Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Power of An Empty Chair, Part 2

In the last blog, I wrote about Liu Xiaopo, the Chinese dissident and writer who was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize in absentia because he is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence. Here is another perspective on what happens when those in power try to silence the voices of truth and reason.
"What He Thought"
by Heather McHugh

For Fabbio Doplicher
We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does "flat drink" mean? and the mysterious
"cheap date" (no explanation lessened
this one's mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic--
and least poetic-- so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome 
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

"What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth
is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty, 

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. "If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died, 
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry--

(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry 
is what he thought, but did not say.
From Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993, from Wesleyan 
University Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Heather McHugh. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Power of An Empty Chair

Until this morning, I had never heard of Liu Xiaobo. He is a Chinese writer who has been imprisoned and held incommunicado by his government for the past year, charged with inciting to overthrow the regime. Today, however, he was thrust onto the world stage as the the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. For the first time in 75 years, nobody was there to accept this award - Liu's wife and relatives are either in jail or under house arrest - and so his award was draped over an empty chair during the ceremony.

When will the oppressive totalitarian regimes of the world learn that by trying to silence the voice of one person, you give more volume and credence to that person's message? I would never have given the story about the Nobel Prize a second glance, had it not been for the controversy of Liu's detainment. If the Chinese government had allowed him to speak freely before, there would be no reason for him to even be nominated.

The empty chair on the stage of the Oslo City Hall, with the picture of Liu Xiaobo gazing down in mute testimony, was more powerful and potentially damaging to the Chinese government than any words that one person could ever utter. 

Because he could not speak, today, I have excerpted a portion of "I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement To The Court" which was delivered by Liu on December 23, 2009, after he had been sentenced to 11 years on prison. It was read today by actress Liv Ullmann as part of the Nobel Prize ceremony.
I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom...I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities.

For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.

Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Lifetime of Temporary Relief

Late one night a bunch of years ago, I was up watching television when I saw an advertisement for the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. This modern marvel of sleep technology resembles the kind of bed you find in hospital rooms. It allows you to adjust the angle of the feet, legs, and head so you can sit up in bed and read or watch television, or elevate the knees to ease the lumbar spine. "All with the push of a button!" according to the voice-over announcer.

At the end of the commercial came the slogan: "The Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. For a lifetime of temporary relief from low back pain." Now obviously the legal department over at Craftmatic must have gotten hold of the script and insisted on this wording, but the absurdity of it still makes me chuckle.

In a way, though, this silly slogan sums up the experience of vipassana meditation. The back pain is equal to the suffering we cause ourselves from getting into the uncomfortable positions of clinging and aversion. These postures gives rise to a sense of self ("I want this/I don't want that") which can cause us discomfort. The "temporary relief" is the practice we learn through vipassana of being able to release the tight fist of clinging, or to abandon the aversion, and return to the present-moment reality. 

Because the mind is tenacious, however, the thoughts that give rise to clinging and aversion will probably come back sooner or later, and we have to repeat the process all over again. And again. And again...

When you find yourself suffering because of ruminative, repetitive thoughts that are useless and upsetting, first begin by asking yourself, "Is this thing that I'm thinking of happening now?" Perhaps these thoughts come to you at night when you are lying in bed (whether Craftmatic or ordinary, it doesn't matter). This is a time when we are particularly vulnerable to negative thoughts and ideas. Obviously, the thing you are fearing in the future can't be happening in this moment, so you turn your attention toward a present-moment event, such as the feeling of the body breathing, or the feeling of your head lying on the pillow.

The mind has a built-in bias toward the present-moment experience, and will always favor the present-moment experience over a thought about an imagined future event. You can test this by trying to conjure up the taste of pickles while you're mindfully eating chocolate ice cream. The mind cannot hold these two things at one time, so it makes a choice to pay attention to the event that is actually taking place in this moment. (This would be a desirable trait in terms of human evolution. For instance, the intense concentration required for hunting would not have been possible if the mind had no mechanism to filter thoughts from present-moment reality.)

I really like these bits of empirical evidence that prove how mindfulness can actually work. It gives me a lot of confidence in my practice, and provides a real solid framework from which to teach these techniques to students and patients.

Remember, however, that the relief from the troubling thought will only be temporary. It will probably come back again, sooner or later. Therefore, do not expect miracles. These ruminative thought habits have been with you for a long time, so they are not likely to go away completely in one try. Nor are they ever likely to stay away once and for all. However, if you become diligent with this kind of practice of returning to the present-moment reality, and apply it throughout your day, it will become the new habit of mind, and your temporary relief will be guaranteed.

Or your money back.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Time Changes

The time change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time took place this morning. I always welcome this one because it seems to give me an extra hour in the day in which to be productive. For one day, at least, I have enough time to do everything that I want or need to do on a Sunday. I can cafe sit with Kathy. There can be a leisurely walk with Sam the dog all the way to the park where we chase squirrels, run with other dogs, and watch the Tai Chi practitioners. The New York Times Sunday Edition can be savored, not just scanned. I can write a blog, cook dinner, then watch a movie with the everyone. 

Time changes also bring home to me the fact that hours, minutes, days, and years are artificial concepts developed to help us to understand change. 

When we meditate, however, we enter into the present moment where there is no time. Instead, it is always "now." Therefore, it appears that we exist in at least two realms: the world of time, and the world of no time. This may explain why a forty-five minute meditation can seem like only a few minutes, or like an eternity. When we are immersed in a timeless place, we don't have the movement of a clock or sun with which to judge the passing of the minutes.

The same experience happens when we are deeply absorbed in a task or project. Paying attention in the present moment in this way seems to hold a key to the timeless, the birthless, and the deathless. 

So enjoy your time, as we begin the final descent into the darkness of the winter season. Connect with time through connection with nature, and connect with the timeless through your meditation practice.

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver, one of six pieces that appeared in today's New York Times to mark the end of Daylight Savings Time:

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness
Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Making Conscious Choices

I just got back from voting. It always makes me feel good in a mushy, patriotic-y sort of way. I was in the first wave of eighteen year-olds to be given the privilege of voting in 1972, and I'm still proud to say I voted for George McGovern. Which may explain the strong streak of cynicism that gets mixed in with my nice mushy feeling. I heard Lily Tomlin say that she was concerned about her own cynical nature: "I worry that not matter how cynical I get, it's never enough to keep up."

As I left the South Pasadena Library wearing my "I Voted" sticker proudly on my chest, I thought about the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they have to dip their finger in purple ink to show they have cast their ballot. Except, unlike the situation in those places, I am fairly confident that nobody in South Pas is going to kill me for voting.

We often take a long time of reflection and contemplation before making our choice at the polls. We carefully study the ballot propositions and the candidate's positions. Then we make sure that we punch the correct hole next to the correct number, making sure we leave no chad hanging after the debacle of 2000 (there's that cynicism again).

We tend not to bring this same level of care and attention into the choices we make in daily life, however. Most of the time, the "choice" is simply to go with the auto-reflex reaction of the mind. As Deepak Chopra wrote, "Like it or not, we are all infinite choice makers." At any point we can put everything on PAUSE and take a reflective moment before making our choice. All it takes is a momentary awareness of the situation, and then feeling a breath or two coming and going. This pause can create a bit of space between the situation and the response toward that situation. Responding mindfully, rather than reacting automatically, can make the difference between an effective choice of action, and a disaster.

Too bad we don't get little stickers every time we make skillful choices that say "I Took A Reflective Pause."


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hallows Eve

Tonight is Hallows Eve, the night when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, and the ability to communicate between the two worlds is at is greatest. 

By some estimates, upwards of 80% of the United States believe in some form of afterlife. Personally, I'm not sure. I've had some pretty dramatic psychic experiences that make me wonder though, including a series of events that led me to precisely where I am right now. I believe it was a path prepared for me by the spirit of my dead father.

Roger Sherwood Nolan, Sr., who was born The Ides of March, 1921, died on February 10, 1990. At the moment of his death, I was in or near Atlanta, Georgia, where I was fulfilling a contractual obligation as the spokesman for a chain of regional grocery stores. My dad was in a hospital in Irvine, California, in the final stages of colo-rectal cancer.

I had been conflicted about traveling so far away from him. When I asked dad if I should go he adamantly answered in the affirmative. He was always a "make hay while the sun shines" kind of guy. My older sister, Gloria, was there keeping vigil, and he was in good hands. So I traveled to Atlanta, trading in my First Class airline ticket for two Coach seats so that my wife, Judy, could go with me, along with our then-infant son, Zach (Judy was born and raised just outside of Atlanta).

Judy and Zach were staying at her mother's house, while I was being billeted at a hotel near the studio where we were shooting the commercials. To save money, I was using a small pickup truck that had belonged to Judy's father, who had passed away a few years before.  

At the end of the first day's shooting, I was returning to my mother-in-law's house, and looking forward to a home cooked Southern dinner. While waiting at a traffic light, I felt what I can only describe as a cold wind blowing through me. It was a definite "presence" that I immediately sensed as being Otherworldly. 

My first thought was that I was being visited by Judy's dead father. The human mind wants to make sense of these kinds of things, and it seemed logical since I was driving his truck. I may have even said something like, "Ed, is that you?" The feeling passed, the light turned green, and I continued on, logging the experience in my memory to tell Judy when I got home.

I'm not sure if I mentioned the event the first thing upon arriving, but within a few minutes a phone call came for me. It was Gloria. "Dad's gone," was all she said. I knew in that moment that the feeling I had in the truck was the movement of his spirit in some way. "I know," I replied. "I felt it." As powerful as this experience was, however, it could not compare to what would come next. 

A month or so later I found myself back in Atlanta shooting more commercials for the grocery store. Judy and I were using the opportunity to visit some friends of ours who lived on a wooded, and at that time at least, secluded river. 

One evening, after everyone else had gone back up to the house to fix dinner, I stayed behind to meditate, sitting on a large boulder in the middle of the river. My thoughts turned to my father, and I called out to him silently. Within seconds, I felt like I was surrounded by some kind of perceptible energy field. It was like being in the middle of a swarm of butterflies, their thousands of wings beating lightly against me from head to toe.

Then I heard my dad's voice. It was very clear. How long we "spoke" together I do not know. As far as I remember, I never opened my eyes, so there was no physical presence, only an internal dialogue. In answer to my questions, he assured me that he was fine, that the death experience was pretty much as advertised, complete with the bright light and his mother there to help him through. He told me that he was now omnipotent, and that he was enjoying the experience because now he could really be of help to other people. 

To that end, he informed me that he was preparing the way for me and my future. I did not ask him the specifics of this plan, but assumed it meant that I would have a successful and lucrative career as an actor, my main pursuit at the time. He assured me that he was available whenever I needed him, for a while at least, and he signed off by saying "as amazing as all this is, love is what makes life worth living."

Then he was gone. The beating of the butterfly wings subsided, and I finally opened my eyes. It was now quite dark. I got up and walked slowly, and very thoughtfully, up the hill to the house. Everyone was already sitting down to dinner when I appeared. I sat down without a word as every eye in the room stared at me. "What happened to you?" someone finally asked. "You look so different!" 

And I was.

That experience led me seeking out a psychic in Los Angeles who had a sweatlodge in her back yard where I started attending sweats once a month. Where I met another attendee who practiced yoga. Which got me back into the practice I had neglected for some years. Which led to my quitting acting to become a yoga teacher. Which led me to vipassana meditation. Which led me to Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffitt, and other teachers. Which led me to leading a meditation group in Los Angeles. Which led me to returning to school to become a psychotherapist. Which led me to leading mindfulness-based groups. Which led me to Kathy. Which led me to writing this blog. Which led me to this exact moment.

Thanks, dad. You prepared the way very well indeed. 

Happy Hallows Eve,




Friday, October 29, 2010


A year ago tomorrow, October 30, 2009, I received an e-mail from Kathy saying that she had set up a blog for me. When I went to the site, I saw the blog title: Roger's Daily Dharma. I'm still not sure if it was intentional on her part to force me to write something every day (it's quite possible, since she is one heck of a good writing teacher), but it worked. 

