Monthly Archives: December 2012

New year


For this Tuesday’s dharma talk the topic will be: resolutions, resolution, and discipline. We’ll look at all the various meanings associated with those terms. What does it mean to be disciplined, or “have a discipline”? Why is it sometimes so frustrating? Does it make sense to make New Year’s resolutions? How do you resolve to do things, and what kind of guide do we use when we make these decisions?


“Do not consider the faults of others

or what they have or haven’t done.

Consider rather what you yourself have or haven’t done.”

– The Dhammapada




Xmas eve

christmas 2007

christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

Come chant Buddhist texts at the barn on Christmas eve.

It’s a nice way to celebrate this time, enjoy the company of others, and relax. Chant is also a good way to familiarize yourself with the teachings, practice your breathing, and rouse your energy.

It will be on Monday the 24th, from 5-6 pm. There will be no dharma talk this week, but we’ll start up again next week.

This will be by donation, pay what you can. All profits for this event will be donated to a charity in Boston.

(Note: this is not a performance. Come and chant! Don’t come just to listen.)


To actually know yourself is to be the buddha

Méditation d'automne...!!!

Méditation d’automne…!!! (Photo credit: Denis Collette…!!!)


Oh my guru,

who exemplifies view, meditation, and action,

please grant your blessings

and let me achieve absorption in the realm of the nature of mind.


As far as view, meditation, action, and accomplishment,

keep these three points in mind:

all manifestations, even the universe itself is contained in mind.

The nature of mind is the realm of luminosity

beyond thought, beyond form.

Those are the key points of the view.


Wandering thoughts are liberated in the dharmakaya.

Awareness,  luminosity is always blissful.

Meditate in the style of nonaction and ease.

These are the key points of practice.


The ten virtues naturally grow

within uncontrived actions.

The ten unvirtuous acts are then purified.

Luminous emptiness is never disturbed

by remedies or correct behavior.

These are the key points of action.


There is no nirvana to attain.

There is no samsara to renounce.

To actually know yourself is to be the buddha.

These are the key points when it comes to accomplishment.


Simplify these three down to one.

This emptiness is the nature of being

which only an excellent guru can illustrate clearly.

You don’t have to do a lot.

If one notices co-emergent wisdom

the goal has been reached.

This talk is a precious jewel

for all practitioners of the dharma.


– Jetsun Milarepa


Dynamic tranquility: the Buddha in contemplation.

Dynamic tranquility: the Buddha in contemplation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Light and darkness in dialog


I listen to NPR a lot. I’m a conflicted liberal. I grew up in a liberal household, listening to NPR all the time. I love This American Life, All Things Considered, and Prairie Home Companion is nostalgic. These days I’m a little less liberal and hold NPR in a bit of skepticism as I listen. But I still love listening.

Today when I was making lunch there was a talk show on. The speakers were addressing the recent violence, and in the context of “darkness” and the solstice. Actually, this was a remarkably creative take on things, for this kind of talk show, which tends to be overly factual, overly dry.

At one point, a caller made a point about the solstice, which is today, being a time for quiet contemplation. According to him, and it seems reasonable, this was in many cultures, a time to go into the darkness, to settle down, and contemplate the sadness and pain in one’s life, maybe in general. He made a point of saying that this time of year was not just about hope, or about light. It was about finding the light in the darkness.

This was fascinating.

Here’s what I liked about this: the idea of solstice and winter, even, as a time of contemplation, and the idea of working with darkness (shadow maybe). I liked the emphasis on not jumping to hope, or to light. Not making things artificially positive.

What I didn’t like: the insistence on hope, and light, the assumption of what one would find as the result of contemplation. As an avid reader of Chogyam Trungpa, hope always rings false with me. There are arguments to reconcile VCTR’s hopelessness with hope, but usually when I hear people going off about “hope” it seems a little aggressive and desperate, a little flimsy. Then, the bigger problem is suggesting that one will always find light in the darkness.

You might not. I think insights will always happen, but they might not take the form of light. I also think, and this has been born out by how many Buddhist teachers present the dharma, that you can’t tell someone what kind of insight they’ll have if they reflect. You might find light, or further chaos, or you might discover all sorts of things. Until it’s actual spontaneous insight, it’s not very helpful or useful. It’s someone else’s insight. An encouragement, maybe, but maybe also a way to avoid actually doing it oneself.

