Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mindfulness Meditation

While Great Master Yakusan was sitting in meditation, a monk asked him, "What are you thinking about in that still-still state?" The Master replied, "Thinking the concrete state of not thinking." The monk asked, "How can the state of not thinking be thought?" The Master said, "It is non-thinking."

Once again, I'm using the newspaper as my inspiration for blogging (I don't think that's too uncommon). According to today's NY Times, "mindfulness meditation" has become "perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade."

"Mindfulness meditation" according to the article, "is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. It is catching the attention of talk therapists of all stripes, including academic researchers, Freudian analysts in private practice and skeptics who see all the hallmarks of another fad."

The National Institutes of Health is reportedly financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques, up from 3 in 2000, to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair and reduce hot flashes. “The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”

The goal of mindfulness meditation is to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment. As described in the article, the technique for mindfulness meditation is as follows:
"Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes."
After mastering control of attention, some therapists say, a person can turn, mentally, to face a threatening or troubling thought and learn simply to endure the anger or sadness and let it pass, without lapsing into rumination or trying to change the feeling, a move that often backfires.

Some proponents say Buddha’s arrival in psychotherapy signals a broader opening in the culture at large — a way to access deeper healing, a hidden path revealed. If western medicine continues to embrace this holistic approach to healing, I think that's great, but I do want to point out, without being in any way pejorative toward mindfulness meditation, that it is not the same thing as the Zen practice of sitting meditation (zazen).

Subtle differences count for a lot in a subtle practice. In the Fukan-Zazengi (The Universal Guide to the Standard Method of Zazen), written in 1227 by Zen Master Dogen, we are told to "Sit up straight. Do not lean to the left, incline to the right, slouch forward, or lean backward. The ears must be aligned with the shoulders, and the nose aligned with the navel. Hold the tongue against the palate, keep the lips and teeth closed, and keep the eyes open. Breathe slowly through the nose."

In Zen, we put great emphasis on Dogen's explicit instructions for uprightness, even at the expense of comfort. We don't strive for discomfort, but comfort is not the goal. Sitting in zazen is not merely sitting in a comfortable position, but sitting upright, alert and aware.

The "still-still state" (gotsu-gotsu-chi) of Yakusan means "high and level," "lofty," or "motionless." The word is repeated for emphasis and originally suggested a table mountain (mesa), and hence something imposing and balanced.

"When the physical posture is already settled, make one complete exhalation," Dogen wrote. "Sitting immovably in the mountain-still state, think about this concrete state beyond thinking. How can the state beyond thinking be thought about? It is different from thinking."

In contrast to mindfulness meditation, in zazen we keep the eyes open, although the lids may droop and relax and the focus is kept soft - we don't stare at a fixed point but keep the focal length slightly beyond what is in front of us (the "thousand-foot stare"). In the Soto school of Zen, we sit facing the wall to reduce visual distractions. Closing the eyes, as is done in mindfulness meditation - as well as in Theravadan Buddhist vipassana (insight) meditation - sends a message to the brain that it's time to go to sleep, when in fact what we're doing is trying to wake up to our lives. Closing the eyes makes the consciousness dull and dreamy. The researchers and therapists may soon realize this and change this part of the technique.

In both zazen and mindfulness meditation, practitioners focus first on breathing, passively observing it. When a stray thought or emotion enters the mind, they allow it to pass and return attention to the breath, with the aim of achieving a focused awareness on what is happening moment to moment.

According to the Times, studies have found that meditation can help manage chronic pain. The findings are mixed on substance abuse. Two trials suggest that it can cut the rate of relapse in people who have had three or more bouts of depression. My fear here is that meditation "assignments" may start being handed out to patients like prescription drugs, with the misunderstanding that the effects can be quantified ("X number of weeks of meditation will make symptom Y go away"). Meditation, mindfulness or zazen, is not a cure-all. Worse, if one seeks huge, instantaneous changes, one will miss the more subtle changes that do occur. One will get discouraged, give up, and swear than no such changes could ever occur. As vipassana teacher Bhante Henepola Gunaratana says, "Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Of Humans, Chimps, Spiders and Bats

There was an interesting, front-page article in yesterday's New York Times that reported that no fewer than six different "tribes" of bacteria thrive in the crook of the human elbow, with more than one million bacteria in every square centimeter of flesh. The bacteria symbiotically moisturize the flesh by processing the raw fats it produces, and are therefore called "commensals" by biologists.

