Friday, September 30, 2011

Warning: Sitting meditation may lead to dancing

The ego does not always speak in your best interest; it speaks in service of preserving itself. When you see that, once in a while you can step out from under, feel the lightness of your true nature, and fly.

Unknown Object

Meditation is all about sitting still, right? When you learn to meditate, you are taught a specific posture, and you sit in your best approximation of it for as long as you can, then you stealthily switch. Even laid-back American Theravadan teachers make suggestions for how to sit and ask you to limit movement. And those Zen meditators – they whack you with a stick if you slump! (I’m told that many zendos now do it only if you indicate you want it and that it feels good because it releases the tension in the muscles.)

It’s about stillness, though. Stillness in the body helps us achieve stillness in the mind, which leads to relaxation and stability and makes inquiry possible and ….

True that. But sitting in stillness, shedding personas that come up to request that you engage with them, also may uncover inner energies that had been held down by the weight of the masks we wear.

And some of them might be dancers.

Here is my story:

This summer I went to Jacob’s Pillow, a seasonal home for modern dance. I go every summer because it calls me. I would go twice a week if I could, but it’s usually once or twice a season. I usually see whatever’s in the smaller theater on whatever weekend I can get there. (Smaller theater = more intimate experience + more experimental companies + cheaper ticket.)

This year it was David Dorfman Dance performing "Prophets of Funk" to music by Sly and the Family Stone. When I walked into the theater, a couple dancers were on the stage (which is the floor, the seats are on risers) teaching a short combination of steps to audience members of various degrees of expertise as Sly blasted on the sound system. I smiled.

They finished, and it was time for the performance. But the dancers invited later arrivals to come down and learn the steps. And here is where the sitting becomes dancing. In the past, I would have longed to dance but felt pinned to my seat by self-consciousness. I am not a professional modern dance performer, and everyone would know that.

But this time, I had a quick flash of the open sky of possibilities. I had seen the combination and felt I could follow it. This was not an audition and the likelihood was that I would never talk to any of the other audience members let alone hear their criticisms, so let them judge away. Just being in the room put me in touch with my heart’s joy, so why not ride that wave?

So yes, I kicked off my shoes and walked down to the stage and learned a dance combination. I danced on stage at Jacob’s Pillow, doncha know.

And if it ended there, with an experience of unjudged joyous performance, that would be sweet enough. But it doesn’t. At the end of the fabulous performance, the dancers pulled people on stage to dance to the music (although the song was ‘Lives of Everyday People” not “Dance to Music.”) My ego said, well, nobody pulled me on stage to dance, and my heart responded, shut the f* up and go dance. So I got funky with the dancers and a third of the audience while the critics watched.

And THEN … the dancers started doing the combination we’d learned earlier. Of course, it looked totally different – they didn’t appear to be counting steps in their heads and the movements just flowed. But they were doing the same steps I was at the same time. It was glorious and outrageous.

What does this have to do with sitting practice? I believe it's my meditation practice that let me dance by showing me that I don't have to take my"self" so seriously and letting me see the joy in letting go and being in the moment. The ego does not always speak in your best interest; it speaks in service of preserving itself. When you see that, once in a while you can step out from under, feel the lightness of your true nature, and fly.

Letting go of thoughts as we watch them rise and fall in meditation, we've become familiar with the space beyond our discursiveness. With practice that space gets bigger -- so big that it can accommodate whatever our day presents. ... Knowing the reality of change, we accept gain and loss -- no hope and fear attached. When we do this, we become naturally and spontaneously light-hearted. We are no longer trying to cure change by applying fixation. Rather, we accept what the moment presents and use it to expand our heart and mind.

... Do something outrageous. Accept whatever happens as the self-existing wisdom of things as they are. -- Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, "Ruling Your World"

See if your own inner dancer wants to come out tonight at the IDP's Dharma Art Silent Auction followed by drinks, snacks, and dancing from 7: 30 to 11:30 p.m. (Oct. 1) Check out the awe-some art by IDP members and friends, acquire some, help the IDP raise money for a space of its own, and party. click here for details.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

He's a human being, and he needed some strength

When it comes to issues that deeply divide society, the death penalty ranks high. There’s not much middle ground available – life in prison is still life; there are no degrees of death. Action is irreversible.

The divisions were on display this week with the case of Troy Davis, who was put to death in Georgia despite efforts to prevent that.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a trial that could result in a death sentence – though Connecticut has carried that out only once in 50 years – got started with all the legal wrangling and bitterness and tension the occasion called for. Yet it also saw a moment of incredible grace and compassion.

Joshua Komisarjevsky is charged with capital felony murder in the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters. Another man was sentenced to death last year after a trial for his participation in the murders.

Hawke-Petit’s husband, William Petit, was severely beaten but survived. He is a fierce advocate for death penalty, speaking up at news conferences outside court proceedings (which was the subject of some legal motions since the lawyers are under a gag order) and in hearings at the legislature. He has argued against any plea deal that would give the defendants only life in prison without parole and wants them sentenced to death. Komisarjevsky’s lawyers have sought to have Petit barred from the courtroom except during his own testimony, to make him remove pins from the foundation he formed in honor of his dead family.

The lines are drawn.

And yet …As spectators settled into their seats on Tuesday, the trial’s second day when Petit would take the stand, the Hartford Courant reports, Hawke-Petit’s father “approached Komisarjevsky’s father, Benedict Komisarjevsky, who was sitting with a defense team member, and put out his hand.

“I just wanted to say I am sorry about what happened,” the Rev. Richard Hawke said as his shook the man’s hand. “God bless you.”

Benedict Komisarjevsky nodded, the Courant reports. Hawke said later that Benedict Komisarjevsky also asked God to bless him.

When asked about approaching Komisarjevsky and shaking his hand, Hawke said, “He’s a human being, and he looked like he needed some of the strength and support that all of my family has.”

Komarisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes, the man already sentenced to death, have been reviled, profiled over and over as evil incarnate. Their lawyers have received threats. It’s hard to overstate the depth of hatred toward these men – and their families.

For Hawke to see – and acknowledge in a very public gesture – the humanness of the father of one of the men responsible for the death of his daughter and granddaughters is an extraordinary expression of compassion.

Compassion is possible, even under the worst circumstances, even in uncomfortable conditions.

It’s easy – maybe natural in the lizard part of our brain that guards our survival -- to divide the world into us/them, self/other, victim/perpetrator. To bridge that divide by recognizing the humanness of the other, the perpetrator, the them, is difficult.

Just like me, he is suffering. Just like me, he needs support. Just like me, his strength is being tested.

Can I see the humanness in the person whose views/attitudes/means of expression are the opposite of mine? Forget shaking hands – can I just not be hostile?

Can I be the bridge, the middle ground, the soft voice?

Difficult, yes. But Impossible? No.

Photo of Marybelle and Richard Hawke arriving at New Haven Superior Court by Stephen Dunn of the Hartford Courant. The photo was taken on Sept. 18, prior to the start of testimony.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meditation saves money

Two reports came out this week that drew my attention -- one, from the U.S. Census Bureau, reported that the number of Americans without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, while the other cited a study that found that people with consistently high health care costs experienced a 28 percent cumulative decrease in physician fees after an average of five years practicing meditation.

The latter study also came out Tuesday in the September/October 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. It compared the changes in physician costs for 284 consistent high-cost participants—142 Transcendental Meditation practitioners with 142 non-practitioners, over five years in Quebec, Canada.

According to this peer-reviewed article on the study, chronic stress causes illness -- some say it's the No. 1 cause -- which leads to doctors' visits. Meanwhile, a small number of people account for the majority of health care costs. In the U.S., the highest spending 10 percent in the general population incurred 60 percent to 70 percent of total medical expenditures annually. In the Medicare population, the highest spending 5 percent incurred 43 percent of total Medicare costs, and the highest spending 25 percent of seniors accounted for 85 percent of total expenses.

The article has more data about the study and the statistical percentages. It also cites previous studies that found meditators had dramatic and widespread reductions in health expenses, like this: An 11-year, cross-sectional study in Iowa found that subjects age 45 and over who practiced the TM technique had 88 percent fewer hospital days compared with controls. Their medical expenditures were 60 percent below the norm.

Other studies, including randomized clinical trials, indicate the TM technique can improve physical and mental health, decrease tobacco use, reduce substance abuse, and decrease other unhealthy habits and risk factors that lead to chronic disease and costly treatments.

“This article has major policy significance for saving Medicare and Medicaid without cutting benefits or raising taxes,” said the paper’s author, Robert E. Herron, Ph.D.

“Almost no intervention for cost containment has decreased medical expenditures by 28 percent over five years from a baseline. Now, it may be possible to rescue Medicare and Medicaid by adding coverage for learning the Transcendental Meditation technique.”

To the best of my knowledge, there's nothing that makes Transcendental Meditation significantly better at reducing stress than other types of meditation.

Now back to that census data, as reported by the Associated Press:

The share of Americans without health coverage is now 16.3 percent — or 49.9 million people — mostly due to continued losses of employer-provided health insurance in the weakened economy.
Congress passed a health overhaul last year to address rising numbers of the uninsured. While the main provisions don't take effect until 2014, one aspect taking effect in late 2010 allowed young adults to be covered under their parents' health insurance until age 26.

The uninsured rate for adults 18 to 24 actually declined last year, from 29.3 percent to 27.2 percent, noted Brett O'Hara, chief of the Health and Disability Statistics branch at the Census Bureau. That was the only age group that posted a decrease, and he said “ the law change certainly could be a factor.”

Last year saw a third year of increases in Americans without health insurance, lifting the total number to the highest since the government began tracking the figures in 1987. The number of people covered by employment-based health plans declined from 170.8 million to 169.3 million, although those losses were partially offset by gains in government health insurance such as Medicaid and Medicare.

Taken together, these studies that the value of a meditation practice is almost quantifiable, on a societal level if not an individual one. (I've practiced meditation daily for more than five years and visit lots of doctors but mostly for maintenance or continuing treatment; I'm fully functional -- and I've no idea how I would be if I didn't meditate. Meditation practice = reduced stress = lower health care costs.

