A Farewell, and an Invitation

This is my final post to the Engaged Mindfulness blog.

Nearly a year and a half has transpired since I wrote the two most recent entries, “What now?” and “What now? (part 2)”. These essays both grappled with how those of us who were appalled by the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States might respond to that event in ways consistent with the practice of mindfulness.

As therapeutic as it was for me personally to write and publish them at the time, in later months I found myself needing more by way of an answer to my own question, “What now?”, than I had come up with in those two posts. As I continued to contemplate the question, what began to emerge for me was that I should take my writing to a more overtly political place – a place where I would not only take a stand for the liberal political values I have embraced all my life, but where I would attempt to link those values to the Buddhist teachings that underlie my own mindfulness practice.

And so I have. I’ve renamed my former “@engagedmindful” Twitter account to “@LiberalBuddhist”. I’ve set up a new Facebook page, “The Liberal Buddhist”, where I curate interesting articles that take a reasoned, mindful approach to examining the critical societal issues here in the United States and everywhere across the globe. And I’ve launched a new blog, The Liberal Buddhist, where I offer my own reflections on the current state of national and international affairs.

Thus, I bring “Engaged Mindfulness” to a close, with much gratitude to all of you who have read, followed, and commented on its posts over the past seven years.

And allow me to close with the quote that opened it in October 2011, still as meaningful now as it was then, if not more so …

“Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

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What Now? (part 2)

In my last post, written in the week immediately following Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, I suggested two practices that might be of value during the troubling times to come – be more continuously mindful, and become more effectively engaged.  For the past four months, I’ve been working with both of these practices.  Now, in this continuation post, I want to first look back and examine what’s been working for me and what hasn’t, and then look forward and explore how I intend to proceed with these practices.

1. Looking back

In terms of the first practice – being more continuously mindful – I mentioned last time that one of my teachers had urged all of us in the sangha to strive to be “strong practitioners” in light of the post-election events taking shape in Washington, D.C.  For me, being a strong practitioner has meant being more rigorous about sitting in meditation for twenty minutes first thing each morning.  In the past, I decided on a morning-to-morning basis whether I would sit or not as a matter of personal convenience – did I really feel like sitting on that particular morning, or did it suit me better to skip the sitting and get right to the day’s business?  Now, I simply sit – no more daily deciding.

As a result, I’m meditating many more times a week than before.  That alone is a significant improvement.  But of even greater consequence, the commitment I’ve made to “just sit, period” every morning has me now approaching each day’s sitting less as a prescribed task that I ought to do, and more as an essential activity that I need, and want, to do.

And that has really made a difference.  The subtle shift in how I approach sitting meditation – from a required task to a desirable activity – has spilled over into many other aspects of my day.  Even the most mundane and least loved of chores – laundry, shopping, paying bills – I’m now seeing more as essential activities in their own right, and deserving of my time simply because they are there and need to be done.

This experience has reminded me of one of my favorite teachings from Thich Nhat Hahn.  “Washing dishes is at the same time a means and an end – that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.”  {Peace Is Every Step, p.27}

I’ve spent most of my life not living fully in each moment, but rather in anticipation of the next moment, the next day, or just about anywhere in the future.  I’ve always experienced time from a scarcity perspective – there’s never enough of it (or so I think) for what I want to do, and spending even a small amount of it on things I need to do brings on the unwelcome stress of feeling that I’m wasting my already-too-scarce reserve of time.

But as I become more adept at approaching every task and event – no matter how trivial – as deserving of my time in that moment, I experience less stress about “wasting time” and less worry about all those undone projects still waiting for me in the next moments.  This more easeful way of navigating through the day’s agenda is allowing me to enjoy a noticeably increased sense of equanimity – a welcome benefit growing out of the more rigorous daily meditation practice I’ve assumed in my effort to be more continuously mindful.

As for the second practice – becoming more effectively engaged – I’ve taken on a number of new initiatives in these past four months, all in response to the onset of the Trump administration.  I signed on with Peoples Climate Movement and joined four busloads of fellow Buddhist activists in the march to the White House on April 29th.  I re-opened my long-dormant Facebook account, where I’m posting on an almost daily basis articles and videos that, in my opinion, offer thoughtful commentary on the words and deeds pouring out of the Oval Office everyday.  (If you’re on Facebook and would like to have these posts as part of your newsfeed, do please send me a “friend” invite.)  And I’ve been looking into several well-known socially engaged Buddhist organizations, such as Buddhist Global Relief and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, for opportunities to become further involved.

However, while each of these activities has contributed to my sense of becoming more engaged, none of them feels like the engagement I’m looking for.  The guiding teacher of my meditation group, Allan Lokos, tells this story of how he came to establish our group, the Community Meditation Center, in 2007.  He had been studying Buddhism with such acclaimed teachers as Thich Nhat Hahn and Sharon Salzberg for about ten years, when one day it occurred to him that he wanted to found a meditation center.  When asked why, he had no answer.  But the desire persisted, and when he confided to a trusted advisor that he could not answer the question of why he wanted to do this, his advisor replied, “Sometimes, there’s just something we have to do.”  And with this guidance in mind, Lokos went on to establish a meditation center in 2007 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that has thrived for ten years.

I’m keeping this story in mind as I continue to search for that one thing that I have to do.

