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May 16, 2020

Routine Impermanence

I don't set an alarm anymore because I don't need to be up at any particular time. This has been the case since last August or so. Still, I've long felt a need to get started on my day before it gets started on me. So I continue to wake up most days a little before six. This is aided somewhat by the monk who each morning walks out of the temple across the river from where I live, a little before six, and strikes a gong six times.

Once I'm up, I stretch a little while making coffee. Then I sit and meditate for ten minutes. It's a good way to start the day, I think, to see what's going on in my body and mind, and how it's always a little different from the day before, while also giving my first cup of coffee the time it needs to cool.

After meditating, I spend a couple of hours writing if I can and reading if I can't, and drinking more coffee regardless. Around 8:30 or 9 I do yoga for at least an hour. The room where I do it is incredibly hot, even in the morning. So I'm drenched and pouring sweat by about 30 minutes in, and it's only then that I begin to feel the cool breeze moving in through the window and over my skin. There are other ways to generate cool air, but none quite like working up a heavy sweat and then just being still; it's the purest and most blissful way there. After yoga but still while on my disgusting mat, I do another short meditation followed by some breathwork. Then I take a shower and sit down to cool off in the air-conditioned way, while doing a few more rounds of fasted breathwork.

I eat for the first time each day around 11 or 12. My aim is to fast for 16 hours every day, but my early dinners, coupled with my morning routine, typically result in a fast of between 19 and 20 hours. It's been interesting to observe how effortless this has become. I almost never feel hungry outside of that four- or five-hour window.

After I eat, I prepare for the online classes I teach, which usually start at 17:00. I like to get the prep work done as early in the second half of the day as possible. Otherwise, the whole of the afternoon starts to feel menacing and reduced, diminished by the hanging knowledge that there is dull work still to be done. With that particular dull threat behind me, I have a few hours to do more of whatever I'm still wanting to do, which lately has been more breathwork, followed by reading myself into an air-conditioned nap.

At 15:00 I eat "dinner." I'm never that hungry, though, so this is usually more of a large pre-teaching snack. My go-to lately is a few handfuls of almonds and some freshly squeezed orange or carrot juice. I do this at 15:00 so that I'll have plenty of post-nap and post-meal time to meditate again (this time for 20-45 minutes) and do more breathwork. I make time to do these things again because I find afternoons ruinous and crushing. That may sound hyperbolic, but I actually mean it. My depression comes for me nearly every afternoon, and forty years into this life I still don't know how to best combat it. So I just keep doing my best. And this is my current best: breathing and meditating and trying to make the preceding mornings shine.

I then teach until around 20:30, depending on the day and the number of students who cancel. This is easily the least enjoyable part of my day, but it has its place. There's the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something challenging, even if the primary challenge is just overcoming the voice inside that says: I don't want to be here and I don't want to do this. There's the reward that comes from helping kids become humans, watching their minds work and grow, trying to be present for the little bits of the sacred that sometimes shake free from the giant heaps of the mundane. If nothing else, teaching is the true test of my morning practices. Can I maintain my breathing, balance and strength; my concentration, clarity and equanimity; in suboptimal conditions? Can I push the words I write and believe in in solitude further into the world of my actions? Can they survive there? And if not, of what use are they?

When I finish teaching I stand and stretch. Soon after I lie in bed with Netflix or YouTube and my wife, who's uniquely skilled at allowing me all the space I need while also shining her warm light into me, like a real-life Care Bear. Eventually sleep comes for us both, and then, miraculously, another morning, another minor shift in this ever-changing sea.

Brian Leli, May 2020

The Many Faces of Impermanence

In everyday life, we tend to perceive ourselves as objects, as things. Human languages both reflect and reinforce this perception. But in point of fact, self is not just a thing; viewed deeply, it’s also a doing, a wave. A wave is anything that goes through fluctuations, gets stronger and weaker, has peaks and troughs, spreads and subsides. Our sense of self certainly goes through such fluctuations. When you are alone at night, safe under the covers, your sense of self is somewhat diminished. On the other hand, if you walk into a room full of judgmental strangers, and everybody stops to stare at you, your sense of self grows larger. It wells up as a wave, a billowing of self-referential mental talk, mental images, and emotional body sensation. Later, as you grow comfortable with the people in the room, the amplitude of that self-wave subsides a bit.
When we look carefully, we discover that the sense of self is not a particle that never changes, but rather a flow, a wave of thought and feeling that can increase and decrease and is therefore not permanent. Because it is a fluctuating wave, not a solid particle, the Buddha described it as anatta. An means “not,” and atta means “self as thing.” It’s not so much that we don’t have a self, rather it’s that the self we do have is not a thing. It is an impermanent, fluctuating activity, a process not a particle, a verb not a noun.

Shinzen Young, The Science of Enlightenment

As We Confronted Our Powerlessness

In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around. Grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world. It revealed to us that we had no control over events, and as we confronted our powerlessness, we came to see this powerlessness as a kind of spiritual freedom.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files Issue #95, May 2020

The Surprising Mobility of Human Nature

Each spring, male finches and canaries learn new tunes to woo potential mates. Scientists discovered that as these birds built their repertoire, they also sprouted thousands of new brain cells a day. Over the years, researchers spotted new neurons in adult rats, shrews, and monkeys as well.
Skeptics still wondered whether adult humans could grow their brains. Then a breakthrough came from an unlikely source: the Cold War. In its early years countries tested their nuclear weapons regularly. Then, following the test ban treaty of 1963, they stopped. Levels of radiocarbon (14C), an isotope produced by nuclear detonation, spiked and then plummeted just as quickly. Radiocarbon makes its way into the plants and animals we eat, and what we eat makes its way into new cells we produce. Neuroscientists such as Kirsty Spalding took advantage of this. Borrowing from archaeologists, Spalding “carbon-dated” brain cells based on their levels of 14C, tagging the year they were born. Surprisingly, she found that people grow new neurons throughout their lives.
In other words, the brain is not hardwired at all. It changes, and these shifts are not random. MRI studies have now repeatedly shown that our experiences, choices, and habits mold our brains. When people learn to play stringed instruments or juggle, parts of their brain associated with controlling their hands grow. When they suffer chronic stress or depression, parts of their brain associated with memory and emotion atrophy.

Jamil Zaki, The War for Kindness