psychology and meditation

Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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Mindfulness and meditation need more rigorous study to identify impacts

Dependable scientific evidence has lagged worrisomely behind the rapid and widespread adoption of mindfulness and meditation for pursuing an array of mental and physical wellness goals, wrote a group of 15 experts in a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The article offers a “critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda” to help the burgeoning mindfulness industry replace ambiguous hype with rigor in its research and clinical implementations.

Recent years have seen a huge surge not only in media and scientific articles about mindfulness and meditation, the authors wrote, but also in the implementation of medical interventions for everything from depression to addiction, pain and stress. The widespread adoption of therapies has put the field at a critical crossroads, the authors argued, where appropriate checks and balances must be implemented.

“Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed,” they wrote.

Co-author Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University said: “We are sometimes overselling the benefits of mindfulness to pretty much any person who has any condition, without much caution, nuance or condition-specific modifications, instructor training criteria, and basic science around mechanism of action. The possibility of unsafe or adverse effects has been largely ignored. This situation is not unique to mindfulness, but because of mindfulness’s widespread use in mental health, schools and apps, it is not ideal from a public health perspective.”

Lead author Nicholas Van Dam, a clinical psychologist and research fellow in psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said that the point of the article is not to disparage mindfulness and meditation practice or research, but to ensure that their applications for enhancing mental and physical health become more reflective of scientific evidence. So far, such applications have largely been unsupported, according to major reviews of available evidence in 2007 and again in 2014.

“The authors think there can be something beneficial about mindfulness and meditation,” Van Dam said. “We think these practices might help people. But the rigor that should go along with developing and applying them just isn’t there yet. Results from the few large-scale studies that have been conducted so far have proven equivocal at best.”

Added co-author David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, “Sometimes, truly promising fields of endeavor get outstripped by efforts to harvest them before they’re really ripe; then workers there must step back, pause to take stock, and get a better plan before moving onward.”

A young, undefined field

Among the biggest problems facing the field is that mindfulness is poorly and inconsistently defined both in popular media and the scientific literature. According to the authors, there “is neither one universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers.” As a result, research papers have varied widely in what they actually examine, and often, their focus can be hard to discern.

“Any study that uses the term ‘mindfulness’ must be scrutinized carefully, ascertaining exactly what type of ‘mindfulness’ was involved, what sorts of explicit instruction were actually given to participants for directing practice,” the authors wrote. “When formal meditation was used in a study, one ought to consider whether a specifically defined type of mindfulness or other meditation was the target practice.”

“Without specific, well-defined terms to describe not only practices but also their effects, studies of interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) cannot provide valid and comparable measurements to produce reliable evidence.” As part of its proposed remedy, the new article offers a “non-exhaustive list of defining features for characterizing contemplative and medication practices.”

Greater rigor

Along with specific, precise and standardized definitions, similar improvements in research methodology must also come, the authors wrote.

“Many intervention studies lack or have inactive control groups,” Van Dam said.

The field also has struggled to achieve consistency in what it is being measured and how to measure those things perceived to be of greatest importance to mindfulness.

Van Dam said the situation is akin to earlier psychological research on intelligence. This concept proved to be too broad and too vague to measure directly. Ultimately, however, psychologists have made progress by studying the “particular cognitive capacities that, in combination, may make people functionally more or less intelligent,” he and his co-authors wrote.

Thus, the authors wrote, “We recommend that future research on mindfulness aim to produce a body of work for describing and explaining what biological, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and social, as well as other such mental and physical functions, change with mindfulness training.”

Clinical care

A wide variety of contemplative practices have been studied for an even larger variety of purposes, yet in both basic and clinical studies of mindfulness and meditation, researchers have rarely advanced to the stage where they can confidently conclude whether particular effects or specific benefits resulted directly from the practice. Measured by the National Institutes of Health’s stage model for clinical research, only 30 percent of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have moved past the first stage, and only 9 percent have tested efficacy in a research clinic against an active control.

“Given the absence of scientific rigor in much clinical mindfulness research, evidence for use of MBIs in clinical contexts should be considered preliminary.,” the authors wrote.

The proposed agenda for future research is rigorous and extensive, Van Dam said.

“Replication of earlier studies with appropriately randomized designs and proper active control groups will be absolutely critical,” the authors continued. “In conducting this work, we recommend that researchers provide explicit detail of mindfulness measures, primary outcome measures, mindfulness/meditation practices and intervention protocol.”

Researchers and care providers involved with delivering MBIs have begun to become more vigilant about possible adverse effects, the authors wrote, but more needs to be done. As of 2015, fewer than 25 percent of meditation trials actively monitored for negative or challenging experiences.

Contemplating contemplative neuroscience

Van Dam said recent efforts to assess the neural correlates of mindfulness and meditation with technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography, may perhaps have the potential to bring new rigor to the field. Nonetheless, he and his co-authors also express concern in the article that these technologies so far have not fulfilled this potential.

The authors note that technologies such as MRI depend on subjects remaining physically still while being tested, and image quality can be affected by subjects’ rate of breathing. Experienced meditators may be better suited to maintaining ideal physiological states for MRI studies than are inexperienced individuals or non-meditators. Due to such problematic factors, between-group differences in brain scans might have little to do with the mental state researchers are attempting to measure and much to do with head motion and/or breathing differences.

“Contemplative neuroscience has often led to overly simplistic interpretations of nuanced neurocognitive and affective phenomena,” the authors wrote. “As a result of such oversimplifications, meditative benefits may be exaggerated and undue societal urgency to undertake mindfulness practices may be encouraged.”

Ultimately that’s the authors’ shared concern: Insufficient research may mislead people to think that the vague brands of “mindfulness” and “meditation” are broad-based panaceas when in fact refined interventions may only be helpful for particular people in specific circumstances. More, and much better, scientific studies are needed to clarify these matters. Otherwise people may waste time and money, or worse, suffer needless adverse effects.

“This paper is a coordinated effort among concerned mindfulness researchers and meditation scholars to rectify this gap to maximize benefit and minimize harm from MBIs,” Britton said.

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Mindfulness in prenatal education can reduce risk of depression

Rick Nauert PhD, Psych Central: A new study shows mindfulness training that addresses fear and pain during childbirth can improve women’s childbirth experiences.

Moreover, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of California, San Francisco discovered the training was associated with a reduction of depression symptoms during pregnancy and the early postpartum period.

“Fear of the unknown affects us all, and perhaps none more so than pregnant women,” says lead author Dr. Larissa Duncan, University of Wisconsin, Madison professor of human development and family studies.

“With mindfulness skills, women in our study…

Read the original article »

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Nurses get training to cope with stress

Sylvia Pownall, Irish Mirror: Overworked nurses in danger of burn out are practicing mindfulness to help them cope with the stresses of the job.

Carmel Sheridan’s The Mindful Nurse was published last year and has already been included on nursing training courses in the UK and the US. The Galway-based psychotherapist says she was inspired to write the book when she realized how many people coming to her for help were nurses.

She told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “I’ve been teaching mindfulness around the country and more and more healthcare workers were enrolling …

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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, controlled breathing reduce anxiety symptoms

wildmind meditation newsJesse King, The Daily Universe: People can make changes in their breathing and physical awareness to combat negative thinking and chronic stress, according to a recent article published by BYU professor Patrick R. Steffen, and BYU clinical psychology doctorate students Tara Austin and Andrea DeBarros.

This study showed chronic stress, which is related to depression and anxiety, can be lessened through biofeedback and mindfulness.

Steffen, the director of the clinical psychology program at BYU, said people with anxiety experience worry and concern for the future, but often their worrying is focused on the fear of …

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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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Can you cheat at mindfulness and self compassion?

Kellie Edwards, Psych Central: I have a client who laughingly says she loves to “cheat the system” — find a short cut, an easier way, a faster route and get “more bang for her buck.”

She remembers doing it as a child at school. When she was supposed to be learning how to touch type she got so frustrated with how slow it was she peeked under the hand-guard and typed faster by looking at the keys.

When she was studying and working in …

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New study shows how mindfulness could help women who are feeling sexually disconnected

Eric W. Dolan, PsyPost: New research suggests that mindfulness-based psychotherapy could help women who are feeling “sexually disconnected.”

The study of 79 women, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found mindfulness skills increased the ability to detect physical sensations related to sex. Women who underwent four sessions of mindfulness-based sex therapy reported improved agreement between their self-reported sexual arousal and their psychophysiological sexual response. The therapy combined psychoeducation, sex therapy, and mindfulness training…

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The magic of mindfulness

Ed Halliwell, Mindful: Health writer Ed Halliwell explains that mindfulness can help improve our mental and physical well-being, if we don’t sabotage the practice.

Barely a week goes by without some new clinical trial showing how programs which teach mindfulness can help people minimize suffering and enhance their well-being. Whether it be through reducing stress, managing illness, boosting the immune system or moving away from addictive habits, science is confirming what meditators have reported for thousands of years—that mindfulness is beneficial in a wide range of ways. At the same time, it’s important not to get …

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