Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Meaning of Yoga

I spend a lot of time these days around yogis and yoginis. My partner is a yoga teacher. Most of my friends do yoga. I have a yoga practice myself. I even co-teach workshops on yoga and meditation with Adrian Molina.

What Adrian and I aspire to do with our yoga and meditation workshops is to rejoin two things that (at least from my point of view) were never really meant to be separated in the first place.

The way yoga is often taught these days is primarily as a physical practice, a fitness routine, a series of postures designed to strengthen and lengthen and relax the body. And then once the body is nice and relaxed, and you lie there in savasana for a minute or two, the class is over.

Because of my years of training in Buddhist meditation, I tend to approach things from the other side of the fence. I love a good, challenging, physical yoga practice. But I regard the physical part of yogic training as merely a prelude, a method of preparing the body for meditation practice. I'm always somewhat amazed to see people go through all the trouble of learning to twist themselves like pretzels and balance on their elbows, and then roll up their mats and leave before the main course is served.

From the Buddhist point of view, all the elaborate asanas and pranayamic breathing techniques and bandhas of yoga are really just appetizers. The main course is sitting down and relating with your own mind. The asanas and the bandhas and the pranayama are all ways of helping you put your body into the proper state for optimal meditation to happen.

If you can stand on one leg and grasp your other leg behind your head with both hands, or balance on your hands in crow pose, well, that's awesome. Congratulations. You're a good primate. Any monkey can do those things. If you can do them and then sit down and be still and listen to the sound of silence within your own vivid awareness — well, now you've leveled up. You're a real human being, relating openly to the divine mystery of your embodied existence.

When you get deeper into the study of esoteric yoga and Buddhist tantra, you learn that there's actually a science behind all of this. Yoga as we know it is a very sophisticated system of methods for opening and aligning the channels of the "subtle" or "energetic" body so that energy can flow efficiently and be directed where the mind wants it to go.

Beginners to meditation often wonder why teachers place so much emphasis on sitting in a proper meditation posture. Same principle. It's about straightening the channels and optimizing the way subtle energies flow within the body, which has a correlative effect on the way the mind rests (or doesn't rest) in meditation.

People often say that yoga is working with the body and meditation is working with the mind. That's a useful way of thinking about it at first, but ultimately I don't think it's true. All genuine yoga involves working with the mind, and all genuine meditation involves working with the body. In fact, some of the most profound meditation techniques lead us to question our assumption that the body and the mind are really two separate things to begin with.

And that's the real meaning of yoga. "Union" is how the Sanskrit word "yoga" is often translated into English. Union. Oneness. The union or synchronization of body and mind. The rejoining or realignment of two things that were never really separate in the first place. It's the practice of awakening, here and now, to what it really means to be human.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Towards Open-Source Buddhism

An edited version of this article was originally published in 2011 as a guest post on the Tricycle blog. Many thanks to the editors of Tricycle for featuring it there.

These days, a lot of people are asking the question: What is Western Buddhism? Often, the inquiry seems to focus on the “Western” part. What is uniquely Western about the Buddhism we are practicing? How does it differ from traditional Asian Buddhism? How is Western culture changing Buddhism, and vice versa?

But what do we mean by “Buddhism,” anyway? We often use that word as if Buddhism were one unitary thing, when really (like everything else, and as the Buddha taught) the juggernaut of Buddhism is made up of component parts, and each of those parts is made of component parts, and so on. When we talk about Buddhism in the West, what do we mean? Zen? Theravada? Tibetan Buddhism? Nichiren? Pure Land? Shingon? Some conglomeration of all of these? Something else?

If we could put “Buddhism” under a microscope and look with great magnification at its many traditions and schools and lineages and teachers and practitioners, we might find it is webbed with arteries and capillaries, riddled with neurons and mitochondria—much the same as we are. Mysteriously, the ongoing process of becoming and unbecoming that we label as “Buddhism” happens in the general vicinity of these component parts, and seems to adhere to them—but nowhere can we pinpoint its exact location. There is no one thing that can be called “Buddhism,” just as there is no single place or culture that encompasses the entire “West.”

Buddhism as a Web
What we call Buddhism is a widely distributed network phenomenon designed to optimize the human experience. Like the Internet, it started out as someone's idea, but then spun out of control: no one person or group now owns it, and it is being modified and updated from day to day in millions of little increments, from every corner of the known world.

