psychology and meditation

Meditation key to treat depression

Times of India: People with severe and recurrent depression could benefit from a new form of therapy that combines ancient forms of meditation with modern cognitive behaviour therapy, early-stage research by Oxford University psychologists suggests. Read more here.

The results of a small-scale randomised trial of the approach, called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), in currently depressed patients are published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.

In an experiment, 28 people currently suffering from depression, having also had previous episodes of depression and thoughts of suicide, were randomly assigned into two groups.

One group received MBCT in addition to treatment as usual, while the other just received treatment as usual. The result indicated that the number of patients with major depression reduced in the group which received treatment with MBCT while it remained the same in the other group.

The therapy included special classes of meditation learning and advice on how best participants can look after themselves when their feelings threaten to overwhelm them.

Professor Mark Williams, who along with his colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, developed the treatment said, “We are on the brink of discovering really important things about how people can learn to stay well after depression.”

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“Ten Zen Questions,” by Susan Blackmore

Title: “Ten Zen Questions” / “Zen & the Art of Consciousness”
Author: Susan Blackmore
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford (2009).
ISBN: 978-1-85168-642-1
Available from: Amazon.com.

Susan Blackmore’s “Ten Zen Questions” (later re-released as “Zen & the Art of Consciousness”) may at first glance seem silly or pointless — asking yourself things like “Where is this?” for example — but when approached with a focused mind they can be used to push back our assumptions and let us have a glimpse at what’s really going on.

Susan Blackmore is justifiably something of a superstar in the small but important and expanding world that exists where science and Buddhism overlap.

She’s well-known on the TED circuit for her work on “memes” — ideas and cultural phenomena understood as viral-like entities that “infect” our minds and compete for dominance.

She is a psychologist by training, has 25 years of Zen practice under her belt, and employs both disciplines to study the mind in the field that’s become known as “consciousness studies.”

Blackmore emphasizes that she is not a Buddhist, but is “someone with a questioning mind who has stumbled upon Zen and found it immensely helpful.” Helpful, that is, not just on a personal level but as a tool to help her probe the mysteries of consciousness. Ten Zen Questions is a description of Blackmore’s attempts to combine her knowledge of the science of consciousness with introspective practice. It’s an extraordinary book: a sometimes heady but deeply rewarding read.

Although it isn’t billed as such, Ten Zen Questions is largely a spiritual autobiography, in which Blackmore outlines how she stumbled upon Buddhist practice, her struggles with various “koans” (questions that push the mind past limiting assumptions about how things are), and the insights that arose from these experiments. As an account of one person’s spiritual quest, it’s an exceptional piece of writing. But it’s also highly thought-provoking because of the sher intensity with which the author has explored the existential issues implicit in those Zen Questions.

Am I conscious now?

The questions themselves come from various sources, including her scientific training, but mostly they arise from her Buddhist practice. The “Zen” component of the title is slightly misleading because some of the questions are taken from Mahamudra reflections, albeit ones that she studied under her Zen teacher, John Crook.

Questions that arose from her scientific work and her teaching include “Am I conscious now?” and “What was in my consciousness a moment ago?” while questions that she describes as more classically Buddhist include “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquility and the mind moving in thought” and “How does thought arise?”

What was I conscious of a moment ago?

The purpose of the questions, though, makes more sense in relation to some of the outstanding problems faced by the field of consciousness studies. These problems are outlined in an introductory chapter called “The Problem of Consciousness.” Unfortunately going into these in depth would involve an extensive amount of regurgitation of the chapter, so I can only touch on a couple of points and hope that I haven’t distorted the rather heady problems Blackmore outlines.

One core problem is the relationship of consciousness to the physical body, and in particular to the brain. This is known as the “hard problem” of “how can objective, physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?” Electrical and chemical brain activity are one thing, but the experience of the color red, the feeling of sorrow, or a childhood memory appear to be completely different and irreducible to mere chemistry. This, Blackmore points out, is a modern form of the problem of Cartesian dualism, where physical things in the world and subjective experiences are regarded as fundamentally different things. But if they are truly separate things, then how do they interact? How does the body receive input from the physical senses? How does the mind give instructions to the body?

Who is asking the question?

Philosophical attempts have been made to eliminate the dualism by reducing everything to consciousness (idealism: the world is a creation of the mind — but then how to explain the world’s consistency?) or to reduce everything to matter (materialism: but then how to explain away the sheer subjectivity of our experiences? How can the color, taste, and aroma of a glass of wine be explained in purely chemical terms?)