Then again, the duality of light and dark. Somehow this also bugs me, as a Buddhist, the duality. Then again, there are ways to make it work.


Compassion and hypocrisy and confusion

Tibetan Hayagriva mask with Padmasambhava mask...

Tibetan Hayagriva mask with Padmasambhava mask in background, Modern mask of Tibet Hayagriva deity shot in the Traveler’s window Capital Hill, Seattle, Washington taken on Halloween (Photo credit: Wonderlane)


I’d like to write a little about compassion, which was the subject of last week’s discussion, at the barn, and the recent “school shooting” in Connecticut.


It was really interesting to see the response to the shooting on Facebook. I heard about it, probably the way a lot of people did, on the radio, as I was driving around. At that point, I was surprised, and some faint feeling of sadness happened too, I think. I noticed too, how the news media was going into a frenzy, and how this was off putting; of course, in this case it was impossible to separate the importance of this story from the need media companies have to portray shocking and sad stories in order to get attention. This was a terrible event. It was also a media frenzy, and the sadness of the killings seems disrespected by the frenzy itself. If only there could have been total silence, for an hour, on all media sources. Something like that seems like it would have been more appropriate.

The idea of appropriateness is really really interesting. Going home, the sadness (and at this point, I still did not feel much, except some surprise, maybe some confusion) was there, and I logged onto Facebook. I do this many times a day. I realize talking about my experience of the event and my emotions could seem very self-centered. I’m doing this in part because I think it’s significant and not entirely personal. So I went on Facebook, and most of the posts were about the killing. Some were just shocked, and some were very angry and outraged. My friends on FB tend to be very liberal, so there was a lot about gun control and “mental health care.” I’m pretty liberal myself, so I don’t completely disagree.

English: Umanori-Bato-kan-non,katori-city,Japa...

English: Umanori-Bato-kan-non,katori-city,Japan Hayagriva, known as Bato Kannon in Japan 日本語: 馬乗り馬頭観音。千葉県地方で見られる馬に乗った馬頭観音。香取市。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t want this to be about policy issues or liberal/conservative, although that stuff is really important, and part of the picture. What struck me, and at some point, I did start to feel something, not just a faint sadness, something more, as I tried to imagine what it would be like to actually be a part of this first-hand, was the hypocrisy. That is, when you talk to people, or online, most people don’t feel as sad about this kind of death as they think they should be. We have an idea that we should be heartbroken. We don’t know what to say. A lot of times, we write things that make it seem as if we feel more than we do, or are more compassionate than we are.

I feel this way myself. I am part of that hypocrisy too. I think that’s something. If someone is interested in developing some compassion, that involves seeing where we’re numb, where we don’t feel. I think this has a lot to do with that moment of initial confusion- something terrible happened. It didn’t seem right to post pictures of a recent meal, or the kids, or something funny about a TV show. But there was confusion about what to say and what to feel. A lot of people, myself included, said things that made it seem as if our hearts were more open than they really were.

Of course, that’s a shame. It’s a shame our hearts are not more open. It’s a shame we didn’t cry enough. I have not cried. At the same time, we feel self-conscious about that numbness and that hypocrisy, and that’s a good thing. It’s worth remembering over and over. Something sad will happen again, and I think next time, it would be good if my heart was a little less frozen. Seeing that frozenness is a reminder.

These things are happening all the time. I’m also not talking about solutions to violence, or policies.


I imagine that if my heart opens more, I’ll experience more of this confusion and sadness, because violence and aggression happen all the time, and that means I’m shutting them out and ignoring them all the time. It’s important, though, in my experience, not to jump ahead to the result. I don’t know what compassion and love will feel like necessarily. To imagine a compassionate result and then get annoyed when my heart and mind don’t measure up is usually a mistake. The difference is between doing the usual, routine thing, and keeping an open heart when awful things take place. I don’t know what a more compassionate mind will look like exactly. I have some idea, but I don’t want to force it either.

