Wednesday, 31 October 2012

#214 Reality check

     Often, we feel energized to do something, go somewhere, see someone - so we're on our way, leaving this place to get to somewhere else. There's an inherent promise isn't there? We expect, or at least hope that we'll be satisfied, or at least relieved on accomplishing this bit of activity - though this rarely happens, does it? And even when it does, it's very brief, then we're off to the races again.
     At times - like when we feel exhausted - we wonder when we'll be OK without running after (or from?) something. Who knows, but we sure as hell do run a lot don't we? And like the poor hounds at dog races, we run in circles and never catch the fake rabbit.
     Can we take a break and look around a bit? Maybe get our bearings? How about re-prioritizing? Maybe there's life above and beyond the fake rabbit?
     I'm not suggesting we should all drop out and become hippies, but maybe there's a more physiologic pace to life. Maybe by adopting a humbler standard of living, Visa and the banks would loosen their grips on our throats. How much stuff and how many trips-of-a-lifetime do we "have to have"? Would we need all these "compensations" if we simply lived a decent, worthy life moment-by-moment?
     Do I feel anxious, lost and bored when I have nothing to do, nowhere to go? Why? Can't I simply enjoy the break? Don't I deserve it? Was I running away from something - what is it? Am I not enough when I'm still? Says who?

See also:

Kathmandu detail by Raewyn Bassett PhD

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

#213 Healthy adult maturation, Character development, Evolution of consciousness

     After age 35, our capacity for physical strength gradually diminishes. However, healthy normal adult maturation - character development, evolution of consciousness AND corresponding IMPROVEMENT in quality of life - can and should continue for the rest of our lives.
     A healthy adult intentionally, patiently, continuously transcends her instinctive fear-based self-centered reactivity (by noticing & letting go of inward tightening, closing-off, rigidity, coldness, cynicism), and re-establishes kindness-based connections with herself, others and the environment. In doing so, she notices a sense of porousness or expansion outward, opening-up, flexibility, warmth, gratitude - allowing her, and those around her, to enjoy a progressively finer quality of life.
     Our reptilian reactive (brain stem) habits try to keep our wounded inner child safe from being re-traumatized and acting out. But what we really need is to trust that our adult self (pre-frontal cortex & heart) is strong enough to relate directly to all of reality in the authentic manner of a mature, evolved, conscious human adult.

Montreal, Province de Quebec

Sunday, 28 October 2012

#212 Why just Survive? Why not Choose to Thrive?

     We repeatedly hear of people who choose to remain for a long time, even a lifetime, under terrible circumstances eg with an abusive partner. They do so, apparently, because they fear the unknown more than the misery they know well.
     It's also well known that many patients who are forced to see a mental-health professional when they can no longer function, will terminate therapy as soon as they can barely function again.
     Many wise people throughout the ages have provided detailed roadmaps to higher levels of consciousness and thriving that far surpass (Freud's) "ordinary unhappiness".  So why do so many of us choose - and it is a choice when  superior alternatives are available - to remain stuck in cynicism and sadness?

Montreal, Province de Quebec

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

#211 Stress relief - & - Spirituality ?

     "Taking the path less traveled by exploring your spirituality can lead to a clearer life purpose, better personal relationships and enhanced stress management skills.

What is spirituality?

     Spirituality has many definitions, but
at its core spirituality helps to give our lives context. It's not necessarily connected to a specific belief system or even religious worship. Instead, it arises from your connection with yourself and with others, the development of your personal value system, and your search for meaning in life.

     For many, spirituality takes the form of religious observance, prayer, meditation or a belief in a higher power. For others, it can be found in nature, music, art or a secular community. Spirituality is different for everyone."

     The healthy direction of our continuously evolving self-concept and worldview is from a fear-based, isolated, rigid "me against the world" stance, towards ever-widening, kind, mature engagement with people, nature, and inanimate universe (eg Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Mandela, Dalai Lama, etc).
     Can we recognize and respect each person - no matter how "different" they may seem on the surface - for their profound human potential? Namaste.

Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia

Monday, 22 October 2012

#210 Why mindfulness meditation?

     "Kabat-Zinn writes, 'Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing in the first place. I used to think that meditation practice was so powerful . . . that as long as you did it at all, you would see growth and change. But time has taught me that some kind of personal vision is also necessary.' This personal vision, or intention, is often dynamic and evolving. For example, a highly stressed businessman may begin a mindfulness practice to reduce hypertension. As his mindfulness practice continues, he may develop an additional intention of relating more kindly to his wife.
      as meditators continue to practice, their intentions shift along a continuum from self-regulation, to self-exploration, and finally to self-liberation. *** Further, the study found that outcomes correlated with intentions. Those whose goal was self-regulation and stress management attained self-regulation, those whose goal was self-exploration attained self-exploration, and those whose goal was self-liberation moved toward self-liberation and compassionate service. These findings correspond with our definition of intentions as dynamic and evolving, which allows them to change and develop with deepening practice, awareness, and insight. The inclusion of intention (i.e., why one is practicing) as a central component of mindfulness is crucial to understanding the process as a whole, and often overlooked in other contemporary definitions." 

     *** Self-liberation refers to the experience of transcending (i.e., becoming free of or dis-identifying from) the sense of being a separate self."

         Shapiro SL, Carlson LE, Astin JA, Freedman B. Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology 2006; 62: 373–386.

Related concepts: hypoegoic vs noisy ego, allocentric & ecocentric vs egocentric, and nondualism vs dualism.

“We are so lightly here” - Leonard Cohen

Sunday, 21 October 2012

#209 Choices, choices, choices ... Moment-by-moment

     You may recall stories or cartoons of a little angel sitting on one shoulder whispering advice to do the right thing, while on the opposite shoulder sits a little devil, whispering the opposite advice into the other ear. Angels and devils notwithstanding, we do, consciously or subconsciously, make innumerable decisions daily. These decisions are often between short-term self interest ("noisy ego") vs long-term interest for all (plain common sense when one is hypo-egoic).
     North American society has traditionally idolized the "self-made" individual, who quickly rises above everyone else to become rich & famous. If we think for a moment in terms of biology and ecology, what type of cell quickly rises to dominate all other cells? Cancer. What impact does it have on the whole body? Is it sustainable?

     Can we progressively become more consciously aware of moment-to-moment choices? Can we progressively choose in the direction of what makes sense for the long-term welfare of us all?

Tangled Garden, Grand Pré, Nova Scotia

Thursday, 18 October 2012

#208 Celebrate!

     “In the direst of circumstances, boundless peace is to be found within. Recall Viktor Frankl’s hard-won observation, 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.' If Frankl can find life worth celebrating in Auschwitz, chances are I can find my cup half full, perhaps full to overflowing, here and now."

       Mount BM. The 10 commandments of healing. J Cancer Educ 2006; 21(1): 50-1.

Credit: slideshare

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

#207 Assuming responsibility for our own brains

     "One of the exciting invitations (in the field of neuroplasticity) is the invitation to take more responsibility for our own brains. By engaging in certain more intentional strategies to cultivate positive states of mind, we can actually shape our brains in ways that may in fact be healthier and ways that can promote qualities like compassion and lead to enduring happiness.
     And so the idea that through training the mind, we can change the brain is simply predicated on the understanding that when we intentionally direct our mind in certain ways, that literally is sculpting the brain. The mind is shaping the brain by engaging in certain kinds of intentional mental states. We can systematically induce changes in the brain.”                         Ritchie Davidson PhD

The Compassionate Brain by Rick Hanson PhD – Sounds True – free streaming webinar
Session #1 - How the Mind Changes the Brain - Ritchie Davidson PhD interviewed by Rick Hanson PhD

Photo: Clint Dunn

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

#206 Neuroplasticity - Brain Continuously Sculpted by Experience & Training

     “Neuroplasticity refers to the concept that the brain can change in response to experience, and in response to training. Probably the greatest discoveries in the last decade in modern neuroscience concern the many different mechanisms of plasticity. The brain is literally built to change in response to experience and in response to training. It’s the only organ in the body that’s really designed explicitly for that purpose. We now understand something about the mechanisms for plasticity, and they are varied. They range from new connections being formed to new cells actually growing in the brain - new brain cells, new neurons, and many other related kinds of processes. So when we talk about neuroplasticity, we talk about both the structural and the functional changes in the brain.
     It’s important to understand that our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly. So even if we’re not engaged in any intentional strategy to change our minds and our brains, our brains are constantly being changed by the forces around us. If we have an argument with a friend, or a family member, that will shape our brain. If we have a warm, positive interaction with someone, that will shape our brain. If we watch television, depending on it’s content, that will shape our brain in one way or another. Everything that we do literally is constantly shaping our brain."      Ritchie Davidson PhD

The Compassionate Brain by Rick Hanson PhD – Sounds True – free streaming webinar
Session #1 - How the Mind Changes the Brain - Ritchie Davidson PhD interviewed by Rick Hanson PhD

Photo: avec fleur

Monday, 15 October 2012

#205 Obstructions to Mindfulness

     Mindfulness is about seeing things (objects of awareness or objects) clearly, as they are. 
     When we have aversion to an object, we tend to quickly push away from it mentally, emotionally, physically. We immediately stop observing the particular object (person, thing, or situation), and see only (become fused or one with) our exaggerated negative opinions about it. Racial prejudice is an example, but we have aversive reactions to a very wide range of objects. Aversion variants include disliking, hatred, anger, sadness, fear, resistance, etc.
     When we have craving for an object, we tend to quickly pull towards it mentally, emotionally, physically. We also immediately stop observing the object, and see only our exaggerated positive opinions about it. We have cravings for people, luxury items, jobs, houses, vacations, foods, "substances", etc. potentially anything we don't have or don't have enough of. Variants of craving include greed, addiction, and liking.
     When we have delusion, we tend to be lost as if in a fog. When deluded, we can't observe clearly, don't know and can't understand. When an observation doesn't fit our worldview, we can't assimilate it into our consciousness, so we either subconsciously block it from conscious awareness, or feel confused and dismiss it as random, insignificant.
     Since the above 3 brain-stem-level primitive reflexes hinder our ability to clearly observe and understand reality (obstructions to mindfulness), whenever we become aware of them arising during mindfulness practice, it's best to shift the primary focus of meditation from the object of awareness (eg breath), to the particular obstruction: aversion, craving or delusion. 
     We observe these new objects, like other objects, with curiosity and a peaceful open mind. This mindful quality of awareness is incompatible with the activity of these obstructions. Alternatively, aversion to aversion, or craving for clarity and peacefulness are counterproductive mindless activities. The task of mindfulness practice is to achieve clarity and understanding about reality - which happens to include a clear unentangled observation of these obstructions. When caught up in obstructions, we're mindless. But whether observing obstructions objectively - or - experiencing minimal obstructions, we're being mindful!

Photo: RickBuddy

Sunday, 14 October 2012

#204 Sleep disturbance & Mindfulness

     Many of us have difficulty falling asleep, and / or we wake up way too early - at 2, 3 or 4 am. Do thoughts relate to the inability to fall or remain asleep?
     Am I my thoughts (cognitive fusion)? OR Can I look at my thoughts objectively, dispassionately as just thoughts ie words passing through (cognitive defusion)?
     Can I rest in the present moment, accepting the feel of my body resting on the bed, the feel of the bedding on my skin, the sounds of the night, the gratitude that I'm able to lie in bed? Can I let go of any expectations of sleep, of any emotions around being awake, of stories about how I'll feel during the coming day, can I just be present with the reality of what I feel and hear without making anything more out of it?

Photo: couscousdelight

Saturday, 13 October 2012

#203 "I'm no good at this, besides, I'm too busy right now"

     Is the above, and many other similar statements we hear inside our head a "direct readout on reality"? Most of us unwittingly accept these as absolute statements of fact! But they're not. They're just conditioned, usually dysfunctional scripts with which we unwittingly, continuously handicap our lives. We can choose to free ourselves from these prisons.
     Our stories are just stories, and have little to do with reality. See if you can intentionally switch to an "observer perspective", and objectively assess this “story of me”, asking yourself, “Is this really true?” and “Is this story helping me – or is it stale junk?” Then gently bring awareness back to the task at hand and do what's appropriately helpful now.

