celebrities

Labyrinths, meditation apps, and a not-so-rolling Stone

You’ve heard of meditation labyrinths, where people mindfully walk along complex pathways. These are increasing in popularity, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which says there are now more than 1000 labyrinths across the US, including at least 170 in hospitals. Somewhat less mainstream are meditation pyramids, which apparently help us retrieve “positive cosmic energy.” I’m skeptical. On the other hand the meditation pond being built by students from the University of Tampa sounds like a lovely idea.

If you go to the meditation pond you may wish to leave your iPhone behind, but if you do take it there’s been a whole bunch of recent news stories about meditation apps, including a Mental Workout, a Zen Timer, and meditations to help you Build Confidence.

If you decide to take your meditation a bit further, and head to a temple in, say, Laos, you might find yourself bumping zabutons with none other than Mick Jagger, if the UK tabloid The Sun’s report is true. The Sun claims that Sir Mick has been sneaking off to the city of Luang Prabang, where he has been spending time with monks. Of course the Sun does not have a reputation for the most accurate reporting. Wikipedia in fact has an entire section of an article devoted to the Sun’s inventions. But it’s nice to think that Jagger might get some satisfaction from sitting.

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Footballers’ wives, prime ministers, lawsuits, and spiritual meditation

Every so often a new celebrity turns to meditation in a time of crisis. It’s Cheryl Cole’s turn apparently, according to numerous news sources, who all appear to be recycling an interview in Vogue. Now Magazine, for example, quotes Cole as saying:

‘Recently I’ve been trying meditation,’ she tells Vogue, ‘but I can’t really seem to get it. My mother does it, and I really think that actually may be the way forward for me, but the thoughts keep coming in. Always. How do you stop them coming in?’

It’s a common problem.

Who is Cheryl Cole? Apparently she’s married to a football player and has been on TV. We’ve never heard of her, but wish her well, and hope she sticks at her practice in the same way Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has. He’s quoted as saying:

I started [meditation] about two, three years ago when Ng Kok Song, the Chief Investment Officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, I knew he was doing meditation. His wife had died but he was completely serene. So, I said, how do you achieve this? He said I meditate everyday and so did my wife and when she was dying of cancer, she was totally serene because she meditated everyday and he gave me a video of her in her last few weeks completely composed completely relaxed and she and him had been meditating for years. Well, I said to him, you teach me.

The meditation practice Lee Kuan Yew was taught is a form of Christian Mantra (maranatha).

With all this interest brewing, you’d think meditation would be welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately the Justice Department has had to file suit against the town of Walnut, California, because of the town’s six-year long obstruction of the building of a Zen Center over technicalities, while it simultaneously allowed other religious and secular groups to go ahead with building projects, overriding the same technicalities.

Meanwhile, Ed Halliwell in The Guardian gives a much-needed reminder that meditation is not just a “therapy” to help us deal with traumatic emotional events or to promote health. He notes that he has “become more content because meditation has enriched [his] life through opening [him] up to a sense of deepened meaning.” He doesn’t disparage the more secular applications of meditation. In fact he has written about them extensively, and he rightly sees them as a “way in” to a more spiritual perspective: “While some people may be drawn to practise through the scientific promise of betterment, they may end up finding that once they’ve got started, the path is far more interesting than that.”

Let’s ask Cheryl Cole in a few years…

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Taking your practice on to the streets

The image of meditators remaining aloof from the world, caught up in examining the metaphorical fluff in their mental bellybuttons, still lingers on despite the fact that many practitioners are deeply involved in social actions like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, teaching prison inmates, and working to solve environmental issues.

Hopefully the first-ever Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, organized by the Zen Peacemakers, will help put the myth of the disengaged meditator to rest, especially since the event’s speakers include some big names from the world of Buddhism (and beyond).

Starting Monday, Aug. 9 through Saturday, Aug. 14, influential pioneers of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism will speak and engage conversations about Social Entrepreneurship, Politics, Challenges for Socially Engaged Buddhism and more. Speakers include Academy Award-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Peter Matthiessen.

