Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What your body can tell you

The Buddha's first foundation of mindfulness is the body. Know when you're breathing in; know when you're breathing out. Know when you're sitting or standing or walking or resting. Locating awareness in the body is a way of connecting with the present moment and letting go of thoughts.

A new study indicates that those sensations also can give us clues about our mood. A team of Finnish researchers worked with 700 people in three countries to map where emotions are expressed in the body. They found remarkable similarities among people about where emotions manifest in their bodies.

Neuroscientist Antonio Dimasio, who was not involved in this study, told NPR he's "delighted" by the findings. He's been suggesting for years that each emotion activates a distinct set of body parts, and the mind's recognition of those patterns helps us consciously identify that emotion.
"People look at emotions as something in relation to other people," Damasio, who is a professor at the University of Southern California, says. "But emotions also have to do with how we deal with the environment — threats and opportunities."

The next foundations have to do with how we assign meaning or act on what we find in our bodies -- mindfulness of feeling tones (like it/hate it/don't see it) and thoughts. The body, though, is the first sensor.

The sensation maps were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can even take the experiment here and color your own sensation maps. And remember those maps the next time you notice yourself clenching your jaw,

Monday, December 23, 2013

All that has a form is illusive

"Stars and Nebula" by Victor Habbick

Physicists have reported the discovery of a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality, Wired reports.

"The amplituhedron is not built out of space-time and probabilities; these properties merely arise as consequences of the jewel’s geometry. The usual picture of space and time, and particles moving around in them, is a construct," the magazine says.
In the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed book, written down in 868, the Buddha said:

All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature. - The Diamond Sutra

May it be. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Time for a pat on the back

Today is the Solstice, the day when the North Pole is at its maximum tilt from the sun, creating the
longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. I imagine that for the ancients, this marked the beginning of the new year, not some 10 days later when the ball drops in Times Square.

So maybe it's time to take stock. We associate the New Year with resolutions and intentions. Maybe we could make the solstice a celebration of our achievements.

When you deal effectively with a problem, it’s important to acknowledge this to yourself. In daily life or meditation, anytime you heal some suffering you have felt, you must recognize this. Such recognition can enable the powerful energy of joy to flare up. That could be a great focal point for further healing. The third Dodrupchen writes, ‘‘You must recognize that the suffering has actually transformed as the support of the path. Then you must feel a strong and stable stream of joy that is brought about by that recognition.’’ Tulku Thondup

We don't do this enough. We dwell on our faults. Somewhere back in time, it was important to know that we were slow runners and to develop our climbing skills so that if we couldn't outrun a predator we could get away by going up. Then religion told us for hundreds of years that we were bad, maybe born with sin already staining us before we even took a breath. And a consumer-driven culture came along with commercials that tell us the ways that we're inadequate and the things that we need to buy to make up for it.

Not much there are about acknowledging success.

The Dalai Lama says that you should evaluate your practice every 10 years to see if you've made progress. But he speaks with a consciousness that's been around for many, many lifetimes, so he can afford to stretch out the timetable. Conversely, considering your practice after every meditation session or interaction is counter-productive. Every one is different.

But once a year seems about right.

It's Buddhist tradition to end a retreat at sunrise, completing your practice as the sun peeks over the horizon and imagining that the sun's light is the merit of your practice spreading over all beings and everything equally, bringing them toward a realization of their true, brilliant, joyful nature.

So on this solstice, take stock of things you did well. Maybe there was a situation where you were responsive rather than reactive. Maybe you did something kind for someone who won't directly return it (holding doors open counts). Maybe you were generous or loving -- or maybe you just saw the humanity of another person, with all their complexities and frailties and foibles stemming from causes and conditions you don't know, rather than locking them up in a box labeled "Jerk."

Maybe you smiled. And the light of that smile touched innumerable others.

Happy solstice. May all beings, every one, be happy, be healthy, and be safe. May all beings live with ease.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Does Instagram increase suffering?

The first truth of Buddhism is that suffering is inevitable. There's birth, old age, sickness, and death -- and Instagram. Actually, according to a New York Times article, "The  Agony of Instagram," the photo-sharing app is related to the Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering.<--break->
Members of the Facebook generation are no strangers to the sensation of feeling a little left out when their friends post from that book party they weren’t invited to, or from someone’s latest transporting trip to the white sands of Tulum. Yet even for those familiar with the concept of social-media envy, Instagram — the highest achievement yet in social-media voyeurism — presents a new form of torture.
Instagram, with its various filters, allows people to post photos of their lives looking enviably
fabulous, the Times says -- creating dissatisfaction in people whose unfiltered lives are messier, less artistic. That dissatisfaction with our own lives and the belief that we'd be happy if only things were different is pretty much the definition of dukkha.

