Christian Jarrett, Research Digest: Right now, mindfulness is a hot topic in psychology and beyond. In 2012, 40 new papers on mindfulness were published every month, a number that has probably risen since. Last September, the Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that a staggering 37 new books had been released on the topic that very week. There are numerous conferences devoted to mindfulness around the world, multiple organisations and even dedicated science journals and magazines. And yet, a dissenting voice in this chorus of enthusiasm, a new book out last month – The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – warned that mindfulness is not harmless. …
psychology and meditation
What a bicycle can teach us about changing our habits
In the video below, Destin Sandlin, creator of the Youtube channel “Smarter Every Day,” demonstrates an interesting paradox: that we can know something and yet find it hard—even impossible for a while—to act on that knowledge.
The bicycle he’s showing off has been rigged so that the steering operates in reverse. Turn the handles right, and the front wheel turns to the left; turn them left, and the front wheel turns to the right.
One one level, learning this is easy. You can take in the simple fact: “turn the wheel the opposite way of the way you want to go when riding this bike” in jut a few seconds.
With that knowledge in mind, most of you probably think, “Hey! I could do that!” After all, you have all the knowledge you need, right! Not so fast. You wouldn’t be able to pedal this bike more than a few inches before you ground to a halt. In fact it took Destin eight months of practice to learn to ride it properly.
Intellectually we know what’s required to ride the bike. But learning how to physically interact with the world isn’t intellectual. As we learn how to ride a bike, ancient parts of the brain lay down pathways involving coordination, movement, and balance. It takes months of practice in the first place for most of us to learn this, and you’re reinforcing the brain’s pathways every time you get on a bicycle. These abilities are deeply carved into the brain.
When you try to apply the knowledge, “turn the wheel the opposite way of the way you want to go when riding this bike,” you’re having to develop entirely new habits, and are attempting to lay down new pathways. It’s not even easy to get started on this, because your previous learning is actually getting in the way of the new learning. As soon as you get on a bike your existing habits (turn the handles in the direction you want to go) kick in automatically, and there’s no way to switch them off.
Destin’s son, by contrast, was able to master the bike more quickly, because his bike-riding neural pathways haven’t been so deeply reinforced.
This explains a lot about learning practices such as mindfulness and lovingkindness. You may want to be continuously aware of your experience—for example when you’re paying attention to your breathing—but it’s very hard to do this because you already have behavioral pathways carved into the brain, and those kick in as soon as you sit down and close your eyes. You may want to behave more kindly toward other people in your life, but habits of reactivity, criticizing, and anger are similarly wired into the structure of your neuronal network.
So there’s a long period of working with two competing sets of habits as we do spiritual practice. We’re learning one set of habits while unlearning another. Essentially this goes on all the way to awakening. But there are tipping points. At a certain point you’ll find that you’re mindful enough that mindfulness starts to predominate over unmindfulness in your life. At a certain point you’ll find that enough of you is aware of the disadvantages of anger compared to kindness that kindness starts to flow more naturally than anger.
As you can see with the example of the bike, our old habits (or the neural pathways that support them) don’t exactly disappear when we reach the tipping point. They’re still there, but aren’t accessed. It’s no longer natural to be grossly unmindful or unkind. Given the right circumstances those older pathways can still be accessed. It’s harder for that to happen, but it still can.
There are two habits that support our progress toward these tipping points that I think are particularly key. One is emotional resilience. We need to be able to deal with frustration in order to train ourselves. Emotional resilience contributes to persistence. If we can’t deal with frustration, we give up. This happens to the majority of people who take up meditation. In order to be able to deal with frustration, it’s helpful to have the habit of self-forgiveness. In order to be able to forgive ourselves for messing up, it’s helpful to remember that learning isn’t easy. We should expect to mess up, and should learn to see our mistakes as an inevitable part of learning.
