The Complete Guide to the Science of Meditation


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.


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.


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.


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.

Endpoints is a science publication by Elysium Health, a consumer health company translating advances in science and technology into effective, scientifically-sound health products. All stories on this site are meant for educational purposes — to encourage scientific literacy and improve the public perception of science.
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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."


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

Sydney Musai Walter Roshi's Passing


We are sad to announce the passing of Sydney Musai Walter Roshi on Friday, January 18, 2019. A Zen teacher in our White Plum lineage, psychotherapist, author, lover of nature and hiker, Musai Roshi studied with many great spiritual teachers including Maezumi Roshi, Suzuki Roshi, Trungpa Rinpoche, Jitsudo Roshi and Genpo Roshi.

In his book, Off the Path, The Zen of Mountains and Deserts, he says, ''I began my Zen practice in the midst of a life crisis, under the guidance of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. When I asked that Zen Master what I should do about my life dilemmas, he responded, 'Do zazen. Life without zazen is like winding your clock without setting it. It runs perfectly well, but it doesn't tell time.' I have been following that advice for over four decades. I have turned to wild places for reassurance and adventure since I was a child. When I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1980 I found, in the Four Corners states, vast areas of mountain and desert wilderness where I could wander year-round, shedding the concerns of life in society and opening to the earth. These two fundamental streams of my life merge in my hikes and solo wilderness retreats. I hope in these photos and journals I can share some of the wonder and release I have found in this Buddhist wilderness practice.''

I practiced with Musai Roshi in the early 70’s at Zen Center of Los Angeles and I will always remember his open and kind heart. Our condolences to his family and his sangha.

~ Robert Joshin Althouse Roshi

New Year's Message from Roshi and Sensei

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse and Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse and Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue

A New Yearʻs Message from Roshi and Sensei

2018 has been quite an intense and strengthening year!  All of us together - as one body - have supported and created a strong Zen Center that is open and welcoming. This place has encouraged so many to trust in their true nature and to live a Zen-inspired Life - a path of openness, empathy and clarity based on mindfulness meditation.
The Sangha is one of the Three Jewels of our Practice and we have seen the Sangha shine this year in terms of dana (generosity) contribution of funds, volunteer hours and support of one another.  This has contributed to a strong place of practice for a more peaceful world.

Have faith in your capacity for awareness and love for truly this will give you courage to be who you really are.  

Our best wishes to you and your family for a wondrous New Year of 2019!

Love, Joshin Roshi and Ryushin Sensei

Bearing Witness to the Oneness of Life by Roshi Bernie Glassman


Dogen Zenji says of the first pure precept, “Ceasing from evil is the abiding place of laws and rules of all buddhas.” This abiding place is the state of non-duality, of not-knowing and non-separation. The Sixth Ancestor of Zen defines zazen as the state of mind in which there is no separation between subject and object—no space between you and me, up and down, right or wrong. So we can also call this precept “Returning to the One.”

It’s a very difficult place to be in, this place where we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. It is the place of just being, of life itself. How many of us can say that we are open to all the ways of all lives? How many of us can say that we don’t have the answer? How many us can say that every way that’s being presented is the right way?

Zen is a practice that pushes us to realize what is. To me, zazen is a form of bearing witness to life, of bearing witness to the elimination of the denial of the oneness of our life. As human beings, each one of us is denying something. There are certain aspects of life we do not want to deal with, usually because we are afraid of them. Sometimes it is society itself that is in denial. Zazen allows us to bear witness to all of life. To me, that is the essence of the second pure precept, doing good. Dogen says, “Doing good, this is the dharma, supreme enlightenment. This is the way of all beings.” 

Bearing witness to things we are denying or that society is denying, bearing witness to the things we don’t want to deal with—this is the second precept. When we bear witness, we open to what is, and we learn. The things that we are in denial about teach us. We don’t go to them to teach them. When we can listen, when we can bear witness, they teach us.

For me, the flowering of zazen is the third pure precept, doing good for others. Dogen says, “This is to transcend the profane and to be beyond the holy. This is to liberate oneself and others.”

What good is it if we just make ourselves more holy? What’s the point? The point is to serve, to offer, to be the offering. Of itself the fruit is born. So we don’t have to worry about what to do. If we cease from evil, if we become that state of unknowing, if we become zazen, the offering will arise. The fruit will be born.
The question always comes up: how do we bring our Zen into our life? 

But Zen is life. What is there to bring? And into what? The point is to see life as the practice field. Every aspect of our life has to become practice. I was trained in a traditional monastic model whose forms are conducive to the state of not-knowing. 

he question for me is, what forms can we create in modern society that will be conducive to seeing the oneness of life? What are the forms that will make it easier for us to experience that state of nonduality? Almost anything we do will cause more dualistic thinking. How do we lead ourselves, our brothers, and our sisters into a state of nonduality?

