On Mindfulness and Climbing Date Trees: a Lesson from My Father’s Childhood

After months of changes in my life, I’m back to publishing.  I finished fellowship, moved next to a preserve and started birding again, traveled abroad, started a fulfilling and very interesting rheumatology practice, prepared for and took my board exam, and deepened my relationship with a very special woman.  The following is a short anecdote from my father’s childhood along with the lesson I gleaned from it.

My father is an excellent tree-climber. I’m skittish about climbing anything without safety measures in place, but my dad does so without thinking twice.  He once climbed a tall pine tree without a ladder or any other equipment to save a kitten stranded on a branch.

There’s a good explanation for his facility with climbing:  he was raised on a farm in Fasa (near Shiraz, Iran) and climbed date trees during his childhood to harvest their fruits for himself. Many palm species don’t bear edible fruit, but date palms do. A date tree is either male, which produces pollen but not fruit, or female, which produces flowers and then fruit when pollinated. The trees grow very slowly and begin to bear fruit only after many years of growth. Date fruits are initially green. As they ripen, they gradually turn yellow and then brown from the tips stemward. My father especially liked the half-yellow, half-brown fruits when he was a kid; they were most delicious.

He climbed without a rope, but professional climbers used a rope slung around the tree trunk and around their backs. They climbed the tree with their legs, leaning into the rope and flipping it up as they ascended.

Climbing had to be careful because of long, sharp thorns at the base of date palm fronds. The professional climbers cut thorns down as they encountered them, but my dad once rushed up a tree without taking care and a thorn pierced his temple.  (Date palm thorns are strong and apparently sharp-enough to pierce truck tires.)  Blood shot out of the wound and down his face in time with his heartbeat as he scrambled back down the tree. His uncle, who was nearby, pressed a stone against his head.  After a long time, the bleeding eventually stopped.  (He’s lucky his uncle was around because it sounds like he lacerated an artery.)

As one who strives for meta-awareness, the lesson I take away from his experience is to try to remain strategic about and somewhat detached from goals instead of pursuing them carelessly and hastily.

More about date palms:  they give rise to offshoots, or “pups,” around their trunks, which need to be carefully transplanted away from the mother tree if they are to continue growing. My father’s cousin recently sent him a photo of a tall date palm that was a tiny pup when my father planted it more than fifty years ago.

When date palms become too old–some live longer than a century–or too tall and dangerous, they are felled. This is no easy matter because the trees are well-anchored by their roots.

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The Zen of Seeing: a Thoughtful Discourse on Drawing as a Form of Meditation

“How I would like people
To hear…the sound of the snow falling
Through the deepening night…” – Hakuin, as quoted in The Zen of Seeing

I just finished reading The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, published in 1973 by Frederick Franck, a dental surgeon, artist, and writer who spent years working with Albert Schweitzer and who published many books on Buddhism.  Besides The Zen of Seeing, his most significant contribution is the conversion of a dumping ground near his home in New York to a public sculpture park named Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”).  He died in 2006 at age 97.

The Zen of Seeing is handwritten, which is unusual for a modern book.  Franck explains this in the foreword:

This book is handwritten because, in its way, it is a love letter, and love letters should not be typeset by compositors or computers.

What sort of love letter?  A love letter to life itself, as he explains on the final page:

In seeing/drawing, that which matters can be perceived through the senses, not denied but maximally affirmed.  While seeing/drawing, I glimpse into nature, I taste nature, the nature of reality.

The entire book is about drawing from life as meditation.  It really spoke to me because I, too, see drawing as a form of meditation.  In fact, Franck, who had numerous one-man shows and later had works in major museums worldwide, apparently abandoned the art world for a private drawing practice:

I abandoned [painting and photography] when in seeing/drawing I found an art more urgent than art itself.  I had painted and exhibited for years.  I folded up my easel, closed my paintbox when I discovered that it was not really my aim to add to the world’s stock of art objects, discovered that what I really wanted was to truly SEE before I die.  And so I started to draw as if my life depended on it.  It very probably did–and does…

…After much seeing/drawing, my eye goes on drawing whether my hand draws or not.

…The sense perception, the activity of the reflex eye-heart-hand, is…the leap from a platitudinous world to one of mystery.

…Seeing/drawing is not a self-indulgence, a ‘pleasant hobby,’ but a discipline of awareness, of unwavering attention to a world that is fully alive.  It is not the pursuit of happiness, but stopping the pursuit and experiencing the awareness, the happiness, of being ALL THERE.

It’s clear from reading this unique, wonderful book that even in 1973 the developed world was pretty mindless (but perhaps less so than in our age of social media and microscopic attention spans):

We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes…Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less…Never has it been more urgent to speak of SEEING.  Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing…Millions of people, unseeing, joyless, bluster through life in their half-sleep, hitting, kicking, and killing what they have barely perceived.

His drawings are scattered throughout the book.  Some are simple, others complex.  Some are quiet, others dynamic.  Many are quite lovely.  Not that loveliness matters:

In the minds of ‘common-minded people’–those who are blind–that which the draftsman’s hand precipitates is an attempt to make an image of reality.  To him who knows and sees, it is a witness to reality.

It’s also a book about Zen, as viewed through the lens of a drawing practice:

Zen raises the ordinariness of The Ten Thousand Things to sacredness and it debunks much that we consider sacrosanct as being ordinary.  What we consider supernatural becomes natural, while that which we have always seen as so natural reveals how wondrously supernatural it is.

