PBS Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

A few nights ago, I watched a new PBS documentary Mindfulness Goes Mainstream.  The program explores the spreading mindfulness movement and the transformative power of mindfulness practice.  It features remarks from such people as singer Jewel, journalist Dan Harris, “mindfulness” pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, Don Siegel,  Jack Kornfield, and clothing designer Eileen Fisher.

Viewers will learn about how many different sectors of our society are embracing mindfulness.  For instance, the NBA, NFL, corporate America, US Marine Corp, and law enforcement.  There’s also a nice summary about the scientific evidence behind mindfulness benefits.

The modern mindfulness movement has received criticism for being a diluted form of Buddhist meditation.  I am more or less in agreement with this, and yet, I find it hard to disparage the idea of so many diverse groups learning to calm their minds.  Police officers using mindfulness to resist anger and stress seems a very positive thing.   I am inclined to agree with Dan Harris who remarked, “I do believe that if you get a broad enough swath of people to do this it has the potential to change the way we are as a society.”

It did bother me that the program did not once mention the Buddha, Buddhism or dharma.  I feel that a sort of creative commons license applies to mindfulness and other aspects of the teachings – you are free to use any portion you like as long as you attribute it to Buddha-dharma.

And while I’m all in favor of corporate America getting mindful, I do wonder if the real purpose isn’t just to make more productive employees.  To me, they have some warped notions.  One person, Chade-meng Tan, former “Jolly Good Fellow” at Google, talked about mindfulness in corporate American and made the argument that compassion leads to better business.  He said, “The way to do that is align compassion with success and profit.”

Right.  Two values the Buddha routinely affirmed were success and profit.  So, here is one of the possible dangers of mindfulness sans Buddhism, distortion.  What is intended to dispel illusion because a creator of illusion.

Another problem I had with the program was that the filmmakers seemed to oversell the practice. Several time they tell viewers that mindfulness can change “every aspect of your life.”  And in as little as 2-8 weeks.  While studies have shown that short periods of exposure to mindfulness practice can produce neurobiological changes, improve concentration, reduce stress, and so on; to change every aspect of your life, to affect lasting change in how we think and feel and how we deal with persistent life tendencies, takes patience and a real commitment to the practice.

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream is the kind of show you’ll find on 20/20 or Dateline NBC.  It struck me as representative of the mindfulness craze itself.  Kind of lightweight.  However, to be fair, it was a lot of ground to cover in one hour.  Viewers would be better served if each segment of the show were a 30-60 minute episode.

Watch it if you’re looking for a pleasant way to kill some time.  You may be encouraged by some of the personal stories.  But if you’d like a more detailed and realistic explanation of mindfulness, you would be better off reading a book like Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.  The first chapter of the book begins with these words:

“Meditation is not easy.  It takes time and it takes energy.  It also takes grit, determination and discipline.  It  requires  a  host  of  personal  qualities  which  we  normally  regard  as unpleasant  and  which  we  like  to  avoid  whenever  possible.  We can sum it all up in the American word ‘gumption’.  Meditation takes ‘gumption’.  It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch television.”

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Seeing

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the day I accepted the Precepts and officially became a Buddhist. Then, I was full of answers. Now, full of questions. I question, for instance, if it is necessary to become a “Buddhist.” I question the doctrines of karma and rebirth. And yet, I cannot help leaning toward a sort of Buddhist exceptionalism, and I am waiting, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a rebirth of wonder.

During these 31 years I have been dedicated to a meditative practice, be it mantra or meditation, or both. I have been dedicated but not consistent. I am sure there are many meditation teachers who have nearly perfect practices. I am not one of them. I am too busy trying to be human to be perfect.

I don’t know how many of you practice meditation. I wouldn’t say that meditation is for everyone, unless they are Buddhist. Buddhism is a philosophy but more than that it is about the process of awakening, which is nearly impossible to describe, and according to Buddhism, impossible to undertake without meditation.

Buddhist Meditation, on the other hand, can be described, and although there are many variations, a good general description would be that it is a system for mind development. In turn, mind development can be described plainly as observing. The breath and the mind are the two most common objects for observation.

Another word for observation is seeing. T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i translated the Indian term for basic Buddhism meditation, samatha- vipassana (tranquility and insight) as “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan), and said, “seeing (kuan) is observing, examining, introspecting . . . when the mind is seeing clearly it is seeing. The chief aim [of meditation] is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.”

