What do we do now?

When my brother started his fight with cancer, he and his wife gave everyone in the family a cancer awareness bracelet. I held on to mine for a long time, but did not wear it regularly. Looking back now, I’m not sure why I avoided it. Perhaps it had made me feel self-conscious. The idea did make me feel guilty, in a way, like I was attracting attention to myself, when it was my brother and his family who were truly suffering. For some time, the bracelets laid unused on a counter in our home.

One photo I have of the bracelet, from back in April of 2022. Our cat, Momo, tends to need attention, especially during zazen, and jumped into this photo.

That changed at some point, though I don’t remember the exact moment. We live several hours from my brother and his family’s home, and in that time, I visited them as often as I could. Spending time with him and the rest of our family, and staying with him and my sister-in-law when they had to stay overnight in a hospital in Chicago for a clinical trial. I think it was on one of these trips, after seeing him struggle and seeing all of the ways that his family needed support, that I started wearing my bracelet. Especially because we live in another state, the bracelet became very important to me. It was a way to show my support, certainly. But, it also became an important reminder for me.

Each night, I would take the bracelet off, and wrap it around my glasses. In the morning, I would place it back on my wrist. This little ritual, which ended and started each day, became a call to be mindful. And, it helped me to bring my thoughts back to him each and every day. Over time, I found that I appreciated having this bracelet with me. I was grateful for it, in a deep and sometimes painful way. On days when I knew my brother was suffering, I could feel the weight of that thin silicone band. On those days, it felt like it was made of lead.

After my brother died, we were left with our grief but also with many questions. Some were the ones you’d expect, the profound why of it all. And of course, answering those questions is the work of a lifetime. But, other, more immediate questions arose that demanded concrete answers. Would he have preferred to be buried or cremated? Would he have wanted people to dress casually for his funeral service? What music would he have chosen?

For many of these small, but important, questions, we found that we were not sure of the answers. These were the kinds of questions that he had often avoided when people would bring them up. I can’t blame him for that. None of us wanted to accept that time was short. We hoped for so long that he might find some treatment that worked well for his cancer. We hoped that there might be time to deal with these questions later, but in the end, the opportunity slipped past us. And so, now we found ourselves fumbling, trying to feel our way forward, and wishing that we knew what he would want if we could just ask him.

In the moment, I think that we all did the best that we could. In this life, we always have to balance responding to the moment that we actually find ourselves in, while we also try to look out and ahead, to guide ourselves skillfully as the next moment comes. Like making our way down a river, we will pass through challenging times, turbulent, treacherous waters. Our attention shifts to navigating this moment skillfully, dealing with what is right in front of us. As we move beyond, into calmer waters, we can shift this balance and start to look out and ahead again. In the middle of it all, we brought our attention to being with him through his illness. We bent all of our energy to navigating his illness. This let us be present with him, and allowed him to spend his last days in the care of his family.

I do wish we had talked over some of those details, and that he had confided in his wife or someone about what he wanted. I think he just didn’t want to talk about the fact that there was an end somewhere in the future. But, as we were doing this work, preparing for the service, I realized that I was in a similar position. I, too, had been avoiding planning for the future. Avoiding thoughts about what lay beyond.

At this point, I was still wearing my bracelet. It was still a comfort to me. But now the thought came to me, how long was I going to continue wearing it? Forever? When I put it, when I had started this ritual, I never really had a plan for how long I’d wear it. Perhaps I thought I would wear forever, for the rest of my life. And, that would be fine, but I don’t think that I had a clear intention to do so from the beginning. Now, I had to take stock, and decide what would make the most sense for me, and help me honor his memory.

And so, I decided that I would stop wearing the bracelet after his memorial service. When I woke up the next morning, I took it off of my glasses, and left it on my bedside table. It is still there, still a call to remember, but not one that I take out into the world every day.

Back at home, after the service, I went out for a run. I was grateful for the chance to get out and moving. The bracelet was at home, still on that table in our bedroom. I noticed though, that I could still feel it, like it was still with me. Not quite a hallucination, but the weight of the bracelet was there, it was something I could feel. It had left a mark, in a way.

A few months have passed since the memorial service, and I have kept that bracelet next to our bed. I have continued my ritual, putting the bracelet around my glasses every evening, and taking it off every morning, to help me remember him each day. I have also worn it a few times, once when one month had passed, and again when two months had passed. And another time on a random evening when I home alone in our empty house, and the weight of memory seemed heavy.

It is still heavy. But, it is also a comfort to me, and I will remain ever grateful for it.

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Ethics Science

Changing how we choose

It feels today that public debates (or rather arguments) have greatly intensified, over reproductive rights (especially abortion), racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights (and especially for trans persons). At the heart, these conversations are grounded in morality what are we free to do, and how should we treat one another? What do we owe to one another?

As we see how polarized these struggles have become, it is easy to be discouraged, and feel that there is no way for us to agree on these basic, and important, questions. We might start to feel that there is no “right” way to do morality.

Looking out from this particular moment, we can see that so many behaviors have been moralized in one way or another. What is condemned in one time and place may be ignored, or even praised, in another. While we can identify some common principles across time and cultures (a respect for fairness, for instance), it has seemed to me that we could not establish that one particular moral system is good, or better than another.

And, as a scientist, I have also felt that morality is really outside of the reach of the scientific method. I often tell my students that in science, and psychology is no exception, our focus is on problems that we can approach empirically – questions that we can answer by making careful measurements in the world, using methods that exist today.

In classes, I often give them an example of a problem that is beyond the reach of science, such as “What is the meaning of life?” This is an important question, perhaps the most important one that any person will grapple with. And, the ways that we answer this question can shape the entire course of our lives.

But, as a psychologist, I cannot answer this question – there are no measurements I could make that would firmly establish the “true” meaning of life. I can ask other questions: how do people develop their sense of meaning in their lives? How do different systems (religious, agnostic, atheistic, etc.) impact people’s well-being, or their behaviors? How do important life events impact our beliefs about the meaning of life? The list of interesting questions that we can address is enormous.

But, I don’t think that I can answer that first question: What is the meaning of life? The question itself stands outside of psychology, and science.

And, in my conversations with my students, I have always included morality along with those other questions that are outside of science. Why do people help one another? Why do we judge, or hurt others? Certainly, these are the kinds of questions about morality that science has looked at closely. And, we have learned a great deal through their study. But, the fundamental questions: what is right, and what is wrong? – these are not questions that we can address through empirical means.

Photograph of the book Changing How We Choose by David Redish

Or, at least I thought so, until I read a new book, Changing How We Choose, by David Redish1. Dr. Redish is a neuroscientist whose work has focused in recent years on decision-making, and understanding how the brain allows us to choose the best actions for each situation. And, how those decisions can go awry (think of addiction, for instance). For anyone interested in learning more about the neuroscience of decision-making, and how decisions can go “wrong,” I would highly recommend his earlier book, The Mind within the Brain.

In his new book, Redish makes the case that across all of our various moral systems, we can see not only human universals in morality (reaching towards fairness, loyalty, avoiding harm, etc.), but that we can identify a goal towards which any moral system is striving.

The key, in Redish’s argument, is that morality is a set of tools, or a social technology, so to speak, that allows humans to cooperate with one another. In this framework, morality creates and maintains the conditions in which humans can work together and cooperate. At the very core, morality imbues cooperation with value, and supports cooperative behaviors while restraining selfish behaviors.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

In building his case for cooperation as the key concern of morality, one Redish’s key frames comes from game theory. Game theory focuses on the mathematics of situations where people are in competition with one another, and where the best choice that you can make as an individual depends on what other people do. One classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma, which considers a case where two people are suspected of a crime. I personally like this version, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only a few months. If both confess, they will each be jailed 15 years”  


Imagine that we have two people, Emma and Miguel, who are suspected to have committed a serious crime. If both of them do not confess, they will spend three months in prison, and otherwise the penalties will be the same as those in the case above. We can then represent the possible outcomes with a table:

Based on this way of looking at the problem, we can consider what Miguel and Emma should do, if they want to avoid spending time in prison. But, while we will consider this situation amorally (without worrying about what they should do in a moral sense), I do want to acknowledge that it feels wrong to treat serious crimes as games – if Emma and Miguel are guilty of a serious crime, we would generally hold that they should confess, right?

If we do approach this situation just from the self-interest of Emma and Miguel, it is clear from the table above that the best choice for Emma and Miguel is to remain silent. In this case, they only spend a few months in prison. And, if they can work together, this might be a feasible “strategy.” But, the prisoner’s dilemma includes a wrinkle: Emma and Miguel each must make their decision alone:

“[The suspects] cannot communicate with one another. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, it is in the self-interest of each to confess himself. Paradoxically, when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off than they would have been had they acted otherwise”


This is an important point: if Miguel and Emma each do not know what the other chooses, and they are only in this situation one time, then the best strategy for them as individuals is different from the best strategy for them as a group.

Take Emma, for example, as she considers her options: if Miguel were to confess, then her best option is to confess as well (spending 5 less years in prison). And, if Miguel were to remain silent, her best option is still to confess (and spend no time at all in prison).

Apart from our moral concerns about responsibility for our actions (if a person really did commit a serious crime), this kind of analysis can feel unsettling – as if we are endorsing cold, selfish behavior.

The Assurance Game

A fundamental part of Redish’s argument is that for humans, most of our interactions are not competitive in ways that match the prisoner’s dilemma. Or, at least, they do not have to be competitive in this way.

In many cases, if humans can cooperate effectively, then the group of cooperating people is more successful than each person could be individually. To illustrate this, he uses the assurance game. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, the assurance game is a case where we will all be better off if we work together. But, in the assurance game, you can decide not to cooperate without suffering the kinds of risks (of loss, or punishment) that happen in the prisoner’s dilemma. Redish uses an example that was introduced by Rousseau in his work, A Discourse on Inequality, where Rousseau considers hunters working together to take down a deer:

“If it was a matter of hunting a deer, everyone well realized that he must remain faithful to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in pursuit of it without scruple.”


While today, hunting deer is usually an individual activity, it was not always so. So, we can imagine two people, Maria and Liam, who have a chance to work together to hunt for deer (without all of the benefits of modern hunting equipment). In this case, we can say that they will be more likely to succeed if they work together than if they hunt for a deer separately. If they were to hunt for rabbits alone, they are more likely to be successful, but also will get less food. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, we can represent the potential outcomes as a table, like this:

I personally do not have a great deal of experience with game theory, and for a time, the important difference between the assurance game and the prisoner’s dilemma escaped me. But, Redish points out that the key is that the assurance game rewards cooperation, without also rewarding people who act only in their self-interest.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, if Emma cannot communicate with Miguel, and has no idea what he will choose, her best choice may be to confess. And, the same is true for Miguel.

In the assurance game, Maria is better off hunting rabbits if Liam decides to hunt rabbits. But, she is not better off if Liam will hunt for deer with her. In fact, she is much worse off, because the benefit from a deer is much greater than that of a rabbit.

It is an oversimplification of Redish’s argument, and of the research fields that he draws on, but a key insight is that for humans who can live and cooperate together, in many cases the benefits of cooperation (to the individuals participating in that society) are much greater than a person could earn if they lived entirely on their own (if that was even possible). And, Redish sees that morality is focused on creating the conditions where more and more of our interactions are actually assurance games (where cooperation is nurtured).

“… what humans call morality is a set of mechanisms that help us turn our interactions into an assurance game and to find our way into the cooperate-cooperate corner of that assurance game, where we can reap the benefits of its non-zero-sum nature and make things better for all of us, both as a community and as individuals. Fundamentally, humans have evolved to work together. Morality is a set of tools that make us better team players”

(Redish, p. 265)

Redish presents morality as a set of tools, a kind of technology, that helps humans create and succeed in assurance games. The tools of morality are built out of our social interactions, but they also depend on a set of systems in the brain. Redish points to emotions such as shame and guilt. Guilt is commonly felt when a person realizes that they have violated a norm or rule for their community, while shame often comes when that violation is known by the community. “Guilt is a recognition of the offense, but shame is the recognition that one is part of a team and has let the team down.” (Redish, p. 64).

We might very well worry that in some times and places, shame and guilt are overused to restrict the behavior of some people in a society. But, would a society be better (work better) if every person had no ability to feel any guilt or shame?

I would guess not. But, this does not mean that guilt and shame are necessarily appropriate. We can consider how these emotions are used with any moral system, and ask if they are aligned with the goals of supporting cooperation. If we find they are being used oppressively, to restrict one group’s behavior or opportunities, then it does become possible to judge that moral system as less effective than it could be.

What does it mean for our Zen practice?

As we think of the implications of this work, I think that any religious person should consider how these arguments impact their own religious practice. As a Zen practitioner, I feel that it is important to think carefully about how we apply these lessons of the science of morality.

One part that I appreciate in Redish’s proposal for a scientific study of morality is how well it overlaps with the ways morality is understood in Buddhism and Zen. For example, in his commentary on Dogen’s Shishobo, Shohaku Okumura writes:

“Bodhisattva practice is not the way of self-sacrifice. The goal of our practice is to find a way we and other beings can live together without causing suffering to each other. This is the middle way between pursuing only one’s own interests and sacrificing oneself.”

(Okumura, p. 12)

And, while I appreciate the overlap between Redish’s proposal for a scientific understanding of morality, I don’t think that this view will replace our religious or spiritual frameworks. Redish has an interesting chapter on religion, in which he sees morality as the core of religion, writing:

“… quite literally, religion is about morality. It defines groups through shared beliefs, shared rituals, and shared sacrifice. It defines structures within those rules so that everyone has a part to play. It embodies rules that limit intragroup conflict.”

(Redish, p. 238)

I certainly won’t argue that religions (even Buddhism) are not concerned with morality. And, they do includes these elements that he describes. But, fundamentally, from the perspective of our lived experience, religion is not about morality. Or, at least is should not fundamentally be about morality. It should be about the “why” of it. Why do we exist, and what is the meaning of it all?

Religions, and other systems of belief, answer that question in different ways. Specific moral systems can follow from those answers. But, morality is not at the core of religion. A science of morality may be very useful as we consider the strengths and weaknesses of our moral systems. It may give us easier ways to have conversations across traditions and cultures with very different moral systems. But, it will not, or should not, supplant those traditions.

For comparison, consider the science of nutrition, in which I can see many parallels to the argument that Redish advances. Nutrition, as a science, focuses on the ways that our diet supports our bodies. Not every diet (in the sense of what we eat, rather than in the sense of restricting what we eat) is equally beneficial for our health.

And, we can see the traditional cuisines of a culture as a set of tools that support the nutrition of its people. Just as with morality, there is likely no single “correct” way to eat – there is no such thing as the one and only perfect nutrition. But, we can judge different patterns of eating against the effects of those diets on health. And, there are certainly failures when it comes to nutrition.

For example, once when I was a teenager, I spent about a week at a camp that was held on a military base in Ohio. Meals were available in the mess hall, but generally required getting up early, and this was a serious obstacle to me at that time. So, I had come prepared for the week with a large stash of Pop Tarts. And, for at least two full days, I do not think I consumed anything except Pop Tarts, water, and probably many soft drinks. I’m not sure how well I could tolerate that diet today, but even then, I do remember feeling very ill one night. It was quite some time before I ate another Pop Tart.

Like morality, there may not be a single, perfect cuisine to support nutrition. And, there certainly ones that we can identify as bad, like much of the highly processed foods that flood our stores and fight for our attention today.

But also, eating is not about nutrition. Not from our own position, the one that we actually live. To eat for nutrition is to let your cuisine die. Eating is moment of deep connection, a humbling acknowledgement of our interconnection to the entire world. Meals are also very social, a time when we come together in community. To reduce cuisine to nutrition – at the level of our own motivation – is a terrible mistake. The same is true, I think, for morality. The science of morality may give us new insights into the core, or most fundamental parts, of our ethical systems. It may help us also recognize what parts are superfluous, what we can discard. Maybe.

“We all do better when we all do better.”

Paul Wellstone

Redish opens his book with this quote by the late Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, who died tragically in a plane crash when I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Senator Wellstone was a wonderful example of the kind of person that we would all be better for emulating. Buddhism and Redish’s science of morality would agree on that point, and I hope that the conversations that this new book stimulates will help us all work together to reach for this goal. We will all be better if we do.

1Full disclosure! Dr. David Redish was my graduate adviser for my Ph.D., and a colleague and friend today.

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Works cited

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, December 23). Prisoner’s dilemmaEncyclopedia Britannica.

Okumura, S. (2005, September). “The 28th Chapter of Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta-Shishobo The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions – Lecture 5” Dharma Eye, 16. 

Redish, A. D. (2022). Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Rousseau J.-J. & Cranston M. (1984). A Discourse on Inequality. Penguin Books.

Science Zen

Talking science with Simplicity Zen

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about science and Zen with Berry Crawford, for his Simplicity Zen podcast. I have enjoyed Berry’s conversations with Zen practitioners, and I was delighted to talk about my own experience with Zen, and about our shared interest in science. The full interview is below, and you can also find Simplicity Zen wherever you get your podcasts:

Simplicity Zen – YouTube

I hope that you enjoy the interview, and after reflecting on our conversation, I would just add a couple of points. As I’ve worked on this blog to express my own understanding of science and Zen, I feel that there are a couple of points that have been important for my own practice.

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The first is that for me, personally, it is important that the various ways that I understand (and make sense of) the world are not in conflict. As an overly simplistic example, I would personally struggle to hold on one hand a system of beliefs that claimed the Earth was flat, or that our planet was only a few thousand years old, and then on the other hand to also accept findings from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology. The incongruence, the fundamental incompatibility, between these systems is too much for me.

So, some of my own reflections about science and Zen are about how I have probed and poked at my own understanding. I’ve been working to take a careful look at their basic compatibility, and for how I would express teachings from Zen using my own knowledge of science, and especially in the areas of neuroscience and psychology. This has been a useful exercise for me, and helped me deepen my own practice.

The second point, which I also think is very important, is that I see science as only one way (out of a great many) that we can make sense of the reality we find ourselves in. Like other belief systems, science helps explain the world, and to help us to act effectively in that world. Beyond science, there certainly are other systems for explaining the world and how it works, and people can live well, and humanely, with very little appreciation for science as a discipline. And, at least when it comes to questions of ethics and morality, I am not very concerned about whether or not people believe in science. I care about how people live.

And, if people can believe that the world is flat, or that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and they also live their lives in a way that is kind? If so, then the specifics of their beliefs don’t matter to me. At least not in this area. In other areas, it may matter quite a bit. For instance, if you want to become a pilot, or a geologist, or work in any number of careers, then science and the knowledge it has generated will be critical to your success.

My own personal commitment to science comes from the power of the approach: when we live up to our ideals, as scientists, we can see very far into the workings of the world, and can use that information to improve the lives of all beings.

However, in the deepest sense, every system we use (science included) to understand reality will always be limited, as I reflected on in an earlier post. We create a set of concepts, or labels, that we use to pin reality down and make sense of it. I see myself as one thing, and you as another. I see my home, and all of the structures that make it up. I see how problems can arise in my body, or in the function of my home, and I look for potential solutions. Those systems are very useful to us – it is hard to imagine how we could function in the world without them. In the end though, what we treat as fixed things – me, you, a house – are dynamic, ever-changing. Our bodies are constantly in flux, and we are truly more patterns than things.

In our practice, can drop these systems? Can we let them soften, dissolve, even for a moment? That is the challenge for me: to see how not only how I understand Zen teachings within the framework of science, but also how to set down that framework, to put it aside.

Meditation Practice Zen

Do we really want to meditate?

Image credit: “Forest Trail” – GlacierNPS, flickr

The winter issue of Midwest Zen was published this week, and I have a short piece (“Do we really want to sit?“), about my own struggles with patience. I see this in many parts of my life, but in this essay I focused on two places: sitting meditation and running.

At times, I’ll find that that an activity like running is something that I experience negatively, as something uncomfortable. In those moments, I’ll either stop (and turn to another activity), or push through – forcing myself to continue. As part of my practice, I’ve tried to slow down, and to question the source of my impatience:

“I’ve asked myself, why do I have to force myself to run? And underneath that question I see an assumption that I have made, without even noticing it: that running is not enjoyable. At some level, I find running to be aversive, or a kind of chore. And so, I have to push myself to continue. Some days, perhaps this attitude is justified: I really am tired, and running is a struggle. But more often, this feeling arises for no specific reason. It is more of a habit, of approaching the experience of running from a negative frame of thinking, or a fearful, defensive mindset.”

Do we really want to sit? – Midwest Zen

And, of course, I’ve found that when I look closely at any uncomfortable sensations during meditation, I find a similar pattern. And I’ve asked myself: do I really want to meditate?

