Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems - Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD

[Disclosure: I am reviewing a free ePub copy of this book provided by the publisher without the expectation of a review, good or bad.]

The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems

by Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, Harvard
Guilford Press, 2010
Hardcover: $35.00
Paperback: 14.95

Amazon: $28.00/$10.17

A couple of years ago, I was browsing the bookstore at a Psychotherapy Networker conference and found Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (Guilford Press, 2005), edited by Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel, and Paul R. Fulton. I knew none of the editors and only one of the authors, but it had a cool cover (yes, I sometimes buy books based on the cover) with some good blurbs from names I recognized. While the book was written for therapists, I still found it useful at the time, even as a non-professional.

Part of my interest in the book was due to my being Buddhist and that mindfulness is an essential practice for many Buddhists. There was also a 20+ year interest in psychology that was then emerging again as a desire to become a therapist (which I am now in the process of doing). The book was a great introduction to the ways these two fields intersect in useful and important ways.

Since then I have read many other books on mindfulness in psychology as the cross-over has become one of the dominant paradigms in modern psychotherapy, seen in everything from Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and now including Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT, developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, based on Jon Kabat-Zinn's MBSR). The acronyms can be daunting.

What ties all of these approaches together, however, is that they all embrace mindfulness practice as a way to help heal the psyche. In the preface to The Mindfulness Solution, Ronald Siegel (who is on the faculty at The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy) points out that mindfulness has proven useful for everything from anxiety and depression to stress-related physical disorders (insomnia, chronic pain) to addictions of all forms.

But on the everyday level (and mindfulness in Buddhism is meant to be an everyday practice), mindfulness can help us be more calm in traffic, less stressed at work, and better partners in our relationships. And this is what Siegel is offering the reader of his book.

For those, like me, who like to know what's in a book before buying it, here is the table of contents:

I. Why Mindfulness Matters
1. Life Is Difficult, for Everyone
2. Mindfulness: A Solution
3. Learning to Practice Mindfulness
4. Building a Mindful Life

II. Everyday Practices For Unruly Minds, Bodies, and Relationships
5. Befriending Fear: Working with Worry and Anxiety
6. Entering the Dark Places: Seeing Sadness and Depression in a New Light
7. Beyond Managing Symptoms: Transforming Pain and Stress-Related Medical Problems
8. Living the Full Catastrophe: Mindfulness for Romance, Parenting, and Other Intimate Relationships
9. Breaking Bad Habits: Learning to Make Good Choices
10. Growing Up Isn't Easy: Changing Your Relationship with Aging, Illness, and Death
11. What's Next? The Promise of Mindfulness

When You Need More Help: How to Find a Therapist
I'd like to quote some passages, as well, but the ePub format (Adobe Digital Editions) doesn't allow me to copy and paste text. So take my word for it, his writing style is engaging and entertaining. Each chapter is broken up into shorter sections with headers, making it easy to pick the book up and read for a while, returning to it later.

Buddhism and Mindfulness

In the Preface, Siegel points out that nearly all of our struggles and suffering in life are, at least in part, made worse by the fact that we seek comfort and avoid pain, only to discover that this avoidance generates even more suffering. In essence, this is what the Buddha taught more than 2,500 years ago in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Although Western psychology has been interested in Buddhism going all the way back to William James, and later Carl Jung, it has only been in the last 10-20 years that this interest has taken a useful form for both therapists and lay people (those who have not explicitly already adopted Buddhism).

Siegel's approach to mindfulness seems largely non-sectarian, acknowledging its sources in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, as well as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American traditions. For some Buddhists who adhere to a very formal mindfulness practice based in the early Pali teachings (see Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Mindfulness Defined) this might be seen as a misuse of the teachings.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers us the origin of the word mindfulness, but emphasizes its Pali roots.
T. H. Rhys‐Davids, the British scholar who coined the term “mindfulness” to translate the Pali word sati, was probably influenced by the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others—in other words, to always keep their needs in mind. But even though the word “mindful” was probably drawn from a Christian context, the Buddha himself defined sati as the ability to remember, illustrating its function in meditation practice with the four satipatthanas, or establishings of mindfulness.
And these are the four foundations (establishings) of mindfulness:
He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves... the mind in & of itself... mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.”—SN 48:10
Thanissaro Bhikkhu is very clear in his article that many of the ways mindfulness is taught in the West run counter to the original intent of the Theravada tradition from which he comes. He is very precise about how the key phrases in mindfulness texts should be defined and understood. He likely would have some issues with Siegel's use of and presentation of mindfulness practice as it appears in The Mindfulness Solution.

Be that as it may, this book is written by a Western psychologist for the general population - it is not a dharma text for Buddhists in general or Buddhist scholars in particular. For those who want a more traditional take on mindfulness practice, I would suggest reading the article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (linked above) and also checking out Mindfulness in Plain English, by the Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, which is available as a free PDF (follow the link).

The Mindfulness Solution

Siegel is very practical in his presentation, countering arguments that adding mindfulness practice - yet another thing to add to our already too busy lives - just is not doable. His reply is that if we will learn to be mindful on a daily basis, we will actually have more time in our lives because we will not waste time avoiding things or cleaning up messes we have made by acting in ways counter to our best interests. We also are more rested and less stressed.

Importantly, at least to me as a Buddhist, Siegel offers the reader a way to build a daily meditation practice as well as ways to become mindful on a moment-to-moment basis. Both are necessary in my mind - and in Siegel's as well. Too many Buddhists spend their time on the cushion each day and then go about their lives without any mindful awareness; similarly, a lot of people are adopting mindfulness practices but do not have any formal meditation practice. Both are necessary but not individually sufficient.

Throughout the book, Siegel offers inventories, exercises, and meditations designed to help us get in touch with our resistance to change, our negative thoughts, or the ways we rank ourselves (and that's just in the first chapter of the book). The exercises may seem simple or pointless for some, but if you do them, the cumulative impact in terms of self-awareness is considerable.

I was particularly drawn to the part of Chapter Two where Siegel outlines some of the science supporting mindfulness practice. This has been one of my interests for quite a while, beginning with reports in the popular press of Dr. Richard Davidson's work at the University of Wisconsin with Tibetan monks (which is covered here). The results showed that the more meditation experience a person has, the greater its positive impact on brain structure and function. He could have gone on for the whole chapter, but he presents enough science to convince although not overwhelm the average reader.

The third and fourth chapters offer a variety of ways in to mindfulness practice, which felt useful to me because everyone will have different needs and abilities in taking up a new discipline. Even the Buddha recognized that each student could potentially need a different teaching. Again, there are exercises and sample meditations for people to try out on their own.

