Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Is today’s American Buddhism tribal and myopic?

My answer to the question that titles this article is a resounding YES, but I raise the issue, not to bury Caesar or castigate Brutus -- though I WILL get a castigating swat or two in before this blogpost is through, judgmental pundit that I am -- but to raise the discussion.

Buddhism isn’t about only those of us that claim the designation of Buddhist, but about the circumstance of everyone. It’s not as if we were all Hawai’ians and our discussions were about the archipelago where we live, and things narrowly pertaining to we’uns, the surfing, hotel management and telling tourists about what it's like living close to a volcano.

I submit that Buddhism is about suffering. And, I submit that suffering is universal, endured by all humans except a scant few with a vaulting pole in their head or in a far-advanced stage of dementia. And that suffering is a circumstance that waylays cows and dogs and squirrels from time-to-time and a thousand other species of our fellow traveller animals on this big blue whirling planet. Doesn’t our concern reach out to all of them?

Just as massive air pollution that emanates from here in the US affects the world, suffering all over the world HAS TO affect us, involve us and concern us. And yet, American Buddhists’ interests in the world [at least, when we see ourselves in the narrow category of “American Buddhist” is focused on Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other nations that have significant Buddhist populations. Why is this?

Is the circumstance of a Buddhist suffering of a different order of misery that we should favor it at getting our keen attention, as opposed to the misery of non-Buddhists? Basically, are we all here just to look after the tribe? Is our spiritual maturity that ill-advanced? In other words: Are we all just yahoos (in the Swiftian, not online, sense) on this freakin wayward bus we call earth?

“Our” magazines and some of the buddhoblogs that discuss issues of worldwide significance talk about Buddhism, as well they should and must, but not in the context of suffering soldiers In Afghanistan near Pakistan. Why is that? JUST because there are no Buddhists to frame the story?

Sebastian Junger wrote this tremendous book, WAR, that ventures far afield to a place where intensity and fear and courage are most extreme. Isn’t Buddhism there, no matter that self-proclaimed Buddhists aren’t? Shouldn’t the farthest places be within our reach -- from the heights of heaven to the pits of hell?

Must we go to India or Nepal to find Buddhism? Don’t you think the fount of Buddhism is already close by, and if we don’t know that it is close by and everywhere [and not especially so in those "special" places], haven’t we lost it?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Stop Screaming! Start Meditating.

Kids are freakin’ nuts these days!  Forgive me for being so blunt.  I’m sure that many of you have children that you love and adore, (or at least a couple of cute little cousins or something that you buy Christmas presents for) but come on, be honest; they’re a little crazy, right? 
From the moment they’re born, we bombard them with external stimulation.  We start by blasting Mozart (or Jay-Z) into their little ears as they’re lying in their cribs.  As soon as they’ve developed enough muscle in their tiny torsos to sit up by themselves, we plop them down in front of the television and assault their brand new brains with mindless atrocities like the Teletubbies.  Not long after we get them hooked on T.V, we introduce them to their first real DRUG:  Sugar.  We fill their baby bottles up with soda and pump their little stomachs full of High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Too Much Mountain Dew
As soon as they develop enough dexterity in their cute little fingers, we hand them a video game controller to teach them how to kill zombies.  Some kids spend six hours a day using their thumbs to shoot at innocent civilians and gore their way through screen after screen of rebel, Nazi soldiers.   Before long, they’ve got their own cell phone, an iPod, a Facebook account, and they’re staying up until 2 AM to watch the latest Saw movie. 
That’s not to mention all the medication we dole out to them in the name of good science.  Kids eat more Ritalin than they do fruit. 
Sounds grim, right? 
Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit… but not by much.  Check out this recent article (one among many) in the New York Times about how electronics are literally changing the physiology our brains: 
Computer Addiction

Here’s a quote from a woman interviewed in this article talking about how her husband’s addiction to his computer has affected him:
 “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.” 
Sounds kinda like ANTI-MINDFULNESS, doesn’t it? 

