depression

Can Byron Katie help our Buddhist practice?

Byron Katie

I came across the work of American self help guru Byron Katie ten years ago. She has published a variety of books which offer a series of simple questions designed to challenge and overturn your perception of any situation you’re struggling with. The questions work by flooding your mind with the ‘fresh air’ of a new (often reversed) perspective.

It’s an appealing technique when you’re in pain. But her techniques always struck me as being like Paracetamol – a short term solution. My old views always came back, dragging their long tail of complicated emotional responses. What’s more, the persistence and tenacity of my habitual thought patterns endowed them, to my thinking, with truth.

Buddhist teaching has suggested to me more recently, though, that there’s probably nothing ‘true’ about my entrenched thoughts and feelings.

With this in mind, last summer I went down to Kensington Town Hall to attend the day workshop Katie holds annually in the UK. In a deserted Sunday morning London, the queue was quite a sight – 800 people, who went on to fill the venue to capacity. I was reminded of the Dead Sea, a place of pilgrimage for Israelis with physical ailments. In Kensington we wore our sufferings mostly on the inside, but the atmosphere of hope, reverence and nervous anticipation was very similar.

When Byron Katie arrived with her husband and squeezed through the queue, many people gasped and one woman whispered, ‘did you feel it?’ This idea made me squirm, but the truth was that I had felt something; her radiance and calm were tangible.

Hate Thy Neighbour

In the packed Hall, she asked us all to fill in a ‘hate thy neighbour’ form. We had to name someone who annoyed us, explain why, and put down in detail what we thought they should do differently. We went into details about the behaviour that we never wanted to endure at the hands of this person again.

She asked for a volunteer to work through the contents of their form. There was no shortage, and a young man was chosen to go on stage and sit opposite her in a comfy chair. He read out what he’d written, and she asked him her four key questions: ‘Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?’

Here’s an extract from Byron Katie’s book ‘A Thousand Names For Joy’ that will give you a flavour.

Book extract

Rather than pick a person to dislike, Peter had chosen something about himself. ‘I’m angry at my reading and writing disability, my dyslexia, because it makes it hard to write, read, communicate, do the Internet, e-mail, work.’

Peter: In today’s world.
Katie: Yes. So “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: Only to communicate with somebody who’s not in the present location.
Katie: “You need to read and write” at all, even for that reason – is it true?
Peter (after a pause): No. Ultimately, it’s not.
Katie: How old are you?
Peter: Forty-three.
Katie: You’ve been okay for forty-three years.
Peter: I don’t know if I’d use the word okay.
Katie: Well, other than your thinking, how’s your body?
Peter: My body’s great.
Katie: Except for your thoughts, haven’t you done well?
Peter: Yes. But I’ve had all the education possible to try to teach me how to read and write…
Katie: “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: No. I actually do pretty well without it.
Katie: Good to know. Feel that, sweetheart. For forty-three years, other than your thinking, you’ve done fine. Your boots match.
Peter: Actually, I made them (The audience applauds and hoots.)
Katie: People who read and write may have a problem with that (The audience laughs.)
Peter: I know.
Katie: We’re too busy reading and writing (The audience laughs.)
Peter: The thing is, my mind doesn’t work in two dimensions; it works in three dimensions.
Katie: How do you react when you believe the thought “I need to read and write” and you can’t, because you’re dyslexic?
Peter (with tears in his eyes): Ashamed. Embarrassed. Society takes reading and writing for granted. It hurts.
Katie: Give me a peaceful reason to believe that you need to read and write. Or to read or write.
Peter: It would be nice to be able to help my ten year old son with his homework.
Katie: Oh, really? You’ve been spared! (The audience laughs.)
Peter: You’re right.
Katie: It’s like you’re wishing for an additional job. And the reality of it leaves him with something very important; it leaves him responsible for what he learns.

Their dialogue goes on, with some interesting twists and turns, for another eight pages, so I’ll stop there and go back to Kensington, where Katie’s way of bringing alternative views out was – as in the above extract – humorous and bracing.

People took a long time to answer her questions, naturally, and were on stage for between half an hour and an hour, during which time she would often ask the first two questions ten times or more. Eventually the person would tend to drop their voice and say, ‘No. I can’t absolutely know it’s true.’

If that sounds boring, it wasn’t, partly because every person’s case was different and partly because it was impossible to predict what Katie would say. One woman who’d asked to go on stage began a painful story from her seat in the auditorium. She said she’d reached rock bottom and so had her daughter, who was very ill but had no support of any kind in her life.

Audience members gasped as Katie simply cut the woman off. ‘No support?’ she said. ‘What about the chair she sits in; the air she breathes? They support her life, surely?’ ‘Yes but…’ said the woman. ‘Now, we’ll move to that gentleman over there,’ said Katie. ‘Yes, you sir, in the red shirt…’

I don’t know why she moved so swiftly on at that point, nor what governed her selection of people to go on stage, but would guess she needed volunteers who would respond quickly to her material.

Katie’s personal story

Her personal story is compelling. After years of severe depression in her thirties, during which time she’d contemplated suicide and often been unable to leave her bedroom, she woke up one morning in 1986 with a life-changing realisation. ‘I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.’ (from ‘A Thousand Names for Joy’)

In other books, Katie details further discoveries, for example the loss of herself as ‘I’ and the sense of herself more as ‘it’. She writes that she had to ‘put on’ a sense of ‘I’ again to be able to deal effectively with the world.

It is like reading a description of Enlightenment. Katie makes no claim regarding this. And while she does seem to be living from a different perspective than the majority of us, I’m not sure we can get there ourselves simply by applying her techniques.

I’m reminded of the advice attributed to the 17th century poet, Matsuo Basho, ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.’

Having said that, Byron Katie’s her techniques can undoubtedly jolt us out of a certain painful narrowness and plunge us into an infinitely more generous view of the world. Perhaps if we repeat that experience often enough, the tight corset of self may begin to loosen.

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How mindfulness training helps school kids relieve stress

Rick Nauert, Ph.D., PsychCentral: A new study suggests a particular type of mental training can help to reduce stress and depression among school age children.

UK researchers found that mindfulness training, a technique that develops sustained attention that can change the ways people think, act and feel, is an effective method to promote wellness in school kids.

Mindfulness is a technique gaining popularity among adults for enhancing health and well-being. However, very few controlled trials have evaluated their effectiveness among young people.

School is ending for many school kids, a time of high stress as children prepare to take final examinations and other qualifying tests.,,

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New to Mindfulness? How to Get Started

Christy Matta, PsychCentral: Mindfulness is being used in schools, colleges and universities to help teachers and students to improve their attention, interactions with each other, and understanding of others.

Lawyers and judges use mindfulness to listen to and present evidence and reduce distractions. In other work settings, business leaders, workers and HR departments are using mindfulness training to reduce workplace stress, improve focus, communication, creativity and productivity.

And mindfulness is widely used in the treatment of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. It’s also used to assist people with medical conditions, such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, hypertension and insomnia and to improve the symptoms of stress…

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How mindfulness can mitigate the cognitive symptoms of depression

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., PsychCentral: Mindfulness, or paying full attention to the present moment, can be very helpful in improving the cognitive symptoms of depression. These debilitating symptoms include distorted thinking, difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness. Cognitive symptoms can impair all areas of a person’s life. For instance, poor concentration can interfere with your job or schoolwork. Negative thoughts can lead to negative emotions, deepening depression.

Focusing on the here and now helps individuals become aware of their negative thoughts, acknowledge them without judgment and realize they’re not accurate reflections of reality, writes author William Marchand, M.D., in his comprehensive book Depression and Bipolar Disorder:…

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Mindfulness may lower chance of depression symptoms in adolescents

Meditation_inflamm_Feb_webExaminer.com: Elizabeth Scott, M.S. has written for About.com that the practice of mindfulness can bring many benefits to your emotional and physical health, and also to the relationships in your life. Mindfulness is a great tool for stress management and overall wellness because it can be used at virtually any time and can quickly bring results that last. On March 15, 2013, Alpha Galileo Foundation reported on materials from Ku Leuven, Mindfulness at school reduces (likelihood of) depression-related symptoms in adolescents.

Secondary school students who follow an in-class mindfulness program reported lowered indications of depression, anxiety and stress up to six months later. Furthermore, these…

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Poet and memoirist Mary Karr on meditation, depression, and the ego

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The Poetry Foundation has an interview with the American poet and memoirist Mary Karr, in which she discusses how the mind can be its own worst enemy:

If you’re suicidal, your mind is actually the keenest threat to your survival. Yet depressed people still listen intensely to their minds even though said minds NEVER have anything good to say. Think of it, you try to employ the diseased organ to cure itself! If someone outside your body were shouting those awful things you say to yourself in such times, you’d plug your ears and sing lalalala. You have to stop that mind or die.

A simple meditation practice I started twenty-three years ago involves counting my breaths one to ten over and over. Pure hell at first. I evolved through various practices—some Christian and Ignatian spiritual practices taught to me by a Franciscan nun and a few Jesuits along the way. I came back to breath last year. For me God is in the moment, and I tend to do everything I can to avoid being in such a stalled, unproductive place as the present. The ego has to stop inventing its reality and notice what’s actually going on, which process kills it (the ego) a little if you’re lucky.

Here’s the full interview.

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Imaging finds different forms of meditation may affect brain structure

A new study has found that participating in an eight-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on how the brain functions even when someone is not actively meditating. In their report in the November issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, investigators at Harvard Medical School-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and several other research centers also found differences in those effects based on the specific type of meditation practiced.

“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala — a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion — to images with emotional content,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”

Several previous studies have supported the hypothesis that meditation training improves practitioners’ emotional regulation. Although neuroimaging studies have found that meditation training appeared to decrease activation of the amygdala (a structure at the base of the brain that is also known to have a role in processing memory and emotion), those changes were only observed while study participants were meditating. The current study was designed to test the hypothesis that meditation training could also produce a generalized reduction in amygdala response to emotional stimuli, measurable by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Participants had enrolled in a larger investigation into the effects of two forms of meditation: mindful attention meditation and compassion meditation. Based at Emory University in Atlanta, healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in eight-week courses in either mindful attention meditation — which focuses on developing attention to and awareness of breathing, thoughts, and emotions — and compassion meditation, a less-studied form that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others. A control group participated in an eight-week health education course.

Within three weeks before beginning and three weeks after completing the training, 12 participants from each group traveled to Boston for fMRI brain imaging at the Martinos Center’s state-of-the-art imaging facilities. Brain scans were performed as the volunteers viewed a series of 216 different images — 108 per session — of people in situations with either positive, negative, or neutral emotional content. Meditation was not mentioned in preimaging instructions to participants, and investigators confirmed afterward that the volunteers had not meditated while in the scanner. Participants also completed assessments of symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the training programs.

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images. But among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images, all of which depicted some form of human suffering. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.

“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explains. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”

The study was supported by grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, including an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to Boston University.

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Simple meditation helps in many ways

Julie Deardorff, Tribune Newspapers: Regular practice shown to decrease symptoms of stress and depression.

A simple form of mindful meditation can help breast cancer survivors stave off the symptoms of depression, new research suggests. But the potential benefits don’t stop there.

Meditation may help wipe out some of those repetitive thoughts about the past or future that can clutter the mind once treatment ends. It may also reduce loneliness and decrease the body’s inflammatory response to stress — which can trigger serious illness — according to a small study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

“Mindfulness meditation is particularly effective in buffering …

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Inside the Pentagon’s alt-medicine Mecca, where the generals meditate

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Katie Drummond, Wired: The Samueli Institute gets $7.6 million a year from places like the Pentagon to investigate alternative therapies from yoga to acupuncture to water with a memory. But does any of it really work? And can Samueli, a convicted fraudster, really be trusted?

The general is surprisingly good at meditation. It’s not just the impeccable posture — that might be expected of a man long used to standing at attention. It’s his hands, which rest idly on his knees, and his combat boots, which remain planted firmly on the floor. Over the next several minutes, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Surgeon General of the Army, will keep his eyes closed and his face perfectly relaxed.

Few in this hotel conference room, where three dozen have assembled to mark the 10th anniversary of the Samueli Institute, a research organization specializing in alternative therapies, are able to match Schoomaker’s stillness.

Even as our first speaker implores that we “close [our] eyes … feel the chair, feel the air, feel the breath going in and out,” this motley crew of professors, bejeweled clairvoyants, military personnel and Einsteinian-haired futurists tap their toes, shuffle papers and ogle paper plates of fruit and croissants.

>This might be the Pentagon’s best chance at making alt-medicine work — or at least figuring out if it even stands a chance.

“Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you imagine you’re going, you’re actually only doing it right now, in this moment.” Our meditation guru for the day, Dr. Wayne Jonas, is not only a retired Army medical officer and former director of the holistic branch of the National Institute of Health. He’s also the leader of the organization we’ve met to celebrate.

Schoomaker is here because he has a health crisis on his hands. And he’s betting on guys like Jonas to help cope…

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Eat, smoke, meditate: Why your brain cares how you cope

Alice G. Walton: Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.

But which…

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