Book Review: Breath by Breath

Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg is one of the better books on meditation I’ve read. It’s a terrific introduction by the founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts.breahtbybreath

The problem with most of the stuff I read on the topic is it’s either inaccessibly technical / arcane, or too new-agey and lacking in substance. Breath by Breath strikes a good balance: it seems faithful to some of the key ideas expressed by the Buddha in the original Pali language while at the same time expressing in clear English how a meditation practice functions in modern life. There are also specific instructions and tips for those looking to strengthen their practice.

The emphasis on breath continues to be the most practical aspect of my practice. I have a very subtle perception of my breath and this allows me to return to the present moment more easily.

Some other random points from the book, among many:

  • The idea is to go from “doggy mind” to a “lion mind,” in which there is deep steadiness.
  • People often take up meditation because they want to achieve or gain something; the paradox in the practice is that the best way to get “there” to be fully present “here.”
  • The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing.
  • Buddhism isn’t about beliefs. It’s about firsthand knowledge.

Thanks to Amy and Brad Feld for letting me “steal” this book from them.

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The always-interesting Robert Wright interviews Shinzen Young on Bloggingheads.tv about meditation. It’s worth watching for insights from one of the more prominent American experts on meditation. Shinzen says that when he thinks about meditation, he doesn’t call to mind the common image of someone sitting quietly in a darkened room. Rather, he thinks of someone in a gym, doing cardio, pumping weights, and making a lasting effect of the physical structure of his body. Certain formal exercises increase flexibility; others increase endurance; others build muscle strength.

“My Last Days”

This is a really touching 20 minute video about how Zach Sobiech, a 17 year old diagnosed with bone cancer, chose to spend his final months. Inspirational.

It reminded me of the Enjoy Every Sandwich book trailer.

Awe, An On-Going Series

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My interest in “awe” as a primary human emotion continues, so I took note of these paragraphs pop up in Jon Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a set of lectures on nature that formed the foundation of American Transcendentalism, a movement that rejected the analytic hyperintellectualism of America’s top universities. Emerson argued that the deepest truths must be known by intuition, not reason, and that experiences of awe in nature were among the best ways to trigger such intuitions. He described the rejuvenation and joy he gained from looking at the stars, or at a vista of rolling farmland, or from a simple walk in the woods

Emerson and Darwin each found in nature a portal between the realm of the profane and the realm of the sacred….The emotion of awe is most often trigged when we face situations with two features: vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilated into our existing mental structures; we must “accommodate” the experience by changing those structures). Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy. People describe nature in spiritual terms — as both Emerson and Darwin did — precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole.

Where are the best star gazing opportunities in the Bay Area?

3 Day Silent Meditation Course

Over the weekend, I completed a 3 day Vipassana silent meditation course.

Here are my other posts on my meditation practice as background:

Having already written about meditation generally and Goenka courses specifically in my other posts, I’ll keep these thoughts limited to the most recent 3 day:

