by Susan Leem, associate producer
The Dalai Lama and Dr. Richard Davidson trade smiles during the first day of the Mind Life XIV Conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India on April 9, 2007. (photo: Tenzin Lhwang/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Davidson is best known for peeking into the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. With brain neuroimaging, he is trying to understand how their contemplative practices change a human brain — functionally and structurally. We’ve wanted to speak with the neuroscientist for several years now, but it wasn’t until Krista spoke to him at Emory University last fall that we were able to schedule an interview.
Early in his career, Davidson was discouraged from doing this work by his advisors, who feared he wouldn’t find any results. His research has implications not just for practitioners of Buddhism, but also for improving the learning and social behavior of school children. His most thrilling finding is that our brain is more flexible than we realize, even in adulthood.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
Thanks for writing to us. You may have heard Joanna Macy if your station was doing a pledge drive. The name of that show is "A Wild Love for the World" and you can find the all the details on our website.
Alternately, you may have heard Sylvia Boorstein in "What We Nurture." We aired that show for Mother’s Day.
Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
by Susan Leem, associate producer
A monk celebrates Vesak Day, the Buddha’s birthday, at the Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. (photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Today is the birthday of the Buddha, born as Prince Siddhārtha Gautama in Lumbini, 150 miles from Kathmandu, Nepal. Devotees celebrate three stages of his life on this day: his birth, enlightenment after meditating under the Bodhi tree, and his passing.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Katsuo Fujihara, 73, prays at the tomb of a dead family member at a cemetery in Kamaishi in Iwate prefecture. Still reeling 10 days after Japan’s deadliest natural disaster since 1923, the Japanese people marked shunbun no hi (vernal equinox day) on Sunday by visiting the tombs of their ancestors, cleaning them, and offering prayers and ohagi, sweet rice balls covered with red bean paste. (photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)
Shinto, Buddhism, and even a combination of both are taking on new importance in mostly secular Japan amidst the ongoing tragedy. Unlike in the West, most Japanese don’t observe an exclusive division between two religions, writes John Nelson, chair of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco:
“They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations. For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings. But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”
Yesterday marked the beginning of a special period in Buddhism called Ohigan where Japanese visit the graves of their families and pray to their ancestor spirits for help. The Japanese translation of Ohigan means "the other shore," to distinguish the suffering felt in this world from the possibility of enlightenment.
Shinto sacred flame. (photo: Timothy Takemoto/Flickr)
During Ohigan in March 2005, Ryuei Michael McCormick describes the celebration in seasonal terms of transcendence. From his dharma talk at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple in March 2005:
"Ohigan is celebrated twice a year during the spring and autumn equinox, the time of year when the day and night are of equal length. The Ohigan is also a time of transition, from the short days of winter to the long days of summer and back again.
As a time of seasonal transition, it also represents the transitions of human life, from the sunny summer of life to dark winter of death. This is why the Ohigan is a time to remember those who have passed on, particularly our ancestors and loved ones. It is also a time to give thought to another kind of transition, from this shore of birth and death to the other shore of enlightenment, wherein birth and death is transcended. In fact, we recite the Odaimoku and the Lotus Sutra for the purpose of enabling those of us still living and those who are deceased for whom we dedicate merit to both arrive at the other shore of awakening.
For any kind of journey one needs to pack, or make provisions. Even an overnight trip requires that we bring a change of clothes and toiletries like shaving gear, deodorant, and so on. What kind of provisions, then, do we need to journey to the other shore of enlightenment? In this case, a spare towel or shaving kit will not suffice. We need something that is both less substantial and at the same time more real. According to Mahayana Buddhism, those of us who aspire to buddhahood will require what are called the six paramitas. Paramita is usually translated as “perfection” as in the “six perfections.” But it actually means “crossing over.” So these are the six characteristics of those who are able to cross over from this shore of suffering to the other shore of enlightenment, and who, furthermore, are able to help others to make that transition and cross as well.”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"How can I catch my angry self before it catches me!?"
This is one of many anonymous questions posed by the 300 people who came out to hear Krista interview Sylvia Boorstein at a live event in Birmingham, Michigan last month. The theme of their conversation: “Raising Children in Complex Times.” Now in her 70’s, Boorstein is best known as a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. She’s quick to define herself as both a mother and grandmother.
We came away from this event with a big stack of question cards, many of which didn’t get posed because of time. Here’s a sampler:
"Sometimes my husband will say - we need to toughen these kids up; they have to live in a tough world. How do we balance teaching them kindness/gentleness versus being tough."
"What words of comfort can we say to our children (22 yrs) when faced with health issues. (Can be major or minor)."
"In a time of overbearing parenting and institutionalized narcisism [sic], how do we cultivate caring?"
"Spiritual principles for a 6 yr old. My daughter is 6 — she asks many questions about ‘God.’ Other than modeling behavior do you have other suggestions on how to discuss spirituality when my spirituality is so abstract?"
"Growing up in an alcoholic family, and with anxiety as an adult, how does one manage anxiety with parenting?"
Looking at the anonymous cards, each one with its distinctive handwriting, I imagine a person on the other side with a longing for their question to be answered.
Which of these questions speak to you? And what responses would you offer?Comments
by Kate Moos, managing producer
Sharon Salzberg is one of the pioneering teachers of Buddhist thought and meditation in this country. A co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, she has taught mindfulness for 30 years, and is the author of several books, including Loving-kindness, Faith, and most recently, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.
In our show with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Krista cites Sharon Salzberg’s work as an early conveyor of Buddhist and mindfulness practice in this country. We interviewed her in the very early days of this project for a show called "The Meaning of Faith" and in 2008, at the height of the worst economic downturn this country has seen since the Great Depression, to glean her insights into navigating a world of reduced expectations.
I’ve experimented with mindfulness meditation but never managed to develop a consistent practice. Most recently, my insight on this difficulty is that I want mindfulness practice to deliver me some emotional goods, or put me in a better mood, and when that doesn’t happen I get discouraged. What kind of expectations — if any — should I bring to this experience as a beginner?
Meditation is an experiment we are making, bringing us out of our normal habits of intense self-judgment, comparing, and impatience. Mindfulness isn’t about what is happening; it is about how we are relating to what is happening — how much awareness, balance and compassion are bringing to this moment’s experience, whatever it is.
For example, it is very likely you will find your attention wandering, not 45 minutes after you first begin, but probably within a few seconds. You get lost in a fantasy, or fall asleep. That is normal and not a sign of failure. What I emphasize is that the critical moment in your meditation is the moment you see you’ve been distracted; instead of falling into our usual habits of self-condemnation, that’s a time we can practice letting go while being kind to ourselves, and work with the renewing power of beginning again.
Practicing mindfulness sometimes just seems to make my mind race even more than usual. Are there any ways I can prepare for my practice that will help me slow down before I begin?
It can help to do some walking or movement meditation before sitting, to help settle your energy. These are simple techniques that, if walking, involve feeling sensations in our feet and legs — things like heaviness, lightness, hardness. Or if you are lifting your arms instead of walking, it’s the same effort. Simply feel what’s going on in your body.
And once you sit down to begin that part of meditation, you can set an intention that might help frame all the coming experiences in a bigger context, like “I am practicing to learn balance, neither fighting my thoughts or letting them overwhelm me.” That’s like putting the wide-angle lens on the camera, and you can feel some space from the racing thoughts. Also, remember it won’t last forever. That period of agitation is not revealing who you really are, what your life will now look like forever. This too will pass.
There is almost undeniable evidence that regular meditation brings predictable medical, psychological, and cognitive benefits. Really, it almost appears it makes us smarter and better-looking and it costs nothing. Why do I resist it? Why do I prefer to watch embarrassing television as a way to relax? It seems perverse!
I often say to people, “Isn’t it ironic that if someone said to us, ‘Here is this thing you can do 20 minutes a day, and it will really help your friend,’ we’d probably do it. But to put in that 20 minutes for ourselves is much more difficult.”
It is difficult, but if we really consider the reported benefits, we also see that doing something like meditation isn’t selfish or self-centered. If we become depleted, overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives, perpetually irritable, or disconnected, we are not going to be able to give much to others.
The common difficulty is why I think it is good to be both reasonable and realistic. Try to make a commitment you can keep — even five minutes a day is a good beginning, and a way to cut through the momentum of our busyness and lack of connection to our inner lives.
We have been creating new shows as part of a series called "The Civil Conversations Project," exploring how we can create healthy engagement and deeper listening across some of the deepest and most entrenched divides in American public life. We live in a world of very real conflict — conflict that doesn’t evaporate when we decide to be polite or civil to each other. Does mindfulness have a place in helping us navigate real-world conflicts?
I think mindfulness could have a significant place in that navigation. Clearly it helps us have more self-awareness, including helping us be in closer touch with our intentions and motivations: “What do I actually want out of this encounter? Resolution? Revenge? Vindication? Understanding?” We can see our motives and decide if we want to pursue that stance or not.
One of the functions of mindfulness is to give us options. We can see our reactions building early, and not just after we have already pressed “send” on that nasty, hostile email or closed a door we actually hope could remain open. We see what is happening within, without panic or getting lost in the reaction. We know we can follow it out or let it go. And because mindfulness helps us be in touch with a big range of feelings, thoughts, and reactions, we know from experience that we can take a strong, principled stand on something while not demonizing someone else for their views or even their actions. We learn that we can be fierce without hating.
You are one of the early interpreters of Buddhism in this country and have been meditating and teaching for decades. You’re also fairly wired; I first reached out to you about this interview on Twitter, for example. Some people predict that new technologies and mobile communication devices will just make us more anxious and distracted, but you seem to find them very useful. Do you experience a contradiction in this?
I think of myself as not particularly technologically savvy. My iPhone has few apps aside from The Weather Channel and a flashlight (though I think I am on a meditation app myself), and there are probably a thousand things my computer can do to make my life easier that I haven’t yet learned. But from the first time I did a tele-teaching, and heard that someone was calling in from Moscow, I loved the idea of our being able to connect to each other so easily.
I do spend quite a bit of time on Twitter (I confess), have done a tweet chat and have more coming. I do find these things quite useful. What’s sad is sitting in a hotel lobby somewhere and seeing every single person in there constantly on a cell phone or PDA, seemingly not noticing where they actually are. And since I do it myself, I try to remember to bring my attention back to my breath and the present moment.
Any final words for someone starting out?
The proof of the benefit of meditation comes in your life. You might not have a great breakthrough experience sitting this Thursday morning, though of course we would like that. It might show itself in your greater ability to begin again once you’ve made a mistake, or really listening to someone rather than mostly contemplating all the other things you need to do as they converse.
There needs to be a critical look at whether meditation is worth your pursuing, but we need to practice it for a while before evaluating, and then evaluate on the basis of your life. After all, we don’t practice mindfulness meditation to become a great meditator; we practice to have a more balanced, aware, and connected life.
Photo of the author by Liz Matthews.Comments
by Maia Duerr, guest contributor
"Buddha Moon - Buddha Stones" (photo: H. Kopp-Delaney/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Winter Solstice. The longest night of the year. The other day I was wondering what it must have been like to be one of the early humans, before there was a body of cultural and scientific knowledge built up to assure us that the light would, indeed, return as we turned the corner on this day and headed once again toward spring. It must have been terrifying to see the sun drop lower and lower in the sky each day and the night grow longer and longer without really knowing if that trajectory would reverse.
So this is a dark time — not only astronomically but also the world feels dark right now.Comments
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
While at Emory University for The Summit on Happiness a few weeks ago, Krista sat down with Geshe Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s chief English translator, for a one-hour interview. We live-tweeted the conversation and collated them into this Twitterscript for you. Look for our produced show of this interview on our website and podcast this Thursday.