True story of a well-rounded journey through the weird world of self-help, as told in memoir-like format by a prominent religion journalist. Includes stories about figures from Paris Hilton to the Dalai Lama.
My on-air meltdown was the direct result of an extended run of mindlessness, a period of time during which I was focused on advancement and adventure, to the detriment of pretty much everything else in my life.
The caller ID read FOREIGN DESK. The voice on the other end of the line said, “We need you to go to Pakistan.” A pint of dopamine was released into my brain. After I hung up the phone, I actually paced around the room, pumping my fist. This, fittingly, was how I began the most dangerous and formative years of my life: with a series of douchey gesticulations.
“You need to stop trying so hard,” said Bianca. “Just let go.”
The balance between ambition and equanimity. You can do your best and then, if things don’t go your way, still become unconstructively upset, in a way that hinders your ability to bounce back. Dropping the attachment is the real trick. “Nonattachment to results” was my long-sought Holy Grail, the middle path, the marriage of “the price of security” and “the wisdom of insecurity.”
There’s a reason why they call Buddhism “advanced common sense”; it’s all about methodically confronting obvious-but-often-overlooked truths (everything changes, nothing fully satisfies) until something in you shifts.
I kept pushing Brotman to produce some sort of blockbuster psychological revelation. I hoped that I would be able to give him some magic set of data points from my past that would lead to an aha moment that would explain not just my mindless behavior, but also my penchant for worry, as well as the fact that I was a thirty-three-year-old with zero propensity for romantic commitment… He didn’t believe in such epiphanies and couldn’t suddenly conjure some “unifying theory.” I remained unconvinced.
The best therapy could do was bring us from “hysteric misery” to “common unhappiness.”
Joseph Epstein argued that Buddhism was better than seeing a shrink, and that Buddha may well have been the “original psychoanalyst.”
On relating to spiritual people
You might think that the yawning cultural and philosophical gap between (Pastor Ted and I)-- he was a guy who believed that he had a running dialogue with Jesus, after all-- would make a genuine connection impossible, but that clearly was not the case.
Up until my interview with Ted, I had derived a smug sense of self-satisfaction that, unlike the believers I was covering, I did not have a deep need for answers to the Big Questions… But now I realized that a sort of incuriosity had set in; my sense of awe had atrophied. I might have disagreed with the conclusions reached by people of faith, but at least that part of their brain was functioning. Every week, they had a set time to consider their place in the universe, to setp out of the matrix and achieve some perspective. If you’re never looking up, I now realized, you’re always just looking around.
Buddhism is less of a faith and more of a philosophy.
Buddha wasn’t even trying to start a religion, per se. The word Buddhism was actually an invention of the nineteenth-century Western scholars who discovered and translated the original texts.
Buddha’s main thesis was that in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last.
Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddha.
Buddha originally taught generosity and morality before he gave his followers meditation instructions. The logic was self-interested: it’s hard to concentarte if your mind is humming with remorse over having been a shithead.
Ways of describing the state of the mind:
- Monkey mind: like furry little gibbons: the mind is always agitated and never at rest.
- Comparing mind
- Wanting mind
- Prapañca (pra-PUN-cha): Proliferation, or “the imperialistic tendency of the mind” to project forward to a bad future (e.g. for Dan, Balding --> Unemployment --> Flophouse)
Meditation struck me as the distillation of everything that sucked hardest about the granola lifestyle.
Brotman’s doctor friend theorized that, in modern life, our ancient fight-or-flight mechanism was being triggered too frequently, contributing to the epidemic of heart disease. The doctor had done studies showing that meditation could reverse the effects of stress and lower blood pressure.
By the end of ten minutes [of meditating] my jaw was often gritted from the effort. It reminded me how one of our cats, who had a serious gum disease, would sometimes literally try to run away from himself when he was in pain. Similarly, when the alarm would go off at the end of a meditation session, I often would bolt out of my seated position, as if I could somehow physically escape the commotion of my own mind.
Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now–anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever-- without getting carried away by it.
According to the Buddha, we respond to everything with one of the following:
- Zoning out
- (with practice) Mindful, nonjudgement recognition
Mindfulness can help with a condition called “continuous partial attention.”
Tara Brach RAIN method for applying mindfulness in acute situations. (p. 112)
Purposeful pauses include taking a break to focus on your breath while your computer boots up, instead of tapping your fingers.
Too much mental churning is actually counterproductive. When you lurch from one thing to the next, constantly scheming, or reacting to incoming fire, the mind gets exhausted. The act of stopping, even for a few seconds, can be a source of strength. This is a practical complement to Joseph’s “is this useful?” mantra.
On metta (compassion or “loving kindness” meditation): practice for development of concern for well-being of others, that actually is immense benefit to oneself.
Richie Davidson research: compassion meditation can actually make you nicer. People who were taught compassion meditation displayed increased brain activity in regions associated with empathy and understanding. They also found that preschoolers became more willing to give their stickers away to strangers. In one experiment involving attaching tape recorders to subjects, the meditators were more empathic, spent more time with other people, laughed more, and used the word “I” less.
[Dan] worried that in competitive career fields like TV news, compassion was not adaptive.
The point wasn’t to make specific feelings happen on command, it was simply to try… to build the compassion muscle the same way that regular meditation builds the mindfulness muscle.
I instituted a make-eye-contact-and-smile policy that turned out to be genuinely enjoyable. It was like I was running for mayor. (p. 187)
Everyone wants the same thing–happiness–but we all go about it with varying levels of skill. If you spend a half hour on the cushion every day contending with your own ego, it’s hard not to be more tolerant of others.
Compassion has the strategic benefit of winning you allies.
(When Dan is worried about failing in his job, he gets advice:) “Fear of annihilation,” she said, “can lead to great insight because it reminds us of impermanence and the fact that we are not in control.”
Colorado Springs became known as the “evangelical Vatican” because it was home to many large Christian organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Focus on the Family.
The fat “Laughing Buddha” at airport spas at Chinese restaurants is actually a medieval Chinese monk who somehow became conflated in the Western imagination with the historical Buddha, who only ate one meal a day and was most likely a bag of skin and bones.
Public health revolutions can happen quite rapidly. Most americans didnt brush their teeth, for example, until after World War II, when soldiers were ordered to maintain dental hygiene. Exercise didn’t become popular until the latter half of the twentieth century, after science had clearly showed its benefits. (p. 176)
I’d never been in love before. I’d long had a nagging fear that maybe I was too self-centered to ever get there. Everyone always says you’d “know,” but I never “knew.” Now, all of a sudden, I did. It was a giant relief to sincerely want what was best for Bianca–to worry about her life and her career, rather than just fixate inwardly. Selfishly, I felt she was both a smarter and kinder person than I was, and that being by her side might make me better.
The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump.