Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve and Day Zen Studies Schedule

We survived the first storm of winter and rumor has it there is more to come during the month so always check here for the latest on what is and is not going to happen.

As for New Years - today, Monday, the Morning Practice is on at 6am and the MCHA/OASIS Meditation group at 230 - no other Zen today (and that includes the regular private appts). I will be at Main Street Martial Arts from 2 to 3 to receive donations for the Winter of Plenty. From 3 to 4 I will be at Summit House.

New Year's Day- No Morning Practice, no private appts but yes, Kung Fu at 8pm.

Then it is back to the regular schedule plus some. I hope to have the Zen calendar up online this week so you can keep up with our special events that are scheduled for this Spring and Summer.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beautiful - A Winter of Plenty update

I wanted to give you all an update on how things are going with the Winter of Plenty support drive - just beautifully. The outpouring of support in foodstuffs and clothing has been just beyond expectation. But I wanted to share with you one story about something that happened this week that was surprising and wonderful and led to a whole new facet to the effort.

Some people have given dry goods, some fresh food, some cash, some gift cards, some pet supplies, some clothing, some books, a special thanks goes out to a certain person who took it upon themselves to do a collection at Women and Infants, and one young boy cleaned out his room of toys and stuffed animals.

This is a time of year in America where whether you celebrate Christmas or not, giving and gifts are much emphasized - especially for children. While the Winter of Plenty is a winter support drive, this boy's gift allowed us to touch this. Using a receipt coupon returned to ZSRI by one of the families who used a cash gift for supplies; I went out and got wrapping paper and tape. Then, with the help of one of our members, we sorted the toys to make sure that all of them were appropriate for any child 6 to 12 years of age. Next, I asked MCHA/OASIS for volunteers to take all the toys (and it was a lot, almost 15 pounds of small action figures and matchbox cars plus some beautiful stuffed monkeys) and sort them again - using their discretion to put two or three toys together to make a stocking stuffer and wrap them. They returned to me two big bags of wrapped gifts.

Those gifts I walked down to the rectory of St. Raymond's on North Main who was not only holding a full schedule of Christmas Eve and day masses, but also whose food pantry serves a large population. They will distribute them.

As wonderful as it was to have a donation become so large that it allowed three very different communities to come together in good will - it is what happened after that makes it all the more beautiful. The Winter of Plenty, and specifically this part of it, inspired not only the families we are helping but several in need who are being helped by what we give to the pantries and closets to look at their own lives and see what they had that they could give to add to the mix. Several of the families on food relief looked around and donated winter clothing they had. One of the families has designed a proposal to create a volunteer support effort inside one of the housing towers that they will run (we are working with them now to write up all the necessary plans and letters of support).

All in all, people are looking outward into 2013 as a year of change and letting go of the grief caused by their circumstances and seeing that there are options they can take that they can start themselves. This past year has been difficult for many for many reasons. It truly has been the end of a cycle in a very Mayan sense of the word. Now, we go forward - together.

In the best sense of the word - we are all together - through thick and thin.

Thank you all so much.


The Winter of Plenty, The Spring of Change

This winter, the Zen Studies of Rhode Island is helping 6 local families get through to spring by providing them assistance with groceries, clothing, fuel cards and friendly support. The goal is to lessen their burden this winter so each can continue to move towards change in their circumstances this spring. These families are experiencing a range of issues from unemployment, underemployment, are transitioning off disability or recently taken in family members in need on very limited income straining their ability to provide for themselves and to work towards creating a more positive and self-sufficient future.  All they need is a winter of plenty to see them through to the new growth promised in the spring.

The Zen Studies of Rhode Island is collecting donations of food, clothing and prepaid gas cards from now until Easter (March 31, 2013). We ask that you give what you can, fresh fruits and vegetables are what we need most, canned or dried staples, hats and gloves and local prepaid gas cards (please see the list, we are trying to follow a gluten/dairy free donation pattern as more people can share in these foods). As we collect donations, excess will be distributed to the food and clothing pantries at MCHA/OASIS, the pantry at St. Raymond's church and to other food and clothing pantries as needed. .

We also ask that when you give, you give in the name of someone. The names will be collected and on March 31st the Zen Studies will host an open luncheon buffet and then at 8pm in the evening, there will be a walking meditation and the Ksitigarbha mantra will be chanted 800 times for all those that these compassionate donations were done in the name of. In Buddhism, it is believed that one way to relieve suffering, both in life and after death, is to have someone love you enough to perform compassionate acts of in your name and then to call to Ksitigarbha to free the loved one from whatever suffering they know.
Please give and please join us on March 31st for food and celebration. Let us make this a winter of plenty in all sense of the word.

