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during one's lifetime as single events which, once gone, represent a descent into depression if such highs can not be superceded.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.

No comments:

Post a Comment