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The Buddhist Wisdom of Mary Poppins

My car just ranked my driving ability, and I sigh with a familiar anxiety. 65/100 going to the grocery store but it was 45/100 on the freeway. Sub-par. I'm failing.


My point is that we're being measured every day in new and surprising ways. Spending time and money striving for likes, friends, followers and approval. Striving for more money as a measurement of success and value. Book sales. Stars. Less weight, more collagen, a measure of correct living and moderation. A hipper kitchen that reflects our cool factor. The latest car. The correct political understanding. Even our humor is too often the judgmental and "subtle cruelties that pass for wit," as Dorothy Parker said.

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Tutu & the Dalai Lama on Finding Joy

The Book of Joy on my desk, in front of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of creativity.


I had planned this as my next post, but it's even more appropriate after the recent passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man who was a great gift to humankind, with so much wisdom to impart, in this case in collaboration with the HH the Dalai Lama in The Book of Joy, with Douglas Abrams, (Avery/Penguin 2016)


And because of my own personal quest to maintain happiness (and defend it as appropriate) in the midst of the current world, this 'book report-style' post is enormous.


Here are the top six quotes that moved me – and the rest are in ten pages (wow!) sorted by topic by me*...

  • "The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous." Page 49
  • "Grateful people do not seem to ignore or deny the negative aspects of life; they simply choose to appreciate what is positive as well. Page 247 "Gratitude moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack into the wider perspective of benefit and abundance. Page 242
  • "It is that ability to see wonder, surprise, possibility in each experience and each encounter that is a core aspect of joy. Page 241
  • "Schadenfreude is an outgrowth of envy. Mudita [being heartened by other's joy] is a natural outgrowth of compassion." Page 141
  • "Unforgiveness seems to compromise the immune system ... disrupting the production of important hormones and the way that our cells fight off infections. Page 237
  • Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope." Page 122


What is Joy?

"There is a Buddhist teaching that says what causes suffering in life is a general pattern of how we relate to others: Read More 

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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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