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Archive for September, 2017

Another article worth reading can be found on the Greater Good website. It’s by Jill Suttie. It looks at some of the benefits of meditation and the evidence for them. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

A new book reveals how long-term meditation can lead to profound improvements in our mind, brain, and body.

Mindfulness meditation is everywhere these days. From the classroom to the board room, people are jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon, hoping to discover for themselves some of its promised benefits, like better focus, more harmonious relationships, and less stress.

I too have started a mindfulness meditation practice and have found it to be helpful in my everyday life. But, as a science writer, I still have to wonder: Is all of the hype around mindfulness running ahead of the science? What does the research really say about mindfulness?

To answer these questions, look no further than Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, a new book by journalist Daniel Goleman and prominent neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Putting their decades of research and knowledge together, Davidson and Goleman have written a highly readable book that helps readers separate the wheat from the chaff of mindfulness science. In the process, they make a cogent argument that meditation, in various forms, has the power to transform us not only in the moment, but in more profound, lasting ways.

Many people have been introduced to mindfulness meditation practices through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. MBSR has been researched extensively and tied to many positive outcomes for medical patients. But while MBSR has helped a lot of people, it’s not always clear which aspects of the training—mindful breathing versus yoga versus loving-kindness meditation—are most helpful for particular issues facing people. Nor is it always clear that the impacts of MBSR training extend long beyond when the training ends.

That’s where Davidson and Goleman come in. They aim to unveil not just the temporary effects of mindfulness training, but how practicing various forms of meditation over time affects our general traits—more stable aspects of ourselves. And they make the case that simpler forms of mindfulness training may have some benefits, but fall short when you are looking for lasting change.

According to the authors, there are four main ways that meditation—particularly when practiced consistently over time—can make a deeper impact on us. . .

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There’s a powerful piece on the Bahá’í Teachings website this month by the novelist, Sidney Morrison. Advocating, as it eloquently does, the power of art – and literature in particular – to connect us, it shed light into one of the places I most love to examine. It includes a moving story, not quoted below, of how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina helped a prisoner find some hope and understanding in his darkness. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

As a recently published novelist, I wondered before publication if a photograph of my black face should be reproduced on the book’s inside cover.

Why? Well, I wrote a historical novel called City of Desire about a young white woman who, because of the severely limited options before her, chose to become a prostitute in 1830’s New York. Based on a true story, her rise and fall fascinated me, and I wanted to understand her character, her choices, and the culture that molded her. As a man, too, I wanted to understand the struggle of women to be free.

But I feared a possible challenge coming from self-appointed members of the identity police, the people who think they have the right to determine group membership and excoriate those who dare to penetrate barriers imposed for outsiders, “those people” who don’t belong, “the other” who can’t possibly understand what it is to be black, white, female, male, Muslim, or Christian, or any other difference. Take your pick; the list is endless.

I heard those “identity police” voices in my head: “How dare you? Who do think you are? How can you possibly know what it is to be a white woman? Stay in your place. Write about what you know, and only what you know. If you do otherwise, you are appropriating our space and taking from us what is legitimately and exclusively ours.”

Writers are usually told one tired nostrum in classes and workshops: Write about What You Know. The familiar makes your work easier and more authentic, advisors and teachers say. If you write what you know, you’re less open to criticism. After all, this is your experience.

But think about it. If all writers followed this admonition, then we would write only memoirs or autobiographies. Painters would paint only self-portraits. Actors would only play themselves. Instead, artists do much more, and have done so since the beginning of storytelling and artistry itself. Artists extend themselves into uncharted territory so they can imagine and empathize with others—so they can make a human connection unmitigated by the artificial barriers we erect to keep us apart.

Ultimately, I decided against removing my photograph. I refused to capitulate to a rising culture of tribalism, where people live in their own bubbles, hearing only what comforts them, reaffirming their assumptions and prejudices, reinforcing the righteousness of their cause and the status of their group.

These separatist impulses have exponentially intensified as we all have become more aware of a diverse and complex world. The world is uniting, as Baha’u’llah promised it would in the middle of the 19th century:

The purging of such deeply-rooted and overwhelming corruptions cannot be effected unless the peoples of the world unite in pursuit of one common aim and embrace one universal faith. – Baha’u’llahTablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.

Some people fear this fact of increasing unity, globalization and human connection, hating those who are different from themselves and trying to wall themselves off from others.

But literature, since the beginning of art itself, has demonstrated the exact opposite, focusing on our common humanity despite our differences. Literature tears down walls, and shows us we are all human and all one. We all feel love, anger, resentment, and hope; we all strive; we all want connection:

… the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind …. True learning is that which is conducive to the well-being of the world, not to pride and self-conceit, or to tyranny, violence and pillage. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.

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On the Edge

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Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Alamy

There’s an intriguing article on the Guardian website by Franklin Foer. Facebook is used as simply an example of the reductionist and self-serving biases of our most powerful institutions and how they describe what they are doing, with smug self-satisfaction, as progress. It explores our blindness or uncritical response to ‘algorithms.’ Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

How technology is making our minds redundant.

All the values that Silicon Valley professes are the values of the 60s. The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberation. Everyone has the right to speak their mind on social media, to fulfil their intellectual and democratic potential, to express their individuality. Where television had been a passive medium that rendered citizens inert, Facebook is participatory and empowering. It allows users to read widely, think for themselves and form their own opinions.

We can’t entirely dismiss this rhetoric. There are parts of the world, even in the US, where Facebook emboldens citizens and enables them to organise themselves in opposition to power. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere, either. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait.

In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules devised by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation. Facebook is always surveilling users, always auditing them, using them as lab rats in its behavioural experiments. While it creates the impression that it offers choice, in truth Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that gets them thoroughly addicted. . . . . .


The precise source of Facebook’s power is algorithms. That’s a concept repeated dutifully in nearly every story about the tech giants, yet it remains fuzzy at best to users of those sites. From the moment of the algorithm’s invention, it was possible to see its power, its revolutionary potential. The algorithm was developed in order to automate thinking, to remove difficult decisions from the hands of humans, to settle contentious debates.

The essence of the algorithm is entirely uncomplicated. The textbooks compare them to recipes – a series of precise steps that can be followed mindlessly. This is different from equations, which have one correct result. Algorithms merely capture the process for solving a problem and say nothing about where those steps ultimately lead.

These recipes are the crucial building blocks of software. Programmers can’t simply order a computer to, say, search the internet. They must give the computer a set of specific instructions for accomplishing that task. These instructions must take the messy human activity of looking for information and transpose that into an orderly process that can be expressed in code. First do this … then do that. The process of translation, from concept to procedure to code, is inherently reductive. Complex processes must be subdivided into a series of binary choices. There’s no equation to suggest a dress to wear, but an algorithm could easily be written for that – it will work its way through a series of either/or questions (morning or night, winter or summer, sun or rain), with each choice pushing to the next.

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At last some good news after so many years of prolonged injustice. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Mahvash Sabet, one of seven members of the former leadership group for Iran’s Baha’i community, was released on the afternoon of Monday, September 18 after serving 10 years in prison. Sabet and six other members of the group known as “the Yaran,” or “the friends,” were arrested in early 2008. Sabet is the first of the group to be released.

Mahvash Sabet was summoned to answer questions in March 2008 and arrested soon after. She was taken to the intelligence ministry’s detention center in Mashhad and kept there for two months and three weeks, although she was occasionally sent to Vakilabad Prison because, according to prison officials, no female guards were on duty at night.

She spent two and half years in solitary confinement, and altogether served time in seven security and general prison wards.

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Sabet was a school teacher and a school principal and worked with Iran’s National Literacy Campaign. After the revolution, like many other Baha’is, she was expelled from teaching. The Baha’is set up the ad-hoc leadership group the Yaran after the new Islamic government banned Baha’i formal institutions.

Her love for education led her to establish, along with a group of other Baha’is, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in 1987. As she told IranWire, she was charged with “espionage for hostile governments” and “forming an illegal group” as punishment.

“I did not expect prison,” she told IranWire after her release, “but they arrested me without a warrant. I thought I was to answer questions as the secretary of the Yaran. Instead I was arrested and interrogated every day at the intelligence ministry’s detention center. After that I was transferred to Ward 209 of Evin Prison and the interrogations started all over again. I went through three periods of intense interrogations each time that I was transferred, and spent the first two and a half years in a closed-door cell. I was in solitary for seven months before Fariba Kamalabadi [another Baha’i leader] was transferred to my cell.”

Two and a half years in a closed cell had damaging psychological and physical consequences. Sabet suffered from osteoporosis even before her arrest, and was denied medical attention in jail. When she did finally get medical attention the doctor suspected that her pelvis had been fractured. She was sent to a hospital under security measures and was hospitalized for 15 days. “They found out that it was not fractured after all,” she says, “but I had problems because I was kept in a closed cell. They gave me some medical attention.”

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Kleptocrat

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Grave & Courtyard v2

I went to the DeathCafe by car this time. A musician friend of mine had expressed an interest in attending, so he popped into our place for soup, then we drove together to the Courtyard. He seemed as fascinated by death as I am, a rare meeting of minds.

We dropped the car in a side road to save parking expenses. As we walked back to the venue we spotted another frequenter of the Death Cafe, someone previously connected with mental health as I was. We headed together straight for the bar to get our drinks, and amazingly there was yet another member of the group waiting at the bar for her giant sized mocha. As we chatted I noticed the facilitator from the local hospice passing behind us to check out the room. It was going to be another big meeting again.

The man in the hat turned up next. We exchanged greetings. We left him at the bar once we got our drinks and headed to the ground floor meeting room. It was the one we all liked best. It is easily accessible and you don’t get the full blast of the theatre performances coming through the wall.

As always it’s impossible to summarise all the topics we covered in two hours of energised discussion, spiced with humour and laced with sadness.

What I remember most, perhaps understandably, is that I was not the only one to be coming to terms with a body no longer responding energetically to the demands of the mind. There was at least one other person there with the same issue. We kicked that topic around for a while before the focus moved on to other things.

Inevitably, I suppose, we came back at one point to the big question: what happens when we die? Do we circle back through the loop of reincarnation, do we pass on to a journey through the next world, or do we simply black out.

In Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the fourth circle of Dante’s hell, the weights are huge money bags. (For source of image see link.)

Some weren’t sure but worked on a variation of Pascal’s wager. As Wikipedia explains: ‘Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).’ A strong prompt for a pause of thought, even if with me you don’t share a belief in the medieval concept of hell so grimly portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Some in the group had decided that it was just a happier place to be, to assume that there was a life beyond death, even though they couldn’t prove it.

Others, including my friend and I, were pretty clear we believed there was something after death, and it was a source of comfort and even joy, one of us quoting the words of Bahá’u’lláh in support of this:

O SON OF THE SUPREME!
I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

Yes, we would grieve at the loss of a relative or friend, because they were no longer with us, but this pain would be tempered by the knowledge (yes, we used that word) they were in a better place.

At least one person doubted there was anything beyond death while another, who had a strong sense at times of having been here before, has placed her money on coming back again and again.

I didn’t have the chance to share my own thoughts in detail on that one. Though the Bahá’í Faith teaches that we do not come back, there are examples not easily dismissed of evidence that points in the direction of some kind of knowledge of a previous life. I’ve dealt with most of that in detail in previous posts. One thing I’ve recently read in Fontana’s excellent book on the after life suggests that returning spirits say that some people ask to come back and some are sent back. Given the rigour with which he examines evidence, I feel I need to give this idea due weight. It needs an explanation of some kind. The evidence needs taking seriously: though we may explain it in different ways, it should not be ignored.

As part of that discussion, the problem with how to deal with the pain of grief came up. Many of us had noticed that some seem broken by grief and never really recover, while others pick themselves up and, when the intense pain of the first period of grief is over, begin to engage in activities that lead to a more positive life. The idea put forward by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was briefly explored: there is pain, which is inescapable, and suffering, which is the avoidable layer that we add to pain by our own take on it.

I couldn’t resist plugging my own panacea for pain and other uncomfortable experiences: reflection. I won’t bang on about it here at any length as I’ve explored it over and over on this blog already, except to say that developing the ability to step back from the contents of our consciousness, whether that be intrusive and negative thoughts or strong feelings of pain, enables us to contain them, rather than repress them or be their victim. Containment allow us to explore them safely and decide how to deal with them constructively.

As we walked back to the car together my friend said, with no prompting from me,’That was great. I really enjoyed it.’

The next meeting of the Hereford Death Cafe is on Wednesday 18th October at 18.00. See you there maybe?

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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