The other big problem, besides dualism, is where is the “self” that we instinctively assume is sitting in the midst of our flow of experiences, monitoring inputs and deciding on our responses? The notion of a central self does not correspond to anything found in the brain, which lacks a central command center. It’s even been shown that when we make a decision the actual activity happens seconds before we are aware of it. The conscious mind claims to have made a decision only after it’s been made, in an act of post hoc rationalization.

Where is this?

This is all fascinating stuff, and very relevant to Buddhism, which states that there is in fact no self in the sense that we normally think of it, and that we are therefore deluded about the nature of our “selves”. Consciousness Studies and Buddhism therefore have at least some potential common ground, and Blackmore’s Ten Zen Questions are an attempt to explore “the conflict between scientific findings and our own intuitions” by means of introspective awareness engages in reflection.

Some of the questions are familiar to me as practices, while some are new. Asking “Am I conscious now?” is a common practice in one form or another and one that goes back to the earliest days of my own practice. The mindfulness bell for example (a bell rung at intervals as a wake-up call) is a wordless version of that question. The question “Am I conscious now?” brings about the disconcerting realization that often “the lights were on but nobody was home.” In other words in asking the question “Am I conscious now?” we most often become aware of the fact that actually we were not (really) conscious, just a moment before. Obviously something was going on in the mind before the question was asked, but whatever it was it didn’t involve the mind being conscious of itself.

How does thought arise?

This chapter, because of its relentless repetition of the question “Am I conscious now?” itself acts as a wake-up call. I doubt many people could read this chapter without finding the following days filled with moments in which they become aware that they have just “woken up” from unmindfulness.

In my own practice history, this question was phrased “Am I aware of being aware?” which I think is in some ways a more apt question (although it lacks that tangy word “now” that calls on us implicitly to look back at the previous moment). The thing is that we do not, in the terminology I favor, go from being not-conscious to being conscious but go from having simple consciousness (which includes sensing, thinking, and feeling) to having reflexive self-awareness (sensing, thinking, and feeling, combined with an awareness that we are sensing, thinking, and feeling).

There is no time. What is memory?

In hearing the mindfulness bell (or the question “Am I conscious now?” in whatever form of words is chosen) we become aware of ourselves as aware beings. Instead of the mind functioning on automatic pilot, with internal processes (sensing, thinking, and feeling) chugging along in an entirely habitual way, the mind becomes aware of its own inner states. Self-monitoring comes into being. This “being aware of being aware” allows us to make choices that affect what we do and how we respond: for example in simple consciousness we may be obsessed by a train of thought that is painful to us. Without any internal self-monitoring there is nothing to prevent us continuing to cause ourselves pain. When the mindfulness bell (in whatever form) rings and we become aware of being aware, we are able to evaluate the helpfulness or otherwise of our activities and can choose to let go of that pain-inducing train of thought.

When are you?

This twist on Blackmore’s question (moving from “Am I conscious now?” to “Am I aware of being aware?”) may make a difference to the analysis and reflection that she engages in with respect to the second question, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” She beautifully explores the nuances of this question as it percolates through her mind in meditation. We’ve all had the experience of suddenly hearing the last few seconds of the fridge compressor running before it cycles off. Had we previously been conscious of the fridge running? Usually, no. Yet when the fridge shudders to a halt the mind seems to jump back in time, retrieve the sensory impression of the sound of the compressor (from outside of consciousness? — from where then?) and thus allows us to make sense of the sudden quiet. You weren’t conscious of the fridge running. Then the fridge stopped. And then — what? — you realize you had been conscious of it after all? This doesn’t make much sense in the language of being conscious or not-conscious.

Are you here now?

Blackmore in fact frames her observations consistently in terms of conscious/not-conscious, whereas from my point of view anything that has entered our senses we are conscious of, but we are not necessarily aware that we are conscious of those things unless we “wake up” into reflexive self-awareness. The question “Am I conscious now?” is one possible prompt to make that leap.

I suspect that considering the fridge scenario in terms of “simple consciousness” and “reflexive self-awareness” simplifies things somewhat by allowing us to be “conscious” of the sound of the fridge running even though we weren’t reflexively aware of the sound. In other words we weren’t aware that we were aware of the sound. The stimulus of the fridge stopping acts as a mindfulness bell and we become aware that we were conscious of the fridge. Of course I could be wildly oversimplifying here — never underestimate the power of a consciousness researcher to spot an overlooked complexity. That’s what they’re paid for.

What am I doing? 

