Category Archives: meditation

Thinking about thinking: also, a poodle and her tennis ball

I’m a bad blogger, it’s true. I don’t have a good excuse. I’m just busy with life being very good–a topic for another entry, another day.

So I finally listened to the Radiolab podcast episode called “Voices in Your Head.” I’ve been carrying this around on my iPod for awhile now, afraid to listen because I thought this might be the episode that confirms I’m completely nuts, but I finally got up the courage (sunny morning, hot cup of tea) to hit play on the bus ride to work yesterday.

So meta: Lev Vygotsky, thinking about thinking about thoughts.

They discuss a concept first introduced by a psychologist named Lev Vygotsky, a man who may only be 88% consonants but is ALL Russian. Vygotky posited that perhaps the reason we “hear” voices in our surface-level, narrative thoughts is because we’ve absorbed the dialogues we had with our parents when we were just diaper-wearing kiddos, arguing with Mom about how it’s none of her business why our hand is in our pants again. In essence, then, none of our thoughts are intrinsically ours.

This episode was a nice complement to the incredible weekend I just spent at a retreat with Dr. Richard Davidson and Matthieu Ricard (Google them!–they’re the scientist and the monk behind the new neuroplasticity*/science of meditation craze), where Matthieu spoke at some length about the Buddhist concept of emptiness. (There is no nutshell, but in a nutshell, nothing exists inherently on its own; everything is dependent on the causes and conditions of other things).

Davidson & Ricard

Made me think that if he were still alive, Lev Vygotky might have been an interesting third party to the excellent team that Dr. Davidson and Matthieu comprise. I know he would have loved all the gadgets they’ve got up in the lab.

Also, I got Pema Chodron’s new book and, as usual, she’s fresh and fly and full of the choicest wisdom. If you order it from Shambhala Publications, you get a free gift with it, too–The Pocket Pema Chodron, which is good to consult when you’re having trouble practicing loving-kindness because your poodle keeps pushing the tennis ball under the couch and won’t stop crying until you get flat on your belly and stick your arm into the dust-bunny circus beneath to retrieve it. Over and over and over and over again.

*When Microsoft Word stops putting a red line under the word “neuroplasticity,” then we’ll know it’s real.

Yoga! And Not Breathing!

I learned basic tsa lung trul khor (say that three times fast) at a Tibetan yoga workshop yesterday. Basically this is the physical yoga of the Bön tradition and includes purifying breath exercises, breath retention in the five chakras, and various hip-grinding movements that, employed elsewhere, would be very sexy indeed.


Breath retention is a fancy way of saying that you have to hold your breath while you do various movements, which is–if I understood correctly–meant to hold the air in each chakra as you move it around (via arm-swinging or sexy hip-grinding) and cleanse various parts of your energy system. So when you finally do exhale, you’re emitting the variously colored smoke of anger, or attachment, or confusion, etc.

I  run into trouble with these kinds of practices, because I am strapped to one of those suggestion-susceptible brains that has no ability to distinguish between imagination and reality (“There’s such a thing as post-partum psychosis? I must have it–yes, here are the symptoms!–even though I haven’t given birth!”). And for me, at this point in my life, I need a meditative practice that consists solely of looking at what is and sitting with it. The second a teacher asks me to picture colors and smoke and chakra energy, I have no idea anymore if what I’m responding to is conceptualization or reality or if there’s even a difference.

All of this is difficult for my brain to comprehend, especially when I’m not feeding it the little puffs of oxygen that it finds so delicious!

Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more, I’ve heard that Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s books are a good place to start.

And then I came home and ate ice cream with my beloved:


I am constantly humbled by the kickass spiritual community here in Minneapolis. Today I had the privilege of seeing Swami Veda Bharati lead a 40-minute guided meditation and deliver a brief lecture on the power of silence. Swami Veda is taking a 5-year vow of silence next March, the mere mention of which made us audience members fidget and cough and think mournfully of our dear cell phones, tucked snugly away in the backpacks at our feet.

Swami Veda said that the stillness, the silence that we find when we retreat within ourselves, is the language of God, and if we listen carefully and quietly, we can understand the conversations that happen between flowers and butterflies.

“I am not being a poet,” he said. “This is just the reality of it.”

Swami Veda: ain’t no poet

As a writer, I appreciated that comment. My brain’s primary function, its joie de vivre, is to absorb the ephemeral, nebulous nature of reality and smash it with the clunky mallet of language, concretize the crap out of it, so it becomes solid–something worthy of a sentence! Something that could be easily narrated by Morgan Freeman in a movie! So when I hear about butterflies and flowers and the language of God, I’m like–cool, it’s a metaphor, or a simile, or some other comforting figure of speech that I can wrap my head around.

But that’s not exactly right. When Buddhists say the mind is like the sky, pure and open, and thoughts are like the hazy clouds that sometimes get in the way–it’s not a simile. It’s the way things are. Our minds are made up of the same stuff as the rest of the world, so it’s not that our minds are like the sky; they are the sky. And it’s not like silence is like the language of God; it just is.

This is something I like to chew on when I’m sitting on my deck, looking up at the sky and wiggling my toes and wondering What the Freaking Heck it All Means. Letting go of language, and of the tendency to rely on figures of speech to illuminate universal truths–well, I’m never going to do it (I’m writing about this after all, aren’t I), but the idea of pure silence can bring little glimpses of comfort.

Good luck to Swami Veda during his five quiet years. Because of him, I had Simon and Garfunkel in my head the entire bike ride home.

Instagrammed Rainbows

I was on a walk with the poodle this evening when I happened to look up and see the most fantastic and vivid rainbow arching gracefully above our neighborhood. I’m talking Roy G. Biv, full spectrum, 275 ppi resolution. Angels playing trumpets, all that.

It’s been raining like crazy in Minnesota and flooding so hard that seals are washing up in the streets (you think I’m kidding but I’m not), so a handsome rainbow shining from the heavens isn’t such a rare sight, but the clarity of this one took my breath away.

What also took my breath away was the fact that the second my eyes moved up and took in the rainbow, before my brain had even had a chance to say, ‘Wow, what a freaking awesome sight,’ my hand was already in the pocket of my hoodie, rooting around for my iPhone, so I could snap a picture of the rainbow and upload it to Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest so that people I know could like/share/follow/tag the rainbow and comment things like, ‘Wow, what a freaking awesome sight that is’ or ‘Holy cow, is that a freaking awesome sight or what.’

But you know what–I left my iPhone in the apartment somehow, in my rush to get the poodle out and around the neighborhood while the rain was holding off. Yeah, I was super disappointed. But I took my hand out of my pocket and tried to remember what my yoga teacher had said just an hour earlier while I was huffing and puffing indelicately through a deep Warrior pose. Something about seeing the moment you want to escape the pose, and then just staying there, with the ache of it.

So I decided to just accept the rainbow as a rainbow and give up all desire to immortalize the moment. I stood on the sidewalk, feet pressed on the cement, the world holding my body up, and looked at the sky. I stayed with the rainbow, and I stayed, for just a fleeting moment, with the disappointment and the sadness that blossoms from the realization of how impermanent everything is.

It was a freaking awesome and beautiful moment.

The poodle gazed up with me, a robin’s egg casually wedged in her cheek, her heart full of hope that I would not see it so she could carry it all the way home and place it under our pillows for safekeeping. I did see it, I took it from her mouth, and then we walked home together.

Anyway, it didn’t matter–I got home, logged into Facebook, there, in all its pixelated glory, was the rainbow, forever memorialized in my newsfeed by no less than eight different friend(ster)s.