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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“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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Recovery capital

What I’m Thinking
The world needs recovery right now. These past few months we’ve had mudslides in Sierra Leone, Hurricanes in the U.S.A, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Earth Quakes in Mexico, Terrorist Attacks in Europe, and Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un squaring up against each other, and the most recent gun killings in Las Vegas. There is a lot of fear in society, and when there is FEAR we can either Face Everything And Recover by dealing with it or Fear Everything And Run. Reality can be traumatic, painful and hard. We can be at risk of addictions when we turn away from reality and fear feeling the excruciating discomfort of life. Addiction, Alcoholism and compulsive behaviors often escalate during the aftermath of a crisis, because people want to try and quickly forget the pain. And why would we want to dwell on the pain? In times of major disasters, catastrophes, terrorism, we need to tap into our ‘Recovery Capital’ resources that will help us during challenging times.


Inspiring Jargon

Recovery capital is the contemporary jargon that refers to the internal and external resources necessary for an individual to achieve and maintain recovery from substance misuse as well as make behavioral changes. Coined by (Granfield & Cloud, 1999. People are beginning to realize that recovery can be jeopardized by an individual’s social networks, lack of community support, cultural and racial barriers and taboos. Mindfulness and the language of the heart is what the Buddhist teachings offer. The breath and the heart are internal resources we can tap into 24/7. When we get in touch with breathing and loving kindness our external resources begin to flourish

What I’m reading
In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate.

Gabor Mate takes us into the dark grimy places of addiction with some of his clients he has worked with. And then he juxtaposes his own addiction to Classical Music, with the addictions of his clients. And the startling truth is, you wake up to the fact that this too – could be a matter of life and death. He left his eleven-year-old child stranded in a comic shop for one hour while going off elsewhere to buy music. He was lucky to find his son bemused and still waiting for him an hour later. He left a woman in the hospital while in labor, and ran over a bridge to buy music. He missed the delivery and made excuses to his disappointed patient and colleagues. He spent $8000 in two weeks, and while he never took his life over the debt he was running up, others may have in this situation.

What I’m Obsessing about
Raw Cashew nuts. As my friend Gabor says, Cashew nuts are really tough to eschew. Much easier just to chew.

What I’m Listening to
Listening to Prince EA’s Jim Carrey “Crazy” Behavior Explained!!! Prince EA asks has Jim Carrey Lost His Mind? Or Has he uncovered a truth about the nature of reality? This is my favorite populist creative piece of art on the concept of anatta, non-self. A Buddhist teaching that can help every suffering addict, begin to maintain their abstinence and sobriety of mind.
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What I noticed
While sitting doing my daily meditation to help maintain my abstinence and sobriety of mind, I was confronted with the noise of power tools. After 35 minutes of oscillating between peacefulness and slight frustration. I began to laugh. My thoughts had become louder than any lawn mower I’ve ever heard. It was a subtle reminder that the power tools was not the issue, it was the agitated mind. When I’m triggered, it’s helpful to realize it’s not the trigger that is the issue, it is the stir crazy narratives that arise, in trying to avoid the discomfort of the seeing the trigger, or in my case this morning, trying to avoid the discomfort of the sound I did not want to hear.

Something I’m doing
I will be delivering an online Mindfulness Based Addiction Recovery course during the month of January 2018. For people in recovery and people working in the field of recovery. For more information please email mark@wildmind.org

New Updated Edition of Detox Your Heart – Meditations on Emotional Trauma 2017

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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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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“When the Anger Ogre Visits,” by Andrée Salom

When the Anger Ogre Visits

Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Some weeks ago I read this book with my kids (a six-year-old boy and an almost-eight-year-old girl) several times now, and they enjoyed both the story and the images. But the book became especially relevant recently when my son developed the habit of kicking and punching his sister. That’s a phase a lot of kids go through, but it’s especially worrisome because he’s taking karate classes, and at some point he’s going to be able to do some serious harm.

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So last night, when my son was getting mad, we picked up the book again, and read through it. he wanted to read the book out loud himself, and he was able to do so with only a little help. Daddy was proud!

After he’d finished with the reading we talked about some of the things we can do to calm down our anger when it pays a visit.

