psychology and meditation

‘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.

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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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Jettisoning the notion of the “true self”

tom and jerry angel and devil

Joshua Knobe has a thought-provoking article in the New York Times on the topic of what we believe to be our “true self.” Knobe is an associate professor at Yale, where he is appointed both in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is one of a new breed of philosopher — the kind that not only takes account of science, but actively participates in scientific exploration.

In the article, In Search of the True Self, he explores the thorny problem, just what is the “True Self” anyway? Take the example of a Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin, but comes to realize that he is homosexual. As the article says,

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, [he] is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

You and I will almost certainly come down on one side or the other, but we may end up with diametrically opposed views of what it means for this man to be true to himself. The decision about what is someone’s True Self seems to be a subjective one.

According to Knobe, one answer, “endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways” is that “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” That seems fair enough, but then he goes on to say that from this viewpoint our conflicted Christian would realize that “his sexual desires are not the real him … If he loses control and gives in to these desires, he will be betraying his true self.” This seems highly questionable. A reasonable person might say that if he has been born with an impulse to love others who happen to be of the same sex, and that if acting on this impulse harms no one, then it is the Christian restriction on homosexuality, and even the entire belief system of that religion, that is irrational. But as it happens, this isn’t what particularly interests me about this question of the “true self.” What does interest me about it is something I’ll return to later.

Also see:

Knobe points out, however, that the very idea of our rationality being the True Self is incomprehensible in our wider culture, where our more base instincts are seen as who we really are. (I blame Freud. The Id is seen as being what’s really gone on, while the Super Ego (our values) are seen as fake, and as a front.)

So we have two opposed viewpoints, and Knobe highlights that the “trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology.” He says that the matter is “more complex” although the study he cites (one he conducted with his colleagues George Newman and Paul Bloom) doesn’t seem to point to anything very complex at all. The study simply shows that what people identify as the “True Self” is subjective, and based on their existing religious and political views: “The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self.”

As a Buddhist I find the concept of a True Self fascinating. I experience myself as being composed of competing impulses: on the one hand I want to be kind, while on the other I’m inclined to yell at my kids when things don’t go the way I want them. I have a clear sense that being kind is more aligned with who I want to be. But is either of those “my true self”? Actually, I could say either “both” or “neither.”

In a practical sense, both kindness and yelling are parts of my behavior. I have to own them. No one else can take responsibility for my behavior. And in this sense I am, as the Buddhist suttas tell us:

the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

So from that point of view the answer is “both.” Both acting kindly and yelling unkindly are equally “really me’ although I may choose to prefer one over the other.

Why do I choose one over the other? It’s because, in my experience, yelling leads to suffering for myself and others, and I do not like suffering or causing suffering. Kindness, on the other hand, leads to a sense of enrichment and happiness, and I enjoy experiencing those things. And that’s why I’d prefer to act kindly rather than yell. It’s not that one is “the real me” and the other is not — it’s that they have consequences for my sense of well-being.

This follows the Buddha’s advice to his son:

Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

What is “unskillful” is what does leads to suffering rather than happiness. Rather than have some abstract principle leading us to look at what is “true” or not true in ourselves, we simply look at what leads to suffering or happiness. The Buddhist path is purely pragmatic, as this sutta shows:

I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm & suffering, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit & happiness, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’

You may note that what is unskillful is not what is “bad.” To say that an action is unskilful is simply to point out that it leads to suffering. There’s no value judgement involved.

But what of my assertion that as well as both kindness and yelling being “the true me,” neither of them is the true me?

Pragmatically, both skillful and unskillful tendencies are truly me, and I have to take responsibility for them. Saying that one side or the other is “not truly me” is a bit of a cop-out. But when we look at the factors that cause suffering, we find that at the core of these is a sense of self-identification that leads to self-definition, reinforcing a sense of the self being static and separate. Ultimately we let go of any identification of any part of ourselve as being “the real self.”

Nothing that we can identify as a constituent of the self defines the self, and so our selves are essentially indefinable. We’re told that our form is not the self, and neither is feeling, perception, our habits or even (despite what some Tibetan forms of Buddhism say) our consciousness is not the self.

In the end, we have no “true self.” Whatever constitues the self “must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'” The very effort to identify a “true self” is a cause of suffering, and is to be abandoned.

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News of selfless acts has positive effect: study

Good news begets better people.

That was the conclusion of new research released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia, that found people with a strong sense of “moral identity” were inspired to do good when they read media stories about Good Samaritans’ selfless acts.

According to lead author Karl Aquino, who studies forgiveness and moral behaviour issues, four separate studies found a direct link between a person’s exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.

He said media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage.

“Our study indicates that if more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behaviour of a significant group of people,” said Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.

“The news media have a tendency to celebrate bad behaviour, from Charlie Sheen’s recent exploits to articles that focus the spotlight on criminal and other aberrant behaviour.”

The findings, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, suggested people were not likely to act on reports that were merely positive.

“These things have to be beyond just everyday goodness,” Aquino said in an interview. “We help our neighbours all the time, we volunteer for things — we’re talking here about really exceptional acts of virtue.

“Acts that require enormous…

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sacrifice, that put people at risk for the sake of others.”

Two groups in study
In one of the studies, researchers conducted an experiment with 63 male and female subjects. One group was first assigned to complete a word search that including words with moral connotations, such as “compassionate,” “honest,” and “kind.” A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words of everyday objects.

Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories, both about positive human interactions.

However, only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness, describing a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Days after the incident, parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children.

The second story recounted a couples’ experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.

Those exposed to the story of the Amish community’s uncommon goodness gave 32 per cent more money to charity than those who read about the sunset.

In a second study, Aquino and his team were surprised to discover even a music video could inspire people to give generously — and not to the people you’d typically expect.

Study participants were shown a music video by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, in which it’s described that all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for a video was donated to various international charities.

A second group was shown McLachlan’s Adia video, which pictured her singing in front of various cityscapes — a pleasing, yet not uncommonly good act.

Those who watched the charitable video were more likely to open their wallets, Aquino found, despite the fact that the charity was somewhat controversial, reintegrating former prisoners back into the community.

“It’s a group of people that generally wouldn’t evoke lots of sympathy, but yet we show that when you’re presenting people with an example of virtuous action, that it can make them think differently about these kinds of people — people who may be outside of their radar, as far as the kinds they would want to help.”

Media role
Based on his research, Aquino also said the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan.

“Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation,” he said.

Yet not everyone is inspired by stories of extraordinary greatness.

“Not everyone thinks that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful,” said Aquino, who co-authored the study with University of Michigan researcher, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, a communications professional from Vancouver Island. “There are some people who are more attuned or open to these experiences than others.”

People who are already more connected to being a moral person are more likely to be affected.

“These are the ones that we find are more receptive to seeing virtuous acts,” he said.

Aquino said he didn’t know if a person’s culture or nationality plays any part in determining what they deem “virtuous.”

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How ‘self-compassion’ trumps ‘self-esteem’

It was the 1970s and adults were looking for a way to raise confident, go-getter children, ones who would celebrate the person they were to become.

And so parents and teachers started showering them with praise, creating a pop movement of self-esteem that played up their worth. Up those youngsters grew, with grand aspirations of becoming celebrities, astronauts — anything they wanted to be.

And then out came the beating sticks.

Children of the self-esteem movement — their identities shaped by I Am Special songs and “Princess” t-shirts — have become entitled, confused and self-critical youth and adults, raised to believe they can do anything and frustrated, sometimes devastated, when they can’t, experts say. The phenomenon seems at odds with the very definition of self-esteem: feeling good about yourself.

Title: Self-Compassion
Author: Kristin Neff
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0061733512
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle.

Now, decades since the praise began, psychologists and researchers say they’ve found a way to ease the mental self-battery that has become prominent in North American culture.

A new wave of research on self-compassion — the ability to treat yourself the way you’d treat a friend or a loved one — has been creeping into the mainstream, aiming to rescue people from the depths of narcissism and unreasonable standards they will never meet.

Borrowing principles from Buddhism and mindfulness, the practice demands people be kinder to themselves instead of sizing themselves up against others and beating themselves down.

Kristin Neff, a professor of human development…

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and culture at the University of Texas, is considered a pioneer in self-compassion research. She published her first paper on the subject in 2003, and, since then, there have been more than 100 academic journal papers on self-compassion by a range of psychologists and neuroscientists.

Prof. Neff publishes her first book on the topic this month, entitled Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. In December, American psychotherapist Jean Fain released The Self-Compassion Diet, a book that applies the practice to weight loss.

But as a growing number of books advocating self-compassion roll off the presses, some academic observers are skeptical of the approach, questioning whether it will breed complacency and self-indulgence or if it’s just another self-help gimmick.

It certainly smells that way to Stewart Justman, author of the 2005 pop psychology critique Fool’s Gold. The director of the Liberal Studies program at the University of Montana said it smacks of some of the classic self-help strategies, applying the word “self” to many virtuous words such as compassion, loyalty and honesty.

“At some point, obviously, a price is paid for these redefinitions,” he said in an email interview. “I wonder if ‘self-compassion’ constitutes a remedy for the excesses of the self-esteem movement or is really more of the same.”

Narcissism expert W. Keith Campbell regarded the concept of self-compassion with suspicion when he encountered it a few years ago.

“It sounds like self-help hooey and it sounds wimpy,” said the co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, published in 2009. “I think sometimes people hear a word like self-compassion and they think ‘Oh, it’s just like making excuses.’”

Regardless, Prof. Campbell, who teaches social psychology at the University of Georgia, says the approach could have some remedying effects on a generation of narcissists.

“I’ve seen the data and it’s a way of being very resilient and strong in the face of negative feedback,” he explained. “It’s not just giving yourself a hug.”

Negative feedback is something people with unrealistically high expectations of themselves struggle to accept, adds Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

He co-authored a study, published in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found self-compassion to be more important than self-esteem in dealing with negative events. The benefits usually attributed to high self-esteem may even be due to self-compassion, the researchers say.

“This shows us it’s far more important to be kind to yourself than it is to have high self-esteem,” he says.

“High self-esteem is no good unless it’s accompanied by self-compassion.”

Studies have shown narcissism can have serious impacts on mental health, contributing to depression and suicide if the supply of adoration, adulation and attention depletes.

Low self-esteem, on the other hand, can lead to the many of the same things if taken to the extreme.

Self-compassion, its proponents say, can guard against these things, at least in part. Studies from the University of Texas at Austin have found those high in self-compassion have lower rates of depression and mental health problems.

Studies on senior citizens and HIV patients conducted at Duke University in North Carolina have found those with higher levels of self-compassion are far more likely to ask for help.

“Our research shows most people are much harder on themselves than they are on other people,” said Prof. Neff. “What we find is people who are low in self-compassion are really compassionate to others and hard on themselves.”

But Christian Jordan, a self-esteem researcher and professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says there is a danger people will mistake the “go easy on yourself” mantra of self-compassion for an excuse to be lazy.

“I think there’s a real risk, given the superficial similarities the self-esteem movement has taught people, of bringing them into that mentality when it could be interpreted as being ‘You should always value yourself no matter what and not take an objective view,’” he said.

It could also backfire if someone with too much self-esteem or off-the-charts levels of self-regard adopts the concept, offered Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., who co-authored the 2010 book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.

“There’s always the law of unintended consequences, and there’s a long history in psychology of people getting very excited about various fads without thinking about what the consequences might be,” he said. “Plenty of people who do have low self-esteem, I’m all for raising their self-esteem, that’s good and fine. But some people don’t have that problem.”

The notion that it will lead to self-indulgence is something researchers like Dr. Neff have heard time and again.

“Whenever you talk about self-compassion now, it’s almost the first thing out of my mouth: ‘It’s not self-indulgence’,” she said. It actually demands a lot of tough love, she said, using the analogy of a mother’s reaction when her child comes home with a failing grade on schoolwork.

“If she criticizes him and says “You’re so stupid and will never amount to anything,” that’s not going to motivate him — he’s going to be depressed and take basketball instead,” she said.

“But does she say ‘That’s OK, little John, you got an F, we love you anyway’? That’s not healthy either.” A compassionate mother would tell her son an F is unacceptable, but will help him figure out a way to improve the situation and not dwell on the failure.

Sounds like common sense. Then why don’t people apply the same approach to themselves, many researchers have asked.

The head of the Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Derby published a paper last year which found that fear of compassion towards oneself was tied directly with a person’s fear of receiving compassion from other people.

The next stage of research on Dr. Neff’s horizon is figuring out why people tend not to take compliments very well.

Self-criticism is a tricky habit to shake. It’s why Dr. Neff stresses that self-compassion is a practice, an exercise that doesn’t, and won’t, come easily to most people. But she hopes that one day, instead of children in pre-school singing “I am special” in a continuous loop, they will employ some aspects of self-compassion.

For Prof. Campbell, whose own young daughter still takes home school assignments that emphasize her specialness, the change in tack could not come too soon.

“My only hope is that if this work gets out, people will start questioning uniqueness and they’ll start questioning self-esteem and maybe take some of the forces that push for those things out of our schools,” he said.

“But in terms of everyone in the country turning toward self-compassion, that’s a harder sell.”

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Meditation, hypnosis change ‘brain signature’

Amir Raz gets some funny looks when he talks about using hypnosis and meditation techniques to build attention spans in a hyperactive MTV world.

“Mention contemplation to a lot of people, and all they think of is some kind of (wacky) spiritualism, people sitting around a darkened room with candles, chanting,” says Raz, a McGill University professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention.

“Our ideas are shaped by Hollywood movies. So you talk about hypnosis, and people see something out of a Woody Allen movie, a guy in a turban with bushy eyebrows who wants to put you to sleep.”

But “trim away the folkloric fat,” and Raz, a cognitive psychologist who worked his way through graduate school doing magic tricks, sees mindfulness training as a valuable, drug-free tool in the struggle to foster attention skills, with positive spinoffs for controlling our emotions and even making us smarter.

“We live in a time when modern medicine is weighted heavily toward…

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pharmaceuticals.

“Everyone wants a magic bullet that will help them lose 40 pounds, or a surgical procedure that will cure all our ills,” says Raz, who will be speaking Wednesday about the chemical benefits of brain science and chicken soup as part of McGill’s Mini-Science lecture series.

“We live in an impatient society, and we want results immediately. But that’s not realistic, and without behavioural modification, likely to provide only temporary relief.”

In his lab at McGill, Raz explores ways meditation and braintraining exercises can be used to help people pay more attention to what’s happening around them, skills which will come in handy in sharpening the mind, controlling emotions and blocking out distractions.

“We live in a high-speed world, where events change rapidly, but our bodies may not be biologically crafted for that,” said Raz, whose especially curious about the effects attention training can have on children.

“We need to train ourselves to prioritize and manage what gets our attention. It’s like learning to control our email. Otherwise, life becomes one big interruption.”

He cites studies in which young children age 4 to 7 were asked to play computer games expressly designed to stretch the parts of their brains that regulate attention. Researchers found that non-verbal aspects of the intelligence quotients went up and the youngsters were better able to focus. But they also noticed other changes, with participants exhibiting “brain signatures” more like those of adults, reflected in improved mental processing and greater control of emotions.

“We’re not elated, we don’t win a trophy every day. We need to build resilience,” said Raz, who would like to see some form of attention training built into the school curriculum to help children focus, ignore distractions and learn social cues they won’t pick up sending text messages.

“With quality stimulation, people are better able to regulate emotions, prevent depression and obsessive behaviours. We’re less likely to explode when someone disagrees with you or shatter when things don’t go your way.”

Lately, he’s begun to worry about the potential impact of global positioning systems and other devices on spatial memory. “Attention systems expand based on usage.”

Raz sees behavioural modification techniques used in concert with medications, “some of which are over-hyped or at large cost in side effects.”

“Too often, drugs become the default and people discount other options.

“There are attentional ways to regulate. Some prefer the drug route. It’s a question of whether you want to regulate or self-regulate.”

pcurran@montrealgazette.com

Amir Raz is speaking Wednesday at 6 p.m. in McGill’s Bronfman building, 1001 Sherbrooke St. W. as part of McGill’s Mini-Science series. For information on fees and registration, visit www.mcgill.ca/science/mini

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