writing

Self-compassion for writers (and other tortured souls)

I was talking to a Buddhist friend recently who’s a wonderful writer. She creates amazing blog posts that usually start off deeply personal but go on to teach important and universal lessons about life. I have a lot to learn from her about combining the personal and the instructional, and in many ways I regard her as the better writer. The thing is, she told me she hasn’t been able to write for two years now, because she’s a perfectionist.

And that’s the problem with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes us anything but perfect, because, for one thing, it makes it harder for us to create. Perfectionism is like teaching an animal to do a trick by beating it every time it doesn’t do exactly what you want. What would happen if you tried to do this? You’d end up with an animal that could only cower in terror. If the animal was sensible it would run away. If it was really sensible it would bite you first. And I think this is what happens with the creative parts of ourselves when we’re perfectionists. We end up training our creative energies not to create, and we produce what we call writers’ block, or (more generally) creators’ block. Our creative urges run and hide. They see the blank page, and don’t dare mar it because the critical part of us is sure to step in immediately and say “Not good enough. Who wants to read this crap? YOU SUCK!”

But perfectionism is just another name for “low levels of self-compassion.” We need to recognize this because I think saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a way of humble-bragging: I won’t do anything unless it’s perfect, ergo, anything I do is perfect. I don’t create, but if I did it would be awesome. But while there are some high achievers who are perfectionists, their achievements come at a price. Perfectionism puts us on edge. It makes us rigid. When we’re driven by perfection we’re less likely to learn through play, experimentation, or trial and error. Self-compassion is where we treat ourselves kindly, even when we make mistakes. We recognize that we, just like everyone else, mess up. We recognize that mistakes are not only inevitable, but that they’re a helpful part of the learning process. To do anything meaningful we need to tolerate imperfection

I guess I’m an “imperfectionist.” A saying that I take as my pole star, my guide through life, is “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” So when I’m writing I just plunge in. I ignore my inner critic and allow myself to mar the page. The first effort may be ugly, repetitive, shallow, confused, or whatever. I don’t care. At least I have something to work with. Only after that initial creation do I go back and make improvements. That’s when the inner critic comes in handy. Your inner critic is an invaluable asset if you give it the right job to do — and that job is to tell you what’s not best about your work after you’ve written the first draft. Its job is not to prevent you from getting started. So I review and rewrite my work over and over, and each time I smooth the clunks out of my writing my inner critic has less and less to say. In the end it just shuts up because it’s done its job, and there’s nothing but good feelings when I read the text.

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Beating yourself up just doesn’t work very well as a motivational strategy, and it has wider consequences for your wellbeing as well. Constantly being on edge in case we slip up, and then criticizing ourselves when we inevitably do, is a tough way to live. People who score low for self-compassion are much more prone to being stressed or depressed.

So self-compassion is a great habit. And it is a habit. It’s something that we can train ourselves to have. Just as with my iterative approach to writing, we won’t suddenly produce full-fledged self-compassion out of thin air, so at first we’ll do it badly, as we do with all things worth doing. But we keep practicing, and get better at it as we do.

So, how do we get started? There are three things areas I’d like to focus on: perspectives for self-compassion, mindfulness, and kindness.

1. Perspectives for self-compassion

Everyone suffers. Everyone finds life hard in different ways. We all want to be happy and not to suffer, but happiness is often elusive, and suffering keeps coming along, often unexpectedly. We all mess up. Being human isn’t easy. These perspectives help us to let go of any expectation that life — and our lives in particular — should be free from difficulties. The also help us see that we shouldn’t expect creative work to be easy. As Stephen King said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.” Suffering — whether at the keyboard or in any other aspect of life — is normal.

Embrace this discomfort, because it’s through building your shit-shoveling muscles that you’re going to create.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of awareness in which we observe our experience almost as if we were watching an external event. Being mindful of our experience — and especially of painful experiences — is a critical component of self-compassion.

First we have to acknowledge that there’s pain present, and this isn’t always easy, because too often we believe the stories that spring up to distract us from our pain. So you sit down to write and it’s emotionally uncomfortable. Instead of just acknowledging the discomfort and starting to write, you decide it’s time for a snack, or time to dust the shelves, or to update Facebook. And off you go; the story has won: it’s prevented you from working through your fear. Being mindful creates a gap between the stimulus of discomfort and our response to it, and this gives us the freedom to choose how to act. I feel restless? It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’m going to write.

Mindfulness involves acceptance. In the “gap” that mindfulness opens up, there is peace. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to feel frustration, to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, hurt, despondent. These things are not signs that we’re failing, but that we’re human and engaged in the process of living. And when we’re in the act of creating, and we hear the inner critic saying that our work isn’t good enough, we can be mindful of that critical voice and decide not to believe it. Just keep going.

3. Kindness

Imagine you a friend shows you a draft of a short story, and it’s not very good. What do you say to them? “You idiot! You’re so stupid to try to write! No one’s ever going to want to read this crap!”? Of course not. But that’s the way we often talk to ourselves.

Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-discipline is overrated: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you.” It’s by being kind and by forgiving the shortcomings in ourselves and our work that we get better at creating. This doesn’t mean that we recognize that a piece or work is bad, forgive ourselves, and leave it as it is. It just means not judging ourselves as “bad writers” for having written something that’s not yet good. It means treating what’s substandard as a first draft. It means looking at the crap head-on until we can figure our how best to shovel it. We accept imperfection and then go back and rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.

What’s going on when we’re kind to ourselves is that the most mature and compassionate part of us is showing kindness to the part of us that’s most in pain. Our inner grown-up is comforting our inner child, giving it reassurance. Treating our painful feelings compassionately can be as simple as placing a hand on the part of our body where the hurt is most prominent, and saying “It’s OK.” We can offer reassurance by saying to our discomfort, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m here for you.” That might sound cheesy. That’s OK. I’d rather sound cheesy than be a blocked writer.

