Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie and the Resurrection of Lazarus

A couple of months ago—November 19th, to be exact—when I saw the video for David Bowie’s eponymous single from his new album “Black Star,” I remember being shocked and thrilled and puzzled. The video and its music were inexplicably creepy and dark in a sort of American Horror Story way. I emailed a couple of friends and fellow Bowie fans to remark on how amazing it was that the artist—nearly 70 years old now—was still capable of surprising us and making such interesting, challenging, unconventional works.

“Bowie hasn't lost his edge, he keeps reinventing his image and his characters,” I remarked. “This one has a dark passenger. I think there might be a Major Tom riff in there too, with the space suit containing the bejeweled but long-dead skull.”




Yesterday, with the sad and shocking news of David Bowie’s death—and the release of his new video, “Lazarus,” on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death—the dark and unsettling aspects of "Black Star" that puzzled me when I first saw it suddenly made a whole lot of sense. For a year and a half, David Bowie had been struggling with cancer—something he kept private from the world—and knew he was dying. His last album was a carefully planned meditation on death—and life—in all its mystery, glory, pain, pleasure, and wretchedness.

In the new video for “Lazarus,” Bowie’s ailing character—blindfolded, with buttons where his sightless eyes should be—lies in a hospital bed, singing:
Look up here, I’m in Heaven
and
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me



For half a century, David Bowie constantly reinvented himself, his music and his career by creating and inhabiting characters and stage personas, and using these characters to comment on the absurdities and challenges of human life and society. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Pierrot the sad clown. Jareth the Goblin King from the film Labyrinth. The nameless, suit-wearing hipster who toured the world filling stadiums and brought us a series of funk-inspired pop hits throughout the last two decades of the 20th century.

Bowie’s characters were rarely, if ever, easy pills to swallow. They were fiercely crafted commentaries on addiction, fame, greed, fashion, vanity, sexuality and gender, the absurdity of human behavior, and the suffocating nature of society’s norms. Bowie’s characters were much more than the passing fashion statements of a pop star (though he also remained a fashion icon for half a century, as well). They were carefully constructed, always defiantly weird and unconventional and creative, and he embodied them so deeply that David Bowie the man sometimes became indistinguishable from his character.

One of the most common themes I heard yesterday from friends around the world—aside from the profound grief they felt at his loss—was how David Bowie had always made them feel it was "okay to be weird," okay to be yourself, okay not to fit into society’s cookie-cutter molds. Another common theme expressed by many friends yesterday was the feeling of shock at being suddenly reminded that David Bowie was, in fact, a mortal human being just like us—not some kind of god or space oddity.

And now, as his parting gift, he leaves us with Lazarus. Lazarus is Bowie’s final character, and a fitting one to articulate the supreme questions of life and death that we now know he was wrestling with in his last year. Lazarus is an unsettling vision, a man at the mercy of ultimate forces beyond his control, helpless and blindfolded, surrounded by symbols of death and reminders of the ephemerality of all his creations. But Lazarus is also a character who—to borrow a famous line from Dylan Thomas—refuses to go quietly into that good night, but rages against the dying of the light. Lazarus twitches and levitates above his hospital bed; in his lyrics and his vocal performance, he alternates between anger, fear, gratitude, peace, and transcendence. Lazarus sees his life and his creations slipping from his hands, and refuses to stop creating. In the video, as Lazarus lies in his hospital bed, another version of Bowie—Bowie the performer, Bowie the ambitious artist—emerges like a wraith from a dark wardrobe closet, frantically scribbles his inspirations onto paper, delighting in his own creations, and then retreats with a puzzled expression back into the darkened wardrobe at the end of the video.

This too, Lazarus tells us, is part of the experience, part of the performance. It may not be pretty, it may even be frightening and creepy at times, but it’s an essential part of the dance of life and death. We mustn’t look away from it. In fact, if we look at it carefully, it may even reveal treasures that we didn’t know were there. “Look up here,” he foretold, “I’m in Heaven.”

