Thursday, 28 February 2013

#290 Self-Esteem, Narcissism, Self-Compassion

     "Self-esteem is a global evaluation of self-worth - a judgment - 'Am I a good person or am I a bad person?' For many years psychologists saw self-esteem as the ultimate marker of psychological health. ... In American culture, to have high self-esteem, we have to feel special and above average. ... (in our culture) it's not OK to be average - it's considered an insult to be 'average'. So what's the problem if all of us have to be above average all at the same time? It's a logical impossibility.
     So if we all have to feel above average, we start playing games - start subtly to puff ourselves up, and to put others down, so we can feel better about ourselves in comparison. Some people take this to an extreme - there's an epidemic of narcissism** in this culture. They've been tracking the narcissism level of college undergraduates for the past 25 years, and they're at the highest levels ever recorded. A lot of psychologist believe that this is due to the self-esteem movement in the schools." Bullying and prejudice are common dysfunctional attempts at building a sense of self-esteem. ... 
     "Another problem with self-esteem is that it's contingent upon success. We only feel good when we succeed in those domains of life that are important to us. But what happens when we fail? What happens when we don't meet our ideal standards? We feel lousy, we feel terrible about ourselves." ... Girls' self-esteem, based primarily on how attractive they feel, starts to nosedive as early as grade three!
     "So how can we get off this treadmill, this constant need to be better than others so we can feel good about ourselves? That's where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively. Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all." Kristin Neff PhD, from her excellent Tedx talk below
** Narcissism "Traits & signs:
  • An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
  • Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
  • A lack of psychological awareness
  • Difficulty with empathy
  • Problems distinguishing the self from others
  • Hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults
  • Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
  • Haughty body language
  • Flattery towards people who admire and affirm them
  • Detesting those who do not admire them
  • Using other people without considering the cost of doing so
  • Pretending to be more important than they really are
  • Bragging (subtly but persistently) and exaggerating their achievements
  • Claiming to be an 'expert' at many things
  • Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people
  • Denial of remorse and gratitude."

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

#289 Conscious Wise Choices bring Happiness

     We tend to think of ourselves as rational, mature adults, behaving precisely as we choose. But how much of our life is actually governed by: aversion - fears and anxieties from our infancy about failing to please our parents or tribe and thus being abandoned to die alone; or craving - relentless striving to possess or achieve something that will (magically) solve all our problems and make us happy?
     As long as we automatically run from demons and chase pots of gold, we perpetuate a delusional state of suffering.
     As we practice mindfulness, we become progressively more psychologically-minded, seeing our actual motivations with increasing clarity, and thus becoming increasingly more rational, mature and wise in choosing our behaviors.

See also:

Monday, 25 February 2013

#288 Operating One's Life Consciously - Living Intentionally

     Once we learn a bit about mindfulness practice, we forever have the choice of either living mindfully or on autopilot. It's a bit like discovering that the camera you had assumed was "fully automatic," you now realize is fully manually adjustable (ISO, shutter speeds, lens openings etc). Instead of a few pre-programmed responses which are never really right, you are now free to custom select the settings (response) most appropriate to any given situation.
     There's a natural human tendency to essentially let go of the steering wheel of life - abdicate responsibility for the direction of one's life. This can last seconds, minutes, hours, a weekend, or can completely take over some people's lives. It can happen with or without addictive substances. There are physically healthy, intelligent people who squander their entire adult lives sitting in their room browsing the web, "living" on disability insurance - in total executive function failure.
     To be 100% alive, don't we have to be as continuously consciously aware as possible of what's happening in and around us? Don't we want to actively override our ancient automatic reflexes to engage fully with life as evolved human beings? Do race car drivers or jet fighter pilots nap at the controls? Do they put on cruise-control, take their hands off the steering wheel, and sort of hope things work out?