     "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right." Henry Ford

Photo: tango469

Friday, 12 October 2012

#202 Balanced perseverance

     "balanced perseverance involves the two primary constructs of receptivity and attention. 
     ... receptivity ... involves an awareness brought to presenting experience with a sense of curiosity, willingness, and/or self-compassion/acceptance. Receptivity is not to be confused with a feeling (necessarily) and can be thought of more as perseverance/resolve in ‘turning toward’ or ‘leaning into’ a sense of receptivity (or compassion, or willingness to experience what is arising in the formal practice), repeatedly, when attending to present-moment experience.
     ... present-moment attention ... involves attending to the present moment, including relating to experience as it manifests in the body (i.e., bodily sensations). 
     In short, the essence of mindfulness practice (as it is used in MBSR) involves perseverance in coming back again and again and again to the present-moment experience with a sense of receptivity to each moment-to-moment experience during the formal practice."
       Del Re AC, Flückiger C, Goldberg SB, Hoyt WT. Monitoring mindfulness practice quality: An important consideration in mindfulness practice, Psychotherapy Research 2012 DOI:10.1080/10503307.2012.729275

     An important aspect of perseverance, not explicitly mentioned above, is cultivating seemlessly continuous mindfulness practice 24/7.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

#201 Pain & Suffering

     We have powerful avoidant reflexes toward pain. Our brain stem reflexes respond to all pain as if = acute pain = physical injury = immediate threat to survival. Acute pain due to injury should motivate us to pull away from the source eg hot stove, and make sure the injured area is promptly treated.
     BUT, a large proportion of the pain we feel is NOT acute, and tends to be WORSENED by approaches for acute pain.

     "Suffering is not the result of things that happen to us. It's how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer." Pema Chödrön
     We try to evade unpleasant physical sensations by hiding in our heads, spinning more painful stories about them. Pain is what we feel, suffering is the stories we tell ourselves about it. 
     After thoroughly exhausting ourselves trying to avoid chronic pain, we can try awareness & acceptance - approaching the pain with curiosity, an open mind, no stories, no expectations ie with mindfulness. See what happens.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

#200 Narrative vs Experiential Attention

     We normally observe things by means of "narrative attention". We see something briefly, or hear the first few words of a sentence or maybe the first sentence, or read the first line or two of a paragraph, and then we're off into an elaborate story triggered by the tiny bit of real information. Reality mostly passes us by, because we're addicted to our own spin on things. "Please don't confuse me with facts!" Even physicians commonly stop patients well before they can recount their complete history, jump to conclusions based on inadequate data ("premature closure"), resulting in diagnostic errors. We're so used to being in this perpetual trance, that we're not consciously aware of an alternative to profound mindlessness.
     Mindfulness training helps us to gradually shift over to "experiential attention". When we're sitting in a tub full of nice warm water, and our attention is continuously with the physical reality of the warm water; when we hold a beloved little baby, toddler or puppy; when we do vigorous / dangerous activities like karate or rock climbing, THEN we tend to be completely present mind-heart-body, fully engaged with our immediate environment, no story being spun, time seems to stop, - we're real, fully here. It's a clear, needed break from narrative trance. 
      Clearly our ancestors could only have survived if they had the capacity for long periods of continuous experiential attention. How else could they sit motionless for hours, then pounce on an unsuspecting bird or animal? How else could they have avoided being themselves ambushed? Reality changes moment-by-moment - we can't freeze it with a story. Our stories keep hijacking us out of reality and freezing us in innumerable coma-like trances.
     So we all have a natural capacity for mindfulness, which though currently atrophied, we can cultivate to remarkable levels with mindfulness practices. 

     "Mindfulness lets experience be the teacher."           Jack Kornfield

Photo: Phiguy

Monday, 8 October 2012

#199 Observing Clearly - Accepting vs Reacting

     To clearly, objectively observe a phenomenon - be it the tickle at the tip of my nose, discomfort in my foot during sitting meditation, or anxiety about my presentation tomorrow - I need to fully accept it as it presents itself. Full acceptance includes nondefensively being with & observing the physical sensations.
     I need to see what happens to the phenomenon, over time, without me interfering with it in any way. Acceptance like this shows a willingness to tolerate tolerable discomfort, so I can develop a deeper level of understanding about the phenomenon - to see what I can learn from it - to see if I can have a wiser relationship with it. So acceptance means letting go of reacting automatically.
     Why would we choose to try this? Because we sense that we can do better than allow our life to remain dominated by primitive reflexes. We assume that our quality of life, and the quality of life of those around us may be improved if our relationship to difficulties were more refined.