Where is “the Internet?” It seems to adhere somehow to the computers and networks that are part of it, but the Internet itself can't be found. Where is “Buddhism?” It seems to adhere to the people and networks that are practicing it, but the Buddhism itself can't be found. Yet both the Internet and Buddhism can be demonstrated, utilized, applied in countless ways.

If there is anything unique about “Western” Buddhism at this moment, perhaps it is that all of the world's Buddhist traditions—as culturally and doctrinally distinct from one another as a Southern Baptist is from a Russian Orthodox—have descended upon us at once. We are living now in a flux of pan-Buddhist dialogue taking place in a Western crucible, blending traditions that for two-and-a-half millennia have evolved in separate geographic and cultural regions. Buddhism's embrace of Internet technologies in the last two decades has speeded up this process enormously.

Earlier this year, I heard from a hardcore Vipassana practitioner living in Scotland, who had just finished sitting a Zen sesshin and was preparing to attend a Mahamudra retreat the following weekend. Bam! Just like that, intensive practice in three completely distinct Buddhist traditions—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—each with wildly different approaches, in the space of one week. Was there a previous time and place in history when such a broad range of Buddhist traditions was so freely available to one person, and so ripe for the picking?

Buddhism as a Melting Pot
This smorgasbord of Buddhist traditions also creates confusion—especially for the beginning student who is not firmly grounded in one tradition from the start. Beyond the obvious danger of bringing a consumer’s “shopping mentality” to spiritual practice—going from one tradition and teacher to another and always leaving them behind when they begin to provoke discomfort by challenging your ego—there is also the risk of mixing views from different traditions in an unskillful way.

Still, despite the potential confusion, to be a carrot bobbing in this Western melting pot of Buddhist traditions is to be part of a new fusion cuisine that is being consumed even as it is being cooked. If you listen to a few Buddhist Geeks podcasts, or read an entire issue of Tricycle or Buddhadharma from cover to cover, the flavor of your understanding will be at least subtly colored by teachings from other Buddhist traditions. It is unavoidable.

In my own practice, I have benefited from this kind of fusion. Although I study with a Tibetan teacher and look towards the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism as the primary lighthouse by which I navigate the waters, I have at times experienced bubbles of conceptual confusion and intellectualization that were helpfully popped by the sharp concision and no-nonsense directness of Zen teachings. At other times, exposure to the Theravadan view of the stages on the path of awakening—different in many ways from the Mahayana and Vajrayana views—has helped me view the teachings and practices in a more expansive light. I have even deepened my Buddhist path, at times, by incorporating spiritual teachings and practices from outside of Buddhism altogether. As long as I feel firmly rooted in my “native” tradition, I find this sort of cross-fertilization to be fruitful.

I now have to admit, though, that I know less than I once imagined I did what “Western Buddhism” is, or what it may become. It feels sometimes that there are as many “Western Buddhisms” taking shape among us as there are Western Buddhists who practice them. As with the emergence of Linux in the world of computers, perhaps what we are witnessing in the West today, with so much polymorphous blending of traditions, is the emergence of Open-Source Buddhism. (This moniker is, in fact, already in use on numerous websites.) Like the populist software movement from which it borrows its name, Open-Source Buddhism proposes a grassroots, do-it-yourself alternative to the old closed, proprietary operating systems. And it may yet produce new applications that were not possible within the framework of those systems.

Caveat Emptor
However, buyer beware: I have dabbled in Linux, and frankly it gives me a headache. I am, in fact, writing this on a Linux-driven machine that someone bamboozled me into buying a couple of years ago, using a simplified, Linux-for-Mom-and-Pop user interface called Ubuntu that attempts to bring open-source computing to the masses. While I adore the cultural philosophy of openness and integrity and interdependence that stands behind my computer's operating system, on a pragmatic level it often leaves much to be desired. Performing even basic actions—installing a new software program, for example—seems to demand an almost hacker-like degree of technical proficiency. There is no central help desk to turn to when something goes wrong—and something is always going wrong. Time and again, I have searched for answers to things that ought to have been simple, and in response I have been thrown into jumbled web forums where self-appointed Linux gurus “explain” the solution to my problem in a language that might as well be Martian for as much good as it does me. For two years I have been stumbling, wide-eyed, through what I regard as the Wild West of operating systems.

