Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mind power: North Pond Hermit's secret: meditation?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When asked what he did most of the time while he lived in the woods for the past 27 years, Christopher Knight, known worldwide as the "North Pond Hermit" or the "Hermit Burglar," had a simple answer (relayed to the Kennebec Journal by Maine Game Warden Terry Hughes): "I would read books," Knight said, "and I would meditate."
Knight may not, of course, be the ideal exemplar of a meditator. "He stole from people," points out Peter Comas, a member of Vadra Vidya, a Portland-based Tibetan-tradition meditation group. "At its best meditation allows one to become more comfortable with oneself and the world . . . Our approach is not to withdraw from the world," he says. Meditation promotes "a deep sense of ethics, (asking) what does it mean to be a responsible person and to be fully aware of the effects of your activities on other people?"
That said, when practiced regularly over the long term, meditation has been shown in scientific studies to improve concentration and emotional stability, lessening the effects of anxiety and major depression. In other words, his practice might have helped Knight withstand the mental challenges of the solitude and secret life he chose.
Bill Barry, director of the Brunswick Portland Shambala Center, another Tibetan-tradition group, says meditation "changes your material wants that most of us have." He also notes that "most of us are afraid of being alone by ourselves . . . Someone like (Knight) obviously has transcended that fear," a lesson that can come from meditative realization that we are, in fact, always all alone, Barry says.
Other important discoveries have also come from long-term hermit meditators, of which there is a strong tradition in south Asia, such as learning that "our thoughts aren't real," Barry observes.
The exact type of meditation Knight practiced is unclear, but there is evidence that different styles carry strong benefits. Katie Grose, co-director of the Greater Portland Transcendental Meditation Center, says "TM" — a standardized, uniform method of practice — has repeatedly been found in peer-reviewed studies to vastly reduce stress. It also can help heal people with post-traumatic stress; some have speculated that Knight's departure for the woods may have been related to some trauma suffered during his youth.
Meditation may have also helped Knight deal with the cold — he reportedly had no regular source of heat, apart from a stove he only used to cook. He used many sleeping bags, but he may also have used his mind. For one thing, Barry says, meditation can change a person's perception of discomfort, allowing greater toleration of harsh circumstances.
And then there's a Tibetan meditation technique called tummo ("inner fire"), which is said to allow even thinly clad people to remain warm outdoors in freezing temperatures.
A 1982 article in the scientific journal Nature documented the ability of monks trained in tummo to elevate their body temperatures despite cold surroundings. Herbert Benson, the scientist who conducted that research, also documented in a 1985 study the ability of monks trained in tummo to sleep comfortably on bare rock at 15,000 feet in zero-degree temperatures with just a woolen cloak for insulation.
Monks in other studies have been able to slow their metabolisms significantly, and to sit in cold rooms and dry wet sheets with their body heat alone. (A more extreme version is the Japanese practice of taki-shu-gyou, in which a person meditates underneath a waterfall and strives to remain warm and focused without shivering.)
If Knight goes to jail for any period of time, meditation might help him there too. The 2007 documentary The Dhamma Brothers explores meditation practice in an Alabama prison; other similar programs have shown success in reducing inmates' stress in confinement and dealing with often-violent prison culture. Knight, now being held on burglary and theft charges at the Kennebec County Jail, is no doubt already feeling discomfort in the change from living alone outdoors; perhaps his mental skills will help him endure further suffering, if the courts impose it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Press Releases: On Walls and Laws

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The West End News last week broke the story that the Portland Press Herald is resuming active exploration of erecting a paywall for its online news offerings. While the PPH site has said nothing of the sort yet, it's worth wondering how such a change could affect the larger local news ecosystem.
Right now, a lot of the news you see on television and hear on the radio comes, at least initially, from newspapers. It's a common national situation, most extensively documented in Baltimore in 2010 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a DC-based part of the Pew Research Centers. The study found that "much of the 'news' people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of ten stories studied simple repeated or repackaged previously published information. And of the stories that did contain new information nearly all, 95%, came from traditional media — most of them newspapers."
Right now, most TV and radio stations subscribe to the AP's broadcast wire service, which, among other things, compiles and repackages print-media stories for on-air use. (This is what you hear when MPBN's Morning Edition host, Irwin Gratz, reads a few snippets, often including the phrase "The Portland Press Herald reports this morning...")
The paywall itself will likely not affect the broadcasters much. But they could be hit hard if the paywall's debut is coupled with a change in thePPH's membership in the Associated Press.
If the Press Herald keeps sending its stories to AP, then TV and radio stations will keep getting that information for their existing cost. But since that would mean PPH stories would be available elsewhere for free, it would make more sense to kill the AP connection. The broadcasters would be stuck either paying AP for less, or shelling out for the PPH separately.
In OPEN-GOVERNMENT NEWS, the group calling itself Maine's Majority — a far more hyper-partisan organization than the public it claims to represent — last week launched a dangerous and hypocritical assault on government transparency, by way of a political attack on admittedly loony ex-Maine treasurer Bruce Poliquin. Seems Poliquin asked for a state-compiled email list to expand the audience for his electronic missives after leaving office. MM executive director Chris Korzen sent out an email claiming Poliquin "abused" Maine's Freedom of Access Act, "to obtain (a) public list for personal use."
But the FOAA has no other purpose than to give people access to public information they want. It doesn't, and shouldn't, consider their reasons for asking, or what they'll do when they get the info.
Korzen's release admits Poliquin broke no laws. (Though it is tacky and may have violated the terms of his mass-email contract.) It went on to self-contradictingly say both that the email list (which had already been compiled for public purposes) is "publicly-owned" — and that its use by the public should therefore somehow be restricted.
When I pointed out to Korzen that trying to restrict what people do with public records once they're out of official hands is a dangerous and slippery slope (think: government-imposed restrictions on free expression), his response was almost immediate: "I really don't care. This is my job."
In an extended email conversation (see the full correspondence at, Korzen took harder and more sweeping swings at Poliquin, at one point saying he "would love to see the law changed so we can prosecute people who do what Poliquin did," and in another message condemning him for having "used public information to advertise himself for business/political/personal purposes."
Of course, Korzen had done exactly that too: He asked for public records (correspondence from Poliquin about email lists), got the information, and then used it for his own purposes (sending out a political-attack announcement).
Given this latest instance of shrill knee-jerk partisanship, and compounded by a clear failure to understand the important concept of government transparency, it's time to tell lawmakers something I never thought I would suggest: From now on, ignore Maine's Majority.