This is stating things very simply. Yet, I believe that the historical Buddha’s approach to meditation was very simple, in the beginning. I feel he wanted to offer an alternative to the complex meditation techniques offered by the teachers of his day.

The Buddha said if you want to overcome suffering, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still and calm your mind. Just focus on your breath and be one with the timeless reality of now.

It is true that meditation is not enough. We must apply the awareness and wisdom we cultivate through meditation into our daily life. It’s also true that meditation won’t change the world. But it may change you, and me. And we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Gandhi didn’t really say that. What he said was,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In my experience, there are very few people who truly want to change their life. Oh, they will accept change if it comes easy to them and includes material benefits. Deep-seated change is too hard for most. Some people will never meditate because they are afraid of seeing too clearly the loneliness and pain of their life. When they try meditation, though, and stick with it, then they understand that observing also means seeing through our suffering, transcending it.

That is enough for today. It is after midnight and I need to post this and then go to bed. I have changed a lot in 31 years. One thing that’s changed is I am beginning to agree with the Dalai Lama that “Sleep is the best meditation.”

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Buddhism as Yoga

In the comments section of a recent post, I was asked if I thought yoga in its highest form is helpful in reaching a goal in Buddhism, and I replied by saying “Buddhism itself is really just a form of yoga.” That should not be a surprising statement if we remember there is more to yoga than the workout style focused on assuming challenging physical poses so popular today in the West.

Yoga has its origins in Vedic, perhaps even in pre-Vedic, philosophical thought. Yoga certainly embraces physical practice, but health and relaxation are auxiliary benefits. Let us consider this explanation of yoga, from Joseph Campbell in Myths To Live By:

The ultimate aim of yoga, then, can be only to enter that zone [“uninflected consciousness in its pristine, uncommitted state”] awake: which is to say, to “join” or to “yoke” (Sanskrit verbal root yuj, whence the noun yoga) one’s waking consciousness to its source in consciousness per se, not focused on any object or enclosed in any subject, whether of the waking world or of sleep, but sheer, unspecified and unbounded.”

These words could also sum up the ultimate aim of Buddhism.  The “zone” one enters is variously described as the state of emptiness fully realized, tathagatagarbha (“womb of the buddha”) or Buddha-nature, Original Mind, One Mind, No Mind, Original Nature, and so on. Some Buddhist schools have advanced the concept of an extremely deep layer of pure consciousness called the amala consciousness.

I’ve discussed the concepts of emptiness and original mind/nature at length, but only once, I think, have I delved into the subject of the 9 consciousnesses, and in this brief treatment today, I have used some passages from that previous post.

Consciousness (vijnana) refers to discerning, comprehending or judgment, and is one of the five components or aggregates (skandhas) that make up a human being. Early Buddhism defined six consciousness, functions which perceive objects as well as the subject who perceives them. The first five correspond to the ear, eye, nose, tongue, body and mind, and with sounds, tastes, scents, forms and textures. In short, the senses and everything the senses perceive. The 6th Consciousness (the mind or intellect) integrates the perceptions of the senses into coherent images.

The Indian Yogacara (“yoga practice”) school described two additional consciousnesses, the 7th or mano consciousness, which is independent from the senses in terms of its functions, yet bridges the conscious and sub-conscious realms of the mind and is where delusions concerning the false idea of a “self” originate; and the 8th or alaya (“abode’ or “receptacle”) consciousness, also known as the “storehouse consciousness,” where karma is deposited and carried over into future lifetimes.

While the idea of a 9th layer of mind, the amala consciousness, probably originated with Paramartha (499-569 CE), whose teachings formed the basis for Yogacara, the Chinese T’ien-t’ai and She-lun schools also adopted this concept. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This level of mind lies beyond the level of the storehouse consciousness and is free from any karmic influence. In the Fa hua hsuan i (“Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra”), T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i equates the amala consciousness with the aspect of “true nature.”* Paramartha also maintained that this level of consciousness “is identical with true nature (tattva or tathata).** So here would be the tathagatagarbha, the “womb of the buddha,” or the location of Buddha-nature within the mind.

Thus far, the notion of “pure consciousness” is still regulated to the realm of meditative or mystical experience, but it is worth mentioning that the alaya consciousness has some parallels with the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. In particular, the “storehouse consciousness” has been compared to Jung’s “collective unconscious.”

From all this, we can conclude that as the ultimate goals are the same, yoga is not a part of Buddhism, rather Buddhism is yoga, and perhaps that the simple act of meditation, which requires a specific sitting posture, may be the purest form of yoga physical therapy.

Yoga itself is based on the interaction of physical, spiritual, and psychic phenomena, in so far as the effects of breath-control (pranayama) and bodily postures (asana) are combined with mental concentration, creative imagination, spiritual awareness, and emotional equanimity.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Cloud

Now as soon as we say Buddhism is one thing, we also need to point out that Buddhism is many things. It is yoga, and it is a discipline, a practice, a philosophy, a form of spiritual psychology, a religion, a way of life, a view of reality that is without delusion, seeing reality as it truly is, and a way to regard the past without regret, abide in the present with calmness of mind, and face the future with hope – Buddhism embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Swanson, Paul. “T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Concept of Threefold Buddha Nature – A Synergy of Reality, Wisdom, and Practice.” Buddha Nature: A Festschrift in Honor of Minoru Kiyota. Ed. Paul J. Griffiths and John P. Keenan. Buddhist Books International. 171-180

** Bibhuti Baruah, Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism, Sarup & Sons, 2000, 186

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Review of Deepak Chopra’s Timeless You

I recently participated in a review of Timeless You, a new online seminar by Deepak Chopra covering tools to stimulate the body, mind, and spirit in reversing the aging process.  The program guides participants through a series of practical steps combined with teachings in meditation, yoga, Ayurveda, and other mind-body solutions to “maximize your energy, eliminate stress, and become the best you.”

TimelessYou-imageTimeless You consists of 7 courses each running about 30-60 minutes, and the topics included are Changing Perceptions, A Youthful Mind, Healthy Relationships, The Mind-Body Connection, Mindful Eating, and Joyful Excercise.  Each course is broken down into a number of steps presented through text and text-based exercises, video, audio tracks, downloadable PDFs and printable affirmations, charts, and checklists, along with questionnaires and an interactive forum.  I found the format impressive, being someone who had never taken a online seminar of this nature before.

The first step, Changing Perceptions, is perhaps the most important one of all, and it forms the basis for the entire Eastern approach to body, mind and spirit.  Chopra says, “For generations, we have been conditioned to believe that aging means progressive decline.”  However, scientific studies show that this need not be the case.  Our mind is the key.  The Indian system of health and well-being, Ayurveda, teaches that “What you see, you become.”  In this way, if we think growing older will result in decline, that is exactly what will happen.  If we think differently, if we understand how to change our perceptions and use some simple methods to improve our health, we can reverse the aging process. And by at least 10 years, according to Chopra.  The idea is to achieve a “timeless mind”, an idea Chopra has long promoted.

The seminar includes some simple breathing meditations, yoga exercises, and tips on how to maintain a proper diet.  Much of the material I was already familiar with.  But I did get some good suggestions on how to fight insomnia (a problem that I occasionally struggle with), and I found the course on mindful eating informative.  Although I am somewhat acquainted with Ayurveda, I had not heard of the concept of the six taste groups (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent).  The course recommends trying to combine all six with every meal.

Some of the information was common sense. Most people know it’s a good idea to drink lots of water each day.  Likewise, that activities such as reading, taking a class, learning a language, travel, and so on, will stimulate the mind.  While some concepts, like “synchrodestiny” (“coincidences that open us up to possibilities”) are unique to Chopra’s core teachings, a great deal of the material is available elsewhere on television and on the Internet – and at no charge.  Almost any day of the week, you can find the same information on such television programs as Dr. Oz, Katie, PBS, and various cable shows.

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that I feel Deepak Chopra is criticized a bit unfairly.  Some people see him as little more than a huckster padding traditional teachings with New Age mumbo-jumbo.  Well, he is a commercial enterprise, and to be successful you must reach a broad audience, which may not be possible if you don’t water-down or simplify the material to some degree.  On the other hand, in his frequent role as a TV pundit, he offers a viewpoint, based on Eastern wisdom, that is an alternative to the prevailing Judeo-Christian perspective that is often polarizing and in recent years has become rather ugly.  In other words, he’s helping to raise awareness about Eastern philosophy and how its methods can transform lives, and that’s a good thing.  Plus, I think he is sincere in his desire to help people

Overall, I think the same can be said about the Timeless You seminar.  It seems designed for folks who have had little or no exposure to these concepts. In such cases, if the seminar helps raise their awareness about the Eastern approach to mind-body wellness and helps encourage them to explore the subject further, and since that can only benefit their life, I’d say the seminar is worth the cost of the $29.99 tuition.  At the same time, because the material is so general and simplistic, and readily available in other formats, I can’t wholeheartedly endorse it.  The one real benefit of the seminar seems to me that you can find this information organized in one place and presented in an engaging manner.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should say that I am receiving a very small remuneration in the form of a Amazon gift certificate for the time I spent taking and reviewing the seminar.  I used to frequently participate in surveys and focus groups for which I would receive a fee.  It was a nice way to pick up some extra cash.  However, my motivation here was primarily to have a new experience and to expose myself to a more secular presentation of mind-body teachings, an approach I have thoughts about and will address in future posts.

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“When there is darkness, light is needed.”

“When there is darkness, light is needed. Today, with so much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony. This is a great challenge for religious and spiritual leaders. Let us accept this challenge.”

– S. N. Goenka, August 29 2000, United Nations

goenkaSatya Narayan Goenka, one of the most important teachers of Buddhism meditation in our time, passed away on September 29th. He was 89 years old.

He was born in Burma as a Hindu, and as an adult become a very successful businessman. He was not happy, however. He suffered from debilitating migraine headaches brought on by stress, which he tried to treat medically with drugs. Around this time, he met Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the first Accountant-General of independent Myanmar. U Ba Khin also taught meditation, and it was from him that Goenka learned the Vipsassana method. In 1969, Goenka went to India and since then his Vipsassana teachings have spread all over the globe.

He was not an ordained teacher, but just a man who had discovered a way to calm the mind and endeavored to share it with as many people he could. He didn’t like calling what he taught Buddhism. At the same time, he didn’t try to distance himself from it, or give what he taught another name, create a new “ism.” He simply called it dhamma (dharma), or by calling it Vipassana, he was saying, it’s just meditation.

I heard Goenka speak once at UCLA. I was impressed with his secular, non-sectarian approach, and although his Buddhist orientation was the Theravada tradition, his teachings seemed firmly rooted in compassion, a real appreciation for the spirit of “practice for oneself and others.”

Vipassana means “insight,” a form of meditation said to have been taught by the historical Buddha. In most cases, there is very little difference between vipassana and anapanasati or “mindfulness of breathing.” In the West, it’s often called Insight Meditation. As far as I know, Goenka Vipassana courses are always offered free of charge. And they are usually fairly intense, 10-day affairs, in which a “Code of Disipline” is taught in tandem with the practice. I’ve never taken one of these courses, but I have a lot of respect for this approach, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything negative about it.

It should be noted that Goenka was one of those responsible for reintroducing Buddhist meditation to the country of its origin, India, and other Theravada countries, where it had become a lost art. One of the more significant accomplishments of Goenka’s Vipsassana movement was bring meditation to prisons. In the early 70s, Vipassana courses were taught for both police officers and inmates beginning with the Central Jail in Jaipur. Since 1997, The North American Vipassana Prison Trust (VPT) had brought Goenka Vipassana courses to dozens of prisons in the United States.

Here are some “sayings” from this important teacher:

What is Dhamma?
Dhamma is not a religion.
Dhamma is a code of conduct.
Dhamma is an ethical, moral way of life.
Dhamma is an art of living.
Dhamma is to live a happy, healthy, wholesome life.
Dhamma is to live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself and generate a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere around oneself.

“Anyone belonging to any country, creed, caste, color, gender, status, profession in society can practice Vipassana and get the same wholesome results. The tree gives sweet or bitter fruit depending on the seed that is planted, and not whether a Muslim planted it, a Hindu planted it, or whether a Christian planted it . . . as the seed is, so the fruit will be. This is the law of nature, universal and applicable to all, anywhere, at all times. So too is Vipassana, a universal technique, a practical tool enabling one to live according to the law of nature or Dhamma, and enjoy the sweet fruits of Dhamma.”

“When we practice Buddha-Dhamma, we are not getting involved in a particular sect. Rather, we are actually working to develop in ourselves the nature of a Buddha – to attain freedom from craving, aversion, delusion. And the means by which we develop this nature is the practice of sila [ethics], samadhi [meditation], panna [wisdom], which is universally acceptable to all.”

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