Sunday, December 26, 2010

11 things to let go of in 2011

I heard a great idea today: for the new year, what are 11 things you can let go of?

How many of us stop to think about how our desires (or...shall we call them...cravings) limit us? I am sure I'd have saved enough to retire ten years early, if it weren't for the many needless items I have bought over the course of time. The problem is, everything we buy needs to be cared for in some way: kept clean; repaired; batteries charged; tuned, played, or practiced upon (in the case of my many musical instruments); read (books); understood (computers, software, smartphones!). Even throwing things away becomes problematic:  I try not to throw things in the trash unless they can't be recycled, sold, or freecycled.

What freedom we would have, if we could let go of the desire for all this stuff!

What other stuff can I let go of? The need to "be good" at stuff? Judging others? Judging myself? The need to be at the center of my personal cosmology?  It won't take me long to make the list. But, hmmm, is making the list a form of judging myself? Gotta watch that, too!!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Letting go of fear

Thought for the day: what would it feel like to be relieved of fear? How much fear is bound up in our thoughts, emotions, physical being? I lay on my back for 10 minutes and imagined what my body would feel like if I had no fear. What would my muscles feel like? Hips, shoulders, neck, feet? How would I walk? How would I stand? How would my internal organs feel?

How would I relate to others? How would I approach people at parties? In the grocery store? While driving? In business meetings?

If your thoughts indeed become your character I want to think about this some more...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Watch your thoughts...

When I read about the Buddhist idea of karma, I had no problem understanding the importance of speaking and acting ethically (or, in terms of the "Eightfold path," engaging in "right speech" and "right action"). The consequences of our actions ripple out in every direction, in ways that we can't know or even imagine. Ultimately, if you believe that everything living is connected in some way, then you understand that when you hurt others, you hurt yourself.

However, I'm sure I'm not the only person who has had difficulty with the concept of "right intention." How can our thoughts cause harm? Then I heard a quote attributed to Frank Outlaw, which I then chased to this quote from the Buddha. I think this provides good motivation for "right intention."

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings…
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think, so we become.

- From the Dhammapada
Sayings of the Buddha

Monday, November 29, 2010

Twelve Years

Shunryu Suzuki came to the United States in 1959 at the age of 55. He died in 1971. In those twelve years he completely changed the face of American Zen.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


A lot of things I do seem to share common elements. In playing improvised music, practicing Kokikai aikido and yoga, there is lots of stuff, call it "technique," that must be learned by practicing over and over (maybe not quite 10,000 hours, but it sometimes feels that way).

Yet you can practice all those hours and still not tap the richness of the art unless you include something more. This "something more," I think, is developed with a practice that incorporates paying attention. Paying attention means just being aware without judgment. In playing the piano, that means listening with an open heart and mind, and not clinging to anything you just played. Just continuing to listen. And in self-defense, yoga, dancing, art, basketball, marksmanship - although I'm not experienced with all of these, I think there are many similarities.

As I get better at paying attention, I can perceive physical tension that's unnecessary and let it go. I can be more aware of everything that's going on around me (whether that's listening to the rest of the band in jazz, or being aware of my attacker in aikido). As I let go of judgmental thoughts, I can devote more of my mind to what I am doing.

The great thing about paying attention is I can practice it anywhere. I used to think of my 40 minute commute as an annoyance. Now I think of it as a way to practice the piano. Or aikido. or yoga. or _____(fill in your favorite practice).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to tie your shoes

My cousin Michael taught me how to tie my shoes. The thing is, he taught me about 3 years ago.

He noticed that the bow on my shoelaces was vertical, not horizontal. He pointed out that this meant I was tying a granny knot, not a square knot. "Who cares?" I asked. "Do your shoelaces come untied all the time?" "Well, yes, but I thought everyone's did." Not so, apparently.

He showed me the simple trick to fix it, which is that when you cross the laces over each other the first time, just switch the way you usually cross them. Then you do the loops (some people call these the "bunny ears") the same way as normal. Voila! Perfect shoelaces that don't come untied! (Well, not nearly so easily, anyway.)

What's my point? Always keep an open mind. After all, I thought I already knew how to tie my shoes.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The power of subtle thoughts

Gil Fronsdal, in one of his online dharma talks, (I'm not sure, maybe this one) spoke about the power of subtle thoughts. He described how, in the early days of his practice of meditation, he became interested in the idea of "falling in love." Because his meditation practice involved noticing the thoughts that came into his mind, he was able to distinguish a point when his thoughts about someone changed, when he thought, "Ah, this woman has such and such qualities. I could be in love with her." It was after that decision that he began the process of "falling in love."

Many forms of meditation practice (including traditions such as Zen, Vipassana and others) involve mindfulness or "noticing" of the types of thoughts that come to mind as we sit. Many people find as they practice in this way that they are gradually more able to distinguish these subtle thoughts. This can lead to a sense of having more power or control over one's life, because normally we don't "hear" these subtle thoughts, we just obey the emotions they generate. So separating them gives us the ability to decide whether or not to act. Just think: If you had not fallen in love with that guy who was sooo bad for you...If you had not yelled at that police officer...if you hadn't spent all your money on that dress...

