Saturday, December 29, 2007

Row your boat "mindfully" down the stream




Imagine you are trying to get to the ocean using a boat along a stream or river. This is a very rough river with rapids, currents and large rocks and this is the only chance for your "survival". You also need to load the boat with just the right amount of food and water for your use during this journey. If you try to load too much food and water, the weight of the boat will be heavy and it may be too difficult for you to maneuver the raft in the water. If by chance you become too greedy and load the boat with too much food and water, you might even sink. After launching the boat: in the initial part of the journey you will have to overcome at least five large waves. After you negotiate this part of the journey you then have to gently row your boat across the rapids. Sometimes when the waves are too high you just can't do anything other than ride the waves. If you try too hard the boat will capsize. If you are too slow you may not be able to go across strong currents. You just have to find the right amount of effort with much practice. From time to time if you are not mindful your boat will drift to the banks and may get entangled in weeds and branches on either side of the river. Sometimes it is necessary to push the boat back into the main stream, away from these obstacles. The only good thing in this journey to the sea is once you launch the boat and get through the initial rough waters of the river, the chances are that you are eventually going to end up in the sea. If by chance your boat gets tangled in the river banks, then you are assured to get to the sea in the next seven tries.

In this simile the stream or the river is the Samsara and the ocean is the ultimate freedom from suffering, Nirvana. The meaning of survival is the "deathless state" of Nirvana. The river with rapids, currents, and large rocks are the greed, hatred and delusion. The boat is the The Noble Eightfold Path . The food and water is the knowledge of Dhamma. Too much of it and mainly it's wrong grasping may be harmful or some times may become a hindrance to your journey. This may lead to what is called "Dhamma Vittaka," the constant pondering, of Dhamma.The maneuvering of the boat through the rough waters is gaining wisdom thorough this path. It is important here to emphasize the careful balance between knowledge of Dhamma and its practical application to gain wisdom, through the practice of meditation. It is said that trying to gain too much knowledge of Dhamma without much practice may be a hindrance to the progress of this path. However it is ironic that slow and steady practice of this path of Dhamma with mindfulness, may lead to your destination faster than rushing through this path and trying to find short cuts. The initial five waves in this simile are the five hindrances.* The obstacles such as weeds and trees along the bank are unforeseen desires or taints in our mind. In this simile the one who has actually entered the main part of the stream or the river after overcoming the initial obstacles is called the "stream winner" or the one who has entered the first stage of enlightenment.

*The Five Hindrances:
1. sensual desire (kamacchanda),
2. Ill-will (byapada),
3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha),
4. Restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca),
5. Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha).
Related Posts:



Friday, December 28, 2007

What is everything?


If we can investigate our 6 senses DEEPLY* using our mind as the lab, this is "everything" in a nutshell.

*impermanence,suffering and non-self

Sabba Sutta -The All

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas... it is time for unconditional giving


Christmas is finally here. This is the time for giving. Two days ago we participated in a soup kitchen organised by Ven. Saranapala, from the Buddhist Monastery at the Mississauga, Canada. This was held at Good Shepperd Centre,Toronto. It was so wonderful to see young people with so much kindness and compassion in hearts serving food to the homeless people in Toronto. There was so much positive energy in that place and it is so hard to put all that in to words. While this was happening one of parents in the room asked me "Do you think all these people here deserve this?" I said to myself that this would be a very good question to be explored later.

What is the Buddhist view on giving and who deserves to receive?

Buddhists believe in unconditional giving. This means giving without any judgement on the person who is receiving it. It does not matter what the person's race, religion or social background is and you should give without expecting anything in return. Some people may not agree with this kind of giving. They will only want to give to some one who they think truly deserves receiving. It may not be always easy to find this ideal person. For example what about a young homeless kid that stands everyday at a local traffic light, with a sign board saying "good kamma for a dime." What about the kid that walks into the coffee shop with a story staying that he lives in Nova Scotia and that his mother just died and he has no money to take the bus home.

Some people may say, "why cant he find a job like anybody else ?" Others may say "by giving to these people you are encouraging them to beg and not get a real job. What would you do in this situation? What is the Buddhist approach to this?

Before we explore this we must understand the definition of kamma. Buddha said "Intention(cetana), I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect," Nibbedhika Sutta. Therefore, if your intention is pure It does not matter about the receiver, you will reap the fruit of your good kamma. According to the Buddha, giving can become wholesome deed (purification of giving) under three conditions (Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta ). This is if the giver, the receiver or both the giver and the receiver have good moral intentions (purified). If neither the giver or the receiver has good moral intentions this will not result in a wholesome giving.

This makes it very clear that even the receiver is not a moral person and if the giver has good moral intentions you will be making a wholesome kamma. Therefore it does not matter of the morality or intentions of the receiver if you give without any judgement it will result in good kamma. So, I think Christmas is the perfect time for giving and it is a great time to practice unconditional giving.

Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta - The Exposition of Offerings-Majjhima Nikaya 142 explained by Ajahn Brahm (MP3)

The Path to Happiness - "Letting Go or Getting More!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

How to expect "fruits" from a tree?


Morality is like the foundation in the path of practicing Dhamma. You will gain other qualities* such as faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom as you progress in this path using morality as its base. However, if one does not develop a good moral conduct (by mind, body and speech) but expect to progress in this path to become enlightened, it is something like expecting fruits from a tree after planting a seed in an infertile soil.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Xmas (War Is Over) - John Lennon

All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

-Dhammapada


The "whole world" is your six senses



The world outside is so complex and overwhelming. Trying to control the outside world is an impossible task. Luckily there is another option. You can "fit" the whole world into your six senses. Here you have more control of the outside world. The practice of mindfulness meditation trains you to contemplate on the true nature* of these six senses and to "let go" with ease.

*impermanence,suffering and non-self

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A "tangled ball of wool”



Imagine the whole of Dhamma as a "tangled ball of wool.” If you want to untangle it, contemplation on the five aggregates would be a good starting point. This is basically dukka (suffering) and a wonderful way to deeply understand the meaning of non-self.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Like a spider on its self-spun web...


Those who are lust-infatuated fall back into the swirling current (of samsara) like a spider on its self-spun web. This, too, the wise cut off. Without any longing, they abandon all suffering and renounce the world.
-Dhammapada
Related posts:

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Think of your mind as a "garden"


Think of your mind as a garden. People may throw "seeds" in it from time to time. Don’t water them if you know they are weeds. Weeds are very difficult to get rid of once they start to grow. If you know they are flowers you should water them often.
Related posts:

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Storms in the mind"





Yesterday there was a bad snow storm in Toronto. People were complaining as usual. I then thought to myself.... we have no control of storms outside, but we have some control of the "storms in our mind," the greed, hatred, delusion, and fear.



Why is this dog asking for more ? (Post on sensory restrains)

Agati Sutta -Off Course

Friday, December 14, 2007

"Like a useless scrap of wood"


All too soon, this body
will lie on the ground
cast off,
bereft of consciousness,
like a useless scrap
of wood.
-Dhammapada

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"How to grasp a snake" ? The Buddha's words on the goal of learning Dhamma

"Monks, there is the case where some worthless men study the Dhamma..... They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate.....Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong grasp of the Dhammas.


"Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake.....grasp it by the coils or by the tail. The water-snake, turning around, would bite him ..... that cause he would suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong grasp of the water-snake.

The Same way ....They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate. They don't reach the goal for which [people] study the Dhamma. Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong grasp of the Dhammas."- Buddha
To Read the full sutta click
Please Note:
The simile of the water-snake, which in turn is an introduction to the simile of the raft (see the previous post below). It is important to underline the connection between these two similes, for it is often missed. Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dhamma is to be let go.....However, the simile of the water-snake makes the point that the Dhamma has to be grasped; the trick lies in grasping it properly. When this point is then applied to the raft simile, the implication is clear: One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go.
-Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Related posts:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over...





"I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas..."
-Buddha
Alagaddupama Sutta

Please Note:
"One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go."
-Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The wise would make an island...




Through initiative, heedfulness,
restraint, & self-control,
the wise would make
an island
no flood
can submerge.
-Dhammapada

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

As a Butterfly....


As a butterfly... without harming
the blossom,
its color,
its fragrance ...
takes its nectar & flies away:
so should the sage
go through a village.


-Dhammapada

Note:In In the original version it is a bee, not a butterfly

Monday, December 10, 2007

Why do bad things happen to good people? A Buddhist perspective

Why do bad things happen to good people? This was one of questions asked by someone in my last post. Since the post about the death of my friend with lung cancer, I had more bad news. A colleague of mine has been recently diagnosed with a type of bone cancer. This doctor too is a very kind and a compassionate person, well liked by all his peers and patients. I am yet to hear a complain about this doctor, who may have saved many thousands of lives. Since this bothered me so much, I decided to explore this question further, "why do bad things happen to good people?"

We all know that wholesome kamma should produce good results. So ideally a "good person" should not get "bad results". However we all know that this does not always happen. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. How do you explain this? The timing of Kamma is a very complex subject. There are basically three types of kamma with regard to the time of their results: (1) kamma resulting in this life-time (ditthadhamma-vedaniya-kamma), (2)kamma resulting in the next life (upapajja-vedaniya-kamma), (3) kamma resulting in later lives (aparapariya-vedaniya-kamma). In Buddhist literature there are some instances where even fully enlightened monks had to repay their previous kamma from past lives. ( Ven. Mugalan and Losaka)

Buddhists believe that some of the inequality of humans can be explained by kamma although it is not the sole determining factor. Buddha's teachings explain that there are five orders or processes – Niyama Dhamma 1.Utu Niyama(Physical-Seasonal changes and climate) 2.Bija Niyama(Biological/Genetic inheritance)3.Kamma Niyama (Ethical /Consequences of one's actions)4.Citta Niyama (Psychological/Will of mind) 4.Dhamma Niyama (Laws of nature).
What really happens to us at the end may be a result of a complex interactions of physical, biological, psychological, ethical, or laws of nature. The karmic potential may be the main player and it ripens as a result of the other four conditions coming together. Therefore kamma is only one of the five factors that come into play when something happens to us, either good or bad.
Our journey through Samsara is like a movie with a long reel of film. In this life what we really see is only "one frame" of the film. It is just a very small fraction of the entire movie. Therefore it is difficult for us to pass judgements or make assumptions like what happened to this person is "good" or "bad," without playing the whole movie. It impossible to replay the entire movie from the beginning. In fact Buddha even said that"I cannot see a beginning." What is more important is for us to realize that there is an end. This is the end to all suffering called Nirvana.
Related Suttas and discussions:
Kamma -Kamma A Study Guide prepared by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Related posts:


Sunday, December 9, 2007

The good shine from afar...


The good shine from afar
like the snowy Himalayas.
The bad don't appear
even when near,
like arrows shot into the night.
-Dhammapada
Related Posts:
What is the matter with my grass? (post on loving kindness)

As the rising of the sun...