Sunday, 24 February 2013

#287 The Human Journey from "Simple Facts" to Complex Reality

     When a recognized expert in a field of study is asked a specific question, she's likely to respond truthfully "I don't know" and then concisely summarize existing theories about this tiny, circumscribed part of the human experience. This response is the product of a rigorous systematic search for truth, over a lifetime, by a mature, highly educated human being.
     How often do we hear dogmatically expounded simple solutions to problems with which humans have been wrestling for ages? Are these black-or-white views the result of a rigorous systematic search for truth, over a lifetime, by a mature, highly educated human being?
     Simple categorization ("black-or-white thinking") is essential at an early stage of development. We teach toddlers never to do a whole range of things we feel might endanger them; and to always do another list of things that are beneficial. However, as the child matures and becomes able to grasp more of life's complexities, our guidelines become increasingly more nuanced, until they're adults capable of appropriate decisions independent of their parents. This is clearly not a matter of morals ("right-or-wrong"), rather a matter of the child's mind developing progressively increasing capacity to handle the reality of an incredibly complex world.
     Among adults, there's a huge variation in approaching life's complexities, paradoxes, ambiguities, constant changes. A proportion remain at the developmental level of "Do this," and "Don't do that" out of deeply conditioned fear. Only a small proportion of adults actively take on a lifelong rigorous systematic search for truth. Mindfulness practice is an open-ended, life-long approach to investigate "What is this?" "Who am I?", and it does not impose any answers. 
     Many adults' lives are ruled by fear and anxiety. They sense that life is difficult and uncontrollable on many levels, and thus spend their lives distracting themselves: amusements, work, food, drink, material goods, religion on a shallow magical escape / social comfort level, gambling, substance abuse, etc. This is a "life unexamined" not only out of fear, but deep cynicism about introspection, convinced that deeply examining the nature of reality will reveal only darkness. When fear / anxiety / cynicism is the true driving force in one's life, one is profoundly suffering, and creates more suffering for others. It's critically important to realize that this is being stuck at a relatively immature developmental stage ("dark night of the soul"), NOT the final word on reality. It's also critically important to realize that it's (strangely) easier to remain stuck in certainty of something miserable, than to open up to new possibilities!

     We practice mindfulness because life is difficult and we understand that we CAN help our consciousness evolve to more effectively meet life's challenges
     Never give up, never give in to cynicism, nihilism - this is a miserable place to park for the rest of one's life! See:

Photo: Pawel Klarecki

Friday, 22 February 2013

#285 How my Heart Feels - Heavy or Open?

     Feeling "heavy-hearted" (closed- or hard-hearted or armored) is a common, lousy, oppressive feeling. All attention and worry is turned inwards. It's all about my story, poor me, what's going to become of me? Round and round the worried, anxious mind goes, what's going to become of me? Heavy, tight, claustrophobic, sickening, tiresome sensations, constant noisy self-talk, with a sense of being stuck, urgent flight or urgent chasing.
     Feeling "light-hearted" and "open-hearted" is less common, but we're all familiar with it. It's a care-free, happy feeling of everything somehow being the way it should be. The sense of self ("me, myself & I") is barely noticeable, the focus of attention is on everything else. A sense of stillness & peaceful silence dominate. It's partially the presence of one's chest being relaxed, open, radiating warmth, but perhaps more the relief from not feeling constriction, tightness and heaviness. Interestingly, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) understands disease as constriction & blockage; and health as the free, unobstructed flow of energy. TCM and osteopathic treatment aim to release blockages, permitting the free flow of vital energy (qi).
     Mindfulness training also loosens & untangles our tight knots, by helping us accept our inner child's reactivity, and increase our skill in returning to our wise "observer-self" - our wise grandparent subpersonality, sitting on the bank of the river of our life, calmly, lovingly, seeing the big picture, allowing us to think, speak and act from this wise, mature perspective. 