Credit: slideshare

Sunday, 7 October 2012

#198 Observing - instead of scratching - that tickle

     A tickle at the tip of my nose during my first sitting meditation was a full-scale alarm call for action - I MUST IMMEDIATELY SCRATCH! Yet the instructions were not to move, but sit still, and simply observe this phenomenon, with curiosity. Henry Ford's "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right" motto is spot on. My hand probably flew to my nose reflexively a few times before I learned enough just to be able to make a conscious choice!  
     These itches became less and less powerful summons to action the more often I simply observed their arising, abiding, and passing away, in stillness.
     The surprising power of this simple, but (at first) not easy practice, and its effects on our daily life, is for each of us to discover.
     What happens if I do this with a mosquito bite? How about increasingly more challenging thoughts, events and people who (maybe only potentially) "push my button"?

The dying star called Helix Nebula - by NASA/JPL-Caltech

Saturday, 6 October 2012

#197 Starting from where we are

     Each aspect of our character seems to mature at different rates throughout life. Some aspects may essentially remain dormant, forgotten. 
     Awareness of our own body is a fascinating case in point. Many of us take our body for granted, pretty much ignoring it - until it becomes sick or disabled. How much of the time are you off in thoughts - a disembodied floating head, while your body runs on autopilot?
     Activities like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, karate, judo, dancing, gymnastics etc teach us to appreciate our bodies - we learn experientially what it's like to fill our bodies with awareness. Feeling embodied gives one a reassuring sense of not just physical, but overall competence. One feels truly fully present! While being in one's head gives rise to an unpleasant, neurotic mood - akin to "cabin-fever" - "not all there".
     Sitting, standing and walking meditation are powerful means of reconnecting with our bodies, of cultivating refined body-awareness. Initially, we might notice some stiff sore areas that we might not have noticed before. This is not caused by the meditation practice, rather the result of us developing greater body-awareness. As our body-awareness becomes more refined, we may notice that we can't feel some parts of our bodies - but gradually we can bring meditative awareness into these "numb spots" as well. We also may notice varying degrees of armoring - very stiff musculature in various parts of our body - this takes some time to loosen.
     It's not a competitive race. Patient, consistent practice using minimal force, but persistent, gentle intelligence cultivates our innate natural wisdom.

Credit: slideshare

Friday, 5 October 2012

#196 To Flourish amid Complexity, Ambiguity, Liminality & Constant Change

     We have a natural aversion to complexity, ambiguity, liminality - to moving targets in general. It must be a hangover from our reptilian past - we just love quick, simple (even simple-minded), clear-cut decisive action. However, our world is infinitely complex and constantly changing.
     No wonder so many seek refuge and willingly become brainwashed in simplistic dogmatic black-or-white worldviews - "you're either with us, or against us". Ambiguity intolerance is characteristic of an adolescent level of development - high school cliques, bullying etc. Many of us never grow out of this. Adults elect leaders who give instant "witty" (sarcastic) responses to complex questions or criticisms - not exactly a sign of wisdom.
     Many of us go towards the other extreme - willingly remaining perpetually confused. Facing reality can be deferred for an entire lifetime. There are endless distractions to help keep one mindlessly entertained.
     Clear seeing, accepting ALL of reality, as it is, including the difficult, complex and ambiguous aspects, requires sober responsible maturity. Welcome to real adult life!
     In mindfulness we learn to become accurately aware of what's going on around us and within us. Only when we perceive clearly can we respond appropriately - to help instead of hinder, to decrease instead of increase suffering.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

#195 Incremental changes upon changes

     There are many ways to delay one's own normal personal growth trajectory or evolution of consciousness - I've done them all. A biggy is becoming engrossed conceptually with ideas about mindfulness, yet "not finding time" to practice mindfulness. The key is practicing mindfulness, continuously. We can do so with surprisingly minimal effort - in this way, we become energized by the practice.
     As we practice in this intelligent manner, we notice progressive positive changes in our selves, which in turn motivates us to practice more consistenly. And on it goes, slowly ...

Monday, 1 October 2012

#194 Acceptance allows Perception

     Acceptance is about 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.

     Acceptance is essential for clear perception! Until we’re prepared to accept something, we literally can't see it, find it confusing, or "protect ourselves" by avoiding the issue in some other way.

     We have 2 ways of relating to anything: approach or avoidance. Only approach works, and works best when we're fully conscious - "with eyes wide open".
     So acceptance may sound easy, but like awareness, it requires ongoing intentional training.

Luckett Vineyards, Gaspereau, Nova Scotia