Reminder of an On-Stage Exchange Thanks to Kungfutofu
- Ms. Tippett: So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one's self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you're in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I'm going to hang onto this. "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let's pay attention to what is happening, then we'll figure out what to do." I think that's a fabulous sentence for one's self and for one's children.
- Dr. Boorstein: I'm so pleased that you found that. It's tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, "I say to myself, 'Sweetheart, you're in pain. Relax, take a breath.'" I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, "Sweetheart."
A Twitterscript of Richard J. Davidson Interview
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:
- As we get set for interview w/ neuroscientist Richie Davidson, enjoyed @SmithsonianMag’s “Top 10 Myths about the Brain”http://bit.ly/kqRdG7 24 May
- Krista is now interviewing neuroscientist Richard Davidson (of @DalaiLama fame)! We’ll be live-tweeting for the next 90 mins. #meditation 24 May
- You might know Davidson for peeking into the brains of Buddhist monks http://bit.ly/kLdczm 24 May
- @Wisc_CIHM he studies “healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness” http://bit.ly/jrMxc4 24 May
- As a kid he was a ham radio operator. And now he studies “contemplative neuroscience.” 24 May
- Davidson’s been on our radar ever since speaking during HHDL’s visit to Emory last year http://bit.ly/izyTdE 24 May
- His friends and colleagues call the Professor “Richie.” 24 May
- “What modern neuroscience is teaching us is that there is a lot of neuroplasticity (in the brain), and change is possible.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “It’s not the genes are unimportant, it’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Contemplative Neuroscience—the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain.” -Professor Davidson 24 May
- “The Dalai Lama challenged me, he said why can’t you use technological tools to study kindness and compassion?” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “I committed to doing everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map.” -Richard Davidson. 24 May
- 6 emotions studied: Happiness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Surprise. “This is the best you can do with Western Psychology?”-Davidson 24 May
- RT @FullContactTMcG: I’d be curious to know how we are re-wiring our brains with being becoming multitaskers with an inability to focus. 24 May
- @FullContactTMcG Will forward to Krista in the booth. Thanks. 24 May
- “The best way to teach compassion is to embody it. Through being that the individuals in the vicinity of that person will learn from it.” 24 May
- “That’s what’s so delicious about being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit comes from the word ‘familiarization.’” As in familiarization with one’s own mind. -R. Davidson 24 May
- “There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, understood to produce different effects.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Mindfulness—moment to moment non judgemental attention and awareness.” -Richard Davidson 24 May
- “Based on everything we know in neuroscience, change is not only possible, it’s the rule rather than the exception.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Our brain is continuously being shaped, we can take more responsibility for our own brain by cultivating positive influences.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill, that can be enhanced through training.” -R. Davidson. 24 May
- “(We need) a different conception of happiness, more enduring and more genuine, not dependent on external circumstances.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In the Buddhist tradition there’s tremendously rich detail in the description of the mechanics of these (contemplative) practices”-Davidson 24 May
- “I think the messiness and embodied nature of modern life just produces an enhanced signal for our attention.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In many ways my life has objective signs of busyness and stress, it creates more opportunities for kindness and compassion.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “(We have) no idea how the subjective quality of consciousness emerges from the physical stuff of the brain.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The idea of transformation meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The best way I can mentor and lead those around me is to embody these (mindful) qualities myself.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In meditation you experience time slowing down because you can notice more things per discreet moment and you’re more open.” -R.Davidson 24 May
- ”(Re: the value of presence) If we’re multitasking, it’s being present with the multiple tasks before us.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- That concludes our interview with Professor Richard Davidson! Thank you for retweeting. 24 May
The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
“(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
As you might hear in the audio above, I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of others with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sake.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditation with Sylvia Boorstein
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In mid-February, we partnered with WDET to hold a live event in a quaint suburban village outside of Detroit. The topic: raising children in complex times.
Krista’s conversation with Sylvia Boorstein was rolling along quite nicely — stories were being told, approaches to child-rearing were being shared — when somewhat unexpectedly, Boorstein (a Jewish Buddhist teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California) offered to lead a lovingkindness, or metta, meditation for a crowd of more than 300 folks.
With that size of a crowd who hadn’t necessarily attended for a mindfulness retreat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What resulted was a magical experience in which the audience fully participated in this impromptu moment of reflection.
If you’re game, we’d like you to use this as a guided meditation. As a producer, one’s never certain if an impromptu experience like this works because it was part of a particular time or if it translates into a fruitful experience for others online. What do you think?
Photo by Trent Gilliss
Correction (June 11, 2011): This post mistakenly referred to Ms. Boorstein teaching at Split Rock Meditation Center, and has now been revised to Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
Namaste, Bobby McFerrin. A Photograph.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Producing for this public radio program definitely has its memory perks, indelible moments that make one pause and smile, or contemplate and squint. This photo is one of those sacred moments for me, ten seconds or so in which I witnessed an artist prepare in his own way for another interview.
Just after Bobby McFerrin sat down — right before he ran back to his dressing room to fetch Krista some fresh-baked ginger snaps — he began stretching in the most relaxed and expansive way, fully aware of his breathing and his body. His movement was more of a pose, really, with a glacial, measured pace of extension. Ample in its nature, lacking nervousness. The nature of it gracious and enduring, with intention.
This is as good as it gets.
By the way, the man is 61 years old. I gotta start improvising more.
Live Video: Secular Ethics and Meditation
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Although the Dalai Lama wasn’t able to make it to the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California due to illness, this substitute talk by Thupten Jinpa, His Holiness’ translator, and Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, should make for a great hour of learning. Two wise people discussing ethics and meditation should provide for some worthwhile contemplation and tips for living a more thoughtful life. The event starts now, at 5:45 pm (Eastern).
A Little Bit of Mindfulness Meditation Can Reduce a Lot of Pain
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“You might not need extensive training [in meditation] to realize pain-relief benefits. Most people don’t have time to spend months in a monastery.”
—Fadel Zeidan, neuroscientist
In the study, a small group of healthy medical students attended four 20-minute training sessions on “mindfulness meditation” — a technique adapted from a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation called samatha.It’s all about acknowledging and letting go of distraction. …
So how did the researchers gauge the effect? They administered a very distracting bit of pain: A small, thermal stimulator heated to 120 degrees was applied to the back of each volunteer’s right calf. The subjects reported both the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain. If pain were music, intensity would be volume. Unpleasantness would have more of an emotional component, kind of like how much you love or hate a song.
After meditation training, the subjects reported a 40 percent decrease in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. And it wasn’t just their perception of pain that changed. Brain activity changed too.
Be sure to read Cole’s article for the details.
Radioactive: The Modern-Day Science and Spiritualism of Marie and Pierre Curie
by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Radioactivity. Life. Death. These are front-and-center in my thoughts these days as I contemplate the fallout from the nuclear plant meltdown generated by power outages, triggered by a tsunami set off by an earthquake in Japan. Amidst these events, I turned my attention to reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.
Currently, the book is on exhibit at the New York Public Library. The author, an artist, teaches documentary, drawing, graphic novels, and printmaking at the Parsons School of Design, so one might be excused from not immediately recognizing the logic of her having written a book on the Curies (who shared with Henri Becquerel the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation.) But there’s little that is logical about the way this story reveals itself and that’s what makes it beautiful and such a pleasure to read.
The book is a piece of art composed of images and words. Although told in roughly chronological fashion, mostly the story has long tendrils of other tales. In this regard, as well as others, I suspect it will be of interest to people fascinated by the intersections of science and mind.
Here’s what I liked about it. To me, the format of Radioactive mimics the way a mind — mine at least — works. All of us dedicated to a regular sitting practice know that just a few breaths into a sit, the mind is likely to take an excursion, follow an idea. After some time we wake up to the fact of our distraction and come back to focusing on the breath. It is in this manner that the story of the Curies, their colleagues, friends, enemies, lovers, and offspring unfolds. Unlike histories of science or biographies of scientists that are so often linear and wordy, this one provides multiple, pursuable pathways.
Even if they know little else, most people know that Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. They may also know that her first Nobel in physics was followed by a second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium.
But the story of Marie and Pierre Curie is much more interesting than that plain fact. It involves a stimulating partnership of spouses engaged by the same scientific questions, infatuation with the invisible, Marie’s scandalous love affair after her husband’s accidental death by horse-drawn carriage, an ongoing commitment to scientific and medical investigations that ultimately killed her, and offspring — both biological and scientific — who have carried on their work.
In Radioactive, entwined images and prose create a fabric that relates the stories of the Curies to more modern-day concerns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and two World Wars. Redniss indulges her readers with haunting cyanotype and archival images offered up in nonlinear fashion; this is a boon for right-brainers such as I whose minds tend toward wandering.
A most fascinating facet of the book tells of the Curie’s explorations in Spiritualism — a movement that suggested the possibility of contact with the divine. As Redniss tells it:
“Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity — at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic…. Spiritualists claimed that clairvoyants possessed ‘X-gazes,’ and that photographic plates placed on the forehead could record vital forces of the brain, or ‘V-rays.’”
The Curies and their circle — including leading artists, writers, and scientists such as Edvard Munch, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henri Poincare, Alexander Graham Bell — participated in the Spiritualist séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and considered it possible to find in Spiritualism the origin of unknown energy that might relate to radioactivity. In fact, as Susan Quinn recounts in Marie Curie: A Life, just prior to his death, Pierre Curie wrote to physicist Louis Georges Gouy about his last séance with Palladino, “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”
Both scientists and Spiritualists believed that there was much that exists in the world that cannot be seen by the naked eyes of humans.
Radioactive is a story of mystery and magic as well as a history of science and invention. It shows how science, so often thought of as motivated by passionate rationality, is equally about marvelous ambiguity. The Curies, perhaps influenced by their encounters with Spiritualism, devoted their lives to the search for evidence of phenomena they could not see but that they believed existed. The implications of what they found — the good and the bad, medical innovation and nuclear proliferation — they couldn’t fully anticipate.
A recent New York Times article about nuclear energy, “Preparing for Everything, Except the Unknown,” states the obvious: experts say it is impossible to prepare for everything. As a mindfulness practitioner, I’d like to offer a corollary to that statement: when we sit seemingly doing nothing, plenty happens — we don’t see it, but we sense it. Redniss’s history of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie inspires me as a scientist to continue to pursue my mindfulness practice.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
The Unasked Questions for Sylvia Boorstein
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?
The Practical Mystery of Yoga
by Krista Tippett, host
After my interview with Matthew Sanford a few years ago, I started thinking about yoga. I had dabbled in it intermittently across the years, but until very recently the structure of my life did not yield happily to new “non-essential” commitments. I would sign up for a weekly class and then only attend once or twice.
Then I discovered a studio with a full and flexible schedule — drop in classes literally morning, noon, and night — and I was off. Initially — and this is how Seane Corn describes her experience too — I was mostly aware of how good the physical workout felt. (I’m doing “core power yoga” — a fusion that is indeed more of a sweaty workout than I’d experienced in yoga classes before.) But at some point a few months on, I realized that yoga was working in far more significant ways on my energy, my sense of spiritual and mental well-being, the way I moved through the rest of my life.
Several of my colleagues were nearly simultaneously going through a similar process with yoga in their off-hours. And we’re not special or strange in this. The past few years have seen a surge of cultural and journalistic attention — some wary, some appreciative — to the way yoga has suddenly taken in cities, small towns, schools, and workplaces. Perhaps I’m justifying the fact that this show, as much as any we’ve done, indulged an enormous curiosity that has grown in me privately as well as professionally. But when I read Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond redux novel and found that he has the Chief Spymaster M instructing his agents to practice yoga for strength and focus, I felt we had no choice but to at least devote an hour to it.
Seane Corn is a wonderful and surprising voice for this exploration. She is a master teacher and a star in the ever-expanding universe of yoga teachers and trainers. She appeared as the beautiful face and body of yoga in a Nike “goddess” ad campaign. But the cadence and intensity of her voice — as she’s quick to point out with some pride — reflects a blue-collar New Jersey upbringing and the fact that she is one of life’s fighters.
Nothing in her early life prefigured her current embodiment of yoga’s alignment of strength, energy, and grace. She left home and school to move to New York City at 16, found work as a waitress, and partied hard. She discovered yoga at 19, as she was on the edge of sanity. She had been battling an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, which she believes was connected with an episode of childhood sexual abuse.
The drama of Seane Corn’s story makes for a fascinating conversation. But she is also a very down to earth guide into the basic facts about the practicalities and power of yoga.
I’ve written a more personal essay about the changes this practice has affected in me — the very unexpected lessons it has brought to the rest of my life. On this point, too, the intensity of Seane Corn’s story is compelling. But it also throws into relief parallel experiences I’ve had and heard about in others that have practiced yoga in varying forms and degrees. She had been practicing yoga for years until one day she was filled, walking home, with an utterly strange sensation, which she finally understood to be a sense of joy, of happiness.
Her practice of yoga is thoroughly interwoven, at this point, with her understanding of grace, God, and love. The way she comes at that — and expresses it — is anything but light and airy. The joy and love at the heart of yoga drive her to be ruthlessly honest about the darkness in herself and to face the darkness in the world. She takes yoga’s sense of the teacher in every experience with utter seriousness — working with organizations helping get teenage prostitutes off the streets, for example, from Los Angeles to Cambodia.
Like meditation, this ancient spiritual technology lends itself to interpretation and incorporation with many spiritual sensibilities and religious traditions — just as its range of practices are adaptable to any type of body at any stage of vitality or disability. I also see this yoga phenomenon as part of a larger move that we’ve variously explored towards rooting — or rather, reintegrating — the body into spiritual and religious traditions, from Judaism to Pentecostal Christianity. There is some wonderful, fundamental insight here that many of us are reclaiming from wildly different directions. And as Matthew Sanford still so memorably put it to me, the more completely we inhabit our own bodies with both their strengths and their flaws, the more compassionate we become towards all of life. That’s the kind of earthy, reality-based mystery I love.