Tuesday, December 13, 2011

23 and 1/2 hours....

Here's a short presentation on my favorite form of regular exercise: walking. I so enjoy walking! I never knew, really knew just how good it is until after seeing this little video.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Your First Adventure

The following video clip is about a quarter hour long. Though it is without words, I found it utterly captivating. I can find no words to do it justice.

Find 15 minutes. See for yourself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Here's a video clip that Steven Leak from The Golden Fish passed along my way. It shows an impressive flight of starlings over the Shannon River in Ireland. It happened that soon after viewing this video we saw a very similar (though much smaller) flight of starlings over a vineyard not far from our house.

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

This video appears on wired.com where you'll find an explanation of it.

It is pretty impressive.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Power of Nonviolence

Forty plus years ago, I participated in a number of nonviolent anti-Vietnam war protests at Berkeley. I was among those students who were tear gassed. Had my generation of protesters been as disciplined and as non-violent as these UC Davis students who refused to disperse Friday, I believe our efforts would have been far more successful. I believe that the Vietnam war would have ended much sooner—sparing countless lives. The power of nonviolence is real. If you haven’t already seen the video of John Pike pepper spraying non-violent protesters, you can find it here. I found it quite upsetting to watch, especially the first part. I strongly encourage you to watch this clip all the way to the end. The clip is about eight and a half minutes long. You won’t want to miss the final 90 seconds. It shows the overwhelming power of disciplined nonviolence.


I’m going to guess that many Mindful Heart readers have yet to see this second clip of an assembly of students as the UC Davis Chancellor walks to her car. You see a stunning instance of the deafening power of non-violence.


Two further notes: 

I understand that students pay approximately $12,000 each year in tuition. It’s now time to review and reduce the pay of police. According to the Sacramento Bee, last year Police lieutenant, John Pike, was paid—I cannot say he earned—a salary of about $110,000. His salary is a lot higher than those offered to instructors at UC Davis. This in unconscionable. His salary is, in my opinion, well out of proportion to his contribution to the education of the students who pay his salary.

Note Two
Under California law, the use of pepper spray in California is illegal unless used in self defense. There is NO exception in the law for police. This officer needs to face trial for this crime, along with the others who conspired to commit this assault against the protesters.  The District Attorney should do jail time if he refuses to prosecute. California Penal Code Section 12403.7 (a) (8) (g) Any person who uses tear gas or tear gas weapons except in self-defense is guilty of a public offense and is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months, or two or three years or in a county jail not to exceed one year or by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment, except that, if the use is against a peace officer, as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, engaged in the performance of his or her official duties and the person

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Message of Hope

Here's a TED talk, 10 minutes long, that might fill you with optimism for our future. Perhaps the ideas in this video can zing around the Internet and occupy our imaginations (and Occupy Movement discussions—it's always best to talk face to face) so we can get our priorities straight.

I think many others feel—as I do—keen frustration that the "leaders" of our country seem to serve so faithfully the interests of the already rich and powerful instead of the commoners like everyone I know.

Watch this TED talk and see what you think.

Do you agree we can do better than building more nuclear power plants?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Live Simply

Here is a heart-felt message from a young man....

Saturday, November 5, 2011

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)**

As a kid growing up in California in the fifties and sixties I came to believe that the “me” I called Dan Gurney was separate from everything outside of my skin. I saw my situation as just another “Me versus the World” drama.
Inside I thought I was totally germ-free. To stay healthy I thought I needed to follow the rules of general hygiene and keep my environment as close to germ-free as possible. 
Image credit: http://modaainc.blogspot.com
Since then I have gradually become aware that my boyhood ideas were quite incomplete. In the past several months I have come across several articles that make the point that most of the cells inside my skin aren’t even human cells. 
For example, the California Monthly (a journal that comes to me from my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley) recently featured an piece titled “The Teeming Metropolis of You” by Brendan Buhler that begins:

You are mostly not you.That is to say that 90 percent of the cells residing in your body are not human cells, they are microbes. Viewed from the perspective of most of its inhabitants, your body is not so much the temple and vessel of the human soul as it is a complex and ambulatory feeding mechanism for a methane reactor in your small intestine.This is the kind of information microbiologists like to share at dinner parties....
My body, the one that I walk around in every day, could be regarded, quite reasonably, as a complex community of living microbes. 
From this perspective, we look after multitudes of sentient beings when we look after our bodies and minds skillfully, you know, according to the advice grandpa (hopefully) taught you: getting enough rest, taking regular exercise, eating nutritious food and perhaps most important, cultivating a warm heart, a forgiving nature, and a contented outlook. 
For me, knowing all this (I am large, I contain multitudes) is a happy twist on the Mahayana Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings. 

