Ian Enjoying A Good Lunch

Ian writes a monthly column for Tone Magazine as well as his own blog at:

His essays, poetry and articles are published widely in:
Shambhala Sun
The Criterion
Mindful Word
Northern Cardinal Review
The Mindfulness Bell
The Trumpeter

A sample of Ian's publications are provided below.
[Scroll down to see them]

Ian also has over 100 articles, chapters and reviews in world journals such as:
American Anthropologist
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Current Anthropology
Theory and Society
Journal of Ritual Studies
International Journal of Comparative Sociology
Human Organization
Dialectical Anthropology

…to name only a few.

For more info, see Ian's Curriculum Vitae
or for some of his other writings
see Ian's Meditations and Poems page.

Anapanasatti Sutra: Part One       [2012]

The first two quatrains of the sutra are the body of Part One. In Part Two the commentary will be completed with the final two quatrains.

The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is a mature teaching from the Buddha. At the end of one rainy season retreat in the Eastern Park at Savatthi, the Buddha looked out and observed his senior monks teaching large numbers of younger monks in an atmosphere that was calm, solid and fruitful. He knew that the Sangha had matured and announced that he would stay there for a further month to encourage their efforts. This news attracted monks from all over Northern India to come to hear him speak at Savatthi. The Buddha prepared himself to deliver what he had hinted at before on several occasions. This was prompted by his attendant Ananda who had asked the Buddha if there was a practice to bring other teachings of the Buddha to completion. The Buddha's response was that indeed there was such a practice – Mindful Breathing, contained in what became known as the Anapanasatti Sutra. One full moon later he presented the sutra in full – the first time he revealed the entire method of the Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra in a systematic and concise way.

To come to grips with the necessity of throwing away the formations in our mindset that cause damage and corrupt our sense of inherent goodness, I now introduce the Buddha's teachings about the mindful use of the breath. His teachings are always about transforming suffering. In four sets of quatrains in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing the Buddha provides sixteen breathing exercises that focus mindfulness, concentration and insight first on the body, then on feelings and emotions, then on the mind (mental formations) and finally on objects of mind (perceptions). I draw on many texts, though the most influential were Thich Nhat Hanh's 2006 translation from the Chinese version of the Sutra (Taisho Tripitika Vol. 2 No 99, Tsa A Han (No 29) 803) and from Theravaddan texts of this teaching found in Larry Rosenburg's Breath By Breath, Shambhala: 2004.

With sheer brilliance in this teaching about mindful breathing the Buddha starts with the body where the brain and consciousness are located. Progressively - through sixteen exercises based on mindfulness, concentration and insight - this teaching takes us through each avenue of investigation so we grow stronger to the point that we can begin throwing away our fears, anger, judgment, greed and consumption patterns. This allows space and opportunity for the wholesome seeds in consciousness to expand. Eventually – in the last four exercises – we throw away the vehicles of concentration that got us to that point! Then at last we may touch a deeper wisdom, a more penetrating consciousness as we come to rest in reality-as-it-is. The emphasis on developing the necessary skills means that the exercises are not superficial – rather they constitute a systematic retraining of the wild mind in a very practical and incremental way. Each successive quatrain of exercises prepares us for the next one in a gradual process of greater refinement of the mind's skills.

The breathing exercises are expressed in a linear form from Exercise 1 through to Exercise 16. It may be thought that the linear expression is due to restrictions of language form, but we will see that the structure and organization of the sutra is nothing other than the Buddha's brilliance in communicating his penetrating insights. The vessels of communication are astutely selected so that the linear format does not exclude the interconnectedness of all four quatrains. Quite the opposite effect is in full force.

The first step of the sutra is to investigate, fully understand and then transform suffering in the body, as breathing begins in the domain of the body. This establishes a foundation for the rest of the sutra to sink in. It is the first step in equipping the mind with sufficient stability and tools to learn how to transform our damaging mental formations. Then the investigation moves on from this foundation to understand the nature of feelings, mind and objects of mind – hence the linear logic of the four quatrains, though one should always recognize their interconnected nature. The starting foundation of this investigation, and transformation of suffering is awareness of breath in the body. When we can accept that the brain also belongs to the domain of the body, then without any doubt mind consciousness is also found deeply in the body. Thus the Buddha's organization of the sutra reflects this stepwise progression with its initial concentration of breath and mind in the body.

The Buddha, furthermore, requires the practitioner to step beyond the superficial in order to truly understand this flow and avoid being mechanical or unaware of the significance of the exercises. Rather, the encouragement is to experience the exercises without restriction, so that the terms "body in the body", "feelings in the feelings" and so on, cease to be terms. They make sense to the experience of the person practicing the sixteen breathing exercises. Our notions become insights through extensive practice and concentration. Intellectual notions do not help us to transform. It is the concentration and mindfulness applied that allows insights to emerge, which lead to transformation. In this way – breathing with concentration, mindfulness and insight is not just for the meditation hall, it is for life. This is the true meaning of Zen. We take it into everyday life - getting dressed, shopping, eating, going to work, waiting for a bus and so on. It is intelligent to use our breath to nurture ourselves in this way - fully vibrant and alive in each moment of life.

The "skilfully" component in each exercise is essential. It requires that mindfulness, concentration and insight are there. The exercises are an effective means of taming the excesses of the Wild Mind that dwells in all of us. It is a mistake to stand apart from our breath as a dislocated stranger observing our mind. It is necessary to participate with the breath so we do not make it into an external object. The very point of mindfulness is not to stand outside, because by being "inside" with our breath we can deeply penetrate our body, feelings and mind, then integrate, heal and transform at the core of our being.

In writing this commentary on the Buddha's Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, I consulted texts and translations from many traditions. Yet I felt that I was missing something, though did not know what it was. When I came across translations from the Theravaddan tradition, I found what I was intuitively looking for. In the third stanza I found for the first time the words "One trains oneself."I admired the emphasis on training, for it implied that there was a commitment and determination by the meditator to give astute attention to the whole process. I was further delighted to find in Thich Nhat Hanh's translation from the Chinese version, the term "Skilfully at the beginning of each stanza. This was exactly what I was looking for. Both versions assume that we start in a state that is not skilful and through training ourselves we arrive at a state that is progressively more skilful. I took it an explicit step further in this commentary to include both skilfulness and training, transposing each exercise to the format:

Skilfully training myself: breathing in and breathing out, aware of the whole body.

Skilfully training myself: breathing in and breathing out, aware of contemplating cessation and throwing away all notions.

This reinforces the insight that it is not intellectual notions that get us through but a systematic and skilful re-training of the mind through the application of mindfulness, concentration and insight. The vehicle for the entire process is the concentration on in-breath and the out-breath. The first quatrain:

1. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of a long breath.

2. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of a short breath.

3. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of my whole body.

4. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of calming my whole body.

This quatrain brings the mind back to the body and identifies awareness and concentration with the different qualities of breath. The first two Exercises restore the body's capacity for self-healing; Exercises 3 and 4 establish the conditions for calming the whole body. A simple application ensures that we understand the significance of the first quatrain. Imagine a situation where your partner or friend is late for a rendezvous with you. This is a special occasion and as time ticks by you start to get really irritated and angry and begin to play your habitual CD's in your mind. "She is always late. He has no consideration for the trouble I take to be on time" – and so on, as you become more and more angry. After thirty minutes you are steaming mad. But what if you had the presence of mind to stop and check in with your body? You become aware of your long breath and short breath. Then become aware of your body and calm it. Check it out and ask inside – how does my body feel right now? It may feel perfectly OK – so this makes the thoughts and tapes in your mind complete imposters with respect to the reality your body feels. Your thoughts are playing tricks with your mind yet again. However, if your body does feel knotted and agitated – do walking meditation round the block to calm your body. So – if your body feels fine you know what your thoughts are up to. If your body feels agitated – you know what to do to calm it. Then when your friend arrives – you can ask sweetly and genuinely – "Was traffic heavy tonight?" You are able to accept whatever apology that is offered and can look forward to enjoying the evening. This simple transformation is brought about by breathing with awareness in and out of the body. Just calculate how many disastrous situations could have been averted in your life by your attention to breath in the body. The first quatrain is essential for all businessmen and politicians!!

In its entirety, this quatrain provides the basis for a deep relaxation practice whereby the practitioner can be guided through a body scan with a focus through in-breath on different parts of the body, while the out-breath encourages smiling with love to the eyes, lungs, feet and other body parts. This practice, while activating the first quatrain is not only about the body. If the "body in the body" is deeply touched by your awareness, this automatically opens a doorway for the other quatrains to be experienced at the same time – so that feelings, mind and objects of mind are also penetrated. The notion of interbeing is no longer a concept or a view. It is actualized as concrete reality from the very starting point of this sutra. Hold that insight at the outset of practicing this sutra.

The second quatrain of breathing exercises provides an intelligent focus on feelings and emotions:

5. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of experiencing joy.

6. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of experiencing happiness.

7. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of my painful feelings.

8. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of calming painful feelings.

We all love our dramas and allow ego to run rampant with our feelings and emotions creating all kinds of out of control attachments. However, if we can catch this link in the causal chain – our dramas fuelled by painful mental formations - we can do an end run around our misery and suffering. We go deeper and cut out a lot of unnecessary thinking, mostly because we have established stability from the first four exercises and can see how our feelings actually condition the mind. Feelings are totally normal. It is simply a matter of having the stability of mind not to be overwhelmed by them.

Skilfully using breath to experience joy and happiness (Exercises 5 and 6) deeply nurtures our feelings and emotions, creating a steadiness within. This sets the foundation to bring awareness and calm to mental formations comprised of painful feelings and emotions (Exercises 7 and 8), so that you are not overwhelmed or rendered dysfunctional by a particular feeling or emotion. Exercises 7 and 8, recognizing and calming, provide a preventive measure to transform the hurricane force of strong emotions - a very important message to send to young people contemplating suicide. The first two exercises of this quatrain nurture and sustain our feelings so we can realize that we are much more than one feeling – so why allow one feeling to take us down into the hell of despair, loneliness and suffering? Feelings are one mental formation focussed upon by the Buddha to highlight the effects of mindful breathing - to demonstrate that the methodology of the sutra actually works. As feelings and emotions are something that we all readily relate to – often disastrously so – it is a good strategy to bring relief to the problem of being overwhelmed by strong emotions. This is what Exercises 7 and 8 do.

A very practical application comes to mind about the efficacy of this particular quatrain through a drastic situation with my teenage grandson. He had gone through a deep depression caused primarily by being bullied at school and was seriously contemplating suicide. His father had phoned me in alarm and I suggested that my grandson come and stay with my wife and I for a while. This would take the heat out of the situation. I also spoke over the phone to my grandson without mentioning the word "Suicide". I talked to him about our joint adventures by the seashore and kayaking – things that I knew would bring some joy and happiness to his mind. These were the first steps to transform the hurricane force of his strong feelings and emotions. I also taught him over the phone a simple meditation about being a tall tree. That when strong winds come up the tree top would sway and branches break off, while the trunk stayed pretty solid. So that when something arose like a strong wind to upset him, to think of these things as the tall branches being moved by strong energy. If he placed his hands on his tummy and breathed deeply into this trunk – then his distress and anger would slowly calm down. He then accepted my invitation to come and stay with us.

My wife and I picked him up from the airport and made him completely at home. No mention of his depression and strong urge to commit suicide. My wife fed him with mounds of food. It seemed that he emptied the fridge at least twice a day. He could sleep in as long as he needed to and rest. Once he got dressed and after a late breakfast, I would take him to the various science and technical museums in the city – as that was his passion. Fortunately, I knew several curators who kindly gave him individual tours. He also enjoyed farting contests. My wife declined to participate though I did comply, but was not so accomplished as he. We played board games and charades – and slowly gladdened his mind - an important step in the next quatrain. He mediated with me and we did the Tree mediation a few times together. When the time felt right I asked him if he would like to talk to me about what was going on. He told me about three boys who bullied him at school. Also, that neither of his parents – who were separated - really listened to him. I listened quietly until he finished talking. Then I went to the telephone and found the number of his school and talked to his principal for a while. She was very open and supportive and had already taken steps to separate the three bullies – keeping two in detention during every recess. I also telephoned his father and talked to him about deep listening, which he promised to put into practice with his troubled son. I also persuaded my grandson to see that his father and mother were deeply worried and doing their best for him. That if he decided to "off" himself, his father and mother and little brothers would be devastated. I also told him that I would be devastated too – but not for long, as I knew how to take care of suffering. He did not want any of that to happen. We also talked about emotions and he totally understood that he was letting one or two strong emotions get him down, when he had so many others to choose from.

If the reader understands all of this and puts this understanding into practice then he can see that the particular emotion that is overwhelming him, making her dysfunctional, is just one emotion in their vast ocean of consciousness. This insight undermines the predisposition to be crushed. This is so important for young people who quickly go into despair and even suicide when overwhelmed by emotions and feeling. The first two quatrains (Exercises 1 - 4 and Exercises 5 - 8) set the stage for the real hard work of taming the Wild Mind. There has been a cumulative process of calming the body and feelings – so that now the mind itself, a much more complex level, can be investigated.

Anapanasatti Sutra: Part Two       [2013]

This completes the commentary on the Mindful Breathing Sutra with a focus on the final two quatrains of exercises proposed by the Buddha.

In the third quatrain of breathing exercises we contemplate the "mind in the mind" and go deeper, as mental formations are causally prior to particular emotions; the ground out of which emotions manifest. This is the stage for some deep digging and once more the Buddha is absolutely brilliant:

 9.  Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of my mental formations.

10. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of gladdening my mental formations.

11. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of concentrating on the nutriments that feed my damaging mental formations.

12. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of liberating my mind by not feeding damaging mental formations.

In Exercise 9 we use our breath to recognize, and then look deeply at, the causes and conditions that create the damaging mental formations arising in the mind. We recognize that this is an energy that requires our attention and some serious TLC. And that is exactly what Exercise 10 does with gladdening the mind. This is a wonderful exercise as we consciously provide the mind with nourishment to become stronger and to go further in the practice. This self-nourishment is vital as we are now deeply in the domain of the mind. Deep in store consciousness there are many positive and wholesome seeds of potential just waiting for an opportunity to manifest in mind consciousness. So we gladden the mind by taking conscious steps with our thoughts and intentions to water the seeds of Love, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity and other concentrations, so that they manifest at the level of mind consciousness. Furthermore, we take positive action by organizing our everyday living so that external circumstances further the nourishment of our wholesome seeds. And we become very attentive about not watering unwholesome seeds like despair, anger, jealousy and greed. In effect we are re-writing the programs in our store consciousness that can be activated by ego to take us into the realm of suffering and harm.

Nothing survives in our mind without us allowing the flow of nutriments to feed and maintain particular mental formations that arise. So in Exercise 11 we concentrate the mind and investigate deeply the nutriments that brought an unwholesome mental formation into manifestation. It is like burning the affliction away, as once we become aware of the causes and conditions we can immediately reduce the potency of the affliction to cause harm by recognizing the nutriments that kept it alive. This is followed by Exercise 12, liberating the mind whereby we choose to cease feeding the harmful mental formations by cutting off the nutriments within and around us that fuel them with energy. Concentration is the sword that cuts through the suffering that ties the mind into knots. We simply stop feeding our demons – and they become afraid because they realize that you have got their number! And it is Number 12.

This quatrain also played a big part in my grandson's rehabilitation. The focus by my wife and me on gladdening his mind was vital for him to eventually see that he could change the internal CD's he listened to. We had listened carefully to identify the nutriments that fed his impetus towards suicide and then did our best to encourage him to eliminate them – so my grandson could stop feeding the nutriments that inflamed his damaging mental formations. After emptying our fridge one day and finding it bare he started to laugh and said – "Nothing survives without food!" He got it and I was very proud of him and told him so. I talked to him about the tugs or shenpas that were a warning signal for him to get ready for the next round of stuff. He had already learned some very valuable tools from this sutra.

The cumulative effect of the training brings us to the final quatrain, which provides four breathing exercises to correct wrong perceptions as objects of mind. Perceptions, which are with us all the time, are also singled out by the Buddha to demonstrate that the practice of mindful breathing – being skilfully aware, loaded with mindfulness, concentration and insight – does actually work and bring about transformation.

13. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of contemplating impermanence.

14. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of contemplating letting go of desire and craving.

15. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of contemplating nirvana.

16. Skilfully training myself - breathing in and breathing out, aware of contemplating cessation and throwing away all notions.

These four exercises are there to assist us in seeing reality-as-it-is, without the mud and distortions provided by our feelings and mind. Exercise 13 – perhaps the most significant one - is to at last understand impermanence and with it the nature of non-self and interbeing. We grasp the insight of impermanence rather than have a notion about it. Contemplating impermanence does in fact include the final three exercises.  Impermanence is a central tenet of the Buddha's teachings. It includes all concentrations, as it leads to the insight that all formations are of the nature to change and the trick is to see how the mind responds. This is necessary to comprehend before we can let go and throw away our attachments to wrong perceptions, views and notions with respect to desire and cravings (Exercise 14).

This exercise assists in an end run around Manas – the distorting level of consciousness based on ignorance and suffering. Letting go, particularly in the realm of sexual desire, is not easy, because there is a constant energy to "hook" us to desire and the notions of permanence and attachment. I call attachment by its true name – addiction – as attachments are powerful and difficult to transform. It often feels like getting past a cocaine habit – which we do refer to as an addiction.  Many of our attachments are of that same nature. Addiction to sex, alcohol, drugs, entertainment, along with other desires, provides illusory incentives to seek satisfaction by chasing after it – always providing for an ultimate disappointment. This is the Darth Vader element of our minds and it is difficult to resist, which is why we need steady re-training to let go of desire and craving and move towards a deeper wisdom. The Buddha's teachings refresh our memories, underlined by his many statements that "under no circumstance permit your mind to attach to anything as me and mine."

The next two exercises (15 and 16) skilfully contemplate Nirvana and Cessation, respectively. Nirvana means extinction of all notions and views that prevent us from being our true nature. The experience of reality-as-it-is becomes available once we rid ourselves of notions of birth, death, being and non-being. As Thich Nhat Hanh eloquently puts it – We have been nirvanas from the non-beginning! With Exercise 16 we have an interesting conundrum – a final drum roll. In throwing away wrong perceptions and views, in throwing away the processes of getting caught, in throwing away the notions that fuel our fears, addictions, suffering and wrong perceptions – we must be attentive and careful not to get caught in the notions of impermanence, letting go, nirvana and cessation. They are all notions, offered by the Buddha as a key to unlock the nature of reality.  When our views transform to insights that is the moment to burn away the instrument of practice that got us there in the first place. These breathing exercises are instruments to aid our final steps into awakening, so we must take care not to get caught in the fine tuning of these last four instruments. And also be aware to not get caught by the dharma as taught by our teachers. That too must be thrown away – an important offshoot of cessation and throwing away.

I have had only a limited success with Letting Go and do fall short on Cessation. But here is a story that indicates some initial steps:

"Letting Go," Exercise 14 is the one brought to your attention.  It can be translated as either "Letting Go" or "Throwing Away Strongly." Letting Go actually sounds a bit lame - for wimps and wusses - whereas Throwing Away Strongly is when we have the confidence to be Splendid and the internal strength to have unyielding confidence in our inherent goodness. While I like the idea of throwing away strongly, the following personal example is much closer to that of reluctantly letting go. It was the best I could manage at the time, clearly starting off this endeavour as a thorough wimp. Yet once the benefits were experienced it took on something of the character of throwing away strongly.

Since relinquishing my car several years ago, radical new horizons appeared, though there was an initial period of grief and frustration. Every time a winter green Subaru Outback drove past I would weep, especially if I was clambering over snow banks to get to a bus stop. I would often get on the wrong bus, discovering parts of the city of Ottawa I had no intention of visiting. Relinquishing my car was not quite as virtuous as it may seem. My car insurers refused to renew my insurance policy due to the frequent, yet small, crashes that had cost them oodles of money. The most notorious incident was when I collided with my neighbour's mini-van. I still believe he was on the wrong side of the road, but just perhaps it was me.  His insubstantial mini-van crumpled and buckled while my beloved winter green Subaru Outback had minor damage to the front fender.

My neighbour cheerfully, and without realizing the risk, got into my car and I drove both of us to the nearest police station to report the collision.  The police sergeant took our particulars. As I stood there looking somewhat sheepish, he put up his hand with an air of authority and said: "I don't want to hear anything from you – I will put this down as a no-fault collision." I was about to point out that "no-fault collision" was an oxymoron, when my neighbour said OK and hurried both of us out. He had to meet his daughter at a shopping mall and asked if I would kindly drive him there. Quite a risk taker he was, given the circumstances. I happily agreed and mused that just perhaps my absence from driving would make it safer for every other driver on the road, quite apart from the obvious environmental benefits that I cared deeply about. All this being said, I was not prepared for the new vistas that were suddenly there when I became car-less in Ottawa.

I learned how well served my city of Ottawa was with bus and light rail services. Had I continued driving a car I would have missed out on one of the most hilarious and refreshing bus conversations I have ever had. Riding home one evening on the 117 bus from my university to Baseline Station, I noticed a young man with a twelve pack of beer sitting opposite, staring very intently at me, obviously three sheets to the wind. Finally he blurted out: "Hey, aint you the ecology guy on TV?" To which I mildly demurred that indeed I was - not really wishing to get into a conversation with this inebriated young man. But joyfully he exclaimed: "Hey, me and the boys have a twelve pack of beer every Monday night when we watch your show on TV. It's cool man." I felt immediately humbled by his openness and that surprisingly I was making a difference.  As was he at this moment, as he chatted away about ecology and recycling until his bus stop. He proudly stated that thanks to my show when he and the boys went drinking in the woods, they always brought their empty bottles out for recycling! He offered me a bottle of beer before leaving the bus, which of course I accepted graciously. I did not drink it, leaving it in the bus driver's bin to dispose of.

I had discovered that between Baseline Station and my home, there was a kilometre walk along Pinecrest Creek that constantly stunned me with its beauty. As it was a bicycle path the snow was ploughed in winter, which made walking that much easier. To have nature dance in such unexpected ways led to my often carrying a camera, with stale bread and grain for the mallard ducks that wintered there. The sunsets over the ice rimmed creek and snow covered field leading up to it would take my breath away. They could not possibly be there in the middle of a busy city!! As were red foxes, one lonely coyote, song birds, owls and the occasional pedestrian. My walking meditations between Baseline Station and home made me smile as I slowed down and hummed Pooh Bear type hums. If I had a car this wonder would have been denied to me. I also relocated essential services close to home, finding doctors, dentists, eye specialists (and camera shops) within walking or biking distance. They had been there all the time, just waiting to be discovered. I now re-arrange appointments locally within bicycle range, rarely going downtown unless absolutely necessary. Driving a car, I could not stop to be fully present with moments of stunning beauty for as long as I liked; or say hello to rabbits that boldly appeared; or leave contented ducks well fed on bread and grain murmuring their approval of the two legged who listened to what they wanted.

The bus drivers on the 117 bus route have come to know me and younger passengers offer their seats to the greybeard with the jazzy umbrella and funny black hat. Would I go back to driving a car and lose all this? Well, talk to me about an affordable, environmentally friendly Mercedes and a kind insurance broker, then perhaps we'll see.– Only kidding! The fruits of Letting Go were gratefully tasted and it soon felt like Throwing Away Strongly to me. So I wave goodbye to even an environmentally friendly Mercedes.

The Buddha concludes his teaching by stating:

"Bhikkus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion."

In this brief commentary, with a dash of humour, my intention is to provide just a taste of the depth of the Buddha's teachings in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. To recognize how the Buddha generously offers instruments of practice to support our onward journey but not to get caught by or to hold on to any of the instruments. My practice of this exquisite training has been very "lumpy" over the years until I could truly see for myself that indeed my body, feelings and mind were calmer as a consequence of practicing it. It takes me to a seemingly strange place where I see all of life as a movie – an illusion that I am in but do not participate with – well not too much! From deep in the cave of formless – I do my best to use mindfulness, concentration and insight to navigate the forms in everyday life and not get caught in those forms. It is not always a success story.

Finally, though you may be uplifted by the experience, when you meet the Buddha on the road you will know what to do.  Kill him. More precisely - kill the perceptions and notions about the Buddha that you have become attached to. The raft is not the shore.

Are We Stupid?       [2010]

Oscar nominee Pete Postlethwaite plays the best role of his acting career in the film "The Age of Stupid." The movie fast forwards us to the year 2055. Pete plays the only fictional character in this riveting film. He stars as an old man living in a world totally decimated by global warming. His location is the High Arctic. How prophetic this makes James Lovelock's conclusion from his 2006 book Revenge of Gaia. In an interview about this book, Lovelock provides a dire prediction for humanity: "Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

The process that brought this about is one where we allowed the environment to become an extension of human egocentric needs and values - an ego-sphere rather than an eco-sphere. In this ego-sphere we consumed mindlessly in the global economy without regard for ecosystem balance or concern about creating inequality, poverty and ecosystem imbalance. Planetary care is not on this agenda, as the film graphically shows. We see the old man in the High Arctic watching archival video footage, carefully preserved from 2008. His stark question to the viewer is: "Why didn't we stop climate change in 2008 when there was a chance?"

The character played by Postlethwaite is the curator of The Global Archive - a digital storage laboratory located in the Arctic - the last habitable place for humans on planet Earth. The footage he views shows how global warming reached tipping points and runaway effects while at the same time humanity's achievements are also saved for posterity. How could the human mind capable of such monumental achievements neglect to take care of the destruction happening to their lived in ecosystem? The old man shakes his head in disbelief looking for an answer. The film gives us an answer - OIL! Our dependence and addiction to it; our refusal to move away from a carbon fueled lifestyle - this is what propelled the downward spiral of devastation.

The director of the film - Fanny Armstrong - creates a montage from live news and documentaries saved from 1950 to 2008. The video record charts the steps taken by humanity into global devastation - devastating that is for human habitation and for all other species. In an artfully created mosaic, six real life characters play out the dramas of their personal stories. Their humanity and their stupidity are extant in this brilliant tapestry of human folly. What is so gripping is that we who view it are made to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Because their shadows and myopia reflect our shadows and myopia. After watching this film we can no longer hide from these shadows. We are forcibly held to account. If we do not act now - this film becomes our story,

In Part Two of Failsafe: Saving The Earth From Ourselves (2008) I write about A Failed Genetic Experiment, though I do put a question mark after Experiment. Yet if we continue to turn our beautiful rivers into sewers because of our endless greed and neglectful ignorance, there is no place on Mother Earth to sustain our present civilization. It will join the trash heap collectively created by mindless generations of humanity. If consciousness is too slow to change and make the quantum leap to a culture of sustainability then there are drastic consequences to contemplate, which are starkly portrayed in the film. The ancient ecologist on Mars studying a million years of earth history would surely note a parasitic infestation of Planet Earth that was not very intelligent. An intelligent parasite would ensure the good health of the host that supports it. And so the Martian ecologist would factor in an inevitable elimination date for our species in her star date log and may well view our civilization as a failed genetic experiment.

"The Age of Stupid" is a watershed film. You will not be the same after you have seen it. It is impossible not to be moved, and in a constructive direction of immediate action. For the latter, I refer the reader to Appendix I of Failsafe: Simple Steps To Empowerment, which provides guidelines and an action plan for the global ecological emergency. If only we can get it right - and get it right now! It requires that we get on with the task of reining in our ego and greed driven mind. This permits a Failsafe in Consciousness to kick in because the conditions and opening have been created by our choice to cultivate different patterns within our minds. Thus consciousness expansion can no longer be held back as the radical internal Climate Change has taken place. Our innate knowledge is manifest. We interconnect with a vast counter culture that is no longer a minority, no longer asleep or disempowered. We become another light shining in the quiet revolution that in 2009 has over two million organizations world-wide pursuing constructive change.

Our diligent mindfulness has changed our brain structures in the direction that permits new paradigms of behavior to come into form. As cells in the ecosystem of Gaia it is as though humanity has aligned their neuronal networks with principles of ecosystem balance, ethics and responsibility. The critical mass has arrived and it amounts to a collective tipping point for our species. Once the wild, ego driven, greed driven mind is reined in then clarity and compassion are suddenly there to provide the basis for how we can be with the planet and with one another in a totally new way. This is what happens if we "Begin It Now" - the concluding words to Failsafe: Saving The Earth From Ourselves.

I finish with Dave Hampton's passionate thoughts about this film (Resurgence May/June 2009: 66). "The Age of Stupid" is not just a film that could change the course of humanity. I hope it will be the catalyst that gives us a second chance to create a sustainable future. I hope it will promote a mass collective awakening globally such that we are not stupid and that we choose life and reclaim our children's birthright - the right to expect a future"

I have twelve grandchildren. In the same vein as this film, I wrote Failsafe: Saving The Earth From Ourselves (2008). Consider it as archival footage from 2008 that provides hope and an action plan so my grandchildren can enjoy a habitable planet.

Burn Out, Take Refuge       [2012]

Over the years I have observed many young activist friends in the peace and environmental movements becoming overwhelmed and suffering deeply from stress and burn out. Despite my best efforts, they have not always been open to mindfulness practice. I firmly believe that activism without mindfulness practice will lead to burn out and disillusion of one form or another. At the other end of the continuum, I consider spirituality without an engaged expression to be equally unbalanced.

I encourage all of us embarking on this 21st century adventure in Peace and Planetary Care to root ourselves deeply in mindfulness practice on a daily basis. Touch the stillness of non-action first of all so that our ensuing actions come from a place of effortless abundance and clarity. This is how we can take care of stress, burnout and disappointment. Guidance is essential. It is there in abundance from Thich Nhat Hanh, as he specifies very clearly how to reach out for help. He encourages us in times of adversity, despair and burnout to take refuge in the sangha – the community of spiritual practice. Elder brothers and sisters in the community who are steady, patient and wise can help us step out of despair and anger by practicing meditation with us, returning us to mindfulness in order to take care of our distress. Be sure to take refuge in wise and steady friends. There is no point in taking refuge in folks who are as bummed out as you are! Then there is taking refuge in the dharma – through practices like Deep Relaxation, Touching the Earth, of heeding the Mindfulness Trainings to protect us from making harmful decisions. There is also taking refuge in the Buddha whose awakened mind is in the sutras that guide us step by step from despair to happiness. Each Refuge encourages us to foster positive and wholesome mental formations rather than fostering further despair and angst. Instead of running away from our fear and distress by hiding it under addictive behaviors, we learn from Taking Refuge just how to embrace and transform our fear and distress – first of all by clearly recognizing it.

We have to become good gardeners of the mind to do this. It takes skill, mindfulness and retraining to become a good organic gardener, so that the garbage in us is turned into rich compost rather than rejected or repressed. It also takes much understanding based on a non-dualistic view – accepting and recognizing just what is there in the mind. So if our mind is dark with sorrow or anger we recognize that this is just so. With awareness we know how to practice walking meditation to take care of the mind-state recognized. Without the darkness and sorrow we would have no idea about the light dance of happiness. Instead of being overwhelmed by darkness, which can so easily happen, we use our skills of practice to recognize our mental states, nurture and transform them to a state where there is no danger of being overwhelmed. This non-dualistic way of looking at our mind states makes good sense, particularly as the alternative of suppression, of not practice, of not mindfulness, keeps us caught in the burnout, deeply mired in suffering with the conviction that there is no way out of this misery. This "not" alternative rapidly leads to depression, mental illness and damage to others as well as to ourselves. The mindfulness alternative of developing the necessary skills is a very wise and therapeutic option.

You may see for yourself the value of taking refuge in sangha eyes to guide your perceptions; of taking refuge in the practices, trainings and sutras for guidance in order to apply the energy of mindfulness to the energy of burnout. With the assistance available through taking refuge in the Three Gems – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – the practice comes alive as a highly strategic set of tools and skills to produce transformation of the suffering caused by difficult and painful circumstances that lead to burnout. Activism is full of crises, curve balls and disasters. But even so we do not have to be overwhelmed and crushed by them. Mindfulness practice helps us. Understanding and compassion hone our skills so that we become excellent gardeners of the mind.

Christmas Exams and Ecological Consciousness       [2008]

My television course at Carleton University on Ecology and Culture was a means to communicate the necessity of active engagement with the environmental crises of our times. The course design encourages students to engage with their society and environment. This odyssey draws on lectures, discussions, guest spots, interviews and films so we may reconsider how our modern culture relates to its environmental context. Different cultures are examined to see what leads to ecosystem limits being broached, and how this can be repaired – if at all. Thich Nhat Hanh's Five Mindfulness Trainings are introduced in Class 2, an Earth meditation in Class 11, UNESCO's Manifesto 2000 in Class 12, with lots of interesting events in between.

I always look forward to marking the Christmas exams from this course. As part of the final take home exam, I ask each student to write a 1,000 word letter to the CEO of a polluting industry, or a government leader, the head of the UN or to directors of environmental NGO's or the mayor of the city etc. They are to write about a particular ecological issue with specific recommendations that they want the recipient of the letter to carry out. So the students have to research a particular ecological issue, as well as an organization, and write their letter in such a way that their message can be received. The assignment demands of the students, both writing and research skills. Every time the assignments are in, and marked, I am full of admiration for the depth, skills, and most of all, for the heart of the students. They apply the lessons of the course on ecosystems, mindfulness and globalization. They take on the CEO of Alcan, the oil giants, George Bush, Greenpeace, School Boards, government departments and even the president of my own university. They are insightful, to the point, and what moves me the most is that they are engaged with the society and environment around them. They care, and I encourage students to send their letters, which most have already chosen to do. An unanticipated fruit from this course is that a cadre of environmental activists emerges each year and takes responsibility and action. These young people give me great faith for the future. Here are some excerpts from their letters:

To: Richard J. Van Loon


Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

Dear Mr. Van Loon,

I would like to suggest some concrete ways for Carleton University to become part of the solution to the environmental dilemmas facing us in the 21st century. This letter will be divided into two sections – energy and green spaces. I will make suggestions that will allow Carleton to move through the next century as a leader in the environmental movement… Retrofitting Carleton's building to be more energy efficient will certainly entail some capital expenditure up front, yet it can provide up to 60% return on the investment per year. The university is a prime candidate for solar energy and students in the Engineering programs could construct photovoltaic panels to produce electricity for independent systems from a renewable resource. Carleton's commitment to energy efficient transportation could start at the top in that you trade in your large gas guzzling car for a fuel efficient one, and that others who follow your lead will receive a discount on parking fees, those that retain environmentally unfriendly vehicles will have their parking fees doubled… Ozone depletion, climate change and water pollution are indeed extensive problems, yet instead of dismissing them as too massive, we at Carleton – students, staff and faculty - can make an immediate, positive contribution to the health of the planet by the landscape choices that we make for our campus. The three natural techniques that I draw to your attention are xeriscaping, native vegetation and rooftop gardening. Xeriscaping means using plant materials in campus gardens that can exist on whatever rainfall Ottawa receives naturally. The benefit of using native plants to the area is that they have evolved with local insects and can cope with environmental stresses and also perpetuate biodiversity. Rooftop gardens help to metabolize solar energy, moderate the temperature in the buildings during the summer, and act as a "sink" for pollutants…

Even though we are only one small community within the larger city of Ottawa we can change the world, because everything we do at Carleton either makes the world a better or a worse place. We must take action now! This is our world and it is the only one we have got. By making small, but substantial decisions at Carleton University we can begin making the world a more environmentally friendly place…… It is my hope that you will implement some of my suggestions and truly make learning about the environment come alive for our university community.

ATTENTION: Nick Stern,

World Bank Chief Economist

…You state that your main objective is the elimination of poverty, yet your efforts to boost development on a global scale may be self defeating. By aiding in the reorganization of "developing nations" you are undermining their cultural identity… The development you fund removes sustainable systems of energy use and replaces them with non renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels. If the World Bank provided funds for alternative fuel research, the world market would not be dependant on short term fuel sources such as crude oil… By reorienting the World Bank's lending away from large infrastructure projects towards smaller efforts done in close co-operation with local peoples – whether they be for ecologically sensitive agricultural techniques, solar powered water pumping, or the rehabilitation of degraded lands – the bank could cut its costs by billions of dollars. This would do far more good for far more people, rather than just reinforce the bank balance of regional elites… For example, the models of modern community based eco-villages ( could eventually transform residential areas into micro-manageable, efficient dwellings. Resource management, not increases in GDP, is the key to eliminating poverty.

Now is the time for the World Bank to take a leadership role in exploring alternatives to fossil fuel resources. Please focus your attention on developed nations also, as they drive what happens in the rest of the world. If the G20 nations improved their methods of resource management, this could implement an age of environmental responsibility.

TO: Charles O. Holliday Jr.

C.E.O. DuPont

1007 Market Street

Wilmington, Delaware 19898

I wish to draw your attention to a number of specific issues that directly implicate DuPont and its role in the degradation of the environment. This letter focuses on your environmentally unsound practices in India which have contributed to the deterioration of the environment and caused illnesses and deaths in both human and animal populations. I also wish to address your manufacture of products that contain Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Throughout this letter I will suggest alternatives that are viable both for your corporation and the environment… The shift I urge you to make lies not only in environmental practices but also in ideology… Your nylon factory in Goa has a limited liability clause absolving the US based parent company of any wrongdoing in the event of a chemical accident or pollution problem. At the root of environmentally sound practices lies the acceptance of responsibility for past actions and a concerted effort to repair the damage done… DuPont, in recent years, has attempted to present an image to the public by which it lauds itself as an environmentally sound company. However, this is an illusion which you deliberately perpetuate in order to advance your corporate aims… DuPont has achieved much of its massive corporate wealth and power on a legacy of disregard for the environment and human and animal life across the globe. It has played an integral part in the destruction of the delicate balance in which the planet's ecosystems operate. Meaningful changes will only come about when DuPont significantly reduces the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere and water systems by ending the practice of swapping emissions credits… Your company has achieved a position of market dominance and great financial prosperity, and in the process has unquestionably damaged the earth's environment. Surely, it now has an urgent moral (if not legal) responsibility to right past wrongs. To use its immense wealth and influence to adopt environmentally sound practices, to develop safe products and to lead in clean up efforts necessary to make the planet safe and healthy again. Nothing less can be expected of Dupont.

Dharma Detective Investigates Great Difficulty       [2010]

TOOLS: Center in Mindfulness

: Taking Refuge: Deep Looking/ Deep Listening

: Skills to Garden in the Mind

STAGE ONE: Locate Difficulty in Time & Space

: Sangha Eyes: Deep Looking/Deep Listening

STAGE TWO: Remember Feelings

: Use of Teachings & Practice

STAGE THREE: Deep Looking into Blaming and Complicity

: Understanding, Impermanence and Transformation

STAGE FOUR: Deep Reflection

: Learning Curve

Start by recognizing the mind-state that causes suffering, be prepared to stop and skilfully look deeply into suffering by placing it within a practice of mindfulness. Just these initial steps can prevent us from being hooked and taken down by strong emotions and wrong perceptions. The tools are not those of intellectual self-analysis where we rationalize our suffering away. To recognize the significant elements of our suffering we need mindfulness, concentration and insight. Above all else we need to locate in heart consciousness – that still place of calm that is available by first of all stopping and then centering in mindfulness. This is so your mind-state is calm and grounded for the investigation.

Your time of great difficulty – locate it. What happened, where and when? What was the time frame? What do you think caused it – was it something in you or were the causal elements also around you? Do your best to establish the nature of the different factors that caused you to suffer at this difficult time in your life. Know also that your perceptions and recollections of the situation may well be skewed, so it is wise to take refuge in sangha eyes, to find out from dharma brothers and sisters just how you were at that time in terms of your actions and reactions. In this first step of being a dharma detective there is the importance of being grounded, of deep looking and of relying on sangha eyes to remember clearly.

Stage Two takes the process deeper. You have recognized your suffering but do you remember how you felt at that time? Did you become overwhelmed by it all or did you apply the practices and teachings in any way? Were there dharma friends available to help you or did you not seek help because you had lost faith? We need courage with this part of the inquiry, for it leads to the very difficult next stage of looking deeply into how we tend to take refuge in blaming instead of taking refuge in the Three Gems. We have to be a "Hercule Poirot," truly a dharma detective, for now in Stage Three we list in our notebook how we blamed – the other, the situation, the Buddha, Jesus - even God! How did you lash out during your suffering? How did you try to harm and discriminate against the one you hate and any one else who got in the way? Did you shut them out or run away? Did you seek complicity with someone to help share your hate?

We all love our dramas, so much so that we tend to seek out someone to agree with our suffering – but there is no support in that, as only deeper suffering ensues. Were you lucky enough to find true support, someone steady to direct you to a greater understanding of the particular hell you are investigating? Did you come to an understanding that blaming, punishment, shutting off, running away, seeking complicity – none of these are motivated by understanding and compassion? Did you begin to realize that suffering is impermanent and that understanding and compassion illuminates impermanence, that this is the way out? If you have these realizations then progress is surely being made.

The Fourth Stage is a process of deep reflection on what would you do now, if faced with a similar situation. From the investigation of your time of great difficulty can you identify a learning curve that will enable you to not repeat the same mistakes? You may see for yourself the value of taking refuge in sangha eyes to guide your perceptions; of taking refuge in the practices, mindfulness trainings and sutras for guidance in order to apply the energy of mindfulness to the energy of suffering. This exercise is a wonderful one that all of us can do. The practice of mindfulness comes alive as a highly strategic set of tools and skills to produce transformation of the suffering caused by difficult and painful circumstances. Life is full of crises, curve balls and disasters. But even so, we do not have to be overwhelmed, hooked and crushed by them. Mindfulness practice helps us. Understanding and compassion hone our skills so that we become excellent gardeners of the mind.

The importance of taking refuge is to make fully alive the reality that we inter-are. We are never alone once we realize that Interbeing is a basic law of nature and of the Universe. Our scale of difficult circumstance runs through a vast range. The suffering and pain can be from a divorce, a son addicted to drugs, loss of a job, the death of a loved one, childhood abuse or brutal discrimination. The suffering can also be there from the situation in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis. The dharma detective operates well in all domains – personal, national, international – providing an instrument to focus our mindfulness, concentration and insight to whatever difficulty we suffer from.

Food for Thought       [2012]

For the most part, the food we eat is driven by internal desires that have disastrous consequences, particularly for our connection to all living beings. Awareness about changing our consciousness around food consumption has yet to filter through to the North American mainstream, as the vast consumption of meat and alcohol constitutes an excessive ecological footprint, which is costly and damaging. Furthermore it is not good for our health – physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.

The chronic degenerative diseases common in western civilization find their origins in the toxic food we eat. Yet if we know how to eat mindfully, we also know how to take care of ourselves, of others, and the environment. Mindful eating creates celebration as an alternate to violence. Before eating, simply look at what is there on the table, where it has come from, how it has been prepared, and whether it will truly nourish you, and at the same time protect the environment and future generations from harm. This advocacy around food consumption keeps compassion alive and creates the basis for joy and happiness. It means reducing as much as possible the violence, destruction and suffering brought to living creatures and to the planet, because if we bring violence into our own biological system and consciousness, then we inevitably bring violence to the other systems – political, economic, planetary – that we engage with through our thoughts, speech, actions and senses.

We consume much more than edible food. We consume with our senses, desires and cravings. This consumption feeds our consciousness, which "eats" everything we put into it. If we fill it full of toxins, violence and other negative energies, it will be this accumulation in our consciousness that drives us. Each of our sensory doorways is bombarded with toxins that feed our consciousness. The advertising on billboards and through the media flood our eyes and minds with desire, greed and lust. Our children take in violence through videogames and movies of wanton destruction and cruelty. The often vulgar and demeaning lyrics sounding through sectors of modern music create homophobia and hate. The taste and smells of fast food create such greed that obesity in young people is now a serious medical issue – and not only in young people. Eating disorders are promoted by the unrealistic norms for women artificially set by the fashion industry. Manufacturers' cleverly design built-in obsolescence for the products we are encouraged to buy, solicited through vigorous advertising - now targeting small children to create a disposable society that has forgotten to re-use, recycle and even question the need to buy. If we do not guard each sensory doorway we get sick. We must warn the six senses to consume mindfully, discipline them to avoid self-intoxication and guide them to scrutinize what energies are allowed to penetrate our consciousness.

Our consciousness is reinforced by our patterns of consumption. This shapes our lives because we feed off it. It is the ground of definition for how our body, mind and spirit manifest and furthermore creates the environment we occupy. Mindfulness is our protector. We must use it to distinguish consumption patterns that nourish our organism and spiritual well being, from those which do not. By eliminating toxins from our sensory diet we begin cultivating patterns of consumption that enhance mindfulness and compassion. But we cannot see deeply into the interconnection between consumption and consciousness until we first of all come to a STOP. That is the first meditative step – to stop running - before deep looking and insight help us to recognize the toxic nutriments that pollute our bodies and mind. We then cultivate the foods that nourish us in a positive and wholesome way. We resist by waking up, by knowing what to do and what to refrain from.

Gardening in the Mind       [2009]

Stillness and inner silence is a necessary part of taming the wild mind. We have to find a way to create the conditions for this to happen. Yet, in our modern world of fast paced lifestyles we rarely stop running. There are so many distractions that we quickly become outwardly dependant, un-centered. We fail to find the time or discipline to access the store of mindfulness just waiting to be cultivated. The external restlessness amplifies the internal restlessness in a feedback loop that ignites our wild mind. The problem is that we have closed the doors to taming the wild mind due to wrong perceptions, ignorance and continual suffering. Also because our hearts are not fully open and the tapestry of our consciousness is limited. When our consciousness is narrow, we hold on tight to all our self-imposed dramas and suffering – slamming the door shut on our internal strength and keeping our dysfunctional habits well fed and alive. And so we remain wounded, driven by our scars, anger and fears; suffering all our lives. The remedy is, however, within reach. We can unravel the knots of suffering through the practice of mindfulness and move from being mindless to being mindful. The knots of suffering are then not so tightly held once the tapestry of our consciousness expands and we can truly throw away strongly. This is brought about by organic gardening in the mind.

When I retired from teaching at Carleton University, a dear friend asked with some concern just what was I occupying my mind with these days. Here is my reply to her:

"I have enjoyed the time and space to play with Mother Earth as a diligent and slightly crazed organic gardener. The blaze of flowers at the front of the house is a testimony that I am doing OK so far.   An experienced gardener would no doubt wonder what on earth I am doing in the back yard of the house. The back garden is surrounded by trees so it is as though one is in the middle of a forest. I plant vegetables in between flowers. Veggies have such a dull life struggling to poke their heads above ground, then taking in rain, sun and soil nutrients to end up on some human's plate.   So to make them happy I plant them between gorgeous flowers so they have some jazz and elegance around them while they are alive. Just imagine a carrot waking up in the morning to see a beautiful pink hibiscus in full bloom on one side and multi coloured snapdragons on the other. They are bound to be happy and grow really well before they end up on some human's plate. And on it continues with beets, tomatoes, lettuce, arugla, swisschard, kale, rhubarb, beans, asparagus, cucumbers, peppers, peas all planted between beautiful clumps of flowers.

There is also a herb garden in amongst the peony bushes. Some herbs are very nice and well behaved, but others are just downright unsociable. I had to separate a green basil plant from a red basil plant as they were always quarrelling. Now that they are at the opposite ends of the garden in their own solitary tubs – they are thriving. An experiment I tried was to move a small juniper tree from the front garden, as it was dying there, to the back garden where there is a tall cedar hedge. I think it will be much happier in the back yard – cedar language is a bit different to juniper language but a lot like French and Spanish – so they can communicate a bit. I have welcomed the juniper into the backyard with much compost and water but will leave it up to the cedars to encourage her to live – and she has decided to do so and thrives in her new environment. And on it goes with much weeding and then much more weeding to keep both the veggies and the flowers happy. Sometimes I am not aware of the difference between a weed, veggie or a flower – so I just leave whatever it is to grow before taking any action. My garden is a still place, yet buzzing with life and joy.

All of this is a metaphor for the organic gardening I do in my mind every day. That blooms also – with the diligent daily watering of the beautiful seeds and the careful pruning and transformation of the negative and harmful weeds. The still place in the garden is the still place in my mind.   Once there I stop, reflect on my patterns and habits of energy use that can be changed and ensure that appropriate action is taken. Simple yet surprising!  

I thought you really needed to know this, if only to make you smile.


High School Murders and Dead Children       [2013]

I wrote the first part of this essay in 1999 in response to the Columbine shootings. It went far and wide. I respond in Part II to the 2012 massacre of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. "Dead Children" – strikes a special chill, as nothing seems to have changed between 1999 and 2012 with respect to violence within young people, particularly in pre-adult males.

The specter of children shooting children in high schools shocked North America, yet very little institutional change has been effected, once the platitudes of politicians receded. This essay examines the consumption of violence by our children through the media, video games, and internet, showing how it can lead to the deadly carnage of high school shoot-outs and murder. Young people, their parents, and society at large are unaware of the necessity of guarding their sensory doorways. I illuminate the very dangerous, toxic environment we have created, and offer practical measures of mindfulness practice as a way out, so that young people have simple tools to deal with their hate, anger and mental distress without resort to guns.

The Fifth I refer to is not the amendment found in the American Constitution. It is the Fifth Mindfulness Training of Thich Nhat Hanh. This focus on mindful consumption is part of an ethical design to conserve and protect wholesomeness in our society and environment. The shock waves from the 1999 high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado and Taber, Alberta swept across North America and touched every community. As those shock waves recede, the greatest danger is that the public may distance itself from taking responsibility for the toxic environments all of us have allowed to be created. This toxic landscape impacts, in particular, young pre-adult males who are caught in an identity trap that they can only escape from through violence and murder. After several days of silence and meditation after the 1999 Columbine shootings, I wrote a short essay titled "Yes, It Can Happen Here," which looked deeply into the causes of the shootings, and the likelihood that with the passage of time people would become removed from any sense of personal responsibility.

Many of our children have become exiles, and they experience "not love", "not connected." Nobody hears their voices, and we have largely forgotten how to listen to them. Many children have found a third parent in cyberspace where violence, hatred and killing are readily available without any sense of consequence or responsibility.   In the absence of clear ethical guidelines from parents and society, young people are creating their own identity from the very worst that cyberspace and Hollywood have to offer, in an unreal world full of violence. To many young people this is the reality where they satisfy their search for identity. In the absence of a stable identity, for pre-adult males in particular, there is a drive to achieve instant fame through acts of notoriety, following the scripts of cyberspace and movie violence. Children who have received core values through parents, teachers and community leaders have an internal strength to resist this seduction. But children who have fallen through the ethical cracks, and who are without support and guidance for their mental suffering, can live out their sense of exile through the cruel fantasies available in cyberspace.   In the process they become desensitized to the consequences of violent acts.

Dear parent, how many of your children are alone in their rooms with their computers, engaging in this dangerous creation of an exiled identity? Do you realize that you may be allowing them to become part of a growing subculture of violence in our schools and society? I wrote about the ready availability of guns and drugs.   When this combines with lack of time spent with young people by parents, teachers and community leaders, then the consumption of violence by our children through the media, video games and the internet can lead to the deadly carnage of high school shoot-outs. It is not difficult to see that violence in the external environment must be controlled, and that steps must be taken in schools and communities to deal with frustration and hatred without resort to guns. Yet the doorways provided by our senses also expose us to so much damaging consumption. Most young people, their parents, and society as a whole, are unaware of the need to guard their sensory doorways, or to eliminate their engagement with violence. The recent incidents of high school murders are not a teenage problem. They are a societal problem of systemic violence penetrating to the consciousness of young people through their sensory doorways. Thus a societal solution is necessary, one that deals with anger, frustration and hatred; one that provides an alternative paradigm for being, a practice that transforms the internal violence. The Mindfulness Trainings can help to mend this ethical void. There are mentally disturbed young people because there are so many mentally disturbed adults as role models. Neither group knows how to protect itself from ingesting the toxins and violence that pour through their senses. If we do not guard each sensory doorway we will get sick and mentally disturbed.

After the political and media platitudes have subsided following the high school murders, we have to realize that not much will change in terms of institutional structures or constraints on the production of violence through the media, video games and television.   Therefore it is necessary to provide young people with the skills and strong energies of mindfulness to take care of the energies of hatred and violence produced by parental neglect and societal approval of violence. The change I suggest in the essay "Yes, It Can Happen Here" is Mindfulness Practice. There are parents and teachers everywhere who are desperate for a change of direction, who know they are in the middle of an enormous crisis. The Chinese letter for crisis has two characters to it – the first is danger, the second is opportunity. We need to recognize the danger of anger, violence and frustration, and seize the opportunity of mindfulness practice to deal with it. In the space created by meditation, the toxic and violent consumption of everyday life has fewer doorways to pass through. It is not a total solution but it is a start.

I recommend three meditations that young people could do in order to take care of their anger, frustration and distress: walking meditation, a meditation with internal tones, and one designed for younger children – Standing Like a Tree.   I invite meditation teachers to take their skills into schools and community centers, and provide the methods that can make an impact on the anger, violence and hatred that entraps our children.   I invite young people to bring such teachers into their midst to see what they could teach. I reminded everyone that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. It is our actions, from a space of clarity that can provide solutions. Our indifference to the dangerous, toxic environment we have created means that we perpetuate the problem. I asked everyone to choose wisely, and immediately. That request thirteen years ago was largely ignored.

