“The Buddha in Jail” - An interview with Cuong Lu

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Cuong Lu is a Plum Village monk currently teaching with his Sangha in Holland. His new book - ‘The Buddha in Jail’ - contains Cuong’s recollections of his time as a Prison Chaplain. Cuong spoke at Sunday Morning Zen, which can be found on our YouTube channel.

Ok, let’s get right into it.

Through technology we can communicate from Holland to the United States. 

Yes, it’s amazing! You live in Amsterdam currently?

I live in Gouda. You know Gouda Cheese?

Yes, it’s delicious. Is that where Gouda cheese is from?

Yes, we make lots of cheese here. Every weekend we have a cheese market where we sell all the cheese the traditional way.

You grew up in Vietnam?

Yes.

What were your parents like?

My father passed away in 1983, and my mother passed away in 2004. My father almost lost everything in the Vietnam War, so we moved to a new country. It was quite hard for him. He became sick and passed away very quickly, one week after we discovered he was sick. It was quite a difficult time for me, very difficult. I was 14 or 15 years old, and I lost someone who guided me through life. I couldn’t accept that. I kept looking for my father. When I saw Thich Naht Hahn, I saw my father. I saw my teacher, and at the same time I saw my father. He told me ‘You are your father’, but I didn’t see that, I didn’t understand that. Something like that, you cannot understand by the clarity of your mind. You need to go deeper. I was too young, and I couldn’t understand my teacher, but now I do, now I do. If you asked where is your father now, I would say ‘I am my father.’ I can say ‘I am my mother’. It’s wonderful because it means I am much more than a man, I am also a woman. I am a man and at the same time I am a woman. Sometimes we cannot understand this with our consciousness, we need to go deeper. To our true nature. When we talk about true nature, we talk about the nature of everything. You cannot grasp this through an idea, through our consciousness.

It’s intuitive.

Yes, it’s a kind of connection. I make a distinction between contact and connection. When we make contact with something, there is subject and object, there is me and the other person. But when we make a connection, there is no subject and no object, there is no me and no other person. In that way, you make a deep connection with the other person, and there is no separation. In this way, I can make a connection with my father, and there is no son and no father, there is no separation between me and my father. I call that connection. We often don’t make connection, we only make contact. In contact there is separation, in connection there is no separation.

The connection that you are talking about, is that a part of Buddhist practice, or is that available to anybody? How do you practice it?

I don’t see that as a practice. When I see a prisoner as a chaplain, normally I see someone who doesn’t have any practice. But I can make connection with a prisoner, it means there is no separation between the chaplain and the prisoner. In this case, there is no separation between a prisoner and the Buddha. There is also no difference between an offender and a victim. You may think I am helping the offender, but in fact I am helping the victim. It is a very different way of looking at things. The prisoner, that moment, he can feel that connection. When you are connected, you don’t judge. The way we normally see things and judge each other is absent in real connection. What we then have is only love. Compassion. In this moment. Only compassion is there. In the West we often say, ‘I think therefore I am’. This is the way we develop our knowledge, our understanding. In connection we need to say ‘I love, therefore we are.’ That’s another dimension. “I love therefore we are.’ I love you, I have compassion for you, I can feel your pain, therefore your pain is also my pain. I love you in such a way that I can feel your pain. 

The word ‘Passion’ means suffering, and the word ‘Com’ is together, we suffer together, there is no separation, that’s compassion. I can see your pain as my pain, and in that way, pain is seen by me, but also by you. Suffering is only terrible when it is not visible. When it is visible, suffering becomes what we call in Buddhism the First Noble Truth. And then when I look at a prisoner, I can connect with the prisoner. This happened - we can see suffering together - ‘Wow, there is suffering’. For the prisoners, this is the first time he can see his own suffering. Because someone who has caused so much suffering to other people and to himself, he must know what it is? No! Normally a prisoner when you put him a prison, you say ‘You sit here because you have caused suffering’, but normally that is a person who does not know anything about suffering. So you understand it doesn’t work when you put him in this way. That doesn’t mean the law is incorrect, I always stand behind the law. Because when you have done something you need to go to prison, that’s correct. The problem is the prisoner doesn’t understand anything about suffering, so he doesn’t understand the punishment. Unless he can understand compassion. If you can’t show him love, he cannot understand the suffering he is causing to himself and causing to other people. That’s very funny. It means after being in prison, he will repeat the same mistake, he will cause the same suffering. So punishment has only value if we can show compassion.

If you could redesign the prison system to show more compassion, what would you change? 

Most of all, we are prisoners too. We are prisoners of our thinking, of our consciousness. When you say ‘I think, therefore I am’ you must be very lonely in your thinking. What you can reach, you can be ‘I am’. We need each other to live a deeper life. So we need ‘I am’, but also, ‘You are’. When we are free, we are free from our consciousness, from our own thinking, we can let go of the truth. That’s what I often share with my own students, the dharma does not teach you the truth. The dharma helps you to be free from the truth. Normally we think the dharma helps teach us the truth, but the dharma helps us to let go of the truth. That’s why the first noble truth, is happiness. When people are able to get in touch with the truth, they can let go of the truth. When the prisoner is able to get in touch with suffering, he can let go of suffering. Nobody wants to hold on to suffering, there is only one reason why they can’t let go of suffering, they don’t see it. If I am in US, I want to share a practice, the practice where people can see the suffering of each other and let go of the judgement towards each other. So, in that way we can reduce the violence outside the prison and certainly inside the prison. And I can share that practice, and I don’t even call this a practice, it is a way of connecting. To Connect. A way to inter-be with each other. To be, and to inter-be. We are is a way of inter-being. When we talk about we are, it means ‘We Are’ with each other.

Every time I see on television about shooting at schools, I always cry. It’s terrible. There is too much violence. We can do something about that. We can stop judging each other. Because the prisoners often tell each other ‘You are a prisoner. You are!’  They are judging each other. And when I come in, I don’t judge. They say ‘Wow! It does exist. Someone who doesn’t judge you.’ There was a prisoner who came to me and said ‘I want to learn from you. I want to be your disciple.’ And I asked him, ‘Are you a buddhist?’ ‘No, I am not buddhist at all. But the way you look at me, at us, you really see us. You don’t judge. You don’t make any discrimination. The way you walk among us, it shows that you are free in your mind. And I want to be free, too.’ People are imprisoned and kept between the four walls, but most of all, they are imprisoned by their own mind, their own judgement.

How did you meet your wife, and how long have you known each other?

I decided to leave the monastery, I decided to leave that protected environment, and I decided to leave my teacher. Because I belonged to a different generation, and he belonged to a different generation. What he told me was amazing, the way he guided me is amazing. I am so grateful to my teacher, and I am still my teacher now, I am my teacher. But I am aware, I need to find the language for my own generation. I couldn’t do that in that environment. It was a very difficult decision for me. Very difficult. It looked like I didn’t want to be in the monastery - I loved to. It was a very protected environment, wonderful environment, but I left. I left with a lot of pain and suffering in me. And after I left that environment I had the feeling that I’ve lost everything. After 16 years as a monk, now you have nothing. And nobody believed in me anymore, because I left. But one person kept believing in me, and that person is my wife now. She said ‘Cuong, you will become a beautiful teacher. So I was not a very beautiful teacher yet, because I was a monk and in a certain way I didn’t complete my path yet, there was something I still didn’t understand. And in the midst of my deep suffering, one night in October, 2010, I woke up, and at that moment I experienced a deep silence, the complete absence of good and bad, right and wrong, you and me. Before, I thought as a monk you had to be good. And that was my obstacle. None of us are good or bad. Our nature is free from good or bad, you or me, right or wrong, our nature is complete - that’s our true root. Our true home. I left my home by my teacher, and after leaving that home I found my true home. I left my teacher and I found my teacher. Now, my teacher is me. My dear teacher is in me. My teacher is in there. Sometimes people say ‘Cuong, you are a continuation of your teacher’ and I say ‘No, I am not a continuation of my teacher, I am my teacher.  There is no separation, there is no subject or object anymore. I am my teacher. 

That is a lot of trust.

I was looking for my father, I was looking for my teacher, and I was looking for the Buddha, and I have found my father, my teacher, and I have found the Buddha. And in fact I found you. Yes? I found you and that is my trust. I trust you. I look at you and I know you are the image, your face, the face of the Buddha. Your voice is the voice of the Buddha. That is my trust. That’s why in my book I’ve said Buddhism is much more than a way of living, it is also a religion. Because I also believe. I believe in the Buddha in his wisdom, but I also believe in you. Because I have seen your nature, and your nature and the nature of the buddha is the same. Thats why I trust and believe and trust, and I’ve found you. It’s who I was looking for. I had an idea about the buddha, I was looking for the buddha, but I’ve found you. Since I’ve found you, I’ve found myself. Because there is no separation between you and me.

What were the challenges of transitioning from the life of a monastic to a lay teacher?

I feel like I am still a monk. I am a modern monk. I am a married monk. And that’s possible too. Having a wife is not an obstacle for you to be a monk. I am very happy to be able to have a normal life. So I have a wife, I have children, I have work. So I also share your difficulty of someone who has a family, who has children, and I share the same difficulty and the same happiness. As a monk I didn’t have that. For example, in the last interview for a Dutch magazine, I share about my experience of having sex with my wife. And in that moment we both share the same happiness. In that moment, it is my happiness and your happiness, so sex is a way we come together in body, feeling, in everything. And it’s a wonderful moment that we experience each other in this way. We become one. And that experience I didn’t have as a monk. And now I’m a married monk, I do have this experience. And people who do have some problem with this, they can come to me and I can listen, I understand. Because I live exactly the same life you do, therefore I know in your conditions, maybe you are married, you have children, you work, in your condition, you can be an enlightened person, you can be the Buddha.

If you are a monk, it’s harder to connect with lay people? So when you are a monk, you are practicing pure buddhism? You are not concerned with how ordinary people are living their lives? As a monk, what are you doing?

As a monk you have more time to read the sutras. As a monk you are in this protected environment, you have a teacher, you read the sutra, you listen more often to the dharma talks of your teacher. You have more time to do sitting meditation. And you, you can practice to make every step in peace. You have better conditions as a monk. I did have these conditions. I read, I studied a lot during my monkhood.  I deeply practiced with my teacher. I noticed that I have discovered that a lay person can do everything a monk can do.  That’s my discovery.  Now I could do everything I could do before.  I also read sutras, I read books, also practiced sitting meditation, can do everything, just in another way.  I don’t have to sit in a meditation hall, practice meditation, but outside in a park, and sit, I’m there connected with everybody, everything, and that’s the true essence of sitting meditation.  Connection, making connection.  And I see that it is possible, and of course I appreciate the monastery, being with the monks, it has a very powerful energy.  And we should have monasteries, we should have monks who can support us to a place we can go to get the support from people who have deep wisdom. In our early life, in our lay life, we can also live a deep life.  Deep as a monk.  We can and I see I can do that.  That’s why I am a monk.  A married monk.

So you are teaching right now, you have a Sangha in Holland.  How did you become a chaplain?  How did you decide to work with prisons?

Now, when I left the monastery, it was my girlfriend at the time.  She encouraged me to help prisoners.  I asked her why.  And she said, because they suffer.  They need the teaching and you have the teaching so you need to go there and help them.  So I applied to come there, to work as a chaplain, and at first they said no, you cannot.  We have enough people.  I said, “Well then, I’ll volunteer to come and you don’t have to pay me, I’ll just come to help other people, the prisoners there.”  And they were impressed by my energy so they said “Well, Cuong, we can accept you as the chaplain but you need to study for that and to get a Master’s degree to do this work.”  I went to do that so I could do everything possible to help the prisoners, and they accepted me.  And after a few months, the director of the prison said to me, “Cuong, I think the reduction of the violence in our prison has to do with your practice.”  I said “Wow, that’s wonderful”.  That was my feeling, that I think your work and your practice has to do with the reduction of violence in our prison.

And just by meditating with the prisoners, they opened up to you? Do you do interviews with them or just sit down and talk?

