Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Guardian News: NHS recognises that mindfulness meditation is good for depression

On 26th February 2013, The Guardian Online published an article written by Mia Hansson in the News>Society>Depression section titled: NHS recognises that mindfulness meditation is good for depression.

Here are some key quotes:
"Mindfulness meditation has been shown to give patients control over their own depression and anxiety levels and levels of chronic pain, according to a paper published earlier this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Catherine Kerr, lead author of the new study and director of translational neuroscience at Brown University in Providence, in the US, says that when we are depressed, attention is "consumed by negative preoccupations, thoughts and worries". Instead of disengaging and moving on, we find ourselves digging deeper into negative thought patterns.

Mindfulness gives patients control over this habitual chain via a "body scan" technique, where patients systematically engage and disengage with the sensations in each part of the body. As they do so, alpha rhythms, which organise the flow of sensory information in the brain, increase and decrease. Kerr describes this as a "sensory volume knob" and it is this flexible focusing skill which, the paper proposes, "regulates attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations and thoughts, as in depression". Early Buddhists advanced a similar theory 2,500 years ago in a famous practice text called "Mindfulness of the body and breath".
Having recognised the health and cost benefits, some NHS trusts accept self-referrals, others accept referrals via GPs. The Mental Health Foundation, which has produced a list of some of the NHS-funded courses, estimates that as many as 30% of GPs now refer patients to mindfulness training.

However, these programmes are often bundled under "talking therapies" treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is misleading since talking is exactly what mindfulness practitioners aren't doing."

Insight Calligraphy: Buddha Nature

"A greater reality exists that underlies the ordinary world of things and lives and minds. ... Some call it God or the Holy Spirit.... Others call it the ground of being, the impersonal essence that supports and sustains you. Still others call it emptiness, essential nature, Self, or Tao. Whatever they name it, this spiritual dimension is a sacred mystery that gives meaning, purpose, and truth to human life. In each person there exists something similar to, or even identical with, this greater reality. Here again, the traditions may disagree on the form this something may take. Christians call it soul, Jews refer to the divine spark within, Hindus call it atman, and Buddhists use words like Buddha nature or big mind. But all agree that this something connects us with the greater (or higher or deeper) reality that underlies ordinary life." - Meditation for Dummies (2006), p234.
"In each of us, the seed of Buddha, the capacity to wake up and understand, is called Buddha nature. It is the seed of mindfulness, the awareness of what is happening in the present moment." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat HanhThe Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p187. 
"...to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature. Thus even though you do not do anything, you are actually doing something. You are expressing yourself. You are expressing your true nature. Your eyes will express; your voice will express; your demeanor will express. The most important thing is to express your true nature in the simplest, most adequate way and to appreciate it in the smallest existence." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p48.
"...if you know anything about Buddhism, you will know that the most important point is to be yourself and not try to become anything that you are not already. Buddhism is fundamentally about being in touch with your own deepest nature and letting it flow out of you unimpeded. It has to do with waking up and seeing things as they are. In fact, the word "Buddha" simply means one who has awakened to his or her own true nature. So, mindfulness will not conflict with any beliefs or traditions—religious or for that matter scientific — nor is it trying to sell you anything, especially not a new belief system or ideology." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p6.
"Traditionally, Buddhists are reluctant to talk about the ultimate nature of human beings. But those who are willing to make descriptive statements at all usually say that our ultimate essence or Buddha nature is pure, holy and inherently good. The only reason that human beings appear otherwise is that their experience of that ultimate essence has been hindered; it has been blocked like water behind a dam." - Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), p170.
"The Buddha said, “If you wish to grasp the meaning of ‘Buddha Nature’, just look at the conditions associated with the moment. Then, when the right moment arrives, Buddha Nature will manifest before your very eyes.”" - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p248.
"The Sutra of Ten Stages says, "in the body of mortals is the indestructible buddha-nature. Like the sun, its light fills endless space, But once veiled by the dark clouds of the five shades, it's like a light inside a jar, hidden from view."" - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Breakthrough Sermon
"Eradicating the true and eradicating the false, one sees the buddha-nature." - 6th Zen Patriarch HuiNeng (638–713), Translated by John R. McRae, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (2000), p49.

"Since we are Buddha-nature or truth, we know that joy is our birthright. Where is it? It’s waiting for us in the very practice we’re talking about. Only through such practice can we move into joy or true commitment in our work, in our relationships, in all of our life." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p196.
Last week my traditional Chinese Insight Calligraphy teacher, Paul Wang, taught me how to write the characters for Buddha Nature: 佛性 (fó xìng). Here is his rendering in old cursive (zhāngcǎo 章草):
This is his rendering of the same characters in the more fluid later cursive style:

Writing these characters feels very nice - the rhythm and the different movements fit together in a very satisfying way. It seems I enjoyed it so much that they came out quite well. Paul even took a photo - something he has never done before:

The traditional Chinese calligraphy characters for Buddha Nature in Later Cursive Style (zhāngcǎo 章草) - written by the author.
It seemed that I had made some progress. I wondered whether this was just a lucky fluke, or whether my mindfulness meditation had allowed something deeper to shine through. Not all my attempts were like this - repetition of this process every time is the real art.
"Our true nature—buddha nature—is always there. It’s always undisturbed. It’s present. We recognize that we are just fine once we get in touch with it." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p211.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Financial Times News: A few minutes to refocus

On February 20, 2013, the Finanancial Times newspaper published an online article by Rhymer Rigby in the management section titled: A few minutes to refocus.

