psychology and meditation

How to feel gratitude

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

But we’re no longer hominids, and life no longer involves a struggle for physical safety and security — unless, for example, you’re in the armed forces and serving in a combat zone. So most of the time, for most of us, our negativity bias simply impoverishes us emotionally, making us think that our lives are much worse than they actually are. For we are, for the most part, blessed with wealth, security, and abundance that our hominid forebears quite literally could not have dreamed of.

Because the mind has negativity bias, though, we tend to lack appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives — no matter how abundant they are — and focus on what’s wrong, or what we think’s wrong (which is often not the same thing). And so we often walk around in a troubled and stressed state, even though basically 99.9% of our life is going just fine.

The Indian teacher Naropa described the negativity bias when he said “Samsara is the tendency to find fault.”

In order to feel a sense of security and wellbeing, we need to consciously remind ourselves of what’s going right in our lives. We need to reassure ourselves, and calm down the inner hominid who’s constantly on the alert for problems, and who often invents them when they don’t exist. In Buddhism, this practice is called “rejoicing in merit.”

  • We can offer the mind reassurance by expressing gratitude. At the start of my meditation practice, these days, I often become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning. The heart is beating: “Thank you.” The lungs are breathing in air: “Thank you.”
  • Even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.”
  • Even if a part of my body is in pain, I focus on the fact that it’s still functioning. I have back problems, and so I remind myself that my back is basically functioning well: it’s keeping me upright, allowing me to move around, and protecting the spinal cord. So I say, “Thank you.”

By the way, it’s important to actually make the sound of the words “Thank you” in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real.

This practice doesn’t deny that there are problems in our lives. We may not have a job. We may be in debt. But we can balance our concern about these things with an appreciation of what’s going right in our lives.

By focusing on what’s going right in, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong, and come to realize that we are indeed blessed. When I do this simple practice, which only takes a few minutes, I feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy.

What about you?

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Veterans using Buddhism to understand their military experience wanted for Denver-area study

Professor Carrie Doehring, PhD, and Kelly Arora, PhD would like to interview veterans who have used Buddhist practices and worldviews to understand their military experience. These interviews are part of a research project at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology

After a telephone conversation about the project, and completion of an informed consent form, participants will complete a background questionnaire and do two interviews that will be audiotaped. These interviews will be done face-to-face in the Denver area.

This research will help better understand how veterans draw upon Buddhist practices and worldviews to cope with and understand traumatic military experiences.

The research project, Identifying Military Veterans’ Spiritual Coping and Meaning-Making Practices in Response to Trauma, was approved by the University of Denver’s Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research on Oct. 11, 2011, and funded by the Association of Theological Schools.

For further information, contact Carrie Doehring (cdoehring@iliff.edu, 303-765-3169) or Kelly Arora (karora@iliff.edu)

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How to have compassion

Compassion is essentially the wish that beings not suffer – from subtle physical and emotional discomfort to agony and anguish – combined with feelings of sympathetic concern.

You could have compassion for an individual (a friend in the hospital, a co-worker passed over for a promotion), groups of people (victims of crime, those displaced by a hurricane, refugee children), animals (your pet, livestock heading for the slaughterhouse), and yourself.

Compassion is not pity, agreement, or a waiving of your rights. You can have compassion for people who’ve wronged you while also insisting that they treat you better.

Compassion by itself opens your heart and nourishes people you care about. Those who receive your compassion are more likely to be patient, forgiving, and compassionate with you. Compassion reflects the wisdom that everything is related to everything else, and it naturally draws you into feeling more connected with all things.

Additionally, compassion can incline you to helpful action. For example, one study showed that motor circuits in the brain lit up when people were feeling compassionate, as if they were getting ready to do something about the suffering they were sensing.

How do we cultivate compassion?

Compassion is natural; you don’t have to force it; just open to the difficulty, the struggle, the stress, the impact of events, the sorrow and strain in the other person; open your heart, let yourself be moved, and let compassion flow through you.

