Archive for the ‘Entanglements’ Category

One of the big names in psychology Philip G. Zimbaro was a guest on Skavlan, the popular talk show in Sweden. He talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment he was running in 1971 and what it revealed about the situations in which “good people are placed in bad circumstances. ” I had learnt about the famous prison simulation a few years ago from the German film “Das Experiment” (2001).  (It was not exactly something one learnt about growing up in the Soviet, the whole country being basically a prison cell.)

The experiment scheduled for two weeks was interrupted after six days as the situation started spiraling out of control. Watching the film today it is hard not to draw parallels with the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib by the American soldiers.

What astonished me in Dr Zimbaro’s account was that he acknowledged how in the matter of six days he totally identified with his role of the superintendent of the prison, stopped seeing the people and saw only “prisoners”, how the only thing he cared about was that the “guards” followed their routines, although he saw the escalation of the abuse by the “guards”. Could that be?

The site dedicated to the experiment takes us on a tour around it, “uncovering what it tells us about the human nature.”  I catch myself lingering over the Begin the Slide Show button. What am I about to see the proof of? That in difficult circumstances we forget about being human? (The roles of the prisoners and guards in the original experiment were assigned by chance, nobody actually wanted to be a “guard” from the beginning).

Another experiment comes to mind:  two groups of volunteers (novice meditators and what I would call mega meditators – those who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditators, like Matthieu Ricard) submitted their brains for scrutiny by neuroscientists when practicing compassion meditation towards all beings.  The difference between the two groups was striking, the monks showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves that are said to underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.”

So if we practice meditation for hours and hours, we can actually change the structure of the brain and become more compassionate? That if anything is a good reason enough to introduce meditation in schools and working places, right?



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The two comments to my one of my previous posts on community have been most thought-provoking (thank you Casey and Nathan!) and triggered in me some further reflection on what tribe I want to belong to and what I can contribute with. One of the questions that came up for me was: at what point does a group of people become a sangha? What’s a sangha? Then came the webinar with Dosho that so promisingly was entitled “Ingredients of Community”:

The quotes from Zen ancestors that Dosho offered in the presentation left me with no answers as to what made a community of practitioners and were more about unskillful ways to relate to others in the community (don’t-do-this-be-nice-and-drop-the-judgements). I think if we have a shared intention, we will figure out the ways to be around each other that would be in tune with that intention.

One of the teachers whose teachings and methods resonate with me, Ken McLeod, offers the following words on Sangha:

“…More generally, the Sangha consists of all individuals who practice the Dharma with the intention of waking up into the mystery of being. The Sangha is the community based on shared intention, not on a mutual dependence. Just as the term Buddhism incorrectly implies belief, so does the term Buddhist incorrectly implies believer. A person who practices the Dharma is, more accurately, a follower or traveler of a path, the path that Buddha Shakyamuni discovered.

The path is far from easy… Fellow travellers, companions on the path, provide us not only with support but also with the benefit of their own experience and understanding…” (Ken McLeod, “Wake Up to Your Life” p. 44-45)


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When I ask someone what it is they like about their partner, often the answer tells me more about what that person receives from their partner – a feeling of being appreciated, loved, understood, safe, etc. It seems what we are looking for in relationships is to have our emotional needs satisfied. Is this not expecting too much? Is it even possible?

I am interested in how something that starts like a romantic movie on the scale of “Titanic” turns into a low-budget drama with elements of nightmare. What is it in me that triggers and steers this process from the very start? Why longing for a working relationship, I set myself up for failure and sabotaged the few ones I had? What would it take from me to live together without hurting my beloved? I have been trying to remember a single morning when I woke up and said to myself, “How can I make sure I get hurt again and while I am at it, why not help another soul feel miserable?” Not that I remember. There seems to be a glitch in the system somewhere.

So I thought I’d take a good look at the dynamics of intimate relationships and try to see where my own judgement fails me.

