dessert in the desert

Benefits of Mindfulness

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dessert in the desert

“If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”
-Michael Carroll

If you Google “benefits of mindfulness” you will find hundreds of recent scientific studies. There is proof of mindfulness meditation’s effectiveness at strengthening attention in schoolchildren, creating more resilient business leaders, increasing brain density of the pre-frontal cortex, improving the functioning of the immune system, and plenty more. But most seasoned mindfulness teachers will tell you that while all those benefits may be true, they are side-products of the process and not to be focused on as the “goal.”

Three years ago I was speaking on the phone to Michael Carroll, the founder of an organization which focuses on sharing mindfulness to business audiences. We were talking about a new initiative I was involved with, and while I was extolling the numerous benefits of the program he stopped me and said, “If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”

I was admittedly confused.

In theory I kinda understood. Fixating solely on the benefits of mindfulness can lead to craving of pleasant experiences (e.g. calm, clarity, relaxation) and being averse to the neutral and unpleasant experiences (irritation, boredom, anger) that occur both on and off the meditation cushion. This cycle of craving and aversion is precisely what mindfulness practice aims to break through. Our unexamined judgments of what is “good” and “bad” keep us removed from experiencing the world as it is, and practice can bring us in touch with the nature of experiences beyond labels. This ultimately frees us to be in harmony with each moment of our lives as it unfolds. Okay, got the theory. But how does this really play out?

This past winter I resided at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York for their annual Winter Retreat. During my stay a friend returned to the monastery after a special ceremony overseas, and everyone was joyous upon his return. To celebrate the ceremony his mom had shipped over numerous boxes of homemade sweets: peanut butter chocolate balls, honey glazed pecans, coconut truffles, and his favorite, Oreo cookie fudge. Each box had dozens of large pieces, and he took pleasure in sharing these treats with the entire community of monks, nuns and lay friends. One evening he invited myself and another friend to join him for a sampling. As we sat down he explained that these kinds of treats were his mom’s specialty, and they reminded him of home.

Seeing how special these were, I suggested we try a guided eating meditation. This entailed practicing savoring one piece by eating it slowly and mindfully, being aware of sight, touch, smell, taste, and even sound. He was eager to partake, and we all chose a chunk of the Oreo cookie fudge to enjoy.

We began by looking at it in the palm of our hands, examining the delicacy as if we had never seen such a concoction before. Noticing the colors, the ridges, the way the light bounced off it at various angles. Then we rolled it slowly in-between our fingers, noting the texture and solidity. We brought it up to our nose, breathing in the flavor, noticing how the mouth automatically creates saliva in preparation for eating. After placing it on our tongue we let it sit for a moment before chewing, noticing the desire to chew, and how effortlessly the tongue is able to guide the food to the teeth. One bite. Two bites. Three bites. We took note of how taste is felt in the body and the mind. Then, after some time, swallowed.

In the aftermath of our experiment I turned to him expecting to see a big smile, but instead he appeared concerned. He exclaimed: “I found that quite unpleasant.” I laughed, and asked him to explain. “Well, after the first bite I was overpowered by the sweetness, and found it difficult to keep going. It’s like my body didn’t want to eat it…It’s strange, I grew up on these kinds of things but I always rushed through eating them, never really taking the time to notice. I thought this was my favorite snack in the world, but maybe it’s not?”

In that moment, I understood more clearly the transmission. I had suggested mindful eating with the expectation that bringing awareness to the experience of eating Oreo cookie fudge would enhance the pleasure of the moment. This assumption proved incorrect.

Afterwards the friend shared more about the eating habits of his family, and how he was becoming concerned about diabetes down the road. With the cornucopia of sugar in front of us I could see why!

The experiment was a reminder to us all about the nature of mindfulness. It is a torch of awareness, shining light on the object of attention without discrimination. There is a freedom in this awareness, in being able to see an unfiltered view of our experience. But I quickly found this freedom can be shackled by preconceived notions about where the practice will “get me to”…which is ultimately just right here, to this very moment.

As for my experience of the eating the Oreo cookie fudge? Delicious.

But, admittedly, a bit sweet.

Click here for background on ‘transmissions’

Wake Up OI

2014 Aspirations

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Wake Up OI

New Year, New Me. This year I have three primary aspirations:

1. Observe the fruits of practice

On October 15th, 2013 I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, the core lay community of Thich Nhat Hanh, and given the practice name “True Garden of Faith.” No one is quite sure how names are chosen (except those who choose), but it is generally accepted that your name is an assignment, an indication of how you can grow in your practice of mindfulness, of understanding, of love.

Faith, as defined in The Art of Power, is confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.

Let’s break it down:

Observing: Shining light on what is occurring without judgment, without expectation. Steadily bringing attention back over and over and over to decipher what is truly there.

Fruit: What is a fruit of practice? Insight; a deep understanding into the true nature of some thing. Insight can arrive in many forms…sometimes it is witnessed as an integration, a synthesis of distinct experiences into a unified whole. Sometimes it is an unfolding, a breaking down of something once rigid. Sometimes it is both; other times neither.

Practice: What is practice? Well, our whole life when it comes down to it. But for the purposes of this year, I will focus on aspiration #2 and #3.

It bears highlighting that the nature of this faith is not blind. Nor is it a faith of what one has been told or of other people’s experience. This faith is born from the direct experience of observing the fruits of my own practice, moment to moment.

2. Weekly Gatha

A gatha is a short poem. Gathas can relate to daily activities, and help to remind us of the beauty available in paying attention to seemingly ordinary moments with full attention. For example, you could recite a simple gatha when you wake up in the morning:

Waking up this morning I smile
A brand new day is before me
I vow to live fully in each moment
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion

Being present in everyday activities is a state of calm, which allows the mind space & energy to develop insight. There is a box set “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” which is a collection of 52 gathas from Thich Nhat Hanh on nicely designed cards, which you can put up around your house in places you often look. There are gathas for brushing your teeth, driving a car, eating, turning on the computer, and much more.

I will practice with these cards, using one gatha per week, for the duration of the year.

3. Investigate link between decision-making, rumination, and depression

Two years ago I set an intention to bring acceptance to areas of personal difficulty. From this process a source of persistent suffering was unearthed: a downward spiral while struggling with decision-making, rumination, and depression. I have come to witness the potential for these three interrelated elements to wreck havoc on well-being.

Thus far I’ve been fairly timid in approaching this head-on, as at times I feel embarrassed to admit when I’m feeling low. Yet I repeatedly find that the extent to which I’m able to welcome in suffering with the open heart of Rumi’s Guesthouse, is the extent to which suffering transforms. For this aspiration I will:
-Embark on an MBCT course along with the book The Mindful Way Through Depression
-Reflect in the form of an in-depth writing to be published some day (titled ‘Maximizer Manifesto’)


When I ordained into the Order of Interbeing it was alongside a group of about 40 others, and collectively we were part of the “True Garden” family. I have little experience gardening, but know it takes patience to do well. Seeds are planted in one season and fruits may ripen in another. Some plants require diligence and careful nourishment before they reveal themselves fully.

This year I will provide nourishment for my seed of faith; let’s see what grows!

 

Bros on the rock

Reflections on 2013

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Bros on the rock

It’s that time of year again, to reflect back on the unfolding of the past and prepare for the blossoming which lies ahead.

In this post I’ll share an assortment of  insights from nurturing my four 2013 aspirations (integrity, names, humor and sustainability) throughout the year:

1. Integrity
Integration of thoughts & speech: I’ve always been a relatively communicative guy (this blog is prime evidence), but this year I took as a practice trying to share my thoughts and feelings verbally when they felt cloudy and muddled. I have the tendency to want to share with others only once I’ve already transformed suffering into a beautiful lotus, and not when I’m waddling around in the mud wondering where to go next. The reality is, much of my time is spent waddling. Continue reading

Fame

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Pops & Son '96

I’d like to introduce a new feature in this space: ‘transmissions’.

