anatta (non-self)

The great mystery of being

Wildmind’s online course, The Great Mystery of Being: A Practical Introduction to the Experience of Non-Self, begins on Wednesday, September 20th.

The greatest insights that the Buddha had are that our sense of self is a burden that we drag around with us, and that it’s possible to lay down that burden.

The six element practice is a beautiful and poetic reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness — and especially non-self.

The practice encourages us to examine everything that we take to be “us” and “ours” and teaches us to see that nothing in the mind or body truly belongs to us.

In fact the concept of there being an “us” that anything can belong to is subjected to close analysis.

It does this by examining each of the “elements” that constitutes the body and mind:

  1. Earth — everything solid within the body
  2. Water — everything liquid within the body
  3. Fire — all energy within the body
  4. Air — anything gaseous within the body
  5. Space — our sense of separateness
  6. Consciousness — our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Over the course of six weeks we’ll explore each of these elements in turn, and see how everything that we take to be “us” is in fact merely “borrowed” from the outside world.

In time, our illusion of having a separate and permanent self can be seen through. No longer do we have to worry about whether the “self” we thought we had is good enough, worthy enough, capable of becoming awakened, etc. Instead we come to a direct perception of the thoroughgoing nature of impermanence, so that our “self” is nothing more than a dance of ever changing experiences. Accompanying this is a profound sense of release, relief, and confidence.

There’s no promise that these six weeks will take you all the way to awakening, but you’ll certainly experience a shift in how you perceive yourself. You’ll at least experience a taste of liberation.

Register today to explore the great mystery of being!

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Science and Buddhism agree: there is no “you” there

wildmind meditation news

Lori Chandler, Big Think: Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia has verified the Buddhist belief of anatta, or not-self. Neuroscience has been interested in Buddhism since the late 1980s, when the Mind and Life Institute was created by HH Dalai Lama and a team of scientists. The science that came out of those first studies gave validation to what monks have known for years — if you train your mind, you can change your brain. As neuroscience has begun studying the mind, they have looked to those who have mastered the mind.

While Buddha didn’t teach anatta to lay people, thinking it might be too confusing, the concept is centered on the idea that there is no consistent self. The belief that we are the same one moment to the next, or one year to the next, is a delusion. Thompson says that “the brain and body is constantly in flux. There is nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.”

It is useful to look at a video of yourself from the past, or read something you wrote years ago. Your interests, perspective, beliefs, attachments, relationships, et al, have all changed in some way. Anatta doesn’t mean there’s no you; it just means that you are constantly changing, constantly evolving, and shape-shifting. Why is this important? Why does it matter if there’s no solid “you” or “me”?
r. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s Brain, argues that when there is no consistent self, it means that we don’t have to take everything so personally. That is, our internal thoughts are only thoughts and don’t define us. External events are only external events and aren’t happening to us personally. Or as Tara Brach says, our thoughts are “real, but not true.”…

Read the original article »

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What is insight practice?

Woman doing standing yoga pose on an high rocky outcrop

What is insight practice? Before answering that question, let’s back up a little and ask, “What is the Buddha’s teaching, or Dharma, essentially about?”

Dharma is about attaining freedom from suffering. All Buddhist practice has this aim.

There are of course many different kinds of Dharma practice. To use a classical model, there is 1) ethical practice, 2) meditative practice, and 3) wisdom practice. These all work in different ways to reduce our suffering.

Ethical practice makes us look at what we do and say, with an eye to whether, in the long term, we are causing ourselves and others suffering. So we train ourselves not to cause physical harm, not to deprive others of their property, not to sexually harm or exploit them, not to lie or speak unkindly to them, and not to suppress our ethical sensibility with drugs and alcohol. These are the five precepts of Buddhism.

Meditative practice helps us cultivate the mindfulness we need in order to observe how our patterns of thought can cause suffering—for ourselves, yes, but for others too as our thoughts are expressed in words and actions. It also helps us to develop qualities such as kindness and compassion, which help both to eradicate emotions such as anger and cruelty that cause harm, and to create positive states of wellbeing, fulfillment, and happiness.

For a long time, most of our practice might necessarily be focused on becoming more ethical in our daily lives and on cultivating skillful qualities such as mindfulness and kindness. In general this makes us happier. But there’s a limit to how far we can go in the direction of cultivating happiness through becoming more skillful. There are deeper factors at work than our relatively superficial (and yet still deep-rooted) emotional and behavioral habits. We can knock down weeds, but unless we uproot them they’ll keep growing back.