The first thing you need to do is to take out the separation between you and the prisoner.  There’s no me, there’s no them.  That’s the first thing.  I think that’s the most easiest thing to do but the most difficult thing to do also.  It’s a kind of non-fear because if you are judging them, and you have fear, they can feel that.  You have to have the non-fear energy.  A non-fear energy is an energy of compassion and of understanding.  An energy of stability.  And it is not my compassion, it is not my stability, it is not my non-fear.  It is their compassion, their stability, their non-fear.  They just don’t recognize it yet.  No one has shown them that they have that energy.  And when you come in and you can show them that you have this energy, along with your happiness.  And what you receive from them is “Wow, I do feel that my own happiness”. And they believe you and trust you and they trust themselves.  There was one prisoner that said to me “It’s funny you’re among us and the prisoners accept you, and can share everything with you, like their friend.  And I know them, they are killers, they are hard criminals.  They accept you, I have never seen this before.   Just accept you, and you are a chaplain, and they are hard criminals and I don’t see any separation between them and you.  You can say that is the secret if you want to help.  If you really need to help, you have to be free from the role of being the helper.  Otherwise you cannot help.  If you think I am the helper, I am helping you, and you are helped by me, you cannot help.  The only way you can help is to be free of being a helper.  And that is what I did.  I didn’t help, I came and I received a lot.  

Could you talk a little bit more of the freedom and of the freedom that you mentioned?  As a prisoner, how that may look.  My concept of freedom is being able to go anywhere you want but obviously a prisoner, that’s not part of their understanding.  As a prisoner, how can you be free?

Being free means being free of your consciousness.  Because we are all prisoners of our consciousness.  And consciousness here is a very small part of life.  We don’t look deep enough into our consciousness.  Consciousness is a very small part of yourself.  You are much more than your consciousness.  And right in the consciousness, you judge.  You make discrimination, because the nature of consciousness is that it helps you be able to make discrimination in order to survive.  To make distinction, you discriminate so you can survive.  To find who is your friend and who is your enemy.  That’s discrimination.  That’s me, that’s you.  Good & bad.  And your consciousness helps you recognize, understand, you have knowledge. But at the same time, it is your prison.  And the prisoners, they are prisoners of their consciousness.  Of their pain, suffering, their hopelessness.  And suffering because they have caused many suffering.  Sometime during the night, it all comes back to them.  And I help them to be free, which means I help them to be free from their consciousness.  So that they can get in touch with their true nature.  And true nature is not a kind of consciousness.  True nature is much more than consciousness.   The root of everything, the root of all of us is much more than consciousness.  And when I can get in touch with my roots, I can get in touch with their roots.  And in that way, I can help them get in touch with something deeper than only consciousness.  And thanks to that connection, they can get rooted again.  They can make peace with their parents, their ancestors, and with society.  Society is also their roots.  You know, you cannot fight against society.  You need to make peace with society because society is your roots.  You cannot be angry with yourself because you are your own roots.  So I help them to be free to get in touch with their true roots.  Home, true home.  And I can feel that.  And when they make peace with their true home, they can make peace with their wife and children.  When they come out of the prison and they come home as a new person, a person who has found themselves.  Who no longer is running, who no longer is suffering, and run away from suffering and who is looking for suffering.  Someone who has found himself.  That is freedom.  Freedom means when you have found yourself.  Freedom is when you have found yourself.  No matter where you are you are, you have found yourself and you are free.  

You talk about reframing the first Noble Truth - instead of life is suffering, or the truth of suffering, it’s the truth of happiness.  And seeing suffering as maybe not as bad but as happiness, it’s a good thing to be able to see your suffering. What did you mean by that?

You know, the Buddha said suffering is the first Noble Truth. And when we listen to him, we hear him say ‘suffering’. But we forget that suffering is the first Noble Truth. Suffering as a noble truth is not exactly the same as suffering as an idea. Happiness, too. Happiness as the Noble Truth is not the same thing as happiness as an idea. You may look for happiness, I will be happy if I get what I want. That’s an idea. Suffering people might have an idea that they suffer, like the prisoners. ‘I suffer because you have done that,’ that’s an idea. I suffer because of you. That’s an idea. Suffering as a truth is not exactly the same. When you are able to get in touch with suffering as a truth you say ’Wow,  this is suffering’ and you don’t even think this is my suffering or your suffering. Just see suffering as it is, as a truth. And you don’t recognize it with your consciousness anymore. You get in touch with it so deeply, that you are so happy to see it. Because it’s wonderful to be able to see your suffering. The moment you can see you’re suffering, you are free. That’s the noble truth, the Buddha said that. The person who understands suffering as the first truth, he will understand the second truth, the cause of suffering, the root of suffering, and he can understand the third truth is the cessation of suffering, and the fourth truth is the path. The one who sees the first truth will see the whole thing, the whole teaching about suffering, roots of suffering, ending of suffering, and the path. So suffering as a Noble Truth is something beautiful. Suffering is not the problem. Suffering is something to get in touch deeply with, and you are free. In a certain way, if you understand suffering deep enough as a reality and as a truth, you are touching happiness at the same. You are so happy that we all have that experience. You are angry and you can come back to that anger. We are carried away by our anger. And you can come back to it and say ‘Oh Hello, my anger’. And that is the moment of enlightenment, the moment of freedom, the moment of happiness. That’s why instead of saying suffering as the first Noble Truth, you can say happiness as the first Noble Truth. It’s not two different things. It’s one thing. You are talking about the level of roots of nature, but we often touch suffering and happiness on the level of concept. Conceptual level. And when suffering is being touched at the level of its nature, it is so wonderful. So wonderful that you can see ‘This is suffering’ and you understand that. If you don’t understand suffering, you cannot understand each other. If you can understand each other, you can be happy. If you are able to get in touch with happiness, as in the case with the prisoners, I come with the energy of happiness, the energy of non-judgement, the energy of no discrimination, and I bring the energy of happiness to them and thanks to that energy they can recognize suffering as a truth, not an idea. And they can stop it. ‘Oh this is suffering. So painful. I don’t want to do this to my self or other people. I can stop.’ And that is happiness. Suffering, the moment of discovering suffering, is always the moment of discovering happiness. So why don’t we call the first noble truth the truth of happiness?

Your experience as a chaplain, has that changed how you view the world at all? Has it confirmed what you learned as a monk?

You know, I have seen people who have caused so much suffering in their lives, to themselves and to other people. And I have discovered that in a very short time, these people can discover their true selves. They can be free, they can be happy, they can make use of the wisdom of the Buddha. They can be the Buddha. That is such a big gift for myself. To be able to witness that. I come to help, but I got so much out of it. Because I have seen and witnessed it not one time, two times, ten times, twenty times, every time, every day I’ve witnessed that. That is a big gift. And I never forget that anymore. No matter how deep you are falling, you can stand up, you can start again. You always do have that chance. And that is what I have seen.

That’s difficult. Especially around angry, hurt people. How do you maintain that sort of compassion? It’s hard not to be afraid. How does one not be afraid in the face of such suffering?

These people who are angry, who are suffering, if you look deeply in them you see that they have the best conditions to be enlightened. And I was always happy that I could see that, that they could express their anger to me, because they had trust. If you don’t have trust, you cannot express your anger, your suffering, your violence. And they could show that, the violence in their mind, the anger in their mind, the frustration, I was always happy to see that, I’d say “Wow, you trust me. You believe I can help you, and yes I can do it, I will help.” I was afraid to witness anger or frustration or fear, but I was quite happy. And I encourage people to show that, to show that to me, ‘It’s ok darling, it’s ok.’ It’s ok to suffer. Because someone who loves you will allow you to suffer. If you don’t love someone, you say ‘Your suffering, I don’t like it’, then you look for someone else who is happier. You have too much anger, too much suffering. Thats not true love. In true love there is always space for suffering. That’s why the prisoner’s suffering didn’t scare me. I wasn’t afraid of their suffering. I was happy that I could see that and I can see that, the way I received their suffering, I don’t judge. I am quite happy to, happiness is not an enemy of suffering, and suffering is not an enemy of happiness. If you suppress suffering, you never experience happiness in your life. So suffering, you do have a condition to be happy, and that is the suffering.

What are some of your passions?

I love to renew the Dharma. You can say, our consciousness is in fact like a program, it is programmed in a certain way. And the Dharma is to deprogram you. To help you to be free from the program that you think is the truth. Your consciousness does not contain the truth. It contains the programming and the dharma is a kind of deprogramming program. It is also a program that helps you be free of your programmed consciousness so that you can get in touch with a deeper reality of yourself. You can understand yourself in a much deeper way. And the Buddha did that. He offered a kind of program to deprogram your consciousness. And every time a teacher offers some renewing of the dharma, to help people of his time to be free from their consciousness, from the misunderstanding of themselves. And my teacher did that in a beautiful way, with mindfulness. When you talk about Thich Naht Hahn you talk about mindfulness. And I also wanted to renew the Dharma, to fuel my task a teacher to renew, so I want to, every day I think about how to help people tp have more freedom, more happiness in their life. Thats why I talk about happiness as the first noble truth. The concept of, the teaching of suffering as the first Noble Truth, I renew that, and I offer happiness as the first Noble Truth, and I love to do that. And I do that in my teaching, so every time I give a talk, I give a teaching, there is always something new I am sharing. You cannot repeat the Dharma, you need to renew the Dharma. That is what we call the living Dharma.

Do you have any final words as we leave the interview, would you like to share anything about the book, or that we haven’t touched on?

I am very happy that the book is published in the US. Next month in July I will come to the US, and I want to make friends. I don’t come for my book. The book is a condition to come and make friends. And I believe together we can do something. Please come to me, hold my hand. And we can do something. There is too much violence. We need to do something. And we can do something. We have the path, we have the wisdom. We have the buddha in each of us. We need to do something. And that is what I want to share with everybody. I want to say ‘Let’s just be friends.’ It’s beautiful if we have 7 billion people who are friends with each other. So I come to US with that deep wish, I want to make friends. Come and hold my hand, and let’s do something together. To reduce the violence of our society.

The Buddha in Jail  is available now in bookstores and for ordering online.

The Buddha in Jail is available now in bookstores and for ordering online.

"I am the Other, and the Other is Me" by Roshi Robert Althouse

“Children in Cages” by Robert Althouse

“Children in Cages” by Robert Althouse

We humans have always been susceptible to scapegoating each other. When we are uncomfortable within our own skin, when times are difficult and we struggle to find our way, we can easily project our insecurities and inadequacies onto others. Once we identify some group, class, ethnicity, religion or culture as “other” we can dehumanize them in a way that allows us to justify to ourselves unspeakable acts of horror, aggression imprisonment, torture, punishment and murder.

Sadly, our recent history is full of many examples. Fascist Germany imprisoned and murdered millions of Jews during WWII.

When the Japanese invaded Shanghai shortly before the beginning of WWII they marched inland to Nanjing killing and beheading thousands of Chinese who they referred to as beings, no better than brute, stupid animals.

During WWII we rounded up most Japanese American citizens and put them in internment camps.

And now, we are doing the same with immigrants, separating children from their parents and placing the children in detention camps with horrific and shocking inhuman conditions.

Demonstration and March on July 13, 2019 in Downtown Chicago

Demonstration and March on July 13, 2019 in Downtown Chicago

So I want to tell you a story of June’s family, about her Grandfather on her mother’s side. When June and I demonstrated and marched in downtown Chicago on July 13, 2019 to protest the child detention camps, we began with a group from the Japanese Cultural Center and walked with them to Daley Plaza. June was surprised when we joined them, how much emotion arose in her, as she remembered the tragic history of her own Grandfather.

Sensei June’s Grandparents, Tomeyo Tahara and Joichi Tahara

Sensei June’s Grandparents, Tomeyo Tahara and Joichi Tahara

Her Grandfather Joichi Tahara immigrated to Hawaii from Japan. His family in Hiroshima were rice farmers and he came to Hawaii because he wanted to do something different. He arrived as a young man in Hilo. Being intelligent and industrious, he set up a successful transportation business with two other men.

