Book Review: Pause, Breathe, Smile by Gary Gach

Disclosure: I received the book for a fair, unbiased review. However, I actually bought it for myself because I was too impatient to read it.

I met Gary Gach (I think) a few years ago (I think). Or maybe he and I met on Facebook after I met someone he knew who knew someone I didn’t know… All of which to say, I appreciated the chance to read this book.


Pause, Breathe, Smile (PBS) sets a high bar for itself. “Awakening mindfulness when meditation is not enough” throws the gantlet down at the feet of the infatuation with meditation. This an important understanding: meditation is not many things we want it to be and it is not enough. When that becomes apparent, most practitioners give up and find another escape or addiction. Gach is not afraid to confront this head on. If you want to experience changes in your life, you have to be willing to take the show on the road. And Gach offers a terrific framework for getting traction on the path to liberation: Intentionality (pausing), Introspection (breathing), and Insight/clarity (smiling).

It may take a moment’s breath to pause and stop chafing against the seemingly random connections between the words and definitions. But hang in; it does make sense. Gach, ordained in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, makes a quick deep dive into the heart of mindfulness practice: discipline leads to mastery. Using the fundamental practices taught by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, he outlines the daily, continuous practices of attending in the life we live: mindfulness bells, mindfulness blessings, mindfulness trainings, and the triad of study, observe, practice. This is no sweet-talking, do-what-feels-good approach (well, maybe there’s a sweetness in the invitational tone which is irresistible).

Rarely found in today’s deluge of mindfulness books, however, is the courage to address the core of mindfulness practice: cultivating a moral life or what is called “living by vow”. Gach doesn’t shy away from this. In “A moral perspective” he lays out the arc of mindfulness as a relational process.

Being a good person…can be one of the most valuable gifts we can offer ourselves and others.

Gach weaves the threads of continuous practice into a fabric of compassion. When we pay attention to the consequences of our actions, we become aware of how we hurt ourselves and others. Often unintentional – but that’s the whole point. Can we become more intentional in our lives by pausing to see the hurtful impact of our actions, speech, and thoughts? (Of course, if you just want to intentionally hurt others, keep reading anyway because you may learn how to repair what you’ve done.)

The proof is in the practice.

Studying our lives, observing the consequences of our actions, and iterating through practices makes our aim more true in becoming human, more compassionate. Gach offers the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the lay vows taken by Buddhist practitioners and reframed by Thich Nhat Hanh to be more prescriptive than proscriptive, as a means of setting the frame for practice accessible to anyone regardless of religious or personal beliefs.

Gach moves smoothly into Breathe with a detailed examination of the awareness of breath practice – a powerful meditation in many schools of meditation. He follows the interpretation by Thich Nhat Hanh which is a simple (though not always easy) and welcoming process to train meditation habits. He’s emphatic that meditation is not self-hypnosis. I particularly loved Gach’s teaching of the impact of slowing down and going deep:

It’s like gazing down at a clear stream bed, when, unexpectedly, a little leaf falls upon the surface and then whoosh! whoosh zooms away. The leaf surprises us by showing how swiftly a current has been flowing invisibly. So too can our mind race like the wind, without our realizing it.

Through Smile, he explores the practice of equanimity and patience. I’ll admit I had trouble with the suggestion to “smile (as acceptance) when it’s 100 degrees! (I always chuckle when someone says “It is what it is.” One of my teachers used to retort: It is not IT!) Wisdom practices are the most challenging because they require perspective-taking and relinquishing “truths” we hold dear. Using the ideogram of wisdom that contains the scripts of heart/mind and a hand holding a broom, he explores how practice is the process of sweeping clean, purifying our hearts.

Gach’s writing is full of amazing passages that both surprise and affirm what we already understand and feel. Yet, he takes us deeper: placing hands over the heart region during a meditation is like massaging compassion into our hearts. Never insistent in one way, he offers “a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground (Rumi)”. Formal and informal practices are held in a realistic partnership with the latter as the “mortar that holds the bricks of formal practice together.” And he is clear that “mindfulness holds a single truth with multiple meanings.”

