The Compassionate Kitchen: Book Review

Disclosure: I was asked to review the book by its publicist.

The Compassionate Kitchen: Buddhist practices for eating with mindfulness and gratitude by Thubten Chodron (Shambhala Publications) is a gentle, paced exploration of how to approach a very central aspect of our lives. It’s not the typical book on mindful eating, crammed with cheery ways of looking at food and upbeat approaches to savouring every morsel. I was relieved.

The truth about food is that it can be a tormenting dance at least six times a day with a lover we can’t be rid of or negotiate piece treaties. Having been on a few – many – a lot! – of diets and deprivations, I can absolutely attest to the reality that food and I cannot live with or without each other. 

Reading Thubten Chodron’s very disciplined yet gentle approach to exploring the intricacies of nourishing ourselves, I think I’ve had it all wrong. It’s not about the food. Well, it’s not ONLY about the food. It’s about the intimacy with which we approach the whole relationship of being with each other. While she opens with a generous portion of life at Sravasti Abbey and the title of the first chapter can seem daunting (Eating as Spiritual Practice), the theme is clear. See and know the net that gathers for you what you need to live. And that’s not just food.

 The motivation we bring to each action impacts its results, and eating is no exception.

Attachment makes our mind very narrow and self-centered: a mind filled with craving has no room for generosity.

Chapter 2: The Taste of Altruism: Our motivation for eating

Throughout the book, Thubten Chodron offers this refrain, which I have always held as the core of practice. In this age of quick-fix mindfulness, it’s an important foundation for practice. Our intention sets the tone for our path, yet it is a fragile vow given to being swept off in the torrent of negative emotions. The value of the teachings in this book is the constant reminders to return and refresh our motivations of awareness and kindness.

Most cultures treasure eating not only for its sensual pleasure but also because people bond by sharing food together. By nourishing each other with food and human connection, life continues.

Chapter 5: Mindful Eating

 The chants offered in the book are an interesting part of practice. In every Zen center I’ve practiced, it was my favourite time – perhaps only because it meant good stuff was about to happen! The chants in this book are more elaborate and expansive, yet they have a soothing quality that opens the heart and relaxes the craving mind. I admit, after trying a few chants, it seemed to require more dedication than I have at the moment. Still, I do believe that recitation together at a meal can have a positive impact. The sharing of our lives is more than happenstance and we quickly forget why we came together. Communal recitations of any kind can remind and refresh our intention for being together.

Chapter 10 is likely the most powerful and I sense a wisdom in walking us through the principles and practices of food as a relational process before bringing it home in this poignant and powerful way. In the chapter,  community members write about their relationship to food and their words are both painful and reassuring. 

Overall, I enjoyed having the chance to shift my vision of food and the roots of my relationship to it. What came as a surprise though was the realization of the “kitchen” as this flesh body, this world, these relationships we have with each other. For that I am most grateful.

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/

 

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

Book review: Watts still luminous after 46 years

84564Psychotherapy East & West, published in 1961, has been re-published by New World Library, looking refreshed and rather smart in an orange-is-the-new-seduction cover. Considering the social frame of The Sixties, one would expect Watts to have aged poorly into the 21st century with its dramatically different technology and psychological views. In fact, my aged and faded copy bought in the late ’60’s seems a strange throwback, though quite iconic.

However, like the eternal Dharma, Watts has not only aged well but also now serves as the “message in the bottle” from past wisdom, prescient and uncompromising. Of course, it’s hard to know if the impact of reading Watts today is an inevitable destination of being human or whether our journey was shaped by the thoughts and critiques of people like Watts and the Beat Generation he later influenced. In Psychotherapy East & West, Watts is clear that using this lens of duality only leads us astray and further into a socially-constructed blindness. The explicit theme throughout the book is the “inseparably interconnected patterns” of our bio-psycho-social-ecological systems. In effect, we do not and cannot be in any sense of the word outside this frame. The intention of the “East” is to make visible these interconnected patterns in the process of becoming liberated. The catch however, in Watts’s view, is that Eastern liberation as a shift in connectedness is different from Western “liberation” through psychotherapy – by which he mainly means Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis (and, ironically sets up a dualism).