Open-Source Buddhism, I suspect, is much the same. Already emerging in our midst, it is full of great promise and potential—but actually using it, at this point, is not for the faint-of-heart. Its day may be coming soon, but it has not arrived just yet.

Meanwhile, in aligning yourself with any established tradition, you will trade off some of your freedom and idealism, and you will make yourself vulnerable to certain flaws that are inherent to those systems—but in return you may have a better user experience. You will have access to hands-on training, the support of peers, and expert technical support that are difficult to find in the open-source world. In the realm of computer programming, I do know people who are highly proficient at using Linux, but it must be said that they are people who first knew their way around at least one of the old, proprietary systems very, very well. They didn't start out as open-source gurus.

The lesson? Pick the tradition that resonates most with your heart and mind, and immerse yourself in it as completely as you can. Rely on a qualified teacher to help you fine-tune your machine. Work out the bugs, and eliminate the malware. Know how to use your chosen operating system thoroughly and properly. Learn how to trouble-shoot when problems arise. Then, and only then, will migrating to Open-Source Buddhism become a truly viable option.

Image: "Buddha quilt," from the Flickr photostream of artethgray.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

New Workshop: Yoga + Meditation

I'm excited to announce the launch of a new monthly workshop on Yoga + Meditation that I'll be co-leading with Adrian Molina of Warrior Flow. The workshop will take place on the first Friday of the month starting April 4, at the Yoga Agora studio in Astoria. See flyer below for details, or check out the Event Page on Facebook. If you use the One Human Journey mobile app, check the Events section of the app, where you can automatically add the workshop to your calendar and set up a reminder. See you there!


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The One Human Journey Mobile App Is Here

Dear Friends,

A lot of you have been following this Web site, One Human Journey, since as far back as 2008. Thank you for all the kind feedback you've shared with me over the years about the writings I've posted here.

I'm excited to let you know that One Human Journey is now available as a mobile app for iPhone/iPad, Android phones and tablets, and Kindle Fire. And it's more than just blog posts....

One Human Journey
Powered by Conduit Mobile

Get instant access in the palm of your hand to over 150 articles, guided meditations, instructional videos (it's a short list of videos for now, but more are in the works), daily inspirational quotes and photos, information on upcoming classes and workshops, and more! Plus, get occasional notifications to alert you when there's a new article or video to check out, so you don't miss out on the good stuff.

Search for "One Human Journey" in Apple's App Store or in the Apps section of Google Play. Or go to this landing page where you can find links to the different versions of the app depending on what type of device you have:


The One Human Journey mobile app is FREE, and offers resources to inspire you and help you deepen your practice of meditation, yoga and spirituality. New content will be coming each week (daily, in fact, if you check the Facebook and Twitter sections) so the experience will keep getting better. Download it today!

Want to help me spread the word about One Human Journey and reach a wider audience? Recommend the app to your friends. Also, if you feel so inclined, please submit a review and rate the app in the App Store to help it get positive sentiment and better rankings in the Wild West shoot-out that is the world of mobile apps. Thank you!

Also coming soon from One Human Journey: a new e-book! Stay tuned….

With gratitude,

Check out all the One Human Journey resources:
Web Site

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tao Te Ching Weekend at One Human Journey

It's "Tao Te Ching Weekend" on the One Human Journey Facebook page. A series of nine short contemplations will be posted over the course of the weekend, starting tonight. These posts will inspire you and offer deep insight and spiritual advice. Come follow the page and get all nine contemplations this weekend.

The Tao Te Ching is a classic text written (according to scholars) around the 4th century B.C. or (according to tradition) around the 6th century B.C. by Chinese spiritual master Lao Tzu. As the fundamental text of the Taoist philosophical and religious schools, it is one of the most widely translated works in world literature and strongly influenced both Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, among other traditions.

Come to the Facebook page and share your own thoughts on these nine short excerpts from the Tao Te Ching in the comments section.

Translation by Brian Walker. Images and layout of the text drawn from translator Brian Walker's Tao Te Ching app for iPhone and iPad. Download the app today!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

7 Tips to Establish Your Meditation Practice

Okay, so you've received some basic meditation instruction and you want to establish a regular practice. That's great! Here are seven tips to help you get your practice going — and keep it going.