  • We can breathe slowly and deeply.
  • We can use our imaginations to picture ourselves floating and relaxing on the sea.
  • We can relax the body.
  • We can listen to the sound of our breathing.

Salom reminds the child that “As you pay attention, the Ogre will change form,” and in fact we see the red, swollen ogre deflating like a balloon and his contorted face dissolving into a smile as he becomes “friendly, gentle, and warm.”

“Next time it comes a-knocking, you’ll know just what to do. Invite the Anger Ogre to relax and breathe with you.

By the time we’d finished reading the book, my son was calm again. Success!

Title: “When the Anger Ogre Visits”
Author: Andrée Salom
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 9781614291664
Publication date: April 2015
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

I’d highly recommend “When the Anger Ogre Visits.” The content is generally very practical, and the illustrations (by Ivette Salom) are colorful and entertaining. The one piece of advice for relating to the Anger Ogre that I think could have been clearer is this:

“If the Anger Ogre is still swollen, tense, and hot,
Offer it some honey of the sweetest kind you’ve got.”

This is a nice image, but we’re left guessing what it actually means. My own guess would be that the child thinks of something positive (perhaps a calm scene or a friendly face) but I’m sure other people will interpret this differently, that some will take the metaphor literally, and that yet others will be confused about what’s being suggested. The rest of the book, though, is crystal clear.

“When the Anger Ogre Visits” was pitched perfectly for my two kids. I’d imagine it would work with children from about three to eight or nine years old.

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ZenFriend: A new meditation timer for iPhone

zen friend meditation app

I’ve recently been trying out a new meditation timer app for iPhone. It’s very nicely designed and has a lot of promise.

The app is called ZenFriend, and it has a very clean and, well, friendly design scheme. The other app I use for timing meditations is the well-known Insight Timer, which I enjoy using, although I don’t like the faux-wood design. Skeuomorphism is so iOS6!

As you’ll see from the first screenshot, there’s a nice blurred-out background image, beautiful typography, and nice clean “buttons” for pausing or ending your sit.

The interface for selecting the length of your sit, whether there are stages, and the kinds of bells used for the start, finish, and intervals (if any) is relatively easy to use. There’s a choice of four bells: one called “outside,” a standard meditation bowl, a Tibetan-style chime, and a Zen-style woodblock. You can create “presets” with your most common combinations of length and number of stages. In case you think the status bar at the top clutters the look, this disappears when the app is running, leaving you with a clean and undistracting screen.

The timer keeps stats that can let you know how many sits and what length of time you’ve meditated in the last 30 days and since you’ve started using the app.

As with the Insight Timer, you can connect with friends and see how many other people are using the timer. ZenFriend isn’t as fully featured in this regard — there’s no map for example — but you can take that simplicity as a lack or as a welcome feature, depending on your taste. Since the app’s new there aren’t as many people using it as you’ll find on the Insight Timer.

You can set the app to remind you to meditate at particular times. This doesn’t have to be the same time every day.

So this is a nice alternative to the Insight Timer, especially if you like simplicity of design. And it’s free on the iTunes store for three days. I’d suggest getting it now and trying it out.

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Tricycle magazine explores ‘dharma drunks’

 Noah Levine - Author of Refuge Recovery - A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction

Last month I asked the question, why another book on recovery? In the summer issue of Tricycle, Joan Duncan Oliver, a contributing editor and the editor of Commit to Sit, an anthology of Tricycle articles, also gives her view on this topic too. Tricycle has kindly let me quote the first few paragraphs while also including a link to the rest of the article.

‘Buddhist practitioners are skewing younger. Add to that growing concern about drug abuse in America, and it’s hardly surprising that the Buddhist recovery field is expanding. Back in 1993, Mel Ash, then a dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Korean Zen and the author of The Zen of Recovery, drew on Buddhist teachings to, as he put it, “provide some insight into alternative ways of approaching the spiritual aspects of the Twelve Step programs.” Over the past decade, other Buddhist teachers and authors—Kevin Griffin, Darren Littlejohn, and “Laura S.” among them—have recast AA’s Twelve Steps in Buddhist terms, integrating the two approaches as a way to treat addiction.