“It is a rare opportunity for so many caring and thoughtful individuals to come together to inspire and support each other in our pursuit to help neglected communities,” said Joe Sibilia, CSRwire CEO and Symposium presenter. “We will be discussing volunteerism, the arts, justice and activism, and how our actions can positively impact the world and those around us.”

Other event presentations will be given by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard; Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher and Zen priest; Bernie Glassman, Zen Master and Zen Peacemakers founder; and more.

For a complete list of presenters and to register, please visit Zen Peacemakers.

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Lindsay Lohan ‘turns to Buddhism’

Lindsay Lohan is reportedly turning to Buddhism to get her through her spell in prison.

The 24-year-old actress was recently sentenced to 90 days in jail for violating the terms of her probation and it is claimed she is taking to the religion to help her get through the ordeal.

A source said to UK newspaper Daily Star: ‘Lindsay’s been fascinated in the Buddhist faith for a while, as several of her inner circle follow the teachings of Buddhism.

‘Lindsay’s devastated about the jail sentence, she has been crying non-stop. She’s been told to seek spiritual guidance and find her inner peace. She’s decided to study the art of meditation so she can stay calm through breathing techniques while she’s in jail.’

[via Monsters & Critics]
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Goldie Hawn: ‘I’m a dreamer, someone who wishes the best for mankind’

There are certain people you expect to talk about with Goldie Hawn: Kurt Russell, her partner of more than 25 years; Kate Hudson, her identikit actress daughter. But Michael Gove, the Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath and Secretary of State for Education? Michael Gove, the man who looks as if he has just been pulled out of a sheep by Kate Humble in an episode of Lambing Live? Yes. Goldie Hawn, Oscar-winning actress, Hollywood producer, America’s sweetheart, is talking about that Michael Gove.

I don’t know. It’s hot outside – perhaps I have sun stroke. Or maybe there has been a rip in the space time continuum, and somewhere, Jennifer Aniston is spouting forth her views on Danny Alexander and Vince Cable. No, no. Actually, Hawn is keen to set the record straight on a strange story that appeared just before the general election.

The actress, who is described as a Jewish-Buddhist, runs the Hawn Foundation, an educational charity that teaches American children mindfulness and breathing exercises to boost their learning ability. And in an interview in February, Gove announced that the Tories were in talks with her to adopt the practice in the UK.

“I never met him,” she says, shaking her trademark white blonde tousled hair. “I’ll tell you exactly what I did. I had a meeting with an aide of his, I’ve forgotten his name, in some lobby at one of the Parliament buildings down there, by the river you know? Anyway, I came in and sat down with this man, just in the place where you get the coffee from the vending machine, and I spoke to him about the programme, and that was it. I never met Michael Gove.”

Was she, perhaps, a little irritated by the story? “Yes because they [the press] were wrong. When you don’t check facts and you use it for other purposes, you’re abusing something that is actually quite wonderful… So yes, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.” She says firmly that she hasn’t heard from the Tories since. Does she think she fell prey to political spinning? “I have no idea,” she says with a sweet, knowing smile. “I mean, you could draw a conclusion…”

Anyway, I do like the idea of Goldie Hawn drinking vending-machine coffee in one of the House of Commons canteens – perhaps her experience in Private Benjamin helped prepare her for such miserable conditions. She met blinking Ed Balls, too. Did she like him? “Yeah,” she says dispassionately, before adding that “I mean, I was only there for a short period. I had a nice conversation with him.” She doesn’t seem bowled over to me. I wonder if he asked for her autograph. “No!” And out comes that wonderful Goldie Hawn giggle.

Hawn only arrived a couple of hours earlier from Greece, where she has been holidaying with Kurt and Kate and various other family members. She says that she is sleepy, that she was up late last night, but one gets the sense that Hawn’s sleepy is a lesser person’s perky.