**By the way, the title for this post comes from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I do not believe Walt was thinking about the microbes in his small intestine when he wrote that line.
Link to the article in California Monthly, The Teeming Metropolis of You

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Secular Buddhist

Recently I found a ready-to-go media source to fill the "silence" when my mind has bad breath and needs to freshen up. It's an archive of podcasts on The Secular Buddhist. There’s a timely interview for Halloween featuring David Chapman.


Addendum: Since posting this I've listened to several more podcasts and I find these podcasts quite worthwhile.

I am very glad to have discovered this archive of interviews on Atheism and Buddhism. I find the host, Ted Meissner, to be remarkably warm and open-hearted while also exhibiting his discerning intellect.

I find that his overall approach to Buddhism—and the path he's travelled from Zen to Theravadin practice combined with scholarly study and a healthy degree of skepticism—to be similar to and resonant with my own.
Check these podcasts out. The Secular Buddhist Podcasts.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Steve Jobs and Me

Steve Jobs and I had the same Buddhist teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa. Kobun was my first Buddhist teacher. I have come to increasingly appreciate Kobun. Kobun was my teacher in the mid-1970’s. In about that same time period, Steve studied with Kobun too. Kobun.
Steve gave the commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. This excerpt from Steve’s remarks reveals Kobun's teachings. Kobun taught me a similar thing:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
If you wish to read more about Steve Jobs and his connections to Buddhist teachings,  visit NeuroTribes where this excerpt appears in a post by Steve Silberman.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Voice From the 1%

Here is something worth pondering... some thoughts from one of the richest Americans about our tax system.

Here's an excerpt:

...I am not part of the yacht and private jet set, which represents an even smaller subset of incomes than mine. The threshold for inclusion in the top 1% of income earners in 2008, the most recent year for which published data is available from the IRS, was $380,354, enough for an extraordinary life but nowhere near enough for a harbor berth in St. Moritz. Nevertheless, I am - for now - comfortably ensconced in that demographic. Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan would save me roughly $400,000 a year in taxes, and President Obama's tax proposals would cost me more than $100,000, yet I support the latter and consider the former laughable.

Thus you can imagine my amazement this summer when I watched the Republicans in Congress push the United States to the brink of default - and the world to the brink of ruin - over whether to repeal a portion of the Bush tax cuts and raise my taxes by 3.5%. I know a lot of people with high incomes and even the conservatives among them were confused by that sequence of events. Here is a secret about rich people: we wouldn't have noticed a 3.5% tax increase. That is not only because there isn't a material difference between having $1 million and $965,000, which is obvious, but also because most of us don't actually know how much money we are going to make in a given year. Most income at that level is the result of profits rather than salary, whether it comes in the form of bonuses, stock options, partnership distributions, dividends or capital gains. Profits are unpredictable and they tend to vary wildly. At my own firm, the general rule of thumb is that if we are within 5% of our budget for the year, everyone is happy and no one complains. A variation of 3.5% is merely a random blip.

I was not amazed but disgusted when John Boehner and his crew tried to justify the extremity of their position by rebranding the wealthy as "job creators." While true in a very basic sense, it obscures the fact that jobs are a cost that is voluntarily incurred only as a result of demand. Hiring has no correlation at all to profits or to income - none. Let me keep more of my money without increasing customer demand and I will do just that - keep it. Perhaps I will spend a little more of it, though probably not, but even if I do it won't help the economy very much. Here is another secret of the well-to-do: we don't really buy much more stuff than everyone else. It may be more expensive stuff, sure, but I don't buy cars, or appliances, or furniture, or anything else more frequently than the average consumer. The things I do spend more money on are services such as travel, entertainment, restaurants and landscaping, none of which generate well-paying middle class jobs. There, in a nutshell, is the sad explanation of what has happened to the American economy over the last 25 years of "trickle down" economics.

Better yet, read all of this thoughts.

A Voice From the 1%

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tomales Bay Paddle, October 23

Heart’s Desire Beach offers plenty to a paddler. It is a lovely sandy beach in a cliff-protected cove on the western shore of Tomales Bay. Bishop Pines—rare this far north—look down from the cliffs above the beach and add a hint of mountain spice to salty estuarine air. 

Getting ready to paddle
Because Heart’s Desire is set near the middle of the bay, a paddler may choose to venture as far as five miles either north towards the mouth or south towards Lagunitas Creek. About a score of Petaluma Paddlers met this morning and paddled south towards Inverness into a rare southerly headwind. Our muscles warmed, the headwind faltered, and the autumn sun shone with summery vigor. We decided to stop along the way at Teacher’s Beach to strip off the extra layers of clothing some of us put on at the start. 