I want to acknowledge that he offers one of my favorite techniques as a coach and future therapist, the body-scan meditation (pg. 72). I could go on and on about the science behind why this is such a useful approach, but I will simply say that the body is our immediate, first-person connection to the world of experience - if we can learn to hear it, sans intellectual filters (which is part of what mindfulness teaches), we could go a long way toward living healthier more balanced lives.

In the end, no matter which form of mindfulness practice you choose, Siegel is offering ways to be happier, healthier, and more balanced.

The Dalai Lama on the Difference Between Religion and Spirituality

by the Dalai Lama,
compiled & edited by Mary Craig

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another--an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or philosophical reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or hell. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayers and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit--such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with questions of nirvana and salvation are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.

--from The Pocket Dalai Lama by the Dalai Lama, compiled and edited by Mary Craig

* * *

What's filled with great articles, new releases and dharma news? The latest edition of Snow Lion: The Buddhist Magazine & Catalog, now available online!

Daniel B. Smith: Is There an Ecological Unconscious?

Interesting article from The New York Times. I believe there is an ecological unconsciousness. Ecopsychology is an emerging and important field.

You can read Ecopsychology: Eight Principles by Theodore Roszak and The Psychological Benefits of Wilderness by Garrett Duncan to get a sense of the field, if you are interested.

Is There an Ecological Unconscious?

Published: January 27, 2010

About eight years ago, Glenn Albrecht began receiving frantic calls from residents of the Upper Hunter Valley, a 6,000-square-mile region in southeastern Australia. For generations the Upper Hunter was known as the “Tuscany of the South” — an oasis of alfalfa fields, dairy farms and lush English-style shires on a notoriously hot, parched continent. “The calls were like desperate pleas,” Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, recalled in June. “They said: ‘Can you help us? We’ve tried everyone else. Is there anything you can do about this?’ ”

Residents were distraught over the spread of coal mining in the Upper Hunter. Coal was discovered in eastern Australia more than 200 years ago, but only in the last two decades did the industry begin its exponential rise. Today, more than 100 million tons of black coal are extracted from the valley each year, primarily by open-pit mining, which uses chemical explosives to blast away soil, sediment and rock. The blasts occur several times a day, sending plumes of gray dust over ridges to settle thickly onto roofs, crops and the hides of livestock. Klieg lights provide a constant illumination. Trucks, draglines and idling coal trains emit a constant low-frequency rumble. Rivers and streams have been polluted.

Albrecht, a dark, ebullient man with a crooked aquiline nose, was known locally for his activism. He participated in blockades of ships entering Newcastle (near the Upper Hunter), the largest coal-exporting port in the world, and published opinion articles excoriating the Australian fossil-fuel industries. But Albrecht didn’t see what he could offer besides a sympathetic ear and some tactical advice. Then, in late 2002, he decided to see the transformation of the Upper Hunter firsthand.

“There’s a scholar who talks about ‘heart’s ease,’ ” Albrecht told me as we sat in his car on a cliff above the Newcastle shore, overlooking the Pacific. In the distance, just before the earth curved out of sight, 40 coal tankers were lined up single file. “People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.” Australian aborigines, Navajos and any number of indigenous peoples have reported this sense of mournful disorientation after being displaced from their land. What Albrecht realized during his trip to the Upper Valley was that this “place pathology,” as one philosopher has called it, wasn’t limited to natives. Albrecht’s petitioners were anxious, unsettled, despairing, depressed — just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley. Only they hadn’t; the valley changed around them.

In Albrecht’s view, the residents of the Upper Hunter were suffering not just from the strain of living in difficult conditions but also from something more fundamental: a hitherto unrecognized psychological condition. In a 2004 essay, he coined a term to describe it: “solastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’ ” A neologism wasn’t destined to stop the mines; they continued to spread. But so did Albrecht’s idea. In the past five years, the word “solastalgia” has appeared in media outlets as disparate as Wired, The Daily News in Sri Lanka and Andrew Sullivan’s popular political blog, The Daily Dish. In September, the British trip-hop duo Zero 7 released an instrumental track titled “Solastalgia,” and in 2008 Jukeen, a Slovenian recording artist, used the word as an album title. “Solastalgia” has been used to describe the experiences of Canadian Inuit communities coping with the effects of rising temperatures; Ghanaian subsistence farmers faced with changes in rainfall patterns; and refugees returning to New Orleans after Katrina.

The broad appeal of solastalgia pleases Albrecht; it has helped earn him hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants as well as his position at Murdoch. But he is not particularly surprised that it has caught on. “Take a look out there,” he said, gesturing to the line of coal ships. “What you’re looking at is climate change queued up. You can’t get away from it. Not in the Upper Hunter, not in Newcastle, not anywhere. And that’s exactly the point of solastalgia.” Just as the loss of “heart’s ease” is not limited to displaced native populations, solastalgia is not limited to those living beside quarries — or oil spills or power plants or Superfund sites. Solastalgia, in Albrecht’s estimation, is a global condition, felt to a greater or lesser degree by different people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment. As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?

Albrecht’s philosophical attempt to trace a direct line between the health of the natural world and the health of the mind has a growing partner in a subfield of psychology. Last August, the American Psychological Association released a 230-page report titled “Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change.” News-media coverage of the report concentrated on the habits of human behavior and the habits of thought that contribute to global warming. This emphasis reflected the intellectual dispositions of the task-force members who wrote the document — seven out of eight were scientists who specialize in decision research and environmental-risk management — as well as the document’s stated purpose. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting,” Janet Swim, a Penn State psychologist and the chairwoman of the task force, said, “in order to understand how to get people to act.”

Yet all the attention paid to the behavioral and cognitive barriers to safeguarding the environment — topics of acute interest to policy makers and activists — disguised the fact that a significant portion of the document addressed the supposed emotional costs of ecological decline: anxiety, despair, numbness, “a sense of being overwhelmed or powerless,” grief. It also disguised the unusual background of the eighth member of the task force, Thomas Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore. Doherty runs a private therapeutic practice called Sustainable Self and is the most prominent American advocate of a growing discipline known as “ecopsychology.”

There are numerous psychological subfields that, to one degree or another, look at the interplay between human beings and their natural environment. But ecopsychology embraces a more revolutionary paradigm: just as Freud believed that neuroses were the consequences of dismissing our deep-rooted sexual and aggressive instincts, ecopsychologists believe that grief, despair and anxiety are the consequences of dismissing equally deep-rooted ecological instincts.

