Present Moment 1 – Awareness of Now

The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In common modern usage it refers to an awareness of the sensations and thoughts that are occurring in the immediate moment. But, in more traditional usage coming out of the Judeo-Christian or Buddhist traditions that form of awareness is only one form of present moment awareness. In addition there are two other forms of mindfulness; an ethical awareness of the present and a spiritual awareness of the present. These latter two will be discussed in future posts. For now we will focus on the modern notion of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed what is probably the most widely accepted definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

In this definition mindfulness involves intentionally distributing attention to the present moment. It’s something that we actively choose to do. The requirement of volition makes it different from orienting to a sudden stimulus in the environment, which is reflexive. It is also different from mundane everyday present moment awareness that occurs as we navigate through our everyday lives. This usually occurs without an active distribution of attention and frequently is done without thought as we execute well learned behaviors on “autopilot”, e.g. driving. Most importantly, it lacks the focus that mindfulness brings to bare on the present moment.

The attentional focus of mindfulness is expressed in two forms of mindfulness practice, focused attention and open-monitoring attention. Focused attention involves paying close attention to a single object of meditation, e.g. the breath, a mantra, a prayer, etc. While open monitoring involves simply, quietly watching everything as it arises and falls away and not specifically focusing on anything. Both of these forms of mindfulness particularly as practiced in the west are focused on the physical world with no reference to ethics or non physical, spiritual phenomena.

Where mindfulness of the present moment as its practiced diverges radically from everyday mental content is that it’s performed non-judgmentally. Our everyday observations of experiences are fraught with judgments. We’re constantly classifying things as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, etc. We rarely see hear or feel anything without some our minds proclaiming some kind of judgment on it.

Ceasing judging in mindfulness is challenging. Our minds are programmed to evaluate everything. That’s an adaptive strategy and helps us detect problems and prevent issues from arising. But, it is strongly embedded in our thinking and trying to stop it can be very difficult and can take years of practice. This can be devilishly tricky as our minds get involved in judging whether were judging or not.

This is what we try to do in our contemplative practice, to develop mindfulness of the present moment without judgment. But, this is where it ends in modern mindfulness practice. It obviously can produce great benefits for the individual’s health and well-being, but somehow this seems to be lacking something. We are left better, but somehow not fundamentally changed. Somehow we’ve neglected to develop morally or spiritually.

Regardless, practice developing mindfulness and reap its rewards.


Dealing With Major Depression when Drugs Fail

Mindfulness training has been repeatedly demonstrated to be an effective treatment for depression. It is so effective that the in the UK it is considered the treatment of choice for depression. But Major Depression is another level entirely. Very few treatments other than drugs have been effective.

Major Depression appears to be the result of a change in the nervous system that can generally only be reached with drugs that alter the affected neurochemical systems. Once under control with drugs, other therapies are helpful in assisting the individual to adjust to the new normal and to remedy the sequellae of years of depression.

But what can be done when drugs do not work which happens quite frequently. It is suggested in today’s Research News article, “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy vs. psycho-education for patients with major depression who did not achieve remission following antidepressant treatment

that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) may be a solution. Patients with Major Depression who have not responded to drugs did significantly improve with MBCT treatment and the improvement was superior to an active control group designed to simulate many of the conditions of MBCT.

This is remarkable. A mindfulness based treatment is effective on a major mental illness, which is principally a physiologically based disease, even when drugs fail. How is this possible that MBCT can be effective when other therapies and even drugs don’t help?

One possibility is the emphasis on the present moment in mindfulness. Depression is often rooted in the past and the individual ruminates about the misery of the past. By shifting focus to the present moment, mindfulness can move the individual from being preoccupied with a troubling past to being focused on a safe and secure present. Mindfulness also stresses non-judgmental awareness of the present. There is a decreased tendency to be constantly judging what is happening and instead just accept it as what is, which is a difficulty in depression.

Another possibility is mindfulness’ ability to increase emotion regulation. That is mindfulness assists the individual in recognizing emotions as they arise and not over respond to them. It doesn’t prevent emotions. It simply allows the individual to better deal with them when they do arise. So when depression occurs the individual can recognize it, accept it, and then let it go and not respond to it. This liberates the individual to find new ways of responding to the environment and other people.

