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Monday, December 17, 2012

You can afford to relax

"If a person can really relate to the simplicity of the practice of meditation, then automatically there is an absence of aggression. Because there is no rush to achieve, you can afford to relax. Because you can afford to relax, you can afford to keep company with yourself, be friends with yourself. Then thoughts, emotions, whatever occurs in the mind, constantly accentuate the act of making friends with yourself." Chogyam Trungpa

Friday, December 14, 2012

Set your hostage mind free

I read an interesting article today on how to deal with an angry person at work, all of which should sound pretty familiar to meditators. I was particularly struck by this:

Active listening is the first thing FBI hostage negotiators use to de-escalate incidents and save lives.
BCSM consists of five stages: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavioral change. Progression through these stages occurs sequentially and cumulatively. Specifically, the negotiator proceeds in sequence from Stage 1 (active listening) to Stage 5 (behavioral change). However,in order to establish rapport (Stage 3) with the subject, active listening skills (Stage 1) and empathy (Stage 2) must first be demonstrated (and maintained throughout) by the negotiator. As this process continues, influence (Stage 4) and behavioral change (Stage 5) follow. The latter stage refers to the successful resolution of the crisis that can only occur when, and only when, the previous stages have been carried out successfully.
That's pretty similar to the way we learn to work with our minds in meditation.

We listen. By focusing our attention on the breath or another object, we create calm.

We accept all thoughts -- emotions, nursery rhymes, shopping lists -- as equally impermanent and ephemeral.

We take a friendly approach. No thought or emotion is unacceptable. We became friends with our minds rather than judges.

We influence our minds by setting intentions: To be kind. To speak gently. To be patient. To notice when someone needs help and give it. To appreciate when we are helped.

And by turning our thoughts, behavior changes follow.

Our hostage minds can go free.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Taking down the wallpaper

"We possess what is known as basic goodness. Then we develop an overlay of unnecessary tricks and occupations. We develop little tricks to shield ourselves from being embarrassed or from feeling too painful or naked. Those are habitual tendencies, but they are not fundamental. They are simply temporary habitual tendencies. It's as though you had a building with nice, white, smooth plaster walls. If you can't stand the plain white walls, you might decide to put colorful wallpaper on top of them to cheer yourself up. The habitual tendencies we're talking about here are like the wallpaper that you put on but can be taken off. The paper doesn't go all the way through the wall; it's not that deeply ingrained. It's a veneer of some kind, called habitual tendencies- which have to be renounced, definitely. Seeing the basic goodness in oneself and seeing the sadness of the setting-sun possibilities, one is willing to make some kind of sacrifice. We can take off the wallpaper, take off the veneer." ~~~ Chögyam Trungpa, Great Eastern Sun

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is meditation the new Viagra?

If you follow news on science and meditation on the Internet, you might believe that meditation is the new penicillin, a wonder drug that can create most of what ails you. Research studies show it has benefits for those who suffer from anxiety, high blood pressure, digestive problems, etc etc.

So the headline "Meditation Increases Sex Drive" seemed like more of the same -- evidence that meditation is just generally good. (It's also kind a duh. Ask anyone who's gone on a prolonged retreat what sitting on the cushion thinking -- or not thinking -- does for your sex drive.)

Yahoo Lifestyle's Sex Tip of the Day reports:

According to researchers at Canada's University of British Columbia and Israel's Hadassah University Hospital, just a few sessions of meditation can boost your sex drive and speed arousal time.

The researchers measured the reactions of 24 women who were watching an erotic film, then measured for a second time after they attended three 'mindfulness' meditation courses.

Even though the participants were watching the same film, they were more turned on than during the first viewing.

The reasons for this aren't fully understood, but researchers believe the art of meditation allows you to 'turn off' the active part of your brain and focus on specific feelings and sensations instead.

It took some research to get closer to the actual research. It turns out it's not as frivolous as it sounds.

In this interview, researcher Lori Brotto of  the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, a Buddhist meditator herself, describes how she uses mindfulness meditation to help women who are unable to have intercourse because of actual or anticipated pain. the last seven years we’ve carried out at least three studies now adapting the mindfulness based intervention to gynaecologic cancer survivors who we know have a high incidence of sexual side-effects following treatment. And most recently we’ve looked at either three-session or four-session mindfulness intervention versus a wait-list control group, or an education only control group. And women will report improvements in their level of sexual desire, their level of sexual arousal; we also measure the physiological sexual arousal response. We have women come into our lab, we expose them to some short video clips, neutral and erotic video clips and we measure their sexual arousal response  before and after treatment. And not only do we see an increase in the genital arousal response but we also see more agreement between the genital response and women’s self-report of being sexually aroused. So it seems that their mind and their body is more in unison following the intervention.
I find that lovely and not at all the sort of tawdry activity that's implied by putting meditation on the Sex Tip of the Day list.

If you're curious about meditation and sex drive, you could try a long retreat and see for yourself.

Or check out Orgasmic Meditation. According to an instructor, "It’s a partnered practice, a timed 15-minute meditation. The woman lays down, nude from the waist down, and her partner [massages her]. There’s no goal: Both partners are feeling what’s happening in their bodies and sensations as they are in contact with the most sensitive part of the human body."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mainstream meditation

I've written about the studies cited in this Boston Globe story, but it's a good summary of two studies on how meditation affects the brain, and it's got nice anecdotal evidence that meditation is for everyone. (The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that 20 million US adults had turned to meditation for health reasons in the previous year.)

 One woman recalls that when she first began to meditate 30 years ago, the practice was considered somewhat fringe. “If you mentioned meditation to people back then, they looked at you funny,” she said.
Today, you can find meditation groups at spiritual centers like Advaita, but also at colleges, social meet-ups, yoga centers, and medical clinics.
“Now it’s everywhere,” she says, “classified as much under health as it is under spirituality.”

Photo by Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe

Check it out for yourself -- Samadhi Yoga Studio, Manchester CT, Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Compassion meditation helps veterans

This NPR report describes a program in which the Veterans Administration is using compassion meditation to help war veterans work with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a beautiful example of how meditation can help.

The technique is called "compassion cultivation training." Weiss, who helped develop it, tells the men to think of a person they care about and to "allow yourself to feel the presence of this person." There's a phrase Weiss repeats, like a mantra: "That person is just like me."
"Consider that, just like me, this person's had ups and downs in his or her life. Just like me, this person's had goals and dreams," she says.
The idea here is that in combat, the way to stay safe is to think of everyone as a potential threat. Fear and distrust are default. But with PTSD, it stays that way, even after combat is over. The soldier with PTSD has lost the ability to relate to people as just people. Compassion meditation is about getting that ability back, learning to see oneself in others....
"The idea, of you saying, 'just like me,' that does a lot for me in a sense because I know how I'd like to be treated or how I want to feel," says John Montgomery, who has a bushy gray mustache and a tattoo of a scorpion on each forearm. "So if I'm showing that to somebody else, I find myself looking at me a little better and being satisfied with what I see."
Montgomery says he knows that what the meditation is teaching him sounds incredibly basic: Treat others the way you want to be treated; it's Human Relationships 101. And yet, it's completely at odds with the person the Vietnam War trained him to be.

While most of us don't have to close off to others' humanity to the degree that soldiers do, we all shut down to some extent. Pema Chodron teaches a Buddhist method called tonglen, or exchanging self and other. Written instructions are here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude meditation

Center in your body
--Bring to mind a person to whom you feel gratitude -- a teacher, relative, mentor, friend. Visualize them sitting in front of you, happy to receive your thanks.
-- Next bring to mind something you are grateful for in yourself -- a characteristic, an act, anything -- or, if that's too difficult, visualize someone who might feel gratitude toward you. Rest in that feeling that you too deserve appreciation.
-- Bring to mind a circumstance -- a job, a home, family, etc, for which you feel gratitude. Rest in that more expansive feeling.
-- Now recognize all the things that go into that, known and unknown -- the electricity has to work, your body has to function, the world has to keep spinning. See that more things go right in every moment than go wrong. See the world in the golden glow of richness.
and rest in open awareness.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Meditation changes your relationship to pain

Meditation can change the way a person experiences pain, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists, reported on
During an experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them. Brain-imaging studies showed that experts had less activity in the anxiety regions of their brains than did novice meditators. They also became accustomed to the pain more quickly after being exposed repeatedly to it.
The scientists, based at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, are analyzing the effects of meditation in several areas.
The study involved an advanced form of mindfulness mediation called Open Presence, but other kinds of meditation also may provide benefits, says Antoine Lutz, first author on the paper appearing recently in NeuroImage.
The findings help explain how opening to pain, rather than avoiding it, can reduce the anxiety that can worsen the experience of pain.
“The goal would be to change your relationship to the pain, rather than changing the experience itself,” Lutz says.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Friend Your Body (with cake)

Deep Chocolate Vegan Cake
1½ cups gluten-free flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill baking flour)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or chilled brewed coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 375. Generously grease a round or square 8-inch pan, dust bottom with cocoa powder or line with parchment paper.
Mix dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, mix liquid ingredients LEAVING OUT CIDER VINEGAR.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until smooth and well-blended.
Add the vinegar and stir briefly; the baking soda will begin to react with the vinegar, leaving pale swirls in the batter. Pour quickly into prepared pan.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick. Note: because it’s vegan, it doesn’t have to be completely dry, it’s ok if some batter sticks to the toothpick. It may take a little longer to bake because of the gluten-free flour.