Blackmore also brings up a question with regard to those “fridge” sensations that are retrieved from simple consciousness and made the object of reflexive self awareness. She asks, “Who, then, was conscious of them?” She also seems to implicitly assume that “someone” must have been conscious of them, but I’m not sure why she needs to assume that, or what she means by “someone.” It seems to me to be enough to say that the information (say the sound of the fridge) was being processed in the brain (in “simple consciousness”) and that we then then became aware that we were conscious of that particular sensation. Call me a reductivist, but I’m unclear why it has to be more complicated than that.

She also points out that there is no part of the brain that is a “special place where consciousness happens, or a special process uniquely correlated with conscious, as opposed to unconscious, events.” But since we don’t even know how the experience of consciousness relates to the electrical and chemical activity in the brain, I confess this doesn’t much bother me. Where is reflexive self-consciousness located in the brain? I couldn’t guess. Perhaps it’s a quantum process that involves the whole of the brain at one time. Maybe our current tools just can’t even begin to look for the kind of activity that reflexive self-awareness is. It’s not that I’m incurious — I love to see consciousness and the brain being studied — but more that I’m not unduly bothered by the inability of science to measure something that may be essentially intangible.

What happens next?

Blackmore’s investigations of the other eight questions are all described in an equally experiential and autobiographical way, often with blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in her meditation practice and the history of particular retreats she attended. Her writing style is vivacious and colorful. Her observations are thought-provoking. Her commitment to self-examination is something I frankly find both exemplary and shaming (what exactly do I do in my meditation practice — sometimes it all seems a bit flabby).

The questions tend to be cumulative, in that the insights or exposed assumptions raised in an earlier question tend to become part of the background for the next just as “Am I conscious now?” leads to “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” Blackmore’s analytical/reflective approach leads her to progressively analyze the notion of an “observer self” out of existence.

By Question Six, “There is no time. What is memory?” Blackmore’s spiritual autobiography has led her to experience the “great doubt” — a profound uncertainty about every aspect of experience, where all assumptions seem shaky and the security of knowledge frighteningly elusive. She arrives at the point where she recognizes that there is no past, no future, and not even a present moment. (She also, as an aside, asserts her individuality and departs from the way her teacher advises her to conduct her practice. She is, after all, “not a Buddhist” but hopefully even if she were she would still feel able to enjoy that freedom).

With Question Seven, “When are you?” Blackmore finds herself observing experiences manifesting from nothingness and then going back into nothingness, “with no continuous someone” to whom they appear, and while they appear they are essentially mysterious and unknowable. She recognizes that the self is a fiction, but some fear holds her back from abandoning her attachment to the notion.

With Question Eight, “Are you here now?” Blackmore is looking for the “pure pristine cognition” that Zen, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen assure us is ever-present and non-separate from the impermanent experiences that rise out of emptiness and fall back into it like waves rising and falling on the ocean. She realizes that her thoughts are her self, and “self seems to dissolve … so that there is no longer any central self whose attention switches.” She experiences something “like a void or an emptiness or a vast space of possibilities” rather than an observer separate from her experiences. She also experiences conflict with her teacher, John Crook, who has definite ideas about how her practice should proceed, and who thinks she is intellectually fixated on one approach to her experience.

Question Nine is “What am I doing?” Blackmore examines actions and their relation to “free will” and comes to the conclusion (one consciousness studies would agree with) that there is no such thing. It’s not that there is no choosing going on — there clearly is — but there is not conscious “I” who makes choices. “There’s no one in here making decisions.” Decisions, however, still happen.

In Question Ten, “What happens next?” there is some rather uninteresting questioning about reincarnation and survival, and some rather more interesting observation and reflection about the tendency to want to hold on in subtle ways: to observe experiences sinking, like waves, back into the ocean of emptiness, but to resist their passing. “The task is not to prevent it, not to interfere with it, not to suppose that there even is a me who could interfere with it.”

She explores the possibility that what seems to be her “self” merely arises along with whatever is being experienced, and passes away with it. If I may once again use a metaphor that Blackmore does not, the self is like the sum total of the waves on the surface of the ocean: there is no identity — no “thing” that endures because each wave, like each experience, is short-lived — but there is a continuity. Perhaps this continuity, she wonders, “is that of the timeless, emptiness, or void, or whatever it is, out of which phenomena appear.”

This is a conclusion that many a Buddhist tradition would recognize and embrace, of course.

After this final question there is a chapter on “Being conscious.” Perhaps I missed something here, but I found this chapter rather unsatisfactory. She mainly addresses some of the preoccupations of consciousness researchers, but since I don’t share those preoccupations I had the feeling Blackmore was talking past me (and to a large extent over my head).