I spend an average of twelve-hours-a-day with kids.  I teach middle school English.  Yep, Middle School.  You remember it, right?  Think back to that time when your (supposed) best friend went behind your back and told everyone about how you got your period while you were playing volleyball in gym class and then proceeded to launch a school-wide hate campaign against you, complete with pictures of your face decorated with giant Tampons sticking out from your ears and eye sockets…
Ringing any bells? 
It’s gotten pretty bad out there.  In fact, the entire education system in our country is basically in shambles.  Teachers aren’t teaching, school boards are pissing away what little money they have on everything EXCEPT what’s best for the students and politicians are running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to figure out a way to test kids to see if they’re actually learning anything.  I’ve got news for you… most of them aren’t. 
Education Policy = Headless Chicken
For Christ’s sake, there are 12-year-olds committing suicide; hanging themselves in their closets, because they can’t handle the pressure of it all! 
Middle school is crazy.  I don’t know if it’s hormones, or if it’s because they’re just bored as hell, but middle school is kind of like a mini-mental institution.
I’ve taught school in settings ranging from conservative Catholic to urban ‘hoods in New York City.  Plus, I have a twelve year old.  (I’m 30.  Do the math.)  So, I kind-of know what I’m talking about here.  Maybe you think I sound “jaded” or “burnt out”?  Nah… I’m just realistic (and I have a morbid sense of humor). 
The really crazy thing is… I LOVE IT!  Middle school students offer the greatest challenge to teachers because of their unique position in life.  They’re “no longer children” but “not quite adult yet”.  Consequently, I believe they offer the greatest sense of fulfillment and reward to those of use willing to brave the trenches. 
Over on my blog, “Buddhism Sucks”, I’m doing a series of posts on meditation.  Specifically, I’m trying to deconstruct the watered down, heavily commercialized cult of “American Buddhism” in an effort to extract the legitimate, practical instructions on meditation that so many of us desperately need in our lives. 
American kids are suffering. 
She's not getting a good education.  Plus, no shirt. 
Yeah, I said it… S-U-F-F-E-R-I-N-G!  You know, DUKKHA; that overused, played out Buddhist tenet that pops up in every single time you even hear the word Buddhism.  It’s scrawled on every page in every single book and talked about by every single Buddhist “teacher” on the face of the earth.  Sometimes I think we’re so obsessed with the idea of suffering that we’re adding a whole new sadomasochistic dimension to Buddha’s teachings.  Not that suffering isn’t key; it is, but PLEASE STOP CRAMMING IT DOWN MY EVER-LOVIN’ THROAT! 
Or at least give me a chance to swallow before you offer me another bite! 
Plus if we’re so concerned with suffering, let’s open our eyes to the fact that there’s a whole world of underrepresented “sentient beings” out there who are feeling it too!  What’s worse for kids though, is that they’re totally unaware that they are suffering.  They’re too busy texting (or sexting) to notice! 
Whoever’s CEO of the corporation called American Buddhism needs to sit down with his marketing team and switch focus groups from white, upper-middle class professionals and direct some attention to the kids wallowing in our educational system.   
If there’s anyone out there who benefit from a down-to-earth approach to meditation, it’s kids.  In addition to being used as a strategy for dealing with the stresses in their lives, meditation could possibly be the key to reshaping the whole educational system in our country.  I believe that the development of a focused meditation practice within the classroom could be just the thing we need to reshape school culture and create a climate of calm where students from every background would benefit. 
My intention in writing for Progressive Buddhism is that maybe someone out there could use some of the insights I can offer into teaching/practicing meditation with kids.  In the short time I’ve been practicing, I’ve seen enormous benefits both in and out of the classroom.  Conceptually, it’s such a simple practice, but when done correctly and with regularity, I believe it to be enormously transformative. 
Many students have such short attention spans because we’ve developed a society conditioned to INSTANT GRATIFICATION.  This is particularly true when it comes to kids.  They can’t even sit still for longer than five minutes without seeing something explode or a really nice set of tits.  Forget about sitting alone to read a book cover to cover; that’s a joke.  (Unless, of course, there’s a book out there that’s ABOUT exploding tits, that is.)

+ tits = Fun!

