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Review: You Are Here September 3, 2012

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 Review: You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

I recently finished You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment. Much of what I read, I have come across previously in other books by Thay, but this book has been arranged so that the main focus and message of the book is specifically the present moment. The book is very small and very easy to read. It is an instruction manual for how to dwell fully in the present moment, and explains all of the benefits we can receive if we know how to do this.

If I could sum up the main message of the book, it would be this:

“I am here.”

If we are able to say this and know that it is true, then we know we are practicing skilfully. To be able to say, “I am here. I have arrived.” is the main practice offered in this book. It is a simple (perhaps not so easy) practice that can have immense benefits.

“The Buddha said, ‘The past no longer exists and the future is not yet here.’ There is only a single moment in which we can truly be alive, and that is the present moment. Being present in the here and now is our practice.”

The book also describes the miracles of mindfulness in the present moment, both for ourselves and for the other.

The miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can heal from the past. Thay explains how to practice skilfully with our past and not be lost in regret. We can also practice in the present moment to make right any unskilful actions from our past. If we have a painful past, we can practice to heal from it and enjoy freedom and happiness.

Another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can skilfully handle the future. Thay says it best in that:

“The future is being made out of the present, so the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment… Spending a lot of time speculating and worrying about the future is totally useless.”

Finally, another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we are able to handle difficult emotions if we are able to dwell in the present moment. Thay uses the metaphor of a tree blowing in a storm that appears as if it might be uprooted by the strong winds. The base and roots of the tree are firmly rooted in the earth, and not shaken by the storm. For ourselves, we can handle storms of difficult emotions by focusing our concentration on our bodies, in the space below the belly button.

Thay also describes how our dwelling in the present moment can be a miracle for others. In the book, the ability to stay in the present moment and focus all of our attention on another person is love. Our presence and undivided attention is a wonderful thing we can offer to others. There are some wonderful examples and stories of students who have learned this important lesson. I would agree that I feel most loved when I am acknowledged and appreciated by others with their full accepting attention.

Another part of the book I particularly enjoyed was a description of the benefits of practicing with a sangha. Thay suggests that a sangha can help us to handle storms of difficult emotions, and can help us to cultivate our own power of mindfulness, especially if we are just beginning.

Finally, the book ended with the story of a monk comforting a dying person (Teachings to be Given to the Sick), an anecdote I have always enjoyed the few times I have come across it. Here are some quotes from this section:

 “We are in the habit of identifying ourselves with our bodies, ‘This body is me and I am this body.’ But we are not just this body, we are much more than that… We are life, and life is far vaster than this body, this concept, this mind.”

 “We should never forget that dying is as important as living.”

A point that I really appreciated was that we can ask an experienced sangha member how to improve our practice. Thay firmly instructs that our mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, with no struggling. If we are finding this is not the case, we are not practicing correctly, so we can ask someone else how improve our practice. For myself, this was an eye-opener, because I think I started out my mindfulness practice with the idea that if it wasn’t working or bringing benefits, I should stop practicing. Nevertheless, I understand the suggestion that perhaps I just wasn’t practicing skilfully or completely understanding the instructions. So instead of abandoning my practice that doesn’t provide immediate results, I could ask someone else for help (a difficult instruction for me, as I am quite an independent learner with a preference to read more books than ask someone for advice).

I would recommend this book for someone who is beginning the practice, or for someone who would like a short, easy-to-read reminder of the benefits of present moment awareness.

One final quote I enjoyed:

 “Our bodies and minds are sustained by the cosmos. The clouds in the sky nourish us; the light of the sun nourishes us. The cosmos offers us vitality and love in every moment. Despite this fact, some people feel isolated and alienated from the world.”

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Review – Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes July 25, 2012

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I recently picked up the book Solitude: Seeking Wisdom In Extremes by Robert Kull. I had only heard of the book for the first time a week ago and suddenly I saw it in a bookstore and the library. I should thank my dharma buddy Paulette for recommending the book during sangha.

The book is a firsthand account of one man’s year-long experiment to see the biological, psychological and spiritual effects of solitude.  The author set out to live for an entire year off the coast of Chile for an entire year in complete solitude, where he had no direct human contact.

The book is one part wilderness survival and one part psychospiritual development. The author actually was an experienced Buddhist meditation practitioner, and used meditation techniques daily as a way to develop a clear mind and control the psychological effects of having to survive alone in the wilderness. Another aspect of the author’s spirituality was a deep connection to wilderness and nature, including the elements (wind, rain, ocean, clouds, etc.) as well as the plants and animals he relied on for survival. A large part of the author’s time on the island was spent reading many books including meditation and Buddhism books.

The book was quite satisfying and very fascinating to see how the content changes over the course of the year. The entries are chronological, and the author made a journal entry every day.

I quite enjoyed the spiritual themes and questions that the author struggled with in his account. The questions were ones that I have sought answers myself, so I enjoyed reading another person’s explorations. Some of the themes included: aloneness/solitude versus social interaction, Big Mind versus little mind, activity as distraction versus inactivity and stillness, mystical experiences in the wilderness,

depression, anxiety, and dealing with physical pain. You might be as surprised as I was about the answers or resolutions that the author finds to some of these questions.

It was also great to hear another person put great emphasis on spirituality as an important aspect of human life.

Some great quotes from the book (there were many other great indirect quotes throughout the book from other authors and Buddhist teachers that I didn’t include here):

We have seriously confounded luxury with necessity in our culture, and can no longer differentiate between what we want in order to maintain a particular lifestyle (with its social relationships and sensual pleasures) and what we actually need for physical survival. We have confounded social identity with biological and spiritual being to the point of believing we will die if we lose our social standing, which is often based on the material wealth we have accumulated. This accelerating spiral of desires becoming necessities is driving our suicidal rush to destroy the Earth we depend on for our actual physical survival.

Are you remembering to remember and notice Life living in you?

A few comments to make about what I didn’t enjoy in the book were the long, often tedious accounts of wildlife and the weather, in part due to the author’s training in biology. Because each entry in the book is a daily journal entry, some of the descriptions became quite repetitive.

In all, I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in nature and wilderness survival and/or meditation and spirituality.

Review: The Art of Power June 7, 2012

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I recently finished reading The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh. When I first picked up the book I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it surprised me by turning out to be an excellent read.

The main message of the book was to change our ideas of true power from external forms of power to internal power. In other words, from the idea of power as controlling or influencing others or acquiring wealth or possessions to the power to be able to be happy in the present moment and free from afflictions.

I was surprised by the book because it seemed to be so applicable and relevant to living in a modern, industrialized society. Thay tries to convince us of the dangers of placing high values on materialism, or achieving status, wealth and material possessions. I think in this culture, this is the common assumption that the way to become powerful is to gain wealth, status, and possessions.

Nevertheless, Thay tries to convince us that there is a better way to live, and a better way to gain power. Mindful living is a more wholesome way to live and become successful in all areas of our lives, not just in material aspects.

Some of the ideas that Thay describes seem to be contradictory at first, but I think this reflects our cultural conditioning. For instance, the idea that slowing down or doing one thing at a time can allow you to get more work done. When Thay explains ideas like these more fully, and I remembered lessons from my own experience, I was able to see that they do make quite a bit of sense.

I really enjoyed the piece describing how money might be seen as power: When we have lots of money we have power over other people because we can pay them to do things that we want. We also feel more powerful because we have more choice available to us in how to spend our money and what services and products to buy.

To me, this was an excellent description of how democracy has become commercialized in Canada, and perhaps to a larger extent inNorth America. Currently, the phrase “one dollar, one vote” is commonplace, and reflects the idea that we exert power by buying things. So really, our power is “buying power”. But the message is that this type of power isn’t true power, and actually can cause a lot of problems in our lives.

Thay included a lot of practical suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into work life and work settings. These suggestions seemed quite practical and simple, and made quite a bit of sense in Thay’s descriptions. A lot of emphasis was placed on leading by example, instead of using direct suggestions. Thay discussed using a different viewpoint of our coworkers as a kind of family, and the best way we can work is when we care for our coworkers.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is looking for ways to live a healthier, more wholesome life in a materialist and consumerist society.

Review: Peace is Every Breath May 31, 2012

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I recently read the book Peace is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought the book would be a newer, revised version of Peace is Every Step, a classic which I also own, but instead the book was quite a bit different. I really enjoyed the book because it was very well written and concisely explained in very clear language how to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life.

Thay went over some of the more “simple” practices of mindfulness such as mindful breathing and walking. At the start the practices were presented in such a way to reflect how mindfulness would look in someone’s daily life throughout the day, from waking to eating to working and finally to sleeping.

Thay also included some more practices for dealing with deep suffering, and also presented some important Buddhist teachings. I had come across many of these teachings before, but they were explained in the book in a new fresh way, so I got a lot out of them this time.

I liked that Thay included a lot of things in a small book using excellent clear language. It was well presented to get to the important points without getting lost in too many details.

I found parts of the book very inspiring and confidence-building while reading them. Thay outlined practices for how to deal with difficult situations using mindful breathing:

“With the three jewels protecting you, you have nothing more to fear. In this calm and focused state you will know what action to take to stabilize the situation.”

I was inspired to try my best to practice this in times of stress, instead of letting my mind worry about it and ruminate over a problem to fix it.

Thay also talked about how to take refuge in ourself, as well as how to take care of the present moment in order to not have to worry about anything arising in the future. These instructions made me feel quite solid and firm in my practice because I know it has brought me so many benefits:

“You have a spritual path and you know you’re walking it so you have nothing more to fear.”

I particularly enjoyed some of the sections on how to stay in the present moment. Thay talked about how to pull our mind back after letting it wander into the future, but also to avoid letting the past continue to shape us in the present moment when it no longer exists as a reality.

“Meditation is the practice of living deeply in each moment of life.”

Some other quotes:

“Know how to shake off the worries and live joyfully. This is an art. Practice to let go of unimportant things that don’t bring happiness.”

“We too are flowers. We’ve allowed ourselves to get weighted down by life’s hardships and lost much of our freedom.”

Book Review: Beyond Happiness March 22, 2012

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A book I recently finished reading is called Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment by Ezra Bayda. Ezra is a Zen meditation teacher from San Diego. I just happened to stumble across this book at the public library, and have been drawn to Zen these days so I thought I would check it out.

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I really, truly enjoyed the book, every moment of it. I read through it twice to take notes because it was filled with valuable knowledge. I noticed while reading it that I think I have a lot in common with the author, which may explain why it seemed like the book spoke directly to me.

One of the things I loved about the book was it contrasted personal happiness with genuine happiness. Personal happiness is associated with positive emotions, feeling good, satisfying desires, etc., but these fulfillments do not last and are not truly satisfying. Genuine happiness, on the other hand, is being at peace with things as they are, not needing to change anything, regardless of whether you are feeling positive or negative emotions. I loved that the book talked about how personal happiness is only temporary and based on a benevolent environment that supports the state of happiness, while genuine happiness is available to us all the time.

Some practices I picked up in the book that I am trying to implement as much as I can are the practice of breathing into an unpleasant emotion to return to the breath, the physical body, and the immediate surroundings. In particular, I will be trying my best to take the advice to avoid analyzing or intellectualizing why the negative emotions are present as a way to avoid being present with the emotion itself, which is something I’ve noticed happens often if not most of the time.

I particularly appreciated the descriptions of how the thinking, analytical, intellectual mind is a component of the ego, and an aspect of survival that is bent on controlling our world. When we let the minds consume our experience with thinking, the thinking takes over and “shuts life out.” This is something that I found to be completely true for myself.