The power of this book is the absence of saccharine mindfulness or what a colleague calls “pink bubble-gum mindfulness”. It is determined to awaken the reader and offers a simple, clear guide along the path. Still, Gach is emphatic that practice requires awareness of the ultimate challenges we face, individually and collectively, in setting our compass to the three realities of impermanence, self-making, and interbeing. In his closing words:

The rest is up to you.

Canada Reads but does it understand? A memoir that was a tragedy in three parts.

I love literary lists. Each year I pick up one book authored by the Noble Prize in Literature; this year was the ever-confounding Kazuo Ishiguro. I sit anxiously waiting for the Man Booker Prize shortlist (though the long list actually has better writing sometimes); this year the weirdly contemplative Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won. I become feverish and irrational as the Scotia Giller Prize lists are published; 2017winner was Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. I read and rooted for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson and had a brief disappointing affair with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter.

Canada Reads, however, has never quite been my cup of tea, being too much a survivalist themed-show with a time range of books that brought back memories of English Lit in university. Unlike the other literary prizes, Canada Reads is made up of debators who trash out their support of the book they have been chosen to read, eventually voting a book a week off the stacks until the surviving one goes on to fame and glory. When this year’s list was announced, I was attracted to Cheri Demaline’s The Marrow Thieves and, tentatively, Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness. Perhaps it was the influence of the Giller’s shortlisted Eden Robinson’s amazing, searing Young Adult story of an Indigenous youth and his peripatetic spirit quest, all the while managing a family drama that is too real to shut out. I chose Demaline’s book, putting Forgiveness on the shelf. (Yes, there is irony in that.)

As with Robinson’s book, the Marrow Thieves is riveting and gut-wrenching YA, tearing open into full view the psychological survival of Indigenous Peoples in a dystopic future. There, survivors of a climate catastrophe, hunt the Indigenous Peoples for the key they hold to survival. It’s worth the read.

But it’s not what I want to write about today.

A reluctant reader of Sakamoto’s memoir, Forgiveness: A gift from my grandparents, I confess I feared the theme of Asian oppression that occurred in Canada as a reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. I’d also read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep Northa powerful story of Australian POWs forced into building the Thai-Burma Death Railway; the book effectively ruined my summer – or was it winter? But then, fear is a seductive creature, drawing us ever closer to the very thing we seek to avoid.

Sakamoto’s book is a tragedy in three parts: his Japanese grandparents, born in Canada and the target of Canadian bigotry; his East Coast grandfather, escaping a brutal home life only to become a POW in Japanese-held Hong Kong and later sent to a shipbuilding factory in Osaka, Japan; and, Sakamoto’s writing, filled with grammatical and historical errors, that almost derails the early history of his two lineages.

The richness of the two sets of grandparents, their own parents and children (Sakamoto’s parents) is mostly lost as is the opportunity to capitalize on an important theme of hope and belonging, betrayal and resilience. Sakamoto’s Japanese great-grandparents came to Canada’s West Coast and became a fishing family among many other Japanese. As we so well know from centuries of history, nothing turns one part of a community against another faster than the success of one and not both. Colour of skin, accents, and other external features become the target of ridicule and bullying. Eventually, governments step in with shoddily clad legislation that sanctions prejudice. In 1941, after Japan’s entry into WW II, the government claimed “military necessity” and Japanese Canadians were shipped to the interior of British Columbia, Ontario, and the beet farms of Alberta¹. In all, 21, 000 were displaced and never compensated for lost homes, businesses, and emotional wounds of disbanding families. The timeline here shows redress occurred in 1988 but did not include compensation for loss of property and hardship.

Sakamoto’s grandparents survived by agreeing to go to a beet farm in Alberta so that they could stay together as a family, only to discover that life on the open prairie during the fierce winter in an un-insulated animal shed will challenge them in ways they could not have imagined. For his grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, caring for her parents and children becomes the source of her resilience. Her son, whose woundedness is not made clear, is Sakamoto’s father (the book could use a genealogy!).

Across the country on the East Coast, Sakamoto’s Canadian grandfather, Ralph MacLean, lives on The Magadelan Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As Sakamoto narrates it, his grandfather’s story edges on cliché despite the very real likelihood of his unforgiving, brutal parental environment in an unforgiving land. So much could have been done with this, however, it distils down to a physically and emotionally abused child with a heart of gold who eventually survives his own internment by the Japanese military in Asia. His daughter, wounded as well, is Sakamoto’s mother. The painful irony of his parents bringing together two victims of oppression is unexplored other than a nod to a mysterious process of forgiveness.

Against a painful and powerful background such as this, Sakamoto had ample material to weave a rich narrative. However, the rushed sketches of these characters, who were so critical to the later narrative that intertwines to shape the author’s own life are frustratingly sparse and staccato. I want to know more about Sakamoto’s father beyond his self-involved tendency to move from dream to dream. Then again, is it self-involvement or a desperate need to repossess what was lost? How did his mother become who she became, besides the usual “falling in with the wrong crowd”? Ironically, the chapters about his parents are read better, yet the characters all stand unavailable, still caught in their psychological internment.

The final tragedy of Forgiveness is captured by Goodreads reviewer, Edward Fenner‘s whose comments save me writing out the frustrations of reading a book that is poorly edited and sloppy in its fact-checking. It doesn’t take much to validate geographical locations – there is only one ferry from the Magdalen Islands and it goes to PEI. It crosses a “strait”, not a”straight”.  The first sections of the book had a sense of notes taken in conversation with his grandparents. The latter sections about his parents and his own life were better written and, I am guessing, might have been the manuscript he was to send to the Globe and Mail for publication, from whence someone thought it would make a great book (it would have). Certainly, the language and style of the early years describing his family seem akin to parents or grandparents telling grandchildren about their life experiences. How Forgiveness won the Canada Reads debate is perplexing. However, one can hope Sakamoto will use this revival of his book to consider his family’s stories again because we only die when we are forgotten. Somehow, I think that would be the gift from his grandparents.

As an immigrant generation, we are losing our history. When my parents passed away, they left a gaping historical hole in our family, much like the missing photographs in their albums. In my mother’s later confused years, she had taken out the photos of my brother and placed them in a separate album – supposedly because I would not be interested in seeing his life in grainy black and white snapshots. So, I have albums comprised in part of grainy snapshots of my life in Burma and in part of blank spaces of black. My lineage skips across these spaces and my now-troublingly poor memory tries to backfill the emptiness. I suppose I should be happy because the memories that fill the spaces are likely less triggering than the ones in the lost photos!

It’s a shame Sakamoto didn’t do a greater justice by taking the time to produce the powerful story it would have been if only to show that his grandparents’ ability to forgive was not about the individual. It was a clarity that the world is good, evil, neither, and both. It was a realization that we can encourage our stories to blind and bind us or shed light on another way to honour our narrative – ones that are already hidden in the folds of the stories we tell ourselves.

 

  1. http://japanesecanadianhistory.net/historical-overview/general-overview/

 

breaking bread

Five years ago, I actually had a life of ordinary habits!

Happy Bunny Weekend!

108zenbooks

luminous2

There’s a new energy in the house.  Not just the wild exuberance of the pups who have so far managed to survive my every threat of sending them to the Great Beyond.  Not just the brighter light of Spring or the receding snow line on the fields.  Not just the thick glaze of ice crust on the trails from the day melt and night freeze.  Not just anything in particular but all things in their eternal uniqueness that come together effortlessly.  Yet that asks so much of us – to simply wait with deep faith that change requires little of us but presence.

After watching Espe Brown’s movie “How to Cook Your Life,” I had an urge to bake bread.  This was a somewhat safer urge to indulge than the one I tend to have after watching superhero dog survivor movies.  But bread making requires effort akin to the great effort…

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faded images: where we go when we’re gone

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Lessons from surviving 2017: Don’t take anything seriously. Simply because there is no end of surprises to upend expectations and desires.