Why this exploration? Because

a) those same patterns show up in all our relationships although not as powerfully

b) I strive to live a conscious life in this universe not of my choosing

c) let’s just say I finally bought Elisabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and find myself warming up to the idea of giving myself a try at relationships

“Of all the ideologies that possess the contemporary soul, perhaps none is more powerful, more seductive, and possibly more delusory than the romantic fantasy that there is someone out there who is right for us, the long-sought soul mate, what I call “the magical other” , the one who will truly understand us, take care of us, meet our needs, repair the wounds, and, with a little luck, spare us the burden of growing up and meeting our needs”.

James Hollis, “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Your Life”, p 104


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(day ??)

These days I’ve been paying attention to how easy it is for me to start believing my own thoughts and feelings and get identified with them. If I ask my friend to show me a photograph of her family, I know this is a picture of the family, not the family itself. Yet when it comes to the images in my head, mental representations of other people, I often confuse those images with the person herself, which of course influences the way I relate to the person. This is especially true in relation to someone I (think) I know for a while.

The same goes for feelings. Notice how the structure of the language helps us to sustain the illusion that we are what we are feeling? I say “I am jealous” and while jealousy might be something I feel, I am not that feeling. Jealousy is one of the strong feelings that came up on a number of occasions during the last few weeks so I took a chance to investigate it a little closer: how it feels when it arises in me, what thoughts and beliefs it is connected with, what my habitual strategies for dealing with jealousy are.

One question that can come up is: does it really matter if I identify with the feeling? Isn’t it just about semantics? Makes all the difference in the world. If I believe that there is someone there – me, myself and Irene? 🙂 – who is jealous – I feel the need to ease the sufferings soon as possible by whatever means I know, often by retaliating, making whoever I identify as the offender pay for my moment of misery.

The discoveries so far:

– jealousy feels very warm and very intense

– starts in the area around the heart, spreading into the stomach;

– there is nothing inherently unpleasant in the feeling of warmth itself; the unpleasantness associated with it seems to come from the belief that something is being done to me; my whole world is about to collapse => fear of annihilation? It appears I believe that I am under attack, am about to vanish and something has to be done about it. But whenever I acted on that feeling of urgency and protected myself it involved two roads well-traveled: either trying to get back at the offender or suppressing the feeling and bringing up the emotional shield (the emotional pattern I learnt from the females in my family, the one that I myself as a child was hurt by many times and that I always resented!).

Lesson learned:

  • nothing is gained by immediate retaliation;
  • the feeling can be locked if I try to resist it in any way;
  • the best strategy for handling it is just be with it, feel it and do nothing about the feeling itself.

From Dosho’s presentation at the webinar:


“Given that what different types of beings see is different, we should have some doubt about this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?” (Dogen, from Mountains and Rivers Sutra).

At the peak of our concentrated effort on this, we should concentrate still more. Therefore, our practice and verification, our pursuit of the way, must also be not merely of one or two kinds, and the ultimate realm must also have a thousand types and ten thousand kinds.


October 24 (day ??), 2009

There has been a dive in everything that has to do with the formal side of the practice. I haven’t done zazen in a few days, missed today’s webinar without any good reason and… had some cider last night! Can it be that I am making up for the rebelious days if my youth that I never had? Or else I am simply making sure it is not just a thing I do, a routine: a sit, a webinar, a text?

October 19 (day ??, who cares?), 2009

T S Elliot provided a perfect capping phrase for the past week:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Looking for those forks in the toilet is not entirely an easy business. Once I see it there, there is a question to deal with:


Sitting became a challenge once again. 😦

October 13 (day 47), 2009

Another Webinar and we are still looking at firewood and ashes plus this time a fork in the toilet and the cart with an ox!

When the Ch’an master Ta-chi of Chiang-hsi was studying with the Ch’an master Ta-hui of Nan-hyue, after immediately receiving the mind seal, he always set in meditation. Once Nan-hyue went to Ta-chi and said, “Worthy one, what are figuring to do, sitting there in meditation?”. Chiang-hsi, “I am figuring to make a Buddha”.

At this point Nan-hyue took up a tile and began to rub it on a stone. At length, Ta-chi asked, “Master, what are you doing?”. Nan-hyue replied, “When a man is driving a cart, if the cart doesn’t go, should he beat the cart or beat the ox?”

Dosho asked us to consider how … where … when my life is a fork in the toilet. Actually, I got somewhat excited and playful around the image of the ill-placed fork. (What does it say about me right now? 🙂 ) Meret Oppenheim’s “Furry cup” came to mind. Maybe what now seems like a bad place for a fork might inspire us to some creative solutions in life? I guess this is not the angle Dosho was aiming at so I gotta check for the forks in my life.

furry cup

October 2 (day 35), 2009

The capping phrase for this week has been “solitude of prime numbers”, the English translation of the title of Paulo Giordano’s book “La solitudine dei numeri primi”.

Prime numbers are inherently solitary: they can only be divided by themselves and by one. They don’t really fit with other numbers but still they are part of this whole number landscape. The path of internal transformational work seems to be a lonely path. In one of the books I read a quote that struck home with me: we cannot exchange as much as a fart with another person. I feel like a primary number right now: surrounded by others and at times quite lonely, stuck with myself and one.

September 27 (day 30), 2009

Had the second Moon Reflected in the Water 100 days Webinar with Dosho and other participants. We are digging deeper into Genjokoan and once again received the question “What was it the monk saw that he expressed by bowing?” as part of the homework.

Dogen’s language is beautiful but the text is based on paradoxes which puts a strain on the brain used to dualistic thinking. This is when I make an effort and the brain “hurts” as when I do some brain gymnastics. Sometimes when I drop the effort, it happens: for a short moment the mind is able to reconcile how “there is delusion and realization” and “there is no delusion and realization” at the same time, this both/ and, and thinking itself stops. The experience is a lot like when I gaze into she sky for a while. There is this expansion of the mind that embraces all and which knows no differentiation. Then something happens and the fear of losing my self takes over – I get back to either/or state where one thing is always understood in relation to another, the thinking my mind is so used to.

Still…. the “blossoms fall” and “weeds grow”. There’s comfort in that. Even the ugly and mundane are included in this universe to which Dogen invites us. Even the either/or (dualistic) thinking is part of it. 🙂

Picture 4

September 21 (day 24), 2009

sick of names
sick of whatever its called
i dedicate every pore
to what’s here now

– Ikkyu

The dreamer_small

The Dreamer of Lars Widenfalk

September 19 (day 22), 2009

Body like a mountain.

Breath like the wind.

Mind like the sky.

(from the instructions from the mountain hermit tradition of Tibet)

I find a half-hour session is to be optimal for a sitting at this stage. It is quite challenging and it does seem too long but since it normally takes for my mind 15-20 minutes to unwind it makes more sense to sit somewhat longer than that.

September 18 (day 21), 2009

My primary focus these days is on not just making time for meditation in my life but making it a priority.

Ken McLeod‘s words on meditation hit home with me:

“Meditation needs to be approached directly and unambiguously: either you make it a priority and practice, or you don’t and it falls by the wayside”.

In the last few days I can see how that can be the case, expecially when some of the basic needs that is risking not to be met (in my case it is getting enough sleep) can be used as an excuse for cutting down on the sitting time or skipping it altogether.

September 15 (day 18), 2009

Bringing awareness to my consumption habits also brought up realisation that with every little thing in my hands – wether created by nature or by men – the whole planet passes through my hands and my body. I clearly saw that I often take for granted all the wonderful things that surroud me and in which both the planet and sentient beings have invested a lot of energy. Sometimes even lives.

September 13 (day 16), 2009

Double McAngo

Even Wild Fox Zen with Dosho started the Ango period and I joined that goup as well. Had the first 100 days Webinar on Saturday discussing Genjokoan. Fun seeing others (although the technology allowed to see only six people at a time) and hearing about their insigths concerning this facicle of Dogen’s. I don’t think I uttered anything that made sense or that I understood anything. 🙂 For now am letting it to sink in hoping the permanent wind of dharma will reach me with time too.

Picture 5

September 8 (day 11), 2009

  • A few times sat zazen with others in our virtual Zen hall which does not happen often. Just booking myself online and sitting with a webcam boosts my motivation to actually show up. Right now I can use all motivation I can get.
  • The Heart Sutra that I now chant on the daily basis has captured my imagination.
  • Lots of resistance towards the Metta verse. It just doesn’t feel “right” to sit and do that when I decide. Probably because I question the the whole idea that it is possible to cultivate metta this way.
  • Keep forgetting the meal chant before each meal. 😦 I don’t know it by heart so I take the little piece of paper with the chant everywhere I go but forget taking it out.

