Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Heart-Mind Split in Modern American Buddhism

This will be an incomplete post. One that isn't really polished or backed up with links or really specific examples. I just plan on writing and seeing what comes forth on a topic I've been wrestling with for a while now.

When I look out at the American Buddhist landscape these days, I see two camps have formed, around which rallying flags seem to be quite vigorously shaking.

The first camp is the majority from what I can tell. It's overriding tenants are the following:

1. Practice and the teachings are focused on our individual, every day lives, with a particular focus on emotional states and psychological experiences.

2. Enlightenment or awakening is downplayed, or even eliminated all together.

3. In general, intellectual engagement with the teachings and/or practice is also downplayed. In fact, there's often a deep - if almost unconscious - disposition against intellectual understandings or approaches to the dharma and practice forms. Thinking, in other words, is an enemy to practice/understanding, even when there are direct teachings brought in to counter judgements around thinking.

4. There's a fair amount of openness to more intangible parts of spiritual life and the teachings, such as karma, rebirth, a belief in spirits or underlying energy patterns, etc. However, along with this openness seems to often come a New Agey looseness or lack of grounding. In other words, people say things like "It's my karma" without having any real understanding of what the teachings around karma actually are, and/or how that might actually unfold in their lives. The more extreme members of this camp sometimes sound like fundamentalist Christians, replacing concepts like "God's will" or "Jesus will save us" with karma or reincarnation. When folks speak of the "Protestantization of Buddhism," this is one form of that.

5. The majority of the time, using the teachings and/or practices to address social issues, various forms of oppression, or anything collectively outside of the immediate sangha is simply off the table. Or only considered briefly before returning to our individual challenges.

On the flip side, the other camp (which I see as, in part, a reaction to the first one), has the following characteristics:

1. A heavy focus on that which is empirically "provable." For these folks, science, human reason, and intellectual debate/rigor are the pinnacle. Some of these folks seem to be straight materialists. Others perhaps are agnostic on elements of Buddhist teaching/practice that aren't easily pinned down, or which require faith in some form or another.

2. Along those lines, things like karma, rebirth, even faith in practice to some degree are not only rejected, but often are fiercely argued against. Beyond that, I saw a discussion online recently about the scientific research being done around meditation practice. And for some folks, nothing short of rigorous and repeatable double blind studies was worth considering when it comes to speaking about the potential "benefits" or "impacts" of meditation practice. In these discussions, I saw the hard science/soft science distinction come up a few times, with attendant dismissals of things like case studies as "not real science."

3. Deep textual study and intellectual research + debate are hallmarks of strong practice for these folks. Whereas folks in the first camp talk a lot about being compassionate in a general sense, these folks strive to get really clear and precise about what it means to be compassionate according to the Buddhadharma. In addition, I'd say that the push to strip away traditional forms and rituals (chanting, bowing, robes, statues, etc.) is driven more by these folks than people from the first camp.

4. This group seems much more open to discussing and focusing on social issues. However, it sometimes seems like it's mostly as part of an overall intellectual project that doesn't really extend into actually doing anything concretely in the world. Other than produce lots of documents and discussions.

5. Sometimes, it really difficult to locate the individual, living, breathing, feeling person in the worldview these folks offer. Whereas there seems to be a lot of heart, but not much mind present in the first camp, the second camp is almost the reverse.

In offering this, I'm well aware that few fall completely or neatly into either group. However, the overall split I'm presenting here - which perhaps could be called a "Heart-Mind Split" - feels deeply palpable to me. And also troubling. Because neither camp offers anywhere near a full, holistic expression of the dharma. Both have something vital to offer the other side, and yet both seem pretty convinced that they have THE truth, and that the other side is deluded or lacking in some manner or another.

So, that's what I have to offer today. A sketch. Perhaps a bit of a straw man one at that, but still useful I think. What do you make of all this?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

You're a Mindfulness Teacher, Right?

The other day, I was in a meeting at the yoga center I teach meditation at, and the other meditation teacher and I were talking about student numbers. I said I had a few regulars in my class now, and he said "That's because you teach mindfulness, right?" I had a very odd reaction. Almost straight aversion. I responded that I teach a lot of practices, not just mindfulness. But the response was muddy at best, and I've been left with this curious feeling about it all.

I'm almost certain he wasn't thinking of Sati, the Pali word for Buddhist mindfulness, which is steeped in ethical considerations as well as development of attention skills. He was probably more thinking of the pop mindfulness that I've written so much about in recent years. At the same time, the classes I've been teaching haven't been highly focused on social ethics or connecting big picture issues. That's more one element among many. Nor could what I've been offering be reduced to mindfulness of any variety. Again, that's one element among others. My whole goal has been to offer a diversity of gates into meditation, and the classes has focused on everything from grief for recently lost pets to reflecting on our roles in supporting the health of the planet.

