Reporter: Eve Savory
Erin Gammel is a shoo-in for the Canadian Olympic swim team. Canadian record holder, champion backstroker – unless something wildly unexpected happens, she's going to Athens.
But four years ago she was a sure bet for the Sydney Olympics, too.
"Everyone kept telling me you're a shoo-in," she says. "And we had the strategy and everything was perfect. And I thought this is it, I'm going to the Olympics."
She was racing at the Olympic trials in Montreal. She hit the lane rope, lost her concentration and lost her place on the team.
"It was just extremely disappointing. I was depressed. I was just really sad. I was crying and I couldn't control myself," Gammel says.
Erin Gammel cried for two years. Help was to come in a way she would never have dreamed, from Dharamsala in Northern India, 5,000 kilometres and cultural eons away.
Dharamsala is the home in exile to thousands of Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama, after China occupied Tibet.
For 25 centuries Tibetan Buddhists have practised and refined their exploration. For generations they probed their inner space with the same commitment with which western science explored the external world and outer space. The two inhabited separate worlds.
But now, they are finding common ground in a remarkable collaboration.
In March 2000, a select group of scientists and scholars journeyed to Dharamsala. They came to share insights and solutions – to human distress and suffering.
Among them was Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin. He finds nothing contradictory about doing science with Buddhists.
"There is almost a scientific-like attitude that is exemplified by Buddhist practitioners in investigating their own mind," he says. "Their mind is the landscape of their own experimentation, if you will."
The westerners had been invited by the Dalai Lama himself to his private quarters.
For five days, monks and scientists dissected what they call "negative emotions" – sadness, anxiety jealousy craving, rage – and their potential to destroy.
One of the participants, Daniel Goleman, author of the book Destructive Emotions, says, "As we were leaving the U.S. to come here the headline was a six-year-old who had a fight with a classmate and the next day he came back with a gun and shot and killed her. It's very sad."
Why would the scientists seek answers in Tibetan Buddhism?
Because its rigorous meditative practices seem to have given the monks an extraordinary resilience, an ability to bounce back from the bad things that happen in life, and cultivate contentment.
Richard Davidson's lab is one of the world's most advanced for looking inside a living brain. He's recently been awarded an unprecedented $15-million (Cdn) grant to study, among other things, what happens inside a meditating mind.
"Meditation is a set of practices that have been around for more than 2,500 years, whose principal goal is to cultivate these positive human qualities, to promote flourishing and resilience. And so we think that it deserves to be studied with the modern tools of science," Davidson says.
A little over a year later, in May 2001, the Dalai Lama returned the visit to Davidson's lab in Madison, Wis.
His prize subjects – and collaborators – are the Dalai Lama's lamas, the monks.
"The monks, we believe, are the Olympic athletes of certain kinds of mental training," Davidson says. "These are individuals who have spent years in practice. To recruit individuals who have undergone more than 10,000 hours of training of their mind is not an easy task and there aren't that many of these individuals on the planet."
The Dalai Lama has said were he not a monk, he would be an engineer.
He brings that sensibility – the curiosity and intellectual discipline – to the discussion on EEGs and functional MRIs.
But this isn't really about machines.
And it isn't about nirvana.
It's about down-to-earth life: about the distress of ordinary people – and a saner world.
"The human and economic cost of psychiatric disorder in western industrialized countries is dramatic," says Davidson. "And to the extent that cultivating happiness reduces that suffering, it is fundamentally important."
The monk and the scientist are investigating – together – the Art of Happiness.
"Rather than thinking about qualities like happiness as a trait," Davidson says, "we should think about them as a skill, not unlike a motor skill, like bicycle riding or skiing. These are skills that can be trained. I think it is just unambiguously the case that happiness is not a luxury for our culture but it is a necessity."
But we believe we can buy happiness…if we just had the money. That's what the ad industry tells us. And we think it's true.
People's theories about what will make them happy often are wrong. And so there's a lot of work these days that shows, for example, that winning the lottery will transiently elevate your happiness but it will not persist.
There's some evidence that our temperament is more or less set from birth. So and so is a gloomy Gus…someone else is a ray of sunshine – that sort of thing.
Even when wonderful or terrible things happen, most of us, eventually, will return to that emotional set-point.
But, Davidson believes, that set point can be moved.
"Our work has been fundamentally focused on what the brain mechanisms are that underlie these emotional qualities and how these brain mechanisms might change as a consequence of certain kinds of training," Davidson says.
His work could not have been done 20 years ago. "In fact, 20 years ago, we had dreams of methods that allows you to interrogate the brain in this way, but we had no tools to do it."
Now that we have the tools we can see that as our emotions ebb and flow, so do brain chemistry and blood flow. Fear, depression, love … they all get different parts of our brain working.
