Sunday, October 05, 2008


I think the essence of samsara, the vicious cycle of suffering that
Buddhists try to liberate themselves from, is our habitual searching
for distractions. The root of this is really feeling that we do not
have enough, that we need something else. Our economy has been very
much built to support and reinforce this tendency. But eventually this
is also the cause of a lot of harm on ourselves, others, and on the
environment. That is why href="">Dzigar Kongtrul's teaching
this summer about practicing little needs and much contentment was so
poignant. I very much believe this is what we need, now more than
ever. But how often do I not find myself working, and then this
feeling arises of "oh, I really need to check this website", or "I
need to really eat or drink something." This is exactly that: the
feeling that we need something more, all the time. And not only do
these feelings make one unhappy, but they also very much impede
getting work done.

What helps me a lot to regain my focus is first, to make a list every
day of what I want to accomplish and what my priorities are, and
second, to contemplate how all these things that I feel I need are
really impermanent and changing. Actually, when I do go after these
feelings they will not satify me, or only for a short time. Because
the only productive satisfaction is when I am simply content with what
is. And that is again the practice of little needs and much
contentment. How beautiful, yet how difficult!

Friday, September 12, 2008

A new perspective

As I am writing this, I am sitting at London Heathrow, on my way back
to Princeton. I have spent about three months in Europe, for the most
part in Lerab Ling. Taking the time out to go on retreat really gave
me a new perspective on my life and on the possibilities of the
mind. Because really, we tend to be so much stuck in the normal and
subnormal levels of mental functioning, and we have no idea what is
possible if we spend some time looking at our own minds and training

On retreat, I divided my time basically between various meditational
practices and studying Buddhist teachings. These teachings in large
part concerned the nature of our minds, which according to the
Buddhist philosophy is our Buddha nature, and how we can start to
recognize it. Recognizing the nature of mind is best done in retreat
with a qualified teacher who can show you, and who can clarify what
the nature of mind is and what are just experiences. To even get a
taste of the nature of mind can be really transformative, and I really
started to appreciate the depth of knowledge in the Tibetan
tradition. Now the big challenge is to try to integrate some of that
experience as I go back into my hectic life. I really feel that
especially this hectic world of today needs so badly the enormous
space that is really there in your mind, at any moment, if you could
only recognize it!

Another great contribution that my practice of Dharma has made to my
life is the teachings about egolessness. Egolessness might sound
strange and scary but for me it really has to do with losing fear and
gaining self-confidence. Because if there is no I in the way I
conventionally think about it, then who is there to get hurt? Or get
criticized? Egolessness however, is quite subtle, and to really
understand it, you need to contemplate it over and over again. To be
surrounded by an environment that very much supports these
contemplations is again, very helpful!

The culmination of the retreat was a visit by His Holiness the Dalai
Lama, during which he inaugurated the beautiful temple of Lerab
Ling. This temple is built on the model of Samye, probably the first
temple in Tibet. It is an amazing place, full of holy statues and
beautiful thangkas. Just to walk around there makes you feel like in a
different world. During the inauguration, Lerab Ling was a buzz of
activity, especially when the inauguration was attended by Mme Sarkozy
and many other VIPs! This was really not quite an ordinary retreat!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Becoming the dance

(picture kindly provided by my cousin hakim)

I defended my thesis just over a week ago. Of course I freaked out on
the days before that and had all kinds of nightmares about things
going wrong. But it worked out well. I managed to figure out a way to
squeeze some ballet in there, used in this case to illustrate the
concept of similarity. The magical thing was that as I was doing the
ballet, I forgot about all my nerves, and really got into it. It was
kind of like when I have a good performance, and I really forget
everything. At that point, there is no 'I', there is only the dance or
the story and the audience. It is quite a magical and beautiful
moment. When I did the dancing this time during my thesis defense, I
too did forget my nerves, and just became the story I wanted to
tell. That is the magic of the performer.

But it may even be what is
meant by egolessness in a Buddhist sense: where the I is suddenly not
important anymore, and it is all about giving your life, your actions,
and your possessions to others, so that they may be happy. And then
when you stop worrying about yourself, magically happiness ensues. So
too when you become the dance, happiness ensues. The pain in my toes
is forgotten, and I bring both myself and the audience to a different

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A little bit every day

Sometimes people admire me for my flexibility in ballet class. Pretty
much invariably I tell them that that is nothing really amazing. It's
just a matter of a little bit every day. When you do some stretches
every day, you will most surely progress. In fact, that is true for
almost everything. Simple, sustained effort is that what will pay off
in the long run. One thing that made me even more aware of that is my
impending thesis defense. Suddenly 4.5 years of hard work will by
culminated by a thesis defense. Writing a thesis is pretty much like
running a marathon--it requires sustained effort. It also requires
making sure that you are healthy and happy, because otherwise it will
not happen. That reminds me of the definition of the Buddhist precept
of "diligence": to find joy in what is virtuous and wholesome. The joy
is very important too. There is something about being joyous at what
you do, in every little bit of effort, that will make it all in the
end work out into something much larger. But it is the simple joy that
will allow you to keep going, every day. Also to focus on just that
one day prevents you from having too much fear about whether you can
do it or not. Instead you can just trust that some day, it will
happen, and it will. So really, a little bit of effort every day is
what does miracles.

This picture shows me on campus, in front of the famous LOVE
sculpture, together with a friend who shares my name (her first name
is also Marieke). It also shows the beauty of spring.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Network

Now reaching the end of my PhD work, I am starting to become more and
more conscious of networking. Initially I felt very hesitant about
these kinds of "business-like" behaviors, but in fact my experiences
with networking have turned out to be very positive. For a (budding)
scientist, networking is simply about sharing your data and ideas with
other people, going to visit them, talk to them at conferences, and
more recently, interacting with them through Facebook. I really enjoy
being part of this social enterprise that is called science, meeting
really amazing people and sharing thoughts with them. And then the joy
and enthusiasm that is transferred during these interactions is in
fact one reason why they are so enjoyable. In the documentary href="">Monte Grande,
Francisco Varela says that he feels like the troubadours in mediaeval
times, who would go to a place, sing their song, get food and lodging,
and move on. That's what scientists do when they go to conferences,
where they give their talk, and then go their way.

But in a deeper way, a network is also the way we interact with
people. According to my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, one should ideally
see other beings as another "you", and interact with them according to
this deep sense of connectedness. After all, how do we really know
where we end and where the other begins? And we are so dependent upon
one another. Magically, this way of seeing dramatically changes how
you interact with the world; it makes it much more relaxed and
compassionate. Moreover, networking in the business-sense becomes way
easier, because you do not have to worry as much about you, and
whether you are doing it right, and what your impression is going to
be, etc., etc. Instead, you can focus on the other and be much more
connected. So seeing ourselves as part of a network really helps
us to network!

This picture is from a DVD that my brother Floris and I made this
winter, a dance that illustrates a song about the 10 Oxherding
Pictures (a famous Zen story).