Mindfulness emerges as hottest meditative tool

wildmind meditation newsThe News International: Mindfulness is fast emerging as the hottest meditative tool, which is known to contribute to our wellbeing and productivity.

Mindfulness is all about being focussed on the present moment, which has the power to liberate one from the shackles of past failures or pointless day dreaming about the future.

Given its global sweep and popularity, Time magazine featured mindfulness on its covers early this year as “the science of finding focus in a stressed out, multi-tasking culture”.

“The key to success in a fast paced world is a calm, resilient and non-judgmental inner being, steeped in mindfulness,” Santhosh Babu, a …

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Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers

A new University of British Columbia study finds that analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.

The study, which will appear in tomorrow’s issue of Science, finds that thinking analytically increases disbelief among believers and skeptics alike, shedding important new light on the psychology of religious belief.

“Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of why people believe in a God to different degrees,” says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “A combination of complex factors influence matters of personal spirituality, and these new findings suggest that the cognitive system related to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief.”

Researchers used problem-solving tasks and subtle experimental priming – including showing participants Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker or asking participants to complete questionnaires in hard-to-read fonts – to successfully produce “analytic” thinking. The researchers, who assessed participants’ belief levels using a variety of self-reported measures, found that religious belief decreased when participants engaged in analytic tasks, compared to participants who engaged in tasks that did not involve analytic thinking.

The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an “intuitive” system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more “analytic” system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.

“Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to ‘intuitive’ thinking,” says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily.”

The study involved more than 650 participants in the U.S. and Canada. Gervais says future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures.

Recent figures suggest that the majority of the world’s population believes in a God, however atheists and agnostics number in the hundreds of millions, says Norenzayan, a co-director of UBC’s Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture. Religious convictions are shaped by psychological and cultural factors and fluctuate across time and situations, he says.

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Find your North Star

I recently did a meditation retreat (at Spirit Rock, wonderful place, including for workshops). One evening as we walked out of the hall after the last sit, I was feeling rattled and discombobulated. (One of the benefits of a retreat – though it can be uncomfortable – is that it stirs up of the sediments of your psyche, which can muddy your mental waters for awhile.)

I looked up at the stars shining brightly in the cold clear night, and soon noticed the Big Dipper. My eyes followed its pointing to Polaris, the North Star, and a wave of easing came over me. The star felt steady and reassuring, something you could count on. It connected I think with a young part of me who loved the outdoors and learned to believe that as long as he could locate the North Star, he could find his way out of the tangled woods and back to safety.

Gazing at Polaris, I asked myself, “What’s my North Star?” One answer came to me immediately, and another just seconds later. Immediately I felt better. Calmer and more resolved.

I’ll tell you what came to me in the How section below. Right here I want to make the points that it’s the question that matters most – and that the answer(s) will be different for different people.

When you find your North Star, you know where you’re headed. That alone feels good. Plus, your North Star is (presumably) wholesome and vital, so aiming toward it will bring more and more happiness and benefit to yourself and others. And you can dream bigger dreams and take more chances in life since if you lose your way, you’ve got a beacon to home in on.

Everyday life is entangling. It’s so easy to get caught up in routines and obligations that gradually take over to set the course of your life. It may look goal-directed – make breakfast, get the kids to school, go to work, return home, make dinner, go to bed, repeat the next day – but we know inside that there is no deep purpose to it, no fundamental aim that gives clarity, meaning, and richness. Then life starts to feel hollow, more about getting through than getting to.

What’s the light that will guide you out of your own tangled woods – both the woods “out there” in the world and the ones “in here,” inside your own mind?


Find a time and a place that’s meaningful to you. Perhaps sitting quietly at home with a cup of tea, or in a house of prayer, or – like me – under the night sky. Help your mind settle and grow quieter. Then simply ask, wordlessly or out loud, “What’s my North Star?” Perhaps try other ways of asking this question, such as: “What’s the most important thing?” “By what should I set my life’s course?”

You could also just hold the question in the back of your mind over the course of a day and see what comes to you. Or while doing a pleasant task with your hands (like gardening, knitting, or stroking a cat), ask the question and see what arises.

The answer may be soft; you may have to listen closely to hear it. It may come with the voice of an inner child, or a teacher, or with a simple viscerally persuasive clarity. The answer that came to me was the single word, Truth, followed by Love – but your own answer(s) may come in the form of a wordless knowing, an image, a body sensation, or a memory.

Some people (including me) have several North Stars, though usually they are lined up in the same direction so there is no conflict among them. And sometimes a person has a single North Star, one aim, one principle, that draws together all the threads of his or her life.

It’s OK for your North Star(s) to change over time. But whatever it is right now, let it guide you.

This means keeping it in mind – perhaps with a yellow sticky on the refrigerator, or by jotting it down (maybe in a coded way, for your privacy) at the top of your “to do” list for the day. Or you could (as I do) often recommit to your guiding light(s) when you first wake up.

Notice or imagine the rewards that do or will come to you and others from following your North Star. What trouble will it keep you out of? What joys and gains will it bring to you and others? Keep letting these good feelings and knowings sink in to you, linked in your mind to your Star.

When troubled or tangled, ask yourself: “How could my North Star guide me with this? In its light, what’s the priority here and now?” Try to accept this guidance; give yourself over to it.

Moment after moment, we are always headed in one direction or another. As these add up, they become the course, for better or worse, of a person’s life.

May the course of your life be aimed at your own North Star.

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Trusting your feelings leads to more accurate predictions of the future

A forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research by Professor Michel Tuan Pham and Leonard Lee of Columbia Business School, and Andrew Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh, finds that a higher trust in feelings may result in more accurate predictions about a variety of future events. The research will also be featured in Columbia Business School’s Ideas at Work in late February 2012. In the research, the researchers conducted a series of eight studies in which their participants were asked to predict various future outcomes, including the 2008 U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, the box-office success of different movies, the winner of American Idol, movements of the Dow Jones Index, the winner of a college football championship game, and even the weather. Despite the range of events and prediction horizons (in terms of when the future outcome would be determined), the results across all studies consistently revealed that people with higher trust in their feelings were more likely to correctly predict the final outcome than those with lower trust in their feelings. The researchers call this phenomenon the emotional oracle effect.

Across studies, the researchers used two different methods to manipulate or measure how much individuals relied on their feelings to make their predictions. In some studies, the researchers used an increasingly standard trust-in-feelings manipulation originally developed by Tamar Avnet, PhD ’04 and Professor Michel Pham based on earlier findings by Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and his colleagues. In other studies, the researchers simply measured how much participants typically relied on their feelings in general when making predictions. Regardless of the method used, participants who trusted their feelings in general or were induced to trust their feelings experimentally were more accurate in their predictions compared to participants with lower trust in their feelings and with participants in a control group.

In one study involving the Clinton-Obama contest in 2008, high-trust-in-feelings respondents predicted correctly for Obama about 72 percent of the time compared with low-trust respondents, who predicted for Obama about 64 percent of the time – a striking result given that major polls reflected a very tight race between Clinton and Obama at that time. For the winner of American Idol, the difference was 41 percent for high-trust-in-feelings respondents compared to 24 percent for low-trust respondents. In another study participants were even asked to predict future levels of the Dow Jones stock market index. Those who trusted their feelings were 25 percent more accurate than those who trusted their feelings less.

The researchers explain their findings through a “privileged window” hypothesis. Professor Michel Pham elaborates on the hypothesis. “When we rely on our feelings, what feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ summarizes all the knowledge and information that we have acquired consciously and unconsciously about the world around us. It is this cumulative knowledge, which our feelings summarize for us, that allows us make better predictions. In a sense, our feelings give us access to a privileged window of knowledge and information – a window that a more analytical form of reasoning blocks us from.”

In accordance with the privileged window hypothesis, the researchers caution that some amount of relevant knowledge appears to be required to more accurately forecast the future. For example, in one study participants were asked to predict the weather. While participants who trusted their feelings were again better able to predict the weather, they were only able to do so for the weather in their own zip codes, not for the weather in Beijing or Melbourne. Professor Leonard Lee explains this is because “…they don’t possess a knowledge base that would help them to make those predictions.” As another example, only participants who had some background knowledge about the current football season benefited from trust in feelings in predicting the winner of the national college football BCS game.

Thus, if we learn to trust our feelings and we have a proper knowledge base, the future need not be totally indecipherable.

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Paul Klee: “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void”

Paul Klee, 1927, photo by Hugo Erfurth

Paul Klee, the famous Swiss/German expressionist painter, may seem to be making an almost mystical claim here — that creativity comes from beyond the conscious mind. I think you’d be right in assuming that creative impulses come from unconscious parts of the mind, but not that this is an exclusively mystical state. In fact, all action ultimately has this quality of coming from “beyond,” but we simply fail to notice this most of the time, because we’re in the grip of the illusion that the conscious mind is “us,” that it owns our actions, and that it’s in control.

When I speak, I’m often aware that my words come from what Klee calls “the void.” Words appear as if from nowhere, without conscious intervention. It’s not that my conscious mind is in some way “queueing up” words internally so that I can deliver them a few moments later. Now I used to assume that that’s exactly what did happen, but more and more I’ve realize that that assumption arose because of the conscious mind’s ongoing habit of plagiarism. Let me explain what I mean, using some examples that I cite in my recent book, Living as a River.

Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void … My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.

Back in the 1970s, a researcher called Ben Libet asked people to flex their wrist at random times of their own choosing. They were to flex the wrist the very moment that the impulse to do so arose. At the same time, he monitored their brains, and found that the motor cortex of the brain (the part that controls movement) fizzed and popped with electrical activity a full half second before the subjects moved their wrists. That meant that Libet knew, half a second before the subjects did, that they were going to flex their wrists. Now the subjects thought that they were making these movements at exactly the time the impulse arose. But what seems to have gone on is that the conscious mind claimed responsibility for an action that had been initiated outside of consciousness.

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Libet’s findings were controversial, because they seem to undermine our notion of free will. Some said that his equipment was simply picking up on static in the brain. So, fast-forward to today, and to Berlin, Germany, where John-Dylan Haynes, at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, used much more sensitive functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to do a similar experiment. fMRI is able to observe, in real time, activity deep in the brain. This time, Haynes asked subjects to randomly press a button either with their right or left hands. And this time, Haynes found that he could predict, six seconds before the subjects were conscious of the desire to act, which button they would press. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. Haynes can tell, six seconds before you do, what you’re going to do. In this experiment, as in life, the conscious mind thinks it’s just made a decision, when in fact it’s more like it’s just become aware of a decision having been made elsewhere, and has claimed responsibility for it.

Now this is all really weird. In fact I’m reminded of a time I had a young man, who I suspect suffered from schizophrenia, come to a meditation class. I was talking to him just before he left the class, and in mid-conversation a house-fly buzzed in between us and smacked into the class door we were standing beside. “I did that,” he said, in an effort to convince me that he not only was sane, but had special powers. Now to you or me, this young man’s inability to distinguish between his own intentions and outside actions is a sign of mental illness. He saw the fly thud against the glass and thought he’d made that event happen. But Libet and Haynes have shown that we ourselves do something similar all the time. Our conscious minds observe an action taking place, and immediately say “I did that.” It’s not that different from what the young man with schizophrenia did. The conscious mind it is a plagiarist, claiming authorship of actions it’s not actually responsible for.

Our sense of self is, in fact, largely to do with this false sense of ownership. We observe thoughts, emotions, and actions emerge into consciousness, and immediately assume, “I did that.” But in the meditation practice I explore in Living as a River — The Six Element Practice — we counteract this tendency to “possess” our actions by noting thoughts, feelings, etc as they pass through the mind, and by repeating “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this” as we note each one. Eventually, the sense of ownership begins to fade away — or suddenly vanishes. The conscious mind ceases to plagiarize, and we find ourselves simply witnessing our experience coming into being.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have free will, incidentally. It’s just that free will is not something that’s entirely the result of conscious activity. When you “consciously” decide to do something, you are actually making a choice, it’s just that your conscious mind doesn’t seem to do much more than observe the event taking place and claim responsibility for it. If that.

So all the time, our thoughts, emotions, and actions are arising from “the void.” But Klee is talking about the special case where we notice that this is what’s happening, and when we’ve let go of the act of clinging to, and identifying with, our own actions. This is quite a special state. It’s a state of effortless creativity, because there’s nothing standing between your creative energies and their expression. And the plagiaristic conscious mind frequently gets in the way.

Everyone who has experience of writing knows the sheer terror of the blank sheet of paper (or screen). The conscious mind looks at the pristine field in front of it and simply can’t come up with anything that’s good enough to commit to writing. Any thought that emerges is judged to be unsuitable — as a reflection of our own inadequacy. The thing is that the conscious mind is trying to create, which is something it’s incapable of doing. It’s actually standing between our creative energies and their expression. What we need to do, in order to let our creative energies flow freely, is to get ourselves (or the conscious mind) out of the way. We need to set aside judgement, and to allow the conscious mind to have the role only of being an observer, allowing the “remote will” to express itself. Many writing coaches use this approach to “unblock” creativity, for example by setting rules that say that you have to write for a set period of time, without going back and editing.

Through meditation we train ourselves to do something similar. In life we end up proliferating thoughts, so that the mind is jammed with inner talk. In such a state there’s no way for creative impulses to express themselves, because the mind’s “bandwidth” is already being fully used. If a creative impulse were to try to communicate itself, it would get a metaphorical “busy signal.” In meditation we learn to let go of unnecessary thoughts (and 99% of them are not necessary) and this creates a “space” in the mind, opening up channels of communication with our deeper, and more creative impulses.

How does this manifest in real life? It shows up as more authentic, wise, and compassionate communication. Instead of second-guessing ourselves, constantly worrying about what people think of us, we can simply respond to others on a human level. We find that we’re more intuitive. That we’re more playful. That we’re more insightful. We get the conscious mind out of the way, and find we can be more ourselves.

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Creating choice with inner wisdom

Srimati discusses the nature of inner wisdom, and how to make creative, rather than reactive, choices. Speaking to the Conscious Evolution group at Sharpham House, Totnes, Devon, she explains that inner wisdom is a deep level of intelligence available to us all and that accessing our inner wisdom allows us make the best choices in our life.

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How can we trust our intuition?

How do we know what’s a valuable intuition and what’s some other voice — perhaps the voice of fear, or just a delusion? Srimati explains that our responses come either from fear or love, and that we can learn to recognize the difference by asking ourselves what’s our motivation. In a way, intuition tells us whether our responses are creative and intuitive, or reactive.

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Are we free?

The more aware we become of ourselves, the more we notice that our minds resort to pre-programmed “scripts” — habitual ways of reacting to the world. Srimati discusses how awareness creates the freedom to choose our responses and free ourselves from our conditioning.

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