Happiness and enthusiasm, and joy – they show up as increased activity on the left side near the front of the cortex. Anxiety, sadness – on the right.
Davidson has found this pattern in infants as young as 10 months, in toddlers, teens and adults.
Davidson tested more than 150 ordinary people to see what parts of their brains were most active.
Some were a little more active on the left. Some were a little more active on the right.
A few were quite far to the right. They would probably be called depressed. Others were quite far to the left, the sort of people who feel "life is great."
So there was a range. Then Davidson tested a monk.
He was so far to the left he was right off the curve. That was one happy monk.
"And this is rather dramatic evidence that there's something really different about his brain compared with the brains of these other 150 people. This is tantalizing evidence that these practices may indeed be promoting beneficial changes in the brain."
Here, the Olympic athletes of meditation meet the Cadillac of brain scanners.
Khachab Rinpoche, a monk from Asia, came to Madison to meditate in perhaps the strangest place in his life: the functional MRI.
It let's scientists watch what happens inside his brain when he switches between different types of meditation.
They want to know how his brain may differ from ordinary people, and whether that change is related to the inner contentment the monks report.
So they test how subjects react to unpleasant sounds and images flashed into the goggles they wear in the MRI.
Normally when we're threatened one part of the brain is tremendously active, but in the monks, "the responsivity of this area is specifically decreased during this meditation in response to these very intense auditory simuli that convey strong emotions," Davidson says.
It's very preliminary work, but the implication may be that the lamas are able to move right through distressing events that overwhelm the rest of us – in other words, one of the keys to their happiness.
It may tell us something about our potential. "Our brains are adaptable, our brains are not fixed. The wiring in our brains is not fixed. Who we are today is not necessarily who we have to end up being," Davidson says.
Tibetan Buddhism is said to be one of the most demanding mental endeavours on the planet. It takes 10,000 hours of meditation and years in retreat to become adept. Few of us can imagine such a commitment.
But that doesn't mean the benefits of meditation are out of our reach.
Zindal Segal is a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. He uses meditation to treat mood disorders.
It's based on Buddhist teachings and its called mindfulness.
Meditation is now out of the closet. The word is, it eases stress, drops blood pressure, helps put that bad day at the office in perspective.
Meditation is being mainlined by the mainstream, from corporate offices to factory floors.
These days it's not unusual to find hospitals like St. Joseph's in Toronto offering meditation programs. Some 360 people pass through the eight-week course every year.
Like most, this program has taken the simplest form of Buddhist teaching and adapted it for busy lives.
"Meditation is a skill, and like any skill it needs to be practised. So we use the breath as the place where we start to practise but eventually what we want to be able to do is to be able to use the awareness of the breath in our daily lives," Segal says.
"When we have the ability to do that we can then use the breath when we're standing in line at a bank, or if we're having an argument with a spouse, as a way of grounding ourselves in the middle of something that is disturbing."
Something disturbing, like the mind movie Erin Gammel couldn't escape: the day when she failed to make the Olympic team.
"I just remember my hand getting caught in a lane rope and thinking to myself, it's over," Gammel says.
She lost her focus, her place on the team, and her heart to swim.
"It affected my entire life. I cried at the drop of a hat. I wasn't improving and it didn't look like anything was really improving. And I felt everything I did I seemed to fail at," she says. "That was part of the depression and the sadness because I felt like I was failing at the time. Nothing was going well."
Until she hooked up with the National Swim Team's sports psychologist, Hap Davis. Davis had been fascinated by scientist Richard Davidson's work.
He had a hunch that reliving the trauma was suppressing that part of Erin's brain on the left that Davidson had found was so active in happy people.
He devised a rescue plan – a breathing meditation that she was to do before and after repeatedly viewing the video.
"If a person can ground themselves and feel centred with meditative breathing they can get to the point where they can look at it and view it with a critical mind, with a mind that is capable of being open to the experience and looking objectively at what took place," Davis says.
"You know what it felt like during the race. It felt like I stopped absolutely dead. But in the video I look and it looks like just a little glitch. Nothing."
It's more than two years since they've needed to study the tape – because it worked. Erin's joy of swimming returned; she's winning race after race.
"She's more resilient emotionally. She's more stable emotionally. She's more consistent in terms of performance," Davis says.
"Meditation isn't necessarily about happiness but it makes you happier. I guess that is how you would say it. And I feel more confident. That I know how to work with this stuff and work with bad things that happen in my life," Gammel says.
Once again there's one more race to win – the trials to make the team that goes to Athens.
"This is my year. That's what I keep telling everyone. This is my year to make the Olympic team because making it through all those times there it's just going to happen, I know it is. lt's just going to happen," she says.
"Meditation has been around for 2500 years so it's not like a new practice," Davis says. "But science is catching up to an old tradition and the evidence seems to be emerging that meditation can change the pattern of brain chemistry or blood flow in the brain."
And now there's proof meditation can change the brains of ordinary people and make them healthier.
Promega is a biotech company in Madison, Wis., where the researchers from the Brain Imaging Lab recruited typical stressed out workers – office staff, managers, even a skeptical research scientist, Mike Slater.
"Things were chaotic and crazy. We had a newborn. We had three deaths in the family. So it was a pretty topsy-turvy time," Slater says.
All the subjects had activity in their brain measured…and half – including Mike Slater – were given an eight- week course in meditation.
Then everyone – meditators and controls – got a flu shot, and their brains were measured a second time.
The meditators' brain activity had shifted to that happy left side. Mike Slater was almost too successful.
"I was pretty happy all the time and I was worried that maybe I was masking some stuff that might really be irritating me so I stopped it and my wife noticed an increase in my irritability, so, you know, I have both sides of the experiment now. It calmed me down and I stopped doing it and my irritability increased," he says.
That wasn't all. Their immune systems had strengthened.
"Those individuals in the meditation group that showed the biggest change in brain activity also showed the biggest change in immune function, suggesting that these were closely linked," Davidson says.
Davidson and his team had shown meditation could shift not just mood – but also brain activity and immunity in ordinary people.
And they'd answered a potential flaw in the monk study.
"Someone may say, well, maybe these individuals are that way to start out with. Maybe that's why they're attracted to be monks," Davidson says. "And we actually can't answer that on the basis of those data, but with the Promega study, we can say definitely that it had to do with the intervention we provided."
There are reasons to believe the insane pace and many aggravations of daily life can be dangerous to the health of our minds and our bodies.
We can't push the delay button on a busy world and we can't bail out.
But perhaps meditation is a way to encourage a sense of well-being – a deep breath in the centre of the whirlwind.
"As the Dalai Lama himself said in his book The Art of Happiness, we have the capacity to change ourselves because of the very nature, of the very structure and function of our brain," Davidson says. "And that is a very hopeful message because I think it instills in people the belief that there are things that they can do to make themselves better."
Buddha's way is best if you
want to combat stress
London, UK -- IN CASE more than 20 centuries of grueling spiritual journeys towards harmony and balance have not persuaded you, scientists have now proved that Buddhist meditation relieves stress.
Researchers at Wisconsin University monitored the brain activity of 25 randomly chosen individuals and concluded that Buddhist meditation causes a significant reduction in anxiety and correspondingly increased levels of positive emotions.
Members of the group, who meditated for 14 hours over an eight-week period, exhibited a dramatic increase in levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that is most commonly associated with well-being and happiness.
The only problem now is to resolve which form of meditation is the most successful in combating what has been labelled Britain’s “stress epidemic”. Nine out of ten workers claim to suffer from stress and almost a million people claim incapacity benefit for mental strain.
While transcendental meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, “mindfulness training” is reported to decrease symptoms in those with confirmed psychiatric diagnoses.
According to the Tibetan spiritual teacher, the Venerable Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, it is specifically Buddhist meditation that yields the most positive results. Other forms of meditation, such as the form practised in yoga where yogis attempt simply to clear their minds, were less effective.
“Buddhist meditation is different from other forms of meditation because it attempts to rid the mind of what we call the five poisons — desire, attachment to material things, pride, jealousy and anger,” he said.
“Other forms of meditation say that in time you will find inner peace but do not treat the root cause of unhappiness, and the same can be said for various other forms of so-called stress-busting. Even karate or swimming require the mind to be active, so there is no fundamental change occurring.”
The Venerable Lama, who has a large following in Britain, including bankers, lawyers and government officials, accused the British of being too negative.
“Physically a lot of people have become incapable of enjoying their lives because they do nothing but sit in front of the television,” he said.
“They have become so focused on their professions, which often require very boring repetitive skills, that they lose motivation for everything. A lot of people in Britain are very negative and are very happy to judge other people and also themselves. They have become paralysed and don’t know how to be positive.
“In Buddhism you learn to use meditation as a target. You need to find out your poison and transform that into a positive.”
The Venerable Lama came to Britain in the 1960s and is now the abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Scotland. He is a meditation master and specialises in bringing meditation into everyday life.
Buddhist Lamas, or teachers, recommend 15 minutes of meditation every day, preferably in the mornings. In the “seven-point posture”, for example, which can be held either cross-legged on the floor or sitting in a chair, the focus moves from the seat to the eyes, spine, shoulders, back of the neck, mouth and tongue.
“Sit down and prioritise what it is you want from your life and try to target the weakest point in your life.”
Tibetan Buddhism dates back to AD173, when Buddhist scriptures arrived in southern Tibet from India during the reign of Thothori Nyantsen, the 28th king of Tibet.
There are 152,000 Buddhists in Britain. The elimination of hatred, greed and ignorance are core to the Buddhist faith.
Lama Zangmo is the first western female Lama in Britain. She is also the spiritual director of the Tibetan Buddhist Centre in London.
She said: “Meditation is about the present moment and learning to live our lives to the full in the present moment.
“What’s special about Buddhism is that it enables you to bring something with you into your everyday life. It’s very different from becoming calm through yoga or acupuncture.”
HEALING BY CONCENTRATION
Anathema to many until recently, chanting, especially in yoga classes, has a new following among those keen to “let it all out”.
It is believed that the sounds caused by chanting have a healing effect on the nervous system. The two main types are Gregorian and overtone. The word “Om” is rarely heard in class: it is a recluse mantra for those who wish to renounce the world.
The most controversial form is still in relative infancy after being introduced to the world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1959. But more than four million people, including the Beatles, Clint Eastwood and the film director David Lynch, enthusiastically took it up in their search for Nirvana.
TM involves the repetition of a Sanksrit mantra, a short word or phrase which is said to have a soothing effect and to allow a deeper level of consciousness while remaining fully alert. Harmful effects include physical tics and emotional volatility.
Mindfulness, vipassana or insight meditation, requires practitioners to focus on the details. A person attempting vipassana should try to be aware of thoughts, sounds, smells and sensations as they happen.
Someone practising mindful meditation will sit quietly and try to “witness” whatever goes through the mind, not reacting or becoming involved with thoughts, memories, worries, or images. A focus on the breath and patience are often key components in this form of meditation.
Practitioners often choose to focus their “gaze” on a candle, although any other relatively stationary object can be used.
The candle, which is placed at arm’s length and at eye level, is gazed at for several minutes. The eyes are then closed and the practitioner attempts instead to focus on the image of the candle inside the head.
ATLANTA, Georgia (USA) -- A study by the Medical College of Georgia found that two 15-minute meditation sessions each day — once at home, the other at school — helped teenage students lower their blood pressure over four months. Their blood pressure even continued to drop for four months after the meditation sessions ended, researchers said Friday.
One high school senior who benefited from the study was Nick Fitts. Fitts had a lot on his mind going into the research — two jobs, no car and rocky relations with his mother.
The stress raised his blood pressure enough to put him at risk for developing hypertension, even though he kept active with track, band and junior ROTC. When college officials asked Fitts to join a study of whether meditation could lower blood pressure, he thought they were out of their minds. But getting into his mind was the key.
Fitts says the program helped him. "The meditation calms me down and makes me think better about things," said Fitts, now a nursing student at the University of South Carolina at Aiken.
Researchers screened 5,000 students and found 156 had blood pressure similar to Fitts. Half of that group received the meditation sessions and the other half, a control group, were placed in health education classes. All students wore blood pressure monitors 24 hours a day.
The control group did not have any reduction in blood pressure, according to the study in the American Journal of Hypertension. One in four adults have hypertension, which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites), and health officials say teens who have higher-than-normal blood pressure are more likely to develop the chronic disease when they're older.
"It's no longer considered to be an adult disease," said Vernon Barnes, a physiologist at the medical college and lead author of the study.
Meditation is just one of several things — including healthy eating, exercise and even medication — that can help lower blood pressure, said Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, chief of cardiology at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
She added that people regularly need to have their blood pressure checked: "It's never too early to be aware of the risk of blood pressure."
Besides reducing their blood pressure, students who meditated also had lower rates of absenteeism, school rule violations and suspensions than those in the control group, Barnes said.
"It's noteworthy for educators — meditation might be included in the school day as a program for reducing stress in the schools," Barnes said.
Fitts said he now meditates 45 minutes each morning.
"I make peace with me," he said.
Bellingham, WA -- I sit cross-legged on a small round cushion, which, in turn, rests on a larger square one.
As the third clear tones of a bell Ted Williams rings begin to fade, I stare at a spot on the floor and begin the task of sitting still and following my breath - paying attention to the inhalation and exhalation. There's even a short poem I repeat silently to help quiet my mind, to bring myself into the total awareness of here. And now.
But as anyone who meditates knows, the mind is like a chattering monkey that flings itself from branch to branch.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
What color is this floor?
How come I'm having a hard time breathing? I'm slouching. Sit up straighter. That's better.
I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know...
My right foot's going numb.
My jaw itches. Now, my head does.
