Archives for category: Book review

 

Okay, so you’ve got yourself all set up to start a mindfulness mediation practice. You have your bench or cushion in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, you’ve got a time of day where you’ve built it in, and you’ve got a timer so you don’t have to watch a clock.

So exactly what is mindfulness? Paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

 There is an awful lot in that sentence and it will become richer and richer the more you experience it, but you can start by committing that to memory.

Okay, so, let’s get started. Take your place in your spot, set your timer, and then breathe. Watching the breath as it enters the body, watching the breath as it leaves the body. You need not try to control your thoughts and feelings. They will arise on their own. You’re just allowing them to arise and float on past, like clouds in a blue sky. Relaxing, not tensing, and resting attention on the breath. Over and over and over. Before too long you’ll notice that you aren’t seeing the breath anymore: you’re thinking, planning, ruminating, going to the past or the future. Not to worry. Just gently and without judging, escort the attention back to the breath. Think of your attention like a curious puppy. It keeps wandering, but you are teaching it to stay. “Puppy, stay,” you say gently, every time it scoots off. You don’t keep score, you don’t get angry, and you don’t give up. Coming back to the breath.

 

clouds

Just let them come and blow on through.  Don’t try to get on them and ride them around.

That’s it. When the timer dings and you’re done, you can say a little prayer, if that’s your thing, or you can do a little metta—metta is a practice of wishing well to ourselves and others. It goes like this:

May I be safe and protected.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I know ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of this world.

You say it first about yourself. Then you say it about your loved ones. Then you say it about people you feel neutral about. Then you say it about your enemies and those who make you crazy or fearful. Then you say it about all sentient beings.

Those are the basics and there is an awful lot more to say. My favorite book on this subject is:

 

mindfulness-plain-english

Brilliant.  Invaluable.

I found several PDF’s of it online!  Here is the table of contents:

Contents
1 Meditation: Why Bother?
2 What Meditation Isn’t
3 What Meditation Is
4 Attitude
5 The Practice
6 What to Do with Your Body
7 What to Do with Your Mind
8 Structuring Your Meditation
9 Set-up Exercises
10 Dealing with Problems
11 Dealing with Distractions I
12 Dealing with Distractions II
13 Mindfulness (Sati)
14 Mindfulness versus Concentration
15 Meditation in Everyday Life
16 What’s in It for You
Afterword: The Power of Loving Friendliness
Appendix: The Context of the Tradition
I love this book and go back to it over and over again.
bhante-g

Super advice for teachers.

Another thing I learned again yesterday is that linear learning is a myth. Chris told me that many of his students have asked for a way to learn the theory of music step by step—a linear unfolding of the concepts that underlie music. But there can never be a step by step route to this understanding, for it’s an interlocking system. We don’t learn step by step: we learn by crystallization or puzzling. Something falls into place and makes sense to us, and then that fact or concept will attract other related ideas, like when we were kids and made rock candy and the sugar crystals formed on the string.

You have to be patient.

You have to be patient.

Or it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where you get the edges roughed in and something in the middle starts to grow. How foolish to try to do the puzzle by starting at the bottom row and work left to right, one piece at a time!

Haphazard is the only way.

Haphazard is the only way.

 

Another bit from Alan Watts (from The Book:  On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are):

 

Apart from such human artifacts as buildings and roads (especially Roman and American roads), our universe, including ourselves, is thoroughly wiggly. Its features are wiggly in both shape and conduct. Clouds, mountains, plants, rivers, animals, coastlines—all wiggle. They wiggle so much and in so many different ways that no one can really make out where one wiggle begins and another ends, whether in space or in tie. Some French classicist of the eighteenth century complained that the Creator had seriously fallen down on the job by failing to arrange the stars with any elegant symmetry, for they seem to be sprayed through space like the droplets from a breaking wave. Is all this one thing wiggling in many different ways, or many things wiggling on their own? Are there “things” that wiggle or are the wigglings the same as the things? It depends upon how you figure it.

Millenia ago, some genius discovered that such wiggles as fish and rabbits could be caught in nets. Much later, some other genius thought of catching the world in a net. By itself, the world goes something like this:

 

!

!

 

But now look at this wiggle through a net:

 

The wiggle is in jail.

The wiggle is in jail.

The net has “cut” the big wiggle into little wiggles, all contained in squares of the same size. Order has been imposed on chaos. We can now say that the wiggle goes so many squares to the left, so many to the right, so many up, or so many down, and at last we have its number. Centuries later, the same image of the net was imposed upon the world as the lines of both celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, as graph paper for potting mathematical wiggles, as pigeonholes for filing, and as the ground plan for cities. The net has thus become one of the presiding images of human thought. But it is always an image, and just as no one can use the equator to tie up a package, the real wiggly world slips like water through our imaginary nets. However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.

