Monday, 16 December 2013

Mindful Tea - Part 3 - Chinese Green Tea Quality

"Green tea reminds us that food is a reflection of the essential alliance between earth and man. Artisan, handmade green tea is a labor of love on the part of the tea maker, which results in a blissful tea-drinking experience." - The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010), p58.

A view from the train in South-East China during the authors travels in 2006.

It seems there is no other country that rivals the deep knowledge of tea production that can be found in China. In The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010), the author states the following, p9-10:
"Since all tea starts as freshly plucked leaf, it is theoretically possible to turn any fresh tea leaf into any of the six classes of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Puerh. But tea manufacture is a precise, controlled, and predictable process, and in most tea-producing countries, tea producers focus on only one or two classes of tea. Japan, for instance, produces primarily green teas, but they are very distinctive and taste like no other green teas in Asia. On the other hand, China, the country that unlocked the secrets of tea making and established the manufacturing process for each of the six classes of tea, is the only country that produces all six classes of tea."
Of the six classes of tea, Chinese green teas remain the most deeply explored, and their quality is intimately connected to their growing location and plucking time, p39:
"Green tea is produced year-round in subtropical locations but only at specific times in the warm months in temperate zones. This corresponds to the specific varieties of Camellia sinensis grown in these dissimilar places. The quality of the leaf generally relates to the number of plucks (harvests) per year and the time of year in which the pluck occurs."
Green tea is symbolic of the vitality of spring in a very vivid sense, since the first pluckings of the year are carried out during that time, as is written in Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992), p4:
"In China, the tea plant is practically dormant during the winter season, and the first plucking is carried out in the spring, towards the end of April. From these first young tender leaves the best tea is made."
The smallest, tender leaves are picked throughout the spring to produce the finest green teas. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook states, p61:
"...spring itself is broken up into early, mid-, and late spring. For these teas, the smallest buds and leaves are gathered and timing is of the essence. The younger and smaller the leaf, the finer, more delicious, and more costly the tea will be."
Once plucked, the leaves are immediately sent for manufacture, p12:
"In the simplest terms, leaf manufacture is the process of turning freshly plucked leaf into finished tea. Each class of tea is manufactured according to a well-defined, precise sequence of steps (some manufacture takes longer and is more complicated than others) that is responsible for the differences in green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and Pu-erh tea. Because the traditional ways of crafting tea differ from region to region, and because humans must work with what nature provides for them on any given day, no two teas will ever be exactly alike."
Green tea leaves tend to require the least processing compared to other classes of tea, p39:
"Green tea is tea in its purest form and the one that is minimally altered by man. There is no room in green tea production for overmanipulation or drawn-out, fussy techniques. The most critical factors in the manufacture of green tea are preventing oxidation of the fresh leaf and preserving the natural green color."
This green colour represents the tea's potential to make a good-tasting brew, p64:
"...the leaf is manufactured and dried as quickly as possible to achieve maximum flavor. The best green tea leaf is kept intact to keep the internal cell juices locked inside the leaf until they are released into the cup on contact with hot water during steeping." 
The leaves are heated after plucking to prevent fermentation, as stated in Tea: Cultivation to Consumption, p413:
"As green tea is produced by steaming or pan-firing leaves immediately after plucking, enzyme action is inhibited and endogenous components in the leaves are retained in the product mainly unchanged. Therefore, the taste is primarily determined by the choice of clone, time of plucking, shoot maturity and the cultivation method."
To this day many famous Chinese green teas are made by hand. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook states, p59:
"China’s best teas are made by tea workers using skilled hands, as well as the experience that their eyes, ears, and noses bring to the task of tea making. Making tea by hand requires dedication, skill, and patience. While machinery assists some tea workers with their task, machines cannot determine how to make the precise, spontaneous adjustments that many teas require."
After being sent to the shops, the teas are offered primarily by location and season, p54:
"Chinese green teas are offered by place of origin, pluck, manufactured shape, and season of harvest. Historically, specific locations offer prime conditions for particular subvarieties of tea bushes and are famous for that tea. Some growing areas feature a variety of bushes and styles of above-average quality."
When buying a gren tea, it is useful to keep the following information in mind, p58:
"The finest green teas are:
• Produced from the hand-plucked buds and tiny leaves of tea bushes awakening in the earliest days of spring
• Selected from vigorous, healthy tea plants
• Hand-plucked at the correct month, week, or day necessary for the style of tea
• Carefully sorted to remove imperfect or torn leaf, bits of stem, and miscellaneous waste
• Precisely shaped by hand or shaping machines
• Finish-fired over a controlled heat source by experienced workers."
In the next post of this series; part 4, the ancient traditional Chinese cultural reflection on tea drinking will be looked into.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Mindful Tea - Part 2 - Around the World

"It is probably, after water, the world's most popular beverage, due, more than anything, to its palatability, adaptability and comparative cheapness." - Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992), p707.
"A simple cup of tea is no easy matter. Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to explore its many layers." - The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010), p13.

Tea appears to rank amongst the most popular of ancient bevarages. As The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010) states, depending on how one defines a beverage, p9:
"Tea, the most widely consumed beverage on the planet after water, still proudly maintains its title as the world’s oldest beverage."
Britain's almost obsessive relationship with tea is relatively young compared to that of Eastern countries', and the book Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992) illustrates how tea remains as popular as ever in the UK, p709:
"In Great Britain, tea is drunk by more than 80% of the population."

The word we use for tea is itself intimately linked with the East, as is explained in The Way of Tea (2010), p46:
"The various pronunciations of the character “tea” spread far and wide. The Mandarin pronunciation of the character, as “cha,” spread overland to the north and west of Yunnan. Tea is, for example, called “chai” in India, Greece, Russia, etc. Another pronunciation of tea as “tey” followed a second sea-route from Xiamen of Fujian Province. The Western sailors that stopped in Xiamen and other local ports would adopt the way tea was said in the local Fujian dialect; and “tey” would later become “tea” in English."


Thousands of years before tea arrived in English ports, however, it had been enjoyed in South-East Asia. Here is Tea: Cultivation to Consumption, p1-2:
"The tea camellia has been known to man for a very long time - Camellia sinensis, the commercially important Chinese tea plant. This particular camellia has been cultivated by the Chinese people for certainly more than 2000 years, not, as one might imagine, on large plantations, but on countless thousands of small plots of land where the bushes were numbered in dozens rather than acres. The Chinese certainly knew of the tea plant and its value to them long ago, and had discovered that the infusion of its leaves, if carefully processed, produced a very palatable drink. It is likely too, that the people in the Shan States of Burma and Siam had been using the leaves of the tea plant - at first for medicinal purposes, then as a beverage - for as long as the Chinese."

