Why Buddhism is True — a review

Disclaimer:  I am not a Buddhist.  And by admission, neither is the author.

The main title, Why Buddhism is True, is a bit misleading.  Throughout most of the book, the author threads interesting, up-to-date, and digestible logic as to the (potentially huge) benefits of practicing mindful meditation.  As a beginning meditator, Wright’s reasoning was compelling enough to have me hooked from the start.

If only we could all start young with this practice.

But you don’t need to be attracted to meditation to be captivated by the book.  In fairness, Wright does provide an abundance of thought-provoking (no pun) data not only from science, but also from modern psychology which seems to coincide with basic Buddhists concepts of not-self/emptiness, liberation from delusion (how we see ourselves is largely an illusion), and our thinking mind’s “default mode network.”

If anyone is, (shouldn’t we all be), interested in understanding the mechanics behind how feelings shape thoughts, behaviors, and perceptions, and how, through practice, we can become aware of “things in our environment that affect those feelings,” than the book is well worth the investment.  Some feelings, he says “are good guiding lights,” while others can “push us around.”  He provides first-hand examples of how we might successfully manipulate the feelings that may not be benefiting us.

Even Newark’s airport has a meditation room.

Wright speckles the book with his own experiences, mainly with dry, relatable, yet subtlely perky humor.  I found myself laughing out loud several times throughout the book.

The value of meditation, he says, is its use as a fundamental tool, one that enables us to see the stories we build and how we can more clearly separate illusion from truth.  In other words, he says, mindfulness meditation helps us change our perception of the world, even with potentially simple annoyances like crabgrass, the buzzsaw of construction noise, or the impulse to respond to a pricky email.  He also describes the benefit of continued meditation as an evolving capacity of “seeing things with higher resolution.”

The key, he says, through daily practices of mindful meditation, is becoming more aware of “what causes what,” (causality).  But, he explains, the fruits of meditation is more than just awareness.  It’s active learning how to change negative into positive.

The crux of the book and Wright’s principal argument for our feelings, he outlines, is the  “conditioning” of natural selection, which is built into our core from millions of years of evolution.  But many “natural tendencies” which served our species well over time may also be working against us (in our relatively recent, densely populated global community).  He describes, through meditation, how we can “subvert the programming of (the undesirable aspects of) natural selection,” to achieve a measurable, positive impact in our lives and of those around us.  In effect, he is saying that Darwin confirmed the truth behind Buddhism.

After listening to his book (twice) it’s hard not to believe him.

Where did that thought come from?

It popped in from nowhere to grab my attention.

Before I could offer a reasonable objection,
I was whisked in an unknown direction,
following a theory that forked left, then right,
out of control and out of sight.

I could barely glimpse it morph and cohort,
and raising cain.  Was it half insane?

I was lost in the musing’s erratic wake,
when it circled back without mistake,
damn faster than the speed of light,
blasting everything in sight,
yet making sure I was alright.

The reverie directed its own screenplay,
imbued in the rumination,
a polished edge of anticipation,
and an alluring button called replay.

The outlook’s mirage cloaked in subtle fury,
slyly presiding as judge and jury.

But the clever impression was ripe for dissension,
slight nagging suspicions clouding the senses,
creating a hunch and a new speculation,
of egoic wit, masked in deception.

Then in a blink the marbles scattered,
a whole new topic was all that mattered,
replaced by another, less irrelevant notion,
the dreamy aim the same,
a beguiling spell of perpetual motion.

Even if the premise seemed all but real,
the resulting chapter had a fictional feel.

Forming an opinion was not my intention,
not with such limited discretion,
but the conviction’s goal seemed clear,
to plant a seed of apprehension.

So when it returns as it surely will,
I’ll embrace the belief with eager thrill,
smothering it with goodness and zeal,
trusting it will lose its appeal.

After all, there are thousands, millions, more,
poised like a readily armed corps,
not offering the prospect to sift nor choose,
nor win, nor loose.

fs

An introspective life-changing question

That is, if you can remember to ask yourself — repeatedly.

The trick is keeping this short query-to-self in the frontal cortex and at the ready.

Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not?

I heard the suggestion listening to Mark Webber’s 15 recordings from his month-long Dharma retreat last year called “All About Karma.” (No I’m not a Buddhist, but the philosophy/religions’s most basic tenets “do no harm” is worthy embracing).  Webber says karma is causality, which is a different interpretation than most Asians or Westerners have.  Karma, he says, is the activity of doing, which is causation.  Karma is mental intent and the resultant activity.  The source is our thoughts.  To begin to see this, in his retreat Webber instructs his practitioners how to significantly slow down cognition.

To see, or recognize the causality of our thoughts, could make us healthier.

Apparently, what certain enlightened individuals in the metaphysical realm have realized thousands of years ago, and what our scientific community is recently discovering is that;

  1. Thoughts are chemical impulses with real consequences. Although thoughts are mostly stories (illusions), they are not innocent.  The chemical impulses, no matter how slight, create a cause and effect.
  2. Everything, meaning every human, animal, bug, plant, or thing on this earth is connected.

Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not? is a question one could ask of every thought, no matter how seemingly benign. Thoughts either spark a positive charge or one that is negative.  They either construct or destruct.  And while we may deem some to be neutral, every thought still produces a resulting consequence.

Of course, the topic is quite a bit deeper than a meager blog post could justify.  Listening to the retreat, more than 25 hours worth, left me realizing what an underdeveloped human I am.  Short of having the question on post-a-notes everywhere, most of us would need a lifetime of meditation to see causality as part of our stream of consciousness.

Except for a few individuals, most humans live with a busy thought voice every waking hour. The voice is usually too occupied to be interrupted for a self-evaluation.  But like the beauty of compounded interest, many tiny (positive) thought adjustments accumulate to much larger (positive) effects.  If, for example, just a couple of key times each day, especially those moments when someone does something we don’t like, or we must do something we don’t fancy, or when we are annoyed for whatever reason, we were to invoke this question-to-self and make small perspective adjustments from negative to positive, we could, without sounding dramatically gushy, contribute, in no small way, to changing our lives, and those around us, for the better.

Sweet Thais

In more ways than one.

As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures.  It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads.  They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful.  Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out.  The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.

One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food.  But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals.  Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient.  Even sautéed vegetables are sugared.  Most savory dishes have added sugar.  It’s a phenomenon.

These buckets of sugars (and msg) are at the ready for all Thai street food.

When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition.  A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians.  If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.

Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools.  In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes.  In each, I declared that I  wanted to cook without sugar.  I was the oddball out in every workshop.  In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request.  The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all.  Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite.  But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down.  An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy.  (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).

Pad Thai Noodles, may be prepared with a double dose of sweetness.

When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.”  Really?  Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better?  Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?

As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes.   To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty.  In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar.  Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar.  Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar.   Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar.  Savory soups — added sugar.

Stir-fried vegetables with sugar. Really?

The Thai food on the street is damn tasty.  But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge.  When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles.  If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey.  It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food.  There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill.  And indeed it might be.

Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us.  Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years.  Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness.  During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).

In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar.  Sure the dish tastes good.  Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness.  We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought.  But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention.  All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars.  So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.

In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient.  But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.

Not to pick on Thais, this sign on 23rd Street in Manhattan last week says it all.

Rocky B

More than a little creativity sparked the well-known, seven-part, iconic movie series of Rocky Balboa.  Created and played by Sylvester Stallone, the films depict an everyday Philadelphian, digging deep, sucking up every drop of inner hunger to beat the odds, and sometimes the face, of visually stronger opponents.

Add a few decades, a dash more creativity, and a healthy stock of running events consuming most cities, and voila, Philadelphia has cooked up an annual Rocky Balboa half marathon race that attracts thousands of runners, many from other countries, who are inspired to test their inner grit.

A couple of family members running this race took me to the city of brotherly love this past weekend.  Although there are a couple of different courses at the event, a 5K, 10k, and 10 miles, to receive the Italian Stallion medal, you’ve got to run the 5K followed by the 10-mile course. The total adds up nicely to 13.1 miles, the distance of a half marathon.

Relatively new as of 2013, this race is held the Saturday in November following the New York City marathon. The RB course supposedly replicates the run SS took during film number two of the famous series.  Unlike a marathon like Boston or New York, which are more classic, downtown city events, this Philly half is a no-nonsense, country run which includes 1.5 miles of a stiff hill to climb.  No half marathon time records will be made running this race.

Despite its recent kick-off, word of this spirited Rocky B running event spread quickly.  For those who’ve seen the film, running the same streets as Stallone did years ago, then after, posing for a photo in a hooded sweatshirt on the steps of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art is alluring.  Leaving our hotel for the start line yesterday was a couple from London who traveled to Philadelphia for two days, only to run this race.

The mood of marathons and their half-brothers can be infectious, with lots of good energy.  Still, I didn’t run.  Even a half marathon can be grueling.  Evidently, I don’t have the craving to dig for the hunger it takes.  Maybe that’s why I admire those who can summon the inner strength to run a physically punishing long-distance event.  And hey, someone’s got to cheer.  That’s a role I can dredge up.

What would a trip to Philly be without a cheesesteak?

Or a pint of suds in Philly’s oldest ale house

Tucked away outside our hotel in City Center.

The Hacking of the American Mind — a review

Some may know the author from his book, Fat Chance, or one of his many youtube presentations about the compelling dangers from the dramatically increased sugar consumption in our diets.  In his new book The Hacking of the American Mind, Dr. Lustig takes a different tack exposing not only the complications of sugar and why we want more of it but also our appetite to stimulate the biochemical receptors that give us pleasure.  More specifically, the book is about the science behind pleasure and happiness, how most of us confuse the two, and how government and business knowingly blur the difference between them at our expense.

In January, I wrote a post entitled Accumulating Pleasure Moments.  At the time, I was treading the hazy space of fusion between pleasure and happiness without realizing the difference.  Pleasure, I deduced, could be the opposite of pain.

It could be a pleasure spending a day, or days, lounging on a beach. Or is that happiness?

