Steel Thyself, Part II: Mindful Meditation

In addition to solitude summits (Part I of this series) that are designed to affect a deep and honest questioning of one’s knowledge, beliefs, and circumstances, another beneficial practice to steel thyself is mindful meditation and embracing the present moment.  The simple fact that you are reading this post qualifies you as someone who cares; who possesses a moral compass seated in your cognetic system.  The current Age of Deceit in America is likely disconcerting to you and may have even tipped you from moral outrage into a period of moral suffering.  As the Zen priest, Roshi Joan Halifax argues in her book, Standing at the Edge, “when we are angry and emotionally aroused, we begin to lose our balance and our ability to see things clearly, and we are prone to falling over the edge into moral suffering.” Moreover, such disorientations that arise from suffering make us vulnerable to the deceits and nefarious techniques like gaslighting regularly deployed by perpetrators like Donald Trump who seek to exploit us and oppress us.  Practicing mindfulness contributes to clarity in the here and now, fosters openness to affect creative liberation, and strengthens our focus to discern truth from deceit. A clear vision and a strong mind/heart/body connection is fundamental to steeling thyself.  Practicing mindful meditation affords a time out from the deluge of distractions that degrade our capacity to recognize truth and find purpose in the present moment, which is the only moment that matters.

I have been accused of having the mind of a Border Collie: in a state of constant stimulation.  If your disposition is similar, quieting the mind to develop awareness of consciousness while suspending judgment can pose a significant challenge. Nevertheless, having the tenacity of a Border Collie also portends the capacity and discipline to succeed in chosen tasks which, at the very least, is a useful delusion when it comes to practicing mindfulness.  (I am, therefore, I can!)  As with solitude summits, practicing mindfulness is harder than it sounds, but also holds extraordinary benefits from simple relaxation to mind-expanding clarity.  Think of it as you might working out to strengthen your body; mindfulness meditation aims to enhance your quality of mind—to strengthen the head and heart connection that comprise the cognetic system—the nexus of wisdom and morality that frames our soul.  The neuroscientist, atheist, and author, Sam Harris also suggests that “cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”  There exists power in simplicity, and mindfulness is, simply, “clear awareness.”

Fortunately, mindfulness training is now much more accessible than travelling to the Far East to sequester oneself for days at a time in a state of mute deprivation under the watchful eye of a Buddhist monk, or subjecting oneself to either synthetic or organic narcotics—however effective—before the myriad of research issues associated with their use are available to determine appropriate formulation and dosing.  LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and MDMA (Ecstasy) hold the potential for a number of breakthroughs in alleviating suffering and expanding mental acuity but, as journalist Michael Pollan argues in his groundbreaking personal and journalistic research in How to Change Your Mind, mind manifestation through the use of psychedelics remain in the pioneering stages today due, in no small part, to their politicization in the 1960s  that shut down further research as President Nixon tied them to the political threat of counterculture hippies, which resulted in psychedelics’ unlawful status and a research gap that is only lifting, slowly, today.  In the meantime, there are apps like “Calm” and Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” that provide streaming meditative tutorials and sessions to affect conditioning of the consciousness.  As with physical conditioning, benefits of meditative mindfulness are only available to those with the discipline to do it!

Stated simply, meditative mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s consciousness on the realities of the present moment, while suspending judgment of those thoughts that appear and recede.  As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, meditation begins with relaxation and its end-game is the realization of a “tranquil heart and clear mind.”  As a novice myself, I can attest to the fact that achieving a relaxed but concentrated state of pure awareness is, in itself, an accomplishment of significant benefit.  Relaxing the body and clearing the mind—preferably daily—produces a welcome sense of calm.  The “Calm” and Waking Up” apps offer daily meditations that generally last around ten minutes.  Once you become proficient in these short meditative sessions (which will seem long in the beginning but will eventually seem more like two minutes than ten), you can advance to significantly longer and more involved sessions.  As Thich Nhat Hahn suggested, “In the first six months, try only to build up your power of concentration, to create an inner calmness and serene joy.  You will shake off anxiety, enjoy total rest and quiet your mind.  You will be refreshed and gain a broader, clearer view of things, and deepen and strengthen the love in yourself.  And you will be able to respond more helpfully to all around you.”

Sam Harris underscored the importance of living in the present moment with the observation that “The reality of your life is always now.  And to realize this … is liberating.  In fact, … there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.”  For my own mental health, I like to think of the present moment as my refuge from all those things that bring me worry—that are of deep concern, but are either in the past or future.  Just take a moment and enjoy the now.

By |2019-11-17T14:47:04+00:00November 10th, 2019|General|0 Comments

Shall We Read?

When my now nearly thirty year-old son was a toddler, his incessant demand was “Shall we read?” Or, phonetically, “Shall weeeee reeeeeed?!!”  His favorite, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is probably why I still cringe at cottontail roadkill.  My daughter also acknowledged the family affection for books when, at “Bring Dad to School Day” in third grade, she was asked to introduce me and, in typical Dallas fashion, was also asked to describe what her father “did” since there were so many impressive dads who were doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and investment bankers.  The look on her face—an ashen moment of utter terror—revealed the fact that she really had no idea what her father did.  She rallied, however, and with rosy cheeks stood upright and proudly proclaimed, “He reads!”

