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.

on the selfie of self-compassion – part 2

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Here’s your ear worm: You’re no bunny ’til somebunny loves you!

And you may have to lose you head before you can apprehend it.

Strangely though all this is quite pertinent to our question of the self in self-compassion that I posted last week. If you scroll back to the post, the comments are well worth the read as they touch on the illusory self, the suffering self, and its need for compassion. There’s a pointer to the “True Self” and that is very interesting because we get into that tricky semantic process of “self” versus “Self.” All very worthy responses and, in particular, the suggestion that the Buddha actually never said there was no self.

So, at the retreat, my response to the question was the executive summary of all these comments. (I don’t remember exactly what I said but this is close enough.) We hold this belief that there is an absolute self, an agent in our lives that directs and orchestrates. When we look closely, we might be able to see that this self is really a construction of expectations, concepts, ideas, reactions, schema (as in Cognitive Therapy) and protections. The form experiences a contact and the  mind grabs it with an interpretation. Oh, I’m being abandoned. Oh, I’m being judged. Oh, I’m losing something precious. The practice of cultivating mindfulness of each of these arising, these “I-makings” (see this post on Evan Thompson’s book Mind and Life), results in awareness of our agitation and anxiety from holding to the constructed self of the moment. So what is the “self” in “self-compassion”? I think as we practice acknowledging the unhelpful constructions and the way it causes our suffering, we begin to chip away at the build-up of crap that covers what Jack Kornfield calls our “Original Goodness“, that true, luminous self that is worthy of care and love.

Now, that latter piece is where I took a wrong turn. Not that there isn’t Original Goodness or  Buddha Nature because Dogen certainly covers that in Genjokoan. It’s just a huge leap from creating our suffering to that awe-filled moment of seeing the gold under the dross. So, let’s back up this little vehicle!

The self is a performance and therefore not substantial.  It emerges out of conditions but is not reducible to them.

Life is a process of “I-making”.

Notes from Evan Thompson’s talk at Zen Brain retreat Upaya Zen Center

I was lucky that the online course given by Robert Wright on Buddhism and Modern Psychology hit the topic of non-self the day after the retreat. Wright (author of the Moral Animal) interviewed Bhikkhu Bodhi who sets the groundwork. You know, all of understanding Buddhism rests on understanding the Buddha’s intention and pedagogy and, not the least, on realizing the Buddha might have been more an epistemologist than a psychologist. (Ooo… Frank just re-stated this: The Buddha was more interested in the human experience rather than what it took to be human. No wonder I keep him around!) Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi: he pointed out in the video interview that the Buddha used different modes of discourse depending on context.

If the context was one of cultivating insight and aspiration for liberation, then we needed to dive into the primary obstacles of the five aggregates and the three poisons. To do that it was necessary to apprehend all objects of clinging as “not self.” If the context was to cultivate ethical action and the consideration of karma and the fruits of karma, then he used the language of self-hood and responsibility. The tricky part – and it’s not just semantics – is that this can be named a self, which may be capitalized to differentiate it, but it’s in the service of acknowledging one has responsibility for one’s actions and intentions.

Wright also introduced Peter Harvey’s book The Selfless Mind which is a terrific analysis of the meaning of non-self in the Pali Canon. Harvey explains that Edward Conze cautioned against the trivial interpretation that because the Buddha is believed to have said that the Self cannot be apprehended, therefore there is no self that exists. Conze’s reasons, according to Harvey, are that “the Buddha taught ‘self’ to coarse materialists, ‘nonexistence of self’ to egoists, and to those near nibbana and free from all love of self, he taught ‘that there is neither self nor not self.’ p. 18” Furthermore, “(h)aving ‘self as master’, then means being in charge of oneself, preserving one’s integrity by not doing anything that one would be ashamed of. No underlying ‘Great Self’ is implied. p.28”

And, our Pali scholar in virtual residence, Justin Whitaker, wrote this great post on week four’s lecture.

(Wright) interviews Dr. Robert Kurzban, author of the dazzlingly titled, “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.” Kurzban tells him that the ‘self’ he thinks he has is really more of a ‘press secretary’ than an executive officer. A lot of the decision making that is going on is actually not known to that ‘press secretary’ of a self. 

