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Gamifying the Path

September 30, 2016

‘The First Move’ by Antti Kyllonen via


Purpose: To break down the Eightfold Path into concrete steps that can be implemented in an eight-month cycle with three rounds, which totals two years. Dedicate each month to making a deliberate effort to improve in a particular aspect of the path, starting with Right Action. Progress on the path in a spiral motion, returning to Right Action every eight months, but expanding the circle of concern in that aspect from self to close others to far others. After two years, return to the beginning, but formulate new actions based on present circumstances.

Theory: This project is similar to practices for character formation embedded in various world religions (i.e. Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim liturgical calendars) and personal philosophies (i.e. Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues). In each instance, rather than focusing on always doing right in all areas, which can feel overwhelming, distinct times, places, and activities are designated to focus one’s energies on a particular area of development in a recurrent cycle.

Problem: Many of the focusing techniques of past eras are embedded within specific regional, ethnic, or religious cultures. Some people, myself included, feel cast adrift from those cultures, having left our childhood religions behind (or never having had one). Taking up Asian Buddhist rituals at this stage of my life feels superficial (for reasons I have written about elsewhere), even when they have been ‘Americanized,’ which has its own problems. Therefore, I prefer to forge my own system and to keep it simple, something I can follow as an individual.

Sharing: I share this here not in hope that anyone else will adopt it, but for two reasons. First, I hope it will keep me accountable. When I know I have to report on my progress to others (even if those others haven’t demanded such a report), I am more diligent. I have found this psychological mechanism useful in other areas of my life. Second, perhaps it will serve as an example of what is possible – that is, the development of our own systems for spiritual and personal growth. Perhaps someone else will be inspired to come up with their own system and share it and, perhaps, as a result we will see several such systems develop and be able to compare their relative efficacy for different people. The researcher in me would be fascinated by such a project.

The Noble Eightfold Path

  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Place in the Cycle

October: Right Action

Right Action is defined in several ways. First, according the precepts to abstain from violence, stealing, sexual misconduct, and use of intoxicants. Second, to abandon all evil actions and undertake all good actions, which includes cultivating a general awareness of which actions do and do not contribute to suffering. Third, the cultivation of virtues, especially those concerned with how we treat ourselves and others, such as kindness, compassion, and a general sense of care (or carefulness) for ourselves, others, objects, and the environment.

I have chosen to implement Right Action this month by showing care for my body and mind, taking actions that I know to alleviate suffering in the long run, abstaining from actions that I know to perpetuate suffering in the long run, and by cultivating a general virtue of kindness towards myself. When I take care of myself, I reduce my own stress and become more available to others. When I am compassionate and kind towards myself, I am also more likely to respond compassionately and kindly towards others. Kindness is not indulgent; in fact, true kindness requires a particular sort of diligence that only becomes easier when it is habitualized.

Round 1: Actions to care for the body and mind.

  • Eat a healthy breakfast each work day before leaving the house.
  • Drink 1 cup of coffee per day or less; green tea in the afternoon is okay.
  • Do not drink soda or other sugary drinks; fruit juice is okay in moderation.
  • Eat vegetarian at least five days a week.
  • Exercise five days a week by walking/jogging with the dog at the park; intersperse with push-ups and pull-ups on the park exercise stations.
  • Meditate at least five days a week.
  • Do no work on Saturday; spend time with my partner, friends, and pets.
  • Thank my body and mind for what it has done at least once a week through guided meditation or writing exercises.

Round 2: Actions to care for the home and family.

Round 3: Actions to care for the community and world.

November: Right Livelihood


Goal: Establish these actions as self-sustaining habits embedded into a fairly stable daily routine.

Accountability: Use a habit tracker to monitor progress and a journal to record positive or negative outcomes at the end of each week.

Transition: On the last day of each month, formulate the goals for the next month based on the next aspect in the Eightfold Path and the current round. Also, formulate the rounds for that aspect of the path as this system is being developed. Refine as necessary.

Fierce Compassion

August 29, 2016
Rhonda Magee at CMind Summer Session 2016

Photo courtesy of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

“Compassion is fierce. It’s not soft at all. So we resist because we’re afraid of what it will call on us to do.” – Prof. Rhonda V. Magee (paraphrased) August 8, 2016

Compassion is in the act to alleviate suffering. As we become aware of or empathize with suffering, either in ourselves or others, we naturally want relief – but neither the feeling nor the desire for relief by themselves constitute compassion. Compassion is in the act.

At the recent Summer Session on Contemplative Higher Education, Professor Rhonda Magee of the University of San Francisco law faculty almost perfectly echoed a point I made at the Global Chaplains conference in Australia last month. The definition of karuna in the Buddhist literature is the will and action to relieve suffering of oneself and others. If we note suffering in passing without acting to alleviate it, this is not compassion.

Contemplative practice is only contemplative so long as it is in service to “a more just and compassionate society,” according to the definition of provided by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, founded by Mirabai Bush and Daniel Barbezat, which sponsored the summer session. Contemplative practice helps us wake up, according to Professor Magee. I think the Buddha would agree.

Some prefer to present contemplation is a value neutral tool, lacking inherent spiritual or ethical content, perhaps in fear that yoga or meditation will accidentally convert them to some new religion. Some folks even use mindfulness techniques to improve their concentration on tasks that actually create more suffering, such as when stockbrokers host MBSR seminars and then make trades that bankrupt companies.

On the one hand, mindfulness does alleviate personal stress, and is that not also suffering? Yet, it can also become an opiate to numb us from the systemic sources of suffering, such as injustice. It can reduce our stress just enough that we can go back to work tomorrow and price gouge impoverished customers. Focus on your breathing, not on that crying woman over there. This is not what our contemplative gurus were hoping for.

Injustice can only flourish when we are trained to miss interconnection. We don’t notice that injustice for one is injustice for all. We focus on handling our stress and our response to stress and developing our mind. Which is a valuable exercise, but perpetuates the false notion that we have a solid self disconnected from others.

In reality, we each exist in a net of relationships and those relationships do matter. They affect our suffering and freedom from suffering, but the philosophy du jour says we can’t control other people, so we should only focus on controlling our own mind. This is a shallow truth, especially if we carry some form of privilege that allows us to overlook the suffering of entire groups of people, such as women and people of color.

I am guilty. I have long relied on my white privilege to shield me from the suffering of people of color. It’s scares me. It’s too horrible and too big and I feel far too powerless. I can’t look at all the suffering in the world, I tell myself, I’ll break down. I have to choose what suffering I devote my time and energy to or I’ll spread myself too thin and burn out. This is also a shallow truth.

Professor Magee and Dr. Rose Sackey-Milligan helped me finally look deeply at what I’d long known only intellectually. They introduced contemplative practices that got to the root of the suffering of black and brown bodies and at my own white privilege looking away. Accessing my privilege emotionally or intuitively is important, because privlege, by it’s nature is difficult to see by the person who has it. We practiced contemplatively to bring privilege into the forefront of our awareness in a non-threatening way (as much as any privilege-work can be).

Shortly after I returned from the summer session, a POC friend asked about my neighborhood. Another POC friend had warned her it was a racist area, which had never occurred to me. I have been shielded from that by my privilege. When I considered it, I realized I’ve never seen anyone of her race in my neighborhood. She worries about racism every day and may therefore miss out on having a good place to live or an affordable rent. I feel sad for her and chagrined at myself for never having noticed this before.

Everyone suffers form injustice in different ways. Some suffer oppression and terror, others suffer fear of the oppressed, many suffer both. Racism, sexism, ablism, and other forms of discrimination create systems of injustice within the very social structures we depend on for survival. They are in our police systems that keep us “safe” and our law systems that provide “justice” and our education systems that offer “opportunity.” But some people remain safer than others, some more likely to receive justice, and some have more opportunities than others. Those with privilege may perceive equality as economically and socially threatening because it is change, but the groups without privilege know that the status quo is a literal threat to their physical lives and the lives of their children.

