Several times a year, with permission, I use this blog space to share student responses to what they are learning in my classroom. This is the response of a high school senior to an introduction to meditation practice.

1. The Universal Breath

The diamond mind of sharp, concentrated focus and the profound physical state of relaxation create a terrifyingly brilliant experience. Meditation, deeply and intricately connected to Eastern philosophical cultures, allows an individual to follow one’s own breath to find an inner state of harmony and to develop an awareness of one’s basic goodness. Compassion for one’s self and others is crucial in a harmonious society.  Through meditation, guided by the breath, one can leave the chaos and distractions of the external world for inner tranquility.  Few things are universal. However, the gentle inhale and exhale of breath, bringing oxygen to the bloodstream and thus enabling life is a common, shared experience throughout the human species.  In accordance with Eastern teachings, inner goodness—or the innate and natural tendency toward good—exists within every person, just like the breath.  With attention to the breath, one can journey to find ones inner goodness and gain the experiential knowledge that comes from meditating.

2. Confusion or Liberation

Many teachings of philosophy incorporate a metaphor indicative of the closed minded nature of the majority of human beings, whether it is the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s The Republic—where all the people watching the shadows on the walls of the cave are in utter disbelief of the world outside and shun the man who has seen beyond—or, as depicted in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the people who cannot look within themselves to find their own inner goodness and instead live in fear of themselves and the world around them.  Our consciousness manifests within the universe in two distinctive states: confusion or liberation.  Liberation is the state of enlightenment and meditation is the means by which one can access such a state of internal clarity, peace, and harmony.  As outlined in Shambhala, basic goodness is the innate good of “being alive” regardless of more material things such as “accomplishments or fulfilling our desires.” To acknowledge basic goodness is to recognize our “actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.” Through meditation, one can become awake, acknowledge the superficiality of society while maintaining an unshakable understanding of true, basic goodness. Meditation has given me a refuge as I have seen a glimpse of the universe within myself.

3. The Essence of Now-ness

A spiritual warrior is “one who is brave” and such bravery must manifest in “the tradition of fearlessness”; “ultimately…the definition of bravery [is] not being afraid of yourself.” I often feel disconnected and almost alienated from the world around me when my mind and body are pulled in different directions and even divisions of my mind—my heart, my soul, my conscious attention, my focus, etc—are at odds with one another.  In a chaotic world, it is easy to fall victim to compelling and yet opposing forces.  If one allows this to happen, the luxury of introspection is lost, as is the awareness of basic goodness. As “synchronizing mind and body is looking and seeing directly beyond language”, I find meditation weds my deepest, most profound inner conflict: how to understand science and religion in relation to one another.  The answer, lies within the gentle, peaceful harmony that is buried within each of our chests and can be traced to the gentle rise and fall of the chest with each deep inhale and each beautiful exhale.

Poet Li-Young Lee speaks about the power of the breath and how, when one pays attention to it and trains oneself to go beyond the shallow, superficial few seconds we have usually allot each breath, one can change their perspective.  With deep breath comes deep thought.  Reality transforms as we ground ourselves to be present in each moment as our lungs fill to their full capacity.  Meditation is a perpetual state of introspective focus, the union of body and mind, and comes to find peace within reality.  To be afraid of nothing is to be “experiencing that very moment of your state of mind, which is the essence of ‘now-ness’.”

4. Meditation—Access to Clarity and Alleviation of Fear

Throughout our guided meditations, I have become deeply invested in the experiential aspects of learning.  My personal experiences have been profound. In the first meditation, I focused intently on the breath.  I felt my lungs open as my posture improved, my shoulders rolled back and my head aligned with my spine. As breath pushed my diaphragm out, and my focused dropped from the tension of worldly thoughts, I felt the bright warmth of light radiate within my chest cavity.  To articulate my experience in the most juvenile of manners, I felt a tingle, an excitement that radiated from my concentration and my breath that I experienced as a child when waiting for Santa Claus to come, with his mystical reindeer and brightly wrapped presents, on Christmas Eve.  In coming out of the first mediation, I found it curious to equate the two experiences, but as I internalized the innate sensation, I realized that I found hope, pure joy, or, ultimately, unadulterated goodness through meditation.  As a child, this sensation is easily accessible, as we are not so grounded in the superficial realities we engage in later.  However, as we grow up, we fall into our roles in society, becoming fearful of the back corners of our minds.  Meditation is our access to clarity and alleviation of fear.

My second experience meditating came to me when I heard our teacher say, “Good, the energy in the room is much better now” as everyone’s focus had dropped from their heads to their bodies.  In a focused trance  I had forgotten those around me.  As I heard the vibrations of her voice, reminding me of their presence, I shifted my focus to the energies in the room.  Immediately, from the blank, dark of my mind, a spiraling gold light materialized, twisting towards me.  Shocked, I abandoned the image and dropped down to the breath once again.

Back in class, we spoke about transformational figures and monks who had devoted their entire lives to meditation.; we spoke of how those individuals have an incredible presence and that their goodness emanates from them at all times.  On some level, I believe that everyone has an energy that radiates from within.  Without the clutter of language and the trivialities of words exchanged, we can sense others’ presences as I intensely experienced in my meditation. Through meditation, we can find the true, good energy within ourselves and channel it.  The Dalai Lama responded in the movie “Kundun” when asked if he was the Lord Buddha, “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”  In this manner, each person has unknown, universal goodness within themselves that can be reflected in the eyes of others.

5. Harmony Between Mind and Body

In abandoning fear, in diving within myself, in finding harmony between body and mind, I have unearthed a compassion for those around me, as well as for myself. Fear inhibits our potential beyond belief and above my desk, I have the quote “Be fearless: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” as a constant reminder that so often, the bars of our cages—cages that define our social and cultural experiences in life—are fashioned from our own thoughts of fear and apprehension.  To release oneself from such negativity is to sit gently on the earth and allow the soul to reunite with the sky, to find harmony between body and mind is to access basic goodness.  To meditate is to find “drala”: “the unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that [go] beyond any dualism.” Meditation allows me to understand my ego and the societal cultivation of empty materialism so as to align myself with the metaphysical or the universal spirit of goodness.  Through meditation, I see myself, and those around me in relation to the earth and the sky.

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“If only there was a cure for unhappiness.”

The other day someone spoke those words to me accompanied by a heartfelt sigh. Unhappiness is a burden we carry at times and it can be debilitating. Is there a cure? It is easier to contemplate the idea that we cause much of our unhappiness by attaching so much energy and attention to the cause—loss, unwelcome change, illness, our own or that of someone we are close to, disappointment and so on—than to change our state of mind about the situation. Yet change our attitude is exactly what we need to do. As Hamlet in the famous Shakespeare play of the same name says, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Here are some proven “cures.”

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Every year in my philosophy classes (high school seniors) when I teach Plato’s The Republic students grapple with Socrates’ notion of happiness. Before we reach that part of the text we do an exercise. As class begins and without any time to think about their response, I ask students to write down a 1 or 2 sentence definition of happiness. We each write our response on the board and consider the connections (or not) we can find. Here is a sample list in no particular order.

Happiness is the continual pursuit of life.

Happiness is the advancement of wholeness.

Happiness the fount of satisfaction.

Happiness is the freedom from reactivity.

Photo: © Janet Levine, Varanasi, 2007

Happiness is the balance of struggle and reward.

Happiness is nothing more and nothing less.

Happiness is love for self, others, and whatever circumstance arises.

Happiness is the uncontrollable feeling of contentment.

Happiness is doing what you want.

Happiness is having no regrets.

Happiness is the sensation felt in the body when a person acts according to what they believe is good.

Happiness is the state of personal, communal, and spiritual fulfillment.

Scanning the list one sees there are many sentiments both Socrates and the Buddha would commend. Did Socrates know of the Buddha’s teachings? There is no doubt about that in my mind. But that is a topic for another occasion. What does the Buddha say about happiness? Here is the Metta Sutra (teaching) of the Buddha.

“May all beings be happy and at their ease. May they be joyous and live in safety. All beings, omitting none, whether weak or strong; small or great; in high, middle or low realms of existence; near or far away; visible or invisible; born or to-be born. May all beings be happy and at their ease. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none wish harm to another. But even as a mother loves , watches over, and protects her child, her only child; so may all with a boundless mind cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world without limit. May we cultivate a boundless goodwill, free from ill-will or enmity, and maintain the sublime abiding of this recollection.”

What is your definition of happiness? Use the comment form below. I am most interested to learn.

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My new book, a novel, “Leela’s Gift” has been released. In fact it can be viewed at http://lulu.com/spotlight/JLevine1. It will soon be (early August) available at amazon.com and many online venues where book are sold as well as in book stores (remember www.indiebound.org and independent book stores). “Leela’s Gift” is the story of a luminous inner spiritual  journey. It is set in New York and high in the Himalayas near Darjeeling in northern India. The novel uncovers archetypal and highly relevant spiritual teachings. East meet west in Leela. The book offers teachings on meditation and yoga,  practical paths to freedom from the often dispiriting and desperate quality of our contemporary lives. The novel intertwines Leela’s journey with modern philosophy  and primal wisdom and is infused with some of the inner teachings of Buddhism and the Enneagram. “Leela’s Gift” tells a story as old as the human heart.

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© Janet Levine 2010

Coming soon to online and brick book stores.

Seven years ago, one July, on a clear but cold winter’s day on a beach in Nature’s Valley, South Africa, one of my sons asked me. “What is your next book?” (“Know Your Parenting Personality” had recently been published.)  I replied that  I would like to write a novel somehow using the personality types of the Enneagram. He thought it was a good idea and we spoke about it a bit. Through many twists and turns “Leela’s Gift” took on a life of its own and became much more than the sum of its parts. I am pleased it will shortly be available (by August) for readers who love fiction and who love to delve into the depths of spiritual and philosophical matters.

In the beginning after two years of working on several drafts , my ex-agent did not like the structure of the material. Two more years, and two more drafts, she still did not like the material. So we agreed to part. Over another year and because certain characters refused to leave my mind and insisted on being in the book,  I rewrote it to incorporate them. I shared drafts with a group of readers, had it professionally edited and hit the slush pile over another year in scores of agents’ offices. So hard to be flushed out of the slush pile, I share great empathy with every writer who tries. But the manuscript idea did grab many agents and I do have a publishing record so “partials” and “fulls” went flying across the virtual world of the wide web.

The problem is I like to be on the cutting edge, I like to write hybrids, I like to break new ground. This is true of everything I have done in my life, from my anti-apartheid activism to how I live my life to my writing. So my manuscript did not fit a “niche”, a “genre”, it is an original. The New York publishing cartel does not take chances on “originals”. I am not a product of the American grad school MFA pipeline.

Agents “loved the writing” “appreciated the material” “enjoyed the well-developed characters” but (and the following are by far the two most common responses) “…I do not have time for a special project like this” “…I can’t give a project like this the attention it deserves to see it published.” What is it agents do, if they don’t have time to be an agent? “No publisher in New York will even ask to read it” one honest agent told me, and when I inquired why, he said “Traditional publishing is in paroxysms of decline and panic and does not know how to save itself…”

Okay…so now what? An agent-friend for over twenty years, semi-retired now, agreed about the decline, “We are in a revolution in publishing, self-publishing is not defeat, it is an exciting avenue to amazing new ebook and other markets. You don’t know how many other authors, well-known, well-published authors can’t find a traditional publisher and I have suggested to them: self-publish. So, yes, do the research, self-publish, you believe in this work, don’t you?”

I believe in this work.

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Below you will find a photo of peonies that bloomed in my garden this morning. For some reason this is a once in three years occurrence so I greet each bloom with excitement. They are among the most beautiful peonies I have seen, and the scent is intoxicating. I have been a gardener for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, I remember my mother at work with her roses, about 50 bushes of various varieties, secateurs in hand as she deadheaded, debudded (to leave only one rose on a stem) and carefully removed aphids and other undesirable pests. My grandfather who spent a third of every year with us always wore a fresh rosebud in the lapel of his suit jacket. When I was an adolescent I was given the rock garden as my provenance and loved to plan and plant and move rocks. My nemesis was the snails who shared my rock garden. Johannesburg, situated on a plateau at 6,00 feet, and with a temperate climate, dry heat and usually reliable summer rain, is an Eden for gardeners. There is one drawback, cyclical drought and with it watering restrictions, so every seven years gardeners watch their hard work, manicured lawns and the beauty they created wither and die. In the suburbs drilling for artesian water sources was a flourishing business.

As a young wife and mother I had first a pocket garden with an almost sub-tropical micro-climate due to a sunny vantage and thick white washed walls. Around giant strelitzes,  avocado and mulberry trees the carefullly designed borders flourished. Later I had almost an acre in which to garden and loved every inch of the rich loam in which whatever I planted grew with vigor and beauty.

When we moved to the Boston area many years ago I had to re-examine everything I had learned about gardening. Our first home was a three hundred year old carriage house set on an acre of land. We had hundred year old giant beeches on the property. The land itself had been neglected for years, but with care and attention a garden will emerge with alacrity from underneath the undergrowth and weeds. As I uncovered flower beds, dug and sowed, the garden returned to some of its previous glory. From spring to autumn we ate fresh produce from the rescued and resuscitated cold frame beds. I planted strawberries around the swimming pool, hosta in the shady areas and a riot of day lilies wherever I could. I learned to accept the cycle of the year, and reluctantly return my gardening tools to their permanent place in the garage each November. Come February the catalogs arrived and soon I would have spindly seedlings growing under lights.

I planted myself in American soil in bringing that garden back to life.

Now I have a much smaller garden again. It is all I want to manage. For me little else in life compares to the satisfaction of caring for a flower bed of rich dark soil where every plunge of the weeding fork or hand spade reveals not only the roots of the weed but wriggling earth worms too. Then you know you have an arable patch and the result is glorious peonies like these.

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We are in that mode again. Either already back at school, or anticipating the change from the summer months to the academic year. This is true for students, teachers, parents and anyone who is involved in any way in the educational system. Come the inevitable cycling of the seasons from summer to fall and we all experience an inner realization of the echoing internal shift of energy. If you are a teacher, as I am, no matter how many years you have been teaching–in fact the longer your teaching career–the more easily able you are to recognize the subtle internal signs of the approaching transition.

This blog could be, but is not about the ways different personalities react to transitions, it is about transitions themselves. Our entire lives are about transitions. We are in the womb, and then we transition to being alive in this physical reality. We breathe, we are alive, and then one day we stop breathing and we are no longer alive. This is the greatest mystery; we are no longer here. While we are here we live in a realm of duality. Every meeting implies a parting. We are born to our parents, but sooner or later we will be parted from them. And before that final parting there are many other transitional meetings and partings–friends, long-term loving relationships, career changes, moving year by year from grade school to college and even graduate school. We all go through so many transitions, even those from awakening in the morning and returning to sleep at night.

Transitions, the way we view them, and the energy we create around them are vitally important for us to understand if we are to live our lives more steadily in a way that can lead to stability, less reactivity and more inner spaciousness allowing us to be proactive and not at the whim of life’s changing patterns.

1) The only constant in our lives is change. Think about this, it is often a startling idea when you first hear it. Minute-by-minute, day-by-day, month- by-month, year-by-year, we change. We grow older, we learn more, we adapt our lives to our own expectations and the reality of those expectations. Medical research tells us that physically every cell in our bodies is changed every seven years. It makes sense then to grapple with ideas of transitions and change.

2) If the only constant is change, then all we have is each passing nano-second. In that moment try to be present to yourself, to the people around you, and to your current situation and  environment. Try and be fully present to every moment; avoid future-tripping,  or looking back with regret and nostalgia. This state of mind sounds so simple and yet is so hard to achieve. Staying present in the moment is among the greatest mind-training challenges you will ever undertake.

Have a meaningful and aware transition to this fall.

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