The Psychology of Ending Suffering

The Psychology of Ending Suffering


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” – anonymous


The Buddha taught that every one of us is already enlightened We simply need to remove those things that are preventing us from realizing our true nature, and those things are our sufferings. But suffering unsatisfactoriness is rampant in our daily lives. But these unsatisfactorinesses have causes and by eliminating the causes of unsatisfactoriness we can bring about equanimity and happiness. The Buddha and his followers have developed many methods for eliminating unsatisfactoriness and many of them are identical to the teachings of modern Psychology on how to eliminate unwanted behaviors.


The usual way most people tend to think about stopping a behavior is to punish it. This is the ubiquitous solution in our society, particularly exemplified by our treatment of criminal behavior. But we do it also at work. B. F. Skinner analyzed the work environment as dominated by punishers and the avoidance of punishers. He taught that the salary that is earned sets up a lifestyle and we become reliant upon the income to support it. Behavior at work is then controlled by threatening to withdraw this lifestyle, e.g. threat of firing or layoff, lack of raises or promotions, etc. But, psychological research has clearly shown that for the most part, punishment is ineffective in removing unwanted behaviors. Instead, it at best temporarily suppresses behaviors that can reemerge at any time or it leads to the individual avoiding the punisher, the supervisor, the police, or often parents and teachers.


The frequent use of punishment is apparent in our contemplative practice, where we frequently punish ourselves for not being or doing what we think we should be. We get angry at ourselves when we fail at quieting our mind in meditation. We get upset at ourselves when our mind wanders. We feel ashamed when we let our desires control our behavior. We feel bad when we see how we’re constantly wanting things in our lives to be different than they are. But, these punishers, like those in society are ineffective. Instead of improving our practice, they can lead to our avoiding or abandoning the practice.


But, the science of Psychology has a lot to offer in place of punishment in our quest to end unsatisfactoriness. Much has been learned through the years of research of how things are learned and unlearned and how to change behaviors. One of the key notions in Psychology is known as Thorndike’s Law of Effect. Simply stated it teaches that when we do things that lead to a pleasant state of affairs, we tend to repeat them while those that lead to an unpleasant state of affairs tend to become less likely to be repeated. This simple, seemingly obvious principle is actually quite powerful and suggests how we should proceed.


As we’ve discussed, applying unpleasant states, punishment, is not generally effective. Note, the Law of Effect states that we tend not to repeat behaviors that lead to an unpleasant state of affairs. So, if our contemplative or spiritual practice leads to self-punishments, it doesn’t lead to better practice, rather it leads to our becoming less likely to practice. This is the exact opposite of what we want to happen. So punishing ourselves for our failures in practice, instead of correcting them, leads to less practice.


All of this is also true in our everyday lives. Punishing our boss by getting angry at him or her is likely not going to change his or her behavior, except maybe to prompt the boss to punish us. Honking, making obscene gestures, or tailgating a driver who cuts us off is unlikely to make the driver stop cutting people off. Rather it’s likely to anger the driver and make for a more dangerous driving situation. Yelling at your life’s partner when he or she does something that we don’t approve of is more likely to sour our relationships than change our partners’ behavior. Telling people whose political opinions vary from our own that they’re stupid or ignorant, is not likely to change their opinions, but rather to cause them to avoid talking politics with us in the future. Getting upset at ourselves when we’re not as fast, adept, or as effective as we want to be in our exercises, is unlikely to make us faster or more adept or effective, but rather to make it less likely that we’ll engage in exercise in the future. In a nutshell, punishment doesn’t work to change behaviors in our lives. So, it is unlikely to work in helping us eliminate our unsatisfactorinesses and remove the obstacles toward spiritual realization. We need to find another way.


The Law of Effect, though, does provide a powerful prescription for changing behavior. If you want to change a behavior you need to remove what is reinforcing or supporting it. Discover the pleasant state of affairs that is produced by the behavior and eliminate it and the behavior will gradually go away. This is a process called extinction and it is very effective in eliminating unwanted behaviors. So, in our practice, if we want to reduce mind wandering, then we just simply watch it, not punishing it nor giving it any energy. Slowly mind wandering will go through extinction, becoming less frequent. It will sometimes happen so slowly that you won’t notice its changing, but it will inevitably slowly dissipate.


While driving a car, we may want to decrease our impatience with traffic and stop lights. We should first look at removing what’s supporting it and that means reflecting on the impatience to investigate why we feel that way. We may be able to see that it’s supported by the idea that getting somewhere else will make us happy. The thought of it reinforces the desire to get there quickly. But, we should remember that in the past whenever we got to that next place it didn’t make us happy. So, we again became impatient to get to another somewhere else where we feel we’ll really be happy. Hopefully, we can see our delusion that happiness is elsewhere is supporting our impatience. Recognizing this, each time we sense ourselves becoming impatient we bring this thought to mind that where we’re going will not necessarily make us happy, we can only be happy in the present moment. This can begin to extinguish the impatience. There’s no need to be impatient as it’s not going to get us what we want. So, impatience slowly lessens and becomes less frequent. We’ve eliminated a suffering by removing its cause. We’ve extinguished it.


There’s a problem with extinction that modern Psychology has discovered and that is over a period of time the lost behavior can reemerge. This is called spontaneous recovery. To overcome this the behavior must be extinguished again and if spontaneous recovery occurs again, it must be again extinguished. So, patience and persistence must be practiced. Eventually, the behavior will cease and no spontaneous recovery will happen again. So, if impatience while driving occurs again, we need to repeat our extinction process until we stop impatience completely and simply enjoy the present moment.


Psychology has also discovered that learning in one situation will generalize to other similar situations. This can be quite helpful as what we learn is not just effective in the exact circumstances in which we learned it. As a result, if we extinguish impatience while driving we’ll tend to have less impatience at work, with our life partner, with political discussions, and with exercise. Impatience will still be there in these other situations but the generalization from driving results in a lessening in its intensity. Impatience then becomes easier to extinguish in these other situations. If we go through the process we used with driving with our impatience with work and extinguish it, it will also generalize producing a further reduction in impatience with our life partner, with political discussions, and with exercise. Continuing this process will make us much more patient and happier people in virtually every circumstance.


Another method that Psychology has developed for eliminating an unwanted behavior is to replace it with an incompatible behavior. This is called counterconditioning. In this process positive reinforcement, reward, is used to build up a behavior that cannot coexist with the behavior we wish to eliminate. For example, to eliminate a phobia to spiders, a psychologist may attempt to have the patient relax in the face of thinking about spiders, replacing fear with relaxation. Similarly, a child that is hyperactive and engages in problematic behaviors in the schoolroom can be rewarded for paying attention. Since, paying attention cannot occur at the same time as disruptive behaviors, strengthening attention, reduces disruptive behaviors.


For example, we may feel unhappy because our life’s partners have a habit of not picking up after themselves. This feeling of unsatisfactoriness can build up and produce a nasty outburst and upset our partner. But, if when confronted with the mess, we simply remember a wonderful endearing characteristic of our partner, we can begin to replace the unsatisfactoriness with pleasant thoughts. The good feelings then begin to replace the irritation toward our partners. If we continue this practice we will slowly begin to react to the mess with loving feelings and can then confront the behavior with kindness and love, making it more likely to have a positive effect on our partners lack of tidiness. This is the process of eliminating our unsatisfactoriness through counterconditioning. Tangible rewards are not available, but pleasant memories are, and they can be used to reinforce the incompatible behavior.


Positive Psychology has clearly shown that we can replace unsatisfactoriness by strengthening satisfactory states, such as happiness, contentment, joy, and bliss. By simply working to amplify the positive the negative declines. Simple things such as putting a smile on our faces, can brighten our day. Smiling at other people when we pass them in the corridors and streets not only lifts their spirits but also our own and a return smile amplifies the contentment even more. We become so much happier and more content when we focus on the good things in life rather than the bad. When we do, unsatisfactoriness fades away.


