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.

Battle of the Buddhas: new in bookstores

Standing in a retail line on this infamous day, Black Friday, I heard someone (couldn't help hearing) on their cellphone behind me.

"It's crazy, but I'm good. I've done a lot of shopping," the person said. "I'm just trying to be Zen about it."

That's a great goal for dealing with the shopping madness, but what does it mean to be Zen?

Ask Donald S. Lopez Jr., and he'll probably tell you that most of us really have no idea what it means.

His new book, "The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life" (Yale University Press), is all about how a scientific version of the Buddha has belly-bumped the authentic, ancient one into a corner.

"The Scientific Buddha is a pale reflection of the Buddha born in Asia," the author writes as he explores the Buddha's original teachings and how they've been misunderstood in the West. The real Buddha, he adds, "entered our world in order to destroy it."

Instead, he's the one who's getting destroyed:

  • by the self-help movement
  • by the gospel of mindfulness - a term found on the tips of tongues everywhere
  • by discussions of mindful eating, mindful children, mindful coffee breaks .... on and on.

The tone of Lopez' book isn't judgmental -- with his academic bonafides, he certainly could preach if he wanted to -- it's measured and careful. A chapter on Buddhist meditation is stunning: Lopez guides us through the meanings of bhavana, a word usually translated as "meditation" that Lopez says means so much more: "cultivating, producing, manifesting, imagining, suffusing, and reflecting."All of this, he points out, gets lost in translation.

That's Lopez' argument, and we should all listen to him because he's a big deal in the world of Buddhism scholarship. His book (very brief: about 130 pages) is fascinating, powerful, enlightening, necessary ... and a little irritating.

Fine, the person behind me in line may not know anything about why Siddhartha Gautama sat down under the bodhi tree -- or maybe he does, how can I assume? -- but the important thing is that he was trying to stay calm and civilized while I was impatiently biting on my fingernails. I admire that.

Can't simple steps lead to deeper insights? Anyone trying to "be Zen" in the checkout line at the department store may one day get much closer to understanding the insights in Lopez' excellent book.

For now, at least, they're coping with Black Friday much better than I did.