Jonathan Foust

August 29, 2008

Your Issues Are in Your Tissues

Filed under: Meditation, Observations — jonathanfoust @ 3:20 pm

Simon Letch


We spend virtually all our energy avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.  

In meditation, when we slow down and start to pay attention to what’s actually going on, we may notice a chain reaction:

A sensation arises.  

It has a feeling tone we unconsciously dub either ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant.”  

The feeling tone morphs into a story.  

From there … the story turns into action.

Ever wonder how much of your life experience is just a series of reactions to what’s going, versus responding to what’s going on?

When we pause, we start to see into the chain reaction to what arises in any given moment.


Sometimes that reactive label of “good” and ‘bad’ falls away, leaving us, if just for a few moments, free.


To quote one of my favorite teachers, the 3rd Zen Patriarch:

“Make the slightest distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.”


It’s interesting to note the research being done that shows the relationship between meditation and creativity.  Awake in the moment, we touch into what Deepak Chopra calls ‘the field of infinite possibilities’.

When we live in reaction, the possibilities are finite.


An article today from the BBC: August 28th


Hurt feelings ‘worse than pain’

Emotional hurt may be more profound

The old adage “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you”, simply is not true, according to researchers.

Psychologists found memories of painful emotional experiences linger far longer than those involving physical pain.

They quizzed volunteers about painful events over the previous five years.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, they said evolutionary brain changes which allow us to work better in groups or societies could be key.


“The cerebral cortex may also have had an unintended effect of allowing humans to relive, re-experience and suffer from social pain.”

– Zhansheng Chen

Purdue University

The volunteers, all students, were asked to write about painful experiences, both physical and emotional, then given a difficult mental test shortly afterwards.

The principle was that the more painful the recalled experience, the less well the person would perform in the tests.

Test scores were consistently higher in those recalling physical rather than “social” pain.

Psychological scoring tests revealed that memories of emotional pain were far more vivid.

Social evolution

Researcher Zhansheng Chen, from Purdue University in Indiana, said that it was much harder to “re-live” physical pain than to recall social pain.

He said the evolution of a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex, which processes complex thinking, perception and language, might be responsible.

He said: “It certainly improved the ability of human beings to create and adapt, to function in and with groups, communities and cultures, and to respond to pain associated with social interactions.

“However, the cerebral cortex may also have had an unintended effect of allowing humans to relive, re-experience and suffer from social pain.”

The researchers now plan to repeat the experiment in older people, who are more likely to have experienced chronic pain.

Michael Hughesman, a child psychologist based in Germany, agreed that it was likely that emotional pain was handled in a different part of the brain from physical pain, and likely to be longer-lasting.

He said: “There is something very intangible about emotional damage – with physical pain, you can see the bruise, but in emotional abuse there is often fear and anxiety which remains.

“If someone tells you in the playground that they are going to get you after school, then you tend to be anxious and afraid about it far more than if someone just punches you there and then.”


August 26, 2008

This is Jonnie’s Brain

Filed under: Dharma, Meditation — jonathanfoust @ 3:18 pm

That’s a snapshot of my brain.  Really.


Last summer I took part in a study sponsored by Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and Harvard University.

I’ll go into more details in terms of what it was like to do the cognitive tests as well as the MRI, but here’s an overview, if you feel drawn to the details.

In a nutshell, if you look REALLY REALLY closely at my brain above, you might notice my cortical thickness is like, thick.


Unless I was the dude who dragged the averages down.


Meditation experience is associated with thickening of brain structures

In recent years, numerous stories in the popular press have reported differences in brain function between Buddhist monks and the general population. While this research has been very important and interesting, it has failed to address questions surrounding the effects of meditation as it is commonly practiced in the United States. Unlike Tibetan Buddhist monks, who have devoted their lives to the practice of meditation, practitioners in the U.S. usually meditate just 30-40 minutes per day and incorporate their practice into a daily routine involving career, family, friends and other outside interests. The present study has focused on the long-term impact of this “Western-style” meditation and how it might be associated with neuroplastic changes – adaptations in physical and cellular structure – in the brain. While previous research with monks has demonstrated that long-term meditation may lead to altered brain wave patterns, we hypothesized that long-term meditation practice might also result in changes in the brain’s physical structure, possibly reflecting increased use of specific brain regions.  