 

This reminds me of “Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt, said to be composed for Anne Boleyn:

 

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, hélas, I may no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

 

A deer, a woman, the wind, true understanding: hard to capture with any net, particularly imaginary ones.

Yet this is precisely what standardized tests aim to do and to enforce. They are imaginary nets, grids and graphs for the wide world.

Anyway, I’m going to go on jigsaw puzzling and growing rock candy comprehension. We beginners always wish it wouldn’t take so long, but that’s the way it works.

 

I have been on an Alan Watts binge, spurred by reading on brainpickings.org, which I highly recommend. Right now I’m coming down the home stretch on The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Here’s a passage that struck me as particularly helpful:

 If we want justice for minorities and cooled wars with our natural enemies, whether human or nonhuman, we must first com to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and in our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere in the “external” world—especially when you realize that the world outside your skin is as much yourself as the world inside. For want of this awareness, no one can be more belligerent than a pacifist on the rampage, or more militantly nationalistic than an anti-imperialist.

You may, indeed, argue that this is asking too much. You may resort to the old alibi that the task of “changing human nature” is too arduous and too slow, and that what we need is immediate and massive action. Obviously, it takes discipline to make any radical change in one’s own behavior patterns, and psychotherapy can drag on for years and years. But this is not my suggestion. Does it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Humor is the twinkle in the eye of a just judge, who knows that is also the felon in the dock. How could he be sitting there in stately judgment, being addressed as “your Honor” or “Mi Lud,” without those poor bastards being dragged before him day after day? It does not undermine his work and his function to recognize this. He plays the role of judge all the better for realizing that on the next turn of the Wheel of Fortune he may be the accused, and that if all the truth were known, he would be standing there now.

 

All of which I take to mean that when I try to teach, I’m teaching myself as much as I teach my students, and their ignorance or balkiness or closed-mindedness is a necessary and helpful component of my classroom, for without all that, how could I call forth my own limits and lapses in order to heal and transcend them?   Teaching then becomes a mutual act, a transaction, where roles of teacher and student blend and cross over, the leader and led taking turns—like a dance duet.

 

My newest mentor.

My newest mentor.

 

Reading literary fiction makes you better able to deal with ambiguity, a new study finds.

Not terribly surprising to those of us who have watched students right at the age where they start to see that there might not be such a thing as an unmitigated good guy, especially in stories that are actually interesting.

I start all my classes with a V.S. Naipaul short story, “B. Wordsworth.”  Some kids in each class are disgusted by its ambiguous ending:  “it was just as though B. Wordsworth had never existed.”  But the fact of the story proves that the narrator has been changed forever by this relationship.  How interesting, when someone’s words contradict his actions and being.  Other kids, of course, love the depiction of mindfulness.

He did everything as though he were doing it for the first time in his life. He did everything as though he were doing some church rite.

It is a beautiful story of a poet and a teacher.  I hope that it sets my students up for learning in a wide open way.

B. Wordsworth said, “Now, let us lie on the grass and look up at the sky, and I want you to think how far those stars are from us.”

I did as he told me, and I saw what he meant. I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all the blows.

When I said I was better, he began telling me the names of the stars, and I particularly remembered the constellation of Orion the Hunter, though I don’t really know why.

When I said I was better, he began telling me the names of the stars, and I particularly remembered the constellation of Orion the Hunter, though I don’t really know why. I can spot Orion even today, but I have forgotten the rest.

I can spot Orion even today, but I have forgotten the rest.

 Then a light was flashed into our faces, and we saw a policeman. We got up from the grass.

 The policeman said, “What you doing here?”

B. Wordsworth said, “I have been asking myself the same question for forty years.”

 Now that is a good question.
Even NPR can fail to figure it out.

Even NPR can fail to figure it out.

Here’s an interesting piece from All Things Considered that I caught in the car on my way to guitar lesson:

What Kids Are Reading, In School and Out

The thesis is that, while more kids are reading written-for-them books than ever before, Harry Potter and Twilight do not always serve as gateway books to more difficult, complicated texts– and schools are not serving kids’ best interests by dumbing down their curricula to include such dreck as The Notebook.  Classics have been displaced by The Bridges of Madison County and kids are suffering as a result.

Well!

I can’t speak for other districts, but all we read is classics.  I am hard pressed to name a book we’re teaching now that wasn’t taught to me when I was in high school, and I graduated in 1977.