Chocolate-Raspberry Glaze
1/3 cup plus ¼ cup raspberry jam or fruit spread
1½ cups chocolate chips
1 tablespoon water
Melt 1/3 cup of fruit spread with chocolate chips and blend
Mix ¼ cup fruit spread with water  and warm to liquefy. Brush liquefied fruit spread on cake, then spread on glaze. Allow cake to cool before serving.

Adapted from Moosewood  Restaurant New Classics

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meditation has lasting effects

The changes that take place in the brain during meditation -- reduced activity in the amygdala, which regulates stress response, for instance -- continue after a meditation session ends, according to a research study published this month in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Researchers at Massachusetts General, Boston College, and other participating institutions also found differences in the brain activity of those who practiced mindfulness-awareness meditation and those who did compassion practices during meditation sessions.

“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala – a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion – to images with emotional content,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, PhD, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”

Participants in three groups took part in eight-week trainings in either mindfulness-awareness meditation, compassion meditation, or general health classes. They had brain-imaging tests before and after the programs as they viewed photographs.

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images. But among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images – all of which depicted some form of human suffering. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.

“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explains. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The science of mindfulness

There is a measurable benefit that people could achieve through body-mind meditation, especially involving an effective training regimen.
PreventDisease reports that researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have laid out the science behind mindfulness, describing a broad framework of complex interactions in the brain:

The researchers identified several cognitive functions that are active in the brain during mindfulness practice, which help a person develop self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART).

They then highlighted six neuropsychological processes that are active mechanisms in the brain during mindfulness that support S-ART -- 1) intention and motivation, 2) attention regulation, 3) emotion regulation, 4) extinction and reconsolidation, 5) pro-social behavior, and 6) non-attachment and de-centering.

In other words, these processes begin with an intention and motivation to want to attain mindfulness, followed by an awareness of one's bad habits. Once these are set, a person can begin taming him or herself to be less emotionally reactive and to recover faster from upsetting emotions.

The article states that "the framework and neurobiological model proposed by the researchers differs from current popular descriptions of mindfulness as a way of paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." It doesn't sound different from the teachings I've received, non-scientifically, from meditation instructors. But it's always nice to have science validate your experience.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Power sitting

What is your body doing right now? Are you making yourself small, legs crossed, arms hugging your body? Are you expansive and taking up space?

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, says in this Ted talk that your body language affects not only how others see you but how you see yourself. Cuddy describes power poses that have been demonstrated to change the chemicals in people's brains, increasing testosterone, which makes a person feel confident, and lowering cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

What does this mean for meditators?

The traditional meditation posture -- straight back (strong but not rigid), level head, open chest -- have a lot in common with the power poses Cuddy cites, the ones that increase confidence. Confidence is one of the qualities cultivated through meditation -- by examining the habits and old beliefs that undermine our ability to tap into our true, brilliant nature.

So maybe the benefits of meditation aren't just a result of working with the mind but of learning to carry ourselves in a way that our biochemistry contributes ... the interdependence of bodies and minds.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sitting by yourself

For a great description of what it's like to attend a three-day silent meditation retreat -- albeit on a beach in Australia -- read this article.

By being silent and being with yourself, the idea is to interrupt the perpetual loop of thought many of us have on repeat; learning to bring yourself back to the experience of right here and now, engaging without distortions of judgment, criticism or fear.

It is a beautiful experience in many ways. But, it is an awful lot of time to spend with yourself, without words and without the distraction of phone, television or computer. The silence and space brings perspective and with that I realise how much pain from the past paints the picture of my present.

The beach at Bundagen where the retreat was held.

Of course, writer Sarah Berry observes, you don't have to go to an extraordinarily beautiful location to experience this.
And once you have had the realization you don't need to stay there, separated from society. You can experience it while listening to music, talking with friends, eating -- or nude body surfing. (Read the article.)

A way to be awake

"First, come into the present. Flash on what’s happening with you right now. Be fully aware of your body, its energetic quality. Be aware of your thoughts and emotions.

Next, feel your heart, literally placing your hand on your chest if you find that helpful. This is a way of accepting yourself just as you are in that moment, a way of saying, “This is my experience right now, and it’s okay.”

Then go into the next moment without any agenda.

This practice can open us to others at times when we tend to close down. It gives us a way to be awake rather than asleep, a way to look outward rather than withdraw."

(From Pema Chodron's "Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change")

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Meditation works!

Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, improve health, and reduce reactivity. But can it make you a better worker?

The Harvard Business Review's blogger Peter Bregman says yes.

In this blog post, Bregman writes:

Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what's happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you're still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.

How? By increasing your capacity to resist distracting urges.
Bregman describes his daily 20-minute practice and the benefits he's seen from it. It's not what you might hear in a meditation class, but that just shows that benefits of meditation are pervasive.

For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it's better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you'd be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Meditating daily will strengthen your willpower muscle. Your urges won't disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them. And you will have experience that proves to you that the urge is only a suggestion. You are in control.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Beyond Happiness

There are 30,083 books with the word "happiness" in the title on Of those, 10,484 are in the self-help category, and 6,436 are listed under religion and spirituality. Clearly happiness is a hot topic.