We must remember that anti-discrimination laws were enacted in a systemic social structure that continues to profit from racism, sexism, etc. Professor Magee reiterates a truth that I’ve also heard from Dr. Najeeba Syeed, of Claremont School of Theology, where I study. Judges have received kickbacks from private prisons to incarcerate predominantly minority kids. The entire concept of prisons “for profit” is reprehensible, especially in a society that disproportionately arrests, convicts, and incarcerates people of color. And where people can be held in jails indefinitely for inability to pay a simple fine or make bail due to poverty. Our justice system is just one area in which inequality creates opportunities for the unscrupulous to profit from a broken system – which means they have an investment in maintaining that system.

When we teach contemplative pedagogy, is it inflected by social identity? Is there such a thing as “black” mindfulness? Professor Magee asks a crowd of educators, mostly white, but with a noticeable number of black folks, a few of East Asian descent, and an equally noticeable dearth of South Asians, Latinos, or Native Americans. I don’t know what I think of this question at first.

Inasmuch as we’re born with characteristics we didn’t choose and (mostly) can’t change that a preexisting social structure attach meaning to … she goes on, but my mind rewinds because I’ve never thought of it that way. What meaning do we as a society attach to these outward characteristics of people? What meaning do I attach to being a women? What meaning do other people attach to my gender when they see me? Most meanings exist in a hierarchy of meaning, a subconsciously constructed worldview. Where does the meaning of my gender, race, age, or appearance fall into my own worldview or those of others?

We can use mindfulness to wake up to our worldviews of unconscious meaning, learn them, and then choose to accept, contest, or modify these meanings. We can do it without spiritually bypassing using an “it’s all one” argument or “contemplation is contemplation.” Instead, we can actually honor, respect, and value different lived experiences while also seeing the blind spots they engender and using mindfulness to become further aware of and overcome those blind spots. Through contemplation I can look deeply into racism and my own white privilege to become a better ally.

Waking up NECESSITATES waking up to injustice and finding ways to overcome it. Waking up makes us fiercely compassionate. Meditate and wake up!

Kinds of Campus Chaplains

August 4, 2016

Closing panel. Photo credit: Steph Robinson

The final panel of the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education 2016 was called “Pulling Apart a Platypus,” which was a metaphor for a panel that looked critically at the differences between chaplaincies at various institutions. The panel and the metaphor were the brainchild of chaplain Robert Lingard from Southern Cross University in Australia. He recruited four panelists:

  • Jay Robinson of Monash University in Australia
  • Gunther Sturms of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands
  • Mary Hudson of Syracuse University in the USA
  • Myself (Monica Sanford) of University of the West in the USA

No platypi were harmed in the course of this session.

From Rev. Jay Robinson of the Uniting Church of Australia, I learned that universities employ only a few chaplains on their own payroll and mostly to function as coordinators relying on the volunteer services of numerous chaplains to meet the needs of students. With the exception of two church-based institutions, all universities in Australia are public. They are also large; I heard no populations below five digits among all the Australia chaplains I spoke to. They seem to recognize the value of chaplains as they recruit numerous volunteers, but have very little interest in paying for that value. Like America, there is some controversy over church-state separation and the use of tax funding. Nevertheless, Jay and her fellow Aussie chaplains work hard to look after the students on their campuses. An innovation I particularly enjoyed was a jacket she wears that says ‘chaplain’ on it. She replicated this for the conference, which she worked tirelessly to organize, in the form of vests that said “Chaplain at Work – Please Bother.” I see a T-shirt order in my future.

From Gunther Sturms of the Netherlands, a Catholic, chaplaincy has a more secular and entrepreneurial face in the form of Motiv. This non-profit, attached to a technical school, provides team training, coaching, and events to help students wrestle with their calling – in this case to be engineers – and build their people skills. Gunther’s model appears more like corporate consulting than chaplaincy, including fees for service. Some audience members questioned what might be lost in relying so much on secular language and a secular model. Gunther believes nothing is lost, only that he and his team allow students (who are largely secular in the Netherlands) to raise the topic or religion rather than using religion as the starting point.

