psychology and meditation

Gratitude promotes patience

仏像I wasn’t surprised today to learn that a new study has found a connection between gratitude and patience. After all, if you value what you have, which is what gratitude accomplishes for us, then there’s less emotional need to go seeking something else.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School, looked specifically at financial impatience. Financial impatience is a well-known phenomenon where larger rewards in the future are considered less important than smaller rewards in the present.

Participants in the study chose between receiving a larger sum in the future, or a smaller sum now. The researchers used real money so that the participants would experience real motivation (and real impatience).

Before they made their choice, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel grateful, or happy, or neutral.

The neutral and happy groups showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, but those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, grateful people required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.

What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. The more grateful a participant felt after the writing exercise, the more likely they were to wait for the delayed reward.

Normally we think of the ability to delay gratification as a function of “willpower,” but in my view willpower is overrated. When I discovered how to get myself to meditate every day — something I’d struggled with for years — the solution had nothing to do with willpower. Instead, it was to do with how I saw myself. Similarly, this study had nothing to do with willpower.

To me it’s intuitively obvious that in a moment where we’re experiencing gratitude, and therefore value what we already have, we feel less need to have more, and so we’re prepared to wait for a benefit to arrive rather than grasp after it. Gratitude makes the present moment a rich experience, and so we have a reduced need to enrich ourselves right now.

The researchers point out that the implications of the study are profound, and that it could open the way to new therapeutic techniques to address human suffering.

Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration, said “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”

Therapeutic techniques that borrowed from Buddhist practices started by tapping into teachings on mindfulness. But over time, mindfulness was seen not to be enough and so teachings on lovingkindness (metta) were increasingly incorporated. The current hot thing is compassion. It’ll be interesting to watch the addition of gratitude and appreciation (which in Buddhism are closely associated with the practice of mudita, or joyful appreciation) to therapists’ tool kits.

Read More

Meditation as medicine?

wildmind meditation newsBusiness2Community.com: For centuries, people have meditated to gain deeper insight and wisdom about themselves and their lives. More recently, researchers have studied meditation to gain insight about its effect on psychological wellbeing. Can it help ease pain, depression, or anxiety? Does it relieve stress, improve mood and concentration, or short-circuit substance abuse? What is its effect on sleep and weight?

To find out exactly what meditation can and cannot do, Madhav Goya, M.D., M.P.H, assistant professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, conducted a review of the study literature to date. Dr. Goyal …

Read the original article »

Read More

Mindfulness meditation may improve decision making

wildmind meditation newsAnna Mikulak, Association for Psychological Science: One 15-minute focused-breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices, according to new research from researchers at INSEAD and The Wharton School. The findings are published in the February issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

People have trouble cutting their losses: They hold on to losing stocks too long, they stay in bad relationships, and they continue to eat large restaurant meals even when they’re full. This behavior, often described as “throwing good money after bad,” is driven by what behavioral scientists call the “sunk-cost bias”:
“Most people have trouble admitting they were wrong when their initial decisions lead to undesirable outcomes,” says researcher Andrew Hafenbrack, lead author on the new research and doctoral candidate at INSEAD. “They don’t want to feel wasteful or that their initial investment was a loss. Ironically, this kind of thinking often causes people to waste or lose more resources in an attempt to regain their initial investment or try to ‘break even.’”
Across a series of studies, Hafenbrack and co-authors found that mindfulness meditation, which cultivates awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts, may help to counteract this deep-rooted bias.

“We found that a brief period of mindfulness meditation can encourage people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, while ignoring some of the other concerns that typically exacerbate the ‘sunk cost bias,’” explains Hafenbrack.

In collaboration with Zoe Kinias, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, and Sigal Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Hafenbrack conducted four studies to test the idea that mindfulness meditation could improve decision-making by increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias.

In one online study, American participants reported about how much they typically focus on the present moment, and also read 10 sunk-cost scenarios — such as whether to attend a music festival that had been paid for when illness and bad weather made enjoyment unlikely — and then reported how much they would let go of sunk costs in each of them. The results revealed that the more people typically focused on the present moment, the more they reported that they would ignore sunk costs.