Finally, it contains my new favorite quote:

“If your eye is just a little clouded, flowering illusions are rampant.” – ninth-century Zen master, Kisu

The Priceless Habit

I blogged last month about starting a meditation habit.  Despite knowing about zazen, or zen meditation–my preferred form of meditation–since my college days, I just recently began a regular practice!  Meditation is one of those deceptively simple activities that isn’t easy at all; in fact, its difficulty is part of what makes it so worthwhile.

Since starting my meditation practice, I’ve meditated for 5-15 minutes most days.  For the past few days, I’ve meditated for 15 minutes several hours before bed, and I’ve experienced something I hadn’t for at least the past year:  probable REM sleep (indicated by vivid dreams) right up until I wake in the mornings!  I’ve also felt more calmly alert and attentive during the day (in short, I’ve felt fresh), even though I’ve only gotten about seven hours a night (which, previously, was not enough for me).  I haven’t made any other changes to my lifestyle, so I’m doubtful that anything else could account for the new REM cycles.

I feel that my attention span has broadened considerably.  I’m much better-attuned to the world around me.  Layers of thought and mental impressions, many of them barely conscious, have been lifted, revealing a calm, clear view of things.  Meditation, for me, is about “lifting” the “layers” of thought and consequent feelings that obscure the truth.  I’ve solved harder problems correctly, I’ve made fewer mistakes overall (before, in haste, I would occasionally bump into things and hurt my finger or my toe or my knee), I’ve become more cognizant of and attentive to all important matters, I’ve become more calmly (instead of harriedly) efficient, etc.

The sum of all these and other effects of meditation has been something truly priceless:  a much higher quality of life experience per moment of time.  The overall quality of my life has risen considerably.

I’ve learned that if I want to see the forest and the trees, then I should meditate.  I look forward to continuing and deepening my meditation practice!

P.S.  These are the zazen instructions that work for me.  They work because they stress the importance of non-striving, of not pursuing a goal while meditating, which is critical to getting “behind” your barely conscious thoughts and “lifting” them out of the way.  (Pursuit of a goal, or striving, can itself be a near-unconscious ambience of thought that colors your mind a certain way, with consequent anxieties and behaviors you wouldn’t otherwise engage in.)

P.P.S.  Meditation, for me, is strictly practical.  I ignore the spiritual/religious side of it.  Remember that Buddhism became a religion only after the Buddha died–he did not want to make it a religion, he did not want to be worshipped, and he did not make any claims about a higher power(s).  The religious transformation of his movement came about after he died.

Meditate for Clarity

The mindful are to average people what the sober are to drunks.

I regret not meditating for at least the past year and a half. Meditation clears up my consciousness. It dispels residual clouds of thought, straightens any twisted impressions, and lets me see the forest clearly in spite of the trees. Whenever I get back into meditation, as I did recently, I’m embarrassed for at least a few days because I realize how far I’ve been from the clarity I’m approaching.

When I don’t meditate, my mind becomes sticky. It sticks to thought sequences, automatic colorings of particular situations, beliefs about the future or the past, etc. It attaches itself to any of various activities (guitar, music, reading, Facebook, etc.).  It’s not free.  It’s not fresh.

I’m not alone, either. Anyone can benefit from a regular meditation practice. Meditation improves mindfulness and has many other potential benefits, such as emotional resilience, increased compassion, decreased pain sensitivity, improved multitasking, faster cognition, enhanced creativity, increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, etc.

I first encountered meditation in college through the personal website of a half-German, half-Iranian electrical engineer who wrote about how zazen–Zen meditation–helped him make peace with his traumatic memories from the Lebanese Civil War (he was raised in Beirut). That website no longer exists, as far as I know.

In my undergraduate graphics algorithms class, whenever I hit a major roadblock while programming a solution to a graphics problem, I would stop everything and meditate in the zazen style. It worked every time (a fact that surprises me, in retrospect): I would see a solution–often an elegant one–that I hadn’t thought of while banging my head, so to speak, against the problem.

Meditation will not solve all of our problems, but it will make things clearer. It will push away the thoughts and viewpoints that are cluttering up our minds and preventing us from having a clearer outlook onto life.  And clarity is the first–and most important–step to figuring out anything.

Update 1/11/15: Check out this excellent article, by Jeffrey B. Rubin, on the “McMindfulness craze.”  I agree with Rubin that meditation is no panacea.  In my experience, mindfulness meditation mainly just improves attention management.  This is a massive benefit, though, because attention is critically important for so many things.

Draw or Paint to Become More Emotionally Resilient?

A good friend shared this with me today:  How Art Changes Your Brain.

It’s a fascinating study that suggests that the production of visual art in adulthood–as compared with art appreciation–leads to greater emotional resilience.  This conclusion rings true with me, especially with respect to drawing.

Drawing has always felt like meditation.  When I draw, I lose sense of time.  It’s a strangely soothing activity.  Especially during internal medicine residency, I felt that drawing provided a perfect counterpoint to harried workdays filled with often-stressful interactions with what seemed like a hundred or more people.

Many others who get into drawing feel similarly about it.

Today, after work, I went to the MFAH‘s First Thursday Sketching event for the first time.  It was fun.  A kid came up to me and asked if I would teach him how to draw.  I sketched an art school graduate and also sketched this skull in colored pencil:

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Zen Mind

A series of sketches I created with Paper by 53 for iPad, a regular blunt stylus, and an Adonit Jot Pro stylus to highlight the importance of equanimity in the face of adversity, or “zen mind”.

The “watercolor” tool in Paper by 53 is not much like regular watercolor painting at all.  I see, now, when looking at these sketches from a distance, that a single “wash” comes out with a regular pattern of darker and lighter areas, depending on the speed of movement of the stylus, that wouldn’t occur with actual watercolor.

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