The winter has already started and as I write this, I just passed out the donations delivered by Santa and Mrs. Claus this Wednesday, the 5th of December, that came from an ecumenical dinner hosted by a local Temple as well as sundry other donations they collected on their travels. It went to the Zen families and MCHA/Oasis. One week taken care of, sixteen more to go.



 what we need
The Top 11

fruit - fresh , dried or canned (water packed only)

vegetables - fresh or frozen

rice (any kind)


fish - fresh, canned or pouch

tea - herbal, black, green





prepaid gas cards

This is always good

bread - corn, whole grain, rice, buckwheat or arrowroot (no white or wheat)

pasta - all kinds but wheat

flour - corn, cornmeal, buckwheat, arrowroot

beans - any kind, dry or canned (no seasoning or sauce)

rice cakes


instant oatmeal

chicken - fresh, canned or pouch

meats - fresh or natural cured

juice (concentrate or bottle)

peanut butter

raw nuts


prepaid grocery cards

This would be lovely

cat food

dog food

small animal diet (hamster, ferret etc)

bird seed


Also - we welcome hats, gloves, socks and scarves.

And - anything else you have at all we can take and get to someone who needs it.

Meditation & Homelessness - An Interview with the Master Instructor of the Zen Studies Program in Rhode Island

If the name sounds familiar to you, there is a good reason - Cassandra Tribe is a RISD grad and Providence based Poet and Artist who not only enjoys a healthy international reputation (as the "Demon of Providence"), but who also teaches at the Learning Connection, volunteers with Beacon Hospice and served as a writer and managing editor of StreetSights, Rhode Island's newspaper for homeless advocacy, for over a year. So where did she go when she disappeared from the masthead? To 1282 North Main Street, right next door to MCHA/Oasis, where she has opened up The Zen Studies program in Main Street Martial Arts. What is starting to happen at the Zen Studies program is unique, powerful and accessible to everyone.

SD - What is the Zen Studies Program?

CT - It's a program designed to introduce people to the practice of meditation and teach them practical methods of learning to live a compassionate life. As I was looking around the city I noticed that there are very few non-religious centers to go and learn how to meditate. Meditation doesn't have to be religious, but all religions do have a form of it. Also, I found that in my daily life and particularly through my experience with StreetSights, that I kept hearing the same thing from people, "But I don't know what helps and what makes the problem (of homelessness) worse?" A large part of the Zen Studies is showing people how to increase their ability to feel and express compassion - once you begin to practice that on a daily basis - knowing what helps in the moment is easy.

SD - How does this relate to homelessness?

CT - Oh gosh, in so many ways. On a very esoteric and spiritual level, we are all homeless. It is not really a big stretch to connect to the kind of compassion and empathy that allows you to understand the realities of not having a home, of having no safety and of being socially rejected or placed at the mercy of "help" that takes away your sense of self-worth - if you really dare to be honest with yourself, this is a situation that we all experience in some way. The trick is to step beyond being able to relate to it from a personal standpoint and to become willing to stand within the experience of someone who is homeless. It's the difference between saying "I feel your pain," and being able to say "I have can't imagine what you are going through, what can I do to help." One remains rooted in selfishness, and the other is an expression of compassion and unconditional love. You can ask the question because you share the experience on some level but you don't stop at the shared experience, you recognize that you have no idea of the realities of homelessness and can offer help that is defined by the person who needs assistance, not something you decide they need.

On a practical level, our doors are open to everyone and because we are next door to MCHA/Oasis, and because of my history with StreetSights, quite a few homeless have felt comfortable coming in to be a part of the program.  Everyone who walks through the doors becomes part of a community that includes every aspect of our society. At the Morning Practice, which is done 7 days a week at 6am, you will find a 6 figure captain of industry playing GO with someone who spent the night on the street and when the time comes - we all meditate and then we all pitch in to keep the dojo in good repair. I don't care who you are or where you slept - you can dust. Before you dust, you get a chance to relax, be safe, be served some tea and a small snack and rest within your being. Everyone who walks through the door has something of value to offer to the community and everyone has a different skill set. The dojo, Main Street Martial Arts, is a very unique place and we try to provide for them as best we can. They are a family community center and non-profit and have a lot going on for people in the area that helps create a community that everyone can come to and grow with.

SD - What exactly is the program?

There are three main parts to the program - the Morning Practice, the Mid Practice and the Studies. The Morning Practice is 7 days a week at 6am and has 20 minutes of Ki exercise (gentle movement very similar to Tai Chi), a small break and then 20 minutes of silent, seated meditation. The Mid-Practice happens Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 1:15pm and this is 45 minutes of walking and moving meditation. It is entirely silent (except small instructions from me) and is considered the oldest and purest form of meditation. The studies are individual sessions where I can help someone find ways to meditate that really work for them and address any issues that they want to focus on. For a lot of people, just being in a space for 45 minutes and knowing that someone will not let anyone or anything interrupt them while they relax can really do wonders. Even though the focus of the program is on the Chinese and Japanese forms of Zen, I am a certified meditation instructor and have familiarity with all styles and can help people explore all the different forms until one feels just right.

SD - How is meditation good for you?

CT - (laughs) how isn't it good for you? Really, from a physical standpoint mediation can help to lower blood pressure, increase circulation, increase oxygen levels in the blood, manage blood sugar levels and decrease stress. Psychologically it can help order and calm the mind. It has been clinically proven to help with anxiety, depression. PTSD, ADHD/ADD, Substance Abuses issues, mood and personality disorders. Meditation is also used for pain management especially for those with chronic pain and the terminally ill. Spiritually - it can serve to deepen your commitment to and understanding of your faith. It doesn't matter what your faith is, the fact that you begin to get in the habit of focusing on it is truly a beautiful experience.

SD - How is all this paid for?

CT - We have no funding and everyone does pay to help support us, but the form of the payment will vary from person to person. The monthly membership cost is from $25 to $125 per person. It does not matter what you pay within that range you can then come to everything or just one thing, have a private appointment a week or none at all. It is something that the person decides what is realistic and affordable for them - you just sort of walk in and tell me what you are paying and you are good to go. The website is even set up so you can enroll through there so it never even has to be directly discussed - this is all about value and honor. For people that money is a very serious issue for, we have tons of things we need from repair work to supplies to food that does just as much, if not more, than money will to help us stay open. 

Money can be a serious issue for far more reasons than just a lack of it. I mean, you can be homeless and be working full time as well so it is not so much about a lack, but a matter of placement of value. The way I explain it is that I may have someone who earns $600,000 a year and has no bills to speak of but pays for their monthly membership by keeping us in tea because no one sees them as a person anymore, just a source of money. What has value to them that they can offer is the ability to find and select a beautiful tea and then get enough of it to share with everyone in the community. Sharing the tea becomes an act of mindfulness for the rest of us that interrupts our focus on our problems and we rest.

I have some people who participate who are on very limited incomes because of disability and they choose to pay $25 per month because it is important to them to do this because they don't want another benefit because our system of providing benefits has made them feel less than valued. It is different for every person, you have to sit and really think through what you have that you value that you are willing to give in return for something of value.

Money - has no value - it is something that represents value and is only a tool that is occasionally necessary for some things. If you are very aware of the sacrifice you have made to earn it, it can very well represent a value far beyond what you could tangibly give.

 I also have someone who is currently homeless who shows up on occasion and she "pays" by teaching any kids there how to do Sumi painting - that is a skill that no money could buy and in my eyes - is priceless.

The Zen Studies Program is located at 1282 North Main Street in Providence (inside Main Street Martial Arts). There is free parking in the back of the building and it is on the 99 line (the Gregg's/Subway Stop by the old Sears). You can find out more by emailing or by calling or texting 401-213-9784.

Can playing a game change your life?

Everyone knows that playing "brain games" can help keep your memory and brain functioning sharp as you age, but can playing a game prevent, stop and reverse dementia? Surprisingly, research has discovered that one game can. Even more surprising, it is not a computer game or tech-based game, but the oldest board game known to man -  the game of GO.

What is it?

The game originated in China over 4,000 years ago. It spread through Asia and became known a Weiqi in China, Baduk in Korea and GO in Japan. It is deceptively simple. The board is a 19x19 grid and players alternate placing black and white stones on the intersections of the grid to both capture each other's pieces and gain control of the territory.  The rules are so easy that children as young as 4 can master the game play. However, it can take a lifetime to even come close to exploring all the possibilities within the game. Unlike chess, the possible moves and tactics are not limited and predictable. Every game is different.

What Science Found

Hiromi Masunaga and John Horn (Expertise and Age Related Changes, Psychology and Aging, Vol 16(2), Jun 2001, 293-311) found that the study and practice of GO significantly reduced certain mental function declines associated with aging. These common declines include the loss/decline of fluid reasoning (the ability to understand something without specific examples), short term memory, deductive reasoning The ability to understand something through specific examples), working memory and cognitive speed. GO has also been found to increase right brain processing and at the same time it requires the player to use the left side of the brain. Players learn to think both logically and creatively (left and right brain) at once. In patients that were already experiencing symptoms of dementia, their mental functioning began to increase and return in measurable degrees across all areas of cognition after six months of regular play and study of the game.