The other habit is more cognitive and imaginative, and it’s the ability to keep in touch with our goals. In Buddhism this is called shraddha, or “faith.” Unless we’re able to keep a sense of the long-term benefits of the habits we’re learning (whether that’s the joy of mastering a backwards bicycle or the peace and fulfillment of living mindfully and with kindness) we’ll find it hard to stay motivated. Being part of a community helps here, because if we lose our confidence we can find it again through others.
In essence a whole bunch of traits, habits, skills, and conditions come together to support and augment each other, helping us, in the long term, to change our lives radically.
There’s a lot we can learn from watching people trying to master the art of riding a backwards bike! I could say something about the Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatta) in relation to this, but I’ll save that for another post!
Is mindfulness actually good for you?
Lynne Malcolm, Radio National: Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn became interested in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness more than 35 years ago. With the scientific community skeptical, the at the University of Massachusetts Medical School professor decided to develop a more secular approach in the hope of opening the minds of people in the west.
By 1979 he’d designed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which today is one of the world’s most well-respected secular mindfulness programs.
That was only the beginning of scientific interest in mindfulness, though. Psychiatrist Dr Elise Bialylew has practised mindfulness for …
Compassion meditation reduces ‘mind-wandering,’ research shows
Clifton B. Parker, Medical Xpress: Compassion meditation focuses on benevolent thoughts toward oneself and others, as the researchers noted. It is different in this aspect than most forms of meditation in the sense that participants are “guided” toward compassionate thoughts.
The research article, “A Wandering Mind is a Less Caring Mind,” was recently published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
“This is the first report that demonstrates that formal compassion training decreases the tendency for the mind to wander, while increasing caring behavior not only towards others but towards oneself,” said …
Why develop mindful presence?
This is the second post in the series on mindful presence. You can view Part One here.
So why should we go out of our way to develop mindfulness?
Mindful presence feels good in its own right: relaxed, alert, and peaceful. Not contending with anything. No struggle.
In addition to the inherent, experiential rewards of mindful presence, studies have shown that it lowers stress, makes discomfort and pain more bearable, reduces depression, and increases self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
Mindful Presence Series
- What is “Mindful presence”?
- Why develop mindful presence?
- Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up.
- Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.
To quote the father of American psychology, William James:
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.
William James, Psychology: Briefer Course, p. 424 (Harper Torchbooks, 1961)
At a deeper level, mindful presence is the counter to our habitual state of mind, which a Thai meditation master once summarized as, “Lost in thought.”
To quote Jack Kornfield:
. . . you [become] mindful of the constantly changing conditions of sight, sound, taste, smell, physical perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. Through mindfulness practice, you [begin] to experience how conditioned the world is and how these conditions constantly change.
To free ourselves, we need to quiet the mind through some mindfulness in meditation. Then, instead of identifying with the changing conditions, we learn to release them and turn toward consciousness itself, to rest in the knowing. Ajahn Chah called this pure awareness, “the original mind,” and resting in “the one who knows.”
The senses and the world are always changing conditions, but that which knows is unconditioned. With practice . . . we can be in the midst of an experience, being upset or angry or caught by some problem, and then step back from it and rest in pure awareness. . . We learn to trust pure awareness itself.
Jack Kornfield, Buddhadharma, Summer 2007, pp. 34-35
And in addition to the psychological, everyday benefits of mindful presence, it is also, in Buddhism, considered to be a direct path to enlightenment and the end of suffering:
This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentations, for the passing away of pain and dejection, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana – namely, the four establishments of mindfulness.
What are the four? A person dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, and mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world.
[In the Buddha’s Words, p. 281]
This isn’t the place to get into detail about that quote, though I invite you to let the feeling of it carry you along. But in passing, it is worth noting that “contemplating body in the body” (or feelings in feelings, mind in mind, phenomena in phenomena) means being simply aware of immediate, experiential phenomena as they are without conceptualization or commentary. Just the sensations of the rising breath in the belly. Just the subtle feeling of a sound being mildly unpleasant. Just the sense of consciousness being contracted or spacious. Just a single thought emerging and then disappearing. Just this moment. Just this.
