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Lovingkindness and Positive Psychology

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha.

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha. CC 2.0

It seems appropriate, following the anniversary of so much death and destruction, to share the Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation, something I’ve been practicing lately in honor of September being National Yoga Month. Just kidding — I only know that September is National Yoga Month because of a few instructor shout-outs at my gym, whose classes, if we’re honest with ourselves, definitely lift our collective mood for their powers to tone and tighten, but can also remind us, spiritually speaking, of our inherent interconnectedness, even if it’s just a momentary “ohm” that does it.

The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of “psychological Buddhism,” where we integrate certain principles and practices of the Buddhist religion into our lives for therapeutic purposes. On September 11, 2001, I distinctly remember being despondent and silent as I rotated through my set of high school classes, and being unable to stomach any food. As a matter of fact, I remember my mom made lasagna that night. Hah, my sharp memory for all things edible has been with me long before I became one of those people who takes pictures of food and blogs about recipes. As I pushed it around on my plate, my dad, with his characteristic rationality, put things into perspective by pointing out that this was the first national tragedy that my brothers and I had lived through. Actually, I think he used the phrase “our generation,” words that somehow normalized the awful, horrific events of the day.

Earlier that afternoon, my AP European History teacher had asked me and a friend if we were okay, that we seemed quiet and scared. A classmate cracked a joke about my demeanor, and then, in a rare instance for my high school self of not caring what my peers thought of me, I snapped back about how I was “empathizing with all the people in that plane.” Everyone sort of stiffened, respectfully, and then another friend after class approached me, saying “I can’t believe she asked you why you were scared.”

Undoubtedly, we all have our own distinct memories of what that day felt like. Looking back, I’m almost proud to share that I was viscerally affected by what happened, even if my rational understanding of the international politics was null, and AP history classes were the bane of my high school existence (until I took elective history classes, and then grew to really like history, especially historical fiction, and then taught high school history, if dance history and theatre history count…)

Lately I’ve become interested in practicing positive psychology. According to “Psychology Today,”

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”

“Pathology” is the study of diseases. The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of positive psychology, with its emphasis on recognizing our spiritual interconnectedness with people and the environment, and by reminding us of our potential to subtly affect the outside world by projecting positive energy.

In this article, Buddhists and psychologists compare beliefs about managing emotions in order to achieve overall well-being, comparing the tenets of Buddhism and the status quo in modern psychology. According to the authors, Buddhists view emotion and cognition as part and parcel — they don’t even have a word for “emotion.” In Buddhism, what’s more important than shifting through distortions of thought is cultivating suhka, a state of general happiness and emotional equilibrium. Suhka

“includes a deep sense of well-being, a propensity toward compassion, reduced vulnerability to outside circumstances, and recognition of the interconnectedness with people and other living beings in one’s environment.”

To achieve this state of mind takes decades of mindfulness training — mindfulness, I also know from personal experience, from practicing “psychological Buddhism,” means to observe your experience in the moment, from your environment to your own thought process, and distinguish between reality, versus subjective ideas or beliefs that you are projecting onto that reality.

Buddhists categorize negative emotions more broadly into three fallacies: cravings, animosity or hatred, and the belief in a fixed, concrete self, apart from the world. I find it so interesting that these emotions are viewed as inherently toxic because they inherently deny our interconnectedness with other people and our environment. When we crave something or feel strong hostility toward someone, in both cases, we exaggerate the qualities of the object we desire or resent, and we seek to claim ownership of it in some way. In reality, according to Buddhist philosophy,

“the self is constantly in a state of dynamic flux, arises in different ways, and is profoundly interdependent with other people and the environment.”

In my opinion, there’s something so eye-opening and soothing about this concept of the self, however much it clashes with Western culture. It’s so refreshing, may because of “the dynamic flux,” element, which suggests that the self is eclipsed and the universe at large is broadened, buzzing. At church, I often find myself wrapped up in my own, individual worship, and then it takes a conscious internal reminder to simply look up and acknowledge the other Christians who are present with me, undergoing the same weekly, re-conversion. Psychological Buddhism, and the lovingkindness meditation in particular, gives me a chance to broaden my immediate awareness. I think it benefits us all, so here are two versions, borrowed. (One’s a transcript and the other is an audio download.) Namaste.