That’s the question. That’s the koan.

Step Up Your Game


For the rest of the month of November 2018, the Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago will hold daily meditations, Monday through Friday from noon to 1 pm. And on Thursday from 1 to 2 pm we’ll hold a special council circle to speak and listen from the heart. All of these are FREE and open to the public. We invite anyone (adults and teenagers) suffering from fear or anxiety, to join us for any of these sessions. In this way we can come together and support each other in this time of chaos and turmoil.

It used to seem like the violence and hatred was out there somewhere, far away. At first it was in Iraq and Afghanistan where we waged war to root out terrorists. Then it showed up on our own shores in America - at schools, at diners, bars, night clubs, entertainment venues, theaters, churches and synagogues. When we did our memorial service last week for the eleven people shot and killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh the hatred and the violence was still somewhere else but it seemed closer. Now it is no longer somewhere else but it is here in our own community of Oak Park. It’s time to take notice and step up our game.

One of our members, who’s son is a student at the Oak Park and River Forest High School, reports that there are increasing incidents of racism and hatred and anti-semetic graffiti, and vandalism taking place at the school. A teacher allegedly used racial slurs in the classroom that left students traumatized and crying. Rumors of violence have spread, and at a recent student assembly someone air-dropped a swastika onto students’ cell phones.

It wasn’t so long ago that white men marched with torches in the streets of Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us”. That should have been shocking but have we gotten used to it? Has the violence and the hatred become normalized? If you hear on the news that people were shot at a bar in Thousand Oaks, does it upset you or is it just another mass shooting? So far there have been 307 mass shootings in 2018 in America.

Our political environment is toxic and divided. Mussolini said that for a dictator to accumulate power, the best strategy would be to pluck a chicken, feather by feather, so that each squawk was heard apart from every other and the whole process was kept as muted as possible. So how many feathers have already been plucked from the chicken?

I don’t have any easy answer, but I do have a spiritual practice and a wonderful sangha community that supports me and others to open our sad and tender hearts, to practice the 3 tenets of a peacemaker of not knowing, bearing witness and loving action.

So we will step up our game. For the rest of November we will offer special noon time meditations (noon to 1 pm) Monday through Friday. We’ll also offer a special council circle each Thursday afternoon from 1 to 2 pm that is also open to everyone. You don’t need to be a member of our Zen community to join us - these events are open to you regardless of your religion, ethnicity or political persuasion.

Hatred grows in an environment of isolation, separation and social media that breed fear, hatred and conspiracy theories. So let’s ground ourselves by re-connecting with each other and affirming our basic sanity and unconditional love for ourselves and all beings.

May all beings, may our youth, and may all people regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, religion or political party be safe.


Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

Great Zen Teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman has Died

Eve Marko, Robert Althouse, June Tanoue, Bernie Glassman. Eve and Bernie were preceptors at June Tanoue’s final empowerment ceremony as a Zen priest and Zen teacher on 11/2/14. photo by Peter Cunningham

Eve Marko, Robert Althouse, June Tanoue, Bernie Glassman. Eve and Bernie were preceptors at June Tanoue’s final empowerment ceremony as a Zen priest and Zen teacher on 11/2/14. photo by Peter Cunningham

"When we bear witness, when we become the situation - homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death - the right action arises by itself.  
We donʻt have to worry about what to do.  
We donʻt have to figure out solutions ahead of time.  
Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. 
Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises."

~ Bernie Glassman

Zen Peacemakers International

Great American Zen teacher Bernie Glassman died on Sunday, November 4th.  He is survived by his wife, Roshi Eve Marko, 2 children and 4 grandchildren.  Sadness filled my core when I heard the news that day and has lingered since then.  Some people are just not supposed to die.

I met Bernie Glassman at the very first Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat in 1996 that he and Eve Marko organized.  I went because I wanted to work with fear.  I was afraid of all those millions who had been murdered at Auschwitz.  Would I be overwhelmed by their restlessness and need for revenge?  Bernie, on the other hand, tells of feeling overwhelmed by millions of souls wanting to be remembered when he first went there in 1995.
Bernie introduced the concept of plunges into the unknown, into what was uncomfortable and scary.  Auschwitz, Rwanda, Bosnia, NYCʻs Bowery, Palestine and Israel, and the Black Hills were places he went.  He was energetic yet calm and focused, and seemed fearless to me.  And I sensed a deep compassion. 
The next time that I encountered Bernie was in Jerusalem.  We were there for his Peacemaker Community - to meet with other international peacemakers including Arabs and Israeliʻs.   Bernie always worked to bring people together.  Could we see that we were the Other - perpetrators as well as victims?
Bernie first articulated and developed the Three Tenets of a Zen Peacemaker in 1994.  I remember Bernie telling us that the tenets arose when he and his second wife and partner, Sandra Jishu Holmes, were on vacation in Maui.  I thought vacations are maybe necessary for coming up with brilliant ideas.  
The Three Tenets have been the core of my spiritual practice.  They are:

    • Not-Knowing - letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others, and the universe 

    • Bearing Witness - to the joy and suffering of the world

    • Taking Action - that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness

My husband and I lived with Bernie and Eve Marko and 8 others in an old farmhouse in Montague, MA for 9 months right before we moved to Chicago.  We ate communally, shared a bathroom and burned wood for heat during the winter.  We celebrated Shabbat on Friday evenings when we could.  He loved bubble baths and a good cigar.  He had a quick mind, always measured in his speech and smiled easily. 

