfe-Wylie, In the late 1970s, Horacio Morales founded The National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The organization’s primary goal was to overthrow the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. A few years later, Morales was arrested and taken to a jungle prison near a military rifle range. He was confined to a small concrete cell and, over the din of gunfire, subjected to electro-shock torture.

But each Friday, a kind-hearted Canadian woman ventured to the prison, alone, to visit Morales and the other prisoners, and she taught him the art of Zen meditation.

“They’d been tortured electrically and their bodies would jump,” said Sister Elaine MacInnes, a practicing Catholic nun who discovered Zen meditation while in Japan in 1958. She spent the next couple of decades learning Zen from the monks she had encountered, until she was certified as a teacher. Soon after that, she found herself in the Philippines where she began to visit prisoners, including Morales.

It took time, Sister Elaine recalls over a pot of tea in her Toronto home, but over the four years of his imprisonment, she taught Morales how to turn his prison cell into a monk’s cell. She helped him to deal with his anger and to channel his feelings through Zen meditation.

It was then, she said, working with Morales and his fellow prisoners, that she began to see the importance of teaching Zen to prisoners all over the world.

Earlier this month, twenty-five years after her first meeting with Morales, Sister Elaine held a fundraiser in Toronto to support that ongoing project, through her charitable organization called Freeing the Human Spirit. At 83, Sister Elaine doesn’t meet with prisoners as often as she used to. Instead, she is looking to train as many Zen teachers as she can before she’s no longer able.

Her mission has never been an easy task.

“To bring hope and healing to prisoners is not a popular cause,” she says.

For Sister Elaine, teaching meditation is more than teaching prisoners to deal with their incarceration. It’s about helping them to better reintegrate into society after their time has been served.

Zazen, the act of meditation and clearing the consciousness, does away with “the dust of the mind,” she explains. Inner freedom, coping with stress and understanding of the self leads to acting more appropriately and naturally in the wider world.

Sister Elaine first began to understand the power of Zen shortly after she took her final vows to become a nun in 1961. That fall she moved to Japan and was quickly intrigued by the monks who prayed up high up on a nearby mountain.

“How do you pray?” she was asked by one of the men. What followed was a conversation that lasted for hours that exposed more links between her native Catholicism and Zen meditation than she had thought possible.

The body is used to help empty the mind, she briefly elaborates. Through control of breath, the breath of god and the breath of man become one. The breath of life, she said, transcended religion and became prayer itself.

“The infinite cannot be experienced intellectually,” she notes. “The world we see is just half the story. When you have seen the inner world, it becomes more and more important to you.”

Despite the pain and suffering she has seen in her travels, Sister Elaine’s face betrays none of the sorrow. As a 2005 documentary about her work plays in her living room, she has a soft smile on her face and sips her tea quietly.

Sister Elaine left the Philippines in 1993 and, after ten years in England, bringing group lessons in meditation to the prisoners there, she returned to Canada. Since then, she has established her program in more than twenty prisons across the country.

Nobody is forced to take part in the program when a prison signs on. “They can only teach volunteers,” she said. But it has become so popular in some prisons that separate programs have been set up to help staff and guards at the institutions.

The rewards of her work come in the form of the letters that she receives from prisoners. She can see the impact that meditation is having on their self-esteem and interaction with others.

“Before I practiced meditation I felt a lot of anger,” wrote Scott Kennedy, a prisoner in the UK. “I used all sorts of drugs and alcohol for years, from the age of fifteen til thirty-four, and now I’ve stopped using drugs. I’ve been practicing meditation just over a year and I’ve never felt better for years. I feel calmer, relaxed, happy in myself and towards other human beings. I have been really determined to turn my life around and practicing meditation made me see who I truly am: a kind, loving happy person.”

Her first student is still working with the people of the Philippines, too, though in a slightly different role. Morales was named Agrarian Reform Secretary in the Philippines’ new government in 1998. He is now the country’s Customs Commissioner, a slight deviation from the communist-party affiliated revolutionary group he used to lead.

At the same time as Sister Elaine was speaking on the value of teaching Zen to prisoners in Toronto, Morales was preparing an international crackdown on produce smugglers operating between China and the Philippines. The operation was hailed by farmers throughout the Philippines; their product remained safe from illegal food imports which threatened their markets.

Indeed, as Sister Elaine wrote in 2001, “In my prison experience…the sangha gradually changed their swords into ploughshares.”

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Lyman Abbott: Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

Lyman Abbott

Once when I was listening to the Dalai Lama talk in Edinburgh, he was asked a question that went something like this: “You keep talking about changing the world through meditation and compassion, but isn’t anger faster?” His Holiness answered to the effect that it’s precisely because anger acts so swiftly that we have to be wary of it.

His Holiness’s reply reveals Buddhism’s ambivalent attitude to the emotion of anger. Anger’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can accomplish a lot of good in the world. Anger can simply be a passionate response to something that we know in our hearts is wrong. His Holiness has himself admitted that he frequently feels angry when he thinks about injustice, and particularly the way that the Communist Chinese have treated his homeland and his people. It’s natural — and even right — for us to feel anger in such circumstances. We’d scarcely be human if we didn’t.

At the same time, anger can be such a powerful force that we lose our mindfulness and find that the heart has become filled with ill will or hatred, which is a desire to hurt others. We move from being angry to wanting to punish or wanting revenge. Just as the Dalai Lama says he experiences anger towards the Chinese, he also says he holds no hatred for them in his heart.

The difference between hatred and anger

Hatred, with its inherent desire to hurt and damage others is never seen in Buddhist practice as being an appropriate response. Anger may be passionate and fiery, but it simply wants to remove an obstacle or to change things for the better, not to hurt.

Yet although anger and hatred are different emotions — one potentially skillful, the other very definitely unskillful — many people fail to see the distinction. The experience of being angry — the sense of physical arousal, the quickened pulse, the tingling in the hands as we prepare for action — is in many ways very similar to the experience of hatred. And anger, once aroused, can easily lead to the less healthy emotion of hatred, just as a campfire can lead to a forest conflagration.

Seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger

So how can we teach children — and ourselves — to experience anger in a healthy way? Here are seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger.

1. Accept your anger

First, we can learn to accept that anger is a normal, healthy, and potentially creative form of energy. Too often we’ve been taught, as Abbott suggests, that anger is something to be avoided and believe that we’ve failed when anger has stirred. When we try to confine our anger it’s inclined to burst out uncontrollably, or to gnaw us away from the inside, as resentment. When we accept our anger we can relate to it in a more healthy way.

2. Breathe

Second, breathe! Create a sense of space between you and your emotions by breathing deeply into the belly. Connecting with the body helps stop our emotions spiraling out of control, keeps them in perspective, and helps us to calm down so that we don’t do or say anything rash. If you’re angry when you receive an email, don’t reply at once but wait until you’ve had time to quiet your mind and reflect more calmly.

3. Take responsibility for your anger

Third, we can appreciate that our anger is our anger. Other people don’t make us angry. Our anger is not their fault. Our anger, rather, is our response to our interpretation of our experience. We need to own our anger and to see that it’s something we’ve given rise to, ourselves.

4. Distinguish anger and hatred

Fourth, we can learn to recognize the difference between anger and hatred. To do this requires a great deal of introspective practice, especially since it’s harder to be mindful when our energy is aroused in anger. We have to examine our motivations, our thoughts, and our words: Do we have a desire to hurt? Do we use belittling, condescending, or insulting language? Are we fixated on winning at any cost? Do we distort the truth? Do we still feel a basic sense of sympathy, friendliness, and compassion towards our opponent?

5. Acknowledge your hurt

Fifth, we can acknowledge our hurt. Often anger arises in response to a sense of hurt. Even when someone else has suffered an injustice, this can lead to a sense of hurt arising in our own experience. And that in turn can lead to anger. When we mindfully acknowledge the sense of hurt that we ourselves are experiencing we find that we’re less inclined to lash out.

6. Let go

Sixth, we have to be prepared to let go of our anger. Healthy anger arises quickly and departs quickly. It doesn’t hang around and fester.

7. Cultivate lovingkindness

Seventh, and lastly, we can cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice and in daily life. As we go about our daily activities we can repeat phrases such as “May you be well; may you be happy; may you live in peace.” The basic sense of sympathy that this practice helps cultivate makes it easier to avoid anger in the first place and makes it possible for us to experience anger “cleanly,” without it slipping into hatred.

These seven steps can help us to experience anger less frequently, less intensely, and more cleanly. Rather than experiencing anger as a destructive force we can use it creatively. Rather than our anger hurting people it can become a powerful tool for putting our compassion into action.

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Who Let Buddha In? Infusing Therapy With the Eastern Spirit (Washington Post)

Gregory Mott, Washington Post: Tara Brach tells the story of a meditation student who came to her enraged after a class in which Brach had discussed forgiveness. “Her husband, she had found out, had been having numerous affairs. She said, ‘Tara, how can I forgive him? I want to kill him.’ The first thing I said was, ‘Don’t bother trying right now. This isn’t the time to try to forgive him.’ ”

Working with the woman over a period of months, Brach combined principles of Buddhism and psychotherapy to guide the client through a process in which she was able to “layer down” her anger to see the fear and shame underneath it. The marriage did not survive, but the woman was able to achieve a compassion for herself and for others that enabled her to end it “without bitterness and hatred and feeling like the wounded victim.”

Brach is a clinical psychologist based in the Washington area. She is also founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington ( and author of “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha” (Bantam, 2003).

Brach’s dual expertise made her an ideal choice to lead “Mindfulness in Therapy: From Psychological Healing to Spiritual Transformation,” a workshop on the psychotherapy community’s growing interest in using the Buddhist practices of mindfulness, concentration and compassion to help clients focus their attention and achieve a peaceful state of mind….

To explain the relationship between mindfulness and psychotherapy, Brach used an analogy of waves and oceans. Psychotherapists, she said, are trained to deal with the waves of emotion that clients bring to them in the form of problems. Mindfulness teachers, on the other hand, aim to get students to a profound understanding of themselves and their problems as but infinitesimal parts of the ocean of humanity.

“Both Western psychology and Buddhist psychology have a common denominator of understanding that healing and awakening come when we bring whatever is going on into the light of awareness,” Brach said. “Western psychology tends to focus on the waves of what’s going on — the stories, the individual feelings and thoughts. Whereas in mindfulness practice, the attention is really on the awareness that can hold what’s happening.”

Brach, who has been studying Buddhist meditation for more than three decades, finds herself straddling the realms of Western science and Eastern spiritualism at a particularly auspicious moment. A growing body of research in the West is finding therapeutic value in meditation and other forms of spiritual practice for illnesses ranging from psychological stress to some forms of cancer. Meanwhile, the world’s most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, recently has sponsored a series of dialogues between Buddhist scholars and Western scientists, with the goal of finding common ground for common good.

Buddhism, Brach said, places great emphasis on forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others. This does not mean, she made clear, that therapists should teach patients to live like doormats. Patients instead have to be taught to “relax the clenched fist of the body” before healing can begin.

“The nature of trauma or any emotional stuck space is that we sometimes have this idea that if we really cry it out or open to our fear, we’re going to move through it,” Brach said. “Very often what happens is that we keep re-repeating the same emotions and thoughts, but it doesn’t seem like there’s real healing. What we need to do is re-experience that cluster of thoughts and feelings, but with an added resourcefulness, with an added sense of openness or tenderness” that can come from Buddhist practices.

Brach said in a telephone interview last week that she uses guided meditation and other mindfulness techniques in her psychotherapy practice because they are highly effective in helping clients focus their attention. She says clients need not be Buddhist or even have a particular interest in meditation to benefit.

“Therapists train clients to be mindful of their inner experience by guiding them to attend to emotions, feelings and physical sensations with a non-judging and clear presence,” she said. “In time, the ability to ‘stay present’ allows the client to respond, not react, to difficult experiences.”

Teaching meditation is essentially teaching the client to have the same relationship they’d have with a therapist with their own “inner life,” Brach said. “A relationship where they can see their own goodness, where they can find a sense of safety and power within themselves.”

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Medicine for the mind (The Independent, UK)

The Independent: Ian Robinson doesn’t mince his words when it comes to admitting his past failings. “I was a bugger for road rage,” he confesses. “I’d be driving along and someone would cut me up and I could kill.” Ian laughs at the admission. Other road users no longer wind him up. Their driving hasn’t changed – Ian has. The 44-year-old factory worker has discovered meditation.

Ian Robinson doesn’t mince his words when it comes to admitting his past failings. “I was a bugger for road rage,” he confesses. “I’d be driving along and someone would cut me up and I could kill.” Ian laughs at the admission. Other road users no longer wind him up. Their driving hasn’t changed – Ian has. The 44-year-old factory worker has discovered meditation.

Ian and eight of his colleagues from Indmar Sheetmetal in Wigan, Lancashire, were taught how to meditate over a three-month period for a BBC2 documentary which will be screened on Thursday evening. The results were remarkable. According to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Umist, their mental and physical wellbeing increased by more than 300 per cent. “We took pulse rate measures before they started the course,” he says. “We repeated them before and after various sessions, and then at the end to see if there was an overall improvement on pulse rate.” The researchers also used psychometric stress tests at the end of the experiment. “What was very interesting was that the workers showed a massive improvement in their overall mental and physical health scores. And they were better than normative. Eight out of nine people showed substantial changes. And their heart and pulse rates improved significantly, too.”

The factory workers, most of whom were initially sceptical, were taught breathing techniques and t’ai chi, and were then taken on guided meditations during which they imagined themselves in a tranquil place. “I loved it, I really did,” says Ian, a systems manager. “I wasn’t too keen on the t’ai chi, but the meditation – there’s something in that. I felt more focused after I did it. I could meditate for 50 minutes and it would seem like five or 10 minutes. While I was doing it, all sorts of things were happening – I was flying and seeing lights. After-wards I felt relaxed and more focused.” Ian has continued to practise. “I do the meditation once a week at least. Now I’m more chilled. Nothing fazes me.”

Ian’s colleague Elaine Walsh, 40, a press operator, says that learning to meditate has changed her life. “I was sceptical at first,” admits Elaine. “But I found it very relaxing. I had mood swings before. I don’t get them at all now. My husband noticed a change straight away; he made me carry on. It has changed my life. I feel more alive, awake. I suffered from asthma and I don’t get it as much now. I still meditate twice a day.”

Meditation has never been so popular, as more people struggle to cope with the pressures of work and home life. Celebrities such as Richard Gere, Shania Twain, Sting, Goldie Hawn and Sheryl Crow are also at it. Some forms require you to concentrate on your breathing, others on an object such as a candle, or to repeat a mantra. Some are practised while walking or dancing.

Researchers continue to find evidence of its benefits. It was recently discovered that Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel happiness and to control aggressive instincts. According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe – the area just behind the forehead – which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of wellbeing at will.

In August, the journal Psychosomatic Medicine reported that researchers from the University of Wisconsin had found that meditation could boost the body’s immune system and change brain activity in areas associated with positive emotion. Twenty-four employees took an eight-week meditation course, and found that the positive biological effects lasted for up to four months.

Meditation appears to be helpful for a wide range of health problems. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the stress reduction programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been using a type of meditation called mindfulness (which involves paying attention to the experience of the moment) to help people cope with cancer, Aids, heart disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, anxiety and panic. In two trials by Dr Kabat-Zinn, psoriasis patients who listened to meditation tapes while receiving ultraviolet light treatments healed four times faster than those on light treatment alone.

In addition, two studies by Dr John Teasdale, a psychologist at the Medical Research Council’s cognition and brain sciences unit in Cambridge, have found that, teamed with cognitive therapy, mindfulness meditation halved the risk of relapse for people who have suffered three or more episodes of clinical depression. The treatment is currently being used clinically within the NHS in a small number of places around the country.

The greatest claims, however, come from supporters of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a specific technique popularised by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was first taught here in 1960 and more than 160,000 Britons have subsequently learnt it – at a cost (currently £1,280 for the course). It is practised for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily, repeating a specific mantra while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed.

Research into the technique has been conducted at more than 200 universities, hospitals and research institutions in 27 countries, its supporters say. They claim the studies show that practising TM reduces a variety of important risk factors for diseases such as coronary heart disease and cancer, including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, drug abuse, obesity, stress levels, anxiety and depression.

One US study on volunteers with high blood pressure, which was reported in The Lancet, found that TM could significantly reduce clogging of the arteries and cut related health risks, particularly of heart disease. Studies published in The American Journal of Cardiology and Stroke have shown that TM helps to relieve angina and reduce hardening of the arteries.

More research conducted in America found that a group of 2,000 people who practised TM had fewer than half the number of visits to the doctor and days in hospital compared with a control group over a five-year period. Jonathan Hinde, a TM teacher and spokesman for the organisation in Britain, says over the last five or so years, The National Institutes of Health, the main government funding body for medical research in the US, has put about $20m into research specifically on the connection between TM and various aspects of cardiovascular health. “What has been found is that if you practise TM for about three months, blood pressure tends to be reduced by about the same amount as taking any drug for hypertension. Hypertension is implicated in both strokes and heart attacks, two of the three biggest killers in the Western world.”

There are, of course, sceptics. In an editorial in the BMJ last May, Peter H Canter, a research fellow in complementary medicine, concluded that “overall, current evidence for the therapeutic effectiveness of any type of meditation is weak, and evidence for any specific effect above that of credible control interventions even more so.” He added that most of the researchers for these studies were directly involved in the organisation offering TM, and “seem keen to demonstrate its unique value”.

Yet Larry Culliford, a consultant psychiatrist at a community mental health centre in Brighton, who was trained in meditation by Buddhist monks more than 20 years ago, is convinced that it works. He practises it once a day, paying attention to the rise and fall of his chest and abdomen while he breathes. “Sogyal Rinpoche, who wrote The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says that giving yourself the gift of learning to meditate is the best gift you can give yourself in this life. You could say without too much exaggeration that it has transformed me and my life.

“The evidence is that it is very good for people with a range of physical as well as mental health problems. Meditation gets the mind and body back into harmony and this allows the natural healing processes the best chance to work. Benefits are possible in every organ system of the body and every part of health disorder, including mental health disorder.”

Also convinced of the benefits of meditation is Roger Chalmers, a GP working in East Anglia, who has been practising TM since 1974. “An enormous amount of what we deal with in general practice is stress-related, and TM is a really excellent method for eliminating stress.

“TM is something that anyone can do; it’s completely effortless and enhances wellbeing. Everybody benefits from being more well-rested and free from stress. We all know what it feels like when we have a good rest overnight or a good holiday. Everything in your life improves, and, in a way, you can see TM as something that just gives you a very easy technique to ensure that more of life is spent in that state and less is spent feeling tired and strained.”

[via the Independent]
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Buddhists able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts

Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts, research has shown.

According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe – an area just behind the forehead – which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.

Writing in today’s New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist’s brain.

Professor Flanagan said the findings are “tantalising” because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to “light up” consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation.

“This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood,” he writes. “The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.

“Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Tibetan Buddhists are born with a ‘happiness gene’. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek,” he writes.

Another study of Buddhists by scientists at the University of California has also found that meditation might tame the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with fear and anger.

Professor Flanagan writes: “Antidepressants are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness.”

The Independent (original article no longer available)

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