meditation & mental health

If you want to be happier, drop the mind-reading

An essential part of being human (and in fact of being a primate) is what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intentions, desires, plans, knowledge, thoughts, and so on—to others. When you have to give bad news to someone, for example, you know that they may become upset, and you take this into account in the way you talk to them. If you’re explaining something to another person you may anticipate certain questions they might ask. This is you employing a theory of mind.

This is such a basic part of our lives that we don’t give it a second thought, but that in itself can become a problem, first because sometimes our assumptions about what other people are thinking are wrong, and second because our faulty assumptions can end up causing us to suffer.

For example, my hair has been thinning for years, and for a while I assumed that people would judge me for having hair loss. I imagined them finding my receding hair ugly or ridiculous. And yet, when I started to question that assumption, I realized that when I met men who were much balder than I am I didn’t give it a second thought. In fact, often I would think of them as looking perfectly normal. In many cases a totally bald head would be striking, good-looking, impressive, and cool! So I was able to correct my initial, faulty, theory of mind, and replace it with one that’s more accurate.

This kind of fear regarding our appearance is very common. We obsess about the size and shape of our noses, our chins, our ears, about the texture of our skin, our weight, and so on. Most of the assumptions we make are negative: we assume that others are judging us.

Now there certainly is a lot of judgement in the world, and some people are very prone to judging others, but we tend to assume that people in general are much more harsh and judgmental than they really are. This causes us to suffer.

Now as I’ve said, having a theory of mind is an important skill. It’s one that develops as we mature. The problem comes in when we don’t check to see if our assumptions are correct: when we make an assumption (especially a negative one) about what someone’s thinking and then remain convinced we are correct without checking to see if that’s the case.

Psychologists use the term “mind-reading” to describe our tendency to make unquestioned assumptions of what others are thinking.

Often we go around, apparently convinced that we have an infallible knowledge of what others think, feel, and believe, as if we think we have mind-reading abilities. I can think of times I haven’t asked someone for help because I’ve assumed they’d say no. Mind-reading! I’ve sometimes assumed that people who behave in a friendly way to me secretly don’t like me. Mind-reading! I’ve jumped to the conclusion, with no evidence, that certain people find me boring. Mind-reading!

Mind-reading exacerbates our tendency to freak out because we’re intensely social creatures who feel safe and happy when we’re accepted by others. When we’re rejected or judged — or when we assume we’re being rejected or judged — then we suffer anxiety and depression. So it’s good if we learn to recognize our own mind-reading and question the assumptions we’ve been making about what others think.

The antidote to mind-reading is what the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn called “don’t-know mind.” Seung Sahn encouraged us to drop opinions and assumptions, and to accept not-knowing. This is a very deep practice that can take us all the way to spiritual awakening, but one very basic application of this principle is simply to recognize when we’re jumping to conclusions.

So keep watching your thoughts. Notice when you’re attributing thoughts and judgements to others. Realize that this is not knowledge, but simply your own fear that you’re projecting onto others.

Ask yourself: “Can I be absolutely certain I know what this person is thinking?”

Now you’re in “don’t-know mind.” And from there, you can either just drop your assumptions of what others are thinking or check in with them to find out what’s really going on.

Drop the mind-reading, and you’ll find you’re less prone to freaking out.

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Mindfulness: Authority bias and finding out who is really in charge? Changing our inner world

Sandy SB, Vajra Blue: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.”
Mark Twain

Mindfulness is becoming ever more popular and is in danger of being seen as a panacea for all the problems that trouble the human mind. Even when the practice is divorced from the other elements that form part of a spiritual path, it can be a useful tool for self management and helping to create greater contentment for our lives.

Practicing mindfulness can help us to work out …

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Can you be mindful and still feel angry?

Peggilee Wupperman Ph.D., Psychology Today: Mindfulness will not turn you into a feel-good Zen zombie.

If you struggle with dysregulated (addictive/impulsive) behavior, you might have heard that mindfulness can help you overcome the behavior.

In fact, you have likely seen numerous articles on how mindfulness can help you with pretty much every problem you have ever had (Dysregulated behavior! Anxiety! Relationship issues! Work stress! Ingrown toenails!). You may even have been pressured to practice mindfulness by friends or colleagues.

And you may be feeling a little irritated—or just plain angry…

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Five simple mindfulness practices for people who hate to meditate

wildmind meditation newsJeena Cho, Forbes: The science is clear: practicing mindfulness is good for you. Just as you can exercise the body for better performance, the mind too can be trained, honed and sharpened. Mindfulness has been shown to break negative thought patterns, reduce stress and anxiety, and sharpens focus.

Extract:

Simple mindfulness practices

1. Mindful walking. If sitting meditation isn’t your thing, you can try walking meditation. This is a common practice at meditation retreats, where you’ll often alternate between a period of sitting meditation and walking meditation. You can read this article for details on how to practice walking meditation.

When you get up from your desk to go to the bathroom, talk to a colleague or get a cup of coffee, rather than mindlessly walking, trapped in your thoughts, bring your attention to the physical movement of talking. Notice your feet on the floor, the weight of your body shifting from one leg to the other. Feel your arms swing. Notice the temperature in the room. Pay attention to whatever your senses can notice.

2. Mindful eating. How often do you sit down to eat, completely distracted? Perhaps you’re checking your email, Twitter or Facebook, or just spaced out.

Try this: when eating, simply eat. No digital device, book, newspaper, etc. Try eating alone. Pay attention to what you’re eating, the sensory experiences—taste, smell and texture. Notice the color of the food. You can even spend a moment being grateful for the food you’re consuming.

3. Mindful speaking & listening. One unexpected benefit of mindfulness is that I’ve become a better listener. Rather than thinking of my response (or rebuttal), simply listening, fully and noticing my own internal dialogue has been an interesting experiment. I find that I am much better able to see the other person’s perspective and be more thoughtful in my response. I can also create more spaciousness in the conversation because I’m not rushing or waiting to add my two cents.

Listening is perhaps one of the most valuable gifts we can offer to others. Offer it generously whenever possible and bring your best intentions. Especially in bitterly heated negotiations, or contentious situations, I’ve found that bringing a mindful attitude leaves everyone feeling heard and tends to deescalate charged emotions.

4. Mindful showering and washing. During my first mindfulness class at Stanford University, our instructor, Mark Abramson, D.D.S., assigned “mindful showering” as our first homework. We often miss moments of pleasure and enjoyable sensory experience due to constant distraction and busyness of the mind.

Rather than going through your day’s to-do list, worrying about that meeting you have later in the day, feeling angry after reliving some argument you had 10 years ago or whatever may be distracting your mind, simply pause and feel the shower. Notice the warm water, all the delightful scents, and give a moment of gratitude for the privilege of clean water.

5. Practice yoga. It’s rather unfortunate that yoga as it’s often practiced is simply seen as “exercise.” The practice of yoga is much more than that. It’s the perfect place to practice mindfulness. During your next yoga class, really bring all of your awareness to what is happening. I like to start each yoga practice by taking a minute or so to simply notice the sensation of my feet on the yoga mat. On the days where I can’t make it to the studio, I still practice. I really enjoy Yoga with Adriene for short practices I can do at home or when I’m traveling.

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How mindfulness practices are changing an inner-city school

Donna St. George, The Washington Post: At many schools, the third-grader would have landed in the principal’s office.

But in a hardscrabble neighborhood in West Baltimore, the boy who tussled with a classmate one recent morning instead found his way to a quiet room that smelled of lemongrass, where he could breathe and meditate.

The focus at Robert W. Coleman Elementary is not on punishment but on mindfulness — a mantra of daily life at an unusual urban school that has moved away from detention and suspension to something …

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“The Kindness Cascade”

woman doing yoga

Meditation and mindfulness are frequently in the news, mainly because of the dramatic increase in research projects showing the many benefits these practices bring. In the graph below you’ll see that from around a dozen scientific journal articles on mindfulness being published in the entire decade of the 1980s, there are now several hundred papers being published each year, with the numbers increasing annually.

mindfulness journal publications

Although most of the focus in this research has been on mindfulness, there’s now an increasing emphasis on exploring the benefits lovingkindness (metta) meditation. Lovingkindness is really just the very familiar quality of “kindness.” Kindness is a recognition of ourselves and others as feeling beings — we all want to be happy, it’s good to be happy, and none of us wants to suffer. When we recognize that a person we’re with feels, and that they, just like us, prefer happiness to unhappiness, then we naturally want to act in ways that help them and don’t want to act in ways that cause them unnecessary distress. In other words, we act kindly. We value them. We treat them with respect and consideration.

The difficulty we have is that we get so wrapped up in our lives that we forget about all this. We forget that we want to be happy, or that it’s even possible. Forgetting that other people have feelings, we fail to empathize with them and to take their wellbeing into account. And so we act unkindly, to ourselves as well as others.

Kindness meditation trains us to keep in the forefront of our minds an awareness of the fact that we are all feeling beings. It helps us to empathize and to desire the wellbeing of ourselves and others.

This makes a huge difference to our lives—not just to our emotional states, but to our bodies, our relationships, and the entirety of our experience.

  • One study at Duke University found that an 8 week course in lovingkindness led to significant improvements in back pain, even after the study had ended. In other words, when we’re kind, we’re less stressed and physically feel more at ease.
  • An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions feelings of distress, but also a decrease in inflammation. When we’re more at ease, we produce less adrenalin and less cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This leads to decreased inflammation in the body. That’s why the participants in the Duke study had less pain.
  • At Stanford University it was found that just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers. This leads not just to us feeling more at ease with others, but to them feeling more at ease with us! They see us as less threatening, and as people they want to be with. And so they offer us more kindness and social support. In this way, our entire social experience changes. It’s not hard to see how this then leads to other benefits. For example, if others want to help us we may benefit through receiving advice and encouragement, and even through job offers and material assistance.
  • A University of North Carolina study found that not only does lovingkindness practice increase our daily experience of positive emotions, it heightens our mindfulness and leads to improved health, reduced illness symptoms, greater emotional support, and an enhanced sense of purpose in life. What we see here is a cascade effect.

The conscious cultivation of kindness leads to a chain reaction of wellbeing. I call this effect “The Kindness Cascade.” It’s a transformative shift that starts within. Wellness and wholeness are developed inside us, but radiate out into the body and into our lives and communities, bringing benefits that are physical, emotional, social, material, and spiritual.

To begin developing kindness is easy: just visit the lovingkindness section of our website, where you’ll find a step-by-step guide to the practice, including guided meditations.

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What can mindfulness teach the police force?

Rachel Pugh, The Guardian: As two young constables dash into the room of silently seated police men and women, making breathless apologies, one of them asks: “Have you started yet? We’ve been out on an eviction but we didn’t want to miss the meditation.”

This is lunchtime in inner-city Salford’s fortress-style Pendleton police station, and the man with a pair of Tibetan chimes facing the group is neighbourhood police officer, PC Ewen Sim, poised to deliver a session of mindfulness.

The bearded 39-year-old is one of 13 Greater Manchester police (GMP) officers …

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Practicing mindfulness can help relieve anxiety among children, youth and adults

Karen Pace, Michigan State University Extension: Do you experience feelings of anxiety? If so, how does it tend to express itself in your mind and body? Does your thinking become rapid and spinning—or do you have difficulty concentrating? Do you notice muscle tension in your neck, shoulders or another part of your body? Do you feel fatigued, restless or “keyed up”? Do you have difficulty breathing or experience shortness of breath? Do you feel irritable—or do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? These are all …

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Incorporating meditation training into an outpatient psychiatry practice

Greg Sazima, Psychiatric Times: You can’t open a newspaper or browse a health website these days without seeing the latest glowing testimonial to the benefits of meditation training. Yet only a small subset of psychiatrists actually practice meditation, and fewer still incorporate awareness training into their tool kit in treating their patients. It’s not as if there has been an absence of attention to meditation in the mental health community. The works of Drs Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mark Epstein, Marsha Linehan, and others as well as more recent research have reinforced meditation’s ameliorative effect on …

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Meditation matters for special education students

Jeremy Loudenback, Chronicle of Social Change: While meditation has expanded in recent years from a zen-seeker’s path to higher consciousness to a best practice for hard-charging CEOs, it’s now gaining a foothold at a school in Southern California serving students with serious emotional and behavioral issues.

Administrators at the Five Acres School in Altadena, Calif., are testing whether meditation and mindfulness can help students succeed in the classroom. A new mindfulness program implemented there in two semesters over the past year has helped pupils stay in the classroom and minimize emotional outbursts that can derail the learning process, according …

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