Nature abounds in examples of commensals. Bacteria in our stomachs and intestines perform vital services by breaking down complex sugars and converting hydrogen, a byproduct of bacterial fermentation, to methane. The mixotrich is a micro-organism that lives nowhere else but in the gut of a certain Australian termite, where it assists in the breakdown of cellulose. But the mixotrich is not itself a bacterium but a large protozoan, half a millimeter or more long, and large enough to contain hundreds of thousands of bacteria inside itself - a universe, or at least an ecosystem, inside a universe inside a universe.

The entourage of all microbes that live in an organism is called its "microbiome." The Australian termite's microbiome would include, at a minimum, the mixotrich and the bacteria that live inside the mixotrich. The human microbiome collectively possesses at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome. Since humans depend on their microbiome for various essential services, including digestion, a person should really be considered a superorganism or a colony, consisting of his or her own cells and those of all the commensal bacteria. Since the bacterial cells also outnumber human cells by 10 to 1, if individual cells could vote, people would be a minority in their own body.

This is a startlingly different way of looking at our selves, not as an individual, but as a community. Babies get some of their essential life-sustaining commensal bacteria from their mothers, and other bacteria quickly inhabit the newborn body soon after it is born. Other bacteria move into the body after it dies. Between birth and death, we exchange our commensal bacteria with other human microbiomes during various states of intimacy, ranging from food preparation to sex, so we're constantly incorporating parts of other "selves" with our "self."

This is very consistent with many of the interesting views of life presented in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestors Tale (about which I'm finally able to blog). There were several interesting themes that weave through the book, but two really stood out for me.

First, it is incorrect to think of humans as "more evolved" than any other life form currently on the planet, and even more erroneous to think of ourselves as the pinnacle or apex of evolution. The entire succession of species wasn't a grand scheme to produce us any more than it was to produce any other species. In fact, every species existent today has been evolving to adapt to their selected niche for every bit as long as we humans have. The mere fact that a species exists now means that its evolutionary lineage is exactly as long as ours. Earthworms, say, have been continually adapting to a life foraging for nutrients in soil for as long as we've been adapting to our lives. The fact that they appear more "primitive" in structure and abilities is only a testament to their early success at achieving a solution to finding nutrients in soil. Improvements to the basic earthworm blueprint have continuously occurred, including cultivation of its own commensals, and the earthworm you might encounter in the garden is now superbly adapted to life in that garden, just as you are to life as the gardener.

Considering the complexity of the bacteria-within-the-mixotrich-inside-the-termite scheme, it is apparent that all life has been continuously evolving in complexity and specialization since the beginning of life on earth, and there is nothing special or sacred about the H. sapiens route, other than you yourself have probably followed that route if you're reading this.

My current boss once told me that, as proof of human's superiority over other species, if you gave paint brushes to 1,000 monkeys and left them for 1,000 years, you still wouldn't get a Sistine Chapel. True, I replied, but a Sistine Chapel is only important to human beings. A monkey would have no use for anything as superfluous as a Sistine Chapel and has no incentive to waste any energy creating any such thing. On the other hand, how many humans could survive naked in the forest living off the land? How many humans can shoot a thread out of its butt that's stronger per millimeter of diameter than steel, and then weave a web with it to catch supper? How many humans can engage in unassisted flight in the pitch-black dark of night, guiding themselves by echolocation? And so on.

The second lesson I learned from Dawkins is how arbitrary the concept of "species" is in the first time. Looking at life on earth, it is easy to distinguish humans from chimpanzees from spiders from bats, but it reality, these are not separate, distinct things but more like points on a continuum, like differences in height between tall and short. Let me explain.

Every individual animal born on earth is a genetic product of its parent, whether born of egg, born live, or otherwise. Each new generation of a species is capable or breeding with existent members of the previous generation of its species, as well as its own generation and, if its capable of living long enough, the following generation(s). This goes back all the way through evolutionary time. Each generation is the same species as its parents, but over time minute changes occur and as you go back thousands of generations, the sum of all these minute changes accumulate. In the case of humans, our 250,000th great grandparent was so different from us, that some of its other offspring have become, over the generations, chimpanzees.

That 250,000th great grandparent was not itself a chimpanzee, but the common ancestor of humans and chimps. But while it's not correct to think it was what we would call a Homo sapien, no distinct boundary exists in the generational record between our species and our 250,000th great grandparent, just as no distinct boundary exists between a chimpanzee and our 250,000th great grandparent. And if there is no distinct boundary between this ancestor and both chimps and humans, how can we say that there is a distinct boundary between humans and chimps?

If nothing ever died, that is, if every organism ever born went on living forever, we would see the continuum between all so-called species as plainly as we see the continuum in height between so-called "short people" and so called "tall people." But organisms do not live forever, and the fossil record has gaps due to the capriciousness of geologic processes, so life on earth has the appearance of separate species, but it only appears that humans, chimps, spiders and bats are all separate things.

And, as reported in the Times, what we called "humans" are actually microbiomic assemblages of commensals, supercolonies of so-called species sharing tasks of thinking, moisturizing, digesting, and so on. And since these commensals can jump ship from individual to individual (and possibly species to species, although I'm not sure of this), how individual are we really, and on what basis can we distinguish ourselves from chimps, spiders and bats?

Sunday, May 18, 2008


In several recent posts, I've been complaining about life and politics here in Atlanta and noting my "I've -got-to-get-out-of-here" reaction. But on the other hand, realizing I will probably be leaving soon also makes me appreciate what I've got here. The house looks show-room ready now - the best shape it's been in since I moved here. This weekend I did some touch-up paint on the master-bath cabinets and planted some impatiens in the garden and various flowerpots around the yard. But in addition to a nice house, I'm also fortunate to have a very accommodating Zen Center a short five-mile drive from my house.

To be honest, all of the time spent on the road recently has been bad for my meditation practice. Staying in hotel rooms in Portland, Houston, and Alexandria without a zafu (meditation cushion) or any other good means of support has caused me to put my sitting off until "tomorrow," but "tomorrow" becomes "the day after tomorrow," becomes "next week," and so on. To be sure, while in Portland, I did visit the Dharma Rain Zen Center there and got an hour or so of meditation in on Sunday mornings, but one hour on Sunday mornings hardly constitutes a lifestyle practice.

Since I've been back in Atlanta, I've started to settle back into my old routine, and ever since I've gotten rid of the floating pink linguini I've been devoting more time to my home meditation practice. Which is appropriate, because we've now started our summer ango at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center.

Ango, literally "dwelling in peace" in Japanese, is defined by the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, a handy reference book, as "a three-month period of intensified spiritual training in a Zen monastery during the rainy season in summer (hence also ge-ango, 'summer ango'; or u-ango, 'rain ango')."

We're a lay center, not a monastery, so our approach to ango might be different from other Zen centers. Ango is not like sesshin, wherein one spends most of the day in meditation, breaking only for meals and occasional lessons, but it's more a matter of increasing the intensity of our daily practice as we continue in our home life. If we normally sit for a half-hour a day, we try for an hour a day. If we typically go to the zendo twice a week, we try making it daily.

So, after sitting for 50 minutes on Sunday and doing my usual Monday-night service, last week I devoted 50 minutes to meditation on each of Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and went to the Zen Center on Thursday night for the official start of our ango period. On Friday, there was no activity at the center, so I sat at home (50 minutes), but did go to the center Saturday for the morning service.

This morning, I woke up a little later, and yet still a little more tired, than I had expected, and I decided that I didn't really need to go to the center after all - I could sleep a little longer and then do my practice at home on my own time. But at the last possible minute, I bound out of bed, washed some coffee down my throat, and drove over to the center in time for the morning service. After all, it's ango, and I intend to put a little more oomph in my practice. How much longer will I still have a Zen Center 15 minutes away?

In the Gengo-Koan, Zen Master Dogen famously warned that "Driving ourselves to practice and experience the myriad dharmas is delusion." It's easy to use that line as an excuse to lighten up on our practice - why strive so hard?, after all, Dogen said that's delusion. But Dogen wasn't discouraging practice - in the next line, he says that the state of realization is when the myriad dharmas actively practice and experience ourselves. It's a matter of perspective - in realization, it's not the willful self that bounds out of bed to go to the center, but it's commitment to practice that pulls you out of bed and drags your ass to a zafu at the center. "You" just get dragged along for the ride.

Our summer ango (ge-ango) is for three months. We'll see how things go.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Of Polar Bears and Walruses

"Carbon dioxide is one of four principal anthropogenically-generated GHGs (greenhouse gases), the others being nitrous oxide, methane, and halocarbons. . . Since the start of the industrial era, the effect of increased GHG concentrations in the atmosphere has been widespread warming of the climate."

Greenpeace? Sierra Club? Al Gore? No, the quote is from the Bush Administration, page 28244 of the May 15, 2008 Federal Register.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Geological Survey reported what everyone has known for quite some time - that the summer extent of Arctic sea ice has decreased sharply over the past several decades. In a paper about the response of the Pacific walrus to sea ice loss, the Survey noted that in 6 of the last 9 months, the Chukchi Sea ice shelf was ice-free, with periods of no ice cover extending from one week to as much as 2 1/2 months. There had always been at least some ice over the Chukchi shelf in all of the previous 20 years of measurement (1979-98).

As most people who care about such things have probably heard by now, this week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally gotten around to declaring the polar bear a threatened species pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. Most of the progressive press coverage of the listing declared "about time" and lamented that the ruling didn't call for regulation of greenhouse gases to preserve the sea ice upon which the bears depend, but I think that the press missed what was actually said in the Federal Register - there's some amazing stuff in there, especially coming as it does from the Bush Administration.

For years, the Bush Administration has denied the issue of global warming, declaring it the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" in the infamous words of James Inhofe. Government scientists have long been silenced or otherwise censored when they've admitted to the science behind climate change. Julie MacDoanld, a high-ranking department official with no formal educational background in natural sciences, had pressured government scientists to alter previous findings on threatened species. Officials of the White House Council on Environmental Quality made more than 180 changes to a status report on global warming, virtually all of which had the effect of exaggerating scientific uncertainties and minimizing certainties. The official responsible for most of the changes, Philip Cooney, had come to the White House from the American Petroleum Institute and now works for Exxon Mobil.

This week's listing of the polar bear as endangered initially goes on at length about the biology and ecology of the bear and its habitat, and then addresses the observed changes in Arctic sea ice, diminished sea ice thickness, and changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulation. All of this leads the Wildlife Service to the unavoidable conclusion that global temperatures are rising and affecting polar sea water and ice, and the loss of sea ice is threatening the continued survival of the polar bear. The listing makes extensive use of the many climate models to support this case.

But the most interesting part to me was the Wildlife Services' published responses to comments on the draft ruling. Commenters threw about every argument that's ever been made against climate-change theory at the listing, and the Service patiently goes through each of these arguments one by one, until they eventually start to sound like none other than Al Gore in full Inconvenient-Truth mode.

The public comments are presented in the Federal Register ruling divided by issue, starting with polar bear populations and progressing through several other topics before getting to the science of climate change. Here, the first comment states, "The accuracy and completeness of future climate models are questionable due to the uncertainty or incompleteness of information used in the models."

I've heard that argument often. In response, the Service notes that the models and interpretation "represents a collaborative effort among climate scientists from around the world with broad scientific consensus on the findings." Quite a departure from the Administration's previous emphasis on uncertainty and claims of lack of consensus. The Service goes on and states that climate models have consistently improved over the years and now "provide credible quantitative estimates of future climate change, particularly at continental scales and above." This confidence comes from the foundation of the models in accepted physical principals and from their ability to reproduce observed features of current climate and past climate changes. Additional confidence comes from considering the results of suites of models rather than the output of a single model.

Other commenters provided a number of regional examples to contradict the major conclusions regarding climate change. Michael Crichton uses this argument extensively in his case against climate change. In response, the Service repeated the observation that the models provide their best results at global or continental-level scales, and are less accurate in projecting climate changes over finer geographic scales. However, the regional variability merely suggests to the Service that the future will also have a large variability, but does not negate overall climate trends.

"Climate models do not adequately address naturally occurring phenomena," the commenters argued. "Atmospheric CO2 is an indicator of global warming and not a major contributor" and "Atmospheric CO2 levels are not greater today than during the pre-industrial time," they state. "Wrong," the Service in effect responds, "Wrong, and very wrong."

"Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide'" they note (page 28244), "has increased significantly during the post-industrial period based on information from polar ice core records dating back at least 650,000 years. The recent rate of change is also dramatic and unprecedented, with the increase documented in the last 20 years exceeding any increase documented over a thousand-year period in the historic record."
"The increases," they conclude, "are largely due to global increases in GHG emissions and land use changes such as deforestation and burning." CO2 levels have been increasing since the start of the industrial revolution due to man-made activities, and the most recent spike in concentration is an anomaly in the 650,000-year record. As will be shown later, the 650,000-year record goes back to before there even were polar bears on planet Earth.

One argument maintains that the current climate patterns are part of the natural cycle and reflect natural variability, not human influence. Considered on a global scale, climate is in fact subject to an inherent degree of natural variability. However, evidence of human influence on the recent evolution of climate has accumulated steadily during the past two decades.

After a while, the comments start to sound kind of desperate: "The world will be cooler by 2030 based on sunspot cycle phenomena." Almost not worthy of a response, but the Service did reply, gamely explaining sunspot science and how it was incorporated into the models. The conspiracy theorists weighed in too with, "The climate change analysis ignored information about areas that are cooling and made selective use of the available information" and "Evidence that does not support climate change was not included in the analyses."

At the risk of being accused of conveniently overlooking some important anti-global warming argument , I won't recount every comment and response here. Instead, I'll provide you with this link, and let you read for yourself the Administration's defense of every argument against climate change thrown at it. They repeatedly emphasize that they did not rely upon any single climate model or scenario in their listing, but instead upon suites of models and the broad consensus among scientists around the globe. Each contrary argument is carefully considered, addressed and shown to be without merit.

This is an amazing document to see coming from this Administration, and one hopes it's a harbinger of a more-reasoned approach to this global problem soon. I'm also encouraged by McCain's recent speech in Oregon about his suggested approach to climate change. While I'm always suspicious of campaign promises (Bush had promised back in 2000 to regulate CO2) especially considering that McCain was speaking in one of the greenest of states, I think he was correctly reading the changing mood of the American public. His proposal for a CO2 cap-and-trade system (a pragmatic approach of which I approve) could give his campaign much credibility.

Oh, one more thing. Earlier, I said that the listing goes on at length about polar bear biology and habitat. It does, and on the very first page it says "The polar bear is usually considered a marine mammal since its primary habitat is sea ice, and it is evolutionarily adapted to life on sea ice. . . Polar bears divereged from grizzly bears somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago." A few paragraphs later: "Polar bears evolved in sea ice habitats and as a result are evolutionarily adapted to this habitat," and "Polar bears evolved to utilize the Arctic sea ice niche."

What? Admission of evolution from the Bush Administration? Acceptance of evolution as the law of the land, published as it is in the Federal Register? I thought I'd never see the day.

The image of polar bears evolving out on the sea ice reminds me of a passage from Charles Darwin, brought to my attention by reading Richard Dawkins' The Ancestors Tale (and I still intend to blog about that book one of these days):
"In North America the black bear has been seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of insects were constant, and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale (Origin of Species, 1859, p. 184)."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More Outrage

Today is the first day of ango, but the way things are going, even though what I want to talk about are polar bears and walruses, it seems that this blog may devolve into nothing more that a catalog of reasons to get out of Georgia.

Today's outrage is controversial legislation signed into law yesterday by Republican Governor Sonny Purdue that would allow folks with licenses to carry concealed firearms to bring their guns into restaurants and onto MARTA trains. The bill was opposed by representatives of the Georgia Restaurant Association, by MARTA officials and by Atlanta's Democratic Mayor Shirley Franklin on the grounds that allowing guns in restaurants and on buses and trains would pose a threat to public safety, but Governor Pudue caved in to pressure from the National Rifle Association and other groups, who had made passage of this law in Georgia and other states a priority.

Now, sure, the constitution gives us the right to bear arms, but stretching that right to be able to conceal those arms in public places is a bit of a stretch. Proponents claim that those with concealed weapons will be fully licensed and registered, so what's the harm? But that ignores the problem that criminals might decide to bypass that whole licensing and registration hassle and pack a gun anyway. And if said criminal were involved in criminal activity in a restaurant or bus or train, (s)he would have to assume at least the possibility that others in there are strapped too, and if you put yourself in that criminal's shoes, would you be more or less prone to violence given that assumption?

Now put on top of that Georgia's fondness for capital punishment and its gridlocked traffic and associated road rage, populated by armed and dangerous, swastika-mowing, Obama-as-Curious-George redneck residents, and I ask you: what could possibly go wrong?

But I could see I'm now hopelessly off-track to ever turn this posting around to a discussion of polar bears and walruses, much less ango, so those topics will have to wait until another day. See what this place is doing to me?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


As if I didn't need more reasons to get out of Georgia, in addition to its fondness for capital punishment, the worst traffic in the nation, and residents prone to mowing swastikas in their front yard, a tavern in nearby Marietta is now selling t-shirts depicting Curious George peeling a banana, with the words "Obama '08" underneath.

As mortifying as this might be, the Marietta local newspaper, a far-right rag that frequently runs Ann Coulter columns on its op-ed page on its more moderate days, ran a picture of the t-shirts on its front page as part of its "coverage" of the ensuing controversy. Some of my co-workers found it funny and insisted on showing it to me, saying "We were going to go there for lunch today, but figured the liberals out picketing might have already torched the place by now." Fun-ny.

According to the newspaper, customers of the tavern consider the place a refuge from, in their words, "an otherwise hypersensitive world." Smoking apparently isn't only allowed at the bar, it's expected. "This place is a diamond in the rough," said an patron from ironically-named Woodstock, Georgia. "People here are genuine and honest. It's the one place I can go without having to worry if I'm offending someone."

Even before this latest controversy, the bar was famous for running ultra-right mottoes on a sign out front, slogans like "Obama and Clinton: A boob with nuts and a nut with boobs." Who could take offense at that?

The owner says he's just providing a public service, reminding people they have a right to offend. "This is my marketing tool," he said. And apparently it works, as the more dim-witted among my colleagues wanted to go there for lunch today.

Marietta is in Cobb County, a Republican bastion with a long history of red-neckery. In the 90s, the county passed a resolution condemning the "gay lifestyle," and subsequently was barred from hosting any Olympic events. The Cobb town of Kennesaw had its 15 minutes of fame for protesting gun-control laws by passing legislation that required every homeowner in the town to own a gun. Ironically-named Woodstock (which is actually in adjacent Cherokee County, which makes Cobb look downright progressive at times) counts among its residents a swastika-mowing fugitive and at least one regular patron of the Obama/Curious George tavern. And the saddest part, from my perspective, is that my office is out there in Cobb County, sandwiched between Marietta and Kennesaw.

My 20-mile daily commute (each way!) is against the flow of traffic, now officially the worst in the country, but according to a recent national survey, Atlanta drivers are the sixth-least courteous in the U.S. For those keeping score at home, Miami was the worst, followed by Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Atlanta jumped six spots from last year in the 25-city survey, in which about 100 drivers in each of the cities were surveyed by phone. In the survey, 11 percent of Atlanta drivers said they drive too closely to the car in front of them, the highest percentage of all drivers surveyed. Also, Atlanta drivers ranked first among all cities in driving faster than they should every day, talking every day on the cellphone while driving, and making obscene gestures at other drivers within the last month. All this in the worst gridlock and with the longest commuting times in the nation.

By contrast, the survey found that Portland's drivers are the nation's second-most courteous group on the road, ranking only behind drivers in Pittsburgh and ahead of third-ranked Seattle. I asked one of my colleagues, a former Pittsburgh native (and sadly, one of the potential Marietta tavern customers) why Pittsburgh drivers were so courteous, and he suggested that it was because the city has one of the most elderly populations in the nation, and that it lacked Atlanta's big 16-lane freeways. "Basically, you've got a lot of old people on crappy roads," he surmised.

My house should officially be on the market by this weekend, with a "For Sale" sign out front and everything. It's time for me to go.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pink Linguini

Today was the first day I was able to meditate in the sitting room since it got re-painted.

The spare bedroom in my house serves as my sitting room, my meditation space, my home zendo. The walls of the room have been covered with a hideous pink-stripe-on-white wallpaper since I moved in (the former owners had used it as their daughter's nursery). Sitting in that room, facing the wall (Soto style), staring at the pink-striped wallpaper would cause an interesting stereogram illusion: after a while, the pink stripes seemed to float in three dimensional space above the white background, and even seemed to have a texture and thickness of their own, sort of similar to that of linguini.

It was just a trick of the eyes, or more precisely, the mind, and if I changed the focal length of my stare, the stripes would snap back into two-dimensional space, sort of like a Magic Eye picture when you stop looking at it "right."

Amusing, but ultimately distracting. It was a diverting milepost on the way to shikantaza ("just sitting"), and it had no significant meaning other than it was an experience I had to go through on my way to meditation, just like having to pass your own mailbox every day regardless of the length of the trip you're taking.

But the wallpaper was also badly peeling and it looked awful, so I had to get rid of it to sell the house. Last week I had contractors come in and strip it off, prime the walls and paint the whole room flat white. I finished off the job by placing a one-dollar, white wall plate over the light switch (bringing the $1,639 project up to $1,640). No more floating pink linguini (not a bad name for a band: "The Floating Pink Linguini").

But for several days the fumes from the paint were too strong for me to sit in there, so I held my home practice off until today, when the smell had finally abated a bit. This morning, I set the timer for 50 minutes (Antaiji style, to make up for the lost time), and sat facing my new white wall.

It's amazing how much the mind can do with a white wall, given enough time. Visual consciousness, if not stimulated with something new to perceive, will start to alter its perception of a bare white wall out of sheer boredom. Despite the priming and the sanding, there is still some texture to the wall, and the mind magnified the subtle ridges and crevices until they looked like mountains and gorges. And as the room is lit with natural light and today was a windy day, the brightness of the wall increased and decreased as clouds darted in front of and and away from the sun. At one point, as a particularly thick cloud (I imagine) passed before the sun, the white wall literally appeared black to me, and at other times, when fully illuminated, it would strobe back and forth between white and a shade of grey.

But this is just the visual consciousness being restless due to a lack of fresh input. Soon, I was able to ignore this distraction and just concentrate on my breath, until I was ready to let go of even that, and just sit, cross-legged, facing the wall.

After 50 minutes, the timer went off and I slowly got up (my feet had fallen asleep, so I had to stand up a little gingerly). Refreshed and relaxed, I felt ready for the day.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dear God

"Dear Shokai:
I was shocked to read your blog this morning. I believe the last time I spoke with you you were in support of Obama. Obviously your views have changed. I'm sad."

It's been correctly noted in the past that sarcasm doesn't always translate well into print, but since when have I used terms like "latte-sipping," "fancy-pants high-tech," and "elitist snob," much less state that a presidential candidate should be judged by his bowling scores?

It was meant as a satire, or at least sarcasm. It was a joke. Sorry if it didn't translate well into print. I was concerned that I might be misunderstood, so I purposely made the language so over the top that I hoped no one would mistake it for anything other than a lampoon, but unfortunatley, I went so far that it ultimatley sounded too close to the actual words of the right-wing pundits.

One of the many problems with 21st Century American politics is that the issues of economics, foreign and environmental policy, and civil rights and liberties have gotten so complex and difficult many potential voters and the media have simply given up on them, and Presidential elections have become simple popularity contests - "which candidate is most like me?" And the candidates have to pretend that at heart they're not really college-educated millionaires, but plain, ordinary shot-and-a-beer workin' folks, just like you and me.

I've got news for you: George W. Bush isn't really a simple Texas rancher who can't pronounce the word "nuclear" right. He's a Yale- and Harvard-educated son of an ultra-wealthy and powerful New England dynasty. Hillary Clinton went to Yale, too (Yale Law, after an undergraduate degree from Wellesley) and married a Rhodes scholar. And, yes, Barry went to Harvard Law, as well as Columbia and something called Occidental College.

But Americans seem to want to cast their votes for the candidate they perceive as the most like them (somehow I'm reminded of the chant from Tod Browning's Freaks, "One of us"), and as a result, as Bill Maher noted, we've been stuck with an idiot president for eight years just because some rednecks thought he'd be someone they'd like to have a beer with. The same voters who rejected John Kerry because he gave long, complex answers to questions about involved and complex issues.

Personally, I want a President to be smarter than me, to know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis ("I thought they were all Muslims" - W.), to be willing to study complex issues and not rely on reflex and dogma to reach decisions, and to be secure enough about his own beliefs and policies that be can listen to - and tolerate - advise and viewpoints other than his own.

Barack Obama, John McCain and, oddly, Cindy McCain, have all said that they are planning to run campaigns based on issues and policies, not on negativity and personalities. That would be refreshing, but don't count on it - voters don't have the patience to listen to policy and platform discussions. They want simple sound bites and personality clues - which one wind surfs? which one is old? which one has a pastor that said "god damn America"?

Ultimately, no president really gets to realize all of his campaign promises and pledges. It's the Congress that passes the laws to raise or lower taxes and that declares wars. It's the Supreme Court that rules on the constitutionality of laws and that (theoretically) protects our rights and freedoms.

It's important to know where a candidate stands on these issues, to be sure, but it's also important to get a sense of how he will react to the myriad challenges and crises that will inevitably arise during his term. Is he a hot-head? Is he dogmatic and inflexible? Or is he calm, creative and conscientious? Barack Obama seems to me the embodiment of the latter attributes and is my selected candidate for President of the United States of America.

Plus he plays a mean game of basketball.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Even while I'm still stuck in Atlanta, latte-sipping presidential candidate Barack "Barry" Obama was in Starbucks Country today campaigning in the Oregon primary. He made an invitation-only appearance at some fancy-pants, high-tech firm in Beaverton, not allowing the general public to hear his academic, ultra-liberal ramblings because he's such an elitist snob. However, he did allow tickets to be made available to the great unwashed for an outdoor rally at the University of Oregon. Tickets for a town hall meeting in Albany later in the day were available only at the local AMF Lanes, which is pretty funny because he's such an upper-class twit he can't bowl above a 37.

Meanwhile, back here in Georgia, an execution warrant was signed yesterday for the second execution this month following Tuesday's lethal injection of William Earl Lynd. Death-row inmate Samuel David Crowe, 47, is now scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at 7 p.m. on May 22. Crowe is condemned for the March 2, 1988, murder of a 39-year-old retail manager of a Wickes Lumber store.

In other Georgia news, a man from the ironically-named town of Woodstock, Georgia, whom police had previously cited on nine occasions for cutting swastikas into his grass and hanging a noose with the words "Jena 6" from his home, vanished while out on bond awaiting trial on weapons-related charges. He allegedly cut his lawn with a rifle slung over his shoulder and had walked his dog with a pistol in plain view. Police say he also pointed a semi-automatic rifle at two men driving past his rented house and pointed the weapon at a young girl walking past his home. But when officers went to re-arrest him, they discovered he had vacated the house, and they did not know where he had gone.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Yesterday, while the contractors were working on my house, I had lunch with my Zen teacher.

We discussed my so-called practice path, and whether I wanted to train as an "Ordained Zen Priest" or as a "Certified Lay Zen Teacher." Not only does this require me to pick and choose among options and aspire toward a goal, but it ignores the fact that I went through some sort of Zen Teacher initiation ceremony over two years ago.

Worse, I've been asked to list and catalog just how many week-long retreats I've participated in, how many weekend sesshins, and how many day-long zazenkais. Counting these episodes seems somehow wrong to me - the tao is the path, not the number of steps you've taken on the path.

Back home, the contractors had made a lot of progress on the house. They pressure washed the whole front, repaired a damaged shutter, replaced a weathered cap on the front railing, and painted the entire porch railing. They installed new light fixtures and a medicine cabinet in the main bathroom. They stripped some horrible wallpaper and then painted the spare bedroom (my meditation room). Two full days work. $950, payable in two installments.

The house now looks quite a bit different and is almost ready to show. And as soon as I sell it, I can get out of Atlanta, with its nation's-worst traffic and fondness of execution, and move to Portland.

For those of you keeping score at home, the cost has been $29 for a plumber to tell me that my bathtub wasn't broken - I just didn't know how to work it; $135 for a junk hauler to take away my broken tv, my e-waste and an old desk; $460 for landscaping and yard maintenance; $139 for the light fixtures and medicine cabinet; $26 for the paint; and now $850 for the contractors. Total is, let's see, um, $1,639. None of which is tax deductible or reimbursable.

The thing is, I have no problem cataloging and totaling my home-repair costs, but I do object to dealing with my meditation practice in the same materialistic way.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Death Penalty

Yesterday, the State of Georgia conducted the first execution in the country since the Supreme Court ruled last month that lethal injection was not unconstitutional. Despite last-ditch appeals by the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the courts over the past few days, William E. Lynd, 53, was put to death by injection for the 1988 killing of his girlfriend, Ginger Moore. It was the first execution in the United States since last September, when the court began deliberating this issue. Lynd was pronounced dead at at 7:51 p.m. Tuesday.

Georgia has been averaging about two executions a year over the past 25 years. Lynd was the 41st man executed in Georgia since 1983, the 19th by lethal injection. The execution is expected to be followed soon by several more in Georgia and other states. There is one scheduled in Mississippi for May 21 and in Virginia for May 27, and more planned throughout the summer in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia and Oklahoma.

Although there were no last-minute, court-issued stays in Lynd's execution, there was a 34-minute delay while the state's lawyers made final checks with various courts.

About a dozen death-penalty opponents stood in quiet protest about a mile from the prison, holding signs reading "End state killing" and "Not in my name." They also stood in a circle while they sang and prayed.

In other news, the death count from the cyclone in Myanmar may reach 100,000, the worst human disaster since the tsunami of 2004. Words cannot express the sorrow I feel.

Finally, despite being all but mathematically eliminated from the nomination (or already being mathematically eliminated according to some sources), Hillary Clinton has vowed to stay in the race, and even loaned her own campaign $6.4M of the Clintons' own money to support her campaign. Isn't it usually the man in a marriage that squanders the family fortune on some ego project? Or as the question was succinctly put in The Note, "Does Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton see a distinction between the good of the Clintons, the good of the Democratic Party, and the good of the country?"

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


According to Forbes.com, the traffic in Atlanta is the absolute worst in the United States. Forbes analyzed the 75 biggest American cities, tracking traffic delays, travel times and how efficiently commuters use existing infrastructure. Forbes also based its rankings on the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey and, for some reason, on information from the the Texas Transportation Institute.

After crunching the numbers., Atlanta was ranked worst, besting even perennial traffic leaders such as Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C. Of Atlanta traffic, Forbes says, "Here, in the fastest-growing city in America, more people flood the roadways than the infrastructure can handle. Commuters spend 60 hours a year stuck in traffic, second only to those in Los Angeles. If that weren't bad enough, Atlanta is so spread out that only 29 percent of drivers get to and from work in less than 20 minutes, the third worst rate in the country, and 13 percent spend more than an hour getting to work, the fourth worst rate in the country. The local train system doesn't service the entire city, and thus fails to relieve the pressure."

Behind Atlanta from second to 10th are: Detroit; Miami; Orlando; Dallas; Tampa; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Houston; and San Francisco.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Found On The Internets:

In other news, I finally got my offer letter today to relocate to Portland. It took "only" six weeks to generate, and had to clear the COO, the CFO, Human Resources and the two co-owners of the company to review, but hey, it's here.

Now I test the Atlanta real estate market by putting the house up for sale and seeing if anyone wants to buy a "secluded hilltop retreat" with lots of trees, hardwood floors, a New Orleans-style patio, and almost four years of good karma.

And if that works, Portland, here I come.