That might seem like a good thing.  My tenth graders read The Crucible, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, and now A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Yes, they get a lot out of them and yes, those books challenge them (just yesterday I was fending off the usual complaint about how hard Shakespeare is, did they really talk that way, surely nobody ever understood this, and the rest)– but what about the books that have been written since 1980?  As one of my colleagues is fond of pointing out, we are not teaching them to read the literature of their own age.

I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games:  eminently entertaining, readable books that kids devour on their own without a teacher’s help.  I mean books like The Shipping News, which I’m allowed to do only in AP, that challenges kids with its blend of tragedy and comedy, its syntax, its vocab, its unlikely hero.  Or what about Small Island by Andrea Levy or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy:  post-colonial books that challenge our notions of whose culture we’re rooting for?

The fact is that newer books have more curse words and more sexuality, portray difficulties more graphically, than older books do.  Or not:  ask Lear. But the older books are grandfathered in and those who would complain feel foolish objecting to the durable dinosaurs, beloved and relevant as they still are, treading the same old ground.  So older books get a by, even if they’re Oedipus.  But write a new book about a man killing his father and marrying his mother, fathering children that are also brothers and sisters, gouging out his eyes with his dead wife’s brooches, and see how far you get with the school board curriculum committee.

And anyway, what exactly is a classic?  NPR was mum on this point.  Evidently not The Hunger Games, but did To Kill a Mockingbird count?  Of Mice and Men?  Both were mentioned, but equivocally.  And who is the source of the reading levels?

So, NPR, I love you, but you got this one wrong, at least as far as our district goes.  The problem isn’t too few classics.  We’re awash in them.  It’s first of all trying to change parents’ minds.  As one (wonderful) dad said to me, I would only allow that book (it had a couple of F-bombs in it) to be taught to my kid if there were no other book that would work.  Wouldn’t it be possible to reframe our book choices to reflect that maybe, just maybe, the ideal place for kids to encounter difficult topics, language, and dilemmas is in fiction, with a qualified guide?

And second of all, it’s helping kids to put down their cell phones nervously twitching with tweets and texts long enough to focus on something really hard.

Oedipus:  gory, incestuous, violent, and taught.

Oedipus: gory, incestuous, violent, and taught.

Marvelous book.  Good luck getting it approved.

Marvelous book. Good luck getting it approved.

The New York Times has this article in its most frequently emailed list today:

Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data

Somebody is willing to read your script and tell you how to change it to raise your chances of making money.  The article ends with a tight shot of Vinnie Bruzzese:

“All screenwriters think their babies are beautiful,” he said, taking a chug of Diet Dr Pepper followed by a gulp of Diet Coke and a drag on a Camel. “I’m here to tell it like it is: Some babies are ugly.”

I wish he were a character in my screenplay.

Mr. Bruzzese and Miriam Brinn, head of script analysis, as featured in the NYTimes.

Mr. Bruzzese and Miriam Brinn, head of script analysis, as featured in the NYTimes.

And while we’re on the topic of polling as a method to success, this is one of my favorite This American Lifes:

By the Numbers

“Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar hired a polling firm to investigate what people want to see in paintings. Then, using the data, they painted what people want. It turned out to be a landscape, with a mountain and a lake, and deer, and a family, and George Washington. Then they applied these techniques to music with composer David Soldier. They surveyed audiences about what kind of instruments and topics they liked most in their songs. Then they produced one song based on what people most want to hear — and one song based on what they hate the most. The one people hate includes bagpipes, children singing, lyrics about holidays and religion, wild volume and tempo changes. If you’d like a copy of the songs featured in this segment, visit Melamid and Komar’s website. You can buy both the Most Wanted and Most Unwanted Songs directly from them.” (11 minutes)

There is something compelling about a 12 minute song that combines a rapping operatic soprano with the clip clop of cowboy music, interspersed with kids singing holiday lyrics– people end up liking it, at least for a minute or two, at least at first.

Oh, Quality!  What is polling but the same technique Phaedrus used to demonstrate the reality of quality to his students?

I keep reading it.  I keep finding more connections to it.

I keep reading it. I keep finding more connections to it.

It worked!

It worked!

So you bury a bunch of scraggly-looking roots in the dirt and wait a while, and lose hope, and come back and Lo! there’s a spear getting longer by the minute– plus more, little ones and tall ones, doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, fulfilling their nature.  It’s a good system.

For more on this topic, read The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, in print since it was published in 1945.

carrot_seed

 

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Katherine Good

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