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Why Violence has Declined

I get raised eyebrows and harumphs of disagreement when I mention this book, but Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author, makes compelling arguments that violence is declining worldwide, and he backs them up with a trove of statistics and analysis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.


Granted, his timeframe starts in the Paleolithic, and the book was published in 2011 before the hate-filled debacle of the Trump years, but he has a point: "for most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life."


Pinker not only proves that these conditions are declining but explains why and when.



Why: Pinke identifies several historical forces.

1.     The changing role of government: "Instead of thinking of government as the local franchise of God's rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare." This reduced tolerance for governmental violence against its citizens. The state and judiciary having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force" reduces intrastate violence, he says. And finally, he says, "Democracy… would turn out to be one of the greatest violence-reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself."  Read More 

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How to Practice Radical Self-Acceptance

The renowned 7th century Zen master Seng-tsan taught that true freedom is being "without anxiety about imperfection."


And there are few anxieties that plague women more than body image.


In Beautiful You by Rosie Molinary, she counsels that "when we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, we do not clearly recognize what is happening inside us, nor do we feel kind. Our view of who we are is  Read More 

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What Does Your Writing Mean?

Your story, no matter how short or long, isn't a recounting of a series of events (even a love affair, or a war) but a commentary on the human condition. Your work becomes art when you have something to say* about life, about people.

Let's call it theme: to me, theme is the overall concept of the piece, which then turns a story into art. Here are some tips re: theme: Read More 

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Segmented Sleep: Great for the Creative Mind

We take pills, potions and vitamins, get special pillows and now have beds that will tell us whether we have achieved that sought-after thing called a good night's sleep – eight uninterrupted hours. It's a multi-billion dollar industry but evidence is mounting that prior to the industrial revolution, we slept in two shifts with a period of activity between them. We can thank our pituitary gland that makes it a hypnotic time, a creative time.


In the pre-industrial past, it went like this: the "first" sleep started after dinner and sunset, which was close to 8 p.m. One slept about four hours, woke up at midnight and then spent two or three hours stoking the fire, playing music, making love, checking on food, telling stories, even visiting friends. Then, back to bed for the "second sleep" until dawn. In modern parlance, it's called segmented sleep. Read More 

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Remove Native American Racist Statues, Too

Justification to remove statues of Civil War generals is straightforward – there are no statues of Hitler in Germany so there should be no statues built to American proponents of slavery. (I was shocked to hear that 35 Confederate statues have been erected in North Carolina since 2000!) And we should take note that the Germans have taken a very thorough approach to removing visual reminders of World War II, as described here.

But I would also join the chorus of voices calling for the removal of statues that celebrate the racial oppression of Native Americans, perhaps starting with “End of the Trail,” a heartbreaking reminder of brutality

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Cigarette Use in Movies Rises 72%

At first, I thought it was just because I was watching period dramas and that it lent verisimilitude to the piece to have a character smoke a cigarette, but the more frequent the occurrence, the more suspicious I became and yes, in fact it’s true: the incidences of tobacco use in movies has increased 72% according to a Center for Disease Control report issued in July 2017! And it is up 43% in the youth-focused films. Women are smoking as they sit on sofas, when they walk through the kitchen pondering. Characters are chain smoking, using cigarettes as a pause in the dialogue. Men smoke cigarettes in cars.

And the CDC again reiterated that “there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies  Read More 

A Free Press Needs an Advocacy Program

Journalists need a good advocacy program, some serious public relations efforts to remind people why journalism is important, why a free press is so essential. Here are some suggestions that aim to inform the public and change their attitude toward the press:

1. Fact checking:

Why doesn’t the New York Times and other newspapers make it clear front and center what they do to verify facts?

  • Make it clear that there are multiple sources and statistics are always backed up.
  • Make public the number of people whose sole job it is to check the facts.
  • Make more prominent the relationship between newspapers and fact-checking organizations.
  • Spell out the fact that journalists are not allowed to vote, protest, and remind people of how much they give up because of their work on our behalf in the name of truth.
  • Let’s develop a way that it’s easy to compare publication to publication, some chart almost like calories on a package of food. PolitFact ranking of X vs. Fox News ranking of Y

2. And speaking of truth,

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Buddhism for the Hyperactive ...Or...Noisy Buddhism and the Beloved Monkey Mind

I used to think I was too hyperactive for Buddhism. I have a visceral reaction to phrases like “clear your mind” and “treat thoughts like clouds that will pass by” (a lovely visual but one that devalues the thought.) It felt like yet another instance of the pressure I have been under all my life – sit still, stay on task, march in a straight line, don’t daydream, be more like an accountant and less like a dancer. The superiority of the quiet and contained, left-brained and linear! Arggh!


Even walking meditations were a struggle for me because my fellow practitioners were covering 3 feet in five minutes as I was sprinting around the retreat grounds. I found no joy in trying to go to an empty place. To sit still and drain my mind sounded like Orwellian hell, like Stepford spirituality. But then I was introduced to the power of the mantra.

Loving My Monkey Mind

In Buddhist practice one is encouraged to contain or suppress the mind that jumps from topic to topic, distracting you with a mind-bauble here and a silly thought there – the Monkey Mind. As an alternative, I think of a hummingbird, which I consider my totem animal. But I am an artist and in many ways, I consider my monkey mind to be the best part of me. New ideas come from mental wandering, from allowing your mind to jump from a grocery list to a new idea for water conservation, to a great idea about the organic food supply chain, to a child’s toy, and a remembrance of a store in France. Creativity comes in the spaces between two decisions, in the unusual combination of things previously unrelated. And that’s the way both daydreaming and the monkey work: they allow the combination of things previously unrelated.

(In contrast, a man I know insisted that his young children pack up all the elements of one game before getting out another. Hearing that made my monkey holler because a creative environment would let the child take Lincoln Logs and add them to a Lego house topped with doll clothing and stuffed bears. Creativity, in this case literally demands being out-of-the-box.)

Allowing my monkey the freedom of mental association drives my life. My monkey is responsible for all my art and my livelihood as well. She has thought up the plots and twists (and even the metaphors, I’ll bet) of every story and novel I have written. As a freelance marketing manager my monkey thinks up product ideas, TV scripts, odd ways to achieve a goal. My monkey has put food on my table for decades; she keeps the roof over my head and the joy in my life. I love my monkey mind. I would dress her up if I could, make grateful offerings to her and always encourage her to run wild.

Upon hearing this, I’m imaging that devotees will tell me that I am misinterpreting the concept, that there is a time and place for the monkey though not in the temple. But she is a monkey – untamable, unpredictable, somewhat annoying in her glorious unpredictability. Besides, it might be one of the only times you listen to her – in the gumpa, where the clutter of the world falls away and your monkey shows you wisdom. Your daydreams are tremendously powerful, metaphorical and visual communications with yourself. They have important messages. Why aren’t we encouraging one to breathe deeply, be calm, and then pull the thoughts to you, like trying to scoop falling leaves to your chest.

Still, the first time I got on the mat, 23 years ago, I was very pregnant and wanted tools to be a better mother, with better coping skills I could pass on to my son-to-be. So, I kept at my Buddhist practice, hoping for a breakthrough.

Every Mantra Counts

I moved from Vipassana Meditation (focused on the breath) to Mahayana Buddhism with its focus on the recitation of mantras. And not just a single mantra, chanted incessantly (the monkey will have none of that – she needs variety as well as action.) Tibetan Buddhism has at least eight core mantras that are each suitable for different situations. Mala in hand, I started memorizing them. Bingo! I found that mantras block out all other thoughts, focus the mind and calm the spirit. Vipassana Meditation and Mahayana Buddhism: same goal, different technique. With mantras, the hyperactive child is not told to sit still but is given a quiet activity requiring focus. I don’t have to renounce my hyperactivity and Monkey Mind when I can harness it. I can say mantras as fast as I can walk; I say them behind the wheel; I say them before going into a meeting with combatants; I say them for the health of our freighted world. It’s not something I do for five minutes in the morning and hope it will carry me through the rest of the day. I say mantras whenever I am challenged by strife, anger, injustice.

For the Betterment of Others

This brings me to another beef I have with the current trendy focus on mindfulness and the breath. In the New York Times article “The Price of Mindfulness Inc." the author suggests that “The people I know who take time to meditate – carefully observing thoughts, emotions and sensations – are sincere in their appreciations to become less stressed, more accepting and at least a little happier.” Described this way it seems to be a self-serving goal. At best, mindfulness sounds like “I will fix me and what’s good for me is good for the world.” In contrast, all Mahayana Buddhism mantras are for the betterment of all sentient beings. The outward focus is an important part of Mahayana Buddhism: you start mantra recitations by declaring that the motivation for them is to better the world; then you say the mantras and then afterward you dedicate the merits of the mantras to the betterment of the world. The article identifies mindfulness as “best understood as a skill, one acquired through hours of sometimes uncomfortable contemplation.” But if one is chanting mantras one not only gathers the benefits of mental focus but also can make a difference in the world by changing the cosmic vibrations. I believe that brain waves affect physical reality and so chanting for peace, compassion, health, forgiveness, and absolution make a difference. (I’m surprised that after the 60s there are still skeptics about the power of a “good vibe.”) To me to just sit and meditate to lose stress is to leave un-harnessed the potential of all that brainpower, at best, and is a self-cherishing pastime at worst.

I say there’s room for a raucous, Noisy Buddhism, with mantras said out loud with bells, shouted at the top of one’s lungs with joy, accompanied by Latin percussion instruments and terrific feet stomping, walking, dancing, and working. Honoring the Buddha in all of us, honoring the creativity of the Monkey Mind and staying dedicated to making the world a better place.

#JessWells, #Buddhism #monkeymind

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Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #3 - Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This post, Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

On the day of the flight from Shanghai to Beijing we arrived at the airport and I sought out the wisdom of an Irishman – his red hair and trim suit in such contrast to all of the Mao blue. Did he have any suggestions of places to stay, I asked him, since our hotel adventure in Shanghai had been so taxing. He looked at us incredulously. You come to China without hotel reservations? But he tilted his head and reached in his pocket. Go to this hotel, he said. My company keeps a hotel room there rented all year so their employees have somewhere to stay when they come to Beijing. Don’t go to the main desk, he said, go around the main desk to a small room behind it – Room 101 – and tell them that you’re there to do business with me. I was wary of his advice,

wondering if he would suddenly show up in the middle of the night demanding a man’s own special form of payment shall we say.  Read More 

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Hubris and Wonder in China 1986 - #1 - A Trio of Maps and a Challenge

In 1986 you could do the bootleg thing – meet a guy in a café and slide an envelope of money to him, he slides you two round-trip tickets to China issued under someone else’s name. Granted, there were visas and passports but the swap at the café was just the first of many incidents that broke what was my own convention, defied my understanding of how it was done, and made it a trip that started out with hubris and wound up filled with wonder.

That was my first trip to China and now, in 2016, I am returning, though just for a quick touchdown in Chengdu after flying nonstop in the United Airlines “Dream Machine,” (though since I am traveling coach I am sure it will not be that dreamy.) And my ultimate destination is the occupied zone of Tibet, which ensures another unique view of life in China. These are things I remember from the initial trip 30 years ago, recounted in three blog posts...

This first post: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

This was the time before Google Maps and Google Translate, even before the Internet and cell phones, when an intrepid traveler had a guidebook and maybe pulled the pages out after she’d been to a place,

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