1. Just Do It
Meditation can seem difficult or even impossible at times. When we sit down to be still and quiet and look at our minds, we are suddenly, shockingly aware of how busy and distracted our minds really are. For many beginners, this can be disheartening. A lot of people give up before they even begin, thinking, "Other people may be able to meditate, but not me. I just can't do this." This is sort of like someone who takes piano lessons and gives up after the first few lessons because they cannot play a Beethoven piano concerto. It's called practice for a reason. Be patient with yourself and relax. Meditation is a process of taming and training the wild mind to stay present, and that training takes time.

2. Be Consistent
Consistency and regularity of practice are the keys to unlocking the benefits of meditation in your life. This has proven true in the experience of millions of meditators in every spiritual tradition for the past several thousand years. Think of it like brushing your teeth: it's better to do it every day, for short periods of time, rather than once a week for two hours. Practice whether you feel like it or not.
 If you only meditate when you feel like it, then your ego is subtly controlling your meditation practice — and that’s missing the point. If possible, try to practice at a consistent time each day. Many people find that meditating in the morning before going to work helps them establish a better frame of mind for their day. Others prefer to practice in the evening. Some like to "bookend" their days by doing both. Experiment and find what works best for you, and then stick with it for a while.

3. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Practice in manageable, bite-size chunks. A typical recommendation for beginners is to start with 10 minutes a day, and then over time you can gradually increase it if you feel so inclined. If you are training for a marathon, you don't suddenly run 26 miles; you do a lot of shorter runs, and you gradually build up stamina and endurance. But don't leave it all to chance. Decide in advance how long you’re going to practice, and then stick to that amount of time. Don’t change your mind and bail out in the middle of the session just because it doesn't feel good. By the same token, get up when the session is over, even if it's feeling great.

"Learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment." — Sogyal Rinpoche

4. Use a Timer
However long you practice, use a timer (stop watch, alarm clock, or kitchen timer) to time your sessions. The last thing you want to be doing while you're meditating — although it's tempting! — is peeking at the clock, wondering how much time is left in your session. There are also a number of free mobile apps you can download to time your sessions, or you can use your phone's built-in timer. I recommend the free Insight Meditation Timer app, which also includes access to many guided meditations.

5. Be Brave
Don’t be discouraged when meditation seems difficult, and don't get carried away with elation when it seems pleasant or easy. Experiences come and go like the weather in meditation, and it is our conceptual minds that label them "good" and "bad." Don’t cling to pleasant experiences, and don’t reject unpleasant experiences. Just keep practicing.

6. Find Your Space
Find a conducive space in which to meditate. It should be safe, quiet, and free from phones ringing and other preventable disturbances. But total silence is not necessary. Don’t meditate in total darkness or with light that’s too bright. If possible, you may find it helpful to create a space in your home devoted exclusively to your meditation practice. It could be just a corner of your room with a chair or a meditation cushion, and maybe some items that remind you of your spiritual goals. If circumstances make your home completely and totally unworkable as a meditation space, then you could go to practice in a church or a meditation center. If you have access to a meditation center in your area, you may find it inspirational and supportive to practice together with other people in group settings.

7. Find Your Support
As you continue to work with a meditation practice, questions and obstacles are bound to arise. If you can, it's helpful to talk about these issues with a meditation instructor or someone more experienced in the practice. It helps to have the guidance of someone who has encountered the same questions and obstacles in meditation and has worked through them. If you don't have access to support in person or by phone, there are many books and online resources that can help you identify obstacles in meditation and apply antidotes and solutions. If you're struggling with something in your meditation practice, rest assured that you're not the only one, and someone out there can help you work with it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Joining Heaven and Earth

Yesterday I went skiing for the first time in 30 years. That other time was so long ago, and so little memory remains of it, that it would probably be more telling to say that yesterday I went skiing for the first time in my life.

After taking about an hour of basic lessons with groups of children and feeling frustrated with the bunny slopes, we hit the lifts. One of the people in our group is an avid skier and a good coach, and he led us through progressively more challenging (and frankly, at times, downright terrifying) slopes.

By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves on a blue trail—an intermediate course peppered with steeper hills, narrow passages, and moguls (violent little bumps in the snow that some people use to become momentarily airborne).

A Trial by Fire (and Snow) 
The situation was choiceless; we were going down that mountain one way or another, and the best way down was to follow our friend's coaching and learn to carve sharp turns back and forth from one side of the slope to the other, slowing our descent as much as possible. Along the way, there were many falls, but we picked ourselves up, shook the powdered snow out of our pants, laughed off our embarrassment, and continued. All around us, other skiers and snowboarders zipped by, narrowly avoiding crashing into us. At one point, a snowboarder came flying out of the woods through the air and wiped out directly in front of me; I leaned into a sharp turn and navigated around him by an inch or two. Later, an inexperienced skier actually did crash directly into my partner; no one was hurt, thankfully. Gradually, we learned to hold our balance and position our bodies, keep our skis apart, navigate the turns—and the most important skill of all—how to stop (even if, now and then, our stopping sometimes looked more like wiping out).

For those of you who practice yoga but don't ski, imagine doing Utkatasana (chair pose) for six straight hours, in a walk-in freezer, during a violent earthquake, all the while having to jump from one spot in the room to another (without breaking the pose, and with long, slippery, greased sticks attached to your feet) to avoid crazy people who are wildly running through the room trying to knock you over and throwing handfuls of snow in your face.

"You're walking. And you don't always realize it,
but you're always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you're falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time."

- Laurie Anderson

After the harrowing ordeal of the blue trail, we returned to one of the easier green trails that we had been on earlier. But something was different this time. The blue trail had almost made me soil my pants; but I had survived it. Now, suddenly, the green beginner's trail—which had previously seemed incredibly difficult, too—was, literally, a breeze. I went down it once, and gained the confidence to let myself pick up more speed and carve wide turns back and forth. This time, I didn't fall. We went up again and came down a second time, and I picked up even more speed. I had no speedometer to measure—but I think I must have hit 40 mph. I was zipping past slower people and carving half-moons around them. Although there were moments when the speed and the bumps made me fear that I might lose control, I didn't. I stayed relaxed and in the flow. And it was exhilarating. I couldn't wait to get back on the lift and do it a third time.

By now, my regular readers may be wondering what possible relevance all of this has to my usual subjects: meditation, Buddhism, yoga and spirituality. Well, let me tell you.

Joining Heaven and Earth
Skiing is a metaphor for life. Life is not always smooth going. It can be chaotic and messy and terrifying and dangerous. It can—it does—push us out of our comfort zones and takes us to places we think we shouldn't be. Sometimes we lose control; we wipe out and get snow in our pants, or we crash head-on into another person when conflict arises. The situations that challenge us push us to learn to adapt faster. The people who irritate or threaten us challenge us to develop skillful ways of responding: less reactivity and aggression, more patience, compassion, and forgiveness.

"The bad news is: you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there’s no ground." 
- Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Certain Buddhist traditions speak of the principle of "joining heaven and earth." This is a lyrical and symbolic way of talking about synchronizing mind (heaven) and body (earth) in flowing, present-moment awareness. Through meditation, yoga—and yes, skiing—we can experience the freedom, contentment and relaxation that comes when mind and body are synchronized and we are fully awake to our experience as it unfolds. We stay right here, on the dot of the present moment, even—or especially—as we speed down the mountain and navigate more or less skillfully through whatever bumpy and chaotic situations life throws at us.

May we all become more skillful navigators and experience fewer crashes. When other, perhaps less skilled people crash into us, may we learn to forgive rather than escalate conflict. When the slopes become terrifying and seem impossible for us to ride, may we develop the confidence to stay present—and keep going. And when we fall—for we will fall, and spectacularly—may we always maintain our sense of humor about it.

With Adrian Molina

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stop Making a Big Deal

As humans we are hardwired to seek pleasure and comfort and to avoid discomfort and pain. Probably all living beings are wired this way, but we humans have developed a greater variety of ways to carry out this prime directive. We are exceptionally good at it, and extremely habituated.

As practitioners of mindfulness this is something we witness happening 'in real time' during our meditations. We experience pains arising in the body, and our immediate impulse is to fidget and shift in our seat to make the pain go away. We experience unpleasant emotional states or thoughts that we label as bad or unwanted, and we try to bludgeon them into submission with concentration. Or we are lucky enough to have a very pleasant, peaceful feeling, and we immediately glom onto it and try to sustain it.

If we practice enough, though, we begin to experience something else: we witness the constant, moment-to-moment, instant-to-instant arising and passing away of thoughts, feelings and sensations. After witnessing this enough, we simply stop investing them with so much importance. Like the weather, our experiences come and they go -- sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. We can gripe and complain about the weather of the moment, or sing its praises, but the weather doesn't change for us. It changes all by itself, in its own time.

Our normal pattern -- so deeply ingrained that 99% of the time we do it on autopilot, without even noticing we are doing it -- is to make a big deal out of whatever experience is happening to us at any given moment. Good or bad, happy or sad, pleasant or painful, we exaggerate both its significance and its duration in our imaginations. And we react -- or over-react -- accordingly. An itch arises, and we scratch it without thinking. But what happens when we simply notice what is happening in our experience, and don't react?

One of the great qualities that mindfulness training begins to awaken in us is the capacity to stop making a big deal out of every thought or feeling that arises. The itch still comes, but we pause long enough to simply pay attention to the sensation without reacting. Maybe we scratch it, maybe we don't. But we realize that we are not, in fact, going to die of discomfort if we don't scratch it. Our back hurts, and we either move or don't move to alleviate the pain -- but if we move, we do it consciously, with awareness. A feeling of sadness or joy comes over us, and we can simply be there with it -- nothing in particular has to be done with it. Like everything else, it is momentary, and it changes. We don't make it a bigger deal than it really is.

"I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree's point of view, this is just the chattering of birds." - Ajahn Chah
"I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree's point of view, this is just the chattering of birds."

Practicing this way during meditation is, of course, only a form of training. The real point is to apply the training in everyday life, when situations arise that either give us great pleasure or cause us pain or stress. With practice, we can catch ourselves in the very moment of glomming onto our experience and starting to make a big deal out of it. We can observe the patterns of attachment and aversion that arise within us, and we can decide how much energy we really want to invest in them. And, in that pause, we can choose to react in ways that serve the greater good, rather than flying on autopilot.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County

For years I've been hearing my friends sing the praises of a certain Tony award-winning play that I missed during its Broadway theatrical run. I was encouraged to go see it, not just because it was such a wonderful play, but because it takes place in my home state of Oklahoma. Now the play has been made into a film with a dreamlike cast of powerhouse actors, and I finally had the chance to see it last night.

August: Osage County was a masterfully written and beautifully acted story of despair, addiction, self-delusion, alienation, competitiveness, greed, cruelty, perversion, desperation, resentment, lies, secrets, shame, anger, manipulation, betrayal, vengeance, rage, hatred, disease, decrepitude, psychological breakdown, and suicide.

A perfect Saturday night date movie.

Meryl Streep was nominated for yet another Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film, and I can't argue with that. She is a force of nature who never fails to impress, and in this film she delivers the goods. The rest of the cast, too, was amazing. The story was well-told, and as someone who grew up in Oklahoma I felt they got the atmosphere right. And the story's inherent bitterness was leavened with just enough skillful black humor to make it possible to swallow the whole pill.

But afterwards I found myself asking: why is it that we are so drawn to such miserable, discouraging, demoralizing stories? Why do we bestow the highest accolades on tales of such utter hopelessness and emotional violence? What is it about them that attracts us so much?

When I was younger, I felt a stronger pull towards these kinds of stories. In high school and college I went through a phase of complete obsession with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film of comparable emotional violence and hopelessness about the human condition. It was a story that, at that time in my life -- full of youthful anger and rebellion -- resonated for me on a very deep level. It was appropriate to my life stage.

But the older I get -- or maybe it has less to do with my age than with my spiritual practice -- I find myself yearning for stories that demonstrate humans being basically decent and kind to themselves and to each other. I don't long for sugar-coated, Hollywood narratives that look away from conflict or from the darkness within us — for we cannot pretend it isn't there — but I do long for more stories that at least point towards our capacity for stepping into the light and helping others to do so. I'm increasingly turned off by stories that show people dragging everyone around them down into their personal pits of darkness and stabbing them with verbal knives and kicking them when they're down and bleeding.

Rob Brezsny's essay, "Evil Is Boring," very accurately describes "the perspective of many modern storytellers, especially the journalists and novelists and filmmakers and producers of TV dramas…"

"They devoutly believe that tales of affliction and mayhem and corruption and tragedy are inherently more interesting than tales of triumph and liberation and pleasure and ingenuity.

"Using the juggernaut of the media and entertainment industries, they relentlessly propagate this covert dogma. It's not sufficiently profound or well thought out to be called nihilism. Pop nihilism is a more accurate term. The mass audience is the victim of this inane ugliness, brainwashed by a multibillion-dollar propaganda machine that in comparison makes Himmler's vaunted soul-stealing apparatus look like a child's backyard puppet show. This is the engine of the phenomena I call the global genocide of the imagination.

"At the Beauty and Truth Lab, we believe that stories about the rot are not inherently more captivating than stories about the splendor. On the contrary, given how predictable and ubiquitous they are, stories about the rot are actually quite dull. Obsessing on evil is boring. Rousing fear is a hackneyed shtick. Wallowing in despair is a bad habit. Indulging in cynicism is akin to committing a copycat crime.

"Most modern storytellers go even further in their devotion to the rot, implying that breakdown is not only more interesting but far more common than breakthrough, that painful twists outnumber vigorous transformations by a wide margin." — Rob Brezsny

The thing is, I've watched movies about vampires and demonic possession that demonstrated more interest in basic goodness and human decency than August: Osage County. And I'm not saying that makes it a bad film, because it isn't. It's extraordinarily well-crafted and emotionally compelling, and it will probably win at least one Academy Award.

But I guess, like Brezsny, I'm growing bored with narratives that express what he calls a "devotion to the rot" — stories that do nothing but revel in the darkest shadow material and emotional violence that they can possibly dig up (unless, like 12 Years a Slave, they are historical narratives, which have a pedagogic purpose).

I walked away from August: Osage County thinking how important the shadow is in the human psyche, and how we ignore it at our peril — but for God's sake, it's not the sum total of who we are.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Jukebox Karma

Music is profoundly human. Making music and listening to music are two of the most uniquely human activities. There are species of birds whose songs approach the level of what we would define as music, and there are even exotic birds who hold twigs in their feet and use them to tap out a drumbeat on a tree branch as part of an elaborate mating display. But no other species invests quite as much emotional content in music and takes it as far as humans do. Music is one of our most essential ways of articulating and expressing meaning in our lives. It can also be one of our most neurotic forms of self-indulgence. It has the power to stir up and perpetuate emotional states of mind, both positive and negative.

Music has a way of getting inside your mind and planting seeds there, leaving behind a kind of echo of itself, a psychic residue that can linger even for years, in some cases for a lifetime. Musical memories are stored in a different part of the brain than other memories. Studies of Alzheimer's patients show that even when most other memory and cognitive functions are compromised, songs and lyrics from decades ago can often be easily recalled.

A Buddhist teacher I once studied with, Bill McKeever, called this phenomenon "jukebox karma" — the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives.

Many contemporary meditation practitioners, myself included, often find jukebox karma to be one of the most irritating obstacles we encounter within our own minds. There we are on the cushion, trying diligently to meditate and keep our minds centered on some object of meditation, and instead we find that our mind stubbornly wants to keep replaying the chorus from some godforsaken pop song we heard on the radio. Gack! We try to let it go and come back to our meditation, but a moment later we are back at it. Our jukebox karma is just too strong.

"Jukebox karma" — the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives.

When I lived in a Buddhist monastery, I spent the first year largely free from any musical input — no radio, no CDs, no MP3 player. I was shocked to discover that it wasn't until about six months into that year that my jukebox karma really began to fizzle out and lose its grip on my mind. During those first six months, anything at all could trigger the memory of a lyric or a refrain, and send me spinning off into musical distraction.

So if you find yourself struggling with jukebox karma in your meditation practice, cut yourself some slack. You're seeing (or hearing) karmic grooves that are very deeply embedded in your psyche, and no doubt in your neural pathways. If you're like me, music is one of your favorite ways to keep your mind entertained, and now you're experiencing the inevitable repercussions (pun intended) of all that conditioning and grasping at entertainment. Like everything else that comes up in meditation, it's just a thought, a pattern, an echo. It doesn't have any real substance, and with time and patience it will dissipate and leave the mind to settle into its own natural clarity and stillness. As the Beatles sang, just "Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be."

Oops, I did it again.