     See also:

Photo: Steve McCurry

Thursday, 21 February 2013

#284 Societal Expectations, Authenticity, & Choosing Wisely, Again & Again

     Parental, professional, familial, and societal expectations can be pulling us in many different directions all at once. At times we might cry out: "What, deep down, do I truly need?" And this may not be coming from our self-centered inner child! 
     It's easiest to simply try to appease everyone (though making everyone happy is impossible). Many of us do this for most or even all of our lives, never really discovering for ourselves who we are, and what we're called to do in this "one, short, precious life." 
     At some point though, often starting in middle-age, our body-mind starts sending signals that our authenticity (our true self) needs recognition, expression, and full integration with our daily life. Should we fail to heed these calls for authentic living (raison d'ĂȘtre), either an internal civil war is unleashed - or - our spirit gradually dies of self-neglect. 
     Our consciousness is trying to evolve to it's full potential and complete expression in thoughts, words and actions, in this life.

     For additional perspectives on maturation see:

Photo: Steve McCurry

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

#283 Feeling Internal Friction & Choosing Wisely, Again & Again

     When we feel conflicted, we're "of two minds" - part of us wants to go one way, another part of us wants to head in the opposite direction. This unpleasant disagreement between our sub-personalities is a common source of internal friction. Often the conflict can be simplified. One choice tends to reinforce the ego (egocentric) ie short-term goals for me; whereas the other choice considers the big picture ie impact on others, the environment, in the long-run, without heavy emphasis on "me, myself & I" (allo- & ecocentric). 
     The former is our hurt inner child demanding consolation; the later is our inner wise grandparent with the broad, deep, long-term perspective. Our inner child is self-centered, which is perfectly appropriate and understandable at that developmental stage - it requires our understanding, acceptance, empathy and love - but we are learning not to give in to its demands. 
     When we feel a lot of emotional charge: anxiety, anger, urgency, shame, embarrassment, insistence on being right & others being wrong etc it may well be our inner child impetuously acting out. Can we accept this with love and understanding, while not giving in to its demands? Can we keep returning to, and gradually stabilize in, our wise adult perspective, ever mindful of what the present situation and people at hand require to decrease suffering and increase joy? The more we practice this, the more consistently we become mindfully appropriate - being a kind presence.

     “Stillness, insight, and wisdom arise only when we can settle into being complete in this moment, without having to seek or hold on to or reject anything."

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

Photo: Lynn Ellis

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

#282 Complete in this Moment, Neither Chasing Nor Escaping

     We scan information, just skimming the surface. If we recognize some aspect of it, we quickly classify it, say to ourselves "I know that", relieved that we can stop paying attention, and immediately move on to something else. This is our defense against drowning in a continuous avalanche of data assaulting the senses. This coping mechanism is a form of "jumping to conclusions"; in medicine this (common source of diagnostic error) is called "premature closure."
     However, it is prudent to prioritize, selectively look & listen deeply to that which is meaningful. Failing to listen deeply robs both the listener and speaker of a unique unrepeatable opportunity to vitally connect (we usually only recognize this missed opportunity shortly after someone has died). 
     Depth, beauty and meaning is all around us if we have the eyes and ears ready to perceive it. We must actually train to regain this lost capacity for deep listening, deep observation, deep connection.

     “Stillness, insight, and wisdom arise only when we can settle into being complete in this moment, without having to seek or hold on to or reject anything."

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

Photo: Lynn Ellis

Sunday, 17 February 2013

#281 Mindfulness Neuroscience

     "the diverse strategies for training mindfulness currently being used ... derive from ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese contemplative and medical traditions as well as from modern adaptations developed mainly in the United States and Europe. These various strategies have in common the goal of being in a state of heightened but restful awareness of what is occurring within the phenomenological field that goes beyond conceptual and emotional classifications of what is characterized by increased acceptance of whatever is experienced and reduced mental judgments and ruminations. The different strategies and thought build, over time, a common brain state of mindfulness that can be beneficial to attention, emotion, performance, stress reduction and well-being." 
       Tang YY, Posner MI. Tools of the trade: theory and method in mindfulness neuroscience. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2013; 8(1): 118-20.

       Thank you Dr. Wintink for pointing out this great issue of this journal!


Thursday, 14 February 2013

#280 Koans to Guide Formal & Informal Mindfulness Practice

     While taking a walk during lunch break today, I noticed the familiar habit of switching back and forth from appreciating the freedom and refreshing simplicity of walking for its own sake, and my awareness repeatedly drifting off into planning and other stories. Life reflects formal mindfulness practice, & of course, vice versa.
     Whether formally practicing mindfulness (sitting meditation), out walking, or doing anything else, it's helpful to pose a koan or question to ourselves:
          • what if this were the first time I was experiencing this activity (sitting, yoga, tai chi, walking) ... 
          • what if this were the last time I ever experienced this activity ... 
          • what if this activity were to last forever 
          • in each case, what is the optimal attitude, posture, muscle tone - STATE of BEING?
     These provocative questions are meant to be held lightly yet savored in awareness long-term, and experienced physically (instead of quickly 'answered' intellectually), and these work on many levels: 
          • help us switch into beginner's mind - to observe things we've seen before with fresh eyes, without presumptions, in greater detail, much like a curious scientist;
          • allow us to drop the tendency to take unpredictables for granted: living a very long life, or being able to repeat this exact same activity whenever we want;
          • allow our compulsive, anxious striving for distraction / entertainment to settle, much like mud in a glass jar of water gradually settles to the bottom, leaving only clear water on top.
     Try these - see how they effect your practice, formal & informal.

Nova Scotia grapes - 2012 vintage

Saturday, 9 February 2013

#279 Freedom to Choose: Gratitude - or - Unhappiness

     “to practice being grateful to everyone is to train in a profound understanding. It is to cultivate every day this sense of gratitude, the happiest of all attitudes. Unhappiness and gratitude simply cannot exist in the same moment. If you feel grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, if you feel grateful that you are alive at all, that you can think, that you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk – if you feel grateful, you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for sharing happiness with others.”                Norman Fischer, Shambhala Sun, March 2013

Friday, 8 February 2013

#278 Forward? Backward? or Stay Put?

      Most of us tend to stay put, hold the fort, chillin, just hangin out, 'workin for a livin', 'gettin by', steady as she goes, ... at least we try to keep things from changing. On the biological level, it's homeostasis - the physiologic comfort zone, a steady state where no extra energy needs to be expended to accommodate changes. The potential downside of maintaining the status quo - being slug-ish - is boredom. Boredom is a real possibility. But is it possible for anything to truly remain the same - or is it a delusion caused by lack of awareness?
     Can we regress, backtrack, devolve in our lives? Sure, eg "second childhood"; or when after someone obtains advanced training or education, they resume their original job. It's a backward slide in capacity, with a corresponding decreased energy requirement. 
     How about advancing the boundaries of your comfort zone, intentionally, continuously, throughout life? THIS is actively participating in the evolution of one's own consciousness, pulling one's reptilian self out of the swamps by one's own boot straps into the era of Homo sapiens sapiens! Easy and comfortable - NO however - THIS is a human life worth living!


Thursday, 7 February 2013

#277 Compulsions? Striving? Are we there yet? Quality of Life?

     Every parent is familiar with the anxiously repeated question from the kids in the backseat: "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" on pulling out of the driveway. Many of us are excessively goal-oriented like these Bart Simpson wannabes.
     So what happens while kids are obsessing about arriving? The trip - their life. Life is happening constantly - now, now, now, now, now - "in real time" regardless of whether we're truly here for it - "on planet earth" - or not.  
     We can be so locked into constantly striving for goals that much of our life can feel like an endless series of irritating obstacles keeping us from our goals. As soon as one goal is reached, we tend to discount it, and quickly replace it with at least one new goal. (Similarly, slot machine gambling addicts display no happiness when they win - they're addicted, "hooked" by the "bugs & bells" of the game, plugging in money with grim determination, not even leaving to urinate.)
     While one is trapped in a hellish maze of compulsive striving, one can't see alternatives to, nor clearly appreciate the corrosive effect of this "life" on them, their families or colleagues. Regardless of what the supposed goal (professional recognition, money, fame, sex, security), compulsive striving evokes a very narrow, unbalanced, and destructive way of life.
     But we do not have to be gerbils running furiously getting nowhere. For a healthy, balanced life, we need to become more aware of what's going on. This includes continuous conscious awareness of our own thoughts, speech and actions. We do not have to go along with the momentum of our lives. We are not on a swing heading down inevitably, with unstoppable momentum. We can choose to become like helicopter pilots who can stop any time, hover, look around, head in the appropriate direction, slow down, stop, and change course if appropriate - all under our own executive control (pre-frontal cortex), according to our core values and healthy long-term goals.
     First recognizing, and then intentionally letting go of our compulsions is essential if we're to bring intelligent awareness and meaningful quality into each moment of our one precious "kick at the can". 
     Quality of life - in the moment - brings about timeless quality: right now, and now, and now ... 

Great "gerbil on a wheel" photo from the web - I would like to give due credit.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

# 276 Awareness, Acceptance, Practice, Quality of Life

     Mindfulness is about refining awareness of what's happening in real life. This involves learning to notice, as soon as possible, when awareness has drifted off target. We learn to accept the fact that it does - often in fact! Very gently, effortlessly - but with infinite persistence - we bring awareness back to the task at hand. 
     Regardless of what we previously thought of this task, we accept that it's ours now, and we approach it with "beginner's mind" - letting go of opinions & stories, to minimize distortion, and thus gather fresh direct data.
     When we approach a task eg cleaning the toilet, disgruntled & disgusted, we make ourselves miserable before, during & after the task, likely do it poorly, & likely spread this (self-inflicted) suffering to others. However, if we let go of internal commentary before, during & after the task, and approach it with curiosity & care to perform it well, there's no suffering: no apprehensive dread, no misery during, and no hangover after it's done. We will likely enjoy doing the task because we've unburdened our mind / heart. Furthermore, the work is accomplished more carefully & efficiently, and anyone witnessing our work will be inspired by our mindfulness & work ethic.
     Quality of awareness AND quality of life are BOTH shaped by intelligent continuous practice (and lack thereof).

Photo: Janusz B

Monday, 4 February 2013

#275 Freedom: Continuous Awareness & Love - an Open Mind - Heart

     "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.... The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness." 

          David Foster Wallace

Sunday, 3 February 2013

#274 Just Keep Practicing past Boredom, Distractions, Nihilism, ...

     “Greatness of this sort (Bill Bradley’s basketball performance in Madison Square Garden) is nearly mystical to apprehend. It is characterized by the kind of sustained responsiveness to the demands of the situation that (Wesley Autrey) the Subway Hero embodied when he leapt onto the tracks. It is unflinching, unhesitating, and unwavering, and it has these certain qualities precisely because the activity flows not from the agent but through him. As a spectator of heroic activity one has the sense of watching something nearly inevitable, as though it is ordained by some force beyond the mere whim of human self-assertion. Indeed, one indication of the similarity between Bradley and Autrey is the spontaneous eruption of applause that both performances elicited from witnesses to the events. It is clear to all those present that something superhuman has been achieved.”
     "Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the dessert. Instant bliss in every atom.” David Foster Wallace

       Dreyfus H, Kelly SD. All things shining. Reading Western classics to find meaning in a secular age. Free Press, NY, 2011.

     A lifetime of continuous mindfulness practice, as a way of life which gradually let's go of the ego, is a well-traveled, meaningful, supra-mundane path.

Photo: mattersdorff