Sunday, October 14, 2007


In my Buddhist studies, the current topic is change and
impermanence. In fact impermanence is quite a profound topic of
reflection, because if you really understand it, Sogyal Rinpoche will
say, you will let go of all grasping. On a more basal level, I have
been dealing with quite a lot of change in my life lately: physically,
in being suddenly handicapped, and now learning to dance again, but
also mentally, in realizing that I am starting to reach the end of my
graduate studies. It is as if I have to think about flying out
again. But obviously, both the flying out on the level of my life, as
well as the flying away in dancing (learning to wear pointe shoes
again!), require a tremendous amount of hard work. Yet on the other
hand, doesn't everything in life that's worth it require hard work?
And yet all the while realizing that the outcomes of all that work
can, and most often will, be different than you ever envisioned. So
accepting change is also realizing that circumstances will change
beyond your control, so you have to try hard but expect nothing.

Quite a different dimension of change comes from a book I am currently
reading, which is called "All
is change"
. The book is about the contacts between Buddhism and
Christianity over the course of history. It contains some tantalizing
ideas. For example, there should have been a lot of cross-talk between
Christians and Buddhists in the 10th century, and in fact Christian
heretics, like the Cathars might have incorporated some Buddhist
teachings through the Manicheans. Isn't it tantalizing that where the
Cathars used to live, in the Languedoc in France, there is now a dense
population of Buddhist monasteries and temples? Another interesting
hypothesis was that the development of Mahayana Buddhism with its
emphasis on giving your own life as a kind of ransom for others' was
accelerated through contact with the Christian gospels. Maybe there
were a whole lot more connections than we thought, indeed, interdependence...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

summer - travel season

Summer always is the travel season, and it seems to get worse and worse. This summer I was hardly in my house in Philadelphia! Most recently, I went on a trip to Europe, which was a delightful combination of work, dharma and vacation. I started out very well with a retreat in Lerab Ling, Rigpa's retreat center in France. It has become quite a remarkable place, with a very large temple, constructed authentically according to Tibetan temple. It features a copper roof, as if it were the copper-colored mountain of Guru Rinpoche, with which it is compared. The inside is decorated quite extensively, with two shrines with 500 buddhas each (the Thousand Buddha Shrine), a large statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni like the one in Bodhgaya, and then finally a statue of Guru Rinpoche Look LIke Me, identical to the one that has been destroyed in Samye Monastery in Tibet. For this temple to be filled with dharma students from all over the world, engaged in a deep and extensive program of study and practice is quite remarkable. It really creates an atmosphere that instantly transforms ones mind. Moreover, it is possible to take such strong feelings associated with a place home and use it in ones visualisation practice. We already know from Free Recall studies that time-traveling to the situation or context of study helps greatly to recall words, but it also can transform ones mind. But of course during a retreat, one also transforms ones mind more directly through study and practice, and applying that directly in daily life by the way one interacts with other people and animals around.

After the retreat had transformed my mind at least a little bit, I was ready to do some work in Germany, where my lab collaborates, and then visit the wonderful cities of Paris and Lyon to talk to other colleagues. This was also the time when I went back into ballet dancing (I have slowly learnt to dance again over the past few months, progressing through beginner ballet into intermediate and slowly even pointe). The class I was able to do in Paris was quite wonderful--imagine taking a ballet class with only three people, very close to Montparnasse, and where the teacher even tries to throw in a few words of English every now and then (Studio Amana). In addition to ballet, I still keep doing some yoga, which I took up during my recovery period from my broken ankle. On the picture below you'll see me practising some yoga on the camping site during my retreat, which I really loved to do in the mornings. My favorite is power yoga, which is nicely challenging but still calms the mind. Having said that: time to go back to work, and analyze some of that data that I collected this summer at Shambhala Mountain Center this summer...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

the gift of broken ankle

It's been a long time since I've last written and many things have happened, including papers being published, travels to various places and so on. Probably the most significant event was that, as the title says, I managed to break my ankle in ballet class, about three months ago. Interestingly enough, this was not only a bad event, but also a tremendous lesson. Something as invasive as breaking your ankle requires you to complete rethink your life, because all the things you used to take for granted, climbing stairs, cooking, carrying a cup of tea, and so on, are suddenly difficult or impossible. Moreover, you have to remove the words hurry and haste from your dictionary. Yet, a broken ankle can also be a gift. I realised how lucky I was to not only have dancing but lots of other nourishing activities that I could do, no matter what: my science and my spiritual practice. During my time in the hospital I was especially grateful to have both a stack of papers to read to distract me and my spiritual practice to calm my mind and feel supported by the buddhas and bodhisattvas (visualising them can be a tremendous source of refuge and potentially also help recovery--see the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn). The people around me were amazing and helped me with everything, from grocery shopping to doing my laundry. It is wonderful to see how a handicap can bring the best out of people. Even complete strangers would sometimes come up to me to help me by opening a door, or asking what had happened to me.

Now, about 3 months later, I am still recovering and trying to get back into ballet. There were two tools that I found incredibly helpful: during the whole time of my injury, especially during the no-weightbearing portion of it (first six weeks), I practiced floor barre, ballet exercises that are performed lying down on the floor, or sitting down. They help tremendously in maintaining and strengthening your turnout and flexibility in general. They also help to acquire a good posture in ballet, with the back very straight. Later in my recovery period, i.e., now, I am practicing the New York City Ballet workout, which consists of floor exercises to strengthen abdominals and upper body, floor barre, as well as elementary ballet exercises like tendus, plies and simple jumps. Because these exercises are very simple, they are a good transition into actual ballet class. Now let's hope that I will be back on pointe soon!