“If you look at the beginnings of clinical psychology,” Patricia Hasbach, a psychotherapist and prominent ecopsychologist based in Eugene, told me, “the focus was on intrapsychic forces” — the mind-bound interplay of ego, id and superego. “Then the field broadened to take into account interpersonal forces such as relationships and interactions between people. Then it took a huge leap to look at whole families and systems of people. Then it broadened even further to take into account social systems” and the importance of social identities like race, gender and class. “Ecopsychology wants to broaden the field again to look at ecological systems,” she said. “It wants to take the entire planet into account.”

The terms in which ecopsychology pursues this admittedly ambitious goal are steeped in the field’s countercultural beginnings. Ecopsychology emerged in the early 1960s, just as the modern environmental movement was gathering strength, when a group of Boston-area graduate students gathered to discuss what they saw as the isolation and malaise infecting modern life. It had another brief period of efflorescence, particularly on the West Coast and among practitioners of alternative therapies, in the early ’90s, when Theodore Roszak, a professor of history (he coined the word “counterculture”) published a manifesto, “The Voice of the Earth,” in which he criticized modern psychology for neglecting the primal bond between man and nature. “Mainstream Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban-industrial society,” he later wrote. “All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance — or perhaps too frightening to think about.” Ecopsychology’s eclectic following, which includes therapists, researchers, ecologists and activists, still reflects these earlier foundations. So does its rhetoric. Practitioners are as apt, if not more apt, to cite Native American folk tales as they are empirical data to make their points.

Yet even as it remains committed to its origins, ecopsychology has begun in recent years to enter mainstream academic circles. Last April, Doherty published the first issue of Ecopsychology, the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “the relationship between environmental issues and mental health and well-being.” Next year, M.I.T. Press will publish a book of the same name, edited by Hasbach and Peter Kahn, a developmental psychologist, and Jolina Ruckert, a Ph.D. candidate, both at the University of Washington. The volume brings together scholars from a range of disciplines, among them the award-winning biologist Lynn Margulis and the anthropologist Wade Davis, as it delves into such areas as “technological nature” and how the environment affects human perception. Ecopsychology is taught at Oberlin College, Lewis & Clark College and the University of Wisconsin, among other institutions.

Ecopsychologists are not the first to embrace a vital link between mind and nature. They themselves admit as much, emphasizing the field’s roots in traditions like Buddhism, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. They point to affinities with evolutionary psychology — to the idea that our responses to the environment are hard-wired because of how we evolved as a species. They also point to biophilia, a hypothesis put forward by the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, in 1984, that human beings have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Though Wilson’s idea has been criticized as both deterministic and so broad as to be untestable, the notion that evolution endowed humans with a craving for nature struck a lasting chord in many sectors of the scientific community. Over the past quarter-century, Wilson’s hypothesis has inspired a steady flow of articles, books, conferences and, last year, the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center in northwest Florida.

But unlike Wilson and his followers, ecopsychologists tend to focus on the pathological aspect of the mind-nature relationship: its brokenness. In this respect, their project finds echoes in the culture at large. Recently, a number of psychiatrically inflected coinages have sprung up to represent people’s growing unease over the state of the planet — “nature-deficit disorder,” “ecoanxiety,” “ecoparalysis.” The terms have multiplied so quickly that Albrecht has proposed instituting an entire class of “psycho­terratic syndromes”: mental-health issues attributable to the degraded state of one’s physical surroundings. Ecopsychologists, many of whom are licensed clinicians, remain wary of attributing specific illnesses to environmental decline or of arguing that more-established disorders have exclusively environmental causes. Rather, they propose a new clinical approach based on the idea that treating patients in an age of ecological crisis requires more than current therapeutic approaches offer. It requires tapping into what Roszak called our “ecological unconscious.”

LAST JUNE, I PAID a visit to Doherty, who works in a stone-fronted building in northeast Portland, in an office decorated with a sweeping topographical map of Oregon and a fountain that trickles water onto a pile of stones. He has receding red hair and a red mustache and beard; a small silver hoop dangles from the cartilage of his left ear. Doherty was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo and then went to Columbia University, where he majored in English. Afterward, he worked in a variety of jobs that reflected his interest in the environment: fisherman, wilderness counselor, river-rafting guide, door-to-door fund-raiser for Greenpeace.

As a therapist with activist credentials in a “green” city on the West Coast, Doherty is fairly representative of ecopsychologists today. He is also typical in that he was inspired to enter the field by Roszak’s “Voice of the Earth.” To some extent Doherty remains under Roszak’s spell. When we met, he talked about “an appropriate distrust of science,” and the “dualistic” character of empiricism — the mind/body split — which gives society “free rein to destroy the world.” But he recognizes that ecopsychology endorses a few dualisms of its own. “A more simplistic, first-generation ecopsychology position simplifies the world,” he said. “Either you’re green or you’re not. Either you’re sane or you’re not. It conflates mental health and/or lack of mental health with values and choices and the culture.” His mission, he said, is to spearhead a “second-generation ecopsychology” that leaves these binaries behind.

The bulk of his work is therapeutic. Like any therapist, Doherty, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, sees patients and discusses routine concerns like sex and family dynamics. Unlike most therapists, he asks about patients’ relationships with the natural world — how often they get outdoors, their anxieties about the state of the environment. He recently developed a “sustainability inventory,” a questionnaire that measures, among typical therapeutic concerns like mood, attitudes and the health of intimate relationships, “comfort with your level of consumption and ecological footprint.”

The ways in which clinicians perform ecotherapy vary widely. Patricia Hasbach often conducts sessions outdoors; she finds that a natural setting helps to broaden a client’s perspective, has restorative benefits and can serve as a source of powerful metaphors. “Ecotherapy stretches the boundaries of the traditional urban, indoor setting,” she told me. “Nature provides a live and dynamic environment not under the control of the therapist or client.” Often this leads to revelatory sensory experiences, as in the case of one client who struggled with a sense of emotional numbness. The feeling dissipated after he put his feet in an icy mountain stream.

Doherty, who teaches a class on ecotherapy with Hasbach at Lewis & Clark, places less emphasis on the outdoors — not only because his office is located in an especially urban section of Portland but also because he worries about perpetuating a false dichotomy between the wilderness and the city. His Sustainable Self practice attracts a clientele that is typically self-selecting and eager to inject an ecological perspective into their sessions. Usually, his clients don’t come to him with symptoms or complaints that are directly attributable to environmental concerns, but every so often he has to engage in what he calls “grief and despair work.” For example, one client, Richard Brenne, a climate-change activist and an avid outdoorsman, came to Doherty because he was so despondent about the state of the planet and so dedicated to doing something to help that it was damaging his relationship with his family. In an e-mail message to me, Brenne praised Doherty for helping him face the magnitude of the problem without becoming despairing or overwrought. Some would argue that treating Brenne’s anxiety about the environment and the negative effect it had on his family life is no different from treating a patient whose anxieties about work cause problems at home. But for Doherty, treating an obsession with ecological decline requires understanding how the bond between the patient and the natural world may have been disrupted or pathologized. Doherty is currently working on a theoretical model in which a person’s stance toward environmental concerns can be categorized as “complicated or acute,” “inhibited or conflicted” or “healthy and normative.”