Fortunately, reading literature has survived the onslaught of digital disruption as both electronic and printed books remain in high demand throughout the world.  Although social media has sucked too many hours out of our day with substance no more rewarding than the junk mail the Post Office insists on shoving in our box, I suspect those lost hours will gradually be reclaimed once we realize the intellectual calories offered by social media approximates those in junk mail’s close cousin, junk food.  Spend as little time with social media as you do your USPS junk mail and you will be better informed and maybe even happier.  Junk is, after all, junk.

Read now more than ever! is my prescription for transcending the flood of “truthiness” emanating from the lying peeves who have hijacked our Federal Government.  Facts and critical thinking, when properly applied to put forward an argument, or simply weave the threads of an intriguing narrative are, thankfully, flourishing.  Publishers still have acquisition editors to weed out much of the crap.  As a writer, I know that writing well requires reading well, at a ratio of about fifty pages read for every one written.  Currently, I am in reading/research mode for a new book project tentatively titled “American Deliverance” that will attempt to provide a pathway to right the ship of American values, including tools drawn from Stoicism and Buddhism,  such that we can move forward—individually and collectively—beyond the banality of stupidity and avarice that has become a Twitter-shower of toxic distraction.

Recently, I have read four books (all 2018 releases) that I recommend here below to, perhaps, add to your own reading list.

  1. The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham, describes the discriminating courage of predecessor presidents and civic leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, to remind us that throughout American history we have tolerated and survived treachery similar to what is occurring today to, once again, rise to a higher and clearer embrace of American values. (Full disclosure: I know Jon; Jon is a hero of mine as a presidential historian.  There exists no person more thoughtful, studied, and fair-minded than Jon Meacham.)  Like the standards set forth in the “Sermon on the Mount,” it remains unlikely we will ever achieve perfection in our pursuit of American ideals, but we can (and likely will) recover from our current predicament to form a more healthy and, yes, hopeful future for our children and grandchildren.  Meacham’s Soul of America reminds us that decency is more durable than any tweetstorm.
  2. Our Towns: a 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James and Deborah Fallows, provides proof that, notwithstanding the trolls in Washington D.C., America is doing much better than we might think. This should be required reading for anyone engaged in civic service, especially municipal leaders at all levels.  For the rest of us, it’s like a pain-free road trip through both familiar and unfamiliar towns that, coincidentally, share several factors of success even where doom was the odds-on favorite.  Jim brings his decades of journalistic prowess to bear on the essential question: What makes American towns American?, while Deb’s scholarship in theoretical linguistics provides insights about our chosen words and phrases that reveal our cultural dispositions.  From 2013 through 2016, the Fallows crisscrossed the country in their Cirrus SR22 airplane to study forty-two towns, doing deep-dives with locals to identify what makes America tick.  Spoiler alert: Tocqueville was on the right track.
  3. Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, by Joan Halifax. This is a book for people who care, and who, inevitably, risk tumbling off the edge of their empathetic perch into darkness as they face the challenges of being a good human being in the age of too many bad ones.  Halifax is a Buddhist priest and head teacher at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We share an appreciation for the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn who, together with the Dalai Lama, are the only two Buddhist teachers I have ever been able to comprehend.  I can now add Halifax to that list.  In a spiritual practice loaded with abstractions, Halifax is able to distill those abstractions into accessible utilities designed to coach well-intentioned public servants and caregivers to survive the traps and pitfalls that altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement and compassion hold for those of us who actually give a damn about this world and those with whom we share it.  Unfortunately, good people often suffer depression and anxiety at levels that meet or exceed those for whom they serve.  Halifax shows us how to walk up to that edge, stare fear in the face, and prevail.
  4. God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright. Wright and Meacham are fellow Pulitzer Prize winners.  Wright won his for The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Meacham for his portrayal of Andrew Jackson.  With the exception of a couple of years in the late 1980s, when I resided in Washington D.C., I lived in Texas from 1982 through 2016.  I remember when church was something people did before brunch where the Bloody Marys flowed until the Dallas Cowboys kickoff when Shiner Bock beer took over.  Big hair, big boobs, big balls and big bucks were fun until they weren’t.  In the early 2000s, the weird marriage of Tea Party libertarianism, white Christian rectitude, and pistol-packin’ chauvinism drove Texas into a soup of stupidity and cruelty where it remains submerged today.  My affection for Texas—which was considerable—dropped as fast as the rise in its perplexing pride of ignorance.  The state’s leadership today are a group of gun-toting, Bible-pounding, pasty-white, bigoted men who believe Alex Jones of Infowars (in Austin) just might be the next messiah.  Wright, a liberal lifer where armadillos roam, illustrates Texas’ history of mystifying mesquite-flavored madness that whirls from El Paso to Texarkana to Houston back up to Amarillo and everywhere in-between. And, he shows how the state will likely flip back to its bodacious fun-loving self once this period of righteous conceit (Ted Cruz!) is flushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Enjoy your summer!

By |2018-07-12T19:37:55+00:00May 30th, 2018|General|0 Comments