He married Tomeyo Okino and moved from Volcano to Pauilo-mauka on the verdant slopes of Mauna Kea. They set up a country store that provided cattle feed, supplies, food and dry goods to the surrounding community. They raised 9 children. He was a widely respected leader in his community sitting on the board of a local Japanese school.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation No. 2537 requiring aliens from enemy countries - Italy, Germany and Japan to register with the US Dept. of Justice. These persons were then issued a Certificate of Identification for Aliens of Enemy Nationality. This order facilitated the beginning of full-scale internment of Japanese Americans the following month.

This lead to Rooseveltʻs Executive Order 9066 which authorized the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan.

A pair of FBI agents showed up at the door of the Taharas’ home and gave Joichi a few hours to gather his belongings and say goodbye to his family. They took him away to an internment camp that had been set up at the Kilauea Military Camp. He was then moved to Sand Island on Oahu, and from there to Honouliuli, located in a very dry gulch in the center of Oahu. Nine months after he was taken away, he died of an aneurism. This is such a sad and heart-breaking story, one would hope we had learned from this so we wouldn’t repeat it again.

We should remember some of the names of these concentration camps in Europe such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka where millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Poles lost their lives because they were seen as “other”.

Let us also remember the names of some of the other Internment Camps where we imprisoned good Japanese-Americans who broke no laws and did nothing to deserve their treatment in such places as Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, and Fort Sill.

And now along with many child detention camps along the border, our government, your government, my government wants to convert the Japanese internment camp at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma into a child detention camp for immigrant children taken away from their parents. On Saturday, July 20 many Buddhist priests and practitioners gathered in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma for a memorial service to remember this place and remind all of us, that this should never happen again.

It’s not just Jews or homosexuals immigrants that are the target of our fearful projections. It can be any group. Your group might be next.

A recent article in the L.A. Times https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-ceqa-homeless-shelter-20190515-story.html, reports that people of my own generation in many US cities such as Seattle and San Francisco who consider themselves to be progressives, are very vocally opposing homeless facilities in their own neighborhoods. It’s not a big step from turning a homeless person into “other” to seeing someone from another country trying to immigrate to our country as a fearful alien too.

When we dehumanize others, we lose our own humanity. Christ said, what you do to the least of them, you do to me. America is an idea. An idea that anyone can come to this country and make something of themselves and contribute to our country through their hard work and ingenuity. Ronald Reagan remarked that “these visitors do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still . . . a shining city on a hill.”

I know these times are dark and discouraging, but we must remember why many around the world have looked to America for hope and leadership. We must not give into the fear that divides us. When we stand for each other, we stand for ourselves. I am the other and the other is me.

@2019 Robert Althouse



Blessing Poem by Roshi Robert Althouse

Blessing Poem on occasion of Eye-Opening ceremony for Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva for Opening of Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago at 46 Lake St. in Oak Park, on Saturday, June 29, 2019.

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“We come here together today with deepest respect for our teachers, ancestors and families and sanghas who make our lives possible. We invoke and invite all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to come and witness this joyous occasion of the opening of this zendo at (name and place and date). Let compassion be born in our hearts today to use our wisdom and skills in the service of freeing others from suffering.

We are grateful for the dark earth that cradles the seed.

For the waters that bring forth the green leaves.

For the stars that bring form to flowers

For the sun that ripens the fruit

For the beauty and goodness and wonder of life and death

And all the relationships that bring us together at this place, at this time.

Let us explore new ways of living

Letting go of that which keeps us from learning,

May we be open.

Let us use our gifts freely

Knowing that our life exists because of all beings.

Let each of us know intimately the wholeness of our being

Sending love to every home in this community, this state, this country and our troubled planet.

May our love fill the smallest particle to the largest space.

May we be generous.

Let us see ourselves as the child without food, separated from her parents,

The woman without a home, the man without tears, the land poisoned and sick, the oceans rising, the sea coral dying, and all the myriad forms of suffering.

Let us not look away from our pain

But have the courage to face it fearlessly

Let our love manifest in simple acts of caring

And in words that soften and warm the heart

May we be kind.

Let us appreciate all the life with which we share this precious earth.

All beings, bathing in the same moonlight, touched by dawn’s subtle colors, sun struck at noon, laughing, crying, singing.

May we appreciate our lives.”

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse


Collapsing and Constructed Identity: a conversation with author Gina Aras


Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas, Photo Žana Cončiar

Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas, Photo Žana Cončiar

Interview with Gint Aras (Karolis Kinkai Zukauskas) in The Lithuania Tribune by Alexandra Kudukis on June 25, 2019.

Rising literary talent, Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas,) shares stories created of raw natural artistry and studied precision. A Lithuanian-American native of Chicago’s suburb of Cicero, he’s the author of the novels, Finding the Moon in Sugar and The Fugue, and also a forthcoming memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen(Homebound Publications, 2019).

An essay, Members Only: Marquette Park, will appear in an anthology titled The Chicago Neighborhood Guide (Belt Publications, 2019). Both works of non-fiction deal with, among other themes, racism and xenophobia in the Lithuanian diaspora.

Dmitry Samarov, writing for the Chicago Tribune, shared an accurate description of Gint’s writing style, and a short analysis of The Fugue:

“Rather than proceed chronologically, the story loops in on itself; episodes echo over decades and different people often seem to trade thoughts and threads of conversation as if picking them out of the ether. Over and over people strain to describe music by means of image, colors, and shapes standing in for notes as in synesthesia. Dreams described by one person are overtaken by another with no explanation, yet none is needed. Yuri becomes a sculptor just like his grand-uncle Benny, whom he’d never met; Lita tries to play music the same way Lars does, though they don’t know each other and never will; characters try repeatedly to confess and unburden themselves with little success. The forces that push them all this way and that are beyond any one individual’s will or control.”

Alexandra Kudukis. It’s more than a book, as the title suggests; it has musical elements/components and is really outstanding work. When I read your book back in 2016, I have to admit, I’d honestly never read anything quite like it. Could you share your process in creating the characters and the story for The Fugue?

Gint Aras: I was a graduate student living in New York when I started The Fugue. It was 2000, and after three years of life in Austria, I had been in the States for just over a year. I felt between planets, in a sense, which I think is important to the development of the book, primarily its themes of collapsing identity and sudden awakening, and the questions it poses—as Dmitry Samarov notes—regarding individuals’ agency over fate.

It still shocks me to remember that the novel began as a vignette to practice description. I described this imagined window made of broken beer bottles: brown and green glass soldered to wires of a chain link fence. It occurred to me that the window’s craftsman was probably more interesting than the object, and so Yuri Dilienko was born. He’s the main character in The Fugue.

I first imagined him as an Amsterdam squatter, perhaps a Soviet emigre, but he was really a shell …and, frankly, the outside artist who solders beauty out of refuse is cliché. At one point, I thought I’d abandoned him, but he kept coming back when I sat to write—he’d bother me as I showered, prepared food or took walks.

Obsessively, I started seeing him in my hometown, in Cicero, walking my childhood streets. Now he was a metals sculptor. He had a history: a Ukrainian father, Lithuanian mother, girlfriends, wounds, a deepening identity complete with criss-cross cultural and ethnic ties. He grew up Catholic, abandoned the faith, lost his family in a house fire, and then ended up serving time for murder, though his careful and sensitive consciousness seemed antithetical to violence and arson.

A character like this demands a novel, and I got excited when I saw the possibility for a multi-generational book. I loved the vignette at that time in my career, so I started stringing together little episodes, exploring other characters in Yuri’s family tree. Eventually, a post-war epic had developed, a meditation on guilt and convalescence.

Oh, and the window of bottle glass survived. It’s in the book. 

It has been three years since your work was published. How have you changed as a writer since then? 

Gint Aras: My life has changed in monumental ways, enough to shift my sense of self. My ex-wife had come out as a lesbian right around the time I had sold The Fugue; I had also taken dual citizenship at that time. Over the course of the past year, I got divorced and remarried. Then, my grandfather—he was responsible for my interest in stories and literature—died only months before reaching his 100th birthday.

All of these experiences intensified and matured my interest in the themes of death and love, how they relate to identity, memory, imagination, one’s sense of history, and one’s agency.

You practice Buddhism, which encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices, including meditation. Could you please share how you came to these beliefs, and the practice? Has it had an impact on your writing, if so, in which ways?

Gint Aras: In my forthcoming book, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, I explain that a traumatic experience led me to meditation practice. I got robbed at gunpoint in 2010. It happened in a convenience store, and during that robbery, I was certain the thieves were going to kill me.

The aftermath was a horror trip. I got diagnosed with PTSD, and my life changed. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but I grew up with an abusive alcoholic, in a family system whose purpose was to keep up appearances. Once I had children of my own, I feared keeping up the appearance of a “sound and proper family” would send my kids into the very madness that had overwhelmed me. To heal myself, I had to change my environment and reorganize my mind.

I fumbled through anything that might offer relief and wisdom. That led me to Zen practice. I now practice Zen Buddhism in my daily life, work as a meditation instructor at a Zen center, and I share stories.

Talking about Zen is challenging. There are many misconceptions, primarily that Zen practitioners are “always calm.” Zen brings you face-to-face with what is and who you are, but it makes no promise of enlightenment or accomplishment: the capitalist, magazine-cover concept of “perfection” fits on zen as well as shoes on our ears. Zen practice is straightforward: you sit and pay attention. If you’re anxious, you pay attention to your anxiety. You do the same if you’re elated or aroused.

On power of mediation

Gint Aras: When you meditate, you learn to notice the difference between the feeling you’re having…say, sadness…and the consciousness that allows you to observe yourself feeling sad. That consciousness is where you sit. It’s the one that helps you see “sadness” is just part of you, not all of you. Relative to your sadness, there’s a lot more to you, and sadness begins to look small, its power diffused.

Of course, the same is true for your elation. A lot of sadness is the result of our desire to be constantly elated. When you realize you’re sad because you want your life to be a magazine cover, you should roll over laughing. Our desire to be perfect is hysterical. To quote a Zen master a friend of mine drove to the train station: “What do you do when the Zen master farts in your car? You open the window.”

As far as writing goes…meditation and writing are similar states of mind. Writing is a kind of thinking whose focus is a single word: the one in front of you. That word is fleeting; it ends almost as soon as it has begun, and what follows is another word. The words just are: they’re neither being created nor destroyed.

Gint Aras books. Photo Žana Cončiar

Gint Aras books. Photo Žana Cončiar

Meditation is the observation of something similar, either the breath or some anchor that lets us perceive the flow of time. What’s different is that the process is not an effort, and it has no outcome that anyone besides the meditator can consider. If you’re considering an outcome, you’ll have a good laugh.

Your writing has a natural fierceness. Has that always been a part of you, or has that evolved?

Gint Aras: I’m not sure. Writing anything of consequence—a love letter or a job application—is an act of courage and vulnerability. I’m not consciously sitting to write and thinking, “Ok, be fierce.” That said, I understand the nature of the question, and I know what people find fierce in my writing.

I realized in childhood that the most radical thing one could do was to ask obvious questions. I mean things like this: Were the Lithuanian-Americans who protested the Soviet Union between 1989-1991—I was among them, mind you—fighting totalitarianism, or were they just fighting enemies? Is autocratic rule ok if it works to your benefit?

If you’re Lithuanian-American, will any of the immigrants in your family (or will you yourself) consider a move toward dictatorship if it entertains the fantasy of an America without people of color? When you ask how immigrants and their children can support tangents to the very political philosophies that led to the razing of their village, the deportation of their own relatives to Siberia, the torture of dissidents and the displacement of an entire generation, you’re labeled fierce. The alternative—timidity or politeness—is to sit quietly and observe without daring to offend someone’s support for the abhorrent.

The interesting thing about your question, at least from where I stand, is that I feel my energy pales in comparison to the ferocity of readers. Publishing is a game that goes something like this: Publishers and readers say, “Give us what we want!” Writers ask, “What do you want?” and the world stands in unison to scream, “We don’t know!”

What we really really want?

Gint Aras: Of course, all of us know exactly what we want. We are at best unable to admit it, at worst blatantly lying. Contemporary readers want two things. First, they want narratives that associate them with sociopolitical factions they consider righteous and correct.

Second, they want narratives and authority figures to validate their political points of view and aesthetic tastes. In short, they want to be right while feeling their political and cultural enemies are wrong. They hope writers will make this clear.

