Let’s be Honest!

Contemplative practice requires total honesty, not with others, but with ourselves. Our minds can invent all kinds of bogus reasons for anything. It takes insight and the willingness to be brutally honest to take maximum advantage of the fruits of contemplative practice.

The first honest admission is that we cannot control our minds. This is a radical idea for most as we believe that we have complete control. So we try and try and try to control it without success. A little reflection will unveil the truth. It’s not under our control. So, rather than go to war against the mind, successful contemplative practice demands that we be are completely honest with ourselves and admit, that we can’t control it.

That admission, by itself, can lead to a much more relaxed approach to our practice. In fact, the only effective way to actually quiet the mind is to stop trying to control it. Just watch it do its thing. If you do, you’ll be amazed at how thoughts just appear, seemingly from nowhere, and fade away into nothingness.

The second honest admission is that we cannot understand what it is that’s observing our mind during our practice. It’s a clear and present experience, but the mind cannot grasp it. We need to honestly admit that we just don’t know. We can then relax into the mystery that is our awareness, without constant mental chatter in a vain attempt to categorize it, explain it, theorize about it, or even clearly view it.

The third honest admission is that the past and the future are irrelevant to contemplative practice. The only thing that matters is present moment experience. If we honestly admit that everything but the now is unnecessary we can begin to stop trying to achieve something in the future or to reinstate or recover a previous experience. We can simply concentrate solely on what is our immediate experience. We can watch them arising out of nothing and falling away, into the same void. We can become enamored with the wonder of it and simply enjoy the miracle of being.

So, let’s be honest. It doesn’t hurt, but it can reveal truths beyond the mental delusions.

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Really, you’re making progress!

Most people expect that when they engage in a regular contemplative practice that they will make consistent progress over time, that their practice will get better and better day-by-day, maybe slowly, but consistent gains will be apparent. Unfortunately, it rarely happens that way. Rather than slow and steady progress the individual is confronted with a roller coaster ride.

One day practice is deep and satisfying, the next it is tortuous, and the next the mind is overwhelmingly busy. This can be very discouraging, as practice doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. At this point many people give up and stop practicing or become sporadic in their practice. But, this is a mistake.

This is a classic example from signal detection theory. The signal, progress, cannot be detected because its magnitude is small relative to the noise of the day-to-day variations in practice. It is thus difficult to detect the real progress that is being made.

Only over long periods of time does it begin to dawn on us that we’re actually progressing. It’s just hard to tell amid the wild fluctuations. But we begin to recognize that we’re on average, deeper, calmer, and more on task than we used to be. The wild ride continues but now it is recognized that it is going on at a higher level than before.

So, stick with it. Really, you’re making progress! It’s just hard to detect. But, if you do persevere, you will get to a deeper, calmer, more blissful practice. It just take patience.

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Contemplative Practice should be a High Priority Scheduled Activity

I’ve been told by many, many contemplative practitioners that they want to practice on a regular basis practice, but they have trouble maintaining it. When asked what the problem is they most frequently respond that they don’t seem to be able to find the time in their day. That unveils the problem. They’re practicing when there is free time available. Our lives appear to abhor a vacuum and will fill in whatever time is available with some seemingly important activity, leaving no time for practice.

A wise friend of mine once said that you can tell what a person truly values not by what they say but by what they do. From this perspective the on-again-off-again practitioners are clearly demonstrating that they value every other activity in their lives more than practicing. They’re giving it a very low priority.

If we truly want to practice regularly we must give it a very high priority. If we don’t care that much about practicing that is fine. Continue doing what you’re doing as that’s what is important to you. Just correct the statement that you really want to have a regular practice. To a statement that you would like to practice if nothing else is available to occupy you.

If practicing regularly is really important to you then I find that it must be given a particular time slot every day that is not infringed upon except when absolutely necessary, which is very seldom.  I schedule it daily first thing in the morning after I have my morning coffee. If there isn’t time then I plan to get up earlier to make sure that there is time. I also practice before dinner in the evening, but this is not as high a priority and often is replaced with another activity. But, I make sure that the morning practice is sacrosanct.

What exact time you schedule your practice should be determined by your life’s demands and what works best for you attending to your practice. But, whatever time you schedule, give it your highest priority. Don’t let life’s business intrude. Treat it as a treasured time for nourishing yourself that is as important as eating and sleeping. Give it that priority and you’ll be able to fulfill your aspiration to practice regularly and in fact, that will make the rest of your day markedly better and more productive.

Effortless effort.

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Contemplative practice can be challenging. It asks us to engage in an activity while quieting the mind. But, the attempt to quiet the mind is itself an effort that disturbs the peace and absorption that we seek.  When unsuccessful which we will inevitably be, we further upset the quiet with recriminations and feelings of failure.

It seems a complete contradiction that we must somehow try without trying. We must exert effortless effort. We are told that this is essential to our progress, but our minds do not have a clue as to how to accomplish this deceptively simply requirement. But, this last statement actually presents a vital clue, our minds simply can’t do it.

So we can’t figure it out, we cannot find and follow instructions, and we can’t rely of logic and reason. Then what is left? The key resides in that which is not mind. We can call it awareness, we can call it the watcher, or we can call it spirit. Regardless of the label it’s the ever present registerer of experience.

Effortless effort is relaxing into just being present, just being aware. It’s that simple, really! It’s always there so we don’t have to try to call it into action. In fact, it doesn’t require any mental activity whatsoever. It doesn’t take effort to be what is already there, to do what we’re already doing.

Even our thoughts and attempts to control experience are experienced and if we don’t react or respond to them then they are just another thing happening in awareness. Reacting takes effort, not reacting does not. Just relax and watch them like clouds passing by, viewing with effortless effort.

The mind will fight this, but if we simply ignore it, it will slowly quiet allowing effortless effort to define our experience.

 

 

Healthy Balance through Yoga

3-posses-yoga

The body’s immune system fights off potentially damaging agents by producing an inflammatory response. This response attacks and destroys the culprits and thus maintains the integrity of the body.

This inflammatory response, however, must be restrained the rest of the time. Too much inflammation, particularly on a chronic basis can be as harmful as a lack of inflammation to infection. Balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory mechanisms is required for health.

When the system is out of balance such that the inflammatory response is dominant on a continuous (chronic) basis it tends to promote the development of cancer, diabetes, depression, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, when the anti-inflammatory response is dominant on a continuous basis it leaves the individual vulnerable to infection. Hence, promoting the balance in the immune system is crucial for long-term health.

Yoga appears to do just that. Today’s Research News article, “Effect of Yoga Module on Pro-Inflammatory and Anti-Inflammatory Cytokines in Industrial Workers of Lonavla: A Randomized Controlled Trial” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4378732/

provides empirical evidence that yoga promotes immune balance.

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1011595585531034/?type=1&theater

This might be one explanation why yoga practitioners tend to be healthier and live longer.

CMCS

Mindfulness has to be lived.

Mindfulness is not just something we do when were performing contemplative practice rather it is a way of life. To be useful it must be integrated into everything that we do. It needs to become part of work, relating to others, relaxation, and even driving a car.

Mindfulness is not just a passive state rather it needs to be actively expressed in what we are and what we do. We shouldn’t just sit back and absorb and feel and think that that is being mindful. We must work at actively engaging in our everyday life mindfully. If we’re grocery shopping, experience the sights, sounds and smells of the store and be aware of our movements, how we’re interacting with other shoppers, and even how we’re making choices on what to buy.

This should be done nonjudgmentaly. A particular odor is not good or bad, pleasant of unpleasant. It’s just an experienced odor. Another shopper is not rude for blocking the aisle, but just a human being shopping. Corn flakes is just a breakfast cereal with a certain texture and taste, neither good nor bad.

Mindfulness is actively looking and marveling at the wonder and miracle of our existence. It’s finding joy in the simplest of things, like marveling at a tiny ant carrying a piece of grass, five times its weight, seeing the beauty of sunlight through the trees, or enjoying seeing a smile on another’s face. What can sustain mindfulness more than any amount of effort is finding the happiness that is everywhere around us in in everything we do.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t sometimes use our minds to process information, label and even judge. This is a very important function of mind that helps negotiate life. It is rather to suggest a middle way. Being immersed in thought when appropriate, but being mindful whenever thought is really not needed, which by the way is most of the time.

Loving Kindness Meditation and the Disease of the West

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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

Abstract

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.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325661/pdf/fpsyg-06-00090.pdf

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.