All About Balance

The unique balance of GO in emphasizing logic/tactics with creativity and judgment allows both the right and left sides of the brain to be simultaneously engaged while playing. Other "mental" games, such as chess, only engage the left side - which uses more logic and calculation. GO's history places an emphasis on the duality of consciousness in play. In GO, the board is considered a reflection of the universe, with the stones as the sun, the moon and the stars, while the play of the game represented the rhythmic changes of the seasons. The game is also seen as a means of examining the balances and imbalances of energy, life and the self.

Playing GO is viewed as a virtue and a reflection on the greater powers of the universe. For Buddhists, it is considered the only chance that a person as to break through the "27 veils of ignorance" and discover Truth. For players, GO is a form of art and contemplation.

All the Elements Together

All of these elements of the game come together and activate the whole brain, for people with dementia, this increases their ability to train parts of their brain that are not impaired to compensate for areas that are. For players who have no cognitive impairment, it is thought that this engagement (in some way) creates a resistance to the declines associated with dementia. More clinical studies are being done to try and understand the impact of the game. Not only is it commonly taught in schools in Asia but it is also becoming part of the curriculum in Europe and the US. Children who play GO are academically more successful, less prone to childhood depressions, able to manage ADD/ADHD better and - more resistant to bullying (Brown et al, IBOC, Myong-Ji University. 2010).

How to Learn

You can begin to learn GO by doing a search online for any of the free sites that teach the game. One of the best is a free site called At the bottom of the landing page there are options to see the site in a variety of languages. You can also contact the American GO Association for more information, free lessons and to find out where your local GO club is. The English explanations of GO can become overly complicated, at its heart - the game is so simple a 4 year old can learn it. Having a GO teacher that can explain it well will make learning fun and fast. But the best way of learning is to master a few simple rules and teach them to someone else. For seniors, teaching the game to their children and grandchildren can help define their time together, infuse visits with the wonder of the new and give each a way to connect across generations.

In Providence, Rhode Island you have an easy way to get started - we play GO everyday as part of the Zen Studies Program and offer a special time during the week for open play,  private instruction and children's classes. Come join as a member and play everyday to get the full benefits of the game.

Moving Meditation (guest post by Susan Dowgiala)

or Ki....

If you have never tried this particular form of meditation, I highly recommend you give it a shot.  You won't believe the change in temperment, clarity and sense of well-being you will experience.

Suffice it to say, the last seven years of my life have been marked by more than a fair share of pain, loss, frustration and demoralization.  Compound this with some unwise investments, costly business "partnerships," and some good old-fashioned lack of clarity, and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.  Chaos is not a nice place to live.

Somehow, I found my way to the woman who is now my friend and my Roshi, or meditation master.  This was divine intervention.  With her guidance, I have experienced more breakthroughs in seven weeks than in seven years of traditional therapy.  For me, this has been amazingly transformative.

Every week, Roshi leads me in Zen meditation.  In truth, I never know what she has in store for me from one week to the next - but it always seems to be something perfectly suited to where I am mentally and's uncanny.

This past Tuesday, for example, I walked in feeling completely pre-occupied with an incresingly dismal financial situation, (a.k.a. perpetual unemployment), and a new business I am attempting to get off the ground, punctuated, of course, by the accompanying apprehension and self-doubt which permeates the soul in these uncertain times.

Enter Roshi - and this week's meditation - Ki excercises.  This was an active mediation during which I was to mirror Roshi's movements on the mat.  It was not strenuous, but slow and purposeful.  Not tiring, but profoundly energizing; involving simple movements, grand stretches, and elegant imagery.  It was like a beautifully choreographed dance, but with no music.  None is needed for this exercise to be performed and understood.

Roshi explained afterwards that part of the reason it works is because one is forced to focus on not simply copying the movements - but mirroring them.  This take concentration and one-pointed attention.

As she made a grand, circular sweep with her right arm, my first instinct was to do the same with mine....but no.  In order to mirror, I needed to move my left arm in such a way.  It was fascinating to see just how much concentration it took, while at the same time maintaining balance on the squishy dojo mat.  (Yes, I fell over sometimes - which made me giggle like a 3 year old with a new puppy)  The nice thing is that there is no wrong way to do it.  If you fall, you simply get back up and continue mirroring - no harm, no foul.  As I am prone to fits of laughter at my own ineptitude, this was also a practice in mental discipline.

I will tell you that by the time I left, I felt completely at ease, optimistic, relaxed and nearly joyful at all the possibilities life can hold.  I still had no job, my bills still overwhelm my inbox, no investor had magically appeared begging to bestow me with oodles of cash with which to launch my business; but I felt peaceful.  And that, my friend, is worth more than anything.

The best part is that the feeling stayed.

