Perhaps just as important as the Begley book is the recent publication of The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (The Guilford Press, 2007) by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. It gives a detailed process of how to implement a meditation practice — and find happiness at the same time. Or in more Buddhist terms, relieve human suffering. The book comes with an audio CD with guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a much more practical book, compared to Begley’s: “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges thorugh paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Although it may not seem like it, but that is a mouthful of mindfulness. You don’t need a psychological study — you just have to sit and focus.
My interest in the Begley book is really part of an ongoing inquiry into the area of mind games &emdash; or rather the challenge of pushing mental ability to its human potential (self-realization), or healing from debilitating condition (depression, for instance), or warding off the effects of aging (I am 58 years old).
The Dana Foundation, a first-rate place for scientific information on the brain, recently posted Experts, Dalai Lama Discuss Meditation for Depression about a conference at Emory University in Atlanta last week. This conference was a continuation of the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and scientists that Begley wrote about. There was a similar conference, Center for Healthy Minds, organized with Georgetown University here in Washington in 2007.
What has struck me is that I’ve been moving in this direction for more four years, well before I started reading about these trends in neuroscience, mental health and wellness. I was on the right track. Probably, this meme had not gelled so cogently into an explicit message or I was picking up strands of the news and associated them in my mind. After all, this kind of research has been going on for more than 20 years. But is even more mind boggling is that I can sit on my mat and experience this same practice in a very personal way.
I finished reading the Sharon Begley book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Ballantine Books, 2007). Actually, I finished it more than 10 days ago, but have not had a chance to write about it. Now, it’s hard to remember what I wanted to do. I probably should have been writing as I was reading. Actually, I was traveling during some of that time so I could not post to my blog. Lots of excuses, lots of things keeping me busy, lots of yoga and meditation that take first priority.
In brief, the book firmed up my own sense of hope about where we are headed in the brain sciences. The leap of knowledge and understanding over the past two decades has been huge. And we are only beginning to reformulate theories of the mind and its workings. Freud as the great navigator of the ego and id has been left behind. Even the chemistry of Prozac and Valium seem to be the psychological equivalent of alchemy.
The narrative ran out of gas in the last three chapters. Begley depended on psychological studies and interviews of researchers for the meat of her content. That formula can be dry reading once it is repeated over 250 pages. Even the literary ruse of making the Dalai Lama the focal point of the narrative can squeeze out only so much drama. Begley probably could have spared us some of the dry details and gone straight to the conclusions of each study.
I was struck by the large number of podcasts that are available on the book. Blog Critics (March). National Public Radio (NPR) has two programs: Diane Rehm Program via Odeo and Talk of the Nation. Dr. Ginger Campbell Brain Science Podcast, Psychjourney Podcasts and Healing the Mind. I have not had a chance to listen to all of them.
Psychotherapy Networker The Wonders of Neuroplasticity, Discover: Rewiring the Brain, and Dana Foundation.
For additional background, here’s Sharon Begley’s personal website and the Richard Davidson’s personal page at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
What am I reading now? Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (Ballantine Books, 2007). Although this title might sound like one of those self-improvement guides that offers to trim the thighs or make you a cool million in a weekend, it is actually a really deep piece of scientific writing. Begley, whom I used to know decades ago when she worked for Newsweek, is the science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She has tapped into a fascinating story of pioneering research by neuroscientists and psychologists about what we understand as the human brain. But she also joins this narrative with the strange marriage with Buddhism as personified by the Dalai Lama. The nerds meet the holy man.
The sanctuary of this union is a place called the Mind and Life Institute, which actually holds the copyright on the book — so Begley is part of a larger enterprise. It’s also curious why the scientists who need to draw the Dalai Lama into the discussion. But I haven’t really gotten that far in the book.
This whole groundswell of enthusiasm for Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation is sweeping into the business of tending to the mind. If Freud once laid down the law for understanding the contradictions of the human mind, now it’s a spiritual practice without a supreme being. I’ve mentioned before that I like the idea that Buddha developed a sophisticated set of psychological protocols for relieving with human suffering.
What got me started into the book is that the transformation of human spirit can be manifested by remolding mental habits, but also actually alterations of physical manifestations, like spawning neurons and a thriving hippocampus. As someone who has felt the undertow of depression and literally sensed the physical change that it brought on me, the idea that I can take action to heal myself is an uplifting lesson at this stage of my life.
This is my third and final installment on Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam Books: 1999) Anyone who wants to embrace yoga in its fullest manifestation should (must!?) read it. There, I said it. I would not recommend it for a novice. The reader should have a few years of regular practice and have a working knowledge of yoga’s fundamentals, its history and philosophy. The book wet my appetite for digging deeper into yoga: my daily practice, my lab work in classes, my explorations in meditation and my intellectual engagement, in other words, the whole shebang. I feel that there is so much more that will be opened up to me with acceptance, patience and persistence, and it might come after a second reading. I’d give this book five stars on Amazon.
A trained observer of the human condition and a compelling storyteller, Cope combines his own life experience with those of other people who took up yoga and saw it change their lives, and throws in scientific research, philosophical scholarship and the theory of chakras for the bargain. It also provides an excellent look at how yoga is evolving in American culture, both the points of tension/friction and the synergy. Cope provide wise commentary and eye-opening insight into the human condition — you can see why he changed the names of the people he chronicled.
I had originally thought that the book focused on the Kripalu Center’s transition from a guru-focused institution to a more egalitarian, self-sustaining and more American organization. But only 15 pages (out of 330 pages) actually address the “scandal” of Amrit Desai resigning from the center because of sexual liaisons he had with disciples and the upheaval it brought to the people who had followed him. Cope really does not go into all the details so a full account will have to be found elsewhere. So the “crisis” only plays a minor role in the narrative, though it does give a distinctly different perspective to look at a yoga-centered residence (a kind of mega-studio/monastery, if your will) going through changes and it does influence Cope’s own perception because he has gone through this test by fire. By the way, Amrit Desai is still teaching in Florida, and has launched a CD on yoga nidra. No mention of his years in Kripalu.
Here’s a blogger’s opinion.The first and second parts of my review.
I am working my way through Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam Books: 1999) and find it a fascinating read. It’s up there with my three favorite yoga books. Cope makes a strong point for seeing yoga and transformation within the context of the community. Given the U.S. tendency to focus just on the physical side and strip away the rest, Cope writes, “Consciousness is transmitted in relationships… Company is more powerful than willpower… A caring community can help us create a safe domain in which personal experiences can be expressed, expanded and enriched.” (pp. 166-7 — these are just a few of the sentences that I had highlighted.) Of course, Cope’s own experience comes from within the Kripalu Center and naturally reflects that exposure to a sangha.
Most yoga studios are not going to have the capacity to create community, unless there is a very strong personality driving the initiative beyond being a mere business venture. This opens up a lot of other issues because of the bad vibes from gurus and cults. For that matter, not that many of practitioners are actively seeking community.
Cope’s insistence on the context of consciousness and the power of human relationships strike a resonant cord with me — I’m a PK and I grew up in the shelter of a church, a natural extension of my family.
In response: Asia Nelson asked in a comment whether I had any tips for promoting sangha. As a writer, I am not qualified to give advice in creating community. I tend to be aloner who shows up for class. Because most studios tend to be swamped by newcomers, there is a certain transience to classes, rarely the same people showing up for a class. The needs of a novice are different from an experienced yogi who would be more inclined to seek community. So the challenge of the instructor and the studio is to find ways that build continuity and collective experience. I’ve noticed that programs like teacher training, work study exchanges and workshop/retreats tend to instill a deeper sense of community.
Rodney Yee used to have a blog at Yahoo Health. I checked it out a couple of times a while back, and then forgot about it. Yee has moved up in the online world. His new on-line home is at Lime.com’s Yoga section [MLS: Lime.com has apparently gone bust and disappeared from the web, and Yee moved on to Gaiam Yoga Club]. He has a TV show, as part of Lime’s ambitious project to bring healthy living to the big time, and has been doing short video blogs [no longer available].
Of course, Yee has been in the news a lot recently because of his marriage to NYC yoga studio owner, Colleen Saidman, which got covered in the NY Times (sorry, but the story has already been archived). But you can get a bitchier version of it at New York Magazine. Souljerky has another take on the mess. Yee divorced his wife of 24 years. A few years ago, he had an affair with a student, which became an example of how to betray the student-teacher relationship.
I bought Yee’s most recent book, Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga, because it’s beautifully illustrated and laid out. And I still take classes at Thrive Yoga.
In my own home yoga studio, Thrive Yoga, we’ve gone through a stretch that calls into question of incarnating the yogic ideal : the two owners of Thrive Yoga have parted ways. Kim Groark was the more advanced teacher while Susan Bowen had the good business mind. Over the past two years, they lost their shared vision of what they wanted to make of the studio. I don’t know any of the details, just that at the end the tension hung like incense in the air of the studio. Susan bought out Kim’s share of the business, and Kim “decided to leave Thrive Yoga to pursue a different path,” as the announcement stated. More experienced yoga entrepreneurs have told me that studio partnerships rarely work out. Yoga teachers who strike out on their own, setting up their own shops, want to have full control over their business and practice so there’s going to be an innate contradiction in a joint venture.
I felt disconcerted by the whole shift: I had gone to Kim’s classes more frequently because I was drawn to her flair for teaching (influences of Kundalini, Shiva Rea) and the classes fit my schedule in the evenings. I was also concerned about the long-term viability of the studio because I get classes (2-5 times a week) at no charge, in exchange for hosting, maintaining and updating the website. I would find it had to pay for a year unlimited pass, which is what I would need for the same privilege. The split took me out of my comfort zone on the mat.
I have taken another inch off my waist since my previous entry on this point a month ago. I would say that’s good progress, given that Christmas and other opportunities for gluttony also occupied that same time span. My weight is about the same, 194 pounds, though it did shoot up during the holiday excesses. On the other hand, my weight has been steady for the past 12 months. But I’ve probably turned a lot of fat into muscle during that time, but have not reached my weight goal. I’ve come to the realization that I am going to have to pay more attention to what I eat because taking pounds off is a lot harder than putting them on. If I were really strict, I should be aiming to get my weight down to 165 pounds, what I weighed back when I got married. It would make my yoga practice a lot easier.
I am reading You on a Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management by Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz, as well as Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willet and Patrick J. Skerret. The latter is a rigorous, science-based examination of U.S. nutrition and eating habits. You on a Diet is equally science-based, but it’s more practically oriented, geared to popularizing the message of healthy eating and written with a light, humorous style that some people may find distracting — drawings of cute elves running around your digestive track. Roizen and Oz mine the Harvard studies on nutrition for a lot of their recommendations. These complementary books were Christmas gifts from my daughter, Stephanie, and her boyfriend, Ron. It’s nice to know that they want me to take care of myself.