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.


Sat Chit Ananda 3 – Bliss

In previous posts we discussed the first two components of the classic phrase from Hinduism, “Sat Chit Ananda”. The phrase means “being, consciousness, bliss” and is a description of a sublimely blissful experience of the boundless, pure consciousness, a glimpse of ultimate reality.

The third component “Ananda” is translated as bliss, but also implies love and happiness. Bliss is often thought of as an ecstatic state of extraordinary joy and exhilarating happiness. But this does not capture the true meaning of “Ananda”. It is much subtler and richer, but devilishly difficult to capture in words. It is probably better to simply conceive of it as the feelings one has when “Sat” and “Chit” are fully realized, when one has fully awakened. Paramhansa Yogananda, described bliss as, “a transcendental state of superior calm including within itself the consciousness of a great expansion and that of ‘all in One and One in all.’”

Bliss is a continuous state of inner joy that is constant and undisturbed by outward gain or loss or by external circumstances whether positive or negative or happy or sad. It is a feeling of oneness and connection with all of creation. Bliss is where happiness, meaning, and truth converge.

Bliss is found in every religion. It is the ultimate state of consciousness that every religion holds as its highest goal and achievement, though each uses different terminology to explain it. Whether we are Christian or Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, Wiccan or animist, Taoist or Native American, we all strive for bliss.

Bliss arises when the mind becomes quiet and calm naturally and effortlessly. A fully awakened individual does not need to “think good thoughts” to feel good. Feeling good is our natural state when the mind is calm and open. So “Ananda” is as natural and inherent as Pure Being and Consciousness; “Sat” and “Chit”.

We can catch a glimpse of “Ananda” in our everyday unawakened state. When we quiet the mind and simply watch a sunset or a sunrise, Bliss arises naturally. Awakened ones simply experience this regardless of eternal circumstances. But, by simply letting go, and paying attention to what is always present naturally we can experience the state of “Ananda”.

So don’t strive to become blissful. Don’t try to make it happen. It already is happening. Simply practice deeply, quiet and calm the mind, and you will understand the meaning of “Ananda”.


Sat Chit Ananda 2 – Consciousness

In the previous post we discussed the first component of the classic phrase from Hinduism, “Sat Chit Ananda”. The phrase means “being, consciousness, bliss” and is a description of a sublimely blissful experience of the boundless, pure consciousness, a glimpse of ultimate reality.

The second component “Chit” is translated as consciousness. It is our minds eye. It is our everyday experience of reality. Consciousness is actually the first manifestation of our true nature.

What we are striving to do in our contemplative practice is to make consciousness aware of itself. It is like looking in the mirror at your own eyes or looking into the eyes of another. There is a simple and deep recognition of the absolute as yourself, your essence.

We have become so used to consciousness that we habituate to it and take it for granted. It’s quite startling to realize that we are frequently unaware of something so essential to our existence. We are not conscious of our consciousness. This is what is meant by being lost in our mind; completely unaware of awareness.

In contemplative practice we strive to quiet the mind. When we have achieved this stillness we allow consciousness to simply gaze upon itself. This is a recognition of “Chit”. In a deeper state this consciousness seems to be streaming from all of creation, not a thing called “me” or “I”. It contains the “me” as part of consciousness, but not its center. It is only one component of an infinite reality. This is Sat Chit Ananda realized.

Pure being and consciousness are always present although they may not be recognized. And it is mostly the mind or ego which distracts us from the direct experience of this divine presence. So, use contemplative practice to quiet the mind and allow “Chit” to be fully present.


Sat Chit Ananda 1 – Being

Many engage in contemplative practice in order to better function in their lives. But for many it is practiced to achieve a deep spiritual awakening. The phrase Sat Chit Ananda is a beautiful pithy descriptor of the state of being that is the ultimate destination of spiritual awakening.

Sat Chit Ananda is a classic Sanskrit phrase originating in Hinduism. It has been translated as “being, consciousness, bliss.” In Hinduism it is a description of the subjective experience of Brahman. It is a sublimely blissful experience of the boundless, pure consciousness. It is a glimpse of ultimate reality. Sat Chit Ananda is a beautiful pointer to our true nature.

The first component “Sat” describes an essence that is pure and timeless, that never changes. Sat is what always remains regardless of time or situation. When we awaken, we constantly recognize Pure Being. We are consciously aware of Pure Being as our true nature, the core and foundation of all life.

This concept arises in multiple religions. In the Bible when Moses asked the god who he was he responded “I am that I am”. This is often interpreted to indicate a singular god, as an indicator of monotheism. But from the standpoint of “Sat” what is indicated is pure being; “I am”. When the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish mystics indicate that they have achieved oneness with god, they are referring to the fact that they have experienced themselves as pure being; “Sat”.

In our everyday experience we are focused on the contents of our awareness; what we’re seeing, hearing, feeling etc. This is actually the essence of mindfulness, being completely in the present moment. But, if we look deeply we can begin to realize that the contents are interesting, but, what is observing these contents is the essence of our existence. What is seeing? What is hearing? What is feeling?

In our practice, it is very useful to focus on, not what we’re experiencing, as the mind wants us to do, but on what is having the experience. If you look at it deeply you will find an entity that is silent and peaceful, that is unchanged by whatever is occurring, and that is always present and in fact has always been present. This is “Sat”, you pure being, pure awareness. This is what you truly are.

Just experience it. Do not try to see it. Do not try to think about it. Do not try to understand it. The mind cannot grasp it. The more you try the more elusive it becomes. Simply experience it. Observe the mystery of the miracle of “Sat”, of being.


The miracle of language 1 – speech production

We take language for granted. But, we absolutely should not! There is nothing that we are capable of that has had a greater impact on the human race than language. It is the basis for our ability to work cooperatively. It is the basis for our ability to transmit learning from generation to generation. It is the basis for continuous improvement and development as we can read what others have accomplished and experienced and build upon it. It is the basis for science and technology. It is the reason that humans have become the dominant species of the planet.

Look deeply at the process of producing language and we can see a miraculous phenomenon. I find it useful to contemplate on the internal mental processes and the motor movements involved in the production of language. We take it so for granted. So, we need to really concentrate on it to view the inner workings of this miraculous process.

If we simply look closely at how we produce speech, its automaticity becomes obvious. We are only occasionally consciously thinking about what words to produce or how to combine them into sentences. There is an underlying idea that we have in mind to communicate, but the actual process of production appears to occur without thought. The words and sentences just seem to arise into consciousness without direction.

How does this happen? How do we interconnect and idea with the proper symbol, word, to represent it? There is no thinking involved, it just happens automatically. How do we apply proper syntax to our sentences? Normally, there’s no thought or even awareness of it happening. But it does, automatically and unconsciously.

There is now another fascinating automatic process engaged in the production of the actual sounds. If you look deeply at what happens you can become aware of the larynx vibrating as the sound pressure waves are being produced. I find this easiest to do while chanting so I don’t have to think about meaning and can instead focus on the physical process or producing the vibrations. Somehow, our brains have translated the intention to produce a particular word into motor movements in the larynx in coordination with breathing and mouth and tongue movements. Just watching it and recognizing what is actually transpiring is amazing.

The nervous system appears to be programed to learn and implement language production. 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 frontal lobe of the human cortex that is crucial for speech. It is on the left side of the brain only in the vast majority of humans. When that area is destroyed in adulthood, the individual will never again be able to produce articulate speech. So, much of the automatic processes of speech production results from nervous system mechanism that work without thought or awareness.

Contemplate and meditate deeply on speech. 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.


A Mindful Memorial Day

Memorial Day in the US is set aside to remember and honor those who have fought and died in our wars. This is most appropriate to think deeply about the sacrifices made by these men and women, to recognize their bravery and dedication, and to comprehend the human cost of warfare.  It is a day to be compassionate. To feel deeply what war means to the people who fought it, to their families, and to the country that asked them to fight it.

I believe that it is important to not only remember the men and women who fought on “our” side, but to also think deeply and compassionately about the men and women who fought on the opposing side. Their bravery, their dedication, and their sacrifice are no less. The human cost of warfare is to all who are involved. Both sides are populated with men and women who for the most part believe in the “rightness” of their cause, believe in the necessity of the battle, and are equally dedicated to their families, communities, and countries.

Contemplative practice cultivates mindfulness, a heightened awareness of the present moment. In a deep contemplative, meditative state, focused entirely on the present moment for the most part there is only peace and love. There is only a deep appreciation for life in its totality. There is no reason for war. Fear is rooted in worry about potential future harmful events. Hatred is rooted in our conclusions about the past. These two emotions underlie the rationales for warfare. In the mindful, meditative state, these cannot exist as the past that underlies hatred and the future that underlies fear are not present. So when we are truly mindful we are at peace.

But, paradoxically, this mindful state is actually the very state that is reported to be experienced by the people actively engaged in the moment in combat. They experience a heightened state of awareness of the present moment. But unlike our everyday contemplative state, fear is a reality of the present moment. The heightened awareness in combination with a palpable fear that is rooted in the present moment generates an extreme level of arousal. This can actually be addictive and the warriors that experience it often look forward to revisiting that state. It is virtually identical to the state achieved by the thrill seeker in the midst of their experience. Warriors also report that they feel so totally alive that everyday life pales in comparison. This frequently produces difficulties in transition back from warfare.

I believe that Memorial Day is a time to contemplate war, not just the humans involved, but particularly the reasons for war. As we contemplate deeply we can recognize that the causes of warfare are complex and the cumulative effect of decades if not centuries of history. In the immediate time leading up to war it is virtually impossible to stop. The forces driving it have built to such a crescendo that trying to prevent it is like an unarmed individual trying to stop a freight train at full speed. This clearly leads to the conclusion that the time to intervene is well ahead of time.

Honest mindful contemplation can lead to an understanding of how these historical forces play upon the individual’s thoughts and decisions. It can lead to an understanding of what is needed to change that pattern. It can lead to stopping the train before it ever leaves the station.

So use this Memorial Day for deep contemplation, for compassion and appreciation of the human sacrifices, but also for deep reflection on what we should do to prevent these horrors from occurring again in the future.


Why is Mindfulness so Beneficial

Mindfulness has been demonstrated to have a broad range of positive benefits from improved mental and physical health, see today’s Research News article, “). Standardised Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Healthcare: An Overview of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses of RCTs”

to the treatment of both physical and mental illnesses, to increases in creativity, to increased happiness, and on and on. I am unaware of anything that is so beneficial to so many things as mindfulness. As an added bonus, developing mindfulness costs nothing and can be done virtually anywhere under any conditions.

Mindfulness sounds too good to be true. How can this be? How can anything do all of this? To understand we must first recognize that we make ourselves miserable and sick. We constantly worry about the future and this creates fear, anxiety, and stress. We constantly and ruminate about the past and this makes us regretful and depressed and lowers our self-esteem.

Mindfulness is about present moment awareness. It recognizes that the past is gone and the future is not here yet. The only thing that matters is now! By moving us away from the misery producing thoughts of past and future, mindfulness immediately removes two processes that have negative impacts on us. In addition, it helps us recognize that the only time we can ever be happy is now! So it shifts our focus to the good things that are always there and present in the present moment.

Mindfulness reduces stress and this can reduce inflammatory responses that are detrimental to our health. We create much of our own stress by driving ourselves toward some future goal or by inordinately worrying about what is actually only a remotely possible catastrophe, or by trying to live up to some glorified image of what we should be or what we should accomplish. Mindfulness is an antidote for all of this. Seeing things as the really are right here right now undercuts the unhealthy striving, relieves the fears, and places realistic perspective on our human condition.

Modern life as we’ve developed it has removed us from the conditions in which we as a species evolved. It has created an artificial world that has become increasingly divorced from nature including our own human nature. Mindfulness is an important treatment for this modern illness. It helps us reconnect to the natural world that is our origin. It helps us reconnect with our own body; physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a result, it relaxes, refreshes, and creates happiness in just being alive.

Mindfulness practices probably would not have been so beneficial centuries ago or in more primitive societies. Most of its benefits emanate from its counteracting the problems that modern life creates. But, in today’s world, its benefits are amplified.

So cultivate mindfulness, the antidote to modern life