Hanh’s the Miracle of Mindfulness

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
Thich Nhat Hanh

A beautiful and practical book on starting and sustaining a meditation practice by Thich Nhat Hanh. If you’re reading this review you probably know Hanh is one of the most important Buddhist practitioners alive today. His writings, courses, and political activism are legion, and the community that surrounds him broad and incredibly active. I’ve been an admirer from afar from many years (indeed, I have done legal work for his organization) but I haven’t really delved into his work until now.

This is a great place to start, accessible, clear, and gorgeous in its simplicity, it’s a perfect introduction to Hanh. Generally, I find myself drawn to the more scientific end of writings on mindfulness, but the sincerity and pureness of intention here drew me in and captivated me. I read the whole thing in two days.

If you’re looking to dip you toes into a mindfulness practice, you could do worse than starting here.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

How I Meditate

Life has been a chaotic mess of work, family obligations, failed fitness routines, and unfinished books. Time to refocus the mind and body on the things that matter the most to me, time to begin again a meditation practice. The practice is simple. Routinizing it, prioritizing it, those are the hard things.

This is how I do it.

I set a timer, or a meditation app, for the desired amount of time. Right now, its ten minutes, soon fifteen, then twenty, then perhaps longer. If I don’t have time for ten minutes, I’ll do five. Something is always better than nothing at all.

I sit comfortably, in a chair, on a cushion, or on the floor. With my eyes open I take three or four deep breaths, in through the mouth, out through the nose. I set my attention to be present, to be here now.

I close my eyes and begin breathing normally again, in and out, in and out.

I attempt to notice the sounds around me without judgement or concern. There, a siren, there, a car. They’re just there. Neither helping or impeding my practice. Just there.

I perform a “body scan” wherein I start from my head and move down my body noticing its state. Does my shoulder hurt (it usually does) Is my back tight? My feet tired? I notice this aspects of my body. They’re just there. Neither helping or impeding my practice. Just there.

Then I try to focus on my breath. In and out, in and out. I count my breaths one on the in, two on the out, three on the in, four on the out, five on the in, six on the out, seven on the in, eight on the out, nine on the in, ten on the out.

Then again.

My mind wanders, it always does. I get hung up on the car, or the ache in my shoulder. I don’t make it to ten breaths. I don’t make it to four.

As soon as I notice my mind wandering, I start again.

I do this, over and over until the timer goes off.

Almost always, I feel better afterward. I try to remember that feeling the next time I am making an excuse for not meditating. The process isn’t hard, remembering how important it can be is. Be Here Now

Review: Hoffman’s Greeting from Utopia Park

Greetings from Utopia Park
Claire Hoffman

Mindfulness and meditation are having a moment. All over the business world people are extolling the virtues of a daily practice for productivity and mental health. This mainstreaming of meditation is being led by apps like Headspace (which I use) and the leaders of the mindfulness movement like Joseph Goldstein. But a rising tide lifts all ships and the perennially popular and controversial Transcendental Meditation (TM) is also having a moment.

This book, a memoir of growing up in the hot bed of hardcore TM practitioners in Fairfield, Iowa, gives some valuable insights into the TM movement, especially in its early years. These days, TM prefers to be associated with Hollywood celebrities and the health benefits which have been correlated with the practice of the discipline, but we should forget that for a while there TM and the Maharishi were more closely associated with attempts at “yogic flying” and meditating for world peace.

This book is a story of those years.  About what it means to grow up deep within the TM movement, with a single mom who spent hours a day in meditation, to be broke when those around you were wealthy, to want the secular pleasures of average teenager when your mother would rather you sat on a cushion. It’s a book critical of TM’s excesses, for sure, but not entirely dismissive of them. Indeed by the end of the book, we’re filled with doubts about the leadership of the TM movement, but also following the author as she attempts to learn yogic flying.

It’s a New Religious Movement memoir, and I’m a sucker for those, even when they’re poorly done. But this one is thoughtful, it is well written, and if you have an interest in TM, or what its like to grow up outside the mainstream, its worth the time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Armstrong’s Buddha


Buddha
Karen Armstrong

A simple, stupid, introduction to Buddhism perfect for someone like me who knows less than nothing about one of the world’s most important philosophical systems / religions. What it has: a concise overview of the life of the Buddha and the central tenets of the system as it was understood at the time of his death. What it doesn’t have: an in-depth look at the ways Buddhism would come to change as it was reinterpreted throughout the world. You want the basics of the life of the buddga and how he came to his concept of he universe. This book has got it. Want to understand the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism? Go elsewhere.

Buddhism is far, far too complex for a single book to cover it all, but if you’re starting from scratch, this is as good a place as any to dive in.

Recommended.

Review: Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget


You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto
Jaron Lanier

Lock-in is apparently a concept well known among engineers, but I was unfamiliar with it until this book. It’s worth thinking about. Basically, the concept is that in large complex systems, simple, often arbitrary, decisions can have long lasting effects, which when compounded, can limit the possibilities for future use of the system.

The example Lanier gives is midi. A tool which was originally intended to assist in the control of keyboards by computers is now so ingrained in all electronic music, that it has limited the ability of artists to rethink the way music sounds on the internet thereby “locking in” the way we hear most music. It’s a compelling concept, and one I’m thinking about a lot in my own work, where I’m attempting to be more thoughtful in my decisions to allow for greater flexibility going forward.

Implementing Lessons from the Blue Zones, Inconveniencing Myself, and Other Things I’m Focusing On In 2017

So-called “Blue Zones” are areas of the world in which people have significantly longer, healthier lives than the world-wide average. Blue Zones have been researched and written about pretty extensively and in a popular book about them, Dan Buettner extrapolated these basic themes:

  • Moderate, regular physical activity.
  • Life purpose.
  • Stress reduction.
  • Moderate calories intake.
  • Plant-based diet.
  • Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
  • Engagement in spirituality or religion.
  • Engagement in family life.
  • Engagement in social life.

vendiagram

Since I read Blue Zones, I’ve been obsessed with implementing these ideas in my life. Here’s some things this urban, desk bound, lawyer is doing this year to be healthier:

More plants. I’ve recommitted to the vegan till six thing, though more as a guideline than a rule. I’m already seeing results in my waist line. I was, for many years, a vegan/vegetarian, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to that restrictive a diet. But study after study says, more plants is better. Meat once or twice a week is where we’re at right now and where I’d like to stay.

Take the stairs, carry the kids, wash the dishes. Constantly, we are presented with the choice between the easy and the hard road. In a world of physical convenience, it’s often best to take the hard road. One thing blue zone communities have in common is regular, low level exercise. Another thing most have in common is they’re semi-rural. Brooklyn is not semi rural. I do not chop wood. I do not garden. But my home and office have stairs. My kids can be carried instead of put in the stroller. I can do the dishes by hand.

I try to ask myself  if there’s a way to inconvenience a task without drastically increasing its time.  If I can make it just a bit harder, without sacrificing too much expediency, I’ll do it. It helps.

 

Meditate. When E and A were in the hospital, I meditated everyday. It helped. Since then, I’ve fallen off, but am eager to get after it. Meditation, per se, isn’t one of the factors that Buettner calls out, but a regular spiritual practice is. I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but when I am engaging in a regular meditation practice, I see benefits throughout my life. In my focus, in my mood, and in my sleep. Ten minutes a day isn’t too much to give to being quiet.

Unplug, hang out. I, like many, spent too much of 2016 refreshing twitter. I’m trying to do less of that this year. So far, it’s been harder than I thought. Getting into bed and checking my phone one last time is so ingrained in me, it’s muscle memory. It’ll take time, and probably some more hard and fast rules, to break the habit.

But I want to focus less on what the orange monster is saying and more on casual time with the family and friends. The other night, for instance, I was casually invited to a neighbor’s house to play a board game. I was hesitant to go at first, my uptight Yankee coming through. But I went, and it was fun.  More of that, 2017.

In fact, more of all of this.

More time invested in our synagogue, more time doing art projects with our kids, more time exploring the park, more time drinking wine with friends.

Less of that other shit. 

Less time on swiping at the goddamn phone. Less time in pointless meetings, less time fretting over the things I cannot control. More time working on the things I can.

*The concept of “Blue Zones” has been ceaselessly merchandised with books, websites and more. For people like me, that level of commodification can seem distasteful. Ok, fine. But that doesn’t mean the research isn’t valid and compelling.

Review: Harris’s Ten Percent Happier

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story

Dan Harris

This one is on one hand a pretty no-nonsense introduction to “mindfulness” practice and on the other a slightly annoying memoir from a television anchor. I find it a bit ironic that this was the book that finally got me to take meditation seriously. But here we are.

There is something about Harris no bullshit approach, his general skepticism about the whole endeavor, and his clear reportage style that resonated with me. He became interested in meditation because he was struggling, and needed to find grounding somewhere. Then he kept at it because it worked. He struggles with how to stay competitive in his professional life with pursuing a sense of non-attachment. He grapples with what, exactly, Buddhists means when they speak of enlightenment.  And he takes the advice of western hippies and the Dali Lama interrogates it, and takes a real, honest, stab at figuring out if it is bullshit or not. I appreciated the forthrightness, if not always the tone.

I listened to the book mainly while walking back and forth from the hospital where my wife was cooped up, trying to stave off a premature pregnancy. It was a stressful time and this book, and what it taught me, helped. I am sure there are better books out there on mediation and mindfulness, and I intend to find them. But this is the first one I read (at least since a short teenage dalliance with Zen) and for better or worse, it resonated with me. Harris’s can be grating at times, especially when speaking of his reportage coups, or his days as a cub reporter tutored by Peter Jennings, but his struggles with what it means to live mindfully in as unmindful a place as New York City, in as un-reflective a world as TV journalism spoke to this middle age white dude looking for a little peace of mind.

Your mileage may vary.

Recommended for the enthusiast.