To test whether mindfulness caused an increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias, the researchers conducted an additional three experiments. In each, participants listened to a 15-minute recording made by a professional mindfulness coach. For one group of participants, the recording led them through a focused-breathing meditation that repeatedly instructed them to focus on the sensations of breathing. The other group of participants listened to a recording that asked them to think of whatever comes to mind, a practice that is not a form of meditation. Participants then responded to sunk-cost scenario questions. In the final study, participants also answered questions about the time period on which they focused – that is present, past, or future – and the emotions they experienced.

The results show that mindfulness meditation increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias in each of the three experiments.

“The debiasing effect of mindfulness meditation in sunk-cost situations was due to a two-step process,” said co-author Zoe Kinias. “First, meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

“This tool is very practical,” said co-author Sigal Barsade. “Our findings hold great promise for research on how mindfulness can influence emotions and behavior, and how employees can use it to feel and perform better.”

Read More

Separating feelings and thoughts

White isolated zipperOne of the participants in our current 28 Day meditation challenge reported that she was experiencing stress because of a new job.

New jobs can be very challenging and bring up a lot of self doubt. I remember that well.

She talked about “feelings of inadequacy and uselessness,” and I could instantly see a practice that would help her deal with the challenges of her new job. The practice is to distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, inadequacy and uselessness are not feelings. Actual feelings that we might experience in a challenging new job include anxiety, or fear, or confusion. “I am inadequate” and “I am useless” are thoughts. They are interpretations based on our feelings. “Inadequacy” and “uselessness” are stories that we develop in order to make sense of the feelings of anxiety, confusion, etc. that we’re experiencing. Buddhism calls this prapañca, or “proliferation,”

We’re always trying to come up with stories that “explain” what’s going on in our lives. Stories like “I am inadequate” or “I am useless” serve to intensify our fear and confusion because we’ve “explained” our feelings by creating a story in which there’s something wrong with us that makes us incapable of dealing with the job. But these so-called explanations of why the job’s stressful just make us feel even worse.

The practice here is to separate our feelings from our stories. So we can feel anxiety or confusion but not create stories around them. Or if stories arise automatically (“I can’t do this, I’m useless”) we can acknowledge them and recognize that they’re just stories, and not facts. We let go of the stories, and just return our attention to our present-moment experience.

And having chosen to let go of our stories, we’re free to have other responses to our feelings, like regarding our discomfort with compassion. We can acknowledge our difficult feelings and accept them as a normal part of the learning process; if you’re stretching yourself to take on new capabilities, then of course you’re going to be confused at times, and of course you’re going to feel uncomfortable. We can share with other people how we’re feeling so that we don’t feel ashamed and don’t have to pretend that we understand when in fact we don’t. (Honesty is less stress-inducing than dishonesty, in most cases.)

Separating feelings and thoughts in this way is a key part of Buddhist practice, and it’s a very powerful tool.

Read More

Drop the “only”

Buddha imageOur 28 Day Meditation Challenge, called Sit : Breathe : Love, started on January 1, with well over 1000 participants.

The aim is not just to try to meditate every day, but — far more importantly — to work on setting up the habit of daily meditation.

A few times people who are reporting on how they’re doing say they meditated, but it was “only” for 20 minutes or “only” for 15 minutes. I’ve said similar things myself.

But that word “only” bothers me. Using the word “only” is a great way of taking something you’ve done that’s good and making yourself feeling bad about it. Compare “I exercised three days this week” and “I only exercised three days this week.” Or “I gave $10 to charity” and “I only gave $10 to charity.”

help support wildmind

If you benefit from my work, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

You see how without the word “only” there’s a simple statement of fact, but it’s a statement that you can feel pleased about. And well you should. Exercising three times in a week (or even one time in a week) is great! Giving $10 to charity is great! And yes, meditating for 20 minutes or 15 minutes is great.

