Thursday, 30 January 2014

#483 Awareness, Choice & Beyond

     "Being mindful presupposes that individuals whose awareness is not impaired do have a choice in what phenomena they attend to and how they act."
        Hirst IS. Perspectives of mindfulness. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 2003; 10: 359–366. 

     Through practicing mindfulness, one approaches "direct & constant mindfulness of the body . . . consciousness of every movement, breath, feeling & thought—‘a consciousness alive to the present reality’.
     This is in direct contrast to how the majority of us live our lives — not usually paying attention to what we are doing or saying, distracted by our thoughts or lamenting the past or fearing the future; not fully present and barely aware of eating when we are eating or sleeping when we are sleeping or walking when we are walking. 
     ‘In its developed form, mindfulness . . . brings about a highly refined sensitivity to everything that happens, however minute, in one’s immediate vicinity and in one’s mind.’" 
       Lynn R. Mindfulness in social work education. Social Work Education 2010; 29(3): 289–304. 
     "During the past two decades, meditation and other contemplative practices are being applied to a growing number of professional fields:
     In healthcare, the number of hospitals and medical clinics that provide Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training for patients grew from 80 in 1993 to 250 in 2003.
     In higher education, 100 professors have received a Contemplative Fellowship to assist them in integrating these practices into their university and college class curriculum, and 32 educational institutions were identified as integrating these practices at the program and department level.  
     In the business & nonprofit sector, at least 135 companies, nonprofit organizations, & government agencies have offered their employees classes in some form of meditation and/or yoga."
       Duerr M. A Powerful Silence. The Role of Meditation and Other Contemplative Practices In American Life and Work. Report on the Contemplative Net Project The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society Northampton, MA, 2004


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

#482 Keeping Tabs on our State of Being - our Operating System

     It's common to forget what we're doing or supposed to be doing. We start searching for topic "A" on the web, and hours later, we've meandered our way through the alphabet, and are deeply into topic "Z". Even when we're not on electronic gadgets, we're more often absent-minded than on track. But that's just a basic level of mindlessness.
     An equally or perhaps even more important level of potential awareness is being in touch with our state of being. Knowing whether we're in a waking state, dream state, a state of deep, dreamless sleep, or perhaps in a state of pure awareness. In the latter, we can objectively observe or witness these changing states without identifying with them or with the self that appears in them.
         Thompson E. "Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy." Columbia University Press, 2014.

     From a very practical standpoint, being aware when we're afraid or angry, we can immediately realize that our performance is adversely being affected, whether we're studying, writing an exam, having a job interview, playing a sport, or even having a fist fight. Being afraid or angry is akin to running a computer on an obsolete operating system - it works poorly. We have to first be aware of this state of being to then be able to release it.
     Regardless of what we're doing, again from studying to fighting, our performance - AND QUALITY OF LIFE - is optimized when we're genuinely relaxed, alert, aware, & open-hearted. And yes, a good fighter can & should be all of those even during a fight.
     Both of these levels of awareness are desirable & possible to progressively enhance with training - MINDFULNESS PRACTICE - and "practice makes perfect." 


Sunday, 26 January 2014

#481 Why Become Educated - through School AND Meditation?

     To know: "How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. ...
      The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom.
     That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."                                           David Foster Wallace

      David Foster Wallace's entire 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech (below) is WELL worth 22 minutes of your time.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

#480 From Strong Emotions towards Equanimity

     The more we practice, the more we approach equanimity as the stable attitude in our lives. We may initially fear equanimity based on the incorrect assumption that we might lose our vitality or zest for life. However, remaining calm instead of rattled when life circumstances are unfavorable is a highly desirable sign of maturity (certainly not evidence of death). If wild mood swings were wonderful, antidepressants and anxiolytics would not be breaking sales records.

     See also:


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

#479 "And How's That Working for You?"