There’s a pithy summary of this simplicity of pure experiencing in the advice the Buddha gave to a man named Bahiya:
Bahiya, you should train yourself in this way: With the seen, there will be just the seen; with the heard, there will be just the heard; with the sensed (touched, tasted, smelt) there will be just the sensed; with the cognized [thoughts, feelings, etc.], there will be just the cognized.
In sum, imagine being in a lovely and peaceful meadow, with a train full of thoughts and feelings and desires rolling by in the distance . . . Normally, as this train approaches we tend to become drawn in, and we hop on board and get carried away . . . “lost in thought.”
On the other hand, mindfulness allows you to see the train coming but have the presence of mind . . . to stay in the meadow! And whenever you get swept along by the train, as soon as you notice that, whoosh, you return immediately to the peaceful meadow, to the refuge of mindfulness.
Power of meditation as therapy explored in research
Wayne Mogielnicki, Pocono Record: When Rebecca Erwin was a varsity rower at the University of North Carolina, the coach had the team’s members take a yoga and meditation class.
It had an impact.
“My teammates and I noticed that yoga and meditation improved our flexibility and focus, but also made us feel better, not just when we were rowing but in our everyday lives,” she recalled. “I wondered if yoga and meditation really have scientific benefits, especially if they have specific effects on the brain, and if so, how that works.”
Since becoming Dr. …
Which positive emotion has the most “awesome” health benefits?
The New York Times magazine this weekend will have an interesting article in its health column, The Well, about research into the health benefits of positive emotions.
The researchers were interested in looking at levels of a compound called interleukin-6, which is associated with general inflammation in the body. Low levels of interleukin-6 correspond to good health.
In the study, students were asked “about their normal dispositions and the extent to which they had recently felt seven specific emotions: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The students also provided a saliva sample. While happy moods were collectively still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awe-struck, the lower the IL-6.”
The lead author of the study, Dachel Keltner says that “a primary attribute of an awe-inspiring event is that it ‘will pass the goose-bumps test.’”
Rather to my surprise, the students in the study reported feeling awe three or more times a week. Unfortunately there wasn’t any indication of the circumstances under which they experienced this emotion, but Keltner points out that music and nature are common triggers of awe.
Keltner also suggests that we seek out awe, which I think is a great idea. It’s a feeling that doesn’t just confer health benefits, but which leads to life being more meaningful and enjoyable. I welcome the reminder to seek out awe. For me, there’s no need to listen to music or watch a sunset in order to experience awe; all I have to do is to become aware of how miraculous it is that I experience. Simply becoming aware that I am aware, and recognizing that I don’t even know what awareness is, is enough to trigger goosebumps. But music and sunsets are lovely too!
Seven myths about mindfulness
Toni Bernhard, Psychology Today: Misconceptions to be aware of as mindfulness enters the mainstream culture.
Mindfulness is in the headlines. Time recently devoted a cover story to the subject. The essence of mindfulness is paying careful attention to your present experience, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, or mental activity (such as an emotion or thought).
I’ve been studying and practicing mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective for over 20 years. Its entry into mainstream culture is a positive development; studies …
Seven ways meditation can actually change the brain
Alice G. Walton, Forbes: The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. Below are some …
No more (Buddhist) Mr. Nice Guy!
Recently Euan, whom I don’t know, wrote a comment expressing his dismay at a girl turning him down because he was “too nice.” Here’s what he wrote:
I only started meditating in December 2014 and was seeing this girl for a while, we went on a couple of dates, the first went well and the second went ok. We continued messaging each other but she seemed less keen, then today she told me she felt we didn’t click and didn’t want to meet again. She said I paid her too many compliments and was too nice. I’m just so angry because I felt like she was leading me on and we had been speaking for at least two months as I first met her in December but I went home to university and so didn’t see her again until 2 weeks ago where we had the two dates and I thought things seemed to be going well. I just want to know what I’m supposed to think I guess. From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m “too nice” it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with, and how am I supposed to not get angry at her for me being too nice. What is so wrong with the world that people don’t like being treated nicely, it perplexes me.