Feel what compassion’s like in your body – in your chest, throat, and face. Sense the way it softens your thoughts, gentles your reactions. Know it so you can find your way back again.

Moments of compassion come in the flow of life – maybe a friend tells you about a loss, or you can see the hurt behind someone’s angry face, or a hungry child looks out at you from the pages of a newspaper.

Also, you can deliberately call in compassion a minute (or more), perhaps each day; here are a few suggestions:

  • Relax and tune into your body.
  • Remember the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
  • Bring to mind someone it is easy to feel compassion for.
  • Perhaps put your compassion into words, softly heard in the back of your mind, such as: “May you not suffer . . . may this hard time pass . . . may things be alright for you.”
  • Expand your circle of compassion to include others; consider a benefactor (someone who has been kind to you), friend, neutral person, difficult person (a challenge, certainly), and yourself (sometimes the hardest person of all).
  • Going further, extend compassion to all the beings in your family . . . neighborhood . . . city . . . state . . . country . . . world. All beings, known or unknown, liked or disliked. Humans, animals, plants, even microbes. Beings great or small, in the air, on the ground, under water. Including all, omitting none.

Going through your day, open to compassion from time to time for people you don’t know: someone in a deli, a stranger on a bus, crowds moving down the sidewalk.

Let compassion settle into the background of your mind and body. As what you come from, woven into your gaze, words, and actions.

Omitting none.

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See the good in others

Many interactions these days have a kind of bumper-car quality to them. At work, at home, on the telephone, via email: we sort of bounce off of each other while we exchange information, smile or frown, and move on. How often do we actually take the extra few seconds to get a sense of what’s inside other people – especially their good qualities?

In fact, because of what scientists call the brain’s “negativity bias” (you could see my talk at Google for more on this), we’re most likely to notice the bad qualities in others rather than the good ones: the things that worry or annoy us, or make us critical.

Unfortunately, if you feel surrounded by lots of bad or at best neutral qualities in others, and only a sprinkling of dimly-sensed good ones, then you naturally feel less supported, less safe, and less inclined to be generous or pursue your dreams. Plus, in a circular way, when another person gets the feeling that you don’t really see much that’s good in him or her, that person is less likely to take the time to see much that’s good in you.

Seeing the good in others is thus a simple but very powerful way to feel happier and more confident, and become more loving and more productive in the world.

How can we learn to see the good in others?

  • Slow down. Step out of the bumper car and spend a few moments being curious about the good qualities in the other person. You are not looking through rose-colored glasses: instead, you are opening your eyes, taking off the smog-colored glasses of the negativity bias, and seeing what the facts really are.
  • See positive intentions. Recently I was at the dentist’s, and her assistant told me a long story about her electric company. My mouth was full of cotton wads, and I didn’t feel interested. But then I started noticing her underlying aims: to put me at ease, fill the time until she could pull the cotton out, and connect with each other as people. Maybe she could have pursued those aims in better ways. But the aims themselves were positive – which is true of all fundamental wants even if the methods used to fulfill them have problems. For example, a toddler throwing mashed potatoes wants fun, a teenager dripping attitude wants higher status, and a mate who avoids housework wants leisure. Try to see the good intentions in the people around you. In particular, sense the longing to be happy in the heart of every person.
  • See abilities. Going through school, I was very young and therefore routinely picked last for teams in PE: not good for a guy’s self-esteem. Then, my first year at UCLA, I gave intramural touch football a try. We had a great quarterback who was too small for college football. After one practice, he told me in passing, “You’re good and I’m going to throw to you.” I was floored. But this was the beginning of me realizing that I was actually quite a good athlete. His recognition also made me play better which helped our team. Thirty-five years later I can still remember his comment. He had no idea of its impact, yet it was a major boost to my sense of worth. In the same way, unseen ripples spread far and wide when we see abilities in others – especially if we acknowledge them openly.
  • See positive character traits – Unless you’re surrounded by deadbeats and sociopaths, everyone you know must have many virtues, such as determination, generosity, kindness, patience, energy, grit, honesty, fairness, or compassion. Take a moment to observe virtues in others. You could make a list of virtues in key people in your life – even in people who are challenging for you!

* * *

Last and not least: recognize that the good you see in others is also in you. You couldn’t see that good if you did not have an inkling of what it was. You, too, have positive intentions, real abilities, and virtues of mind and heart. Those qualities are a fact, as much a fact as the chair you’re sitting on. Take a moment to let that fact sink in. You don’t need a halo to be a truly good person. You are a truly good person.

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‘Self-compassion’ can help divorced people heal

Robert Preidt: Self-compassion can help the newly divorced get through one of the most difficult periods of their lives, researchers suggest.

They explained that self-compassion — a combination of kindness toward oneself, recognition of common humanity, and the ability to let painful emotions pass — “can promote resilience and positive outcomes in the face of divorce.”
University of Arizona researchers studied 38 men and 67 women with an average age of 40 who had been married for more than 13 years and were divorced an average of three to four months. Those who had higher levels of kindness to themselves were able to recover faster from the emotional effects…

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“Why is there peace?” asks psychologist Steven Pinker

Violence is declining, argues psychologist Steven Pinker. What are we doing right?

Over the past century, violent images from World War II concentration camps, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, and many other times and places have been seared into our collective consciousness. These images have led to a common belief that technology, centralized nation-states, and modern values have brought about unprecedented violence.
Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of…

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How to see people, not just our reactions to them

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

On the other hand, categorizing has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., “pretty woman,” “authority figure”) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by someone you’ve labeled as this or that. And categorizing is the start of the slippery slope toward “us” and “them,” prejudice, and discrimination.

Flip it around, too: what’s it like for you when you can tell that another person has slotted you into some category? In effect, they’ve thingified you, turned you into a kind of “it” to be managed or used or dismissed, and lost sight of you as a “thou.” What’s this feel like? Personally, I don’t like it much. Of course, it’s a two-way street: if we don’t like it when it’s done to us, that’s a good reason not to do it to others.

The practice I’m about to describe can get abstract or intellectual, so try to bring it down to earth and close to your experience.

When you encounter or talk with someone, instead of reacting to what their body looks like or is doing or what category it falls into:

  • Be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, schoolteacher, agnostic, retired, American, fisherman, politically conservative, cancer survivor, friendly, smart, donor to the YMCA, reader of detective novels, etc. etc.
  • Recognize some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness.
  • Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later – see changes happening in the other person.
  • Feeling how things land on you, tune into the sense of things landing on the other person. There is an experiencing of things over there – pleasure and pain, ease and stress, joy and sorrow – just like there is in you. This inherent subjectivity to experience, this quality of be-ing, underlies and transcends any particular attribute, identity, or role a person might have.
  • Knowing that there is more to you than any label could ever encompass, and that there is a mystery at the heart of you – perhaps a sacred one at that – offer the other person the gift of knowing this about them as well.

At first, try this practice with someone who is neutral to you, that you don’t know well, like another driver in traffic or a person in line with you at the deli. Then try it both with people who are close to you – such as a friend, family member, or mate – and with people who are challenging for you, such as a critical relative, intimidating boss, or rebellious teenager.

The more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.

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Making Wise Decisions

Decisions shape our lives, but psychologists say we are remarkably bad at making them. That’s true of strategic decisions, tactical decisions and decisions made in the heat of the moment. Typically, we are poor at assessing risk, understanding probabilities and anticipating consequences. We overestimate our capacity to make good decisions and underestimate the true influence of emotion, bias and assumptions in what we do.

We need to learn for ourselves how to make good decisions and that’s where the Buddha comes in. His teachings won’t help with the specifics, but they offer insights into the process of how to make a wise decision. And the starting point is clearing our minds of the approaches that lead us to make bad ones.

What not to rely on

One day the Buddha spoke with a group from the Kalama clan who were trying to decide what to believe. They told him that many religious teachers passed through their town, each declaring that he alone possessed the truth. So who on earth should the Kalamas follow? The Buddha responded by listing ten reasons why people typically believe things and said they should question the lot. (For more detail on each of the items on this list see this excellent commentary by Nagapriya).

  1. It’s what people have always believed
  2. It comes from a venerable lineage
  3. It’s what everyone is talking about
  4. It says so in an ancient scriptures
  5. Because the person telling me this seems to be an expert
  6. Because that’s what my teacher says

These are six kinds of authority that often govern how we think and act. You can easily see how they apply to religions with their priesthoods and scriptures. But similar kinds of group-think and deference apply elsehwere as well. Consider professional life, for example. Every profession has its canon of received wisdom, its authorities and experts and is affected by fashions, rumours and loyalties. The Buddha isn’t saying you should reject everything the authorities say but that you shouldn’t believe them just because they are authorities. And we will need to work hard if we are to free ourselves of their undue influence.

Unlike the Buddha, we don’t live in a traditional society where long-standing ways of thinking carry tremendous weight. Plenty of people still believe things because they are in the Bible (and, while we are at it, plenty of Tibetan Buddhists trust the words of their Lama as if they were Gospel), but that’s not the general tenor of modern life. These words have some people to see the Buddha as a proto-modern freethinker and sceptic. But his list continues with a caution against believing something on apparently more rational grounds:

  1. Because of clever arguments
  2. Because it seems to be logical
  3. Because you have worked it out
  4. Because you’ve been thinking about it for such a long time

This is more challenging for most of us, but a little reflection shows that we often make our biggest mistakes when we place undue trust in our capacity to figure things out. We are easily swayed by the seeming eloquent ideas and pride creeps in when we think we’ve worked something out for ourselves. Just think of the pride that came before the crash of 2008. Or the dotcom bubble. Or the great depression. Being clever doesn’t make you right, as a glance at academia demonstrates. Intellect alone produces a wide range of answers, which is why economists and philosophers disagree with one another. In fact, being clever can simply reinforce the delusion that you know the answers when really you don’t.

Perhaps most telling of all is the suggestion that we believe things simply because we have grown accustomed to thinking in a particular way. It’s not just generals who are always preparing to fight the last war.

Clearing the ground in this way is essential if we are to make wise decisions. At the time of the UK’s 2010 election I explored this in a Thought for the Day broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (read or listen). The competitive frenzy of an election campaign surely resembles the ferocious religious marketplace of the Buddha’s day. Our underlying political loyalties may be inherited from parents or picked up from friends, or else we may be drawn by appeals to self-interest or swayed by charisma. We understand that we need to go beyond these, but trying to figure things out rationally only gets you so far.

Making Wise Decisions

So what do you do?  I’ll be returning to this question in future posts, but we can start with what the Buddha says to the Kalamas

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

He’s advising us to reflect on our experience. We need to become aware of ourselves and the forces at work in the situations we encounter. As we can’t trust authority, revelation or analysis we have to come back to our own experience. Setting aside our biases, we must reflect on what we have truly learned from our lives about what really brings benefit and happiness. That’s how we find our values. We need to look honestly and directly at the situation we confront, taking in all the evidence that presents itself and finding a response that expresses those values most fully. That’s a lot harder than just going with the pack, but the mention of ‘the wise’ is also a reminder that we can learn from others as well.

There’s a lot in this, and in future posts I will return to the Buddha’s words to explore their significance further.