So next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank page, or whatever your creative equivalent is, try on for size the perspective that discomfort is an integral — and valuable — part of creating. Have a mindful acceptance of any painful feelings that arise. Stay with the discomfort rather than turning away from it. Offer yourself some kindly reassurance as you shovel the shit.

Creating is hard, and that’s OK. Be an imperfectionist, and just keep doing it badly, at least at first. Because it’s worth doing.

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Bringing accountability to your practice

The Steppe Eagle is a bird of preyI’m just getting over a bad habit relating to meditation that’s plagued me for over thirty years.

It was reading a blog post on developing good writing habits that helped me. The idea came from Brett Cooper who, like me, found that he tended to write in fits and starts, with long periods of non-writing, followed by spurts of intense production.

Two ideas came to his rescue. The first was that he realized he needed to establish “a small, non-threatening daily writing habit,” and that a goal of 100 words a day was innocuous enough to be doable.

The second idea was the realization that he needed accountability. Left to our own devices, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off too easily. So he found a friend who agreed to be his “100 words accountability partner.” The partner doesn’t have to comment on the writing or even read it. She just has to give Brett a hard time if she doesn’t receive at least 100 words of writing each day.

As it happens I had my writers’ group meeting the day after reading Brett’s article, and so I proposed that I undertook the same two practices. So two of the people in my group agreed to be my accountability partner, and I theirs. Now each of us is emailing the other two at least 100 words a day.

It’s worked great. 100 words is such a non-intimidating target that I find it easy to sit down to write, and I inevitably end up writing well over 100 words. At this rate I’ll be adding a chapter to my novel every two weeks or so. And this is after several months of producing nothing. It’s a big turn-around.

Now, when it comes to meditation, I’ve been meditating daily for a long time. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last two years or so. But my sits have at times become very short — sometimes just five or ten sleepy minutes at the end of the day. And although it’s better to do five or ten sleepy minutes than to do nothing, that’s far from ideal. Five minutes was supposed to be an emergency provision for those days when I genuinely didn’t have time for a longer sit, but it threatened to become my default. It’s as if I hit 100 words and then stopped in mid-sentence.

The bit that was missing from my meditation practice was accountability. This is where my long-standing bad meditation habit comes in; I’ve always resisted accountability.

I’ve often resisted meditating with others, or following set schedules, or even using apps like the Insight Timer, which announces to other app users how much meditation you’ve done. I think the reason I’ve resisted these things is that I’ve wanted to be sure that my desire to meditate was coming from me, and not from a desire to fit in, or to gain acceptance from others, or to show off. And while it’s good to want to meditate because it’s what I really want to do, I think that habit has long outlived its usefulness. It’s led to what’s almost a kind of secretiveness about how much meditation I’m doing, and that’s not good. Bad habits flourish in the dark.

So I decided that as well as my commitment to daily meditation practice (with an emergency fall-back position of five minutes a day) I needed a commitment to sharing what I do, so that I hold myself accountable. So on Wildmind’s community on Google+, I’ve been sharing how long I’ve been sitting, and what I’ve been doing.

This has already made a difference. When I meditate in the evening, which is often the first opportunity I have to meditate, I’m sitting earlier rather than later, when I’m often tired. I’m sitting for longer. And I’m being more mindful of the effort I make in my practice.

And the great thing is that I still have the feeling that I’m doing all this for me, not to please other people, so that fear has gone. I’m glad to have left that old habit in the past, where it belongs.

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Transcendental Science Fiction and the magic of contrast

THE PRISON

‘..that quest for new and relevant cultural expressions of the Dharma is of the foremost importance if Buddhism is to have a major impact on the world.’
Subhuti, A Buddhist Manifesto.

I came to Buddhism through the catalyst of Speculative Fiction (SF), which includes, amongst others, the science fiction and fantasy genres.

At the root of Speculative Fiction I saw a spiritual urge; the desire for transcendence. In it I recognised what could almost be seen as a new spiritual movement.

I place the origins of Science Fiction in the nineteenth century with the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as does Brian Aldiss in his book Billion Year Spree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Science Fiction arrived around the time Christianity was weakening in the face of Scientism. I think SF might be a new channel for our ‘spiritual’ urge; expressed and explored in new ways. And so I like to refer to Transcendental Science Fiction, or just Transcendental Fiction.

Many have cited films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars for awakening their spiritual lives. I wondered if SF could be a new ethnic religion out of which could spark the transcendental, though few science fiction authors would consider their writing to be at all religious.

SF seems often to be about finding something more to life, about exploring the beyond, or exploring the unknown. Buddhism also has those concerns. Though I’m certainly not equating Buddhism and SF, I think I can show that they sometimes share a drive towards liberation from unsatisfactoriness and this at least can be a starting point for something.

I also discovered that both Buddhism and SF employ the use of contrast to communicate something higher. Early in my quest I found that contrast — particularly of the real and the unreal — always seemed to be at the heart of SF. I then discovered the Perfection of Wisdom literature and found that this was about contrast too; in it was a paradox which arose from the reconciling of the mundane and the transcendental. This felt similar to the use of contrast I had seen in SF.

I also found that Buddhist sutra and SF both make use of layered contrast as well as paradox; this encourages our mind to ascend into higher levels of perception and insight. One theme in Buddhist sutras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva: a being who strives for enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. But in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines Subhuti says ‘I see no Bodhisattva, and no Perfect Wisdom; whom is there to teach with what Perfect Wisdom?’ We are left with a paradox.

In the Science Fiction story Star Maker Olaf Stapleton shows us the evolution of communal mind as individuals, then whole worlds, join telepathically. The ‘minds’ of whole galaxies eventually join to form one cosmic mind; the perfected awakened cosmos itself, which is finally able to reach out to and find the elusive star maker, the creator of all things, and yet is rejected by him. This uses layered contrast, providing us with successive levels which are built upon each other, in order to reach an otherwise impossible standpoint.

Paradox in SF is like a koan, and usually comes in the form of a co-existence of the real with the unreal. For example in the Planet of the Apes when the whole film builds up to a final climax as this world of talking apes, which we had perceived to be unreal, is shown to be our own world. This challenges the boundaries of our perception of reality; which is already faulty, because we are still unenlightened beings, and so this can be a liberating experience.

In fact all our mundane perception is only made possible through contrast – for example, you can’t have a ‘large’ without having a ‘small’. These contrasts, used in creating art and literature, are also the foundation of our unenlightened perception. It is because of this that all reconciliation of dichotomies may lead us to insight into the truths of Buddhism; we live in a house of mirrors with no inherent nature. It is because of this that contrast and paradox in any literature might lead us to insight into the illusory nature of our world.

I tend to use the term “transcendental” in two senses; more generally as transcending any false limiting of self; for example, being liberated from thinking we are the centre of the universe, or from the view that we could never achieve anything important. But more specifically I use it as the complete seeing through of the illusory view of our world; seeing through the separation into selves and bifurcation of subject and object. These two levels of transcendence are sometimes described as insight with a small i and Insight with a big I. And this term also distinguishes it from Mundane Science Fiction, which limits itself to that which is encompassed purely by the rational (or scientific).

My teacher, Urgyen Sangarakshita, was I believe the first to coin the term “Transcendental Science Fiction,” and it’s he to whom I dedicate my first attempt. I have recently published this through Inklestudios. It’s called The Prison, (click here for a UK version), and it’s now available on Amazon Kindle. You could try it and see if you think I’ve been successful.

The full article on Transcendental Science Fiction is available as a Kindle download here in the US, or here for a UK Kindle version, and free on my blog here. I also have a Facebook group dedicated to Transcendental Fiction.

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“The Best Buddhist Writing 2010,” edited by Melvin McCloud

best buddhist writing 2010When I began reading mainstream Buddhist writings and familiarized myself with the prominent Buddhist teachers in the United States, I regularly bought Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, Turning Wheel, and eventually Buddhadharma. In 2004 the first of the yearly Best Buddhist Writing collection came out and I read it cover to cover. At that point I was simply grateful for the resource, and I didn’t even mind rereading the articles I had already seen in the magazines. Besides, the anthology included many book excerpts that inspired me to run out to my local bookstore.

Title: The Best Buddhist Writing 2010
Author: Melvin McCloud (Ed.)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-826-4
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Little has changed since then (I still have the 2004 and 2005 editions) for the Best Buddhist Writing series, except that now there are fewer excerpts from books (mostly published by Shambhala Publications) and a lot more magazine articles (primarily Shambhala Sun). Several of the same well-known teachers from the 2004 edition are in the 2010 edition: Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Norman Fischer, and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Many more are names I recognize from the Shambhala Sun’s pages: Sylvia Boorstein, Carolyn Rose Gimian, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, John Tarrant, and Andrew Olendzki, to name some of the most well-known.

Frankly, I was prepared not to like much of what I was about to read. I had already worked out a title in my mind having to do with the reincarnation of old editions. For the most part, I was wrong—very wrong.

There are some wonderful, exceptional, moving essays in this collection. As is often the case, I am not moved or even stimulated any more by general teachings, although there are still a few authors I enjoy. The pieces that really grabbed me in this collection are the first-person stories, the ones where the author reveals dharma in the minutia of daily life—and does not tell us what we are supposed to learn from the tale.

The book begins with just such a story by Stan Goldberg—“Lessons for the Living”—on volunteering in a hospice shortly after beginning treatment for his own prostate cancer. The essay centers on Stan’s relationship with Jim, one of the residents. In reading about Jim, I relived some of the pain of my mother’s death from cancer, also in a hospice. And like Jim, my mother asked for ice cream.

Another early essay that touched me was “That Bird Has My Wings,” by Jarvis Jay Masters. The author is serving life in San Quentin (a maximum security prison)—it’s a sentence his supporters say is unjust. When the day does not go as Masters expects, he is opened to a whole new world, with equal parts regret and realization of impermanence. There is also a sense of seeking forgiveness, echoing the essay by Goldberg.

Daniel Asa Rose’s “Seth and Willie” is another fine essay, a short, quiet story with considerable depth—and one that reminded me of friends who are single fathers.

An exception to my (admittedly subjective) preference for first-person stories comes along with Diane Ackerman’s “Dawn Light.” She is one of our best nature writers, and an outstanding writer in general. Some writers can see beneath the surface of things and reveal new perspectives on a familiar world (thinking also of Annie Dillard or Loren Eisley)—Ackerman, as is often the case, does so in this fine essay.

In their essays, John Tarrant and Mary Pipher deal with grief and loss in different ways, but both do so with grace and determination. Both are therapists and as a result they bring a slightly different angle to their writings.

Pipher’s essay was particularly interesting because she offers a first-person subjective account of her meditation experience (she calls herself the worst Buddhist in the world in the book from which this excerpt is taken), but there is also a detached quality to it that comes from not “biting the hook,” as Pema Chodron might say.

Tarrant’s essay revolves around his father’s time in hospice and the complexity that always exists between a father and son—as well as the rhizome of family history and its interconnections. Many men never have a chance to ease into their father’s death—Tarrant was given the gift of time in which they found a space in which to meet and rest.

There are several other excellent essays of this type that I will leave for the reader to discover.

For those who enjoy less personal dharma teachings, Pema Chodron’s “Taking the Leap” offers her customary fierce gentleness, as well as a wise humility. I read the book from which this excerpt was taken, and I highly recommend the book if you enjoy this essay.

There are also good teachings from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (“Joyful Wsidom”), Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (“How Will I Use This Day?”), Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (“Do Nothing”), Carolyn Rose Gimian on the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s advice to “smile at fear,” the late John Daido Loori, Roshi (“The Way of Mountains and Rivers:), and Gaylon Ferguson (“Natural Wakefulness”), among many others.

As is often the case in an anthology, there is a little something here for almost everyone. I was pleased to have been so wrong in my initial approach to the book. I found many quality essays that will provide fodder for many future meditation sessions.

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“The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice,” by Laraine Herring

The Writing WarriorWoody Allen once joked that 95% of the work is in turning-up. This book is about that 95% and what stops us from ‘turning up’ as writers — things like feeling we don’t have enough time, or isolation.

This is well and good, and Laraine Herring is an accomplished writer, who’s particularly adept at personal anecdotes designed to lift our spirits and keep us focused on our task. However, after a few hundred pages, what is meant to be inspiring becomes (for me at least) a little wearying. The essential message seems to be that every problem can be solved if you just make enough effort. She tells us over and over things like:

Don’t identify with the trap of writer’s block. Writer’s block is not a concrete thing. It is a concept, which means it is fluid, and you can accept it or not …

All of which is touchingly democratic, but ignores what may in the end be the crucial five percent of the creative equation: Inspiration, talent, motivation. Things that can’t be fitted into the positive thinking remit, nor easily admitted into the college writing programs that Herring’s approach grows out of.

In a sense, Herring wants it both ways. She describes how when her students approach her and ask if they have talent, this is usually because they want her to validate them. But her job is to encourage commitment to learning the craft. Similarly she states:

Your sense of worth as a writer isn’t hanging on what a publisher or agent might or might not do. What are you writing for? Whom are you writing for? Why are you writing in the first place?

And yet peppered throughout her text are slightly overblown statements like:

The longer you write and study writing, the harder it can be to maintain beginner’s mind. There’s now junk in the way; perhaps you’ve completed a twenty-five thousand dollar graduate program, or published four books, or won an esteemed prize …

Which it seems to me, are subtly (if unconsciously) supporting the idea that success is actually measured by getting published, winning prizes, or gaining the right qualifications.

‘Beginners Mind’ is an idea adapted from Zen Buddhism — that sense of freshness we have when we first attempt something. This is an important concept, but in the context of Herring’s book, with it’s free-floating, one size fits all, spiritualism, there’s a danger that it can feel appropriated. And how much more so, when a chapter entitled ‘Sand Paintings’, which begins with a description of Tibetan monks making intricate patterns out of sand, only to be brushed away on completion (as a practice of non-attachment), quickly finesses into a description of Herring losing drafts of her writing when her computer crashes. Although it makes for a neat analogy, consciously doing something knowing it is not going to last, is not the same thing as having to live with the frustration of losing work due to a failure of technology. Herring offers some useful advice about a not uncommon experience for anyone who writes on a computer. But I don’t think this need be immediately turned into a spiritual teaching, which has the flavor of being appropriated by the ego; the very thing the Tibetan monks are working against.

Title: The Writing Warrior
Author: Laraine Herring
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-796-0
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The Chinese say don’t combine inner and outer work. Writing as a practice to develop self-knowledge and even self-transcendence, is ‘inner work’. Writing for publication is ‘outer’ work. Herring seems to misunderstand this, taking an approach to writing as a ‘practice’ (a word she keeps coming back to) akin to a meditation practice, or a yoga practice, whilst continually referencing the outcome of publication.

The potential tension between worldly ambitions and the spiritual life is never discussed. Instead we are offered a series of techniques to get you to the top of the writing ladder. Basically, despite all her disclaimers, Herring is spiritualizing a career fast-track. She does it eloquently, so that if you need a boost when you feel stuck writing an assignment, a letter, a poem or a story, you’ll find lots of encouragement within these pages. But the more challenging question of why you want to be a writer in the first place is never really asked.

Everyone has something to say and it is important for individual well-being that it is expressed as best as it can be. But self-expression (however sincere) doesn’t in itself guarantee writing that people beyond your immediate circle will particularly want to read. To suggest otherwise is potentially very destructive and could wound a lot of vulnerable hearts. It isn’t just a matter of turning-up. Over-encouragement can be a dangerous thing.

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“Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants,” by Arnie Kozak, PhD

Wild chickens and petty tyrants 108 metaphors for mindfulnessA delightful, readable, and humorous book offers 108 images to help us understand the intangible qualities of mindfulness practice.

This enjoyable little volume offers 108 different images and metaphors to apply to one’s experience of mindfulness. It is written by Arnie Kozak, the founder of Exquisite Mind, a consultation service offering mindfulness to manage stress and enhance one’s quality of life.

Title: Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness
Author: Arnie Kozak, PhD
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 0-86171-576-4
Available from: Wisdom, and Amazon.com.

The book is divided up into five main sections.

Metaphors for mind
This includes such things as: “Doggie Mind and Monkey Mind” and “Different Kinds of Snow”.

Metaphors for self
This includes such things as: “Thoughts like Soap Bubbles” and “The Finger Pointing to the Moon is Not the Moon Itself”.

Metaphors for emotion, change, and “ordinary craziness”
This includes such things as: “Thirty-one Emotional Flavours”,” Perfectomy”, and “the Pause Button”.

Metaphors for acceptance, resistance, and space
This includes such things as: “The Swept Floor Never Stays Clean”, and “Don’t Waltz in the Minefield”.

Metaphors for practice
This includes such things as: “Learning to Play a Musical Instrument”, “Just Do It!” and “Sit … Sit … Sit … Good Puppy!”