Watts’s reliance on Freudian and Jungian psychology is consistent with his time. The cognitive therapies of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, which grew from their disillusionment with the psychodynamic therapies, were still in the early days of their methodologies and psychoanalysis was to hold sway for at least another decade. Still, the concept is familiar to us now: we are blinded to our inherent inseparability, not from, as part of the vast intricate pattern of nature by a social structure that is best served through our ignorance. We become “disturbed” when we fall into the social control of organizational “brainwashing”.

The role of both Eastern and Western liberation practices is to experience being “disturbed” and to see it as a point where contradictions in the social frame break through. Although sharing some commonalities of liberation theory, psychotherapy (read psychoanalysis), according to Watts, is incomplete liberation, filled with potential to be social criticism but limited by the blindness of its equally-seduced practitioners. The disturbed individual then is only brought back into line with the oppression in the culture. This seems to parallel the conversations and debates around spiritual and secular mindfulness.WWAWD – what would Alan Watts do? Equally, though I hesitate to read back into his writings through the privilege of hindsight, Watts’s argument that ignoring the context of our lives is the very seed of ignorance, and the arising of being separate, forecasts the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and the socially engaged Buddhism of the next decades.

Watts is cautious about the power of psychotherapy to liberate and I suspect this has much to do with his enchantment with Buddhism in general and zen in particular. At one moment he is forgiving of psychotherapy, allowing it to be a partner in the mutual clarification of itself and Eastern liberation practices; in another, psychotherapies are at risk of becoming another insipid compromising version of the middle way. A messed-up Mādhyamika. It’s in his attempts to critique yet line up psychoanalysis with Buddhist liberation practices that he tends to spiral out into expansive thoughts (and run on sentences). And, much like psychodynamic concepts, the arguments become somewhat self-gratifying. Of course, throw in his foray with Jay Haley’s “prescribing the symptom” and “strategic therapy” and one loses both figure and ground. It would be generous to say that is what Watts intends, a psychotherapeutic dokusan, but Haley’s concepts can be a mental labyrinth of “who’s on first in the prefrontal cortex.” (Personally, I love Haley’s work but it’s sneaky and one has to be really good at the pretence of going with the symptom.)

Despite all the meanders, Watts offers much to consider, not the least being whether we’ve come any further along this path than we were in 1960. He ends with an appeal we are all familiar with by now: if true liberation is the overthrowing of a self-serving authority that blinds us to who we are (reiterated in The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are), then it must come through the challenges to the ethical constructs that authority places on us. It begins with seeing ethics as the language by which we get to know each other. It is not only code law that points to the oughts; it is, perhaps more crucial to our relationships, the organic process of common law, an intuitive felt sense of what is needed beyond self-interest.

Although Watts addresses the ethics of survival, he doesn’t take it to the next step of the ethic of care. Psychotherapies, mindfulness or otherwise, are meant to unblind ourselves to who we have been told we must be, more about who we are becoming than who we want to be. They are relational practices with a moral arc of caring for each other and the world we inhabit, not stages of achievements for self-promotion.

 

Book review: What’s wrong with mindfulness [or] Reflections on an open barn door

barndoor-small What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and what isn’t): Zen perspectives (Wisdom Publications Inc., 2016; please purchase this book from the publisher to support their work) is edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magrid. Contributors attempting to tease out the Zen rights and secular wrongs of mindfulness are a list of teachers who in the Zen world certainly are well-respected for their teachings and social engagement. The Epilogue is written by Robert Sharf and is best read before launching into the book itself.

I have been looking forward to reading this book, feeling a sense of trust in the editors and contributors simply because of their respectable training and, in cases of Magrid and Grace Shireson, being grounded in the secular world of psychology and psychotherapy.

The premise of the book is that there is much right with mindfulness and much wrong, the latter being of significant concern with regard to the safe-guarding the integrity of Buddhist teachings and practice. In principle, I doubt anyone would debate this as a general statement applicable to any conceptualization of mindfulness, either Buddhist, secular or Secular Buddhist. Magrid and fellow authors however seem to take an ambivalent stance. (Note bene: in this case “fellow” is sadly beyond accurate as the lead chapters are primarily written by men, with the exception of Sallie Jiko Teasdale; and, her chapter had less to do with the dialectic of religious and secular mindfulness than the zaniness of the hippy-like atmosphere at the Omega Institute.)

There is much right and much wrong in this book. In part, it seems an attempt (as are many criticisms of modern mindfulness) to shut the blasted-open barn door by hoping that these criticisms will bring prodigal ponies back home to their stalls.  But all is not totally lost, irreversibly. The writings on Zen found primarily in the first section of Critical Concerns are good (if you read around the criticisms) and what one would expect of such lauded teachers. The second section on Creative Engagement slides around with little to anchor it in mindfulness (the primary consideration here) and much less to give one confidence in what isn’t wrong with it. The sole exception in this section – and in fact in the whole book – is the chapter by Gil Frondsal and Max Erdstein; read this one with the intention of savouring every word!

Critical concerns when Buddhist teachers talk about critical concerns

As with most writings that attempt to resolve the phenomenon of secular mindfulness, authors become mired in the lack of clarity regarding whom they are referring to. Inevitably they fall into the pit of offering broad brush criticisms of secular mindfulness and I  think by that term they now mean the “wellness” focused programs. It would help if they were clear about the cachement of their critiques: secular meaning wellness, clinical applications, or some amalgam of a variety of spiritually-based programs that fuse mindfulness into their own teachings. It makes a difference because then the concerns about integrity of the programs, respect for training, and comprehension of what is being taught can be addressed with greater precision. And perhaps such a careful discernment may allow for honouring the use of secular mindfulness in the trenches of mental illness, not the least of which is the urgent need for care of our military, veterans, and first responders with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. In these cases, symptom relief is synonymous with hope for a future. To deride it as a superficial intention is to further stigmatize mental health challenges and to insist that those struggling with depression, anxiety and life-changing mental illness just work harder to get better.

The concerns expressed by the authors on this first section in the book also shuttled between heartfelt criticisms and adulation of the original mindfulness-based application. Over the last couple of years, the attitude has shifted from global undifferentiated censure of mindfulness programs to sounding like a detente has been reached between Buddhist teachings and at least one form of mindfulness, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here, the authors have elevated MBSR to “excellent” status  – despite the tendency of Kabat-Zinn and most MBSR teachers to evade the issue of including or speaking to ethics in the curriculum. While it is accepted in the general secular community that MBSR offers good training and has a caché of effectiveness, it does clang to see this sudden and high regard for a program whose philosophy has been a lightning rod for consistent criticism from the Buddhist community.

The inconsistency of the critical process is most apparent in references to Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness which in one part is offered seemingly as supported by Dogen (p 34 – though I can’t tell if it’s actually in counterpoint to Dogen) and in another chapter strongly criticized (p 74, Senauke). Sadly, Senauke attributes the definition to Elizabeth Stanley and Amisha Jha in the course of expressing concerns about their military mental fitness program. That may seem trivial however if we are to take seriously any deconstruction of what mindfulness is / is not / has become, it does not bode well for our arguments to praise the developer and his program, including his definition and then to take it apart (albeit through misattribution). The optics of this latter clouds whether the Senauke is challenging the definition (which I think is appropriate) or the people who published it in their independent article, people whose intentions Senauke feels is antithetical to the (Buddhist) intent of mindfulness.

What is not added and needs to be

The greatest concern to me in reading this book is that the elevation of MBSR as the program to follow (with the subtext of “well if you must and if Zen is too difficult for you”) disregards several programs which have developed in the last 30-some years that are grounded in ethics and values. Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Therapy (MiCBT), developed by Dr. Bruno Cayoun who is a vipassana practitioner and student of Goenka, is notable for its inclusion of the five precepts. Our own program, Mindfulness-based Symptom Management includes the Five Mindfulness Trainings as values clarification practices. Programs for persons who are incarcerated (Fleet Maull’s Prison Mindfulness), military and first responders with PTSD who struggle with moral injuries, personnel in troubled organizations have all benefitted from examining the incongruence between their ethics and what they are called to do. And, in doing so they have found a way to navigate the unpredictable waters of their lives. Furthermore, while it isn’t in the purview of this book, the growth in compassion based teachings speaks to a world moving beyond the alleviation of individual to global suffering.

As I wrote above, read Frondsal’s chapter. It’s excellent. And let’s hope that, as Shireson writes of her teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman roshi, as we continue to try to have a respectful, co-facilitated conversation on this critical application of Buddhist concepts already loosed on the world, “I’ll turn you and you turn me.”