No Mud, No Lotus

No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Parallax Press, 2014.

This short, easy to read guide offers practical suggestions, from a Buddhist perspective, on how to deal with the everyday suffering that arises for everyone.  Nhat Hanh makes clear that it is impossible to avoid suffering, as that is part of living, but we can choose to keep it from overwhelming us.  The book’s “Practices for Happiness” section includes breathing exercises, being present with strong emotions, practicing loving kindness toward ourselves and others, deep relaxation, mindfulness trainings and walking meditation.

To give an example of just one of those–being present with strong emotions–Nhat Hanh reminds readers that  “an emotion is only an emotion, and you are much more than one emotion  . . . An emotion is something that comes and stays for a while, and eventually goes away.  If during the time of the emotion, you have that insight, that insight will save you.”

People caught up in stressful situations can find real support and encouragement here.

Waking Up

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, by Sam Harris.  Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Harris covers highlights of his own inner journey and what we currently know about the nature of consciousness, concluding with comments on evaluating gurus, investigating NDEs, and drug use as a possible path toward enlightenment.  Meditation practice can be helpful to everyone as a means of reducing the personal suffering brought about by constant distraction, and needn’t have any religious component.  Harris’ dedication to exploring the self, his considerable experience attending meditation retreats–a total of two years, including some three-month periods–plus his background as a neuroscientist give the book an unusual and authentic flavor. Definitely worth pondering.

10% Happier

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, by Dan Harris.  It Books (Harper Collins), 2014.

Here’s an unusual combination: an account of meditation and mindfulness practice combined with anecdotes of famous people, told from the viewpoint of someone who has met and interviewed them. Harris co-anchored Nightline and Good Morning America, was mentored by the likes of Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer, and has filed stories from exotic places around the world. The two aspects–inward practice and outward celebrity–provide a good balance; I found it irresistible!  Regarding mindfulness practice, I have undertaken several silent Buddhist retreats much like the one Harris describes in detail, so I was right there “with” him.  (The Japanese Zen sesshin-style retreats I sat are actually even more demanding than the Vipassana retreat Harris chose; for example, having to eat meals while sitting on the floor and engaging in a very structured ceremony of serving, bowing, chanting, and cleaning one’s own dishes.)  Stripped of off-putting metaphysics, mindfulness techniques have been used widely and successfully in hospitals and other therapeutic settings.

This practical, useful book delivers on what it promises: to help stressed-out people from all walks of life do what the subtitle says.

Self-Realization, Not Self-Aggrandizement

Robert Aitken, Roshi

Zen master, professor, pacifist, and social activist Robert Aitken, Roshi, was a pioneer in bringing Zen to the West in the 1950’s.  He founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, which now has affiliates worldwide, co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and authored over ten books of Zen teachings.  He died at age 93 last summer; what turned out to be his final interview was published in Tricycle magazine this spring.  One of his statements in that interview impressed me so much that I invite you to ponder it with me:

“Just because historical statistics show lots of war, it does not follow that behind history there is an imperative to wage war.  Indeed, the imperative is self-realization.  It is the perversion of self- realization into self-aggrandizement that directs the course of our lives to violence.” Continue reading “Self-Realization, Not Self-Aggrandizement”