My virtual meditation space

My

Just Leap In is an interactive 3D space that’s similar to Second Life but works in your browser (Firefox or Internet Explorer) while SL requires a dedicated program. I tried Second Life a year or two back and have to confess that even clothing an avatar the way I liked it was beyond me. I never got round to actually creating anything there. I presume my character is still hanging around on some park bench somewhere!

Just Leap In is still in beta but it’s much easier to use. It took very little time to create a virtual meditation center. I’ve decorated it with pictures of Buddha statues, thangkas, and scriptures that I uploaded, as well as with some of the pre-made furnishings that are available in the space. I’ve even uploaded an audio-visual guided meditation (that’s what the TV screen to the right of the image is).

I don’t have any meditation cushions at present, or any Buddha statues. Perhaps at some point Just Leap In will provide the ability for us to create those ourselves. At the moment you can choose an avatar but you can’t customize it. Apparently that function will come later. The site is in beta at present, but I think it’s worth checking out and playing around with.

You can visit my space here. It does take a while to load, so go make yourself a cup of coffee while the cardboard boxes unpack themselves.

My new publication comes out tomorrow!

Still the mind cover

The wonderful people at Sounds True are bringing out a double-CD set of my teachings on the Mindfulness of Breathing practice tomorrow (Jan 1, 2009). It’s called “Still the Mind” and it’s a step-by-step guide to the four stages of the practice, illuminating the principles underlying each stage and explaining the various ways that our awareness of the breath can be used to cultivate calmness, energy, mental integration, and one-pointed concentration.

Here’s a bit of the blurb.

The average person has 12,000 thoughts per day—most of them a recurring handful of unwelcome distractions. On Still the Mind, master meditation teacher Bodhipaksa offers an essential program for anyone looking to move beyond the chatter of a too-busy mind, while laying the foundation for a daily meditation practice. Two CDs of instruction and guided sitting sessions will help you discover the breath as an untapped source of mental clarity and inner peace, as you transcend the hectic demands of everyday life and learn to settle into the deepest parts of yourself. Bodhipaksa’s gentle teaching style and straightforward delivery take the mystery out of meditation. His step-by-step instruction will help you to cultivate your own daily practice right in the middle of your busy life, as you explore

I think this would make a great gift for the person in your life that needs to learn to calm down and become happier (and that person may be you!).

Check it out!

The friars of the South Bronx

Brother Tansi looked out the window of the chapel at the St. Crispin Friary in the South Bronx

I just came across this fascinating NYT article about a burgeoning monastic community that was established in the Bronx in 1987 by the Franciscan friars. They take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity, spend up to five hours a day in prayer, and spend time visiting and helping the sick, poor, and elderly.

One interesting thing is the relative youth of the friars. The oldest and longest-serving resident at St. Crispin’s is the Rev. Rich Roemer, who is relative young 39, while the youngest friar is Brother Juanmaria Arroyo Acevedo, at a mere 24.

In some ways the community reminds me of FWBO (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) residential communities, which also represent an attempt to create a realm of simplicity and spiritual practice in the heart of urban environments. The impetus for these communities has waned over the years (it’s interesting that the Franciscan friary has been growing) but it wasn’t (and isn’t) uncommon for people to live very simple and even chaste lives, although chastity in the FWBO is a matter of personal choice rather than condition of membership.

One big difference is that most people in the FWBO have to work for a living, and so there were (or are) right livelihood businesses in which people can work together with other Buddhists. In some places this means that a person can live in a community and work in a right livelihood business, practicing mindfulness throughout the day and in some ways coming close to the full-time ideal that the friars represent. I lived this way myself for many years. I imagine that the friars are supported in some way by the church.

I’m heartened by the fact that the friars exist, that they’ve chosen to live in a challenging urban environment, that they are young, and that their numbers are growing. And I find myself wondering if the pendulum in the FWBO will start to swing back in the direction of a more collective and communal form of practice. While communities and team-based right-livelihood businesses thrived in the 1970s to 1990s, fewer people in recent years have wanted to move in that direction. There’s been a general trend towards a more self-expressive form of practice, which is many ways has been good because people don’t feel that they have to shoe-horn themselves into one particular lifestyle, but in other ways there has been a loss of what can for many people be a very supportive spiritual environment. People have increasingly decided to marry or otherwise pair up, or to live alone, and to work in more conventional jobs.

Given that the world is going though a major period of financial readjustment, possibly (and hopefully) accompanied by a philosophical shift represented not only by a return to more centrist values in the form of a new presidency but also an analysis of the forces of greed and ignorance that got us into our current mess, I think it’s conceivable that people will be looking for a more collective form of practice. Perhaps in some regards the friars of the South Bronx are bellwethers — early adopters of a more authentic way of life.

The difficulty of making changes

Scientific American has a very interesting and challenging article on how difficult it can be to bring about personal change. It’s worth reading the entire article, but here’s the handy digest (you know, just in case that resolution to stop skimming the surface of articles isn’t working out for ya).

  • Studies of personality development often focus on traits such as extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to new experiences. In most people, these traits change more during young adulthood than any other period of life, including adolescence. Openness typically increases during a person’s 20s and goes into a gradual decline after that.
  • This pattern of personality development seems to hold true across cultures. Although some see that as evidence that genes determine our personality, many researchers theorize that personality traits change during young adulthood because this is a time of life when people assume new roles: finding a partner, starting a family and beginning a career.
  • Personality can continue to change somewhat in middle and old age, but openness to new experiences tends to decline gradually until about age 60. After that, some people become more open again, perhaps because their responsibilities for raising a family and earning a living have been lifted.

Here’s a part I found especially interesting:

… those who seek to make large changes often end up failing even to make the most minor corrections. The more an individual believes he can set his own rudder as he pleases, the more likely he is to run aground. That’s one reason why so many smokers who tell you that they can quit whenever they want are still smoking 20 years later.

In 1999 psychologists Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman of the University of Toronto Mississauga coined a term for this phenomenon: false hope syndrome. Over and over, they say, people undertake both small and large changes in their lives. Most of these attempts never get anywhere, thanks to overblown expectations [see “Picture Imperfect,” by David Dunning, Chip Heath and Jerry M. Suls; Scientific American Mind, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2005].

Take the woman who believes that if she can lose 20 pounds she will finally meet the man of her dreams and live happily ever after. This fantasy is based on the notion that one positive change–losing weight–automatically brings with it other desired changes. But the reality is that it is difficult to keep weight off over the long term, and finding an ideal life partner is often dependent on luck. Even if dieting proves successful, other goals may remain out of reach. But the false hope syndrome seduces people into trying to overhaul their entire lives all at once: the smoker and couch potato is suddenly inspired to become a nonsmoker and marathon runner, but because he attempts too much too fast, he is doomed to fail.

The cure for false hope is to set more reasonable goals and recognize that achieving even modest change will be difficult. And if you are older than 30, remember that your openness to new experiences is slowly declining, so you are better off making a new start today than postponing it until later. Perhaps most important of all, try to appreciate the person that you already are.