Should I scratch?
Karen FitzGerald, 44, chuckles when she hears about the itch; it's OK to scratch, as long as you pay attention. "Do it mindfully, so that it becomes part of your meditation rather than something that takes away from it," the Bellingham composer-pianist says later.
Or just let the itch go, and let your mind travel with that feeling.
They offer a different approach -- from the ritualized Tibetan and Zen groups to the loosely structured Vipassana approach. Expect some form of sitting and walking meditation, chanting, readings or talks, depending on the tradition.
If you're interested in trying meditation, call first for instructions:
• Shambhala Center, Mondays, practices in the Tibetan tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Jenny or Paul Warwick: 647-5413.
• Bellingham Meditation Society, Tuesdays, practices in the Vipassana tradition. John Robinson: 758-7260 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Mindfulness Meditation, Wednesdays, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn. Karen FitzGerald: 676-5727 and www.karenfitzgerald.com/mindfulness, or Danna Zelenka: 738-0681.
• Bellingham Zen Practice Group, Thursdays, in the Soto Zen tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. John Wiley: 671-6064 or www.BellinghamZen.org.
In addition, morning meditations for all traditions are
held from 6:30-7:15 a.m. Monday-Friday. Russ Graham: 734-2553.
"Bellingham's unique in that the four groups work together to share the space. That's a positive thing spiritually. Also, it reduces expenses for each of the independent groups," says Kate Haskell, who, along with husband Alan Regimbal, became part of the Dharma Hall after moving from Yakima, where they practiced in a Tibetan tradition, two years ago.
The hall has become home to a small but growing number of practitioners - from a core of roughly 30 in 1993 to at least 60 today - who gather to meditate, learn about the Buddha's teachings or meet with visiting teachers. They range from those who consider themselves Buddhists, to those who find that meditating brings them closer to their own faiths, to atheists.
Take 69-year-old Bellingham resident Dove Toll, who grew up with no religious tradition but became a devout Christian as a teen-ager.
The retired psychotherapist, who says she's had a lifelong interest in "spiritual things," began exploring Buddhism some 10 years ago and has since incorporated it into her Christianity.
"I don't really consider myself a Buddhist as such. Buddhism doesn't require that you commit yourself to anything the way Christians do. They just say... 'This is some truth we have discovered and use it if you find it helpful,'" says Toll, who practices with the Vipassana group on Tuesday nights.
Or Bellingham resident Greg Kise, 36, who, along with his wife, recently began a "spiritual quest having been nothing for many years" and describes Buddhism as elegant.
"The elegance is that it doesn't say, 'OK, you have to wait until you die to achieve happiness. It's right here, and the reason you don't see it is because you spend all of your time thinking about something else.'"
A center is necessary, they say, because most find it difficult to maintain a practice on their own.
"Without a teacher and without a group to sit with, I wouldn't practice as hard as I do," says 54-year-old Bellingham resident and psychotherapist John Wiley, who is part of the Thursday night Zen group.
And there are other reasons.
"It's a vibrant spiritual community that adds to the other spiritual groups in town. The other piece is that sitting as a Buddhist you can get very isolated and part of the tradition is being supported by a sangha, which is a spiritual community," explains Haskell, a 36-year-old therapist and member of the Mindfulness group, who, along with her husband, had been a practicing Catholic.
She adds: "It gives you a place to have a dialogue about a very interior process. There's a real resonance, you feel less isolated with the joys and the struggles of the practice."
They range from a low of 401,000 to a high of 4 million, with roughly 75 percent of practitioners being of Asian descent while the remainder are converts of non-Asian ancestry, experts say.
"The only evidence we have of Buddhism's growth is anecdotal. All we can say is that we had a subscription base of 5,000 in 1991 and we now have a circulation of 60,000 and a readership of 200,000. Dharma centers always report to us that their centers are growing," says Caitlin Van Dusen, associate editor of the magazine Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
The Northwest Dharma Association concurs. Its 1996 directory listed 130 Buddhist groups in Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia; the spring Web site listing totaled 400 temples and groups.
What is known is that Buddhism, which traces its roots back 2,500 years to India, hit U.S. shores more than 150 years ago with the arrival of immigrants from China and Japan. It gained a public boost in the '50s, thanks to the Beat generation (think Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums") and more recently with the Tibetan diaspora and the subsequent worldwide fascination with the Dalai Lama.
Celebrity Buddhists such as Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch also have boosted the profile of Buddhism and its practices - like meditation.
She's explaining how to sit and breathe; when your mind strays from your breath, gently bring it back.
"It's really about coming into the present moment in every moment of your life in everything you do," says FitzGerald, who began exploring Buddhism in 1982.
That could mean, for example, focusing on the fact that you're washing the dishes or that you're eating - instead of thinking about what you have to do next or problems at work. Such mindfulness should be fostered with that most basic function: "We breathe in - how many thousands of times a day? - without knowing it," FitzGerald says.
Tim Burnett, a Bellingham Zen priest and software developer says the idea behind meditation is "to sit still in the middle of whatever is happening in your life so that you can realize some space and openness in the middle of whatever is happening - good things and bad things - in life."
It's not about making yourself calmer or improving your personality, he adds, so much as it is about "radically accepting the way things are so you can have some peace and some spaciousness."
One breath at a time.
Photo by Chad Harder
David Perry doesn’t look 63 years old.
Frankly, the man barely looks a day over 50, and only because of his gray-white hair. Maybe it’s the brightness behind his blue eyes or his easy, frequent smile, but he fills the room with an air of youthfulness.
Perry is one of a growing number of people in the Missoula area who practices a form of Buddhism. While western stereotypes often portray Buddhists as old people with shaved heads and orange robes, many local people with very conventional upbringings have found truth in the teachings of the Buddha and apply them every day to their personal—and professional—lives.
Perry has been practicing Vipassanna meditation for 10 years, a nonsectarian form of meditation that concerns itself not with faith, worship or converting others, but with removing suffering from people’s life.
“The Buddha said, ‘Don’t believe me, don’t believe anybody, don’t accept anything based on tradition. Don’t believe anything based on the fact that your community believes this or your country believes this or the people that you are around believe this,’” says Perry. “What the Buddha taught is that there is suffering, and that [meditation] is a way out of suffering.”
In a sense, Perry helps people find their way out of suffering every day. He is a professional mediator in the Bitterroot Valley, settling domestic disputes and custody battles. Mediators differ from lawyers and judges in that they attempt to settle problems out of court, and their decisions are non-binding. Perry’s job is to get both parties to agree to the compromise. Although Perry went to law school and practiced law for 17 years, he eventually grew disenchanted with the profession.
“The practice of law is based on finding different ways to describe the same thing, either to put a rose tint on it or a black tint on it,” he says. “You’re trying to restate reality for a court or a jury.”
To Perry, truth and honesty are essential to both his life and his profession. In fact, he finds that most of his work involves finding a way through other people’s misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the truth. In his experience, a common thread runs through all human conflicts: The stated cause of the controversy is rarely what’s really going on.
Perry considers himself a practitioner of dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Dharma is also a Sanscrit word meaning “truth,” which forms the foundation of his profession. The mediator often has to work through a couple’s resentments and petty differences before he can address the problems at hand. Generally, when his clients’ unfinished business is taken care of, the problem usually takes care of itself.
“The dharma has helped me to see things the way they are,” he says. “The whole drift of how I practice mediation is to try to really understand what is going on. Then I can bring some effectiveness to [my clients] to help get beyond that.”
Perry isn’t surprised that Buddhism has found a strong following in the Missoula area, which reminds him of San Francisco circa 1967, where he lived and practiced law for years. He says the physical setting of western Montana is conducive to spiritual rather than materialistic pursuits.
“There are enough people here who have denounced the American Dream as life’s end-all and be-all,” he says. “That seems to have created an energy here that is particularly interested in this kind of spirituality.”
Vipassanna has had other practical benefits for Perry as well. He comes from a family of alcoholics, himself included. He started meditating in January of 1987, and stopped drinking three months later. It was only years later that he made a connection between the two.
“Part of what happens when you meditate is that painful emotions and desires become less frequent visitors,” he says. “You generally become more and more content with the way things are.”
In 1989, Perry picked up a book on Vipassanna meditation and was immediately attracted to it, he says. Vipassanna, which literally means “seeing things the way they are,” has allowed Perry to approach his work without preconceived notions, a neutrality that is vital to his profession.
“Vipassanna carried with it the unmistakable ring of truth,” Perry says.
The pursuit of truth is one of the few things that the different branches of Buddhism have in common. While most Buddhists follow five basic precepts—avoid taking life, take only what is given, avoid lies and hurtful language, refrain from sexual misconduct, and avoid intoxicants—these ideas are by no means universal.
In fact, very little about Buddhism is universal. There are as many different paths of Buddhism as there are branches of Christianity, each with its own take on what is true. Some practitioners of Vipassanna, Perry included, don’t consider what they practice a religion, or even call themselves Buddhists.
So what is universal? Buddhism teaches that life’s natural state is suffering, and that the cause of all suffering is desire. People constantly desire what they don’t have, be it a big house or a new car. Buddhism teaches that no matter how often someone’s desires are fulfilled, the person will never have lasting satisfaction while they continue to desire.
Photo by Chad Harder
“The Buddha said, ‘Don’t believe me,
don’t believe anybody, don’t accept anything based on tradition.
Don’t believe anything based on the fact that your community believes
this or your country believes this or the people that you are around believe
this,’” says David Perry, a professional mediator in the Bitterroot
Valley. “What the Buddha taught is that there is suffering, and
that [meditation] is a way out of suffering.”
Buddhism is also a highly inclusive religion, which means that a person can practice it and still be a Christian, for example, without the two religions conflicting with one another. In fact, some Buddhists see a great deal of harmony between Christianity and Buddhism.
“If you lay the three years teachings of Jesus Christ alongside the 45 years of teachings of the Buddha, they really said the same thing,” says Deanna Sheriff, director of Osel Shen Phen Ling, (OSPL) a local Tibetan Buddhist center. “Be good and kind, try to help others. Be happy and you’ll make yourself happy,”
This kind of acceptance is an everyday part of life for Leslie McCormick, a volunteer coordinator at Partners in Home Care Hospice. Her job is to pair volunteers with people with terminal diseases and try to make the patient’s final months as happy and comfortable as possible.
McCormick, 27, has been practicing Buddhism with the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Order for the last four years. She is an energetic, friendly woman who listens intently before answering questions. She talks quickly, making sweeping gestures with her hands to illustrate her point.
Being understood is important to McCormick, and she makes a point of explaining and re-explaining anything that may be vague or unclear. She resists lingo and labels, saying that people who overuse them either aren’t very creative or don’t know what they’re talking about.
McCormick was raised Catholic, but says that as she grew older, the religion became less and less relevant to her life.
“It was just becoming clearer and clearer to me that it was just not reaching a depth in me, that I was not clicking with people on a level I wanted to,” she says. “Things were just feeling less and less synchronized.”
Although McCormick began to go to church less often as she grew older, she was not trying to divorce spirituality from her life. Actually, being raised Catholic gave her a strong desire to seek out a belief system that she could believe in.
Buddhism made the most sense to her because it brought with it a sense of personal responsibility. In Buddhism, McCormick explains, there is no parental god-figure looking down upon you, punishing you if you do wrong and praising you if you do right. Each person is responsible for making decisions in his or her own life. In addition, Buddhists aren’t waiting around on this earth to go to heaven, but are constantly working toward a goal.
“Instead of waiting for the end to find out what happens to us, moment by moment we look at our mental states and pay attention to the consequences in our lives and other people’s lives,” she says.
After getting her degree in creative writing at the University of Montana, McCormick looked for a job where she could help people and seek a better understanding of Buddhism. Working at the hospice, she says, does both.
While it might seem that working with the dying for long periods of time—especially those who die young—would shake a person’s religious beliefs, McCormick finds that her work actually strengthens her beliefs. Buddhism teaches that all life is transient, that nothing stays the same for long. By working with people in their final days, McCormick confronts this reality every day.
“We all know intellectually that we are going to die, but most of us don’t know it on a deep level,” she says. “My work takes what I know intellectually and helps me to understand it emotionally.”
Buddhism also teaches that none of us is substantially different from any other being, but that our ego prevents us from seeing this. In her work, McCormick has to deal with people letting go, not only of their egos, but of the very things that once defined them. For instance, a man who used to walk every day of his life might now be confined to a wheelchair; an athletic father might not be able to play ball with his son anymore. This knowledge that, in death, we must all let go of how we lived, has helped McCormick understand her own ego.
“We all want assurance from the world around us that we are real, that we have our own identities,” she says. “But this is essentially not the case. What I am is not any kind of essential thing, but is defined by my environment.”
More importantly, says McCormick, her work keeps her thinking and living in the present. She can’t worry too far in advance, because her patients simply don’t have that luxury. Being forced to live in the moment reminds her of how precious life is.
“This work takes you down to the most real level of human interaction,” she says. “You see so much amazing love and change and suffering that it allows you to put your life in perspective.”
Kandy -- What follows is about an age-old dilemma, which still remains the same even with all the advancements in science. It is the question about the reality behind, what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, a thing that we conveniently take for granted. In fact we get so much involved with their alluring nature that we have hardly any time or the need to ask what they are. In this short article the writer ventures to see what indications are there in the teaching of the Buddha about this mystery and to form some idea about it.
It is through Consciousness (Vinnana) that we become aware of the things in the world and the universe around us. Consciousness, exists with Nama, Rupa where Nama consists of Feelings, Perceptions and aspects and Rupa is our body with its sense bases.
When we hear a sound, it is through Consciousness that we become aware of it. Now the source of that sound is only something that vibrates at a certain frequency.
