Thursday, December 30, 2010


Following is some teaching on Dzogchen, a Tibetan tradition with some similarities to Zen. Thanks to Josh Baran, who provided this quoted material and pointed me to it. In posting it to the OBC (Order of Buddhist Contemplatives) forum, Josh wrote, "... when you see the word 'dzogchen' you could substitute zazen or meditation or just sitting."

The everyday practice of dzogchen is simply to develop a complete carefree acceptance, an openness to all situations without limit.

We should realize openness as the playground of our emotions and relate to people without artificiality, manipulation or strategy.

We should experience everything totally, never withdrawing into ourselves as a marmot hides in its hole. This practice releases tremendous energy which is usually constricted by the process of maintaining fixed reference points. Referentiality is the process by which we retreat from the direct experience of everyday life.

Being present in the moment may initially trigger fear. But by welcoming the sensation of fear with complete openness, we cut through the barriers created by habitual emotional patterns.

When we engage in the practice of discovering space, we should develop the feeling of opening ourselves out completely to the entire universe. We should open ourselves with absolute simplicity and nakedness of mind. This is the powerful and ordinary practice of dropping the mask of self-protection.

We shouldn't make a division in our meditation between perception and field of perception. We shouldn't become like a cat watching a mouse. We should realize that the purpose of meditation is not to go "deeply into ourselves" or withdraw from the world. Practice should be free and non-conceptual, unconstrained by introspection and concentration.

Vast unoriginated self-luminous wisdom space is the ground of being - the beginning and the end of confusion. The presence of awareness in the primordeal state has no bias toward enlightenment or non-enlightenment. This ground of being which is known as pure or original mind is the source from which all phenomena arise. It is known as the great mother, as the womb of potentiality in which all things arise and dissolve in natural self-perfectedness and absolute spontaneity.

All aspects of phenomena are completely clear and lucid. The whole universe is open and unobstructed - everything is mutually interpenetrating. Seeing all things as naked, clear and free from obscurations, there is nothing to attain or realize. The nature of phenomena appears naturally and is naturally present in time-transcending awareness. Everything is naturally perfect just as it is. All phenomena appear in their uniqueness as part of the continually changing pattern. These patterns are vibrant with meaning and significance at every moment; yet there is no significance to attach to such meanings beyond the moment in which they present themselves.

This is the dance of the five elememts in which matter is a symbol of energy and energy a symbol of emptiness. We are a symbol of our own enlightenment. With no effort or practice whatsoever, liberation or enlightenment is already here.

The everyday practice of dzogchen is just everyday life itself. Since the undeveloped state does not exist, there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond what you actually are. There should be no feeling of striving to reach some "amazing goal" or "advanced state."

To strive for such a state is a neurosis which only conditions us and serves to obstruct the free flow of Mind. We should also avoid thinking of ourselves as worthless persons - we are naturally free and unconditioned. We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.

When engaging in meditation practice, we should feel it to be as natural as eating, breathing and defecating. It should not become a specialized or formal event, bloated with seriousness and solemnity. We should realize that meditation transcends effort, practice, aims, goals and the duality of liberation and non-liberation. Meditation is always ideal; there is no need to correct anything. Since everything that arises is simply the play of mind as such, there is no unsatisfactory meditation and no need to judge thoughts as good or bad.

Therefore we should simply sit. Simply stay in your own place, in your own condition just as it is. Forgetting self-conscious feelings, we do not have to think "I am meditating." Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become "peaceful."

If we find that we are disturbing ourselves in any of these ways, we stop meditating and simply rest or relax for a while. Then we resume our meditation. If we have "interesting experiences" either during or after meditation, we should avoid making anything special of them. To spend time thinking about experiences is simply a distraction and an attempt to become unnatural. These experiences are simply signs of practice and should be regarded as transient events. We should not attempt to reexperience them because to do so only serves to distort the natural spontaneity of mind.

All phenomena are completely new and fresh, absolutely unique and entirely free from all concepts of past, present and future. They are experienced in timelessness.

The continual stream of new discovery, revelation and inspiration which arises at every moment is the manifestation of our clarity. We should learn to see everyday life as mandala - the luminous fringes of experience which radiate spontaneously from the empty nature of our being. The aspects of our mandala are the day-to-day objects of our life experience moving in the dance or play of the universe. By this symbolism the inner teacher reveals the profound and ultimate significance of being. Therefore we should be natural and spontaneous, accepting and learning from everything. This enables us to see the ironic and amusing side of events that usually irritate us.

In meditation we can see through the illusion of past, present and future - our experience becomes the continuity of nowness. The past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it. So why bother with attempting to establish an illusion of solid ground?

We should free ourselves from our past memories and preconceptions of meditation. Each moment of meditation is completely unique and full of potentiality. In such moments, we will be incapable of judging our meditation in terms of past experience, dry theory or hollow rhetoric.

Simply plunging directly into meditation in the moment now, with our whole being, free from hesitation, boredom or excitement, _is_ enlightenment.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to Tell the Difference

Thanks to Friendly Atheist and many others for sharing this.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Ode to Autumn

To help us get in the proper spirit of the Fall Season, here's a little inspirational essay:

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Plenty of Nothin'

In last month's blog posting, I quoted Stephen Hawking, "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." In the comments, Doug wrote, "Particle/anti-particle pairs can appear spontaneously out of empty space... it's almost beyond comprehension to wrap one's brain around the 'why?' something can appear seemingly from nothing."

What exactly does it mean when we say that something appears seemingly from nothing?

Say you're a primitive human. Each morning, you see the sun appear on the eastern horizon. You know nothing, zero, about what exists beyond that horizon. So from your perspective, you could say that the sun appears spontaneously, seemingly from nothing. What you'd really be saying is that you don't know anything about where the sun originates.

Isn't it the same when Hawking says the universe creates itself spontaneously from nothing? We don't know how or why the universe initially appears; we don't know where it comes from. To name the source of the universe as "spontaneous" or "from nothing" is simply a way of saying "don't know."

Hawking may also be implying that when it comes to the universe's origin, there are uncertainty principles that prove we can't know the answer. It's like trying to see your own eyes: impossible. It's like trying to understand your true self: anything we understand is by definition separated from the subject. When we know that we can't know, OK, that's something. But we still don't know.

Buddhist teachers have said that everything arises from "Emptiness." This is just a name given to the mystery. It may be worthwhile to clearly perceive that it's a mystery, to make peace with that fact. My Zen teacher would say, "Your body's name may be John or Joe or Mary. But your true-self's name is 'don't know.'"

Our monkey-brains love to know things; the desire to understand is integral to survival and development of the human species. We easily fool ourselves into believing that when we name something, we've learned something about it. But names are just names. We may call the source of the universe "Emptiness" or "God" or whatever, but that doesn't mean we know it in the slightest. To say it all arises spontaneously from nothing... is just giving another name to "don't know."

Socrates would always teach everyone, "You must know thyself!" But when he was asked, "Socrates, do you know yourself?", he said, "I don't know what I am either... but I understand that I don't know."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Stephen Hawking vs God

Of course I'm a fan of Stephen Hawking. How could you not love a man who not only solved the great mysteries of the universe, but was a guest voice on the Simpsons?

Hawking has gone through two marriages. By the time he hooked up with his nurse in the mid 90s, neuro-muscular dystrophy had left him able to move only his cheek and one finger. Amazing how he pulled off that seduction. Genius indeed.

And the divorces. When he gave each wife the "Honey... it's... over... between... us..." speech, it must have been particularly bizarre, delivered over several minutes by that computer-generated voice.

Hawking's latest book was published yesterday. An excerpt from The Grand Design appears in the Wall Street Journal article Why God Did Not Create the Universe:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
"Create itself from nothing" sounds a lot like Buddhist teaching. All things appear out of emptiness; exist for a limited time; then return to emptiness. Zero becomes One, then One becomes Zero, over and over. That's all.

Emptiness and zero are names, just words. In Buddhist teaching, what do these words mean? They point to the source of all phenomena as being before words, ideas, and thinking. "Everything arises from emptiness" means that we don't know where it all came from, or why.

Imagine meeting someone on the street, and asking him, "Where were you before you came to town?" He answers "Don't know." You ask him where he'll go afterwards, why he came, and who he is. Each time, he says, "Don't know." That'd be odd... yet it's precisely the situation we find ourselves in, when we get born into this world.

Our very survival depends on knowing stuff, so we've evolved this tendency to seek solid explanations. Yet when it comes to the really big questions, we don't have a clue. The heart of Zen practice is to sit unflinchingly with the simple experience of not knowing.

Religious people may say, "God made everything," but what's "God"? If it's a name for the mystery, another way of saying "I don't know who or what made everything," then OK. But to claim anything about what this "God" is... is to pretend to know what we really don't.

Is it so different to say it all comes from nothing? That's an OK name -- no worse than Emptiness or God -- but is it just another way of saying we don't know?

What is this nothing anyway? Whatever we think when we hear the word "nothing," it's an idea, which is something. Hawking's "nothing" can't be anything like the common sense of the word. If I have a wallet filled with nothing, it never spontaneously creates cash. Let alone Existence.

And Stephen, Mr Genius, can "spontaneous creation" really be called a reason? Does that phrase explain anything?

Example: someone asks why high-tech companies have thrived in San Francisco. You say, "Because the educational and cultural institutions in the area attract the type of workers who make the companies succeed." That's at least a coherent reason. It may have practical meaning; you could test if the explanation holds true in other cities. But if your answer was, "it happened spontaneously," have you communicated anything beyond "I don't know why"?