This is because the very way in which we interpret our experience is flawed, Buddhism tells us. Our perceptions are distorted. This doesn’t mean that we’re literally subject to, for example, optical delusions. It’s not that a person you’re looking at is really a cat or an alien, or that their hair looks brown but is really green. It’s that the way we interpret our experience is frequently mistaken.

For example, we assume that things (ourselves included) are more stable and reliable than they actually are. So we might assume unconsciously that our parents, or we ourselves, will live forever. We might assume that some painful feeling we have is going to be with us permanently. This creates suffering.

We assume that happiness comes from setting up a constant stream of pleasant experiences while keeping at bay unpleasant experiences. And yet since we can’t control the world, this is simply unattainable.

We assume that we are more separate from the world, and from other beings in the world, than we actually are. Thinking of ourselves as separate we may act as if a concern for our own well-being can be separated from our concern for the wellbeing of others: that we can be happy by simply focusing on ourselves.

Insight practice challenges the delusion of permanence, the delusion that happiness can be found through grasping after pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the delusion that we have a separate and concrete existence. It helps us to let go into freedom; to let go into reality.

You might read the words “insight practice” and think I’m talking about “insight meditation.” But practice is more than just meditation. We can cultivate insight and challenge our misperceptions in our daily activities as well as on the cushion. And so we can do so outside of meditation as well. Additionally, we should pausing from time to tome to focus on non-insight meditations, in order to remind ourselves that the goal of Buddhism is not simply one of attaining insight, but of developing kindness, compassion, and moral excellence.

We’re going to take one of those pauses right now. So to get started with meditation, let’s begin with a simple mindfulness of breathing—something to help us calm, focus, and steady the mind so that we can see beyond our delusions.

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Step seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery

Eight Step Recovery

Once you think you’ve got recovery, you’ve lost your recovery. Because what is recovery? It is a path that can take us to liberation and freedom. Recovery is always changing. What it looked like when you first had one week of abstinence, is very different to what it will look like after one year or after 30 years.

‘Once an addict always an addict’, is often a saying we hear. There is good sense in this phrase, because it reminds us not to delude ourselves, and think: ‘Right, I’ve not picked up my choice of distraction for six months, I’m okay now’.

Let’s not delude ourselves because we can think the same after 20 years of recovery too. This saying does have its pitfalls because we can hold onto an old identity that does not serve us anymore.

The Eight Steps

In Eight Step Recovery: ‘We ask if you really want recovery are you prepared to go to any lengths to let go of your self view?’

This is the first of the mental bonds that bind us to human suffering. Thinking we are a fixed self, and that we are our body, feelings, perceptions, mental formation and sensory consciousness. The Buddha taught that all these five skandhas are empty of self. He taught that nothing among them is ‘I, or mine or me’.

If we want recovery we do have to let go of the identities that created the addicted self. We stay on the path of recovery when we realize that the only thing we own are our actions.

There is also a Buddhist teaching that says ‘guard the sense doors’. What this means is that we don’t deliberately put ourselves in vulnerable places. For example if you are a sex addict you don’t go to a sex show. If you’re an alcoholic you don’t put yourself in situations where alcohol is being rammed in your face. If you’re a coke addict you don’t stay in a room where people are white lining. We guard the sense doors by not putting ourselves in situations where we will be easily triggered.

There are enough triggers out there in the world that we will have to practise loving kindness and mindfulness to keep us sober and abstinent.

The good news is, it is possible to have disinterest in our distraction or substance or behaviour of choice. But we still need to be vigilant by preventing, and eradicating unhelpful states of mind.

In the rooms of 12 steps we are told to HALT. If you are aware of a subtle craving, ask if you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

We need to maintain helpful states of mind by cultivating and maintaining our abstinence and sobriety of mind. Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery is a lifetime practise, and one well worth living. The more effort we make, the easier it becomes, but there is not time of the path of recovery, if we want to liberate our self from suffering.

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Taking the self out of self-compassion

man looking at universe

One of the most interesting studies I’ve ever seen was by James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor, and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, who is now associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

Poets are particularly prone to taking their own lives, and Pennebaker and Stirman were interested to see if the writings of poets who had killed themselves contained linguistic clues that could have predicted their fate. They matched together, by age, era, nationality, educational background, and sex, poets who had and had not killed themselves, and ran their works through a computer program that looked for patterns in the language they used.

What they found was that the poets who had killed themselves were far more self-referential than those who hadn’t. Right from the beginning, those who ended up committing suicide used the words “I,” “me,” and “my” in their writings far more often than those who died naturally or are still alive. Also, the suicidal poets became increasingly self-referential as time passed, using first person singular pronouns more and more often, right up until they took their own lives.

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Poets who didn’t kill themselves, on the other hand, used those words more rarely, and instead referred more often to “we,” “us,” and “ours”—words that embed a sense of connection. And those words were used more and more often over the course of their lives.

Part of our conditioning tells us that if we want to be happy we need to focus on “number one.” And yet, as the Harry Nilsson song says, “One is the loneliest number.” Connecting with others, and thus reducing our focus on ourselves, is an important form of emotional buffering, helping us to deal with life’s ups and downs, and also providing the rich and nourishing experience of loving and being loved. Those who disconnect and withdraw into themselves experience greater suffering, to the extent that life can become unbearable.

So what does this tell us about self-compassion? After all, isn’t the word “self” right there in the name? Does this mean that focusing on ourselves might actually make us less happy?
In self-compassion, one part of us sends compassion to a suffering part of ourselves, not because the suffering part of us is a part of us, but simply because compassion is the appropriate response to pain. It doesn’t actually matter whether the suffering is inside us or outside us, part of us or not part of us—the compassionate part of us has compassion for suffering because that’s what suffering needs.

In a way there’s no such thing as “self-compassion.” There’s just “compassion.” There’s just the desire to care for anything that’s suffering, and to remove the suffering if possible, with no regard to whether it’s “our” suffering or not. By cultivating compassion for suffering within ourselves, we automatically become more compassionate toward others, and thus become more connected to them, and thus become happier. With self-compassion we don’t see ourselves as different from others because of our suffering, but see ourselves as connected to others because we all suffer.

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Taking your hands off the controls

steering wheel and dashboard of vintage car

As living organisms anxious about our existence, we’re all naturally rigged to want to manage our lives with the goal of creating more pleasure and less pain for ourselves. Yet so many things are completely out of our control—aging, sickness, dying, other people dying, other people acting in ways we don’t like, our own moods and emotions…it’s all out of our hands.

Even so, when this automatic habit of controlling takes over, when our whole identity is in the persona of The Controller, we become removed from the qualities of presence, freshness, and spontaneity; we lose the ability to respond from a wiser, more compassionate place.

You might begin to notice this in your own life. For instance when you’re with another person and are feeling anxious, notice The Controller in you who’s trying to be experienced in a certain way. You might notice that the more insecure you feel, the more The Controller will hop into action.

We all have our different ways of becoming The Controller. Sometimes we try to control by framing or presenting things in a certain way to elicit a certain response. Some of us control by withdrawing. For instance, we might find ourselves thinking, “Okay, if you’re going to treat me this way, then I’m going to pull back.”

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Another way we control is by withdrawing from ourselves, by shutting down. One football coach talks about an exchange with a former player: “I told him, ‘What is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?’ The player said, ‘Coach, I don’t know, and I don’t care.’”

We also try to control by worrying. It’s completely ineffective, but it’s what we do. We worry and obsess; we think and we plan.

Yet even though wanting to control things is a natural part of our biology, the question is: are we doing it in a way that causes our identity to be completely wrapped up in it? Often, when we’re trying to manage everything, we tend to get locked into an experience of ourselves as a tight, egoist self, and lose sight of who we really are.

In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, a few highly trained pilots were attempting to fly at altitudes higher than had ever been achieved. The first pilots to face this challenge responded by frantically trying to stabilize their planes when they went out of control. They would apply correction after correction, yet, because they were way out of the earth’s atmosphere, the rules of thermodynamics no longer applied, so the planes just went crazy. The more furiously they manipulated the controls, the wilder the rides became. Screaming helplessly to ground control, “What do I do next?!” the pilots would plunge to their deaths.

This tragic drama occurred several times until one of the pilots, Chuck Yeager, inadvertently struck upon a solution. When his plane began to tumble, Yeager was thrown violently around in the cockpit and knocked out. Unconsciously, he plummeted toward Earth. Seven miles later, the plane re-entered the planet’s denser atmosphere, where standard navigation strategies could be implemented. He steadied the craft and landed. In doing so, he had discovered the only life-saving response that was possible in this desperate situation: don’t do anything. Take your hands off the controls.

It’s the exact same way with us. As Wolfe wrote, “It’s the only solution that you had. You take your hands off the controls.”

Hopefully, you can bypass being knocked unconscious to discover this truth! What you can do is begin to notice whenever you have somehow become The Controller, and just pause, notice what’s happening, and ask yourself, “what is this like?” What does my body feel like? My heart? What is my mind like? Is there any space at all? Do I like myself when I’m identified as The Controller?

This pause gives the possibility of a new choice. You might ask yourself, “What would happen if I just took my hands off the controls a little? What would happen if I simply attended to the present moment, to the experience of being here and now?”

As you slowly begin to take your hands off the controls, it’s important to bring compassion to whatever arises, since, behind the controlling is often anxiety, fear, and sometimes even panic. It can even help to bring a hand to your heart, breathe with it, and feel that your touch is offering kindness to that insecurity.

The next time you find yourself in some way trying desperately to land safely, your compassion might be what finally gives you the courage you need to let go of the controls. In doing so, you might discover that each time you let go, it becomes easier and easier to re-enter the atmosphere of your own aliveness. Gradually you’ll come home to the flow of your own living presence, the warmth and space of your awakening heart.

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“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” Montaigne

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne.

I’ve been depressed a few times in my life, but only once has it ever got so bad that I felt I had to seek medication. My doctor prescribed me something—I no longer remember what—and after taking just one tablet my depression instantly lifted. This was no miracle drug; these medicines take days or even weeks to have an effect. In fact the medication had nothing to do with my recovery, and the reason I felt better so quickly was, I think, because I admitted I was helpless.

Michel de Montaigne, the famous 16th French essayist, said that although he was not able to govern external events, he was able to govern himself. This beautiful observation embodies a truth that is old, but which we often have to be reminded of anew.

We can’t control what happens to us but we can, if not control, then at least influence how we respond to it. We often think of happiness in terms of providing ourselves with an endless stream of pleasant experiences, with no unpleasantness to mar the perfection of our paradise. And yet we can never achieve such a goal. The conditions that exist in the world are far too complex for us to be able to manage. We may want to have only pleasant experiences, but the world isn’t going to cooperate with us. We’re always going to have a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences

From the Buddhist point of view, the truest happiness comes from not allowing ourselves to be swayed either by the pleasant or unpleasant. This is what’s called “equanimity,” or upekkha. When pleasant experiences arise, we enjoy them, yes, but we don’t try to get more out of them than they’re able to give us. We don’t try to hold onto them, and recognize that they’re impermanent phenomena. When unpleasant experiences arise, we bear with them, knowing that they’re going to pass, not causing ourselves further pain by resisting the discomfort with thoughts like, “This shouldn’t be happening. This is terrible!” We allow all experiences to come and go.

This doesn’t mean that we become inactive and passive, simply putting up with things that can be changed: if the room is cold we can turn up the heat; if there’s injustice in the world we can campaign to right it. But there are always going to be things we can’t control.

My depression was one such thing. I didn’t know at the time what had cause the depression, and I’m not 100 percent sure I do now, but I suspect that what was keeping it in motion was that I thought I should be able to fix it. And the more I was unable to fix my depression, the more depressed I stayed. What might have been no more than a passing mood ended up being with me for weeks. In seeking held and telling my doctor that I had a problem I couldn’t control, I freed myself from thinking that I had to control or should be able to control the depression. Without the internal pressure that came from needing to be in control, my depression had nothing to feed on, and simply vanished.

In this case, “governing myself” didn’t mean “being in control of everything.” No government is ever in total control of its nation. A government is an organ of adaptation. Instead, governing myself meant taking the most appropriate action open to me, which in this case was relinquishing my belief that I should be able to control my experience. Sometimes the best use of our ability to control is surrendering the illusion that we have control.

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The holographic dinosaur; or, How fear is an illusion

You’re walking down a busy shopping street, and you hear panicked screaming. You turn to see what the fuss is, and behind a fleeing crowd you see something impossible: a velociraptor. It’s snarling and roaring, turning its head from side to side as it follows the hysterical populace, almost as if it’s herding them. Perhaps it is.

You panic. Before you even realize you’re doing it, you’re sprinting to the doorway of the nearest shop. Fortunately velociraptors, as is well known, are not good with door handles. As long as you get through that doorway you’ll be all right.

Safe behind the protection of the shop window, you watch people on the street fleeing the fearsome creature.

Exploring the Thing That Scares You

But then you notice a curious thing: the velociraptor doesn’t actually seem to be harming anyone. And anyway, a velociraptor? They’ve been extinct for millions of years! Surely it’s some kind of trick? A joke. A stunt. Still feeling terrified, but convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye, you step back into the street and approach the animal. It certainly looks very real. It’s not someone in a suit. There are no dangling power cords. It doesn’t seem to be mechanical.

The velociraptor stares at you. Your heart pounds. You take a wary step forward. It snarls. You reach toward it, almost close enough to touch its feathery skin. At the very point when your fingers should encounter solid flesh, you feel — nothing. Precisely nothing. Your hand passes right into the velociraptor. Fascinated, you realize that it must be some kind of holographic projection. There was never any danger. There was never really anything to fear.

We’ll come back to that a little later…

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Ways to Approach Feelings (Vedana)

Over the years I’ve taken many different approaches to feelings, or vedanas, as they’re called in Buddhism. I’ve written about these a lot, but for the sake of a quick recap, vedanas are internal, self-generated sensations — pleasant or unpleasant (or also, to be complete, neutral) that we have in response to things we’ve perceived or thought about. They often manifest in the solar plexus or around the heart. They result from the activation of nerve endings. They’re also involuntary — they’re not under conscious control. In my view they include things like frustration, ease, anxiety, joy, disgust, and pleasant anticipation.

At first I didn’t acknowledge vedanas, but would simply react to them. If I saw someone acting in a way I didn’t like, for example being greedy, I might feel the vedana of disgust, and then immediately react with anger, accompanied with critical thoughts. (The anger and the thoughts are cetanas or volition. They are under conscious control, at least potentially.)

Discovering the Gap

Later I learned to identify and pay more attention to them, so that a “gap” would appear in which I could act more creatively — not reacting with anger or craving, for example, but instead with patience or kindness. Not that I do this all the time, but I do at those times when I’m most mindful. When we’re mindful of our feelings and create this gap, more helpful volitional responses have a chance to arise.

Regarding Painful Feelings With Self-Compassion

Later still I recognized that these feelings were often forms of suffering, and so I’d use them as a basis for self-compassion, sending them thoughts of lovingkindness, just as I would to a person who was in pain. This was the most radical practice I’d ever done. It literally changed my life, and freed me from a lot of suffering. Practicing self-compassion also made it much easier for me to practice compassion toward others.

More recently I realized there was another way to look at these feelings, which is where our holographic dinosaur comes in.

Seeing Feelings As Illusory

In the last few months I’ve realized that feelings are an illusion. When something like anxiety arises (and believe me, I’ve had ample opportunity to be mindful of anxiety in the past couple of years) I turn toward it — as I’ve done in the past. And I regard it with compassion rather than fear (or with not much fear). But now I really look at it. And what do I find? I see a constellation of sensations, hanging in space. There’s nothing substantial. There’s nothing solid. And there’s nothing to be afraid of. If anything, the experience of anxiety, closely examined, is a source of beauty, delight, and wonder.

You’ve probably noticed the connection with the holographic velociraptor. It appears to be solid, and it appears to be scary. But there’s nothing there. When we touch the hologram, or attempt to, there’s a sense of joy, wonder, fascination. That’s what examining anxiety is like for me now.

I’m still caught out by anxiety and fear. Even if you know that at some point a velociraptor is going to appear from nowhere and charge at you, and even if you know that this creature is a harmless hologram, it’s still freaking scary when it does appear. You still jump out of your skin. But then you realize there’s another way to look at your fears.

Turning Toward Fears, and Seeing Through Them

So when I wake at two AM, with the realization that I may be homeless and bankrupt early next year, and my heart’s pounding and my head’s racing, it all feels very real — as when we would experience panic when a velociraptor lunges at us from a dark alley, even though we know on some level that the animal isn’t real. But then, after that momentary and visceral panic has arisen, more reflective parts of the brain kick in, I turn toward the anxiety, and it’s revealed once more to be an illusion.

So I’d encourage you to turn toward your fears, and so examine them closely. What sensations are actually present? How are they changing, moment by moment? Keep doing this, and you’ll discover that the experience of anxiety is like a holographic projection.

Keep Practicing

I’m not saying that if you do this you’ll find that your anxiety is instantly revealed to be illusory. Perhaps your relationship with vedanas will have to evolve in the same way mine did. Perhaps it’ll take years. But as with many hard-won fruits of practice, I look at what I see now and think that this realization might have come more quickly had someone pointed it out to me earlier. (Maybe they did, and I didn’t take it on board.) And so I offer this in case it saves you some time, and speeds up the evolution of your practice. Maybe it makes no sense to you at the moment. But perhaps one day it’ll fall into place, and you’ll realize your fears to be illusions.

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If Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta), then who meditates?

buddha statueI was asked, “If Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta), then who is doing all this that happens in my life; who meditates?”

There is meditation taking place. There is stuff happening in life. There is the thought, “Someone is doing this.” But that thought is a bit like the idea primitive man may have felt, looking at nature. The wind blows, the leaves rustle, the rain falls. There must be “someone” making this all happen! And so they imagined a god or gods who were doing these things.

Nowadays we talk about all this being an “ecosystem.” But we don’t think of “Ecosystem” as a god who hides behind the scenes, making everything happen. There’s just a bunch of stuff happening, quite beautifully. It doesn’t need a central controller. Nor do we.

A thought or feeling arises within us, or an action takes place, and part of us thinks, “Who did that? Why, it must have been me!” We invent a sort of “inner god” who rules a very small universe, and who is in charge of “us.”

If this is still confusing, you might want to check out an article I wrote recently, “The empty room, the plagiarist, and the boys in the basement.” I hoped to make this topic more easily understandable.

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Personalities are not fixed, and that’s great news

Children's yoga. The little boy does exercise.A mountaineering friend of mine used to remark that when he’d meet a rock or other obstruction while coming down a mountain, and was faced with choices — go left, or right? — each choice would lead to other, different, choices. In this way, two different decisions early on — although seemingly insignificant — could result in profoundly different outcomes.

Views we hold can be like that as well. A view like “personalities are fixed” leads to very different results compared to a view like “personalities are fluid.”

A new study illustrates how easily views about our personalities can be changed, and how powerful the effect of changing them can be.

David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, working with a graduate student from Emory University, Adriana Sum Miu, wondered whether the belief that people’s personalities are malleable would have an impact on bullied teens, perhaps reducing their levels of hopelessness, despair, and depression.

Yeager observed, “When teens are excluded or bullied it can be reasonable to wonder if they are ‘losers’ or ‘not likable,'” and he wondered whether teaching teens that people can change would reduce those thoughts, and if so, could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?

At the start of a school year, roughly 600 ninth grade children were assigned to an intervention group or to a control group. Neither the children nor the teachers and staff at the three schools involved were aware of the purpose of the exercise, so that their attitudes wouldn’t differentially affect either group.

The intervention group read a passage about how personalities are subject to change, and how being bullied is not the result of a personality defect. It was also emphasized that bullies are not inherently “bad.” There was reinforcement in the form of information about brain plasticity (the idea that our brains, and thus our skills, attitudes, and behaviors can change and evolve). Endorsements from older students were given, and the group members were asked to write an account of how personalities can change.

The control group did similar exercises, focusing not on personality but on athletic ability.

Nine months later, the symptoms of clinical depression, including negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem, had risen by 39% in the control group, while there was no increase in the intervention group. This was true even for students who had been bullied.

This change is rather stunning, given that the intervention was very brief, taking place in a normal class period. There was no counseling given, and the exercise used only computer and pen-and-paper activities. I’d estimate that achieving the same outcome, on that scale, through individual guidance and counseling would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The message being taught is very in line with Buddhist teachings on anatta (lack of fixed self). One of the things that Buddhism teaches us is that our mental habits are just that — they are habits, and subject to change, given the right circumstances.

You can read more about the study at the Association for Psychological Science website.

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