Sorry if this doesn’t read smoothly, I’m writing this immediately after I found out and my almost immediate reaction was to question how I am supposed to think like a Buddhist when bad things happen to me for being too nice.
Euan’s comment raised questions that I thought are worth exploring in a blog post.
Euan’s experience is not unique. I’ve been there myself in the past, and when I was young I found myself astonished and sometimes angry at the way some women I’ve been interested in gravitated to men who seemed to me to be jerks. And although my anger never turned into a general hatred of women, this evidently happens with some men. But I still had a lot to learn.
So I want to talk about “being nice,” from the point of view of a man who’s realized that “being nice” is not as “nice” as “nice men” like to think it is. I’m not advocating being unkind, and certainly not advocating ill will or hatred. I’d like to talk about how “being nice” is not actually kind, is a form of manipulation, and is not, in most cases, what women need or want. And I’m sorry, Euan, but some of this may be hard to read. I don’t mean to be unkind or to hurt your feelings, but instead want to act as a kalyana mitta (spiritual friend) who points out things we need to know but may not want to know.
What’s a “nice guy”? A “nice guy” is a man who thinks that the way into a girl’s heart (and bed) is by being agreeable and flattering. Here are a few characteristics of “nice guys,” drawn from a Wikihow article:
- They offer to do things for a girl they hardly know that they wouldn’t normally do for just anybody else they know.
- They avoid conflict by withholding their opinions or even become agreeable with her when they don’t actually agree.
- They try to fix and take care of her problems, they are drawn to trying to help.
- They try to hide their perceived flaws and mistakes.
- They are always looking for the “right” way to do things.
- They have difficulty making their needs a priority.
- They are often emotionally dependent on their partner.
The psychology of “nice guys” has been written about a lot. Here’s a great analysis of the whole phenomenon from Geek Feminism Wiki.
Being a “nice guy” is a strategy. It’s not who someone fundamentally is, although “nice guys” are very conscious of and attached to their identity (self view) as “nice guys.”
The purpose of the strategy, as I’ve said, is to attract and keep a woman. A cartoon by Callmekitto about “nice guys” shows a woman jubilantly holding up a card, similar to one of those “Buy ten cups of coffee and get one free” cards. She’s saying to the young man beside her, “That’s the eight stamp on your Nice Guy Card! Now you can stop pretending to care about me as a person and we can have all that sex you deserve!”
The cartoon is brutally frank, but it’s making the point that acting as a “nice guy” assumes that relationships are a form of transaction: I’ll pretend to be the kind of person I think you want, and then you’ll give me sex and approval.
As the cartoon indicates, the man who is playing at being a “nice guy” isn’t actually relating to the woman as a full human being. He’s not being himself, and may even have lost touch with who he is. He doesn’t want to express his needs and won’t challenge his intended partner in any way because he thinks that risks pushing her away. In fact the opposite is the case. Few women want a partner who doesn’t express himself and who avoids conflict. A conflict-averse partner is neither going to stand up for you not stand up to you.
The “nice guy” is far from practicing metta, or kindness. Metta is based on empathy (anukampa), which is an awareness of the other person as a person — as a feeling being who has needs. In fact the “nice guy” role is based on craving. You desperately want something (sex, companionship, approval, the status of “being in a relationship”) and you go through the moves that you think will get you that thing. But there’s no actual awareness of the other person, which is unattractive, and so as a “nice guy” you’re constantly finding that you don’t get what you want. In fact it’s not just that you want the things I’ve mentioned: you deserve them. After all, you’ve given the endless compliments, you’ve refrained from expressing what you really want in just about any situation (“No, any movie you choose is fine with me!”), you’ve studiously avoided expressing any needs (“No, it’s not a problem that you stood me up”). You’ve been nice. You’ve cranked the handle on the machine, and how it’s time for your reward!
When the reward doesn’t come the first few times, you might be depressed. But then you get angry — but not just at the girls who rejected you, because you start to realize that almost no girl is going to give you what you deserve. And you do, you think, deserve the sex and the love you want, because you’re not even conscious that “nice guy” is a role you’re playing, and you think it’s who you are. So you both want and hate women, or “bitches,” as you may think of them. As another cartoon (actually it’s more of a “meme”) says, “Women never date nice guys like me. I hate those bitches.” Frustrated craving turns to hatred.
I want to re-emphasize that the “nice guy” is a role that men play. It’s not who they fundamentally are. So in criticizing the actions of “nice guys,” I’m not saying that there’s something irretrievably flawed about them. Just that they need to so some work in becoming more self-aware, braver, more honest, and more genuinely empathetic and loving.
The Wikihow post I linked to above has some advice for stepping out of the “nice guy” role, but I’ll say just a few words about developing the qualities I just mentioned.
- Become more self-aware: Realize when you’re acting out of craving and expectation. Let go of the label of “nice guy.” Seriously, never refer to yourself or think of yourself as a “nice guy” ever again. The role has become a trap for you, and it’s preventing you from seeing who you really are. Take responsibility, and take a good look at yourself: if your attempts at relationships all end up the same way, the common denominator is you, not “women.”
- Be braver: Don’t cling to your preferences, but don’t be afraid to express them. Express how you feel. If you’re upset or afraid or hurt, it’s OK to express those things. And I mean express them directly, in words (“When you stood me up I felt really hurt”), not throwing a tantrum or trying to punish the other person. The Buddha was not a “nice guy.” He called people on their bullshit.
- Become more honest: Stop trying to be “nice” all the time. But being honest doesn’t mean saying whatever happens to be on your mind. For example, Euan said that this girl has been “leading him on.” He may think that telling her that is “honest.” Actually, saying “I think you’ve been leading me on” is technically honest, because he has had that thought. But saying “She’s been leading me on” isn’t the truth, but a story. What from Euan’s point of view seems like being led on, might well be, from the girl’s point of view, giving the relationship a little time in order to see if she actually likes this guy. When you take your interpretations and present them as if they were the absolute truth, you’re not being honest.
- Become more genuinely empathetic and loving: Ah, right: there are all these tips you’ve read on “how to show empathy.” You nod, and look concerned, and ask questions, and reflect things back to the other person, and make little “uhuh” noises to let the other person know you’re listening. But those things are not empathy. They’re what empathy looks like, and they can all be done without any real empathy at all, without any real appreciation that the other person is a fully human being with needs and desires, who in all likelihood wants to be with another person who has needs and desires, and not with someone who is going through the motions of “being nice” and “being empathetic.” To be genuinely empathetic you have to be self-aware, prepared to take risks, and to be honest. Ask yourself, would you want to be with someone who was acting the whole time?
Euan said, “From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m ‘too nice’ it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with.”
Buddhism does teach us to have metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion) and to be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean “being nice” and it certainly doesn’t mean “being manipulative.”
The men a “nice guy” thinks of as “jerks” — the ones they see girls with all the time — are more enjoyable for just about any human being to be with, let alone a romantic partner, than any self-consciously “nice guy.” They aren’t acting. They’re more inclined to be honest about what they want and feel. When they give compliments it feels sincere because they’re not doing it all the time. They offer challenge. They call out bullshit. We all need that.
I’m not saying that every “jerk” is really a good guy. Some jerks cheat or are violent. Those are real jerks. But even a real jerk might be more fulfilling to be in a relationship with than someone you don’t know because they’re constantly playing a role, and when there’s the underlying threat, which isn’t that hard to pick up on, that they’ll turn nasty when they don’t get what they want. Better the devil you know than the one pretending to be “nice” all the time, perhaps.
So being a “nice guy” isn’t nice. It’s fake. So yes, “nice guys” should stop being “nice.” But that doesn’t mean being unkind. It doesn’t mean treating people badly. It means becoming self-aware. It means “manning up” and having the courage to be honest so that you can be in a genuine relationship with another human being rather than acting out a role in order to get a reward.