 But many of those books are misguided, Nancy Colier says in her new book, "Inviting a Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment." Colier maintains that there is a state beyond happiness, which is fragile and dependent on outer circumstances. Rather, Colier proposes that we can attain well being, "a state of being that is deeper than happiness, one that can support us and keep us eternally OK."

Colier lays out a clear road map in her book, which draws on her training in eastern spirituality, flow states, and psychotherapy. She uses highly relatable stories from her clients to illustrate how travelers on the path to wellness get there: A woman who shops to avoid the feeling of anxiety, a man who gets upset about missing the train and arriving late for an appointment, an athlete whose body can no longer be a source of pride.

The book offers a step-by-step guide to achieving well being, starting by describing our personal and cultural addiction to happiness and ending in the state beyond happiness, where all events, emotions, and mind states can be accommodated with a sense of ease and confidence.

 Colier knows the path well, which provides both inspiration and assurance.

"As a student of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, I have been practicing awareness and meditation for a long time. For a good part of that time, I was using my spiritual practice to try to make me feel a different way than the way I felt, or maybe, more accurately, to take me somewhere else internally -- anywhere other than where I was. Peace and happiness were the goal for my spiritual practice," she writes in the introduction.

Colier says she experienced glimpses of that, but "again and again, when life presented its toughest challenges ... the peace and happiness that I had achieved on the meditation cushion slipped away." Tired of continually trying to get back to a fleeting state, Colier changed the focus of her meditation practice. Rather than meditating to find happiness and peace, Colier began meditating to see what was true in her life at that moment.

"I suppose you could say that I stopped using my meditation practice as an object whose purpose was to provide me with something, transport me somewhere else, make me someone else," she writes. She began to use her meditation as a way to be with whatever was happening. That led her to "a peaceful, contented state that fed on what was real, here, and now."

"It was not until I stopped relating to happiness as an object to be gained, stopped searching for happiness -- as a way out -- and started searching for what is --as a way in -- that I discovered a doorway to somewhere far more blissful than happiness had ever taken me."

Want to go there? The book is a step-by-step, detailed guide. None of it will be surprising to students of Buddhism or psychology. This ground has been walked before. But Colier -- who is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post as well as an interfaith minister, psychotherapist, and public speaker -- presents it in a clear, contemporary, straight-forward way, balancing theory with enough personal details from her own life and from clients in her practice, to make it possible.

It's also clear that just reading the book won't get you there. You have to do your own work to get beyond the addiction to happiness and into the land of well-being. You still have to get to the meditation cushion. But this book is a helpful guide for working with what you find there.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Embodied meditation

Can't sit still? Too much going on in your mind?

Learn to use your body in meditation at tonight's class at Samadhi. 7:30-9.

We'll review concentration practice and move -- literally -- on to mindfulness, starting with mindfulness of body. Walking meditation. Body scans. Maybe even chocolate.

It's week 2 of the How to Start a Home Meditation Practice series, but it's never too late to start.

Get your mind together

Meditators are able to bring various areas of their brains in synchrony, working together in near lock step, Scientific American reports.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that during meditation, Zen Buddhist monks show an extraordinary synchronization of brain waves known as gamma synchrony--a pattern increasingly associated with robust brain function and the synthesis of activity that we call the mind.
The results seem to confirm that Zen meditation produces "not relaxation but an intense though serene attention," similar to trained musicians listening to music--another form of calm but intense focus.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Being and doing

Meditation is what you do all the time. Meditation is being in touch with the present moment, with your innate nature, which is always present but gets buried under busyness and thoughts of what you have to do or what you should have done.

 Busy people think they don't have time to meditate. There is too much to do to just be for 20 minutes a day.It is possible, however, to be and do.

Say you are at work. You have a to-do list that goes for miles. Maybe it's not even a list, just a swamp of activity that you have to get through. You can still be present with it. You can still operate from a place where you know what is happening now.

“There is no work-life balance. We have one life. What’s most important is that you be awake for it.”

Financial TImes article here.

Meditation is not what you do in your spare time

Meditation is what you do all the time. Meditation is being in touch with the present moment, with your innate nature, which is always present but gets buried under busyness and thoughts of what you have to do or what you should have done.

When you are at work, you can be at work and focus on the task at hand. Bringing focus and clarity to what you are doing in the moment helps to get it done.

When you are not at work, when you are making dinner or watching a movie or attending a PTA meeting or cleaning, you can simply do those things. Make dinner and notice the colors and textures of the food, the steam rising off the pot of boiling pasta. Don't watch the sauteeing onions just to keep them from burning -- watch how they respond to the heat and the oil, notice the smells.

Be present for whatever you are doing, without judgment, and whatever you are doing will become richer and sharper.

We think we have to compartmentalize, to divide up our time and ourselves between work and home care (like cleaning) and self care (like exercise) and entertainment and on. But those are just tasks. We are the essentially the same person doing different things.

If we can be that person with that same essential nature just doing different things, we can be present with whatever comes.

Photo by Paul Shambroom/ The Financial Times
Janice Maturano created a Mindful Leadership program at General Mills, the massive food company, after becoming a meditation practitioner herself. Although she teaches at the company's corporate offices and the program is intended to help people at work, she says the benefits extend beyond the walls.

“There is no work-life balance. We have one life. What’s most important is that you be awake for it.”


The Financial Times described the program as "a mix of sitting meditation based on Buddhist practice, gentle yoga, and dialogue to settle the mind. The idea is that calmer workers will be less stressed, more productive and even become better leaders, thereby benefiting the entire organisation." Read the article  here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


For one day (or one day a week), refrain from something you habitually do to run away, to escape. Pick something concrete, such as overeating or excessive sleeping or overworking or spending too much time texting or checking e-mails. Make a commitment to yourself to gently and compassionately work with refraining from this habit for this one day. Really commit to it. Do this with the intention that it will put you in touch with the underlying anxiety or uncertainty that you've been avoiding. Do it and see what you discover.

Pema Chodron

What habit can you work with?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Friend your amygdala

From U.S. News and World Report, Sept. 18, 2012

One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn't involve chanting "Om" while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, "without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative," says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

The idea is to allow parts of the prefrontal cortex to lessen activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for evaluating threats. This helps reduce the likelihood you will overreact and enhances your ability to see potential solutions to problems, Davidson says.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mandy Patinkin: JewBu. Who knew?

Exhibit1, a Q&A from 2005: Have things ever been better for you?

Patinkin: The greatest gift in my life was getting cancer because it taught me how much I love my life, my family, my friends and my work, and it taught me that I must find a way to find some peace and calm every day. I never could sit still long enough to meditate, but since my experience with cancer, I do it every day. I'm a little baby Zen Buddhist.

Exhibit 2, New York magazine, Sept. 9, 2012, asked if Saul, the character he plays on Showtime's "Homeland" a good guy or a bad one?

Patinkin: “I don’t want to know. I don’t know what’s going to happen five seconds from now, so why should Saul? As an actor, I play the scene the same way whether he’s bad or good. My inner motivation is to make the world a better place; the bad guy and the good guy think the same thing.”

How to Start a Home Meditation Practice -- and Why You Should

Meditation is good for you. New studies confirm objectively what ancient spiritual traditions have said -- it can reduce stress, increase happiness, and foster a compassionate attitude. The techniques aren't complicated, but many people struggle with starting -- and continuing -- a meditation practice.

I'm teaching a four-week class at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, which will include meditation instruction and techniques, discussion of the benefits of an ongoing practice, how to get started, and how to keep going, and problems you may encounter. Encouragement and support available! And once you've done it for four weeks ...

I am  a teacher with the Interdependence Project in New York, a secular Buddhist organization that promotes mindful living, and I've trained in meditation instruction with Sarah Powers of the Insight Yoga Institute. I lead a weekly meditation class at Samadhi on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., and teach at the Unitarian-Universalist Society: East Buddhist Group at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month.

For details or to register -- you can do all four weeks or drop in -- go to and click on the workshops tab

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The natural beauty of inner landscape

Meditation is another dimension of natural beauty. People talk about appreciating natural beauty — climbing mountains, seeing giraffes and tigers in Africa, and all sorts of things. But nobody seems to appreciate this kind of natural beauty of ourselves. This is actually far more beautiful than flora and fauna, far more fantastic, far more painful and colorful and delightful.

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Friend your body

Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we already are. - Pema Chodron

"When you talk about yourself, or talk to yourself...try to picture you talking to your own daughter or your younger sister. Because you would tell your younger sister or your daughter that she was beautiful, and you wouldn't be lying - because she is. And so are you." - Amy Poehler

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sitting alone

Loneliness hurts -- not just psychologically.  Elders who report feeling lonely have an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and depression.

Researchers at UCLA say that an eight-week mindfulness meditation program reduced not only feelings of loneliness in older adults but also significantly reduced expression of inflammatory genes.

Science Daily reports that in the current online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, senior study author Steve Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry and a member of the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and colleagues report that the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program reduced the feelings of loneliness among study participants. (MBSR is a secular meditation program developed by Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn.**)

For more on how the study was done, read the Science Daily article here. For an article with fewer technical details, read this CNN piece.

This is one of those things that just make sense to me. Loneliness is stressful. Stress puts your body on alert. Alertness means tense muscles, internal chemistry going into overdrive. It's bound to have physical consequences.

It also makes sense to me that mindfulness meditation eases feelings of loneliness, even if you're sitting alone in your room doing it. Being alone is not a problem in the moment. It's all the thoughts that go along with it ... Why am I alone? Nobody loves me. They're not answering my calls because they know it's me. I have always been alone. I will always be alone. (John Welwood describes this as "the mood of unlove -- a deep-seated suspicion most of us harbor within ourselves that we cannot be loved, that we are not truly lovable for who we are.")

If you stay in the moment and don't board that train of thought, you avoid the stress. What's more, you can notice what's right about the moment -- the light, the sounds, the temperature, the sheer joy of being able to breathe.

Calm your mind and calm your body.

The benefits may not be tied only to mindfulness. The Science Daily article also notes that Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and a Cousins Center member, published a study showing that a form of yogic meditation involving chanting also reduced inflammatory gene expression, as well as stress levels, among individuals who care for patients with Alzheimer's disease.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Meditation reshapes your brain

Just two months conscious and proper practice of regular meditation completely rebuilds the human brain.

This sensational conclusion was made by a team of scientists of Harvard Medical School. The results of the study were published in a special edition of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. The experiment was conducted on 16 volunteers who participated in the 8-week program aimed to reduce stress through mindfulness, developed by the Centre for Mindfulness (University of Massachusetts Medical School). In weekly sessions participants were trained to focus on the awareness of their body’s senses, feelings and states of mind. Moreover, they had to meditate at home in their spare time.

All participants underwent MRI brain scanning before and after the training program. A comparison of the results showed an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in memory processing, and in some other areas of the brain associated wit
h self-awareness and introspection.

Two years earlier, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles with the help of high-resolution scanning of the brain, found that in people who regularly practice meditation, brain areas associated with the expression of emotions are significantly greater in size than in the control group. All the 22 participants of the experiment have been practicing meditation for a long time: from 5 to 46 years, the average duration was 24 years. Most of them devoted to meditation from 10 to 90 minutes a day.

“We know that people who regularly practice meditation often express positive emotions, have the ability to maintain peace of mind and manifest a caring attitude towards others. Our results may shed some light as to why these people have similar qualities“, noted the lead author of the work Eileen Luders.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A day to relax

Tomorrow is National Relaxation Day. (The date is Aug. 15, but the origin is unknown and appears to have originated as a spa-marketing tool, so don't worry about the date.)

How will you observe it?

The blog offers five tips, including eating slowly, taking three-minute breathing breaks, and reducing channels of input (ie turn off the TV or the Internet for a while).

Here's my suggestion: Take it literally and do a slow body scan, tensing each part, feeling the tightness, and releasing it, feeling the muscle relax. Start at your feet, curling your toes as tightly as possible, and isolate parts up to your face and scalp, drawing them tightly and letting go.

May all beings find ease.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Only meditation leads to enlightenment

Through the practice of meditation "one must see the straightforward logic that mind is the cause of confusion and that by transcending confusion one attains the enlightened state. This can only take place through the practice of meditation. The Buddha himself experienced this, by working on his own mind; and what he learned has been handed down to us.
--Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Friday, July 27, 2012

Live. In. It.

I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.

And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

Joan Didion

Monday, July 23, 2012

The IDPeeps Contemplate Happiness

The IDPeeps contemplate ... will the Cookies n Cream make me happy?

Maybe in the moment. But then the Cookies n Cream will be gone.

Perhaps leafy green vegetables, with their folates and fiber, will bring long-term happiness.

That too proves to be unsatisfactory.

Caught in the trap of doubt, self-confidence ebbing, IDPeep falls back on habit and into a glass of fine Kentucky bourbon, on the rocks.

Hung over and still unhappy, IDPeep realizes that habitual patterns don't bring happiness. IDPeep turns to meditation.

and comes to realize

that in between the thought and the action

there is a space

and in that space

is the happiness that comes from knowing one's true nature as primordially, inherently good.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Petting your emotional dog

Do you feel at the mercy of your emotions or emotional reactions? Do you find that you respond the same way in many situations -- does everything irritate you?

In mindfulness, we note things arising -- and let them go.

The question that always come up for me is, then what? Where does it go, and why am I still irritated?

Jack Kornfield says the instruction is more like "let it be." Let the story go -- the thing that you tell yourself to explain your reaction -- and be with the energy.

If you're like me, you're now asking how to do that. Kornfield explains it in "The Eightfold Path for Householders:"

-- See it. Label it, acknowledge it, see that it's human. "Well, there it is, there's aversion, there's irritation, there's judgment, there's confusion." When you look directly at the emotion -- without anticipating reactions or consequences -- it's not that bad.

-- Let your heart connect with it as though it were a poor, down-trodden dog that you usually shoo away. It's a metaphorical dog, so just look at it without thinking that it will drool on you or give you fleas or shed hair or whatever the story is that makes you shoo it away. Just see an energy that wants your kind attention. Feel the awwww ....