The great sage Thich Nhat Hahn teaches us to focus on our non-toothaches. When we have a toothache we’re miserable and suffering and find this very unsatisfactory. We think, if we can just get over this painful condition then things will be good again. But, once it’s gone, we quickly forget and focus on something else that’s unsatisfactory. We need instead to be happy that our teeth are sound, without pain. Simply notice it and rejoice in it. It is a simple miracle that our bodies work so well that we can enjoy great oral health. Simply, occasionally, reflect on our good health and the miracle of being alive with most everything working well. What a beautiful state! What a joy! How can we find our lives unsatisfactory when we appreciate all that is right with our lives.


Psychology has found that positive reinforcement is extraordinarily powerful in changing behavior. So, we should reward ourselves for making strides in our practice and in our lives, rather than punishing ourselves for our failures. During contemplative practice when our minds wander, we shouldn’t get upset that we lost focus, rather celebrate the fact that we returned to focus. When we realize that our mind is wandering we punish ourselves by getting upset with ourselves, what we are effectively doing is punishing returning to focus. As we’ve seen, this leads to making it less likely that we’ll return to focus in the future. But, if we rejoice when we realize our minds are wandering and congratulate ourselves for returning to focus, we increase the likelihood that the next time our minds wander we’ll be more likely to detect it and get back to focusing on our practice. This is far more satisfactory


The other day I was riding my bicycle and got extremely tired before completing my scheduled ride. So, I stopped and rested even though I only had a couple of miles to go. Rather than getting angry and upset at myself for not pacing my ride properly, I congratulated myself for knowing my body and recognizing that a rest was necessary. So, I replaced an unsatisfactory state of self-anger with a satisfactory state. Rather than suffer about my failure, I celebrated my good sense. So, use positive reinforcement and reduce unsatisfactoriness, building happy and satisfying states.


It’s useful in this regard to contemplate happiness. Look carefully at when we’re happy, joyful, or content look carefully at exactly what we’re feeling in our bodies. This will help us at becoming better at recognizing these positive states when they are present. When they are there investigate what were the conditions that led up to these good feelings and thereby begin to learn what really makes us happy. We’ll probably be surprised that it is mostly not what we think will make us happy, but often something simple and everyday, particularly with family and friends. Recognize what truly makes us happy, we can learn how to increase our happiness. Doing so markedly reduces unsatisfactoriness. So eliminate suffering by building happiness, joy, and contentment.


Sometimes our suffering is too strong to simply replace it. Psychology also has a method to use in this case. It’s a process of slowly replacing similar but less intense unsatisfactoriness with counterconditioning and letting it generalize to more intense situations that can now be addressed. This is called systematic desensitization.


We might try this with political discussion where the issues produce so much anger that trying to replace them with good feelings is almost impossible, perhaps discussing abortion. Instead, look for issues of discussion that are contentious but less emotional, perhaps taxes. First practice relaxing by taking a deep breath and focusing on relaxing the facial muscles and smiling. Once, we’ve developed this ability to evoke relaxation and a smile at will we can begin to apply it to replacing anger. After all, it’s impossible to be relaxed and smiling and angry at the same time. Now, we should try this while discussing taxes, while the other people are presenting their viewpoints, produce the relax and smile response and as we’re presenting our viewpoint also produce the relax and smile response. Slowly, anger will be replaced with pleasant feelings so while discussing taxes we are no longer angry.


Next, we move to a more contentious subject, perhaps welfare. The previous counterconditioning for the taxes discussion generalizes to the welfare discussion making it substantially less emotion provoking, so it can be more easily addressed. Then repeat the process of conditioning relaxation and smiling while the other people are presenting their viewpoints on welfare and as we’re presenting our viewpoint. Slowly, anger will be replaced with pleasant feelings so while discussing welfare we are no longer angry. The final step, after these and perhaps more intermediary steps, will be to repeat the process with the most anger producing discussion, perhaps abortion. The previous counterconditionings will have generalized to this discussion and the level of anger may be reduced to the point where it is manageable. We then repeat the process of strengthening the relaxation and smiling response while discussing abortion. Eventually, we’ll be able to take on the worst of the worst and do it while relaxing and smiling. Our unsatisfactoriness will have been eliminated by replacing it with a pleasant state.


These are some of the methods that Psychology has developed that can help us to eliminate our sufferings, unsatisfactorinesses. Applying extinction, counterconditioning, and systematic desensitization to our unsatisfactorinesses can be an effective means of getting rid of them. As we’ve discussed this is fundamental to unmasking our true nature, our Buddha Nature. So, the principles of modern Psychology can be useful tools on our contemplative and spiritual development. We can use the skills developed by following the principles of Psychology to eliminate our unsatisfactorinesses leading to spiritual awakening.


‘if we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy’. – Alan Watts


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Improve Mental and Physical Well-being with Yoga


Yoga cognition Nagendra2

“The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.” – Neha Gothe


If we are lucky enough to navigate life’s dangers we are rewarded with the opportunity to experience aging! The aging process involves a progressive deterioration of the body including the brain. It actually begins in the late 20s and continues throughout the lifespan. It’s inevitable. We can’t stop it or reverse it. But, it is becoming more apparent that life-style changes can slow down and to some extent counteract the process and allow us to live longer and healthier lives. This is true for both physical and mental deterioration including degeneration and shrinkage of the nervous system. Aging healthily to a large extent involves strategies to slow down the deterioration.


Contemplative practices including yoga practice (See links below) have been shown to reduce the physical deterioration that occurs with aging (see Yoga practice has many physical and mental benefits including protection of brain structures from degeneration with aging (see These structural changes have been demonstrated by neuroimaging techniques with yoga practitioners. They document change in the size and connectivity of brain structures that result from yoga practice.


Yoga is a mind-body practice that involves both physical and mental exercises. This is accompanied by changes in the activity of virtually every component of the body including general physiology and the peripheral and central nervous systems. So, another potential method to investigate yoga’s effects on the nervous system is to measure the electrical signals emanating from the nervous system.


In today’s Research News article “Cognitive Behavior Evaluation Based on Physiological Parameters among Young Healthy Subjects with Yoga as Intervention”

Nagendra and colleagues trained naive adults in yoga practice for a period of five months for 1.5 hours per day and compared physiological measure to a no-treatment control group. They found that yoga practice produced an increase in parasympathetic (vegetative) and decrease in sympathetic (activation) activity in the peripheral nervous system including a decrease in heart rate and heart rate variability. This indicates a calming and relaxing effect of yoga on the physiology.


Nagendra and colleagues also found significant differences in EEG activity of the central nervous system. The changes were complex and varied. But they are indicators that yoga practice produces alterations of brain activity in ways that are indicative of improved vigilance, alertness, attention, concentration ,memory, visual information processing, sense of wellbeing, responsiveness, emotion process, cognition, and executive function and reduced stress and strain. In other words the changes in the brain activity indicated vast improvements in mental processing produced by yoga practice.


It should be noted that these are indirect measures and the researchers did not directly measure the psychological variables. So, although suggestive they are not conclusive. They are, however, similar to findings of yoga effects in other research with direct measures (see But, even with this caution, the results suggest that yoga practice has widespread beneficial effects on the mental and physical well-being of the individual.


So, practice yoga and improve mental and physical well-being.


“True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life. Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived. Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming. Yoga is designed for a vast and profound purpose, and for it to be truly called yoga, its essence must be embodied.” — Aadil Palkhivala


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies



Yoga and aging links

Yoga reduces physical degeneration in the elderly

Yoga reduces cellular aging

Yoga practice improves the symptoms of arthritis in the elderly



Mindfully Improve Psychological Wellbeing

Meditation, focusing, and CBT all have been shown to be effective treatments for a number of psychological problems. In previous research Sugiura and colleagues identified five factors in common to meditation, focusing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), refraining from catastrophic thinking, self-observation, logical objectivity, detached coping, and acceptance. This raises the questions as to whether these common factors may be responsible for the common clinical outcomes, and which of these common factors is most important for each of a variety of disorders.

In today’s Research News article “Common Factors of Meditation, Focusing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Longitudinal Relation of Self-Report Measures to Worry, Depressive, and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms Among Nonclinical Students.”

Sugiura and colleagues pursue these questions with a sample of undergraduate students.

They found that the greater the detached coping the lower the levels of obsessive-compulsive (OCD) symptoms. Detached coping emphasizes detachment and distancing from external conditions. This is exactly what mindfulness training is supposed to do, to allow us to see things objectively as they are. This suggests that mindfulness training is effective against obsessive-compulsive symptoms through its development of the skill of detached coping. Similarly, it was found that the greater the detached coping the lower the levels of depressive symptoms. This suggests that mindfulness training is effective against depression by allowing the individual to look at their situation more objectively, with detachment, and as a result not respond to it as something to feel bad about.

Worrying is also effectively reduced by mindfulness. The mechanism appears to be more complicated than that for OCD or depressive symptoms. It was found that the greater the level of refraining from catastrophic thinking the lower the levels of worrying, while the greater the level of self-observation the stronger the levels of worrying. Refraining from catastrophic thinking reflects the skills necessary to detach from and to suspend negative thinking, which frequently involves a fear of a future negative outcome, a worry. Mindfulness, by focusing on the present rather than the future interferes with worrying about the future and thus can be an effective antidote to worry.

Finally, Self-observation constitutes engagement in self-focus with curiosity and openness. Surprisingly it was associated with increased worrying. It appears that self-observation activates negatives beliefs about worrying. This suggests that it produces a worrying about worrying that increases worry.

So, it appears that the factors in common to meditation, focusing, and CBT of refraining from catastrophic thinking, self-observation, and detached coping are also associated with the symptoms common to psychological problems. But, that different factors are involved with different issues. This suggests that the three treatments may be effective by invoking common intermediaries for various disorders.

So, practice mindfulness and improve your psychological wellbeing.


Rethink your Emotions

Our emotions impact our lives in many ways. They provide much of the pleasure and happiness in life. They also torment us with painful, unpleasant, feelings that interfere with our well-being and happiness. Many mental illnesses involve distorted or exaggerated emotions. So a key to our happiness and our mental health is the ability to deal with emotions effectively.

It is well established that mindfulness training increases the ability to control emotions and our responses to the emotions. This is called emotion regulation. It is a very important benefit of mindfulness and it has positive effects on many life situations from dealing with stress and depression, to assisting in recovery from cancer, to improving caregiver well-being, to being a better negotiator.

Since, the mindfulness induced improvement in emotion regulation is so important, understanding it becomes extremely important. There is a need to understand exactly what mindfulness does to improve emotion regulation and what intermediaries are affected that link mindfulness with the emotions. One aspect of this question is addressed in today’s Research News Article “State Mindfulness during Meditation Predicts Enhanced Cognitive Reappraisal”

The study found that mindfulness was associated with emotional reappraisal which inferred that mindfulness promotes emotion regulation by enhancing cognitive reappraisal.

Cognitive reappraisal is a strategy that involves changing the direction or magnitude of an emotional response by reinterpreting the meaning of the situation that evoked the emotion. For example if you have to give a speech and you are overwhelmed with anxiety a possible cognitive reappraisal would be to ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen, your voice may quake and you may forget a few words. That’s not so bad. Then you focus on the positives for example how honored you are by the opportunity to speak to this group and the impact you will have on them. Note how the reappraisal diminishes the anxiety and replaces it with pride.

After a first date a lady does not hear from the gentleman again and becomes deeply depressed. Looking at the thought process involved the lady notes that the snub reinforced her feeling of worthlessness exacerbating her depression. A reappraisal strategy is to look carefully at the date and see that they were no really compatible and continuing dating would only lead to a dead end. Seeing it this way removes it from the problems with self-worth and reinterprets it as a good thing that he didn’t call. This Flips the situation it from a negative to a positive.

Mindfulness teaches us to look carefully at an emotion and experience it fully and not run away from it. This affords the opportunity to think about it and reappraise it. Mindfulness also relaxes the sympathetic nervous system which is highly activated with strong emotions. This makes the feeling less intense and not so overwhelming that the individual can take a look at the rationally and cognitively reappraise them.

So, practice mindfulness and better manage your emotions.


Control Emotions the Right Way with Mindfulness

Sometimes we get carried away by our emotions. Anger is a frequent culprit. Road rage is a perfect example. But we can also get overtaken by many other emotions such as love, jealousy, fear, etc. When this happens we often engage in behaviors that are either harmful or that we deeply regret later.

How do we control these powerful emotions? Can we learn to regulate them so that they don’t overwhelm us? One strategy is to actively strive to suppress the emotion. This is difficult, requires immense self-control, and most of the time doesn’t work. In addition, repression of extreme emotions can lead to later psychological issues. It has long been thought that repression can be problematic as the emotions reemerge late often in disguised forms.

A better strategy is mindfulness. It has been demonstrated that mindfulness training leads to a decrease in emotionality and to an increase in ability to regulate and respond appropriately to these emotions. With mindfulness the emotion is experienced fully, recognized, and appreciated for what it is. Because the emotion is processed, its power to affect behavior is reduced allowing the individual to form a more appropriate response to the situation. This is the exact opposite of emotional suppression which attempts to eliminate the emotion.

In today’s Research News article “Neural Networks for Mindfulness and Emotion Suppression”

it is demonstrated that dealing with emotions with mindfulness or with emotional suppression operate through different neural pathways. Both strategies attenuated the response of the amygdala to the emotional triggers. This area has long been known to be a key neural structure for the production of emotions. It can be thought of as a final common pathway through which emotionality is produced. So, it is not surprising that both mindfulness and emotional suppression result in a decrease in Amygdala activity.

It was shown, however, that the two strategies work through different regulation pathways to affect the Amygdala. The mindful approach affects the Amygdala via connections from the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, which is an important region for emotional awareness and mindfulness, while emotional suppression uses connections with other regions including the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex and an area called the Precuneus, which are involved in top-down regulatory processing and which therefore require more cognitive effort.

The neural systems involved in the two strategies make sense given what we know about mindful vs. suppressive emotion regulation. Suppression takes intentional effort and this can be seen in the activation of cognitive processing areas of the brain. Mindfulness doesn’t take such effort. It is much more laid back and effortless. The structures involved reflect this.

So, use mindfulness to help control emotions; it’s a better way and even takes less effort.


Meditation and Intention

It has been well documented that meditation improves mindfulness which is an increase in present moment awareness. We become more clearly conscious of the stimuli in our immediate environment. So, meditation helps us focus our attention on the sensations of the moment.

But does meditation improve our awareness of our own actions? People are frequently not aware of their own movements even after having been specifically trained to pay attention to them and people often initiate voluntary movements while their mind is wandering elsewhere. Can meditation training help to make us more in tune with our own movements and activities?

In today’s Research News article, “Do meditators have higher awareness of their intentions to act?

brain activity is monitored in association with voluntary movements. It is shown that meditators have a more consistent association between the activity of their brain signaling intention to act and awareness of that intention. This clever method demonstrates that meditators are more consciously in touch with their intentions and actions than non-meditators. In other words, the mindfulness produced by meditation extends to improving awareness of how we are interacting with our world.

It has been repeated shown that meditation can reshape the nervous system. It can result in increased size and connectivity of areas associated with on-task awareness and behavior while reducing the size and connectivity of areas responsible for off-task mind wandering. It appears that this reshaping of the brain extends to the monitoring of intentions and voluntary actions.

This is very powerful. We often engage in life without ever being aware of what we’re doing. Our minds are elsewhere, totally caught up in thoughts that are unassociated with what we’re currently doing. Meditation can help to overcome this and increase our real time awareness of our environment, thoughts, and actions. No wonder that meditation has such profound effects on virtually every aspect of people’s minds and bodies.

Meditation can help us to lead mindful lives. It can help us overcome our preoccupations with our past and future and make us more tuned into what is going on and what we’re doing in the present moment. It can help us break out of our sleep walking through existence and to lead lives in awareness and appreciation of the wonders of existence.

So, meditate and live your life with mindful intention.


How Long is the Present Moment

‘the prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible’ (James 1890)

In our contemplative practice we are instructed to pay attention entirely to the present moment. There is no instruction as to what exactly that means as it would seem to be self-evident. On reflection, however, it can be seen that it is not that simple. What we experience as the present is not an infinitely small point in time. Rather it appears to have duration. It seemingly lasts from briefly in the past to briefly in the future.

We can conceive of the present moment as of fixed duration in which stimuli arise and fall away. It is always the same, but its contents are constantly changing. We are aware of now and what is happening in now is impermanent and in perpetual flux. In other words, time appears to be moving through the now rather than the present moment moving through time.

In today’s Research News article “Moments in Time”

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 reviews three different ideas of the present moment; functional moment, experienced moment, and mental presence.

The functional moment is defined usually by the threshold for detecting two separate events in time. For example telling that two sounds spaced apart are actually two sounds rather than a singular sound. It is the time when separate events appear to be fused together into a single event. There are various ways to measure this and the estimates vary greatly depending upon the method, but generally the functional moment lasts somewhere between 30 to 300 milliseconds, .03 to .30 seconds.

The experienced moment is 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”. This experienced moment has duration of somewhere up to 3 seconds.

Mental Presence is defined as a temporal platform of multiple seconds within which an individual is aware of himself/herself and the environment, where sensory–motor perception, cognition, and emotion are interconnected features of representation leading to phenomenal experience. It is the temporal boundaries of perception that allow us to hold events in present experience. There is no fixed time duration of temporal presence. Rather it appears to continuously change phasing into and out of other mental presences.

What does it matter as to how long is the present moment. It matters to scientists and philosophers who are attempting to understand it within the confines of dualistic language and logic. The present moment for contemplative practices is probably more akin to mental presence.

But to the practitioner of contemplation the present moment is simply experienced. It does not have to be compartmentalized, measured, or described. It just is. And that is enough for our purposes of staying in the present moment.


When are Distractions not Distractions?

The mind is easily distracted. No matter how hard we try to concentrate on a particular thought or task somehow the mind is pulled away by some other thought, some outside noise, or a fleeting feeling. Next thing we know we’re completely immersed in off-task thinking.

This is actually a natural adaptive process that allows us to stay alert and respond to changes in our world that might be threatening. In the wild this can aid survival. But this useful tendency becomes a frustrating difficulty in safe, modern contexts where concentration is required. Is there anything that we can do about it?

The first thing to recognize is that you are unlikely to win a war with your mind. These processes are automatic and inborn and not easily altered. So, ‘if you can’t beat em, join em.’ Let the mind do its thing. Let it respond to distractors, while not getting caught up in them, without becoming attached to them. Allow these automatic mental leaps to just happen and observe them. So, rather than be upset by our tendency to be distracted we are entertained by them.

In addition, they are lessons about the nature of our mind. We can learn from them. When distracted, simply reflect upon why this external stimulus was of significance to you; why this particular fleeting thought captured your minds attention. Sometimes it has no real significance. But, often it is a glimpse into unresolved issues. By simply watching and reflecting you open a window into your psyche.

Today’s Research News Article, “Electrophysiological Correlates of Long-Term Soto Zen Meditation.”

suggests how experienced meditators deal with distractions. The answer is that they don’t. They welcome distractions and simply observe them without holding on, without becoming attached. They in essence, do exactly what was suggested above. They don’t try to fight their mind, they simply adapt to it and not let mental machinations disturb them.

So, distractions are not distractions when we don’t grasp hold of them, when we just let them pass through like the sound of a bird chirp, being perceived but then letting it go. A key message is to accept things as they are. Distractions are simply part of how our mind works. Accept it that this is the case. Stop fighting it and you can make distractions your ally rather than your enemy. That’s what the best meditators do.

So, enjoy distractions and then they’re not distractions.