Heading south towards Inverness
As we continued south to Millerton Point the wind disappeared entirely leaving a glassy water of almost Tahoe clarity. Looking down we could see waving eelgrass, pulsing jellyfish, sandy areas scattered with shells, leopard sharks, and bat rays. 

Sarah looking into the pellucid waters

Some of us paddled far enough south to visit the dilapidated remnants of the North Pacific Coast Railway that ran through here from 1874 to 1930’s. Ray, Dick, Joe, and Tom told about the engineering of the railroad grade along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay. They were bringing history to life. Had my stomach not growled so much, I might have been able to imagine the sound of the train’s steam whistle.

Dick, Joe, Tom, and Ray at the railroad grade

The morning was wearing on, and we decided to head back to Heart’s Desire for lunch. The winds we enountered as we came south seemed to still be blowing across the middle reaches of Tomales Bay. They made for some fun small waves right at the end of the trip.
The Petaluma Paddlers are deservedly noted for their not-to-be-missed potlucks. Today’s was like that. Many people—more than the score of paddlers we started out with— shared dishes special enough to evoke contented gasps of pleasure. Either the food was really good or I was really hungry, but oh, man. It can be hard to know whether it's the paddling in paradise or the ambrosia we eat that keeps us coming back. 

Soon some ukuleles appeared and, well, maybe it was too much of a good thing—or maybe just too much wine. In any event there was singing, smiling, and eating good food and sharing good company—exactly what our hearts desire.

A Dreamy Place to Live

An Amiot sculpture in Sebastopol

I just ran across this New York Times travel feature about a cool-sounding town in Northern California. A little town in California Wine Country where the vineyards meet the forested hills along the Pacific. A place that feels a little Berkeley, maybe because so many Berkeley grads live here.

I went to Berkeley. I dream of living there.

Check it out: SEBASTOPOL

Wait a minute! Wake up! I do live there, I mean here—and have for 32 years.

I've married to the former Mayor and current City Council member of Sebastopol.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Saturday Paddle

October 22, 2011
Lake Hennessey Report

Bald Eagle (click to embiggen)
Phil and Marilyn suggested a Saturday paddle on 800 acre Lake Hennessey which lies behind Conn Dam along Highway 128 east of the town of St. Helena. Conditions today proved ideal for paddling, bird watching, and outdoor dining.
Tim, Flo, and I wondered where Phil and Marilyn were at our 9:30 launch time and, after waiting briefly by the ramp, we took off to explore the eastern arm of the lake near the boat ramp. Soon we were back to the ramp and found that Phil and Marilyn had already launched their Lincoln tandem and were paddling out to join us on the main part of the lake.
We learned that they had gotten stuck in traffic as a result of stopping too long at the Oakville Grocery to buy a fresh baguette to accompany the gourmet cheese and sliced meat that they brought along to complement the fresh melon, dark chocolate, and homemade muffins that Marilyn got out of bed at 5:00 AM to bake for us just so we could have just the best “snack” imaginable. Their stop at the market meant that they got caught in a construction delay as a road crew laid new asphalt down on their already luscious highway—it’s not by magic that Napa’s roads are as smooth as their chardonnays. 

We paddled across smooth waters around the whole lake seeing many birds: common ones including American Coots, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Mallards, Western Grebes, Double-Crested Cormorants; and more special ones including Green Herons, White Pelicans, and a Bald Eagle.
Our snack stop was more of a gourmet lunch, at least I've had lesser "gourmet" lunches. I couldn't get Phil to admit that he hired live music to accompany the birdsong, but you cannot believe everything Phil says. I can say for sure there was live music—good guitar music—right by us as we dined. 

Live music at lunch

It was such a special paddle that I thought that we ought perhaps to update that tired definition of insanity, you know, the one that talks about “doing the same thing expecting different results.”
For PP’ers perhaps a good working definition might be: “not showing up when Phil and Marilyn suggest a paddle.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Paddle to the Moon

Waiting for the moon to rise.

Photos just don't do it justice....

Near sunset on the eve of my sixtieth birthday, Sarah, Joe, Dawn, and I paddled north along the western shore of Tomales Bay. From our boats we watched the full moon appear on the eastern horizon and sail silently into the night sky.

The thinnest whisper of wind sighed across almost calm waters and enhanced our feelings of serenity. The moon lit up the sky so brightly that, try as best we could, we were unable to see any bioluminescence in the water.

We paddled about two hours from Chicken Ranch Beach almost to Hearts' Desire Beach and back. Most pleasant!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Drake's Estero

Sunday, October 9 some Petaluma Paddlers ventured out on Drakes Bay.

Conditions were calm as we set off from the oyster farm.

We headed towards Drake's Bay

Ray at the entrance to Berrie's Bay

Berrie's Bay

Yours truly on his "new" kayak

My second outing on this boat

Inside Berries Bay

Joe and Ray

Near the mouth of Drakes Estero, about 5 miles from our launch

Here comes the rest of the group

A memorial to the privateer, Drake.

Yakkin' on the beach

Heading towards Home Bay

Laura in her new boat.

Phil and Marilyn

Potluck lunch spread. Good food.

We celebrated Ellen's 50th birthday.

A tiramisu cake!

Life is good

On her birthday paddle, Ellen's mom, her dog, and husband Larry

Happy trails!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


This summer I've been paddling on Tomales Bay at night when the moon is not in the sky. It is very dark. Except for the water which explodes in blue green bioluminescent light with every paddle stroke. It's a mesmerizing experience that leaves me in speechless wonder.

I've found no way to adequately convey the miracle of paddling in dark waters that light up. My photography skills are not up to the task.

I just ran across this video on Boing Boing that shows surfing in bioluminescent waters south of where I live. If you watch it, you'll have some idea of what's been keeping me away from blogging this summer.

Red Tide Surfing San Diego 2011 Bioluminescence from Loghan Call on Vimeo.

More on biolume from Maggie Koerth-Baker's Boing Boing post:

Phytoplankton are tiny, plant-like organisms that live in the ocean and are, basically, at the very bottom of the food chain. But, sometimes, they get their revenge. When lots and lots and lots of phytoplankton get together, they can form what we call a "red tide," a discoloration of the water at a particular point where the plankton have become densely concentrated.
Some red tides are natural. Others happen when nutrient runoff from farm fertilizers creates a massive buffet for plankton. Some red tides can kill, as the plankton can produce toxins and their deaths reduce the oxygen content of the water. And sometimes, red tidesglow in the dark.
The phytoplankton in this red tide off a California beach are bioluminescent. Their cells produce a chemical reaction that creates a soft, blue-green glow. It's basically the same thing that makes lightning bugs light. In this video by Loghan Call and Man's Best Media, you can see plankton light up in the beach (and a few surfers).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Paying Attention

In our group discussion of Thich Nhat Hahn's book, we talked about how paying non-judgmental attention to something—anything—always warms your heart to the object of your attention.

For example, if you begin to pay close attention to one baseball team, sooner or later you will become a fan of that team. (Years ago, my son did this with the Detroit Tigers when they were the worst team in baseball.)

But this heart-warming effect of clear-eyed attention works with even the most mundane object. A crumpled piece of paper will do.

One way to really pay attention to something is to draw a good picture of it.

Watch this video, and see how paying attention warms the heart, even to a crumpled up scrap of paper.

Now, imagine how you might benefit from paying attention to someone you love.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Say Something Nice

Just got back from New York City, to visit my daughter.

Here's something that went on not far from where she lives.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Yellow Bird, for a Beluga

Something to lift your spirits today. In kindergarten I sing "Yellow Bird" as well as Raffi's "Baby Beluga" because they, well, make people feel good including me.

Here they are Yellow Bird, the song, and a little white whale together.  And join me in wishing whales well today.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Paddling Sausalito

Off Sausalito

A motor yacht's bright topsides

Reflect paddler.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

30 Songs in 30 Days

Regular Mindful Heart readers already know that I am fond of home made music—especially singing accompanied by ukuleles. Most of the music that you'll hear at my house or in my classroom is exactly that.

This afternoon I discovered a young woman who goes by the name Miss Sophie Madeleine. She has undertaken the task of recording 30 songs in 30 days and posting them on YouTube. As of today, July 23, she's nearing the end of her project.

She's got good pipes. Her ukulele skills are up to the task, nothing extraordinary, but ordinariness adds to her charm. I get that feeling, "If she can do it, so can I."

Here are two of the YouTube videos she put up, "Dream a Little Dream of Me."

Here is the first, "One Fine Day." Through the magic of technology, she plays ukulele, a kid's xylophone, tambourine, kazoo, not to mention singing two harmonies behind the melody. A production like that would take some time, believe me. Very impressive, Sophie Madeleine.

I must say it's a whole lot of fun to make music with friends. And a whole lot easier, too.

This link will take you to her page where you can see more videos in this series:


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pedestrian Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of mind of being aware of what is, just as it is and returning to that moment instead of being carried away by our thoughts.

Thoughts WILL come by, like traffic on a busy street. They seem to demand our attention, but we don't need to do anything more than to note them and let them go by.