There has always been a bigger market for correct answers than for difficult questions. But today’s stakes are different because we’re living in times of cultural degradation, at the threshold of an extinction event hardly anyone wants to face.

Contemporary society is in dangerous denial: we displace responsibility and scapegoat even when we’re jaded, deluded, depressed and anxious, concerned that everyone is looking at us when we’re paying little attention to anything else. Our need for dopamine and our obsession with brevity and immediacy have broken our ability to perceive reality.

The two family members at your next dinner party who argue over the Mueller report—with one claiming it exonerates a demigod while the other says it damns a demon—both share one important thing in common: neither has read the report.

They understand it from snippets of bad summaries, communicated by media interested in giving people what they want. Those “information sources” stoke the very fear and fury they poach. It has become a cycle of frenzied, impassioned mass ignorance.

A lot of novels and memoirs operate under this desire to get people what they want instead of asking the obvious questions. I’ve never had much use for them. I don’t think a novel or memoir should be a “desirable product.”

You don’t resolve the issues they bring up by taking them to the customer service desk. Really…I started reading novels when I was in 2nd grade, and I’ve always preferred the ones that brandished blades instead of credit cards. I’d rather a writer bleed me than offer me coupons.

You’ve incorporated your childhood, raised by Lithuanian immigrant parents, and the first generation American experience into your work. In your upcoming memoir, it is shared in a way not taught in Lithuanian-American textbooks, but from the way you honestly, and actually experienced it. Gint Aras, how did it feel to share those brutally honest expressions of thought?

Gint Aras: Without giving away spoilers, my forthcoming book recalls my 2017 visit to Mauthausen, the infamous concentration camp in Upper Austria, alongside my upbringing in Cicero, where I grew up among Lithuanian displaced.

It details the formation of an identity that was based on an abridged, highly edited—I can say censored or cleaned—version of Lithuanian history, something that became apparent to me in young adulthood, when I got confronted by people who had much more information that I did. These confrontations forced me to change how I understood my ethnic identity. Ultimately, I started questioning the very nature of ethnicity, and of identity itself.

To me, both The Fugue and Finding the Moon in Sugar, if you read those novels carefully, handle similar questions, primarily of collapsing identity, and how the constructs of nation and religion, crossed with trauma, affect the composition of a self.

The big difference between the process of writing those books and the current one has to do with the presentation. Relief by Execution is non-fiction, so the veneer of artifice is much thinner. I have plenty of experience with non-fiction: I maintain a blog, and I’ve written dozens of essays, often about intimate themes.

That said, there’s something safe and fortifying about the disguise of fiction, and by comparison to books, essays of a few thousand words feel ephemeral. The process of composing and publishing a memoir feels like complete nudity, all my scars and broken skin on display.

Ultimately, I think the book is about the relationship between failure and agency, ego and insight. It’s liberating to write about failure because writing is an obvious act of agency. Writing helps catalyze failure into something else: if not a success, then at least a conversation. It’s hard to live with errors by yourself, and I suffered from horrible errors of perception for much of my life. 

Can you share your own personal opinion of the Lithuanian damaged hero narrative, shared to first generation Lithuanian-Americans as they grew up? The honors still remain in our shared ancestral homeland. Gint Aras, several “heroes” still have streets and monuments named after them, even though mounting evidence indicates that they actually did a lot of harm to part of Lithuania’s citizenry. 

Gint Aras: It’s curious synchronicity that these questions of Noreika and his status as a national hero came up while I was composing Relief by Execution. I’m ashamed to admit, but I’m sadly misinformed, particularly about the details of Noreika’s life and work. However, when I come across the rhetoric of his defenders and accusers, I sense energies that are not all that different from the ones fueling so much of our pan-Western struggle over convalescence and owning up.

There are two common foundations behind someone’s decision to erect a political monument. The first is a desire to commemorate episodes of either power or suffering. The second is to control a narrative.

Rarer is the monument that admits error and works to process shame. I don’t know how others feel, but this rare monument is often far more powerful, allows a narrative where greater numbers of voices participate, and it creates a space that provokes respect.

There are certainly Germans who go to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin to feel an affront to themselves or their culture, but such a German is exceptionally rare. All parties involved in the Holocaust—the victims, witnesses, perpetrators, and students—can come to the monument to feel sorrow, acknowledgment, forgiveness, unity, and remorse. The monument legitimizes all of us as human.

On the Holocaust

Lithuania suffered enormously over its history. However, the narrative I got when I was growing up was that Lithuania was harmed while harming no one, something that’s just blatantly false.

It would be easier to settle these questions if greater numbers of individual Lithuanians did not manage their shame over the Holocaust by either denying it, minimizing its importance, shifting blame or changing the subject. People say, “Again this topic? Let’s move on. It’s over.” It’s not over if people feel they have something to express, or if they feel a story has not been told to its completion.

The desire to control narratives and defend pride is what’s at stake here, I think. The legitimate possibility to deny or minimize the Holocaust in Lithuania has essentially collapsed for all but the most extreme nationalists. In the wake of such collapse, the next step is to begin a battle over who had it worse, or who are trying to minimize whose suffering.

People don’t want to let go of memorials that represent power or resistance in the face of aggression, which is what I intuit Noreika’s defenders are claiming.  When someone comes around to say, “Your man made my people suffer,” a common retort is to say “We also suffered.” Then it becomes a contest of who had it worse, with the assumption that the worse off party has authority over the question, so people clamor to put their victimization on display.

Of course, there’s a deeper psycho-social issue here. It transcends any discussion of any single monument, any single perpetrator of a crime, or whether we can be allowed to memorialize those who fought our enemies on one side of a conflict, even as they slaughtered innocents on the other.

I spend at least a month out of every year in Lithuania, and I’ve been taking my children there for over a half-decade. While attending the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius in 2014, I met a translator, a Lithuanian Jew, whose daughter became friends with my children. Because of these relationships, my kids have no problem with the idea that Jews can be Lithuanian. It’s hardly a topic.

My kids and Lithuania

The kids speak Lithuanian together. They have all picked wild strawberries in fields, stringing them onto shafts of grass. They’ve eaten šaltibarščiai (cold beet soup) in a village. They’ve run around the Vilnius Old Town for hours with other neighborhood kids and their dogs, all while their parents sat drinking tea on a balcony overlooking Literatų Gatvė. None of the people I’m describing, from the youngest to the oldest, have any problem with the (innocuous, obvious, simple) idea that a Lithuanian can be Jewish.

Let’s set aside a discussion about the Holocaust for second and limit it to ethnic or cultural identity. One privilege that Lithuanian Americans of my generation shared was the capacity to travel, often as early as our teen years, to all sorts of Lithuanian diaspora activities.

I’m talking about camps in Big Bear, California; festivals in Hamilton, Ontario; athletic tournaments in Chicago, Illinois; and an AABS conference in Stanford University, the latter drawing people from as far away as South Africa, Brazil, and Australia.

I’ve met South Side bar-room drunks who could not find Nemunas on a map, yet they identified as Lithuanian. I knew a homosexual Jesuit who could not pronounce Šventoji Marija, yet he identified as Lithuanian. A college basketball player who lived his whole life in the suburbs of Detroit, knows less than 100 Lithuanian words? Ditto.

The kids of WWII refugees who ended up in Buenos Aires? Quite. Girls born in Dublin to migrant workers who never saw reason to return to Utena? Social media pictures posted on February 16th show them with Lithuanian colors in their braids.

On ethnic and national identity

Gint Aras: Despite the complexity of ethnic and national identity that all these people share, to this day so many of them believe Jews cannot be Lithuanian. This should stun us. They’ve gathered a narrative that says Lithuanian Jews are—and I’m using the present tense with conscious ferocity—interlopers, nomads, migrants or enemies. The narrative deletes the possibility of seeing Jews as run-of-the-mill neighbors with tomato plants on their balconies.

That assumption, of Jews as other, often forms the subconscious foundation to any discussion of the Holocaust, and people don’t even realize they’re talking in different terms. Compare these statements: “Look what these people did to their fellow countrymen” versus “Look what these people did to their enemies.” Look what they did to these nomads, migrants or interlopers. Compare that to this: “Look what these people did to their neighbors.” Then there’s this one: “Look at what these people did to their fellow human beings.”

At the heart of any provocation to discuss atrocity lies a simple goal. Can we learn to see each other as entirely and truly human? Can we set aside our filters and fear to see that this discussion is not an attempt to grab or acquiesce authority?

If I acknowledge the Holocaust took place, and it occurred because of widespread anti-semitism, I’ve not diluted my blood. The only way I can betray my tribe is if the tribe expects me to maintain a narrative that’s based on a dehumanizing point of view. If that’s what I’m doing, I have no problem betraying the tribe. It’s not any tribe I want to be part of.

Point blank. I know Lithuanian-Americans—some of in my family—who think Jews cannot be Lithuanian. If you accuse them of anti-semitism, they become furious. It’s exactly the kind of fury that erupts from certain people who don’t want to hear women complain about sexual harassment, or minorities complain of police brutality.

It’s no different from the accusations people levy at rape victims: she wore the wrong tank top, or her skirt was too short. It’s the same fury certain fans of Penn State pointed at the press for reporting and documenting that a cultural hero was helping cover up a pattern of heinous crimes. There’s a subset of our society that automatically identifies with perpetrators of crimes, and they perceive outspoken victims or thinkers as threats. Of course, threats to what? There’s a ferocious question.

Gint Aras, What is next for you? 

Gint Aras: I’m hoping to do some collaboration with some international artists. I also have a long term plan to write a comedy about American education.

Could you share a bit about the comedy? It would be very interesting to see this side of your writing. Gint Aras, have you started on it yet?

Gint Aras: I’ve not started it. I have to publish some short pieces first to gauge just how badly my college will want to fire me for pointing out the obvious.

In short, American Education is a comedy. The sausage is made with Monty Python meat.

Here’s an example:

Virtually every college president in America has a secret fantasy to eliminate human teachers altogether. Human teachers either interfere with the maintenance of a kleptocracy, or they steal things like printer paper, laboratory acid, and instant coffee. Community colleges have been handling this by eliminating full-time instructors and replacing them with part-time adjuncts who have fewer sets of keys. They are paid a bonus of popcorn on top of peanuts, worked so hard that they don’t have time to scheme a heist of printer paper. Ph.D. programs know this—part-time teachers in Ph.D. programs know this—yet they continue offering Ph.D’s.

In the meantime, colleges are experimenting with computer-based modules and online education that uses standardized answers and processes, which even crude robots can check for “correctness.” The trick now is to convince college students that education is just as valuable, perhaps even better, when taught over the very cell phones that make robots of them.

If colleges could do this, they could keep the peanuts and popcorn for themselves, distribute the snacks to their friends, and hire even more assistants to the assistance of the deans, all of whom are assistants to the provost, who is an assistant to the president, who sits eating sausages made of Monty Python meat.

Colleges will shift from fighting online sales of essays and dissertations to simply selling these dissertations to students themselves. Students won’t even need to see the dissertation (it probably won’t even exist). To pass any class, you’ll just show a bar-coded receipt. Even doctoral students will be able to do it. They’ll be allowed to use their cell phones.

The college will still require all the assistants to sit in contractually mandated meetings. No subject will be presented, no comments will be made, no discussions will take place. The kleptocrats’ need of keeping people silent, dehydrated and sober in a poorly ventilated room for three hours and against their desires will remain sacrosanctly.

This vision for the college is genius, really. Hallways full of young people staring at cell phones, heaps of money dumped into a Chinese doll of assistants, a president constipated on Monty Python meat, no human teachers to be found anywhere, but the weekly meetings full of people contemplating suicide will still take place. It’ll be more lucrative than a private prison. And you can bring your cell phone.

It’s a dark comedy. But it’s still funny.  

I sincerely and respectfully thank you for your time in sharing your thoughts and your perspective. Looking forward to the release of Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen.