“Oh, OK, so wooow,” she says immediately. “Last night, we had dinner on the boat of this big shipping guy, he’s fat and he’s Jewish, and his father’s Greek and his mother’s French, and brrrr, can you imagine?! The most wonderful mix! I’m obviously disciplined and was like ‘well, I’m going at 11’, but we had so much fun we didn’t get to bed until 2.30am.”

We meet in the Royal Suite of the Ritz Hotel. Hawn turns 65 this November but as we are given a tour of the giant oval bedroom, the dressing room and the study, she radiates an almost childlike wonder. Dressed in loose linen trousers, a vest and flip-flops, she settles her teeny-tiny body on a giant sofa in the drawing room, tucking her feet underneath her in the lotus position. Is she going to start the interview with some meditation (she does a lot of that)? Is she going to answer me in ohms? I shift in a giant armchair. “Honey,” she spreads her arms out, and surveys the drawing room. “I just love your house.”

Goldie Hawn is just as you would expect her: warm, bubbly, doling out “sweeties” as if the word were going out of fashion, a natural comedienne as witnessed in such films as The First Wives Club and Death Becomes Her. She is that rare thing in Hollywood: a woman nobody would ever dare bitch about. Females want to be her, men want to be with her. I try and think of people as universally lovely – or as loved – as Hawn and can come up only with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and when they were alive, Mother Theresa and Diana, Princess of Wales. Simperingly, I tell her this. “OH. MY. GOD” she squeals, giggling as she goes.

I suppose the best (and less over-the-top) comparison would be Joanna Lumley, or America’s version thereof, right down to the tireless campaigning for worthwhile causes.

She is in London as guest of honour at an event hosted by the conservationist Mark Shand, whose charity The Elephant Family raises money for the endangered Asian pachyderm. For the last two months, Londoners have been admiring 258 elephant sculptures dotted around the capital – they have been designed by artists as diverse as Marc Quinn and Jack Vettriano. Hawn, who sponsored an appropriately gold elephant, has jetted in to see them auctioned off.

“I’m not an animal-crazy person, you know.” It’s as if she wants to make clear the fact she hasn’t turned into some crazy Brigitte Bardot figure. “I don’t have a house full of cats. But animals, children, elderly people… that’s my level of empathy.”

She visits India regularly. (In 2006 she published a book with the terribly spiritual title A Lotus Grows in the Mud. It was full of life advice and was based on her journey from Washington suburbia to the Hollywood Hills, where she picked up a best supporting actress Oscar for Cactus Flower). Anyway, on one of these visits she encountered a blind elephant and her calf, who acted as its mother’s eyes, an experience that Hawn describes as “profound” and “absolutely honest”, and that moved her to tears.

Hawn explains that as humans take elephant habitats, herds break down “and when that society is breaking down, we can only look at our own, and say ‘they are behaving no differently [from us], they are angry, they’re irrational, they’re throwing tantrums’.” From another Hollywood celebrity this would be enough to make you vomit up a bucketful of cynicism, but Hawn is so sincere that her sentiment is infectious and to mock it would just be wrong.

She talks about the Hawn Foundation, and explains the MindUp programme that she briefly discussed with Ed Balls, and last month, Jamie Oliver, who is helping her to establish the project in several British schools. “It teaches children how their minds work, it teaches them to recognise stress, and when they do, it gives them tools for how to deal with stress. All of this is wrapped around the curriculum, so in other words, it doesn’t take time from the academics.”

“And we have done tests that show there was better attendance, that their aggression went down in the playground, that their optimism went up to 63 per cent…” How, exactly, does one measure optimism, I ask. “It’s been done by neuroscientists and researchers from the University of British Columbia,” she says sharply. “People who have been doing this for 30 years…” It’s the only time she is short; it is a hint of the steeliness that must have kept her afloat during her 40 year career.

Would she call herself an actress, or a philanthropist? “I’m a humanitarian. I’m a dreamer, someone who wishes the best for mankind.” I ask her what someone would have to do to make her angry. “I get angry at lies, and I get angry at ill-intended people. I think the thing that thrills me the most in life, aside from seeing a happy child giggle, is human spirit.”

