Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice
by Krista Tippett, host
Matthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.
I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.
But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman swathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.
I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators" — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.
Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.
He had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.
Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.
The Dismantling of Lives: Coming Through for Someone Else
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"It’s a prime time of my life, and I basically gave it away."
Julie Winokur uprooted her husband Ed Kashi and two children from San Francisco, California to New Jersey to take care of Herbie, her 83-year-old father with dementia. This film is an intimate portrait of a family who is “doing the right thing” but are struggling with the demands of caregiving and managing daily lives of work and school.
You witness the love and the anguish of a multi-generational household making things work; it seems like the mental health of all, especially Julie, are in peril. The stakes are high, but so are the consequences if they chose a different course.
Although “The Sandwich Generation” primarily focuses on the voices of the caregivers, the most agonizing and heartbreaking part of the film comes at about the seven-minute mark. In this scene, a deconstruction crew is cleaning out Herbie’s home that he’s lived in for more than 40 years. Glass is crashing, boxes of his personal items are being heaved into a dumpster, and he’s left standing in his garage holding an old set of golf clubs he doesn’t want to let go. We never really get to know the man at the core of this picture. He’s discussed, he’s photographed, he’s cared for, he even sings a little at the end, but he remains on the periphery in a sense. And this scene grabs the onlooker and shakes us.
Looking for an image that could capture the depth of this week’s show on the "far shore of aging" resulted in this complicated portrait on the spectrum of caregiving from MediaStorm. But it also introduced me to an incredible series of photographs by Ed Kashi titled "Aging in America." Eight years later, it’s more important now than ever.
If you’re conflicted about whether to spend money on a material good (say, a computer) or personal experience (say, a vacation), the research says you’ll get much more satisfaction — and for longer — if you choose the experience. Most of us, it turns out, get more bang from the experiential buck. Indeed, when people are asked to recall their most significant material and experiential purchases over the previous five years, they report that the experience brought more joy, was a source of more enduring satisfaction and was more clearly “money well spent.”
This might seem counter-intuitive. The material good lasts while the experience is fleeting. But psychologically it’s the reverse. We quickly adapt to the material good, but the experience endures in the memories we cherish, the stories we tell and the very sense of who we are.
—from Gary Belsky and Tom Gilovich’s article in Time, “Want Happiness? Don’t Buy More Stuff — Go on Vacation”
This one article is responsible for convincing my wife to take a road trip to Montana in a couple weeks. After days of debate, I’ve learned that Belsky and Gilovich carry more authority and are more persuasive than the love of a good husband and 20 years of marriage. *grin*
Whatever it takes! Swan Valley, here we come! The Griswolds are on the loose.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human
by Krista Tippett, host
Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0
The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families.
General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature. And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism, I knew I’d found a way in.
During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.
Some of our programs feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable.
The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.
Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.
Paul writes this:
"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."
There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.
Complicated Grief: How to Lessen Pain that Persists
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Statue of an angel grieving in a cemetery in Houston, Texas. (photo: Timothy Faust/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief. ~Aeschylus
UCLA researchers found that grief over losing a loved one can take an extreme form of bereavement, stimulating the part of the brain normally associated with reward and addiction. This is called “complicated grief” and the name alone gives more weight and depth to our varied experiences of loss.
This phrase is being considered for addition to the 2012 DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook for diagnosing mental disorders. There is no formal definition, but The New York Times describes its symptoms as:
"… a yearning for the loved one so intense that it strips a person of other desires. Life has no meaning; joy is out of bounds. Other symptoms include intrusive thoughts about death; uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt and other negative emotions; and a preoccupation with, or avoidance of, anything associated with the loss."
Observed differences in brain scans
The nucleus accumbens (NA) is the part of the brain associated with reward and addiction. Participants in the study were asked to view images of their lost loved ones paired with words about their loss. The people who showed the most devastating patterns of grieving also showed more activation in the NA.
Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, who used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity told the Times: “It’s as if the brain were saying, ‘Yes I’m anticipating seeing this person’ and yet ‘I am not getting to see this person.’ The mismatch is very painful.”
Hope for treatment
Though bereavement research and training is very limited, there are some clinical trials in the works modeling treatment of victims of PTSD.
The patient undergoes the painful task of recalling the death in detail while the therapist records the session on tape. Then the patient must listen to the tape at their home daily with a goal of learning that their grief can be put away or picked up again on their own terms, just as one can do with a tape. Also patients are asked to focus on future goals without their loved one.
Asking a bereaved person to compartmentalize and relive their pain in this way sounds painful, even insensitive. However, the method has shown signs of success and is an important early step in understanding this underserved population of sufferers.
Touching our Trembling Places: A Generational Story for Yom HaShoah
by Iris Tzafrir, guest contributor
A balloon flies over Eisenmann Memorial in Berlin. (photo: Danny/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Our household was a heavy one. I always felt the presence of sadness and loss; those emotions were part of everything that took place in our family, including birthdays and personal achievements. I knew where the sadness and sense of loss came from, to an extent, from stories that Aba (my father Yehoshua) told — and from his writings.
Growing up, I did not want to touch those places where the sadness and loss came from. Ouri, my oldest brother, calls these hard to touch places hamekomot harotetim, “the trembling places” inside of us.
As I matured, I came to believe that, if I got courageous and got close to these trembling places, I might be able to help myself and those I love to heal from that sadness and sense of loss. And maybe eventually this package of sadness and loss would not be so overwhelming and heavily present in my life.
A Murdered Family Made More Real
A wall at the entry to the Belzec extermination camp in Poland reads: “This is the site of the murder of about 500,000 victims of the Belzec death camp established for the purpose of killing the Jews of Europe, whose live where brutally taken between February and December 1942 by Nazi Germany. ‘Earth do not cover my blood; / let there be no resting / place for my outcry!’ Job 16:18’.” (photo: Iris Tzafrir)
Last year, my siblings and I traveled for the first time with Aba to Poland and Germany to visit places of significance in Aba’s life before and during the Shoah. Belzec is an extermination camp located in Lublin county in eastern Poland, where we believe Aba’s parents and four younger siblings were murdered during the spring of 1941.
We prepared to conduct a memorial ceremony with kipot (head coverings), memory candles, and poetry written by Aba. My brother Assaf opened the ceremony, saying that we were gathered there in memory of our grandfather Tuvia, our grandmother Miriam, and our uncles and aunts Schiendel, Israel, Tzvi, Sara-Eitah, Roza, and Yehudit.
We then read Aba’s poem, “In the Illumination of Lightning”:
In the illumination of lightning
I saw a frightened boy in an open field
Distancing himself from a well-branched aspen that is being severed at once.
Gashes of a downpour are beating on his back
And the tears of his face mix with the water columns.
As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.
It was hard reading Aba’s poems to completion without choking and spilling into tears. Working our way through the ceremony was about courage. I felt courageous standing and reading Aba’s poems in Belzec, memorializing with purpose our murdered family members whom we had never met.
The ceremony made our murdered family more real than before because I now had a place to associate with the sense of sadness and loss absorbed from Aba over the years. I knew that it made Aba feel good to see us being courageous. It was an attribute that was held in high esteem in our family: you don’t run away when a situation is hard; you stay and grind through it, if necessary, because something beneficial, albeit hidden, might come out of such situation.
A Journey to Renewal and Healing
We concluded our 10-day trip on the grounds of Block 66 in Buchenwald, Germany, where Aba arrived after a death march that started in Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). Aba described his liberation moments on April 11th, 1945: an American tank went through the main gate of Buchenwald, and from the top of the tank a black soldier came out and said: “You are free.”
Standing on the grounds of Block 66, Ouri pushed Aba for details, reaching to touch a trembling place, trying to frame the enormity of the moment.
“How did you see the black soldier? How did you hear him say ‘You are free?’”
Aba answered crying, “You hear these words everywhere; after all the atrocities we went through, these words come from the heavens.”
Between Tishah Be’aav, the day memorializing the destruction of the Temple, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Jewish people read from the book of Isaiah. In chapter 54, verses 7-9, God promises:
"For a brief moment I forsake you, but I will gather you with great compassion; in an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says God, your Redeemer; this is like the waters of Noah to me; I swore that the waters of Noah would never again submerge the earth; similarly, I swore that I would not be angry with you and would not rebuke you.”
—from The Living Torah, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
When I listen to Aba recalling himself as a small boy holding on to his mother’s hand when they walked together to the Thursday market in Dombrova, near Krakow, I ask, “How could You leave us, even for a moment? In the one brief moment that the prophet Isaiah talks about, I feel that You have forsaken the boy in the ‘Illumination of Lightning’”:
“As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.”
We read from Isaiah during the transition period from destruction to renewal. The trip we took is part of our family’s attempt to get closer to our trembling places where we feel anger, sadness, and loss of trust. Now that we have visited the trembling places as the real places that they are, we are able to continually use them as sources for reflection in our journey to renewal and healing. We find such renewal and healing by creating anew:
What is good in life is to create.
To create, from what is and from what is not.
To breath life into a clean fresh page,
Line to line, crossing and toasting each other.
