Life throwing you curveballs? Sometimes it’s best to sit back and let Jianzhi Sengcan, the Third Patriarch of Zen, remind you that you needn’t be troubled by slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here are the first stanzas of Sengcan’s “Hsin Hsin Ming,”* containing all the instructions you need for avoiding suffering and removing every obstacle to enlightenment. (And all in just 151 words.)
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such
erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
While this might sound easy, it takes practice to step away from what society labels “reality” and march to the beat of the one universal drummer. To remind ourselves to practice at every opportunity, we’ve boiled “the Ming” down to it’s key component and wear it close to our hearts. (Four words even harder to forget!)
*Perhaps you’re wondering what “Hsin Hsin Ming” actually means. Different translators have rendered the title in different ways. Here’s a few to ponder:
- On Believing in Mind (Daisetsu Teitarõ Suzuki)
- On Faith in Mind (Dusan Pajin)
- Trusting In Mind (Hae Kwang)
- Trust in the Heart (Thomas Cleary)
- The Perfect Way (translator unknown)
**When it comes to t-shirts, you could always wear one of these. (Although we have no preference either way.)
Whether you’ve got a cold, or Covid, or melancholia, or something that’s not yet in the medical textbooks, take comfort in the fact that many have been in worse shape — and even survived to become president.
Before George Washington concerned himself with the health of our nation, America’s first commander-in-chief had to contend with an amazing array of personal afflictions. During the course of his life, he dealt with smallpox, malaria (six times), diphtheria, anthrax, dysentery, tuberculosis (twice), quinsy, carbuncle and pneumonia, to say nothing of losing all his teeth.* It’s only fitting that there’s a hospital in D.C. named after him.
While George needed some luck to make it through these gauntlets (not to mention a brutal war with the British), it’s important to recognize the capacity of the human organism to fight sickness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to take care of your body along the way. To this end, George exercised faithfully, supped and grogged in moderation, tried to get the proper sleep, and avoided tobacco.
He also believed in balms and nostrums to keep the grim reaper at bay. According to records from his presidential library, among the items he ordered from an English apothecary in 1759 were the following:
*Yes, George ultimately died of epiglottitis at age 67, but that may be because they practiced blood-letting back then and removed 35% of his plasma. And besides, 67 was elderly for the early 1800s. Men like Washington were lucky to survive into their late forties or early fifties. Women had it even tougher.
**Laudanum was considered a cure-all in Washington’s day, and why not? It contains a mixture of opium, alcohol, morphine and codeine. It’s doubtful a doctor would prescribe this today, but you can ask.
Here we are in the middle of February, with skies of grey and more snow in the forecast. Fatigue from lack of warmth and reduced daylight hours is only natural. So what’s a northerner to do? Here at SuperOptimist headquarters, in addition to a hearty mug of hot cocoa, we find there’s nothing like a short winter’s nap to reinvigorate the senses. (Unless, of course, it’s a long winter’s nap. Both rate high in our book.)
That’s why we’re pleased to report that the nation’s military leaders are also proponents of sleeping on the job. According to the recently issued Army Field Manual, the armed forces have officially embraced an afternoon snooze for sleep-deprived soldiers.
“When regular nighttime sleep is not possible due to mission requirements, soldiers can use short, infrequent naps to restore wakefulness and promote performance,” according to the manual. “When routinely available sleep time is difficult to predict, soldiers might take the longest nap possible as frequently as time is available.”
Like civilians, soldiers cannot be trained to perform better on less sleep. That’s where officially authorized naps fit in. A stage 2 power nap, encompassing 15 to 20 minutes of snooze time, helps reset the system and produces a burst of alertness and increased motor performance. The slow-wave nap lasting 30 to 60 minutes is good for decision-making skills, such as memorizing vocabulary or recalling directions. Going for 60 to 90 minutes of napping, complete with REM activity, plays a role in solving creative problems.
Then there’s the hypnagogic. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that true inspiration could be found in the the state of half-wake, half-sleep when the brain slips into an impressionistic state, untethered from a rational framework. Pushing that idea farther, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali would take micro-naps in order to stay in stage one of sleep, that taps into vivid imagery and sensation.
In Dali’s case, his naps lasted less than 1 second at a time. How is this possible? By holding a key or spoon between his fingers so when he nodded off, the clang of dropped metal would awaken him. Dali claimed that “slumber with a key” revivified both mind and body, and generated powerful visual ideas. Of course, being Salvador Dali probably helped.
Want to read more about the positivity of nap time? Here’s what the brainiacs at Harvard have to say about it. The Mayo Clinic weighs in here. And let’s not forget the wags at McSweeney’s, who uncovered this list of quotes that take naps.
*We’re writing this on President’s Day, as it’s no secret that the occupants of the White House have always taken naps behind the curtains of the oval office, from LBJ to Reagan to Clinton to…well, we assume 78-year-old Joe Biden likes his daily refresher as well.
Many centuries ago, zen monks of the Rinzai school disavowed the notion of man’s superiority to animals, plants, water, fire, or even the earth itself. These monks spent years communing with nature, never seeing another person as they retreated to the mountainous caves to meditate. They reached out their hands to the universe and became one with it. Their meditative skills equipped them with the skills to handle both the isolation and the elements in good health.
Later, 19th Century naturalist Henry Thoreau wrote of his fondness for solitude, wandering alone through the forests, beaches and back roads of Massachusetts. In fact, he gave himself a position which demanded he strike out from his one-room cabin no matter what the weather. “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully…”
Today, we find ourselves in the crux of winter, amidst a pandemic, with more snow forecast in the coming days. What would Henry do? He’d bundle up, head outside and lose himself in the day. Not content to simply traipse through the cold, he would pause to listen to a storm and it’s special characteristics. He’d look closely at the snowflake, marveling at the amazing symmetry of each hexagonal formation. He might measure the accumulation. (And if he had a smartphone, he might take some pictures.
So the next time you see the flakes start to fall, why not go inspect them yourself. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to cozy up to a tree and offer your hand. Give a plant a warm greeting. Say hello to a small pile of dirt, or a nice fat rock, or a bird that has seen fit to remain near rather than flying south. All of a sudden, you have an infinite number of new friends* who remain constantly by your side, in “good” weather and “bad.”
*But take care with the snakes, you never know if they are poisonous.