In the introductory chapter she had raised the problems inherent in believing that there is a “self” that handles experiences, and she also outlines the “hard problem” of how subjective experience can arise on the basis of physical phenomena. While the chapter “Being conscious” reiterates the illusory nature of the self, it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about the “hard problem.” I found that rather disappointing.

She does make some interesting observations about the nature of consciousness — observations that also resonate with me as a practitioner:

At any time in a human brain there are multiple parallel processes going on, conjuring up perceptions, thoughts, opinions, sensations, and volitions. None of these is either in or out of consciousness for there is no such place. Most of the time there is no observer: if consciousness is involved at all it is an attribution made later, on the basis of remembering events and assuming that someone must have been experiencing them in the past, when in fact no one was.

She argues that “temporary observers” are constructed and that we need to study how this happens and she ventures some suspicions about how these temporary observers may come into being.

I find myself in agreement with most of what she says here, but I doubt, however, that consciousness is “an attribution made later.” Blackmore spends a lot of time dealing with sounds, and the nature of some of the questions she asks lead her to be aware of things that have just happened. “Am I conscious now” immediately leads to thoughts of what has just been. It can become essentially the same question as “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”

And sound has a peculiar nature. We can be aware of sounds as they arise, for example while listening to a piece of music unfold, or we can be aware of sounds that are in what’s called “echoic memory,” which is a kind of sensory buffer that stores around four seconds of auditory data. The purpose of this would seem to be to allow us to briefly skip back in time and check for important data we may have missed, just as you might skip back a few seconds in an audiobook to pick up the thread when you’ve been distracted from the narrative. A lot of Blackmore’s descriptions of mindfulness seem to have involved paying attention to what’s in echoic memory rather than what she was currently listening to. Rather than simply listening to what was at the forefront of her auditory consciousness, she made it a practice to seek out the sounds she was not paying attention to — and those by definition would be in echoic memory, and therefore in the past in some sense.

I think this emphasis on “skipping backwards” into echoic memory may have skewed her view of consciousness. As I’m writing this review I’m aware right now that it’s, well, right now. I’m here now, being aware of my experience, not attributing consciousness later. Unless, of course, I’m seriously deluded.

Part of the problem for me in staying engaged with Blackmore’s account of her explorations is the fact that she doesn’t define what it means to be “conscious,” and doesn’t generally make a clear distinction between the kind of consciousness we have just before we ask “Am I conscious now?” and the kind we have afterwards. The question “Am I conscious now?” implies that “conscious” is what I am once I’m in a position to ask that question. But what do we call the kind of awareness we had before we ask that question? Blackmore tends to use the word “conscious” there as well: “I can remember what was happening just before I asked the question, so it seems that someone must have been conscious.” A more careful use of terminology would have helped me be sure I knew what she was talking about.

Blackmore’s final words point to a spiritual experience of non-self that corresponds to what is known to be going on in the brain: “There is no persisting self, no show in a mental theatre, no power of consciousness and no free will, no duality of self and other — just complex interactions between a body and the rest of the world, arising and falling away for no one in particular.” This description very much accords with what I understand the state of bodhi, or enlightenment, to be — a radical acceptance of and non-interference with direct experience, a flow of experience undistorted by ego-based grasping or aversion.

Yet those final words also leave me feeling uneasy. Blackmore throws in the phrase “no power of consciousness” and I find myself wondering what she means. Why at the very end of the book introduce a new term? Did I miss something earlier? I’m sure I missed a lot while reading Ten Zen Questions, but I’m pretty sure she’s never used that phrase before. I’m sure she means something by saying there is “no power of consciousness” but it’s almost as if she’s so excited about what she’s saying that she doesn’t take the time to connect the dots — and perhaps to connect to the reader as well. Or maybe I’m being a bit dim? I experience doubt and confusion.

Spotting that final ambiguous and unexplained phrase (“no power of consciousness”) brought to my attention that throughout the book I had half-noticed other instances where explanations didn’t seem clear or seemed partial, and where phrases were dropped in as if of course you’d know what she was talking about. The feeling I’m left with is that Blackmore’s book to some extent went over my head. Some moments I doubt myself and think I must be too inattentive or lacking in intelligence to grasp her arguments, but at other times I suspect she may have a “feeling” of significance that hasn’t been fully thought out or articulated.

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Publilius Syrus, “To do two things at once is to do neither”

Publilius Syrus, author of To do two things at once is to do neither

The other day I read about a family of six who were wiped out when a truck-driver plowed into their vehicle. He’d allegedly been driving and attempting to look at a laptop screen at the same time.

Not all multitasking is that catastrophic, but nevertheless attempting to juggle too many things in a short space of time is causing us stress, reducing our productivity, and making it harder to maintain focus when we need to.

What happens in the long term to an economy built on the labor of information workers when those workers are too distracted to think? Well, perhaps that might be considerably more of a catastrophe than a single family being killed — no matter how tragic an event that was.

To do two things at once is to do neither (Publilius Syrus, an Iraqi enslaved by the Romans. Flourished first century BCE.)

Multitasking is actually a misnomer. Your brain hasn’t evolved to deal with consciously processing multiple streams of data, such as listening to someone talk on the phone while you check your email and try also to keep one ear open for tidbits of an interesting conversation nearby. Modern computers may have been designed to do this, but our brains evolved to live in a simpler world. So we can’t genuinely multitask. What we call multitasking is actually a process of switching attention rapidly among a number of different activities.

The problem with multitasking is that although it may give the illusion of efficiency, it’s actually a very bad way to use the brain’s resources. It takes time, when switching from one task to another, to let go of one task, move your attention to the new one, and to resume your train of thought once again.

Imagine you’re doing some painting at the top of a stepladder and the phone keeps ringing (one of those old-fashioned phones with a wire, not the cordless variety). Every time the phone rings you put down your paintbrush, descend the ladder, answer the phone, write down a message or have a conversation, go up the ladder again, pick up your brush, and then resume your task. And this happens every three minutes. How much painting would you get done?

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted.

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted, by a phone call, an incoming email, a passing colleague, or some other task that pops into the mind. And that process of stopping one task, moving to another, and switching back all takes time and energy in the brain.

This is why, when subjects are asked to perform two different tasks at the same time, the amount of brain activity goes down rather than up. The level of brain activity actually decreases to two thirds of what takes place when subjects perform one task at a time.

Confirming this finding is an experiment where subjects were asked either to check their email and then write a report — the tasks performed sequentially — or to do both tasks at the same time. The multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

My ladder metaphor is exactly the situation many of us put ourselves in when we interrupt writing to read an incoming email, and then interrupt reading the email to read and incoming text, and then futz around on Facebook for a few minutes before returning to … “What was it I was doing again?”

But not only is multitasking bad for our efficiency, it’s been implicated in reducing our ability to apply sustained focus with our attention. Psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard say that multitasking can lead to “pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder,” where we constantly seek new information but have trouble concentrating on its content. We end up restlessly seeking new stimuli, and unable to focus on it, in an information-worker’s version of the myth of the “hungry ghost.”

So what can we do to help avoid pseudo-ADD and multitasking-induced loss of productivity?

Multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

1. Switch off contact applications except for the one you’re working on.
Right at this very moment I’m writing an article on multitasking. Wouldn’t you love to know that I’m also checking my email, my Twitter updates, my IM, and stopping now and then to answer my phone and scan interesting web articles. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not. My email and other contact programs are closed. My cell-phone is in another room. I’ll deal with any messages later.

When you’re dealing with email, deal with email. Let your voicemail pick up your phone calls. If dealing with your email requires you to look up an article or check your calendar, then by all means do so. But avoid unnecessary input.

2. Use simplifying tools
Some computer programs are hideously cluttered, with the toolbars on Microsoft programs being particularly overwhelming. And how many of those buttons do you ever use anyway? Do you even know what they do? I’ve reduced my toolbars in Word to just a few essentials, while for many common functions I simply use keyboard shortcuts, which in themselves reduce multitasking because they don’t require us to move from one kind of activity (typing) to another (selecting menus). The reduction in visual clutter helps me maintain focus.

It’s also helpful to write first and then format later. Trying to fiddle with formatting at the same time as writing is like trying to tidy the inside of your car while you’re driving it.

You can go further. For writing I use a program called “WriteRoom,” which has no menus and whose interface looks like an early 1980’s PC – simple green text on a black background (although the colors can be customized. There’s nothing there to distract me.

If you have a Mac or a large monitor, the profusion of applications on the screen can induce clutter-fatigue. You can simplify by using command+shift+H to hide all applications but those you’re working on. Or you can use “Spaces” to keep application that are open, but which you’re not currently using, out of sight and out of mind.

How many of those buttons in Word do you ever use anyway?

3. Use planning tools
Before I started using planning tools I’d often find that I’d repeatedly remember — often at completely inappropriate times, like driving or meditating — about things I had to do. Things improved a lot when I started doing “brain-dumps” to record all the tasks that had been jumbled up in my mind. You need to capture everything — not just work tasks but personal ones too.

Tools such as OmniFocus not only encourage you to keep lists of things to do, but they also help you organize them by context, so that if you find you have to nip out to the bank you can easily see which other tasks (pick up the dry-cleaning, pick up a prescription) that you can do while you’re out and about.

I have to say that using planning tools has reduced the level of distraction in my meditation practice more than any meditative technique I’ve ever learned.

4. Practice simplicity
I’m not very proficient at being tidy, although I have my good days — and on those days I feel happier and lighter. “Being tidy” is the end result of finishing one task elegantly before starting another; rather than leave a bit of paper on the desk as a reminder that some action has to be taken we add the action to our to-do list and file the paper in a “projects in progress” file. Being tidy also provides a good environment for the mind to perform without distraction.

We should be willing to be in silence.

We can also do things like take one or two deep breaths before answering the phone, so that we give ourselves time to let go of what we were just doing and get ourselves into a focused and friendly state before we speak to the person on the other end. When you’re calling a company, would you prefer the phone picked up two seconds earlier, or to be picked up by a person who is centered and friendly?

We should also be willing to be in silence. I use some of my time in the car to listen to podcasts, but I also regard it as important just to drive without other input, and so sometimes my iPod goes off. Driving in silence gives us a chance to let the mind rest without a constant barrage of input.

5. Defrag your mind
Take breaks during the workday: just two or three minutes spent relaxing the body and tuning in to the breath. Your brain needs a chance to rest, and your mind needs opportunities to “defragment” itself.

Time taken out for meditation also helps the mind to become calmer and less restless.

When you’re working on one task, resist the desire to interrupt yourself by checking your email, or Facebook, or whatever. If you’re writing and you notice those temptations arising, just notice them and let go of them. They’ll pass.

It’s not possible to escape multitasking altogether. In fact at times it’s essential. But if we avoid it where we can, and especially if we resist become addicted to it, we’ll feel happier and more integrated. And we’ll make a long-term investment by protecting one of our most valuable assets — the mind’s ability to pay sustained, focused, attention.

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Research: Naming negative emotions makes them weaker

naming emotionsWired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

Meditation generally, and the technique of noting in particular, helps us to stand back from our emotions and to recognize that they are transitory events passing though our consciousness. Without this ability to stand back from our emotions we can easily become engulfed by them and we identify totally with them. Instead of experiencing anger we simply are angry.

It’s akin to flying in an airplane. When the plane is inside a cloud this is similar to being engulfed in an emotion. Everything you can see is cloud; everything you experience is filtered through the emotion. When the plane rises above the cloud you can see it from the outside; you can sense not only the emotion but also aspects of yourself outside of the emotion, including your relation to the emotion itself. The emotion is therefore weaker and has less of a hold over us.

Perhaps all those blog posts you wrote about your breakup really did have a purpose.

Naming feelings takes some of the emotional impact out of them by engaging a brain region that aids self-control, according to new research.

In a clever series of experiments, UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman found that labeling a picture of someone who looked angry as “angry” reduced the negative emotional feelings that most people feel when viewing such a photograph.

“Putting feelings into words activates this region that’s capable of producing emotional regulatory outcomes, which could explain why putting feelings into words dampens them down,” Lieberman said in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.

While plenty of psychological treatments have involved talking about one’s feelings, Lieberman’s work is some of the first to demonstrate the underlying neural basis for the therapeutic nature of talking something out. The research is based on the idea that engaging a part of the brain that aids in self-control, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, helps put a damper on feelings, no matter how you get that part of the brain involved.

First, the researchers had subjects view photographs of men and women with some positive and some negative facial expressions. The negative facial expressions tended to stimulate activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotions.

The researchers had the subjects play a simple game while looking at the photos. If the photo was of a woman (and 80 percent of the pictures were) they pressed the “go” button, but if the picture was of a man, they didn’t press the button — their brain had to intervene to inhibit the motor response of pressing the button. Simply exerting self-control over the motor function by not pressing the button led to reduced negative emotional response. The idea is that the self-control area of the prefrontal cortex turns on and helps all forms of self-control. They call this “inhibitory spillover.”

In the next set of studies, they had one set of people label the photos with simple gender-name matching — match Seth to the picture of a man, not Sarah. Another group was asked to name the emotions on the faces of the people in the pictures. The subjects who named the emotions experienced less negative emotion associated with negative images. By focusing on the emotions in the pictures to label them, the subjects engaged that piece of the prefrontal cortex and “down regulated” their intensity.

It’s important to note that the regulatory effect didn’t come from increased self-awareness about one’s relationship to the emotion. The more tightly regulated emotional response was practically a side effect of the cognitive task of labeling the emotion in the face. The researchers postulate that the same principle is at work when you talk about your feelings: it’s the bare fact of labeling your emotions that counts, not whatever conclusions you draw in the course of verbal expression (or poetry writing).

It’s possible that these techniques could be used to treat fear-based conditions from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat).

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Pioneer in emotions suggests training increases happiness

Deseret News: Think of happiness as a skill, not so different maybe from learning to play the piano: the more you train, the better you get. That was the encouraging message Wednesday night from Richard Davidson, a pioneer in the biology of emotions. Read more here.

Our emotions, it turns out, are revealed deep inside our brains, in areas such as the amygdala and the uncinate fasciculus. And these structures of our brain can physically change with training, says Davidson, who is a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is director of the school’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. He will also head up a planned Wisconsin Center on the Neuroscience and Psychophysiology of Meditation.

Davidson presented the Tanner Lecture on Human Values to an overflow crowd at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus.

It used to be — not that long ago, in fact — that science was sure that our brains were hard-wired, that our happiness had a set point, that our brains could not regenerate. Now we know, says Davidson, that our brains can regenerate, and that they’re “plastic,” able to create new neural connections not just when we’re old, but as we age.

Psychology and psychiatry have often focused on the ways in which we aren’t happy, but Davidson’s credo is that, since as humans we have widely varying abilities to regulate our emotions, we should be able to learn from those of us who do it better.

Since the early 1990s, after being contacted by the Dalai Lama, Davidson has studied what happens, biologically, in the brains of Tibetan monks who have practiced meditation techniques for an average of 34,000 hours each.

With increasingly sophisticated imaging techniques — picture a robed monk wearing a helmet of electrodes — Davidson and his colleagues have found that certain areas of the brains of these “virtuoso” meditators are enhanced during the practice of compassion meditation.

There’s a lot of evidence, Davidson notes, that to become a master of nearly any skill requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of training. But even if you don’t have that much time to devote to meditation, he says, he has evidence that smaller efforts can produce results.

And the effects of both this increased well-being and compassion can be measured in better physical health, he reports. After an eight-week mindfulness meditation course via the Internet, meditators showed increased immune response compared to the non-meditators. And that could mean in the long run, he says, fewer people needing to use our overworked health-care system.

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Meditation practice linked to less pain sensitivity

Modern Medicine: Experience in Zen meditation is associated with reduced pain sensitivity, a finding supporting the value of mindfulness-based meditation, according to research published in the January issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Joshua A. Grant, and Pierre Rainville, Ph.D., of the Universite de Montreal in Quebec, Canada, analyzed data from 13 experienced Zen meditators and 13 age- and gender-matched controls who were unfamiliar with meditation. All were exposed to a heating device on the calf that provided a series of episodes of non-painful warmth or moderately painful heat. In different experimental conditions, participants were told to focus all attention on the stimulation, observe the sensation in a mindful way, or were given no task.

Meditators needed significantly higher temperatures to produce moderate pain than controls (49.9 Celsius versus 48.2 Celsius), which the authors classified as a large difference. While attending mindfully, meditators had less pain, while control subjects did not, the investigators found. The analgesic effect in meditators was related to their amount of meditation experience, the report indicates.

“Overall, the meditators breathed at a slower rate than control subjects in all conditions and their mean respiratory pattern followed that of their pain ratings. In contrast, respiratory rate did not change noticeably across conditions in the control subjects. Slower breathing rates (typically meditators) were associated with less reactivity and with lower pain sensitivity,” the authors write. “These relationships suggested that the meditators were in a more relaxed, non-reactive physiological state throughout the study, which culminated in the mindfulness condition and which influenced the degree to which they experienced pain.”

The study was supported by a Mind and Life Institute grant.

Read more here.

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Just who do you think you are?

phrenology head

There’s a compelling article in Atlantic on the theory that the self is not unitary but a composite of multiple selves.

“First Person Plural,” is written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. He’s writing a book on the theme of pleasure, and I imagine it’ll be well-worth reading.

His article shows that the self is not a single entity but a multiplicity:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

He explores each of these areas in turn. He outlines competing views of the self and presents his own view, which

is conservative in that it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

He explains how competing inner selves result in the kind of conflict where, for example, one self wants to lose weight and the other wants to enjoy pizza, comparing this to research on what used to be called multiple-personality disorder (now dissociative-identity disorder).

There’s some though-provoking hilarity here:

One woman got a settlement of more than $2 million after alleging that her psychotherapist had used suggestive memory “recovery” techniques to convince her that she had more than 120 personalities, including children, angels, and a duck.

And further humor where he talks about imaginary friends (we all have them — who doesn’t have “conversations” in their own head?):

The writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his young daughter’s imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli, a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her.

The practical implications of this theory are worked out in terms of “binding,” which is where one self, anticipating the arrival of another, limits that others’ actions — for example the self that wants to give up smoking may tell friends not to give them a cigarette, no matter how much they may plead. And he discusses the role of binding in politics and society:

The natural extension of this type of self-binding is what the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein describe as “libertarian paternalism“—a movement to engineer situations so that people retain their choices (the libertarian part), but in such a way that these choices are biased to favor people’s better selves (the paternalism part). For instance, many people fail to save enough money for the future; they find it too confusing or onerous to choose a retirement plan. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that the default be switched so that employees would automatically be enrolled in a savings plan, and would have to take action to opt out.

Lastly he discusses the fact that it’s simplistic to think that the long-term self is always right. Here’s an extreme example:

Many cruel acts are perpetrated by people who can’t or don’t control their short-term impulses or who act in certain ways—such as getting drunk—that lead to a dampening of the contemplative self. But evil acts are also committed by smart people who adopt carefully thought-out belief systems that allow them to ignore their more morally astute gut feelings. Many slave owners were rational men who used their intelligence to defend slavery, arguing that the institution was in the best interests of those who were enslaved, and that it was grounded in scripture: Africans were the descendants of Ham, condemned by God to be “servants unto servants.”

There are two elements that I think could be added to his overall discussion.

First is that one method of self-binding is to adopt an ethical perspective and an ethical code. An ethical perspective is the notion that ethics makes sense and is beneficial to one’s long-term happiness — that neither short-term whim (one of those many selves) nor the uneducated “long-term self” (although he never quite defines what that is) is able to act in one’s best interests. It’s recognizing that the whole self exists in a larger reality and that it must function appropriately in that context in order to be happy. From a Buddhist point of view (as seen in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta) this corresponds to the Right View that there are ethical consequences to our actions.

An ethical code is a working out of that perspective in terms of guidelines for behavior: for example the five or ten precepts that provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a say that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships.

The slave owners he points to of course had a “carefully thought-out belief system” which amounted to a moral code — but it wasn’t cohesive or self-consistent. A belief system that includes “do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself” and “love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t sit easily with the notion of treating other humans as chattels, and the definition of Africans as “not human” isn’t sustainable. So not any moral code would do — we have to have a moral code that’s based on reality and that’s self-consistent. We have to have one that’s capable of producing a unitary self.

The second thing that I think is missing is a discussion of meditation, and how it can help us develop a unitary self. [In a separate interview, Bloom comments: “The story of meditative exercises and what they do to your multiplicity of Self is really fascinating. There’s been a lot of interesting research on the subject, although it’s not something I know anything about.”]

In the practice I was doing this morning, the Mindfulness of Breathing, the aim is simply to keep coming back to the breath. Basically, I’m working on developing and strengthening the “self” that observes, long-term, what’s going on in my awareness. Other selves make themselves known by creating thoughts, emotions, and fantasies that project into awareness, and demand attention. The self I’m working on strengthening notices those experiences arising but lets them quietly settle down. It’s kind and observant. Sometimes a particular thought or feeling will be recurrent, and the meditating self may decide to pay attention to what’s going on. For example, a pleasurable fantasy might keep arising. The meditating self realizes that this is expressive of a need for pleasure that’s not currently being met, and takes action to bring more pleasure into awareness, for example by relaxing, by paying more attention to pleasurable sensations in the body, and by developing a more kindly attitude.

Over time the “distractions” — the other selves — simply manifest in awareness less and less. We become more concentrated and happy, The meditating self becomes more complete and sufficient, able to take care of the underlying needs of the multiple selves for prolonged periods of time without needing to suppress those selves. This is what we call samatha or “calm abiding” meditation.

In vipassana meditation — which is complementary to, rather than opposed to samatha meditation — we observe different “selves” arising and passing away, in the form of stray thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can develop equanimity as we watch these arise and pass, and realize that none of them is ultimately “us.” If they’re just passing through “us” — as clouds pass through a clear sky — how can they be part of “us”? Which leaves the question of what, ultimately, we are.

From a Theravadin perspective we are nothing more than this collection of selves, but from certain Mahayana perspectives “we” are awareness itself — the space that contains these multiple selves. I suspect that philosophically the Theravadin perspective is correct, but I prefer the Mahayana approach as a working model. I think it’s going to be a long time before that model becomes any kind of real spiritual hindrance in my own practice.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.

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