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…”

The Steadiness and Presence of a “Quiet Bridge”

During his time in the US Navy, my brother Brian became adept at complex navigation and “rules of the road”— how large ships and tankers keep from running into each other at sea. When he retired, he went on to have a part-time career that included being an instructor in a ship navigation simulator. Once when I was visiting him in Norfolk, Virginia, he took me for a spin in the simulator. Imagine the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, except that it’s more like the actual bridge of a very large ship. Where the wrap-around windows would be are television screens, and when you punch into the simulator’s computer one of hundreds of ports, it’s as if you are looking out from the bridge to that port. 

Brian punched in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at his direction—he called out the commands…LEFT 20 DEGREES RUDDER…STEADY AS SHE GOES… and I repeated them out loud—I steered this very large ship through the Halifax harbor and brought it alongside the dock at the bottom of the street I live on. As we pitched on the waves, I could actually feel it in my stomach. Very cool. Though my brother and I were the only ones on “the bridge” that afternoon, a real bridge could be crowded. So, what I remember most is what he said when I asked him if people chat while they’re on the bridge. 

“Good question,” he said. “Yes, some people do, but a feature that many officers greatly admire is what we call a quiet bridge.” He explained that a quiet bridge establishes an atmosphere of attentive calm that allows people to keep their eye on what they need to do more effectively. After all, the stakes are high. You do not want to run aground. 

My brother has since passed away, but a quiet bridge is a legacy he has left with me. For me, it has become a metaphor both for a particular quality of mind and for a contemplative atmosphere that can be fostered. In mindfulness meditation, we hone our capability to navigate life, to move through its ups and downs—including many inevitable turbulent waves—by discovering an inherent steadiness and stillness that underlies the chatter, chaos, and confusion on the surface of our lives. We can share that with others through our presence. 

When times are tough and anxiety wants to command all of our attention and invite us to chatter incessantly inside and out, we can return to simple attention to our body and breath, letting the extraneous commentary drift away. In the quiet bridge of our mind, we make our way forward. Steady as she goes. 

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What Science Says About the Power of the Outbreath

It feels, especially lately, that the world is releasing a emotional sigh. A COVID-weary, climate-anxious, war-distressed sigh.

But a sigh is really just an out-breath, an exhale, the companion to breathing in. “When we inhale, it’s a very active process,” says Dr. Ni-Cheng Liang, a pulmonary physician, podcast host, and mindfulness teacher who gets to see the process play out in her students. “The diaphragm actually has to pull itself down and flatten in order for us to invoke an inhaled breath.” The exhalation, on the other hand, is much more passive, and consequently, says Dr. Liang, doesn’t get as much attention. But what’s important, she explains, “is that we can actually control the out-breath and harness our own physiology to help exhale out all of our residual breath.” In other words, only when we deeply exhale will we be able to deeply inhale. That out-breath, that sigh, matters.

A strong outbreath is a chance to connect our thoughts around anxiety or stress or worry and make them real in the breath, with the aim of giving those feelings room to shift, instead of keeping them stuck inside.

An exasperated out breath, for example, may signal that we’re experiencing stress or processing trauma. Jasmine Marie is founder of Black Girls Breathing, which aims to create a safe space for Black women to manage their mental health through breathwork and community. She often includes a strong out-breath, “a forced sigh,” as part of the breathwork she teaches. A sigh is how we communicate to others that something’s off or wrong, she says. It’s a chance for those doing the work to acknowledge their thoughts around anxiety or stress or worry and make them real in the breath with the aim to give those feelings room to shift, instead of keeping them stuck inside—a chance “to release what’s no longer serving us,” she says.

A key part of Black Girls Breathing is addressing trauma, says Marie. “Individual trauma, collective trauma, generational trauma…” Using breathwork to process trauma is like cleaning out our closets. We go in and get rid of a bunch of stuff, and then, the next time we go in we discover there’s still more to get rid of.

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The Science of Wanting: How We Unhook from Dopamine

Anna Lembke’s gateway drug was Twilight, the young-adult vampire-romance novel. “I was at my kids’ elementary school and heard a bunch of moms talking about it, and one of them was saying she couldn’t
put it down,” Lembke recalls. “I thought, gosh, that sounds good! And it was true: It totally transported me. It was just the right drug at the right moment.”

The Stanford University psychiatrist was so enthralled by that first sweet hit that she went on to reread Twilight four more times, always trying, in vain, to replicate the high. In the meantime, she devoured every other vampire bodice-ripper she could find, soon moving on to erotic novels involving werewolves, fairies, witches, time travelers, soothsayers, and mind-readers.

Undeterred by tortured syntax, worn-out plot devices, stock characters, or typos, Lembke read instead of cooking, sleeping, socializing, or spending time with her husband and kids. It took a full year for her to hit bottom, catching herself awake at 2 a.m. on a weekday, reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Of course Lembke should have known better. Her day job, as chief of Stanford’s Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, is all about helping other people cope with self-destructive cravings. Yet her journey down the kinky-lit rabbit hole provides the wry compassion that informs her book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. The question at its heart is custom-made for our restless, anxious era, namely: How can we find contentment in an age of instant gratification?

Addiction Is Everywhere

Craving, addiction, and the damage they do are all around us these days—in stark relief to the purported universal ideal of a lasting sense of balance, satisfaction, and ease. Nearly four in ten Americans say they’ve eaten too much or consumed unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Overall, more than three in ten premature American deaths are due to behaviors supposedly within our control, such as excessive drinking, smoking, and physical inactivity. “If you ever had enough money, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, power, possessions, could you recognize it?” asks a bumper sticker on a car in my neighborhood. Dopamine Nation suggests many of us couldn’t.

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Can We Have Compassionate Tech?

Q: What motivated you to focus on technology that’s used for good and social well-being?

A: When the 2016 election happened and it was clear how much technology was dividing our country, I decided to focus on the intersection of my work with tech for social good and my firsthand understanding of going on meditation retreat and putting aside technology. The experience of being with myself, being present with what is around me, and tasting that deliciousness, offers a contrast to what it’s like to constantly be plugged in.

On the last day of a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, when people were asking questions about integrating back into the world, a primary concern people had was, “I’m terrified of my phone, and I’m terrified of my email, and I’m terrified of these technologies that bring me out of presence.”

Q: What are some ways tech and social media interrupt our presence?

A: At every level, employees at these companies are being rewarded for doing whatever they can to keep us on the products, keep us engaged with the screen. Another piece of it is the way that our brains work and that what we get hooked on can be things that are really unhealthy for us. In order to value our well-being over the fastest route to a profit, these companies need to also measure and incentivize design choices that actually prioritize our well-being, even if that means unplugging.

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What it Means to “Let Go” (and Why It’s an Essential Part of Healing)

There is a common misconception that the real you is only seen through your unfiltered thoughts and words, the you who emerges without any thoughtful processing. You hold up your immediate reaction on a pedestal. As a result, you believe that it defines your identity and reveals the core of who you are. In reality, this is completely untrue. The real you is not your initial reaction. The real you is your response that comes after your reaction. The real you is the one who can weave out of the grasp of the past and produce an authentic response that is based in the present.

Your initial reaction is your past revealing itself. Whether or not you are aware of it, how you felt before has been largely bottled up inside you. Your perception will measure everything you encounter in life today by its similarities to what you have felt in the past. If you see or feel something associated with a negative reaction, you will react in the same way in the present, even if your assessment of what is happening is exaggerated and incorrect. For the vast majority of us, our perception is completely colored by our past and our reactions seek to repeat themselves endlessly.

The mind moves so rapidly that it feels as if we are being authentic, when in reality we are letting our past experiences dictate how we feel in the present. Sometimes when we are triggered, we feel justified in expressing our anger by yelling or by loudly acting out our frustration, but this is not a sign of authenticity. This just reveals that we are caught in a cycle where our minds are overloaded with tension that keeps trying to feed its own fire. This is why slowing down and pausing will help us regain our footing in the present, process what is happening and align our actions with how we want to show up in the world. This is a much greater signifier of who
you actually are than the random things your mind blurts out. Let go of the idea that who you are is whatever you impulsively do and recenter yourself on the fact that authenticity is a quality that requires strengthening and cultivation. Also accept that your authentic self can change and mature over time—you are not stuck in old ideas, patterns, and identities.

The river of life wants to move you toward embracing change.

Being intentional is the same as being authentic. Staying in alignment with your values and with the version of yourself you are cultivating is the fundamental aspect of authenticity. Without intention, you would be aimless. Through intention, you reveal your truth. To simply let past self dominate your present-day thoughts, words, and actions is to miss out on fully living your life. Doing this means you are stuck
in a loop where you are repeatedly replaying the past and strengthening patterns that don’t necessarily support your happiness. Reinforcing the past keeps you stagnant, which may be easy in the moment because the past is familiar, but ultimately does not serve you well. The river of life wants to move you toward embracing change.

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