I didn’t talk about practical solutions to violence or policy changes in the US yet. Here are a few very general thoughts.

There is probably some connection between seeing our own hypocrisy, and working with the heart, and aggression. Violence is an expression of aggression. There is also a tremendous amount of aggression in the way people talk about policy solutions. Yes, the solutions, like gun control, are very well-intended, but there is something fishy about an aggressive solution to aggression. At the same time, the solutions seem partisan. What is so crazy about finding some creative ideas? What’s so crazy about considering if the “other guys” might be right, at least about one or two ideas? Although political intentions are good much of the time, it’s easy to forget that the debate itself, and the process itself becomes violent in its own way, and this can’t be a good thing.

You’ll find the way


Thikse monastery. This statue of the Maitreya ...

Thikse monastery. This statue of the Maitreya Buddha is about 30 ft tall! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I pay homage to the guru, suffused with grace.

Please grant your blessings.

Please help me, a beggar, to practice.


Although you children, members of the current generation,

live in towns infested with negativity,

the dharmic connection remains.

Having heard the Buddha’s teaching

you sought me out-

this will keep you on the path.

By constantly accumulating merit you will get more devoted.

Blessings will enter your being

and the two kinds of realization will grow.


But even if you do all of this,

it’s not much help unless you reach full attainment.

I tell you this out of compassion.

Listen closely, my young friends.

When you’re alone,

do not think about the entertainment available back in twon,

or the maras will appear in your mind.

Then inward, and you’ll find the way.


When you meditate, apply patience, and hard work.

Contemplate the problematic nature of samsara, and the uncertainty of the time and place of death.

Avoid craving pleasurable things.

Then courage and patience will grow in you.

You’ll find the way.


When you request advanced teachings,

don’t long for learning, or to become a scholar.

If you do, desires and common behavior will dominate you.

You’ll throw your life in the trash.

Be humble and modest, and you’ll find your way.


When various meditation experiences arise

don’t be proud and excited about telling others,

or you’ll offend the dakinis and mothers.

Meditate evenly and you’ll be on your way.


When you’re with your guru

don’t overthink his positive and negative traits,

or you’ll find mountains of faults.

You’ll only find the way through faith and loyalty.


When you go to dharma gatherings with your brothers and sisters,

don’t try to be the first

or you’ll stir up anger and desire,

and cause problems for your vows.

Adjust, understand each other

and you’ll find the path.


When you beg for alms in town,

do not use the dharma

to deceive or manipulate others,

or you’ll force yourself down a lower path.

Be honest and genuine, and you’ll find the way.


Remember, especially, at all times and places:

don’t show off. Don’t be arrogant,

or your confidence will be overwhelming

and you’ll be bloated with hypocrisy.

If you abandon deception and be natural

you’ll be on track.


The person who has found the path

can pass on the blessed teachings to others.

Such a person not only benefits others, but himself as well.

Then, generosity is the only thought remaining in his heart.

– Jestun Milarepa

English: Three large statues of the Buddha at ...

English: Three large statues of the Buddha at Dharma Flower Temple in Huzhou, Zhejiang province. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea of balance, and mainstream Buddha

(courtesy of


I’m looking forward to seeing people at next week’s dharma talk! If you need directions/want to register just let me know. I thought I’d just do a quick one somewhat on the topic of “balance.” This is probably the number one thing people talk about when I talk to them about Buddhism, thinking it’s a Buddhist idea. It isn’t, exactly. I also wanted to write a bit about how Buddhism shows up in random American places.

So people love to mention “balance” when they talk about Buddhism, assuming they’re interested, and somewhat new to Buddhist practice and so forth. Obviously, it’s wonderful if someone is interested enough to actually take a class, and try to meditate. I don’t want to sound too harsh. The other thing is that finding some sort of balance (say, between work and family time) is natural and healthy. It just isn’t something I think the Buddha, or any important Buddhist thinker ever recommended, particularly.



One interesting thing about this is- the language we use when we discuss spiritual stuff (or anything, for that matter) can be very important. This is partly because a single word carries with it lots of associations, specific to a culture, and a given time. So, balance, as a term, connotes certain things. I don’t think it’s especially deep or helpful, although it’s not terrible.

As Buddhist imagery, Buddhist ideas, even a few Buddhist masters have become mainstream, you get this happening- the stuff is on people’s radar, sort of like the way a subculture becomes infused into popular culture. And like a subculture mixing into pop culture, like rap mixing into pop music, for instance, some stuff gets “filtered out,” some things change, get made more easily understandable, or easily accepted.

I have seen one particular quote from the Buddha so many times, usually in the context of a yoga website or yoga studio. It’s the most famous one at this point, and if you think about it, you can probably come up with it. (It’s the only one most Westerners know.) Not that it’s a bad one, although some translations are dodgy, I think. It has to do with the mind, and how you use the mind, or how you use your thoughts.

“With our thoughts…”

To be pretty general, we’re talking about the idea of balance, in some way, and the power of your thoughts.

The Buddhist tradition is very old. It’s nearing 3000 years at this point. It’s a little more complex than just saying, “Find a balance,” and “Your thoughts are really powerful, you should pay attention to them.”

So, how to deal with this seeming problem, the watering down of Buddhist wisdom in popular culture? I have two ideas. It really is a huge sociological issue, among other things, but here are two ideas.

1. Turn those platitudes into questions.

What is balance? What would this balance feel or seem like? Have you found this before in your life? What conditions supported it? Are there any problems with this kind of approach to life, with finding a balance?


What are thoughts?


How do they work?


How do you know you’re having them?


(By the way, it’s okay to think when you meditate. Common misconception.)


So, if people really really want to stop thinking when they meditate, why is this? What is so terrible about having a thought, or lots of thoughts?


2. Bring it back to some more solid ideas

Here are some more traditional Buddhist takes on those ideas:

There is the idea of a “middle way.” The middle way exists between extremes. Now this is starting to sound like balance, right? However, this idea is traditionally used to describe the way reality exists. That’s one way it is used. So, it’s not quite about finding a stress free life, it’s more about understanding how things are, in reality. The two extremes could be described as “nothing,” and “things.”

Things: the commonplace view- my life is real, my body is real, physical objects are real

Seems okay so far…

Nothing: my life is made of many changing and shifting parts, my body is too, physical objects themselves are changing, shifting, moving



Maybe this makes clear why people prefer to think of balance as not spending too much time at their job. This way of looking at reality, as being somewhere between a dream, and what we normally assume, is not easy at first. The idea of a middle way there, is that somehow it can be helpful to  investigate the possibility that-

people, places, things

are not exactly what we normally assume.

The example I often use is molecules- that chair appears real and solid, but we also accept that, on some level, it’s moving about.


The “middle way” idea manifests in various forms in Buddhist philosophy. A more in depth analysis would take a lot longer. Another time!


Here’s a better one: not too loose, not too tight. This one actually corresponds much more closely to the idea of “balance.”

One of the Buddha’s students was a musician. He played something similar to a guitar. You’ve probably seen someone tuning a guitar before. The student couldn’t understand how to meditate. The Buddha told him to work with his mind just like he tuned his instrument, “not too loose, not too tight.” Importantly, though, this instruction was not about how to schedule your life, but about how to work with your own mind. The question of how busy you should be, or how to order the elements of your life, are something slightly else.

Not that it’s good to spend all day at work, just that this wasn’t exactly a Buddhist idea.

The teachings and compassion

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion,...

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, 16th century image from Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just making a cup of tea in the kitchen, I had an idea for next week’s talk: the wideness of the dharma, and the wideness of compassion.

The gist of it: sometimes we have limited views about what the dharma (Buddhist teachings) is, and about what compassion is. So, come next Tuesday (4-530pm) and let’s discuss this. How varied and vast is the Buddhist tradition? What does it even mean to be a Buddhist, or to practice Buddhism? What is compassion, and how can we cultivate it?

Thanks very much to the Rowley Public Library for having me lead a discussion/talk last night. It was very interesting, and I was so glad to see some people come out to participate. It was especially nice to have someone ask for meditation instruction. That is something I love, to have someone not only express an interest in meditation, but actually ask how to do it. I hope some of you from last night’s event will go to next week’s dharma talk (Dec. 11th).