If our intention is to stay mindful of the present moment, we need only be aware of the passing thoughts and proceed across the street without being taken away.

This guy crossing a boulevard in Vietnam gives a graphic lesson in this metaphor for mindfulness:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Joyful Movie

Want to see a movie that'll make you feel good and probably stay with you the rest of your life?

This one may be it. It's got natural drama and some suspense, too.

Maybe it will fill you with some hope.

This movie, less than 9 minutes long, ought to do the trick. It did more for me than lots of feature length films.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eldergarten for Alzheimer's Patients

Bill Tapia is 103 years young, and still plays the ukulele.

Late this morning I packed my ukulele and harmonicas into my car and drove into town to sing for the Catholic Charities’ Alzheimer's group. 
I found a room filled with a group of about twenty people, a mixture of Alzheimer’s patients and volunteer caregivers, seated in chairs arranged in a "U."  
One lonely-looking empty chair—my stage—stood by itself in the middle of the open part of the U. 
It looked, at first, as if it would be a tough audience. The patients' eyes were, how shall I say this, vacant?  Many of them sat staring into their laps; I couldn't even see their eyes. Some of the volunteers avoided eye contact with me. The person who invited me to come warned them not to expect too much—I'm a kindergarten teacher, not a musician/performer.
I've learned to fight fire with fire. Go straight at the fear. “No, problem,” I told myself. “I’m a kindergarten teacher." There aren't many audiences tougher than the one I usually sing for. I unpacked my gear, introduced myself, and launched off into about 45 minutes of singing, playing ukulele, and howlin’ out tunes on the harmonica. Kids songs, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley songs, and, of course, a Hank Williams tune or two.
It turned out that songs that work for short-attention-span kindergartners are perfect, perfect! for Alzheimer’s patients. Songs aimed at the heart with simple words, great melodies, and lots of repetition. 
Before long the patients and their caregivers came to life, like droopy houseplants given the water they need to stop slouching. They joined in singing, clapping and stomping their feet. 
We had a great time. Some patients danced! By the time we got to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” my failing voice was almost lost in the crowd. In the third verse the audience is supposed to shout “Hooray!” and throw a fist into the air. They did better than I ever thought they would. They were shouting, "HOORAY!!" as loudly as any roomful of five year olds. 
Music works magic. You would not have guessed that anyone in this room was touched by senility. Too many smiles. Too much music. Too much magic.
I’m coming back in two weeks for an encore performance.

Monday, July 11, 2011


“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
—Lao Tzu
Because the deepest truths are paradoxical, they cannot be fully stated in words. Well-chosen words can at best capture just about half of the truth, but, sadly, not much more than half. The unsaid truth provides the silent background for the said truth to appear.
I love “writing” poetry. The reason for the quotation marks around the word writing is that my experience of putting poetry on paper (actually on a computer screen) does NOT feel personal, as if some "Dan Gurney" is writing the poetry. My experience feels—by contrast—much more like channeling some higher voice, and that voice, almost always for me appears to emanate from above, from some heavenly realm. 

My role as poet feels more like a scribe, a note-taker.
Of course I would not be fully truthful if I did not mention that I try to write poetry in the ordinary sense of the word, sans channeling, as if I could write poetry alone, without help from a Muse. 

When I try to write poetry solo, the results are sadly pathetic, flaccid, and without verve.

Thank goodness for Muses!
The other day Ruth over at Synch-ro-ni-zing posted a poem—a Nouvelle 55 poem—about vulnerability titled, appropriately enough, “Vulnerability.” Her poem spoke to me—deeply. In a few minutes a response came through my fingertips and on to her comment page. My response arose from my study of Buddhism and impermanence. 
I wanted to share her poem and my responding poem here on A Mindful Heart. I asked Ruth, and, graciously, she has encouraged me to share both poems here. The illustration of the clouds for my responding poem is from steven of the golden fish, a poet and teacher who consistently produces work that inspires me to jump outside ordinary consciousness. To both of these bloggers, I feel a strong sense of connection and gratitude. If you're a Mindful Heart reader and you've never jumped over to Ruth's or steven's blogs, well, I encourage you to indulge yourselves in some wonderful musings.

The world is not delicate
on the whole. I feel it here
in my sternum, my ribs,
lying on my back under you,
stars distant, tree immense.
The world is not delicate
and the plum leaf is strong,
even when the beetle nibbles
her into lace, making room
for more stars to be 
strung between her veins.
Here is my responding Nouvelle 55:

photo by steven leak

Even the most solid things
we think we know
are almost pure space,
not there except in imagination.
Hard headed me—
I am fooled
by my skull bones,
not yet dust.
I will not see how my skull
resembles a fist,
or a penis, only
hard a few moments.
Black holes, even,
are delicate, changeable.
—Dan Gurney

and... a further collaboration. (Thank you, Sabio.)

