Saturday, 21 March 2020

#763 Overview of Meditation PRACTICE

     Usually life seems basically under control - "I've got this!" Though we more-or-less sleep-walk through life, "doing things half-assed," we assume we're smart enough to get away with it. We're self-absorbed, lost in youthful naivete, (imagined) power & bright future. At this level of unconsciousness, we're not interested meditation at all. For a variety reasons, some of us remain at this level of maturity.

     As the years roll on, some of us are forced to learn hard lessons, become more humble, recognize how minimal our ability is to control life, and start searching for a deeper, more reliable form of happiness that's independent of conditions. Meditation now becomes more relevant.

     NOW the entire world is in turmoil: Covid 19 crisis / financial meltdown / climate crisis / direct or proxy warfare / refugee crises. "Normal" times have evaporated, possibly forever. It's time to wake up & engage with life CONSCIOUSLY, WISELY. 
     Einstein said that we can't solve a mess with the same level of consciousness as the one with which we caused it. We MUST evolve / mature to a higher level of consciousness. Now meditation practice is a vital asset.

     The various mindfulness meditation (MBSR) practices all have us concentrate our awareness on an object of meditation, in real time. The physically-felt details of our object of meditation (eg breath in our belly) are to completely fill our awareness. No part of our awareness should remain with which to be anxious, sad, to obsess, or daydream. Stable, one-pointed concentration - absorbed only on one "object" in silence & stillness (without metal chatter, without physical / emotional restlessness), in and of itself, feels pleasant & can therefore be effortlessly maintained. Profound mental rest & therefore stress relief are relatively easily & quickly obtainable.
     But initially, we ALL behave according to our lifelong training - unconsciously follow our deeply conditioned habits. So we follow the instructions in a "half-assed" way, "just going through the motions," remaining lost in our trance: self-talk about "the story of me," continuing to catastrophize, wallow, or daydream. Then we quickly jump to self-judgment & want to quit meditation "because we're no good at it."
     Our greatest obstacles are: 1) Lack of practice,  2) Impatience, & 3) Expecting dramatic results.
     1) A regular daily meditation PRACTICE must be established to replace our old outdated conditioning with new more appropriate conditioning / training. The more we practice wisely, the better we become at it. Without this disciplined approach, we derive ZERO benefits, no matter how much we read & talk about meditation. As with skiing, tennis or golf, we improve in direct proportion to the quality & quantity of our practice.
     2) IF we PATIENTLY persevere, and accept our old conditioning (untrained, distracted mind), treat ourselves with incredible patience, gentleness & kindness - holding ourselves in safety & unconditional love - carefully following the meditation instructions - zooming in on the details with curiosity, we WILL INEVITABLY SUCCEED. 
     Our mind is the organ of change. Wise, consistent training invariably transforms our mind to work FOR us (instead of against us). We will turn our life right around. From feeling helpless, vulnerable & needy, we gradually shift to embody the source of safety & unconditional love first for ourselves, and subsequently for others. 
     3) When we stabilize our awareness on a physical sensation (even for 10 seconds), we release our habitual shallow level of consciousness ("noisy ego") and become our deeper intelligence, experiencing peace, stillness & silence. The first few times, we tend to get either bored or all excited and so pop right back up to the shallows & start blabbering to ourselves, which of course immediately ends the experience. 
     If we expect meditation to deliver fireworks & levitation, we might actually overlook the subtle quality of profound peace, stillness & silence, and judge it boring, a waste of time! 
     If however we have suffered, or are now suffering from a lot of emotional anguish, then experiencing profound peace, stillness & silence will feel absolutely heavenly. Gradually, we do learn to feel comfortable & stabilize in this profoundly peaceful, still, silent, loving space of deep intelligence where we are deeply connected to, engaged, intimate with ourselves, others, the environment, life itself:

     Let us PRACTICE regularly, wisely, patiently, kindly every day, formally and informally. We've created a desperate mess with our noisy ego. Now we must clean up this hot mess, but can only do so by embodying our deep intelligence. We know how; we can do it!

