Tuesday, 31 January 2012

#30 Neuroscience - part 2 of 3

     “Mind-wandering is not only a common activity present in roughly 50% of our awake life, but is also associated with lower levels of happiness. Moreover, mind-wandering is known to correlate with neural activity in a network of brain areas that support self-referential processing, known as the default-mode network (DMN). This network has been associated with process ranging from attention lapses to anxiety to clinical disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease. Given the interrelationship between DMN, mind-wandering, and unhappiness, a question arises: Is it possible to change this default mode into one that is more present-centered, and possibly happier?
      One potential way to reduce DMN activity is through the practice of mindfulness meditation.”
     Brewer JA et al. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2011; 108(50): 20254-9. 

     CBC Radio "Quirks & Quarks" Jan 28, 2012 podcast with Dr. Brewer "Your Brain on Meditation": http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2012/01/28/january-28-2012/

Photo: izanoza   www.dpreview.com

Monday, 30 January 2012

#29 Neuroscience - part 1 of 3

     “Mindfulness, a core element of diverse forms of meditation, is thought to include two complementary components: (i) maintaining attention on the immediate present, and (ii) maintaining an attitude of acceptance toward this experience.
     Specific types of mindfulness meditation have been taught in a standardized fashion for decades as a mainstay of mindfulness training in community and clinical settings…”
     Brewer JA et al. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2011; 108(50): 20254-9.

Podcast of CBC Radio Quirks & Quarks Jan 28, 2012 interview with Dr. Brewer "Your Brain on Meditation": http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2012/01/28/january-28-2012/

Photo: chickpiper   www.dpreview.com

Sunday, 29 January 2012

#28 Underdeveloped human capacity

     Mindfulness training helps round out and deepen our vision.
     Education is dominated by the rational-empirical approach that emphasizes the rational (calculation, explanation, logical analysis), and sensory (observation, measurement).
     "Contemplation is a third way of knowing – a missing link – that complements and enhances the rational and sensory. The contemplative mind is opened and activated through a wide range of approaches – from pondering to poetry to meditation – that are designed to shift states of mind in order to cultivate such capacities as deepened awareness, concentration & insight. Historically, the contemplative has been used throughout the wisdom traditions as fundamental for developing interiority and understanding the most essential knowledge, yet it is almost entirely absent from contemporary education."

     Hart T. From information to transformation. Education for the evolution of consciousness. Peter Lang Publishing, NY, 2009.


Saturday, 28 January 2012

#27 Focus of attention

     “What we consider conceptual thinking is only one of six modes of the mind, the other five being sensory, so meditation may or may not involve conceptual thought. Placing the mind upon a sensory object is just as much meditation as placing the mind upon a conceptual object, and it is not possible to do both at once. The point here is that ... (meditation) more often refers to placing the mind upon physical sensations, upon raw sights or sounds, or upon the tangible objects of smell and taste.”
     “The Neurobiology of mindfulness.” Treadway MT, Lazar SW in: Didonna  F ed, “Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness” Springer NY 2009.

Photo: David A. Lovas

Friday, 27 January 2012

#26 Deepening awareness

     To listen and observe deeply, we let go of "any form of interpretation, judgment, condemnation, and appreciation."
     Kumar, A. (2010). Art of awareness. Conversations on Curriculum & Pedagogy, 3: 19-22. http://edcp.educ.ubc.ca/community/edcp-e-zine

     Letting go of constantly judging, or at least allowing this habit to fade into the background, brings surprising relief. But it's a slow process, requiring patience and persistence.

Photo: Yanir Yakabovits  www.dpreview.com

Thursday, 26 January 2012

#25 The lab

     Sitting meditation practice is where we start to transform attractive concepts into new behavior patterns. We do this by observing ourselves, as if under our own microscope. Under "laboratory conditions": remaining physically still, letting go of words (audible, as well as self-talk), we follow basic observing-the-breath instructions. With a scientist's curiosity, we observe - become aware of - the many ways in which a part of us tries to escape from simply resting in the present moment.
     This simple - but not easy - practice has been shown to literally rewire our brain. Compulsivity diminishes, while the executive function of our brain comes into its own.

     "We conclude that mindfulness brings about various positive psychological effects including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation."
     Keng SL, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clin Psychol Rev 2011; 31(6): 1041-56.

Parc Luxembourg, Paris


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

#24 At home now

     Avoiding and chasing don't bring lasting happiness - so when can I be happy?
     Hoping for future happiness is escaping from the present - an assumption that what we have right now can't be "it."
     But the present moment is real and workable, while the future is uncertain (on many levels). 

     Isn't this when we live? Can we take a rest from being chased and chasing? Mindfulness is all about working more consciously and realistically with the present moment.

     We start to release our tendencies to avoid and chase by becoming aware of these tendencies. At first we notice that we just did it again. Later we notice that we're doing it again. Then that we're about to do it, so we don't. And eventually, we notice that we have the tendency, but it no longer causes us to act in the old way. This is how, with mindfulness practice, awareness starts to free us from habits that no longer benefit us.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

#23 Pursuit

     How much of my doing is chasing after activities, people, things etc that I presume will make me happy? And when I catch one of these, do I try to hold on to it "forever"?

      Pursuit can present in the form of addictions, hunger, ruthless ambition, an empty feeling inside, distractedness, impatience, clinging, possessiveness, materialism, greed, jealousy, etc. "The one who dies with the most toys wins."

     Our own experience repeatedly shows that no matter what we imagine will bring happiness, shortly after we obtain or achieve it, the happiness starts fading. But we don't seem to learn, and we restlessly chase after the next thing that will surely make us happy - in the future.

Monday, 23 January 2012

#22 Avoidance

     How much of my doing is driven by trying to avoid activities, people, things etc that I presume to be incompatible with happiness?

     Avoidance can present in the form of denial, suppression, sleepiness, boredom, restlessness, compulsive behavior, a sense of being hunted - always having to run away etc.
      “... experiential avoidance does not appear to work well in the long run. Research has shown that ... a heightened level of experiential avoidance is correlated with increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse, worry, long-term disability, high-risk sexual behavior, inability to learn, poorer work performance, lower quality of life, and higher degrees of overall psychopathology.”
        Ciarrochi J, Mayer JD. "Applying emotional intelligence: A practitioner's guide." Psychology Press, NY, 2007.

     Mindfulness is about fully experiencing reality - ie the opposite of avoidance. Why? Because engaging directly with our life works. But don't take anybody's word for it - you need to experience this for yourself.

Artist: R C Gorman   http://rcgormangallery.com/

Sunday, 22 January 2012

#21 Relating wisely to reality

     “Mindfulness is not about fixing anything, but about seeing things as they actually are and then being in wise relationship to them, even if it is difficult or painful.”            Jon Kabat-Zinn

     Mindfulness practice is about gradually, progressively integrating these concepts into a way of living daily life.

Photo: David A. Lovas

Saturday, 21 January 2012

#20 Perspective: Comfort - Training - Injury

     Those who exercise regularly understand sweating, muscle aches etc as positive feedback that progress is being made towards the valued long-term goal of physical health. Some find sweating, muscle aches etc unacceptable. "The difference between TRY and TRIUMPH ... is a bit of UMPH!" Anon

     Meditating on a regular basis, like any other disciplined practice, requires some effort and acceptance of some discomfort. With patient, persistent practice, benefits invariably accumulate.

     “actual personal growth is initiated by the same set of events and cognitive processing that increase the risk of distress and functional impairment.”
       Kashdan TB, Kane JQ. Posttraumatic distress and the presence of posttraumatic growth and meaning in life: Experiential avoidance as a moderator. Pers Individ Dif 2011; 50(1): 84-89.

Photo: Mike Ronesia www.dpreview.com

Friday, 20 January 2012

#19 Working with "self"

"Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power."              Lao-Tzu

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man. 
True nobility is being superior to your former self.”                               Thom Yorke

Thursday, 19 January 2012

#18 Normal Human Development

      Life experiences "condition" us, so we can end up with fairly inflexible thoughts about ourself. A natural part of maturing is seeing through and beyond these incorrect and limiting mental "straight jackets." We tend to underestimate crucial aspects of ourselves.