Read the rest of the article.

Books - A Skeptic’s Skeptic: A New Biography of Jacques Derrida

This book looks like a compelling look at an interesting man. From Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life.

A Skeptic’s Skeptic

A new biography takes a look at Derrida’s philosophy of disillusionment

By David Kaufmann | 7:00 am Jan 20, 2010

Derrida, at home in Ris-Orangis, near Paris, in 2001.

CREDIT: Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images

In Who Was Jacques Derrida?, David Mikics provides a lucid, polemical intellectual biography of the French philosopher. He is also settling accounts. In the 1970s and 1980s, Derrida, who died six years ago at 73, was the most important and most polarizing figure in the humanities in America. His brand of thought, deconstruction, dominated classrooms, conferences, articles, and books. Derridian deconstruction was a heady brew of high philosophical discussion and counterintuitive assertion, all spiced up by Derrida’s trademark labyrinthine style, which was easy to parody but hard to surpass.

Mikics was in the thick of it. Now a professor of English at the University of Houston, he earned his doctorate at Yale when it was the mother ship of literary theory in America. In the mid-’80s he was a follower of Derrida, drawn in by the Frenchman’s bracing skepticism. In many ways, Who Was Jacques Derrida? serves as an explanation of Mikics’s own rejection of skepticism, of his disillusionment with disillusion itself.

Philosophical skepticism aims to demonstrate that our attempts to make unequivocally valid claims about the world are ultimately misguided. To put it simply, Derrida’s writings from the 1960s to the 1980s sought to show that the history of Western thought tried and failed to nail down the essences of things because things do not have essences to speak of. A subtle dialectician, he argued that there was nothing as unstable as the notion of a stable identity and nothing less knowable than what appears directly before us.

For those who hated him, Derrida was a mountebank, a sloppy thinker and even sloppier writer whose antics did nothing but muddle what should be clear. To those who loved him—and his defenders were as ferocious as his detractors—he offered a whole new way of thinking. According to Mikics, both sides were wrong.

But in his own way, Mikics stands with Derrida’s detractors. Through a series of careful analyses, he maintains that Derrida was sometimes a brilliant misreader of the philosophical tradition and often an egregious one. Always attentive to the problems and the questions that Derrida avoided, he finds Derrida most instructive in his failure to move from doubt to any feasible ethics or politics. According to Mikics, Derrida was allergic to psychology, which Mikics calls “the most palpable sign of our existence, our inner life.” As a result, the philosopher was unable to think about motives and responsibilities. This was a major failing because in the end, Derrida was unable to theorize convincingly about ethics.

Mikics does not share Derrida’s unwillingness to talk about inner lives. Although he does not speculate often about Derrida’s motives, the biographical structure of the book shows just how central to his thought Derrida’s childhood as a lower-middle class French-speaking Jew in Algeria during the 1930s and 1940s actually was. During the period of French colonization, Algerian Jews aligned themselves with the colonizers and this meant that the Derridas were triply if not quadruply marginalized. They were Jews in a Muslim country run by foreign Catholics; they were outsiders in a country of Arabs ruled by Europeans and, during World War II they were pariahs to both the surrounding population and to the government.

This alienation was key to Derrida’s development. A few years before his death, Derrida said with his typical paradoxical vigor that “nothing for me matters as much as my Jewishness, which, however, in so many ways, matters so little in my life.” Derrida was never a practicing Jew. Nevertheless, as Mikics shows, he strongly identified with Jewish thinkers like the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and with Jewish writers, like the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès. However, the real force of his Jewishness might be best sought elsewhere, in his inability to take either yes or no for an answer.

Derrida constantly took contrarian, if not outright rebellious, stances. He did not like assuming the protective coloring of his surroundings. When he arrived in the early 1950s at the most elite of French universities, the École Normale Supérieure, he chafed against the Marxist orthodoxy of his professors and refused to join the cult of Jean-Paul Sartre—a philosopher whose influence he called “nefarious” and “catastrophic.” Derrida did not follow the path of political engagement favored by his colleagues. Rather, by close and often inventive readings of major texts from the philosophical and literary traditions, he sought to blow up philosophical certainty.

But there were limits to his subversion. Mikics locates one of the major fault lines in Derrida’s thought in the philosopher’s prophetic tones, his “fondness for apocalyptic drama,” which works against his reluctance to imagine the apocalypse itself. According to Mikics, Derrida might have aspired to the end of Western metaphysics and he might have adopted the language and some of the practices of the avant-garde, but he could not run full-out at the future. He wrote like a radical in favor of the moderate.

Derrida’s split persona—revolutionary and ultimately conservative at the same time—goes a long way toward explaining his influence in the American academy. His insistence on close reading made him congenial for literature departments, and his pronouncements made close readings appear consequential. What is more, Derrida’s timing was perfect. His reputation in the United States grew at that point when being a hippie was not a political statement but a “lifestyle choice” and when many of the energies of the late ’60s had become merchandised or bogged down in economic stagnation. At a time of retrenchment, Derrida promised a kind of liberation that did not depend on ethnic or gender identity, a freeing of thought that was intellectually disruptive and could, if need be, serve politically progressive ends.

Then, there is also the matter of his prose. Derrida at his best was an excellent writer. His sentences are Proustian in their length and in their subtle ironies. Like Joyce, he piled pun on pun and paradox on paradox in a serious defense of the mobility of thought. Derrida was Baroque in a way that makes many English-speaking readers nervous because it is too French, too witty, and not sufficiently down-to-earth. Even so, complication has its pleasures.

As it turned out, American deconstruction had a good run, but by the early ’90s it had begun to falter. The discovery that Derrida’s friend Paul de Man had been an intellectual collaborator with Nazis caught Derrida flat-footed. And then the Berlin Wall fell and the map changed. Derrida tried to catch up and turn his thought toward politics and ethics. His thinking drew closer and closer to Levinas, who had developed a brilliant way of showing how religion (particularly Judaism) and philosophy could justify each other without doing themselves an injustice. At the heart of Levinas’s brilliant, spooky work stands the notion of an ethics beyond calculation, a fundamental responsibility for suffering that annihilates self-interest. Although Levinas was able to give flesh to his abstruser musings in the course of his famous lectures on the Talmud, the English philosopher Gillian Rose had a point when she called his theory a form of Jewish Buddhism.

Mikics will have none of it. An informed and sympathetic reader of Levinas (as he is of all the Jewish texts he discusses), he is particularly critical of this period in Derrida’s life. He dismisses Derrida for not reaching beyond an airy language of sacrifice to discuss concrete ethical choice. He will not forgive Derrida for what he sees as the philosopher’s unwillingness to engage in moral judgment, for “scanting the life we live with others in favor of textual abstraction.”

Harsh stuff. Mikics is fierce in his convictions and to be sure he could be more generous to Derrida. Nevertheless, he might be right. In the end, Who Was Jacques Derrida? will not close the account on Derrida. Through his clarity and commitments, Mikics has opened the books once again.

Father Thomas Keating - Contemplative Dimensions of Human Experience

Nice. Via MIT World videos.

About the Lecture

In a mind-stretching talk covering the history of the planet, development of higher-order consciousness, and East-West religious practices, Trappist monk Thomas Keating claims that humanity is poised to take its next evolutionary step, to the “furthest levels of human understanding.”

While Keating’s focus is on the “human family,” he begins his talk with Earth’s emergence from the cosmos, and the origins of life on this planet. He dwells on human evolution, especially development of the neocortex. This “point at which the human spirit began to function” is captured by scripture, when God breathes life into Adam, suggests Keating. The greatest achievement of this long sweep of history, Keating proposes, is the reflective human brain, plastic and responsive to experience, like a mesa shaped by the forces of nature over time.

We’re born predisposed to seek security and survival, and base our definitions of happiness on gratification of such needs, leading to lives in search of power, control, esteem, sensual pleasure. These primitive “emotional programs for happiness” obstruct what may be the ultimate opportunity: “fulfilling human capacity…through access of spiritual levels of our being.” We find evidence for this potential in “sages and saints who have understood the rational capacities of the brain to open itself to love in the fullest sense and levels of happiness, peace, freedom and joy.” But this higher state isn’t limited to mystics, says Keating: Humankind stands “at a significant crossroads,” ready to pass through the gate of rational consciousness to “further levels of human understanding.”

Finding this gate will prove a challenge to most, because of ingrained habits and cultural reinforcements. Fortunately, we have the words and examples of “spiritual traditions of the world” to help us break from the “straitjacket of emotional programs,” and attempt to achieve “the contemplative dimension of human experience.” Keating describes how Jesus invites “everyone into the ultimate reality” in the Sermon on the Mount, and recounts the story of Elijah, the Jewish prophet, who “heard the sound of sheer silence” in the desert. The great religions show that it is possible to achieve the “discipline of quieting the mind, letting go of desires or attachments we’re overly committed to, so we can be free to relate to our inmost being, where ultimate reality dwells” – even or especially when enmeshed in the difficulties of daily life. Keating invites his audience to join him in “a place of silence,” where they may “let go of interior dialog, thinking about a past and future,” and “let God act in us.”

About the Speaker:

Thomas Keating, Trappist monk (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance)

Thomas Keating was born in New York City, and attended Deerfield Academy, Yale University, and Fordham University, graduating in December 1943. He is a founder of the Centering Prayer movement and of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.

Keating entered the Cistercian Order in Valley Falls, Rhode Island in January, 1944. He was appointed Superior of St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado in 1958, and was elected abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts in 1961. He returned to Snowmass after retiring as abbot of Spencer in 1981, where he established a program of ten-day intensive retreats in the practice of Centering Prayer, a contemporary form of the Christian contemplative tradition.

In 1984, along with Gustave Reininger and Edward Bednar, he co-founded Contemplative Outreach, Ltd., an international, ecumenical spiritual network that teaches the practice of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, a method of prayer drawn from the Christian contemplative tradition. Contemplative Outreach provides a support system for those on the contemplative path through a wide variety of resources, workshops, and retreats. Keating also helped found the Snowmass Interreligious Conference in 1982 and is a past president of the Temple of Understanding and of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue among other interreligious activities.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Manifesto - Compassion Is My Spiritual Path

compassion.jpg compassion image by kenzo3_bucket

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
~ Dalai Lama

I could post dozens more quotes on the value and virtue of compassion. Over the past several years, compassion has become a hot topic. On the one hand, we have Karen Armstrong's Charter For Compassion, which is built on the compassionate core of the all the world's great religions and has become an important and well-organized effort to make compassion a tool in alleviating suffering wherever it is found; on the other hand, we have conservative thoughts such as these:
Compassion is contempt with a human face.
John McCarthy

Compassion is no substitute for justice.
Rush Limbaugh
If we had a third hand, we might also recognize an even more recent effort to teach people to be compassionate with themselves - Pema Chodron is perhaps the leading Buddhist teacher in this regard (see any of her books), but you can also find a lot of contemporary psychologists teaching self-compassion, which is very cool as someone going into that field.

I've been reading quite a bit about compassion lately, most recently The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions by Christopher Germer, and right now, The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness by Marc Ian Barasch. Both of these are essentially personal growth type books, not dharma texts or real psychology. I also have been reading The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh (editors of Greater Good magazine), which presents some of the science of compassion.

Relational Spirituality, Not Integral Spirituality

What got me thinking about compassion as a spiritual path, which fits with the Buddhist path I was already following, was this post at the P2P Foundation Blog, which was actually a re-post of some work by John Heron. In particular, there was this section critical of Ken Wilber that made me start to question my own version of spirituality. This is a little long, but I think it is a cogent criticism.

The Fallacy of Non-dual Individualism

Wilber has given an account of human spirituality in terms of lines and levels of development (Wilber: 2000a, 2000b, 2002). Theses lines and levels become an incoherent tangle because of an untenable status afforded to the non-dual and the path of individual meditation. Let me explain.

The lines are relatively independent kinds of human development, and the levels are stages of development through which the lines proceed. So the different lines all go through the same levels. Wilber defines spirituality in five different ways, but two of them are key ones in his system: spirituality as the highest levels of any line, and spirituality as a separate line itself. He thinks these two definitions are mutually compatible components of his integral psychology.

But in the way that he deploys them, they lead to very serious difficulties. Wilber needs spirituality as a separate line, to explain how it is that people can be spiritually lop-sided. The various human lines he mentions include psychosexuality, socio-emotional capacity, communicative competence, creativity and many more. The independent spiritual line is primarily contemplative/meditative. Wilber acknowledges that someone can be highly developed on this line, that is, competent at subtle, causal and non-dual awareness and still be spiritually undeveloped in other crucial lines of development, including psychosexual, emotional or interpersonal skills?. This imbalance he characterizes as One Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds them? (2000b: 131) One Taste refers to the non-dual state.

