Books of 2019

I didn’t read much this year, but out of those few, these books struck deeper than others.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller. Circe deserves all of its accolades: the plot dances and the writing sings.

I passed a pear tree drifted with white blossoms. A fish splashed in the moonlit river. With every step I felt lighter. An emotion was swelling in my throat. It took me a moment to recognize what it was. I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.

Madeline Miller, Circe
Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron

Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chödrön. Short essays on how to live wisely. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to get something from this book.

The Buddha spoke a lot about the importance of working with one’s ego. But what did he mean by “ego”? There are various ways to talk about this word, but one definition I particularly like is “that which resists what is.” Ego struggles against reality, against the open-endedness and natural movement of life. It is very uncomfortable with vulnerability and ambiguity, with not being quite sure how to pin things down.

Pema Chödrön, Welcoming the Unwelcome
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar. I’d never read fantasy as poetic. The Winged Histories is lyrical, but also difficult—I read it twice before I understood the plot.

It was there in the desert that my blood returned, there that Seren taught me to seize black ants and snap them between my teeth, there that my heart came open in two halves and words poured out of it: my heart had not been empty after all. I talked night after night until I was hoarse. There was a curl of whiteness in the dark sky, what the feredhai call the track of the goddess Roun, the wake of her boat in the sea of the heavens and this is what was coming out of my heart, memories pouring out in waves. All of my life.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories
Zen and the Ways

Zen and the Ways by Trevor Leggett. This is a treasure I’d long feared forgotten. My 1987 edition is worn and yellow, and I was delighted to discover it’s been reprinted.

By what I did yesterday, I win today;
This is the virtue of practice.

Remember the old saying, The plan for a day is a cock’s crow,
The plan for a life is something serious.

In the knightly arts, first see that you yourself are right,
And after that think of defeating an opponent.

The unskilled man does not know his own faults.
And yet dreams vainly of defeating another.

Songs of the Way of the Spear, Zen and the Ways

Lessons Learned from Around the World

One early morning in Tokyo, I took a train to Meiji Shrine. The skies were clear when I left my hotel, but they were darker when I stepped out of the station.

The rain began softly but quickened as I stepped past the Shrine’s torii gate. The downpour splattered off my raincoat but drenched the rest of me. I could have headed back, but I was determined to visit, so I pressed on, taking small shelter from the trees along the path.

Some stormy steps later, I stood in front of the shrine, soaked. I am not a Shinto practitioner. But I offered my thanks to whatever deities were present that wet morning. It was a prayer of gratitude that I could be where I was, away from home, bathed in rain from another sky, standing in the silent sanctuary.

Lake Ersk­ine, New Zealand
Lake Ersk­ine, New Zealand

I’ve been blessed to have had a job that’s sent me all over the world. It wasn’t always like this — before the last 12 years, I’d hardly been anywhere.

It’s why I’ve never taken my travels for granted. I’ve been tired, lonely, and homesick around the globe. But I’ve always been grateful to see more of the world than I ever imagined I would.

I’ve learned that travel can change you if you let it. The magic of travel comes from meeting the mystery, from opening yourself up to the unknown.

But it’s more difficult to do these days because it’s easy to bring home with us on our devices. Our screens offer us the comfort of the familiar, whereas unfamiliar surroundings can make us uncomfortable.

Saitama, Japan
Saitama, Japan

But the discomfort offers an opportunity, to step outside of the limits of our world and travel. Go with a blank slate and let the world inscribe itself on you. Go offline. Be bored. That is the beginning of attention.

Going offline also forces you to talk to people instead of Google. I was cautious when I started traveling, and always afraid that people would swindle this obvious greenhorn.

But I’ve been surprised by the kindness of strangers around the world. It taught me that most people are good. We may look different and speak dissimilar languages, but deep down, we all want the same things: to be safe and loved.

Seoul, South Korea
Seoul, South Korea

It doesn’t mean that people won’t be rude to you or rip you off. But they’re not doing it to be evil. This also doesn’t mean you can be naive — not all people are good.

As part of my cautiousness, I used to plan my journeys to the letter. But I’ve learned to hold my plans lightly. Nothing ever happens exactly the way you expect it en route. The weather changes, you get lost, or you discover something better than your plans. The best thing you can pack is your flexibility.

Something else I’ve learned to pack is less. Lighter goes further. The heavier you pack, the more breaks you’ll need to take, which means the less ground you’ll cover. You likely need less than you think. The only essential thing you’ll need is good walking shoes.

Cupertino, United States
Cupertino, United States

No matter how many times I revisit a country, I’ve come to understand that I’ll always be a tourist. You can never know a place by simply visiting it. And thinking you know a place prevents you from seeing it further. The world is bigger than we will ever know, so, be open to knowing nothing.

One way to do that is to go slow but deep. Getting to know one place intimately is more rewarding than going to several places casually.

There is one truth that I’ve come to know more intimately through my journeys. The world is truly unfair. You don’t need to leave any country to see this, of course. But I’ve seen the rich and the poor, and I couldn’t say who deserved what and why. Can anyone?

Malmesbury, United Kingdom
Malmesbury, United Kingdom

That doesn’t mean people can’t be happy if they don’t have the means to travel. I’ve learned that travel can become a trap. Believing that happiness is out there keeps you on a constant campaign that can never be completed.

Home is where the heart is. The ability to find joy where you are is a more important skill than dreaming about finding it elsewhere. If you can be happy at home, you can be happy anywhere you are.

It took me 12 years and thousands of miles to learn that. And I’m grateful I got the chance to do it.

How to Prepare for Your First 10-Day Meditation Retreat

For the first three days of my first 10-day meditation retreat, I locked myself in a room and screamed obscenities. In my mind, of course. It was a silent meditation retreat, after all.

The retreat was arduous, and unlike anything I’d experienced before. I was waking up too early, sitting too long, and couldn’t even speak, read, or write. I was tired, angry, and regretted being there. I finished the retreat ambivalent, not sure if I wanted to do it again.

But since then, I’ve completed two more 10-day meditation retreats and a shorter two-day retreat. I would gladly do more. A lot has changed to turn my retreat experience from a torturous one to a slightly less torturous one. One is that I now know what to expect and I’m prepared for it.

If you’re considering your first 10-day silent meditation retreat, here are ideas that can help you prepare for one.

Cultivate a Regular Practice

A 10-day meditation retreat is like a marathon. The retreats I’ve attended started at 4:30 AM and ended at 9 PM. Most of that time you’re either sitting or walking in meditation. Some retreats have even longer daily schedules.

You can drop into a 42-kilometer marathon without training for it, but it’ll be arduous. Better if you prepare for a retreat by cultivating a regular meditation practice. 10 to 20 minutes of daily meditation is a good start.

Be Exceptionally Kind to Yourself

A 10-day meditation retreat is difficult. But it’s worse if you add harshness to it. I’ve found that being kind to oneself results in more rewarding retreats.

The first few days of a retreat is always a jolt. You’re in a new place with strangers on an unfamiliar routine and it’s impractical to assume that you can adjust immediately. If you let your critical voice run rampant you’ll have a harder time acclimatizing.

So I give myself a couple of days or so to settle in. During that time I don’t reach as hard. For example, I might break an hour-long session into two or three 20 minutes of meditation with short breaks in-between. And I don’t give myself a hard time if my practice doesn’t go as well.

Prepare to Live Simply

A meditation center is usually a place for simple living. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy mosquitoes in the forests, sleeping in the cold, or using dingy toilets. But I’ve survived.

If you’re prepared for it, this back to basics living is helpful for practice. Without much to have, there’s less chance for greed to pop in.

A Good Guide Makes a Difference

A silent retreat usually has interview sessions where you can break the silence and ask questions. If you have doubts or problems this is an excellent chance to discuss them.

A good teacher and a conducive center can make all the difference for a long meditation retreat. It’s easier these days to do your research online for reliable teachers and established centers.

Prepare the World

You usually have to forgo contact with the outside world for a 10-day silent retreat. This helps you to drop distractions and tune into your inner reality.

But it’s difficult. In every retreat, my mind inadvertently imagines disasters back home that happened because nobody could reach me. I’ve found that two simple steps ease these fears.

The first is to prepare the world for my disappearance. I stress to co-workers, friends, and family that I will be offline during those 10 days. Anything important should either be settled beforehand or handed off to somebody else.

The second is to give the meditation center’s number to my immediate family. This gives them a way to reach me should an emergency arise.

Expect Nothing to Happen

I signed up for my first retreat expecting spiritual fireworks, but nothing happened. I didn’t gain enlightenment after my next retreats either.

Expecting something to happen actually works against anything happening. You might have heard of that old Buddhist chestnut where you have to drop desire without desiring to do so.

An easier way to explain this is that an epiphany is sudden insight. You can’t plan for a revelation to happen, if you could, it wouldn’t be one. All you can do is lay the groundwork for one to someday occur.

Why a Retreat?

Why join a meditation retreat if it’s such a struggle, occupies so much time, and can’t even guarantee an insight or two?

People join meditation retreats for different reasons. Some people have already meditated for a while and want to deepen their practice.

Others might be curious. Perhaps they’ve tried meditation and want to learn more. If you’re in this camp, you can consider a shorter retreat first before committing to a longer one.

A meditation retreat gives you an opportunity to practice that you can’t find in everyday life. You’re freed from your usual distractions, have a schedule to discipline you, and the help of a supportive community. If your practice goes well, you can calm and clarify your mind to an uncommon extent.

It’s why I continue to do them. And I wish you a fruitful experience if you choose to do one too.

Image Credit

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash.

Books of 2017

I read fewer books this year than in the previous year, and focused more on learning from them. These are seven I’d recommend.

1. Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

Principles by Ray Dalio

In 1975, Ray Dalio founded investment firm Bridgewater Associates and then grew it into a billion-dollar company. In Principles, Dalio shares the principles he used to build his success.

Dalio is adamant that you need to embrace reality and deal with it well. To achieve goals, identify the cause of problems with clear-mindedness. To learn, be radically open-minded and seek trusted people who will challenge your ideas.

2. Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within by Chade-Meng Tan

Joy on Demand by Chade-Meng Tan

Chade-Meng Tan was one of Google’s earliest engineers. At Google, Tan led the creation of a mindfulness course called Search Inside Yourself, which is also the title of his first book.

I found Joy on Demand a good introduction to meditation as well as a practical handbook to becoming joyful. One of my favorite lessons is an easy technique: notice the small moments of joy in life. It sounds simplistic, but practicing it has made me noticeably happier.

3. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings by Gil Fronsdal

The Buddha before Buddhism by Gil Fronsdal

Gil Fronsdal is co-teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, and has practiced Buddhism for over 40 years. You can hear him teaching on the free and excellent Audio Dharma podcast.

In The Buddha before Buddhism, Fronsdal has translated one of the earliest surviving Buddhist texts, the Aṭṭhakavagga, or Book of Eights, with commentary. The Book of Eights is refreshingly direct and mostly free from religious and metaphysical jargon. At the same time it still reads like a classical sutta, and won’t be for everyone.

My favorite verse in the book doesn’t come from the Aṭṭhakavagga. Instead, it’s a poem from the Middle Length Discourses that’s in the introduction, named ‘An Auspicious Day.’

Don’t chase the past
Or long for the future.
The past is left behind;
The future is not yet reached.

Have insight into whatever phenomenon are present,
Right where it is;
Not faltering and not agitated,
By knowing whatever is present
One develops the mind.

Ardently do what should be done today —
Who knows, death may come tomorrow.
There is no bargaining with Mortality
And his great army

Whoever dwells thus ardent,
— active day and night —
Is, says the peaceful sage,
One who has an auspicious day.

4. Reflections on Silver River by Ken McLeod

Reflections on Silver River by Ken McLeod

Reflections on Silver River is poetic and shocking, beautiful, but not easy. It’s a translation of the Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva, which was written by Tibetan monk Tokmé Zongpo of Silver River, who lived from 1295 to 1369.

Tokmé Zongpo considered these 37 practices essential. The verses are challenging, and McLeod’s commentary incisive. Consider the ninth verse:

The happiness of the three worlds disappear in a moment,
Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.
The highest level of freedom is one that never changes.
Aim for this — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

And McLeod’s commentary:

The pursuit of happiness for its own sake is a fool’s errand. […]

The happiness you feel when you get something you have always wanted typically lasts no longer than three days. […] These states soon dissipate once you re-engage the messiness of life. A dewdrop on a blade of grass, indeed!

The quest for happiness is a continuation of the traditional view of spiritual practice — a way to transcend the vicissitudes of the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out a promise of eternity, bliss, purity or union with an ultimate reality. These four spiritual longings are all escapist reactions to the challenges everyone encounters in life.

Akin to Pema Chödrön’s teachings on ‘groundlessness,’ Reflections on Silver River shook my beliefs. I re-read it the moment I finished it.

5. Approaching the Buddhist Path by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron

Approaching the Buddhist Path by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron

In Tibetan Buddhism, lanrim texts are guides to the Buddhist path, but these classical texts presuppose a familiarity with Buddhist culture — a challenge for the reader who may have none.

American nun Thubten Chodron spent decades consulting with the Dalai Lama to create a contemporary lanrim for the non-Tibetan reader, and the result is The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, a multi-volume collection presenting the Dalai Lama’s elucidation of the path.

As the first book in the series, I found Approaching the Buddhist Path a comprehensive introduction that’s logically sequenced and persuasively argued. At the same time, it’s clearly written as a textbook, and gets dry in places.

