Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘mediation’

Coming Into Her Own

The Buddha of Lightning Peak: Cycle of the Sky
By Yudron Wangmo
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans

A lot of authors, agents and publishers say their story is “unique”, but rarely does the tale turn out to be that different or “special”. The Buddha of Lightning Peak is an exception. The characters in the story are like many people I know, and experiences they have lived, but I’ve never read something that combined them all into one tight, believable and well-crafted novel such as this.

Denise “Dee” is a teenager who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also black, lesbian and part of a meditation group. She has a variety of friends, including Leslie and her BFF, Shanti, as well as her mentor/teacher, Sandy. She isn’t a strong environmental advocate, until she learns of a mining operation about to start up next to her beloved summer camp and mountain.

The author reveals life through Dee’s eyes and perspective, and reveals the thoughts, emotions and experiences that many teens go through, especially teenage girls. The Buddha of Lightning Peak is an insightful and entertaining story that reveals Dee coming into her own strength, realizations, and sense of connection and community. I rarely read stories twice, even good ones. This will be the exception.

(The author provided me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.)

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Singing to the Choir

A lyrical excerpt from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Sister Melody sang from the moment she awoke until she closed her eyes to sleep. She sang ballads, love songs, sonnets, marches, folk, traditional, blues, and spirituals throughout the day and night. She couldn’t help herself. It was her nature.

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Though she had a beautiful voice, her singing could be annoying during times of quiet meditation. Nobody had the heart to ask her to stop, but many of the Sisters approached the Abbott and asked her to do something. “I’ll see what I can do,” the Abbott always replied, but did nothing.

After a few years of inaction, the Sisters took matters into their own hands. They told Sister Melody that the Abbott had asked her to sustain from singing another song.

Sister Melody was heartbroken, but complied. She became increasingly depressed and morose. Eventually, the Abbott noticed and asked her what had brought on such a state in one who had previously been so joyful.

“You surely know,” Sister Melody replied. “Without song, there is no life. I am dying.”

“Why aren’t you singing?”

“I was told that you forbade me to do so.”

“I did no such thing.”

“You didn’t?”

The Abbott shook her head. Sister Melody immediately broke into song. Her face beamed with delight.

“As a result of their lies, I will have the sisters who told you I’d asked you to stop singing join you every day and have you start a choir. You will practice from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon, daily. You are the director.”

“Thank you Abbott,” Sister Melody sang. “You are the sunshine of my life.”

“Tell me,” the Abbott frowned. “Who is it that told you I’d forbid you to sing?”

“I heard it through the grapevine. I can’t name names.”

“In that case, the entire community will join you. We will bring the same vigor and insight we bring to our meditation practice.”

“Oh happy day!”

Many tuneful stories at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Bearing Witness at Auschwitz

The limitations of bearing witness at Auschwitz
Only Fiction

by Hawa Allan
Tricycle
Review of In Paradise: A Novel
088ReviewsOnlyFictionby Peter Matthissen
Riverhead Books, 2014

What are you doing here? is the refrain of the novel In Paradise, the last word of prolific author Peter Matthiessen, who passed away at age 86 in April, three days before the book’s release. In its pages, we meet a few of the 140 pilgrims from 12 countries who have traveled to Auschwitz for “homage, prayer, and silent meditation in memory of [the] camp’s million and more victims” and observe their awkward attempts at “bearing witness” to the suffering that occurred there.

The book is based on real annual Bearing Witness Retreats held at Auschwitz and led by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman. The intent of these retreats, according to Glassman, is to dissolve the ego so that practitioners become the elements of the atrocity: “the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys.” After attending three of these meditation retreats, Matthiessen, who had long wanted to write about the Holocaust, was inspired. “Only fiction,” he said, “would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I had felt.”

The book’s protagonist, the poet and academic D. Clements Olin (né Olinski), attends the retreat at Auschwitz for the sole purpose, he insists, of conducting research. But Olin’s ostensible intention to deepen his scholarship on survival literature is complicated by the slowly uncovered backstory of his aristocratic family, who fled Poland for the United States at the onset of German occupation. While Olin’s underlying reasons for attending the retreat are often elusive, even to his own probing mind, he eagerly subjects the aims of his fellow participants to critical dissection.

Among them is “the retreat’s unofficial ‘spiritual leader,’” Ben Lama, a “near-bald psychologist left over from the flower-power days of a psychedelic California youth.” To call Lama a leader is to use the word very loosely, as the participants are like a herd of cats: a dispatch of nuns (one of whom, “Olin suspects, has had less difficulty than she might have wished obeying her vow of chastity”); the Germans, “the neediest, most eager” sharers; and the American Jews, who, Olin supposes, “have come to assuage a secret guilt.” There is even a Palestinian who emerges from his “well-wrought isolation” to make a vague, equanimous retort to having been called a “raghead,” and then disappears for the rest of the novel.

Who are they? What are they doing there? These questions are most often posed to a retreatant named G. Earwig, a bellicose New Yorker who, unlike Olin, does not take passive-aggressive swipes at his peers—he simply berates them to their faces. This character, Earwig, also happens to be a mouthpiece for every fathomable objection one might have to hosting a meditation retreat in a death camp, like the risks of fostering sentimentalism instead of self-reflection, and that the retreat could devolve over time into a mere commercial enterprise complete with “package tours and jumbo buses, youth hostels, snack bars, kosher fast food,” and so on.