Part II: Dead Children

I want to talk to you about children who are no longer here. They are dead. Twenty children gunned down at an elementary school in Newton, CT. Children killed as collateral damage in Gaza, Israel, Syria, Congo, Afghanistan and in world-wide violence. We are all grieving parents to the world. The question we all face is - What Now? In the face of grief we must feel it deeply, be hurt by it, taking time to feel the pain of the tragedy. Then come through, determined to make a difference. STOP: REASSESS: ENTER THE BODHISATTVA. Stopping requires calling in the support of wise friends, counselors and Sangha so we can begin to see clearly and give ourselves the chance to find ourselves. Stillness is needed, not social media distraction - for we now have to look for a new direction and leadership. To reassess the 21st century, we must look deeply at the factors involved in the Newton, CT massacre. We will see a complex, intertwined tapestry with the easy availability of guns and drugs, compounded by societal tolerance of violence through the worst that cyberspace and Hollywood have to offer. Plus the very serious common denominator shared by the killers stretching back to the Columbine massacre. This is the factor of mental illness in pre-adult white males who are caught in an identity trap that they escape from through violence and murder. This is their five minutes of fame that enables them to be remembered. They occupy a toxic landscape of "not love", "not connected." And this is what requires the attention of our mindfulness. How do we begin?

The Christmas season has passed, yet we can begin there with a small reassessment that all of us can do. We examine our habit energies around gift giving and learn to give gifts that really make a difference. Begin by participating less in the expected excess of mindless consumerism of Christmas buying. I have taken that small step and no longer buy Christmas gifts. Instead, present donations and gift certificates in the name of family and friends to provide education for a girl in Afghanistan, rebuild forests in Haiti, provide literacy packs and mosquito nets where most needed. This then leads to the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and others at this time of crisis, for it is already within us. That gift is Freedom and it involves stepping firmly onto the Bodhisattva path made clear by the Buddha and other great teachers.

It is time for the Bodhisattva to enter the 21st century as a paradigm and archetype for individual and collective action. This enables us to be rooted in our own sovereignty and deeply transform ourselves and our civilization. We nurture this paradigm by cultivating two aspects that presently lie dormant within us. The first aspect is Interbeing – knowing that we interconnect with everything – the earth, oceans, forests and mountains, all species and most of all – with all people. Interbeing creates harmony and unity and destroys the ego. The second aspect is Non-discrimination, which carries the energy of compassion, and this combination threatens selfishness. Taken together - these buried aspects, once they manifest from within us, open pathways and bridges to build a better world.

How do we do this? We cultivate the energies of transformation – Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight. Always – at every opportunity we bring Interbeing and Non-Discrimination to the forefront of our daily lives. In this way we shape the future of the 21st century as we begin to live differently – here and now. We are not intimidated by present crises. We are certainly shocked and hurt by such circumstances but are in fact much stronger than we think. Enter the Bodhisattva is the guiding paradigm for our lives. I allude to Bruce Lee's classic – Enter the Dragon – which brings the fierceness of the warrior to the fore and the determination of a saint to overcome tragedy and set a new course. It takes practice, skillfulness and creative vision – but we are equal to the task. Nelson Mandela thought so. His 1994 inaugural speech laid out the territory clearly when he opened with:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us….

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.


Legacy — Not A Love Story With The Earth       [2013]

Hey there Mr. Prime Minister, President, King, Despot, Corporate Mogul and globally cloned counterparts – congratulations from the new century. The year is 2101 to be exact, eighty eight years from your present time. Your policies and corporate acumen created a systematic cascade of failing ecosystems on planet Earth. A remarkable feat on your part, as you had all the science, studies and reports in front of you to stop the destruction. Remember the one liner from Bill Clinton that won him an election - "It's the economy, stupid." May we remind you of the obvious: "It's the ECOLOGY, stupid." The economy is a mere sub set of the mother lode of ecology and you have successfully screwed that source up. On your watch not only did the financial collapse signal a dangerous global watershed, the world food system crashed as a consequence along with the train wreck of chaos brought in by climate change.

Come and see through eyes from 2101. Are you aware that by 2101 thousands of millions of people died from thirst, starvation and disease? It was amazing how you silenced and muzzled the climate change scientists, the oceanographers screaming that the ocean eco-systems were disintegrating, and how you ignored citizens with the integrity to save the earth.

Our team from 2101 studied your minds yet did not find a species death wish lurking there, just tiny minds. Not what we expected.   You could not see beyond the next election, the next million dollars. You had inherited the Nero gene – fiddling while not just Rome burned, but the entire planet was allowed to burn.

Why did you not shift away from a carbon based economy? Why did you not protect the bees by banning all pesticides that killed them? Agricultural systems around the world collapsed as there was no pollination after the last bee hive perished. The Global Marshall Plan created a blueprint for an eco-social market that would sustain the earth, respect cultures and finance voluntary simplicity.

Mr. Prime Minister, President, CEO - who should you have listened to? The extraordinary writers for the Earth runs a very long gamut from Carson, Bateson, Suzuki, McKibben, Gore, Gladwell, Hawken, Korten, Lovelock, Anderson, Monbiot, Radermacher, Shiva, Wilson to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Prattis entered the earth gambit with his 2008 book Failsafe: Saving The Earth From Ourselves. David Suzuki wrote the foreword, aboriginal leaders delighted in his advocacy. His point was that in every mind there is a Failsafe that would activate when matters grew so bad that moving to a new mindset would be inevitable. He argued that the notion of innate earth wisdom, when combined with tipping points in the mind and counter culture, would be sufficient to change our collective mentality in the direction of better earth stewardship. But there was a huge obstacle in the way, not anticipated. That was YOU! Your shared Nero gene had circumvented any possibility of a Failsafe in Consciousness from kicking in. Your manipulation of distraction technologies was a brilliant strategy to protect your interests.

You collectively figured out that distracted people don't realize they are in danger. Perhaps you can learn something from Rumi. He said: "Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk and this is the edge of the roof."   But your policies and greed forced humanity off the edge of the roof to occupy an ecosystem of distraction technologies. Turning on the switch of awakening in your time frame seems to be a good idea right now, but that is not something you promote. This is what you promote. In Canada, Stephen Harper and Big Oil ran an incredible promotion campaign for the Alberta Oil Sands project. They produced images of reforestation, utmost safety, deep concern for wildlife, populations and clean water. This played to a receptive audience throughout the country. Decades later the northern rivers and lakes had become a wasteland. It does not take long to destroy eco-systems. Oil derivatives and sludge polluted lakes swiftly poured through interconnected waterways.

Mr. Harper, Prime Minister of Canada – do you remember in 2013 that 12 prominent Canadian climate scientists advised you to grow up? They took you to task for the wasted billions spent on expanding oil infrastructure. Your policies torpedoed the transition to an economy that could sustain us. Instead of finding a balance you chose to use the atmosphere as a waste dump for carbon. We all breathe the same air Mr. Harper. Are you even aware of the legacy you left for your great grand-children? Certainly you and your global clones created well provided bunkers for your families – but sad to say the power ran out some time ago, along with the synthetic food. Your descendants are waiting to die from the next wave of pestilence. Do you think for one moment that they look kindly on your legacy? They do not. And indeed hold you responsible for their miserable life on planet earth.

Our team have communicated with global citizens and encouraged them to hold all political and corporate ghouls to account. Citizens must think globally, be aware of the bigger picture and step beyond the smaller pictures of themselves created from the disempowerment you so cleverly dispense.   They must also act locally with great vigour in families and communities. Intentions then spread as ripples from a pebble dropped in still water. Respond in the short term and do not check out in the long term. Boycott all Monsanto products and vote for new leaders is the immediate rallying cry.

In writing to present political and corporate leaders from the future of 2101, we realize that you are all dead now. Some assassinated, others rotted away in prison, while the remainder died shallow deaths in gated communities. Please note that the prophecy for your 2013 legacy was provided in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." Watch the movie Mr. Prime Minister, President, CEO – Then Think!


Mindfulness and Bose-Einstein Condensate       [2012]

Rethinking the relationship between science and religion is overdue, prompted in part by the recent co-operation between neuroscientists and Buddhist meditators in their exploration of consciousness and the brain. Yet, allow me to go further back than that to draw some instructive parallels between science and contemplative practice in particular. I draw on a particular authority – but not the Buddha.   His influence will be apparent later.   The authority rests with a scientist – Albert Einsten. Actually two scientists, as Einstein collaborated with the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose in the 1920's to come up with the notion of the Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Bose had studied the form that atoms would take as temperature varied. At very high temperatures atomic behaviour was at high speed and randomness in the form of vapour. As temperatures cooled, the activity of atoms slowed down into a liquid form. Cooler still, the atoms would slow down much further and take on a solid form. Einstein in 1924 brought to life a mathematical formulation that predicted that at near Absolute Zero temperature (minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit) particle alignment in a substance would occur. This means that each particle would lose its unique properties as a separate item and the totality of particles in such an alignment behaves as one unit. It took another seventy years for this prediction to be experimentally verified.   In 1995 Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman in Boulder, Colorado built an experimental apparatus that could take temperature down to near Absolute Zero. Their experiment demonstrated that atoms at incredibly low temperatures lose their individual properties, coalesce and pile up into what looks like a single "super-atom." This is what the Bose-Einstein Condensate predicted. It is a quantum "blob" created by an apparent identity crisis amongst atoms that no longer have unique location or form. Perhaps a better word for this radical transformation is "quantum convergence," as the atoms overlap and then occupy the same quantum space. They are all sitting at rest but also everywhere at the same time – but without any unique individual characteristics and here the leap into the area of neuroscience becomes apparent, as I will show.

Physicists have marvelled at this phenomenon and stated that there is nothing else like it in nature. But they are looking at what they conventionally know – not realizing that in human nature something similar can occur under circumstances where heat is taken out of human consciousness. This requires a different take on the effects of prolonged contemplative practice of mindfulness through meditation.

The process of bringing individual properties of consciousness into phase – quantum convergence – is found in the diligent practice of mindfulness in a community of practice – a sangha. Ultimately – it brings about a state of sitting at rest and being everywhere at the same time, present with the consciousness of other sangha members. How? By taking the heat out of consciousness by eliminating the causes and conditions that produce agitation in the mind. Atoms take on a radical structure when heat is no longer there to agitate them. This can be used as a metaphor so we may expect something similar to occur in human experience when heat and agitation is eliminated from consciousness. It does take a community of practice to bring this about, as a community practicing mindfulness creates a powerful energy to support this quantum convergence. There is a subtle interplay between individual and collective consciousness. The re-training of the mind through meditation and the practice of mindfulness in everyday circumstances brings to the fore qualities of harmony, peace and coherence as individuals and community learn to share the common feeling of deep rest.   This energy infuses the collective so that notions of individual boundary decrease. As the teachings and practice deepen, people cease to be caught by forms and learn to go beyond any form to experience the deep stillness behind it – then something startling takes place.

Neuron alignment takes place within individuals so that they experience sangha practice in a totally new way. The choir sings in unison – just as at near Absolute Zero temperature, particles fall into a natural alignment. The major difference is that the sangha does not have to be frozen to minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit – a major benefit from metaphor! They just breathe consciously together, walk mindfully together as their individual uniqueness merges into a collective organism.   The deep practice of mindfulness in a community stimulates the consciousness of the sangha to come into phase.   Quantum coherence is found in both instances – in atomic matter at Absolute Zero and in consciousness. Both sit at rest yet are also everywhere.

I note this occurring at Pine Gate sangha in Ottawa, where I am privileged to be the Zen teacher in residence. Grounding for myself and students in the practice of collective mindfulness has been an astonishing journey in Pine Gate sangha, founded by my wife Carolyn and I in 1997 after my return from teaching meditation in India.   Sangha life is a subtle ebb and flow through a series of concentric circles. At the core is the practice of Carolyn and I, the next circle is comprised of senior members and aspirants, then a circle of sangha members committed to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then a circle of sangha members young and old, and then extending to a vast circle beyond the boundaries of Pine Gate to the wider community. The ebb and flow between concentric circles breathed us in and out and the energy generated became the basis of action.

An unusual set of circumstances led to a particular form of engaged action and deepening of sangha practice. This is not a blueprint or a formula – just what arose from the depth of sangha practice in the midst of global crisis – the international war against terrorism and Global Warming.   The beginnings of Friends for Peace began with the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003. My friends from across the city of Ottawa came together and organized candlelit vigils all across the city prior to the outbreak of war. Over 3,000 people responded to this hastily put together initiative. We also organized a Peace Song Circle on Parliament Hill, the seat of Canadian government, to send a strong message that mindful living was an alternative to the warlike alternative.   Pine Gate sangha members provided the nucleus for this nascent movement. Oganization of this event was left in their care as Carolyn and I left for two months in India just before the event took place. It was in highly competent hands. On a cold, wet March day in 2003 a sea of multi–colored umbrellas adorned the grounds of Parliament Hill. Choirs from all over the National Capital Region were there to give their hearts for peace. Earlier that morning I had received news of the shock and awe bombing campaign of Baghdad – and was filled with anger and grief. This was not the appropriate mind state to lead this event, so I took refuge in the sangha – in Carolyn. She took care of all the final arrangements, while I did walking meditation in Pine Gate Meditation Hall to calm and look deeply into the causes of my anger and to let it go. Then I could be peace.

The incessant rain symbolised the tears of Iraqi children, your tears, my tears. Young, old, multi faith and diverse – the faces in the rain moved me deeply as people sang, danced and stood up for peace. The NOWAR group was due on Parliament Hill after us and they had a more violent agenda. I had talked to their leaders and requested that they join us on the Hill but without noisemakers and slogans. They came with anger after burning effigies of George Bush and Tony Blair outside the US embassy. We felt the anger of their demonstration as they joined us, then it suddenly calmed and dissipated as they sang and danced with us in the downpour. The Sufi Universal Dances of Peace group organized 5,000 people to do a dance, chanting "May Peace be With You and With You be Peace" in English, French, Hebrew and Arabic. When the rain came down like a monsoon – nobody ran for cover. We danced and sang for peace together. The NOWAR group meditated with us in silence at the end.

From the response to these events Friends for Peace was created and registered as a non profit organization with a mandate for peace, planetary care and social justice. It has a charter and a mandate. All parts of the mandate are active with respect to outreach, support and action. The first thing put into motion was an annual Peace Prayer Day every Fall, which was a celebration of all that we stood for. It had the feeling of a country fair with lunch kitchen, activist tables, Silent Auction, great entertainment and Peace Awards to prominent citizens who delivered their often very edgy Visions for planetary care, social justice and peace.   This day has now grown into the final bookend of a two week Peace Festival in our city of Ottawa. The growth and enthusiasm is there because there are tangible results from each area of the mandate. There is a new six storey apartment building for low income families downtown that we supported, there is a pristine watershed – the Dumoine River – that we helped to get protection for, there are direct results from our support of aboriginal rights in the apology from the Government of Canada to First Nations, there is the annual Peace Camp Canada bringing Palestinian and Israeli teens to Ottawa for a peace camp. And much more that is unfolding.

The consequences of engaged practice for the sangha are confidence, clarity and skilfulness. Also creativity as the sangha produces an online journal – Pine Gate, which appears three times a year and serves the interests of sanghas worldwide. Friends for Peace now comprises a loose coalition of over 45 groups throughout the city – activist, environmental, peace, business, faith, cultural, schools, government – and they are a force to be reckoned with in a good way. The former Mayor of Ottawa has described Friends for Peace as the face of the city he wants to see in the future. That future is now! The confidence from doing all this has led to the sanghabody jumping into the river of the Buddhadharma and kindly carrying me along with them. This is all due to deep internal practice and intelligent engaged practice. The home of Pine Gate is undergoing a major eco-retrofit – solar panel to heat the hot water, low flush toilets, energy efficient furnace and wood burning fireplace, energy windows and doors, solar blinds on south facing windows, insulation, rain barrels and so on.   The neighbours and sangha are watching very closely and enquire about cost, rebates and results – and several are thinking of following suit. Our money is where our mouth is, as this is a planetary care project right at the heart of Pine Gate sangha, which is also the heart of Friends for Peace. And on it goes all the way back to the heart of the Buddha.

I have also planted an apple tree on the front lawn, so that as the fruit ripens passersby and neighbours with their children may just pick them and eat them. There are many ripe fruits on the sangha tree, especially young people. They are storming the barricades, transcending boundaries and breaking down barriers. I ask only one thing of them, that they hold out their hand and wait for me - because I am going with them.

So given all of this background, it is not surprising that when friends enter the Pine Gate Meditation Hall, ill or in an agitated state, they immediately calm as their neurons align with the history and presence of the steady, deep and engaged practice of mindfulness. Before they leave for home – they are amazed at how refreshed they feel. Sangha children, who can be mischievous and sometimes a challenge to their parents, walk through the door and just beam. They become golden, much to the surprise of their parents if they are in recovery from shouting matches in the car drive over. I believe children exposed to meditation and mindfulness practice are ultra-sensitive to the energy of alignment at the meditation centre.   They sit quietly on their cushions, and in the fellowship session that follows they engage in conversation, serve tea, and clear away the dishes. Their astonished parents look forward to a gentler, more enjoyable car ride home.

Pockets of sangha members also form distinct cornerstones or building blocks for this process to deepen. In two's, three's and more – they will meet for coffee, sing together, do walking meditation along the riverbank.   There is no specific purpose or agenda other than to experience the joy of one another's being. The harmony they develop is palpable and present for the entire sangha when it gathers at Pine Gate Meditation Hall. They create a neuron alignment within themselves and this naturally overflows to everyone else and it takes everyone in the direction of transformation. They take timeout from busy lives to actively cultivate this form of alignment. I feel it too and experience it as a direct impact in my heart centre. The cells in the heart are 60% neurons and this justifies all the traditions that speak so much about the centrality of developing heart consciousness. It happens when the heat of agitation is removed from the mind. In this way the sangha generates a form of energy that cools the heat of agitation and suffering.