Delusion causes harm.
Delusion provokes the mind.
People don't realize it
as a danger born from within.
A person, when deluded,
doesn't know his own welfare;
when deluded,
doesn't see Dhamma.
Overcome with delusion
he's in the dark, blind.
But when one, abandoning delusion,
feels no delusion
for what would merit delusion,
he disperses all delusion...
as the rising of the sun, the dark.


Iti 3.39; Iti 83

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Leaves from a tree


He has become calm and at rest,
Wise in speech and not self-centered;
He's shaken off unwholesome states
...Like wind would leaves from a tree.
Thag 17.2
Related posts:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

"Dying without regret...mindfulness till the last breath"



Yesterday he said good bye to his family, his friends and to all the dear ones around him. He was still smiling at the time of his death. He lived and died without regret. He taught everybody that there is a another way. He showed us how to not cling to worldly pleasures, at the time of death. How to "let go" with ease.

This is about a personal journey I had with my friend who was a true noble disciple of the Buddha. He used to discuss Dhamma with me every time I met him in the past few years. He had practiced, loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (The Four Sublime States), even before I got to know him ten years ago. His wife once told me that when his house was robbed and she was devastated, he had taught her Dhamma, explaining the impermanent nature of material things. When he was told that he had lung cancer by the oncologist, he joked with him so that everybody would laugh and that would ease the tension around them.

I still remember when I first went to see him at home after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me "this body is not mine, I am only in it for the time being." He said "I now know this for sure." He said "I have no control of my body or my pain. He was talking about, non-self or Anatta. He said he was contemplating on the impermanence, suffering, and non-self nature of his ailing body. He said he was also practicing loving kindness meditation. He was then taken to the hospital and after investigations it was determined that he could not be treated. He had too many metastasis in the brain and all over his body and also was very weak. I think it must have been a very aggressive type of cancer for it to spread this fast in such a short time. He was only a palliative care patient at the hospital. I was told by his wife that he took this news with a smile on his face and the people around him were shocked and watched him in disbelief and shock and with so much sadness.

When I visited him at the hospital on the fist day he was smiling and looked so peaceful and serene. He was extremely happy to see me. We discussed some of the deep teachings of the Buddha. He said "what I learned and practiced before, I am experiencing right now. This is the true nature of Dhamma." He also talked about impermanent nature of the body to the social workers in the hospital who came to comfort him. He drew a picture with the art therapist which was very unique. It was a picture of four flowers and one flower was fading away with petals coming off. The other three flowers were his wife and two children who he left behind. The fading flower was him. He again wanted us to learn about impermanence through his painting. When I saw this picture I told his wife maybe he was teaching them a lesson about the true nature of life.

When I visited him again his body was very weak, but his mind was fully alert. It seemed to me as if all his energy had gone to his mind. He was still smiling and again we discussed the impermanent nature of the conditioned body. He advised my wife, saying that it is not too early to teach our kids about impermanence. When one of his old colleagues came to see him and asked him "how are you doing?" He replied saying, "my mind is fine but this body is just a pile of garbage." His visitor was shocked to hear this as he expected the patient to complain about the pain in his body. However I knew that his visitor had no clue about what he really meant or that he was trying to teach him about impermanence.
Meanwhile a number of Buddhist monks visited him from the three Buddhist monasteries in Toronto, almost daily, and taught him Dhamma and discussed Dhamma with him. They were very surprised to see how well he received all their teachings with complete mindfulness. The monks also said that they had discussed Anathapindikovada Sutta , one of main disclosures at the time of the Buddha. This was a disclosure done by one of the Buddha's chief disciples, Ven. Sariputta to Anathapindika. Anathapindika was one of the main lay supporters of Buddha and his disciples. At that time Anathapindika too was dying from a painful illness.
.

The last time I visited him it was just three days before his death. He was sleeping a lot and I felt that he was drowsy because of the heavy pain medications. He was hardly eating any food at that time. When he heard our voices he opened his eyes and signalled with one hand for us to come closer. He smiled again and was very happy to see us. I asked him " are you in pain?" He said, "no, not even a little." Then I asked him if he had any regrets and if he wanted to talk about it. He shook his head and implied there were no regrets. His voice was very weak and we could hardly hear him but still he was so happy and peaceful. When he realized that we could not hear him he started talking in "sign language." He pointed to his body and snapped his fingers implying the impermanent nature of the body. Then he pointed to his head and singled "thumbs up" saying that his mind was still very alert and clear."

That was the last time I saw him. This is a perfect example of a person "who lived by Dhamma , and was protected by the Dhamma", until his death. I have seen so many people dying in the past, but I have never seen a person who died with full mindfulness till his very last breath. He was a teacher to us all. He had the "medicine" ready, before he was ill. He just has to use it at the right time. This is the "medicine to the mind" (see the post below). He was fearless at death and died with dignity and without regret. I wish I could be like him one day, myself.
May he attain the eternal bliss of Nirvana.

A Real Test in Life - Mithra Wettimuny

A discourse given by Mr. Mithra Wettimuny to a grief stricken wife of a dying patient ( who by profession was a Gynaecologist and referred to herein as ‘Doc’) on 3rdAugust 1997 (in the morning) at the Medical Intensive Care Unit of the General Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka (as minuted by a bystander, a Dhamma Student).

http://www.beyondthenet.net/thedway/dhamma_way.htm

Related Posts and suttas:
The Four Sublime States

Anathapindikovada Sutta-Advice to A Dying Man-(excerpt) Translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki

Anathapindikovada Sutta - Instructions to Anathapindika-Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Like a mountain... undisturbed


Just as a mountain of rock,
is unwavering, well-settled,
so the monk whose delusion is ended,
like a mountain, is undisturbed.



Udana 3.4

Monday, December 3, 2007

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Like a deep lake...




Like a deep lake,
clear, unruffled, & calm:
so the wise become clear,
calm, on hearing words of the Dhamma.

-Dhammapada

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Blow away any arisen grief.....


Just as one would put out a burning refuge with water, so does the enlightened one... discerning, skillful, & wise ... blow away any arisen grief, like the wind, a bit of cotton fluff.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Path to Happiness - "Letting Go or Getting More!


Last week I went to a shopping mall and found that it was packed with people who were rushing to buy things as if they have never shopped before. Then I suddenly realized that they were getting ready for a another Christmas - the season for joy and giving. It is a great time to practice giving and "letting go." Then I thought to myself, it would be nice if we can can practice this giving more often. This made me to contemplate on the Buddhist idea of "letting go." Sometimes we wonder why we suffer in this world? The answer is simple. It is because we don't know how and when to "let go." This "letting go" is essentially the opposite of "attachment," which I have already discussed in one of my previous posts (see below).

In today's consumer driven society we tend to practice, "getting more" than "letting go." We think by getting more, for example material wealth, we will be happy. The happiness found through material gain comes with peaks and troughs. Buddhists believe that real and long lasting happiness comes from "letting go." Letting go is one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhist practice. What do we mean by "letting go?" How can we benefit from this? What is the deep meaning of "letting go" according to Buddhist teachings and practice? I will try to explore some of these questions in this post.

As we have already discussed the first step in The Noble Eightfold Path , "the right view" (see the post below). The second step in this path is "the right intention." There are three right intentions and one of them is "letting go." Once a Buddhist monk who inspired me to start this blog gave me some wonderful advice on giving and "letting go." He said that, "it is a hard for most people to even contemplate on giving to others. Only a very few people can really carry out the act of giving and letting go. Out these people only a very small proportion of people will really rejoice after giving and letting go." Giving material things such as gifts, medicines or food is the one of the first steps in "letting go." In Buddhism this is called Dāna, a Pali term for "generosity" or "giving." It also refers to the practice of cultivating generosity. This can be characterized by unattached and unconditional generosity, giving and "letting go." In other words you give without expecting anything in return. This is one of the three methods of gaining wholesome karma in the Buddhist tradition. The other two methods are Śīla or morality, and Bhavana or meditation.

Buddha gave a beautiful disclosure on the benefits of Dāna in Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta - The Exposition of Offerings (listen to MP3 Below). In this sutta he talks about the order of merit or wholesome kamma you would gain by giving to different individuals staring from a an ordinary lay person up to a Buddha. At the start of the this disclosure Buddha points out, leave alone the humans, even if you give Dāna to animals you will get hundred fold in return. Giving does not always mean material processions. You can also give in speech, for example give Dhamma (teaching of the Buddha) Dāna or by giving in mind and thought, for example loving kindness meditation. It is said in Buddhist texts that giving will increase your life span, beauty, happiness, strength, and wisdom. In the Culakammavibhanga Sutta Buddha said that the person who gives, accumulates merit and " having performed and completed such kamma, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world. If instead he comes to the human state, he is rich wherever he is reborn."

The next level of "letting go" belong to Śīla or morality. In this one trains to "let go" the unwholesome acts done through the mind, body and speech. We have already discussed the ten unwholesome deeds in a previous post (see the post below). Having realized what is unwholesome the wise one "let go" of these acts and will start practicing the wholesome. This is for example, one who is lying will refrain from lying or one who is killing animals will refrain from killing animals. This will lead to further development of right faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom leading to the next level of "letting go".


The final level of "letting go" is the Bhavana or meditation. This is the basis of training of mindfulness meditation (see the post below). Just think for a moment on how we usually spend our time. Most of the time we are thinking about the past or worrying and planning about the future. We have very little time or no time at all for this beautiful present moment. In this present moment awareness training you are free from attachments. Buddha said; "Do not go after the past, Nor lose yourself in the future. For the past no longer exists, And the future is not yet here. By looking deeply at things just as they are,In this moment , here and now,The seeker lives calmly and freely" Although this makes perfect sense in reality it is not so easy to practice. We usually try to hold on to the the past' especially unpleasant experiences we had, we may even get depressed thinking about these things. If you really cannot let go of the past at least think of a pleasant thing that happened. The human mind is such, it always looks for faults. This is what we call the "fault finding mind." It always tends to remember what went wrong rather than what went right. In the same way if we worry too much about the future this may even cause anxiety. We will start thinking..... what if this happens, and what if that happens and so on. The truth of the matter is none if these things may ever happen. This causes us an unnecessary anxiety. I have seen many patients like this in my practice. These people worry so much about a minor illness and the worrying and anxiety makes them suffer more than the illness itself. Mindfulness teaches us to "let go" of the past and the future and to be mindful in the present moment. This is the basis of mindfulness meditation. Buddha said "The mindfulness of in and out breathing, of body contemplation, of keeping consciousness of the moment, is a noble occupation and a sublime way, leading to independence of mind and to wisdom." He also said "In mindfulness I was conscious of the entire process. In this way I practiced contemplation on the body. When standing, I was aware that I was standing, when sitting, there was total knowledge of sitting; and when lying down, the full experience of lying down. By experiencing each moment, my mind clung no more to the world

The Vipassana meditation takes us to the ultimate level of "letting go." As I have discussed before, first we have to contemplate on how our six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue,body and mind) work together with the external sense objects (object, sound, smell, taste, touch, mental object) and how and where this craving arise (see the post below). Then you can contemplate on impermanence, suffering, and non-self of these six senses and their external sense objects. If this process is practiced diligently with mindfulness, it will help to get rid of the cravings that arise in them as we realize it is fruitless to suffer because of an impermanent nature that is anyway not in our control (see the post on non-self below). You can merely look at them as they are, with equanimity and let them go. This is the practice of Vipassana meditation. This is the path to final freedom from suffering and to the ultimate happiness of Nirvana.


