Posts by Rick Hanson PhD

Meditation for recovery: program adapts Buddhist practice to fight addiction

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EmmaJean Holley, Valley News: It’s 9 on a Tuesday morning, and Larry Lowndes is setting out the cushions.

Lowndes is the assistant director of the Second Wind Foundation, which operates an addiction recovery center in Wilder that serves as a space for a number of recovery groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step meetings. But Lowndes has recently introduced a new, less conventional program at Turning Point: Refuge Recovery, a peer-to-peer, mindfulness-based recovery group, grounded in Buddhist principles.

Some of the participants in the group have been practicing meditation, and sobriety, for …

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The power of gratitude

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Happiness is the single most repressed emotion. If that surprises you, just consider what happens in meditation: we simply notice whenever the mind has started wandering down the pathways of rumination (and sometimes it gets quite far before we realize what it’s doing), and then we let go of the thinking we’re doing and come back to our breathing, or to our other immediate sensory experience. After just a few minutes of this we feel calmer and happier — or at least less troubled and less unhappy, which amounts to the same thing.

There’s nothing magical about the breathing that makes us happier. What’s going on here is just that much of our thinking makes us unhappy. It causes us stress or anxiety, or makes us irritated or discontented in one way or another. If we let go of this thinking we stop making ourselves unhappy. Our unchecked, unmonitored rumination represses our sense of wellbeing.

But there are other ways that we repress a natural sense of wellbeing, one of which is that we discount and ignore the positive. We tend to place our focus on things that are going wrong in our lives, or that we think are going wrong, and ignore things that are going right. This is a form of cognitive distortion.

When we start to notice, acknowledge, and appreciate what’s going right in our lives we feel much happier. In fact psychologists say that being grateful and appreciative is one of the main things we can do to be happier in life. I read about one study in which participants were asked to spend 30 minutes writing a letter of appreciation to someone who had benefited them. The scientists conducting the study found that people who did this exercise were measurably happier a month later. It’s quite astonishing that a 30 minute exercise can elevate your mood for a month. Other studies have found that a daily practice of writing down a list of things we’re grateful for has effects on our happiness and on our health — for example promoting better sleep.

A few months ago when I was feeling down about how my life was going my girlfriend of the time pointed out some of the things that were going right: that I live in a beautiful apartment, have two wonderful kids, have good friends, that lots of people are grateful to me for what I do, that I’m generally healthy, and so on. Considering this lifted my mood considerably.

One practice I recommend is simply sitting down and saying “thank you” for the things that are going right in your life. And when I talk about saying thank you I mean either saying the words out loud or articulating them clearly in your mind.

If you’re puzzling over what on earth you have that’s going right in your life, remember the cognitive distortion I mentioned above. We take for granted, ignore, and thus fail to appreciate many things that are going right. So here are a few things that are likely to be going right for you. Really take in any of these that are true for you and remember to say thank you:

You’re sheltered from the elements. You have access to the internet. You probably possess some kind of electronic device that allows you to store massive amounts of information and to get on the internet to access even more information. You have electricity. You have water. There are sewers to dispose of your waste hygienically. You have food in the house. You’re surrounded by furniture (any one piece of which makes you unimaginably rich in the eyes of around a billion of the world’s poorest people). You have relatively clean air to breathe. There are paved roads nearby. You live in a relatively lawful part of the world. There are emergency services poised to help if your house catches fire or if you have serious medical problems. You’re breathing. Your heart is beating. Mostly your body is functional. If you have illnesses or injuries, your body is trying to heal itself. Your senses are functioning well enough for you to get by. You are conscious. You are aware of the world around you and of your inner world. You have self-awareness. You have the capacity to learn. You have the capacity to cultivate gratitude.

If you’ve sincerely done this exercise, notice how you feel. Has your mood shifted, even a little? Probably the answer is yes, and if so you’ve just experienced the benefits of turning your attention from what is wrong in life to what’s going right.

Gratitude turns what we have into abundance.

I’m not, of course, suggesting a naive approach of ignoring difficulties. There are things in our lives that are difficult. But these are made more difficult to bear when we focus only on them and not on our abundant blessings. There are also things happening in the world that are terrible. But if we’re depressed and despondent we’re less able to do anything constructive in the face of these challenges.

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Quick ‘mindfulness’ fix may help curb drinking

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Lisa Rapaport, Reuters: Heavy drinkers may be able to cut back after brief mindfulness training exercises that involve helping them focus on what’s happening in the present moment, a small experiment in the UK suggests.

Researchers recruited 68 heavy drinkers who weren’t alcoholics for the test. They randomly assigned participants to receive either a training session in relaxation strategies or an 11-minute training session in mindfulness techniques to help them recognize cravings without acting on them.

Over the next week, people who received mindfulness training drank significantly less than they had during the week before the study …

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Meditation expert tells us what the science really says

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Connie Ogle, Miami Herald: So you fell asleep easily enough, but now it’s 3 a.m. Your mind is spinning, and rest is elusive. You’re reliving every foolish or embarrassing thing you did in the past 24 — or 48 or 72 — hours, and that is a lot of material to run through. And you simply can’t stop.

Except maybe you could, if only you knew how to be mindful.

“When you’re caught in that loop of rumination, that’s very real, and it creates very intense feelings,” explains psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, who reported on brain …

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The mind knows its own way home

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cat looking through hole in wooden door

cat looking through hole in wooden door

When we’re first learning to meditate, one of the things we have to get used to is that the mind wanders much more than we might expect.

We discover, perhaps, that we can’t go more than two or three breaths without the mind latching on to some thought that’s appeared and going for a long trek through our memories, fantasies, expectations about the future, and so on.

At first this might be frustrating. We get annoyed with ourselves, or with our minds, for being so distractible. We perhaps blame ourselves, and suspect that we’re not cut out for meditation, or worse at it than other people. Meditation seems a bit like hard work.

We learn, though, that this level of distraction is common. In fact, research shows that while doing activities with low objective demands on our attention (things like showering, waiting for an appointment, or driving a route we know well) we might expect to be distracted up to 80 percent of the time. And meditation is in this category: there is no compelling external task for us to be engaged with.

It’s not a personal flaw that results in our distractibility, but the way the nervous system has evolved. The mind likes having input. In the absence of stimulation, the mind will create stimulation for itself, in the form of memories, fantasizing, etc.

We learn to be more patient, and to simply let go of distracted thinking when we realize it’s been arising. We stop reacting so much. Distractedness becomes just a fact — something neutral that we don’t place any negative value upon.

But I think we can do better than that. Even though we may no longer react emotionally when we realize we’ve been distracted, we may still carry around a chronic sense that our minds aren’t “good enough.” That they have this regrettable tendency, this bad habit, of going off wandering.

We don’t ask our minds to get distracted. We don’t decide to get lost in thought. That’s out of our control. And I think that on some level we often find it uncomfortable to have “a mind that has a mind of its own.”

Here’s the thing, though. Every time the mind goes wandering, it comes back home again. Sure, we don’t ask our minds to go wandering. It just happens. But we also don’t ask our minds to come home to mindful awareness again. That just happens too!

Think about it. How do you come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction? You don’t really know, do you? It just happens. One minute you’re on automatic pilot, lost in a daydream, with no awareness of where you really are and no ability to choose what you’re doing. You’re not even capable of deciding to be mindful again. Then the next minute you’re back in mindful awareness, knowing that you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, free to choose what you pay attention to and how you’re going to pay attention to it, free to choose to be kinder and more patient with yourself.

Your attention simply returns to mindfulness, over and over again. And you don’t have to make this happen. It happens all on its own. Isn’t that encouraging? Your mind knows its own way home. It will always come home to mindful attention. Focus on that automatic success, not on the supposed “failure” of the mind’s wandering.

Maybe we could think of the mind as being like a cat. It likes to go roaming, but it also likes to come home. What kind of welcome do you give it when it walks back through the door again? Maybe you don’t get annoyed. Maybe you just treat the return home as a neutral event. But how would it be if you were to give the house cat of your mind a warm reception when it comes home again? Do you think it would feel more at home, more welcomed? Do you think it might be more inclined to stick around?

Give it a try. When you find yourself emerging from a period of distractedness, welcome your attention back home again. Regard it with affection. Let it feel the warmth of your heart. Let it know it’s valued, cherished. Maybe, just maybe, your attention will feel like sticking around more, instead of wandering so much. And maybe your meditation will feel less like hard work and more like an act of love.

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Testers wanted for meditation app

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You’re invited to test out a stellar new iPhone app I’ve been partnering with, called OpenSit. It’s still in the development and testing stage at the moment, so this is an opportunity to try out the app before it goes public.

It’s different from other meditation apps because it offers daily guided meditations to help you sustain and deepen your practice. A variety of teachers are providing regular meditation sessions that you can use to give your meditation practice more of a sense of clarity and direction.

So far the feedback has been really stellar!

If you’re interested in testing out the app, you can request to become a tester by clicking on this link.

Thanks!

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Mindfulness: enhancing the experience of the arts

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Jessica Haessly, Post-Crescent: Mindfulness is the art of awareness, using the five senses (six if you count intuition), to bring attention to the present moment. Whether performer or audience member, whether making art or viewing it, we can benefit from bringing mindfulness to our experience.

When we practice mindfulness, we are not concerned with past or future, nor are we making judgments on what is happening in the moment, but rather we are simply observing the moment through sight, smell, sound, taste, touch and intuition. We may not use all senses in the …

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Fully embracing this present moment

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It was late in the evening when my son told me he’d left his backpack in the car. That’s not a huge deal, but there were things in it that he needed for camp tomorrow, and because of where I live my car’s parked a few minutes’ walk away from my apartment. Again, not a huge deal, but I was tired and I was in the middle of getting both kids together for bed, and would have to wait until they were asleep before I went to retrieve the backpack.

So, with the kids asleep, and my energy failing, I trudged downstairs to fetch the forgotten backpack. I was grouchy and a little resentful — you know, where you have to do something you hadn’t expected to do because someone didn’t do what they’re supposed to. Grumble, grumble.

I was just exiting the building when I realized that I was making myself unhappy with this train of thought. I noticed that my state of mild resentment had eroded my wellbeing, making me feel weary and put-upon. It wasn’t a pleasant state to be in.

Fortunately a wiser part of myself stepped in. If this part of me had been verbalizing, it would have said, “You’re making yourself suffer unnecessarily. Drop the story. Look at your actual experience, and you’ll find that there’s fundamentally nothing wrong.”

So, first of all I recognized that I was making myself suffer. That’s key. A lot of the time we don’t realize we’re doing this. Maybe we think it’s life that’s making us unhappy, and so we think we don’t have any choice about it. But it’s not life that makes us suffer: it’s our reactions to the things that happen to us in life. Realizing that we’re making ourselves suffer gives us the freedom to stop doing that. It gives us the freedom to act differently.

One of the things we can do differently is to drop our stories. It’s our stories about events that make us unhappy. I had a story about how my son “should” have remembered his backpack, and how I “should” have remembered to check he had it, and how I’d “failed” in that task. And the story was also that going to the car was an unpleasant task and that I could be doing better things with my time. Those stories were making me feel mildly miserable. To drop our stories, we need simply to turn our attention to something else. In this case, “something else” is our immediate sensory experience.

When we focus on what’s arising in our present-moment sensory experience, we reduce our capacity for rumination — overthinking that creates or increases our suffering. The mind has limited bandwidth, and the more attentive you are to the body’s sensations, to perceptions from the outside world, and to feelings, the less capacity there is for the mind to carry thoughts  — thoughts that make us unhappy.

So when I turned toward my attention in this way, I was aware of the movements of my body, the rise and fall of my breathing, the coolness of the night air, the darkness outside, the smell of the river nearby, the sound of traffic on Main Street. I was aware also that unpleasant feelings were present. There was a tense, knotted ball of resentment in my chest. Now the important thing here is just to accept these unpleasant feelings. React to them or try to get rid of them, and you’ll just make things worse. So you need to find a way to remind yourself, “There’s an unpleasant feeling present, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with having an unpleasant feeling present.” You just allow that feeling to be there.

This is a radical thing to do. Our mental reactions are attempts to escape or fix unpleasant situations. It seems counter-intuitive to turn toward painful feelings. But turning toward our suffering reduces our suffering.

Once you’re no longer bolstering your pain with reactive thinking, you’re still left with the feeling. It may still be strong, or it may be that now all you experience is a just a kind of “echo” of the original, which quickly dissipates. But even if the suffering is strong and persistent, in the absence of obsessing about what you think is wrong, each moment now becomes bearable. (If you think your feelings are unbearable, you’re back into rumination. So drop the thinking and turn back to the feeling again.) Simply let go of thinking, observe painful feelings, and you feel more at peace.

In fact you may become aware that there are pleasant things happening too. The night is cool. the darkness is soothing. You’re getting a little more exercise than you expected. You’re alive. You’re breathing. Fundamentally, everything in this moment is OK. You’re OK. There’s just this moment, and this moment is fine.

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The meditation cure

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Robert Wright, WSJ: A basic practice of Buddhism turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history.

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end. …

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How I brought mindfulness into my life

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Elle Taylor, Popsugar: Mindfulness is certainly having a moment, but it’s not a contemporary fad — it’s an ancient practice that’s been around for millennia. In simple terms, being mindful involves being in the present. It’s about focusing your awareness on the current moment, while acknowledging your thoughts, sensations, and feelings in a calm manner. It’s about connecting your body and mind and experiencing each moment fully. There are various ways to practice mindfulness, from meditating to working on colouring books, and I’ve tried a lot of them. Here’s how I’m attempting to …

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