The article contained the following quotes:
"Today’s workplaces are full of distractions and stress – and they are getting worse. Whether it is having to do more with less or the kind of “interruption overload” endemic in busy offices, managers tend to bounce from one crisis to the next, updating their Twitter feeds and checking email on their smartphones as they go. The problem with this is that they rarely find the time to focus, plan strategies or give those they work with their undivided attention: everything they do is reactive.

Unsurprisingly, many people would like to find a calm in the centre of this storm. A technique called mindfulness that draws on meditation might offer an answer – and companies are using it at all levels, with a view to making staff less stressed and more productive.
In the 1970s, western psychologists became interested in its therapeutic potential. More recently, businesses have come to recognise its applicability to the modern workplace – employees who practise mindfulness say it helps with everything from better teamwork and relationships to improved creativity and lateral thinking and to reduced stress and anxiety. It is now used in organisations as varied as Google, Apple, General Mills and the London Underground. Mindfulness even made its debut at the World Economic Forum at Davos this year.
It can also be a useful technique for making better decisions. For Elisabeth Marx, a psychologist and partner of the executive search firm Stonehaven, says: “You don’t rush to premature judgments and you’re more open to observe a greater variety of information. It’s also very useful in building resilience in leaders and leadership teams and, when you have a big landscape change, it’s stops you from just using conditioned responses. I use it to step back and get different perspectives.”
The practice also has a solid neuroscientific basis; when people train in mindfulness the way their brains work changes. For example, it calms down the part of the brain that controls the fight or flight responses.
“People who are mindful tend to recognise that they have choices about how they act,” he says. “It makes you realise that working harder isn’t the only show in town and allows people to manage their mental resources better. It makes you more engaged and productive and reduces stress.”

To help staff become mindful, a number of organisations now run training programmes. Some, such as PwC, incorporate it into larger training courses, while others, such as London Underground, use it as a stress reduction tool. “You’re seeing quite a broad range of businesses using it, and interest up to board level,” says Prof Williams.
Mindfulness can be done on a corporate as well as an individual scale. Linda Kazanova, chief human resources officer at US-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says: “Mindfulness is . . . part of having a healthy, balanced workplace. We have a five-minute mindfulness stretch before shifts and around 3,000 of our 5,500 employees do it regularly. Team members are trained and certified to be able to lead the stretch and they’re checked once a year.”
She admits that new employees can be sceptical. “But most people love it and say they can’t imagine starting the day without it. They feel the tension leave them and become more present and able to focus. People who are calm and better focused make good decisions for those around them.”
“Interest is still growing. Office teams are starting to use it and we’re looking at introducing it into leadership training schemes.” "

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Deeper Vision for Long-Term Mindfulness Practice (Part 3): Positive Psychology and Mindfulness Meditation

"What we really want is a natural life. Our lives are so unnatural that to do a practice like Zen is, in the beginning, extremely difficult. But once we begin to get a glimmer that the problem in life is not outside ourselves, we have begun to walk down this path." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p5.
This post follows on from Part 1, where the role of an ideal was discussed in mindfulness practice, and Part 2, which looked at scientific studies on levels of happiness in society relative to ideals, and the notion that constantly changing one's limiting habits is necessary to live a happier life. Part 3 will now present how habits can be changed via mindfulness; by anchoring one's mind in a more positive view of one's achievements, and giving oneself space to step back from negative emotions during times of failure.

The following graph, from Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar's Harvard University 06 Positive Psychology 1504 lecture, was presented on this blog in Part 2; illustrating the difference in lifelong happiness between an existence committed to an ideal and an existence without an ideal:

Ideals give one the chance to experience lifelong continually increasing overall happiness as one witnesses one's progress towards a more positive state over time, while the absence of ideals causes one to view the highest peaks of happiness during one's lifetime as single events which, once gone, represent a descent into depression if such highs can not be superceded. For this reason, Ben-Shahar argues that a life without ideals is a life which cannot provide lifelong satisfaction.

On our way towards our ideals, as we attempt to change our restrictive habits , we inevitably fail many times. Dealing with these failures is the essential factor governing whether we maintain our focus on our ideal, or whether we drop it completely. During the Positive Psychology classes presented by Ben-Shahar in 2006, he repeatedly used the phrase "learn to fail or fail to learn" in order to remind the audience of this important key factor. In his book, Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2009), he writes, in the chapter titled Learn to Fail or Fail to Learn:  p41-42:
"Taking on challenges instead of avoiding them has a greater long-term effect on our self-esteem than winning or losing, failing or succeeding. [...] We can only learn to deal with failure by actually experiencing failure, by living through it. The earlier we face difficulties and drawbacks, the better prepared we are to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path."
The following powerpoint slide was used in the Harvard Positive Psychology course to emphasise one case of the above idea being applied very successfully - that of Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb. He failed more than 10,000 times, but remained positive in the face of failure because he knew that each time he failed, he was brought closer to success.

When failures are viewed as progress in this way, then they need not generate negative emotional reactions; uncomfortable internal disturbances which can trigger cognitive distortions. By knowing what does not work, we can be one step closer to what does work. This approach was also experienced by a Zen practitioner in Japan when using a kōan to break through his restrictive psychological conditioning. The following story is from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1998), translated  by Paul Reps & Nyogen Senzaki, p41-42

"The Sound of One Hand

The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protégé named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master's room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidence in which they were given koans to stop mind-wandering.
Toyo wished to do sanzen also.
"Wait a while," said Mokurai. "You are too young."
But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.
In the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai's sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.
"You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together," said Mokurai. "Now show me the sound of one hand."
Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. "Ah, I have it!" he proclaimed.
The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.
"No, no," said Mokurai. "That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You've not got it at all."
Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. "What can the sound of one hand be?" He happened to hear some water dripping. "I have it," imagined Toyo.
When he next appeared before his teacher, he imitated dripping water.
"What is that?" asked Mokurai. "That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again."
In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.
He heard the cry of an owl. This was also refused.
The sound of one hand was not the locusts.
For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.
At last Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. "I could collect no more," he explained later, "so I reached the soundless sound."
Toyo had realized the sound of one hand."
Such stories are very inspiring, but what if such persistence and discipline is lacking in us? What if we are caught in the habits of viewing our failures in more negative ways than these more optimistic people? How can a person 'learn to fail' effectively? Ben-Shahar suggests, in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007), that we should ritualise new, more healthy habits so that they become a natural repetitive part of our lives, p48:
"Change, especially of deeply ingrained habits and patterns, does not happen overnight. Most important, once again, is to ritualize your activities."
As he states in this video, interventions which can successfully change peoples' habitual long-term behaviours are very few, and yet mindfulness meditation is a proven effective method:

As a result, Ben-Shahar writes in his book Happier that we should make mindfulness meditation a daily ritual, p29:
"Make meditation a ritual. Set aside between ten minutes and an hour each day for meditation—in the morning when you wake up, during your lunch hour, or sometime in the afternoon. After meditating regularly, you may be able to enjoy some of the benefits of meditation in a minute or two. Whenever you feel stressed or upset or when you simply want to enjoy a moment of calm or joy, you can take a few deep breaths and experience a surge of positive emotions. Ideally, you should do this in a quiet spot, but you can also do it while riding the train, sitting in the backseat of a taxi, or at your desk."
This practice becomes a resource that allows one to face one's inevitable failures, as the author of Mindfulness in Plain English (2002) writes, p16:
"...meditation, properly performed, prepares you to meet the ups and downs of existence."
And when the inevitable failure arrives, as stated in Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), one is able to take a step back away from the intensity of the situation, p27:
"Mindfulness offers the opportunity to soothe and step back from emotional ups and downs."
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, also writes of the power of mindfulness meditation when facing the turbulence of life, in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p29:
"We can practice navigating through all the ups and downs we encounter, the storms of the mind and the storms of our bodies, the storms of the outer life and of the inner life. We learn to be aware of our fears and our pain, yet at the same time stabilized and empowered by a connection to something deeper within ourselves, a discerning wisdom that helps to penetrate and transcend the fear and the pain, and to discover some peace and hope within our situation as it is."
As practice continues and one's habits change smoothly, one begins to get a feel for how the practice becomes a lifelong process of opening and accepting. As Mindfulness for Dummies states, p17:
"Although you experience ups and downs, pleasures and pain, you no longer hang on to things so much, and you therefore suffer less. This isn’t so much a final goal as an ongoing journey of a lifetime. Life continues to unfold in its own way and you begin to grasp how to flow with life."
It becomes important at this point, however, not to make mindfulness practice limited to something which is consciously added to one's experience - it must ultimately be something which disappears as mindfulness itself becomes more and more a normal and habitual part of one's life. As American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), p5:
"Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives."
Kabat-Zinn echoes this sentiment in Full Catastrophe Living, p29-30:
"We are using the word practice here in a special way. It does not mean a "rehearsal" or a perfecting of some skill so that we can put it to use at some other time. In the meditative context practice means "being in the present on purpose." The means and the end of meditation are really the same. We are not trying to get somewhere else, only working at being where we already are and being here fully. Our meditation practice may very well deepen over the years, but actually we are not practicing for this to happen. Our journey toward greater health is really a natural progression. Awareness, insight, and indeed health as well, ripen on their own if we are willing to pay attention in the moment and remember that we have only moments to live."
So the ultimate ideal in life is to drop all ideals in order that one can exist free from restrictive expectations; in harmony with the natural processes of one's being - processes which caused one to instinctively learn how to walk and talk, and instinctively learn how to stand independently or sit with dignity - and yet the only way to allow for this to happen is to start out by aiming for an ideal.

Once the direction is set, then one can practice remaining mindfully on the vehicle as gravity, like the unrestricted nurturing natural processes at work within us, gradually and effortlessly brings us from the bleaker slopes to greener pastures lower in the valley.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Deeper Vision for Long-Term Mindfulness Practice (Part 2): Positive Psychology - Increasing the Base Level of Happiness

"Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action." - Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC), Transl. W. D. Ross.
"Art is the proper task of life" - Philosopher, poet, composer, cultural critic, and classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” - Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer, Michelangelo, Quotes.
"The most important thing is to believe in your own ability to persevere through the many ups and downs and to not lose sight of your wholeness and your journey toward realizing it fully ." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p304.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama relaxing in his palace - it didn't make him happy.

In Part 1, the role of an ideal was discussed within the practice of mindfulness meditation. In this post, scientific studies on happiness levels will be looked at relative to the role of an ideal when one is pursuing lifelong happiness.

In May 1996, Dr David G. Myers, at Hope College, Michigan, now a professor of psychology, and the psychologist, professor, and author Dr. Ed Diener (then at University of Illinois), published a paper in Scientific American titledThe Pursuit of Happiness (pp. 54-56). The article includes the following graph showing the average income of individuals in the United States against the recorded population's satisfaction over more than 30 years:

US Average Income vs Population Satisfaction, Scientific American: The Pursuit of Happiness, (1996), p56.
Above 6000 dollars per year after taxes, the average person appears to not be any happier (today the figure would be higher, of course - probably around 10,000 dollars due to increased living costs). This figure is significantly low when one considers how our general social ideals of success and happiness are most often linked directly to personal wealth.

Most people apparently share the perspective that if one were to constantly accrue more and more money, property, or relationships, then one would experience lifelong happiness. However, anyone who has bought a new smartphone more than a couple of months ago, or has gone beyond the 'honeymoon phase' of a relationship, will know that very quickly the novelty of such 'gains' wears off, and a life of constant gains with each next gain being bigger than the last, is unrealistic. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck states in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p3:
"There are many people in the world who feel that if only they had a bigger car, a nicer house, better vacations, a more understanding boss, or a more interesting partner, then their life would work. We all go through that one. Slowly we wear out most of our “if onlies.” “If only I had this, or that, then my life would work.” Not one of us isn’t, to some degree, still wearing out our “if onlies.”"
There has even been an apparent reverse trend in overall American happiness as earnings have gone up (Myers and Diener, 1996), p54:
"Even though Americans earn twice as much in today’s dollars as they did in 1957, the proportion of those telling surveyors from the National Opinion Research Center that they are “very happy” has declined from 35 to 29 percent. Even very rich people—those surveyed among Forbes magazine’s 100 wealthiest Americans—are only slightly happier than the average American. Those whose income has increased over a 10-year period are not happier than those whose income is stagnant."
A major factor which does affect happiness, however, is the amount of freedom and personal control an individual experiences (Myers and Diener, 1996), p55:
"...happy people typically feel personal control. Those with little or no control over their lives—such as prisoners, nursing home patients, severely impoverished groups or individuals, and citizens of totalitarian regimes—suffer lower morale and worse health."
Becoming disabled Vs winning the lottery - happiness in the years after tends to be no different.
Beyond 10,000 dollars a year and freedom to make choices, however, tangible major material restrictions on happiness do not appear to manifest. Even the relative level of happiness between someone who has won the lottery and someone who has experienced an accident leaving them as a paraplegic is apparently barely distinguishable. Philip Brickman and Dan Coates of Northwestern University, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman of University of Massachusetts published a paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1978), Vol. 36, No. 8 (pp. 917-927), titled: Lottery Winners And Accident Victims - Is Happiness Relative?. They write the following, p918:
"Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness. In sum, the effects of an extreme stroke of good fortune should be weakened in the short run by a contrast effect that lessens the pleasure found in mundane events and in the long run by a process of habituation - that erodes the impact of the good fortune itself. The same principles hold in reverse for groups that suffer an extreme stroke of ill fortune, like accidental paralysis. In the short run, their unhappiness should be mitigated by a contrast effect that enhances the impact of mundane pleasures, which are now contrasted with the extreme negative anchor of the accident. In the long run, their unhappiness should be mitigated by a process of habituation that erodes the impact of the accident itself."
The results of their study showed, p920-921:
"Lottery winners and controls were not significantly different in their ratings of how happy they were now, how happy they were before winning (or, for controls, how happy they were 6 months ago), and how happy they expected to be in a couple of years. [...] Accident victims and controls were significantly different in their ratings of both past happiness...but not future happiness [...] accident victims recalled their past as having been happier than did controls (which we may call a nostalgia effect), while experiencing their present as less happy than controls. It should be noted, however, that the paraplegic rating of present happiness is still above the midpoint of the scale and that the accident victims did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected."
In other words, people adapt to gains or losses and tend to return to a base level of happiness that existed prior to the gain or loss. The degree to which someone adapts positively to a severely negative event like a life-changing accident appears to be based on their general personality which existed prior to the accident. A more recent study on severe accident victims by Boyce. C. J., & Wood, A. M., from University of Manchester, in Psychological Science (2011), 22 (pp 1397-1402), Personality prior to disability determines adaptation: Agreeable individuals recover lost life satisfaction faster and more completely. concluded, p1401:
"...personality prior to disability influences subsequent adaptation to disability and shows that agreeableness is the key broad personality trait in this effect."
In many cases, accident victims (specifically those with higher 'agreeableness') returned to the same levels of life satisfaction they experienced before their accident in only 4 years after their accident, as indicated by this graph of results (Boyce & Wood 2011), p1399:

Recovery of Life Satisfaction in Accident Victims. Psychological Science (2011), 22 (pp 1397-1402)
The first two studies above - of how happiness and life satisfaction manifests in human societies relative to social perspectives and circumstances, was recently used as key material in what was one of the most popular courses in the history of Harvard University - the Positive Psychology course taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. In his book, Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007), Ben-Shahar says the following of happiness relative to how we look at the world, p107:
"Happiness is not merely contingent on what we do or where we are but on what we choose to perceive. There are people who are unhappy regardless of the work they do or the relationship they are in, and yet they continuously fool themselves into thinking that an external makeover will affect them internally."
The Harvard Positive Psychology lecture videos for the course are available online on youtube, and in this one: Harvard University 06 Positive Psychology 1504, Ben-Shahar draws a graph illustrating how one experiences happiness in life - the ups and the downs - always returning to baseline as the effects of gain and loss wear out:

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaching Positive Psychology at Harvard - Graph of Base Level Happiness over time.
This graph indicates more clearly how happiness is experienced; when there is a change of situation - either the novelty stage of a gain, or the recovery stage following a loss:

Graph of Base Level Happiness over time - creating a depressed life experience.
The shaded triangular parts of the graph are where there are major increases in happiness - correlating to large achievements above the base level; like getting the promotion one has been seeking for so long, and below the base level; recovering from great losses - like the period of healing following losing a loved one. 

The good news that, following a great loss, one generally inevitably recovers to the same level of life satisfaction that one experienced before, is counterweighed by the novelty of any gains wearing off, and the times in-between tend to hover around smaller ups and downs. This equal balance of ups and downs tends to create a feeling of neutrality - of boredom; that one is going nowhere - trapped in cycles of gain and loss - with each gain causing us to become numb to any lesser gain. This perspective is crowned, and ultimately tipped towards depression, by the prediction that one's life will inevitably end with one giant loss - one's death. 

This seems to be the perspective on life that most people live by today - when we total up the balance sheet, it appears we are left with a negative value. We can often look back to previous peak experiences as "the good old days" - since nothing we experience now, or can really envision happening in the future measures up in our estimations.

Ben-Shahar begins to tackle this situation by making the following statement, in Happier, p8:
"...rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, “How can I become happier?”. This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point. I am happier today than I was five years ago, and I hope to be happier five years from now than I am today. Rather than feeling despondent because we have not yet reached the point of perfect happiness, rather than squandering our energies trying to gauge how happy we are, we need to recognize that happiness is an unlimited resource and then focus on ways in which we can attain more of it. Becoming happier is a lifelong pursuit."
Emulating those people who report happier lifelong experiences than the majority appears to be a good start. Myers and Diener in their 1996 study, The Pursuit of Happiness, write of the happiest people, p55:
"They have high self-esteem and usually believe themselves to be more ethical, more intelligent, less prejudiced, better able to get along with others, and healthier than the average person. [...] happy people are usually optimistic. [...] Although one might expect that introverts would live more happily in the serenity of their less stressed, contemplative lives, extroverts are happier — whether alone or with others. The causal arrows for these correlations are uncertain. Does happiness make people more outgoing, or are out-going people more likely to be happy, perhaps explaining why they marry sooner get better jobs and make more friends?"
So the key point appears to be to believe one is "more ethical, more intelligent, less prejudiced, better able to get along with others, and healthier than the average person", as well as generally optimistic. This could be a tall order for the best of us, and yet it seems it is necessary as an aspiration at least. If one never truly expects to reach it, then one will not actively seek the conditions to allow it to manifest. Ben-Shahar says the following of this necessary idealism, in Happier, p40:
"Being an idealist is being a realist in the deepest sense—it is being true to our real nature. We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning. Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness. While I am not advocating dreaming over doing (both are important), there is a significant truth that many realists—rat racers mostly—ignore: to be idealistic is to be realistic.
Being an idealist is about having a sense of purpose that encompasses our life as a whole; but for us to be happy, it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture. We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well. For example, in addition to having the general purpose of creating a happy family or dedicating our life to liberating the oppressed, we also need a specific purpose related to those goals, such as having lunch with our child or taking part in protest marches. It is often difficult to sustain ourselves with the thought of a general sense of purpose that lies far off on the horizon: we need a more specific and tangible sense that we are doing something meaningful next week, tomorrow, later today."
In his Harvard lectures, Ben-Shahar uses the approach of the famous Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo as an example of someone imbuing their life's work with deep, rewarding meaning. Michelangelo apparently saw the figure of his well-known sculpture, David, within the marble at the quarry. The artist considered the beautiful form to have existed inside the stone before he had even set eyes upon it, and that it was his daily work to reveal that beauty to the world. In this way his life took on a deeply positive purpose - beyond the purely menial drudge of a rat-racer.

Michelangelo's David Sculpture.
Ben-Shahar illustrates how this addition of an ideal alters the graph of base level happiness over time. The ideal - a state of existence considered the most positive and beneficial for oneself (and most likely others) - towards which one aspires on a daily basis, causes the base level of happiness to increase every moment, and thus one's whole life becomes constant joy - like a hidden beauty becoming revealed with each stroke of a sculptor's hammer - as long as one's ideal is understood to be pursued in every moment:

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaching Positive Psychology at Harvard - Graph of Base Level Happiness increasing over time.

In order to approach one's ideal, however, one needs to change, and this is the most difficult part - to alter one's habits over time. One can set out with conviction and enthusiasm, but very quickly one can become disillusioned with one's failed attempts. As Ben-Shahar writes in Happier, p80:
"Following up on our commitments and goals isn’t easy. It takes time for a practice to become a habit, a ritual—and therefore most efforts at change ultimately fail." 
This can be considered all part of the journey, as we all know life is not so simple and easy, and yet often the exasperation of failure can be too much for us to handle - we often create irrational cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking ("This small failure means I should give up the whole project") or emotional reasoning ("I'm anxious so I won't be successful"), and this can be so severe that it can cause us to stop aiming for our ideals entirely.

If one can accept the moments of exasperation and anxiety - the underlying emotions as part of the normal human condition, then one can avoid the cognitive distortions and more easily remain balanced and focused  when things don't go as well as planned. For this emotional stability, the most effective tool thus far discovered seems to be mindfulness meditation. As Ben-Shahar states, p28:
"Research by the likes of Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson reveals the profound effects of regular meditation. Meditate!"
This will be discussed in more depth in Part 3.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Miami Herald News: Mindfulness making its way into the mainstream

The Miami Herald online newspaper published an article titled: Mindfulness making its way into the mainstream on Tuesday 5th February 2013 in its Living > Health section.

Here are the quotes that I found most stimulating:
"Rogers teaches law students at the University of Miami how to incorporate mindfulness into their lives and future legal practices. It’s a hot topic. Last month’s cover story in the ABA Journal was headlined, “Keeping It Civil.” Later this month, the College of Law at Florida International University is conducting a symposium on professionalism, which includes mindfulness. And Mindful Kids Miami is bringing Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, to the University of Miami on Saturday to discuss his new book, A Mindful Nation.
After graduating with a J.D. and M.S. in social psychology from the University of Florida, Rogers became a litigator in the Miami office of White & Case, the Park Avenue law firm. Over time, he gradually began adopting mindfulness into his legal practice.
While many of his opposing counsel entered a trial with a battle face on, Rogers would walk up to the opposing counsel and say, “We’re in this together.”
By the time he left White & Case as a senior associate in 1999, Rogers said he had been practicing mindfulness for about 10 years. By 2007, he started a company called the Institute for Mindfulness Studies, aimed at working with lawyers. The same year, UM’s law school approached him about teaching a pilot mindfulness class. Today, he teaches three courses centered on Mindful Ethics and Mindful Leadership.
“This is all more than I ever expected,” he said.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/05/3216981/mindfulness-making-its-way-into.html#storylink=cpy
In 2008, Rogers began teaching mindfulness to first-year law students at the UM in a series of classes he developed called Jurisight. Offered every Friday afternoon, and not for credit, the class was completely optional.
“There is a quiet revolution going on in America and it’s being led by the scientists.”

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/05/3216981_p2/mindfulness-making-its-way-into.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/05/3216981_p2/mindfulness-making-its-way-into.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/05/3216981/mindfulness-making-its-way-into.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/05/3216981/mindfulness-making-its-way-into.html#storylink=cpy

Deeper Vision for Long-Term Mindfulness Practice (Part 1): The Mindful Ideal

"I used to think that meditation practice was so powerful in itself and so healing 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. Perhaps it could be a vision of what or who you might be if you were to let go of the fetters of your own mind and the limitations of your own body. This image or ideal will help carry you through the inevitable periods of low motivation and give continuity to your practice." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p80.
"...we should take as our ideal in our everyday behavior Sōsan’s line, “The Great Way is being naturally at ease within ourselves.” - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p285.
"The ideal that you are striving for is to experience each mental state fully, exactly the way it is, adding nothing to it and not missing any part of it."  - Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), p131.
A Chinese Song Dynasty wooden statue of a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, writes the following about mindfulness practice in his book The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p181:
"...the real work of mindfulness actually starts with life itself, with all its twists and turns, in all its guises and disguises. This is especially so when life is particularly difficult, when it is hard going, when the mind is all over the place. At such times we most need the stability, the clarity, and the insight that mindfulness offers."
Keeping a mindfulness practice going beyond its novelty period - when one has benefitted from the practice and feels (potentially temporarily) better about life than before, requires something more than just curiosity and enthusiasm for exotic eastern practices. As Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), a personal vision becomes necessary, p80:
"... to achieve peace of mind, people have to kindle a vision of what they really want for themselves and keep that vision alive in the face of inner and outer hardships, obstacles, and setbacks. [...] For some that vision might be one of vibrancy and health, for others it might be one of relaxation or kindness or peacefulness or harmony or wisdom. Your vision should be what is most important to you, what you believe is most fundamental to your ability to be your best self, to be at peace with yourself, to be whole." 


This vision is presented by the author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) as being explicitly about relieving all suffering in the world, p37:
"... keep in mind the original purpose and vision of mindfulness as a way of relieving all suffering, both yours and others, and developing a greater sense of compassion. Such a large and positive vision enlarges the practice of mindfulness for those who share those possibilities."
This is nothing new, for it is the Mahayana Buddhist tradition which most greatly influenced Kabat-Zinn's own personal mindfulness practice - a tradition which holds the Bodhisattva; practicing for the benefit of all sentient beings, as the ideal for the mindfulness practitioner. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p16:
"The ideal put forth by the Mahayanists was that of the bodhisattva, who practiced and taught for the benefit of everyone."
This ideal is an important feature of Mahayana Buddhism that is not shared by other schools. It offers the possibility of deeper practice and rewards for everyone - not just monks. The history of the emergence of such an ideal is mentioned briefly in Meditation for Dummies (2006) as follows, p50:
"...another major current emerged that preached the ideal of the bodhisattva — the person who dedicates his or her life to liberating others. Known as the Mahayana (“the great vehicle”), this second major branch of Buddhism was more egalitarian and offered the possibility of enlightenment to everyone, whether lay or monastic. From India, wandering monks and scholars transported Mahayana Buddhism over the Himalayas (the “roof of the world”) to China and Tibet. There it mingled with indigenous spiritual teachings, set down roots, and evolved into a number of different traditions and schools, most notably Ch’an (Zen in Japanese) and Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism..."
Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattvas.
To place one's trust in an ideal state is fundamental for prolonged mindfulness practice, otherwise there is no framework to build the necessary discipline around. Kabat-Zinn emphasises this point in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p58:
"...if we trust ourselves, or another, or we place our trust in a process or an ideal, we can find a powerful stabilizing element embracing security, balance, and openness within the trusting which, in some way, if not based on naivete, intuitively guides us and protects us from harm or self-destruction. The feeling state of trust is important to cultivate in mindfulness practice, for if we do not trust in our ability to observe, to be open and attentive, to reflect upon experience, to grow and learn from observing and attending, to know something deeply, we will hardly persevere in cultivating any of these abilities, and so they will only wither or lie dormant."
Unfortunately, however, simply trusting in and aiming for this ideal is just the beginning of the daunting journey. The ideal of a Sage, Buddha, or Bodhisattva famously exists beyond merely manipulating philosophical concepts. Ideals themselves ideally need to be dropped, along with all other conceptual absolutes the mind attaches itself to. Kabat-Zinn mentions this in Coming To Our Senses (2006), in the chapter titled: Any Ideal of Practice Is Just Another Fabrication, p467:
"It is all too easy to idealize the notion of practice, or our own practice, or fall into notions of attainment and special states of mind, and then stay stuck in our ideas and ideals of practice for years without seeing that they are themselves fabrications; big ones."


This stance is supported by Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), where he says that chasing ideals wastes time that should be put into the practice of dropping such things as ideals in the here-and-now, p71-72:
"When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself; by the time you attain your ideal or goal, your gaining idea will create another ideal. So as long as your practice is based on a gaining idea, and you practice zazen [seated meditation] in an idealistic way, you will have no time actually to attain your ideal.... Because your attainment is always ahead, you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future. You end up with nothing. This is absurd; it is not adequate practice at all."
Ideals can bring one to practice, but when one practices one drops everything and just watches, lest one imprisons one's mind with concepts. These restrictions on our existential freedom that taking on an ideal can impose is also illustrated by American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen (1997), p146:
"Changing the pictures on the wall from greed, anger, and ignorance into ideals (that we should not be greedy, angry, or ignorant) improves the decoration, perhaps—but leaves us without freedom."
We can end up replacing one set of suffocating values for another in the illusion that we are improving our lives. The seriousness of this situation is further made made clear by Joko Beck in Everyday Zen, p139:
"When we are attached to the way we think we should be or the way we think anyone else should be, we can have very little appreciation of life as it is. Practice must shatter our false ideals. [...] We’re deadened by the ideals of how we think we should be and the way we think everybody else should be. It’s a disaster. And the reason we don’t understand that it’s a disaster is because the dream can be very comfortable, very seductive. Ordinarily we think a disaster is an event like the sinking of the Titanic. But when we are lost in our ideals and our fantasies, pleasurable as they may be, this is a disaster. We die."

Breaking Free  by Zenos Frudakis
The method to negotiate this dangerous situation, Joko Beck says in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), is, as ever with mindful practice, to work with it, p62:
"...we can make anything into an ideal to pursue. If we do this, however, we quickly encounter our own resistance—which gives us something to work with. It’s all grist for the mill."
Ideals themselves become 'processed' by our mindfulness practice in the same way all other attachments do - as long as one practices correctly of course and does not try to control proceedings by emulating an ideal. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p167:
"Don’t sacrifice actual practice for idealistic practice; trying to attain some kind of perfection, or trying to find the traditional understanding..."
Instead of being followed and clung to, ideals are to be embodied in an open and free state of awareness, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p218:
"Only mindfulness of our own clinging and rejecting, and a willingness to grapple with these mind states, however painful the encounter, can free us from this circle of suffering. Without a daily embodiment in practice, lofty ideals tend to succumb to self-interest."
Constantly watching for the emergence of self-interest lies at the core of Zen practice. Shunryu Suzuki states in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, that the practice of emulating lofty and holy ideals - replacing one contrived self with another - was rife and seen as a kind of Buddhist practice before the teachings attributed to the first patriarch of Zen; Bodhidharma, arrived in China, p101:
"Before Bodhidharma, the study of Buddha's teaching resulted in a deep and lofty philosophy of Buddhism, and people tried to attain its high ideals. This is a mistake. Bodhidharma discovered that it was a mistake to create some lofty or deep idea and then try to attain it by the practice of zazen [seated mindfulness meditation]. If that is our zazen, it is nothing different from our usual activity, or monkey mind. It looks like a very good, a very lofty and holy activity, but actually there is no difference between it and our monkey mind. That is the point that Bodhidharma emphasized."
Ink Painting of Bodhidharma.
The Buddha, before his enlightenment, was apparently more interested in the path to Buddhahood, not in how to emulate a Buddha, but in how to allow Buddha to manifest on it's own. Suzuki references this fact by using an interest in discovering how to make perfect bread as a metaphor, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, p56-57:
"The enlightened person is some perfect, desirable character, for himself and for others. Buddha wanted to find out how human beings develop this ideal character—how various sages in the past became sages. In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice.
In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen [seated meditation] and put ourselves into the oven is our way."
And so, as one's practice deepens, this sense of 'being baked' - soaked in something tangible yet indescribable becomes apparent, and experiences of striving to be some ideal can  become part of the scenery as one enjoys the ride in effortless existence. Kabat-Zinn draws attention to this dimension in Coming To Our Senses, p67:
"...striving can rapidly become counterproductive. Keeping this in mind, we will be more inclined to remember to be kind and gentle with ourselves, relaxed, accepting, and clear even in the face of turmoil in the mind or in the world. We will be less inclined to idealize our practice or get lost in "gaining fantasies" of where it will take us if we "do it right". We will be less entrained into the contortions of our own reactivity, more likely to let go and be able to rest effortlessly in non-doing, in non-striving, in our original beginner's mind, in the natural radiance of the mind's infinite spacious, compassionate, interconnected availability..."

Even when one notices one's practice becoming more effortless and joyful, however, the potential to add one's gains to one's view of self; thus feeding an idealistic self-view, always lurks, and so one must always be on one's guard - always aware. Charlotte Joko Beck writes of this in Everyday Zen, p142:
"...recognize any idealistic thoughts you add on to what you do. If someone’s dying of hunger in the front yard, we certainly don’t question what to do. We go and get some food. But then we may notice how nice we are to do this. That’s what we add; that’s the superstructure. There’s the action itself, and then there’s the superstructure. By all means, do. The most efficient way to wear out the superstructure is to keep doing all the nonsense that we’re always doing, but to do it with as much awareness as we can possibly muster. Then we see more."
This necessity for round-the-clock awareness of being as the counter-measure to becoming trapped in idealism is also emphasised by Kabat-Zinn in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p150:
"Mindful awareness and learning to be with unpleasant feelings are not about striving for some ideal of happiness in the face of the difficult - that would be just another goal we are fixating on. Rather, it is as if we are bathing the difficult situation, and even our aversion to it, in an open, compassionate, and accepting awareness, just like a mother embracing a suffering child. We can take this stance not only toward physical discomfort but also toward emotional discomfort."
Bodhisattva GuanYin Statue.
When we catch ourselves being idealistic in this way and we compassionately drop our conceptualizing, we then make true progress with our practice. Joko Beck writes of this in Everyday Zen, p147:
"When we back away from our ideals and investigate them by being the witness, then we back into what we are, which is the intelligence of life itself."
This is the ideal way to practice - to bathe all experience in intelligence - in compassion, and then suddenly the ideal state of existence may spontaneously arise. Joko Beck says in the same book that this compassionate approach is not an ideal - it is something beyond concepts, p92:
"Compassion is not an idea or an ideal, it is a formless but all-powerful space that grows in zazen [seated mindfulness meditation]."
This all-powerful nature is something the Daoist Sage LaoZi (~5th Century BC) would have agreed with, as he states in his famous book the Dao De Jing (Translated by Red Pine), Verse 67.5:
"Compassion wins every battle and outlasts every attack, what Heaven creates let compassion protect"

Daoists enjoying nature.
There are even rigorous scientific studies indicating how the role of an ideal appears to affect the happiness levels of individuals in societies, and this will be discussed in Part 2.