Here’s an extract from “Divide and Conquer,” in the “Metaphors for Practice” section:

In Northern New England, where I live it snows–a lot. During one storm it snowed two feet. My driveway is over one hundred feet long. That’s a lot of snow–thinking about it, it must be literally tons of snow. Pondering the sheer weight of all that snow, together, I didn’t think I could possibly do it. But instead of thinking of the whole thing I made an effort to just mindfully move one shovelful. And then another. And one more. Eventually, I cleared a path, one shovel-full at a time…

At the end of the book there are five appendices that give full instructions on the mindfulness of breathing, body scan meditation, walking meditation, relationship practice, and informal practice.

Each section is very brief — no more than two or three pages of the small format volume. This makes the book very readable and the tone is light and humorous.

Although I personally found the book lacking in depth, it is admirable that the writer has attempted to come at mindfulness in this non-conceptual, image-based way. At heart, mindfulness is of course ultimately inexpressible and all writers who are exploring the subject must navigate through this paradox: how to communicate the inexpressible through words?

Arnie has done the subject a service by offering images and metaphors as ways of evoking the qualities of mindfulness without trying to pin down the topic too precisely. The book stands as a worthy companion and balance to other volumes that investigate mindfulness in more depth from a more conceptual point of view.

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Freedom on the inside

Light coming through prison windowPeople behind bars are often open to change, as Suvarnaprabha discovers when teaching prisoners to meditate.

There is a series of rituals you learn when you start going into prisons. Of course they aren’t meant to be rituals –- they’re for security, but they end up feeling like rituals, in the same way that some of us automatically bow when we enter a meditation room. You walk up to the door, push the button, turn your back to the door, the door buzzes, and you turn around, open the door and go inside. Every time you go through a door, even on the inside, you do the same thing: you push the button, turn to face the camera, open the door, go inside.

In 1998 I spent four months co-teaching a creative writing class at a medium security prison. Once a week I drove my little Honda into the hot Central Valley (where pretty much all California’s prisons are), my chest achy and nervous every time. Walking in the first day: I passed through a series of remotely-controlled gates, each buzzing as we approached it, someone watching us on a screen somewhere, pressing a button to let us through to the next gate. Even as a visitor, you feel you have no control over what’s going on. At almost the last gate, the Director of Arts in Corrections mentioned that he was required by law to tell me that the prison policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. “We’re supposed to tell people before they come in,” he says.

 And then came the thought, It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.  

That confused me. On the one hand, it was sort of exciting to think that someone was legally required to warn me that if I were seized by the neck and dragged away, nothing was going to be done about it. And then came the thought, “It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.” I felt I was entering another world of wall-mounted cameras, hostages and violence; a place behind a wall of electric razor wire, with its own customs and language, that is looked upon with fear and hatred by those outside, perhaps including me.

In the US about two million people are incarcerated and the unfortunate news is that the experience tends to make them more violent . The current Sheriff of San Francisco was a prisoner’s rights attorney at our county jail in the 1970s, when it was described as a ‘monster factory’. He resolved to try to change it into a place that prepares inmates to rejoin the community, helps victims to heal and helps communities to play a role in rehabilitation. Such a system is referred to as a regime of restorative justice. This is one of the most progressive jails in the US.

So for one evening every week or two, thanks to the Prison Meditation Network, I go to the jail with a yoga teacher, do some yoga in a circle of about 15 muscle-bound, orange-clad guys, meditate, then have a discussion about meditation or whatever comes up. The class is voluntary and participants come from one of two restorative programs: one is for drug-related offences, and the other is for those in a violence-prevention program in which men confront the causes of male-role violence and work to observe, understand and modify their behavior. The programs, especially the one for violent men, are meant to provide tools to understand their conditioning, and to work more effectively with their own minds and anger. About half of these guys are in for things like violence against their wives or partners, or going against a Restraining Order.

My sister said to me: “I can’t really see what the appeal is. I would never go into a jail – it would scare me.” It was pretty scary for a while (but only when I thought about it, not when I was actually there). Part of the reason I started this was for a change from the mostly middle- class white people that show up at our Buddhist centre, even though we’re in a non-white, non-middle-class neighborhood. The most annoying thing about privileged people, at least Americans, is that we haven’t the slightest idea that we are privileged – we just expect things to be easy and to be happy, while so much of the world grinds on, often smiling, in the face of real hardship. So I like to get out of that sometimes, get a different point of view, and meditate with people whose level of engagement with meditation seems more like a necessity than just a trendy way to relax. Plus, in many ways, one’s life and one’s body are themselves a cage. I occasionally feel that, as Bo Lozoff’s book says, “We’re all doing time.”

 Inmates may have done horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them.  

People who want to change, no matter where they are, are interesting. In a sense the degree to which they want to change is the degree to which they are interesting. People who realize they have made mistakes and are trying to learn are interesting. They may have done – probably did do – horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them. It’s just that many of them are covered with tattoos and have unbelievably huge arms. And after a while I stopped noticing that.

Devi and I walk to the door of one of the dorms. The deputy yells out to the crowd: “Yoga and meditation!” A few guys shuffle up to the front. Most are clustered together watching a movie on a set high on the wall. Two African-American guys lean against the wall, missing teeth. I ask if they’re coming to yoga and meditation.

The big guy says, “What, is that like acupuncture?”

“Huh, is it like what?”

“Acupuncture. Is it like acupuncture?”

“No buddy, we ain’t going to use needles on you.”

“I know, like you know when we’re sitting around in a circle, all quiet, but without the needles.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s like that.”

The skinny one says he’ll come. I doubt it.

We reach the classroom, sit in a circle and check in. One guy says he has toothache. Now they’re doing yoga and I decide to opt out and meditate for an hour. Will I do it or won’t I? There aren’t as many old-timers as usual …

 I remember when I started to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind…  

When they’re done, I look around and say, “We’re going to do an experiment today, and you don’t have to do it if you don’t want. First we’re going to do something like singing, then we’ll do a meditation on kindness. This kind of singing or chanting comes from a particular tradition, but I want to point out that I’m not trying to force anything on anyone, or convert anyone. I know some of you are Christians, and if you like you can think of this mantra as a prayer to God. So we’re going to chant this phrase om mahnee padmay hung, which means, simply, a jewel inside a flower. It is a symbol of compassion – a symbol of human development that sees people as flowers blooming.”

So here goes: om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung. The white guy to my right starts laughing in an odd stop-start kind of way. I cringe inside. What if he doesn’t stop? What if no-one will join in and I am a failure? Can’t turn back now. Another guy joins the laughing guy, who now sounds slightly hysterical. I am not looking but something is definitely going on to my right, seems very bad.

I continue: om mani padme hum, the magic mantra, deep. God help me, as it were. Five minutes, that’s all we’ll do, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It feels very Buddhist to me, too much for this secular place. The sound fills the cold hallways. What if the deputies protest? Many people here are Christians.

Waiting, chanting. After about three minutes, everything goes still. There is only the mantra, deep and clear. My own mental noise has stopped, the laughing guy has stopped, no keys jangling, no doors slamming. Everything has stopped but this group of people, this rippling, low-voiced beauty. Everything changed.

After five minutes I ring the bell and the chanting fades. We cultivate an attitude of kindness towards ourselves, and then towards all beings, including our enemies. The nervousness creeps back in. Is the meditation too long? I am worried about introducing the cultivation of love, awareness of emotion, here after they’ve known only the Zen-inspired approach of ‘letting go of thoughts’. There was some shifting around during the meditation but, during the last stage, in which we focus on all beings, everyone settled down. When people seem restless in the meditation, I have learnt to take it less seriously. I figure it’s better just to carry on. I ring the bell three times … the reverberations last a long, long time.

Some people take to loving-kindness meditation like fish to water. I understand these people. They look beautiful after they meditate, like they just got back from a retreat. The skinny new guy’s eyes when they open look like he is in love, sparkling. I wonder if that was like acupuncture. I am careful not to stare at him. The white guy next to me says, “I’m sorry I was laughing, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’m sorry. I don’t know what was going on, I couldn’t stop, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I couldn’t stop.”

The guy on the other side of him says to him, “I’m sorry I got mad.”

“That’s OK, I didn’t like it myself, I was trying to stop but I couldn’t.”

I tell him he can be kind to himself about having had that experience. It’s fine with all of us. “Yeah, it’s fine,” they all say. Everyone looks so kind.

Devi explains the physiological benefits of chanting, according to the yoga tradition. I’m glad she can do that. It sounds sensible.

Someone said he found the meditation very difficult, which I took to mean that he couldn’t engage with it. He said that during the difficult person stage, so many people flooded into his mind that he would get really angry about it, then he would get angry that he was angry, and so on. In a later class he said that his interactions with people had changed after he’d done the practice only once. He had never actually seen people as people outside of what he wanted them to be, and that he had started doing that. The change seemed tremendously painful — suddenly to have that kind of awareness, to realize how it’s been before, and to see how much painful work one has to do.

I remember when I started, against my will it seemed, to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind. I was on my first week-long retreat, and in one of the meditation sessions, my whole experience, my whole being and sense of myself, sort of filled up with awareness of hatred, and I saw with an indescribable immediacy what was underneath so much of my experience. I saw how at some level I hated myself and other people. Of course I also loved people, but I didn’t love them how I love them now. That retreat was excruciating, as were many subsequent retreats. The path to happiness can sometimes be sad.

“I really want to change,” an African-American guy says, another one who looked blissed out after the meditation. “Thank you for coming here, thank you,” he says. People are very beautiful: I have to stop myself from looking at them. Some people end up getting out of jail and losing it – stalking their ex-wives, taking drugs again, both. Some of the yoga and meditation teachers get upset when this happens. Yet, I figure, doing some productive time isn’t going to be enough for some people, perhaps most people, to transform a lifetime of addiction and violence. But while we’re in the class, there is something else going on, about peace and acceptance, something that seems to be rare – anywhere in this world.

The new guy is still sparkling. Is he in love with me? Well, the anxiety seems misplaced in the face of this beauty. The other guy I had problems with doesn’t come anymore. This guy is different. He is a flower.

Shin, the monk from the Pure Land tradition with the big Sanskrit ah tattooed on the back of his head – whose master told him he couldn’t give Dhamma talks in jail -– tells me I was chanting it too slowly. He says the resonance is right when there’s no pause. He looks extremely happy.

The guy with toothache says his pain’s gone. Another guy says his headache has gone. Another guy throws his crutches across the room, stands up and walks. Just kidding – about that last thing.

The laughing guy says, “You know, when he got mad at me, I just thought, ‘This is how people are, he can get mad, it’s OK.’ ” There but for the grace of God go I … I’ve never thought anything like that before. He looked happy, and also shocked.

Everyone looks so kind. There is love in the room. Transracial, transpenal, trans-sectarian love – the kind you can’t actually define. Devi and I are leaving now, both very happy, walking to the door, towards the big outside. And I say, “Well, that mantra was great, but I won’t do it again, or I’ll wait a year or so. There’s something not right about it here.”

I press the button and a man looking at me on a screen in a booth presses a button. The door buzzes and we are outside again. When I get home I am so happy I can’t sleep.


SuvarnaprabhaSuvarnaprabha is the Director of the Triratna Buddhist Community’s San Francisco Buddhist Center. She also meditates with violent offenders in San Francisco County Jail and is a Buddhist Chaplain at California State Prison, Solano.

In her alter ego, Suvarnaprabha is Auntie Suvanna, a Buddhist advice columnist on Wildmind. She is currently supporting an ordination retreat in Spain, and therefore isn’t blogging very much.

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The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight

Best of Inquiring Mind

Title: “The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight”
Author: edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Publisher: Wisdom Publications (2009).
ISBN: 0-86171-551-9
Available from: Amazon.com.

As the exceptional, essential new anthology The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight underscores for us, Inquiring Mind journal has been both a vital and heroic effort in English-language Buddhist media.

At a quarter-century in age, the biannual is one of the longest-standing publications for Dharma practitioners in North America—a survivor, a keeper, and an example. As publisher Alan Novidor so aptly puts it in his preface, the journal is generally regarded as “beautiful, honest, provocative, and simply presented.”

Co-founded and co-edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker (who also put the book together), Inquiring Mind is staffed by six part-timers and a lot of volunteers. A labor of devotion to the Dharma and to others, there is no office or headquarters—it is assembled in the homes of its editors and staffers—and published on recycled newsprint.

Freely offered as dāna, it depends entirely on reader donations; and though it has been popularized at American Vipassana centers, it is neither “affiliated with” nor “subsidized by” any particular community or tradition, opting instead for a nonsectarian, independent approach.

Expressly dedicated to “the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West,” contributing authors have included such luminaries as Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Allen Ginsberg, Rick Fields, Ayya Khema, Mark Epstein, S.N. Goenka, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Robert Thurman, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Noah Levine, Edward Espe Brown, and many others.

With such an incredibly rich archive to draw upon, the question can be asked: How best to distill Inquiring Mind down into a “Greatest Hits” volume? In the introduction to The Best of Inquiring Mind, Gates and Nisker articulate a sound vision: an anthology arranged into eight sections that best represent the issues and ideas pondered over in the pages of the journal. (Each issue of Inquiring Mind has revolved around one or two themes.) By doing this, the “mix of genres” and “mix of voices” that made the publication so distinctive are very well exhibited without making for an unwieldy book.

The editors are careful to note, however, that their volume nonetheless reflects gender and ethnic “imbalances” in Western Buddhism, as the authors are mostly male and white. Still, it would be difficult to fault the book for not presenting a fairly broad spectrum of genres—in particular, the inclusion of artwork at the beginning of each section highlights some other important ways of teaching dharma that are often neglected.

 Inquiring Mind is expressly dedicated to the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West  

The first section, “Path of the Elders: East Moving West,” seeks to chart and characterize the transmission of Theravāda Buddhism to the West. It includes interviews (with Goldstein, Goenka, Salzberg, Kabat-Zinn, and Ajahn Amaro); reflections on the great Dipa Ma (by Goldstein, Kornfield, Jack Engler, Carol Wilson, and Michele McDonald); and a conversation (between Nisker and Noah Levine). It also features a piece that should be required reading for all Western Buddhists: Jack Kornfield’s “Advice from the Dalai Lama,” which reports on the first historic meeting between His Holiness and a group of twenty-two Western Dharma teacher from various traditions.

The second section, “Living & Dying in a Body,” is a consistently fascinating, powerful, and unique portion of the book—in many ways, this small collection itself exemplifies what has been so special about Inquiring Mind. An exploration of “the flesh and its attendant joys and conflicts,” it immediately grabs a hold on the reader with Rick Kohn’s evocative poem “Mr. Lucky.”

Also brilliant and equally absorbing is Diana Winston’s reflection on being a nun and experiencing the “blessing” of her menstrual cycle, which served as a reminder of her “connection to the Earth and [herself] as a woman.” Former belly-dancer Terry Vandiver’s coming to grips with her age, Caitriona Reed’s meditation on gender identity, and Kate Lila Wheeler’s encouragement of us to include the “loathsome” in our practice are all also outstanding and extremely valuable in that they touch on issues and ideas not often mulled over in contemporary Buddhist writing.

Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski’s “Stories of Lives Lived and Now Ending” and the late Rick Fields’ recollection about teaching a fellow cancer patient about the Medicine Buddha offer memorable insights from those looking death squarely in the eye. The section ends with an absolutely unforgettable piece by Ronna Kabatznik, entitled “Tsunami Psychologist,” about tending to survivors among the dead following the Southeast Asian tsunami that was caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

“Science of Mind,” the third section, considers the “new synthesis” of Eastern and Western ideas about the human mind. It includes interviews with scientists Paul Ekman and Francisco Varela, psychotherapist Epstein, and dharma teacher Kornfield. Additionally, Susan Moon contributes a fiercely honest reflection on her experience with depression as a devoted Buddhist practitioner.

 …deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf…  

The fourth section on “The Dharma & The Drama” includes pieces about “the dramas of life…seen through the lens of Buddhist teachings.” Working from the story of Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation of his family, Norman Fischer provides a striking teaching on “the sacred and the lost.” Nina Wise vividly recalls a dinner with Carlos Castaneda that included an important lesson: “You’re perfect just the way you are.”

Gates, recognizing that “nothing can be thrown away” in meditation, composes a terrific love letter to garbage. In a very powerful teaching on facing fear, African-American teacher Charles Johnson confronts the memory of a near-lynching during a long retreat. Zen cook Brown’s funny story involving strawberry rhubarb tart cake makes for a fitting wrap-up.

The fifth section, “Complementary Paths,” delves into the issue of practicing in multiple traditions, borrowing from others, and creating new hybrid communities—distinctive trends in Western Buddhism. A typically incisive and provocative interview with Stephen Batchelor (who has practiced in the Tibetan, Korean Zen, and Theravāda Buddhist traditions) on the subject is the first of several interviews in this chunk of the book.

Also featured are interviews with Ram Dass, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Hari Lal Poonja. Last is a wonderful conversation between Ani Tenzin Palmo, Ajahn Sundara, Ajahn Jitindriya, and Yvonne Rand about their harmonious experiences as nuns in various traditions.