     "Self-transcendence relates to decreases in attachment to one’s own perspectives, view points, truths, and construal self, as well as extension of care, compassion, and concern toward others including both past and future generations. ... a developmental process that involves a change in perspective and orientation of self in relation to others, social status, and objects. … a self-transcendence orientation is part of a developmental process towards liberation from biological and social conditionings.”
     Le TN. Life satisfaction, openness value, self-transcendence, and wisdom. Journal of Happiness Studies 2011; 12(2): 171-182.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

#17 Expectations

     We naturally have specific expectations from practicing mindfulness.
     However, being aware and curious about how our perception of, and responses to, daily life situations are changing, may be a pleasant surprise.
      An open mind and curiosity keeps us from fixating on initial goals, and may lead to achievements that surpass our expectations.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

#16 Where growth happens

     "Learning takes place at the point of tension between credulous appreciation and wary dismissal. ... Exploration and discovery ... call for an abandonment of this +/- dichotomy and an occupation of the open middle ground." Glenn Wallis

     To grow as individuals, we need to be out of our comfort zone, but not too far beyond it. The "no pain, no gain" approach may work for marines, but tends to impede growth for most of us regular folk.

     Athletes, musicians, academics - all train within this zone of discomfort - past comfort, but before pain. This is where training effect happens - aerobic fitness improves, muscles enlarge, new neural circuits laid down, skills are perfected.

     Likewise, for benefits to occur, mindfulness training must take us beyond our comfort zone. If we practice mindfulness with curiosity, patience, persistence and the right level of intensity, we will inevitably become progressively more mindful.

#15 Welcome changes

     We'd like to change circumstances to suit us, but controlling situations and others is rarely possible. Nevertheless, it takes us perfectionists a long time to let go of the illusion of control. The rigid attitude: "to be happy, I must have these, but must avoid these" causes frustration and unhappiness for all concerned.

     Learning to feel peaceful, "at home" in this world, comes with a shift in perspective, in attitude. With patient training, rigidity gradually evolves into psychological flexibility.

     Terry Dobson's story - "A Soft Answer" - illustrates this beautifully: http://easternhealingarts.com/Articles/softanswer.html

     Simon & Garfunkel performing "I am a rock": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptddLe1IXaA&feature=related

Monday, 16 January 2012

#14 Breathing & Authenticity

     As we become increasingly conscious of what's going on in our lives, we start seeing the discrepancies between our behavior, the image we want others to see, and who we feel we really are.
     This sense of dividedness may feel progressively more unacceptable. We all seem to be seeking integrity, congruence.
     Practicing awareness of the feel of the breath in our belly may be helpful. Movement outwards with inbreath is a model of the busy stuff of life, movement inwards with outbreath, our inner life. Investigating the nature of the still, silent center of this breath rhythm within the belly, may be surprisingly helpful.
     The still point is akin to the rudder and ballast of our sail boat. Our windswept life - our boat above the water.

     Humor: "Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again."              Anon

#13 Intention

     Regardless of what first brought us to mindfulness practice, or what our worldview is, we can as decent human beings all join graduating physicians in the Hippocratic oath:
     To decrease suffering.
     To at least do no harm.

     Humble intentions, yet as we become increasingly mindful, we notice how often we are the proverbial "bull in a china shop." 

     Learning to be more aware of what we're doing and how it affects people, and having the intent to decrease suffering, is a fine common cause.

Photo: Sandy Lovas

Sunday, 15 January 2012

#12 Acceptance begins at home

     “If the doctor wants to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.” Carl Jung

     Learning to meditate in a group is wonderful. You see and hear that your difficulties and struggles are not unique, but universal. Everyone finds it challenging to sit still for even 5 minutes at first. Everyone automatically scratches an itch and moves their feet - only then remembering the instruction about stillness. And these mistakes occur more than once. Even highly-educated mature accomplished people have difficulty following simple meditation instructions for 5 minutes! We're all in the same boat.

"The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain and simple to express:
Err and err and err again, but less and less and less." Piet Hein


#11 Awareness AND Acceptance

     A stranger observing three young children "being kids" may be very critical of their behavior, and see only a negative fraction of their humanity. Their (healthy) mother sees the same activity, but apprehends them in their full human complexity - because those kids are part of her reality, and because they're literally part of her. She accepts them completely, unconditionally.