Sunday, 8 March 2020

#762 Overview of the Meditative Path

     While busy raising a family, establishing a career, and coping with the effects of various traumas, little time or energy remains to get one's bearings. A recent radio show: "The Death of Leisure" discussed how current societal pressures & priorities are so narrowly focused on productivity (work), that opportunities to "think about how to pursue the things we value" are disappearing. "So how do we reconfigure our relationship to the time we have and open it up so we can pursue the good life?"
     A small proportion of us do seek out, and do obtain symptomatic relief from stress through meditation, including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
     After children have grown & become independent, career has peaked (or starts winding down), and psychological issues have more or less resolved, a gnawing "lack" often still remains - or becomes more pressing than ever before. 
     But because most of us have so exclusively devoted ourselves to "productivity," our profession becomes our entire identity, so we often find ourselves lost & feeling empty by middle-age, and especially after we retire. So some swear "I'll never retire"; some quickly go back to work after a very brief retirement; and some very quickly die after retirement. The momentum of a lifetime of constant struggle & striving for financial security, material success & professional respect is powerful & enduring
     All life transitions are challenging, perhaps especially retirement: loss of identity; diminished prestige, income, control & social contacts; diminishing physical & mental health; fear of death; and perhaps the most frightening of all - becoming consciously aware (perhaps for the first time) of what's actually going on. Retirement is an inherent part of wise aging - something in which most of us have ZERO training, knowledge, or even interest.

     Serious meditation practice can help us far more than we can imagine:

      “Beginning meditation may be difficult. Just sitting immobile for a half hour can be arduous at first and intensive practice over a period of days can be powerful and at times disconcerting. Any unresolved psychological conflicts tend to surface as soon as attention is turned inward and the restless agitated nature of the untrained mind rapidly becomes apparent. Powerful surges of arousal and emotion may alternate with deep peace and joy.

     Even a few hours of intensive practice can easily demonstrate that our usual levels of awareness and perception are grossly insensitive, distorted, and outside voluntary control. Indeed, it rapidly becomes apparent that our usual degree of voluntary control of psychological processes is far less than commonly assumed. Amazingly enough, we can live a whole lifetime without recognizing the fact that these perceptual processes continuously control, create, and distort our reality as well as our ideas of who and what we are. Most people who have tried would probably agree that training the mind and bringing it under voluntary control is one of the most difficult tasks a person can undertake.
     The rewards of meditative practice tend to be subtle at first. Increased calm, sensitivity, receptivity, empathy, insight, and clarity are some of the qualities that may be experienced early as a result of regular practice. Old assumptions about oneself and the world are gradually surrendered, and more finely tuned, comprehensive perspectives begin to emerge.
     Such immediate benefits, however, are only tastes of what is potentially a profound transformative process, for when practiced intensely, meditation disciplines almost invariably lead into the transpersonal realm of experience. Advanced practitioners report states of consciousness, levels of perceptual sensitivity and clarity, and degrees of insight, calm, joy, and love that far exceed those experienced by most people in their daily life. A progressive sequence of altered states of consciousness can occur, which may ultimately result in the permanent, radical shift in consciousness known as enlightenment or liberation.”

       Roger Walsh. “Meditation: Doorway to the Transpersonal.” In R. Walsh, F. Vaughan eds. “Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology.” JP Tarcher, 1980.

    For more depth & detail:

Saturday, 9 November 2019

#761 Integration Now

     “Da Vinci’s approach was an integrated science, philosophy, and art of quality and wholeness, an exploration of patterns, systems, and the interrelatedness of things, more complete than the mechanistic and reductionistic understanding. He understood the parts and the mechanics; he designed hundreds of mechanical devices and carefully studied their properties, including precise understanding of things like the human arm or of the flow of fluids – hydraulics – recognizing its applicability to everything from water in a stream to blood flow in the body.
     But while he understood full well that the arm, for example, provided mechanical utility and could be dissected into individual components, he did not reduce the arm or the human or nature at large simply to mechanics. His reverence for natural creations and his ability to recognize patterns and interconnecting phenomena provided an integrated science and art, value and meaning, rationality and beauty. Without this larger, more integrated way of knowing, as he says, we ‘do injury to knowledge and to love.’
     To what extent does our prevailing educational approach leave out parts of the mind – ways of knowing – and thereby foster the same kind of injury? Today, how do we reconcile mechanistic and holistic understanding, awe and information, quality and quantity, and while we are at it, find what the ancient Greeks searched for – the good, the true, and the beautiful?


     Confusion arises in education today particularly because we are in the midst of an epochal change and we cannot quite clearly make out the horizon and thus how education should best proceed. Civilization appears to move through various eras or epochs of knowing, that is, the grounds on which we constitute truth and knowledge. Philosopher Michel Foucault referred to this as the episteme of an era. Thomas Kuhn spoke of scientific paradigms in a fairly similar although more circumscribed way. Basically, the episteme is made up of the assumptions, rules, roles, standards, and methods of knowing that guide and limit how we think and know. We cannot quite see this; it is a kind of epistemic unconscious or underlying field that we operate within. This matrix forms the conditions and limits of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place. Such an epoch of knowing emerges from, overlaps with, and then eclipses the previous episteme. For example, we might conclude that the early Renaissance was followed by a modernist period. (Because culture is not homogeneous, multiple epistemes could exist as part of different power-knowledge systems or subcultures.) We can recognize some of the characteristics of the predominant modernist episteme of the past few centuries including the role of the individual, the application of a scientific, materialistic, reductionistic, objectivist knowing as the standard of truth. This naturally led to education that emphasizes facts, measurement, control, predictability, generality, reduction, materiality, and the like. It also would tend to miss observations and conclusions that land outside that episteme.
     More recently, the postmodern turn has opened great cracks in the modernist episteme. It helps us unpack facts and ask critical questions about knowledge. For example, we recognize that truth and knowledge are often tied to power. When we ask, ‘Who funded that research?’ we are recognizing the mutability of objective fact. Truth is mediated by our intent, expectations, social status, language, race, history, and more. In Washington and elsewhere we may now even refer to ‘true facts’ revealing this postmodern recognition of just how facts can be a product of power and spin, not only reduced, objective, certain, and measurable.
     I want to make clear that this in no way whatsoever diminishes the importance of science or facts or measurement or logic, but it places them in the context of human understanding and culture. It helps us think critically and go behind the curtain of so-called objective knowledge. We can thank this postmodern shift for elevating critical reasoning and questioning, helping us recognize that ‘truth,’ to one degree or another, is socially construed.
     The modernist era has helped us to distinguish in so many ways. The postmodern has helped expose how culture and context shape what we consider to be true and good and beautiful. But we are on the cusp of something more.
     The challenge for this new era is not just to differentiate, dominate, or deconstruct, but instead to integrate. An industrial era yields to the information age, but the front edge is not merely about more information, it is instead an age of integration. Goethe said it this way: ‘To locate yourself in the infinite you must distinguish and then unite.’
     We already see the harbingers of a drive toward integration in all sorts of front-edge initiatives: mind-body medicine; fusion of art, music, and technology; East-West dialogue in everything from culture to cuisine; neurophenomenology as a research approach to merge direct experience and brain activity; social neuroscience that challenges the assumptions of discrete, individual consciousness, recognizing the linking of brains; new previously inconceivable blended fields like neuroaesthetics and neuroethics; lessons from paleobiology being applied to global finance; tide pool ecology informing approaches to post-9/11 national security; and the largest annual academic prize being the Templeton Prize for the integration of science and spirituality, two domains that have been radically segregated for four hundred years. We are coming to recognize interconnection in everything from pollution to politics to persons.
     The fundamental assumptions of reality that underlie the modernist epiteme are not only being deconstructed but also being turned upside down. We are moving from an understanding of the world as chunks of dead matter to seeing it as part of a self-organizing, living universe. In domain after domain we are coming to recognize connection, interdependence, and integration at every level of being. With it we have the possibility and the need, in the words of Thomas Berry, to move from seeing the world as a collection of objects to experiencing it as a communion of subjects.
     However partial our view of the horizon is, we are standing in a position that enables us to recognize many of the features of this knowing: integrating versus abbreviating, holistic versus reductionistic, connection versus domination, emergent and coconstituted versus materially existent and individual, value-laden versus valueless, interdependent versus isolated, dynamic versus static, probabilistic rather than deterministic, subjective and objective, intuition and logic, forest and tree, commonality and difference, compassion and calculation.
     The challenge for this age is not just about more information and faster connections, more differentiation and domination, but to find a way to bring together the bits and the bytes in living the integrated life in a world of global interconnection so that we, as da Vinci warned, stop doing injury to knowledge and to love. If our education and our consciousness are to be a match for this century, this is where the trail of knowing leads. But how do we proceed?


     Our understanding of knowing is multifaceted and in education emphasizes memory, reasoning, learning style, language, intelligence, and on and on. Acknowledging the vast array of distinctions, I want to cut beneath these to claim that with respect to education, consciousness, and culture today, there are two ways of knowing. That is, there are two fundamental ways that the mind works to know the world. There are myriad variations to be sure and certainly plenty of other ways to slice this rhetorically, but the most salient concern today comes down to this.
     One way we will call categorical. This knows the world through abstraction, through separating it from us, through taking apart to understand. In a sense everything is reduced to parts, to lowest units that are differentiated, named, catalogued. It reaches its apex in metaphor of computer zeroes and ones. Categorical awareness narrows in to focus on detail and seeks precision, objectivity, and presupposes certainty. It simplifies and represents, proceeds linearly and sequentially, and generalizes. Our schooling emphasizes this way of knowing, and for the most part, only this.
     The other knowing is through contact instead of category. Its style is direct, relational, embodied, and recognizes wholes and connections. Awareness through contact enables a broader view, one connected with the world and the body, scanning for changes in the environment. This knowing seeks novelty, picks up implicit meaning and metaphor, is able to read faces and other cues of individuals instead of simplified, predetermined, and generalized categories. Knowledge through contact is evolving, implicit, and indeterminate since it always exists in relationship to something else and is not ever fully graspable.
     Iain McGilchrist*, drawing from a vast body of neuroscientific and phenomenological data, makes a compelling case that these ways of knowing have neurological substrates corresponding to the anatomically distinct hemispheres of the brain.” 
         Tobin Hart. “The Integrative Mind: Transformative Education for a World on Fire.” Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

        * Iain McGilchrist. “The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” Yale University Press, 2019.
                 AND wrt health-care education:

Friday, 8 February 2019

#760 From Black-and-White Thinking towards Intimacy

     We all experience "ups & downs," "good times & bad," etc. In fact, our contact with life's "opposites", and our "approach-avoidance" reaction to them, started in utero!

     “From the very beginning of our lives, even from before we are born, we organize ourselves in response to our environment. We pull away, with our body and our consciousness, from whatever is painful or overwhelming, and we constrict those parts of ourselves that are experiencing pain. Our pulling away from abrasive stimuli is not just a mental process. It is an actual constricting against the sensation of pain.
     … trauma (is) any event that is too intense, too painful – emotionally or physically – or too confusing to be fully received.

