The zen of sleep: new in bookstores

Zzzzzzzzz: Joseph Emet applies Buddhist principles where we need them the most. Every day, we're at war. The mind has plans, the body has different plans. The time when we're most aware of this war is when we climb in bed at night.

Buddhist practices are applied to just about everything in a flood of new books--and is that a good thing? I'm not always sure. I worry that too many Zen-is-the-answer books will dilute the beautiful appeal of Buddhism.

On the other hand, one book that I do recommend, in spite of its self-helpish-sounding title, is "Buddha's Book of Sleep: Sleep Better in Seven Weeks with Mindfulness Meditation" by Joseph Emet (Tarcher/Penguin). This is a book we'd all benefit from reading (and it's short -- about 142 pages).

In case you don't agree, start keeping a tally of TV commercials for Ambien, Tylenol PM, etc. That might change your mind.

Emet's focus is simple. He offers breathing exercises and meditation techniques; he also provides some insights (but never lectures) about the human condition. Take, for example, the following:

"The mindfulness mantra 'Be here now' is as appropriate as a practice theme at night as it is during the daytime. It is our thoughts that keep us awake. When we are in the past or in the future, we are in our thoughts. When we are here now, we are in our senses."

So, the point is "to be in the now" when you shut your eyes -- not review the day's events or worry about a big presentation tomorrow.

"The mind is constantly taking over from the five senses. That's how we end up being mentally somewhere else. The mind is like the bully in the playground: evolution gave us this bully. Our large and powerful brain has many advantages, but it also has a downside. The bully body checks the five senses, it takes over, and before we know it, we are in the past regretting something, or reliving some experience that happened five years ago. We might also be in the future imagining things, worrying about what might happen, or daydreaming about a pleasant possibility."

I've never thought of my mind as "the bully" before, have you?

Emet's book isn't an intensive exploration of Buddhist practices: If you want something more rigorous, you should go elsewhere. On the other hand, he's trained with Thich Nhat Hanh in France and is the founder of a mindfulness center in Canada. Very respectable.

That's why I suggest his book as  -- ah, forgive me for this pun -- ideal reading for your bedside table.

Namaste, beloved friends.

Belief's in a bag of chips, or an ashtray: not-so-new in bookstores

Finding the sacred in the unlikeliest places: Jesus in an ashtray, from "Look! It's Jesus!" It's a joke, right? What else are we supposed to think when someone claims to see an image of Jesus on a tortilla or the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast or the Buddha in a cluster of beehives?

I had picked up the book "Look! It's Jesus! Amazing Holy Visions in Everyday Life" (Chronicle Books) as an amusement, and over the past couple of years I've hung onto it for more important reasons. Whenever I've sorted through my shelves to decide what to keep and what to give to our local library, this one has always been in the "keep" category.

We're all seekers of truth. Everyone looks for meaning in the least expected places. That's what this book by Harry and Sandra Choron tells me.

It seemed only appropriate to take out the book, dust it off, and share it becauselook its jesus cover we're at a time of the year that's special for Christians. 'Tis the season of glad tidings and all that. And with Pope Benedict getting all sorts of attention now for debunking the legends of Jesus' birth, it also seemed fitting to share some unusual appearances by Jesus & Company in the modern world.

The book may offer ammunition to non-believers (look, they'll say, at the ridiculous extremes that some people reach), but I find this book far more important and consoling. You don't need to drive to a church or temple or mosque to find God: the spiritual world surrounds us, it's everywhere and in everything.

Like a bag of Cheetos. Take the following image, for example. Do you see it? There's Jesus, in profile, in an attitude of prayer:


This unusual holy "relic" was discovered by Steve Cragg of Texas. The Chorons nickname the image "Cheesus."

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was found in this cinnamon bun ordered in a Tennessee cafe. The Chorons refer to it as "the nun bun."

Delicious snack or image of Mother Teresa of Calcutta? Or both?

The next one is one of my favorites in this book. Though the selections gathered by the compilers are mainly Christian --others include the Virgin Mother in a lava lamp and a grilled cheese sandwich -- some "sightings" refer to other world traditions.

In a Cambodian Buddhist Temple located in Minnesota, for instance, the Buddhist monks heard the hum of bees in the temple's eaves and looked up. What they saw was the divine Siddhartha, sitting in a meditative pose:

A beehive shaped like a seated, meditating Buddha.

The Chorons quote the reaction of that Buddhist community's elder, and it's a lovely comment for this time of year:

"Everywhere in this world, we humans need to follow in the bees' path to make peace and serenity."

Amen to that. A perfect sentiment for the Christmas season.  Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.