In an earlier in-person conversation, I learned from Gunther that he does not perform one-on-one counseling (no ‘open door’) or ministry of presence, which are two staples of chaplaincy practice I regularly use. For myself, I agree with Gunther regarding the relationship between religious and secular language, but I am uneasy about the loss of these specific practices. What sets chaplains apart from consultants or therapists, to me, is that we go where the suffering is and make ourselves available without waiting to be called (some counselors and social workers also do this, but in different ways). While students can make appointments with me, they don’t have to. Crisis, trauma, and panic do not adhere to any datebook. To my knowledge, Gunther and his team do not provide crisis services, which I find regrettable.

The third chaplain to speak was Mary Hudson, the Pagan chaplain at Syracuse University in New York. Mary represents the completely volunteer chaplain, endorsed by her faith tradition and carefully scrutinized by the university before being authorized to work on campus. Once approved, Mary became of ten chaplaincies who all commit to serving the campus twenty hours a week for no pay and in addition to whatever ‘day jobs’ they may hold. Mary manages this by being at the campus Starbucks early in the morning and holding events in the evenings and on weekends. When asked how she serves Christian students, by far the majority on American college campuses, Mary answered quite well. Like any chaplain, she is interfaith, but there is also a subset of Christian and quasi-Christian students who would rather discuss Christianity with her than with a Christian chaplain due to fear of judgment. I personally believe this fear is largely unfounded, but not entirely, in my experience. Our faith traditions imbue us with certain worldviews and assumptions that, even in the most well meaning chaplain can become judgmental. As a profession, we rely on a reputation as ‘safe’ people for difficult discussions (regardless of our own beliefs) in order for students to approach us to ask for help. Mary and my fellow chaplains at the conference were well aware of that, but still struggling to overcome outdated notions of what religious professionals are.

I presented last. I explained my paid position on campus that, in addition to, I am allowed to serve as a chaplain on a volunteer basis. By becoming a familiar and valuable member of the paid staff, I have gained the trust of a large part of the campus community, who as a result, support my work as a chaplain. Probably, like Mary, I will never find a full-time paid position as a campus chaplain in our largely Christian nation. However, if I can make myself valuable in other ways, either as administration or faculty, I may continue to serve my calling wherever I go, which is to be a chaplain. I may even occasionally bring that viewpoint to the fore in executive or committee meetings when discussing a topic that impacts student suffering, my primary concern as a Buddhist chaplain, in spite of other strategic or fiscal objectives.

We then opened the panel to questions, the most touching of which came from a Christian chaplain from New Zealand. She was dismayed to the point of tears about the lengths to which Mary and I go to serve students. We need to make the profession more inclusive and welcoming to chaplains from all traditions, she stated. Afterward, she sought me out for more conversation and a hug, despite my froggish voice as I spoke earlier (a bad head cold). I was in turn, heartened by her support, especially because I know that even Christian chaplains are struggling to prove their value to rapidly secularizing universities.

The panel was a great opportunity to meet other chaplains and share our common goals and struggles. I may even recommend something similar, though on a smaller geographic scale and wider professional scope (beyond campus chaplains), at my own university this year for the benefit of students in our chaplaincy program.

Accounting for Australia

July 27, 2016

Great Stupa of Universal Compassion and future home of the Jade Buddha under construction near Bendigo, Australia. Photo by the author.

As readers know, my attendance at the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education was crowdfunded through a GoFundMe campaign that raised $3000 over a few months. I could never have attended this conference without all of you who donated and who shared my campaign. Thank you and sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!

Below, please find a complete financial accounting of the donations and how they were spent. The campaign is now closed, but it has proved to me that people still believe scholarship matters, chaplains matter, and they are willing to support both!

$3,000.00 Total Donations
$(375.00) Scholarship from Organizers (no cash received)
$2,280.00 Online donations (subject to fees)
$(185.00) Fees (~8%)
$2,095.00 Funds received from GoFundMe
$345.00 Offline donations (no fees)

$1,268.00 Flights
$545.89 Hotel in Bendigo
$15.00 Electronic Travel Authorization
$- Conference Registration (free due to scholarship)
$290.50 Food & Medicine
$141.17 Transportation in Australia
$139.98 Hotel in Melbourne

$39.46 REMAINDER (donated)

My estimated costs were very close. I spent a little more than I wanted to on medicine and transportation due to the illness I acquired about midway through the conference week. Thankfully, Australian pharmacists are very helpful. I splurged on an Uber back to the Melbourne airport rather than wait at a cold bus stop so early in the morning on my last day.

The remaining funds were donated to my friend, Venerable Sumitta, who is raising funds to rebuild the homes of three single mothers in Sri Lanka who were affected by the floods earlier this year. Please consider supporting or sharing his campaign.

Chaplains Conferences are the Best Conferences

July 22, 2016

Closing Panel; photo credit: Steph Robinson

I attended the 2016 Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education in Bendigo, Australia, from July 11-15. This is my second time at this conference, which is held every four years, the last one being in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2012. There were clear differences between the two, but one thing stayed the same: chaplains conferences are the best conferences.

Here is a group of people professionally trained to be kind, supportive, open minded, and to care for strangers at the drop of a hat. I made friends starting on the shuttle ride from the airport, which I shared with a Catholic chaplain from Canberra and a Mormon chaplain from Utah. I met the Australian organizer, with whom I’d corresponded for months, with a hug, although we’d never seen each other in person before. One of the New Zealand chaplains cried when she listened to how difficult it is fro the Pagan chaplain from Syracuse, New York, and I (a Buddhist chaplain in California) to find a full-time campus chaplain position in a dominantly Christian country and the lengths to which we’ll go to stay chaplains despite that. Questions during workshops and paper sessions were open, curious, respectful, and affirming. I had a great lunch with a male chaplain from South Carolina discussing the difficulty of Title IX (dealing with campus sexual assault and harassment) and the role chaplains play.

Overall, this conference was smaller then the previous one at Yale, with just over 100 attendees (compared to 400), but many more from Australia and New Zealand for obvious reasons. I presented my paper to about 15 people on Tuesday and we had a good discussion. On Thursday, 8 attended my workshop. The entire group was present for the closing panel I participated in on Friday and several came up to me afterward with positive comments. La Trobe University in Bendigo did a wonderful job hosting us.

Despite the proximity to Asia, only one chaplain from Hong Kong joined us. I was truly hoping that some of the new Buddhist chaplains from Japan or other Asian countries might attend, but perhaps the barriers (language, cost, awareness, etc.) were still too high this time around. The location of the 2020 conference has yet to be announced, but when it is, you can be sure I will be reaching out to my colleagues across the Pacific.

If you are interested in campus chaplaincy or just chaplaincy in general, I highly recommend this conference. Overall, it was a wonderful experience, despite the horrifically long airplane flight.


Kangaroos at La Trobe University, photo by author

Permission to be Wrong

June 8, 2016

Wrong Direction by Micagoto via

For anyone born before 1990 or so, the original Star Wars movie released in 1977 is the Star Wars movie. We have watched and re-watched, loved and quoted it since childhood. So in 1997, when George Lucas released a remastered version of the beloved classic, we were simultaneously excited and horrified. The picture and sound quality were immeasurably better, but in addition to restoring the film, Lucas also re-edited it, changing certain scenes in very small ways, sometimes by as little as one word of dialogue or one second of screen time.

I had watched the original versions hundreds of times by then. The remastered 1997 version was just wrong. Objectively, the content, characters, and overall tone of the movie remained intact, but it just felt wrong in ways I never overcame. As I result, I clung to my cherished VHS tape of the 1977 version of the movie for decades after the release of the remastered film, long after VHS players stopped being sold in stores and despite the fact that my version wasn’t even widescreen; it had been chopped down to fit on the square televisions of its day. But it was my Star Wars and it just felt right.

I think this is how we sometimes feel as Buddhists in America. Whenever I visit a Buddhist center or temple, I always have the vague impression that I’m doing it wrong. I’m not bowing quite correctly, in the right place at the right time. I’m not pronouncing the Chinese or Japanese, etc., greeting right. I don’t know just how to hold the incense and make the offering. This sangha does it differently from that sangha. This temple has done it a certain way for a thousand years and that one has decided to innovate. I never really know what is expected.

This is not entirely an internal anxiety. I had to be gently prodded through my own ordination ceremony by two kind Chinese nuns. Bow now, their hands said. No, keep your head down, keep bowing, a gentle tap on the skull reminded me. Now stand up, little pinches at the folds of my robe told me.  When I visited Fo Guang Shan main temple in Taiwan, we were given a short presentation on some of the aspects of monastic training, including how monks and nuns are trained to bow, eat, walk, stand, sit, and lay down to sleep. There’s a proper way to lay down to sleep!

Convert sanghas are not very different in this respect. I attended a small service at a local Zen center last year mostly including American-born Buddhist converts. They were being visited by another small group from the Zen center just down the road, no different demographically, and only one lineage apart. The visitors were asked to help with some minor details of the service, passing out prayer books, since numbers were few. A wordless dance ensued amidst chanting and bowing as the visitors didn’t know the ‘right’ way to hand out booklets in this sangha.

All of these situations resolved with goodwill and only a little fuss. Cumulatively, however, the result in a feeling of ‘getting it wrong’ on a regular basis. Moreover, it sometimes leads to an feeling, however unintentional it may be, that this is not a place ‘for me’ or where I can ‘be me.’ Instead, I am on my best behavior at all times, hyper-observant of the people around me so I can attempt (poorly) to emulate their behavior, and ready to apologize and correct myself at the drop of a hat. It’s exhausting!

The cumulative result is that I don’t go to temples much. When I do, I am often very gratified and glad that I went. When I return, I often need a nap and prefer not to speak to anyone for the rest of the day. I can’t really afford that on a regular basis.

Sometimes I imagine that even long-time Buddhists in America must feel this way. Even if you grew up going to temple with your parents or grandparents on a regular basis and now continue the practice, certainly some things must have changed. Some of those changes must strike others the way the changes to the Star Wars movies struck me – as just every so slightly ‘wrong.’

Moreover, many Buddhist sanghas founded by Asian immigrants may find themselves under pressure to ‘adapt’ or ‘modernize’ in their new American home. It must be galling to witness someone who’s been calling themselves Buddhist for all of five-minutes ask for changes to hundred or thousand-year-old traditions to accommodate her preferences. I imagine this might be happening (I imagine I’ve been that five-minute old Buddhist), though I have less of a personal perspective on it than the other way around.

The problem as I see it is in the symbols. Each culture evolves a system of symbolic ways to convey meaning in particular words, deeds, images, music, etc., that speaks to us on deep, subconscious, emotional levels. These symbols are not easily translatable or transportable from one culture to another. They ‘speak’ to members of their own culture and also help differentiate insiders from outsiders, with whom they have little to no resonance. (And if they do, it is largely through their similarity to existing symbols and may therefore be distorted though the other’s cultural lens.)

For example, the Lord’s Prayer still stirs a response in me, not just in the words, but in the very way it is said; it has a particular cadence that was burned into my mind through weekly group repetition for all the years of my childhood. Today, I find that I prefer Buddhist chants that approximate this cadence, Pali and Japanese in particular. The Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean all sound simply too ‘foreign,’ still.

New symbols and meanings can be learned. Resonance can be acquired at any time throughout one’s life, with effort. Old symbols can also be re-purposed to have different meanings.

However, this process of learning or re-purposing is fraught with anxiety. The feeling of ‘getting it wrong’ persists throughout the process, often for years. There is danger in that feeling.

The dangers of feeling ‘wrong’ are twofold: first, when we interpret that feeling to mean morally wrong and, second, when we take that feeling as a personal rejection of our identity. In the first sense, it may be that something is simply different or new and our mind triggers the sense of ‘wrong’ compared to its internal expectation. This is not what ‘should’ be happening. Behavioral psychologists have identified that humans often confuse new/different with bad/unpleasant in various controlled experiments (often involving taste-tests or some other sensory impression).

Scholars of religion have likewise noticed a tendency for religious converts to overly stress ‘change’ in the name of improvement that really just brings their new religious tradition more into alignment with their existing cultural tradition. Thus, the so-called ‘Protestantization’ of Buddhism debate exists. We conflate that emotion into a moral judgment and then stand our ground for/against change on the basis of moral righteousness. I’ve witnessed this in both traditional and convert Buddhists, going both direction (i.e. traditional reformers and traditional conservatives; convert innovators and convert conservatives).

In the second sense, we can interpret the feeling of ‘wrong’ in a personal way: am wrong. am not welcome here. I can’t be me anymore. Yes, yes, we Buddhists talk about not clinging to the illusory self. It causes suffering – this suffering. So we must also have compassion for it. We should remember that the feeling of personal rejection is a strong form of suffering for a social animal such as a human being. When we feel personally rejected, our very survival is literally at stake. In the ancient world, this probably meant we’d freeze or starve or be eaten by a predator. In the contemporary world, the single highest risk factor for suicide is disconnection.

When people feel rejected or that what they bring to the table, who they are, is not of value to the group with which they’ve spiritually identified, this can be a huge blow. I believe this may be one of the reasons so few American-born Buddhists enter into or remain in Asian monastic sanghas. The necessity of changing everything about yourself as a person (how to sleep!) may be too high of a psychological barrier, especially coming from a culture that has told you to be an individual, to be unique unto’yourself’ for your entire life previous to that. The payoffs may be worth it. I know several American-born Buddhists who’ve bucked this trend and they are amazing individuals. (They may have started that way or become that way as a result or both; it is not clear.)  They are also very few.

The only thing I can think of to help this situation is to give one another permission to ‘get it wrong.’ To pause and examine feelings of ‘wrong’ when they come up to determine if they are truly based on a moral precept or just a result of novelty. To ensure that others know that they are welcome and wanted in our sanghas before we start correcting their behavior. Maybe even to correct a little less. Most will naturally adapt in their own time. To tolerate a feeling of being ‘wrong’ without over-identifying with it or personalizing it. To see it as a passing feeling and let it go without further self-criticism. Let us give each other  (and ourselves) permission to get it ‘wrong’ so that we can learn to be a family together.

2.5 Years of Audio-Books

May 6, 2016

the life changing magic

I moved farther away from my workplace about three years ago. Enter the commute, which has ranged from 25 minutes to 90 minutes depending on location and time of day. Thus, audio-books.

My Audible subscription has made many a crawling freeway more bearable. So here’s a rundown of my top five for your listening and reading pleasure.

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has been my favorite book so far, surprisingly. As a former design student, I thought I’d seen enough home and lifestyle books, blogs, and magazines to last a lifetime. I was wrong. This was a lovely book to listen to for two reasons. First, the content is inspiring. Although I haven’t konmaried my house yet (aka, used the ‘konmarie’ method of tidying), it has changed my relationship with stuff and happiness in a way that has nothing to do with organizational tips and tricks. Second, the female narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, has a voice I could listen to forever. During my drives with her, I did not bother to switch it up with music, as I often do for my evening commute. I would seriously listen to this book again, maybe on an annual basis.
  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain was my very first audio-book. If you’re an introvert or you love someone who is, this book is wonderfully explanatory and empowering. In contemporary American society, introverts are often pressured to be ‘less shy’ or ‘more outgoing,’ and while there are benefits to adaptive extroversion, Susan Cain also lays out the case (as only a lawyer can) for the true strengths that introverts bring to the table. There’s a healthy dose of social science and neuroscience thrown in for good measure.
  3. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by ColinAmercan Nations Woodard is a cultural history of the United States that has helped me better understand the many ‘nations’ of my country and why we are often at odds with ourselves. While covering American history from pre-colonial and colonial days to the present, Woodard skips most of the prestigious names and battles in favor of talking about the people who make up America, who they were, where they came from, what values they brought with them, how those values influenced their decisions (including the government they set up), and how they’ve continued into the present day. It thoroughly debunks the myth of any essential monolithic ‘American’ culture, while also explaining what common themes brought us together as a country and what still tries to pull us apart. I wish this had been required reading in high school (even though it hadn’t been written yet).
  4. Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity by David Christian is my favorite of the Great Courses audio-books I’ve listened to so far. Like American Nations, it provides a completely different take on history, starting with the history of time and space itself. In the midst of lectures on cosmology, physics, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and (eventually) human history, the author also explains the history of how we know these things. He dives into the theories behind them, alternative theories, and the evidence that supports our current understanding of the universe. It’s a history of knowledge and science as much as a history of everything and well worth the 24 hour investment. (Warning: As an astronomy professor, he is critical of religion as an explanatory or authoritative source on the creation of the universe. Take that as you will.)
  5. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt explains moral psychology in a way that has helped me better understand why people do what they do, especially when they themselves can’t explain it or their explanations seem to defy their actions. Haidt argues that we are governed not by rationally developed ethical norms, but by moral emotions.We do what feels right and then try to rationally explain it after the fact. Moreover, these moral emotions bear several common features across cultures. Which moral emotions are emphasized helps explain political and religious divisions. A self-confessed life-long liberal, Haidt admits that through this work he’s come to understand his conservative counterparts better, sympathize this their deepest motives, and de-vilify/re-humanize his political adversaries. From a Buddhist psychological perspective, I find that Haidt is bringing empirical evidence and a clear social sciences framework to something that sounds deeply familiar.

Finally, a few honorable mentions, in no particular order.

  • The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (yes, that William James) probably took me the longest to complete because the antiquated language makes it hard to pay attention to, but this classic is well worth the time.
  • The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by former USC president Steven Sample is full of wise advice for leaders, especially those outside the for-profit business environment.
  • The Happiness Hypothesis is Jonathan Haidt’s first book and lays some groundwork forhappiness hypothesis The Righteous Mind.
  • The brothers Dan and Chip Heath build on Haidt’s ‘rider and elephant’ metaphor with concrete guidance in their book Switch, which is about behavior change.
  • The Blue Zones Solution by Dan Buettner explains how people live to over 100, with particular emphasis on diet, but some of the social components he describes were also very interesting to me.
  • Make it Stick by Peter Brown is a must read for all college students as it covers the neuroscience of learning, what really works, and what just feels like its working.
  • Finally, two books by my favorite social sciences researcher of all time, Brene Brown. The first, Daring Greatly is about vulnerability and living a wholehearted life.  The followup, Rising Strong is about what happens when we get knocked down and still want to keep ‘daring greatly.’ If you want a little taste, check out her TED talks.
  • I slogged through Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein, which I found fascinating and frustrating by turns. I don’t know enough (or want to know enough) about Freud to bring a critical perspective to much of Epstein’s work.

Now you may ask “Why so few Buddhist books, Dharma Cowgirl?”

Most of the Buddhist writers available on audio-book are teachers I tore through years ago, great folks like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. After a while, their books start sounding the same. While the Dharma is always welcome, I have a bad habit of zoning out when it’s something I’ve already heard. I prefer to revisit these authors in text, when I can be more deliberate.

Otherwise, the Buddhist books I’m reading now are all too obscure and academic to merit an audio version. I also prefer to listen to books I don’t have to worry about remembering, annotating, or citing later. Maybe that will change after my dissertation is finally submitted.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy my Audible in the meantime. I hope you also enjoy some of these books, in audio or print.