IMG_2185I hope you’ve all had a restful holiday and a gentle transition into 2018. Well. Hardly gentle today if you are in the Northern hemisphere with its snow, rain, and now that bomb cyclone! Over here, north of the 49th, we’re enjoying a balmy -30°C with sunshine and the occasional welp from Dog1 tripping over Dog2 as they race around the house.

It’s a nice time of year. Not the least because I decided to end 2017 with a dedicated swing at the Room of Doom. Have I mentioned it before? Ah. The RoD is a 10′ x 10′ supposed bedroom that, over the last 14 years, has been the dumping ground – or as they say in current mindfulness-ese, holding the space – of four generations’household Stuff.

IMG_2958 I never thought of myself as a hoarder. I prefer the label of a judicious collector of objects with potential re-sale. This is based on the eternal truth that as soon as I send a box of my fake jewelry to some charity, I discover a need for it (GrandestKid loveslovesloves fake jewelry!) or that it’s the latest in Hipster crazes, like milk glass.

But no more. I have need of a spare bedroom – or two – so famdamily can visit in comfort. Because, after all, who are we without family – dammed or otherwise. So yes. As much as it terrified me to let go of the contents of these boxes, I informed The Kid that she needed to help me unpack these four generations’ boxes and discern stuff from junk.

I honestly thought she’d be more… well…objective. So. Who would have thought that metal camel chewing on a bell was a prized possession? Or the old decrepit Polaroid camera. Or the whiskey tumblers etched in gold with a ship’s water markings. All this time, I’d been hoarding the black velvet paintings of bucolic Burmese landscapes for her.

And then, as the memories were shared, the room filled with people from long ago. Ringing the bell hanging off the camel’s snout DSC_0050had been her duty when visiting her grandparents, my parents; I could see them setting the table. The etched whiskey tumblers, a gift from my parents’ best friend – a ship captain, a frequent visitor in Rangoon where he sailed past our house as he navigated into the harbour; I could hear his laugh. The milk glass is being stored for future dispersal but the cranberry glass decanter goes (horrors…this generation has no appreciation for sherry glasses or decanters!).

It was easier than I anticipated, this letting go of so many things that are now rendered meaningless as memories have been scraped of their emotional colours. And, the gift of having a room for The GrandestKid and The Kid with her PlusOne is a reasonable tradeoff.

As part of our holiday celebrations, we saw the movie Coco, a powerful parable of death as a fading away when there’s no one to remember us, the stories of us. A fitting companion to our time of remembering who we are to each other and revitalizing our histories. And most of all, keeping those memories alive through our living stories and dedication to each other.

Book Review: Why Buddhism is True – the art of being Wright

Robert Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, extends his previous thesis in the Moral Animal that we’ve evolved to evolve. This time Wright appeals to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religion and its philosophy to scaffold a more positive spin on genes-making-genes-making-genes.

Is Wright right?

Has he broken through to Buddhism as true?

By “true”, he means he’s discovered enough scientific evidence to support it as the True Path to making those nasty narcissistic genes a kinder, gentler mechanism for a world riddled with anger, craving, and delusion.

Wright starts tentatively, with a level of apologetics one would expect from someone about to tell a 4-year-old there isn’t any Santa Claus. Except that he’s about to tell us there is one. To give him credit, he does it was a chatty style and several appeals to modern tropes – the Matrix, addictions (to sugar donuts), tribalism – so that we can feel Buddhism is really about feeling good in our 21st-century life. And that’s where, in many places, Wright may be getting it wrong.

Honestly, when he started talking about the “Red Pill”, I was casting back to Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland is a far tighter lesson in impermanence, not-self, suffering, delusion, and all those nice things we wade around in when we practice Buddhism. In fact, most of the metaphors or teaching points Wright uses are thin explorations of the depth and richness of Buddhist philosophy and practices. Well, let me step back from that flat-footed statement: if you’re Buddhist-curious but religion-averse and philosophy-eclectic, Wright’s interpretation and frequent insertion of 21st-century desires into Buddhist foundational concepts help get over the aversion and through the often confusing rounds of Buddhist-y thought.

Start with his attitude to meditation: “I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it.” That might help as a rationale to meditate. Then he gets into a circular spin-out scare-quoting “success” in meditation and offering the typical paradox of “try not try”. Still, given the zeitgeist today of everyone and their parent being meditation-curious or a meditation-surfer, the second chapter carries some appeal and reassurance that even scientists can fall into more twisted logic than a dozen boxes of red licorice. Ironically and with the possibility that this review loses all credibility, Chapter Two has some merit.

After that, if you’re schooled in Buddhist practice and have some glancing familiarity with the Noble Truths (4 of them), poisons (3 and they’re nasty), aggregates (five and they create everything), you may find Wright’s reading of psycho-social-neuro-psychology into them an interesting journey. For the most part, he does well with the attributes of being human and how meditation has support as a means of unravelling the knots of our suffering. However, and it’s a BIG however, Wright is never clear about the term “feelings”. Of course, it’s easier to foster companionship between Buddhism and evolution psychology (genes just wanna have fun) if we call it all feelings/emotions. That allows for setting up the fight-flight-flee model to explain how we come to crave sugar donuts (really).

But Buddhist feelings are not Western Feelings. It may seem a picayune detail but, really, it’s not. Because Wright maintains a confounded view of vedana with emotions throughout the book, his careful building of arguments that meditation (insight meditation specifically) is the cure-all of the poisons (his focus) misses the point: Meditation is not a DIY self-renovation project attained through understanding its psycho-socio-neuro-correlates. In fact, he goes quite a bit astray when he continuously notes that the common ground of Buddhism and evolution psychology is the desire to improve, to avoid unpleasant experiences (because that ends the genetic lineage), and to not get worked up in case those genes make a bad decision.

When Wright writes:

Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.

he is making the role of practice an instrumental process and, while that may be start-point, to remain there is what is called a thin understanding.

The frustration is that Wright has the chops to offer a thick understanding of the philosophy and process of Buddhist thought and practice. Unfortunately, from the feeling/Feelings frying pan he leaps into the fire of emptiness and then “oneness”. Having taken an online course on Buddhism and Psychology he offered, I did like his teaching style and found him thoughtful. I still do. But not in every aspect of Why Buddhism is True.

If you read between the lines of the dialogues he had with his teachers (Joseph Goldstein among them), there were words of caution offered to him about the direction of his thinking. I wish he’d listened a bit closer and let the teachings penetrate deeper. Then again, like Gutei’s student who ran around holding up his finger because he saw Gutei do that, who hasn’t been consumed with the need to explain the inexplicable. And with the glut of “This is the real Buddhism” books, I certainly understand the urge (like his addiction to sugar donuts) to get his view out there. 

Writing style: chatty, personable, easy to read

Will it help: Depends on what you’re looking for. Beginners would feel reassured. Seasoned practitioners may find some interesting nuggets that tie together a spiritual canon with modern science. Some may have quibbles about many things and depending on your level of seasoning these may become points of practice.

 

Other Reviews

Assessing the Value of Buddhism, for Individuals and for the World by ANTONIO DAMASIO Aug 7, 2017

What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t: Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism by Adam Gopnik Aug 7 & 14, 2017 (Wright’s comments defending his take on emptiness are in the comments.)

A Science Writer Embraces Buddhism as a Path to Enlightenment by Gregory Cowles Aug 25, 2017

Meditation can make us happy, but can it also make us good? by Nick Romeo Aug 25, 2017

 

Book review: no-mind for the Minds of Winter

Not quite a zen book but zennish enough and more than bookish enough to warrant you knowing about it.

Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a book best read with a dance card, playlist, genealogy, time tracker or any variety of two- or three-dimensional process that keeps the characters and events under some control. You may also choose to read it free-form, though that may require copious amounts caffeine and significant restraint against tossing it against the wall.

It’s a good book; it is likely a great book. It might take the Giller home – or not. But it takes a discipline that is belied by the back matter on the cover. A mystery across time and culture, it promises a riddle about the chronometer from the Franklin Expedition that one assumes will be solved; historical events uncovered and put in place; and, characters who risk all just for the enjoyment of doing so. O’Loughlin’s vision of the scope of this topic is formidable and where it lacks – frustratingly – in depth, it does console with terrific prose. What may be unforgivable, depending on the level of sustain attention training the reader has, is his compulsive need to throw in everything, and the kitchen sink.

I picked up the book because a kitchen sink played a role in my own connection with the Franklin Expedition. As an archeological chemist in a previous career incarnation, I was given a container filled with frozen tin cans, dripping across the lab floor. They were hypothesized to be from the Franklin Expedition and for months the excitement in the labs was electric. Franklin’s passage, disappearance, and the eventual (best possible) resolution is the stuff of many careers and romantic speculation.

O’Loughlin begins with a speculation and fantasy of his personal life and his ambitions. There is little to foretell the chronometer. In fact, there is little substantive thread to follow about this chronometer. Its appearance is ghostly and, moving across the words on the page, one might almost wonder if it was imagined. Many a sentence is re-read to verify these fleeting sightings. I suppose this would be exciting enough, to feel the search as an embodied experience, but a purely experiential flow makes for better meditation than fiction.

Thankfully, the characters enlisted by O’Loughlin are fascinating in themselves. Some are historic and therefore verifiable. Others are purely fictitious and therefore need some level of plausible accreditation. O’Loughlin doesn’t offer any of that for these latter creatures, leaving them to our imagination but also untethered in the minds of the narrative (there is more than one).

To fully engaged with Minds of Winter, it is necessary to approach it as a 20th century telling of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Set the intention to simply meet each character and event without any attachment to the storyline or its promised outcome. In fact, it’s more a koan about desire, aversion, stuckness, and surrender than a riddle about a timepiece. Renounce all pre-occupations to know the who, what, when, where, and why of this theme. Perhaps the only value to be found here is a love of powerful language (at times), evocative imagery (at times), and a chilling confrontation with our desperate need to know fully (always).

Will it take the Giller? Perhaps. I suspect however the other books with a closer-to-bone narrative might leave it still thawing in the permafrost.

Other readings

the untamed rose

Rose petals. I don’t collect them. Passive little things that they are, they simply drop off the bloom and collect themselves in languorous little stretches across the floor. Sometimes, in exasperated tones, I huff out the first syllable of “Really…” which, were I to complete my exhale, I mean to follow-up with a stern “Must you?” But, reaching down, I don’t get past that initial contact of dry skin on those petals.

And I am lost.

The rose I love most was among the ones we rescued from my parents’ home just before the new tenants took charge of destroying the carpets and sinks. It – and its friends – took up the back of the little truck, probing into my ears with each stop and start from Montreal back home. You’ll love it on the farm, I tell them as if they had been extracted from a disastrous setting. In truth, they seem to have thrived on the neglect, unlike my mother who had left for her own journey from hospital to long-term care. I, on the other hand, firmly believed they were bereft and pining (oh evil pun) for my father’s evening companionship and his obsession with every leave and petal.

There’s no real evidence that the rose I call Dad’s rose was truly his. Besides, we know that one cannot own a rose. They are actually quite indifferent to all that attachment – as I often wish I could be. Regardless, I came to believe it had been passed on to my care. A bloodline from somewhere further back than Shakyamuni, flowing through innumerable nurseries of stock roots and grafts, to be propped up in the back of my truck nodding at passing cars. It’s sad, really. I might have been better off had I not impressed ownership by claiming a birthright or planting it in a bloodline.

But there you have it. I desire to be embedded in a bloodline that flows backward and forward. Because what would we be without something that carries us along, that holds us as if it is always forever. Because all our very best intentions to pay attention to our stinky attitude don’t stand a fig of a chance at the rose petal’s soundless dropping off. Practice, if you will, the breath, the posture, the yells-bells-smells of your preferred rituals. (Don’t get me wrong: I love the dance of chants and circumambulating a rectangular room made circular step-by-step.) But, in that moment when you hear the sound of one hand dying, will you live the lesson the untamed rose petal has been offering season after season?