September 2 (day 5), 2009

  • The whole giving up stuff thing (coffee and alcohol for me which was about an occasional glass of good wine to go with a good meal that I really enjoyed) I choose to see in terms of what I get instead of what I don’t get. When it comes to coffee I get positive health effects by not polluting the system. Instead I use green teas and enjoy a cup much longer than I enjoy a cup of espresso. The unexpected bonus! 🙂
  • I miss wine more than I thought I would. Listening to the recent podcast from Here on Earth on the pshycology of enjoying wine certainly didn’t make it easier 🙂 Not being able to enjoy a glass of Chianti made me think what it is in wine that attracts me. For me wine is about more than just its immediate qualities and the somewhat changed state of mind. It is about sharing a good meal with friends, memories of the warm and distant places wine awokes even when I am on my own, a certain mellowness that comes with a relaxed atmosphere (one normally doesn’t drink wine when being pressed for time). The desire has not been strong so far and I think that knowing that this is a temporary depravation gives the whole experience of wanting a bitter sweet touch.
  • I find the motivation to sit much stronger these days as I also feel the support of the members of the sanga. Sometimes cats sit with me, too.
  • Metta meditaiton practice is still not a part of the routine.

August 31 (day 3), 2009

This week I focus on bringing the attention to making food. As in staying with it and not leaving the kitchen to give a phone call that takes almost as long as it takes for oates to grow and definately gives them plenty of time to burn.

burnt oates_solarised

A poem by Ed Brown to remind myself that there is …

No measuring up

August 30 (day 2), 2009

Missed the first zazenkai (even in recording) – great start! The good news is we have a fresh start every moment.

My commitments for the Ango:

  • listen to Jundo’s short “Sit-a-Long” talk every evening, then sit 30 min zazen;
  • join in each and every 1-hour Saturday Treeleaf Zazenkai, and 4-hour monthly Treeleaf Zazenkai netcast without fail (the good news is they are available in recording);
  • add Metta Verse Practice to the routine every day (can do on the commuter train);
  • be more active in the virtual sangha forum by sharing and discussing the Ango experiences;
  • commit to give up coffee and alcohol during the Practice period;
  • bring awareness into the areas of personal finances and consumption as well as food and eating (mindful eating);
  • commit to mindful eating at least once a day;
  • meet with the teacher via videolink at least once per month during the Ango;
  • commit to sit the 2-DAY ROHATSU RETREAT (scheduled for netcast the weekend of December 5 & 6);
  • contrinute to the community by offering some pro-bono coaching sessions (focus on students and artists; put up announcements in the places I frequent and want to support);

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If I had a prayer, it would be this:

“God, spare me from the desire

for love, approval, or appreciation”.

From “Loving What is”, by Byron Katie

Let me say from the start:  when it comes to romantic love, I was cultured into the whole you-complete-me belief  through films, books and some ideas that basically made it impossible to have a healthy relationship. I grew up in a culture where jealousy was (and still is) taken as a sign of loving someone and even encouraged (especially in men).  The idea that loving someone involves an emotional attachment pervades many cultures but what does it actually imply? It means I depend on another human being for happiness. I depend on you for my happiness. How does this sound for responsibility?


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In Asia there is a very clever trap for catching monkeys. People hollow out a coconut, put something sweet in it, and make a hole at the bottom of the coconut just big enough for the monkey to slide its open hand in, but not big enough for the monkey to withdraw its hand as a fist. They attach the coconut to the tree, and the monkey comes along and gets trapped. What keeps the monkey trapped? Only the force of desire, of clinging, of attachment. All the monkey has to do is let go of the sweet, open its hand, slip it out, and be free. But only a very rare monkey will do that.

~  Joseph Goldstein, Transforming the Mind, Healing the World


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Just when I thought I started noticing a soft glow of a halo forming around my head, toying with the idea that I was actually becoming a more balanced person – bang! – a major revelation:  this is all B.S, I am full of B. S.


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