Last week San Francisco State University hosted Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice, a conference largely organized by the Consciousness, Mindfulness, Compassion International Association, which is who’s who of Buddhist teachers and other contemplatives. I attended on Wednesday, Thursday, and half of Friday, leaving before the evening keynote presentation to return to Southern California for a wedding. The conference continued until the end of the day on Saturday, with an optional excursion to nearby Green Gulch Farm on Sunday. These are some brief thoughts on what I experienced:
Words, words, words, so many words and so much to absorb. Nevertheless, some themes emerged.
- First, there is concern for the popular image as “mindfulness as panacea” and growing recognition that it may not be appropriate for all or lead only to beneficial outcomes.
- Second, Buddhists in particular are concerned by the “off label use” (as one scientist dubbed it) of mindfulness in the absence of the other parts of the path, namely ethics and wisdom, and there is some apparent tension with scientists and secular (or non-Buddhist) psychologists over this.
- Third, likewise there was tension between the notion that we are using mindfulness merely to help people cope in a dysfunctional world, making stress a ‘personal problem,’ while avoiding a discussion of ethics that might actually demand change in the systems that cause the dysfunction.
- Fourth, related to this, mindfulness is only the tip of the iceberg for Buddhist meditation; the Satipatthana Sutta and many other scriptures from which Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) are derived contain much more material that may be underutilized.
- Fifth, there is ongoing concern for the growing practice of meditation by laypeople, particularly when done ‘out of context’ of sangha and teacher, as is often the case in the west, and the neglect of other meaningful Buddhist practices still popular among laypeople in Asia.
- Sixth, there is a growing interest in compassion as both a human virtue and a therapeutic intervention, such as through the training programs developed at Stanford and UCSF.
- Finally, the scientific study of contemplative practice via neuroscience continues to blossom.
Each one of these points could expand into a full length post on the topic. For now, I will leave them as they are. I’m sure had I stayed through Saturday, there would have been many more. For now, this is my reaction.
I am glad to hear serious discussion of the limitations of mindfulness meditation as it is currently practiced and a broadening of the scope of the discussion to include other kinds of meditation. It spurred insight into some of my own ambivalence towards breath meditation while also renewing my interest in other forms, particularly contemplation designed to deepen compassion, goodwill, equanimity, and insight.
I believe we need to have a serious discussion about ethics and the role of Buddhists/Buddhism in society. We cannot simply let our practices be adapted for ‘stress relief’ without also doing work to alleviate the sources of stress caused by systemic injustice and cultural maladjustment.
The science is fascinating, but it is still in very early stages. Better understanding must wait until the science is more solid, which, despite the seemingly quick pace of discoveries, is several years away, maybe decades. While this happens, we (contemplative practitioners and scholars of religion) must remain in deep dialogue with the scientists, lest their work goes astray, as some of what I saw clearly had.
This was an important conference highlighting important work. I was grateful to attend and present. I hope I might be a small part of this dialogue as it continues.
Keep in mind that I am a bibliophile. That is, a lover (in the intellectual sense) of books. Therefore, I tend to accumulate more books than I actually have time to read. The following options are from my shelves. I have skimmed or read chapters in a few, while barely breathing on the pages of others.
I leave it up to you, my readers, where I should go next. In addition to the books listed below, you may make your own additions in the comments. I am also a keen fan of audio books for my long commute, so if any are better heard, than read, please let me know.
Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree. This book was assigned for a course I took last year on ‘connective leadership.’ I admit that I skimmed it only, but it seems worth a deeper read. Although originally published in 1989, my classmates raved about it’s relevance in 2015. I must confess, I felt slightly left out in that class due to my own failure to read the book that week.
The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. This exegesis of the Satipatthana Sutta, that classic Buddhist meditation manual, is the 2012 followup to Bhante’s wildly popular Mindfulness in Plain English, which I have also not read. Should I buy and read Mindfulness first, then 4 Foundations, or is the second book good on its own?
Please Don’t Tell: What to Do with the Secrets People Share by Emma Justes. I was originally drawn to this book precisely because I am often the recipient of other people’s secrets, as I have written about here and here. Sharing a secret can lead to great healing, but it can also create suffering in the person who hears it. It can also create ethical dilemmas between the tension to maintain a trust and prevent harm, which may be possible by sharing rather than keeping another person’s secret. For such a complicated subject, the book is short and appears accessible.
