What Mindfulness Does…and Doesn’t Do

The current myth among some meditation circles is that the more mindful we are, the more beauty we’ll perceive in mundane objects. To the mind with bare attention, even the suds in the dishpan—as their bubbles glint and wink in the light—are windows on a divine radiance. That’s the myth. But the truth is almost the opposite: in fact, the more mindfulness we have, the less compelling sense-objects seem, until at last we lose all desire for them. It’s true that strong concentration can seem to intensify colors, sounds, and so forth. But concentration alone doesn’t lead to insight or awakening. To say that mindfulness makes the winter sky more sublime, or the act of doing the dishes an exercise in wonder, chafes against the First Noble Truth.  – Cynthia Thatcher, “What’s So Great About Now?”  via  Tricycle 



Review: Mountain Seat Zafu by The Monastery Store

I’m not ashamed to admit it:  My seat is fickle.

At the beginning of the year I sang the virtues of Samadhi Cushions’ Buckwheat Pillbox Zafu. It had everything I thought I could possibly want in a cushion.  It keeps its shape and gives me the consistent height I need to stay comfortable while sitting for extended periods of time.  Truly it’s an admirable product, and I continue to recommend it highly. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a little room for improvement, or, more likely, I just have a sensitive tuchus.  After a while of sitting, the bruckwheat hulls can begin to feel hard like a stadium bleacher during your favorite team’s losing streak.

A simple pillbox design. The zippered accessis behind the handle.

“So, dear blogger, what is it that your tush needs?” you must be wanting to ask me while sitting at the edge of your own seat. Simple, friends, more cushioning.   The Monastery Store (associated with Zen Mountain Monastery) provides just that with the Mountain Seat Zafu.  The overall design is similar to the Samadhi Cushion previously reviewed in that it utilizes a non-pleated, pillbox design which give you height by keeping all the buckwheat hulls in one place.  More traditional pleated models allow for expansion when you sit, and as a result height is lost.  What the Mountain Seat adds is visco-elastic foam that distributes your weight more evenly and helps to eliminate pressure points. A disk of foam is placed on one side of the zafu, so you have to be sure to have that side up each time you use the cushion. I was originally worried that the foam might break down, but it’s lasted well through over six moths of rigorous sitting (an oxymoron?), and travels to and from various mediation centers.  Yes, I’m one of those people who brings their own cushion to meditation centers, but if you had this cushion, you might too. My one remaining concern is it feels like the foam disk could slip from its assigned spot and end up on the side of the zafu with repeated uses.  I’m not sure if there is anything used to keep the cushion where it should be.

Ultimately what you get is the softness of kapok and the firmness and support of buckwheat hulls, and for me, that’s close to perfect.  But perfection can cost a pretty penny. The medium sized cushion (7.5 inches high) costs $95 while the Samadhi Cushion without the foam disk will set you back only $49.  Is the foam worth an additional $46?  For me it is.  The comfort and stability of this zafu means that I shift around during meditation much less, and if I tried to jerry-rig something myself using a cushion and a pillow, I’d be fussing with it the whole session.  Anything that can give me less of an excuse to be fussy will help me sit more consistently, and that’s worth a lot to me.

I also purchased the Mountain Seat zabuton which has a layer of foam between two sheets of cotton batting. This zabuton is down right luxurious, but ultimately unnecessary for most people.  I know there are many of you with sensitive ankles, and for you this item may be a lifesaver.  I’ve noticed that cotton batter can become hard over years of pressure from sitting, and the foam core will certainly keep ankles and feet off the floor and cushioned over many years.

Both the zafu and zabuton are very well crafted and well proportioned.  The zafu has a strong, built in carrying handle and zippered access to allow you to add or remove hulls.  The Monastery Store also has other innovative cushion designs online,

The outline of the foam cushion is visible on the front side. This zafu is probably not a good candidate for straddling or knee sitting.

among many other products to support your practice.

Fussy tushes, unite!!!

Pros:

  • Foam cushion that can take some of the sting from long sitting session on buckwheat hulls alone
  • Strong and sturdy construction
  • Pillbox shape for stable sitting height over time
Cons:
  • Foam seems like it can slip from its location at the top of the cushion with repeated uses
  • Zipper is neatly tucked behind the handle, but this could cause difficulty when trying to replace the buckwheat hulls
  • Price – The additional cost of the foam may be not be worth it for some, especially when compared to similar offering from other manufacturers

Note:  I did not receive any promotional consideration for this review. If you are a vendor who would like a review, please feel free to contact me through the comments section.


Dubious Connections: Oxytocin and Equinimity

Welcome to the first installment of Dubious Connections where I attempt to take a story from the mainstream media and spin some dharma magic from it.

In the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind, Janelle Weaver describe a study in which scientists at the University of Amsterdam had Dutch men inhale oxytocin.  More on that in a minute. It’s already well established that oxytocin, a hormone/neurotransmitter, is implicated in the development of the bonding in humans.  Activities like breast feeding, love making, and greco-roman wrestling can cause the surges of hormone that help bond mother to child, and lovers to one another.  The aforementioned psychologists found a flip side  to this mechanism previously never suspected to be coin-like.

After the study subjects inhaled the oxytocin they “were more likely to associate positive words, such as joy and laughter, and complex positive emotions, such as hope and admiration, with Dutch people than with Germans and Arabs.”  But are you satisfied with just knowing word associations?  Neither were the Dutch scientists, so they set-up an experiment that apparently didn’t remind the ethics committee enough of Dr. Stanley Milgram.  They created a scenario in which the participant could prevent a runaway trolley from hitting and killing five people by diverting it down a different track which would lead it to hitting and killing only one person.  Not a bad deal in the touch-and-go world of ethical dilemmas.  According to Ms. Weaver, the study found that Dutch men high on oxytocin “were less likely to sacrifice a Dutch male than a German or Arab.”

Notice to Germans and Arabs: Stay away from the trolleys in Amsterdam!

If I’ve read the reporting correctly, and given my reading comprehension I should be second-guessed, it seems as though oxytocin simultaneously strengthens intra-group bonds and makes it easier for us to throw everybody else under the bus, er, trolley.  If there was ever an anti-equanimity drug, oxytocin is it.

No wonder the four limitless qualities can seem impossible to achieve.  Not only ought we develop love, compassion and empathetic joy, but we should be shining these heart lights on every sentient being equally.  At times I want to hit every being with a trolley equally, but I’m guessing that doesn’t count as having achieved the four limitless qualities. But doesn’t oxytocin make equanimity impossible?  Sure it makes me love more  those I already love, but it also makes the other even more other-y. Whether it’s the guy who beat me up in high school or a fan of the opposing baseball team, oxytocin makes me dislike him, or at least care less about him more than ever.  Let’s keep in mind though that oxytocin seems to intensify feelings, thoughts and biases that we’ve already established.  What if we can change those feelings, thoughts and biases?  Would oxytocin still be an anti-equanimity menace?

As Geshe Wangyal stated in the Door of Liberation, we should make the resolution:

All beings are the same. Each wants happiness and doesn’t want misery. All beings are relatives. Therefore I will learn equanimity and be free from attachment and aversion to near and far, helping some and harming others…

To consider all beings family, or to believe that all other beings have at one point been our mothers, are strong, emotional images; believe me, you haven’t met my family. Regardless of your particular take on reincarnation, one could propose working through the exercise of imagining we have tight bonds with all beings.  This exercise, if done diligently and in earnest, could utilize oxytocin’s effects to generalize those positive bonds to everybody else.  Even the guy who beat you up in high school?  Well that’s the trick, but why not?


Buddhist Geeks – The Conference

What will Buddhism look like in the 21st century? Glad you asked.  The Buddhist Geeks are putting together an event to help answer this question, and I’m guessing, to pose many more.

I’m so looking forward to geeking out with my fellow Buddhists at the conference, aptly named The Conference, that it’s spurred me to blog again.  I have no idea how long this urge will last.

The Conference is taking place at the University of the West, a Buddhist University in Rosemead, CA from July 29th to the 31st.  Trudy Goodman and Ken McLeod, two of my favorite Los Angeles-based teachers will be there along with an impressive line up that includes Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Shinzen Young, and Jane Mcgonical.

See you there!


News: Kaiser Hospital Adds a Meditation Room

In a very forward thinking move, a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Northern California had set aside room for a meditation space when the hospital was originally built in 1998, but they finally got it up and running recently.  The meditation room is intended for people of all faiths, or just to find some peace while experiencing the stress of one’s own or another’s illness.

Read the whole story, via Wildmind Blog.

Let me know if you know of any other hospitals with similar spaces.


Science News: Mindfulness Meditation Changes Brain’s Gray Matter, part 2

Even the New York Times has gotten in on the act.  Today they published an article titled How Meditation May Change the Brain on their Well Blog.  Hasn’t quite hit the main paper yet, but it’s still the Times.

And The Atlantic Monthly quotes the NYT’s report in their Cliché Watch Blog.  Erik Hayden, author of Meditation is Good for You — Not Sure Why, presents what appears to be an unnecessarily snarky spin on the story.  He characterizes meditation as “thinking about nothing” so that tells you where he’s coming from.  I have to admit I’m curious about what Mr. Hayden finds so cliché, but apparently it’s not sarcasm or cynicism.


Science News: 8 Weeks of Mindfulness Meditation Changes Brain’s Gray Matter

Every once in a while, research on mindfulness gets mainstream press coverage.  Not only is mindfulness therapy not a fad, according to the LA Times, but in even wider national coverage, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, as reported by Business Week, have shown that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation can increase

gray matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) and in structures associated with compassion and self-awareness.The investigators also found that participant-reported reductions in stress were associated with decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, which plays a role in anxiety and stress. None of these brain structure changes were seen in the control group.

Business Weak also reported the primary investigator, Britta Holzel, as saying

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.

So now we know that there’s a strong correlation between the practice of meditation and changes in the brain that correlate with increased well-being and a higher quality of life.  Amazing!  Next question:  How does it work?  What is the mechanism behind the brain changes.  Is it the focusing?  Stress inoculation?  Gentleness with self and others?  Living in the present moment?  Maybe it’s all of the above and more, and I’m looking forward reading the science on these questions as it’s published.

Here are some additional links to articles on this release:


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