Mindfulness Matters

Zen Master Raven_0An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken.

Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and more. Master Raven is irreverent, mischievous, and obtuse much like traditional Zen masters.

In the new forward by Nelson Foster, we learn that Aitken had some initial trouble getting this published. One might be able to appreciate why. Zen can be recondite and this collection, animals notwithstanding, is no exception. But if you can get past the entries that are inscrutable, there is much to mine here.

Here is a playful entry entitled “The Spirit of Practice”

Relaxing with the others after zazen one evening, Owl asked, “What is the spirit of practice?” Raven said, “Inquiry.” Owl cocked his heart and asked, “What do I inquire about?” Raven said, “Good start.”

Some of entries like “Brown Bear’s Purpose” remind me of Jane Hirschfield’s poem, “Why Bodhidharma Went to Howard Johnsons’

“Where is your home,” the interviewer asked him.


”No, no,” the interviewer said, thinking it a problem of translation,
”when you are where you actually live.”

Now it was his turn to think, perhaps the translation?

Of course, Zen itself is a contradiction–at once iconoclastic and iconic. The original practices were a reaction against orthodoxy and intellectualization and that remains the spirit of Zen although sometimes hard to achieve through the cultural lenses it has come to us by. Raven seems to be committed to freedom rather than confinement and that sometimes takes the form of what appears to be non-sense.

The more inscrutable passages function have the same effect as damaged electronics in the movies. We see sparks, smoke, and shorting-out. The koan does this to the mind–discombobulates it, confuses it, so it lets go of conceptualization.

These koans can be read much like poetry and can be a meditation in themselves.

Too Busy: Owl said, “I notice that some students go from teach to teacher. What do you think of this? Raven said, “Busy.” “After all,” Owl said, “practice is a matter of settling in.” Raven said, “Still too busy.” Owl said nothing.

Buddhism 101

If you’d like a more concrete treatment of Buddhism, including Zen, check out my latest book Buddhism Buddhism 101 High Res Cover101. This book is based on indomitable The Everything Buddhism Book (2nd Edition). This version is an attractive non-dustjacket hardcover edition with brief chapters to make the material accessible. It’s a portable resource for Buddhist wisdom, tradition, and practice. You can order directly from Simon & Schuster or anywhere books are sold (support your independent bookseller!) Order on Powells >> or IndieBound >>

poetryGood things come in small packages especially when it is The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy edited by the poet John Brehm and published by Wisdom. Wisdom has a habit of producing beautifully crafted books, packed with, well, wisdom! By way of disclosure, two of these books are mine (108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and Mindfulness A to Z).

There are certain poems and poets that make the mindfulness circuit Brehm has intentionally left these out exposing us to an entirely new world of poetry. I was fascinated to find that, while I was familiar with many of the poets (e.g., Symborzka, Neruda, Basho), I was not using any of his poems in my mindfulness teaching and, therefore, each of these over 125 poems is discovery.

You won’t find T. S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, Rilke, or Rumi. Also missing, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, and Derek Walcott. These poets are well represented elsewhere and this collection will acquaint you with the ancient Chinese poets, Japanese Haiku masters, and a range of 19th and 20th century poets, including a cadre from Poland. You will also find Ellen Bass:

If You Knew
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Even though he’s not represented in this work, elsewhere Galway Kinnell said, “Poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” There is much of this kind of truth telling in these poems.

Someone said, I’m not sure if it was it was also Galway Kinnell, that “poetry is the process of going so far inside yourself that it becomes universal.” Such depth of self-discovery can be found in the poems in this collection. Brehm collects poets who will tell us (and not all of them Buddhist) that when we attend to impermanence with mindfulness joy results.

Given that I have been reading in the field, as it were, for almost thirty-five years, I am often left, if I am lucky, with an appreciation for the author’s voice. I am growing weary reading and writing about mindfulness. It’s been overdone. (And while I lament the tedium, I am guilty of perpetuating it; look for my next book, Timeless Truths for Modern Mindfulness, in January 2018 from Sky Horse). It’s rare, however, that I am learning something new, exciting, or expanding my horizons. This book accomplishes all this: new poems, poets, and perspectives.

The only thing that I would have like is the dates that the poems were written. The date can provide some context for the poem (although we have a range given the dates the poet lived or was born).

I especially enjoyed the biographies that appear in the back of the book. These are meticulous and concise and along with the poems constitute a poetical education—a far ranging, deep course on poetry. A singular gift in such a small format. It will take me years, perhaps, to work through all the poets highlighted in this volume, the ones I already knew about and especially the ones that I’ve been introduced to know.