2. Looking forward

As for being more continuously mindful, my task seems pretty straightforward.  Don’t allow myself to slip from the discipline of “just sit, period” every morning.  Don’t allow that growing sense of equanimity to begin slipping away.  The times continue to be rife with uncertainty and upset, and tempt us daily to react unskillfully, out of fear and anger.  With equanimity, we are better able to respond – not react – to each new event skillfully, in the most efficacious manner possible.

When it comes to becoming more effectively engaged, however, my task is anything but straightforward.  Sure, it’s easy to do a google search and come up with a list of socially engaged Buddhist organizations, but all that results from that kind of objective research is data about those organizations.  The research I really need to conduct is the subjective kind – a deep dive within to discover that one thing that I have to do in response to the current political situation.

My teacher suggests that one way to approach this search is to simply allow it to unfold. At first, this sounds rather passive, but in fact, this notion of “allowing” involves an active, ongoing sense of awareness, of being acutely alert to whatever is arising at any given moment in any given circumstance, of being ready to recognize in an immediate and intuitive instant that “this is it … this is what I have to do.”

And what occurs to me as I write these words is that, here again, equanimity is essential. Just as its presence can help us to respond more skillfully to the stresses of these times, so too can equanimity help us to discern more accurately what actions these stressful times require of us.

So, it would appear that, for me, the unexpected outcome from the first practice of being more continuously mindful – a greater sense of equanimity – turns out to be the unexpected key ingredient in determining the successful outcome of the second practice of becoming more effectively engaged.

I will be continuing with both these practices in the weeks and months ahead, and will occasionally post about whatever progress I’m making with them.  In the meantime, I wish you this same equanimity as you work with your own practice in these turbulent times. May we each cultivate, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s acclaimed words …

… the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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What now?

In my last post, I argued that candidate Donald Trump was unfit to be president of the United States for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which were his manifest shortcomings in two of the most essential Buddhist virtues – the practice of skillful speech, and the cultivation of the three interrelated habits of generosity, compassion, and wisdom. I supported my argument with examples of how this candidate has demonstrated throughout the entirety of his public career the very opposites of these virtues – wildly unskillful speech, and shockingly unabashed displays of greed, hatred, and delusion.

I posed two rhetorical questions, which I fervently hoped we would never find it necessary to answer:

What would be the effect on our country, and on the world, of having such unskillful speech spouting from the mouth of the United States president for the next four years? And, consider what the effect would be to have all that greed, hatred, and delusion as the guiding forces on the person occupying the Oval Office for the next four years.

Well, the candidate is now the president. Those of us who viewed his candidacy with such trepidation are already glimpsing the shadowy outlines of an emergent demagogic administration that is the antithesis of everything that has historically – forgive the phrase – “made America great”, in the truest sense of that word.

And so, what now?  Those of us who are so very alarmed by the ascendancy of this paragon of greed, hatred, and delusion to the most powerful governmental office on the planet – what do we do now?

This question has preoccupied me every day since the election, and I’m still wrestling with its enormity.  I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts.

But in the meantime, here are the two firm guidelines upon which I’m basing my inquiry, as I continue to seek a meaningful course of action for myself:

  1. Be more continuously mindful. One of my teachers, in a recent dharma talk, said that now more than ever we all need to be “strong practitioners”. I could not agree more. It is only by keeping a consistent focus on the turbulent internal feelings arising in reaction to the extraordinary external events of recent days that we can hope to …
  2. Become more effectively engaged. Already we are witnessing an unprecedented wave of public demonstrations of disapproval for the misogynist and xenophobic tenor of much of the discourse being put forth by the new president and his nascent administration. More than ever, now is a time to temper our understandable passions – be they fear, anger, anxiety, outrage – with the wisdom to see things as they are, and to act in response to the situation rather than in reaction to our feelings.

In closing, and in support of these two proposed guidelines, let me offer these inspiring words from Buddhist scholar and teacher Andrew Olendzki, taken from his introduction to his book Unlimiting Mind:

As we come to better understand consciousness, we cannot help but become better people in the process. And it may even be that we can realistically aspire to extinguishing the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion that are ravaging the world we inhabit. This is the work that will decide whether we are entering the worst of times or the best of times.

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An anniversary post, and a political plea

Today, the Engaged Mindfulness blog turns five years old.  In preparation for  this fifth-anniversary milestone, I recently scrolled back to my first post, “The Paradox of ‘Engaged Mindfulness'”, published on October 18th, 2011.  As I re-read it, I was struck by two things. First was the epigraph that opened the piece, from Thich Nhat Hahn – “Mindfulness must be engaged.  Once there is seeing, there must be acting.  Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”  This quote still resonates deeply with me.  If the mindful awareness we cultivate in meditation does not impact the ways in which we engage with others, and with the world at large, then indeed, what is the use?

I’ll come back to this question shortly.

The second thing that struck me was that this initial post from five years ago looked back three years further, to the presidential election of 2008.  During the final months of that election campaign, I had begun to notice that every week, while sitting with my Tuesday evening meditation group, I was experiencing a mild feeling of guilt for being there practicing mindfulness instead of being with my local phone bank group making calls for Barack Obama.  It seemed to me at the time that there was an either/or decision to be made – either go to meditation or go to the phone bank.  It felt wrong to be splitting out my nights, doing both practice and politics, instead of choosing a priority and keeping to that one alone.

But, as is so often the case with an either/or, I was creating a false dichotomy for myself. Over time, with more careful investigation of that guilt I had been feeling, I came to realize that there is no inherent contradiction between the act of political engagement and the practice of mindfulness – unless one holds the two of them as separate, unrelated activities.  I concluded that “… engagement with the world and commitment to goals … exist side-by-side with mindfulness practice and non-attachment to outcome.  Considered separately, the two pull us in opposite directions.  Considered together, they push us down the same path.”

Now, here we are on the verge of the 2016 presidential election, and interestingly enough, once again I find myself thinking about the relationship between “engaged mindfulness” and electoral politics. Only this time, what I’m concerned with is not some conceptual paradox in the idea of engaged mindfulness, but rather the pragmatic utility of the practice of engaged mindfulness.

So, to get back to the opening question, what is the use of this practice?

In the above quote from Thich Nhat Hahn, his question “Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” is rhetorical.  Hinging as it does on the immediately preceding assertion, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting”, the only possible answer to it is “Sadly, no use whatsoever”.  From his perspective, seeing (mindfulness) is useful precisely because it leads to acting (becoming engaged).  The clear implication of the plaintive “otherwise, what is the use?” is that seeing that does not lead to acting, mindfulness without engagement, is useless.

As we in the United States approach an election whose two possible outcomes – either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the 45th president of our country – portend radically different consequences not just for the future of America, but for practically every other country in the world, I will argue that Thich Nhat Hahn’s perspective is not just correct, not merely compelling, but in fact compulsory.

Seeing must lead to acting.  Mindfulness must be engaged.

Accordingly, in this fifth-anniversary post, I am joining my practice with my politics, and declaring not just that Hillary Clinton is unquestionably the better candidate to be the next president, but that Donald Trump is unquestionably the most unfit candidate to run for president in my lifetime, and arguably the most unfit to run in the entire history of this country.

The case against Trump has already been made persuasively and passionately by countless pundits and commentators. Here are three recent pronouncements that I find particularly compelling – first an editorial from The New York Times, then an endorsement by the editors of The Atlantic magazine, and finally these remarks from first lady Michelle Obama.

For my part, I would like to add two more criteria – both drawn from the Buddhist teachings upon which I base my mindfulness meditation practice – by which Trump’s unfitness for the presidency can be measured.

The first criterion is “skillful speech”.   The teachings tell us that in any verbal communication – spoken, written, or social media post – one should always choose one’s words and one’s tone so as to promote the wellbeing of those to whom the communication is addressed, and, where possible, to lessen any pain or suffering they may be undergoing.

By this standard, Trump’s speeches, interviews, tweets, debate performances, and all his other public pronouncements from the first day of his candidacy display a level of unskillfulness never before seen in American politics.  What would be the effect on our country, and on the world, of having such unskillful speech spouting from the mouth of the United States president for the next four years?

The second criterion is what the teachings describe as the threefold virtues exhibited by one who is cultivating mindfulness – generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  And, more to the point at hand, the teachings also describe what manifests in the absence of these three virtues – greed, hatred, and delusion.  Call to mind any incident of Trump’s behavior throughout the campaign, and consider whether it was one of these virtues, or rather their opposite, that was on display.

I’m sure that you will find that these three virtues are always absent, and that their reprehensible opposites are always present.  And once again, consider what the effect would be to have all that greed, hatred, and delusion as the guiding forces on the person occupying the Oval Office for the next four years.

On both of these criteria, then, I conclude that Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.

And, on both of these criteria, Hillary Clinton is more than fit.

For the sake of the wellbeing of everyone on the planet, may she soon become the 45th president of the United States.


Writing this post has been one way for me to follow Thich Nhat Hahn’s dictum that “mindfulness must be engaged”.  I hope that reading it will prompt you to follow his wise words in your own way.

“Once there is seeing, there must be acting.  Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”






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Book Review: After Buddhism, by Stephen Batchelor

After Buddhism

With his latest book, After Buddhism, renowned scholar Stephen Batchelor continues to expand his vision for a “secular Buddhism”, a project he began nearly twenty years ago in his 1997 book Buddhism Without Beliefs. In that groundbreaking book, he sounded an urgent alarm about what he saw as the growing institutionalization of Buddhist thought and the consequences of such a rigid traditionalist approach. Now, in this new volume, he has put forth a less alarming, but still intensely urgent, call for Buddhists to “practice the dharma of the Buddha in the context of modernity.”

One might well expect that, in pursuing this modern context, Batchelor will be offering his readers updated versions of the traditional teachings, couched in more contemporary language. But no – surprisingly, he turns back instead to what he terms “the roots of the tradition”, seeking to uncover the original meanings of the Buddhist discourses. Such an approach, he contends, is needed because these discourses have in so many cases been obscured by twenty-five centuries’ worth of institutionalized dogma incorrectly imposed upon them by generations of teachers who have misunderstood the Buddha’s intentions, attaching a quality of metaphysical truth to the ethical teachings he offered.

Thus, the way forward to modernity is by way of going back to the past.

The most startling discovery to emerge from Batchelor’s examination of these roots of the tradition is his finding that the four “noble truths” (there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and there is a path that leads to the end of suffering) are more properly understood – and, more correctly translated from the original Pali texts – as the following integrated set of four “tasks”:

1. Suffering is to be comprehended.
2. The arising is to be let go of.
3. The ceasing is to be beheld.
4. The path is to be cultivated.

What arises in the second task, and what is beheld to have ceased in the third, is “reactivity” – the term Batchelor uses in place of the more traditional “clinging”, and by which he means the complete spectrum of reflexive behaviors we thoughtlessly pursue in our futile quest to prolong pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones, all because we have not truly comprehended suffering (the first task).

Batchelor’s recasting of the second and third “truths” into these twin tasks of letting go of reactivity and beholding its ceasing lead him to a conclusion that may well be the most controversial he has ever put forward – that the traditional formulation of the third noble truth (there is an end to suffering) is in fact untenable. “What Buddhists trumpet as the ‘end of suffering’ cannot mean what it says. Not only does it make little sense, the discourses themselves clearly state that it means the end of reactivity. To let go of reactivity and behold its ceasing is certainly no easy task, but at least it is something to which we can aspire, whereas the end of suffering will remain a pipe dream for as long as we are pulsating, breathing, ingesting, digesting, defecating bodies.”

This is a radical assertion indeed. And for me, it’s a most welcome one. Until now, I have seen no way to reconcile the claim of this “noble truth” that there is an end to suffering with the obvious truth that there has never yet been, nor does it seem likely that there ever will be, so much as a brief respite, no less an “end”, to all the unspeakable suffering that nature and mankind inflict on a daily basis to such a large portion of humanity.

Having spelled out his vision of the “fourfold task” as the foundation for a modern secular Buddhism early on in the book, Batchelor then proceeds in the ensuing chapters to write with his characteristic eloquence on a broad spectrum of topics essential to dharma practice, while never losing sight of the core assertion that underlies every paragraph of this thought-provoking book – his plea that we “think of the dharma as a task-based ethics rather than a truth-based metaphysics”.

Here is a small sampling of what he has to say: on the meaning of the Pali word ‘dukkha’, often translated as ‘suffering’ (“the tragic dimension of life, implicit in experience because the world is constantly shifting and changing”), on the point of dharma practice (“to pay attention to your experience, such that you become viscerally aware of its ephemeral, poignant, empty, and impersonal character”), on the concept of self (“a perspective on experience that remains constant while the feelings, perceptions, and inclinations that make up one’s experience arise and pass away”), on the Buddhist approach to ethical behavior (“in facing a moral dilemma, one does not ask ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but rather ‘What is the most wise and loving thing to do in this specific instance?’”), and on mindfulness (“an exploratory and potentially transformative relationship with the pulsing, sensitive, and conscious material of life itself”).

I did have one reservation with After Buddhism, having to do with the format Batchelor has adopted for its eleven chapters. The five even-numbered ones (chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are given over to biographical sketches of five different and relatively unknown individuals, all contemporaries of the Buddha, each of whose stories demonstrates a particular way in which an ordinary lay person in the Buddha’s time successfully designed his life to be in harmony with the dharma – historical examples of a “secular Buddhism”, if you will. Batchelor states that his intention for inserting these tales into the scheme of his book is to show the reader that dharma practice has always been rooted in the events of ordinary life, and was never intended by the Buddha for the exclusive practice of monks, scholars, and teachers.

While each of the five persons so profiled is of interest, and while Batchelor’s talents as a storyteller equal his skills as a dharma teacher, the overall effect these alternating chapters had on me was akin to the experience of an intermission between acts at the theater – a welcome pause to stand up and stretch, perhaps, but then after the fifteen minute pause, enough. Let’s have the lights dim once more and turn our attention back to the drama on the stage – which, in the case of reading this book, meant getting back to the subsequent odd-numbered chapter where the real drama of the narrative would unfailingly resume.

This is admittedly a minor complaint on my part, and one with which not every other reader may concur.

Batchelor concludes his book with an inspiring chapter entitled “A Culture of Awakening”, in which he paints a hopeful picture of how a secular Buddhism might invigorate modern culture by infusing it with “a sense of the sublimity and interconnectedness of life”. Secular Buddhists, he says, have the opportunity to respond to the myriad challenges facing the planet “unconditioned by the instincts of reactive egotistic greed” that characterizes so much of modern human behavior. How? By practicing the fourfold task, thereby recovering “what the dharma has always been about: embracing the suffering of the world, letting go of reactivity, and experiencing that still, clear center from which we respond to the world in ways no longer determined by self-interest alone”.

Batchelor’s look back to the roots of the dharma tradition, the surprising point of departure for After Buddhism, ends with a look forward, to what he hopes will come “after Buddhism” – a more awakened secular culture, one that brings to fruition the seeds that the Buddha planted with his teachings all those centuries ago.

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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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In praise of “slow thinking”

A while ago, I wrote a post reflecting on Daniel Kahneman’s extraordinary book Thinking Fast and Slow.  And just a few days ago, my friend and teacher James Flaherty, the founder of New Ventures West, published his own comments on this book in the latest issue of his quarterly newsletter, Distinctions.

In this post, I’m pleased to feature excerpts from his thoughtful essay, in which he challenges his readers to take up the practice of “slow thinking”.

We are in a hurry. We have many tasks, many e-mails, many needed conversations, books to read, movies to see, trips to take, projects to complete, plans to make—so we nearly worship efficiency.  Our biology is built upon using the least possible effort and expending the smallest amount of energy because both maximize survival.  The shared everyday world pulls us into speed and our body happily cooperates.

