Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

A Transgender Buddhist Trailblazer 20+ Years Later

Buddhist teacher and practitioner Caitriona Reed came out as a “woman of transgender experience” in her article “Coming Out Whole,” published in Inquiring Mind in 1998. Back then, public knowledge of transgender people wasn’t particularly informed or accurate. In her article, Caitriona articulated complex theories of gender and indicated a need to dissolve the gender binary, ideas that wouldn’t enter the public discourse until decades later. Since then, conversations about gender identity have become more mainstream, though trans communities continue to struggle for acceptance. 

Caitriona Reed, a Zen Buddhist, received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. She co-founded the Manzanita Village Retreat Center in southern California to focus on Vipassana meditation and Zen practice as ways of promoting sustainable ecologies, nonviolence, and social justice. 

In the following interview, Tricycle follows up with Caitriona to discuss how things have changed, or stayed the same, since her coming out over two decades ago.

What responses did you get when Inquiring Mind published your article?
For the most part, the response I got from my peers was extraordinarily generous and open—even congratulatory. I remember at a teacher meeting shortly after, [Theravadan teacher] Jack Kornfield quipped that I was probably the only person there not in drag, the only one not putting on a contrived front. Among Buddhists—Asian Buddhists, Theravadan monks, Tibetan teachers—the response was just extraordinary.

Of course, I was aware of some people with reservations, but they were polite. Among my own students, a few were confounded, but this was 22-plus years ago, so times were different. I remember one student said, “I’m disappointed that you’ve transitioned because in terms of male-female balance, you were one of the most integrated men I’d ever met. I’m disappointed because I enjoyed that.”

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The Amazing Effects of Gratitude

The majority of us are familiar with the idea of being grateful for something—we learn from an early age to say “thank you” when we receive birthday gifts, or someone holds the door open for us. But what does gratitude itself really mean?

Unlike anger, sadness, or happiness, there’s no “universal expression” or firm definition for gratitude, says Vanessa Hill. In this video from PBS science series Braincraft, she explores how we can express gratitude, and all the benefits that come with it:

What Is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, psychology professor and gratitude researcher at the University of California, Davis, explains that there are two key components of practicing gratitude:

We affirm the good things we’ve receivedWe acknowledge the role other people play in providing our lives with goodness

It’s only in the past few decades that researchers have started to investigate how we benefit from expressing gratitude and paying it forward. In one study, researchers examined the brains of participants who were asked how grateful they would feel in hypothetical scenarios where complete strangers saved their lives.

Practicing gratitude can potentially have a positive impact on our mental health over time.

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How Mindful Breathing Trains Your Brain to Focus

Your brain is actually shaped by your thoughts and your behaviors, which is why stress can take a toll on brain function over time. While some studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can help boost attention and keep the brain sharp as we age, we’ve yet to understand why that happens. Now, a new study published in the journal Progress in Brain Research, suggests that the answer to that question can be found by simply paying attention to the breath.

The study centered on mindful breath awareness training (M-BAT). Mindful breath awareness involves paying attention to the breath and observing thoughts, feelings, sensations and other experiences that arise without becoming fixated on them. No breath control or manipulation is required. For this study, 21 healthy adults received four hours of mindful breath awareness training and then were asked to practice breath awareness for 10 minutes per day, at least five days per week, for three weeks. 

Participants in this study were told to either pay attention to the movement of the diaphragm and abdomen while breathing, or to focus on the airflow around their nostrils. They were provided with an audio CD with a guided meditation and a booklet with written instructions, and asked to log their meditation practice in a diary. After three weeks, their performance on a mental exercise was compared to results from 15 adults with no prior meditation experience.

Meditators also showed an increase in brain activity related to monitoring conflict and inhibiting their responses. The more they meditated, the better the results.

Previous research suggests that mindfulness meditation can increase awareness of our thoughts, or meta-cognitive awareness, as well as regulate emotion, enhance attention and reduce stress. These changes can also be detected in the brain. Scientists often use a “go/no go” task to test some of these skills. The task requires participants to respond (“go”) by pressing a button when they see one stimulus – say a green dot – and not respond (“no go”) when another object – like a red dot — appears. Accurate and speedy responses suggest greater attention, inhibition, and mental efficiency. Impulsivity can also be examined by looking at brain waves activity when a person performs the go/no go task, to see how quickly the brain responds when a mistake is made. 

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A Meditation to Recharge Your Mind

Anytime a piece of technology is giving us problems, what’s the first thing we do? We turn it off, and then turn it back on. It’s amazing the variety of issues that this simple trick can solve.

Mindfulness teaches us that the same idea can apply to our minds as well. If we’re in some kind of emotional funk, or if the solution to a problem eludes us, we can learn how to unplug our mind—even for just a minute—and watch how many issues have disappeared when we plug back in.

1. Stop. The first step to unplugging your mind is to stop everything you’re doing. This begins by stopping your body, and giving yourself permission to do nothing for at least a minute or so. You might try saying to yourself, “Just for this one minute, I don’t have to accomplish or change anything.”

2. Let the mind wind down. Now imagine that each of your five senses is like a door that lets information into your mind. Close each of these doors and offer yourself the gift of quiet. Your mind takes in so many sights, sounds, etc., all day long. For just a minute or so, let it rest. Close your eyes, turn off anything you were listening to, stop distracting yourself in any way. Then, see if you can quiet your thoughts by telling your mind, “You can rest now. Nowhere to go, and nothing to do.”

3. Come home. Now that you’ve stopped and quieted your senses, come home to yourself in the present moment. Pay attention to your breathing and the sensations in your body without trying to do or change anything. Say to yourself, “The present moment is my true home, and I have arrived.”

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How Mindfulness Improves Strategic Thinking

Over the course of a couple of decades, meditation has migrated from Himalayan hilltops and Japanese Zendos to corporate boardrooms and corridors of power, including GoogleAppleAetnathe Pentagon, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

On a personal level, leaders are taking note of empirical research documenting meditation’s potential for reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving emotional regulation. Mindfulness meditation—the practice of cultivating deliberate focused attention on the present moment—has caught on as a way to bring focus, authenticity, and intention to the practice of leadership. Daniel Goleman and Bill George have described mindfulness as a means to listen more deeply and guide actions through clear intention rather than emotional whims or reactive patterns.

In an age in which corporations and public organizations are increasingly under attack for short-term thinking, a dearth of vision, and perfunctory reactions to quick stimuli, it’s worth posing the question: Can mindfulness help organizations—not just individual leaders—behave more intentionally? Practically speaking, can organizational leaders integrate mindfulness practices into strategic planning processes?

How Mindfulness Creates Space to Innovate

Seventy years ago, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who had just emerged from years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, shed some light on the question with a now-classic teaching. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he wrote in 1946. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Mindfulness—the practice of watching one’s breath and noticing thoughts and sensations—is, at its core, a practice of cultivating this kind of space. It’s about becoming aware of how the diverse internal and external stimuli we face can provoke automatic, immediate, unthinking responses in our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

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