Monday, June 30, 2008

The Hatchet Buddha by Rebecca Gayle Howell

BOOK REVIEW; Howell's poems freeing body, spirit
Frederick Smock Special to The Courier-Journal
344 words
21 June 2008
The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY
(c) Copyright 2008, The Courier-Journal. All Rights Reserved.

'Hatchet Buddha' is enlightening

By Frederick Smock

Special to The Courier-Journal

The Buddha, you will recall, sought a release from human suffering. The Hatchet Buddha — represented as a female, holding a cleaver in one hand, her sex in the other — sought a release from the suffering occasioned by love. Her quest was not exclusively an ancient one.

Poet Rebecca Howell passes this figure of the Hatchet Buddha through several historical incarnations: the sometime-wife of the Hindu god Ganesha; the wife of Jonah; Joan of Arc; and, among others, the poet herself?

The women in these poems are visited by "wrathful deities" who appear as lovers (dangerous men always appear as lovers, don't they?) and who promise to combine metaphysical teachings with their ardor. But beware:

Angels are made to deliver

So when they go, a girl is left

baited and waiting

These lovers all seek one or another means of subjugating the women they visit. An over-arching theme here, within these poems, is that of the female intellect working to assert some independence of body and spirit.

In the dark, we grope

When we grope, we grab

If this love must be a wrestling

one of us will be pinned to the ground

While informed by Buddhism, mythology and history, these poems nonetheless float above the philosophical scrum, upon a felicity of phrasing, and an irresistible lightness of being. It is a high "ground" that the poet chooses for her characters.

Rebecca Howell is an intelligent and insightful poet, whose work entertains even as it enlightens. Her poems are graced by exquisitely inventive drawings by Arwen Donahue.

All the principals here — poet, artist, publisher — are Kentuckians, adding to the state's already considerable literary mystique.

Frederick Smock is chairman of the English department at Bellarmine University. His forthcoming book is "Craft-talk: On Writing Poetry."

Book Review
The Hatchet Buddha
By Rebecca Gayle Howell
Illustrations by Arwen Donahue
Larkspur Press; 47 pp. ; $24

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Joseph Needham - the man who loved China

Behind the Wall
965 words
8 June 2008
The New York Times
Late Edition - Final
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.


The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom.

By Simon Winchester.

Illustrated. 316 pp. Harper/HarperCollins. $27.95.

On a winter evening in 1938, Joseph Needham, one of Cambridge University's most brilliant scientists -- and one of its most avid skirt-chasers -- lay in bed with a Chinese microbiologist who was also a colleague of Needham's extremely tolerant wife. Enjoying a post-coital cigarette, he asked her how its name might be rendered in Chinese. His diary records that she obliged by guiding him through the ideogram for ''fragrant smoke.'' Charmed, he instantly resolved to learn this fascinating language. It was the first step in a project that would absorb Needham until his death in 1995, turning him into one of the foremost Western authorities on China, dedicated to reminding the world that the Middle Kingdom's decline into backwardness and turmoil had been preceded by centuries of extraordinary creativity -- including crucial inventions like gunpowder, printing and the compass, all mistakenly thought to have originated elsewhere. The vehicle for these and countless other revelations was to be a work ''addressed,'' as Needham put it, ''to all educated people.'' The first volume of ''Science and Civilisation in China,'' published in 1954, has never gone out of print. Eighteen volumes were released during Needham's lifetime; there are now 24, with more still to come.

Despite its hyperbolic new subtitle (apparently the original, ''Joseph Needham and the Making of a Masterpiece,'' was considered too tame), Simon Winchester's biography, ''The Man Who Loved China,'' presents a low-key, often beguiling view of a man who hardly beguiled the postwar American authorities -- or, for a time, his own countrymen. A committed socialist and Communist sympathizer, Needham lent his authority to a dubiously documented investigation whose report, issued in 1952, concluded that the United States had used biological weapons in Manchuria and North Korea. Blacklisted by the Americans well into the 1970s and denounced for his political naivete by the British establishment, Needham retreated into the scholarly realm, where his accomplishments did much to restore his good name.

Cambridge had saved him once before, offering escape from the ''spectacularly disastrous Edwardian marriage'' of Needham's parents: a red-headed Irish spendthrift, fond of spiritualism and plate-throwing tantrums, and a solemn London doctor, who used the boy as an operating-room assistant. Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, called Noel by his father and Terence by his mother, took care to sign letters to each of his warring parents by the name they preferred. But at Cambridge this shy, introspective only child became someone else entirely -- the outgoing and seductive polymath Joseph. As Winchester demonstrated in his best-selling earlier book, ''The Professor and the Madman,'' he is fascinated by the quirks of genius. And Needham had plenty of quirks, both minor (breakfast toast must be burned black) and major (an ardent advocacy of nudism). ''Handsome, in a studious way,'' Needham spoke with ''a silkiness, almost a lisp'' and left few women free from his attentions. For almost 50 years, he kept both his wife and his Chinese mistress content, not only with him but with each other, even as he continued to play the field.

Winchester has spent a good deal of his career as a journalist in East Asia, so it's not surprising that the liveliest stretch of his narrative presents Needham's first encounter with the country whose language he had mastered from afar. Early in 1943, Needham was sent to China by the British Foreign Office, charged with organizing aid for Chinese scholars and scientists in flight from the Japanese invasion, who were attempting to re-establish their universities in the inner provinces. His travels over the next few years took him from the jungles of the Burmese border to the Gobi Desert and the seacoast of Fujian, on 11 expeditions that covered roughly 30,000 miles. He lived a life of grand adventure in wartime China, and Winchester presents its dangers and pleasures with panache. Whether Needham is donkey racing near ancient Buddhist caves or packed into a train full of refugees speeding across a soon-to-be-bombed railway bridge, the exhilaration of this part of his life is immediately engaging. And so are the colorful characters who come his way.

But if Winchester's account of these excursions seems faithful to Needham's character, some careless aspects of the narrative are less so. Do we need to be told twice within the space of three pages that Needham demanded a British boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics? Or reminded three times of his father's dictum ''No knowledge is ever wasted or to be despised?'' Isn't it odd that a map of China accompanying the World War II section should include as-yet-unborn nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh and North and South Korea? It's hard to imagine Needham, renowned for his photographic memory, countenancing such slips. Especially if you credit the story his wife used to tell about the period just before the publication of his three-volume treatise on chemical embryology: ''She recalled watching him lying awake in bed, mentally visualizing the book's page proofs, and then correcting in a notebook any errors or infelicities. Once this activity became too humdrum for him, she said, he further occupied himself by translating the selfsame pages from English into French, also in his head, and then correcting any errors that he fancied he could also see in this new translated text.''

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. By Pico Iyer

A timely look at the life of the Dalai Lama
Askold Melnyczuk; Askold Melnyczuk recently published his third novel; "The House of Widows."
Askold Melnyczuk - Askold Melnyczuk recently published his third novel, "The House of Widows.". Boston Globe
743 words
16 April 2008
The Boston Globe
© 2008 New York Times Company. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.


The Open Road: The Global Journey

of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

By Pico Iyer Knopf, 275 pp, $24

These days, everyone has advice for the Dalai Lama: monks, former monks, ex-employees of various Free Tibet organizations, government officials from China, the European Union, and the United States. Moreover, he listens: Pico Iyer presents him as open, deeply curious, committed to truth even at the expense of doctrine. At the same time, he is a philosopher, with values rooted in age-old principles. Unless their counsel accords with the wisdom of Nagarjuna (a second-century Indian philosopher, and perhaps the most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself), advice isn't likely to throw him off course. A genuine anomaly, a philosopher- king-democrat, the Dalai Lama takes the long view.

"Of all the many books and films that have brought the Dalai Lama and his people to the world," writes Iyer, "I'm not sure any of them has addressed that most central of questions": Has the Dalai Lama improved the lives of Tibetans?

In reflecting on this, Iyer has written one of the most thoughtful and eloquent books yet about the Dalai Lama. Considering his subject is one of the world's most analyzed and photographed men (and recently in the public eye after last month's riots in Tibet), that's no small feat. Iyer reminds us how little of the Dalai Lama we actually see. His public persona is grounded in four hours of daily meditation, as well as numerous esoteric rituals and practices: "Like any being, Tibetan Buddhism has a daylight side and a nighttime side, a part that belongs in the public, visible world and a part that belongs in the realm of dreams and premonitions and everything that exists outside the conscious mind." The Dalai Lama (real name: Tenzin Gyatso), notes Iyer, "[tends] to shield the wider world from the esoteric side of Tibetan Buddhism." Iyer reminds us that Tibetan culture is nearer to Shakespeare's, where "every comet or cloud formation is a direct message from the gods," than to our own.

As the secular head of state, Tenzin Gyatso reflects his studies in the school of Gandhi. What other political leaders approached their "enemies" by refusing to identify them as enemies? The Dalai Lama has turned his cheek so often he resembles one of those many- headed, thousand-armed deities in Tibetan iconography.

Part of the fascination of Iyer's account springs from the fact that he's had privileged access to the Dalai Lama. Iyer's father, a philosopher who studied at Oxford, befriended "the simple monk" shortly after his arrival in India in 1959. The monk's first gift to the 3-year-old Iyer was a photograph of himself seated on a throne at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He was 5 years old at the time. Iyer's portrait presents the human being in all his poignant agony and grace.

So how successful has the Dalai Lama's approach been? On today's map, Tibet appears to be in China. At a recent gathering of the Tibetan diaspora in Boston, someone passed around a piece of Tibetan currency from before 1959. The aim was to let the young people assembled hold tangible proof giving the lie to China's claims. The bill represented another world, with its own discrete culture, laws, and values. It was not Chinese.

The assertion is both clear yet complex, partly because of the paradoxical nature of self and identity as they're presented by Buddhism. "I" and "self" are relative terms. Buddhism doesn't adapt easily to our lust for instant gratification. There are no mass conversions in Buddhism, no discount tickets to nirvana. It is also radically egalitarian: Every sentient being possesses the same spiritual potential. Asked what all his meetings with the world's leaders had achieved, the Dalai Lama replied: "One simple innocent sincere spiritual seeker - that's more important than a politician or a prime minister. When I see some result then I feel today I did some small contribution."

Reading that makes one hope the Dalai Lama's advisers are wise enough to ask for some in return.

Bringing buddhist principles to divorce counselling Pt.1

Divorcing Well; Bringing Buddhist Pract ice to Divorce Counseling
Prend, Ashley Davis
4012 words
1 May 2008
Psychotherapy Networker
Volume 32; Issue 3; ISSN: 1535573X
Copyright (c) 2008 Psychotherapy Networker. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

Divorcing Well Bringing Buddhist Pract ice to Divorce Counseling

By Ashley Davis Prend

Divorcing well? Divorcing peacefully? Is such a thing even possible? Let's face it, divorce often generates mutual recrimination and fury, which can lead to ugly, expensive court battles, particularly when children are involved. During a divorce, both partners can become their own evil twins, more intent on inflicting punishment on each other than on ending their tattered marriage.

As counselors and family therapists, we want to spare our clients all this pain by preserving and improving their marriages. But when the marriage obviously can't be saved, many therapists focus on helping the partners achieve what's widely called a "good divorce": a split as humane, rational, and nondamaging as possible.

Increasingly, therapists recognize that even after a marriage ends, most couples continue to be linked together. While the death of a marriage is undoubtedly painful, it doesn't have to be pathological. If handled well, it can even become a rich opportunity for emotional and spiritual growth.

Yet, to a couple neck deep in the kind of reciprocal fury that only two people who once loved each other deeply can feel, the idea that their divorce could be an opportunity for transformation is as crazy as it is undesirable.

Is there any way to stop the antagonism? Beyond helping these self-declared enemies shed their feelings of anger and vengeance, is it possible to encourage them to be more openhearted and kindly toward each other? I've drawn six ­simple, uncomplicated steps from Buddhist ­philosophy to help hostile spouses cultivate a spirit of nonviolence, generosity, and compassion toward their ex-partners. Counterintuitive as it seems, practicing these steps can help people find the kind of inner wisdom and peace that acts as an antidote to their self-destructive and aggressive impulses.

Inherent in this approach is an expectation for people to connect with their higher nature--what Buddhists call their "Buddha-nature"--even when they're in pain. Using Buddhism as the backdrop for understanding the loss and transformation embedded in divorce, the process helps clients move past their knee-jerk emotions to a more enlightened place.

The six steps are:

1. Accept the Way Things Are

2. Choose the Road Less Traveled

3. See the Big Picture

4. Listen to Silence

5. Give Generously

6. Strive for Enlightenment

Taken together, they constitute a method that can create subtle internal shifts and powerful behavioral changes. While it's preferable for both partners to embark on them simultaneously, it isn't a prerequisite for doing divorce well. The client need not embrace Buddhism to benefit from this approach either.

Divorcing well doesn't mean that there'll be no conflict, pain, or challenging situations. It simply means that the divorcing couple, or one member of the couple, chooses to use the process for personal and spiritual growth, thereby launching them both on a healthier trajectory.


I first met Ryan and Beth when they came in for marital therapy, shortly after their 10-year-old son had died of bone cancer. Understandably, they were devastated by their loss which, as is often the case, had exacerbated preexisting tensions in their marriage.

Ryan, a prominent doctor, spent many hours at work, and Beth had always complained that he was away from home too much, didn't help enough around the house or with the kids, was too tired to have sex, and didn't pay enough attention to her. Feeling overworked and underappreciated, Ryan retreated from what he perceived as Beth's harassment, responding with evasions, sullen silence, and even more distance.

Not surprisingly, they got little support from each other while mourning the loss of their son. Over several months, I helped them process their grief, but I couldn't do much to help them turn toward each other in their pain. When we ended our work together, I sensed a veil of bitterness still hanging between them. So, several years later, when Ryan returned alone for treatment and told me that Beth had asked for a divorce and full custody of their daughter, Hilary, I wasn't surprised.

Step 1: Accept the Way Things Are. What did surprise me was Ryan's adamant resistance to the divorce. He was fighting the legal process and feeling betrayed and belligerent. I think part of this was because, on some level, he had been satisfied with an emotionally distant, but stable and dependable, marriage. More than this, he feared change. Like many of us, he found it difficult to let go of old patterns, even if they'd brought him little happiness.

Ryan was active in a liberal Protestant church and found that the language and rituals of his faith were sustaining to him and yet . . . he was clearly open to learning from other spiritual paths. A central tenet of Buddhist teaching that immediately spoke to him was the Eastern perspective on change: the truth that nothing is permanent is not only understood and accepted by Buddhists, but actively embraced. Whether accepting or resisting it, change will continue to occur, and, therefore, they feel that rejecting this fundamental truth brings nothing but suffering. Conversely, accepting the inevitability of change brings peace and wisdom.

This is easier said than done, however, mainly because every change, especially a divorce, is, in essence, a little death, and human beings predictably react to death--and to endings--with anger and depression. The five stages of grief in response to death and dying first articulated by Elizabeth Ku¬bler-Ross--shock, anger, bargaining, de- pression, and acceptance--I believe apply to the divorce process. Anger is typically the most noticeable response to the grief generated by divorce.

Ryan felt betrayed by Beth's decision to leave the marriage, and angered by her aggressive steps against him. One day, he came into my office in a rage, and yelled, "She had the locks changed so I can't get into the house. Can you believe it?! I feel like breaking the door down. She had no right to change the locks without my consent."

I noticed that Ryan's breathing was shallow and his face was reddening. "Let's stop right now," I said. "I want you to tell me how your body is feeling. Just tune in for a minute, scan your body, and tell me what you notice."

He looked a bit confused but obliged and responded, "My chest feels tight."

"What about your breathing?" I prompted.

"Uhhhh, short . . . tense."

"Anything else?"

"My throat feels tight, too . . . and I'm hot. Is it hot in here?"

I then asked him to focus on his breath, following and counting each breath until his breathing was slower and steadier. Although it may seem odd to start a breathing exercise with a client who's obviously upset, I knew it would help calm him down.

I believe that deep, focused, slow breathing is one of therapy's greatest underused tools. Specialists working with panic-disordered or phobic individuals know how powerful deep breath work can be for calming the central nervous system.

Ryan isn't an angry person in general, and after he vented and used the breath to calm down, I explained to him that usually anger is an easier emotion to tolerate than pain, but that in reality, anger is a mask to cover the deeper emotions of grief and despair.

I pointed out that one thing that was so frustrating for Ryan regarding the changed locks was that he wasn't in control of the situation. When I asked him when he'd felt that way before, I knew the question would lead him back to his son's death, and that mourning the death of his marriage was retriggering his grief for his child.

Life as Ryan had known it was over. Accepting this ending, this profound and irrevocable change in his life, was the key psychological task facing him. I suggested that he start to integrate into his days a physical practice of letting go and accepting reality, no matter how painful. One way of doing this is a simple breathing technique of internally chanting a word on the in-breath and another on the out-breath. I asked Ryan to inhale the word let and exhale the word go.

He found that doing the chant when he felt mounting tension helped calm him down. Such a simple technique hardly seems powerful or grandiose enough to help people do something as monumental as accept change. Yet it releases the tight physical grasp we keep on ourselves--on our desires and expectations for the way we think things should be--and helps our minds and bodies flow with life's natural rhythms.

After a few weeks of conscious breathing whenever something seemed out of control and upsetting, Ryan found that his feelings of rage at Beth and sense of betrayal began to abate.

Step 2: Choose the Road Less Traveled. Once clients begin to feel themselves accepting reality as it unfolds, they need to choose how to accept it. One option is to accept what's happened with bitterness, animosity, and a determination to punish the ex-spouse. The road less traveled, however, is a commitment to cooperation, a decision by spouses to put the children's needs above their own, and a desire to maintain a healthy relationship with each other.

While Ryan had decided to take the road less traveled, he found that staying on it was the challenge. At first, things progressed smoothly. After attending a court-mandated "Kids First" seminar required in most states for divorcing couples, he seemed enthusiastic about trying out what he'd learned: that couples shouldn't insult their ex, fight in front of the children, or use the children as pawns

Pt 2.

However, Beth's ongoing antagonism began to erode his commitment to that path. For instance, she undermined their visiting agreements regarding Hilary, and then sent sarcastic e-mails accusing him of not caring about his daughter. Ryan fell into every trap, easily taking her bait and repeatedly arguing with her and being nasty.

I asked, "Do you like who you become when you relate to Beth?"

"No, she brings out the worst in me," he said.

"Or rather, you let her. You know," I added, "If one person changes the dance steps in a relationship, the entire dance pattern begins to change, maybe not at first, but certainly over time."

So he and I began to experiment with ways that he could change the dance. I asked him to preface his remarks to Beth differently: to start every sentence with a kind phrase and then bridge it with a however. For example, his wife had agreed in mediation to refrain from scheduling appointments for their daughter during "his" time, but she invariably forgot. Rather than just blow up at her, he said, "I know it must be frustrating to try to schedule this dentist appointment when your work schedule is so packed. However, we agreed that you'd schedule this type of appointment on "your" time. I've already made other plans for that day, and so I won't be able to take her to the appointment."

What begins to happen when people really work with this step is that they find that taking the peaceful path becomes gradually less difficult and more natural; it becomes not so much a question of trying hard as of just being.

Step 3: See the Big Picture. Seeing the big picture means gaining perspective and realizing that any event or period of time, including divorce, is only one piece of the overall puzzle of their lives. While clients may believe that their situation is dire or intolerable, we can help them expand their frame of reference by having them imagine what things might look like in 5 or 10 years.

In trying to help Ryan gain perspective on his situation, I asked him to write a list of 10 things that were better about his divorced life than his married life. He was able to think of 20 things, including not getting yelled at every night when he came home, not being criticized for being unaffectionate, enjoying his one-on-one time with his daughter, and being able to watch football on the weekend without being hassled. His new life was perhaps more complicated as a divorced man, but it clearly had its upside.

Becoming aware of improvements in his life was part of Ryan's healing, but "seeing the big picture" can also include a farther reaching vision. According to the Buddhist concept of rebirth, Ryan and Beth were joined in working out the vast moral law of causation, or karma. The main point of karma is that every human life is part of a vast, inconceivably complex pattern.

Ryan was able to see that, even though his union with Beth had been unhappy, it had produced two wonderful children who were absolutely meant to be born. Furthermore, his son's life and death had influenced many people and continued to do so through a scholarship legacy in his name. By engaging in this exercise, he could glimpse the idea that he didn't make a mistake in marrying Beth, but that both the marriage and divorce were part of an endless process of learning and growing.

Because it's often so hard to gain this long view when caught up in the emotional turmoil of the immediate, I frequently ask clients to write a letter to their future self--say, their self in five years--describing their current troubles and asking for guidance from this future, presumably wiser, self.

His future self assured him that Beth would calm down, find a new man, and stop pestering him so much. Not only that, but he'd meet a nice woman. Ryan found this letter-writing quite amusing and fun to do. It helped him see that life is full of chapters and that reality has many unseen and unimagined dimensions.

Step 4: Listen to Silence. Trying to stay true to a higher intention of integrity, strength, and cooperation in the face of daily emotional upheavals is no easy task. If people don't take the time to tune in to a quieter, inner voice of wisdom, they're sure to be thrown off track by the tide of external pressures. A daily, or at least regular, practice of sitting mindfully in silence allows us to be in the moment without judging it or ourselves, without trying to control or change anything--which has a deeply calming and centering effect on the mind and body.

When I suggest sitting in silence, many people are nonplussed. Are they just supposed to sit and think about their to-do list or what they're going to make for dinner? While there are many different styles of meditation that may focus on an image, a mantra, or a breathing technique, I recommend a simple meditation practice that I call "ABC," which incorporates several key elements. One should spend up to 10 minutes on each letter, moving sequentially from A to B to C.

A. Be Aware of the mindful moment: listen to the sounds around you, feel your body on the chair, scan your body for tension, notice the air temperature on your skin, watch your mind naturally jump from thought to thought, labeling the process "thinking."

B. Breathe: notice the breath moving in and out of the body, and how the body pauses between each in- and out-breath, observing the process, or literally counting the breaths.

C. Center: let your attention drop into the center of your body and imagine a vertical core of light within yourself, connecting to this centered, anchored place. I suggest that clients repeat a word, a mantra --perhaps peace or love--as a way of focusing the mind and staying in the core space.

Ryan was extremely resistant to the idea of formal meditation. Although we tried the ABC technique in my office, he found it difficult to still his body and focus his mind, and felt anxious in a process that made him feel as though he was "doing nothing." So I suggested that he try a walking meditation.

He committed to taking a 20-minute walk several times a week in his local woods. We discussed how to make it not just an ordinary stroll, but a focused walk, a mindful activity, a contemplative act.

I suggested that he notice every sound, step, and smell in acute heightened detail. And when his attention turned to his thoughts and feelings, I said he should try to let them pass like clouds across a clear sky. So, when he had a negative thought about Beth, such as "She's so annoying. I wish she'd quit harassing me for more money," he might take a deep breath and let the thought pass. This habit of detached observation made him feel more centered and less hooked by his thoughts.

His walking meditations gave him "big picture" help, too, since he realized that his squabbles were pretty irrelevant to the woods around him.

Step 5: Give Generously. This step can be the hardest for people who are feeling hurt or angry. Why should they be generous to this jerk, this creep, this lying, no-good spouse? Well, because being generous is what will free them from their own bitterness.

According to the Buddhist Law of Karma, whatever you put out in the world will return to you tenfold. This same wise message is found repeatedly throughout time, in our own culture: "What goes around, comes around," "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," and even the Golden Rule as taught by Jesus: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

But how do we help our divorcing couples rise above their feelings of righteous anger, even hatred? In Buddhism, one of the principle meditative techniques for achieving a state of generosity is called the metta bhavana or just metta, the practice of loving-kindness. This practice is fivefold:

1. Direct loving-kindness toward yourself

2. Direct loving-kindness toward a loved one

3. Direct loving-kindness toward a stranger

4. Direct loving-kindness toward an enemy or someone with whom you're having difficulty

5. Direct loving-kindness outward toward your larger community, your world

And as you go through each of the 5 stages, you say or think phrases such as:

"May you be happy."

"May you be safe."

"May you be healthy."

"May you be peaceful."

Metta is the great equalizer because it binds us all to the most common denominator of human yearning: the desire to be happy, loved, and protected.

When I first described metta to Ryan, he laughed and said, "You've got to be kidding! She'd sooner see me dead on the street than wish me well!"

"It doesn't matter what she wishes for you," I replied. "Metta is about opening your own heart. The benefit is for you."

I asked him to commit to trying the practice every day for 21 days--the time necessary, I've heard, for a new habit to take hold. When I asked, "What have you got to lose?" he agreed.

He decided to practice metta in the car, using red lights as his reminder to offer a loving-kindness phrase. While he found it easy to offer metta feelings toward himself, a friend, a stranger, and the world, he always got stuck when he came to Beth. So in the beginning, he simply thought toward her, "I wish you to be less hostile." I asked him to repeat that during his stoplight mettas. The next week, I asked him "What metta phrase for Beth would you like to work with this week?" And he came up with "I don't wish you sickness."

The next week, I asked him to imagine some of the challenges that Beth was encountering in her life--to try to see life from her perspective. He found he could feel her concern about having to have a root canal and understand that she was stressed about a mutual friend's serious illness. His view began to soften as he saw through her eyes, and he agreed to offer an empathic metta phrase in positive language, "I wish you health."

Although it may seem silly to those who bank on logical and reasoned interventions, in a sense, metta is an exercise that bypasses the brain altogether, going straight to the heart. Ryan found as he worked with metta that his entire inner experience began to shift, and with it, his actions. One afternoon, for example, when he brought Hilary back to Beth's house, he found the front walkway covered with the snow. Almost without thinking, he grabbed a shovel from the garage and started shoveling the walkway and steps to the door.

Step 6: Strive for Enlightenment. When the Buddha sat meditating under the Bodhi tree circa 500 B.C., it's said that he finally reached enlightenment--"awakened" to the Truth--realizing that he was connected to all things and that any sense of separation between himself and others was an illusion. Based on this discovery, he concluded that there's no such thing as an enemy, since everyone is truly connected.

In other words, enlightenment is the deep realization that we're all involved in a rich and complex network of relationships that extends to every living being on the planet. Thinking about an ex-spouse (and even a new partner) this way provides a context for unity rather than division, and opens the way to developing a cooperative relationship.

For Ryan, trying to hold onto the fact that Beth was the mother of his children helped him remember that she'd always have a special role in his life. He further realized that if he talked poorly about Beth to his daughter, he was essentially insulting half of her gene pool, half of her heritage. This point was driven home to Ryan when he saw an art project of Hilary's entitled "My Family": a colorful drawing of Ryan, Beth, herself, and her brother in a cloud in heaven, along with the family dog.

It's hard to be hateful to someone when you know that you're connected in profound ways. And it's also hard to fight with someone when he or she won't fight back. Do Ryan and Beth have an easy, relaxed friendship now? Well no, not always. Ryan continues to see me every other month, just to check in and review interactions with his ex. Staying on the peaceful path is a journey that requires regular vigilance and support.

The last time he was at Beth's house to pick up Hilary for the weekend, they began to discuss the next summer's vacation and camp plans. Ryan knew this had been a sticking point in the past, and he didn't feel they could or should discuss this casually. He suggested that they find a time in the near future to work out the details so that they'd both be comfortable with the arrangements. Beth agreed.

And then Beth said, "You know, Ryan, I pray for you at night."

"How did you respond?" I asked.

"I told her thanks, and I pray for you, too."

Ashley Davis Prend, L.C.S.W., A.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist and grief counselor in private practice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She's the author of Transcending Loss and Claim Your Inner Grown-Up. She's also the cohost of the mental health radio program Heart to Heart on Portsmouth Community Radio. Contact:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Searching for the Dalai Lama by Holly Morris

Book Review Desk; SECTBR
Searching for the Dalai Lama
1263 words
6 April 2008
The New York Times
Late Edition - Final
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.


The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

By Pico Iyer.

275 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.

Do you get the impression that the Dalai Lama is not exactly the brightest bulb in the room?'' a journalist asked Pico Iyer after both men left a speaking event by His Holiness. We know what he's getting at. At a certain angle, the chirpy aphorisms, the generous stream of book forewords, the Hollywood entourage, all conspire to cast a hue of superficiality that few global pop icons escape.

In that light, it is possible to forget that the Dalai Lama is, in fact, a titan: a head of state, a doctor of metaphysics, a prolific author, a hyperrealist, a newshound, a godhead to the Tibetan people and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize -- a man who embodies a ''simplicity that lies not before complexity but on the far side of it.''

In ''The Open Road,'' Iyer takes a long, hard look at the many meanings of this deceptively simple man. At first blush, one might wonder why Iyer, best known as the author of many travel memoirs including ''Video Night in Kathmandu'' and ''Sun After Dark,'' would take on such a subject. The answer lies in the understanding that Iyer is not just a travel writer, and the Dalai Lama is not just a monk.

Iyer has set out to examine Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, as a part of a larger set of ideas and thinkers -- a towering example of the cross-cultural interconnectedness that has been the author's particular subject. Iyer has long wondered ''how globalism could acquire depths, an inwardness that would sustain it more than mere goods or data could.'' And ''if our new way of living were to offer any real sustenance,'' he posits, ''it would have to be invisible, in the realm of what underlies acceleration and multinationals.''

Confused? Me too. A bit. But that's O.K., because when you have a formidable writer who says I'm curious, catch me if you can, and a subject as rich as the Dalai Lama, it's best to just hang on for the ride.

Iyer's connection to his subject is also deeply personal. His father, a Bombay-raised Indian teaching political philosophy at Oxford, went to Dharamsala, India, to meet Gyatso in 1960, when both men were in their 20s, only a year after the Tibetan leader had fled to India ahead of his Chinese pursuers; the men started a lifelong friendship. Iyer himself first traveled to the Dalai Lama's home as a teenager, and thus began a dialogue that would cover three decades and half a dozen continents -- and become the grist of ''The Open Road.'' Weaving together these conversations (and many with the Dalai Lama's brother, Ngari Rinpoche, and other Tibetans), along with vast research, Iyer has written an original exploration that occasionally loses the scent and wanders off trail, but largely delivers a trenchant, impassioned look at a singular life.

Right off, Iyer lays out the many paradoxes of a figure he considers one of the best- and least-known people on the planet. The Dalai Lama is a religious teacher who warns of the entanglements of religion and urges people to stay with their original faiths. He is a dedicated man of science, yet beholden to hundreds of religious rites. He continues to urge a controversial forbearance (rather than direct action) toward the Chinese, even as occupied Tibet is a whisper away from gone. He is a head of state, with all the attendant duties, who meditates for four hours every morning on, among other things, the roots of compassion and his own death. In what other person does this depth of monasticism and plenitude of frequent-flier miles so live together? Iyer doesn't solve the conundrums; he digs toward the nature of what lies below. One man is not likely to have all the answers, he writes of the Dalai Lama, but -- and here, Iyer could be addressing his own narrative -- ''it's the questions he puts into play that invigorate.''

The Dalai Lama is, above all, what we want him to be. The Western world most wants him to be a fairy tale -- a saffron-robed young leader from Shangri-La, where we think a hunk of spirituality is tossed in with every drought of hot butter tea. To the Tibetan people, he is regarded as a god, but to the outside world he is ''a secular divinity of sorts, and for that there is less precedent.'' Iyer challenges us to see him as one of a group of agents of transformation like Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, people who ''change the world by changing the way they looked at the world.''

But the accessible Dalai Lama, whose voice can be downloaded as a ring tone and who crisscrosses the globe with a populist message of compassion and kindness, is only a part of who he is. He is mostly, and radically, a private man. We do not see, nor would most of us understand if we did, the vast esoteric side of Buddhism -- a complex world of oracles, ancient enmities and high-level metaphysical pay dirt -- that he also inhabits. As a monk, of course, the Dalai Lama spends much of his life steeped in the central Buddhist tenet of interconnectedness, engaged in inner work that supports, and even creates, new outward realities.

Case in point: Dharamsala. The creation of the Tibetan government and community-in-exile there is a hopeful experiment, ''as compressed and bittersweet an image of the global village as I have ever seen,'' Iyer tells us. With Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama envisioned a new, improved Tibet, doing away with many of the feudalisms and formalities of old and successfully building a refuge for, and incubator of, Tibetan culture. Iyer describes it as a remote outpost of searing spirit, entrenched longing and ramshackle reality. A place, above all, ''consecrated to the idea that the problems of one place are the concerns of every place, in our ever more linked universe.''

The Dalai Lama's commitment to modernize led, in 2001, to exiles in 37 countries electing the first Tibetan prime minister. There was a minor uproar when he included in Tibet's new constitution a clause for his own impeachment. And he has suggested he could be the last Dalai Lama. All this planned obsolescence makes Tibetans uncomfortable, but it makes sense in light of the six words into which he distills Buddhism: ''Change is part of the world.''

And what of Tibet itself? As recent events have shown, it's hard to feel optimistic. The country teeters dangerously close to extinction by absorption. But Iyer tells us the Dalai Lama rests his faith on surprise, ''the sudden result of what has been building invisibly for years.'' We are reminded that the Berlin Wall came down seemingly overnight (just as it went up); one day apartheid simply seemed to collapse; butterfly wings, as the notion goes, can cause a tsunami to rise up on the other side of the world. ''Until the last moment,'' the Dalai Lama says, ''anything is possible.''

PHOTO: His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Gyume Tantric Monastery, Kamataka, India, Jan. 6, 1998. Photograph by Richard Avedon. (PHOTOGRAPH $; 2008 THE RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION)

Holly Morris is the author of ''Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine.''

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley

This is your brain on a new track
Caroline Leavitt; Caroline Leavitt is the author of "Girls in Trouble." She can be reached at
Caroline Leavitt - Caroline Leavitt is the author of "Girls in Trouble." She can be reached at Boston Globe
970 words
3 February 2008
The Boston Globe
© 2008 New York Times Company. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.


Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves
By Sharon Begley
Ballantine, 304 pp., paperback, $14.95
Super Brain: 101 Easy Ways to a More Agile Mind

By Carol Vorderman

Gotham, 288 pp., paperback, $15
How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move?: Inside My Autistic Mind
By Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay
Arcade, 238 pp., $25

If you're like me, you probably exercise and eat right to keep your body healthy and buff. But what have you done for your brain lately?

For years, scientists have insisted that when it comes to the brain, we're hard-wired to do certain things in certain ways, and as we age, things like memory, hearing, and mood degenerate. Or do they? Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to grow neurons and rewire itself, was once thought to be impossible. But in the fascinating "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," Sharon Begley delves into a new science that is disproving much of what we thought we knew about the brain.

Begley, science columnist for Newsweek, begins with a little history. In 2004, prominent scientists joined with the Dalai Llama at the Mind and Life Institute to investigate how we can indeed change our very brains, grow new neurons, and increase gray matter just by changing our ways of thinking and responding to stimuli. Buddhist monks and ordinary people were asked to meditate, and it was found that this practice permanently changed the chemical structure of the brain, particularly in areas that had to do with happiness and contentment. Most interestingly, the monks' brains continued to show this difference even when they were not meditating, much the way a new muscle, built up from exercise, will remain.

In another study, obsessive-compulsive patients were asked to meditate, reminding themselves that their thoughts did not mirror reality. When PET scans were done on their brains afterward, there were changes in the areas related to obsessive behavior, proof that the brain can be stimulated to build important new circuitry.

What's even more enthralling is Begley's fascinating glimpses of what's ahead. By "repeatedly changing the sensory input" received, a dyslexic brain can begin to read easily, and memory loss might be something that can be worked off the same way a few extra pounds are.

The perfect companion book is "Super Brain: 101 Easy Ways to a More Agile Mind," by Carol Vorderman. Vorderman is famous on British TV, known for both her sudoku finesse and her ability to memorize incredibly long series of numbers. Billed as a fitness handbook for the mind, "Super Brain" includes tips, recommended foods, and strategies to get your brain in optimum shape.

Divided into three sections, the book is a cornucopia of easy and fun exercises. You can boost focus by concentrating on a watch's second hand for two whole seconds (harder than it sounds) or stimulate your memory (studies have shown that remembering pushes the brain to lay down new connections) with a series of fascinating facts. Vorderman shows how breaking habits - even drinking from a different coffee cup in the morning - can change your brain, and how music can boost brain power the same way that whole grains, fresh veggies, and lots of sleep can. The book is really your own personal trainer, able to be opened anywhere, at any time.

But if the workings of the so-called normal brain are under investigation, what about the brain that is outside the norm? A lot has been written about autism, a good amount of it implying that the autistic person is locked away from us, barraged by sensory overload. Prepare to be astonished, because much of that appears wrong.

"How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move?: Inside My Autistic Mind," by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, should, to my mind, be required reading for any parents struggling with a diagnosis of autism for their child, or for any professional wanting to help. Hurry past the clinical foreword by the director of the Autism Research Foundation and dive into Mukhopadhyay's insights on his condition. He explains why he screams at length (to focus and stop sensory overload) and how he is able to solve many of his own problems without the help of professionals.

Autistic people tend to be obsessive, and he cures his fear of the power going out by giving himself the constant visual clue of fans whirring in every room. Writing gives him control of his world and a way to communicate, an "impossible" feat he began when he was 6. Helped along by his extraordinary mother, who insists that "people need to believe you," he diligently practices his writing and allows doctors to test him, and he soon becomes so famous, he's the subject of an award-winning documentary. When patronizingly told he's done a "good job" at some task, he snipes, "Do they not know that I have two books published and one translated into German?"

Struggling against stereotypes, Mukhopadhyay argues that he is not "sick," as autistic people often are classified, and he rails against anyone thinking him less of a person because he's autistic. Brave, bold, and deeply felt, this book shows that much we might have believed about autism can be wrong.

"What is a mind but a mysterious possession?" Mukhopadhyay writes, but as these three books show, the scope and power of our brains are just beginning to be discovered.