These posts will each contain one or two sentences that a wise friend once personally told me. Over time these words have served as guiding principles for how I live my life, and in that way I reflect on them as wisdom which has been transmitted to me.

It is in this spirit that I’d like to transmit them to you, here, as perhaps someday they will be useful to you in your journey. To begin, some wisdom from my father:

“Early on in life I knew that I would only be famous among the people I cared about…and that was okay with me.”

A couple years ago I was in the midst of a career change, and found myself talking with my dad about fame. Recognition from others has always been important to me, and for most of my life I viewed ‘being famous’ as something to work towards.

My father shared that in his early twenties he chose to raise a family instead of going to a prestigious out-of-state college, and knew from then on he wouldn’t achieve fame in the conventional sense.

This prompted me to ask myself why I desired fame among people that I didn’t know? I reasoned that it might help provide some external assurance that what I was doing was worthwhile. But this was a flimsy excuse: fame is hardly correlated with ‘worthiness’, and besides, I had all the assurance I needed within my own experience. I was stumped. I kind of still am.

Re-defining fame this way allows me to recognize I’m actually already famous. What else is there to seek? Thanks pops; you’ll always be famous to me too.

Zeppelin, timing, and the desire for control

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Stairway

My joy is like spring so warm, it makes flowers bloom all over the earth,
My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans,
Please call me by my true names, so that I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
So I can see, that my joy and pain are one.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

During my junior year of college I was introduced to Led Zeppelin. I had listened to music before, but this band transformed my experience of merely listening with the ears to actually hearing with my whole body. I had their Greatest Hits CD (this was before Spotify, and even iTunes didn’t yet carry Zeppelin), and for my birthday my girlfriend at the time bought me the entire Led Zeppelin collection. Whoa; celebration day! With so much music at my fingertips, a question arose: how can I maximize my experience of listening to all this music? Continue reading

Who is playing the piano?

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DubaiPiano

Was it you?

She asked politely.

That expression of beauty, serenading, masquerading in the form of sound?

Looking deeply, I search for an answer…

There is a piano before me.
But this piano is born of plastic, metal and wire constructed by people I’ve never heard of.

There is a sheet of music facing me.
But this music is born of genius, effort and persistence by people I’ve heard of but will likely never meet.

There is technique within me.
But this technique is born of lessons, guidance and feedback by people I’ve met but which are not me.

How can I say it’s me?
It’s more like the piano, the music and the technique played itself.

2013 Aspirations

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Liftoff

A lot can happen in a year if you pay attention.

I intend to continue the cycle I began last year of setting yearly aspirations and then reviewing them at year-end.

The spirit of most aspirations will be to shine the light of awareness on a topic of interest by making a concentrated and structured effort to explore it throughout the entire year. At times it may also be appropriate to make a highly specific and measurable goal.

Ready? Let’s dive into 2013. Continue reading

Reflection on 2012

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2012 Reflection

At the beginning of this year I established a set of 4 aspirations to examine in the months that followed. Soon after, I discovered that the act of (publicly) setting this intention provided additional energy for me to look deeply into each of these areas and learn from them. It also provided a reference point to return to during the inevitable frustrations of daily life. The reminder that these were practice areas aided my acceptance of those qualities of myself I’m not so open to at the moment.

In this month’s entry I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about these aspirations over the past year.

This entry is a tad longer than most, so I suggest digesting in stages and/or starting with the section which speaks to you most (click to go directly to section). The 4 aspirations are as follows: Continue reading

Day in the life: Deer Park 4/4

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Continue from Part 3

4:45pm After walking meditation we enter the big hall for a 30 minute afternoon sit. The flavor of the afternoon sitting is different from the morning; for me it feels lighter…like a cool breeze circulating through the various recesses of my mind.

A friend once told me it took him many years before his daily sitting meditation transformed into just sitting to sit. If I examine my own experience of meditation (sitting, eating, walking), it has followed a non-linear progression that I’d guess some others have gone through as well. Continue reading

a brand new day is before me…