college students

Re-Spiriting a Campus

By Jerry Braza and Robert Henderson Our University Stress Management Class begins at 9:30 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. At precisely ten o'clock, the campus bell chimes and the entire class stops. We listen, breathe, and smile as we come back to the present moment. In that moment, with each respiration, we unite body, mind, and spirit in a kind of "re-spiriting," thus embodying the very essence of the root of the word "respiration."

During the class, students learn a wide variety of meditation and relaxation techniques. This includes  discussion, exploration, and daily practice of mindfulness as a powerful form of stress reduction, as well as a metaphor for life. Students are discovering how mindful breathing can be a bridge between mind, body, and spirit. They are taught vaIious gathas such as "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile," and are encouraged to develop their own phrases to accompany the breath during a variety of activities.

Initially, students noticed their breathing mainly during periods of physical activity. With the practice of mindful breathing, they report many positive changes. Breathing mindfully on the walk to the library facilitates a more relaxed mood needed to complete assignments. Mindful breathing while driving has helped combat forms of "road rage," so students don't get angry as often and arrive more relaxed. Breathing mindfully before a performance allows time for reflection and reduces anxiety. Students also report that mindful breathing helps them appreciate the natural beauty on campus, forget time constraints for the moment, focus before class, control anger, and cope with people and situations more calmly and effectively.

The class is discovering that the academic highway, often riddled with potholes, can also be smooth, peaceful, and scenic. In learning to stop, breathe, and smile, students are realizing that they are not separate from each other. Mindful breathing offers the space and awareness for deeper connections to others in the class and eventually, the campus community. Slowly, breath by breath, within this "academic family," a Sangha is blossoming.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is an Associate Professor at Western Oregon University, where he teaches Health Education. Robert Henderson is a graduate assistant at Western Oregon University.

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Smiling Is a Powerful Tool

By Steve Black I work in a small community college and several years ago I decided to smile and say hello to everyone I met in the hallways at the beginning of the term. I wanted to welcome our new students and to see how long it would take for them to relax and return my smile. Typically, after a month most students began to make eye contact with me, and smile.

Recently, I discovered that smiling has greater power than I realized. Last winter a student walked into a tutoring lab on campus with a package that he said contained a bomb. Fortunately, an off-duty police officer was taking classes in the same building. He quickly subdued the student, removing a pistol (empty) from him. Someone pulled a fire alarm. Eventually the entire campus was evacuated and a bomb unit was brought in.

I was in my office across campus at the time, but when I heard the news I rushed to the scene. I had heard about this student before and some of my friends, both students and faculty members, had felt threatened by him. When I saw the student in the back of the police car, looking unrepentant, my first reaction was intense anger. How could this person cause so much trouble for people I cared about, put their lives in jeopardy, make them live in fear? A wave of anger overcame me. I wanted to grab him out of the police car and punish him right then and there. I wanted to teach him a lesson.

Classes resumed that night. By then my anger had subsided, but not my sense of frustration at the situation. I decided to walk into the building where the bomb scare had occurred to make sure that everything was all right. I came to see that the real reason I needed to go inside was to overcome my fear.

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I had prided myself on being clear-headed during the incident, but as I stepped into the building that evening, a feeling of irrational terror came over me. I had to tell myself to return to my breathing and observe what was arising. I knew, intellectually, that the building had been inspected, that the bomb turned out to be a fake, that the gun was empty, that the student was in jail. But there was no way I could talk myself out of my fears. I could only watch them arise and trust them to vanish.

When students began arriving for class, I was stunned by the expressions on their faces. They looked as scared as I was, maybe even more frightened. I noticed as I walked in the hallway that night that the sense of trust I had felt after the first month of classes was gone. No one said hello, no one would even look at me. They were filled with fear and anger,just as I had been. This anger surfaced at a meeting held a few days later, when police officers answered questions from students. The students were ripe for vengeance. They were not concerned that this student was not known to have committed any crimes on campus or in the community prior to the bomb scare - they thought he should have been under police surveillance.

Witnessing this anger and suspicion, I found myself unwittingly drawn out of my own fears and became concerned about the well-being of the students. I saw immediately that, while I could not give them any kind of professional psychological assistance, I could practice smiling. It was clear that what I and my students needed now was smiles. Smiling for the benefit of others was no longer an abstract idea for me. Instead I came to see it as a powerful tool - the only one I had available - to reassure the people I met that there was no need to dwell on their irrational suspicions of strangers on campus.

The smile worked for some of the students I met. In the days that followed, as I continued to smile, I noticed that some of them began to acknowledge my presence, to return my smile. The change in their posture was instantaneous. Over time things on campus began to change, fears and. anger gradually subsided. I hope that by smiling I was able to help in some small way with this change.

I am grateful that Thay has shown us that we have this tool, the smile, available twenty-four hours a day. Before, I understood smiling as simply a way to change my own attitude and to practice mindfulness by bringing the light of awareness to the expression on my face. It was only in the wake of this situation that I realized that smiling can deeply benefit others as well. I practice smiling on campus all year now, not just at the beginning of the semester. Smiling works to relieve the pressures generated by both extreme situations and everyday hassles. I have come to see that smiling is a means to spread the seeds of peace and happiness, not only in myself, but in others as well.

Steve Black, Compassionate Continuation of the Heart, practices with his Sangha in West Tennessee, where he teaches English.

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Book Reviews

mb44-BookReviews1The Garden at NightBurnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life

By Mary Rose O’Reilley Heinemann 2005 Softcover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Richard Brady

In case she’s not already known to you, it’s my happy task to shine the light on one of Buddhism’s hidden Dharma teachers, Mary Rose O’Reilley. O’Reilley is a poet, a teacher of English and rhetoric, and the author of books that include The Peaceable Classroom, Radical Presence, and the autobiographical The Barn at the End of the World. Her new book, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, is in reality a series of four very personal Dharma talks on engaged practice. In this short gem of a book O’Reilley calls on the wisdom of teaching from Thây, the Bible, and a panoply of writers and friends to inform her practice as an English department member in a Midwestern America parochial college. As the title suggests, Garden is a book written in response to suffering, suffering brought on by departmental meltdown, deaths of students, and inhospitable working conditions.

The lessons O’Reilley works with are ones that will be familiar to mindfulness practitioners. Each person constructs his or her reality. Your awareness of your authentic self is easily lost in busyness and your struggle to do it right in the workplace, even just to survive. Receive whatever comes your way as an opportunity for practice. Don’t get caught in characterizing your experiences as “good” or “bad”; they’re just your experiences. Change your relationship to time: live slowly enough to encounter life with mindfulness. This makes freedom possible, your one true freedom, which is to be authentic.

In my experience, these changes are easy to articulate and challenging to accomplish. O’Reilley agrees. She receives a great deal of support from regular times of retreat and from spiritual friends. When the next suffering comes along, hers or that of someone close, to test these lessons, her supports make it possible for her to remain present to the suffering. And it is particularly in the contemplation of suffering that O’Reilley finds the impetus for personal transformation and prophetic witness.

For readers who wonder how to grow in the absence of major suffering, O’Reilley describes practice with some of her personal koans and questions. Searching for guidance on how to carry on in her profession, she ponders the tension between Jesus’ advice to “Be therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) and the imperative to be herself. Recognizing her inability to control or even truly understand what her students are learning, O’Reilley asks herself the “painful” question, “What did I just learn?”

Suffering is suffering. So whether or not you’re an educator, you’ll likely resonate with the reality O’Reilley describes. This is the book to share with friends who wonder what mindfulness practice has to do with life. More than that, it’s a wonderful reminder and teacher for us all. Approach this book with an open heart. Its humor, its humility, its poetic truths will water your seeds of compassion and hope.

mb44-BookReviews2Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life Collected Talks 1960-1969

By Alan Watts New World Library, 2006 245 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Our beloved hippie icon, the late Alan Watts, is back. Thanks to his son, Mark Watts, keeper of the family archives (see www.alanwatts.com), a new compilation of his radio and TV broadcasts and recorded public lectures is out in book form: Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life, Collected Talks 1960-1969. With its vintage excess of language and Wattsian wit, this is another exciting collection from the British-American philosopher and theologian who beguiled multitudes of flower children, setting many of us on the Buddhist path with manuals such as The Spirit of Zen, Square Zen Beat Zen, and The Way of Zen.

As a small child, I remember losing sleep one night because I was imagining the “forever-ness” of death. I envisioned eternity as a scary, endless corridor of doors where one door always led to another. One of the great things for me about reading Alan Watts as a young adult was that he knew his young readers still harbored such fears. From the new collection:

The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit, which means “out of nothing comes nothing.” It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions.... It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down of nothing ... such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles.

And from another essay, “Our fascination with doom might be neutralized if we would realize that every new doom is just another fluctuation in the huge, marvelous, endless chain of our own selves and our own energy.”

He persistently sees the universe as a deep and harmonious whole. Calling on his complex knowledge of history and quick deductive reasoning, Watts reassures:

But to me nothing—the negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful... [Y]ou can’t have something without nothing. Imagine nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.

mb44-BookReviews3Where to begin?! I was like a kid in the candy store with his new book. His subject matter covers the gamut from “Divine Alchemy” to “Religion and Sexuality,” frolicking through “Philosophy of Nature,” “Swimming Headless,” and “Zen Bones.” Although these essays show only a handful of the talks Alan Watts gave in the sixties, they embody the whole, highlighting a distinguished career that reflected the counterculture of the sixties and paved the way for the Western flood of interest in Far Eastern traditions that has not abated since.

mb44-BookReviews4Buddha or Bust In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All

By Perry Garfinkel Harmony Books, 2006 Hardcover, 320 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In an inquiring-mind style that Perry Garfinkel calls Zen journalism — “a kind of karmic random access, driven by Google...ramped up by coincidence and luck, inspired by jazz improvisation, necessitated by an incurable case of procrastination” — he circles the globe looking for manifestations of engaged Buddhism. Expanded from a piece for National Geographic, this book describes the author’s nine-nation pilgrimage with visits to major Buddhist shrines and dharma teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh.

Through the internet, Garfinkel locates Order of Interbeing’s Shantum Seth, who becomes his tour guide in Bodh Gaya, India, where Shakyamuni Buddha found enlightenment. At Bodh Gaya, the sensory bombardment he describes is like a synthesis of Garfinkel’s whole trip: “The deep voices of a hundred Tibetan monks, their chanting amplified by tinny speakers, ...wide-eyed American neophytes, ...stern Japanese Zen priests, ...curious Indian Hindus, ...ebullient Sri Lankans.” Surrendering to his senses, Garfinkel does find peace in Bodh Gaya.

Some of the koans he carries with him around the world are: Why the meteoric rise of Buddhism in the west? Why now? How is it that monks can enter politics and Buddhists be at war in Sri Lanka, “a country hemmorrhaging from within.”? What would the Buddha think of the Taco Bell TV ad touting “enchilada nirvana,” the Madison Avenue-ization of the dharma? As compelling as these questions are, the author’s honesty is equally so. He tells of the headiness of being granted a one-on-one interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He compares the austerities of Japanese “marathon monks” to the asceticism rejected by Buddha. He wonders if ritual as practiced in some Buddhist cultures may cancel out its original meaning.

At a Vietnamese-speaking retreat at Plum Village, where he felt “like a fish out of water,” Garfinkel managed to sit with his “mishigas,” fall in love, and have a sudden gestalt of compassion through listening to a Vietnamese victim of war torture. Finally at Plum Village, the author has a revelation when he asks Thây, after a dharma talk on relationships, “Aren’t there more important issues to discuss than relationships?” Thay answers rhetorically, “Such as war, violence, death, economic problems, terrorism?” Misunderstanding, explains Thây, begins in the microcosm, between two people. It creates fear, and fear creates violence in the world at large. “Peace in myself, peace in the world,” is indeed a Plum Village mantra.

Does the author find truth, meaning, happiness? Yes and no. Summing up his fantastic voyage, Garfinkel ironically quotes eighteenth-century Japanese poet Ryokan: “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”

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