Involuntary Ability

My eroded soft skull pretends solidity
as the promising sky shines through
the lacey scaffolding made by the busy crowd
pretending to be me.

A refreshing wind caresses my moth-eaten brain.
A tickle of vulnerability but finally all threat disappears.
And as I leave, the playground fills with raucous laughter.
A tree sprouts and leaf buds blossom. 

—Sabio Lantz

Friday, July 8, 2011

Sabio's Interview

Sabio Lantz from Triangulations wrote a somewhat lengthy and thoughtful comment to a recent post called Experiment. I decided to respond to his questions in a stand-alone post. Here find his comment and my responses to the questions he posed, formatted as if it were an interview. I hope you enjoy reading this faux "interview."
Sabio:  I love your open posts. Thank you. But as always, I am going to comment in a way that is not patting-on-the-back, feel-good, kisses-and-hugs, comforting -- it is not my nature. So, If you don't mind, I will do some free-association while reading your post:

Dan:  You’re welcome. I don’t mind—it’s my wife’s job, the kisses and hugs. I am glad you are among the small handful of people who read this blog. While my ego is sufficiently needy to enjoy comforting comments, I welcome also comments like yours that push me to think harder about my world view. It makes blogging more worthwhile.

Sabio: Naughty Dan, you are not supposed to talk about the *benefits* of meditation. 
Dan: I had thought I was discussing the consequences of suspending meditation practice. Maybe I’m making too fine a point. Implicit in my post is an argument for meditation’s benefits. I avoid talking about meditation practice too much because when I discuss it, crappy meditation periods are the result. The less I say about meditation the better.
Sabio: But wait, I guess that depends on the sect you belong to.
Dan: I don’t belong to any sect.

Sabio: BTW, what type is yours again?
Dan: I am an unaffiliated practitioner. Once in a long while I go on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County nearby. It is, loosely, a Theravadin center, but pretty loosely I would say. Jack Kornfield is an important leader there. He trained in Thailand with Theravadin teachers. Spirit Rock is eclectic. It tries to weave strands of mostly Buddhist and some non-Buddhist religious traditions together with western psychology, science, and philosophy. 
For eight years I participated in “Sutra Salon” a group that discussed the major texts of Buddhism: the Nikayas, the Flower Garland Sutra,  the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, etc. This reading/discussion provided a foundation in essential Buddhist texts.
I now lead a group—it amounts to a Buddhist book club—called “The Society of Friends of the Buddha” that meets at my house twice a month. We employ elements of Quaker’s “Friends Meeting.” I invite you to come. We have atheists and deep thinkers like you. You could live in California instead of New Jersey?

Sabio: But on a serious note, isn't one of the benefits of focused sitting time that you can more often practice different awareness states more readily during everyday life? [By the way, I know the religiously-correct way to say that, but I refuse].
Dan: Yes. If meditation didn’t generalize to daily life, I’d stop meditating. What is the religiously correct way to say that?
Sabio: If meditation is merely relaxation, I could see how you could start missing it the daily hits, but if it is practice for daily shifts, I would think those would remain. 
Dan: I don’t think of meditation as merely relaxation. I work mostly at increasing my pathetic inability to concentrate. I am making slow progress, as I become more and more aware of just how far I have yet to go.
Sabio: Was your paddle board desire stronger than your I-pad desire and others you have written about. Serious? Your iPad and ukulele obsessions sounded pretty strong too -- I bet there are lots more.
Dan: Oh yes, lots more, and some not for public consumption! The paddle board desire never hit me at all; it was canoe lust—and the desire for the new canoe ran much stronger than feelings for iPads or ukuleles. I was losing sleep over the canoe. What got me wasn’t lust for a new canoe—the curvaceous plastic skins that form the canoe. Social connection was the hook. I was smitten with lust for the fun with friends that I imagined having a second canoe would make possible. Two canoes: one for me and one for a friend to paddle. Escape from loneliness. 
I am particularly vulnerable to longing/desire for social engagement at the beginning of each summer vacation from school. In June, especially, as I adjust to summer's spaciousness, I miss teaching and it’s difficult for me. Non teachers sometimes have trouble understanding this. We teachers like to suffer, I guess!
The iPad-wanting was tame by comparison. I don’t sucker for Apple’s fantasy about how connected we’ll all become when we buy their latest gewgaw gadget. They promise so much more than they can deliver. I suspect that computer technology alienates us from—more than it connects us with—our communities and our natural world. Computer and communication technology is strongly addicting. I would guess that’s probably because we’re all so damn lonely in America.
The ukulele doesn’t cost me any sleep and it’s not an obsession. Just pure pleasure. But strong pleasure, yes, for sure. And it does connect us with each other.

Sabio: Maybe you have a compulsive side that is indeed calmed for that day by a hit of neurotransmitters with a half-life of 24 hours after meditating -- not that this is the most meditation offers, but what the hell? We drink coffee and exercise (paddle) for similar hits of happiness.
Dan: Yep. I confess. I have a compulsive side. Gee, maybe I have more than one compulsive side. Meditation does calm down my compulsiveness. I'd like to say that the half life might be something like 48 hours, but who knows? maybe it's 48 nanoseconds.
Sabio: Maybe there are many benefits from sitting: (a) daily hit of neurotransmitters, (b) practice of awareness, (c) facing inner boredom and other individual mental habits. I am curious if you saw this level of complexity in your time off -- with some traits more stable than others? That is my serious question in this rambling note.
Dan: As I indicated above, I am reluctant to discuss the benefits of meditation, lest my ramblings send the benefits running out the door.  But to answer your questions: (a) Do I get a daily hit of neurotransmitters? Yes, I think so. I missed those hits after just two days off. A second cup of coffee in the morning helped compensate. (b) Does sitting help the practice of awareness? Yes, during my hiatus, my awareness went way down. I started feeling greedy and angry and was not aware of any connection to the hiatus in meditation. You’d think that connection would’ve been obvious, but it wasn’t. (c) Does sitting help face inner boredom? Yes. But so does singing, Sudoku puzzles, board games, and paddling. I was on vacation, so I don’t really know how the hiatus affected me because it was such an uncontrolled experiment.  

There are two benefits to meditation that you didn’t mention: (d) increasing the ability to concentrate; and (e) providing the opportunity to intentionally cultivate wholesome mental states like simple happiness, compassion, joy, and  equanimity.  I hasten to point out that there is nothing magical or mystical about cultivating wholesome states the way Buddhists do it. It’s hard work, more like weeding a garden than strolling through Eden.

Sabio: But let me risk wandering into a more personal zone -- I hope you realize it is coming from someone who likes you and who feels not an ounce of self-righteousness. And forgive me if I don't cushion it too much -- I don't have much time to polish (and lord knows polishing is something I always need to do). But here goes: 
You wrote, 

My problem is that I have too many possessions! To release my belongings, to pare down, down and down some more—this is the way to approach fulfillment. 

This is a repeating theme on your blog. This renunciation meme is common to most forms of Buddhism, but not all -- Tantric versions approach this issue differently. And to tell you the truth, the suppressive, belongings-adverse, struggling-discipline version of Buddhism may not be the best choice for all people. IMHO.
Dan: I trust your good will. While, for myself, I cannot claim to be without an ounce of self-righteousness, I’m with you on this. I have met renunciants who seem to go to such extremes in renunciation as to seem seriously unbalanced to me. I don’t think renunciation is the end-all-and-be-all answer for all people. We all know and enjoy our comforts and pleasures. Lord knows I do! 
Still, it is my observation that we live in a relentlessly materialistic advertising world, a world of incessant messages that encourage us to believe that consumerism is the end-all-and-be-all answer to all our problems. These messages lead us to believe that we just need to work harder, longer, and smarter so we can make more dough so we can consume more stuff. The more we consume, the happier we’ll be. This message is repeated day in and day out in every way imaginable, both blatantly and subtly. 
It’s part of my effort at Mindful Heart to point out that happiness isn’t found at the end of the shopping trip. You’d think we’d all know that by now, know it in our bones right down to the marrow. Perhaps more people are waking up to the limitations of consumerism. As for me, I’m still wiping the sleep out of my own eyes!

Sabio: You get a new toy, feel appropriately guilty for a while, meditate more, talk to nature more until you get enough relief. After building up enough comfort, you move on to the next acquisition and worry about not helping the poor while you live the good life in California once again.
Dan: I don’t know about helping the poor. We are poor in spirit in America. I’m a teacher, and have lived a life of service, so in some sense I think I’ve checked that box. Still, what you say here does sound familiar. I admit it. Life in California’s wine country is about as close to heaven as I could ever hope to live. Here I have found work I love, a wonderful, wonderful family, a large circle of friends, a community in which I’m a figure (and my wife even more of a figure, as the town Mayor/Councilmember), ukulele clubs to sing with, paddling clubs to canoe with, and on and on. I’m up to my eyeballs in grace. And I am grateful for it, grateful as I can be. I don't think I deserve it. And I cannot explain it, even to myself. But there it is. I have all the toys I want, more toys than I want. It is silly to worry about possessions, isn’t it? It is odd. Sabio: It seems a bit odd. Not having acquisitions or pleasure, of course. The part I love about you is your epicurean aspects, the indulgences. Can awareness be had with that and indulgent pleasures? 
Dan: Can awareness be had with indulgent pleasures? I hope so! The more awareness we can muster, the greater the pleasure. The trick is not letting attachment, clinging get so strong as to interfere with our awareness of what is. We strongly tend to desire more, more, and still more. These desires interfere with our awareness of what is. For me pleasure is impermanent, unstable, and limited. But pleasure, still. Pure pleasure, untainted with wishing it were other than it is.
Sabio: Do all Buddhisms require guilt?
Dan: I don’t know. I sure don’t know about all Buddhisms. I’m not even sure I know much about my own Buddhism. But let me explore this a little bit. 
Your question hints at something worth talking about: the many different forms of Buddhism. Buddhism is not one thing. (I know you already know this, Sabio.) When someone calls me a Buddhist he or she might imagine that I believe and practice things I don’t believe in and I don’t practice. For example, I don't think that I’m what Chapman might call a “wind chime” Buddhist. (Though I do have wind chimes outside my house.)
For me, Buddhism is closer to a school of philosophy than a religion. For me, the heart of Buddhism is learning to see the world just as it is. Through Buddhist eyes it’s easier to notice three essential qualities that seem to be almost universal, but are often hidden from view. In some sense, noticing these three essential qualities is what—for me, and not necessarily for anyone else—makes a Buddhist a Buddhist, regardless of what affiliation someone claims to have. And if you deny any these three qualities, then even if you say you’re a Buddhist, well, then, maybe you’re  a wind chime Buddhist.
What are these three essential qualities?
They are:
Impermanence (Everything changes; nothing remains quite the same.)
Non-self (There’s no independently existing, permanent soul or self.)
Suffering/Nirvana (Everything exhibits a non-dual nature of unsatisfactoriness/bliss.)
Not seeing these three essential qualities, and wishing it were possible to have a permanent soul that will someday be eternally happy in heaven is childish and can lead to a lot of needless trouble and suffering. 
Buddhism feels a little bit like growing up and having to accept reality just as it is. Growing up is compensated by the ability and freedom to indulge in adult pleasures. And it can be okay at times for adults to pretend there’s a God, a soul, and eternal bliss. I do it sometimes, too. (Yikes! I hope I'm not offending anyone here! Apologies if this my saying this makes you mad.)
I think Buddhism can undo guilt— mostly preemptively through observing the five basic precepts of non-harming, wise speech, not taking what’s not given, refraining from extra-marital sex, and refraining from intoxicants. Intoxicants, in my view, include toxic media and entertainment. Christians would call these "Christian" values, I suppose, Jewish people "Human" values. It's basic moral behavior, nothing fancy or particularly Buddhist. Or Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu.
I’m not sure I understand guilt and how it works beneath the level of conscious thought, so I cannot fully answer that part of your question. And, anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Thinking this hard is, well, hard!
Sabio: BTW, Chapman just did a great (and unfortunately controversial) post on the evolution of Zen -- called "Zen vs. The US Navy". And in his post before that he talks about how protestant ideas formed what Americans today call "Buddhism" -- with all its guilt and romanticism. He calls this "Consensus Buddhism". You might enjoy reading it and recognize stuff better than I can.
Dan: Thank you for continually bringing up Chapman. I spent almost two hours on his site today getting a feel for his work. I am impressed. I enjoyed the post on Zen and the Navy. I haven’t gotten to the “Consensus Buddhism” post yet, but I look forward to reading it.
As you may remember, I visited Japan to experience Buddhism there firsthand. I became aware of how much I had romanticized Zen and Buddhism. Up close and personal, it’s so much more human. It smells of more than incense. I’m sure you’ve heard of the “stink of Zen.”
I think I’ve pointed out to you before that Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is traditionally observed on December 8 each year. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in Hawaii on December 7 as far as Americans are concerned. In Japan, on the other side of the International Dateline, that event happened on December 8, 1941, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! I guess they wanted Shakyamuni to smile on their enterprise. Religion. It’s enough to make you cry. 
This Pearl Harbor day business is difficult for most Buddhists I know to assimilate. I don’t think you or Chapman would have any trouble getting it. And by pointing this out I don't mean to make any Buddhists mad. If people ask, I tell them I'm a Buddhist. 
Again, Sabio, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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