Want a piece of the action?  I highly recommend visiting the website for the Zen Studies Program of Rhode Island at:
Be sure to check out The Oracle Birds link, which will bring you to a funny and fascinating daily journal of the avian life which resides outside the dojo.  The program offers morning, afternoon and some evening meditations.  Both group and private sessions are available.  Please don't allow a lack of money to deter you from doing this for yourself, as cost is not a primary factor.  Read the website and you will understand.  Or simply drop in.

This practice is transformative.   It has helped me immensely, and in entirely unexpected ways.  You deserve this too.

Overcoming Defeat with 28 Days of Zazen

When we begin to incorporate the practice of Zazen in our lives, we train to become warriors able to overcome defeat using the weapon of body, mind and soul. The power that we draw on is found not just within ourselves, but also comes from our connection to our community and the world at large. This is not an esoteric ideal that has no practical application off the zafu. The defeats we face are very real and exist in every aspect of our lives. These defeats exist as three forms of resistance to change that you develop as an adult that makes commitment and follow through difficult if not impossible to achieve. It is why keeping a resolution is difficult. It is why we seem to reach a plateau in our ability to learn. These forms of resistance are called, quite rightly and not very nicely, the three defeats or the three forms of laziness.

The first is the laziness of beauty. We fall into a trap of having an ideal of how things should be or look in order for us to be willing to put the effort into practicing or engaging with them. We judge people by their appearances, their age, their accents; class, income, rank, school, education and past; we judge spiritual practices by whether or not they meet our fantasy or experience  of what we think they should look like, we put off engaging in exercise because we don't have the "right clothes or equipment," we break our diets because one particular meal is so good, we put off studying something or even starting our own businesses because we cannot afford to do it the way we want to do it - none of that is real, they are all excuses not to commit, not to put in effort and therefore - not only are you not effective in keeping your promises to yourself and others, but you become paralyzed and do nothing, except perhaps, complain. They are excuses; fantasies that you choose to believe are real obstacles.

The second form of laziness is that of losing heart. Most people have experienced this as a kind of procrastination or sensation of being frozen. Maybe you sit at a computer, knowing you have to do something for work and yet either you seem incapable of the focus or when you try to do it, it just takes you forever. Maybe you experience this form of laziness because you just never seem to be able to get started at all or you wait until the last minute. You spend your time talking about all the changes you want to make or the new habits you want to acquire or the things you want to do and nothing ever happens. Somehow, you have lost heart and then this kind of heartless existence has become both okay and a habit. You have given up your will and ability to control your life and instead - you lie still, and life passes you by.

The last form of laziness is that of comfort. If something is not convenient for us we will not make the effort to do it. If the day is too hot or too cold, we will not do what we planned to do. If it is raining or snowing - we will not go where we need to go. If the food is not tasty enough, the parking not plentiful enough, the distance walking not short enough, if it is too late or too early for how we are used to living our lives or the people who tend to be there are not the "kind of people that we like and get along with" - we let go of all our intentions of bringing change into our lives.

When we live our lives by fantasy, our realities become full of pain and conflict and suffering. It seems like every time we try to do something, there is something in our way.

That something is ourselves. There are very few obstacles in life that we have no way around.

The Sufi poet Rumi put it best when he said that "in 28 days a Robin can bring life from an egg, imagine what you could do in the same time if you loved as much?'

The idea of 28 days being the time period needed to bring change in your life is one that has not only existed in nearly every tradition of religion, ethics and philosophy but that has now been recognized by the medical and psychological arts as a verifiable length of time needed for a pattern to take hold in your life.

Meditation has been proven to reduce stress, improve mental, emotional and physical health, increase focus and clarity of thinking, improve self-discipline and self-esteem and on and on. If you want to bring change into your life in any area, it is best to start from this solid foundation. With increased awareness, confidence, calmness and self-discipline - you can accomplish anything you want to.

Choosing to enter into a commitment to do 28 days of Zazen will provide you with the means to begin to overcome laziness and defeat in your life. In the Zen Studies Program, we have created a 7 day a week morning schedule for people to participate in because during this 28 day period it is essential that you are sitting at the same time. It is easier to begin your day building your foundation then try to do it later after you have been bombarded with tiring tasks and responsibilities.

Morning Practice allows you to enter your day with strength. You are building reliability. You are building discipline. You are building the willingness to commit to yourself without having to have control. The act of sitting for 28 days is an act in which you are giving up the illusion of control - of being able to determine the purpose, appearance or form of what will happen - and accepting that all that you have and can know is yourself. You are focusing on your greatest asset in the simplest of ways. You are sitting with you and willfully letting all other illusions and distractions fall away.