Is it possible that scientific ideas, like religious ideas, can be used to avoid the discomfort of not knowing? Could we discard these ideas and face the concrete reality, the great don't know, right in front of us, just now?

Monday, August 23, 2010


Gathering of meditation groups of the San Francisco East Bay, in Berkeley, 9/11/2010. See the poster for the event, and the facebook page.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Real-Time Dharma Talk Online, Sept 1

Resident monk Kwan Sahn Su Nim has been bringing Empty Gate Zen Center into the new millennium, with a website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. A week from Wednesday, 9/1/2010, we go a step further, with our first live webcast. The Dharma talk by Zen Master Bon Soeng will be broadcast from this link. It should start around 8 p.m.

Su Nim is also webcasting morning practice each Sunday (sitting and chanting starting 7:30 am, Pacific time) from this link.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eat, Pray, WTF?

The ultra-chick movie Eat, Pray, Love was released this week. Star Julia Roberts insured its success; I believe it's the second biggest film out there, after the ultra-guy movie The Expendables. EPL is based on the eponymous novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. The novel in turn is based on Gilbert's real-life year-long trip around the world, during which she experienced food in Italy, meditation in India, and a love affair in Bali.

Neither the novel or the movie names the female guru whom Gilbert encountered in India, and with whom she had the requisite earth-shaking experiences. But it's clear from all the evidence that it's Gurumayi Chidvilasananda (successor to famed guru Swami Muktananda).

I myself was part of that scene in my youth. I traveled with Muktananda in the US on his 3rd World Tour in the late 70s-early 80s. I then went to his ashram in Ganeshpuri India, staying there through his death in late 1982, plus over a year with his dual successors, Gurumayi and her brother Nityananda. The photo attached to this blog post is from those days in India; I'm third from the right. My sartorial choices were not uncommon for that locale, and made sense at the time.

As you might expect when dealing with such holy and spiritual people, the scandals (power, sex, money, lies) that emerged over time were jaw-dropping. Muktananda had diddled underaged girls (while claiming and promoting celibacy), and had sent goons to intimidate anyone who tried to reveal his secret. Gurumayi, at a minimum, helped keep this covered-up. She grabbed sole control of the org from her brother, and when he started to run independent programs, she sent her own goons to intimidate his followers. The usual stuff.

(Did Gurumayi consciously try to deceive her followers into believing that she was a divine being, bestowing magical invisible spiritual energy? Was it all for the sake of fame, fortune, and adoration? Or did she believe her own hype about her God-like status? Considering the human talent for self-deception, I'd guess it's the latter. But I can only guess. Damn, I do wish she'd come clean about her motives, purely to satisfy my curiosity. Her and Bernie Madoff.)

I was pretty clueless of all this dark underside while I was with the group. It was all slowly revealed in the press in the years after Muktananda's death, and on the net in the decades since I returned to ordinary life in the US from the ashram in India. See these links for more info on the whole sordid scene.

Gurumayi disappeared from public view a few years back, perhaps because she got tired of hiding the scandal, or perhaps just exhausted from pretending to be a superior being. Gilbert's visit immortalized by Eat, Pray, Love occurred after the scandals were well-known, but while Gurumayi was still actively playing guru.

None of this has great philosophical import: even if Muktananda and Gurumayi were absolutely pure and innocent, I don't find them very interesting or important teachers any more. Whatever valuable insights they did offer (under the mountain of nonsense) are available from countless other groups. But hell, I can't completely ignore a good sex-and-religion scandal.

It'll be interesting to see how the buzz around the movie develops, whether it leads to serious mainstream discussion of meditation practice, and/or of the ugly secrets and power struggles in Gurumayi's history. A couple of major news sources have already reported on the kerfuffle. See the New York Post article Eat Pray Zilch, and Salon's The "Eat, Pray, Love" Guru's Troubling Past.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Talk by ZM Dae Kwang

Audio Dharma speech by Zen Master Dae Kwang, Abbot of the Kwan Um School of Zen. Delivered for Founder's Day ceremony, Sept 31, 2010.

Click here to listen.

(The link is to an .mp3. Your browser should prompt you to open in e.g. Windows Media Player.)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Vaccine for Stress

Human beings are wired to see patterns, whether they exist or not. That's why so many people believe in astrology, or think they can sense where the roulette ball is going to land on the next spin.

There's a simple evolutionary explanation for this: understanding patterns was a huge help to our ancestors. If a caveman could recognize which plants tended to kill people who ate them... then he had an advantage in surviving and procreating. If he saw non-existent patterns... e.g. believing that if he danced a certain way it would bring rain... it led to excessive dancing, which was hardly catastrophic.

From the viewpoint of our DNA (which only wants to us to survive and procreate), seeing patterns and sensing danger is clearly the way to go. This leads to stressful lives, as we've evolved to metaphorically see a saber-tooted tiger hiding in the bush, whether or not it's really there. Just in case.

I've been thinking about this after reading the article US scientists developing vaccine for stress (thanks, Brian):
THE world's first vaccine for stress was undergoing development today, as Californian scientists worked on a single injection that would help people relax without slowing down.

The quest for the lifetime cure to stress was led by Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University [...]

Dr Sapolsky said he was on the path to a genetically engineered alternative to yoga, pills and friends urging others to relax - itself a recognised cause of tension.
Evolution is an insanely slow process. It's entirely trial and error... evolution gathers information purely based on which individuals last long enough to procreate. Over an unimaginably long time period, it's determined that high stress levels (seeing tigers in the bushes, enemies under the bed, evil spirits all around) is the optimal survival strategy.

Many would argue that we're at a key point in evolutionary history, as we ourselves start to alter the mechanism of evolution. Millenia of trial-and-error say that high stress is necessary. But we have the means to use our nifty rational minds to explore alternatives. Testing the what-if scenarios of our thinking is a jillion times faster than waiting for evolution to change things.

On the one hand, we can easily make mistakes in our haste. If I got a stress vaccination, I might have even more difficulty finding the motivation to move my sorry ass. But hell, why not? My DNA may favor high stress, but must I agree with my DNA? Those genes care only about survival. Maybe that can be over-blown. How about perceiving this body, this "I", as a floating cloud that appears, exists for a little while, then disappears, no problem? That doesn't seem so stressful.

In any case, don't stress out waiting for your local Walgreens to start offering the stress vaccine. The article concludes:
"To be honest, I'm still amazed that it works," Dr Sapolsky recently told Wired magazine. He warns that human trials are years away
In the meantime... in 3 months, Californians may vote to repeal laws against pot. Human trials would begin immediately.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Free Association

A friend just attended a free outdoor concert on Long Island. The group performing was The Association. Their songs include Cherish, Never My Love, and Along Comes Mary. Cherish was later made famous by teen idol David Cassidy. Of Along Comes Mary, writes, "Many people interpreted this as a paean to marijuana, which is also known as 'Mary Jane.' They were probably right."

The musicians of The Association started performing around 1965. Though this is the middle of the decade, I'd still call them an early-60s band. The Sixties (as a decade) ran from 1960-69, but The Sixties (as a cultural watershed) didn't get started till at least 1964, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

The Association is associated with the lighter, fluffier sensibility of the late 50s and early 60s. Wikipedia identifies them as "in the sunshine pop genre." They're the first band ever to open a rock festival... the ground-breaking Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The fest was among the earliest introductions of the burgeoning counter-culture (in music, politics, spirituality, lifestyle) from California (with it's epicenter at Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco) to the country and world at large.

In opening the fest, The Association metaphorically represented the more innocent style that was being displaced by the new psychedelia. The sunshine songs of The Association stood in contrast to the edgy, non-conforming, acid-soaked acts that followed them to the stage... little-known talent like Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who.

I'm a young Boomer. My childhood saw both sides of this transformation. I took in the increasing influence of hippie/psychedelic movements, though I was too young to participate by moving to San Francisco with flowers in my hair.

During my school years, there was a local radio station I'd always listen to. For some reason, they'd very frequently play The Association's (Everyone Knows It's) Windy. I loved it. If kids today mock these songs as superficial, fuck 'em: Windy is a damn catchy tune.

When I entered high school in 1974, it was still the tail end of The Sixties. That radio station played less pop music, and more talk-radio focused on alternative ideas. I'd turn on the station late at night, out of habit, when I couldn't get to sleep.

One of their talk-radio hosts was psychologist Murry Needleman. Funny... though Needleman was to have an indirect influence on my life, I never knew what he looked like. Not till just now, when I checked out his website to copy this paragraph's hyperlink. I'd pictured him a bit more dignified.

Anyway: people would call in and have Needleman analyze their problems. In retrospect, it may seem irresponsible to do therapy over the public radio waves. I guess we didn't think through the downside. Kind of like the parents on Mad Men who let their kids play with dry-cleaning bags.

Late one night, I listened to Needleman raving about a new book by spiritual guru Ram Dass (Grist for the Mill). He spoke in such glowing terms, that I couldn't believe that Ram Dass' vision was as extraordinary as Needleman claimed. But I couldn't risk ignoring the possibility.

I bought the book. It was over 30 years ago, but I still remember the beautiful salesgirl who sold it to me. She gave me such a big smile, and then it was quite odd how, out of nowhere, she too started rhapsodizing about how deep and profound the book was.

For the better part of a year, I never opened Grist. I think I was afraid that it couldn't live up to the hype. I'd rather keep the book unread and hope that maybe it held The Answer, than to read it and be disappointed. It was like an emergency backup. If life ever started feeling too dark and crazy, I could break open the book then, and maybe it'd show me an entirely new direction to follow.

And that's what happened.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Are Antidepressants Better Than Nothing?

Thanks to Doug, Rambling Taoist, and yomamma for posting to the comment's section of May's blog entry, which touched on the topic of depression. I've since read a couple of articles on the question of whether antidepressants are any more effective than placebos (a placebo being any medicine which has no active ingredients, but which the patient believes will help). This issue has been in the news since a 2009 study showed that drugs like Prozac and Paxil, when used to treat mild-to-moderate depression, are hardly more effective than dummy pills.

Study author Robert DeRubeis says, "The message for patients with mild to moderate depression is, 'Look, medications are always an option, but there's little evidence that they add to other efforts to shake the depression...'" Studies have been suggesting this conclusion since at least 2002, when Shankar Vedantam wrote in the Washington Post, "After thousands of studies, hundreds of millions of prescriptions and tens of billions of dollars in sales, two things are certain about pills that treat depression: Antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft work. And so do sugar pills."

The Newsweek article that clued me in to this debate (The Depressing News About Antidepressants) speaks of it as a moral dilemma. It hardly seems right for a doctors to put millions of patients through the expense and side-effects of drugs that have no medical potency. Yet if the patients knew the truth, it might destroy the very real benefits they get from their belief in the drugs.

In the same article was a pro-antidepressant (heh) sidebar, in which a doctor claimed that based on observing the effects of the medications on his patients and himself, he's convinced that "antidepressants work." It's striking in how completely the doctor misses the point. There's no question that Prozac et al work. But there's a very real question of whether they work better than anything else you believe in. For non-severe depression, there's little evidence that the pills are more helpful than talking to a therapist. And little evidence that talking to a therapist is more helpful than chatting with a trusted friend.

The Avatamsaka Sutra (Buddhist scripture) says, "If you want to understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, then you should view the whole universe as being created by mind alone." It seems that we have a tendency to underestimate the power of thinking (beliefs, assumptions, desires, expectations) to alter our experience of the world. "Thinking appears, all things appear; thinking disappears, everything disappears."

I've had many conversations re the mystical energy of holy temples, objects, or gurus. When spiritual people rhapsodize about such energies, I myself (being a trouble-maker) will often tell them, "You know, what you've experienced is entirely dependent on your beliefs and expectations etc." People sometimes get furious at such an assertion, even offended at the suggestion that their powerful experiences are "just in the mind."

I'd imagine that antidepressant users might similarly object to that suggestion that the power of pills is mostly in the mind. But it's often impossible -- without rigorous scientific method -- to know the actual cause of physical or mental changes. We can be entirely wrong when we speculate about ailments. And just because you happen to be the one who's experiencing the stomach-ache or panic-attack, doesn't give you any special insight into what causes or cures it.

It's a distinction between experience and belief. When we have depression (or a spiritual epiphany, or other mind-states), we can can speak with authority on the what of the experience. But as soon as we speak of the why (where the experience comes from, what causes it to come and go, what it means), we're in the realm of speculation and belief.

Funny how people resist so strongly the idea that their peak experiences or mood elevations are "just in the mind." The evidence is clear: it's hard to beat the power of mind. Even the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry apparently has a tough time finding anything more powerful.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Markets, Depression, and Merry-Go-Rounds

Yesterday I watched as the stock market took an unprecedented plunge. The Dow fell something like 600 points in 15 minutes, perhaps reflecting fear of a world-wide financial collapse. I'm no fancy economist, but that sounds like a bad thing.

I have my personal retirement account built from decades of Excel work; about half of it is in stock funds. I manage the investments my mother lives off of, and those of a non-profit I volunteer for. These too have exposure to the stock market.

The problem isn't simply about losing money. That's to be expected sometimes: as a Buddhist and a poker player, I'm familiar with the roller-coaster of variance. (Variance refers to gain and loss alternating for reasons we can't understand, and in ways we can't predict -- at least in the short-term.) At this chaotic moment, the issue is: I'm responsible for dealing with several financial situations... and I have no idea what to do.

It's most likely that I'll do nothing. Doing nothing is one of my favorite things, as well as my go-to strategy in troubled times. Years ago, I read the novel The Mouse That Roared. One character was a government official who had a standard policy for any problem that reached his desk: he'd ignore it for the first week. He reasoned that most problems resolve themselves in a short time if you do nothing. Even as a child, the idea was appealing to me. It's no coincidence that I ended up doing Zen, a practice that involves a whole lot of sitting quietly and doing nothing.

Biologists debate why we human beings get depressed. Since depression doesn't seem to offer an advantage in terms of survival or procreation, you'd think that evolution would have weeded out this tendency. And yet depression remains common, across all age groups and throughout history.

When depressed, we can't find the pleasure we usually derive from activities like social interaction, sex, and eating. In short, we don't feel like doing anything. Since we're not "distracted" by the search for pleasurable activities, we have more time and energy for rumination. From the Scientific American article Depression's Evolutionary Roots:
... when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.
From the Wikipedia entry Evolutionary approaches to depression:
Another way depression increases an individual’s ability to concentrate on a problem is by reducing distraction from the problem. For example, anhedonia, which is often associated with depression, decreases an individual’s desire to participate in activities that provide short-term rewards, and instead, allows the individual to concentrate on long-term goals. In addition, “psychomotory changes,” such as solitariness, decreased appetite, and insomnia also reduce distractions. For instance, insomnia enables conscious analysis of the problem to be maintained by preventing sleep from disrupting such processes. Likewise, solitariness, lack of physical activity, and lack of appetite all eliminate sources of distraction, such as social interactions, navigation through the environment, and “oral activity,” which disrupt stimuli from being processed.
What a relief. It's not that I'm lazy. It's that I don't want to disrupt stimuli from being processed!

Life is like a carousel: it can be wonderful to enjoy the lively music, to experience the exciting shapes and colors and motions, to grab at the brass rings. But what if you spent a whole lifetime on a merry-go-round? You'd miss lots of stuff. Hell, if you never got off the merry-go-round, how would you even notice that you're on a merry-go-round?

So we've got formal Zen practice, in which we sit quietly and do nothing. It's just like stepping off the merry-go-round. This pause from the constant ups and downs, the gain and loss and striving of life, reveals an otherwise hidden wider perspective. Stopping for a moment our search for rewards... is the only way to get a clear view of the big-picture questions: what am I, and why am I alive?

Over the eons, perhaps DNA discovered that in difficult and confusing times, the optimal default strategy is to do nothing. Maybe that's why it allows depression... so we'll periodically give it all up and curl up immobile. If it's good enough for DNA, it's good enough for me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Joko Beck Talks Without Saying Anything

Thanks to the Ox Hearding blog for pointing me to a fine interview with Zen teacher Joko Beck. It's from a Shambhala Sun article: True Stories About Sitting Meditation. Click the link to see the original Sun article. For the benefit of those too lazy to click, I've copied Beck's interview below:

Donna Rockwell: How old were you when you started meditating?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Thirty-nine, forty, somewhere in there.

Donna Rockwell: Did you have any realization through meditation?

Charlotte Joko Beck: No. Of course we have realizations, but that’s not really what drives practice.

Donna Rockwell: Will you say more about that?

Charlotte Joko Beck: I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, “Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?” Otherwise, they get stuck there. It’s not the important thing in practice.

Donna Rockwell: And may I ask you what is?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.

Donna Rockwell: There seems to be a payoff, though, because you feel alive instead of dead.

Charlotte Joko Beck: I wouldn’t say a payoff. You’re returning to the source, you might say—what you always were, but which was severely covered by your core belief and all its systems. And when those get weaker, you do feel joy. I mean, then it’s no big deal to do the dishes and clean up the house and go to work and things like that.

Donna Rockwell: Doing the dishes is a great meditation—especially if you hate it…

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, if your mind wanders to other things while you’re doing the dishes, just return it to the dishes. Meditation isn’t something special. It’s not a special way of being. It’s simply being aware of what is going on.

Donna Rockwell: Doesn’t sitting meditation prepare the ground to do that?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Sure. It gives you the strength to face the more complex things in your life. You’re not meeting anything much when you’re sitting except your little mind. That’s relatively easy when compared to some of the complex situations we have to live our way through. Sitting gives you the ability to work with your life.

Donna Rockwell: I read your books.

Charlotte Joko Beck: Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?

Donna Rockwell: Give up reading your books?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, they’re all right. Read them once and that’s enough. Books are useful. But some people read for fifty years, you know. And they haven’t begun their practice.

Donna Rockwell: How would you describe self-discovery?

Charlotte Joko Beck: You’re really just an ongoing set of events: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, one after the other. The awareness is keeping up with those events, seeing your life unfolding as it is, not your ideas of it, not your pictures of it. See what I mean?

Donna Rockwell: How would you define meditation?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Awareness of what is, mentally, physically.

Donna Rockwell: Can you please complete the following sentences for me? “The experience of meditation is…”

Charlotte Joko Beck: “…awareness of what is.”

Donna Rockwell: “Meditative awareness has changed my life in the following way…”

Charlotte Joko Beck: “It has changed my life in the direction of it being more harmonious, more satisfactory, more joyful and more useful probably.” Though I don’t think much in those terms. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m going to be useful. I really think about what I’m going to have for breakfast.”

Donna Rockwell: “The one thing awareness has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”

Charlotte Joko Beck: I don’t want to share anything with all people.

Donna Rockwell: Who do you want to share with?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Nobody. I just live my life. I don’t go around wanting to share something. That’s extra.

Donna Rockwell: Could you talk about that a little bit?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, there’s a little shade of piety that creeps into practice. You know, “I have this wonderful practice, I want to share it with everyone.” There’s an error in that. You could probably figure it out yourself.

Donna Rockwell: I think that’s something I need to learn.

Charlotte Joko Beck: You and I know there’s nothing that’s going to make me run away faster than somebody who comes around and wants to be helpful. You know what I mean? I don’t want people to be helpful to me. I just want to live my own life.

Donna Rockwell: Do you think you share yourself?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Yeah, but who’s that?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Analyzing Avatar

I was of course blown away by the 3D effects of Avatar. It's quite a clever way to get us back into the communal experience of movie-going. I've got Netflix and a good TV, so for years I've been far more likely to watch movies in my own apartment with a friend or two, rather than going to the theater. The 3D phenom will draw me back a little... at least until they come up with holographic TVs. I'll probably go to the IMAX to see Alice in Wonderland, maybe even Dragons.

Few would argue that the plot of Avatar is as impressive than its technology. It struck me as simplistic in its Spiritual/New-agey "message." The heroes of the movie are the Na'vi, a native tribe presented as superior to humans, because the Na'vis are all about Oneness. They're literally "connected" to each other, to their ancestors, and to the plants and animals in their environment.

The movie's sensibility tends towards Eastern perspectives. All of creation has just one substance, so all people, all beings, all phenomena... are connected. A Yogi or Buddhist is likely to consider, e.g., that animals are fundamentally equal to humans.

To a Judeo-Christian, though, a human has a "soul" that animals lack. There's a God who's separate from creation; some souls are on God's Side more than others. This makes good and bad, heaven and hell, spiritual and mundane... distinctions which are seen as real, objective, impossible to discard.

(Why, after all, do fundamentalist Christians have a problem with Darwin? It's because the teaching of Evolution shows our connection to all other beings, threatening the separate special status that Western religions grant to humanity. It's the same reason that in the past, the Church was so fiercely opposed to recognizing that Earth isn't the center of the universe.)

The one line of Avatar that I really liked was when the big battle was about to take place, and our hero is talking to the Na'vi's great Goddess, asking for Her help in defeating the human enemies. His girlfriend overhears him, and explains that their Goddess would never take sides. The Goddess doesn't favor one being over another; She only cares about the balance.

That was a neat moment... though overall, the spiritual stuff got a bit sappy and heavy-handed. In Avatar, the spiritual people were the good guys, and the businessmen the villains. That itself is dubious, as in the real world, it's just as often the case that commerce is of huge benefit to beings, and religion the source of conflict.

And while Avatar has a lot of fancy words about Oneness, it all culminates in a Us vs Them shoot-em-up, so the message is decidedly mixed. The plot would have been more in harmony with the Message if it didn't so clearly divide Good and Evil, if the conflicts had more shades of grey, if the characters were a bit less (heh) two-dimensional.

All that being said, I was struck by how, at least superficially, Avatar was pretty Buddhist-flavored for a mainstream blockbuster. It takes the perspective of Oneness and Equality as a given. But how much does that matter?

Seeing Avatar made me remember decades ago, when Shirley MacLaine's Out on A Limb was one of the first books (and TV mini-series) to present to a wide audience a New Age perspective. Many of us Into the Spiritual Thing were excited; we thought this meant something big to society.

I'm not so sure that works like Avatar or Out on A Limb have that much effect on the culture (though maybe they reflect how the culture has already changed). Maybe things don't change so much from the top-down (i.e., influenced by a hit movie or book), but more from the bottom-up (i.e., to the culture at large from the changes made by countless individuals).

Newsweek recently ran a piece called We Are All Hindus Now. The point was that there's been a huge increase in Americans considering themselves "spiritual but not religious," seeing Truth as present in all paths, not restricted to One True Way. Even though few Americans would describe themselves with the word "Hindu," the Eastern world-view is stealthily taking over in the battle of philosophical ideas.

My Zen teacher used to say, "Jesus came to spread love to humanity; Buddha came to bring peace and compassion to the world. How are they doing?" I think his point was that we can't expect compassion to come down to us from some great powerful leader (much less a blockbuster movie). It's always up to us, it always comes down to how we as individuals act in this very moment.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Yoga Mamas and POSSLQs

Julie Rappaport has re-started Yoga classes, ongoing Thursday mornings, at 7th Heaven in Berkeley, CA. See the bottom of this post for the full announcement. Julie is the baby-mama and POSSLQ of my friend and Dharma brother Chris.

I picked up the expression POSSLQ 30 years ago, when I was with Swami Muktananda on his 3rd Tour of the US. I lived in the ashrams (meditation communities) for years, exchanging work for room and board. It's always nice to have spending money, so ashramites were often on the lookout for opportunities to earn some cash.

Funny how money can take center stage in a spiritual community, huh? We believed that it was vital to our inner advancement to remain part of the guru's staff, and that required at least a little cash-flow. If we could just find the occasional job, a temporary gig that would require only a brief break from ashram life, then we'd be set on the road to Enlightenment.

In 1980, the tour was on break for a few weeks, while Muktananda and crew moved from the temporary ashram in Miami Beach to the US headquarters in South Fallsburg, NY. I found my golden opportunity: I briefly stayed behind in Florida to work as a census-taker.

Walking around in the heat, knocking on doors of people who didn't want to be bothered, wasn't so easy. (It's nice that I had some really crappy jobs in my youth; it makes my current work as an MS Excel expert seem luxurious by comparison.) People were supposed to fill out their census forms by mail; for those who didn't, the Census Bureau paid people like me to visit and interview them to get the information.

At each house, I'd first interview the Head of the Household, filling in the form with their census statistics. Next, I had to ask each other resident how they were related to the Head, and get their info too. In the check-boxes to indicate this relationship, one of the options was the new government-issued term for unmarried partners: POSSLQs. It stood for Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.

I don't think the acronym ever caught on much. This, in spite of the fact that while I was ringing doorbells in the 100+ degree Miami heat, CBS commentator Charles Osgood was honoring the census by composing a poem with lines like: There's nothing that I wouldn't do / If you would be my POSSLQ / You live with me and I with you / And you will be my POSSLQ.

Census-taking was a stretch for me. I'm an introverted person; my current job in computer programming is more comfortable than work requiring constant human interaction. Back in my 20s, though, I had little understanding of what job or life-situation I was best suited for. It led to more boundary-challenging choices than I'd make now as a middle-aged person. What can you do?

The census job had its moments. I remember one guy who, when I asked about his race, told me with an absolutely straight face that he ran the marathon. And once I was interviewing a couple... they seemed to be POSSLQs, but I had to formally ask the woman the question, "How would you describe your relationship to the head of this household?" For a few seconds she looked over at him, then back at me... she shrugged and answered, "Not bad."

Here's Julie's announcement with details of her Yoga classes:
Greetings Yogis,

I want to help you get your yoga off to a great start this winter and spring! First, check out my new web site and blog, and please if you would link to it if you have a site. I'll link back to yours.

I'm back teaching at 7th Heaven this week, after a long break from the studio setting. I'm offering a new class on Thursday Mornings from 10-11:30AM.

Please join me in a deep flowing weekly yoga class for mixed levels 1-3.

We will playfully explore the potential for yoga to transform deeply held stress into joy. I will offer different Vinyasa sequences, long holds, and ideas for healthy yoga posture alignment, as well as time for savasana, and meditation.

I'm also offering private yoga sessions, and yoga therapy by appointment, and will discount any of my regular students who want to learn in an individualized setting. Call or write to set up your appointment: 510-273-2417

Finally, please contact me for more details if you or a friend are interested in joining Yoga Mamas! Yoga Mamas is a group for mothers that offers a safe place to share the struggles, challenges and joys of motherhood from a place of embodiment, connection and community. Using yoga, movement and mindfulness as our guide, we will practice yoga, move, share experiences and discuss issues of motherhood in a safe and nurturing circle of women. All mothers of younger children (0-12 yrs.) are welcome, and no one philosophy of parenting is espoused- just a desire to be more conscious as parents. This is not a mama/baby yoga class, although pre-crawling babies may join us in the studio.

Peace for a Happy and Healthy 2010 and please send me your news!


Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Big Game

My friend Michael just pointed me to a great article in the New York Review of Books. In The Chess Master and the Computer, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov discusses the battle for chess supremacy between humans and artificial intelligence. He writes:
It was my luck (perhaps my bad luck) to be the world chess champion during the critical years in which computers challenged, then surpassed, human chess players. Before 1994 and after 2004 these duels held little interest. The computers quickly went from too weak to too strong. But for a span of ten years these contests were fascinating clashes between the computational power of the machines (and, lest we forget, the human wisdom of their programmers) and the intuition and knowledge of the grandmaster.
I recommend the article to anyone interested in such things. Reading it inspired me to play some checkers against a computer for the first time in years. There's a fine Java checkers program online at It's amusing, then infuriating, how easily this little free program can crush a mere human each and every time.

I think it was in the 80s that my brother (the MIT prof) informed me that a computer had been programmed to beat the best checkers player in the world. But it wasn't until a couple years ago that computers completely solved the game:
... if black moves first, and both sides play per­fect­ly, the game ends in a draw. To reach this con­clu­sion, doz­ens of com­put­ers have been play­ing the game with state-of-the-art ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­niques al­most con­tin­u­ously since 1989...

Check­ers has about 500 bil­lion pos­si­ble po­si­tions and is the most chal­leng­ing pop­u­lar game that com­put­ers have solved to date.
And last year, for the first time, a computer bested a pro Go player.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

No Choice

"We must believe in free will — we have no choice."

-- Isaac Bashevis Singer