What I find is that much of my discomfort is driven by how I approach meditating, or running, or so many things in life. By changing my mindset, my entire experience can shift. It has been an important lesson for me, one that I’m grateful for. And, I hope these reflections might be of interest to others who face similar struggles.

The full issue of Midwest Zen (Issue 3) is available online, asa PDF. Enjoy!

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Contemplating quiet quitting

I have been seeing more and more headlines recently about people “quiet quitting” at their work. Much of this discussion is driven by – or refers back to – social media videos (such as a popular one by Zaiad Khan). Simply from the phrase – quiet quitting – my first impression was people were talking about making a move to disengage from their job, without actually quitting.

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound – ruby

Over the past year, during what has been called the “Great Resignation,” we have seen millions of people leaving their jobs during the pandemic. In some cases, people decided to retire, or found new opportunities during the volatility of the pandemic. Or, they wanted to keep working, but were unwilling to return back to the pre-COVID routines (preferring to continue working remotely, for instance).

Not everyone who has felt overwhelmed or unhappy has quit or changed jobs. In my own profession (higher education), I have seen more conversation about concerns that people are less fully engaged in the work of our colleges and universities. In January, The Chronicle of Higher Education did a story about The Great Faculty Disengagement that captured some of the concerns. While there has been some turnover for faculty, as people are able to pursue new opportunities, there are others who remain at their institutions, but are approaching their work in a more detached way:

… most faculty members aren’t making big job moves. For them, the Great Resignation looks different. We would describe it as disengagement. They are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself. Faculty members are not walking away in droves, but they are waving goodbye to norms and systems that prevailed in the past. They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.

Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar, The Great Faculty Disengagement

So, with this in mind, I felt that I already recognized quiet quitting as another example of this kind of disengagement: keeping one’s job while putting in the bare minimum required. And, this does seem to fit some examples of quiet quitting. For instance, in a BBC news article, Emma O’Brien described her own experience of quiet quitting when was turned down for a raise (even after taking on significant new responsibilities): “That was why I literally ended up doing what I was supposed to do to get the job done and nothing more. I felt empowered and motivated because I had mentally checked out of that job a few weeks before.”

However, as the discussion around quiet quitting has spread, a number of voices have argued that the term is not primarily about disengagement, but about finding balance in one’s life:

Despite what the misleading name may suggest, quiet quitting, as many have pointed out, has nothing to do with quitting, doing the bare minimum or slacking off at work. It is more a way to set boundaries at work and not do extra work outside one’s scope without fair compensation. Shutting down one’s laptop at 5 p.m. or saying “no” to doing someone else’s job may be how one chooses to quit quietly, but these examples are by no means prescriptive.

Kuan-lin F. Liu, What happened when I sprinkled a bit of ‘quiet quitting’ in my workday

This feels like a more positive approach, to me, by framing quiet quitting as a kind of mindfulness to our work/life balance. Many people who are building this positive frame for quiet quitting position it in opposition to “hustle culture” or grind culture – much of which has glorified taking on as much work as possible. Zaiad Khan points to this kind of quiet quitting in his video: “You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentally that work has to be our life.

In the struggle over how to define quiet quitting (and perhaps the rush to pass judgment on it?), I see several threads. One seems to be about how we respond to burnout and fatigue (which have been elevated for many in recent years), especially if we are not prepared or able to leave our current job. This feels like the main reason we might feel attracted to the “quitting” part of the phrase.

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Other people seem to looking more closely at the roots of our feelings of burnout and exhaustion. And what they see is a culture that has glorified work (hustle, grind culture). Or, where one is asked to do more and more, without any real discussion or appropriate compensation. Both cases can feel like an empty, futile use of our time. This part of quiet quitting, taking a moment to be mindful and aware of how our habits and attitudes around work can be harmful is very important. It can help us identify what we want to change: in how we approach our work, and in how our workplace functions.  

But, while this second sense of quiet quitting – the one focused on work/life balance and setting appropriate boundaries – has a strong appeal, I am concerned that the conversation is always going to be limited by the term, “quitting.” Today, here and now, to quit is to give up some pursuit, or some effort. The associations we have with a word, like quitting, have a weight, a gravity. Because of that, our efforts to frame quiet quitting in terms of boundaries or health hve merit, but they struggle against our deep, automatic associations with the term “quitting.” Those associations, the meanings of the word, can certainly shift over time. But, it is a slow process.

So, I cannot really find much personal enthusiasm for quiet quitting (as something I would recommend to people who are unhappy with their jobs, but unable to leave). However, I am quite fond of the quiet part of the phrase.

Instead of quitting, I might suggest that we find how to take a moment of quiet for a contemplative pause. This was a phrase that I had heard recently at a workshop by Dr. Karolyn Kinane, who was speaking to our faculty in the context of teaching. While faculty often focus on what (the stuff) we plan to do in a course, Dr. Kinane noted that we may habitually ignore how we want be in the classroom (the dispositions that we believe are critical to seeking and using knowledge). From a related blog post she asks, “What might happen if you shifted your attention from what you should do to how you want to be?” Dr. Kinane proposed that a contemplative pause could be a way to help us look carefully at that point, of how we wanted to be, in any part of our lives:

One way to think about contemplation is as a pause or gap between a stimulus and a response. For example, when I get stressed, I tend to work on autopilot: I react swiftly to stimuli (such as emails, texts, or a biting comment from a relative) and unleash some reactions I am not proud of…

A contemplative pause—a moment to breathe, a quick walk around the block—helps me more objectively notice what is happening externally (this person is making a request) and internally (I’m feeling resentful) and consider how or whether I want to respond.

Karoyln Kinane, Contemplative Pause: Tool for Engagement

I found the idea very refreshing, and timely. And, it is one that certainly can be valuable in any part of our life (not just teaching!). And, if we feel drawn to quiet quitting, then this probably is the perfect time for a contemplative pause. This pause can take many forms, but involves some intentional reflection, that opens up some space for us to choose new ways of responding. At work, a contemplative pause could help us be more aware of what parts of our job are associated with any stress, or frustration. It could help us identify when we may be overwhelmed in other parts of our life, and may need to pull back from some duties. It can also help us notice when other people around us are struggling, and help us find ways to ease their burdens as well.

How do we want to show up and be in our work? Personally, I hope that those who are employed find work to be something of value in their lives. A place where we find community, and make some contribution to the lives of the people around us. I hope we are engaged in our work, just as I hope my students and I are engaged in our classes. I hope we are in this together – after all, our communities – in our work and every part of our life – are only as humane as the people who make them up. We need everyone to show up as they can and are able.

Reality Zen

One life or many? Rebirth and the brain

Where are we going when we pass out of this life? For that matter, where did we come from, to find ourselves here? For many, myself included, these are important questions – perhaps the ones that first drew us to deeply engagement with spiritual practice.

Like many in the Midwest, I grew up in a largely Christian community. And, although I did not personally have a strong connection to a church, the idea of an afterlife – in which some part of our consciousness would continue past our physical death – was familiar to me.