Those who know the story of Lazarus from the Bible know that Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus four days after his burial. We now know that David Bowie’s entire last album was carefully planned and its release apparently timed to coincide with his 69th birthday and his death two days later. In playing out the theme of Lazarus and his resurrection, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if David Bowie has more messages in store for us in the coming months.

Thank you, David Bowie. It was a fantastic gift to have you on this planet. You will be greatly missed and never forgotten.


One of the last known photographs of David Bowie, released on January 8th—his 69th birthday and the day he released his 25th studio album, Black Star—and taken by his longtime photographer Jimmy King. Bowie passed on January 10th after an 18-month battle with cancer.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Psychobiology of the Breath

As far back as we can trace in history, humans have always associated breath with life and spirit. The Latin words animus (spirit) and anima (soul) are related to the Greek animos (wind), and the Greek word pneuma (as in pneumatic or pneumonia, or the French word for a car’s inflatable tire, pneumatique) also meant spirit or wind. Our ancestors associated the breath with the soul or spirit or life force that “animates” all living beings.

On a strictly biological level, breath is the source of life. It maintains the body’s strength and vitality by enabling gas exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide at a cellular level. The overall health and well-being of our bodies and minds are influenced by how we breathe.

The breath is an autonomic body function, meaning it happens automatically whether we think about it or not—on average, 15 times per minute, 900 times per hour, and 21,000 times per day. But breath is the only autonomic body function that is also subject to voluntary control; you can hold your breath at will, or breathe consciously in any number of ways. Thus, breath is a unique bridge between body and mind, between our outer and inner worlds. Through breathing, we literally take substances from the outside world into the body, and we eliminate other substances back into the outside world.

Metabolically, breathing facilitates the accumulation and elimination of certain chemicals. For this reason, heart rate and breathing are intimately linked. As our body senses the need for more oxygen, the heart rate increases, sending oxygenated blood where it’s needed, and the breathing rate increases in proportion to support the heart. When fear strikes in a dangerous situation, the body responds by ramping up these systems quickly with a spike of adrenaline and stress hormones that facilitate fast reactions.

Our breath conditions our psychological and emotional state, and vice versa. How we breathe shapes our experience, and our emotional temperament shapes how we breathe. The rate, depth and quality of our breath change in response to our emotional and psychological outlook. Thus we can develop dysfunctional patterns of breathing as a result of psychological, habitual ways of responding to situations and stresses in our lives.

In the most simplistic terms, we have two major types of breathing: abdominal and thoracic. Abdominal breathing (aka belly breathing) is when the diaphragm deeply contracts and we appear to “breathe” into the lower belly because the viscera of the abdomen (the guts and internal organs) are pushed downward and bulge out slightly. Thoracic breathing is when we breathe into the chest cavity, using the accessory muscles of breathing to expand the rib cage. In yoga, the practice of full yogic breathing involves both of these actions.

It’s important to understand the difference between abdominal and thoracic breathing because the body and mind initiate these two basic breathing patterns—and respond to them—differently. Thoracic breathing is often more shallow and rapid, and can include a forced exhalation in order to trigger the next inhalation sooner. Thoracic breathing is activated when the body is exercising or under duress and blood needs to be oxygenated and circulated more quickly. It is associated with the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight or flight” response.

Abdominal or belly breathing tends to be more slow and deep and relaxed. When the body is at rest, abdominal breathing is generally considered the most healthy breathing pattern. Abdominal breathing is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system which governs relaxation and the “rest and digest” response.

Both types of breathing are necessary for different situations in life. Sometimes we need to activate quickly, move and respond to the environment, and our cardiovascular activity needs to be proportional; other times, we need to chill out, relax and slow down, and the body’s systems need to support that relaxation.

Problems can arise when we don’t understand how to work skillfully with the breath, and breathing becomes a conditioned behavior that is shaped by our emotional states, stress levels, and so on. For example, we may have a pattern of breathing more thoracically—taking in shallow, rapid breaths into the upper chest—even when we are at rest. This breathing pattern, in turn, keeps our sympathetic nervous system activated, which continually releases stress hormones that help the body prepare for “fight or flight” syndrome even when “fight or flight” is not an appropriate response to what’s happening in our environment.

Developing a deeper understanding of the psychobiology of breathing—how breathing influences mind and body, and how mind and body influence breathing—is essential for any human being who wants to live with a greater sense of health and well-being. For the yogi who practices with the goal of spiritual awakening, breath is the inspiration, the guide and the raw material for the practices of yoga and meditation.

_______


Want to learn more? Join me for a workshop on breath and meditation, Saturday December 5, 3pm to 5pm, at David Barton Gym Limelight. Open to non-members of the gym as well as members. Reserve your spot by emailing robert.nguyen@dbgym.com.



Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stop Trying So Hard

In meditation, as in life, some of the simplest lessons are also, paradoxically, the most challenging to learn. The most basic principles can be easily understood in theory but may take the longest time to be metabolized and understood in practice.

Striking the balance between effort and effortlessness is a good example. Perhaps you’ve heard about the Buddha’s famous meditation advice to one of his disciples: like the strings of an instrument, he said, you should fine-tune your meditation in a way that’s “not too tight and not too loose.” Finding that elusive balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough — between concentrating the mind too intensely and not concentrating at all — sounds simple in theory. But it can take years of practice — falling back and forth from one extreme to the other — to really metabolize this lesson and understand what that balance actually feels like.

Image from DharmaConsulting.com

I recall some vivid glimpses of this when I was first starting out on my path of meditation.

At that time I was attending a meditation center that offered a series of weekend intensive courses in which participants would basically sit and meditate (interspersed with lectures, walking meditation, and other activities) Friday night, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. That's a pretty hardcore immersion into meditation, especially for a beginner. A lot can happen when you sit on a cushion for eight hours and do nothing but work with your own mind.

What mostly happened for me was a lot of struggle as I sat there waging battle with my overactive mind for hours at a stretch, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t seem to keep my attention focused on the object of meditation for very long. My frustration would grow stronger as the day went on and I tried harder and harder to conquer my restless mind and wrestle it into submission. I wasn’t really aware, of course, that I was trying too hard.

But then one day I noticed something really curious happening. I left the meditation center and got on the subway to go home, my mind exhausted from hours of self-inflicted battle. I was disgusted with meditation, disgusted with myself, and I didn’t want to think about anything — I just wanted to rest. On the subway ride home I sat there and looked around at the people in the car and at the advertisements festooned above them, and — boom! — suddenly, without any effort on my part, I was vividly present and relaxed and aware. The colors around me seemed brighter, the sounds more precise, my mind more open and spacious, no longer bombarded by thoughts and commentary about everything. Right there in the subway, of all places, I was experiencing a spontaneous moment of the sort of pure presence that I’d been trying so hard, all day long, and without much success, to cultivate on the meditation cushion. And it came to me, unbidden, because I had simply given up and stopped trying so hard to create it.

A lot can happen when you sit on a cushion for eight hours and do nothing but work with your own mind.

Over the course of several of those weekend intensive trainings, this experience repeated itself several more times, until the lesson finally began to sink in. Naturally, if you don’t make any effort to train the mind, you don’t experience the benefits of mind-training; but if your practice isn’t balanced and you’re always trying too hard, then your effort is self-defeating, like tying your shoelaces together.

As the Buddha said, “not too tight, not too loose.” Makes sense, right? At least in theory…. ;-)

Fast forward about a decade-and-a-half. These days, my personal meditation practice is largely about effortlessness — about trying (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) to rest the mind in a natural state of awareness that is free from effort, free from manipulation, free from contrivance. This is called the natural state because it’s how the mind already exists when we stop trying so hard to control our experience.

When I first began meditating, I used to sit on my mind like a sumo wrestler who wants to squash his opponent, always trying too hard. These days, I’m more prone to the opposite extreme, not trying hard enough. As I seek to allow the mind’s natural state to emerge into awareness and simply stop interfering with it, my tendency sometimes is to become too loose, to space out and drift away.

But that’s the thing about tuning the strings of an instrument, be it a violin, a banjo, or the mind. You might be able to tune them perfectly for the music you’re playing right now, but then the next time you play the same instrument, you’ll need to tune them again. Strings don’t magically stay tuned forever just because you tuned them perfectly once. Every meditation, and every moment, is a fresh experience.

I guess that’s why they call it practice.


_______________________


Want to go deeper with your practice? There are still a few spots open on our yoga + meditation retreat in Cuba, Feb 6-11, 2016. Click here for details.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Say "Thank You!"

There is a moment at the beginning of Wayne Dyer’s film “The Shift,” in which he demonstrates how he would wake up each morning at around 3:30am. Rolling to the side of his bed, placing his feet on the floor, he lifts his gaze slightly, takes in a deep breath, pauses to appreciate the miracle of being alive, and whispers: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

If you’re anything like me, that’s a far cry from how you usually wake up. You, too, might utter phrases and perhaps even invoke the creator, but it’s not in gratitude for another day lived. It’s probably more like:

“Oh God! I hate getting up this early.”

“Oh God! I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.”

“Oh God! I feel like a truck ran over me.”

“Oh God! I don’t want to go to that meeting / teach that class / cook breakfast / etc…”

“Oh God! My back aches / my head hurts / my allergies / etc…”

The writer Ben Okri once said: “Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” But this happens all the time, not only at night. It happens from the very first moment you wake up. We must always be vigilant about the stories we tell ourselves, and how they alter our world.

What is the first story you tell yourself upon awakening, when you first open your eyes and set your feet on the floor? Is it a story about how much your day is going to suck? Then guess what? Your day is going to suck. You’ve pretty much willed that perception into existence.

But what if you could wake up and tell yourself, instead, a quick little story about what a marvel it is to be granted one more day of life? How would it change the narrative — and how would the narrative change your experience? — if the first thing you articulate in your mind is not a complaint about your day but an expression of gratitude for it?

And when you come home at the end of the day, and you drop your bag and take off your shoes, examine the tone in which you exclaim: “Oh God! What a day!” Are you bitching about it? Or expressing wonder and appreciation for the fact that you were lucky enough to have another one?

Someday soon you will run out of days, and then you will see that each day of your life, beneath the waters of consciousness, the stories you told yourself were, in fact, altering your world. You can’t always alter the circumstances of your life, but you can always alter the story you tell yourself today. Start now.

Say “Thank you.” Say it three times, when you first wake up, before doing anything else. It may feel phony at first. You might even feel like a new age Pollyanna. Try it anyway. And see if that story doesn’t alter your world for the better — just a little bit.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Warrior Flow Yoga + Meditation Retreat in Cuba

February 6-11, 2016.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore yoga and meditation while immersing yourself in the unique culture of Cuba. This is not your average yoga retreat, and Cuba is unlike any other destination.

Organized by Pure Yoga, the retreat will include daily yoga and meditation with Adrian and Dennis while you explore the heart of old Havana and the stunning beauty of the ViƱales region of the island.

Spaces on this retreat are limited and it’s expected to fill up very quickly.

Click here for more information and itinerary, and email Laina Jacobs at Pure Yoga (laina.jacobs@pureyoga.com) to arrange your deposit.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Civilization and Its Discontents

"People who are really happy with themselves are f***ing boring. The worst word in the world is content."

— Kevin Spacey, who turned 56 on Sunday

I think maybe I understand what Kevin Spacey meant by that statement. Drive and personal ambition are important American values. Always aiming higher, not settling for less. More, better, stronger, faster. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Spacey plays (so very, very well) one of the most evil, Machiavellian, greedy, power-obsessed characters on television, in the disturbingly good Netflix series “House of Cards,” which provides a devastating and hair-raising glimpse into American national politics.