Follow this Up

The Kalama Sutta is found in the Anguttara Nikaya 3:65

The Kalama Sutta (Access to Insight)

An excellent, detailed discussion of the Kalama Sutta by Nagapriya

Four Translations and a Commentary

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

 

 

 

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The practice of noticing you’re alright right now

To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved strong tendencies toward fear, including an ongoing internal trickle of unease. This little whisper of worry keeps you scanning your inner and outer worlds for signs of trouble.

This background of unsettledness and watchfulness is so automatic that you can forget it’s there. So see if you can tune into a tension, guarding or bracing in your body. Or a vigilance about your environment or other people. Or a block against completely relaxing, letting down, letting go. Try to walk through an office or store that you know is safe without a molecule of wariness; it’s really hard. Or try to sit at home for five minutes straight while feeling undefended, soft in your body, utterly comfortable in the moment as it is, at peace. This is impossible for most people.

The brain’s default setting of apprehensiveness is a great way to keep a monkey looking over its shoulder for something about to pounce. But it’s a crummy way to live. It wears down well-being, feeds anxiety and depression and makes people play small in life.

Even worse, it’s based on a lie.

The muttering of fear tells you implicitly, “Watch out, bad things are happening you’re not seeing, don’t ever think you’re completely OK, never let down your guard.”

But take a close look at this moment, right now. You are probably alright: No one is attacking you, you are not drowning, no bombs are falling, there is no crisis. It’s not perfect, but you’re OK.

By “right now,” I really mean this instant. When we go into the future, we worry and plan. When we go into the past, we resent and regret. Threads of fear are woven into the mental tapestries of past and future. Look again at the thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment, are you basically OK? Is breathing OK? Is the heart beating? Is the mind working? The answers are almost certainly yes.

In daily life, it’s possible to access this fundamental sense of alrightness even while getting things done. You’re not ignoring real threats or issues, or pretending that everything is perfect. It’s not. But in the middle of everything, you can usually see that you’re actually alright right now.

So, several times a day, notice that you’re basically alright.

You may want more money or love, or simply salt for your French fries. Or want less pain, heartache or rush hour traffic. All very reasonable. But meanwhile, underneath all the to-ing and fro-ing, you are OK. The foundation of your activities is an aliveness and an awareness that is doing fine this second.

There you are doing dishes; notice that “I’m alright right now,” and perhaps even say that softly in your mind. Or you are driving: I’m alright right now. Or you’re talking with someone: I’m alright right now. Or doing emails or putting a child to bed: I’m alright right now.

Notice that, while feeling alright right now, you can still get things done and deal with problems. The fear that bad things will happen if you let yourself feel OK is unfounded. Let this sink in. You do not need to fear feeling alright!

Sometimes you’re really not alright. Maybe something terrible has happened, or your body is very disturbed, or your mind is very upset. Do what you can at these times to ride out the storm. But as soon as possible, notice that the core of your being is OK, like the quiet place fifty feet below a hurricane howling above the sea.

Noticing that you’re actually alright right now is not some kind of cosmic consciousness (usually), nor laying some positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil. Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: In this moment I am alright. You are sensing the truth in your body, deeper than fear, that it is breathing and living and OK. You are recognizing that your mind is functioning fine no matter how nutty and not-fine the contents swirling through it are.

Settling into this basic sense of okayness is a powerful way to build well-being and resources in your brain and self. You’re taking a stand for the truth — and against the lies murmured by “Mother Nature.”

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Study: Buddhist meditation promotes rational thinking

Michael Haederle: It’s no secret that humans are not entirely rational when it comes to weighing rewards. For example, we might be perfectly happy with how much money we’re making — until we find out how much more the guy in the next cubicle is being paid.

But a new study suggests that people who regularly practice Buddhist meditation actually process these common social situations differently — and the researchers have the brain scans to prove it.

Ulrich Kirk and collaborators at Baylor Medical College in Houston had 40 control subjects and 26 longtime meditators participate in a well-known experiment called the Ultimatum Game. It goes like this…

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