Related Suttas, Discussions and posts:

"Why are these two boots tied together"? (post on attachment)

" The True Weapons of Mass Destruction" - Greed, Hatred and Delusion ( post on the right view/ten unwholesome deeds)

Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta - The Exposition of Offerings-Majjhima Nikaya 142 explained by Ajahn Brahm (MP3)

Friday, November 23, 2007

How can meditation help you?


The benefits of meditation have been discussed in previous posts (see below). In this post I have attached two articles that may interest you.

How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time
Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2006 How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a TimeBy Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

At 4:30, when most of Wall Street is winding down, Walter Zimmermann begins a high-stakes, high-wire act conducted live before a paying audience. About 200 institutional investors—including airlines and oil companies—shell out up to $3,000 a month to catch his daily webcast on the volatile energy markets, a performance that can move hundreds of millions of dollars. "I'm not paid to be wrong—I can tell you that," Zimmermann says. But as he clicks through dozens of screens and graphics on three computers, he's the picture of focused calm. Zimmermann, 54, watched most of his peers in energy futures burn out long ago. He attributes his brain's enduring sharpness not to an intravenous espresso drip but to 40 minutes of meditation each morning and evening. The practice, he says, helps him maintain the clarity he needs for quick, insightful analysis—even approaching happy hour. "Meditation," he says, "is my secret weapon."Everyone around the water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress. But with the aid of advanced brainscanning technology, researchers are beginning to show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory.One recent study found evidence that the daily practice of meditation thickened the parts of the brain's cerebral cortex responsible for decision making, attention and memory. Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented preliminary results last November that showed that the gray matter of 20 men and women who meditated for just 40 minutes a day was thicker than that of people who did not. Unlike in previous studies focusing on Buddhist monks, the subjects were Boston-area workers practicing a Western-style of meditation called mindfulness or insight meditation. "We showed for the first time that you don't have to do it all day for similar results," says Lazar. What's more, her research suggests that meditation may slow the natural thinning of that section of the cortex that occurs with age.The forms of meditation Lazar and other scientists are studying involve focusing on an image or sound or on one's breathing. Though deceptively simple, the practice seems to exercise the parts of the brain that help us pay attention. "Attention is the key to learning, and meditation helps you voluntarily regulate it," says Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Since 1992, he has collaborated with the Dalai Lama to study the brains of Tibetan monks, whom he calls "the Olympic athletes of meditation." Using caps with electrical sensors placed on the monks' heads, Davidson has picked up unusually powerful gamma waves that are better synchronized in the Tibetans than they are in novice meditators. Studies have linked this gamma-wave synchrony to increased awareness.Many people who meditate claim the practice restores their energy, allowing them to perform better at tasks that require attention and concentration. If so, wouldn't a midday nap work just as well? No, says Bruce O'Hara, associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky. In a study to be published this year, he had college students either meditate, sleep or watch TV. Then he tested them for what psychologists call psychomotor vigilance, asking them to hit a button when a light flashed on a screen. Those who had been taught to meditate performed 10% better—"a huge jump, statistically speaking," says O'Hara. Those who snoozed did significantly worse. "What it means," O'Hara theorizes, "is that meditation may restore synapses, much like sleep but without the initial grogginess."Not surprisingly, given those results, a growing number of corporations—including Deutsche Bank, Google and Hughes Aircraft—offer meditation classes to their workers. Jeffrey Abramson, CEO of Tower Co., a Washington-based development firm, says 75% of his staff attend free classes in transcendental meditation. Making employees sharper is only one benefit; studies say meditation also improves productivity, in large part by preventing stress-related illness and reducing absenteeism.Another benefit for employers: meditation seems to help regulate emotions, which in turn helps people get along. "One of the most important domains meditation acts upon is emotional intelligence—a set of skills far more consequential for life success than cognitive intelligence," says Davidson. So, for a New Year's resolution that can pay big dividends at home and at the office, try this: just breathe.

Find this article at:http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167,00.html



"The Biology of Joy"

Sunday, Jan. 09, 2005The Biology of JoyBy MICHAEL D. LEMONICK

Richard Davidson was in a lab observing a Buddhist Monk Sink deep into serene meditation when he noticed something that sent his own pulse racing. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, hurriedly double-checked the data streaming to his computer from electrodes attached to the monk's skull, but there was no mistake. Electrical activity in the left prefrontal lobe of the monk's brain was shooting up at a tremendous rate. "It was exciting," Davidson recalls. "We didn't expect to see anything quite that dramatic."Davidson's excitement is all the more significant because he's known by colleagues as the king of happiness research. When he made the discovery five years ago, he had been studying the link between prefrontal-lobe activity and the sort of bliss deep meditators experience. But even for someone with his experience, watching the brain crackle with activity as a person entered a trancelike state was unprecedented. It made clear, says Davidson, who published the research study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last fall, that happiness isn't just a vague, ineffable feeling; it's a physical state of the brain--one that you can induce deliberately.That's not all. As researchers have gained an understanding of the physical characteristics of a happy brain, they have come to see that those traitshave a powerful influence on the rest of the body. People who rate in the upper reaches of happiness on psychological tests develop about 50% more antibodies than average in response to flu vaccines, and that, says Davidson, "is a very large difference." Others have discovered that happiness or related mental states like hopefulness, optimism and contentment appear to reduce the risk or limit the severity of cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension, colds and upper-respiratory infections as well. According to a Dutch study of elderly patients published in November, those upbeat mental states reduced an individual's risk of death 50% over the study's nine-year duration. Says Laura Kubzansky, a health psychologist at Harvard's School of Public Health, in a masterpiece of understatement: "There's clearly some kind of effect."It makes sense that there should be. Doctors have known for years that clinical depression--the extreme opposite of happiness--can worsen heart disease, diabetes and a host of other illnesses. But the neurochemistry of depression is much better known than that of happiness, mostly because the former has been studied more intensively and for much longer. Until about a decade ago, says Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, "90% of emotion research focused on the negative, so there still are all of these interesting questions about the positive state."A growing number of researchers exploring the physiology and neurology of happiness are starting to answer those questions. Perhaps most fundamental of all is what happiness is, in a clinical sense. At this point, nobody can really say with precision. The word happiness, Davidson observes, "is kind of a placeholder for a constellation of positive emotional states. It's a state of well-being where individuals are typically not motivated to change their state. They're motivated to preserve it. It's associated with an active embracing of the world, but the precise characteristics and boundaries have really yet to be seriously characterized in scientific research."Still, subjects can reliably tell researchers when they're feeling good, and two brain-imaging technologies--functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which maps blood flow to active parts of the brain, and electroencephalograms, which sense the electrical activity of neuronal circuits--consistently point to the left prefrontal cortex as a prime locus of happiness.That raises the chicken-and-egg question of whether the prefrontal cortex creates the sensation of happiness or whether it merely reflects one's more general emotional state. Davidson thinks the answer is both: "We're confident that this part of the brain is a proximal cause of at least certain kinds of happiness." That suggests some people are genetically predisposed to be happy by virtue of their busy prefrontal cortexes, and research in infants confirms it. Davidson measured left prefrontal activity in babies less than a year old and then subjected them to a test in which their mothers left the room briefly. "Some babies will just cry hysterically the instant the mom leaves," he says. "Others are more resilient." It turns out that the babies with the higher left prefrontal activity are the ones who don't cry. "We were actually able to predict which infants would cry in response to that brief but significant stress."In short, as parents know instinctively, some babies are just born happy. But neuroscientists have also learned over the past decade that the brain is highly plastic. It rewires itself in response to experience, and that's especially true before the age of puberty. One might naively assume, therefore, that negative experiences might destroy a happy personality--and if they're extreme and frequent enough, that might be true. Davidson has learned, however, that mild to moderate doses of negative experience are beneficial. (In animal studies, he compared groups that had been moderately stressed when young to those that never were and found the former better able to recover from stress as adults. In human studies, in which deliberately inducing stress on kids would be unethical, he based his conclusions on self-reported stories of stressful childhoods.) The reason, he believes, is that stressful events give us practice at bouncing back from unpleasant emotions. They're like an exercise to strengthen our happiness muscles or a vaccination against melancholy.Exactly what is the physical difference, though, between a left prefrontal cortex that is predisposed to happiness and one that isn't? It almost certainly has in part to do with neurotransmitters, the chemicals that ferry signals from one neuron to the next. And while the prefrontal cortex is awash in many neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, GABA and more, Davidson believes dopamine may be especially important. Animal studies have shown that dopamine mediates the transfer of signals associated with positive emotions between the left prefrontal area and the emotional centers in the limbic area of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens, situated within the ventral striatum. In humans, people with a sensitive version of the receptor that accepts dopamine tend to have better moods, and researchers are actively studying the relationship of dopamine levels to feelings of euphoria and depression.Dopamine pathways may be especially important in aspects of happiness associated with moving toward some sort of goal (monks achieving a meditative state as well as cigarette smokers allowed to light up after 24 hours of deprivation). But other neurochemicals may be more central to other kinds of happiness, including physical pleasure. "People have made progress differentiating the positive feeling you get when you approach a goal, which maps onto dopamine, and the sensory pleasure of enjoying something, which maps onto the opioid system," says Berkeley psychologist Keltner. "We're just beginning to apply a lens to all those parts of the nervous system in which the positive emotions are embodied. This is really neat territory."Among those exploring that territory is Brian Knutson, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford, who, like Davidson, uses MRI to monitor the brains of test subjects. The mental mode he studies is anticipation. "When people think of happiness," says Knutson, "they think of feeling good, but a big part of happiness is also looking forward to something." Knutson's research was inspired by the classic work of Ivan Pavlov, who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they associated with mealtime.Instead of food, Knutson used money: a small cash payoff if subjects won a video game. "When we looked at their brains just before they got the reward," he says, "we saw this spark that clearly had to do with how positive the idea of making money was." The spark showed up not in the left prefrontal cortex but in what Knutson terms an old section, the nucleus accumbens, located in the subcortex, at the bottom of the brain. The bigger the prize, Knutson found, "the more activation." Knutson believes he is looking at the kind of happy feelings we experience as excitement. The primary focus of his work is to understand the neurophysiology of motivation and decision making--how emotion and reason work together as people make choices. But it could also be a key to mapping out the brain's broader happiness circuitry.Understanding the neurophysiology of feeling good is one aspect of happiness research; another is understanding how positive emotion affects the rest of the body. As with the brain studies, the term happiness is too broad for a rigorous approach, so researchers tend to focus on specific aspects. Harvard psychologist Kubzansky has chosen to study optimism. In a large study she tracked 1,300 men for 10 years and found that heart-disease rates among men who called themselves optimistic were half the rates for men who didn't."It was a much bigger effect than we expected," she says--as big as the difference between smokers and nonsmokers. "We also looked at pulmonary function, since poor pulmonary function is predictive of a whole range of bad outcomes, including premature mortality, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease." Again, optimists did much better. "I'm an optimist," she says, "but I didn't expect results like this."In a separate study, meanwhile, which has been accepted by the journal Health Psychology, Kubzansky, working with Duke psychologist and lead researcher Laura Richman, looked at hopefulness and curiosity--mental states that overlap with optimism in some ways. "We found them to be protective against hypertension, diabetes and upper-respiratory infection," she says. Such protective effects may explain the longevity advantage found in that Dutch study of the elderly--an advantage for happy optimists that persisted even when researchers corrected for diet, education and other factors.Exactly how states of mind affect the body's biochemistry is still far from clear. "We can do some good speculation," says Kubzansky, "based on what we know about anxiety and depression, so there are a couple of places to look in terms of neuroendocrine function and immune inflammatory pathways." One clue: in addition to reporting a positive mood when their left prefrontal cortexes are active, subjects in Davidson's experiments have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress--and cortisol is known to depress immune function. Optimists may simply feel less stress than pessimists and thereby avoid the noxious biochemical cascades that stress is known to trigger. Another likely factor: optimistic, happy types seem to take better care of themselves than sad sacks do. Numerous studies--as well as common sense--suggest that to be the case.In a series of studies begun in 1998, psychologist Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis has found further evidence that happy people are better at health maintenance. Emmons randomly assigned 1,000 adults to one of three groups. The first group kept daily journals of their moods and rated them on a scale of 1 to 6. The second group did that and listed the things that annoyed or hassled them throughout their day. The third group kept a journal but added an activity that has repeatedly been shown to improve one's sense of satisfaction with life: they were asked to write down every day all the things for which they were grateful.Despite being assigned randomly, the last group not only had the predicted jump in their overall feelings of happiness, says Emmons, but were also found to spend more time exercising, be more likely to have regular medical checkups and routinely take preventive health actions like wearing sunscreen. Overall, the "gratitude" group were promoting better health. "They rate themselves as more energetic, more enthusiastic, more alert," Emmons reports. In short, keeping the diaries contributed to their physical and emotional well-being.Not surprisingly, the advantages were greatest when compared with the group that focused on life's hassles. "People who are grateful tend to view their body a certain way," says Emmons. "They see life as a gift, health as a gift. So they want to take certain measures to preserve it." Reminding yourself of what you're grateful for is a technique open to anyone, but more sophisticated methods of manipulating happiness are showing promise as well. Cognitive-behavior therapy and medication, for example, are used mostly to combat depression, but they may also be useful in enhancing happiness.Such positive results gratify happiness researchers, who haven't been very successful in attracting federal dollars. "I could easily see being spoofed on the Senate floor for whatever award they give for esoteric, needless research," says Keltner. "But as the findings trickle in showing that positive emotions and happiness make your immune system function better, or help you battle disease, or help you live longer, then you're into fundable territory." Thanks to Keltner, Davidson and others, those findings have gained the field a degree of respectability that's long overdue--and that ultimately could make all of us a whole lot happier. --Reported by Dan Cray/ Los AngelesWith reporting by Dan Cray/ Los Angeles

