Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Synergy?

My new book focuses on how mindfulness can step by step help us to overcome the tendency to worry, obsess, ruminate, and get lost in our thoughts. In researching different aspects of what makes people "happy", I became convinced that there is a common ground, a convergence, of what goes into wellness and well-being.

Although I don't believe that "happy"realistically is a permanent, unchanging condition, I do believe that being happier and having more happiness, meaning, and satisfaction with our lives-- wellness-- is within reach for all of us. Interestingly, what goes into sustained wellness is not only good for individuals, but also for society, and our planet.

First and foremost is the regular, sustained practice of meditation. Mindfulness is very well-researched, and very similar across traditions and practitioners, especially relative to the more subjective experiences of Tantric meditation. Mindfulness teaches us about the mechanics of the body, and how stress and distress can be regulated by awareness of the body, inner speech, and mind. Mindfulness, practiced for around 20 minutes twice a day, everyday, can help us to step back from our incessant chatter and into the immediacy of the unjudged here-and-now.

Second, regular exercise can help us to nurture this awareness of the body, and help us to feel connected to our body. Modern life has found so many ways to alienate us from our bodies, be it in the form of cosmetics or microwave meals. Our bodies all too often become viewed as hindrances whose aging, decay, and needs stand in the way of some of our most desired pleasures. But pleasure is not happiness. Happiness with the body is in having a healthier body that we feel connected to, not in opposition from. Exercise, at the dose of 20-30 minutes a day, 3-4 times a week, can help us to get re-connected to our bodies, and invigorate the circuits of well-being in our brains.

Third, good nutrition. Each step builds on the previous one. Mindfulness is the foundation for awareness; exercise is the activating principle. Now comes the energy-- food. For the past 10,000 years, when humans can be said with some certainty to have abandoned a predominantly scavenger lifestyle, a plant-based diet low in saturated fats has sustained us. This isn't an exclusively vegan or vegetarian diet, but one that relies on sustainable, renewable sources of food, with animal products added for variety. Because this is our earliest recorded diet, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the healthiest. However, it does seem that every week, a new danger from our convenience-based, red meat-centered diet comes out. This modern diet and its convenience is killing us. A return to balanced nutrition therefore seems reasonable. In general, what's good for the heart is good for the body-- whole grains, daily fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and meat that's not red (wild-caught sustainable seafood, grain-fed poultry, if you must eat meat).

The synergy now begins to emerge. Mindfulness increases the awareness of the body-- the awareness of the body increases respect for the body-- respect for the body increases the desire to sustain the body with better nutrition-- and eating better can actually help the planet. The production of red meat produces more greenhouse gases than all the cars on our planet. And, as the swine flu/H1N1 pandemic has shown, how we "grow" our meat can have unintended consequences.

When we sit down for regular mindfulness practice, we are given part of the antidote for the alienation of modern life-- awareness of body, awareness of our mental chatter driving our behavior, awareness of how our actions and interdependent with the well-being or suffering of countless beings around us. When we crave what is unhealthy for our bodies, not only do we suffer, but also the planet and society suffer.

The synergy of mindfulness is that in making healthy choices for ourselves, we contribute to the health of society, and of our planet. And it all begins with being aware of this precious, fleeting moment, connecting to the belly breath, and sitting through the inevitable itches and discomforts of regular meditation practice.


  1. I just ran across your podcast on Psychojourney from 2007. It was a great and timely affirmation, and I wanted to say thank you. I also have ordered your book from Amazon.

    In addition to learning to cope with loss, I have long had an interest in Buddhism. I wondred if you could recommend other books that I might find useful?

    Again, thanks for your work. I am amazed how lightly I took grief until it became so significant in my life.

    James Andre

  2. James, you are so welcome.

    In my own life, there are three categories of Buddhist books that I have found helpful, each for different reasons. First, the words of the Buddha in translation. These are the suttas, sutras, and tantras. Of these, the Diamond Sutra is profound in meaning and brief in length. These nearly primary sources are the foundation of understanding the Buddha's teachings.

    Second are the biographies of accomplished masters, such as Milarepa, Marpa, Shabkar, and Ch'an Master Xu Yun, all of which are available in translation. These works are inspirational in setting your own motivation for regular meditation practice.

    Third are the writings of other practitioners for inspiration, encouragement, and clarification. In the context of grief, any work by Pema Chodron will be of tremendous help. I have also been inspired by the poetry of Han Shan ("Cold Mountain Poems"), as well as Ram Dass ("The Only Dance There Is"). Both are really accomplished spiritual masters and teachers, although I'm not certain they would identify exclusively as "Buddhists".

    And, as a reminder, you need not be "Buddhist" either to grow from pain, or to find jewels of wisdom in the unlikliest of places.

    Be well.

  3. Thank you so much!

    I think your recommendations will be very helpful in making a path forward.