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Showing posts from June, 2017

THE JOURNEY WITHIN

So I'm at Day 23 of my 100-day meditation challenge. What began as one 30-minute session sitting cross-legged in front of a candle flame, counting the seconds and blinking every twelfth second, has now gone up to two sessions: one in the morning and one in the evening. A couple times I have even made a hat-trick of it.

Some of meditation's many benefits, and there are over 75 which are backed by science, are immediately apparent. Right after the first session I felt a heightened sense of calm. As if I were sleep walking through life, floating on air without a care in the world. Other benefits take a little longer to appear. Like today, which was the first session in which I was almost without a single thought for the entire 30 minutes. My mind was just blank. I had entered the arena of pure Being.

Also, I fidget less, and my focus is more fixed. You would think that it is rather simple to stare at a candle flame for an indefinite length of time, or at least until your eyes start…

ON MIND-STUFF

I hereby proclaim that June is meditation month. And July and August and some of September too. For me at least. During the hundred days that comprise summer, give or take, I have taken it upon myself to "assume the position" for approximately one hour each day, usually divided into two 30-minute sessions. During this time I sit in front of a candle flame, let my breathing subside, and with it my mental activity, and literally count the seconds.

The reductive tendency that is emblematic of science has penetrated schools of meditation, and there are many, each of which advertises its particular breed as, if not being the best, at least boasting novel or specific benefits not found in other forms of meditation. 

For example, there is mindfulness, which is the monitoring of thoughts. There is concentration or focus, as on an object or the breath. There is transcendental meditation, which uses the inward repetition of a phrase, or mantra, to "allow your active mind to easily …

ON DOWNWARD DOGMAS

Every month Atlantic Monthly magazine has a section called "The Big Question" in which readers and authors answer an interesting query. Last month's question was "What is the best exit of all time?" One author, Michael Finkel, considered it a three-way tie between "Jesus (who left society to wander alone in the Sinai desert for 40 days), Muhammad (who retreated to a cave near Mecca), and Buddha (who sat beneath a pipal tree in India). After their exits, each founded a religion. More than 4 billion people now follow one of these faiths."

Meditation holds numerous benefits extending beyond the mere founding of world dogmas. If dogma is of any benefit. I see it as a source of strife. Down with dogma! But science tells us that sitting in silence and focusing the mind for a set time each day reduces stress, improves concentration, reduces cravings, increases self-awareness, happiness and acceptance, slows aging and bolsters the immune system. In addition, m…

CALL ME SIR REAL

Andre Breton, Frenchman and founder of the Surrealist movement of the 1920s, writes: "the human condition is extremely precarious. Anything can go wrong at any time."

The truth of this statement was revealed to me recently at a party. A friend with whom I was conversing was leisurely munching on finger foods when suddenly his front tooth fell out. What an inopportune time to be visited by such catastrophe. He immediately left the party. At any moment we can be besieged by back spasms, the power fails, our computer crashes, we break a leg, etc. Just to name a few of my mishaps.

Ours is a lifespan ridiculously short in light of all we intend to achieve. We submit to a very few simple instincts - namely to eat, drink, sleep, defend and mate - and we do so inexorably. Our power to think we overrate, especially in light of the fact that we so often fall victim to routine, and "we are carefully channeled by society in predefined directions so as to be watched, or else we prefer…

NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM

The other day I picked up The Secret of the Golden Flower, which is a thirteen hundred-year-old Taoist treatise discovered in China by a German man named Richard Wilhelm, who "recognized it as essentially a practical guide to the integration of personality" and translated it in 1929. The psychiatrist Carl Jung praised the book, which provides instruction on meditation, as a link between Eastern spirituality and Western science. The essence of the instruction boils down to this: "Look with both eyes at the tip of the nose, lower the lids, look within, sit quietly with upright body, and fix the heart on the center in the midst of conditions," or the solar plexus, and do this for a quarter of an hour or so each day. 

This advice is not unlike that which was dispensed by the Indian sage Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose disciples while alive included the Beatles, and whose transcendental meditation techniques are praised by such auteurs as David Lynch in addition to Ellen an…

MIRROR MIRROR

In the delightful movie Twins featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito playing - you guessed it - twins, though obviously not the identical sort, Arnold's Julius tells DeVito's Vincent that the two of them are the result of a genetic experiment pairing the sperm of several different extraordinary men with the eggs of one very lovely woman. In short that they are brothers separated at birth. DeVito looks at the bronzed god of a man staring back at him and deadpans, "Oh obviously, the moment I sat down I thought I was looking into a mirror!"


This is a humorous take on the notion that we see in others aspects of ourselves. When we have disagreements with our loved ones we are confronted with tendencies and characteristics present in our own heart. To paraphrase CG Jung, we are identified with our moods and prejudices, and shamelessly accuse others of the things we will not see in ourselves. So think twice or thrice before pointing a finger at another, for when yo…

TEN BOOKS TO READ, AND THEY'RE (MOSTLY) FREE

The other day I was over at my friends' place. My friends are newlyweds. During their recent courtship, part of the get-to-know-you process involved the wife's, whose name is Allison, making a list of her favorite books for her husband, Steve, to read. On Allison's list I found some of my favorite authors, including Jack London and D.H. Lawrence, as well as lesser-known greats like Lermontov. 

I thought this bit of sharing a wonderful idea. How better to acquaint oneself with a beloved's preferences, opinions, dreams and desires than by getting to know her favorite authors, by perusing those literary masterpieces, or dime store paperbacks, which have delighted her in her spare time and attended her through life's joys and bolstered her through the hardships? The funny thing is, my friend Steve doesn't like to read. I wonder how that bodes for their betrothal. Like praying and playing, the family that turns pages together stays together, as they say. Hopefully fo…

YOUR SPECIAL PURPOSE

A few years ago while I was interviewing for residency positions at several family medicine programs across the country, the interviewer would begin the somewhat dreadful and unnatural ordeal by asking me about myself. To which question I would invariably reply, "Well, I was born a poor black boy." 

This is a line from one of my favorite movies, one of the all-time comedic wonders of cinema, The Jerk. The film stars Steve Martin as an orphan raised by a black family in the rural south. As you probably know, Martin is as white as they come, but he grows up believing that he is just like his adopted brothers and sisters in every way. And the movie, which chronicles the ups and downs of Martin's ingenue, begins with that famous line. 

I quoted the movie without revealing the reference to gauge the sense of humor of my interviewer, as well as his love of cinema. If the representative of a program appreciated the allusion, as with a chuckle or even a smile or perhaps a mention …

ON HAVING FUN AT FUNERALS

"Do only what you feel like doing. If you find yourself compelled to do something, as from necessity or duty or boredom - or because if you don't you'll never hear the end of it from your wife - by all means act, but make it fun."

This is a maxim I coined some time in the late '90s. For years obeying it meant doing lots of things I wasn't inclined to do, like holding a job. And drinking. And I wasn't even married! I used to bring a flask to the ESL class I taught for a time in my late twenties, to "fortify myself with brandy," as Patricia Highsmith wrote of the talented Mr. Ripley. To pattern oneself after a fictitious serial killer is not behavior one should emulate, so don't try that at home, and definitely not while driving a car or having sex, for reasons I won't go into except to say Limp Bizkit. But a killer buzz does make even the most tedious drudgery somewhat tolerable. For this reason even funerals boast open bars.

I was thinking…

TELL ME YOUR FORTUNE

The 18th century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who wrote prolifically on dreams, marriage and the afterlife in addition to many other topics, once dreamed of a fire raging in his country's capital. He awakened to learn that an actual blaze was indeed sweeping the city. This strikes the reader as miraculous, since there was no demonstrable or even thinkable connection between his dream and the fire. Swedenborg was many things, but he was no pyro!

What are we to make of this? This bit of prescience seems to violate the laws of cause and effect. For Carl Jung it was an instance of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences linked acausally or connected in some way that even modern scientific advancement is still unable to explain. Of Swedenborg's dream Jung writes: "We must assume that there was a lowering of the threshold of consciousness which gave [Swedenborg] access to absolute knowledge. The fire in Stockholm was, in a sense, burning in him too."

For the unconsci…