To test this hypothesis, we used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess thickness of the cortex – the outer area of the brain – in twenty individuals with extensive Western-style meditation experience. These study participants were all students of Buddhist “Insight” meditation, which focuses on the cultivation of a trait called mindfulness, a specific, non-judgmental awareness of present-moment sensory stimuli. All the participants were Caucasian and were American or European-born. Two of the meditators were full-time meditation teachers, three were part-time teachers of either yoga or meditation, and the rest were typical professionals with varied careers such as law, healthcare, and journalism. On average, these participants had 9 years of meditation experience and practiced 6 hours per week. The fifteen control subjects had no meditation or yoga experience. The meditation and control subjects were matched for gender, age, race and years of education. All subjects laid quietly in the scanner while detailed images were taken of the structure of their brains. Unlike functional MRI, these images do not measure brain function

As predicted, brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing were thicker in meditators than in the controls. These findings provide the first evidence that alterations in brain structure are associated with meditation practice. The second main finding was that, in one of the regions, the differences in cortical thickness were most pronounced in older subjects, suggesting that regular practice of meditation might reduce normal age-related cortical thinning. This region is an area of the cortex thought to be involved in integrating emotional and cognitive processes. Although numerous studies examining cortical thickness have pointed to aging and pathology as sources of cortical thinning , there has been limited work indicating mechanisms promoting cortical thickening. Our findings are consistent with four other reports which demonstrated that practices such as playing a musical instrument or learning to juggle are also associated with increases in cortical volume. Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.

Our results are preliminary and need to be interpreted with great caution. This study enrolled a small number of participants whose brains were imaged only once. It is possible that people who naturally have a thicker cortex in areas associated with awareness and sensory processing are more likely to practice meditation. Further research needs to be done using a larger number of participants, testing each individual multiple times, or examining their brains prior to starting meditation practice. Nevertheless, our initial results are very encouraging. Lending particular support to our hypothesis is the fact that the pattern of cortical thickening corresponds well to the specific activities that practitioners of Insight meditation repeatedly engage in over time: paying attention to breathing sensation and sensory stimuli. Additionally, the observed increases in cortical thickness were proportional to the amount of time the participant has spent meditating over their lifetime. While additional research needs to be done, our results do suggest that the observed differences are acquired through extensive practice of meditation and are not simply due to incidental between-group differences.

Although our study relied exclusively on subjects that had practiced Insight meditation, we believe that other forms of yoga and meditation would have a similar impact on cortical structure and plasticity.  It will be left to future research to clarify the specific pattern of thickening associated with various different meditation techniques. In summary, the current study suggests that the changes in brain structure and function resulting from long-term meditation are not limited to monks but may be extended to Western-style practitioners as well. 


Lazar SW, Kerr C, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve D, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness NeuroReport, 2005; 16: 1893-1897.

August 25, 2008

Why I Don’t Charge a Set Fee for Evening Classes

Filed under: Dharma, Meditation — jonathanfoust @ 3:16 pm


Outdoor Yoga Class During a Weeklong Retreat

Outdoor Yoga Class During a Weeklong Retreat

Much the time I teach by donation.  No set fee.

In the Buddhist tradition, teachings are offered in the spirit of generosity or dana.  

The precept behind this is that the teachings of liberation are priceless … so there can be no charge for them.  Everything is offered in a spirit of generosity … and generosity is encouraged by the participants.

I love it.  And sometimes it freaks me out.

A Change in Perception

For well over a decade I was a member of a vowed order.   $28.00 a month (until we got a raise to $35.00).  

I loved the lifestyle. While I had no cash, I felt secure in a community and mission dedicated to creating a more conscious and compassionate world.

Years later I was part of rebuilding the ashram into a more non-sectarian program center.  One of my tasks was to oversee the curriculum.  It was a fascinating job … constantly looking for what was up and coming in the consciousness of the culture, trying to land a famous presenter or identify a teacher on the rise.

I’d always admired Bo Lozoff.  He is the founder of the Ashram Prison Project and author of “We’re All Doing Time,” the classic book on bringing liberation techniques into prisons.  I approached him about coming to a conference I was directing called “Change Yourself, Change the World.”  I’d already signed on Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Julia Butterfly Hill, the protester who lived for over a year in a redwood, defending it against loggers, Wayne Muller, author of Bread for the Journey.  Bo could round out the field for what I hoped would be a transformational weekend inquiry.

When I talked to Bo he said, “I’ll consider it, but I’m going to screw up your system.  I’ll only do it if it’s by donation and open to anyone who wants to come.”

This was a major problem for me.  The center was not at all set up to do that.  At our core, we relied on a business model based on fees, tuition and standard accounting practices.

Bo talked to me about the principle of ‘dana,’ offering teachings with no restriction.  He told me stories of how in his ashram their financial needs would get magically met by trusting deeper and deeper in the spirit of generosity.  Expenses would arise, there wouldn’t be enough funds – and after a retreat or a talk, there might be a $100 bill or a check for $3000.00.

Bo ended up deciding to take a year of silence and we didn’t have to figure out how to jigger our accounting practices, but our conversation lingered in my thoughts.

The idea thrilled and terrified me.

I was living a vow of simplicity, but I was at the same time living in what I recognize now as a middle class ashram.  We were pretty darned comfy with great food, a clothing allowance, health care and vacations.


I wasn’t sure I could stand being that ‘naked’ … offering teachings and experiences with no guarantee of compensation or financial security.

One day I read where Buddha once said, “If you knew what I know about generosity and karma, you would never hold back on giving.”

I resolved one day to try to live this way.

Fast forward to Washington, DC.  I left the community I’d lived in for 25 years, fell in love with a woman who happened to be a Buddhist teacher and got immersed deeper into the Buddha dharma.  

I led yoga twice a day at an Insight Meditation Community of Washington week-long vipassana retreat.  A few weeks afterward I got a check – donations from participants.

I was thrilled …. I had forgotten all about ‘getting paid’ and the check felt like a gift.   

In the fall I offered my first weekly class – Tuesday Night Movement and Meditation at the Carderock Swim Club. 

I was pretty freaked.  I wasn’t well known here and the rent was $75.00.  Was I going to lose money offering this?

The class started pretty small but I managed to cover the rent.   As the class grew, so did the donations.  

I would make more money charging a set fee or merchandising blocks of classes, but there is something so clean and satisfying about offering a drop-in class open to all.  


Here are three reasons why I practice dana:


1.  No one is ever denied access to the teachings and the practices.

This enlivens me the most.   I know some people who come have little money.  I feel great knowing that they are as welcome as someone who can easily offer a generous donation.

One evening a group of what I think were high school students showed up for class.  It was pretty clear they hadn’t done any yoga, relaxation or meditation before.

I remembered my first yoga class when I was in high school.  That class changed my life and shaped my life’s direction.   As I led the class through movement, deep relaxation, the half-hour meditation and short talk, they were in my heart and thoughts.

At the end of the evening I could tell something had shifted for them.

I imagine paying $15 or $20 for that experience would have blocked them from coming.  Who knows if they dropped any offering in the basket, but having them there, so open and present, built my resolve to keep the gate wide open.

As I added up the donations the next morning I felt like all of us had provided that experience for them.


2.  I get to unhook from ‘performing.’

I’m committed to bringing the moment as alive as I can in my life and my classes. 

Offering an experience from a spirit of generosity means I’m unhooked from performing.  There’s nothing about ‘giving people their money’s worth.’  I’m free to share from the radiance of my own discovery and be exactly who I am.

This doesn’t mean I don’t care what people think of me or that I don’t want to be liked … but what a radical relief to let go of the anxiety that goes with performing.


3.  We all get to explore what it means to be generous.

The Buddha once said that when we practice generosity we get three benefits:

First, we get the experience of reflecting on generosity.  At the end of a class or a retreat, I’m searching for a sense of what feels appropriate – what feels right inside.  Too little feels like I’m being stingy.  Too much feels like I’m being irresponsible.  I try to find an amount that resonates with a spirit of generosity and well-being.

Second, we get the experience of generosity itself.  When I give freely of my resources, I drop the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’  I feel connected.

Third, we get to look back and reflect on how generous we were.  When we review our life, the moments where we were kind and generous bring about a feeling of expansion and well-being.


+  +  +  +  +  +


There is a big debate in the Buddhist community about the practicalities of offering teachings by donation in this culture.  

There are those who say that in these troubled times, those who wish to teach and serve should be fairly compensated. To charge for our time allows us a level of security that is totally reasonable and appropriate.

I’ve kind of landed in a hybrid system.  Some teaching and services I offer are by fee, which helps guarantee me some stable income.

Like many people trying to teach and serve from a spirit of dana, I’m finding life in this culture incredibly expensive.  I hope that I can continue to serve in this way because it opens my heart and challenges my fears of lack.


Thank you for your ongoing generosity to me and my fellow teachers and thank you for your willingness to explore that which cannot be measured.

August 21, 2008

Bye Bye Bikey

Filed under: Cool Things, Observations — jonathanfoust @ 3:14 pm

Oh the humanity of it.

I’m selling my beloved KLR 650.


I got my first motorcycle at 15, a Hodaka Pabatco 125cc dirt bike.  I’ve had about nine bikes since then – usually used ones that fell apart as I drove them to their deaths.

I particularly loved the KLR.  After living on the edge of the Sahara desert in West Africa for over two years and getting to know some of the maniacs who traveled the globe on these stripped down, simple bike-as-tractor machines, I’ve always wanted one.

So I joined the KLR cult about five years ago.  I wrote up an article in Cool Tools here and loved owning a bike that was simple enough even I could fix it.  One cylinder.  One piston.  One big momma of a gas tank. Nothing electronic on it.

After riding every day I could in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, I sobered up fast in DC.  My first ride, a woman in a Land Rover (drinking a cup of coffee and talking on the phone) made a left hand turn right in front of me, forcing me to a full stop.  What unnerved me was that we had made eye contact and her failing to give the right of way didn’t seem to bother her in the least.


I sent my friend Audrey Ten Reasons Why I’m Selling My Bike.  Here it is, slightly modified from the original:

  1. Noting that DC is populated with distracted, rushed, angry inattentive drivers.

  2. Noting that I was never able to actually cruise for more than a few miles without stopping for a light, slowing to a crawl on a highway or puckering up trying to figure out which driver near me was the one on crack.

  3. Noting how often I’d be sitting on the beltway surrounded by acres of parked cars trying not to breathe sodden clouds of exhaust I could actually SEE.

  4. Noting the moment I finally intuited my wonderful wife prefers I don’t die a horrible, premature death.

  5. Noting that it took about 12 months to heal a wrecked wrist after laying the bike down on a wet road last year.

  6. Noting that when I’m out on the road I’m usually off to a teaching gig and that I look truly laughable with helmet hair.

  7. Noting I could no longer take pleasure in just ‘going for a ride’.  Rather than burning gas on a highway I would truly rather be in my kayak , biking or hiking in the woods.

  8. Recalling Jerry Seinfeld’s commentary on sports where you’re constantly repeating to yourself, “Don’t die!  Don’t die!”.

  9. Noting that as I age, sitting still is starting to get a lot more interesting than going fast.

  10. Noting that I’m already getting laid.


August 19, 2008


Filed under: Observations — jonathanfoust @ 3:13 pm

Earlier this summer I was watching the local news. Someone had died and a reporter was getting reactions from people nearby. 

A neighbor said emphatically, “He will never be forgotten.”


“Oh yes he will,” I muttered to myself.


I remember as a kid with my  family doing our weekly shopping at the Kutztown Farmer’s Market. 


My dad and I walked by a used trinket table and he said to me casually, “Imagine your photo on a flea market table and someone comes to look at it — evaluating it for the value of the frame.”


The Legend of You.  How long will it be remembered?


Johnny Carson once said, “After death they say your hair and nails continue to grow, but the phone calls drop off pretty dramatically.”


What a cool dad, eh?  It was great to get random Zen stuff tossed in my direction from time to time.  He barely survived the war as a PFC and while he is guided by a keen sense of humor, an existential rawness lives just under the surface.  


That’s him in the photo. 


It’s in a really nice frame.

August 18, 2008

So Much We Can’t See

Filed under: Cool Things, Observations — jonathanfoust @ 3:12 pm


Harriet Crosby, Stu Krohn, Me and The Orb

Harriet Crosby, Stu Krohn, Me and The Orb

Last Wednesday night I went to Tara’s talk at the Unitarian Church on River Road to take some photos for their website and shoot some video.

I met up with Harriet, on the left, who has been traveling to differing places around the planet with Larry Bohlen.  They are creating a company called Natural Check, helping people to test for toxins in food.  (Check out the site – really interesting stuff they are doing!)

They are also interested in sacred sites and energy.  They just got back from England visiting crop circles and Stonehenge.

One thing they got into was photographing ‘orbs’ of energy around nature and people.  

I’m know I don’t understand this fully, but using the flash, they can capture vortexes of energy not normally seen by the human eye.  Oftentimes you need to enlarge a photo quite a bit to see one.

ANYway … We thought we’d give it a try and stepped out into the night to take a shot with a flash.  Harriet and Stu are two people I mightily love, so the energy between us was quite sweet.  I silently invoked whatever energy wanted to show up.

Who knows what that blue orb is above my hand, but there it is.  

Apparently that’s one of their best orb shots.


Here’s to the mystery.

August 16, 2008

Living with Change

Filed under: Observations — jonathanfoust @ 3:11 pm



Suited Up for a New England Winter



Suited Up for a New England Winter




This is from a recent email I sent out to the “Year of Living Mindfully” group after our exploration on Annica or Impermanence.


When my dog and I were both younger we lived near what was about a square-mile of old growth woods in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

To get there we had to walk across a railroad trestle spanning the Housatonic River. He learned how to navigate the railroad ties as a puppy and was fearless about crossing the span even when it was iced over.  

Twice a day, no matter what the weather, we hit the woods. 

Once we reached the other side he was on his own. He would race off for the ridge lines chasing deer, squirrels and meeting up with in a the occasional bear. 

He ran at full speed, all the time.  I would hear him barking, running after deer on distant ridges.  About every 20 minutes he would come flying by from the opposite direction I had last seen him. 

He must have run at least 5 miles each time we went for a walk.


I knew all his barks. The small yips were treed squirrels.  

The frustrated flat ‘on the run’ barks were when he was chasing deer.  

Deep, throaty insistent barking meant he was face to face with a bear.  

He was one of the most alive and athletic dogs I’ve ever known.


These days he often wants to turn around and head home mid-way on our walk down to the river. 

While he used to run in ever-widening circles around me, now I do walking meditation while he often stops, smells and marks trees and bushes.

I know that change is inevitable. 

To see this once 110 pound animal 25 pounds lighter and getting increasingly old, stiff and grouchy brings a poignancy to my breath. 


He is getting old and will die. 

        Me too. 

                But it looks like he might be first.


All of this reminds me of the five daily reflections:

I am of the nature to age and decay

I have not gone beyond aging and decay

I am of the nature to become ill or injured

I have not gone beyond illness or injury

I am of the nature to die

I have not gone beyond death

All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish

I am the owner of my actions

I am born of my actions

I am related to my actions

I am supported by my actions

Any thoughts, words or deeds I do, good or evil, those I will inherit


Embracing change, we transcend it.

Embracing death, we celebrate what we have right now.



On a Good Day When He Made It To the River

On a good day when he made it to the river.

August 15, 2008

If You Only Had 5 Minutes Left to Live

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanfoust @ 3:05 pm


Potomac Early Morning

Here’s a question Tara posed to me this morning:

“If you had only 5 minutes left in this life, you were all alone with no access to phone or internet, what would you do with that time?”

My first response was:


  1. Make sure I had on clean underwear.
  2. Be sure I had enough time to make it to the kitchen to finish the pistachio ice cream.
  3. Remember Baby Jesus.


Upon further reflection, this was my response:

“I would want to savor what it means to be embodied and at the same time, open my awareness to the vastness of things.  I would center myself in the senses and want to be awake as I could possibly be to this transition to formlessness.”

What would you do?  I’m curious.  In fact, Tara asked me to ask you.  This is probably for the first chapter of her book.


Leave a comment!  Thanks.

Potomac Early Morning


At Home Retreat

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanfoust @ 3:02 pm



We’re taking this weekend as a home retreat.   Why am I writing here then?

Well, that’s the cool part about a home retreat.  

You get to make up the rules.

Our rules are no internet, phone or distracting reading.  

Our practices include:


  1.  Silence.  Except when we need to do something mechanical  like make a meal.
  2. Time in nature, either walking, sitting.  (Kayaking is legal!)
  3. Time in meditation.
  4. Time in inter-personal meditation each day, naming what’s present and our relationship to it.
  5. As many naps as we can stand.
  6. A few hours each day for creativity.  Tara is working on her book.  I’m working with my own writing and playing with multi-media.



So far, so great.

August 13, 2008

A Graced Life

Filed under: Observations — jonathanfoust @ 2:56 pm


This shot is taken with my iphone.  

When Tara and I wake up we roll out of bed and head right to the river with the dogs.

We live 45 minutes from DC about two miles north of Great Falls (THE Great Falls) and each morning get to explore a place where the only things that have changed are by the whim of nature.

Down By the River

Down By the River


The river is low right now.  Where Tara is sitting would be about five feet under water after a few days of steady rain.

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