These vibrations reach the ear through the medium of air and are transmitted to the hearing centre in the brain as nerve impulses. It is here that Consciousness, transform the nerve impulses to what we call Sound. Thus Sound as we know it cannot be found anywhere outside Consciousness. This the Buddha has illustrated by the parable of the Lute (SN XXXV-205, The Salayatana Book).
Also what we see with our eyes are different colours of different shades and shapes, either stationary or moving. This is the nature of a visible thing. But colours too cannot be found anywhere outside Consciousness. Light consists of electromagnetic waves of different frequencies, in the visible spectrum, emitted or reflected by some thing.
These waves impinge on the retina of the eye and are transmitted via the nerves to the vision centre in the brain where Consciousness transforms them into colours of various shades. In the same way there are no smells, no tastes no sense of touch as we know them apart from what Consciousness reveals.
Eminent philosopher Professor Whitehead says this in the following way: "Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent: the nightingales for his song: the sun for his radiance.
The poets are entirely mistaken: they should address their lyrics to themselves and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the Excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless: merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly". But Professor Whitehead did not proceed further to solve this Mystery of the Magical Scene produced by Consciousness.
Buddha summed this up by the simile of the magician and his glamour. Buddha compared Consciousness to a magician (mayakaro) conjuring glamorous things at the crossroads of a main highway (SN XXII-95, The Khanda Book).
It should be noted that in our analysis, vibrations, nerve impulses, electromagnetic waves and so on are themselves, known only through Consciousness, as sense appearances and concepts. What then exactly lie outside Consciousness that produce these manifestations of sounds, visible forms, scents and so on?
Consciousness and Nama Rupa co-exist and cannot exist separately which is illustrated in SN XII-67, Nidana Book as two sheaves of reeds leaning one against the other. If either one is taken out the other would fall.
Now if Consciousness and Nama Rupa cannot exist separately and if what Consciousness reveals to us such as colours, sounds, scents and so on are its own manifestations then it is not possible to uphold the duality of what we call Mental and Material Phenomena. Perhaps it is on this point that the Buddha addressed venerable Kaccayana as follows.
"This world, Kaccayana, is usually based on two things: on Existence and Non-Existence. Now he who with right insight sees the uprising of the world as it really is does not hold with the Non-Existence of the world. But he who with right insight sees the passing away of the world as it really is does not hold with the Existence of the world" (SNXII-15, The Nidhana Book).
If Material Phenomena the way we know them, existed in their own right separate from Mental Phenomena, then under no circumstance could anybody hold it as Non-Existent. Thus according to this saying of the Buddha what we call Material Phenomena cannot be anything other than a manifestation of the Mind through Consciousness.
This is further established from the fact that the Buddha used the common term Element Dhatu) to represent phenomena mental or otherwise. The term Rupa means Form or Appearance.
Speaking of Six Elements, Buddha has grouped the Four Great Elements (Maha Bhuta), namely, Earth, Water, Heat and Air together with Space and Consciousness (MN 140, The Analysis of the Elements). Now the Four Great Elements and Space are Universal and Infinite, and together with Infinite Consciousness, constitute bases of meditation (DN 15). All these six are not mere concepts or ideas but factors of Existence.
Based on these is the following conceptual presentation by the writer, of the Magical Scene. In this diagram (A) and (B) depict the interdependent, self-sustained manifestation of the World and the Universe with its beings and things from one source the Mind. This conceptual presentation is to represent all Realms of Existence. (See box)
Between Infinity of Space and MIND are the Formless Realms where there is no Rupa. The double arrows signify that one cannot exist without the other just as Consciousness and Nama Rupa cannot exist separately as explained above.
It is also evident that Maha Bhuta and Derived Rupa and Infinity of Space are dependent on each other and have no separate existences. Hypothetically speaking if all the beings in all three Realms of Existence, that is all beings in the Universe were to disappear, which of course is impossible, then (B) and (C) will disappear with them.
Infinity of Consciousness is the Mind’s intrinsic awareness, which is also the awareness through which one could know ones own liberation, a faculty, which Arahants possess. Liberation is also the state to which one’s Consciousness arrives at and this cannot be known by the very same Consciousness.
The only position from which it can be known is infinity of consciousness, which is a faculty of the mind.
Many psychic phenomena such as Arahants ability to travel through air or walk on water and many others stated in the discourses of the Buddha all point to the Minds dualistic manifestation. These psychic phenomena are possible because Mind has control over its own manifestations.
The access to such control is the purity
of individual’s mind because Mind’s intrinsic nature is pure.
Today individual minds’ corruptions due to craving for these appearances
have crystallized them into what we think are external realities independent
of the human mind.