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Sergiu Alistar, YOGA 2, CC 2.0

Happy Father’s Day + Eating My Words

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I have recently been obsessed with bar cookie versions of more elaborate celebration cakes, e.g., red velvet cake bars or better yet, dulce de leche cheesecake bars. They have the cuteness factor of cupcakes, but more conveniently, they are made in one big pan.

For example, these dulce de leche cheesecake bars would have been perfect for my mentee’s birthday. What did I end up giving her? A card/hershey bar from CVS… I guess I’m holding out for her half-birthday?

Then I attended a going away party for my department head. Old habits die hard, along with my fantasy of casually elegant cheese cake bars. This time I stalked the net for something with a key lime twist. Predictably, Smitten Kitchen yielded cute eye candy, this time individual key lime cheesecakes made in cupcake tins. Eye candy it remained.

So I recycled these pecan shortbread cookies I hadn’t already eaten. (Less cute, but definitely worth making.)

Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I have now moved on to the idea of german chocolate cake bars, in honor of my dad’s favorite dessert. Oh, and the internet provides! In good faith, I even looked up how to properly package and mail homemade baked goods. Yet here I sit, typing words onto a screen, having typed grades and unit plans and e-mails onto a screen the entire day, because I’ve learned that food feels most like love when it is happily prepared, and dad, I think I hatched this idea a little too late. (My mixer has lately been erratic and I think I might end up crabby and covered in flour.)

There is a better writer than me, Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon, who describes this habit of spending inordinate mental energy imagining and planning meals, to the point that eating them is secondary. In a word, he characterizes it as French:

of all the leçons de choses I have absorbed in Paris, the most important has come from learning to cook. I cooked a bit in New York, Thanksgiving dinner and a filet mignon or two, and summers by the grill, like every American guy. But here I cook compulsively, obsessively, waking up with a plat in mind, balancing it with wine and side dishes throughout the working day (‘Do I dare pack a Brussels sprout?’) shopping, anticipating six o’ clock, waiting for the perfectly happy moment when I can begin, as one almost always does, no matter what one is cooking, by chopping onions.”

He goes on… and on… and one more time on…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 2.17.12 PM“The beautiful part of cooking lies in the repetition, living the same principles, day after day: planning, shopping, chopping, roasting, eating, and then vowing, always, never again to start on something so ambitious again… until the dawn rises, with another dream of something else….

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.31.31 PM“Cooking, for middle-class, end-of-the-century people, is our only direct, not entirely debased line with the hermetic life, with Zen sitting, with just doing things without a thought. No wonder monks make good cheese…

alphabet soup kids pasta“Writing isn’t the transformation of stuff into things. It is just the transformation of symbols into other symbols, as if one read recipes out loud for dinner, changing the proportions… Writing is a business of saying things about stuff and saying things about things and then pretending that you have cooked one into the other…”

And yet, at the risk of sounding apologetic, and notwithstanding the fact that really delicious german chocolate bars trump esoteric thoughts about cooking, the words do count, I think.

Gopnik also writes about how French people have a  gift for abstraction, extrapolating on the minutiae of life and making it fodder for philosophical debate. In my mind, German chocolate cake symbolizes much more about my dad than his sweet tooth.

Favorite dessert? German chocolate cake. Career/calling? Architect. Hobby? Piano/organ. Bedtime ritual? Set out the cereal bowls for breakfast. My dad is predictable in great, very specific ways — he makes reliably tasty pancakes; he does not fancy breakfast for dinner…

But also in more abstract ways, including his stalwart qualities of being kind, insightful, upbeat, and taking a broad-minded and balanced view of all people and situations. Some people say that I am my father’s daughter. I wish my sweet tooth were more equally focused, along with a few other things, but I’ll take it 🙂

Here’s to a sweet Father’s day, in gratitude for all the world’s deserving dads.

[Photo Credits: “Cake, German Chocolate,” sea turtle’s photo stream and “Rows of Buddha,” shack’s photo stream]

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