Sally Stovall’s Passing

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Rest in Peace
Sally Stovall

April 16, 1949 to May 21, 2019
Co-Founder of Green Community Connections
Founding Member of One Earth Film Festival


Our dear friend and colleague Sally Stovall died Tuesday, May 21, surrounded by family and friends after a massive stroke Monday evening. Join us in remembering this compassionate leader at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 25, for a Memorial Service at Euclid Ave. Methodist Church, 405 S. Euclid Ave., in Oak Park. In honor of Sally’s bike-centered living, we encourage people to ride their bikes to the service, if they are able.

Video by Cassandra West

A tribute in photos to Sally Stovall, co-founder of Green Community Connections and a founding member of the One Earth Film Festival. Sally stood up for justice and the environment and contriibuted tirelessly to Oak Park's civic life. She passed away on May 21, 2019.

Memories of Sally

By Lisa Files

When most people retire, they kick back, take cruises, and visit the grandchildren. Sally Stovall was not most people. She did, indeed, relish visiting her grandchildren, but after she retired from a career in organizational development, Sally embarked on a new, vibrant career as climate activist and community organizer.

In September 2010, Sally and her partner, Dick Alton, were worried about global warming and decided to hold a community meeting to see if others felt the same way. Out of the woodwork poured a cohort of people with the same concerns --no real surprise in progressive Oak Park.

Together, they formed Green Community Connections and started holding meetings to talk about how individual actions can help reverse climate change. Sally took the helm, enlisting volunteers to create a website with a blog and resources pages. Monthly newsletters followed, along with community meetings about native plants, edible gardens, food waste, organic lawn care and more. Her efforts helped spur a steady and sustained green revolution in Oak Park and River Forest.

One project near and dear to Sally’s heart was “Mobilizing for Monarchs.” After she learned the monarch butterfly population had declined dramatically over the past 20 years, she developed a plan to use Green Block Parties to disseminate news about planting milkweed, an essential food for monarch caterpillar survival.

Lately, food waste became another major concern. Sally had read Paul Hawken’s book “Drawdown,” which ranked reducing food waste as the third most effective of 80 solutions to reverse global warming. Again through Green Block Parties, she taught people about sustainable eating and composting.

In 2015, Sally and Dick challenged themselves to give up their car for 90 days in order to lower CO2 emissions. In 2018, they stepped up this challenge to a whole new level by giving up their car entirely. At events and meetings, they regularly arrived with pink cheeks from bike riding.

The One Earth Film Festival, which began in 2012, is the largest program of Green Community Connections. Sally, who was instrumental in the success of the Film Festival over the years, led the charge to spread the Film Festival to Lake County, expanding its reach from the original boundaries in Oak Park/River Forest. This year she took on double-duty, managing several of the screenings in the Oak Park area.

One of our favorite blog posts by Sally was “A Posthumous Appreciation for an American Elm Tree.” In it, she remarked on her alarm at exiting her church to see a tree stump instead of a majestic elm tree. She wrote:

”On reflection, I realized that what was really bothering me is that I had not noticed that tree until it was gone! It was part of the familiar landscape that I passed a couple of times a week but never fully appreciated its beauty and all the many benefits it brought to the block at the corner of Washington and Euclid. Since I work with a group of about 8 elementary age children at the church, perhaps we will have a mini memorial service for our tree to say ‘thank you’ for all that it has done for us and the birds, the insects and other living creatures that it supported over the years!”

Somehow, this absent elm tree echoes our collective experiences with Sally and her work with Green Community Connections. We will mourn and weather her sudden absence, the absence of a fervent advocate for the birds, the insects, and other living creatures.

At her family's request, donations in Sally's memory may be made to Green Community Connections here.

To share your remembrances or stories about Sally,
go here.

Setting Sail in Stormy Waters

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We are living through chaotic, unprecedented and unstable times. It can be hard to find your bearings. It seems we may have taken the values of our democracy too much for granted and now they need to be defended. We need to stand not only for core values but for each other.

There are so many ways we can separate ourselves from each other. If you believe life is a zero-sum game then you will fight to win at all costs, no matter how much suffering results. And this is indeed the political environment we find ourselves in. So why is the Zen spiritual path relevant in such times as these?

Zen was born in early China and came to prominence during the decade-long An Lushan Rebellion. It’s said that 1/3 of the population of China was wiped out by violence, disease and hunger. And yet Zen flourished because it rose to the occasion by helping people turn towards the suffering rather than avoiding and running away from it.

So there are five ways Zen might help you navigate these choppy waters to reach the other shore.

WAITING

The spiritual path begins with waiting. You must be patient. You can not begin the journey with impulsive or ill-conceived action, no matter how good your intentions. Before you unfurl your sails and set forth on the high seas of the unknown, you need to be prepared. Fishing nets need to be mended. Leaks in the boat need to be caulked. The boats need to be sanded and painted. You have to wait for all of the crew to arrive.

Waiting can teach you many things. It can teach you to listen, to rest, and to pay attention to small things. You begin to appreciate the crew that have joined you for this journey.

In Zen practice, meditation teaches us how to wait. It teaches us how to hang out with ourselves and with others. It teaches us how to be with our experience, directly, intimately. It teaches us to let go of our attachment to the outcome. It teaches us to respect ourselves and our world.

UNCONDITIONAL WORTHINESS

Waiting teaches you to listen to your own experience with greater care and kindness. And what you may discover is that you are often in the grip of what Tara Barch calls the "trance of unworthiness". Another word for this is "shame". It's one of the most common sufferings I see. Shame cripples any positive initiative or creative impulse. It is highly correlated with depression, aggression, violence, bullying, addiction and sleep disorders. It's message is, "I am bad". "I am not OK as I am". Shame always has a prerequisite. "I'll be OK once I ____________." And you can fill in the blank for yourself.

In the grip of shame you find yourself working hard to fit in, to always please others and to do everything perfectly. You spend enormous amounts of energy trying to avoid being shamed or humiliated by others. The fear of rejection is often at the fore-front of your consciousness.

Ironically, it seems to me the prerequisite for entering the spiritual path is overcoming shame. As you work with this, you gradually realize that there is something in the heart of your experience which is rich, sane and worthy, and it's unconditional. It does not depend on other peoples' approval of you. It does not depend on how much money you earn, how smart you are, or how many friends you have on Facebook.

So there is some wholeness in you that is lovable and good. This wholeness is not divided in any way. So it includes everything. It includes your world, your neighborhood, your government, and yes, even politicians. The spiritual path of living a Zen-inspired life returns you to the wholeness of who you are. And in coming home, you make friends with your world.

FACING DIFFICULTIES

Once you trust your own sanity, you're ready for the journey. And the basic principle that applies here is that you should approach difficulties. This may be counter-intuitive. You have developed habits of avoiding suffering, which contribute to your dissatisfaction. You discover that the journey is headed straight for the rocks. But now instead of freaking out, and pretending a crisis is not happening, you take this as another opportunity to wake up, and to be more skillful. You don't stop loving someone because they are suffering. You show up and spend time with them. You are present with their suffering, without pity, without judgement. Some fortitude is being born in your own sad and tender heart. Some tenderness and care for the enormous suffering of the world around you.

GRIEVING

Grief is how you know that you've set sail on the high seas. Adventures are to be experienced. And yet, it's surprising to discover that an important part of this journey is returning home again and again.

You've started make friends with yourself and your world, and you discover this soft spot in yourself, this sad and tender heart that has been disappointed, hurt and betrayed so many times before. Your own sanity, inspires you to stay, to grieve, to open your heart further to this incomprehensible and insane world you find yourself living in. You don't need to wall off your heart any longer.

I still remember 9/11 vividly. I remember the loneliness I felt and the need I had to be with other people, to share my pain and my confusion. I believe that if we as a country had been able to properly grieve this tragedy, we might have transformed ourselves as a country. But we unable to do this. We rushed to judgement and reaction that led us into two wars, one of which we are still trying to extricate ourselves from.

We could grieve for our planet, for the species that are rapidly disappearing. We could greave for our oceans where the coral reefs are dying. We could grieve for the hundreds of children being shot and slaughtered in their own schools. We could grieve for our own divided nation and the impasse we have reached politically.

Grieving is how we come to our senses, how we wake up and embrace our world. It takes courage to remain open hearted and face a world which seems to have gone crazy. What's born from this brave, open heart is a vow, an aspiration to live your life for the sake of healing suffering wherever it resides in the human heart.

LIVING BY VOW

Ordinary people live by the habits of their karmic actions. Those who live a Zen-inspired life live by vow. They aspire and orient their life around serving and giving of themselves so that others may wake up and be liberated from suffering. They are freed from the constant self-preoccupations that plague others. They are inspired to engage with the suffering in the world. They do not run away from suffering. They don't try to fix it. They have tremendous power and fortitude born from the strength of compassion. They are able to show up with kindness and care and respect.

The only obstacle to living a Zen-inspired life in this way, is your own doubt, your own fear that you are not worthy or good enough or brave enough to live in this way. Face your fear, and then go beyond it. Live a larger life and make a difference in the world around you. Live your life as if it mattered.

No matter how crazy the world seems, its still possible to show up here, sane and open. In Zen practice we renew this practice daily through the practice of meditation. Meditation is our base-line practice that helps us keep our ship upright and sailing through rough seas. Please take good care of yourself, your family, your community, your country and the planet. May all beings be free of suffering.

Robert Joshin Althouse, 2019

The Fruits of Your Generosity Come Due

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Our New Home Fund Campaign will conclude at the end of this month, April 2019. So now it’s time to say thank you. Thank you to the hundreds of you who supported us with your generous gifts and your kind support. Thank you to all of you who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make this dream a reality. Thank you to the artists who generously donated your art so that we can now enjoy the beauty of our Sangha together in this new home. We are so grateful for our strong and warm-hearted sangha community. We have a magnificent community of dedicated Zen practitioners. We also are unique in that we are further enriched by the aloha and open hearts of our beautiful Hula community which has worked, danced, and performed to raise funds to help us make this purchase.

Our goal was to raise another $50,000 to help us close and move into our new home at 46 Lake Street in Oak Park, and we raised $34,000 of that amount. Since we began our first fundraising campaign to purchase this property last year, we have now raised $184,000. It’s amazing how much we raised in such a short time.

Once we close on April 29, 2019 and take possession of the property another kind of work begins. Preparing the property and moving. And here too, we have many stepping forward to volunteer with hands and feet to paint walls, clean, pack and carry boxes and furniture to our new home.

So, all we want to say now is thank you. We were surprised, delighted and humbled by the strength of your generosity and now you are about to see the fruits of your gifts and kindness. We plan to have an Eye-Opening Ceremony and Celebration on Saturday, June 29th. Details and invitations will be forthcoming.

With deepest respect, and gratitude,

The GEM Circle

and Co-founders, Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue
and Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

“The Pattern that Connects” Art Exhibition at ZLMC of Roshi Robert Althouse's Paintings

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Roshi Robert Althouse will have an exhibition of some of his paintings at Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago for the next month called “The Pattern that Connects”. The exhibition will open on Sunday, March 24, 2019 with his Teisho at Sunday Morning Zen on “Seeing Wholeness Where there is Division and the Bodhisattva Path”. The exhibition will run through April 20, 2019. All paintings will be for sale ranging from $195 to $225. All proceeds will go towards the New Home Fund Campaign for ZLMC’s new home at 46 Lake Street.

Artist Statement:

A sacred thread weaves a tapestry of blood and bones, skin and hair, wings and feathers, leaves and branches, mountains and rivers. Layer upon layer. Thread upon thread. Strings and holes are always whole and laced together in a web of ever-changing circumstance.

Works in this exhibition are selected from six bodies of work including: The Pattern that Connects, Evolution, Metamorphosis,, Pamsula, 10 Ox-herding Pictures and Seasons of Zen. The larger collection of my other works may be seen on my website at
www.althouse-art.com.

I am a painter and my medium is the computer, where I draw using a stylus on a wacom tablet and then print to various surfaces such as paper, canvas, or as in the case for this exhibition, metal. 

~Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

W.S. Merwin's Passing

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W.S. Merwin has passed away at the age of 91. In the early 90’s when we first started our Zen Center of Hawaii in Kamuela (Waimea) on the Big Island of Hawaii, he came and gave a wonder poetry reading at our Zen Center. He was a formidable poet who had left behind a large and evocative body of work such as “The Rain in the Trees”, “The Shadow of Sirius”, “The Moon Before Morning” and many more. Here is one small example . . .