Forms coalesce in the real and in the abstract
Leading you in awe among mazes.
Do not fear, Ariadne in a thread of grace
Will bring you into light.
Mix the colors, knead the material,
Slightly swing with your hammer and determinedly remove
Oddments that seize beauty.
Creation is born in pain,
Because you have to start anew.
What is good in creating, is that you never conclude.
—“What is Good in Life” by Yehoshua Tzafrir, translated from Hebrew by Iris Tzafrir
Iris Tzafrir is an Israeli who has been living in the United States for the last 20 years. Trained as a scientist, she manages intellectual property transactions in the agriculture industry. She regularly speaks and writes about being a second generation of Shoah survivors.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Clint Eastwood and David Lynch Teach 10,000 Veterans to Meditate with Operation Warrior Wellness
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The filmmaker David Lynch has been a vocal advocate of transcendental meditation for some time now. But I’m quite intrigued with the work that his foundation is doing with returning veterans. The national initiative they are calling “Operation Warrior Wellness” aims to “teach 10,000 veterans and their families a simple meditation practice for preventing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Their kick-off event is this morning and they are streaming live video at 11 Eastern from the Paley Center for Media in New York. It looks like their will be a healthy line-up of celebrities (Clint Eastwood and David Lynch), scientific researchers, and war veterans who “will present evidence showing that Transcendental Meditation can be an effective aid for veterans suffering from combat stress and PTSD, including anxiety, depression, anger episodes, hypervigilance, insomnia, and substance abuse.”
While you wait, here’s a short video the David Lynch Foundation produced featuring veterans and their experiences with meditation:
If you watch this, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about what they’re doing.
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
A few weeks ago I took a break to attend a week-long retreat in rural Wisconsin. A change of setting was refreshing, and perhaps necessary. Much of my week was spent walking through open fields and gardens, a nice contrast to my cubicle here at SOF headquarters. I also went on two excursions to some unique and inspiring places: Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home Taliesin, and Deer Park Buddhist Center.
Both of these spaces seemed to compliment each other as meeting spaces of the old and new. Taliesin’s modern-looking organic architecture was aged to the point that it almost seemed to crumble into the hillside, while Deer Park’s traditional Buddhist decorations were placed on a brand new, modern building. Both spaces carried a certain weight that stuck with me, especially the interior of Deer Park’s temple, which you see pictured at top.
Fitting then that I returned to a staff discussion about Esther Sternberg’s new book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being. I’ve only just started reading it, but the book focuses on the relationship between health and the spaces we inhabit — an idea that I can easily connect with my week in Wisconsin. We’ve talked to Sternberg before — first as a voice for our program "Stress and the Balance Within," then again as part of our Repossessing Virtue series. Sternberg’s book has been showing up in some unexpected places, and it’s raised the question of whether we might have another conversation with her. I look forward to continuing her book, and perhaps hearing from her again.
Image at top: inside the Deer Park Buddhist Temple. (photo: Liz Sexe)
The Ceaseless Society
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I’m not going to lie. I’m really enjoying Jon Kabat-Zinn. His Google talk introduced me to some very simple techniques that I’ve been using lately to help me fall asleep faster. Bedtime is when my mind is freed from all restraints, unfortunately. That’s when the hamsters go nuts, and it usually takes me an hour to fall asleep, on average. But just breathing the way Jon Kabat-Zinn shows has helped me bring my ETA to sleep down to about 15 minutes. Joy.
He jokes about how, in the 1960s, while some Westerners were heading off to forest refuges in India to learn to meditate, counterintuitively, he discovered meditation at perhaps the most accomplished technical institute in the world, MIT. Here he is back at MIT in 2006 to talk about the increasingly hectic pace of life in the 21st century. (He gets on stage around the 18:00 minute mark.)
In his conversation with Krista, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about one aspect of that hectic life: our 24/7 networked reality and the difficulty it poses. In some sense, I think this is going to be a generational thing, a matter of conditioning. But one worthwhile question he asks is, “Who are we going to be without the technology?” I’ve been thinking about this alongside my recent discovery of Ray Kurzweil and his thoughts on the future of human evolution, A.I., and digital networks. I’ll be set to retire around the time the singularity happens in 2045, and by that time, apparently, we might be living in some kind of Matrix society (i.e. lots of trench coats and sunglasses?).
Here I am blogging on the Web about how networked we all are and will continue to be. Well, fine, I can’t escape. The machines have me. OK, time to take a breath. I could choose to be paralyzed by the immensity of the big problems of civilization or the little ones in my life, or I could just…whew…relax a little bit, stop freaking out, and start each day fresh.