August 11, 2011

Buddha Buzz: Honesty, neuroscience, and a sparrow stuck in duct tape

Honesty takes balls. At least that's Adam Genkaki Fisher, teacher at Black Moon Zendo in Northhampton, Mass., tells us on his blog genkaku-again. In his recent post "real and manufactured courage," Fisher recounts the Zen tale of a samurai warrior who acts like he has just finished a fine meal, when in truth he hasn't eaten for days.

"How admirable. How courageous. How grounded in strong vision," the tale-teller implied. Zen students should be every bit as courageous and undeterred and stable in their efforts.

But I wondered then and no longer wonder today: Wouldn't a courageous man ask for a bit of food? It takes real courage to beg, to have nothing to give in return, to put your life in someone else's hands. There is no pretense in it. It is as hard as it is honest.

And honesty takes real balls.

So long as we're being honest, I have to say, personally find discussions of Buddhism and neuroscience boring. I mean, it's not like I'd stop meditating if scientists suddenly started telling me that meditation isn't healthy. Perhaps you start meditating because you’ve heard from outside sources that it’s good for you, and that's great, but you keep meditating because you’ve experienced the benefits of meditation. If you know it works, is it so important to understand why it works? Even if you do find the Buddhism/neuroscience conversation interesting, it's important that you don't get too caught up in the data and results of clinical studies. As Ed Halliwell makes clear in "Getting results from mindfulness...and letting go of them," a recent post on his blog at

To fall into this goal-oriented mindset is to fundamentally misunderstand what meditation is, and how it helps. Indeed, expecting meditation to “make me better,” perhaps based on the results of clinical studies, may well sabotage the practice, whose benefit comes partly from letting go of the tendency to grasp for results.

It's easy to fall in love with the idea of meditation and the results it will bring. Especially when people like Sharon Salzberg explain it. In this video, recorded at a retreat she led at the Garrison Institute, Sharon talks about meditation as skills training to make our awareness more flexible and open.

When we're able to pay attention we start to notice all kinds of things. Some good, some bad, all carry with them metaphor potential. Take for example Brookie, a Buddhist priest with The Blue Mountain Lotus Society, from The Blue Lotus Seed blog. In a recent post, "Leaning Into Life," Brookie recounts a story of walking her collie and coming across a sparrow with duct tape stuck to its wing. She compares the bird's plight to ours.

I tried to get closer, to somehow capture the bird, but it was too fast (amazingly) and obviously freaking out, and then I felt badly adding to its distress.

I called the dog away and we watched as the fledgling found a hiding place. We continued our walk. I took the dog home and retrieved our pond net, thinking I might capture the little guy. But when I returned and tried, I just managed to scare him more, until he literally disappeared. Even with duct tape, he had managed to hide himself too well for my half assed intervention.

I walked home, feeling ineffectual and disgusted.

We see ourselves in the struggles of the natural world around us, and we empathize—there's really no separation here, and we intuit this fact on a fundamental level. Mindfully, we try to live from this realization.

But here's another way of looking at things, and call me naive, but this is what I prefer to consider today: perhaps all that chasing around in the underbrush forced the fledgling into the perfect V of a bush, where somehow he wedged his little bird body so tightly that he could only go forward, and in going forward, he was able to pull the duct tape free, liberating himself in the process, and leaving the tape stuck to the bush, which hardly cares at all.

We spend a lifetime, a very short lifetime really, trying to free ourselves of delusion, of greed and anger, and the residue of our habitual thought patterns and actions. Mindfully, we acknowledge places that force us into that V in the proverbial underbrush, where there is something that must be left behind as we push forward, if we are to awaken and find freedom from suffering.

Aw, well that's a swell note to enter a summer weekend on. Til next week!

Image: from the Flickr photostream of BradJacobson

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zendo's picture

As a psychologist and long time Buddhist practitioner, I welcome the very cool and elegant neuroscience of meditation. Not only has the research brought the dharma to a wider audience, the findings may yet illuminate forms of meditation that are the most efficacious for specfic psychological or spiritual concerns. Skillful means come in many forms. As for the tendency for research findings to foster gaining ideas and spiritual materialism, that is a problem inherent in any method (because it is part of the human condition) and one that practice (and life) itself will correct.

Alan Shusterman's picture

Nice observation. Several years ago I was drawn to meditation partly because I had heard news reports about scientific studies showing its benefits. Once I started practicing, I quickly found myself 'caught' in the paradox that I was meditating in order to better myself while at the same time my teachers were telling me that there was nothing for me to do and nothing for me to gain. Indeed, one benefit of my practice has been to discover many of the ways in which I try to better myself.

Can I ask you a very hypothetical question? You said you wouldn't "stop meditating if scientists suddenly started telling me that meditation isn't healthy." I think you meant you wouldn't stop if they said, "we can't find any benefits"? But would you stop if they suddenly said that meditation was somehow like smacking your head against a wall, that is, something that was actually bad for you?

Sam Mowe's picture

Good question. I'm not sure what I would do if scientists suddenly started saying that meditation was bad for me. I'm trying to think of a parallel situation—where my experience tells me that something is healthy/good but science says that it's not. Maybe caffeine?

One thing: if they said that it was like smacking my head against a wall, I definitely wouldn't stop. Because meditation doesn't hurt like smacking my head--in fact, most of the time it feels good--and how bad is smacking your head, really? If studies started showing that meditation gave you brain cancer, however, I'd have something to think about. But at the end of the day, I take everything neuroscience has to say with a grain of salt. We know so little about the brain (neuroscientists are the first to say so) and it seems to me like the next big brain discovery might very well invalidate everything we think we've learned so far.

Alan Shusterman's picture

I too find it hard to imagine what could be bad about meditation (beyond my tendency to cling to my practice), but who knows? Maybe doing 10,000 hours of meditation will be correlated with reduced short-term memory in senior citizens?

On the other hand, once one starts down the road of 'benefits', it seems like I can't help entertaining other possibilities (and I've heard most of these asked by people during meditation classes): Is sitting better than walking? Does sitting meditation X work better than sitting meditation Y? Is 30 minutes of X a day better or worse than 10 minutes of X? The next logical question (that I haven't heard anyone ask) is, Could X be bad for me? Medical science will probably offer some data on all of these things eventually.

Thanks for your response.