Berryman
by W. S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

Path of the Spiritual Warrior - The Dragon

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This is the fourth and final post on the four dignities of the Spiritual Warrior. This fourth dignity is the dragon of inscrutability. The warrior's spiritual path is rigorous and thorough, beginning with the work of the Tiger of meekness. It continues with the Snow Lion of perkiness inspired by discipline that is uplifted and joyful. The Garuda of outrageousness helps the warrior go beyond the dualities of hope and fear to trust an unconventional wisdom that is in service to awakening and healing suffering. Here we will appreciate the Dragon of Inscrutability. 

Dragon of Inscrutability

In Eastern traditions, the dragon is viewed as a symbol of vitality and a liveliness. The dragon enjoys resting in the clouds and the wind. Trungpa says, "According to tradition, the dragon abides in the sky in the summer and hibernates in the ground during the winter. When spring comes, the dragon rises from the ground with the mist and the dew. When a storm is necessary, the dragon breathes out lightning and roars out thunder." So the dragon is a dynamic archetype for the movements of seasons and weather; predictable within a context of unpredictability. This kind of strength and flexibility could be very useful for us in our current chaotic political environment. 

Inscrutability here does not mean being tricky or devious. It means giving birth to fearlessness. The previous stage of the Garuda has helped the warrior go beyond conventional conditioning. Fearlessness is expressed through gentleness and empathy for others. This allows the warrior to be patient and to allow situations to develop. The warrior can afford to be noncommittal with a sense of humor. 

Confidence

Inscrutability is an expression of confidence. You are settled within your experience so you have no hesitation or fear. You can be noncommittal, yet follow through. You don't have to spell everything out because you can be with uncertainty. Truth arises from the situation. You don't need any confirmation so you also don't have to be the center of attention. You are not in any great rush, so you can begin with the basics. You are not calculating according to some idea of gain or loss, but you are working with the situation, bearing witness to whatever arises, and doing so, always with sympathy and compassion for those around you. So this unconditional confidence comes from giving and extending yourself 

Heart of the Warrior

We've been appreciating qualities of the spiritual warrior which arise from not needing to defend any territory. This selfless, open and gentle conduct is the heart of the true spiritual warrior. Such a warrior is not aggressive, bombastic or arrogant, but humble, kind, gentle and extremely accurate in whatever they do or say. Without a pre-set of rules, they still manage to conduct themselves appropriately in whatever situation they find themselves. I hope through the regular practice of meditation and your commitment to this spiritual path of the dharma, you will find your footing in this way and help to awaken and inspire others around you, even if the times seem chaotic and dark.

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

 

The Irony of American History - Reinhold Niebuhr

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“We cannot expect even the wisest of nations to escape every peril of moral and spiritual complacency for nations have always been constitutionally self-righteous. But it will make a difference whether the culture in which the policies of nations are formed is only as deep and as high as the nation’s highest ideals, or whether there is a dimension in the culture from the standpoint of which the element of vanity and all human ambitions and achievements is discerned. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning and the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.” from The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr

Path of the Spiritual Warrior - The Garuda

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This is the third of four posts on the Spiritual Warrior. The Tiger of meekness has laid the ground for the path. The Lion of perky has brought forth the discipline and energy for walking the path itself. 

Warrior of Outrageous

The garuda is said to be the king of birds. It is said to hatch full-grown from the egg, stretch it's wings and soar into outer space. So the state of mind here is vast and spacious. From a conventional point of view, we are always limited by hope and fear. But the warrior of outrageous has gone beyond these, does not compare or measure her behavior in any way, so her action is free and fearless. Hers is a wisdom with no reference point. 

Truth of Impermanence

For the warrior of outrageous, change is not simply an intellectual concept but a deep truth at the heart of the human experience. So the warrior of outrageous is free from the fear of dying. The Buddha said, "You may be in a good situation, but it won't last. Everything you see is impermanent. Everybody experiences birth, aging, sickness, death." Coming to terms with impermanence frees you from the grip of hope and fear. When you don't fight reality, you find within yourself enormous resources of richness for working with yourself and others. 

Letting Go

The biggest obstacle to freedom is our attachment to "me". Our self-referential fabrication of ourselves is based on fear. The warrior of outrageous sees through the hypocrisy of ego's game and gives birth to a vast and spacious awareness. She has no territory to defend since she trusts a non-referential intelligence that cuts through the conventional notions of self and other. As a result she can act without hesitation.

Equanimity

The warrior of outrageous is free from negative emotions so she is able to face whatever arises skillfully and fearlessly. This kind of confidence operates on an even-keel. This kind of equanimity is free from picking and choosing and treats everyone with respect and care. The warrior trusts in the basic goodness of human beings which is unconditional and free dualistic polarizations. As a result her actions are skillful and in proportion to the whatever context she finds herself.

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

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Path of the Spiritual Warrior - The Snow Lion

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This is the second of four articles I'm writing on the "Path of the Spiritual Warrior". And this second aspect is that of the Snow Lion which represents joyful discipline. You may well have negative associations with discipline, remembering the times you were forced to stay indoors and practice a musical instrument when all your neighborhood friends were playing outside. Such discipline, if imposed from the outside, might seem to be suffocating. But we are speaking here of a discipline that arises organically from the meekness of the Tiger.

Snow Lion of Perky

In Tibet it's said that the Snow Lion is found in meadows at high elevations. He roams freely among wild flowers and fresh air. He's perky because he is uplifted and cheerful. If you are grounded in your practice through the meekness of the Tiger, your discipline arises as an organic, uplifted quality. And because this discipline is not dependent on any circumstances, it is unconditional. 

Chogyam Trungpa says there are two stages of perkiness. The first is having an uplifted and joyful mind. The second stage of perky is never being dragged down by doubt. When you are ungrounded you begin to doubt yourself. This creates anxiety, paranoia, and arrogance. The Snow Lion overcomes this doubt and keeps you from descending into further negativity which in Buddhism is referred to as the lower realms. No matter how difficult your circumstances you can lift yourself up; you can cheer yourself up, and your ability to do this brings enormous confidence in your own sanity. 

Trungpa says there are three kinds of living in the lower realms. One is living purely for the sake of survival. It's living at the level of pure animal instinct. The second is having a poverty mentality where you experience constant hunger and fear of losing your life. The third is living in a state of constant warfare,  and turmoil. You are at war with reality itself. The Snow Lion of perky frees you from the lower realms and gives birth to a joyful and friendly relationship with your world. 

No One to Blame

When you doubt yourself, you can easily become defensive and strike out at others through anger, jealousy or severe judgments. The discipline of the Snow Lion guards against this kind of unskillful behavior. When you work with your projections with integrity, you own them. In this way you become a dignified human being proclaiming the dharma not just in words but in your conduct and behavior.

Heart of the Matter

The Tiger of meekness grounds and orients you to a clear and meaningful spiritual path. This translates into the joyful and uplifted perkiness of the Snow Lion. You discover rich resources within yourself and a capacity to love and help others. Your own self-preoccupation obscures the vastness of the highlands, where the Snow Lion prances among the fresh wildflowers. You are inspired to let go further and to trust your sad and tender heart. 

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse 

 

 

Path of the Spiritual Warrior - The Tiger

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In the Buddhist tradition, the path of the spiritual warrior is well laid out. It is usually referred to as the path of the Bodhisattva. There are many such teachings in Asian cultures. What are now known as the Shambhala teachings developed by Chogyam Trungpa, were first taught by the great teacher, Tibetan king Gesar of Ling. These teachings are known as the four dignities. 

In a time of uncertainty and confusion, we need these teachings more than ever. These are advanced spiritual teachings. They require that you see through the illusion of ego, that you have the courage to live your life without creating any territory whatsoever. If you are inspired to let go in this way, then these teachings can help deepen and actualize your realization. It goes without saying that appreciating unconditional basic goodness and a steady diet of meditation is foundational. 

We are speaking here of four metaphors for the qualities of the spiritual warrior. These four dignities are the tiger of meekness, the snow lion of discipline, the garuda of outrageousness and the dragon of inscrutability. 

Tiger of Meekness

Meekness is not a word we often associate with strength, but in fact, the spiritual warrior's strength arises from gentleness, not arrogance. It's about being simple, grounded and embodied. Trungpa lays out three stages in the development of meekness. The first stage is modesty. Modesty here has to do with being simple, without pretense in a way that is completely genuine. The second stage is that of unconditional confidence. The mature tiger moves through the forest easily, with a natural rhythm. She is in no rush. She plants her paws slowly and surely. She is relaxed, yet aware of her surroundings. This ease and embodiment of the tiger is an expression of unconditional confidence. The third stage overcomes any hesitation because one's mind is vast and boundless. Having given up both ambition and any sense of a poverty mentality, the warrior's mind is stable and uplifted. 

Discernment

The tiger's relaxed awareness allows her to see clearly what to keep and what to avoid. This quality of discernment is critical in developing wisdom. Without discernment, it's not possible to develop virtuous behavior. The tiger is not at the mercy of our mass cultural manipulations. She can see what leads to awakening and what does not, and she has the intention and the courage to follow what leads to awakening and let go of negative emotions which embroil one in further turmoil and chaos. The tiger understands that her actions matter. Everything you do is consequential. So she cultivates virtuous actions that lead to awakening and avoids those that lead to suffering. 

Exertion

Nothing is accomplished on the path of warriorship without great exertion. Exertion creates both stability and joy. While many might exert themselves for the wrong reason, the tiger always exerts herself for the sake of awakening, so she is able to overcome doubt and create a powerful presence. This quality of tenacity allows the tiger to bear witness, remain grounded in working with difficult situations and conflicts. 

Overcoming aggression, desire, and ignorance requires great determination and effort. The tiger is willing to put in the hard work on the meditation cushion to work with herself. The spiritual warrior is brave, not because she conquers and controls others, but because she is willing to face herself. And in this way, the tiger expresses open, genuine presence and tender-heartedness. 

Regret

The tiger does not linger in regret. She makes full use of her time in service to helping others. Regret is a sign that you have lost your discipline and focus. It leads to confusion and hesitation. One of the most painful things people often express on their death bed is their sense of regret that they didn't do what they could have done while alive. The tiger does not die with this kind of regret. She doesn't worry about her own happiness. By serving others and putting them first, she lives with a more sustainable joy and wholeness. 

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

 

 

 


 

"The Circle of the Way"     Art Exhibition - Paintings of Lori Shinko Snyder

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Art Exhibition: March 3–17, 2019

I started painting Enso's in 2017 while in retreat (sesshin), after being inspired from reading Kazuaki Tanahashi. I realize that in order to paint the Enso, I need to be completely present for the brush, the paper, and the paint, and then the Enso paints me. I am changed from each one I paint, and surprised by what shows up each time. It is a practice of watching your mind, and being alive for the moment as it is. ~ Lori Shinko Snyder

All paintings are for sale, and all proceeds will go to the New Home Fund. The exhibition will take place at 38 lake Street in Oak Park.

Many Hearts Make One Home

Our Launch Party in 2018 at 46 Lake Street in Oak Park, IL

Our Launch Party in 2018 at 46 Lake Street in Oak Park, IL

We’re Back on Track

For the last 8 years, ZLMC has rented a small storefront on the east-side of Oak Park, Illinois. Because of our growth and success, we have out-grown this space. We began searching for our new home in early 2018 and found a mixed-use space at 46 Lake Street, Oak Park that met our needs and with excellent upgrades to the building’s infrastructure.

In order to secure a loan and make a downpayment, we mounted a fundraising effort with a goal of raising $150,000 last fall. In a remarkable show of support, we raised this amount in just ten weeks from some 200 plus donors. Through this process we have learned that our location in Oak Park matters, and that this space will meet our needs for future growth and service to our community.

Now, in order to purchase the 46 Lake Street building and cover start up costs such as professional services, signage, appliances, furniture and minor repairs we aim to raise $50,000 for our New Home Fund. A generous donation of $20,000 from an anonymous donor has jump-started reaching this goal! We want to raise the remaining $30,000 by late Spring.

