Meditation Comes in Seven Different Varieties

Meditation Comes in Seven Different Varieties

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Experienced meditators agree: a daily meditation practice can have significant benefits for mental and physical health. But one thing they probably won’t agree on? The most effective types of meditation. That’s simply because it’s different for everyone. After all, there are literally hundreds of meditation techniques encompassing practices from different traditions, cultures, spiritual disciplines, and religions.” Headspace

 

Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. As a result, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving different conditions.

 

There are a number of different types of meditation. Classically they’ve been characterized on a continuum with the degree and type of attentional focus. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object. Transcendental meditation is a silent mantra-based focused meditation in which a word or phrase is repeated over and over again. In open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. In Loving Kindness Meditation the individual systematically pictures different individuals from self, to close friends, to enemies and wishes them happiness, well-being, safety, peace, and ease of well-being.

 

But there are a number of techniques that do not fall into these categories and even within these categories there are a number of large variations. In today’s Research News article “What Is Meditation? Proposing an Empirically Derived Classification System.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6803504/), Matko and colleagues attempt to develop a more comprehensive system of classification. They found 309 different techniques but reduced them down to the 20 most popular ones. They recruited 100 meditators with at least 2 years of experience and asked them to rate how similar each technique was to every other technique.

 

They applied multidimensional scaling to the data which uncovered two dimensions that adequately described all of the 20 techniques. The analysis revealed a dimension of the amount of activation involved and a dimension of the amount of body orientation involved. All 20 techniques were classified within these two dimensions. Visual inspection of where the various techniques fell on the two dimensions produces 7 different clusters labelled as “(1) Body-centered meditation, (2) mindful observation, (3) contemplation, (4) mantra meditation, (5) visual concentration, (6) affect-centered meditation, and (7) meditation with movement.”

 

Within the high activation and low body orientation quadrant there was one cluster identified, labelled “Mantra Meditation” including singing sutras/mantras/invocations, repeating syllables and meditation with sounds. Within the low activation and low body orientation quadrant there were three clusters identified, labelled “affect-centered meditation” including cultivating compassion and opening up to blessings; “visual orientations” including visualizations and concentrating on an object; and “contemplation” including contemplating on a question and contradictions or paradoxes.

 

Within the high activation and high body orientation quadrant there was one cluster identified, labelled “meditation with movement” including “meditation with movement, manipulating the breath, and walking and observing senses. Within the low activation and high body orientation quadrant there was one cluster identified, labelled “mindful observation” including observing thoughts, lying meditation, and sitting in silence. Finally, they identified a cluster with high body but straddling the activation dimension, labelled “body centered meditation” including concentrating on a energy centers or channeling, body scan, abdominal breath, nostril breath, and observing the body.

 

This 7-category classification system is interesting and based upon the ratings of experienced meditators. So, there is reason to believe that there is a degree of validity. In addition, the system is able to encompass 20 different popular meditation techniques. It remains for future research to investigate whether this classification system is useful in better understanding the effects of meditation or the underlying brain systems.

 

Not all meditation styles are right for everyone. These practices require different skills and mindsets. How do you know which practice is right for you? “It’s what feels comfortable and what you feel encouraged to practice,” – Mira Dessy

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Matko, K., & Sedlmeier, P. (2019). What Is Meditation? Proposing an Empirically Derived Classification System. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2276. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02276

 

Abstract

Meditation is an umbrella term, which subsumes a huge number of diverse practices. It is still unclear how these practices can be classified in a reasonable way. Earlier proposals have struggled to do justice to the diversity of meditation techniques. To help in solving this issue, we used a novel bottom-up procedure to develop a comprehensive classification system for meditation techniques. In previous studies, we reduced 309 initially identified techniques to the 20 most popular ones. In the present study, 100 experienced meditators were asked to rate the similarity of the selected 20 techniques. Using multidimensional scaling, we found two orthogonal dimensions along which meditation techniques could be classified: activation and amount of body orientation. These dimensions emphasize the role of embodied cognition in meditation. Within these two dimensions, seven main clusters emerged: mindful observation, body-centered meditation, visual concentration, contemplation, affect-centered meditation, mantra meditation, and meditation with movement. We conclude there is no “meditation” as such, but there are rather different groups of techniques that might exert diverse effects. These groups call into question the common division into “focused attention” and “open-monitoring” practices. We propose a new embodied classification system and encourage researchers to evaluate this classification system through comparative studies.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6803504/

 

Monitoring and Acceptance of the Present Moment Underlies Mindfulness’ Improving of Positive Emotions

Monitoring and Acceptance of the Present Moment Underlies Mindfulness’ Improving of Positive Emotions

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“developing an orientation of acceptance toward present-moment experiences is a central mechanism of mindfulness interventions for boosting positive emotions in daily life.” – Emily Lindsay

 

Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve emotions and their regulation. Practitioners demonstrate more positive and less negative emotions and the ability to fully sense and experience emotions, while responding to them in appropriate and adaptive ways. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control their responses to emotions. The ability of mindfulness training to improve emotion regulation is thought to be the basis for a wide variety of benefits that mindfulness provides to mental health and the treatment of mental illness especially depression and anxiety disorders.

 

The mechanisms by which mindfulness produces improved positive emotions have not been widely explored. In today’s Research News article “How mindfulness training promotes positive emotions: Dismantling acceptance skills training in two randomized controlled trials.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6296247/), Lindsay and colleagues performed 2 studies to examine the relative effectiveness of the acceptance of and monitoring the present moment components of mindfulness training for improving positive emotions.

 

In study 1 they recruited adult participants who were smartphone owners and who measured high in perceived stress and randomly assigned them to a no-treatment control condition or to receive an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program consisting of meditation, yoga, body scan, and discussion, and meeting once weekly for 2 hours for 8 weeks, including daily home practice. In one condition the MBSR program contained the normal instructions to monitor the present moment and to accept what is transpiring in the present moment without judgement (Monitor & Accept). In another condition the MBSR program contained a modified instruction that deleted all reference to acceptance an non-judging (Monitoring Only). Before and after training the participants completed measures of positive and negative emotions. In addition, the participants completed a measure of positive and negative emotions 5 times daily on their smartphones.

 

They found that in comparison to baseline and the no-treatment control group, both groups who received the MBSR training had progressive significant increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions over the course of training. But the Monitor & Accept group had significantly greater increases in positive emotions especially happiness and significantly greater decreases in negative emotions especially hostility than the Monitor Only group.

 

In study 2 to prevent discussions of acceptance during group discussions there were no group meetings or discussions. Rather all mindfulness training was delivered over smartphones with daily 20-minute guided practice followed by 10 minutes of home practice for 14 days. The stressed participants were randomly assigned to a Monitor & Accept, Monitor Only, or Coping Control conditions. The Coping condition consisted of instructions on coping and reappraising emotions.

 

They found that in comparison to baseline and the Coping control group, both groups who received the mindfulness training had progressive significant increases in positive emotions and the Monitor & Accept group had significantly greater increases in positive emotions than the Monitor Only group. All 3 groups had significant decreases in negative emotions without significant differences between groups.

 

These results increase our understanding of the effectiveness of different components of mindfulness training in altering emotions. In particular, they indicate that both the monitoring and acceptance of present moment experience are important for increasing positive emotions in practitioners and that they act additively. The addition of acceptance of present moment experience to monitoring produces greater increases in positive emotions. The findings also suggest that MBSR training produces greater reductions in negative emotions than smartphone-based mindfulness training.

 

Emotions are very important and dictate our overall happiness and well-being. In fact, they are essential to mental health. Mindfulness training by improving emotions produces greater happiness, well-being, and mental health. The present studies suggest that both monitoring and acceptance of present moment experience are important for the improvement of emotions and should be emphasized in mindfulness trainings.

 

So, monitoring and acceptance of the present moment underlies mindfulness’ improving of positive emotions.

 

“In mindfulness practice, feelings are not good or bad; they just are what they are – emotions that might be comfortable or uncomfortable, easy or difficult.” – Living Well

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Lindsay, E. K., Chin, B., Greco, C. M., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Wright, A., … Creswell, J. D. (2018). How mindfulness training promotes positive emotions: Dismantling acceptance skills training in two randomized controlled trials. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115(6), 944–973. doi:10.1037/pspa0000134

 

Abstract

Mindfulness meditation interventions – which train skills in monitoring present-moment experiences with a lens of acceptance – have shown promise for increasing positive emotions. Using a theory-based approach, we hypothesized that learning acceptance skills in mindfulness interventions helps people notice more positive experiences in daily life, and tested whether removing acceptance training from mindfulness interventions would eliminate intervention-related boosts in positive affect. In two randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of stressed community adults, mindfulness skills were dismantled into two structurally equivalent interventions: (1) training in both monitoring and acceptance (Monitor+Accept) and (2) training in monitoring only (Monitor Only) without acceptance training. Study 1 tested 8-week group-based Monitor+Accept and Monitor Only interventions compared to a no treatment control group. Study 2 tested 2-week smartphone-based Monitor+Accept and Monitor Only interventions compared to an active control training. In both studies, end-of-day and momentary positive affect and negative affect were measured in daily life for three days pre- and post-intervention using ambulatory assessments. As predicted, across two RCTs, Monitor+Accept training increased positive affect compared to both Monitor Only and control groups. In Study 1, this effect was observed in end-of-day positive affect. In Study 2, this effect was found in both end-of-day and momentary positive affect outcomes. In contrast, all active interventions in Studies 1 and 2 decreased negative affect. These studies provide the first experimental evidence that developing an orientation of acceptance toward present-moment experiences is a central mechanism of mindfulness interventions for boosting positive emotions in daily life.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6296247/

 

Change the Brain to Reduce Chronic Pain with Mindfulness

Change the Brain to Reduce Chronic Pain with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

While many experts recommend mindfulness-based practices to manage pain, the goal of those practices is typically not to remove pain entirely, but to change your relationship with it so that you are able to experience relief and healing in the middle of uncomfortable physical sensations.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

We all have to deal with pain. It’s inevitable, but hopefully it’s mild and short lived. For a wide swath of humanity, however, pain is a constant in their lives. At least 100 million adult Americans have chronic pain conditions. The most common treatment for chronic pain is drugs. These include over-the-counter analgesics and opioids. But opioids are dangerous and highly addictive. Prescription opioid overdoses kill more than 14,000 people annually. So, there is a great need to find safe and effective ways to lower the psychological distress and improve the individual’s ability to cope with the pain.

 

There is an accumulating volume of research findings to demonstrate that mindfulness practices, in general, are effective in treating pain. Pain experiences are processed in the nervous system. So, it’s likely that mindfulness practices somehow alter the brain’s processing of pain. In today’s Research News article “The neural mechanisms of mindfulness-based pain relief: a functional magnetic resonance imaging-based review and primer.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6728003/), Zeidan and colleagues review and summarize the published research studies on the changes in the brain that accompany the relief of chronic pain by mindfulness-based treatments.

 

They report that mindfulness appears to reduce pain by increasing attention to the present moment. High levels of mindfulness are associated with lower pain experiences with chronic conditions and that these levels are associated with less activity in the, so called, default mode network in the brain (consisting of the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus, inferior, and lateral temporal cortices). The default mode network is thought to underlie self-referential thinking and mind wandering.

 

The research also reports that short-term meditation reduces chronic pain and increases communications between cortical areas and the thalamus suggesting top down control of pain sensitivity. On the other hand, long-term meditation practice reduces chronic pain by deactivating prefrontal cortical areas and activating somatosensory cortical regions. This suggests that long-term meditation reduces cognitive appraisals of arising sensory events. Finally, the research suggests that the neural mechanisms of mindfulness-based pain relief are different than opioid pain relief suggesting that there are different mechanisms involved.

 

Obviously, much more research is needed. But there is an evolving picture of the changes in the brain that occur with mindfulness practices that produce relief of chronic pain. It is different from that of opioid pain relievers and primarily involves high level, cortical, neural systems associated with attention to stimuli and the thought processes that arise evaluating those stimuli. In other words, mindfulness-based practices affect pain processing at the highest levels of attention and thinking.

 

So, change the brain to reduce chronic pain with mindfulness.

 

Chronic pain is frustrating and debilitating. The last thing we want to do is pay more attention to our pain. But that’s the premise behind mindfulness, a highly effective practice for chronic pain.” – Margarita Tartakovsky,

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Zeidan, F., Baumgartner, J. N., & Coghill, R. C. (2019). The neural mechanisms of mindfulness-based pain relief: a functional magnetic resonance imaging-based review and primer. Pain reports, 4(4), e759. doi:10.1097/PR9.0000000000000759

 

Abstract

The advent of neuroimaging methodologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has significantly advanced our understanding of the neurophysiological processes supporting a wide spectrum of mind–body approaches to treat pain. A promising self-regulatory practice, mindfulness meditation, reliably alleviates experimentally induced and clinical pain. Yet, the neural mechanisms supporting mindfulness-based pain relief remain poorly characterized. The present review delineates evidence from a spectrum of fMRI studies showing that the neural mechanisms supporting mindfulness-induced pain attenuation differ across varying levels of meditative experience. After brief mindfulness-based mental training (ie, less than 10 hours of practice), mindfulness-based pain relief is associated with higher order (orbitofrontal cortex and rostral anterior cingulate cortex) regulation of low-level nociceptive neural targets (thalamus and primary somatosensory cortex), suggesting an engagement of unique, reappraisal mechanisms. By contrast, mindfulness-based pain relief after extensive training (greater than 1000 hours of practice) is associated with deactivation of prefrontal and greater activation of somatosensory cortical regions, demonstrating an ability to reduce appraisals of arising sensory events. We also describe recent findings showing that higher levels of dispositional mindfulness, in meditation-naïve individuals, are associated with lower pain and greater deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex, a neural mechanism implicated in self-referential processes. A brief fMRI primer is presented describing appropriate steps and considerations to conduct studies combining mindfulness, pain, and fMRI. We postulate that the identification of the active analgesic neural substrates involved in mindfulness can be used to inform the development and optimization of behavioral therapies to specifically target pain, an important consideration for the ongoing opioid and chronic pain epidemic.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6728003/

 

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Nunchi

 

I read a wonderful article in the New York Times by Euny Hong entitled “The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/02/opinion/sunday/nunchi.html). It emphasizes the impact of the Korean word “nunchi” on their world view and their way of life. “Nunchi” is literally translated as “eye measure.” It suggests that every situation should be seen as a whole and the individual’s actions should be appropriate for the entire human context.

 

The fact is that most human behavior is affected mainly by a few aspects of the situation that the individual deems particularly salient and important. These might be people who are particularly important, or special friends or family, or enemies. Although this to some extent makes sense, it results in relegating everything and everyone else to the background. The totality of the situation is lost.

 

To students of mindfulness, it should be apparent that “nunchi” is the same as present moment awareness. It is being totally conscious of what is going on in the immediate environment. It is also non-judgmental, perceiving everything just as it is. But it is more in that the interrelationships of all things, what the Buddha called “interdependent co-arising” has to be seen, “eye measured.” It involves seeing the total picture as a gestalt, with not only the immediate components but also how they all interrelate.

 

There’s a Korean saying that “half of social life is nunchi.” This implies that seeing the entire social context in total in the present moment is extremely important to successfully navigating the social situation. When apprising a room full of people, the practice of “nunchi” would dictate taking in the whole scene and feeling the mood of the entire room, be it celebratory, somber, gleeful, sad, angry, etc.. Each individual in the room is then seen within the context. If there’s an angry sense to the room, the behavior of each person is seen against that backdrop. If one individual is neutral, they will actually be viewed as positive, as neutral is in the positive direction from angry. This better allows the individual to react and interact with the person with greater understanding and a more accurate interpretation of the behavior, which, in turn, allows for more calibrated and effective responses. Others tend to like better and interact more with people who practice “nunchi.”

 

In the process of “eye measuring” there is little opportunity for talking. So, “nunchi” usually involves more listening and less talking. It’s been said that we learn nothing new when we’re speaking. So, by practicing “nunchi” and listening more we have the opportunity to learn and be better positioned for future interactions. People respond very positively when they feel that they are being heard. Listening is a rare yet extremely valuable skill that is promoted by the practice of “nunchi.”

 

“Nunchi” allows for better identification of what can be controlled and what can’t. Seeing things and people as they are and as a whole should make it clear what kinds of impacts our behavior can have and what are the likely consequences of those behaviors. In other words, being completely in the present moment strengthens the ability to intervene for the good.

 

The Korean’s clearly understand the importance of present moment awareness and by making it an important word in the language, “nunchi”, make it front and center in their minds. They have long recognized it importance for effective interactions. The mindfulness revolution in the western world is simply helping us catch up.

 

So, practice “nunchi”, being mindful and aware, and be happier.

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Mindfulness is Associated with Changing Neural Connectivity in Children and Adolescents

Mindfulness is Associated with Changing Neural Connectivity in Children and Adolescents

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“mindfulness meditation training increases resting state connectivity between top-down executive control regions, highlighting an important mechanism through which it reduces stress levels.” Daniel Reed

 

There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. It even improves high level thinking known as executive function. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from thinking to mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how mindfulness training could produce such widespread and varied benefits. One possibility is that mindfulness practice results in beneficial changes in the nervous system.

 

The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

The brains of children and adolescents are different from fully mature adult brains. They are dynamically growing and changing. It is unclear how mindfulness affects their maturing brains. In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness and dynamic functional neural connectivity in children and adolescents.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5610942/ ), Marusak and colleagues examined the relationship of mindfulness with brain activity in the maturing brain. They recruited children and adolescents aged 7 to 17 years and measured them for mindfulness, anxiety, and depression.

 

The children and adolescents then had their brains scanned with functional Magnetic Imaging (fMRI). The scans were evaluated for static connectivity, the relatively permanent connections between brain areas, and dynamic connectivity, the changing connections between areas. They looked specifically at 3 systems in the brain, the central executive network, associated with higher level thinking and attention, the salience and emotion network, associate with the importance of stimuli, and the default mode network, associated with mind wandering and self-referential thinking.

 

They found that mindfulness was associated with better mental health of the children and adolescents with high levels of mindfulness significantly associated with low levels of depression and anxiety. Mindfulness was also significantly associated with the amount of present-moment oriented thinking occurring during the brain scan session. Mindfulness was not associated with static connectivity within the children’s and adolescents’ brains.

