habits

New Year aspirations (rather than resolutions)

When I was younger I used to think that New Year’s Day resolutions would almost automatically bring about change. It was as if thinking that you wanted to change was enough to make it actually happen. I guess I thought this was possible thanks to the “magic” involved in moving from one year to the next.

Of course I’ve learned a lot since then about how slowly inner change happens. And now I see New Year’s resolutions differently, if I even make them. Now they’re an opportunity to think about the direction that I’d like to see the slow change move in. They’re more “aspirations” than resolutions.

There is one thing that’s happening, though, which is both practical and symbolic. It might almost seem like a silly thing, but my bookkeeper is going to be closing our old QuickBooks Online account and opening a new one. The old one has been with me for years. It’s like an old house that you can still live in. But it’s been repaired and altered so many times — often by people who weren’t very sure what they’re doing — that it’s an ugly mess.

For example, in the past Wildmind used to have an online store where we sold meditation supplies. This was supposed to help cover the costs of teaching meditation. We stopped doing that altogether two years ago, and last year I donated several thousand dollars worth of inventory to my local Dharma center so that they can sell it in their little book shop. While it was a relief to get rid of that inventory, there are still all these categories, products, vendor records, and so on in our accounts. It’s a mess. So we’re starting off with new books — clean, light, and set up to reflect what I’m currently doing on Wildmind. It just feels good. And that is almost magical.

But my personal aspiration is to work at being more balanced in my life — especially balancing self-care and self-nourishment, on the one hand, with being creative, productive, and helpful on the other.

  • I think better, create better, and meditate better when I go for regular walks (which my dogs also love, naturally).
  • I’m happier when I take care of my aging body’s need to stretch. When I do that I can be free from pain and have more energy.
  • And my practice has more life and inspiration when I get off on retreat. That’s something I haven’t been able to do in the last couple of years.

So I’m bearing those sorts of things in mind as I enter 2022. They’re not, as I said, examples of “magical thinking.” Change doesn’t happen just because you want it to. I still have to maintain those aspirations in mind (which is work in itself), to be mindful of opportunities to bring more balance to my life, and to be mindful of when things are getting out of balance. So I still have to do the work. But those are the kinds of things I aspire to focus on in order to bring more balance into my life. If I manage that, then 2022 should be both joyful and creative, and hopefully my life will benefit both me and others.

Happy New Year!

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The gift of a compassionate “no”

Photo by travelnow.or.crylater on Unsplash

Last night when I was talking with a friend, she mentioned the need for us to be careful about our boundaries and not to say “yes” to every request for help that comes our way. I’m writing a book on the practice of self-compassion at the moment, and my first thought was, “Wow! I’ve completely forgotten to include anything in the book about boundaries. I’ll have to add something as soon as possible.” Writing this article is my first step in that direction.

My own bias may be one reason I hadn’t thought to include something about compassionately saying “no” to requests for help. This tends to be a gendered issue, since there are more pressures on women than on men to be helpers and pleasers. I hear from a lot of women who take on doing far too much because have difficulty saying no. They want to be “agreeable,” which is an interesting word since it implies that being likable is the same thing as agreeing with someone. Women have also often been taught that it’s “selfish” to take their own needs into account, although I have to say that this has affected me as well.

In fact, setting boundaries is something I’m still working with. I sometimes take on too many responsibilities, and often that’s to do with bad planning. But bad planning is just another term for “neglecting my needs.” Sometimes when requests come in, I’m excited and don’t want to miss out. And then I don’t sufficiently think through how much I’m likely to have going on, and so I end up overbooked. Other times, though, it’s just that one task takes me longer than I’d anticipated, and so I’m still up to my eyeballs in that work when it’s time for me to start other work I have planned. And unexpected things do happen…

However, I do consciously work at not over-scheduling myself, and quite often do say no to requests. And so I’d like to say a bit about that in case it’s helpful.

Be Mindful of Your Habits

If we don’t protect the boundaries or our time and energy, we’re not practicing self-compassion. The first thing is to become mindful of the habits that surround responding to requests. Do you have a desire to please? Are you worried about what people will think of you if you say no? Are you worried about hurting their feelings? Or are you like me and you’re excited to be doing something new and afraid of missing out on an opportunity? Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to pause before we act, so that we can consider whether it’s wise for us to act on our desires and fears.

Why Are We Concerned About Approval?

Those fears can be strong. If we’re conditioned to think that what another person thinks of us is more important than our own wellbeing, then it can be hard to say no to them. So we need to really ask ourselves, Why is it so damned important that other people approve of us?

Often we want others to offer us approval because we don’t offer it to ourselves. Many years ago, I realized that I was doing too much because I was seeking approval from others. And so I adopted a slogan: “I am my own source of validation.” This was a reminder to me to remember to appreciate myself—not just for the things I was doing but for who I was. Even just a short period spent appreciating my skillful qualities, appreciating the efforts I’d put into doing something, or celebrating what I’d achieved (“Yay! I wrote 2,000 words today!”), changed how I felt about myself. I felt much more secure and more confident in my own worth. I was also much less inclined to be disappointed if I didn’t get appreciation for others when I expected it, and was more careful about making promises I couldn’t keep.

This was important both for myself and for other people. Not only did I become stressed when I took on too much, but I tended to do a bad job with or neglect some of the tasks on my to-do list. I’d start off trying to please people and end up disappointing them.

Be Concerned About the Right Things

And if I am going to be concerned about what other people think about me, maybe I could upgrade those concerns. I think it’s more valid to hope that they value me for my integrity rather than my compliance. Many people will find it inspiring if you offer them an example of how to practice self-compassion. Courage is inspiring, and self-compassion shows courage. Maintaining healthy boundaries by saying “no” can be a courageous act in which we demonstrate both that we care and that we matter. To exemplify this for others is a gift. Ultimately, though, what other people think about us is up to them. Our happiness doesn’t depend on everyone liking us.

How To Say No

Of course we should be kind when we say no. We should be aware that others have feelings and not act in a way that we know will be hurtful. But if a person feels disappointed, it’s up to them to deal with their feelings, not us. I stress that I’m talking about a mindful and compassionate no. I’m not talking about saying no in a harsh or condescending way.

You might want to experiment with not apologizing. You’re under no obligation to do something to help another person. It’s a favor. Now it’s lovely to do favors when we can, but it’s not always possible or advisable. And when that’s the case, you’re not doing anything wrong by saying you’re not able to help. You have nothing to apologize for.

When decline someone’s invitation, we can thank them for the opportunity they’ve offered us. We can express appreciation for their confidence in us. Or, we can tell them we’re honored, and that we’d love them to ask us again when circumstances are different. Or we can say we feel torn, or that we wish we were able to help. But we don’t have to apologize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying no. Delivered in the right spirit, a “no” can sound like appreciation and feel like gratitude.

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

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Why your New Year’s meditation resolutions fail, and how to make them stick

At this time of year you may well be making a New Year’s resolution to meditate every day.

I used to make resolutions too! Usually these attempts were rather feeble, and sometimes I wouldn’t even be half-way through January before I’d realize I’d already missed a couple of days of meditation. In fact days might have gone by and I hadn’t even thought of meditating.

This kind of thing sets up a sense of failure, which undermines our self-confidence and makes us more likely to fail at other things as well.

The main problem I had was that these resolutions weren’t resolutions at all. That is, they weren’t things I was resolved on; they weren’t courses of action I had “firmly decided” to do. I’d just had the idea that I wanted to do these things, but I hadn’t created a plan and I wasn’t doing the things that were necessary for my resolutions to turn into reality.

So we need to do the right things and set up the right conditions if we’re going to change.

A resolution is fine as it goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go very far! Here’s the kind of thing you’ll need to do if you want to go all the way.

  • Pick a goal, and make it a reasonable one. Start small. If you’re going to meditate daily, it’s better to aim for five minute a day and succeed, rather than go for 40 minutes and fail. You can always increase the time once you have your new habit established.
  • Be specific. Think about where, when, and how you’re going to meditate. Are you going to meditate at home? In the morning or at night? With or without a guided meditation? Plan it.
  • Think of what might have to change. You may have time in the morning to meditate, but you spend that time on social media. So maybe you need to turn your phone off at night so that you’re less likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning. Or maybe you need to set a firm time for stopping your TV watching at night and sit before bed — or meditate before you start watching TV in the first place.
  • What are you going to do if something crops up and thwarts your plan? What if you sleep in? When will you meditate then? Planning for contingencies doubles your chance of success.
  • How are you going to remind yourself of your goal? A resolution you don’t remember isn’t going to have any effect on your life, except to make you feel guilty once you do (eventually) remember it. Notes and alarms can help. So will having a regular place to meditate, where you keep your meditation cushion, and perhaps candles and incense as well.
  • Track your progress. Something as simple as a calendar that you put X’s in on days you’ve meditated can be a great visual support.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Giving up because you’ve missed a day or meditation is a waste of all the successful effort you’ve put in to your habit. If you fall of the horse, get straight back on! Meditating daily isn’t about trying to impress anyone. It’s about developing a habit that’ll help you be happier and healthier.
  • Work with others. You can have a meditation buddy, or join a meditation challenge and become part of a whole community of people working at setting up the habit of daily meditation.
  • Celebrate! We tend to focus more on our perceived failures (“I only meditated for five minutes today”) than on our successes (“I meditated today! Good for me!”) I strongly suggest that people allow themselves to feel celebratory before, during, and after every meditation. Become your own cheerleader!

There’s a lot more to establishing a positive habit than just saying you’re going to do it. What you need is to spend some time (and it needn’t take long) making a plan, and setting up supportive conditions.

If you’d like help with setting up a regular meditation practice, we’re here for you! We have a year-round program of meditation events that will help you sustain and deepen your practice, as well as a community of meditators who can offer you support and encouragement. Do feel free to join us in Wildmind’s meditation community.

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What a bicycle can teach us about changing our habits

In the video below, Destin Sandlin, creator of the Youtube channel “Smarter Every Day,” demonstrates an interesting paradox: that we can know something and yet find it hard—even impossible for a while—to act on that knowledge.

The bicycle he’s showing off has been rigged so that the steering operates in reverse. Turn the handles right, and the front wheel turns to the left; turn them left, and the front wheel turns to the right.

One one level, learning this is easy. You can take in the simple fact: “turn the wheel the opposite way of the way you want to go when riding this bike” in jut a few seconds.

With that knowledge in mind, most of you probably think, “Hey! I could do that!” After all, you have all the knowledge you need, right! Not so fast. You wouldn’t be able to pedal this bike more than a few inches before you ground to a halt. In fact it took Destin eight months of practice to learn to ride it properly.

Intellectually we know what’s required to ride the bike. But learning how to physically interact with the world isn’t intellectual. As we learn how to ride a bike, ancient parts of the brain lay down pathways involving coordination, movement, and balance. It takes months of practice in the first place for most of us to learn this, and you’re reinforcing the brain’s pathways every time you get on a bicycle. These abilities are deeply carved into the brain.

When you try to apply the knowledge, “turn the wheel the opposite way of the way you want to go when riding this bike,” you’re having to develop entirely new habits, and are attempting to lay down new pathways. It’s not even easy to get started on this, because your previous learning is actually getting in the way of the new learning. As soon as you get on a bike your existing habits (turn the handles in the direction you want to go) kick in automatically, and there’s no way to switch them off.

Destin’s son, by contrast, was able to master the bike more quickly, because his bike-riding neural pathways haven’t been so deeply reinforced.

This explains a lot about learning practices such as mindfulness and lovingkindness. You may want to be continuously aware of your experience—for example when you’re paying attention to your breathing—but it’s very hard to do this because you already have behavioral pathways carved into the brain, and those kick in as soon as you sit down and close your eyes. You may want to behave more kindly toward other people in your life, but habits of reactivity, criticizing, and anger are similarly wired into the structure of your neuronal network.

So there’s a long period of working with two competing sets of habits as we do spiritual practice. We’re learning one set of habits while unlearning another. Essentially this goes on all the way to awakening. But there are tipping points. At a certain point you’ll find that you’re mindful enough that mindfulness starts to predominate over unmindfulness in your life. At a certain point you’ll find that enough of you is aware of the disadvantages of anger compared to kindness that kindness starts to flow more naturally than anger.

As you can see with the example of the bike, our old habits (or the neural pathways that support them) don’t exactly disappear when we reach the tipping point. They’re still there, but aren’t accessed. It’s no longer natural to be grossly unmindful or unkind. Given the right circumstances those older pathways can still be accessed. It’s harder for that to happen, but it still can.

There are two habits that support our progress toward these tipping points that I think are particularly key. One is emotional resilience. We need to be able to deal with frustration in order to train ourselves. Emotional resilience contributes to persistence. If we can’t deal with frustration, we give up. This happens to the majority of people who take up meditation. In order to be able to deal with frustration, it’s helpful to have the habit of self-forgiveness. In order to be able to forgive ourselves for messing up, it’s helpful to remember that learning isn’t easy. We should expect to mess up, and should learn to see our mistakes as an inevitable part of learning.

The other habit is more cognitive and imaginative, and it’s the ability to keep in touch with our goals. In Buddhism this is called shraddha, or “faith.” Unless we’re able to keep a sense of the long-term benefits of the habits we’re learning (whether that’s the joy of mastering a backwards bicycle or the peace and fulfillment of living mindfully and with kindness) we’ll find it hard to stay motivated. Being part of a community helps here, because if we lose our confidence we can find it again through others.

In essence a whole bunch of traits, habits, skills, and conditions come together to support and augment each other, helping us, in the long term, to change our lives radically.

There’s a lot we can learn from watching people trying to master the art of riding a backwards bike! I could say something about the Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatta) in relation to this, but I’ll save that for another post!

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Three tips for developing the habit of daily meditation

https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-two-little-monks-running-outdoors-image30569393

Sometimes I find it hard to set up a good habit. Other times it’s easy. I’ve been wondering if I could look at a habit I’ve found easy to set up, and then apply those principles in other areas. Now I already meditate daily, but perhaps this is something you’ve found difficult and could use some pointers with, or maybe, like me, you’re already a regular meditator but have other areas you need to be working on (and let’s face it, who couldn’t). So I thought I’d share my observations and reflections.

One good habit I’ve been successful in setting up is going out running three times a week, with the aim of building up to running a 5k. I’ve been going out very regularly, and have been enjoying a sense of joy during every run and a glow of satisfaction afterward. I’m not even deterred by bad weather!

Now I’ve tried to get into running before, but I’ve never enjoyed it so consistently. What’s different this time?

Lesson 1

First, I have a running buddy. If he’s not available for some reason, I’ll still go running on my own, but I’m more motivated to go running with a friend because it’s much more fun when we’re together and we keep each other accountable.

What’s the lesson for meditating regularly?

You may not be able to meditate with others every day in the flesh, but you can use an app like the Insight Timer, which shows you how many other people are meditating at the same time as you. Or you can have a meditation buddy that you can text or email each other with a brief message confirming that you’ve meditated. If you haven’t heard from your partner you can send her a quick reminder. At times I’ve meditated with a friend on Skype. Of course we’re in silence, but there’s a real sense of being with another person.

Lesson 2

The second difference from my usual attempts at running is that this time I’m using an app. We have a “Couch to 5k” app that provides a structured nine-week program of running, gradually building up to a solid 30 minute run, which is easily enough time to cover 5 kilometers.

What’s the lesson for meditating regularly?

Set short but attainable targets for yourself. It’s OK to do a short meditation each day to begin with. There are lots of meditations of about eight minutes in length (I’ve made a CD of them myself) and that’s enough to make a subtle difference to our day.

And for most people, the equivalent of a meditation app is a timer or a guided meditation. Both will give you a sense of structure. A guided meditation not only gives your practice some structure, but is also like having a meditation buddy who walks you through the meditation.

Lesson 3

The third difference is that we congratulate ourselves and each other.

Our running app is structured: we’ll run, walk, run, walk, run for 25 minutes or so. At the end of each leg of running we’ll high five each other and give ourselves congratulations on our progress. The boost in mood that we get from doing this is very noticeable.

Remember it’s OK to congratulate yourself. You could get to the end of a meditation and say to yourself “Target achieved! Yay, me! That’s awesome!” and so on. Be your own cheerleader. Some of us have been brought up to be suspicious of self-congratulation, but remember that you’re not praising yourself in order to make yourself look good but so that you can associate a positive habit with feelings of pleasure, and look forward to your practice.

I think these three lessons from my running practice are something I can bring into other areas of my life — and perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

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The teaching of the zombie Buddha

By day I’m a peace-loving Buddhist; by night a fearless zombie slayer.

That second part isn’t entirely true. Last night I didn’t actually slay any zombies, and I certainly wasn’t fearless. In fact I was terrified as I cowered inside my car as a ravening undead creature tried to force its head through the half-open window, growling and gnashing with its foul, gaping maw. I tried to stab at it with a pointed stick, but never quite made contact. (Pointed sticks are for vampires, I know, but you have to use the tools available to you, and that’s what I had at hand.)

As it happens, this was just one of the very realistic zombie adventures that wove themselves into my dreams last night. You might think that I’d wake up feeling disturbed after all these encounters with the living dead, but this morning I actually felt elated, because I understand these dreams and have learned to recognize them as a good sign.

I’ve had many similar nightmares in which I’ve been pursued by dangerous fiends, although these were my first confrontations with zombies. Curiously, whatever form these threatening figures take, they never actually harm me. They are also immune to my attempts to harm them. In these dreams it is they who are terrifying, but it is I who am violent. I hope that strikes you as curious.

What I’ve realized is that we don’t always dream from the viewpoint of our conscious daytime selves. Often our dreams give us an insight into what it’s like to be part of our subconscious.

Call to mind a unhelpful habit that you have—perhaps a tendency to binge-eat, or to get hooked on Facebook, or a tendency to be bad-tempered. Personifying those habits for a moment—which is quite reasonable since they are in fact quite major parts of a person—think of how meditation must appear when seen from their point of view. They don’t want to change, and certainly doesn’t want to cease existing, and yet that’s what meditation is going to do to them. From the point of view of those habits, meditation is a threatening—even terrifying—force. This is true not just for meditation, but for all Dharma practice, which gently destroys who we are in order to birth a new us.

In traditional Buddhist iconography, enlightened figures have both peaceful and wrathful aspects. The peaceful forms are as you would expect: figures meditating quietly, sometimes dressed in simple monastic robes, or sometimes adorned with jewelry, arrayed as princes or princesses. The wrathful forms, by contrast, are wildly dancing, often wreathed in flames. They’re clad in flayed skins, decorated with garlands of skulls, or draped with the corpses of humans or animals. These wrathful forms represent enlightenment seen from the viewpoint of our resistance. They are the zombies I’ve fought in my dreams.

My zombie dreams are encounters with awakening, which is why I’m happy that the undead came close to gnawing on my flesh last night. Something within me is in active pursuit of unskillful patterns of thought and action, and wants to transform them. Something inside me is trying to destroy the recalcitrant habits that cause me suffering. This pursuit is only terrifying in my dreams because I’m experiencing things from the point of view of my habits. Those habits don’t want to change, and so they flee and try to fight back. The forces of compassion and wisdom, on the other hand, may be perceived as threatening but never do any harm.

Last night’s dreams confront me with the fact that although of late I’ve been meditating daily, I haven’t been throwing myself into my practice in a way that’s going to lead to deep transformation. I haven’t been putting in enough hours, or practicing with sufficient diligence. And so I feel a joyful urge to cast myself into the midst of the zombie horde, and to be devoured. In other words I feel enthusiastic about meditating longer, going deeper, and surrendering myself to change.

When I’ve turned to face a threatening figure in my dreams, it’s been revealed as beautiful, wise, and compassionate. And I have confidence that when I meditate deep and long, sitting with any fear that arises, some creative part of me will bring about unexpected and unimaginable transformations in my being.

When we turn to face our fears, everything changes.

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Bringing mindfulness to habits

Many of our ways of coping with the challenges of daily life seem like a good idea, but they turn out to be unhelpful. What happens when mindfulness meets multitasking, rushing, tensing, keeping up and keeping going?

1. Multi-tasking

Time is precious, so it makes sense to do as many things as you can at the same time … right? That’s an attitude our culture encourages, but if our attention is spread across several things, how fully can we take in any of them? And what effect does multi-tasking have on our state of mind? Research suggests that you don’t actually get more done by multi-tasking. It’s more efficient, as well as more satisfying, to give your full attention to whatever your doing so you can do it properly.

A mindful alternative: doing one thing at a time (at least when that’s possible).

2. Tensing Up

Perhaps your experience sometimes goes like this. You know it’s going to be a difficult conversation. You turn it over in your head beforehand. You think you’ve worked out what to say, but when it comes to it, you’re feeling tense. The other person responds badly and you tense up even more. You snap at them. This isn’t going well …

A mindful alternative: staying open to what’s happening. This means noticing tension whenever it arises and finding the space to be open to what the other person is saying, even if you don’t like it. Mindfulness practices can help.

3. Keeping Going When You Really Need to Stop

It’s late afternoon and you notice strain creeping into your work, but you’re on a roll so you just keep going. That evening you’re shattered and realize that the strain was actually much greater than you felt at the time.

A mindful alternative: pacing yourself. Pacing means slowing down or stopping before you want to. That can be a challenge, but the experience of running long distances or managing pain shows that if you pace yourself you can achieve much more.

4. Rushing

Rushing happens when we’re so focused on a deadline that we prioritize speed over everything else. It can go like this: It’s morning and you’re trying to get yourself and the kids out of the house. You clean your teeth faster, eat your breakfast faster, talk faster. By the time you’re all on the road, you’ve had a couple of arguments and you’re rushing to work … and the day hasn’t really started yet.

A mindful alternative: getting off ‘autopilot’. It’s true that some things need to be done quickly, but bringing awareness to what’s happening interrupts the tendency to rush. We need cues to remind ourselves to get off autopilot and take things steadily.

5. Trying to keep up with what’s happening

So much of the information that comes at us through the mainstream and social media carries a hidden message: ‘It’s important that you keep up and stay in touch, otherwise you’ll be left behind.’ So we keep cramming more stimulation into our limited minds, squeezing out the space in which we might feel calm and spacious.

A mindful alternative: paying attention to what we take in through the senses and reducing input. Our attention is a precious commodity, we need to guard it carefully.

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Breaking bad habits: Interview with Dan Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman

Elisha Goldstein, PsychCentral: We all have habits that we want to break and that is why I’m thrilled to bring to today Daniel Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman who . Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures around the world and has many classic books including Emotional Intelligence which has over 5,000,000 copies in print. Tara is author of The New York Times bestseller Emotional Alchemy and her new book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits that can help us transform our emotions, improve our relationships and connect us to the inner wisdom that has always been there…

Read the original article »

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The neuroscience of conditioning

200px-OnIntSometimes the best confirmations of the dhamma come from sources that have nothing to do with Buddhism. On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is just such a source. Hawkins is an electrical engineer and entrepreneur whose interest in Artificial Intelligence has convinced him that the key to developing AI lies in understanding the brain. If that sounds a little obvious, it’s necessary to say that much of AI research – even on neural networks – has ignored the biology of the brain. As the name of the book suggests, this is not about consciousness or experience at an abstract level. It’s about human intelligence and how that distinctly human (well, mammalian)  part of the brain – the neocortex – makes us as smart as we are. What I propose to do here is pick out some of the main points that Hawkins makes and show how they relate to the kind of things that we might notice in ourselves as we peer through the microscope of meditation. In particular, this book offers biological explanations for our ingrained habits – the conditioned responses that arise in us despite our best intellectual intentions and endeavours to behave otherwise. The closer we understand the nature of the mind, the better we can work with it.

The neocortex is structured in a uniform way in its entirety, regardless of function or location. That structure consists of 6 hierarchical layers, each as thick as a business card. Those 6 layers are further interconnected across sections of the neocortex to form hierarchies of hierarchies. Signals come in from the sensory neurons – like the nerves coming from your eyes or ears – in a rapidly changing fashion (both spatially and temporally) but as these chaotic signals filter up through the hierarchies, they stabilize and solidify. For example, input from the optic nerve (one million sensory neurons) is a firehose of light, colour and line shape changes due to the ever changing nature of the photons hitting the retina, and also the constant eye movements (saccades) we involuntarily make to scan our field of vision. By the time it filters through several layers of neocortex, this cacophony of electrical impulse has become something stable like, for example, a face.

It might even be your Aunt Susan’s face. If it is Aunt Susan, then effectively the memory of Aunt Susan’s face is encoded high up in the hierarchies of the cortex, and can be triggered by Aunt Susan no matter what the lighting conditions or angle of view are. The important thing to notice here is that the brain has an invariant representation for a vastly changeable (to all practical purposes infinitely changeable) set of input signals. But here’s where it starts to get really interesting. The flow of signal is not only upstream from the optic nerves to the memory of your aunt’s face. It’s also (perhaps even prevalently) back downstream. If higher layers are starting to see things that correspond to Aunt Susan, they feed this back down the line, and hone the incoming signal to check for Aunt Susan-ness. This is very efficient, as you can imagine, as it involves a narrowing of the search as early as possible. It’s a little like what happens when you type in a search term on Google and you are offered increasingly specific choice to select from. (For more details see the book’s wikipedia entry, or read the book!) This way of processing signals is elegant and much faster than a computational approach, but it comes at a price: At a very biological level, we decide what we perceive based on what we have already experienced. If that’s not an recipe for habitual reactive behaviour, I don’t know what is.

So if this is the way our brain works, how does it effect our everyday life, and how can we use this understanding to work better with our minds? On Intelligence has nothing to say about this, and what follows are my own – hopefully rational – extrapolations from Hawkins’ conclusions. His model of perception explains why changing habits through a conscious, intellectual application of will can be so frustratingly difficult. The processing described above takes place long before the filtered sensory signals reach our consciousness. The key interpretations of what we are experiencing are made long before they reach the ‘selfing’ processes of the brain, and so the the ego can really only dress things up as best it can – to claim ownership of that interpretation. But by that time, those interpretations have already begun to send signals to other centres of the cortex, including our motor neurons. In this way, habitually-wired reactive thoughts and actions are triggered. Our conscious ego, always behind the curve, tends to either justify the resulting behaviour in some way, or in general to tell some story about it. Brute force application of will is our favourite way to try to change those habitual thoughts and actions, but it can never reach into the depth of where those habits come from.

If this description invokes a certain hopelessness, and calls into question the notion of free will, then I think there’s no harm in that. I think it is probably hopeless and pointless to believe that we can impose our conscious will on activities that are upstream of the consciousness process. We can certainly modulate and moderate some of the grosser behaviours that we perceive to be in need of change. But we cannot by sheer intellectual will simply decide to be, say, more compassionate individuals from one day to the next. So what can be done?

Surrender. First and foremost to the nature of your own mind. You can’t work well with a system if you don’t have some understanding of how it operates, and the science is telling us in an ever-clearer way: we are not who we think we are. Our minds are not a centralized command-and-control system. Control is distributed across thousands of drivers (to borrow an image from Bodhipaksa), each struggling to grab the steering wheel. We are bags of competing habits, so let’s give up all hope and pretense of being in charge and let’s look instead to work with what we really have. Instead of trying to pull imagined levers and throw non-existent switches, we can plant seeds, in the form of new habits.

Incidentally, Buddhism has been saying the same thing for a very long time. The cognitive function of recognizing Aunt Susan’s face is called sañña in Pali, sometimes translated as perception. It is one of the Five Aggregates (khandhas) and is described by Bhikku Bodhi as follows:

The characteristic of perception is the perceiving of the qualities of the object. Its function is to make a sign as a condition for perceiving again that “this is the same,” or its function is recognizing what has been previously perceived. It becomes manifest as the interpreting of the object…by way of the features that had been apprehended.

The sign referred to by Bhikku Bodhi, corresponds to Hawkins’ invariant representation.

Once we surrender to this unintuitive and perhaps emotionally difficult way of understanding the brain, we can work with it instead of against it by gently initiating new regular habits – without any grand expectations – and see where it leads. This is where the blunt instrument of conscious intellectual will comes into play. The will is just another process struggling for control. It arises and falls away like everything else and we cannot expect it to change our habitual thinking and behaviour. But our will can help us to initiate new habits and support them in their infancy. In those moments when it is available, we can use its direction and energy to take the micro-actions that, in the long run, can rewire habits. We can decide to ‘feed the wolf of love‘ day in, day out as Rick Hanson suggests, and then let that work its own way through deeper and mostly unseen habits. And we can introduce meditation as a life habit. One of the most important habits that I’ve built up recently is the habit of daily meditation. Thanks to the 100 day challenge in the Wildmind Google+ community, I can say that the habit of sitting has become strong and has very little trouble grabbing the steering wheel at least once a day. I have found over the years that meditation itself has the effect of rooting out old useless or harmful habits. A few of them have just fallen away. Others put up a fight and fade in and out over time.

So what might be learned here? I have come for now to this conclusion: A better understanding of how our minds work tells us that there is no self there in control, but there are features to human intelligence that can be harnessed in order to favour certain drivers over others. The way to bring about positive change is to plant seeds, water them regularly and be patient. If that sounds a lot like love, I don’t think  it’s a coincidence.

On Intelligence can be bought on Amazon.com

(I’m very grateful to Bodhipaksa for reviewing this article and bringing my attention to Bhikku Bodhi’s definition of sañña.)

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“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller

This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.

Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.

Title: Hand Wash Cold
Author: Karen Maezen Miller
Publisher: New World
ISBN:
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle store, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?

At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.

At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.

I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.

So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?

So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.

I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.

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