He appreciated and supported my Hula practice.  When he listened, it seemed as if he were listening with his entire body and mind.

The last time I saw him in person was the summer of 2017 at the 50th Anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which he helped Maezumi Roshi to start and grow.  Bernie had a severe stroke in 2016 and was in a wheel chair.  His demeanor had changed.  Where before he was more intense, now he was sweet and spoke slowly.  
I could see that it was an effort for him to speak.  I sat next to him for lunch and swatted at the flies that were attacking his plate of food.  He was very present and told me he got easily overwhelmed, but he pressed on with many people greeting him.
I will miss you Bernie Glassman.  Your work and teaching lives on through your amazing successors like Eve Marko, Joan Halifax, Egyoku Nakao and Genro Gauntt.  Thank you for your energy, brilliant love and sense of humor that have helped so many people. May it continue to flow for eons to come.  

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

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
Kumu Hula and Sensei

P.S.  Photographer Peter Cunningham putphotos together of Bernieʻs memorial with a film at the end.

P.P.S. ZLMC member Donna Mindrum and I stitched together a

Memory Quilt for Bernie and sent it to him last year November. There are pieces from many of his dharma brothers and sisters. 

Invite Everyone to the Table


“I honor businesses for what they do, I honor nonprofits for what they do, I honor government for what it does, and then I invite everyone to the table so that together we can come up with innovative and broad-based solutions that can serve as many people as possible. The fewer or less diverse voices you invite to the table, the smaller and narrower your solution will be and the fewer people it will serve.” Roshi Bernie Glassman

The Hidden Singer


The Hidden Singer

“The gods are less for their love of praise.
Above and below them all is a spirit that needs nothing
but its own wholeness, its health and ours.
It has made all things by dividing itself.
It will be whole again.
To its joy we come together —
the seer and the seen, the eater and the eaten,
the lover and the loved.
In our joining it knows itself. It is with us then,
not as the gods whose names crest in unearthly fire,
but as a little bird hidden in the leaves
who sings quietly and waits, and sings.”

Wendell Berrry

Itʻs so easy to take sides.  Our political system seems to be crazy right now with principles of truth and decency getting lost in the haze - a perfect recipe for taking sides and creating anger.  

And I must admit that I have felt very angry during the current Supreme Court Justice hearings.  But I was also curious about my anger and able to notice it instead of blindly reacting and doing or saying something stupid because of it.  This little distance from which I saw my anger made a big difference.  

But what about depression and feeling overwhelmed?  Can I also be curious about sadness and how it feels in my body?  I noticed depression recently in the midst of packing up one of our apartments.  I felt an indescribable sense of being very tired mentally and physically.  My body felt tight, and my shoulders felt heavy as if a great weight was upon them.  

I decided to just sit and let myself feel these sensations in my body.  I had to work with my attention to stay focused on the feelings because I knew I was resistant to bearing witness to them.  I could easily have jumped up into my head and indulged in stories to distract me from my dis-ease.  

Just noticing my thoughts, without judgment, and returning to the uncomfortable feelings in my body is one process of hoʻomanawanuʻi (being patient) and kind to yourself.   It means bearing witness with loving, respectful attention to what is happening in your body without being distracted by the many stories of your mind.  Thatʻs the pause that heals.  Mindfulness meditation helps with this ability to pause.

Going to my mind when Iʻm upset is the path to circular ruminations about how Iʻm not good enough or how others are wrong.  Iʻve gone down that path before and know that it only fuels the fire of depression and anger.  It does nothing for truth.

Can I notice how I feel without having to change the feeling?  Can I be curious about my reactions?  After calming down, can I feel angerʻs transformation into something else - perhaps determination? Meditation truly helps my focus on where i want to pay attention.

I was impressed with Dr. Christine Blasey Fordʻs testimony - how she wove neuroscience, her specialty, into descriptions of her traumatic experiences.  Her honesty, intelligence and vulnerability were evident during her presentation and the subsequent questioning.   She was very courageous to come forward as she said, "to do her civic duty."