Note that I said "meditation practice." You can't do it once and stop because you still feel stressed. You have to keep it up.

What's the next step? Maybe the government can mandate that health insurance pay for ongoing meditation programs. Or maybe the insurance companies, which are strongly attuned to the bottom line, will do that first. Maybe meditation instructors will be highly sought after with competing companies offering larger and larger compensation packages.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Grief: A terrible gift

Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. Everyone who is born will die. My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

I say this every morning. But knowing that death is certain, that this existence is ephemeral, doesn't make it less of a surprise and doesn't mean it doesn't hurt.

Last week one of my spouse's close friends was killed. He was riding his bike home from work and was hit by a drunken driver. He was a sweet guy. He was the drummer in my spouse's band, so I saw him most Wednesday nights. Will always stopped to talk to me before heading downstairs to play music -- really talk. He was curious about the world and the people around him, including me, and was right there in the conversation.

Ten years ago, 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Every one of them was precious. And all the people who died in between those events and before them and since -- they also were precious and their lives were ephemeral.

When death is simply an expected part of (this) life, do we grieve?

Oh, yeah.

Roshi Joan Halifax of Upaya Zen Center says that grief is not often addressed in contemporary Buddhism -- "perhaps it is looked on as a weakness of character or as a failure of practice," she writes.

"We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most of us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work for us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that eventually will be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion."

I've heard teachers describe grief as a particularly sticky form of sadness, a plaque that builds up in the vessels leading to our heart-mind, blocking our flow of compassion. I experience grief as a hand around my throat, squeezing til it's hard to breathe and my eyes water. It comes up when my heart is unguarded -- in the grocery store, heading into the cereal aisle, for example. It is a sensation easily characterized as unpleasant.

We don't want to sit with grief. My husband and I were driving to western New York to visit relatives and were standing outside a rest stop on the NY Thruway when he got the call about his friend. I asked if he wanted me to drive after that, but he said, no, driving would give him something else to focus on, would take his mind off Will

I think grief is hard to sit with because this intense form of sadness usually follows a loss that seems final -- a physical or psychic death, the knowledge that something is gone from your life and won't be back. It's a loss that breaks your habitual patterns: Will won't be coming over on Wednesday nights. The world is unsafe when terrorists can bring down four planes on one day. Your routine way of doing business or thinking is shattered. It is not so much the loss but the effect of the loss on you. I don't worry much about my own death, but I often tell my children as they get into their cars: Don't die. As if that is a promise they can make with certainty. (I am happy with, "I'll try not to," as a response.)

The poet William Wordsworth wrote about the coming of autumn:
Margaret, are you grieving/ over goldengrove unleaving?

Are we sad because the leaves are turning color and falling? No, that's actually a pretty beautiful thing. We're sad because it marks the passing of time and all that passes with it. As Wordsworth concludes:
It is the blight man was born for. It is Margaret you mourn for.

Even the Buddha knew grief. When one of his close followers died, he said it was as if all the light in the world had gone out. (Some translations attribute the statement to Siddhartha, others to another one of his followers.)

And he was approached repeatedly by those who were flooded by grief, swept from their moorings. He told one woman he would help her when she found a house that had been untouched by death. To another, crying for her daughter, Jiva, he said:
"Eighty-four thousand daughters
All with the name "Jiva"
Have burned in the funeral fire.
For which one do you grieve?"

It is Margaret, by any other name.

"The sorrow of great and small losses is a river that runs in the underground of all of our lives," Halifax writes. "When it breaks to the surface, we might feel as though only 'I' know this pain. Yet grief is a universal experience."

Find the house where no one has died.

But to know that, truly know it, bake it into your bones so that you live from that place, so that you feel compassion for everyone because everyone knows death, first you have to feel your own grief.

As Buddhists, we learn in meditation to watch as emotions rise and fall. The physiological part of an emotion, the flood of hormones or whatever, lasts 90 seconds, I've been told. Everything after that is the suffering of suffering -- the thoughts we attach to the original emotion like beads on a string. In grief, those thoughts are loaded with barbs: sweet memories, projections of what the absent person will miss, things we did together and now won't again, even if we go on to do those same things with others.

I don't know of any way around it. You have to feel the barbs, watch the pain rise like a rushing waterway after the rain, cry enough tears to fill Niagara Falls, and the see the riverbed of love and compassion that water flows over.

Halifax again:
Grief can call us into an experience of raw immediacy that is often devastating. Grieving, we can learn that suffering is not transformed by someone telling us how to do it. We have to do the work ourselves.
And that means letting go of what we think we know. When we move through the terrible transformation of the elements of loss and grief, we may discover the truth of the impermanence of everything in our life, and of this very life itself. This is one of the most profound discoveries to be made as we engage in Buddhist practice.
In this way grief and sorrow may teach us gratitude for what we have been given, even the gift of suffering. From her we learn to swim in the stream of universal sorrow. And in that stream, we may even find joy.
For this Buddhist, this is the essence of a liberative practice.