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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

04 MAY, 2015

The Great Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on How to Do “Hugging Meditation”

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“When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.”

“I embrace you with all my heart,” Albert Camus wrote in his beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. To embrace one another with our whole hearts is perhaps the greatest act of recognition and appreciation there is. To do so in more than words is the ultimate gift of our shared humanity. And yet despite this awareness — or perhaps precisely because of it; because of its enormity — we rarely give each other this gift.

How to perform this highest act of generosity is what legendary Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library), his luminous meditation on the art of “interbeing.”

“Spirituality doesn’t mean a blind belief in a spiritual teaching,” Nhat Hanh writes. “Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation.” One of the most transformative forms of secular spirituality is communication itself, in its most sincerest semblance — the intimate bravery of letting ourselves be seen, of connecting with our fellow human beings with the vulnerability necessary for openhearted living.

In the late 1960s, Nhat Hanh invented — in the most organic and inadvertent way — a simple practice that brings embodied form to the communion and mutual understanding at the heart of this spiritual intimacy. With his signature good-humored warmth, he recounts:

In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta Airport. When we were saying good-bye she asked, “Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher. It should be no problem for me to do that.” So I said, “Why not?” and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West.

To surmount this cultural barrier of communication, Nhat Hanh devised a fusion of East and West furnishing a universal human language for what everybody needs — a practice he called “hugging meditation,” which, in requiring that we disarm all of our chronic cynicisms, appears at first intolerably awkward but blossoms into deeply rewarding:

According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging meditation is a practice of mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me.” If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

At the heart of hugging meditation, Nhat Hanh points out, are the core Zen principles of interconnectedness and “interbeing,” with each other as well as with the universe. With the great simplicity and sincerity of Zen writings, he considers both the interpersonal and the intrapersonal rewards of the practice:

When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.

Illustration by Ben Shecter for 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow. Click image for more.

But beyond the action itself the most important commitment — an intention of absolute presence with the other and with the moment’s ephemeral aliveness, which is perhaps the task most challenging yet most sorely needed for our spiritual survival in the modern world. Nhat Hanh outlines both the philosophical foundations and practical steps to mastering this delicate art of holding one another’s wholeness while fully inhabiting that blink of existence:

Hugging is a deep practice; you need to be totally present to do it correctly. When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You can train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.

Before hugging, stand facing each other as you follow your breathing and establish your true presence. Then open your arms and hug your loved one. During the first in-breath and out-breath, become aware that you and your beloved are both alive; with the second in-breath and out-breath, think of where you will both be three hundred years from now; and with the third in-breath and out-breath, be aware of how precious it is that you are both still alive.

When you hug this way, the other person becomes real and alive. You don’t need to wait until one of you is ready to depart for a trip; you may hug right now and receive the warmth and stability of your friend in the present moment.

Complement How to Love, more of which you can read here, with Jack Kerouac on how to meditate and Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.

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04 MAY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time

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“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length.”

Long before psychologists had any insight into our warped perception of time — for instance, why it slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets twisted when we vacation — or understood how our mental time travel made us human, another great investigator of the human psyche captured the extraordinary elasticity of time not in science but in art.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 masterwork, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which also gave us her insight into the dance of self-doubt in creative workVirginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) writes:

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.

Woolf was acutely and intimately conscious of this strange elasticity of time — something she contemplated not only in her novels, for the public eyes, but also in the privacy of her diary, which she considered creatively essential. Nearly a decade before the publication of Orlando, in March of 1919, 37-year-old Woolf issues a meta-lament:

Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

In a rather despondent entry from the following October, Woolf considers how time both gives shape to existence and warps it — it is against the firmness of time, after all, that we measure our feats and infirmities. She writes:

I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it. It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old. I think too much of whys and wherefores; too much of myself. I don’t like time to flap round me. Well then, work.

In yet another entry from the day of her younger brother Adrian’s fifty-second birthday — don’t birthdays stir our indignation at time more potently than anything? — fifty-three-year-old Woolf’s unease with time intensifies even further:

I wonder why time is always allowed to harry one.

Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (public library) is a timelessly rewarding read in its totality. Sample it further with her reflections on the consolations of aging and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then complement this particular tussle with the story of how Galileo forever changed our relationship with time, the visual history of humanity’s quest to map time, and Thomas Mann on time and the soul of existence.

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01 MAY, 2015

E.B. White on Idea-Incubation and the Two Faces of Discipline

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How to ride the “wave of emotion” in creative work on a raft of conscientious revision.

“One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it … [but] another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the key to discipline in 1933. Indeed, fruitful creative work — especially writing — is predicated on this porous relationship between structure and spontaneity, discipline and imaginative freedom. That’s what E.B. White addresses in his contribution to the fantastic volume The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — a compendium of wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with literary legends like Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, and William Styron.

In the same superb 1969 conversation that gave us White’s wisdom on how to write for children and the writer’s responsibility to society, he considers the question of discipline in writing:

There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

But this discipline of discarding mediocrity in the editing process must be preceded by the appropriate gestational period for ideas, or what T.S. Eliot called “a long incubation.” White reflects on his own experience of “sneezing” Charlotte’s Web:

When I finished Charlotte’s Web, I put it away, feeling that something was wrong. The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off, but I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent. If I write something and feel doubtful about it, I soak it away. The passage of time can be a help in evaluating it. But in general, I tend to rush into print, riding a wave of emotion.

And yet even this “wave of emotion” — which the perhaps more coolly rational Virginia Woolf famously called “a wave in the mind” — must be ridden on the raft of revision:

I revise a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash. I’m not at all sure what the “necessary equipment” is for a writer [but] I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment.

Complement with the cognitive science of the perfect writing routine and Anna Deavere Smith on what discipline means for an artist, then revisit this evolving library of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers and White’s warm letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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30 APRIL, 2015

The Miraculous in the Mundane: Annie Dillard on Reclaiming Our Capacity for Joy and Wonder

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“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”

Annie Dillard (b. April 30, 1945) has a way of coaxing the miraculous out of the mundane with such commanding gentleness that ordinary life has no choice but to unmask its extraordinary dimensions. She does this over and over in her 1974 masterwork Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) — one of the most beautiful books to bless a lifetime with, which also gave us her magnificent meditation on the art of seeing and the two ways of looking.

I find myself returning to one particular passage that strikes with the grandeur Dillard is able to extract from the humblest of acts and the most middling of moments. She writes:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers' by JonArno Lawson, a wordless ode to living with presence. Click image for more.

The joy of this, of course, comes not from reveling in the self-appointed godliness of orchestrating a mundane micro-miracle — it comes, rather, from the unexpected grace of allowing such an unremarkable event to fill the soul with such remarkable delight. But the very act of allowing is something we unlearn as we go through life and forget what it means to be truly awake. To relearn it, Dillard suggests, is to reclaim our capacity for joy and wonder:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

After all, as Dillard herself has written elsewhere, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Complement Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is as much a life-changing read as it is a life-changing reread every time, with Dillard on writing.

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