     (This) is simply the ordinary human condition. We all grow up to some extent limited in our human capacities, such as our ability to love, to speak freely, or to think clearly, by (trauma-induced) holding patterns … Although we may be aware of feelings of tension in our body, most people are not aware of the limitations in their ability to receive and respond to life, unless these limitations become severe. Most of us accept our limitations as being ‘just who we are.’ ” Judith Blackstone

     We approach pleasurable opportunities to promote well-being & survival. Conversely, we avoid or withdraw from painful experiences as protection from harm. This biological approach-avoid dichotomy underlies all motivational tendencies, forms the basis of emotion, & promotes adaptation.
     We're biologically & culturally programmed to seek pleasure & avoid discomfort. But life includes pleasure, pain, as well as uncomfortable periods of growth that take place beyond our comfort zone - in liminality - a state of in-between-ness, ambiguity confusion & even boredom.
        Lovas J, Gold E, Neish N, Whitehorn D, Holexa D. "Cultivating Engagement through Mindfulness Practice." Poster Presentation, American Dental Education Association annual meeting, March 19, 2012, Orlando, FL. 

     Our struggle to avoid pain & liminality, and cling to happiness is the basic obstacle to joyful, full engagement with life.
     Particularly in our youth, we might assume that "really living" is a wild roller coaster ride. During periods of calm & peace, we may actually become anxiously "bored." With age, however, we tend to prefer peace over emotional extremes.

     Mindfulness practice cultivates wise acceptance of, & the ability to work equanimously within the entire range of what life brings us - embracing all the apparent opposites, even all apparent paradoxes
     Our minds cannot comprehend this - a serious, often permanent road-block for many. HOWEVER, for the few who are sufficiently interested, patient meditation practice allows us to experience the fact that literally "everything is workable," moving us well past mere acceptance, towards intimacy with ALL of life.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

#759 Savoring Mindfully

     Positive psychology defines "savoring" as "the process of learning to focus attention on positive events to increase one's sensitivity to naturally rewarding experiences, such as enjoying a beautiful nature scene or experiencing a sense of connection with a loved one." Garland EL et al. "Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement for Chronic Pain and Prescription Opioid Misuse: Results From an Early-Stage Randomized Controlled Trial." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2014; DOI: 10.1037/a0035798

     This differs from how I use the term mindful savoring in teaching MBSR, the central focus of which is seeing the full scope of reality clearly, as it actually is. My use of this term overlaps with the definition of "connoisseur," and may best illustrated thus:
     A wine expert (sommelier) can "blind taste" a variety of wines and with great accuracy, provide details of the type(s) of wine, type of grapes, country of origin, perhaps even the specific vineyard and year of harvest, and how well this particular vintage/winery combination represents the region. With great enthusiasm, a wine connoisseur can provide considerably more details than this, and yet actually consume little if any wine (they usually spit it into a special container), and unless the wine is actually spoiled (eg "corked"), will not indicate whether or not s/he personally "likes" or "dislikes" it. 
     Mindful savoring is based, first & foremost on intimacy - a profound openness to & interest in, a kind of love if you will - an open mind & heart - toward all wines & wine-making in general. This is qualitatively different from rigid, reactive, black-&-white judgments / personal preferences ("I hate this" - or - "I crave this").
     The important mindful aspects of savoring: non-judgmental, open / transpersonal (vs narrow / personal) awareness & psychological flexibility (vs rigidity).

     Consider the effect on your quality of life were you to mindfully savor the innumerable people & phenomena you encountered - the richness of the infinite variety of experiences is unimaginable. 

     In contrast to mindful savoring, aren't we more prone to rigidly identify with our preferences? How unlikely are we to meet people / phenomena that we rate amazingly desirable ("must haves") or that we rate terribly undesirable ("must avoids") - very seldom, right? But don't the vast majority of people / phenomena fit in between - the vast numbers of "neutrals" we hardly notice or even try to avoid, having judged them "boring"? (Remember the "inn-crowd" in high school?)
     To the extent that we fail to mindfully savor, our life is dull & frustrating,filled with wanting, striving, waiting & disappointment.

     Psychological flexibility paves the way towards de-armoring, knowledge about & intimacy with ourself, others & life in general. Rigidity, the opposite of psychological flexibility, is an armored dead-end:


Wednesday, 19 December 2018

#758 Towards Stillness ...