-- As you open to it, notice its nature and study it as if you were a botanist examing a plant. Where does it begin? What's in the middle of it? How intense does it get? What is the end like? What is the most powerful point of it? What do you feel in your body when this emotion-dog is nudging your mind? What triggers it, and what's the thought or image that comes right before it? What's the story?

-- One last question: Who is making up the story? Kornfield calls that a "very useful question at that moment. It's beginning to observe the movement or the dance of the mind."

Instead of fighting with the energy you don't like, maybe you can learn to like dancing with it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blow out the candles -- and send out love

Saturday, July 14, is Pema Chodron's birthday. Ani Pema is one of the faces of western Buddhism, even though she wears the traditional monk's robes and a haircut that's just barely avoids having a shaved head. She's been interviewed by Oprah and Bill Moyers, and her books have sold millions of copies.

Before she was Pema Chödrön, she was Deirdre Blomfield-Brown. Born in New York City, she attended Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She taught as an elementary school teacher for many years in both New Mexico and California.

Part of her brilliance lies in her ability to translate ancient wisdom to modern life, to identify with the worldly world while living in a remote abbey. Her teachings are tonglen are one example of this. There was a time when tonglen was a secret practice, given to advanced students. Now it's widespread in meditation circles.

For a detailed description, go here.

Essentially, it's a compassion practice in which the meditator takes on the suffering of another person and gives something beneficial -- peace, health, ease, love. It's sometimes called taking and sending or exchanging self and other. It's a way of dissolving the boundaries we erect around the self we want to protect and the messy world outside.

I learned it as a four-step process:

Flash on openness -- get a sense of space, of the wide blue sky, an open plain, a place without walls.
Imagine that you are breathing in thick, smoky, oily, polluted air. Breath out clear air.
Call to mind someone you know -- personally or through the news -- who is suffering. Please in their pain; breathe out an antidote. (Breathe in sadness; breathe out joy.)
Expand that to all beings who are suffering in that way.

When you're finished, do shamata or some other practice for a while to settle back into your being.

I know from experience that this is a heart-opening practice for the person who performs it. I've been told that the recipients also feel the compassionate energy, even if they don't know the practice is being done for them.

Ani Pema's on retreat for all of 2012, but she's invited everyone to join her in meditation and practicing peace today. Details are on her website

I think I will picture a birthday cake with 76 candles, breathing in the smoky air from all the burning colored wax.

Breathing out, I wish that all beings may know the joy of clear-seeing.

Here is a video of Pema teaching tonglen:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Meditation reduces work stress: study

A new study finds that becoming more focused, productive and less stressed at work may involve nothing more than learning to meditate.

David Levy, a computer scientist and professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, found that those who had meditation training were able to stay on task longer and were less distracted. Levy and his co-authors discovered that meditation also improved test subjects' memory while easing their stress.

Some companies, such as Google, even teach their workers to meditate.

If yours doesn't, you can still sneak it in. Even if you're sitting a cubicle and you don't want to get a rep as the office meditator (not that there's anything wrong with that -- and maybe there would be things right with it if people notice your calm and focused demeanor and ask what your secret is) you can meditate at work.

Look at your computer screen or a document but soften your gaze so that you're not absorbing what's there. Focus instead on your breathing. Know that you're breathing in; know that you're breathing out. Focusing on your breath cuts off the fight-or-flight impulse and activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

Pick a number ahead of time or watch the clock on your computer. Consciously breath for 27 breaths or three minutes or whatever works for you. Go back to your task with a clearer mind.

You can do that many times a day.

A screensaver with drips of paint
And if you also practice at home, for 10 or 15 minutes or more, your body and mind learn to recognize that you're calming down, and you'll switch into it more quickly.

Friday, June 29, 2012

You Can Always Wake Up

My companion and I were walking back to our B&B in Galway through a pedestrian mall area lined with bars and restaurants. We'd spent the evening watching Eurocup football in a bar, being mistaken for French because we rooted for the team. That resulted in a man kissing my companion on the cheek at the bar, and she returned to our table with two Bulmers and a bemused expression. Later we were chatted up by two older gentlemen with incomprehensible accents. Excellent fun.

But the dark side of drink showed itself on our walk back. Two men came out of a bar arguing loudly. Then it became physical, with punches thrown. One man fell to the ground, and the other kicked him in the ribs.

We were on the other side of the street, fairly far away, but then stopped across the street. Several people were standing, watching, including the attacker's friends, who stood back.. No one cheered. No one egged things on. Everyone seemed to want it to stop, but no one knew how to make that happen without becoming the target of drunken aggression.

Then a taxi driver parked at the kerb honked his horn.

The man looked up, then stepped back onto the foot that was extended to deliver another kick. His friends immediately surrounded him, and they walked him away. The man on the ground lay still, and time stopped moving, until he raised his head. Three people who looked like they knew what they were doing rushed over, including a well-dressed woman in heels who'd been standing next to us. Within seconds the man was sitting up, his white T-shirt torn and ringed with blood, being talked to by those who'd gone over.

