meditation books

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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Jack Kornfield: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Jack Kornfield, in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” In other words, we put off important things, assuming that we can do them later. But there may not be any “later.” Life is short; make good use of it.

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, but it’s not something he said. It’s Jack Kornfield’s adaptation of something from Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan in his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” where the shaman says:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change?

The resemblance isn’t coincidental — Jack makes reference to this quote in one of his talks.

Recognizing that our time here is brief can help us appreciate life and see what the important things are. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how, in the light of that, it’s important that we take responsibility for our lives.

Life is short; make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But if you really take on board how brief our time here is, you’re also forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable. And for most of us that’s loving, being loved, and living meaningfully. “Fun” comes much further down the list. Love and meaning, it turns out, are more fun than fun itself.

Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique. Being aware that the breath you’re taking right now will never come again makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, try noticing how each moment is unique. That moment, and that moment, and that moment—each one flits by. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

Think about those around you, about those close to you, about those you’re connected to with ties of blood or love. Think about those who barely register in your attention, and about those you don’t like. Every one of them is going to die. And you’re going to die.

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Life is unpredictable. When you’re with someone, you have no idea if you’ll ever see each other again. Everyone you see today—this may your last encounter. And maybe you should behave as if it was. What last impression, what last words, would you like them to have of you, should either of you die tomorrow?

As I often say, “Life is short; be kind“.

Try adopting as a mantra, “We may never meet again.” Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. Let yourself feel affection. Let yourself appreciate others’ basic goodness. Let your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to find happiness in a world where true happiness is rare. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love: Now.

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“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.

See also my own online course on self-compassion, starting Nov 1, 2017. It’s never too early to register!

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“Don’t Be A Jerk,” by Brad Warner

“Don’t Be A Jerk” is a kind of summary-plus-commentary on the 13th century Japanese Zen teacher Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, or “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” If that statement has you yawning, then let me add that it’s written by Brad Warner, who is a witty, engaging, and quirky author. “Don’t Be A Jerk” is stimulating, informative, and entertaining.

But let’s start with why this book is necessary.

First, Dōgen is a spiritual/philosophical genius. Just recently, on National Public Radio’s website, Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” described Dōgen as “the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of,” and argued that he should be ranked in the pantheon alongside Heidegger and Husserl. But you may have come across his name before without realizing it, since there was a character named after him on the cult TV show “Lost.”

Second, Dōgen’s masterwork, the aforementioned Shōbōgenzō, is humungous, often difficult to translate, and sometimes difficult to read. This is one of the reasons why I’ve only ever dipped into it, despite finding it fascinating.

Brad Warner’s task has been to make the Shōbōgenzō more accessible, by condensing and paraphrasing its teachings in a more easily digested form, along the lines of Mark Russell’s “God Is Disappointed In You,” which is a summary of the Bible.

Brad Warner strikes me as a good person to undertake this task. He loves the Shōbōgenzō and has been steeped in it, both as a text and as a guide to his own spiritual practice, for decades. He has a good sense of what people need to know in terms of practice. For the most part he writes well, and always entertainingly. The very title, with its colorful use of the word “jerk,” gives a sense of his playfulness. There are also plenty of pop-culture references to Twinkies, Star Wars, Dustin Hoffman, etc. Dōgen’s insulting terms for people with inferior spiritual understanding are rendered as dimwits, jackasses, dumb-bums, bullshitters, etc. This makes “Don’t Be A Jerk” a fun read.

As far as I can tell (not being well-versed in Dōgen’s writing), Warner has done a good job. He provides context for Dōgen’s teachings in the introductory parts of the chapters, and in the chapter conclusions he presents his own understanding of them. He often shows us what actually Dōgen said (or what various people think he said — sometimes he’s hard to fathom him) so that you know what the 13th century Japanese original of “beer and doritos” is, for example. Many times he gives the Japanese characters, and a word-by-word translation.

Often Warner gives little biographical accounts of his own history with the text. So you learn a bit about the author, and various scholars and practitioners he’s encountered over the years. There’s also some history given of the text — not just how Dōgen came to write it, but how it’s been regarded in Japan (at one time it was banned!) and how it’s come to be translated into English.

I learned a lot about Dōgen’s teachings from “Don’t Be A Jerk.” The Dharmic content is very varied because Dōgen’s writings are varied. He wrote the 95 chapters of the Shōbōgenzō over a long period of time, and for differing audiences. Sometimes he deals with the minutiae of monastic behavior, so that there’s a chapter on “Zen and the Art of Wiping Your Butt” (literally this is about going to the toilet as a spiritual practice) and another on monastic rules. Sometimes he deals with social issues like women’s equality (“Was Dōgen the First Buddhist Feminist”). And many of the chapters, of course, deal with deep spiritual issues, like how you’re already enlightened but aren’t really, and how time and existence are inseparable.

You’ll probably have picked up that I’m a fan of this book. It’s spiritually and philosophically interesting to read, and it’s also fun. Many people might well read it, and then go off and try their hand at understanding the Shōbōgenzō. Others may think, “OK, I know a bit about Dōgen now,” and that’s fine too.

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Creating a natural anti-depressant brain?

uncovering-happinessI haven’t read the book I’m about to introduce, but I’m familiar with the author and the advance information about it makes it sound interesting.

Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion is written by psychologist and bestselling author Elisha Goldstein, PhD. It shows us the science of natural anti-depressants and gives us the practices to unlock them, building new neural structures to uncover genuine happiness.

Hardcover: Barnes & Noble, Book Passage, Indie Bound, Powell’s, Simon & Schuster.

eBook: iBooks, Nook, Simon & Schuster, Google Play Store.

We now know that we can use our minds to change our brains, but Dr. Goldstein’s Uncovering Happiness reveals techniques that help us break our negative habit loops and release these five natural anti-depressants in the brain: mindfulness, self-compassion, purpose, play and developing confidence—ultimately creating a natural anti-depressant brain.

The book integrates the findings of hundreds of academic studies and dozens of interviews with mindfulness teachers, psychologists, neuroscientists and researchers. There are also stories of many people who have used these teachings to find their personal pathway to healing.

This book contains a message of hope: Having experienced bouts of anxiety, depression or being just down in the dumps doesn’t mean you have to suffer from it in the future. As Goldstein says, “Science and thousands of people’s experience are showing that these seven simple elements can help us take back control of our minds, our moods and our lives.”

The book comes out on January 27th. You can pre-order a copy and receive the free bonus of Dr. Goldstein’s “Uncovering Happiness Training” – A 90 Minute presentation that take you step-by-step through the elements of Uncovering Happiness, by visiting the author’s site.

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“When the Anger Ogre Visits,” by Andrée Salom

anger ogreSome 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.

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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“The Zen Programmer” by Christian Grobmeier

zenprogrammerPerhaps you are a programmer, or you work in the software industry. If you are reading this blog, it’s pretty sure that you have some interest in meditation or buddhism. If these statements are true for you, then it’s also quite likely that you’ve heard of Christian Grobmeier, his blog, and his 10 Rules of Zen Programming. His book The Zen Programmer, which has grown out of his programming, his blog and his practice, is a personal story of burnout and recovery. It describes the kind of mistakes we can make in our programming careers, their consequences, and how we can find a new way of doing our jobs that does not require us to pay with our peace of mind.

This is not a very polished book from a stylistic point of view. The English can be a little quirky as the writer is a fluent but non-native speaker. I personally enjoyed hearing Grobmeier’s German cadences coming through the pages. The unexpected turns of phrase can even act as mindfulness bells to the reader. But for all that, the book does flow. It has direction and it engages from start to finish. All this without losing its sense of being a collection of blog entries. In part this is down to Grobmeier’s unpretentious language and his straightforward message. I imagine his writing technique is informed by the famously sparse nature of Zen aesthetics.

It will raise a smirk, or perhaps roll some eyes, to suggest that programmers live a dangerous life! We don’t fight fires (at least not real ones) or deal with armed sociopaths every day (though perhaps a few unarmed ones). But every occupation has its hazards, and software development is no different. Programmers work in abstractions. Not the standard everyday abstractions that we all lean on to navigate this world – but another layer again. In order to code, we push abstractions beyond a point that is normal, healthy and useful in everyday life. And because we do it all day every day, we are in danger of living further away from direct experience than most people. Grobmeier points out the various stresses and strains involved in working at the software coalface every day. Although most or all of them are common to other professions, he frames them in a way that software developers can recognise. And then he explains how these factors can lead to burnout.

After a few introductory chapters explaining what the author means by Zen Programming, the body of the book contains a great number of sections with high-minded titles but very practical content. Titles like Egoless Programming, You Cannot Separate Your Mind from Your Body and Karma Code might seem to indicate self-indulgent philosophical conjecture, but instead each of these headings is followed by some very simple advice that can be put into practice by anyone. Egoless Programming, for example, points out the difficulties of doing code reviews, and points out how much easier and more enjoyable this process would be if we could avoid identifying ourselves with the code we produce.  Karma Code points out the dangers of hiring ‘brilliant jerks’ – something every developer (except perhaps ‘brilliant jerks’!) can relate to.

The book closes with a section that reiterates Grobmeier’s original post on the 10 Rule of a Zen Programmer. The ‘rules’ combine productivity advice of the kind you will find elsewhere (Focus, Keep a Clear Mind), tips on how to stay mentally healthy when practicing software development (There Is No Career Goal, There is No Boss) and some salutary warnings on how not to be a pain in the ass for your colleagues (Shut Up, There Is Nothing Special). Each one has value and they complement and balance each other nicely.

Zen Programming can be practiced without becoming a buddhist, or learning the bamboo flute, as the rules stand up to secular scrutiny and are accessible. I believe that the more developers who grasp Grobmeier’s message and put it into action, the happier and more productive our work environments will become. And for this reason, among others, I recommend this book.

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Sweet Nirvāna!

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 7.26.08 PM

I found this sweet hymn in a book by Paul Carus, called Sacred Tunes for the Consecration of Life: Hymns of the Religion of Science. Carus (18 July 1852 – 11 February 1919) was an early German-American translator, compiler, and popularizer of Buddhist texts.

Carus seems to have been fond of hymns, since he published an entire book of settings of Buddhist texts. This is available online, courtesy of archive.org.

Unfortunately my sight-reading skills have atrophied through decades of disuse, and I’m only able to guess at what the tune is.

Here is the rest of the song.

Sweet Nirvāna,
Highest Jhāna!
Rupture sweeter than all pleasures,
Thou the measure of all measures,
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirvāna,
Highest Jhāna!
Balm that all our ailments curest.
Thou alone for aye endurest!
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirvāna,
Highest Jhāna!
State where thoughts are truest, purest;
Where our wisdom is maturest,
And our hearts in love securest,
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirvāna,
Highest Jhāna!
Of all jewels thou the rarest,
Him thou fill’st with radiance fairest,
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirvāna,
Highest Jhāna!
Overcome all selfish clinging,
Let love’s harmonies be ringing,
While all join the chorus, singing:
O, immortal Buddhahood!

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