Loving Kindness Meditation and the Disease of the West


A startling aspect of modern western culture is that people are generally unhappy and don’t like themselves. This is incredible that the most affluent society that has ever existed should be populated with people are not happy and have low self-worth. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given what it has taken to become so affluent.

The perpetual striving for more and more creates what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. Obtaining a desired object (new car etc.) often brings a happiness that is very transitory. It fades rapidly. So, the person is only happy for a brief time. But the individual interprets this that obtaining things is the key to happiness. So, the individual now strives to obtain another thing. Upon obtaining it, brief happiness ensues but fades, prompting seeking another object.

This perpetual cycle entraps the individual only satisfying occasionally but enslaving him/her to effort and striving. This produces unhappy, but very productive people, who make work their primary focus. In the process, they devote only a modicum of time to relaxation, contemplation, family, friends, and community.  In other words they withdraw from the most important and satisfying components in life. They have effectively chosen thing that don’t make them happy over things that do.

Loving Kindness Meditation can help to overcome this western disease. It causes the individual to focus on others and themselves, wishing them happiness, ease of well-being, peacefulness etc. It shifts focus from things to people, from effort to experiencing. This may be a medicine for the disease. The research certainly supports its effectiveness.

Equanimity Improvement

Today’s highlighted research study “Mindfulness meditation modulates reward prediction errors in a passive conditioning task.” Indicates that meditation may increase equanimity.

Meditation appears to alter the individual’s nervous system in a wide variety of ways. Today’s study indicates that one of the changes is in the brain structure responsible for internal sensations resulting in a muted response to rewards.

This is an indication of improved equanimity in meditators, producing less extreme responses to events. In Buddhism, this is one of the four sublime states producing a balance of mind. The mind appreciates life at a more uniform level with the lows not as low and the highs not as high.

It is wondrous that this can be measured with modern neuroimaging.


RESEARCH NEWS – Experienced meditators exhibit reduced neural responses to reward prediction errors.

Kirk, U., & Montague, P. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation modulates reward prediction errors in a passive conditioning task. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 90. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00090


Reinforcement learning models have demonstrated that phasic activity of dopamine neurons during reward expectation encodes information about the predictability of reward and cues that predict reward. Self-control strategies such as those practiced in mindfulness-based approaches is claimed to reduce negative and positive reactions to stimuli suggesting the hypothesis that such training may influence basic reward processing. Using a passive conditioning task and fMRI in a group of experienced mindfulness meditators and age-matched controls, we tested the hypothesis that mindfulness meditation influence reward and reward prediction error (PE) signals. We found diminished positive and negative PE-related blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) responses in the putamen in meditators compared with controls. In the meditator group this decrease in striatal BOLD responses to reward PE was paralleled by increased activity in posterior insula, a primary interoceptive region. Critically, responses in the putamen during early trials of the conditioning procedure (run 1) were elevated in both meditators and controls. Overall, these results provide evidence that experienced mindfulness meditators are able to attenuate reward prediction signals to valenced stimuli, which may be related to interoceptive processes encoded in the posterior insula.


Letting go of letting go

In meditation we are often give the instruction to let go. We are asked to let go of thinking, judging, and even our attempts to control the meditation or our experience in meditation. On the surface this sounds straightforward and simple, but in practice it proves devilishly difficult.

Trying to let go of thinking causes us to think about our mental contents. Trying us to let go of judging causes us to judge what we’re doing. And trying to let go of control causes us to try to control our controlling. This becomes a frustratingly circular endeavor.

In fact, we can’t actively let go. The act of trying to actively do it, is itself not letting go. Sometimes in meditation our minds kick in and recognize that we have indeed let go. But, then we try to hold on to that state, converting letting go to controlling. It can be so very frustratingly difficult to just execute the simple instruction to let go.

So how do we proceed. First we must recognize that we can’t do it. The activity itself is contrary to letting go. So, we must stop trying to let go. We must let go of letting go. Actual letting go sometimes spontaneously happens when we are successful at simply relaxing and being with our experiences. It feels like grace, not something that we can produce, but something that we simply receive.

The mind has trouble with this instruction that to let go is to not try to let go at all. But, in meditation the mind is the problem not the solution. So, don’t try to use the problem to produce the solution. Stop trying. It will happen if and when you’re ready and grace descends.

The Power of Retreat 3 – aftermath

A challenge faced after a retreat is to maintain what’s been learned and the relaxed and mellow feelings upon reentering the everyday world. The cloistered environment of the retreat is a spiritual vacation and like all vacations the effects often dissolve as soon as the demands of everyday life descend upon us.

We had quite a wrenching return to reality following our silent retreat. We reentered the real world abruptly by being ripped off by a New York cab driver on the trip to the airport and then finding out that a nice non-stop flight had been cancelled and replaced by a three legged nightmare including 20-min dashes between gates for each flight arriving home after midnight. Needless to say the serenity of retreat was quickly shattered.

I got upset with these issues, but not as much as I used to. I had learned to recognize the anger as it arose, feel it, let it subside and not act on it as strongly as in the past. My responses were far from perfect, but better than ever. That was the residual effects of retreat. The effects that persist afterward are often subtle. You are not a new person. Rather you’re the same human but now better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, slightly calmer, with a slightly better ability to deal with emotions; not transformed, but improved.

Another improvement is an increase in the amount of time spent in present moment awareness and the recognition of that mysterious transcendent state of awareness. This is not just while meditating, but during the normal activities of life. Once again, it is not a radical permanent transformation, just a small positive step forward. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like a significant change until one reflects on how they were previously. Then the magnitude of the effect is apparent.

Retreat truly changes you and you reenter life, with all its turmoil, better able to cope with it with greater mindfulness.

The Power of Retreat 2 – perspective

Silent meditation retreat is an opportunity to move away from our everyday lives. Some may see this as an opportunity to escape them but the power of retreat is not to escape our lives but to provide perspective on them.

Everyday our minds and energies are dominated by the demands of our lives, from work, family, friends, chores, or simply the to do list. The immediacy of the demands somehow gives them an importance that is unwarranted. Moving away from these demands in retreat provides perspective on their true place in the grand scheme of our lives. We begin to see that most of these demands are really not that important after all. We begin to see that other things that have been relegated to back stage and neglected are actually much more important.

It has been pointed out that absolutely no one, on their death bed, regrets not spending more time at work. Retreat can provide this same kind of perspective. We come away from retreat with a clear realization that we must give higher priorities and more time to our emotional and spiritual lives. We must invest the precious time of our lives in rest and contemplation. We must devote ourselves more to others and especially to caring for ourselves. We can see how important our relationships, family and friends are to our inner reality.

Yes, work, chores etc. must be done. But, by putting perspective on their true importance we become less stressed and anxious about them and don’t ruminate about unfinished tasks. Rather, we can begin to live our live with balance, making sure that we take care of what constitutes the to do list of our happiness and growth. Retreat can provide this perspective for us and is part of its life-altering power.

The Power of Retreat 1


Garrison Institute view over the Hudson river

Garrison Institute view over the Hudson river

We spent all of last week at a silent meditation retreat. It is a powerful experience. Retreat is wonderful in general but maintaining silence with everyone else around you also silent, removing access to media and the internet, turning off smart phones, and removing reading materials greatly amplifies the experience.

In this context it is impossible to escape from oneself. Under normal conditions we can avoid troubling thoughts and memories by distracting ourselves with media or conversation. In a silent retreat that is impossible. Thus one has to confront one’s inner self without opportunity for escape. Be forewarned, this can be a wrenching experience. We’ve seen many people spontaneously break out in tears at any moment. Most deal with it effectively and confronting and experiencing the emotions helps heal the wounds. But, some are overwhelmed and need assistance or need to leave the retreat.

The container of silence in retreat is a powerful context for spiritual development. It not only allows for deep meditative experiences that build over the course of the retreat, but it also allows for time for contemplation. Just sitting or walking while reflecting on our environment, immediate experience, or the insights occurring in meditation is as important as the meditation itself. It is common in retreat for people to have awakening experiences and it is here during the contemplative time that they frequently occur.

We highly recommend retreat, especially silent retreat, for those who wish for personal or spiritual development. But, be prepared. It is often not the pleasant relaxing time off that many envision. It can be emotional dynamite that needs to be approached with caution.

We’d love to hear of other experiences on retreat.