Since it often feels stingy to just promote an event here, and not offer any ideas, here’s one regarding compassion. Not that I have any great insight into the matter, this area of the teachings is one I find difficult, more than meditation practice, more than the so-called “wisdom teachings.”

One way you learn about compassion in this tradition is in terms of the “four immeasurables,” or the four “brahma viharas.” They are: equanimity, kindness, joy, and compassion.

They’re immeasurable in that they are practices and feelings that are very large. The intention cultivated becomes very large. I would also imagine that the benefits of this kind of practice are vast. They are practices of the heart, as I see it, so you could say it’s about making your heart bigger. Maybe finding that vastness, in your heart, that’s already there (but for me, it feels more like actually make your heart bigger, expanding your heart, beyond pettiness and defensiveness).

They’re also called “brahma viharas.” This tends to get translated as “divine abodes,” which is nice, but also kind of stodgy. Who says abode these days, outside of a fantasy novel, or a movie set in Medieval England? Brahma is a god, one of the main gods, in the Hindu tradition. That’s where the divine comes in. As I understand it, the idea of these practices being divine dwelling places is that you uplift yourself to a kind of bliss, a kind of superhuman or extraordinary enjoyment. It feels good to cultivate these virtues. This always seems to be the irony of suffering- it feels terrible, but we want it so much, somehow. It’s not easy to let go of things like anger, even if they feel awful (and therefore it seems like dropping them should be a piece of cake).

This is no small teaching, the four immeasurables. As I mentioned, compassion will be one of the foci of next week’s discussion. Here was my thought though. You don’t get them separately. Yes, they are cultivated on their own, in a concentrated way. At the same time, they’re not really separate feelings. You can’t be compassionate and still be unkind. You can’t be levelheaded (equanimous) without being compassionate. They go together. They’re really one thing, with four aspects.

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot ...

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot center in Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Tuesday

Newbury-Boston-36-Mile-Marker-L A reminder of the classes coming up, and a few thoughts-

Classes coming up- Meditation Basics 1 and 2, Foundations of the Path, and a weekly Dharma Talk.

Tonight! A talk at the Rowley Library in MA, about sanity and holiday experience.


If gratitude doesn’t arise naturally

you can’t force it.

If gratitude doesn’t arise at all,

you have to do something.


(A little poem about gratitude)


(A striking image of a “seed syllable” from the Japanese tradition, from

This post is pretty unfocused. I guess you could say it’s about symbols. That’s always a safe bet. Since holidays are the topic of conversation tonight, and something I’m thinking about these days, holiday symbolism is relevant, more or less. It’s easy enough to rattle off some holiday symbols, for the popular holidays, but what about symbols that actually invoke something? Symbols that actually create a palpable atmosphere (or maybe all symbols do that, but just some more noticeably than others).


(Another little poem before I get some coffee)


Dont’ be afraid of symbols

they’re a bridge

of sorts

to what!


…………………………………………………………………………….   …………………………………………………………………..






Holidays 2012

One thing people talk about is whether they’ve gotten Christmas trees yet. My family has not, yet. No lights either, although we’ll be getting both. I’ve enjoyed seeing people’s displays outside going up, mostly trees wrapped in lights, sometimes more complicated setups.

I’m going to write a little about the holidays in relation to the talk I’ll be giving tomorrow at the Rowley Public Library (Mass.).

So this is some self-promotion (come see the talk! it’s free!) but also based on stuff I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last year or so, and of course, having celebrated the holidays with varying degrees of success since I was a kid. All of this is in the context of the dharma, and of meditation practice. That’s pretty odd, in a way, although to someone who meditates, it all becomes part of a kind of stew, it all gets brought in together.

I think one direction I could take this in, which I won’t, but it would be interesting- why would a Buddhist think about celebrating Christmas? There are so many problems with that- the commercial aspect, the religious aspect, the fact that there are a number of Buddhist holidays. Worth thinking about.

Instead I think I want to write about, briefly, the idea of holidays as legitimate spiritual experiences. In one way, that’s the big question starting out- if you’re going to examine how you celebrate the holidays, in terms of spiritual practice and the path, you have to look at the possibility that holidays are not a good way to practice for a variety of reasons-

the aforementioned commercialization

not being a natural fit with your beliefs (Buddhist Christmas, Yogic Hanukah, Christian Halloween)

randomness of celebration

it being merely social or conventional

So that’s a start. Obviously, my bias is more towards the legitimacy of celebrating (eccentric) holidays as spiritual practice. Some responses to the previous problems:

Don’t do it in an overly commercial way. Don’t buy too much. Even if making presents doesn’t seem appealing or good enough, you can celebrate in do it yourself ways as far as decorating, food, and so on. Bottom line, I think, has to do with seeing that the craziness of the commercial aspect of the holidays is not pleasant, and not wholesome.

If it’s not a fit, fine. I’m greedy, though. And I like some of the holidays. (Not New Year‘s so much, because I’m not great with crowds, don’t really drink much, and I get my own, better, New Year’s in February.) Even if the fit is not completely apparent, I want to enjoy the food I’ve always eaten, some of the music (some of it), some of those old movies. This is nostalgic. That is not necessarily a problem. Another angle- there’s just tremendous energy involved in this stuff, having to do a lot with the group feeling. I enjoy that. I find it interesting, and want to make the most of it.

This one goes like this- these days are not inherently special. It’s just a day on a calendar. The day you got married, the day you were born, the day something amazing happened, these can feel like significant days. The day something very old happened, maybe something you’re not psychologically or idealogically invested in, is just another day. This used to be a big one for me. At this point it somehow seems unimportant. So what? The atmosphere exists, whether or not I’m going to contemplate Christ’s birth, or his resurrection, or the spirits going to walk among the living once a year.

(As a side note, I think part of my thought about this has to do with looking at contemporary American culture, so-called irony, and self-mockery. These fit under what one teacher called “frivolousness” the last two, that is. My very rough and unstudied understanding- at a certain point in recent history, lots of modern people lost faith. Religion, as well as the humanities, hadn’t protected us from terrible tragedies on a global scale. People felt they couldn’t assume the traditional way of having faith, of going along with the rituals and calendars, worked. The traditions seemed corrupt, bankrupt, a way to corral people, take their money, and worse. This contributed to a view of everything being equal. There was not high culture, and low culture. You could appreciate all of it. This was because, in part, it was all garbage. You could mock all of it, and find some distance, some safety, some perspective. Clearly, I have a problem with this kind of ironic remove. Watching a cheesy movie can be fun, and it’s also not the same as watching a movie that was carefully made, that touches you, or moves you.

The holidays, I’m positing, used to have more power. People’s lack of faith, their lack of connection to their traditions, especially in America, although I’d guess in many places that have modernized, led to disconnection from the rituals and experiences of the holidays. People doubt the holidays. I think this is a missed opportunity.)

(Another side note- there are other responses to the randomness objection. One is about the actual contemplation of the meaning of a holiday. Personally, this one doesn’t do it for me exactly, but it’s there, and is legitimate, I think. So, Christmas could seem random, but if you connect to some of the ideas it embodies, then it becomes about that. It’s about the teachings a holiday embodies. Another, more interesting to me, response, is seasonal/natural. Holidays are specific to times of year. As seasons shift, things feel different. There are actually real energies that come into play at various times of year. It’s not just about the temperature changing. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia or association. Energy changes as nature shifts with the seasons. It follows that holidays connect to this. I’m enjoying playing with this idea, and practicing with it. It’s, as they say, “a bank of energy.” That’s worth exploring.)

The last one is easy enough to take apart. First, saying something is merely social or merely conventional is misguided. Social norms, conventions, what you could call a larger body language, are really powerful. How often do you just jump outside of those norms? They’re really powerful. They shape everything. Second, this begs the question: why would such social experiences arise? Why would people engage in them? Why would they last? It’s not enough to see a habitual pattern and dislike it. You have to do something more.

I wrote a lot more than I thought I would about that. Sorry for not including lots of little pictures to make it more fun. If you can, come to the talk tomorrow, in Rowley. It will probably be very different from what you’ve just read. Happy holidays!

christmas 2007

christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)


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