The Times reports that Fear of Missing Out, aka FOMO, or the anxiety and envy that arises from thinking everyone is having more fun than you, is a thing being looked at by researchers. Instagram is the biggest instigator, it says.

What to do, what to do? You could follow the path of renunciation and delete your Instagram account if it's that bothersome. Or use it train in mudita, joy in others' good fortune. Or transform the Instagram culture by posting affirmations.

Change your mind to change the world.

Friday, December 13, 2013

All presents are empty

Whatever holiday spirit is, I'm not feeling it.

The decorations are still in their storage boxes. Not a light has been strung, nor a seasonal candle lit. The three cards we've received are in the pile of mail that needs responses, which has its own place at the table. I've bought presents, but I always like buying presents so that doesn't make it a holiday.

My mom, who just moved to a smaller apartment and got rid of a lot of stuff, says she's not buying presents this year -- she's tired of making decisions.I always thought she liked buying presents; I saw them as an expression of love.

If there are no presents, is there no love? No, of course not. I know my mom loves me, navy-blue cardigan that I was going to ask for or not, but her decision reminds me that things have no inherent meaning, only the meaning we give them.

In Buddhist terms, the presents are empty.

That's good news. You can choose to see that pack of black socks as a sign that someone cares about you or as the cotton manifestation of a lump of coal.

We suffer when we set expectations for gifts and their meaning, when we believe that a holiday must meet certain criteria to be happy. There must be five kinds of cookies, including two labor-intensive roll-out ones, and cake and chocolates and bread. There must be ham or oh, good, not HAM-do you know how those pigs live?

When we let go of expectations and standards, when we are present with what is happening right now, leaving out how it measures up to the past we remember or the future we'd hoped for, we can find that we have enough: joy, sadness, peace, and excitement. We don't have to swing back and forth from one extreme to the next. We can just sit, like the angel that tops the tree or the elf on a shelf, and let all of those arise and pass.

We can accept that the new cookie recipe we tried, the one that required us to figure where we had left the pastry blender bought out of guilt (not necessity) at a Pampered Chef party so many years ago, did not work out perfectly. That the cookie dough base stuck to the pan far more than it stuck to the raspberry jam and melted chocolate chips and almonds baked on top of it. That basically, we have a slab of raspberry and chocolate and almonds, and a bunch of crumbs (that maybe could top a coffee cake???).

We might not have set out to make slabs of chocolate, but that's what we did. And damn, that's OK.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Drinking -- or not -- with mindfulness

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the United States' attempt to outlaw liquor.
Supporters of Prohibition touted its passage in 1920 as a victory for public morals and health. But the law was difficult to enforce and widely flouted. It was repealed in 1933.

It brings to mind the Buddhist practice of renunciation, often misunderstood as abstaining from certain substances or actions.

As Barbara O'Brien writes:

Most broadly, renunciation can be understood as a letting go of whatever binds us to ignorance and suffering. The Buddha taught that genuine renunciation requires thoroughly perceiving how we make ourselves unhappy by grasping and greediness. When we do, renunciation naturally follows, and it is a positive and liberating act, not a punishment.
Buddhism does have precepts, which include abstaining from alcohol or other intoxicating substances. I've heard it said that one is important because it's more likely we'll break the other four when we're under the influence -- those propose refraining from killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.

But the precepts aren't a law like Prohibition or moral imperatives like the Ten Commandments for lay people, they are considered trainings that help us learn how our minds work and lessen grasping. Merely following the precepts, without contemplating your own reasons for thatm is blind faith, which the Buddha discouraged.  Don't take my word for anything without testing it out for yourselves, he told his followers.

So the issue, for those of us who aren't monks or nuns, is not entirely abstinence; it's our relationship to alcohol. What do we want when we reach for a drink? To feel less self-conscious? To fit in? To release tension? Does drinking provide that? Does it have other effects? What is our intention in choosing to have a drink?

And then there's the physical experience -- what does the desire for a drink feel like? The first sip? Do you taste it or just drink for the effects? And speaking of those effects -- how aware are you of what happens to your body and mind? Is there a point where you lose awareness of all that? What happens then?

It's holiday party time. You can choose to abstain from intoxicating substances, whether you've taken the precepts or not. But the practice is not mere abstinence -- the practice is to know what that experience is for you.

A friend of mine summed it up in a post she made on Facebook:

Profoundly grateful tonight on this, the 28th anniversary of my sobriety. It is a continual reminder of how grace is rooted in imperfection, and yet, shines through it.
Know your imperfections and be grateful for them. That's the crack where the light gets in.