Kids begin their day in America’s classrooms carrying more baggage than ever before:
·       Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)
·       Absent father figure/positive male role model
·       Poverty (Especially in light of the current economic situation)
·       Emotional Disturbance (ED)
·       Physical abuse
·       English as a second language (ESL + ELL)
·       The Achievement Gap
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a taste of the obstacles that many children need to overcome just to receive a decent education in one of our schools.  I didn’t even bother to mention the special needs that many students require in terms of additional educational services (SPED). 
In addition, many of my students don’t eat healthy meals, they don’t have a clean place to do their homework, and they are exposed to sexuality WAY before they’re ready.  What’s worse is that even if they WERE able to transcend these setbacks, many of them aren’t even able to receive a good education because the school they’re attending DOESN’T OFFER ONE! 
What about the kids that do “well” in school?  Those are the ones who are so stressed out and anxious about getting good grades that they’re crippled by the pressure.  Ever heard of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan?
Read It’s a Funny Kind of Story by Ned Vizzini
Ok, so we can’t really shove Buddhism down their throats.  That would violate their Constitutional right to an education free from religion.  (Not that I’m even advocating that…)
I started teaching meditation a few years ago to a group of 8th grade students at a private, Catholic school in Brooklyn in response to what I saw as a detrimental attitude from other the other teachers I was working with.  I was relatively new to the profession and had never worked in an urban environment before.  The shock of seeing grown men and women treat their students with callous disrespect sickened me.  As a direct result from this treatment, the students reacted with extreme recklessness and a total disregard for their education. 
The "Penguin" can't teach you how to meditate!

Their poor behavior was impacting their education in a negative way and I was uneasy about sending them off to high school without a method for taking responsibility for themselves and coping with life’s stresses.  I felt it was my duty as their teacher to prepare them to be independent, confident young men and women that could interact with their environment in a positive way. 
Although I’d had several years of personal experience with meditation, I’d never worked with kids in this capacity.  Trust me, managing a room full of 32-hormone-filled-teenagers is quite a challenge and doesn’t come without a headache.  But being a person who hated school himself (left high school at 16), I was appalled by the way in which these “experienced” teachers related to their students.  Yelling is not an effective way to deal with teenagers.  I thought meditation would be better. 
I began a program of non-religious, guided meditation, based on what I learned from my Tibetan teachers and practiced myself.  The results were almost immediate.  Behavior improved overnight and the classroom climate became calm and peaceful for the most part.  Not only did I train my students to use meditation as a coping method, but I believe that many of them began to see their practice as an efficient way to deepen their understanding of themselves and escape the drudgery of an overbearing school environment. 
Since then, I’ve gone on to use similar techniques with success in other classrooms.  Below you will find a general presentation of the methods I’ve used.  I hope you find them useful and encouraging.   
Part of the problem with Buddhism in America is that there are so many different traditions, subject to unlimited interpretation.  This diversity can be confusing to navigate and frustrating to a newcomer.  What’s more is that there are so many people out there “teaching” meditation or writing books on the subject who are just relaying traditional Asian instructions that they don’t fully understand themselves.  The result much of the time is that many explanations of how to DO meditation are either very dull and dry, or they are so vague and mystical that they are impossible to practice.  
Watch out for this guy!
Meditation is VERY simple to understand conceptually.  Although it can be a difficult thing to integrate as a concrete practice into every day life, there is no need to surround it with a mystical, other-worldly hype that removes the practicality from it’s instruction. 
These methods are very simple, practical, and down to earth.  Anyone can do it.  You don’t need to be Buddhist or even particularly spiritual.  After all, meditation is foremost a method for self-examination and metaphysical analysis. 
First, a couple of rules:
1.     There is no STEADFAST method for practicing meditation.  There are many ways, as are there many kinds of people.
2.     Meditation is an individual activity.  Just like painting or learning to play an instrument, you can take a class or read about it, but you have to do some work and experimentation on your own to find your own way. 
3.     You have to practice it regularly to see any results.  It’s like working out. 