The Friends For Peace coalition has Pine Gate sangha as its nucleus. Here, I see the effects of the sangha operating as an organism for planetary care, peace and social justice with highly encouraging effects on our northern city. Well, that future is now, as the alignment of sangha practice infuses our coalition partners so that our mandate is highly mobilised and effective in getting things done on the ground and in the manner of so doing. I do not have mathematical equations or precise measurements to support these insights, nor do I have to deep freeze sangha children. I just have my acute observations over time.


Mindfulness and the Gulf Oil Spill       [2013]

It is time to examine our minds, consumption patterns and personal culpability in the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The plugging of the oil well is not an end to the crisis, merely the beginning of identifying our part in it. Guidelines are necessary. They are available from Thich Nhat Hanh in the shape of the mindfulness trainings – a welcome relief and antidote to the unending spin we are surrounded by on a daily basis.

It is no surprise to discover that BP deliberately underestimated the amount of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico from its destroyed Deepwater Horizon oilrig. Any surprise is caused by the powerful PR arm of not only BP, but also of Haliburton and TransOcean – its partners in this ill fated venture. Their spin has not, however, fooled the stock market, as the share values of these corporate giants have plummeted down. Yet BP ads touting their environmental sensitivity continue and can no longer be taken seriously by any thinking person. But do people actually think? Or do they prefer to be caught in a whirlwind of spin from business, government and other stakeholders in an environmental disaster, the like of which the US has never before encountered? BP is in high level spin mode, while directors of the company are off loading their stocks in the company and blaming their partners! So many lies are being told by BP and the government about the multiplier effects of the oil spill and deny journalists access to see the clean up process or from photographing the devastation readily visible from satellites.

The truth is that not only are ocean ecosystems and wetlands at risk, vital economic sectors – fishing, tourism and real estate – are also at risk in all Gulf states. This has a mainstream impact on all related industries throughout America. The tons of toxic oil dispersants used to break up the surface oil slick has settled on the ocean floor. There, it contaminates the oceanic ecosystem. Not only are fish, marine mammals and other wildlife being killed – the industries their harvest supported are also being killed. The entire Gulf of Mexico may well become a dead zone, and this will extend to the human populations that depended on its vibrancy.

The US administration's threats to put its foot on BP's throat and even take over the operation to halt the oil flow into the Gulf is further spin and quite ludicrous. The federal agencies with a stake in offshore drilling permits and environmental protection are scrambling to deflect their culpability and "cozyness" with oil giants. The use of the term "cozyness" is a White House deflection from the true name of the relationship between government agencies and oil giants. The correct term is corruption. "Cozyness" is further pointless spin, particularly, as the US federal government does not have the technology or the expertise to cap the oil spill. If the US administration was truly serious, why do they not freeze the financial assets of the three corporations in order to foot the cleanup bill?

CNN, FOX and other media have their own spin-doctors to amplify the volume, so spin becomes a norm for everyone. But neither government nor the media are asking the deeper questions.   It is clear that BP is running the operation in the Gulf while the federal government huffs and puffs with importance in the chain of command, yet does not occupy the driving seat. The question of government/corporate complicity is a serious one. Questions are not being asked about the loss of cultures dependant on harvesting sea products. This is extant in the now obsolete Louisiana Oyster fisheries. A thriving and unique culture is threatened by the closure of the oyster beds. Upbringing, culture, and family history now stand for nothing, whereas they were the fabric that held this part of the US together. The closure of oyster processing factories and the consternation that has filled the nation's maritime food chain do get media space because the knock on economic consequences have created multiplier effects that damage regional and national economies. Yet the media investigation stops short of examining the killing of centuries old cultures and ways of life. The mantra of "It's the economy stupid" has never before been revealed as so much nonsense. There is no economy if there is not a culture to implement it. There is no post environment economy. The culture will not return while the oyster beds are dead. Whatever life they still hold will be fatally damaged by the clean up. Questions are not being asked about Corexit 9500, the dispersant used abundantly to restrain the oil spill – over one million gallons of this poison. This chemical is outlawed in the UK in the event of an oil spill – as it kills everything in the marine ecosystem.

How do we get off this mad carousel? Is there any equanimity or intelligent life to be found in decision makers? How about us - do we change our part as consumers in creating the demand for oil and oil products? Another deep question that CNN and FOX conveniently ignore. It is evident that we must stop, locate ourselves in the present moment, pause, and make different choices – examining our minds, consumption patterns and personal culpability in the creation of such a huge disaster. Guidelines are necessary. They can be found in the Mindfulness Trainings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh – particularly the Fifth Training about mindful consumption. Here it is:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or any other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in such a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

It takes us right back to what we do with our minds. I apply this to walking meditation, taught to students and friends who come to Pine Gate Meditation Hall, where I have the privilege of being the resident Zen teacher. When we concentrate on our breath and focus on slow walking, we have a brilliant piece of engineering to quiet the mind and body and be present. When we add a third concentration – aware of how our feet touch the earth – we have a meditative practice designed for our times.   We focus our mind on the mechanism of each foot touching the earth – heel, then ball of foot, then toe. We slow down even further and with our body – not our intellect or ego – we make a contract with Mother Earth to walk more lightly and leave a smaller footprint. We examine our consumption patterns and energy use and commit to decreasing the size of our ecological footprint. All this arises from walking with awareness. Conscious breath co-ordinates our steps as we notice how our feet touch the earth. The energy of wellbeing that arises from this practice is stronger than our habit energies and mental afflictions. And so the latter fall away.   The insight and clarity that also arises guides us in the direction of what to do. Nobody requires a lecture from me about that. We know what to do. We know how to reduce our ecological footprint. We also know that taking care of the earth and the oceans takes care of ourselves. Begin it now, for the future is not some way ahead – it is shaped by the actions we take at this moment.


Nelson Mandela - Inspiration       [2013]

Nelson Mandela's passing leaves a huge hole in the universe, as though a grand powerful oak tree has fallen in the forest. Yet he has not gone from us, he is with us still. Everyone who was inspired by his example carries "Madiba" into the present and future. His extraordinary life gave meaning to everyone's life journey. After prison, persecution and suffering, he was a man without bitterness. His astute and discerning leadership skills provided the ability to reconcile with people who persecuted him. He astonished both his admirers and his antagonists with this rare streak of equanimity.

An exercise for our times is provided by Rick Stengel, who worked with Mandela on "Long Walk to Freedom" (1994). When beset with life's difficulties and cruel curve balls Stengel would always ask himself "What would Nelson Mandela do?" This mantra is one to do when facing adversity - to find compassion in the face of anger and fear. Mandela gave to the world the meaning of "Ubuntu" – a person is a person because of other people. This is the essence of interbeing and non-discrimination. Nelson Mandela on his release from prison, never once parted ways from his dignity, never gave in to despair and bitterness no matter what crisis faced him. He provided an example during his life that will perhaps be even more meaningful in his death.

His message to all South Africans was about reconciliation, renewal and transformation.   He stood as a true parent to everyone - black, Indian, white, mixed bloods - and was an inspiration to the world.   In the twenty-seven years Mandela spent in prison, the connection between truth, ethics and leadership became very clear to him as he matured as a skilful and astute leader. There is no political leader like him in the modern world and he inspired the world with the quality of leadership that brought down the South African system of apartheid. He forgave his oppressors because he knew he would be destroyed if he did not.

Mandela was the closest thing the world has to a secular saint though his gift was certainly not dharma or religion. It was an astute and skilful use of understanding, compassion and insight. Mandela was a master tactician and strategist. These qualities were sculpted and refined during his incarceration on Robben Island where he often feared for his life. He endured with great fortitude and emerged as a mature statesman who knew what to do and how to do it. He knew he had to inspire – fellow prisoners, South Africans, the world – and serve as a role model. "Invictus" is a short poem written in 1875 by the English poet William Henley. Nelson Mandela kept the poem in his prison cell on a scrap of paper during his long incarceration. Invictus is also the title of a 2009 movie directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Well worth seeing, especially as Morgan Freeman plays the role of Nelson Mandela superbly.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeoning of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Mandela was aware that negotiations with the South African government were not just about principles, but a question of tactics. The most pragmatic of idealists, Mandela saw the world not in simplistic terms but as infinitely nuanced and complex. He led from the back – not entering debate too early – persuading people to do things and think it was to their credit. He knew to keep his friends close and his rivals and enemies even closer. He studied the language and mentalities of the latter. The past caused him to suffer greatly, but he let it go and did not refer to it publicly.Upon his retirement from politics in South Africa, he championed worldwide awareness for the problem of AIDS in Africa – the forgotten continent. His star shone brightly wherever he spoke and he was a lightning rod for reconciliation between racial and cultural groups in his own country and worldwide.

At the present time, only a few leaders of such quality exist in political, corporate, bureaucratic and religious domains of life. Leaders who root themselves in a deep spiritual understanding and knowledge of themselves are in a position to bring peace to their nation and to the world, for they will see deeply into the morass of the world's crises. Like Mandela they will search for the solutions that balance the existential necessities of life – body with spirit.    Their leadership can guide us to happiness for they will have the wisdom to show everyone the pitfalls of ignorance, racism, greed and neglect. The prayer to hold close to our hearts is that Nelson Mandela lives on in the hearts of world leaders.


Neuroplasticity       [2012]

Buddhist masters for over two thousand six hundred years have observed the process of their own awakening. The training of disciples and observation of their similar steps into awakening empirically confirmed the validity of their own experience. This would not be a verification process that Western science would necessarily concur with, as examining the mind from the vantage point of an awakened mind is not something that Western science is equipped to do. In 1987 Francisco Varela made a statement that has shaken scientific turpitude:

The chance of surviving with dignity on this planet hinges on the acquisition of a new mind. This new mind must be wrought among other things, from a radically different epistemology, which will inform relevant actions

Varela was the catalyst for the Mind and Life dialogues between neuroscientists and Buddhist meditators. He maintained that a third person observational stance was inadequate for modern science as the first person experiential component was necessary to make science complete. He turned to Buddhism for this component and enlisted the support of the Dalai Lama for a series of dialogues, which began in 1987. Varela clearly saw that Buddhism used investigative practices that rested on observation, mind training, logical thinking and a rigorous experimental/verification process that relied on a person's own experience. Verification of Buddhist teachings did not come solely from faith, but relied on testing the teachings out in the laboratory of personal experience and the mind.

The Dalai Lama sent eight highly trained senior monks to the Wisconsin laboratory of Dr Richard Davidson in 1992. The monks had trained in the Tibetan Buddhist Nyingma and Kagyu traditions for periods of 10,000 to 50,000 hours. They were observed for high frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, hooked up by 256 brain sensors to electroencephalograph (EEG) and fMRI machines and compared with control groups without meditation training (see Lutz et alia 2004). The results were sufficiently astonishing to encourage further ongoing research, as the sensors picked up in the monks' brains an exponential increase in gamma waves, much more highly coordinated than that observed in the control groups. Significantly, activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the monks was very high.   This brain region is usually associated with positive thoughts, feelings of balance and harmony (Lutz et alia 2004; HOPES 2003).

The significance of these ground breaking research results by neuroscientists is that in terms of meditation effects – it is clear that the trained mind is cognitively and structurally different from an untrained mind, as new neuronal connections are created so that ingrained perceptions fall away. Yongey Mingyur, who was one of the original experimental subjects, refers to the essence of the Buddha's teachings as: the mind is the source of all experience, and by changing the direction of the mind we can change the quality of everything we experience (2007:102). Prolonged meditation has the effect of producing permanent changes in levels of awareness in the direction of harmony and balance.   Just what we need as a species!

The medical implications of neuroplasticity are nothing short of astonishing, as mechanistic biology and genetics are progressively thrown out of the window. Previously, neuroscience in the twentieth century had established a dialectical relationship between the brain and the body. Scientists had identified the health of the immune, hormonal and nervous systems with discrete areas of the brain – frontal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus respectively (Pollard 2004). At that time it was thought that the brain was fixed in its structure and functions early in life – that the brain contained all its neurons at birth.   But from the 1980's onwards, experimental research clearly demonstrated that this assumption was incorrect, that new neurons and synapses were generated throughout one's lifespan as a consequence of new learning processes activating memory functions in the brain (Milgram 1987; Racine & Kairis 1987). Recent studies by Begley (2004) and Lutz et alia (2004) using sophisticated MRI scans on the brains of Buddhist monks in meditation, demonstrated in no uncertain terms that meditation as a long term practice rewired the chemical and physical structure of the brain and as a consequence promoted behavioral and attitudinal changes in the direction of balance, harmony and happiness.

Now that the doctrine of the unchanging brain is thoroughly discredited, radical new vistas have opened up both for medicine and culture.   Eric Kandel received a Nobel Prize in 2000 for advancing the argument that learning and challenging memory functions stimulates genes to create new proteins and new neural circuits in the brain.   This has significant implications for curing memory disorders, treatment of neurological problems as well as reversing memory loss in the ageing brain. Norman Doidge (2007) has argued further that this is how the brain always works – only we did not allow ourselves to understand this feature of constant malleability. Though Buddhism does have a handle on brain structure being impermanent and everchanging. The brain is inherently "neuroplastic" and therefore can change both its structures and functions. Doidge documents the case history of Michelle Mack, born without the left hemisphere of her brain. Nevertheless, Michelle leads a full and active life because the right hemisphere of her brain reorganized itself to create the synapses and brain circuits to do what were thought to be exclusive left hemispheres functions.

The changing brain is normal; furthermore the ageing brain – often beset with decline – can be stimulated by a variety of brain exercises that create new processing functions. Costa e Silva's work in 2004 demonstrates that depression and chronic pain are a function of a lack of plasticity in brain structures and the search is on for drug combinations that can stimulate the creation of new proteins and synapses so that brain circuits expand. The groundbreaking work of Davidson (2000, 2003) has already shown that prolonged meditation reorganizes frontal hemisphere activity related to the stimulus of theta and alpha brain waves, which are associated with calm, harmony and attitude shift.

Furthermore, being permanently stuck with the same old cultural assumptions and predispositions is a notion that is no longer tenable. While we most certainly shape culture, culture also shapes our brain structure.   The commonly held view that cukltural differences are implacable has to give way to the fact that we can change our cultures by simply changing our minds and the way we think about things.   Our synapses, senses, brain circuits and cultures are all malleable. So an "unchanging world" perspective is no longer tenable particularly as the recent work of Iacoboni (2008) postulates a "mirroring" neuron.   His argument is that we understand the world around us through brain circuits that copy what we sense and see, yet do not do. He thinks the mind explores beyond the item copied and reaches into the realm of intuition and feelings. Are we getting closer to a "neuropolitics" and a "neuroeconomics"? Iacombini does think this is indeed possible and already happening (2008). Whether one agrees with his experiments on monkeys and further inferences – it is clear that static views in medicine, science and consciousness are exceedingly hard to justify.

The term "Neuroplasticity" was coined to describe the phenomenon of continually adjusting and reorganizing brain neurons, synapses and neural pathways. There is no longer a place in modern neuroscience for Cartesian mind/body dualism, nor for a plausible distinction between mind and brain. This meeting ground between Buddhist meditation and modern science in the twenty first century has produced a series of groundbreaking studies in neuroscience, accompanied by a flurry of international conferences and collaborative research projects between seasoned Buddhist meditators and contemporary neuroscientists. It is all about consciousness change!

An interesting departure from the conference circuit and testing the brain scans of Buddhist meditators are the retreats (such as Plum Village 2006, Garrison Institute 2006) where neuroscientists have the opportunity to practice meditation surrounded by the Olympic athletes of meditation – highly skilled Buddhist meditators. If it holds true that our store consciousness consumes the mind states of surrounding beings, then a pertinent question arises. With neuroscientists surrounded by skilled Buddhist mediators in a retreat setting – how will the scientists subsequently practice their science once they return to their laboratories? Only time will tell, though Buddhist meditators may provide an educated guess! At the very least the explorations between Buddhist meditation and neuroscience create the conditions for a compassionate foundation to emerge for science, while at the same time Buddhism is refreshed by a novel experimental foundation rooted in scientific procedures (Chopra 2005).


On Being Splendid       [2012]

When a friend asks "How are you?" we tend to automatically reach for a standard descriptor such as "Fine"; "Not too bad" or "Could be worse." Our automatic pilot rarely delivers uplifting, generous responses. Something is in the way of replying "Splendid" or "Absolutely Marvellous. If we should make such a response, we would not really believe it. Let me begin by breaking "Fine" down into an acronym.

F – Freaked out

I – Insecure

N – Neurotic

E – Elsewhere.

It is possible to choose other somewhat depressing words, though I choose the Buddha's Four Clay Pots metaphor as a starting point for this investigation.

The Buddha categorized his listeners into four different kinds of clay vessels. The first clay pot has holes at the bottom, so whatever is poured into it goes right through. No matter what wise skilful teaching or practice is offered to clay pot person number one, absolutely nothing is retained. The second clay pot is one that has many cracks in it. If water is poured in, it all eventually seeps out. The teachings may be retained for a short while, yet sooner or later they are completely forgotten. The third clay pot is one that is completely full. Water cannot be poured into it because it is already full to the brim. A person with characteristics of this vessel is so full of views, self-righteousness and wrong perceptions that they cannot be taught anything about the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Then there is the fourth clay pot – an empty vessel without holes or cracks, empty of views and attitudes. At different times we occupy the first three pots and strive to move to pot number four. How can we do this?