     Oddly enough, it seems to require generosity and even love, not just intellect, to fully see the situation at hand.
     Each perception first passes through our brainstem (primitive “reptilian” part of the brain) where it is “judged” as good, bad, or indifferent to our survival. Then, a fraction of a second later, perception reaches conscious awareness ALREADY JUDGED: “I like”, “I don’t like”, or “boring”.

     Acceptance is about becoming aware of these biological and psychological boundaries or walls we've built between reality and ourselves. Acceptance requires bravery to gradually allow these outmoded protective barriers to come down. 
     Eventually, the stranger may realize that those kids are part of his reality too - and then see them as if for the first time.

#10 Acceptance

     Acceptance is being “open to seeing and acknowledging things as they are in the present moment; acceptance does not mean passivity or resignation, rather a clearer understanding of the present so one can more effectively respond.”
     Shapiro SL, Schwartz GE. Intentional systemic mindfulness: an integrative model for self-regulation and health. Adv Mind Body Med 2000; 16(2): 128-34.

     Like awareness, acceptance is a critical component of optimal mental / emotional health.
     We become progressively more accepting by gradually becoming aware of how we habitually tend to close ourselves off to many things that are unpleasant, boring, or even wonderful.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

#9 "Simple, but not easy"

     The simple exercise of watching one's breath is by no means easy, even for 5 minutes. All our lives we've allowed our attention to turn to anything that pops up in the outer or inner world.
     This is like trying to carefully observe an area of forest during a dark night with a floodlight, but the floodlight is loosely swirling around with the prevailing winds - frustrating!
     Persistently bringing the focus of our attention back to eg the feel of our breath in the belly, retrains our brains for stable awareness. We gradually learn to hold the floodlight, stabilizing it on whatever we plan to observe.
     It's like learning to play a musical instrument for the first time. There's a learning curve, but as we all know, the more one practices with full intention (not just go through the motions), the better one becomes at a new skill.
     It's simple training effect - neuroplasticity - the brain rewires itself, and the activity becomes progressively more natural, easier to do.
     If you feel that stable awareness is a fundamental life skill, then it's well worth the persistent effort to cultivate and refine.

Friday, 13 January 2012

#8 Awareness training

     During sitting meditation, the idea is to remain still, simply maintaining the focus of attention on the feel of the breath in the belly. Each time attention wanders from the breath, notice, and return to the breath.
     If your nose gets itchy, instead of automatically scratching it, simply observe the phenomenon with curiosity, but remain still. If your legs get uncomfortable, instead of automatically moving them to a more comfortable position, observe the phenomenon with curiosity, but remain still.
     Practice remaining still and stabilizing attention on the feel of the breath in the belly. When you do this, what happens to the itch, what happens to the discomfort?

#7 Curiosity, openness

     Mindfulness training teaches us to be curious and open to whatever the present moment holds. We learn to remain comfortable while witnessing - the moderate position between the extremes of hypervigilance and inattentiveness.
     A degree of generosity or caring towards the focus of one's attention also appears to be necessary. "Scientific objectivity", and similar forms of intellectual distancing, now appear to be problematic on many levels.

     "You learn about a thing ... by opening yourself wholeheartedly to it. You learn about a thing by loving it."                                                                        Barbara McClintock - Nobel prize-winning geneticist

#6 Awareness

     Our ability to keep our attention focused on one person or one activity, for more than a few seconds, is minimal, and may be deteriorating.
     When busy with multiple commitments and deadlines, we typically only pay partial attention to the person or task at hand. A sizable portion of our attention is on what happened in the past, and what may happen later. The internet, emails, smartphones etc just compound our "continuous partial attention." (Ellen Rose's article - free pdf: http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/antistasis/issue/view/1390)
     This way of being short-changes the person or task we're with, is very inefficient, error-prone, stressful, and makes us feel phony. We only feel authentic and truly happy when we're fully present. (Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 2010; 330(6006): 932)
     Mindfulness practice can help stabilize our awareness, our ability to be fully present, authentic and happy.