Add the word “only” and you feel bad, as if you’d done something wrong. It’s as if it’s bad to exercise, or to give money to charity, or to meditate. And if you feel bad about doing these things, how likely are you to want to continue with them?

When we’re saying we “only” did such-and-such an amount of meditation, we’re implicitly saying that there’s some amount (more than we did) that’s acceptable. And of course we didn’t reach that acceptable level.

Well, sure, meditating for 30 minutes, all other things being equal, is better than meditating for 15 minutes. But if we’re doing 30 minutes of meditation instead of 15 minutes, we’re not going from “bad” to good” but from “good” to better.”

Those 15 minutes (if that’s what you did) are way better than doing no meditation. And that’s what we need to remember. Any amount of meditation is a lot better than no meditation. So compare what you did with that, rather than some mythical amount of meditation that you didn’t do.

So I’d suggest that you watch out for that “only” and instead rejoice. Rejoice that you meditate at all. You’ll be far more likely to establish a solid meditation practice if you rejoice in doing 10 minutes than if you castigate yourself for only doing 20.

Read More

Perception, reaction & mindfulness

Codie Surratt, PsychCentral: I am frequently asked “What is mindfulness?”

I start by saying something poignant like “It’s being aware and in the present moment” or “It’s about allowing each experience to wash over us like a cool spring rain, without attachment or judgments.” I love these answers and they generally tend to spawn a lively conversation about experiences, judgment and simply allowing ourselves to be present.

Mindfulness, though, is also about perception and reaction. Here’s what I mean…

I love Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived a World War II concentration camp. He is a genuine hero of mine…

Read the original article »

Read More

Who you hang out with can affect your mental health, for good or for bad

One of the things the Buddha stressed very strongly in his teachings was being careful who we choose to spend time with. This is because our values and our mental habits will tend to align themselves with the values and mental habits of others.

At his bluntest he said things like: “Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.” (Dhammapada 61).

He also praised association with friends who embody skillful qualities:

“I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decine as good friendship (kalyana mittata). For one with good friends, unarisen wholesome qualities arise and arisen wholesome qualities decline.” (AN I, VIII, 1)

A new study with college roommates gives support to these beliefs by showing that a particular style of thinking that makes people vulnerable to depression can actually “rub off” on others, increasing their symptoms of depression six months later.

The research, from psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Studies show that people who respond negatively to stressful life events, interpreting the events as the result of factors they can’t change and as a reflection of their own deficiency, are more vulnerable to depression. This “cognitive vulnerability” is such a potent risk factor for depression that it can be used to predict which individuals are likely to experience a depressive episode in the future, even if they’ve never had a depressive episode before.

Individual differences in this cognitive vulnerability seem to solidify in early adolescence and remain stable throughout adulthood, but Haeffel and Hames predicted that it might still be malleable under certain circumstances.

The researchers hypothesized that cognitive vulnerability might be “contagious” during major life transitions, when our social environments are in flux. They tested their hypothesis using data from 103 randomly assigned roommate pairs, all of whom had just started college as freshmen.

Within one month of arriving on campus, the roommates completed an online questionnaire that included measures of cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. They completed the same measures again 3 months and 6 months later; they also completed a measure of stressful life events at the two time points.

The results revealed that freshmen who were randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommate’s cognitive style and develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability; those assigned to roommates who had low initial levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced decreases in their own levels. The contagion effect was evident at both the 3-month and 6-month assessments.

Most importantly, changes in cognitive vulnerability affected risk for future depressive symptoms: Students who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first 3 months of college had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at 6 months than those who didn’t show such an increase.

The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researchers’ initial hypothesis.

Based on these findings, Haeffel and Hames suggest that the contagion effect might be harnessed to help treat symptoms of depression:

“Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual’s social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention,” they write. “Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy.”

According to the researchers, the results of this study indicate that it may be time to reconsider how we think about cognitive vulnerability.

“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context,” say Haeffel and Hames. “This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.”

Of course it would be terrible if this was taken to mean that people with depressive tendencies should be shunned. It would be far better if, as the researchers suggest, they “surround” themselves others with more resilient mental habits, and avoid others who are disposed to react badly to setbacks.

Read More

Can ‘mindfulness’ help you focus?

Annie Murphy Paul, Time Ideas: If there’s any time when we should be paying close attention to what we’re doing, it’s when we’re under pressure to perform — whether taking a test like the SAT or on a deadline at work. But too often, our minds wander even in these crucial moments — distracted by a ticking clock or consumed with worries about how well we’re doing or how much time we have left.

Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wondered if instruction in mindfulness — the capacity to focus on the here and now…

Read the original article »

Read More

How meditation can help students to stay focused and improve their grades

teen meditatingEvery summer I spend six weeks teaching a study skills and personal development course to teens from low income families as part of a federally funded program called Upward Bound (not Outward Bound). It’s kind of crazy: every year I feel like I almost totally miss the summer because I’m teaching, grading, doing class prep, and attending various meetings. I end up sleep-deprived and completely exhausted. And the pay’s not great. But it’s totally worth it.

Part of the course involves meditation, and it’s consistently the part of the course that gets the biggest positive response in the end-of-course evaluations that the kids hand in. I’ve described the educational benefits mostly in terms of improved focus. As I like to say, you can’t take a clear picture with a shaky camera. If your mind is constantly moving around from one thing to another, then we’re not really paying attention to what we’re studying, and at best we have a blurred and distorted picture of what we’re trying to learn. At worst this picture is so distorted that what’s learned is misleading or plain wrong.

Learning to still the mind and to resist the mind’s tendency to wander therefore allows us to gain a clearer picture of what we’re learning. That’s how I’ve always explained it. Now some research has come along the blows me away, because not only does it confirm my understanding, but it exceeds my expectations of the benefits that mindfulness can bring students.

While some mind wandering is normal, it can have negative consequences for our ability to perform cognitive tasks, and mind wandering has been linked with impairments in working memory capacity and fluid intelligence. A graduate student in psychology, Michael Mrazek, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, had wondered whether targeting mind wandering could be a way to improve performance on tests like the Graduate Record Exam. And so Mrazek, his psychology professor Jonathan Schooler, and other colleagues investigated whether cognitive abilities that have historically been considered fixed — such as working memory capacity — might actually be improvable through mindfulness training.

48 college students were randomly assigned to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. Both classes met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks and were taught by professionals with extensive experience in their respective fields.

The mindfulness class emphasized physical and mental strategies that help people to maintain focus on the present moment, in the face of interrupting thoughts and perceptions. The students were required to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities over the two-week session.

The students performance on verbal reasoning was tested the week before the class started, and again a week after it ended. The results were clear: Participants who received mindfulness training showed a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE. They also showed higher working memory capacity compared to those who received instruction in nutrition. Analyses suggested that the improvement could be explained, at least in part, by reduced mind wandering.

The amazing thing for me was that this change came about after just two weeks of mindfulness training — and also that the change was so significant. a 16-percentile boost in scores could take a student from a C to an A, for example.

Mrazek and his colleagues are continuing their research, and extending it to school age children. They’re also investigating whether web-based mindfulness training, which is accessible to a much broader population, could be an effective vehicle for enhancing cognitive performance. And they’re examining whether the benefits can be further enhanced by teaching mindfulness as part of a more holistic program that targets nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal relationships.

One of the other benefits of meditation training, besides reduced mind-wandering, is improved emotional health. The teens I teach are going through a very emotionally turbulent time in their lives, and learning how to calm their emotions and be more patient and forgiving of themselves is an important part of my meditation curriculum at Upward Bound. Hopefully further research will investigate those aspects of meditation, and how they can benefit students.

[This article draws on a press release from the Association of Psychological Science.]
Read More

The backward step: resting in pure being

Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa once opened a class by drawing a V on a large white sheet of poster paper. He then asked those present what he had drawn. Most responded that it was a bird. “No,” he told them. “It’s the sky with a bird flying through it.”