Earwig is also quick to detect any whiff of self-righteousness (a common accomplice of sentimentalism), swiftly rebuking a woman who claims “that movie about the kind German enamel manufacturer in Cracow who saved his whole list of productive employees” made her want to“ run right out…and do something for those people!” “Do something, lady?” he responds. “Like what? Take a Jew to lunch?”

According to the fictional retreat’s official literature, what the participants are supposed to be doing is “bearing witness.” Indeed, as Olin reflects in exposition, the term is a stale phrase, one that implies a kind of moral decency but—with overuse and underexamination—has become devoid of meaning. So, in effect, one can attend a meditation retreat at Auschwitz and be satisfied that she is “bearing witness” while imagining the torture and mass killing as whatever scenes she can recall from Schindler’s List.

Therein lies the challenge of “bearing witness”: it is far too easy—as Olin and Earwig demonstrate—to point out the wrong way of doing so. What about the right way?

The author and essayist James Baldwin said the root of his vocation as a writer was to “bear witness to the truth.” Although Baldwin was rather fuzzy on what he considered a witness to be, he remarked that he himself was a witness to where he came from and what he had seen. For Baldwin, there is something about being a witness that is personal, experiential—something unlike the authoritative, and perhaps removed, temperament of a spokesperson.

Baldwin’s insight helps illuminate the inherent conundrum of In Paradise’s meditators, insofar as a witness arrives at truth through the immediacy of his or her own perception. Though a scholar of survival literature, Olin himself “tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”

Read entire essay and more at TRICYCLE.

Afraid of Fear

Even though anxiety, fear and apprehension are a reality most Americans live with, in varying degrees, we do not have to let these feelings control, manipulate or ruin our lives.

Pain and loss or the thought of future pain and loss, can at times feel like an unbearable burden. Waiting for the next shoe to drop or wondering when the shoe that already dropped will ever go away, is a normal human reaction to the discomfort and weight of anxiety. Questioning whether such intense apprehension and fear will subside can keep our bodies and minds on ever-vigilant overload and cause numerous physical, emotional and mental difficulties.

There are numerous factors that can contribute too or create anxiety. Some are obvious – the sudden or expected death of a loved one, friend or colleague; the loss of a relationship; an act or threat of terrorism; divorce or separation; sexual and/or physical abuse; combat; changing, losing or starting a new job; and moving to a different part of town, the nation or another country. Less blatant, but potentially as nerve-racking are – the pace of our society, constantly moving faster, faster and faster; our diet and the foods we eat and how quickly we eat them; and the sadness and helplessness that can arise when we acknowledge the inequality and suffering in the world and the possibility that all life on earth is in jeopardy.

I remember jumping at loud noises for several months after my friend died in a car wreck. I also found myself excessively worrying about something happening to members of my family and thinking that I could be next every time I got behind the wheel. I had difficulty sleeping, which decreased the amount of energy and awareness I had the rest of the day and made me irritable and bossy with others in order to have some sense of control and stability.

What a relief when I recognized what was happening and that I wasn’t alone. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, “anxiety is now the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in the country” and one of the least treated. It is estimated that only about 25% of adults experiencing mild to severe forms of anxiety seek or receive any treatment for it. Luckily, there are means and ways to decrease, relieve or transform anxiety, panic and fear.

The first step and perhaps most important, is to acknowledge, admit or identify when or if you are anxious, scared or fearful, though this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we have been anxious for so long we can’t see it for what it is and point the finger at someone or something outside ourselves. It can also be clumped together with depression, anger, sadness, guilt, etc. Once we can see it for what it is, we can then choose to take some constructive action.

One of the first actions we can make is to consciously “take a deep breath”. Yes, it’s an old cliche, but it turns out to have some merit, especially in relation to anxiety. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that slow diaphragmatic breathing (similar to Yoga breathing practices) was just as effective in reducing anxiety as an antidepressant drug.

Some people find that medication, carefully monitored for side effects with their doctor, is a valuable and efficient tool to eliminate panic attacks and chronic anxiety. They can be helpful for months or years, depending on each individual’s tolerance and reactions.

Cognitive or Talk Therapy (in which triggers that create anxiety are identified, reduced or re-directed) has helped some people reduce, if not eliminate, many of their fears and phobias.

There is also a techniques such as TFT (Thought Field Therapy) that involves identifying what it is that one is fearful or anxious about, either remembering the feeling from a previous event or at the time it is happening and tapping five times, in succession, on specific points. These points correspond with meridians used in Acupressure. Like deep breathing this seems very simple, yet research and clinical practice have consistently found it to be effective in eliminating anxiety and nightmares.

A number of studies, including one in The American Journal of Psychiatry, have concluded that mindfulness meditation effectively reduces panic and anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness meditation combines breath and awareness to notice what we are experiencing moment to moment and learning how to neither push our thoughts, feelings and sensations away or hold on to them.

The famous presidential quote from the 1930’s that, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”, doesn’t adequately portray all of life’s realities. There are countless things to fear besides fear itself, but when anxiety, apprehension and fear control our lives it can seem like it is all that exists.

I urge you not to run away from your fear and anxiety, but to see it eye to eye and find what works best to put it in context with the rest of your life and experience some peace, serenity, joy and hope.

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