Illustration: Canadian Medical Association Journal

Thursday, 12 January 2012

#5 Congruence

     "Integrity/Wholeness: Living and working with integrity requires us to develop greater congruence between our inner and outer selves, to live less divided lives. To move towards such wholeness we must become more self-aware and accepting of our gifts and strengths as well as our shadows and limits." http://www.couragerenewal.org/about/foundations

     Again, a part of us is keen on the above complete package, while a part of us resists it.
     Mindfulness practice teaches us to how work skillfully with barriers to "doing the right thing," helping us achieve our long-term goals.

#4 Clear Thinking

     "Mindfulness can be considered a universal human capacity proposed to foster clear thinking and openheartedness. As such, this form of meditation requires no particular religious or cultural belief system. The goal of mindfulness is to maintain awareness moment by moment, disengaging oneself from strong attachment to beliefs, thoughts, or emotions, thereby developing a greater sense of emotional balance and well-being."
     Ludwig DS, Kabat-Zinn J. "Mindfulness in Medicine." JAMA 2008; 300(11): 1350-2.

     Don't we ALL want to think clearly and be open-hearted? Actually, YES and NO!
     Many models describe this paradox: "divided self" (Parker J. Palmer), "competing commitments" (Robert Kegan - below illustration), Internal Family Systems (Dick Schwartz - http://www.selfleadership.org/ ) etc.

Illustration from: Kegan R, Lahey LL. The real reason people won’t change. Harvard Business Rev 2001; 79(10): 85–92.

Monday, 9 January 2012

#3 Resources

Kabat-Zinn J. "Mindfulness for beginners. Reclaiming the present moment – and your life." Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2012.
Salzberg S. “Real happiness – The power of meditation. A 28-day program.” Workman Publishing, NY, 2011.

Kabat-Zinn J. “Wherever you go, there you are. Mindfulness meditation in everyday life.” Hyperion, NY, 1994.

Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD (founder of MBSR) speaks at Google about Mindfulness:

UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness - birthplace of MBSR:

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care's "Mind the Moment":

Bangor University's Mindfulness program (UK):

Chris Germer PhD:

Mindfulness Exercises:


Saturday, 7 January 2012

#2 Getting started

     Reflecting on what motivates you to train in mindfulness is worthwhile.
     Mindfulness requires time, and initially, an
investment of energy just to see if it will be as valuable as you first thought.
     Many today start practicing mindfulness because of its well-documented effectiveness in "self-regulation" ie managing stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, etc. The initial intention is often to get rid of a problem.

Common MISCONCEPTIONS about mindfulness:
     It is NOT about escaping reality, zoning out, or even having reduced levels of alertness / consciousness / engagement. Mindfulness involves sustained, continuous, equanimous awareness.

     It’s NEITHER a hypnotic trance, NOR hypervigilance. Mindfulness is more like the calm, stable quality of awareness a dentist experiences while receiving dental care. She has calm, clear, detailed awareness throughout the procedure, without anxiety or drowsiness.

      Mindfulness training – and self-care in general – are NOT self-centered, selfish acts, quite the opposite. Our personal well-being “… is essential for the health of society ... growing evidence suggests ... that performance is intimately tied to emotional well-being, sense of community, sense of meaning and purpose, emotional regulation, self-reflection, and so forth.” Hart 2009

#1 Welcome!

     This blog is designed to help make basic concepts of mindfulness clear and readily accessible.

      Mindfulness is not just a method, but a state of being that emerges as we attend to ourselves and others in an open, caring, nonjudgmental way. It is a continuous learning process about how to relate to ourselves, others & the environment with increasing wisdom. It is a natural, universal human capacity that though underdeveloped, we can cultivate through well-established practices, the central one being sitting meditation.

     New material will appear sequentially on this site to help supplement, but not replace, these two excellent books:
     Salzberg S. “Real happiness – The power of meditation. A 28-day program.” Workman Publishing, NY, 2011.

     Kabat-Zinn J. “Wherever you go, there you are. Mindfulness meditation in everyday life.” Hyperion, NY, 1994.

     “These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing and thereby a technology of learning and pedagogy without any imposition of religious doctrine whatsoever. If we knew that particular and readily available activities would increase concentration, learning, well-being, social and emotional growth, and catalyze transformative learning ..." we would be cheating ourselves not to take advantage of it. Mindfulness may provide these.
         Hart T. From information to transformation. Education for the evolution of consciousness. Peter Lang Publishing, NY, 2009.

Life is right now - Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness