psychology and meditation

“The Meditative Mind” by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind, by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind is an updated version of a book Daniel Goleman first published in the 1970s and revised in the 1980s. Goleman, who’s famous for his classic, Emotional Intelligence, was in on the first wave of research into the effects of meditation, having made a visit to India and having met some impressive yogis before returning to Harvard. Goleman has been ahead of the curve for a long time. This earlier parts of this book, he points out, first appeared at a time when the links between traditional Asian systems of mental training and modern psychological science were few and far between. They are of course far more common now, with an explosion of research having taken place over the last two decades in particular.

To take account of at least some of these developments, new material has been added, detailing some of the history of the encounter between meditation, on the one hand, and science and psychotherapeutic traditions on the other.

Title: The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditating Experience
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: Unknown
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

The Meditative Mind is uneven in tone, but this is to be expected given that it’s a compilation of writings spanning several decades and having been composed for a variety of purposes and circumstances. The book is in five parts.

Part One: The Visuddhimagga: A Map for Inner Space

The first chapter, on Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, gives a comprehensive and useful overview of the sophisticated psychological theory that underpins practice in Theravadin Buddhism. Since I was already familiar with most of this material, I didn’t find this chapter particularly engaging. I’m also very aware that the commentarial tradition, including Buddhaghosa, departed significantly from the teaching found in the (much earlier) scriptural tradition, and I found that there was a skeptical barrier between me and my appreciation of this particular chapter.

However, to be fair, the point of the chapter is to present an overview of classic Theravadin spiritual orthodoxy, and not to critique it. The chapter performs its task well, and gives an impressive survey of the Asian tradition’s systematic approach to spirituality. What is outlined here is a comprehensive schema of the progress of spiritual development, and given the vague terms in which people tend to think about such matters, this chapter will no doubt surprise and enlighten many readers.

Part Two: Meditation Paths: A Survey

At the risk of making Dr. Goleman feel very old, The Meditative Mind, as far as the earlier material goes, constitutes a valuable historical document. Part Two of the book offers an overview of a number of meditative traditions: Hindu Bakti meditation, Jewish meditation, Christian meditation, Sufism, Patanjali’s Yoga tradition, Tantra, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen. For me this was the most fascinating part of the book. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most eye-opening spiritual documents I’ve read.

The commonalities between the various traditions are immense, and I came away with a deep respect for non-Buddhist traditions. It’s clear that within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., there have been deep currents of meditative experience, and correspondingly deep insights. I’m convinced now that there have been enlightened practitioners in many traditions besides Buddhism — something I hadn’t really contemplated before. I still consider other traditions to be hampered by their theological baggage, however, and for that reason I do still consider the Buddha’s insight to have gone further than others’, but I am still humbled and reverential toward the Desert Fathers and other non-Buddhist meditators.

Part Three: Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity

The third part of the book gives a brief outline of some of the commonalities (and divergences) of the various meditative paths, although the emphasis is on their essential unity. Particularly useful was the categorization of meditative techniques into those that involve concentration, “in which the mind focuses on a fixed mental object,” mindfulness, “in which mind observes itself,” and integrated, in which both functions are present simultaneously. As Goleman points out, few schools take a purist approach, and employ whatever means are found to be helpful. This is a valuable reminder not to cling dogmatically to one approach to practice, but to retain a pragmatic approach.

Part Four: The Psychology of Meditation

Part Four examines the spiritual psychology of meditation, and its “potential for cross-fertilization with western psychology.” It was originally written for psychologists in order to introduce them to non-Western systems of psychological theory. The Buddhist scholastic tradition of the Abhidhamma, which attempted to systematize and clarify the Buddha’s teachings, is the main focus. The overview of Abhidhamma (unlike the Abhidhamma itself!) is engrossing, and offers an overview of Buddhist personality theory, and a map of the Buddhist conception of mental health. The enlightened individual is then presented as the exemplar of religious views of the ideal of human “peak performance” and this is contrasted with the history of western psychology’s obsession with psychological disfunction, and compared with the way in which some western psychological theory has sometimes seen the healthy individual in terms very similar to those of the Buddhist tradition.

Part Five: Meditation: Research and Practical Applications

The final section of Meditative Mind offers an overview of some of the impressive findings from meditation studies. The degree to which meditation is able to affect our physiology and psychology — from enhancing the ability to recover from stressful incidents to affecting the immune system — is staggering. This section however, absorbing though it is, seems dated, with no reference to studies after the early 1980’s. Given the huge body of research that has taken place since that time, this is a puzzling omission. Dr. Goleman is well placed to offer such an overview.