I also appreciated the criticism of some conventional self-help techniques that are aimed primarily at changing thoughts instead of changing behaviour or cultivating new habits.

Some favourite quotes:

“Genuine happiness is our natural state when all of the things that impede happiness–expectations, judgements, attachments, fears–no longer get in the way.”

“Whenever we seek special experiences to bring us happiness we are caught in striving, in the self-centred pursuit to feel a particular way, which undermines any aspiration to feel our true nature.”

“Formulas for happiness can only give us superficial fixes, they can’t deal with the complexity of human emotion and behaviour.”

“Changing our attitudes works primarily on the mental realm, but real change must address the deeply seated conditioning in the body.”

Book Review: Women and Zen March 22, 2012

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I just finished two excellent biographies by women authors who also happen to be Zen (Buddhism) practitioners.

The book I first read was called Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America by Natalie Goldberg, who apparently is a well-known author and writing workshop leader. I really enjoyed this book I think in part because I identified with the author quite a bit. She wrote about being introverted during her childhood which led her to do a lot of reading and writing on her own. As a writer, she found herself being quite independent and often alone most of her life. She also spent quite a bit of time in the midwestern U.S. and describes trying to deal with the freezing cold temperatures. In contrast, she ends up moving to the hot, sunny, Arizona desert, and falls in love with the wide open landscape.

One passage I particularly enjoyed was her criticism of “New Age” spirituality and workshops offered by different teachers, which she contrasts with her diligent Zen meditation practice. She describes New Age spirituality as commercialized and consumerized by giving people what they want to hear, but letting them off easy without providing a daily, disciplined practice, which results in people forgetting everything they learn in the workshops and always needing to come back for more.

The book described some very intruiging stories of strange “coincidences” or happenings that couldn’t just be explained by chance. One story I really enjoyed was where she started writing a book about Zen Buddhism and relationships in a restauraunt near her house. She wasn’t sure why she was drawn to that particular restauraunt of all the places she could go to, but just found she could easily do her writing there. Only later did she find out that almost everyone who worked at the restauraunt (servers, cooks, owner, etc.) were Zen practitioners themselves! Crazy!

Another quote I really liked was where she told her teacher that she felt the more she sat (meditated), the more Jewish she became (her parents were Jewish European immigrants to America). Her teacher said, “That makes sense. The more you sit, the more you become who you are.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

The other book I was so happy to come across by chance at the library wasHand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for An Ordinary Life By Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and stay-at-home mother. I had read about this book on the internet recently and didn’t know I would find it on the shelves so soon. The book is basically an autobiography of how the author found Zen Buddhism practice and how it changed her life for the better. I could identify with this author, as well, because she found herself caught up in trying to achieve a perfect professional career, which only ended up in her becoming depressed after her divorce. Also, in the book, she criticized psychology as an option for helping people, because she claims it doesn’t make people end up any different from what got them in trouble in the first place (thinking in order to understand ourselves, and understanding ourselves in order to change the way we think).

A main message of the book is a criticism of the materialism and consumerism of modern society and western culture that makes us always strive for money, social status and achievements and leaves us feeling we have never been able to find our “life.” The message is to value and be satisfied with the simple things in daily life, instead of always trying to achieve something better or become a better person.

It also emphasizes doing things like housework and chores yourself instead of just hiring other people to do them for you (or, as Karen puts it, “outsourcing”). According to the author, doing things yourself is an act of love and care towards yourself and the people close to you. A very intruiging concept that I have been contemplating a lot lately…

And, as always with any book on Zen, there is a huge emphasis on slowing down, stopping, and taking the time to savor life’s daily joys and pleasures. The author contrasts this with her life before Zen, where she viewed time as money and was always trying to cram as many things into as small a space of time as possible.

There you have it, two highly recommended books for anyone interested in biographies, spirituality, or meditation.