     Think what you may of "Dr. Phil", his famous saying does cut to the heart of the matter. If one's life feels chronically suboptimal, then change is required. And don't expect change to come from anywhere other than YOU yourself. There may not be much that you can do about your material or physical circumstances, but your ATTITUDE - WHO you are, moment-by-moment, is ENTIRELY up to you and you alone.
     Such a fundamental shift in attitude - in one's state of being - is neither instant, nor is there linear progress, but as in any intelligent training program or practice, progress is progressive & inevitable. See:

Tamas Dezso photography

Monday, 20 January 2014

#478 Prioritization, Choosing Wisely, Simplifying Our Lives

     All manner of opinions, on any subject at all, are instantly available on the web. Their credibility ranges from pure craziness to solidly-researched. But what does the average reader make of all this data? How can, or does s/he at all, prioritize quality over nonsense? Perhaps to avoid this quandary, some talk about "a level playing field" ie that today, all data is of equal value. This attitude may remove one's responsibility to prioritize based on quality, but of course it's absolute nonsense.

     One major problem we have is the constant deluge of choices, making us exhausted - we simply don't have the energy to research & intelligently prioritize all the innumerable options we face many times per day. Instead of allowing ourselves to drown in minutiae, we must learn to simplify our lives and prioritize.


Sunday, 19 January 2014

#477 Freedom from Slavery

     "12 Years A Slave"  is a powerful movie - a must see. The soul-crushing power of hatred & fear is masterfully illustrated.

     It's very useful to deeply reflect on how each one of us might be involved in very similar power dynamics. Are we slaves to our past history - personal, racial, religious? If so, we could be equally enslaved as oppressors or oppressed. The bullied and those who do the bullying, as the film suggested, are equally imprisoned by this toxic mindset.

     It takes some time in sitting meditation before we realize how much of our time & energy is spent running - from or after. It matters not what, the issue is that we're compulsively running and we do so out of fear. And most of us avoid going deep enough to investigate, and face directly what we're afraid of. Yet it's only by looking at our fear face-to-face, accepting it, & embracing it, that it is tamed, and we are able to stand up straight as noble adult human beings and be able to see things clearly, rather than as obstacles, threats or must-haves.

Flower Clouds by Odilon Redon

Saturday, 18 January 2014

#476 Our Own Depth

     What is our most fervent wish, the deepest, most profound desire for ourselves? What would we be like living the best possible quality of life? Shouldn't we know this directly?
     Can we sit down in silence, letting the usual mind-chatter gradually settle down, and retreat quietly? Can we simply notice without acting out the usual anxious urges to do stuff? Can we be patient enough to encounter our own depths? This is sitting meditation.

Snowflake by Alexey Kljatov

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

#475 Mindfulness Research - Not So Simple

     The therapeutic alliance hangs on the patient's firm belief in the healer's intention & ability to heal and that her method is reasonable & effective. The ideal healer's every thought, word & action intentionally nurtures this relationship.
     This critical psychosocial component of all healing modalities should be intentionally maximized, not eliminated. Mindfulness can be seen as a healing modality - a path out of suffering towards wholeness. From a less medical and more developmental point of view, mindfulness can be seen as a way of consciously nurturing the maturation of one's own consciousness.
     Many researchers would like to use a scientific / medical model for studying mindfulness. Yet, unlike drugs & surgeries, which have significant "material" components, mindfulness has almost none. The "active ingredient" of mindfulness CANNOT be reduced to some molecule. It is NOT a simple cause & effect (nor is anything that simple in medicine). The actual process of engaging with mindfulness practices IS what brings about transformation & healing. So the advice below may not apply at all to mindfulness research.

     "Observational studies have a high risk of bias owing to problems such as self-selection of interventions (people who believe in the benefits of meditation or who have prior experience with meditation are more likely to enroll in a meditation program & report that they benefited from one) & use of outcome measures that can be easily biased by participants’ beliefs in the benefits of meditation. Clinicians need to know whether meditation training has beneficial effects beyond self-selection biases & the nonspecific effects of time, attention & expectations for improvement."

       Goyal M et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018 Published online January 6, 2014.

Mystical Boat by Odilon Redon

Monday, 13 January 2014

#474 What is Meaningful Work?

     Work that helps to reduce suffering and promote wisdom & joy can be considered meaningful. 
     Meaningful work can range from cleaning duties (at home, at work, or voluntary) to national politics.
     Clearly it's not precisely what one does, but the intention of mindfully, skillfully helping people, other living beings and the environment.
     This is not a "should" but an intelligent "we must", because the cosmos simply works like one complex organism. Each individual human either promotes harmony & optimal function OR creates chaos & pathology.
     If you live in a one bedroom apartment can a member of your family vandalize & steal from the family OR does each member have to work intelligently to support the family?
     As individuals we simply must understand - down in the marrow of our bones - the fact that we live in a closed system. Our every thought, word & action must be harmonious with our one collective life. Parker Palmer refers to this as "living an undivided life." To do so, we must be AWARE & KIND - MINDFUL moment-to-moment.

Apollo's Chariot by Odilon Redon

Saturday, 11 January 2014

#473 Why Train in Mindfulness?

     Most people are drawn to Mindfulness when they find life overly stressful. Their usual coping mechanisms are simply inadequate to the burden that today's pace of life imposes. So at least initially, their interest tends to be focused on Mindfulness "as a self-regulation strategy in addressing stress & pain management and enhancing relaxation & physical health."
        Shapiro DH. A preliminary study of long-term meditators: Goals, effects, religious orientation, cognitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 1992; 24(1): 23-39.

      So why so much stress in a time of plenty? Is it possible that many of us have lost - or never found - our bearings, spending most of our time & energy chasing after relatively meaningless things? Before we reach meaningless goals, we ride the anxious energy of the chase. But after achieving them, profound disappointment quickly sets in. We sense we're wasting our precious life. After repeating this chase-&- catch routine too many times, the pattern becomes obvious, and hopefully we can stop "doing more of what doesn't work!"

      "Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life."      Viktor Frankl 

     The beauty of doing meaningful work is that daily life becomes & feels worthwhile, significant. In the process of doing something of value, we live meaningful lives. Instead of stressed, we feel engaged, energized to contribute. But to know what is meaningful for us as individuals, we must first discover who or what we are. To help accomplish this intentionally, sitting quietly and observing the pattern of our thoughts & emotions is exceptionally useful. Welcome to mindfulness meditation!
     See also: 


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

#472 Liminality in Illness AND Health

     While we have youth, good health & abundant energy, it's so easy to take these for granted, and focus our worries on relatively trivial matters. As the many & varied challenges of aging start creeping in, we marvel at young peoples' good fortune - which for us is now "slip-sliding away". When life-threatening illness arrives, we're suddenly thrown for a loop. This is how most of us sleepwalk through life - on autopilot.
     But we're ALL, ALWAYS changing, and everything around us is also CONSTANTLY changing. Stability, of any kind, at any age, is an illusion. Reality has nothing to do with solid permanence - everything is liminal!
     Successful adaptation involves perceiving things clearly, accepting life as it is, improving external circumstances as much as practical, AND adjusting ourselves optimally to situations that cannot be improved (serenity prayer). This is thriving in the real world - the world of liminality

     "The concept of liminality stems from the work ... on ritual and rites of passage. Van Gennep suggested ‘the life of an individual in any society is a series of passages from one age to another and from one occupation to another’. Typical rites include life events such as: pregnancy, birth, marriage and death. Rites of passage can be divided into three stages: preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition) and postliminal rites (rites of reincorporation). A rite of passage begins by ‘severing connection’ with a previous social state or position, followed by an ambiguous time where individuals find themselves ‘in-between’ social positions, and ends with ‘re-entry’ or ‘rebirth’ into a new social position.
     Rites of passage are not restricted to movement between ‘ascribed’ statuses such as those associated with birth, marriage and death. They also apply to entry into a ‘new achieved status’, for example, membership of a certain group. Turner was particularly interested in the ‘sociocultural’ properties of the liminal (transition) period, asserting that liminality is an ‘interstructural’ situation where culturally recognized positions, such as being married, single, an infant, etc. no longer apply. Liminal people are structurally ‘invisible’ - they are ‘no longer classified and not yet classified’, and therefore are ‘betwixt and between’ structural classification. As such, they are often described as being on the threshold, or margins. Living in the liminal (or transition) period can therefore lead to feelings of ‘ambiguity and paradox’. Yet, Turner also suggested that transition can be transformative. In fact, Turner described liminality as a ‘stage of reflection’ where ‘the reformulation of old elements in new patterns’ occurs, with liminal people re-entering society at a higher social status."
       Blows E et al. Liminality as a framework for understanding the experience of cancer survivorship: A literature review. J Adv Nurs 2012; 68(10): 2155-64. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

#471 Life - a Spiral Curriculum

     Life's lessons are not one-time, over-and-done-with events. We may, for example, think that we've fully dealt with, processed, & gotten over certain childhood traumas for example, only to be (unpleasantly) surprised to find that these still hold considerable charge. I suspect we periodically revisit these same issues over a lifetime, hopefully processing them each time (an iterative unburdening process), until we hopefully become naturally equanimous in their presence - objectively aware, but no longer emotionally distorted.
     Awareness & acceptance, working in tandem, at progressively more subtle levels, keep these lessons from being bypassed in our tendency to rush towards one of our many "shoulds". Eternal patience, perseverance & skillful technique is mandatory to fully process our (psychological / karmic) baggage. Some of us definitely need & should seek professional help in this area. It is a highly worthwhile, profoundly valuable journey.

Mural at Just Us cafe in Wolfville, NS by Raul Guzman Enriquez, Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico

Sunday, 5 January 2014

#470 Accepting & Respecting our Bodies

     "Most of the time, our bodies react to the environment without generating thoughts. Feelings are just faster than thoughts to inform us about changes in the environment. Even emotions, which are feelings filtered by memory or interpreted, are often mere afterthoughts. It is very difficult to change habits with using thought only and practically impossible to talk ourselves out of a depression or phobia. Not surprising to me: the best predictor for therapeutic success is not how brilliant the cognitive interventions are, but if a client likes his or her therapist. We are primitive, social animals, albeit with a lot of potential."

       Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D.


Friday, 3 January 2014

#469 From Stuck to Flying Free

     How much of our life are we "identified with" some negative aspect of "our story"? In other words, how often are we completely immersed in some negative emotion? Recurrent anxious, depressed thoughts of not being good enough, being unloved, being unworthy of love, etc are common in "ordinary unhappiness." This is "as good as it gets" according to Freud, YET this is unnecessary suffering. For some of us this is completely debilitating and requires professional help from mental health professionals. However, the basic aspects of this is shared by every human being. We do not have to remain stuck in this quicksand.
     The moment we observe this happening, we are momentarily free, unstuck. As soon as we see that we have sadness or anxiety, we actually no longer are sadness or anxiety, but in fact observers of these emotions. This is a healing shift from being submerged or drowning in an afflictive emotion (cognitive fusion) to being somewhat objectively aware of the situation (cognitive defusion).
     We gradually begin to observe this as a repeated pattern. This is an additional critical healing shift - to a meta view. We notice how certain environmental and other factors trigger these afflictive emotions to arise, we notice the physical & other effects, and notice how these dissipate. We become aware of the causes & conditions, and the arising & passing away of the mini-drama. We're learning to appreciate a 30,000 foot view of the most difficult aspect of life - our own and others'. No longer stuck in mud, we are free, yet know the mud very well, and the many still stuck in it.

Beauty & Kindness in an Ice Storm

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

#468 Endurance, Perseverance & Transcendence

     "Most of all, we have to learn to trust our own capacities to endure pain. We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don't deny it, don't be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there."                                            Harold S. Kushner

       Streep P ed. Spiritual Illuminations. Meditations for Inner Growth. Viking Studio Books, NY, 1992.

Ice Storm, Toronto, Christmas 2013