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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Mindfulness books

At the end of last month, the Greater Good website added to my list of worthwhile reading yet again with this article by Hooria Jazaieri. Amongst other things it makes the useful distinction between what happens when the mind wanders to positive as against negative topics. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

According to a new study, how caring we are is linked to how much we pay attention to the present moment. Where is your attention right now? Humans are thought to spend many of our waking hours not in the present moment. What’s more, we are rarely even aware of the fact that our minds have wandered.

Past studies have suggested that mind-wandering has negative effects on our mood and even our physical health. In a recently published study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, my colleagues and I sought to understand whether mind-wandering also makes us less caring—and what we can do about it.

We recruited 51 adults and pinged them twice a day for nine weeks while they were enrolled in a compassion cultivation training course. We were interested in a few things: First, we wanted to find out how much people’s minds were wandering, and to what types of things (pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant topics). Because participants were enrolled in the compassion meditation course, we wanted to find out (on a given day) whether they had completed any formal compassion meditation practices and whether they had engaged in a kind, caring, or helpful behavior toward themselves or someone else. . . . . .

Our findings showed that a wandering mind can be less caring. Specifically, mind-wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics (rather than pleasant topics) predicted less caring behavior toward oneself and others on a given day. Meanwhile, mind-wandering to pleasant topics actually predicted more caring behavior toward oneself and others.

Given prior research suggesting that when our minds wander we’re unhappy, it’s possible that mind-wandering to negative events produces negative emotions that narrow our attention and lead us to miss opportunities for caring. In contrast, when our minds wander to positive events, we may experience positive feelings that broaden our attention and allow us to more fully engage in the present moment and the potential for caring. Past research is a bit mixed on whether people are actually happier when thinking about pleasant topics rather than engaging in the present, so additional studies are needed to explicitly investigate this.

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Richard J. Davidson at Mindfulness & Well-Being at Work

Richard J. Davidson at Mindfulness & Well-Being at Work

Another intriguing piece from the Greater Good website came through by email this week. No excuse to keep grumbling then! Below is short extract: for the full post see link

This article is derived from a talk given by Richard Davidson, neuroscientist and founder at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at the Greater Good Science Center’s Mindfulness & Well-Being at Work conference. 

Well-being is a skill.

All of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing leads inevitably to this central conclusion. Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello. If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it.

Based on our research, well-being has four constituents that have each received serious scientific attention. Each of these four is rooted in neural circuits, and each of these neural circuits exhibits plasticity—so we know that if we exercise these circuits, they will strengthen. Practicing these four skills can provide the substrate for enduring change, which can help to promote higher levels of well-being in our lives. . . . .

3. Attention

The third building-block of well-being may surprise you. It’s attention.

To paraphrase the title of a very important paper that was published several years ago by a group of social psychologists at Harvard, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” In this particular study, researchers used smartphones to query people as they were out and about in the real world, essentially asking three questions:

  • What are you doing right now?
  • Where is your mind right now? Is it focused on what you’re doing, or is it focused elsewhere?
  • How happy or unhappy are you right now?

Across a large group of adults in America, researchers found that people spend an average of 47 percent of their waking life not paying attention to what they’re doing. Forty-seven percent of the time!

Can you envision a world where that number goes down a little, by even 5 percent? Imagine what impact that might have on productivity, on showing up, on being present with another person and deeply listening.

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Happiness_TrackYet again the Greater Good website wafted the scent of some refreshing ideas across my untidy desk. This article by Kira M. Newman focuses on an intriguing shift of perspective that seems deserving of further thought. Intuitively for me, it makes sense to shift my focus even more from my todo lists (content) to how I use my energy (process). I’ve been moving increasingly in that direction, from time management to mindfulness, for several years now, but this is the first coherent statement I’ve come across about how to do this more effectively across the board.  I’m definitely going to try it out even though it means adding another book to my list of purchases. Below is a short extract. For the full post see link.

Emma Seppälä and I have something in common: we are both recovering chore-haters.

“There was a time when I couldn’t stand running errands: getting gas, taking my car for an oil change, calling the electricity company about a bill, or going grocery shopping,” she writes in her new book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. “Taking care of this or that silly errand instead of being ‘productive’—doing things that would serve some future goal like advancing my career—felt like a waste of time.”

Sound familiar?

