Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Report: The Joy of Living

Yesterday I finished reading The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche for the second time.  It's a great book, and I highly recommend it to anyone - particularly if you're interested in science, Buddhism, how your brain works, and how you can be happier.  (I'm pretty sure that should cover everyone, right?)

Although I am a yogi and this book is technically right up my alley, I'm also a speed reader who prefers a page turning Stephen King or memoir over denser nonfiction.  I knew as soon as I finished this book that I'd need to read it again because it was a little challenging to get through for me at some points, despite the fact that Rinpoche's narrative voice is wonderful and he's very, very clear.  He's just dealing two very intense subject matters - Buddhism and Biology - and sharing with us how the intertwine, parallel, and intersect each other.

Another reason I knew I wanted to reread it is because it gives you so many practical tips and techniques on meditation I knew it would take forever for me to remember them all and give them a try.  Some stuck with me the first time I read it while other pearls of wisdom stood out more this time.

Probably one of the most practical pieces of meditation advice I took away from this book was this:  Whatever technique you're utilizing, whether it be repeating a mantra, focusing your eyes on a single point (a candle flame, for example), or counting your breath, it's important to take a break from that technique within that seated meditation practice.  For example, a practice could be composed of about two minutes of settling in, two minutes of a mantra, and then a minute of letting the mantra go and allowing your mind to rest without needing to cling to any technique - and then see what comes up.  Then begin to repeat the mantra for another few minutes, rest for another few minutes, and so on.

This is something that was huge for me.  For one thing, it makes the practice feel less like work.  Rinpoche explains:

It's very important to practice in short sessions and then allow your mind to rest.  Short practice sessions followed by periods of rest allow this new awareness to stabilize - or, in Western scientific terms, give your brain a chance to establish new patterns without being overwhelmed by old neuronal gossip.  Very simply, when you get go of practicing, you give yourself a chance to let the effects simply wash over you in a flood of positive feeling.

I related to it by comparing it to weightlifting or running.  After you've put your muscles through stress, you need to give them recovery time to rebuild the new strength and recover from the stress you've put on them before you can go on to the next run or the weightlifting session.  It makes sense that the brain would operate the same way.

Rinpoche's voice throughout the book is utterly charming, disarming, and such a pleasure to read.  He's very funny and silly and doesn't ever make you feel like you're being lectured by someone more enlightened than you.  I'll end with this lovely advice from him, which I think applies to much more than just meditation:

...the mind is always moving, always processing new ideas, new perceptions, new sensations.  That's its job.  Meditation is about learning to work with the mind as it is, not about trying to force it into some sort of Buddhist straitjacket.

We think we're being diligent by sitting down to meditate for hours at a stretch.  But real diligence doesn't mean forcing yourself beyond your natural limits; it means simply trying to do your best, rather than focusing on the result of what you're trying to accomplish.  It means finding a comfortable middle ground between being too relaxed and too wound up. 

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