I looked for the Gardai as we walked on, a police officer, who could get help, if it was needed. Then I realized that the people on the scene probably had cellphones and could call for help.

I don't know if we could have done anything differently. Interfering would not have stopped the fight, only provided a new target.

But I do know this: We can always wake up. No matter how fast our train of thought is speeding down the track, something can stop us in our tracks, allow us to choose whether to continue or change directions. In this case, the taxi's honk interrupted the blind, drunken, aggression that had taken over that man's mind and body.

And if that can happen, I believe, our train of thought can always be brought to a screeching halt.

May we be open to those auspicious interruptions. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to meditate when you don't have time to sit

My friend, Ven. Lawrence Do An Grecco, recently wrote about how to meditate if you don't have time to sit. You do it by conducting your everyday activities with the mind of meditation.
You can read his whole post here

He writes: 
Good practice is not just about sitting for long periods of time or going away on extended retreats at exotic meditation halls or reading a densely written Dharma book that makes you want to yawn. It’s simply about being fully aware of what your mind is doing at any given moment, and this is something you can do at any given moment. 
Here are some of his seven suggestions:

Set your phone alarm to go off at several different times throughout the day. When you hear the tone, take a moment to pause and check in and see how you are doing, even if it’s just for a few seconds. Notice if you’re stuck in any thought loops or harboring any negative emotional or mind states. Don’t try to force anything away or muster up any kind of special feeling, just notice how you are doing in that moment and then continue on with your day.
Do several periods of mini-practice sessions spread throughout the day. Be still and follow your breath for just 60 seconds at five or ten different periods. Use a reminder alert on your phone if you must.
Stick some small post-it notes in various places around your home and office to remind you to pay attention to what your mind is doing whenever you catch sight of them.
Whenever you are walking and wherever you happen to be, just walk. Don’t try to figure out your life or solve the world’s problems in your brain as you’re moving about—instead just pay attention to the feeling of the ground under each foot as it touches the earth below. 
Whether you’re grabbing a quick cup of coffee at Starbucks or having an elaborately prepared gourmet meal, allow yourself some time to simply experience the act of consuming.

When you’re texting or typing at your computer or on your phone, pay close attention to the sensation of your fingertips as they tap against the keys on your phone or your keyboard. 

To keep it simple, whatever you're doing, just be present with what you're doing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

When Things Aren't Going Your Way Change Direction

Lessons from travel:

Our trip to Ireland was loosely planned. We had general geographic locations, but no specific sites -- save one. The Aran Islands off the west coast. I'd been in love with them since I was a child and saw a photo essay in Life or Look or some other magazine I'd picked up some Sunday at my grandmother's house. They were desolate, spare, intriguing.

So the plan, then, once we got to Galway was to get up early and catch the first ferry at 10:30 to Inishmore. The second ferry didn't leave til 1.

We didn't make it. My traveling companion slept late and moved slowly, not feeling well. I miscalculated the distance. The drive was lovely, 80km an hour down narrow roads lined with stone walls, occasional ruins, and spare, bleak coastline. The clouds hung like a low ceiling so that you'd have to duck your head.

I assumed the ferry would have some touristy attractions, coffee shops, shopping shops, around it, basing my ferry experience on Cape Cod. The ferry from Ros a' Mhíl to Inis Mor is surrounded by fisheries and parking lots. We bought tickets and headed back to the main road, turning left (because left turns are easier when you're driving on the left), and heading into Connemara.

Connemara -- gorgeous word -- is in the Gaeltacht, where Irish is the language of everyday life. The signs were incomprehensible with words containing long strings of vowels and odd combinations of consonants, at least to our English-reading brains. We stopped in the first place that had more than two buildings and a bunch of parked cars. The best option was a coffee shop, where the vegan ate eggs and the gluten-sensitive person had fish and chips. The signs on the walls were in Irish.

The only other customers were a young family, father, mother, and round, potato-faced, happy toddler. He and I discovered we could play peekaboo around his mother's shoulder. He said something about me to his parents, who looked over, then laughed at him. (I'm guessing it was along the lines of "There's a funny lady." Look. "She's not funny -- you're funny!")

When we left, I said bye-bye. The family said something incomprehensible and long, that served as bye-bye.

We stopped in the grocery store for ferry snacks, and the clerk spoke to my companion in Irish. Companion apparently declined to get a bag for her purchases, walking over to me with full arms and a puzzled expression.

It was delightful, a step through the looking glass into another world.

The lesson? We could have been grumpy when things didn't go as planned. I was, in fact, wearing my cranky-pants as we parked the car, lamenting the short time we'd have on the island. "Well," my wise companion said, "There hours is better than not going there."


And being open to what the moment offers brings you unexpected delights.

Life is an auspicious coincidence.