     Mindfulness practice gradually leads us from feeling uncomfortable in our own skin, distractions & mindless compulsive activity, towards stillness, peace & seeing things as they are, clearly, right here & now, and appropriate responses.

     “… meditation practice can show you how helpful the practice of restraint can be. You sit … and you don’t move. If you’re uncomfortable, you remain sitting still with the discomfort for an entire half hour. You do not move. You don’t get up after five minutes just because you have an odd thought; you stay with it and see what happens.

     When we hold still, we create a field of clarity for ourselves. We learn restraint. Yes, there are parts of the self that resist that clarity, and then the body jumps into movement to cloud the field: we scratch our nose, rearrange our limbs, and shift our attention. And we miss the moment of holding still, of clarity and readiness. Doing this practice for many years, I find that learning restraint in this way is especially valuable for people like me who jump around from one thing to the next. The restraint of holding still allows me to enter a state of presence and intimacy that I wouldn’t get otherwise. Without it, I might embarrass myself by getting up and walking out of the meditation room!
     But learning restraint is much more important. In terms of sex, anger, and greediness, restraint can be the key to compassion and skillful action. When we’re ready to do something really unskillful, suddenly a little shadow of awareness comes up in our minds, and we don’t abuse, we don’t yell, we don’t grasp; we just stay still. In that moment of restraint, we can discover our own strength, our own integrity.” Pat Enkyo O’Hara

Sunday, 9 December 2018

#757 Intimacy with Oneself

No umbrella, getting soaked.
I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.               Daito Kokushi

      "Facing yourself intimately and without judgment is like finding yourself in a sudden downpour without an umbrella or a shelter. You try to escape the cold and wet by huddling into your clothes, head down, but there’s no way to move away from the rain, just like there’s no way to move away from your own issues, sorrow, or anger. If you can just let go of trying to escape and acknowledge, ‘This is me, and this is what I’m experiencing,’ the need to escape vanishes. You are free to be truly there for yourself and others. It’s like standing in the rain with nothing to lose: your self is the raincoat that will protect you and protect your loved ones through your honesty. If you can see that you are not the world, but that the world is actually you, then you can begin to experience an intimacy with all things. The key is to train yourself to see this in your moment-to-moment life, to consciously dissolve the made-up boundaries between self and other, to appreciate that we are all linked together in this magic circle of relationship.

     This might sound rather airy-fairy, but it is what gives us freedom, and freedom is what we really want. We want to be spontaneously alive, not stuck in our old habits of body and mind. So we flow with change; we nurture awareness; we listen with open heart-minds to ourselves and to each other. We recognize our own ‘selflessness’ and our own ‘self-fullness.’
     It is the fulcrum of our relationships – with family, friends, coworkers – that can lead us to this continuous path of awakening. The key is to train ourselves to recognize how we are in our moment-to-moment lives and to honestly connect with others without fear or shame. Because, strange as it may seem, we learn more from relationships than from any other source. And they are not always easy! Buddha’s teachings tell us that suffering arises from grasping for things to be different than they are, from not meeting the moment just as it is. We’re so preoccupied with the idea of what we want, that we miss what’s really alive in the present moment. We always want to be safe and happy and to avoid any suffering, so we try to control our own lives and the lives of those close to us. We don’t feel safe enough to just let things fall apart and reassemble. We try to ‘fix’ the other people when that’s not needed, and so we create more suffering.

      It may sound strange, but even when we are struggling, we can find appreciation in the struggle itself. If we are willing to experience others and ourselves as evolving beings, we may realize that even the most disturbing insight into our self may be exactly what we need. At that moment, we can appreciate our willingness and courage to take the step into reality.”

       Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. “Most Intimate. A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges.” Shambhala, 2014.

     "You need not worry about your worries. Just be. Do not try to be quiet; do not make 'being quiet' into a task to be performed. Don't be restless about 'being quiet', miserable about 'being happy'. Just be aware that you are and remain aware - don't say: 'yes, I am; what next?' There is not 'next' in 'I am'. It is a timeless state." Nisargadatta