“Practices,” the sixth section, showcases several riffs on specific practices and aspects of practice. Nisker reveals his rationale to practice in poetic, sometimes lighthearted form. Santikaro articulates mindfulness of breathing in technological language. Ayya Khema, Miranda Shaw, and Goldstein are interviewed about jhana practice, tantric practice, and “the undiluted Dhamma,” respectively.

Rev. Heng Sure memorably ponders humor as he recounts a three-year pilgrimage doing full prostrations for 800 miles along the California Coast Highway. This portion of the book concludes with one of Thurman’s classically quick-witted, razor-sharp teachings—this one on the importance of recognizing impermanence in practice.

“Artists & Jesters of the Dharma,” the seventh section of the book, looks at how the arts and humor are being used as “teaching tools and expressions of realization” here in the West. Judith Stronach, for example, finds koans in Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and an infectiously adulatory Patrick McMahon makes a case for Jack Kerouac as a Dharma ancestor.

There is also Anne Waldman’s astounding poem-cum-elegy about sitting with the corpse of her friend Allen Ginsberg, and Gates’ piece about all that “laundry-line images” evoke for her.

Movie buffs are sure to appreciate Andrew Cooper’s hilarious and imaginative film noir spin on the sutras as well. There are also three stimulating interviews in this section on Buddhist tricksters (Steven Goodman), the “music of sound” (John Cage), and teaching Beat poetry in China (Ginsberg, of course).

The last section, “Tending to the World,” brings forwards pieces that offer a sampling of the various ways socially engaged Buddhist practitioners have articulated what it is that they are doing. There are fabulous interviews with Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, China Galland, and prison administrators Kiran Bedi and Lucia Meijer, as well as excellent conversation pieces on environmentalism (Julia Butterfly Hill and Ajahn Pasanno) and indigenous voices (Eduardo Duran, Lorain Fox Davis, and Tsultrim Allione). In addition, gardener Wendy Johnson, prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters, and public school teacher Naomi Baer offer colorful glimpses into their lives and work.

The Best of Inquiring Mind is a completely engrossing read and a significant record of a magnificent journal’s work. It’s rare to be able to say that a book deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf, where it can continue to motivate and otherwise benefit the reader…and I can say that without hesitation about this book. I’ll be revisiting and drawing inspiration from it for a long, long time. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another twenty-five years for Volume II.


Rev. Danny FisherRev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), has written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review; The Journal of Buddhist Ethics (forthcoming); The Journal of Religion & Film; Eastern Horizon; Dharma Life; New York Spirit; elephant journal; and many other publications. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the ecumenical Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008, and is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. Visit him online at https://chaplaindanny.blogspot.com. [Photo by Pierre Rene Bouchard.]


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Self-exploration is key to finding the spiritual in your work (The Arizona Republic)

Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But for 21st century Americans, self-examination is unnatural. Some people, especially men, act as if personal reflection is only for wimps. We find it easy to criticize others, from the boss to co-workers to the “system,” but many of us are reluctant to shine a critical light on ourselves. Take five minutes to consider your deepest satisfactions and your deepest fears and insecurities. Did you start to fidget before the five minutes were up? Did your mind wander? Did you try to think about easier subjects? The answers to those questions should tell you if you’re ready for self-examination and reflection, what I call the search for ME.”

I obviously think such self-exploration is essential if we want to find the spiritual in our work. Before we can be comfortable in our relationships with fellow employees, bosses, subordinates and customers, we have to know and like our selves. Yet so many of us are reluctant to give real attention to who we really are and what we want our life to be. Former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel said, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life but that it bothers him less and less.”

Contemplatives of all faiths tell us we need to find our own core. They call it our center. The great fourth-century theologian Augustine taught us the importance of self-analysis and self-criticism. There are scores of ways to think about how to do that. Here are a few.

I have talked before about the importance of analyzing our own stories to figure out who we are and how we became who we are. You can also write down all your good qualities and your bad qualities and think deeply about how they are manifesting themselves in your life. If you’re honest, you’ll get to some things that really matter.
In a similar vein, write down all the traits you find admirable in other people, such as courage, assertiveness, wisdom, etc. Think about where you stand in relation to those traits and characteristics and figure out how you can improve yourself.

Meditation helps many people focus their thoughts for self-reflection. Meditation and contemplation are great ways to pray and also excellent ways to discover oneself. Try modifying the centering prayer concept. That practice would have you relax and focus on a holy word, like “grace” or “resurrection.” You can use the same practice, but use words that will lead to reflection about who you are and how you behave. For example, use words such as “temper,” “concern,” “pressure” or even “success” or “failure.” Then follow your stream of consciousness to where your thoughts take you. Whenever you feel you are moving off-point, simply repeat your centering word and repeat it until your mind is again following that word.

Another decent way to get to your center is to reflect on the things people are saying about you in evaluations, in gentle jokes and behind your back. Rather than rejecting the criticism, seriously explore it. Why are people saying those things? Don’t immediately get defensive. Entertain the truth of what people are saying.

Another helpful exercise is to write down all the behaviors and characteristics in others that bug you. Your list may include things such as angry drivers, people who don’t care about their work, sloppy people and on and on.
Now do two things. First, examine the list and try to understand why you dislike those things. What’s inside you that doesn’t allow you to forgive or change? Second, examine the list to find behaviors that actually describe you. We often have contempt for people and behaviors that remind us of ourselves.

We cannot begin the quest for spirituality, ethics and values in our work if we do not have a firm understanding of who we are and what we want to become.

TIP FOR YOUR SEARCH: Start simply; set aside 15 minutes a day to reflect on yourself and on how you have interacted with family and work associates. Then think forward about how you want to interact with those people.

RESOURCE FOR YOUR SEARCH: Awareness, by Anthony De Mello, (Doubleday, 1990).

Tim McGuire of Scottsdale is a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Contact him at morethanwork@ unitedmedia.com and visit his Web site at www.timjmcguire.com.

[Original article no longer available]
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