I loved the title. It reminded me of The Daily Word from the Unity Church that I used to read religiously (pun somewhat intended). It contains a daily dose of spiritual wisdom based on a single word or phrase. I have a lifetime subscription. However, the Buddhist publication, Tricycle, already has a blog called "The Daily Dharma," so I decided to change it to Dharma 365, the intention always being to create 365 blogs in one year.

And so, here it is. Three Six Five. 

A year ago, this moment seemed so far away. So unattainable. So daunting! What would I find to write about every day? It reminded me of a scene from Our Town by Thorton Wilder in which the parents of a young man about to be married discuss their own marriage over breakfast on the day of the wedding:
Dr. Gibbs: (After a slight pause; laughing) Julia, you know one of the things that I was scared of when I married you?
Mrs. Gibbs: Oh, go along with you! (Eats)
Dr. Gibbs: I was afraid we didn't have material for conversation more'n'd last us a few weeks. (Both laugh heartily) I was afraid we'd run out and eat our meals in silence, that's a fact. Well, you and I been conversing for twenty years now without any noticeable barren spells. (Eats)
Mrs. Gibbs: Well, good weather, bad weather, 'tain't very choice, but I always find something to say.
Then there was the matter of discipline. Would I be able to keep this kind of thing up for a year? My pattern has always been to maintain some project or lifestyle change quite diligently for a short period of time, but then to lose interest, or get lazy and quit. One thing that writing this blog has shown me is that this is not necessarily true when it comes to the Dharma. I've been practicing vipassana pretty diligently since approximately 1997, and teaching it every week since January, 2002. So in one area of my life, at least, discipline does not seem to be an issue.

Now it seems that the year has gone by rather quickly and fairly effortlessly. I've never run a marathon, but I would imagine that the mind tells those who do that the finish line is too far away and they must stop. For me as well, at some points along the way, it seemed like I could not go on another step. Indeed, there were days when I had nothing in particular to say, and those were usually the days when I found a poem or quote to fill the space. Thank you to all the poets and collectors of quotations from whom I borrowed so freely.

Thank you, as well, to my students from whom I also borrowed. Many times, a chance comment during a class or sangha would be filed away and expanded upon the next day. As best I could, while maintaining anonymity, I always gave credit where credit was due for these nuggets of wisdom. If you were one of those inspirational folks and I did not give you proper attribution, I apologize.

Of course, my greatest inspiration over this year has been Kathy - my life partner, my best friend, my lover, my wife, and my Dharma. (Come closer so she doesn't hear this, but you see, she is the real writer. I am merely reflecting her brilliance.) She has influenced me on this journey beyond measure. She was always there to answer the most basic questions when I had them, and to give me praise when I wrote a particularly good posting. As she once wrote:
One of the ways I try to figure out if I'm on the right track is to ask myself - without fear or ambition - whether it's the path with heart. The answer is always immediately apparent. What I do with that knowledge is up to me.
And so, for putting me on this path, and for starting my feet moving in front of me, I dedicate these 365 blogs to Kathy. 

Finally, thank you for reading this, whoever you are. Feel free to leave a comment, good, bad, or indifferent. It has been a great joy and totally unexpected surprise when people tell me they read this stuff. My gratitude is infinite.

So, in the spirit of invoking help from great writers, I will close this last blog of the project with the last line from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think it sums things up rather nicely:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Patience

The fool thinks he has won a battle when he bullies with harsh speech,
But knowing how to be forbearing - that makes one victorious.
The worse of the two is he who, when abused, retaliates.
One who does not retaliate wins a battle hard to win.

Knowing that the other person is angry, one who remains mindful and calm
Acts for his own best interest and for the other's interest, too.
He is a healer of both himself and the other person also.
He is thought a fool only by those who do not understand the Dharma.

~ The Buddha from The Dhammapada

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Great Pain

After a meditation practice a few days ago, a new student said, "It seems ironic that a practice that is supposed to end suffering causes us to suffer." This paradox brings up a very important point about vipassana. 

First or all, to say that the practice causes suffering is not quite correct. Suffering can arise at any time. In vipassana, we are merely becoming aware of suffering when it occurs, and then we get to practice accepting it, allowing it, and letting it be. In this way, suffering becomes a teaching path that can lead us toward important insights about how the mind reacts to various stimuli, including physical pain.

It is not unusual to feel intense sensations of many kinds during our meditation practice. Pain is merely one of these events. Accepting that the pain is here, allowing it to be here, and and then letting the pain be can be a really insightful process, as long as we are not causing ourselves injury.

In Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying by Stephen and Ondrea Levine, the subject of working with pain is given very detailed analysis:
It is important to recognize that there are various levels and intensities of pain. That all pains may not be able to be opened to with the same ease or perhaps even opened to at all. If we have waited until "the great pain" to open, it is quite possible that we will not have the spaciousness for deeper examination, because there has been so little preparation for such openness. But if we begin to play the edge of lesser pains, disappointments, fears, the wobblings of the mind, the contractions of the heart, in a gentle, day-to-day meeting and expansion, it prepares us for what comes later. It is the daily opening to the little pains that prepares us for the great pain. Playing the edge of our pain should be done with great compassion. Though it takes a certain steadfastness to maintain our concentration on, and openness to, pain, we should be aware of that quality of endurance that subtly creeps in to create some sense of a separate self with its accompanying resistance to life.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Path of the Householder

In an essay on monastic life, Thomas Merton wrote:
In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness.
Most of us who follow the path of insight and enlightenment do not have the luxury (if that is the right word for it) to escape our daily lives and sit in contemplation day in and day out in a monastery. However, as householders, every time we touch the truth of life as it is being lived, even for only a moment, we embody the monastic ideal. Bringing even momentary awareness to those things that we have previously tried to hide from ourselves can have a profound impact on the choices we make in our daily life.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Group Experience

Many students over the years have commented upon how much more intense the meditation experience seems to be when practiced with others. I wholeheartedly agree. Whether with one other person, or more than one thousand, as I have experienced at some conferences, there seems to be something going on in the group that doesn't happen when practicing alone.

Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating that we only practice with others. In fact, many of my most powerful and life-changing insights have occurred during solitary practice. The sweetness of being still within one's being is truly unparalleled.

Yet, something occurs in a group context that cannot be denied. Maybe it's the fact that humans are gathering and doing one thing together that imparts a greater sense of purpose and importance to the practice. Maybe it's because we really are connected to each other by some invisible thread of consciousness that is perceptible when practicing with others.

Or maybe it's more akin to the way Anne Lamott speaks of her own inner experience: "My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone."


Sunday, October 24, 2010

From "Demian"

By Herman Hesse
There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world with the body and mind to reveal itself.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Roses of Bereavement

I was talking with a friend who had lost his partner to cancer earlier this year. "How long has it been?" I asked. He paused and looked into the distance, his eyes heavy with tears. "Eight months and two days," he said quietly.

Bereavement is never easy. It's especially difficult when the person who is gone is young (she had just turned 44), has a family (a young son and daughter), and possessed a certain ability to bring life to the world (she did). I knew his partner only briefly, and she was one of those people you never forget: self-possessed, assured, strong, yet full of love and life force. After she died, the nursing staff at the medical center where she spent many months in treatment produced a video of tender and moving memories of her that was played at the memorial. She was that special.

So my friend has spent the past eight months and some odd days doing what? Gardening. He saw that the flowers at the church where her memorial was held needed tending, and he has been there practically every day since. The roses have flourished under his skilled attention. They grace the church alter on Sunday mornings, and he brings them regularly to the Starbuck's he and his partner considered "theirs."

As we were talking, it reminded me, again, that we touch so many lives in ways we will never know. The dozens if not hundreds of customers at the Starbuck's may not know who brought the roses, but they are seen, and a hundred days are brightened by just that much. In this way, the bereavement it channeled and transmuted into a gift for everyone. And a young life that has ended continues to change the world.


Friday, October 22, 2010

From "Knots"

By R.D. Laing

I want it
I get it
therefore I am good

I want it
I don't get it
therefore I am bad

I am bad
            because I didn't get it

I am bad
            because I wanted what I didn't get

I must take care
            to get what I want
            to want what I get
     and not get what I don't want 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Fear Fears Most

On my way to Orange County the other day, I saw a new billboard advertising the annual Halloween extravaganza at a local theme park. The slogan for this year: "What fear fears most!"

It often comes down to that in our day-to-day lives: we fear what we fear. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (aka DSM-IV-TR) we can find this experience in the diagnosis of Agoraphobia. Most people think of Agoraphobia as meaning simply the fear of open spaces. This is only partially true. The first criteria for this disorder in the DSM-IV-TR is:
Anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult (or embarrassing) or in which help may not be available in the event of having an unexpected or situationally predisposed Panic Attack or panic-like symptoms.
So Agoraphobia is basically the fear of being afraid. 

We all remember Franklin Roosevelt's words at his first innaguration in 1933, with the world in the grip of an economic depression:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
I see this paralyzing fear in almost every psychotherapy session, and I know it to be present in my own life, as well. Mindful awareness has helped me in many ways to recognize that most of my fears are only about feeling fear, and that there is nothing in most situations that really warrant feeling fear beyond that. 

Perhaps if we can simply stop for a moment when the habitual feeling of fear arises, and reflect upon what exactly we are afraid of in that moment - or better yet, what in that moment is there really to be afraid of - perhaps we can see the impostor of fear more clearly for what it is: a simple thought, and a habit of the mind.



Wednesday, October 20, 2010

From "The Country of Marriage"

By Wendell Berry
Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing   
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.   
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,   
provided we stay brave   
enough to keep on going in.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What's The Point?

A couple of days ago, an 87 year-old friend of mine confided to me that she is ready to die. "What's the point of going on?" she asked. "I don't do anything useful. I don't contribute to society. I'm just a drain on everybody, and it's only going to get worse with time."

So we discussed this very interesting question. What is the point? Alan Watts once said that "the point of life is reached in every moment." If that is true, then this moment is the point. Just this.

I also remembered the Frank Capra film It's A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart as a man who decides life is just not worth the struggle any more and wishes he had never been born. An angel sent to help him gives him his wish, and the rest of the movie is about all the things that were different because this one man never existed. "One man's life touches so many other lives," Clarence, the angel, tells him.

So I reminded my elder friend that she has the potential to affect the life of every person she meets. Even a momentary conversation on an elevator or in line at the grocery store has the potential to offer a new perspective that could alter the course of history. In this way, as long as she can make contact with the world, she has usefulness in the world. Without her, the world would be a different place, and when she goes, the world will be poorer for it. That is the point.


Monday, October 18, 2010

From Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse by Zindel V. Segal, J. Mark G. Williams & John D. Teasdale.
Because the theme of connecting to the present moment is examined in sitting meditation, participants are asked to observe in the body these reactions of aversion or attachment that arise during the practice. They are invited to notice how such reactions are powerful competitors for attention and often take awareness away from the breath, moving the focus to other, seemingly vital thoughts or feelings. The practice of mindfulness can be a powerful ally, allowing us to notice when this has occurred and to regain the ability to choose where we wish to place our attention in this moment. Note, again, that the aim of the practice is not relaxation or even happiness. Rather, it is freedom from the tendency to get drawn into automatic reactions to pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and events. But getting drawn into such thoughts and imaginings still happens - even for experienced meditators. The promise of mindfulness practice is not that such mind wanderings will be prevented, but that a person will come to find it possible to extricate him- or herself from it in a non-judgmental way when it does occur.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All The Hemispheres

By Hafiz
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
And love.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of

From: 'The Subject Tonight is Love'
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fluorescent Rocks

As I've often said, nothing special happens in vipassasa meditation. It's just the everyday, ordinary stuff of life that occurs. The content of these events does not change. What changes is how we pay attention to them in a state of mindful awareness. This changes the ordinary into the extraordinary.

It's like those rocks in the Natural History Museum that appear very plain and drab when seen under normal lighting, but which display beautiful fluorescent colors when seen under ultraviolet lights. The content of the rock has not changed, just the way the rock is being seen.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Managing Fear

An acquaintance and I were discussing life the other day, and among the topics was the subject of happiness. "How would you define happiness?" I asked her. "The absence of fear," she replied. Then she thought for a moment and continued, "And acceptance."

That last piece is pretty important. We may never experience the total absence of fear in our lives. However, we can learn how to turn toward it, acknowledge it, and let it be. 

Many years ago, I felt paralyzed by fear. At the time, I was making my living as an actor, so this kind of paralysis is not a good thing. On the advice of a counselor, I began to imagine my fear as an inanimate object. I found a little rubber ball with an ugly, menacing face on it in a toy store, and I would secretly carry it with me wherever I went. For example, when I had an audition, it went with me and waited patiently in my briefcase until I was done. When I began to see my fear as no more threatening than a piece of rubber, I was able to manage it much more easily.

A few years later, I was in my early vipassana practice, when I began to feel that paralyzing fear again. During one sitting, the fear was so strong I was practically shaking. Finally I'd had enough. I "turned toward" the darkness where the fear was hiding and shouted inwardly, "Okay, you asshole! Let me see you! Show me what you've got!" Out of the shadows came the face on my rubber ball, which had been lost for quite some time. "Boogah-boogah!" it seemed to say, trying to frighten me. "That's it?" I laughed. "That's the best you can come up with?" The face seemed to grow very sad, and it slunk away back into the shadows never to bother me quite so much again.

Our fears are not real. They are objects of our mind. They are thoughts about an imagined future based on a remembered past. They have no more reality than this. When we can face them, and see them for the impostors that they are, then we have a chance to experience acceptance and, perhaps, happiness.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sins of My Father

Kathy and I watched a very good documentary tonight called Sins of My Father. The film follows Sebastian Marroquin,the grown son of the late Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar as he attempts to pay some of his father's karmic debts. 

As the head of the Medellin drug cartel in the 1980's and '90's, the elder Escobar was extremely wealthy, powerful, and dangerous. When he tried to enter into Colombian politics, he was exposed and denounced by his chosen party, and subsequently ordered the assassinations of the two party leaders. The documentary shows Sebastian reaching out to the sons of these leaders, asking for forgiveness and healing.

Three things stood out for me while watching this film. First and foremost, it exemplifies the Buddha's teaching that "Hatred never ceases by hatred." Sebastian's decision to end the cycle of violence that had been his father's legacy results in peace and understanding between everyone involved.

Another theme of the film is that Pablo Escobar was, at heart, a family man who made his fortune in a way that was extraordinarily unskillful and harmful to countless other people. No villain walks around gloating to the world about how evil they are, and Escobar was no exception. Seeing him in family home movies playing with his children, and hearing the sadness in Sebastian's voice as he remembers these happy family times, one is reminded that we are all just human beings looking for love.

Finally, the documentary reminds us that when we get what we think we want, we are still subject to suffering. Toward the end of the film, Sebastian recounts how his family had to huddle together inside the money vault his father had built in their home which was under siege by Colombian drug police. "We were starving," Sebastian said. "Here we were in a room with millions of dollars, and we didn't have anything to eat." All the money that his father had amassed, paid for with the misery of so many others, was absolutely worthless.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cooked People

Unformed people delight in the gaudy and in novelty. Cooked people delight in the ordinary.
 ~ Zen Saying ~

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ancestry Dot Com

I saw a commercial this morning for Ancestry.com. A woman was giving a testimonial, saying that thanks to the research into her family tree, she discovered that her great grandmother had borne five children, but that only one had survived. 

This was an obvious comment upon how precious and mysterious the interconnected web of causes and conditions actually is. For those of us who are familiar with the doctrine of interdependent co-arising, this is not new information. 

Nice to see it utilized in mainstream advertising, though.


Monday, October 11, 2010

The Everyday Made Exciting

Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.
~ Shunryu Suzuki ~

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Harnessing the Wandering Mind

In vipassana practice, the breath is usually the primary object of attention. This is not to say that we must always have the attention on the breath or we have failed. It is impossible for the human mind to maintain attention on a single object indefinitely either by force of will or through training. Inevitably the mind will wander or become distracted, if only for a moment.

Many times I have said that the wandering mind should not be viewed as an obstacle in meditation practice. Instead, it is actually an opportunity to help us awaken. The mind is the most powerful force we know of, and its power can be harnessed and utilized in service of enlightenment and insight. It is the same principle that allows a stream of water to be put to use turning a wheel to grind grain or to create electricity.

When we begin our practice, we usually devote as much attention as we can to the feeling of the breath. This helps the mind to gather and collect more fully in the present moment (a phrase I learned from Phillip Moffitt). Once the mind has become more present, we can then turn our attention toward objects of mind (thoughts) as they arise in much the same way we devote attention to the feeling of the breath. By doing so, we can gain insight about how the habits of our mind.

For example, let's say I've been sitting for a while in meditation, feeling the body breathing in and out, getting the mind to become more present, when I notice that one of my legs has fallen asleep. I can make the choice to turn my attention toward that experience, and then I can notice the almost immediate experience of the mind creating a preference, judgment, or story about the physical event. I can witness, and at the same time participate in, the mind wanting things to be other than the way they are right now. I can see clearly all the stories that the mind tells about the leg - how I'll never be able to walk again, for instance. Then after the insight is gained, I can return my attention back to the breath.

This is the same process as noticing the wandering mind earlier in the meditation practice, but now I am able to keep my attention on the thoughts in a mindful way and store this experience as insight. This insight may be able to serve me in daily life when I notice the experience of wanting things to be other than the way they are. 

In addition, by not trying to fix or change the situation in the meditation practice, but rather by allowing it to continue, I am creating new habit patterns in the brain that will help me in daily life as well. These new habit patterns may help me to make more effective choices instead of automatically reacting toward situations.

So again we see that everything that arises during our practice (and at any time during our life) is not only grist for our mill, but can also provide the power to run the mill.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

I Find You In All These Things

By Rainer Maria Rilke

I find you in all these things,
to which I am a brother in all,
in which minuscule seed you minutely hide yourself
and in the Great, you greatly reveal yourself.

This wondrous game of power
which unfolds itself in submission:
stretching through the roots, thickening in the trunks,
and resurrecting though the treetops.

(Translation by James Hollis)


Friday, October 8, 2010

When we are meditating on the breath and the mind wanders, this is an opportunity, not an obstacle.

1. The wandering mind means that a) we have temporarily drifted into a mindless state, and b.) sense of "I, me and mine" has arisen. This is useful information because often we are not often aware of either of these conditions.

2. When we become aware of the thought that led to the mind wandering, we have an opportunity to know what we are thinking. Again, we are often either not present with our thoughts, or they take place below the level of consciousness. By knowing what we are thinking while we are thinking it, we have the opportunity to see the pattern of ruminating thoughts that might be arising.

3. The wandering mind offers us the opportunity to awaken when we become aware that it is wandering.

4. We then have the opportunity to make the conscious choice to return the attention back to the breath. In this way, we are gently training the mind to disengage from thoughts, and return to the present moment reality of the breath.


A View From the Bridge

From Aphrodite In Jeans: Adventure Tales About Men, Midlife, and Motherhood by Katherine Shirek Doughtie (Nolan).
This summer I stood on a small bridge overlooking a stream in Vermont. and I had an interesting thought: If I were a leaf floating on that stream, what I'd be most aware of, in fear of, and consumed by would be the rocks

The rocks would always be in my way, forcing me to go one way or the other, making me crazy to avoid them, but they would appear in front of me again and again. If I were a leaf, my life would be all about the rocks.

When viewed from above, however, the thing that's most interesting about the stream is its direction and flow. It's obvious from the bridge that the rocks have nothing to do with anything. They add beauty. They add texture. but the do nothing to impede the leaf's journey. That leaf is traveling downstream, whether it wants to or not.

The obstacles simply do not matter. Even the destination does not matter. The movement, the flow, the act of navigating the waters - that's what it's all about.

Asking yourself - without fear or ambition - if a direction is a path with heart tells you if you're poised on the edge of the river bank. The call to adventure is the invitation to jump into the river and find out what's going to happen next.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Family Is Like a Garden

A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.
~ The Buddha ~

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Invite and Allow

One of the hallmarks of vipassana meditation practice is the concept of "inviting and allowing." We invite anything that is present to be known. Then, when it is known we acknowledge that it is present, and then allow it to continue.

In this way, anything that happens during our practice can bring us insight. An itch on the nose can become an insightful experience as we note and allow the itch to continue. Then, in turn, we acknowledge and allow all the aversive thoughts that accompany the itch to be known. If we had simply reached up and scratched, we would never had been given the opportunity to gain insight about the habitual workings of the mind.


Monday, October 4, 2010

The Dharma of Sesame Street

For those of you with children, you no doubt are familiar with "Sesame Street." In this morning's New York Times is the obituary for Dr. Gerald S. Lesser, a Harvard psychology professor, and chief adviser to the the long-running PBS series. Dr. Lesser helped create one of the most popular characters on that show: Oscar the Grouch. 

Oscar lives in a trash can. He helps show children that perspectives can exist in the world that may be radically different from their own. Whereas most people don't like a lot of loud noise, Oscar loves it. Most people think trash is yukky, but Oscar thrives in it. For me, one of the most memorable songs from the show was Oscar's magnum opus, "I Love Trash." 

The mind tends to put up preferences and judgments about things based on our personal perspectives. We can see these perspectives quite clearly in vipassana meditation practice. If I am meditating and a loud car goes by outside, I will probably have a thought something like, "I hate those guys with their loud cars who are always bothering my meditation!" However, if I was a big NASCAR fan, I might find the sound of a loud car to be a pleasant experience, evoking fond memories of some experience I had at the track.

When we note our preferences and judgments in meditation practice, or in daily life, we can take a moment to remember that they are habits of mind brought on by our perspective on the world. When we hold these experiences in this way, with a more open hand instead of clinging to some way we wish it were, or instead of trying to push the experience away out of aversion, we can be more relaxed and easy-going.

In his own way, Dr. Lesser has helped generations of young people to be more understanding of the perspectives of others. The hope being that, when they grow up, these kids will be more tolerant and compassionate toward those with different cultures, beliefs, and traditions. Because of his work, there is a little less suffering in the world.

To see Oscar singing "I Love Trash," click on this link:


Sunday, October 3, 2010

When Conditions Aren't Perfect

There was a time in my meditation practice when I couldn't do it unless I had everything in my environment just right. I had to be in the right place with the right sitting cushion. The temperature had to be just right. There couldn't be much noise around me or other distractions.

When I began teaching, I would find myself getting upset if I was leading a meditation and there was any kind of noise from outside. Because of my need to have everything perfect, I was projecting that need onto my students, fearing that the noise was upsetting them as well.

Now, when I am practicing by myself, or when I am leading a practice, I welcome the imperfect in all its many forms. I have grown quite fond of meditating in the noisiest places I can find. Airport or airplanes are particular favorites. These days, when the Athens Disposal Company truck arrives in the alley behind the yoga studio where we meditate on Thursday mornings, I welcome the sound. I know that it will give me and my students an object toward which to turn in order to see clearly the way we habitually greet these kinds of experiences. This insight can serve us later when faced with daily life situations and we have the opportunity to experience these reactive states in real time. It may mean the difference between reacting mindlessly, and responding skillfully.


Saturday, October 2, 2010


In today's meditation sangha, one of the participants shared with us a great definition of "surrender:"

"Letting go of resistance to the way things are."


Friday, October 1, 2010

Watch The Thought

The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.

~ The Buddha

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Like This...

My teacher Phillip Moffitt is very fond of using the phrase "like this" to help describe and teach how to deal with events as they arise. If a leg falls asleep during meditation, he'll say, "my leg falling asleep is like this." If there is strong sense desire during practice, "desire is like this." If I am overcome with a strong feeling of joy, "joy is like this." To anything that happens in our life we can add the words, "like this."