To be completely empty, as the fourth clay pot, is what our mindfulness practice leads to- ie being empty of a separate self. On the way there we are bound to have views and attitudes, but may be significantly empty to take in the teachings and practices that can move us along the path of awakening. Step by step we let go of clinging and attachment to views and re-build our minds so that equanimity and peacefulness arise. We discover that the art of Being Present is what all of the Buddha's teachings, practices and trainings lead to. From this vast tool kit of transformation we then use intelligent awareness to work with strong emotions and let go of all clinging and their damaging consequences. The trio of Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight becomes our best friend as we step into freedom from brainwashing.

What does it take before we can relax into our inherent goodness and be authentically "Splendid"? In the teachings brought to the west by Chogyam Trungpa there is a strong emphasis on Shambhala warrior training. The fifth and final level is the sense of splendidness. It is preceded by four interconnected levels:

1.      Being free of deception by recognizing afflictive emotions and discerning habit energies.

2.      Truly entering the freedom of being present in each moment.

3.      Embracing the vision of sacredness of ourselves and the world.

4.      Bringing mind and body together because we are grounded and in harmony with the world around us.
(Sakyong Mipham 2011, Shambhala Sun November 2011)

In the fifth level, building on these prior steps, we attain confidence in our inherent goodness and simply radiate the energy of splendidness. The visceral sense of unyielding trust in our inherent goodness, of being splendid enables us to become spiritual hubs and beacons of an extraordinary nature. All the great spiritual masters emanate this sense and shared it without deception or ego. All of this power of transformation from a place of steady well-being, strength and confidence in our ability to be brilliant and to shine in the face of any adversity. A lack of splendidness simply attracts sorry-ass individuals to be complicit with our hiding patterns. It makes better sense to have the lucidity to train ourselves to be splendid rather than close down and hide.


Peace Ambassadors       [2014]

Now that the 11th Friends for Peace Day in Ottawa City Hall has passed into splendid memory in 2013, I recall our first Day in the autumn of 2003. Our two activist speakers scratched at the last minute due to illness. As a backup I did my best to step into their shoes. In the pouring rain this is what I said:

"I want to talk to you about our children and the kind of future we create for them. Do we teach them peace? Or through neglect do we allow violence to flood their minds, hearts and consciousness so they learn war? Even worse, do they live out our own personal wars expressed through our violent attitudes, speech and actions towards them? I ask every adult here, particularly men, and in our country to deal with their internal wars so that only the best in us is passed on to our children, not the worst in terms of violence. How do we deal with our internal wars, hatreds and fears that constitute our Wild Mind? We must stop running; stop hiding behind our addictions and busyness. We come to a stop, look deeply into the eyes of our children and make a commitment to face our internal demons and transform them by stepping on to the path of compassion. Not by transmitting our wars and internal afflictions to the children of the world. We need community for this, to support us in sacred ceremony, meditation and creative spirituality so that we raise our consciousness by retraining our minds, through refining our speech, attitudes and actions. We show our children the way to peace by learning to be it. Since 9/11 the level of hate and violence globally has increased dramatically. Excessive violence has been used to suppress violence. This is not the way to proceed. There is no "them" and "us." We either learn to live peacefully together or we all suffer and die together.

All violence is injustice and we have to teach our children the truth about war. Not about winners and losers, but about the long term suffering on both sides. It is only citizens of the world standing together for peace and saying "No to War" that will stop it. But the hatred grows and the suffering increases. What can we do as individuals to change this? We go to war – with ourselves. First of all we must uproot the violence and war within our minds.   To prevent war we nurture non-violence.   We practice meditation and prayer in daily life to transform the poisons within our minds and within our nation.

We enter into true peace negotiations by learning the methods of deep listening, of respectful and non-violent communication. By understanding and bringing our mindless, selfish agendas to a stop.     We create peace by knowing that compassion is the antidote to violence and hatred. We must also make peace with Mother Earth. If we injure Mother Earth, we injure ourselves. Our civilization has caused such deep harm to the earth that we humans may soon become an endangered species. We have imposed so much neglect and ignorance upon the Earth. The solution is not political or economic – these are secondary. The primary solution is spiritual. Every faith and spiritual tradition must renew its   ethics and responsibilities and honour the interconnected nature of humanity with Mother Earth. We must make it clear to our political and corporate leaders that the violence they commit in our name is no longer acceptable.   We must hold them to account and influence them with our clarity, wisdom and courage. The actions we take now are shaping the possibilities for future generations.

So here is our challenge. Today, in the pouring rain and thunder storms we have experienced peace, a deep peace shared between many traditions, cultures and religions.   This experience evaporates into nothing if we do not translate it into action. Begin the work on yourselves today, so that your attitudes, speech and actions become an example to your children, friends and communities. Take the practical steps to make peace with Mother Earth in terms of what you consume and support. Then represent your community, in coalition with other communities, to political and corporate leaders. Show clearly that we are choosing peace and harmony within ourselves, within our communities and with Mother Earth. Together we can do it.

We are Ambassadors of Peace after all."


Shamanic Healing Journey       [2014]

From my training with White Eagle Woman and Dawson I carefully put together a shamanic journey suitable for non-Natives. This was White Eagle Woman's intent in teaching me, so her knowledge could be passed on to a wider audience. I based the healing ceremony on considerations of safety, sacredness and responsibility, and drew from two traditions that I had extensive experience with - shamanism and Buddhist meditation practices. I begin the healing ceremony with conscious breathing, so that everybody's awareness becomes attached to in-breath and to out-breath. I emphasize the circle motif during the opening symbol of external purification where individuals gather in a circle. Burning sage is smudged over each person in a clockwise direction. During this opening process sacred Native American flute music is played softly, as people gather for the ceremony. I always encourage folk to validate their experiences from their own internal recognitions. This can be discussed and verified at the end of the ceremony through guidance from the ceremony's shaman facilitator.

The next step is a symbol of internal purification - a simple heart centre meditation. During this meditation the sound driver changes from the opening sacred flute music to religious chants. The sound of Gregorian or Blessing Way chants accompanies this stage of the ceremony.   People are instructed to fill their lungs on the in-breath and visualize white light coming in to the middle of the chest - the heart center. I tell them:

"You can visualize this as light floating gently down to the area behind the sternum, or as a funnel of light coming directly into your chest from the Universe. If you do not visualize easily, then think the light coming into your heart center. Feel this white light as a gentle glow and take it through the heart center, inside the chest and throat, up to your crown. All this is on the in-breath. At the end of the in-breath, at the top of the crown, hold the breath for a moment with a thought. The thought is: "Send this light to every cell in my body." Then on the out-breath imagine the white light moving from your crown, filling your entire body right down to the toes. Complete the breathing cycle by grounding the energy through your feet into the earth. Do this ten times until you feel something different in your body, a different sensation or a greater feeling of relaxation. Remain within the energy of the meditation for approximately ten breaths. If thoughts distract you from the process, simply come back to the focus and direction of breath, light and word."

This meditation is a centering vehicle, as it grounds the person in their body.

For the next stage of the healing journey, I introduce two drivers used in combination. The first breathing cycle begins: deep breaths - then explosive breaths - on to death breaths - and finally a pause. It is accompanied by a different sound to that of the chants used in the prior meditation. Changes in tone and rhythm intensify the driving effect of the breathing cycle. For the initial breathing cycle I use a tonal musical driver that has an insistent, repetitive beat - the electronic synthesizer music from Chariots of Fire for instance. After the first breathing cycle is finished, everybody relaxes their breathing during the pause and prepares for the next breathing cycle. The second cycle begins and the sound driver changes to chants of the Eternal OM mantra. The final cycle of breathing is to ten minutes of repetitive drumming, after which I take a small hand drum and play it over each individual so the rhythmic sound of the drum penetrates their whole being. Each breathing cycle is associated with distinct sound drivers – synthesizer music, OM mantra, drumming. Once the last breathing cycle is complete, normal breathing ensues.

The individual by this time should be extremely relaxed and in an altered state. It is at this point that the shamanic journey begins, which introduces extended symbolic imagery and a different sound driver. For the actual journey, the participants are accompanied by nature-based music that incorporates animal and birdcalls, and other sounds drawn from the world of nature. This is played softly. I use Dan Gibson's "Algonquin Suite" as an appropriate tonal musical driver for the healing journey. There are many variations to a shamanic journey - into the past, into the future, under the sea, into the earth, beyond time and space, and they can be guided or non-guided. The careful preparation leading up to the journey is to ground the person in their body. This care is essential so that past fears and future anxieties that arise during the shamanic journey can be dealt with from a solid foundation. I will document only one form of guided symbolic imagery and ask the reader to suspend disbelief sufficiently to accompany me on this journey.

See yourself walking through a beautiful meadow, full of flowers. You hear the sounds of insects humming, and birds singing. The sun feels warm on your face and a slight breeze ruffles your hair. As you walk, look up into an endlessly clear blue sky and for a moment allow yourself to merge with it, and enter such clarity. (Pause)

Notice a small shape hovering in the sky that gets bigger as it comes closer to you, and see a golden eagle slowly circling above you.   He is your guardian and will watch over you and keep you safe on your journey. As you walk, the meadow slowly gives way to a river that runs over rocks before eddying into deep, still pools. Follow the bank of the river in the direction of the sun. There is a path to walk along. Notice the mallard ducks at the water's edge with their ducklings, and a kingfisher sitting patiently on a branch overhanging a deep, still pool.   The sun filters through the trees at the river's edge and the light dances on the rocks and water like a crystal cloak that shimmers and moves with every swirl and eddy. (Pause)

Walking round a bend you see that the river runs from a clear lake fringed with forests, reflecting snow-capped mountains in its still surface. Find a spot by the side of the lake, sit down and enjoy the intimacy of nature that is around you. At the end of the lake you see a cow moose with her calf at the water's edge.   In the distance you hear wolves calling to one another, then you notice two rabbits beside a shrub close by. A doe and two fawns walk slowly and tentatively from the forest into the sunlight.   Skylarks hover motionless in the sky then descend to earth with their lilting song. Your eyes are drawn to a stately blue heron standing motionless in the reeds at the lake's edge. These creatures and more are there to remind you of your connection to the world of nature.   Take a moment to be with the grass, the trees, animals, birds, insects, and bring to this place your favourite animals.   (Pause)

Ask one of the creatures to accompany you on your journey and wait to see which one comes forward. It does not matter if none come forward, the golden eagle still circles overhead as your guardian. (Pause)

After sitting by the lake's edge for a while, stand up and slowly walk into the water.   It is icy cold, fed by glaciers from the snow-capped mountains. But it is a cold that is easily bearable because it purifies, stripping you of your anxieties, stress and worries. Slowly walk into the water up to your hips, your chest and then submerge yourself in the icy cold embrace of purification. Underwater you can breathe and move around with ease. Notice the rays of sunlight coming into the water, fish swimming swiftly past and see the rocks and submerged tree trunks on the lake floor.   As you move around and adjust to the water you see a cave at the bottom of the lake and you swim strongly and powerfully to it and enter the cave. There is light at the end of a long underwater passage and you swim through and emerge out of the water into a cavern covered in crystals. The sound from the crystals shimmers through your body.   At the edge of the cavern is a waterfall. Stand underneath it and feel the water washing over and right through your body.   Feel the energy of the waterfall taking away any anxiety, tension and distress you may feel inside. (Pause)

Leave the cavern and follow a trail that takes you through a pine forest.   Beautiful tall pines are on either side of you, stretching up into the sky. Take a moment and see the entire blue sky endlessly clear and enter such clarity. (Pause)

Then see how the forest opens up into a large clearing with a big flat rock in the centre.   There is a fire prepared for you by the rock. As you warm your hands by the fire and feel its warmth on your face, you feel a presence next to you. Turning around you see a beautiful old woman with clear brown eyes that look right into you. She smiles in welcome and you feel she knows all about you and embraces you in a simple, heartfelt love. She is a very powerful healer and a wise shaman and is there on your journey to serve you. (Pause)

Standing next to her is a handsome old man, with weathered features and a gentle smile that lights you up. From his eyes you feel an overwhelming compassion and understanding. He is a very powerful healer and a wise shaman and is there on your journey to serve you. (Pause)

Between the old man and old woman is a young woman who sparkles. She is fresh, vibrant and beautiful, aglow with life's vitality. She also greets you with a smile, and a love and understanding that you know is unconditional. She is the feminine source of Earth Wisdom and a lightning rod for your transformation. She knows very well the suffering and chaos of modern times. She is a very powerful healer and a wise shaman and is there on your journey to serve you, particularly if you are at the crossroads of new beginnings and ready to discard the old damaging tapes you run in your mind. Her power has an infinite depth and force. (Pause)

Know that these three shamans come from the deepest part of yourself and they represent your own powers of creativity and self-healing. The three shamans approach you and invite you to speak to them. Choose who you wish to communicate with, and talk to them about whatever distresses you; the anxieties of the day, the stresses at work and at home, then if you so wish, go deeper into your distress. Talk to them about growing up, the neglect and abuse you may have experienced, the isolation, separation and lack of understanding you encountered as a young person, adolescent and adult. Talk about the damage caused to you and the damage you may have caused others. Talk about the hatreds, angers and insensitivities you experience and perpetuate. You can say anything to these three shamans. They understand and love you and are there to heal you. Talk about whatever you feel free to communicate and feel the distress and trauma leaving your body. And when you run out of things to say, just be with their loving and supportive presence. For now, open up and speak to one of these immensely powerful shamans placed on your path. (Pause)

Ask each one of them if they would transfer their power of creativity, understanding and healing to your awareness. And of course they agree. Look into the eyes of each one of them in turn and feel the transfer of their healing power with a jolt or energy circulation within your body. Thank them for this gift then ask if you could speak to someone from the other side. Someone who has passed on that you did not have the opportunity to say what you wanted to say, or hear what you would have liked to hear. Wait and see if anyone comes and do not be disappointed if nothing happens. It is not the time. (Pause)

ake your leave of the three shamans. Thank them for their support, love and power of healing. Turning round you see a beautiful child surrounded with a golden aura. This golden child is you -- without trauma, wounds or damage -- the child comes directly to you and takes your hand, and leads you to a cliff edge where the beautiful golden eagle is waiting for you.   He has been there as a guardian throughout your journey and is now ready to take you home. (Pause)

Ask your golden child if he or she wants to come with you, then climb onto the back of the eagle, and feel him take off from the ledge and soar high on the updrafts.   Below you, see the mountains, lakes and forests of your journey. Smoke curls lazily skyward from the fire by the rock and as you fly with the eagle feel how beautiful this earth is. Then when you feel ready to do so, part from the eagle and fly on your own with your golden child next to you. With your arms spread wide as wings, catch the air currents and soar, then swoop low over the streams and mountains and enjoy the strength of flying on your own as your golden child merges with you as one unified being. (Pause)

Slowly fly back to the edge of the lake where you were sitting. Once again notice the animals, birds and insects and see how happy they are to see you again. Sit there for a time. (Pause)

Now see yourself sitting or lying down in the healing circle.    Form a circle of brilliant white light around where you are sitting or lying down, then step through the light and slowly return to your body. Breathe deeply on the in-breath and deeply on the out-breath. As you breathe in, say quietly to yourself: "I have arrived". As you breathe out, say quietly to yourself: "I am home". Continue to do this breathing exercise for at least five minutes or until you feel "arrived" and "home" in your body.

After the safe return I conduct a final meditation with light. A tray of lighted candles is passed round the circle in a clockwise direction. Each person in turn, acknowledges the light and healing in the next person from the light and healing that is in them. The internal dialogue with the shamans at the rock is with the powerful inner material of creative self-healing that exists in everyone. Throughout the breathing cycles and journey other material from the depths of consciousness will surface. It is essential to be aware and dialogue with it - so the energy of trauma is steadily diminished. Participants are made fully aware that distress may come to the surface. These aspects of interior suffering cannot be left there on their own, as they may be dangerous and destructive both for the individual and others they will inevitably project onto. It is necessary to bring to the surface the awareness of mindfulness and the power of self-healing to take care of the trauma. Then an individual can begin to see deeply and take the steps to transform the energy of trauma. The final meditation with light acknowledges that there is more to consciousness than trauma, suffering, blockages and energy "sinks." There are seeds of happiness, joy and grace that acknowledge the inherent Divinity within everyone. The acknowledgement in the final meditation nurtures these seeds in consciousness and creates a crucial finale to the healing journey.


Talking to the Arab Islamic World       [2012]

The dissension within Islam since the fourteenth century and the internal discrimination, particularly against women, provide the seeds that have sprouted many Osama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins throughout the long history of Islam. Understanding the internal dynamics of the Arab Islamic world, as well as the impact of Western influence, is crucial to nurture a process of reconciliation that has a chance of taking root in twenty-first century global politics.   The even handedness and sense of equanimity that asks America and the Arab Islamic world to stop, look deeply and listen to the internal suffering of their traditions and culture, acknowledges that wrong perceptions are a two way street. Thus it is vital to begin with some understanding of the Arab Islamic world.  

Bernard Lewis' commentary on the Middle East and Western impact charts the downfall of a once powerful Islamic civilization into petty tyrannies seemingly hell bent on self-destruction (2002). Lewis begins his investigation of root causes with the middle ages, documenting the fear and misunderstanding generated in the Muslim world by the European Renaissance in finance, technology, science and industry.   Quickly outstripped by Western science and scholarship, the Arab Islamic world retreated into stagnation as it turned in on itself, made further dysfunctional through reliance on fundamentalist beliefs as the major form of resistance to growing European, then American, power on the global stage. Lewis aptly points out (2002:153):

Anglo-French rule and American influence…were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle East states and societies.

Whatever reform and modernization was borrowed from the west by the Arab Islamic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries succeeded only in reinforcing autocracy, which became increasingly mired in fundamentalism. The conflict between reform and fundamentalism is a divisive factor within every Arabic Muslim country, as diverse views of Islam compete for supremacy. The fundamentalists attribute the afflictions of Islamic countries to the modern practices and developments borrowed from the West; whereas the reformers attribute blame to a religious fanaticism that stifles the ability of current Islamic states to modernize (Lewis 2002:157). Both views are correct in part but there appears to be no middle ground between these differences, which are endemic to the very fabric of the modern Arab Islamic world. (It is interesting to note that a similar division between reform and fundamentalism divides America into two mutually antagonistic ideological camps.)