The  habitual use of tree leaves is something one finds in human societies no matter where one goes. The people most knowledgable of the special properties of plants tended to be shamans, and later, sages and seers. The earliest origins of tea use is alleged to be linked to such figures in South China, in The Way of Tea, p33:
" China, this tradition of sages and seers lends the origins of tea a kind of mystery, magic, and wonder; for it was in their bowls that these leaves would first be sipped by man. Even before Taoism would become important in the lifeways of Chinese people, asceticism was already an established aspect of some cultures. It was common for some such shamans to live secluded from others; and they were all, in the end, villagers and shamans alike, living in the forest. There they would seek out the origins of life and man’s place in it. Through diet, meditation, and quiet, one imagines, these ancient sages and seers were able to commune with the world around them, learning of the healing powers available in Nature. In crude huts or cave hermitages, surrounded by the forests of Yunnan—in all their glory—man would first establish a relationship with the Leaf."
It seems the Chinese Taoists later inherited this legacy, as written in The Book of Tea (1912), p21:
"It is written in the Chinese school manual concerning the origin of habits and customs that the ceremony of offering tea to a guest began with Kwanyin, a well-known disciple of Laotse, who first at the gate of the Han Pass presented to the “Old Philosopher” a cup of the golden elixir. We shall not stop to discuss the authenticity of such tales, which are valuable, however, as confirming the early use of the beverage by the Taoists."
And The Way of Tea states that the domestication of the plant in China followed during the 5th Century BC, p38:
"At some time in the Warring States Period, the domestication of the tea plant occurred..."
The more rigorous historical study in Tea: Cultivation to Consumption states a later date, p2:
"...the origins of tea, which are still cloaked in mystery. It is known that the Chinese were drinking tea in the 5th century AD."
And as trade in the precious leaf between the Chinese and their neighbours flourished, hybridized tea plants began to spread across the globe:
"Quite apart from its original home in an indefinite area to the south-east of the Tibetan plateau, including Sze-chuan, Yu-nan, Burma, Siam and of course the Assam variety in north-east India, the tea plant has undoubtedly been spread by the natives over the centuries. Plants have been found growing near to all the caravan routes between China and India. There were also reports by Europeans, in the late 18th century, of tea plants growing wild at Khatmandu."
News eventually reached Europe, as The Book of Tea relates, p6:
"The earliest record of tea in European writing is said to be found in the statement of an Arabian traveller, that after the year 879 the main sources of revenue in Canton were the duties on salt and tea. Marco Polo records the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea-taxes. It was at the period of the great discoveries that the European people began to know more about the extreme Orient. At the end of the sixteenth century the Hollanders brought the news that a pleasant drink was made in the East from the leaves of a bush."
And then the product itself arrived, as stated in Tea: Cultivation to Consumption, p3:
"The first tea to reach Europe came by way of the Dutch who, being busy eastern traders, brought the first consignments to Holland in the early part of the 17th century. All the early supplies of tea entering England were brought over from Holland. Coffee houses started to appear in London in the early 1650s, and it was in one of these, Garraways Coffee House, in Exchange Alley in the city, that the first tea was served to the public in 1657."
Within thirty years the British would be hooked, p4:
"From 1689 onwards the English East India Company commenced importing tea directly from China in its heavily armed merchantmen. It is said that Queen Anne was very fond of a dish of tea, pronounced 'tay' in those days. By the mid 1750s tea houses and tea gardens were appearing in and around London. These were ideal places at which the public could meet and gossip over a cup of China tea and light refreshments."


The British later switched over to Indian-grown tea for their own profits and faster delivery, p5:
"People in the western world had been drinking China tea for almost 200 years, but by the mid-1850s her monopoly of the tea trade was slowly coming to an end. Each successive year saw China's exports of tea falling. The discovery of a similar tea plant growing wild in the remote jungles of north-east India was to lead to a pioneering enterprise of great magnitude in the history of world crop cultivation - Empire grown tea. The year 1887 was the turning point when, for the first time, Britain imported more tea from India and Ceylon than she did from China."
Even America was drinking tea as a national habit, that is, until an intervention from Britain in the mid-18th Century, p4:
"The British Parliament imposed duties on various imports into the American colonies after the year 1767. Three years later all duties were repealed except those on tea. The colonists showed their disapproval by boarding merchantmen in Boston harbour, and throwing overboard their chests of tea. It would seem that this 'little party' was to lead to the Americans changing their national drink wholly to coffee."
All Chinese tea plants appear to have come from the south of China - in Yunnan Province's tropical forests, as is stated in The Way of Tea, p27:
"Yunnan, the birthplace of all tea and cradle of ChaTao, is a series of stepped plateaus starting in the tropical jungle-like lowlands of the south and rising upward in three giant tiers sloping towards the Tibetan Plateau and the great mountains there. Scientists surmise that the tropical forest near the bottom of Yunnan began after an ice age around one million years ago, and it was probably at that time that the first evergreen tea trees evolved, Camellia Sinensis being one of them. These ancient forests of tea would be alone in this virgin wilderness for many eons to come, long before they were a part of “Yunnan.”"
These ancient tea trees grew quite tall. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption states, p2:
"...the tea camellia, C. sinensis and its many cousins, is indigenous throughout the forests of south-east Asia where, in its natural state, it grows into a tree between 30 and 40 feet tall."
Being a hardy plant, a tea tree can also grow in quite inhospitable environments. The Way of Tea explains, p39:
"...tea is a rather tenacious plant, with deep roots, an innate ability to produce chemicals in the leaves that dissuade some kinds of insects from eating them, and the ability to grow in adverse environments that many weaker plants couldn’t survive in. The myriad strains that developed over time on various mountains, in various climates are a direct result of the different environs the tea plant adapted to, sometimes naturally while at others transplanted there by man."
The growing location can, however, change the taste of the tea. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook states, p10:
"Tea that is grown in the high, thin air of the Himalaya in eastern Nepal will invariably taste different than tea that is grown in the low-lying, hot, and humid river valley region of Assam, India. [...] When the elements of place are distinctive and strong, they conspire to keep a particular tea from being able to be duplicated in exactly the same way in other places. The sum total of all of the unique places and teas in any one tea-producing country combines to create the collective regional or national character."
Chinese tea remains the least hybridized of the tea plants in the world today. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption reports, p2:
"The typical small-leafed China plant occurs in east and south-east China and has, over the centuries, suffered less cross-breeding, and remains comparatively truebred, whilst the tea found growing in the Shan States of Burma and Siam has been the most hybridized. The Assam indigenous plant was later to become subject to much hybridization, particularly in the 19th century, when large importations of seeds of the China jat were introduced into north-east India."
As a result Chinese teas can often have unique tastes which are not found anywhere else in the world. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook states, p11:
"In China, several tea-producing regions in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Yunnan have native strains of tea bushes and tea trees (some are centuries old) that are not found elsewhere on earth. The fresh leaf from these indigenous varieties is responsible for much of the unique character of the tea from these regions. If you compare tea that is made from old tea tree leaf with one made from the leaf of a modern tea bush cultivar planted nearby, the difference in taste and aroma is quite noticeable."

The best time to taste these differences would be in the spring - when the plants produce fresh leaves, p62:
"Specific to China bush Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (which goes dormant over the winter months), new leaf growth represents the fresh taste of spring: the essence of flavor that develops within the plant during the winter months."
These fresh green teas are eagerly awaited every year in China, p57:
"Green teas are the herald of spring, a sign that the anticipated rejuvenation of the earth from the icy grip of winter is beginning. Tea shops in Asia clear off the shelves for the arrival of the first teas of the new season... These teas fill the mouth with fresh, delicious flavors that are sweet and refreshing, like a much-needed breath of fresh air."
In addition to taste, aroma, and cultural value, Chinese green teas are considered to have special active compounds due to their relatively unprocessed state, as reported in Handbook of Green Tea and Health Research (2009), p2:
"Black tea is also made from the plant, but unlike green tea, it is made from leaves that have been fermented. Due to differences in the fermentation process, a portion of the active compounds are destroyed in black tea, but remain active in green tea. The active constituents in green tea are a family of polyphenols (catechins) and flavonols which possess potent antioxidant activity. Tannins, large polyphenol molecules, form the bulk of the active compounds in green tea, with catechins comprising nearly 90%. Several forms of catechin are present in the plants. Among them, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant flavonoid in tea (Arts et al., 2000) and particularly in green tea (Campbell et al., 2004). Approximately 26% of the solid weight of green tea extract is tea polyphenols, of which 11% are EGCG (Suganuma et al., 1998). Thus, EGCG is primarily responsible for the pharmacological actions of tea. Moreover, frequent consumption of green tea results in high levels of EGCG in the blood and brain (Suganuma et al.., 1998; Kim et al., 2000). [...] L-Theanine (γ-glutamylethlamide) is a unique amino acid only occurring in green tea and a few other plants, and is a derivative of glutamate. After administration, Ltheanine concentrations increased in the serum, liver and brain (Yokogoshi et al., 1998a, b), suggesting that L-theanine can cross the blood-brain barrier. Intravenous administration of Ltheanine was shown to affect the cortex, hippocampus and amygdala and increase the alphaband component of electroencephalograms (EEG) in rats (Kakuda et al., 2000a). More recently, it was shown that L-theanine could reduce stress via either inhibiting cortical neuron excitation in human subjects (Kimura et al., 2007) or influencing the secretion and function of neurotransmitters in the central nervous system (CNS) (Terashima et al., 1999)."
The alleged health-preserving qualities of green tea are quite famous and have been said to help protect against and help heal a wide range of ailments:
"Some reports indicate green tea may have the ability to help prevent cancers of the skin, esophagus, stomach, colon, pancreas, lung, bladder, prostate, and breast. Green tea contains chemicals known as polyphenols, which have many beneficial effects such as antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and antiviral activity (Frei and Higdon, 2003; Tachibana et al.,2004). Compared with the peripheral actions of catechins, the information for the central effect is limited to date."
However, Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992) has the following to say on this topic, p707:
"Although claims have often been made for its nutritional value it is doubtful whether any can withstand critical examination, apart from those attributable to its water, milk and sugar content."
This is not to say that the potential can be ruled out of course (especially since the above statement is over 20 years old now), but water content and the placebo effect due to folk stories remain to be  heavy contenders, p711:
"Many of the 'therapeutic' effects of tea are undoubtedly due to its water content. Others could be due to pharmacologically active substances, not all of which have necessarily been identified. Probably most important of all is the placebo effect, especially if the person prescribing the tea believes in its healing properties."
Also, the potential for one's health to improve with increased water intake goes up when the best quality of water is sought (something which is traditional in China with regards to green tea consumption), p709:
"The composition or quality of water used to make tea is an important, but largely overlooked, factor. [...] The quality of the water also undoubtedly affects the palatability and hence level of consumption of the tea into which it is made. "
Just boiling water before drinking it as tea is in itself a healthy precaution in countries where certain serious diseases are afloat, p709-711:
"The fact that water must first be boiled before it can be turned into tea is probably one of the most important health measures ever to have been introduced, albeit unconsciously, since unboiled water was, and still is, in some parts of the world, the main channel by which bacterial diseases such as cholera and other enteropathic infections are disseminated."
As unproven as many of the enhanced health claims appear to be at present, on the up-side the same seems to apply for any toxicity claims, p711:
"More often than not... claims for the toxicity of tea, like those for its therapeutic efficacy, are based upon unwarranted extrapolations from inadequate data."
Of course the caffeine content can inhibit sleep, but that is only for those with a low tolerance to caffeine and if caffeine is taken in higher doses than present in cups of green tea (14mg-37mg per eight-ounce cup, compared to 50mg for black teas and 140mg for coffee), p728:
"...there is good evidence that the ingestion of 100 mg caffeine or more, shortly before bedtime, especially by normally low consumers of caffeinated drinks, delays the onset of sleep. Smaller doses of 50 mg or less such as in one cup of tea seemingly do not do so, and may, by the soothing effect of drinking, actually accelerate the onset of sleep. Normally heavy or habituated users of caffeinated drinks do not apparently experience the same delay in the onset of sleep, even with the larger doses of caffeine."
After digesting all this data, in amongst the obvious benefits we enjoy in our cups of tea, is there anything more one can get out of drinking the leafy beverage? In order to best answer that question it seems more appropriate to go to the ancient source - China - where, 1500 years ago, tea drinking was turned into a special ceremony and art form by the humans who lived there; the inspiration for what the Japanese still practice as 'Zen Tea', and for other Asian neighbours to emulate through various localised interpretations.

Tea was originally regarded as a kind of medicine drunk by a relatively small group of people in China (often Buddhist monks), but a man named Lù Yǔ (or Lo-Yu), alive in the 8th Century AD, changed things in a big way by writing The Classic of Tea - the first definitive work on cultivating, making and drinking tea. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption states, p2:
"By the end of the 6th century the Chinese began to regard tea in a different light; no longer was it just a medicinal drink, but a refreshing beverage. In the year 780 AD, there is the first authentic account of tea. This famous book, Cha Ching (tea book) written by Lo-Yu, describes the preparation of the leaf and manufacture."
Lù Yǔ had apparently been educated by Zen Buddhist monks, and his detailed methodology and approach had deeply holistic and mindfulness-oriented threads throughout. During those times, tea was very expensive - manufactured and prepared for drinking in more complex ways than today, and the best tea was considered a rare delicacy. When looking at Lù Yǔ's approach to drinking tea (as this blog series will do in a later post), what can normally be considered as indulging in the consumption of a potentially expensive commodity and any accompanying sensory delights, can change into a highly appropriate moment to intimately connect with the 5 basic elements of nature - through kindling fire from wood and air, boiling water in metal cauldrons, pouring it into clay cups, and bringing the final product into our being to become a seamlessly integrated and essential part of us. In this sense tea can be considered a highly tangible and symbolic microcosm of the fundamental forces at play in the universe manifesting in a very simple, engaging, and nourishing event.


Later, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), tea culture spread further into mainstream Chinese life, as is stated in The Way of Tea, p56:
"Great tea competitions started in the Song Dynasty, in which tea makers from all over would compete to see who could whisk the best cup of tea. Owing to the preference for light green teas, made from powder much like the Japanese matcha today, the people of this era began to move away from using the jade-blue celadon to brown or black pots “rabbits fur (tian mu 天母),” named after the mountain in Zhejiang, which brought out the colors of the whisked tea. The tea houses became cultural meeting places, expanding in number during the Song dynasty, though not really flourishing until the later Ming and Qing ages. However, many scholars, poets and artists of the day found such competitions and the more boisterous tea houses vulgar, and were more interested in brewing tea in natural, quiet environs, inspiring the truer sense of Cha Tao."
Although some people liked to make drinking tea an opportunity to display and indulge in their superior abilities, the poets of the Song Dynasty can inspire us to make drinking tea with fellow humans an opportunity to recognize one's shared humanity and compassionate nature - to present others with a gift of a cup of tea, to wish everyone good health, and to enjoy something very organic and wholesome whilst surrounded by scenes, symbols, and objects pointing to the awesome dimension of nature which exists beyond human constructs (which of course includes tea trees, their leaves, and the water one drinks).

Moving into the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the accumulation of Chinese knowledge and culture on the subject of tea drinking caused a situation more resembling tea's current use in China to begin to emerge. The Way of Tea states, p57:
"Near the end of the Ming Dynasty the common masses would really start drinking tea; and as it shed its formality, the modern method of brewing tea leaves in clay pots was developed. Brewing with skill and mastery, with “gong fu,” became the ideal of tea preparation. New cups, pots, and utensils were developed to meet the demand of this new method of brewing, which was now focused on more intimate settings and hence the teaware grew smaller—especially in the southern parts of China."
Even to this day, the necessary 'mastery' of tea use remains well-known and deeply integrated into Chinese culture. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook gives us an insight into what is necessary for mastery on the most superficial of levels, p28:
"Chinese tea masters refer to water as a friend to tea: water heated to the right temperature for a tea will yield a cup that reveals the subtle flavors and character of that tea. Too little or too much heat and the flavor will be suppressed or ruined."
In order to rise to the challenge of mastering the art of making good tea, then, one must be constantly watchful of the water heat, brewing time, type of tea, to name but a few of the variables involved, and so being present and focused will be an obvious component. Indulging in a casual caffeine and sugar 'hit' accompanied by rich milk can change, through an intention to 'master' pure tea-making - especially traditional Chinese green tea without any additives - into a more peacefully awake, engaged and physically present experience as one explores the subtle differences in flavour manifested in different carefully 'crafted' steepings, in different years, and by different strains from different climates and elevations - an intimate interaction with, and exploration of, a tree valued by ancient people and also valued right now by billions of people all around the world.

Part of such an exploration and emerging understanding will be to know something of the manufacturing processes and the qualities of the most rewarding teas - ultimately the green teas of China. This will be looked into in Part 3 of this series.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Guardian News: How life in the digital fast lane has made us lose touch with our senses

On 1st December 2013, The Guardian posted an article online in the News>Technology section as part of The Jemima Kiss Column series, titled: How life in the digital fast lane has made us lose touch with our senses.

Here are the key quotes:
"William Powers expressed a simple but astute observation about the impact of technology use on his behaviour in his book Hamlet's Blackberry. The digital consciousness, he wrote, can't tolerate three minutes of pure focus. "It had become hard for me to stay focused on a single task of any kind, mental or physical, without adding new ones. While brushing my teeth, I would wander out of the bathroom in search of something else to do at the same time. I'd be organising my sock drawer with one hand while trying to reach my wisdom teeth with the other, and even then I could feel myself craving still another job."

We all recognise that kind of twitch; the instinctive check of the mobile phone (each of us does that every six minutes throughout the day, on average), the trouble concentrating for an entire film, or for a whole book.

"We are humans, not robots," Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein told Fast Company recently. "We're engaged in a creative endeavour that requires a lot of energy, and so if you're constantly involved in the output – in the exhale – then you'll run out of breath." The nub for his company, which runs a project management service, is that balance is about the wellbeing of his staff, and means more than just productivity. Mindfulness is seen as an enquiry for objectivity, a way to claw back some of the equilibrium of how we exist in the real world, rather than the hyper-mediated place we create for parts of ourselves online."

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Daily Mail News: I meditate on food to curb my rages, says Heston Blumenthal

On 30th November 2013 The Daily Mail online posted an article in the News section about UK TV Chef Heston Blumenthal titled: I meditate on food to curb my rages, says Heston Blumenthal: Chef credits his ex-wife for encouraging him to get help

Here are some key quotes:
"He once admitted chasing  his enemies with a meat cleaver  during a spectacular fit of rage.

But Heston Blumenthal has revealed his legendary temper is now under control thanks to a surprising technique – food-based ‘mindful meditation’.
he explained he has not given up in his quest for self-control, saying: ‘Mindfulness is just  brilliant. You can be mindful with a raisin, even. You look at the raisin – how does it feel?

‘Look at the light and the dark and wonder where the shadows have been cast.

'You draw that out for a minute or two and then you put it in your mouth, and focus on your lips, tongue, teeth… It’s about being completely in the moment.’

He said his anger-management is so successful that he has not lost his cool at all in recent years, adding: ‘Not even a frown. It’s like I’m a different person. Really weird.’

The self-taught chef was first encouraged to seek help for his fiery temper by 48-year-old Zanna, with whom he has three children. He later revealed he saw a cranial osteopath, a therapist and a faith healer on her suggestion.

Their 20-year marriage came to an end in 2011 after the stress of managing his multi-million-pound food empire took its toll on their relationship.
He has lucrative advertising deals with Waitrose and owns Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck in Berkshire."
The above article contained the following information box:

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Yahoo Sport News: Mindfulness the key to Giggs longevity

On 28th November 2013, Yahoo Sports News published an article about UK's Manchester United Football player Ryan Giggs, on it's 'pitchside-europe' blog titled: Mindfulness the key to Giggs longevity.

Here are some key quotes:
"Giggs’ longevity is a testament to his discipline, on and off the pitch.

While still in possession of a decent turn of pace – shown on one or two occasions in Germany – he is by no means the searing, jinking winger of old. While many would simply fade into their 30s, he has retrained as a crafty central midfielder, with astute positioning and intelligent use of the ball. Not to mention remarkable energy levels.
Giggs points to his adoption of yoga as a factor in his extended career. Many footballers have followed suit, but the simple adoption of yoga as a physical pursuit limits its effectiveness. Yoga, if practised correctly, is more than just an exercise of the body; it is a limitless pursuit of discipline, self-awareness, mindfulness and study of the individual. The focus on oneself is hugely important, even if it is only for a daily hour of stretches and meditation.

It may sound pretentious, but it appears Giggs – whose monastic eating and drinking habits have played a huge part in lengthening his career – has fully embraced the discipline. His professionalism and attention to detail combine with a lithe flexibility and a total understanding of his role. The late Steve Jobs – a fellow yogi – may well have agreed.
Giggs is already the oldest player to score in a Champions League match."

Mindful Tea - Part 1 - A Traditional Chinese Experience

During the Summer of 2006, my partner and myself travelled to 23 locations around China. Many of the locations were mountains and temples steeped in historical Taoist and Buddhist significance.

One of the most memorable experiences took place on the Kōngtóng Mountains (崆峒山), one of the sacred mountains of Taoism, in Gansu Province.

Part of a painting Xuan Yuan Inquires of the Dao on Kōngtóng Mountains.
We were initially concerned at the lack of any other tourists there, and the rusting, squeaking old cable car that was necessary to take us up and into the park. Later this was to become a positive dimension, since we had the mountains mostly to ourselves, and we could soak up and enjoy their beauty uninterrupted.

A view from KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
Temple buildings in a forest on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
Small temples were placed within forests and along cliff edges, often with well-tended flower and vegetable gardens. The feeling of retreat from village or city life was very tangible.

A cliff with a cave on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.

A temple garden on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
Some temples were Taoist, while others were Buddhist, like this Chán (Chinese Zen) temple with the character for 'heart/mind' carved into the wall in front of it:

A Chán temple on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
We arrived at a complex of small shrines and temples - a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist, where an old Taoist priest, a very old Buddhist nun, and a middle-aged Buddhist monk were sitting together at a table.

Steps up to a complex of small Buddhist and Taoist shrines on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
The Buddhist monk was writing out what appeared to be a sutra using traditional Chinese calligraphy, while the old nun was mending something, and the Taoist priest was pottering around his shrine. For the first time, after having already been past many good luck pay & pray shrines during my travels, I decided to do the deed at this one, so I knelt down, prayed, gave my money, and afterwards felt that I wanted to spend some more time there. There was a strong feeling of natural peace and harmony.

The author praying at a Taoist shrine on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
The old Taoist priest had a very comfortable, friendly character and we struck up an awkward (on our part) interaction with him, since our spoken Chinese was minimal.