6. The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m cheating by including a series of books in a single heading. The Earthsea Cycle is a classic in the fantasy genre, and even though the books are classified for young readers, this 38-year old thoroughly enjoys them.

There are five books in the Earthsea Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, The Other Wind, and each of them has received a literary award of some sort. Ursula K. Le Guin herself is a winner of many other awards, including the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation.

In a world full of fantasy books with monochromatic narratives and world-ending battles, the Earthsea Cycle is refreshingly different. The books revolve around their characters’ inner lives, with climaxes that aren’t always solved by violence. In The Wizard of Earthsea, for example, the wizard Ged has to quietly face a darkness of his own failings, in a showdown that is more psychological than pyrotechnical.

7. Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel is a young adult fantasy novel that I’d heard recommendations for through the years. When I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

Garth Nix constructs a fascinating world where necromancers move freely in and out of the gates of Death. Unlike necromancers who raise the dead for their own nefarious means, Sabriel is the 18-year old daughter of the Abhorsen, a necromancer who lays those dead back to rest. When Sabriel gets an emergency message from her father, she has to journey into the Old Kingdom to rescue him.

Sabriel is tightly woven and richly constructed, and I can see why it’s still being recommended more than 20 years since it was first published.

The Melancholic Man Who Became President

In 1841, Abraham Lincoln wrote that he “ … was now the most miserable man living. If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one happy face on the earth.”

It had been a bad year for Lincoln. His political career was in shambles; he’d been a public advocate for a government program which had plunged the state into deep debt. His personal life was in ruins; he’d just broken off with his fiancée, Mary Todd. He started talking about suicide, and his friends removed the razors and knives from his room, fearing the worst.

Lincoln had struggled with melancholy his entire life, or what would be called depression today. When his first love died, Lincoln fell into such despair that his friends kept watch over him, fearing he would kill himself. Lincoln confessed that he never carried a knife, for fear of succumbing to his dark thoughts.

Lincoln’s hard life added to his burdens. His mother died when he was nine, his sister died when he was 19, three of his four children died young, and he was defeated several times in his political career.

And yet, Abraham Lincoln also taught himself the law, and was eventually admitted to practice in the US Supreme Court. He rose to become the 16th President of the United States, led the Union to victory in the American Civil War and abolished slavery in the doing.

In the same letter that he declared he was the most miserable man alive, Lincoln also wrote, “Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

And Abraham Lincoln did become better. But how? How did Lincoln reconcile these disparate parts of himself — the leader and the fatalist — to become one of the greatest American presidents in history? That’s what I wanted to know as I read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy.

Lincoln accepted his melancholy

Abraham Lincoln in 1857

Shenk makes the point that Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded to be one of the greatest presidents in American history, couldn’t be elected president today. His melancholy, which Lincoln never sought to hide, would be seen as an unacceptable weakness.

But Lincoln never considered his melancholy a personal fault, and neither did his fellows.

You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer, and don’t know a cloud from a star. I am of another temperament.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln knew he had a “nervous temperament,” but he believed that a melancholic nature was “a misfortune not a fault,” not to excise but to live with.

In Lincoln’s time, people subscribed to the belief that people belonged to four personality types, and that each brought along particular strengths and weaknesses. Lincoln believed that he had a melancholic nature, which was prone to depression and moodiness, but could also be thoughtful and diligent.

Lincoln’s contemporaries often mentioned the gloom that shadowed Lincoln, but they didn’t think it made him less capable. A newspaper story, written by a member of Lincoln’s political rivals, described Lincoln’s first breakdown, but not to disparage him. Instead, it was to make the point that anyone could triumph through adversity, as Lincoln had.

Lincoln found ways to cope

But accepting his melancholy didn’t mean that Lincoln allowed himself to be swallowed by it. Instead of trying to rid himself of his melancholy, he found ways to cope with it.

Lincoln liked to tell stories, jokes and recite poetry. The jokes gave him the laughs needed, he said, for his survival, while the maudlin poetry provided an outlet for his weariness. He became aware that poor weather, isolation, idleness and stress brought out the worst of his moods, so he steeled himself for them.

But if I couldn’t tell these stories, I would die.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln found purpose and meaning

Abraham Lincoln in 1861

While Lincoln could plunge into the depths of despair, he also felt an “irrepressible desire” to do something with his life. He dedicated his later years and his presidency to abolishing slavery, and when his country fell into civil war, to preserving its Union.

I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle; I would immediately engage in some business, or go to making preparation for it, which would be the same thing.

Abraham Lincoln

It was a mission that took a severe toll on Lincoln. After a year and a half of bloody fighting and heavy losses, Lincoln’s face “darkened with particular pain,” and he would moan in anguish in his office. He couldn’t sleep, and his face looked hopeless and deathly. His political opponents attacked him, declaring him unqualified for the presidency, and there were even rumours of a coup in the capital.

The death of his third son, William Wallace Lincoln, in the first year of the war, compounded Lincoln’s anguish. Lincoln was heavy with grief at his passing, crying, “It is hard, hard to have him die.”

Near the end of his first term as president, Lincoln was widely seen as a failure. The war had dragged on for more than three years, and victory was nowhere in sight. Lincoln wrote that it was “exceedingly probable” he would not win the next election.

But Lincoln’s purpose pulled him through those dark times. As he declared in a speech three months away from the end of his first term:

We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed. There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was more than melancholy

Abraham Lincoln in 1865

Today, we’re perpetually sold on the personal power of positive thinking. If you’re gloomy, it’s simply because you’re not thinking the right thoughts. If you’re down in the dumps, then you simply need to pick yourself up.

And if you still fail to join the ranks of optimists, well then, something must be wrong with you.

As Shenk tells it, Abraham Lincoln’s story shows us that there’s more to it than that. Lincoln was plagued by a melancholy that never went away, and it caused him great amounts of suffering throughout his entire life.

While we shouldn’t make light of depression or romanticise it, Lincoln shows us that any individual is more than his melancholy.

While Lincoln was a fatalist pessimist, he was also an assiduous idealist, who believed strongly in doing what he felt was morally right, and was willing to devote great energy to abolishing slavery. He changed the course of history and freed millions from bondage.

As someone who’s prone to melancholy myself, I found great relief when I read in Lincoln’s Melancholy how Lincoln and his colleagues accepted his melancholy for what it was. That it was okay to be this way, that you could struggle with “blue spells” and still be a capable member of society.

Shenk makes the argument that Lincoln not only found ways to cope with his anguish, but that Lincoln’s experience facing the darkness within helped him cope when he led his country to face its darkest moments without. Lincoln never overcame his melancholy, but he was able to integrate it, and together with the whole of his personality, change his life and the world for the better.

How and Why to Meditate

Why should someone meditate?

If you really wanted to, it’s not too hard to get physically stronger. Practice push-ups, pull-ups, squats, deadlifts and sprints consistently, and you’ll find that you can do more, lift heavier, and run faster in time.

It’s harder to get stronger mentally and emotionally. You can’t sign up for a mind gym, and see the results in the mirror, or measure it on a weight. But you can develop inner strength and clarity, and meditation is one good way to do it.

Research has shown that meditation practice produces numerous benefits.

Meditation can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve mental performance, and even stimulate physical growth in areas of the brain linked to learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

Why I Meditate

Incense burning
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I hesitated to write about how and why to meditate, because I’m still very much a beginner, and there are already several excellent guides online. But with the increasing amount of time I spend writing about Buddhism, it would be incongruous of me not to expand on it.

So why do I meditate? I’ve found meditation to be a great help in increasing my inner peace, clarity of mind, and everyday awareness. It has also helped me to reduce anxiety, stress and worry, and is a practical tool in helping me build inner strength and resiliency.

Meditation has also helped me to be more present, so I can listen to my loved ones when they need me, leave distractions more quickly, and fully taste the small joys of life.

However, like exercise, it’s a practice that demands consistent effort and hard work. There is no promise that the path will be easy, and the process takes time. But the rewards, I’ve found, are worth it.

How to Meditate

Smiling Buddha
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

‘Meditation’ is a big word, as there are actually several methods of meditation. The simplest method — focusing on the breath1 — is also one of the most useful. Don’t be fooled, while the method is simple, it is not easy, and you can practice this one technique for an entire lifetime.

How to Sit in Meditation

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit, where you won’t be disturbed
  2. You can sit cross-legged, in the Burmese style, or on a chair. Don’t force yourself into a posture, instead, find one that you can comfortably sit in
  3. Your hands can rest in the valley of your lap2. The right hand traditionally rests on top of the left hand, with the thumbs lightly touching
  4. Keep your back, neck and head straight, neither too far forward nor too far back
  5. Keep your posture upright and relaxed, without strain or tension
  6. It helps to imagine a string is attached to the top of your head, pulling your head, neck and spine upwards
  7. Another cue is to suck your stomach in slightly, pull your shoulders back, and project your chest upwards, while looking straight ahead
  8. Once you adopt this posture, keep it until the end of the session without stirring
  9. Close your eyes

Still not sure how you should sit? The Insight Meditation Center provides an illustrated introduction to the various meditation postures.

How to Focus on the Breath

  1. Pick an anchor spot where you’ll focus on the breath. Traditionally, the focus is held on the tip of the nostril, right where the air enters and exits the nose
  2. Do not try to control the breath, just let it be, and be aware of it. This trains your mindfulness
  3. Do not try to follow the breath into the body and out, just keep it focused on one spot. This trains your concentration
  4. If you find yourself distracted by thoughts, feelings, sounds, or body sensations, simply come back to the breath
  5. Do your best to keep your focus on the breath for as long as possible
  6. When the time is up, open your eyes

And this is how you practice mindfulness meditation on the breath.

Tips for Starting Meditation

Use a timer

It’s useful to set a timer for each meditation session. Using one helps you to avoid aborting your meditation session prematurely, as well as to chart your progress. There’ll be challenging sessions where you just want to stop meditating, but resolving to stay until the timer rings will build your fortitude.

Start with your eyes closed

Some teachers advise meditating with your eyes half-open. There are pros and cons to meditating with either your eyes open or closed, but meditating with your eyes closed is an easier way to start the practice.

Start short, but stay consistent

How long should you meditate for? When you’re just starting, five to ten minutes a day can already be quite helpful. The key is to make it consistent, even if it’s short.

When your daily sessions start to feel too short, that’s when you know you can increase the length of your meditation. Ideally, you’ll want to build up to at least 20 minutes per session, but it can take time. To build a habit, it’s better to take small, but regular, steps.

Logistics matter

If you want to create a regular meditation habit, it helps to have a space to practice, at the same time everyday.

Count to steady your mind

At the beginning, it can be hard to stabilize the mind. You can count the breath to help you calm your mind, quietly to yourself. On each exhalation, count once, all the way from one to ten breaths. When you reach ‘ten’, start counting from ‘one’ again.

If you realize you’ve counted beyond ten, start from one again. If you realize you were distracted and don’t know when you stopped counting, start from one again. Counting is a useful tool to help you come back and stay on the breath.

When you find that your mind has calmed down and it becomes easy to keep count, you can abandon counting and focus exclusively on the breath.

Pair Meditation with Loving Kindness

Flowers
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

You can practice meditation on the breath alone and reap its benefits, but I’ve found it useful to pair ‘loving kindness’3 practice with it. Loving kindness can be done as a short prayer (not to a deity, but as an intention), or practiced by itself as a form of meditation.

The practices of mindfulness and loving kindness build upon each other. The more you meditate, the more your awareness grows, and it reflects more clearly both the good and difficult parts of your life.

It can be tough seeing the difficult parts of our lives with more clarity. It may be a small thing; you might recall how you were unkind to somebody dear the earlier day, or it may be a bigger insight; you might realize how you’re playing a part in a toxic relationship.

Being kind to yourself can help you tide through these difficult moments with more ease.

Meditation also has the potential to help you let go of old wounds, but it will take time. Having compassion for yourself and others will help to ease the process. Past anger, for example, cannot cease by adding more anger, but it can be soothed by kindness, if not for others, at least for yourself.

Practicing loving kindness meditation is beyond the scope of this post. If you’d like to try it, you can read Access to Insight’s post on ‘Meditation on Metta.’

A Loving Kindness Prayer

What I’d like to share is a short loving kindness prayer, which I like to recite at the end of every meditation session4. It comes from Bhante Gunaratana’s book, Mindfulness in Plain English:

1. May I be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to me. May no difficulties come to me. May no problems come to me. May I always meet with success.

May I also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

2. May my parents be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

3. May my teachers be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

4. May my relatives be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

5. May my friends be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

6. May all indifferent persons be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

7. May my enemies be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

8. May all living beings be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

Do You Need to Be a Buddhist to Meditate?

Meditating monk
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

No. People all over the world, through the ages, have practiced meditation and enjoyed its benefits, without being Buddhists.

I am a Buddhist, and I’ve found added benefits to practicing meditation as a Buddhist. The Buddha was a master explorer of the mind, and Buddhism lays out a detailed road map for meditation practice, which I find very useful.

American monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, writes about the two paths of meditation practice, secular and Buddhist, and how they differ, on Access to Insight.

Are There Any Drawbacks to Meditation?

Hidden trees
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

While there’s lots of research showing the positive benefits of meditation, some people do have adverse reactions to the practice, and this shouldn’t be ignored. Both The Atlantic and The Independent have good reports on how meditation practice can go awry.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Sooner or later, meditation will bring you face to face with yourself, even the parts of you that you don’t like. This can be difficult, but it’s part of the process of becoming more aware. This is when the practice of loving kindness helps.