 

With dynamic connectivity on the other hand, they found that mindfulness was associated with greater numbers of transitions between connectivity states. That is, the higher the levels of mindfulness the greater the number of times the connectivity pattern in the brain changed from one set of connections to another. Finally, they also found that the numbers of transitions between connectivity states mediated the association of mindfulness with lower anxiety, such that mindfulness was associated with lower anxiety both with a direct association of mindfulness with lower anxiety and indirectly by higher mindfulness being associated with greater dynamic connectivity which was in turn associated with lower anxiety.

 

The results suggest that mindfulness is associated with greater brain flexibility in transitioning from different states and this may allow for less anxiety. This suggests that mindfulness allows for greater ability to see things and evaluate what is occurring in different ways and this helps the youths to better appreciate what is happening and thereby lower anxiety. These are incredibly interesting findings that begin to reveal the neural dynamics occurring in children and adolescents that underlie the ability of mindfulness to improve mental health. Mindfulness isn’t associated with different brain connectivity structures in the brains but rather with different abilities to switch around in real time between systems and this improves mental health.

 

“Just 11 hours of learning a meditation technique induce positive structural changes in brain connectivity by boosting efficiency in a part of the brain that helps a person regulate behavior in accordance with their goals.” – University of Oregon

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Marusak, H. A., Elrahal, F., Peters, C. A., Kundu, P., Lombardo, M. V., Calhoun, V. D., Goldberg, E. K., Cohen, C., Taub, J. W., … Rabinak, C. A. (2017). Mindfulness and dynamic functional neural connectivity in children and adolescents. Behavioural brain research, 336, 211-218.

 

Abstract

Background

Interventions that promote mindfulness consistently show salutary effects on cognition and emotional wellbeing in adults, and more recently, in children and adolescents. However, we lack understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying mindfulness in youth that should allow for more judicious application of these interventions in clinical and educational settings.

Methods

Using multi-echo multi-band fMRI, we examined dynamic (i.e., time-varying) and conventional static resting-state connectivity between core neurocognitive networks (i.e., salience/emotion, default mode, central executive) in 42 children and adolescents (ages 6–17).

Results

We found that trait mindfulness in youth relates to dynamic but not static resting-state connectivity. Specifically, more mindful youth transitioned more between brain states over the course of the scan, spent overall less time in a certain connectivity state, and showed a state-specific reduction in connectivity between salience/emotion and central executive networks. The number of state transitions mediated the link between higher mindfulness and lower anxiety, providing new insights into potential neural mechanisms underlying benefits of mindfulness on psychological health in youth.

Conclusions

Our results provide new evidence that mindfulness in youth relates to functional neural dynamics and interactions between neurocognitive networks, over time.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5610942/

 

Different Mindfulness Practices Have Differing Effects on Mindfulness and Compassion

Different Mindfulness Practices Have Differing Effects on Mindfulness and Compassion

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Last year it was mindfulness but this year, attending without judgment is out and compassion for you as an antidote to your perceived low self-worth, failure, or any other form of suffering is definitely in.“ – Patricia Rockman

 

Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. As a result, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving different conditions.

 

There are a number of different types of meditation. Many can be characterized on a continuum with the degree and type of attentional focus. In “Presence” meditation, also known as focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. “Perspective” meditation is another different method of cultivating mindfulness. In open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these thoughts and lets them arise, and fall away without paying them any further attention. A third “Affect” meditation technique, e.g. Loving Kindness Meditation is designed to develop kindness and compassion to oneself and others. The individual systematically pictures different individuals from self, to close friends, to enemies and wishes them happiness, well-being, safety, peace, and ease of well-being. Although Loving Kindness Meditation has been practiced for centuries, it has received very little scientific research attention

 

In today’s Research News article “Differential Effects of Attention-, Compassion-, and Socio-Cognitively Based Mental Practices on Self-Reports of Mindfulness and Compassion.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5693975/ ), the effects of the various meditation techniques on mindfulness and compassion were compared. Hildebrandt and colleagues recruited healthy adults without meditation experience and randomly assigned them to one of two conditions; the first practiced “Presence”, “Affect”, and “Perspective” conditions in counterbalanced order, while the second constituted a retest control. The conditions were practiced daily at home for 13 weeks and involved a weekly 2-hour training session. In the “Presence” condition the participants practiced as focused attention meditation and body scan meditation In the “Affect” condition the participants practiced Loving Kindness Meditation and engaged in affect dyads, where they were paired with another participant to discuss for 5 minutes each day something that they were grateful for, In the “Perspective” condition the participants practiced observing thoughts meditation and engaged in perspective dyads, where they were paired with another participant to discuss for 5 minutes each day “a situation from the perspective of one of one’s own inner parts.”  The retest control participants were matched on mindfulness with the practice participants. All participants were measured before and after each condition for mindfulness, compassion, fear of compassion, and self-compassion.

 

They found that, compared to the retest control condition all three meditation conditions led to increased mindfulness presence, observing, and non-reacting, but only the “Affect” and “Perspective” conditions produced significant increases in the mindfulness non-judging, accepting, and compassion scales. The “Affect” condition produced additional significant increases in the compassion scales. Hence, different mindfulness practices produced different patterns of change in mindfulness and compassion.

 

Practicing focused meditation appears to improve present moment awareness and the ability to not react to its contents. Practicing observing thoughts appeared to not only improve these mindfulness components but also improved the ability to accept and not judge what is occurring. On the other hand, practicing Loving Kindness Meditation appears to improve all of these mindfulness components and in addition improve compassion. Hence, it appears that “Affect” meditation may be a superior technique for promoting both mindfulness and compassion.

 

These results are surprising as focused attention meditation has long been the most commonly taught practice, yet it was the least effective. It should be mentioned, however, that the present study was unusual in including dyadic discussions in only the “Affect” and “Perspective” conditions and not the “Presence” condition. These dyadic discussions may have been crucial in producing the enhanced effectiveness’ of these practices. It remains for future research to investigate this possibility.

 

This study is an important beginning in documenting the different effects of different meditation techniques. This may lead to better application of meditation tailored for the specific needs of the individual, leading to improved health and well-being.

 

Mindfulness is more than just moment-to-moment awareness. It is a kind, curious awareness that helps us relate to ourselves and others with compassion.”Shauna Shapiro

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Hildebrandt, L. K., McCall, C., & Singer, T. (2017). Differential Effects of Attention-, Compassion-, and Socio-Cognitively Based Mental Practices on Self-Reports of Mindfulness and Compassion. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1488–1512. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0716-z

 

Abstract

Research on the effects of mindfulness- and compassion-based interventions is flourishing along with self-report scales to assess facets of these broad concepts. However, debates remain as to which mental practices are most appropriate to develop the attentional, cognitive, and socio-affective facets of mindfulness and compassion. One crucial question is whether present-moment, attention-focused mindfulness practices are sufficient to induce a cascade of changes across the different proposed facets of mindfulness, including nonjudgmental acceptance, as well as compassion or whether explicit socio-affective training is required. Here, we address these questions in the context of a 9-month longitudinal study (the ReSource Project) by examining the differential effects of three different 3-month mental training modules on subscales of mindfulness and compassion questionnaires. The “Presence” module, which aimed at cultivating present-moment-focused attention and body awareness, led to increases in the observing, nonreacting, and presence subscales, but not to increases in acceptance or nonjudging. These latter facets benefitted from specific cultivation through the socio-cognitive “Perspective” module and socio-affective, compassion-based “Affect” module, respectively. These modules also led to further increases in scores on the subscales affected by the Presence module. Moreover, scores on the compassion scales were uniquely influenced by the Affect module. Thus, whereas a present-moment attention-focused training, as implemented in many mindfulness-based programs, was indeed able to increase attentional facets of mindfulness, only socio-cognitive and compassion-based practices led to broad changes in ethical-motivational qualities like a nonjudgmental attitude, compassion, and self-compassion.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5693975/

Be Better at Resisting Food with Mindfulness

Be Better at Resisting Food with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness is paying attention to your surroundings, being in the present moment. Mindful eating is eating with purpose, eating on purpose, eating with awareness, eating without distraction, when eating only eating, not watching television or playing computer games or having any other distractions, not eating at our desks.” –  Carolyn Dunn

 

Eating is produced by two categories of signals. Homeostatic signals emerge from the body’s need for nutrients and usually work to balance intake with expenditure. Hedonic eating, on the other hand, is not tied to nutrient needs but rather to the pleasurable and rewarding qualities of food, also known as food cues. These cues can be powerful signals to eat even when there is no physical need for food.

 

Mindful eating involves paying attention to eating while it is occurring, including attention to the sight, smell, flavors, and textures of food, to the process of chewing and may help reduce intake. Indeed, high levels of mindfulness are associated with lower levels of obesity and mindfulness training has been shown to reduce binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. It is suspected that mindful eating counters hedonic eating.

 

Mindfulness has two main components the first is present moment awareness while the second is decentering. This is a less well appreciated component of mindfulness. Decentering changes the nature of experience by having the individual step outside of experiences and observe them from a distanced perspective and be aware of their impermanent nature. The individual learns to observe thoughts and feelings as impermanent objective events in the mind rather than personally identifying with the thoughts or feelings. In other words, they’re not personal but simply things arising and falling away. This way of viewing the world should make the individual less responsive to outside stimuli.

 

In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Reduces Reactivity to Food Cues: Underlying Mechanisms and Applications in Daily Life.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5435775/ ), Keesman and colleagues review the published research literature on present moment awareness and decentering and reactivity to the stimuli from foods. They examine the ability of present moment awareness and decentering to decrease the individual’s resistance to food cues.

 

They found that the literature reported that when participants were induced to produce a decentering perspective rather than a present moment perspective, there was a large drop in their attraction to food and cravings for foods, and an increase in healthy food choices. Indeed, participants with a decentering perspective produced less saliva when confronted with an energy dense attractive food. There was even a reduction in chocolate consumption over a week when adopting a decentering perspective. Finally, it was reported that meditators who were high in decentering had much fewer food cravings.

 

Hence, decentering reduces reactivity to food cues while simple present moment awareness does not. It is likely that seeing these cues and one’s response to them as impermanent may well make the individual more resistant to them. It is also possible that seeing one’s response to foods cues as mere thoughts that come and go, makes it easier to resist them. Regardless, it is clear that mindfulness, particularly decentering reduces the ability of food cues to affect the individual’s behavior.

 

So, be better at resisting food with mindfulness.

 

“mindfulness can disrupt that automatic reaction by reducing the appeal of unhealthy foods. . . the trick is to think of your food craving, when it pops up, as nothing more than a mere thought. “It’s really like a soap bubble. As soon as you touch it, it’s going to disperse.” – Esther Papies

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Study Summary

 

Keesman, M., Aarts, H., Häfner, M., & Papies, E. K. (2017). Mindfulness Reduces Reactivity to Food Cues: Underlying Mechanisms and Applications in Daily Life. Current Addiction Reports, 4(2), 151–157. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-017-0134-2

 

Abstract

Purpose of Review

Mindfulness-based interventions are becoming increasingly popular as a means to facilitate healthy eating. We suggest that the decentering component of mindfulness, which is the metacognitive insight that all experiences are impermanent, plays an especially important role in such interventions. To facilitate the application of decentering, we address its psychological mechanism to reduce reactivity to food cues, proposing that it makes thoughts and simulations in response to food cues less compelling. We discuss supporting evidence, applications, and challenges for future research.

Recent Findings

Experimental and correlational studies consistently find that the adoption of a decentering perspective reduces subjective cravings, physiological reactivity such as salivation, and unhealthy eating.

Summary

We suggest that the decentering perspective can be adopted in any situation to reduce reactivity to food cues. Considering people’s high exposure to food temptations in daily life, this makes it a powerful tool to empower people to eat healthily.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5435775/

What is Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” ~Sylvia Boorstein

 

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is used in many contexts with many different meanings. There is no single definition that is agreed upon by the research and practitioner communities.  In fact, there are many different definitions. Arguably the most commonly used definition and the one that I prefer, is the definition proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

 

This definition contains a number of important components that help to better understand exactly what mindfulness is. Firstly, mindfulness is “paying attention.” But, not just letting the mind settle somewhere passively, but “on purpose.” That makes it an active process; a willful choice. With mindfulness, the mind is not aimlessly wandering. Rather it is focused.

 

The problem comes up, though, that our minds are unruly. In fact, the mind is often referred to as a “monkey mind,” implying that it jumps around in an untamed and unruly fashion. This is without a doubt true. Matt Killingsworth sampled people’s thinking at unpredictable times during the day and discovered that 47% of the time people’s minds were off-topic, that is, they were thinking about something else other than what was going on at the moment. They were not mindful almost half the time.

 

It is often a shock for people to discover that a large amount of the time they are not controlling their minds. Rather, the mind appears to be some extent controlling what they are experiencing. Most people suffer from the illusion that they are in control. So, it is eye opening to discover that frequently they are not. To get control of the mind and keep it paying attention to what is going on in the moment requires a degree of effort. But, even then the mind tends to wander off, thinking about past events, planning for the future, or simply day dreaming. Fortunately, mind wandering can be reduced with practice. But, even highly trained mindfulness practitioners have frequent lapses where the mind goes off by itself into topics far removed from the present. So, no one should expect to be able to completely control the mind, just hope to control it better.

 

A second important aspect of the definition is that, in mindfulness, attention is directed to what is occurring in the “present moment.” That seems straightforward until one tries to define exactly what portion in time is the present moment. Our first inclination is to think of the present moment as instantaneous, exactly this particular moment only. But with a little reflection it becomes obvious that what we experience as the present moment actually extends back in time a short ways and also forward slightly into the future. If it didn’t extend back in time we could never see motion, as we wouldn’t be aware of a change from a previously seen position. For that matter, we wouldn’t be able to hear a full word, only the immediate sound. Obviously this is not the case, because the present moment actually contains a little bit of the past. Demonstrating that the present actually extends a little into the future is more difficult and subtle to detect. But, if we interrupt speech in the middle of a sentence, you will find that you seemingly “hear” the next syllable or word that the mind is expecting to appear or if we interrupt a movie you seemingly “see” the next frame.

 

The total amount of time constituted by the present moment is difficult to precisely define. Marc Wittmann asserts that before we can answer that question of how long is now we must first define exactly what we mean by the present moment. He identifies three different ideas of the present moment; functional moment, experienced moment, and mental presence. The most pertinent for our discussion of mindfulness is the experienced moment, the subjective present. It is an experienced now within an ongoing stream of events. For example, while listening to music a note does not stand alone in consciousness but is joined by the prior note and the expected future note. In speech, each word is perceived in reference to past and expected words, as in the phrase “how are you”. When we hear “are” we process it recognizing that it’s in reference to a question, “How” and due to our learning we also experience the “are” with the expectation of a following word “you”. It’s been estimated that the experienced moment lasts somewhere up to 3 seconds. So, when we refer to present moment awareness we are referring not to an instant but to the approximately 3 seconds that we experience as the present.

 

A third important aspect of the definition is that, in mindfulness there is no judgment of experience. This indicates that when we are mindful we are simply experiencing things as they are without evaluation. It is important to note that it is value judgments that are absent. Making judgments about the likely course of events and what actions are needed is actually a part of mindfulness. If we’re driving mindfully we are constantly judging whether we need to slow down or turn to avoid hitting another car, whether we can safely make it through a traffic light that is about to change, whether a car may pull out in front of us. If we are driving mindfully we’re making these judgments but totally aware the whole time of what is happening.

 

The non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness involves value judgments about what we’re experiencing. Things are not good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, happy or sad, worthwhile or worthless, etc. They simply are. Although seemingly simple, this is actually devilishly difficult to do. The mind has been trained pretty much since birth to judge everything. This is actually quite good and adaptive, allowing us to decide if we should approach and acquire things we need or to avoid things that could do us harm. But, the judgment goes on even when it has little consequence toward survival. So, we see another person and classify them as attractive, or smart, or boring, or obnoxious, or rich, or a fool, or friendly, or a rival, etc. We hear a loud sound and we immediately think it’s threatening, or unnecessary noise, or enjoyable, or someone being inconsiderate, etc. We taste a food and immediately think that it’s delicious, or sour, or nauseating, or healthful, etc. We are constantly judging.

 

Being non-judgmental requires quieting the mind. If left to itself, the mind will always judge. So, to be mindful we need to shut off the evaluating chatter. Just experiencing everything as it is, as a pure and simple experience. It’s actually quite amazing what happens when judgment is turned off. Suddenly, we begin to appreciate even the simplest of things which begin to shine and stand out in their own unique way. Another person is simply seen as another human being with needs and desires, and a consciousness, just like us, a reflection of our own humanness. An odor can be experienced as a unique sensation that will never be repeated exactly the same again. Just breathing can be experienced fully as a series of movements and sensations that arise and fall away and the repeat over and over again, automatically, without direction or thought, each time revitalizing and nourishing our physical being, leading to a recognition of physiology at work. These are just some of the fruits of mindfulness.

 

It is very difficult to stop the judging even for brief periods of time. But, again practice comes to the rescue. Over time, if the effort is expended, judging slowly decreases and stops for longer and longer periods of time. Don’t expect to ever be able to stop judging completely. This would be a battle with you mind that can’t be won. Just expect that you can become better at looking at things as they are without value judgments and be able to maintain it for a longer period of time.

 

The final aspect of the definition that needs amplification and discussion is the notion that mindfulness involves paying attention in “a particular way.” Unfortunately, this is a rather ambiguous phrase that actually refers to a very important component of mindfulness. The “particular way” refers to attention primarily to immediate sensory experience. It could be focused on a particular component, aspect, or thing, or it could be broadly on all that is immediately present. The key is that it is a total appreciation of what is without any attempt to hold onto it, letting it arise, and fall away without grasping at it or attempting to change it. The experiences can include feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment and even thoughts. But observing the thoughts as just another thing arising, and falling away, with no attempt to hold onto them, elaborate on them, judge them, or associate them with any other thoughts just letting them flow through awareness and fall away like a cloud passing over the horizon. In other words, thinking can be mindful if we are completely aware of what we are doing and not getting carried away and lost in the thoughts.

 

This is a rather idealized conception of mindfulness. In practice, one can be very mindful without coming even close to this description. This discourse should be looked on as describing the model, the ideal, with it understood that reality will in fact be a diluted or compromised version of this ideal. One can be very mindful and still judge the experience, as long as there’s a recognition that that is what is happening. One can be very mindful and still bring in memories from the past or plans for the future, as long as there’s an awareness that these are not an essential part of the experience but the minds embellishments. One can be very mindful and still

Try to maintain a feeling or keep an enjoyable experience going, as long as one recognizes that what you are doing is simply another part of present moment experience. It is even possible, albeit difficult, to daydream mindfully as long as you are completely aware that this is what you’re engaging in completely under willful control. In other words, mindfulness need not be perfect, it only experiencing things as they are, in the present moment, without judgment.

 

One problem with the definition is that it specifies the processes involved in mindfulness but neglects to specify exactly what entity is being mindful. It doesn’t specify who or what is attending, who or what is producing the purpose, who or what is not judging, who or what is having the immediate experience. When these questions arise, it’s a sign that the issue has moved from mindfulness to the spiritual side of mindfulness, who or what is aware. This is not the place for a discussion of these aspects of mindfulness. But, it is important to recognize that this definition and description of mindfulness only scratches the surface. There are deeper levels to mindfulness to be explored.

 

“Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement.” – Ellen Langer

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Happy New Year with Mindfulness

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.”  ~G.K. Chesterton

 

At the stroke of midnight on December 31st all over the world revelers ring in the new calendar year with a hearty celebration. It’s a celebration of a relatively arbitrary day that has been designated as the first day of a new calendar year. The celebration of the solstice, 10 days before, at least has astrological meaning as the shortest day of the year. But, January 1 has no such physical meaning. January 1 was designated as the start of the year by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. That date was chosen to honor the Roman God Janus, the god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. That symbolism has stuck as the new year’s celebration involves a reflection about the year past and hope for the year to come.

 

Don’t Look Back

 

To some extent this looking back into the past and forward into the future is the antithesis of mindfulness which emphasizes the present moment. Our recollection of the past is, in fact, an illusion. When we look at the past we view it with the distorted lens of memory and the delusions that we have about the self. The memories of what happened during the last year bare only a fleeting resemblance to what actually happened. Recollections tend to be dominated by hazy and distorted memories of emotionally charged events and neglects everyday times of calm and contentment. When we look back we primarily remember the highs and the lows and believe that if we could simply keep repeating the highs and eliminate the lows then we’d be truly happy. This is the trap sometimes known as the hedonic treadmill. We keep seeking the highs and are unhappy when we can’t reproduce them or if we are successful are unhappy to find that we can’t maintain them. Unfortunately, our New Year’s celebration and our resolutions reinforce and amplify these ideas propelling us to even greater unhappiness in the new year.

 

Our view of the past is additionally distorted by the beliefs that we have about ourselves. These self-concepts are mainly incorrect and terribly distorted. Western culture, by its adoration of extraordinary and unrealistic models of perfection, produces and reinforces rampant self-dislike. We can never really attain the societal norm of perfection and this makes us feel horribly deficient. As a result, most westerners don’t like what they are and want to be different. As a consequence, people look back on the events of the year and interpret them through the lens of self-dislike.

 

We remember primarily those events that conform to our beliefs about what we should be, but cannot achieve. This creates a vicious cycle where the low self-esteem and self-worth causes us to remember events that exemplify this self-concept, creating even greater self-dislike. Those rare events that reveal us to be adequate are quickly forgotten. The events of the past year, then, are perceived as evidence to support our harsh view of ourselves. Rather than accurately remembering what actually happened during the year, our recollections are dominated by this distorted reality. So, don’t look back at the past year, rather look carefully and mindfully at yourself. You need to develop self-acceptance, before you can ever hope to have an honest idea of what the past contained.

 

Don’t Look to the Future

 

These distortions also color our thoughts about the upcoming year. We resolve to change ourselves to better conform to our unrealistic beliefs about what we should be. The New year’s resolutions that are such a common part of our new year’s celebration are a direct outgrowth of our self-dislike. The problem with these new year’s resolutions is that they are a declaration that we’re not happy with ourselves or the way things are. We want to be different. That’s not bad unto itself. Striving to better oneself is a good thing. The problem is that what we desire for ourselves is usually totally unrealistic as it’s based on a distorted reality. But, we strongly believe that this is what we need to be happy. It’s all a delusion that’s doomed to failure. In fact, research has suggested that only 8% of these resolutions are ever achieved.

 

Better New Year’s Resolutions

 

We need to craft a new set of resolutions, based upon self-acceptance, and a realistic view about what needs to be and can be achieved. The resolutions should be to better see things, including ourselves as they really are. To look at the world and ourselves mindfully without judgment, just as we are. These are the kinds of resolutions that can really work towards, not making us happy, but letting us be happy in the coming year; to simply experience the happiness that has been within us all along.

 

There are some rules of thumb about these resolutions. Don’t be too grandiose. Don’t set goals of perfection. Small steps with a recognition that you won’t always be successful are recommended. Make a resolution to practice mindfulness. Pick a practice that you not only can do, but that you can comfortably sustain. The only one perfect right practice is the one that you’ll do and keep doing. It may be meditation, yoga, body scan, tai chi or qigong, contemplative prayer, or another of the many available practices or some combination of practices. The only thing that matters is that you’re drawn to it, comfortable doing it, and you’ll stick with it. Once you start, don’t try too hard. Remember the Buddha recommended the middle way, with right effort, not too much and not too little. Practice nonjudgmentally. Don’t judge whether you’re doing it right or wrong, whether the particular practice was good or bad, or whether you’re making progress or not. Just practice. Just relax and let the practice do you. You don’t need to do it.

 

Focus on Now

 

All of these various practices promote nonjudgmental attention to what is occurring in the present moment, the now. Slowly you come to realize that the now is the only time available where you can be satisfied and happy. The past are only nows that are gone and the future are only nows that have yet to happen. So, focus on the present moment. It’s where life happens. If you can learn to be happy right now, then you’ll be able to happy in the future when it becomes now. As you look calmly, nonjudgmentally, and deeply at what is happening right now you begin to see the beauty and wonder that is there all of the time. You just need to stop ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Learn to enjoy the moment.

 

Focusing on the present moment the impermanence of all things becomes evident. In the present we can observe things rising up and then falling away. Change is constant. If things are bad at the moment, you can be sure that it’ll change. So, be patient. On the other hand, if things are good, know also that this will change too. Don’t try to hang onto what is present. Learn to enjoy the moment as it is. These observations reveal that every moment is new. It has never happened before and it will never happen again. Every moment is a new opportunity. Don’t worry about it passing. The next moment will again provide a new opportunity. Make the most of it. If you can learn to do this, you’ll enjoy life to its fullest, as the dynamically changing perpetual now.

 

Renewal

 

In the new year, we need to not think about a “happy new year.” Rather think about a “happy new day.” In fact, it’s best to think about each “happy new moment.” Focus on the present moment and wish yourself and everyone else a “happy new moment.” Every moment is a unique opportunity to experience life as it is, appreciate its wonder, and enjoy it while it’s here, in the present moment. Each moment is an opportunity for renewal. If we’re not happy in the moment, we can be in the next. We have a new opportunity every new moment. If we pay attention to them, we can use the opportunity to create happiness.

 

So, have a “happy new moment” with mindfulness.

 

“Empty your glass and feel your way through this New Year. If it feeds your soul, do it. If it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning with a smile, carry on. Be present and let your energy synchronise with the earth and give you the clarity to move forward and be comfortable and contented with who you are. Let your intuition guide you through a wonderful year and attract an abundance of positive opportunity.” – Alfred James

 

“Many of us are thinking about new year’s resolutions and taking stock at this time, but how many of those typical resolutions are just ‘self’ improvement projects (which means we’re trying to get more, be more or have more) rather than ways to actually embrace the life we already have right here and now?” – Mrs. Mindfulness

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Happiness is Just a Spin Away

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” – Frederick Keonig

 

We were recently driving through Louisiana and passed a billboard advertising a casino with the headline “Happiness is just a spin away.” For the gambler, this is the lure. Each win is a rush of happiness. Unfortunately, it’s short-lived. The next burst of happiness is now right in front of the gambler if they just continue spinning. From a psychological standpoint this is a perfect example of the power of intermittent reinforcement. When a reward is contingent upon an action, in this case pulling the lever on a slot machine, but the dispensing of the reward is not predictable, with the number of pulls needed to produce the reward not predictable, it produces a very potent form of conditioning. It is why gambling is so addictive. The brief rush of a win strongly conditions the lever pulling to get the next rush.

 

I was struck by how well the sign, “Happiness is just a spin away,” captured the western ideas of happiness and how to obtain it. It is a perpetual cycle of reward producing brief happiness followed by the loss of happiness followed by more action to produce another brief happiness. This is what psychologists term the hedonic treadmill. On the face of it, it sounds silly. We would never do that. But, if we look honestly and carefully at our lives we will see that most of it is spent on the hedonic treadmill. We work to purchase a new car and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So, we pursue a new love interest, and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So we work to purchase a new home and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So, we look for a new job and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. And on and on it goes, on the treadmill, pursuing the ephemeral happiness that we can never seem to be able to keep a hold of. So, we spin the wheel again.

 

Humans consider themselves smart people. But, it never seems to occur to most people that there may be something wrong with their idea of how to obtain happiness. After spending the majority of our lives failing to obtain the lasting happiness that we seek, you’d think that we’d catch on that what we’re doing isn’t working, hasn’t ever worked, and there’s no reason to believe that it ever will work. But working against that recognition is a society and a culture that is determined to keep us on the hedonic treadmill. The western consumer culture requires that we keep seeking happiness in things. If we didn’t, the economy might collapse. It is virtually impossible to escape the advertising messages that pervade our everyday lives. Each holds out the promise of happiness if we just use this toothpaste, take this drug, drive this car, see this movie, go to this concert, buy this gadget, etc. The barrage of messages is all geared to keeping us on the treadmill. If there is a crack, a glimmer of vision that something might be wrong, the messaging distracts us by bombarding us with the idea that “happiness is just a spin away.”

 

So, what are we to do? Give up the search for happiness? No, that is a waste of time. We are born with a biological program to seek happiness and to deny it is to fight against our biological nature. So, trying to not seek happiness is as futile as to pursue it on the hedonic treadmill. Fortunately, there is an answer. One so simple, that few see it. It’s right in front of us hidden in our delusions of what makes us happy. It is so simple that we can’t believe that that could be the answer. It is so contrary to the cultural messaging that we can’t trust that it could work even if we saw it. It’s simply to accept what is, enjoy what we have, and be in the present moment.

 

If we adopt the belief that happiness is right here, right now, if we only allow ourselves to accept it, then we will begin to look at our existence differently. We don’t need to search somewhere else. We don’t need to wait to another time. All we need to do is look closely, without judgment at our present experience. We have become so used to it that we can no longer see it. But, what is here in the present moment is actually wondrous and miraculous. Each breath is a miracle. The energy and life just bubbling in and through our bodies is amazing. How can we not be happy when we realize the mystery of our existence and what a gift this precious moment is. We’ve experienced so many similar moments, are so accustomed to them, that it’s difficult to break through and see the wonder in each one. But, just concentrate, if only occasionally, on fully experiencing what is transpiring right now. It just might change your life.

 

Just take a look around. Listen to the bird chirp and wonder at the experience of hearing and the sheer beauty of the singing. Look at the tree where the bird is perched and enjoy its uniqueness. There has never been and never will be one just like it. See its beautiful nuanced colors from the myriad shades of brown of the bark to the shimmering green of its leaves in the sunlight. Look at its roots and be amazed by its stability and strength, at their ability to remove nutrients and water from the ground and move them a 100 feet into the air. Look at its leaves wonder at their ability to use the sun’s energy to create complex molecules and energy from the nutrients. Now look at the person standing under the tree and witness their uniqueness. Marvel at their ability to simply stand or walk and what an amazing feat of balance, dexterity, coordination, and strength it is. Look in their eyes and realize the consciousness that is looking through them and seeing you. Observe their happiness, sadness, joy, fear, etc. and recognize how much just like you they are. Relish the fact that you are not alone. This could go on and on. There is so much right in front of you in this present moment to keep you entertained and awed for days on end.

 

The ultimate reward for making the effort to deeply experience the present moment is the happiness which will grow. Not the ephemeral happiness or the momentary highs of the hedonic treadmill, but an enduring, satisfying, mellow happiness that can be re-invoked at will. Happiness is not “a spin away.” It is always present and accessible in the present. So, get off the treadmill and discover the happiness that has always been present inside you. You only need to stop the seeking elsewhere and just be in the present. Happiness is not somewhere else at some other time. It is here all of the time for the picking. You just have to stop waiting for the results of the “spin” and simply enjoy “spinning.”

 

“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” – Anthony de Mello

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are  also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts