Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mindfulness and Creativity

Two years ago, aware for some time of the concept of mindful study as an integral part of Buddhism, it struck me that I had been diminishing the value of anything I loved doing if it was not "worth" something. In my case, if it didn't further my knowledge or produce a written project, it was a waste of time. Trouble was, I enjoy doing artistic things, and always have. Using my right hemisphere intensively now and then gives the busy left one (language and logic) a nice break. (And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I create a thing of beauty - for myself and maybe for others.) But I noticed that when I painted, for example, I rushed through canvasses, or did only one or two small ones in one day, and did a poor job. Not enough focus or devotion to craft! After my realization, I decided I should either paint and be mindful, present, or not bother at all.
The result was a new resurge in my abilities. Since then, I have painted several satisfying works. When I take such a break, it really is one, and not a waste of time or anything else.
This is one of last year's efforts. Only after it was finished did I realize why I painted a top-heavy tree. It represents all the projects I was taking on at the time, some quite pleasant (hence the luxurious foliage). But the tree will break if the wind blows too hard. My numerous projects were unsustainable. 
So, in addition to being a good exercise in mindfulness, and a welcome break from words, such projects can also provide a bit of insight into what's going on in my life - perhaps things I don't want to admit otherwise!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seasonal Transitions

My readings of Zen & the Brain have slowed down a bit in the past week. Part of this has been due to the nature of the material - not the easiest to pick up and breeze through! But I am continuing, and sharing what I find with others. I find if I can explain it to someone in simple, everyday terms, I must have a fundamental grasp of it.
One relatively minor thing I discovered was the fact that in Japan there are more than four official seasons. The Japanese regard seasonal transitions as kinds of seasons unto themselves. Well, if not in the Southern Hemisphere, we in the Northern one are definitely in the middle of one of those unofficial seasons. Everywhere, things are mid-way between winter and spring - with spring predominating so far. Small, soil-hugging spring ephemerals of the horticultural variety have been appearing in gardens for the past two weeks, more like alpine or Arctic plants than Temperate Forest zone ones (my bioregion). If the warm weather persists in the next fortnight, the tulips, daffodils, irises, and so on will stretch to normal heights. Then we really will know we are in Spring proper. Until then, we'll be in this as-yet-unnamed season, unsure what coats to put away or leave out, nervous about storing winter boots, and superstitious about hiding the snow shovel.
Transitions are interesting because they embody ambiguity, a concept the human mind finds fascinating and troubling. We enjoy our categories, don't we? I don't need to remind anyone of either the benefits of classification or the terrible costs.
Zen teachings encourage the mind to embrace the Oneness of all. The challenge - one of many, I suppose, in a highly disciplined practice - is to break down (artificial) fences and see the underlying connections. We cling to those cozy categories and refuse to acknowledge their evanescence and arbitrary narture. With concerted study, the mind can learn to recognize the innate tendency to group things as like or not-like, and transcend those areas of disconnection. An "easy" place to start would be the human species, which we now break down into classes, religions, cultures, skin colors, and on and on. Those differences are indeed there - diversity exists in the world of humanity and most everything else - yet they also do not exist.
Try holding that thought in your mind for a few minutes. It's not exactly a Zen koan, but it will do until a real Zen master comes along to suggest one!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Zen and Oneness

One thing is everything
all things are One.
If you know only this, then
don't worry about attaining perfect knowledge

- Master Seng-ts'an
I chose the blogspot name "poetryandecology" for a good reason. Both poetry & ecology are realms of connection. Ecology sees the interconnection of all life - from a relatively simple food web to certain complex genomic elements shared by many or most species. Poetry uses metaphors and symbols to form connection between ideas and images.
Zen realizes this and trains the brain of the practitioner to know (almost viscerally rather than cognitively) the Oneness of the universe. We are not alone. Each of us is immensely important - a part of this tremendous whole - and yet very small. On a fundamental level, none of our problems is of great consequence. But the only way to see this is to stand back and see the big picture.
Not easy. Thus the need for study!
That's why I keep reading.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why Zen - and now?

Although I have read a few chapters of Zen & the Brain today, it's mostly about the neuroscientist author's own introduction to zazen, so not as translatable into a blog summary (+ comment) as the earlier passages. Before I go back to the beginning of the book and summarize and comment upon them, I think I should explain my fascination with Buddhism - not just the Zen subset - and how a book combining Zen with neuroscience is a perfect fit for me, at this time.
I'm at a stage of my life where I feel both more hope and more despair than ever before. Age has brought wisdom, which says plenty of seemingly paradoxical things, e.g., life is full of joy and life is full of sorrow. Patterns start to form from formerly unconnected facts or phenomena (probably a good definition of wisdom in itself).
With many gloomy and challenging things ahead, such as the infirmities and deaths of loved ones, I want to maximize my cognitive and emotional strength, for my sake and theirs. The obvious refuge for many people in search of strength would be a religion, but I have a natural aversion to the organization of spirituality (and many other things). Buddhism is a way of looking, of living, not a religion, though it is often classified as one.
My studies in neuroscience have clarified many lifelong mysteries for me - and will continue to do so, no doubt! One thing is the serenity afforded by being present: quieting the distracted mind (which causes stress, a body-bruising force) and narrowing one's attention. We could all do with more serenity. In fact, many of our so-called vices are convoluted (futile) means of seeking the silence of the sacred grove - as we live in crowded cities, lead frantic lives, and can barely hear ourselves think.
I think discovering a permanent means of focus, attention, and serenity - through breathing exercises, and so on - would be a healthy, cost-free, and easily accessed alternative to eating, drinking, shopping, watching movies, and other stop-gap measures. (They are all fairly harmless in themselves - note I did not include illegal drug use - but if used instead of what really leads to the desired goal, they are empty.)
My desired goal is mindfulness. Distraction diffuses energy, wastes it. And I cannot be mindful or present or attentive unless I find a way of calming my monkey mind (what a great term), convincing it that everything will be all right.
A formidable task: "I" do not really believe this quite yet....

Monday, March 22, 2010

Zen and the Brain

Last week, I made a very short report on Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza. Well, as good and as inspiring as that book is, I think I have found a better one. It's called simply (appropriately) Zen and the Brain. The author is James H. Austin, M.D.
Although it is a very long (700 pages) and incredibly complex book - ambitiously combining, as the title suggests, both explanations of Zen Buddhism and the neurological underpinnings of the practice of zazen (meditation) - it is a relatively easy one to read.
I find myself looking forward to sitting down with it, and reading one to four (short to medium-length) chapters at a time.
Yesterday, after reading Chs. 8& 9 on the Self - a topic integral to the practice of Zen and many other mystical pursuits - I thought it might be a good idea to start sort of a blog-within-a-blog. As I read the book, I could touch upon the salient features of each chapter or group of chapters. If anyone wants more details, let me know. I hope I will hear from those out there interested in inquiring about this fascinating interface of disciplines.
Please join me!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ahead of His Time

Last week, I finished reading Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, by neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio. Very thought provoking. There is not a lot about Spinoza’s work per se, but enough (specifically, his Ethics) to compel me to check out more about this under-appreciated thinker.
Many things we know about the feeling brain, thanks to in-depth studies, often involving high-tech machinery, Spinoza figured out in his little garret in 17th-century Amsterdam, with nothing more than pen and paper and an amazing imagination. For his sins, he was exiled from the local Jewish community, and marginalized as philosopher for decades. (But that's another story.)
What drew me to the book was the neuroscience. What kept me interested, despite a frequently opaque writing style and difficult subject, were the applications to my larger project – of which this blog is a small part.
Damasio speaks of the balance of the individual and society (although those are my words), and the role of feelings in the lives of social animals such as ourselves. Like some of the researchers I have talked about in previous posts, he notes how we have evolved to feel empathy, guilt, shame, regret, loneliness, and so on because of their utility in social interactions. Such traits may have meant the difference between life or death at one time (and still do, though perhaps not so dramatically).
The study of feelings has been the stock in trade of psychologists of all stripes for as long as psychology has existed as a profession. More recently, brain scientists have joined in, tracing emotions to this or that area or structure, and postulating – as Damasio does – why it is present in all healthy human beings, and what happens when it is damaged or absent. But, as he says, “Any complex mental function results from concerted contributions by many brain regions at varied levels of the central nervous system rather than from the work of a single brain region conceived in a phrenological manner.”
It’s funny that he alludes to phrenology. That was the one-time practice of reading a person by the bumps on the skull. There are old drawings of bald people with areas of the skull labeled as this or that trait; sometimes, reading neuroanatomy, one cannot help but recall these early attempts at understanding the last frontier of scientific endeavor. But we have made tremendous strides since then - even if vast universes of discovery remain.
More about this, and related studies, another day.