Still another possibility is that mindfulness produces a heightening of acting with awareness. The individual then is more aware of what they’re doing. For the depressed individual this can help in the recognition of how he/she is acting in response to the depression. This allows them to reprogram their responses to be more appropriate to the circumstances of the present rather than responding to the depression itself.

Finally, it is known that drugs are effective for depression by altering the brain. It is also known that mindfulness training produces alterations of the nervous system. Perhaps, they act on the brain in similar ways, producing similar changes that help to relieve depression.

Regardless, if you’re depressed, try mindfulness.


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.


It’s a Good Day Even when it isn’t

A frequent part of everyday conversation is the wish to “have a good day”. This statement is often produced automatically and vacuously, without any thought as to its meaning. But, regardless, the ubiquitous wish indicates that “having a good day” is desired and often our days are not what we would describe as good.

Why do we think of some days as good and others not so? It all has to do with what we experience during the day. It could be something as overt as the weather or something much deeper as what we learn or the emotions we experience during the day, or it could be something as simple as what we accomplish during the 24 hours. Regardless, we classify these experiences as good or bad.

I prefer to say “enjoy your day” because it implies actively engaging in the day rather than passively taking what the day has to offer. I’m very fond of a quote from the sage Thich Nhat Hahn “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” I have it framed in my closet to remind me when I get dressed each day as to how to proceed to make each and every day a “good day.”

Thich Nhat Hahn’s smile is not put on or forced. Rather it follows from the thought of the enjoyable wonders of the day ahead, evoking happiness. What is doing this? It’s the thought of living “fully in each moment” that is eliciting the smile. What he is implying is that mindfulness is the key to making every day “a good day.”

If we approach the day with full mindfulness it is always good. If it’s sunny we can appreciate the energy that our sun is bathing our world in, allowing our food to grow, warming our environment, and lighting our way; such wonder, such beauty. If it’s dark and rainy we can appreciate the beautiful sounds of the rain on our roofs or as it strikes the trees and plants around us, feeling the raindrops as they strike our skin with sudden pinpricks of coldness, and sustaining the growth on which we depend; such wonder, such beauty.

If our work is difficult and we are faced with troubling challenges we can observe the wonder of our minds rising to the challenges, producing insights out of nowhere to help resolve the issues, and feel the pleasure of success or the rich textured emotions of failure; such wonder, such beauty. If our work is humdrum and normally boring we can explore what exactly is happening as we’re performing the tasks, feeling the sensations and emotions of wanting things to be more interesting, and contemplating the ripple effects of what we’re accomplishing.

If we are truly mindful there are no good days or bad days, there are only joyful days of experience the wonder of life.

So be mindful and “enjoy your day.”

See for a wonderful explanation of the nature of a “good day.”



Present Moment 2 – Ethical Awareness of Now

The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In many spiritual traditions there are three forms of mindfulness; present moment awareness,  ethical awareness of the present and spiritual awareness of the present. In a previous post we discussed present moment awareness. Today’s essay essays will focus on mindfulness suffused with ethical considerations.

Ethics are omnipresent in the traditions from which contemplative practices emerged. The present moment is never without an ethical/moral context. Mindfulness includes the actions of the individual within the present moment and how the individual should conduct himself/herself. This is based upon a mindful understanding of the consequences of actions and which are desirable and which not.

In many spiritual traditions there are moral and ethical dictates sometimes called commandments that are provided to guide mindful ethical conduct. To transgress is a sin, an affront to a supernatural being. In other traditions, particularly eastern, ethical conduct is guided by the consequences of the actions. Ethical actions are ones that lead to greater spiritual development while those that would be classified as unethical would interfere with the individual’s spiritual development. There are no absolutes, only skillful and unskillful actions.

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is an exemplar. It specifies the actions and attitudes that lead to spiritual development. Three of these are associated with ethical conduct; right speech, right livelihood, and right action. It is not considered sinful to not follow these principles, rather it is considered as detrimental to the individual. So, the consequences are direct and immediate to the individual.

Right speech is not to engage in false speech or more simply to be truthful. But the notion extends beyond simple lying and truthfulness to a mindfulness of the consequences of what we say and its impact on others. Our words can hurt, our words can be used to manipulate, our words can mislead, and our words can hide the truth. These are all unskillful actions. Truly being mindful we can become more aware of the consequences of our speech and learn to better tailor it to help ourselves and others.

Right livelihood is to make our living in such a way as to not harm others, including other living things and the world itself. If we are truly mindful of our job or occupation we can see the consequences of our livelihood. Doing things that are harmful to others such as engaging in gun sales, production and distribution of harmful drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes, or which extract funds from those who can least afford it are unskillful and in the end harm both the other and ourselves. Similarly, making our living in such a way that it is harmful to the environment or unnecessarily destroys life is also unskillful. The idea of right livelihood is that we should engage in occupations that assist others in the lives and are sustainable within our environment.

Finally, right action is not to engage in harming others, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, and more subtly doing things that promote unmindfulness, such as ingesting intoxicants. More positively, it is to cultivate loving kindness, generosity, and awareness. Mindfulness of our actions helps us to see clearly when our actions are kind, generous, and leading to greater mindfulness. It helps us see the positive consequences of these actions for ourselves and others. It helps us to see their skillfulness.

It should be clear that mindfulness can be much more than simply being aware of the present moment. Unfortunately mindfulness as practiced in modern west cultures is for the most part neglectful of the ethical aspects of mindfulness. Only being aware of now and our actions in the present moment is not enough. Actions have consequences and without proper mindful appreciation of those consequences the practice of mindfulness is without a compass to guide actions. We need to reintegrate ethics into mindfulness. We need to make it a vital part of our practice.

So, develop mindfulness, but ethical mindfulness as well, be skillful and grow and thrive.


The Miracle of Language 3 – Thinking and Implicit Speech

In a prior post we discussed the miracle of speech production and comprehension.

Speech production involves intricate motor control by the nervous system of breathing, the larynx, mouth, and tongue producing sound pressure waves that can be detected by others. Speech comprehension involves the response of the auditory system to sound pressure waves produced by another, causing a neural response from the receptors in the cochlear and transmission of this information to the nervous system.

Production originates in the nervous system and comprehension occurs in the nervous system. Because all of the information processing occurs internally in the central nervous system it is reasonable to think that perhaps the nervous system could produce and comprehend language without the involvement of the vocal apparatus or the auditory system. This is indeed what appears to happen in what we call implicit speech.

In essence we talk to ourselves. We’ve been dong it most of our lives and as such we take it totally for granted. But, taking a much closer look we can see that this may be even more of a miracle than the production and reception of vocalized speech.

In meditation, we attempt to quiet the mind. What this means in essence is to turn off implicit speech, to cease the constant internal jabbering. But, it is very difficult to do this and veteran meditators have learned not to fight it, but to allow it to happen and observe it just as they would observing an odor rising up and falling away or the shadow of a cloud as it passes over us. As a friend of mine likes to say, let the thoughts come in, just don’t serve them tea. In other words, let them pass on through without undue attention.

As we meditatively observe the process of implicit speech we appear to “hear” an internal voice. In addition, the meaning of this speech is readily apparent as if it was produced outside. Somehow understanding is present but where or how or what that understanding is, is a complete miraculous mystery. As you become more sensitive to the whole process you begin to recognize that the important stuff happens in an awareness that isn’t the verbal mind that we thought it was, the awareness that is aware of the internal speech.

Although implicit speech is part of our thought processes. It is only a small part. But, nevertheless it can be very distracting. It is for the most part not terribly productive, frequently repetitive, with a thought or phrase repeating itself over and over again, sometimes even a song lyric. Problem solving and creativity seem to happen outside of this internal speech but when the solution becomes apparent, the implicit speech recognizes it, articulates and is often credited with the solution of which it had very little or any part.

We think of the implicit speech as our mind. But, it is as Suzuki Roshi used to call it our “little mind.” He called the actual, vital, creative, but mysterious entity our “Big Mind.” The reason we need to quiet the implicit speech in meditation is so that the “Big Mind” will not be hidden by the incessant noise of the “little mind.” Once it is quieted we can observe the core of our existence, the “Big Mind”, the consciousness, the awareness that is the essence of our being.

