Thinking Eastern with a Western brain: Do as much as you can

If you follow some of the cooler quotes that are attributed to Buddha or other figures from Eastern religions, you tend to think, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense!”

The reason is that much of Western religion seems to be about telling us what not to do, what not to think, all the terrible things awaiting us if we don’t follow the rules, and so on. So it’s the whole punitive versus philosophical approach, at least on the surface.

However, in the interests of full disclosure, I have heard there is supposedly a Buddhist hell. I imagine it resembles Crossgates on Dec. 24 at 5 pm. At least, that’s how I picture hell.

Now, before you fire up the torches and the Twitter posts, keep in mind that I’m a nice Jewish boy from Long Island (seriously). Though I’m not really what you’d call a practicing Jew, I was raised as such, so my view of organized religion comes as a result of that. I did not grow up going to church or mosque on a weekly or daily basis, so bear that in mind.

I’ve also been anti-authoritarian my whole life, so anything or anyone trying to tell me what to do in a forceful way doesn’t really sit too well. Thus, hearing cool, interesting, uplifting, or positive ideas from other religions that are presented as ideas, philosophy, suggestions, or whatever, is simply more palatable.

Of course, the problem is that in trying to embrace Eastern philosophy, you run into some very ingrained Western thought patterns.

When I was in college, I learned to meditate as a means of reducing stress. This was way back before they tossed drugs at every problem.

There are lots of techniques, but the basic idea is to concentrate on your body, breathing, or whatever, in an effort to un-focus your mind and allow everything to just kind of settle.

The whole Om Mani Padme Om thing is just a device to get your mind to kind of empty. You could just as easily chant “I love Netflix” or “Kim and Kanye are scary” or  “Bacon is Good.” Whatever works for you.

The key is to slow the thought process down to where your mind is as empty as a politician’s promise. The reality is that we don’t do empty mind well in the West. Actually, we kind of suck at it.

We’re always being bombarded with input, visual and aural stimuli, smells, and so on. You have to make quite an effort to just find a place quiet enough to meditate.

You also have to turn off your phone, which pretty much excludes most of the current population of the United States. Most smart-phone owners view such an act as about equal to doing without oxygen for a couple hours. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you shut off the phone, found a quiet spot, and got into a physically comfortable position. Now you need to clear your mind and focus on your breathing.

Each time you breathe in, say “one” inside your head. Breathe slowly and steadily.

Wait, did I turn off the washer? Did I unload the dryer? What am I making for dinner? Are the kids out by the pool alone? Does the car need an oil change? Where is my spouse? Was that the dog whining? Wait, what was I supposed to be doing? Is that a squirrel?

See what I mean about clearing your mind? It’s like clearing one of those houses on a hoarders’ TV program. You need a mental backhoe.

So maybe meditation isn’t your bag. One major tenet of eastern philosophy is to focus on living in the moment. The idea is that much of our stress is caused by regret or sorrow about the past or worry about the future.

If you live fully in the moment, you are so engaged and energized, that many of the stressors just melt away. So let’s try being in the moment.

OK. You’re sitting at your desk. Feet firmly planted on the floor. Your computer is glowing brightly, your coffee cup is full and warm, your clothes are comfy, and your office is humming quietly around you. You are here and no place else. You are now, and no other time.

Wait, isn’t there a meeting in 20 minutes? Is the PowerPoint ready? What will I have for lunch? Wait, don’t I have to stop by school for a teacher meeting after work? Did my spouse take out that trash? What was I supposed to be doing? Living in the moment? Which moment? That one? The next? I’m so stressed!

OK, so we’re not really batting .1000 here. Personally, I find living in the moment, meditating, being mindful, and all the other Eastern practices very tricky to master, due simply to the nature of Western civilization; such as it is.

The messages we are fed every day are mostly designed to sell us things or change our way of thinking in order to sell us more things. Those messages employ fear as a major motivator plus greed, envy, superiority, and pretty much any and every other negative feeling and emotion you can dredge up.

Thus, in order to live a more Eastern existence, you kind of have to ignore or remove yourself from a lot of what passes for normal society these days.

This is why Buddhist monks tend to live high up in isolated monasteries without cell service, high-speed cable, or even electricity, in some cases. Their daily lives involve meditating, cleaning, cooking, eating, and sleeping. Their lives are simpler, slower and designed to encourage contemplation. And they are rarely called on to prep a PowerPoint.

The bottom line is that Eastern philosophy has much to teach the Western mind. The key, at least in my muddled mind, is to embrace what you can, when you can.

It’s like healthy eating habits for the mind.  We all know we should be eating more veggies and fruits, leaner meats, more complex carbs, and fewer sweets. Of course that doesn’t help you as you stand at the brunch buffet eyeing the six pounds of fresh bacon, two-foot mound of scrambled eggs, and the made-to-order Belgian waffle station.

In the end, trying each day to slow down a little, be a little more grounded, meditate for a few minutes when we can, and care less about the future or past in favor of the present are all good steps. The sum total could actually change your life in positive ways. But, at the same time, a little bacon never killed anyone, just so long as you don’t eat all six pounds.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he has been interested in Eastern philosophy, meditation, and mindfulness long before there were apps for it.