How we pay attention determines our experience. When we’re in doing or controlling mode, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground—the bird, a thought, a strong feeling. In these moments we don’t perceive the sky—the background of experience, the ocean of awareness. The good news is that through practice, we can intentionally incline our minds toward not controlling and toward an open attention.

My formal introduction to what is often called “open awareness” was through dzogchen—a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Until then, I’d trained in concentration and mindfulness, always focusing on an object (or changing objects) of attention. In dzogchen, as taught by my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche, we repeatedly let go of whatever our attention fixates on and turn toward the awareness that is attending. The invitation is to recognize the skylike quality of the mind—the empty, open, wakefulness of awareness—and be that.

My first retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche loosened my moorings in a wonderful way. The more I became familiar with the presence of awareness, the weaker the foothold was for the feelings and stories that sustained my sense of self. Tensions in my body and mind untangled themselves, and my heart responded tenderly to whoever or whatever came to mind. I left that retreat, and later dzogchen retreats, feeling quite spacious and free.

I more recently learned of the work of Les Fehmi, a psychologist and researcher who for decades has been clinically documenting the profound healing that arises from resting in open awareness. In the 1960s researchers began to correlate synchronous alpha brain waves with profound states of well-being, peace, and happiness.

Fehmi, an early and groundbreaking leader in this research, sought strategies that might deepen and amplify alpha waves. Experimenting with student volunteers, he tracked their EEG readings as they visualized peaceful landscapes, listened to music, watched colored lights, or inhaled various scents. But it was only after he posed the question, “Can you imagine the space between your eyes?” that their alpha wave levels truly soared. (note-I’m offering a link to a guided meditation that I’ve adapted from Fehmi’s work.)

He posed another: “Can you imagine the space between your ears?” The subjects’ alpha waves spiked again. Further experimentation confirmed the effects of what Fehmi termed “open focused attention.” The key was inviting attention to space (or stillness or silence or timelessness) and shifting to a nonobjective focus.

Narrowly focused attention affects our entire body-mind. Whenever we fixate on making plans, on our next meal, on judgments, on a looming deadline, our narrowed focus produces faster (beta) waves in the brain. Our muscles tense, and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released. While necessary for certain tasks, as an ongoing state this stress constellation keeps us from full health, openheartedness, and mental clarity.

In contrast, open-focused attention rests the brain. With a sustained pause from processing information—from memories, plans, thoughts about self—brain waves slow down into synchronous alpha. Our muscles relax, stress hormone levels are lowered, blood flow is redistributed. No longer in fight-or-flight reactivity, our body and mind become wakeful, sensitive, open, and at ease.

You may have noticed the effect of open awareness when looking at the night sky and sensing its immensity. Or during the silence in the early morning before sunrise. Or when the world is still after a snowfall. We resonate with such moments because they connect us with the most intimate sense of what we are. We sense the depth of our being in the night sky, the mystery of what we are in the silence, the stillness. In these moments of objectless awareness there’s a wordless homecoming, a realization of pure being.

In practicing open awareness, I’ve found it helpful to think of existence—the entire play of sounds and thoughts and bodies and trees—as the foreground of life, and awareness as the background. In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called “the backward step.” Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step.

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.

You might pause for a moment and receive this living world. Let your senses be awake and wide open, taking everything in evenly, allowing life to be just as it is. As you notice the changing sounds and sensations, also notice the undercurrent of awareness—be conscious of your own presence.

Allow the experience of life to continue to unfold in the foreground as you sense this alert inner stillness in the background. Then simply be this space of awareness, this wakeful openness. Can you sense how the experiences of this world continues to play through you, without in any way capturing or confining the inherent spaciousness of awareness? You are the sky with the bird flying through; you are, as a traditional Tibetan saying teaches:

Utterly awake, senses wide open.

Utterly open, nonfixating awareness.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

Read More
Menu