Study in Buddhism long enough and you begin to catch on early in a discussion that context determines the teachings. And we can’t forget that the Buddha exhorted his monks to indeed go in search of the self (Vinaya I.23 in the Selfless Mind). This is not that far from each of us seeking to find who we are even as we become someone else.  What really stands out here is the subtlety of language. Self as an emergent property of clinging to, rejection of, and confusion about our experiences, inner and outer. Self as ghost writer of our experiences in the genre of shame and blame. Self as agent in discernment of wholesome from unwholesome actions. Self as upaya, process, verb not noun. Harvey summarizes it well:

Harvey

 

The press secretary self is a compelling personna and pertinent to the self in self-compassion. Scanning through the Majjhima Nikaya 138, I was really caught by the nuance of the way clinging, rejection, and confusion keep us stuck. In v.20, Maha Kaccana (summarizing the Buddha’s teaching) works through the process and showed that obsession with form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness renders us agitated and preoccupied with their changes. This preoccupation gives rise to anxiety, distress, and concern. This is our nub of suffering, these press releases of dire consequences for being who we were in a nanomoment. This is suffering, the self who suffers.

Now the problem with the word “self” is that if we want to use it to point to a materialistic phenomena (these symptoms of anxiety and distress) or if we want to lay claim to a changing cluster of experiences, we’d have to honor Conze’s explanation of the Buddha’s rationale for his teaching style and get stuck with being called a coarse materialist or egoist¹. Neither actually fit the intention of the practice of self-compassion.

But the Buddha taught more than just about non-self so there is a way out of this (thanks to Harvey’s detailed analysis).

Self is protector of oneself,
for what other protector would there be?
For with a well-controlled self
one gains a protector hard to gain.

Dhammapada 160

As well, in the Rajan Sutta, following on King Mallika’s proclamation that there is no one dearer to him than himself, the Buddha says:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
if you love yourself.

So, there you have it. Because we know, we are aware of how dear we are to ourselves, we have the opportunity to then be compassionate to others who feel the same about themselves. Compassion for others is contingent on our capacity to see our own value.

But that value often is shrouded in our shame, our sense of unworthiness, our fears of being abandoned, being cast out, being judged as lacking.

The self referenced in self-compassion is a complete self. It is the press secretary, the one velcro-ed to form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And. And it is the self who relishes the joy, competence, thrill, connection, ease, and resonance with others. I’ve quoted Kaz Tanahashi before: the enso contains both perfect and imperfect; that is why it is complete.

When I can be fully with that completeness, meet it with kindness, and know that others feel the same way², I am free of my head, that thinking brain. Being free of that thinking brain, I am also free of that constructed, constricting self (if ever so briefly). And the self in self-compassion is thus rendered neither self nor no-self.

It is just another place marker of where my practice gains traction.

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¹I do have to note that in MN 148, the Buddha does teach that the aggregates are “not self” but it is a device to demonstrate the falsifiability of the clinging self through reductio ad absurdum. And it’s antidote “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” is less a denial of selfhood than of gaining clarity of the experience. Don’t take my word; I’m waiting on my Pali scholar pal to get back to me on this one.

² The three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. See Christopher Germer & Kristin Neff

on the selfie of self-compassion – part 1

 

I’m like one of those Japanese bowls… I have some cracks in me, they have been filled with gold…

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HI there! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Last you looked I was headed off on a training retreat to learn how to teach a self-compassion program developed by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. It was quite the gathering of folks from all over the world. I suppose that says a lot about the state of the world and the wish of so many of us that something… anything… perhaps self-compassion practice even… could create a shift away from our determined efforts to create suffering.

As with any retreat, I learned – and keep learning – that the process is subtle, sneaky, and seductive. Somewhere along the way (and I don’t recall when it happened), I discovered this splinter just west of my heart. One of those things you don’t know is there and that it has had you off-kilter until it’s no longer there. To be honest, I don’t even know the accreted story around the splinter other than it having something to do with shame.

Of course, it has to do with shame. What else would sit festering and infecting everything, cracking apart the rigid calcified self-constructs only to create more? Fun times were had by all my constructed and contrived selves!

And then this past weekend, I had the absolute delight to co-teach with Chris Germer right here in my own backyard. Almost 100 people at the retreat and I was gobsmacked by the kindness and solid practice. You might say to me, “Hey Genju! Can you see it now? No need for shame or unworthiness. Feel the love, Girl! Fill those cracks with gold!”

You might and you’d be right. Except for that moment when that Thing happens in a retreat. You know the one I mean: where you’re bopping along and BAM! you get that ole familiar mind worm about screwing up. Right at that moment, as I shut down for how long I don’t know, Chris leaned over and said something about how the session was flowing. Something about how he would do this differently next time and that he was doing fine but really preferred the back-and-forth. Having been shut down and on high threat alert, my mind and body flooded with shame. I had let my co-teacher down! We got through the rest of the day and you know I sat up all night deconstructing this nanomoment, right?

Well hell. It was a self-compassion retreat so that’s what I practiced. Not with the idea that I wanted the suffering to end but – as Chris says – BECAUSE I was suffering! And then (really after about 4 hours of torment), I heard his words again but understood them differently. Earlier someone had said they wanted to hear more from him about self-compassion; he and I consulted and agreed it was a good idea for him to carry the late morning and afternoon session. He wasn’t referring to my preoccupation. He was referring to the imbalance of the teaching dynamic after we decided to shift our roles. Can you see those cracks filling in with gold?

Checking in the next morning, it was clear that my high threat stance had really warped the message. But wait, it doesn’t end here!

In the Q&A, one participant asked: If in Buddhist teachings we are told to see there is no self, what is the self in self-compassion?

Yah. One of those questions. But it opens the door to asking whether self-compassion is really a selfie. (Spoiler alert: I don’t agree that it is but let’s hash it out.)

OK. You take a stab at this and I’ll publish my answer and my revised answer in the next post.

 

a thousand hands of compassion – book review

Thousand-hands1

Some time ago, one of my dharma friends sent me this lovely book. A Thousand Hands of Compassion: The Chant of Korean Spirituality and Enlightenment by Seon Master Daehaeng¹. I was strangely moved. Strangely because I have never really believed that people who haven’t met face to face actually have the capacity to activate a resonance that one might call a bond, a quiet joy, a sense of being considered kindly. More strangely because I thought I’d done enough work on my own walls and thickets, been the recipient of enough gifts from people I’ve not yet met and those I may never meet to have these walls become porous enough for kindness to flow in.

But there you have it. I am one gnarly, snarly nut to riddle with holes.

Kindness is an interesting thing. It’s one of those behaviourally-based activities that is only known when seen. I do find it easy to be kind. Ultimately it doesn’t cost anything and there is a feel-good factor when all is said and given.

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Compassion, however, is something else all together. It costs everything. And it requires that we are willing to be in the presence of everything. There are no options or substitutions allowed.

My one mind is the root of all things.
All things arise from it,
so all things I completely entrust to it.
This letting go
fills my heart with light. (p. 36)

This book is an amazing opportunity to practice just that fortitude. Taken from different sutras, it is compiled as a single text and chanted daily in Korean temples. The verses call on us to devote ourselves to that one mind that is the mind of all Buddhas. Some read as short recitations that almost evoke a full prostration. Others are slightly longer tracts that evoke an inner call-and-response. Each page carries a verse, Korean on one side, English on the other, and is enriched by the stunning art of Hyo Rim.
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The minds of all Buddhas are my mind.
Nothing I see, hear, or do
exists apart from
the truth they realized.
My one mind itself is the Buddha-dharma,
present throughout all aspects
of my life. (p.24)

Tomorrow Frank and I leave for our respective retreats. He’s off to something somewhere that hopefully won’t have him terrorizing other meditators with his death stare. I’m off to learn a bit about self-compassion. It seems an oxymoron this term “self-compassion” but I do recall spending about two years on the first two lines of the Metta Sutta.

May I be free from suffering
May I be at peace

So I’m taking this book and my mala beads and an appreciation for T.S. Eliot.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

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¹You can read more about Seon Master Daehaeng here.

handful of leaves

Last week, I spent 5 days at the Omega Institute learning about mindful self-compassion.  The potential redundancy of the topic title and the nuances of dharma may chafe a bit but it does point to the current trend in turning Buddhist psychological concepts into therapeutic processes.  That’s not a bad thing because given what interventions actually work and the paradigm shift we need so we can improve as therapists, another approach would be a Godsend… or Buddhasend in this case.  In fact, when done right (read: commitment to training on the part of the therapist), there is no greater accountability than that for a professional who has to test the medicine before administering it.  And what medicine it is!

The Buddha said that what he had taught was a handful of leaves in comparison to the numerous leaves in the simsapa forest.  In the Simsapa Sutta, he explained that what he had not taught was irrelevant because 

… they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

The Buddha went on to say that he taught one and only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering.

A few things about this sutra have bothered me for a long time.  First, why the heck would he avoid teaching something because it did not lead to suffering*?  By inference, it means some of the things he taught opened us to suffering – which, of course, is what he said.  Second, in my pea-brained head what he taught has always been two things: (1) suffering and (2) the end of suffering.

Somewhere in the week of the retreat/training, I had a chance to walk with a dear dharma sibling.  As we discussed the intricacies of what the Buddha taught (and didn’t teach), I wondered out loud why suffering never seemed to cease.  Why was it that each time we drilled down into that deep gut somewhere under the hara, we reliably struck the oily, thick, black smoke of ancient twisted karma?  We talked some more about this “walk of disillusion” we often take as practitioners, this path of disenchantment, grief, and sorrow that we mistake for an obstacle to our progress.  Stopping under a towering tree (close as we can get to a simsapa forest), I chuckled with the realization that perhaps we had become experts in drilling for suffering.  Perhaps we only found suffering each time because that precisely was what we drilled for at every sitting.   Perhaps it was time to hang up that dowsing rod and turn to something more balancing.

I can’t think of a better argument for a practice of love; not just compassion but also lovingkindness, equanimity and joy.    The fourfold practice that warms and opens the heart.  And ends suffering.

So the Buddha did teach one and only one thing.  Our practice is not only about the origins of suffering and the defilements that cause them.  It is equally and likely even simultaneously about the cessation of suffering through the practice of warming the heart so it can open and not fear being broken.

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*The Buddha’s teaching are not simply an exercise in intellectual exploration of suffering.  In order to understanding suffering, we first need to open to it in the body, experiencing the very sensations we struggle against and strive to avoid at all costs.  So paradoxically, his teachings lead us directly to suffering because that is the only route out of this tangled mess born of craving, hatred, and ignorance.

incongruence

Another post hot off the neuronal wires.  I either have a lot of time to spare or I’m mis-managing my time so badly, I’m blind to what isn’t getting done.  Delusions are like that.  One never knows.  Nor can one know.  So let’s just adopt the hypothesis that I’m actually not blind to the critical things needing attention right now and see where that takes us.

Well, after an 8-hour mental lock-down on my Excel Statistics program last night, I suddenly had this awful realization that the procedural approach I was taking to our data from the clinic may be all wrong.  Not a nice thing to feel at 2200 with an early day on the other side of sunrise.  As I fell down the rabbit hole of computerized statistics I found myself in that space of Great Doubt: “But how do I really know that the computer’s FTEST (and yes, I have invented a few nice acronyms that describe that test) knows what it’s doing!?”

Short version: by midnight, I had figured out that I don’t and then found the table I had painstakingly formatted had all the wrong values in it.  That’s not the worst of it.  I had already sent the table off to my colleague in Australia – who was likely sitting at his desk, on a Tuesday morning, wondering why in hell he got involved in this idiot’s project in the first place.  What astounded me was that I was so proud of the formatting of the table I had failed to see the values of the correlations could not possibly be what I had typed in… correlations range from -1 to +1…  The table was populated with 4’s and 5′ and -3’s… well, you get the picture.

I’m chagrined and embarrassed beyond description.

But there it is.  That delusional process which latches onto the form and style of practice without checking into the actual contents or substance.  To say that I’m easily seduced by bright, flashy things would be true.  I had thought practice made me more likely to take the flash-blindness as a mindful bell to close my eyes and proceed faithfully through the darkness.

Apparently not.

What I often forget is to check and double check.  And check yet again.  What is it now?  And now?  And yet again now!

So as I go back and check on my data, let me leave you with this little nugget of our findings:

Self-kindness and emotional exhaustion have an inverse relationship.  The less kind you are to yourself, the more fatigued you can become (leading to burn out).  Harsh self-judgment has the same relationship.

Lower levels of self-kindness are associated with greater personal spiritual incongruence.  The less supportive you are of yourself, the greater the divide you feel between your ideal and actual experience of spirituality.

In fact, personal spiritual incongruence was related to all aspects of low self-compassion and high burn out.

Time to go light some incense!