About microwavemeditations

Margaret Fletcher and Jon Greenberg dreamed the Microwave Meditations project up in Jon's kitchen, in Concord, NH. Now, it lives on through you. Tell us about your experience, or teach us about your own Microwave Meditation!

Follow the Breath

Most everyone by now has heard the recommendation to “live in the moment.” It’s easy to say, but what does it really mean?

A simple way to experiment with living in the moment is to choose a particular object and agree to rest your attention with it for a committed period of time. Setting an intention to stay right with the object has an immediate effect. You’ll see a great deal about being awake and aware, moment by moment, and you’ll also see what’s going when you’re not in the here and now. Adopting a kind willingness to see all of this, and to see how you relate to what you see, is at the heart of mindfulness meditation.

The breath has always been considered one of the best objects to work with. For starters, you always have it with you! So, you don’t need to have a bell or a special sitting cushion, or even anyone to guide you. The breath itself is your guide! You can cultivate awareness of breathing for a little while, or a longer period, as circumstances allow. You can do it with your eyes open, in a waiting room or sitting at a stop light. You can close your eyes, giving yourself a longer time, and giving space for the breath to be as it is, to move and change as it responds to this attitude of kind willingness.

The growing body of science around meditation has shown us what becomes possible, by developing concentration and patience as you attend to the sensations of breathing. For instance, a 2011 Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study demonstrated that practicing 20 minutes of awareness of breathing meditation for just a few days gave people a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Morphine, by comparison, has a 25% reduction effect for both. In speaking about the array of study results that have come out of the research around mind-body practices like meditation, David Servan Schreiber concludes that “if results like these were ever achieved with a new drug, every oncologist in the world would feel obligated to prescribe it.” (p. 184, Anticancer: A New Way of Life)

People who have trained their attention to rest in present moment experience report all kinds of benefits, and these are reflected by the science. It’s possible to cultivate ease and confidence, to reduce emotional reactivity, and to find new resilience and ways of coping with the challenges of life. All of this, by patiently guiding your attention into this moment. All of this, breath by breath.

The only time you can feel this breath is now. The only place is here. The breath is always here and now, waiting for you in this moment. So what are you waiting for?!

Taking a break

After about a year of posting various thought starters, I find it useful to hit the pause button. While I’ve enjoyed the bi-weekly challenge of picking a notion that might trigger further pondering, and I’ve always liked finding a photo to complement the central idea, I hit a point where I wanted to recharge the mental batteries. I will continue to follow Margaret’s insightful posts on meditation and mindfulness. They keep my mind turning.

~Jon

If eternity is settled, focus on the here and now

Last night in Concord, Gene Robinson, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, was asked why in the face of death threats and rejection by his peers, he persisted in his effort to move the church toward accepting homosexuality, bi-sexuality and transgendered people. Among other reasons, Robinson made the point that one of the benefits of faith is you don’t need to worry about death.

I don’t recall his exact words but the gist was that if you no longer must focus on making sure you enjoy eternal life, then you are free to focus on making life on this earth as good as possible for everyone.

Courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr

Gene Robinson, Courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr

A couple of key principles lie behind this. One is the conviction that God loves everyone. I’m not sure where Robinson stands on the idea of eternal damnation but I would guess he doesn’t buy it. (I’m happy to be enlightened on that.) The second is that hate is the antithesis of good, and fear lies at the root of hate — specifically, hate aimed at a class of people in contrast to hating certain people for having done terrible things.

At any rate, regardless of one’s faith or lack of faith, for purely pragmatic reasons, one would have to say that anything that promotes more caring acts on this planet is a plus.

-Jon

The Bastard Muses

A quarter of a century ago, Cleanth Brooks, an avid student of all things literary warned Americans about the deceptive powers of the “bastard muses”. We think of a muse as a spirit that inspires us and gives us insight. The opposite would be a spirit that sucks the life out of us and blinds us to the truth. Brooks listed three such muses: propaganda, sentimentality and pornography. His words bear repeating.

  • Propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of the total truth.
  • Sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion.
  • Pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality.

All three share the capacity to portray any subject out of context. The most artful propaganda relies not on outright lies but lies of omission; ignoring facts that are relevant but contrary to the advocate’s position. Sentimentality gives us emotional satisfaction but ultimately is just a diversion. Pornography, whether sexual or violent, is a more raw form of sentimentality and has the same effect.

It is the recurring theme of this blog that we need to be thoughtful and aware of the external and internal forces that work upon us. I think Brooks did a nice job of summing up three of the prevailing factors that lead to tunnel vision. You might want to do as I did when I read them — tally up just a few examples of the propaganda, sentimentality and pornography that surrounds us. It’s not a cheery activity but it will keep you on your toes. And unfortunately, you will find it easy to do.

Many thanks to my friend Tom Stites, who is spearheading a drive to save local journalism through the Banyan Project, for bringing Brooks’s words to my attention.

~Jon

When the ‘Better’ Story Isn’t

In my last post, I laid out the case from The Life of Pi that given the choice between two explanatory stories – neither of which we can prove conclusively to be correct — we should choose the better story. We should choose the one that inspires us and sustains us through times of hardship and promotes kindness.

There’s a counter argument. I came across it on Edge.org and it’s a critique of imagination, which might be thought of as the well spring of better stories. It was written by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli

Many say today that, after all, there are no “good ideas” and “bad ideas”. All ideas can be good. I hear this in philosophy departments, from very smart colleagues:  “every idea is right in its own context”; or “everything is better than lack of creativity”. …

To a large extent, we live in narrations we weave ourselves. So, why not just go for the sweetest of these? After we have freed ourselves from the close-mindedness of the past, why not feel free? We can create enchanting explanations, images of ourselves, of our own great country, of our great society. We can be fascinated by our own dreams.

Vimal R. photo of the sun seen through a piece of glass

A shard of glass can capture the sun (but don’t step on it) Courtesy of Vimal R. via Flickr

But something tells me we should worry. We live inside a real world, where not all the stories are equally good, equally effective. One dream out of many is the good one. Few explanations are the correct ones. …

Scientific intelligence met the triumphs that have lead us here by positing theories and by being extraordinarily suspicious about its own products. My worry is that we are going overboard with our contemporary fascination with imagination, and, in so doing, we risk losing track of the harsh independence of the world from the weakness of our minds.

Does Rovelli have a point? Is imagination too much in vogue these days? Is it the opiate of intellectuals that fills them with warm feelings at the price of seeing what is in front their noses?

~Jon

The Life of Pi, Considered

On the eve of the Oscars, let us consider the book behind the “Life of Pi”, nominated for 11 academy awards. The make-believe forward to the book relates a random but portentous conversation between the author and an elderly man he meets in a coffee house in India. As they talk, the man says “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The conversation leads the author to a man called Pi and his fantastic story of survival for over 200 days at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger.  Whether the novel and the invented forward, is an affirmation of God is debatable.

It is more likely a tribute to the power of imagination and our ability to convert our worldly experiences into stories that can rise above the limits of pure reality.

Life of PiYes, the main character so loves the concept of God that he is simultaneously a devout Christian, Hindu and Moslem. Yes, at the moment he is cast into the sea, he cries “What is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities — the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can’t reason give greater answers?”

Some reviewers see in the film the triumph of religion, but jump to the end of the tale when Pi is on dry land, telling his story to two insurance investigators looking into the shipwreck that set Pi adrift. When he tells them the story with the tiger, they don’t believe it. So he gives them a different story, one that has people instead of animals, and they seem more comfortable.

But he presses on. “Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

A wonderful essay by Florence Stratton gets to the heart of the book — to her, it’s all about the “better story”. Stratton reminds us that the idea of the “better story” shows up elsewhere in the book.

She writes, “Agnostics, Pi tells us, ‘lack imagination and miss the better story’ God’s existence, in other words, is a matter neither of fact nor of faith, but rather is a better story than the one told by those who doubt or deny God’s existence.”

A better story is one that inspires us, keeps us alive in the face of unbearable adversity, shows us how to be moral creatures. If it achieves all that, does it matter whether it comes from inside us or comes from some higher sentient being? If we, like the two insurance investigators, can’t know which is true, does the story lose power because it springs from human imagination rather than an outside force?

~ Jon

3 frameworks for the end of life: two I buy and one I don’t

My nearly 90-year-old mother has been faced with some tough situations regarding her 94-year-old sister. These situations have been tough enough that they’ve caused my mother to ask “What’s it all for. What’s the point of carrying on?” I accept these questions. They are reasonable ones to raise when both the need for care and the family tensions of how to move forward rise exponentially.

In several intense conversations, three frameworks for reaching answers have presented themselves. The first is rooted in the logic that drives most of us during our working lives and in my opinion ought to have no bearing during our waning years and is likely flawed all the time. The second and third lead in opposite directions and yet are equally valid.

The first could be paraphrased as “So long as I contribute and produce something of value to the world at large, then I have worth and have a claim to life. But absent that, I have neither.” It would be easy to dismiss this as a bit of Calvinist claptrap except that many of us implicitly live by it when we are well and healthy. Few of us would not want to work in the outside world in some way. That work reassures us of our purpose and meaning on this earth. But I don’t buy it, at least not entirely. As a yardstick of personal value, it is more of a trap for the unwary, than a carrot to inspire us to greater effort.

Courtesy of Jukka Vuokko via Flickr Creative Commons

Courtesy of Jukka Vuokko via Flickr Creative Commons

The second holds that we have the right to die with dignity and that when we decide we’ve lived long enough and have had a good run, it is fine to check out on our own schedule. I can not argue with this. So long as it comes from long reflection and ideally conversations with those closest to us, it seems noble, respectful and rational.

The third framework says that even when we can no longer care for ourselves and might not even recognize those who love us, we still have value because we become the vessel and focal point for that quality that makes us human above all others — our capacity for caring relationships. In a slightly different way, I’ve written on this before. If we weren’t hardwired for complex supporting relationships, we wouldn’t be human. It’s in our DNA. When we allow others to show their compassion for us, we fulfill our role as a species. It’s hard to argue that that isn’t worth a lot.

I leave it to you to suss out your own responses to these frameworks. If you agree with me that numbers 2 and 3 are equally valid, then you might want to consider why they lead to opposite conclusions.  Happy thinking.

~Jon