In addition to keeping you from doing bad things, there are many constructive results of distinguishing subtle thoughts. I may not realize how often I repeat to myself: "I am so clumsy," or "I hate practicing the saxophone," or "I will never get ahead in this job." When I can recognize this thought, and realize that it's just a thought, not a reality, I can see that perhaps I am not clumsy. I can allow myself to enjoy practicing. I can see the opportunities for advancement that I ignored.

The extraordinary "success coach" Tony Robbins is fully aware of the power of our subtle thoughts and narratives. He works on teaching people how to rewrite those inner narratives so that his clients can get what they really want. And he's got a lot of happy clients.

If you need more incentive to try meditation, how about: getting everything you want? Would that be enough of a motivation?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Relax Completely

In the practice of Kokikai Aikido, one of the four basic principles is Relax Progressively. The idea is to relax as much as possible when responding to an attack, as this allows you not only to respond with more power, but to respond with more flexibility of both mind and body. Beginners can achieve results on their first night of practice when they realize that they are adding unnecessary tension while throwing, but even advanced students find that there are always more ways to relax, more fine muscles that can be released, more mental openness that can be achieved. Hence: relax progressively.

Yet, Maruyama Sensei emphasizes that "relax progressively" does not mean "relax completely." If you relax completely, you can't respond at all!

There are benefits to relaxing completely, just not when you are being attacked! Most people seldom relax fully, even in sleep. Over the long term, this inability to release physical stress can have many negative effects, like irritability, difficulty concentrating and difficulty sleeping, not to mention physical pain. The benefits of relaxation practice include, as you might imagine: better mood, ability to focus, a better night's rest, and a healthier body.

In yoga there's a practice called savasana (pron. sha-VAH-sa-na) and it's done at the end of every class, but it can be done any time. I once heard that Monty Python's John Cleese lay flat on his back on the floor of an auditorium for 10 minutes before giving a speech. Sounds like savasana to me!

Savasana is actually much more than lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, even though that's what it looks like to an observer. It is usually "guided," especially for beginners. Listening to the vocal cues helps you to bring the attention of the mind to the body, to achieve a depth of relaxation that isn't possible without mind/body coordination. Some guided savasana uses visualization ("Imagine your stomach is a pool of warm liquid, and the warm liquid expands to fill your whole body"), some is more "practical" ("Relax your toes and feet, let the weight of gravity hold you up, now your calves..."). You can use "props" such as a pillow under your knees if your back hurts. There are many "how to's" on the Internet, and guided savasanas galore on YouTube, and I would recommend trying a few of these, finding one you like, if you have never done savasana before.

How long to practice savasana? You can do it for 5, 10, 15 minutes, even longer. I recommend at least five minutes. Some people get very enthusiastic and decide they will get the most benefit out of 15 or 20 minutes. But then they often decide they can't set aside that much time regularly, so they don't do it at all. Therefore I'd recommend somewhere in the middle.

If you try it and you feel better afterward, then maybe you can use it regularly to release stress. If you don't feel better afterward, let's talk.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fast Forward

I was talking to a colleague the other day as we were heading home about how much we look forward to the weekend. I understand her feeling that way, especially as she has two young kids. But we both remembered the movie Click with Adam Sandler. The premise of the movie is a massive cliche, and maybe that's why it was so appealing. We all know it's true: if you get into the habit of "fast forwarding" your life, when it's over, what do you have?

I am working on a different habit, which is just to notice when I am thinking about the future. Some people tend to dwell on an imagined past, I tend to imagine and anticipate what will happen - all completely fabricated, of course! But if I can notice when I am doing this, I have a shot at being where I am, maybe if only for a microsecond.

I'm gonna keep trying.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Everything's Amazing Right Now and Nobody's Happy

Louis C.K.'s clip on Conan is pretty funny.

When I was a kid, we had a rotary phone. You had to stand next to it while you talked. Zeroes took a long time to dial. (Of course you only had to dial 7 numbers most of the time.) If we weren't home, the phone just rang and we had no idea someone had called.

While you were driving, you could not make a phone call. Nor could you listen to music except what was on the radio. That's not true, actually: when I was about 13 they invented 8-track tape. However, your kids could not watch a movie in the back seat of the van.  (They didn't have vans. They had station wagons.)

In fact, the only way to watch a movie was to go to the movie theater. Most towns had a movie theater that played one movie at a time.  If you wanted to see a film by Bergman, Bertolucci, or Truffaut, unless it happened to be on late night tv, basically you were SOL unless the local college had a film series. If you loved a movie (say, 2001) you went back that week and saw it as many times as you could afford to. Then it was gone forever.

After 2am there was no more TV. They played the Star Spangled Banner, showed a picture of the flag, and went off the air.

If you wanted money, you went into the bank, which was only open till 3pm. And when you ran out of money, that was it. You couldn't buy any more stuff.  Bank statements had to be balanced by hand. Using MATH.

If you went to another country, you were incommunicado. No one could afford to call you, and where would they call you, anyway? You would send postcards.

If someone had to write a scholarly paper or submit a proposal for a deadline, they had to make sure that it would get there in time via the mail.

So the next time you you get annoyed because your voice-to-text app misspells a word, stop a second...