Anyway, as I was reading this article - yet another critique piece on the Wisdom 2.0 conference - I thought of this odd feeling I had being labeled a "mindfulness" teacher, and how corrupted that word seems to have become. To the point where part of me doesn't even want to claim it, because doing so without an explanation doesn't seem right anymore.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Updates from Zen Land

My writing here has dropped off a bit in recent months. However, I haven't been idle. It's actually been a big season of growth for me and those around me.

On Sunday, our sangha held a council to affirm a new head teacher. Our current head teacher will be moving into a "senior" role, where she'll be able to focus on what she wants to study and teach. The council was rather remarkable because it truly was an affirmation. People spoke movingly to the gifts our current teacher has brought to the community over the years, and also to their support and excitement for the new head teacher. I've been in plenty of meetings where people played nice in order to preserve some false sense of unity. There wasn't any of that here. No jealousy or suspicion. No hidden agendas being played out. Just wave after wave of goodness, which gives me hope for the other issues that lie ahead for us in the coming months, including finding a new building to move to.

Meanwhile, on my end, after about 15 years of study and self practice, I've decided to do something bigger with my herbal medicine knowledge. Today, I launched NGTHerbals, celebrating the power of plants, our interconnected planet, and offering handmade herbal tinctures steeped in my love for all things green. Please help me spread the word!

Here's a short selection from the first blog post over there. Don't worry, though. I'll need to find a new balance now, but I'm not quitting Dangerous Harvests. In the meantime, enjoy a bit of plant love!

"Dandelion, plantain, goldenrod, milk thistle, nettle. Behind the invasive species labels often slapped on them are a storehouse of health benefits. From the liver detoxifying power of Dandelion to the anti-inflammatory nature of Nettle, these weeds seemed to have it all.

And yet there was more to it than just the medicinal benefits. Like the way they taught me about my mind. How the nettle patch, for example, mirrored the way my critical thinking sometimes turned into heavy negativity and pessimism. Once I slip past the border, the negativity literally takes over, stinging parts of my body and leaving it tense and pained."

Friday, April 4, 2014

Monsanto, Monarchs, and the Meditation of Weeds

On the whole people might be better off if they threw away the crops they so tenderly raise and ate the weeds they spend so much time exterminating. Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus

Photo credit: katmystiry from

I have a fondness for weeds. For the forgotten, dismissed, and marginalized. Anyone who visits my garden in mid-summer probably wonders if I’ve let it go. And it’s true. I don’t tend to it very much. The wild nettle patch is left to grow right next to the somewhat cultivated beans. Purslane wiggles its way between stalks of wavy squash. Lambs quarters lap up the sun that break through the canvas of tomatoes. During the early months, I do my best to give everything enough space. But once July rolls around, I mostly stay out of the way.

Last July, I saw a pair of monarchs in a field. The first I had seen all season. Summer nearly halfway over and not a single monarch! This is one of the consequences of colonialism and economies built on profit and endless growth. The loss of biodiversity. The erasure of the small, vulnerable, and unprofitable. I hope they make it, but we might be facing a near future with no monarchs at all.

When I saw the Gibbons quote above, I immediately thought of Monsanto and monarchs. How our own government quietly legislates the means for planetary demise. All the while telling us that this about food production and feeding the hungry.

The hungry. Yes, we are hungry. But most of us don’t even know why. The loss of connection to the very land we live on. The failure to recognize that many of the plants we call “weeds” have been used for centuries as food, medicine, and so much more. Perhaps the nettle tea I drank last night is prompting this post. Or maybe it’s the fresh dandelion greens I snack on regularly while I “tend” to the garden.

In my view, we cannot speak of things such as “decolonization” without remembering the weeds, and all the ways in which our lives have been tied together throughout history. My love of dandelions, for example, is also linked to the knowledge that they were one of the plants brought by my settler ancestors. My love of all things herbal medicine is tempered by the fact that white folks and privileged others continue to colonize and denature indigenous plant wisdom and healing practices. And my love of milkweed is propelled by a desire to keep the monarchs alive.

Truly loving weeds is a practice in discomfort. Not unlike spending time in meditation, or other spiritual practices. Self and other rub together again and again. For every joyful story that arises, there’s also the sting of other stories, historical and present day, that remind us our our disconnections. Lost selves. Failures to see into the true nature of things, and act accordingly.