So, overall my opinion of The Meditative Mind is mixed. One the one hand it contains much thought-provoking material on comparative psychology. On the other hand it doesn’t bring us up to date on the west’s embrace of meditative practice. There is no mention of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, or of the many therapeutic techniques that it has given rise to. On balance, the book is certainly worth reading, although readers will want to turn to Goleman’s The Brain and Emotional Intelligence to get an overview of the dialog between meditation and modern neuroscience, and Ed Halliwell’s The Mindful Manifesto for an excellent survey of how meditative practices are transforming therapeutic approaches.

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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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Five ways to slow down and stop rushing

people rushing in Shinagawa Station, Minato, Japan

As I was meditating this morning, our cat hopped up in my lap. It felt sweet to sit there with him. And yet – even though I was feeling fine and had plenty of time, there was this internal pressure to start zipping along with emails and calls and all the other clamoring minutiae of the day.

You see the irony. We rush about as a means to an end: as a method for getting results in the form of good experiences, such as relaxation and happiness. Hanging out with our cat, I was afloat in good experiences. But the autopilot inside the coconut still kept trying to suck me back into methods for getting relaxation and happiness – as if I weren’t already feeling that way! And of course, by jumping up and diving into doingness, I’d break the mood and lose the relaxation and happiness . . . that is the point of doingness.

Sometimes we do need to rush. Maybe you’ve got to get your kid to school on time, or your boss really has to have that report by end of day. OK.

But much of the time, we rev up and race about because of unnecessary internal pressures (like unrealistic standards for ourselves) or because external forces are trying to hurry us along for their own purposes (not because of our own needs).

How do you feel when you’re rushing? Perhaps there’s a bit of positive excitement, but if you’re like me, there’s mostly if not entirely a sense of tension, discomfort, and anxiety. This kind of stress isn’t pleasant for the mind, and over time it’s really bad for the body. Plus there’s a loss of autonomy: the rush is pushing you one way or another rather than you yourself deciding where you want to go and at what pace.

Instead, how about stepping aside from the rush as much as you can? And into your own well-being, health, and autonomy?

How?

  1. For starters, be mindful of rushing – your own and others. See how other people assume deadlines that aren’t actually real, or get time pressured and intense about things that aren’t that important. (And yep, you get to decide for yourself what you think is real or important.) Notice the internal shoulds or musts or simply habits that speed you up.
  2. Then, when the demands of others bear down upon you, buy yourself time – what the psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach calls “the sacred pause” – in order to create a space in which you are free to choose how you will respond. Are you letting the rushing of others become your own? Slow down the conversation, ask questions, and find out what’s really true. Consider the sign I once saw in a car repair shop: “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.”
  3. On your own side of the street, try not to create “emergencies” for yourself. You can get a lot done at your own pace without rushing; plan ahead and don’t procrastinate until you’re forced into hurrying. More fundamentally, be realistic about your own resources. It’s a kind of modesty, a healthy humility, to finally admit to yourself and maybe others that you can’t carry five quarts in a one gallon bucket. There are 168 hours in a week, not 169. It’s also a kind of healthy renunciation, relinquishment, to set down the ego, drivenness, appetite, or ambition that overcommits and sets you up for rushing. And it’s a matter of seeing clearly what is, a matter of being in reality rather than being confused or in a sense deluded. Nkosi Johnson was the South African boy born with HIV who became a national advocate for children with AIDS before dying at about age 12, and not one of us can do more than what he said here: Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.
  4. Also watch how the mind routinely gets caught up in becoming: in making plans that draw us into desires that draw us into rushing. The trick is to see this happening before it captures you.
  5. Most deeply, try to rest in and enjoy the richness of this moment. Even an ordinary moment – with its sounds, sights, tastes, smells, sensations, feelings, and thoughts – is amazingly interesting and rewarding. Afloat in the present, there’s no need to rush along to anything else.

Even when you don’t have a cat in your lap.

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Meditation makes you more creative (but some kinds work better than others)

Certain meditation techniques can promote creative thinking. This is the outcome of a study by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato and her fellow researchers at Leiden University, published 19 April in the open access journalist ‘Frontiers in Cognition‘.