The practice of Zazen involves much more than sitting quietly. It takes a great deal of study and discipline to get to the place where you can sit without words and be in silence. But the study and depth of the practice is something that is acquired. You begin with developing the habit and discipline of sitting in silence and sitting still. You develop the habit of showing up and doing this even when it is boring or it is the last thing that makes any sense to do.

Hopefully, you have a teacher that will act as a steward of your practice and provide you with the training to bring depth and meaning to your sitting. Even without a teacher, you can begin to build the practice and become ready to be taught. Patience is the essence of Zazen. Patience is a discipline of action. When one is patient, one does not wait passively. One takes action to prepare for opportunity. Patience, perhaps, is the most strenuous and tiring of all the ethical disciplines to practice but it is necessary to realizing life.

I encourage and recommend people to commit to 28 consecutive mornings of Zazen practice in community. The practice is very simple and it is done in complete silence. There are no teachings or lectures; it is simply a shared moment at the start of your day in the company of others who are seeking to free themselves from their resistance and habits of not living the life they want to live. You can do it alone but it will be much, much harder. Having the support of a community that shares the same type of commitment and is willingly putting in effort will help you to succeed in meeting this goal.

28 days. It takes effort. It takes some juggling. It takes commitment but more than that, it takes you being willing to make a choice and to follow through with the action. You can start your 28 days any time, there is no set schedule for that - these are your 28 days, you know when you can do it. And that is very important - do not let anyone tell you to do it or schedule for you when your 28 days start. You must be ready to make the choice to change. It is not something that someone can assign to you. If you begin and then miss a day, simply begin again. It is a hard commitment to make and to make with the full integrity of your being. Your resistance will work double time to find a reason for you not to do this, but it can be done.

Keep in mind this one thing, as you consider doing this practice, that I promise you that on the 29th day - the day you can sleep late - what you will have learned about yourself, about who you are and about what you are really capable of accomplishing will be greater and more satisfying than any fantasy you have now of what life can be like and what you are capable of doing. The practice of Zazen is an invaluable part of excelling in any art; whether that art be martial, creative, healing or simply - the art of living. It is simple and complex; challenging and easy; exciting and sometimes boring. It is nothing more nor less than a true reflection of life itself.

The Ki Exercise - similar to Tai Chi & Yoga but oh so different (posted 9/3/12)

Almost everybody is familiar with Tai Chi (or T'ai Chi, T'ai Chi Ch'uan  or even Taijiquan) but very few people know what it is and even fewer know what the Ki (Chi or Qi) exercises that we offer at the Zen Studies program are. They are very similar but there are some striking differences as well.

Why Ki and not T'ai Chi?

Both Ki and T'ai Chi focus on inner energies and use slow movements but the purposes for both are much different. T'ai Chi is a martial art, which means there is an emphasis on defensive skills and even some offensive skills. T'ai Chi has an entire part to it that is devoted to weapons. Ki is solely about the internal energies and connecting them to the external flow of energy - the Ki of the name. While there are some forms in Ki that you may recognize as being from a martial art (most notably Aikido and Kung Fu) they were adapted from the Ki to the martial art form and not the other way around. While T'ai Chi has only been recognizably in existence since the early 1800s, in the Ki form you will recognize yogic positions as it is considerably older, dating from around 200BCE to 500CE.

Why Ki and not Yoga?

Given that they are intricately wound together in origin, why would someone do Ki and not Yoga (or vice versa)? The answer comes from where the meditative practices of both their histories diverge. When Buddhism was developing, the purpose of meditation became very different from what was commonly practiced by the different traditions using yoga. In the Yogic tradition, the state of meditation of "no-thought" was the ultimate state to achieve and its end point. Buddhism developed around the belief that there was a state that came after - that of a "liberating cognition" where the purpose was not just to reach "no-thought" but then to have the liberating thought or to be in a state of sublime mindful awareness.

What is it like?

The Ki exercises are a form of moving meditation. If you have done yoga before the most striking element of the Ki is that it is performed in silence.  The instructor gives a few minimal words of direction at the beginning (about focusing on balance and the feel of the wind against your palms) and then goes through the exercises without comment. The practitioner must engage in a mindful awareness of the instructor's movements in order to learn them. Attention to detail and focus is paramount. This is why a Ki session is often so relaxing for people. Even though you are engaged in 45 minutes of solid movement that will work your core and increase your balance through gentle posing, your mind is freed of your thoughts and replaced with concerns of detail, fluidity and balance. Many of the Ki forms are imitative of animal life and there are many motions that involve a redirecting of a physical sensation of energy. The exercise can be as physically challenging or as easy as you need it to be to match your level of fitness. Oh yes, and just to keep things interesting, it is based on the lunar cycle so every day the pattern of forms changes slightly so you never reach a point of being able to "call it in."

children & meditation (originally posted 8/18/12)

Teaching meditation to children presents some unique challenges and very few of them have to do with the kids themselves. It can be a process of revealing the depth that one has, as an adult, adopted rationalization and delusion as a means of defining worth. Adults seek out meditation to return to a more "truthful and authentic" experience of life, but then regress into a very inauthentic process when they try to define why children should learn to meditate.