Feeling Wisdom: Working with Emotions Using Buddhist Teachings and Western Psychology by Rob Preece. I’m becoming more and more interested in Buddhist psychology. I always was, but now that classes are out, I have time to study it. I appreciate that Preece is dealing with emotions, which I am starting to realize drive our behaviors more than we (and previous generations of psychologists) ever thought. I wonder what Buddhism has to say on the matter?
Finally, The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise by Ian Baker is the only memoir currently on my list. I find memoirs to often be hit or miss, but in this case the subject matter is certainly intriguing. And it comes with the Dalai Lama’s stamp of approval. It is also the longest book on my list.
So, dear readers, I place this into your hands. Remember that you can also make new suggestions in the comments. What should I read next this summer?
I’ve been on this self-improvement kick for a while now. I guess that’s what to call it anyway: self-improvement. It’s a broad category, but in my case, I’m concerned with bodily health and productivity. I’m not unhealthy, but I was starting to see certain trends in my life that could lead to it. Productivity is actually a large peice of the health puzzle, because feeling rushed, unmotivated, or like I don’t have enough time is a strong ‘push’ factor in unhealthy behaviors. Using my time more productively and deliberately actually brings the balance and space needed to look after myself physically. Being healthier simply results in an overall increase in wellbeing – I feel better and happier for longer periods of time. What’s not to like?
Well, a lot of things, actually. I don’t like exercise very much. I don’t like a lot of ‘healthy’ foods. I don’t like getting up on time in the morning. I’m not actually very fond of meditation. But these are all very short-term, momentary discomforts.
When I spend twelve minutes doing mildly strenuous yoga in the morning, the other 948 minutes of my waking day are observably improved. I even sleep better and I feel a psychological sense of accomplishment. When I go for a fifteen minute walk in the mid-afternoon, I return to my desk with half a dozen problems solved. Staring at my computer screen can’t accomplish that. When I take the dog for a thirty minute walk, his happiness is contageous.
When I slowly started introducing more healthy foods into my diet and crowding out the unhealthy ones, I didn’t actually feel like I was giving anything up. I’m not “on a diet;” I’m just changing. We can actually change our tastes, change what we find delicious over time, which is good news. The bad news is that we can’t do this tomorrow. It has taken me over ten years to move away from the Midwestern meat and potato diet I was raised with and develop a taste for healthy salads, vegetables, legumes, and seafood. Living near a vibrant farmer’s market for several years in my twenties helped. Living near the ocean in my thirties has refined my palate further. All this has kept me at a healthy weight and healthy wasteline.
When I can stick to my morning routine, which means getting up on time, my entire day goes smoother. Having a morning routine has been strongly correlated with productivity in other areas of life, even if the rest of the day is less predictable. Discipline is a muscle and a morning routine, rather than being boring, is a way to exercise that muscle and keep it in shape. My morning routine includes meditation. When I meditate I strengthen my ability to be present and less distracted in the rest of my life, further improving my productivity, my personal relationships, and my overall sense of wellbeing.
This is a fifteen year project, but I’ve only been deliberate about it for the past five. Maybe that is a side effect of not being twenty anymore. Some books I’ve really enjoyed on this quest include Switch, about habits and behavior change, The Willpower Instinct, about, well, willpower, Essentialism, about how to do less, The Blue Zones Solution, about how we eat and live, and Quiet, about the “power of introverts.” Each of these has a firm basis in rigorous research correlated across many fields and includes both the theoretical background, results from empirical tests, and pragmatic instructions for change. (Essentialism is slightly more manifesto-like, but I enjoyed it anyway.) Moreover, I found that it was helpful to read the books about habits, behavior change, and willpower before doing research on diet, exercise, and other healthy habits. I consumed these books over the past three years in between reading on many other topics.
You might wonder, at some point, why no Buddhist books? This is “Dharma” Cowgirl after all.
My Buddhist studies are integral to this transformation. They continue largely in the context of my academic work. Now that summer is here, I have returned to personal reading, finally tacking the classic What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. I can clearly see the impact of this work, first published in 1959, had on American Buddhism and, in a very direct way, on me even though this is my first time reading it. Buddhism deeply informs my ongoing “self-improvement” project.
Of course, I get a giggle out of the idea of improving a self that really doesn’t exist as such. It’s more like non-self-self-improvement, or simply anatta–anicca. Change in the non-self nature of “my” existence.
Yet, I am encouraged to continue my steady progress. Improving the quality of my life improves the conditions in which I practice.
I do not believe this is always true. We can get caught up in “self-improvement” just like any other addiction, chasing the next fad, the newest exercise routine, the most “natural” cure. There is a great deal of room for tanha, craving, in self-improvement. Reifying the self is a real danger. The quest for self-improvement can often create a samsaric cycle. It can be fueled by the dukkha (suffering) of self-criticisim and a deep sense of worthlessness or by competition and a desire to be better than others. It can also perpetuate dukkha, as when it turns into anorexia or plastic surgery gone wrong or the blind pursuit of wealth and success that induces harm to others and heart attacks by age fifty.
Buddhism tempers my interest in self-improvement because I know that the self I am improving is, by it’s nature, transitory, subject to suffering, source of suffering, stress, old age, illness, and death. It places my self-improvement within a framework of steps towards enlightenment. By keeping my body healthy, my mind strong, and my emotions at ease, I give myself more years of good practice and I am better able to help others.
I read the secular books through a mind already intimately familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Not everything passes muster, but much of it, especially in relation to human psychology and social life, is actually very well alligned with Buddhist teaching. Social science and neuroscience are, if anything, proving Buddhism correct. They also frame change and life interventions within the modern American cultural context, something that ancient Buddhist texts, or even a book a recent as Rahula’s, simply cannot do. I believe they hold immortal and universal truths, but they can’t point out a useful iPhone app, describe a method for managing my email inbox, or provide a list of healthy ingredients easily found in American supermarkets. So there is a necessary balance here, too.
Buddhists should not be afraid of “self-improvement” as too ego-centric. Nor should we be obsessed with it to the point of fixation. I see it simply as karma. If my self doesn’t really exist as a fixed entity, then I need not fear it’s change, particularly if I work to slowly change it in a positive way. Beware the illusion of control, however. I’m still reconing with the karma of my genetic disposition to sleep late and cultural disposition towards burgers and fries. All my past karma is like the flow of a river, so I needn’t be overly frustrated when change is slow and hard. The river is much bigger than I am and that’s not my fault. Luckily, I have a paddle!
“Hi, hon. How was your day?” Colin asks as I take off my shoes and hang up my coat.
“Long,” I sigh and go into the kitchen.
“Oh?” He gets up from his desk to join me.
“A student walked into my office at six practically having a panic attack. I took two hours to calm them down and talk through it.” I pop a frozen meal in the microwave. I’m emotionally exhausted, but my stomach doesn’t care.
“What was wrong?” Colin asks.
“I can’t tell you.”
It was very hard to say those words the first time. I contemplated just not mentioning anything about the incident that had sent me home spiritually depleted. Then I wouldn’t have to tell him I couldn’t tell him about it. I wouldn’t have to worry that he might feel hurt by that. But to leave him with no explanation for my emotional state is not fair. He worries and it’s sweet in a I-wish-he-didn’t-but-like-that-he-cares sort of way. It’s become easier to say over time.
It is not about trust and it is entirely about trust.
I trust him. And my careseekers trust me. The latter entails that I can’t tell him, despite my trust, because I made promises (implicit or explicit) to keep the confidences of the people who come to me as a chaplain. If I break their confidences, I am no good to them. I share their stories only* with my chaplaincy supervisor, who is bound by the same professional ethics. Their confidences stay within a circle of trust.
Mostly, though, it is for me. This is my integrity. In a way, this is how I honor their trust. They have given me something very precious. This is what I give in return. This exchange is the basis of healing that takes place within the chaplaincy relationship.
I could tell Colin and feel secure that no harm would come to the careseeker. He wouldn’t tell anyone. I trust him.
But, in an odd way, I feel like it would harm me. My feeling of integrity would be damaged, my promise broken.
In an odd way, it feels good not to tell him. First, because I am sparing him the vicarious trauma that comes from other people’s suffering. Second, because I am living up to my own ethical and spiritual expectations. I am being the kind of chaplain I would want, the kind of person I would trust.
Spiritual care works in an “odd way,” a way we can’t quite define. Some people call it God or miracle or the Holy Spirit. I think of it more like the evolutionary magic of a species naturally selected for social living. It might be genetic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t magic. We can heal each other just by being together.