Now two more books are bringing a Buddhist perspective to recovery, but with a twist. Instead of searching for commonalities between the twelve steps and the dharma, these authors go straight to the Buddha’s teachings and practices as the basis for overcoming the suffering of addiction. The twelve steps hover in the background as ever-present, if shadowy informants—how could they not when the AA model is arguably the most successful self-help recovery method to date? But in both of these new books, recovery is grounded in the four noble truths and the eightfold path, without recourse to the twelve steps.

The titles are eerily similar—Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction, and Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction—and both programs stress meditation practice. Beyond that, however, they’re refreshingly dissimilar.’

Read the rest of Tricycle’s review »

“Eight Step Recovery” is out now: Eight Step Recovery – Order your book now

Or try a free sample – For a free sample chapter of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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“The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime,” By Dharmachari Nagaraja

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Three years ago I walked into a bookstore in Vancouver, where I was doing a book launch, and literally the first book spine that caught my eye in the Buddhist book section was called Buddha at Bedtime. As the father of two young children I pulled it from the shelf with excitement, and was astonished to discover it had been written by an old friend of mine from my days in Glasgow.

Of course I got a copy of the book, and it’s been a bedtime fixture in our household ever since. Now comes a much-welcomed sequel, The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime.

As with the first volume, The Buddha’s Apprentice contains adaptations of traditional “Jataka” tales, which are Indian fairy tales that tell of the previous lives of the Buddha. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, in a similar way to the Fables of Aesop, which draw on the same body of folk tales (Indian and Greek cultures have a historical connection).

The stories have been updated in order to make them more accessible, and are no longer presented as the past lives of the Buddha. In a way that’s actually more accurate, since these would have originally been non-Buddhist tales. In fact the Buddha isn’t mentioned in the stories, nor are they all set in India. Although some of the settings are (from a Western point of view) exotic, they quite are multicultural, taking place in locales as disparate as jungles, deserts, the Scottish Highlands, Thailand, and, of course, India.

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The names, unless the stories are explicitly set in a foreign land, are westernized. For example, one story features Rosie (a tough girl, who injures a rabbit), Hazel (who nurses the rabbit), and their teacher Miss Poppy. This makes the experience for both the reader and the average child much easier than struggling though Sanskrit names such as Siddhartha and Devadata. Additionally, in the tale of Rosie and Hazel the genders of the characters have been changed as well, so that we end up with more female protagonists than there are in the traditional tales. Since moral truths are universal, and not dependent on gender, this tweak to the originals is a valuable way of making the stories, and the lessons they contain, accessible to all children.

And as with the first volume, this is a delightful read. The stories are exceptionally well-written and a delight to read out loud. Nagaraja is a skilled storyteller.

The illustrations, by the very talented Sharon Tancredi, are luminously colorful, and the characters exude abundant personality. At first I thought I preferred the illustrations in the original book, but actually these are every bit as good, and in many ways the facial expressions are more “alive” than in the original Buddha At Bedtime. Some of the elements — mainly the monkeys’ faces, and those of some of the other animals — seem a bit child-like for my taste, but on the whole the images are delightful.

My seven-year-old daughter certainly doesn’t find this book too childish, nor did my son, at age four, find it too grown up. I’d guess that a good age-range for The Buddha’s Apprentice would be three to eight.

One thing I was pleased about is that the Buddha, who is illustrated at the end of every tale delivering a brief moral punchline, is now actually the Buddha. In the first book the illustrations were of Budai, who is the fat Chinese monk (often called the “Laughing Buddha”) who you’ll have seen in many a Chinese restaurant. It’s a common thing for westerners to assume that Budai is “the” Buddha (i.e. the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni) even though this is rather like confusing Christ and Santa Claus! As well as being more culturally accurate, the use of the serene and dignified figure of Buddha Shakyamuni seems more proper, and many Buddhist parents will be inclined to take the book just a little more seriously.

The book contains some meditation instructions for children, which I confess I haven’t tried with my own kids. The inclusion of meditation instruction for children gives another good reason for buying this book. There’s just not enough of that kind of material in circulation.

The ultimate reviewers of a book such as this, though, are the children. Mine love it! And I’m sure yours will too. Remember, Christmas is coming!

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“Room to Breathe” — A documentary film about mindfulness in a troubled middle school

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Room to Breathe documentary

Room to Breathe is a documentary about teaching mindfulness to students of the troubled Marina Middle School in San Francisco, which tops its district for disciplinary suspensions, and has overcrowded classrooms creating an environment in which it’s almost impossible for learning to take place. As assistant principal Anthony Braxton explains near the opening of the film, a significant number of students at Marina “don’t do school” — they don’t see school as being for them.

In the class of Seventh Grade teacher Tom Ehnle, we see kids who are unable to stay on task or to pay attention. They seem to be in a constant state of fidgeting, wrestling with each other, carrying on side-conversations, and throwing objects around the room. One time we see one student pursuing another around — and outside of — the classroom while the teacher looks on helplessly. There’s no way of knowing if this is a constant state of affairs, whether we’re seeing edited highlights of bad behavior, or whether the kids were acting up for the camera, but it’s clear that there are behavior issues going on that are serious enough to make learning all but impossible. It seems that a minority of students in the class are unable to focus, and drag the entire class into a state of mayhem.

As Ling Busche, a seventh Grade counselor at the school points out, the students are consumed by the drama of Facebook and the school yard, and the classroom is simply another place to continue those dramas. Some of the drama and disruption goes well beyond the normal “who is going out with whom.” One student, Omar, has lost a brother and a friend to gun violence. We learn such details — and more about the stressful circumstances of the students — as we cut from the classroom to students’ family lives, in particular focusing on four kids — Omar, Lesly, Jacqueline, and Gerardo.

With suspensions, punishments, and other attempts to modify behavior failing, it’s clearly time to try something new at Marina Middle School. So when a therapist suggested going into the classroom to teach meditative strategies to reduce conflict and improve focus, the school jumped at the opportunity.

Megan Cowan, co-founder of an organization called Mindful Schools, arrives in Ehnle’s class to lead 15 brief (20 to 30 minute) sessions of mindfulness. The kids are at first skeptical, and are unable or unwilling to sit still even for a two minute exercise of “mindful posture.”

But mindfulness is just what these students need. As Cowan explains, mindfulness gives impulse control, so that we have more choice over our actions. These students are not, on the whole, able to control themselves at all.

Early on, Cowan is understandably frustrated. She describes her encounter with the students as being like hitting a brick wall. The defiance is deliberate, the disruption too great, the class size (35!) too large. In one incident which is on the trailer but not in the version of the film I saw, she angrily orders a disruptive student from the classroom. She wants to reach the students, but can’t, and doesn’t know where to go next. Even though Mindful Schools’ policy is to keep even the most disruptive kids in the class, since those are the ones who most need mindfulness, it’s clearly not working in this case, and four particularly disruptive students are removed. (It’s not clear what they end up doing instead.)

Almost immediately, it seems, things change in the classroom, although it’s at this point that Cowan does two things: she has the kids take turns leading mindfulness, and she introduces a simple form of self-metta practice (developing lovingkindness for oneself) in the form of repeating phrases like, “I wish for myself to be happy.” I get the sense that this is the first time the kids have thought in this way.

Cowan teaches the students that they are their minds are the biggest influence in their own lives, bringing to mind the Dhammapada verses,

Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.

It’s inspiring to see the students settle down. They become more still during meditation sessions. They spontaneously start to practice mindfulness outside of the classroom. “We were outside in the yard, and then some girl just made me mad. I just felt like pulling her hair out and dropping to the floor and choke her. I used mindfulness to calm down and not do nothing. I’m, like, ‘no’ because there’s consequences for that,” one student recounts.

“You have a tool now that you can use for the rest of your life” is the final message Cowan leaves the class with.

Room to Breathe is an inspiring documentary. It’s all too easy to write off kids like Omar, Lesly, Jacqueline, and Gerardo. It’s all too easy to brand them as being inherently unable to learn or incapable of controlling themselves. It’s all too easy to label kids like this as “bad.” But what they are is kids who have never learned the tools that allow of self-control and impulse control. They have no real freedom.

I can’t help thinking, if mindfulness can work in this school, it can work anywhere.

Room to Breathe was published on September 7, 2012. It is available on DVD from The Video Project, and you can read more about the film at roomtobreathe.com. Screening packages are available for people who want to host their own screenings of Room to Breathe, both to raise awareness about the benefits of mindfulness in the classroom and to begin brainstorming ways to implement mindfulness programs.

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