Dr. Lustig goes into great detail to explain the chemical differences between the neural pathways that pleasure and happiness take.  Pleasure, it seems, evoked by a dopamine response, can fool us if we are not careful.  One of the downsides of constantly seeking pleasure, he says, are addictions, which in turn decreases our happiness quotient.

I’m not sure I agree with the author’s point that pleasure moments last for one hour then they are gone.  I was recently upgraded to first-class on a trans-pacific trip. The resulting pleasure lasted well over 16 hours.  Then again, perhaps I was interpreting the delight of the flight incorrectly.  Now I know to be cautious least the anticipation of an upgrade happens too frequently or I could become addicted.

In narrating, Lustig has a somewhat peculiar way of emphasizing prepositions at times, especially “the.”  But his passion for the subject is evident, and the net effect of his reading the book is a plus.  It was also reassuring to hear that even he has fallen prey to the grips of pleasure, i.e., coffee (daily) and ice cream (on rare occasions).  In fairness, he explains, pleasure isn’t all bad, and at times, even intersects with happiness (contentment).  But given that the dopamine effects of pleasure are so powerful, it behooves us to recognize its intoxicating influence, both physically and emotionally.

In short, I found the book highly informative and well worth the read, or listen, for anyone seeking to reap the benefits of pleasure and happiness by managing them so that the former does not dampen the latter.

Meanwhile, when I make it from point A to point B on my new commuter cruising skateboard without landing on my ass, I’ll be satisfied to be pleasantly content.

Free-range Humans

At one time we were.  And in some way, we’ve circled back, except that we’ve spiraled around and landed on a different prairie.

Our new free range is an amplified ability and willingness to stretch and distort definitions to suit a wide variety of purposes.  The hijacking of words and dilution of their authenticity has become commonplace.

Not long ago, a US president demonstrated our new grazing land when he said, under oath, “it depends on what the definition of the word is, is.”  The economic meltdown of 2008 occurred, in part, because financial institutions went as far as roaming off the range by packaging garbage, then labeling and selling that junk as triple-A solid, pixie-dust lined, investments.

Our free-ranging technique of twisting the truth is especially blatant in food marketing.  Two, of many, recent examples: 1) In 2009 Kellogs Rice Krispies claimed the cereal would “support your child’s immunity.”  2) Nutella ads stated that their hazelnut spread “is a nutritious part of a kids breakfast.”

With our penchant for free-ranging food claims, what could natural flavors mean as a food ingredient? Bull testicles and sheep lips are natural, so is arsenic and formaldehyde.  Our legal definition of natural flavors is wide open according to the US Code of Federal Regulations and could include the aforementioned items.

Exaggeration and hyperbole have been used since there was language.  But when accuracy is elongated to harmfully fool others, then those doing the bending are better off put out to pasture.

The marketing campaigns labeling chicken and eggs as free-ranging and cage-free is a more literal example.  We’ve grown a sizeable appetite for chicken.  A few short generations ago, chicken consumption in the USA per person was, at best, a poultry few per year.  Today we gobble down, on average, more than 27 bloated, steroid & antibiotic-infused, mega fowl per person annually.  That’s not counting eggs (w/added synthetic yolk colorants).

The same dynamic chicken euphoria is happening around the world.  Travel anywhere, to any airport, any major city, and there is no shortage of chicken anything.

Chicken is the cheapest, most efficient form of meat to produce.  Chicken producers want us to feel good about eating more fowl because production has turned intensive.  It’s estimated that the planet is pumping out at least 50 billion chickens annually.  But where are they all?  Hmm,…there must be a reason they are hidden, tucked away, and out of sight.

World population is growing strong, and so is our appetite for more chicken.  China is the chicken heavyweight.  Stats show they produce more chickens than the next four chicken producing countries combined (USA, Indonesia, Brazil, India).  The KFC outlets, saturated throughout most China cities, stay more jampacked with hungry chicken customers than overcrowded industrial henhouses.   The Chinese also produce a mind-boggling 500 billion eggs annually.  And those hens are not free ranging.

Not enough of us care yet about the quality of what we stick in our mouths.  Just keep the buckets of nuggets coming.

But in fairness, some do care, a tiny bit, which is why demand for free-range is on the rise.  But in fairness to fairness, this is just free-range marketing.  The image of chickens running around, foraging and pecking the ground as is their nature, living part of their life in the sun, makes (some of) us feel a little better about eating them and their eggs.  No problem, we are free-range humans.  We simply expanded the definition of free-range to include the addition of a popup window to a giant, industrial overpacked chicken coup, containing thousands of birds. As long as the window is open for a few minutes per day, even if only a hand-full lucky enough to be near the window have a glimpse of the outside, voila, we have free range chickens — and free range eggs, and a warm & fuzzy image as a bonus.

But soon, thanks to,

  • a growing movement to improve the environmental impact of industrial chicken production,
  • an eagerness to significantly upgrade food quality, and
  • a new, determined focus to raise the standards for the humane treatment of animals,

a good portion of the world’s chicks destined for meat and eggs will soon be free-ranging, roaming the earth for real….along with fairies, leprechauns, and free-range humans.