In The Happiness Track, Seppälä tries to untangle one of the knottiest problems of the modern age: our burned out, overscheduled lifestyle. We are stuck in a jumble of feeling overwhelmed yet never accomplishing enough, trussed up by the underlying assumptions that we hold about productivity: Success requires stress. We have to compete with others. We can’t cut ourselves any slack. “We have simply accepted overextension as a way of life,” she writes.

So it’s no wonder many of us aren’t not happy—we’re drained and emotionally exhausted! Nearly half of us lie awake at night due to stress, the worries of the day coming home to roost when we finally stop moving. We tell ourselves to “tough it out” rather than to rest or reassess what we’re doing.

To combat this problem, the typical advice is to manage your time better: Prioritize. Make better to-do lists. Delegate unnecessary tasks. If that hasn’t worked for you, don’t be surprised; nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we. If we give ourselves an extra hour, we’ll find some task to fill it with. So time is not the commodity we should be tracking and managing, Seppälä argues. Instead, we need to manage our energy.

In Seppälä‘s formulation, we drain ourselves of energy anytime we experience intense negative emotions or thoughts, or struggle against our urges and desires. If we allow ourselves a walk during lunchtime but are consumed by worries about our afternoon workload, we’ve drained energy rather than gained it—yet the same amount of time has elapsed. If we have to peel ourselves out of bed morning after morning running a sleep deficit, it takes a toll on our vitality, even though we have more waking hours to get things done.

Seppälä outlines six qualities to cultivate that will contribute to both our productivity and our happiness.

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Summer Institute for Educators 2014

I found this article by Vicki Zakrzewski on the Greater Good website very moving to read, partly because of the accounts pupils wrote of the benefits of a more mindful and sensitive approach to teaching that is being tried out in some places in the States. I find that almost all the emails I receive from this site lead me to something of value. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

The emphasis on testing can squeeze the feeling out of today’s classrooms. Here is one teacher’s journey to re-connect with herself and her students.

When I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test. What I remember is the way they taught me to believe in myself. To be curious about the world. To take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential. They inspired me to open up a window into parts of the world I’d never thought of before. — President Obama, “An Open Letter to America’s Parents and Teachers,” October 26, 2015

Obama’s statement describes the heart and soul of teaching. Yet for many educators, the testing paradigm has removed the joy of teaching, leaving little time for connecting deeply with students. This sense of connection isn’t a luxury. According to research, it can increase the success and well-being of students and teachers alike.

Throughout the country, teachers are resisting the testing paradigm by putting those person-to-person bonds first. In a New York City high school classroom of newly arrived immigrant students, one educator is using simple mindfulness and social-emotional practices to relate to her students as human beings—profoundly transforming her work as a teacher and, at the same time, deepening her students’ learning.

Summer school for teacher happiness
Julie Mann, a 21-year teaching veteran, spent the summer immersed in the science of social-emotional well-being and mindfulness and its application for the classroom. She started with the Greater Good Science Center’s Summer Institute for Educators and then moved on to the GGSC Science of Happiness MOOCMindful Schools’ training, Meena Srinivasan’s Teach, Breathe, Learnworkshop, and Barbara Fredrickson’s Positive Psychology MOOC.

Armed with a lot of knowledge, ideas, and determination to stay mindfully present and grounded, Julie started the school year with the goal of creating a safe, connected classroom—similar to what she had experienced at the Summer Institute.

She then outlines the five ways and concludes:

Reconnecting to our own and others’ humanity
Ultimately, integrating mindfulness and other social-emotional exercises into the classroom has allowed Julie and her students to connect with each other on a deeply human level—something that often gets lost in the urgency for high test-scores.

“These practices have made me more mindful and grounded and composed when I’m with my students, which changes how they are,” explains Julie. “I’m laughing with them. I see their goodness more of the time. I get to enjoy them more because I’m less affected by the stress of what has to get done in a day.” She continues:

I went into this thinking this would be so good for my students because they need it so much, but I think what’s becoming more apparent is that I needed this so much. I’ve been teaching for a long time and it’s easy to get tired. But I’m so energized and it all feels so new. It’s giving me the sense that I can have as much longevity as I need in this profession.

 

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overweight

Yesterday the regular email came into my inbox from The Greater Good website. Yet again it contained a link to another interesting article. This one is quite timely because Monday’s post will be dealing in part with the issue of egotism. This article by Kristin Neff makes an important distinction between selfishness and self-care. Below is a short extract: for a full consideration of the five myths see link.

Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable quality. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities: kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress.

But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Even many generations removed from our culture’s Puritan origins, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t blaming and punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.

Consider Rachel, a 39-year-old marketing executive with two kids and a loving husband. A deeply kind person, devoted wife, involved parent, supportive friend, and hard worker, she also finds time to volunteer for two local charities. In short, she appears to be an ideal role model.

But Rachel’s in therapy because her levels of stress are so high. She’s tired all the time, depressed, unable to sleep. She experiences chronic low-level digestive problems and sometimes—to her horror—snaps at her husband and kids. Through all this, she’s incredibly hard on herself, always feeling that whatever she’s done isn’t good enough. Yet she’d never consider trying to be compassionate to herself. In fact, the very idea of letting up on her self-attack, giving herself some kindness and understanding, strikes her as somehow childish and irresponsible.

And Rachel isn’t alone. Many people in our culture have misgivings about the idea of self-compassion, perhaps because they don’t really know what it looks like, much less how to practice it. Often the practice of self-compassion is identified with the practice of mindfulness, now as ubiquitous as sushi in the West. But while mindfulness—with its emphasis on being experientially open to and aware of our own suffering without being caught up in it and swept away by aversive reactivity—is necessary for self-compassion, it leaves out an essential ingredient. What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.

Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom—recognition of our common humanity. This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals, just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. This sounds obvious, but it’s funny how easily we forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that when we make a mistake or some difficulty comes along, something must have gone terribly wrong. (Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the everything-will-go-swimmingly-until-the-day-I-die plan. Can I speak to the management please?) The feeling that certain things “shouldn’t” be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference.

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It seemed a good idea to post this once more in the wake of Monday’s post about Easwaran’s excellent book on the topic of meditation.

Forget about jam and Jerusalem. Marmalade and meditation is the real deal.

Bruce made a significant comment on my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book about the need for a proper balance between the way the two halves of our brain work together, the left with its word-dependent logic and the right with its creative intuition:

At the time I “found” McGilchrist’s book I was reading concurrently a history of Greek philosophers, a narrative of the development of the “western mind” and a quirky travelogue of discovery of “the psyche of Persia we really don’t know”, searching for something I wasn’t sure existed – a unified view, a coherence that McGilchrist just dropped into my lap . . . .  Best of all, when I put the book down, I find myself more inclined to seek out a wetlands forage for watercress than a newscheck on the internet!

When I read it I felt a twinge of envy at the idea of foraging for watercress in a wetlands habitat. It was only fleeting though. My connection with nature has always tended to be passive rather than active. My interest in gardens, for example, extends only as far as sitting in them with immense pleasure: any actual gardening tends to result in injury or accidental damage. I end up lacerated by thorns or by cutting the trimmer cable in half. This takes the edge of any slight pleasure I might have felt and tips me well over the cliff into aversion.

So, I came to feel, perhaps with a slight sense of smug complacency, that the impact on me of McGilchrist’s insights, though considerable, might extend no further than a bit of meditation laced with poetry. And those who have been following this blog will testify there’s been a lot of poetry recently. I never thought I’d sink to practicalities.

Until, that is, a friend of ours gave my wife a hefty bag of plums. It looked like there were millions of them and they were very small. My wife mentioned something about making jam so I made some excuse about needing to answer a load of emails and disappeared into my study. I was there for what felt like several hours and thought the whole thing would have blown over by the time I came downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

As even Basil Fawlty at his most obtuse would have realised, making coffee requires going into the kitchen, and going into the kitchen, when jam making is in the air, is not a smart move for those who don’t want to make jam. As soon as I walked in I knew I had made a fundamental error. There on the table was a mountain of plums piled carefully in a massive bowl. Within seconds – I’m still not sure how it happened – I was back on my computer looking for recipes for plum jam. One of the drawbacks of Google is that you can find exactly what you don’t want if you make the mistake of looking for it. And I did.

Initially I emailed three of the recipes to my wife and came back downstairs to continue making the coffee.

‘Have you got the recipes, love?’ my wife asked quietly.

“I’ve emailed them to you,’ I said defensively.

‘Couldn’t you print one off?’ came the response.

It was at that point I knew the game was up.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What I didn’t yet realise was how fulfilling the making of plum jam would be. And how my decision to resume regular and disciplined meditation two months previously had made it possible for me to take pleasure in exactly the kind of fiddly repetitive task that would have driven me to complete distraction just a few short weeks ago. Meditation had enabled me to maintain focus far better, accept the repetition in good spirit, notice with genuine surprise and pleasure the way each rounded fruit was subtly different from the last one and learn by stealth rather than conscious effort how to become more efficient and dextrous at getting every last piece of flesh off even the tiniest the stone. Preparing the plums in this way became a form of meditation in itself, a spiritual discipline that changed my consciousness, heightened my awareness and developed new skills. It changed me in a way that generalises to many things I do from emptying the dishwasher to replying to emails.

And it paved the way for making marmalade. My favourite form of jam.

But before I come onto that perhaps I’d better explain why I started to meditate again so much in earnest.

 

Watermark-Suzuki-Christmas-Humphreys-Edward-Conze-1024x785

The Buddhist Society, 58 Eccleston Square. For source of image see link.

It’s true that I have always done some meditation ever since I first learnt at the London Buddhist Society in the early 70s. But it had been a long time since I had done so with the discipline of those early days. It’s also true that for some years the emphasis psychology now places on mindfulness rekindled my interest a little. But I had of late been much more interested in reading about it than really doing it. And the McGilchrist book, while it drew me back to music and poetry, left my pattern of meditation very much as it found it.

In truth, I felt I was far too busy to make the time for anything more than a perfunctory gesture at the task. I had far more important things to do and I raced around doing them until the warnings from my interactions with the world became too strong for me to ignore.

First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.

I remembered the story about a well-known Bahá’í, Dorothy Baker, who had a serious and almost fatal car-accident on a steep mountain road.

She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’

To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’

The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’

Carl Jung used to say something like, ‘When life has a message for you, it first of all taps you gently on the shoulder, may be more than once. Then, if you don’t notice, it will slap you in the face. If you still don’t pay attention it will bang you hard in the head.’ This moment was my bang in the head.

It became clear to me that I had to take meditation seriously, slow down and trust that I would still be able to do all that was truly important to do.

So, at the start of every day since then, for half an hour at least, I have practised a form of meditation. (I won’t bore you with the details here but for anyone interested I’ve posted the basic model, as used in a group exercise, at this link Turning the Mirror to Heaven. It also explains how the method can be used alone.)

Initially I found it almost impossible to step back from a very disempowering belief. I believed that making time to meditate, and then using the calm I had generated to slow down my pace of work, would in fact make the whole situation much worse by leaving a trail of neglected tasks in my wake for others to trip over.

And it’s true I’ve had to decline some requests to take on more than I could do, and that was hard. But to my astonishment, almost all the major projects I’ve taken on continue to progress, though it still is hard to trust that the pace is fast enough – but as far as I know there’s no great harm done (‘yet’ says the voice I have to fight every time I meditate or do things mindfully).

And the strangest thing of all is that there has been time to make my own marmalade. I never thought I’d see the day when I would take pleasure in slicing orange peel into thin strips as though I had all the time in the world, my enjoyment marred by only the faintest suspicion that in doing so I must be neglecting something more important.

So my present unprecedented state of mind seems to be thanks to marmalade, McGilchrist and meditation. I still find myself wondering quite often, though, how long it will be before life pricks this bubble too. Some people are never satisfied.

Oh and, by the way, we gave a jar of plum jam to the friend who’d set this whole jam thing going and to my surprise she seemed to love it. Perhaps she was just being polite.

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3 brain awareness v4

As a result both of my recent Three Brains Revisited sequence and partly as a result of being asked a few weeks ago about what my model of meditation is overall, I was moved to go back to my attempt of many years ago to create a set of experiences that captured what I thought I was seeking to do in periods of quiet reflection, contemplation or meditation (delete as appropriate!). I was surprised to find that not only did my explanation of what I thought I was doing hold up remarkably well to current inspection, but also the exercises I had devised to create the right experiences have also stood the test of time and I am still drawing on them even to this day in one form or another. So, it felt worthwhile to share at least a sample of what I worked on at that dim and distant time. So, here, is one of the exercises that I used to help the words of that explanation come alive. The explanation clarified that reflection as an individual is parallel to consultation as a group: both depend upon cultivating detachment. Part of the skill of consultation is to regard your thought as no longer your own once it has been shared with the group. The exercise below was intended as a way of practising the beginnings of this skill. It uses the same quotation as I shared yesterday to be used either for memorisation or for this process of consultative reflection.

KYTS Communication as Detachment

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