Mindfulness Matters

IMG_5656If there is ever any doubt about life’s impermanence, mud season starting in February erases it. Our dirt roads are rutted, the snows are melting, and flooding in some areas is an imminent threat. This isn’t supposed to happen until April.

Yesterday, I neglected to bring my phone with me on the walk. Thus, I couldn’t take pictures of some very interesting subject matter that were emerging from the thaw. I walked the same route to capture them today, and found that impermanence had done its work–they were all gone.

I had especially wished to capture the image of a large formation of icicles that were clinging to a boulder that, as they melted, had a waterfall running underneath them. That rock was clear today. The moment gone.

Of course, photography gives us a skewed view of impermanence–as if we could actually capture reality and pin it down for a time. I got the above photo instead, the last of the icicles returning to the earth. I’ve been taking a lot of photographs lately and posting to Instagram. Follow me on Instagram >>

I’ve been teaching a lot lately–four workshops in a stretch of just over a month–from California to Connecticut. I made the bold claim that Donald Trump is our dharma teacher. The Trump administration didn’t invent political impermanence with all its uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt but they certainly have made it more obvious.

Trump embodies what the Buddha taught we should not do if we want to be peaceful and sustainably happy. Greed. Check. Hatred. Check. Overblown belief in self. Check. DJT is an anti-role model. As a recent op-ed by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times has pointed out, he’s also made good on his promise to make America great again by mobilizing activism, increasing interest in the free press, and even boosting ratings on SNL.

The Dakini Speaks is a poem about impermanence and how we are not entitled to anything but that. The Dakini knows that “impermanence is life’s only promise and she keeps it with a ruthless impeccability.” You can link to this powerful poem on Jennifer Wellwood’s website.

The alternative to entitlement is gratitude. For each moment that something untoward does not happen, we can celebrate. Imagine if the news was un-news, reporting all the things that didn’t happen today. The natural disasters, murders, and mishaps.

Good news today: For the 22,778th day in a row since Nagasaki on 6 August 1945, a nuclear weapon was not exploded on a population.

Our negativity bias, tends to focus on what is wrong instead of what it not wrong. Gratitude helps us to reverse this trend and keep sight of the pernicious effects of entitlement. In any moment, some thing can happen to any one. There are no exceptions.

My poem Anicca is the Pali word for impermanence. I’ve been reciting this poem as well at my workshops:

It was there and then not there.
It came and went
It was never here in the way
that we hoped

It was a wave then a particle
Then a wave then gone or
Going at least.
Expanding until it vanishes
and the end is the beginning

Who am I in this cosmic expanse?
No one. No thing.
And everything.
My dust is the same dust form the beginning
That bowling ball that exploded into everything

When I forget that, I think I am important
That the universe needs me to persist.
I forgot, too, that I am expanding into nothingness.
My breathing shows me how this is so.
When I pay close enough attention
It is always different if
Decaying and renewing and
Moving along an invisible line toward the future.

I want to fix this moment
Freeze it in time
Fuse it to myself
I know this is futile
Today I am 50 years old
Yesterday I was seven
Tomorrow I will be fogging my breath on a pane of cold glass
writing my elegy with the tip of my finger

I add all the moments for some calculus of worthiness,
It doesn’t register; doesn’t add up.
I have forgotten most of these moments
Although they live in the landscape of now,
Making up the soil and the water.
Most of the rest were only images,
conjured, glimpsed, and fleeting
They evaporate into time and become dreams
The remaining remembered and real
Have lost their footing and like Neruda’s time,
Walk barefoot through darkness and illumination – Arnie Kozak



By Lbeaumont – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

President Trump does not appear to have the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, or he just doesn’t care to. For him, truth is whatever he says it is. The New York Times recently published a sobering piece on the falsehoods promulgated in his first week in office.

Trump might be an extreme and very public example of a process that we are all vulnerable to. It’s called emotional reasoning. The “logic” of emotional reasoning goes like this: If I feel something strongly enough, it must be true.

For Trump, he felt the energy of the crowds at the inauguration and he believes he is important, historic, and popular and these feelings conspire to become a belief that he had larger crowds than President Obama. The photographic evidence that contradicts this belief is irrelevant because feelings prevail.

Yet, simply because it “feels” true, doesn’t mean that it is true. In the world of post-truth, false news, and alternative facts the formula feeling=true may be more acceptable but no less dangerous.

Likewise, in the Times piece he says that lots of other people “feel” the same way he does about losing the popular vote due to illegal immigrant voting. Again, no evidence other than his feelings exists to support this claim.

In psychology, emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion–a glitch in the mind’s operating system that biases reality. They are almost always implicated in  anxiety, depression, or other mental afflictions, but here in the body politic, it is being used as a tool for influence.

This doesn’t explain all of Trump’s falsehoods. He might not be subject to emotional reasoning at all since he could just be lying but I don’t want to speculate on his motives.