Wilber evaluates the non-dual state as the highest estate imaginable (2000b: 130). Yet at the same time he believes it can co-exist with a complete absence of spirituality at the top end of the interpersonal line and of other lines absolutely central to human development. This admission immediately dethrones the non-dual state from the supremacy he claims for it, and makes it appear as dissociated and quasi-pathological.

This dethroning also means that the highest estate imaginable is really the integration of all the different facets of human spirituality to be found at the top end of all the relatively independent lines. Furthermore, it cannot be the business of just one of those independent lines to define in advance by what stages all the other lines will reach their top ends. But Wilber tries to promote just that kind of business.

In his system, the separate contemplative line, which can become so dissociated from the development of other lines, is at the same time the sole source for deriving the higher transpersonal levels (psychic, subtle, causal, non-dual) through which all the other lines must proceed. But how can a contemplative line, which by definition is independent of the other lines, be a valid source for categories that prescribe the higher levels of these lines in which it has no competence? Indeed the relative independence, or dissociation, of the contemplative line calls in question the validity of the levels it claims to establish and whether indeed the levels are spiritual when they are the product of such a non-integral, separate line. The claims this line makes improperly and prematurely assume that the nature of the spiritual can finally be determined by the exercise of the skills of separatist contemplation, when the potential for developing spiritual skills on other relatively independent lines has not so far been fully explored by the human race.

Thus Wilber tries to argue that the basic categories for integrating all the lines in higher unfoldment have been uncovered on a single line that has no experience whatsoever of such multi-line integration. The way out of this tangle is gently and radically to propose that the contemplative line is not a spirituality line, that spirituality is not about states, however remarkable and extraordinary, that people get into by a lifetime of individual meditation.

Heron's critique of Wilber is only partially correct in my opinion - he is wrong about the rejection of Wilber's lines and states approach. There is ample evidence in the cases of Adi Da (and here), Carlos Castaneda, and Andrew Cohen, as well as others, as to what can happen when people have a state (temporary) experience - not a stage (permanent) acquisition - of non-duality and begin to think they are enlightened and then teach from that assumption. They sound convincing and gain followers quickly.

However, as often as not (and generally, it does happen eventually), these gurus end up acting from their under developed stages in the psychosexual or psychosocial lines (among other lines), and become abusive gurus. On this regard, Wilber is correct, although as Heron points out, calling a state experience enlightenment is certainly to diminish the extraordinary experience and achievement of nonduality.

On the other hand, Wilber has a very disturbing tendency to associate with abusive gurus, including Adi Da (whom he later, sort of, renounced), Andrew Cohen, and most recently, Marc Gafni - both of whom are part of Wilber's Integral Institute.

The fact that Wilber associates with these men suggests that he really has no real understanding of the relational element of spirituality and teaching. No matter what these people know or have achieved in their spiritual line of development, the complete and total lack of interpersonal morality and ethics disqualifies them as teachers. And by extension, Wilber also becomes suspect as a teacher.

Relational Spirituality - John Heron

Heron's approach to spirituality is more integral, to me, than is Wilber's. He bases it in the relationships between people, rather than in an isolated meditation practice.

Relational spirituality

A more convincing account of spirituality is that it is about multi-line integral development explored by persons in relation. This is because many basic developmental lines, e.g. those to do with gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, morality, to name but a few, unfold through engagement with other people. A person cannot develop these lines on their own, but through mutual co-inquiry. The spirituality that is the highest development of these lines can only be achieved through relational forms of practice that unveil the spirituality implicit in them (Heron 1998, 2005).

In short, the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a spiritual person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of spiritual traditions that are oppression-prone (Heron, 1998; Kramer and Alstad, 1993; Trimondi and Trimondi, 2003). If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating relations between people, then a new era of participative religion opens up and calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of traditional spiritual maps and routes.

Certainly there are important individualistic developmental lines that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative development, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-line integration and consummation. I propose one possible model of such collegially applied spirituality with at least eight distinguishing characteristics.
I am in full agreement with this concept, although it is only recently that I have come to this awareness. He goes on to outline exactly what this interpersonal spiritual model might look like:

(1) It is developmentally holistic, involving diverse major lines of human development; the holism is both within each line and as between the lines. Prime value is put on relational lines, such as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, peer communion, morality, human ecology, supported by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.

(2) It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a fully embodied and vitalized expression of spirit. Spirituality is found not just at the top end of a developmental line, but also in the ground, the living root of its embodied form, in the relational heart of its current level of unfolding, and in the transcendent awareness embracing it.

(3) It is epistemologically holistic, embracing many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant form and process, by conceptualizing, by practising. Such holistic knowing is intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic and political.

(4) It is ontologically holistic, open to the manifest as nature, culture and the subtle, and to spirit as immanent life, the situational present, and transcendent mind. It sees our relational, social process in this present situation as the immediate locus of the unfolding integration of immanent and transcendent spirit (Heron, 1998, 2004, 2005).

(5) It is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.

(6) It embraces peer-to-peer relations and participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a radical discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego.

(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice.

(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence. More on this later on.
I like this. And as near as I can tell, compassion is an ideal practice for this model of spirituality. At least in the Buddhist approach, compassion is the nearest thing to a relational spiritual path, and it is my path.

Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
Frederick Buechner

Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy.
Chogyam Trungpa

This last quote from Trungpa Rinpoche suggests the view I used to hold - that people are just a necessary annoyance. Somehow, over years of therapy, personal growth, and Buddhist practice, I no longer hold that misanthropic view. Certainly, I am often disappointed in my fellow human beings, frustrated by their non-caring for others, and hurt by their cruelty. But I know that this is not who we were meant to be in our lives - these are the acts of wounded, hurt, suffering people.

My response is no longer disgust (most days), but compassion (on my best days). I still have a long way to go on this path, as I'm sure most of us do, but I have taken the Bodhisattva Vows and I do my imperfect best to honor those vows.
May I be a guard for all those who are protector-less,
A guide for those who journey on the road,
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

~ Shantideva
The more simple statement of the vows is this:
May I assist all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, and may I be the last one to attain Buddhahood when all sentient beings have attained Buddhahood, as did Avalokiteshvara.

Some Science

This all sounds good, but is there any science behind this stuff? Well, yes, actually there is. No less an institution than Stanford is on the case, having launched a research center in the School of Medicine:


... also known as the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, is an innovative initiative of the Stanford School of Medicine within the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences that will employ the highest standards of scientific inquiry to investigate compassion and altruism.

OUR MISSION: To undertake a rigorous scientific study of the neural, mental and social bases of compassion and altruistic behavior that draws from a wide spectrum of disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, economics and contemplative traditions.

To explore ways in which compassion and altruism can be cultivated within an individual as well as within the society on the basis of testable cognitive and affective training exercises.
There is some good research on compassion and altruism going on at Stanford (see this page), but there are other people looking at these topics as well.

For example, "cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states" (Lutz et all, 2008). They used brain scans that revealed that the brain circuits activated in detecting emotions and feelings in others changed substantially in subjects who had the most extensive practice in compassion meditation.

Another study (
Raison, et all, 2008) suggests that doing a specific form of compassion meditation, lojong, can reduce physical and emotional reactions to stress. So, not only are we helping others in leading a compassionate life, but we are also benefiting our own health.

Other research (de Waal, 2010) suggests an evolutionary source of empathy, as does a study (Rodrigues et al, 2009) looking at the evolutionary origins of oxytocin.

Idiot Compassion

Some people misunderstand compassion as simply being nice to everyone. But that is not true compassion - it is what Chogyam Trungpa called idiot compassion. Here is Pema Chodron talking about what this means:
Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.
Too many of us are not willing to see others suffer or to be confrontational when necessary. Idiot compassion - as noted by Pema Chodron, enabling - is most obvious in situations where one is in relationship with an addict. To be sure, idiot compassion is born out of love, but it is immature love. It is a form of love that is afraid of loss. A more mature love can accept loss as a consequence of acting from true compassion.

Conclusion - More from the Dalai Lama

Anyway, I want to conclude with a little more from the Dalai Lama, whose compassion is palpable in his conduct and words. This comes from Compassion and the Individual.
Some of my friends have told me that, while love and compassion are marvelous and good, they are not really very relevant. Our world, they say, is not a place where such beliefs have much influence or power. They claim that anger and hatred are so much a part of human nature that humanity will always be dominated by them. I do not agree.

We humans have existed in our present form for about a hundred-thousand years. I believe that if during this time the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our overall population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that love and compassion predominate in the world. And this is why unpleasant events are news, compassionate activities are so much part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored.

So far I have been discussing mainly the mental benefits of compassion, but it contributes to good physical health as well, According to my personal experience, mental stability and physical well-being are directly related. Without question, anger and agitation make us more susceptible to illness. On the other hand, if the mind is tranquil and occupied with positive thoughts, the body will not easily fall prey to disease.

But of course it is also true that we all have an innate self-centeredness that inhibits our love for others. So, since we desire the true happiness that is brought about by only a calm mind, and since such peace of mind is brought about by only a compassionate attitude, how can we develop this? Obviously, it is not enough for us simply to think about how nice compassion is! We need to make a concerted effort to develop it; we must use all the events of our daily life to transform our thoughts and behavior.

First of all, we must be clear about what we mean by compassion. Many forms of compassionate feeling are mixed with desire and attachment. For instance, the love parents feel of their child is often strongly associated with their own emotional needs, so it is not fully compassionate. Again, in marriage, the love between husband and wife - particularly at the beginning, when each partner still may not know the other's deeper character very well - depends more on attachment than genuine love. Our desire can be so strong that the person to whom we are attached appears to be good, when in fact he or she is very negative. In addition, we have a tendency to exaggerate small positive qualities. Thus when one partner's attitude changes, the other partner is often disappointed and his or her attitude changes too. This is an indication that love has been motivated more by personal need than by genuine care for the other individual.

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.

Of course, developing this kind of compassion is not at all easy! As a start, let us consider the following facts:

Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems. Nor is this wish selective; it applies equally to all. As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively.

Let me emphasize that it is within your power, given patience and time, to develop this kind of compassion. Of course, our self-centeredness, our distinctive attachment to the feeling of an independent, self-existent ego works fundamentally to inhibit our compassion. Indeed, true compassion can be experienced only when this type of self-grasping is eliminated. But this does not mean that we cannot start and make progress now.

How can we start
We should begin by removing the greatest hindrances to compassion: anger and hatred. As we all know, these are extremely powerful emotions and they can overwhelm our entire mind. Nevertheless, they can be controlled. If, however, they are not, these negative emotions will plague us - with no extra effort on their part! - and impede our quest for the happiness of a loving mind.

So as a start, it is useful to investigate whether or not anger is of value. Sometimes, when we are discouraged by a difficult situation, anger does seem helpful, appearing to bring with it more energy, confidence and determination.

Here, though, we must examine our mental state carefully. While itis true that anger brings extra energy, if we explore the nature of this energy, we discover that it is blind: we cannot be sure whether its result will be positive or negative. This is because anger eclipses the best part of our brain: its rationality. So the energy of anger is almost always unreliable. It can cause an immense amount of destructive, unfortunate behavior. Moreover, if anger increases to the extreme, one becomes like a mad person, acting in ways that are as damaging to oneself as they are to others.

It is possible, however, to develop an equally forceful but far more controlled energy with which to handle difficult situations.

This controlled energy comes not only from a compassionate attitude, but also from reason and patience. These are the most powerful antidotes to anger. Unfortunately, many people misjudge these qualities as signs of weakness. I believe the opposite to be true: that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature gentle, peaceful and soft, but it is very powerful. It is those who easily lose their patience who are insecure and unstable. Thus, to me, the arousal of anger is a direct sign of weakness.

So, when a problem first arises, try to remain humble and maintain a sincere attitude and be concerned that the outcome is fair. Of course, others may try to take advantage of you, and if your remaining detached only encourages unjust aggression, adopt a strong stand, This, however, should be done with compassion, and if it is necessary to express your views and take strong countermeasures, do so without anger or ill-intent.

You should realize that even though your opponents appear to be harming you, in the end, their destructive activity will damage only themselves. In order to check your own selfish impulse to retaliate, you should recall your desire to practice compassion and assume responsibility for helping prevent the other person from suffering the consequences of his or her acts.

Thus, because the measures you employ have been calmly chosen, they will be more effective, more accurate and more forceful. Retaliation based on the blind energy of anger seldom hits the target.
One great place to start is with tonglen meditation, for which one need not be a Buddhist. For more on this practice, see these additional posts from Pema Chodron:

Tonglen Instructions
The Three Stages of Tonglen
On-the-Spot Tonglen Practice

References (not otherwise linked):

de Waal, F. (2010, Jan.) The Evolution of Empathy. Greater Good;

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J, (2004) A Revisionary Perspective on Human Spirituality,

Heron, J, (2005) Papers on the Inquiry Group,

Kramer, J. and Alstad, D. (1993) The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley: Frog Ltd.

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T. & Davidson, R.J. (2008) Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE; 3 (3): e1897 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

Raison, C.L. et al. Emory University (2008). Compassion Meditation May Improve Physical And Emotional Responses To Psychological Stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from­ /releases/2008/10/081007172902.htm

Rodrigues, S., Saslowc, L, Garciac, N., Johna, O. & Keltnerc, D. (2009) Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. PNAS December 15, 2009 vol. 106 no. 50 21437-21441

Trimondi, V. and Trimondi, V. (2003) The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism,

Wilber, K. (2000a) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000b) One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2002) An outline of integral psychology. Shambhala website.

Reactions to J. D. Salinger's Death from Around the Web

A collection of reactions to the death of J. D. Salinger from around the internet - and one wonders what hidden treasures from his pen may be released in the coming years. I want to point out that even The Onion, which is mentioned below, had something to say about Salinger's death: Bunch of Phonies Mourn JD Salinger.

We begin with the article by Charles McGrath from the New York Times, perhaps the longest tribute I have so far seen.

J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91

Published: January 28, 2010

J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.

Mr. Salinger’s literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, announced the death, saying it was of natural causes. “Despite having broken his hip in May,” the agency said, “his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death.”

Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.

With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “goddam”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading “Catcher” used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.

The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell tens of thousands of copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon in 1980, even said that the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.” In 1974 Philip Roth wrote, “The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture.”

Many critics were even more admiring of “Nine Stories,” which came out in 1953 and helped shape later writers like Mr. Roth, John Updike and Harold Brodkey. The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it), and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — in favor of an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony. Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”

Mr. Salinger also perfected the great trick of literary irony — of validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend. Orville Prescott wrote in The Times in 1963, “Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation.”

As a young man, Mr. Salinger yearned ardently for just this kind of attention. He bragged in college about his literary talent and ambitions, and wrote swaggering letters to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail.

In 1953, Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish, N.H. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

Read the whole article.

And now from the rest of the world . . . . Collected at Arts & Letters Daily.
J. D. Salinger, reclusive author whose Catcher in the Rye caught the mood of a generation, is dead ...
Charles McGrath ... The New York Times
AP ...
Stephen Miller ...
Elaine Woo ...
London Times ...
Bart Barnes ...
FT ...
Telegraph ...
Mark Krupnick ...
Richard Lacayo ...
Tom Leonard ...
Martin Levin ...
Rick Moody ...
Richard Lea ...
Malcolm Jones ...
Morgan Meis ...
Chris Wilson ...
Robert Fulford ...
Ian Shapira ...
Michael Ruse ...
Christopher Reynolds ...
David Usborne ...
Joe Gross ...
Stephen King ...
John Walsh ...
Henry Allen ...
Mark Feeney ...
Ron Rosenbaum (1997) ...
John Timpane ...
Alex Beam ...
Verlyn Klinkenborg
A collection of articles and Salinger stories from Slate.

J.D. Salinger, RIPStories on the late, great writer from the Slate archives.

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger died Thursday of natural causes at the age of 91. His novel The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, was a blockbuster success—it has sold more than 65 million copies. Over the years, Slate has published numerous articles on J.D. Salinger and his work. You can find links to these below.

"What a Phony: I read the banned Catcher in the Rye 'sequel' so you don't have to," by Juliet Lapidos. Posted July 15, 2009.

"Save the Salinger Archives! Even if we have to save them from Salinger himself," by Ron Rosenbaum. Posted Friday, June 5, 2009.

"Salinger on Trial," by Judith Shulevitz. Posted Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000.

"Hapworth 16, 1924: A Chatterbox Investigation," by Timothy Noah. Posted Monday, Sept. 11, 2000.

"J.D. Salinger, Failed Recluse," by Alex Beam. Posted Tuesday, June 29, 1999.

"I Was a Teen-Ager for the New York Times: Onetime Salinger paramour Joyce Maynard sells herself, piece by piece," by Alex Beam. Posted Friday, Jan. 9, 1998.
Check out all of Saliger's stories at The New Yorker: find links to all of them here.

Another tribute round-up from The Guardian UK:

JD Salinger: A tribute roundup

From favourite quotes to speculation over the secret stash of unpublished works, the blogosphere is awash with JD Salinger tributes and anecdotes

JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Phonies and fans ... JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Photograph: Amy Sancetta/AP

Outpourings of prose from what the New York Times is calling Salingerologists greeted the death of the world's most famous literary recluse, JD Salinger, yesterday.

Tributes are everywhere, from Stephen King (not "a huge Salinger fan, but I'm sorry to hear of his passing – the way you'd feel if you heard an eccentric, short-tempered, but often fascinating uncle had passed away"), to Neil Gaiman ("I loved the short stories, liked Catcher, admired his isolation and the way he stopped") and my personal favourite, John Hodgman: "I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive". Not really sure what to make of Bret Easton Ellis though: "Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!"

A fan remembers meeting Salinger in his 20s: "'You'd better come inside,' Salinger said. Krawczyk came in, and they went to the kitchen. As he remembers it, Krawczyk was not offered a seat or a cup of coffee … Then Krawczyk asked about The Catcher in the Rye. 'Did you think it would be such a popular book?' he asked. 'It's been a nightmare,' Krawczyk recalls Salinger answering. The writer did not elaborate."

Publisher Roger Lathbury, who corresponded with Salinger over the possible publication of Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1988 – it went sour after the press got wind of the plans – reveals, for the first time, details of his meeting with the author. "He was waiting patiently. I shook hands with him and apologized for being late and explained about the briefcase. He said, 'I was afraid of that.' He was trying to make me feel at ease but he was probably nervous, too.' They ordered. Salinger 'recommended the Parmesan soup, or a soup with Parmesan flavouring. I said, 'I am a vegetarian' and he said, 'I am largely a vegetarian.' I didn't know what that meant – sort of like saying, 'I am a little bit pregnant.'"

Collections of favourite Salinger quotes are springing up all over the place – "It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road", someone suggests here – and here GalleyCat has collected some old Salinger reviews (including Updike on Franny and Zooey: "His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humor, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present American life").

The question everyone's really asking, though, is what will happen to the writing. Salinger is said to have a "secret cache" of about 15 unpublished novels, but yesterday his literary agent declined to comment on whether they exist or are likely to be published, and his publisher said there were "no plans" for any new books.

My own favourite tribute comes from the always-excellent Onion. "Bunch of Phonies Mourn JD Salinger," it reports. "In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author JD Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud … 'There will never be another voice like his.' Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything."

Salinger himself, I think, might have approved of that one. It's pretty certain he'd have been unimpressed by all the chatter, – Holden Caulfield perhaps said it best: "Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."

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