An old Taoist priest on KongTongShan, Summer 2006.
He motioned for us to sit at the small table in the sunshine with his friends and then he disappeared, only to return with some pears and apples he had taken from his shrine. We felt a little uncomfortable eating offerings intended for his deities, and yet his general happy-go-lucky attitude made us feel the situation was appropriate. He then got an old plastic pharmaceuticals container, opened the lid, and poured out some green tea into two empty jam jars, and leaving a third of the tea in the white plastic container for himself, proceeded to add hot water to make cups of tea.

We sat there for more than two hours enjoying the fruits, tea, weather, fresh air, insects buzzing past, the peaceful view and surroundings, and the warm-hearted company. It remains one of my fondest memories of my time in China. Little did we know that on that day we shared in an ancient practice that apparently predates the use of tea in Northern China, the use of tea in village or city life in Southern China, and the use of tea as a beverage anywhere else in the world outside of China.

In the next parts of this Mindful Tea series, the history and cultural context of mindful tea use in China and throughout the world will be looked at.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Mindfulness in Sports

Many athletes and trainers have revealed their use of mindfulness meditation as being a key component in the way they enhance athletic performance.

On January 3rd 2013, posted the following article about sports psychologist Michael Gervais in the Fitness section: The Sports Shrink: Michael Gervais, Psychologist to the Stars.

Here are some key quotes from that article:
"When elite athletes like three-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh and daredevil spaceman Felix Baumgartner are in a slump, they go see Los Angeles sports psychologist Michael Gervais. Sometimes boosting your performance requires sitting on a couch.
Six feet two inches of lithe muscle and golden skin, Kerri Walsh folds her lanky frame into a black leather chair at the Diagnostic and Interventional Surgical Center (DISC) in Marina del Rey, California, and tucks her knees to her chest. She towers on beach-volleyball courts, but in a baggy sweatshirt and pink flip-flops she seems more guarded than dominating. It’s May 2012, and the London Olympics loom.Alongside teammate Misty May-Treanor, Walsh has already won two gold medals, and she wants another. But after a frustrating week of practice games against international competition on Manhattan Beach, she needs a mental tune-up.
Walsh and dozens of other athletes who work with Gervais call him their secret weapon. His clients include snowboarders, swimmers, basketball players, golfers, and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. As a member of Red Bull’s high-performance team, he has taught the energy-drink maker’s athletes how to calm their minds for competition. He has guided them through grueling, weeklong mental boot camps involving meditation, yoga, and sensory deprivation to sharpen their minds.
He discovered his specialty was in one-on-one problem solving, helping high performers overcome what he says is a universal challenge for top athletes: “Being able to fully trust themselves and trust their skills in progressively higher stakes, and being able to harness the activity of their mind so they can be more present.” He earned his Ph.D. in 2004 and was soon working with top professionals."
Today, nearly every professional sport incorporates mental training. The U.S. Olympic Committee now has five full-time sports psychologists, and many more athletes meet with independent specialists like Gervais. As the field has gone mainstream, an athlete meeting with a psychologist has lost much of its stigma. In 2010, Los Angeles Laker Ron Artest even thanked his psychiatrist on live television after the Lakers clinched the NBA title. Many of the athletes in this piece declined to be mentioned by name—not because they’re afraid of being seen as weak but because they don’t want to reveal a competitive advantage.
After a phone call with the Seahawks’ Carroll and before his weekly meeting with a race-car driver, Gervais pulls his vehicle to the curb outside the DISC Sports and Spine Center in Marina del Rey, where he’s a partner. His cell phone on speaker, he settles into his seat for a quick meditation session. On the other end of the line is one of the world’s fastest swimmers, sitting on a couch in his L.A. apartment.
“Give your body permission to be present with this process,” Gervais says. “Deep breath in.... Out.... Pause at the bottom. There’s nowhere to go and nowhere to be, so allow yourself to be here right now.” Gervais has worked with the swimmer for several months on managing outside stressors that distract him in the pool. This is the first meditation session, which he knows can seem too soft for many athletes, too far removed from athletics. But it’s not about athletics anyway. That’s just the proving ground for how well they’re living. “Where does the amazing and beautiful take place? In the present moment,” he told me earlier. “If I can teach people how to be quiet in their minds, I’m going to increase their experiences of the beautiful and the amazing.”
As traffic zips by, Gervais talks the swimmer through his body, through the organs, into his mind. “Connect to that place in you that water cannot wet, that the wind cannot blow, and that fire cannot burn,” he says. “Without judgment, observe the activity of your mind by guiding your mind to one thing at a time. This is what it means to be present. Now allow every cell in your body to be open.”"

Basketball has as an interview in the Sports & Recreation section with sports psychologist and meditation teacher George Mumford titled: The Lakers Meditate?:
"For five years, George Mumford worked with NBA Championship team the Chicago Bulls, during the Michael Jordan years. He's also been involved with the Los Angeles Lakers. He's currently a sports psychologist and meditation teacher to many athletes and sports teams."
"I’ve worked with MJ (Michael Jordan), the Bulls, and Phil Jackson."
"I was a heroin addict for a long time, so I know. It’s a similar kind of high, but different. When you first meditate, you may feel good but it is not likely going to give you the same experience as certain drugs. When you take drugs, the drugs have an impact on your receptors and your endorphins. They are helping you experience something that you already have. They ignite and sensitize you to feeling your own endorphins. It’s internal. So the question is, how to develop that so you have other ways to access it? That’s when you have the experience of being in the zone." posted a video on 16th June 2013 titled: How Legendary NBA Coach Phil Jackson Taught His Teams Mindfulness:
"Phil Jackson says that when he began coaching the Chicago Bulls—and later the Los Angeles Lakers—he used the Zen philosophy of mindfulness to help build both teams. Watch as Phil explains why that practice helped build mental strength, and find out what happened when he asked the most famous basketball player in the world to do tai chi, practice yoga, meditate and even play in the dark"

Miami Heat star LeBron James practices yoga, and in this video uses breathing regulation:

American Football posted an article about Miami Dolphins player, Ricky Williams, on 26th July 2010 titled: Ricky Williams Invites You to Meditate With Him:
"Every Wednesday, in a small, dark classroom on the campus of Nova Southeastern University, the most recognizable Miami Dolphin leads a class on meditation.

Ricky Williams says for him, meditation is like food. He needs it every day. Every morning and before every game. And now he's sharing his stress relieving philosophy with South Florida.

"This is my passion," said Williams. "I think a lot of people are so used to being stressed, they don't realize they're stressed. And I was one of those people."
...just like many of his first-time students, even he wasn't so sure about meditation at first.

"My first time doing yoga and meditating I had the same preconceived notions," Williams said. "Luckily, I was receptive enough to be open-minded."
Baseball posted an article about New York Yankees player, Derek Jeter, on October 10th 2012 titled: Derek Jeter's Diary: The Real Season Begins:
"10-11 a.m.: Solo meditation among the ring pillars in the Champion's Den."


The Guardian online published an article about tennis player Novak Djokovic in it's Sport>US Open tennis 2013 section on 6th September 2013 titled: Novak Djokovic mindful of US Open threat posed by Stanislas Wawrinka.
"Novak Djokovic calls the secret to his tennis – and his life away from the court – "mindfulness", a form of meditation in which he confronts negative thoughts in his psyche then banishes them."
Shooting posted an article about female pistol shooter, Kim Jang-mi of South Korea, on 7th August 2012 titled: Kim Jang-Mi credits Buddhist mindfulness training for Olympic gold:
"Born in 1992, Kim Jang-mi of South Korea won the gold medal in the women’s 25-meter pistol Wednesday after setting an Olympic record for the best qualification score."

