Our Latest Radio Show + Podcast: Opening to Our Lives: Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Science of Mindfulness (» download mp3)
“It doesn’t actually take any more time to say good-bye or hug you know, your children or whatever it is in the morning when you’re on your way to work. But the mind says, ‘I don’t have any time for this.’ But actually that’s all you have time for, is this because there’s nothing else than this…So when your four year-old can’t decide which dress she wants to wear, that’s not a problem for you, unless you make it a problem for you. That’s just the way four year-olds are. And the more we can sort of learn these lessons the more we will not be in some sense running towards our death, but in a sense opening to our lives.”
Scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn has changed Western medicine through his work on meditation and stress. He’s clinically demonstrated the benefits of ancient traditions of mindfulness and meditation. And he’s adapted these for people who are healthy or living with chronic illness, for Olympic athletes and corporate cultures.
In this week’s On Being podcast, Jon Kabat-Zinn offers wise perspective on inhabiting the ordinary and extreme stresses of our lives. Technology may function 24/7, he points out, but our minds and bodies do not. He has practical and spiritual tools accessible to everyone — for slowing down time and “opening to our lives.”
And, for this week’s show, our host Krista Tippett recommends reading:
Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness
by Jon Kabat-Zinn
There are a couple of minutes in this podcast in which we hear Jon Kabat-Zinn conduct an introductory meditative experience for employees at Google. This spiritual technology is immediately effective and at the same time an engagement for a lifetime. It is about “coming to our senses” in the fullest sense of that phrase. This book explores these ways of living in more depth.
Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection ― or compassionate action.
—Daniel Goleman, from Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Counting the Omer in the Modern Day
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Photo by Kwan C./Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
“From the day after the day of rest — that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving — you are to count seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to Adonai.” —Leviticus 23:15-16
The same evening that 40,000 Orthodox Jews gathered for a rally to consider the dangers of the Internet (and its responsible use), an email from a local conservative synagogue arrived in my inbox to remind me of a ritual for observant Jews to count the Omer. The email message notes which day of the Omer should be counted after sundown, and comes with a prayer written both in English and in Hebrew. You can also get an app for it, follow reminders from Twitter @CountTheHomer, or read the daily prayers via your RSS feed.
The counting of the Omer, also known as the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’Omer, is a period of spiritual renewal starting from the second night of Passover and ending with Shavuot — the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Israelites. For each night of these seven weeks, Jews are commanded to count from the day on which the Omer (a unit measure of barley) is offered at the Temple. The ritual begins after sundown by reciting a blessing and then saying the appropriate day of the count.
This tradition has been described as a mindfulness practice, and there is a philosophical debate about whether one should count down the days, or count up. A cancer patient proposes that counting toward the Omer can provide you with a hopeful future orientation.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Tornadoes, and Being Present in the Moment
by Joe DePlasco, guest contributor
This past Sunday, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to Mary Emeny at a dinner in Amarillo, Texas where we were showing highlights of Ken Burns’ upcoming film, The Dust Bowl. Mary, I later learned, is prominent in the arts and environmental communities in Amarillo. When I asked someone else at the table what Mary did, she responded, “She makes Amarillo worth living in for the rest of us.”
During our chat, Mary spoke about her trips to Vietnam as a young woman and, specifically, her work with Buddhist monks there on behalf of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. (Vietnam came up because Ken Burns is working on a film about the war in Vietnam.)
What Unity and Fracture Looks Like, In a Poem
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Who we are and how much we split ourselves apart,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, often cannot be explained in a cognitive way. Rather than offer ”some definitive prose statement which is bound to be inadequate and incomplete,” the scientist and mindfulness guru offers (in the audio above and text below) the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s poem as a way of communicating his point about unity and fracture:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
“Love after Love” from COLLECTED POEMS 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Meredith Monk’s Voice: A Sensory Experience That Reaches Beyond Anything in Print
by Krista Tippett, host
The singer and composer Meredith Monk is a kind of archeologist of the human voice. She’s also an archeologist of the human soul, with a long-time Buddhist practice. Through music and meditation, she reaches to places in human experience where words get in the way — and she shared with me what she has learned about mercy and meaning, about spirit and play.
For years we here at On Being have meant to, planned to, interview more musicians. Then in the last months, for varying reasons, conversations with Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, and now Meredith Monk fell into place. What joy.
After this experience with Meredith Monk, I’m shying away from describing her with the label “performance artist.” Her music is avant-garde, but it also feels primal, ancient. She’s called herself an archeologist of the human voice. The woman we meet in this conversation is also an archeologist of the human spirit. She has a long-time Buddhist practice. Playfully, and reflectively, she mines life and art for meaning.
As listeners to On Being know, I begin every conversation, however accomplished or erudite my guest, by learning something about his or her childhood. We can all trace interesting and substantive lines between our origins and our essence, wherever we are in life. These can be joyful. They can painful. But they are raw materials that have formed us. In Meredith Monk’s case, a life in music was almost inevitable; three generations of musicians preceded her. She struggled with eyesight problems and issues with bodily coordination. Her mother — a singer in the golden age of radio — found a program called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which uses music to create physical alignment. Later on, as a young artist, Meredith Monk describes a moment of “revelation” that the voice could be flexible like the body — fluid like the spine — something that could dance and not merely sing.
She sang before she could speak in any case, as she tells it, and after experimenting with classical musical education in college, she gave herself over to her own distinctive voice, her own art, which is rich with songs that use words sparingly or not at all. As our show with her opens, you hear her singing a hauntingly beautiful piece, “Gotham Lullaby.” It is a demonstration of one of the things she talks about, eloquently, in this conversation — the power of music to reach where words can get in the way. This can be unfamiliar, even uncomfortable for the listener, as for the performer. But it is a deeply human experience, essentially contemplative and yet infused with the emotion that music can convey like no other form of human expression.
There is so much I carry with me out of this interview. It simply enlivens the world, and deepens its hues a bit. “The human voice is the original instrument,” she says, “so you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance. In a way it’s like the memory of being a human being.”My teenagers stretch me to appreciate that this is the redemptive effect even of music that is strange and unfamiliar to my ears and my body. Meredith Monk brings this home to me as well, but differently.
I’m also challenged by her insistence that in our media-saturated world, we must, for the sake of our souls, continue to seek out direct experiences like live artistic performance. The very point of art, she says, like the very goal of spiritual life as the Buddha saw it, is to wake us up. The sense of transcendence we sometimes feel in these settings is not a separate experience but an effect of being awake, of being fully alive.
But this is too many words. Meredith Monk’s voice, and the radio we’ve crafted from it, is a sensory experience that reaches beyond anything I could print on this page. Listen. And enjoy.
And, if you have some time, I highly recommend listening to our playlist of Meredith Monk’s most meaningful songs from across the years, which she personally selected for us while doing research for my interview. Stream all eleven tracks and listen at your leisure.
The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.
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.
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