There are, though, usually unnoticed negative consequences of going fast—we make many repeated observational/cognitive errors resulting in behavioral mistakes. (I don’t mean here typos or misunderstanding instructions, but misreading what we want/need, or what someone important to us is communicating, or the signals our social sphere is giving us that change is necessary.) We don’t notice them because they feel right, correct, appropriate.

An extraordinarily powerful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman, brilliantly and succinctly lays out the blindness caused by speed that gets hidden by the structure of our nervous system. From the book, here’s a partial list of the chronic mistakes our fast thinking makes:
–  It suppresses doubt and neglects ambiguity.
–  It concludes that something must be true if it is associated with pleasant feelings.
–  It focuses on existing evidence and neglects absent evidence (we don’t look into longer-term causes and conditions, forget context, don’t even ask what happened just before or what will happen immediately next).
–  It responds more strongly to losses than to gains (called “loss aversion”) leading to success amnesia and exaggerated planning and fears.
–  It infers and invents causes and intentions—innumerable relational messes begin here.
–  It generates a limited set of basic assessments (called “common sense”) that lead to ridiculous statements like “How hard is it to be US President?” because we only have a very limited idea of what it takes given our extremely limited views following from our very small set of possible assessments/ observations.
–  It makes sense of behaviors/situations immediately and comes to quick conclusions because associative memory gets activated—we don’t notice the uniqueness of the moment.
–  It substitutes an easier question for a difficult one, dumbing down our response, taking us out of a full encounter with someone/the full situation (e.g. “Do I love you? Well, I really like the way you dance and you are such a good cook”).
The list goes on. And we are for the most part blind to these events for the reasons cited above. Which of these do you fall into? How could you find out?

Meditative and other practices, such as yin yoga and Tai Chi, systematically slow down the nervous system, allowing more of the wisdom of our slower thinking to come forward. Having regular breaks from relentless work blunts the momentum of our racing minds.

Are you onto yourself in this area? Many of the messes we are in the middle of arise because we are unaware of the mischief of our fast/automatic thinking. For most of us, we have important work to attend to around this topic. Let’s start—slowly.

To read more of James Flaherty’s essays, as well as his book reviews, visit the resources section of his website, where you can find a 10-year archive of newsletter back issues.

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Book Review: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

This self-styled “confession” by Stephen Batchelor succeeds brilliantly in three distinct literary genres. First and foremost, it’s an articulate and passionate exposition of Buddhism from this gifted, world-renowned scholar and teacher. Second, it’s a poignant memoir of a lifetime’s journey along the dhamma path, dating all the way back to some of the author’s earliest childhood memories. And third, it’s a vivid travelogue, as Batchelor recounts, in the last half of the book, a series of visits he recently made to various historic sites where the Buddha is known to have taught, re-imagines how these places would have appeared to the Buddha twenty-five hundred years ago, reports on their current appearance (sadly, in most cases, partially or completely in ruins), and re-creates in his own words the essence of what the Buddha is reputed to have spoken about at these sites.

The heart of the book, and coming almost exactly at its midpoint, is a chapter entitled “Embrace Suffering”, in which Batchelor discusses the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, the Four Noble Truths. It would be impossible (and presumptuous) for me to attempt to summarize or paraphrase any part of this crucial chapter, which demands to be read attentively from its first sentence to its last, but here are three brief excerpts, a mere sampler of the riches it contains:

“Each truth is the condition that gives rise to the next: fully knowing suffering leads to letting go of craving; letting go of craving leads to experiencing its cessation; and those moments of cessation open up the free and purposive space of the eightfold path itself.”

“To know, deep in your bones, how everything you experience is fleeting, poignant, and unreliable undermines the rationale for trying to grasp hold of, possess, and control it. To fully know suffering begins to affect how you relate to the world, how you respond to others, how you manage your own life.”

“To experience the cessation of craving, even momentarily, is to gain a glimpse of what the Buddha called ‘nirvana’. In this sense, nirvana is not the goal of the eightfold path, but its starting point.”

Since I opened this review with a reference to the first word in the book’s title, “confession”, let me close it by referring to the last word in its title, “atheist”. Batchelor devotes an entire, albeit short, chapter to his notion of the Buddha as “an ironic atheist”, meaning that he simply wasn’t interested in questions regarding the existence or non-existence of an other-worldly God, because he was so completely absorbed by the question of what to do in the face of the suffering present in this world. Batchelor then takes to task the militant brand of atheism currently in vogue with some notable contemporary authors, claiming that “their position is premised on a denial of God every bit as fervent as the believer’s affirmation of Him.” These aggressive atheists, in his view, should more correctly be called “anti-theists”, while the Buddha’s – and presumably Batchelor’s – atheism is more attuned to the correct meaning of the word, “non-theism”. For me, this was a welcome clarification, one that is much needed in these polarized political times we find ourselves living in.

Batchelor concludes this, his most autobiographical book, by defining himself as “a secular Buddhist”, someone for whom ….

“Buddhism has become … a philosophy of action and responsibility. It provides a framework of values, ideas, and practices that nurture my ability to create a path in life, to define myself as a person, to act, to take risks, to imagine things differently, to make art.”

With this book, he has, indeed, made art.

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So Far (1) – To Take or Not to Take?