Throughout Islam's history there have been major schisms between and within different sects (Sunni vs Shia), with competing visions of the Prophet Mohammed's teachings. This has lead to a succession of rebellions and wars over the nature that Islam should take. Well before the founding of America in 1776, Islam had suffered from many Osama bin Laden type figures demanding that fundamentalist interpretations of Islam be upheld. The fractured history of Islam itself is one causal element in creating Osama bin Laden and 9/11 in the present century. Direct fundamentalist reactions to Western influence from the Arab Islamic world began in the eighteenth century, though the mediaeval crusades certainly provided a precursor for extreme measures to protect their faith and cultural hegemony. The intent from the eighteenth century onwards was to overturn all reforms of a secular nature, returning Arab Islamic societies to what was thought to be the classical form of an Islamic state – a Muslim theocracy. Fundamentalist fervor, however, overlooks history and the manner of political conduct of early Islamic states (Lewis 2002). It also overlooks more sophisticated and reflective views of the Prophet Mohammed's teachings (Muhaiyaddeen 1987), which I will come on to later. For the moment, it is necessary to be clear about very important political, economic and religious realities.

With respect to Osama bin Laden, we must be aware that Wahhabism did not begin with him. It was part of the foundation of Saudi Arabia and its most violent expression is now exported to militant Muslims all over the world. In the eighteenth century Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab – a Muslim cleric – influenced the Saud tribe with his fundamentalist views of Islam. It was Wahhabism, along with the sword of Ibn Saud, that later became the source of political legitimacy for the new Saudi Arabian political entity. Al-Wahhab had been adamant that all additions to Islam after the tenth century degraded the faith. He locked the door in Saudi Arabia for any chance for Muslim dharma to evolve, stay alive and be relevant for the coming centuries. That door remains closed to the present day in Saudi Arabia with the state creed of Wahhabism outflanked by more extreme and violent versions of Wahhab's fundamentalist views. Moderate or extreme, Wahhabism is woven into the very fabric of Saudi Arabian society as the overarching and highly divisive ideology of the nation. This assists an understanding of why fifteen of the nineteen September 11th hijackers were Saudi nationals. The Saudi suicide hijackers were predominantly middle class and university educated. They were not a product of poverty and alienation caused by Western influences. It was also a matter of ideology and alienation within their own nation that led them to participate in 9/11 to such deadly effect. Their education from elementary school to university required intensive exposure to the decrees of Wahhabism – an ideology that encouraged hatred of the West in general and of Jews in particular. Wahhabism is not a fringe expression by marginal militants in Saudi Arabia. It is mainstream – an obvious fact so often overlooked by commentators and politicians in the West. The alienation was not only with respect to the West but within the autocratic, narrow confines of their home country that had no place for them in the political and economic system.

Saudi Arabian oil reserves provided the wealth to contract out manufacturing, construction and infrastructure projects to American and European multinationals – then to Japanese and Korean corporations. There has been little room, or encouragement, over the past fifty years in the Saudi oil economy for Saudi contractors, technicians and managers to find a niche.   Thus educated Saudis have no jobs waiting for them after they graduate, as the sea of oil supporting Saudi Arabia was managed by external expertise. Lewis states (2002:152):

By all the standards that matter in the modern world – economic development, job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights – what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low.

Furthermore, the extreme ideology purveyed to alienated, graduating, jobless Saudi males since childhood, provided no place for them within the state controlled religious system. This combination of factors created a Molotov cocktail just waiting to explode. It should come as no surprise that a major consequence was the alienation of many middle class, educated males with nothing to do but retain the ideology of Wahhab, with its hatred towards the West and Israel. The vacuum outlined applies to every oil rich Arab country – merely taken to an extreme in Saudi Arabia. It is true that nature abhors a vacuum. In this scenario the vacuum is filled with fundamentalist zealots seeking martyrdom against the "infidel," inspired by the misguided teachings of Wahhab. The root meaning of "infidel", however, refers to an internal state that requires attention and transformation. The Prophet Mohammed continuously provided guidance to his followers to overcome their infidel minds, thoughts and hearts, to overcome the internal shadows that spawn hatred, pride, jealousy and revenge (Muhaiyaddeen 1987:60). A lesson that both modern Americans and Muslim Arabs could well take to heart from the Prophet Mohammed!

The state sponsored Saudi faith is relentlessly unforgiving of outsiders, exceedingly strict and caught in a time warp dating back to the tenth century. Just as American foreign policy is caught in a time warp dating back to the nineteenth century. I must remind both nations that we are in the twenty-first century. Their respective time warps are not relevant for the new century's pressing issues, which are primarily environmental as Global Warming casts its shadow over the warring parties in the Middle East. The Saudi time warp may be more intransigent than the American one, as immediate change is unlikely in Saudi Arabian political structure and religious foundations. So the ruthless repression of freedom, discrimination against women and the continued covert support for fundamentalist militants will continue unabated. With these insights into the ideological and economic causes and conditions that fuel the Arab Islamic worldview across the Middle East, we can see that any Western intrusion is bound to have volatile consequences. These consequences have accumulated from the mediaeval Christian crusades, through French and British colonialism, twentieth century foreign policy from the West, to the creation of Israel and the present American militarism that echoes past centuries of French and British imperialism in the region.   The creation of Israel was seen by most Arab Muslims as a Western imposition on their uneasy hegemony in the Middle East and Israel is viewed in some quarters as nothing other than a 20th century created Crusader State (Malouf 1984: 265). Within this volatile mix we find the historical and cultural causes that made something like 9/11 and subsequent war in Afghanistan and Iraq seemingly inevitable.

The causes and conditions rest both in the West and in the Arab Islamic world. It is a complex knot of ideology, history, misunderstanding, economic dominance and resistance – all interwoven with threads of wrong perceptions based on false views and hatred. Yet a first year history student could link these dots with some very elementary research.    Why does the West avert its eyes from the fact that fundamentalist Islam – Wahhabism – is part of mainstream Saudi Arabian religious expression? Fundamentalist militants in Saudi Arabia are clearly supported internally by factions within the extensive ruling royal family. The state religion is the Wahhabi creed, sometimes protesting against Islamic militants who march to the tune of a more extreme version of the same creed. Wahhabism is a totally different and antagonistic epistemology to that of American liberal democracy. This was provocatively demonstrated in the outpouring of Islamic rage over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which were published first of all in the Danish press. Fundamentalist Islam and the West do not have a shared worldview. Externally the Saudi government seeks normalization with America in terms of political and diplomatic relationships. Why is there denial of such obvious duplicity by both sides?   The answer lies in economic realities rather than ideological. The Saudi theocratic monarchy, an elite driven nation of 5,000 princes, floats on a sea of oil so coveted by American corporate and political elites that a blind eye is turned towards the task of truly understanding the differences. And so political and diplomatic ties with the West falsify the underlying realities. Blind eyes prevent otherwise intelligent observers from investigating the reasons for young, well educated, middle class Saudis responding to the call for martyrdom and senseless murder. As Gandhi reminds us "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Both the West and the Arab Islamic world have to identify the causes of the political, economic and ideological roots of terrorism. Once the conditions are candidly identified then steps can be taken to change them. This candid review is of Western foreign policy, imperialism and economic intervention knotted together with corrupt, repressive regimes in place in the Arab Islamic world. We must do our best to unravel the strands of this knot in order to understand the significance of the internal investigations presently taking place in the Arab Islamic world. In 2003 and later reports, Arab scholars took issue with their governments in the second Arab Human Development Report to the United Nations, alleging that corruption, lack of education, inadequate training, denial of freedom of speech and discrimination against women were further impoverishing the public and crippling development in Middle East states. The authors were eminent Arabic professors, authors, economists, diplomats and scientists and their voice is authoritative – and their strongly stated views are perhaps turning the tide.

In Iraq highly significant steps have been taken to cross the boundaries between Muslim sects and ethnic groups to shape the country's future - running against the tide of increasing sectarian violence and atrocities.   Shia and Sunni religious leaders created an anti-sectarian front known as the Muslim Scholars Committee, which has encouraged Muslims to unify, pray at one another's mosques and to be inclusive of other groups. The MSC brought in thirty secular groups and Christian organizations to participate in conferences against the US Occupation. Not events that attracted media attention in the United States.   Similarly, the resurfacing of the Iraqi Trade Union Association, which crosses similar boundaries of faith and ethnic identity, goes unheralded in the Western media. Furthermore, Sheik Jawad al-Khalisi, who comes from a long family line dedicated to removing occupying forces from Iraq, established the National Foundation Congress and included all groups in Iraq to work together for a peaceful end to the occupation. The Congress has a secretariat of twenty five members and seeks to be a bridge across Iraq's many divisions. It sees no benefit in institutions designed to implement American political and economic plans. At the same time it does not reject armed resistance but prefers peaceful politics, though that is now changing.

The resistance movement and the pan-Iraqi organizations share a common goal in bringing the occupation of Iraq to an end. America cannot liberate Iraqis – they have to do it themselves and the transformation of their nation will not look like American liberal democracy nor should anyone expect it to. Already, influential groups in Iraq are crossing cultural and religious divisions in the quest for a pragmatic, power sharing compromise that will be better than ceaseless violence. It must be in the hands of Iraqis to shape this and the outcome may well be more in line with the recommendations of the Arab scholars who delivered such a stinging rebuke to Arab Islamic states in their 2003 UN report. The lack of media coverage of these significant developments is not surprising, as all of these events severely discredit the notion that Iraqis cannot work collectively. Bernard Lewis assists our understanding by providing three provocative questions that are presently being voiced in the Middle East (2002: 152, 156, 159), though I am not necessarily in agreement with his conclusions. The questions serve, however, to illustrate that within the Arab Islamic world an intensive internal investigation along the lines of the Dharma detective has begun. The questions are:

1. "Who did this to us?"

2. "What have Muslims done to Islam?"

3. "How do we put it right?"

"Who did this to us?" A Eurocentric response to this question would ignore history and primarily focus on the perception of "blaming".   This outsider view is incorrect – a wrong perception that suits western interests and priorities rather than addressing the root causes that may well implicate western duplicity and imperial agendas. The outsider perspective, held by Lewis and other scholars, is that the blaming response by many Arab Muslims holds the Mongols during the mediaeval era and US foreign policy in the twenty first century responsible, with everything else in history in between. In addition the virulent anti-semitism in the Arab Islamic world stems, not surprisingly, from their universal outrage at the UN's creation of Israel in their midst in 1948.   And so Jews are blamed as being behind their current disasters, existing as a Trojan Horse for western imperialism just as the crusader states did so for mediaeval Europe.  

It is obvious that any possibility for understanding and compassion to emerge as a guiding force for reconciliation and construction of new relationships requires a radical step that many writers and spokespeople in the Middle East are taking. There are many intelligent and thoughtful commentators within the Arab Islamic world who seek to re-educate the region. Khaled Al Maeena, editor-in-chief of The Arab News wrote on April 18, 2003:

If there is to be progress in the Arab world, the intelligentsia must stop gazing at the past in the futile hope that it can solve problems of the present…we cannot go on blaming others for our own inadequacies.   We have to rise to the occasion.   Instead of constantly pointing our fingers elsewhere, we should take a long, hard look at ourselves and call what we see by its proper name.

Following the carnage of the Beslan massacre by Islamic militants in Russia in 2004, Arabic editors on television and in the pan Arabic newspaperAshaq Al-Awsatechoed the views of Abdul-Rahman al Rashad: "Our terrorist sons are an end product of our corrupted culture.   The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us." Mr. Rashad is the general manager of theAl-Arabiya television channel. These notions, which have proliferated throughout the Arabic press, were once unheard of in the Middle East, but now provoke a portion of the public to be more reflective about the causes of their suffering.

An insider perspective from the Arab Islamic world provides an assessment of history that only a few western observers would entertain.   In the West there are innumerable studies of endemic inner city violence that have identified a structural violence with no effective restraints to curb the explosive anger and aura of self-destruction that exists and burns without any regard for consequences (Barss 2007).   Surely these findings, now well understood in the West, can be extended to Palestinians living in refugee camps for fifty years, to Iraqis and other Middle East populations vanquished by British, French and now American imperialism in pursuit of their resources.   The two hundred year history in the region of British and French colonialism, oppression and resource control now finds an ominous corollary in the 2007 Oil Law passed by the US-backed Iraqi cabinet. This law provides multinational oil corporations (US controlled) with the opportunity to secure long term contracts, legal safeguards and protection – at least until the oil runs out. This 2007 law was shaped by US interests and thus provides the economic goal of the occupation of Iraq (outsider view), whereas most Iraqis regard it as a war crime (insider view). It also provides the pretext for the US to dig in for the long haul, that is - until the oil is finished.

"What have Muslims done to Islam?" I turn to a remarkable piece of writing by a Sufi mystic deeply concerned about the negative image of Islam in the modern world.   In his posthumously published book – Islam and World Peace (1987) – Bawa Muhaiyaddeen provides reflective insights on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed that are far removed from the fundamentalist rant of Osama bin Laden and militant imams. He establishes from the outset that jihad is a holy war to be fought internally against the evil qualities and base desires that rest in the hearts and minds of all humans (1987:47).

Allah's holy war is a good thing. It is a battle against all the enemies within. We must raise His weapons of love, compassion, comfort, patience and contentment…The weapons used in the outer battles are implements of destruction…they can only destroy. Allah's weapons never destroy (1987:86).

He points out that it was the task of the prophets to teach humankind how to wage holy war against the inner enemies. In terms that would be very familiar to Thich Nhat Hanh, Muhaiyddeen describes the steps towards peace as conquering hearts with love, compassion, equanimity and justice, by first of all doing the job within one's own heart. This latter aspect is the mark of a true believer (1987:29).

Muhaiyaddeen describes the Qur'an, revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, as a sacred text not to be taken literally. He encourages Muslims to search for the true meaning within the form by nurturing the qualities of a true believer in order to understand the knowledge within divinity contained in the Qur'an.   Meaning lives not in words but in deep understanding and taking that leap of going beyond into the heart (1987:107).   In this way the Qur'an guides the seeker to eliminate all degenerative qualities, which oppose the truth of God and show the way to inner purity. According to Muhaiyaddeen, there is no hatred in this holy text. "Divisiveness is not Islam, truth, compassion and unity are Islam" (1987:33). "To dispel evil qualities, evil thoughts and the differences that lead to separation is Islam" (1987:20). This requires the seeker to take steps to control and transform the anger, jealousy and vengeance that come from an agitated and afflicted mind.   Muhaiyaddeen identifies the true weapons of Islam as peace, love, daily prayers, compassion, wisdom and oneness with God. And in an echo of Buddhist sentiments, he states clearly that "Hatred cannot be overcome by hatred" (1987:64), but by applying the true weapons of Islam as a jihad within oneself.

What is not jihad are the wars undertaken for conquest, to gain resources, killing and vanquishing others. The current wars and terrorist killings are not the kind of war that true Islam wages.   Muhaiyaddeen decries the current plight of Islam as one of degradation, as many Muslims have presently lost the ability to discern the difference between God's Law and what is forbidden (1987:67). His book also contains a long letter written in February 1980 to world leaders in which he reiterates his understanding of Islam and correctly identifies Jerusalem as the crucible for world peace. When Palestinians and Israelis find the way to peace, then the rest of the world will follow suit. He speaks to all parties of this pernicious Middle East conflict marred by state terrorism and suicide bombers (1987:23):

Do not live divided. With compassion for each other, live in unity and truth, in the presence of God. Live according to justice and conscience, respecting the lives and bodies of all others as your own, and knowing the hunger and suffering of others as your own.

This remarkable testimony on the true nature of Islam is in radical contrast to the gross distortion of the Prophet Mohammed's teachings by fundamentalist, literal readings of the Qur'an, which do not explore beyond the surface words. It is alarming how revelations through an awakened mind can be so manipulated to control, discriminate and oppress. But that is the way of all religions that have been appropriated by conservative and fundamentalist hierarchies. Fundamentalist distortions of Islam can certainly recruit soldiers and suicide bombers anywhere for a conveniently defined jihad against Islam's perceived enemies. What is forgotten in the process is that jihad refers to an individual's engagement with his internal spiritual darkness. Fundamentalist Islam provides license for oppression through a superficial reading of the Qur'an, all in the name of a small god that has no resemblance to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. The teachings and revelations from the 6,666 verses of the Qur'an are in fact betrayed by fundamentalism, which is nothing other than a pernicious manifestation of the human ego concerned only with power, control and vengeance. The reality of spiritual depth is forgotten yet this is, according to Muhaiyaddeen, the true jihad. The Islamic tradition described by him encourages expansive insight and deep reflection, placing the pilgrim on a path of full understanding. Yet the hatred, spite, vengeance and martyrdom for virgins expressed by fundamentalist Islam signals only that, for many militant Muslims their deep study of the Qur'an has yet to begin. There is nothing noble in their fanaticism, which contradicts the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and provides a caricature of Islamic faith and action.

How different are the expressions of Islam from a Sufi's pen.   Muhaiyaddeen refers to the Qur'an as the mother of justice and faith, and that all attributes of this holy text lie dormant in the human heart. Once realized a person then has the words of God in his mouth, the Qur'an is her body, Allah the life expression (1987:135). Some final words (1987:138):

My brothers and sisters in Islam, if we offer peace, then justice will flourish. Love will cut away all enmity. Compassion will cause God's grace to grow in this world, and then the food of faith and the mercy of all the universes can be offered. When that food is given…everyone will have peace.

The question "What have Muslims done to Islam?" is a very deep one as it allows us to understand different ends of the spectrum of Islamic expression. It also reflects the ongoing tension between fundamentalists and reformers in modern Arab states. It leads to another question currently asked in the Middle East and to questions rarely asked in the West. Obvious questions such as "What have Jews done to Israel?" and "What has the Christian Right done to the USA?" But let me stay with the Arab Islamic world.

"How do we put it right?" Middle East newspapers such as Asharq al Awsat and Al Hayat certainly contain anger directed at the West but there is a clear sense that their Arab readership is growing tired of this (Khouri, 2003).   Reflecting this fast changing perspective these newspapers still criticize American led wars and foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East, but editorials now hone in fiercely against autocratic Arab regimes that have produced disastrous consequences for their citizens. R.G. Khouri, editor of The Daily Star (a Beirut newspaper published in Arabic) ran editorials that called for regime change in Iraq as well as an end to American occupation. His reporters registered with the accumulation of atrocity and disaster produced internally by modern Arab Islamic countries and editorial columns reflect a growing demand for even-handedness in reporting. Al Jazeera not only embarrasses Western governments with their reporting, they are a distinct thorn in the side of many regimes in the Middle East. A Palestinian writer, Abdul Hadi, writes (Fattah, 2003):

There is not going to be obedience to rulers as before.   This has been a lesson to every Arab region that they need to look to their people.

Amr Khaled is an Egyptian Muslim now based in Lebanon. He has popularized Islamic teachings as simple, compassionate and relevant in terms that Bawa Muhaiyaddeen would certainly have approved of. Via satellite TV and electronic media he appeals to the younger generation of Muslims growing up in the Middle East by directing them to take steps on an internal jihad, a reconnection to Allah through humility, awareness and charity.   He appeals strongly to this alienated and confused generation by occupying the middle ground between Islamic principles and the modern issues facing them. Amr Khaled directs their attention to oppression against women, lack of education and limited scientific training – all produced by what he views as a corrupted interpretation of Islam. Instead he encourages young Muslims to think in terms of personal responsibility about their spiritual and educational potential. This rings a clear bell with young Muslims – to use their minds, think and be innovative. This middle ground offers an alternative to fundamentalist rant as it rests on compassion and responsibility. In America, Judea Pearl the father of the murdered Daniel Pearl, sits on a theatre stage as a Jew and talks to a Muslim, Akbar Ahmed, a diplomat and scholar from Pakistan. They dialogue about bringing an end to hatred and dissect the substance of the issues that have turned the Middle East into a cauldron.   Their underlying view is that "Extremists everywhere can be beaten if moderates unite."

I agree with Thich Nhat Hanh (2005 24) that the military might of the US and its allies cannot stop terrorism, only understanding and compassion for self and other can provide safety. This is true as a generality, but specific intermediary steps are required to arrive at this position, particularly when the ideological infrastructures that create terrorism are still intact – Wahabbism in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ultra-extremist Deobandi interpretation of Islam in Pakistan. Turning the tide against terrorism will not be easy. Recent research by Wiktorowicz (2000) has brought to light a puritanical fringe within Islam known as "Salafistas," who draw their ideology from seventh century zealots who actually walked with the Prophet Mohammed. Al Qaeda is merely the most well known manifestation of this fringe cult. In the modern era this well organized, fundamentalist cult recruits destitute, alienated and incarcerated young Muslims and fashions them into an ideological and military weapon in the battle against the unbelievers. Traditional Islam, however, is finally starting to fight back against the inroads made upon their faith tradition. Jordan's King Abdullah brought leading Islamic clerics to Amman in 2005. The Amman Declaration of July 2005 was a communiqué titled "True Islam and its Role in the Modern World," and contained fatwahs against terrorism issued by the most powerful Islamic clerics, who included Sheik Al-Azhar from Cairo, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani from Najaf and Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi.   The latter cleric has a weekly broadcast on Al Jazeera and is the most widely known television preacher in the Muslim world (Ignatius 2005). There is a sense of urgency and determination from these Islamic leaders as they see Islam besieged by Salafist radicals and they are pushing back – hard. Indeed it is an ideological battle that they may well win, as the Salafistas are inspired and caught by a hodge-podge ideology drawn together by ignorant seventh century pilgrims. Perhaps young Muslims today may prefer the alternative of dignity with life in the twenty first century. The moderate response may yet make Islam an acceptable living dharma to young Muslims. (See November: The Small God Limited Dharma Syndrome.)

A moderate response from Muslims is the necessary prerequisite, as effective ideological restraint can only emerge from within Islam itself.   The Islamic extremist infrastructure is still intact not only in the Middle East and Pakistan, but in Europe where home grown recruits are components in Al Qaeda cells poised for further acts of terrorism. Madrid and London are simply the first "hits". The moderate response, however, has begun. Muslim clerics in Western countries and in many other nations have issued fatwahs condemning acts of terrorism. Yet they have to go much further and direct attention to the madrassa schools controlled by militant groups, prevent their mosques being used as recruitment centres and deny ideological support for terrorist activity. At the same time they must re-educate the young, alienated and disconnected Muslims in an interpretation of Islam that does not amplify the suffering taking place on the global stage. Fatwah versus Jihad is the new challenge for the 21st century and a potential turning point for Islam, as religious leaders attempt to return Islam to its authentic roots. The US led war against terrorism cannot be won by military means. It will be won by universal understanding and compassion accompanied by Islamic moderates and religious leaders dismantling the ideological and infrastructural support for a fundamentalist, militant Islam.

If we can stop and see deeply into the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East – we would observe that there are many elements open to a process of deep looking, deep listening and basic rethinking. What we are led to believe by our Western media is that there are only suicide bombers, Osama bin Ladens and dictators in the Middle East. We still do not count the costs of war in terms of orphans and widows, just the number of smart bombs used and the kill rate. The shared suffering of this ongoing reality is quickly overlooked.   Suicide bombers, however, are not the definitive metaphor of the Middle East mosaic. By looking deeply we arrive at some understanding of the causes and conditions of the current fractured relationship between the West and the Arab Islamic world. Furthermore we can recognize that there is hope, because there is wisdom and understanding in both worlds. We must be courageous and candid in this investigation to unravel the truth and move towards mindful resolutions of conflict and hatred. All that has been said in Talking to America about deep listening to internal suffering, dialogue with conflicting parties, formation of a Council of Sages – applies in full measure to the Arab Islamic world. The methodology of the dharma detective investigating great difficulty full of suffering also applies. This is a joint project that can be shared by America and Iraq, by the West and the Arab Islamic world. Herein lie the seeds of understanding and compassion that can transform the fractured relationships and heal them, enabling peace to become a reality. Most of all we must recognize our Western contribution to the impasse and the contribution engendered by the Arab Islamic world.


The Middle Finger Sutra       [2012]

Good intentions meet wrong perceptions creating disaster!

This teaching by the wise one was passed on by a lady in a bookstore.

"The other day I went into the local religious bookstore, where I saw a "Honk If You Love Jesus" bumper sticker. Although not a Christian I thought this was a great sentiment with respect to Global Religious Harmony. So I bought it and put it on the back bumper of my car, and I'm really glad I did that, as it brought forward a wonderful response from all kinds of people of many faiths and cultures. What an uplifting experience it was for all of us.

I was stopped at a light at a busy intersection, just lost in thought of the Divine and I did not notice that the light had changed. But that bumper sticker really worked as I found lots of people who loved Jesus. Why, the guy behind me started to honk like crazy. He must have really loved his Lord because pretty soon he leaned out his window and yelled "Jesus Christ" as loud as he could. It was like a football game with his shouting "Go Jesus Go." Everyone else started honking too, so I leaned out of my window and waved and smiled to all those loving people. There must have been a guy from Florida back there because I could hear him yelling something about a "sunny beach", and I saw him waving in a funny way with his middle finger stuck up in the air. I asked my two kids on the back seat what that meant, they giggled and said it was the Hawaiian good luck sign, so I leaned out the window and gave him the good luck sign back.

Several cars behind, a very nice large man stepped out of his car and yelled something I could not hear. It sounded something like "mother trucker." Maybe he was from Florida too. He must really love the Lord. A couple of people were so caught up in the joy that they got out of their cars and were walking towards me. I bet they wanted us all to meditate together, but then the light changed to yellow and I stepped on the gas. I was the only one to get across the intersection as everyone was meditating and waving their middle fingers. I leaned out of the window and gave them a big happy smile and held up the Hawaiian good luck sign and drove away. Praise the heavens for all those wonderful meditators."

The followers of the wise one immediately put the Middle Finger Sutra into practice at every intersection in the city.


Voluntary Simplicity       [2013]

The obstacles preventing people taking wise action with regard to Global Warming are a mixture of fear, despair, sheer laziness, disempowerment and a sense of hopelessness. "What on earth can I do to make a difference?" is a phrase muttered all over the world in countless languages. Followed by "So why should I do anything?" There is global awareness, but also fear about our future place on planet earth. This is understandable. The overwhelming terror of Gaia crashing down on us is unbearable. I recall many years ago when I was teaching meditation in India, hearing Sai Baba, the Indian sage, say that a transformation in human consciousness required at least 2% of the population to meditate on a daily basis. I have no idea what the knowledge source was for his pronouncement yet I do remember the "buzz" of energy in my body and mind when I heard it. I do not remember anything but that from the audience, yet have retained it as a distinct possibility, translating this wisdom into the 2% option. This is do-able and within our immediate grasp.

Just persuade 2% of the people we know to implement a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, reduce meat consumption, walk or cycle more, drive less, create an organic garden, plant a tree – but do it! Reduce our ecological footprint by conserving energy with one eco-friendly act every day, then global consciousness as a collective human phenomenon will change. Different questions will be asked and different solutions found, as a new mind-set of shared consciousness emerges to make the necessary decisions for change. Mass awakening does not mean that everyone "wakes" up. A critical mass of 2% will be satisfactory as a tipping point, the catalyst, to get things moving in the right direction.

The challenge is to be in society, but as a still island of mindfulness. Take small steps at first, then larger ones. The small steps are to realize that many cannot drop present lifestyles cold turkey, but we do not have to be caught by the fast pace of consumerist madness in terms of energy usage. We just need to make essential changes. Free up time – be television free for several evenings, write in a journal, meditate and sort the clutter of the mind. Voluntary Simplicity is a good starting place. It means being more aware of our consumerism, making deliberate choices about how we spend time and money rather than living on the automatic pilot of busyness. We support environmental causes with the excess clutter in the basement, always thinking about whether we really "need" to buy. Enjoy being simple and living true by shifting our perceptions just a little bit. Not a big deal really. Voluntary Simplicity makes life suddenly available in much larger compass. Let us all resolve to give Voluntary Simplicity a chance in our lives – look deeply into what we do with time, money, clutter and our choices. And change.   Then see whether the consequences are peace and happiness.

Where do we start? Of course we must think globally and be aware of the bigger picture and step beyond the smaller pictures of ourselves created from fear and disempowerment. Yet we can also act locally with great vigour in our families and communities. Our intentions then spread as ripples from a pebble dropped in still water. In addition to holding officials, politicians and corporate culture to account let us begin with the small things that all of us can do. While at the same time alerting the political and corporate decision makers that we do mean business as voters and consumers deeply concerned about the planet and our location on it. This is very important. Our leaders are a manifestation of our collective will. When the collective will changes, our leaders will act differently.


Cyberbullying in Schools and Teenage Suicide       [2014]

A young friend was seriously contemplating suicide after suffering from cyberbullying at school. His father had phoned me in alarm. I suggested that his son come and stay with my wife and I for a while to take the heat out of the situation. Over the phone with my young friend I taught him a simple meditation about being a tall tree. The analogy I used was that of a storm of strong winds coming up shaking tree tops and breaking branches, while the bottom of the tree trunk stays solid. So when something arose like a strong wind to hurt him, to think of these forces as damaging the tall branches. But if he placed his hands on his tummy and breathed deeply in and out to the steady trunk for ten breaths, then his distress would slowly calm down.

I consulted with savvy school councillors across the country. I learned that cyberbullying was now an everyday reality for teenagers in schools and that a whole generation of school children had grown up with it. Most adults and teachers were as ignorant as I about the intensity of hate and cruelty crashing through the virtual world of cell phones, twitter, chat rooms and email. Cyberbullying had become an everyday mosaic in the life of teens.

This prompted me to think deeply about what Buddhist practices would be useful to calm the troubled minds of teens so they could resist cyberbullying and prevent being pulled into self- hurt. I talked to my young friend about foundation practices I used every day and how they might help to calm his mind when he was troubled. He really got the Two Arrows Teaching from the Buddha. In a nutshell this teaching is about a person suddenly hit by an arrow fired by a hidden and unknown attacker. The pain was terrible. Then a second arrow was fired into the same spot and the pain and suffering became unbearable. I asked him if he knew who fired the second arrow. He slowly nodded his head and said: "That would be me. All my fears and insecurities would come up to inflame the hurt of the first arrow." The point of the teaching was to assist him and me to come to a STOP, to calm the mind and body. Then find a way to NOT fire the second arrow into a trigger that had hurt us. Buddhism was not such a drag after all.

My wife and I had picked him up from the airport in Ottawa and made him completely at home. My wife fed him with mounds of food. It seemed that he emptied the fridge at least twice a day. He could sleep in as long as he needed to and rest. On occasions he would join me in the meditation hall in the basement of our home. He was curious, so I taught him how to make good friends with his breath, concentrating on the whole length of the in-breath and the whole length of the out-breath. That if he would do that ten times without distraction he would feel calm. He also joined in when I did walking meditation. Here the breath was co-ordinated with each footstep and a simple mantra to follow each breath.

IN - OUT, with left foot and right foot.

NOW – WOW! With left foot and right foot.

I added the final concentration of being aware of how our feet touch the floor-Heel: Ball of Foot: Toe-so he could align himself with Earth Energies, and bring the strong earth energy already inside his mind to come to the surface. He got it that this energy was stronger than his troubled feelings and emotions.

He told me about three boys who bullied him at school. He also felt that they were behind the cyberbullying, though he had no proof. Also, that neither of his parents really listened to him. I listened quietly until he finished talking. Then I picked up the telephone and found the number of his school and talked to his vice-principal for a while. She was very open and supportive and had already taken steps to separate the three bullies, keeping two in detention during every recess. I also telephoned his parents and reminded them about deep listening, which they promised to put into practice with their troubled son. This boy had listened to the phone calls and was amazed at the support for him that was being galvanized right before his eyes.

I managed to convince him that his feelings and emotions were not fixed. They are self-created in his mind by triggers. The trick, I told him, is to notice when we are getting stuck on one or two heavy emotions. Then we ask ourselves: "Do I want to go there, knowing what it will lead to?" He totally understood that he was letting one or two strong emotions get him down, when he had so many others to choose from. I repeatedly emphasized that with this kind of awareness we can begin to stop the process of causing harm to ourselves. His understanding was that triggers such as cyberbullying were a spark. He could either stamp it out or create a raging forest fire. He had turned the Two Arrows teaching into a personal tool and clearly understood the difference between responding rather than reacting. He was a smart teen.

I introduced him to parts of the Buddha's teachings about the mindful use of the breath. The focus was on calming his feelings, emotions and mind. I asked him to write down the main feelings and emotions that drove him to think about suicide. There were three. Then I asked him to write down all the other feelings inside him. He took his time and wrote down thirty. Then I showed him the two figures, three versus thirty. He nodded his head and remarked "I get it. It’s an absurd decision." He understood that the particular emotion that is overwhelming him is just one emotion in his vast ocean of consciousness. This insight undermines the predisposition to be totally crushed by one or two emotions, as there are so many positive emotions we can play with.

Nothing survives in our mind without our allowing the flow of nutriments to feed whatever occupies our mind. So he learned to investigate the nutriments that fed harmful notions in his mind, seeing them as an energy that requires serious surgery. We can immediately reduce their potency for harm. We first of all recognize the triggers that kept the affliction in our mind alive. Then we choose to cease feeding the harmful mental formations by cutting off the nutriments that fuels them with energy. We stop feeding our demons. These practices to calm troubled teenage minds are derived from the teachings of the Buddha. They are tried, tested and true, totally relevant to 21st intelligent to refer to them as Mindfulness Practices, which complement the efforts of all levels of government, from City Hall to the Federal Government. There are many school boards with apps for anti-cyberbullying, dedicated educators and concerned parents offering their skills to deal with the spectre of cyberbullying.

From the experience with my young friend I highlight key factors, though do not claim they are a recipe for all situations of potential suicide by teenagers in schools. The causes are complex and each situation has to be dealt with uniquely. Nor do I think it is always possible for the components of the adventure with my young friend to be replicated. This young man had a prior exposure to Buddhist practice that helped him to be open to methods of breathing and walking that a street kid may find somewhat alien. Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon for our times, scarcely twenty years old. It coincided with the ramification of cell phones, chat rooms, ipads and the internet. This created an ecosystem of interruption technologies that many teens have become addicted to. In less than a generation the world has been fundamentally changed and we have yet to catch up with its consequences. Governments, school boards, parents and councillors are scrambling to deal with it. Parenting skills and legal restraints have to adapt radically in order to protect our young children.

Having this youngster leave a troubled environment was a great start. Consulting with his parents about his home situation was crucial. Surrounding him with love, attention and deep listening was a vital key. Teaching him how to be calm, in control of his feelings, and taking back his power through the teachings was an effective strategy. It worked well, as he has grown into a mature, thoughtful and caring young man. He was prepared to notice the behavior of cruel distractions that devastated him and then take steps to try something different. I pray that other teens suffering from cyberbullying will be so open.

Dr. Prattis presented this talk at Vesak Day, May 4, 2014 at Ottawa City Hall in Jean Pigott Place at 2.30pm.

Ian is the Zen teacher at the Pine Gate Mindfulness Community in Ottawa since 1997. He has given talks and retreats all over the world. He now stays local with Friends for Peace Canada to help turn the tide just a little in his home city so that good things begin to happen spontaneously.