Hawn may sound like a Miss World contestant, but so what? She is genuine, which is all that matters, and I think, however simpering this might sound, that the planet would be a much better place were there more people like Goldie Hawn in it.

“I do have a side that is contemplative,” she says, at the end, stretching her legs out. “When I was younger I was this sort of ditzy young comedienne, and people loved to see me laugh, and when I wasn’t they would say to me ‘oh come on Goldie, smile!’ I used to say to them, ‘well, give me a reason to smile’. Because I do get sad, and I do get hurt, and I do get let down, and I do care.” On the last point, I am left in no doubt.

[via The Telegraph]
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Buddhism in education

Buddhist meditation is justified in schools by its practical benefits. But there’s more to it than that.

As faith schooling from various traditions continues to grab headlines, the prospect of a specifically Buddhist education hasn’t been much mooted. School-based practices inspired by Buddhism, on the other hand, are starting to gain momentum. Last weekend, Goldie Hawn was enthusing about the British launch of her meditation in schools programme, while, on a slightly lower key note, mindfulness teaching has already been introduced in several private institutions – Wellington College and Tonbridge School among them. There are also initiatives to introduce meditation in the state sector, under the guidance of psychologists such as Mark Williams in Oxford.

It’s been said that Buddhism will establish itself in the west as a psychology rather than a religion, and that seems to be the case here – many of those introducing meditation to schools wouldn’t identify as Buddhists. And the rationale has been mostly scientific – among other benefits, meditation has been shown to foster attention skills, reduce aggression, and increase pro-social behaviour and relational abilities (among children and adults), as well as protecting against anxiety and depression.

That the practices have been presented in this positivist way is skilful – the prospect of teaching kids to pay attention is far more likely to spark educators’ interest than suggesting, hippie-style, that meditation will connect them to a deeper understanding of experience. But are the two claims really that different? A deeper understanding of experience doesn’t have to mean contacting an other-worldly state that reveals the secrets of the universe – in the context of meditation, it’s more likely to involve developing a here-and-now investigation of thoughts, feelings and events, and recognising how they interconnect to create our perception of the world.

The risk of presenting meditation purely in “here’s what you get out of it” terms is that it can come to seem like a technique for self-improvement, or self-control, when actually it is about self-letting-go, a deep dissembling from which a new understanding can come. Rather than offering a promise of betterment, or a false confidence based on faith, meditation can be a way of teaching doubt – the kind of creative uncertainty that can be a useful container for learning. By taking a different perspective on experience – watching it mindfully for a while, rather than getting so caught up in it, we can become more attuned to how our attitudes colour our world, and how the way we see things aren’t the way they necessarily are.

This isn’t quite the kind of scepticism that Richard Dawkins has suggested might be the kernel of an atheist schooling – as Andrew Brown has pointed out, the unspoken premise there is that doubt is taught according to a set of given rules, with an implicit discrediting of ideas which can’t – at least for now – be demonstrated. Instead, it’s more radical – a method for becoming more alive to our ever-changing experience (intellect, emotion, body sensation, event perception), and developing an understanding that to treat one element (or one moment,) as the arbiter of truth is to fixate and judge in a way that limits our view.

It’s the kind of wisdom that Socrates spoke of when he said that while he knew nothing, he knew something from not-knowing. Similarly, by investigating in a meditative way, we might get a little closer to recognising how our preconceptions afflict us. It’s an approach that might not just mean fewer fights in the playground, but the spread of a humility that underpins our continued search for answers – we can accept that it’s a struggle even to formulate good questions.

There wouldn’t be anything explicitly or exclusively Buddhist about such an education, and nor should there be (as Ajan Amaro says: “If you think you really are a Buddhist, you are totally lost!”). But it would honour the spirit of open-minded, fully-embodied inquiry that the Buddhist tradition at its best can offer.

[Ed Halliwell, The Guardian]
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The triumph of Tibetan Buddhism

On the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday, Tibetan Buddhism continues to spread, despite myth-making and scandals

In the spring of 1970 I was granted an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence in Mcleod Ganj in the Indian Himalayas. He was 35 at the time and had not yet visited the West. He greeted me with a huge smile and warm handshake – forestalling my attempt at traditional Tibetan prostrations.

In the conversation that followed, he seemed almost naively keen to hear about my life, my interests and why I had decided to study Tibetan Buddhism in India and Nepal. He was enthusiastic, bordering on boisterous and showed no sign of the gravitas that developed later – when he matured into his present status as an elder statesman and custodian of the moral high ground.

I fell under the spell of his charm at my first and later meetings and became a pioneer member of the Dalai Lama fan club. I was also inspired by the lamas I met in Kathmandu and the ones who welcomed me into the fold in McLeod Ganj.

Accounts of the magic and mystery of pre-Chinese Tibet by authors like Alexandra David Neel, Lama Govinda and W.Y Evans Wentz were essential reading on the 60s and 70s hippie trail and I was one of many travellers from the developed world who were enchanted by stories about the yogi-lamas. We learned that they could walk at superhuman speeds over huge distances, for example, or survive at sub-zero temperatures by generating inner heat or at the moment of death, direct their consciousness out through the fontanelle.

We learned about the wonders of Tibetan culture – the songs, poetry and exquisite visual art – all of it rooted in an ancient Buddhist tradition. We studied the scriptures, the history books and the lives of the great sages. We realised that an entire society was organised to enable as many people as possible to live as dedicated spiritual practitioners.

We took the stories home with us and told them to our friends, relatives – anyone who would listen. Tibetan whispers spread across the globe. In San Francisco, Sydney, Auckland and all over Europe, small pockets of interest in all things Tibetan started to extend into the wider population. People set up Tibetan centres and invited lamas to come to live and teach in them.

In parallel with a fascination with the myths and legends of old Tibet, I was learning, very slowly, to meditate. Samye Ling, in the Scottish borders, was the first Tibetan meditation centre in the West and for several years I spent my free time there – commuting by overnight train from London to Lockerbie. It was hard work.

I soon discovered that Tibetan Buddhism is not all deities floating on lotus blossoms, tinkling bells and cedarwood incense. On the meditation cushion, I endured knee agony, extreme boredom and oscillations between elation and despair until I finally understood why Buddhism is known as a “science of the mind.” As my struggles gave way to what the lama Trungpa Rinpoche describes as “cool boredom” – the depth and breadth of Tibetan Buddhist experience opened up for me and practice became a firm commitment.

In the early 1970s there were roughly a dozen Tibetan meditation centres worldwide. Today there is hardly a city or a medium-size town in the developed world that does not have at least one. A Google search on Tibetan Buddhism shows 1,600,000 results. This popularity pivots partly on show business chic, with outspoken enthusiasm from celebrities like Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, John Cleese and Joanna Lumley. It also resides in the saintly image of the Dalai Lama and his steadfast refusal to endorse violence against the Chinese occupation of his homeland. But I believe the primary factor is that most Tibetan lamas are very good at teaching meditation.

The bubble burst in 1994 when the lama Sogyal Rinpoche was sued for sexual harassment by an American woman known as Janice Doe. The lawsuit was settled out of court, but it triggered an avalanche of revelations on the internet about sexual and financial misconduct by Tibetan lamas. Some of them were lunatic fringe, but many were intelligent, reflective and soberly factual.

I followed these developments with a growing sense of disillusionment. My Shangri-La version of old Tibet crumbled with the realisation that alongside the focus on spirituality, the Tibetan social order was top-down hierarchical, xenophobic, feudal and in many instances ruthless and cruel. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th in a line of reincarnations. Several of his predecessors were murdered while still young, by regents determined to hang on to power. It also became clear to me that the lamas I respected as Buddhist teachers were medieval in their attitudes towards women.

So has this awareness of the dark side driven me away from Tibetan Buddhism? I went through a period of doubt and re-appraisal, took up Hatha Yoga and became an enthusiastic practitioner. But I see no contradiction between Buddhism and acknowledgement of an imperfect world – so I now benefit from two effective mind-body disciplines.

I wish The Dalai Lama many more years of healthy life. He has acquired unique status on the world stage as the man who loves everyone – and many people nowadays accept that the joy on his face originates from a genuinely open heart.

[Mary Finnigan, The Guardian]
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Julia Roberts’ new film inspires meditation tours to India

Julia Roberts much-anticipated new movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has inspired tour planners to offer a package that gives travellers a chance to dine in Italy, meditate in India and fall in love with Bali.

Roberts recreates author Elizabeth Gilbert’s year-long cultural and spiritual trip to India, Italy and Bali in the movie. And the film has inspired a large number of merchandise, which includes tie-in items from furnishings to jewellery.

Producers have given various companies rights to link new products to the film, which will release in August, reports the Daily Express.

Bosses at STA Tours will soon be offering the ‘Eat, Pray, Love Experience’ – the chance to dine in Italy, meditate in India and fall in love with Bali.

US chain Cost Plus will offer exclusive furnishings, replicas of those featured in the film, Dogeared jewellers are offering ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ bracelets and necklaces inspired by the film.

[via Indian Express]
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Russell Simmons: Green juice and twitter prayer

Russell Simmons, 52, hip-hop pioneer and founder of Rush Communications, helped bring the rhymes of Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys to the masses as a partner in Def Jam Recordings. He injected his hip-hop sensibility into clothing with Phat Fashions and moved into television with “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam.” Mr. Simmons recently created GlobalGrind.com, a Web site for the hip-hop community. A native of Queens, he has since migrated to a penthouse in Lower Manhattan.

MORNING MEDITATION I usually wake up about 7 on Sunday. I take a steam and a shower and I meditate. Some mornings at 8, the monk comes by. I call him the monk. He’s a T.M. (transcendental meditation) teacher, Bob Roth. He’s renunciative. We meditate, at least 20 minutes.

IN FRONT OF AN ALTAR? My crib, the whole thing’s an altar.

COMPUTER TIME I play on the computer and see what headlines we have up on Global Grind. We don’t do anything negative on there. If I see something negative, I pull it down immediately.

BIKE OR STROLL For breakfast, I have a shake. My nanny — I call her that, the woman who takes care of the house — makes it. I go bike riding up the West Side Highway. I go up to the 50s, then down past the World Trade Center, then go back up a bit to Liberty Street. It’s not exercise. I go slow. I have a little toy bike, a girl’s bike. It’s not a racing bike. I ain’t racing nowhere. Or I walk aimlessly around SoHo, looking at art, the people, stop at Cipriani, Da Silvano, Liquiteria, where I have the shake and have a green juice or two. I bump into 100 people.

CHANTING AND SWEATING I go to Jivamukti. Sunday I can pick what class I can go to. I’m free. There is a lot of chanting and praying and sweating like a slave. With Jivamukti, the teachers have studied the texts of yoga, the psychology, the anatomy; they have studied Sanskrit. They do chanting and discussions every month. They do the yamas, the social law, and teach the asanas, all eight parts of classical yoga.

VEGAN, MOSTLY I became a vegan about 10 years ago. Every so often I have fish when nobody is looking. I try not to. I do it for compassionate reasons. I don’t want to put anything in my body to obstruct justice. If I wanted, I could drink Coca-Cola. I just don’t want to. It tastes toxic.

MOVIES, IN OR OUT After yoga, I see a movie or something. I have a movie theater or I go to the movies. Michael Moore recommended one to me recently on Iraq, with Matt Damon. “Green Zone.” It was a thousand times better than “The Hurt Locker.” It was amazing. Everyone in the theater was going crazy. “Death at a Funeral.” It was so funny. “Hot Tub Time Machine.” It was really silly. I like those.

COMPANY CALLS It’s nice to have people come over. I’m not a big dinner kind of person. I like small stuff. We have popcorn and stuff. Vegan pizza from Viva Herbal Pizzeria. They have a veggie-based cheese. It’s not rice or soy cheese. It melts like crazy and it’s amazing. On 11th Street and Second Avenue.

TWEET PRAYERS, THEN TO BED I put on those striped Gap pajamas. They are like seersucker-looking things. I play around with the Bhagavad-Gita. I tweet a lot of prayer, quotes from the Bhagavad-Gita or the yoga sutras. I’m in bed by 12, if I’m lucky.

[via New York Times]
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Harlem renaissance

Russell Simmons has a knack for bringing underground urban culture into the mainstream. During the mid-1980s, as co-founder of the Def Jam record label, he helped launch the first hip hop megastars–LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and The Beastie Boys. A few years later, he created the clothing label Phat Farm, turning street wear into runway fashion. His Def Poetry television series brought local slam poets into the national spotlight on HBO.

Along the way, Simmons has been helping everyday urban residents make their voices heard through the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, an organization that teaches inner city youth about financial credit and political involvement. Last August, Simmons turned his attention to homeless men in Harlem, a particularly invisible and powerless population. But instead of teaching these men how to speak out or take action, Simmons offered them inner peace through Transcendental Meditation.

“You’re alive for a simple reason, and that’s to be happy,” Simmons told a rapt audience at Ready, Willing, and Able, a program that helps homeless men find jobs and housing. The program recently added meditation to its toolbox, through funding from the David Lynch Foundation, and brought Simmons in to help inspire the men to learn. Simmons himself has been meditating for years, and he told The Atlantic about his efforts to bring stillness to New York City’s most restless population.

Meditation doesn’t seem to be a basic need like food or shelter. Why should homeless men learn to meditate?

Well, food and shelter are pretty good, too. But right up there with food and shelter is peace of mind. There are many roads to peace of mind. But some roads have so much proof that you know you’re definitely on your way. Transcendental Meditation has really got so much research, so many examples, so many people who have become calmer and more peaceful–even enlightened. It’s hard to get around how valuable meditation can be.

How is meditation different from religious faith? I’d imagine a lot of these men grew up with prayer in their lives.

Praying can be a good aid to promoting presence, but praying for something you don’t have doesn’t always create stillness. In the Yoga Sutras, it says Yogash chita vritti nirodha [“Meditation is the individual discipline that leads to the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”]. You can go to church and listen to a preacher who will remind you that Jesus Christ said to be still. Consciousness comes from lots of different sources.

But when you meditate, the noise is gone and there’s only bliss. Pure happiness. Look, it’s all good. But when people say meditation is a direct route, I believe they’ve got something. My own meditation is the best part of my day, like a mini-vacation. People fly away somewhere on vacation and they drink and create more stress. I sit in my room and release lots of stress. I like that better.

When you spoke to the men at Ready, Willing, and Able, you emphasized the importance of happiness. Why do homeless people need to hear this message?

Because these are people who have been made to feel that they’re less than, or their chances for happiness should be less than. They’re never going to change their situation until they find happiness within. I believe that happy, hard-working, spiritual people are really attractive and draw good things toward themselves.

What do you think causes homelessness in the first place?

I can’t give a simple answer to that. But it’s certainly the poverty mindset that is the greatest problem for so many homeless people. Meditation gives you a rich mindset, a mindset that makes you happy with what you have. There can be a happy person living in a shanty house. Even if he has nothing, inside he feels like he has everything.

And there can be an unhappy person living in a penthouse. The other day, I spoke to a billionaire’s son who’s running a big company. He told me he goes to India and sees all that poverty and feels guilty that he’s so rich and so unhappy. He really thinks that ’cause he got shit he should be happy! I told him he’s got nothing to feel guilty about.

Have the men told you specific stories about how meditation has helped them?

I’ve heard good ones. One guy who used to be homeless learned TM and immediately had an experience of “I am That, you are That, all this is nothing but That.” People in yoga studios try to achieve that experience and pass around books about it, but this guy got it after a month! So it’s pretty amazing that these people now have a way to transcend. Certainly meditation has got to be the number one thing that I can give someone.

[via The Atlantic]
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