I liked what Zen priest and teacher Norman Fischer said about Judge Kavanaugh and the commotion around him.     "None of this would be happening if he had said, ʻyeah I did drink a whole lot when I was young, I had so much pressure to succeed and knew I would have to so needed to blow off steam while I could. Like other young men in my world I was insensitive to women. But my Catholic upbringing kicked in finally and I really did become a different person. I can't remember having done this but if I did I am truly mortified and deeply sorry.  I also would like to know the truth.ʻ"

Itʻs a beautiful warm October day.  The breezes are blowing, leaves are changing color.  Meditation helps me clearly see how truth, integrity and compassion are essential.  Determination helps me be courageous and vulnerable like a little bird who sings quietly and waits, and sings - even as the environment and my thoughts swirl about like falling leaves.

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

Sensei June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue

Kumu Hula and Sensei

Pathways to Violence


"We live in a world in which distrust and greed and violence masquerade as common sense and in which the pathways of distrust and greed and violence are rapidly becoming self-validating. By following those pathways we create the social and international structures, the premises upon which we must live. By choosing the "common sense" of distrust, we choose also the progressive truth of distrust. We cause horror to become the only pathway to wisdom." Gregory Bateson

Spiritual Practice for Difficult Times

Difficult times are an opportunity to deepen the spiritual path and practice, to dig down and ground yourself in your meditation. Take time to be still, to be quiet and listen.

Then get up and go outside. Take a walk. There are seasons for everything. The rhythms of change may be large or small, slow or fast. Appreciate the cycles of light and dark, gain and loss. The dharma is timeless and vast. It can be a source of truth for you during times of uncertainty and rapid change. All humans are intrinsically awake, sane and good. Express your basic sanity by refraining from acting in anger or fear. Manifest your own goodness through acts of kindness and generosity towards others. 

Don't settle for anger, fear or reactivity. You are responsible for your behavior. You are free to choose hatred. You are free to choose love. And remember, hatred never was cured with more hatred. 

Maintain the precepts. Practice the paramitas of generosity, discipline, patience, effort, meditation and wisdom. Practice personal integrity. 

Proclaim the dharma by being gentle but firm. Let your true nature shine forth with courage and bravery. And seek to disarm anger by giving no fear. Listen. Learn. Plant seeds of goodness and water and nurture these seeds as often as possible. May all beings be free of suffering.

Roshi Robert Althouse

Hope, Optimism, Cynicism or Engagement



"Hope is not the belief that everything will turn out well. People die. Populations die out. Civilizations die. Planets die. Stars die. Recalling the words of Suzuki Roshi, the boat is going to sink! If we look, we see the evidence of suffering, of injustice, of futility, of desolation, of harm, of ending all around us, and even within us. But we have to understand that hope is not a story based on optimism, that everything will be ok. Optimists imagine that everything will turn out positively. I consider this point of view dangerous; being an optimist means one doesn’t have to bother; one doesn’t have to act. Also, if things don’t turn out well, cynicism or futility often follow. Hope of course is also opposed to the narrative that everything is getting worse, the position that pessimists take. Pessimists take refuge in depressive apathy. And, as we might expect, both optimists and pessimists are excused from engagement."

One Who Remains Calm in the Face of Difficulty

June Blog.jpg

The poʻi na kai uli, kai koʻo, ʻaʻohe hina pukoʻa.
Though the sea be deep and rough, the coral rock remains standing.
Said of one who remains calm in the face of difficulty.
~Mary Kawena Pukui #904
ʻOlelo Noʻeau, Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings

"Every life is a work of art, and if it does not seem so, perhaps it is only necessary to illuminate the room that contains it...If you learn to listen, you will find that each life speaks to us of love."
~Andrea Bocelli


I started volunteering again at the Cook County Dept of Corrections - the county jail - teaching mindfulness meditation to incarcerated women awaiting trial for whatever crime they were accused of committing. 

Since early July Iʻve been going every Tuesday from 12 noon to 1 pm.  My friend Ruth goes with me to volunteer.  Itʻs nice having a second person with me.

The approximately 30 women we work with live on the 2M Tier of Division 5 at Cook County Jail.  Some have been there for many years.  This is the maximum security tier where after their trial date, most will go on to a federal penitentiary.

I was a little nervous when Ruth told me she was going on vacation last week.  I thought about emailing the administrators and telling them I couldnʻt make it.  But my Zen practice is about sometimes sitting with difficult situations (including emotions like fear) and by breathing bearing witness to them and not turning away.

When I confided my nervousness to my friend Ruth, she looked at me square in the eye, and said, "you know you are absolutely safe there."  I knew then my fear was something good to practice with, and I decided that of course I would go.

Division 5 is big and houses about 200 women.  The 2M tier we go to is lit by florescent lights.  There are some 15 cells for the women - housed two to a room.  Thereʻs no door to the bathrooms so when someone flushes the toilet, the sound reverberates through the tier.  I always stopped talking when someone flushed because I couldnʻt compete with the volume.

There are three rectangular tables where most of the women sit on cold steel benches.  Robinson was the name of the African-American guard who opened the door to the tier. She  yelled at a few women to get off the pay phones because I was there.  She was a no-nonsense woman who gave me a brief smile as she nodded for me to enter.

I noticed a small flat screen TV high up on the wall where inmates watched movies.  The women were busy talking to each other.  A few recognized me and started to settle down.  I managed to get their attention and talked to them about the Path of Freedom - Fleet Maullʻs excellent workbook teaching mindfulness for prisoners.  I reminded them that even though they were physically incarcerated, their minds did not also have to be imprisoned.  Mindfulness meditation can free anyoneʻs mind.  This is the Path of Freedom.

About 1/3 of the women were listening to me.  About 1/3 were zoned out - maybe on prescription drugs for anxiety.  The rest were talking quietly to each other.  I gave them some basic meditation instruction, and then we practiced meditation for a few minutes.  I heard some laughter and talking, toilet flushes, and then more talking.  I reminded them that just noticing sounds is good - making it part of your meditation is good - and just coming back to your breathing is the practice.  

Carol, a tall, thin older African American woman, got really into it.  After we ended meditation, she said sheʻd been practicing, and it had helped her tremendously.  I could see that she was one of the most relaxed, calm, and clear woman there.  Itʻs not easy living on this tier!  One young Latina woman, Tracy, kept asking me questions about meditation.  She asked, "Can it really help? My thoughts are all over the place."  She was visibly tense - her shoulders all hunched up, her face drawn and worried.

Yes I assured her that it could help.  I said, "you have to do the practice.  Thatʻs the hard part.  Itʻs simple but not easy to do.  But it gets easier like any new habit you try to incorporate."  The tier was getting noisier.  My hour was just about up.  As I was walking out, Tracy came up to me and burst into tears. My heart just about broke. Tracy said, "I hope meditation helps because I just found out that I need to be here a little longer." 

I assured her that it would.  Carol was next to me thanking me for coming and wondering if she could get a copy of the book The Path of Freedom.  I gave her a copy of the first chapter I had with me - called Training the Mind - The Power of Mindfulness.  When Carol saw Tracy, she gave her a hug, and said, "Iʻll help you."  

Carol was like the coral rock in a rough sea.  I saw love in that dark place.  I knew that every life there was a work of art.

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

June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
Kumu Hula and Sensei

Your Three Feet of Influence


By Sharon Salzberg
Submitted by Robin Sheerer

When I ask myself or workshop attendees to name what each values most, people commonly say things like fairness, honesty, generosity, honor, and compassion. I often feel they say them almost wistfully, as if they exist in their imagination or in some world to come. Yet the world we can most try to affect is the one immediately around us. I’ve come to see that we will feel happier and more secure if we try, to the extent that we are able, to bring fairness, generosity, and kindness into our dealings with others.

My friend’s son Frank tried to put this idea into practice during his daily commute on the New York City subway, a place where he often encountered people who, like him, were frazzled and quick to speak sharply to each other. He’d often ended up responding that way too, and he wanted to stop, to not spread the things that were upsetting him to strangers who, he thought, had their own lives to worry about.

As he went down the stairs and through the turnstile he thought about what he was bringing into the station with him that morning. He’d had a fight with his girlfriend, and he faced a difficult meeting when he got to work. Also his back was hurting again, and his steps were jagged. Along with his anxiety about the morning news, he recognized how cranky he was and that he was he was spoiling for a fight to let some of this loose. As it turns out, he was also bringing a book he was reading, one I’d written, Lovingkindness.

There were big crowds on the platform. There had been some snafu, and three packed trains passed his station without stopping, to the jeers of the others on the platform. He was angry that, through no fault of his own, he would be late to work.

Finally a train stopped. When he maneuvered through the crowd at the door, he saw it was packed with rowdy middle schoolers on a field trip. They were boisterous and physical. He turned up the volume on his headphones to drown them out.

At the next stop a woman holding two heavy bags in one hand and a child’s hand in the other pulled the little girl through the crowd to the pole where Frank was standing. Immediately she berated him, saying he was taking up too much space, his big hand was blocking out too much of the pole, and how did he expect her little girl to get a grip?

Frank wanted to bark back at her, but instead he paused to take her in. Likely she would be even later to work than he. She had to drop this child off at school or day care. Literally she was carrying a heavy burden, two of them, and objectively this transit situation was frustrating them all. “You know, you’re right,” Frank said, moving his hand higher. “Sorry about that.” One of the students careened into Frank from behind, right at the tender spot in his back. Again his first impulse was to yell at the boy, tell him to watch where he was going. Frank looked at him before he spoke and saw genuine concern in the boy’s face when Frank winced from the pain in his back.

“Hey, buddy, slow down,” Frank told the boy with a smile. “This train is crowded.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry. What’s the book you’re reading?” the boy asked.

“It’s a book about how to be kinder to each other,” Frank said.

“They write books about stuff like that?” the boy said, and turned back to his friends.

Think of the difference if Frank acted on his first impulse. He’d be glowering at the woman and child, and likely the woman would be staring at him with the same fury while the child looked confused and frightened. He would have made the boy feel guilty and clumsy. Instead the space around Frank was calmer because he’d paused before adding to the friction. He had done his part not to enhance the misery in the three feet around his body that were his to influence.

Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet. Just picture it: If more people acted from this space of love, there would be more and more terrain covered.

Yes, it may be tough to hold to these values when you may feel them under threat. Close quarters, like a crowded space, automatically engage our defenses. When someone breaches that imaginary boundary, our first reaction is to push back without pausing for a moment to examine the nature of the intrusion. Is it an act of aggression, someone who wants to harm us? Or is it a reflexive rebuke, like the woman at the subway pole, who was more frustrated than she was menacing? Or is it, as it was with the young boy, just clumsiness? When we consider the three feet of space around us as our canvas, we can more and more make those assessments and act creatively in a way that deescalates conflict.

None of us can do this perfectly. Sometimes you are the one who is the aggressor because the unfolding of your day, or year, has you the one feeling you are alone. Committing to speaking truthfully and without the intention to do harm, to listening carefully to what others have to say and to remembering that all of us are struggling to make sense of a changing world, will allow us to stand strong amid the chaos. You cannot control the world, the country, your town, the mood swings of those you love, but you can try to create around you a little bit of space that is all your own, a place where the rules of interaction you’ve chosen make sense and your actions have integrity.

We can be the kind of people who lead with their hearts and behave to those around them in an ethical, honest, and kindly manner that creates for those who enter that three feet around us a feeling of peace that also serves to steady the self.

Message from the Hopi

You have been telling people that this is the Eleventh Hour.
Now you must go back and tell them this IS the Hour.
And there are things to be considered:
Where are you living? What are you doing with your life?
How are your relationships doing?

Are you in right relation with those around you?
It is time to speak your truth, to create your community.
Be good to each other, and look within to find your guide.
This could be a good time!

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and so
swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart.
And they will suffer greatly. Be there for them.
And know that the river has its destination.

The Elders say that we must let go of the shore,
Push off into the middle of the river, and
Keep our eyes open and our head above the water.
See who is in there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history we are to take nothing personally.
Least of all ourselves.
For the moment we do, our spiritual journey comes to a halt.

Banish the word "struggle” from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in the sacred manner
and in celebration
We are the ones we have been waiting for.

 The Elders, Oraibi, Arizona. Hopi Nation

Stop Separating Immigrant Families — Buddhist Statement

John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

As Western Buddhist leaders, we unreservedly condemn the recently imposed policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US-Mexican border.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of children have been inhumanely taken from their parents by US Customs and Border Protection, in a policy that has been condemned by the United Nations and many international human rights observers. Indeed, no other country has a policy of separating families who intend to seek asylum.

Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions. From a Buddhist perspective, it is the close bond between parents and children that nurtures not only the physical well-being of children, but their psychological health and their moral formation.

Separating children from their parents and holding them in detention inflicts terrible and needless trauma and stress on young children that hampers and damages their development, causing long-term damage. This policy being employed on United States soil is morally unconscionable. That such egregious actions be employed as a deterrent for families seeking entry and/or asylum in the U.S. – using the sacred bond between innocent youth and their parents – is unjustifiable on any level. We suggest that our current defenders of this policy visit some of these border crossings and child detention centers so they can experience for themselves the present effects of their decisions. It is difficult to conceive that anyone having compassion for our world’s children and their families, and who witnesses such pain and anguish for themselves could continue to uphold such a practice.

As people of faith and conscience, we feel that it is important that we speak out clearly in defense of basic human rights at this time, calling for an immediate end to this heartless practice. In doing so, we join the voices of many religious leaders and congregations that have unreservedly condemned this policy of separation. This policy is a serious violation of the rights of the child and must be stopped today.



Rev. Robert Joshin Althouse
Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago - Abbot


Click Here for a Full List of 200 Buddhist Leaders who have Signed

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How to Be a Friend Until the End by Frank Ostaseski

Photo © Victor Torres / Stocksy United.

Photo © Victor Torres / Stocksy United.

A friend or family member shares the news of a life-threatening diagnosis or we see them stumble on a curb or over their words, and in that moment we realize that we’re about to become a companion to someone facing death. Perhaps it’s a conscious choice. Maybe we feel we have no choice.

It’s important in the beginning to remember that we already know how to care. We’ve extended a helping hand hundreds of times in a thousand meaningful and loving ways. Caring is a natural expression of our humanity. We can trust our good hearts to be reliable guides.

Offering care is like meditation, there’s no one right way, but some basic guidelines and practice can help.

Embrace Impermanence

Recognition of the transience of life is a central tenet of Buddhism. Impermanence is an essential truth woven into the very fabric of existence. It’s inescapable and perfectly natural. How we meet that truth makes a world of difference.

One of the most exquisite of Japanese terms, mono no aware, expresses an aesthetic sensibility that’s challenging to translate. It speaks to a gentle sadness—to being deeply moved by the transient, finite nature of things. It doesn’t deny loss or bypass grief but reminds us that the beauty of things and our appreciation of those dear to us is heightened by our awareness of their ephemeral nature.

Isn’t it the fragility and brevity of the cherry blossom, or morning light, or cresting wave that captivates us and invites us into wonder and gratitude?

Enter Mindfully

In the Zen tradition, we have the practice of dokusan, a face-to-face meeting with the teacher. The student is instructed to wait outside the teacher’s door and gather herself. She has no idea what’s waiting for her on the other side of the door. She has no idea what the teacher will ask, or perhaps even what she most needs. She does her best to be ready, flexible, and open.

Going into the room of someone who’s ill or dying is like going for dokusan. Empty your mind, open your heart, and enter with fresh eyes. Once in the room, sit down, talk less, and listen more. Touch when appropriate.

Be a Calm Presence

When we’re caring for someone who’s sick, we lend them our body. We use the strength of our backs and arms to move them from the bed to the commode. In the same way, we can also lend them the strength of our mind. We can help to create a calm and accepting environment. We can be a reminder of stability and concentration. We can expand our heart in such a way that it can inspire the individual who’s dying to expand theirs. One calm person in the room can ease the entire experience for everybody.

You Are Enough

We’re always messing with ourselves—telling ourselves what we should be experiencing, trying hard to be someone special, hoping we’re doing it all in the right way. Often in spiritual practice and in caregiving, we set some goal of where we think we ought to be and then use that to not be where we are.

I’m guided by the counsel of Carl Rogers, the great humanistic psychologist:

“Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man, this woman has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”

No Advice

Some of us reach too quickly for our version of a prescription pad, doling out unsolicited advice. While our intentions may be genuine, we can be blissfully insensitive to the way we impact others. The attachment to the role of helper runs deep for most of us. If we’re not careful, it will imprison us and those we serve. Let’s face it: if I am going to be a helper, then somebody has to be helpless.  

Wise speech is a mindfulness practice. Words can heal or harm. Before speaking, pause. Silence has the benefit of slowing things down. Ask yourself, is what you want to say true? Is it helpful? Is it the right time? And, maybe most important, is it wanted? If the other person doesn’t want to hear it, you may not need to say it. But at times we do need to speak whether the other person likes it or not. In such situations it’s more likely to go well if you follow the other guidelines covered in this article.

Turn Toward Suffering

An integral part of healing is letting go. But there’s no letting go until there’s letting in. As James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that can be faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Suffering is exacerbated by avoidance. Our attempts at self-protection cause us to live in a cramped corner of our lives. We accept a limited perspective of the situation and a restricted view of ourselves. We cling to what’s familiar in order to reassert control, thinking we can fend off what we fear will be intolerable. When we push back, hoping to get rid of a difficult experience, we’re actually encapsulating it. In short, what we resist persists.

Suffering will only be removed by wisdom cultivated through inquiry, not by drenching it in sunshine or attempting to bury it in a dark basement. Compassion manifests through the medium of fearless receptivity.

Love Heals

The boundlessness of love is made evident when the veils between this world and the invisible world are thinnest. At birth and death, love can melt division, allowing us to move beyond what we thought possible.

When someone is sick, when their body is ravaged by illness, when they can no longer function in their familiar roles, when their identity is shifting daily, many people feel un-loveable. When someone believes they’re beyond love, you cannot convince them to love themselves. But you can show them that they’re loved.

When someone is sick or suffering, love them. Just love them. Love them until they can remember to love themselves again.


This article was originally published on

How to Deal with a Narcissist
By Karolis Žukauskas


I’ve been reading accounts from the American press written by journalists stunned to find Trump is worse beyond their expectations. I obviously don’t share their sentiments. I’m an abuse survivor, grew up with a (much less wealthy) Donald Trump in the house, and have the misfortune of currently working with a Donald Trump heading my place of employment. Over the years, I’ve seen what sort of madhouse network dances about men like our president.

Get used to it, America. We are now an abusive family.

Abusive families have three primary players: the abusers, the enablers and the victims. If it isn’t clear, the abuser (Trump) dishes it out while the enablers (the establishment) make excuses for it, attempt to rationalize it, sometimes to benefit from it, thereby supporting it, while the victims (citizens) take insults and deal with disorienting confusion, even chaos.

It’s more complicated and shaded-gray in reality. All sorts of professional people have broken these roles down further. Obviously, there’s overlap between them.

Most abusers were once victims, and still perceive themselves, like Trump does, as mistreated or unfairly targeted. Some enablers also abuse, but all enablers are victims of the abuse, at least to some degree, if even by virtue of needing to depend on it to play a role, complete some task or access a resource. From my point of view, victims are enablers until they remove themselves from the system, decompress, gather their bearings and accept, with as much clarity as possible, what the abuse was truly like. This requires admitting it. They have to make a conscious decision that the abuse stops with them or it simply won’t.

Most of us are nowhere close to that point yet. This is new and bizarre; we’ve been dropped into the madhouse and can’t tell where to focus our attention. It explains why so many of our journalists and other professionals are staring ahead wide-eyed, mouths agape, making delusional claims like “this might lead to totalitarianism” when a totalitarian is already in control, when reporters are being arrested for doing their jobs and protests outlawed in the wake of idiotic, distracting tweets and abject falsifications of reality.

It’s important for everyone in a position of influence, from every level of our government to the whole of our press, our institutions of education, social services, our courts and our legal professionals to understand something unequivocally. Our president is an abusive madman, a narcissist with no capacity to change, no ounce of empathy, no motivation beyond his own aggrandizement.

Showing him photographs to contradict his delusional claims is pointless. Narcissists cannot be “managed” or “influenced.” In my experience, there are only a few ways to deal with a narcissist, none easy or comfortable.

The first is a war of attrition, the arsenal merciless, consistent insult. The insults do not have to be exotic, vulgar or vindictive; speaking about reality, consistently and in a sustained effort, is enough. You’re not very well liked. Most people abhor you. They disagree with your values. They think you’re uncivilized, deranged, mentally ill and unable to grasp reality.Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do it in shifts, like an oiled hockey team crashing the net. He makes a false statement, so you dismiss it, call it a lie and immediately set about ridiculing it in every possible channel, making certain he sees it.

A narcissist will try to exhaust you until you give in, until putting up with whatever the narcissist is doing becomes easier than listening to his assault on reality, or hearing the insults. It’s exhausting, obviously, to tell the narcissist, “No. The tablecloth is white, not yellow,” every time you deal with him. But that is what we must expect. When the president speaks, he is fabricating a delusion in an effort to exhaust our imaginations and mental capacities. He wants to shell-shock us into submission.

Trump will not stop lying. In fact, he’s going to need to lie more as his administration unravels, as people begin abandoning him. He will not respond to reason or rational conversation, and he will continue sending his representatives to meet the press and lie that they intend to tell the truth, one second after they lie.

This seems counterproductive, even masochistic. A narcissist does not lie merely because he can or because it provides him attention (narcissistic supply). A narcissist’s lie gives him power over others’ imagination and feelings. The lies become the parameters of the discussion—we argue over the delusion instead of weighing the reality—and anything the narcissist doesn’t like he’ll claim has been invented by his victims. The technique renders reason useless and obliterates the basic agreements among the educated; you cannot argue with someone who makes up numbers, contradicts himself constantly or tells you your information is fake, what you’ve witnessed is false.

This latter point is most important. An abuser will beat you up or molest you but then accuse you of imagining it. He’ll accuse you of being unfair, of trying to make him look bad when you show everyone your bloody nose. What’s true is what he says; he is the center, the ultimate reference point. Everything, including reality, is subject to his power.

Attacks on a narcissist, in the short term, only increase his bluster. Eventually, however, the embarrassment of enabling him becomes a liability. At that point, exile becomes an option, but it requires a critical mass of enablers to stand up and say they’ve had enough.

The press cannot in good faith come to press conferences and ask Trump’s secretary, “What lies have you for us today? What bullshit of yours should we share?” However, our legislative branch can, and rather quickly, exile Trump to someplace outside the White House. Currently, Congress is Trump’s greatest enabler, far worse than the press, and getting worse as this horror show blusters on.

What will it finally take for our leaders to say they’ve had enough? Well…the usual thing. Massive opposition from an intrepid, inexhaustible, furious (but also clever) populace.

Hippos on Holiday


is not really the title of a movie
but if it was I would be sure to see it.
I love their short legs and big heads,
the whole hippo look.
Hundreds of them would frolic
in the mud of a wide, slow-moving river,
and I would eat my popcorn
in the dark of a neighborhood theater.
When they opened their enormous mouths
lined with big stubby teeth
I would drink my enormous Coke.

I would be both in my seat
and in the water playing with the hippos,
which is the way it is
with a truly great movie.
Only a mean-spirited reviewer
would ask on holiday from what?

Billy Collins