Trump, his followers, and the public at large do not seem to understand that opinions are not facts, which is not all that surprising, if still dismaying. This country suffers from scientific illiteracy, poor critical thinking skills, and a lack of epistemological development–the capacity to, among other things, distinguish between facts and fiction. The education system teaches students what to think and not how to think

I wonder if mindfulness can help? We can think of mindfulness as integral to the personal quest for truth. That is, by practicing mindfulness we seek to cut through the distortions of the mind to have a more accurate picture of reality, one not as tainted by the biases of the mind.

But the utility of mindfulness is a hopeful conceit on my part. I’d bet money that Trump will never practice it and his supporters are not the mindfulness demographic. Instead, I’ll continue to use my own mindfulness practice to help to cope with whatever is happening (and you can too!).

Of course, uncertainty is always the case. The new administration ratchets up the uncertainty–they don’t create it.

Over the course of a lifetime, we will experience ten billion moments. Without mindfulness, will we squander them reaching for the future and dragging along the past? Who is it that spends these moments and how they’ll be spent will determine if the coming New Year is a happy one. Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are

Andrew Olendzki tackles these questions and more in his latest book, Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are

This book is an accessible, beautifully written and compelling case for the Buddha’s teachings on self and the implications they have for our lives. This is a practical text–an invitation to start making the personal transformations that the Buddha showed was possible with the help of mindfulness.

For the reader familiar with the Buddha’ teachings, this book is a welcome refresher with some depth around Pali translation and an appeal to applying the dharma to not just individuals but to the wider world.

For the uninitiated, he carefully explains Buddhist concepts and, importantly, how to apply these concepts to your own experience. This book is immanently practical.

For me, it is wonderful to spend time again with Andy. It’s been a few years since his last powerful book, Unlimiting Mindand many years since I studied with him at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Reading this book is also timely for me because I have been thinking, researching, and writing about the Buddha’s psychology of self and mindfulness for another book that I’ve been writing.

This teaching is a tough one for us to understand. The Buddha is often misconstrued as having said there is no self or that self was an illusion that should be discarded. His message was actually different. He wasn’t denying self, he was simply pointing out that the self as we tend to think of it is nowhere to be found.

The consequences of not self are far from trivial. What’s on the line is nothing short of happiness versus unhappiness, well-being versus despair, and a world destroyed by greed, hatred, and confusion versus one predominated by compassion, love, and peace.

The relentless and unreflected pursuit of self can only lead to misery, limitation, and damage to self, others, and the world in which we inhabit.

According to the Buddha, the self is a view, perspective or attitude applied the ongoing stream of experience that emerges from perception. Olendzki explains:

Perception is the function of the mind that creates meaning, that paints a pictures or constructs a model of what is going on every moment.

Each moment of perception is a discreet event, yet is experienced subjectively as a continuity. This is like the illusion that a now old-fashioned celluloid film creates. The movie is comprised of thousands of discrete images and what we see is the fluid movement of the film. This is because our visual perception groups the images together into that flow. In the same way, our mind takes the discreet moments of experience and clumps them together into a self that somehow owns them.

This metaphor self gives rise to a mistaken notion of self. Mindfulness can reveal how this is so.

The self as typically experienced has these properties: constancy, agency, ownership, survival, responsibility, and awareness. Olendzki provides a helpful explanation as to how each of them is not accurate when viewed under the microscope of mindfulness.

In terms of constancy, the Buddha’s personal phenomenological investigations demonstrated no such constancy of self. Rather he experienced the way that self arose out of the normal functioning of the mind. There was no unchanging essence that was unfailingly him.

The Buddha recognized that agency was lawful, just as everything else in experience. That is, the sense of agency arose out of conditioned experience just like everything else. Intentions can help to hack the system but there is no widespread agency within the system.

The self did not own experiences either. The Buddha said:

These feelings, these perceptions, these dispositions, these [moments of] consciousness—are not yours.

Ownership is a metaphorical projection from the material world, misappropriated to experience.

Whether or not one believes in rebirth or whether or not you focus upon the Buddha’s statements that seem to support the idea of rebirth (that is, his attestations of knowing his previous, voluminous lives), no sense of a personality would transfer from one body to another. Thus, the self is not an eternal disembodied spirit (atman).

The Buddha’s notion of personal responsibility, likewise, does not require a transcendent self. Responsibility operates along recognizable psychological principles, principally, dependent co-arising—the cause and effect of experience. Olendzki explains,

The intentions of one moment alter one’s dispositions, out of which the next moment’s intentions will be molded. This allows for radical though incremental, transformation of character, brought about by moment after moment of healthy rather than unhealthy action.

As for awareness, Olendzki clarifies,

Finally it is a widespread reflex of human thought that this node of awareness that yields the rich yet mysterious phenomenon of subjective, immediate experience must have sacred origins.

Here again, there is no need for divine intervention. Everything one needs is available in the phenomenological investigation of momentary experience.

Awareness, while seemingly immaterial, is a natural function and should be treated as such. Once these assumptions are challenged, the noun-like nature of the self dissolves into the unfolding process of the moment. There is no need to add anything, as the Buddha urged:

It is in tis fathom-long carcass, with its perceptions and thoughts, that the world (loka) arises and passes away.

There is no world out there that is not constructed, influenced by individual perception. It is human arrogance to assume that the world is the way it is. It is only that way to us, as beings with the psychophysical capacities that we have. Beyond these generic limitations, there is each individual’s psychology—based on temperament, personality, and a lifetime of learning.

The conclusion that Olendzki presents is a bit of shocker, turning our notion of cause and effect on its head

Rather than being the starting point of experience, the essential agent needed to have experience, self is regarded as the end product of an elaborate process of assimilating data, constructing meaning, and building a world of local experience.

Self is finally a category constructed by the mind. This process can be interrupted. Mindfulness can help us to break the habit of liking and disliking that arises from the routine experience of pleasure and pain. When we do so, we are freed from the dissatisfactions, sufferings, and anguishes of life.

Andy Olendzki’s book is thoughtful, concise, and powerful. It’s an authoritative treatment of the Buddha’s notion of self that is fresh, juicy, and alive. His writing voice is much like his teaching voice, lucid, warm, and inspiring.

This book is a rich resource for the most essential of the Buddha’s teachings–that there are no essences, especially self!

And, of course, Happy New Year! May it be one filled with mindfulness.

If you suddenly lost a huge manuscript that you were working on, how would you react? Could you receive this news with equanimity and pick up your pen and start writing all over again?

IMG_4895This is what happened to Thomas Carlyle, as recently presented in the Writer’s Almanac (Sunday 4 December 2016). I have had this happen with short pieces of writing, like a blog post, but I’ve never lost anything more book length. Here is how Garrison Keillor describes it:

It was as a philosopher and social historian that Carlyle found his calling. He wrote The French Revolution, an immense tome, only to lend it to fellow philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose maid accidentally tossed it into the fire. Undeterred, Carlyle rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch.

For many of us, such a loss would be the start of a long winter of discontent. What would keep us from moving into the next moment without a great sense of loss? It’s hard to do because we tend to attach ourselves to the things in our lives, including our work, relationships, and ideas about ourselves.

We can complain about the time it would take to re-do the effort. There is a certain entitlement embedded there. Since we’ve done the work, we shouldn’t  have to do it again. But, if you consider this, why is that necessarily so? Who said that had to be true? We need to get over our sense of personal deprivation. We manufacture this; it doesn’t exist in nature.

Imagining this scenario for myself, once I got over my self-importance, I would be fearful that I would not be able to re-produce what I had already done. There is a letting go here  into a space of unfamiliarity. While, we may not be able to produced the same exact thing, we might be able to come up with something that is better. Of course, worse is an option too. These executions are real practice in non-attachment.

In the publishing world, Faulkner made the phrase “kill your darlings” famous. The point being that in order to write well, we must be willing to relinquish cherished words, phrases, and passages because, while cherished, they don’t fit with the larger thrust of the work or the work is simply too long.

Carlyle’s dramatic example is a metaphor for all of life’s disappointments, a wake-up call for whenever life doesn’t go the way we’d like it to go. Almost every day, there are moments, events, and situations where we are confronted with a choice: do I flow with this moment or do I fight against it?

Example: I was heading out the other night to the Member’s Art Show at the Helen Day Art Center where I had a piece on display. I especially wanted to bring my phone so I could Instagram a picture of myself standing next to my painting. About ten minutes down the road, I realized I forgot to bring the phone.

I was flummoxed. How could I have forgotten when I made it a point to bring it? Now I wouldn’t be able Instagram and that little attachment gave rise to a lot of anguish (if briefly experienced).

I was not in the flow of the moment, moving with the new contours of now. instead, I was caught in a story, fighting against what was actually so. Initially, I wasn’t willing to accept what had happened and my mood suffered.

There was no real problem here, other than an expectation that got disappointed. I used my wife’s camera to take pictures and posted to Instagram when I got home later that evening. The only drama existed in my own mind.

How unfathomably admirable was Thomas Carlyle’s ability to set aside attachment to rewrite is now classic tome. His is a powerful lesson for all of us.

Hold up the mirror of his example to your life and see what attachments you find. Whether large or small, we carry a lot of these around with us. If you feel intrepid, you can even practice letting go of things. Draw a picture, and crumple it up. Write a paragraph and then delete it.

Carlyle would have been unfamiliar with the term mindfulness but this is might have been what he was practicing when he sat down at his desk and began re-writing.