Here is an instructive quote on poetry from one biography of William Stafford:

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he hadn’t started to say them.—William Stafford, quoted in Brehm, 2017, 243)

The essay on mindful reading appears immediately after the poems and I would suggest reading this first because it provides a frame of mind to approach the poems. Keats is quoted saying that to read poetry is to luxuriate in it. “Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”

One thing that Brehm does not suggest is to read the poems more than once, especially when the analytical mind intrudes in the process. I’ve read each of these poems at least twice, sometimes more, just getting a sense of their rhythm, language, and tone.

Every great poem has a logic that doesn’t necessarily accord with logic. That is, a rhythm, sense, and meaning that does’t have to accord with conventional reason, although sometimes it does in richly saturated way. I find that memorizing a poem grants access to this inner logic and that the more I read a poem, the deeper inside it I get until it reveals itself.

Another suggestion that Brehm makes is to read poetry aloud after doing a sound meditation that he provides. Perhaps not on the first reading but once you’ve entered into it a bit, let it speak. This will bring another dimension of the poem alive.

Here is one of the gems by Jack Gilbert:

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Reading The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy is a generous thing that you can do for yourself and it makes a wonderful gift.

wisdom_surfingA surfer and a shrink, sounds like the start of a joke … walk into a bar … . What do they talk about? Turns out the surfer dude is an expert on fear, has even written a book about it and the shrink is a crack snowboarder. They’ve got a lot to talk about. In fact, they are going to teach a workshop about it. Kripalu, here we come.

They’ve both study Buddhism and practice mindfulness. Jaimal lives by the sea in California and Arnie lives in the mountains of Vermont. They both love water, Jaimal celebrates the saltwater kind and Arnie likes the frozen, fluffy kind. In 2009, they both had books published by Wisdom. Arnie loved Saltwater Buddha and Jaimal dug 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness

Our dharma friendship over the years has evolved into a workshop teaching collaboration. Our next workshop will be in two weeks at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. This will be a five day workshop focused on surfing the waves that life gives us. There’s been a lot of uncertainty in the world lately, and people are hungry for ways to bring equanimity to the tumult, absurdity, and anxiety the news delivered early every day.

We taken different paths towards awakening and we will share with you, dear reader, what we’ve learned along the way. From meditations on water to solutions for FOMO, you’ll have an opportunity to delve into them in the safe, beautiful, and soulful environs of Kripalu.

What we’ve learned over the years is that we are all saltwater Buddhas, even those of us that don’t surf. Our blood is essentially saltwater and we all have the potential to awaken to something much more profound, peaceful, and happy than the lives we may have been living in this uncertain world where change is rapid, hatred is palpable, and there’s no time to get it all done.

Bringing the Buddha’s teachings—in particular, mindfulness—into your life can teach you to ride whatever wave life throws at you. I wrote these lines about the Saltwater Buddha that is in all of us. It starts with me contemplating the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain and imaging  the ocean and the vastness of the world:

Over time, I forget the wide expanse of this inland sea.
These old mountains shrink in memory to quaint images
and then surprise me with their worn yet formidable heights
stirring me out of the complacency of dog-eared stories
if only for an instant before I am swallowed again.

200 miles to the east and 3000 to the west the oceans live.
I can only recall their lurching green expanses from memory
their incessant movement that is actually not movement at all
I try to make sense of their rhythms pounding out the story of time
I try to get my head around their confident embrace of infinity.

I am exiled from the vast open presence until I see the mountains
breathing into sky and the water disappearing at the edge of the world
I am a stranger to this world until I imagine the earth’s forbidding core
and the 50 million miles of wiring in my brain stretching halfway to the sun
I am refugee wandering surfaces until I realize the atom’s endless space.

I dissolve myself into the dark waters of the sea, merging
as if I am not just part of that landscape but its breathing tissue
and dying to the possibility, I yield to the beating heart of the night
riding the waves as if I am a surfer sitting with legs crossed
breathing one thought, one action, one gesture of time.

I am a saltwater Buddha, woven into the fabric of stars, dust, and space
smiling under the hot sun I sweat salt back to the breathing sea that
beckons me to relinquish stories, to ride its ripples of unity and multiplicity.
a conversation where words vanish into darkness and light and I
find the still point that lives between each wave to arrive home.

We welcome you to the journey and look forward to you joining us soon. If you miss this workshop, look for us at the new 1440 Multiverse in Santa Cruz next January. For more information and registration >>

dc9483a5be65865f0a87859660a81fe2Stephen Batchelor: Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World contains twenty-five years of his writing. You may be familiar with some of these articles from his contributions to Tricycle and I recently enjoyed reading his article arguing for a Buddhism 2.0 in a Buddhist academic journal. This book contains three new contributions, making the book worthwhile, even for those readers who have read all the  other Batchelor essays.

After reading–really consuming–his previous book After Buddhism, I was delighted and astonished to learn of this new title being released. How could he have written another book after the masterful magnum opus that was After Buddhism in such a short period of time? I was relieved to find out that Secular Buddhism was a compilation of mostly previously published essays. Batchelor was human after all!

The first chapter is a poetic reflection on Bachelor’s influences–rendered as conversations. These include, surprising appearances from St. Augustine and the philosopher Fuerbach. Such conversations help Batchelor to articulate a secular vision of the Buddha’s radical pedagogical project.

After reading his 2015 tome, After Buddhism, this introductory chapter offers new material and I find that I never tire of Stephen Batchelor’s insights and the articulate manner in which he presents them.

Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human. Rather an devoutly repeating what as been said many times before, your risk expressing your understanding in your own own stammering voice. (2017, 24)

In his essay, “An Aesthetic of Emptiness” (written specifically for Secular Buddhism), Batchelor describes his artistic discipline of making collages from discarded objects such as paper, cloth, and plastic. These objects are best when distressed by the vicissitudes of physical existence, such as being trampled by foot traffic on the street. This distress, then, become a metaphor for dukkha–the decay, dissatisfaction, and distress of material existence. Human beings are no exception.

As with all of Stephen Batchelor’s work, the writing throughout is gorgeous, even as it spans the decades marking the evolution of his thinking.

Secular Buddhism has something to offer everyone. For already existing Stephen Batchelor fans there is enough new material to engage and expand the conversations initiated in Buddhism without Beliefs and After Buddhism. As well, it is a pleasure to revisit older pieces. For soon-to-be Batchelor fans, this book is an accessible way to gain a broad view of his positions on secular Buddhism.

For me, the final section on Art and Imagination, was especially satisfying and inspired the following thoughts. Batchelor points to the commonalities of the artist facing creation and the meditator facing the present. Each confront a moment of uncertainty and both can shy away from the task.

The creative call for both parties is to create something original, true, and courageous. The product for the artist is more obvious, but for the meditator the product and its attainment are more subtle. What does it mean to have an original moment?

To approach this, one must set aside preconceptions, whether one’s own or those imported from a belief system (e.g., dogma). To be original in the moment requires relinquishing the known for a new impression. To accomplish this originary moment is impeded at every step by the instinct of categorical perception and a lifetime of established learning. It may not even be possible to suspend categorization completely (neural beings can’t do that). However, it might be plausible to approach it in a relative fashion.

Stephen Batchelor argues that the contemplative experience is aesthetic, not strictly a cognitive-behavioral-affective affair. This raises the possibility that every moment of existence could be a creative act, not merely derivative and subordinated to existing knowledge. The fact that most moments of a life are not aesthetic—in the sense of being creatively original—demonstrates the deadening power of categories.

We lose sight of the fact that poet Renee Chard pointed to when he said that “every moment is virgin, even the repeated ones.” I agree with Batchelor that the artist and the meditator aim for that kind of startling yet hard won freshness. Such perception both effort and letting go in almost the same moment.

The effort is like straining to keep an aperture of attention open long enough that thoughts to do not close prematurely. The letting go is like Rilke’s swan falling into the water where everything that used to confirm us on solid ground are now lost in weightless free fall. To continue this image, the arms work to hold open a space into which the body allows itself to fall, letting gravity pull attention into an uncertain and, perhaps, terrifying abyss. Yet, at the very same time, that abyss has a familiar quality to it, almost as if it were the home one has been estranged from, exiled by excessive thinking.

The wish for safety makes this falling terrible. The realization that there is no such thing as safety makes it wonderful, enlivening, and confirming. That confirmation is a paradox: by recognizing that no solid ground exists one is grounded all the same. It is only be embracing impermanence that any semblance of heart is preserved. It is only through becoming psychologically homeless that one returns from exile.

The late Galway Kinnel said, “Poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” Likewise, E. H. Gombrich said, “It takes an artist to make us attend to the message of reality” (cited in Batchelor, 2017, 224).

A clever demonstration of originality is no guarantee of the truth that poetry and art can reveal. For both the meditator and the artist, the relinquishment of preexisting knowledge goes hand-in-hand with a renunciation of self-centeredness. It is not me who does the creation; me is the creation, the embodiment of the creative process itself.

Both artist or the meditator can succumb to the tendency to say, “Look at me! See how clever I am.” In meditation, self-aggrandizing always seems to occur in those moments when the primordial opens up and awareness falls through the aperture only to find itself being named and attention yanked back into the personified, languaged, and already characterized identity.

Stephen Batchelor, I have learned, is the embodiment of lifelong conversation between art and meditation–living an awakened life through the aesthetic appreciation of each moment. Life is art and art is life.