  • Recharge. Think of a structured meditation course as a battery charge, and the charge weakens with every passing day you’re back in the chaotic day to day world. Returning to retreat every so often recharges the battery that keeps you on a daily practice.
  • Old students, only. A 3 day Goenka retreat is only open to people who’ve done at least one 10 day course. Many people say they want to dip their toes in the water with a 3 day, but the Goenka tradition says that that’s not enough time to give a fair trial to the technique. You have to start in the deep end of the pool. Agreed.
  • Still hard. Despite the 3 day being made up of experienced students only, it was still hard for everyone. Several people told me they thought about leaving mid-way. I certainly wondered what the heck I was doing with myself after the n-th hour of lying on my bed staring up at the blank ceiling, with nothing to read or write, no one to talk to. During the sits, the physical pain, while less than the first time, remained.
  • Follow-on versus first time. A couple people have asked whether there are diminishing returns in terms of benefit with a follow-on course. As with everything, there’s nothing like the first time. That first 10 day will always stand apart. But in this follow on course, I actually got more out of every hour of meditating. I knew exactly what the setup was, I knew how I was going to physically sit (it took me 3-5 days last time to figure it out), I had the rules and regulations down. I could focus exclusively on the actual meditation instead of figuring out how to meditate. This is a mark in favor of doing a follow on course.
  • Fasting. In addition to the silence and structured meditation, it’s basically a fasting exercise as well. Get up at 4 AM, meditate, eat at 6:30 AM, rest, meditate, eat at 11 AM, rest, meditate, rest, meditate, etc. until 9 PM. Then go to bed. Net: no food after 11:30 AM. Surviving this was a confidence boost: if I ever need to go a long time with no food, I can do it.
  • Experts return to the basics. I really enjoyed spending a full day this time exclusively focused on breath (and not Vipassana body scans). I spent 15 hours trying to think only about the area below my nostril and above the upper lip, and how my respiration hits that area of my body. Breath is at the heart of any meditation practice. I walked away from the 3 day with a better command of my respiration.
  • Organized religion. The audio discourses from Goenka in the 3 day were much more proactively secular. He said over and over again that Vipassana is not organized religion. That there are no dogma, no blind faith, no belief in higher power, no rites, no rituals. Simply observe what’s happening on the experiential level. Feel what’s happening in reality, and draw conclusions from that. I love this about the practice. And I think it explains this practice’s popularity and universality. For me, I’m so allergic to anything that smells conventionally religious (for myself — I’m pro organized religion in general as a force in the world), that even Zen meditation practices are hard to stomach — the bowing, chanting, the “priests.” At Goenka’s centers, you meditate in a “hall,” you wear whatever you want (sweatpants were common at the 3 day), there is no church hierarchy whatsoever. On top of that, the fact that it’s totally donation based removes the money aspect from the equation, which is a common corrupting force in organized religion.
  • Big picture uncertainty: I’m not sure how I feel about the ultimate Vipassana goal of ridding your mind of impurities at the deepest level via the observation of impermanent physical sensations–on the grounds that, by observing the impermanence of the physical sensations, you come to realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative sensation, and therefore you realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative thought that causes the sensation. The logic tree breaks down a bit. I also have some continued qualms about the passionless, detached life this approach might lead to.
  • Big picture positive: I may aim for the more “surface” goals of a clear mind, increased mindfulness, an intentionally detached stance to many emotions, a subtler understanding of my breath, a subtler understanding of physical sensations, and a stronger control of which thoughts I surface to conscious attention and when. Of course, those are not at all easy things to pick up, and are “surface” only in comparison to how Goenka describes his Vipassana objectives. Indeed, apart from any comparison, I believe these skills themselves can be transformative. I can already feel them transforming my life.

Overall: highly recommended.

“Sadness is a Lucky Thing to Feel”

Over the past couple years, I’ve become a huge Louis C.K. fan. I’m almost done with Season 2 of his show Louie, which is amazing. 20 minute episodes packed with comedy and real insight.

In his recent Rolling Stone interview (paywall), he says this:

I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anybody else. I just don’t mind the sad part as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I’ve always felt that way. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, there’s so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.

Agreed. Observing how you feel, not judging it or immediately trying to change it, is a powerful habit to develop. It’s the lynchpin of the Vipassana meditation I practice.

“Negative” emotions like sadness can deepen you. Suffering deepens you. These feelings can be instructive. They can inspire empathy. They can be darkly hilarious. And ultimately, they’re impermanent. As Goenka says, all sensations arise, pass away. Arise, pass away.

Wise people seem to know this: when bad shit happens to you, experience it. Don’t run from it. Don’t run from grief or pain or suffering. Accept it. Observe it. And then observe it leave your body, over time.

My 2007 post Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth? covers this theme, and the comments there are excellent. In the five years since, I’m still not sure whether joy really stretches and deepens you. But I am as convinced as ever that sadness does.

“When have you felt really sad?” is an interesting question to ask someone.