These two words are extremely helpful and powerful in moving us toward an ability to accept "what is" in each moment. It is not a capitulation or surrender. It is not a denial that we might want things to be other than the way they are. "Like this" means that we are acknowledging the fact of the present moment, which is the first step toward effective action. 

In your practice, and in daily life, apply the words "like this" to any experience or situation that arises. Note what happens to the experience, and note as well the inner adjustment that takes place toward the experience. You may find that your relationship toward the event changes dramatically, and that your level of suffering decreases as a result.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

There Is A Pain So Utter...

By Emily Dickinson
There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — upon it —
As one within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Discrepancy

A lot of the time in our lives, there is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way we wish they could be. In the Doing Mode state of mind (see yesterday's blog), we are usually concerned with trying to close the gap between these two polarities. By focusing on the discrepancy, however, we may be missing a bigger, and potentially more useful perspective.

When we are trying to change, manipulate, or get rid of something in order to close the gap, our focus is very narrow, and our happiness is dependent upon the achievement of a particular result. Sometimes we might be able to affect useful change, but a lot of the time, these things are out of our control. 

Rather than trying to close the gap right away, it might be better to just sit with the experience of things not being the way we want them to be in that moment. This is an example of bringing "Being Mode" to bear upon the situation. This approach can not only decrease our anxiety about the situation almost immediately, but it can also engage a wider and wiser way of seeing things. When we "decenter" from the obsession with fixing the gap, and when this kind of "wise mind" is deployed as a result of the decentering, solutions that we never considered before begin to present themselves. (For more information about wise mind, see 5/19/10 blog.)



Monday, September 27, 2010

Doing Mode vs. Being Mode

In Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, we recognize two basic modes of mind: "Doing Mode" and "Being Mode."

Doing Mode is where most of us spend a lot of our time. Doing Mode is focused on achievement and outcome. It is result oriented. An example of Doing Mode might be that if we are traveling on a road trip, we would be obsessed with getting to our destination and we would miss all of the scenery going by. It would be more important that we get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, and we would only see the trip as successful if that time coordinate is met.

Being Mode is not concerned with the ultimate goal or outcome. Being Mode is all about the process, not the result. We notice the scenery as we move through it, and we enjoy the journey itself, moment-by-moment, rather than concerning ourselves with the future outcome. When we are in Being Mode, we are in the present moment, and we are available for everything that moment has to offer - pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral though it may be.

Being mode is probably best summed up in the old saying, "The journey is the destination."


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fear Leads To Anger

My 15 year-old stepson loves movies, and he can remember dialogue almost verbatim from one viewing. He's also decided that he wants to explore being an actor. He has many natural gifts for such a field, such as intelligence, a great sense of humor, and an uncanny talent for impersonation. 

The other morning, Kathy and I were in the kitchen talking about anger as being a secondary emotion that arises out of the primary emotion of fear. Out of the living room, and with impeccable timing, there came the voice of Yoda from Star Wars (being channeled by my stepson):

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Building a Platform

When we practice vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, the primary object of attention is always the feeling of the breath. Since the breath and the senses are always present moment events, feeling the body breathing draws the mind into the present moment as well. When the mind is more present, it can see more clearly its own habitual tendencies toward the world it perceives.

I tend to describe this experience of paying attention to the breath as being like building a structure - a platform - from which we can see things more clearly. The more we practice, the quicker and easier it is to build the platform. Pretty soon, the structure of mindfulness is available any time we need it during our daily life. We can bring momentary awareness to a situation or event, or to a thought or feeling, and in that short time of paying attention, we become mindful. The platform is immediately built, and we can see more clearly from this new perspective.

All of this takes place in just a second, and yet that moment of reflection can make a huge difference. In that moment, we can see clearly the habitual tendency of the mind in that situation. If that tendency is potentially ineffective or even harmful, we can make another choice. The choice might be to simply continue observing the mind and any emotional reactions that may be resulting from our thoughts without taking any action. 

For me, this reflective moment has been one of the most important and useful benefits of vipassana practice. Having the ability to bring momentary awareness to a situation has prevented countless unskillful and unnecessary reactions. This has led to countless opportunities to limit or eliminate suffering, which is the ultimate aim of vipassana.


Friday, September 24, 2010


The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.  ~ Robert M. Pirsig

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts About Change

Recently, a client asked me to define how I see the process of change in the context of psychotherapy. What changes, and how does this happen?

I told him that we all have our habitual ways of reacting to certain experiences, situations, and people in our lives. These habit "pathways" are pretty deeply grooved over a period of years, and they are very difficult to change. I believe, however, that these habits are exactly what we are attempting to change in therapy. 

I also believe that we may never be able to completely change or get rid of these habitual tendencies. We can learn to make more skillful and effective choices through awareness of these tendencies. We can sometimes cultivate new habits that will take their place. We might start to go down those old neuropathways and then catch ourselves and make a course correction. Or we might even get completely swept away by the habitual tendencies as though we were never aware of them at all. Get rid of them once and for all, though? I doubt it.

These habitual tendencies are a huge part of our personalities, and changing our personality is not the goal of psychotherapy, in my opinion. That would be like saying, "I'm going to change the person I think I am," and that seems way to difficult. The process, therefore, is not about changing who we are, but about changing our relationship to who we are. It's not about changing our thoughts, but about changing our relationship to our thoughts.

When we are offered another place to stand, from which vantage point we can see things more clearly, we have a chance to do all of the above. It begins, of course, with coming into full awareness of the present moment just as it is, and then seeing that moment for what it is. When clinging, aversion, or wanting things to be other than the way they are arises, we can see that, too, and notice the habitual habits of the mind toward the experience of that moment.Then we just sit with it, allow the experience to continue, and let it be

By not acting out habitually toward an aversive experience during our meditation practice (which is what I was describing above), we groove new neuropathways in the brain and the habits begin to change by themselves. In daily life, when we come up against the same basic experiences, we might have the chance to take a reflective pause before choosing our actions. If we do this enough times, we will have changed profoundly how we relate to the world around us, and our suffering will be reduced.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Parking Ticket Yoga

Are we still swimming against the stream? Maybe not.

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts now gives parking violation citations that include diagrams of yoga postures and short breathing exercises to help recipients relieve their stress and anger from getting the ticket.



Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blues Dharma

I remember the first time I saw the word "dharma." It was not in a book about the teachings of the Buddha, nor was it in the writings of Jack Kerouac. It was on the back of an album jacket. I was probably 14 years old at the time, and the album was "An Anthology of British Blues, Vol. 2." One of the bands featured on this compilation was the Dharma Blues Band, and they performed on two tracks: "Dealing With The Devil" and "Roll 'Em Pete."

Music, like everything else, is subject to the laws of dependent origination (see blog from 12/2, 12/3, & 12/4/09 for more on this subject). This seems especially evident when looking at the history of the blues in the twentieth century. The acknowledged "Cradle of the Blues" is the area in and around the Mississippi Delta. Impoverished black sharecroppers would sing during their work in order to help pass the time while doing backbreaking labor. In the evening, improvised instruments might be played as accompaniment for the voices. Guitar, banjo, and harmonica were the instruments of choice. One performer would pass his knowledge onto another, and soon a tradition was firmly in place.

As an adolescent in Overland Park, Kansas in the late 1960's, I was unaware of the roots of the rock music I was listening to at the time. Soon, however, as I began to read about my favorite musicians and bands, a pattern emerged. My generation's musical idols, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, The Rolling Stones, and on and on, were quick to acknowledge their antecedents and influences. Names like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Junior Wells, Blind Willie McTell, Muddy Waters, and the most legendary of them all, Robert Johnson were cropping up over and over again. I began to steep myself in their music, which is how I came upon an obscure collection of British blues in the record store.

Oh, yes, the dharma of Dependent Origination... Well, I have two little stories that illustrate this in relation to the blues. The great slide guitarist, Muddy Waters, was playing at a blues festival in New York in 1965. He had just been "re-discovered" by white audiences, and was enjoying a good measure of attention. He was visited backstage by another blues musician named Son House. Mr. House not only taught Muddy Waters how to play guitar, and was also an influence on none other than Robert Johnson. When the younger members of Muddy's band saw the skinny House with his loping stride, a couple of them began to imitate him. According to Son House's manager, Dick Waterman, Muddy immediately pulled them aside and said angrily, "I seen you mockin' that man. Don't you be mockin' that man. When I was a boy comin' up, that man was king. King! If it wasn't for that man, you wouldn't have a job. If it wasn't for that man, I wouldn't be here now."

The second story is a personal one. When I was 16, I saw Chuck Berry at a sparsely attended concert in Kansas City, Missouri. I only had tickets to the first show, but when I ran backstage after the curtain came down and accosted Chuck who was putting away his guitar, he had the grace to invite this over-eager white kid to "stick around for the second show." In the audience that night was a friend of mine named Barry Shank. On Monday, we exchanged stories about the concert, and shortly thereafter, I loaned him a copy of "Chuck Berry's Golden Decade," a greatest hits album. 

Cut to my twenty-year high school reunion in 1992. Barry came up to me at one point and told me that, until he saw that album, he had no idea that music had any kind of history. But because I loaned him that record, he became interested in the subject, and is now a professor of music history in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He has also authored several books and many articles on the subject.

Just as the practice of meditation is passed from warm hand to warm hand, so too is the dharma of the blues. And on it goes.

Let the Good Times Roll,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Enlightenment Is Like...

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
  ~ Dogen

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Passing of a Teacher

Last week we learned of the death of perhaps the most beloved academic teacher at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Dallas Russell taught my son math during Zach's tenure at LACHSA. He also taught my oldest stepson who is a senior this year, and would eventually have taught my youngest stepson, now a freshman. 

He was a mountain of a man. His large, expressive face was almost always smiling. Not just smiling, but more like exploding with joy. He was a stutterer. Yet when he fought to bring forth the word he sought, his voice took on an almost syncopated rhythm. When Zach arrived at LACHSA, he, too had been in speech therapy for a slight stutter. Mr. Russell helped him realize that it could be overcome.

His classes seemed like they could actually be fun. On Back To School Night, his presentation was always the most interesting, and I always looked forward to math period. That could never be said of any other academic class, I'm afraid. He was always uplifting his students. Even when they were average, he called them "Champions," or "Math Jedi Masters." I doubt that any student ever left Mr. Russell's class feeling unsuccessful. He had the power to empower. 

Even though he was not a member of the arts faculty, he attended every performance any student ever gave. Zach formed a theater company his senior year, and the summer after graduation, Mr. Russell came to see their premier production. He came to the next one, as well. He knew his support was needed, not just in the classroom, but backstage after a kid had poured his heart out for his art.

He was funny, too. He never shied away from a good joke on himself, and was not afraid to look foolish in front of his students. At "Moondance," the annual LACHSA film festival that showcased the work of the students, he was always featured in the opening short, along with other teachers. His stuff was always the funniest. Because he wasn't part of the arts faculty, his work always seemed to have more honesty and sweet innocence than the acting teachers he shared the screen with.

The last time I saw him was just before school started. We were standing in separate checkout lines at Pavillions in South Pasadena. "Hey, Mr. Russell!" I called over to him. He didn't respond. He was staring into space, as though contemplating a very heavy subject. In retrospect, it looked like he was gazing into eternity. I finally got his attention, and we talked about Zach, and my stepsons. I told him to look out for the younger one, and he promised to take care of him. We continued talking into the parking lot, and he reflected on what a special time of year the beginning of school always is. He shared with me that he had just been thinking about that when I had called to him. We said our "See ya laters," got into our cars and drove off into the night.

The number of kids Mr. Russell touched in his teaching career is probably immeasurable. I'm sure they must all remember him vividly. I was only around him for a few minutes at a time and he left an indelible impression on me. Good teachers can do that. You may like them or loathe them; love them or hate them. You might even make fun of them behind their back. In the final analysis, though, they touch you. 


See ya later, Mr. Russell. Your like will not pass this way again.


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