When I first introduce the subject of meditation to my students, I like to start by initiating a short, simple discussion.  We talk about our pre-conceived notions about meditation and I try to lead them away from thinking about it as a “cool”, “trendy” thing and to understand it as a method for increasing concentration and relaxation within themselves.  We discuss how meditation is a method for spending time alone with your mind in order to understand it better and use it to its fullest potential.  I tell them that one of the coolest side-effects from practicing meditation is a feeling of ease or calm that would help them get through their day at school. 
Since I’m teaching in a non-religious environment, I don’t inject discussion of any traditional “Buddhist” topics such as karma or reincarnation, though if they come up on their own, I try to demystify them and shelve them as topics for a later discussion. 
Also, being that meditation is a very new experience for them, I limit the majority of my instruction to samantha techniques rather than vipassana.  For a discussion of the difference between these two “forms” of meditation, please read my blog (http://buddhismsucks.blogspot.com) as there is an ongoing discussion happening over there.  (Shameless self-promotion, I know.)  Plus, since my students primarily need a way to harness their energy and develop their concentration skills to perform well in school, I believe that samantha is particularly applicable. 
I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion about what’s the “best” posture to use when meditating.  Some people are so addicted to the Asian method of sitting on the floor, propped up on an expensive PILLOW that the posture actually becomes an obstacle rather than an aid to meditation.  
This is WAAAY too expensive!
The whole point is that you want to “sit” in a position where the body doesn’t distract you from the work you’re doing with your mind.  If it means that you’re standing on your head with your legs twisted behind your neck, fine - whatever floats your boat.  It really doesn’t matter if you look all cool and Buddha-like or not. 
For my students, since I’m usually working with 25-30 kids at once, I just instruct them as they’re sitting in their desks.  The basic principles are the same:  back straight, hands folded, and feet flat.  Relaxed, yet alert.  If you’re at all familiar with Buddhist meditation, you know the drill. 
I’ve trained my class using a bell technique.  Rather than have a set time to meditate, I just choose a point in our busy schedule when I feel they “need” meditation time and I ring the bell once and they know to immediately get into position.  It took a few weeks to train them to get to this point.  Have patience!
Once they’re all sitting properly, I ring the bell again to signal the start of a simple deep breathing exercise to set the tone.  Together, we all take five deep breaths in unison.  It’s very simple, but highly effective in getting a room full of middle-schoolers to feel centered and calm.  Long, slow breaths – in through the nose and out through the mouth – taking in as much air as possible and then expelling it.  In this controlled exercise, it makes the students feel as if they’re starting a serious endeavor. 
There are many different ways to do this.  Just do what feels natural. 
Once this deep breathing exercise is complete and everyone appears focused, we move on to samantha.
At this stage in the process, my students return their breathing to normal.  In earlier classes at the beginning of the year, I’ve trained them to watch their breath by focusing their attention on the small area near the nostrils where they can feel the movement of air into and out of their bodies.  Although there are many variations on samantha breathing meditation, I find it helpful to choose an object that is simple, but very specific.  The subtle sensation of the movement of air felt on the tip of the nose is the perfect object for my students.  They’re clear about what they should be doing and they can wrap their minds around the concept.  Easy. 
Usually, I allow them to watch the breath in this way for about 3-5 minutes.  Sometimes, I provide gentle guidance to them if I feel that they are having trouble staying focused.  I say things like: 
·       Stay focused on your breathing
·       Feel the air coming into your body and keeping you alive
·       If you feel yourself getting distracted by your thoughts, gently remind yourself that you’re breathing right now
Again – just say what feels natural.  The point is to remind them of what they’re doing.  I can usually tell if they’re having trouble staying focused by watching their posture.  If some students start fidgeting of shifting around in their seats, I know that their attention is wavering.  I try to use a gentle, yet authoritarian tone to guide their focus.  On average, I’d say that 90-95% of the students are able to watch their breathing for the entire time period. 
The whole process is very simple and usually takes no longer than 8-10 minutes.  Although it seems like a short amount of time, I find that when introduced into the daily schedule, it gives my students a much-appreciated break and a chance to connect with themselves in a way that they don’t normally get. 
From time to time, I increase the amount of time we spend in samantha, depending on the climate of the room.  If they appear to be focused and we have the time, I let them go longer. 
I ring the bell a third time to indicate that the meditation period is over and we go immediately back to work.  Sometimes, I’ll allow students to contribute comments on their experience.  It all depends on what feels natural in the moment. 
See - very simple and VERY effective.  Nothing weird, mystical, or even particularly “Buddhist” here.  Just a straightforward method for increasing concentration and awareness that consequently can impact student performance. 
From time to time, I like to vary our meditation time with some guided practices.  For instance, when I feel like the students are having a bad day or that the energy in the room is kind of negative, I try a purification visualization with them.  If there have been some conflicts among the students, I’ll have them do a modified tonglen meditation, focusing on developing feelings of compassion within themselves.
If there is any interest in instructions for these practices, please let me know and I’d be happy to do another post. 
No matter what flavor of meditation they are practicing, I find that my students are wholly more focused, calm, and attentive throughout the school day and it gives me a good feeling when I’m standing in the front of the classroom teaching them.  The climate of the environment in my classroom is calm and ordered and I find that communication between myself and my students is greatly enhanced. 
Meditation isn’t an exotic practice.  It’s supposed to be practical and simple.  Don’t worry if you’re not being Buddhist enough!