- - - - - - - - - -

No doubt there will be more stories such as these to come...

Huffington Post News: Bank Of England Runs Meditation Classes For Staff Mindfulness

On 20th November 2013, the Huffington Post put an article online titled: Bank Of England Runs Meditation Classes For Staff Mindfulness.

Here are the key quotes:
"...the Bank revealed that it had run two meditation "taster" sessions for staff over the last year - on 28 November and 12 December 2012 as part of a series of "Working Lives" seminars.

Thirty staff attended the first session and 36 people went to the second with both sessions costing £880 to put on.

The Bank also offered a self-funded six-week meditation course, which ran from 30 January 2013 and cost £90 per person. Twenty-three staff attended this course, which was run by an outside company."

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Economist News: The mindfulness business

On 16th November 2013 The Economist published an article on their website in the News>Business section titled: The mindfulness business - Western capitalism is looking for inspiration in eastern mysticism.

Here are some key quotes:
"The fashion is not confined to Silicon Valley: the mindfulness movement can be found in every corner of the corporate world. Rupert Murdoch has a well-developed bullshit detector. But earlier this year he tweeted about his interest in transcendental meditation (which he said “everyone recommends”). Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates and Bill Gross of PIMCO are two of the biggest names in the money-management business, and both are regular meditators. Mr Dalio says it has had more impact on his success than anything else.
Does all this mindfulness do any good? There is a body of evidence that suggests that some of its techniques can provide significant psychological and physiological benefits. The Duke University School of Medicine has produced research that shows that, in America, an hour of yoga a week reduces stress levels in employees by a third and cuts health-care costs by an average of $2,000 a year. Cynics might point to the evidence that a walk in the countryside has similar benefits. They might also worry that Aetna, an insurer which wants to sell yoga and other mindfulness techniques as part of its health plans, is sponsoring some of the research that supports them. But it seems not unreasonable to suppose that, in a world of constant stress and distraction, simply sitting still and relaxing for a while might do you some good."

Monday, 11 November 2013

Insight Calligraphy: Listening and Responding with the Whole Body

"When we practice meditation, we are really acknowledging that in this moment, we are on the road of life. The path unfolds in this moment and in every moment while we are alive. Meditation is more rightly thought of as a "Way" than as a technique. It is a Way of being, a Way of living, a Way of listening, a Way of walking along the path of life and being in harmony with things as they are." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p88.

Traditional Chinese 'Insight' Calligraphy teacher, Paul Wang, outlines the core of his Zen brush method as follows:

(Sōng) - Relax/Let go
触 (
Chù) - Engage/Make contact
息 (
Xi) - Notice breathing
意 (
Yì) - Flow with intention

This process is to be begun before one writes, and is continued as a whole mode of being. As these four necessary conditions are being maintained mindfully, when practicing copying a particular character, one operates from one's whole body - 'listening' in a receptive state with the whole body to what one is focusing upon, and reflecting one's experience back onto the paper as one writes.

In the same way that one's body can effortlessly balance on a bicycle as one moves over the surface one is riding upon, the body can be trusted to replicate the essence of the character one is copying - something beyond aesthetic form - a condition of being laid down onto paper. The 'journey' of writing a beautiful flowing traditional Chinese character can be enjoyed mindfully in the same way that a flowing bicycle ride through the countryside can be enjoyed - balancing intelligently, yet also automatically - relaxing into the flow, and 'surfing' the twists and turns.

This open receptivity - letting go and allowing the body's innate intelligence to operate effortlessly and unobstructed lies at the core of secular mindfulness practice, as well as the traditional Zen Buddhist arts. Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn states in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p227:
"Open and receptive, we find balance and harmony right here, all space folded into this place, all moments folded into this moment."
Paul Wang says that the famous Zen koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" produces such a state of mind - listening for the sake of receptivity; opening all of our channels so that the heart/mind can receive, reflect, and respond unhindered by man-made constructs so that true nature can pour out. In this sense listening is done for the state itself, rather than for any particular conceptual answer. Kabat-Zinn writes of this in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p234:
"Inquiry is not so much thinking about answers, although the questioning will produce a lot of thoughts that look like answers. It really involves just listening to the thinking that your questioning evokes, as if you were sitting by the side of the stream of your own thoughts, listening to the water flow over and around the rocks, listening, listening, and watching an occasional leaf or twig as it is carried along."
From this perspective, formal seated mindfulness meditation and Insight calligraphy share the same core methodology.

Here is a recent piece I wrote - a part of the Heart Sutra which translates as 'Neither produced nor destroyed', or 'No birth, no death':

Sunday Times News: Meditate with the marines

The Sunday Times online published an article on 10th November 2013 as a feature in the Home / Public / Appointments titled: Meditate with the marines.

Here are some key quotes:
"Business leaders who want to improve their decision-making skills should take a tip from the marines: meditate before going into action.

US marines who are taught mindfulness techniques report that they are better able to cut through the confusion of battle to distinguish between civilians and fighters, said Jutta Tobias, a social psychologist, while executives find that it helps them to avoid jumping to conclusions.
Tobias suggested that a good way to start practising is by sitting quietly with something that makes one feel uncomfortable. “For example, you could sit with a noise that you don’t like,” she said. “Observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them. It’s not about forcing yourself to sit with this unpleasant noise but about watching yourself be displeased and then creating a bit of a wedge between the stimulus and that response.” The goal is not for leaders to develop an iron will that will allow them to bear any discomfort but for them to get used to living with and observing something displeasing rather than rushing to dismiss it, Tobias said.

This does not have to be a lengthy exercise — even sticking with the discomfort for a split second longer than you naturally would will be useful, she added.
Mindfulness techniques are also useful when it comes to understanding how things like tiredness or ill temper can affect his performance, Bitsakis added. Simply recognising it can help him to think more clearly.

“It is also about trying to read the people I manage. If I am aware they are in a bad place, I can lead them more effectively.”"

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Times News: Learn to do one thing at a time with ‘mindfulness’ meditation

On 5th November 2013, The Times published an article online in the Life section titled: Learn to do one thing at a time with ‘mindfulness’ meditation. The whole article was available to subscribers only, but it began as follows:
"The “feeling like a moron” factor ran high when Hannah Betts tried it but, she says, it generated a feeling of wellbeing 

Time was when the boundaries between high-fliers and hippies were as immovable as they were emphatic. Business people came up with ideas and made money; flaky types talked about feelings and hugged trees.

However, something is afoot within these two realms and it looks like a meeting of minds. This is occurring first and foremost in California, that state of place and being where formerly never the twain would meet. Today, however, the Golden State's two dominant communities - the geeks of Silicon Valley and the free spirits of Big Sur and beyond are speaking the same language ..."

ABC News: Snap happy: bestselling author Matthew Johnstone finds peace through photography

ABC News online posted an article on 4th November 2013 titled: Snap happy: bestselling author Matthew Johnstone finds peace through photography. The article outlined how someone combined mindfulness practice with photography.

Here are some quotes:
"Much has been written about the elusive search for calm and happiness, and the latest offering comes from an author who says the best place to look might be through your camera's lens.

Matthew Johnstone, who spent more than a decade as an award-winning advertising creative before trying his hand at motivational writing and illustrating, has penned a new book about achieving peace by taking photos.

Capturing Mindfulness focuses on the increasingly popular practice of mindfulness, which typically involves regular meditation.

But instead of encouraging people to sit down and close their eyes, Johnstone urges them to open their eyes and go hunting for photos.

Johnstone spent years struggling with depression, particularly when he was working in the advertising industry in the US, and he says his road to recovery started when he picked up a camera.
...It was through this camera that I realised the whole concept and idea of being in the moment."
Photography at the end of the day is really about stopping, it's really about seeing what's in front of us, it's really about stopping and focusing and it's about capturing that moment," he told the ABC.
...I slow down and start going around and really noticing things and seeing the best angles and light and spots. That to me is my real joy."

He says there is no need to be a master photographer or have an expensive camera, pointing out that he takes many of his photos with his phone's camera.

"I don't know a lot about the technicalities of photography and I set most of my photos to auto, but the camera simply asks you what can you see that no-one else can? What captures your heart, your brain, your soul?," he said."

Monday, 4 November 2013

Reflexive Living - Existing Effortlessly

"If you can just concentrate your mind and transcend its falsehood and evil, the suffering ... will automatically disappear. And once free from suffering, you’re truly free." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Breakthrough Sermon (Red Pine translation, 1987).
"If one discards the delusions that conceal the Buddha-nature, the Buddha-nature automatically appears." - Korean Zen Master Seongcheol, 1st Journal of White Lotus Buddhist Studies (JWBS) (1991).

We do not need to make decisions about whether our cells absorb nutrients from an IV drip, or to breathe when we are unconscious, or to notice danger when it appears. All of this happens reflexively. When we sit down to meditate - with reflexive cells metabolising, reflexive breathing respiring, and reflexive awareness noticing - there is nothing for us to do - everything is happening as simply and naturally as water flowing down a mountain - it needs no adjustment or encouragement. Our attention will eventually automatically alight upon the breath because that will be the most tangible source of grounding stimulation. However, when we ask ourselves the question, "Who is breathing?" - the most obvious answer is, "Nobody". Are we OK with this? If "I" am nobody, then doesn't that mean "I" am dead? Who or what is making decisions? Who or what is 'doing' this body? This can be very unnerving for our minds, but why?

When faced with 'what is', it seems our experiences in life revolve around a simple choice - whether we accept what is necessary or not. We can enjoy relaxing into the necessary unfolding of the moment, or we can reject our present experience, and fantasise about how we think things should be. If we choose the latter, then there will be inevitable disharmony in what our minds and bodies are experiencing, and when such disharmony is severe, our reflexive reaction will be a very basic and feral emergency response - the adrenaline reaction. Thus, stress - the product of what some see as animal-like 'sin' - appears in our life as if it is an inevitable and inescapable facet of our 'higher level' of human existence. In this sense, the more we elevate ourselves above 'what is' - into a supernatural state of being able to live as we think we should, the more we seem to seal ourselves into a more painful life.

Just because we can imagine a Creator with human intelligence creating a system such as our universe and imbuing humans with souls made in his image, does not mean that such a system exists, no matter how strongly we think it should exist. If we think that our clever, creative, conscious decision-making process - the doer which resembles a Creator - should lie at the core of our being, does not mean that it actually does. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that it does not lie at our core if we consider that our bodily functions regulate and take care of themselves better without interference from our conscious minds.

Even though this may be clear to see and understand, it is difficult to leave existential questions unanswered - babies are born and they grow up to make more babies. Where did all this begin? Who or what was the first parent? The first thing to exist? Was there a Creator? Can we, or will we, ever know if such a force exists or existed? Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki states in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995) that a Creator does not exist. He equates our existence to being like trains running on the infinite track of the universe, and that mindfulness requires an acceptance of this in order for us to live more peaceful lives, p54:
"The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginningless and endless track. There is no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice."
The fact that discrete causes and effects - Creators and Creations - are likely falsities imposed on the universe by human brains (for example, the Earth was simultaneously yet independently created by an exploding supernova and the big bang before it) seems to pass us by when assuming a Creation Event kick-started our existence, even before one arrives at assigning that creation event to a Creator God. By that point one has already made three assumptions creating potentially mind-boggling layers of complexity; that there are objective causes and effects, that our existence has an initial cause, and that a Creator caused us to come into being. Concerning this situation, Shunryu Suzuki warns us in Zen Mind Beginner's Mind that any such contemplation of this railway track upon which we run is always bound to end in dizzying frustration, p54:
"...when you become curious about the railway track, danger is there. You should not see the railway track. If you look at the track you will become dizzy. Just appreciate the sights you see from the train. That is our way. There is no need for the passengers to be curious about the track. Someone will take care of it ; Buddha will take care of it. But sometimes we try to explain the railway track because we become curious if something is always the same. We wonder, "How is it possible for the Bodhisattva always to be the same? What is his secret?" But there is no secret. Everyone has the same nature as the railway track."
If one dwells upon, or creates answers to questions about why we trains run on such tracks - the very process of contemplating and creating such answers busies the mind with such complex, dislocating riddles that it can become like a huge dusty whirlwind within our heads which saps our energy and tears our experiences into shreds wherever we go. Even as agnostics we can invest so much time and energy in the conceptual riddle of existence that we feel we deserve an answer - to the point that we eventually subconsciously satisfy our hunger for such knowledge with irrational religious blind faith in various guises - for example New Age conceptions of the soul or spiritual 'subtle energies' - some sort of belief in a 'clever ghost' of sorts. Others may hold out some faith in science.

Scientists continue to divide and analyse the fabric of existence in space and time, and yet there is no hint of an ultimate answer - the universe is known to not be infinite, but something finite needs to be contained within something else, and is that thing infinite? No one knows. Suffering the ignorance of why we exist is not solved by looking at the outside world for knowledge, but instead by looking at the nature of suffering itself, and learning how to liberate ourselves from such stress. The ultimate question becomes: "Can I be ignorant of why I exist and be OK with that?". Can humans go about their lives and enjoy the view as they pass through from birth to death without an answer as to why they exist? It seems the answer is "yes", since we do not actually have to consciously do anything to stay healthy and survive - we just need to enjoy the reflexive ride, and a novel and surprising by-product of this is that we no longer suffer ignorance regarding our existential nature.

Our brains are around 85% water, our bodies consist of up to 60% water, and that water is mostly held within our cells. These cells absorb nutrients automatically through osmosis, and different kinds of cells make up our tissues and nervous system. The nervous system regulates oxygen intake via our breathing and processes information we take in about resources and dangers in our environment. All of this evolved and continues to exist effortlessly within our bodies, as well as in the bodies of many other animals on this planet. Mindfulness practice allows us to step out of the way of our own being and relax into this reflexivity - allowing us to peacefully witness the truth of our existence as a process in the same way one can gain an understanding of riding a bicycle beyond conceptual description or analysis - a deep sense of dynamic balance.

As the conceptual realm of understanding containing reasons, purposes, and souls is transcended, and the individual enters a more proprioceptive mode of being, so the reasoning and existential questions fade away as their illusory, limiting nature is revealed. Dwelling in a peaceful, mindful state allows 'decisions to be made' without any conscious effort - action is automatic and effortless - when we are hungry we prepare and eat food - automatically, and when we are tired we prepare for bed and go to sleep - automatically. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes of this automatic process in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p101:
"When our anger resolves into emptiness, there’s no problem; the right action arises by itself."

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Huffington Post News: MPs Slow The Westminster Treadmill With Weekly 'Mindfulness' Meetings

The Huffginton Post ran an article on 1st November 2013 in the Politics section titled: MPs Slow The Westminster Treadmill With Weekly 'Mindfulness' Meetings.

Here are some key quotes:
"Chris Ruane has a treadmill in the corner of his office. But judging by the boxes of loose paper piled high on it, the machine does not get used too often. The Labour backbencher points to it as a rather neat example of his mission to get his colleagues to slow their lives down.

The Vale of Clwyd MP is parliament's leading advocate of mindfulness - a form of meditation he describes as "the breath that allows us to anchor ourselves in the present". And the technique for battling stress has a growing fan base within the walls of the Palace of Westminster, where under-pressure politicians are being taught to spend less time focusing on the things that drain them.
So far 50 MPs and peers have taken part in weekly mindfulness sessions in parliament. And another round of the eight-week course is due to start in February, with a further 25 signed up. Of course not every MP and peer attends every week.
..Ruane's office is also proud that within five minutes of sending out a speculative email to MPs and their staff advertising the mindfulness classes, they got 40 replies expressing interest.
"Although initially sceptical," one MP who has attended the course says. "I am a convert. I'll be recommending it to all those who work with the young people in my constituency."

Mindfulness is now also offered to parliament's employees as well as the staff at the Department of Health. And Cabot Zinn [sic], the author of many a mindfulness book, has been to Downing Street to press the cause with the prime minister's policy unit. Ruane has also taken the meditation guru, although he dislikes the word, to try and persuade his senior Labour colleagues in the shadow cabinet.

Ruane, a former teacher, came across meditation in 1997 while teaching primary school children. And he hopes that with the increase in the number of MPs taking it up - it will start to inform policy. "The more we can develop mindfulness in the heart of parliament and in the heart of government the more mindful policies we can develop," he says.

He adds: "It's cheaper in the long term, the science is proven, it puts the individual in control and there are no long term consequences."
Statistics that show 32% of people aged 16-24 suffer from psychiatric conditions also deeply worry Ruane. He says this suggests there are mental health problems of "almost epidemic proportions" among young people - and that it may only get worse. "It's one of those issues like national security, like care for the elderly where you could develop consensus on it. Mental health is a massive issue with huge financial costs. There are societal issues that I think mindfulness could help to address.""

New York Times News - Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention

The New York Times posted an online article on 1st November 2013 in the Fashion & Style section titled: Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention.

Here are some key quotes:
"Mr. Gordhamer started Wisdom 2.0 in 2009 to examine how we can live with technology without it swallowing us whole. The wait lists for his panel talks and conferences now run into the hundreds. 

The “Disconnect to Connect” meet-up was typical. The audience was mostly young, mostly from the Silicon Valley tech scene and entirely fed up with taking orders from Siri. “There was a time when phones didn’t tell you to do everything,” said Mr. Gordhamer, 45, as the conversation got rolling. “What’s work, what’s not work, it’s all become blurred.” 
Earlier that morning at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Chade-Meng Tan, a veteran engineer, was laughing about the demand for an in-house course he created called “Search Inside Yourself.” The seven-week class teaches mindfulness, a loose term that covers an array of attention-training practices. It may mean spending 10 minutes with eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning or truly listening to your mother-in-law for once. Google naturally sees it as another utility widget for staying ahead. “Whenever we put the class online, it sells out in 30 seconds,” Mr. Tan said.

This is not just a geek thing. Everywhere lately, the here and now is the place to be. George Stephanopoulos, 50 Cent and Lena Dunham have all been talking up their meditation regimens.
The Marine Corps is testing Mind Fitness Training to help soldiers relax and boost “emotional intelligence,” the buzzwords of the hour. Nike, General Mills, Target and Aetna encourage employees to sit and do nothing, and with classes that show them how. As the high priestess of the fully aware, Arianna Huffington this year started a mindfulness conference, a page dedicated to the subject on The Huffington Post and a “GPS for the Soul” phone application with a built-in heart sensor to alert you when you’re calm or stressed. 

The hunger to get centered is especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution. The Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz told Wisdom 2.0 audiences about modeling his current software start-up, Asana, after lessons learned in his yoga practice. At the same summit, eBay’s founder and chairman, Pierre Omidyar, shared the stage with Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English interpreter, and pegged the auction site’s success on human goodness and trusting in complete strangers.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to Westerners (Google got first dibs on him as a guest speaker), once said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
“This isn’t the old San Francisco hippie fluff,” said Mr. Tan, who started the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as an extracurricular program in 2007. More than a thousand Googlers have gone through the course, which uses scientific research and the profit motive to entice coders and programmers to be here now. 
It is easy for Mr. Tan to joke. With the financial benefits that come from being Google employee No. 107, he works only three days a week and concentrates more on giving away his wealth than growing it. “I don’t have much sympathy for miserable rich people because sharing money is the key to happiness,” he said. “For me, becoming rich was a wonderful experience, but then the thought became, now what?”
Mr. Gordhamer’s response to this came five years ago while residing in a double-wide trailer in remote Dixon, N.M. He was newly divorced and had lost his job organizing events for Richard Gere’s Foundation. At the time, Mr. Gordhamer was reading a lot of Eckhart Tolle and kept returning to one idea: Rather than asking, “What do I want from life?” he asked, “What does life want from me?” Convinced he had settled on an answer, Mr. Gordhamer withdrew the last $10,000 from his bank account and started Wisdom 2.0. 

With prominent speakers from the technology and “wisdom” communities, the first conference in 2009, held outside San Francisco, was a modest gathering of 325 people. By 2012, the wait list ran to 500, with headliners that included co-founders of Twitter, Facebook, eBay and PayPal. Last winter’s lineup featured Ford’s chairman, Bill Ford, interviewed by his meditation guru, Jack Kornfield; Congressman Tim Ryan on using mindfulness to transform education; and Marianne Williamson, on ending world hunger with the aid of social media. The conference in February, at a convention hotel in downtown San Francisco, is expected to draw around 2,000 attendees over four days and is part of a year-round cycle of events. 
The paradox of profit-minded techies engaging in the realm of nonattachment is not lost on those shepherding these wired flocks. Marc Lesser wore the black robes of a Buddhist priest as director of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Big Sur in the 1980s. “I literally didn’t know what to do with the $60 monthly stipend I used to get,” he said. Today, as an M.B.A. and chief executive of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, he is comfortable integrating money with mindfulness. “All business is about helping people in some way and you can’t do that without focusing on success,” he said. “The hope is that turning a profit can be done more wisely and compassionately.” 

At his first Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2010, Arturo Bejar, Facebook’s engineering director, sat in the back row. “I was reluctant because I’m primarily a numbers person,” he said. But hearing the author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn say that if people fully saw one another, they could get along better, a light bulb went off for Mr. Bejar. He decided to integrate that idea into his work handling content concerns from Facebook’s one billion users. 

Collaborating with neuroscience and psychology researchers at Stanford, Berkeley and Yale, Mr. Bejar made significant changes to the ways communication happens on Facebook. This year, the company introduced emoticons to capture a broader range of human feelings, along with a gentler formula for settling tension between users. Previously, someone tagged in an unfortunate Facebook photo could flag the image as offensive and hope the other person would remove it. Now, a form pops up with options like, “It’s embarrassing,” “It’s inappropriate” and “It makes me sad,” along with a polite request to take the photo down. 

Introducing that simple, thoughtful language has tripled the likelihood that users will send a message asking for the photo to be removed, Mr. Bejar said, adding that the overall response has been significant. In the United States, if someone marks a Facebook photo as “embarrassing,” it is 83 percent likely that the poster will respond or delete it. Facebook will soon add a similar function to text posts. “We didn’t realize how hard it was to feel heard in electronic communications, but now there are mechanisms for being more expressive and thoughtful,” Mr. Bejar said."