And as I encountered Zen as a teenager, discussions of an afterlife, and specifically the Buddhist idea of rebirth, were not emphasized in the teachings I encountered (especially those which were popular in the U.S.). So, I was very interested to come across an excerpt of Roger R. Jackson’s new book, Rebirth in the latest issue of Buddhadharma magazine (Summer, 2022), which considers the various ways that Buddhists today understand rebirth. Jackson identifies several broad, often overlapping, approaches, ranging from those who hold that rebirth is literally true, to those are more agnostic about the metaphysical truth of rebirth, and to secularists who often ignore or reject the teaching.

As a scientist, I find myself personally more persuaded by the agnostic or secular camp. And, while I appreciated Jackson’s article, I did find myself reacting, pushing back on some of the approaches described, especially what he calls the neo-traditional approach. This would include attempts to reconcile a literal version of rebirth with our scientific understanding of the world, in part by carving out exceptions to physical laws. He summarizes one such argument by the Dali Lama, that:

… although there may be a stronger connection between neurological events and ordinary mental states than traditional Buddhists believe, there remains the possibility that there are extraordinary mental states that do not depend on the neurological system, namely, the meditative experiences of advanced tantric yogis…

Jackson, p. 19-20

This is an interesting idea: that there could be mental states (something which we can experience) that are not dependent on our body and brain. This kind of approach, to carve out some distance between the mind and the brain, seems to be a common approach that some will offer when we look for ways that parts of our self (our memories, personality) could survive the death of our bodies.

However, before we carve out an exception for any mental states (from brain activity), we should look closely and ask: do we need to do so? And here, I would say that the answer is,  no.

Our knowledge about the brain, while still growing, has shown that our mental experience is deeply bound to the delicate functioning of our nervous system. Anyone who has taken care of a loved one recovering from a stroke, or through the painful erosions of dementia, has seen firsthand how important the brain is for our mental experience. Our sense of our “I”, as a stable sense of self, is a kind of illusion – you cannot find a permanent, stable “I” or self in the brain. And, the illusion is a fragile one, that depends in each moment on the continuity of our experiences, our memory, and our personality.

Could it be that there are mental states which exist independent of the activity of the nervous system, as the Dali Lama or others have suggested? Perhaps, but the literature of neuropsychology is full of descriptions of individuals who have lost their memory, or their ability to feel emotions, or experienced a dramatic change in personality after suffering brain damage or disease (and, for the interested reader, I would recommend Paul Broks’ beautiful book, Into the Silent Land, for some examples).

One of the most famous cases in neuroscience is that of Henry Molaison, who had parts of his brain surgically removed to treat very severe epilepsy. Mr. Molaison’s epilepsy was improved after the surgery. But, he tragically lost the ability to make new memories, because parts of his hippocampus were removed in the operation.

For more than forty years, he never made a new memory (though he could learn some new things, closer to what we could call skills). And, if brain damage can block the ability to make memories in this life, I doubt we will be able to carry our memories over to some future life.

Beyond memory, it is difficult for me to identify an example of a feeling, thought, emotion, or any mental state, that cannot be disrupted or transformed by affecting the nervous system. To think that the mental states of meditation are somehow exempt is unnecessary. And, that is why possibility that rebirth is literally true (instead of true in a more metaphorical sense) seems very unlikely to me.

However, even if you find yourself in agreement, you might still be asking: What if you are wrong?

The only reply I have is – of course I am wrong, how could I not be wrong? Or rather, can any of us be right?

I see quite a bit of evidence that our mental experience depends on the activity of our brains, following the laws of nature. But, for our practice, I find it very important – critical – to remember that the very idea that we have a brain (or a body) is itself nothing more than a useful tool. And we should be careful not to let our tools shape how we see reality itself.

The brain is something that we can observe. I’ve held one (though, thankfully, I have never seen my own!). But, calling that thing I was holding a “brain” is also a concept. Like other concepts (trees, cars, weather), “the brain” helps us make sense of the world. There is our direct experience of brain, or tree, or weather. And, there is a step (that we often do not even see) where we name “the brain,” “the tree,” and “the weather”.

Each concept helps us group together what we experience. Concepts help us explain why our experiences appear to have structure, order. And, the scientific approach offers a very powerful way to explain how these things that we have named work, how the physical world works.

But, no matter how good our system is for explaining the world (and the scientific approach has done very well), every approach will always be only partially accurate. Because, in the most important sense, the idea that we have a body, or a brain, is itself an idea, something we add to our actual, direct experience. A useful fiction. Like our idea of “the weather” or “a whirlpool,” concepts give us handles that we can use to grasp at a part of reality. But, in doing so, we have to ignore the ways that a concept has left something out about the real texture of reality.

All-in-all, I find the scientific approach to making sense of experience very useful. Too useful, it turns out, to allow others to carve out space for rebirth (in that literal sense of the concept). Once we do that, we have really left science behind, in order to save the idea that we will be literally reborn after this life. And, just as I am wrong (because my own understanding is built on a set of abstractions) every system we use to understand and make sense of the world is wrong. We all have rebirth wrong, and that is ok.

In the end, remember that whatever system we use to make sense of our experiences, none can be “true” in a satisfying, final way. Each requires some kind of unfounded assumption. From the specific perspective of our practice, though, what matters most is what flows out from those assumptions.

While I consider myself a scientist, in matters of spiritual practice, I really do not care what you believe. I want to know – how do you live?

If our beliefs help us realize the truth of impermanence, of interconnection, and to commit our lives to the benefit of all beings, then those beliefs are valuable. That is the real measure of a belief system. Any system of belief that lets us turn away from the world, or to selfishly cling to our own small, ego existence is useless. And, for our spiritual practice, arguing over which belief system is correct is a waste of our precious time, whether we think that we have one lifetime ahead of us, or many.

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Jackson, R. R. (Summer, 2022). How do we make sense of rebirth? Buddhadharma, 17-35.


We cannot “like” our way to wisdom

Can we “like” our way to greater wisdom and peace?  Or even to just to some deeper measure of happiness? These questions came to me as I was scrolling through Instagram posts the other day. On my Neural Buddhist account, I mainly follow people who focus on Zen and meditation, and science-related accounts that I find interesting from a Buddhist perspective. On any given day, I come across many meaningful, heartfelt posts by teachers and by other practitioners who I respect.

Image credit: Rawpixel Ltd.

For example, the short poem below, by punkrocksadhana, struck me as a beautiful image of the very concrete ways that all things in this world are deeply interconnected:

In my own posts on Instagram and Facebook, I have tried to share teachings that I have found personally meaningful, and which I think might be helpful to others. And, I’ve also shared posts that distill some of my essays on my own Zen practice (like the post below). I am left wondering, though, what the benefit of this kind of engagement on social media is for our practice, much less for our mental health in general.

Over the past few months, my interactions with others on Instagram and Facebook have mainly been “liking” or “loving” posts, or sharing a post as a story. In total, these interactions have been fleeting, delicate moments. Like a bubble hanging in the air, they may be beautiful, but most disappeared without leaving a lasting trace.

I wrote recently about the connections between rituals and habits, and the importance of engaging fully in our daily habitual behaviors, rather than falling into autopilot. But, when I turned my attention back to my own use of social media, I found that I was often not acting mindfully, but had fallen more into a mindless habit. And, I was not really surprised at this fact – like many, I usually expect that high levels of use of social media could be unhealthy (or at least, is not likely to make people happier, on average!). So, how then should we approach social media? And, is social media fundamentally unwholesome (in the sense of supporting our practice)?

It does seem that the core mechanics that draw us in to engage with social media are not ones that naturally support our practice. As we look around Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms, we are most likely to find those voices that appeal broadly, and that appeal to those who we already agree with. And, our attention, and our very sense of value, can be drawn in toward posts that receive a strong response. This can certainly be unhealthy, as it can skew our sense of what messages are meaningful, or one may become distraught to find that their own heartfelt expressions receive little or no response. And, as I found in my own life, the type of engagement we see may also be superficial, fleeting.

What then are our options?  We could certainly pull back from these social spaces, and work to invest our energy into healthier, more humane forms of interaction. That may be the right answer for many people, but I have remained on Facebook and Instagram simply because they are places where many people spend some of their time. But, if we stay in these spaces, how can we become habitually mindful of the ways that we can be trapped by social media, and work to promote more wholesome engagement?

In my own practice, I have made a few changes to how I use social media (and, I am focusing here especially on my neuralbuddhist accounts – for my personal accounts, I appreciate this advice from Alanna Blundo).

First, in all of my accounts, I have hidden the number of “likes” that posts receive (if you are interested, here are some tips for how to turn off likes for Instagram and Facebook posts). These options are not perfect, but it can be very helpful to not immediately see the number of people who have “liked” a post.

Second, when I scroll through social media, I try to hold the intention to engage deeply with at least one post. I may “like” several posts on Instagram, but I also to make a comment that responds to one post that resonates with me. And, I consider how I can take that teaching with me into the rest of my day. Instead of repeating the habit of superficial engagement, I am working to build a new habit of seeing these posts as a call to mindfulness. This helps connect my time on social media to the whole of my practice.

Third, for the posts I make on social media, I am working to focus my attention to my goals. Instead of focusing on the reactions (the number of likes and such) on Facebook or Instagram, I am focusing on the number of people who engage more deeply – commenting (thoughtfully!) and those who actually engage further. It doesn’t matter, really, how many people reacted to a post.

The key question for me is how many people interacted more deeply – commenting on the post, and finding the longer essays (such as this one) that the post attempts to summarize. That proportion, the number who engage more deeply, will always be much smaller than the number who like a post, but it is the most important point for me.

All-in-all, the total number of people who read an of my essays may be small, but I am always encouraged to find that a few people found my essays (like this one). And, I hope that even one person may take what I wrote to heart, and that it might encourage them in their own practice, in the same way that I have been encouraged by others.  If so, then social media can be of some benefit, within the larger context of the whole of our practice.

Meditation Zen

Making a ritual out of habit

Last fall, I found my way back to a more regular Zen practice. When we moved our family to a small, Midwestern town years ago, it was very difficult to find local groups to connect with, especially as we raised our young children. And so, for many years, I fell out of the habit of sitting at a Zen center. I sat by myself, and only rarely with others. Even when I did meditate with others, it was usually in a very informal space.

Image credit: Kenny Pinheiro, “zazen” – flickr

But, after the extreme disconnection during the height of the pandemic, I felt a strong yearning to connect with other practitioners. And, I found it to be an opportune moment, where my own children were a bit older, and it was easier for me to travel to a local zendo. And, many Zen centers had developed strong options for virtual attendance.

It had been years since I had been to a zendo, and from the first moment that I stepped across the threshold, I was grateful for the feeling of entering back into a community of practitioners. Bowing as I entered, and bowing to my cushion, I was also grateful to recognize the simple forms that provide structure to our practice. Settling back into chanting the four vows, bowing, and prostrations, I was somewhat surprised by the feelings of connection that came with these rituals. I found that I had come back to a kind of joy as I picked up the habits of the zendo once again.

I have been thinking more about these experiences, especially with how they contrast with the habits that often fill up our everyday life. Many times, when I notice that I have been drawn into a habit, these are occasions of inattention – distracted while I drive to store, ruminating on some minor issue while doing the dishes, daydreaming while mowing the lawn. As I look at these moments of everyday distraction, and those of great engagement in the zendo, I wonder what the space is that separates habit from ritual.

For a long time, I have been somewhat wary of falling into habitual behaviors. Many teachings warn us about falling into the trap of habitual behaviors, or describe how practice can be a path that frees us from dysfunctional, rigid patterns of thinking. I encountered some of these ideas when I read Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when I was first learning about Zen:

A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice zazen: to clear our mind of what is related to something else.

Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 88

… as long as you have some fixed idea or are caught by some habitual way of doing things, you cannot appreciate things in their true sense.

Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p 112

These and other teachings shaped some of my early approach to Zen. For better or worse, I considered habitual behavior as a kind of trap, something to be avoided. Or, at least that practice involves substituting “bad” habits for better ones. Ritual, as an example of a repeated, patterned behavior, could be considered a habit. But, what is it that distinguishes rituals from the rest of our habits?

To feel for the gap between rituals and habitual behavior, it helps to look closely at what we mean by habit, which I approach from my perspective as a psychologist and neuroscientist. In our everyday use of the term, we are often pointing out a pattern of behavior (or thought) that is repeated, consistent, and perhaps difficult to change. This idea of habit is broadly similar to what I would mean by the term, when speaking as a psychologist. But, research on habits has tested and extended this definition, somewhat.

Habits are behaviors (or pattern behavior) that typically are learned slowly, over many over many repetitions. This learning process roughly involves monitoring the effects of our actions, and learning what we need to do in order to reach our typical goals. Habits are often tied to stimuli in our environment, such that we might develop a habit of always turning left as we leave our house (if our car or bicycle is usually located in that direction), or reaching directly to a specific button to turn off our alarm in the morning.

The key is that a habit represents the behavior (or sequence of behaviors) we have learned to do in a specific place or moment. When we engage in a habit, we can then perform these behaviors without needing to plan out our behavior beforehand, intentionally. Because of this, habits can be performed quickly at the opportune moment, with little planning, and initiated by triggered by cues around us as we work to reach our goals.

One weakness of habits, though, is that they are not very flexible: in order to respond rapidly and with little oversight, we give up the ability to modify our behavior if we encounter an obstacle, and they can be slow or difficult to change. In this sense, we can contrast habits with deliberative behavior – moments where we spend some time consciously considering our options to find the best one.

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Our daily life usually represents a mixture of habits and deliberative behavior (and other kinds of behavior), but we will often use a habit for common, typical behaviors. Think, for instance, of making a drive to a well-known location, and how different this experience can be from driving to a new job, or from a new home.

Habits are with us in all parts of our daily life, though we may not even notice them until a change in the environment or our routine draws them out into the light of day. For example, when I started my job at a small college in Indiana, as our department’s behavioral neuroscientist, I inherited an aging animal research lab in the basement. The building had been built in the 1960s, and the research lab looked like it had never been updated (and still had its original lime green wall tile).

In one room, I found an enormous surgical light mounted to the ceiling, like something you might expect to see in an old movie (maybe a horror film involving dentistry). The device was in terrible condition, and I was never able to make good use of it. But, removing the light was a difficult prospect, and for perhaps a decade I simply ignored it. Or I tried to ignore it, but many times I walked accidentally into the heavy arm of the light – which floated just at about the level of my head.

The light fixture and I reached an uneasy truce over the years, but I never really appreciated how much it had affected me until it was finally gone. One summer day, after one final bruise to my temple, I gathered some tools and took the fixture down. Like many tasks that have been deferred too long, it was a wonderful relief to finally have the light removed, and to feel that the room was more open, and spacious.

But even though the light fixture was gone, I could still feel its weight in the air. Every time I walked through the center of that room, as I approached the empty space, I found myself involuntarily ducking under that space. It truly was a strange feeling, to watch myself dive under a phantom light fixture. I would laugh, and sometimes felt the need to explain myself to my students (some who had joined the lab after the light was gone).

Intellectually, I knew there was no obstruction there, of course. But, another part of me knew something else, something learned slowly with each time I had struck my head on the heavy counterweight. The past has its own weight, a kind gravity that draws us back to familiar paths.

This habit of mine, ducking under the light fixture, was a great help to me over the years, and saved me from a number of injuries. In the same way, all of our other habits, often operating invisibly, just out of sight, are a crucial part of our daily life. It took me some time to appreciate it, but our habits are a gift, the distillation of our experiences. They allow us to move easily through the common paths of our day, and can free up other parts of our minds. Far from being a hindrance, our lives would be very difficult without habits. In fact, in Parkinson’s disease, cells that release dopamine in the brain die off, which impairs the function of structures deep in the brain that are critical for the execution of habits. This can lead to a disruption in the learning or use of habits, making daily life more exhausting, and requiring greater attention to complete everyday behaviors.

If habits are a cornerstone of our daily life, then was I wrong to feel that habits could be harmful? In a sense, yes – habits are not harmful in themselves. Habits can offer us an opportunity to go on “autopilot” – where we find ourselves moving through the world, but with a sense of disengagement. We may be lost in thought, following a daydream or fantasy, or ruminating on the past. Moments when habits can guide our behavior smoothly are also ones where we can fall into a kind of slumber – disconnected from the world around us.

But, this does not have to be the case, and we can look to our experience in rituals for a clear example. As I returned to sitting more regularly last fall, it had been several years since I had visited a Zen center or zendo. I felt quite self-conscious at first, working to remember the simple forms for entering a zendo, taking my seat. But, those old habits came back, and slowly adapted to the specific forms of these new communities. Far from being moments of autopilot, of disconnection, I felt a deep sense of connection – to my body, the world around me, to the group. Especially after the disconnection of the pandemic years, I was so grateful for the experience of sitting again with a community – virtually and in person. These forms offer us – if we are open to it – an opportunity to experience a profound sense of absorption in the moment, and for me, a sense of gratitude and wonder. And in the rituals – all of the forms, chants, each careful behavior – I saw fingerprints of habitual behavior.

In the end, there is nothing special abou the habits that support the rituals of our practice – they are the same as the habits that support our daily life. Each offers us a moment in which we can fall into autopilot, and turn away from reality. And, both offer us an opportunity to cultivate presence, and experience directly our deep connection to all beings. Moments of connection may be more likely in the rituals of our practice, were we have made a commitment, the intention, to engage wholeheartedly. And, where we find the support of our practice community, taking strength from their intention.

There may be moments of mindlessness in the zendo, of course, where we fall into a habit mindlessly. But, our practice is to be aware, and to come back to this moment each time. As we bring that intention to our daily life, we can also engage more mindfully at times when our behavior is guided by habits. Driving to work, or washing the dishes, our intention to engage wholeheartedly can give each habit the depth of a ritual.


Shunryu Suzuki. (1970). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill, New York, NY.

Meditation Zen

What do we already know?

… instead of thinking in terms of movement toward something new and shiny and different, let’s try thinking of spiritual practice as a process of remembering that which we already know.

Mark Frank, That Which We Already Know, p. 30

What does it really mean for us to follow a spiritual path? What is the nature of our effort – are we looking to find some kind of insight or experience? Or, are we working towards some other goal?

In Buddhist practice, we are encouraged to look closely at our motivation, to notice what is fueling our efforts, And, we often find that we are striving towards some goal, looking for something outside of our self that might fulfill us, that could ease our suffering. But, this type of seeking is an error – a type of craving that can up prolonging our suffering.

But, even if we are not striving to get something, that does not mean that are not working towards something. We might frame this as a change of view, that our goal is not to get something, but to see the world in a different way.

Recently, I had a chance to read That Which We Already Know, a new book written by a friend, Mark Frank. Mr. Frank is a Zen practitioner, and has written over the years about spirituality and his experiences, including on his blog, Heartland Contemplative. His book focuses on this question: what is it that we are working to realize, in our spiritual practice?

That Which We Already Know is structured as a memoir centered on Frank’s childhood, and richly infused with insights from his Zen practice. He writes beautifully about the time he spent exploring the “Nursery” – a patch of wilderness near his childhood home that he presents as a kind of mini-Eden. The affection he has for that place is clear and touching, and reminded me of my own childhood, growing up in the farmland of rural Illinois.

Frank uses stories about growing up immersed in nature to illustrate his argument: that the goal of our spiritual practice, which Buddhists often name as awakening, is in fact a state that we experienced as children. His premise, and the title of the book, is that awakening is something we already know, and many of our deepest spiritual practices are helping us reconnect with that state.

An important part of Frank’s argument is that in childhood, before we develop the ability to strictly see ourselves as individual, separated from the world, we experience directly a sense of connection and wholeness. As we grow and mature, we develop a strong sense of self-awareness – the feeling that there is a me existing separate you and the rest of the world.

Do you recall such days lived without any sense of separation, with trust and acceptance, with mind and body seamlessly integrated one with the other and together with all things? … This is the freedom of children and the wisest among us, and everything else that resides in the natural world – the freedom to be precisely what we are and nothing we are not …

Children don’t simply know this freedom; they embody it. Ironically, our developing self-awareness brings this freedom into view just as it begins to disappear, like sunlight creating a rainbow in the mist even as it boils that mist away.

Frank, p. 9-10

Looking at the development of self-awareness, Frank draws an interesting parallel to the Christian story of Adam and Eve, framing our normal development as a kind of recapitulation of that first fall from grace. As we grow and mature, our sense of self develops, and we “fall” out of this state of grace into our ordinary, deluded state. Of Eve and Adam’s lack of shame (of their nakedness) before consuming the fruit of knowledge, Frank proposes that perhaps the lack of self-awareness, of being a person separate from the world, was the source of their innocence:

… we might think of this nakedness in metaphorical terms. They’d not yet become clothed with any ideas of separate selfhood. It wasn’t just that they were unaware that they’d done something wrong. They were unaware of being separate beings in the first place.

Frank, p. 14

Reading the book, I thought a great deal about Frank’s premise, the argument that spiritual awakening might share some similarities to states we experienced as children. And, I realized that I have often taken for granted that I see spiritual practice (study, meditation, prayer) as focused to realize something that I did not know. I found that I have assumed, without really thinking much about it, that I came into existence as a deluded being, and my practice was focused on letting go of some of my own false views. Perhaps the difference is subtle, but it was one that I appreciated once I saw it.

Reading Frank’s descriptions of his own childhood, which do make up some of the evidence for his argument, I did struggle to see childhood as an idyllic time when we live without a self (at least not once we are old enough to go off and explore the wildness). In the end, this did not end up resonating with my own experience. I actually cannot say that I have very many concrete memories of being a child – I reach and find only vivid little fragments here and there. And, some of the drier facts that I remember about childhood. I enjoyed my childhood, as I remember it, and I value my experiences. But I do not feel deeply nostalgic about the actual experience of being a child. I don’t remember experiencing the kinds of deep experiences that Frank finds in his own past. And, I don’t know that my spiritual practice is focused on reminding me specifically of what I knew as a child. 

Perhaps the gap, between my own recollections and the vision that Frank describes, has something to do with the times and places we each grew up in. Frank mentions the shadow that the Vietnam War and the draft cast over his own childhood. At that time, a real, palpable loss of innocence loomed as one grew towards adulthood. In the early 1980s, I did not have a similar experience, and I don’t remember having any specific concerns about becoming an adult.

Me (right) with my little brother

I do wonder, though, about the children growing up today. A time marked by the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, and deep polarization. And I wonder whose childhood – Frank’s or my own – would resonate most deeply with my own daughters.

But, even though the specific image of childhood as a time of wisdom, and awakening, did not resonate with me, the larger argument is one that I found interesting, and compelling. To understand that the innocence of children is a kind of wisdom, and that we can let go of some of the rigid views that cut us off from that wisdom – these were some of the key treasures I took from this book, and I am grateful to Frank for sharing his experiences.

And, while I don’t personally look back to my own childhood and see a state of wholeness and wisdom, I do find myself here and now as a single, limited being. A person that emerged at some hazy point in memory from a place of stillness. To take a moment to look back to what came before, to try to touch the stillness that our life emerges from, has been an important part of my own practice, and I appreciated very much the reminders I found in this book.

Where there is meaningful religious practice, there is stillness. And where there is stillness, there is the potential for transformational human experience.

Frank, p. 142

A clean and pure anger

Over the past week, the military conflict in Ukraine has been at the top of my mind, like so many in the world. As reports of escalation of military force have dominated the headlines, my heart goes out to all those affected. I hope for cooler heads to gain purchase, and that Russian forces withdraw from the country. And, I hope for all those involved to find a path to end this needless suffering.

Ukranian diaspora in Brussels protesting
Bartosz Brzezinski – Ukrainian diaspora in Brussels protests the Russian invasion

From where I sit, in the Midwestern U.S., it is difficult to know what I could personally do that would have a real, and meaningful impact. We have joined in local gatherings to support the Ukrainian people, and to call for peace. We’ve looked for ways that our donations can help those who are displaced. And, while I don’t think that social media is a particularly effective way to help, we have been encouraged to see the public support for Ukraine, and all of those who are suffering needlessly.

Last week, I also came across some discussions on Reddit, where people were still processing the early escalation of violent attacks. On a Buddhist-focused forum, I found a number of people struggling with the question of how a Buddhist could act ethically, if they found themselves in the middle of the fighting.

It was probably inevitable, really, that this question would surface in these communities. But, I was disappointed to see a number of strong statements, and what seemed to be rigid, inflexible positions. Although, based on other conversations I have seen on Reddit, I probably should not have been surprised.

I was disappointed to see a number of cases where people reached quickly for a justification to condemn anyone who participated (as violating Buddhist principles), or for joining in the fighting. Other voices did acknowledge the complexity of the situation, and how difficult it can be to find the skillful action in the middle of violence. But, I felt that the places where the discussion focused on whether using force (in self-defense of one’s self or one’s country) was “right” or not to be a bit tone-deaf. In many cases, it felt that those commenting were judging the actions of people who were living out a terrible situation (while they themselves were not in any particular danger).

Overall, can we say that force is never a skillful means to deal with a dangerous situation?  I worry about taking that step – to say that I can be confident that force is never appropriate. And I worry that it is all to easy to judge from afar the actions of people who have been thrown into a terrible situation.

When we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict (violent or otherwise), what one does – the specific actions one takes – is less important than how one does it. If we can act from a position of equanimity, of balance, that is the most important point. I was reminded of a quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, reflecting on whether anger could be pure:

Suzuki Roshi was once asked if anger could be like a pure wind that wipes everything clean. He said, “Yes, but I don’t think you need to worry about that.” He said that he himself had never had an anger that was like a pure wind. And our anger is surely not that pure, either, because of the fear that lies beneath the anger. Unless we contact and experience our fear, we will have harmful anger.

Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen

Often, our actions – and especially our use of force – comes out of our fear, or our anger, and the results can be harmful.

Last week, someone from my hometown posted on social media about an incident at a local store. A man was acting erratically, as they described it, and making a number of extreme political statements. From their description, his behavior did not suggest that he was in full control of his faculties. And, it seemed that he might be a risk to himself or others.

The staff in the store were able to talk with the man, and to deescalate the situation, and the person who posted about the incident praised their ability to stay calm and deal with the situation humanely. We should be grateful for those who have the presence of mind to be able to act skillfully in such a charged situation.

I noticed, though, in the comments on this post, one man described how he would have handled the situation. His recommendation was something to the effect of “two punches to the head, one to the throat.”

I’m glad he wasn’t there, in that moment, to make a delicate situation worse. Force may sometimes be the best option available. But, I also understand that we can find ourselves turning quickly to force out of fear. Or, because we see so many stories around us that glorify solving our problems with our fists.

As we look at the conflict in Ukraine, and in every place that people are suffering under injustice, I hope to be careful about judging their actions. I hope we have the humility to know that the challenges in such a moment are very different from those that many of us are facing.

I hope that in the same situation, I would be able to look past my own defensiveness, my own anger, and reach for the best means in the moment. With the full knowledge that I may be wrong. Or, miss some other open path that is in front of us. That is our vow, is it not? To save all beings?  

As Kōshō Uchiyama’s wrote in “Opening the Hand of Thought,” there are may be times when one acts in a way that is counter to the precepts:

… it’s not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It’s just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow.

Kōshō Uchiyama, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” from “The Bodhisattva Vow

The real challenge, though, is to see each situation clearly.

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