Breathe, Smile, Relax is the self-evident exercise that Buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das promotes in his new book, Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now. It’s a meditation that, as he puts it, “can help us collect ourselves and reconcentrate our energy and attention. Learning how to do this prevents the cupful of golden vitality poured into us at birth from being continuously drained away.”
The Dalai Lama has called Surya Das, born and raised on Long Island, the American Lama for good reason: Starting with his 1997 bestseller, Awakening the Buddha Within, he has long displayed a gift for writing about Tibetan Buddhist disciplines, accented with Hindu teachings, in a manner that is easy to follow. Much of this turf has been covered before, and yet Surya Das presents it in a way where the material is fresh and worth considering for a second or one hundredth time. And even though he has studied with many other teachers, including Zen masters in Japan, possibly the most strict and yet enigmatic of Buddhist teachers, Surya Das is relaxed and convivial in his own approach to meditation. Breathe, Smile, Relax.
In his first book, he invited the reader to breathe, simply breathe. Count the breaths, if you like. Thoughts may come and go. Definitely let them go, but don’t mind when they come, as they invariably do. Even thinking about not thinking is thinking, so don’t get caught up in any of it. Simply return to the breath. It’s that return that makes all the difference: the consciousness of returning to the breath.
The payoff is a new sense of peacefulness and a loving awareness and, as science has shown, a beneficial recircuitry of the brain itself.
The American lama’s new book, Buddha Standard Time, devotes its pages to deepening our mooring to the moment in which we live. Naturally he promotes a daily meditation practice as the foundation of all personal and spiritual growth and as an aid to living in the moment or being here now, as Ram Das famously advised. But then sitting meditation spins out into the day as active meditation which, counterintuitively involves what Surya Das describes as the great slowdown. Slow art, film, literature, slow cooking, slow dancing, slow parenting, slow travel and slow money are all movements that enjoy in common “concentrative awareness” which helps to “collect our scattered mental energies, taming our unruly minds and helping us focus and pay attention.”
In a culture that has always pressed for speed, we’ve come to an intersection where it has been necessary to stomp on the brakes. Only then do we realize that anything done with slow precision yields better and more satisfying results.
The lama reveals fascinating tidbits along the way. As a boy he was enamored of Sherlock Holmes and his dazzling mental abilities. He learned that in the early stories Holmes visits Tibet incognito for two or three years, learning meditation and mindfulness from great Buddhist masters. “These skills, as well as his preternatural calm and detachment regarding the impermanence of life, are referred to over and over again in the stories and are, I believe, a key to his fascination of generations of readers. He’s able to balance the most intense mental energy, work brilliantly with a deep inner calm and peace and succeed in the nick of time.”
Lama Surya Das is especially concerned about the myriad new technologies which are almost literally abducting our minds from inner calm and peace. “Don’t feel obliged to respond to annoying calls, e-mails, or tweets. Preserve your integrity and tranquility.” Again and again Das returns to this theme. For a man who has spent two decades of his earlier life in monastic settings, and the decades since writing, teaching, and leading retreats, he is clearly positioned to regard the world’s recent culture of eyes-glued-to-electronic-screens as antithetical to solving humanity’s problems of suffering in all its permutations.
The book is filled with grey-hued sidebars offering exercises for meditative time-outs, as well as shifts in judgment, such as a section entitled Does It Deserve Your Time. “Buddhists have a wonderful name for acquiescing to others’ unreasonable demands: Idiot Compassion.” He then offers practical suggestions for evaluating your capacity to agree to whatever is asked, for instance, “Are you healthy and strong enough? Is the request on your time reasonable? Is the request petty? If these criteria are met, then by all means give freely of your time. But if not, step back.” And then he tells you how to step back constructively and affirmatively.
Buddha Standard Time serves from start to finish as a clarion call to heal ourselves and, by so doing, to heal the world. For those who are newly immersing themselves in Eastern philosophy and equally for those who have been following the contemplative path for many years, the American lama’s book is, for the first type of reader, a perfect primer, for the second, a great refresher course.
Lama Surya Das will be speaking and signing copies of his new book at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main street in Vineyard Haven on Wednesday, August 24, at 7:30 p.m.