We hope that you’re as happy as we are and will contribute to our New Home Fund. You’ll deepen ZLMC’s roots of peace and spread our branches within Oak Park and the greater Chicago-lands community. Please help us now in our push to the close!

Many Hearts make one home,

GEMS Circle

Susan Keijo Sensemann, Co-Steward
Rev. Diane Myogetsu Bejcek, Co-Steward
Gina Eshin Bilotto
Moira Bryan
Ian Jokai Davis
Skye Lavin
Vivienne Lund
Lori Shinko Snyder
Linda Gyokuzan Warring
Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue
Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

Give Now. Give Today.

The Complete Guide to the Science of Meditation

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What is meditation? What do we know about its benefits? And what kinds of questions still need to be answered? We scoured the literature, read the meta-analyses, and talked to scientists studying meditation in labs around the country. Here’s what science has to say about meditation.

Originally published at Elysium Health on Aug 23, 2018.

Over the past two decades, a Buddhist contemplative tradition spawned in India and Tibet thousands of years ago has found its way into living rooms and classrooms all across the West. Millions of people in the U.S. and Europe now meditate regularly, whether via online apps or guided in person courses. Schools, corporations and prisons have begun to offer regular meditation trainings. Even the U.S. Marines have implemented the practicegiven preliminary evidence of benefits for attention, mood and possibly PTSD.

Meditation is now routinely touted as a kind of cure all, a boon for happiness and productivity, a salve for chronic pain, stress, anxiety and depression, an antidote for inflammation and high blood pressure, a fix for addiction. Countless research studies have been conducted to support these claims. But lately some scientists have begun pushing back, countering that meditation’s powers are overblown — that it might even cause harm in certain individuals with mental illness or, say, lead to narcissism. Late last year, Wired magazine ran a story that asked whether meditation was “B.S.”

So what is meditation, what do we actually know about its benefits, and what kinds of questions still need to be answered? We scoured the literature, read the meta-analyses and talked to scientists studying meditation in labs around the country. Here is what we found out.

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What’s the Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness?

The terms meditation and mindfulness are sometimes used interchangeably, but the first refers to a complex family of Eastern cultural practices for training mental attention, and the second is the quality of mind that one of these traditions, called mindfulness meditation, aims to cultivate. Mindfulness meditation is the tradition most widely studied by researchers today, but other meditation traditions include mantra meditation, transcendental meditation, yoga, tai chi and chi gong.

In their 2017 book The Science of MeditationHow to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body, science writer Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who have been studying meditation since the 1970s, write that “mindfulness” is simply the most common English translation of the word “sati,” the first step towards enlightenment in the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. Sati also translates as “awareness,” “attention,” “retention,” or “discernment.”

There are two primary types of mindfulness meditation in the Buddhist tradition. The first is Vipassana, which translates as “insight,” and is meant to promote a clear awareness of our internal experience as it occurs, without judging or reacting to that experience. The second is Samatha, which is synonymous with “concentration” or “tranquility,” and it encourages focusing the attention on a single thing — the breath, a mantra — and limiting wandering thoughts. A third popular kind of mindfulness meditation, called loving-kindness meditation, aims to cultivate compassion.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Brian Ulrich

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Brian Ulrich

How Do Scientists Study Meditation?

Meditation’s popularity among the public and among research scientists really took off in the early to mid 2000s, according to Nicholas Van Dam, a research fellow at the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who studies meditation. The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso had been promoting the study of meditation since the late 80s, when he partnered with neuroscientist Francisco Varela and lawyer and entrepreneur Adam Engle to create the Mind & Life Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia, a non-profit focused on the study of the mind. But Van Dam says it was Mind & Life’s 2004 launch of the Summer Research Institute, in Garrison, NY, which really got things going, and granted broader legitimacy to the subject. The Summer Institute brings together scholars from many different disciplines each year to try meditation in a retreat setting and discuss the science behind it.

The gold standard today for mindfulness-based intervention studies is modeled after an 8-week course in mindfulness-based stress reductionpioneered by Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. That program, initially developed to treat chronic pain patients, involves 20 to 26 hours of formal meditation training during eight weekly group classes (1.5–2.5 hours/class), one all-day (6 hours) class, and home practice (about 45 minutes/day, 6 days/week). Formal training addresses focused attention on the breath (Samatha meditation), open monitoring of awareness in “body-scanning” (Vipassana meditation), loving kindness meditation, and gentle hatha yoga.

Dozens of spin-offs of the MBSR have been spawned. These include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for treatment of depression, mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) for drug addiction, and mindfulness-based relationship enhancement (MBRE) for improving relationship functioning. Scientists have also developed intensive retreat programs that last from three days to three months, three to four day lab-based interventions, as well as briefer mindful attention experiments. And there is a glut of Internet and smartphone based mindfulness meditation apps, including Headspace, which has over 30 million active users worldwide, promotes and participates in scientific research, and recently declared its intention to seek FDA approval for the treatment of chronic diseases.

Headspace is currently working on several highly ambitious large-scale meditation trials. One workplace study with the British National Health Service of 2,000 participants across multiple sites will examine the app’s impact on health and business outcomes including stress, anxiety, depression, and sickness absence. A University of California-system study led by UCSF will recruit employees from multiple campuses to examine how Headspace use influences various metrics of health and well being. And a UK College of Policing study will recruit 3,000 police officers to measure the meditation app’s influence on stress, productivity, and engagement.

Something as subjective as mindfulness meditation does not yield easily to the tools of science, and concerns about the quality of research in the field have repeatedly been raised over the past two decades. Most recently, in a literature review titled “Mind the Hype” published in October in Perspectives on Psychological Science, an interdisciplinary group of 15 scholars found that most studies of meditation are poorly constructed, plagued by inconsistent definitions of meditation, small sample size, weak controls and short follow up times.

“When you do a comprehensive assessment of everything that’s out there, the story is basically that we just don’t know enough yet,” said lead author Nicholas Van Dam of the University of Melbourne. Only nine percent of the studies reviewed used active controls, for instance.

But that doesn’t mean that all of the findings on meditation are bogus. In the early 2000s, there was a dramatic increase in randomized controlled trials that compare mindfulness interventions to treatment as usual, wait-list control, or active comparison interventions, according to a literature review published in 2016 by J. David Creswell, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. A wait-list control is a standard control group in psychotherapy research, where a group of participants assigned to a waiting list receives the intervention after the active treatment group does, while active comparison interventions are ones that are similar in structure but without the actual meditation component, such as an eight-week course in relaxation or health enhancement. “Researchers have made impressive efforts to develop active treatment comparison programs that control for non-mindfulness-specific treatment factors,” he wrote, such as group support, home practice exercises, relaxation and placebo expectancies, i.e., prior belief in the power of meditation.

And as the field matures, better funding is allowing for larger sample sizes and longer follow-up periods, according to Eric Loucks, a meditation researcher at Brown University’s School of Public Health who did not participate in the Mind the Hype review. In the future, he expects to see more studies featuring multi-site randomized controlled trials, long-term follow-up of at least one year, more objective measures of outcomes, and replication of findings by independent groups, he wrote in an email. “I believe the field of mindfulness holds strong potential to influence health,” he wrote.

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Can Meditation Improve Mental Health?

Mental illness has historically been one of the most difficult categories of sickness for medicine to successfully treat, and this is one area where mindfulness meditation seems to hold the greatest promise. The most definitive clinical benefit researchers have thus far been able to link to mindfulness meditation intervention is a significant reduction in depression relapse. An eight-week course modeled after Jon Kabat Zinn’s MBSR program that combines mindfulness meditation with cognitive therapy has been found in repeated studies to reduce the incidence of relapse for people at greatest risk for it — those with a history of at least three episodes of depression.

A 2004 follow-up to the initial study, conducted over two decades ago, found MBCT was more effective than cognitive therapy alone or standard psychiatric medication by approximately 50 percent at 12 months and two years. A more recent review and meta-analysis, published by the University of Oxford’s Willem Kuyken and colleagues in JAMA Psychiatry in 2016, provided further support for this finding.

Even ordinary depression and anxiety disorders seem to yield to MBCT treatment — though it is no better in this regard than medication. (These findings are significant, however, when you consider that many people have avery hard time getting off of antidepressants.) “If mindfulness-based interventions work about comparably to CBT or antidepressants, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Van Dam. “It may be that people like the mindfulness stuff better. If that’s the case, what you need to show is that people will commit and follow through with the intervention better than the other therapies.” MBCT is now endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association for preventing relapse in patients who have suffered three or more episodes of depression, but not for regular depression and anxiety. The U.K. National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence also recommends it over more conventional treatments for preventing depressive relapse.

The picture is more mixed when it comes to the mental health benefits of straight mindfulness-based stress reduction courses, without the cognitive behavioral component. One widely-cited meta analysis published in Jama Internal Medicine in 2014 by Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Madhav Goyal and colleagues reviewed 47 trials with 3,515 participants and found moderate evidence that eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction practice could improve anxiety, depression and pain, but that it did no better than exercise, drugs, or other behavior therapies. They also found low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health quality of life and low or insufficient evidence of improved mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, or weight.

Further complicating the story, some researchers have identified potential adverse effects of mindfulness meditation, though the study of these effects is only in its infancy and the incidence is so far low. Over 20 individual case reports and observational studies have identified various forms of clinical deterioration associated with mindfulness meditation, including meditation-induced “depersonalization” as well as retriggering of trauma, mania, panic and psychosis. As a result, numerous authors have recommended that individuals with any indications of suicidality, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and risk factors for psychosis, should not participate in a meditation-based intervention that is not specifically tailored to one of these conditions.

An ambitious seven-year study is currently underway to look at the impact of meditation on the mental health of 7,000 teenagers aged 11 to 16 from 76 secondary schools, given that many mental disorders begin to emerge at these ages. The research study is led by Oxford’s Willem Kuyken in partnership with other psychologists and neuroscientists from Oxford University and University College London (UCL) and is funded by The Wellcome Trust. Starting in 2016, around 3,000 British youth received training in mindfulness techniques via a 10-week course involving a weekly 30-minute lesson plus up to 20 minutes’ daily home practice. A second group of around 3,000 individuals received standard personal, health and social training lessons. Over the following two years both groups are being monitored for depression and other mental disorders.

Another 600 students will be tested by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at UCL before and after mindfulness training to assess self-control and emotional regulation. Blakemore wants to find out exactly at what point during adolescence, a period of great reorganization of the prefrontal cortex, mindfulness has the most effect, she recently told The Guardian.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a five-year $15 million National Institutes of Health study launched in 2015 is examining strategies, including meditation, that can help older adults prevent or reverse age-related cognitive decline. The study team, led by Eric J. Lenze, includes a cross-disciplinary group of 14 researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis from fields such as psychiatry, medicine, radiology, neurology, biostatistics, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. The researchers recruited 580 people over age 65 who have significant problems with thinking and memory, but have not been diagnosed with clinical dementia common to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Another $3 million, five-year National Institutes of Health study launched in 2015 is looking at stress management strategies, including mindfulness meditation, for reducing loneliness in older adults.

Another large-scale interdisciplinary study funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by 12 basic science and clinical mindfulness researchers at four U.S. universities — Harvard, Brown, University of Massachusetts, and Georgetown — will attempt to examine how mindfulness influences self regulation, which is critical to a number of health problems influenced by behaviors like excessive eating, lack of physical activity, addiction and poor adherence to medical regimens. The project, to be conducted in four stages, will attempt to identify behaviors associated with self regulation that can be manipulated through therapies, identify the therapies that can influence them, and ultimately pilot test these in two separate mindfulness-based intervention trials for managing chronic medical conditions: the Mindfulness-based hypertension study and the mindful primary care study.

Does Meditation Improve Physical Health?

How states of mental perception influence physical health has become a hot topic of research in recent decades. In particular, researchers have found that high levels of cognitive stress can contribute to poor health and mental health — as can the very perception that stress is detrimental to health.

In September of 2017, the American Heart Association recommendedmindfulness meditation for lowering heart disease risk. That recommendation, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, was based on evidence that mindfulness meditation may reduce stress and help with other metrics of cardiovascular risk, such as smoking cessation, blood pressure reduction, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, endothelial function, and myocardial ischemia. The authors noted that while the evidence is modest and quality of research is mixed, the intervention carries low costs and low risk.

Emerging evidence suggests that other stress-related illnesses may also respond to mindfulness meditation. One randomized controlled trial of 154 patients found that mindfulness meditation treatment could reduce the number of self-reported sick days and the duration of illness during flu season relative to a no treatment group. Initial randomized controlled trials also suggest mindfulness interventions may reduce symptoms and improve quality of life for some stress-related conditions, such as fibromyalgia, IBS, breast cancer, and psoriasis. And in one recent study, researchers including Dr. Elissa Epel, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, examined a cohort who had undergone an intensive one-month insight meditation retreat and found improved telomere regulation, which is associated with cellular aging and may play a role in linking psychological stress to disease.

Chronic pain was one of the first conditions that mindfulness meditation was used to treat, back in the 1980s, and some researchers have found evidence in brain scans that mindfulness meditation influences the emotional suffering associated with pain if not the physical sensation of pain itself. In one of the largest mindfulness intervention randomized controlled trials to date, with 342 participants, MBSR reduced functional limitations due to pain among chronic back pain participants at both four-month and 10-month follow-ups (61%) compared to treatment as usual (44%). It was not found to be superior to a matched cognitive behavioral therapy program (58%), however. In a separate randomized study of 75 healthy human volunteers, a sham mindfulness meditation procedure used as a control did not provide the same pain relief benefits as actual mindfulness meditation training.

Immune system function may also benefit from mindfulness meditation, if preliminary findings from three well-controlled studies hold up. These studies found reduced biomarkers of inflammation associated with mindfulness meditation interventions: circulating blood markers of C-reactive protein,interleukin 6, and the stress-induced inflammatory skin flare response. Another three randomized controlled trials found that mindfulness meditation interventions could reduce declines or even increase counts of certain white blood cells critical to immunity in stressed AIDS patients, both at post-treatment and follow-up periods up to nine months.

How substance abuse is influenced by meditation is also a good subject for further research. In one of the largest studies to date on this subject, 286 substance-abusing individuals were randomly assigned at a treatment facility to either MBRP, a cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention program, or a 12-step program. Researchers then monitored their self-reported substance abuse during a 12-month follow-up period. Compared to the standard 12-step treatment group, both the MBRP and cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention groups demonstrated a 54% reduction in drug relapse and a 59% reduction in relapse to heavy drinking. The cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention program delayed the time to the first drug relapse relative to the MBRP program, but the MBRP program appeared to reduce the number of drug use days at the 12-month follow-up time. The findings were published in Jama Psychiatry in 2014.

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What’s the Right “Dose” of Meditation?

With most therapies and medications, dose matters. More intensive periods of mindfulness meditation training may provide more measurable cognitive and other health benefits, but few studies have specifically examined dose response or studied the longitudinal effects of intensive meditation retreats. One recent study from the University of California-Davis, however, sent 60 healthy volunteers on an intensive three-month mindfulness meditation retreat, where they received five hours a day of training in samatha, or focused attention, meditation. (The study authors initially hoped to enroll participants in a three-year meditation retreat — this is what Buddhist monks who are about to embark on official monastic training complete — but funding was only available for three months.)

“We really don’t know much at all about how much practice people should do daily, or for how long, and what the benefits are over the life span,” said Anthony P. Zanesco, co-author of the University of California-Davis study.

After the treatment, participants were found to have improved tonic alertness (the ability to remain alert over time) as well as orienting towards a visual target in comparison to controls. In a recent seven-year follow-up study, these performance improvements were found to have been partially sustained. In particular, aging-related declines in response accuracy and reaction time were reduced for those who continued to meditate regularly during the follow up period, with better results associated with more time spent meditating. One drawback to the study design is that it is a special sort of person who is going to be able and willing to dedicate three months of their lives to a meditation retreat.

In individual case studies, Buddhist monks who have been practicing for decades have demonstrated extraordinary skills, such as an ability to alter body temperature by small amounts, for instance, or suppress the startle response. But it is difficult to study such skills longitudinally — i.e., before and after 30 years of monkhood — and difficult to know, similarly, to what extent someone drawn to that lifestyle might already have certain unusual neurological features. “What leads someone to be a monk in the first place?” asks Van Dam. “They live in a monastery. Their meals are prepared for them. Their job, essentially, is to meditate…that doesn’t necessarily then translate into your average Joe that comes in off the street and wants to pick up meditation to stave off Alzheimer’s.” Van Dam is now working on comparative study of individuals from different monastic traditions — Jesuit, Benedictine and Buddhist monks — in an attempt to isolate the effects of living as a monk from the practice of meditation.

Meditation style also matters, and more work needs to be done to isolate the effects of each of the major styles. Though studies of mindfulness meditation’s influence on levels of the so-called stress hormone cortisol have yielded mixed results, in one nine-month study that included three distinct training modulesand a control group, Veronika Engert of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues, found that training in loving-kindness meditation and another form of prosocial meditation cut cortisol levels by up to 51 percent during a stress task. Attention-based meditation practice did not influence cortisol levels. Participants in all three kinds of mindfulness meditation training reported feeling less social stress, however. The study was part of a major ongoing meditation research project at Max Planck Institute called the ReSource project.

Contemplative Neuroscience and Taking Better Pictures of the Brain

Scores of neuroscientists have tried peering into the brains of advanced and beginner meditators over the past several decades with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to find out more directly how mindfulness meditation may influence our mental clockwork. This discipline has come to be known as contemplative neuroscience. Despite significant limitations to neuroimaging research both broadly speaking and in the specific context of the study of meditation, meta-analyses suggest the practice might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion, and self-awareness.

Richard Davidson was one of the first to study the brains of expert meditators, such as Buddhist monks. One study from his lab in 2004 suggested that very skilled meditators with thousands of hours of practice had elevated levels of gamma oscillations in their brains even when they were not meditating compared to gender and age controls, Davidson told neuroscientist Sam Harris during an appearance on his podcast Waking Up. Such oscillations tend to be associated with flashes of insight.

Connections between the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPC) — involved in executive function — and the amygdala — which regulates the experience of emotion — have also been found to be strengthened, said Davidson. Likewise, fMRI studies have shown stronger connections between the DLPC and features of default mode network — in particular the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) — that are associated with self-narrative among experienced meditators versus controls, according to Davidson. Whether these neurological features are produced by years of meditation or predispose a person to take up intensive meditation training is not understood, nor do scientists know yet how these differences in brain structure might translate into behavior.

Could mindfulness meditation mimic the effects of psychedelics on the brain, and vice versa? Some scientists think so. Though some connections between different regions of the brain seem to be strengthened by meditation, researchers have also found measurable deactivation of the PCC and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) among experienced meditators compared to meditation-naive controls. The PCC is, again, proposed to play a role in consciousness and self-identity and the mPFC has been shown to be hyperactive in depression. The deactivation of these two regions is precisely what scientists have found in volunteers who have received injections of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. In a 2012 study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 30 healthy volunteers had psilocybin — the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms — infused into their blood while they were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. In a recent episode of his podcast Waking Up, Sam Harris spoke with Michael Pollan about some of the similarities between the types of insight that might be gained during meditation and during a psychedelic trip. (Pollan just published a book on psychedelics.)

Even the brains of beginner meditators have been shown to experience training-related changes. For example, in 2010, Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and colleagues examined the brains of a group of just 16 meditation–naïve participants before and after an eight-week MBSR course, and compared them against 17 wait-list controls. Localized analyses confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, which is associated with memory. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls, regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Even three days of mindfulness training can reverse the effects of stress on the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in the regulation of emotion, according to findings from a randomized controlled trial published in 2015 by Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness and brain structure at the University of Pittsburgh. But, as elsewhere in the field, further studies with larger sample sizes and longer follow-up are needed.

More Meditation, More Science, More Answers

Since the time of Aristotle, humans have been asking whether it is possible to improve our cognitive capacities, whether our memory, attention and ability to cope with stress are set by adulthood or can be improved upon with mental training. The father of American psychology, William James, tried to address this question 100 years ago when he asked some of his research assistants to memorize poetry to see if it could improve their memory span.

It’s a question we’re still trying to answer today, and a lot of researchers and individual meditators have their hopes pinned on mindfulness. We still have a ways to go to find out.

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"If my mind is weak, even a minor difficulty is oppressive." ~Shantideva

Oregon Coast, Wasim of Nazareth Photography

Oregon Coast, Wasim of Nazareth Photography

 He lani i luna, he honua i lalo.

Heaven above, earth beneath.

Said of a person who is sure of his security.  

The sky above him and the earth beneath his feet are his.

~Mary Kawena Pukui, ʻOlelo Noʻeau #718

Hawaiian Book of Proverbs and Poetical Sayings

"If my mind is weak, even a minor difficulty is oppressive."

~Shantideva

Iʻm really getting to appreciate my sitting meditation practice.  Iʻve just completed a 3-day intensive meditation practice period.  They are an important way that I get my mind in shape much like physical practice is for my body.

Meditation helps me in many ways.  It balances me from being mostly in my brain to equally being in my body. It helps me cultivate my attention by sitting with a focus on my breath.  I notice thoughts arising, let them go and return to my breath. I do this over and over again.  Like hula, itʻs a continuous practice for me. 
Our quality of attention is everything.  A focused attention helps me know that my two feet are firmly planted on the honua (earth).  Focus is also very important when dancing hula. Sometimes I forget and get stuck in my head. Itʻs very evident in hula when that happens.  Youʻre just off and canʻt dance very well.
Another clue that alerts me when Iʻm stuck is noticing when Iʻm feeling down on myself - ie Iʻm not a good writer, not a good communicator, not a good human - the list can be endless. I feel overwhelmed and Iʻm complaining, blaming and judging others or myself.

Shantideva, the brilliant 8th century Buddhist monk and scholar talks about the destructive habit of despair in the face of hardship. He says, "If there is a solution [to your problem], then what is the point of dejection?  What is the point of dejection if there is no solution?"  The text goes on, "There is nothing desirable in the state of dejection."  

Zen teacher Norman Fischer comments on Shantidevaʻs quote saying, "if you respond to difficulties primarily with depression and lamentation, with feelings of dejection or claims of unfair victimization, you will simply be wasting your time and deepening the wound.  For if something can now be done about the problem, get busy, do something constructive.  And if this happens to be an unavoidable situation, one completely beyond your control, there is still no point in wallowing in dejection - find some path of human well-being that you can control and get back into the movement of life.  Overindulgence in the emotions of loss brings about further loss."

Meditation is a body practice that bears witness without judgement to whatʻs going on inside.  Itʻs a practice of kindness.  When I notice that my body feels tight and my vision narrows thatʻs another clue that Iʻm stuck.  So, what to do?

It takes a certain amount of courage to sit with uncomfortable feelings in the body.  My usual mode is to distract myself from the anxiety in an effort to end the uneasiness.  But that generally doesnʻt end well and I find I only feel worse later.  Meditation is a practice of courage.

During the 3-day practice period, I tried bearing witness to anxiety that I noticed from time to time in my body.  It was quite subtle, but it was there - a tenseness in my throat and tenseness in my shoulders.  I brought my attention to this feeling, gently and just breathed with it.  I didnʻt try to fix anything or figure something out.  I just "hung" out with the feeling for maybe a minute or so and noticed that after a little while, it just disappeared.  I was giving myself loving kindness by just being with my feelings and breathing.
Bearing witness is a unique practice of staying, not judging or having to change or fix anything.  Itʻs staying steady and just breathing with challenging situations.  Itʻs a practice of opening my heart.  The more I meditate, the easier it gets.

So if youʻve never meditated before and want to do something about an unruly mind, I encourage you to try it, preferably with a good teacher.  While a simple practice, it can be quite hard to do regularly.  And if you know how to practice but have stopped, I hope this letter encourages you to begin again.  Meditation can be a powerful antidote to a weak mind. 

Happy Chinese New Year of the Pig!!!

Malama pono (take good care of body, mind and heart),

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
Kumu Hula and Sensei