Find this article at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1015863,00.html

Time Magazine Articles on Meditation:

The science of Meditation






Neurotheologist is one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people

Madison Magazine has named Dr. Davidson as their "Person of the Year" in the November 2007 issue.


Lab for affective Neuroscience, Research in the News


Mindfulness Research Update: 2008
Jeffrey M. Greeson, Ph.D., M.S.

Previous related posts:
How can mindfulness help?
Do like to be the happiest man on earth?
Do you want to increase your brain thickness?
Can Mindfulness Help Cancer Patients ?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Why are these two boots tied together"?

Today was the first snow fall in Toronto. It was really bad weather out there with snow and freezing rain. I had to get my new pair of boots out of the box which my wife got for me recently. I realized that the boots were tied together with two elastic bands. I tried to pull them apart but they were very strong and finally a pair of scissors came to my rescue. While I was struggling to remove the two elastic bands pulling the boots apart a beautiful simile came to my mind that was in one of the Buddhist suttas called Kotthita Sutta .








It is about the two cows, one black and the other white. These two cows were tied by a strong rope. They were both walking and pulling each other. It seemed like the white cow was pulling the black one, but at other times it seemed like the black cow was pulling the white one. The question was whether the white cow pulling black cow or the black cow pulling the white cow? The correct answer was, "neither." The rope is pulling both of them. If you cut the rope you can set them both free. Just the same way that I cut the rubber bands of my new boots!

Now what does it teach us? When you see a beautiful object, for example a beautiful car, is the eye attached to the car or the car attached to the eye? The correct answer here is the same as in the simile of two cows. It is neither. So what is this bond between the car and the eye? It is the craving (Taṇhā ), a conditioned concept of our mind. I like to consider this as some sort of mental "super glue." It is not physical bond like the rope as in the simile of the cows. However, if the eye was attached to the object or the object was attached to the eye there would be no chance of us getting enlightened or reaching the ultimate happiness (Nirvāṇa). In the same fashion the "super glue" or the craving will bind the other senses and their respective sensory stimuli. These are the ear to the sound, nose to the smell, tongue to the taste, body to the touch, mind to its mental objects. The six senses and how they work together were discussed in previous posts. (see below).

One might say,"who cares." "Let 'super glue' be there." For example if you see a beautiful car you might say "I like that car and I am going to buy it and enjoy it"! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem begins when things start to change. As we know all conditioned thing are impermanent, and are subject to change. If for example the car gets old, stolen or meets with an accident, suffering arises. The stronger the glue (attachment or craving) harder the pain and the suffering when things begin to change. This not only applies to objects but also to people or other things around you. You may have already experienced this numerous times in your life. Then you may ask, can I enjoy things and yet not get attached to it? It is almost impossible for us to do this, unless you are fully enlightened. Now the next question is how do we get there? Is it possible to be fully enlightened? Buddha very clearly told his disciples "I will not tell you anything that is not possible to achieve."

So what is enlightenment or Nirvāṇa? The most simple definition is "end of all cravings." This, Buddha said, is the ultimate happiness and end to all the suffering." So how do we get rid of this "super glue" or the craving which is preventing us achieving this goal? There is only one path to this. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, very clearly out lined by the Buddha. This is the path leading to full enlightenment. Now we have to find out how we can get rid of this craving. One way is to contemplate on how our six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue,body and mind) work together with the external sense objects (object, sound, smell, taste, touch, mental object) and how and where this craving arise. Then you can contemplate on impermanence, suffering, and non-self of these six senses and their external sense objects (see the posts below). If this process is practiced diligently with mindfulness, it will help to slowly get rid of the cravings that arises in them. This is the basis of Vipassana meditation.

So is it possible to get rid of this "super glue" for ever? If you make the right effort and practice the Noble Eightfold Path, it will be within your reach. The fist step in this process is the right view(see the post below). Right view together with the right effort will help us travel this path (this will be discussed in detail in a later post) to reach this ultimate happiness. The beauty of Buddhist teachings is that you don't need to wait till you die to put an end to this suffering. You can reach the goal of ultimate happiness in this very life. One way of knowing that you are travelling that right path is when you get the sense of inner happiness and contentment. This is a good sign of melting of the "super glue!" Then results should be there at the end whether you like it or not, here and now, in this very life.

Related Suttas:
Kotthita Sutta
Salayatana-vibhanga Sutta -An Analysis of the Six Sense-media

Related previous posts:





Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Better it is to live alone..."


Better it is to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Live alone and do no evil; be carefree like an elephant in forest.
-Dhammapada

Monday, November 19, 2007

"How very happily we live"




"How very happily we live, free from hostility among those who are hostile. Among hostile people, free from hostility we dwell."
-Dhammapada
Related posts:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"What is wrong with my daughter's computer?"

I recently bought a new computer for my daughter. I had all the virus protection soft wear added to it as she uses different sites to download songs. It was working fine for a few months. Then suddenly a lot of "pop ups" were appearing on the screen and she could hardly work. I tried to help her; by running some antivirus software, but it did not help. Finally, I had to call my computer repair guy. He said the computer was heavily infected with some sort of viruses. He warned my daughter never to download songs using those sites again. Well, it did not happen. Two weeks later I saw her downloading songs... again!

This got me thinking again. I thought the human minds are somewhat similar to a computer. When you are a small child you are like a new computer. You don't have too many "viruses" like anger, hatred, jealousy, envy and greed. You may get angry, but you don't hold on to anger like adults do. Try to observe two kids playing together. They may start fighting after some time, for example for the same toy, and cry. The next moment they will forget all about it and play like best friends. As we get older our mind gets infected with many "viruses" such as anger, jealousy, envy, greed and so on. How do these viruses get to our mind? The only "download" sites are our six senses. These viruses are called defilements of the mind. In Buddhist literature they are called "taints" (fermentations). Now the question is what if your "hard drive" (mind) is already corrupted by "viruses" (defilemnts). How can you clean it? For this purpose Buddha has given a very detail disclosure called Sabbasava Sutta. In this sutta he gives a description of number of methods of preventing taints arising in the mind and completely eradicating them once they are already arisen. One of the many methods described here; is the practise of mindfulness meditation (Samatha and Vipassana meditation).

Once you clean your hard dive how do you protect it form further viral damage? For this Buddha gave complete an "antivirus software package" in one of his disclosure called, Nagara Sutta. Here he describes how to guard your mind against these defilements using a simile of a well guarded fortress. This is one of my favorite suttas. Here he describes seven methods of guarding a fortress (mind) form the enemy (defilements).

For example:
"Just as the royal frontier fortress has a gate-keeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn't know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. With mindfulness as his gate-keeper, the disciple of the ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity."

In this sutta Buddha also describes how to be self sufficient within the city with four types of foods and medicines, and to be happy. This is the achievement of a higher state of consciousness through the practice of meditation, called the Jhanas.

In this post I tried to compare how a computer and a human mind can get "corrupted", although the mind is far more complex and sophisticated than a computer. The mind in its "pure state" is free from all defilements but with time and the concept of "self" in the center of things, it gets corrupted (see previous post below). This is what is called the "conditioned mind." The routes of these corruptions come via our six senses. It is not possible to shut down our six senses and to get rid of these defilements but it is to restrain them with mindful reflection (see previous post below). The most important thing you can do to recover the "pure state of mind" is to reactivate the built in antivirus program, called mindfulness. If mindfulness meditation is practiced diligently (see previous post below), this will not only eventually remove all existing defilements of the mind but also prevent further propagation and infection of the mind with new defilements.

Related Suttas:

Related previous posts:

Why is this dog asking for more ? (Post on sensory restrains)





"There's no evil for those who don't do it"


If there's no wound on the hand, that hand can hold poison. Poison won't penetrate where there's no wound. There's no evil for those who don't do it.

-Dhammapada


Related Posts: