empathy

How to see people, not just our reactions to them

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

On the other hand, categorizing has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., “pretty woman,” “authority figure”) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by someone you’ve labeled as this or that. And categorizing is the start of the slippery slope toward “us” and “them,” prejudice, and discrimination.

Flip it around, too: what’s it like for you when you can tell that another person has slotted you into some category? In effect, they’ve thingified you, turned you into a kind of “it” to be managed or used or dismissed, and lost sight of you as a “thou.” What’s this feel like? Personally, I don’t like it much. Of course, it’s a two-way street: if we don’t like it when it’s done to us, that’s a good reason not to do it to others.

The practice I’m about to describe can get abstract or intellectual, so try to bring it down to earth and close to your experience.

When you encounter or talk with someone, instead of reacting to what their body looks like or is doing or what category it falls into:

  • Be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, schoolteacher, agnostic, retired, American, fisherman, politically conservative, cancer survivor, friendly, smart, donor to the YMCA, reader of detective novels, etc. etc.
  • Recognize some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness.
  • Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later – see changes happening in the other person.
  • Feeling how things land on you, tune into the sense of things landing on the other person. There is an experiencing of things over there – pleasure and pain, ease and stress, joy and sorrow – just like there is in you. This inherent subjectivity to experience, this quality of be-ing, underlies and transcends any particular attribute, identity, or role a person might have.
  • Knowing that there is more to you than any label could ever encompass, and that there is a mystery at the heart of you – perhaps a sacred one at that – offer the other person the gift of knowing this about them as well.

At first, try this practice with someone who is neutral to you, that you don’t know well, like another driver in traffic or a person in line with you at the deli. Then try it both with people who are close to you – such as a friend, family member, or mate – and with people who are challenging for you, such as a critical relative, intimidating boss, or rebellious teenager.

The more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.

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Re-Wiring your brain for happiness: Research shows how meditation can physically change the brain

Dan Harris & Erin Brady (ABC News): A quiet explosion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways has started to push into mainstream.

Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed — even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication.

Meditation is an intimate and intense exercise that can be done solo or in a group, and one study showed that 20 million Americans say they practice meditation. It has been used to help treat addictions, to clear psoriasis and even to treat men with impotence.

The U.S…

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Meditation and mindfulness may give your brain a boost

They are the simplest instructions in the world: Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, clear your mind and try to focus on the present moment. Yet I am confident that anyone who has tried meditation will agree with me that what seems so basic and easy on paper is often incredibly challenging in real life.

I’ve dabbled in mantras and mindfulness over the years but have never really been able to stick to a regular meditation practice. My mind always seems to wander from pressing concerns such as the grocery list to past blunders or lapses, then I get a backache or an itchy nose (or both) and start feeling bored, and eventually I end up so stressed out about de-stressing that I give up. But I keep coming back and trying again, every so often, because I honestly feel like a calmer, saner and more well-adjusted person when I meditate, even if it’s just for a few minutes in bed at the end of the day.

Now there’s even more reason to give it another go: New research from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston indicates that meditating regularly can actually change our brain structure for the better, and in just a few months.

The small study, published last month in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, tracked 16 people who took a course on mindfulness-based stress reduction – a type of meditation that, besides focusing your attention, includes guided relaxation exercises and easy stretching – and practiced for about 30 minutes a day. After eight weeks, MRI scans showed significant gray matter density growth in areas of the brain involved in…

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learning and memory, empathy and compassion, sense of self and emotional regulation, when compared with a control group. In addition, the researchers referred to an earlier study that found a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain that affects fear and stress, which correlated with a change in self-reported stress levels.

“This is really, clearly, where we can see, for the first time, that when people say, ‘Oh, I feel better, I’m not as stressed when I meditate,’ they’re not just saying that – that there is a biological reason why they’re feeling less stress,” says senior author Sara Lazar, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School. She notes that these findings build on prior research that has found positive brain changes in long-term meditators: “But this is proof that it’s really meditation that’s making the difference,” as opposed to other potential factors such as diet or lifestyle, she says. “And it doesn’t take long to get there.”

None of this comes as a surprise to dedicated meditators or to doctors who regularly prescribe the practice.

“The study shows that meditation induces certain physiological brain changes that are consistent with many of the health benefits we see clinically,” says family medicine and chronic pain specialist Gary Kaplan, director of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean, who recommends meditation as part of a treatment plan for every one of his patients. He reports that patients who follow this advice typically sleep better, have less pain, less anxiety and depression, and a better general sense of well-being. Kaplan adds that this admittedly anecdotal evidence comes on top of at least a decade’s worth of research showing that meditation can have a range of benefits such as reduced stress and blood pressure, migraine relief, an improved attention span and better immune function.

Given that meditation is readily accessible, cheap and portable and has few if any risks, there’s really no harm in giving it a try, says Kaplan, who suggests that getting a book or CD on the topic or taking a basic class is a good way to start.

He acknowledges that the practice is far from easy, at least in part because the mind is bound to wander. “We spend a whole bunch of time time-traveling – a lot of time in the future, worrying, and a lot in the past, dwelling on regrets and grief and loss – and we spend very little time in the present, focused on what’s going on at this moment,” he explains. “So allowing that chatter to quiet and becoming present in the moment, while being gentle with the thoughts that come in and out of the mind and any anxiety that’s there, that can be difficult.”

For those who are skeptical or who continue to struggle, Hugh Byrne, a senior teacher with the Insight Mediation Community of Washington, suggests some tips for getting going – and sticking with it:

Seek the right style. There are many forms of meditation, with different objectives, and it’s important to do some research and find the one that works best for you, whether it involves walking, chanting or deep-breathing exercises.

Practice, practice, practice. It’s essential to cultivate a regular, daily routine to get your mind in the habit of meditating, even if it’s just five or 10 minutes to start, says Byrne, who recommends slowly increasing that to 30 minutes or more every day.

Be mindful all day long. Meditation “isn’t just about bringing awareness to your experience while you’re sitting cross-legged with eyes closed,” says Byrne. “It’s also a practice that you can bring into the rest of your life: when you’re eating, sitting in a traffic jam, or relating to a partner, spouse, kids or colleagues at work.” He suggests finding a few minutes here and there to get centered.

Don’t be discouraged by a wandering mind. It’s totally normal. “The important thing is just to notice when you move into planning the future or ruminating on the past or daydreaming, just notice that and gently bring attention back to the present,” says Byrne. “And come back into the body, without judgment or criticism.”

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How meditation may change the brain (New York Times)

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.

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“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.

“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.

Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.

“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.

Further study is needed, but that bodes well for me.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.

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Mindful meditation may strengthen certain brain regions

New research suggests meditation may improve certain brain regions and help them with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

The Massachusetts General Hospital researchers said in a statement that changes in brain structure in people who practiced eight weeks of mindful meditation suggest the practice goes beyond simply making people feel better because they are spending time relaxing.

Meditation has long been recommended by practitioners as a way to achieve peacefulness, physical relaxation and cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.

The researchers studied 16 participants two weeks before and after they took part in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. In addition to questionnaires, the participants were also analyzed by MRI images to observe changes in certain regions of the brain.

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Compared with a control group, images of the brains of participants who reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day meditating showed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self awareness, compassion and introspection.

The researchers said their findings show how malleable the brain is and that meditation can go a long way in improving personal well being.

A report on the study will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

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Review – The Art and Science of Mindfulness

“Integrating Mindfulness into Psychology and the Helping Professions,”
by Susan Shapiro and Linda Carlson

Metapsychology Online Reviews: The integration and incorporation of mindfulness training into the mainstream of mental health may well turn out to be one of the most significant developments of the last ten or fifteen years. The literature has expanded exponentially and has moved in quite substantial ways from the use of Buddhist insights and techniques to a regular adjunct of CBT and especially DBT. This new text from Shapiro and Carlson takes us back to the origins of the concept, but also forward to the practical application of mindfulness in clinical settings. It is clearly and happily situated between the scientific paradigm of research evidence (and the authors show this) and the practical world of the individual experience.

The authors try to show the interweaving of Buddhist teachings that emphasize intentionality and focus on the knowable, and the scientific tradition that looks for evidence of efficacy and generalizability rather than particularity. It is clear from the outset that they want to consider what they call both the art and the science of mindfulness.

The authors detail three different ways in which mindfulness can be integrated into psychotherapy and how it can be applied to direct clinical work: the mindful therapist; mindfulness-informed therapy; and mindfulness-based psychotherapy. These different pathways, as the authors term them, show different ways to…

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integration of the basic precepts, and although there is a great deal of overlap, there are also distinct aspects. There may not, as the authors contend, be an awful lot of differences in the outcome, but the ways and directions of the approach bear some unpacking.

The mindful therapist emphasizes the skills of empathy and being present. The notion that these are skills is central for it assumes that techniques can be learnt and polished, that the doing is sometimes a separate question than the valuing. We may all agree that these qualities are good things, but how to show them in practice may be something else all together. The authors argue that mindfulness in the therapist can be taught and people can be trained, and they give a number of useful exercises that could be undertaken as n individual or as a group training program. Even if some of the reminders they scatter through the chapter, such as asking, “What is your intention? Why are you reading this book?”, could be used as handy prompts to even the most experienced therapist. What is your intention? Where is your attention? are questions that never go out of style and never lose their relevance.

Mindfulness-informed therapy is used to capture therapies that use insights from mindfulness and Buddhist teachings, but incorporate them into a more eclectic presentation rather than actually directly teaching meditation or other practices. This may well be the most influential aspect of the concept of mindfulness in current psychotherapy because although for many practitioners and many clients meditation may be difficult to access (both practically and conceptually), the informal practices refer to implementing and applying the ideas to everyday life and developing open, accepting and discerning attention, in a conscious and intentional manner can effect profound and lasting change.

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy is used to describe the explicit, perhaps pure application of principles to the therapeutic context. It is perhaps rarer and may even be, for some, pushing the argument a little too far. However, the explication of the techniques and programmes in the book are informative and thought-provoking.

There is a model of health that underpins the theorizing (as opposed to a model of ill-health). For the authors the intentional development of non-judgmental attention (focussing clearly on what is) leads, almost inevitably if applied clearly and rigorously, to self-awareness and self-regulation and equally inevitably to greater order and health — and all through internal loci of control rather than some external application of expertise. Mindfulness, in this way, is seen to promote self-efficacy alongside wellness.

It is a feature of the book that it reads as well from a therapist’s viewpoint as it does from a self-help position. Although it seems to have been written with practitioners in mind, it could easily be absorbed by anyone looking to understand themselves a little better. For some, it may appear to be too mystical or quasi-religious — there are certainly many references to Buddhist precepts and aphorisms, and there are meditation exercises which are not just thinking exercises — but for most the simple practices of reflection and action upon reflection may have a deep resonance.

It is a book that will appeal on many levels. It is approachable and not hard to digest. The authors should be congratulated for bringing out and explicating some of the most important and perhaps kindest trends in modern psychotherapy for the benefit of us all.

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Nine ways that a meditating brain creates better relationships

Psychology Today: It’s never too late to have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood

Therapists get this question a lot: “Okay, so now that I understand how my history made me a mess when it comes to relationships, what now? It’s not like I can go back in time and change my childhood.”

The “what now” is that there’s increasing evidence that the simple practice of mindfulness meditation can re-wire your brain. In key areas, you can literally change and grow neural connections which support finding and creating better relationships. And in nine different ways, your brain can become more like those who grew up knowing how to love and be loved in healthy, sustainable ways.

As a psychologist helping others find their way to greater emotional well-being, I find that the most compelling benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a set of nine documented results. (I mentioned them in my previous post, Mindfulness Meditation + Neuroscience = Healthier Relationships.) I’ve seen the results confirmed through my psychology practice, in myself, and in the lives of my friends and colleagues.

At least seven of these nine benefits bear a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics of people who grew up with healthy, attuned attachments. Childhood attachment experiences have a huge impact on how we are wired for relationships, throughout our lives.

So, if we can change our brain to work more like those people with healthy attachment histories, we too can have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood.

NINE WAYS THAT A MEDITATING BRAIN CREATES BETTER RELATIONSHIPS

When I first learned about these from Dan Siegel, MD, I was stunned that something as simple as mindfulness meditation could make such inroads with the challenges of finding and creating healthy relationships. Take a look at these benefits:

1. Better management of your body’s reactions.

Stress and anger lose their grip on your body more quickly and easily. When you get home from a hard day at work, you aren’t still carrying the pent-up tension and frustration in your body, and so you won’t be driven towards an angry reaction to your partner’s benign comment.

In a way, it’s like re-setting your body’s “alarm” button when it’s gotten stuck in the “ON” position. Vital to your relationships is your ability to (a) recognize that that’s what’s going on, (b) understand what is happening in your brain and body that is keeping you there, and (c) un-stick that alarm button.

2. Emotional resiliency.

Being able to correct or repair unpleasant moods more quickly, without just sweeping them under the rug of resentments, frees you up to be less stressed by emotional upset, and more available to the next good thing.

Regulating your emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them, denying them, or cramming them deep inside (they eventually erupt anyway, but in festered form). The trick is to be able to get yourself back to baseline with relative ease and efficiency.

3. Better, more “tuned in” communication.

Research on attachment and healthy brain development shows that having someone be attuned to you — they listen and “get” you without distortion, and respond in a way which is actually contingent upon you instead of just their own inner stuff — is one of the chief ways that your brain gets organized for well-being.

That’s true in childhood, and we’re now learning that it’s also true for adults. Mindfulness meditation helps you to be a more attuned communicator. Even better, new evidence suggests that the more you practice this kind of “attuned” communication, the more likely that your significant other will get better at it, as well. (More on that in another post.)

4. Response flexibility.

We often have a fairly limited repertoire of how we respond to those situations that just “set us off.” Some people always blame and yell when they feel ashamed; others cry whenever receiving criticism, even if it is constructive and positive.

The habits of our nervous system can seem like electrical surges, leaving us vulnerable to making a real mess when we don’t mean to. Having an emotional circuit breaker makes a real difference — creating the space for you to have a more mindful, conscious response. Mindfulness meditation, by beefing up areas which essentially buy us a tiny bit more time before we respond in a knee-jerk way, improves response flexibility.

5. Improved empathy.

There are some common misconceptions about empathy. Being empathic isn’t about being a doormat, or mind-reader. It’s also not about fear (I need to read this person really well so he doesn’t get angry and hit me).

Being able to “get” and understand another person’s state of mind is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. Getting your brain to let you perceive someone else, without your protective gear and lenses, and without getting lost in their “stuff,” is something that mindfulness meditation does extremely well.

6. Improved insight (self-knowing).

Getting to know yourself in a real way, and within a coherent framework (How did I get here?), results in being far less vulnerable to getting lost when it comes to being in relationship with others.

When we meditate regularly, we’re practicing our ability to notice what our brain is up to — what the thoughts are, what the feelings are. We become increasingly able to tell the difference between those momentary and ever-changing events, and who we really are.

Through meditation practice, the brain gets re-wired and “remembers,” more often and more easily, who you really are – not just your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t carry you away.

7. Better modulation of fear.

If you’re able to be more comfortable with things which once scared you (He’s going to leave me; I’m not enough for her), and not as reactive to emotional fear, you change your entire experience of being in an adult-to-adult relationship with others.

It’s important in relationships to have ready access to being able to soothe yourself when you’re afraid, so that your reactions and interactions aren’t overrun by your fight-flight-freeze response. There is compelling research on the brain mechanisms underlying the flexible control of fear, and those are remarkably similar to the brain areas which change in response to mindfulness meditation.

8. Enhanced intuition.

There’s actually increasing neurochemical and cellular evidence of a sort of second brain in our gut (okay, viscera). Most of us are familiar with having some kind of “gut feeling,” usually in response to something that has our attention. But what about all of those times when we’re an auto-pilot, or distracted? Is the information in our gut turned “off’?

Hardly. Our viscera, and the rest of our body — our muscles, eyes, ears, skin, and so on — are telling us something. Most of the time, we ignore these messages, but the mindfulness practice of being more aware of what your body is telling you enhances the ability to be attuned to yourself, and what you unconsciously know — what we can refer to as “intuition.”

Becoming emotionally “smarter” — by using the extra information from your non-brain parts — enhances your ability to be in mindfully aware, conscious relationships with yourself and with others.

9. Increased morality.

In addition to healthier, happier relationships with your partner and circle of friends, is there anything that comes from the first eight benefits?

The research on mindfulness shows that when people learn to meditate and practice regularly, their perceptions of their place in the world begins to shift — something corroborated by family members. They become more broadly compassionate, more likely to act on their highest principles, and demonstrate greater interest in the social good – what can very reasonably seen as living with higher morals. It’s like having a healthier relationship with your whole community, not just the people closest to you.

An impressive list! It does take practice — and the practice is simple, but not easy. (Of course, with all of these benefits, there may be some other personal work to be done, if deeper unresolved issues are involved — meditation alone doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for dealing with old wounds and their influences on you.)

The good news is that some of the research shows that you can see changes with as little as twenty minutes of practice a day (and some experts say that you can benefit with even less than that – the trick is to be sure it is a regular, daily practice). I invite you to give it a try.

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Meditation training lessens doctor burnout

UPI: Training in mindfulness meditation and communication can alleviate the psychological stress and burnout experienced by many physicians, U.S. researchers say.

Dr. Michael S. Krasner, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York who was the study leader, says the training can also expand a physician’s capacity to relate to patients and enhance patient-centered care.

Mindful communication utilizes the techniques of meditation to help people maintain an open and non-judgmental outlook as they tackle everyday tasks, Krasner explains.

“From the patient’s perspective, we hear all too often of dissatisfaction in the quality of presence from their physician,” Krasner said in a statement. “From the practitioner’s perspective, the opportunity for deeper connection is all too often missed in the stressful, complex and chaotic reality of medical practice.”

Seventy physicians from Rochester, N.Y., completed a series of assessment surveys designed to measure burnout and empathy, characterize beliefs about patient care, personality and mood.

The training involved eight intensive weekly sessions that were 2.5 hours long, an all-day session and a maintenance phase of 10 monthly 2.5-hour sessions.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found the trained primary care physicians experienced improved well-being, including significant decreases in burnout and mood disturbance, while empathy increased.

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“Self, meditating,” by Robert Wright

New York Times: This Friday I’m heading up to rural Massachusetts in hopes of getting born again — again.

Six years ago, in the same locale, I attended my first and only silent meditation retreat. It was just about the most amazing experience of my life. Certainly it seemed more dramatic than my very first born-again experience — my response to a southern Baptist altar call as a child, which I wrote about in this space last month.

I came away from that week feeling I had found a new kind of happiness, deeper than the kind I’d always pursued. I also came away a better person — just ask my wife. (And neither of those things lasted — just ask my wife.)

So with the retreat approaching, I should be as eager as a kid on Christmas Eve, right? Well, no. Meditation retreats — at this place, at least — are no picnic. You don’t follow your bliss. You learn not to follow your bliss, to let your bliss follow you. And you learn this arduously. If at the end you feel like you’re leaving Shangri-La, that’s because the beginning felt like Guantanamo.

We spent 5.5 hours per day in sitting meditation, 5.5 hours per day in walking meditation. By day three I was feeling achy, far from nirvana and really, really sick of the place.

I was sick of my 5 a.m. “yogi job” (vacuuming), I was sick of the bland vegetarian food, and I wasn’t especially fond of all those Buddhists with those self-satisfied looks on their faces, walking around serenely like they knew something I didn’t know (which, it turns out, they did).

Yes, the payoff was huge. But it’s unlikely to be as big this time around. It’s famously hard to replicate the rapture of your first meditation retreat. Last time, during the first half of the week, my apparently prescient unconscious mind kept filling my head with that old song by Foreigner, “It feels like the first time, like it never will again.” I’ve never especially liked that song, and during those first few days it joined the list of things I hated.

What I hated above all was that I wasn’t succeeding as a meditator. Now, as the two leaders of this retreat were known to point out, you’re not supposed to think of “succeeding” at meditating. And you’re not supposed to blame yourself for failing. And blah, blah, blah.

Well, they were right: To “succeed” I really did have to quit pursuing success, and quit blaming myself for failing. And some other things had to go right.

And what was “success” like? Well, to start at the less spiritual, more sensual end: By the time I left, eating the food I’d initially disdained ranked up there with above-average sex. I’m not exaggerating by much. When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it.

Also, my view of weeds changed. There’s a kind of weed that I had spent years killing, sometimes manually, sometimes with chemicals. On a walk one day I looked down at one of those weeds and it looked as beautiful as any other plant. Why, I wondered, had I bought into the “weed” label? Why had I so harshly judged an innocent plant?

If this sounds crazy to you, you should hear how crazy it sounds to me. I’m not the weed-hugging type, I assure you.

And as long as we’re on the subject of crazy, there was my moment of bonding with a lizard. I looked at this lizard and watched it react to local stimuli and thought: I’m in the same boat as that lizard — born without asking to be born, trying to make sense of things, and far from getting the whole picture.

I mean, sure, I know more than the lizard — like the fact that I exist and the fact that I evolved by natural selection. But my knowledge is, like the lizard’s, hemmed in by the fact that my brain is a product of evolution, designed to perform mundane tasks, to react to local stimuli, not to understand the true nature of things. And — here’s the crazy part — I kind of loved that lizard. A little bit, for a little while.

Whether I had made major moral progress by learning to empathize with a lizard, let alone a weed, is open to debate. The more important part of my expanding circle of affinity involved people — specifically, my fellow meditators.

At the beginning of the retreat, looking around the meditation hall, I had sized people up, making lots of little judgments, sometimes negative, on the basis of no good evidence. (Re: guy wearing Juilliard t-shirt and exhibiting mild symptoms of theatricality: Well, aren’t we special?) By the end of the retreat I was less inclined toward judgment, especially the harsh kind. And days after the retreat, while riding the monorail to the Newark airport I found myself doing something I never do — striking up a conversation with strangers. Nice strangers!

My various epiphanies may sound trite, like a caricature of pop-Buddhist enlightenment. And, presented in snapshot form, that’s what I’m afraid they’re destined to sound like. All I can say is that there is a bigger philosophical picture that these snapshots are part of, and that I had made some progress in apprehending it by the end of the retreat.

The “apprehension” isn’t just intellectual. This retreat was in the Vipassana tradition, which emphasizes gaining insight into the way your mind works. Vipassana has a reputation for being one of the more intellectual Buddhist traditions, but, even so, part of the idea is to gain that insight in a way that isn’t entirely intellectual. Or, at least, in a way that is sometimes hard to describe.

On Thursday night, the fifth night of the retreat, about 30 minutes into a meditation session, I had an experience that falls into that category, so I won’t try to describe it. I’ll just say that it involved seeing the structure of my mind — experiencing the structure of my mind — in a new way, and in a way that had great meaning for me. And, happily, this experience was accompanied by a stunningly powerful blast of bliss. All told, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dramatic moment.

This retreat is coming at a good time for me. In June I published a book that I’ve been feverishly promoting. Publishing and promoting a book can bring out the non-Buddhist in a person. For example, when book reviewers make judgments about your book, you may make judgments about the reviewers — ungenerous judgments, even.

Also, you’re inclined to pursue the fruits of your activity — like book sales — rather than just experience the activity. Checking your Amazon ranking every 7 minutes would qualify as what Buddhists call “attachment.” And attachment is bad. (Oops: I just made a judgment about attachment.)

In fact, in general I’ve been living like someone who hasn’t been meditating with much regularity or dedication, who has strayed from the straight and narrow. It’s time to start anew.

At the end of my first retreat, still reeling from that Thursday-night experience, I told one of the meditation teachers about it. He nodded casually, as if the insight I’d had was one of the standard stops on the path to enlightenment — but far from the end of the path. Through truly intensive meditation, he said, the transformation of your view of your mind — and your view of your mind’s relationship to reality, and your view of reality itself — can go much deeper than I’d gone.

That would be interesting! But this week I’d settle for half as deep.


Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and, most recently, “The Evolution of God.”

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CompassionScientific American: People who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one’s family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy. Read more here.

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