Wednesday, August 26, 2020

An Open Letter to My Fellow White People

Dear fellow WHITE people,

Please explain why (BLACK) unarmed Breonna Taylor, a medical technician who didn’t kill anybody, was shot and killed IN HER BED by police who busted into her house on a no-knock warrant, and still no one has been charged. 

Please explain why (BLACK) unarmed George Floyd who didn’t kill anybody had a man’s knee on his neck choking him to death for almost 9 minutes even when he was saying (caught on video) “I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe.”

Please explain why HEAVILY ARMED Dylann Roof (WHITE) shot and KILLED 9 people (ALL of them BLACK) in a mass murder inside a church during Bible study, and was gently handcuffed and taken into custody. 

Please explain why Timothy McVeigh (WHITE) who KiLLED 168 people and injured 680 others in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was gently handcuffed and taken into custody. At the time of his arrest, McVeigh was ARMED with a pistol in his jacket that was visible to the arresting officer.

Please don’t pretend like you don’t understand why we keep saying BLACK LIVES MATTER. That’s dishonest of you. You know why we are saying it, you just don’t want to admit it. 

And we’re NOT saying other lives don’t matter. We're not saying BLUE lives don't matter. We're not saying WHITE lives don't matter. We’re saying there’s something really disturbing happening here in the way BLACK people are being murdered by a justice system that privileges WHITE people, and it’s been happening for a very long time. It needs to stop. 

We’re saying there is an imbalance in the way people of different colors are being treated under the law, and it needs to be addressed. 

But before a problem can be solved, it has to be SEEN for what it is. It has to be acknowledged as a PROBLEM. 

For 400+ years, BLACK people who were brought here by WHITE people have been enslaved, murdered, raped, bombed, tortured, shot, lynched, burned alive, hung in trees, dismembered for souvenirs, excluded from white communities, excluded from educational opportunities, excluded from vocational opportunities, excluded from voting (until fairly recently). And yet you don't think our American government is AT ALL in the wrong in regards to its treatment of BLACK folk? This continues today in our unequal treatment of BLACK people in the "war on drugs" (invented by the vile, impeached President Nixon as part of the "Southern strategy" for electing GOP leaders) and the evolution of the mass incarceration of BLACK people.

Once the problem is seen and acknowledged for what it is, then potential solutions can at least be discussed. But as long as a vast swath of our society willfully refuses to even acknowledge that such a problem exists, it will continue. 

And as long as it continues, so many WHITE Americans will will continue to poison themselves with ignorance, denial, and hatred. 

And so many BLACK Americans will continue to die unjustly, and disproportionately, under the law. 

That’s NOT okay with me. If it IS okay with you, I would suggest you get in a time machine and travel back to 1939, and live in Hitler’s Germany, because that’s where your HEART belongs.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Gradual vs. Sudden Awakening

Almost 20 years after embarking on an earnest spiritual path of meditation and study of Buddhism and other philosophies and approaches to awakening, I’m discovering (okay....I’m a late bloomer) that the old Buddhist debate about gradual awakening or sudden awakening is a big red herring and sort of pointless to debate. The path is both gradual AND sudden.

I’ve been through stretches in my life and my meditation practice (sometimes these stretches can last for years) when it seems like the practice is not really having much impact, and I’m not really growing very much in spiritual terms. Progress towards the ever-elusive goal of awakening, if it’s noticed at all, is measured in small amounts. And it seems like the obstacles encountered along the way and the hot messes and tragicomic dramas in my life are all bigger than any progress that might’ve been made on the path.

But I’ve also been through times in my life and my meditation practice (and these times can be like the 5-day silent meditation retreat I did around my birthday at the start of 2020, or the 14 weeks I spent enclosed in intensive silent retreat and teachings with Pema Chödrön when I  was a monk for two years at her monastery from 2009 to 2011, or they can be like a week or a day or a single instant when you turn a corner and the unexpected is suddenly right there in front of you) when suddenly the energy of life surges forward unexpectedly in a great leap, and in a single moment you feel the huge momentum behind your meditation practice and your dedication to it pushing everything forward so rapidly that it takes you by surprise. You can observe meaningful changes happening rapidly within you and all around you, in your heart and in your mind, in your world and your sphere of influence. Suddenly all these things feel aligned in the same direction, and a jump forward happens.

It may or may not be THE jump forward, like the fabled one the Buddha suddenly experienced the night that (as legends tell us) he sat beneath a bodhi tree and shot forward like a bolt of lightning through all of the many stages of awakening, and by the following morning he was Enlightened with a capital “E” — fully awakened, fully realized, all his personal obstacles and hang-ups and the psychological shadow material that every human being lives and struggles with, suddenly left behind in their entirety, with no remnant of the life that came before except his consciousness and his body and his memories. But now suddenly omniscient, suddenly fully awake, suddenly at one with all of existence, suddenly free of any psychological or spiritual limitations, suddenly all-knowing, suddenly thrust forward into a moment of awakening that actually has no end. Sudden awakening. Complete awakening. Permanent awakening.

That overnight, cosmic, metaphysical leap forward — into a permanent oneness with the very highest mode of consciousness possible for any sentient being — is not something that I've experienced.

But what I HAVE experienced are the smaller quantum jumps forward. The “Aha!” moments on the spiritual path when you do see sudden progress happening, and you recognize that it’s happening suddenly. Who knows, maybe it's because of all the practice you did in years past that you can experience this little forward leap in this moment of your life. And even if this forward leap turns out to have been a small one when you reflect back on it next week, next month, next year, next decade, next lifetime, that forward leap FEELS big when you're experiencing it. It enables you to see, to know that sudden awakening does happen.

So it's not THE sudden awakening — the big cosmic, transcendent, earth-shaking kind like the Buddha’s, with angels trumpeting in the sky and forest animals frolicking in the dewy grass to celebrate the glory of your divine achievement — but, still, it’s something. Something big (or small) has happened, is happening. And it’s happening....suddenly.

The old debate about gradual vs. sudden paths to awakening is a bust.

It’s gradual. AND it’s sudden. It’s both. It was always this way, you just didn’t know it.

But (suddenly) you know it.

February 4, 2020

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Way

by Dennis Hunter
January 7, 2020
San Carlos Retreat Center
Delray Beach, Florida

"The Way"

The way the hummingbird seeks out
the color red, tasting the nectar
of flowers, its tiny heart beating
twelve hundred times per minute.
The way the green grass feels
on the soles of your naked feet.
The way the spider's web is built
of filaments almost too fine to see,
the shocking symmetry
of its architecture, the way
it bends and stretches, holding
to the branches as it twists
in the breeze: its strength
arising from its flexibility.
The way the sound of the water
flowing from the shower head
changes pitch when
the water becomes warm.
The way the warm water soothes
your naked and fragile body.
The way water, softest substance
on earth, also carves valleys
in the stone, eroding mountains
and reshaping the beaten earth.
The way the seed dropped by the tree
carries inside the genetic code, the DNA
for creating a whole new tree.
The way the code remains locked
inside the seed, until the seed
is convinced to extend roots
down into the beaten earth,
and offered water and sun from above.
The way the new tree will bear red flowers,
seducing the local hummingbirds just as its
ancestors have always done.

Friday, January 10, 2020

On How to Be

by Dennis Hunter
January 5, 2020

Be like the water of the lake:
Calm and steady, but fluid,
reflecting the clear sky above.
Let the cool morning breeze make ripples
Across your surface and pleasant goosebumps on your skin.
Watch the ripples come and go
without disturbing the nature of the water.
You do not need to climb down in the lake
with the alligator and the catfish,
and try to smooth out the water's wrinkles
with your hands, like a bed sheet.
Be like the sky above,
clear and bright and open,
the low Florida sun beaming across it,
warming your bones and reflecting
on facets of the rippling water like glittering jewels,
inviting the trees and the grass to stand up straighter,
to reach higher, towards the life-giving light.
Here, there, a cloud dots the sky, lingering,
passing across the open expanse.
The sky doesn't mind.
You do not need to stand up
and wave your arms at the clouds,
gesticulating like a madman, trying
to chase them away.
Only stay. The way the lake stays,
ripples not disturbing its deeper stillness.
Only stay. The way the sky stays,
holding space for clouds to come and go.
Only stay, the way the sun stays,
bringing light and life to each part
of the turning world, this part then that part,
each corner waking and sleeping, sleeping then waking again.
Each new day that breaks is an invitation
to root down in stillness like the water
and to stretch open in welcoming like the sky,
to both root down and stretch open like the trees and grass.
But look, now. You stood up too fast,
and startled the catfish
in the muddy shallows at the water's edge,
where she had come, like you,
to warm her scales and blood
in the morning sun.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

How Are Your Alligators Doing?

I've just returned from a 5-day silent meditation retreat, and I want to share the first meditation instruction I received when I arrived at the retreat center, before the retreat even began. This sage advice was posted on several signs surrounding the lake behind the retreat center: 

"Do not molest or feed the alligators." I never saw an alligator while I was there, but it's practical advice, given that we are in south Florida. This is gator country.

As the lessons of this retreat rippled within me, I realized that this pragmatic warning is also a teaching. The theme of our retreat was the Five Hindrances — the five cognitive and emotional blockages that, according to the Buddha, keep us from being fully mindful and present, both on the cushion and in our lives:

  1. Sense Desires (the attachment and craving that arise from them — the grasping state of mind)
  2. Ill-will (aversion and anger — the pushing-away state of mind)
  3. Sloth and Torpor (the dull, murky state of mind, like falling asleep or being in a fog)
  4. Restlessness (agitation, anxiety, and the worried, fidgeting mind)
  5. Doubt (the confused, hesitant state of mind that doesn't know which way to go)

These Five Hindrances are the alligators in our minds: the creatures that attack from the dark depths of our unconscious, thwarting our practice, upsetting our lives, holding us trapped in their powerful jaws. When these alligators attack, there is nowhere to run and no way to escape, because the alligators are us. At times it can feel like we are under assault by all five alligators at once, the hindrances in our minds confounding us from every direction. We joked during the retreat (during the times we weren't in silence) about "multiple hindrance attacks," but our laughter was a way to diffuse the tension of recognizing how often we all fall under the spell of the hindrances, and how much suffering they cause for us in our relationships and our lives.

"Don't molest or feed the alligators" is good advice. We are the ones who molest our own minds with the Five Hindrances, and our afflictive emotions only have as much energy as we feed to them. 

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this advice is not of much practical value when we find ourselves under attack by the alligators in our minds.

Here's the thing about alligators, though. Their ghastly jaws are fearsome and strong when they chomp down on their prey. But the opposing muscles of their jaws, the ones that open the mouth, are quite weak. The powerful jaws of the alligator can be held shut with a simple rope or elastic band.

That rope or elastic band is our meditation practice. To the extent that we are able to be mindful and stay present with our experience and fully open ourselves to its energy — even if it's painful and chaotic, or perhaps especially if it's painful and chaotic, because life so often is — letting go of the storylines and drama that we habitually attach to our experience, then we are able to at least partially subdue the alligator's attack by binding its jaws. 

I came back from silent retreat to the news of Iran launching ballistic missiles into Iraq, attacking U.S. bases, and the devastating earthquakes in Puerto Rico, already afflicted so much by the hurricane two years ago. The president is being impeached, while at the same time instigating *another* war in the Middle East by ordering the assassination of one of Iran's top generals. This world we live in is angry and confused, full of sloth and ill-will and worry and agitation — ravaged and devastated, in other words, by the Five Hindrances.

When Thich Nhat Hanh was fleeing Vietnam, he said that the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats would sometimes encounter storms or pirates on the journey to safety. During these crises, everyone would start to freak out and panic. But he said that if just one person on the boat could stay calm and centered, not freaking out, it could diffuse the panic and, as he stated, "show the way to survive."

I am that person on the boat. If you've read this far, *you* are that person on the boat, too. It's up to us to bring the mindfulness and compassion we cultivate in our practice into this aching, burning world of pain, and offer it to those around us, showing the way to survive. Each of us who lives with conscience in this suffering world bears a huge responsibility. This is the world we are in. This is the world that needs the healing gifts each of us can bring. 

As one of the teachers at the retreat, Piero Falci, kept reminding us, "This moment is the first moment of the rest of your life." What are you going to do with this precious moment? And this one? And this one? And this one? And this one?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Why Roma Should Win Best Picture

If you follow my writing, you know that I only write about a film when I feel strongly compelled to do so — and that doesn't happen very often. In July 2014, I wrote about Richard Linklater's Boyhood, a deeply moving coming of age story and a wildly ambitious 12-year-long act of filmmaking that eschewed special effects make-up in favor of filming the same actors as they aged in real life. And in October 2016 I gave accolades to Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, before it was nominated for any awards, calling it "the most human film of the year," "a contemplative masterpiece of filmmaking, and a profound and subtle meditation on the fragile construction of masculinity." Moonlight went on to win Best Picture in the 89th annual Academy Awards.

In December 2018 I was in New York City, and Alfonso Cuarón's Roma was playing in two theaters. I knew little about the film except that it was made by the director of Gravity, and that it was about his childhood in Mexico City and was mostly about his nanny. What I knew most of all was, "YOU HAVE TO GO SEE IT ON THE BIG SCREEN!" I was told this several times by a friend who had a slightly wild look in her eyes when she said it, impressing upon me the urgency of making every possible effort to see it in the theater. And so, on our last night in New York City, I cajoled my husband into venturing out in the bitter cold to see Roma at the Independent Film Center in Greenwich Village. We left the theater feeling stunned by what we had just experienced, full of joy and sadness and awe. We walked through the quiet streets of downtown New York on a cold week night, talking for an hour and a half about the impressions the film had left upon us.

Last night I experienced Roma on the big screen for the second time, at Coral Gables Art Cinema in my hometown of Miami. I say "experienced" because 'watched' or 'saw' would be a poor way to describe what has transpired for me both times I've experienced Roma.

I have never felt more viscerally immersed into any film, as if I were physically pulled into the world depicted on the screen, transported through space and time to 1970s Mexico City. I became an invisible observer within the film itself, seeing every visual detail, hearing every sound near and far, I felt as if I could almost smell the scents in the air and feel the textures on my skin that were felt by the characters in the film.

I cannot imagine that this immersive, multi-sensorial experience happens for the majority of people who see Roma at home on Netflix. Last night's screening was in 70mm printed film format, with eight reels of film that were mounted and played in sequence by the theater's projectionist. Even the screening itself seemed to take me back in time, to an era in my own childhood when cinema was an analog experience, not a digital file download that could be projected by a computer at the touch of a button.

Among Roma's many technical achievements, one of the most astonishing is that there is no musical soundtrack, no composed score to manipulate your emotions by heightening the narrative or foreshadowing events. Paradoxically, the absence of a score makes sound one of the film's most viscerally gripping aspects. The sounds you hear in Roma are the real sounds of life in Mexico City in the 1970s: children playing games and fighting with each other, dogs barking, birds singing, street vendors selling their wares, soldiers marching, students protesting, dishes clattering, car engines idling and horns honking, radios playing, jets flying overhead, the whistling call of the knife sharpener walking through the streets, passersby chattering in Spanish or in one of Mexico's 68 indigenous languages.

Roma intertwines emotional storytelling and social commentary on a vastly ambitious scale. The narrative centers on Cleo, a sweet-tempered if somewhat naive young indigenous woman from a rural village who now works as a maid and nanny for an upper-middle-class white family in the 'Roma' neighborhood of Mexico City. The family's troubled dramas unfold around her as Cleo undergoes her own troubles, having become pregnant by a man who leaves her. Circles within circles within circles, Cleo's story unfolds within the family drama that unfolds in the household in which she works, while outside the walls of the family's house, larger stories unfold about the troubles rocking Mexico City during that era — sometimes literally, as in the scene when an earthquake strikes while Cleo is peering through the glass at newborn babies in the maternity ward. The fragility of life, always at the mercy of the violence wrought by nature and by mankind, is one of the film's persistent, aching themes.

Critic Richard Morgan, writing in The Washington Post, attacked Cuarón as being heavy-handed with his own directorial voice and creating a world of shallow female characters who are not allowed to express their own opinions. "While it’s visually stunning, it’s emotionally stunted, with a script that allots very little space for her — or any of the characters — to express an opinion." Morgan stopped just short of calling Cuarón a mysoginist, but only just.

I can't help but wonder if Morgan and I watched different movies, because Roma is a profoundly feminist film. Men and boys pass in and out of the story, generally leaving in their wake a trail of personal chaos, violence, and destruction wherever they go. But the film itself is more concerned with the struggles and triumphs of its female protagonists. The voices of these women are muffled by social customs and the overbearing machismo of the society in which they live, but make no mistake: women are shown here as the real creators of life, the ones who lovingly (and sometimes through their own heartbreak and tears) nurture life and hold it together while the men around them seem hell-bent on doing their best to screw it up and tear it all apart.

There is a moral arc to the stories in Roma. From the start, the women in the film are beholden to the men in their lives, sycophantically dependent on them for approval and support. The men in their lives — a pack of buffoons, liars, cowards and assholes, one and all — keep betraying them, molesting them, impregnating them, lying to them, threatening them, and running away from them. But by the end of the film, the women who are central to the story have found some hard-won peace of mind through realizing their own strength and establishing their independence from these men.

Another critic, Richard Brody, in an utterly tiresome review in The New Yorker, attacked Cuarón for failing to turn Roma into an astute political discourse. One of the film's pivotal scenes unfolds on the day of the Corpus Christi Massacre of June 10, 1971, a terrifying day in Mexican history when longstanding tensions erupted between leftist student protesters and the U.S.-backed right-wing government and its CIA-trained paramilitaries. 120 people were killed, many of them hunted down by the paramilitaries and shot in their hiding places in stores and hospitals. We see this horror unfold through the eyes of Cleo and the family's grandmother, who have ventured out on the day of the protests to buy a crib for Cleo's soon-to-be-born baby. Brody harangues Cuarón for not providing viewers with enough of the political backstory to understand the subtleties of the United States' covert involvement in the massacre — but, to Brody's chagrin, Roma is a feature film, not a documentary. Cuarón's intent was not to provide a history lesson or expound upon the complexities of the political violence that unfolded on that day, but to place us right in the midst of the horror and let us experience it as people did in the moment — with complete bewilderment and fear — not as academics standing back and commenting upon the action and discussing the intersectionality of Mexican racial relations and economic disparities with geopolitical interference. When Cleo's water breaks and she has to be rushed to the hospital in the midst of this terror, it brings us rushing back to the innermost circle of the film's narratives, the one centered on Cleo's personal story. Brody seems disappointed that Cuarón didn't 'splain to us the meaning and political complexities of the violence and social chaos we witness — and on another day I'd be happy to watch the documentary that Brody seems to wish Cuarón had made — but Brody's misplaced expectations are wildly out of sync with the feature film Cuarón actually did make.

Roma is a breathtaking masterpiece of cinema, with an astonishing degree of attention to every visual and sonic detail, and a narrative that unfolds on multiple scales, both personal and epic. The film leaves an indelible impression on one's heart that lingers for weeks afterwards. It's also filled with small moments of magic, even mysticism, like the times when the youngest member of the family, Pepe (who seems to be a stand-in for Cuarón), recounts to Cleo memories of his previous lives, "when I was older." Cleo lovingly laughs off Pepe's stories as the fancies of a child's imagination, but this is the wisdom that can only be spoken by a child, by one who is innocent, one whose mind has not yet become complicated and fogged over by the brute ways of the world in which he is bound to grow up.

There are now two Alfonso Cuaróns: the one before Roma, and the one after. Before Roma, Cuarón had already established himself as a great, technical Hollywood filmmaker, taking Best Director for Gravity. That is also the Cuarón who made the sexy and scintillating Y Tu Mama Tambien, and the same one who brought us the apocalyptic, dystopian vision of our future in Children of Men, a film that now seems uncannily timeless and increasingly prescient with each passing year. But with Roma, Cuarón has quite simply transcended ordinary filmmaking, creating a bold and unapologetic work of art that will be remembered and reflected upon for decades to come. With one tremendous step forward, Cuarón has entered the hall of giants that is home to immortal filmmakers like Bergman and Fellini.

If Roma is playing on a big screen near you — in a darkened theater, in its full 21:9 aspect ratio, with surround sound — you must go see it. If it is not, you should perhaps consider getting on a plane and flying to a city where it is.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Body Electric, Part 2: Prana, Yin, Nidra, and Sound

In Part 1 of this article I looked at the human body's electrochemical activity, how it relates to the two branches of our autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic), and how the essential first step in becoming a more sane human being is learning to self-regulate the balance between these two.

Here in Part 2, I look at four specific teaching modalities I use with students to help them (and me!) restore balance to the nervous system's electrochemical activity, specifically engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.


As yogis have known for thousands of years, the breath is closely intertwined with the electrical activity of the nervous system. I examined this relationship in detail in a previous article, The Psychobiology of the Breath. Because of this close relationship, breathing practices are among the most basic tools for self-regulating nervous activity and inducing the relaxation response.

In the eight limbs of yoga taught in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, held sacred by most contemporary schools of yoga, one of the eight limbs is devoted to "pranayama," the science of breath work, using different breathing techniques to move or hold or clear "prana" or energy from the body in various ways.

Among the the principles and practices from pranayama that I find most useful in working with meditation students is the practice of ratio breathing. This technique involves measuring the length of the inhalation and exhalation so the whole cycle of breath moves at a specific ratio and pace. It might mean breathing in for a count of five and breathing out for a count of five (a 1:1 ratio, also known as "coherent breathing") or breathing in for a count of five and breathing out for a count of nine or ten.

Slowing down the breath and using more of our natural lung capacity, in itself, has a naturally calming effect on the nervous system and its electrical activity that can be experienced almost immediately, sometimes in just one or two breaths. Specifically, extending the length of the exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve, the main pathway to engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.


Although I'm trained and certified as a yoga teacher, I don't really enjoy teaching the fast-paced, sweaty, flowing styles of movement and strenuous workouts that many people these days think of as "yoga."

The style of yoga I do enjoy teaching is one that's much more directly linked to relaxation and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system: Yin Yoga. Yin involves far less movement, and much more stillness. Less fire, more cooling. It's a unique approach to postural yoga that was designed to bring more elasticity into the connective tissues, specifically the great web of fascia that envelops the musculoskeletal system and all the organs of the body.

In Yin Yoga, we typically stay low to the ground, and we hold postures for extended periods of time -- sometimes up to a few minutes in a single pose. Rather than using our muscles to aggressively push or twist ourselves into a posture, we passively use the forces of gravity and time to slowly open the body and release tension within the tissues at a deeper level. Even the music I play in a Yin Yoga class has a slower pace, fewer beats-per-minute, to encourage the brain to stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. The feeling coming out of a Yin Yoga practice can be a deep sense of relaxation within the body and mind.


Yoga Nidra, sometimes called "the yogic science of sleep," is actually a system of techniques for guiding students into a profoundly deep state of relaxation bordering on sleep -- but ideally not crossing the line completely.

In a Yoga Nidra class, I use my voice and a progressive series of passive exercises (body scan, visualizations, etc.) to guide students into the hypnagogic state -- a precursor to actual sleep, the state between waking and sleeping. When students are able to hover in this liminal space, this border zone between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, the sense of relaxation that can be experienced is very deep. And because awareness is suspended in that in-between space, various kinds of communication between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind can take place, creating a feeling of wholeness and integration unlike any other.

Needless to say, during the entire process of Yoga Nidra, we are engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and entraining our brains in producing the electrochemical activity that leads to the relaxation response.


There has been a revolution in my teaching activity during the past year. Up until a year ago, I had been aware of the growing trend of "sound bath" classes in yoga and meditation studios, but I regarded this trend with a skeptical eye. I come out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and we always had Tibetan bowls in the meditation hall, but they were used primarily for one thing only: they were struck to signal the beginning and the end of a meditation session. In 15 years of study and practice within that venerable tradition, I never encountered a single teaching about making the bowls "sing," or using sound for healing purposes. So when I would see people playing the bowls that way, I dismissed it as a bunch of New Age nonsense.

Fast forward to last year, when I started teaching classes at a local studio and got curious about their sound classes, which seemed to be more popular than any other class on their schedule. One day I decided to try one, just to see what all the fuss was about. In that first sound bath class, I felt a sense of relaxation so deep that the only thing in my previous experience that I could compare it to was Yoga Nidra. In fact, in explaining sound meditation I often draw comparisons to Yoga Nidra, because a skillful sound bath can also guide students into the hypnagogic state.

I was immediately hooked, and I signed up for a training in sound healing with a teacher at that studio. A few months later, I did a second training with another teacher, and a set of crystal singing bowls found their way into my life. Quite suddenly, I found myself in the role of a teacher of sound meditation and practitioner of sound healing.

When done skillfully, a sound bath can not only guide students' minds into a state of profound relaxation; it can also have powerful healing effects on the body. The vibration of sound waves is not merely perceived by the ears and the mind; those same waves carry into the cells and tissues of the body, interacting with the electrochemical activity of the nervous system and helping to restore balance and homeostasis. After all, at a cellular level the body is roughly 74% water, and sound waves travel easily through water, so in a sound bath you are not only hearing sound; the pulsations and vibrations of sound waves are literally washing through you, inducing effects  on the body that are beyond the mind's purview.

When I experience a good sound bath I leave feeling like a washcloth that has been wrung out. During the sound bath tension in the body melts away, the mind stops fighting with itself, and a whole range of metabolic changes take place: the heart rate and breathing slow down, body temperature drops, and electrochemical activity shifts very noticeably into the parasympathetic nervous system. I often have students in sound bath classes tell me they've never before experienced such a profound sense of relaxation.

That's good enough for me. I've gone from a sound bath skeptic to someone who teaches sound baths two to three times per week and attends them as frequently as I can. Along with breath work, sound healing is among the most powerful tools I've encountered for altering the electrochemical activity of the body and entraining the human brain and nervous system to relax.

With a relaxed body and open mind, the possibilities are almost limitless.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Body Electric, Part 1: Energy, Stress, and Relaxation

Electrographics of a hand, Hermann Schnauss (1900)
It's common to think of a human being as flesh and blood and bones and organs -- something made of matter. It's less common to think of a human being as an electrical system -- something made of energy. But we are both.

Your body is permeated by electricity and its interaction with the body's chemistry. The presence and movement of electricity throughout your body is part of what distinguishes you as a living being from an inert and lifeless piece of steak, which is made of the same flesh and blood. As with Frankenstein's monster, electrical activity is one of the things that separates a creature that's alive from one that isn't.

From the top of your head to the soles of your feet, electrochemical signals travel at up to 150 meters per second along the roughly 45 miles of pathways of the central and peripheral nervous system. This is our modern medical way of talking about the body's energetic network of highways, roads, and side streets, and the traffic of energy flowing along them. Ancient yogis described these channels as "nadis" and the energy as "prana," while traditional Chinese medicine speaks of "meridians" and the "qi" or life force that flows along the meridians. Like a large city glowing at night when seen from outer space, your entire being is lit up with an electrical field that may be invisible to your eyes, but can be measured with scientific instruments and seen by other kinds of creatures with different eyes.

Electrochemical signals mediate your experience of yourself and the world around you. They make possible your every perception, movement, word, and thought. In fact, our human cognitive ability and capacity for abstract thought and reasoning is one of the unique ways that humans have evolved to exploit our brain's powerful electrical activity. No other creature on earth can harness the electrical activity of its brain to do algebraic computations or read a book or send a rocket to the moon or build an artificial intelligence system or map out and follow a path to enlightenment.

Other animals have evolved different ways of using electricity. Sharks have unique electrical sensory faculties that allow them to see the electrical fields of other creatures in the water, which is part of what makes sharks such good predators. And electric eels can store and release electricity at a very high voltage, delivering a powerful shock of up to 600 volts for defensive or hunting purposes.

The central processing unit of the brain sits atop the vast network of electrochemical pathways in your body, receiving, interpreting, and sending signals that make it possible to sense and know what you're feeling and to interact with the world around you. When it's time to respond to a threat with a defensive measure of fighting or running, the brain orchestrates a burst of electrical signals into the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, triggering the release of adrenaline and epinephrine and other chemicals that enable a fast and powerful physical response to the perceived threat. The pupils dilate, digestive functions slow down or pause temporarily so that vital energetic resources can be diverted to the parts of the body needed for running or fighting. Glucose is released into the body, and there's a sudden increase in the heart rate and breathing rate. This rapid and intense cascade of physiological responses in the body happens because of the electrical signals received and processed by the brain.

And hopefully, when threats have been dealt with and it's time to chill out, digest your food, and go to sleep for the night, the CPU of the brain sends electrochemical signals into the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, bringing about an opposing response. The pupils and airways constrict, the heart rate and breathing slow down, the release of glucose is inhibited, the glands stop secreting that intense surge of activating hormones and neurochemicals, and energy is redirected back to the digestive functions and to cellular recovery. In a word, you relax.

Both of these powerful responses in the body happen without the interference of the conscious mind. That's why they are part of the autonomic nervous system, which basically means automatic. And they are both necessary for our survival and healthy adaptation to our world and our experiences.

One of the big problems with human beings today -- and it's something I observe in myself and in my meditation students -- is that our autonomic nervous systems are out of balance. There's too much electrical activity firing into the sympathetic branch, stimulating a chronic "fight or flight" response, a pattern of overstimulation that's very difficult to step out of. We commonly call this stress or anxiety. The habitual response and activity of our sympathetic nervous system is disproportionate to the actual threat level posed by anything in our environment. Biologically, we are bringing a physiological response that evolved to help us survive life-or-death situations, and we're applying it to everyday situations like relationships and jobs and emails and social media, things that don't objectively merit such an extreme physiological reaction.

So one of the first and most essential steps for us when we sit down to practice meditation is to recalibrate that balance and get more electrical activity firing into our parasympathetic nervous system in order to trigger the relaxation response. Forget about balancing chakras, cultivating bliss or higher states of consciousness, raising kundalini, or achieving enlightenment. What the majority of meditation students I work with need first and foremost, before starting to think about more lofty spiritual goals, is to simply slow their roll on a purely biological level.

If we can't first train ourselves to relax, there's not much point in talking about enlightenment or discovering the true nature of mind. As Step One, we need to learn and practice techniques that help us retrain the brain's electrical activity and the nervous system to be less chronically stuck in a sympathetic "fight or flight" response, and more skilled at shifting into the parasympathetic relaxation response.

You get good at what you practice. As you repeat certain thoughts and actions, the brain builds neural pathways -- electrochemical grooves -- that encourage signals to run along the same pathways more and more habitually. A pattern of responding to situations with stress or anger builds neural pathways that make it more likely that you'll respond with stress or anger to the next situation.

But the same is also true of more wholesome responses. With time and practice we can train our brains and rewire our neural pathways and our body's electrochemical activity to respond to stressful situations with more calmness and steadiness of temper, more empathy for others, more compassion and loving-kindness. Once we start building electrochemical patterns in the brain and body to sustain those kinds of wholesome feelings and responses, creating those sorts of neural pathways, and becoming more skilled pilots of our own nervous systems, then maybe we can start talking productively about cultivating mystical states of consciousness or investigating the true nature of mind. Let's keep the cart behind the horse.

For now, most of us just need to learn to relax.

Yes, there is a lot more to meditation than just relaxation. But relaxation is an absolute prerequisite for all other practices. And honestly, if we all simply learned to relax and nothing more, we would still become happier people, we would probably cause less trouble for ourselves and others, and the world would be a better place for it.

In Part 2 of this article, I'll look at four teaching modalities I use with students to help them (and me!) restore balance to the nervous system's electrochemical activity, specifically engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Confessions of an Anxious Meditation Teacher

In my role as a meditation teacher I often feel like people don't get a chance to know the real me. They see a curated persona who speaks with a calming tone of voice, someone who spent two years living in a Buddhist monastery and has written two books on meditation and spiritual life. I can imagine those things might give them certain misleading ideas about me.

Behind that persona, the truth is that I struggle a lot with anxiety. I don't mean regular garden-variety anxiety, I mean the kind that I see a doctor about, the kind that has a diagnostic code in the DSM-V. Anxiety is something I have experienced for most of my life, going back to childhood. It can flare up along with insomnia to affect my sleep, my relationships, and my work. Many people might never suspect this about me, because I'm good at keeping it under wraps and showing the outside world an exterior facade of calmness and serenity.

I've been practicing and teaching meditation for 16 years, and while I can say truthfully that meditation helps me regulate my anxiety and work with it more skillfully, I cannot truthfully tell you that meditation cures it. Meditation alone, practiced in solitude, doesn't address the underlying structural issues in my personal psychology. I stopped expecting the practice to do that for me quite a while ago.

I share this confession because in the world of yogis and meditators and people walking various kinds of modern spiritual paths, there's a pervasive misconception that anyone who's been practicing for a while — and especially anyone who has stepped up from practicing into the role of teaching -- is supposed to have it all together.

In my observation, and in my own personal experience, nothing could actually be further from the truth. And this misconception creates some really toxic dynamics between teachers and students.

One of the great ironies about people in the helping professions is that they are often among the ones who need the most help. I know a psychiatrist who has borderline personality disorder. A lot of therapists and social workers I know are depressed. The suicide rate among doctors in the U.S. is two or three times as high as the general population. There's a powerful stigma that prevents us from talking openly about how people whose job is to help others may themselves need help addressing their own mental health issues.

The world of yogis and meditators and spiritual teachers is no exception. But you wouldn't know that from looking at the marketing hype.

If you're that sort of teacher, it's often assumed that you've wrestled with your demons, and vanquished them. You've worked out the kinks and foibles in your human nature, so you stand a cut above the rest of us. Your inner light shines through at all times, unclouded by ordinary human neuroses. Traumas? Shadow material? You're beyond all that. This must be why you look so beatific and well composed in your Instagram photos.

My personal advice? Run as fast as you can in the other direction from any teacher who presents a highly manicured image of having it all together. Run from any teacher who looks down at the world from a superior perch and appears to have it all figured out, or who claims to have packed away all their emotional baggage.

In the past few years I've seen a lot of teachers who projected that sort of image fall from grace — exposing suddenly and almost violently their humanity, their struggles, and the demons with which were secretly wrestling. I've learned not to project too much of a sacred aura onto any of the cows roaming about in the contemporary spiritual pasture. If you spend much time around cows, sacred or not, you'll find most of them are full of something. I know I am.

My struggles with anxiety, among other things, are part of what initially drew me to the path of meditation, and they're still part of what keeps me practicing — and, perhaps just as importantly, part of what keeps me teaching. I may not always reveal to a room full of students what's roiling beneath the surface of my own psychological waters, because it's generally bad decorum to appear like a basket case when you're sitting in the teacher's seat. But within the inner sanctum of my own mind, where no one else goes, I'm never far-removed from a lifetime of roiling waters, or from the wellspring of shadow material that percolates just beneath the surface.

There's a famous quote from Richard Bach: "You teach best what you most need to learn."

The longer I teach, the more truth I find in that statement. When meditation students tell me how calming my voice and my presence are, or how much a certain practice or teaching I shared helped them reframe their perspective on a difficult situation, I know that sharing it with them probably helped me twice as much. I needed just as much as they did, if not more, to be reminded of the teaching by sharing it with them.

I think what I'm learning is that it's not in spite of my imperfections and human foibles, it's not in spite of my ongoing struggles with my own inner demons, but because of those things, that I have something genuine to offer as a teacher.

I'm coming clean here about my struggles with anxiety because I think coming clean is necessary. In the world of spiritual teachers and students, we need fewer sacred cows and more transparency and disclosure. Without an honest and open relationship to the more troublesome aspects of myself, I would be just another one of those slick Instagram gurus trying to sell you the path to happiness, as if I had it all figured out.

If you ever catch me doing that, feel free to slap me, and bring me back down to earth.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Assessing Childhood Developmental Trauma

The ACE Quiz ("ACE" stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences) has become a standardized way for psychologists and those treating trauma to assess some of the major factors that might contribute to childhood developmental trauma. You can take the ACE quiz here.

The simple 10-question quiz gives you score on a scale of 0 to 10, with points being assigned for exposure to a number of commonly recognized sources of childhood trauma, from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to physical or emotional neglect to various forms of household dysfunction such as parental divorce or having a parent or family member who is mentally ill, incarcerated, or addicted.

If you score high on the ACE quiz, it means you had numerous factors in your upbringing that might contribute to childhood developmental trauma. In turn, childhood developmental trauma is known to contribute to other problems later in life, including increased risks for stress and depression, substance abuse, heart disease, and more.

However, it's important to understand what your score on the ACE quiz means and what it doesn't. If you have a high score, it just means that a lot of those commonly recognized adverse childhood experiences were present in your early life. It doesn't take into account other factors that might have helped you build resilience and overcome these adverse childhood conditions, such as the love and support you received from a certain family member or outside figure.

Some people with high ACE scores show few signs of developmental trauma, while others with low ACE scores go on to develop major depression, addiction, and so forth. So your score is not, strictly speaking, predictive of any particular outcome as an adult.

By contrast, the opposite may also be true. The ACE quiz looks at commonly recognized adverse conditions for developmental trauma, but some possibly traumatizing adverse conditions are glaringly absent.

When I took the ACE quiz, I was at first surprised at how high my number was. The quiz helped me to frame and understand some of the root causes of my own childhood developmental trauma. But over time, I came to realize there were other traumatic adversities in my childhood, too, that the quiz didn't even touch upon, such as sexual orientation and religious upbringing.

What about the fact that I was and am gay, and that I struggled throughout childhood and adolescence to suppress the growing evidence of my own sexual orientation in a homophobic culture that harshly forbade me from being who I was? There's no checkbox on the ACE quiz for internalized homophobia. There should be, because it's a widespread and very damaging form of developmental trauma.

What about the fearful hellfire-and-brimstone sermons I was subjected to as a child in the Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma, the intense atmosphere of homophobia in that church, and the religious delusions and existential terror I suffered as a result of my indoctrination in that religious culture? In retrospect, I consider what I was subjected to by the church to be a form of child abuse. But again, there's no checkbox on the ACE quiz for religious manipulation and brainwashing. And there should be.

What about complex factors like race and socioeconomic status, which can feed into so many other adverse childhood experiences? There are generational traumas, and traumas that you may be born into because the color of your skin isn't the one that's privileged by the society you live in. No ACE checkboxes for those either.

For now, the ACE quiz is a stepping stone that can help you begin to get a handle on some of the Big 10, as it were. Knowing where you come from in relation to these 10 factors can be helpful in assessing the roots of your own childhood developmental trauma. But you also need to put your ACE quiz results in perspective, and look at the larger picture of things the quiz never touches upon.

The causes and effects of childhood developmental trauma are highly complex, and no standardized test can really give you a complete or accurate reading on the origins or effects of your own childhood trauma. We need better ways of assessing a wider variety of adverse childhood experiences, as well as traumatic social conditions that extend both inward, deep into our hearts and psyches, and outward, beyond the walls of the houses we grew up in.