Look at any program for children's meditation and they will be talking about how it will help them relax, focus, deal with emotions and handle such issues as anxiety, ADHD/ADD, set goals, learn self-discipline and so on. It is a wonderful way to do all that and clinically proven to be successful however, that in itself reveals the flaw of the approach. Children do not acquire stress and environmental disorder except from the projection and expectation placed on them by adults. The stress, the lack of focus, even the ADHD/ADD - these are adult problems that children receive.

Meditation programs for children would do well to stop trying to answer adult concerns and instead strive to provide tools for children to deal with their appropriate age developmental experiences in the same way that good meditation programs for adults do. Meditation is not a prescription or antidote to ills; it is not a means of achieving a goal - it is simply a set of tools. Like a hammer and nails, it can either be a means to create a strong house or, a means to send you to the emergency room to be bandaged. What meditation can do for you or for your child will depend on the approach of the teacher and program. If the teacher or program sees it as a way to "fix" or produce a "productive child" then you will be going to the ER. Meditation programs like that have adopted adult problems and imposed them on children.

Children need meditation because we do not live in a world in which they are allowed to grow and experiment and gain experience. We expect and demand mini-adults who will understand cause, effect and priorities. We create meditation programs that are designed to deal with the incompatibility of the adult experience with children's actions and as a result, teach children that they are not "right."

Children are "right," just as they are and even if they have identifiable medical or or social problems. Meditation can help them to form small nests of safety in which they can explore what scares them or what they are curious about at an age appropriate level. Good meditation programs can give back to kids the ability to be kids, who are well aware they are not innocent but inexperienced and want the room to be able to ask questions, to explore and to just sit and absorb life. A good program has little demand on form and more emphasis on creating an environment of attention and exploration.

The role of the mediation teacher, in this instance, is not so much in passing on learning, but in discovering what they can learn. Like working with an adult, a meditation teacher listens more than they talk because our culture is no longer supportive of communication. In order to be heard many people, adults and children, feel like they have to shout. Meditation environments can reintroduce the concept of someone having "worth just because you breathe." A teacher who puts active listening first is going to hear you and your child and be responsive.

Be mindful in choosing or encouraging a child to learn meditation that you are not doing so because of the issues you would be better off addressing yourself. If your issues are affecting a child, no amount of time that child spends in meditation is going to help them as much as you helping yourself. Children are like barometers and reflect our adult states.

For children, the most common result of a period of mediation is the comment "that was fun!" Good meditation is an adventure for children; with proper guidance, it can become wisdom. Pick a program and a teacher that promotes exploration for a child and is less about meeting goals. After all, one has goals for a child but that comes from your life. A child needs to start on the path to critical thinking and a willingness to explore early to avoid what so many of us seek meditation for as a fix later.

becoming an Oasis (originally posted 8/12/12)

Today, I opened the door to the dojo at 5am to get ready for the Morning Practice and saw an entire counter full of foods - canned and homemade, incense and other small gifts that had been left for the Zen Studies program. I had no idea they had been dropped off the night before, but there they were.

It took all of ten minutes for me to parcel them out for six people and still have enough left over to leave in the dojo fridge as emergency food for all. As I was doing this, I was sort of in a state of wonder about how we have gone from fudge to food.

If you haven't heard about the fudge, let me explain. One of my private students, in return for the sessions, provides plates of fudge each week. White fudge, espresso fudge, chocolate fudge and any other kind of fudge she can think of (or someone else requests) to make. These small plates of fall down fabulous fudge have become the calling card of the Zen Studies. I cut it up into tiny pieces and make little packets. Two layers of fudge turn into fudge for 40. There has been something magical about being able to give people this small delicacy for no good reason. It has led to people dropping off breads, pastries and teas. I pass those around as well - I did not have much self-control when the strawberry cake arrived - I ate it for breakfast.

All of this has been spontaneous and building, but it has arrived along with awareness of something else. The Morning Practice has a little bit of everything in it. We have people who earn six figures, those who are so deeply impoverished they are starving. We have the homeless, the barely housed and those with mansions. There are those with dual diagnosis, on disability (mental and/or physical) and the fully functioning. As we have developed the small tradition of providing food in the morning, it has made us more and more aware of those who do without. So our small food is beginning to grow to allow us to be able to provide for whoever comes to the door as well. I am deeply aware that food prices are rising and because of the drought in the mid-West food prices (especially any grains and meats) are expected to jump even higher this winter. The dojo, Main Street Martial Arts, has a community focus and many of the families and individuals there can study because they are on scholarship or paying a greatly reduced fee. Come this winter, they may have to choose between what has become such a positive part of their life and food. I am determined to build resources to help supplement what people have so that such choices do not need to be made. Communities need to not only support their members, but to be interdependent and supporting of other communities.