But I disagree with Spacey’s statement. Because I think it’s actually incredibly, incredibly rare for human beings to experience true contentment. And contentment is one of the secret, neglected keys to spiritual awakening and self-realization.

Most of us live our lives chronically caught up in a pervasive feeling of what ancient yogis and Buddhists referred to as “dukkha,” a Sanskrit word that (unfortunately) is often translated as “suffering” but could be (more accurately) rendered as discontentment, dis-ease, imbalance, a sense of lack and insufficiency that plagues us and leaves us—no matter how much good stuff we get—always wanting more.

The ancient yogis and Buddhists said that on the flip side of this coin that is our human experience is the opposite of dukkha: sukha. Sukha, (again, unfortunately) is most often translated into English as “bliss,” which sounds like some kind of fuzzy, pleasurable state that is assumed to be the opposite of suffering. (By that definition, a junkie strung out on heroin could be experiencing sukha.) But there are much better choices for rendering “sukha” into English: contentment, for one, or a sense of ease and well-being, balance, things working smoothly and harmoniously according to the natural order.

Contentment is one of the magical, golden keys to a life well-lived. Without cultivating a basic sense of contentment and gratitude for what we have, we cannot unlock the doors that keep us trapped in our self-made prisons of resentment, jealousy, greed, and all the other afflictive emotional patterns that diminish and discolor our human experience. We don’t have to rest on our laurels and become doormats, but developing a greater sense of contentment and appreciation for what we already have is a really good place to start.

— Hunter


“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn't try to convince others.
Because one is content with oneself, one doesn't need others' approval.
Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
― Lao Tzu

“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.”
― Lao Tzu

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
― Socrates

Monday, July 6, 2015

Freedom's Just Another Word

This weekend, as a nation, we celebrated Independence Day. This got me thinking about the notion of freedom, which was the theme of my meditation class last night.

Ordinarily when we talk about freedom we’re talking about something that comes from outside. It’s given to us, or we fight for it, or we earn it somehow. We often think of freedom as the right to do whatever we want (within reasonable limits imposed by law and society).

But the kind of freedom we talk about on the spiritual path doesn’t come from outside. It isn’t given to us by anyone else, and it doesn’t even really depend all that much on external circumstances. Freedom in a spiritual sense is an inside job. It’s less about being free to do what we want and more about setting ourselves free from all the forms of internal conditioning that keep us imprisoned in psychological and emotional suffering.

The spiritual teacher Adyashanti writes:

“Human beings have a drive for security and safety, which is often what fuels the spiritual search. This very drive for security and safety is what causes so much misery and confusion. Freedom is a state of complete and absolute insecurity and not knowing. So, in seeking security and safety, you actually distance yourself from the freedom you want. There is no security in freedom, at least not in the sense that we normally think of security. This is, of course, why it is so free: there's nothing there to grab hold of.

The Unknown is more vast, more open, more peaceful, and more freeing than you ever imagined it would be. If you don't experience it that way, it means you're not resting there; you're still trying to know. That will cause you to suffer because you're choosing security over Freedom. When you rest deeply in the Unknown without trying to escape, your experience becomes very vast.”

What happens when we drop down beneath our habitual drive for security and safety? We touch in with the vast, open Mystery that was always there, and in that Mystery there is a freedom that surpasses understanding. Imagine what this very moment would feel like if we could suddenly drop beneath our protective shell and taste that freedom right here, right now.

Imagine experiencing this very moment free from the mind’s obsessive thinking. What if we could drop into a natural stillness and silence in which the mind is aware and relaxed, without chatter, without commentary?

What about freedom from troubling emotions — greed, anger, jealousy, hatred, and so on? What would this moment feel like if the waters of the mind were not whipped into a frenzy of emotion?

Freedom from judgment — that’s a big one. Look at how we constantly judge and evaluate ourselves and others. What if, for one moment, we could just drop our compulsive need to be the judge of everything?

And can we even imagine being free from caring what other people think? How much time do we spend trapped in worrying about other people’s opinions of us, and trying to manipulate perceptions to make a good impression? We don’t have to let ourselves go to seed and become the Crazy Cat Lady, but wouldn’t it be sort of glorious to experience, if only for this moment, the freedom of not being quite so concerned with everyone else’s opinions of us?

And our own opinions! How heavy are they? We seem to have opinions about everything under the sun, and we take our opinions so seriously, as if each one is the gospel truth. When we relate openly to the Mystery that underlies our experience, we start to see our own cloud of opinions as a cloud of biting insects, an irritating drain on our attention and a veil that obscures reality.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lost in Translation

Yoga and meditation have taken American society by storm. Starting from a few transplanted Indian teachers and their ashrams, countless styles and schools of yoga have evolved to address every niche market and demographic: bootcamp-style hot power vinyasa classes; body-image oriented yoga for glutes and abs; traditional Bhakti devotional yoga done in front of murals and statues of Hindu deities with chanting and incense, wearing white clothing; corporate yoga done in front of computer screens or at office desks, wearing suits and dress socks; yoga for children; yoga for the elderly; yoga for overweight people; yoga for women; yoga for men; prenatal yoga; postnatal yoga; alignment-based yoga; Christian yoga; dance-based yoga; pilates-based yoga; yoga for sleep; yoga for sex; martial arts-based yoga; acro-yoga; aerial yoga; and, yes, even hot nude yoga.

In the realm of meditation, something similar is now taking place. Starting from a few Buddhist meditation centers established by teachers transplanted from various Asian countries, “mindfulness” (and a host of related practices) has grown into a cottage industry and a household word in mainstream society. Mindfulness is taught at Google and in Wall Street banks to help employees be less stressed and more productive; it’s taught in hospitals to help patients cope with pain and illness; it’s taught in classrooms to help students concentrate and perform better on tests; it’s taught in church basements to help addicts in recovery and in therapists’ offices to help patients regulate mood disorders; it’s taught in temples to help spiritual aspirants reach towards enlightenment and in boutique meditation centers to help busy urban professionals find a time to slow down and relax; it’s taught by the military to help soldiers cope with the stresses of warfare.

With yoga and meditation finding their way into so many corners of American society, and taking on so many new — and frequently materialistic — manifestations, it may be time to take a step back and assess whether something essential is being lost in the translation of these ancient Eastern traditions into American culture. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

NEW! The Audiobook Version of You Are Buddha

We are all looking for greater meaning and wisdom in our lives. The problem is that we search for these things outside ourselves. The most profound teachings of the Buddha say that the wisdom we search for does not come from outside. It is already within us; it is our very nature. The spiritual path is simply a way of helping us uncover and manifest the wisdom we already have.

Filled with personal stories, guided meditations, and more, You Are Buddha offers a practical guide to learning meditation, working with thoughts and emotions, becoming more deeply embodied, understanding the nature of mind, developing ethical conduct, and becoming an authentically mature, awakened human being.

Available in paperback, ebook and NEW audiobook format (narrated by the author).  Select a format below for details.

















Or listen to a 5-minute sneak preview of the audiobook here on YouTube:




_______________________

In the NYC area? Join me this Sunday for meditation class at Yoga Agora.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Enjoy the Silence

Do you ever get tired of the sound 
of your own voice in your head? 
Squawking endlessly like a sports commentator 
on everything that arises in your experience, 
an endless torrent of judgments, comparisons and projections. 

Do you grow weary of your own restlessness, 
always fidgeting away from the present moment? 
Pride and regret about the the past,
hope and fear about the future.
Is it painful, this constant struggle to “be someone?”

The remedy is not that complicated, and
I say this to you with tremendous love:
Sit still and shut up.

Drop all the interference. Stop squawking. 
Stop fidgeting. Give up control. Right now.
Let the breath and everything else happen on its own.
Stop manipulating your experience in any way.
No effort. Only witness what is happening now.

In this very moment, offer yourself that great kindness.
Allow yourself to experience the gift of simple presence.
Free from commentary. Free from agenda.
Free from the compulsive need to be someone.