Some people go deeper into that ‘dark night of the soul’ than others, and meeting the shadow shouldn’t be ignored. It’s unlikely that a short practice, grown naturally, will unearth such a process, but it is possible, and this is when a competent meditation guide can help you.

When to See a Doctor

Meditation has been compared to a “gym for the mind.” Like a gym, using it will bring numerous benefits for most people. Also like a gym, it should be used under proper supervision, or you should at least be shown the ropes by someone experienced.

People with previous injuries need to know which exercises are good for them, and which they should avoid. Not all workouts will be appropriate for all people, and no exercise program is a cure-all for everything.

Just as you should consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise regimen, you should consult a doctor if you have any psychiatric problems or previous trauma, before starting a meditation practice.

Test It Out for Yourself

I still believe that meditation can offer many benefits, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention people’s negative experiences with it as well.

The only way you’ll know how meditation will or won’t enrich your life is for you to test it out for yourself. I encourage you to give it a go, with small, but consistent steps, for a time, and see if actually improves your life. All the better if you can find a good coach to guide you along the way.

Learn More About Meditation

Mindfulness in Plain English

For a more detailed online guide to meditation, I recommend Tara Brach’s ‘How to Meditate,’ which is also available as a free PDF download.

For an excellent beginner’s guide to meditation, I recommend Chade-Meng Tan’s Joy on Demand. To go even deeper, read Bhante Gunaratana’s classic book, Mindfulness in Plain English.

To learn more about mindfulness and Buddhism, I recommend the free Audio Dharma podcast.

Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way

An open grass field
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s not about having no thoughts

The only people with no thoughts are in the graveyard. Your mind will always be thinking, as you’ll quickly discover when you start meditating. But the more you strengthen your mindfulness, the faster you’ll be able to notice when you’ve been distracted, and bring your concentration back to the breath. This ability is precious in everyday life.

There will be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sessions

There will be meditation sessions that are completely tranquil, when the session glides by. There will also be sessions when the mind is running a thousand thoughts a minute, and you can’t wait to break the session.

Wanting only ‘good’ sessions and not ‘bad’ sessions is not what meditation is all about. It’s all meditation. Being able to accept, and sit with both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is meditation.

Whatever happens in your mind, resolve to sit through the entire session. Train your mind to simply focus on the breath, and be with whatever goes through the mind, without having to react to it.

Meditation can be practiced anywhere

Formal meditation practice is the best way to start, where you sit in a quiet place, for a determined amount of time, to practice.

However, after you become familiar with the technique, you can practice moments of meditation anywhere in your life; when you’re walking to work, when you’re waiting in line, or when you’re brushing your teeth.

Just set an internal timer for yourself, like, “I’ll focus on my breath from here until the end of the corridor,” or, “I’ll focus on my breath for the next ten counts.” I’ve found that short moments of practice like this increases my ability to remain mindful in daily life.

As Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says, “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.”

Image Credit

Featured image by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Standing on Groundlessness

Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

Everyone knows life is impermanent. We’ve all felt it, in the anxiety of change, the sadness of loss, the fear of uncertainty.

Pema Chödrön, a renowned Buddhist nun in the Shambhala tradition, calls this discomfort “groundlessness”: how life’s constant shifting gives us nothing to stand on.

It’s impossible to sum up Ami Pema’s teachings on how to face groundlessness in a single post , but I’ve found these three points useful in my own training.

We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it’s also what makes us afraid.

Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You

Begin with Hopelessness

Give up any hope of feeling certain, because that’s at odds with life’s uncertain nature.

Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security. If we make the journey to get security, we’re completely missing the point.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

Instead, accept impermanence with kindness towards yourself and others. Without kindness, suffering becomes a personal failure, and strength is impossible.

You build inner strength through embracing the totality of your experience, both the delightful parts and the difficult parts. Embracing the totality of your experience is one definition of having loving-kindness for yourself. Loving-kindness for yourself does not mean making sure you’re feeling good all the time—trying to set up your life so that you’re comfortable every moment. Rather, it means setting up your life so that you have time for meditation and self-reflection, for kindhearted, compassionate self-honesty.

Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully

Pain as Path

Instead of acting out, denying, or shutting down, Ami Pema encourages us to take our difficulties as teachers. This helps us to show up fully, wherever we are.

When something hurts in life, we don’t usually think of it as our path or as the source of wisdom. In fact, we think that the reason we’re on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling. At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling, we naively cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves. However, the fact is that anyone who has used the moments and days and years of his or her life to become wiser, kinder, and more at home in the world has learned from what has happened right now. We can aspire to be kind right in the moment, to relax and open our heart and mind to what is in front of us right in the moment. Now is the time. If there’s any possibility for enlightenment, it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

Joy within Impermanence

Even in the midst of uncertainty, Ami Pema insists we can be happy. We don’t practice to feel removed from life but to experience it fully.

It’s crucial for all of us to find a practice that will help us have a direct relationship with groundlessness, with impermanence and death—a practice that will enable us to touch in with the transitoriness of our thoughts, our emotions, our car, our shoes, the paint job on our house. We can get used to the fleeting quality of life in a natural, gentle, even joyful way, by watching the seasons change, watching day turning to night, watching children grow up, watching sand castles dissolve back into the sea. But if we don’t find some way to make friends with groundlessness and the ever-changing energy of life, then we’ll always be struggling to find stability in a shifting world.

Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully

The practice, Ami Pema suggests, is meditation.

For When Things Fall Apart

I found Ami Pema’s books, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and Living Beautifully, at a difficult time in my life.

I’d like to say they helped, but they shocked me before anything else. I’d always craved security and worked hard to make things feel certain. To be told this was the source–not the cure–of my anxieties was a jolt, and I didn’t want to accept it.

But groundlessness wouldn’t let me go, and the more I wrestled with Ami Pema’s teachings the more they soaked through.

I saw that I’d taken anxiety as a personal weakness when it was a normal reaction to impermanence, and how accepting life’s insecurities isn’t surrender, but a path to peace.

Taking pain as a teacher opens us to our lives and others’, and practicing presence allows us to be joyful even in the midst of change. It’s difficult, but groundlessness isn’t something to fear—it’s something to learn from.

Awakening

It’s not yet 5AM, and the morning is quiet. My feet crunch on brown pebbles on the way to the meditation hall, my path illuminated by the fading moonlight. I shiver, and wind my jacket tighter around me. The air is crisp, dewy, the way it only ever gets in the forest.

I love it here. I hate it here. I enjoy the training. I want to run out the gate, screaming as I go.

It was my fourth visit to the wooded temple grounds of Wat Pa Don Hai Soke, in northern Thailand, and I was there for my third meditation retreat last week.

But what was I doing there?

Why had I taken 9 days away from home, work, family and friends, to seclude myself in these rustic halls, hushed by a vow of silence, with no phone, internet, writing materials or books?

The word ‘retreat’ has two meanings. The first is to withdraw as a result of defeat, criticism or difficulty. The second is to go to a secluded refuge, where one can pray and meditate.

Which one was I going to, as I boarded the plane to Thailand? I wasn’t so sure.

My friend, the monk
My friend, the monk. Photo by Alvin Soon.

I’d previously visited the temple and my friend, Phra Paiboon, driven by curiosity about Buddhism, and a wish to see him since he’d become a monk. And Phra Paiboon had patiently answered my questions, with his talent for making obscure texts learnable, relatable, and applicable.

The seed had been planted, but the shoots hadn’t sprouted. I went home, satiated with a little more knowledge. I practiced, tried to practice, broke my practice, and limped along in my practice. But the seed remained. And in time, it begged for more nourishment.

My reason for visiting was different this time. My bones had grown wearier since last I saw Phra Paiboon. The spaces of life felt tight and constricted around my joints. I was older, and it seemed to me that the world’s tears dwarfed the harbours of life.

I wanted to know: Is it possible to find happiness among the unstoppable sadness of our lives? Is there any concrete refuge to be found on the uncertain winds of life? Where can we find confidence, courage and hope in the face of inevitable sickness, old age and death?

One man had promised there was a way.

The Buddha
The Buddha. Photo by Alvin Soon.

2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama declared that he had found unshakeable peace and happiness, while not denying life’s sufferings. He affirmed that there was a method, which anyone could follow and attain the same rewards. For his achievements, he was called ‘the Buddha,’ or ‘the awakened one.’

I was flying to Thailand to see his disciples, and take him up on his word. This visit wasn’t philosophical. I needed real-world tactics, and I would test the Buddha’s method to see if it held any use in my life.

The training is hard. I wake up at 4:30 AM every morning, and the last session ends at 9 PM. For 12 hours a day, I am either sitting or walking in meditation.

The living is basic. I sleep on a thin mat on the floor. I get one meal in the morning, with a light lunch and a late afternoon snack. By the fifth day, I wean myself to just one morning meal, after the monks’ daily practice. There is no talking, except during the optional one-hour question and answer sessions at noon.

I do it. I hate it. I accept it. I want to howl. My body hurts everywhere from the non-stop sitting. My hips bruise from sleeping on my side. I accidentally tear my left shoulder, and it becomes a constant pain. My mind rebels with a million protests, dreaming of easier vacations. My stomach hungers for rich meats and sweet desserts.

I ride these waves of anger, disappointment, regret and riot. Having done meditation retreats twice before, I expect it. The first few days are always the worst. The mind does not want to be told to do this. It is a monkey that has been allowed to run free for most of its life, it does not want to sit on a cushion and be told to quiet down.

In the meditation hall
In the meditation hall. Photo by Alvin Soon.

But. By staying with the practice, by sweating in the halls, by pushing through mental and physical pains, something breaks. Something turns.

On the third night, my mind becomes silent. The storm subsides, unexpected, and I feel relief wash over me. The hour-long meditation session passes with the ease of an evening breeze, and as I sit outside afterwards, a melody of bird song rings through my mind with more transparency than I have heard in years.

As the days go by, I find my inner voice becoming as quiet as my muted outer voice. There is something there. I don’t know what to call it, but something is no longer the same.

And Phra Paiboon continues to guide me with generosity, patience and humour. The more he illuminates to me about Buddhism, the more it appears to me not as something arcane and otherworldly, but altogether superordinary.

On the last full day of the retreat, I take another vow of ‘strong determination;’ to stay still for the entire hour of sitting meditation. But as the minutes roll on, my composure splits. Impatience and fear roil the cramps starting in my legs, shoulders and back.

I know this feeling. I’m dashed upon the rocks, as I claw to hold onto my raft, trying to find a steady balance on the mind’s stormy waves.

The turmoil rises and becomes more and more intolerable, and I feel my resolve bending. The peace is not coming. The ropes binding my raft are coming apart, and my small ship is about to sink.

I break. I give everything up — almost. I give up trying to get through this in one piece. I give up the desire for the damn bell to ring and signal the end of the session. I give up hope that the excruciating cramp in my left calf would go away. But I will not give up the sitting.

Let my body and mind break until the end of time, I think to myself. But I’m going to sit here anyway. There is no escaping this pain, and I accept it.

With that last letting go, I witness in wonder as my mind collapses into a single point of minute concentration. There is no desire to get to the end of the hour, there is no aversion to get away from my pain. There is only the breath, and a bright burst of happiness.

After an infinity of moments, the bell finally rings. I laugh to myself: I did it! I glance at my watch — I had sat for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Wat Pa Don Hai Soke
Wat Pa Don Hai Soke. Photo by Alvin Soon.

The next day, I feel hesitant when it comes time to break our vow of silence. I had come to appreciate the calm and quiet from the week of solitude.

But I knew that I hadn’t come to the temple just for myself. I had also come here for my family and friends back home. My despondency had dragged them down along with me, and I had needed to be stronger, for them and for me. This is why I had come to train my heart.

The word ‘retreat’ has two meanings. The first is to withdraw as a result of defeat, criticism or difficulty. The second is to go to a secluded refuge, where one can pray and meditate.

Which one had I gone for?

Both. I had withdrawn to a secluded refuge, as a result of defeat, criticism and difficulty. I shook off the attachments of the world, and went naked into my mind, alone. I reduced my life to nourish it, and return, enheartened.

The future will always be uncertain, the world always fraught with suffering. Nobody can stop the shifting of the spheres. But there is a practice, and there is a path, that seems to lead to a fortitude of peace and happiness when applied. And I will do my best to walk this path for the remainder of my life.

Walking monk
Walking monk. Photo by Alvin Soon.

My everlasting thanks to Venerable Ajahn Sa-ard, Phra Paiboon, the monks of Wat Pa Don Hai Soke, the volunteers, and my fellow seekers for all the help and hospitality they gave me during my visit.

Be Real: 7 Life Lessons from Bruce Lee

When I visited Hong Kong in September, I dragged my wife an hour away from our hotel to go see the Bruce Lee exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

On our way there, she asked me something I’d never considered. I was born in 1979, Lee had died in 1973. When I first saw his movies, they were already two decades old. Why did I feel a connection to a man so removed from my time?

It really made me think. When I saw my first Bruce Lee movie at 13, Lee completely blew my mind away. He was so fast, so powerful, so in control of his own body that he completely changed what I thought the human body was possible of.

I needed to find out more about this uncommon man. Over the years, I devoured books, movies and books about Bruce Lee. I studied Wing Chun, Lee’s first martial art, and even bought a Chinese-style suit and shoes, because I wanted to be like Bruce Lee.

I discovered that Lee wasn’t just a martial arts actor. He’d been a philosophy major who dropped out to start his own martial arts schools, and had developed a thoughtful outlook on life as well as the martial arts.

I have always been a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but above all, am actualising myself to be an artist of life.

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee

Lee was very much ahead of his own time. He fused traditional Asian and modern Western training methods, and incorporated fighting techniques from various other martial arts into his own system, which he called Jeet Kune Do, “the way of the intercepting fist.” It’s not uncommon today to see people practice yoga and lift weights, or mix Thai kickboxing with Judo; but this kind of fusion was unheard of during Lee’s time.

Sadly, Bruce Lee passed away at the young age of 32. He didn’t even live to see the worldwide impact of his last movie, ‘Enter the Dragon,’ as it was released after his sudden death.

I guess the answer to my wife’s question was that Bruce Lee redefined possibility for me.

He showed me that you could transform yourself through sheer hard work, and go where nobody thought was possible if you’re willing to think for yourself. He taught me that there was value in fully developing one’s potential, and you could go far exploring the limits of what you could do.

I needed this positive influence, right when I was growing up, and looking for my place in the world. His ideas gave me signposts to steer myself towards, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him.

If Bruce Lee had lived, he would be 75 today. In honour of his 75th birthday, I want to share seven life lessons I learned from the Little Dragon.

Absolute dedication is what keeps one ahead

Bruce Lee training

Bruce Lee wasn’t born with his incredible speed and power, he came into this world an ordinary person, just like everyone else (in fact, he was born with a slight disadvantage; one foot was shorter than the other).

Lee developed his abilities through daily, rigorous training, and from demanding more from himself than anyone else expected. Lee had logs which recorded him doing thousands of punches or kicks a day. He trained constantly, stretching in-between takes on movie sets, and doing barbell curls with one hand while reading with the other.

Some guys may not believe it, but I spent hours perfecting whatever I did.

Bruce Lee

His widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, wrote in her book The Bruce Lee Story, that Lee would often wake up early, and unable to continue sleeping, go straight to his training for the day.

Dedication, absolute dedication, is what keeps one ahead. A sort of indomitable obsessive dedication and realisation that there’s no end or limit because life is an ever-growing process, an ever-renewing process.

Bruce Lee

There are plateaus, but you must go beyond them

Bruce Lee

Lee was absolutely dedicated to his training because he believed that there were no limits to his potential. In The Art of Expressing the Human Body, John Little writes about how Lee pushed his student, Stirling Silliphant, to realise that.

At the time, Lee had Silliphant running up to three miles a day at a good steady pace. One morning, Lee told Silliphant that they’d be running for five miles that day. Silliphant protested, telling Lee that he couldn’t make it, but Lee persuaded him to give it a go.

They started running and Silliphant got to the third mile, then the fourth, and started tiring out. With his legs giving out and his heart pounding in his head, Silliphant turned to Lee, and told him that if they kept running he would get a heart attack and die.

Lee said, “Then die.”

His reply made Silliphant so furious that he ran the full five miles. Afterwards, when he’d cooled down, Silliphant asked Lee: “Why did you say that?”

Lee replied:

Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.

Bruce Lee

There is no other help but self-help

Bruce Lee

Lee believed that there was no other help but self-help, that any learning was ultimately learning about yourself, and the only person who could help yourself was ultimately you.

I have come to discover through earnest personal experience and dedicated learning that ultimately the greatest help is self-help; that there is no other help but self-help — doing one’s best, dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a given task, which happens to have no end but is an ongoing process. I have done a lot during these years of my process. As well in my process, I have changed from self-image actualisation to self-actualisation, from blindly following propaganda, organised truths, etc., to search[ing] internally for the cause of my ignorance.

Bruce Lee

In the art of Jeet Kune Do, Lee formulated a four-step process to help him and his students help themselves, through personal experience and reflection:

  1. Research your own experience
  2. Absorb what is useful
  3. Reject what is useless
  4. Add what is specifically your own

Throughout his life, Lee was an avid reader who amassed a huge library of books. Even though he dropped out of university, and had only formally trained with one gung fu master his whole life, Lee kept improving himself through self-education, researching his own experience and absorbing what was useful.

I learn martial art because I find it is like a mirror in with to reflect myself. I personally believe that all types of knowledge — I don’t care what it is — ultimately means self-knowledge.

Bruce Lee

Man is more important than any established style or system

Bruce Lee

Lee placed so much emphasis on individual learning because he believed that any dogma, rigidly followed, would lead to the stagnation of a person’s growth.

I mean that man is always in a learning process. Whereas “style” is a concluding, established, solidified something, you know? I mean you cannot do that, because you learn every day as you grow on, grow older. Each person must not be limited to one approach. We must approach it with our own self, you know? Art is the expression of ourselves, whereas if you go to, say, a Japanese style, then you are expressing the Japanese style — you are not expressing yourself.

Bruce Lee

He strongly believed that cultivating a person’s ability to think for herself was a more powerful way to grow as a human being, and not following tradition just for the sake of it.

Man, the living creature, the creating individual is always more important than any established style or system.

Bruce Lee

As he grew out from his traditional gung fu roots to explore techniques from other martial arts, he had a miniature tombstone made, which he placed near the front door of his school.

The classical mess

The tombstone read, “In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” The “classical mess” referred to the classical martial arts and their rigid ways of thinking.

Styles tend to … separate people — because they each have their own doctrine, and then the doctrine becomes their gospel truth that you cannot change. But if you do not have styles, if you just say “Here I am, as a human being — how can I express myself totally and completely?” if you can do this, then you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallisation. This way is a process of continuing growth.

Bruce Lee

The height of cultivation leads to simplicity

Bruce Lee

This doesn’t mean that Lee created a new style by adding technique after technique to his repertoire. Instead, Lee told Black Belt magazine:

In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subjects. Actually, he keeps chiseling away at the inessentials until the truth is revealed without obstructions. Jeet Kune Do doesn’t mean adding more. It means to minimise. In other words to back away from the inessentials. It is not a ‘daily increase’ but a ‘daily decrease.’ Art is really the expression of the self.

Bruce Lee

It wasn’t about adding more, but to discover the most direct expression of intention through daily refinement. During the same interview, when Maxwell Pollard asked Lee what he meant by “directness,” Lee immediately threw his wallet at Pollard. Without thinking about it, Pollard reached up and caught it.

The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every moment in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy.

Bruce Lee

Quantity of information doesn’t lead to quality of information, a dilemma we’ve all experienced in an age when we’re inundated with a deluge of information. Lee advised that it’s not how much you know, but how well you know what you know.

In Jeet Kune Do, it’s not how much you have learned, but how much you have absorbed from what you have learned. It is not how much fixed knowledge you can accumulate, but what you can apply alively that counts. ‘Being is more valued than doing.’

Bruce Lee

Don’t let complexity overwhelm you, instead, seek a well-honed simplicity on the other side.

The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity, the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.

Bruce Lee

In a letter written to his friend Daniel Lee, Lee revealed how he valued simplicity not only in his martial art, but also in his own life:

More and more, Dan, I mean it’s becoming more and more simple to me as a human being. And more and more I search [within] myself, and more and more the questions are more and more listed. And more and more I see clearly [that it’s a matter of simplicity]. It is, it really is.