If you have never heard of MCHA/OASIS, you should look them up - they are our next door neighbors. They have been in existence since 1985 providing social and practical support to persons with mental health and dual diagnosis issues. Last week (if you are following me on twitter, ZenStudiesRI) then you know that because of the construction and the powerful rains there was a flood in the building we are all located in.

We lost the carpets in our bathroom, but MCHA/OASIS has had to close their doors for almost a month to try and recover. They have lost so much in supplies and resources it is amazing. Because their clients do not have many other places to go, the Zen Studies has opened their doors to them and encourage their participation. Since Oasis was providing breakfast and lunch, now we are doing that for those who come. Every bit of food we receive is used almost that day.

Once Oasis reopens, we are going to help out with food pantry collection, winter jackets and anything else we can think of.  We will do this while also providing service and support to the Main Street Martial Arts Kaloma program, a non-profit program for children.

All of this has proven to be a means of our communities coming together and growing together. At their request, I have begun the Mid-Practice to provide for a middle of the day opportunity for meditative practice. It is not just for Oasis, but in response to several other inquiries I have had from people needing a time in the middle of the day that is consistent.

We are learning from the community that Oasis built, there is much to be discovered about how to create such a caring, supportive and effective community place. In our modern world, we only tend to make an effort to do such things when there is an identifiable group that has an issue such as a disability. What if the only issue someone had is that they are just trying to figure out how to live a life of value and meaning? Together, with Oasis, we are beginning to grow a community whose membership requirement is simply a desire to live better.

Now, here is the tag line that I will end every post with,
If you like what we do and would like to support us, please subscribe to the Zen Studies Program. If you live in Providence, come be a part of what we are growing. If you live elsewhere, subscribe and help us to continue growing. We will grow so far and so much we will eventually be able to be where you are.

The New Song (originally posted 8/1/12)

The Empty Stance is considered to be one of the most difficult of the Kung Fu forms to master. It is the essence of both the martial art and the Ch'an Buddhism that is associated with it. In the Empty Stance, you are neither in a defensive position or preparing to attack, you are simply centered and calm, poised for any motion or to continue holding the form. To be considered even halfway decent at the form, one should be able to rest in this pose for 5 to 10 minutes.

It is an oddly fitting title for this blog. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Cassandra Tribe and I am many things. I am an artist, poet, writer, teacher, hospice worker, chaplain, human rights activist and Reiki practitioner. One of the things I have also been is the author of the Love and Words blog which existed for 5 years, had over 3,675 posts, won several awards and kept me rather busy. Now...I am here. The same day that this blog opens, I am closing the other.

Empty Stance is not a continuation of the Love and Words blog, which was primarily fueled by my insight and experiences, but it is the result of that blog. It is connected to the Zen Studies Program, of which I am the Master Instructor. There are many things you will find here over the course of the next few years, some of them may be of interest to you, some may challenge you and some may bore you to tears. But it is my hope that nothing - whether I have put it forth or have invited someone to guest blog, will leave you without some way in which to clarify who you are and who you want to be.

My current expectation is to post a written or video blog once a week. I encourage you to read more about the Zen Studies Program, to come in to the Morning Practice or for tea on Wednesday night and see what is beginning to take root on North Main Street.  If you are reading this from any other part of the world, I encourage you to help support us in keeping our doors open by subscribing to the Program.

The program I teach is guided by the Ch'an tradition of Buddhism, of which I am a practitioner but the program is secular in nature. The focus is on teaching people meditation and compassion practices to relieve suffering using whatever tradition or teacher speaks to that person. The core of the program lies in the Morning Practice which is done 7 days a week at 6 am. It is from this core of commitment to practice that the program reaches.  In addition to what we do in the program, all of our participants help to take care of the Main Street Martial Arts dojo (where we are located) and everyone who comes there - we teach the importance of details, not just to the people who come to study in the Program, but by the example of how we live our lives and what we show what we value by the attention we give to the details of our lives and the lives of others.

The Zen Studies Program is part of the Main Street Martial Arts dojo; a Providence based family community center and non-profit children's program.  Together the dojo and the Program are bringing together a broad range of people from the homeless to the housed, the 99% to the 1%, families, children, competitive martial artists - you will never know who you will meet here and I am proud to be part of this family.