“Okay,” Colin says. He hugs me and kisses my neck as my tika masala turns in circles in the microwave. He goes back to his desk and I sit on the couch and queue up The Daily Show and blow on my scalding Indian food.
I don’t have to tell him and that makes it better. Trust runs through.
*In rare cases, law requires me to disclose to the proper authorities immanent threats of harm to self or others or the abuse or neglect of a child or dependent adult. I try to ensure all my careseekers are aware of this legal and ethical obligation to disclose and its limits.
On April 25, 2015, the isolated Himalayan country of Nepal was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed by over 100 aftershocks, some above 6.0 in magnitude. As you can imagine, the people of Nepal are devastated. Thousands are dead. Thousands more are homeless and already suffering from disease and deprivation. Buildings have been reduced to piles of rubble. Children have lost their families. Dysentery and other diseases are already spreading. And monsoon season is coming.
There are many ways you can help, but I want to talk about just one: Nepal Earthquake Crisis GoFundMe campaign of Dr. Khim Berling in support of her many friends in Nepal. What is significant about this campaign and others like it, is that they use the internet to support person to person aid. Dr. Berling is not an NGO or non-profit. She is my friend and a Buddhist studies scholar who has spent time in Nepal. The money she is raising isn’t going into a charity bank account, but rather directly to several Nepali citizens on the ground trying to save the lives of their families and neighbors. What you donate today could buy antibiotics tomorrow. This is the kind of person to person aid the internet has once again made possible.
Let me share a little bit about what is happening from Dr. Berling’s updates:
Nabin Tamang in Hardiwar: There are un-cremated deceased people and animals decaying in the rubble. Many people are in tents outside this rubble. Nabin says the smell of death is quite intense. The RedCross is requiring a signature from local authorities for more tents. All the homes are uninhabitable and there is a VERY serious lack of clean food and water. Many people are already having diarrhea which is one of the leading causes of death in Nepal. There is a place that Nabin can travel to and get some supplies. Your donation could make a big difference in the life of this wonderful man and his family.
Raju Deepak Shrestha in Chitwan: Their houses only have medium damage. They have some access to basic necessities, but their supplies are inconsistent. Raju has FOUND a GROUP of HOMELESS CHILDREN. They have NO HOME or FAMILIES ANYMORE. Raju is going to try to get them to an ngo (a nonprofit) in Nepal.
These are just two of the four families that Dr. Berling is helping with her GoFundMe campaign. She has already distributed most of the money that has come in and is trying to raise another $1000 (to reach $3000 total) by Sunday in order to purchase antibiotics and clean drinking water. If you feel moved, please consider donating a few dollars.
If you prefer to donate to a registered non-profit charity or NGO, Buddhist Global Relief, while not on the ground in Nepal, has created a list of reputable organizations that are already providing relief there. They are all good people.
You don’t know Dr. Berling. You don’t even really know me. I have no idea what the tax benefits are (probably none) of donating to such a campaign. However, I do know that every penny I donate goes directly to good people in desperate need in Nepal with a matter of hours or days. Help us help our brothers and sisters in Nepal. Please.
If you are an introvert, you know that conferences are hell. They are also wonderful, fascinating, and stimulating – which is why they are hell. Introverts tend to become over-stimulated more easily than extroverts, especially in constantly churning crowds of strangers. Yet conferences are very rewarding, which is why we still attend them. We learn new things, stay updated about our discipline, present and teach others, and make important personal and professional connections at conferences. And, if you’re an introvert like me, you also find quiet corners, take naps, and, at any given moment, may leave the convention center and walk as far away as possible, or at least feel the urge to. So, if you’re an introvert, here are my conference survival tips.
1. Stay in the conference hotel. While cheaper accommodations can often be found and they may only be a few blocks away, nothing beats the ability to zip up the elevators back to one’s (hopefully, private) hotel room. Even a ten minute escape can sooth frazzled nerves. A forty-minute nap can re-energize me for hours. Just the quiet and stillness is a relief. So, if you can, book early and stay in the conference hotel.
2. Plan you days before you arrive. Trying to figure out where to go next when surrounded by a swirling crowd is a stressor you don’t need. Read the conference program before you travel and plug all of your seminars and workshops into your phone, including their locations. This reduces decision paralysis and frees up your brain to just enjoy the ride and absorb the information. When you plan your days, identify necessary breaks. I like to take an hour or two in the early afternoon to recharge before late afternoon or evening sessions. This is important to my wellbeing so I put it on my calendar just like a meeting.
3. Leave time around travel. Airports can be even more stressful than conferences, so don’t rush from one to the other. Fly in the night before, if you can. Leave several hours between the last session and your departing flight. If you have time to kill, find a quiet coffee shop or a park to reduce your blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) before you tackle that next hurdle – airport security.
4. Limit your poisons. Find a dependable source of caffeine, but don’t overdo it, and limit alcohol intake. For myself, I’m allowed to breach my daily two-cup limit in order to savor that third cup of coffee in the early afternoon. I cut off caffeine at 4 o’clock. By the same token, I impose a one drink limit and usually pair alcohol with dinner. Drinking without food or too late in the evening tends to lead to poor sleep and I need all the good sleep I can get. If you can, do continue your regular exercise, yoga, meditation, or whatever routine to help counteract the poisons and stay in good physical and mental health.
5. Stay connected with your loved ones. These people are part of your social support system. A daily ‘good morning’ text message or nightly call or video chat helps release oxytocin, which is an anti-stress hormone. You may be away and busy, but that doesn’t mean your connections are absent. Thank you, modern technology. Likewise, if colleagues or friends are attending the conference, make time to meet up with them socially, over lunch or dinner. You can help each other unwind and reflect on the contents of the conference.
6. Spend at least some time outdoors each day. Our bodies respond to natural light (even when it’s cloudy) and greenery. A terrace, patio, or park are ideal places to check email or just sit and watch the sky change. Walking out to lunch rather than eating in the hotel (or the conference provided meal) is another good strategy.
7. Most importantly, DO talk to strangers, but know how to socialize like an introvert. You have social skills, they’re just a little different.
For example, when I’m conferencing, I like to eat dinner at the bar in local restaurants. It is not hard to strike up a conversation with other solo diners doing likewise. While at first this might seem counter-intuitive (“I’m an introvert! People are stressful and you want me to seek them out?”) it is actually a good way to have a short, but meaningful, one-on-one interaction.
Introverts are actually just as social as extroverts, we just do social differently. We like face-to-face interactions with a small number of people, often just one other person on whom we can focus. Large crowds are draining because they send our focus in a dozen different directions. By chatting with just one or two other people over the space of lunch, we remind ourselves of the value of human connection – which is why we come to conferences at all! Then we can dive back into that exhibit hall or seminar with less trepidation.
Small talk is a meaningful skill, but most people at a conference will also share a strong bond over the topic of the conference. Those deeper discussions are what introverts prefer and they’re also much easier to find at a conference than, say, a random party. Learn the right questions to ask to get people talking about what they love. This will change based on the topic of the conference. As an introvert, these conversations tend to be more meaningful to me and often energizing.
When in doubt, fake extroversion. It can be done. At this point, I am so adaptively extroverted that only those who know me well suspect I am by nature and personal preference an extreme introvert. Fake extroversion is a skill that becomes easier over time.
8. Finally, know your limits. I can manage about four days. Then I need to run away and recharge in the comfort, quiet, and solitude of my own home. I don’t feel too bad about that. It’s just me. I can absorb a lot in four days, enough to fuel my thinking for months. Afterward, don’t assume you’ll be okay to go straight back to work and dive into a busy meeting schedule. If it’s the weekend, great, but if you return on a workday plan to be a little less productive. Leave space to work from home, if you can, or don’t plan any meetings on the day you return from the conference. Take time to make notes and send emails from the comfort, and quiet, of your office. Your body and brain with thank you for it. It also helps you get the most out of the conference by planning how you’ll use what you’ve gained, rather than loosing it in a hectic work schedule.
I hope you find these tips helpful. For any extroverts reading this post, it may better help you understand and support your introverted colleagues. If anyone would like to write a counter-post for the extroverts out there, that would be lovely. For any extroverts who plan conferences, I know it’s tempting to pack every single second, but remember that a good portion of your audience just can’t be “on” for every single second. They’re going to skip out, so if you leave space in the schedule, you’ll have more control over when that happens.
Good luck at your next conference!