So, observe this process of internal speech and marvel at it, but quiet it and see what you really are.


The Causes of suffering!

The Buddha in his statements on the Four Noble Truths used a Pali word that is often translated into English as suffering. This translation, however, may be eliciting associations of torment and painful experiences. I prefer the translation of the word as unsatisfactoriness. I believe that this translations better captures not only suffering but also the everyday unhappiness and unease with experience.

Regardless of our translation it is important to realize that we spend a good deal of our lives either truly suffering but more likely just finding most everything unsatisfactory. I frequently go out for walks and as I pass neighbors I might smile and remark about what a wonderful day it is. The response is frequently something like yeah but there are storms on the way, or it’s better than the terrible cold we’ve been experiencing. Somehow, rather than focusing on how beautiful things are right now, the person turns the conversation to something unsatisfactory.

Basically this reveals an important understanding of the nature of our minds. They are programmed to find flaws. From an evolutionary standpoint this is very useful. It helps us foresee problems before they happen and potentially prevent them. But, from the standpoint of our inner peace, they are very disruptive. How can we ever find satisfactoriness when our minds are programmed to find unsatisfactoriness?

The problem resides in the fact that we can’t accept things to as they are. Every time that we want things to be different than they are we suffer. It’s a universal law. Let me repeat, every time that we want things to be different than they are we suffer.

If we accept this, the solution is evident. If we don’t want to suffer, we simply need to accept things as they are. We simply need to stop trying to change reality into something we’d like better. Once we accept things as they are we can begin to see that how things are, is perfectly alright, nothing is really wrong, it’s only our desire that they be different that is the problem.

This simple statement turns out to be devilishly difficult to execute. We’re working against the programming of our minds. That’s where contemplative practice can be extraordinarily helpful. By learning to quiet the mind, we can learn to allow things to be as they are. It takes practice, lots of practice, but it can be the key to ending suffering.

So, practice accepting things as they are and end the unsatisfactoriness with your life, ending suffering, just as the Buddha promised.


The miracle of language 2 – Hearing – Understanding

In a prior post we discussed the miracle of speech production.

Hearing and understanding the speech produced by another is no less of a miracle. The combination of speech production with speech comprehension by another is the basis of all complex human interactions. It is the basis for human cooperation which is the foundation of society. Much more could be said, but, it should be clear how essential these processes are to our flourishing as a species.

We take it all for granted. But if we take some time to look deeply at what transpires as we listen to voiced sounds and understand what is being communicated, we will find a miraculous process in action.

When we process sounds we immediately and automatically pick out individual words from the continuous stream. We hear each word as separate and distinct, but they are not. We hear an apparent pause between each word, but there is not. It’s an automatic auditory perceptual process called segmentation. Our neural language processing system inserts the pauses even though they are not there. It simplifies language decoding for us automatically and without awareness. It’s one of many miracles of language.

Once the word has been segmented we hear it an immediately understand its meaning. But, what is that understanding? It is also without awareness how we obtain the meaning from a symbol, word. We just sense it and know it but there is no indication how we do this. Sometimes there’s a vivid sensory image produced but mostly the meaning emerges without any tangible image or sensation. It’s another of many miracles of language.

But the meaning of each word is not detected in isolation. It is extracted within the context of other words surrounding it. We are not aware of this but it is demonstrable that this occurs as many words with different meanings have share the same sound pattern, e.g. blue and blew and bleu. We contextualize the word to extract the meaning automatically. His is just another of the many miracles of language.

The nervous system appears to be programed to learn and implement language comprehension. During development language is learned too rapidly to be explained by simple learning processes. The brain appears to be preprogrammed to acquire language. There is an area in the parietal lobe of the human cortex that is crucial for understanding articulate language. It is on the same side of the brain as the frontal area responsible for speech, most frequently the left side of the brain. When that area is destroyed in adulthood, the individual will never again be able to understand articulate speech. So, much of the automatic processes of language comprehension results from nervous system mechanism that work without thought or awareness.

Contemplate and meditate deeply on understanding language. We believe that we are totally in control of it. But, we are not. Much of it is beyond awareness. Watch it and be fascinated and amazed by this uniquely human miraculous activity.


No Escape

Contemplative practice is, for the most part, a wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful endeavor. Engaging in it makes us feel refreshed and rested. This is wonderful, but can be a trap. We can use it as another in our arsenal of tactics to escape from a reality. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity.

Our live are generally full of problems, from work, to family, to relationships, to health, to the challenges of getting it all done in a 24 hour day. In addition, we bring baggage from the past in the form of unresolved issues from childhood, or traumatic experiences, or deep emotional hurts. We also are confronted with fears and anxieties about an uncertain future. The totality of all of these problems can be overwhelming.

A frequent response is to try to escape them through various distractions such as the media, the internet, sports, alcohol and drugs, etc. It is useful to give ourselves a break once in a while and relieve some of the stress. But, if this is all we do, then it prevents us from addressing the problems and these distractions become a an additional problem.

Our contemplative practice should not be added to the list of escape tactics. Instead it should be employed to quiet the mind and allow for space for the emotions to be fully and honestly experienced. This sets the stage for being able, outside of contemplative practice, to confront our problems, contemplate resolutions, and work through unresolved issues with a calm clarity. With the mind’s incessant chatter at least slightly muted and the emotions reduced to manageable intensity, we have to opportunity to honestly address our problems.

Contemplative practice is not the time to address the problems. It is the time to set the stage for addressing the problems. So, do not enter contemplative practice with the intent of thinking about the issues. Enter it as a time to allow the mind and physiology to settle and to enter into a present moment mindset.

Hence, contemplative practice is not another escape but a means to get us prepared to fully address them.

So, engage in contemplative practice and engage in dealing with the problems of life. The two endeavors complement each other.


The Mindfulness Cure for Social Anxiety

It is almost a common human phenomenon that being in a social situation can be stressful and anxiety producing. This is particularly true when asked to perform in a social context such as giving a speech. Most people can deal with the anxiety and can become quite comfortable. But many do not cope well with the anxiety or the level of anxiety is overwhelming, causing the individual to withdraw.

It appears that mindfulness may help greatly with high social anxiety. In today’s Research News article, “How to deal with negative thoughts? A preliminary comparison of detached mindfulness and thought evaluation in socially anxious individuals.”

it is demonstrated that mindfulness training significantly reduces anxiety when asked to give a speech. How does mindfulness training act to reduce social anxiety?

One potential route that mindfulness training may reduce anxiety is by increasing present moment awareness. Looking at what exactly is true in the immediate moment and seeing it as it is, can produce a recognition that social interactions are not threatening and needing to be avoided. When actually paying attention to the conversation and the cues in the environment the individual can relax and performs better. With practice, the improved social skills increase self-confidence. This can result in a cycle with positive gain, over time continuously improving mindfulness and self-confidence and reducing high social anxiety.

Today’s Research News article demonstrated that mindfulness training reduces anticipatory processing. Anticipatory processing is a type of worry about forthcoming social situations, involving anxious predictions, negative recollections, and urges to avoid social events. This anticipation of negative occurrences is a projection into the future. By focusing on the present moment, worries about the future cannot develop. So, the present moment awareness fostered by mindfulness training counteracts anticipatory processing and thereby reduces social anxiety.

Today’s article also demonstrated that mindfulness training reduces observer-perspective. People with high social anxiety often have distorted negative self-images from an observer perspective. They have a distorted idea of how others see them. This negative self-image that they believe is how they are perceived in social situations, maintains and increases anxiety, negative beliefs about social performance, anxious predictions, and poorer actual performance.

Mindfulness training helps to develop non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Just seeing what is transpiring without adding conclusions about it counteracts the observer-perspective conceptualizations and judgments. When the present moment is simply perceived without coloration from beliefs, ideas, and past experiences, it becomes much less threatening and much more benign, allowing for more comfortable engagement in social interactions.

So, practice mindfulness in social contexts and enhance enjoyment of interacting with others.