This study is a clear indication that the advantages of particular types of meditation extend much further than simply relaxation. The findings support the belief that meditation can have a long-lasting influence on human cognition, including how we think and how we experience events.

Two ingredients of creativity

The study investigates the influences of different types of meditative techniques on the two main ingredients of creativity: divergent and convergent styles of thinking.

Divergent thinking

  • Divergent thinking allows many new ideas to be generated. It is measured using the so-called Alternate Uses Task method where participants are required to think up as many uses as possible for a particular object, such as a pen.

Convergent thinking

  • Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is a process whereby one possible solution for a particular probem is generated. This method is measured using the Remote Associates Task method, where three unrelated words are presented to the participants, words such as ‘time’, ‘hair’ and ‘stretch’. The participants are then asked to identify the common link: in this case, ‘long’.

Analysis of meditation techniques

Colzato used creativity tasks that measure convergent and divergent thinking to assess which meditation techiques most influence creative activities. The meditation techniques analysed are Open Monitoring and Focused Attention meditation.

  • In Open Monitoring meditation the individual is receptive to all the thoughts and sensations experienced without focusing attention on any particular concept or object.
  • In Focused Attention meditation the individual focuses on a particular thought or object.

Different types of meditation have different effects

These findings demonstrate that not all forms of meditation have the same effect on creativity. After an Open Monitoring meditation the participants performed better in divergent thinking, and generated more new ideas than previously. Focused Attention meditation produced a different result. Focused Attention meditation also had no significant effect on convergent thinking leading to resolving a problem.

The researchers suggest that Open Monitoring practice restructures cognitive processing in a robust way, and sufficiently to affect performance in another, logically unrelated task. They suggest that this kind of practice reduces the degree of top-down control and local competition and thus leads to a broader distribution of potential resources in the brain. This pushes the individual toward a cognitive-control state that is less focused and “exclusive,” which facilitates jumping from one thought to another – as required in divergent thinking.

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Entrepreneurs’ secret anti-stress weapon

Jessica Stillman, Inc.: A new study shows even small amounts of meditation relieve stress and boost health. No wonder many business bigwigs turn to it.

Science and religion are often at odds, but at least occasionally there is convergence. Buddhist monks and devoted yogis have long contended that meditation reduces stress. A recent study agrees, even if the practice is stripped of any particular spiritual belief.

The randomized, controlled study was carried about by a team including a Duke university psychologist and an Aetna executive among others and was recently published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The research assigned 239 employees to either weekly …

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Cling less, love more

As a rock climber and a parent, I know some physical kinds of clinging are good – like to small holds or small hands!

But clinging as a psychological state has a feeling of tension in it, and drivenness, insistence, obsession, or compulsion. As experiences flow through the mind – seeing, hearing, planning, worrying, etc. – they have what’s called a “hedonic tone” of being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It’s natural to like what’s pleasant and to dislike what’s unpleasant: no problem so far. But then the mind takes it a step further – usually very quickly – and tries to grab what’s pleasant, fight or flee from what’s unpleasant, or prod what’s neutral to get pleasant: this quality of grabbing, pushing, resisting, or pressing is the hallmark of clinging.

Clinging is different from healthy desire, where we have wholesome values, aims, purposes, aspiration, and commitments – without being attached to the results. Yes, we could feel passionate about our goals and work hard for them, and the stakes could be high (e.g., the health of child, the success of a business, the fate of the earth’s climate), but when there’s no clinging, we are deep down at peace with whatever happens even if the surface layers of the mind are understandably disappointed, sad, or upset.

Watch your mind and you’ll see it cling to lots of things (remembering that pulling toward and pushing away are each a form of clinging). These include objects, viewpoints, routines, pleasures and pain, status, and even the sense of self (as when we take something personally).

Recognize the costs of clinging. It’s never relaxed and always has a sense of strain, ranging from subtly unpleasant to intensely uncomfortable. It sucks us into chasing problematic goals, like stressing out for success, getting rigid or argumentative with others, being hooked on food or drugs, or seeking rewards in relationships that will never come. It clenches and contracts rather than opens. And clinging today plants the seeds of clinging tomorrow.

Most fundamentally, clinging puts us at odds with the nature of existence, which is always changing. The American Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein, likens the stream of consciousness to a rope running through your hands: if you cling to any bit of it, you get rope burn.

But if you let it run free – if you let experiences come and go – you feel peaceful and happy. Your mind and body open, and love flows freely, the natural expression of the unclenched heart.

How do we learn to cling less?

  1. As context: It’s familiar advice I’m sure, but do what you can to take care of your needs and those of others you care for, pursue wholesome aims with energy and diligence, and keep the needle of your personal stress meter out of the Red Zone. Each of these steps will pull logs off the fire of clinging.
  2. Learn about clinging. Pick something specific – like a position about how something should be – and first really really cling to it. Insist in your mind that it MUST turn out a certain way. Notice what clinging feels like in your body and mind. Then really try to relax the clinging. It’s fine to wish for a certain result. But help yourself be at peace with whatever the result is by reminding yourself that you and others will likely still be fundamentally OK. Imagine whatever you’ve clung to as something small in a great space, such as a single stone in a vast plain seen from an airplane passing overhead. Disengage from over-thinking, ruminating, or obsessing. Help your body relax and soften, open your hands, let your mind open, and let the clinging go. Recognize the ease, the peace and pleasure in releasing clinging, and let the sense of this sink into you – motivating your brain to cling less in the future.
  3. Set down your burdens. Try the practice just above with other things you’ve clung to. Start with easy things and work up. Remember: you can be fiercely, energetically committed to something without being attached to the result.
  4. Wake up from the spell. Investigate your experience of things you cling to: such as pleasant sensations, or certain sights or ideas. Isolate any aspect of this experience and look closely at it in your mind. Ask yourself: Is there real happiness in this (this sight or idea or sound, etc.)? I think you’ll see the answer is always No.
  5. Stop looking for things to want. Notice how the mind continually looks for a reward to get, a problem to solve, or a threat to avoid: in other words, something else to cling to. A little of this is OK, but enough already! Bring your attention back to the present moment, to this activity, this conversation, this breath. This will pull you back into Now, the only time we are truly happy.
  6. Open your heart. As clinging recedes, let love move in. Look for small everyday expressions, such as a kind word here and gentle touch there. As you cling less, it’s natural to lighten up, stay out of quarrels, have more compassion, put things in perspective, and forgive. As you let experiences flow through you without clinging to past or future, you’ll feel more fed by the richness inherent in the present, which makes the heart overflow.

Love in all its forms large and small crowds out clinging, which brings more love in a wonderfully positive cycle.

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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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Seven steps to taking control of your attention

Potter in Maharashtra, India, shaping a pot on a wheel.

Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?

In particular, because of what’s called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.

Therefore, controlling your attention – becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there, and more able to pull it away from what’s bothersome or pointless (such as looping again and again through anxious preoccupations, mental grumbling, or self-criticism) – is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better. As the great psychologist, William James, wrote over a century ago: “The education of attention would be the education par excellence.”

But to gain better control of attention – to become more mindful and more able to concentrate – we need to overcome a few challenges. In order to survive, our ancestors evolved to be stimulation-hungry and easily distracted, continually scanning their interior and their environment for opportunities and threats, carrots and sticks. There is also a natural range of temperament, from focused and cautious “turtles” to distractible and adventuresome “jackrabbits.” Upsetting experiences – especially traumatic ones – train the brain to be vigilant, with attention skittering from one thing to another. And modern culture makes us accustomed to an intense incoming fire hose of stimuli, so anything less – like the sensations of simply breathing – can feel unrewarding, boring, or frustrating.

To overcome these challenges, it’s useful to cultivate some neural factors of attention – in effect, getting your brain on your side to help you get a better grip on this spotlight/vacuum cleaner.

But how can we train our attention?

You can use one or more of the seven factors below at the start of any deliberate focusing of attention – from keeping your head in a dull business meeting to contemplative practices such as meditation or prayer – and then let them move to the background as you shift into whatever the activity is. You can also draw upon one or more during the activity if your attention is flagging. They are listed in an order that makes sense to me, but you can vary the sequence. (There’s more information about attention, mindfulness, concentration, and contemplative absorption in Buddha’s Brain.)

Here we go.

1. Set the intention to sustain your attention, to be mindful. You can do this both top-down, by giving yourself a gentle instruction to be attentive, and bottom-up, by opening to the sense in your body of what mindfulness feels like.

2. Relax. For example, take several exhalations that are twice as long as your inhalations. This stimulates the calming, centering parasympathetic nervous system and settles down the fight-or-flight stress-response sympathetic nervous system that jiggles the spotlight of attention this way and that, looking for carrots and sticks.

3. Without straining at it, think of things that help you feel cared about – that you matter to someone, that you belong in a relationship or group, that you are seen and appreciated, or even cherished and loved. It’s OK if the relationship isn’t perfect, or that you bring to mind people from the past, or pets, or spiritual beings. You could also get a sense of your own goodwill for others, your own compassion, kindness, and love. Warming up the heart in this way helps you feel protected, and it brings a rewarding juiciness to the moment – which support #4 and #5 below.

4. Think of things that help you feel safer, and thus more able to rest attention on your activities, rather than vigilantly scanning. Notice that you are likely in a relatively safe setting, with resources inside you to cope with whatever life brings. Let go of any unreasonable anxiety, any unnecessary guarding or bracing.

5. Gently encourage some positive feelings, even mild or subtle ones. For example, think of something you feel glad about or grateful for; go-to’s for me include my kids, Yosemite, and just being alive. Open as you can to an underlying sense of well-being that may nonetheless contain some struggles or pain. The sense of pleasure or reward in positive emotions increases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which closes a kind of gate in the neural substrates of working memory, thus keeping out any “barbarians,” any invasive distractions.

6. Get a sense of the body as a whole, its many sensations appearing together each moment in the boundless space of awareness. This sense of things as a unified gestalt, perceived within a large and panoramic perspective, activates networks on the sides of the brain (especially the right – for right-handed people) that support sustained mindfulness. And it de-activates the networks along the midline of the brain that we use when we’re lost in thought.

7. For 10-20-30 seconds in a row, stay with whatever positive experiences you’re having or lessons you’re learning. Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” this savoring and registering helps weave the fruits of your attentive efforts into the fabric of your brain and your self.

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Learn how to beat stress

wildmind meditation news

Helena Oliviera, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Naomi Tsu battles high levels of stress every day at work. And increasingly, the Atlanta attorney, doesn’t always cut it off when she goes home.

“It’s hard to put down that BlackBerry,” laments Tsu.

Tsu carves out time every day to rest her busy mind and ease her stress levels. She enjoys cooking and spending time with friends. And she routinely begins her day with meditation — lasting anywhere between five minutes to an hour. With every breath in — and out — she feels her body relax.

“It makes my stress level livable,” she said. “After I meditate, things don’t bother me as much. … If I have a tough conversation with opposing counsel, I don’t carry around with me all day.”

Stress levels in Atlanta may have dipped slightly since the worst of the economic crisis, but new survey results released by the American Psychological Association suggest stress levels continue to hover at unhealthy levels.

Stress levels here averaged 5.3 on a 10-point scale (in which 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress), according to a 2011 survey conducted by Harris Interactive, polling 1,226 adults, including 279 adults living in metro Atlanta.

The peak was 2008 at 6.1.

Employment-related jitters remain a constant source of tension.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent pointed to work as a significant source of stress.

Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist, said even though the economic crisis has eased, job stability concerns linger among this group. These people include those feeling survivor’s guilt for having held onto their jobs while others lost theirs, those anxious they could be next in line to get axed, those still looking for jobs and those who landed a job but worry it may not last.

The big problem, he said, is many people don’t know how to curb acute stress.

As a society, he believes the lack of emphasis on preventative care spills over into the way Americans handle stress. In other words, Americans don’t tackle the stress; they wait 
until it’s serious and causing health problems such as heart disease.

“People may know stress is not good for them, but there is a disconnect between recognizing they need to make changes and having the tools and the ability to make those changes,” he said.

In fact, the Stress in America study found only a third of those surveyed in Atlanta said they knew how to manage or reduce stress once they experienced it.

And while it’s normal to experience occasional spikes in stress levels, it’s not healthy to face chronic, sharp levels of stress.

Matthews said excessive stress levels release the stress hormone (cortisol) into the body and can lead to a build-up of plaque in the arteries.

Stress levels vary. When working quietly on your taxes, they should be low. If you are a lineman on a football team, they will rise. And while stress levels fluctuate, Matthews believes a healthy range, on average, is between three and four on the 10-point scale.

Among those surveyed in Atlanta, popular ways to lower stress included listening to music and exercising.

Kashi Atlanta yoga studio has seen an uptick in devotees at its Wednesday evening classes, with close to 100 participants.

Long-time yoga and meditation instructor Jaya Devi Bhagavati said she sees burnt-out Atlantans seeking more peace and balance in their lives.

Sometimes, she said, those meditating are simply looking for an escape from technology.

They want to disconnect and unwind.

“Yes, I have seen people who say I need this hour and a half to unplug and get back into the natural rhythms of myself,” said Bhagavati.

——————–

Tips for reducing stress

Exercise and eating a healthy diet are always good ways to fight stress. Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist, offers four more ways to ease stress.

● Nurture your spiritual health: Whether it’s through prayer, meditation or going to church, nourishing your spiritual health can promote a sense of purpose and give comfort.

● Find a hobby: A good way to take a mental break from the stress in your life and carve out some time just for you is to find a hobby. Take a dance class, start painting or gardening. And while some stresses in your life may feel out of control, you can see yourself get better as you become a better painter, grow a garden, etc.

● Be able to say no: It may sound simple, but many people struggle with saying no, worrying they might hurt feelings. But being assertive and saying, ‘No,’ can help people from overscheduling and burdening their lives.

● Simplify your life: De-clutter your house and you will have fewer distractions. It will also give you more clarity. Also, let some things go. Instead of worrying about making a cheesecake from scratch for the school potluck, it’s OK to pick up a box of store-made cookies from the grocery. “Rather than scrambling and worrying about making something perfect, grab something and go and you’ll be in a better frame of mind,” Matthews said.

● Unplug: If you are constantly checking your emails and smartphone when you are away from work — and reading news stories about the cruise ship sinking — don’t expect your stress level to fall. Instead, take a break from your phone, computer, iPad — all of it.

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Be happy so that others may be happy

Saddhamala wrote the other day about how we “catch” emotions from others. As she points out, this happens when you’re hanging around someone who is negative, and it brings you down, and that it even happens when we watch a movie!

So this is definitely a part of our experience.

You may not have realized, though, just how infectious our emotions are. The effect of one person’s emotions — whether negative or positive — can be measured as they ripple outward through our friendships and contacts.

Let’s deal with the negative first.

An important study by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo showed that lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others. He uncovered this by looking at data from a large-scale study that has been following health conditions for more than 60 years.

You might be wondering: if lonely people aren’t in contact with others, how can they spread their loneliness? The thing is that loneliness is a state of mind rather than an absolute absence of social connections. Lonely people may be with others much of the time, but they aren’t able to connect. They feel disconnected and isolated even in social situations. And the people they are in contact with pick up on and share those feelings. But those feelings do of course affect relationships, and lonely people lose friends. Sadly, before their friends leave, they end up feeling lonely as well!

This is true for other negative emotions, too, such as anger and depression. It’s even true for factors such as obesity, criminality, and bankruptcy.

Now for the positive.

Another study by Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego, found that happiness also spreads through populations. One happy person spreads their joy to others. In fact, they could measure the increase in happiness as it formed a chain reaction that benefitted not only people’s friends, but their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. This effect lasts for up to one year.

How strong is this effect? It’s strong. If you’re happy, a friend living within a mile experiences a 25% chance of being more happy. One of your friends’ friends has nearly a 10 percent chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6 percent increased chance—a three-degree cascade. Compare that to, say, a $5000 income bump, which increases your odds of being happy by just 2%.

Every happy person in our world has a significant effect on many people around them, adding in a measurable way to the sum total of human happiness.

A study by Nicholas A. Christakis and others showed that the average lifetime of a contentment “infection” is 10 years, while the average lifetime of a discontentment “infection” is 5 years.

Also, this study showed that happiness spreads faster than misery. As Christakis says, “It’s pleasurable to be near other happy individuals and not near other unhappy individuals.”

Sometimes the quest for happiness is seen as being selfish, but it’s clear that that’s a shortsighted view. Our own happiness has an effect on others around us, and it’s almost an imperative for us to become happier if we want others to be happy.

As the Buddha said, 2,500 years ago,

Conquer the angry man by love.
Conquer the ill-natured man by goodness.
Conquer the miser with generosity.
Conquer the liar with truth.

When you consider how powerfully interconnected our world is (for example, on Facebook every person is, on average five connections away from any other person) it’s clear that this ripple effect is a powerful force for changing the world. Remember, one happy person raises the happiness of people — measurably — even at three degrees of separation, and possibly beyond.

This means each of us is more powerful than we may give ourselves credit for. Your happiness (or your grumbling) can affect the world. Use your power wisely!

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