Having recently observed my 65th birthday, I’ve been rather surprised at how often of late I find myself thinking about my past.  Perhaps there’s some sort of life-review process that gets activated with the passage across this iconic birthdate, upon which one officially becomes a “senior citizen”.  Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of the past making itself more present in consciousness, as our once seemingly infinite future begins its inevitable shrinkage into a much more finite size.

  Whatever the cause, this sudden spurt of memories has prompted me to take my blogging in a new direction.  In what I hope will become an ongoing series of occasional biographical posts, I plan to examine old experiences in the fresh light of my current understanding of mindfulness practice and Buddhist philosophy.  These posts will constitute a much more personal form of “engaged mindfulness” than the more conceptual entries usually featured in this blog.  I hope that they will be as useful and enjoyable for you to read as I expect they will be for me to write.

The series title “So Far” refers both to my appreciation for all that I’ve experienced and learned in life so far, and to my anticipation of all there is yet to experience and learn in the time that remains.  I still have so far to go….

“To Take or Not to Take”

I’ve never been very skillful at asking for what I want, but I’ve never had to wonder why that’s so. My mother, quite unintentionally, made certain that I would always know why.  She had a favorite tale about my early childhood, and for many years she told it over and over again to relatives, friends, and – much to my discomfort in late adolescence – to almost every girl I ever dated!

According to the story, when I was around two years old, my parents had some friends over to visit one Sunday afternoon, and there was a bowl of pretzels on the coffee table around which the grown-ups were sitting and talking (and no doubt smoking – it was 1951).  In the midst of this gathering, I toddled over to the table, reached into the bowl, and raised a pretzel toward my mouth. With my arm still in motion, my mother told me that I should not have taken the pretzel on my own, that the polite thing was to wait until I was offered one. And without a word of protest, I returned the unbitten pretzel back to the bowl.

This prompt and unquestioning obedience of mine must have impressed the guests, and it surely must have made my mother very proud of me.  I was such a good boy!

I actually have no memory of this event, and know of it only through having so often heard the story.  But here’s a related incident that occurred a year or two later, when I was around four years old, and that I remember perfectly well.

I was at a birthday party for a boy who lived just a short way down the block from the three-family residence where we rented our apartment.  When it was time for dessert, the boy’s mother brought out a large platter overflowing with chocolate-iced, cream-filled chocolate cupcakes, which happened at the time to be my favorite dessert.

Apparently it was the favorite dessert of all my fellow partygoers as well, for as soon as she placed the platter on the table, there was a stampede of shouting children, everyone with outstretched hands grabbing for those cupcakes and gobbling them down with a ferocious, gleeful abandon.

Everyone, that is, except me.  I stood frozen in front of the table, unwilling to take one for myself.

The boy’s mother noticed, and asked me what was the matter, didn’t I like these cupcakes?  I answered her, “Yes, I like them very much, I was just waiting for you to give me one.”  After all, wasn’t that what I had learned two years ago with that bowl of pretzels?

As she handed me one of the few cupcakes still remaining, she said, “You know, if you just wait to be given something that you want, you might never get it.”

Long before I would come to know what the term meant, I experienced for the first time in my life the uncomfortable sensation of cognitive dissonance.  I still, to this very day, remember viscerally the physical jolt I felt at those words of hers.  I had been taught – or at least, so I thought – by my parents that I always had to be polite and wait for food to be offered, that it was wrong to take it just because I wanted it, and that I might be reprimanded if I did so.  And here was this woman – a parental figure of authority – instructing me to do exactly the opposite, and to my immature ears it even sounded a bit like she was reprimanding me for not taking something that I wanted.

So, which was correct?  Take it?  Don’t take it?

I had no idea.

But, I had gotten my cupcake!  So, I simply went home from the party, forgot about the conundrum, and continued to abide by the rules of my upbringing.  As I grew older, the injunction against taking food before it was offered morphed into a more generalized inhibition about asking for anything that I wanted.  For many years of my adult life, I approached any situation that called for me to state clearly what I wanted much like that little boy at the party – holding back, waiting for the other person to somehow intuit what I wanted and then offer it to me.

Unsurprisingly, this strategy never worked out as favorably as it had at that long-ago party.  There was never any sympathetic woman or man on hand, puzzled by my behavior but ready to give me what I was too afraid to take for myself.  Instead, in my personal relationships there were repeated instances of unskillful communication resulting in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  And, over the course of my professional career there were repeated incidents of unskillful communication with supervisors resulting in missed opportunities and disappointing assignments.

For a long time in my adult life, I interpreted my poor communication in these situations as the product of what I called “my deferential personality”, and I traced it all the way back to the pretzel and cupcake incidents from my childhood.  I often engaged in the unskillful practice of “if-only” wishful thinking.  It would go something like, “If only my mother hadn’t forbade me to take that pretzel, then I would be a much more assertive person today.”  This thought was comforting in that it offered me an excuse for my poor communication skills, but damaging in that it gave me no incentive to change them.  In this interpretation, I was simply the victim of an unfortunate circumstance.

In recent years, my meditation practice has helped me to see the fallacy in that kind of wishful thinking.  The most helpful insight I’ve gained has come from beginning to understand the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination”, according to which each event in our lives can be seen as originating out of, and therefore dependent upon, everything else that has happened to us up to that point.  This accumulation of all the events making up our personal history is often referred to as the “causes and conditions” from which all things arise.

Viewing the pretzel incident through the lens of dependent origination, the fallacy of my wishful “if-only” thought is clearly revealed.  From this perspective, there was no “unfortunate circumstance” that shouldn’t have happened.  Rather, what happened in that circumstance was exactly what should have happened.  My mother’s admonition arose out of her lifetime of experiences, which made her place a high premium on what she saw as polite social manners on the part of her 2-year-old son.  And the little boy who obediently put that pretzel back did so because in his brief years of experience, he had come to place a high premium on being obedient and getting praised for it.  Parental approval was more satisfying to me than any pretzel could ever be.

I was hardly a victim in that situation.  I got exactly what I wanted – praise and approval.  The problem was not the incident.  Again, to cite dependent origination, what happened in that situation was the natural outcome of all that had preceded it.  This was the case both for my mother and for me.  The problem was that, in my youthful naiveté, I learned the wrong lesson.  My mother wanted me to learn how to be polite and exhibit what she considered to be good social manners, but what I mistakenly learned instead was that wanting things could get me reprimanded.

And so, continuing with the notion of dependent origination, it becomes very clear that my erroneous learning at the age of two contributed substantially to the making of the four-year-old boy who refused to take a cupcake that he really wanted, even in a situation where “polite social manners” were the last thing expected of him, and the last thing on display among his peers.

Looking back now, I’m fairly certain that my behavior at the party was the last thing that either of my parents intended for me as well.  And, just as I can’t remember the pretzel incident, they never knew about the cupcake incident.  I didn’t know how to tell them.  I even thought, at the time, that somehow they might be angry with me.

In terms of how it continued to play out in my later life, the conclusion my two-year-old self came to in that moment at the pretzel bowl – that it was always wrong to take what I wanted – was momentous.  But in terms of what dependent origination has shown me, it was nothing other than the natural outcome of all the causes and conditions of my upbringing up to that point.  Another two-year-old in a similar situation, but coming from a different set of causes and conditions, might easily have drawn a different conclusion – such as, always ask before you take a pretzel, or always make sure your parents aren’t looking before you take one without asking.  But my two-year-old self, with my unique set of causes and conditions, concluded that it was best just to never take one.

Likewise, the behavior that arose for me at the birthday party two years later was based upon the accumulation of the causes and conditions of my life at that point in time, including of course the pretzel bowl incident.  And so on, in each succeeding occasion where I failed to ask for something I wanted, I was acting under the accumulated weight of a lifetime’s worth of causes and conditions prompting me not to ask.

It was always unskillful behavior.  But for me to wish “if only that incident with the pretzel bowl had never happened” was even more unskillful – and totally irrelevant.  Everything that happened on that fateful (for me) day, and everything that happened subsequent to it, was simply a matter of the preceding causes and conditions giving rise to each new instance of unskillful communication.

So here I am now, with what feels like a more skillful understanding of my life-long pattern of poorly communicating my wants and desires, and with what I hope will prove to be more skillfulness in communicating them going forward, thanks to this new insight regarding dependent origination.

One unskillful tendency I still struggle with a bit is regretting that it took me such a long time to come to this insight.  I’m sometimes tempted to wonder how various situations in the past would have turned out if I had been more able to state what I wanted.

But dependent origination helps me with this as well.  It took such a long time because that’s how much time was needed for the appropriate causes and conditions to emerge such that I could arrive at the insight.

And with this understanding, I’m able to let go of all wishful thinking, and then I’m left with no regrets.

Well, actually, I do still have one regret ….

I never saw the birthday boy’s mother again.  My family moved away from the neighborhood not long after the party, and a year or so after that, the entire block was razed to make way for a neighborhood playground.  So she – and all our other neighbors – had to move away as well.  Our families never saw each other again.

When she handed me that cupcake and offered me her advice, she became my first teacher – a full year before I entered first grade in elementary school.  I wish it were somehow possible to let her know that, even now, some sixty years on, I still see her handing me that cupcake, and I still hear her well-meaning words.

I know that I won’t ever get to fulfill that wish, but I’m grateful that I get to keep the memory.



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Our Divided Minds – Part 2

My last post explored the eminent social psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s description of our minds as divided into two separate but cooperating functional units, to which he gave the simple names “System 1” and “System 2”.  Now, in this continuation post, we’ll move on to another highly regarded social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, and dip into his recent book The Righteous Mind to consider his views on our divided minds.

In contrast to Kahneman, whose focus is on the individual’s decision-making process, Haidt focuses on the individual’s opinion-forming process.  And, as he signals with the subtitle he has given to his book (“Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”), his attention is focused on the most polarizing opinions we can form.  Most of us all too easily lose our composure in the face of either a political sentiment or a religious conviction that differs strongly from our own.  Haidt wants to help us better understand why this is so, in the hope that by understanding the phenomenon a little better, we might begin to understand those we disagree with a little better as well.

Also in contrast to Kahneman, Haidt gives us a much more colorful pair of labels for his proposed dual components of the mind – “the rider” and “the elephant”.  Here is his description of how these two parts interact:

I call these two kinds of cognition the rider (controlled processes, including “reasoning-why”) and the elephant (automatic processes, including emotion, intuition, and all forms of “seeing-that”).  I chose an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are so much bigger – and smarter – than horses.  Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do, like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles.  When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer.  Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant.

The rider can do several useful things.  It can see further into the future (because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads) and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present.  It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters.  And, most important, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking.  The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.  

The model [is one] in which intuition is the main cause of moral judgment, and then reasoning typically follows that judgment to construct post hoc justifications.  Reason is the servant of the intuitions.  The rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant.  {pp. 53-54, softcover edition}

In a number of ways, Haidt’s model aligns well with Kahneman’s.  If we superimpose “the rider” over “system 2” and “the elephant” over “system 1”, we will find many consistencies.  For example, with regard to the first two of the useful things Haidt claims the rider can do – examining alternate courses of action and learning new skills – both are excellent examples of what Kahneman calls system 2 slow thinking.  And as another example, where Kahneman refers to system 2 as lazy and hence always eager to hand back control to the energetic system 1, Haidt’s metaphor makes it abundantly clear that the puny rider (system 2) is simply not as powerful as the mammoth elephant (system 1).  For Kahneman it’s lack of comparable energy, for Haidt it’s lack of comparable strength, but whichever term you prefer – system 1 fast thinking or the intuitive elephant – that’s what holds the upper hand.  Kahneman flatly declares that system 1 is running the show; Haidt says with equal bluntness, the elephant rules.

While these conceptual similarities make us comfortable with both theories, there is something a little unsettling about the way Haidt characterizes the two parts of the mind.  It offends our notion of human dignity to imagine ourselves as being controlled by an unruly elephant within, while there is hardly anything at all offensive in recognizing ourselves as under the influence of a neutral entity called “system 1”.

It’s this unsettling effect it has on us that gives Haidt’s terminology its effectiveness.  He wants us to feel that elephant underneath us, not just to know that it’s there.  We understand the difference between system 1 and system 2 in our head, but we feel the difference between the rider and the elephant in our gut.

Feelings are the critical component here.  Remember that Haidt’s interest is in understanding how we form opinions – in particular, how we form our moral opinions, our views on what’s right and what’s wrong.  And he is unequivocal in asserting that it’s our elephant that decides between right and wrong – instantaneously and intuitively.  Our rider rationalizes as best it can, often clumsily and inarticulately, and always after the fact, what the elephant decided without hesitation.

In short, Haidt is asserting that our moral opinions spring entirely from our instinctive, inborn feelings.  The reasons we come up with to explain these feelings are nothing more than our best attempts at justifying our views to others.  Haidt cites numerous cross-cultural studies and social psychology experiments in support of his assertion.  I won’t recount any of them here, but I will vouch for nearly every one of them as being thought-provoking, entertaining, and sometimes even a bit upsetting.  So, if you’re interested in more details, I encourage you to read his book.  You will not be disappointed.

My interest here is in exploring how we can use Haidt’s ideas about the roots of our moral behavior to become more mindful in the ways we engage with others, especially when it comes to politically or religiously charged topics where thoughtful conversation so often breaks down into emotional ranting and raving.

To begin with, we can keep in mind that one thing we all have in common is that we all have “divided minds”.  If we accept that each of us is a rider on an elephant, then we should be able to agree with the following four assertions:

1. Our own convictions about any moral issue – political, religious, or otherwise – arise from deep-seated feelings that we have little control over.

2. The same goes for the convictions held by others.  Whether we agree with them or disagree with them, their convictions are also arising from deep-seated feelings that they have little control over.

3. Much of what we say by way of explaining our convictions is based upon our compelling need to justify ourselves to others.

4. The same goes for everyone else.  They too have the same compelling need to justify themselves to us.

While it’s possible to read these four statements as an argument that the possibility of authentic communication between my self-justifying rider and yours is all but hopeless, I think there is an opening above, in point #3, for mindfulness to make a difference.

If we have the capacity to understand that much of what we say by way of explaining our convictions is based upon our compelling need to justify ourselves to others, then we also have the capacity to exercise the option of simply of not saying it.

At least, not right away.

Not until we have paused long enough for two things to occur.  First, pause long enough to be certain that we have truly heard and understood what the other person is saying.  Second, pause long enough to be certain that what we are about to say is as free from self-justification as we can possibly render it.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey argued that such a pause allows us to move from reacting to responding.  Applying this insight to what we’ve been learning from Haidt, we might say that such a pause creates an opening for the rider to respond before the elephant can react.  The elephant may always be stronger, but the rider can sometimes be smarter.

One way we can train the rider in us to be smarter than our elephant is to cultivate mindful awareness.  If we are not paying attention, the elephant will always get its way.  We have to be aware enough that we will remember in the moment that we need to pause in order to respond instead of react.

And of course, one way to cultivate mindful awareness is to practice meditation.  Especially vipassana meditation, where we focus our attention on the continuous stream of thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind as we are sitting in stillness.  What better way to become more aware of all the ego-centered, self-justifying opinions we cling to?

With such increased awareness, we can become more skillful at pausing, at keeping our elephants in check, at letting go of some of our self-justifications, and at responding to others instead of reacting to them.

The concluding paragraphs for this post come from Jonathan Haidt’s moving exhortation to his readers on the last page of The Righteous Mind ….

This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion.  The answer is not because some people are good and others are evil.  Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness.  We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning.  This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.

So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try.  Don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust.  And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest.

We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.                                      {pp. 370-371, softcover edition}


You can read the New York Times book review of The Righteous Mind that got me interested in Jonathan Haidt’s work here

And you can find lots more reading and viewing materials on his work here.






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