Bruce Lee

Go bravely on, because each experience teaches us a lesson

Bruce Lee

It would be a mistake to think that Bruce Lee had it all; physical talent, good looks, fame and fortune. Lee faced many setbacks during his life, not the least of which was a serious injury which laid him flat-out for months.

In 1970, Lee injured his back while training. The injury was permanent, and the pain became so severe that his doctors ordered him to rest in bed, and declared that he’d never be able to practice gung fu again.

Lee stayed in bed for three months, and spent another three months just moving around the house. Unable to teach gung-fu, the Lee’s family income suddenly ceased, and Linda Lee had to work to make ends meet.

But while he couldn’t exercise his body in those six months, Lee exercised his mind; filling eight, two-inch notebooks with his thoughts on martial arts and life.

It’s just a case of learning to look at hardship as if today the rain is coming on strong, but tomorrow, baby, the sun is going to come out again.

Bruce Lee

He refused to believe in his doctors’ permanent diagnosis, and willed himself to believe that he could recover. After six months of rest, Lee began to train again, tentatively at first, and slowly resumed his teaching. Lee’s back bothered him for the rest of his life, but you’d never guess it from watching how powerfully he moved in his movies.

To refuse to be cast down, that is the lesson. Walk on and see a new view.

Bruce Lee

According to Linda, when Lee was going through tough times and feeling low, he would erect a little sign on his desk, which simply said: WALK ON. This echoes the advice he wrote to a close friend, Taky Kimura, when the latter was going through some hard times:

Life is an ever-flowing process and somewhere on the path some unpleasant things will pop up — it might leave a scar — but then life is flowing on, and like running water, when it stops, it grows stale. Go bravely on, my friend, because each experience teaches us a lesson.

Bruce Lee

In life, what more can you ask more than to be real?

Bruce Lee

What I respect most about Lee was his dedication to fully developing his potential. This is what drove him to train hard and train often, resulting in his extraordinary physical skills.

This is what drove him to learn, reflect and create, resulting in his own system of martial art, and rich volumes of written thoughts. This is what drove him to express himself honestly, resulting in a brash, but also sincere, manner.

In life, what more can you ask for than to be real? To fulfil one’s potential instead of wasting energy on [attempting to] actualise one’s dissipating image, which is not real and an expenditure of one’s vital energy. We have great work ahead of us, and it needs devotion and much, much energy. To grow, to discover, we need involvement, which is something I experience every day — sometimes good, sometimes frustrating. No matter what, you must let your inner light guide you out of the darkness.

Bruce Lee

But to want to be like Bruce Lee is to miss the point. Just as Lee was against blindly following dogma, he was against the idea that you should mimic someone else, no matter how successful that person is.

When I did The Green Hornet television series back in 1965, I looked around and I saw a lot of human beings. And as I looked at myself, I was the only robot there. I was not being myself. I was trying to accumulate external security, external technique — the way to move my arm and so on — but I was never asking: “What would Bruce Lee have done if” — the word if — “such a thing had happened to me?” When I look around, I always learn something, and that is, to always be yourself and to express yourself. To have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. That seems to me to be the prevalent thing happening here in Hong Kong. They always copy a person’s mannerisms, but they never see beyond that. They never start at the very source, the very root of their own being, and ask the question: “How can I be me?”

Bruce Lee

Instead, Lee would have suggested that you do your best to be the best you that you can be, and to honestly express your own potential as best you can.

Through the ages, the end of heroes is the same as ordinary men. They all died and gradually faded away in the memory of man. But when we are still alive, we have to understand ourselves, discover ourselves, and express ourselves.

Bruce Lee

Afterword: A Man of Victory

I am older now than Bruce Lee ever was, a little wiser and a little more beat up than when I first met him at 13.

I have come to accept that I will never move like Bruce Lee. I will never have Bruce Lee’s body, his animal charisma, or his young success. I’m okay with that. Lee was Lee, and I am me.

When I was 13, I looked up to Bruce Lee, the fighter, the superstar. Now that I’m 36, I look up to Bruce Lee, the husband, the father. The person who must have worried for his family, as his injured back kept him in bed for months and prevented him from working, watching as his family’s finances dried up.

Bruce Lee and family

I look at a person who kept on fighting, even as The Green Hornet, the first TV show Lee starred in, shut down after only a single season. Even as he lost the starring role in Kung Fu, a TV show he had helped conceive and develop.

Even though life must have looked bleak at times, Lee walked on. And he walked, like his friend and taekwondo grandmaster Jhoon Rhee described, to become “a man of victory.”

Happy birthday, Bruce Lee.

I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.

Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee and the Beginner’s Mind

Bruce Lee was a brash teenager when he first moved to America. Having studied gung-fu in Hong Kong, he opened a school in Oakland to teach whoever wanted to come.

That didn’t sit well with the gung-fu community, who thought that Chinese martial arts should only be taught to Chinese.

(To put this into perspective, it was 1964. The United States had just enacted the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. Before the Act, segregation was still legal, with separate facilities for white and black races.)

The gung-fu community told Lee to stop teaching non-Chinese or fight a challenge. If Lee lost, he would close his school. If Lee won, he could teach anybody he wanted. Lee chose to fight.

On the day of the challenge, Lee tore into his opponent, who conceded defeat after three minutes1. Although he’d won, Lee was perturbed over how a match that should have been won in a minute had taken three.

Lee realized that his training methods had limited his performance. To improve, he would have to rethink everything.

It was time to start over.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This is how Shunryu Suzuki opens his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The beginner’s mind, or shoshin in Japanese, helps us to keep learning, even after years of familiarity.

Bruce Lee explored possibilities. At a time when martial arts were delineated between styles, Lee took from all of them: he blended fencing, gung-fu, and boxing, and started weightlifting.

The Jeet Kune Do symbol, which reads ‘having no way as way, having no limitation as limitation’.

He called his new philosophy Jeet Kune Do, from the Cantonese ‘way of the intercepting fist’, which he saw as a process of continual exploration:

So styles tend to separate man — because they have their own doctrines and the doctrine became the Gospel Truth that you cannot change! But, if you do not have styles, if you just say “here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?” — now that way, you won’t create a style because style is a crystallization. That way is a process of continuing growth.

Bruce Lee

Lee later illustrated Jeet Kune Do in the climactic showdown of the film Way of the Dragon, in which he fights a martial artist played by Chuck Norris. 

At first, Norris has the upper hand. But after taking a beating, Lee adapts and changes his fighting tactics. Norris is unable to break out of his conditioned movements, and loses to Lee’s fluidity.

Nine years after winning the right to teach freely, Lee passed away at 32. Jeet Kune Do endures, with practitioners all over the world. Lee is remembered as a master martial artist today, but he was one unafraid to be a beginner again.